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Secondary Schools

7. Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): What evidence he has collated on the effectiveness of secondary schools in the Province. [94827]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): Examination results, research and school inspections show that many children in post-primary schools achieve very good results. However, the same evidence demonstrates that too many young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, leave school with low qualifications—more so than in England. The Government are committed to tackling that problem.

Mr. Turner: I thank the Minister for that answer, but as the achievement of Northern Ireland pupils has for a generation exceeded that of pupils in England, will she confirm that, in changing the selection system, she has no intention of diluting the excellent Ulster secondary school selective system?

Jane Kennedy: I am happy to confirm that the aim of the post-primary review is precisely to maintain the current high levels of achievement, but also to build a modern and fair education system that enables all children in Northern Ireland to fulfil their potential.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Does my hon. Friend agree that the 11-plus exam has cast a blight over the lives of far too many thousands of Northern Ireland school students over the years? Can she confirm that education policy in Northern Ireland must try to raise the standard of every pupil in every school and not just of the elite few?

Jane Kennedy: I am happy to confirm that that is our intention.

Good Friday Agreement

8. Tony Cunningham (Workington): If he will make a statement on recent developments under the Good Friday agreement. [94828]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): I refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson).

Tony Cunningham: I hope that the Minister will agree that we are going through a crucial period in the discussions to re-establish the Assembly. What further

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steps are being taken to ensure that we create the complete confidence in the Good Friday agreement that is desperately needed on all sides?

Mr. Murphy: As I told the House earlier, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are meeting at Hillsborough next Wednesday. I hope that that will give them the opportunity to speak to all the parties individually and to move the process forward. Everybody in Northern Ireland wants a resolution as quickly as possible.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Looking at developments under the Belfast agreement, will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Labour Government's view of the Britishness of the people of Northern Ireland is different from that of the Labour party?

Mr. Murphy: The hon. Gentleman is obviously referring to events last week. I have talked to the Minister without Portfolio, the chairman of the Labour party. Both he and I disown what was in the newspapers last week. I am sure that everybody in the House is of the view that people in Northern Ireland are British citizens.

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [95443] Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 5 February.

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.

Mr. Foster: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Although not supported by everyone in the House, the extra investment in our national health service is making a real difference in Worcestershire—including a new £95 million private finance initiative hospital. However, there is some concern that the 112 acute beds in the Aconbury wing in Worcester might be under threat. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the extra investment in our health service will support those acute beds and that, along with our dedicated nurses and doctors, we will have a health service to be proud of?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will carry on making the investment in the health service. The £95 million new Royal Worcester hospital is an indication of the number of hospitals being built up and down this country. It is in addition to the 300,000 extra operations a year, the 40,000 extra nurses, the 50 per cent. increase in the number of scanners and the fact that there is not a single national waiting list indicator—in-patient or out-patient—that is not better than it was in May 1997. That is why the

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Government will carry on with that investment, and why we are proud of our national health service and those who work in it.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The Prime Minister said that Labour would abolish the House of Lords and replace it with a democratically elected second chamber. Has the Prime Minister kept that promise?

The Prime Minister: In our 2001 manifesto, we said that we would build on the Wakeham commission proposals, which include a 20 per cent. elected element. That was the position of the Government. We put that forward in a White Paper in November 2001. There was no agreement on that. The Conservative party then approached us and said:


That is precisely what we then did.

Mr. Duncan Smith: As ever, lots of excuses—but the right hon. Gentleman made a personal promise and he broke his personal promise. The Labour manifesto said that the Government would


Last night, the Prime Minister voted against the manifesto and broke his personal promise. In the same manifesto, the Prime Minister promised to remove more than 30,000 failed asylum seekers a year. Has he lived up to that promise?

The Prime Minister: First, I will correct the right hon. Gentleman once again on the House of Lords. It is correct that in the manifesto we endorsed the Wakeham proposals on the House of Lords. That was the position of the entire Government. The reason why it changed was that, after publication of the White Paper there was plainly no consensus anywhere on those proposals. We were then asked by the right hon. Gentleman and both Opposition parties to establish a Joint Committee, and that is what we did. It is therefore absurd in those circumstances to suggest that we flouted the will of the House or any other body.

Secondly, on asylum seekers, it is correct that we have not attained 30,000 removals a year. It is however also correct that we are removing more than any other country in Europe and roughly three times the number attained when we came to office.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister has broken that promise as well. Now the Government have dropped all the asylum targets and the system is in complete chaos. When he launched that same manifesto, he also said that people should not suppose that he planned to increase national insurance. Has he kept that promise?

The Prime Minister: We certainly kept our promises on tax. We said that we would not raise the basic or standard rate, or the top rate of income tax. We did not make a pledge on national insurance. We have raised national insurance—that is coming in this April. We have raised it because it is necessary to get additional

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investment in our hospitals and the national health service. If the right hon. Gentleman is opposed to that rise in national insurance, let him tell us how he can then support the investment in the national health service.

The truth is, yes, we have said that taxes will go up to pay for a better national health service. That is because we believe that that is the fairest and best way of financing health care. That stands in stark contrast to the right hon. Gentleman's position, which is a 20 per cent. cut in spending across the board.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The answer is that, before the last election, the Prime Minister made a promise, and he has broken it. From April, every single working person and every company will pay for his broken promise.

He also wrote, in his manifesto that "our guiding rule" is to "deliver what we promise." On asylum, on tax, on crime, on pensions, on top-up fees, on Lords reform and on anything else, he has broken his promise and failed to deliver. The fact is that that publication should be entered for the Booker prize, because everyone knows that it is a classic work of fiction.

The Prime Minister: What we promised in our manifesto was to increase spending on the national health service. We are proud that we are increasing national health service spending. We are proud that the Labour Government do not stand for 20 per cent.—[Interrruption.]

The Speaker: Order. Let the Prime Minister answer.

The Prime Minister: We did promise that we would increase national health service spending. We are proud that we are increasing that spending and that extra nurses, doctors, equipment and hospitals are being delivered as a result. Yes, that is true. We will not stand for a 20 per cent. across-the-board cut in spending.

As for other countries and the taxes on business, yes, it is true that business, too, will have to pay the 1 per cent. increase in national insurance, but let me say what the alternative is. The alternative is either private medical insurance, which will cost people and businesses—[Interruption.]

The Speaker: Order. I say to Mr. Loughton that he must not shout. [Interruption.] Order. I have given an instruction not to shout. The hon. Gentleman must not shout.

The Prime Minister: The alternative to business paying the 1 per cent. national insurance is either private medical insurance—last year, in the United States, private medical insurance went up by 13 per cent., and that is what families and businesses would have to pay—or social insurance. In France and Germany, that has meant a 10 per cent. rise in social insurance premiums for French and German businesses. That is why we promised that we would increase investment in the health service. We will keep to that promise because we believe in the national health service.

Q2. [95444] Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): The Prime Minister has made it clear that the assessment of the five economic tests will be concluded two years after the

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commencement of the Parliament, which will be in June this year. Given that my right hon. Friend and his officials are usually very well prepared for any eventuality, can he share with the House his proposed timetable for a referendum on the euro if the tests are met, and his proposed timetable for a reassessment of the tests if they are not met?

The Prime Minister: All those issues will have to await the outcome of the tests. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the tests have to be completed by June this year and, of course, they will be.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Last week, the Prime Minister said that there were links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. This morning, a leaked intelligence report says that no significant links exist. Does the Prime Minister believe that the assessment in that document is accurate?

The Prime Minister: First, I should like to comment on that document for a moment. It was said this morning by the BBC that I was on the circulation list for that document and that it was a Joint Intelligence Committee document that was submitted to me. It was not. It was an internal Ministry of Defence document. I was not on the circulation list and I did not see it. It is not part of the reports that are given to me by the Joint Intelligence Committee. If the right hon. Gentleman reads the report, as I have done this morning, he will see that, in the round, it is not primarily about al-Qaeda and Iraq. It merely says—this is absolutely true—that, historically, it has always been the case that al-Qaeda and Iraq would have different positions. What I have said to the Liaison Committee, and this is backed up by the evidence that we have from intelligence submitted to me by the Joint Intelligence Committee, is that yes, on the one hand, we do not know of a link between Iraq and the attack of 11 September but, on the other hand, there are unquestionably links between al-Qaeda and Iraq. Just how far those leaks go—[Laughter.] I hope that the leaks have stopped. How far the links go is obviously a matter of speculation, but I should also point out that the situation is not static; it is changing. We are getting fresh intelligence the entire time.

Mr. Kennedy: The entire House agrees that the case against Saddam Hussein must rest on his compliance with the weapons inspectorate and on the identification and elimination of any weapons of mass destruction. Given the remarks that the Prime Minister has just made, will he also recognise that—in the court of public opinion in this country—if the case for war is to be made, it will undoubtedly be weakened if not fatally undermined by talking up links between al-Qaeda and Iraq that do not appear to be sufficiently supported by our domestic intelligence services?

The Prime Minister: I think that it is unfair to suggest that we have talked up the links. It is unfair because I have made it clear each time I am asked about this—I am asked about it, and I obviously have to respond to those questions—that we do not rest our case against Saddam and Iraq on the basis of links with al-Qaeda. However, it is also the case—trying, as I said before the Liaison Committee, to choose my words carefully—that

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it would be wrong to say that there is no evidence of any links between al-Qaeda and the Iraqi regime. There is evidence of such links. Exactly how far they go is uncertain. However, as I pointed out a moment ago, there is intelligence coming through to us the entire time about this. I do not rest my case on this but, each time I am asked, I say—which is true—that I know of nothing to link the Iraqi regime with the attacks on 11 September. However, it is not correct to say that there is no evidence of any links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find that, far from having pushed this as the reason for action, what we have done on each occasion, and as I have just done now, is respond to questions. I do not think that it is fair to suggest that we are trying to push this in some way as a cover for any lack of argument on weapons of mass of destruction. I believe that our case on weapons of mass destruction is very clear indeed. It is perfectly obvious that Saddam has them. The United Nations has said that he has to give them up, but he is not giving them up at the moment. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman would agree with me that, unless the United Nations ensures that its will is upheld, damage will be done not just to world security but to the UN itself.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh): Can the Prime Minister confirm that the new Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland recently met members of the republican movement? If the right hon. Gentleman confirms that, can he tell the House what understandings may have been reached about military matters with which he himself is currently dealing in the negotiations?

The Prime Minister: The answer is that I do not specifically know of meetings between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and republicans. That is not to say that there have not been any, but I do not know of them specifically. However, we are having a discussion with all the parties in Northern Ireland at the moment to see how we can make progress on the basis of fully implementing all the provisions of the Belfast agreement, including ensuring that all paramilitary activity of whatever nature ceases.

Q3. [95445] Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): The East Elmbridge and Mid Surrey primary care trust is withholding more than £2 million from my local hospital trust, the Epsom and St. Helier NHS trust. That is hindering the implementation of a Commission for Health Improvement plan and stopping the local trust reinvesting savings and recruiting nurses. Will the Prime Minister ensure that those funds are released immediately to the benefit of thousands of patients locally?

The Prime Minister: First, I do not know about the particular situation in that primary care trust but, in any event, especially as I understand that the Liberal Democrats are in favour of devolving those decisions downwards, we should allow the primary care trust to decide for itself how it disburses its money. I simply do not know the reasons for the situation, and I obviously cannot answer on the basis of one question. However,

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it would be unwise of me to promise to interfere with the decision, which should properly be taken at a local level.

Q4. [95446] John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a peace settlement in Palestine and Israel is of paramount importance to the peace process in the middle east? Does he also agree that if George Bush put as much effort into an Israeli-Palestinian agreement as he has into promoting a war in Iraq, the whole country would be a lot better off?

The Prime Minister: I certainly agree with one aspect of my hon. Friend's question. I believe that pushing forward the middle east peace process is an urgent priority for the world, irrespective of what happens in Iraq—it is right in its own terms. The conference we held in London was, I think, successful, and a follow-up conference is happening on 10 February. It is vital that we make progress on three aspects—security, political reform in the Palestinian Authority, and the development of final status talks based on the twin-state solution of Israel and a viable Palestinian state.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Does the Prime Minister think that the London congestion charge is a good idea or a bad idea?

The Prime Minister: As I have said before, that is a decision not for us but for the Mayor. Since we have given the power to local government to charge for congestion, we should let it do so if that is what it wishes to do.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Everyone in London has a view about whether the congestion charge is a good or bad idea. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry says that it is a good idea. The Prime Minister usually has a view on absolutely everything, so I do not understand why he is being coy. The Opposition believe that congestion charging is a bad idea and should be scrapped. I know that the Prime Minister is one of the privileged few who will not have to pay the charge, so that may influence him, but will he say, both as Prime Minister and as someone who lives in London, whether the congestion charge is a good idea or a bad idea?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman is such a control freak on this issue—I thought that he was in favour of devolution to local government. Local government has the power to introduce congestion charging, and the Government's proposals allowing that were based on earlier Green and White Papers produced by the last Conservative Government. It is a right of local government to make those charges, and it should be allowed to do so if it wishes.

Q5. [95447] Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East): While almost everyone of sound mind would agree that those who have the ability to go to university should be encouraged to do so, does my right hon. Friend agree that exactly the same opportunity should be afforded to those young people who want to learn an equally valuable skilled trade? What plans does he have to

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increase the number of apprentices, and will he pursue that with the same vigour with which he pursues university places?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As well as making sure that more people can go to university if they have the ability to do so, it is important that we extend the apprenticeship scheme. About 200,000 young people every year go into the modern apprenticeship scheme, and over 100,000 of them are on the advanced modern apprenticeship scheme. As a result of the additional funding that we are putting into skills training, the opportunity to go on those apprenticeship schemes will increase, which is enormously important, not just for those young people but for the British economy.

Q6. [95448] Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I recognise the Prime Minister's principled and courageous position on Iraq, weapons of mass destruction and the sufferings of the Iraqi people. Will he adopt the same guts and determination towards another brutal despot, Mr. Robert Mugabe, who has brought famine, devastation and violence to the people of Zimbabwe? What advice did he give to his EU partner, President Chirac, and is he prepared to meet with me a deputation from the Zimbabwean Opposition?

The Prime Minister: Of course, I would be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman and his deputation. The options available as to what we can do in respect of Zimbabwe are more limited than they are in respect of Iraq. However, we are doing everything we can to mobilise international opinion, and we are doing it precisely because of the repression of human rights and the appalling situation in which millions of people are starving needlessly in Zimbabwe.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Nottinghamshire police run a hugely successful anti-drugs education programme in local schools, but local people tell me that they are scared to give information to the police about the drug dealers and drug pushers. Should not the Government look at innovative ways in which we can give local people the confidence to say who the drug dealers and drug pushers are, so that we intimidate the drug dealers and drug pushers, and they do not intimidate decent, law-abiding people?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is completely right. That is one of the reasons why there will be further measures in the Criminal Justice Bill to protect witnesses. Also, as a result of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 we can now seize the assets of drug dealers and make them prove how they came about the money. It is vital that this be seen as part of an overhaul of the criminal justice system, in which we are tightening up the rules that are exploited by these people and making sure that the proceeds of their crimes are taken from them and used to the benefit of the people.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Last night the right hon. Gentleman voted against an elected House of Lords and in favour of a wholly appointed House. He clearly remembers the

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commitment in the Labour party manifesto to make the second Chamber more representative and democratic. Does he remember who signed the letter commending that manifesto to the electorate? Was it not the right hon. Gentleman who commended it to the electorate? Would he be so kind as to tell us when and why he changed his mind, or was he always content that the electorate should misunderstand him?

The Prime Minister: First, I do plead guilty to recommending our manifesto to the electorate, which is not an unusual position for a party leader to be in. Secondly, I have explained to the right hon. and learned Gentleman what has changed. At the time of the manifesto there was a Government position based on the Wakeham commission. When we published the White Paper in November 2001, it was obvious that there was no consensus in this House, or in the other place, for reform. As a result, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party told us that the way forward was to abandon the White Paper and instead have a Joint Committee of both Houses. That is precisely what we did. I then combined that with saying that we would no longer have a Government position; we would have a free vote. For the life of me, I cannot see why a free vote is not in the interests of both the Labour party and the Opposition. Incidentally, if anyone was in any doubt about it before, yesterday's vote shows that there is indeed no consensus in this House.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): If a second Security Council resolution does authorise action against Iraq, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that part IV of the Geneva convention will be upheld, so that cluster bombs, depleted uranium and tactical nuclear weapons would not be deployed by any of the forces acting for the United Nations?

The Prime Minister: Of course, we shall always obey our legal obligations, and we would do that in respect of any military action on Iraq. I have said—I think it was on Monday—that the notion that we have plans to use nuclear weapons in Iraq is completely false. The circumstances in which we use cluster bombs are set out and have been the position for many years. Any weapon that we use will be fully consistent with any legal obligations that we have.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): May I refer the Prime Minister to the action being brought by a trade unionist from Northern Ireland against the Labour party's ban from membership of all people of Northern Ireland? If the only defence that can be made is the absolutely ludicrous statement that people in Northern Ireland are not British citizens or British subjects, why is the action being defended? The Prime Minister should tell the Minister without Portfolio, who is muttering to him at the moment, to stop the action and not come to the Dispatch Box and try to justify discrimination.

The Prime Minister: It is not the desire to implement discrimination against anybody. It is a difficult situation for all the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman knows. We are not saying in any shape or form that people in Northern Ireland have fewer rights than people in the rest of the United Kingdom. But, for the very reasons of

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the politics of Northern Ireland, it is a different and difficult situation. He and I have discussed this matter over many years and I hope that we can resolve it, but it has to be resolved with some sensitivity to the broader issues that arise particularly in Northern Ireland.

Q9. [95451] Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): May I say as a friend and supporter of the Prime Minister, although not quite a Blair babe, that I could not support an attack on Iraq unless it was specifically endorsed by a second resolution of the United Nations Security Council?

The Prime Minister: I have set out my position for my hon. Friend on many occasions. Surely, the position has to be this: if there is a breach of the original United Nations resolution 1441, a second resolution should issue. That was the anticipated outcome. What resolution 1441 says is that the inspectors go into Iraq, and if they notify the facts that amount to a material breach, a second resolution should issue. That is why I believe that if the inspectors continue to say, as they are now, that Iraq is not co-operating, there will be a second resolution. The only circumstances in which I have left room for us to manoeuvre are those in which it is clear that the inspectors are finding that Iraq is not co-operating, so it is clear that Iraq is in material breach, but for some reason someone puts down what I would describe as an unreasonable and capricious use of the veto. I do not believe that that will happen and I hope that it will not, but I do not think that it is right to restrict our freedom of manoeuvre in those circumstances because otherwise, the original spirit and letter of resolution 1441 would itself be breached. I believe and hope that we will resolve this issue through the United Nations.

Q10. [95452] Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Last week, when I asked the Prime Minister about his Chancellor's damaging raid on pension funds and the collapse in the stock market, he rather blandly said:


The Prime Minister: It has not, as a matter of fact. I can give the hon. Gentleman the figures for 2002. France's CAC index fell 34 per cent. and Germany's DAX index fell 44 per cent., and that compared with a 24 per cent. fall here. It is absurd to suggest that this is the only country in which stock markets are falling, but this is the only major country that has the record that we have on employment and unemployment. As a result of the Chancellor's stewardship, we have the lowest inflation, interest rates and unemployment that we have had for decades. Compare and contrast that with 3 million unemployed, interest rates at 10 per cent. and recession under the Conservatives.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): Following a well-publicised televised interview which shows that Saddam Hussein is beyond reproach, a model citizen of the world and not a self-serving propagandist, should not this be the time to pull out the weapons inspectors and welcome

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him back to the international family, or does my right hon. Friend have a different interpretation of events, as I do?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys are at any great risk in terms of a probing interview. However, there is a serious point. On the idea that Saddam Hussein is a peace-loving person who is simply a victim of American and British aggression, this is somebody who has started wars of aggression against his neighbours on at least two occasions, used chemical weapons against his own people and has a history of brutality, repression and disdain of human rights that is unequalled anywhere in the world after the fall of the Taliban. Whatever people think about the situation in Iraq and the wisdom of the action that we are pursuing, the one thing on which I would have thought that everyone could agree is that Saddam Hussein is a thoroughly dictatorial and repressive man who does not care for the rights of his own people, never mind the rights of the world.

Q11. [95453] Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): There are 90,000 British expatriates living in the Gulf region. Can the Prime Minister tell us what contingency plans are in place to ensure their safety in the event of military action against Iraq?

The Prime Minister: Of course, in any area where there is likely to be conflict, we give our own citizens

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advice and make sure in so far as we can that we give them proper protection. The procedures, which are well known for that, will, of course, be applied in this case, too.

Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall): President Bush wanted Osama bin Laden dead or alive, but he is still at large. Will the Prime Minister tell the House about the latest information available on his whereabouts? Furthermore, can he confirm whether bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers have already crossed the border into Pakistan? If so, what steps are being taken to pursue him over there?

The Prime Minister: I hesitate to make the obvious point that, if I knew his whereabouts, I would do something about it, but it is worth making just two points. The first is that we do not know whether he is harboured in Pakistan or not, but we are in touch with the Pakistani authorities, and we have undertakings from them about missions to search any territories that he may be in. The second point, which is very important, is that we have hugely weakened the infrastructure of al-Qaeda, but both President Bush and I said at the time that this is a battle that will go on for years. Those extremists are well dug in in virtually every country around the world. There is not a single major country at the moment that does not have terrorist cells operating. We have destroyed their centre of operations in Afghanistan, but it is important that we pursue them in every other part of the world until this battle is finished and won.

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