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9 Jan 2003 : Column 329—continued

Mr. Cook: For a moment during that question, time stood still for me. I shall try to disentangle the two separate issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. First, as I said, there is no ground for any confusion whatever

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about the Government's position in relation to the cricket tour—it is wrong and the team should not go. As I understand it, hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber agree about that. I lament the fact that it is proving so difficult to establish the consensus that I understand exists on both sides of the Chamber.

On pensioners, I would be delighted to arrange a debate so that we can demonstrate the extent to which the Government have increased the state pension at a much faster rate than that of earnings or inflation, the way in which we have raised 2 million pensioners out of poverty and the fact that, as a result of the introduction of the pension tax credit, there will be a further increase in real income for the less well-off pensioner, who will be about #20 to #30 better off than in 1997. That very substantial achievement would be put entirely at risk by a 20 per cent. cut in public spending—a proposal that I understand the hon. Gentleman supports.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): In view of the well-publicised views of the head of the Church of England, does my right hon. Friend find it unusual that our procedures allow for a debate on the pension fund of the Church of England, but not on its views about war in Iraq? Notwithstanding his reply to the question asked by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), does he not feel that at the very least, there is a need for a statement about the processes that are to be followed after the publication of the UN weapons inspectors' report, especially given the imminence of the completion of the interim report and its presentation to the Security Council?

Mr. Cook: I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Church of England. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) identified earlier, I have no personal authority to speak for or on behalf of the Church of England. I am happy, if I may, to leave that for it to absorb.

On the question of the United Nations inspectors and the statement to the Security Council, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary have been punctilious in making statements to the House on these matters. I am sure that they will want to ensure that the House is kept fully informed about whatever develops in the Security Council on 27 January. I am confident that they will want to ensure that the House is kept fully up to speed, but at the same time, I counsel us against imagining that 27 January will necessarily be some sort of dramatic watershed. It is a staging post towards a programme of work that will probably have to continue.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Is the Leader of the House aware that, because of the delays in securing parliamentary approval of the financial settlement for local government, many councils, including Oxfordshire, are having difficulties in setting their precepts on time and some councils will not have time to debate the full budgets before they have to do so? Can we have a debate in the House to chivy the Government on that issue? Does the Leader of the House not think it is important that we should look at the size of that stealth tax, which is going to be paid by our constituents,

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especially as council tax has increased since the Government came to power not by 20 per cent., but by 40 per cent.?

Mr. Cook: I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have only just had a debate on the Local Government Bill and that I responded to the demands of the House that we debate the local government settlement in advance. As I am sure he is aware—he is a fair-minded Member of the House—every local authority throughout the length and breadth of England has received a settlement that exceeds the rate of inflation. Over the past few years, we have provided a very substantial additional real-terms increase in local government funding. I am glad that he asked the question in the way that he did, as it gives me the opportunity to say that, if there had been a 20 per cent. cut in public spending, we would have seen cuts in his local authority budget and not an increase.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): On the 27th of this month, we will mark Holocaust Memorial day. This year, the event is being held in Edinburgh. May I ask the Leader of House to do two things? First, will he ensure that the House is represented at the event, and, secondly, will he find a way of reflecting such an important day in the business of the House?

Mr. Cook: Of course, it was this Government who introduced the Holocaust Memorial day. We did so precisely because that appalling act of genocide should not be forgotten, as part of committing ourselves to ensuring that there is no discrimination in our modern world and because we should never again see such appalling discrimination visited on anybody for any racial, religious or ethnic reason. The Government will therefore want to ensure that we appropriately mark 27 January. I cannot immediately tell my hon. Friend who will be representing the Government at the event,

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but I shall ensure that he is fully informed. I can assure the House that we will treat the day with appropriate dignity.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Might I be probably the first hon. Member to wish you, Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the House and all hon. Members a very happy old new year for when it comes this weekend? I invite the right hon. Gentleman to join me in sending greetings to my constituents in Foula, which still celebrates the old new year, or Yule, with some vigour.

I welcome the addition of a fishing debate to next week's business, but what we really need is a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I suspect that, as it will be an exercise in reporting back, the fisheries Minister will simply tell us what we already know. What we do not yet know is whether the Government will put their money where their mouth is in supporting the industry, and that question can be answered only by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Cook: I am happy to wish the hon. Gentleman's constituents a happy weekend, in whichever year it falls. I hope that we can achieve unanimity on that proposition.

On the fishing industry, the fisheries Minister will rightly be speaking in the House next week because he has been heavily engaged in the process. I hope that all hon. Members, from whatever perspective, will recognise that he has been fully committed on the issue, on which he has given very dedicated service. It is therefore right that he should speak for the Government in that debate. Of course, we understand that there will be difficult consequences for communities as a result of the changes and we will seek as best we can to assist those communities, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that there is no future for the fishing communities if there is no future for the fish. That is why we must put conservation at the top of the agenda.

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Point of Order

1.21 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw your attention and that of the Leader of the House to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), our Chief Whip, briefed me a few minutes ago that he has been advised by the Clerks that motion 4 on today's Order Paper is defective? Will you use your good offices to make appropriate representations to ensure that the motion is not moved until the mystery is resolved?

Mr. Speaker: The Clerk of the House informs me that he is not aware of that. I therefore have it on good authority that everything is in good order.


Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions)

Ms Secretary Hewitt presented a Bill to make provision in connection with the provision of financial assistance to, or the acquisition of any securities of or any part of the undertaking or assets of, British Energy plc or any of its subsidiaries; to provide for the repeal of Part 2 of the Electricity Act 1989; to amend Schedule 12 to that Act and to make provision for undertakings to make grants under that Schedule to be disregarded for tax purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 13 January, and to be printed [Bill 39].

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to draw your attention to my concern and that of several of my hon. Friends about the possible abuse of the new written ministerial statements procedure. A few moments ago, the Leader of the House invoked as a rationale for it a desire to get rid of the planted written question. Are you conscious that we are worried that, when we have tabled genuine questions—rather than questions planted by Government Back Benchers—instead of receiving substantive replies, Ministers have fobbed us off and patted us on the head with references to the ministerial written statements that they have issued? We are worried that that happens on the same day that our questions should be answered substantively. I ask you, as the guarantor of our rights, to guard against that possible abuse.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is well aware that, as I have stated previously, I am not responsible for the quality of replies, except mine.

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