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17 Oct 2002 : Column 490—continued

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden): I apologise to the Secretary of State for missing the first 60 seconds of his statement. I also apologise in advance lest by saying that I broadly welcome the proposals I undermine support for them.

The proposals seem to be the logical and foreseen development of the rent reference system that I introduced. Action could not be taken immediately because the possible divergence of rents meant that the cost might be high. What cost does the Secretary of State envisage in extra benefit? Will he also assure us that local authorities will retain the discretion to pay above the standard allowance if that is necessary, for instance to enable an elderly mother to live near her family in what may be high-rent accommodation, but thereby avoiding the need to enter residential accommodation?

Mr. Smith: Obviously the cost will depend partly on the impact of the reforms on rent levels over time, but the extra amount that we anticipate for the pathfinders is around #20 million.

I can confirm that we do not intend to limit the discretion of local authorities that currently have that discretion, although we expect the basis of payment to come from the tenant except when there is good reason for that not to happen.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Is there any scope for giving benefit to some who currently do not receive it, particularly in high-cost areas such as the one I represent? In my area an ex-council house can cost #850 a month, and a two-bedroomed flat in Apsley can cost #1,000 a month. As a result, the disposable incomes of some people such as starter teachers are extremely low. Giving such people housing benefit would increase incentives to work.

Mr. Smith: It is no part of these proposals to extend eligibility for housing benefit. As I said in my statement,

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benefit will be income-related as it is now. We will of course keep such matters as tapers under review, but the short answer to my hon. Friend's question is no, we do not anticipate including more people as a consequence of the report.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on tackling a complex but crucial area. Does he agree that tackling bad landlords requires work to license them, which I know is being done in another Department? Does he also agree that ensuring that direct payments are made to tenants is crucial to enforcing the rights and responsibilities agenda and empowering tenants? Should that not apply to social housing as well as private tenants?

Mr. Smith: I agree on both counts. As I said, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is to present proposals for tackling bad landlords. I am acutely aware of the awful situation facing many low-demand areas, and of the possible scope for effective licensing.

As for the philosophy underpinning the reform, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is very important for us to put power in the hands of poorer people. That is what the reform will do: such people will have more choice and, as my hon. Friend says, will be able to take more responsibility. As I have said, for the same reasons we should extend that approach to the social housing sector as soon as we can, and I am sure that the benefits will be just as great.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. We must now move on.

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Points of Order

2.4 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier today, during an exchange on the so-called modernisation proposals, the Leader of the House made a slight error in describing the policy of the official Opposition on sitting hours. May I take this opportunity to put the record straight? We propose that the House sit at 9.30 am on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, suspending sittings for lunch at 1 pm or earlier and commencing the main business at 2 pm. The House would then continue to sit until 7 pm. The distinction is rather important, and I did not want to leave the inadvertent mischaracterisation by the Leader of the House uncorrected.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I am sure that the House is obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I understand that these matters will be further discussed on 29 October.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you help us with the delays that we are still experiencing in the receipt of written parliamentary answers to questions? Yesterday I received an answer from the Ministry of Defence to a question that I originally asked to have answered on 25 February. I received a holding reply on 25 February and a substantive reply last night. I am being generous to the Ministry in describing it as a substantive reply because it did not really answer the question. Is it not unacceptable that it should take almost eight months for any Ministry, however hard-pressed, to respond to a question from an hon. Member?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: On many previous occasions Mr. Speaker has said that he expects hon. Members to get prompt attention from Ministers. I am sure that by allowing that point of order to be expressed it gives further emphasis to the matter. Obviously, it is important that Members should be able to get their queries dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible. If the hon. Member continues to experience extraordinary delays, he may wish to take up the matter with the Public Administration Committee.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could those responsible perhaps make some effort to ensure that information which is said to be placed in the Library of the House is in fact in the Library of the House? I have received many telephone calls since the answering of a question on 19 September from the press asking for information which subsequent inquiry has discovered has not yet been sent to the Library.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Again, it is an irritant to hon. Members if that occurs. I can only hope that by expressing this view from the Chair, Departments will take special care to ensure that what their Ministers say is being done is backed up by the action.

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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 114 and 116,

Question agreed to.

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Defence in the World

[Relevant document: The Fifth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2001–02, HC914, on the Future of NATO.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

2.7 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon) : This is the fourth of five themed defence debates planned to take place in the House in the current parliamentary Session. The title today is XDefence in the World". The House will have an opportunity at the end of the month to debate XDefence in the United Kingdom".

Any debate about defence today must begin with the appalling events of 11 September last year, echoed again by yet more innocent deaths, this time in Bali. The unprovoked and devastating attacks in New York and Washington, and the fourth, failed hijack, have dominated policy and thinking across the world and across this Government. They were clearly the most significant drivers in the work of the Ministry of Defence in the last year.

We are still dealing with the consequences of those events. They have included the deployment of British combat forces to Afghanistan and a review of our security and defence plans. I should like to take this opportunity to reaffirm to the House our appreciation of the way both our armed forces and the civil servants within the Ministry of Defence responded to those considerable challenges.

We were faced with two immediate tasks in the wake of those attacks: first, we needed urgently to respond to the direct threat facing the United Kingdom and its interests; and, secondly, we needed to re-examine our policies and planning to deal with al-Qaeda and other international terrorist organisations.

The Government's defence policy was set out in the strategic defence review of 1998. It was rightly acclaimed at the time, and the past four years have demonstrated its resilience to events. The 11 September attacks, however, required us to undertake an urgent re-examination of our stance. They showed us that what might previously have been seen as potentially dangerous but distant developments now posed a direct and immediate threat. It also involved finding new ways of dealing with those threats.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the Government's wider counter-terrorist strategy in the House on 16 October last year. It embraced both immediate campaign aims and longer-term objectives. In the immediate aftermath of 11 September, we sought to prevent al-Qaeda from posing a continuing terrorist threat, and to deny it a base in Afghanistan. We also made it clear that we were determined, as part of our wider strategic goals, to bring the leaders of that evil organisation to account. More widely, we sought to do everything possible to work for the elimination of international terrorism as a force for change in the world.

Last month, we published a progress report on the campaign against international terrorism, setting out the United Kingdom's contribution to the campaign.

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But we all know that international terrorism demands an international response. No one nation can defeat the many, disparate and well-hidden threats, of which al-Qaeda is only the principal. Moreover, no one nation is threatened in isolation. As last weekend's awful bombing in Bali demonstrated, we are in this together and we need to act together.

It is in that context that we are dealing with Saddam Hussein. At the end of last month, this House had the opportunity to debate the Government's response to the threat of Iraq and from its weapons of mass destruction. That Saddam Hussein is a brutal and cruel dictator is not in doubt. What has been at issue is the nature of the threat that he poses to us and to the middle east region, and what we need to do about it.

Saddam Hussein has spent years trying to build up his stores of weapons of mass destruction; he certainly strives to add nuclear capabilities to that arsenal. If we cannot ensure his disarmament, he will eventually succeed. If we were to underestimate the threat and fall for more of his duplicitous trickery, or simply do nothing, we would be guilty of a profound abdication of responsibility. Saddam Hussein must disarm.

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