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Commons Chamber

Volume 401: debated on Thursday 20 March 2003

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House Of Commons

Thursday 20 March 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Trade And Industry

The Secretary of State was asked

Order. Questions to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I call Lynne Jones.

Now we know that Bush is lying to the American people—

Order. The Minister must reply. The hon. Lady has been here long enough to know that she should call Question 1.

Postal Services Commission

2.

Whether the appointment of the chairman of the Postal Services Commission will be renewed; and if she will make a statement. [103881]

The term of the current chairman of Postcomm, Graham Corbett, formally ends on 31 March. I am glad to be able to tell the House that he has agreed to an extension of his term of up to a year, to complete the current phase of Postcomm's work and allow time for the appointment of his successor. Having consulted Mr. Corbett on the future composition of Postcomm, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has agreed to begin the process now to recruit a new chairman. She has also agreed to reappoint Janet Lewis—Jones for a further three—year term.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am concerned to know how his Department will ensure that the successor, the new chair and, indeed, members of the commission will be appointed with some relevant experience of the postal service. How can he ensure that?

The current commissioners have been successful in establishing Postcomm as a postal regulator with a strong, independent voice. That was no mean feat and I congratulate them on it. There is a case for the commission reflecting direct experience of postal markets. We have agreed with Graham Corbett on a balance of continuity and change as the work of Postcomm goes forward. We will seek to appoint a new commissioner with specific experience of postal markets to reflect my hon. Friend's point. We also need to reflect on the overall balance of Postcomm in considering candidates for the new chair.

Will the chairman of the Postal Services Commission look specifically at the Government's broken promises and ensure that elderly people can continue to collect benefits in the way that they have always wished to—from post offices? Postmasters and customers in my constituency are complaining bitterly that the Government have not kept their promise and that they are under huge pressure and influence to open new bank accounts. The Government made clear promises, but they have broken them. Will the new chairman look into that?

Those promises have been maintained and will be maintained as the new arrangements roll out from next month. In particular, it will be possible for anybody who so wishes to continue to receive their benefit in cash weekly at the post office without charge either through a basic bank account, an ordinary current account, where the bank has a contract with the post office, or through a Post Office card account. That requirement, which was set out three years ago, is fundamental to the way in which the automated credit transfer change has been implemented.

I am slightly disappointed that Mr. Corbett has an extension to his position. He has not been the force that we needed, although I may be in a minority of one on that. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Thank you. May we have an assurance that his successor will have ideas that are rooted in reality and not be obsessed by the market approach, down which Mr. Corbett seems to be leading the Post Office?

In my view Mr. Corbett has done a good job in establishing Postcomm with an independent voice. Nobody should be surprised that he has sometimes taken views at variance with those of the Royal Mail—that goes with this terrain. Maintenance of the universal service obligation is Postcomm's key aim. That will certainly be at the forefront of the aims of the new chairman, as it has been for Graham Corbett.

Animal Welfare

3.

What steps she is taking to prevent imports of products containing cat and dog fur. [103882]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
(Miss Melanie Johnson)

The Government are investigating the possibilities for the labelling of any products containing domestic cat or dog fur. This will give consumers the information they need about what they are buying and enable the Government better to determine levels of imports.

I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend is aware of the concerns of people such as Sarah O'Leary in Plymouth and of the Western Morning News. Does she share their revulsion at this vile trade, in which cats and dogs are beaten and clubbed to death for fur for toys and ornaments? Will she do everything she can to bring this awful trade to an end?

I would like to commend the campaign of the Western Morning News and the work that my hon. Friend and others are doing. The Government are serious about addressing cruelty to animals in third countries that do not have the same high welfare standards as the United Kingdom. My noble friend the Minister for Trade and Investment will meet interested non—governmental organisations and the relevant industry associations in the next month or so, to discuss their views on labelling. She has undertaken to report back on progress before the summer recess.

I welcome the Minister's initiatives on cat and dog fur, but there are many long—established and legitimate mink furrier industries in the UK, many of which are in my constituency. What discussions are taking place with the Home Office to ensure that such people can go about their legitimate business?

:I am sure that the Home Office is undertaking its duties in respect of these matters, as it always should.

Rural Post Offices

4.

If she will make a statement on the provision of Government services by rural post offices. [103883]

Every community is entitled to good access to postal and Government services. We will continue to ensure good access through the post office network, in particular through the rural network.

Does the Minister acknowledge that, with the imminent commencement of the universal bank and the withdrawal of 40 per cent. of rural post offices' business, many rural post offices will have to make staff redundant and, ultimately, close as the Government withdraw the lifeline that allows those post offices to continue in business? How will the Government replace that lost income stream? Is this not just another example of the Government's disdain for rural post offices and local small businesses?

Following the publication of the performance and innovation unit's report, we made a commitment to end avoidable closures of rural post offices. As a result, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of closures. The hon. Gentleman talks about withdrawing a lifeline, but it is quite the contrary. We have just announced £450 million to maintain the rural network up to 2006. We have invested £500 million to provide the platform for ACT from next month. That will allow post offices to provide modern services of the kind that people want, which will secure a successful future for the post office network. Over a long period, there has been a decline in the old—fashioned business of the Post Office. That is why we have had to make the changes that we have made, laying the foundations for the successful future of the whole network, including the part of the network that is in rural areas.

Would not rural post offices be assisted if the Post Office card account system was run on a decent and full basis? Why is it so difficult to obtain a Post Office card account, despite the issuing of new literature today? Why cannot an account simply be obtained from a post office by people who are known there, or why cannot people simply tick a box to get a Post Office card account, as they can if they want to get a bank account? That is what is wanted.

We are ensuring that those who wish to choose a Post Office card account can do so. However, it is important to take the opportunity of this change to address the problem of financial exclusion. Many people in rural and other areas are disadvantaged because they do not have a bank account. We want those people to have the opportunity to consider whether, given the change, they now want to open a bank account. That is the reasoning behind the helpline. However, if people decide that they would prefer to have a card account, they will get their card account.

Despite the gloss that the Minister puts on the situation, is it not a fact that—and this applies to urban as well as to rural post offices—post offices' income is dropping, the value of sub-post offices is dropping, the footfall is dropping, and the number of services to the elderly and vulnerable is dropping? Only 311 out of 3,000 sub—post offices that are facing compulsory closure know their fate. When will the Minister let those sub—post offices know whether they are going to have to close? He cannot keep them in limbo for ever.

It is true that custom at post offices has been declining. The Government that the hon. Gentleman supported did nothing; by contrast the Labour Government are addressing the problem and ensuring that there is a successful future for the Post Office. In 1996, 40 per cent. of benefit recipients received their benefit in cash at the post office, but today that proportion is down to just over a quarter, as a result of the choice that people have made. The Post Office has to reflect the changes in the wishes of its customers and provide services that meet their needs, so we have invested in technology for the post office network the very large sum that I mentioned. The Post Office will be able to use that as a platform to deliver modern services that people want.

May I return my hon. Friend to the issue of the Post Office card account and ask that he hold further discussions with our ministerial colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions? Some of my constituents have received forms from the DWP regarding their benefits after the changes take place, which have no reference whatever to the Post Office card account as an option. That is seen, rightly, as discrimination against the account and the matter ought to be put right.

If my hon. Friend looks at the leaflet that accompanies the form to which he refers, he will see that the position is clearly spelt out. However, the point that he made has been drawn to our attention and a change will be made to ensure that there is a reference to the Post Office card account on the form.

:Is not the truth that thousands of vulnerable people who have hitherto relied on receiving benefits in cash at post offices will find it harder to do so? Post offices will lose thousands of customers because the Government have made it almost impossible for them to open a Post Office card account. The Government's disastrous double whammy is more post office closures and more problems for pensioners, young mums, disabled people and other vulnerable people in the community.

No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. He should not mislead and worry people, especially the elderly, who will be concerned about what he said. People who want to continue receiving their benefit in cash from their local post office will be able to do so through one of the means that I mentioned. We built that requirement into the process from the start and it will be delivered when the arrangements are put in place next month. Given our investment in technology and the fact that post office services will use modern technology in the future, as opposed to the old-fashioned systems left behind by the previous Government, there will be a much better future for the Post Office and the services that it provides for the benefit, especially, of elderly and vulnerable people in every part of the country.

Carbon Fuels

5.

What action she is taking to lessen use of carbon fuels. [103884]

On 24 February, we published a White Paper that puts climate change at the heart of our energy policy. We have accepted the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050 and to be on a path to that by 2020. The White Paper sets out the measures needed to achieve that target.

Tragic events in the middle east have, once again, highlighted the fact that we need to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, such as oil, and even gas, as our major energy sources. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to invest significantly more in renewable energy sources, such as wind and tidal power, in order to secure energy resources for future generations, in addition to meeting our Kyoto commitments?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we need to do far more, not only on renewables but also on energy efficiency. We have set out in the White Paper exactly how we shall do that. In particular, we are investing a third of a billion pounds over four years in capital grants for new renewable projects, including wave and tidal power. I am pleased that the United Kingdom has the first—indeed, the only—commercial wave power station in the world. With that, and with the expertise that we have in wind power and offshore technologies, we will be able not only to achieve our CO2 targets, but to create a new renewables manufacturing industry that will deliver new jobs and new exports for Britain.

Given the fall in farm incomes by more than two thirds over the past six years, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with her counterpart in DEFRA about the possibility of producing fuel through alcohol? Is she aware that in Brazil more than two thirds of the fuel that is used is alcohol fuel, which is generated from crops? Why cannot we do that here in the United Kingdom?

There is no reason at all why we should not do that. Indeed, the White Paper to which I referred was a joint production by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural. Affairs, me, and the Secretary of State for Transport. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we are investing substantially in helping farmers and other members of the rural community to diversify. There are clearly huge potential benefits to the farming community, as well as to the whole country, in helping to increase the production of fuel from biomass and bioethanol. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is assisting in that through differential fuel duties.

:Friend accept that although the ambitious measures in the White Paper in respect of renewables and energy efficiency are extremely welcome, they are not matched by the ambitious scale of investment that is needed? Does not energy efficiency provide the quickest and easiest way to cut carbon emissions, and will she assure the House that there will be increasing support for energy efficiency measures in the next few years?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We say in the White Paper that energy efficiency is by far the cheapest and simplest way of meeting all our policy goals in this area. If I may say so, however, he somewhat underestimates the scale of the investment that is being made. I have already referred to the third of a billion pounds over four years, and we shall have to see what we achieve in future spending reviews. By 2010, the renewables obligation, which is central to the policy, will deliver support to the renewables industry that is worth some £1 billion a year. On top of that, by 2005–06 we will have put in place a new carbon emissions trading scheme, which will create further strong incentives for much greater energy efficiency and more investment in renewables.

The Secretary of State will know David Green, who is a member of the Government's energy advisory panel, and who said:

"There is a complete absence in the White Paper of any significant new measures to reduce the damage done to Britain's green generators over the last three years by weak and inconsistent delivery of the Government's policies".
How on earth has he come to that conclusion?

The energy White Paper not only confirms the Government's commitment to the target of installing 10,000 MW of good quality combined heat and power by 2010, but sets out several new measures to support CHP. State aid approval for the exemption of CHP electricity from the climate change levy—a policy for which David Green strongly pressed—has now been given. It is frustrating that it took some time to get that state aid exemption, but it will undoubtedly help. Although I well understand the frustration of CHP producers—although not necessarily consumers—about falling electricity prices, we are on target to meet the 2010 target for good-quality CHP.

Pharmacies

6.

If she will make a statement on the Office of Fair Trading report on pharmacy services. [103885]

We received the OFT report on 17 January and we are considering our response across Government, in consultation, of course, with the devolved Administrations and relevant stakeholders. As part of that process, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), wrote to all hon. Members seeking their views.

May I tell my right hon. Friend that I have received objections from hundreds of constituents who are outraged by the OFT's proposals? They vigorously protest that their local pharmacies are convenient, that they know and trust the pharmacist, that they often have no transport to go elsewhere, and that they are not pushed into buying unnecessary products. Does my right hon. Friend agree that good health is supported by a trusting relationship between pharmacist and public, and can she assure me that the vital network of local pharmacies—which commands a high level of confidence and satisfaction from our communities, as is recognised in the OFT's report—will be protected and that nothing will be done that will prejudice the local pharmacy services that so many of our constituents value highly?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, I have had similar representations and discussions in my constituency. I welcome the OFT's report, which is a useful analysis of the competition aspects of the control of entry regulations, and of the benefits that greater competition can bring. I am also clear, however, that there are limits to markets, particularly in the delivery of health services. It is essential that pharmacists should be able to fulfil not only their present valued and trusted role but the wider role envisaged for them in the NHS plan: simply deregulating the market will not do that. We therefore need a balanced package of measures, and that is precisely what we will draw up, in consultation, as I have already indicated.

I welcome the Secretary of State's response to that question. I suggest that the OFT was simply wrong in believing that pharmacists are merely shops; in fact, they are a network of primary health care professionals who play a key role in preventive health and in distributing drugs to the elderly and the sick. The Government will not be forgiven lightly if she allows the pharmacists to go the same way as the post office network.

The OFT's remit is to look at the effect on competition, among other things, of Government regulation. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman—who, at least some of the time, is a supporter of competition policies—would welcome that role for the OFT. It is not part of the OFT's remit, however, to look at the much wider health service objectives or the role that community pharmacists can play—an even greater role, as I have indicated—in supporting modernisation and improvements in the national health service. That is our job in government, and, as I have indicated, we will come forward with a balanced package that will achieve those health and community aims.

The Secretary of State will know that in Scotland the situation is slightly different, because health is dissolved—[Interruption.] Health is devolved, but competition policy is not. She will also be aware that the Scottish Parliament is due to be dissolved at the end of next week for the forthcoming election. Will she give an assurance that no decision will be made on the OFT policy until there has been consultation with the new Scottish Parliament and new Scottish Executive following elections on 1 May?

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that the NHS might be dissolved if the nationalists won the elections. Let me make it clear: of course we are already discussing this issue with our colleagues, not only in Scotland but in Wales and Northern Ireland. We will arrive at the decision in full consultation with the devolved Administration, who, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, are responsible for the health service in Scotland.

There are strong concerns about this issue in Cornwall, where many of our supermarkets are out of town, and I receive petitions almost daily opposing the proposals. I am glad to hear the Secretary of State say that nothing will be done that would hurt local pharmacies. May I reiterate, however, that real concerns exist, and we urgently need reassurance?

I entirely understand not only my hon. Friend's concerns but those of her constituents. Every Member has had similar representations. Let me stress that although competition can clearly bring benefits to consumers, the crucial issue is that pharmacists should be able to enhance their role within the NHS plan and meet the health care needs of all our constituents, particularly those living in poorer areas and rural areas.

Since the OFT's report confirms that community pharmacies do an excellent job, are trusted by their customers and are accessible to the vast majority of people, is it not clear that were the recommendations accepted it would show once more that this Labour Government care nothing either for those small and often family-run businesses that are the backbone of many communities, or for their customers, who rely on them as a valuable source of health advice?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not hear my earlier answers on precisely that point. I am glad that the Conservative party now recognises that there are limits to markets, especially in health care. I hope that Conservative Members will support the other policies that our Government have introduced to promote social inclusion and to ensure that markets work for everyone's benefit. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will soon tell us that he supports policies on the minimum wage, rights at work and improved health and safety in the workplace, which are other policies that set limits on uncontrolled markets.

Will my right hon. Friend take account of the phrase, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"? In Scotland, there is no question that Labour will not lead the Administration after May, as it does at present, and the Scottish Pharmaceutical General Council, the professional body for pharmacists, is working with the Scottish Executive on an extremely ambitious programme for the expansion of community pharmacies, which goes far beyond anything envisaged in England at present. It would be highly dangerous for those ambitious plans to be frustrated by a cack-handed approach by the OFT to what is currently an excellent service for communities.

The service is indeed excellent in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. It can be improved further, as my hon. Friend said, by the plans that are being developed in Scotland. As far as England is concerned, the NHS plan sets out a full vision of the greater role that pharmacists can play not only in helping to ensure that patients get the full benefit of medicines, but by undertaking some of the initial diagnosis and advice work. We value pharmacists' work and think that it can be improved and strengthened further in the NHS plan. However, let me stress that decisions will not be made by the OFT because its role in these matters is advisory. The Government will make the decisions in the full context of the NHS plan and equivalent developments in the devolved Administrations.

Will the Secretary of State be a little more open about when she expects the announcements to be made? Whether she likes it or not, the OFT's proposals have caused great unease among our constituents and communities. She said that the report was published on 17 January and that she is in discussions with the devolved Parliaments, but they are about to dissolve before elections. When will we get an answer to this particular problem?

Eu Regional Funds

7.

If she will make a statement on her Department's policy on the future of EU regional funds. [103886]

My right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry published a paper on 6 March that launched a joint consultation on the future of EU structural funds This set out the preferred approach, the EU framework for regional policy. It would focus EU regional assistance on the poorest member states. Richer member states such as the UK would finance their regional policy domestically and we would increase UK. Government spending to ensure that the UK nations and regions do not lose out financially as a result of reform.

I welcome the Government's commitment to ensuring that regions such as the northeast will not lose out, whatever the future of EU regional funding may be. I also encourage the Government to follow a policy of further economic decentralisation in the UK. What discussions have taken place with other European Union countries—especially the new countries that will be members by the time that the important decisions are made—and what support have they given to the proposals?

We have had a number of discussions. Commissioner Barnier kicked off a round of discussions last year but, as yet, not many EU member states have framed their objectives and policy. In fact, only the Netherlands, as far as I know, has said what it intends to do and what approach it intends to take. That approach is similar to our own. The document is a consultation document—now that other EU member states have seen it, we will, I am sure, get their reaction. As for the accession countries, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions and I have made a point of speaking to the accession countries about those issues. They will not be part of the decision, but they will certainly experience its effects.

The Minister will be aware that in the past North Yorkshire has benefited particularly from the old objectives 3 and 5. Is he aware that that there are now pockets of rural poverty in constituencies such as the Vale of York, where rural wages are 12 per cent. lower than urban wages? In the review, will the Department ensure that the moneys that come to regions such as Yorkshire and the Humber will be spread evenly between rural and urban areas?

We will ensure that our proposal is for a much more devolved and locally led allocation of European regional structural funds, which account for only a quarter of the money that we spend in the regions in this country. It is important to ensure that overarching principles govern the allocation of EU structural funds, and that they take into account the needs of rural areas.

However, to answer the hon. Lady's question, it is much more appropriate to look at the way in which regional development agencies and we allocate money domestically at the moment to ensure that rural areas get their fair share. We are doing so, and the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is an active participant in discussions with the RDAs. The hon. Lady has made an important point that needs to be looked at, quite apart from objectives 3 and 5, which she mentioned.

Can the Minister tell us when he will be able to publish his proposals on areas such as Merseyside, which enjoy objective 1 funding at present? Can he give an assurance that he will discuss his proposals with organisations such as the Alliance for Regional Aid?

I met a delegation led by my hon. Friend, so he knows that we are willing to discuss that. We published the consultation document on 6 March. It is important to point out that because the 10 accession countries are all poorer than the poorest EU member states, if we did not change the basis of European Union structural funds, the whole basis for allocating funds would change. Indeed, it is calculated that the total of 83 million people who receive objective funding in the European Union now would be reduced to 35 million, including my hon. Friend's constituents. To those people, of course, nothing material has changed in their plight or conditions. The only change would be in the calculation because of the accession countries. That is why we put that consultation document out, and why we think that we are taking the right approach to the problem.

Rural Post Offices

8.

How many rural post offices have closed within the last 12 months. [103887]

There were 97 net closures of rural post offices in the twelve months to December 2002. The number of net closures in the last quarter of that year, the most recent for which data are available, was zero.

St. Ives post office in my constituency—a rural post office serving 17,000 people—was recently closed, having been given three weeks' notice, which I find quite unacceptable. Thanks to a massive local effort and a receptive Post Office, St. Ives is to reopen. However, that raises some serious issues, such as the lack of closure notification procedures, the lack of sourcing of alternative sites, the Post Office's inability to recruit and retain sub-postmasters and the lack of attractive products, which are leading to the closure of scores of post offices around the country. What is the Minister going to do about it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing to the attention of the House the success of the Government's measures to ensure that where there is a proposed closure an alternative can be found. He has done the House a service by explaining how that works—it is exactly what the Government have done. The Post Office has put in place a team of rural transfer advisers to make sure that when the problems that he described arise alternatives can be found, as has been done successfully in his constituency. I made the point that in the most recent quarter for which data are available there were no closures at all. The number of net closures that I gave for the year was less than half the number in 2001–02, which, in turn, was half the number in the preceding year. We have committed £450 million to maintain the rural network up to 2006. We have therefore backed fully, with funding, our commitment that there should be no avoidable closures of rural post offices, and I am delighted that that is working in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Many of the rural post offices in my constituency have tried to meet the challenge facing them by diversifying into retail newsagency. They have just discovered that retail newsagents have to obtain newspapers from wholesale newsagents that are granted a monopoly by newspaper publishers—a monopoly that has been abused by increasing service charges by 650 per cent. Would we not help rural post offices generally and retail newsagents across the country by breaking the monopoly of wholesale newsagents?

Of course, these arrangements have been in place for a considerable time, but the Office of Fair Trading is looking at precisely the issue that my hon. Friend raises, and it will report back in due course.

In Northern Ireland, just as elsewhere in Great Britain, rural post offices, in addition to delivering pensions and benefits conveniently, contribute to local village life. Will the Minister acknowledge that there has been disproportionate encouragement to benefit recipients to have bank accounts, and will he use some of the £450 million that he has mentioned to indicate in simple terms that people may still choose, as he has announced this morning, to receive payments in cash at their local post offices? That might just help to avert some further closures.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of post offices in the life of a community, and he is right to draw attention to that point. However, in putting in place arrangements for the change to automated credit transfer, we have ensured that anyone who wishes to obtain their benefit in cash from a post office—either through a Post Office card account, or through any of the basic bank accounts that all banks will offer—can continue to do so. Those accounts will be fully accessible at the local post office. The great benefit is that people will be able to use the bank accounts and go to the post office, and post offices will be offering the services that people increasingly want. The old-fashioned giros did not offer a future for the post office, but our new arrangements will.

Given that rural post offices will lose some 40 per cent. of their income over the next two years with the introduction of universal banking, and given that the Government's largesse of £150 million a year will continue only to the end of 2005, taking us up to the next general election, will the Minister explain what happens then? The House, sub-postmasters and the public who use post offices will want to know whether this Government have a long-term, coherent plan for the future of rural post offices after the next general election.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the figures that I have given to the House on the falling number of post office closures in rural areas. His suggestion that 40 per cent. of income will be lost to the Post Office assumes, of course, that nobody who obtains their benefit at a post office at the moment will do so in future. However, very many of the benefit recipients who currently use post offices will use the Post Office card account, a basic bank account or an ordinary bank account and continue to obtain their benefit in cash at local post offices, thereby generating income for the post office network. The arrangements beyond 2006 will, of course, be a matter for the next spending review, but the Government's commitment to ensuring a successful future for the post office network in every part of the country will be maintained.

Christmas Day Working

9.

What steps she is taking to improve protection for employees against retail employers who force their staff to work on Christmas day. [103888]

The Government wish to maintain the special nature of Christmas day. I expect to launch a consultation on possible new regulation of opening by large stores a little later this year.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome his announcement about a consultation. However, does he agree that it cannot be right that there are no trading restrictions on Christmas day when it falls on any day other than a Sunday? It cannot be right that shop workers have to rely on the goodwill of their employers. Surely the only real protection for shop workers is legislation.

It is an anomaly that the terms of the Sunday Trading Act 1994 protect shop workers and others working in the retail sector when Christmas day falls on a Sunday. The basis of that Act was that Sunday is a special day, and everyone agrees that Christmas day is also a special day. We are minded to introduce legislation. Our view is that we need to consult fully beforehand, but we feel that the time to legislate is when there is not a problem. All the retailers say, "We have no wish to open on a Sunday, but if any of our competitors do, we will." It is important to act before we get on to that slippery slope.

Notwithstanding the fact that many people, myself included, agree with the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) that it seems both unfair and mean-spirited to coerce people into working on Christmas day when they would otherwise not choose to do so, does the Minister accept that when contemplating legislation, it is essential to be sure that legislation and regulation are necessary, and that the form that they take is proportionate to the size of the problem and the level of the protest about it?

I fully accept that. My right hon Friend the Secretary of State wrote to retailers last year to see whether there was an alternative to regulation. If there was an agreement between the major retailers, none of whom was interested in opening on Christmas day, that would probably breach fair trading rules, so that option has been ruled out. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. If there were any sensible alternatives to regulation, we would pursue them. My view at present—that is the reason for the consultation document—is that there is no alternative, and it will be beneficial regulation, not least because many retailers have said to us, "Look, we agree with you, but either put up or shut up. We will open if our competitors open, and the best way you can deal with this", many retailers tell us, "is through regulation."

Energy White Paper

10.

What discussions she has had with Ofgem about the Energy White Paper. [103889]

Ministers and officials have held a number of discussions with Ofgem about the energy White Paper, both before and after its publication. The White Paper includes a number of commitments relating to Ofgem, which we are pursuing with the regulator.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of comments by the head of Ofgem that the Government's environmental and social guidance to Ofgem is not yet strong enough? In the light of those comments, will she undertake to revisit the guidance, and will she consider further whether Ofgem requires additional sustainable energy expertise on its board of directors?

I entirely agree that the environmental guidance needs to be strengthened in the light of our White Paper objectives and commitments. We have that work in hand. We have also, as we state in the White Paper, agreed with Ofgem that it will produce regulatory impact assessments, including environmental impact assessments, on all new policies. I am delighted to say that a new non-executive board member with strong environmental credentials has been selected, and we will make an announcement about that shortly.

In a written answer, the Energy Minister stated that increasing the renewables obligation from 10 per cent. to 20 per cent. will add £1 billion to the annual cost of electricity generation. On the assumption of a 3p buyer price, does the right hon. Lady believe that she will achieve 20 per cent., and if not, what price does she envisage, and what effect will that new price have on the cost of electricity to consumers?

As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, we have published on the DTI website the extensive economic modelling work that underpins the analysis and the conclusions of the White Paper. As I said earlier to the House, the renewables obligation by 2010 will deliver a £1 billion boost to investment in the renewables sector. Energy prices at present, with the sole exception of industrial gas, are lower than they have been for about 20 years. A striking aspect of the consultation that we did with the public was that cheap electricity was seen as rather less important than meeting our carbon obligations. I therefore believe that we will be right to continue with the renewables obligation in order to ensure that we meet not only the 2010 targets but our 2020 objectives as well.

Has my right hon. Friend taken into consideration the views of the regulator about what will happen when we become a net importer of gas, and the fact that we could become more reliant on gas over the next 10 years? As has been proved in relation to oil in the last few weeks, an unstable situation in regard to gas supply could have a traumatic effect on domestic and industrial energy supplies if we do not take action now. Will my right hon. Friend tell us which way she intends to go on the issue of the net import of gas?

The issue that my hon. Friend has raised is one of the reasons why we need a new energy policy. Over the next five years or so, we will indeed become a net importer of oil and gas. We already import about half the coal that we use. This will change the energy position in the United Kingdom. We will have to pay even greater attention to possible threats to the security of supply that could result from international events. Let me stress, however, that we have been importing oil from Russia for the last 37 years or so without any interruption, and that much of our gas supply will come from Norway, a close colleague and partner. We are already putting in place a new treaty with Norway to ensure that we will be able to secure those supplies.

Minister For Women

The Minister was asked

Entrepreneurship

20.

What measures she is taking to encourage more women to become business entrepreneurs. [103900]

A national strategic framework for business support for women's enterprise is in the final stages of development by the Small Business Service, in conjunction with Prowess—the nationwide network of women entrepreneurs—and a cross-government policy group. This strategy will enable us to support far more women in moving into self-employment and setting up their own businesses.

Is the Minister aware of studies that have taken place in the United States that show that black women, especially, make excellent entrepreneurs when sufficient support is given? Does she believe that the issue could be considered in that context in this country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unfortunately, we are not doing nearly as well as other countries, including the United States, at encouraging women, including black women, into business start-ups. If women in the United Kingdom were starting up businesses at the same rate as men are, we would have about 100,000 more businesses in the United Kingdom every year. That is why we are giving such priority to this issue, and ensuring—both through Prowess and the work of the phoenix fund—that we support women from all our different communities who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

What is the Minister doing to encourage women to become sub—postmistresses? Have the Government implemented recommendation 18 of the performance and innovation unit report that was mentioned earlier? It states:

"The Post Office should develop a role for post offices as Government General Practitioners."
At a time when Haylands, Horsebridge Hill and Parkhurst post offices in my constituency are under threat of closure, the Government appear to have nothing to say on this matter—

Does the Minister recognise that women entrepreneurs have been greatly assisted by the innovation that was a key feature of the existing European structural funds, which has helped women in Merseyside and the north-west by supporting investment funds and training, and by giving encouragement to women to become involved in business? Will she ensure that, in any changes to structural funds, the innovation that allowed women to be supported in this way will be continued?

When I was in Merseyside just last week, I saw an example of precisely that kind of entrepreneurial spirit at Blackburn House—in this case, a social enterprise created and led by women for women. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the consultation document that the Chancellor and I recently published on the future of the structural funds and regional policy sets out a sensible way forward to ensure that the work already being done under the structural funds and under the regional development agencies will continue, following enlargement, in what we believe will be an even more effective and efficient way.

Domestic Violence

21.

What recent measures she has taken to help women victims of domestic violence. [103901]

The Government are currently consulting with a view to legislating to tackle domestic violence. We are funding refuges, and we have funded a new helpline for women fleeing violence. My Department is developing initiatives to raise awareness, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General is working with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to ensure that the police and prosecution services work far more effectively together to deal with the problem.

I should declare a non-pecuniary interest as director of the east Kent refuge.

The domestic violence statistics are staggering. Crimes of domestic violence constitute a quarter of all violent crimes, are responsible for the deaths of 50 per cent. of female murder victims, and continue to claim two lives each week. Is it not time help was given at grass-roots level—to, for instance, the voluntary refuge support groups that must still rely on jumble sales and voluntary exercises for their funds?

I agree that far more needs to be done, especially at local level, to support not just women but children fleeing domestic violence, and to deal with this appalling violent crime. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently announced an additional investment of £14 million to tackle the problem—in particular, through the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships—and my hon. Friend the deputy Minister for Women recently announced an additional £9 million to help women and their children who are fleeing domestic violence.

Following the publication of the Womenspeak survey initiated by the Minister, which found that 70 per cent. of women had experienced problems with the Benefits Agency, what discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that women who refuse to give the names of violent partners are not regarded as fraudsters? [Interruption.]

I am sorry to note that Opposition Members appear to have no interest in this rather important subject.

I agree that more needs to be done to deal with the Benefits Agency problem. My hon. Friend the deputy Minister for Women is taking it up with the Department for Work and Pensions.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work of the women's safety unit in Cardiff, a unique multidisciplinary project which has, during its short life, had a considerable impact in reducing the amount of domestic violence in the city? Will she join me in congratulating the unit on obtaining long-term funding from the Home Office and the Welsh Assembly to continue its good work? [Interruption.]

Order. Mr. Gummer, there is far too much in the way of loud prolonged conversation. This is an important matter.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I readily congratulate the women's safety unit in Cardiff, which provides an excellent example of what happens when all the agencies in the voluntary sector work together to ensure that women and children are given the support that they need.

The Minister just said that the Government had funded a new helpline, and indeed the Government held a press launch in December last year. But the line will not be up and running until the autumn, with £1 million of Government money and £1 million from Comic Relief. Why was it launched nearly a year before it will become operational, thus raising expectations and making life for the two main charities who will run it—Women's Aid and Refuge—even more difficult?

As the hon. Lady would expect, we agreed with all our partners in the helpline that it was desirable to announce what was being done, so that we would receive the maximum support for this excellent initiative.

22.

If she will make a statement on the forthcoming Green Paper on domestic violence. [103902]

The Home Office will shortly publish a consultation paper setting out proposals to strengthen the law against domestic violence. Those proposals will cover three broad areas, ensuring the safety of domestic violence victims, bringing offenders to justice and strengthening confidence in the criminal justice system.

Does the Minister agree that it is shocking that even now two children a week die from domestic violence? When domestic violence takes place, children are usually in the vicinity. What will the Green Paper do to increase protection for children, and will it address the problem of low levels of supervision in child contact centres?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Ministers and local authorities are considering how to strengthen protection for children in contact centres and situations in which access is disputed. I stress that the Bill on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will consult will be the first dedicated to the issue of domestic violence since 1976, when Jo Richardson—whom many, at least on the Labour Benches, will remember with deep affection—introduced the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act 1976.

Is my right hon. Friend alarmed to discover from recent surveys that many young men say that if their girlfriends step out of line, it is all right to give them a slap? Does that not mean that we should invest much more in what seems to be an in-bred cultural problem and not just the result of strains and stresses within the family?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Domestic violence is fundamentally about cultural attitudes and power relationships between men and women. The Department for Education and Skills is considering what can be done in schools and the education system to tackle the problem of appalling attitudes towards violence against women that are evidenced among too many young men today.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Consolidated Fund Act 2003

Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Act 2003

Iraq (Overnight Events)

12.32 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about military operations to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.

President Bush's ultimatum to Saddam Hussein expired at 1 o'clock this morning. Just as Saddam failed to take his final opportunity to disarm by peaceful means, so he has now failed to take his final opportunity to depart in peace and avoid the need for coalition military action. I draw the House's attention to Hans Blix's comments in New York yesterday that he was disappointed that three and a half months of inspection work had not brought clear assurances from the Iraqis of the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

President Bush announced at 3.15 this morning on behalf of the coalition that operations had begun with attacks on selected targets of military importance. Those attacks were carried out by coalition aircraft and cruise missiles on more than one target in the vicinity of Baghdad, following information relating to the whereabouts of very senior members of the Iraqi leadership. Those leaders are at the very heart of Iraq's command and control system, responsible for directing Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam Hussein's regime is the chief obstacle to the disarmament of Iraq. The military plan is therefore crafted around his removal from power. We will place a copy of the Government's military campaign objectives in the Library later today.

In addition to those attacks, coalition forces yesterday carried out certain preliminary operations against Iraqi artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, and air defence systems within the southern no-fly zone. Those were prudent preparatory steps, using coalition air capabilities previously used in the no-fly zones, designed to reduce the threat to coalition forces in Kuwait. The protection of our servicemen and women is a matter of paramount importance.

The House will be aware of reports of Iraqi missile attacks against Kuwait. Those incidents are being investigated by personnel with appropriate skills and the necessary protection. There are no reported casualties so far, but I am afraid that there is nothing more that I can confirm to the House at this stage.

I would like to draw the attention of the House to two particular points. First, that coalition forces will take every possible care to minimise civilian casualties or damage to civilian infrastructure. The coalition will use modern weapons, which are more accurate than ever, but we can never unfortunately exclude the possibility of civilian casualties, tragic though those always are. However, people should treat with caution Iraq's claims of civilian casualties. The Iraqi people are not our enemies, and we are determined to do all we can to help them build the better future that they deserve.

Secondly, I caution the House against suggestions that this campaign will be over in a very short time. We all certainly hope that offensive operations will be over quickly, but we should not underestimate the risks and difficulties that we may face against a regime that is the embodiment of absolute ruthlessness, with an utter disregard for human life.

I turn now to the United Kingdom's armed forces. I have set out in successive statements the forces that we have prepared for this purpose. We have deployed a substantial naval force of 29 Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, including the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean. The land force is led by Headquarters 1 (UK) Armoured Division and includes 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, 16 Air Assault Brigade, 7th Armoured Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade. We have also deployed an air force comprised of about 100 fixed-wing aircraft and 27 helicopters. In all, about 45,000 servicemen and women have been assigned to the campaign to disarm Iraq.

Our forces will make a substantial contribution to the military action to disarm Iraq, which we will pursue at a time and on a schedule of our own choosing. They are trained, equipped and ready for the tasks they may now, need to undertake. British forces are already engaged in certain military operations, although the House will, understand why I cannot give further details at this stage.

Events over the coming days will dominate the 24-hour media. The House will recognise that we must all be wary of jumping to conclusions on the basis of "breaking news" before there has been time to conduct a proper investigation. Similarly, the House will understand—and I hope that the media will too—that if we respond to media pressure for instant operational detail, we could risk the security and safety of our forces. We cannot therefore offer a running commentary on media reports. I will ensure, however, that the House is kept fully informed of significant developments. That is why I am making this statement today. In addition to making statements as and when necessary, I will arrange for a short summary to be placed in the Library of the House, with copies made available to members in the Vote Office, as warranted by the day's events.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be travelling to the European Council this afternoon. Once further significant military action has begun, and UK forces are substantially engaged, the Prime Minister will ask to make a broadcast to the nation.

Once again we are placing an enormous weight of responsibility on the shoulders of our armed forces. We have not taken the decision to do so lightly. The commitment to military action of service personnel is always the gravest step that any Government can undertake. I know that the thoughts and prayers of this House and of our country are with them, and their families, as they embark on their mission. We hope for their safe and swift return.

I thank the Secretary of State for his timely statement to the House, and for providing me with a copy in advance. I am grateful for his assurance that he will continue to make regular oral statements to the House, and put a daily summary of events in the Library.

First, I want to underline one part of the Secretary of State's statement—that the size and scale of the British forces involved in this operation show that they are no token commitment. They are making a very real contribution to the operation, and we should be proud of them.

Events overnight confirm that military operations to disarm Saddam Hussein are likely to be unpredictable. We appreciate that in any conflict of this nature, especially with modern electronic surveillance, targets will present themselves for attack at very short notice. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the military commanders will continue to have the necessary autonomy to act quickly and flexibly to seize such opportunities, as and when they arise?

When the President of the United States refers, as he did this morning, to "coalition forces" being in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, is he implying that UK forces were involved in the action overnight? If so, is the Secretary of State able to say in what capacity?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the coalition is far wider than just the UK and US and that it comprises some 35 nations, although not all are directly involved in military action?

There are reports of Scud B missile attacks on Kuwait and coalition forces there. It may be too early for the Secretary of State to confirm the exact nature of these attacks, but if they were Scud Bs—with a range of at least 600 km—would that not confirm that Saddam Hussein had continued to lie and failed to disarm? Can the Secretary of State confirm how effective the US theatre missile defences have been? Is he able to say what warheads the enemy missiles were carrying? Can he explain what caused the explosion reported in Kuwait City? Can he provide any details about the exchange of artillery fire on the Iraqi border with Kuwait?

There has been widespread concern about the possible interaction of Turkish and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, perhaps at a later stage of the conflict. Can he comment on overnight reports that Iraqi Kurdish forces have placed themselves under US command? If this is true, it is a welcome development. There are also reports of Iraqi soldiers giving themselves up; this is most welcome. Will the Secretary of State confirm that they are being treated as bona fide prisoners of war and will be accorded their proper rights under the Geneva convention? Will he also clarify what role they might be invited to play eventually at later stages of the conflict, perhaps as volunteers in the fighting to disarm Saddam Hussein?

What continued diplomatic initiatives are being maintained with France and Russia, who have both issued public criticism of the action carried out by the coalition? Will the Government and the United States make every effort to engage the United Nations in the humanitarian tasks, which are far more the inevitable result of 30 years of Saddam Hussein's misrule than of any damage likely to be caused by military action?

We have had a great debate over many months about military action to disarm Saddam Hussein. We are, of course, a free country in which people continue to have every right to protest, but I hope that all parties will agree that such protests should remain within the law. It is a tragic inevitability of war that innocent people will die, and we mourn them. Would not it be so much better for Saddam Hussein to end the suffering of the Iraqi people now and surrender immediately?

The UK has embarked on this course alongside our allies to disarm Saddam Hussein because he is a threat. I support the Secretary of State in his warning that, inevitably, there will be events in the days and weeks ahead that test our determination. It may take longer than we hope, but we must have the resolve to see this through.

I conclude with the words of Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins who addressed his 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment yesterday with these words:
"Let us bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for our having been there."
He spoke for our whole nation and we wish him and all our fine armed forces the best of good fortune.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations and for the support of Her Majesty's official Opposition.

On his question about the responsibility of commanders on the ground, I assure him that they will have the delegated responsibilities necessary to allow them to take appropriate action. Equally, I make it clear that those delegated responsibilities are always approved by Ministers, consistent with the usual arrangements.

On the specific involvement of UK forces, President Bush made it clear in his address overnight that these were coalition operations. I do not believe that it is appropriate to specify what particular forces were used for each particular operation. These are coalition operations involving a wide range of military support; at least the number of countries mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Consistent with what I said earlier, I do not intend to comment in detail about the considerable number of missiles that have been targeted against Kuwait. We are investigating precisely the nature of the missiles and of the warheads with which they are equipped. I understand, but only from recent news reports, that defensive systems have been used to good effect to deal with at least one such missile.

There is close co-operation between the United States and Kurdish forces in the north of Iraq and I am confident that that will continue. I give the House the assurance that prisoners of war will be dealt with in accordance with international law. There are certainly signs of a growing number of disaffected Iraqis abandoning support for Saddam Hussein. This morning I discussed with my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary the continuing diplomatic initiatives that will be taken. As I have said, the Prime Minister will go to the European Council meeting this afternoon.

May I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement and associate myself and my colleagues with his comments and those of the shadow Defence Secretary about the excellence of the men and women of our armed forces? They will perform whatever tasks they are set with extraordinary courage and great skill. They are a credit to our nation. At this time we must remember their families at home. Our troops and their families should know that they have the support of the full House today.

We all hope that this will be a swift and successful campaign with as few casualties as possible on all sides. The Secretary of State outlined today details of the strike that took place in the small hours of the morning.

We thank him for that and we understand the constraints that he has in saying more. In relation to the reports of the Iraqi attacks on Kuwait this morning, does it appear that the warning procedures set in place by coalition forces have worked extremely successfully?

Finally, I understand that later today the permanent under-secretary will announce that the unmarried partners of members of the armed forces serving in the Gulf will receive proper compensation, should their partners pay the ultimate price. The Secretary of State will know of my concern and interest in this matter. If that is the case, may I thank him? It is most welcome.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support. He asked two specific questions. I was enormously impressed by the television pictures this morning of British forces and, indeed, members of the press, reacting quickly to warning procedures. We undoubtedly have concerns about the offensive action taken by Iraq against Kuwait and our deployed forces. Today there will be a ministerial statement on unmarried partners along the lines that the hon. Gentleman advocated.

My right hon. Friend has outlined the progress in this campaign. We must win the campaign and not allow our armed forces to go into conflict without the correct weaponry to protect them. Could he say something about the more controversial weapons that may need to be used, such as depleted uranium heads on weapons and cluster bombs, for our constituents who may have concerns about them?

I emphasise that a range of weapons will have to be used to prosecute this campaign successfully and achieve the successful result that my hon. Friend rightly advocates. I will not allow our forces to be prevented from using those lawful weapons that are most suitable for achieving those tasks. I assure her equally that those weapons are used only after the most careful consideration. Depleted uranium and cluster bombs have a particular military purpose. If that purpose is necessary, they will be used; if it is not, they will not be used.

The Secretary of State will be aware that a number of my constituents based at RAF Marham are in the Gulf and will almost certainly have played a part in this first phase of operations. They will have shown their normal, high standard of professionalism. Does he agree that they now deserve the 100 per cent. support of all the public? Surely the time has come for these anti-war demonstrations to cease.

The hon. Gentleman is right. Those armed forces deserve our support. It is a characteristic of our society and the values that we are trying to uphold that we have a democracy and the opportunity to demonstrate, that we can set out in full the different views expressed by a mature democracy. That is what we are trying to achieve. Therefore, I would not necessarily go all the way with him in his remarks. As for his constituents, our thoughts are also with the families who are obviously concerned about the people who are engaged in action and will be engaged in the near future. It is important that we remember those people as they support those who have gone to war on our behalf.

Given what we know about Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to deal swiftly with any false information, or disinformation, that will come out of Iraq? Does he have any intelligence on rumours that Saddam has built up a body bank that can be used to inflate the civilian casualty figures?

Before I answer that specific question, may I commend my hon. Friend on his strong support of the military operations and on the strong support of his son, who is presently serving in the Gulf? The whole House will join me in congratulating him on that.

I caution the House, as I did in my statement, about relying too much on propaganda from the Iraqi authorities. We have many experiences of Iraq claiming civilian casualties in the no-fly zone on days when we have not had a single aircraft flying.

I endorse what the Secretary of State said about the role of the media. Will he go a little further? Will he take this opportunity to remind the media—both written and visual—that what we are embarked upon is a very serious action to relieve the people of Iraq and the world of these weapons? This is not some form of entertainment. It is not designed as a spectacle for people to sit glued to their screens to watch as entertainment. Will he urge upon all commentators and reporters a sense of dignity and responsibility in the way that they report what is going on? Will he urge discretion upon them not necessarily to report every single detail if doing so could cause distress to families or individuals in this country? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

I do not think that I can improve on the remarks of the hon. Gentleman. He puts his case extremely well and I entirely endorse it.

Will my right hon. Friend outline the precautions that our forces and the forces of our allies will take to ensure that the Iraqi people have adequate access to clean water and food during the actions?

On previous occasions, when I have set out to the House the details of the British force deploying to the Gulf, I have made it clear that it is a flexible force— certainly designed for war-fighting but also designed for peacekeeping. As soon as any conflict draws to an end, forces will be in place to provide security to the people of Iraq but also to attend to their obvious humanitarian needs. Iraq has been devastated by the regime of Saddam Hussein over many years. It is a much poorer country than it should be. We will assist in the process of rebuilding that country.

If at all possible, will the Secretary of State seek to ensure that there is no Turkish incursion in the north of Iraq? That would be destabilising and downright dangerous. Will the Kurdish people get co-operation if, in any internal uprising, they seek to take over Kirkuk or to help the allied forces to remove Saddam Hussein's evil regime?

A clear message has been sent to Turkey along the lines of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion; the Turkish ambassador visited the Ministry of Defence this morning. As far as the Kurds are concerned, I emphasise—as I did in response to an earlier question—the importance of preserving the position of the Kurds. They have, in the past, been the target of appalling attacks by Saddam Hussein's regime and we will never allow that to be forgotten.

The Secretary of State has said that he wants civilian casualties to be minimised and yet, when my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) asked about cluster bombs, he would not rule out their use. Does he not see the contradiction between his two statements? The record of the use of cluster bombs is that they do, by their very nature, cause civilian casualties. In the first Gulf war, the United States used something like 60,000 cluster bombs, containing up to 20 million bomblets, in Iraq and Kuwait. Does the Secretary of State really believe that a repetition of that sort of behaviour will not cause civilian casualties?

I made it clear that those particular weapons have a particular purpose. They will be used to achieve that purpose if it is necessary. Their use will be limited to those circumstances. I assure my hon. Friend that they are not used in a random way; but I would be failing in my duties as Secretary of State for Defence if I did not allow our armed forces to use the most appropriate weapons to deal with the threats against them.

Now that the troops are engaged and potentially under attack, we all wish that they may return safely and swiftly to this country. We all give them that support. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the attacks last night were in residential areas of Baghdad and were, in fact, an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein? Will he take this opportunity to spell out in more detail the UK MOD processes for ensuring the protection of civilians in such situations? What advice is taken and given in order to achieve that? Will he also say a little more about the co-ordination of the humanitarian relief that will have to follow? How will it be achieved? Will it follow a similar military chain of command, or will it be a different sort of operation?

The hon. Gentleman probably understands more about the nature of Iraqi society than he is letting on. In the past, we have heard many references to the palaces that the regime has constructed. Those palaces are residential—if the hon. Gentleman chooses to describe them as such—but they are also command and control centres that are operated by leaders of the regime simply because they are afraid of any close contact with their own people. In reality, those targets are perfectly legitimate military targets because they are the places from which Saddam Hussein exercises command and control over his own people and over weapons of mass destruction. It is entirely consistent with our campaign objectives that such military command and control facilities should be targeted.

A great deal of effort has been made in recent months to ensure proper co-ordination. As I have said before, it is important not only that we win any war but that we win any subsequent peace. I was in Washington some weeks ago, primarily to discuss the role that the military can play in ensuring the reconstruction of Iraq. My military advisers are at pains to emphasise that we are further forward in that way than we have ever been in any previous conflict. We recognise in particular the outstanding role that Britain's armed forces can play in these kinds of peacekeeping operation. However, it is important that we get through any military conflict before we can turn our full attention to such an operation. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that a great deal of effort is being made by the Government, in co-operation with other Governments, to ensure the co-ordination of that humanitarian effort.

A criticism that has been levelled at this military action has been the tag "unilateral action by the United States". Given the variety of degrees of enthusiasm with which hon. Members in this House reached the conclusion that we did the other night, if my right hon. Friend could confirm that the number of countries that are actively engaged in one way or another in supporting the present military action is 30—or, better still, if he could confirm that the number is higher than that—it would reassure many of us.

I can confirm, as I did earlier today, that there are at least 30 countries that are actively engaged in support of military operations, and, indeed, that still more countries are offering strong political support.

It is clear from the action overnight that the military is targeting Saddam Hussein himself. Should Saddam Hussein be killed or overthrown, would military action cease immediately? If not, how would the Iraqi military bring the conflict to a close? What would it have to say to us to bring the conflict to an end?

We are pursuing lawful military targets. Clearly, part of that effort is designed to disrupt the command and control of the regime. As I have said, and as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, we are seeking to remove weapons of mass destruction from Iraq. However, with the expiry of the ultimatum to the regime and to Saddam Hussein, the means of achieving that will be through the removal of the regime. The removal of the regime will be the specific focus of our military operations.

Is it not the ultimate in spin-doctoring propaganda for the Minister to be quoting Dr. Hans Blix in aid of his statement—[Interruption.] The Chief Whip is heckling me but this is a free Parliament and I will be heard in it—[Interruption.]

Is it not the ultimate in spin-doctoring propaganda to be praying in aid Dr. Hans Blix, who has just denounced the action that the Minister has been boasting about this morning—as have an overwhelming number of world leaders, including some of our closest friends, partners and allies? Will the Secretary of State give a straight answer to this question: given the view in the advice of the overwhelming number of unpurchased international legal experts that this action is illegal, what assurance will he give British forces that they will not face prosecution in the International Criminal Court by other countries for the actions that he has ordered them to carry out today?

I will defend my hon. Friend's right to he heard—as I will also defend the right of the opposition in Iraq to be heard; and I should be much happier if he emphasised that more frequently than he has sometimes done in the recent past. I assure him, as I have assured the House on previous occasions, that the actions of our armed forces are entirely lawful and based on the clear advice of the Attorney-General, which has been set out for the benefit of Members.

May I raise with the Secretary of State the issue of British civilians serving alongside our troops in the Gulf? In the event that those civilians are injured or wounded, will they receive the same protection through war pensions, insurance cover or the like as apply to our military personnel?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me of something that I normally mention: the contribution made by civil servants, especially from the Ministry of Defence and other Departments, to such military operations. We should not forget either them or their families in the efforts that are being made. I assure the hon. Gentleman that they will receive appropriate entitlements, according to the arrangements that normally prevail for their service.

On the news this morning and in the House this afternoon, my right hon. Friend said that he cannot engage in a propaganda war, giving an hour-by-hour update to the press. However, can he ensure that the House receives accurate information, which is as full and complete as is possible and practicable, as soon as he can provide it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue of accurate information. It is important that what the Government say in response to incidents is accurate and timely. Sometimes, the needs for accuracy and timeliness can be difficult to reconcile, but it is important that the Government's comments on particular incidents are based on the most accurate information that it is possible to obtain.

Every Iraqi soldier is some mother's son and most Iraqi conscripts are as innocent as any civilian, yet we hear today that soldiers trying to surrender have been turned back by Kuwaiti border guards, and possibly sent back to execution. Will the Secretary of State ensure that all coalition allies realise the value of taking Iraqi prisoners of war, and that they treat them well and use them to get others to surrender to show the Iraqi people that our battle is with the regime and not with them?

As I indicated in Defence questions, I know that the hon. Gentleman has considerable knowledge and expertise in that area, so he will understand that the situation on the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border today is somewhat sensitive. It is perhaps understandable that Kuwaiti soldiers might be suspicious of those who might, initially, be trying to surrender. However, as I indicated to the House earlier, efforts are being made; I made a ministerial statement last week indicating that extra British forces will be deployed specifically to deal with prisoners of war and to carry on the good work that the hon. Gentleman has conducted in the past.

We all hope that our troops will come home safely, but I am concerned about my right hon. Friend's selective quote from Dr. Hans Bib. On the radio this morning, the chief weapons inspector cast considerable doubt on the likelihood that Saddam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction. Given that the whole invasion is predicated on the dubious assumption that Saddam Hussein has links with al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist terrorist organisations, and that he would supply them with weapons of mass destruction to attack the US and other western countries, what evidence does my right hon. Friend have—or what evidence has he been supplied with by the American Government—that there are such links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda? It is not sufficient to say—

What I said was that Hans Blix was disappointed that his inspection work had not brought clear assurances from the Iraqis about the absence of weapons of mass destruction. There is no argument about that. I am not aware that any Government, whatever their position on the need for military action, have disputed the fact that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. That has not been disputed even by countries opposed to military action. It is important not to lose sight of the reason for military operations: to enforce the will of the United Nations to remove the threat of weapons of mass destruction, either, as the Prime Minister has said, when they are in the hands of the Iraqi regime itself, or when there is a risk that they might fall into the hands of unscrupulous terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda.

I have answered the question about links before. There are clear links between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda. We are not sure of the precise nature of those links, but we are certainly aware that they exist. It is important that we continue to monitor that.

Four hundred personnel from RAF Culdrose in my constituency have been deployed to the Gulf and I know that their commitment, courage and professionalism will be much appreciated by the House. Although I realise that the Secretary of State cannot release into the public domain operational details about deployments over the coming weeks and months, will he ensure that Members of Parliament with large numbers of constituents in the region at least have a private channel of communication so that they can obtain information that might reassure the families of their constituents?

I am sure that appropriate arrangements can be put in place. As I indicated to the House, I want to follow previous practice and ensure that when it is justified details will be made available daily to all Members. However, if the hon. Gentleman has particular concerns about constituents and their families they will certainly be addressed by the Ministry of Defence.

I greatly welcome the assurances about the minimisation of civilian casualties and the fact that our strikes will be specifically and carefully targeted. I accept the cautionary note struck by my right hon. Friend with regard to the length of the campaign. However, the campaign could be shortened by encouraging Iraqi defections. What overt measures are being taken to that end, other than military action? What soft measures are being taken, by way of broadcasts and leaflet drops? What are the targets? Are they at the higher or lower level of Iraqi society or throughout various strata?

A detailed information campaign has been under way for some time to achieve precisely the objective that my hon. Friend describes: the collapse of the regime. We know that the regime is not supported by the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people—but for the appalling intimidation practised by that regime, it would have collapsed many years ago. Those information operations will continue.

Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), will the Secretary of State confirm that the BBC World Service is being used as extensively as possible to broadcast to the Iraqi people? Is he satisfied with the co-operation that he is receiving from that service?

As a great admirer of the BBC World Service and its objective, independent voice in the world, I am sure that those in Iraq who are able to listen to it will benefit from its services.

The United Nations has asked for the immediate establishment of a fund of $53 million to provide for emergency humanitarian aid in Iraq. Can the Minister say what contribution the UK is making to that? Can he also give the House an assurance that we will respond to a particular concern that is being raised in Britain already—namely, the demand that whatever contribution Britain makes, it should be through agencies that have clean hands, which would at least allow us as a Government to avoid having to explain the morally ambiguous position of bombing the children, then offering to feed those who survive?

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government recognise their responsibility in assisting the people of Iraq in any necessary rebuilding that might follow military operations. We are working closely with the United Nations, our coalition partners and others. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development is in New York having discussions with Kofi Annan and other members of the United Nations in order to put that process in place.

I make this point to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that if he thinks about it for a moment he will acknowledge it. The moment that the military operations end, it will be British soldiers, American soldiers and other members of the armed forces who will be in position, with the ability to help to resolve those problems. If they do not help to resolve those problems, there will not be time for the international organisations to move in sufficiently quickly to provide food, water, clothing and other necessary assistance. That is why the Government have allocated significant funds for members of the military to engage in the initial humanitarian help that will be required the moment that conflict ceases.

Many hon. Members and members of the public will have read an account of the exemplary address by Colonel Collins to his battle group. I commend every single word of it, especially what he said about appropriate respect for and treatment of Iraq and Iraqis. He gave an instruction to his battle group not to fly the Union flag from their vehicles when they are on Iraqi territory in order to show that this is a war of liberation, not of occupation. Symbols are important. If that is not yet policy for all British forces engaged in this operation, will the Secretary of State consider making it so? In particular, if he considers it to be appropriate for United Kingdom forces, will he suggest to our United States allies that it may also be appropriate for them?

I am grateful for the careful and measured way in which the hon. Gentleman made that point, and I shall certainly look into it.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the so-called live broadcast by Saddam Hussein this morning was in fact a recording? Will he also tell us exactly what is the situation as far as Turkey is concerned, given that Turkey has so far shown considerable reluctance to give assistance in the war that is now in progress?

I know that the nature of that broadcast has attracted some interest and that analysis is being conducted as to its origins and authenticity, but I am not in a position at this stage to comment further.

Turkey is offering assistance. Clearly, we hope that Turkey will offer more help in coalition operations, and that is something that we continue to discuss with Turkey.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), has the Secretary of State given any guidance, or does he plan to give any guidance, to British news organisations that plan to maintain correspondents in Baghdad even after a state of war exists between our two countries?

Guidance is given by the Government and general advice is given to news media about the safety and security of their correspondents in Baghdad. Above all else, what we will be looking for is the necessary objectivity from those organisations, particularly as they are operating under very considerable restrictions. Some correspondents do make the point that they are not allowed to see all that they would want to see or to go where they would choose to go in order to report objectively what is taking place. Provided that correspondents make that qualification, their safety and security is ultimately a matter for their employers.

As one who was in a minority on Tuesday, I believe that it was the first time that this House collectively made such a decision—not the Prime Minister, but this House. It is therefore binding on all Members to accept that that was the decision that was taken, as much as I disagree with it. My question is a simple one. I do not believe that we should be seeing everything that happens through the media. Ministers are right to say that they will come to the House to make statements. On two days a week, we finish at 7 o'clock and we do not sit on a Friday. Will the House adjust its hours to accommodate that, because members of the public expect their MPs to be here?

I am relieved to say, given my other responsibilities at the moment, that that is not a matter for me. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who is responsible?"] I will come to that question in a second, when I have thought of the answer.

On providing an opportunity for the House properly to debate these important events, I remind my hon. Friend that the Government made available three further hours in Tuesday's debate to allow more right hon. and hon. Members to address the issues. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who will shortly take business questions, will be able to give a much fuller and more detailed answer to that question.

Now that this avoidable war has started, will my right hon. Friend confirm that coalition war costs will not be paid from Iraqi oil revenues?

We have made it absolutely clear that the benefit of Iraq's oil will be used for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

Will my right hon. Friend clarify what principles the UK military will use for their targeting and whether those principles will be shared by the United States and other allies?

It is absolutely the case that we operate in a coalition with the same principles of international law governing the targeting. I have already set out some of those principles to the House. It is important to avoid where we can civilian casualties, while recognising the risk that there obviously be civilian harm, but working through the details of the targeting programme to minimise those risks wherever possible.

As depleted uranium weapons leave a poisonous cancerous residue for generations to come, and as cluster bombs are specifically anti-personnel devices designed to kill large numbers of people and to leave bomblets that will explode for ever more, killing many individuals, as is presently happening in Afghanistan, why are they being used now against the people of Iraq?

I have already answered that question twice today. I just say this about my hon. Friend's premise in relation to depleted uranium. Notwithstanding what he says about the poisonous residue, there is not the slightest scientific evidence to support his contention. Depleted uranium is one of the complaints that is used against the Ministry of Defence in allegations of so-called Gulf war syndrome. In fact, the forces who deployed to the Gulf suffered fewer incidences of death from cancer that those who did not deploy there. That is a very important medical fact that my hon. Friend should study a little more carefully.

No doubt the Americans will also give daily briefings. I wonder whether the Secretary of State could think back to the Gulf war, when on one occasion the Americans gave details of a covert British operation. Will the Secretary of State say what discussions he will have with our coalition allies to ensure that such disclosures do not endanger British forces?

A great deal of effort has already been made to co-ordinate the information campaign and information operations, and I assure him that that will continue.

I am sure that the House and the British people will welcome my right hon. Friend's assurance that the forces will do all that they can to minimise civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. Does he accept, however, that a certain proportion of even the most modern guided missiles are bound to miss their targets, and that there has to be a danger that some very extensive civilian damage will be done? In those circumstances, while I accept that getting a speedy response sometimes conflicts with having all the information, it would nevertheless be much better if the British people could get the information from the British Government as soon as possible, rather than having to rely on other sources.

My right hon. Friend is right. As I said, there is inevitably a risk to civilians in times of conflict, but equally I point out again that we seek wherever we can to minimise those risks and to ensure that our statements are wholly accurate.

Order. I inform the House that there will be further statements, as the Secretary of State said, and I will keep a list of those who have not been called.

Fire Dispute

1.19 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the fire dispute.

As the House has just heard, military action is now under way and we are in a grave and serious situation. Our armed forces are now actively engaged in the Gulf. The continuing fire dispute means that 19,000 members of the armed forces are engaged in providing emergency fire cover at home. Therefore, although the Fire Brigades Union has called off its latest strike, which was due to start at 6 o'clock this evening, the threat of a further strike means that we must still hold those troops in reserve rather than release them for other military duties.

As the House will be aware, I have always tried to keep it fully informed of developments in the fire dispute as soon as they take place. I regret to say that, last night, the FBU recalled conference rejected the latest offer from the employers. I will be calling in the local authority employers and the FBU to meet me this afternoon. I am sure that many Members will be astonished that the conference has rejected an offer of 16 per cent. by July 2004 linked to common-sense changes in working practices. It would mean that every qualified firefighter would earn at least £25,000 a year compared with the present level of £21,500. That is a far more generous deal than most other workers in both the public and private sectors have settled for. It is double what their old pay formula would have given them, more than double what other local government employees have settled for, and compares with public sector pay settlements running at about 3 per cent. a year.

As I have said before, the employers' revised pay offer is partly financed by transitional funding from the Government. I want to make it absolutely clear that no more transitional funding will be forthcoming from the Government. Firefighters should be in no doubt that what the employers are offering is both generous and at the absolute limit of what they can afford. With that in mind, the executive council of the FBU concluded that this deal should be accepted by its members and that the strikes should be brought to an end. That was its recommendation to the conference. Clearly, in the view of the FBU negotiators, that was an acceptable offer. The employers agreed to that, as did the Government. Yesterday, however, the recalled conference decided to ignore the recommendation of the union's executive. Instead, it rejected the deal and reverted to the original claim of 40 per cent. for firefighters and 50 per cent. for control room staff.

The recalled conference went on to decide that it would take further soundings in the brigades with a recommendation to reject. It will meet again in two or three weeks' time. The FBU will therefore put the same deal to the same delegates at the same conference as yesterday, no doubt with the same outcome. Individual firefighters, however, have not spoken directly on this dispute since they rejected a 4 per cent. offer in a secret ballot last September. Since then, there have been months of negotiations leading to this final offer. It is a material and significantly better offer and individual firefighters should now have the right to express their individual views on it in a secret ballot.

For now, however, we are left in a position in which, although no new strike dates have been set, we have no guarantee that further strikes will not be called, the union has repeatedly made it clear that it can call fresh strikes at any time with just seven days' notice, and unofficial action could put the public at risk during a period of heightened terrorist threat.

The House will recall that on 28 January I announced that if it proved impossible to reach a satisfactory negotiated agreement I would introduce legislation to impose a pay settlement. Now that the FBU conference has overturned its executive, I have concluded that the time has come for legislation, particularly given the conflict in the Gulf and the heightened threat of terrorism. I am therefore giving notice today that I will introduce and publish a new two-clause Fire Services Bill tomorrow. The Bill will give me the power to impose terms and conditions within the fire service and direct the use of fire service assets and facilities. I will start immediate discussions through the usual channels about how quickly we can make progress on this Bill. In setting the level for a settlement, I would take into account the pay rise that would have been forthcoming under the FBU's existing formula, the pay review bodies' recommendations for other key public sector workers and the Government's overall approach to Public sector pay.

New terms and conditions, however, are only part of what is required for a modernised fire service. As the House is aware, we are repealing section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 and we are consulting on the related guidance to get the right people in the right place at the right time in order to reduce the risk of fire. I am also pressing ahead with a White Paper on a modernised fire service and legislation to achieve that objective. That will ensure that we have the legal framework in place to provide a modern, safe, efficient and effective fire service for the public and the firefighters. The choice for firefighters is simple: accepting a generous deal that has been approved by the FBU executive, or continuing a dispute that has been running for 12 months, is going nowhere and will require me to act. I believe that the common sense of individual firefighters will prevail in the end. Individual firefighters, however, must be given the chance to vote in a secret ballot, as they did on the original 4 per cent. offer in September last year.

In the interest of public safety, 19,000 members of the armed forces are tied down to cover the possibility that the union may strike again. That is unacceptable in the difficult situation that we face today. People will rightly find it hard to believe that the firefighters would go on strike while the country is engaged in military action. I do not believe for one moment that individual firefighters would want 19,000 members of the armed forces to be held in reserve for firefighting duties at a time when their comrades are risking their lives in the Gulf. I will be making that point strongly when I meet the union and the employers this afternoon.

It is now time for the voice of individual firefighters to be heard. I put my faith in the common sense and decency of firefighters to bring this dispute to an end. We have been reasonable; the FBU has not. Whatever people's views on the war, the country will find it extraordinary and unacceptable that at a time when our troops are being called into action, the FBU continues to act in this irresponsible way. I hope that the House will support us in these proposals.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for making his statement today and for prior sight of it, albeit only by 20 minutes.

I add the Opposition's support to the Deputy Prime Minister's calls for the FBU to hold a secret ballot of its members and for it not to instigate more strike action, particularly at a time when it puts British citizens at grave risk. Today, with the coalition forces involved in military action against Iraq, that danger is starker than at any time in this dispute. Currently, up to 45,000 service personnel, including a quarter of the Army, are deployed in the Gulf. There could not be a worse time to commit 19,000 troops to stay at home on firefighting duties.

The last time that I asked the Deputy Prime Minister about that, he said that he took the advice of the military. We have had clear advice from the military: the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Michael Boyce, said that he was "extremely concerned" that keeping 19,000 troops on standby to cover for the firemen was affecting training and operational readiness. Now, we understand that troops deployed in Northern Ireland have had their tours extended, and troops now in the Gulf have had their training times and leave—often the last opportunity to see their loved ones before military action—cut. Does the Deputy Prime Minister deny that all of that is a direct result of the need to provide cover for firefighters? Clearly, he does not.

Since December, with war looming, I have been calling on the Deputy Prime Minister to seek an injunction to ban these dangerous strikes. Will he now publish the Attorney-General's advice, as the Government did in the case of the advice on the need for a second UN resolution? I am saddened that he decided not to take that course, as I fear that that will have been detrimental to our preparations for war. Firefighters are our first line of defence in the event of a terrorist attack at home. There have been press reports that the FBU, in 19 out of the 58 regions, have refused to take part in training on equipment designed specifically to protect the public from terrorist chemical attack. Can he confirm or deny that? Are there any other examples of obstruction to preparations for a terrorist attack? What are the Government doing to put that right, and will that be dealt with in the Bill that he has proposed today?

Opposition Members have been calling on the Government to give greater attention to the ongoing need for a higher level of preparedness for a terrorist attack and to consider appointing a senior political figure to have overall charge of preparing for a terrorist attack. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was the Minister with direct responsibility for civil defence an the threat of terrorism at home, but it is two days since his resignation and there is no sign of a replacement so we do not even have a junior Minister in charge of homeland security. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what the Government propose to do about that, and when?

When we last heard a statement on the fire strikes from the right hon. Gentleman he told us that he would impose a deal on firefighters if he felt that negotiations could not move forward, and he has told us that he intends to take that course of action. Conservative Members will support commencing legislation subject: to seeing the details. However, we do not take lightly curbing citizens' rights without proper scrutiny, and we will insist that such legislation is time limited so that the House can examine the matter again after hostilities have ceased.

The Deputy Prime Minister first talked about this legislation two months ago but, as it is, the timetable leading to war has been more predictable than most. Surely it would have been possible to introduce a draft Bill in that time to allow the House to examine its detail properly. It is not clear whether the two-clause Bill will give him the right to ban a strike. If it will not, what will he do if the FBU continues to strike, despite his imposition, and to put the public at risk and undermine the effectiveness of our armed forces? The answer to that will determine whether the hasty Bill that he proposes will work. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House precisely what he meant by saying that the Bill will give him powers to
"direct the use of fire service assets and facilities"?
I, like many hon. Members, was surprised by union activists' decision to overturn a recommendation from their leaders to accept a final pay offer. All the firefighters I have met in recent months have struck me as patriotic individuals and I cannot believe that a majority of them will reject the deal and take strike action while our troops are needed elsewhere. If they do take such action, they will put their fellow citizens at risk. The firefighters should ideally resolve the dispute now but, failing that, they should make a public declaration that they are deferring their needless action until hostilities in the Gulf and the risk of terrorism at home is over. If they refuse to do that and if there is no strike ban in the proposed Bill, the Attorney-General should secure an injunction as a matter of urgency to stop further strikes until at least the end of the war given that hostilities have begun, that our troops are incredibly overstretched in a war in the Gulf, that there is a war on terror on our door steps and that relevant legislation exists in the form of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. I repeat Conservative Members' consistent calls for the Government urgently to ban future strikes while the country is at war.

We shall give the Bill favourable treatment, despite the Government's failure on the issue, provided that it will apply for only a limited time, either until the cessation of hostilities or certainly within one year of it being passed. The international crisis requires all parties in the House to put aside their differences until the cessation of military action. Conservative Members will do that, but after the crisis is over, the House of Commons will want a proper debate so that the inevitable errors in such hasty legislation are not imposed on the country for all time.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for highlighting the difficulties that arise from the situation. I agree with several of his points, and perhaps I may address them in order.

We have asked for the advice of the military and the right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the number of armed forces personnel available during the dispute—19,000—is the exact number that was available before. He raised the proper concern, as did I, that that is the same as it was before we found ourselves in this hostile situation, and I agree I hat the situation is difficult. The advice that we received was the same as before: we have sufficient armed personnel to deal with the fire dispute and the situation will not constitute a threat to public safety.

The judgment about what represents a threat to public safety will put great emphasis on the thoughts of the Attorney-General. I note that the shadow Attorney-General is present so I can reiterate the argument that I put to him before—I am sure that he will confirm it. The Attorney-General will judge whether there is a threat to public safety and he will decide whether to act on that. It is proper for me to approach the Attorney-General. I saw him yesterday and gave him the latest update. He will consider that and take it into account when he decides whether to take any action. Every Minister who has spoken about these matters from the Dispatch Box has said that the Attorney-General must make his judgment.

One or two brigades have not co-operated on occasions. One of the problems with the negotiations is that the brigades are given a great deal of authority and they can act individually. Indeed, that relates to the right hon. Gentleman's question about whether the power exists to direct facilities. The Government's powers are limited at the moment because they are delegated to the fire authorities. That is one reason why I propose that the Bill should take back the power to direct should fire brigades refuse to carry out instructions. That is the proper thing to do and we can discuss that matter when we consider the Bill.

It is true that one or two people—although not representatives of the FBU groups—have said unofficially that they will not co-operate with new dimension training. We made it clear to the union that that is unacceptable because the training relates to measures on terrorism. Such incidents are isolated, but they are unacceptable.

The right hon. Gentleman asked which Minister is currently in charge of safety matters. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary chairs the relevant Cabinet Committee, which is the civil contingencies committee. I think that we would all agree that my right hon. Friend is a pretty senior politician. He has taken steps to replace the Minister who resigned, and no doubt he will make an appropriate statement on that. My right hon. Friend has direct responsibility for safety matters and nothing has suffered due to the resignation.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would want to use the proposed Bill to impose a deal. The Bill is modelled, to an extent, on the Fire Services Act 1947, although he will see when we consider it that it is not exactly the same. The Government at that time decided to introduce legislation to allow them to impose a deal. In these circumstances, I will take powers to fix or modify the fire brigades' conditions of service after making a judgment about whether to impose a deal, and I have outlined how that would be done and the factors that I would take into account. I give notice, however, that I cannot do that until the House agrees to those powers, and I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support on that. Time and accountability will be discussed by the relevant people.

We shall consider the Bill in due course, although I do not agree that it should contain anti-strike legislation. [Interruption.] Well, I am only giving my judgment. The right hon. Gentleman can disagree, but he will see what is in the Bill after I produce it and we can discuss it then. After all, I need the co-operation of Opposition parties in order to take such a Bill through the House. I cannot just announce it because the Bill must go through the proper democratic procedures, and I assure him that that will happen. The Bill will be published tomorrow and it will help matters.

Members of the FBU have the opportunity to demand a secret ballot so that we know what firefighters truly think about the 16 per cent. deal. However, I warn them that if they do not accept the deal, I shall secure powers that would allow me to decide whether to impose such an agreement.

May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that statement and for keeping the House informed? I agree that it is astonishing and regrettable that yesterday's FBU conference rejected the offer. Indeed, it was surprising that the Deputy Prime Minister did not make a stronger statement that a fire strike in a time of war and heightened tension would be an appalling threat to public safety, which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made clear. Surely such industrial action at a time of military action would be dangerous and irresponsible, even though our professional armed forces would rise to the challenge. So why have the Government not made it clear that they would ban the fire strikes while our armed forces are engaged? No one in the House would seek to ban strikes except in the most exceptional circumstances, but does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree that regrettably such circumstances are now upon us? Frankly, it would be bizarre if the Attorney-General did not think so. As for the eventual resolution of the dispute, surely the Government should now seek, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, to go beyond the FBU activists and back to the ordinary firefighters?

Does not the Deputy Prime Minister agree that a silent majority of firefighters would reluctantly accept the current offer, so is it not time to insist that the FBU consult its members on the current offer by a secret postal ballot? Surely, it would be far better for the long-term health of our fire services if the Government pushed for a democratic end to the dispute rather than going down the route of imposing a settlement? Does not the Deputy Prime Minister realise that his strategy of imposing a settlement could end up prolonging the dispute and making matters worse? If emergency legislation is needed, should it not back ordinary firefighters' right to vote and stop the damage to the fire service and public safety by extremists among the FBU activists?

First, I appreciate some of the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but if there is a threat to public safety, as I have already explained, there is a person who is responsible for making that judgment and taking court action where necessary. As for whether I am going to impose a deal or, indeed, go for anti-strike legislation, banning strikes would be extremely controversial, so any legislation would take a long time to go through the House. I do not think that legislation that I might get in September or October would be helpful in this situation.

As a ballot is under way, I do not want to aggravate the situation. I appeal directly to the firefighters not to leave this matter to the brigades' hands-up decisions in the mess room. We should not learn merely that an offer was opposed by 58 brigades without any information about the proportion of those who wanted to accept the deal and those who did not. A precedent has already been set, as the FBU had a ballot on 4 September. All I am saying is that it is proper, in view of the serious nature of the problem, for firemen to have the right to say whether they accept or reject an offer. That will be done in the next two or three weeks, and we can then see exactly what their judgment is.

I have made it clear that this is not about whether we are going to provide any more money. Let me make it absolutely clear—there will not be another penny in the deal, as 16 per cent. is a generous offer. The firefighters need to be clear about that when they have their vote. It would be difficult to introduce legislation to enforce a ballot or indeed anti-strike legislation because of the time that it would take to get through the Houseߞif, indeed, it got through the House—and that would not be helpful in the present situation. I have chosen to pursue this course of action, and I have used my judgment to determine the best way of balancing public safety against getting an agreement in those areas.

Why is my right hon. Friend being so intransigent on matters of legislation? A measure dealing with section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947 has already gone through the House, and it is now proposed to introduce a new two-clause Bill on fire services. Would it not be more sensible if those matters were the subject of negotiations, as there could be some trade-off so that we could begin to reach a settlement? At the meetings that my right hon. Friend will hold with the FBU and the employers, it will not be possible to have any type of negotiation at all in the circumstances. It will merely be a matter of pontification from a certain position rather than an attempt at persuasion and discussion to reach a settlement that should be there to be grabbed by both sides.

Let me make it clear—I do not think that I am being intransigent at all in those negotiations, which have gone on for the best part of 12 months. Sometimes the truth is told, sometimes less than the truth.ߞfor example, the reason why Members of Parliament got a 40 per cent. increase. No doubt my hon. Friend has contested with the firemen the kind of propaganda that was going around at the time. I hope that the two parties will come together. In the past 12 months, I have worked tremendously hard to get them to come together and talk. I have made it clear that it is for them to make the decision.

It is only a day or so since the executive recommended that decision. There was a full recommendation to the conference to accept the deal, but it overturned itߞI did not do so, it was the members themselves. However, if the decision is to be fair, why do they not subject it to a secret ballot as they did in September, so at least we get a full picture of who wants to accept the deal and who wants to move to further strike action, particularly against this background?

I do not think for a moment that I am being intransigent. As for discussions, I made a statement in January. I am sure that the Opposition will ask why I did not introduce legislation then. I thought that it would inflame the situation, and wanted to work for an agreementߞand we got it, and we got the executive to make a recommendation. I therefore think that my judgment was right, but now I am faced with the fact that the conference has rejected the offer and is going back to its members. I have said that a secret ballot is the best way of dealing with the matter.

I have discussed with the trade union our White Paper and proposals on section 19, but it disagrees with me. Basically, I am implementing a recommendation made some time ago to give up my powers and allow decisions to be made at local level. That is basically a form of decentralisationߞI have been considering it for a long time and I believe that it is right. I have had discussions on all those matters, but when one group says "no" and another "yes", one has to make a decision—I have made mine.

Order. May I just tell the Deputy Prime Minister that it is more helpful if he addresses the Chair? May I also appeal on the basis of that start, for shorter questions and answers.

I do not believe that the Deputy Prime Minister would have taken this particular action without a great deal of thought, and it probably hurts him greatly to do it. How does the deal that is now on the table, which he is saying is generous and was recommended by the executive., differ from the that that he vetoed after all-night conversations some weeks ago?

At that time, the FBU: was proposing 16 per cent. over two years. Because it was not tied to modernisation, I had to make it clear that that would commit me to a payment of hundreds of millions of pounds. When the FBU made that decision, I had not even seen the agreement. The new deal is substantially differentߞit gives 16 per cent. over three years, but that has now been changed to two and a half years. The settlement is not as good as the FBU originally wanted, but I judge that the amount of taxpayers' money required to finance the deal for three years is acceptable. The deal is different from the earlier one, but it is fair to all parties and is generous, however it is measured.

Like my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, I have found in discussions with local firefighters that they would find a £25,000-a-year offer very reasonable. I have found them extremely sensible. However, will he reassure me that if the Bill is enacted, negotiations will continue and, if successful, he will riot use the powers at all?

I certainly hopeߞand I believe that the whole House does—that the firefighters will accept the agreement, perhaps by ballot, which would get us out of all the difficulties. Let me make it clear to everybody that I will still continue with modernisation. I am committed to the modernisation of the fire service, along with a generous pay settlement. That is our commitment, I have set it out in letters, and it remains the case. I shall resort to proposals in the White Paper and future legislation to deal with the problem. Under different circumstances, we would not need a separate piece of legislation and we could get on with modernising the service while the firefighters are back at work, and have a settlement based on that generous offer.

My constituents in Wiltshire will be grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for taking this practical step forward. However, firefighters in Wiltshire face a double whammy. Not only do they face the prospect of a national ballot but they are currently engaged in another ballot forced on them by the FBU leadership on the question of joint control rooms. This time last week, I visited the £7 million joint control room, which the taxpayer has funded in Wiltshire. Would the Deputy Prime Minister's legislation affect that strike action if the ballot went that way?

The ballots under way at the moment are about pay negotiations and changes in the conditions associated with them. It is true that one of the proposals not tied to the agreement is about what we do about control rooms. I think that the case put in Wiltshire is right—I cannot see any reason why there should not be joint control rooms, which are part of the modernisation agenda that we have to face up to. The ballot is taking place by the normal method, there is a dispute at the local level—or in this case, the regional levelߞbut normal circumstances apply.

Does my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister understand that his intervention today, like his intervention in November, will be seen as an act of provocation, preventing a settlement of the dispute? Can he give me a clear answer to the following question? If he imposes legislation and the FBU and the firefighters reject any offer and go on strike, will we return to the time when we jailed trade unionists for strike action?

That certainly is not involved; perhaps we should wait until the Bill is published. As for acts of provocation, my hon. Friend is constantly at it, day in, day out, on all sorts of issues. Where the Government do one thing, he wants to do the other. I must consider public safety. but that does not seem to concern him too much. I have to make balanced judgments about proper public safety, and consider fire threats, and, indeed, terrorist incidents. Those judgments are not easy, but Governments have to make them. The job would be a lot easier if my hon. Friend faced up to some of his responsibilities.

The Government have known since at least September that a conflict in the Gulf was possible, if not probable, on the scale now demonstrated by the commitment of British forces to the region. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that, on reflection, he should have protected the interests of the armed forces rather more energetically since September?

The best that I can do now for the armed forces is to get a settlement to this dispute. That is my obligation, and since September we have spent a considerable time trying to achieve that. There have been fewer disputes than were predicted at the time, which was useful; I think that the House found that acceptable. Forty-eight hours ago, the executive recommended this deal. That was a step in the right direction, and I would like to see the armed forces doing the job that they are supposed to do. I am extremely grateful for the job that they have done. They have shown that public safety can be protected, and I know that I can trust them to do that. However, I will work tirelessly to bring this agreement to its conclusion. That is why I have come here today, and why I am proposing this legislation.

My right hon. Friend says that he would prefer a secret ballot, and I understand that and agree with him. He also says that the FBU has suggested having a recall conference in two to three weeks' time. In practical terms, if the leadership continues to exercise leadership and conducts a secret ballot, is it realistic to expect a result within that time? Also, how long will it take to get the legislation through its various parliamentary stages?

My hon. Friend makes several serious points. A ballot that is conducted by a "hands up" of the brigade is obviously a lot quicker than an individual ballot; however, the circumstances are such that it would probably be necessary at least to enter into that practice. To be fair, the union did have a ballot last time. The turn out was 83 per cent., which, as people will recognise, was quite a high figure. Some 87 per cent. of those who voted voted to take strike action in rejecting the earlier deal. So there has been a ballot before, and I hope that the union will consider that point.

The time that it takes for legislation to go through the House is a matter for negotiation between the various parties. I shall publish the Bill tomorrow, and we will probably have a discussion on how fast we can proceed with it. However, I doubt whether such legislation could be introduced before the three-week period. Consultation is probably taking place on the ballot, and hopefully, we can get some agreement.

The Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed that it would be possible for industrial action to continue after a settlement has been imposed. Would it not be absurd for this House to put through emergency legislation when our troops are in a war situation, and still to have 19,000 of our armed forces tied up because of possible future fire disputes?

That is a fair point, but we have to make a judgment on how people will react in these circumstances. In my experience of strikes and legal actionsߞI have experienced a few in my timeߞthreatening people with the courts does not guarantee their going back to work; if anything, it makes matters much more difficult. One is forced to fine the union concerned and to get into sequestration; however, that does not get people back to work. For example, it did not work with the seamen's union. I can only give my judgment, but at least it is based on experience. I have to find a balance, and I have set it out today.

My right hon. Friend knows that many Labour Members will be opposed to the imposition of the settlement to this dispute. However, I welcome the fact that he is meeting the FBU and local authority employers this afternoon. If the FBU agrees to a ballot of its membership, will he, too, reconsider his position?

I understand and appreciate what my hon. Friend says. I shall make it clear to the union and to the employers that I believe that a secret ballot should take place, so that we can get a proper judgment. Of course, I readily accept that the timetable for that is likely to be a lot shorter than that for legislation going through this House. I recognise that we need to subject that legislation to proper scrutiny, and I doubt whether that can be achieved in just a week or a fortnight. So there will be a ballot beforehand, but my hon. Friend poses the problem: what if the union rejects the negotiations through the secret ballot? If that happens, I, and this House, will be faced with a difficult situation. I prefer to rely on the good judgment of the firefighters in accepting this generous offer.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that a Bill introduced in this House will not apply to Scotland, and that to apply such legislation to Scotland would require a Sewel motion or a separate Act of the Scottish Parliament? There is absolutely no chance of either getting through the Scottish Parliament.

The answer is yes, and thank goodness for that. [Interruption.]

I remind the Deputy Prime Minister that the FBU is not responsible for the current situation: it is this Government and their friend George Bush who have declared war on Iraq. Does the Deputy Prime Minister appreciate the irony of the fact that the Government can find £1.75 billion to go to war, but cannot find the money to meet the settlement that was agreed between the employers and the trade union some months ago?

My hon. Friend must know that people throughout the country, be it pensioners or anyone else, claim a right to the money that may be used in the conflict. According to my calculation, some five or six times the amount of money that is expected to be spent on such action has already been committed in all areas. This is a question of fairness and judgment. Some local authority workers have settled for 4 per cent. from the same employers who will have to find this money. There are many such workers in my hon. Friend's constituency, and he should ask himselfߞas I am asked—whether it is fair to pay 16 per cent. to one set of workers and 4 per cent. to another. That is a difficult judgment, but I have given the best that I can and I think that it is right. I would welcome a little support from my hon. Friend.

The Deputy Prime Minister confirmed that he has sought another opinion from the Attorney-General on the use of existing legislation to make a further strike illegal, particularly in the current circumstances. The shadow Attorney-General established on a point of order last week that although "Erskine May" accepts the principle that advice to Ministers should be confidential, in "exceptional circumstances" the Minister asking for such advice can then make it available to the House, and thus to the public. The Prime Minister did this with the legal advice that he received from the Attorney-General about UN resolution 1441, so there is a clear precedent. The Prime Minister made that advice available to the House of Commons; now that we are at war, should not the Deputy Prime Minister follow that precedent?

We should first recognise that there is no strike at the moment, because it was withdrawn. That is the threat to public safety that the Attorney-General must take into account. I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point about the advice given, and there has been some discussion in the House as to whether advice given by the Attorney-General to me--or, indeed, to anyone else—should be published. I keep the Attorney-General informed of the circumstances, and that is the role that he has explained to me. I do not ask for his advice on these matters; he makes a judgment. That remains the position, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman pursue the matter through the shadow Attorney-General. If the Attorney-General wants to publish the letters that he has written to me on this matterߞ[Interruption.] I am not asking for advice, because I am satisfied that the man with responsibility for this matter will act if there is a threat to public safety.

May I say that I support the course of action taken by the Deputy Prime Minister? However, I am concerned about the way in which the ballot should be conducted, although I certainly support a ballot. Will it be conducted on the basis of the offer made by the FBU executive, will it be secret, and will the information contained within it be clear and unambiguous to avoid the potential for misrepresentation?

That would be the ideal situation, but I should tell my hon. Friend that there will not be a secret ballot as we understand it. A discussion takes place in the headquarters of the various brigades, and at the place of work, and there is a vote. A delegate then takes that vote, as mandated, to the conference. It is not mandated for 80 per cent. or 20 per cent. of the vote, with some form of proportional calculation being made; it is absolutely the vote of the brigade. On the last deal, which was very similar to this one, 100 per cent. of the 50 or so brigades voted against. That is why conducting this ballot in the same way seems a very difficult way of going about things. That is why I am appealing to the firefighters and saying, "You had a ballot before. This is substantially different from the 4 per cent. that you rejected. You should be entitled to have an individual, secret ballot. You did it before, and I suggest that it should be done again I hope that they will accept that recommendation.

There has been a significant shift in the concern of firefighters away from pay and towards terms and conditions of employment. It is a great pity that the pay review, the Bain report and the risk review all seem to have been lumped into one. The Deputy Prime Minister knows that, in 1974, there was a very large intake into the fire service and those firefighters are coming up for retirement. There is great concern that the present situation will be used as an opportunity for significant natural wastage. They are also concerned about the risk review lowering required response times and lowering the risk assessment of particular areas. Firefighters are, by their nature, deeply concerned—

Order. The hon. Lady is making a speech. If she has a question, she should put it immediately.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister take the opportunity to reassure firefighters about those flatters and harness the good will that exists among them to bring the dispute to a speedy resolution?