Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons am 11:30 am ar 23 Chwefror 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

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.

Photo of Bob Laxton Bob Laxton PPS (Rt Hon Alan Johnson, Secretary of State), Department for Work and Pensions

Large-scale capital investment has been made in the schools in Derby, which I welcome. However, there is still a need for further moneys to be made available to rebuild establishments such as Lees Brook secondary school and Ivy House school. I also very much welcome what I term the curriculum investment being made in vocational education. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that a future Labour Government will continue to pump capital money and curriculum investment money into education?

Hon. Members:


Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to make that investment in the state education system, in which the capital investment programme has risen sevenfold since this Government came to power. That money is providing new schools, classrooms and computer equipment, and it is also helping to provide new teachers and teaching resources. I think that I am right in saying that in Derby the investment has risen from just below £3 million to over £50 million in the past few years. I can assure my hon. Friend of one other thing: we will not take money out of the schools budget and give it to a private education voucher system, as proposed by the Opposition. Instead, we will continue the investment programme that has secured record results at every level.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

We all agree that terrorism is a real and current threat, and that special powers are needed to deal with it. Today this House will debate the Government's proposals, but before we do so, will the Prime Minister clear up one area of confusion? Will he confirm that nothing need be finally resolved in the next two weeks, as the existing powers can be extended beyond 14 March?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course it is true that we could extend the existing powers, but the House of Lords ruled that we should change them, and we are bringing forward the new proposals in deference to the House of Lords judgment. I have made it clear throughout that the Government strongly support the existing powers. That is our position, but the House of Lords judgment—which I am sure that the House would expect us to respect—has led us to bring forward the control orders proposals. The security services and the police—through the Association of Chief Police Officers—have told us that the orders are necessary to protect this country's security. My understanding is that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his party will vote against the control orders in total.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I have in front of me the Government's own explanatory memorandum, published less than four weeks ago. It makes it clear that

"the Act"— the terrorism Act—

"remains . . . valid, enforceable and effective", and that in

"exercising the powers . . . the Secretary of State is . . . acting lawfully".

We have offered—I repeat that offer today—to renew those provisions for a short period so that Parliament can fully consider the nature of the legislation needed to replace them. Will the Prime Minister now accept that offer?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I have just explained, the reason why we have brought forward these alternative proposals is that we believe that we must act on the House of Lords judgment. Yes, of course it is correct that I and other Government members supported the existing legislation. That is why we fought the matter in the House of Lords. However, in the end the issue, as I understand it from our discussion last Friday, is one of principle. The Leader of the Opposition is opposed to the new control orders altogether. That is my understanding of his position.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Does the Prime Minister not recognise that the Government are in the mess that they are in today because the existing legislation was rammed through Parliament? Surely he should learn from that mistake rather than repeat it. Is not the best way forward to give Parliament the time it needs to work towards a consensus, so that we can effectively protect our country from terrorism?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First of all, I do not accept that the powers were rammed through Parliament. They were necessary. I simply point out to the House—and, incidentally, to the country—that several hundred people have been arrested post-11 September in connection with terrorist activity in this country. There is a serious security threat to this country. That is the view of our security services and chief police officers, particularly those concerned with terrorism. It is important, therefore, that we take the necessary measures, while respecting civil liberties, to protect the nation's security.

We can debate the matter over and again—[Hon. Members: "No, we can't."] Well, the advice of our security services and chief police officers is that we need control orders. In other words, we need to be able to disrupt the planning of terrorist activity early and we need to have orders in place, the breach of which can lead to immediate imprisonment. Whatever debate we have, there is that issue of principle. My understanding of the Liberal Democrats' position is that they are not against control orders in principle; their worry is about judicial scrutiny. That is their position. As I understand the position of the Leader of the Opposition, he makes the point about judicial scrutiny, but it is more fundamental than that. He is against control orders completely. Perhaps he will confirm that that is true.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

We do have reservations about control orders, but let us be quite clear: we have offered to support renewal of the existing powers so that the House has time to consider the issues fully. We have come up with constructive proposals based on the Newton committee recommendations to ensure that more terrorists are sent to prison rather than left in the community, and we have put forward a carefully constructed scheme to allow intercept evidence to be used in court with the absolute guarantee that no evidence prejudicial to national security would be disclosed. The truth is that there are alternatives to the Government's proposals that would more effectively protect British lives and the British way of life. Such measures are too important to be steamrollered through Parliament. We need time to debate the issues. Why is the Prime Minister denying Parliament that time?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me deal with the issue of intercepts. There is an issue about whether we let intercept evidence be used. We have come to the conclusion that it should not be used because the strong advice of those engaged in this type of business is that it would disrupt their service. Indeed, that was the advice received not just by this Government, but by the Leader of the Opposition when he was Home Secretary and raised precisely that issue. That is, no doubt, why he did not do that when in office.

However, the second point, which is completely different, relates to the use of control orders. The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the Newton committee, which specifically recommends such provisions. Therefore, the issue between us is this: it does not matter how much time for scrutiny there is—[Interruption.] That is because there is an issue of principle, which is this: the security services and the police say that these orders restricting the movement of people whom we suspect are planning terrorist acts in this country are necessary for our national security. That is accepted here, and it is even accepted by the Liberal Democrats; the question is whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is prepared to accept that. The fact of the matter is that we are not steamrollering this measure through; rather, I am afraid that he is playing politics with it.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Prime Minister accuses us of playing politics. I will tell him what playing politics is all about. Playing politics is when a Government ram a Bill through Parliament when they do not need to. Playing politics is briefing national newspapers that terrorist suspects would have to be released when they would not have to be released. Playing politics is using national security for political point scoring, when that should be the furthest thing from the mind of a Prime Minister faced with these threats. Why does the Prime Minister insist on curtailing debate on these vital questions? Why will he not recognise that there are alternatives to his proposals that merit consideration? Why is he being so arrogant about these questions, which are so fundamental to our security and our liberties?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what should be the nearest thought in a Prime Minister's mind in these circumstances: protecting the security of the country. That is what I intend to do, and I repeat that the reason why we are putting forward these proposals is that the security services, unanimously, and the heads of police in this country, unanimously, have recommended that these powers are necessary to disrupt the planning of terrorist activity in this country. We know what these terrorists can do, and we know what they want to do. The advice of the security services and of the police is that these powers should be introduced. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has now set his face against them altogether. In my view, the only responsible thing to do is to put the security of our country before any other consideration. That, if I may say so, is not simply what a responsible Prime Minister should do, but what a responsible Leader of the Opposition should also do.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Llafur, Burnley

My right hon. Friend will know that four years ago, the biggest single problem in Burnley was that there were 4,500 empty houses, and the dereliction and destroyed housing market that that caused. He will know that Elevate is a housing renewal pathfinder project in east Lancashire, that the number of empty houses is now falling, and that the housing market is beginning to improve. Can he reassure the people of Burnley that the Government's long-term commitment to that process will continue, and that we will also get the £150 million for new high schools that they are committed to providing?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about what is happening in Burnley, and I understand from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that it is also happening in Blackburn—so we have Burnley and Blackburn on the same side. The most important thing, however, is that we keep this investment going. There are areas of the country—I have visited many of them over the past few months—where regeneration programmes are making a real difference on the ground. That is why we will never follow the Opposition's proposals. Cutting the housing programme and the sustainable communities programme would do immense damage to communities such as those that my hon. Friend represents, and we simply will not do it.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Returning to the proposed terrorism measures, and following on from the exchanges on them, why is the Prime Minister seemingly so convinced that more accountability will be built into the system if the Home Secretary decides whether someone is to be locked up and that decision is subject to a judge's re-examination within seven days, than if the decision is taken in the first instance by the judge on the basis of an adequate burden of proof? What has persuaded the Prime Minister that more accountability can be achieved at the expense of overturning long-standing fundamental principles of justice?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do entirely understand that as a point. It is obviously a completely different point from the one being made by the Conservative party. The reason why we have decided, however, that it is right in the first instance that the Home Secretary has these powers is for speed of action, but it has to be taken before a court within seven days. Obviously, we would hope to do that far more swiftly than in seven days, but the key thing is to get the control orders in place. As I understand it, the right hon. Gentleman is not opposed to them, but he would like it to go in front of a judge first.

The reason why we have chosen this method is that although we will bring it before a court very quickly, in seven days maximum, there may be circumstances—this is what we are concerned about—in which the Home Secretary has to act very, very quickly and there could be a delay in bringing it before a court that could cause difficulty. One of the things that I should like to say to the right hon. Gentleman—and to the House, and more widely, to the country—is that there are large numbers of people whom we are surveying at the moment. We keep them under surveillance in this country because we believe they may be involved in the planning or funding of, or the procurement of weapons for, terrorist offences. It is extremely important that we have the maximum speed of movement to disrupt them if we decide that although we do not have the evidence to secure a conviction, we none the less reasonably suspect that they are engaged in such terrorist activity. I come back to the point that I made a moment or two ago: the essence of this, for us, is the existence of the control orders. The reason why we have introduced the Executive order first, which will then be subject to judicial review, is that there may be circumstances—albeit a limited number—in which for speed of action we need the Executive order first.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Yes, but as we all know, all too sadly, our country has been no stranger over the years to either the threat or the reality of terrorism. Is it not worrying, where the principles of justice are concerned, that under three successive Labour Home Secretaries, we have today house arrest and the ending of trial by jury, and in the future, ID cards? Whenever the Government are presented with a problem their instinctive response is authoritarian. After two terms of Labour government, where would our civil liberties be left were there to be a third?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I really do not accept that identity cards are the same type of issue at all. They are a necessary, sensible measure in the modern world, and I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party are against them. In respect of terrorism, however—let us be very clear—were there to be a serious terrorist act in this country and afterwards it was thought that we had not taken the measures necessary, believe me, no one would be talking about civil liberties; they would be talking about why we had not done more to protect the security of this country. I agree that these powers should be taken only in the most exceptional circumstances, but I conclude on this point: I do not believe that the terrorism we face today is the same as the IRA terrorism of, hopefully, the past. I think that these people would kill thousands of our citizens if they could. I think that this is terrorism without limit, and that in the use of suicide terrorists, it is different—so in those circumstances, for that limited number of cases, my best judgment is that considerations of national security have to come before civil liberties, no matter how important those civil liberties are.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Llafur, Pendle

Has my friend had an opportunity to visit my website, gordonprenticemp.com, to read about the disgraceful behaviour of my Liberal-controlled council in Pendle, which is selling greenfield land for development although there are brownfield sites all around? Is not that another case of the Liberals talking green but acting dirty?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That sounds to me like a very fair case; I must make sure that I visit my hon. Friend's website. He is absolutely right of course; there is always a great difference between the way the Liberals act in theory and how they actually act whenever they have their hands on power.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Ceidwadwyr, Macclesfield

May I tell the Prime Minister that on Sunday 13 February, my wife and I attended the annual Christ the Healer service for the East Cheshire hospice, which we jointly opened 17 years ago? The reflections of an 88-year-old day-care resident, Barbara Jo Millington, were read out at the service. May I quote just a few of her words:

"What a pity Government funding is so mean to this worthy cause. Let's hope the politicians will not need the special care if or when it is no longer there."?

May I ask for an assurance that he will review the funding of the hospice movement, because it undertakes work that otherwise would have to be carried out by the national health service?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I congratulate not just the hospice that the hon. Gentleman referred to but the hospice movement in general on the magnificent work that it does. [Interruption.] An Opposition Member shouts, "Give them money," but we are now investing an extra £50 million a year in specialist palliative care services, including hospices. That represents a 40 per cent. increase in NHS funding since 2000. In addition, almost £50 million, on top of the existing funding that I have just mentioned, is being made available over the next three years by the New Opportunities Fund and £15 million of that money is going directly to children's hospices. I am well aware that it could be more, but it is also fair to say that the Government are making a far greater contribution to the hospice movement than before. Of course, part of the increasing budget of the primary care trusts can also be used for such palliative care, and I hope very much that some of that money, at least, finds its way to the hospice mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Llafur, Warrington North

People living near Beamont junior and infant schools in my constituency are very concerned about drug dealing in their area and are supporting my campaign for CCTV to stop drug dealers using a phone box opposite the school. Will the Prime Minister offer his backing to the residents who, as the Warrington Guardian rightly put it, are setting out to stop this evil trade? Will he assure them that the measures that the Government have implemented to tackle the menace of drugs will make a difference on the ground, that people who are dealing from rented properties will be evicted, and that drug dealers operating outside schools will receive much harsher sentences?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I congratulate the people in my hon. Friend's constituency. Yes, we certainly will make sure that that is the case. Indeed, the Drugs Bill now going through Parliament makes it an aggravating factor in an offence if a drug dealer is using someone under the age of 18 near school premises. In addition, of course, we have the new power to shut down houses that are being used for drug dealing, and I know that it is being used in many parts of the country now. In addition we have the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, which allows us to take money from drug dealers—millions of pounds is being taken from them—or, for example, to confiscate their cars, the means of transport from which they often do their drug dealing, and force them to prove that they came by the money for them lawfully. Those are all new powers that we have given. I hope that the police and local authorities use those powers, because when they are combined with the action of local residents, they make a difference in many parts of the country.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Ceidwadwyr, Taunton

What is it in the Prime Minister's principles that now makes it right and acceptable, against the recommendations of four Select Committees, to sell arms to China?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The reason why we have supported a change in European policy in respect of China is that we think that the reasons originally given for that ban no longer apply in the same way. What is more, we are not simply removing the existing restrictions, we are replacing them with a whole series of obligations, not just for ourselves but for all European countries, which will mean that only in very specific circumstances would those arms be sold. I think that that position is sensible because it meets both the concerns about China and its legitimate interest to be treated in the same way as other parts of the international community.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Llafur, Blyth Valley

The Prime Minister, like many Members, will be aware that we have had a lot of letters and postcards about public sector pensions. Can he tell us what the situation is now and, more importantly, whether there is any chance of a compromise on this thorny subject?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I know that discussions are taking place between my hon. Friend and the unions about this. The situation is difficult, for a reason that I am sure he appreciates: the actuarial advice is that there is a £400 million shortfall. That must be met in some way or other, and we certainly do not want to land it on people's council tax bills. We, like virtually every employer in the country, including some of the trade unions themselves, are looking at how we can make proper provision for pensions in the future. I hope that a compromise can be found, but it must be consistent with the prudent management of our resources.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor Ceidwadwyr, Rochford and Southend East

When the Prime Minister met President Bush this week, did he remind him that the US supplied massive quantities of weapons of mass destruction to Saddam Hussein when that repulsive dictator was invading Iran? Did he further ask why US troops today are protecting Camp Ashraf, although there are more than 1,000 trainee terrorists there belonging to the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq organisation? In the light of all that, will he try to persuade President Bush to resolve his problems with Iran penitently and peacefully, rather than in any other way?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We obviously want to ensure that we get a diplomatic resolution to the situation regarding Iran, as President Bush made clear over the past few days. There are genuine concerns, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares, about Iran in relation to the development of its nuclear capability, its sponsorship of terrorism and human rights issues. All that is right, but it is possible, through the engagement by Britain, France and Germany that is happening, backed by the United States, to get a diplomatic solution, so that is what we are working for. On Iraq, I would simply point out that the appalling dictator Saddam Hussein has, of course, been removed from Iraq only as a result of the action of coalition forces, including British and American forces.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight PPS (Ms Rosie Winterton, Minister of State), Department of Health

On behalf of my constituents, may I thank the Government for the proposed new offences to punish careless drivers who kill? The majority of those drivers are young men. Will the Prime Minister urgently examine the effect of car magazines such as Max Power, which target irresponsible young men and effectively encourage them to break the law, most recently by congratulating someone on speeding at 120 mph through the Dartford tunnel?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I hope that anyone who publishes such magazines recognises that they also have a responsibility to encourage law-abiding behaviour. I have not seen the specific article to which my hon. Friend refers, but it certainly sounds deeply irresponsible.

Photo of David Burnside David Burnside UUP, South Antrim

The Prime Minister has shown great leadership in his fight against international terrorism, and he has based that on a belief in freedom and democracy and an opposition to tyranny. In our back yard in Northern Ireland, we have republican criminals who are unfit to join the Executive Government at Stormont. Will he persuade his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to bring together the two Unionist parties, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party to determine whether we can form a voluntary coalition of democrats against the republican criminals in Northern Ireland, and let democracy defeat terrorism and criminality there?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There is always a question of whether we can find a way forward, and we would require not merely the Unionist parties but the SDLP to be prepared to co-operate in such a way. I still believe that the best way forward—although this might not be possible—is on an inclusive basis. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman that we should not ignore one positive thing that has come out over the past few weeks: the strength of feeling about the need to ensure that no one should come into government in Northern Ireland unless they are exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means. That feeling exists not only in Northern Ireland but in the whole island of Ireland—in the Republic of Ireland, too. Unified pressure from north and south is now necessary to ensure that we either manage to get a way forward involving all political parties, or find a different way forward.

Photo of Siôn Simon Siôn Simon Llafur, Birmingham, Erdington

In order for us to push most vigorously on with our project of rebuilding and revivifying communities that the Tories tried but failed to destroy, please may we have a general election straight away?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not think that this is quite the appropriate moment to say that. However, whenever the election comes, I look forward to putting up in lights an economic record of low inflation, low mortgages and low unemployment—

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Absolutely—without the boom and bust of the Conservative party. I look forward to putting up in lights record public services investment, rather than the private voucher scheme of the Conservative party. I also look forward to putting up in lights the antisocial behaviour legislation that is making a difference in various parts of this country, although it was opposed by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Whenever the election comes, I think we will be in pretty good shape.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

The Prime Minister has said that the Mayor of London should apologise for his remarks, which in the view of many people were offensive and ignorant. Yesterday the Mayor of London refused to apologise. Is that it, as far as the Prime Minister is concerned?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The Mayor of London has said what he has said—I have already made my position on it clear. I believe that it is sensible to move on, however. I will tell the House what else I think—that there has not been a bigger supporter of the state of Israel than this Government and this Prime Minister. Whatever mischief some Conservatives make out of the incident, I hope that it is not taken seriously, as I am sure that it is not, by the Jewish community.

Photo of Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon John Spellar, Minister of State), Northern Ireland Office

Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to a charity based in my constituency, Glasgow The Caring City, led by Rev. Neil Galbraith, which was one of the first, if not the first, charity to mobilise aid for the areas most affected by the Boxing day tsunami? Yet despite our record of delivery in the developing world, The Caring City has not been able to access any funds raised by the Disasters Emergency Committee. Does the Prime Minister agree that smaller charities, as well as large ones, should be able to get some of the money raised by the generosity of the British people?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's point. Of course, how the funds are distributed is a matter for the member agencies of the committee, and the extent to which they can provide support to other organisations is a matter for their trustees. I hope, however, that support is given to the small charities as well as the larger ones. The generosity of the British people has been quite remarkable, and the combined generosity of the British people and of the British people through the Government through the taxpayer now runs into many hundreds of millions of pounds. That will do an awful lot of good in rebuilding some of the places that have been deeply affected by the tsunami.

Perhaps the House will be interested in hearing that the most recent figures for the loss of British life in the tsunami are 199 in category 1—that is, likely to be lost—significantly fewer than 100 in category 2 and, I think, 61 confirmed dead. The contribution made in my hon. Friend's constituency and right around this country is an incredible tribute to the generosity and good spirit of the British people.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to make a point of order, but the rules of the House are that I must take it after the statement. I will happily do so after the statement.