HC Deb 18 December 2002 vol 396 cc834-42
Q1. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 18 December.

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. Heath

The Prime Minister will agree that national security far outweighs commercial sensitivity or indeed potential embarrassment. If British companies and individuals are named in the declaration on resolution 1441 as having supplied arms or weapon-making technology or material to Iraq—a country with which every appearance suggests we will soon be at war—why do the British Government refuse to publish their names so that the claims can be investigated?

The Prime Minister

The UN resolution concerns the circumstances of the UN's mandate in respect of the inspectors and the ability of this country and others to ensure that Saddam complies with the requirements of the resolution. In respect of any information about companies, we apply exactly the same rules as Governments have always applied, and I think that it is right that we carry on doing so.

Q2. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

At the weekend, President Bush declared his intention to offer vaccination against smallpox to every American, with a few exceptions among those with medical conditions. Is that our intention, or do we know something that he does not?

The Prime Minister

No. We do not believe that mass vaccination is warranted. We are following the World Health Organisation's guidelines. Our primary strategy in the event of any outbreak will be to contain and ring vaccinate as the first line of defence. However, we do not know of any specific threat, so the sensible thing for us to do is follow the guidelines set out by the WHO, which I think are correct, and that is what we intend to do.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The United States has made it clear that it will respond to the Iraqi weapons declaration within days. When will the Government publish their formal response to the declaration? From the evidence that the Prime Minister has seen so far and has already produced, will he say whether he agrees with Colin Powell that scepticism about the Iraqi declaration is well founded?

The Prime Minister

We will make a formal response shortly after the Christmas break. In respect of Colin Powell's remarks, most people who have looked at the document, which is obviously very long, are pretty sceptical about the claims that it makes, but it is important that we study it in detail and make a formal and considered response.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is clear—it is certainly in today's papers—that the Government are making preparations for a major deployment in the Gulf. If a decision to deploy is made during the recess, is the Prime Minister prepared to recall Parliament? There is also confusion about whether there might be a vote on deployment. I would urge him to hold a vote on a substantive motion. Will he now agree to do so?

The Prime Minister

In respect of any substantive vote, we have made it clear that it would be our intention to do so, although that is, of course, subject to the proviso that the Foreign Secretary set out: nothing must be done that would endanger or imperil our troops should we need to act quickly. The Secretary of State will make a statement about the deployment later. It is a contingency deployment. Our position remains exactly as it has always been: we want the inspectors to do their work, we want Saddam to comply with the UN resolutions, and we use force in circumstances in which there is a breach of the UN mandate.

Q3. Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

Last week, I was told about a child in my constituency who could not sleep, not because she was over-excited about Father Christmas but because she was afraid that some lout might smash the windows of her mum's flat or put a lighted match through the letter box. While I know that the Prime Minister will want to join me in congratulating north Kent police on cutting crime by a further 5 per cent. over the past year, will he assure the mother of that child that he will not let up in his determination to deal with loutish and antisocial behaviour, which still creates a climate of fear? Will he also ensure that the police and local authorities continue to be given the resources they need to tackle the problem, rather than taking the advice of the Conservatives and cutting them?

The Prime Minister

First, I can assure my hon. Friend that we will do all that we can to deal with this issue. I congratulate Kent police on their great achievement of reducing crime in the Kent area. The key is simple and effective ways of enforcing the law on antisocial behaviour. That is why it is important that we streamline the antisocial behaviour orders. I also hope that the House will support the measures in the forthcoming Bill to make it far easier to impose fixed penalty notice fines for a range of antisocial behaviour offences, because the law will be used effectively only if there is a simple way of enforcing it.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

On Iraq, apart from welcoming the apparent conversion of the leader of the Conservative party to the arguments that Liberal Democrats have been advancing here for a long time, may I ask the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Where is the sense of Christmas spirit in the Conservative party? The Secretary of State for Defence said this morning: If members of the Security Council judge ultimately that military action is necessary, it is important that"— we— are in a position to take military action. He was then asked, however, whether that meant that the UN Security Council would be the final judge of the matter, to which his answer was no. Surely it is important that the Prime Minister should clarify the position.

The Prime Minister

The position is as we have always set it out, which is that UN resolution 1441 assumes that there will be a further discussion in the UN Security Council. Of course, it has always been our desire to act with the full authority of the UN Security Council. We have always made it clear, however, that, if there were a breach and if, for any reason, the Security Council were blocked in any way, we do not believe it right that that breach should go unpunished. Those are the circumstances in which it is important to make sure that we do our level best to work with the UN in any way that we can, but the bottom line—as I have set out right from the very beginning—must be that the United Nations route must be the way of dealing with the issue, not the way of avoiding dealing with it. Having said that, I believe that the UN will support action in circumstances in which there has been a breach. That is my belief after talking in detail to the main countries involved in the UN.

Mr. Kennedy

I thank the Prime Minister for that detailed and serious reply. Will he clarify one further aspect of the matter? The UN weapons inspectorate will complete its task and submit its conclusions and recommendations to the Security Council. If the American Government were, in the interim, to take any kind of pre-emptive unilateral action in respect of Iraq, would their action have the backing of the British Government?

The Prime Minister

I should point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, although many people thought that the American Government would take a unilateral route, they actually chose to go through the United Nations. They are bound by the UN resolution, just as we are. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support me in saying that, if we are to use the UN route, and if there is a breach by Saddam, we should agree to take action. That surely must be right. At the very heart of the negotiations over the past few months has been the simple agreement that America and ourselves, and those who are enthusiastic about ensuring that we deal with the issue of weapons of mass destruction, are prepared to go down the UN route. The other side of that agreement, however, is that if Saddam breaches the UN resolution, people agree to take the action necessary to enforce the will of the UN.

Q4. Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester)

My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the excellent work undertaken by the Worcester division of West Mercia police in tackling antisocial behaviour, but is he aware that magistrates fined one of my constituents who breached their order only £50? When a second constituent clearly breached an order, the Crown Prosecution Service failed to push the case. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those agencies have let the local police down? If he does, what is he going to do about it?

The Prime Minister

It is interesting to reflect that the Magistrates Association has just agreed to bring forward new sentencing guidelines on breaches of antisocial behaviour orders. Following the discussions that the Home Secretary and I have been having with the CPS, I can assure my hon. Friend that it will attach much greater priority to ensuring that orders are enforced. Nation wide, about 44 per cent. of those prosecuted for breaching antisocial behaviour orders have received custodial sentences, so there are indications, at least in some parts of the country, that this is being treated with the seriousness that it deserves.

I hope very much that the Bill on antisocial behaviour will give us the opportunity, as a House and as a Government, to send the clearest possible signal that antisocial behaviour order offences are a source of immense concern and worry to people, and that they need to be treated with utmost seriousness.

Q5. Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Will the Prime Minister tell us why—despite all the promises, despite all the boasting about extra resources and despite the fact that we have had 12 criminal justice Acts in five years—only one crime in 40 ends up in a conviction?

The Prime Minister

For years, of course, there has been a problem with getting those who have committed crimes to justice, but I have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that, for the past five years, crime is down, not up, under this Government. We now have record numbers of police officers. Indeed, his own area, Cambridgeshire, had record police numbers at the end of March 2002. There is still a long way to go, but surely the answer is to keep putting the money into the police service and not take it out, which is his party's intention.

Q6. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy)

When my right hon. Friend considers the railways, will he discuss with ministerial colleagues the parts of the country that are remote from London and, in particular, the poor and, indeed, worsening service provided by Virgin Trains to north Wales, which, even at the best guess, will not improve until September 2004?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to talk about the difficulties of the Virgin west coast line. What I know she will understand, as she has talked about it with me, is that the Strategic Rail Authority's west coast strategy—the consultation on it closed on 16 December—includes a through service every two hours between London and Holyhead from 2004, which will run at 125 mph. I know that, as she rightly says, we have to wait some time for that to come online, but it is and it will be as a result of the extra investment going in.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The Government promised to cut road congestion by 6 per cent. Has the Prime Minister kept that promise?

The Prime Minister

Road usage is up by over 20 per cent., it is true.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister did not answer the question. He has broken his promise. According to all figures, congestion is worse, motorway congestion has doubled in the past four years and the Government have even abandoned their target, so he has broken another promise. What about the promise in 1997 to support and strengthen occupational pensions? Has he kept that promise?

The Prime Minister

I believe that the measures announced in the pensions Green Paper yesterday will indeed help occupational pensions. I also believe that the introduction of stakeholder pensions—low-cost private pensions—will also improve the situation, but I may point out on transport that it is true that road usage is up by over 20 per cent. It is also true that rail usage is up by over 20 per cent. Indeed, so is tube usage. That is in part because the economy is immensely stronger.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The answer is that the Prime Minister has broken his promise on that as well. Occupational pensions are a disaster. As a result of the Prime Minister's £25 billion tax, more than three quarters of occupational schemes have closed or are about to close.

What about the Prime Minister's promise to cut school truancy by a third? Has he kept that promise?

The Prime Minister

First, on pensions—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] I am sorry; the right hon. Gentleman made a remark about pensions, so I will deal with that first. These are the facts on pensions—(Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members must not shout across the Floor.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman said that we had broken the promise on pensions. Let me tell him what we have done for pensions. We have introduced the £200 winter allowance. We have introduced the larger-than-inflation rises in the basic state pension. We are introducing the pension credit next October. We have restored free eye tests—and, unlike the right hon. Gentleman's party, we have cut VAT on fuel, not put it up. That is what we have done for pensioners.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct: truancy has remained roughly stable since we took office—that is absolutely true. However, there is one big difference. As a result of the measures that we are introducing, every child who is excluded from school will now get full-time education. When we took office, such children were getting only two hours of education a week.

The point I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is this: whether it is transport or pensions or schools, we are in favour of putting investment in and he is in favour of taking it out.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister promised to cut school truancy, and he has broken that promise. More than 50,000 children play truant every day, and truancy in secondary schools has increased. Is it not the case that when the Prime Minister makes promises on schools, transport, pensions or, for that matter, crime, asylum, drugs or health, he is not juggling balls but talking them?

The Prime Minister

Let us look at the record, shall we? Let us look at the record on schools, hospitals and crime. Under this Government we have the most jobs ever in the economy, the lowest mortgage rates for 40 years, record investment in education and health, the best school results that the country has ever seen, and the best-ever in-patient waiting-list figures since we came to office. Crime is down under this Government; it doubled under the right hon. Gentleman's.

Whether it is schools, hospitals or dealing with crime, we are in favour of putting the investment in. The right hon. Gentleman is in favour of taking the money out.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

I have recently been deriving enormous pleasure not just from the opinion polls but from my numerous lunches with pensioners' groups. There is, however, a susurrus of discontent among the pensioners of Northolt over a perceived threat to their bus passes. As they are disinclined to believe me when I assure them that there is no such threat from this Government, will the Prime Minister set the record straight?

The Prime Minister

There is absolutely no way in which we would withdraw the concessions on bus passes for pensioners. I can make that absolutely clear. Once again, that is a measure that we introduced and the Conservative party opposed.

Q7. Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

The Prime Minister will be aware of the rapidly rising insurance premiums that are affecting businesses all over the country, especially tourism businesses that come into contact with the public, which cannot obtain public liability insurance or find that the premiums are rising fast. The Government say that they are organising an inquiry, but that there will be no report until March. Will they in the meantime consider acting as insurer of last resort, so that some of those businesses can obtain cover and stay open?

The Prime Minister

An announcement was made in, I think, the pre-Budget report a few weeks ago, and it is correct to say that it will take until March for the inquiry to report. These are difficult issues, and the hon. Gentleman will know that the Office of Fair Trading is also looking at them, but I cannot give a commitment that the Government will act as an insurer of last resort. That would land the Government with a very large potential indemnity, which would not be a responsible thing to do.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

The whole House will have welcomed the Prime Minister's initiative in calling a middle east peace conference for next month in London. Will he make it clear to Palestinian delegates that although the Government support the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state, every suicide bomb attack against innocent Israeli civilians puts such a prospect ever further out of reach?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Of course, the purpose of suicide bombings and the killing of innocent Israeli citizens is to provoke such hatred and division between Israelis and Palestinians that they cannot reach an agreement whereby the two states live side by side. In exactly the same way, the so-called dissident republicans and so-called loyalists who are engaged in terrorist activity in Northern Ireland seek to disrupt the process of peace. That is the purpose of the people who engage in these appalling suicide missions, and he is absolutely right in saying that they are the enemies of a lasting peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Q8. Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

Will the Prime Minister explain to my constituents in Romford—he will recall that Romford was a Conservative gain at the last general election—why, under the new local government formula, Sedgefield is being given an 8.9 per cent. increase, yet we in the London borough of Havering are receiving only 3.5 per cent.? Are not the people of my borough being short-changed by this Labour Government?

The Prime Minister

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of how much money we are putting into local government services, particularly since, as he says, Romford was one of the few gains that the Conservatives made at the last election. The fact is that, under this Government, we are putting far more money into local government and into services such as education, health and the police. As a result of the additional sums going into Romford and elsewhere, in the past few years local government support has risen by more than 20 per cent. in real terms, yet in the five years before we took office it was actually cut. So the message to his constituents is to reverse the slight misjudgment that they made at the last election.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is no doubt fully briefed on the current negotiations in Brussels on the fishing industry. Is he aware that the proposal for an 80 per cent. cut in fishing effort and for seven days per month spent at sea will totally devastate the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, particularly in my constituency? Will he use his governmental influence to ensure that no such agreement is reached, and that a reasonable effort is made to provide a regime that can sustain the industry on the sea and onshore?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is of course entirely right to raise this concern. He will know—it is always important to repeat the point—that there is a real issue in respect of fishing stocks. Cod stocks have fallen from about 250,000 tonnes to some 35,000 tonnes in the past few years. He will know from what I said the other day in this House that I consider an 80 per cent. cut entirely unacceptable. It would devastate the industry, and we are working flat out in Brussels and elsewhere, and at every level that we can, to try to ensure that that decision is not implemented.

Q9. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

With a possible war looming in Iraq, many of our loyal constituents want a clearer explanation of the British involvement. Is that involvement intended to protect Iraq's citizens and neighbours from Saddam, to enhance UN authority, or to protect Britain from a future missile attack and Iraqi-sponsored terrorism?

The Prime Minister

I never quite know where the Conservative party is coming from nowadays. Those factors are not all mutually inconsistent. The reasons for being prepared to take action in respect of Saddam are, first, that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction that threaten his region. As I said a few months ago, they not only threaten his region; frankly, if a conflict took place there involving weapons of mass destruction, it is unthinkable that we would not be involved in it in some way, as we were 10 years ago.

Secondly, it is important because there is a UN resolution. We have laid down the clear will of the international community, which is that Saddam must give up those weapons. There are real issues concerning weapons of mass destruction and if, at this moment in time, we were to allow Saddam to breach the UN will and did nothing about it, the consequences would be felt not just in respect of Iraq. We would send a message across the world that this was a serious issue, but one about which we were prepared to do nothing. [Interruption.] Conservative Members shout, "What has it got to do with us?" [HON. MEMBERS: "No!"] They were, as a matter of fact. We are members of the international community and we believe that it is important that Britain make sure that Saddam complies with those UN resolutions. That is why Britain has a vital national interest in ensuring that the resolution is implemented.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton)

Is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister aware that, today, the UK came bottom of an international league table of 17 countries in terms of the provision of recombinant for haemophilia sufferers? When will the Government provide recombinant for those sufferers in England and Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

We are trying to support this work through research and by considering the case for extending the provision of recombinant to all other haemophilia patients. As my hon. Friend knows, certain of them already get it. It is important that we examine the case for extending it and we are looking at that case at the moment.

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