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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As a representative of an east midlands mining constituency, my right hon. Friend will be well aware of
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the courage and skills of the Mines Rescue Service and its work over the generations. Will he consider making time for a statement on the future of the Mines Rescue Service, whose income is closely linked to the number of deep mines? It has had £2.5 million in grant aid in each of the past two years from the Coal Authority, via the Department of Trade and Industry. It is developing a wide range of services outside deep mining rescue, in escape and rescue, commercial training and research, and needs further support to enable it to continue as a vital part of the safety mechanisms and organisations in this country. This is an important and pressing issue.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to raise the important work of the Mines Rescue Service. I represent a former mining area in the east midlands and I know the valuable work that the service has done in the past and needs to continue to do in the future. I assure my hon. Friend that the matter will be looked at thoroughly.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Will the Leader of the House assist hon. Members in next Wednesday's debate by making available the correspondence that the Government have received from the Attorney-General relating to the compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998 of the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill?

Mr. Hoon: It is important that all hon. Members have access to relevant documents, but I know that the hon. Lady will recognise that private correspondence on such matters is not always made available, and nor should it be.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am pleased to hear that we now have a date for the Second Reading of the Health Bill, which is an important measure. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider allowing Labour Members a free vote on smoking in public places? I am sure that he is aware of the strength of feeling on that issue. Is it not just the sort of issue on which we should have a free vote?

Mr. Hoon: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue yet again. I am certainly aware of the strength of feeling. I do not wish to rehearse regularly the detail and content of the Labour party's manifesto, although it was a hugely popular document for which the great majority of people voted—[Interruption.] If Opposition Members wish to change the voting system, that is a matter for them. There is a small minority party that has a vested interest in the matter, but I would have thought that most other Opposition Members were content with the present arrangements.

On the smoking ban, the arrangements that the Government will put before the House were agreed in the Labour manifesto, on which my hon. Friend and I were elected and pledged to support.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Is it possible for the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on intensive care bed provision in this country? In east Lancashire, it is proposed to close the intensive care bed delivery in Burnley general hospital and move it to Blackburn. That may be convenient for those who
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provide the service, but it will cause difficulties for those who receive it, especially people who live in rural areas such as the Ribble valley. Will the Leader of the House state today that the Government do not support the closure of intensive care beds in rural areas?

Mr. Hoon: It important that people in rural areas and elsewhere have access to intensive care facilities and the range of high quality services made available through the NHS, but the rationalisation of arrangements is often not some cost-cutting measure—no one could suggest that, given that by 2008 the Government will have trebled the amount spent on the NHS since 1997—but to ensure the continuation of those high quality services at the highest standards for the people of Clitheroe and the Ribble valley. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I am sure that she will write to him in due course.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on council tax funding? The south-east county councils, including Hampshire, which is my home county, have just launched a save our services campaign to highlight the fact that throughout the south-east people will pay more in council tax this year but get less in services. In Hampshire, there could be cuts of up to £20 million this year alone, which would mean significant cuts in important services for my constituents. Is it not time for an urgent debate on this issue or, to echo my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), is it just another example of barmy Britain?

Mr. Hoon: I cannot agree with the hon. Lady's final observation, not least because a careful and even-handed assessment is made of the way in which local   authority finance is distributed—[Interruption.] Opposition Members scoff, but I have sat through several painful meetings in which we have considered carefully the way in which council tax support is distributed. It is a requirement of that distribution that it is done on an even-handed basis. Part of the differential that inevitably arises results from the fact that council tax support reflects the different social and economic problems faced in different areas. What the hon. Lady is saying is that she lives in a relatively affluent area that is less in need of support than other areas. As a member of a party that is beginning to think about redistribution, I am sure that she would support that.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Could the Minister of Communities and Local Government come to the House to make a statement, following his answer to a question that I asked yesterday on the powers given to regional assemblies? He implied that no new powers were being given to the regional assemblies, but the regional development agencies are firmly of the opinion that the new devolved transport budget will be made by regional assemblies. Can the Minister come back to the House and clarify the position? If not, could the Secretary of State for Transport come and tell us who will decide how the transport funds are distributed?

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have many opportunities to debate any changes in the
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arrangements for regional assemblies, should there be any such changes. I am confident that what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Communities and Local Government said yesterday was entirely accurate, but it is important that if significant alterations are made to the powers of regional assemblies, they are debated in this Chamber.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): May we please have a debate entitled "The Loneliness of the Prime Minister"? The Leader of the House will recall—it is faithfully recorded in Hansard—that in Prime Minister's questions yesterday the poor Prime Minister was forced to say, with a desperate look on his face:

Nor was he, because the Cabinet were all facing the other way and Labour Back Benchers were sitting stony-faced, as they do almost every Wednesday these days. Can the Leader of the House confirm that such a debate would allow Labour Members to show how little support they are now giving to the Prime Minister and why that is the case?

Mr. Hoon: I am happy to be able to report to the House and the right hon. Gentleman that I had a meeting with the Prime Minister this morning, together with other members of the Cabinet. That event takes place regularly every Thursday morning, and I am delighted to report that the Prime Minister was not lonely or isolated. He was among friends and we had a lively and informed discussion of the issues facing the country. I only wish that there was such a lively and informed discussion among Opposition Members.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): Was the Leader of the House one of the lucky Members who received a copy of the Daily Sport in their post this morning? My copy is dated 10 November and I understand that it is typical. It contains a large number of advertisements for hard-core pornography and sexual paraphernalia. May we have an urgent debate on the obscenity laws and the press regulatory code that allows such material to be sold on the bottom shelf alongside serious newspapers, where children can easily access it?

Mr. Hoon: I agree that this is an important issue and that clarification of the rules is required because they affect certain kinds of publication but not newspapers. I agree that we need to look at that.

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