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9 Jan 2003 : Column 320—continued

Mr. Cook: I am happy to deal with the last point first. My right hon. and learned Friend has just completed answering oral questions. I was with her throughout that period and she handled herself with great competence and authority. She is doing an excellent job and will continue to do so. On the matter to which the hon. Gentleman alludes, she has said that she is sorry for what happened and will of course plead guilty at the first opportunity. I hope that the House will now let the matter close.

We heard an oral statement on Iraq on Tuesday from the Defence Secretary. The Foreign Secretary has addressed the House many times on Iraq and will continue to do so. I do not think that anyone can fairly accuse the Government of not keeping the House fully informed of developments in Iraq or of not giving it opportunities to cross-examine Ministers and to express its views. We will continue to maintain that record.

On Hansard, I cannot explain why the written statement did not appear; we will make inquiries about that. Since we introduced the new system, it has, on the whole, been to the benefit of Members and the public because it provides a clearly identifiable and transparent system for Ministers to make statements, as opposed to the surreptitious device of planted questions. I am glad we have put that behind us.

It is early in the Session to decide which Bills might be appropriate for carry-over. As I repeatedly said when we discussed that in the autumn, the issue of carry-over

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will arise only for Bills introduced after Easter. I fully accept, however, that when we reach that point we will want to carry the House with us and that we will have to consult other parties on appropriate Bills.

Similarly, with pre-legislative scrutiny I am very keen that the House should have the chance to scrutinise Bills in draft, because I believe that the earlier it can get in on the act, the better its opportunity to influence the shape of Bills will be. That is why I have committed the Government to trying to produce more Bills in draft during this Session and the next.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from previous Sessions, draft Bills tend to appear towards the latter half of the Session because our efforts are necessarily focused in the first half on the official Bills for consideration. I fully understand the interest of Select Committees and others, particularly the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, in knowing in advance what Bills may come before the House for pre-legislative scrutiny, and I will endeavour to make sure that everybody is kept informed.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): May we have a debate on the declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in its special session on children in May, entitled XA World Fit for Children"? It includes the statement:

As 42 per cent. of Iraq's population are children of 14 and under, it would be appropriate to have that debate before Britain enters into any armed conflict with Iraq, so that we can see how we will live up to the provisions in the declaration.

Mr. Cook: I fully understand my hon. Friend's interest in this matter. He will be pleased to know that, in UN discussions, the United Kingdom has consistently supported the rights of children and wanted to make sure that we provide strong international norms for the respect of children's rights and the treatment of children. I only share with the House my deep regret that it is doubtful whether any of those norms, standards or rights will be observed by Saddam Hussein.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Leader of the House may be aware that the Vale of York suffered substantial flooding over the Christmas holiday, although on this occasion no homes near Thirsk were flooded. Will he give the House the opportunity of an early debate to consider two matters?

First, the Minister with responsibility for flooding should come to the House to consider the archaic procedure whereby the Environment Agency is responsible only for the main watercourses, and not for minor watercourses such as Cod beck, which in this case burst its banks dramatically. Such incidents are the responsibility of internal drainage boards. Will the Leader of the House review the matter by providing a debate in which the Minister responsible can respond to our concerns?

Secondly, it seems perverse that insurance policies will no longer cover the flooding of homes built on functional flood plains. Developers of such homes will probably have made a substantial profit by building

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them, but it will be the homeowner's responsibility for making sure that they are flood-proof. Will the Leader of the House invite the responsible Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry to respond to our concerns at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Lady's point about the lack of consistency in responsibility is a matter that should be addressed, and I shall certainly draw it to the attention of the relevant Minister.

Insurance policies are primarily a matter for the insurance industry, but I have a lot of sympathy with the point that lies behind the hon. Lady's question. It is now clear that many housing developers have put up developments, sold the houses and invited willing purchasers to move in without adequate forethought to the risk to which they were exposing those new homeowners. I hope that the lesson of the past two years means that developers will be much more careful about where they site homes and much more frank with those purchasing them about the risk.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent presidential and parliamentary elections in Kenya. As former President Moi's corrupt and incompetent Government have finally been defeated, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, as Kenya is a Commonwealth country, we will do all that we can to work with the new Administration as they develop their economic and social policies and that, at the appropriate time, a debate on those developments will take place in the House?

Mr. Cook: Like my hon. Friend, I very much welcome the fact that the population of Kenya have had an opportunity to carry through a democratic process and to choose the Government for whom they voted. As a friend of Kenya, Britain will make it a high priority of its foreign policy to make sure that we support that democratic process, so that it can deepen and develop and be entrenched in future constitutional activities in Kenya. Obviously, we stand ready to work with the new Government on developing ways to deal with the poverty that many Kenyan people face. We are proud of the fact that our overseas aid to Africa has increased by 50 per cent. over the Government's lifetime.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): In light of the welcome revelation and admission in The Times today by the General Secretary of the Labour party that the Labour party is guilty of no fewer than 120 breaches of funding law, amounting to a sum of approximately #300,000, would the Leader of the House consider the merits of an early debate on honesty in government so that the House can properly compare and contrast the welcome and refreshing candour of the Labour General Secretary on the one hand and the Government's continuing failure to admit to failures in health, education, transport and the fight against crime on the other?

Mr. Cook: I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the honesty of the Labour party, and we shall seek to build on the support that he has offered us. I shall find every possible opportunity for the Government to be honest and frank with the House

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about the fact that in the health service we have more nurses and doctors than ever before, and that for the first time in 30 years we have more beds in the NHS rather than less beds—

Mr. Bercow: Fewer.

Mr. Cook: I am sorry, I do not know what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. The fact is that the number of acute and general beds in the NHS has increased in the past year after 30 years during which the numbers declined, including a dramatic decline in the period when the Conservative Government were in office. They will decline dramatically again under any Conservative Government committed to a 20 per cent. cut in public spending.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the deteriorating situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo? As a former distinguished Foreign Secretary, does he agree that the international community does indeed have a role to play in seeking to prevent further genocide in the great lakes region? Is there perhaps a possibility of a debate in the House?

Mr. Cook: The situation in Congo is tragic, and has been both violent and unstable for a long period. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the international community does have a responsibility. Britain has sought to work with our European partners, particularly France and Belgium, to find ways in which the support of the international community can be used to try to bring an end to the suffering of the people of Congo and to start to develop the country's substantial assets. One of the great tragedies is that the country is perpetually assailed on all sides by violence because it contains riches that are used to enrich not local people but local warlords. I assure my right hon. Friend that the Government will continue to do all that we can to work with the international community to help the people of Congo.

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