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Organised Crime

2. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): When the organised crime taskforce last met; and what was discussed. [25592]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): The organised crime taskforce, which I chair, last met on 12 December to discuss how to build on the successes already achieved. Since then, on 10 January, a

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joint Customs and police operation seized a fuel-laundering plant in South Armagh that was capable of stealing £75,000 per week in unpaid taxes.

Paul Farrelly: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work being done by the taskforce. It is well known that organised crime raises money for terrorism. To what extent are the taskforce's successes stopping money going into the coffers of paramilitary groups, and to what extent is the taskforce contributing to the seizure of arms from paramilitary groups, especially those that are not signed up to the peace process?

Jane Kennedy: At the heart of the Government's approach to tackling organised crime are efforts focused on—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Will the House allow the Minister to be heard? There is a great deal of noise.

Jane Kennedy: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

At the heart of the Government's approach and the task force's efforts is our recognition of the impact of organised crime on Northern Ireland's society. Organised crime undermines civic values the world over; the problem is compounded in Northern Ireland, where, unfortunately, paramilitaries have the apparatus and the will to commit crime for profit.

Money laundering is only one of many aspects of the development of organised crime of which we are aware, and the taskforce is assisting the organisations that comprises—public agencies that have come together to tackle organised crime—by utilising the best minds and the best trained financial investigators available. We are aware of the need to crack down on groups involved in organised crime; the debate on the previous question leaves no doubt that it is a factor that must be borne in mind. When faced with the sort of violence that we have witnessed in the past week, we must bear in mind the fact that the paramilitary organisations engaged in that violence are equally capable of turning their hand to organised crime. The role of the taskforce is therefore essential.

David Burnside (South Antrim): The Minister will share the revulsion felt by the vast majority of Northern Ireland's people against criminals masquerading as paramilitaries who are involved in drug dealing and driving drugs into our society, especially when their activities are directed towards young people and schoolchildren. She will also be aware of my strongly held belief that the only way to tackle drug dealers and put them out of business is to pass a law that allows phone tap evidence to be admissible in court. Will she put that item on the agenda of the taskforce's next meeting and draw evidence from the success in Italy, where, by using such a law, the Government have had great success against the Mafia and organised crime?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman has, rightly, raised that point before. We keep under constant review all the tools that may become available to the Government, with the assistance of the police and security forces our main focus. We have to continue the fight

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against organised crime and constantly bear in mind the link between organisations engaged in organised crime and paramilitary associations in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The taskforce has said that, along with money laundering and fraud, fuel smuggling is one of the most serious crimes committed in Northern Ireland, given its social impact. Does the Northern Ireland Office hold discussions with the Treasury to let it know that the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has a devastating effect because differential duty rates are applied? One of the easiest ways to handle the problem would be tax harmonisation between the two parts of the island of Ireland, which would remove the opportunity for smugglers to be involved in this trade.

Jane Kennedy: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. We have considered this issue, and discussions have taken place on all the factors that affect organised crime in Northern Ireland. Fuel tax evasion is a crime in itself, irrespective of the tax regime, and should be vigorously opposed. I support my hon. Friend in saying that it is important that the whole of Northern Ireland society unites behind the police service and other organisations, including the Inland Revenue, to assist them in their efforts to bring to justice those involved in organised criminality, which includes those crimes that are difficult to tackle. The police can have an effect, and successes will continue so long as society unites to assist them in their efforts.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): I agree with the Minister about the scale of the threat posed by organised crime. Would it not be better for the Government to redirect the tens or hundreds of millions of pounds from the scandalous gravy train that the Saville inquiry has become to the police, so that they can fight organised crime more effectively?

Jane Kennedy: The police in Northern Ireland, Customs and Excise officers, the Inland Revenue and the other organisations in the taskforce are doing a superb job in tackling organised crime. The Government are not complacent. We are conscious of the scale of the problem, but the police have the resources, expertise and skill, and they are having successes. On the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I refer him to the answer that my right hon. Friend gave a few moments ago.


3. Mr. John Baron (Billericay): If he will make a statement about progress on decommissioning. [25593]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): The Government are committed to seeing all illegally held weapons put permanently and verifiably beyond use. As the commission has reported, it will pursue its mandate, which is the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms.

Mr. Baron: I thank the Secretary of State for that response. Given that the Government have shamefully further appeased terrorists by allowing them another five years to decommission, and given that violence continues,

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will he accept that there needs to be far greater transparency in the decommissioning process to boost morale and confidence in the flagging peace process?

Dr. Reid: It is a bit of a tragedy that the Conservatives are reverting to type on this issue. There may be legitimate questions and arguments on all these issues, but to see every compromise necessary to put an end to the longest running dispute in British history as merely appeasement or a concession is to make cheap political points when we need statesmanship and leadership.

We want to see and will continue to press for the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons, including those of the Irish Republican Army. The hon. Gentleman should not diminish the historic significance of the decommissioning that has already taken place.

On the methodology, it would be better to leave that to the integrity of General John de Chastelain, who operates under the statute, the remit and the modus operandi that were agreed by the House of Commons.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Accepting that the Unionist section of the community in Northern Ireland feels that various concessions, with which I agree, towards republican paramilitaries are a bridge too far, may I ask the Secretary of State what assurance he can give that he will take specific measures to build confidence in the Unionist community? He could, for example, provide an assurance that anybody who is on the run and has yet to be tried will not be given an unconditional amnesty, but will have to face a trial, whether or not they are subsequently released on licence.

Dr. Reid: The best assurance that can be given to any member of the Unionist community, which by definition has as its principal objective the union of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, is the democratic consensus, which is now accepted by everyone, and that the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland will be in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland. That is not a concession to Unionism but a democratic right. On the anomalies arising from the release of paramilitary prisoners, which we have pledged to resolve, when we have concrete proposals on that, we will of course bring them to the House.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [25657] Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 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.

Mr. Jenkins: My right hon. Friend knows that in Staffordshire we have some very good public services provided by dedicated public sector staff, but historically Staffordshire is one of the lowest-funded areas in Britain.

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We always appear at the bottom of any funding league table for education, health and the police. Will the Prime Minister give us hope that in future the funding formula will be open and transparent, that it will be fairer and that it will close the gap between areas that receive an average amount of funding and those at the bottom of the table? That will allow dedicated public sector staff to provide even better services for people in Tamworth and the rest of Staffordshire.

The Prime Minister: I can at least assure my hon. Friend that the review of the funding formula is intended to ensure that it is fairer. He will know that in Staffordshire, as elsewhere, additional resources have been going to education, health and the police. That means that education results have gone up, police numbers have gone up, waiting lists have gone up—[Laughter.] The number of nurses has gone up and waiting lists have gone down. As a result of that investment, services can improve. That contrasts with the position of the Conservative party, which with its proposal to cut public spending to 35 per cent. of GDP would take £60 billion out of our public services and decimate them.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): When did the 10-year plan for transport begin—in December 1999 when the Deputy Prime Minister announced it, or on Monday when the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions announced it again?

The Prime Minister: The strategic plan in 1999 set out the overall level of money for investment, and the strategic plan announced on Monday showed how that money will be spent. [Laughter.] I am sorry if the Conservatives cannot see the difference between the overall amount of money and how it is to be spent. We are in favour of investment, and that stands in contrast to their proposals to cut investment for transport.

Mr. Duncan Smith: That would make more sense if it were not for the fact that in the past two years the Government have announced the same policy five times and the same money at least four times. During that time, the Prime Minister and his team have both backed privatisation and renationalised the network, and he now wants to go cap in hand to private industry to get extra funding. Yet the figures show that throughout that period the delays on the railways had risen by 61 per cent. even before the strikes. That is 1,300 more delayed trains every single day. Will the Prime Minister tell us how much more it will cost him, as a result of that mismanagement, to get private money into the service?

The Prime Minister: First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman on delays. Until Hatfield in October 2000, punctuality increased and there were more trains running. After Hatfield, when it became clear that the track infrastructure needed a total renewal, it is true that punctuality went down, as a result of decades of underinvestment. The difference between the Government and the Opposition is simply this; we are putting in some £33.5 billion of public investment in the next few years. Incidentally, £6 billion of private sector investment has

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already been committed and more will come. We are in favour of that investment going in. Is the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister may well be in favour of that investment going in, but the reality is that he will not get it put in. Private investors are now going to demand danger money for having anything to do with the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions after what he has done to Railtrack. A quick glance at the City will show that all those investors have now written investment in the Government down below investment in Mexico. They would not invest in the Government before investing in Mexico. As a result, they will now demand £1 billion extra to cover their risk. Does that not make the Transport Secretary the most expensive Cabinet Minister in history and should not the Prime Minister save the travelling public's money and sack him?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman says that no money will come in from the private sector. I have just pointed out to him that £6 billion has already been pledged; the train operating companies have said that they will indeed put money in; and the director general of the CBI has welcomed the plan. The question that the right hon. Gentleman has to answer, but did not, is this: does he support public investment in the railways? It is almost a statement of the obvious to say when we look at the railways today that the problem is decades of underinvestment. The Government have a proposal to increase investment dramatically so that over the next few years investment at about three times the level will be going in. We are in favour of that investment; the right hon. Gentleman is in favour of taking it out. Whether in education, health or transport, we believe in investment; he does not.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): My right hon. Friend will have seen stories and photographs in the press about the treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners by the United States. Does he share the concerns of many people in this country that the west is in danger of losing the high moral ground as a result of the treatment and possible mode of trial of those prisoners?

The Prime Minister: First, I hope that the whole House realises that there is still a situation of very great danger in Afghanistan for American troops, British troops and others; there are still pockets of resistance from the Taliban and, even as we speak, there are reports today of a fresh of cache arms being found, with a conspiracy to kill American troops, and no doubt British troops if they were in the vicinity. We are dealing with highly dangerous people.

Secondly, of course I totally agree that anybody who is captured by American troops, British troops or anyone else should be treated humanely in accordance with the Geneva convention and proper international norms. For that very reason, a British team will see those people claiming to be British citizens detained in Cuba; we will make sure that they are being properly and humanely treated. I simply say to my hon. Friend that we have been in discussions with the Americans, who assure us that those people are being humanely treated. They are getting fed properly and are being allowed to exercise and shower

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properly; they are being looked after properly with medical treatment; each is being given individually, should they wish, a copy of the Koran and the time to make their religious observances.

Rather than believing exactly what is reported in the media straight away, it is important that we get to the truth of the matter. The international Red Cross will go and see those individuals; British officials will see the people from Britain. There should be no doubt about two things. First, as I said, we are dealing with very dangerous people. Secondly, however, we are a civilised people and will treat prisoners in a proper and humane way.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Further to the question raised by the hon. Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), given what we know already, will the Prime Minister make clear, where British citizens are concerned, his views on their being hooded, shackled, sedated and kept in cages?

The Prime Minister: Let us wait and see exactly how the prisoners have been treated. It is important not to say anything that prejudices their defence to the charges that have been made against them, but nobody should be in any doubt that the members of the al-Qaeda network are highly dangerous people. It would be unsurprising if they were subject to strict security measures, but of course they should be properly and humanely treated—in exactly the way that the Taliban would not treat their prisoners.

Mr. Kennedy: The entire House is united in wishing to see those responsible for the appalling atrocities of 11 September brought to justice, but will the Prime Minister recognise and stress to the Americans that if we are to maintain the global opinion which has been so successful in the fight against terrorism, we must demonstrate that our values remain above those of the people who seek to destroy them?

The Prime Minister: Of course, but with respect, the right hon. Gentleman should listen to what I have been saying over the past few minutes. Of course it is correct that we make sure that people are humanely treated. That is precisely why a British team will visit those who claim to be British citizens. The international Red Cross will see those people. We understand that they are being humanely treated, being given proper medical advice, food and allowances for their religion, and being allowed to shower and to exercise properly and so on. I repeat that it is important for us to get to the facts of how that group of people, 50 in number, is being treated, rather than simply reacting instantaneously to reports in the media.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Following my right hon. Friend's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), what exactly is the justification for continued bombing of Afghanistan?

The Prime Minister: The justification is the very reason that I gave a few moments ago. There are still pockets of resistance by the Taliban. The discovery today, which is emerging now, of a conspiracy to kill American troops in and around a particular American camp, and the discovery of a large amount of weapons and ordnance, are an indication that the campaign is not over yet.

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I can tell my hon. Friend that when I met the representatives of the new interim Government in Afghanistan, put together by the United Nations, they regarded the actions of American, British and allied troops in Afghanistan as a liberation of the people of Afghanistan. They believe that as a result of the defeat of the Taliban and their removal from government, people in Afghanistan have, for the first time in years, the prospect of a decent future. War is always a bloody and difficult business. We should carry it on until we have squeezed out the last remaining remnants of the Taliban. Then our task is also, as we will show at the Tokyo conference soon, to reconstruct Afghanistan and give it a proper future.

Q2. [25658] Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): In a week when eight-hour trolley waits have become a reality at the three-star Blackpool Victoria hospital, I draw the Prime Minister's attention to the remarks made by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Lord Hunt, at a recent conference, when he said that the national health service has two years to win back public confidence, or other forms of funding will be considered. Does the Prime Minister agree with his Under-Secretary on the timing issue? Can he tell the House what are the other forms of funding that are under consideration?

The Prime Minister: First, in relation to the national health service, of course it is important that it wins back confidence, which is why the report from the modernisation board last week—which, incidentally, and contrary to what the Conservatives said, included representatives of the royal colleges, such as the Royal College of Nursing, and the British Medical Association—was clear that the NHS is making progress, and that most of the indicators are now moving the right way. Of course there will be big pressures over the winter, but there are more beds now, more nurses and more doctors, and the waiting lists are indeed coming down.

Secondly, in respect of alternative systems of funding, the right hon. Gentleman knows what we believe. We believe that, as is the case in Denmark, where I gather the shadow Health spokesman has been, the health service should be funded out of general taxation. The alternative is the proposal from the right hon. Gentleman's party, which would force people to pay and would cut public spending. Hon. Members can point their fingers as much as they like, but the proposal of the Conservative party is to cut public spending and to force people to pay. That is the difference between a party that believes in the national health service free at the point of use, and a Conservative party that would cut spending and charge people.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): The Government have recognised the problems that British seaside resorts face owing to the decline of the domestic tourism industry, and the urgent need for regeneration. Can the Prime Minister therefore tell me what funding will be made available to regional development agencies so that they can implement the coastal strategies that they are currently drawing up to help to regenerate seaside resorts such as Morecambe?

The Prime Minister: I cannot give my hon. Friend off-hand the exact level of funding for Morecambe or indeed coastal resorts generally. She is right to say that

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the regional development agencies now have a specific remit to encourage economic development. In areas such as hers, that means the coastal resorts. Of course, additional finance is being put into tourism at the moment. I think that my hon. Friend will agree that it is necessary to ensure co-ordination on a regional basis and that it would be very unfortunate if we adopted the Opposition's proposals and abolished the regional development agencies.

Q3. [25659] Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Is the Prime Minister aware that band D council tax payers in Suffolk will shortly be receiving bills of about £1,000—a staggering 60 per cent. increase since he took office? As my constituents reflect on the quality of services provided by the Labour-Liberal Democrat county council, may I ask him how he can reconcile his clear commitment not to raise taxation with this huge stealth tax increase for the people of Suffolk, which over five years has averaged no less than six times the rate of inflation?

The Prime Minister: In actual fact, we have put more money into the local authority settlements than the Government the hon. Gentleman supported ever did. Of course, that money is delivering better education for his constituents—he did not mention that—and better social care and services. It is precisely for that reason that we believe that it is important that this money carries on going into our public services. Of course, the hon. Gentleman believes in taking it out.

Q4. [25660] Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Following this morning's highly successful launch of the anti-hunting campaign "Countdown to the Ban", will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government's pledge to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue still stands? Will he advise the House as to when we can expect a vote on a ban on hunting with dogs?

The Prime Minister: The commitment in our manifesto does indeed stand. We promised a free vote in the Queen's Speech. There has been no decision yet on the timing of the vote, but the Government will make an announcement at the appropriate time.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): When the Health Secretary told NHS executives that he would

what did he mean by that?

The Prime Minister: The Health Secretary has announced a whole series of partnerships with the private sector. I should have thought that it is very sensible that where it is important to use the private sector, we do so, but nobody should be in any doubt that of course the purpose of that is to provide a better service within the national health service. That is quite different from what the right hon. Gentleman wants to do, which is force people to pay for their health treatment and privatise the national health service.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Yesterday, the Prime Minister and his Health Secretary apparently hated the private sector. Now it is clear that today they are turning to it in

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desperation. Who knows what they are going to do tomorrow? Almost anything, it seems. The Prime Minister should pay attention, because the Health Secretary told the House six months ago that there should be "one monopoly provider" of health care. He says now that the NHS should

Which is the correct statement of Government policy?

The Prime Minister: The statement is set out very clearly in the national health service plan: where we can work with the private sector, we will do so. The reform programme in the health service is delivering more beds and more nurses—some 27,000 more nurses. It is delivering real improvements both in waiting times and in waiting lists, which are down on those under the previous Government. It is also, for example, delivering changes in the way in which cancer patients are seen; more than 90 per cent. of them are now seen within two weeks. Cardiac waiting times are also improving. These are changes that are being delivered by a Government who believe in reform and investment. When I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he supported the investment in the railways, he gave us no answer. Now let him get to his feet and tell us—it is very simple—so that we can have a proper debate: does he support the additional investment going into the health service or not? If he does, how does that lie with his commitment to reduce spending to 35 per cent. of GDP?

Mr. Duncan Smith: It is no good the Prime Minister asking me what I support when he does not know what his Government support. On health, as on everything else, they do not have a clue. The right hon. Gentleman forced school bullies to be kept in school, but now he wants them kicked out; he dispersed asylum seekers, but now he wants them all to be kept in the same place; he wanted a democratic House of Lords, but now he wants a House of cronies; he said that he wanted to renationalise the railways, but now he is begging for private money. Is this not a case of power without purpose, politics without principle and a Government without direction?

The Prime Minister: I suppose that, for the right hon. Gentleman, that passes for stinging rhetoric. He said that we did not know what we support for the health service. With respect, we do. We support the extra investment, which has reduced waiting lists and given us more nurses, doctors and beds. Those who work in the health service said last week that they were turning the corner and that it was getting better. We know the difference between the two political parties: we support investment and reform because both are important; the right hon. Gentleman does not support the extra investment. He wants to run down the health service so that he can say that everyone gets hopeless care on the NHS and he and his supporters can justify privatising it.

The difference is the same as it always has been. We created the health service—the Conservatives opposed it. We invest in the health service—they cut the investment. We want a health service that is free at the point of use—they would make people pay for it.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): After the examples of Equitable Life, Railtrack and even Johnson Matthey, why should we hand over chunks of the health service to

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private sector managers? How will the whizzkids from the private sector transform the health service, especially when, as the Prime Minister rightly said, it is getting better under Labour?

The Prime Minister: Two groups of people will oppose our plans. My hon. Friend says that he opposes using the private sector, but I disagree with him. On the borders of my constituency, a new hospital has been built under the private finance initiative. That also applies to other facilities in my constituency. The PFI is improving health care within the NHS. The reform programme in the health service will continue because it is right; it will deliver better health care.

The other source of opposition is on the Conservative Benches. Conservative Members may be in favour of reform, but they are against investment. The new Labour Government have adopted the right position: yes to investment, and yes to reform because both will deliver a better national health service, not an old-fashioned health service, or a privatised system, which Conservative Members want.

Q5. [25661] Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): The Prime Minister is aware of my total support for the Unionist cause in Northern Ireland and for the role of our armed services in the campaign against terrorism worldwide. Will he therefore tell the House the cost of the Saville inquiry, not least because the Parachute Regiment which is currently engaged in operations in Afghanistan is involved? I understand that the cost exceeds £60 million. Can that figure be justified?

The Prime Minister: The cost of the inquiry is £52 million. The reason for the inquiry is that it was important to lay to rest some of the claims that have been made over many years. Public inquiries cost a lot of money; the BSE inquiry cost around £30 million. However, it was important in the context of the peace process in Northern Ireland that we made progress and held such an inquiry.

The hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members have criticised the peace process, and I heard the attacks on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland this afternoon. I hope that they also realise how much money and how many lives have been saved by the Northern Ireland peace process. Conservative Members may currently oppose it, but hundreds if not thousands of people are alive today who otherwise would not have been; there is investment in Northern Ireland that would never have been made and there are jobs that would never have existed without the peace process. Hope and prosperity are at least available to people in Northern Ireland. If we went back to the old days of the Conservative Government, both would be missing. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before we proceed, I must ask the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) to be calm—very calm indeed.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I welcome the review of student finance that was announced recently. If there is to be any delay in making changes, will

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consideration be given to finding extra finance for students from poorer backgrounds, who are finding things very difficult at the moment?

The Prime Minister: It is important that we get the right balance of contributions from the individual and the state, and that is precisely what we are looking at at the moment. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that, contrary to some of the things that were said a few years ago, the number of people going to university is up, not down. We must focus in particular on those people from poorer social backgrounds who perhaps do not get the chances that they need. I know that my hon. Friend would want me to point out that 50 per cent. of those who go to university do not pay tuition fees, as a result of the Government's changes.

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