HC Deb 16 December 1998 vol 322 cc958-62
Q1. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 December.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I attended a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further such meetings later today.

Mr. Chapman

Has my right hon. Friend seen the press reports today of the National Audit Office's view of the privatisation of Railtrack? The NAO found that the previous Tory Government, in their unseemly haste to dispose of that national asset, effectively lost £1.5 billion of public money—public money that could have paid for health, education and the care of the vulnerable. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in a perfect world, we might expect those who lost the money to repay it, but that, as the world is not in all things perfect, the least we can expect is an abject apology?

The Prime Minister

The £1.5 billion that was wasted as a result of the Conservatives' incompetence is a reminder of what they did while they were in government. Of course, they now wish to privatise the Post Office. I would say to the country that I do not believe that they should be put in charge of our public services again.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

In the light of the fact that Saddam Hussein is still failing to comply with UN resolutions on weapons of mass destruction, and bearing in mind the Prime Minister's assurance last month that nothing less than complete compliance was acceptable, may I assure the Prime Minister of the full support of the Opposition for the use of military action in the days ahead, provided that action has clear and achievable objectives?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his expression of support. The report by the chief inspector of UNSCOM lists in clear terms the obstacles placed in the way of the weapons inspectors—the delays, the deceit, the refusal to provide documents, the restriction on inspections. No one who reads that report can seriously doubt its conclusion that UNSCOM is unable to carry out its job properly. Indeed, the report states that there are greater restrictions now than previously.

I remind the House of the very, very clear assurance that was given on 14 November by the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, who said:

Iraq has decided clearly and unconditionally to co-operate fully with UNSCOM … and will allow the return of the inspectors to resume all their activities on an immediate, unconditional and unrestricted basis. That promise is clearly now broken.

Mr. Hague

I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that our thoughts go out to the men and women of our armed forces who, thousands of miles away from their families this Christmas, may face the toughest of jobs in the weeks ahead. Does the Prime Minister agree that Saddam Hussein has now tested western resolve on too many occasions; that his determination to build weapons of mass destruction represents a continuing threat to the peace of the whole middle east as well as to the interests of the United Kingdom; and that, as Conservative Members have said before, it must now be a prime objective of western policy to remove Saddam Hussein from power?

The Prime Minister

It is the case, as I was saying, that the Butler report makes very clear the obstacles placed in the way of inspection.

I want to emphasise one other point to the House. I hope that we can make copies of that report available in the Library so that hon. Members can read it and digest the facts that it contains. The report details not merely the obstruction but the fact that it relates directly to documents, sites and personnel that would give a clue as to the whereabouts of the weapons of mass destruction and the capability to make them. It is not obstruction simply for the sake of it, but a plan of deceit to prevent those weapons of mass destruction from being located and destroyed. As we have said before, we believe that Saddam Hussein, if allowed to develop those weapons, poses a threat not only to his neighbourhood but to the whole world.

Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

I think that it is clear that the people of Northern Ireland are less concerned with any single detail of the arrangements still under negotiation than with the fact that the agreement should hold fast. Will my right hon. Friend press that point as strongly as he can, so that the people of Northern Ireland can retain the agreement, as the best basis for peace, for this Christmas and all future Christmases?

The Prime Minister

We hope very much that agreement on the outstanding issues can be reached. I know that intensive negotiations are going on in Northern Ireland to try to bridge any remaining difficulties. On the issues concerning the north-south bodies, the Departments and the way in which the new Assembly will work, the differences between the parties are now very limited. I hope very much that the parties will bear in mind—I am sure that they will—my hon. Friend's plea, which I think would be echoed by everyone in the House and in Northern Ireland, that we should give this process, which is the only process that offers the chance of a stable future for Northern Ireland, every chance of working successfully.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon- Tweed)

Can the Prime Minister confirm the existence of a Treasury report that says that Britain could join a single currency within eight months of a Cabinet decision to call a referendum?

The Prime Minister

A whole series of reports are produced. That report is no more or less than any other. The decision on whether we join, and the process of joining, is a subject that we have set out on many occasions. As the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said recently that we would publish a draft national changeover plan in the first part of next year. That is the thing to wait for.

Mr. Beith

Has the Prime Minister reflected on the fact that, next time he answers Prime Minister's Questions in the House, the single currency will already be in operation and we will not be part of it? Whatever his real views—I am sure that he has some real views on the subject—he chooses to appear undecided, leaving business to make its preparations on the basis of guesswork and trying to read his mind. Would not a clear expression of confidence in Britain's future in the single currency and the single market be a much better Christmas present for the manufacturers, exporters and farmers on whom so many people's jobs depend?

The Prime Minister

It is important that we keep to the principles that we have outlined, because the decision should be taken in the national economic interest. When those tests have been satisfied, we will be in a position to make the decision. That is the right way to set out the policy, it is the position we have adhered to throughout, and what manufacturing needs most is long-term stability. A decision on the euro cannot be taken on the basis of short-term problems, in manufacturing or elsewhere.

Mr. Andrew Reed (Loughborough)

Despite the local difficulties in the football world in the past few days, does my right hon. Friend agree that Britain's bid for the 2006 world cup is still strong? Will he congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport on the excellent work that he is doing to promote that bid around the world? Will he put in his diary for 2006 a date to present the trophy to a mid-20s Michael Owen as captain of a winning England side?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to give my support and congratulations to my hon. Friend the Minister for Sport on all the excellent work that he does. As for our bid for 2006, we believe that it is a very strong one. If the conditions can be satisfied, there may be a bid from Africa, but if there is to be a bid from this part of the world, the British bid is by far the strongest. We will carry on fighting the case for it.

Q2. Mr. John Bercow: (Buckingham)

For saying that if we ditch the pound and join the euro, that is the end of Britain as an independent country, would the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) be described by the Prime Minister as a lunatic or as a headbanger?

The Prime Minister

No. I think I would reserve the term "headbanger" for others not located too far from the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me such immediate and visible proof. I remind him that the policy of his party is not to rule out the euro for ever—I think—or has it changed today? The policy that we have set out, basing the decision on the national economic interest, is surely the sensible way and that is the position that we will adhere to.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

On Iraq, is my right hon. Friend aware that, although there is overwhelming support in the United Nations for policies to bring about conformity with UN resolutions, if Britain and America bomb Iraq it will be contrary to the charter of the United Nations which requires the unanimity of the five permanent members; it will be illegal in international law; it will cause the death of many innocent people, and 200,000 Iraqis were killed in the Gulf war, leaving Saddam stronger; and it will inflame the middle east? Why does my right hon. Friend do everything that he is told to do by President Clinton, instead of taking an independent view in support of the charter, which has always been central to the policy of the party that he leads?

The Prime Minister

Such action would not be unlawful at all, for this reason. I take it as agreed between my right hon. Friend and me that the regime of Saddam Hussein must be prevented from building those weapons of mass destruction.

If we are agreed on that, the question is how. It can be done by Saddam Hussein complying with the agreements that he has entered into, or we have to look for other ways to enforce his agreement. The Gulf war ceasefire depended on the fulfilment of obligations that Iraq accepted at the time, including those relating to weapons of mass destruction.

Successive Security Council resolutions have confirmed the requirement for Iraq to fulfil those obligations. When in February we made our first attempt, through the memorandum of understanding between Iraq and Kofi Annan, the Security Council said that any breach by Iraq of its obligations under the memorandum of understanding would result in the "severest consequences". The Council has condemned Iraq's decisions to end co-operation again and again. On 14 November, we gave Iraq a further chance to come back into compliance. Given Iraq's manifest failure to co-operate in the past month, I am satisfied that, if we should choose to use force, we have the necessary legal authority to do so.