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National Assembly Elections

8. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): What assessment he has made of the level of voter turnout in the last elections for the National Assembly for Wales on 1 May. [116429]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Peter Hain): The turnout in the recent Assembly elections was disappointing and the Government and the Electoral Commission are looking at ways of addressing that issue.

Sir Nicholas Winterton : The Secretary of State is absolutely right. The actual turnout for the Assembly elections in Wales was extremely disappointing at 38 per cent. If that had been the turnout at a general election, the House would be bewailing the end of representative democracy. Does it not show that the people of Wales do not believe their Assembly is worth anything at all and that their local government and this House are where decisions are made? When will he understand that devolution is not always the answer to the problem?

Peter Hain: Presumably, exactly the same logic applies to the borough of Macclesfield, where the

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turnout was just 30 per cent.[Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman suggest, therefore, that that item of representative democracy should disappear? Of course not.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: It is very well represented.

Peter Hain: The hon. Gentleman is a great patriot for Macclesfield—I will not take that from him—and an excellent Member of Parliament but the truth is that turnout in all elections at every level has been falling across the democratic world. It is a great concern and we should all address it seriously.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Does the Secretary of State accept that the reason for the low turnout in the Assembly elections is probably that voters did not believe that the Assembly was relevant to the problems in the communities? If we are to increase the turnout in the next Assembly election, can he advise the leadership of the Assembly to stop wasting money on projects such as the glorified opera house in Cardiff bay, which cost £100 million, and instead spend that money to create jobs in some of the most deprived valley communities?

Peter Hain: It is important that we recognise that Cardiff and Wales should be going for world-class excellence in every area. The valley communities that my hon. Friend and I represent are part of that drive to make Wales a world-class nation. In respect of turnout, I do not think that one can draw the conclusion that he has reached. The turnout at the Scottish elections was much lower but the Scottish Parliament has greater powers. The turnout at the last general election was lower than at the previous one. We must address the issue across democratic politics on a non-party basis.

Higher and Further Education

9. Alan Howarth (Newport, East): What plans he has to encourage closer links between higher education and further education institutions in Wales. [116430]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are very aware of the Assembly Cabinet's strategy for reconfiguration within the Welsh continuing education sector. We strongly welcome the progress that is being made towards greater collaboration between higher education and further education institutions in Wales.

Alan Howarth : Will my hon. Friend continue to study the proposals from University of Wales college, Newport and Coleg Gwent for close integration of the work of the two institutions to enable students in south-east Wales to progress seamlessly to higher levels of skills and qualification, and will he commend that model elsewhere in Wales and the United Kingdom?

Mr. Touhig: I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the important work on closer links between Coleg Gwent and the University of Wales college, Newport. I know that he takes a keen interest in that issue. I also welcome the support being given by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales for that

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reconfiguration and closer collaboration. A total of £5.3 million is being made available across the principality. I will continue to take an interest in the progress on that work. Those close links are important to the development of education in Wales.

Broadband

10. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): What discussions he has had with National Assembly colleagues regarding implementation of the Broadband Wales programme. [116431]

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must first wait for the answer.

The Secretary of State for Wales (Peter Hain): That is always wise, Mr. Speaker.

I have regular bilateral meetings with National Assembly colleagues, and Broadband Wales is one of the many subject areas discussed.

John Robertson: I apologise, Mr. Speaker—I was so excited about getting in on Wales questions. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his colleagues in the National Assembly on the roll-out of broadband in Wales, and on the £110 million that has been invested to ensure affordable broadband in the region? Does he agree that the roll-out of broadband is as important in Wales as it is in Scotland, that it is rapidly improving and that a celtic alliance between the two nations should be supported?

Peter Hain: The answer is yes, and I welcome the highest talent from all parts of the House to Wales questions.

PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [116549] Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 June.

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.

Ms King: UN weapons inspectors said 12 weeks ago that it was their "strong presumption" that Saddam Hussein had not destroyed, among other things, 10,000 litres of anthrax, 80 tonnes of mustard gas and large quantities of VX nerve agent. Where are these weapons and what does the Prime Minister say to allegations that their threat has been exaggerated? Does he share my

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hope that one day, every leader who gases, tortures and buries—dead and alive—hundreds and thousands of his own people will be removed by force?

The Prime Minister: In relation to weapons of mass destruction, my hon. Friend is of course right to say that it was accepted by the entire international community, and not least by the UN Security Council, that Saddam Hussein did indeed have weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the security of the world, which is why the resolution was passed last November. In respect of the search for weapons of mass destruction, I would point out to the House that the Iraq survey group, which is 1,300 to 1,400-strong, is literally now just beginning its work, because the priority after the conflict was to rebuild Iraq and to make sure that the humanitarian concerns of the Iraqi people were achieved. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to inform the House that the Intelligence and Security Committee actually contacted the Government in early May to conduct an inquiry into the role of intelligence in Iraq. I welcome this and I can assure the House that the Government will co-operate fully with it.

As for my hon. Friend's other point, I hope that we all recognise that in addition to the weapons of mass destruction issue, as I saw for myself in Iraq, the people of Iraq, whatever the problems of rebuilding that country, are delighted that a brutal dictator who murdered hundreds of thousands of their people has gone. And the British Army and the British people should be proud of the role that this country played in removing him.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The Leader of the House has said that rogue elements within the intelligence services are undermining the Government and that their numbers are growing. Does the Prime Minister agree with him?

The Prime Minister: It is obvious from what the "Today" programme has said—if that source is to be believed—that of course there was somebody from within the intelligence community who spoke to the media. But I want to say that the security services and intelligence services do a superb job on behalf of this country. Over the six years that I have been Prime Minister, they have been magnificent in the information that they have given, in their professionalism and in their integrity.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The question is not the "Today" programme but that the Leader of the House made very serious allegations about the security services. I agree with the Prime Minister that the security services fulfil a monumental role on behalf of the Government, but the Leader of the House said that they are seeking deliberately to undermine the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister can clear this up right now. Can he tell us how senior he believes these people are and how many of them there are, and what he intends to do about these allegations?

The Prime Minister: In fairness to the Leader of the House, he did not say that the security services were engaged in anything, but that somebody from the security services was talking—and it is pretty obvious

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that that is the case. The right hon. Gentleman asks me who it is and how senior, but according to the BBC, the source is anonymous, so obviously I do not know. There is serious point in what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I do not believe that the person who is talking is a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee and I want to make it clear to the House—I have spoken and conferred with the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee—that there was no attempt, at any time, by any official, or Minister, or member of No. 10 Downing street staff, to override the intelligence judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee. That includes the judgment about the so-called 45 minutes. It was a judgment made by the Joint Intelligence Committee and by that committee alone.

Mr. Duncan Smith: But the Prime Minister is equivocating. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Leader of the Opposition speak.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Leader of the House, in an interview with The Times and on the "Today" programme, did not talk about one person, but about a growing number of members of the security services. The Leader of the House made allegations about the security services—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"]—and the Prime Minister is not supporting him. We are also hearing allegations from others in the security services that the Prime Minister misled Parliament and the country in the run-up to the war. Those are highly serious allegations. Surely the essential way to deal with the problem is for the Prime Minister to publish the dossier given to him by the JIC before the one that he published in September. Will he do that today?

The Prime Minister: In relation to all those issues, the Intelligence and Security Committee is at full liberty to go through all the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments and produce a report on them. Because of the importance of the issue, it is only right that a report be published so that people can make a judgment on it. However, the claims that have been made are simply false. In particular, the claim that the readiness of Saddam to use weapons within 45 minutes of an order to use them was a point inserted in the dossier at the behest of No. 10 is completely and totally untrue. Furthermore, the allegation that the 45-minute claim provoked disquiet among the intelligence community, which disagreed with its inclusion in the dossier—I have discussed it, as I said, with the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee—is also completely and totally untrue. Instead of hearing from one or many anonymous sources, I suggest that if people have any evidence, they actually produce it.

Mr. Duncan Smith: But the Leader of the House is not an anonymous source. The Prime Minister stands in his place saying that these allegations are wrong. If so, and if he did not add the 45-minute point to the dossier, why will he not publish the dossier given him by the JIC before he finally published the one in September? Surely that would clear up the point, because it was given to him as evidence that could be put in the public domain. He can do that now and clear the matter up. Of course

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we welcome the fact that the Intelligence and Security Committee will look into it, but I remind the whole House that the Prime Minister will let that Committee see only the intelligence reports that he wants it to see. It reports directly to him and he can withhold any part of, or all of, its reports. However, the Committee is being asked to investigate the Prime Minister's role and that of his closest advisers. Given the allegations made by the Leader of the House today, surely the only way to clear up the problem is to have an independent inquiry?

The Prime Minister: As far as I am aware, the Leader of the House was not making an allegation about the intelligence being wrong. On the contrary, he was rebutting the allegation that the intelligence was wrong. In relation to the Intelligence and Security Committee, it is not true that I will withhold from it the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments. I will give it all the JIC assessments. In addition, the Committee can, in accordance with its normal practice, interview those people in the security services who drew up the JIC reports. That is surely a fair way to proceed. I will then publish the report.

If I may say so to the right hon. Gentleman, he had intelligence briefings as well. I suspect that the problem for him is that he has been wondering over the past few days whether to jump on this particular bandwagon or not, and he has made the wrong choice.

Mr. Duncan Smith rose—

Hon. Members: More!

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The allegations made by the Leader of the House today have changed everything. He is alleging that elements of the security services are actually seeking to undermine the Government. The Prime Minister cannot pretend that this is just a simple and small issue. The whole credibility of his Government rests on clearing up these charges. I simply say to the Prime Minister that these allegations are not going to go away. He has one former Cabinet Minister who says that he has duped the Cabinet; another says that he committed a monumental blunder; and, today, the Leader of the House has attacked members of the security services. Surely the reality is that the only way is to hold an independent judicial inquiry, if he will not produce the evidence, and to do it today.

The Prime Minister: I have already said that we will produce all the evidence for the Intelligence and Security Committee. I really think that that is the sensible and right way to proceed. It can then come to a considered judgment and I will publish the report. I repeat that all the allegations that have been made are completely without any substance. Indeed, if the right hon. Gentleman wants me to, I shall go through a few more. For example, it was reported that there was a meeting in New York between the Foreign Secretary and Colin Powell in which they expressed their doubts about weapons of mass destruction. On the day concerned, the Foreign Secretary was in France. As for the allegation in The Mail on Sunday that the German Foreign Minister,

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Joschka Fischer, ambushed me over weapons of mass destruction—lies. I have the following statement from the German embassy:


The Mail on Sunday's—


That at least is consistent. It was alleged that the source for the 45 minute claim was an Iraqi defector of dubious reliability. He was not an Iraqi defector and he was an established and reliable source.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The truth is that nobody believes a word that the Prime Minister is saying now. [Interruption.] That is the truth. We now have the unedifying sight of the Leader of the House being sent out to do the Prime Minister's bidding and to attack elements of the security services, which is disgraceful. Will the Prime Minister either publish that dossier right now, or hold an independent inquiry so that the public can judge for themselves?

The Prime Minister: Again, let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman that what the Leader of the House was saying was what was clearly true, which is that there were people speaking anonymously to the media. I want to repeat, however, that in respect of Iraq and of every issue that I have handled over the past few years, our intelligence services have been absolutely magnificent.

I say, with the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, that the fact is that in the end there have been many claims made about the Iraq conflict. It was claimed that hundreds of thousands of people were going to die in it; that it would be my Vietnam; that the middle east would be in flames; and—the latest claim—that weapons of mass destruction were a complete invention by the British Government. The truth is that some people resent the fact that it was right to go to conflict. We won the conflict; thanks to the magnificent contribution of the British troops, Iraq is now free, and we should be proud of that.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Q2. [116550] Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): May I remind my right hon. Friend of the serious school funding problems in my constituency? While there are arguments about whether the Government provided enough money or whether the local authority has passed on all that it should have done, parents and teachers are not bothered about who is at fault. They look to us to sort out the problems, to make sure that there is enough money for this year, and that there is no repeat next year. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to get to the bottom of the story of what has gone wrong this year and guarantee that sufficient money will be made available next year to ensure that education in schools in my constituency is of the high standard that we have come to expect?

The Prime Minister: Again, let me say that I totally understand the concerns that my hon. Friend raises.

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They are the reason why Ministers have had several meetings with representatives of the Barnet authority. As my honourable Friend knows, Barnet received a 7 per cent. floor increase in education formula spending share per pupil. That was a significant uplift, but it is true that some schools still have problems. We are working hard to see exactly where those problems are located and how to deal with them. However, along with a significant uplift in pension contributions and extra teachers' pay, there has been real pressure on local education authority budgets. In some cases, the full amount of education spending has not been passed through. We need to make sure that it is passed through. That is what we are looking at, in respect of both this year and next year.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): The Prime Minister is saying that more time is needed and asking for public patience when it comes to finding categoric evidence of weapons of mass destruction, but does he not understand that many people, in this country and internationally, treat that with some scepticism? More time and a degree of patience with regard to the progress already being made were exactly what Dr. Hans Blix appealed to the UN for. The Prime Minister was unwilling to extend that courtesy to Dr. Blix, despite having voted for it. Why then does he expect people to extend that courtesy to him?

The Prime Minister: For two reasons, the situation is completely different. First of all, what I said in relation to Hans Blix: I do not have the words in front of me now, but I think that what I said in this House, when asked many times, was that, if Saddam was co-operating fully, time was not the issue. The process could take as much time as Dr. Blix needed. However, if Saddam was not co-operating fully—and even Dr. Blix found that he was not—that meant that Saddam was in breach of resolution 1441.

The second point is that of course the situation is different now that Saddam has been removed from power. The first priority after the conflict—and this, quite rightly, is the reason for the pressure on us—is to take the humanitarian and reconstruction measures necessary to put Iraq back on its feet. The Iraq survey group is 1,300 or 1,400 strong, and it is the main group charged with going into Iraq, investigating all the sites and interviewing the scientists and witnesses. That group is starting its work now—literally now. The reason I ask people to be patient is that the group has just gone into Iraq: it should be allowed to get on with its job, investigate the sites, interview the witnesses and then report back to us.

Mr. Kennedy: If the Prime Minister acknowledges that public scepticism exists, rightly or wrongly, will he acknowledge also that it is liable to be increased by the comments of the Leader of the House about the rogue elements in the security services? Who are the public to trust if the Government are letting it be known that they cannot wholeheartedly trust their own security services? Does not that underline the need for a fully independent judicial review of just what has gone on?

The Prime Minister: The intelligence that formed the basis of the dossier that we put out last September was

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based on Joint Intelligence Committee assessments. There was never any question of Ministers, officials or anyone else trying to override that. With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, the Intelligence and Security Committee will be able to go through all those intelligence assessments. If the Committee wants to refer to those assessments, it can. That will then be published in its report. Rather than having allegations made by anonymous sources that are completely untrue, is it not better that people with evidence should present it to the Intelligence and Security Committee and allow that Committee to make a judgment?

The right hon. Gentleman says that there is scepticism about the matter, but perhaps he should go back and look at some of the words that he has used and the false allegations that he has made. Then he will see where the scepticism might have originated.


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