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The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [139322] Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before I list my engagements for the day, I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in expressing our deep condolences to the Turkish Government and to the families of those who were killed in the terrorist atrocities in Istanbul last Saturday, and also to the families of the 17 US soldiers who lost their lives in the tragedy involving two Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq at the weekend.

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. Hammond: I thank the Prime Minister for his answer and I hope that worrying about what is going on here in his absence will not spoil his enjoyment of the banquet tonight.

The Prime Minister: First, the hon. Gentleman is wrong on the numbers of police being deployed, but it is important that we pay tribute to the work that the Metropolitan police do for us day in, day out. In respect of the incident at the palace, I know that the Home Secretary will make a statement on that later. I think that it is important that we establish the facts first.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour Government's new tonnage tax reforms have been of huge benefit to British shipping in general and to the P&O shipping group in particular? How does he reconcile that big boost for British shipping with the relatively small number of seafarers' jobs created and with yesterday's devastating news that Jeffrey Sterling wants to sack 600 people from cross-channel ferries in his P&O fleet at Dover? Does my right hon. Friend share my sickening feeling of déjà vu?

The Prime Minister: It is important, as my hon. Friend rightly acknowledges, that we are seeing a continual revival in UK merchant shipping after a very long period of decline. That is immensely welcome. Obviously, I regret very much the announcement of redundancies at P&O ferries, which I understand is connected with a decline in demand on the Dover to Calais route. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are in discussion with the company and we will do anything we can through the rapid response service to make sure that anyone who is made redundant is found alternative

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employment. I can say from the experience in my own constituency that where that service has been deployed it has been immensely successful.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): Once again, I sadly join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences on behalf of my party to the victims of both the atrocities to which he referred.

The Prime Minister: I assume that we have just seen the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his statesmanlike mode. I am sure that everyone who has the best interests of this country at heart recognises that the strength of the alliance between Britain and the United States of America is important for world peace and security, and for the future of both our countries.

Mr. Howard: I very much welcome the Prime Minister's response. However, how can he support as his party's candidate for London Mayor someone who said this week that the President was

The Prime Minister: I did say that we had just seen the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his statesman-like mode—[Hon. Members: "Answer."] He cannot resist—[Interruption.] He cannot get to his feet and say that it is a good thing that the President is here and that the alliance is good for our country without trying to make mischief out of it. However, there will be people—in my party and elsewhere—who oppose what the President of the United States has done. I happen not to be one of them. Instead of making mischief, perhaps this should be the time when both the Leader of the Opposition and I stand firm in support of the alliance between this country and America.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): When my right hon. Friend meets President Bush later this week, will he ask him to put all possible pressure on the Israeli Government to stop building the security wall, and to reunite the Palestinian people with their ancestral lands?

The Prime Minister: First, I can tell my hon. Friend that we hope very much that the President will again give his strong support to the middle east peace process, and to the need to develop a process that will allow us, ultimately, to have an Israeli state that is confident of its security and an independent, viable Palestinian state. That is what we will work towards. Obviously, any measure being taken at the moment that inhibits those

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developments is not good for the long-term future of that process. In the end, however, the process in the middle east will not succeed until there is the clearest possible security plan that allows us to make sure that the terrorism also stops, so that we can create the confidence in which Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) for her question. I think that she is right to stress the importance of the matter, but I do not believe that there will be proper progress in the middle east until we resolve the security situation. We have to do that because, in the end, it is in the interests of the Palestinians as well as of the Israelis.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Will the Prime Minister give the House some sense of which issue he is more hopeful of making progress on during his discussions with President Bush this week? Will it be the continuing detention without trial of British citizens at Camp Delta, or the illegal imposition of tariffs against our steel industry by the Americans?

The Prime Minister: Our position on both matters is very clear, and we will discuss them again. I have set out our position regarding those detained at Guantanamo Bay to the right hon. Gentleman on many occasions. In respect of steel, there is a disagreement between Britain and Europe on the one hand, and America on the other. We want that to be resolved, and hope that the Americans will abide by the World Trade Organisation ruling. It is important that they do.

Of course there may be difficult issues between Britain and America, but I would have hoped that, when the right hon. Gentleman got to his feet, he would also say how pleased he was that the alliance between our two countries was so strong. Ultimately, that is in the interests of both countries. Yes, there is a trade issue between us over steel tariffs, but let us be clear: the trade between our countries is worth something like $2,000 million. That goes on the whole time, and is of enormous benefit to both nations.

Mr. Kennedy: A good constructive alliance between the UK and the US is, of course, in everyone's interest, but I want to press the Prime Minister on the most testing aspect of the alliance at the moment—the revised American position in respect of Iraq. Will he assure the House that, when he discusses that with the President over the next couple of days, the British priority will remain the establishment of democratic and durable institutions in Iraq? Will he also ensure that that matter is not being driven by the domestic electoral timetable in Washington?

The Prime Minister: I do find that a remarkable question to ask me. We have been working very closely with the United States of America to ensure that two things happen: first, that we get a programme for proper, democratic accountability and elections in Iraq, which will enable the Iraqis to be governing their country by the middle of next year, in due course with a proper constitution and elections. I hope that the right

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hon. Gentleman recognises that none of that would be possible if Saddam Hussein had not been deposed from the Government of Iraq. Secondly, we will carry on working with the Americans in the fight against international terrorism.

Let us be clear about what is happening out in Iraq. The people bombing the United Nations and the Red Cross and killing ordinary Iraqis, the people who, when we proposed an independent judiciary for Iraq, assassinated two of the people who were nominated as judges, and those who are killing people in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world in these appalling acts of terrorism are not the British or the Americans but appalling terrorists linked to some of these appalling regimes. It really is about time that we started to realise who our allies are, who our enemies are, and to stick with the one and fight the other.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): Despite the fact that unemployment in my constituency is now around 6 per cent. compared with 25 per cent. in the mid-1980s, does my right hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to tackle the problems of hidden unemployment, particularly those affecting people who have been left languishing on incapacity benefit for many years? To that end, will he ensure that the pathways to work pilot programmes that are being run in Inverclyde are properly resourced and structured so that everyone is helped to find a job and never again do we hear the excuse that unemployment is a price worth paying?

The Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend that we will resource the pilot projects satisfactorily. Indeed, as he rightly points out, many people have been helped off benefit and into work, in particular by the new deal. It is an absolute outrage that the Conservative party is committed to abolishing the new deal, which has helped hundreds of thousands of people off the dole and into work. Overall, about 1.5 million extra jobs have been created in the British economy since 1997 and that compares with the figure when a certain person was Employment Secretary for the Conservatives, with 3 million unemployed, and 1 million extra under him alone.

Q2. [139323] Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): From the figures on the Government's website of total permanent staff on a full-time equivalent basis in the Department of Trade and Industry, including its agencies, the Government inherited staff numbers of 8,398 in 1997. A staggering 1,422 staff have been added in the six and a half years under the Prime Minister's watch. As the right hon. Gentleman and his Chancellor now declare 500 of those jobs redundant, as reported in The Times on Monday, does the Prime Minister agree with the arithmetic that that still leaves 922 jobs over the number inherited? Is it any wonder that business is fed up with the waste and inefficiency of government under this Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: Business welcomes the economic stability that has been achieved under this Government. It welcomes the low inflation, low interest rates, low

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unemployment and high levels of employment. It welcomes the fact that we have been through the recent downturn better than any other country in the G8. I think that business remembers, too, that when a certain Opposition party was in power, it had 15 per cent. interest rates, 3 million unemployed and double-digit inflation. [Interruption.] Perhaps when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) gets to his feet, he will apologise for that record, since he was the author of it.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Since the invasion of Iraq, how many weapons of mass destruction have been found?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, the Iraqi survey group is in Iraq. It has already produced an interim report, which details at least 10 to 12 breaches of United Nations resolutions. I simply point out, in respect of the UN resolution that was passed last November, that it was a matter of common cause with all countries that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the world. I believe that he does. I also believe that the intelligence that we have received on this matter is right. The Iraqi survey group should be allowed to continue and complete its work.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): Does the Prime Minister think that it says something about his Administration that even after the Minister for Children's humiliating climbdown this week, he still thinks that she is the best person for the job?

The Prime Minister: I think she is. If we look at the Minister's record on child care places, if we look at the extra investment that is going into nursery education for three and four-year-olds and if we look at the plaudits given her by many people working in the field, I believe that, yes, she is the person who is best for the job, and she has answered properly the claims that have been made against her.

Mr. Howard: Let us just be clear about what happened. The Minister used the full authority of her Government position to write to the chairman of the BBC to try to suppress an investigation into her conduct. In doing so, she falsely described a victim of child abuse as an "extremely disturbed person". Is it right that someone who tried to bully her way out of trouble should still be Minister for Children?

The Prime Minister: I do not agree with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman said and I am sorry that he has joined in what I regard as a wholly unfair campaign against the Minister concerned. She has apologised to the particular individual. She was entitled to raise issues given that she was the subject of such criticism and, as I said, I believe that it is important to look at her record not merely as the present Minister for Children but previously as children's Minister, when by common consent she did an excellent job protecting and advancing the interests of children. I would have

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thought it better, rather than simply discussing the individual Minister, that we discuss the policies of the two parties.

Mr. Howard: No.

The Prime Minister: Oh yes. I understand entirely why the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not want to do so; the Minister for Children has made the case for extra investment in child care that is yielding better child care throughout our country, and of course when he was shadow Chancellor he voted against every part of that extra investment.

Mr. Howard: Is the Prime Minister suggesting that this is not a matter on which he should be held to account? He may care about vulnerable Ministers—we care about vulnerable children. [Interruption.] Is not it the case that the Government always bully people who get in their way? The 94-year-old Rose Addis, lying on her hospital bed, was described as a racist. [Interruption.] Martin Sixsmith was described as money grubbing and unfit to be a civil servant.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): Derek Lewis?

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Ruane must not shout—it is quite a habit that he is getting into.

Mr. Howard: It is not surprising that Labour Members do not want to hear, Mr. Speaker.

The Prime Minister: Now we see the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his true colours. If he wants to talk about vulnerable children, let us have a look at the record of the two Governments on vulnerable children. Let us remember that when he was a Cabinet Minister in the previous Government the number of children in poverty trebled—[Interruption.] Yes, they were vulnerable children when the Conservatives were in power. When one in five households in this country had no one working, was not that bad for children? When investment in education was cut under the last Government, what did that do for vulnerable children? When the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted against increases in child benefit, what did that do for vulnerable children?

We know where—

Hon. Members: Hypocrite.

Mr. Speaker: Order. An unfortunate remark was made. The word "hypocrite" was used. Will it be withdrawn?

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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Mr. Speaker, I withdraw.

Hon. Members: Disgraceful.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call for calmness on both sides of the Chamber.

The Prime Minister: If we want to—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. That includes the Chief Whip—[Interruption.] Especially the Chief Whip.

The Prime Minister: Especially as she has other work to do.

If we want to talk about vulnerable children, let us talk about the numbers of children languishing in poverty when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was a Cabinet Minister under the last Government and about the children—500,000 to 600,000 of them—helped out of poverty under this Government. When we look at the real record, not the synthetic anger, we see where the shame lies.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Ever since oil and gas were first discovered in the North sea in the early 1960s, we have exercised national control over the exploitation of these assets through licensing arrangements and so on. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the inclusion of energy clauses in the draft treaty on the European Union constitution could lead to the ceding of competence over these matters to the European Union? Will he draw an end to uncertainty on this matter by making it a red line issue in the forthcoming negotiations?

The Prime Minister: We have made it absolutely clear that there cannot be any question of the European Commission getting those powers, and I can assure my hon. Friend that that will be one of the issues that we raise in the course of the negotiation we are about to enter into—and I have no doubt that, as with other things, we will be successful.

Q3. [139324] Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Last month in this Chamber, the Prime Minister talked about reasonable council tax increases. For next year, what is a reasonable increase?

The Prime Minister: It is not for the Government to set the amount of council tax increase; it is for local councils. But as I said last month and have repeated on many occasions, it is reasonable for the Government to fund local authorities properly. We have given real-terms increases to local authorities over the last few years—a record that stands in contrast to the cuts under the previous Government. Therefore, obviously it is a matter for local authorities to set their council tax, but the Government have done their bit by funding local authorities properly.

Q4. [139325] Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall): I am sure that the Prime Minister is fully aware of the significance of the Crossrail project, its importance to

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Londoners and the benefits it will bring to business and in helping to reduce overcrowding on public transport in London. I know that the Secretary of State for Transport is supporting the project, and it is popular with the people and has cross-party support. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the money will be available for this project and that work will start as soon as possible, unless it is already too late?

The Prime Minister: As I said in the House a short time ago, what we do believe is that Crossrail is an important project for London and could have real benefits for Londoners. As my hon. Friend knows, a review panel of experts is examining the proposal by Cross London Rail Links to establish how it could be funded, and we expect the panel to report in the new year.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): If the Prime Minister wants to help British manufacturing jobs, may I refer him to a report from the Ministry of Defence which concluded that it would be feasible for Britain to assemble and maintain its fleet of 150 joint strike fighters? To that end, may I ask him to raise with President Bush the release of the necessary technologies to the United Kingdom to make a bid for that work feasible, and thus safeguard tens of thousands of aerospace jobs, particularly in the north-west?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that this issue obviously has implications for British manufacturing and skills. We are raising the issue with the American Government. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary raised it with his counterpart last week, and I have no doubt that I will raise it with President Bush over the coming days. It is important, particularly in view of our relationship with the United States, that we are able to secure not just as much of the technology but as many of the jobs as possible.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): When, at the end of this week, President Bush visits the north-east, will my right hon. Friend tell him the importance of steel-making for the north-east economy? Will he ask the President to respect the World Trade Organisation rules, so that he can take some form of action, in order to demonstrate his commitment to being our strong ally, at least to scrap the illegal steel tariffs that he has introduced?

The Prime Minister: As I said earlier, I can assure my hon. Friend that I will raise this issue with President Bush. I said, in answer to an earlier question, that there was $2,000 million-worth of trade between the two countries; it is actually $2,000 billion-worth. Of course from time to time such trade issues come up in the relationship between Europe and America—I remember they did under the previous President of the United States as well—but let us not forget that in commercial and trading terms it is still an enormously important relationship for our two countries.

I just point out that, according to the latest figures, about 1 million people in Britain are employed by American firms. So it is a very good two-way deal, but

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we want it to become a perfect one. Obviously, it is in our interests, and we will argue very strongly for the WTO ruling to be obeyed.

Q6. [139328] Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): May I tell the Prime Minister that, after a bogus consultation exercise, the Post Office has now announced that it is closing five post offices in my constituency, including the main one at Upperton road? Is that what his Government mean by "network reinvention"?

The Prime Minister: No, it is not, but there obviously have been post office closures—there were under the previous Government as well—and the question is what we can do to minimise the likelihood of that happening, because they are happening, I am afraid, for reasons to do with the state of the commercial market. The reasons are not to do with Government policy; they are to do with the need of the Post Office to adapt in the different world in which we live today, but I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that we are putting somewhere in the region of £300 million-worth of support into the post office network. It is difficult for us to do more. We are doing what we can. I am sorry if there are post offices in his constituency at risk, but it would not be honest for the Labour party—or, indeed, any party—to pretend that we can avoid all post office closures, because we cannot.

Q7. [139329] Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): One of my constituents is a close family relative of two young children who were abducted and murdered more than 10 years ago. No one has yet been convicted of either of those murders, and the family is understandably keen to see changes to the double jeopardy rule, precisely as envisaged in the Criminal Justice Bill that is now to be considered in another place. Will the Prime Minister stand firm to ensure that that Bill comes through in precisely the way that my constituent would like? Will he also stand firm against any Lords pressure on problems to do with serious fraud?

The Prime Minister: First, in relation to double jeopardy, yes, we will, and I hope that we have now got agreement on that. The point about serious fraud, though, is absolutely vital because, at the moment, the Conservative party is refusing to agree that we should remove jury trials in serious fraud cases—something that was recommended by Roskill about 25 years ago and, most recently, by Sir Robin Auld. That is absolutely essential to deal with serious fraud trials that can go on for months and concern organised criminals. Every single section of law enforcement in this country is in favour of doing that, and we will not get the proper measures necessary to convict serious criminals if we do not support that proposal. I say to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) that if his party is to be credible on law and order, it should do what the police, the Serious Fraud Office and Customs and Excise want and get that legislation through.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Prime Minister raised the question of statesmanship. In relation to his own ministerial code and public trust, would he be good

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enough to give the House a straight answer to a straight question? Who is right—himself or Kevin Tebbit, or General de Chastelain or himself?

The Prime Minister: Well—[Interruption]—that is not exactly a straight question. In respect of the first, the hon. Gentleman should await the outcome of the Hutton inquiry. In respect of General de Chastelain, I stand by what I have already said.

Q8. [139330] Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Does the Prime Minister agree that unemployment, glass ceilings and the pay gap keep women out of the job market; unfortunately, out of Parliament; and, it seems, off the Opposition Front Bench? Does he agree that, in a democracy, it is really important that we have women not just in the Government, where a third of Ministers are women, but in the Opposition, where, unfortunately—[Interruption]—lovely though they are, 92 per cent. are men?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister has nothing to do with the Opposition; he has got enough to worry about.

The Prime Minister: Were you saying, Mr. Speaker, that I do not have to answer for the Opposition? Thank goodness. The point that my hon. Friend makes about

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the numbers of women in the work force is obviously important. Employment of women has gone up by almost 1 million since this Government came to power, but more importantly, through a series of measures on the work-life balance relating to maternity pay, maternity leave and extra help on child care, we are beginning to try to narrow some of the gaps between the job opportunities for men and the job opportunities for women. We shall certainly take that agenda further.

Q9. [139331] Pete Wishart (North Tayside): Following all the shuttle diplomacy, the conflict itself and the appalling aftermath of the war, have the Prime Minister and the President of the United States come to any agreement as to why this war happened in the first place? Surely it has not got anything whatever to do with weapons of mass destruction.

The Prime Minister: We went into conflict because we believed—in my view, rightly—that Saddam Hussein was a threat to his region and to the wider world, and we are proud of the fact that people in Iraq today, for the first time in decades, have got the chance of stability, prosperity and democracy. What everyone should realise is that if people like the hon. Gentleman had had their way, Saddam Hussein, his sons and his henchmen would still be terrorising people in Iraq. I find it quite extraordinary that he thinks that that would be a preferable state of affairs.

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