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6 Mar 2003 : Column 964—continued

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Reverting to the wholly unsatisfactory arrangements for the Budget, does the Leader of the House recall saying on 29 October:


What does he now say to Members and Members' staff who took his advice and made sensible arrangements?

Mr. Cook: If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should not have that fourth day of debate on the Budget, I will be only too happy to consider it. I suspect that some of my hon. Friends will welcome that proposal. However, I think it is important that the House should fully scrutinise the Budget, and the job of scrutiny by hon. Members must take priority over the travel arrangements that we or our staff may have made. When I announced that diary in October, I made it plain that we were combining the constituency week with the Easter recess. For an important piece of Government business such as the Budget, it is not unreasonable that hon. Members should be in the House rather than in their constituency for only one day of that week. Even without that day, the Easter recess will be longer than most Easter recesses of the past four decades.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): May we have an early statement from Health Ministers on the funding of long-term care for the elderly? My right hon. Friend will be aware that the health service ombudsman recently completed an investigation and found that in four cases—probably out of hundreds, and perhaps thousands—very elderly people had to pay for their own

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long-term care, when the NHS should properly have paid. The matter concerns all Members. Many of their constituents are affected, and the Secretary of State for Health ought to be able to assure the House that health authorities and trusts are not misinterpreting the guidance sent out by the Department of Health.

Mr. Cook: It would indeed be a serious matter if local authorities were not properly applying the Department of Health's guidance. I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health would be happy to pursue the matter if my hon. Friend has specific cases in mind and can provide us with that data. On the broad issue, I assure him that the Government have increased the funding for social services throughout England and Wales by 6 per cent. per annum, compared with a serious restriction on the funds for those local authorities under the previous Government. The increase has enabled local authorities throughout England to carry through an increase in the fees that they pay for long-term residential care, in many cases up to 10 per cent. I regret that in some cases that has left nursing homes charging above the local authority contribution, but we are increasing the funds, the local authority is increasing the fees, and between us we will do all we can to meet the problem.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): I can well appreciate that the Chancellor may have wanted to delay the date of the Budget until the end of the tax year to see just how bad the tax revenue situation is, but, given that he will have drawn those conclusions by 5 April, can the Leader of the House explain why we cannot have the Budget on the Monday of the week in question, so that instead of devoting just four days to scrutinising the Chancellor's bad stewardship of the economy we could devote five?

Mr. Cook: It is worth recalling, and I am sure the Chancellor will recall it when we meet on 9 April, that Britain has one of the lowest unemployment rates of any country in Europe, and the lowest that we have had for a generation; it has one of the lowest inflation rates anywhere in the industrialised world; and it has the fastest growth rate of any of the G7 countries. That is a splendid record, which was praised by the International Monetary Fund report earlier this week as an enviable record, and it is envied by the other industrialised nations. I am sure that when he speaks to the Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make sure that the House and the rest of the country fully understand the strength of the British economy as a result of his sound management.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is it not odd that whereas the large majority of our constituents will simply have Good Friday and Easter Monday off, there are complaints when we are to have a recess of two weeks, as my right hon. Friend mentioned? Why do Tory MPs complain time and again that the recess is too long—too short. [Laughter.] Many of us take the view that it would do no harm if the Easter recess were just one week.

Mr. Cook: I would not wish to put that last proposition to a vote. My hon. Friend raises a serious

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issue. Before we rise for the Easter recess, there will be a debate on the Easter Adjournment, to which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will reply, and there will follow three or four hours during which hon. Members will argue that we should not rise for the recess because there is an important and pressing issue to debate. When that event comes round this year, I expect that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will remind them that they have consistently and repeatedly objected to coming back for only one day to debate the Budget.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): You will notice, Mr. Speaker, that the House will be able to don the shamrock on 17 March. Will the Leader of the House make sure that a Foreign Office Minister replies to the debate on terrorism on Tuesday and tells us what steps have been taken to deal with the international weaponry that has been stored in the Republic of Ireland and used in terrorism, and the more recent developments that have told us throughout Ireland that there are international terrorist cells in various parts?

Mr. Cook: Of course, international terrorism will be considered in the debate on the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee. To the extent that the situation in Northern Ireland is relevant, it obviously can be considered both in the debate and in the response to it but, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be the first to agree, internal terrorism in Northern Ireland is not an international matter but is firmly one for the United Kingdom Government to pursue as a domestic issue. Plainly, there are international links, of which the hon. Gentleman is well aware, and I would be surprised if a Unionist Member did not contribute to the debate to highlight them.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Regardless of arrangements that may have been made for a debate on possible military action in Iraq, does my right hon. Friend agree that tomorrow's reports by Dr. Blix to the Security Council will be of crucial significance in determining people's attitudes to military action? In the light of that, is he of the clear opinion that next Wednesday it is more important to debate Welsh affairs than Dr. Blix's report?

Mr. Cook: The debate on Wales has already been deferred precisely so that we could debate Iraq—it was a casualty of our debate on Iraq the other week. It is important that my Welsh colleagues and Members who represent our voters in Wales should have an opportunity to explore Welsh issues.

I entirely concur with my hon. Friend about the importance of Hans Blix's report tomorrow. It is important that the world should hear from him at first hand what progress, or lack of it, he is making on the mandate that he was given by the Security Council. One of the reasons why we in Britain should take particular interest in what he says is that Britain, more than any other nation, was successful in taking the Iraq crisis on to the UN track, from which we secured the return of the weapons inspectors to Iraq. We shall therefore play close attention to what Hans Blix says tomorrow.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Can we have an early statement from the Foreign

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Secretary on whether the language of Security Council resolution 1441 and the draft resolution that was recently tabled in fact provide proper authority for war? In that context, the Leader of the House will have seen the letter today in The Times from Professor Black, a distinguished jurist, saying that the language of 1441 does not provide a proper warrant for war and, furthermore, that the draft resolution, which we put before the Security Council, does not do so either. Surely we must probe that so that there is no misunderstanding about the legal basis for what the Government have in mind.

Mr. Cook: It is of course the right and duty of the House to probe the Government, and I do not doubt that in future debates on Iraq the right hon. and learned Gentleman may wish to make those points. However, I repeat to the House what has been said on a number of occasions, including most recently by the Prime Minister yesterday—there is no question of the Government taking any action that they believe to be contrary to international law. Should they take any action, they would only do so in the conviction that it is consistent with international law.


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