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6 Feb 2003 : Column 440—continued

Mr. Cook: On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I fully understand the importance that the House attaches to being able to debate and discuss Iraq. Indeed, there will be another statement on the matter today. I do not know whether a Security Council resolution will immediately follow on 14 February. I would only say to the House from my experience of such matters that it takes more than a few days to get agreement on a text for a Security Council resolution. I am therefore not suggesting that the House will necessarily have its constituency week interrupted, but we have all shown ourselves willing if the case arises—I am not saying that it will do so—for the possibility of recall to be on the agenda. Of course, we are away for only one week and there will be an opportunity for the House to consider the matter when we return on the week beginning 24 February if that is necessary.

I remind hon. Members that the House approved a remit for the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform by resolution last summer. It provides for the Joint Committee to continue its work to devise detailed proposals in the light of votes in the House. No doubt the Committee will want to meet and consider the votes that were held this week. I echo the hon. Gentleman's comments that a fully appointed House secured the least support and the greatest opposition on Tuesday. A majority of Members from all parties, including the Labour party, voted against it. I am therefore sceptical about the allegation that the Labour Whips were

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working on the matter. Labour Whips are competent and efficient; I therefore cannot believe that they would place themselves in a minority in the Labour party.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West): If the vote on war in Iraq is held after hostilities start, it will be judged to be a vote of loyalty: opposing the war would be perceived as an act of betrayal against our troops in battle. Are not all our elections as valid as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)? Is not it right that the strong opposition that our constituents are expressing to a war of aggression is heard in the House before it is decided to send our troops into battle to kill and be killed?

Mr. Cook: Of course I fully understand the gravity of the issue and its importance not only to hon. Members but their constituents. I assure my hon. Friend that there will be opportunities for hon. Members to debate the matter again. [Hon. Members: "And to vote?"] And to vote on it, too. [Interruption.] If I may be allowed to answer the question, we provided for a debate, a motion and a vote on the previous Security Council resolution. I have no reason to believe that that will not happen in the case of a further resolution.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on shortages in health services in Essex? That would give us a chance to raise a problem that affects many of my constituents, who have recently been removed from the list for chiropody and podiatry treatment because a review of that service has been undertaken. How can it be that the Government plough billions of pounds into the health service at one end yet the service on the ground appears to be getting worse?

Mr. Cook: I must disagree with the conclusion of the hon. Gentleman's question. We are investing large sums in the national health service. Indeed, we have provided a greater increase in the health service than any other major country, and that is yielding results in the substantial increase in operations and the great reduction in those on waiting lists. There may be circumstances in areas such as that to which the hon. Gentleman refers when the local health service reaches a judgment about reassessing its priorities. I stress that the Government are keen to devolve decision making to local areas and allow those in the front line to determine the right priorities for the area. It would be wrong for me to say from the Dispatch Box that they should change their priorities.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): Cannot the Leader of the House find time for a debate on section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002? It provides for the removal of all support for asylum seekers who claim in country. The House of Commons has never debated that section properly. It was the result of a last-minute Lords amendment, which was debated for only 15 minutes because of the guillotine. It is being implemented in a way that is different from indications that Ministers gave hon. Members when it was introduced.

Mr. Cook: I note my hon. Friend's last comment, which I shall draw to the attention of my right hon.

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Friend the Home Secretary, who may wish to contact him to assure him about the guarantees that were given to the House.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): The Leader of the House gave a positive response on Zimbabwe two weeks ago. The position has deteriorated further, with disgraceful scenes outside the courthouse in Harare where the leader of the opposition is on trial. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that a Minister must make a statement, not least on the problems of renewing sanctions? Many of us believe that sanctions, especially smart sanctions, should be increased. A Minister should also explain the special problems that we are experiencing with the French.

Mr. Cook: I fully understand the right hon. Gentleman's consistent interest in, and concern about, the issue. We in this country must be careful about what we say about the conduct of the trial, because it could be misused. Therefore, if he will forgive me, I will make no comment on that matter.

On the generality of the issue that he raises, he is correct to say that the situation continues to deteriorate in Zimbabwe and we have grave concerns about the increasing degree of violence that is being used to suppress legitimate views. Many millions in Zimbabwe also feel real anxiety about where their next food will come from.

We have provided a range of sanctions against Zimbabwe and we have always sought to find a balance between ways to demonstrate our rejection of the policies of the regime and our wish not to harm the ordinary people of Zimbabwe. That is a difficult balance to get right. However, I hope—in the light of the latest developments—that the cricketing authorities will be able to resolve the present problem and that we will be spared the embarrassment of the English cricket team going to Zimbabwe.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the health of local government is even more important than the health of the House of Lords, Members of which some of us would gladly throttle? Is he also aware that the democratic decision-making powers of local authorities are under serious threat from the response of the Department of Trade and Industry to the general agreement on trade in services? May we have a debate on the dangers to local authorities? Their powers over planning operations, local economic development proposals and sustainable development may be blocked. Those powers are important to the well-being of our democracy and to social provision.

Mr. Cook: I am not sure that throttling Members of the House of Lords would be consistent with the health of the House of Lords, with which my hon. Friend began his question. However, he raises two profound issues. First, it is important that we make progress on the general agreement on trade in services, which reflects the substantial importance and growing significance of services to our economy and, at the same time, it shows that we respect the right of countries to ensure that they preserve public services for their people.

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Secondly, my hon. Friend raised the important issue of the freedom of local authorities, to which the Government are fully committed. I am not at present aware of any threat to British local authorities from the development of the general agreement on trade in services, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will keep a close watching brief on the matter.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): The interesting results on Tuesday included—as the Leader of the House has pointed out—Opposition Members' rejection of the so-called official policy of the Opposition. I fully accept that a genuine free vote was allowed to Members on both sides of the House, but will he give us an undertaking that he will not put any pressure on the Joint Committee, but give it time to deliberate as much as it wishes, and that we will have no further debates on the future of the House of Lords for the rest of this Session?

Mr. Cook: I am not sure that I can entirely reassure the hon. Gentleman on that last point. Indeed, I am wearily resigned to the fact that we will have to return to the matter again. I agree that Tuesday's proceedings were interesting—indeed, fascinating—and I am grateful to him for confirming my point that the majority of Conservative Members rejected the Conservative policy.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): May we have a debate on the growing nightmare faced by many of our constituents, especially in northern cities and towns, from the creeping dereliction and abandonment of terraces of housing? I raised the issue with my local authority and suggested that, once one house in a terrace became derelict and abandoned, we should try to nip the problem in the bud by using compulsory purchase orders. I was told that it is very difficult to obtain CPOs—it takes a long time and is expensive—and my local authority did not want to try. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which is going through Parliament at the moment, would not affect that problem, because it covers compulsory purchase of land.

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