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6 Mar 2003 : Column 961—continued

Mr. Cook: I am not sure that you, Mr. Speaker, carried the House with you in that customary consensual intervention.

I put it to Conservative Members that it is perfectly plain that we need to make sure that the Budget is adequately scrutinised. I really would not have thought that they would object to spending one day of their recess considering the Budget debate. [Hon. Members: "Staff."] Nor, indeed, do I believe that the staff who serve this place well would wish to see consideration of the Budget skimped so that it is not properly considered. [Interruption.] If hon. Members let me continue, I will remind the House that, when we announced the parliamentary timetable, I made it plain that the first week of the recess would be a constituency week. I would not expect the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to complain at having to be dragged from his constituency to spend a day in this place debating Government business.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Now that the Fire Brigades Union seems to be accepting the idea of modernisation, is it not time for hon. Members to begin to adapt themselves to the modernisation of this place rather than seeking continually to overturn the will of the House in respect of our new hours?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that we are making progress on our discussions with the FBU about modernisation and the pay package. I hope that they are concluded successfully. She is correct to

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point out that we cannot lecture the rest of Britain on the importance of modernising and changing working practices if we are not willing to do so in a way that makes us more relevant to the world outside and more in touch with the lifestyles that our constituents lead.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister used a written ministerial statement to withdraw completely the local authority social housing grant? May we have an urgent proper statement or debate on that? Local authorities in constituencies such as mine have done everything that they were meant to do—pay down their debt and transfer houses to housing associations—to provide low-cost accommodation for local people, but that is now impossible because of the Government's gerrymandering. They are taking money away from local authorities in the south and giving it to their own badly run authorities elsewhere.

Mr. Cook: I shall consider the specific point that the hon. Gentleman raises, but let us not lose sight of the fact that the Government are spending three times more on social housing than the Conservative Government whom he supported. Within recent memory, we have had a statement on the future of housing, in which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced a further £5 billion for social housing. Let there be no doubt about the Government's commitment to social housing. We are providing much larger sums than the Conservatives provided in the past or could ever provide in the future if they persist in their commitment to cut public spending by 20 per cent.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): On the question of business, I regularly ask the staff what is on the agenda for next week. Usually, people in the post office and on the door know in advance what is likely to happen. My right hon. Friend said, although not in totality, that the House will not meet on a Saturday, yet when I came in this morning and asked, "Anything on the agenda?", the staff said, "Yes. There's a distinct possibility that we'll be having a vote about Iraq on a Saturday, so you'd better clear your desk." Is my right hon. Friend ruling that out completely, because, if so, it will be the first time that the staff have been wrong?

Mr. Cook: Plainly, I must spend more time in the Members' Post Office. Perhaps we can have next week's business statement there or in the Members' Lobby. I can only repeat that at present we have no plans to meet on a Saturday—[Interruption.] I am not seeking to provide the footnotes to the wriggle room; I genuinely have no plans at present to recall the House on a Saturday. Should such an eventuality arise, I anticipate that my hon. Friend would much rather that we were recalled and debated the matter than we did not debate it at all. At the moment, however, I do not anticipate that necessity.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): The right hon. Gentleman will know that informal consideration was given to holding the Report stage of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill the week after next, but that idea appears to have been dropped. Can he assure the House that, when he announces its Report stage, the

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Government will not use it to introduce anything that they may have agreed in this week's talks? Any further changes to the policing of Northern Ireland deserve to be in a Bill of their own and given proper consideration in both Houses rather than being sneaked into the Report stage of a Bill that has already been considered fully in another place.

Mr. Cook: As I understand the timetable for discussions in Northern Ireland, the parties to the agreement have gone away to consult their Members and their contacts. They will probably return in April, which is some way in the future. I am not aware of whether that will produce a requirement for fresh legislation or fresh legislative requirements. Should it do so, I anticipate that the House would want to ensure that any step necessary to consolidate an agreement is carried through expeditiously. I cannot anticipate at the moment whether there would be a specific vehicle for that or whether it would affect the Bill. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we attach high importance to the Bill. It is part of our agreements with Northern Ireland and we would wish to make reasonable progress on it.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Given the awesome American weaponry lined up surrounding Iraq and the terrifying effects that the strategy—"shock and awe"—will have on the civilian population, it is essential that we have a debate before a week on Saturday, because everybody knows that the countdown to war has begun. We need that debate on a substantive motion so that hon. Members can express their view on whether or not we go to war.

Mr. Cook: I do not think that there is any difference between my hon. Friend and I on that point. Indeed, the Government—I, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—have repeatedly said from the Dispatch Box that we would wish to bring before the House a substantive motion in the light of any Security Council resolution that may be agreed, and that we would want that to happen, if it was at all possible, in advance of any military conflict. That position stands. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government regard it as important not only to the House, but to themselves and to British troops, that they should have that decision by the House of Commons in the event of any conflict taking place.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): Which of the political parties in Scotland does the Leader of the House believe will benefit most from the Budget statement being made in the middle of the Scottish election campaign?

Mr. Cook: I am confident that the Labour party will benefit most from the Scottish campaign in any event. I am slightly puzzled by the anxiety of the Scottish National party about the timing of the Budget statement. That anxiety makes sense only if the SNP assumes that a display of the sound economy of Britain, the strength of the economy under the Chancellor of the Exchequer and a positive Budget that is popular and well received in Britain and particularly in Scotland will jeopardise whatever small chances it has of taking control in Scotland. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's confidence in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and his confidence that it will be a positive Budget and a popular one in Scotland.

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Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of UN personnel administering the oil-for-food programme in the north of Iraq has been reduced from 500 to 200, and that UK-based NGOs such as Christian Aid and Save the Children were advised last week by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to withdraw their personnel not only from Iraq but from Israel and Palestine? Will he urgently communicate this question to his right hon. Friends and discuss with them the potential humanitarian consequences for the 60 per cent. of people in Iraq who are dependent on that aid?

Mr. Cook: I am not aware of the figures that my hon. Friend quotes, but I will pass on her concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government attach high importance to the oil-for-food programme in northern Iraq, and I am confident that it would be able to continue even with a reduction in staff, provided that the resources continue to get through. It is striking that, under the UN's direct administration of the oil-for-food programme in northern Iraq, child mortality has gone down, the health of the population has improved and education levels have improved, in stark contrast to the way in which all those measures have gone in the opposite direction in the rest of Iraq, where it is Saddam, not the UN, who administers the programme.

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