Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Peace Process

6. Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): If she will make a statement on the peace process in Northern Ireland. [64860]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Marjorie Mowlam): I welcome the agreement reached before Christmas, which was supported this week in the Assembly, on the number and functions of ministerial offices and on areas for north-south co-operation. It is hoped that it will be approved by the Assembly on 15 February, but, before that happens, a lot of detailed work has to be done in consultation with the parties in the Assembly. However, I believe that it should be possible to complete that legislative programme in preparation for devolution in the middle of March.

Mr. Murphy: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Will she tell the House what impact the Assembly's decision on departmental issues will have on the establishment of shadow institutions, in particular, the introduction of the shadow Executive? Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that the shadow Executive are needed if the people of Northern Ireland are to be able to get to work building the hospitals and schools that are essential to their communities.

Marjorie Mowlam: The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are due to make their final report to the Assembly on 15 February. The party leaders will then have to decide whom to appoint for their parties, and to which posts on the shadow Executive they should be appointed. The appointments will be made at a subsequent meeting of the Assembly, which I would expect to take place early in March, if we are to be ready to transfer powers by mid-March.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Does the Secretary of State accept that, in recent weeks, there has been a nauseating increase in punishment beatings, mutilations, intimidation and the number of ordinary decent people being driven from their homes? Is that not in total breach of the Good Friday agreement? She and I know full well

20 Jan 1999 : Column 900

that the paramilitaries involved in those beatings also signed up to the Good Friday agreement and were supposed to have renounced violence in all its forms.

Marjorie Mowlam: I join the right hon. Gentleman in condemning outright punishment beatings across the board. They are barbaric acts. However, we must act on the evidence not rumours. If we do not, there is a chance that the courts will not be able to deliver the kind of detail that the prosecution cases will need. Of course we condemn the punishment beatings, but I warn Opposition Members to be careful in saying that they will name people, because that could be contrary to what the families and the Royal Ulster Constabulary want.


The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [64884] Gillian Merron (Lincoln): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 20 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Gillian Merron: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite being some 90 years late, today's announcement to scrap hereditary peers makes it a great day for democracy? Can my right hon. Friend assure me that, in getting rid of that out-of-date privilege, we shall see more up-to-date progress on health, education and jobs--the things that matter most to the people whom we represent?

The Prime Minister: Yes. We shall see progress on all the things that will help to modernise this country and make it a more just and fair society. The Government are in favour of the minimum wage, the working families tax credit, Bank of England independence and £40 billion more for health and education. The Opposition are in favour of hereditary peers. That is the difference between the two parties.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): The Prime Minister may have seen the latest and mounting reports in this morning's newspapers--the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), raised the matter during Northern Ireland questions--of terrorist beatings in Northern Ireland. This morning's reports concern Andrew Peden, who was tortured for 10 hours and left to die, and who lost both his legs. His wife says that he cries out every night as he relives the experience. Beatings such as that are happening in increasing numbers, yet we are still releasing early prisoners belonging to the organisations responsible for those crimes. Does the Prime Minister agree that the beatings are a breach of the Good Friday agreement?

The Prime Minister: Any punishment beatings at all are a breach of the agreements that have been entered into. This has always been a very difficult issue with which

20 Jan 1999 : Column 901

the previous Government grappled during the first IRA ceasefire. Indeed, they continued their early release scheme for prisoners although punishment attacks were occurring at that time. However, I agree that such attacks are totally unacceptable and we are doing everything that we possibly can to bring them to an end.

Mr. Hague: We agree with the Prime Minister about trying to bring punishment beatings to an end. However, he must know that it is not right to compare release schemes under the previous Government with the release scheme that is now in progress. The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made it clear that those who had committed the most heinous crimes would not be released until the end of the first decade of the next century, and that remission did not apply to people who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. The cases are not comparable.

I remind the Prime Minister that, on 6 May last year, he said:

The Prime Minister pledged to the people of Northern Ireland that terrorists would have to bring an end to bombings, killings and beatings; begin the progressive dismantling of paramilitary structures; and co-operate fully with the commission on decommissioning. Given that none of those things is happening yet--although we want them to--is it not time to stop the early release of terrorist prisoners?

The Prime Minister: We must judge this issue against all the evidence, including the security advice that we receive and the question whether we believe that the ceasefires have broken down. We do not believe that it is justified to conclude that. In saying that, I do not minimise our anxiety about the level of punishment beatings. We make very important judgments the whole time, and I believe that at present, on balance, we are making the right judgment. However, I do not minimise the difficulty involved.

Mr. Hague: Of course, the Prime Minister is right to say that we have to consider all the evidence. The Chief Constable of Northern Ireland said on Friday that

The parents of RUC Constable David Sterrit, who know that I am raising their case today, have been told the dates on which their son's killers will be freed, and one of them--in an act of grotesque insensitivity by the Northern Ireland Office--will be released on the 10th anniversary of his murder.

Plans are being made months ahead for the early release of terrorists, seemingly without regard to whether any guns or bombs will be turned in. Is it not time that we put on hold the release of convicted terrorists, when they have not yet given up a single gun or bomb?

The Prime Minister: In the Sterrit case, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the family explaining the circumstances.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 902

It is true that the Chief Constable made the remarks that the right hon. Gentleman ascribed to him. However, he also said that he believed that the ceasefires were intact. We have to make a judgment. The right hon. Gentleman is, in effect, asking us to bring the whole Good Friday agreement to an end. He has to think through the consequences of what he is saying. We continue to make our judgment in very difficult circumstances.

Incidentally, it is not correct that the previous Government's early release scheme did not include very serious crimes.

We believe, on balance, that our judgment is correct. The consequence of taking the course that the right hon. Gentleman is advocating would be more serious than he is saying.

Mr. Hague: Far from trying to damage the Good Friday agreement, we are calling for the agreement to be implemented. The Prime Minister has said, and the Northern Ireland Secretary rightly said in Question Time moments ago, that the Government are determined to implement the whole agreement. However, more than half the terrorists have now been released, the beatings, torturing and shootings go on and the storing of weapons continues.

Is it not true that every time a prisoner is released without weapons being handed in or beatings stopping, the Government are throwing away a valuable negotiating card in implementing the full agreement? We are getting nearer to the day when all the terrorists will have been released and what they were meant to do in return will not have been done. Although it is a matter of judgment, is not the right judgment now that a change of policy would be in the interests of lasting peace?

The Prime Minister: No, obviously I do not believe that to be the case. As I said, I understand why the right hon. Gentleman raises the issues in the way that he does. I emphasise that the prisoners are released on licence. There is not an amnesty. Indeed, the vast majority of those who are released would be released early in any event under schemes agreed by earlier Administrations.

Judgments on Northern Ireland are always difficult. The right hon. Gentleman will remember when it was revealed that the previous Government had been involved in secret negotiations with Sinn Fein, despite their denials. After the first IRA ceasefire, we continued to support the previous Government when they asked the IRA to declare the ceasefire permanent--if the right hon. Gentleman remembers, that was their demand--and when they subsequently dropped that demand. We followed them when they used the Washington 3 precondition of decommissioning before entry to talks and then effectively abandoned it. We did not demur when the Government suddenly decided in 1996 to declare that there had to be elections before all-party talks.

My point is not to criticise the previous Government. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] It is not. It is simply to explain the difficulties of dealing with this situation. The situation is never perfect, but in 18 months we have come further than people believed that we could. That has been with all the difficulties--tactical, strategic and difficulties of principle--inherent in this situation. I repeat, we keep it under constant review, but if the right hon. Gentleman believes that were we to stop everything now it would

20 Jan 1999 : Column 903

increase the chance of the Good Friday agreement being implemented, I have to say that my judgment is that that is wrong.

Mr. Hague: I return briefly to one remaining point on this. The Prime Minister points to a bipartisan policy in the last Parliament. Of course, it is true that the Labour Opposition often supported the Conservative Government at the time. It is also true that they voted against the anti-terrorist legislation of the Conservative Government, so let us be clear that bipartisanship on this is important, but it is not a blank cheque. Equally, this Opposition have supported and will continue to support the Government on the Good Friday agreement. The Prime Minister knows that we have given a great deal of support to the Government behind the scenes and will always do so whenever we are asked, but we make a different judgment on this particular question. I ask him to recognise that, for many people in this country, it is very difficult to understand how we can go along with the early release of terrorist prisoners when other things that were meant to happen at the same time are not being done.

The Prime Minister: I do not dispute in the least the right hon. Gentleman's entitlement to depart from us on issues of judgment. What I am trying to do is explain the reason why I have come to the judgment that I have. The reason that I mentioned the other aspects that happened when a previous Government were in office was simply to indicate that there are difficulties in this process, which will come with whatever Government are trying to deal with it.

The right hon. Gentleman says that nothing else is really being progressed in the Good Friday agreement at the moment. I do not think that that is true. I think that an awful lot has happened. We have got to the stage where we have the principle of consent now accepted in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland, where everyone now supports the idea of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly and where, if we can get the last bits of the agreement fulfilled, there can be a place for all parties to be part of the new Northern Ireland Executive. Even with the punishment beatings which, yes, I agree, are wholly unacceptable, we have ceasefires in effect. Even with all of that, I think that the process in the end yields benefits for people in Northern Ireland. [Hon. Members: "Disgraceful."] I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues who are shouting "disgraceful" behind him that they can disagree with the judgment I am making, but I hope at least that they recognise that we are trying to make the judgment in good faith on the basis of what is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. I do not dispute his right to disagree with that judgment; all I am trying to do as Prime Minister is explain why I think the judgment that I have made is still correct.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the threatened closure of the Wrangler jeans factory at Camelon in my constituency with the possible loss of about 500 jobs, which would be a devastating blow for the workers and their families and, indeed, for the whole of the local economy? Will my right hon. Friend arrange for urgent discussions with ministerial colleagues and representatives of the company and work force to see what can be done to try to save as many

20 Jan 1999 : Column 904

jobs as possible, and deal with the crisis facing the entire clothing and textile industry, which is due mainly to high interest rates and the high value of sterling?

The Prime Minister: On my hon. Friend's last point, interest rates have now come down significantly, and the value of the pound is virtually back down to the level inherited at the time of the general election. However, on the specific prospective closure of the Wrangler jeans factory, I am certainly happy to make sure that representations are made to Ministers, and I am sure that my hon. Friend can be part of those representations. If there is any way that I can facilitate that, I will.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): Will the Prime Minister confirm that, following the atrocities at Racak in Kosovo and President Milosevic's unacceptable demands for the expulsion of the head of the Kosovo verification mission, if diplomatic means cannot persuade President Milosevic to return to compliance with the terms of the ceasefire, NATO stands ready in swift order to use military force to compel him to do so?

The Prime Minister: As we have said before, events in Racak were wholly unacceptable; it was a humanitarian outrage. Those responsible should be brought to justice speedily. The attempt by Milosevic to expel the head of the Kosovo verification mission is equally unacceptable. Unless Milosevic fully complies with what he agreed in October, and with the demands of the international community, he risks a rapid military response from NATO. NATO agreed this morning to shorten the notice to move its aircraft from 96 to 48 hours. We must move with the rest of our allies--obviously--but we certainly remain ready to act.

Mr. Ashdown: I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that response. Will he confirm that, although military action must of course have a clear political objective, nevertheless, in the final analysis, the international community could not stand idly by and watch Kosovo descend into a bloody civil war if President Milosevic attempts a final solution? Therefore, if all other means have failed, we may ultimately have to consider a NATO ground force in Kosovo.

The Prime Minister: I certainly share the view that, whatever the difficulties, the international community cannot walk away from Kosovo. We are ready to take whatever action is necessary. Indeed, without the credible threat of force, I do not believe that diplomacy will ever be sufficient. The United Kingdom will chair a contact group meeting in London on Friday. Before the question of further action is addressed, we must however be aware of two things.

First, we must act in concert with others and with our allies. Secondly, we must have clear political objectives in any action that we take. That does not simply involve negotiation with the Serbian side and with Milosevic. Full participation of the Kosovar side, including the Kosovo Liberation Army, which at the moment is refusing to participate in proper talks, is also necessary. It is important that both those are in place. If they are, we would certainly not rule out the possibility of participation in the use of ground forces.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the very difficult position in which people

20 Jan 1999 : Column 905

find themselves when they have a mortgage and there is violence in the home? Is he aware that my independent research into all high street banks and building societies suggests that they see houses only as financial institutions and not as homes? That has a significant effect on children who suffer violence in the home, too. Will he join me in calling on the Council of Mortgage Lenders to look urgently at its voluntary code of practice? Failing that, does he agree that we may need to take legislative action?

The Prime Minister: I would not commit us to legislative action, but I certainly agree with the point that my hon. Friend is making. It would certainly be worth while for the Council of Mortgage Lenders to consider what more it can do.

Q2. [64885] Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): In his pre-Budget statement only 11 weeks ago, the Chancellor confidently forecast that growth this year would be up to 1.5 per cent. Today, the Treasury's economic assessment team has published a survey, which forecasts average growth this year of only just 0.6 per cent. Will the Prime Minister explain how his Chancellor can be so spectacularly wrong in such a short time?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept that at all. As the hon. Gentleman has said, the average independent forecast is 0.6 per cent., compared with our forecast of 1 to 1.5 per cent. [Hon. Members: "It is the Treasury's forecast."] Hon. Members shout out, "It is the Treasury". We are the Government. Here are the Treasury Ministers. The European Union forecast is fully in line with what we are saying, the International Monetary Fund is fully in line with what we are saying--so is the Bank of England forecast. Many independent forecasts in the survey are at or around the level that we state--or, indeed, above it.

As a result of the action that the Government have taken, we have the lowest long-term interest rates for more than 30 years, 400,000 more jobs have been created, and we have cured the fiscal deficit that we inherited from the Conservatives. Rather than the old boom and bust of the Tories--[Interruption.] We have now got them recognising it, too. Rather than the old boom and bust of the Tories--I remind them that interest rates were 15 per cent. for a year or more and at 10 per cent. for four years--we have interest rates coming down. That is the difference between Labour's competence and Conservative ineptitude.

Q3. [64886] Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the Tory legacy to people who live near the channel ports and the other ports of entry to the United Kingdom included an agreement to scrap duty-free goods, which, if implemented, would cost thousands of jobs; an agreement on indicative levels for duty-paid goods, which has generated a huge bootlegging industry; and agreements on immigration which have left many local communities struggling to support significant numbers of asylum seekers? Will he take the opportunity to tell us what progress his Government are making in clearing up this Conservative mess?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to do so. On duty free, my hon. Friend is right. As a result of what the Conservatives left us, we have to get unanimity to make any change--that was what they agreed--but, thanks to

20 Jan 1999 : Column 906

the present Government, we are trying to achieve progress on duty free. We have invested an extra £35 million in counter-smuggling measures, including 100 extra customs officers. It is the Labour party, in the asylum and immigration Bill to be published next month, that is trying to bring about a fairer, faster and more effective system of immigration and asylum after years of incompetence by the Conservative party.

Q4. [64887] Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Is the Prime Minister aware, following a written answer yesterday, that over the past five years, there has been a 600 per cent. increase in the number of nurses coming into the United Kingdom on short-term work permits of under one year? Can he explain how the Government have allowed a situation to arise where health service managers, instead of investing in British nursing, are spending £35,000 a year each on overseas nurses, who then have to return within a few months without acquiring experience or knowledge, or commitment to the health service?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I can easily explain that to the hon. Gentleman. The reason for that is that, in the early and mid-1990s, the then Government cut the number of training places for nurses by 4,000. As a result of what the present Government have done, an extra 2,500 people are now in training to be nurses. Over the next three years, as a result of the comprehensive spending review, we shall have 15,000 extra nursing places. We are putting things right, but it takes three years to train a nurse, and in the meantime, of course, we must try to bridge the gap from elsewhere. We are trying to do our best to clear up the nursing shortages within the national health service, and we will get there, but it will take time, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us in doing so.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the huge groundswell of opposition among Scottish business to the separatist policies of the Scottish National party? Has he seen this week's MORI opinion poll, which showed that 75 per cent. of leading Scottish firms said that independence would be bad for business? In the run-up to the Scottish elections, will he continue to explain the risk to jobs posed by the SNP, and to set out the benefits to the Scottish people of a Parliament within the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: It is very simple: SNP in, business out. That is what would happen if the SNP were elected to a Scottish Parliament. Seventy-five per cent. of the firms questioned by MORI say that the SNP's only distinctive policy would be bad for jobs and business--which is probably why Scottish National party Members do not talk about it any more. The best thing for jobs and business is devolution within the United Kingdom--not the status quo of the Tories or the separatism of the SNP.

Q5. [64888] Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Does the Prime Minister agree with the recent article in The Observer that stated that the only relevant experience of Lord Falconer for being put in charge of the dome was having been a member of a May ball committee at Cambridge? If the Prime Minister does not agree, will he

20 Jan 1999 : Column 907

tell the House what qualifications or experience recommended Lord Falconer for his job, apart from having shared a flat with the Prime Minister in the 1970s?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. and learned Friend Lord Falconer does an excellent job. That is his best qualification.

Q6. [64889] Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Has any invitation or request come from the Conservative Opposition that there should be a referendum on the question of hereditary peers? If such a referendum were to take place--perhaps it should take place--does my right hon. Friend agree that the number of people who would support retaining hereditary peers would be substantially less than even the amount of support that the Tories are getting in the opinion polls?

The Prime Minister rose--

Mr. Winnick rose--

The Prime Minister: My apologies. I thought that my hon. Friend's question was good enough as it was, Madam Speaker.

It is extraordinary that the Tories are still supporting hereditary peers in this day and age. The fact is that it is wrong that hereditary peers make legislation in the other place. It is doubly wrong when those hereditary peers are given a 3:1 permanent in-built majority in one part of our legislative Chamber. It was a clear commitment in our manifesto to get rid of the hereditary peers, and that is what we shall do.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): Will the Prime Minister explain why it is that his Labour MEPs tabled a motion to censure the European Commission and then--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I did not hear the question because of the noise from Government Members. Will the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) please repeat it?

Mr. Prior: Will the Prime Minister explain why it was that his Labour MEPs tabled a motion to censure the European Commission for fraud and maladministration and then voted against it?

The Prime Minister: That is because they got the independent investigation that they wished, which was the right thing to do. I am really surprised that on this day

20 Jan 1999 : Column 908

above all days the hon. Gentleman raises the subject of MEPs, since he has just lost two of his own and half the Tory group in Europe voted with us.

Q7. [64890] Mr. Tony Colman (Putney): Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the additional humanitarian aid and logistical support for the democratically elected Government of President Kabbah in Sierra Leone? Will he further join me in condemning the hypocrisy of those on the Opposition Benches who yesterday supported that policy when for the last year, they had opposed Government policy in Sierra Leone?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend lived and worked in Freetown and I acknowledge his special interest in this area. We are deeply concerned about recent events in Sierra Leone. Let me state the Government's policy very clearly again: it is to do everything that we can legitimately to help the democratically elected regime of President Kabbah. We welcome the co-operation that we have had with the Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces in trying to repel the rebels. We on the Government Benches, at any rate, believe that it is our duty to do everything that we can to help that democratically elected Government. We are proud of what we have done so far and if we can do more, we will.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): The Prime Minister is reported to have encouraged the enlarged British Aerospace-GEC Marconi group to continue its negotiations with its European counterparts in the restructuring of the defence companies of Europe. Given that during the Gulf war, the Belgians refused to sell us ammunition, if control of such a key UK defence asset were to cease to be in the hands of this country, would that cause the Prime Minister any concern?

The Prime Minister: I sometimes wonder whether there are any limits to the anti-Europeanism on the Opposition Benches. First, the GEC-BAe deal is one that is very welcome from the companies' commercial point of view, but I make no secret of the fact that, yes, I want to see in the longer term European defence restructuring because I believe that it is absolutely in the interests of our country that that is the case.

We are living with a different type of defence industry, where there is enormous competition from the United States. We need big European players able to compete in that league. I am not interfering with the commercial decision of those companies, but I think that defence restructuring and closer links with Europe are a perfectly natural and right consequence of building a defence industry for the future that is in Britain's interests. I do not regard the fact that our companies enter into arrangements with Europeans as a betrayal of the British national interest.

20 Jan 1999 : Column 907

20 Jan 1999 : Column 909

Next Section

IndexHome Page