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16 Jan 2003 : Column 822—continued

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Can the Leader of the House confirm that it is his expectation that the UN inspectors will report back to the Security Council on their initial findings in Iraq on Monday 27 January, and that the following day, President Bush will make his State of the Union address? Does the Leader of the House not recognise that the House of Commons must be given the opportunity not only to debate what may come out of those two events, but to have a definitive vote on the situation, in terms of the deployment of British troops in the Gulf? Does he accept that the answer given to Baroness Williams of Crosby in the other place on Tuesday—at column 126 of the House of Lords Hansard—by Baroness Symons, in which she said that she was very Xsympathetic" to such a request, requires confirmation that he, too, is sympathetic on the Government's behalf to the idea that such a debate and Division might take place?

According to today's Financial Times, it seems that the Government have torn up their expectation of increasing rail ridership by 50 per cent. in a decade. Can the Leader of the House therefore tell us when we will have a debate on the Government's rail strategy, so that we can learn whether they have indeed changed it? Perhaps that would also give the Conservative Opposition the opportunity to apologise, at long last, for the botched rail privatisation that has given rise to this appalling situation on our railways. While having to spend seven hours getting here last week, instead of the usual three and a half, I found myself standing next to a

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former British Rail manager, who confirmed in absolute terms that it was the previous Conservative Government's failure to invest in the infrastructure, combined with their privatising—[Hon. Members: XOh."] Conservative Members seem unable to listen even to those who travelled on British Rail, let alone to those who ran it.

Finally, may I draw the Leader of the House's attention to motion 4 on today's Order Paper, which I think I am right in saying refers to dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls. The document mentioned in the motion was before a European Standing Committee just two days ago, but we do not have the Hansard report. We have no idea what is at stake. The motion may be very worthy, but how can we bring a motion to the Floor of the House without having a clue as to what it is all about? Moreover, on looking at the online Hansard for that Committee, I found that it was three years out of date.

Mr. Cook: I am afraid I cannot shed further light on the directive without notice. I think the hon. Gentleman referred to phenyls, but in any event I will ensure that he is positively deluged with correspondence explaining the directive.

Let me repeat what has been said on a number of occasions about the 27 January report. It will of course be the first substantive report from the inspectors to the Security Council, but it will not necessarily be the last. It will probably be a staging post for future reports, and I will not be at all surprised if Hans Blix's main conclusion on 27 January is that he requires further time in which to explore the issue.

The Foreign Secretary has said from this Dispatch Box that the Government have no problem with the idea of a substantive motion on the question of commitment of British troops should we end up there, which is not inevitable; but it must come at the appropriate time, and I would be rather surprised if 27 January provided such an occasion. The Foreign Secretary will go to the United Nations next Monday, and will take part in a ministerial exchange in the Security Council. I am sure that he will want to ensure, as he has repeatedly, that the House is kept fully briefed on the progress of those discussions.

I also noticed that the official Opposition's response to the business statement did not raise the question of rail. I deduce from that that once again it was impossible to find a Conservative Member who is willing to defend the way in which the Conservatives went about the privatisation of the rail industry. I am, however, happy to disabuse the House and the hon. Gentleman in regard to an error in what the hon. Gentleman said. The Government have not abandoned their commitment to a 50 per cent. increase in rail use. We remain committed to that target throughout the 10-year programme of our transport plan, and indeed we are well on target in that we have increased rail use by 25 per cent. since 1997.

David Hamilton (Midlothian): May I return the Leader of the House to next Tuesday's agenda and House of Lords reform? I read the relevant paper with great interest, and noted the seven proposals for a fully appointed House, a fully elected House, and so forth. The one proposal that is not there, of course, is the proposal for abolition. Will the Leader of the House have another look at the proposals? Has he seen early-day motion 529?

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[That this House expresses its concern that the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform did not include an option for abolition in its first report; further notes that much of the impetus for House of Lords reform stems from concerns about the effectiveness of the House of Commons; and would support proposals for a unicameral solution coupled with reform of the House of Commons legislative procedures.]

In a single day, that motion gathered 63 signatures in favour of abolition. Could such a motion come before the House, so that we could vote on it?

Mr. Cook: I read the early-day motion with interest, and noted that it had attracted signatures from a significant number of Members. We have sought to implement to the letter the recommendations of the Joint Committee. We were keen to establish the Committee, and said that it should present the proposals on which the House should vote; so we will not depart from its recommendations now. It has not recommended abolition as an option, although I note that, of necessity, half its members are from the other place.

While my hon. Friend is perfectly entitled to support his proposition as an individual, as are a number of our colleagues, it is not the policy on which we fought the last election. We have a mandate from our manifesto at that election not for the abolition but for the reform of the second place. I very much hope that after 4 February we shall be able to stop arguing about what is the option for reform, and at long last get on to the reform.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): According to my calculations, the Bank of England and therefore the people of Britain have lost more than #700 million as a result of the policy of instructing them to sell their gold and buy three specific currencies. Do the Government not believe that there is a case for an early debate in which they can give their calculation of what money has been lost, and we can have a full review of what has been a disastrous and costly policy that should never have been embarked on?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman has produced a question that is an oldie and, I suppose, a goldie. As we said at the time, Governments around the globe are diversifying the way in which they hold reserves. When we made the decision, Britain held an unusually high proportion of reserves in gold. It was therefore an entirely rational and proper decision, and I fully defend it. I suspect that, had a Conservative Government been in power at the time, they would have made precisely the same decision.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): Will my right hon. Friend make time available for an urgent debate on the textile industry? He may be aware that there were 19,000 textile jobs in Leicester in 1984. That total fell to 9,000 in 1997, and is now down to 3,000. If the trend continues, there will be no more manufacturing in the textile industry in Leicester. In 1950, it was said that one out of every five pairs of socks worn in Europe was manufactured in Leicester. Can we have a debate on this urgent matter?

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Mr. Cook: I fully understand my hon. Friend's concerns about the impact on his constituency of the decline in jobs that he has described. I am sure that he will readily acknowledge that we should not infer from the reduction in employment over the long period to which he referred that there has necessarily been a parallel reduction in output, as a relevant factor has been the substantial increase in productivity in that sector over the same period. I am pleased to tell the House that the recent employment figures demonstrate that, in the past year alone, there has been an increase in the number of people in work under this Government of 250,000, and that there was a further fall in unemployment of 5,000 in the last month. However, I fully understand that those figures do not remove the anxiety about the decline of traditional industries, especially in local communities such as that represented by my hon. Friend. I cannot offer him any immediate hope of a reversal of that trend in the textile industry, but I can assure him that the sound economy that the Government have created provides other opportunities for people in my hon. Friend's constituency, and elsewhere.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The Leader of the House has confirmed Tuesday's debate on Lords reform, when a number of hon. Members hope to make the case for a predominantly elected second Chamber. There is known to be a wide range of views in the Cabinet, and Ministers are to be allowed a free vote and apparently to express their views in public. Given that collective ministerial responsibility no longer applies, is there any reason why Ministers should not speak in the House from the Back Benches?

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