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20 Nov 2002 : Column 640—continued

Northern Ireland

Q2. [80904] Lady Hermon (North Down): What plans he has to visit Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister: I have no immediate plans to do so. I visited Northern Ireland just recently, as the hon. Lady knows.

Lady Hermon: I thank the Prime Minister for that response. I also thank him for his frequent visits to Northern Ireland and still hope that he will come to North Down, the centre of the universe.

Given the Government's renewed commitment, which I welcome, to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement, will the Prime Minister confirm that the principle of equality of opportunity, which is guaranteed and enshrined in the agreement, will be extended to police recruits and police support staff, instead of recruiting by religious discrimination? Surely, as the Prime Minister himself said in Belfast recently—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is doing well.

The Prime Minister: We hope that in terms of the regulars, the proportion of officers in the police service will be 40 per cent. Catholic over the next 10 years, and we are recruiting on a 50:50 basis. In relation to support staff, I am advised that we have had four competitions on a 50:50 basis, but it is still too early to see the results of that. [Interruption.] Well, may I say to Opposition Members that the whole purpose of recruiting on a 50:50 basis is to end the discrimination? We recognise that there are still certain difficulties with recruiting, but we want to maintain the position of getting to a balanced police service, which is why it is important to keep the 50:50 recruitment.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind invitation to North Down. I do not always receive invitations to visit every constituency in Northern Ireland, so that is particularly welcome.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Does the Prime Minister intend to attend party talks in Northern Ireland, in partnership with the Irish Government and in association with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to expedite the resolution of our political

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vacuum and, in particular, to ensure that the Good Friday agreement is fulfilled in its totality? We must ensure that what is taking place now is a review of the agreement rather than a renegotiation of it.

The Prime Minister: As I always point out to anyone who asks for a renegotiation of the agreement, we would ultimately end up negotiating with the same parties over the same issues. I want the Good Friday agreement to be implemented. I think the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland also want that. Their worry at the moment is whether they can be sure that it will be implemented: will all parties commit themselves to exclusively peaceful and democratic means and will a power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland stand the test of time?

I hope my hon. Friend forgives me if I do not give a commitment about any particular meeting, but of course we will remain fully engaged and committed. I believe that the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—provides the only way forward for people in Northern Ireland. One possible hope for the future is that this recent political crisis has not intensified the security crisis. Most people understand that in the end they will have to come back and debate these issues and find a way through, so that all aspects of the Good Friday agreement are completed for the future of the people of Northern Ireland.


Q3. [80905] Angus Robertson (Moray): Large parts of Moray were devastated over the weekend by the third flood in five years, causing serious damage in Elgin, Rothes and Forres. This is a double whammy for the constituency as coastal communities brace themselves for massive threatened cuts in the fishing industry which, like the floods, will cause untold misery and job losses. Will the Prime Minister outline what the Westminster Government will do to assist, how long that will take and whether he will visit Moray as a matter of urgency to see the devastation at first hand?

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question. I pay tribute to everyone who helped to evacuate people from their homes and to contain the flood waters; they did a wonderful job.

There are three things that I would say to the hon. Gentleman. First, Moray council will apply to the Scottish Executive for assistance under the Bellwin scheme, and obviously that is a devolved matter. Secondly, people who have no other safety net can apply to the Department for Work and Pensions for immediate emergency assistance through the social fund. Thirdly, Her Majesty's Customs will work with businesses on VAT payments and other problems that they may have to ease their difficulties in a time of great crisis. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make other suggestions to me, I will be happy to hear them and to pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland or the Scottish Executive.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): The Queen's Speech, rightly, takes very seriously the question of tackling crime. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that

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domestic violence and crimes associated with it remain a high priority for the Government? Will he assure us that when victims report crime, the police, courts, local authorities, and housing, social services and health departments will give them the response that they need and deserve and they will get a chance to rebuild their lives?

The Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend that domestic violence issues remain at the top of the criminal justice agenda. We shall shortly publish a consultation paper on domestic violence, which is a huge issue in this country. It is reported today more than ever before. Domestic violence underlines the importance of supporting the Government's proposals for criminal justice reform because if we make changes to the way in which evidence is given and to the way in which previous convictions are put before the court, that will assist us greatly in bringing to justice those who are responsible for this ghastly crime.

Q4. [80906] Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): Will the Prime Minister give a commitment that a redrafted mental health Bill will place a requirement on health and social services to honour advance directives so that patients' wishes, expressed when they are well, are as far as possible carried out when they become ill?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will have heard what the hon. Lady said. We are considering the responses to consultation and we published a draft Bill, and we shall have to return to this subject. The difficulty, I emphasise to the House, is that while, of course, we must pay proper attention to the rights of people who are mentally ill, we must also make sure—this is why there has been such pressure to change the law—that the public are properly protected from people who may be mentally ill and a severe danger to the public even though they have not been convicted of a specific criminal offence.

Q5. [80907] Hugh Bayley (City of York): May I draw the Prime Minister's attention to the success of a crime-fighting partnership in York called Operation Ratcatcher, which has been extremely successful in increasing the number of arrests for drug offences and street crimes such as robbery? What additional help will the national policing plan provide for police forces in major towns in rural counties such as York to combat crime and disorder?

The Prime Minister: Quite apart from the additional police support that will be provided, the key thing is to focus attention on the issues that my hon. Friend talked about—issues to do with drugs and violence on our streets. Once again, we see the importance of the criminal justice reforms, for example, measures on antisocial behaviour and particularly new measures on drugs where we are providing more treatment and making sure that persistent offenders on drugs are not simply bailed back out on the street again. Those proposals will make a significant difference. As I discovered when talking to basic command unit police commanders yesterday, there is broad support for the

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Government's criminal justice proposals, and I very much hope that Members on both sides of the House will give them a fair and good hearing.

Q6. [80908] Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): If Commissioner Fischler's proposals to cut white fish quotas for next year by 80 per cent. are implemented, it will be the death of many fishing communities, including Shetland in my constituency, where 30 per cent. of the local economy is dependent on the fishing industry. What assurance can the Prime Minister give my constituents that the delegation that he will send to the Fisheries Council next month in Brussels will not allow that to happen?

The Prime Minister: We will argue for the maximum protection of the fishing industry consistent with what is a real and serious problem. I know that a delegation from Scottish fisheries is seeing the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland at the Scotland Office today. We all know that the problem of fishing stocks cannot be ignored or wished away. Two things must happen. First, we will work with the UK fishing industry—we have already provided some #130 million in the past few years—to change the industry and restructure it as necessary.

Secondly, we will do our level best to protect the stocks necessary for the fishermen to earn a living, but the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is only honest to acknowledge that there is a serious problem with fishing stocks, and that we have to cope with it through a combination of getting the best deal out of Europe to allow fishermen to carry on fishing that is consistent with protecting our fishing stocks and providing Government support, advice and assistance in whatever restructuring is necessary. As I said at Prime Minister's questions a couple of weeks ago, it is simply not possible to pretend that there will be no change given the seriousness of the situation.

Q7. [80909] Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): We now have universities that offer degree courses in aromatherapy, rugby studies and golf course management, for which I understand the entry requirement is a handicap of no more than 4.4, but at the same time the country is in desperate need of skilled trades people. Does that not suggest that we need a proper review of what we want our higher education system to be and the way in which we will pay for it?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right—it is for precisely that reason that we have a review under way. I am glad that he recognises that the status quo is not an option. What we pay our university lecturers and the backlog of repairs and work necessary

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to maintain the university infrastructure means that the status quo is not an option. We have got to find the right way through, and we will.

Q8. [80910] Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Prime Minister rather uncharacteristically brushed aside the question from his right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats, so could I ask him as Prime Minister and Head of Government what specific request has been made for what troops by President Bush, if we have to invade Iraq?

The Prime Minister: As I said to the person the hon. Gentleman gently called my right hon. Friend, we have received the same general request as everyone else. We have not received a specific request in relation to specific troop requirements. As the hon. Gentelman knows, however, the Government's position is that if there is a breach by Saddam Hussein and military action follows, he must be disarmed of those weapons of mass destruction. We are simply not at the stage yet of specific requests for specific numbers of troops to be used in a specific way—that will come at a later time.

Q9. [80911] Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): When my right hon. Friend exercises his considerable powers of appointment, which many believe are quasi-mediaeval both in their extent and the manner in which he is required to exercise them, what emphasis does he give or what weight does he attach to a demonstrated capacity for displaying independence of mind?

The Prime Minister: I have precisely the same attachment to independence of mind as any Prime Minister before me. I have not yet had an opportunity to demonstrate that to my hon. Friend, but he never knows.

Q10. [80912] Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): Is the Prime Minister aware that the Government's flagship private finance initiative hospital in Norwich is heading for a #3 million deficit this year, and that the hospital is so overcrowded that more than 10 operations a week have to be cancelled? What are the Government doing to address the beds shortfall in Norfolk?

The Prime Minister: I am not sure that the figures which the hon. Gentleman quotes are correct.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): Yes, they are.

The Prime Minister: There we are—I have some objective advice from the Conservative Back Benches. I have visited the Norwich PFI hospital myself, and I can tell the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) that the facilities there are superb, the staff do an excellent job, and we have increased the funding for that hospital and for the health authority way beyond anything that the Liberal Democrats ever asked of us.

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