HC Deb 22 January 2003 vol 398 cc290-300
Q1. Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 22 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. Hawkins

Reports this morning suggest that the Foreign Office has agreed to a French request to lift the veto on President Mugabe travelling to Europe. Will the Prime Minister instruct the Foreign Secretary to impose the British veto at a meeting next week, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has demanded?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that we support the sanctions that are in place against Zimbabwe. I understand that the meeting is to take place on Monday, and no agreement has been reached.

Q2. Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

May I tell my right hon. Friend—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ask him."] May I tell my right hon. Friend about the hard work that is being done by schools and West Cheshire college in my constituency? Will he assure me that the announcement made yesterday under the heading "14 to 19: Next Steps" relates to a genuine partnership that will help to develop opportunities for that age group? Will he also assure me and the House that it is not intended to be a step back towards segregation and grammar schools?

The Prime Minister

It is certainly not a step back towards segregation in any sense. What it does is provide greater flexibility in the curriculum and allow children who want to make a choice to take a more vocational route in doing so. It ends the one-size-fits-all approach that we have had until now. The other important thing is that it goes alongside the largest investment in education that this country has seen. In constituencies up and down the country, people can see the benefits of an enormous amount of education funding going into primary and secondary schools—all of which is, of course, opposed by the Conservative party.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

How does the Prime Minister expect anyone to support the Government's rag-bag of a higher education policy when everyone knows that it has been cobbled together after a major Cabinet row?

The Prime Minister

Because it provides a huge boost to education funding and allows us to carry on expanding the numbers in higher education. Let us be clear: the right hon. Gentleman has set his face against the expansion of that investment and has said that he is against more students being able to go to university.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is a fine thing for the Prime Minister to say that he is for more people going to university, but how does he think he will achieve that when he is going to double student debt and put them off at the same time? Why does he not accept and admit that the Chancellor has held the Cabinet hostage on this issue? He may have read the conclusions of last week's meeting, but the minutes were splashed all over the papers. One of his Ministers said: Gordon threw a hand grenade and … created havoc. Is not the access regulator an interfering, social engineering, politically correct waste of time and money? Was that not the price the right hon. Gentleman had to pay to get the Chancellor to accept his top-up fees?

The Prime Minister

That is very interesting. So the right hon. Gentleman is against greater access to our universities, is he? Of course he is. That is why he opposes universities being given the extra money they need. We are putting in a 6 per cent. real-terms rise in education funding; let him say whether he supports that. We are allowing more students from poorer backgrounds to go to universities, because no fees will be paid up front, and maintenance grants are being reintroduced. I favour allowing more students to go to university; let the right hon. Gentleman explain why he favours capping student numbers at their present level.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Access to higher education should be on merit; universities should be independent of Government; and students should not be forced to rack up huge debts, as the Prime Minister intends. Today's muddled university policy has simply failed on all three counts. It means higher student debt and it means more and more regulation, so why—this is the important point for the Prime Minister—are those who will have to pay for this messy political compromise the universities and students themselves?

The Prime Minister

I find that very strange. Let me read what the right hon. Gentleman's education spokesman, the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), said two days ago: If it's true that the Government is going to abolish up-front fees, and say that everything should be paid back by the individual student afterwards, that's fine by me". As part of the package, we are proposing a huge increase—6 per cent.—in public spending on universities. Let the right hon. Gentleman say now—he did not before—whether he supports that.

Q3. Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

The Thames gateway project is widely supported on both banks of the Thames in east London. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the private sector is to have the confidence to plan early investment, key public infrastructure projects such as Crossrail and the new bridge over the Thames must not be left as indefinite aspirations, but must have credible timetables for their completion backed by firm financial commitments?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Crossrail link is important. An east-west Crossrail link would play a big part in the development of the region. We have committed about £150 million to the development project work necessary to see whether there is a viable proposal—it must be affordable, too. We are investigating that now. I entirely understand what my hon. Friend says. If we can do it, we will do it, but it has to be a viable proposal.

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

Now that one quarter of the British Army is being deployed for possible action in Iraq, and given the obvious levels of anxiety among the British public about all these developments, may I put again to the Prime Minister the issue that I raised with him here a fortnight ago: are there now circumstances under which the British Government would not support United States-led unilateral action against Iraq?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I shall have to repeat what I said to the right hon. Gentleman, just as he has repeated the question. It is better to state the circumstances in which we would support military action. We would support it in the circumstances of a second United Nations resolution and, as I have consistently outlined, when it was clear that there was a breach by Saddam and an unreasonable blocking of the Security Council resolution.

Mr. Kennedy

People again will note that reply. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that the comments made by President Bush yesterday will not help to reduce British public anxiety? If next Monday in New York the weapons inspectorate says that it requires more time, will the Prime Minister guarantee that he will publicly support it being given the time it believes it needs to carry out the inspections?

The Prime Minister

Again, I have always made it clear—I did so most recently yesterday—that it is important that the weapons inspectors can do their job and have the time to do it, but let us be clear about their job. It is not to play an elaborate game of hide and seek with Saddam, whereby they try to find the weapons and he tries to hide them. His duty comprises two parts: to allow the inspectors access to any part of Iraq and the sites and to co-operate by telling the truth about the weapons that he has and working with the inspectors to destroy them.

On the remarks by President Bush, we all accept that the inspectors would not be back in Iraq doing their work unless the United States, the United Kingdom and others had taken a tough and insistent position.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he supports bringing to justice those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide? Two and a half years after the Attorney-General received evidence that would enable the Government to indict leading members of the Iraqi regime, including Saddam Hussein, Tariq Aziz and Ali Hassan al-Majeed, why is Ali Hassan al-Majeed in Syria? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if we had issued an arrest warrant—we could have done that on the evidence that the Attorney-General was given—Ali Hassan al-Majeed, a man responsible for killing 100,000 Kurds, could now be arrested?

The Prime Minister

I am not entirely sure of the answer to my hon. Friend's last point, but I shall ascertain the correct legal position. I am sympathetic to her point about the advantages of making it clear that a judicial process is taking place at the same time as the political, diplomatic and military processes. She knows that the issue is complicated because it has to go through the Attorney-General and the police. She also knows, because we have discussed the matter on many occasions, that they are considering it. I hope that I can come back to her with their conclusions shortly.

Q4. Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)

Given that Ministry of Defence anthrax vaccine was found this week on a beach in Dorset, what assessment has the Prime Minister made of the uptake of the Government's vaccination programme among our troops who are being deployed to the Gulf, especially, under the circumstances, the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure of the exact uptake, but sufficient quantities have been made available. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and inform him of the exact take-up.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Despite strong progress in recent years, does my right hon. Friend agree that people with disabilities continue to face unacceptable discrimination, especially in the workplace? As the Government are committed to further legislation, will he assure us that we will close existing loopholes to ensure that discrimination is eliminated once and for all for those who currently suffer it?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, we are preparing a draft disability Bill. We intend to take forward measures in respect of, for example, work in the public sector and transport. My hon. Friend also knows that, as a result of the Chancellor's measures, disability tax credits will help disabled people get off benefit and into work. Those measures probably form the biggest package in favour of disabled rights and access to work that any Government have introduced.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) said: No one is running the immigration department … the Minister has not got a handle on it. It is out to lunch. Does the Prime Minister agree?

The Prime Minister

Let me make it clear that there has been inadequate and wrong use of the consultation procedures. I entirely understand the concern of my hon. Friend and his constituents. That is why the Minister responsible has tackled the issue.

Mr. Duncan Smith

So the Prime Minister agrees with his hon. Friend. On Sunday, the Home Office announced its new policy of taking over country house hotels. On Monday, it was reversed. On Tuesday, Ministers blamed officials. It seems like another week in which the lunatics took over the Government's asylum policy. In the midst of the shambles, the Home Secretary is incapable of deporting people who may pose a threat to the country. Since the Prime Minister says that an attack is inevitable, is it not essential that we are able to deport such people?

The Prime Minister

As a result of the anti-terrorism legislation that we introduced post-11 September, we are able for the first time to remand in detention without trial people whom we suspect of being terrorists. That is the purpose of the raids and arrests that have taken place over the past few weeks. However, I make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman that, when we introduced those measures in Parliament, Conservative peers and Conservative Front Benchers told us that they were illiberal and contrary to civil liberties. We had to fight to get the measures through the House.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister knows very well that we support the measures to do with detention. We also support asylum for genuine refugees, but every country should have the right to determine whether certain people can live within its borders. It is about defending our own human rights. It is about deportation. That is the key. How can the Prime Minister be so complacent when we discover that Taliban fighters who only a few months ago were trying to kill British soldiers are now living in Britain? Countries around the world have the right to say no to those who want to destroy their freedoms and way of life. Why cannot Britain do so?

The Prime Minister

Britain can and should. That is why we introduced the measures in the terrorism legislation post-11 September. It was also the reason for the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. However, I point out to the right hon. Gentleman again that, when we introduced measures providing that any asylum seeker convicted of a crime should be deported, they were weakened by Conservative amendments that said the penalty for such a crime should be at least 10 years.

I shall set out exactly what the Government are doing about a problem that I entirely agree is serious and needs tackling. Under legislation that this Government introduced, we are withdrawing support from asylum seekers who do not claim early. We have put juxtaposed controls across all the ports. For the first time, we have British immigration officers on French soil making sure that unlawful asylum seekers cannot use that route. We have withdrawn the exceptional leave to remain on a routine basis. We are also trying to introduce accommodation centres in different parts of the country so that we can make sure that claims are processed quickly.

It is wrong for the Conservative party to say that asylum is a big problem, and call on the Government to deal with it, and then to oppose the very measures that we introduce.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

On Iraq, is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us who do not regard the US as the great Satan remain concerned about some of the statements coming out of Washington that seem to seek justification for military intervention that is way outside the ambit of UN resolution 1441? Will he therefore assure the House that, if the inspectors report that Iraq has not failed to observe the obligations of that resolution, the Government will not go to war?

The Prime Minister

The whole basis of our position is that resolution 1441 has to be upheld. That is precisely why I have said that the inspectors must have the ability to do their job. However, I return to a point that I have made before and to which President Bush alluded yesterday. We cannot go back to the situation that existed in the 1990s, when the inspectors were in Iraq for years and Saddam was effectively concealing what he was doing. Saddam's duty is to co-operate fully with the inspections regime, which is not a detective agency: it is supposed to be given the full details of what is in Iraq's programme and then be able to inspect and close the programme down. The duty to co-operate is not only about access to sites, but about being open and honest. Obviously, we will pay full attention to what the inspectors say when they report back.

Q5. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that everything possible must be done to ensure the safety and security of British people, especially at this difficult time. Why, therefore, do the Government allow passenger ferries to carry high-level and intermediate-level radioactive material, as his Transport Minister confirmed in a recent parliamentary answer? Is not that a foolish risk to take with public health and the environment, especially at this time? Will he stop the practice now?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that any material will be carried under the strictest British national rules and European and international rules. The premise of the hon. Gentleman's question is therefore almost certainly wrong.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

My right hon. Friend will know that much of the focus in respect of drug crime has been on the inner cities, but drug crime is a big problem in the suburbs and the rest of the country too. What is being done to deal with drug crime in outer-London constituencies such as mine?

The Prime Minister

We are doing two things: first, we are ensuring that people who need drug treatment are given it; and, secondly, we are making it clear that people who are on drugs and are committing criminal offences should not be granted bail. We must ensure that the courts know full well that persistent offenders in particular who are on drugs should be given treatment or should not be put back on the street.

Q6. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

Yesterday, the Malakoff and Moore boatyard in Shetland announced that it would be going into receivership, threatening almost 200 jobs in my constituency—just the first casualties of last month's disgraceful Fisheries Council. When the Prime Minister meets fishing leaders next week, will he be able to offer fishing-dependent communities such as Shetland new money from the Treasury, or will it just be tea and sympathy?

The Prime Minister

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we have already offered packages of assistance, and will carry on doing so, for anyone affected by the decision. I understand entirely why he and his constituents will be angry about a decision that affects their livelihood, but he will know two other things. First, the original European Union proposals were changed very significantly from an 80 per cent. reduction down to 45 per cent. Secondly, there is no way in which we can responsibly say that this is not a serious issue to do with the level of fishing stocks. Where jobs are lost, however—this is why I say to the hon. Gentleman that we will provide the necessary assistance for people—we must ensure that people are given the proper protection and ability to find new jobs.

Q7. Clive Efford (Eltham)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to concerns about the rising number of attacks on bus drivers in London? A bus service was withdrawn for 10 days from an estate in my constituency following the stabbing of a driver in the hand. Children are committing these crimes. I call on my right hon. Friend to join me in asking parents to exert more control over their children, particularly when they are out in the community. [Interruption.] Moreover, does my right hon. Friend accept that too many people who are involved in these crimes are getting away with them by intimidating and threatening witnesses? Does he accept that the police and local authorities need more powers to deal with such individuals, particularly the minority of parents who will not take any action to protect the community from the activities of their children?

The Prime Minister

Despite the reaction of Opposition Members, the point that my hon. Friend makes is serious and right, which is precisely why the Criminal Justice Bill, which will offer witnesses better protection, and the antisocial behaviour orders that we propose in the antisocial behaviour Bill will make a difference. As a result of the introduction of the measures that we discussed earlier, we have more police on the beat and we are looking to see how we get more police, particularly in relation to transport in London.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

Will the Prime Minister undertake to look again at funding for the hospice movement in the United Kingdom? Although the Government have said that they are committed to providing greater palliative care for all who need it, the reality is that statutory funding for adult hospices in the UK has declined from 33 per cent. to 28 per cent. of their needs in the last five years, and in my local hospice in the Weald it is only 10 per cent., with the absurd result that, while the local hospital is absolutely full, there are empty beds in the hospice, where, arguably, better quality care can be provided, and definitely at a much lower cost to the taxpayer.

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, it surely must be the case that local health trusts could purchase places in the private sector since they are able to do so, but I do not know enough about the facts of the hon. Gentleman's individual case. He makes a fair point about the hospice movement. Obviously, there is a limit on the amount of public resources and public investment that we can put in, but I am aware, from representations that I have received myself, not just of the good work that hospices do but of the role that they can play in giving palliative care, and it is something that we are looking at. I simply tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be a limit to the amount of money that we can put in.

Q8. Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Will the Prime Minister tell the House and the country how much the build-up to the war in Iraq is costing the British taxpayer? Does he think that it is prudent that we are spending that kind of money when the Germans and French are spending billions of euros on the infrastructure of their countries?

The Prime Minister

I think we will probably spend more billions on our health and education services over the next few years than either the French or the Germans, as a result of the strong economy and the investments that we are making.

As for Iraq, we will spend what is necessary to ensure that the threat to the security of the world posed by weapons of mass destruction is dealt with. We have set out a process for doing that, but if we do not deal with the threat of Saddam Hussein, if we allow him to develop weapons of mass destruction and if, as he has done many times before, he threatens his own neighbours, do we not think that we will also be sucked into a conflict, but a far worse and more expensive one this time?

Q9. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Is the Prime Minister aware that 4,300 haemophiliacs have contracted hepatitis C as a result of NHS blood products? Many hundreds have died, yet each year the Government reject calls for help. Would the Prime Minister be willing to see a delegation from the all-party group to discuss whether we can give the victims and their families further help?

The Prime Minister

I am always willing to see delegations of Members of Parliament, particularly cross-party delegations, who wish to raise specific issues; but I would have to see this delegation without making any commitment to additional resources. As I told the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), we have to balance these things carefully.

Q10. Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

My right hon. Friend knows of the case of my constituent Mary Powell, who, like many parents of children with special educational needs throughout the country, faces serious difficulties in arranging safe transport between home and school for her child. He will share my concern about evidence that has come to light in Merton and elsewhere that when minicabs are involved, neither the drivers nor the escorts who go with the children are being properly vetted by the police. Will he continue to do all he can to strengthen and enforce child protection regulations, so that we have mechanisms to root out poor practice wherever we find it?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to say that there are anxieties, but that is precisely why the Criminal Records Bureau has had to do the work it has done. The turnaround for checking has been speeded up dramatically, but it is important for those transporting children with special educational needs in particulr, to be subject to the right checks.

I know that my hon. Friend is meeting people in the near future to discuss the problem. It is important for us to ensure that the checks are carried out, and carried out as quickly as possible, so that transport for those children can be provided.

Q11. Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

I welcome the Prime Minister's decision to reinstate the measures that I introduced to remove the right to benefits from those who enter this country as business men, tourists or students, but subsequently claim asylum. Does he acknowledge that his mistake in endorsing the removal of the changes I made and the reinstatement of those benefits five years ago contributed to a doubling of the number of asylum seekers? Will he tell us how many extra economic migrants the country has had to admit and pay for as a result of five mistaken years?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. I would also point out that it is not just the measures on benefit that are making a difference now; it is also the withdrawal of exceptional leave to remain, it is also the juxtaposed controls, and it is also the fact that 70 per cent. of asylum claims are now decided within two months. When we took office—particularly as the right hon. Gentleman's party was prepared to cut the number of immigration officers—claims were taking 12 months to decide. All those things are making a difference.

Q12. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the financial difficulties currently faced by CISWO, the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation? Given his direct knowledge of the organisation's work in coalfield communities and with ex-miners and their families, will he use his influence to ensure that the meeting that trustees are seeking with Ministers takes place at an early date?

The Prime Minister

I can certainly arrange for the meeting to take place at an early date, but I would not be able to do so with any conviction that funds in addition to the funds that are already there could be provided.

Q13. Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

Can the Prime Minister say why gun crime has increased by 90 per cent. since he took office?

The Prime Minister

It has increased, for reasons that are clear, not just in this country but in other countries. In certain areas of the country, there is a culture of gun crime that must be suppressed. Let me point out two things to the hon. Gentleman. First, overall, crime is down, not up, under this Government, whereas it doubled under the Conservatives. Secondly, I hope that when we introduce measures to impose a mandatory five-year sentence for the illegal possession of a firearm, Conservatives will accept and support them, contrary to the position that they have adopted so far; otherwise, there is no use the hon. Gentleman's saying that there is a problem, but refusing to accept the solution to deal with it.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

If the weapons inspectors find no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and want more time to look, and if my right hon. Friend is agreeable to giving more time but President Bush is not, who will make the final decision? If they go to bomb, where will they bomb if they do not know where the weapons of mass destruction are?

The Prime Minister

I have to say to my hon. Friend that it is not just a question of the inspectors finding the weapons; it is a question of the duty of co-operation: Saddam has to make sure that any weapons that he has are honestly exposed and shut down by the weapons inspectors. That is how the weapons inspection regime is supposed to work. If the inspectors find the facts in respect of a breach of resolution 1441, it goes back before the Security Council, which should then take the necessary measures. But it is not just about finding the weapons; it is also about making sure that there is full co-operation with the inspections regime.