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12 Feb 2003 : Column 855—continued

Local Government Finance

7. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): If he will meet the First Secretary to discuss the effects of proposed council tax rises in Monmouthshire and Torfaen. [96349]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend and I regularly meet the First Secretary to discuss matters affecting Wales.

Mr. Edwards : The Government have made a generous settlement for the Welsh Assembly, but there is concern in Monmouthshire and Torfaen about the distribution of funds from the Assembly to local authorities. Given that the vast bulk of local authority money goes to education and social services, what consideration has my hon. Friend given to the prospect of a 20 per cent. cut in public spending, which is the policy of the Conservative party?

Mr. Touhig: All sides recognise that the generous local authority settlement made by my colleague in the Assembly is most welcome. It underpins our commitment to investment in and reform of pubic services. As someone who spent 20 years as a councillor trying to defend my community from the cuts imposed by the then Tory Government, I know that the prospect of a 20 per cent. cut in public expenditure would devastate public services in Wales.

Public Ownership (Industry)

8. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): If he will make it his policy to take a public ownership stake in each of the leading 25 sectors of industries in Wales measured by annual turnover. [96350]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Peter Hain): No.

Llew Smith : Prior to the election of the Labour Government in 1997, my right hon. Friend, while recognising the need to elect that Government, still believed that it would be impossible to regenerate the economy without taking a public stake in 25 of the top sectors of industry. I thought that was an eminently sensible suggestion. Does he still think so?

Peter Hain: My hon. Friend refers to something that I wrote 20 years ago. One of his predecessors, the great Nye Bevan, said that socialists must move with the times. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that, just like company shares, the value of some policies can go down as well as up.

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Trunk Roads

9. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport concerning improvements to trunk road links between mid-Wales and the west midlands. [96351]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and Assembly Ministers about issues affecting Wales. More than 2 million visitors come to mid-Wales each year, and 20 per cent. of them travel from the west midlands. Good-quality roads are vital to increasing the number of tourists coming to Wales.

Michael Fabricant : I am glad that the Minister recognises that, but 2 million is not enough—we should have 4 million. Does the Minister realise that we might get 4 million if only the link road—the A460, which links the new M6 toll road with the existing M54—were improved? What discussions has the Minister had with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that that happens?

Mr. Touhig: I have great affection for the hon. Gentleman, who is a passionate supporter of all things Welsh, which we welcome. However, it is amazing that he should demand extra spending when his party is committed to a 20 per cent. cut in public expenditure. He had better have a word with his Front Bench colleagues, because, as usual, the Tory party is at odds over those issues.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [97052] Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 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. Boswell : It is a time of great anxiety at home and abroad, and we have an absolute need for frankness and accountability. In the light of today's revelations of ministerial pressure on the independent Audit Commission, which comes on top of last week's revelations about a questionable security dossier on Iraq, will the Prime Minister issue a simple and binding instruction that the spinning has to stop?

The Prime Minister: On the document, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the part of the document that dealt with intelligence was indeed from intelligence sources, as the document stated. It is important that that

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is underlined. Of course, especially at the moment, it is important that we give accurate information to people, and the information given was accurate.

Q2. [97053] Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is aware that the good constituents of Chorley wonder whether, if the report from Dr. Blix on Friday states that more time is needed or more inspectors are needed, the Prime Minister will support that view and try to ensure that a peaceful solution is reached.

The Prime Minister: Of course we will take full account of anything that Dr. Blix says. I point out that he has said that the issue is not the need for more inspectors but the failure of Iraq to co-operate. I wish to make the point to my hon. Friend and, through him, to his constituents, that the issue of time for the inspectors is an issue of the time to make a judgment about whether Iraq is co-operating. If Iraq is co-operating, the inspectors can have as much time as they need and want to do their work. If Iraq is not co-operating, we have to be careful that we do not get sucked back into the situation we had in the 1990s, when the inspectors were in Iraq for years but, for example, the Iraqis denied the existence of their biological weapons programme, refused to co-operate with the inspectors, and said that it was all an invention of the CIA and the British security services. It was only when Saddam's son-in-law defected—he was later murdered by Saddam—that we discovered the existence of the programme. I agree that we have to take full account of what the inspectors say, but the issue that we come back to time and again, in order to avoid a conflict, is whether Iraq will co-operate fully or not.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): NATO has been the cornerstone of British security and ensured peace in Europe for decades. Now that France, Germany and Belgium have plunged NATO into one of its greatest crises, will the Prime Minister join me in condemning the action of those Governments, and will he tell the House what he intends to do to ensure that the Turks receive the protection to which they are entitled?

The Prime Minister: Of course we were one of the 16 members of NATO who wanted Turkey to be given that protection fully. Negotiations and discussions are going on in NATO at the moment and I hope that they are successful. I hope that we are able to fulfil our obligations to Turkey, because that is important for Turkey and for the NATO alliance.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The French and German actions have clearly undermined NATO but, when it comes to the UN and Iraq, it is absolutely right to work for a second resolution. Given that the Labour party chairman has today described the threat to Heathrow as being on the same scale as 11 September, will the Prime Minister agree with me that our security and the disarmament of Saddam Hussein cannot be held to ransom by a French veto in the Security Council?

The Prime Minister: It is precisely for that reason that I think that it is important that we make sure that the

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will of the UN is upheld. On each occasion, we should go back to resolution 1441, which says that Iraq should have a final opportunity to disarm itself through the weapons inspectors, and that it has to co-operate fully. If Iraq is in breach of that resolution, I believe that action should follow. However, I still believe that it is possible that we shall attain a second resolution in the UN. I believe that the matter should be resolved through the UN. After all, the original instruction given to Saddam was an instruction from the UN.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Given the events of the past couple of weeks, and the different world views of France and Germany, what more would it take for the Prime Minister to reconsider his deep commitment to a single European foreign policy and army?

The Prime Minister: I thought that we would get to that sooner or later. I think that it would be immensely damaging to allow the debate about European defence to go on without British input. The most disastrous policy that this country could adopt is the empty-chair, opt-out policy in Europe that is the policy of the Opposition. As a result of the measures that we secured in negotiating European defence, there can be no European defence initiative in any field without the unanimous consent of all countries. That, therefore, gives us a veto over any initiative. It is important that we play our full part in European defence. Otherwise, the consequence would be, not that there was no European defence policy, but that it would exist without British input. That would be bad for Britain, NATO and Europe.

Q3. [97054] Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the British public remains largely sceptical about the case for military action against Iraq, but that they believe that the Americans will take military action almost come what may? Will he tell the House and the country why we should believe that a war now will make peace in the middle east more likely and in the end make Britain less of a target for terrorists?

The Prime Minister: I think that the best answer is to go back to first principles again. We decided to go through the UN to deal with this matter—and this is the absolute answer to those who say that we were hell bent on war, come what may—so that we could get a UN resolution in order to avoid war. If Saddam had complied fully with the resolution passed last November, conflict would not even be an issue today. The choice, in the end, is for Saddam. However, if we fail to implement resolution 1441, and if we lack the determination and resolution to make sure that that mandate is carried, the consequence will be that Saddam is free to develop weapons of mass destruction. Also, there will be an increasing risk that the threat of those weapons of mass destruction and the existing terrorist threat will join together. This country will then be less secure and safe. It is best to deal with this through the UN but, as I have said from the outset, the UN has to be the way to deal the matter, not the way to avoid dealing with it.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): As the questions from the hon. Members for

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Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) and for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) made clear, every measure of public opinion shows that people are not persuaded of the case for the course of action being followed, despite all the persuasive efforts of the Prime Minister and the Government. Why does the Prime Minister think that that remains the case?

The Prime Minister: First, I think that those surveys of public opinion will be different if there is a second UN resolution, and I point out also that we are not yet in conflict. Secondly, however, I think that people do believe that Saddam is an evil man and a dictator, and that there is a threat to this country from his accumulated weapons of mass destruction, but that they ask, reasonably and rightly, whether there is not an alternative to war. The answer to that question is that there is an alternative to war and it is set out in the UN resolution. That alternative is full and complete co-operation with the UN inspectors. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that, if that full and complete co-operation is not there, we have to find other means of enforcing the will of the UN. Otherwise, the threat to this country that people do accept is present will carry on in existence.

Mr. Kennedy: On the latter point, could the Prime Minister therefore be more explicit than he was to the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) a few minutes ago? If Dr. Blix requests more time on Friday, will the Prime Minister actively and publicly speak out in favour of that?

The Prime Minister: As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) a moment or two ago, of course what Dr. Blix says is important and we will take full account of it, but the judgment that has to be made in the end is one by the Security Council as to whether there is full and complete co-operation by Iraq with the United Nations inspectors. I believe that those inspectors, if they were given that co-operation, could do their work very easily; but if they are not given that co-operation, surely, the right hon. Gentleman must see the danger that we get sucked back into delays of months and then years, with the inspectors playing a game of hide and seek with Saddam, and we are unable then to shut down the weapons of mass destruction programme that he accepts, that I accept and that everyone accepts is a threat and a danger to the world.

Q4. [97055] Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): Does my right hon. Friend not agree that differential student fees will help to create differential universities, awarding differential degrees to differential graduates with differential job prospects? If he does, can he tell me how that will fulfil our pledge to ensure equality of opportunity through our education system?

The Prime Minister: There are two separate issues. First, I would simply say to my hon. Friend that, of course, there is differential funding now for different universities. So, for example, Oxford or Cambridge will receive four times the amount of public funding as, let us say, Wolverhampton university. What is important is that, if those universities want even more money, it should not come simply from the taxpayer. The second

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thing I would say to him is that, since we know that 90 per cent. of young people in sixth forms go on to university, the absolute keys to access are the measures to improve standards in our secondary schools that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is taking.

Q5. [97056] Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): There is no doubt about the danger posed by Saddam Hussein or about the deceit that he is prepared to practise, but is the Prime Minister certain that we are not allowing frustration and impatience to cloud our judgment, for what new threat, proven threat or imminent threat is there to justify war?

The Prime Minister: There is the threat that we have identified in the resolution last year and, indeed, for the past 12 years, and there are two ways of dealing with it. [Interruption.] Someone shouts out the word "containment". When we look at the issue and the moral background to the decisions that have to be taken, I agree that, before we take the decision to go to war, the morality of that should weigh heavily on our conscience because innocent people die as well as the guilty in a war, but let us look at the morality of the present policy that we have towards Iraq and the policy that we have had for the past 12 years—a policy of sanctions that, because of the way that Saddam has implemented those sanctions, leaves Iraq in this state: with 130 deaths per 1,000 children under the age of five, with 60 per cent. of the population on food aid, with half the Iraqis in rural areas having no access to safe water and with thousands of people imprisoned or killed every year as a result of Saddam's regime. The fact is that the only—[Interruption.] I am sorry; the only alternative to disarmament by the United Nations is that we keep sanctions in place year on year, and I am simply saying that that is also a moral choice with bad and devastating consequences for the Iraqi people.

Q6. [97057] Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I apologise to the Prime Minister for distracting him from international matters, but he is aware of the campaign that has been run by the all-party group for haemophilia and the Haemophilia Society to get recombinant treatment for all haemophiliacs in the United Kingdom. Can he inform the House whether the Government have reached a decision and, if so, what it is?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, and he will be aware that the Government have now allocated just under £90 million for synthetic clotting factors to help those with the condition of haemophilia. That will be rolled out across the country in the months to come, and it will make a considerable difference to the treatment of that condition throughout the country.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): When the Prime Minister said that he would cut by half the number of people seeking asylum in this country by September, was that an aspiration or a firm pledge?

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The Prime Minister: It was a firm commitment, of course.

Mr. Duncan Smith: On Friday, the Prime Minister said that his new asylum target was a pledge, although I see that he has now changed that; on Saturday, the Home Office said that it was undeliverable; and on Monday, his own spokesman from Downing street called it an aspiration—and all because this was another policy given to the Prime Minister by Alastair Campbell as he walked into the television studio. Why does the Government's asylum policy change every time the Prime Minister goes into a television studio to do an interview?

The Prime Minister: As I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, having said that we will cut it by half by September, whatever it is called, we will be held to account for it—and so we should be. However, let me point out to him that what he is saying now is exactly the ridicule that he heaped on the street crime initiative. We remember at the time that that was described by the shadow Home Secretary as not having a prospect of being achieved. I might remind him today that street crime is 20 per cent. down on last year, and 33 per cent. down in London. The right hon. Gentleman will be eating his words on asylum too.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Violent crime up, burglaries up and gun crime doubled since this Government took over—that is not much of a record. The Prime Minister's asylum policy is in a complete shambles. We all know that. He scrapped the white list, then reintroduced it. He introduced vouchers, then scrapped them. He scrapped benefit changes, then reintroduced them. The last time the Prime Minister went on television, he said that he would renegotiate the convention on human rights, but his Home Secretary turned round and said that he could not. All the while, the number of asylum seekers is rising. It has reached 100,000 a year. We are now taking more than any other country in Europe. Instead of getting on television, why does the Prime Minister not just get on with his job?

The Prime Minister: We shall have to see. We can have this conversation again in June when the figures for the first quarter come out, and we can have it again in November when the September figures come out. The measures that we introduced last year, which toughen up the asylum procedures and which were opposed by the Conservative party every step of the way, are already making a difference. However, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman entirely: the question will be whether the commitment is met or not. We shall wait and see.

Q7. [97058] Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): What does the Prime Minister think of a system that encouraged, and in many cases compelled, hundreds of former workers from Allied Steel and Wire Ltd. in Cardiff and Sheerness to contribute to their occupational pension scheme, and that now leaves them facing the prospect of receiving little or nothing in return? Will he promise the House that he will consider early-day motion 710, which

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is in my name and which contains proposals to help those workers? Instead of security and fairness in retirement, they face insecurity and injustice.

The Prime Minister: I will certainly study carefully the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend refers. He will know that this is a serious situation for his constituents. I understand that he has had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister about it. There is a proposal in the Green Paper to increase to 100 per cent. the compensation given in circumstances where there has been dishonesty in relation to a pension fund. We are also looking at discontinuance payments as well, as part of a series of measures to protect people in the situation in which my hon. Friend's constituents find themselves. We will do our best to help him resolve the particular case that he raises.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): In a parliamentary written answer this week, the Ministry of Defence stated that 10,400 of our service men and women who are deploying to the Gulf receive local overseas allowance in addition to their salary. In a separate answer, it was said that single and married unaccompanied personnel lose 20 per cent. of their living overseas allowance rate after the first 17 days, and married personnel lose 35 per cent. if their families go home for more than 17 days. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is wholly wrong that members of our armed forces should be penalised financially for service in the Gulf? Will he make a firm commitment to the House to stop that penalisation?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that commitment, because we have to apply the rules that have applied for many years in relation to this issue. I simply say to him that we will, of course, look at whatever we can do to give our armed forces the protection that they need, but that has to be done within the overall financial settlement of the Ministry of Defence.

Q8. [97059] Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): At a time when gun crime continues to rise across London, what lessons does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister believe—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman be heard.

Mr. Gardiner: What lessons does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister believe should be learned from the successful Operation Trident and the "not another drop" campaign in Brent, which have seen deaths from gun crime not happen for a year and a half in that borough? Will he ensure that the use of automatic number plate registration piloted in Brent to target known gangsters is adopted throughout the capital and, in particular, will he ensure that the Mayor's cameras—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there has been a very successful operation in Brent, but it is obviously an operational

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matter for the Metropolitan Police Commissioner as to whether it is extended throughout the capital. My hon. Friend will also know that we have a proposal, which I hope will be supported by the whole House, for anyone found in illegal possession of a firearm to be given a mandatory five-year sentence.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): On 3 February 2003 at column 22, the Prime Minister took personal responsibility for placing the dodgy document on Iraq in the Library of the House. Yesterday, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence told the House that it was only the middle part of the document that was the subject of a postgraduate thesis. The middle part of the document—part 2—is the part on Iraq's network of intelligence and security, so will the Prime Minister now tell the House who actually wrote part 2 of the document? Did he know who wrote it before he placed it in the House of Commons? Will he now apologise to the House for putting something of such questionable genesis before the House?

The Prime Minister: As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell), the part of the document dealing with intelligence was, indeed, taken from intelligence services information. Secondly, the whole document, as has been accepted by everyone, is accurate.

Q9. [97060] Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be aware that my constituency of Ealing, North is extremely close to Heathrow airport and that the airport is the major employer of my constituents. May I tell him that the current security operation at Heathrow airport has had a sobering effect on many of us in west London and has brought home to us the imminence of the threat? Will he publicly record his appreciation of the police, military and emergency services who have done an excellent job at Heathrow airport and continue to do so?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, we send our thanks and congratulations to the police, to our armed forces, to the security services and to everyone who works on our behalf to protect us against the security threat that does not affect just this country but, obviously, affects countries right across the world at the moment. It is worth pointing out that terrorist arrests are not just happening in this country, but in virtually every European country and in many other countries right across the globe. The result of that is that we occasionally have to take measures that we prefer not to take, but that are necessary to give people the security and protection that they need.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): May I return to the dossier—the one that Colin Powell said was a fine document and the one that the Prime Minister tells us is accurate? Does the Prime Minister accept that it is not just a question of plagiarism but of changing key phrases? The phrase "Iraqi aid for opposition groups" in the original becomes "Iraqi support for terrorist organisations" in the Government's Downing street document. What possible motivation is there for

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making these changes apart from propagandising to war? If the Prime Minister cannot be trusted on that, how can he be trusted on anything?

The Prime Minister: First of all, let me just tell the hon. Gentleman, as I said a moment or two ago, that the part of the document that Colin Powell referred to about intelligence is, indeed, taken from intelligence sources and is entirely accurate, as is the document as a whole. Secondly, in relation to Iraq's support for terrorist groups, he may not believe that Iraq supports terrorist groups, but its support for such groups is well known and well documented quite apart from any intelligence information that we put out. I am only sorry that he does not recognise that.

Q10. [97061] Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Following the crash at Chancery Lane on the underground, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give my constituents and the travelling public in London? When will the Central line service resume?

The Prime Minister: When it fully resumes is obviously a matter for the underground and the Health and Safety Executive. I hope that it will resume as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend will recognise that the work of the underground and the Health and Safety Executive is extremely important in providing protection for people. Accidents will occur from time to time, but after what happened the Underground and the Health and Safety Executive have been able to make sure that they have identified the cause and are now putting the matter right.

Q11. [97062] Tony Baldry (Banbury): Last week the Prime Minister said that there needed to be a humanitarian plan for Iraq every bit as viable and as worked out as a military plan. How will aid for the Iraqi people be provided if the oil for food programme is suspended? What preparations are in place for refugees in Iraq, bearing in mind that after the Gulf war 1.8 million Iraqis went on the move, which was 18 times the number of people who fled Afghanistan?

The Prime Minister: These are precisely the issues that we are working on now with the United Nations and with our allies. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, there is already a humanitarian situation in Iraq. Indeed, there has been for many years, which is why 60 per cent. of the population are dependent on the oil for food programme. We would have to make sure—and this is what we are working to do now—that in the event of any conflict we continue that programme and that aid reaches the people whom it needs to reach.

There are literally thousands of Iraqi refugees streaming across Europe even now. There are programmes in place, which we have to make sure we keep in place. The whole purpose of the planning that we are doing, with our allies and the United Nations, is to make sure that whatever the humanitarian consequences of any potential conflict they are dealt with properly.

Q12. [97063] Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 has proved to be

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a success? There is an increasing threat of terrorism, and I know that arrests have been made in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Without the Act, I think the public would have felt less secure.

The Prime Minister: That is right. As a result of the measures that the security services have taken and as a result of the new powers under the anti-terrorism and crime legislation, we have been able to arrest people and to detain without trial those suspected of being engaged in conspiring to commit terrorist acts here. I would repeat the point I made a few moments ago, that this is not simply happening in this country, but is happening right across Europe. There are trials and arrests of suspected terrorists and arrests. We are working very closely with other European countries to make sure that we achieve the maximum co-operation, since many of the cells in different European countries work together.

Q13. [97064] Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): Will the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] The Tory Benches are so predictable.

The Prime Minister: Of course, pensioners will pay council tax as other people do, subject to the help that is given, but the Government are giving an enormous amount of additional help to pensioners, not just in the winter allowance and the free TV licences, not just in the minimum income guarantee, but in the pension credit that is coming in April, which will mean that large

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numbers of pensioners are substantially better off if they have small amounts of savings. That will help them considerably.

As for whatever the hon. Gentleman has done to offend the Conservative party, I should very much like to know, and I suspect that I might support him on that.

Q14. [97065] Phil Sawford (Kettering): On Saturday I shall be taking part in a rally here in London with thousands of other people who are deeply concerned about the prospect of war with Iraq. Does my right hon. Friend have a message for the people on that rally, bearing in mind that many of them are his friends, not his enemies?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I do have a message for people on that rally who I am sure are motivated by the best intentions and motives and believe sincerely in their views. My message is twofold: first, that we should be glad that we live in this country and not in Iraq because people can come together and demonstrate their position on political issues of the day; and secondly, as I said a moment or two ago, that the moral choice, which is the way that it is put by many of those who intend to go on the march, has to weigh up the moral consequences of war. The alternative is to carry on with the sanctions regime, which has resulted, because of how Saddam implements it, in thousands of people dying needlessly in Iraq every year. In addition, of course, many thousands of people are political detainees or are executed as a result of their political views. I hope that when people go on that march they at least recognise that those of us who take a different view hold that view with as much conviction and sincerity as they hold their view.

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