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16 Jan 2003 : Column 828—continued

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the article in The Times on 13 January regarding the new post office card accounts initially being available to only 10,000 claimants? Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a Minister to make a statement as to whether the article is correct? Does he agree that if it is correct the existing methods of payments to benefit claimants at post offices should continue until the cards are available to those who want them?

Mr. Cook: I believe that I am on sound ground in telling my hon. Friend that the answer to his last

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question is XYes", that those who wish to retain the present post office card may do so, and that we shall try to make sure that the system can ensure that they are paid in the normal way. Only a small number in the initial period will be transferred to any other form of payment. We are very sensitive to the need to make sure that we fully provide choice to the customers of the post office.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the following matter? Five and a half years after the election of a Labour Government it was announced last year that trains would run from Matlock to Birmingham straight through. It has been announced today that, within two months of that service being operated, instead of 10 trains running there will now be two. Does the Leader of the House think that that will encourage people to use public transport?

Mr. Cook: In the way in which he puts his question the hon. Gentleman draws attention to the fact that last October there was a substantial increase in cross-country services. Indeed, the Virgin cross-country services doubled in October. It has not proved possible for Virgin to maintain that service without substantial congestion in the network. Therefore, most of the reductions announced today relate to the Virgin cross-country services. However, I understand that there will still be substantially more cross-country services after the reductions than there were before last October. The hon. Gentleman was on the Conservative Benches when the present structure of privatisation was created. I, and I think his constituents, would take his complaint rather more seriously if he could point to a single instance in the course of those debates where he expressed that reservation.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): Now that the Department of Trade and Industry's consultation on the World Trade Organisation's current round of General Agreement on Trade in Services negotiations has just been completed, may the House have a full debate on the liberalisation of trade in services? Many people, including the Local Government Association and even this morning hon. Members, have expressed great concern about the future of public services under those arrangements. May we have a full debate so that it will be possible to answer the point that some of the negotiations were carried out in secret to avoid public scrutiny?

Mr. Cook: To be fair to the present Government, I would tell my hon. Friend that we have sought wherever possible to make more open and more transparent the discussions within the World Trade Organisation and will continue to look for new ways in which accountability can be secured in its deliberations.

On the generality of my hon. Friend's point, he raises a profoundly important and serious issue. I sometimes feel that in our political exchanges we do not necessarily reflect the most profound and most strategic changes, but those that are currently the issues of greatest current

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publicity. I shall consider what appropriate mechanism there may be for this matter to be ventilated. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are fully determined to make sure that we achieve a liberalisation of trade and that we secure an opportunity to export for the growing service sector within the United Kingdom. At the same time, we are sensitive to the need to make sure that it happens in a way that promotes rather than hinders the development of those countries that are yet to develop.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Until now members of the public have accepted that there is a genuine need to provide asylum to those who fear for their lives. In the light of the tragic death of the police officer in Manchester and the apprehension of persons from north Africa, some will look at asylum now as the Trojan horse for terrorism. Will the Home Secretary make a statement on the subject of our current asylum procedures, so that the House may have an opportunity to probe the thoroughness, preparedness and resources at our disposal to deal with the mounting terrorism threat?

Mr. Cook: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his sound bite, but I cannot congratulate him on his responsibility. It is a cheap and irresponsible form of politics to try to label all asylum-seekers as if they may be terrorists. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should let the Leader of the House answer in the way that he pleases.

Mr. Cook: I would have more respect for the perspective being argued from the Opposition Benches if it were not the same party that only last year tried to prevent us from having a new rule which would enable us to deport asylum-seekers guilty of a serious offence. The right hon. Gentleman should look at the record of his own party before trying to turn this to political advantage.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): I apologise for the brief blast of Beethoven from my phone.

May I reiterate the request to my right hon. Friend for a specific debate on the general principle of British involvement in missile defence, which was requested yesterday by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches? We know from my own early day motion that there is concern amongst over half the Parliamentary Labour party, the vast majority of Labour Back Benchers. The public believes that this is an important decision, which in a democracy should be properly discussed in this Chamber. It is wholly inadequate to reduce it to passing references during a debate on defence in the world, in which inevitably issues such as Iraq will correctly predominate.

Mr. Cook: I understand the strength of feeling on this issue and also fully understand the complexity of the arguments on both sides of the question. But, on the narrow question of process, five days are set aside each Session for defence, and we meet those mandatory requirements in each Session. Moreover, there are many additional days on issues of topicality, such as Iraq, which I am sure we will debate again. What my hon.

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Friend said about the Opposition having demanded such an opportunity was an interesting observation. I find it strange that instead they have chosen to debate herbal medicines next week.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): The Leader of the House may or may not be aware that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution on a paper of mine calling for a convention against clandestine migration. In view of the serious security implications of this matter, and notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's intemperate response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), whose comments were entirely apposite, could not the Home Secretary tell the House that the Government will be following the recommendations of the convention, because surely the general public deserve it?

Mr. Cook: The United Kingdom plays a distinguished part in both the Assembly of the Council of Europe and its meetings at ministerial level, and will continue to do so. Of course, we shall take very seriously any recommendation by the Assembly for such a convention. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a statement to the House yesterday, quite rightly and quite properly, in the immediate aftermath of the appalling murder, and of course he will continue to keep the House fully briefed. But, in fairness to those many people who seek legitimate asylum from illegitimate persecution in the countries from which they flee, we should not now start to tar them all with the terrorist brush.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Last week, I requested a debate on the sell-off of part of the defence evaluation quango, QinetiQ, to the Carlyle Group. I argued that such a debate was necessary because of the secretive way that the procedures have been adopted by placing minutes in the Library before the recess in July and December last year. The Leader of the House refused to hold the debate as he was of the opinion that the procedure had been open and had been done through a statutory instrument. However, the statutory instrument referred to March 2001, whereas I was referring to minutes being placed in the Library in July and December 2002. I am pleased that the Speaker has informed me that Parliament was notified by item 12 in appendix I of the Votes and Proceedings of 17 December last year. That is hardly essential breakfast reading. Because of money involved—underwriting about #100 million—will the Leader of the House rethink and perhaps agree to hold a debate on such an important matter?

Mr. Cook: It is perfectly correct to say that I did not apprehend at the time that a minute had been deposited in the Library and, as my hon. Friend will see if he consults the report of what he said at the time, that may partly reflect the fact that he did not make it clear in his question either.

On the process on that occasion, the Ministry of Defence has followed the standard procedure where a Government liability is being created in excess of #100,000, which is to place the minutes in the Library. The fact that that was done on the day before the recess

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has, of course, no bearing on the fact that the period for objection is 14 sitting days, not 14 calendar days, and therefore it is of no procedural significance whether it was done before or after the recess. I can only suggest that, if my hon. Friend wishes to force such a debate, he and his friends need to ensure that there are sufficient objections, and we will consider the issue in the light of that at the end of the 14 sitting days.

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