HC Deb 03 March 2004 vol 418 cc888-98
Q1. Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 3 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before stating my engagements for the day, may I say that I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathy to the people of Iraq, where 150 or more innocent men, women and children were killed yesterday by terrorism, and to Pakistan where, in a similar attack, more than 40 innocent people died? Both were calculated acts of evil. Both were attacks designed to foment religious strife. The attack in Iraq was plainly designed to stop the progress that Iraq is making toward a stable democratic state under the sovereignty of the Iraqi people, and it has been condemned by Muslim leaders—Sunni and Shi'a alike. Our pledge to the people of Iraq and Pakistan is to work with them to ensure that this evil barbarism is eliminated from all parts of our world.

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

Mr. Weir

Does the Prime Minister agree with Fred Eckhard, the official spokesman for Kofi Annan, that anyone bugging the Secretary-General of the United Nations is in clear breach of the 1946 UN convention and, indeed, has committed an illegal act?

The Prime Minister

I have nothing to add to what I said last Thursday on that except to say, yet again, that our security services of course abide by all our legal obligations.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab)

Now that we have successfully negotiated a peaceful outcome for the people of Iraq, what are we going to do in terms of securing a better solution for those in poverty throughout the world and improving settlements and progress on issues of third world debt?

The Prime Minister

There has of course been a very important agreement in Iraq, which I hope will be ratified later this week, on a new constitution and a way forward. It is worth pointing out, as my hon. Friend implies, that that will allow people of all religious persuasions in Iraq freedom of worship and the ability to do what they wish to do in accordance with proper human rights. It is a remarkable political achievement by the people in Iraq, which is why whatever the terrorists may try to do, we have to carry on working to establish a peaceful, democratic, stable and prosperous Iraq for the future.

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

May I first join the Prime Minister in expressing the sympathy of those of us on these Benches to the families of those who lost their lives and those who were injured in yesterday's horrific attacks in Iraq and Pakistan? Can the Prime Minister confirm that police in Basra, backed by British troops, captured four suspected bombers who might have caused even more carnage? I also join him in congratulating the Iraqi National Congress on the progress made in agreeing the constitution. Does the Prime Minister agree that we have a continuing duty to the people of Iraq to do everything that we can to help them to build a stable and peaceful country?

The Prime Minister

In relation to people who may have been arrested by British troops, I cannot give any further information at this stage, but I will tell the House as soon as I am able to do so. It is worth pointing out that British troops and, indeed, those working with them down in the south of Iraq have done a quite magnificent job on behalf of this country and the people of Iraq. Of course I agree with the sentiments in the other part of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said.

It is worth pointing something out to people who are in any doubt about the importance of what is going on in Iraq today and the struggle there of Iraqi people who are trying to make their country better. Although they are helped by the Americans, the British and 30 other countries, the Iraqi people are taking responsibility for their own affairs and trying to strive forward. These brutal, evil terrorists are prepared to kill any number of people to stop that progress being made. It literally is a fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil, and we should be immensely proud of the part that this country and our troops are playing in that struggle.

Mr. Howard

Of course I join unreservedly with the Prime Minister in his tribute to British troops. Does he agree that it is the prospect of a stable and peaceful Iraq that represents the greatest threat to the terrorists of al-Qaeda and their associates, and is not that the reason why Iraq has now become the front line in the war against terror? What implications do yesterday's events have for the plans to hold elections in Iraq? Does he agree with the UN special advisor, Lakhdar Brahimi, who says that organising elections by 30 June in the current security climate would be difficult, and that it is unlikely that the necessary mechanisms can be put in place in time?

The Prime Minister

It will be difficult, for the reasons that the UN representative gives. On the other hand, it is important that we keep to the timetable to bring democracy to Iraq as swiftly as possible. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the first part of his question—of course it is important. There is a clear reason why terrorists from every extremist group in the middle east are pouring into Iraq to try to do as much damage as they can to innocent people there: it is because they know that if Iraq becomes a stable, democratic and prosperous country, a Muslim country where there is tolerance of worship and sovereignty is vested in the Iraqi people, that will not only be a huge signal of hope across the middle east, but it will deal a tremendous blow to the propaganda of the extremists and fanatics who would say that the purpose of any conflict in Iraq was to seize the oil or subjugate the Iraqi people. That is why they are doing it—they know what is at stake. I just hope that we do as well.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that when he and I sat together in the shadow Cabinet during the Gulf crisis and war of 1990–91, we—the Labour party—gave full, unwavering and undeviating support to the policies of the Government of which the leader of the Conservative party was a member? We never wavered at any time—it was a matter of principle to us—nor did we ask for the publication of the legal justification for the war. Is not that a contrast—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Kaufman

Is not that a contrast with the wriggling, squirming mess of opportunist hypocrisy we see on the Opposition Benches?

The Prime Minister

I only hope that, since we have had an exchange today that was based on consensus, we can continue in that spirit. It is important for our country, our troops and the security of the world that on big issues, in so far as possible, the main parties come to agreement. I hope that we can maintain that position. I honestly believe that that is in the interests of Britain.

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

Following on from the question put by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), will the Prime Minister acknowledge that, now that one former Prime Minister and two former Foreign Secretaries have said that the Attorney-General's legal advice should be published in full, he should not continue to resist doing so?

The Prime Minister

No, I am afraid that I do not agree. Actually, I pay rather more attention to what those people did when in government.

Mr. Kennedy

Where public trust is concerned, the absence of publication of the Attorney-General's full legal advice will only encourage the atmosphere out there of people not believing what they are being told. Publication must be in the interests of the Prime Minister and of the Government. Is not the real danger of the absence of publication the growing perception that perhaps the Attorney-General's advice was itself sexed up?

The Prime Minister

For some people who have been opposed to the war, it really does not matter what happens. Whether there is another inquiry, whatever is published, and whatever is said, they simply cannot get over the fact that there is a legitimate disagreement about whether the judgment to go to war was right or not. It does not require a conspiracy theory to mount that argument; it simply requires an acceptance of the fact that there was a difference between us—between him and me and between those who were in favour of the war and those who were against it. However, I am frankly surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has risen to his feet today and not at least condemned what happened in Iraq yesterday. When we examine what is at stake in Iraq today, whatever we thought about the war—whether we agreed with it or not—surely we can agree that the most important thing now is to rebuild Iraq in the interests of that country and of the wider world.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the publication last week of the report by the International Labour Organisation's World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalisation, which, among other recommendations, proposes that the ILO should have much stronger powers to carry out its duties? Unlike the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other bodies, the ILO does not have the power to enforce sanctions to ensure that labour rights are recognised around the globe. In particular, the right to join a free and fair trade union is denied to millions of Chinese workers. Will my right hon. Friend join me in expressing those sentiments?

The Prime Minister

The ILO report is wide ranging. It talks about the millennium development goals in Africa, which we are committed to meeting. Aid given by this country has significantly increased in the past few years, which is important. On labour standards, obviously I strongly support proper minimum labour standards across the world, as does the ILO. Indeed, we introduced the right, which was denied for many years, to join a trade union in this country. At the same time, it is important that minimum labour standards do not become a means of protectionism, and that balance must be struck.

Q2. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD)

The Prime Minister says that the UK has some of the toughest arms controls in Europe. If that is the case, can he explain why in 2002 the UK exported arms or weapons components to 12 African countries, many of which are involved in violent regional conflicts? Should the Economic Commission for Africa, which he established last week, investigate that matter; and where do those exports leave his claim that we prevent the sale of small arms to Africa?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps I will set out in writing for the hon. Gentleman exactly what was sold to each of the 12 countries. We should not assume that selling arms to a country is necessarily wrong. The defence industry is an important part of British industry, and many thousands of jobs depend on it. It is not necessarily the case that selling arms to countries is wrong, especially if countries use them to defend themselves.

Q3. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab)

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating all those who have campaigned for and are now involved in the construction of the new £45 million specialist cardiac unit at Blackpool Victoria hospital, which I saw my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health officially launch yesterday? Does he agree that Governments Must demonstrate not only economic competence and a commitment to the core values of the NHS but actual, real, sustained improvements for patients, such as those that that unit will deliver?

The Prime Minister

The unit is part of a series of centres located across the country that will cut waiting lists and waiting times. There is massive additional investment in the health service. Alongside other investments, there are new hospital buildings—I opened one recently—with magnificent, state-of-the-art facilities. They form part of the investment and reform programme in the national health service that is daily improving the lives of people in this country and bringing the national health service back to where it should be—the pride of Britain.

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

Following the question from the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) on the national health service, the Prime Minister will be aware that there is a statutory, three-month implementation period for guidance from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. In the case of photodynamic therapy for those suffering from wet, age-related macular degeneration, the Secretary of State for Health has extended that period to nine months. As a result, the Royal National Institute of the Blind estimates that 2,800 people will go blind unnecessarily. Can the Prime Minister explain why the Secretary of State took that action?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I am not aware of the particular issue to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers, but I will certainly look into it. I am sure that there are good reasons for extending the consultation period—there are often important reasons—in order to make sure that whatever we do is most effective for the patients concerned. However, I am not in a position to respond on the detail of the point today.

Mr. Howard

Let me see if I can help the Prime Minister a bit. It is not a consultation period that was extended—[Interruption.] The Secretary of State for Health should restrain himself. It is not a consultation period that was extended but an implementation period. The Secretary of State said in the House last week that the reason for extending that period was a "lack of trained personnel", but the RNIB has said that there are at least 50 centres across the country that could provide that treatment today. Will the Prime Minister now instruct the Secretary of State to deliver that important sight-saving service as a matter of urgency?

The Prime Minister

I will look into the points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is making. I understand from the Secretary of State that NICE agreed to the extension of the period, but I will obviously have to look into that very carefully to make sure that what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said is right. I cannot answer the particular point because I simply do not know the details at the moment, but I can say that it has been part of the Government's investment programme in the health service massively to increase the number of training places throughout the national health service. I would point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that on each occasion that we have made that additional investment, he opposed it.

Mr. Howard

I am afraid that the Prime Minister is still missing the point. The people who could provide that treatment, according to the RNIB, are there now. The treatment could be provided now—people are going blind because they are not allowed to provide that treatment now. Will the Prime Minister instruct the Secretary of State to make that treatment available now?

The Prime Minister

I am not going to give him any such instructions until I have investigated whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is being entirely accurate with the facts. If he does not mind my saying so, on previous occasions on which he has put such points of detail to me they have turned out to be not exactly as they were when he put them to me. I shall therefore have to look into the matter, but of course we will do whatever we can. It is important, however, that we do so in consultation with NICE. After all, we are the Government who established NICE, and did so to make sure that we can end the postcode lottery in the national health service. It has worked extremely well, and I am quite sure that the Secretary of State took action on proper advice. Following our exchange today, however, I will make sure that I acquaint myself fully with the facts, and will write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, so that we can see exactly what those facts are.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab)


Hon. Members


Mr. Marshall-Andrews

I plead guilty.

The Attorney-General has provided three written replies to the effect that he did not rely on any facts in Government dossiers when reaching his opinion that Iraq had failed to disarm. In those circumstances, what factual material was he given by the Government from which he could draw that conclusion?

The Prime Minister

The Attorney-General was given whatever material he required to make his decision, but the basis of the decision was that Iraq continued in material breach of UN resolutions. I must tell my hon. and learned Friend that in respect of resolution 1441 there was a whole series of things that Iraq was supposed to do under Saddam Hussein. Before he shakes his head, perhaps he would like to listen to what those were—that is what a lawyer should do, after all. The point, surely, is that the Iraq survey group has already found that there was a failure to disclose proper information to the United Nations inspectors and that there was a series of activities and programmes in breach of UN resolutions, so it is completely obvious that Iraq was in material breach of resolution 1441.

Q4. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

Will the Prime Minister fly me to the moon? Failing that, will he accompany me to Lunar house in Croydon, which has been described as a human cattle shed. Staff and the public are under huge pressure, and my constituents are waiting months, if not years, for their cases to be determined. Is the Prime Minister proud of the service that his Government are providing in that area?

The Prime Minister

It is extremely unfair to say that about staff at Lunar house. Actually, an immense amount of work has been done there. For example, 80 per cent. of asylum claims that used to take an average of 18 months to process now take only two months and, as the hon. Lady knows, the number of asylum seekers has been halved. The staff do an excellent job in very difficult circumstances. We try to ensure that we process claims as quickly as possible.

As for sending the hon. Lady to the moon, I fear that it is too much peopled with Liberal Democrats as it is.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will recall that in the course of the Weston Park agreement Judge Corry was asked to look into the killings in Northern Ireland and in the Republic. He has already had his report published in the Republic, but not yet in this country. Furthermore, he has told the families that he has come down in favour of a public inquiry to ascertain how those people were killed and whether there was any collusion with the security forces of the Crown. Can my right hon. Friend give the House an undertaking that after the report has been published, public inquiries will be established, as recommended by Mr. Justice Corry, and that there will be no attempt to subsume or absorb those inquiries into any future truth and reconciliation commission, in order to ensure that those responsible for these hideous crimes can properly be held to account?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will know that no decisions have been taken in relation to any truth and reconciliation commission. Obviously, that could not subsume any such inquiries. I stand by the commitments of Weston Park, but there are particular legal reasons that we have to go through and ensure are in order before we are able to publish the Corry report. We will do so as soon as we can.

Q5. Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park) (LD)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that a limit of 480,000 air traffic movements a year at Heathrow was accepted by his Government after the terminal 5 inquiry, and that the Government White Paper is now calling for runway alternation so that 560,000 air traffic movements a year can take place? That will make noise pollution unbearable and could cause catastrophe in the skies over Heathrow. If that happens, will the Prime Minister take responsibility or will he blame somebody else?

The Prime Minister

I understand the hon. Lady's constituency preoccupation. It is of course important that she represent the views of her constituents, and I am sure that they are opposed to any extension at Heathrow. It is in the nature of such developments that it is very difficult to find people who are in favour of them.

On the other hand, we have to try to take a strategic view in the interests of the country as a whole, in view of the fact that air travel has increased dramatically and will increase dramatically, again over the next few years. A whole series of issues, including environmental issues, must be resolved. That is why we said what we did in the aviation White Paper. The hon. Lady will have to Understand—it is difficult to say, but none the less true—that in the end we will have to take a decision based on what we believe to be in the long-term interests of the country; and Heathrow as an airport is of massive strategic importance to the whole of the UK.

Q6. Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will know that the biggest single problem in Burnley is not the British National party and racism, which he has always condemned, but the 4,500 empty houses there. Later this month, the results of the bid for the housing renewal pathfinder project—Elevate—will be announced. While we are waiting for that, a series of houses that are not included in phase 1 are deteriorating rapidly. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and people in east Lancashire that we will get an early decision to enable us to tackle the problem quickly?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will make an announcement on that shortly. We have set aside a £500 million package for housing market renewal, which is a major issue in east Lancashire and in places such as my hon. Friend's constituency, and the obverse of some of the issues down in the south of the country. That is why we thought it so important to establish the pathfinder renewal fund.

Q7. Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con)

Why does the Prime Minister take part in only 5 per cent. of Divisions, according to the Library? I know that he is busy, but does he understand that, while he asks his colleagues to come here to vote for things about which many of them have severe doubts, he can hardly be bothered to vote himself?

The Prime Minister

We have rather a large majority, and often I do not come here for Divisions. However, the most important thing when holding a Prime Minister to account is questions at the Dispatch Box. In the past six and a half years, I have answered more questions at the Dispatch Box—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answered?"] Let us say that I have given answers to my satisfaction if not the wholehearted satisfaction of others. I have made more statements—the whole Government have made more statements—and I believe that that is a more effective way in which to hold the Prime Minister to account.

Q8. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab)

Following my right hon. Friend's welcome announcement last week of an Economic Commission for Africa, does he agree that many major issues, such as AIDS, poverty, civil war and civil unrest, remain to be faced in Africa? Does he further agree that poverty is the key issue? What steps does he believe the international community should take to increase income levels so that the challenges can be taken on?

The Prime Minister

The increase in our bilateral aid to Africa will take it to £1 billion a year in the next couple of years. That is an increase of 50 per cent. in three years. Indeed, we have trebled the amount of money that we were contributing in 1997. It is therefore important to continue with the aid and development budget and not subject it to the cuts with which the Conservative party is apparently intent on proceeding. They would do immense damage to our whole development case.

Q9. Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con)

Does the Prime Minister appreciate how fed up people are with unneeded name changes such as those proposed to the criminal justice system? Is not that one more example of the Government's propensity to waste money and overlook the pride that ordinary people take in their connection with the Crown?

The Prime Minister

Something will be said about that later. Surely we can take pride in, for example, a 30 per cent. rise in guilty pleas now that the prosecutors have an active role in charging, a fall in the number of ineffective trials, and conviction rates of 90 per cent. in Crown and magistrates courts. Whatever the service's change of name, it will make no difference to the fact that the Crown mounts the prosecutions. Surely it is far more important to concentrate on the excellent work of many in the Crown Prosecution Service.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)

The latest victim of death by dangerous driving in my constituency was eight-year-old Billy Joe Dean. Of greatest concern to me are the drivers who receive short sentences, which are not unusually reduced on appeal, despite the fact that the drivers have been driving under the influence of alcohol, often without licences or insurance, and have usually been involved in previous incidents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have been far too lenient with those drivers in the past?

The Prime Minister

I can totally understand and, indeed, share the anger of my hon. Friend and his constituents about such situations. Obviously, I cannot comment on the individual court case. We have given the courts the power to increase the penalty. Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the penalty for causing death by dangerous driving has been increased from 10 to 14 years. I hope that the new sentencing guidelines, which we shall discuss later, will allow us to make sentences more consistent and make it clear that those who cause death by dangerous driving, especially when under the influence of drink, take lives wholly unnecessarily and appallingly, with terrible, tragic consequences for individuals and their families.

Q10. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

Does the Prime Minister accept that one of the responsibilities of Members of Parliament is to represent the interests of those who sent them here? Does he therefore accept that I am deeply concerned about the position of my borough council of Macclesfield, which, despite an increase in resources from central Government to take account of inflation, is in grave difficulty because of additional responsibilities that central Government have placed on local government for which additional resources have not been provided? Is he prepared to meet me or to ask the relevant Minister to meet me to discuss the problems of my council, which is doing its best and is a debt-free borough council? The withdrawal of capital receipts means that it is in grave difficulty.

The Prime Minister

I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, but I have to say to him, in relation to councils, that they all—including Macclesfield—have had an above-inflation rise in central Government grant. Of course there will always be difficult decisions for councils, but if we look back over the past few years, we see that most councils in the country have had a double-digit real terms increase in their funding. Yes, it is true that they have also had additional responsibilities, but the funding increase has been massive. I have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that the position of his own Front Benchers is to cut, in real terms, the amount of money going to local authorities, not to increase it as we are doing.