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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 400: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2003

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International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

Health Services (Afghanistan)

1.

What recent discussions she has had with non-governmental organisations about rebuilding health services in Afghanistan. [98726]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development
(Ms Sally Keeble)

My officials are in regular contact with NGOs in both Kabul and the UK. NGOs continue to have an important role to play in service delivery, especially as Government capacity is still weak. They have helped to immunise children against polio and measles, and have saved an estimated 30,000 lives. The Department for International Development has financed a number of these health activities.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does she accept that the continuing insecurity, especially outside of Kabul, hampers reconstruction and aid work? In its discussions with NGOs and aid agencies, has her Department explored their concerns about the capacity of joint reaction teams to bring that much-needed security?

I begin by paying tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done with the Save the Children Fund to raise money for a clinic in Afghanistan. I certainly agree that improving security is one of the key challenges. The aim of the teams to which she refers—they have since been renamed provincial reconstruction teams—is to extend the authority of the Afghan Government, and to help to secure the development of a stable environment in the regions. We have been talking to the NGOs about this matter, and I believe that we are due to have further consultations this week.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the Minister for Women's Affairs in Afghanistan that jobs for women are now absolutely critical, especially given that so many widows are supporting children? Will my hon. Friend undertake to ask her officials to speak to the Minister in Kabul about the possibility of providing funds for some of the many projects that she has identified?

I agree about the importance of tackling gender equality issues and job opportunities for women. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met the Minister for Women's Affairs, and we will certainly take forward discussions in the way that my hon. Friend suggests. Perhaps we can correspond about that issue.

Iraq

2.

What aid is planned for Iraq following the resolution of the current political situation. [98727]

The people of Iraq are already suffering a humanitarian catastrophe. Some 60 per cent. of the people in this naturally wealthy and highly educated country are dependent on handouts from the oil for food programme. One third of children in Baghdad-controlled Iraq are chronically malnourished. If the UN authorises military action to force Saddam Hussein to comply with his disarmament obligations, it is essential that great care be taken to minimise any harm to the people of Iraq, who are already very vulnerable. This means very careful targeting of military action, and ensuring that order is maintained, that food distribution is quickly resumed, and that the health, water and sanitation infrastructure is rehabilitated as soon as possible. Planning is in hand for all of this. My greatest worry is that there is not yet agreement that the UN should have the lead role in a post-conflict Iraq. Without that, there would be significant legal and other difficulties for the working of the international humanitarian system.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that very comprehensive reply. Last week, the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) and I travelled to northern Iraq, and we visited the Parliament, refugees and hospitals. The Iraqi Kurds, who asked us to speak for them, support the Prime Minister's moral policy, but they do need protection and aid. Is the Secretary of State aware that only one third of the oil for food programme is getting through to Kurdistan, and what can be done about that? Will she ensure that during and after any conflict, food and medical aid will continue to get through to Kurdistan, and does she agree that Turkish troops must be kept out of Kurdistan, unless the Kurdish leaders specifically invite them in, for humanitarian reasons?

I agree that, if there is to be military action, it is essential that the authority of the UN be upheld. If such action is to be authorised by the UN, making sure that the people are protected, and that feeding continues, will be crucial. The people are in very bad shape, and 60 per cent. of them are dependent on oil for food, which would be likely to break down. It is a very large-scale operation, and it would be essential to act quickly to keep food moving in Kurdistan and in the rest of the country, and to get the medical infrastructure working. In fact, the people of Kurdistan, which has the same UN sanctions and oil for food as the rest of the country, are in much better shape. That shows the way in which Saddam Hussein has manipulated the UN regime against the interests of his people. I note what the hon. Gentleman says about Turkish troops, and I shall make sure that that is conveyed to the appropriate authorities.

My right hon. Friend will know that I paid a separate visit to northern Iraq, where the main concern is that Saddam Hussein may again use chemical weapons against the Kurds. People especially want to know what protection we can give them against those possible chemical attacks. Chamchamal is the mountain top on the road down from Kurdistan to Kirkuk. From there, one can see Iraqi troops on the hills, and they have rockets. The fears of the Kurds are very strong indeed. Will my right hon. Friend say what practical protection we are offering the Kurds?

I agree that the risk, in both Kurdistan and Baghdad, that chemical and biological weapons will be used by Saddam Hussein in a way that inflicts harm on Iraqi people is one of the most serious that we face. I assure my hon. Friend that those risks and dangers are being carefully thought through and that we are trying to minimise them, but I am afraid that no one can give an absolute guarantee that they can be prevented. However, every effort will be made to bring help to any people who might be affected.

On 12 February, the Secretary of State told the International Development Committee that the military had not taken into account all the humanitarian risks that might result from military action. What did she mean when she said that she had struggled to be listened to by the military? Has communication improved?

I take the old-fashioned view that it is right to tell the House of Commons the truth, and not to pretend that all is well. If there have been delays in the military giving consideration to humanitarian risks—and there have—I have to tell the House of Commons that that is the case. There has been improvement, but getting agreement on a UN lead is absolutely key, and that is not in place. More work needs to be done to face up to all the eventualities.

Briefings given to hon. Members for today's debate by non-governmental organisations working in and around Iraq express concern that the Secretary of State has not been working closely with them in preparation for the humanitarian consequences of a war in the area. I recognise the sensitivities of military planning, but will the right hon. Lady explain why there has been so little consultation or sharing of information with NGOs, many of which have years of experience of working in Iraq and extensive experience of humanitarian relief and rehabilitation?

One of the least attractive aspects of some NGO behaviour is the attempt to grandstand and appear in the media when there is a crisis. We have had close relationships over a long period of time with some NGOs working in northern Iraq and with an even smaller number in Baghdad-controlled Iraq. My officials have met representatives of NGOs to talk about the present situation. As I made clear to the Select Committee, NGOs would not be operational in the early stages, as they are not the first call to get things right, but we are in contact with them. I really do not think that anyone should grandstand on these issues.

The whole House is aware of, and sympathetic to, the doubts and concerns that the Secretary of State has publicly admitted about the prospect of war in Iraq. However, does she accept that the effect of those doubts has been to prevent her from engaging properly in all attempts to discuss what humanitarian plans would be in place to mitigate the consequences of war? Does she also accept that, ironically, that could have grave consequences for the people of Iraq?

No. I think that the hon. Lady is engaging in cheap and inaccurate point scoring—another example of grandstanding about this crisis. She put this proposition in a debate some time ago, and I answered her fully. Her simplistic view that we should get on with the war, after which my Department and a few people can clean up, is ill informed. I and my Department have been fully engaged in trying to get the world to face the humanitarian risks and make preparations. I have explained that to the hon. Lady before, but she goes on with her cheap point scoring.

In her discussions with those planning the military contingencies, has the Secretary of State discussed the imperative of ensuring that Basra is occupied at an early stage, is maintained as a safe haven—

Order. There is so much noise in the House that it is unfair to those who are listening to the question.

Has the imperative that Basra should be maintained as a safe haven and a port of supply been considered? Is there an arrangement that might ensure that that is secured, thus avoiding displaced people finding their way into states that are incapable of supporting them?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there is detailed thinking about Basra, and I do not think that I can say any more than that.

3.

What contingency plans she has in place for aid to Iraqi displaced persons following possible conflict with Iraq; and if she will make a statement. [98728]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development
(Ms Sally Keeble)

My Department is holding regular discussions with international organisations about contingency planning for a range of eventualities in Iraq. In the event of substantial population movements, we would expect the International Committee of the Red Cross to be the lead international agency in helping internally displaced people and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to take the lead in providing assistance to refugees. In addition to our regular contributions we are giving an extra £3.5 million to support UN contingency planning for humanitarian relief in Iraq.

I thank the Minister very much for that helpful answer, but she will be aware that the UNHCR is predicting that possibly 3 million people will be displaced following a regime change. I fully understand that neither the United Kingdom nor the United States can act alone, but what steps is her Department taking to encourage the UN and other powers to ensure that those people can be cared for after a regime change, which, I believe, is now inevitable?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that, in addition to any scenario that has been predicted, there are a substantial number of internally displaced persons—between 1 million and 2 million—now in Iraq as a result of the appalling regime there. I do not want to speculate on the outcome of any action, but our Department, as my right hon. Friend has said, is putting every possible effort into strengthening the UN role and response to deal with any humanitarian crisis afterwards.

The Secretary of State told the House on 30 January that, if there is a war in Iraq, and without good organisation, there would be a humanitarian nightmare if large-scale ethnic fighting broke out in Iraq. What action is the Department taking to ensure such organisation in the event of the nightmare of an attack on Iraq?

Quite a number of scenarios are being considered, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has done a great deal of work to try to make sure that those eventualities do not occur and that we prevent the nightmare that my hon. Friend mentions. We are currently working very closely with the UN to consider what those scenarios might be and to ensure that we have a properly supported UN system in place to take the lead.

It is the Government's position that resolution 1441 already provides the authority to use force against Iraq. If that force is used in those circumstances and UN authority and agreement has not been reached for the post-conflict administration of Iraq, it will be absolutely essential that the Department for International Development is fully involved in assisting with the civil administration of Iraq to ensure that the American military are in that position for the minimum amount of time. Will the Minister assure the House that her Department is making every effort to ensure not only UN agreement, if possible, but the full deployment of all the Department?s resources to make sure that post-conflict Iraq is administered in a way that will ensure a peaceful settlement there?

As usual, the hon. Gentleman has hit on one of the key problems that we face: the legal position of the humanitarian assistance that is provided after any conflict that might take place. We are working very hard to resolve those issues and to strengthen the position and role of the UN. We are also obviously taking careful cognisance of the humanitarian problems that could unfold. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that no Department is more focused on that than the Department for International Development and no person in the Government is doing more on that than my right hon. Friend.

Afghanistan

4.

What progress her Department is making towards rebuilding Afghanistan. [98729]

Rebuilding Afghanistan will require strong Afghan leadership, large amounts of aid and policy support for the long term. Much has been achieved: the election of the Transitional Administration; the establishment of revenue and budget systems; the introduction of a new currency; 2 million refugees have returned; 3 million children are now in school, a third of whom are girls; and millions of children have been vaccinated against polio and measles.

There is much more to be done, however, and achieving security outside Kabul is key to speeding up progress.

I thank the Secretary of State for that encouraging answer and the description of all the work currently being done. Does she agree that education must be at the heart of that work? Opportunities for education—especially tertiary education through the universities—are the greatest encouragement that we can give to young people in Afghanistan to remain to help rebuild that country. Will she do all that she can to encourage European and British universities to link with those in Afghanistan, and particularly those in Kabul, to bring those opportunities to thousands of young people in Afghanistan and help them to rebuild?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Expansion of rights to education is a human right, but getting girls to school is also profoundly developmental for any country. Girls who have been to school change their country as they grow up. Our focus is therefore on securing universal primary education, and on ensuring that girls are included. A tradition exists of high-quality higher education in Afghanistan, which is being redeveloped. I take my hon. Friend?s point, however, and I will look into the question of links with our universities, which I have not yet examined.

Despite what the Secretary of State says, she must know that only half the money decided necessary by the World Bank has been pledged to Afghanistan so far. Despite the Prime Minister's promises not to abandon the people of that country, that is precisely what is happening. The USA and her Government have moved on and plan even worse destruction for Iraq. Because she knows that that is true, will she seriously consider joining many of her colleagues and the Liberal Democrats in the Lobby tonight to avert a new disaster?

Order. The Secretary of State will not reply to that. It was out of order.

I very much appreciate the work of my right hon. Friend and her Department, but how much collaborative and cooperative working is being undertaken by her Department with any US Government Departments?

In general, in international development, as in many other things, the US tends to take quite a unilateralist approach. It has a big commitment in Afghanistan and elsewhere, but it tends to operate on its own. The UK leads increasingly on rebuilding the institutions of the country, and on building its management of the economy and its capacity to provide services to its people. We collaborate, but we operate in different ways generally across the world, and we try to make sure that that is complementary.

Millennium Development Goals

5.

If she will make a statement on progress towards the millennium development goals. [98730]

The world is on track to meet the overarching millennium development goal of halving the proportion of people in poverty by 2015. That will mean 1 billion people having lifted themselves out of extreme poverty between 1990 and 2015. However, progress is not even across the world. Large parts of Africa are not on target, and better progress is possible on many of the goals. In short, the world is making progress, but with a greater effort we could do much better.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply, but she will know better than anyone that achieving those goals will require a substantial increase in resources. What are the Government doing to make progress towards a target of spending 0.7 per cent. of GDP on development assistance? What is being done to encourage our European partners to do the same, bearing in mind that they agreed to that back in 2001?

My hon. Friend is right. We have about $52 billion in the international development system. When one reflects on the fact that 1.2 billion people live in abject poverty, half of humanity lives in deep poverty and how much we spend on public services in our countries, one realises that that is a pathetic amount, although it is increasingly effectively deployed. For that reason, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is working internationally to mobilise commitment to an international financing facility that would double the amount of aid available to $100 billion, which is increasingly getting support across the international system. That was the estimate made at the Monterrey conference of the amount needed to support countries to meet the millennium development goals, and we must all work to support the Chancellor in that effort.[Interruption.]

I greatly admire much of what the right hon. Lady is doing to reduce poverty in the world, which was the subject of the question that she has just answered. What more will she and the Government do to remove from office a man who is bringing an increasing percentage of his population into starvation and poverty? I refer to that tyrant, Robert Mugabe.

There is no doubt that the situation in Zimbabwe is serious and brutal. Seven million people need food aid. Projections suggest that the rest of the region will probably recover next year, but that things will get worse in Zimbabwe. There are only 11.2 million people in the country now and 9 million of them will need food aid next year.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, international law says that it is not legal for countries to seek to remove individual rulers. However, it is highly likely that the people of Zimbabwe will shortly bring down the leadership of Robert Mugabe. We will then all work to help the people to take their country forward again.

Among the millennium development goals is a significant reduction in HIV infection. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to achieve that reduction, it is important that the global fund for health is a success? Although it is welcome that the US has committed significant extra money over the next five years, there is a problem in the short term. This year, the fund does not have the money to deal properly with the commitments for round 3, which is due later this year. Will my right hon. Friend consider what can be done to ensure that the fund can go ahead with round 3 distributions this year?

I agree that the global fund for health is important, but I am afraid that it is not being as well led as it might be. Its role is to provide drugs and commodities for the treatment of tuberculosis, HIV and malaria, but health care systems must be in place to deliver them. A twin-track approach is therefore required. Unfortunately, the leadership of the fund has over-committed and is operating separately from health reform agendas. The US has just committed the money that it promised originally. However, I am holding back from any further commitments until there is a more clearly targeted effort to collaborate in the strengthening of health systems. Rather than simply giving more money, I am in dialogue with the fund about doing a better job.

I commend the Secretary of State for the excellent work of her Department. Does she agree that the best way to reach vital targets is to encourage each developing country to move towards its own benign governance, the rule of law and a market-based economy? Ultimately, nothing else is sustainable. Will she say a little more about the capacity building measures of her Department to try to bring about such end results?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman—to achieve a growing economy, effective modern governance is needed, as well as a respect for human rights and democracy; also needed are a treasury that works, procures properly and is not corrupt; a central bank that works; and a macro-economic framework that allows the local private sector and inward investment to work. That is why, in developing countries, we put such stress on the building of effective and modern state institutions with democratic accountability. Progress is being made in many countries but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, some are not on that path. We have to make greater efforts.

Education (Developing Countries)

6.

What steps she is taking to improve girls' access to education in developing countries. [98732]

Since 1990, the number of primary schoolchildren who are out of school has decreased from 130 million to 115 million, so progress has been made. However, the number of children who are out of school is still unacceptably high. Globally, girls still represent 56 per cent. of children currently out of school, and 66 per cent. in south and west Asia. We are working with a variety of partners to help to accelerate progress on girls' education. We plan to spend £1.3 billion on basic education over the next five years.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging response. She will be aware of the Global Campaign For Education, which is about to report on girls' education—its main campaign focus for 2003. Is she aware that the campaign will be holding a seminar in Portcullis House on 8 April, where my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) will be on the panel? Will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging the campaign and congratulating the people involved on their excellent work?

I am happy to congratulate anyone who is committed to driving forward the implementation of the millennium development goal to get all children in the world, including girls, into basic education. In the poorest countries, girls tend not to be in school. Getting girls to school and a generation of them through primary education brings the biggest development effect in any country. Girls who go to school as they grow up marry later, have fewer children who are more likely to survive, increase household income, get their own children into school and access health care. That is fundamental to progress in development in the poorest countries.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Ql. [98741]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 26th February.

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.

Thanks to this Government's increased spending on the NHS, Milton Keynes general hospital in my constituency has increased nursing staff by 27 per cent. since April 2000 and a new 28-bed unit is due to open at the end of next month. However, my right hon. Friend will be aware that Milton Keynes has been designated as a housing growth area, and it is estimated that we will need an extra 400 hospital beds to cope with the needs of the new population. Will he ensure that all Departments take into account the extra needs of Milton Keynes for public services to deal with the needs of our population and look at ways of funding that through the council tax and other funding mechanisms?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will indeed take that into account in allocating resources. That is why in the primary care trust in Milton Keynes there has been, I think, a 10 per cent. real-terms increase. It is not just the number of nurses in her area; over the past few years, 40,000 extra nurses have been employed in the national health service. There are substantially more operations for heart, hip and cataract and there are more doctors and more consultants. That is all a result of the record investment in the national health service—an investment that the Labour party, at least, is committed to keeping.

Does the Prime Minister agree that any country that supported resolution 1441 should support the second resolution that naturally flows from it?

The Prime Minister recently said he would support action without a second resolution only if there was an "unreasonable veto" in the Security Council. Given his answer to my first question, is not the logic of his position now that any veto would be unreasonable?

It certainly would be an unreasonable veto if Iraq is in material breach and we do not pass a resolution, because resolution 1441 made it absolutely clear that Iraq had a final opportunity to comply. If it is not complying, it is in breach. Therefore, that is why I believe that a second resolution should issue and it is also why I believe that, in the end, it will issue.

We all in the House obviously want to see a majority in the Security Council on that second resolution, but the Prime Minister made it very clear yesterday that it is essential that Saddam Hussein knows he faces a simple choice: voluntary disarmament or disarmament by force. Given those remarks, is it now the Prime Minister's position that he will support action even if there is no majority for a second resolution?

I believe that we will have support for a second resolution. As I said in answer to questions yesterday, I do not think that it is helpful to speculate on what might or might not happen. I believe that the logic of our position is very clear. Indeed, Dr. Blix has said today:

"At the moment it is not even clear whether the Iraqis really want to co-operate."
That situation is very clear, and that is why I believe that our strategy of putting down the resolution and then bringing people round to the proposition that this was the final opportunity for Saddam to disarm—he has not disarmed—is so important. However, I point out that, at the present time, we are not at conflict and that Saddam still has the opportunity, if he were to take it, of full compliance. So far, he has not done so.

Q2. [98742]

With the inevitable focus today on the possibility of war with Iraq, does the Prime Minister understand the concern of those of us who have been in Northern Ireland this week that the moment of truth for the peace process is also imminent there? What assurances can he give the House that the prize of peace in these islands will not be lost in the gathering clouds of war with Iraq?

I hope that I can give some reassurance on that score, since I have had meetings both in Northern Ireland and here with the main parties concerned with the Northern Ireland peace process. I am due to have further meetings over the next few days, including with the Taoiseach and the main political parties. I can assure my hon. Friend that, whatever the difficulties, we have come a long way in Northern Ireland over the past five or six years. I shall certainly continue to do everything that I can to bring the process to the right conclusion and a fruitful and just one for all the people in Northern Ireland.

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that, unless the United Nations weapons inspectorate were to conclude that the inspection process itself had failed, it would be quite wrong for this country to participate in pre-emptive military action against Iraq?

I would put it in this way: it is for the inspectors to give us evidence as to the facts that they find, but what is crucial, because this is what the Security Council has laid down, is that there is full, complete, unconditional and immediate compliance by Saddam. That is what we all agreed when resolution 1441 was passed. Let me read to the right hon. Gentleman what he himself said last November:

"I think that the present resolution that has been passed can be interpreted obviously, as giving further cause for military intervention if there have been material breaches."
The definition of the breach is that there has to be full co-operation, and if there is not, resolution 1441 says that Saddam is in breach. I would have thought on the basis of what the right hon. Gentleman said last November that he would agree with me.

If the Prime Minister is not prepared to rule out precipitate military action against Iraq, is not the greater consequence and danger that the international coalition against terrorism on which he and everybody else lay such rightful importance would itself he shattered?

Surely the right way to proceed is through the logic of the resolution that we agreed last November. The simple case is that, unless the United Nations carries through what it agreed last November, it is the authority of the UN itself that will be undermined. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that no one, surely, could accuse us of taking precipitate action when we have been trying for 12 years to get Saddam to give up his weapons of mass destruction, it is six months since President Bush addressed the UN and four months since the UN resolution, and still he is not in compliance. If the right hon. Gentleman wants any indication of the nature of the regime, I hope that he and others will listen to the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has come back from northern Iraq and will I think give powerful testimony as to the true effects of the regime under Saddam Hussein and exactly what is happening in Iraq today.

Although my right hon. Friend will have many pressing issues to discuss during his visit to Spain later this week, will he take the opportunity to raise the case of my constituent Kevan Sloan, who served 22 months of a sentence for armed robbery based on, in my view, hopelessly flawed legal proceedings? Will he impress upon the Spanish authorities the urgency of the case, since Kevan's application for deportation is due to be considered at the end of this week?

As my hon. Friend obviously knows, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met him and the family of his constituent and we are in close touch with the Spanish authorities about this matter. We will remain in close touch and I hope that the matter can be satisfactorily resolved.

Q.3 [98743]

Does the Prime Minister accept that the manipulative media operation that he installed at No. 10 Downing street after 1997 has eroded the electorate's trust in him? Does he also accept that that loss of trust in him personally is now carrying a huge price as it is partly to blame for his inability to convince the British people over Iraq?

The case that we have set out in respect of Iraq is a good one. I hope that if people listen to it and study it in detail they will accept that if we do have to act and go to war it will not be because we want to, but because of the breaches by Saddam Hussein of the United Nations resolutions. I believe that the more people hear that argument and understand it, the more they will accept it.

Q. [98744]

Has my right hon. Friend heard the concern recently expressed by the Prime Minister of Ethiopia that the crisis over Iraq is distracting attention from international efforts to save the people in his country—between 12 million and 15 million—who are facing starvation? He said that insufficient food has been pledged and that it is arriving too slowly. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give that the international community will not lose sight of the impending catastrophe in Ethiopia?

I met Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia yesterday and we discussed the situation in his country. I assured him that we will remain entirely focused on it. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development agreed a few weeks ago a memorandum of understanding that will pledge somewhere in the region of £60 million over the next few years to help famine relief and development in Ethiopia. I assure my hon. Friend that whatever other issues are going on, we remain completely committed not only to Ethiopia, but to the cause of Africa. Under this Government we will achieve over the next few years a doubling and then a trebling of the amount of aid that was going to Africa when we came to office.

The Prime Minister and his Government promised that families would not have to pay steep council tax rises. Can the Prime Minister tell us by how much council tax has increased since he came to office?

Well, I can say to him that as a result of the additional sums of money that we have given there has been an increase of 25 per cent. in the amount of money that we have given to councils over the past few years, which contrasts with a 7 per cent. cut in the amount of money that was given under the Conservatives.

The answer is that average household council tax—[Interruption.] They do not want to hear it because it hurts. The average household council tax bill has increased by 42 per cent. since the Government came to power. Come April, council tax bills are set to rise by up to 10 times the rate of inflation. This from a Prime Minister who promised:

"We've no plans to increase tax at all."
In the same month the Prime Minister is going to hike up national insurance contributions. Can he tell us how much extra a typical family will pay as a result of his national insurance tax hike and council tax increases?

A family on median earnings will pay just under £4 a week, but that is actually a good deal if it means more money for the national health service and does not mean that they are forced, as they would be under his proposals, to deal with a health service that is underfunded or, as the Conservatives want, forced out into the private medical insurance sector, which would be an absolute disaster for them, and which many of them would not be able to afford.

Well, broken promises, and he discards them very easily. The answer is that the average family will now pay £570 more—the cost to them of the tax hike through jobs and the extra council tax that they will pay, which he promised that they would not pay. This from a Prime Minister who said:

"I vow that the promises we make on tax, we will keep."
After 53 tax rises all those promises have been broken, so people now know that instead of listening to what the Prime Minister says they should look at their wallets to see what they are now having to pay.

First, the tax burden this year will be less than in eight of the 11 years of the Thatcher Governments. That is just to set it in context. Secondly, I agree that we are indeed putting up national insurance contributions by 1 per cent. this April to pay for the national health service. However, the alternative is an underfunded national health service. That means that people will be forced to go outside the NHS and pay for their operations and health care in the private sector. He must explain how the health service will be improved not only through opposing the extra money for it but by imposing a 20 per cent. cut across the board in national health service spending. That would be a disaster for the people of this country, and it is why they rejected the Conservative party in the past two general elections.

Workload

Q5.[98745]

What steps he is taking to reduce his workload; and if he will make a statement.

Given his workload, will the Prime Minister tell the House and the nation what legal or statutory authority he has to commit British troops to war?

I shall act in accordance with constitutional precedent and with the way in which this country has always approached such issues. The Government, including me, will act in accordance with international law.

Is the Prime Minister aware that many people in Palestine fear that, in the case of military action, the eyes of the world will be distracted from them and that they are at risk of more illegal incursions by Israel? What will the Government do about that?

As part of my workload, it is important to focus on the middle east peace process. The Government have tried to play a part in that by taking forward the process of political reform in the Palestinian Authority. I believe that it is as important as anything else in the world today to try to ensure a just and lasting settlement in the middle east, based on the two-state solution: an Israel that is confident of its security and a viable Palestinian state. We will work towards that outcome.

Drugs Treatment

Q6. [98746]

How many drug addicts in treatment are (a) in residential rehabilitation, (b) on a course of methadone, (c) on a course of naltraxone and (d) on a course of buprenorphine.

The latest published Department of Health statistics show that nearly 2,000 individuals were in residential rehabilitation out of a total of 118,500 people in treatment in England in 2000–01. National figures for those receiving specific drug therapies have not been collected in the past, but they will be available later in 2003 following the introduction of a new recording system. Overall, the number of drug users who presented for treatment between 2001–02 showed an 8 per cent. rise.

As the Government's updated drugs strategy states that for every £1 spent on treatment, there will be a saving of £3 in criminal justice costs, can I have the money to prove that assertion in my constituency? I promise that I will return every penny of the threefold saving to the Chancellor.

It is certainly a better offer than the Chancellor is used to on such subjects. My hon. Friend has lobbied me on the subject and we are considering the areas that the service will cover. We will focus on the 30 highest basic command unit crime areas and we want to ensure the provision of a service that tracks people from the moment of arrest, when they are tested, through bail, when they are given the option of treatment, or refusal of bail, to sentencing, when, in appropriate cases, they will be offered the prospect of treatment rather than custody. Massive resources are going into that; we are increasing the funding spectacularly in the next few years to accommodate the policy. If it works in the 30 main BCU areas, we can roll it out across the country. However, I shall again consider carefully my hon. Friend's request to be included.

In the light of the International Narcotics Control Board?s report, which condemns the country's drugs policy, will the Prime Minister reconsider the reclassification of cannabis from class B to class C?

We did that for the reasons that the Home Secretary set out. We have not decriminalised cannabis for reasons that my right hon. Friend explained well. Of course, there is a big debate about the matter, but it is worth bearing in mind that the priorities for many police officers in this country are hard drugs.

My right hon. Friend will be aware, and no doubt proud, of the Government?s track record on introducing legislation that provides protection for workers in the workplace—

Order. I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman should be asking a question on drugs.

Engagements

Q6.[98747]

On Iraq, does the Prime Minister agree that what lies behind some of the opposition to his policy is a caricature of President George W. Bush which is a gross distortion of the truth? Will he take this timely opportunity to set the record straight?

I suspect that I am surrounded by advice on that particular topic. I have always found in my dealings with President Bush that he has been honest and straightforward. What is more, he chose to go through the United Nations route last year when many expected him not to. We should pay tribute to him for that.

Q8. [98749]

Despite record high levels of police officers both in Nottinghamshire and nationally, concerns remain about the level of antisocial and yobbish behaviour. What further measures does my right hon. Friend intend to take to tackle that real nuisance?

The Home Secretary has two major pieces of legislation for this Session: one is the Criminal Justice Bill; the other is the antisocial behaviour Bill. He and I met some senior police officers yesterday to discuss what could go into the legislation. Both Bills offer us the real opportunity to reform the criminal justice system, which urgently needs reform, and to introduce simple and easy-to-use penalties for police officers to tackle antisocial behaviour. Part of the problem they face is that the law is far too cumbersome to allow them to deal with some of the low-level disorder that makes people's lives hell in local communities. Fixed-penalty notices in particular, which are being piloted in different parts of the country, have been immensely successful in tackling that problem.

There are increasing reports of pupils of high ability and achievement being turned down by universities because of their social background. How would the Prime Minister justify that to the people who are losing out?

The simple point is that I would not. If universities are doing that, they are wrong. What is more, people should go to university based on their merit, whatever their class or background. That is what should happen.[Interruption.] Well, the hon. Gentleman asked me a question and I have given him an answer.

Q9. [98750]

My constituent, Feroz Abbasi, has been detained for more than a year by the American authorities, without charge, in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Court of Appeal has described that as a contravention of the principles of law. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to receive and evaluate the evidence against my constituent and to press the American authorities to charge and punish him or return him without delay back home to Britain?

I totally understand the concern that my hon. Friend raises. The Foreign Secretary has indicated to me that he would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and the family of his constituent. It is a highly unusual and difficult situation. We have been in touch with and have visited on several occasions those British nationals who are detained in Guantanamo Bay, but the situation is difficult. The one caveat I would enter is that we are still receiving quite valuable information from people who are there. However, I agree that it is an irregular situation and we would certainly want to try to bring it to an end as swiftly as possible.

Q10. [98751]

The Prime Minister promised in 1999 that within two years everyone would have access to an NHS dentist through NHS Direct. Yet in my constituency and many others there are no vacancies on NHS waiting lists. Given that the Government are developing a reputation for saying one thing and doing another, is it any surprise that people do not trust him on the important issue of Iraq?

I obviously do not know the exact circumstances of the hon. Gentleman's constituents. According to the briefing I have, however, almost £700,000 extra has been provided for dental services in his area. The reason we are putting so many additional resources into the national health service is precisely in order to ensure that people get proper access to it. What he will have to explain to his constituents at the next election is why he opposes the extra investment and supports a Conservative leadership that wants to cut investment in the health service by 20 per cent. across the board.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are many of his Back Benchers who will support him in tonight's vote on Iraq but who cannot support war against Iraq unless there is a second United Nations resolution? Will he make time for the House to have a debate and a vote before we commit British troops to Iraq?

As the Foreign Secretary has already said, subject to the natural qualification that we must do nothing that would ever put the security of our troops in danger, I have no doubt at all that the House will have an opportunity to vote on this issue many times if we come to military action—and, if there is a second resolution, to do so in relation to that second resolution.

We are not actually voting on the issue of war tonight; we are voting on the issue of the Government's strategy. I assure my hon. Friend that I am well aware that many people want the second resolution, and that is exactly what I want. I assure him that I am working flat out in order to achieve it. But the best way in which we can achieve it is to hold firm to the terms of resolution 1441.

Increasingly, the whole issue before the international community really comes down to this. When we said last November that this was a final opportunity to Saddam, when we said that there must be full, unconditional and immediate compliance, did we really mean it—or did we mean that we would come along later and say "Well, let's postpone it again"? I believe that we meant it: that we intended this genuinely to be the final opportunity. That is why I say that the onus is now on Saddam to make sure that he has indeed come into compliance with the United Nations' wishes.

Q11. [98752]

May I return to the issue of the national health service? Is the Prime Minister aware that when members of the public ring the NHS help line, they are greeted by an answering machine which tells them because of staff shortages the service is no longer manned? They are then connected to the Department of Health's inquiry service, which puts them on to a deputy patch manager who connects them with a security guard in a disused NHS building in Birmingham? Can the Government do better?

NHS Direct handles millions of people's calls. It may be that the health service is not improving in the hon. Gentleman's area, but I can tell him from my knowledge of my own constituency and many others I have visited that the health service spending is going in, and it is making a difference. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that those who try to run down the national health service day in, day out do nothing but help the Conservative case to get rid of the health service altogether.

Q12. [98753]

Is there any other Labour party, Socialist party or Social Democrat party anywhere else in Europe that supports the British and American approach to dealing with Saddam Hussein?

If Saddam Hussein was serious about peace, surely he would have released the 605 Kuwaiti prisoners of war who have been held for the last 12 years. What message has the Prime Minister for the young people flying out to Iraq who are going as human shields? What advice has he for any British soldier who might see them through the wrong end of a gun sight? And what will happen to those people after the war?

I very much hope that they do not put themselves at risk, as I think they would be doing so in the mistaken view that they were helping the situation—which they would not be. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to point out that there are still some 600 missing people in Kuwait, but that number goes alongside side the literally hundreds of thousands of people who have died under the regime of Saddam. I received some of the letters that my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) brought back from Iraq only today, but I urge people to read them, and to get at least some sense of the appalling brutality of the regime with which we are dealing.

Q14. [98755]

Along with the concern of so many in the country about the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against Iraq, there is real concern among families of our troops who are already in the Gulf. Last night I received a very anxious call from a constituent who had had a letter from her son, who is in the Royal Marines 42 Commando, already in the Gulf. He wrote this to his mother:

"If you wish to let it be known how the forgotten Commando is surviving with no newspapers, no proper shop, no forces radio station, no e-mails"—

Order. Questions should be brief. Can the Prime Minister manage an answer?

First, as I told the House yesterday, some of those reports about the troops and their equipment are misleading and irresponsible. The fact is, the British Army is one of the best and best equipped anywhere in the world. I do not want to diminish in any way the letter that the hon. Gentleman read out from his constituent, but I bet what the vast bulk of British armed forces out there would really like to know is that if they have to go into conflict, they have a united House and country behind them.