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Engagements

Volume 400: debated on Wednesday 26 February 2003

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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.