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Engagements

Q1. [32157] Mrs. Roe: If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 11 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

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In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings today. This evening, I will be meeting European leaders who are in London for tomorrow's European conference.

Mrs. Roe: Will the Government agree to any request from the German authorities for Roisin McAliskey to be tried in this country for the very serious crimes she is alleged to have committed?

The Prime Minister: We have received no such request. However, if we do, it will be considered by the Home Secretary. In considering it, he will be acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. If any such request is received, he will consider it in the normal way. The decision not to extradite was taken by the Home Secretary alone, in accordance with the powers that are given him and on the basis of the medical evidence submitted.

Mr. Corbett: Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when the Green Paper on welfare reform is published, it will lead to the widest possible debate so that we can ensure that we protect those in genuine need and offer real opportunities to those who have been denied them for the past 18 years?

The Prime Minister: Yes. That is one of the reasons why the Government are already proceeding with the £3.5 billion welfare-to-work programme that helps people on benefit get off benefit and into work. We cannot carry on with a situation in which spending is up but poverty is up, too. That is precisely why the new Labour Government are undertaking the process of welfare reform in the interests of the country and, indeed, of many people who are in need.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister will be aware that the human rights campaigner Wei Jingsheng has met the Foreign Secretary today. Does the Prime Minister understand the amazement among such campaigners and in the United States that, for the first time in nine years, the United Kingdom will not support a United Nations resolution on human rights in China?

The Prime Minister: We have on many occasions made clear our position on human rights. We have carried on making that position clear and will continue to do so. We did not think in these circumstances that this was the right thing to do.

Mr. Hague: The circumstances are the same as they have been in recent years. Mr. Wei says that the Government's position is quite stupefying; he says that it has left victims of human rights abuses in the lurch; he says that, in 18 years in prison in China, his conditions were improved only when the international community signed declarations of this kind. Since the Foreign Secretary said that human rights would be at the heart of an ethical foreign policy, should not the Prime Minister reconsider the decision?

The Prime Minister: It is not right to say that we have not raised the issue of human rights in China. We have done so continually, both on our own account and as

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president of the European Union. That is the position that has obtained throughout--not merely now, but before the election.

Mr. Hague: I am not saying that the Prime Minister has not raised the issue. If he has, it would be consistent to support this resolution. The Government proclaimed an ethical foreign policy with great fanfare and the Foreign Secretary poses unconvincingly as ethics man, yet the first time that that ethical foreign policy is put to the test there is no trace of it whatsoever. Dissidents and human rights campaigners will judge the Government by the Prime Minister's answer. Will he now reconsider that decision?

The Prime Minister: No, for the reason that I have given. We have not merely raised the issue of human rights--[Interruption.] Perhaps Conservative Members will listen to the answer. We have continually raised human rights issues in respect of China and, during our presidency of the European Union, we have received support from other European countries in making the issues at the heart of Mr. Wei's case clear to the Chinese Government. However, we did not feel that this United Nations resolution was the right way to proceed.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Cambridge benefits agency office on helping its 200th lone parent back into work? One lone father said that the scheme had given him back his self-respect after many years out of work. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the national roll-out of the scheme, which has the potential to help many parents?

The Prime Minister: Yes. My hon. Friend has played a considerable part in establishing a scheme in her constituency to get lone parents off benefit and into work. The scheme also ensures that lone parents receive the proper skills training--particularly in the area of information technology--that they require to get work. A considerable number of lone parents already on the new deal programme have come off benefit and into work. As a result, they are earning far more money and not costing the state nearly as much as they used to: lone parents gain, the country gains and the state of society gains, too.

Mr. Ashdown: When Mr. Rupert Murdoch sought to purchase The Times newspaper in 1981, the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Mr. John Biffen, agreed to the purchase without reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the grounds of eight conditions to preserve editorial independence that he announced to the House. Does the Prime Minister accept that that gives his Government a continuing responsibility to ensure that those conditions are upheld properly?

The Prime Minister: Of course I accept that any conditions entered into should be upheld.

Mr. Ashdown: I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for that confirmation that the Government are now the ultimate monitor of Mr. Rupert Murdoch's stewardship of The Times. I draw the Prime Minister's attention to the recent comments made by the previous highly respected east Asia editor of The Times, Mr. Jonathan Mirsky, that

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give rise to deep concern about whether those conditions have been met in the case of China. In this case, should not the Prime Minister and the Government satisfy themselves that the conditions have been met? If they are not satisfied, should they not place the matter before the Monopolies and Mergers Commission?

The Prime Minister: I am not aware of the particular incident to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, but I am perfectly prepared to look into it and correspond with him about it. However, the rules that apply to Mr. Murdoch apply to all newspaper proprietors equally.

Mr. Dawson: Will my right hon. Friend join me in expressing sympathy to the Hansard reporters who, on Friday and again in the early hours of Tuesday morning, endured hour upon hour of excruciating banality? Will he also join me in hoping against hope that in future Opposition Members will come up with something interesting to say--and perhaps one or two decent jokes?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friends have campaigned very hard on this. We of course pay tribute to all those who work in the House and who must stay up and listen to Opposition Members making their points. Is it not extraordinary that the Conservative party opposed the introduction of a minimum wage that, for the first time, guarantees decent minimum standards at work? They will always choose to represent the few rather than the many.

Q2. [32158] Mr. Amess: Will the right hon. Gentleman take a sober look at early-day motion 961 and tell the House whether he agrees with his 50 Labour colleagues who have so lost confidence in the Lord Chancellor that they demand not only an end to his extravagance, but the abolition of the office?

The Prime Minister: No, I will not do that because the Labour manifesto commitment to reform of both criminal justice and legal aid is clear and we are carrying it out with the excellent services of the Lord Chancellor.

Ms Drown: Will the Prime Minister join me in wishing Mr. David Hempleman-Adams, the British explorer who was born in my constituency, the best of luck in his attempt, which he started only last week, to be the first person to reach the north and south poles and the highest peaks of every continent?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I am delighted to do so. It is a marvellous example of co-operation between the Norwegian and British people, and I wish the expedition every success.

Q3. [32159] Mrs. Lait: When will the right hon. Gentleman live up to his promise of rooting out corruption in local government in towns such as my home town of Paisley and in Glasgow, Doncaster, Hackney and now Hull? Is not it obvious even to him that Labour councils are riven with dissent and rotten to the core?

The Prime Minister: Every time there have been allegations of corruption in Labour councils we have investigated them, in stark contrast to a Conservative party, which allowed corruption and wrongdoing to carry

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on in Westminster council and for years did nothing--but that is the difference between Conservative and Labour values.


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