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6 Mar 2003 : Column 967—continued

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): Could we have a debate next week on the report by the Office of Fair Trading about the pharmacy market that was published on 17 January? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread concern in my constituency and elsewhere about the effects of that report? It is competition gone mad, and will mean the closure of many high street pharmacies and the domination of that market by Tesco and Asda. Could we have an urgent debate before the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is sitting on the Front Bench, has to make a decision?

Mr. Cook: I am happy to tell to my hon. Friend that I am well aware of the House's deep concern about that matter, which has been raised in three successive sets of business questions—a useful barometer of opinion and concern in the House. After last week's exchanges, when it was raised by no fewer than four Members, we communicated to the Department for Trade and Industry the House's interest in the matter.

My hon. Friend will be aware that we are half way through the 90-day period for a Government response. The Government are consulting appropriate representative bodies on their response, and will consult again on any draft proposals that we make in response to the OFT report. I assure my hon. Friend that we are fully aware of the concern that the matter is causing in Members' constituencies, and want to take action consistent with our NHS plan to make sure that there is a successful and diverse range of pharmacies in every community in Britain.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Can the Leader of the House find time for the House as a whole to discuss the European Convention and its emerging proposals before they are cast in Giscardian tablets of stone and foisted on us as a putative constitution? Can the Government take into account the alarming divergent diplomatic postures of leading EU members, namely France and Germany, on the Iraqi crisis;

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and does that not call into question the principles of ever closer union, as enunciated in the Maastricht treaty, on which the Convention is based?

Mr. Cook: Of course we are well aware of the considerable interest in the House on the development of the Convention on the Future of Europe. After all, as a House, we are unusual in having two representatives who serve on the Convention independent of our Government representatives. We therefore set up a unique Committee for Back Benchers to which those House representatives can report and where debates can be held. That Committee has met at least twice, and a further debate is coming up in Westminster Hall. However, the issue is important, and cannot be debated too often. I shall certainly bear in mind when it may be appropriate for the House to consider it.

In the meantime, the nature of such bodies and international negotiations means that proposals change as they proceed, so one should not necessarily take what is on the table now as what will be there at the end of the day.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Is the Leader of the House aware that in response to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), on the Government's attempts to obtain a second UN resolution authorising war against Iraq even before the weapons inspectors had completed their second report, the Prime Minister said that


Today, however, we read in the newspapers that the Government's confidence is remarkably misplaced and they are attempting to cobble together a compromise resolution. That is the third time this week that the Government's action or policy on Iraq has been reported first in the press—B-52 bombers are to be allowed to use our islands as a terrestrial aircraft carrier, and there is the particular incident to which I have previously referred. Can we have a debate, if not on Iraq itself, then on the Government's failure to inform the House of such changes before they inform the press? The issue is of overwhelming national concern, and the House has consistently been kept in the dark.

Mr. Cook: I cannot think of a single issue in the past three months on which we have had more statements in the House than Iraq. I am confident that there will be future occasions when Ministers will report to Parliament, and Parliament will be able to debate the matter.

The Government have a clear commitment to seek a Security Council resolution. We are in the lead in trying to secure such a resolution, and shall continue to work for it. When we secure such a resolution, we shall bring it to the House for a debate and approval on a substantive motion. That remains our strategy, and we are committed to it.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): With reference to the legislation that the Government intend to introduce Monday week on elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, can the Leader of the House give a

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commitment that there will be no further interference with the democratic process and the right of electors in Northern Ireland other than that which has already been announced, postponing elections from 1 May to 29 May? Furthermore, can he ask his colleagues to come to the House and give details of the paper, so far denied to representatives of the people of Northern Ireland who were not invited to the talks, on the deal that is currently under consideration, which consists of 29 pages and five annexes? Surely, the people of Northern Ireland have a right to know what has been discussed regarding the future of the Province. Can the Leader of the House give an assurance that he will publish that document and that it will be placed in the Library of the House so that the people of Northern Ireland can judge the merits or otherwise of the Government proposals?

Mr. Cook: I can certainly assure the House that when negotiations are concluded one way or another the Government will wish to make sure that the House is fully informed. I anticipate that at that moment there will probably be a statement to the House. At present, negotiations are proceeding among, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, those who are party to the agreement. It is hardly surprising that those parties that have chosen not to be party to the agreement have been excluded from those talks and the documents, which are necessarily work in progress. When that work is concluded, the hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House will share in the results.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the debate on the reform of the House of Lords has moved from unthinking muddle to profound confusion? Will he undertake to draft a motion, which the House might consider in an Adjournment debate, that would give us a chance to reflect thoughtfully on what has happened so far, and to see whether we can find a way forward that fulfils our commitment to democratise the second Chamber?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend has an unerring capacity to find the helpful question. May I remind hon. Members that this matter was put to the House last month, and in that debate I sought to give the House an opportunity to find a consensual way forward? I fear that we failed on that occasion to find any clear, commanding, compelling agreement on a particular form of reform.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): It is all the Prime Minister's fault.

Mr. Cook: No, it was the fault of every hon. Member who took part in the debate, in which we failed to find a majority for any single way forward on reform. As I have said since then, there will be no reform of the second Chamber until there is a majority in this Chamber for a particular way of reform. We shall certainly continue to look for that, but until we see the makings of such a majority, I think that it would be premature to bring the matter back to the House.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): The Leader of the House will remember saying to me last week that the

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Prime Minister—unlike his predecessors—had better things to do than to spend time sitting in important House of Commons debates. That statement was followed 24 hours later by the biggest parliamentary rebellion since the 1800s. Does the Leader of the House think that there is a connection between those two events? Will he tell us whether the Prime Minister will join us in the House for the conclusion of the Budget debate in the first week of the recess?

Mr. Cook: I have not previously been charged with being personally responsible for the biggest rebellion in the past 100 years of parliamentary history, and I will reflect gravely on the charge that the hon. Gentleman makes. I would remind hon. Members that the Prime Minister has not only come to the House to make a full statement and to answer questions on Iraq, and dealt with the matter repeatedly in the course of Prime Minister's questions, but has taken a very close personal interest in how the House debates it. For that reason, he uniquely spent two hours in front of the Liaison Committee answering questions from senior Members of the House. That is something that no previous Prime Minister, whether Labour or Conservative, has ever done. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister will of course continue to take a very close interest in the Budget and in the debate that follows it.


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