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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 401: debated on Wednesday 19 March 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked



What recent assessment he has made of measures to create effective local anti-drugs partnerships in Wales. [102968]

Tackling the problem that drug misuse causes is an issue that is extremely important to me and to the Government. I am aware that the drug and alcohol action teams currently working in Wales will be integrated into the 22 Welsh community safety partnerships. We believe that that is a progressive way forward.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that he will be aware that it is no exaggeration to say that drugs are systematically undermining the social fabric of many valleys communities, especially former mining communities. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also agree that the answer to the problem must lie in establishing strong local partnerships between all the agencies involved. In my constituency, however, Rhondda Cynon Taff—which is meant to take the lead in establishing the new anti-drugs partnership—has played no part in making sure that we have a strong approach to deal with the issue. Is that because of political failure, and will my hon. Friend make sure that RCT gets its act together soon?

I am aware that there have been problems with the operation of crime and disorder partnerships in Wales. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) raised the matter in a Westminster Hall debate a little while ago. I can tell my hon. Friend that £5 million has been provided since 2001 to the communities against drugs initiatives to support projects across Wales to tackle drug-related crime, and to disrupt the drug markets. I will, of course, ensure that my hon. Friend's comments about his local partnership are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

The Home Office initiative Operation Tarian is proving a great success in the south Wales valleys. However, will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State and perhaps liaise with the Home Office about the fact that the Home Office is contributing only £50,000 to that very important initiative? Unfortunately, that means that £3.2 million must be drawn down from other National Assembly budgets, including rehabilitation budgets. We already know that there is a huge waiting list in Wales for those resources. In some south Wales valleys, the typical waiting time is 18 months. With the best will in the world, I ask the Minister to liaise with the Home Office about bringing in some more money. Otherwise, it seems to me to be almost self-defeating.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about Operation Tarian. It is an important initiative. It was started by police authorities in south Wales, and it is supported by colleagues in the Assembly, and by funding from the Home Office. Indeed, I was involved in discussions with colleagues when the operation was set up. The House may not be aware that South Wales police were involved in a large operation last week. Heroin, crack cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy were seized, and 83 people were arrested. Operation Tarian is making an important contribution to the intelligence gathering that is needed to combat the problem. However, I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I shall make sure that the appropriate Departments are made aware of it.

I recently held talks with Wrexham magistrates, at which I learned that there has been a very positive response to the imposition of drug treatment and testing orders. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential for people to understand that substantial funding is necessary to safeguard the orders and make them effective? Will not any suggestion that funding might be reduced undermine one of the ways that we are beginning to get to grips with the scourge of drugs in our community?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Substance abuse is not a simple problem. We must do everything that we can to break the cycle of drug misuse and criminal activity, but we must concentrate on three other initiatives—education, to prevent drug and substance misuse; treatment, including treatment for people who commit crime; and rehabilitation, to break the cycle. This year, £3 million has been allocated to drug and alcohol initiatives in Wales to enable 1,000 more people to access community detox facilities. We will need to expand that initiative, and I believe that my colleagues in the Assembly are working with the Home Office with that objective in mind.

Drugs are a bigger menace in Wales today than they were just five years ago. More people are hooked and dying, and the treatment for those who need it is totally inadequate. So what did the Government do? They demoted the drugs tsar, and then abolished the post. They removed all targets for reducing the number of people taking hard and soft drugs, and then reclassified cannabis from a class B drug to a class C drug. They have left the police and public confused about the law on the use of drugs. Even the annual drugs report has not been published since 2001. Is not the problem the fact that the Government do not have a strategy for dealing with drug abuse? Until they get one, more young people are going to get hooked, and to die. Is not it time that the Government got a proper strategy for drug abuse?

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Government have provided £27 million of support for local initiatives across Wales. My colleagues in the Assembly provided a further £18 million over the next three years for initiatives, and the new community partnerships will work along those lines.

It is a bit rich for the hon. Gentleman to make further demands when his party is committed to a 20 per cent. cut in public expenditure. What would that do for tackling the drug problem in Wales? His colleagues will have to give that answer to the people of Wales on 1 May, when once again they will be rejected.

Severnside Airport


What recent representations he has received concerning a proposed Severnside Airport. [102969]

I have met representatives of the Severnside consortium, who briefed me on their proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend recall receiving from me representations that show that there is considerable opposition to the current proposals for Severnside airport on a man-made island in the Severn estuary? There is opposition from Monmouthshire county council and no support from the 18 airlines, including British Airways, that I have contacted, and I found majority opposition from the residents of Portskewett and Sudbrook in my constituency when I undertook a full household survey. Will my right hon. Friend study those representations and recommend to the Department of Transport that the proposal be rejected?

I will certainly study those views. I am well aware of the concerns of residents in his local area, not least because he brought them to my attention a few weeks ago. In the consultation exercise that is being carried out by the Department of Transport—a White Paper will follow later this year—full account will be taken of environmental, safety and economic issues, as well as of the views of local residents. The Severnside consortium has an ambitious plan to relocate traffic from the south-east of England to that area, but the views of local residents must of course be taken into account.

Does the Secretary of State still support the concept of a regional air service with Cardiff as its hub?

Yes, I do. Regional airports already play a vital role in Wales and should play an even more vital role right across Wales, from north to south and from east to west. There is great potential for increasing air traffic in that way.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that international airports are good servants but atrocious neighbours? Would it not be right to use the Severn estuary, with its almost unique quality of having the second highest rise and fall of tide in the world, to generate electricity in a clean, benign and nonpolluting way?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am a keen enthusiast for renewable energy. The Severn estuary barrage was one of the issues that we examined during our consideration of the energy White Paper. It is hugely expensive, but there are opportunities for utilising tidal and wave power, and the Welsh coast and the Severn estuary may represent such an opportunity.

Local Government Finance


What discussions he has had in March on the effects of proposed council tax increases in Wales in April 2003. [102970]

My right hon. Friend and I have discussions with many people and organisations about matters affecting Wales.

Will the Minister give us the latest information on the likely average increase in council tax in Wales in the current year? Does he agree that people in Wales particularly resent high increases if they feel that decisions are largely taken in Whitehall and the Wales Office, not by their local councils? Would he be willing to allow the Welsh Assembly to have power over the way in which local government finance is raised in Wales, and will he consider local income tax as a much fairer alternative?

That is a very interesting proposition. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is hoping to stand for the office of Mayor of London. As he campaigns on this issue, he will no doubt explain to the people of London why the Lib Dem council in Southwark, supported by the Tories, has hiked the council tax by 9 per cent. He should compare that with an average council tax rise in Wales of 8 per cent. The message is simple—Lib Dem and Tory councils cost more: vote Labour on 1 May.

Has the Welsh Assembly had time to reflect on its decision to delay council elections for one year? In future, might it decide to allow council elections to concur with Assembly elections, as in Scotland? That might have a beneficial effect on council tax rises.

I am not sure that I want to be led down that road. When the Assembly decided to delay the next council elections, there were extensive discussions among all parties. A decision was taken and I do not believe that the Assembly has any intention of changing the decision at this time.

In 1997, people living in a band D house in Merthyr Tydfil paid £569 in council tax. When they receive their council tax bills in just a couple of weeks' time, they will be paying £1,003. Does the Minister think that a reasonable increase?

Some of us have longer memories than others. In the last two years of the Tory Government, council tax band D in Wales went up by 32 per cent. This year—thanks to the support of this Labour Government, working in partnership with the Labour Assembly—councils have received an extra 9 per cent. in support for public services. As I said earlier, the average council tax rise in Wales is 8 per cent. this year. One council, of course, has imposed a rise of well above that: Conservative-run Vale of Glamorgan, backed and kept in power by the nationalists, is putting up its council tax by 10 per cent. That is a clear message to the people of the Vale of Glamorgan come 1 May.

I asked whether it was a reasonable increase; I infer from his answer that the Minister thinks it is. In Blaenau Gwent, for instance, council tax has gone up by 78 per cent. since 1997. This year, people there face an 11 per cent. increase in their council tax, which will go up to £975. In Neath, the constituency of the Secretary of State for Wales, the increase since 1997 has been 56 per cent. In Cardiff, people face a rise of 12 per cent. this year, which is four times the rate of inflation. How are people on fixed incomes supposed to pay those huge rises? Do they cut down on food, stop going out or turn the heating off? Those are real questions for people. What advice would the Minister give them when they open their council tax bills in just a few weeks' time?

The hon. Gentleman could at least do us the courtesy of getting his figures right. The figures are 9 per cent. and 11 per cent. for Blaenau Gwent and Cardiff.

What would public services in Wales be like if they were subject to a 20 per cent. cut? Let me tell the House what they would be like. We would have one in five nurses taken out; one in five hospital wards closed; one in five teachers got rid of; one in five police officers got rid of; £155 million worth of cuts in every—[Interruption.]

Order. Perhaps the Minister will not mention the election in Wales any more. He has used up his ration.

Rail Services


What recent discussions he has had with National Assembly Secretaries concerning rail services in Wales. [102971]

Regular ones, to ensure improvements are made.

I welcome the £2.5 million that the Assembly has allocated to improve railway stations in Wales, but does the Secretary of State accept that if we want to improve rail services we will have to attack the Reading blockage, the signalling problems at Slough and the flooding in the Chipping Sodbury tunnel? Those factors are the cause of many of the delays. Will the Secretary of State discuss this issue with his Westminster colleagues and press for improvements? What we need is partnership, and not the drawbridge mentality of the nationalists.

I could not agree more. These issues are being addressed through the record investment that is going into improving our railways. That includes investment in the Paddington to south-west Wales line. We are doubling our investment in rail infrastructure and rail services over the coming two years. If we got a Conservative Government back, they would cut rail investment by 20 per cent.

The very active and positive Cambrian coast railway liaison conference is made up of members from all parties and from none. They have been working hard but are continually disappointed that the small amount of investment needed to improve services on the Cambrian coast is withheld. Will the Secretary of State assure us that those services will be improved, as the cross-party Cambrian line support group has requested so often?

We are certainly anxious to see further support and investment to improve rail services right across Wales, including the Cambrian service. We shall look at that. However, if nationalist policies were pursued and Wales was made independent, Wales would be bankrupt and—

The Secretary of State will be aware of the fact that Virgin Trains reneged on its proposal to run seven through trains from Holyhead to London from September of next year. Will he agree to meet a delegation of business men and stakeholders from my constituency so that we can put pressure on Virgin Trains to reconsider that decision, which will have a serious impact on tourism and the economy of my area?

I shall be happy to meet that delegation, because I know of my hon. Friend's concern to improve rail services. Indeed, the people of Holyhead and people throughout Anglesey deserve improved rail services, which is what they will get under the Labour Government. I shall be happy to take up my hon. Friend's request.

While the Minister is being generous, and given the unsatisfactory service north to south and east to west in mid-Wales, will he be willing to accept representations from rail user groups about what might be done to improve the frequency and reliability of the service? Will he also give us an assurance that the Government have no plans for a real-terms cut to the subsidy for rail services in that area?

We are increasing rail investment by record amounts. I know of the hon. Gentleman's concern about rail services in that area, and the Strategic Rail Authority is proposing additional services for the heart of Wales line, which will improve services in mid-Wales. I do not know how many other requests to meet delegations on rail services I shall get, but I shall be happy to receive the hon. Gentleman's.

Given that sometimes it is a wonder that we get to London—[Interruption.]

Sometimes it is a wonder that regular rail users get to London on a Monday or get home on a Thursday. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State call in the SRA, Railtrack and all the train operators to thrash out a strategy to get rid of all the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) referred to earlier?

As a regular user of that service, I am well aware of the difficulties and how often delays occur. However, we are dealing with record under-investment over nearly 20 years of Conservative rule, which will take time to turn around. Investment in our rail services is being doubled over the next few years. That will continue for the rest of the decade and we shall see improvements on the London to south-west Wales line that will benefit my hon. Friend and me.



What discussions he has had with (a) the National Assembly for Wales and (b) local authorities in Wales on contingency planning for a terrorist attack on nuclear installations in the Bristol channel. [102972]

The lead responsibility for counteracting terrorism lies with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. However, security at civil nuclear facilities is a matter for the Department of Trade and Industry. The UK's civil nuclear sites apply stringent security measures, regulated by the DTI's Office for Civil Nuclear Security.

Both the Wales Office and the Assembly are involved in national arrangements for dealing with the effects of any civil emergency. Within Wales the Assembly works jointly with local authorities to maintain a state of preparedness.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that 15 years ago, when we were fighting proposals for the Hinkley C pressurised water reactor, we were told that the chances of an aircraft hitting a nuclear installation were so negligible as to be irrelevant? Few people would take that view now, so is the Minister satisfied with the contingency arrangements for nuclear installations, which, on Severnside, are the most concentrated in the country? Is he satisfied with the resources for the National Radiological Protection Board and is he sure that the emergency services on both sides of the Bristol channel are able to cope with a catastrophic emergency?

The companies operating civil nuclear installations have always been required to have in place robust, detailed and well-rehearsed plans to respond to any radiological release. The plans involve emergency services and local authorities in the surrounding area and are regulated by the nuclear industry's inspectors, as the hon. Gentleman is probably aware. The arrangements were significantly enhanced following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Contingency plans were tested against the threat posed by a major incident in a live exercise at Bradwell on 10 May last year. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must always continue to maintain very high vigilance and a very high regard for those installations and ensure that they are properly cared for and properly protected, and I believe that we are doing the right thing in that respect.

Does the Minister accept that the best long-term defence against terrorist attacks on nuclear installations is to rid Britain of its civil and military nuclear roles? What can we learn from the disaster at Chernobyl, as a result of which not only that community but even farms throughout Wales were devastated?

Until yesterday, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was responsible for homeland defence. Who is now in charge of that?

Those matters are, of course, ultimately the responsibility of the Home Secretary.

Climate Change Levy


What recent representations he has received about the effects of the climate change levy on manufacturing industry in Wales.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received a number of representations from individual companies and groups representing business, including the CBI.

Will the Minister confirm that, on its introduction, the Treasury said that the climate change levy would be broadly neutral for business, that manufacturing has, in fact, suffered a £90 million net tax hit, that Wales is particularly hard hit with 28 per cent. of its gross domestic product dependent on manufacturing and, furthermore, that the Engineering Employers Federation's counter-proposals would lead to greater reductions in energy use and a lower cost to business in Wales and elsewhere? [Interruption.]

The Government are committed to making Britain one of the most competitive business environments in the world. That has been demonstrated by the fact that our tax burden on business and industry is the lowest of all our major competitors, but we recognise, too, that business and industry must make a contribution to improve and protect our environment. I mentioned in my initial answer to the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met representatives of the CBI. The director of the CBI in Wales fully understands the Government's position; nevertheless, my right hon. Friend took on board the points made by the director with regard to the climate change levy and, as a result, he is in discussion with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the climate change levy has been a problem for Corus? He will be acutely conscious, as I am, of the difficulties currently facing Corus. Will he join me in praising the achievements and spirit of the whole work force at Llanwern? Will he undertake to examine urgently, with colleagues in Wales and Whitehall, whether any aspect of public policy unnecessarily disadvantages Corus in doing its business? If he identifies one, will he act swiftly to deal with it?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has been involved in detailed discussions with the management of Corus and other Ministers about the company's concerns. He carried on that job of work from the former Secretary of State for Wales, who also played an important part in helping to secure a package when Corus announced its job losses. The Government will work in partnership with colleagues in the Assembly and with Corus in every way possible to avoid any further job losses at Llanwern.

Will the Minister specifically consider offering further concessions to the steel industry in relation to the climate change levy and take into account the industry's concerns about the effect of the landfill tax? Can he confirm that the UK Government have sought approval from the Commission for emergency state aid on a contingency basis, which the Dutch Government have already done?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government have made available £30 million a year in incentives for organisations that volunteer to take part in the UK emissions trading scheme. We are working with the industry and colleagues in the European Union to ensure that we are doing the right thing and that that does not impact adversely on business and industry in Wales. I think that we are doing a good job in that respect.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [103487]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 March.

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.

Now that it seems inevitable that, sadly, there will be immense destruction in Iraq over the next few weeks, and given that the Select Committee on International Development reported earlier this year that less than half the necessary funds for the reconstruction of Afghanistan had been contributed, can the Prime Minister assure the House that he, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development will ensure that sufficient funds for the reconstruction of Iraq are provided swiftly?

First, I should say to the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of the reconstruction programme post conflict in Iraq is not, in fact, primarily to do with the consequences of any military conflict, but is actually to do with reconstructing the country after the years of Saddam Hussein and his rule. Secondly, I would say to him that, yes, we will ensure that the funds are available—indeed, funds have already been earmarked for the purpose—and the Secretary of State for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury are doing all that they can to make sure that we co-ordinate with American allies and also with other UN partners to ensure that the funds are available and also that the programme is available, so that in the post-conflict situation in Iraq the people of Iraq are given the future that they need.

Will the Prime Minister note that, at the present time in the Gulf, we have 37 Army chaplains, 12 RAF chaplains and 19 to 20 Royal Navy chaplains? Does that not reflect the great support of the churches for our armed services at this time? Should that not be reflected not only in this House, but in the country?

I know that my hon. Friend, because of his special responsibilities and interests in this matter, is deeply knowledgeable about the armed forces chaplains. They do an excellent job for our armed forces. At this moment in particular, the thoughts of the whole House, no matter what position we take on Iraq and the conflict, will be with our armed forces wishing them well and wishing them safety.

Following last night's vote, does the Prime Minister agree that British forces serving in the Gulf should know that, irrespective of how individual MPs or even parties voted, the whole House of Commons backs them and wishes them Godspeed and a safe return?

I am sure that the whole House will endorse those sentiments. Whatever positions people have taken—and we understand the reasons for that—I know that everyone in this House wishes our armed forces well, wishes that, if there is conflict, it will be over as quickly and as successfully as possible and would like to pay tribute to their dedication and commitment on behalf of this country.

As Saddam Hussein has rejected every single offer to disarm or leave the country, is it now a reality that the removal of Saddam Hussein has become an explicit war aim?

It is the case that if the only means of achieving the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction is the removal of the regime, then the removal of the regime of course has to be our objective. It is important that we realise that we have come to this position because we have given every opportunity for Saddam voluntarily to disarm, but the will not only of this country but of the United Nations now has to be upheld.

Given the Prime Minister's answer, the whole House also will have heard the statement by President Bush that any Iraqi commander who commits a war crime will be prosecuted. Will he confirm that that dictum goes right to the top and, despite some reports of immunity, includes Saddam Hussein himself?

There was a possibility, if Saddam Hussein was prepared to leave voluntarily, quit Iraq and spare his people the conflict, that we could have ensured that that happened. The circumstances in relation to any immunity might then have been different, but it is reasonably clear, I think, that that will not happen. I think that it is very important that those in senior positions of responsibility in Saddam Hussein's regime realise that they will be held accountable for what they have done.

When I asked the Prime Minister in the past about his plans for post-conflict Iraq, he was, quite legitimately and understandably, reluctant to give full answers because he would not have wanted to give the impression that conflict was inevitable. Now that war is looming and Saddam Hussein's days are clearly numbered, will he tell us what plans there are to put in place a civilian representative Government in Iraq?

We are in discussion now with not just the United States, but other allies and the United Nations. We want to ensure that any post-conflict authority in Iraq is endorsed and authorised by a new United Nations resolution, and I think that that will be an important part of bringing the international community back together again.

We have set out a vision statement for Iraq and the Iraqi people, and it might help if I highlight one or two of its aspects. First, we will support the Iraqi people in their desire for
"a unified Iraq within its current borders",
and we will protect their territorial integrity. Secondly, we will protect their wealth, and I repeat again that any money from Iraqi oil will go into a UN-administered trust fund for the benefit of the Iraqi people. There should be freedom in
"an Iraq which respects fundamental human rights, including freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the dignity of family life",
and there should be freedom from the fear of arbitrary arrest. There should also be an
"Iraq respecting the rule of law, whose government reflects the diversity and choice of its population",
and who help to rebuild Iraq, for the Iraqi people, on the basis of unifying the Iraqi people. Those principles of peace, prosperity, freedom and good government will go some way toward showing that if there is a conflict and Saddam Hussein is removed, the future for the Iraqi people will be brighter and better as a result.

Now that the Prime Minister has received a mandate for war, will he take this opportunity to reassure the world that it is a war against Saddam Hussein, and not the Iraqi people and Muslims? Will he also reassure our Muslim communities that he will not allow them to be scapegoats for anything that might happen in the Gulf?

I thank my hon. Friend for what he said because I know that it will be heard and considered closely by people in this country and abroad. Let me make it quite clear that our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people because the Iraqi people are the principal victims of Saddam Hussein. Our quarrel is with Saddam. He is the person who has been responsible for killing thousands—indeed, hundreds of thousands—of Muslim people both in his wars and through his internal repression. I know that the vast majority of the Muslim community in this country are good, law-abiding people who contribute an immense amount to our country, and we are proud of our country as a multicultural and multiracial society.

As, of course, the whole House will associate itself with the expressions of support for our armed forces and their families at home, may I ask the Prime Minister about the related issue arising from the past few days: the middle east road map? What is the status of that in the eyes of the British Government, given that the Israelis seem to feel that it can be altered as it progresses?

Our commitment is total to the middle east peace process and to the road map being published. That is the clear commitment that has been given not only on our behalf, but on behalf of the President of the United States. Of course, both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government can make their comments, but the road map is not simply a set of principles, but a detailed process for reaching the point of establishing a viable Palestinian state and an Israel that is confident of its security and recognised by all its neighbours. We are totally committed to ensuring that the road map is fulfilled.

Will the Prime Minister also reassure the House that he will maintain pressure, as he has already, on the American Administration to ensure that they continue to back the momentum for that process?

It is worth quoting what the President of the United States said last Friday on that subject because it indicates the degree of commitment that he has given. He said:

"The government of Israel, as the terror threat is removed and security improves, must take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable and credible Palestinian state, and to work as quickly as possible toward a final status agreement."
He went on to say:
"We expect … a Palestinian Prime Minister will be confirmed soon. Immediately upon confirmation, the road map for peace will be given to the Palestinians and the Israelis."
He then said:
"America is committed, and I am personally committed, to implementing our road map toward peace."
That is his commitment and my commitment, and we will work hard to ensure that it is delivered.

It is widely reported in today's newspapers that the United States intends to use a new bomb that will melt the Iraqi communications systems. Will this bomb also melt the equipment that is used in hospitals and that runs the water and electricity supplies in Baghdad? Will the Prime Minister assure us that it does not melt people?

In any military conflict, we will operate in accordance with international law. Any weapons or munitions that are used will be in accordance with international law. I assure my hon. Friend that we will do everything that we can to minimise civilian casualties and, indeed, to maximise the possibilities of a swift and successful conclusion to any conflict.

Q2. [103488]

While our thoughts and prayers are with our brave servicemen in the Gulf, will the Prime Minister reflect on one thing? Given the disgraceful and spineless attitude of the French Government, is it not highly dangerous and irresponsible to contemplate tying British defences into a European common defence and security policy?

If that was a bid for the Foreign Office badge of diplomacy, it somewhat failed. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we make sure that we participate fully in any debates about European defence. The purpose of our participation is to make sure that European defence is fully compatible with our membership of NATO. I appreciate that there is a disagreement between us and the Opposition, but I genuinely believe that the worst thing that we could do in any debate about European defence would be to leave the chair empty. If I can put it more diplomatically than the hon. Gentleman, those who might oppose our vision of how European defence matures over years would then be strengthened.

Q3. [103489]

International humanitarian law prohibits military attack that fails to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants or that disproportionately impacts on civilians. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that, in the war on Iraq that the House sanctioned last night, we will not be employing cluster bombs and that electricity, transport and water infrastructure will not be targeted?

I simply say in relation to any weapons or munitions that we use that we will use only those that are in accordance with international law and with the Geneva convention. That is the responsibility of the Government and is the commitment of this Government and has been of other British Governments in the past. We will do everything that we can to minimise civilian casualties. The reason why, in respect of any military action that we take, we get legal advice not merely on the military action itself but on the targeting is to make sure that that happens. Of course, I understand that, if there is conflict, there will be civilian casualties. That, I am afraid, is in the nature of any conflict, but we will do our best to minimise them. However, I point out to my hon. Friend that civilian casualties in Iraq are occurring every day as a result of the rule of Saddam Hussein. He will be responsible for many, many more deaths even in one year than we will be in any conflict.

Can the Prime Minister tell the House anything of his plans in terms of the state of readiness for homeland defence? What state of a war footing is the United Kingdom on in the now more likely event of international terrorism?

We have made detailed preparations for the possibility of any terrorist attack, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows. We have also spent several hundred million pounds ensuring that we have both the equipment and the planning in place. I will not go into the details of each part of that, but I assure him that we are well aware of the risk that this country—indeed, all countries—suffers and faces at the moment. We are doing everything that we can to prepare against it.

Q4. [103490]

The UK, along with dozens of other nations, stood shoulder to shoulder with the US over Afghanistan and now Iraq. That loyalty has been rewarded by the Bush Administration with the imposition of steel tariffs, the withdrawal from test ban treaties, the introduction of farm subsidies in America, and contempt for the International Criminal Court. The President rubbished and reneged on the Kyoto and Johannesburg treaties, and scuppered my right hon. Friend's attempts to open dialogue with the Palestinians in January. Can my right hon. Friend use his now legendary powers of persuasion to convince President Bush to develop a world vision worthy of his great nation?

I gather from my hon. Friend's remarks that he is not a total fan of President Bush. There are important things that President Bush has agreed to, and it is as well to balance my hon. Friend's remarks with those. First, President Bush took the case of Iraq to the United Nations. He was asked to do so and did so, and he agreed resolution 1441. I say and say again that it was not he who walked away from that deal.

Secondly, in respect of the middle east peace process, my hon. Friend will have heard the words that I spoke a moment or two ago, quoting President Bush and his commitment to that. He is the first American President to commit himself to the two-state solution of a state of Israel and a viable Palestinian state.

We are working closely on a new UN resolution in relation to reconstruction.

There are disagreements about trade, but those are familiar disagreements, not merely with the present American Administration, but with previous American Administrations. A couple of years ago, under the previous Administration of a Democrat President, I spent a large part of my time dealing with the issue of cashmere sweaters. Those things happen, and America is not the only country with which we have the odd trade disagreement. I understand what my hon. Friend is saying. It is important that we use our influence to develop that global agenda, and I believe that we can do so.

Does the defeat of the Government's asylum legislation in the Court of Appeal yesterday make the achievement of the Prime Minister's target of halving asylum applications by September more or less likely?

I am pleased to say that because we won on the legal principle, that is not affected.

The Prime Minister is the only person who can claim defeat in the Court of Appeal as a triumph. The asylum organisations have all said that the policy is now in tatters. Surely this is the latest setback for a Government who introduced vouchers, then scrapped them; scrapped the white list, then reintroduced it; and have been forced by the courts almost weekly to change their policy. Small wonder that last Friday the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees published a report that shows that for the second year running Britain has the worst record of all the industrialised nations. Is it not true that under the present Prime Minister we have become the asylum capital of the world?

First, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong about the judgment. The judgment supported the principle that if people do not claim in time, they do not get their benefit. There are changes to the procedures in individual cases that we can make without disturbing that basic principle. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman will hold me to account on the pledge and commitment that we have given. If he looks carefully at the asylum figures for the end of last year, once the new asylum legislation came into effect, he will see that there was already a 25 per cent. drop in asylum claims. I am pleased to say that, as will become apparent in due course, that progress has continued well.

Q5. [103491]

Saddam Hussein has been offered immunity from prosecution if he leaves Iraq. On what authority was that offer made, what message does it send to other corrupt regimes, and what is my right hon. Friend's strategy for a return to a world order in which decisions are taken lawfully through the UN, rather than by the world's superpower? Or is it too late? With his help, has the foundation stone for the pax Americana already been laid?

First, the reason why we were prepared to offer such a possibility was to avoid war, which is, after all, what I thought my hon. Friend wanted. If she was saying that President Bush had been too soft and should have said that we would remove Saddam Hussein in any event, I could understand that. We wanted to try to avoid conflict by having him voluntarily disarm. Then, if he refused to do so, we were prepared to give a further chance to resolve the matter peacefully by getting him to leave the country. Now we are faced with the prospect of leaving him in place without disarming him, or making sure that we remove him from power. I earnestly ask my hon. Friend to consider this.

If we remove Saddam from power, as I believe we will have to because it is the only way of disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, the people who will rejoice most will be the Iraqi people who will be free of a murderous tyrant who has done nothing but damage to his country. If she wants to know what Iraq could be like, she should talk to the people in northern Iraq who, because of British and American pilots in the no-fly zone, have been able to build something of their country, and she will see that the true impulse of the Iraqi people is for greater freedom, democracy, prosperity and the rule of law.

Q6. [103492]

What lessons does the Prime Minister think could be learnt for a post-war Iraq from the current situation in Kosovo?

First, I would say that people in Kosovo, as people in Afghanistan, whatever the difficulties, are infinitely better for being removed from the rule of brutal dictators, whether Milosovic or the Taliban. Secondly, we must stay in for the long term. It will be easier over time, but in Kosovo, as in Afghanistan, we cannot make a short-term commitment. We must make a long-term commitment to reconstruction and rebuilding those countries. But for all the difficulties in the Balkans at the moment, most obviously after the appalling assassination of the Serbian Prime Minister recently, the Balkans is at a point where it has a better prospect for peace and prosperity than probably at any time in the past 100 years. That is because we were prepared to take military action in order to remove the regime that was preventing that prosperity from coming about.

The Prime Minister will be aware that it was this Government who introduced the historic national minimum wage in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Conservative party. On behalf of temporary workers, particularly in my Corby constituency, may I thank the Government for the announcement today that the national minimum wage is to rise by three times the rate of inflation? But will my right hon. Friend consider lowering the adult rate so that 18-year-olds can qualify for the higher rate and applying a youth rate to 16 and 17-year-olds to prevent exploitation of young people in the workplace?

The point that my hon. Friend makes about young people is one that is often made. Our concern has always been to ensure that we do nothing to disturb the employment prospects of young people, but we keep the matter under review. I am pleased to say that we have published the fourth report from the independent Low Pay Commission and, as he rightly says, it will mean that the minimum wage for adults rises from the present £4.20 to £4.50 in October, and then to £4.85 in October 2004. More than 1 million people are now benefiting from the minimum wage, many of them low-paid women workers, and, combined with the working families tax credit, literally thousands of families throughout the country in every constituency are benefiting from this Labour Government's drive towards greater equality.

Q7. [103493]

During the next few weeks our humanitarian response to the Iraqi crisis will be as important as our military one. Given the monumental mess that the Secretary of State for International Development has made this week of her own position, what confidence can we have that she is now the right person to do that job?

We can have the confidence of the experience over many years in which that Department has gained a reputation throughout the world for the humanitarian assistance that it has given. That is as a result of the co-operation that has taken place not just between that Department and other Departments, but with the United Nations and with the American Government. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will put every effort into the humanitarian assistance that is required, and we will make sure, in particular, that as military action develops we are able to take care of the Iraqi people in a way that Saddam Hussein has not been able to do.

Q8. [103494]

The Prime Minister, in his powerful speech yesterday and again in his response to the Leader of the Opposition this lunchtime, has confirmed that it is crucial that any post-war settlement for Saddam Hussein's Iraq involves the UN in the administration and control of the oil revenues. We all know that during the next few weeks the logistical pressures on the Government, particularly on the Prime Minister, will be enormous, so can he reassure the House that he will talk to the Foreign Secretary to insist that the detail of that arrangement is pursued with the utmost vigour with the Americans and involving the EU partners, both prospective from the enlargement countries and those that we have at the moment, including those who did not agree with the Government at the Security Council?

There are two aspects. The first is the humanitarian relief that is necessary as military action gets under way, on which the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence are working closely, obviously, with our military allies, particularly the US. Indeed, I took a meeting on that issue this morning. The second aspect will be humanitarian assistance in the post-conflict situation, which should be done under a UN resolution, as in relation to the administration, and of course we want to involve as many countries as possible.

Q9. [103495]

Does the Prime Minister believe that the United Nations needs to reform? If so, in what way should it reform, and what role will he have in that?

There are issues, obviously, in relation to the UN Security Council and reform of it, which we will have to discuss with others, but the issue is not really institutional; it is whether we can construct a sufficiently strong partnership between Europe and America and a global agenda around which people can unite. If they cannot unite politically, no amount of institutional tinkering will help us resolve those problems. That is why, at the end of this, we need a period of reflection to see how we put that partnership back together, and how we construct the global agenda that would bring in a lot more people to our way of thinking. That, whatever the institutional arguments in the UN, is what is essential.

Now that military units are moving into what was previously the demilitarised zone in Kuwait and Iraq, will my right hon. Friend offer the House an assurance today that correct records and registers of inoculations, medication administered and weapons used in different sectors will be kept so that the parents of serving men and women can be assured that the right kind of inquiries can be made in the event of any condition arising akin to that which is called Gulf war syndrome?

I am sure that my hon. Friend's point is justified. I know that procedures are already in place to do that, and, if he will allow me, I will write to him setting those out in detail. His point, however, is obviously important for the security and safety of our armed forces personnel.

Q10. [103496]

Despite what the Prime Minister said to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) a moment ago, the fact is that a common European defence policy is central to the new draft constitution for Europe. Why will he not allow the people of Britain the right to have a referendum so that they can have their say on the matter?

Probably for the same reason that the Conservatives did not have one on Maastricht—[Interruption.] I know that they have changed a little bit in the meantime—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] May I ask Conservative Members to please sort this matter out among themselves, and come back later? The purpose of European defence is in relation to circumstances in which NATO does not want to undertake an operation but European defence has the capability of doing so.

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that is true. The best example of that is Bosnia in the early 1990s. Because, at that point, America did not want to become engaged, we did not have the capability of protecting people in Bosnia. As a result of that, thousands of people died, and we are still in Bosnia more than 10 years later.

Were cathedrals such as Durham, Lincoln or Wells to be damaged, what would we feel? What precautions are being taken about Kerbala, Najaf, Ur, Hatra and the other great sites? That will be difficult, given that, as at Samarra last time, Saddam may place military objects near the ancient sites.

I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises the propensity towards total irresponsibility of Saddam. I assure him that we are fully committed to the protection of cultural property. That is not merely the Government's position: we are also committed to that under the Geneva conventions. I understand that the Foreign Secretary has talked to him about that, and we will do everything that we can to make sure that sites of cultural or religious significance are properly and fully protected.

Q11. [103497]

On a domestic matter, does the Prime Minister support in principle the devolution of student funding arrangements to the Welsh Assembly, given that the Labour-Liberal Democrat partnership has requested that?

The Secretary of State for Wales informs me that discussions about the issue are under way.