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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1115—continued

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): How can I not thank the deputy Leader of the House for giving us that statement? I echo his sentiments about the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who was that increasingly rare phenomenon, a parliamentarian. He understood and loved the Chamber, and brought to it wit and knowledge of a kind that is all too rarely in evidence. He was also principled. In his resignation, which we regret, he showed that principled resignations still have a part to play in politics today. For that, as much as anything else, we will all remember him. Although I disagreed with much of what the right hon. Gentleman did in terms of his modernisation, I can honestly say that I do not envy whoever will be chosen to follow in his footsteps.

I welcome the statement that the Secretary of State for Defence made in the House today, and I welcome even more his undertaking that he would keep the House properly and regularly informed about the hostilities. I hope that we will also be kept informed appropriately about post-war reconstruction and aid. May I ask for a

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similar undertaking that we will be kept informed about homeland security? I am sure that what may happen here in our own country during and after hostilities is as much on hon. Members' minds as the hostilities themselves. I hope that the deputy Leader of the House will give us an undertaking that we will be kept fully and properly informed on that front, as well as on the other.

I should also like the hon. Gentleman to give an undertaking, although I suspect that this is wishful thinking on my part, that we will not see the regrettable phenomenon of bad news being slipped out under the cover of the hostilities—other than the Budget, of course.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was granted an urgent question by Mr. Speaker. She said that she would

Mr. Speaker granted that urgent question, which was addressed specifically to the Secretary of State or to the Department for International Development. You can imagine our surprise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when the junior Minister in the Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), who was in her place on the Front Bench, did not reply on behalf of the Department. Instead, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien)—a Minister from another Department altogether—took it upon himself to answer. First, he mumbled some sort of excuse about the Secretary of State being out of the country—for which I do not particularly blame her, at this time. He then went on to claim that the hon. Member for Northampton, North had lost her voice. I am reliably informed, however, that she was perfectly capable of speaking soon after she left the Chamber.

The urgent question, with its specific reference to a Department and a Select Committee report, having been granted, the Government casually shuffled the people on the Front Bench around. The result was that the Minister from the Department for International Development had to brief the Minister who had been drafted in continually throughout his answering of the question, and, sadly, we therefore got inadequate answers from the Minister at the Dispatch Box. I want an undertaking from the deputy Leader of the House that this will not happen again. When an urgent question is granted, we want proper answers from the proper Minister from the right Department.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am grateful for the kind remarks of the shadow Leader of the House about my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston. I agree with what he said about the way in which my right hon. Friend left the Government. I think that he did it very well, although I—like the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst—do not share his reasons for doing it.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the reason that the Secretary of State for International Development was not here yesterday—which he and his colleagues well knew when they tabled their urgent question—was that she was on her way to the United States to hold discussions at the United Nations and with the World

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Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the US Administration on an important issue about which hon. Members on both sides of the House are very concerned. I also remind him that, under the Government in which he served, a Department for International Development did not exist. It was part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The two Departments in this Government quite rightly work extremely closely together, and the Secretary of State for International Development has secured a doubling of her Department's budget. I am sure that when she has concluded her discussions across the Atlantic, she will wish to make a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity.

It is entirely a matter for the Government which Minister responds to an urgent question, as Mr. Speaker himself made clear when the matter was raised yesterday. Given that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) had just returned from the United States, having held discussions there on these very matters, it seemed perfectly appropriate that he should respond to the urgent question.

I assure the shadow Leader of the House that there will be regular updates on the important issue of homeland security. I believe that the Home Secretary has made a written statement on this matter today, and I am sure that he will come to the House when he feels it necessary to update such statements. They will be regularly updated as the crisis unfolds.

The right hon. Gentleman made a point about bad news coming out at this time. It is a fact that, at times like this, when people's attention is on other things, they will not take so much notice of what is happening elsewhere. The same applies to very good news, such as the fact that the unemployment rate in this country continues to fall, and that yesterday's figures show the highest employment levels since records began.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the Parliamentary Secretary accept my apology in advance—and my assurance that this is nothing personal—for saying that we certainly do not welcome his presence at the Dispatch Box today, for two very good reasons? First, while we fully appreciate the entirely honourable, principled and logical reasons for the resignation of the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) as Leader of the House, we very much regret that he no longer holds that position. We do so for good reasons. His commitment to the House and to Parliament was unrivalled, and it set a very good example for his successors. He stated in the House on many occasions that good government required good parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that we can therefore have an early statement from the Government on whether they maintain the principle that the Government's submission to parliamentary authority has to go before all else, and that that is what gives them their authority.

It appears that there will be a hiatus before we shall have the opportunity of seeing whom the Government propose as the new Leader of the House. May we take that opportunity to have a debate on the role and

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responsibility of the Leader of the House? It is a different role from that of any other Cabinet Minister. It involves a responsibility to his or her colleagues in Cabinet, but also a responsibility to the House. Such a debate would give the Government an opportunity to reiterate their commitment—as the right hon. Member for Livingston frequently did—to parliamentary sovereignty.

The second reason that I regret that the Parliamentary Secretary is at the Dispatch Box is that it suggests that the Government are in no hurry to appoint a successor. That is extraordinary. Can the House imagine any other circumstances in which it would take 72 hours to appoint a Cabinet Minister? No other Department of State could remain leaderless for that long. That is indicative of the respect that the Government have for the House. Finally, may I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that I, too, will very much miss the hour of the Cook's tour on a Thursday afternoon?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments, which he just about managed to deliver with a straight face. I am sorry that he does not welcome my appearance at the Dispatch Box. I do not welcome it either. This is not a job—albeit a temporary one—that I would have chosen. May I reassure him, however, that whoever is chosen to replace my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston will show an equal commitment to Parliament. What the hon. Gentleman said about that was absolutely right.

The Government have proved, by their recent example, that they take parliamentary scrutiny seriously. We have become the first Government in the history of this country, for example, to do what the Liberal Democrats have been demanding for months—namely, to have a vote on a substantive motion before British forces were deployed in military action. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that. I remind him that the Liberal Democrats, and some Labour Members, constantly suggested that that would not happen, and constantly questioned the Government's commitment to coming to the House on that issue. We have done so not only by making regular statements, but by allowing that unprecedented vote.

I also challenge the hon. Gentleman's assertion that the failure to find a replacement for my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston yet is a sign of the Government not taking this position seriously. I suggest that the Prime Minister has rather more pressing things on his mind at the moment.

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