HC Deb 21 April 2004 vol 420 cc286-94
Q1. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 April.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before announcing my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in expressing condolences to the families of those Iraqis, including children, who were tragically murdered in a series of explosions in Basra this morning. I understand also that four British soldiers were wounded in the attacks, and our thoughts are with them and their families. Let us be clear. The majority of Iraqi people want a stable and democratic Iraq; these terrorists want to stop them. We—all of us in the international community—have to join that majority in Iraq to make sure that the terrorists do not succeed and that democracy prevails. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

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.

Chris Bryant

Unemployment in the Rhondda is at a historic low of 4.1 per cent. but one in four people is on incapacity benefit. If we are going to get more people off benefits and into work, we need a strong local national health service. Will the Prime Minister guarantee us the funds that we need not only for our new local hospital at Llwynypia but for more new GPs and a stronger primary health care service so that we can put behind us once and for all the Tory legacy of a demoralised and underfunded national health service?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to be able to say to my hon. Friend that not only has unemployment fallen substantially and not merely are there about 1.75 million more jobs in the British economy today, but, as a result of the announcement today for the national health service, there will be 25,000 additional operations. These are, it is true, with private-sector contractors, but they are within the national health service framework and they will be free at the point of use—no patients passport for them. They will allow us to make sure that the record of improving the national health service in this country by a programme of investment and reform is maintained.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)

May I associate myself completely with the condolences that the Prime Minister has expressed to the families of those Iraqis who so tragically lost their lives this morning in Basra? As he said, our thoughts also go to the families of the British soldiers who were wounded in those attacks. May I also associate myself with the remainder of his remarks about Iraq and about the need for us to safeguard the position of the majority of the Iraqi people and to see out the commitments that we have entered into notwithstanding the difficulties that we face?

Mr. Speaker, you can always tell when the Government are in trouble. They call on the hon. Gentleman and they start singing "Help me, Rhondda. Help, help me Rhondda." [Laughter.]

The Prime Minister recently sent a personal memo to all members of his Cabinet and, as it happens, I have a copy here. It says: Too often … change has been initiated in ignorance of the risks and of what might be done to deal with them. In future we need to ensure that risks have been adequately considered before we make policy announcements". When he wrote that, what exactly did he have in mind?

The Prime Minister

In deciding on this we studied very carefully the record of a previous Minister, and we decided that one thing we really wanted to avoid was being in the position of introducing anything quite as disastrous as the poll tax, opposition to the minimum wage or the social chapter, or a million extra unemployed—in other words, to be as little like him as possible.

Mr. Howard

The memo was not sent to me; I am not on the circulation list. It was sent to members of the right hon. Gentleman's Cabinet. It is about his Government, his policies and his failure to make sure that risks are adequately considered before policy announcements are made.

The Prime Minister was not prepared to tell us what he had in mind, so let me see whether I can help him. When did the Cabinet reverse its policy and decide to hold a referendum on the European constitution?

The Prime Minister

We announced our policy on the referendum yesterday. [Interruption.

Yes, it is important that we consider carefully any risks in relation to a policy, and we have considered carefully the following risks. We have considered how it is important to make sure that we maintain the best economic record of any Government in many years; we have considered how we keep unemployment down, inflation down and interest rates down and how we keep employment up; we have considered how we maintain the biggest ever investment in health, education, and law and order; and we have considered the very serious risk that all that would not happen if there were a Tory Government.

Mr. Howard

The whole country will have seen that once again the Prime Minister has failed to answer a simple, direct question. I am in a helpful mood this afternoon, so I will help him again. We know that the Cabinet was not consulted because the Foreign Secretary told us so last night. From the grandeur of the Foreign Office, he made this authoritative statement: This is a reflection really of, of where we are in terms of, not of spin as some people suggest, but in terms of how we have to live in a much more open society, open culture, and twenty four hour news. Would that it would have been possible to have delayed the announcement until Thursday so it could have been formally discussed in Cabinet but as it turned out it simply wasn't possible". That is what the Prime Minister means by Cabinet government: he performs a huge policy U-turn; he leaks it to the newspapers, and then he tells the Cabinet that there is no time left for them to make a decision.

With or without the Cabinet, let me ask the Prime Minister this question to see to what extent he has followed the advice that he gave to his colleagues in his personal memo and to what extent he has thought the matter through. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Leader of the Opposition speak.

Mr. Howard

If the Prime Minister is still in office when the referendum takes place, and there is a no vote, will he veto the constitution or will he renegotiate it?

The Prime Minister

We will be in exactly the same position as, for example, Ireland after its rejection, the first time round, of the Nice treaty. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Oh yes, this is an important point. That means that if we were in government, we would sit down and discuss the way forward with other European countries. That is what Ireland did after its rejection of the Nice treaty, and that is what would happen if we were in government.

Let me put the question back to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Perhaps he would just confirm that if he were in government his position would be to reject any constitutional treaty whatever. If we were in government, we could, although this would be a serious issue, sit down and plan out the way forward with other countries. However, if the right hon. and learned Gentleman were in office, he would be saying that he was not prepared to accept any constitutional treaty, and that is why he would then be left with a choice of other countries going forward and Britain being in a different relationship with the European Union.

Mr. Howard

The Prime Minister has failed to answer a simple and straightforward question. I did not ask him whether he was going to sit down and plan the way forward, but asked a very simple question. Will he veto the treaty in the event of a no vote or will he seek to renegotiate it? Which would it be?

The Prime Minister

If there is a no vote, the treaty cannot be ratified on that basis, which is why we, who support the principle of a constitutional treaty, would then have to sit down with the others and work out the way forward. [Interruption.] But that is a completely different position—let the right hon. and learned Gentleman get up and confirm it—from that of a Government who say that they will not accept any constitutional treaty. Perhaps he would confirm that that is his position.

Hon. Members


Mr. Howard

We are against a constitution for the European Union, because countries have constitutions and nation states make treaties with each other. That is our position. I think that the Prime Minister has confirmed—I will give him a chance to confirm it directly—what we have been saying all along. If this treaty—this constitution—does not proceed as a consequence of a no vote in this country. Britain would remain a full participating member of the European Union. Will he confirm that that is the case?

The Prime Minister

If the constitution is rejected in a referendum, of course, the position remains that we then have to work out the way forward with the other countries. Until then, the status quo remains. As for rejecting any constitutional treaty, let me point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that this is a treaty, not a constitution absent from a treaty. It is the treaty establishing a constitution for Europe. In other words, it is a treaty agreed in the same way as Maastricht or any other treaty between the European Union members. It is a constitutional treaty. [Interruption.] This is extremely important. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he would reject any constitution, does he mean that he would reject any constitutional treaty?

Mr. Howard

I have set out our position with absolute clarity. [Interruption.] If the Prime Minister wants to find out more about our position—

The Prime Minister

I do.

Mr. Howard

He says that he wants to find out more about our position. Yesterday, he said: let the battle be joined."—[Official Report, 20 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 157.] I cannot wait. I make this challenge to the Prime Minister—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] As soon as the constitution is agreed, will he take part in a televised debate with me in which we can explore all these issues? Will he accept that challenge? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

The debate that we will have is here in the House. When it is agreed in this House, we will have a debate in the country. To go back to the heart of the point—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Prime Minister answer. [Interruption.] Order. I do not want anyone shouting.

The Prime Minister

We are having a televised debate now, I rather think, unless we are silent on the television cameras. Just so that we understand his position, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman reject in entirety any constitutional treaty? Let us have the debate. We are on television now, so will he answer yes or no? I shall tell him what I think he is trying to do. He is trying to suggest to one part of his party that he rejects the whole idea of a constitutional treaty, but he is keeping open his freedom of manoeuvre in case he wants to negotiate amendments to the existing treaty. It is an obvious distinction—amendments to the existing treaty or no treaty at all? Which is it? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Lab)

May I tell the Prime Minister that I am delighted that he has changed his mind and decided to put the issue of the European constitution to the British people? Does he agree that what is good for Europe is also good for Wales? In light of the Richard commission report, if there are any plans to give primary legislative powers to the Welsh Assembly, does he agree that that should be a decision of the Welsh people, not of politicians?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for her opening remarks. We will consider the Richard report carefully and we will consider any representations on it carefully. We will make our decisions on it and any consequential policies as a result of that consultation.

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

May I associate myself and my colleagues with the expression of condolences that the Prime Minister so properly made? Scores of Iraqi civilians have lost their lives as a result of the latest outrage, and reports from the Ministry of Defence confirm that several British troops have been very seriously injured. This is a timely reminder for us all of the escalating violence throughout Iraq as we build towards the 30 June deadline. Given that the United States confirmed last week that it is to deploy a further 20,000 of its forces into Iraq, is the Prime Minister satisfied, as things stand in Basra, that there are sufficient levels of British troops to manage the situation? Has he had requests for more, and does he have any plans to deploy more British troops or equipment into the area?

The Prime Minister

We are satisfied that we have sufficient troops in Basra. We do not have plans to increase the number. Of course, we always have to keep that situation under review, but at present the British troops are managing extremely well down there. The attacks today indicate that the terrorists are becoming sufficiently desperate that they are prepared to attack the most defenceless people they can find, simply in order to create maximum chaos. The feedback that we are getting from ordinary Iraqi people in Basra, as one might expect, is intense anger towards those who are killing wholly innocent civilians.

Mr. Kennedy

I thank the Prime Minister for that clarification on the British troops. May I ask him a further question, concerning their status? After the 30 June handover, what will be the formal relationship between the British troops and the new Iraqi authority, and between the British troops and the American powers in Iraq? What will be the legal status? Is that likely to be addressed or spelled out in any further United Nations Security Council resolution?

The Prime Minister

That may well be the case. There are two separate issues. The first is the new security agreement that we want to draw up with the incoming Iraqi Government. We are talking about that and negotiating with people now. The second issue is what the hierarchy and chain of command will be. Again, we are discussing that. It will be important to make sure in whatever discussions we have that British troops are properly protected—in other words, in doing everything we can to sustain and help the new Iraqi Government, we will have to be careful that the position of British troops and the orders that can be given to them are clear. We will have to help the new Iraqi Administration with such matters.

Our view at present is that in all likelihood a new United Nations Security Council resolution will allow us to deal with both the political and the security aspects and, I hope, on a reasonably consensual basis. I very much welcome what Japan and South Korea have just announced with regard to their troops. It is extremely important to realise that we have more than 30 coalition countries in Iraq. I believe there is a huge amount of good will in the international community, irrespective of what people thought about the war, to try to help the people of Iraq on their way to the democratic state that it is obvious the majority of them want.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab)

In view of the continuing and crass invasion of privacy of David and Victoria Beckham, and in view of the judges' concerns about making privacy law on a case by case basis, are there not two rather simple options available to us? One is to make the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct enforceable in law, which would give a toothless body some teeth. The alternative is to enable the editors and owners of newspapers to come before bodies of people here, in the Palace of Westminster, which represents the people, to take questions about their private and public lives.

The Prime Minister

I think that what my hon. Friend suggests—perhaps I shall not continue. I say simply that I am sure that this debate will continue. I have no thoughts to offer on it myself, except that I hope that everyone understands that occasionally when people's privacy is invaded in this way, it causes great distress to people, and I do not always think that it is really in the public interest.

Q2. Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)

In the light of yesterday's first report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which side of this new security screen does the Prime Minister think that Sinn Fein should in future sit?

The Prime Minister

We have supported the Independent Monitoring Commission report; after all, we established that body. We will act upon it. Anything in relation to this House is, of course, a matter for this House, but as far as the Government are concerned, we will implement the proposals and recommendations that the IMC makes.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend welcome the release of Mordechai Vanunu and commit our Government to increasing our efforts to promote a nuclear weapons-free zone throughout the middle east?

The Prime Minister

This is obviously an issue, in respect of Mr. Vanunu, on which we have been in discussions and received information over a long period. In respect of a nuclear-free middle east, yes, of course, everyone wants to see that, but what is important is that we recognise that in order to achieve that, Israel is going to have to be sure that it is surrounded by countries that do not wish it ill. That is why it is important that we try to make progress in the middle east peace process.

Q3. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con)

Now that my constituent, Mahjid Nawaz, has been sentenced to five years in prison in Egypt, together with constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and of the hon. Members for East Ham (Mr. Timms) and for West Ham (Mr. Banks), all on the basis of confessions under duress, will the Prime Minister now make a plea for clemency to President Mubarak? As a matter of urgency, will he please meet colleagues to discuss what will eventually be proved to be a very serious miscarriage of justice?

The Prime Minister

I do not want to prejudge the outcome of any consideration of those cases. As I have made clear before, we will consider any further action when we have received a transcript of the judge's summation of the verdict. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary says, however, that he is very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members to discuss the case. I hope that we can find a way forward, while respecting entirely, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would want to do, the real anxiety of the Egyptian Government and people about acts of terrorism.

Q4. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend tell Ariel Sharon that, yes, Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would be a step forward and that, yes, he has every right to expect Palestinian leaders to do everything in their power to stop suicide bombers, but that moderate Palestinian leaders will have no chance if Israel is allowed to continue to create what President Bush called new realities on the ground? It is this constant encroachment on Palestinian land that stokes up the hatred that perpetuates the conflict and is the recruiting sergeant for yet more suicide bombers.

The Prime Minister

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes and the moderate way in which he expresses it. If there is disengagement from Gaza and the west bank, that will be the first removal of settlements for a very long time indeed, and that is important. However, it is also important that we do not create new realities on the ground, but it is for that reason that I believe that the best chance that we have of avoiding that is to make sure that, when the disengagement happens, the Palestinian Authority has the wherewithal in economic, political and security terms, as I said on Monday, to fill the vacuum and ensure that we can move properly back into the road map process, which should lead in the end to what we all want to see—two states: an Israel confident of its security, and a viable Palestinian state.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)

While I fully support the principle of European Union enlargement, may I ask the Prime Minister to comment on the fact that Latvia, which has a population of 2.3 million as compared with Wales's 2.9 million, will have more than twice as many Members of the European Parliament representing it? Furthermore, Malta, whose population is a seventh as large as that of Wales, will have five MEPs, compared with Wales's four. How can he justify this?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure that asking for extra MEPs is always the best solution. Latvia stands on its own, while Wales is obviously part of the United Kingdom. There are various geographical and numerical ways to divide up countries, but compared to other countries of a similar size—we consider the matter on a UK basis—the UK is properly and adequately represented in the European Parliament.

Q5. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

On rip-off Britain, is my right hon. Friend aware that the clearing banks are believed to hold some £15 billion in assets from people whose accounts they cannot trace? Given that those banks absorb those assets into their profits, is there not an overwhelming case for a windfall tax to take away the gains from that exercise in corporate greed? Perhaps some of that money should be deployed to prop up people in failed pension schemes such as Allied Steel and Wire, whose futures have been jeopardised by corporate incompetence within the private sector.

The Prime Minister

I think that my right hon. Friend will acknowledge that there are two separate issues. First, on unclaimed assets, we support the efforts of the British Bankers Association, the Building Societies Association and National Savings and Investments either to try to reunite owners with their assets or to make sure that that money is used in a different way, although those bodies have fiduciary obligations to their various stakeholders. Secondly. we are actively considering the position of people who, having been forced to contribute to occupational pension schemes, find that all the money that they have invested yields absolutely nothing. We are examining what we can do in such special cases, and, in the context of the current debate on pension protection issues and legislation, I hope that we can come forward with the solution.

Q6. Mr. A. J. Beith(LD) (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the imminent announcement by the Ministry of Defence that may move most operations conducted from RAF Bulmer in my constituency to Lincolnshire, in which case at least £15 million would have to be spent to replace the facilities, some of which have been recently completed, at RAF Bulmer? Given that the move would not result in a gain in RAF operational effectiveness, will he take an urgent personal look at the questionable figures for potential savings on which the proposed move is based? It flies in the face of regional policy to take £20 million out of Northumberland's economy

The Prime Minister

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's concern, because RAF Bulmer is important to his constituency. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, wrote to him indicating that it would be £131 million cheaper in terms of net present value to move the units based at Bulmer. I know that that point is disputed, but the House will understand that the Ministry of Defence must constantly balance hon. Members' desires to keep units in their own constituencies with the need to keep military capability and military spending under review and to make sure that funds are used efficiently and effectively. I am happy to examine the matter, but I do so without a commitment or guarantee.

Q7. Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)

From September, children of 16 will, for the first time, be entitled to cash payments—education maintenance allowances—to stay on at school. Historically, we have disincentivised them, because, of all the options open to them, school is the only one that does not pay. The scheme is yet another excellent idea, and it would undoubtedly come under the hammer if the Opposition got their hands on it. Youth skill levels are currently poor, and we have the lowest staying on rates in Europe. Does the Prime Minister believe that the measure will make a real difference?

The Prime Minister

The measure will make a real difference, and the pilots indicate that more young people will stay on at school as a result of the allowance. Labour Members certainly think that it is important to encourage young people to stay on and study after the age of 16, and the measure must be considered alongside the substantial extra investment in education. The scheme has been widened to include the whole of the 16 to 19-year-old bracket, and some 300,000 young people will benefit. We must also ensure that vocational skills increase by expanding the vocational skills route, which is part of making sure that we get the educated work force that this country needs.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister accept, in relation to his earlier remarks with regard to the nature of the treaty and constitution, that in fact, under the proposed constitution, all the existing treaties will be revoked and reapplied with the existing acquis communautaire under the primacy of a new constitution? Will he therefore accept that that, as the House of Lords has already said in a report, is a fundamental change?

The Prime Minister

It is a constitutional treaty, and it is therefore a treaty in the same way that the other treaties are treaties. The hon. Gentleman is right, of course, in saying that many of the provisions in the earlier treaties are bound into this one. That is absolutely right—a significant part of it simply replicates the existing treaty basis. That is the position that I was putting to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). The hon. Gentleman of course has a very clear position on this—he wants to change fundamentally the existing nature of the relationship between Britain and the European Union. That is right, is it not? He certainly does not want any constitutional treaty at all.

Mr. Cash

indicated assent.

The Prime Minister

The question is whether his right hon. and learned Friend is in the same position. What is interesting about today is that now we are actually debating the detail.