HC Deb 16 July 2003 vol 409 cc272-82
Q1. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 July.

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.

Mr. Chope

Does the Prime Minister share my concern that two thirds of the British people do not trust the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

I hope that what people do recognise is that a Government who have delivered the lowest inflation, lowest mortgage rates and lowest unemployment for decades, the best ever school results, and now record investment in the national health service, are a Government whom this country will be pleased to return at the next general election.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

My constituents support the tougher sentences for murderers and sex offenders in the Criminal Justice Bill. Given what has been going on in the other place, can the Prime Minister assure me that, unlike Conservative Members, he is committed to seeing that Bill through?

The Prime Minister

We are committed to seeing it through. The behaviour of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Opposition in opposing measures that will protect people in circumstances where there is an attempt to intimidate juries and where, as senior police officers are telling us, it is absolutely essential to deal with organised crime, is absolutely shameful.

Mr. lain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee has said that it is "most unlikely" that Dr. Kelly was the prime source for the story about the Government's manipulation of intelligence, and that he has been "poorly treated by the Government". Will the Prime Minister now apologise?

The Prime Minister

The Foreign Affairs Committee has given its opinion as to the source. We have said to the Ministry of Defence that we do not know who the source is. The BBC, however, is a position to know who the source is, and can surely say whether this man is that source.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister is rapidly becoming a stranger to the truth. On 10 July, The Times carried a quote from No. 10 saying that it was "99 per cent. convinced" that the Gilligan source was David Kelly. So No. 10 did believe that it was David Kelly. A Labour member of the Committee says that the civil servant has been used as a fall guy by the Government. This has all the fingerprints of Alastair Campbell, who is using the machinery of Government to pursue a personal vendetta. How long is the Prime Minister going to let this continue; or was Alastair Campbell correct when he said, "Tony couldn't cope without me"?

The Prime Minister

The Ministry of Defence has made it clear that of course it does not know who the source is—only one body does, and that is the BBC. If there is some doubt about it, it is very simple for the BBC to clear it up. I should have thought that it is perfectly obvious that all the BBC needs to do is simply to say yes or no. It can do that, so why does it not?

Mr. Duncan Smith

We have had Formula 1, Mittal, Hinduja, Robinson, Mandelson and now the dodgy dossiers. Alastair Campbell and the Prime Minister have created a culture of deceit and spin at the heart of Government. When will the Prime Minister realise that until he sacks Campbell, no one will believe a word that he says any more?

Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman says that no one can believe us about Iraq, yet last year, he told us that he believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction capability and that he fully supported action against Iraq—[Interruption.] The Conservatives are now apparently calling for a full-scale judicial inquiry into intelligence. Are they saying that they were duped and misled? The right hon. Gentleman supported action against Iraq. The Conservatives' current position is to claim that they were somehow misled over Iraq. The worst insult that I can level at them is that they are displaying opportunism worthy of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

Since 2,000 skilled manufacturing jobs in east Yorkshire depend on a Government decision to award a contract to British Aerospace for Hawk jets, will my right hon. Friend make an early announcement to secure those jobs and provide a first-class British product for our military?

The Prime Minister

We are in the course of making a decision on the matter. Of course, we want to do our best for the British defence industry, but that must be done on a cost-competitive basis. We are balancing those two factors and when we reach a decision, we shall announce it in the normal way.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

Given that the Prime Minister previously told me that he stands by the accuracy of the assertions in the original September dossier on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, how does he square the warning about the 45-minute imminence of an attack with Dr. Kelly's evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday? Dr. Kelly has worked for the United Nations Special Commission as well as the Ministry of Defence. He said that such a scenario was very unlikely. Which is the correct version?

The Prime Minister

It is also worth pointing out that Dr. Kelly made it clear that he believed that Iraq had a weapons of mass destruction capability. In the September dossier, we said that we had received such intelligence. That was cleared by the Joint Intelligence Committee. The allegation that the claim had been inserted into the dossier against the wishes of the security services by No. 10 Downing street was completely untrue. Since the right hon. Gentleman and Liberal Democrat Members have made that allegation, perhaps he will now say that he agrees that it is false.

Mr. Kennedy

Given the evidence that was offered to the Committee yesterday, was the 45-minute warning based in substance and fact or not? The Prime Minister makes one claim, the expert before the Committee makes another. Does not the continuing contradiction underline the need for the Prime Minister to announce before the summer recess the establishment of a time-limited independent inquiry, under a judge, to get to the bottom of the matter in order to restore public confidence once and for all?

The Prime Minister

As I understand it, the basis of the call for a public inquiry is that an issue arose in relation to 45 minutes because we had inserted false information into the dossier. [Interruption.] Now Liberal Democrat Members claim that they had no intention of making such a claim. I emphasise to the right hon. Gentleman that the intelligence in the September dossier was cleared by the Joint Intelligence Committee. The basis of the claim—that the information was inserted into the dossier against the advice of the security services—is untrue. The right hon. Gentleman now says that he is not making that claim; he could have fooled me.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

Following Monday's publication of the second and third reports into the Harold Shipman inquiry, does my right hon. Friend agree with Dame Janet that the death certification process and the coroner system require urgent and radical change? When will the Government publish their response to her inquiry?

The Prime Minister

We shall of course look very carefully at the recommendations that have been made. It is also extremely important that we recognise that the Shipman case, although absolutely horrific, does not in any shape or form reflect on the work that GPs do in this country, because the vast majority of them do a wonderful job for our national health service. I agree entirely, however, that we must scrutinise the recommendations very carefully, particularly those relating to coroners' courts.

Q3. Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

As the Prime Minister's country home is in Buckinghamshire, he will no doubt be familiar with the pride that we take in our selective school system, and with the great results that all our children get in all our schools. With the Education Secretary renewing his threats against our grammar schools, will the Prime Minister confirm that he will stand by his word and will neither change the existing ballot system nor introduce legislation to abolish our grammar schools?

The Prime Minister

I certainly stand by what has been said, and I would also like to point out to the hon. Lady that no grammar school has been closed under this Government. I hope she realises that the most important thing is surely to look at the school results not just of the small number of schools that are selective but of the vast majority that are not. I hope that she will also acknowledge that, under this Government, results in the non-selective schools in her constituency have gone up hugely for primary school students, at GCSE and at A-level.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the document entitled "A Hard Day's Work Never Killed Anyone: Negligent Bosses Did", which was launched recently by the Transport and General Workers Union and which deals with the issue of corporate killing? What does the Prime Minister think about this document, and will he consider introducing a Bill in the next Parliament to deal with the issue of corporate killing?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, we have pledged to introduce legislation on this issue, although it is important to recognise that this is to do with corporate responsibility and that we do not believe that charges should be levelled against individual directors. This is an important issue, however, and we have made our position clear on it. I am not aware of the precise details of the TGWU document, but I shall read it now that my hon. Friend has drawn it to my attention.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

What should patients do if their local hospital has no stars under the Government's rating system?

The Prime Minister

I hope that they will carry on supporting the work being done in those hospitals to improve them and to make their care better, and that they will realise that it is only as a result of what this Government have done that they even know what the proper estimate of their hospital is.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Would it not be better for patients simply to ignore the ratings gimmick? As the new chairman of the British Medical Association says of the ratings, they measure little more than hospitals' ability to meet political targets. Will the Prime Minister now confirm that, of the 20 hospitals with the worst rate of hospital-acquired infection, 13 of them today get the top rating for cleanliness?

The Prime Minister

The range of indicators that the Commission for Health Improvement takes into account covers all sorts of things, including hospital infections. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has now pledged that the Conservative party will abolish targets. There are targets relating to cleanliness, to waiting, to the treatment of breast cancer, and to in-patient and out-patient treatment, and I think that they are fully justified. On the right hon. Gentleman's particular point, the whole range of indicators is taken into account in these circumstances. That is why it is sensible that we provide the CHI with that information. The right hon. Gentleman is now saying that he would deny it to the commission.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The statistic that I have just mentioned shows categorically that this whole set-up is a gimmick. It tells us all that we need to know about this Government and the way in which they run the health service. As the audit commissioner said, we now have "quick fixes" to meet Government targets, rather than long-term reforms to serve patients better. With an NHS that puts bureaucrats and targets ahead of patients and doctors, is it any wonder than no one believes a word that this Prime Minister says any more?

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman says that these things do not matter, let us just have a look at his own constituency to see what the national health service has been doing as a result of the extra investment there. There has been a 38 per cent. reduction in waiting lists for in-patients and a 73 per cent. reduction in outpatient waiters over 13 weeks. [Interruption.] He says that he does not believe that. Perhaps he will tell us whether he thinks it is true that, on 21 June this year, a £2.5 million emergency medicine centre was opened at Whipps Cross hospital with 24 new medical assessment beds.

Mr. Duncan Smith


The Prime Minister

Well, it is either there or it is not. I think that Conservative Members should go and have a look.

As for believing what I say, we can believe one thing said by the right hon. Gentleman's health spokesman, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). This is what he is on the record as saying: The first [phase] is to persuade the public the NHS is not working"— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot hear what the Prime Minister is saying.

The Prime Minister

I am about to explain why we are not going to follow this policy. Okay? This is the policy that the Government are not going to follow. We are not going to follow a policy that states We've got a problem in this country where the NHS and health care have been synonymous. We're here to break that We are not going to follow that policy. The hon. Member for Woodspring went on That means we get money. raise money from people through tax, certainly by health insurance, and even more so it means from self-pay. We are not going to follow that policy either. We are going to carry on following the policies that we are following.

Q4. Ian Lucas (Wrexham)

Community support officers are welcomed up and down the country because they make a large and visible contribution to local policing. In Wrexham, following the disturbances that we experienced last month, there is now a need for such policing. The local police and local people want community support officers immediately. Will the Prime Minister please have a quiet word with the Home Office, and ask it to implement this Labour policy as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

We will certainly take account of what my hon. Friend has said. As he probably knows, there are many community support officers working throughout the country. I consider their link to antisocial behaviour orders very important. With the Anti-social Behaviour Bill coming into effect, and given our ability to take more effective action against antisocial behaviour, I think that the cause of community support officers, and increasing them—

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

How about more police?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I almost forgot to mention this, but he has reminded me. Yes, as well as more community support officers there are now record numbers of police officers.

Q5. Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

Does the Prime Minister recall Harold Macmillan's famous dictum that no Prime Minister should be in conflict with the Brigade of Guards, the Church or the National Union of Mineworkers? This Prime Minister is now in conflict with the United Nations arms inspectors, the BBC and the Central Intelligence Agency. Is it any wonder that people are now beginning to ask whether the real problem is a dodgy dossier or a dodgy Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman prepared that one pretty carefully.

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to have been against the war from the very beginning. There are Members who, for perfectly honourable reasons, take that position. Let me say this to the hon. Gentleman, however. When we reflect on Security Council resolution 1441, which expressed the unanimous UN view that weapons of mass destruction were a threat to the world, when we see Iraq getting a governing council on a broadly representative basis for the first time in decades, and when we know that—according to the UN, not the British Government—there are some 300,000 missing people and 80 mass graves, I happen to believe, still, that we did the right thing.

Q6. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

On 3 July, the Government finally admitted that they had not passed to the International Atomic Energy Agency the evidence on which the Prime Minister based his statement to the House that we know that Saddam has been trying to buy significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Is the Prime Minister not concerned that the failure of the source of that intelligence to pass it on to the IAEA for scrutiny constitutes a breach of article 10 of Security Council resolution 1441, and would he still use such words of absolute certainty today?

The Prime Minister

I stand by entirely the claim that was made last September. Let me make two points to my hon. Friend. First, as she knows, the intelligence on which we based that was not the so-called forged documents that have been put to the IAEA. The IAEA has accepted that it received no such forged documents from British intelligence: we had independent intelligence to that effect. Secondly, it may be worth pointing out to the House and to the public that it is not as if the link between Niger and Iraq was some invention of the CIA or Britain. We know that in the 1980s Iraq purchased more than 270 tonnes of uranium from Niger. Therefore, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility—let us at least put it like that—that Iraq went back to Niger again. That is why I stand by entirely the statement that was made in the September dossier.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that the Prime Minister will renege on his commitment to reduce the number of Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster?

The Prime Minister

No, we made that commitment clear and we will of course carry it through.

Q7. Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Some 3,000 pensioners—among the least well-off in the constituency—are £30 a week better off as a result of the minimum income guarantee, over and above what they would have received under the old income support from the Tories. Some 5,000 more will know that thrift pays when the pension credit comes in later this year. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that people do claim those benefits?

The Prime Minister

There are already more than 1 million pensioner households on the new system, and of course we must ensure that the information gets to pensioners. In addition to all the other help that we are giving to the poorest pensioners—additional help with television licences for the over-75s, for example, the winter fuel allowance and so on—hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country will benefit from the new pension credit. That is why we remain committed to introducing it and will not do what the Conservatives would do—withdraw it and abolish it.

Q8 Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The Prime Minister now rests his case for war on Iraq on the successful removal of Saddam Hussein's evil regime. I supported the war and I applaud that success. Before the war, the Prime Minister explicitly ruled out regime change as a reason for war. Indeed, it was Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that were the casus belli. Can he now reassure the House that we and the people of this country were not duped, and that British soldiers were not sent to their deaths on a false premise?

The Prime Minister

I really am surprised that the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members now say that, because at the time—let us recall—they and their Front Benchers were urging me to take action on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, wholly outside the dossier and the evidence. I do not accept that people were misled at all. I stand entirely by what was in the dossier and, in case anyone should doubt that weapons of mass destruction were an issue that did not just preoccupy the British or American Governments, in resolution 1441 the whole of the UN Security Council—not just Britain and America—agreed that they were an issue. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman, like others, should wait for the Iraq survey group to complete its work and then we can judge this on the basis of evidence, not speculation.

Q9. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

My right hon. Friend is right to point out the significant progress that has been made in addressing poverty in the United Kingdom, including the winter fuel payment, the pension credit and the child tax credit, among others. Colleagues in this House and in the other place have asked for a meeting with my right hon. Friend to consider the matter of research into the income level necessary for healthy living. Will he agree to meet with us in the very near future to discuss that matter?

The Prime Minister

Of course I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. It is worth pointing out that it is not only the working families tax credit and other benefits and tax credits that are assisting people. We have had a record increase in child benefit—up 25 per cent.—and for those on the disability income guarantee, we are helping some 133,000 of the poorest severely disabled people through the enhanced disability premium. This is all part of our attempt to make sure that we lift more people out of poverty. Already, since 1997, about half a million fewer children are in low-income households.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

In 1998— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House must allow the hon. Gentleman to be heard.

Mr. Marsden

The Prime Minister and I have had a few differences over the years, but he was right to say, in 1998, that the level of homelessness was a source of shame. However, since 1997, the number of homeless families in priority need has risen from 102,000 to 125,000. Has he not failed some of the most vulnerable people in our society?

The Prime Minister

It is correct to say that homelessness remains a serious problem, but I would point out that the other side of the story is that we also gave commitments to cut the numbers of rough sleepers. We have achieved those commitments successfully.

Q10. Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me and, I hope, all Staffordshire Members on both sides of the House, in congratulating our local police on securing the biggest reduction in crime of any force in England and Wales over the past year? However, does he accept that people in our constituencies and communities want to see more police on the beat so that they can feel safe? Therefore, will he say what steps are the Government taking to cut crime and antisocial behaviour even more than they have cut them already?

The Prime Minister

First, I congratulate the Staffordshire police on their achievement in reducing crime in my hon. Friend's constituency. Whereas crime doubled when the Conservatives were in office, the British crime survey estimates show that crime has fallen by about 25 per cent. under this Government. However, the most important thing that we can do is not just to increase the number of police officers—which we are doing—but to introduce measures on criminal justice and antisocial behaviour. The Liberal Democrats oppose the antisocial behaviour measures. The Conservative party, as I said earlier, is resisting measures that will help to convict some of the worst organised criminals in this country. We cannot deal with crime unless we deal with organised crime as well.

Q11. Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

Does the Prime Minister agree with his chief inspector of schools that the exam system should undergo major reform? Or does he agree with the head teachers in my constituency, who want stability for their students and not more disruption and uncertainty?

The Prime Minister

I certainly understand why the hon. Lady's head teachers, and others, say that they want stability. The Tomlinson report is a long-term look at what is happening in our exam system. Most people would like us to investigate that, to make sure that our exam system for 14 to 19-year-olds is up to the standard of other countries. Therefore, I do not think that it is wrong to have the report, and we will study its impact very carefully. However, I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that one of the things that her head teachers will welcome, despite the recent difficulties, is the record investment in our school system.

Q12. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry informed the House that the review of the transport arrangements for Royal Mail would increase the volume of mail delivered by rail. However, this month Royal Mail announced that it is to withdraw its rail operation in its entirety. That flies in the face of the Government's integrated transport policy and environmental policy. The basis of the decision has become increasingly open to scrutiny. The Government are the only shareholder in Royal Mail, so will my right hon. Friend undertake a swift review of the decision? Will he meet a cross-party delegation of MPs interested in the matter? The delegation will include representatives of the work force that is affected, which is facing a potential loss of 500 jobs.

The Prime Minister

I understand my hon. Friend's concerns, and I should be very happy to meet him and a delegation who will express those concerns in detail to me. The only thing that I hope that my hon. Friend realises is that the Government have to be very careful about interfering, and compelling a company—even one in which we are the shareholder—to do things that the company believes are not in its commercial interest. A careful balance has to be maintained in that respect.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Why is the Prime Minister so poorly briefed? When he told the House this morning about the effect of his colleagues in the Lords—many of them Labour—taking out clauses in the Criminal Justice Bill he said that that would lead to a problem with jury nobbling, and that defendants would not be able to have a trial by judge alone where jury nobbling had taken place. In fact, it was made clear in yesterday's Lords debate that that was one area about which there was complete unanimity that there should be legislation. In those circumstances, who writes the Prime Minister's dossier? Is it Mr. Campbell? Is that why the right hon. Gentleman spouts this rubbish?

The Prime Minister

I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman says that. As I understand it, the House of Lords is opposed to two elements. One relates to complex fraud trials, and is something that has been recommended over many, many years; otherwise, some of the worst criminals in the country get out of criminal charges. The second relates to intimidation. It is precisely in circumstances where the prosecution applies to the judge, saying that it believes that there is a risk of intimidation, that the judge has the power. That is the measure being opposed by the Conservative party and others, and they should cease their opposition to it.

Q13. Tony Cunningham (Workington)

I recently met a constituent, Mrs. Yvonne Weir, whose son Mark was tragically killed by a drunken driver who fled the scene. The driver was well over the limit and had previous convictions for drink-driving. He was jailed, but he could be out and free within two years. Mrs. Weir feels that the justice system has very much let her down. What will the Government do to mak sure that people who drink and drive and kill are properly punished?

The Prime Minister

First, I offer my condolences and, I am sure, those of the whole House to the family of my hon. Friend's constituent. This is a huge issue for many, many people and we are looking at whether stronger penalties, involving further use of re-testing, should be applied. Although it is true that deaths attributed to drink-driving have fallen by nearly 50 per cent. in the last decade, alcohol is still a factor in about one in eight of all fatal crashes in this country, so I think that there is a case for looking at the issue again. Along with the other measures to strengthen penalties in the criminal justice system, this is one of the issues that we will look at.