HC Deb 27 January 1999 vol 324 cc332-8
Q1. Mr. Stephen Twigg (Enfield, Southgate)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 27 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Twigg

No Member of this House could fail to have been moved by the tragic events in Colombia over the past few days. Although the general increase in the Government's aid programme over the past two years has been widely welcomed, may I ask the Prime Minister what immediate action the Government are taking to support the disaster relief effort in Colombia?

The Prime Minister

This is the worst earthquake in Colombia this century. The numbers of casualties are difficult to confirm, but at least 2,000 are reported to have died. Obviously, the immediate need is for rescue efforts to save people who are still trapped in the rubble, to help people injured or made homeless by the earthquake and then to try to help in the task of providing for those who have been displaced by it. We have made significant sums of money available through the British embassy and the Pan-American Health Organisation as part of our initial response to the immediate needs in Colombia. We also stand ready to make a contribution to a European Union effort. We will continue to do all that we can to ensure that the international community responds to this humanitarian crisis in an effective and co-ordinated way.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I associate the Opposition with the remarks that the Prime Minister has made on Colombia?

Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about terrorist mutilations and beatings in Northern Ireland. Following that, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland held meetings on Monday to ask for an end to those horrific acts—an initiative that we welcomed. A few hours after those meetings, a 24-year-old man was seized in east Belfast and shot twice. The same thing happened last night. In the past few hours, Eamon Collins—who turned informer against the IRA—has apparently been found dead. There is mounting concern in all parts of the House—as I know the Prime Minister will acknowledge—about this matter. Will he confirm that the Government have the legal power, if they wish, to halt the early release of terrorist prisoners if this barbaric activity does not stop?

The Prime Minister

Yes, that is right—we have the power to bring to an end the early prisoner releases. We would do so in circumstances where we could no longer say that a ceasefire was in place. That, therefore, is the issue—whether the right judgment now is that, as a result of the punishment beatings, the ceasefire is at an end.

I asked for research to be done following Question Time last week, and it might be helpful if I gave the House the figures for punishment beatings over the last few years. In 1994, there were 192; in 1995, 220; in 1996, 326; in 1997, 228; in 1998, 209. During one part of that period—[Interruption.] None of those is tolerable or right. We should do everything we can to stop these incidents and to bring to justice those responsible. However, the point that I am making is that there was a ceasefire before, under the previous Government, during which punishment beatings were being carried out; indeed, to a rather greater degree than now. The previous Government's judgment at the time, which we supported, was that it was not right to bring the whole process to an end. That is the judgment that we continue to make, for the reasons that I have given.

Mr. Hague

May I ask the Prime Minister to acknowledge several things? First, I am grateful for his clarification that the Government have the legal power about which I inquired, as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said on the radio this morning that she was not sure about that power.

Secondly, does the Prime Minister agree that the word "beatings", which many of us have used about the punishments being meted out, does not do justice to what is happening in Northern Ireland? Thirdly, will he acknowledge that, although in recent years there have always been such beatings and mutilations, we did not have an agreement in the earlier period? Now we have the Good Friday agreement, which people are meant to be implementing. According to figures from the organisation Families Against Intimidation and Terror, representatives of which I met this morning, the number of such incidents increased from 388 in 1997 to more than 500 in 1998. That number is continuing to rise, even after the agreement.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that legislation requires that the Secretary of State must take into account whether these organisations are committed to the use now and in the future of only democratic and peaceful means", that they have ceased to be involved in any acts of violence or of preparation for violence", and that they are co-operating fully with the Commission on Decommissioning—which presumably means giving up or preparing to give up their guns or bombs? If none of those things is happening, the Government have not only the power, but the justification at least to put on hold the terrorist releases that are taking place.

The Prime Minister

I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was referring to the fact that we cannot slow down the process. However, slowing down is anyway what is happening, as releases are running at about a third of their previous rate. [Interruption.] Yes they are. It is true, however, that we can stop them altogether. In those circumstances, we would then declare that the ceasefire no longer exists.

If that were to happen, the consequences would be immense for the whole of the process in Northern Ireland. I am not saying that it would never be right to come to that judgment, just that I do not believe that such a judgment would be right now. The figures for attacks and assaults on people given by the right hon. Gentleman are not the same as those that I have. However, I pointed out a moment ago that, under the previous Government, there was a ceasefire and punishment beatings went on in exactly the same way. An early release scheme was also going on under that Government. If the right hon. Gentleman wants the figures, I can tell him that there have been 238 releases under this Government's proposals, compared with 325 under the previous Government's scheme. It is correct to say that no lifers were involved under that scheme, but none the less the prisoners involved had been convicted of offences such as conspiracy to murder and to cause explosions, and of armed offences of one sort or another.

I read out that list simply to convey to the right hon. Gentleman that I accept that this is—and has to be—an imperfect process and an imperfect peace. However, it is better than no process and no peace at all.

Mr. Hague

We very much agree that it is an imperfect process and an imperfect peace. The Prime Minister knows that we have supported the Good Friday agreement, that we will continue to do so and that we have backed up the Government on very many of these matters—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. This is very time-consuming. I am watching the clock and I want Back-Bench Members to ask questions, as well as the two Front-Bench Members.

Mr. Hague

If this is not the place to raise the question of violent acts of intimidation carried out against people in our own country, then what is the House of Commons for? We have a bipartisan policy, but we have a disagreement over this matter, as do some Labour Members. It is right for the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) to raise the matter in this House, and it is right for the Opposition to do so as well.

The Secretary of State says that she is prepared to act if there is evidence that particular parties affiliated to paramilitary groups are returning to violence. Much of the necessary evidence seems to exist. The Chief Constable has said that there is no doubt whatever that all of these organisations, including those who purport to be in cessation of military operations, are engaged in this … activity. The evidence comes from victims' families and many other sources. Will the Prime Minister, therefore, also accept that the evidence exists in abundance and that there can be little doubt that the paramilitary organisations are responsible for what is happening?

The Prime Minister

As I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman last week, it is also the case that the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary believes that the ceasefire is still in place. However, let me make one thing clear. I do not dispute the right hon. Gentleman's right to raise matters. He is correct; this is the right place to raise them. What I dispute is this. The previous Government had to make difficult judgments. For example, for months they engaged in secret negotiations with the IRA and denied that they were doing so. When they had to admit it to the House, not one member of the Official Opposition or one Liberal Democrat criticised them for it because we knew the difficulties of the process.

When I point out to the Conservatives that there were punishment beatings and appalling things going on under the previous ceasefire, but that there were prisoner releases, I do so not to criticise the previous Government, but to point out that true bipartisanship is not about talking about it, but about delivering it.

The shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can chatter away as much as he likes, but I do not doubt that the Leader of the Opposition is well intentioned. I believe that he is being dragged along by some people who do not wish the agreement well. When the Conservatives were in government, we gave them that support through the difficult as well as the easy times, so I do not dispute their right to raise the matter, but I question the motives of some of them in doing so.

Mr. Hague

Of course, the Prime Minister is right to say that the Labour party often supported the previous Conservative Government—[HON. MEMBERS: "Always."] But Labour Members also voted against the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The Prime Minister did not make speeches of that sort then. I raise those points not because I am being dragged along by anyone, but because the representatives of Families Against Intimidation and Terror came to see me this morning and said, "You're right to raise this issue. Please go on doing so." We are raising it on their behalf.

The nature of the disagreement is clear. It comes down to one thing and the Prime Minister is being straightforward about it. We say that he has the power to act and the justification to do so, and so forth. He says that, despite all that, the wider interests of peace require the early releases of terrorists to continue. That is a matter of judgment. Is not the logical conclusion of that approach that every terrorist could be released from prison without a single gun or bomb being given up, and without an end to the mutilations? Will he guarantee that that situation will not come about?

The Prime Minister

I take the judgment that I do because I believe that the Good Friday agreement still provides the best chance of peace in Northern Ireland. I have made clear our total condemnation of those attacks and our desire to do all that we can to prevent them, but the right hon. Gentleman also has to face up to the consequences of what he demands me to do. If we ended up exercising our power and declaring the ceasefire at an end, the consequences for the agreement would be huge. We make a judgment the whole time, as I said last week, but I believe that that judgment is essentially still correct. We keep it under review the entire time—[Interruption.] I ask the right hon. Gentleman and Conservative Members who are shouting, "Disgraceful!" and "Shame!", at me to recognise the difficulties faced by any Government in this situation and the enormous consequences of bringing the whole process to an end.

Mr. Hague

We recognise the difficulties, but the great danger is—it is a danger that the Prime Minister must acknowledge—that before long, all the terrorists will be freed without meeting their part of the agreement. For that reason and that reason alone, we are saying that it is right to put on hold the early release of terrorists.

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, even at the end of the two-year period, there will still be people in prison for the offences that they committed. In the end, we have to make a judgment and my judgment is that the wider interests—not of prisoner releases, but of peace in Northern Ireland—require us to continue to do all that we can to make the process work. I raised what happened under the previous Government not to criticise—[Interruption.] No, I am not criticising them. On the contrary, we supported them. We did so precisely because we realised the difficulties that they faced.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He well knows what the problem was under the previous Government and what we could have done. At the time, their majority depended on the support of the Ulster Unionists. At any point through all the difficulties of those years, we could have brought down the Government on this matter, had we wished to do so. We did not because we believed that the broader public interest demanded that we acted responsibly. I still believe that the broader public interest is secured by making the agreement work.

Q2. Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the huge burdens that are shouldered by carers such as Lucy? She cares for a man, doing all the cooking and cleaning. She gets him up in the morning, helps to put him to bed at night and assists with his personal needs. Lucy is 10 years old and looks after her father. Does my right hon. Friend agree that such children need practical help urgently? Will he assure the House that young carers will receive that practical help under the new strategy for carers?

The Prime Minister

I pay tribute to the contribution made by carers young and old. There are literally millions of them of every age and in every set of circumstances, and they do a marvellous job caring for relatives. Of course, the rise in child benefit will provide enormous help to all children. As for older people, our proposed pension reforms will ensure that long-term carers get up to £1,500 per year in pension as a result of the flat-rate credits that we shall award them under our new proposals. In addition, from April, we shall introduce a £2.5 billion package for the poorest pensioners. Children such as Lucy will be helped and so will older people.

Madam Speaker

I call Mr. Ashdown—[Interruption.] Order.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

They will miss me when I am gone.

The Secretary of State for Social Security recently claimed that the average pensioner in Britain—which does not yet include me—was £140 a year better off under Labour, but as every pensioner knows, that is nonsense. Will the Prime Minister confirm that those figures are based on not one year but two, on a family not an individual, apply to only 30 per cent. of pensioners and take no account of raised taxes or lost tax reliefs under the Government? Taking all that into account, is it not the case that the average pensioner in Britain, far from being £140 a year better off, is actually £2 a year worse off under Labour?

The Prime Minister

No. The right hon. Gentleman is not right about that. Indeed, as a result of the cut in VAT on domestic fuel, the special bonuses for fuel of £50 for those on income support and £20 for others, and the package of measures that come into effect in April—the £2.5 billion package that will help the poorest pensioners in particular—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely right.

Mr. Ashdown

I hope that the Prime Minister will look further at those figures, because he will find that they are contested by almost every group that has any credibility in the matter. May I put a simple and concrete proposition to him? It is nearly always the oldest pensioners who are the poorest pensioners. The age supplement for pensioners over 80 has remained at 25p a week for more than a quarter of a century. If the Government were to raise that from 2.5p a week to £5 a week, it would cost relatively little and would reach twice as many pensioners as the minimum income guarantee proposed by the Government. Why not do that?

The Prime Minister

Because we believe that, by raising the minimum pension guarantee by £5 for a single person and £7 for a couple, we shall provide more help to more people. In addition to the things that we are doing for pensioners, which I mentioned a moment ago, from April this year, there will be free eye tests and concessionary travel. We are getting help to many pensioners in the country who would otherwise not get that help. That is all being achieved through measures introduced by the Labour Government to improve the living standards of pensioners of every description throughout the country. Although there is far more that we want to do, that is not a bad start for our first two years in government.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

Does my right hon. Friend share my pride in my constituents from Blackpool Victoria hospital, who came to London yesterday to receive their charter mark award? Does he accept the views of many Labour Members that his comments on that occasion were entirely right, entirely appropriate and in striking contrast to the Conservative Government's frequent denigration of public services?

The Prime Minister

We value those who work in our public services and we are getting more resources into the front line of those services. We shall not cease to say that the extra £40 billion that is going into schools and hospitals from this April—despite the opposition of the Conservative party, whose members said that ours were reckless and irresponsible plans—will not only help to reward better those who work for our public services, but raise the standards of the services themselves.