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24 Mar 2003 : Column 17—continued

Paedophiles (Internet)

14. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): What steps he is taking to protect children from paedophiles operating on the Internet. [104120]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): Through the work of the taskforce on child protection on the internet, we have recently introduced measures in the Sexual Offences Bill to combat paedophile "grooming" both online and offline. We have also run a public awareness campaign, providing £2.5 million worth of supportive material for parents and children to increase awareness of the potential risks. Along with the internet industry, the taskforce has also published a good practice guide—a model for the internet industry which should help to provide safer online services for children.

Helen Jones : While acknowledging what has been done so far, I think most Members believe that the sentences given to those who operate through the internet are still far too low. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking not just to track down those who use the

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internet for purposes of paedophilia, but to ensure that when they are caught they are severely punished as a deterrent to others?

Mr. Blunkett: I hope that with the wholehearted support of all parties in this House and the Lords, and without prevarication or delay, we will be able to introduce additional sentences, including a sentence of up to life imprisonment for paying for sex with a child and a 14-year sentence for causing or inciting a child to become involved in prostitution or pornography, for introducing a child to prostitution or involving them in pornography, and for arranging or facilitating child prostitution or pornography. The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 increased to 10 years the maximum sentence for possession and distribution of child pornography. All the new measures will be combined with existing ones to ensure that the message is clear and enforcement rigorous.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): A constituent recently drew my attention to the availability of software packages that are designed to enable internet users to conceal their identity. Is the Home Secretary aware of the availability of such software, and has he considered, or had discussions with colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about, ways in which access to such software can be restricted and the software removed from the market altogether?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, protection is required, and it is crucial that server providers help to ring-fence entry to the internet. I shall ask the taskforce, under the direction of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), to consider that software, and I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman provided my hon. Friend with details.

Active Community Unit

15. Mr. Gareth Thomas (Harrow, West): What the work programme is of the active community unit; and if he will make a statement. [104121]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): The active community unit leads on work to achieve the Government's target to promote the development of the voluntary and community sector and to provide people with opportunities to become actively engaged in their communities, particularly in deprived areas. The unit's work programme includes a wide range of activities aimed at increasing the sector's contribution to public service delivery, increasing community participation and building the capacity of the sector.

Mr. Thomas : Will my hon. Friend encourage the active community unit to consider what further role local residents associations can play in working alongside crime and disorder partnerships to tackle antisocial behaviour? Will she join me in praising the

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Pinner and Hatch End associations in my constituency for their successful campaign to get Pinner police station reopened?

Beverley Hughes: I certainly congratulate those organisations on their success, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's support for them. Local residents are fundamentally important both as volunteers in local organisations and in contributing their views on how services can make a difference in their community. I shall certainly ensure that the active community unit helps local organisations to encourage residents and their associations to make connections with crime and disorder partnerships, because the role that they can play in tackling antisocial behaviour is very important.

Bob Russell (Colchester): Will the Minister confirm that the concept of volunteering in our society has declined rapidly over the past 20 years in particular? Looking at the special constabulary, whose numbers have fallen dramatically since 1997, does she agree that the active community unit should address the decline in volunteering so that we can recruit more special constables?

Beverley Hughes: The main thing is to encourage participation in voluntary activity of all kinds. Individuals will differ as to the ways in which they feel most comfortable making a contribution to their community. The active community unit works with organisations across the board to enable people to make that contribution, whether through the special constabulary or the many other organisations that want volunteers.

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Police Numbers

16. James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): If he will make a statement on changes in police numbers in the last three years. [104122]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): By 31 March 2002 there were 129,603 police officers in England and Wales—a record number and 3,507 more than in March 1999. There were also 58,909 civilian support staff in March 2002. That is also a record number and 5,878 more than in March 1999. In addition, at the last count there were 1,165 community support officers. We have set a target of 130,000 police officers by 31 March 2003 and 132,500 police officers by 2004.

James Purnell: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, for the fact that there are an extra 100 police officers in my area since 1997, and for the further 50 officers that we have been promised. However, will he look into the letter about overtime from David Crompton, my local chief superintendent, which I sent to the Department? He wants to meet the overtime target by reducing back-room staff overtime. However, he is being forced to cut overtime for front-line police staff as well, even though he wants to keep bobbies on the beat.

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. I am aware of the correspondence that has taken place between himself and my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). The question of the way in which overtime is counted is being looked into as we speak.

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Iraq and European Council

3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the European Council, which I attended in Brussels on 20 and 21 March, and report also on the conflict in Iraq.

This meeting was the fourth of the special summits on economic reform in the European Union but, of course, the summit was dominated by Iraq. I should like to place on the record what I know will be the heartfelt gratitude of the entire House for the valour of British servicemen and women. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I send the deepest sympathy of the Government—and again, I hope, of the whole House—to the families of those who have died. They gave their lives for our safety. They had the courage to take the ultimate risk in the service of their country, and of those who value freedom everywhere in the world. We owe them an immense debt. I would like also to extend my condolences, and those of our nation, to the families of the American personnel who have sadly been lost in recent days.

We are now just four days into this conflict. It is worth restating our central objectives. They are to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and to ensure that Iraq is disarmed of all chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programmes, but in achieving these objectives we have also embraced other considerations. We want to carry out this campaign in a way that minimises the suffering of ordinary Iraqi people, brutalised by Saddam; to safeguard the wealth of the country for the future prosperity of the people; and to make this a war not of conquest, but of liberation. For this reason, we did not, as some expected, mount a heavy bombing campaign first, followed by a land campaign. Instead, land forces were immediately in action, securing oil installations and gaining strategic assets and retaining them, not destroying them. The air campaign has been precisely targeted. Of course, there will have been civilian casualties, but we have done all that we humanly can to keep them to a minimum. Water and electricity supplies are being spared. The targets are the infrastructure, command and control of Saddam's regime, not of the civilian population. We are making massive efforts to clear lines of supply for humanitarian aid, although the presence of mines is hindering us.

By contrast, the nature of Saddam's regime is all too plainly expressed in its actions. The oil wealth was mined, and deep-mined at that. Had we not struck quickly, Iraq's future wealth would even now be burning away. Prisoners are being paraded in defiance of all international conventions. Those who dare speak criticism of the regime are being executed.

Now let me now give the House some detail, if I may, of the military campaign. In the south, our aim was to secure the key oil installations on the al-Faw peninsula; to take the port of Umm Qasr, the only Iraqi port to the outside world; and to render Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, ineffective as a basis for military operations by Saddam against coalition troops. In the west, in the desert, our aim is to prevent Saddam from using it as a base for hostile external aggression. In the north, our objective is to protect people in the Kurdish autonomous zone, to secure the northern oil fields, and

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to ensure that the north cannot provide a base for Saddam's resistance. Then, of course, the vital goal is to reach Baghdad as swiftly as possible, thus bringing the end of the regime closer.

I hope that the House will understand that there is a limit to how much I can say about the detail of our operations, especially those involving special forces, but with that caveat, at present British and US troops have taken the al-Faw peninsula; that is now secure. The southern oil installations are under coalition control. The port of Umm Qasr, despite continuing pockets of resistance, is under allied control, but the waterway essential for humanitarian aid may be blocked by mines and will take some days to sweep. Basra is surrounded and cannot be used as an Iraqi base, but in Basra there are pockets of Saddam's most fiercely loyal security services, who are holding out. They are contained but still able to inflict casualties on our troops, so we are proceeding with caution. Basra international airport has been made secure. The western desert is largely secure. In the north, there have been air attacks on regime targets in Mosul, Kirkuk and Tikrit. We have been in constant contact with the Turkish Government and the Kurdish authorities to urge calm.

Meanwhile, coalition forces led by the American 5th Corps are on the way to Baghdad. As we speak, they are about 60 miles south of Baghdad, near Karbala. A little way from there they will encounter the Medina division of the republican guard, which is defending the route to Baghdad. That will plainly be a crucial moment. Coalition forces are also advancing on al-Kut, in the east of Iraq. The two main bridges over the Euphrates south of Baghdad have been taken intact. That is of critical significance.

The air campaign has attacked Iraqi military installations, the centres of Saddam's regime and command and control centres. More than 5,000 sorties have taken place, thousands of Iraqi soldiers have surrendered and still more have simply left the field, their units disintegrating. But there are those, closest to Saddam, who are resisting and will resist strongly. They are the elite who are hated by the local population and have little to lose. There are bound, therefore, to be difficult days ahead, but the strategy and its timing are proceeding according to plan.

At the European Council, there were, of course, deep divisions over the coalition action. That is well known—but it is not that all of European opinion is one way. On the contrary, there was both understanding and support for the British position from many nations represented at the Council and near unanimous endorsement from the 10 accession countries which joined our Council on Friday afternoon. In any event, whatever the disagreements about the conflict itself, Europe came together to set out clearly its wishes and responsibilities in post-conflict Iraq.

The Council agreed the need to be active in the humanitarian field, to ensure that the oil revenues are held for the Iraqi people by the United Nations and to ensure that the oil-for-food programme continues. The Council further agreed that the UN Security Council should give the UN a strong mandate for post-conflict Iraq and make sure that the new Administration is one that is representative, careful of the human rights of the Iraqi people and allows the people to live at peace inside Iraq and with their neighbours.

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In addition, the Council stressed the vital importance of the middle east peace process and the publication of the road map drawn up by the US, EU, Russia and the UN, and now endorsed by us all. I reported on the talks that we had had both with the US Administration and the Palestinian Authority. We welcomed the appointment of Abu Mazen as Palestinian Prime Minister. I also welcomed the US intention to publish the road map for peace as soon as the Prime Minister and his Government are in place.

I know that it seems somewhat incongruous and out of place, but I should say one word on the conventional subject matter of the summit. Although overshadowed by Iraq, this summit on economic reform regained some momentum. In the last few months, energy liberalisation, a single Europe-wide patent and a single Europe sky policy have all been agreed. An employment taskforce, due to report on ways to cut unemployment without generating new regulation, was also agreed. That marks progress, though much remains to be done.

To return to the conflict, there are, of course, difficulties that have arisen, tragedies and accidents. We grieve for the lives lost. That is in the nature of war. And it is in the nature of today's instant, live reporting of war, that people see the pain and blood in vivid and shocking terms. However, it is worth recalling the nature of what is not always apparent and what we do not see: an Iraqi nation, degraded and brutalised by decades of barbarous rule; a country that is potentially rich but whose people go hungry and whose children die needlessly from malnutrition and disease; and a regime for which repression, torture, the abuse of human rights and possession of weapons of mass destruction define its very nature. That is why we must achieve our objectives. Saddam will go and this regime will be replaced. The Iraqi people will be helped to a better future. The weapons of mass destruction—for which a peaceful Iraq has no use—will be eliminated. That we will encounter more difficulties and anxious moments in the days ahead is certain. But no less certain, indeed more so, is coalition victory.

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