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27 Nov 2002 : Column 305—continued

Northern Ireland Assembly

6. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): If he will make a statement on the prospects for establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly. [81604]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): As I said in my reply to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), we are working urgently with others to find a basis to restore the devolved institutions. I believe that doing so is of the utmost importance to the future of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Illsley : Given the progress that has been made since the signing of the Good Friday agreement—progress to which my right hon. Friend has already referred—does he agree that it is essential that the Assembly is re-established as quickly as possible?

Mr. Murphy: Indeed I do. One of the great changes for the better in Northern Ireland in the past few years is that Northern Ireland people are taking decisions on behalf of other Northern Ireland people. The quicker we restore devolution in Northern Ireland, the better for everyone.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the Secretary of State—and the Prime Minister—accept that the trust and confidence, the re-establishment of which he says is so necessary, would be re-established more quickly if he gave the House a categorical assurance that there was no question of giving fugitive terrorists an amnesty?

Mr. Murphy: I think that the best thing that can happen is that, when we talk—as we will tomorrow in Belfast and in the weeks ahead—the parties in Northern Ireland can reassure each other of the importance of settling those issues that are in front of us. That is a matter not only for the Governments, but for the political parties as well.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Does the Secretary of State agree that the permanent re-establishment of devolved government in Northern Ireland can be achieved only by the complete fulfilment of the Good Friday agreement, endorsed by all participating parties. Does he agree that the current

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round of negotiations should refer only to matters as yet to be implemented under the Good Friday agreement, including those to be implemented by Government?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right that the chief reason why those talks have been held is that the institutions have been suspended because of lack of trust. At the end of the day, however, that trust can be restored by referring all the time to the Good Friday agreement itself and its implementation. That is a duty upon our Government, the Irish Government and all the parties working together.

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [81629] Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): If he will list his official engagements for 27 November.

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 will have further such meetings later today.

Paul Goggins : Has my right hon. Friend seen this week's report from UNICEF, which shows that in reading, maths and science this country is now one of the best-performing countries in the world? Does he recognise, however, that in many disadvantaged areas pupils and teachers still face substantial difficulties? What further action will he take to back his Government's commitment to raise standards for all pupils?

The Prime Minister: It is correct that the UNICEF report found that Britain was seventh in the world for academic skills, above the United States of America. I shall quote briefly from the report:


The reason for that is the investment now going into schools in every single part of our communities. It is important, therefore, that we keep the investment programme moving forward, not cut it back, as some would have us do.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Tomorrow, tube drivers will hold a strike ballot arising from the fire strike. Does the Prime Minister agree that such a strike would be secondary action?

The Prime Minister: I agree that there is absolutely no cause for a strike because the Health and Safety Executive has made it clear that the tube is safe operating under London Transport's terms and conditions. It therefore follows that any strike, in my judgment, would be totally unjustified.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister never said whether he felt that it was secondary action or not,

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which is critical. The whole of London's underground is likely to grind a halt, but he has not given a straight opinion. He knows that the Government own London Underground and that every member of its board is appointed by the Secretary of State. Will he now tell us whether the Transport Secretary, under his instructions, has told London Underground that it should use every available trade union law to stop the strike going ahead? In short, has it been told to get an injunction?

The Prime Minister: First, it is for the court to decide whether it is illegal or not; it is not a matter for me or my right hon. Friend. However, as a result of the action already taken by London Underground, the total number not working normally is, I think, three. It is important that London Underground makes every effort to ensure that that is right. Of course, ultimately it is a decision for London Underground, but I am sure that it will enforce the law in whatever way it needs to.

Mr. Duncan Smith: There are 8,000 people about to have a ballot, but the Prime Minister has given them no clear signal that if they take strike action it will be considered secondary action. Thousands of teachers and council workers have been on strike this week. Tube drivers and power station workers are now threatening secondary action that would paralyse the country, but the Prime Minister cannot say whether it is secondary action or not. After his answers today, does he not think that that will give a green light to all those who believe that they should have a right to strike? He made a promise in his manifesto that there would be no return to secondary action, but does he not think that people will believe that that was not true?

The Prime Minister: There must indeed be no return to secondary action, secondary picketing or anything that is unlawful. All that I was pointing out to the right hon. Gentleman is that it is ultimately for the court to decide whether something is unlawful. I have just told him that the ballot on action tomorrow would be totally unjustified and that London Transport should do everything it can to enforce the law, so I hardly think that he can say that I have thereby given a green light to secondary action. That is a slightly extraordinary thing to say.

Let me repeat the position: I do not believe that any action is justified. London Transport should use all the powers at its disposal, including those under the law, to enforce the law. I should have thought that that was plain enough even for the right hon. Gentleman.

Q2. [81630] Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): I am not a killjoy—[Interruption.] I am sure that my right hon. Friend is not one either, but is it not time that we stopped treating fireworks like a toy that children can play with when the nights are getting dark in September and October, thereby terrifying people in the community, and saw them as the fairly dangerous explosives that they are? Will he ensure that action on this issue is included in the antisocial behaviour order, on which we are legislating this Session?

The Prime Minister: It is obviously important that we use the antisocial behaviour legislation to try to bear down on that problem. In the areas where we are

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piloting antisocial behaviour fixed penalty notices, such provision is already being made available to deal with the unlawful use of fireworks. If we were to use the fixed penalty notice route and some exemplary fines were meted out to those engaging in the practice, it would be stamped out fairly quickly. We keep all legislation closely under review; I am sure that the Home Secretary will have heard my hon. Friend's point. I know that it will be echoed by many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): For a Government who promised economic stability, how embarrassed does the Prime Minister feel that we have had the longest period of manufacturing recession since the second world war and that business investment levels are now lower than during the Tory recessions of the 1980s and 1990s?

The Prime Minister: It is correct that manufacturing has had an extremely difficult time, but if we look at the economy as a whole, we can see that there has been immensely strong growth. We have the lowest unemployment, inflation and mortgage rates for decades. Were we to follow the spending programmes of the Liberal Democrats, that would all be put at risk.

Mr. Kennedy: The fact is that the percentage of investment in the European Union that comes to Britain was 28 per cent. four years ago, 20 per cent. last year and currently stands at 16 per cent. How low must it go before the Prime Minister takes action, particularly by setting a timetable for a referendum on entry into the single currency?

The Prime Minister: I thought that we might get to that issue eventually. The position on the euro remains as it is: it has to be right for the economy as a whole. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that there has been some falling off of investment in this country. Of course, it is mainly going to many of the accession countries such as Poland and Czech Republic, which obviously offer very low labour costs indeed. Overall, however, I hope that he recognises that the performance of this economy in the past five to six years has been an extraordinary one of high growth and employment, and low unemployment, inflation and mortgage rates. That is what we must and will preserve.

Q3. [81631] Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Does my right hon. Friend share my grave concern that, at a time when we have seen real progress in children's services, we have also seen the tragic deaths of 13 children in young offenders institutions? Will he assure me that the work currently being done to develop policy for children will reflect the fact that prison is no place for children to be?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, what my hon. Friend says about the need to improve conditions in some young offenders institutions is right. We must do two things. First, over the past couple of years various changes have been piloted in the institutions, including in Feltham in particular, where I think there has been most concern. Secondly, we are setting aside several tens of millions of pounds for a strategy of improving the

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services for young people in young offenders institutions. At the same time, my hon. Friend will agree that, unfortunately, there are young offenders—often very young people—who need to be in young offenders institutions or secure accommodation to protect the public from their behaviour.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): The Prime Minister is aware that in the past two days my party has met the Minister with responsibility for security in Northern Ireland and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We put one question to both: what is an act of completion? Does it consist of IRA-Sinn Fein repudiating and ceasing violence and being disbanded, or does it simply mean that they make a statement that they will give up violence? Can the Prime Minister tell us what he believes it means?

The Prime Minister: I can. It is not merely a statement, a declaration or words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence that the IRA has ceased its campaign, and enables us to move the democratic process forward, with every party that wants to be in government abiding by the same democratic rules.

Q4. [81632] Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the mere suggestion of university top-up fees is already causing anxiety in areas such as mine, which has a historically low take-up of university and higher education places? If collective provision is the right model for the national health service, should not it also apply to our education service?

The Prime Minister: I am aware of the anxiety, which has been expressed in many quarters. My hon. Friend is right to express his concern. He knows that we will publish a review in January next year, but we do not intend to do anything that will put people off going to university. The Government have a proud record. In the past few years, we have increased the number of people who go to university by almost 100,000.

However, our universities have a serious funding problem. Provided that everyone agrees that the status quo—the huge backlog of repairs to infrastructure and university lecturers' pay increasing by only 5 per cent. in the past 20 years, when the figure for the rest of the economy is 45 per cent.—is not an option, we should work out the right basis on which to change matters. That is fully consistent with the need to get more people into our universities.

Q5. [81633] Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Why is the Prime Minister using the armed forces to break the firefighters' strike when he could have used the courts?

The Prime Minister: That sums up the Conservative party in its current state. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that we should not have made preparations for the armed forces to take over? What a ridiculous question to ask me! When the firefighters cannot provide fire service cover because they are on strike, it is right that our armed forces, who do a fantastic job, should stand in. If we refused to have the

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armed forces standing by, Conservative Members would be on their feet, accusing us of incompetence and chaos.

Q6. [81634] Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows that I have organised a meeting on Friday evening for the residents of Tingley to consider policing and antisocial behaviour. They will be pleased that we have almost achieved our target of 130,000 police officers—a record number—four months in advance, but they will not be so happy that the distribution of officers does not appear to be equal throughout the country. Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that everywhere, including West Yorkshire, gets its fair share?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the meeting in Tingley is one of many throughout the country to consider such serious issues. We are increasing police numbers throughout the country, but my hon. Friend's point is important. We need to ensure that they increase in areas such as West Yorkshire. I understand that, as well as the additional 250 police who were recently recruited to West Yorkshire police authority, more than 400 extra are on their way.

I pay tribute to police officers in West Yorkshire. Their work has meant that street crime in the county has fallen by 45 per cent. in the past six months.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The Prime Minister said that stakeholder pensions


The Prime Minister: I assume that the right hon. Gentleman has the figures before him, but I can tell him that there are 50,000 additional stakeholder pensioners a month.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The answer to the question is that of 330,000 company stakeholder schemes, 300,000 have no members and no money. It is no good the Prime Minister weaselling his way out. Will he tell us what proportion of occupational pension schemes are open to new pensioners?

The Prime Minister: Again, I assume that the right hon. Gentleman is about to tell me. More than 1 million people have taken out stakeholder pensions. There are, as I said, around 50,000 a month. If that stretches over the next few years, it will amount to several million. I should have thought that that is a good record for stakeholder pensions.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I do not think that the Prime Minister knows what a company pension scheme is, as he has given the wrong answer. More than half of those pension schemes are now closed to new members, and the latest evidence shows that the rate of closures has doubled in the past year. So occupational schemes are closing, stakeholder schemes are failing, and every year under Labour the number of people retiring without an

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occupational pension has risen. Given that his Chancellor's £25 billion tax hike has damaged pensioners, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer rises to speak today will the Prime Minister tell him to apologise for destroying pensions?

The Prime Minister: No. It is correct that many pension schemes have had difficulties, for all the reasons that we know, not just in this country but in other parts of the world. However, when stakeholder pension schemes are attracting some 50,000 people a month, it is absurd to say that they have failed. It is correct that changes are necessary. They will be set out in the pensions Green Paper later this year, but in the end the single best guarantee for today's pensioners and tomorrow's pensioners is a strong economy. That is the economy that we have produced, but it is not the economy that the right hon. Gentleman's party produced when it was in power.

Q7. [81635] Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): May I draw the Prime Minister's attention to continuing concerns in my constituency, particularly in the lovely market town of Ruthin in Denbighshire, about the adequacy of flood prevention measures and flood defence? I seek my right hon. Friend's assurance that the Government are committed to long-term investment in flood defence and protection.

The Prime Minister: We are committed to long-term investment in flood protection. Several hundred million pounds are going into it over the next few years. In addition, as my hon. Friend knows—I know that this is of concern in Ruthin and other places that have suffered from heavy flooding—we are working with the insurance industry to make sure that it provides proper cover for people. There are many difficulties that we need to sort out, and we are working closely with the industry in doing so. I can assure my hon. Friend that part of the investment in the comprehensive spending review was investment against the problems caused by flooding. There is one other thing with which I am sure that he and his constituents would agree: we also need to take action on climate change, for the benefit of Britain and the world more generally.

Q8. [81636] Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): In a recent poll conducted by the Somerset County Gazette, 88 per cent. of respondents said that they wanted to keep Somerset county council. Will the Prime Minister confirm that if every voter in Somerset wanted to keep the county council, every urban voter in a unitary authority such as Bristol or Swindon could outvote them?

The Prime Minister: As we have said, it is for people in the region to decide how their future is governed. The campaign that the Conservatives have been mounting about county councils is simply wrong.

Q9. [81637] Mr. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): As my right hon. Friend knows, 50 per cent. of calls to 999 centres are hoax calls. Will he make

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sure that the courts treat hoax callers in the manner that they deserve, and ensure that human life is preserved? Will he ensure that the punishment fits the crime?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's strong condemnation of hoax callers. The figure for the country as a whole is about 7 per cent., which is still far too high. Hoax callers should know that they are liable not only to be disconnected but to be imprisoned. Several people have been arrested over the past couple of weeks in connection with hoax calls, and I hope that anyone who engages in this appalling practice will be treated with the utmost severity by the courts.

Q10. [81638] Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): In his first four years as Prime Minister, did the right hon. Gentleman notice the state of the universities and the pay of university lecturers?

The Prime Minister: Yes, of course I did. That is one of the reasons that we introduced the first tranche of university reforms, following the Dearing report. If the hon. Gentleman is trying to say that we need to do even more, because of the rising number of people going to university, he is absolutely right. That is why I hope that, when we publish our review in January, the Conservative party will have the courage to make its own proposals if it does not agree with ours.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Given the Catholic Church's use of the Nolan guidelines to keep an abusive priest in office, does my right hon. Friend agree that the time has come for the Catholic Church, as an employer, to be required by law to remove such priests? Does he further agree that it is simply not good enough to hide behind risk assessment and forgiveness, as that does not protect children?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, the law has to take its course. In my view, this is a matter for the Church, and the decisions that the Church takes should be taken only after the closest investigation of the facts.

Q11. [81639] Mr Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): In view of the fact that lives are being lost in the fire dispute, and of the spreading of secondary action, is it not high time that the Government became personally involved in the negotiations, and asked the firemen to postpone their industrial action and evidence to the Bain inquiry on the modernisation of working practices in the run-up to Christmas? Will the Prime Minister now become personally involved to ensure that they postpone their industrial action until they have given their evidence to the Bain inquiry?

The Prime Minister: The attempts by some sections of the Conservative party to try to squeeze every little bit of political capital that they can from this dispute are absolutely extraordinary. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the firefighters are somehow under some misapprehension about our wanting them to call off the strike—well, I would have thought that they would have got that message by now. As for their giving evidence to the Bain inquiry, we have been saying throughout that that is what they should do. The only way in which this

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dispute is going to be settled is by the employers and unions agreeing to debate in detail the prospects for modernisation, giving a better deal over and above the 4 per cent. That has been the position throughout, and it is absolutely right that it should remain the position. It is for the employers and the unions to negotiate around it.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): It has been 28 years since the Turkish army invaded Cyprus. Over that period, 1,500 people, including children, have gone missing. Will my right hon. Friend take up this issue as a matter of urgency with the new Turkish Government? Mothers and fathers need to know what has happened to their loved ones. Have they been murdered or tortured? Have they been imprisoned? Will my right hon. Friend please do something about this?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend raises a serious issue. There is every possibility of trying to resolve it in the context of an agreement on Cyprus. I genuinely believe that the United Nations plan that has been put forward offers the greatest prospect for a final settlement of the Cyprus issue than we have had for many decades, and if that can been agreed by the parties involved some of the traumatic and difficult issues that my hon. Friend has raised could be resolved. Obviously, we raise individual cases all the time, but the best way of dealing with the matter comprehensively will be in the context of an agreement to that settlement.

Q12. [81640] Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne): As my constituency is close to Stansted airport, will the Prime Minister explain to my constituents whether the Government's consultation on future airport expansion is essential and balanced, as Ministers claim, or irrational and unfair, as the High Court concluded yesterday?

The Prime Minister: The High Court decision, I think, was on the exclusion of Gatwick and the reason for that is quite simple: we had an agreement that we would not put Gatwick in the consultation. However, the court's decision rules otherwise.

In relation to the airport proposals, of course I understand why the hon. Lady's constituents are concerned. It is always difficult when there is a consultation process and everything has to be put into it, but that does not mean that decisions have been taken. However, as the High Court decision showed, if we were to exclude certain things, we would be accused of conducting an unfair process too. It is important that we continue with the consultation process in the way that I have described—we look at absolutely every option—but her constituents should not think that we have made up our minds on it, because we have not.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): My right hon. Friend has referred to the UN settlement plan for Cyprus, which has been welcomed by the Greek Cypriots as the basis for further negotiation and in relation to which the Turkish Cypriots have yet to make a judgment. Will he

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assure the Greek Cypriots, who are very concerned, that that delay will not in any way prevent their entry to the European Union at the Copenhagen summit?

The Prime Minister: It was partly as a result of the representations of this Government that we made it absolutely clear that Cyprus should be able to join the EU, even if there is not a final settlement. However, it is important, obviously, that we want there to be such a settlement. I have had good conversations with the new leadership in Turkey about that issue. I hope that the UN proposals can at least be a basis for concluding these negotiations reasonably quickly. If that happens, the Cyprus issue would be resolved—Cyprus, in any event, will join the EU—and relations between Greece and Turkey could improve. That would be of enormous benefit to the whole region.

Q13. [81641] Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Will the Prime Minister confirm that modernisation means 10,000 firefighters losing their jobs?

The Prime Minister: No, I will not confirm that. The truth is that 20 per cent. of the firefighters are due for retirement for demographic reasons in any event. That allows us to sit down and talk about those who are necessary to give the proper manpower for the fire service. Of course, there will be people retiring from all public services. For example, some 12,000 people have retired from the police and 30,000 have retired from the teaching profession, but there are more police officers and more teachers in employment today. So, the Deputy Prime Minister was saying—we know this; indeed, it was published by the Government Actuary's Department last year—that 20 per cent. will retire for demographic reasons, but that is simply one more opportunity to sit down and get the essential modernisation that the fire service needs.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Monday was international day for the elimination of violence against women? In that context, may I thank him for his personal commitment and that of this Government to introduce the first comprehensive legislation on domestic violence in this country? However, is he aware that, although legal protection is vital, so too are support and advocacy services for women and children? Is he aware that most Government initiatives do not fund outreach, helplines or children's services and that 40 per cent. of local authorities—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That was the fourth question.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says about the measures that we are taking on domestic violence. It is a real problem, and she rightly draws attention to it. We are not simply taking measures; we are also investing, I think, almost £11 million specifically in programmes to try to diminish domestic violence. I entirely agree that it is important that we carefully measure any forthcoming legislation to see how it bears on that appalling problem.

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