police combed London over the weekend for traces of the radioactive substance that killed Alexander Litvinenko as conspiracy theories swirled over the dramatic poisoning.
The Home Secretary will be aware that conspiracy theories have the potential to damage international relations, so will he confirm that until there is a very clear indication of any third-party involvement by an individual, a state or a group, this will be treated as a straightforward, if slightly unusual, policing and health matter?
John Reid: The investigation will be handled by the police with the integrity, circumspection and practical, honest work that we associate with our police service. That is why I have tried to be careful today, in fairness to our police, who are conducting this investigation. It is almost inevitable, given the details of the case, that there will be lurid headlines and much speculation, but I trust that all Members of the House will refrain from encouraging or supporting that. This is a very serious case, and we want the police to be able to conduct it without huge speculation or undue pressure on them.
Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has gone a long way to allay public fear about risks to other persons from the radiation that is present. Will he confirm that the best advice that he has had is that risk is limited to ingestion and that, as he said, the very close proximity that one would have to have to the emitter means that, unless it is in the skin for some considerable time, the risks are minimal?
John Reid: Yes, the risk from having been exposed to this substance remains very low indeed. It can only represent a radiation hazard if it is ingested, inhaled or otherwise taken into the bodyfor instance, through an open wound. As I explained, the range over which the radiation would operate is small; it is in centimetres rather than metres. The risk is very small indeed, but anyone who was in the restaurant and hotel around that particular date and is worried can always call NHS Direct on 0845 4647.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The cautious nature of the Home Secretarys statement will be widely welcomed in this House. It is far too early to form a view as to what has happened and, in particular, it is premature to assume that if this man were murdered, he was murdered at the formal instigation of the Russian state.
John Reid: On the basis of the evidence in the police investigation, it is too premature to assume, first, that we know how Mr. Litvinenko met his death in exact terms and, secondly, who may have been behind it. Through the right hon. and learned Gentleman, may I say to his partys spokesman that I very much appreciate the manner and approach of his question today and the brief discussions we have had before it? The way in which the matter has been conducted in this House is a credit to him.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I realise the constraint under which my right hon. Friend is operating in giving information to the House. However, prior to the incident, did the security services flag up to him that London was connected with the black market in radioactive materials?
John Reid: We are all aware, especially in the post-cold war world, that there is a great danger of proliferation on an international scale. Domestically, we are not aware that polonium-210 has been lost or stolen from any of our establishments here, but we are aware that, internationally, all types of very dangerous material are more liable to be found on the black market than in previous decades.
Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Mr. Litvinenko was my constituent and a British citizen. What assurances can the Home Secretary give me that Mr. Litvinenkos death will be investigated without fear or favour and that diplomatic sensitivities with Russia will not prevent the full, fair and free findings of that investigation?
John Reid: First, may I, through the hon. Lady, express my condolences to the family of Mr. Litvinenko? I assure her that the police in this country proceed with their business and follow the evidence wherever it goes, irrespective of fear, favour or political implications.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Home Secretary has been obviously right to steer us away from all the lurid speculation in the British media. But there has also been lurid speculation in the Russian Federation and many Russian politicians are now calling for a series of Russian citizens in the UK to be extradited swiftly, despite the fact that the British courts have decided in nearly all of those cases that those concerned would not face a fair trial. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the recent meeting of the Director of Public Prosecutions with his Russian counterpart does not mean that we are going to change our extradition arrangements with the Russian Federation?
I hope that my hon. Friend will accept my assurance that these decisions, either in the individual case or in our conduct of general judicial proceedings through the DPP or elsewhere, are conducted without reference to political influences bearing upon them. It
is one of the prides of our judicial system that although the judiciary occasionally takes decisions that perhaps challenge Governments and Ministers, we defend its right to make those decisions independently. My hon. Friend is quite right to point that out.
Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Mr. Litvinenko was clearly a man under threat because of his activities. Irrespective of who carried out this murder, if that is what it was, did he at any time make a request to the Home Secretary, the security services or the police for protection? And did the Home Office at any stage inform Mr. Litvinenko that he may be under threat?
John Reid: Not to my knowledge, but these are matters the details of which are covered by investigations, and it is sometimes not helpful to go into them. In terms of the specific question, I repeatnot to my knowledge.
Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Will the Home Secretary offer as much reassurance as possible to the hard-working staff of Barnet hospital, where the news of possible radiation contamination must obviously have caused considerable anxiety? This happens at a difficult time for that hospitals staff, as they are already threatened with another 60,000 patients going through accident and emergency if the threatened closure of nearby Chase Farms accident and emergency department goes ahead.
John Reid: Yes, I congratulate the staff at Barnet hospital and, indeed, UCH and the other areas where staff are contributing towards reassuring the public on this. A specialist clinic has been established, as I have mentioned, for patients reporting symptoms that could have been caused by radiation exposure. We should pay tribute to the NHS staff who are dealing with that. I know that the Secretary of State for Health, the Health Protection Agency and many of those employed in our hospitals have been working flat out to cope with the problems over the past few days.
Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): There is a pressing and urgent issue relating to the thousands of political dissidents and exiles in London in general, whether they are of Russian origin or other. Many of them are British citizens, like Mr. Litvinenko, and some of them are my constituents. Given the fact that Britain rightly and proudly has a reputation for being a safe haven for those escaping from political persecution in exile here, will the Home Secretary urgently agree to review the status and protection of political exiles in our capital city?
John Reid: We constantly review the state of our security and the protection that we can offer to all our citizens, including, obviously, those who are known to be under threat. I cannot guarantee, and nor would the House expect me to guarantee, that anyone is 100 per cent. safe at any given point in time, but we do everything that is possible. As I said earlier, if anyone believes that there is any evidence for them to fear that there is an intention to harm or to kill them, obviously we urge them to come forward as soon as possible. I have no knowledge that there has been any such information given in the recent past.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you received a notification of a change of name? As you are probably aware, The Scotsman today reported that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) appears to be knighted in the House, but not knighted outside it. I wondered whether you had been informed of this.
Mr. Speaker: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is knighted in the House, and that is where it stops as far as I am concerned. I have enough problems inside the House without worrying about what is going on outside it.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This morning, the Defence Secretary gave a speech at Chatham House on the Governments strategy in Iraq that went far beyond the remarks made by the Foreign Secretary at the Dispatch Box a week ago. Can you, Sir, confirm the long-standing convention that any major announcements of Government policy on a matter as important as Iraq should be made first to Parliament, where they can be properly debated as demanded by 105 Members from all parts of the House who signed the amendment on the Order Paper?
Mr. Speaker: Both the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence made comments on this matter in the House at a time when they could have been challenged on more points of elucidation raised by Opposition Members. I am therefore satisfied that the Secretary of State for Defence acted correctly. Had it been otherwise, I would have agreed to an urgent question on the matter. I have no complaints about the Secretary of State for Defence at this stage.
Mr. Secretary Hain, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Margaret Beckett, Secretary John Reid, Secretary Des Browne, Paul Goggins and Bridget Prentice, presented a Bill to make provision about justice and security in Northern Ireland. And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed. [Bill 10].
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majestys most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament [Alun Michael.]
Mr. Speaker: I wish to inform the House that I have selected for debate the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. Standing Order No. 33 provides that on the last day of the debate on the motion for an address to Her Majesty, the House may also vote on a second amendment selected by the Speaker. I have selected for that purpose the amendment in the name of Sir Menzies Campbell. The vote on that amendment will take place at the end of the debate after the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition has been disposed of.
but humbly regret that the Gracious Speech does not contain measures to address Britains declining productivity growth since 1997; deplore the absence of measures to give the UK the right skills to take advantage of new global opportunities; further regret the absence of strong and binding measures to tackle climate change and environmental degradation; condemn the absence of measures to ensure real improvements in the public services and greater value for money for taxpayers; and further regret the absence of measures in the Gracious Speech to tackle the pensions crisis to which Government policy has contributed..
Let me begin with a few words on the two Treasury Bills in the Queens Speech. Tomorrow, we debate the Investment Exchanges and Clearing Houses Bill. It is not for this House to decide who owns the London stock exchange, but it is for us to determine who regulates it. I am therefore pleased that, thanks to co-operation between us and our former Conservative colleague, the Financial Secretary, the Bill will pass through all its stages in the House tomorrow.
enhance confidence in Government statistics.
That confidence is now non-existent, as a decade of spin and distortion has destroyed the integrity of Government information. We were sceptical when the Chancellor announced that he was going to make statistics independent. We did not believe that the man who taxes by stealth and hides debt off the Governments balance sheet would really give up control. We were right to be
sceptical, because the Bill published last week falls far short of what was promised. The Treasury claims to be establishing an independent statistics office, yet Ministers, not that independent office, will decide which statistics it can scrutinise and release. That is like putting the Sopranos in charge of the neighbourhood watch.
only seek to generate low public trust in statistics and reinforce the perception of political interference in the production and publication of statistics.
It is not too late for the Government to deliver what they first promised back in 1995, when the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who is now Leader of the House, spoke to the Royal Statistical Society. In a memorable speech, he said that the national statistical service
should be placed at arms length to Ministers, on a similar basis to that of the National Audit Office, and should report principally to a powerful Committee of the Commons.
Talking about failure to deliver, this debate is about the broader performance of the Government. Let me therefore welcome the clunking fist himself. The Prime Minister certainly has a way with an endorsement, does he not? It is amazing how, after all these years, the Chancellor still smiles as his friend gives him a hug and sticks the stiletto in.
To be fair to the Home Secretary, the Prime Ministers spokesman went round afterwards saying that he was not necessarily backing the Chancellor. He said that clunking could have referred to any number of members of the Government, but let us just say that the Chancellor fits the description. Indeed, clunking fist is such a brilliant portrayal of the Chancellors methods and measures that if the Prime Minister does not mind, we shall also be using it, again and again. Our criticism of the clunking fist is not primarily about his character. We leave that to the likes of the Work and Pensions Secretaryor should I say the soon to be out of work and collecting his pension Secretary? I am glad that we could arrange the topics for this Queens Speech debate in such a way that he could be sitting here today, almost next to his friend the Chancellor.
Our criticism of the Chancellor is that he does not understand how to respond to the big changes shaping the future of our world. In an age of greater choice, he offers more overbearing control; in an age of greater freedom, he gives us more interference; and in an age of flexibility, his rigid belief in bigger government is out of date. In short, in an age that demands a light touch, he offers that clunking fist.
It was 10 years ago that the Chancellor set himself three central tasks: give Britain a more competitive economy, improve our public services and tackle entrenched poverty. On all three he has failed. Let us start with competitiveness and see what the clunking fist has done. He has hit us with higher tax and spending than Germany, when we should be sharing the proceeds of growth. He has clobbered business with £50 billion of regulation, when we should be liberating
our economy to compete. He has smashed our pension system with his tax raid, when, with an ageing population, we should be encouraging people to save. Carbon emissions have risen, but the proportion of green taxes has fallen, when we should be shifting the tax burden from income to pollution.
fundamental yardstick of economic performance.
Does he remember saying that? We do. That was the economic measure on which he wanted us to judge him. Productivity growth averaged 2.6 per cent. when he entered the Treasury, but now, as he leaves, it averages just 1.5 per cent. On his own fundamental yardstick, he has fundamentally failed.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he not agree that productivity growth can be a misleading statistic if taken on its own? A growing economy brings the most marginal factors of production into production, whereas a shrinking economy loses them; therefore, it is possible for an economy in recession to have higher average productivity at the margins than a growing economy. Is that not so, and why does the hon. Gentleman include that misleading quality in his amendment?
Mr. Osborne: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has confirmed that productivity growth has been disappointing. I was merely quoting the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said in 1998 that productivity growth was a
fundamental yardstick of economic performance.