HC Deb 14 May 2003 vol 405 cc304-10
Q1. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 14 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

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

Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, I could say a word about Monday's bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia. These attacks were a cowardly and disgraceful terrorist atrocity. They will, however, make the United Kingdom and our allies across the international community only more determined to track down terrorists and to stamp out terrorism.

I would like to offer our profound condolences, those of the Government and, I believe, the House to the victims of the attacks and their families and to the Saudi people. I have sent condolences personally to Crown Prince Abdullah and to President Bush. It has to be pointed out that, although of course, tragically, some of the victims may be American and indeed British, the victims will, as ever with these terrorist atrocities, primarily be Muslims.

Tim Loughton

I am sure that we all wholeheartedly share the Prime Minister's comments.

Given the whispers around Westminster earlier in the week that the relations hip between the Prime Minister and his Cabinet is not so much a meeting of minds but more one of meat and vegetables, can he tell us when there was last a full discussion, in full Cabinet, on the subject of the euro?

The Prime Minister

There are regular discussions of Europe and, indeed, of all the issues connected with Europe. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be the fullest possible discussion before the decision on the single currency is announced. The hon. Gentleman knows the timetable for that, as it has been set out by myself and the Chancellor on many occasions.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

My right hon. Friend will recall the case of Mr. Sandy Mitchell, my constituent, who is in jail in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Mitchell was accused of bombing in Saudi. Since then, he has continually pleaded his innocence, along with others. Will my right hon. Friend step up the diplomatic and political pressure on the Saudis? In view of the horrific bombing yesterday, it is clear that there must be serious doubts about the conviction of Mr. Mitchell and others.

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, we remain deeply concerned about the case of British nationals detained in Saudi Arabia, who have been accused of involvement in a series of bombings. He will know that we are working vigorously to resolve that case. The best thing for me to say to him at the moment is that we are fully aware of the concerns, and the best thing for the individuals concerned and their families is that we carry on working in the way that we are to try to secure their release. I promise my hon. Friend that we shall continue to do so.

Mr. lain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

May I join the Prime Minister unreservedly in his comments with regard to the atrocious bombing in Saudi Arabia? I think that the whole House will share his view on that, without question.

The Prime Minister will be aware that referendums on the European constitution are proposed in up to 10 European member states. Why cannot the British people have one, too?

The Prime Minister

For the same reason that we did not hold a referendum on the Maastricht treaty or on the Single European Act. I see no case for having a referendum on this matter. Indeed, many of the allegations made about the impact of the European Convention are scaremongering. The Convention is important because we are modernising Europe as another 10 countries join the European Union. It is important that we make every effort to ensure that the accession of those 10 countries goes ahead, because a united Europe, with those eastern European countries inside the European Union, is in our interests and the interests of Europe.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister has to admit that, since he came to power, there have been 34 referendums on issues even as momentous as whether Hartlepool should have a mayor, and he has promised referendums on regional assemblies as well, as the Deputy Prime Minister agrees, but the European constitution will decide how every citizen of this country will be governed. Why will not the Prime Minister simply let the British people have their say?

The Prime Minister

The reasons against having a referendum are those that I have just set out, and they apply to the previous Conservative Government too. But in relation to those issues that are said to be the reason why we should have a referendum—for example, that we will suddenly yield up defence or foreign policy to the European Commission—are simply false. European defence and foreign policy will remain intergovernmental, and will therefore remain the property of the Governments inside the European Union. The plain fact of the matter is that the reason why the right hon. Gentleman wants a referendum is to vote no to enlargement in order to vote no to the European changes that are taking place, because I am afraid that, under his leadership, the Conservative party remains utterly and implacably opposed to Europe.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It may have escaped the Prime Minister's notice but the reason why I want a referendum is that the British people can say no. [Interruption.] Oh yes, and the reality is that everybody else thinks that the same idea of the British people having their say should exist. He knows that the president of the Convention says that that should be a necessity, as does everybody else. We know that the British people overwhelmingly want to have their say. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but it is true. Has the Prime Minister become so out of touch, so arrogant, so reliant on a small group of people—oh yes—and so reliant on a small group of friends that he will not let the British people have their say?

The Prime Minister

What is very clear, as the right hon. Gentleman has just admitted, is that he wants people to say no to European enlargement. That will mean that those—[Interruption.] He has just said that he wants them to be able to say no to the question, and he would be leading the campaign against it. So what we now know from the Conservative party is that it is against the enlargement of the European Union and that it is against those new countries coming into Europe because, under his leadership, the Conservative party is against Europe. That is a disaster for jobs and industry in this country.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The reality for the Prime Minister is that he will not trust the British people. Let them be the judges of what they want. The Convention will include foreign policy, home affairs, transport, criminal law, asylum and many other issues. Why cannot they be allowed to decide? Is not the reality that a member of his Cabinet said that since the first days when he got to power the Prime Minister ruled by

"diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought through policy … that comes from on high."—[Official Report, 12 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 38.]

The Prime Minister has the opportunity to prove that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) and her words are wrong. If he gives the British people their say, he will do that, so why does he not prove her wrong now by saying from the Dispatch Box that he will give the British people the chance to vote on the constitution?

The Prime Minister

I have just given the reason. I said why the previous Government did not give people referendums, for example, in relation to Maastricht and the Single European Act. However, when the right hon. Gentleman lists the topics in the European Convention, he is indeed simply listing the topics, but European defence and foreign policy will remain wholly intergovernmental. Therefore, the idea that it somehow changes the nature of this county's foreign or defence policy is simply wrong. The truth is that, after a time of very wise silence on the issue of Europe, the right hon. Gentleman has decided to put the Conservative party back in the position of being opposed to Europe, and it is now opposed not just to the single currency but to accession by the 10 new states. [Interruption.] There is no point in his saying that he is in favour of accession but opposed to the European Convention, which is necessary to make the accession work. If he wants to get up again, let him tell us whether in such a referendum he would say vote yes or no.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Yesterday, yet more mass graves of murdered Iraqis were seen. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that forensic evidence was key to building a case against Milosevic for his crimes against humanity? Will he respond to the demands of Human Rights Watch and ensure that forensic experts are sent into Iraq so that relatives can properly identify loved ones and that those responsible for human butchery can stand trial?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend's question is very sensible. Incidentally, I hope that for those people who had some doubt about the wisdom of removing Saddam Hussein, the reports of mass graves are an indication of how brutal, tyrannical and appalling that regime was, and what a blessing it is for the Iraqi people and for humankind that he has gone from power. On my hon. Friend's specific point, we are looking urgently at how we redouble our efforts to protect the sites and to make sure that we gather the evidence. No matter what the exact forum is in which people should be tried for these crimes, it is undoubtedly true that we need to protect the forensic evidence that will allow us to try them.

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

On the Iraq issue, on 25 April, the Foreign Secretary said that the United Nations would have a vital role to play in the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Now, the United States ambassador at the UN has said that the UN will have no role for the foreseeable future. Who is right?

The Prime Minister

I have always said that there should be independent verification at the end of whatever finds we make in respect of weapons of mass destruction. I have no doubt that the UN will be involved in that, and what the American ambassador to the UN was saying was simply that coalition forces, who are currently seeking to restore security on the ground, are not going to have the UN back in now, although we are in discussion with the UN and allies as to how we can have such independent verification later.

Mr. Kennedy

On 7 March, the Prime Minister said that the United States and our country would not touch Iraq's oil revenues, yet the draft UN resolution gives the United States and us total control over those oil revenues. Does the Prime Minister therefore understand why so many people now feel so let down?

The Prime Minister

That is absolute nonsense. Let me explain the situation to the right hon. Gentleman. First, in relation to the UN's vital role, its primary role must be not just in respect of humanitarian aid but in respect of reconstruction in Iraq and the development of a new Iraqi interim authority. Our resolution makes it clear that the UN special co-ordinator is to be involved in all those aspects. Indeed, the preamble to the UN resolution that we have tabled reaffirms specifically the "vital role" for the UN. In relation to the points that he was making in respect of the oil revenues, it is not true that we will be running the oil revenues of Iraq. What we have said is that they should go into an independent fund with an advisory international board, which will have the UN representative on it and representatives of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and that that development fund money should be used exclusively for the people of Iraq. In those circumstances, the idea that the US and the British are getting their hands on Iraqi oil is completely fatuous.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Since the Prime Minister seems to be developing a fondness for taking action against those people who disagree with him, can he set out for the House the precise limits, as he sees them, of free speech?

The Prime Minister

I think—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Answer."] Well, I think that is a very fine example of what we really want to encourage in this House. With the greatest of respect, in relation to Iraq, or any other issue for that matter, I have not noticed that people have been afraid to speak their minds. They have been speaking their minds in many different places and in many different guises, and long may that continue. Instead of arguing about whether we have free speech or not—which we do—let us argue about the actual details of the policy itself because that is, perhaps, a better argument and debate to have.

Q2. Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Deputy Prime Minister said that he wanted to make local government funding more easily understood. Can the Prime Minister explain why the average increase for Derbyshire districts this year was some £570,000, yet for Conservative-controlled Derbyshire Dales district council it was an increase of £33,000? When will the council tax payer of Derbyshire Dales get a fair deal from this Government?

The Prime Minister

Everyone in the hon. Gentleman's area and other areas in the country got a substantial increase in the investment going into education. That is true. We are working on school funding problems in the way that we have explained. However, it must surely be the case that the last thing that Derbyshire or any other part of the country needs is the possibility of 20 per cent. cuts across the board, which is the Conservative proposal. So yes, it may well be true that Derbyshire and elsewhere want more money, but they know that under the Conservatives they will get less.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

Over the last four or five years, a university campus has been established in my constituency with close co-operation between the universities of Paisley and Glasgow, the Open University and Bell college. Student figures in that time have grown to more than 1,000. Can the Prime Minister explain what impact yesterday's announcement by Leader of the Opposition on student fees would have on rural areas such as mine?

Mr. Speaker

The Prime Minister might know how best to answer that.

The Prime Minister

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will not be following that policy decision for the simple reason that it would mean an immediate £500 million loss of income to universities in this country. Nothing could be more unfair or more disastrous for universities. It would mean literally—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Prime Minister answer.

The Prime Minister

It would mean 150,000 fewer students each year able to go to university and, at the very time universities need more money, they would lose £500 million. That is not a fair deal. It is a disaster for students and universities.

Q3. Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

In answer to my question on 2 April, the Prime Minister assured the House that the future of Gibraltar played no role whatsoever in his negotiations with José Maria Aznar in securing the support of Spain for the war against Saddam Hussein. Will the Prime Minister now assure the House similarly that control over the straits of Gibraltar played no part in those negotiations?

The Prime Minister

I can absolutely give the hon. Lady that assurance.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Despite what the Prime Minister said about Iraq's oil, is it not the case that at the moment the United States, not the United Nations, has de facto control of the oil? Is it not the policy of the United States that the United Nations should be reduced to the international Mother Theresa in the world, with no real political control whatsoever? Is it not about time that this country stopped appeasing the world domination ideas of Bush and his cronies?

The Prime Minister

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on a good example of free speech? Secondly, he is wrong—the oil-for-food resolution governs the oil revenues, and is administered by the UN. The idea is to transfer the revenues from Iraqi oil into a special separate trust fund, which will be administered in the way that I have described, with the UN, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank represented on it. It is to be used exclusively for the interests of the Iraqi people. With great respect to my hon. Friend, we are conducting a negotiation with other members of the UN Security Council, which I hope will be successful. It provides for a vital role for the UN, not in the sense of the UN governing the coalition or the coalition governing the UN, but the two working in partnership.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

As the Prime Minister pointed out earlier, the atrocious events in Saudi Arabia have shown all of us that the war on terrorism is clearly far from won, reinforcing the need to show in Iraq that we can be a force for good in the region. There is growing frustration that while it took four weeks of a magnificent campaign to defeat the Iraqi regime, after five weeks of peace, there are still serious shortages of food, water and health care in places such as Baghdad. I believe unequivocally that prosecuting the war was right, but how can the allies now avoid the growing charge of being deficient in planning for the peace?

The Prime Minister

It is important that we take our responsibilities very seriously to make sure that, having won the conflict, we restore services and, indeed, improve them—in many cases, they were in an appalling state before the conflict. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that in the south of the country we have gone a long way towards doing that. Improvements are still needed, but the situation is improving all the time. In Baghdad, it has been particularly difficult because the security situation has been difficult. However, there is now a renewed vigour in ORHA—the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance—and I am sure that in the coming weeks we will sort out the enormous logistical problems in dealing with this situation. Naturally, a lot of attention is focused on things that are going wrong, but there also are many things in Iraq today that are going right.

Mr. Duncan Smith

In doing that, it is obviously vital that the coalition act within the bounds of international law. This week, the former International Development Secretary, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), made a startling claim that the Government have been acting against the advice of the Attorney-General, yet the Foreign Secretary is on record as saying that they are not. Both have clearly seen the Attorney-General's advice and both cannot be right. To resolve this split, and to show that he or his Government have nothing to hide, surely the Prime Minister should now publish the Attorney-General's advice today?

The Prime Minister

It is not the practice of Governments to publish the Attorney-General's advice, and I am not going to depart from that. However, I can point the right hon. Gentleman to the Attorney-General's clear statement last night that the actions of the British Government have been in accordance with international law. Indeed, there is no possibility of our acting in a way inconsistent with international law. That would be wholly wrong—I would not countenance it and neither would anyone else.

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