HC Deb 05 November 2003 vol 412 cc788-98
Ql. [136363] Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 5 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before I list my official engagements, I wish to pay tribute, on behalf of the whole House, to Corporal Ian Plank, who was killed in a coalition operation in Iraq on Friday. He was a greatly admired and widely respected member of the Royal Marines, and I know that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

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.

Linda Perham

What are the Government doing to address the concerns of my constituents in Ilford, North about antisocial behaviour and, given the date, the misuse of fireworks in particular?

The Prime Minister

The Anti-social Behaviour Bill will make a big impact, we hope, on antisocial behaviour in local communities by giving the police the powers that they need to tackle that menace. We welcome the new Fireworks Act 2003, which is on the statute book in large measure because of the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan). We announced this week that before Christmas possession of fireworks by under-18s in public places will be made illegal and possession of the largest and most powerful fireworks will be outlawed for all members of the public. Fixed-penalty notices will be introduced, with fines of up to £80, for people caught throwing fireworks in the street. In addition, we are considering several new measures in consultation with the industry and others.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)


Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Duncan Smith

My hon. Friends should have registered that vote last Wednesday.

As the Prime Minister said, we learned overnight of the tragic death last week of Corporal Plank. Our thoughts are with his family, as once again we are reminded of the extraordinary sacrifices made by British servicemen and women, to whom we all owe a huge debt of gratitude.

When I first faced the Prime Minister across the Dispatch Box we discussed the war on terror. The loss of life over the past week has brought that war into sharp focus. There are growing concerns that foreign terrorists—including, it appears, some British citizens—may be operating in Iraq. What information does the Prime Minister have about who is arming, funding and organising those groups, and what further action is being taken to disrupt their activities in Iraq?

The Prime Minister

I gather that this will be the right hon. Gentleman's last Prime Minister's questions, so perhaps before answering that question I may say that whatever our differences—and there have been a few—I wish him well in the future and so does everyone on this side of the House—[Laughter.] Well, we do.

In respect of Iraq and terrorism, I will give the right hon. Gentleman as much information as we have. There are essentially two groups of people conducting those operations in Iraq. One is made up of Saddam's supporters or former members of the regime, and the other is made up of assorted terrorist groups, some of whom have infiltrated Iraq since the coalition forces took control back in May. We are obviously doing everything that we possibly can to disrupt their activities, but the most important thing to remember is that the position is not the British and American and other coalition forces versus the Iraqi people; it is the coalition forces and the vast majority of the Iraqi people versus those groups of former supporters of Saddam and terrorists. The truth is that we are trying to make that country better day by day and their entire purpose is to stop us.

Mr. Duncan Smith

I thank the Prime Minister for his kind words.

Obviously, the objective that he has set out is to hand power back to the Iraqi people as soon as possible. I think that everyone would accept that enormous progress has been made, in difficult circumstances, towards setting up the Iraqi governing council. However, does the Prime Minister believe that it will be possible to hand over power to a civilian Iraqi Government while the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein remain unknown?

The Prime Minister

We believe that that is possible. We think that the biggest inhibition will simply be the progress that we can make. It is worth pointing out that in addition to the American forces and the 10,000 British forces in Iraq, there are now 16,000 forces from other countries there. Several European Union countries are providing thousands of people who are helping with our efforts in Iraq. The main thing is to recognise that fantastic progress is being made in large parts of Iraq. For example, the coalition programme has cleared more than 14,000 km of the country's 27,000 km of canals. All 22 universities and 43 technical institutes and colleges are now open, as are nearly all primary and secondary schools. All 240 hospitals are open, as are more than 1,200 clinics. The distribution of medicines has risen from almost nothing to a current total of almost 12,000 tonnes.

Six months ago, satellite dishes were illegal, access to information was strictly controlled and it was difficult for people to use the internet. I am told that today there are more than 170 newspapers—which is progress of a sort—and satellite dishes are freely available and widely used, as is the internet. The point is that there is no inhibition on the progress that we are making, in both political and economic terms, other than the small group of people to whom I have referred. As we know from our experience of terrorism, if such people are prepared to cause death and mayhem to wholly innocent people they can cause a lot of devastation and inhibit the progress that we are making. However, I think that the answer to the problem is implicit in the right hon. Gentleman's question, and I agree with him—it is to carry on making the efforts to make Iraq better.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister and I have spoken on a number of occasions about the dangers of rogue states, terrorist groups and ballistic weapons coming together. I have always agreed that the war on terror would be long and difficult and that there would be no easy victories. However, I believe that enormous progress has been made. In the past two years, the Taliban have gone from Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein has been removed from power in Iraq, even though we may not yet know where he is. Does the Prime Minister agree that in Afghanistan, Iraq, or wherever else we have to fight the war on terror, we must finish the job we started or the terrorists will win in the end?

The Prime Minister

I agree strongly with that, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the support that he gave for the action in Afghanistan and in Iraq. People should be very clear about why terrorist groups are now pouring into Iraq. If the coalition forces, together with the United Nations and the international community, can make Iraq better and expose the propaganda about us seizing the oil or desiring to destroy the Muslim population for the lies that it is, those terrorists know that that will send a signal across the world—not least the Arab and Muslim world—that will be enormous, tremendous and positive in its impact. That is precisely why those people are in Iraq at the moment. They know that this battle is not only about Iraq, but about whether we can establish a situation where Iraq becomes a prosperous, democratic and stable state. If that happens, it can act as a beacon to the rest of the world.

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the remarkable increase that has been achieved in police officer numbers, which has exceeded the initial target. However, does he share my concern that a significant part of an officer's career will be spent policing drunkenness in town and city centres on Friday and Saturday nights? As the alcohol strategy is finalised, will he look seriously at enabling local authorities and police authorities to raise a small statutory levy on licensed premises in town and city centres to pay for the costs of policing and ensure that other police officers can be out in the communities, where people want to see them?

The Prime Minister

First, the whole House will recognise the concern that my right hon. Friend has raised. We have not said that we will go down the route of a levy, but I understand the argument that he makes. The Anti-social Behaviour Bill will give the police power to levy fixed-penalty notices, which is an enormous help to them. In the trial areas, it has been immensely effective in allowing them to control antisocial behaviour of the type that he describes. We will also have powers to close down premises that routinely give rise to drunken and disorderly fights outside. It is therefore important that we consider the full range of powers and make sure in particular that swift judgment can be exercised when a pub or club in the centre of town routinely causes absolute misery to the local inhabitants.

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

May I also express my best personal wishes to the leader of the Conservative party? I want to raise an issue on which he and I share considerable common interests, if not common instincts: the Government's European policy. Yesterday, the Chancellor remarked that some of the measures in the proposed European Union constitution would lead to tax harmonisation and a federal state in Europe". Does the Prime Minister agree with the Chancellor?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason that we are making it clear that there cannot be any tax harmonisation or abolition of the unanimity rule on tax. I said on Monday in my joint article in the Financial Times with the Estonian Prime Minister—[Laughter.] It is an important new alliance for us. I said: Making everybody follow the same tax rules would quickly diminish Europe's competitiveness by killing jobs and stifling growth". I hope that what the right hon. Gentleman's words indicate is that he is on the same side as me in that particular regard.

Mr. Kennedy

Yes indeed, but the Foreign Secretary keeps describing the proposed constitution—he has done so repeatedly in the House on many occasions—as a tidying-up exercise. Yesterday, however, the Chancellor warned that it could lead to fiscal federalism. With that difference of emphasis between the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor, with whom does the Prime Minister agree?

The Prime Minister

Of course the European constitution is important. It is a very important document. The issue, however, is whether it alters fundamentally the relationship between the member state and the European Union. It is precisely because we are insisting that all the attributes of the nation state remain that we believe that we will get the right outcome for this country in respect of the negotiations now taking place in the intergovernmental conference. It is not merely us who think that. The House of Lords European Union Committee agreed with our view that there is considerable reassurance in the draft Treaty for those who fear that the EU is becoming too like a State and repeated its judgment of May this year that it is clear that the balance of power is going to shift from the Commission to the Member States"— [Interruption]. The shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), is shouting out that he disagrees, but his position is well known: he wants Britain out of the European Union. The real issue is between those of us who believe that it is important to get the right result from this conference but that we should have Britain in Europe, and the significant part of the Conservative party who want Britain out of Europe.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will congratulate Cheshire police on their improved crime figures. Sadly, however, their hard work was damaged by the recent appalling actions at a training centre in Cheshire by racist police officers. Will he congratulate the chief constable, Peter Fahy, on the robust actions that he has taken and the letters that he has published in regional and local press, and assure citizens in this country, wherever they come from, that the racist elements in the police force will be rooted out once and for all?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the chief constable on his remarks. There are now more police officers in the Cheshire police than ever before, and I congratulate them on the work that they are doing. It is important that at the self-same time as we join the chief constable in condemning absolutely and unequivocally the actions of the small minority who engage in racist or intolerant behaviour, we recognise that the vast majority of our police officers up and down this country do a fine job on behalf of all the citizens in their local communities.

Q2. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Is the Prime Minister surprised by the fact that the campaign for regional government, which was launched earlier this week by the Deputy Prime Minister, has been met by overwhelming opposition in the north-west, and by cross-party opposition too? Taxpayers know that they will have to bear increased costs with no increased powers or resources whatever, in addition to diminished democracy.

The Prime Minister

The very simple answer to the hon. Lady is that there will be a chance for people in the north-west to express their views. Then, we will see what they really think and whether they believe regional government makes the north-west more accountable for the decisions that are taken there. That is why it is fair to do that.

Q3. Ian Lucas (Wrexham)

In the days leading up to Remembrance Sunday, does my right hon. Friend agree that now is the time to reaffirm our commitment to the generation who have given us so much? My constituent, Mr. Ken Mack, has collected a petition, with more than 11,000 signatures already, calling for greater security for elderly people in nursing homes and residential homes. Will the Prime Minister please reaffirm his commitment to that generation and ensure that sufficient resources are in place to give them the peace of mind that they deserve?

The Prime Minister

Of course, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. He will know that care homes in Wales specifically are a matter for the Welsh Assembly, but I point out to him that in the past few years since this Government have been in power, we have increased funding for personal social services in Wales by something like 33 per cent. There are still, of course, pressures on social services and care homes, but it is precisely for that reason that we gave such a large amount of additional investment in the last spending round. Incidentally, all that investment was opposed by the Conservative party.

Mr. lain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

I have asked the Prime Minister this question 18 times, and a fat lot of good it has done me over the past two years—but I am going to give it one more try. Why does the Prime Minister persist in denying the British people a chance to vote in a referendum on the European constitution?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that the 19th time of asking will not do the right hon. Gentleman much good either. I have to repeat what I have said before. In my view, because it does not involve a fundamental change between the member states and the European Union, I do not believe that we should have a referendum on this issue. I also believe, as I think most people recognise, that the real reason the Conservatives want a referendum is to campaign for a no vote as the first step to getting Britain out of Europe.

Mr. Duncan Smith

This week, the Deputy Prime Minister announced three more referendums on regional government. That takes the total of referendums under this Government to 37 since 1997. Is the Prime Minister really telling all of us that an elected assembly for Hull or an elected monkey for Hartlepool are more important than an elected President for Europe?

The Prime Minister

Regional government or, indeed, the mayor alters fundamentally the basis on which people are governed locally. However, I suppose that the right hon. Gentleman at least is entitled to ask a question about a referendum because he wanted a referendum on the Maastricht treaty—[Interruption.] Yes, he did, but some other people sitting quite close to him did not.

Mr. Duncan Smith

And some other people sitting not too far away from the Prime Minister actually did, so he wants to be very careful about that. [Interruption.] Steady, Jack! Everyone except the Prime Minister admits openly that this constitution represents a fundamental change to the way this country is going to be governed. Even his Chancellor, writing in The Daily Telegraph of all papers, warns the Prime Minister about a drift to a "federal European state". I must say to the Prime Minister that, just between the two of us, I have a sixth sense these days about a leadership bid, so he should watch very carefully.

The Prime Minister still persists in saying that the constitution does not change anything; it is just a tidying-up exercise. By common accord, for the last time, that is the reason why no one believes a word that he ever says any more.

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman is interested in the answer, I shall give it to him. Of course it is true that if we were to go down the route of tax harmonisation and if, for example, tax rates were to be set by Brussels and defence was to be run by Brussels, that would be a different matter—it would be a fundamental change. However, that is not what the draft treaty says and it is certainly not what the outcome of the conference will be.

The right hon. Gentleman says that no one other than myself believes that the issue will not fundamentally change the nature of the relationship, but I go back to what I said a moment or two ago. The House of Lords European Union Committee, which has Conservative as well as Labour members, said: it is clear that the balance of power is going to shift from the Commission to the Member States". The whole basis on which he posits the case for a referendum is simply false. Let us wait and see what we get out of the intergovernmental conference, but if we do—as I believe that we will—protect our tax, defence and foreign policies, there will be no case for a referendum other than the true case put forward by the Conservative party, which, as I repeat for possibly more than the 19th time, is to get Britain out of Europe.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

On Sunday, there will be an especially proud group of men and women marching down Whitehall past the Cenotaph: the Suez veterans who will be able to wear their medals for the first time. I thank the Prime Minister for his personal intervention to enable the Suez veterans to have those medals. As he sees them walk by on Sunday, will he reflect on the very few remaining groups of people, such as those involved in the Arctic convoy and the Enigma project, who are still awaiting due recognition? Will he consider giving them some good news over the next year, just as he has thankfully given good news to the Suez veterans?

The Prime Minister

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to all people who served, and gave their lives in many cases, in the first and second world wars so that this country could remain free and democratic. We owe them an immense debt of gratitude. We keep carefully under review the medals for various groups of veterans and I shall certainly pay attention to what he says.

Q4. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Does the Prime Minister agree that people might have more trust in his Government if his fellow MPs practised what they preached? If he lived in Hackney, would he send his children to the local schools?

The Prime Minister

First, it is for individual people to decide whether they wish to send their children to a private school or a state school. I believe that the most important thing for the Government is to make a significant investment in the education service of this country that will be used by the vast majority of parents. We can look at the hon. Gentleman's constituency and local education authority. There has been a massive increase in the money that we are giving to local education authorities. A massive amount of extra investment is going into schools and there are more teachers and more classroom assistants. That is the real commitment to state education and every single bit of it was opposed by the Conservative party.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will my right hon. Friend give the House a firm commitment on when he intends to end the import of and trade in illegally logged timber in the UK?

The Prime Minister

At present we are working on, and we are obviously strongly committed to, tackling illegal logging and its associated trade. We are doing what we can within the European Union because it is there that we need regulations to deal with illegal logging and to develop agreements with timber-producing countries. They would deny access to EU markets for illegally logged timber from such countries, so I hope that we will see a result in the European Union Council in the coming months.

Q5. Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

If the Prime Minister refuses to answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) in terms of his own children, will he tell the House what advice he would give to parents in Hackney who have deep misgivings about the quality of their local state schools?

The Prime Minister

It is for individual parents to make up their minds about how to educate their children. It is not a good idea if the whole of the debate ends up being personalised around one Member of Parliament or another. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I think. In Hackney, at the moment, there is one city academy and it wants to open new city academies. There are specialist schools throughout the country that are gaining superb results. The fastest improving school in the country is actually in the public sector and is in Tower Hamlets. I have to say to him that the real issue is not what comments we can make about this or that Member of Parliament's children, but our commitment to state education in this country when we know that for years, under the previous Government, state education did not get the investment that it needed. The truth is that over the past few years we have put extra investment in the schools, as the hon. Gentleman knows from his constituency. He should have the honesty to tell his constituents that he opposed every penny piece of that investment.

Q6. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Increases in police numbers and the number of community support officers, together with the growing use of antisocial behaviour orders, are very welcome, but can the Prime Minister explain to my constituents why some people with numerous convictions and some with bad character oppose vitally needed reforms of our antiquated criminal justice system in the other place?

The Prime Minister

I hope that opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill is dropped when the measure returns to this House, because it is extremely important for this country. For example, it is clear that many juries should have greater access to information about defendants' previous convictions. Surely hon. Members on both sides of the House can agree that where there is evidence that juries have been interfered with in organised crime trials, the judge should have the power to put the right of jury trial to one side and try the case himself. Last year alone, there was a £9 million cost to the Metropolitan police for protecting victims and witnesses in organised crime trials. When the measure returns from the other place, I hope that we get a united House of Commons that reinstates it, because it is important for the future of criminal justice in this country.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Given the Government's commitment not to sell arms to countries that will use them for internal repression or external aggression, why do we continue to sell arms to Israel?

The Prime Minister

We actually have one of the strictest sets of rules on the sale of arms of any country. It is important that we hold to that, whatever the country concerned, and we do, whether it is in respect of Israel or anywhere else. Across the European Union, Britain probably has the toughest inhibitions on the sale of weapons. I do not believe that we should discriminate against any country. We should apply the rules fairly to all countries.

Q7. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

With 130 more nurses and 30 more registrars and consultants, activity levels at Warwick hospital since 1997 are up by 45 per cent., and all waiting times are down. The management team tell me, however, that with increasing patient choice it is essential for them to begin the process of moving towards foundation status. Can my right hon. Friend tell me that we will continue with both the investment and the reform?

The Prime Minister

We certainly will continue with both. I am delighted that there is so much additional activity at Warwick hospital. As my hon. Friend knows, the new state-of-the-art accident and emergency department that is under construction and scheduled for completion this autumn will be able to cater for more than 50,000 patients annually. Massive investment is now going into our health service. He is also right to draw attention to the fact that the arguments for foundation status come from the hospitals themselves and the staff in those hospitals—dedicated NHS people—who believe that the next stage of change is to give them greater freedom and greater flexibility. We will deliver both to them.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the very grave warnings given by the Royal College of Physicians and the British Medical Association on the implications of the working time directive for the NHS next year? Specifically, one in five accident and emergency departments may have to close at night, two thirds of acute medical units are insufficiently staffed, and practitioners, such as the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), forecast that smaller units in places such as Southport, Wakefield, Pontefract, Cheltenham and Hartlepool may have to close. Is it not common sense and in the interests of all patients to postpone implementation? If not, will the Prime Minister guarantee that none of those units will close as a consequence?

The Prime Minister

The point the hon. Gentleman raises is important, which is why we have worked on it for many months to ensure that the impact of the working time directive is properly handled.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the directive originally came into force a long time ago—back in 1990, I think. It is important to recognise that we have a particular issue with junior house doctors' hours that means that we have to take great care with implementation, so we are in discussions with the European Union and with other partners. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman and, through him, to others that we will take account of the directive, but it is important to balance the clear need for doctors' hours to be reduced over time with the need to do so in a way that is compatible with the service.

The hon. Gentleman will know from his constituency and others that there has been massive additional investment in accident and emergency departments in this country—about £150 million has been spent on A and E departments alone. That is reducing the time that people have to wait in them.