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9 Jan 2003 : Column 326—continued

Mr. Cook: As I understand it, the suggestion to which my hon. Friend refers is not from any Minister, but from an advisory body. It is in the nature of appointing advisory bodies that we receive but do not initiate the advice that they offer to Government. The Government have a good record of making sure that pensioners have an appropriate concessionary fare and are encouraged to travel. It is important that the transport system is fully used, and it is important for pensioners that they are able to get about. I can assure my hon. Friend that

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the Government will wish to continue to defend the ability of pensioners to travel and to have full opportunities for concessionary fares.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): May I reiterate the comments of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) regarding concessionary travel for pensioners? Will the Leader of the House consider not only a statement, but a debate on concessionary travel throughout the United Kingdom? He will be aware that there are many inconsistencies, whereby old age pensioners can travel within certain regions but not across boundaries. Will he consider a nationwide scheme, so that all pensioners can have access to free travel throughout our country?

Mr. Cook: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. We welcome support for the Government's position from whatever quarter. I remind him that it was the Government who introduced the concessionary fare scheme. There was a full debate in the House and his party opposed it at the time. Presumably, in the search for the 20 per cent. savings, to which we have heard little reference in the past 40 minutes, it would be extremely difficult for any future Conservative Government to retain that scheme.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): A number of my hon. Friends are concerned that the Ministry of Defence is continuing to usurp the power of Parliament by continuing with the sale of part of the defence evaluation quango to QinetiQ. Details of the deal were quietly placed in the Library during the recess, so Parliament has effectively been asked to agree on the nod liabilities of about #100 million. May we have a debate on the matter, and on the lack of and the need for public accountability for the use or misuse of massive sums of public money?

Mr. Cook: I listened to what my hon. Friend said. I should not have thought that there was any member of the Government left who could imagine that putting a document in the Library was tantamount to doing so in private or without notice. The Ministry of Defence has been open about the matter. My hon. Friend will be aware that a number of items of Government business are done by statutory instrument. That is why statutory instruments are available to us. We have a prodigious programme of primary legislation in the present Session. If we successfully carry it through, we will have passed more pages of primary legislation this Session than in any previous Session. Not everything can be dealt with on the Floor of the House. I regret to have to say that as Leader of the House, but it is a matter of record that we must decide what are the priorities for the Floor of the House, and what other matters can be dealt with by statutory instrument.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): The right hon. Gentleman will know that in just over two months, a European regulation on animal by-products that prevents the burial of fallen stock on farms will come into effect. Britain is one of the few EU countries that has not published a statement or a policy on how

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farmers should deal with the matter. It will not be possible to stack up animal carcases as fridges have been stacked up in the past, owing to the incompetence of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in these matters. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State to publish as soon as possible a statement on how farmers should proceed to dispose of their fallen stock?

Mr. Cook: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are well aware of the great importance of the matter in rural communities and the severity of the difficulties that may arise. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will wish to clarify our proposals as soon as possible, and I will draw her attention to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): May we have a statement on the London underground, as the contract with the private consortium TubeLines took effect on 1 January without any parliamentary announcement? It is important that we know what arrangements there are for public sector management of those contracts. My understanding is that there is no expertise in place to provide such public sector management. Without that, private consortiums have a blank cheque. Moreover, that represents a step on the road towards privatisation of the underground.

Mr. Cook: I was not aware that that was an issue that we had failed to ventilate in the House over the past year. I remember many exchanges on the public-private partnership for the London underground. I can assure my hon. Friend that expertise will be made available to make sure that we maintain competent management. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the objective of the whole exercise is to make sure that we modernise the underground, provide the investment that it plainly needs, and offer a modern, effective service to the underground consumer. That must surely be the right way forward. I hope that we can start to make progress in providing the improvement that passengers and London Underground want.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Surely the point about Zimbabwe is that no Minister has made a formal statement to the House and thereby subjected himself to questioning.

May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary on a subject first raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), the shadow Defence Secretary, with the Secretary of State for Defence on Tuesday, namely, the attitude of the Government to the UN inspectors and their role in Iraq? It is clear that Saddam Hussein had four years in which to produce chemical and biological weapons stocks, then to destroy the plant that produced them and conceal the stocks in any hole in the ground anywhere in Iraq. The House needs to know what the Government's attitude will be if, as expected, the inspectors fail to find any of those stocks and the Americans decide nevertheless that the danger is so great that they must proceed with military action. This is an important matter. It was raised by the

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Conservative Opposition and has been taken up by Labour Back Benchers and the Liberal Democrat leader. The House deserves to have its say on the matter.

Mr. Cook: It would be impertinent for the House or any member of the Government to try to anticipate what the UN inspectors might say to the United Nations. It will, after all, be only another three weeks before we hear about progress from the head of the inspection team. I expect that he will necessarily say that he will require further time to carry out the task. Surely, the appropriate and responsible attitude for any Government—especially when they are a permanent member of the Security Council—is to say that we want to ensure that the inspectors can carry out that task, that they have adequate time and resources to do so and that the authority that they have been given by the Security Council is fully respected by the Government of Iraq. This should not be a business of the inspectors trying to discover that Iraq is concealing anything. The resolution is explicit in saying that the duty is also on the Government of Iraq to declare what they have.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): May I ask my right hon. Friend to consider initiating an inquiry into the abuse of the democratic process of this House by political parties submitting spurious and repetitive questions only to try to portray themselves falsely as working harder than other political parties? Does he further agree that, if other parties were to follow that sharp practice, the administrative processes of this House would grind to a halt and that that would be extremely expensive for the taxpayer?

Mr. Cook: I have a lot of sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend makes. I can only commend to him and other Members of the House the excellent report from the Procedure Committee, which rightly pointed out that information requested by means of a written question can often readily be found in the Library or other published sources.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I do not accept that.

Mr. Cook: I am very sorry to hear that my hon. Friend takes that view, as I was quoting my submission to the Procedure Committee, which it reprinted in full. In making that commitment, I said that, as a Back Bencher, I found it useful to get information in the Library, where it is often readily available. I commend the excellent, competent and authoritative services of the Library to the House.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Can we find time for a debate on the position of pensioners, who are perplexed by the Government's inability and weakness in grasping the nettle on the Zimbabwean cricket issue and making a specific decision about it? During that debate, we could focus on the #5 billion-a-year pension tax that the Government are imposing on pensioners, which is causing so much hardship to many of them.

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