HC Deb 22 October 2003 vol 411 cc632-42
Q1. Mr A.J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

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

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Beith

I welcome the Prime Minister's rapid return to robust health—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Indeed, I should like to see all three party leaders remain in robust health and leaders of their parties. May I turn the Prime Minister's attention, however, to an unacceptable aspect of the war against terrorism—namely, the continued existence of a legal no-man's-land at Guantanamo Bay, where UK citizens and others do not face trial under UK law or US law or according to international law? The Prime Minister has said that there must be a point in time when the issue is brought to a head. Is that point in time not before or during President Bush's forthcoming visit to London?

The Prime Minister

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. Secondly, yes, the issue must be resolved soon. I cannot say exactly when, but there are two alternatives: either sufficient undertakings will be given about the form of trial that the detainees will have under a military commission, or they will be returned to the United Kingdom. The British Attorney-General has been in touch with his American counterpart in order to try to make sure that sufficient undertakings are given. It may not be possible to bring the US rules into conformity with ours, in which case the detainees will be returned to the UK.

I want to make a further point to the right hon. Gentleman. It is important to realise that there is a reason why those people have been detained, and there is a reason why it is extremely important that we exercise a great deal of care about how they are tried, not merely for their sake—they are entitled to a fair trial—but for the security of this country.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Fireworks Act 2003 is now on the statute book. [Interruption.] I hoped that would get a cheer. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the major problem that we face is the importation of illegal fireworks? More than 1,000 tonnes have come in through Felixstowe over the past six weeks and are causing enormous problems throughout the country. Would my right hon. Friend try to resolve the problem and make sure that we maintain safety in our communities?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to respond positively to my hon. Friend's remarks, and I congratulate him on all the work that he did on his Bill on the issue. Fireworks are a real source of antisocial behaviour. That is why the Government support the measures set out in my hon. Friend's Bill. I very much hope that even in advance of those measures coming into effect, people will realise, particularly in respect of the sale of fireworks to young people, that there are strict laws that should be upheld and not breached, and that those who breach them should face the full severity of the law.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

May I personally welcome the Prime Minister back to the Dispatch Box, and say that I am glad to see that he is clearly back to full health?

Following yesterday's disappointments in Northern Ireland, does the Prime Minister agree that Sinn Fein-IRA have not done enough to demonstrate their commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means? In April, the Prime Minister asked Gerry Adams to say that all IRA paramilitary activity would end. Could he tell us where Mr. Adams made that clear in his statement yesterday? Do we not need to be certain that for the IRA the war is over?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes.

In respect of the IRA, two very important things happened yesterday. First, there was a clear statement by Gerry Adams, which was then endorsed by the IRA, that the implementation of the Good Friday agreement means the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland. It is the first time that that has been said in those terms, and that is very important. Secondly, that statement—I do not have the exact text in front of me—made it clear that there should be a cessation of all paramilitary activity. Furthermore, the position of the two Governments—as stated in our joint declaration, paragraph 13 of which lists those paramilitary activities—is that any breach of what is set out there will incur the full sanctions of the Independent Monitoring Commission. The existence of that monitoring commission and those sanctions gives us the best chance not only of having the words which, obviously, are merely words—but of ensuring that the deeds are done and that the IRA or any other organisation can be held to account for what it does.

Mr. Duncan Smith

On monitoring, there is clearly a need for greater openness on the issue of IRA weapons. We need to clarify the timetable by which illegal weapons are finally to be put beyond use. Last night, the media reported that British officials had spoken in briefings about the kinds of weapons that had been decommissioned. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that if the people of Northern Ireland knew what he knew, they would be satisfied. Can he explain, then, why details of all decommissioned weapons cannot now be placed in the public domain?

The Prime Minister

I can explain that, although I agree that it is an unsatisfactory situation—we are trying to resolve it at the moment. Under the decommissioning legislation, it is open to paramilitary organisations to decommission with confidentiality as to exactly what has been decommissioned. That is the arrangement that they entered into with General de Chastelain, who, for perfectly obvious and honourable reasons, feels bound by it. He gives certain information not the full information, but certain information—to us, as the two Governments. Although we are not at liberty to disclose that information without his permission, we are working hard to try to find a way in which we can do so, because I believe, on the basis of what we know, that people would be satisfied if they knew the full details.

I entirely understand that from the perspective of the Unionist community people need, given all the history of this issue, to be sure that what is said to be a substantial act of decommissioning is indeed a substantial act of decommissioning. Over the next few days, we have to try to find a way to resolve this, because that will allow the right atmosphere, conducive to sustainable institutions, to surround the elections in Northern Ireland that take place on 26 November.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that once the dust settles on the events in Northern Ireland over the past 24 hours, we are left, still, with the Good Friday agreement? Will he further agree that that is more likely to be delivered in its entirety if there is bipartisan support across this House?

The Prime Minister

That is true. I hope that people in Northern Ireland realise that it is deeply frustrating and disappointing that we were unable to achieve the full range of agreements that we thought we would be able to achieve yesterday. However, people should not lose sight of the fact that enormous progress has been made in Northern Ireland over the past few years. We have had the quietest summer for some 30 years; we have parties sitting down and talking to each other who some years ago could barely bear to be in the same room together; and we have the economy expanding probably faster than in any other part of the United Kingdom.

The truth is that there is an enormous prize to be gained if we can get this last bit of the way. As far as the Government are concerned—I am sure that this is true of the Government in the Republic of Ireland—we will carry on working all the way to make this agreement a reality, because it is the only agreement on offer and it is the only prospect of a secure and stable peace for Northern Ireland in future.

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

On a separate subject, in the previous Labour party manifesto, the Prime Minister explicitly stated: We will not introduce 'top-up' fees". Does he stand by that commitment to the British public?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear on many occasions that because of that commitment, we cannot introduce variable fees until after the next election.

Mr. Kennedy

That is a lawyer's answer. The Prime Minister said at the time of the general election that he was against university top-up fees, yet he will legislate to introduce them. Given what he has said and what he now proposes to do, how can the British public trust him or his Government?

The Prime Minister

For the simple reason that I have made it clear that the proposals cannot come into effect until after an election. The issue at the next election will be how we fund universities better and improve access for our students. Three policies are on offer. The Conservative party's policy is to cut the number of students and their funding. The Liberal Democrats' policy is to say that they agree that universities need more money and that there should be greater access, and that the money will come out of a 50p top-rate of tax.

Let me explain the problem with that policy. I have been looking at Liberal Democrat policies—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] They are an excellent form of relaxation. The top-rate of tax will pay for not merely student fees, but council tax, as well as Liberal Democrats' plans for care for the elderly, and increases in pensions and in spending on the national health service. Furthermore, we have gone through their spending commitments in the past two years.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Read them out.

The Prime Minister

I could not—it would take too long. In 2001–02, the Liberal Democrats had more than 40 different spending commitments. At their conference last month, they pledged another 30. They run into literally billions of pounds. I shall tell Liberal Democrat Members what misleading the British people is. It is telling them they can get something for free when they cannot.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Jonathan Shaw.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Granada Television, which runs the popular news programme "Meridian Tonight", is threatening to close its television centre in my constituency, putting jobs at risk. Given that we have only one independent television company, does the Prime Minister share my belief that the regulator should take a robust line to protect the quality and relevance of regional news programmes throughout the country?

The Prime Minister

I agree that it is important that the regulator takes a robust line, but I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the decision is a decision for the regulator.

Q2. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

The Prime Minister knows that fishery scientists called again this week for a total ban on cod fishing in the North sea. Will he explain why, if cod stocks are so poor, the Government continue to allow the Danish industrial fishing fleet to fish for almost anything with scales, including a massive by-catch of immature cod?

The Prime Minister

I understand that the issue is important, not least in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. For that reason, negotiations will take place at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in December, when we shall make precisely the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. Although more member states agree with our position, more scientific evidence is needed to convince others. We are setting about doing exactly that. I appreciate that we are already convinced, but we must convince the others so that we get a majority behind our position at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council. I hope that we can do that.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

On the war on Iraq, will the Prime Minister make one point clear? When the Attorney-General gave his advice about the legality of the war, did he know that the 45-minute warning related only to battlefield weapons and not to weapons of mass destruction?

The Prime Minister

The Attorney-General's advice was clear, and dependent not on that specific information but on the legal position in United Nations resolutions. I refer my hon. Friend to an excellent article that was written today and makes precisely the same case that the Attorney-General made in his advice.

Q3. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Will the Prime Minister rule out completely reports in the press that a Labour Government—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Ann Winterton

Will the Prime Minister rule out a Labour Government using an Englishman's home—his castle as a cash register for the Treasury?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Lady means the report about capital gains tax on house sales, that has already been comprehensively denied by the Treasury.

Q4. Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

The sure start programme has been hugely successful in tackling the root causes of social deprivation and exclusion. The Wigan borough has two such schemes, neither of which is in my constituency. May I ask the Prime Minister when he will be able to extend the programme to cover areas such as Pemberton, an area of severe deprivation in my constituency, so that we can ensure that the programme will break the cycle of deprivation that passes from generation to generation, and release the full potential of all our people, no matter where they were born?

The Prime Minister

I cannot give a precise commitment on my hon. Friend's constituency, but he has already drawn attention to the two local sure start programmes in Wigan. I can say that we are increasing spending up to £1.5 billion a year for the sure start unit, which is an enormous undertaking. It is now helping some 400,000 children in some of the most disadvantaged parts of the country, as I saw for myself in Southampton a few weeks ago. The fact is that it is not merely excellent for the children; it is also giving the parents—often lone parents—a chance to get a qualification, a job and some hope in life. It is therefore a huge programme to combat poverty and social exclusion. I hope that it will go from strength to strength, not merely in my hon. Friend's area but throughout the country.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The Prime Minister once promised to be tough on crime. Can he tell us how many incidents of violent crime were recorded last year?

The Prime Minister

I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman the precise figures. I agree that violent crime has gone up. However, crime overall has fallen under this Government, and, of course, crime doubled under the last Conservative Government.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The answer is that, for the first time in our history, there were more than 1 million victims of violent crime last year. That is an increase of more than 70 per cent. in the past five years under this Labour Government. Will the Prime Minister now tell us how many gun crimes were recorded last year?

The Prime Minister

Gun crime increased by some 3 per cent. last year. I think that it was an increase of 35 per cent. before that, so that is something of a tailing off. I would also point out that the chances of being a victim of gun crime in this country are lower than in virtually any major country in the industrialised world.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is no good the Prime Minister listening to his Home Secretary telling him all about the "eye-catching initiatives". People do not want any more eye-catching initiatives; they want criminal-catching initiatives. The answer to my last question is that, again for the first time, there were 10,000 gun crimes last year. The Prime Minister once said: Crime figures are the measure of whether"— his— Government is succeeding or failing". Do not the recorded crime figures show that his Government have totally failed?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is on slightly difficult ground here, since the British crime survey makes it absolutely clear that crime has fallen under this Government, not risen. I would also point out that crime doubled under the last Conservative Government. In fact, violent crime actually went up by 73 per cent., mugging went up by 70 per cent., burglary more than doubled and car crime doubled. So our record stands very well in comparison with his. However, he says that we must have measures to do something about this, and I agree. That is why we have a Criminal Justice Bill now going through the House of Lords. Yet measures in that Bill that would have a real impact on violent crime, organised crime and gun crime are being opposed by the Conservatives in the House of Lords. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will say whether he will agree to let those measures through, particularly those dealing with organised crime and the previous convictions of defendants, because it is no use his asking for action, then denying the police the powers to get it.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister should check his own figures. They show that, overall, crime is up under this Government. [Interruption.] Oh, no. The Home Secretary should calm down. There were 800,000 more offences this year than when the Prime Minister came to power. Those crimes are the ones that were recorded by the police, not by surveys. I remind the Prime Minister that that set of figures is the same set that he used in opposition when he promised to be tough on crime. They show that violent crime is up 70 per cent., gun crime has doubled, detection rates are down and overall crime is up. Everybody in the real world knows that crime has risen. Only in Blair world is crime coming down. Is that not the reason why, when it comes to crime, nobody believes a word he says any more?

The Prime Minister

First, I repeat the fact that crime has gone down under the Government, but I accept that violent crime has gone up. However, to go back to the record of the last Conservative Government—[Interruption.] It is a useful comparison, I think, that crime doubled under them. The real point is that measures in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill and the Criminal Justice Bill are going to make a difference.

Let me tell the public what the Conservatives are opposing. We say that where there is a trial involving organised crime and the jury is nobbled by organised criminals, the right to jury trial should be withdrawn. That measure, which the police say is essential to dealing with gun crime and organised crime, is being opposed by the Conservative party. In the second measure, we say that we should make greater use of defendants' previous convictions, because juries are often appalled when they hear the long list of previous convictions read out. The police say that that information is essential to dealing with crime, but the Conservative party is opposed to that proposal, so we will take the Conservatives seriously when they start to support the measures necessary to fight crime.

Mr. Chris Mole (Ipswich)

I am glad that the Prime Minister has mentioned the Criminal Justice Bill. Can he tell me what comfort it will offer to my constituent Lisa Ellinor, who has been continuously stalked for the last 15 years by the same man? She feels that jurors should be given more information about his previous convictions in order properly to protect her from his threatening and unwanted attentions, which are making her life a living hell.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes the very point that I was seeking to make to Conservative Members. The fact is that they are opposing measures in the Criminal Justice Bill right now, while telling the public that they want firm action against crime. The very things that provide firm action against crime they oppose. They are also, incidentally, still opposed to the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which, on a different point, will allow us to seize the assets of drug dealers. That is vital in the fight against organised crime. I really think that before the Conservatives start giving us lectures on law and order, they should get their own policy sorted out.

Q5. Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)

The Prime Minister may or may not be aware that last week two Somerset colleagues and I had an excellent meeting with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. We asked to see him because of the scandalous mismanagement of funds by Liberal Democrat-controlled Somerset county council. Does the Prime Minister agree that the three E's of education, education, education are vital for teachers, governors and children in Somerset, and that any county council that misappropriates state funds should learn one of the three R's of arithmetic, arithmetic, arithmetic?

The Prime Minister

Fortunately, I am not responsible for Liberal Democrat education policy, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman. To be absolutely fair, I know that he would want to point out that, as a result of the Government's extra investment in education. there is an extra £630 per pupil going into Somerset local education authority. That makes the hon. Gentleman's point all the stronger, so it would have been even better if he had mentioned it.

Q6. Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

May I say to the House that it is good to see the Prime Minister here on top form, fighting inequality? May I also say that much will depend on the outcome of Sir Michael Lyons's report, which will relocate Government Departments from Whitehall and from the south-east? Does the Prime Minister agree with me, other north Staffordshire Members and the North Staffordshire chamber of commerce that the bid from Stoke-on-Trent council—it is leading our bid—is important in order to deliver the Government's agenda and get jobs relocated? Ensuring that jobs go to north Staffordshire, which has wonderful transport facilities and really needs more highly paid jobs and where—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sure that the Prime Minister will manage an answer.

The Prime Minister

Of course, I cannot prejudge the outcome of Sir Michael Lyons's review, but my hon. Friend makes an important point. It is one reason why we are trying to get more money into regeneration. I know that Stoke Works, which is the single regeneration budget scheme in Stoke, is putting some £8 million into the area between 2003 and 2005. Obviously, a major relocation would help. I am sure that Sir Michael will be interested in my hon. Friend's comments.

Q7. Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

As a direct result of the Government's policies, sub-post offices are closing all round the country, including in my constituency. Last year, in one of my villages, a sub-post office that is heavily used by pensioners and the disabled closed. Last week, it was announced that the next-door village is also to lose its sub-post office. Will the Prime Minister recognise that pensioners in my constituency are very angry about that, and will he desist from giving them his usual smug answer?

The Prime Minister

First, let us realise that the Government have put a substantial amount of money into rural post offices. However, the fact is—as the hon. Gentleman knows, because under the last Conservative Government thousands of post offices closed over time, pensioners, for natural reasons, will get more and more of their money through bank accounts. Now, some do not want to do that and that is why we have tried to set up a process that allows them to get their money from the post office in the normal way. But without putting vast extra sums of money in, we cannot guarantee every post office. What we can do is the best we can to work with sub-postmasters and others to introduce greater investment and to save those post offices we can. However, it is irresponsible to say to people that every single sub-post office can be saved, because it cannot.

Q8. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

Given my right hon. Friend's commitment to tackling crime and the causes of crime, is he satisfied with policing levels in the west midlands, and Coventry in particular?

The Prime Minister

It is important to recognise that huge gains have been made by the police in those areas, and it is right to say so. I think that my hon. Friend will realise—I hope that everyone does—that the police recognise that there is still a long way to go. That is why they are making the reforms and changes in the police service and why they are so anxious to have the new powers and legislation. I come back to that point, because one of the other measures that we are introducing in the Criminal Justice Bill is designed to ensure that people who will offend again do not get bail. At the moment, far too many people are let back out on the street again, virtually automatically, where they commit further offences. Yet that measure is running into opposition in the other place, led by Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers. Yes, the police need to improve and they are doing so, but they also need the powers that this Parliament should give them on a united basis.

Q9. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Private Cheryl James would have turned 26 today had she not died at Deepcut barracks on 27 November 1995. Her parents, Des and Doreen James, who are my constituents, were told that her death was suicide, but they have never been confident that that was the case. Will the Prime Minister meet Des and Doreen, and other parents in similar circumstances, to hear their concerns and what they feel should happen next?

The Prime Minister

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, will meet the families once the coroners and the police have finished their business. I would prefer it, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, that that meeting should take place first, and then we can take it from there if necessary. It is right that after the police and coroners have finished their work he undertakes the meeting that he has already agreed to.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

When was the last time the Prime Minister had a clear view of the milky way galaxy? He will know from his close reading of the most recent report from the Science and Technology Committee that the growth of light pollution means that our own galaxy is now viewable from only 30 per cent. of the United Kingdom. Does he share my concern that such inter-stellar vandalism means that generations of children are growing up without ever having an opportunity to see for themselves the beauty of the night sky? Will he now instruct his Ministers to present a positive and constructive response to the report?

The Prime Minister

I am a little bit outside my area of expertise on that point, but fortunately I have a full brief. It says: Possible question: light pollution. Welcome the Science and Technology Select Committee report. The Government will respond soon. Well—that's what we'll do.

Q10. Andrew George (St. Ives)

Decisions on genetically modified crops should be based on sound science, but if the Prime Minister accepts that the report commissioned by the Government shows that consumers do not want GM products, that supermarkets do not want to stock them, that liability issues are far from resolved, and that the science is at best inconclusive, is he satisfied that the Government can make a decision about the permanent release of GMs into the British countryside? If not, when will that decision be made?

The Prime Minister

We will act according to the scientific evidence. I think the system that we have set up is robust, because it is allowing us to get proper scientific evidence. For some GM crops, for example, there are problems to do with biodiversity, but others are said to have fewer such problems. I know that there is a huge campaign against GM but, to be frank, the Government have no interest in the matter one way or the other, other than to try to do the right thing. However, the biotechnology industry is a vital part of this country's industry. Many people believe that the science of genetics will be the most important science of the first half of the 21st century, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that other countries are piling investment into this area. Therefore, we must proceed with care. We will proceed only according to science, but we must allow that science to be carried out. When we make a determination on this matter, we must not be prejudiced, either in favour of it or against it.