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8 Jan 2003 : Column 162—continued


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [89191] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 8 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House I will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Gray : The appalling tragedy in Zimbabwe continues, but does the Prime Minister agree that it should be for statesmen and not cricketers to decide whether the world cup goes ahead? What steps will he take to try to have the world cup moved to Kenya or South Africa? If it cannot be moved, should the England team still attend?

The Prime Minister: We have to distinguish very carefully between an ability to order people not to go, and to express our view as to whether they should go. We have expressed our view very clearly that they should not go, but as with the decision on the 1980 Olympics, it is not within our power or ability to order people not to go. However, we have made it quite clear to the cricket authorities that we believe that it is wrong that they should go, and I hope that they take account of that advice. Whether they do so is a matter for them.

Q2. [89192] Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): The difficult year set out for us by the Prime Minister has clearly begun. [Hon. Members: XMore!"] There will be more. Is it his purpose in his policy towards Iraq to secure a democratic Iraq, a settled middle east free of all its weapons of mass destruction, and a safer Britain with new and willing partners against terror? It is by consequences, and not by hopes, that policies in the end will be judged.

The Prime Minister: First, I thank my hon. Friend for the opening part of his remarks—it is always good to be proved right so early in the new year. Secondly, we

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believe that Iraq must comply with the United Nations resolutions, and must be disarmed of all weapons of mass destruction. They have a choice: they can do that willingly and abide by the UN's will, or, if they refuse to do it willingly, it will have to be done by force. However, I hope very much that, in times to come—whatever happens in the immediate future in relation to Iraq—we can move to a more stable position in the middle east whereby we resolve the long-running issue between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and all people in the middle east gain the opportunity for greater democratic stability, human rights and liberty.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Was the Prime Minister's Foreign Secretary right to say that the prospects of military action in Iraq are 60:40 against?

The Prime Minister: What is 100 per cent. certain is that Saddam must be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction. That is in accordance with the UN resolution, and that resolution must be abided by. As to whether we will have military action in Iraq, that depends on the choice of Saddam. We can speculate on that, but the fact is that it is his choice: he has to decide whether he disarms peacefully, or is disarmed by force.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I notice that the Prime Minister did not answer the question that was posed to him. The Defence Secretary has contradicted the Foreign Secretary. He said yesterday:

Who is right: the Foreign Secretary or the Defence Secretary?

The Prime Minister: I have just set out what I believe to be the position. I can do so again for the right hon. Gentleman, but I think that he has understood it very clearly. In the end, it is for Saddam to decide whether disarmament happens as a matter of peace through the UN, or as a matter of conflict. The choice is his.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Our armed forces personnel, whose lives might soon be at risk, are entitled to a clear lead from the Government. I am sure that they will have told the Prime Minister that, however much one wants peace—and everyone here wants peace—one cannot half prepare for war. Not for the first time, the Government are sending different messages to different audiences, and Cabinet Ministers are in open disagreement. How can the Prime Minister convince the British people that war may be necessary if he cannot convince his Cabinet?

The Prime Minister: The position is as I set it out a moment ago, but I shall elaborate on what I said to the right hon. Gentleman. We have made every preparation that we should make. That is the reason for yesterday's statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. It is completely wrong to say that British troops are half prepared for any action. That is nonsense. However, whether or not we have conflict depends on the circumstances that I have set out. There is a UN resolution, which Saddam must abide by. If he

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does not, he will be disarmed by force. That is the Government's position. I should have thought that it was absolutely clear, even to the right hon. Gentleman.

Q3. [89193] Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the grave anxieties that many people have about an impending war in Iraq, but does he think that this is a good time to make the US President aware of his wider social and environmental responsibilities towards the rest of the world? Might not this be a good opportunity to raise issues such as Kyoto and trade tariffs, about which we disagree with the US?

The Prime Minister: As I made clear in my speech yesterday, we raise these issues constantly, and it is important that we do so. My hon. Friend is right to say that people have anxieties about the possibility of conflict in Iraq. Of course they do, as we should never put British troops into action unless it is necessary to do so. However, I believe passionately that the issue of weapons of mass destruction and the related issue of international terrorism are the key security threats facing our country and our world today. I believe also that it is only a matter of time before those issues come together. When there is a clear view among the international community that a country—namely Iraq—must be disarmed of weapons of mass destruction, it is essential for the fight against those weapons and international terrorism that the will of the UN is obeyed. That is why, although we have given Saddam the chance to disarm peacefully, we shall—reluctantly—have to disarm him by force if he refuses to do so.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Given what the Prime Minister has just said, if the UN weapons inspectorate does not produce concrete evidence of weapons of mass destruction but the US nonetheless decides to go ahead with military conflict against Iraq, will Britain be involved?

The Prime Minister: I am not going to speculate on the circumstances that might arise. Both Britain and the US have made it clear that we seek to resolve the matter through the UN. The weapons inspectors are in Iraq to discover whether there has been a breach of the UN resolution. They should be allowed to do their work, and I am sure that they will be.

Mr. Kennedy: The Liberal Democrats have been fully supportive throughout of the role of the UN in this issue. That must remain the case. However, will the Prime Minister be more specific, because, as he rightly acknowledges, people in this country are deeply concerned? Under what circumstances would the US take military action against Iraq that our country would not choose to support?

The Prime Minister: I have made clear the circumstances in which we do support military action. A UN resolution has been passed that states specifically that Saddam must disarm himself of weapons of mass destruction. If there is a breach of that resolution, we will support military action to make sure that the will of the UN is enforced. However, the choice is Saddam's, as

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I said a moment ago. He could disarm willingly. I understand the right hon. Gentleman to be saying that, if there is a breach of UN resolutions, the Liberal Democrat party will support us in the action that we have to take. I am glad that we have cleared that up.

Q4. [89194] Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): The Saddam Hussein dossier presented to this House last year stated that Iraqi Kurds were still being persecuted. However, when they apply for asylum in this country, the majority of applications are turned down. When that happens, any benefits they receive are stopped immediately and they are left destitute while they wait to be deported, although we will not deport them back to Baghdad at this time for understandable reasons. Many of them therefore have to turn to charity or crime, hence the 27 people in Walton jail who cost the taxpayer #35,000 a year. Will my right hon. Friend find some way to accommodate this group and recover our reputation as a humane and tolerant society?

The Prime Minister: First, I entirely accept the problem that my hon. Friend raises, but let me explain our difficulty in dealing with it. It is not the case that all people in Iraq, particularly parts of Kurdish Iraq, are suffering persecution. Therefore, it does not necessarily mean that simply because someone originates from Iraq, they are entitled to asylum in this country. So we still have to go through a process of deciding who are suitable asylum claimants. For those who are not, we are exploring safe transit routes to return them to parts of Kurdish Iraq where they would not be subject to persecution. It is difficult to resolve this, because if we were to say that anybody from Iraq who claims asylum can automatically be given asylum, that would lead us into considerable problems. We are trying to resolve this difficult situation by ensuring that we distinguish properly between genuine asylum claimants and those who are not genuine and then to find safe transit routes for those who are not genuine back to Kurdish Iraq.

Q5. [89195] Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle): In common, I am sure, with other right hon. and hon. Members, I have received hundreds of communications from constituents expressing their concern about the intended action in Iraq. Is the Prime Minister engaging in dangerous brinkmanship with Saddam Hussein or is he seriously telling us that he intends to commit British troops when an overwhelming majority of the public are against this?

The Prime Minister: It is my duty to explain to people why I think it is necessary, in certain circumstances, to commit British troops to war. Let me put this point to the hon. Lady: the United Nations has made its will and its intention very clear that Saddam must be disarmed of these weapons of mass destruction. If, in those circumstances, he was in breach of the United Nations' will and we refused to act as an international community, we would be doing two things: we would send a signal to Saddam that we would do nothing to prevent him from building up weapons of mass destruction—and he, uniquely, is a leader who has used such weapons against his own people as well as others—and we would also send a signal that we were not serious about the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

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I understand why people feel that this is a very distant threat. If someone had said in August 2001 that al-Qaeda was a real danger to our country and that Afghanistan was harbouring its members, I suppose that people would have been sceptical about whether we needed to act, but in retrospect, it would have been better if we had. The reason we are taking this position is not some dangerous piece of brinkmanship. What is dangerous is to allow Saddam to develop these weapons in breach of UN resolutions and do nothing about it, because we will rue the consequences of that weakness later.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Given the enormous damage that the drugs industry has done to young people and the huge increase in crime that it is creating across the world, should it not be the priority of every Government to come together and act internationally to end that industry? As it also funds terrorist organisations across the world, international action should be taken to wipe it out and deal with the countries where the drugs are produced.

The Prime Minister: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are doing two things. Within the European Union, we are working co-operatively across national frontiers to deal with this problem, particularly with how the drugs are imported into the EU from neighbouring states. It is part of the accession agreements and negotiations with each of the new countries entering the European Union that they act on this issue.

The second thing that we are doing—specifically in relation to Afghanistan and, from the United States, in relation to Colombia—is to try to deal with the sources and origins of drug production. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to say that there is a link. The expression Xnarcoterrorism" describes the link between drugs and terrorism and it is a very active link.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Does the Prime Minister agree that burglars who are caught and convicted should go to jail?

The Prime Minister: In appropriate circumstances, of course.

Mr. Duncan Smith: But the Lord Chief Justice has issued guidance to the courts that burglars should not normally go to jail and the Prime Minister's Lord Chancellor has said that he agrees with the Lord Chief Justice. The guidance stands, regardless of what the Prime Minister's spokesman said on his behalf yesterday. The message from the two highest law officers in the land is that burglars should not fear jail. Can the Prime Minister answer this question? Four years ago, the Government said that all third-time burglars would get mandatory sentences of at least three years: how many such sentences have actually been given?

The Prime Minister: First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman about what the Lord Chief Justice said. Burglary is a serious offence that causes enormous distress to people; courts have, and should have, the power in appropriate circumstances—to which I shall come in a moment—to send even first-time offenders to prison. What the Lord Chief Justice actually said was

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that there may be circumstances in which first-time offenders, if, for example, they had a drugs problem, should be given a community sentence with drug rehabilitation rather than being sent directly to prison.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Soft.

The Prime Minister: Someone mentioned the word Xsoft", so let me point out that I have before me the figures for first-time offenders sent to prison under the Labour Government. Almost half as many again first-time offenders are sent to prison under the Government as five years ago. What is more, I also point out to the right hon. Gentleman that according to the British crime survey—he knows the figures almost as well as I do—burglary under the Labour Government has fallen by almost 40 per cent. since we came to office.

Mr. Duncan Smith: What the Prime Minister fails to tell us is that the Lord Chief Justice's letter, following his guidance, states clearly that the purpose of the guidance is to reduce the numbers going to prison. But the Prime Minister did not answer the question about his XThree strikes and you're out." The answer is that of those third-time burglars, only six received any such sentence, so from this Government we have had XTough on crime", XThree strikes and you're out", on-the-spot fines, night courts, drug tsars, no fewer than 12 criminal justice Bills and countless pieces of meaningless drivel. Is not the Prime Minister's real policy on law and order just a combination of gimmicks and hot air?

The Prime Minister: Let us deal with the two facts that the right hon. Gentleman has stated. He says that we are being soft on first-time offenders going to prison, yet I have just pointed out that half as many again first-time offenders are going to prison as five years ago. What is more, in appropriate circumstances, as the Lord Chief Justice himself said, it is right that even first-time burglars go to prison. Actually, what has happened is that over the past five to six years, there has been— according not to the Government but to the British crime survey—a 40 per cent. cut in burglary. Compare that with a doubling of crime under the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr): I am sure that my right hon. Friend and the whole House will join me in expressing our condolences to the families of Latisha Shakespear and Charlene Ellis, the two teenage girls so cruelly murdered in my constituency in the early hours of 2 January. We also send our best wishes for the full recovery of Sophie Ellis and Cheryl Shaw who, thankfully, survived the tragic shooting. Those events in my constituency were appalling and have affected and shocked the whole community. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that we should take action against the supply and availability of firearms, and that we should look into the root causes of the disaffection that leads young people to that lifestyle.

The Prime Minister: I agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. I offer my most sincere and heartfelt sympathy to the families and friends of the victims of that terrible recent crime in Birmingham—as I am sure the whole House does, too. My hon. Friend is also right

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to say that we should look carefully at the measures that we take in relation to that. The matter was first raised a couple of months ago at the street crime meeting by senior police officers, when we undertook to consider the possibility of a mandatory five-year sentence for illegal possession of a firearm. We intend to amend the Criminal Justice Bill to bring that into effect, and I hope that the House will support it.

My hon. Friend is also right that we must tackle some of the underlying causes of this problem, which is one reason why we are committing such substantial sums to inner city regeneration over the next few years. People should be left in no doubt that this is a serious issue that we intend to tackle, and I hope that the House will support us in doing so.

Q6. [89196] Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): When the Worcestershire royal hospital opened last year—[Hon. Members: XReading!"] I will be reading later but I am not reading now. When the Worcestershire royal hospital opened last year, the Prime Minister said that it would have teething problems. Every day since, it has been operating at capacity, and it has been on red alert regularly, with patients waiting outside in ambulances, putting a huge strain on its hard-working doctors and nurses. Are those just teething problems or do they provide compelling evidence that the head of the Prime Minister's delivery unit was right to warn that

The Prime Minister: The money is not being wasted. The extra money going into the national health service is providing new buildings, new equipment, more nurses and more doctors, which means that every single national in-patient waiting indicator is below what it was in 1997. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that the delivery unit does not say that the position is worse in the national health service; it says rightly that we must make sure that the extra money that we are putting in is used well and wisely. It is being so used. The reason why the Tories want to run down the national health service is that they are opposed to the extra money going in. They will get that every time one of them asks a question on health or education from now until election day. They are not just opposed to the extra money going in: their leader has just committed them to a 20 per cent. cut across the board in public services. The hon. Gentleman can go back to his constituents in Worcestershire and tell them how the health service would be affected by a 20 per cent. reduction in funding.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill): Who is better placed to decide whether Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction: President Bush or Hans Blix?

The Prime Minister: A process is set out in the UN resolution, whereby the inspectors go into Iraq. Saddam Hussein has made his declaration of 8 December, and everyone is deeply sceptical about the contents of that. It is for the inspectors to examine whether there is evidence of weapons of mass destruction. If there is such

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evidence, that is a breach of the UN resolution. A combination of the judgment of the UN inspectors and the judgment of the international community is involved.

Q7. [89197] Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): The Prime Minister will recall his meeting in Downing street on 22 January 2001, when he pledged to the leader of Wealden district council and others that the Government would take action to ensure that the devastating floods of October 2000 would not happen again—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should allow the hon. Gentleman to put his question.

Mr. Hendry: Even the Prime Minister did not promise to stop the rain, but he did promise to stop the villages being affected. Is he aware that, while he was away over Christmas and the new year, Uckfield in my constituency nearly faced devastating flooding again, and Buxted was flooded? Not only has no project to prevent flooding been proposed but no action has even remotely been suggested. Does he understand why people in Wealden feel so betrayed? For all his fine words and pledges, their houses are at as much risk today as they were two years ago.

The Prime Minister: I had better be clear as to what I did promise a couple of years ago. I said that we would increase significantly the amount of money going into flood defences, and we have. I extend the deepest sympathy to the hon. Gentleman's constituents whose homes have been flooded. However, investment in flood defence schemes has worked, and without the extra investment over the past couple of years, about 5,000 more homes would have been flooded. We also have much better warning of floods. I shall, of course, look into the situation that the hon. Gentleman described, but I have to say to him that we have done our level best over the last two years to give us better flood defences, and on the whole, although obviously not in every case, they have improved the situation.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): In the first week of the new year, three significant items were reported in the Bedford and Kempston area, and they are worth listening to. First, Bedford hospital is the most improved hospital in the country. Secondly, successful action has been taken to stop children bunking off school. Thirdly, record numbers of officers have been recruited by Bedfordshire police. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, contrary to claims made by one or two narrow interest groups about his new year message, he has absolutely no need to divert attention from the Government's domestic achievements?

The Prime Minister: I agree. I wish that I myself had studied those press reports in detail. My hon. Friend outlines the extra investment that is going into every constituency. We now have the absolute dividing line between the two political parties, because extra police officers require investment, and there is extra investment

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in schools and hospitals. We are committed to that investment, and the Conservatives want to make a 20 per cent. cut in each and every area of it.

Q8. [89198] Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The Prime Minister's Lord Chancellor said that the public would understand why burglars convicted for a second time should not necessarily go to prison. As the Lord Chancellor was once the Prime Minister's pupil master and head of chambers, surely the right hon. Gentleman should now take the lead in that arrangement and dismiss the Lord Chancellor, because he is evidently out of touch with the electorate and the wider public.

The Prime Minister: I have already addressed this point, but I point out again that there are now more first-time offenders going to prison than there were a few years ago.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): Tomorrow, the primary care trust in Crawley will be making a decision about the future health care needs of my town. Will my right hon. Friend assess what a 20 per cent. cut in the magnificent capital investment of over #30 billion will mean to the trust if it is unable to make a decision about a new build hospital for Crawley? Will he explain to the people of the town what the Opposition would do to our health service funding?

The Prime Minister: I will explain what we will do. We shall make sure that the record investment in the health service is maintained. It is important that people understand that in every constituency in the country—certainly in mine and in that of my hon. Friend—that extra investment is paying dividends. When the Conservatives say that nothing is happening in the health system, that is simply wrong, but they have to say it to substantiate the 20 per cent. cut that they want to make. They have to say that the investment makes no difference. However, my hon. Friend's constituency, and almost every constituency in the country, show that although investment in schools and hospitals is not all that is needed, because we need reforms too, it is a precondition for ensuring that our health and education systems improve.

Q9. [89200] Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Perhaps the Prime Minister could clarify what, under the Government's latest law and order proposals, he thinks a first-time burglar should get for carrying a gun.

The Prime Minister: Actually, under the proposals set out by the Lord Chief Justice, that would plainly be a case in which the person would immediately go to prison. [Hon. Members: XFor five years?"] The five-year mandatory sentence is not yet law, but we want it to be law, and of course it would apply to such a person. I hope very much therefore that, when we introduce such a provision, we get support from the Conservative party. What usually happens on law-and-order issues with the Conservative party is that it says that they are very important but opposes in the House the measures necessary to deal with them.

Q10. [89201] James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): May I welcome the visit tomorrow of Amram Mitzna,

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the new leader of the Israeli Labour party? That shows Britain's continuing commitment to the peace process in the middle east. However, following the murder of 22 more civilians in Israel at the weekend, will my right hon. Friend remind the Palestinians that the only way to the viable state that they so richly deserve is through peaceful negotiations and not through violence?

The Prime Minister: What my hon. Friend says is entirely right. First, we should all express our sympathy at the appalling carnage and barbarous and wicked murder of innocent Israeli civilians. What I said yesterday and repeat today, however, is that the only way of bringing to an end the carnage of innocent Israelis and the appalling suffering of the Palestinians,

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which is also acute, is to get a proper peace process under way. We have a situation in which the dreadful and tragic irony is that there is agreement in the international community that the only viable solution is a two-state solution—an Israeli state and a viable Palestinian state—so the longer that we delay the process of getting back into peace negotiations, the more fraught the situation becomes.

I look forward to welcoming the new leader of the Israeli Labour party here, and I also point out that it is my practice to meet opposition politicians—whether they are Labour or conservative—from different countries. That is in accordance with normal practice. I believe that it is important that we continue to engage with Israeli politicians from every level and from every political party.

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