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12 Dec 2002 : Column 405—continued

Mr. Cook: I understand the urgency of the issue and the impatience of those who are affected. However, to be fair, we cannot take action until we are clear about the best action to solve the problem. That is why the Chancellor indicated in the pre-Budget report that we were carrying out a short review. It will not be of immense length—it will not take minutes and last years. It is important that before we take action we should consider carefully whether it is right, but no one on the Government Benches underestimates the importance or the urgency of the situation.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I welcome the circulation of written statements when they are made to the House. I also welcome my right hon. Friend's statement that we will have an early opportunity to debate the report published yesterday on House of Lords reform. At the end of the debate, will we be able to vote on the seven options set out by the Joint Committee, or does my right hon. Friend plan to separate the votes from the debate itself? Will we have an opportunity to vote on the peculiar suggestion that we need at least 600 Members in the second Chamber?

Mr. Cook: All parts of the report will be available for debate and I am sure that hon. Members will want to

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express their views on each paragraph. My hon. Friend identifies one issue on which the House will certainly hold divided views.

As regards arrangements for the vote, it is important that both Chambers try to march together when taking their decisions. We shall need to hold consultations and discussions on the matter. I note that the report suggests that initially there should be a take-note debate that is open and that there should be a subsequent opportunity for a Division, which would, presumably, be separated by a period of time from the actual debate. Obviously, we shall give close consideration to that recommendation and we shall consult the other place in order to find a common way forward.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): Will the Leader of the House find time to read early-day motion 270?

[That this House welcomes the launch of Action for Blind People's new campaigning group, People in Action and their first campaign, Work, Rest and Play, which will work to challenge inequality, promote social inclusion and change attitudes about blind and partially-sighted people; supports Action for Blind People in its mission to 'inspire change and create opportunities to enable blind and partially sighted people to have equal voice and equal choice'; believes that the services provided by Action for Blind People in the areas of work, housing, leisure and support enable blind and partially sighted people to transform their lives; and calls on the Government to address inequality and inconsistent provision, to promote opportunity and choice for all blind and partially-sighted people and to raise awareness of the issues affecting visually impaired people.]

It welcomes the campaign by the charity, Action for Blind People, to emphasise the difficulties faced by blind people, in particular the fact that the unemployment rate for blind people is 75 per cent. May we have a ministerial statement on what the Government plan to do about that?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue that is of real and immediate concern to many of our constituents. We understand the difficulties that people who suffer from any form of disadvantage face in securing employment, and that particularly embraces those in the blind community. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are committed to equality of opportunity and to trying to ensure that there is no discrimination, for whatever reason, against people seeking employment in the work force. We shall certainly consider ways in which we can be of assistance in trying to reduce the disturbing figure cited by the hon. Gentleman.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the full and final report by George Bain on the firefighters' dispute will be published on 16 December. May we have a guarantee that the Deputy Prime Minister will make a statement on the Floor of the House so that we can question him about the final Bain report?

Mr. Cook: The Government attach the greatest importance to the Bain review and to the final report and we look forward with great interest to its conclusions. Of course, we fully understand that the

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House will want to hold a full exchange of views about the report. To be fair to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, he has always shown willingness to make statements on the issue to the House. No one could fault him on his willingness to come to the House to give an account of the Government's position and to ensure that it is kept fully informed.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the report commissioned by the Prime Minister and published by the strategy unit in September, entitled XPrivate Action, Public Benefit"? It examines the law and regulatory structure for the charitable sector. Charitable purposes were last defined in statute about 400 years ago, so the report has been widely welcomed. The consultation period finishes at the end of this month, so will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the report, in Government time, so that the Government can take the mind of those Members on both sides of the House who, for obvious reasons, have considerable expertise in such matters? I am sure that such a debate would result in a better end to the consultation process.

Mr. Cook: I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's view that it is time that we addressed both law and convention on charities, which require modernisation. I regret that I cannot possibly offer time for a debate on the issue before the end of the month as there are only five sitting days left. However, the subject could usefully be ventilated in the debate on the motion for the Christmas recess and if the hon. Gentleman would like to do so, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be delighted to respond.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): This week, the Audit Commission published its comprehensive performance assessment of local authorities. May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the grievance felt by some local authorities, not least my own—Bury metropolitan district council—about the final grading that they received? Authorities are concerned not only about the grading itself but also about the discrepancies between the final grading and the written report that accompanied the CPA. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in view of the enormous growth industry in auditing and inspection regimes for local authorities, national health service trusts and further education colleges, as well as the continuing work of Ofsted in the schools sector, there is an argument for a public debate on the way in which the Government deal with the audit and inspection functions and on the criteria that are used in those inspections?

Mr. Cook: I would not have the temerity to comment on the individual results of my hon. Friend's local authority. I can fully understand that, from time to time, local people will feel that they would have reached a different judgment. Having said that, we should not lose sight of the fact that the overall result of that survey was positive. Indeed, I think that I heard the spokesman for the National Audit Office say this morning that 60 per cent. of all councils were either good or excellent,

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and those of us who are strongly committed to the health of local government must take some encouragement from such a positive result.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I know that you are a keen reader of the Bible, Mr. Speaker, so I rest assured that, one day, the last will be first—[Interruption]—but perhaps I should not bank on it.

In view of the story in The Times today about the continuing catalogue of incompetence at the Office for National Statistics, will the Leader of the House pledge to allow a statement on the continuing controversy that surrounds the 2001 census figures, which play a very important part in ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people, particularly in our inner cities, have proper public services?

Mr. Cook: As I recall my Bible, the day on which the last shall be first was judgment day, and I would not suggest that the hon. Gentleman should wish to rush forward to that day.

Of course the census is a valuable tool for public policy, but it should not be the only tool; there are other ways in which we can ensure that we adequately reflect the needs of vulnerable people in our inner cities.

Mr. Foulkes: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to refer to the abuse of business questions. As you know, this is a very important opportunity to cross-question the Leader of the House about the next week's business. The shadow Leader of the House did not even make a pretence of asking anything about next week's business or, indeed, any business of the House. Instead, he used it as a gratuitous opportunity to attack the Prime Minister and his family. That is an abuse of business questions, the like of which I and, I bet, you, Mr. Speaker, have not seen in our 23 years in the House. I seriously hope that you will look into that and insist that questions relate to the business of the House next week.

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