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30 Jan 2003 : Column 1016—continued

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for next Tuesday's vote on the House of Lords to be truly comprehensive and reflect all views, the early-day motion calling for the abolition of the House of Lords that has been signed by well over 100 of us should be put to the House, perhaps at the beginning of the debate, to see whether we can get a majority to ensure that the democratic processes are carried out totally and in full?

Mr. Cook: I hear what my hon. Friend says. I want to ensure that the House has the best possible opportunity to express the range of views in it. I have two difficulties that I invite my hon. Friend to understand and share. The first is that both he and I fought the election on a manifesto that committed us to reforming the second Chamber, not to abolishing it. Indeed, I might be making some animadversion to that in Tuesday's debate. Precisely because I do not wish to take away any part of the force of any phrase in the manifesto, it would not be helpful for me at this stage to commit myself to abolishing the second Chamber.

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Secondly, we set up the Joint Committee in order that it might make proposals to the House on the options, and I shall be putting those seven options to the House on Tuesday. It would be improper of me to interfere with the options that it has put to the House. All I would say to those Members who favour abolition is that they should be careful when they consider which option to vote for on Tuesday that they are not misled into voting for one that was sold to them on a basis other than abolition. Anybody who votes on Tuesday for an all-appointed House may wake up on Wednesday and find that that is what they will get.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): May I reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) when he asked the Leader of the House to extend the time for debate on Tuesday to 7 o'clock? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us wish to express our support for a wholly elected House of Lords? Does he understand that we want to express our deep disappointment at the Prime Minister's betrayal of his manifesto commitment? Does the Leader of the House also understand that we want to support him in his dispute with the Lord Chancellor on democracy? We wish to make the point that the Lord Chancellor has never been elected to any political office and that he owes his present position in Parliament to his close friendship with the Prime Minister.

Mr. Cook: I am of course always grateful for support, but sometimes one should accept it with a degree of caution and self-preservation. On the question of the length of the debate, I remind the House that we have had a full day's debate on the matter in the recent past and many days of debate on it over the past few years. It is not my impression that anybody's mind will be changed by another two hours of debate on Tuesday.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): May I say to my right hon. Friend as a friend of long standing that I shall start to fear for his future unless he begins to control his sense of irony and does not play to the Opposition gallery too readily, as he appears to be doing?

On a more substantive point, is my right hon. Friend aware that the implementation of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 is causing a great many problems? Will he look into the problem, particularly in relation to single people arriving in the United Kingdom who fail to claim asylum immediately? Will he arrange for an urgent debate, or failing that, will he urge the Home Secretary to come to the House and make a statement on the issue, so that we can question him about it more closely than we have been able to do hitherto?

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern. He and I were elected on the same day and are among the few hon. Members left who were elected on that occasion. My observations on the House of Lords are based on views that are well known to the House and are of long standing. In the context of a free vote and having a range of views, I shall continue to stand by that position.

My hon. Friend raises an issue that has been explored in the House in the past, especially in the context of the recent Bill. I understand the difficulty arising from

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individual cases that are brought to the attention of hon. Members in a constituency capacity. It is difficult for us to write Acts of Parliament that necessarily apply universally, but cater for all the different circumstances and individual cases that will come to us as constituency Members. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the Home Office. Although I do not wish to hold out the prospect of an immediate statement, I am sure that we will return to the issue on a number of occasions in this Session.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): Please can we have an early debate on the role of the Lord Chancellor in the setting of rules of evidence in criminal cases? The release of Sally Clark caused great rejoicing in Salisbury, where she grew up as a child, but it comes as no surprise. Our hearts go out to her wonderful family and her father, who is still a constituent of mine. However, my constituent Angela Cannings is still in prison having been convicted in very similar circumstances, and five similar cases are ongoing. The Leader of the House says that he hopes that the same thing will never happen again, but it will do so as long as we allow juries to convict on the basis not of evidence, but of the controversial opinions and theories of so-called medical experts. That is against natural justice.

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman will understand why it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any other individual cases in the present circumstances, but I understand what he says about the evidence given by forensic experts. I am sure that, in the light of the recent decision on Sally Clark, there will necessarily be a review to ensure high standards of integrity, openness and transparency in forensic evidence.

I should like to add one caution: I think that it would be a mistake to encourage the view that there are widespread or general miscarriages of justice in the British courts. Undoubtedly, there are individual circumstances in which things go wrong, and we should vigorously pursue such problems, put them right when we find them and seek to learn any lessons. However, that should not be taken as calling into question the great mass of decisions that are reached in our courts.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): May I bring the Leader of the House back to the rally that is due to be held on 15 February? He will be well aware that it is part of a worldwide protest against George Bush's war for oil in Iraq and that people do not understand why the Government are suggesting at this late stage that preventing the spoiling of grass in Hyde park is a more worthwhile cause than saving the lives of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Mr. Cook: This is not a Government decision; we have expressed no view on the matter and sought to exert no influence. It is entirely a matter for the Royal Parks. Nor is it a new decision by the Royal Parks, which have a long-standing policy not to permit major rallies in the winter months when the ground will not be firm. I fully understand the importance of members of the public having the opportunity to express their views

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and I would be the last person to stand in the way of their doing so. I urge my hon. Friend and those organising the rally to find other opportunities.

Sir Patrick Cormack: If the Leader of the House is truly concerned about the reputation of this place and having an effective Parliament, will he allow us an early opportunity to vote again on these ridiculous new hours, which are undermining the work of Parliament? Is he aware that there are hon. Members in all parts of the House, including some who voted for the changes, who share that view?

Mr. Cook: The House voted on those matters, as the hon. Gentleman says. It did so on the basis of free will and a free vote, and it came to a considered view. Only three weeks have passed since the arrangements took effect and I think that it is far too soon to reach any mature judgment. However, it is not my impression that the decision would be reversed if we were to put it to a vote again.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the answer that he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? There seemed in his reply to be a slight tension between reminding Labour Members of our manifesto commitment and emphasising the idea of a free vote. We had no opportunity to vote last week and we will not have an opportunity to vote for abolition in the coming week. If he could find a way of allowing us to have a vote on abolition and to express our views, he might then find that one or two of us are prepared to accept as a second best one of the many proposals that are due to be considered next week, even though they are pretty feeble.

Mr. Cook: I hear what my hon. Friend says. Of course, I often reflect on many of the answers that I have given in respect of the business statement, and I am happy to reflect on the one to which he refers. However, it would be false of me to suggest to the House that, at this late stage of proceedings, I see much prospect of adding any more options to the seven that will be put before the House. We set up the Joint Committee on the basis of a decision taken by this House. Indeed, my impression at the time was that it was warmly welcomed. To be honest, I am not aware of any submission made to the Joint Committee suggesting that it should consider abolition, and nor was such a proposal within the remit that the House approved. The seven options before us necessarily flow from that process. At this stage, I do not see much prospect of my succeeding in the task on which he invites me to embark.

We have a stark choice that we must face up to. If we want a legitimate second Chamber to work as a partner with us, it must have a democratic mandate and the authority that goes with it. If we are not prepared to accept that, I do not resile from the proposal that my hon. Friend puts to me: if we are not prepared to do it, we should perhaps be honest and recognise that the consequence is not to have a second Chamber.

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