HC Deb 12 May 2004 vol 421 cc346-54
Ql. [172220] Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before I list my engagements, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in expressing our condolences to the families and friends of those who have been killed and injured following the explosion yesterday at the Stockline Plastics factory in Glasgow. This tragedy took place in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Ann McKechin), but I know that it will affect yours, too, Mr. Speaker. I also pay tribute to our emergency services, as they continue in their efforts to search for survivors. I understand that Scotland's First Minister, Jack McConnell, will be visiting the site today.

In respect of my engagements, 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.

Mr. Heath

The whole House will join the Prime Minister in his earlier comments.

Over recent days, substantial harm has been done to Britain's reputation, and our troops in Iraq have been put at greater risk. Are we really to believe that such an able and experienced diplomat as Sir Jeremy Greenstock could have been aware of a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross detailing systematic humiliation and abuse of detainees by our coalition partners, yet not ask to see it, fail to recognise its significance, and not bring it to the attention of the Prime Minister or any other Minister? Did no one feel that it was appropriate to make any representations whatever to the United States Administration about what was being done by coalition forces in our name?

The Prime Minister

In respect of the circumstances in which the report came to Sir Jeremy Greenstock's office, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated those circumstances clearly yesterday. In respect of the abuses, however, let me point out—I will do so in greater detail later—to the hon. Gentleman and others, that in respect of the Red Cross report, the incidents of abuse in respect of British troops were already being investigated. When dealing with this issue, it is important to realise that in respect of British troops, I know of no evidence of systematic abuse of detainees.

Mrs. Helen Liddell (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab)

You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that 10 years ago today my constituency lost a much-admired Member of Parliament, and this nation lost a great leader. John Smith was a decent man committed to social justice. Does the Prime Minister recall that a few months before John's death, he laid out his priorities for a Labour Government? Those were the restoration and improvement of the national health service, the fight against poverty here and in the developing world, and his commitment to completing the unfinished business of devolution. Does he agree with me that the achievements of his Government are part of John Smith's legacy, and that in his memory we must go on and achieve even more for social justice?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that my right hon. Friend's comments about John Smith will be agreed and accepted, certainly on the Labour Benches, and probably on both sides of the House. I like to think that the record on jobs and the reduction of unemployment particularly, and of course the introduction of a minimum wage, are two things of which he would have been immensely proud.

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

Following yesterday's dreadful explosion in Glasgow, I join the Prime Minister in expressing the Conservative party's deep sympathy with those who were injured and with the families of those who lost their lives. I also join him in paying tribute to the work that the emergency services have done and, indeed, are doing as we speak.

As for Iraq, everyone has been horrified by the appalling murder of Mr. Berg. It reinforces the need for coalition forces to succeed in their difficult task in that country.

The Red Cross report on the treatment of detainees in Iraq was given to the British Government in February. When did the Prime Minister first see it?

The Prime Minister

I first saw it on Monday. I did not know of the allegations in the report at the time. As I explained a moment ago, in so far as they concerned British troops those allegations were already being dealt with. The report was not passed to Ministers in February.

Mr. Howard

The Red Cross report was presented at a meeting attended by representatives of the Prime Minister's special envoy to Iraq on 26 February. London was informed of that meeting the next day. The report contained the most devastating allegations of mistreatment of detainees in Iraq. The report and the allegations in it have led to the greatest crisis in Iraq since the war ended, and have added immeasurably to the dangers and difficulties faced by coalition forces—including British troops—in carrying out their duties. Can the Prime Minister explain why he did not see the report for three months?

The Prime Minister

First, let me make it clear—as I have on many occasions over the past few days—that we condemn, completely and unequivocally, any abuse of Iraqi detainees or prisoners by anyone—any part of the coalition. In respect of British troops, let me now set out the position clearly.

According to the Red Cross report, there were three instances of abuse—or allegations of abuse—in respect of British troops and those in detention. One concerned the death in custody of Mr. Mousa, which was already being investigated. The second concerned the hooding of prisoners, a practice that had already been stopped by February. The last concerned the theft of a car, and the issue was not pursued.

As for civilians killed or injured, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has made clear, 33 cases have been investigated. Twenty-one of those investigations are complete, and 12 are ongoing. In 15 of the 21 cases it was found that there was no case to answer. In respect of six there were recommendations, and the Military Police will announce shortly what will happen about those six. Amnesty International has passed eight cases to us, seven of which are already known to us. The one that is not known to us is being investigated.

Let me make something absolutely clear—and I will come to American troops in a moment: there is no evidence whatever either of systematic abuse or of Ministers or anyone else refusing to act on allegations of abuse in respect of detainees in British custody. On the contrary, the only evidence that has been presented consists of photographs that are almost certainly fake.

Before I come to American troops, let me say this. I believe that we should be proud of the part that British troops have played in Iraq, that they should be proud of themselves, and that this country can be proud of them.

In respect of the other allegations, it is not correct that Ministers or I were aware of those allegations in respect of American troops The ICRC report was not passed to us, as has already been made clear. In any event, however, I think it fair to point out that in January—a month before the report—Major-General Taguba was tasked by the Americans to look into claims of abuse, particularly at Abu Ghraib prison, for a period of time. Investigations were already proceeding, and 17 United States soldiers had already been suspended. Indeed, the first American soldiers were charged with abuse back in May 2003.

I simply say to the House that any abuse by any coalition forces is completely unacceptable. What is not true is that allegations were made and nothing happened in respect of them.

Mr. Howard

Of course, we are all immensely proud of what British troops are doing in Iraq, but the Prime Minister has failed to give any explanation for why he did not see this crucial report, which was presented to his special envoy to Iraq, for nearly three months. I am afraid that the country will conclude that there is no sensible explanation for that fact.

Iraq is by far the most sensitive and difficult challenge facing the country. People want to know that their Government have a grip on what they are doing and on what is going on. A devastating Red Cross report is sent to the Government in February. The Armed Forces Minister says that he has never seen it. The Defence Secretary says that he would not have expected to see it. The Foreign Secretary says that he should have seen it but he did not, and the Prime Minister, to whose special envoy the report was given, says that he knew nothing about it. How can the people of this country have confidence in this Prime Minister and his Government?

The Prime Minister

First of all, the reason I did not raise the issues in this report is that I did not see it. The explanation for not seeing it has already been given. It is that, in respect of the issues concerning Britain and detainees in British custody, these issues had already been dealt with and we were expecting—indeed, we have received—a further Red Cross report about people in British custody. When the right hon. and learned Gentleman attempts to extract the maximum political mischief—[Interruption]—absolutely: let no one be in any doubt of that at all—I would just point out this to him. The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is this. It is not that, in a democracy, bad things do not happen. It is that, when they do happen, action is taken. Action has been taken in respect of each of these allegations in respect of British troops, and I think now is the time to support the work that our troops are doing.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware, with the publication of today's unemployment figures, that 409,000 more people are in work in London now than were in work there in 1997. May I remind him that many thousands work in the arts and culture sector? Will he continue to increase significantly this Government's investment in the arts both in London and across the country? Will he give particular attention to involving and engaging young people in the arts and to providing training opportunities for them in the arts, so that that cultural regeneration can be a spur to the economic renewal of Britain?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right, of course, that the arts make a huge contribution to London, and let us not forget either London's bid for the Olympic games in 2012. London, as a capital city, offers us a great advantage because of its emphasis on arts and creativity and, indeed, we are increasing investment in the arts.

My hon. Friend is right in saying that employment is at a record high. Today's figures show that 1.95 million more people are in work today than were in work seven years ago. That is an extra job crated for every two minutes that we have been in government. That stands in sharp contrast to the record of the Conservative party, which took unemployment to over 3 million.

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

I add my sympathy to the families of all those who have been either injured or killed in the terrible accident in Glasgow, and pay tribute to the fire and other emergency service personnel for their continuing work. We hope that they are yet able to rescue more people from that dreadful rubble.

I return to the report of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Can the Prime Minister confirm, as it itself has confirmed, that the report was the culmination of a series of reports detailing alleged abuse of prisoners that dated back to April 2003? So, over this entire period, what action was taken about those reports?

The Prime Minister

It is correct, as the Red Cross points out, that these reports are the culmination of a series of discussions that it had with the detaining authority. Of course, the report was passed to the provisional authority in respect of detention, and we got a copy of the report. Already we have been in discussion with the Red Cross. The reason why I have detailed all the instances where allegations have been made and investigations then made is to show that on each occasion on which allegations have been made or issues raised, we have acted. Indeed, on the allegation in the Red Cross report in respect of the practice of hooding prisoners, which is sometimes necessary for security reasons but should not be done for purposes of interrogation, that practice was stopped. It was stopped before we ever received the Red Cross report. I think that it is important to realise that on each occasion on which the Red Cross has raised issues, we have dealt with them.

May I also draw the House's attention to the fact that the Red Cross, which we would be pleased to have return at any point in time at which it wished to check our detention facilities—indeed, we would be pleased for it to have a permanent presence at our facilities should it wish that—has recently written to us, during the past few weeks, to say that it believes that the conditions of internment now in the facilities run by the British are "fairly good" and that it was generally satisfied to see that most of the recommendations submitted during its previous visit had been taken into consideration? We are in a process of dialogue with the Red Cross all the time. All that I would say is that on each occasion on which allegations have been made, they have been properly answered.

Mr. Kennedy

But the Prime Minister will of course recognise the huge and mounting public concern in this country about the increasingly grotesque reports that have been coming out of Iraq. That being the case, can the Prime Minister confirm that any further deployment of British forces there would take place only at the request of the British commanders on the ground, and that that would be only for the purposes of enabling them to fulfil more effectively the role that they are currently undertaking?

The Prime Minister

The question of whether troops are needed in Iraq is something, as I have explained before, that we keep under constant review, as we should. The question is what is in the interests of the progress in Iraq being sustained, maintained and seen through to its conclusion. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that yes, I agree that the events of the past few days have of course been immensely damaging. All that I am doing is pointing out that it is not true to say that nothing has been done when these allegations have been made. I also think that it is right to say, on behalf of all the troops there, that the vast majority of them are doing a superb job in helping people in Iraq.

Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the very unhappy lives led by the children of drug-addicted parents—many tens of thousands of them across the UK. Urgent action is needed to address the complex issues that surround the children of drug-addicted parents. Will he undertake an inquiry, involving all the relevant agencies including the devolved Administrations, into how we can deal with that problem, with the children as the priority?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Part of the purpose of programmes such as Sure Start, and the work that is being done in local communities and children's centres, is precisely to help the children of parents who are drug abusers. I think that my hon. Friend will recognise that as a result, far more concerted action has been taken in respect of those children. We talk about those issues with the devolved Administrations, who have executive responsibility for them. The new proposals that we are taking forward now on drug abuse, and on drug abuse in the criminal justice system, will also help to reduce the number of drug abusers, and ensure that we are tackling what I accept is an important and serious question.

Q2. Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)

The Government have backed down from their intention to oust the jurisdiction of the courts in asylum cases, and have instead adopted a statutory review procedure, as earlier advocated by the Conservatives and utterly rubbished by the Home Secretary. Is the Prime Minister pleased or regretful about that?

The Prime Minister

I will tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what I think. It would have been better had we been able to proceed with the original proposals, but it was obvious that we could not get a majority for them in the House of Lords because the Conservatives, among others, were opposing those measures. But I have to tell him that the measures that we are taking on asylum are reducing the numbers. I only wish that we got the same support in reality from the Conservatives as they try to pretend they are giving by their rhetoric.

Q3. Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab)

The figures released today show that unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 50 per cent. since 1997, with only 1,321 people now registered as unemployed. It is quite clear that Weaver Vale is benefiting from a very well run economy, but if we are to have continuing economic growth and regeneration, the north-west needs major investment in its transport infrastructure. In particular, we need a new crossing across the River Mersey in the borough of Halton. Will my right hon. Friend please look into this proposal and so make sure that we enjoy economic growth and continuing low unemployment for many years to come?

The Prime Minister

I understand that proposals for a new Mersey crossing are currently being considered; my hon. Friend will understand that I would not want to pre-empt any decision that might be made. He is absolutely right, however, to say that unemployment is at what is a record low for many decades, both on Merseyside and elsewhere. Incidentally, one reason why we have been able to reduce unemployment is of course the new deal programme for the unemployed, which has helped literally hundreds of thousands of people into work. That is why I find it so regrettable that the Conservative party is committed to scrapping the new deal.

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

The Prime Minister is aware of the widespread support from all parts of the House for compensating the 60,000 people who have lost significant pension benefits as a result of the collapse of their schemes. It seems that it will take a prime ministerial decision to compensate them. He has given hints that he will act. Will he now do so?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I have nothing to add to what I said earlier, which is that we continue to examine what the full consequences would be of any compensation package. Obviously, we have to make allowances for what is actually affordable in this situation, but I do understand the plight of people who have joined occupational pension schemes, and who had no option but to join those schemes as a condition of their employment. That is why I hope that we will be in a position very shortly to announce some results.

Mr. Howard

The trouble is that time is running out.[Interruption.] No—

Mr. Speaker

Order. You might have to leave the Chamber, Mr. King, if you keep shouting like that. I have said this to you before. Such shouting is unfair to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Howard

This is actually not a party political point. There is support from all quarters of the House for this measure. I know how difficult it is—[Interruption.] If the Prime Minister will listen. I know how difficult it is to agree to compensation retrospectively, and it is important not to set too many precedents. I understand all that, but on this issue, a majority of Members of this House have signed Commons motions calling for compensation.

Three weeks ago, the Prime Minister told the House that this issue was being actively considered, and that he hoped the Government would come forward with a solution. Two weeks ago, he said that he hoped to come back to the House as soon as possible. The Pensions Bill has just completed seven weeks in Committee, and despite ample opportunity, the Government have tabled no proposals to tackle the problem. The Bill is due back in the House next week. Will he now undertake to table practical proposals to deal with this problem before then?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I have nothing to add to what I said earlier, which is that I will announce shortly what we are able to do for people. I have to say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I somehow find it worse when he is being reasonable than when he is being his normal self. I am sure that he will want to acknowledge, in this spirit of reasonable exchange between us, that the pension protection fund legislation is the first time that a Government have introduced pension protections for people. I am aware that he is saying that he wishes that we could go even further and make this retrospective as well as prospective. That is precisely what we are looking at, and as I said, I shall come back on this issue as soon as possible. But I know that he will want to acknowledge that this Government have introduced what is ground-breaking legislation.

Mr. Howard

The Prime Minister is right: this Government have introduced legislation—to deal with a problem that has arisen under this Government.[Interruption.] The 60,000 people who are losing their pension entitlement, about which I am asking this question, are not losing it under a Conservative Government. It was not a Conservative Chancellor who imposed £5 billion a year taxes on pensions. The problem has arisen under the present Government. Hon. Members of all parties on both sides of the House▀×a clear majority—want action taken to deal with this problem. Why will the Prime Minister not give an undertaking that it will be dealt with by the legislation of which he is so proud?

The Prime Minister

First, I definitely prefer the right hon. and learned Gentleman like that. It is far more true to his character. As I said, we shall shortly announce what we are able to do. Since we are talking about records on pensions, has the right hon. and learned Gentleman forgotten the 9 million people who lost pension rights under the last Conservative Government? Perhaps he has also forgotten the pension mis-selling scandal and the fact that his right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has said that there will be a real-terms cash freeze in all budgets, including the budget with responsibility for pensions.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central) (Lab/Co-op)

When we last invaded Mesopotamia in 1914, it took us 44 years to get out, during which time we made many mistakes—not least the configuration of the state that we left behind. At least we were responsible for our mistakes and for the timing and conditions by which we left. To what degree do we retain any independent responsibility to arrange for the timing by which we leave?

The Prime Minister

Let me say to my hon. Friend that now may be the moment to go back to first principles. It is surely better that Iraq is no longer governed by Saddam Hussein. Let us all agree on that for a start. If the action to remove Saddam had not been taken, he would still be in power. I have to accept responsibility for the position that the country and I are in today, because I am the Prime Minister who brought it about. I will defend that position. Those who have opposed the conflict must also accept that if we had listened to their opposition, Saddam Hussein would still be in power.

My hon. Friend should not listen to what I, the Americans or anyone else says, but to Iraqi voices. Those Iraqi voices will tell my hon. Friend and other hon. Members two things: one, that they are delighted that they have been liberated from Saddam Hussein; and, two, that they want the coalition forces to leave Iraq as soon as possible. That is precisely what we are discussing now. We have a security strategy, which is to develop the Iraqi-isation of the security forces in Iraq— the police, civil defence and army. We also have a political process, which is to be sanctioned and undertaken by the United Nations. That is our strategy and we will not leave until the job is properly done and until we have made sure that the wish of the Iraqis for a sovereign, stable and democratic Iraq is delivered.

Q4. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP)

On behalf of the people of Belfast, I sympathise with our Glaswegian friends who have suffered in yesterday's tragedy. I also agree with the Prime Minister that we should support the Army, because it is important not to give them a job to do and then stab them in the back. The Prime Minister referred to Saddam, and I believe that the dastardly murder of Mr. Berg shows the other side of terrorism that we have experienced in Northern Ireland. We have seen it elsewhere. Can we have a commitment from the Government that they will not leave the Iraqis to suffer from any such body in the future and that they will not yield again to terrorist demands in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says. It is worth pointing out—it was implicit in his question—that there are circumstances in which British troops are risking their lives day in, day out. If the House will allow me, I would like to quote what Iraqis themselves have said about British troops. For example, the Iraqi Foreign Minister said: We … expressed our gratitude … to the British forces for the job they are doing. We are very proud of them, and the British people also should be very proud of them. The mayor of Basra, speaking yesterday, said: In fact we have not registered a single case of human-rights violations at prison or in terms of actions by the British forces". I hope that people understand that that is not our view, but the view of ordinary Iraqis whom British forces are helping.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab)

In my constituency, the creation of more than 1,000 new manufacturing jobs has been announced in the past few weeks. That builds on the work of the action team for jobs, on the new deal and on the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus. What response would my right hon. Friend give to those—especially those on the Opposition Benches—who say that such initiatives to help people to get back into work are a waste of time and money?

The Prime Minister

We can see how Opposition Members respond—they are all walking out of the Chamber. It is absolutely extraordinary. The fact is that almost 2 million jobs have been created since this Government came to power. That is one job for every two minutes for which we have been in government. Unemployment is lower than it has been for 30 years, and hundreds of thousands of people—including young people in particular—who were consigned to the scrap heap under the Conservatives have been given the chance to have a decent life and proper living standards, and the ability to raise their families in some sort of dignity. That is the difference between a Labour Government and a Tory one.