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Volume 400: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2003

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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.