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6 Mar 2003 : Column 970—continued

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): What impact is the rebellion of 122 MPs over the Iraq issue having on the business of the House? Is the Leader of the House aware that, for many of those MPs, it was the first time that they had voted against the Whips? He must know that, once someone loses their political virginity, it is much easier for political promiscuity to take over. If whipping arrangements in the House were to collapse, what would happen to life as we know it?

Mr. Cook: I would be well advised to avoid any discussion about promiscuity and whipping. Of course I fully understand the strength of feeling in the House and in the country, and the vote last week revealed the very deep concern and worry in the country about the present situation in relation to Iraq. For me, that is why it is so important that we should stick with our strategy of making sure that this crisis is resolved through the United Nations, and that we secure that second resolution within the United Nations.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on an important matter which affects the health of all our constituents in the face of a possible terrorist threat? Last Monday, in a debate in the House in which I also took part as shadow Minister for national security, the Home Secretary said in an unguarded moment to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin):

My right hon. Friend pointed out to the Home Secretary that that was factually inaccurate. We understand that there was then consternation approaching panic in the Department of Health and, as a result, the following morning the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction

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and Community Safety, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), considerably watered down what the Home Secretary had said, when he replied to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) in a debate in Westminster Hall. The Minister said that

It was clear by then that people could not approach their GPs for the vaccine. We believe that vaccines should be available now for any of our citizens who wish to be vaccinated. Will the Leader of the House urgently talk to the Home Office and the Department of Health, and can we have a debate on this crucial matter?

Mr. Cook: I am very happy to ensure that both those Departments receive the comments that the hon. Gentleman has made. In the meantime, so that the public outside can, to some extent, have their concerns allayed, I am happy to repeat what we have often sought to make clear, which is that we are not aware of any specific threat of the use of smallpox in the case of Britain.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence on preparations to avoid friendly fire—and, indeed, civilian casualties—in any joint military operations with US forces in Iraq? Is the Leader of the House aware that, in an answer to my named day written question for 10 February which was finally answered on 5 March, in which I had asked the Secretary of State for Defence about any representations that he had made on the use of amphetamines by US air force pilots, the Secretary of State said that that was a matter for the US authorities? Should not the British Government be making representations to the US authorities about the issue of amphetamines to US air force pilots, not least because they were cited in the case of the friendly-fire deaths of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last year, and because they are banned in our own armed forces for precisely the reason that we should be making representations to the US?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend tempts me into an area that is very much within the province of my right hon. and hon. colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. I shall certainly draw his remarks to their attention, and they can consider what appropriate representations might be necessary. Of course, every possible effort is made to ensure that the armed forces of the United States and the United Kingdom can operate in a way in which any risk of casualties from friendly fire is diminished as far as is humanly possible.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Has the Leader of the House had the opportunity to read the excellent Bill introduced by my noble Friend Lord Goodhart, which is due to be given a Second Reading tomorrow, entitled the Ministerial and other Salaries (Amendment) Bill, and which seeks to reduce the salary of the Lord Chancellor to that of a common-or-garden Cabinet Minister? When that Bill is passed in the other House, as I expect it to be, probably by acclamation, will the right hon. Gentleman provide an early opportunity

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for this House to debate it? If not, can we at least have a debate on the role of the Lord Chancellor and the conduct of his Department?

Mr. Cook: I am delighted to say that one of the initiatives that we have taken is to create a Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department. This is the first time in the history of the House of Commons that there has been such a Select Committee, and we therefore now have a new vehicle to ensure adequate debate on and scrutiny of the actions and responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor. On the question of his salary, it is important that we should pay adequate attention to equity and equality, and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern that there should be equality within the Cabinet. Of course, it is also an important principle of new Labour that merit should be adequately rewarded.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Given that the credibility of Government spokesmen is of paramount importance in international affairs, will the Leader of the House explain why those spokesmen denied the existence of a document which recorded that Mr. Kamal Hussein had stated that the Iraqi Government had not, in fact, acted as he had earlier described in relation to the creation of weapons of mass destruction? Why was the existence of that document denied by Government spokesmen, and how did it subsequently come into the possession of Newsweek?

Mr. Cook: As I understand it, the document to which the hon. Gentleman refers is a statement by Rolf Ekeus, the former weapons inspector in Iraq, who gave his verdict on interviews with Kamal Hussein. I personally am not familiar with the idea of any Government spokesman having denied the existence of that document, nor would it be within our power to confirm or deny what is in the United Nations weapons inspectors' records. If the hon. Gentleman would like to clarify precisely to what he is referring, I shall certainly make the necessary inquiries.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): Further to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), the Government gave advice to the public on Monday that they should go to their family doctor to ask for a smallpox vaccination if they wanted one. Is the Leader of the House aware that the British Medical Association and the GPs giving evidence yesterday to the Science and Technology Committee said that they had not been consulted in any way on this matter, that the advice was downright dangerous, that the GPs would not be able to respond to it and that the Government should withdraw it immediately? Will he ensure that the Home Secretary comes to the House, clarifies the matter to the public and apologises?

Mr. Cook: I can certainly confirm that the Department of Health has repeatedly provided advice on that matter. Of course, the hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point in saying that the smallpox vaccination carries a risk of side effects, so it is important that it be used only in circumstances in which the risk of infection is greater than that of side effects. That is why the plans of the Department of Health and the Government for

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dealing with any smallpox outbreak involve vaccination of those who would be most at risk, rather than general vaccination. It is very important that we keep the matter in proportion and do not unnecessarily alarm our constituents, so I repeat that we are not aware at present of any specific threat of a smallpox attack on Britain.

Mr. Bercow: Can we have an early debate on the Floor of the House on the iniquitous impact of the Government's so-called fairer charging policy for the receipt of home care services? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that such a debate would enable us to show how the Chancellor of the Exchequer has broken a seven and a half year old pledge to end the means test for our elderly people, how the policy reflects the appalling financial mistreatment of the shire counties, and how the cumulative impact of those errors of judgment and that malice on the part of the Government will cause some of my constituents to pay 200, 300 and 400 per cent. more than they currently do for services on which they critically depend?

Mr. Cook: It has of course been a longstanding practice of many local authorities to provide some form of charging for home care services, and it is often means tested. One of the great dilemmas for a Government—the hon. Gentleman will have to wrestle with it in any unlikely future event of his finding himself on the Treasury Bench—is to what extent we try to achieve harmony in the practice of local authorities. There has been some resentment throughout the country about the extent to which there has been wide variation. The Government's current proposal is intended to achieve a degree of common standards and a common approach among local authorities. While some might lose out—I hear what he says about his constituency—there will be other cases in which residents and constituents will benefit from the scheme and in which the application of a fair and consistent national minimum standard will benefit those most in need of care.

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