HC Deb 28 January 2004 vol 417 cc302-12
Q1. David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 28th January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before I list my engagements for the day, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in expressing our deep condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the British soldier who has been tragically killed in Afghanistan today. Our thoughts are also with those who were wounded in that attack.

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.

David Burnside

I join the Prime Minister in expressing condolences to the family and friends of that serving member of our armed forces.

The Prime Minister was probably not aware as we were preparing for the great education debate yesterday that, the day before, the Minister with responsibility for education in the Northern Ireland Office announced that academic selection between the primary and secondary sectors in Northern Ireland should end. The Prime Minister should be aware that Northern Ireland has in its secondary sector and grammar schools, such as Antrim grammar school and Ballyclare high school, the highest academic standards—better than all the rest of the United Kingdom. That is a great selling point for Northern Ireland. Will the Prime Minister personally intervene to defend our grammar schools, as something good and positive in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

I gather that the hon. Gentleman is right, in that that is what the post-primary review body has recommended. I heard what he said, and no doubt there will be strong feelings on both sides of that argument. I simply point out to him that if we were fortunate enough to get devolved institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland, this would be a devolved matter again. Perhaps I can look forward to his help in securing that.

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)

As we now learn on the anniversary of the miners strike that the enemy within turns out to be the BBC, had we not better privatise it sooner rather than later?

The Prime Minister

This is a day for diplomacy, at least at this stage.

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

May I first—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not going to allow shouting. If there is any more shouting, the Members in question will have to be removed from the Chamber.

Mr. Howard

May I first join the Prime Minister in expressing my sincere sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of the British soldier killed in Afghanistan today?

Will the Prime Minister give the House a categorical assurance that no one in or around No. 10 Downing street leaked the Hutton report last night?

The Prime Minister

I most certainly will give the right hon. and learned Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. Nobody, as far as I am aware, has leaked that from the Government or any part of government—I do not believe that to be the case. The chairman of the Conservative party was on television last night saying that the leaking of this document was a despicable act from "a morally bankrupt Government." Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman would now produce the evidence for that statement.

Mr. Howard

Is not the best way of getting the evidence for there to be a proper inquiry entirely independent of Government? Will we have such an inquiry? And, by the way, who does the Prime Minister think benefited from the leak?

The Prime Minister

As we have already made clear, we are very happy that there should be an inquiry, and that is why we are in touch with Lord Hutton. If he recommends a certain course of action, we will take it.

Let me go back to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said a moment ago. He said that the inquiry was a way of getting at the evidence. In other words, there was no actual evidence for what the chairman of the Conservative party said. He did not say, "It might be that the leaking of the document is a despicable act from the Government." He said that the leaking was from the Government. What was the evidence for that?

Mr. Howard

I hope that we get a full inquiry independent of Government, and I advise the Prime Minister, to coin a phrase, not to prejudge that inquiry.

The background to the Hutton report is what the Government told us about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The head of the Iraq survey group, David Kay, has now said that he does not believe that stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction exist or existed in Iraq. His replacement said that the reason that they have not been found is that they arc probably not there. What does the Prime Minister think?

The Prime Minister

First let me return to the inquiry, because I do not think that this point should be let go. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he does not want to prejudge the inquiry, but that is precisely what the chairman of the Conservative party has done. I therefore ask him again either to substantiate the claim that the Government leaked the document or to withdraw it, because he is getting rather a reputation for making such allegations when there is no substance to them.

As for weapons of mass destruction, let me read to the right hon. and learned Gentleman what he said way before the Hutton inquiry: The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction poses a danger that we ignore at our peril… The threat to world peace from Iraq is acute and we must combat it with all legitimate means at our disposal. So do not let him pretend that he has somehow been misled over weapons of mass destruction; it is just another example of his blatant opportunism.

Mr. Howard

Of course we supported the war; we still support the war, but we also want to get at the truth. The Prime Minister may not understand that it is important to get at the truth, but we do. He may not understand that it is possible both to support the war and to get at the truth, but we do.

Nearly eight months ago, in May last year, the Prime Minister said that he was waiting to publish "a complete picture" of intelligence, including "what we've actually found". Some material, he said, was not yet public and what we are going to do is assemble that evidence and present it properly". When will he publish that material, which he promised nearly eight months ago?

The Prime Minister

When the Iraq survey group completes its work, which is what we have said right from the very beginning. It is surely right that when we have a group in Iraq looking at the evidence, we wait until that group concludes before we publish it.

Just so that we are quite clear as to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has accused me of, I tell the House what he said back in August last year: There was and is, in my view, a valid and legitimate case for having gone to war with Iraq. There was no need to lie, there was no need to mislead people in order to make that case. And to mislead the House of Commons and the nation in order to gain support for going to war is a very, very serious matter indeed. He also said: What people are increasingly coming to realise is that we have a Prime Minister who is a stranger to the truth". I hope that if that allegation is found not to be proven, he will have the decency to apologise for it.

Mr. Howard

We all know, Mr. Speaker, that a wider inquiry than the one that the Prime Minister has set out is necessary to test that allegation, so there is nothing for me to withdraw.

Why on earth does the Prime Minister need to wait before publishing the evidence? Eight months ago he said that he was going to publish the material that he had. Just before Christmas he said that there was massive evidence of a huge system of clandestine laboratories, workings by scientists and plans to develop long range ballistic missiles. What is he waiting for? Why does he not publish that evidence now?

The Prime Minister

As a matter of fact, that evidence has already been published by the Iraq survey group. Let me remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that Dr. Kay said that the ISG has found documents and equipment at undeclared laboratories and facilities. Dr. Kay continued: Secondly, they have found substantial evidence of research and design work on longer-range missile delivery systems. Regarding biological weapons, he said that there was evidence that the Iraqis continued research and development right up until the end to improve their ability to produce ricin. So the evidence is there and has already been published by the Iraq survey group.

I suggest that the inquiry that we need is into the blatant opportunism of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The truth is that he seeks to conceal the absence of any proper policies for the country by making allegations against the integrity of the Government that he cannot sustain.

Mr. Howard

Will the Prime Minister place in the Library of the House of Commons today the massive evidence that he says has already seen published of a huge system of clandestine laboratories, workings by scientists, plans to develop long-range ballistic missiles"? He says that the evidence has been published; will he put it in the House of Commons Library today so that the whole country can judge whether it supports that allegation?

The Prime Minister

The evidence is, of course, in the Iraq survey group report. Let me make one other point to the right hon. and learned Gentleman: there is, of course, a legitimate debate about whether the conflict in Iraq was right. That is a legitimate debate in which there can be legitimate disagreements. It is completely unnecessary to have a debate that suggests that somehow we deliberately misled the public on that case. The plain fact is that that allegation is particularly absurd coming from him and the Conservative party, as I recall that even before the publication of the famous dossier he and his colleagues were urging me to take action and accusing me of dithering for not having done so. Whoever else can make that claim, frankly it does not lie in his mouth to make it.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Some hon. Gentlemen are too near the Chair to start shouting.

Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab)

If children do not develop competence in core skills in their early years, their expectations of going to university remain extremely low. Does my right hon. Friend agree that further funding and progress in that sector lie at the heart of widening access to university, just as much as the provisions in the Higher Education Bill?

The Prime Minister

I obviously agree with my hon. Friend. She is right to point out that at the moment university students are funded by the taxpayer to a far more generous extent than pre-school years, primary school pupils or secondary school pupils. Her other point is surely right: 90 per cent. of young people who get two good A-levels go to university, and therefore the biggest determinant of whether people go to university is the quality of the education that they receive prior to university. For that very reason, it is important to continue the investment in pre-school years, in primary schools and in secondary schools.

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

Moving on from the rather rapid rewriting of history that we have just been entertained by, will the Prime Minister revisit more recent history—the outcome of last night's vote on his policy on top-up fees? Looking back to yesterday evening and the events that led up to the Division, does he think that it was decided by the overwhelming merits of the argument or that his close friend and near neighbour the Chancellor bailed him out at the eleventh hour?

The Prime Minister

It was, of course, a result of the combined efforts of the Government to present a wonderful case to the public. I would prefer to have a narrow victory trying to do the right thing for the country than to have a narrow defeat trying to do the wrong thing.

Mr. Kennedy

The Chancellor's face says it all. Will the Prime Minister join me in making representations to you, Mr. Speaker, that—given the considerable public and parliamentary interest—the legislation should be considered on the Floor of the House by a Committee of the whole House? That way, Members representing all parts of the United Kingdom and all parts of the Labour party would be able to contribute.

The Prime Minister

No, I think that it should be considered in the normal way. What could be considered on the Floor of the House is a return to the debate between us about the Liberal Democrats and how they will fund their commitments. I have further information for the House on that one. It will be recalled that I was telling the right hon. Gentleman that he had a whole lot of spending commitments that he could not finance. The Liberal Democrats have recently published a document with a list of their spending commitments, several of which seem—mysteriously—to have vanished. That includes one on transport, on which the document states: Policy: Nearly £2 billion more for the railways…Liberal Democrat response: no longer a commitment due to changed circumstances. In relation to public sector staff, it states: Policy: Training places for at least an extra 4,600 doctors and 27,500 nurses…Libdem response: these policies are now 'out of date'". I suggest that we should indeed have a debate on the Floor of the House, but that it should be on his spending policies.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the BBC, under its charter, has a right to provide news and current affairs that is independent, objective and balanced? Does he think that the coverage of the leak of the Hutton inquiry report last night measured up to that standard?

The Prime Minister

It is surely right, especially if there is to be an inquiry into it, that people do not make a judgment until they hear the facts. I can personally tell the House that I want nothing to detract from the Hutton report being heard in an unalloyed and unadulterated way by the British public. I hope that the media today allow that to happen.

Q2. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning the decision by the Conservative-controlled Essex county council to abolish the school meals service from April? For many children, it is the main meal of the day, and for some children it is the only hot meal of the day. Will the Prime Minister engage ministerial colleagues in seeing what can be done to change that decision? For a start, will he revoke the Government's 1999 order behind which the Tories are hiding for their dastardly deed?

The Prime Minister

Of course, in the end such decisions are for local authorities, but we believe that the provision of school meals for pupils, especially from the poorest backgrounds, has a beneficial effect on their education. Unfortunately, some of our youngsters go to school without having had a proper meal. It means that they do not learn or pay attention in their lessons as well as they should, and it is for that reason that we are deeply committed to ensuring that the funding is there for local authorities to provide that service. I will look into the point that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Q3. Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op)

May I commend my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the time, effort and commitment he spent on freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein? Will he give similar time, effort and commitment to freeing the Palestinian people of the illegal separation wall and barbed wire fence that runs through their land and to freeing them from the tyranny and repression of the Israeli occupation of their land?

The Prime Minister

I understand the strength of feeling on that issue. We have already made it clear—the Foreign Secretary has done so—that we do not agree with the building of the wall on Palestinian land and we have urged the Israeli Government to reroute the fence away from Palestinian land. It is important to emphasise two other points. First, we want to try to get back to negotiation on the road map as soon as possible, as that is the only prospect for long-term peace. Secondly, in the meantime, the immediate priority is to get an initiative together on security that allows the Israelis some confidence that they will not continually have suicide bombers coming into Israel and killing large numbers of innocent people. The Palestinians are suffering in this situation, and the Israelis are suffering. The only way to bridge between where we are and where we need to be—a renegotiation on the basis of the road map—is a proper security initiative that at least gives us the confidence that 100 per cent. effort is being applied on the Palestinian side.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con)

Why are the balance of payments deficits and the fiscal deficits so hopelessly out of control?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that for an instant. If the hon. Gentleman looks back to the time when I used to shadow him in the House of Commons, back in the late '80s and early '90s, he will find that the deficits on both were a darn sight worse than they are today. What is more, that was without our economic record—the lowest inflation, the lowest interest rates, the lowest unemployment and the highest employment for decades. I would have thought that he would be congratulating us on having got rid of the old boom and bust under the Tories and replacing it with economic stability.

Q4. Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op)

I know that the Prime Minister agrees that the aerospace industry is of crucial importance to the United Kingdom economy. I am sure, therefore, that he will share my pleasure at Monday's announcement that the AirTanker Ltd. proposal has been selected by the Ministry of Defence for its future strategic tanker programme. That was welcome news for the workers at Rolls-Royce and Airbus in my constituency. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the complex negotiations needed for that very innovative contract will be completed as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, although obviously there is a long way to go, because the negotiations are, necessarily, detailed. This week, the Government announced that we have begun negotiations with Air Tanker for the MOD's £13 billion pound future strategic tanker aircraft. If successful, the AirTanker bid will obviously be good news for the UK, creating several thousand jobs across the country, including in my hon. Friend's constituency—that comes along with a more optimistic CBI industrial trends survey, issued today. I recognise the tremendous importance not just of the jobs in my hon. Friend's constituency but also of the skilled workforce who would benefit from such a bid being successful.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

Does the Prime Minister intend to become the last person on the planet to maintain that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction capable of being deployed in 45 minutes?

The Prime Minister

It is not merely I who have maintained that Saddam Hussein had such weapons; it has been maintained by almost every country that has looked at the issue. That is why, in November 2002, the United Nations unanimously declared the existence of those weapons a threat to the world.

Q5. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)

The Prime Minister will be aware of my constituent's son, Joseph Scholes, who committed suicide at Stoke Heath prison at the tender age of 16 years. My constituent, Yvonne Scholes, is calling for a full public inquiry into her son's death—not just an inquest, a full public inquiry—to examine all aspects of his death, including sentencing and the practice of allocating young, vulnerable people to adult prisons. Will the Prime Minister do all that he can to ensure that that inquiry comes about?

The Prime Minister

I offer my sympathies to the family of Joseph Scholes on his tragic death, which happened, I think, in March 2002 when he was only 16 years old. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that the ombudsman for the Prison Service is conducting an investigation into the death, and I understand that a coroner's inquest will also be conducted. I also point out that the Prison Service has implemented the safer custody programme to help prisoners, especially young people and those in prison for the first time. The Youth Justice Board is specifically involved in that programme. I will look into the details of the investigation and write to my hon. Friend to try to give him some idea of what its time lines will be.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con)

If it turns out that Saddam Hussein transferred his weapons of mass destruction to another country in the region, and given the Prime Minister's logic in taking this country to war with Iraq, what Action would he take against that country?

The Prime Minister

I think that we should wait to see whether those claims are justified. I know that the Iraq survey group is specifically looking at the evidence for any such suggestion. There is one major difference between Saddam Hussein and any other country: Saddam Hussein actually used those weapons, not merely against his own people but against a neighbouring country.

Q7. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth) (Lab)

May I remind my right hon. Friend that next week there will be another important Second Reading? The Carers (Equal Opportunities) Bill will be introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis) with cross-party support. May I urge my right hon. Friend to give Government support for the Bill, which will benefit the 9,000 carers in my constituency? If any Ministers are wavering, they can have a private meeting with me in my office and I will persuade them.

The Prime Minister

On behalf of Ministers, I thank my hon. Friend kindly; I have had a few private meetings with them over the past few days.

I understand that the private Member's Bill will be responded to carefully and fully in the near future. We are looking closely at its proposals to see whether we can give it backing and I shall talk to Ministers about it. I hope that my hon. Friend understands, however, that the national carers strategy, which we introduced some years ago, has made an enormous difference in that area. The carers grants, introduced in 1999 to support local councils in arranging short-break services for carers, now have investment of more than £300 million. We shall be increasing that amount, and I am told that that will allow extended care and 130,000 further breaks for carers. We shall examine the private Member's Bill carefully and come back to my hon. Friend with a response in due course.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con)

Which will come to light first, the identity of the leaker or the existence of the weapons of mass destruction?

The Prime Minister

Should not we simply allow any inquiry that Lord Hutton orders to take its course? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is particularly invidious for anybody, including the chairman of the Conservative party, to state that the Government have done something when it is apparent that there is absolutely no evidence to support that.

Q8. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op)

What help can the Prime Minister promise Liverpool and the rest of the north-west for housing regeneration, to match assistance already given to the south-east? Does he look forward to the prospect of a strong, elected North West regional assembly replacing the regional housing quangos and campaigning for a fair deal for the region?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for those reasons that we have given people a vote on the issue of regional assemblies. I think that about £500 million will he going into nine pathfinder areas, to work with regeneration authorities to tackle the position to which my hon. Friend refers. The other tremendously important thing is that we keep money going into regeneration projects, the new deal, Sure Start and dealing with antisocial behaviour. Those are all important parts of rebuilding those communities.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)

Does the Prime Minister accept that the headlines which followed the publication of his dossier in September 2002 and which we know that his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, was extremely anxious to orchestrate, were wholly misleading?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that we misled people in any shape or form. The report that will be published later today will deal with all those issues and the hon. Gentleman should wait for it.

Q9. Claire Ward (Watford) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend believe that investment in youth services is an important part of tackling antisocial behaviour, and if so, what impact does he think that the cuts of £46,000 in the Watford area youth service budget and of £84,000 in play and early years staffing will have when they are implemented, as proposed by Liberal Democrat-controlled Watford borough council?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, for 2003–04, we shall provide about £500 million to the youth service. We think it extremely important that those programmes be maintained, and I am sorry if they are being cut in her area. I am sure that will do nothing either for the young people in her area or to tackle antisocial behaviour. It is not merely spending that is important, but also support for the antisocial behaviour legislation, and I am sorry that the Liberal Democrats voted against it.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

What exactly did the Prime Minister mean when he promised the British people that "We will not introduce top-up fees"? Does he understand that many people now find that promise somewhat misleading?

The Prime Minister

The existing fee structure was the payment of up-front fees, with no maintenance grant for students, and top-up fees were an unrestricted, existing fee top-up. What is now being introduced is not that at all. What is being introduced is the abolition of up-front fees, so that no family has to pay those up-front fees, with maintenance grants reintroduced for the poorest students and a far fairer system of repayment for graduates, once they have graduated, plus a cap, set in legislation, until 2010. Surely that is better than the policies—in so far as one can understand them—of the Opposition.

I have just been doing a little research into the Opposition's policy on university education. The leader of the Conservative party wrote to party members after he was elected leader to say that he was going to scrap all tuition fees. That is one policy. Secondly, earlier in the week, the Conservative spokesman on this issue said that the principle that students contribute is there. We are not saying the whole system is completely tax-payer funded. That is the second policy. The third was outlined in The Independent by the chairman of the Conservative party, who said that he was limiting Tory opposition to the Government's present proposals—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


The Prime Minister

There are at least another five policies, but I have run out of time—

Mr. Speaker