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13 Feb 2003 : Column 1051—continued

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recalling a very worrying period of industrial relations. He is right. Some people will still be suffering to this day because of what happened on that occasion. The Government have introduced legislation to try to make sure that we have fair play for the work force and we continue to make sure that we review it to see what further fresh legislation may be required. I am sure that the matter to which my hon. Friend referred will be of particular significance in his constituency and will, no doubt, be remembered during the anniversary.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): May we have an early and urgent debate about the cause of free speech, especially because we learned this morning that it is the Labour party—and not the police—that is denying the use of microphones at the anti-war rally in Glasgow on Saturday? Does the Leader of the House not realise that this attempt to silence the views of the overwhelming majority of Scots people does nothing other than undermine the Prime Minister's case? The public see that decision as the worst type of anti-democratic control freakery. Will the Leader of the House now have urgent discussions with his colleagues north of the border and down here to ensure that free speech prevails in Glasgow on Saturday?

Mr. Cook: I am sure that free speech will prevail. The hon. Gentleman raises the question of the ability of megaphone speech to prevail, and the issue at stake is the right of those inside the exhibition centre to hear those who are speaking inside rather than to be drowned out by those speaking outside.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Tomorrow's report by Hans Blix may have as its consequence that the Government and the United States Government think that there has been a material breach. The report would hence be an occasion for war. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that it might be sensible to make plans for an urgent recall of the House next Tuesday?

Mr. Cook: I have said to the House that I will continue to keep under review whether there is a requirement for the House to meet in the event of substantial developments. However, I think that my hon. Friend outlines a timetable that is getting a bit ahead of itself. There will, indeed, be a report from Hans Blix this Friday, but I do not know whether that will precipitate a second resolution. If it does, the nature of the Security Council is such that I am not sure that the resolution would necessarily be concluded in the single week that we are away. We can certainly return to the

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matter when we come back. As I have said, I will keep the matter under review, but I do not, at present, anticipate a compelling requirement for us to return.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The Leader of House will be aware that, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), I have a huge number of constituents who work at Heathrow. I am therefore concerned on their behalf about what happened yesterday. A moment ago in the House, we heard the Home Secretary quite deliberately giving the impression that the questions of the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), were improper. The Home Secretary also sought to give the impression that he had come to the House voluntarily to make a statement and had not been dragged here as a result of the Opposition's request for an urgent question that was granted by Mr. Speaker. The Home Secretary also deliberately ignored every question from any part of the House that made it clear that the mischief yesterday resulted from the fact that we all heard a party official—someone who sits in the Cabinet only because he is chairman of the Labour party—making misleading statements on television and panicking the public. Can we have an urgent debate about the contempt for the House and the misuse of television by Ministers who talk about security when they are not the Cabinet Minister responsible for security?

Mr. Cook: My almost obvious conclusion from that question is that the hon. Gentleman was not called in the previous exchanges.

Mr. Hawkins: I was present as shadow security Minister.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming what I have just said. He did not have an opportunity to make a point on the previous statement, so he has made it now.

I would not be living on the same planet as reality if I were to suggest to my right hon. Friends that, when they appear at a broad-ranging broadcast interview, they should refuse to answer certain questions. I doubt very much whether Jeremy Vine would be terribly impressed if they waved to him a letter from the Leader of the House instructing them not to answer questions on certain issues. Of course, it is in the nature of being a Minister in a Government, who are accountable to the public, that one is asked a range of questions that are not necessarily within one's brief. The comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio have been taken ludicrously out of context.

The evidence is that there was a real risk, and an appropriate response was made. The decisions about what the appropriate response should be were taken by those responsible for operational deployment and they were fully backed by the Home Secretary and others in the Government. That is entirely the right thing to do. However, I deprecate attempts by members of the Opposition to turn this into a party-political argument.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): In the light of the critical report of the rail regulator that was published today and in which he challenges the rail network's costs

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and the Strategic Rail Authority's plans to scale down rail investment—including indefinite deferral of the Thameslink 2000 scheme, the cuts in rail freight grants and other serious concerns—will my right hon. Friend make time for a serious debate about the future of the railways? In it, we could discuss, among other things, the desirability of bringing them back into full public ownership.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): That is a good idea. Shall we agree to it now?

Mr. Cook: I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) has at least one supporter in the House. However, I do not advise him to put the issue to a snap vote.

The rail regulator has repeatedly expressed his concern about the mounting costs of carrying through the important renewal of the railway structure. It is important that the rail industry should get costs under control. One of the reasons that we want costs to be brought under control is that there is more investment than at any time in the past decade going into the rail industry. That will continue for the decade of the 10-year plan, at the end of which we will have a better rail industry that is better able to cope with the demands on it. That will take time, but my hon. Friend should not seek to give comfort to the Opposition by suggesting anything other than that record sums are going into the industry, and rightly so.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Could the Committee on Modernisation undertake an early assessment of the impact that the change of hours is having on the work of Committees? To illustrate that, may I point out what happened in the Scottish Grand Committee yesterday? As a result of the Government timetabling a statement—which was an exercise in reheating yesterday's dinner—and two Divisions, there was little time for Back-Bench contributions to the debate. Indeed, the entire Scottish Conservative group was left with only three minutes in which to put his case. Those who supported the Leader of the House—I am included in that—[Hon. Members: "Ah."] Those of us who supported him did not do so on the basis that our views would be cast in stone for the next 200 years.

Mr. Cook: I admire the hon. Gentleman's confidence that his views will be held in stone, or any other form, for the next 200 years. Obviously we will be required to revisit matters that need detailed amendment and adjustment. One of those is the discovery, which I think surprised many members of the Scottish Grand Committee, that the Committee does not have the same Standing Order provision as Westminster Hall to enable the Chairman to prolong a sitting if it is interrupted by a Division. That is a legitimate matter for consideration and we should take account of it.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East): I thank my right hon. Friend for his gracious and tactful reply to my question on sitting hours last week. As he has had a week to sleep on it, has he managed to take 40 winks to consider early-day motion 607?

[That this House regrets the revised sitting hours; notes that the business of the House has been adversely affected; and calls for a review of the arrangements.]

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It has been signed by more than 100 colleagues and calls for an urgent review of procedures. Can he tell me how many Members it would take to allow a debate on the new working arrangements?

Mr. Cook: I rather thought that the tact of my reply fully matched the tact of my hon. Friend's question last week. I notice that there are a number of signatures to the early-day motion, although not quite as many as voted against the proposition, which was carried convincingly and comfortably in the House on 29 October.

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