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Terrorist Activity

3. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): How many (a) punishment beatings and (b) expulsions were administered by terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland in 2003; and if he will make a statement. [146808]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): In 2003 there were 302 paramilitary-style attacks, including 148 shootings and 154 assaults. Definitive figures on those forced to leave Northern Ireland through intimidation are not available. The House will be dismayed to learn that on Friday a 14-year-old boy was abducted from the Ardoyne area and held for five hours by, we believe, the Irish National Liberation Army. After being shot and savagely beaten, he was dumped away from his home and left in the dark. That is, I am sure, unequivocally condemned in all parts of the House.

Michael Fabricant : I am grateful to the Minister for her answer. She is right, of course—the whole House will join her in condemning the actions she just described, and all the other punishment beatings and expulsions, the numbers of which she gave in her answer. May I draw her back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown)? He reiterated the point made by the Prime Minister when he promised in the Belfast News Letter:

When will the Minister and the Secretary of State tell Sinn Fein-IRA that as long as the punishment beatings that the right hon. Lady described so vividly continue, there is no chance of their being a part of a future Northern Ireland Government?

Jane Kennedy: As the hon. Gentleman said, we utterly deplore and condemn such vicious attacks, which in many cases leave the victims permanently physically and mentally scarred. The police actively investigate every incident in an effort to bring those responsible to justice. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, but all paramilitary groups must make a commitment to exclusively peaceful means that is—he is right—real, total and permanent. That is not merely a statement or a declaration of words. It means giving up all forms of violence completely.

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Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): In view of the horrendous statistics given by the Minister, does she agree that except where shootings are involved, many such incidents go unreported, and that the paramilitary organisations are extending their protection, extortion and drugs activities? They are now controlling house sales and lettings in certain areas, and business sales and lettings in certain areas. They are as much a fascist regime as I have ever known. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that those perhaps less dramatic activities, which nevertheless have a far greater impact on our communities, will be referred to the Independent Monitoring Commission and acted upon just as much as bombings and shootings are acted upon, or will the Government continue politically to ignore them, as they have done to date?

Jane Kennedy: I do not accept that we have ignored such activity, but I do agree with the majority of what my hon. Friend has said. Such actions are outlawed by the Belfast agreement and they have no place in a civilised society. The terrorists—that is what they are—who carry out such barbaric attacks are exactly the same people, as my hon. Friend says, who seek to control their own neighbourhoods and do so by terrorising their own people. I undertake to look into the suggestion that he has made. It is true that the work of the Independent Monitoring Commission will involve this specific area of activity, as well as others.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Given the significant increase in the number of beatings and expulsions and in racketeering in Northern Ireland during the past five years, when will the Assets Recovery Agency begin the good work that it has done against loyalist racketeering against the Provisional IRA?

Jane Kennedy: The hon. Gentleman may know that the Assets Recovery Agency is looking at a wide range of cases from all sections of the community and it will continue the good work that it has already begun. It has begun well and I intend to give it every assistance to continue the good work that it has started.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): I applaud the Government and all politicians who have consistently condemned the acts of sectarian intimidation and violence, but does the Minister agree that the time has now come to implement the proposals resulting from the consultation on race and sectarian crime legislation in Northern Ireland?

Jane Kennedy: I agree with my hon. Friend and a draft proposal for legislation to address the problem will be published within a very few weeks.

Assembly Elections

4. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What assessment he has made of the results of the Assembly elections. [146809]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Paul Murphy): The main parties, and the great majority of the people who voted for them in the Assembly elections, want to see devolved government. The future of

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devolution now depends on engagement among those parties. We will do all that we can to facilitate the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive on a stable and inclusive basis.

Ann Winterton: Is it not true that people in Northern Ireland are tired of concessions to terrorism and expect the Government to stand up for the law-abiding majority who have voted accordingly when even the rigged voting system did not deliver the result that the Government wanted?

Mr. Murphy: The Government wanted to ensure that there was a result that meant that we could restore the Assembly and the Executive, and there is an opportunity among all the political parties in Northern Ireland that won seats in that Assembly to engage in the forthcoming review.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): Are there not many common areas of policy, such as transport, policing and agriculture, that all the parties in Northern Ireland need to come round tables to discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and with the Government in the Republic? What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to identify those areas of common policy that will drive forward both common talk and, I hope, the peace process as well?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend is right to concentrate on the issues that affect people's lives in Northern Ireland, whether it be education, health or whatever, and all of us in the Government want to see an end to direct rule in Northern Ireland and the restoration of devolved government so that Ministers from Northern Ireland can be accountable to the people of Northern Ireland.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Given the strong performance of the Alliance party, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein in the elections, will the Secretary of State now accept the folly of attempting to have unilateral deals with one party to the exclusion of another, and will he assure us that all parties will have parity of treatment to ensure that all views are respected in the negotiations?

Mr. Murphy: Of course, the review will mean that every party that is elected to the Assembly can take part in it. That applies to every party however big or small it might be.

Mrs. Iris Robinson (Strangford) (DUP): Does the Secretary of State agree that it does not augur well for the forthcoming talks if this Government are still in denial about recognising that 65 per cent. of Unionist voters do not support the Belfast agreement? Does he further agree that any agreement in Northern Ireland must command the support of a majority of nationalists, as well as a majority of Unionists?

Mr. Murphy: Of course I accept that there must be a proper engagement among parties that have received a proper mandate from the people of Northern Ireland—that includes the hon. Lady's party, and we understand

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that. She should also realise that it is still the case that a very large majority of the Assembly Members elected last November support the Good Friday agreement.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [147480] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 14 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Bellingham : Does the Prime Minister recall that during his recent visit to Iraq he was reported as saying to our armed forces that morale was high and that they would always receive the best possible equipment. If that is really true, why has Colonel Tim Collins just announced his resignation from the Army, citing among other factors very low morale and chronic equipment shortages?

The Prime Minister: Colonel Collins's decision is obviously a matter for him, but I believe that the morale of our armed forces is high. Certainly, the armed forces I met down in Basra are proud not merely of the work that they did in defeating Saddam Hussein, but of the work that they are now doing on rebuilding Iraq.

As for British defence spending, the hon. Gentleman will know that after many, many years of cuts under the previous Conservative Government, defence spending, in real terms, is now rising under this Government for the first time in a very long time.

Q2. [147481] Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): Writing in his diaries of a discussion on the timing of the 1992 election, Woodrow Wyatt quotes the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) as saying: "Unemployment never matters." The new deal, the New Opportunities Fund, the coalfield challenge and the working families and child tax credits have all contributed to a fall of 700 in unemployment in the Wigan borough. That is proof that the 16th forgotten credo of the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not be followed by this Government. But we do have a problem in places such as Wigan—

Hon. Members: Order!

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman—I can handle it. He should end with a question, now.

Mr. Turner: We have a problem with skills in the area—

Hon Members : "Question mark."

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: I think that my hon. Friend was about to ask whether we would pursue policies that

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reduced unemployment. I am pleased to say to him that today unemployment has again fallen substantially. We now have 1.7 million more people in work than in 1997; long-term unemployment is at its lowest level for decades; and when we talk about waste in Government spending, let us never forget the billions that used to be wasted on people lying on the dole doing nothing, while now, as a result of the new deal, they are at work.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Will the Prime Minister now finally confirm that he will lead for the Government in the debate on the Hutton report?

The Prime Minister: As I said at the weekend, the details of the debate—whether there is a vote on it and who speaks in it—will be decided at a later time and announced in the normal way. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will have to be patient, but I can assure him that I have absolutely no intention of doing anything other than leading the Government's case on this issue. That is important, and I look forward to doing so.

Mr. Howard: I am very sorry that the Prime Minister cannot give a straight answer even to that question. Last week, the Prime Minister said that he was looking forward to the debate—now, he has got cold feet. When the Prime Minister was asked by Sir David Frost on Sunday about his use last week of the word, "totality", he said that it meant

The Prime Minister: No. It does not. It means that when we have a report that we know will be published in the next few weeks, it is sensible to wait until it is published before we debate it. It is obvious from everything that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said in the past few days that he intends to prejudge the report. I do not intend to do so.

Mr. Howard: No, that will not do. I am asking the Prime Minister about what he said in the House seven days ago and in a television studio three days ago. Let me put to him a simple and straightforward question. On 22 July, he denied authorising the naming of David Kelly. Does he stand by that statement or is it one of the bits out "here or there" that he wants us all to ignore?

The Prime Minister: No, it is not. What is important, as I said in the House and again at the weekend, is to wait for the report. That may not do for the right hon. and learned Gentleman—I am sorry about that—but in my view, when we have a report that is about to be published, most people will regard it as sensible if we wait until the day of publication to make our judgments. It is perfectly obvious, not least from the 50-page document that the Conservative party issued a few days ago, that Conservative Members intend to make up

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their minds now. It does not matter what the report says; they have already made up their minds. I shall make up mine when the report is published.

Mr. Howard: But the Prime Minister has not answered the question. It is a simple question and the answer is either yes or no. I shall give him another opportunity. On 22 July, he was asked:

The Prime Minister: I stand, as I have said on many occasions, by all that I said on the issue, but I believe that judgment should await the inquiry report. After all, the issue that is being raised is precisely that into which the inquiry is looking. Let it look into that and let us then have the statement and the debate on the basis not of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says but of what the judge says.

Mr. Howard: Does the Prime Minister have the faintest idea of how much damage he is doing to what is left of his reputation by refusing to answer this simple question? He has not answered the question and the country knows it. I will give him one last chance. I shall carry on asking the question until we get a straight answer from the Prime Minister. On 22 July, he was asked:

The Prime Minister: I have already answered it. I say again that those are precisely the issues that the inquiry will examine. The judge has all the material that he needs. It is completely absurd for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to raise issues about my integrity before the report has been published.

Since he has raised my integrity and effectively accused me of telling lies, I hope that if the report does not find those charges proven, he will have the decency to apologise.

Mr. Howard: If the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not want any shouting at the Leader of the Opposition. Let him ask his question.

Mr. Howard: If the Prime Minister takes that view of the charges that I have been making, why on earth has he not answered the very simple, straightforward question that I have put to him today? Is it not the case that the whole country has seen this afternoon just how desperately dodgy the Prime Minister's position has become?

The Prime Minister: I think that what the whole country has seen is the total opportunism of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is prepared to say that we should make judgments about this matter before the inquiry report has even been published—

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[Interruption.] Yes, that is precisely what the Conservative party's 50-page document has done. We all know that, on the day the report is published, he will stand at the Dispatch Box and call for my resignation. He will do that whatever the report says, and I only hope that the effect—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Prime Minister answer.

The Prime Minister: We know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will do that, and I only hope that the effect on my team's performance will be as dramatic as the effect on Mr. Houllier's team's performance when he called for his resignation.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister share my worry that the continued political stalemate in Northern Ireland and the suspension of the devolved political institutions in the Province will have a serious impact on the economic progress that we have witnessed there in the last year?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry, but I did not quite hear the first part of my hon. Friend's question.

Mr. Luke: Does the Prime Minister share my worry that, following the elections in November last year, the continued political stalemate in Northern Ireland, and the continued suspension of the devolved institutions in the Province, we might see a negative effect on the Northern Ireland economy, which has progressed so well during the last year?

The Prime Minister: Of course, I entirely agree that it is important that we try to break the deadlock over this issue. My hon. Friend makes a point that will be most obvious to people in Northern Ireland, which is that whatever the difficulties of the past few years, the Northern Ireland economy has seen the most astonishing levels of inward investment, of growth in employment and the reduction of unemployment, and a reduction in terrorist violence. It is still important, however, that we try to make progress, and we will work with all the parties to do so. However, as I have said on many occasions, I hope that people in Northern Ireland understand that if we compare the situation there today, from the outside, with that of 10 years ago, we now see a scene of the most dramatic improvement. There is still a long way to go, but we will do whatever we can to break the deadlock and get the peace process back on track.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): While there will be perfectly legitimate and pertinent questions to be asked of the Prime Minister when Lord Hutton's report is produced, I am sure that many people in the House and in the country will find just a little ironic the sudden enthusiasm of the Conservative party leadership to ask the very questions that they signally failed to ask when these matters were being debated, and when some of us were putting those questions.

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The Prime Minister: At the moment, most students have maintenance loans, and the present system for repaying them is far less generous than the system that we are about to introduce. The reason why I say the new system is good is that it will be good for the families of students from poorer backgrounds, because those students will get £3,000 a year support, and it will be good for all families who put their children through university, because up-front fees are going to be abolished. It will also be good for the universities, because they will get about £1 billion a year extra income. The right hon. Gentleman's proposal is to take that money out of a 50 per cent. top rate of tax. He has written to me recently to say that the Liberal Democrats' only spending commitment is to that top rate of tax, which will go towards council tax, university fees and personal care. [Interruption.] I am delighted, but perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman gets up again he will explain this. In this month's edition of the magazine Pensioners' Voice, his party's pensions spokesman makes £4 billion worth of commitments. That is why I say that his figures do not add up.

Mr. Kennedy: Not for the first time and, I suspect, not for the last, the Prime Minister has presented a caricature of what we propose. But let us return to his policy on the issue of the day, which is top-up fees. He said in his last general election manifesto that he would not legislate in this way for top-up fees. He has broken that pledge. He is now facing students with the prospect of crippling £30,000 debts on graduation. Where does that leave the age-old argument about equality of opportunity rather than ability to pay?

The Prime Minister: We do not accept that that is what we are doing. At present people repay, for example, maintenance loans of £20,000 a year at a rate of about £17 a week. Under our proposals they will not have to pay more than £8.60 a week in combined maintenance money and fees, and poorer students will end up receiving a £3,000-a-year subvention to help them with both fees and maintenance.

I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that in the end it is not irrelevant to quote to him what he has said he will spend on pensions, because all this is about priorities. I must tell him that in the end I think that a deal that gives universities more money, reintroduces maintenance support for poorer students and abolishes all up-front fees for families whatever their incomes is a good deal for Britain's universities and university students. It is important that we spend the money in that way.

I must say one more thing to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not agree with his policy on the 50 per cent. top rate of tax, but let us suppose that an extra £1 billion could be raised from a 50 per cent. top rate. I simply ask whether it would not be better—as his party's pensions spokesman is presumably saying—to spend that money on pensioners rather than an even greater subsidy for university fees.

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I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's policy is right in its own terms, and when he describes our policy as unfair he fails to take account of the massive widening of access that it represents for the people of this country.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab): Harold Shipman took his secrets to his grave yesterday. He thereby robbed my constituents of the one consolation that he could have given them, which was the truth about what he had done. Does the Prime Minister agree that the one comfort that the House can give my constituents and the families of the victims is the knowledge that we will do everything we can to make sure that lessons are learnt? Does he agree that there should be a full debate in the House on the findings of Dame Janet Smith's inquiry into Shipman's murders, and will he establish a cross-departmental team to ensure that its recommendations are implemented and reported on publicly, so we can be certain that this tragedy will never happen again?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with the first part of what my hon. Friend has said. It is right for us to express our deep sympathy for all Dr. Shipman's victims' families, and to say that this must be a very difficult and emotional time for them.

Dame Janet Smith is currently completing her inquiry, and we expect to receive her final report in the summer. I cannot yet say exactly what the arrangements for a debate in the House will be, but I am sure that there will be a proper opportunity for Members to debate the inquiry's findings. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that the moment we have those findings we must ensure that we in Government are geared up to implement them fully.

Q3. [147482] Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Given that my constituency and others are seeing an influx of Travellers who buy green-belt land and then illegally develop it, with the planning laws able to do little about it, and given that, despite the support on both sides of the House and meetings with Ministers, the Government blocked my private Member's Bill which would have strengthened the planning laws and also reduced confrontation within communities, will the Prime Minister now meet me to discuss a growing problem that is causing anguish to many people?

The Prime Minister: I am always happy to meet hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are going to take forward planning legislation, and I am sure that some of the issues that he raises will fall within the scope of that Bill. It is absolutely vital, however, that we make sure that the planning laws are properly and quickly enforced. At present, there are two issues in relation to planning. One is that the planning system does not move quickly enough when it needs to do so to give planning permission. The other is that it often does not enforce the planning system quickly enough when the planning system is breached. Our Bill will address both those issues.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): While welcoming the news that waiting lists and waiting times are decreasing in our hospitals, I have a particular

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concern about certain areas such as orthopaedics and cataract surgery, in which it appears that waiting lists are still unacceptably long, perhaps because staff cannot be recruited for those specialties. What can be done to tackle those areas in which unacceptably long waiting lists persist?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend will know, the announcement of new diagnostic and treatment centres by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will have an impact on improving people's ability to get access to operations speedily. What we are doing effectively is increasing capacity within the system, as that is important. We need more capacity within the NHS, more nurses and more doctors, while at the same time giving patients greater choice and opening up diversity of supply within the health service, which we will continue to do. The news on health service waiting lists is good, not least because not merely are the lists now something like 200,000 below the level that we inherited but only about 360,000 people on those lists are waiting more than three months. That is still too many, but what it means is that many of those long waits that we used to see, of a year, 18 months or two years, are a thing of the past. We must progressively reduce that maximum waiting time, until we reach the point, in 2008, when the maximum waiting time will be three months.

Q4. [147483] Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): Given today's reports that half the extra taxpayers' money taken to spend on schools and hospitals—some £70 billion under this Government—has patently failed to improve public services, with one Cabinet Minister saying,

The Prime Minister: First, I do not accept in any shape or form that that money is being wasted in our public services. For example, in the hon. Gentleman's education authority, there has been a spending increase of £590 per pupil. Does he call that waste? There has been a massive increase in capital allocations in his schools, 520 more teachers have been appointed, the primary care trust has had more than £214 million in funding, waiting lists are down, and his unemployment figures have fallen because of the new deal. Why is that all wasted money? Why do the Conservatives talk continually about waste in public spending? It is because they are against the public spending itself. Let us be clear about what is happening: the money in schools and hospitals is delivering a better service for people, and the Tory party's purpose is to run down support in our health service and in our state schools, because were it ever to get its hands on the levers of power again, we would be back to cuts and a downward spiral in public services.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the social and economic well-being of

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this country requires that more, not less, able people from all walks of life enjoy the opportunity of going to university?

The Prime Minister: I do agree with that. It is important that we recognise that in the early 21st century virtually every successful country will be widening access and participation in universities. The Conservatives say that the aim of getting 50 per cent. of people under 30 into university is hopeless and unachievable. Actually, 50 per cent. has already been achieved in Scotland and in many other parts of the world, and we have 43 per cent. today. It is therefore absolutely possible to achieve that aim. What is more, it is necessary that we improve both access to university education and to vocational training in the years to come; otherwise, this country will be a poorer place.

Q5. [147484] Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): May I ask the Prime Minister a very simple question? In 2001, when he launched the review of higher education, one key objective was to tackle student debt and the perception of debt. Given that the current average debt is about £9,000 and will have risen to more than £30,000 by 2010, how will he meet that objective?

The Prime Minister: Let us get the facts clear. A £12,000 maintenance loan is available at the moment. Even if the full fee of £3,000 is paid, there will be £9,000 over the average university course, even at the top level, so let us not pretend that debt is not known at the moment, or that the figure of £3,000 is higher than it actually is. The hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing to help families in those circumstances, and we are doing two very important things. First, we are saying that no family now will have to find those fees as their children are going through university. It moves to graduate repayment, which is a massive change, particularly for families with more than one person at university. Secondly, the graduate repayment of the maintenance loan and of the fee combined is infinitely more generous than the current one. That is why it is a good deal for students. I do not think it unreasonable or wrong to ask students—provided that the public carry on investing a large sum of money in our university system—to make a modest contribution back into the system when they are able to do so, linked to the ability to pay.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich) (Lab): I recently visited the excellent Sure Start scheme in West Clacton, in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all those who have made that scheme such a success, and will the Government consider expanding and investing in such schemes even further? If there is any spare cash in the education budget, that is where it should go, which is where it is needed.

The Prime Minister: The point that my hon. Friend makes is right on two counts. Sure Start is helping about 400,000 of the most disadvantaged children in our country, but he is right to say that if we possibly can, we should look to extend and expand the Sure Start programme. It has been of enormous importance not just to children; it has helped a lot of parents as well, but of course, it is one of the things that the Conservative

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party has pledged to cut. I simply say to people that it cannot be right, when we are making a huge investment now in some of the poorest communities, which is manifestly working, to withdraw that support. The final point that my hon. Friend makes is also right. When looking at where we spend money, it is important that we recognise that we should spend it on under-fives and those people who need adult skills, as well as on those at university.

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