HC Deb 24 July 2002 vol 389 cc971-5
Q1. Matthew Green (Ludlow)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 July.

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 shall be having further such meetings later today.

Matthew Green

With hours to go before the summer recess, the Prime Minister may be aware that some Members may be planning to take holidays in Florida. Despite the Prime Minister's dangerously close relationship with President Bush, does he think, in the light of yesterday's shuffling of the deckchairs on the Titanic by the Conservative leader, that Florida is still a safe place for British politicians to go, and should they take their mobile phone?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The question is out of order. John Mann.

John Mann (Bassetlaw)

A recent Internet poll suggested that few or no young people were using heroin in Britain—well, they obviously did not poll anybody in my constituency. If it can be shown that there is a particular problem with heroin abuse in former mining villages, will the Prime Minister look at finding additional resources to tackle that problem?

The Prime Minister

I shall certainly look into the point that my hon. Friend makes. I think that he knows that a lot of money is going in, through the new deal for communities for example, to regenerate former mining communities. Part of that money is put into the community infrastructure, and obviously some of that can be used to help tackle problems of drug abuse, which, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, are not confined to the inner cities but are in parts of our rural and former mining areas as well.

Mr. lain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

No doubt the Prime Minister will already have seen today the report of the all-party Select Committee on Defence, on domestic preparedness, in which the Committee says in the conclusion that the Government has not taken the opportunity to conduct a proper and comprehensive examination of how … the UK … would manage the consequences of a disaster on the scale of 11 September. Does the Prime Minister agree with that?

The Prime Minister

We shall obviously make a full and detailed response to the Defence Committee report, but I do not accept that we have not made the most urgent preparations following 11 September. Indeed, the report begins by saying: Since 111 September … much has been done to strengthen the UK's defence and security against the terrorist threat. We shall, of course, study carefully the additional things that the Committee says that we should do.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister is right; the Committee does not take issue with the fact that there has been work done, and much good work too. But the Select Committee did go on to say—this is the critical bit—[interruption.] A lot of it is quite critical, but this is very critical. It says that a great deal of work has been expended … without clear strategic direction. It seems to us that, in many areas, the Government has confused activity with achievement. Surely the Prime Minister can see the relevance of that, and hopefully he will agree with that particular conclusion.

The Prime Minister

What we have done is that all the emergency services have reviewed their capabilities. A massive amount of training of police officers, ambulance staff and people in the health service has gone on to ensure that we are prepared. In addition, just within the last year we have allocated from the reserve about £250 million extra for all sorts of things from the Ministry of Defence through to the Metropolitan police and to strengthen the UK's anti-terrorist-financing regime. So an awful lot has been done, but of course we shall consider carefully what further suggestions the Defence Committee made.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The point about the Select Committee report is that, as the respected Labour Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), said on the media, there has been a lack of grip and direction from the Government on this matter. The crucial point is not that there has been activity but that, as they said, it is a mistake that activity supplants real direction and real drive. So will the Prime Minister, to reassure the country, which will rightly be concerned, now take personal charge to ensure, as the Committee says, that there is adequate "central co-ordination and direction", and bring it under his control, not leave it to others to war and fight with one another?

The Prime Minister

Of course, as Prime Minister I am always ultimately responsible for making sure that these things are done properly, but the whole purpose of setting up the civil contingencies secretariat and the recent appointment of Sir David Omand as the permanent secretary to co-ordinate the security and intelligence work was so that we brought together the various bodies and made sure that we had the best possible preparations for whatever potential terrorist attack we may be facing.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is not happening.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman says that it is not happening; it is happening actually, but of course we have to make sure that we try to do everything that we can to strengthen that capability. I would say to him that—although he says that the activity is there, but not the actual direction—the money, for example, that we have allocated to the Ministry of Defence or to the Metropolitan police is precisely for real activity on the ground to strengthen our defences against whatever might be done. But I hope that he would ultimately agree with me that the best defence is, in fact, what happens with our security and intelligence services. For that very reason, the intelligence agencies will increase their spending by 6.4 per cent. in real terms annually.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I support that.

The Prime Minister

I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman supports that. We can add that to the list of the spending that he does support. It is important to make sure that we have the best possible security and intelligence capability, recognising as I think everyone does post-11 September that there is a limit to what we can do. As I said in front of the Liaison Committee a short time ago, we are in a dilemma between protecting ourselves against every potential threat and possibly spending millions or billions of pounds to do so, and making no proper preparations at all. We believe that we have got the balance right, and with the additional appointment of a specific permanent secretary to co-ordinate this issue right at the heart of Government, we have done as much as we possibly can at this stage, but we will consider carefully the specific recommendations of the Committee.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

Following the publication of Dame Janet's interim report on Harold Shipman last Friday, will the Prime Minister join me and other hon. Members in expressing sympathy and support to the victims' relatives? Does he also agree that the failure of the General Medical Council to strike off Harold Shipman following 77 counts of drug misuse and prescription fraud in my constituency led to many more deaths in Hythe? May I ask the Prime Minister to take a personal interest in the final report when it is published in the autumn and to expedite the recommendations as urgently as possible?

The Prime Minister

Of course we should study carefully and learn the lessons of the inquiry report, and I join my hon. Friend in expressing our deep sympathy to the families of all those who lost their loved ones as a result of the murderous activities of Harold Shipman. I am sure that the General Medical Council and everyone will try to learn the lessons that the inquiry has established for us. I would just like to say at the same time as mentioning the horrific case of Harold Shipman and all the evil that he did that it is worth paying tribute, however, to the vast majority of our general practitioners who do excellent work for our constituents up and down this country.

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

In the very happy absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), who did not need to leave a phone number, may I ask the Prime Minister about the fact that the Chancellor announced a major increase in the ability of central Government to take over local services last week? Failing schools will be taken over. Poorly performing social services departments will have new managers sent in. Failing local authorities will be taken over. The Home Secretary wants to do the same to the police. Is the Prime Minister not worried that those powers will destroy accountability to the local electorate and stifle local initiative?

The Prime Minister

First, perhaps on behalf of the House, may I send congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend on his marriage and best wishes for his honeymoon?

Secondly, we have in fact devolved more money to front-line schools and devolved a greater percentage of their budget for them to spend, but I make no apology for saying that, where schools are failing, it is important that there is intervention because every single failed school means that children in that school are being deprived of the chance of a decent education.

Mr. Beith

Bearing in mind the devastating criticisms made in the Anderson report into the foot and mouth outbreak about the performance of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the fact that DEFRA has failed to meet 83 per cent. of the performance targets set for it by the Government, can the Prime Minister tell us who takes over a failing central Government Department?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about DEFRA—[Interruption.] From that cheer, perhaps he will be doing rather more of these Question Times in future. On the DEFRA targets, he is wrong; it is not the case that 83 per cent. of them have not been met. It is precisely because of the problems that were associated with foot and mouth that we set up the civil contingency secretary and that we changed the Ministry of Agriculture. As my right hon. Friend made very clear, we accept responsibility for the mistakes that were made. Let us be clear, however: we managed to get rid of this outbreak within six months—less time than the 1967 outbreak—even though it was the worst outbreak that this country or any country had known. I hope, at least, that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that there were many people, not least in the Army and in the Ministry of Agriculture, who worked extremely hard to bring the epidemic under control.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

In the eventuality of the United States commencing military action in the middle east during the recess, will the Prime Minister undertake to recall the House before any British forces are committed?

The Prime Minister

I have to say that we have not got to the stage of military action. If we do get to that stage, at any point in time, we will, of course, make sure that Parliament is properly consulted.