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Democratic Republic of Congo

5. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): If she will make a statement on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and what steps her Department is taking to reduce conflict there. [21886]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): The Democratic Republic of Congo—formerly Zaire—continues to suffer desperate poverty owing to decades of misrule and more recent conflict,

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resulting from the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. That has left the country divided into three parts. Peace is essential to begin to promote development.

The United Kingdom strongly supports full implementation of the Lusaka peace accords, which were negotiated in Africa and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council. It is my view that, with greater international effort, the Lusaka plan could bring peace to the DRC and the six neighbouring countries involved in the conflict. The DRC would then be able to qualify for debt relief and begin to use its rich mineral resources for the benefit of its 60 million people, currently living in desperate poverty.

Paul Farrelly: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent United Nations report which identified the people profiteering from the war in the Congo? It included on its list a Mr. John Bredenkamp, a UK-based arms supplier to Zimbabwe. Will she ensure that her Department, with the Foreign Office and the Department of Trade and Industry, makes every effort to halt the disgraceful activities of people such as Mr. Bredenkamp?

Clare Short: I am aware of the UN report, but I was not aware that a UK resident had been named in it. I undertake to make inquires and to write to my hon. Friend.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [21912] Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 December.

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 such meetings later today.

Jane Griffiths: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will know that the Reading urban area has received an excellent local transport settlement of nearly £7 million and that it has also received £38 million for improvements to junction 11 on the M4. Does he agree that this is a wonderful Christmas present for the people of Reading and that it provides a contrast with the Scrooges in the Conservative party?

The Prime Minister: I agree—I think it is a wonderful Christmas present. The £37 million scheme for Reading will of course make a big difference in Reading. It is part of a programme which, for 2003, will mean £1.5 billion going to local road and transport schemes, and that will improve the transport system for all the places concerned.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): At the end of 2001, are there more people waiting to see an NHS consultant than there were in 1997?

The Prime Minister: The waiting lists are down by 100,000. It is correct that the numbers of people waiting

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in the out-patient sector are up—that is true. However, overall, if we take in-patient and out-patient lists together, they are down.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The fact is that there are now more people waiting to see a consultant than there were five years ago, which is not what the Prime Minister promised when he got into power. No one is going to believe a word that he says about waiting lists or anything else when the National Audit Office report today shows that the Government have put systematic pressure on doctors and hospital managers to fiddle the waiting list figures. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the NAO that that represents

The Prime Minister: Of course it is entirely unacceptable if the waiting list figures are being manipulated in any trust. However, it is important to put this matter in perspective. Over a period of four to five years, 6,000 people were misallocated on the lists and that compares with the figure of about 25 million for the overall number of operations done. The right hon. Gentleman says that the waiting list figures overall are up since we came to office, but that is wrong—they are down.

If we look at the out-patient lists, it is correct that, in the first two and half years of the Government, they rose, but they have subsequently been falling. What is more, if we look at those people waiting more than six months, the numbers are now down 70,000. Indeed, it is the case today that 70 per cent. of NHS patients get their operation within three months.

Mr. Duncan Smith: No one is going to believe the right hon. Gentleman, because he referred to the NAO report only to say that there were a certain number of problems. The reality is that the NAO investigated nine hospitals and found that all nine had breached their rules. That is happening not only in the hospitals that the NAO investigated. I refer to a hospital that was not even investigated but that is already changing things. It says here:

That is the reality; that is what is going on up and down the country with a lot of hospitals.

The report says that people are being offered appointments only when they have gone on holiday and that patients are offered appointments only when the consultant has gone on holiday—twisting—with waiting lists always being manipulated. Is not the reality that the Prime Minister is to blame for everything in the report and for the waiting lists that are all going up? It is his culture of deceit that has forced the health service to manipulate these figures.

The Prime Minister: First, on the NAO report, I should repeat the words of the original report that gave rise to the follow-up report today. It said at that point in time:

however, lead us to the idea

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However, we accept entirely that there is a very great deal more to do. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman on many occasions, the only way we are going to treat more people in the health service is if we invest in nurses, doctors, beds and hospitals. The Labour party is committed to putting in that investment, free at the point of use. The right hon. Gentleman wants to charge people and take out that investment.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister was elected in 1997 to cut—I repeat, to cut—waiting lists and to save the NHS. That was his pledge. He cannot weasel out of that now by saying some of it is good and some of it is not. Some £10 billion a year under this Government is wasted. That is a fact. Some £700 million is unspent because the system cannot cope—fact. Waiting lists are up and in-patient figures are down. That is another fact. The reality is that the Prime Minister can weasel as much as he likes, but after five years the whole country is on a waiting list, waiting for him to deliver.

The Prime Minister: Without going back over the waiting list figures again, I say this. The right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong in saying that the figures are up, because they are not; they are down by 100,000. It is correct, however, that we still have a very great deal more to do. That is precisely why we are committed to the record investment that we put into the NHS.

Before the general election, the Conservative health spokesman set out Conservative policy when he said:

Yet when the right hon. Gentleman was asked just a couple of days ago whether people should be charged to see their GPs, he said:

So we both accept that we need more capacity—more doctors, nurses and beds in the health service. We are prepared to put that money into the NHS; the right hon. Gentleman is saying that people will have to pay. I believe that the country would prefer a national health service that is free at the point of use rather than with Tory charges.

Q2. [21913] Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): Many people warmly remember the Prime Minister's commitment on 2 October to ensure that the world order to be built on the rubble of 11 September would be a fitting memorial to those who died in New York. We are three months on, and the war in Afghanistan is close to completion. At Christmas, many families will again have to come to grips with the loss of a loved one as a result of those attacks. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking today seriously to consider a suitable

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multi-faith memorial to pay tribute to the devastating loss so bravely borne by so many families throughout the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: We would certainly consider an appropriate memorial, although obviously the events of 11 September have been commemorated in different ways around the world. It is right to point out that, as of tomorrow, it will be 100 days since 11 September. The war in Afghanistan has been prosecuted very successfully. The al-Qaeda terrorist network is effectively dismantled. The Taliban regime has gone. Humanitarian aid is going into Afghanistan. With the support of the international community, and with the support, I hope, of British troops in the international security force, we will be able to offer Afghanistan the security to reconstruct the country on a proper political basis, which involves all the groupings in the country, to turn Afghanistan from a failed state into a stable partner in the region. Whatever the appalling problems that arose after 11 September, we can be proud of the part that this country—especially our armed forces—has played since then. If we carry on doing that, we will bring the good that we wanted to see out of the evil.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): I am sure that the whole House accords with the final sentiment that the Prime Minister uttered.

Returning to today's issue of the National Audit Office report into the waiting list scandal, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he is not satisfied with the position whereby a seriously ill national health service patient has their operation postponed so that the operation of someone in a less critical condition can proceed, simply to meet the institution of waiting list targets which his Government set?

The Prime Minister: Of course, that should not happen, which is precisely why, as the NAO report made clear, when the trust concerned discovered that that had happened it took immediate action. The right hon. Gentleman will know of the campaign by the Conservative party and others to say that everything in the national health service is bad and that no one gets proper treatment. It is important that we set that in context; yes, over a four to five-year period, 6,000 patients were wrongly allocated on the waiting list. But as I pointed out a moment ago, 25 million operations took place in that period. The vast bulk of those people were dealt with correctly.

Mr. Kennedy: In addition, most people looking at the story will consider it a scandal that some of the managers who either fiddled the figures or were downright incompetent have had big golden handshakes or, worse still, have been redeployed elsewhere in the national health service. Should they not be out on their ear? Is not the lesson that comes through all this the need for local effective management of the health service? Does the Prime Minister not need to rethink his policy of getting rid of community health councils for a start?

The Prime Minister: I really do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's latter point carries any weight at all. Of course, it is correct that those people who engaged in misallocating people to waiting lists should be disciplined, although it is important to read the detail of the report

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because some procedures were misapplied at a lower management level than senior management. It is important that when we look at the NHS today we do not say that, because that happened in a certain number of cases, it has happened in every case. It has not; the vast bulk of people in the NHS get proper treatment. The vast bulk of people—70 per cent. of them—are seen for their operations within three months.

As well as bad things happening in the NHS, there are excellent pieces of innovation, change and development. More nurses, more doctors and more hospital schemes are coming through. In time, no doubt, despite the examples of bad practice, good practice will prevail.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): My right hon. Friend has already expressed his utter condemnation of the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament last week. Will he take the opportunity to reassure India and her neighbours that the terrorists who attacked the Parliament of the world's largest democracy on 13 December will be pursued by the international community with as much vigour and determination as the terrorists who attacked the world's most powerful democracy on 11 September, and that those who give them succour or support will be treated with the same resolve shown against the Taliban?

The Prime Minister: Many of those groups are linked to the extremists who have been operating out of Afghanistan. It is important that we take action at every level on their membership, how they acquire weapons, how they are financed and from where they operate. We express complete solidarity with the victims who were killed or wounded in that terrorist outrage.

Q3. [21914] Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): The Prime Minister and I have recently been blessed with healthy baby boys. I share his concerns for our children's privacy. He will be aware of his Government's vigorous campaign to inoculate all schoolchildren with the triple measles, mumps and rubella vaccination, and their equal determination to prevent parents who want to give their children the single vaccination from doing so. In those circumstances, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his legitimate desire to protect the privacy of his child is very much at odds with legitimate public interest in the matter?

We want to know whether the Prime Minister practises what he preaches, so will he take the opportunity to let us know whether little Leo has had his MMR jab. In doing so, he can reassure those parents—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question is too long.

The Prime Minister: I think I caught the general drift. I am afraid I will not enter into any public discussion about the health of my children, but the recommendations on MMR which the Government are following are supported by the World Health Organisation, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Royal College of Nursing and the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, so we fully support the present campaign.

Q4. [21915] Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): Is it not extraordinary that 53 years after the NHS was

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founded, one of its founding principles—that it is free at the point of delivery—seems to be under attack from the Leader of the Opposition, only a week before Christmas? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask the Prime Minister a question about Government policy, not about Opposition policy.

Mr. Challen: Perhaps we should consider making it a constitutional right that people have that founding principle as one of their human rights—a health service free at the point of delivery, which the Opposition could never demolish.

The Prime Minister: I understand the anxiety of the Opposition to prevent my hon. Friend from getting his question out, but the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that he is prepared to make people pay for basic access to health care. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. I know that a couple of days is a long time in the development of Opposition policy, but a couple of days ago he was asked specifically whether he would consider making people pay to see their GP, and he said he thought that people would be prepared to pay. The Opposition have opposed the extra investment that we are putting into the national health service. My hon. Friend is right. There is an important debate to be had. Either we have a national health service that is comprehensive and free at the point of use, or we have one that is dismantled and paid for by the patient, which is the position of the Conservative party.

Q5. [21916] Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Does the Prime Minister accept that the reality in the NHS is represented by the cases of constituents of mine, such as young Lucy Westbrook and Steve Peters, who have had their operations cancelled or postponed, and not by the fantasy figures in his fiddled waiting lists?

The Prime Minister: The figures for the hon. Gentleman's constituency and area indicate that both in-patient and out-patient waiting lists are down. Of course, there are people who still do not get the treatment that they merit and deserve, but the vast majority of people in the hon. Gentleman's health authority do get the proper treatment. We know why the Conservative party wants to raise the cases of people not getting the proper treatment: in order to tell the country that the entire national health service is failing, so we can get rid of it. In contrast to the Conservative solution of getting people to pay, our solution is to put the investment into the NHS so that we deal with cases such as those of the hon. Gentleman's constituents—but let us never forget that in his area, the vast bulk of people are treated extremely well by the NHS.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Will the Prime Minister say whether, as reported in The Sun today, he will sack the Transport Secretary early in the new year?

The Prime Minister: No.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Does that not say everything about the Government's attitude to the public services and

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about the character of the Government? After all, the Transport Secretary said that Railtrack was bust when it was solvent; he said that he would save taxpayers' money, whereas he will cost them £6 billion more; he made passengers' lives a misery with extra delays throughout the country; and above all, he defended a spin doctor who called for bad news to be buried. Does the Prime Minister think that today, at the festive season, is a good day to bury his Transport Secretary?

The Prime Minister: As for the right hon. Gentleman's allegation that Railtrack was a solvent company, I must admit that I have been mystified in the past few days to hear that Railtrack was apparently not in financial difficulty at all, but was roaring along, fully profitable and very solvent, and did not need any public money at all. Let me read to him what the judge said in the administration case:

That was the case for a very simple reason: the company had debts of £700 million that were going to rise to £1.7 billion. [Interruption.] If the Opposition dispute that, I ask why, as Railtrack was in court at the time, it did not dispute it. It did not do so because it is indisputable. The difference between us, as I have pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman many times before, is that he has got himself into the position of saying that he would take £1 billion of taxpayers' money to bail out the shareholders, while we would put that money into a better railway network. If he wants to get up and tell us that Railtrack was a solvent company, perhaps he will explain why it had those debts of £1.7 billion by next March and why the judge made that order.

Hon. Members: Come on!

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Ken Purchase.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): Would the Prime Minister care to comment on the determination of the United States Administration to increase tariffs against the import of steel? First, does he think that that will have a serious effect on the European steelmaking industry? Secondly, is not this a smack in the face for the developing countries that have been faced with American investment that has not always been helpful?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. It is important that we ensure that there is proper and fair trade in the world, and I very much hope that the United States will change its position on the issue, as it is unfair for European Union companies to be unable to get access to American markets. Of course that is one of the reasons why it is so important that we make progress not only on bilateral EU-US trade matters, but through the World Trade Organisation debates and consultations that are coming up shortly. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the issue. I know that it will concern many people working in the steel industry here, which is why we are making representations about it to the United States Administration.

Q6. [21917] Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The energy review from the Cabinet Office has been widely

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leaked but has not yet been published. When will the House get to see the review, or has it been doctored in favour of nuclear energy?

The Prime Minister: No, it has not. It may have been leaked, but I may say that it has not been leaked to me, so I cannot tell him what it contains at the present time. It is very sensible that we review our energy needs and it is important for us to do so over the coming years. I suggest that, before the hon. Gentleman castigates the report, he waits until it is published.

Q7. [21918] Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): Given that police numbers are rising, as is overall investment in police services, will my right hon. Friend help the Police Federation not to paint itself into a corner where it is seen as in favour of taking the money but not accepting the reform that should go hand in hand with the investment?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that we will reach agreement on reform and it is important that we do so. The police do a fantastic job in this country, but I think that most people realise that we need greater flexibility in the way in which the police service works. On police numbers, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have had in the past year the largest recruitment for 20 years and, after years of falling police numbers under the Conservatives, the numbers are rising again. They will rise in the next couple of years to a record level. Of course, the most important difference between this Government and the Conservative Government is that under this Government crime has fallen by about 11 or 12 per cent. but under the Conservative Government it doubled.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Can the Prime Minister tell us what is the maximum time for which our troops will remain in Afghanistan?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will make a statement later. Our troops are not there on a long-term basis. We believe that they will be there for several months, but it is obviously important that they are there at the outset in order to ensure that the new provisional Government in Kabul can operate effectively. I say to Opposition Members that it would be unfortunate if they went to Kabul without the support of the whole House. I know that there has been some speculation that we would be sending thousands upon thousands of troops—we are not—or that they would be there for a very long time—they will not be. It is vital for us to be able to bolster the political agreement that has been reached with a security assistance force. Frankly, we are the country that is best placed to lead that force. There will be many other countries that will participate, however. I think that it is very much in the interests of this country that we increase the prospects of a stable future in Afghanistan.

Q8. [21919] Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly): I congratulate the Prime Minister on the Government's effective response to the difficulties in the aerospace industry after the events of 11 September. Will he join me in affirming that the National Assembly for Wales and

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central Government are working well together to respond to the situation in GE Aircraft Engine Services in Nantgarw in south Wales?

The Prime Minister: We are working closely with the Assembly on that. We understand the problems that the airline and the aerospace industries face. People's jobs are at risk, and that is worrying. The situation is replicated around the world, but, with the right support and partnership, we will ensure that as many jobs as possible are safeguarded.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup): The Prime Minister has been glib with figures this afternoon. He now has another opportunity to prove how good he is. How much has been spent on consultants since Railtrack went into administration?

The Prime Minister: I do not know the precise figure. If the hon. Gentleman tables a question, I shall answer it. However, it is beyond doubt that the company was not capable of carrying on, with billions of pounds of taxpayers' money being put into it, when it could not provide a proper service for its passengers.

As I meant to say in answer to the Leader of the Opposition, I am prepared to take criticism from almost anyone about the railway industry, but from the people who are responsible for railway privatisation, a period of silence would be the best response.

Q9. [21920] Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): Like me, the Prime Minister would have welcomed the Hague convention on abductions. He received a letter from me some weeks ago about a constituent, Rebecca Turner, who has been forced back to Australia with her young child, Holly, aged four and a new child, five-month-old Jake, because she has been accused of kidnapping the baby. The judge in the case in this country said that he had no alternative but to send her back under the Hague convention. His comments on the convention were interesting, and I shall read them to the Prime Minister—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is an important matter, but the question is far too long.

Mr. Campbell: The judge described the Hague convention as "a highly laudable objective." However, is it right that a young family should be broken up and sent to Australia—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: It is correct that my hon. Friend has written to me on the subject. Of course, I am sorry about the difficulties that his constituent faces. Although I understand that it is a matter for the Australian courts, we are giving all the assistance that we can to Rebecca Turner through consular staff.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): As our constituents want trains that run on time, how long will Railtrack be in administration?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a matter for the administrator. However, the longer

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the administrator's work has gone on, the more financial difficulties he has uncovered. It is important to restructure the company properly to ensure that the money that goes into the railways improves the service for the passengers. I hope that he recognises that a company that lost that amount of money and was solely dependent on increased subsidies through taxpayers' money could not go on as it was; it has to be restructured. Today's announcement by the Strategic Rail Authority is a good first step towards putting the railways back in proper shape.

Q10. [21921] Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): The Government gained great respect from my constituents for the lead that they took internationally to ensure debt cancellation among the poorest countries, including Tanzania. Does my right hon. Friend support a current

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proposal which would increase Tanzania's debt: the sale by Britain of a military air traffic system costing £28 million?

The Prime Minister: We must follow the proper licence conditions throughout, and we shall do so. However, we have written off some £100 million or more of debt in Tanzania and, of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been increasing dramatically the aid given to the poorest African countries. One of the things of which the Government are proudest is the fact that, over the past few years, after years of declining amounts going into aid and development under the Conservative party, we have substantially increased aid and development spending, and what is more increased it as a proportion of our national income.

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