HC Deb 29 January 2003 vol 398 cc870-80
Ql. [93750] Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 29 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. Burns

With the stock market at half the level it was five years ago and a number of occupational pension funds being closed to new members, does the Prime Minister regret his Chancellor's raid of £25 billion on pension funds, and will he apologise to those who have been so cruelly punished by it?

The Prime Minister

First, stock markets have fallen across the world, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Secondly, as a result of the Chancellor's management of the economy, we have the lowest inflation and interest rates that we have had for decades. We have the highest employment that this country has ever had and the lowest unemployment of any major country. Compare and contrast that with 3 million unemployed under the Conservatives.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)

Will the Prime Minister join me in expressing profound sympathies to the family of my constituent, Tasawar Hussain, who was gunned down by armed robbers on Monday as he tried to intervene in a robbery? Tasawar was nothing short of a hero. Does the Prime Minister recall that, early in the new year when young girls were gunned down and killed in Birmingham, he promised to stamp down on gun crime? What progress has been made on that?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the whole House would wish to express our deep condolences to the family of my hon. Friend's constituent following the appalling circumstances of the tragic and wicked murder of his constituent. The Criminal Justice Bill will include a measure that will impose a mandatory five-year sentence for the possession of illegal firearms. I hope that the whole House supports that.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the constituent of the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), who was, as the hon. Gentleman said, nothing less than a hero?

On Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence said that the evidence of links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda was "not strong." However, last night, President Bush said that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of al-Qaeda. This morning, the Prime Minister's official spokesman appeared to agree with the President and disagree with the Secretary of State for Defence. Does the Prime Minister agree that those who believe that the threat from Iraq must be confronted and not ignored must speak with a clear and consistent voice?

The Prime Minister

First, I answered questions on this in detail at the Liaison Committee. I have explained that we do not know of evidence linking Iraq to al-Qaeda in circumstances concerning the 11 September attack. However, I chose my words very carefully in front of the Liaison Committee: we do know of links between al-Qaeda and Iraq; we cannot be sure of the exact extent of those links. Every member of the Government has adverted to that.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The British people know that Saddam is an evil dictator. They know that he has attacked his neighbours and gassed his own people. They know that he is responsible for countless human rights abuses. Is it not also the case that they want to know more detail about the potential threat that he poses to this country and our citizens? President Bush is, as he said last night, preparing to reveal more of what his intelligence services know about Saddam's weapons programme and his terrorist links. Will the Prime Minister also publish further information? Does he accept that the British people deserve to be given the fullest possible information about the scale and nature of the threat that we clearly now face?

The Prime Minister

Of course we have to give people the fullest possible information, which is why we published the dossier a few months ago. It is extremely important that people understand exactly what the threat is. If Saddam Hussein is allowed to carry on developing weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological and, potentially, nuclear weapons—he will be a threat not just to his own region, but to the world. This country's security interests are intimately concerned with that matter. However, there is no point in trying to pose differences between, for example, ourselves and the United States when the purpose of what we are doing at the moment is to unite the international community around the United Nations' position as set out in resolution 1441, and to make sure that that resolution is then implemented.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

Leaders of London's Moroccan community have written to me to express their deep regret at the murder of Stephen Oake and at the terrorist threat, and also their concern that all Muslims, Arabs, refugees and members of the north African community risk being tarred with the same brush of illegality and terrorist threat. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to send the strongest message that a reasonable concern for security cannot be an excuse for the hysteria that is leading to racial abuse and attacks, and causing members of that community to say that old and young are beginning to live in fear?

The Prime Minister

First, we should make it clear that this is a tolerant country, we are proud that it is a tolerant country, and we never want it to be otherwise. Secondly, my hon. Friend is right to point out that the vast majority of people who claim asylum, for example, are not terrorists or even suspected terrorists. There is a problem with asylum. It is important that we deal with it, for the reasons that have been given, but it is also important that we make it clear that the number of people who come through that route and who are terrorists is small. It is precisely in order to deal with those that we introduced the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 after 11 September, which gives us for the first time the power to detain suspected terrorists without trial. That is the reason for the arrests that have taken place in Manchester, London and elsewhere. We must balance the tough measures necessary to deal with the threat, and at the same time maintain the tolerant society in which we all want to live.

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

Returning to the issue of Iraq, can the Prime Minister confirm that the British troops deployed in the Gulf will be integrated into the American command and control structure?

The Prime Minister

The precise command and control structure is still being worked out. Of course we will co-operate very closely with the American troops—it would be bizarre if we did otherwise. That is what we did to such good effect in Afghanistan and also in Kosovo.

Mr. Kennedy

Is it not therefore the case that if, in practical terms, British forces are to be under American command and control, the decisions in all this will ultimately be taken by President Bush?

The Prime Minister

No, that is not right. The decisions whether to commit troops on behalf of this country are taken by our Government, our House of Commons, and our country. [Interruption.] We are trying to put the maximum pressure on Saddam to comply with the UN mandate. We had a report on Monday—[Interruption.] If hon. Members will allow me—we had a report on Monday from Dr. Blix, the head of the UN inspection team, who reported to the Security Council that Saddam was not co-operating fully with the inspectors. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman, along with other hon. Members, would study that report and say that it is right that we regard Saddam as a threat for the reasons that Dr. Blix sets out, and it is right that we deal with the threat. Let us be clear: the troops are down there in the case of Saddam refusing to comply with the UN resolution. Rather than trying to make points about what the command and control will be, when we know that our troops will have to work with other countries, it is surely better that we combine now as a House and as a country to put maximum pressure on Saddam, because the one thing that would make conflict inevitable is a signal of weakness in our determination to deal with him.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Ought not the House of Commons to have a specific vote before British troops are committed under American command?

The Prime Minister

Let me repeat, as we have said consistently: of course we want a vote of the House of Commons on the matter—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] —if we get to conflict. The one set of circumstances in which we have said that that would not be the case is if any circumstances arose in which the security of our troops was at risk and action had to be taken quickly. In the absence of that, however, of course the Government want the full support of the House of Commons if action is to be taken. That is precisely what happened in relation to both Kosovo and Afghanistan, so the idea that we have a record of taking such action without the House being consulted is nonsense. What we actually have to do—all of us, with the greatest of respect—is focus not simply on the procedures of the House, which are important and will be carried through, but on the question whether the UN indeed finds that Saddam is in material breach. In that case, I hope that we will have the unified support of the House and, in particular, of the hon. Members who are rightly proclaiming the importance of the UN in taking the necessary action.

Q2. [93751] Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Why are GCSE results 14 per cent. better in Northern Ireland than in England? Why does the Prime Minister intend to press ahead with Martin McGuinness's ill-conceived plan to scrap grammar schools there?

The Prime Minister

It is only right to point out that GCSE results are also a lot better here than they were, for example, a few years ago. On the point about selection and grammar schools, I do not believe in returning to a division of children at the age of 11. As for scrapping grammar schools, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, since we have been in office, we have not scrapped a single one. [Interruption.] That is a fact. In addition, I do not believe that the right way forward is to focus on what happens to the remaining grammar schools; it is to focus on the secondary schools, the vast majority of which are not grammar schools. They are getting extra investment and rising standards under this Government and would be affected by the 20 per cent. across-the-board cuts of the Conservatives.

Q3. [93752] Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

The vast majority of young people who get two A-levels go to university. The higher education announcement made last week committed the Government to increasing the number of young people from poorer backgrounds at university. Will the Prime Minister tell me how that will be achieved?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make the point that 90 per cent. of children who get two A-levels go to university, whatever their social background. Therefore, the key to increasing the number of people from all social groups who go to university is to improve school standards. That is precisely why we are putting in the extra investment and making the changes that we need in the school system. I am pleased to say that the primary school, GCSE and A-level results are the best that this country has ever had.

Q4. [93753] Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Will the Prime Minister reassure my Ryedale constituents that they have nothing to fear from the planned upgrade of the radar at RAF Fylingdales? Notwithstanding the alarmist scaremongering of the opponents of missile defence, will he take time today to study the Select Committee on Defence report published only this morning, which describes the lack of proper consultation with the local community by the Ministry of Defence as "deplorable"?

The Prime Minister

Of course we will study the report and respond to any of the concerns that it raises. As for the hon. Gentleman's point about the upgrade of Fylingdales, I do not think that his constituents have anything to fear from that. After all, we have played our part in NATO and the transatlantic alliance for many years, and Fylingdales has been part of that. Should we engage with the defensive system of the Americans, I believe that it will continue to play an important role. I also believe that, in that role, there is nothing for the hon. Gentleman's constituents to fear and everything for this country to gain.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

In a recent survey, 85 per cent. of Cleethorpes residents said that they feared crime and thought that it was rising. What will the Government do to reassure my residents that they are seriously addressing crime? Those fears about crime are being exploited by fascists such as the British National party—something that every hon. Member in this House should be worried about.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right that, although, according to the British crime survey, crime is down over the past few years, not up, the fear of crime is up. That is why it is so important that we take the measures that we are outlining both in the Criminal Justice Bill and the antisocial behaviour Bill that will follow it. I hope that we will get support throughout the House for both those measures. Unless we make fundamental reforms to the criminal justice system, we will not restore the confidence that is necessary for the fear of crime to be reduced.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

On Sunday, the Prime Minister said that on asylum policy, he would consider fundamentally looking at the obligations we have under the European Convention on Human Rights. Is the Home Secretary in charge of drawing up those plans, and when will they be announced?

The Prime Minister

What I said was that if measures that we have introduced do not dramatically reduce the number of asylum applications, we are prepared to go further, including fundamentally looking at our obligations under the European convention on human rights. Of course, it is the Home Office that is in charge of these issues.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Last week, the Home Secretary said that fundamentally looking at our ECHR obligations was impossible. He said: I want to make it clear … that no EU country has derogated or withdrawn from article 3, because none could". He went on to say that those who have suggested otherwise are simply wrong." —[Official Report, 20 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 6.] Who is right: the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

The Home Secretary is absolutely right: no country has—[Interruption.] Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman gets to his feet, he can tell us which country has derogated from article 3. No country has derogated from article 3—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The House must listen to the answers to the questions raised.

The Prime Minister

Let me just explain it to the right hon. Gentleman again: no country has derogated from article 3 of the European convention on human rights, which is why what the Home Secretary said is right. If the right hon. Gentleman has got the information as to which country has derogated, perhaps he would tell us about it.

Mr. Duncan Smith

So the Prime Minister says that he is right on Sunday, and then he says that he is wrong on Wednesday. Everybody knows that Alastair Campbell gave the Prime Minister his new policy as he walked into the television studio on Sunday. The first that the Home Secretary, or anybody else in the Cabinet, knew about it was when they switched on their television sets and heard him. A year ago, we told him that he had to deal with the ECHR, and how to do it. He said then that that "would be a mistake". Why has it taken him a year to change his mind?

The Prime Minister

What the right hon. Gentleman says is simply factually incorrect. There is no country that has derogated from article 3 of the European convention because derogation is not possible. What we were discussing last year was whether to derogate from article 5 of the European convention. That allows us, if we derogate, to detain without trial people who are suspected terrorists. It was precisely that measure that we introduced in the anti-terrorism measures that came through this House of Commons. However, when we actually introduced the measure, the Conservative party, rather than supporting it—[Interruption.] Oh yes. The shadow Home Secretary told us that it was an affront to civil liberties.

The fact is that we have recently introduced the following measures: there are identity cards for all asylum seekers; extended leave to remain is being phased out; social security support is withdrawn unless the claim is made quickly; and controls are being introduced across France, with British immigration officers in charge. Again, under the new measures that have been taken, we have also introduced out-of-country appeals—not in-country appeals—for countries listed by the Home Secretary. What I have said is that, unless those measures make a substantial impact, we will go further, including fundamentally looking at our obligations under the European convention. I repeat: the particular point that the right hon. Gentleman is making on article 3 simply happens to be factually wrong.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister is waffling and he is in a mess. Government estimates now show that at least 1,000 people in Britain have attended terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and elsewhere. We now know, as the Prime Minister admits, that many of them have used the asylum system to get into this country. In the face of that crisis, all that we have had from the Government is panic on Saturday, headlines on Sunday and climb-down on Monday. Is it not the case that we need the powers to deport those who threaten our country—and we need them now?

The Prime Minister

First, the powers to detain someone who is a suspected terrorist exist now. That is precisely why the arrests have been happening in Manchester, London and elsewhere, and those people are detained without trial. However, let me just read what those on the Tory Front Bench said when the issue arose and we were debating the legislation, so that we realise who is changing policy and who is not. When it was put to the Front-Bench Conservative spokesman just a few months ago that we should detain all asylum seekers, this is what he said: In today's climate"— detention of all asylum seekers— is … wrong in principle and impossible, in practical terms".—[Official Report, 12 June 2002; Vol. 386, c. 874.] The truth is that we have taken the measures that I have outlined. They are important measures to do with controls in France, identity cards, fingerprinting asylum seekers and making sure that those with manifestly ill-founded cases are taken straight back out of the country, but the power to deal with suspected terrorists is there already, and I repeat that, when we took that power, it was opposed by the Conservative party, which now says that it wants it extended.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

In light of Ariel Sharon's well-known views and actions, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is little hope of reaching a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians unless the Americans change their policy in respect of Israel?

The Prime Minister

There is no way that we will make progress unless there is a huge amount of activity, politically and diplomatically, on three fronts: the first is in relation to security; the second is in relation to political reform on the Palestinian side, which is why we had the conference here and will take it further in the next few weeks; and the third is in relation to final status negotiations. It is not just the responsibility of America, but I hope that all the international community, irrespective of what else is happening in the middle east, realises that the only way we will get a lasting and just peace in the middle east is to engage in detailed negotiations over a long period of time to resolve those three issues.

Q5. [93754] Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Following the likely local government settlement, Devon county council—which is run by all parties, including the Conservatives and Labour—has estimated that the council tax increase will be 15 to 20 per cent. Can the Prime Minister say whether that increase will be the same for pensioners?

The Prime Minister

I do not know what council tax that council will fix—that is a matter for it—but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, as a result of the extra settlement, we are putting somewhere in the region of a 6 per cent. real-terms increase into local government. It is therefore very important that he recognises that, whatever the authority, that is infinitely more generous than the settlement in the Conservative years.

[93755] Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

Does the Prime Minister recall telling Sir David Frost in January 2002 that a reformed House of Lords must be different from the House of Commons? Does he believe that an elected Chamber would be sufficiently different? Does he agree with those of us who believe that a properly constituted, non-elected Chamber, free from the hereditary system, is the only way to guarantee the kind of deliberative, advisory and balanced second Chamber that would add value to our system of government in the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

My briefing very helpfully starts by saying, "I understand that there are a range of views on this issue." However, everyone agrees that the status quo should not remain. Everyone agrees that the remaining hereditary peers should go and, what is more, that the prime ministerial patronage should also go. However, the issue then is whether we want an elected—[Interruption.] I am asked for my views; I am giving them. Do we want an elected House, or do we want an appointed House? I personally think that a hybrid between the two is wrong and will not work.

I also think that the key question on election is whether we want a revising Chamber or a rival Chamber. My view is that we want a revising Chamber, and I also believe that we should never allow the argument to gain sway that, somehow, the House of Commons is not a democratically elected body. I believe that it is democratic. [HON. MEMBERS: "A free vote?"] It is a free vote; people can vote in whatever way they want, but I think that all Members, before they vote, should recognise that we are trying to reach a constitutional settlement—not for one Parliament, but for the long term. In my view, we should be cognisant not just of our views as Members of Parliament, but of the need to make sure that we do not have gridlock and that our constitution works effectively.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

As the Prime Minister is rightly exercised in the fight against international terrorism and the crisis in Iraq, may I urge him not to take his eye off Zimbabwe, where the situation is rapidly deteriorating? May I specifically encourage him to increase the smart sanctions on the regime and resist the behaviour of the French, who have been behaving quite deplorably?

The Prime Minister

First, I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman about the situation in Zimbabwe. The humanitarian situation there is becoming dire. Millions of people are either starving or at risk of starvation in a country that is rich in potential natural resources. That is a tragedy and we are doing whatever we can in every international forum to try to ostracise the Mugabe regime. It cannot be emphasised too often that that regime is a threat most of all to Zimbabwean people: not simply to white Zimbaweans but to black Zimbaweans, too.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

Will the Prime Minister tell the House how the proposals in the higher education White Paper could help a single parent in my constituency who aspires to take a degree? Will he take particular note, and encourage our hon. Friends to take particular note, of the successful track record that Plymouth university has in widening participation?

The Prime Minister

Yes. First, maintenance grants will be reintroduced for those from lower-income families. Secondly, nobody will have to pay any fees upfront. Anything that is paid will only be paid back on a more generous set of terms than previously and paid back interest free. We will only be able to fund universities properly and fairly for the future if we not only put in more public money but come to a point at which students make some contribution by paying it back, but only when they are earning as graduates and in a position to do so.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Very many shift workers, including emergency workers, those who work in security services and those who work in this House, will, with effect from 17 February, pay £1,000 a year in tax for the privilege of using the only viable means of transport to get to work: their cars. The Prime Minister will no doubt try to blame the Mayor of London for that, but, in fact, it is the result of his policy. Given that it is his responsibility, and that the Transport Act 2000 was passed under his Government, is he satisfied with the detail, and is he ready to take the blame for it?

The Prime Minister

It is a devolved matter, it was devolved to the Mayor, and the Mayor has taken his decision.

Phil Sawford (Kettering)

In the light of the report on the torture and tragic death of Victoria Climbié, will my right hon. Friend give urgent consideration to the recommendations of the Laming report, and will he appoint a children's commissioner?

The Prime Minister

In respect of the report of the Laming commission, it made more than 100 recommendations, and we will implement more than 80 of those within six months. Clearly, in relation to the issue of a children's commissioner, we will study the report carefully, and that is one finding among many on which we will deliberate and then come to a decision.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

When Army numbers are stubbornly and significantly below establishment, why have 450 basic training places been suspended?

The Prime Minister

I do not know about the basic training places that the hon. Gentleman mentions. We are, however, engaged in a huge recruitment campaign for our armed forces, as he knows, and people are applying to our armed forces as a result. We have a settlement this year, and for the next few years, which, for the first time in many years, provides a substantial real-terms extra amount of spending for our armed forces.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Even if Saddam Hussein does possess weapons of mass destruction—most people accept that he probably retains some residual capability—can my right hon. Friend explain why he did not use those during the Gulf war when his arsenal was massively greater than it is now? In particular, can he explain why Saddam represents a greater threat today than he did in 1997, 1998, 1999 and all his time as Prime Minister until President's Bush's axis of evil speech, when apparently the situation changed?

The Prime Minister

First, the one thing about which we can be sure is that his reason for not using his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons back in the early 1990s was not out of the goodness of his heart.

Secondly, my hon. Friend should study the UN inspectors' report. I shall read just one small part of it. Dr. Blix says: The nerve agent VX is one of the most toxic ever developed … Iraq has declared that it only produced VX on a pilot scale, just a few tonnes and that the quality was poor … UNMOVIC, however, has information that conflicts with this account … There are indications that the agent was weaponised. He then goes on to detail similar findings in respect of a lot more weapons.

When my hon. Friend says that we did not regard Saddam as a threat between 1998 and the axis of evil speech, that is wrong. Precisely because he was a threat, thousands of British forces have been down in the Gulf the whole time, flying over the no-fly zones. Precisely because he was a threat, we have had to impose a sanctions regime on Iraq that, because of the way that Saddam implements it, means—I fear—misery and poverty for many, many millions of Iraqis. The fact is that, way before President Bush's speech, at the very first meeting that I held with the President in February 2001, I said that weapons of mass destruction were an issue and that we had to confront them.

In the House on 14 September, I said that, after 11 September, it was even more important to deal with the issue. I simply say this to my hon. Friend: the UN having taken its stand, if we do not deal with Iraq now—

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Who is next?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend asks who is next. After we deal with Iraq, we have to—[Interruption.]— yes, through the United Nations. We have to confront North Korea about its weapons programme— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] We have to confront those companies and individuals trading in weapons of mass destruction—

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

When do we stop?

The Prime Minister

Another question has been shouted at me. We stop when the threat to our security is properly and fully dealt with. I say this to the hon. Gentleman: if he reads Dr. Blix's report, who can doubt that Saddam is in breach of his UN obligations?

We have talked about the UN in this House. Let us, therefore, follow the UN route. Let us implement the resolution and let us make sure that the threat to our security from those weapons is properly dealt with.