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Commons Chamber

Volume 403: debated on Monday 7 April 2003

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House Of Commons

Monday 7 April 2003

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Culture, Media And Sport

The Secretary of State was asked—

Arts (Young People)

2.

When she next plans to visit Nottingham, North to discuss Government policy on the arts and young people. [104047]

Last summer, I announced the biggest increase in funding for the arts for at least 20 years. On 25 March, the Arts Council of England announced its spending plans for the next three years, which will provide major increases in funding for artists, performers and arts organisations in my hon. Friend's constituency and across the country. Support for young people is a key theme and investment in creative partnerships is set to grow from £25 million in the current year to £50 million in 2005–06.

In trying to hold the Government to account on creative partnerships, I made inquiries of Ellis Guildford, Trinity, Brocklewood, Gladehill, Hempshill Hall, Highwood, Rufford and Glenbrook schools, and every one had nothing but praise for the scheme that the Government have introduced. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend whether she will ensure that this universally acclaimed scheme, as it operates in my constituency, will have sustainable funding?

I thank my hon. Friend. He will be pleased to learn—although he has done his research pretty well already—that 13 out of the 23 schools in the Nottingham creative partnership are in his constituency, which reflects the nature of deprivation in his constituency. Yes, it is our intention that in due course, and on the basis of careful evaluation, creative partnerships will become a national programme so that children all over the country, wherever they live or are at school, can be exposed to the benefits of arts and creativity from a very early age.

Arts (Small Towns)

3.

What support her Department offers to small towns without theatres, galleries, or museums to create such facilities. [107048]

The majority of the funding that my Department provides for theatres, museums and galleries is broadly directed to supporting existing cultural institutions, aiming to broaden access and attract new audiences. We do, however, offer support to new facilities in a number of ways. As far as theatres are concerned, that comes through the Arts Council of England, a lottery distributor that can provide funding and advice at a regional level. In the museums and galleries sector, through our £70 million investment in the renaissance in the regions initiative, a network of regionally based museum development officers will be established to help small and medium-sized museums, and grants for museums will continue to be available from the regional agencies.

There must be many small and middle-sized towns such as Skelmersdale, which has a population of 42,000, yet has no theatre, no gallery, no museum and no cinema, although there is substantial demand that is met only at the margins by make-do venues in schools and the library. Does my right hon. Friend agree that up-to-date cultural venues have an important part to play in economic regeneration in towns such as Skelmersdale; and does he therefore agree that some of the grant aid earmarked by the Government for economic regeneration should be used to help communities like Skelmersdale establish such cultural venues?

The answer is obviously yes, but to a large extent local authorities or partnerships drive that process. We are not imposing it from the centre, and I do not think that my hon. Friend would want that to happen, either. In terms of theatres, a dialogue with the Arts Council of England should take place at a regional level. My hon. Friend should visit his local authority to ask what it is doing proactively to try to deliver the types of facilities that he wants.

Will the Minister take steps to ensure that boroughs such as the London borough of Havering are given a fairer share of grant aid for museums and for our local theatre in Hornchurch? Many boroughs on the outer rim of London are not getting their fair share in that respect: will he ensure that we do in future?

We want to be fair. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I will look into what is happening in relation to the funding agencies and the formula that has been applied to that part of London. I shall try to be as helpful as I can.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills in relation to bids for specialist schools in the arts? In Sittingbourne, which has a population of 42,000—about the same as that which my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) mentioned—we, too, have no museums, art galleries and the like. If there was some combination between the work of the two Departments there is just a chance that our schools might get specialist status in the arts.

There are 173 specialist arts colleges; I do not know whether any of them fall within my hon. Friend's constituency. We do have a dialogue with other Departments about trying to use the arts and, indeed, sport and physical activity. One of those with which we have the most proactive approach is the Department for Education and Skills, which is making a difference in arts colleges and specialist sports colleges. If my hon. Friend writes to us, we will try to be helpful in providing information.

Let them come to Lichfield, which has a population of only 35,000 but boasts the Garrick theatre, which is an eco-friendly theatre that is about to open. Of course, David Garrick was born and brought up in Lichfield. A new arts gallery will shortly open and my constituency contains the St. Mary's heritage centre. However, may I ask the Minister about smaller theatres such as that in Pipe Ridware in my constituency? It has only 70 seats yet still puts on performances. It has been unable to secure grants from the Arts Council of England or any other organisation that gives lottery grants because such organisations say that the theatre must provide training schemes for young people in the area. That is impossible for such a small theatre, so how can we get round the problem?

That investment shows very clearly that we do not discriminate against Tory constituencies. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was advertising tourism and inward investment when he got to his feet and extolled the virtues of his constituency. I obviously cannot respond to his specific point but if he writes to me, I shall take it up with the Arts Council because I assume that the theatre has been in contact with that body.

I have said clearly that we want viable theatres of the nature that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I stress that the broad approach of our policy is to try to get current facilities and investment to work as efficiently and effectively as possible. That is the right approach and after we have achieved that, we can move on to further developments for arts, museums and galleries.

Arts (Inner Cities)

What steps the Arts Council is taking to promote arts projects in inner-city areas.[107049]

The record levels of funding increase announced for the arts last week—the biggest for 20 years—recognise the importance that this Government attach to the arts and to extending their benefit to anybody who wants to enjoy culture. Jubilee Arts in Sandwell is a good example. It has seen an increase in its funding from more than £107,000 this year to £623,000 by the end of the spending round in 2005–06. That represents getting on for a 500 per cent. increase, which is in addition to the £29 million of lottery investment toward the c/PLEX building that will house the Jubilee Arts project. I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his advocacy of that important project.

I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. I welcome the national increase in arts funding and especially the money for the Jubilee Arts organisation and the c/PLEX project, which is an innovative arts and technology project that is pioneered by Sylvia King, who is one of my constituents. The Secretary of State may not be aware that the project has stimulated a further £250 million of regeneration and development money. Will she examine whether the example of West Bromwich and c/PLEX can be used to encourage other inner-city areas to promote arts-driven regeneration projects?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his suggestion. We believe that there are tremendous opportunities to link regeneration and culture. We have seen the benefits in cities such as Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester; indeed, in almost all 12 of the cities that are bidding to be the European capital of culture. I shall ensure that the beneficial experience of West Bromwich is added to that proud list.

While I appreciate and welcome the increase of funding through the Arts Council of England, would the Secretary of State agree, on reflection, that that sum has been completely dwarfed by the significant decrease of grants made available from the New Opportunities Fund and the community fund? Surely she should address the reasons for that decline if we are to help the arts in the way in which we all want.

I do not accept the premise of the question. The sports and arts are funded by the Exchequer and the lottery, which in the case of the arts is provided in equal parts. There has been a small decline in lottery ticket sales in recent years, but the regulator and the operator are confident that that trend is set to reverse. The arts across every constituency in this country can look forward to a bright future because they have a Government who are committed to investing in them as part of our central purpose, not as an afterthought.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that those cities that do not become the European capital of culture or win the bid feel rather bruised by that? Many of us in Yorkshire believe that having been left off the shortlist, Bradford feels that it is unloved and uncared for in the arts. Surely all those other cities that will not become the European capital of culture should have a chance that is not European funded but funded by her Department to take significant initiatives in cultural events.

No doubt we could hear a chorus of suggestions around the Chamber.

Bradford is a wonderful city and I look forward to visiting it towards the end of the month. It proudly boasts many cultural institutions. My hon. Friend is right: bidding for the capital of culture unlocked vision and ambition in those bidding cities, including Bradford. We are considering ways in which the ambition in those bids can—certainly in part—be realised.

Television (Cross-Ownership)

5.

If she will make a statement on her policy on cross-ownership rules in respect of (a) Channel 5 and (b) ITV. [107050]

The Government's policy is to deregulate where possible to promote investment and growth. However, we will retain those key ownership rules that safeguard a plurality of media voices and tough content controls to ensure quality and diversity. The Communications Bill, therefore, removes all rules on the ownership of Channel 5, which has only a 6 per cent. audience share and 80 per cent. coverage of the UK. The Bill maintains the rule that prevents a large newspaper proprietor buying into ITV, which in contrast with Channel 5 has universal access to a mass audience.

I thank the Minister for that detailed response, but is not there something illogical about her position? The logic she applies only continues if Channel 5 continues to have a small share of the audience and ITV continues to have a large share. Surely the danger is that Mr. Murdoch or one of the other big proprietors buys Channel 5 and injects money into it that leads to a big increase in audience share—the sort of audience share that she rules out for cross-media relaxation on ITV.

It is extraordinarily interesting to hear Liberal Democrat views on the important issue of cross-media ownership. On the day that they tabled amendments to the Communications Bill in Committee, they overslept and Committee members were denied the opportunity to have the debate that the hon. Gentleman is now trying to initiate rather late in the day. However, as it is the middle of the day and Liberal Democrats are awake, I can tell him that we anticipated precisely the scenario to which he refers by creating provision in the Bill for the public service broadcasting requirements on Channel 5 to be strengthened if there is a significant increase in its audience share.

Tough content controls can stand separately from ownership requirements, so why not set ITV free as well?

Because ITV has a mass audience. It covers 100 per cent. of the country and has an audience share of about 24 per cent. That may well change. It is precisely because we take a different view of media ownership than the Opposition—we believe that competition alone is not enough to safeguard plurality and diversity—that we have retained a rule restricting cross-media ownership for ITV for the reasons that I identified, but have proposed to lift that rule for Channel 5, a minority channel with a small audience share.

Sports (Maintained Schools)

6.

If she will make a statement on the level of sporting activity undertaken by pupils in maintained schools. [107051]

It will probably come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman, but comprehensive data on physical education and school sports have never been collected. However, I can assure him that we are putting that right. On 3 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport placed in the Library of the House the initial results of the survey of school sport co-ordinator partnerships that took place towards the end of 2002. Updated figures were published on the website on 1 April. The second annual report on the Government's plan for sport shows that one pupil in seven has moved into community sports or physical activity clubs, one pupil in five is involved in inter-school competitions, and 50 per cent. are involved in intra-school competitions and events. Those figures are still well below the targets that we have set; they are not satisfactory. That is why, over the next three years, we are investing about £1 billion to put facilities and people in place so as to build on the figures that I have just given.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his candid and informative reply. As long ago as 5 June 1998, the then Minister for Sport, the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), told the House that there should be an irreducible minimum of three hours per week of sport for children in schools. However, almost five years later, the Government's two-hour PE and school sport target is missed respectively by three quarters, three fifths and two thirds of schools at key stages 1, 2 and 3. Why should we hold out any prospect of success under this Government when their record both past and present is one of miserable failure?

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to have a serious discussion about this, I do not know where he gets his facts and statistics. I have been quite honest with the House and said that the data have not been available. We are trying to establish a database and, once we have that in place, as we now have, we will be able to measure results consistently. Our target is to offer every child between the ages of five and 16 two hours of quality physical activity or sport every week. The investment of £1 billion over the next three years is to put in place facilities—there will be something like 2,500 developments across the country through the New Opportunities Fund investment of £560 million—and 3,000 school sport co-ordinators. We now have 201 sports colleges out of our target of 400; and just under 1,000 school sport co-ordinators out of our target of 3,000 to be in place within the next two years. We believe that we have made a significant investment in the development of the infrastructure to bring quality physical activity and sport back into our schools.

Although I accept the points that the Minister has made, is the bigger problem not the drop-out rate from organised sport of people over the age of 16? Does my right hon. Friend agree that partnerships between schools and local communities to expand the use of school sport facilities are making a positive contribution? I welcome the £600,000 from the New Opportunities Fund to refurbish the swimming pool at Montsaye school in Rothwell. That is helping to promote more sporting activity for the school and the local community.

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said. It is a serious matter that 70 per cent. of young people who leave school and go into the world of work or higher education never return to active sport. In France, the figure is around 20 per cent. We have to look into that. The prerequisite for applications to the New Opportunities Fund for investment through the local education authorities is that funds will be used for community activities. We hope that the £60 million that we are investing through the governing bodies to strengthen the sports club structure the length and breadth of the nation will make a major contribution towards arresting that awful figure of 70 per cent. for people who are not active in sport once they leave school.

On statistics, has the Minister seen the latest Sport England survey, published at the end of February, which reveals that the number of children who do not take part in regular weekly PE or sport at the school at all is rising and now stands at 18 per cent.—almost one in five children? Some 51 per cent. of young people do less than two hours of PE a week. Does he agree that that scandalous failure of schools policy must be reversed if we are to tackle child obesity and prevent ill health in later life? I acknowledge what he is trying to do, but can he tell us how the joint public service agreement between his Department and the Department for Education and Skills will be monitored and when we can expect results, because a lot of public money is involved?

That is exactly what I have suggested. The hon. Gentleman refers to a survey by Sport England and, helpful though that survey is, it is just a snapshot of what is happening in this country. We need much more robust figures. As the Government are investing such amounts of money into sport and physical activities, it is necessary to get robust baseline data. In fact, that is exactly what we are doing. There is no disagreement between those on the two Front Benches—we want to ensure that obesity in our young people is reduced, along with diabetes as well. That is why the investment is there.

According to the National Audit Office, the wider nation's economy loses £2 billion a year because of obesity, £500 million of which falls on the national health service. Those horrendous figures need to be arrested, and we are setting off at the very beginning—in our primary and infant schools—and moving on to secondary schools and, I hope, into the club structure as well.

Heritage Sites

What recent discussions she has had with her EU counterparts on protection of international heritage sites. [107052]

Officials from my Department attended a specially convened session of the world heritage committee at UNESCO in Paris last month. My Department will also be represented at the main session of the world heritage committee in China this summer, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that we are supporting the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), which will allow much easier prosecution of anyone who tries to trade in this country in objects stolen or looted from cultural heritage sites across the world.

I gave the Department notice of my supplementary question mid-morning. Has the Minister had discussions with either the international body or the Ministry of Defence about the fate of the museum at Basra, the shrine at Al-Kawaz, the great mosque that is 16 km to the west of Bara, or the early Islamic site at Tulul ash Shuaiha? In the light of the answer that was given at oral questions by the Prime Minister before the war started that everything possible would be done to protect sites of holy or cultural interest, why has no one in the Government contacted, after their pleas, Professor Postgate and his team at Cambridge, Harriet Crawford of the Institute of Archaeology or John Curtis of British Museum?

I have not had discussions with the experts that my hon. Friend mentions, but I have been informed that representatives of the British armed forces have discussed with those of our coalition allies how best to make all coalition forces aware of the many historic and important sites in Iraq, and I am sure that they will do all in their power to minimise the damage to those sites. I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that the United Kingdom is prohibited under article 53 of additional protocol 1 to the Geneva convention from directing any attack on cultural property, unless, of course, that property is used to support Iraq's military effort.

Will the Minister use his best efforts in the European Union to try to get our partners around the Mediterranean to do rather better at identifying such sites and protecting them? Is this not another case of Britain playing the game and enforcing the rules much better than our southern partners? Can he help them to do rather better?

I am not aware that the countries to which the right hon. Gentleman refers are deficient in any sense. If he has examples of such sites that are not being identified and recognised in other parts of the world, I am sure that he is ready to write to me about them; I have not heard of them.

When considering international heritage sites, will my hon. Friend take into account objects at the birthplace of the industrial revolution, such as the weaving mill at Queen street in Burnley? [Laughter.] Well, such things still work. We need to preserve them, to ensure they are successful and to attract tourists to them.

The Government have a tremendous record of identifying, looking after and putting money into sites relating to the industrial revolution and to industry in general. I will certainly look at the example that my hon. Friend has given.

Lottery

8.

How many responses she has received to the consultation on the future of the national lottery. [107053]

The Department received 425 responses to the consultation paper on the review of lottery funding.

I declare an interest as a member of the Benfleet horticultural society. I congratulate the Secretary of State on her good humour, and on the professionalism shown by her and by lottery staff in the distribution of grants. Does she agree that lottery sales would increase if grants were directed away from politically correct and controversial schemes towards genuine community-based schemes such as that of the Benfleet horticultural society, which is doing such excellent work in the Castle Point community?

I looked at the figures relating to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and I note that his constituents have benefited less than they should have from the distribution of lottery moneys. I hope he understands how seriously I take the need to ensure equitable distribution. As for his swipe at political correctness, what is politically correct today may be progressive and socially acceptable tomorrow. I would bet a small lottery prize that had we been debating the lottery in the early part of the last century, the suffragettes would have been dismissed as politically correct.

Is the Secretary of State aware that thousands of small retailers are currently having their lottery franchises removed? While her main concern must of course be to maximise the take for good causes, will she look into the growing concentration of distribution that is benefiting supermarkets and disadvantaging small retailers?

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I know that Camelot has a rationalisation under way, and that being a lottery distributor it is extremely popular. I am glad it has taken the needs of rural areas into account, but I will keep a close watch to ensure that people in all areas have easy access to shops where they can buy lottery tickets.

Is it not the case that only six of the 425 respondents favoured merging the community fund and the New Opportunities Fund, while bodies representing voluntary organisations were overwhelmingly against it? Will the Secretary of State assure us that the merger will not go ahead until Parliament has properly considered and approved it?

As I have told the hon. Gentleman in a parliamentary answer, about 12 respondents expressed a view. The ratio between those expressing reservations and those supporting the merger was 50:50. The proposals arising from the review will form part of a White Paper, which will be published later in the year, and Parliament will have ample opportunity—as Parliament should—to debate not just the merger proposals but the other proposals for revitalising our national lottery.

When the Secretary of State draws up the White Paper, will she say whether she is satisfied that despite the Government's pledge to reduce it, the amount of money still sitting in the national lottery distribution fund stands at £3.2 billion, 14 per cent. over the figure inherited by her Government? Is it riot a scandal that in the last five years more than £1 billion has accumulated in interest payments—money that could have been used to transform the lives of thousands of people?

First, the hon. Gentleman should understand that the money raised in interest by the NLDF does go into good causes, so the income has been realised for good causes. Secondly, the balances are now at their lowest level for five years, but I agree that the balances at their present level are unacceptable. However, it is important to understand that balances that stand at £3.24 billion represent on the latest figures almost £500 million of over-commitment. That is money being held on account for organisations that have been awarded lottery grants which have yet to be drawn down. The distributors gave an undertaking to halve the level of balances, and I am working with them to ensure that we accelerate the rate of draw-down. Proposals relating to that will form part of the review to be published later this summer.

Will the Secretary of State be very cautious when she cites figures for lottery money given to constituencies? If she looked at the figures for West Derbyshire, she would tell me that we had had a huge amount of lottery grant over the past few years, but considering that much of that lottery grant goes to the county council for schemes that it is promoting, the money is spread across the county. The figures that she gives are often misleading.

The figures are not intended to mislead, but if one examines the figures on a countywide rather than a constituency basis, there will appear to be clustering of lottery grants in particular areas. My hon. Friends representing Birmingham constituencies make a similar point about the distribution of grants in Birmingham, and I am sure that there are other examples. One of the purposes of undertaking the review of lottery distribution is to tackle some of these tricky questions. Principles of equity demand that we do everything we can to make sure that organisations right across the country have the opportunity to enrich their communities with successful lottery grants.

Sporting Facilities

9.

What steps she is taking to improve sporting facilities in disadvantaged areas. [107054]

The Government believe that sport can play a valuable part in alleviating economic and social deprivation. Programmes such as space for sport and the arts, the New Opportunities Fund school PE and sport funding, the PE, school sport and club links initiative and the community club development programme are all targeted at deprived areas.

Edmonton Rangers football club provides sport and recreation to some of the most deprived kids in my constituency. It does a tremendous job, but it could do an even better job if only it had a permanent site. There is a site available, but unfortunately it is owned by a neighbouring local authority, which has left it to rot over the past 15 years. What can my right hon. Friend do to assist clubs such as Edmonton Rangers, which is trying to reach out to deprived kids in my communities, and what action can he take with local authorities, especially those that are not represented in the area, in order to bring such sites back into use?

I do not know all the details of the case that my hon. Friend describes, but if the facts are as he says, that local authority should re-examine its attitude to sport and physical activity. I know that there have been developments in the area with the participation of the Edmonton sports and social club and the local authority there, and I hope that that results in better facilities, including changing accommodation and all-weather pitches. If my hon. Friend writes to me about the matter that he raises, I will look into it and contact the local authority in question.

Does the Minister agree that what is important is not just the provision of facilities, but access to them and whether young people in particular can afford to get into them? Does he agree that there is a need for joined-up government thinking with the Department for Education and Skills and local government to ensure that not only are facilities provided, but that young people can afford to use them?

Very much so. The hon. Gentleman knows that many local authorities—particularly Labour-controlled ones—are trying to ensure that the facilities are accessible, especially to people who can currently ill-afford to use them. I have seen many innovative schemes around the country. Using the modern technology that is available, such as the chips that can be put into passcards, we can distinguish between various categories of economic well-being among the populace in a city without it being seen as discriminatory. Many schemes are operating throughout the country, but he is right to say that, in some areas, financial barriers are preventing people from gaining access to the facilities. I hope that local authorities and other partners can look at making that access available.

Entertainment Licences

10.

What plans she has to promote the use of live music in pubs and clubs by reducing the cost of entertainment licences. [107055]

The Licensing Bill will do away with the current system of separate, annually renewable and often very expensive public entertainment licences and establish a system under which a pub or club obtaining permission to sell alcohol will not pay anything extra to seek permission to provide live music.

I thank the Minister for his illuminating reply. I am sure that the House will welcome many of the changes that he has made to the Licensing Bill. May I say that he has carried them out with his usual grace, good humour and Pontypridd panache? However, he will know better than most the concerns that the Bill aroused; indeed, he still bears the scars. What steps has he taken since making those changes to reassure pubs, clubs, entertainers and the Musicians Union in particular that the Bill is both in their interest and the public interest?

I had a meeting very recently with the new general secretary of the Musicians Union, Mr. John Smith, and I have met representatives of various folk group organisations, wassailers, folk dancers and even Somerset folk singers. We are determined that, between us, we will ensure that the licensed trade knows the potential of the new arrangements. I am convinced that we will see many more venues for live music in this country, not fewer, and that those that will put on live music will not have to suffer the distortions of the two-in-a-bar rule.

The Minister has already conceded in answer to his hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) that the Government got the original proposals in the Licensing Bill catastrophically wrong. We are very pleased that the Government have now backed down, as his hon. Friend pointed out. Does he recognise the concerns of those of us in the all-party music group that further changes would still be welcome? Will he continue to listen to the proposals not only of the all-party group, but of all other organisations involved in Keep Music Live?

It always amazes me that somebody can stand up in the Chamber and say that we have got something catastrophically wrong when, for 18 years, their Government put up with this nonsense and did absolutely nothing about it. We are determined that there will be a much better regime in this country for putting on live music and that we will see a renaissance of that music, which is a very important part of our economy. If we do not encourage the grass roots of music of whatever sort, I am not sure how the tall plants will grow out of it. The entertainments industry is a very important part of our economy and we should never forget that.

But is the Minister aware that, despite his assurances, more than 80,000 people have now signed the petition against the Bill and remain utterly convinced that it will result in the loss of thousands of venues for live music? Does he understand that he has completely failed to convince anybody as to why those venues should have to have an entertainments licence in future when they do not need one now and about why it is so necessary for pubs and clubs in England and Wales to be licensed when those in Scotland do not need a licence?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that those venues do need licences now. If he does not know that, he should, because he has been told enough times. If he means that we should continue with the two-in-a-bar rule, despite the fact that it was the Musicians Union and musicians throughout the country who said that it was distorting live music in this country because it was not allowing musicians to explore anything beyond having two in a bar, which usually means one person with a karaoke machine, I am afraid that he will never grasp the reality of the situation. I would have thought that he would want to support something that will secure real improvement in this country in terms of the mounting and performance of live music.

Public Libraries

11.

If she will make a statement on the implementation of the Government's policy of ensuring that all public libraries are online. [107056]

The £100 million lottery funding for the people's network programme has enabled 4,085 libraries in the UK to be connected to the internet, including all the libraries in my right hon. Friend's constituency. That represents 99 per cent. of libraries in England, 95 per cent. in Scotland, and 100 per cent. in Wales and Northern Ireland. Only 39 English and 30 Scottish libraries have still to be connected, and we expect all but two to be online by summer 2003. That is a significant achievement.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Gateshead council on not only the people's network project but the lending time project? Does he agree that, taken together, they mean that not only is the policy of bringing libraries online being fully undertaken, but that the number of local people who can develop their computer skills and gain access to the facilities has greatly increased through work with volunteers? Is not that one of the many reasons why Newcastle/Gateshead would be an excellent capital of culture?

I could not possibly comment on my right hon. Friend's last question. Nevertheless, what is happening in Gateshead mirrors events throughout the country. Libraries are perceived, not in the traditional sense as places where one can simply borrow books or go to read, but as true resource centres for developing the skills of my right hon. Friend's constituents and others. Many people are taking advantage of the £100 million investment and libraries have developed well beyond their service of simply lending books.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the
Church Commissioners, was asked—

Clergy (Conditions Of Service)

21.

When he expects to receive proposals from the Archbishops Council on conditions of service for the clergy. [107082]

May I say at the outset how much I welcome the presence of the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) at our joint Question Time? I wish him well in his many endeavours in the weeks, months and years ahead.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) knows, the Archbishops Council has set up a working group under the chairmanship of Professor David McClean to review various matters relating to clergy terms of service, including the freehold and improving protection for clergy without it.

Given that the Archbishops Council has given the impression of substantial inactivity on conditions of service for the clergy since the Employment Relations Act 1999 was passed, and has appeared reluctant to set up the McClean committee—it did so late and slowly—would not it be a travesty if the workings of the committee were perceived as a reason for delay rather than a vehicle for progress, and if the contentious issue of the future of the freehold were to be used as a reason to delay granting conditions of service, which others have enjoyed for some years, to the clergy?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's great interest in the subject and I respect and admire his persistence over the years since 1997 when he first became a Member of Parliament. I welcome the fact that he has an Adjournment debate on the subject in Westminster Hall.

The working group's initial report will be made available to the Archbishops Council by the end of the year, and subsequent consultation will take place with the Church Commissioners. As my hon. Friend knows, the Church is anxious to co-operate with the appropriate Department, Professor David McClean and his committee.

Should not those conditions of service include an express requirement for wisdom? How wise is it for the Archbishop of Canterbury to visit Qatar this week but to refuse to visit our troops, many of whom are laying down their lives for this country?

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Voting Age

22.

What representations the Electoral Commission has received on reducing the voting age to 16. [107083]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission)

The votes at 16 campaign has made such representations to the Commission. It is also aware of support for moves to reduce the minimum voting age on the part of several parliamentarians, political parties and other bodies.

Will the hon. Gentleman try to ensure that, through the representations that it receives, the Electoral Commission tries to listen to the voices of young people on this issue? Those young people are asking why they can pay tax, get married and join the armed forces at 16, if they cannot vote.

Yes, indeed. The Commission is aware that there has been strong support expressed in some quarters that the voting age should be reduced. The purpose of the fundamental review that the Commission now has in hand is to gauge how wide that support is.

Has my hon. Friend, whose presence answering questions I warmly welcome, received any even more stupid representations in regard to votes at 14?

Yes. [Laughter.] I say "yes" to acknowledge that I have heard the question. The Commission has put in hand a wide-ranging survey, which was announced on 27 February. Its timetable is to consult over the summer and early autumn of 2003, with publication of a final report, with recommendations, in early 2004. It is, perhaps, worth reporting, if one is seeking to improve the turnout at general elections, that the overall turnout in the 2001 general election was 59 per cent., but the estimated turnout among 18 to 24-year-olds was 39 per cent.

Ward Boundaries

23.

When the Electoral Commission last met the Boundary Commission to discuss the review of ward boundaries in metropolitan authorities; and if he will make a statement. [107084]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Responsibility for reviews of ward boundaries in metropolitan authorities falls to the boundary committee for England. The Electoral Commission has not met the committee to discuss this matter.

May I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the guidance issued in the periodic electoral review, which states that the Electoral Commission and the boundary committee for England

"must have regard to the desirability of fixing identifiable electoral area boundaries"
and ensure that community interests are safeguarded? It is, therefore, apparent from the directive that both organisations have responsibility for this issue. I would like to draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to problems that are developing in some of the metropolitan areas in which boundary reviews are taking place. In Wakefield, for example, there are two communities with a vast distance between them. The M62 passes through the area, which also has a railway container depot and a vast industrial area, and a railway going along the division between the two communities. There is also no natural identifiable boundary. There has been a tremendous increase in community interest in this issue. Will the hon. Gentleman take this matter on board and ensure that such proposals will be examined in detail, and that the community interest is given priority when it comes to identifying ward boundaries?

Yes. Electoral equality is the starting point for the boundary committee's review, but of course it also takes account of other items, including community identity. As to the consultation on the boundary committee's draft recommendations in relation to Wakefield city council, the public consultation period ends today, and I understand that the hon. Gentleman is making representations in that regard.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Church Repairs

24.

What assessment he has made of the impact that the revision of the sixth VAT directive will have on church repairs. [107085]

As the hon. Lady knows, I led a delegation to the European Parliament on the subject of the sixth VAT directive in December. I have since discussed the matter with representatives of the European Parliament. The Church knows that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury are committed to achieving the changes required to the directive to enable a permanent reduction in the rate of VAT charged on the repair and maintenance of listed places of worship.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that such a revision of the sixth VAT directive would have a very positive impact on church repairs, but we seem to be no closer to achieving it. Will he put a deadline on when such a revision might be achieved?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her persistent efforts in this area, and for keeping the issue on the boil. As she will be aware,

"the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small".
That might be equally true of the European Parliament in relation to the sixth VAT directive.

This is an issue of particular concern to members of one of the churches in my constituency, who have been extremely effective in raising money to repair its roof but are dependent on additional moneys. This issue, which seems to be making no advancement at all, is causing them grave concern. So far as my hon. Friend is aware, will the Government help such organisations to bridge the gap, if time is of the essence in tying up the additional funding that they might receive from other organisations?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to a church in her constituency. As she is aware, the Chancellor reduced VAT on church repairs of listed buildings from 17.5 per cent. to 5 per cent. as a temporary measure. We are aware of and comforted by the fact that the Chancellor will continue that scheme until such time as the sixth VAT directive is passed. I will be grateful if my hon. Friend lets me know of any particular difficulties for her church in relation to those matters, and we will take them up personally.

Pensions

26.

Will he make a statement on pensions provision for the clergy. [107087]

Clergy in office receive a stipend and are housed. When they retire, they make their own housing provisions, but they receive a Church pension in addition to their state pension. The basis for determining the benefits provided by the Church—a lump sum at retirement plus a pension takes account of all those factors. The full service pension from 1 April 2003 is £11,013 per annum. The lump sum is £33,039.

What can the Church Commissioners do to reduce the proportion of retiring clergy who have to rely on means-tested state benefit and to improve pension provision for those clergy?

I am not entirely sure what we can do about those who wish to retire early, as that, if I may say so, is their God given right. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the clergy pension scheme is a defined benefit scheme. Many companies are switching to money purchase schemes that, in effect, switch risk to the employee. The Church has chosen not to do so, which highlights its commitment to adequate remuneration for retired clergy. We are also considering how we can increase the pensions for the clergy.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Experimental Voting

27.

What statutory measures allow experimental voting procedures in individual constituencies at general elections. [107088]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission)

The statutory provisions for experimental voting procedures apply only to local authority elections in England, Scotland and Wales.

A while ago, my hon. Friend referred to the number of younger people who vote. I and, I am sure, other colleagues have received representations from people of all ages asking for the opportunity to vote by e-mail or via the internet. Can the Speaker's Commission enable an experiment to see whether that would make a difference? It might allow the country to see whether those methods would work or whether more traditional ones are preferable.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is indeed an area in which the Electoral Commission has a keen interest. The commission's strategic evaluation report on the May 2002 electoral pilots notes that voters generally found electronic voting systems easy and convenient to use. However, the commission also recognises that evidence in relation to turnout remains unconvincing and recommends further trials to build on the experience of this year's pilots, which, of course, will be held in relation to the May local government elections.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked

Fundraising

28.

What advice is given by the commissioners regarding the use of Church premises for fundraising; and if he will make a statement. [107089]

The Church Commissioners give no such advice. Parishes make their own arrangements for fundraising events, and we applaud them for what they do. Many use their buildings for activities intended to raise funds, and well-planned events can benefit both the congregation and the wider community.

I am very grateful for that answer, and it is right to say that a variety of activities can take place. May I again implore the hon. Gentleman to visit Lichfield to see not only activities such as the Lichfield festival, which occurs annually in our cathedral, but the many different churches, which raise money not only from jumble sales and bazaars, but through artistic events in the area?

I am grateful for the question. If the hon. Gentleman remembers, at the previous Question Time, I accepted an invitation to visit Lichfield in July. When he sends me the invitation, I will be glad to accept it. Having said that, I was in mid-Wensleydale parish last week, in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), and I must tell him that there was a strong response: all those in the room said that they had supported him, did support him, and would support him. I can only congratulate him on his role as a constituency Member of Parliament. At mid-Wendsleydale, a clear local connection existed between the parish church and the parish in relation to fundraising, which was very successful. The hon. Gentleman reminds us of how much work is done in parishes up and down the land in relation to fundraising and in relation to their parishioners.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Electoral Literature

29.

What monitoring of electoral literature the commission carries out. [107090]

Mr. Peter Viggers
(representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission)

The commission does not have a specific role in monitoring electoral literature, although it maintains an overview of the way that the law operates in that area.

Given that all our constituencies and all the opinion polls show that the one thing that electors want from all parties in the House and elsewhere is more information that is, to use the words of the Advertising Standards Authority, "decent, honest and truthful", would it be helpful to the interests of the credibility of politics were the Electoral Commission to consider the issue and come forward with recommendations that we could all follow to public advantage?

I am not exactly certain what the hon. Gentleman is urging. If there is a breach of electoral law, it is a matter for the police prosecuting authority: it is not a matter in which the Electoral Commission becomes directly involved.

Iraq (Military Operations)

3.31 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, 1 would like to make a further statement about military action in Iraq and the efforts that we are making to help the Iraqi people to rebuild their country.

Since my last statement on 3 April, coalition forces have continued to make excellent progress. Following a series of raids and patrols into the centre of the city, British forces have now deployed in force into Basra. United States Army and Marine Corps units have with remarkable speed advanced on Baghdad, seized the international airport and conducted patrols into the city centre.

Those military successes have not been without cost. On behalf of the Government, I extend our condolences to the families and friends of those three British servicemen who have lost their lives during the last few days and in the coalition campaign to date. I speak for this House, and for the people of this country, in paying tribute to the bravery and dedication of all British and American service personnel deployed in Iraq. It is through their efforts that we will end the threat posed by the Iraqi regime's weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi people will soon be rid of Saddam Hussein, his barbaric regime and the suffering that he has visited on them.

Throughout this campaign, the coalition has sought to use minimum force to achieve our military objectives. We have never sought to inflict unnecessary suffering on Iraqi civilians, or, indeed, on members of the Iraqi armed forces. We have consistently encouraged members of the Iraqi armed forces to end their increasingly futile resistance and return to their homes and families. We are now beginning to see indications that these messages are having an impact, at least on some Iraqi soldiers. That does not mean, however, that the regime's resistance is necessarily at an end. In Basra, Baghdad and other urban areas, coalition forces will face a difficult and dangerous period dealing with the remnants of Iraq's forces. We owe it to our own forces and to the Iraqi people to proceed with care.

We took great care in the planning of recent operations in Basra: the aim was to remove remnants of the regime while minimising the risk to civilians and to our armed forces. For the last two weeks, 1 Division has consolidated its presence in and around Basra, carrying out patrols and raids deep into the city, undermining the grip of the regime and gathering the intelligence vital to developing the unfolding operation. Raids and patrols into Basra during Saturday night met with much less resistance from Iraqi forces than on previous days. The opportunity was therefore taken yesterday morning to launch a major operation to secure strategic positions deep within the city. That involved personnel from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the 1st Battalion Irish Guards attached, the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, the 1st Battalion Black Watch, the 2nd Royal 'Tank Regiment and 3 Commando Brigade.

Significant progress has been made. We assess that coalition forces can now go to all parts of the city, albeit under the cover of armour. UK forces were warmly received by crowds of local people, demonstrating that the coalition is winning the confidence and support of the Iraqi population. Power, water and food are now assessed to be available to the majority of the population. Key facilities are being secured by British forces in Basra, bringing much-needed security, safety and support.

In a very similar manner, the past few days have seen US forces make considerable progress in and around Baghdad, supported by coalition air and missile strikes which have degraded the regime's command and control capability and the Republican Guard's combat effectiveness. That strategy has worked remarkably well. The final 50 miles or so of the advance on Baghdad were completed at great speed. The US army's Fifth Corps defeated the republican guard's Medina division and seized Baghdad international airport on Friday. The first coalition aircraft landed at the airport yesterday. The First Marine Expeditionary Force overcame the Baghdad and al-Nida divisions of the republican guard in a matter of days, and is now on the south-east outskirts of Baghdad. US forces now control the major routes into and out of Baghdad.

Elsewhere, the men and women of the Royal Air Force continue to contribute significantly to the overall military campaign, providing close air support to US forces around Baghdad. Some 1,500 sorties have now been flown.

Our maritime forces, building on their early success on the al-Faw peninsula, and having created a safe channel for shipping into Umm Qasr, are now working hard to clear the whole Khawr Abd' Allah waterway of mines and obstructions. They are dealing not only with recent Iraqi mine-laying but with the legacy of the 1991 conflict. That is yet another example of coalition forces not only rebuilding Iraq for the future but improving on what was there before. Following the delivery by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Sir Galahad of 300 tonnes of food, water and other humanitarian assistance, RFA Sir Percival arrived this morning at Umm Qasr with a similar cargo.

The water pipeline constructed by the Royal Engineers is now delivering around 1.5 million litres of clean water a day and UK troops have delivered 170,000 sets of rations to people in south-eastern Iraq. While we should not underestimate the humanitarian problems that we face, we have not yet seen any indications that there are widespread shortages of food or water.

The United Nations security co-ordination department has declared Umm Qasr to be a "permissive" environment, an important step allowing UN agencies to begin operating there. In addition, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has announced that the 24 grain silos at Umm Qasr port are safe and ready for use.

At a local level, significant steps are being taken to help the Iraqi people to begin to take control of their own affairs and to deal with decades of deprivation. UK forces have purchased shoes, stationery and books for children in Imman Anas. An Arabic computer has been purchased to enable the production of a news sheet for the civilian population of Az Zubayr. British officers have met with local people at Rumaylah to discuss future reconstruction projects—the renovation of the local primary school has already begun. Those developments, together with the fact that we are seeing the reopening of shops and markets, represent at least the beginning of a return to normal life in southern Iraq.

The pace of events over the past few days has been remarkable, but it will take time for the Iraqi people to adjust to the rapidly changing circumstances. We should not underestimate the traumatic effect of living under such a brutal and venal regime for so many years, its terror and corruption devastating the lives of Iraqi citizens at every level. Just as it is taking time for the people of Iraq to come to terms with the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime is coming to its inevitable end, it will take time, after so many years of relentless propaganda, for them to begin to trust the good faith of the coalition. We must all be patient as there are many difficult and dangerous challenges lying ahead.

First, I associate the Opposition fully with the Secretary of State's comments about those of our servicemen who have given their lives during this conflict.

I join the Secretary of State in congratulating British and American forces on their spectacular progress both in Basra and in the attack on Baghdad over the past four days, capitalising on opportunities as they arise. The Secretary of State is right to be cautious about the future speed of events, even though the eventual outcome is not in doubt. I think of the evil King Balshazzar, who once ruled in that land and was slain. It is time that Saddam Hussein also saw the writing on the wall for his evil regime.

May I first ask about events around Basra? The Secretary of State makes no mention of 16 Air Assault Brigade; can he say anything about its role? There are also reports of increasing chaos and looting on the streets. The Secretary of State says that power, water and food are "assessed to be available", but is also clear that our armed forces' efforts to distribute food and water are severely limited because we simply do not have the manpower. I shall not press the right hon. Gentleman again on reinforcements, except to leave the issue on the table, and to note that the tasks for our troops are not getting any lighter, and that we are having to withdraw elements from front-line operations to give them rest. May I ask when he thinks that non-governmental aid organisations will feel able to join our troops' efforts to distribute aid? I note that the United Nations has declared Umm Qasr a "permissive environment"; so what is holding up NGO involvement? Is there sufficient port capacity to increase the flow of aid? When will Umm Qasr be open for the deep-water shipping on which the future flow of aid depends?

Turning to the question of post-conflict Iraq, in which the UK's armed forces will continue to play a significant role, can the Secretary of State clarify the Government's policy on the role of the United Nations? The Prime Minister has stated that the objective is for the occupying powers to return control to an interim Iraqi administration as soon as possible, and the United States clearly supports that view. However, what are the Government's plans for the pre-interim administration phase—referred to as the initial phase—which may last as long as six months? Does the Secretary of State agree with the Secretary of State for International Development, who told the House last week that
"our armed forces are in Iraq as an occupying power … They do not, however, have the authority to re-organise institutions or establish a new Government. That requires a UN mandate"—[Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402. c. 277.]?
Will the Secretary of State for Defence explain what the Secretary of State for International Development means by "requires a UN mandate"? Although we would like the UN to play a role, surely the Geneva and The Hague conventions oblige the US and the UK not just to provide security and humanitarian relief, but to take the necessary steps to set up a transitional administration as quickly as possible.

Do the Government agree with the United States' National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that the pre-interim administration should be run by the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, under the leadership of retired US General Jay Garner? Will the Secretary of State confirm that there will be a substantial British role in this, and can he say what it will be? Ms Rice further said at a press briefing on 4 April:
"The precise role of the UN will be determined in consultation between the Iraqi people, coalition members and the UN officials … the coalition will naturally have the leading role for a period of time."
Does that reflect the view of Her Majesty's Government?

Following the conflict, the coalition will be responsible for the destruction of any weapons of mass destruction that are found. Will the Secretary of State make it clear—unlike his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, on Saturday's BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme—that he does indeed hope to discover their whereabouts? Will he tell the House not what intelligence he may have, but simply answer this question: does he have fresh intelligence on the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? Is it possible that weapons of mass destruction have been moved out of Iraq?

May I make it clear to the Secretary of State that the liberation of Iraq is a noble cause, but that the elimination of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction is the prime objective, and we will hold the Government to that task until it has been achieved?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and in particular for his congratulations to UK and US armed forces, who have worked tremendously well together throughout this conflict, and who continue to do so. As far as 16 Air Assault Brigade is concerned, it is using its very considerable abilities and mobility to support other forces, and in order to be the key—especially in the operation to the north of Basra—to cutting off contact between Basra and other parts of Iraq.

The hon. Gentleman referred to looting, and I know that right hon. and hon. Members will be concerned about that issue; indeed, I have sought to identify the extent of it. Fortunately, it appears so far to be confined to Iraqi citizens—shall I use the word—"liberating" those items that are in the charge of the regime by entering its former facilities and the secret organisations, and redistributing that wealth among the Iraqi people. I regard such behaviour as good practice, perhaps, but that is not to say that we should not guard against more widespread civil disturbances.

As far as power and water are concerned, I referred to British forces securing key facilities in Basra. That was specifically directed at locations that provide water and electricity. Until Saturday and Sunday, we were in no position to identify whether water shortages, probably the result of power outages, were capable of being repaired because we did not control that part of the city. Now that we do, we can take matters in hand to secure a more reliable electricity supply and, thereby, a supply of pure fresh water.

NGOs are beginning to enter the south of Iraq. Obviously, the more parts of the country are safe and secure, the more it will be possible for those NGOs to use their considerable ability to distribute food and other humanitarian assistance. That also depends on port capacity, and urgent efforts are being made both to widen the channel into Umm Qasr and to make more berths available in the port. For the moment, however, it is judged that there are some limitations on what can be achieved because of the continued threat from mines.

As to the role of the United Nations, we certainly want to see UN authority for operations in Iraq, but, equally and as quickly as it can be achieved, we ultimately want the Iraqi people to take responsibility for their own affairs, to take their own decisions and to engage in a form of representative government. That was set out clearly by the Government at the start of the military campaign, and it remains fundamental to our objectives.

The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will certainly be responsible in the early period for the distribution of humanitarian assistance, of which the United States has amassed a considerable stockpile, as well as for the early administration of areas freed from the Iraqi regime. It is common ground and shared between all members of the coalition that we want to see the ORHA move on quickly to allow an interim Iraqi Administration, which will lead to the Iraqis taking responsibility for their own affairs. That is what we are trying to achieve, and British participation in that process will he considerable, not least through the efforts of Brigadier Cross, who will be familiar to many hon. Members after his excellent work in the Balkans.

The destruction of weapons of mass destruction continues to be our priority. We are continuing to search the areas that have been freed, but our first priority must be an end—a successful end—to the military conflict. Thereafter, we will certainly pursue the location of weapons of mass destruction.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement today. I also welcome his attendance in the House, which has been assiduous, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House are grateful for that during the current crisis. I also want to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces as they continue to do their difficult job in Basra and the surrounding areas. I also add my condolences to the families of all members of coalition forces who have been killed so far. I should also like to remember the Iraqi civilians who are caught up in the fighting. As the Secretary of State rightly said, we have no argument with them.

By all accounts the people of Basra have welcomed British forces into their midst, but I want to ask more about the looting to which the Secretary of State has already referred. There are appalling suggestions from some elements of the media that British troops may have condoned such action. Can the Secretary of State confirm that we have not done so, other than the understandable "liberation"—as he put it—of food stocks, and that we will endeavour to keep order in the parts of the country that we are liberating? As part of that process, what troops have been earmarked for peacekeeping operations in Iraq in the near future: have they been placed on standby, ready to go?

On weapons of mass destruction, there have been conflicting reports today that chemical agents may have been found. The Government's own military objectives recognise that UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency will have a role in dismantling these weapons, should they be found. Is that still the case? Were the missiles that fell on Kuwait at the beginning of the conflict Scud missiles or al-Samoud missiles? Will he comment on the role—or, rather, the lack of role—of the Iraqi air force during the conflict?

Incidents of friendly fire have come to the fore, and I am sure that all hon. Members regret that. However, I have been approached by some of the relatives, as other colleagues will have been. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the US Defence Department refused to allow its combat soldiers to give evidence at British inquests into friendly fire incidents in the first Gulf war? Has agreement been reached in this conflict that all coalition forces will co-operate if there are to be inquests or inquiries in the UK or the United States? Finally, the thoughts of all hon. Members go out to our British men and women who are continuing the campaign in Basra; they are a credit to the whole nation.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations about the role of British forces, and for his emphasis, which I share, on the fact that we have no argument with the Iraqi people. As I have said, British forces will keep control to avoid unnecessary looting, but they have not been specifically earmarked for peacekeeping operations. The House will be aware that British forces tend to see their role in offensive terms, when that is necessary, as well as conducting peacekeeping immediately thereafter. We are seeing British forces at their very best in providing both that offensive role in and around Basra and a peacekeeping role further south.

On chemical agents, some interesting findings are being investigated on which I will be able to report to the House in due course. I am not yet in a position to confirm that the missiles that fell on Kuwait were of a particular kind, although I can say that they did not travel in excess of the distance allowed under previous UN resolutions. I think it is fair to say that the Iraqi air force was confined to ground operations.

There will be inquests in due course.

Is it not the case that if we had listened to the critics, there would be no purpose in debating post-Saddam Iraq, since that tyranny would have lasted for years and years and, in time, that murderous dictator would have been succeeded by one of his sons, no less murderous and thuggish? Would it not be wise for those criminal elements of the elite forces fighting the coalition armies to realise that if they do not surrender, they will be killed either by our troops or, given half a chance, by the Iraqi people themselves?

I have long admired my hon. Friend's consistency and steadfastness on the issue, and he has been a pillar of support throughout.

In relation to the future government of Iraq, the Secretary of State for Wales said at the weekend:

"What is crucial is that the UN is put in charge after the interim transitional arrangements. That is vital to us and the whole of the European Union."
Is that the Government's view?

I have made it clear that we want to see UN authority; that is a view shared between the United States and the United Kingdom. It is wholly consistent with the way in which previous peacekeeping operations have been conducted, such as in Afghanistan.

While pockets of agents loyal to the regime continue, and will continue, to provide resistance to coalition troops, the one cohesive mechanism that the Saddam regime seems to possess right across Iraq is the continued control of Iraqi state radio and television. What is our planning in relation to the seizure of mobile transmitters and fixed facilities, and in relation to increasing our broadcasts in Iraq so that we can bring this action to a speedier conclusion?

Although coalition forces have not specifically and directly targeted the media as such in Iraq, my hon. Friend is certainly right to draw attention to the means whereby the regime has sought to disseminate information through broadcasting. In fact, other targets—often co-located with radio and television transmitters—have been addressed, especially those that have provided the regime with command-and-control facilities. The level of broadcasting has been significantly reduced. I anticipate that, today, little broadcasting actually takes place that reaches many people in Iraq.

The enthusiasm with which it appears that British troops have been greeted in Basra goes some way towards vindicating those of us who believe that we are liberating Iraq, and I very much hope that it continues. However, can the Secretary of State tell us what use is being made of Iraqi exile groups both in assisting with the liberation of Iraq and in perhaps laying the groundwork for some form of democratic government in the future of Iraq?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the growing enthusiasm in Basra. As I have previously indicated to the House, it depended on people there having confidence and believing that coalition forces were there to stay, and would see the job through and remove those elements of the regime. I have certainly given them that assurance. The growing presence of Iraqi exiles to assist in that process, not leas(by going into towns and villages and explaining what is taking place, is of enormous value. That is beginning to happen.

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether searches have yet taken place of specific sites identified by US or UK intelligence as possibly containing weapons of mass destruction? Does he share the view that appears to have been expressed at the weekend by one of his Cabinet colleagues that it is possible that nothing will be found?

I do not share that view. Searches are under way and obvious sites have been looked at. We have been aware for some time that the regime had removed many of the more obvious elements of its weapons of mass destruction and had sought to hide them in the more remote parts of the country as well as to keep them mobile. I have no doubt that those weapons of mass destruction will he found.

Would it not assist the armed forces in the difficult task that they face, and achieve more co-operation locally, if the Secretary of State and his United States colleague made it abundantly clear that they do not contemplate further military action of any kind against any other nation in the middle east?

I am not aware of any such contemplation. Indeed, we have made it plain that action against Iraq was unique, not least because of Iraq's very, very long history of flouting the will of the international community and United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Can my right hon. Friend give more details about the situation in Basra? The media tend to give a mixed picture: on one day, they say that British troops are entering and occupying Basra, while on the next, they say that we have experienced strong Iraqi resistance. Can my right hon. Friend give an overview of the different levels of security in Basra and tell us what coalition troops are actually doing to encourage security, and confidence in coalition troops in the city?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent observation. There are inevitably different levels of security, especially in this kind of conflict. I made it clear that the ground commanders of British forces going into Basra feel confident so far that they can go to any part of the city, provided that they are protected by appropriate armoured vehicles. The next stage is to be confident that they are sufficiently secure to conduct foot patrols. Thereafter, we may see them conducting foot patrols without helmets, perhaps patrolling with berets, as we have seen them do in other towns and cities in southern Iraq. It is a progressive effort, to build up the level of security for our forces; but my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the different degrees of security and the efforts being made by British forces to build on them.

Given the attention that people who oppose the war and the liberation of the Iraqi people are increasingly drawing to the failure so far to find weapons of mass destruction, can the Secretary of State clear up a question that I am increasingly asked—as, perhaps, are other Members? To what extent does the legality of the operation depend on our finding these weapons, and might it retrospectively be deemed illegal if we fail to find them?

Will my right hon. Friend accept everybody's gratitude and admiration for the extremely professional way in which our armed forces have achieved their objectives to date? Does he also accept that none of us should be complacent about the end of the conflict, although it looks as though we may be approaching the end game? Can he say something about the likely period within which the oil-for-food programme that the UN voted to restart under the auspices of the Secretary-General could be put back into effect in those areas that have been liberated from Saddam's regime?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's observations. She is right to be cautious, as I sought to be in my statement. A great deal of work still remains to be done to remove the continuing remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime. That work may well prove difficult and dangerous, so she is right to strike that appropriate note of caution.

As for the oil-for-food programme, the first stage—the renewal of the appropriate resolution—has been completed and is now in place. That will allow the release of some of the funds built up in trust, which can then be used to continue the previous efforts made to extend the benefit of the oil-for-food programme to the Iraqi people. Ultimately, and as quickly as possible, we want oil to be pumped again, not least from the oilfields in the south of Iraq for which we are responsible, in order to build up the wealth available for the people of Iraq. There is no reason why that should not happen quite quickly.

The Secretary of State referred to the use of minimum force and the need to minimise Iraqi civilian casualties. Does riot the continued use of cluster bombs make that more difficult, and in due course will it not make the huge task of reconstruction much more difficult and dangerous?

As I have said on previous occasions when that issue has arisen, the use of all weapons involves striking a balance. All weapons are capable of damaging the civilian population as well as those against whom they are targeted. It is necessary to strike a balance between not only the risk to civilians, but equally the protection of coalition forces. In relation to the use of cluster bombs, I am confident that the right balance has been struck.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the residual strength of the Ba'ath party and the level of support that it will command? In particular, what are the implications for any future democratic regime or Government in Iraq?

Some work is currently under way on that. It is a very difficult question to answer at this stage, not least because the only way of assuring success in Saddam Hussein's Iraq was to be a member of the Ba'ath party and to operate under his rule. On the other hand, there may well be decent people who had no part in the excesses of the regime and who will, in turn, return to rebuild their country. I suspect that it will depend on their ability to persuade people in their own areas that they have not been involved with the regime and that they can therefore he relied on and trusted.

In his most welcome statement, the Secretary of State paid tribute to the successes of our armed forces. Is it not particularly noteworthy that as well as being highly effective at prosecuting the war, they have already shown themselves to be extremely skilled at peacekeeping; and should we not note the experience that they have already brought to bear in. for example, differentiating between paramilitaries and civilians?

The hon. Gentleman is right. As I said a few moments ago, it is a particular characteristic of Britain's armed forces that they can move very quickly from intense war-fighting to—if I can put it this way—intense peacekeeping. Not least because of their long years of experience in Northern Ireland, they are well used to mixing in with the local population, talking to people on the ground and treating people with the respect to which they are entitled after a conflict has come to an end. That is why they are already proving so successful in southern Iraq, and I anticipate that they will continue to be so.

Despite what the Secretary of State said earlier, how does he possibly think that we can win over the hearts and minds of Iraqi civilians by using cluster bombs?

No one is suggesting that we win over the hearts and minds of Iraqi civilians by using cluster bombs other than in this sense: it is necessary to succeed in the military conflict in order to win over those hearts and minds. We will not succeed in the military conflict if we prevent our armed forces from protecting themselves when they are confronted by a determined and often ruthless opposition. I invite my hon. Friend to weigh that in the balance. Is she really prepared to put the lives of our forces at risk in order to prolong the conflict, and thereby make it more difficult, in the longer term, to win the hearts and minds necessary to rebuild Iraq?

Does the right hon. Gentleman share our respect for those who have expressed hesitation about and, indeed, opposition to the armed conflict? No one wanted the war, hard decisions had to be taken and we must respect those who expressed their opposition. Based on briefings at the United Nations two weeks ago and on meetings of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly over the weekend, two things are clear. First, our armed forces have won a new reputation for courage and skill, which is based, as the right hon. Gentleman said, on their experience in Northern Ireland. Their international standing has never been higher. Secondly—we should all unite behind this point—the armed conflict should be brought to a conclusion as quickly as possible so that we can move on to peacekeeping.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations about the skill of Britain's armed forces, but I would not want him to overlook the remarkable skill at arms that has been displayed by US forces. I anticipate that their advance from the south of Iraq to Baghdad will be lectured on for years to come in staff colleges throughout the world. I am told by those who know, that it is one of the most remarkable armoured advances ever seen in modern warfare.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's second point. It is necessary to try to bring the conflict to a speedy conclusion, and that has always been our ambition. At the same time, consistent with observations of right hon. and hon. Members on these occasions, it is necessary to do so in a cautious and practical way while minimising risk to Iraqi civilians and safeguarding our forces. The operation in and around Basra that has been conducted by British forces is absolutely characteristic of that approach.

While welcoming very much the military successes in Basra and Baghdad reported by the Secretary of State, will he tell us a little more about the conflict elsewhere? Will he confirm reports that I have received from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which I reported to his private office late on Friday afternoon and this morning, about four bombing raids on the military camps of the People's Mujaheddin of Iran? The group is dedicated to overthrowing the Iranian Government and notified the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in writing, through the foreign affairs chairman of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, that it would not get involved in the war at all. Why were the four raids carried out, during which three women were killed and four were wounded, and what evidence do we have about them?

I thank my hon. Friend for the assistance that he has provided and I assure him that his observations have been followed up. The border areas, especially where Iraq shares a border with Iran, contain groups with shifting alliances, if I may put it that way. Some groups are regarded as terrorists, depending on the side of the border from which they operate. I assure my hon. Friend that we have regard to the different alliances as we prosecute the campaign.

The Secretary of State spoke of the need for Iraqis to take control of their own affairs as soon as possible, and I am sure that everyone agrees with that. However, there is a timing issue. Do the Government feel that the opposition parties that exist, plus the exiles to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) referred, form a cohesive unit that is ready to be put into play to form a Government? If not, what are this Government doing to ensure that that will happen?

The hon. Gentleman quite rightly sets out the principle that we want the Iraqi people to take control of their own affairs. Equally rightly, he points out one of a number of difficulties that we face—that of establishing a degree of cohesion between exiled groups and opposition groups inside Iraq. Because of the pervasiveness of the oppression conducted by Saddam Hussein's regime, it has been extremely difficult to find effective opposition groups. Opposition was stamped down on very hard by the regime. One of our challenges will be to find the necessary cohesion between exiled groups—who, as I said earlier, will come back into the country—and groups who have sought to oppose the regime from within Iraq. That will be a challenge.

It has been reported that tanker drivers are collecting water from the military in the areas that we control and then selling it to a thirsty population. If that is true, does the Secretary of State agree that it is hardly the way to win hearts and minds, and will he look into the matter and get it stopped?

There was an isolated account of that taking place and action was taken by British forces to deal with it.

The Secretary of State may have seen the interview on television last night with a couple of Arab fighters from southern Lebanon, who I presume were from Hezbollah. Does the Secretary of State have a feeling for how large a problem that involvement now is in Iraq? What part does he feel such people might play in the battle for Baghdad?

As I said in response to questions last Thursday, people have been willing to come into Iraq and offer themselves for various operations. We are addressing that issue, which we take seriously. However, I hope that, as the regime shows signs of collapse right across Iraq, we will be able to deal with the issue effectively.

I want to return to the issue of high-level defections from the Iraqi military. How many approaches have been made to the United Kingdom Government and what inducements, if any, are being offered to those senior military people to encourage them to defect?

For at least some of the senior figures to whom my hon. Friend refers, I suspect that survival is the most important inducement. We are pleased that some people have recognised that it is rather better to surrender than to continue to risk their own lives and the lives of those under their command. Obviously, we have to pursue such matters carefully and it has been extraordinarily difficult on this occasion. I know that some commentators were expecting widespread surrenders; however, over and over again we have heard that, although commanders in the field might be willing to surrender, they have not done so out of fear of what would happen to their families or their children back home, wherever they happen to live.

The Secretary of State will know that, in the next couple of hours, Air Force One will touch down in my constituency, conveying the President to Hillsborough to join the Prime Minister in pursuing the successful conclusion of the conflict in the Gulf and then the start of the task of reconstructing Iraq. That is the important item on the agenda. However, the Secretary of State will also know that there will be a break in the proceedings tomorrow morning for a less important, although not unimportant, item, when the President and the Prime Minister will meet the Northern Ireland political parties. Will the Prime Minister convey the strong feeling of this House and the British people that we need the destruction of all the weapons that have killed and hurt people in Ireland? When the President and the Prime Minister meet the parties tomorrow morning, will they send out the message that we want an end to terrorism worldwide, including terrorism in Ireland?

I am flattered that the hon. Gentleman is here rather than greeting the President of the United States in his constituency. He is right to suggest that we need to make progress, working with the United States, on a range of issues. We will not only be continuing the peace process in Northern Ireland, but holding important discussions on the middle east peace process and, obviously, on the military situation in Iraq. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the President of the United States will have a full agenda. High on that agenda will be the destruction of weapons wherever they are.

If we do indeed owe a duty of care to the Iraqi people, how is it possible that we can still contemplate the use of cluster bombs, as it is well known that the greatest number of deaths and injuries are experienced by civilians from the hundreds of unexploded bomblets that lie around on the ground? What steps are being taken to ensure that civilians may not enter the areas where those bombs have been used before the bomblets can be removed or exploded?

I have dealt with the general question on a number of occasions, so I will not repeat that again, but, on the specific point, careful note has been taken of where and when cluster bombs have been used and, as I have indicated to the House before, the people who most often risk their lives in dealing with the small failure rate of those weapons are members of Britain's armed forces.

I thank the Secretary of State for his recent visit to Colchester garrison to meet the wives and other dependants there. That visit was very much appreciated. He rightly drew attention to the pride that we have in our armed forces and the way that they have performed in Iraq; in particular, I should like to draw attention to 16 Air Assault Brigade. However, does the Secretary of State agree that things are far from being over, and we must impress on the public the need for caution because there is a long way to go yet? With that in mind, does he have any plan to make an announcement about the possible replacement of those troops who are currently there?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to Colchester to participate in an excellent meeting with the families of those in 16 Air Assault Brigade based there. It was a remarkable occasion because it demonstrated the debt that we owe not only to members of the armed forces, but to their families. I was profoundly impressed by the support that they were able to give not only to their men, but to the country in its efforts. As for making sure that we go on providing that support and in respect of any replacements, I told the House last week that we will replace certain units, particularly those that have been in theatre for some months now, as and when necessary, but I shall not make any specific announcement at this stage. Some units will be rotated as a matter of routine, but there is certainly no need at this stage to complete any major reinforcement of our forces there.

Order. I ask for the co-operation of the House. I can call every Member standing, provided that each Member asks one question and makes it as brief as possible.

Have officials at the Ministry of Defence brought to the Secretary of State's attention the work of a brave former Member of the House? I refer to Colonel Colin Mitchell and his work at the Halo Trust, and to the sheer difficulty of retrieving cluster bombs.

I am well aware of the work of the Halo Trust. Indeed, it is an organisation with which the Ministry of Defence has worked—supplying equipment and providing advice and expertise—and I strongly support the efforts that that organisation has made.

Does the Secretary of State recall that as long ago as 1992, the Public Accounts Committee said that the Ministry of Defence should redouble its efforts in dealing with friendly fire? We now have a policy paper a decade later. Will he confirm whether it is true that all US vehicles in theatre are fitted with transponders that can respond to a threat of friendly fire, while UK vehicles merely have symbols, chevrons and the like? Is the problem foot-dragging in NATO? Will he put sufficient, commensurate resources into dealing with that problem as well as into developing high-technology weapons?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman continues to suggest that there is a technological solution to the problem of friendly fire. No one underestimates the tragedy of such incidents and, as we have seen in recent days, they are not solely confined to confusion between the forces of different nations. Very recent incidents demonstrate that those problems are also not solely confined to British military vehicles operating on the ground. It would be enormously helpful if he turned his mind to the wider problem of friendly fire and got away from the idea that there is a single technological solution. Indeed, I commend to him an article in The Times today in which Wesley Clark makes that point very strongly, as a very experienced senior military commander. If the hon. Gentleman would understand that, he would be able to see that the problem is much more difficult than simple technology can solve.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that those of us who support the Government and our servicemen with our voices and our votes do not believe that our servicemen are risking, and in some cases losing, their lives so that post-war Iraq can become the fiefdom of the right wing of the United States Republican party and the reconstruction of Iraq can be the playground of American corporate capitalism? Will he also bear in mind that we look to our Prime Minister to push forward the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, regardless of any obstruction from the Israeli Government?

As I am sure my right hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the President of the United States will have a full agenda for their talks this evening and tomorrow. They will certainly consider the best and most effective means of restoring Iraq to its own people and of renewing the peace process in the middle east, while also giving thought to the need to reinstate the effective peace process in Northern Ireland. I am delighted that the United States President has come to the United Kingdom for that purpose.

I join the Secretary of State in praising the professionalism, skill and courage of all our armed forces during the liberation of Basra, which we have witnessed in the past few days. As he will understand, the west country is particularly proud of the role played by the Royal Marines, who have been at the forefront of that activity.

Has any evidence emerged of recent sanction-breaking by French or Russian defence companies, and of any munitions that they may have sold to Iraq in recent years? If so, what does the Secretary of State propose to do about it?

I, too, pay tribute to the Royal Marines, who have done a tremendous job in doing all that we have asked of them in and around Iraq. I am not in a position to comment on possible breaches of any sanctions at this stage, but we continue to look at that carefully.

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the role of the British forces in liberating Basra, and that of the American coalition allies in beginning the liberation of Baghdad. He did not, however, mention the important role in the coalition of the Iraqi Kurdish forces—the peshmerga, who are, after all, Sunni Muslims—in liberating large swathes of northern Iraq from which the Kurdish people were ethnically cleansed by Saddam's regime. Does he agree that the carping critics should remember that the Kurdish forces are there and able to do this only because our no-fly zone has made their existence possible?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the close co-operation between American military forces and Kurdish forces in the north. They continue to work extremely effectively together, and I am sure that my hon. Friend's observations about their efforts to re-establish themselves in their traditional areas are entirely right.

I echo the tributes and the condolences, but I must press my right hon. Friend again on the question of cluster bombs. As he will know, the manufacturers accept a 5 per cent. failure rate, but in the battlefield it is likely to be many times that. As my right hon. Friend says, it is sometimes the forces' duty to clear up afterwards, but for many years subsequently that tends to be the job of the international community and aid agencies such as Landmine Action. Will the British Government pay for the non-governmental organisations that will do the work when the conflict is over?

I have had regular contact with various NGOs that are engaged in this extremely important, demanding and often dangerous work. The Ministry of Defence has been able both to discuss with them the most effective means of dealing with unexploded ordnance and, from time to time, to supply appropriate equipment. I assure my hon. Friend that that will continue.

I am sure that all hon. Members were horrified at the weekend by the pictures of the warehouse with over 200 coffins containing human remains. Reports suggest that those may well be the remains of Iranian prisoners of war. Given the catalogue of war crimes by the Saddam regime during that war, the first Gulf war and almost certainly the present Gulf war, what priority will be given to hunting clown those who committed war crimes, and under what jurisdiction will they be prosecuted and tried?

Whatever took place in that warehouse was horrific, and it is necessary for us to identify the explanation. One plausible explanation may be, as my hon. Friend suggests, that they were prisoners from the Iran-Iraq war. There are other possible explanations as well. A British Army investigation team began work today to try to identify at least some of the explanations for those horrendous discoveries. If it is found that individuals are responsible, they will be arrested and dealt with in an appropriate way.

Does the Defence Secretary agree with what the International Development Secretary said on "Newsnight" last week—that until it is safe for aid agency operatives to work in Iraq, humanitarian aid is solely the responsibility of the military? If so, how is the medical aid to get to the hospitals, how is sustenance to get to the people, and how is law and order to be maintained? Is it all to be done by tank? If so, for how long?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) are right to draw attention to the responsibility of the armed forces for providing humanitarian support in the immediate period after a conflict. I am delighted at the excellent co-operation that exists between my right hon. Friend's Department and mine in that respect. The sums of money that I indicated were available for humanitarian action to be carried out by the armed forces when I made a statement on Thursday is part of that process. We are all working towards a situation in which non-governmental organisations— the United Nations and others—can come in. That is why I regard it as so important that the United Nations has declared Umm Qasr a permissive environment. That is because the UN judges that it is now possible for the UN and other organisations to come in and begin the process of distributing aid. I assure my hon. Friend that the British Army and other members of the armed forces of the United Kingdom have an excellent record of delivering humanitarian assistance. They use their own doctors to provide medical assistance to the people on the ground, and they will provide a range of support and facilities in delivering humanitarian aid. Clearly, we want to see NGOs come in and continue that work, but h e should not underestimate the ability of our armed forces to do it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of the manic-depressive nature of media coverage of the war, we risk seeing within 48 hours headlines saying, "Coalition bogged down again"? Do not most hon. Members, on both sides of the House, want the coalition to proceed at the appropriate pace to minimise losses to our own armed forces, losses to Iraqi civilians, and even casualties to Iraqi armed forces, so that we can end the war with the least long-term damage?

My hon. Friend is right. The word that I used at the end of my statement, which I think encapsulates what he describes, is "patience". We need to approach the matter in an appropriate, patient manner. I shall resist any temptation to criticise the media, because I find that they are remarkably sensitive to such criticism. They tend to react very strongly when we criticise them, although they routinely criticise us.

With reference to an earlier question, is it true that at inquests into friendly fire incidents held after the first Gulf war, US soldiers refused to give evidence? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that if inquests are held into friendly fire incidents after the present war, all coalition soldiers will give evidence, as appropriate?

We are already examining some of the jurisdictional issues arising out of friendly fire incidents. They are not easy, as I suspect my hon. Friend's question indicates. The matter is something that I can come back to the House in due course and explain.

My right hon. Friend referred earlier to when the textbooks would be written after the war. Does he agree that one of the lessons written in those textbooks will be the way in which troops, often in conditions where they are under fire and in conflict, have carried out humanitarian and regeneration works? Will he also confirm that in reconstruction of the water and electricity supply to Basra, it is the intention of the coalition and any interim administration to extend water and electricity to the whole population and not just to the part of it that previously received them?

My hon. Friend is quite right. Indeed, as I said in my statement, our ambition is to improve the situation that was, in effect, inherited by British forces. Equally, we want to ensure that other organisations—NGOs, the United Nations and the like—come in and play their part. Certainly, we believe that we can improve the level of assistance for people in southern Iraq over and above that which was made available to them by the regime.

I thank my right hon. Friend for today's statement. We can all be extremely proud of the way in which British forces are conducting themselves in this war. Will he join me in paying tribute to the role played by Group Captain Lockwood, who has effectively become the highly respected and reasoned voice of British services in the Gulf? Finally, on a technical point, will he confirm that it is now possible to send 2 kg packages to British service personnel in Iraq by BFPO and free of charge?

I am sure that the group captain would not want to be picked out from the very many people who are working extremely hard in Britain's forces, but I shall ensure that a copy of my hon. Friend's observations reach him. On the point about the packages, the new arrangements are not yet in place, but I shall certainly inform the House as soon as they are.

Further to two earlier questions asked from both sides of the House, my right hon. Friend is fully aware that comments have been made by certain American leaders in the past couple of weeks to the effect that the war could be widened to Syria and Iran. Will he take this opportunity to tell us about any discussions that he has had about the matter with the Washington regime? Will he make it absolutely clear that the British Government will have no part in this lunacy?

I have had no such discussions with the democratically elected Administration in the United States, and as I have made clear, the campaign that is being conducted against Iraq is a unique campaign based on that country's failure to observe UN resolutions over a very long period.

Delegated Legislation

Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House to take motions 1 to 5 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6)(Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Trade Union And Labour Relations

That the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service draft Code of Practice on Time Off for Trade Union Duties and Activities, which was laid before this House on 10th February, be approved.

Northern Ireland

That the draft Local Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2003, which was laid before this House on 31st March, be approved.

Agriculture

That the Farm Waste Grant (Nitrate Vulnerable Zones)(England) Scheme 2003 (S.I., 2003, No. 562), dated 6th March 2003, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th March, be approved.

Fees And Charges

That the draft Department of Transport (Fees)(Amendment) Order 2003, which was laid before this House on 11th March, be approved.

Prevention And Suppression Of Terrorism

That the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Code of Practice on Video Recording of Interviews)(Northern Ireland) Order 2003, which was laid before this House on 12th March, be approved.— [Derek Twigg.]

Question agreed to.

Police (Northern Ireland) Bill Lords (Programme) (No 5)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 29 October 2002],

That the following provisions shall apply to the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords] for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 10th February 2003, 4th March 2003, 5th March 2003 and 26th March 2003.

Consideration Of Lords Message

1. Proceedings on consideration of the Lords Message shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement.

Subsequent Stages

2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question put.

3. Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.— [Derek Twigg.]

Question agreed to.

Police (Northern Ireland) Bill Lords

Lords amendments to certain Commons amendments considered.

Clause 37

Orders And Regulations

Lords amendment: No. 48ZA, in Commons amendment No. 48, leave out "or (Belfast)(2)" and insert—

",(Belfast)(2) or (Appointment of constables with special policing skills)(7)".

4.33 pm

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this it will be convenient to deal with Lords amendment No. 49A.

The Government tabled amendments 48ZA and 49A in another place in response to a recommendation by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, under the chairmanship of Lord Dahrendorf. They provide for the affirmative procedure to apply to an order that the Secretary of State might introduce under the new clause that deals with the exceptional arrangements for recruiting constables with specialist skills. Hon. Members will recall that we debated that matter at some length last week.

The exceptional arrangements will be available for two years, starting from the date of the Bill's Royal Assent. The Secretary of State may extend the life of the provision on only one occasion—by order in Parliament, to allow it to operate for a maximum period of four years. At the end of two years, the Secretary of State could consider extending the provision. Any such extension would require the unanimous agreement of the Policing Board. It is important for hon. Members to bear that in mind.

Given the importance of the provisions and the strong views about the 50:50 recruitment arrangements that were expressed forcefully in the House and in the other place, we have agreed that it is appropriate for any order to renew the provisions for a further period of up to two years to be brought before both Houses of Parliament rather than be made by negative procedure.

I commend the amendments to the House.

We had a good opportunity to deal with the substance of the procedural amendments last week. I do not wish to reiterate those arguments. Clearly, the procedural change from negative to affirmative resolution is welcome. The Opposition therefore second the amendments.

There was considerable criticism of the Government's original proposals. All parties will be pleased that the Government have listened and tabled a late manuscript amendment to provide for a change to an affirmative instrument. Given that policing is so sensitive, that is the right thing to do. The Liberal Democrats wholeheartedly support the good sense that Ministers have shown on the issue.

I assure hon. Members that my colleagues are with me in spirit, if not in body. However, I could not possibly speak for members of the Democratic Unionist party. I am surprised that none of them has turned up this afternoon, given that we are considering policing.

I should like reassurance from the Minister on one aspect. My views on 50:50 recruitment are well known. The Minister knows that my constituent, Mark Parsons, tested that recruitment procedure last July in the High Court in Belfast. The case will be heard on appeal towards the end of May. I have no quarrel with the special provisions and the recruitment of constables with special policing skills, especially detectives, which we desperately need in Northern Ireland. I voted for the amendment on that when we previously discussed the matter in the House.

Will the Minister assure me that renewal through affirmative resolution, which I support, and extension by order of the Secretary of State initially for two years and possibly for a further four years, will not make inroads into section 46 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000? We should bear it in mind that section 46 is due for renewal in spring 2004, that the Mark Parsons case will be heard on appeal, and that its critical point was the temporary nature of the provision that permits the current discriminatory recruitment procedures. Will the Government consider removing that instead of extending it?

The hon. Lady asks a valid question and I know of her acute interest in the matter. The renewal powers for the special arrangements for the 50:50 recruitment of Catholics and non-Catholics for the Police Service of Northern Ireland are sensitive, for the reasons that we debated last week. Their purpose is to address a specific problem that we experience in Northern Ireland. The renewal powers will allow Parliament to consider whether those exceptional circumstances still remain. We are considering a special exemption for the 50:50 powers, and I would not foresee the measure that we are discussing today having an impact on the other arrangements. We shall still consider whether we need these special affirmative recruitment powers—these discriminatory powers, as the hon. Lady describes them—to address the specific problem. We shall still need to consider whether the circumstances exist to justify those powers, at the appropriate time.

The measure before us will deal specifically with the circumstances that we were talking about, in which the Chief Constable has identified a particular shortfall and the Policing Board has agreed that such a shortfall exists. Such a situation should be dealt with using this exemption. The arrangements will not be exactly as the hon. Lady described. I did not wish to imply that the exemption would apply for two years, followed by four years. It would apply for two years for constables with specialist skills. There would then be consideration as to whether it should be extended for a further two years—that is, the exemption itself, not the 50:50 arrangements as such.

I hope that that will reassure the hon. Lady. She asked a very good question. I am grateful for the support that I have received from both sides of the House for this amendment. It is a sensible one that meets the concerns raised in another place, and I hope that the House will agree to it.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 48A, in Commons amendment No. 48, at end insert—

"(2B) No order may be made under section (Independent members: disqualification)(2) or Belfast)(2) at any time when section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 (c.1)(suspension of devolved government) is in force."

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Amendment No. 48A deals with the commencement of the new clauses dealing with disqualification and the Belfast sub-groups. We spent a whole day considering the clauses on Report last week, and, in particular, discussing the context in which they might come into effect. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I made it clear—we certainly sought to make it clear—that neither of these provisions will come into force when the Bill receives Royal Assent. They will be commenced only by means of a subsequent order, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure of both Houses of Parliament.

The Government have consistently made it clear that we would envisage bringing the clauses into effect only in the context of acts of completion. That phrase, which I have used consistently throughout our deliberations, has attracted some criticism, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was even more specific on Report when he said of the clauses:
"They will not come into effect unless we have agreement that those acts of completion have been dealt with." —[Official Report, 26 March 2003; Vol. 402, c. 361.]
I recognise that many hon. Members have concerns about what is meant by the term "acts of completion". This debate was continued in another place when the Bill returned there last week.

My own view, put simply, is that we need a situation in which the brave new world envisaged by the Belfast agreement is working properly and as it should, in which the institutions are working effectively, and in which the basis for politics in Northern Ireland is trust and mutual co-operation, not threats and fear. I sense that Members of both Houses of Parliament are looking to the statute to find a way of summing up those sentiments. Of course, there will be an element of political judgment for the Secretary of State as to when such a point is reached. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made that point in his speeches on this issue. I know, however, that Members are concerned that the decision should not be left to the Secretary of State alone.

We have said previously that the clauses would not be commenced without the explicit approval of both Houses, and that no commencement order would be brought forward before acts of completion had been dealt with. I think that I failed to reassure the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) on that point last week. The Lords amendment before us today, which was tabled in another place in the names of Lord Smith of Clifton and Lord Glentoran, provides that the clauses cannot be commenced unless devolution has been restored—that is, unless the institutions are up and functioning. In our different ways, we are each aiming for the same thing.

4.45 pm

For devolution to be restored, trust must first also be restored, and it must be restored sufficiently to enable all the parties to feel that they can come together, once again, in collective government. For that trust to be restored, we must first see that the paramilitaries are serious. We must see acts of completion. The Lords amendment would add another element to the judgment that the Secretary of State would have to make on whether it is appropriate to introduce the commencement order—whether the time is right.

In another place, the Government agreed that the amendment that we are considering would provide helpful clarification of the circumstances in which we might expect those clauses to become effective. I commend it to the House.

Clearly, the Opposition agree with the amendment in the sense that we will not oppose it—indeed, it was introduced in another place by my noble Friend Lord Glentoran—although that is not the end of the story. I have a number of problems with the situation that could result from the amendment, and no others, coming back from the House of Lords, so I want to express them to the Minister, if I may.

We had hoped that the amendment would be replaced by another, which we thought, as a result of the voting last week, would have considerable support in the Lords. Such an amendment would, of course, have removed the provisions in respect of allowing ex-terrorists to be independent members of district policing partnerships and the creation of the sub-groups in Belfast on the ground that it is quite wrong to hold out such concessions at present. We should wait and see whether Sinn Fein-IRA and other paramilitary organisations are indeed serious about decommissioning and disbanding.

On that basis, there was considerable consensus on both sides of the Gangway on this side of the House, but, characteristically and as one could have anticipated—indeed, we did—the Liberal Democrats, who were prepared to use brave language last week, were rapidly rolled over in the Lords. They did not support in another place the amendment that they had supported here.

Of course, none of us in my party is in the least surprised at what happened, nor are Government Members. I am afraid that I have to say to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) that such behaviour simply reinforces a general impression that the Liberal Democrat party is essentially frivolous, irresponsible and not prepared to stand up in one Chamber of this Parliament for the position that it has taken up in the other. Indeed, we know that in other cases it was not prepared to sustain the same position from one week to the next, even in this Chamber.

Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to give way to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), if he is prepared to intervene, so that he can tell the House why the Liberal Democrats have gone back on their word?

The hon. Gentleman asks a pertinent question. No doubt the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire will seek to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. To clarify, I am happy to explain the position, although that would more appropriately be done in my speech, should I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Well, at least we now have an assurance that we will get some explanation. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will use the rest of the time that I take up, which will not be very long, to prepare his explanation. An explanation of such a shift is certainly required in any democratic Parliament. Most of us who are elected to this place like to think that we stand for something, and we are prepared to be accountable for it. Indeed, our words are recorded in Hansard, presumably so that we can be held to account. For responsible politicians to behave as the Liberal Democrats regularly behave in this place is to make a mockery of our proceedings. It is extremely sad that that should happen on a matter of such importance.

We do not, however, as a result of the Liberal Democrats' change of mind—that may be the politest way of putting it—have that amendment to consider; we have another one, which is not so satisfactory. It states that the Government would not bring forward a statutory instrument to give effect to the new provisions in the Bill in relation to disqualification of ex-terrorists and the sub-groups, while the devolved institutions have been suspended—while direct rule persists and while there is no Assembly and Executive in Belfast. At first sight, any restriction—which it is—on the Government giving force to those new provisions in present circumstances is welcome. I must say, however, that the restriction is extremely limited [Interruption.] If I may, I shall explain to the lion. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) the main deficiency in the amendment, which will enable her to respond to my view of it as a whole. If I am wrong, perhaps she will want to intervene, and 1 shall be delighted to give way to her so that she can correct me.

The restraint is not very reassuring or adequate, because if the Government are to call elections, as they have said, on 29 May, they must, as I understand it, at least momentarily restore the institutions in order to dissolve the Assembly. If the Government were so minded, therefore, they could take the opportunity at that moment to bring forward the statutory instrument giving effect to these new powers. When the new Assembly is elected, on 29 May, I presume that it will sit whatever happens in terms of the peace process. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which is basically the constitution of Northern Ireland, the Assembly has six weeks to agree on an Executive. During that period of up to six weeks, in which the Assembly is sitting, the circumstances might be that the necessary acts of completion, decommissioning and disbandment have not been carried out, and no real chance would exist of bringing together a power-sharing Executive including Sinn Fein. The Assembly might therefore meet under a considerable cloud, with a general sense of doom.

As I have said many times from this Dispatch Box, in those circumstances, unless all these matters can be resolved, and it is clear that, after a six-week period, no agreement will be reached on an Executive, the only alternatives provided in the 1998 Act would be new elections or the suspension of the institutions and restoration of direct rule. Either of those would be a farce, and would send a clear signal to everybody that the whole Belfast process had failed. That would be very sad. Nevertheless, during that six-week period, the institutions would be working, devolution would be in force, and, under the amendment, the Government, if they so wished, could without further let or hindrance introduce the statutory instrument to give effect to the new powers in the Bill, of which we strongly disapprove in all circumstances except those involving a comprehensive and definitive settlement. Indeed, we have great reservations about those powers even in those circumstances.

Two major lacunae therefore exist in the protections afforded by the Lords amendment, and it is right to draw attention to them.

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so gracefully. It is a lovely and welcome change, as he is sometimes resistant to taking interventions, so he is in good form this afternoon.

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to address one particular aspect of the proposals? I noticed the words that he used: he said that that he welcomed what he regarded as an additional restriction. If an order were made by the Government lifting suspension, those Ministers who are currently suspended—which is a wonderful description—would go back into office. Two Democratic Unionist party members, however, who are unfortunately not here to speak for themselves—far be it from me to speak for the DUP—resigned before suspension was brought into force in October last year, and would not go back into office. Does not the hon. Gentleman regard that as a problem with the restriction, as he sees it, that we are considering this afternoon?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I try to give way whenever I can. I did not when she sought to intervene in the debate last week because I had already said that I could not take any more interventions. I know that she will agree that, when there are time constraints, it is important to stand by such a declaration. Rather more notably, I refused to give way to the Minister of State last week because she refused to give way to me. As I said then, reciprocity must apply in these courtesies. It was important to make that point. However, I do not think that the hon. Member for North Down will find that I have ever been reluctant in principle to give way.

The hon. Lady sets out the position with regard to the DUP Ministers. No doubt she is right but she would not expect me, the Opposition spokesman, to give her a legal ruling on that. Whether that adds to my concern about the inadequacies of the amendment I do not know, but it certainly does not detract from it. I think that she will agree that there are those two opportunities at least—others may come out of the debate this afternoon—for the Government to introduce the statutory instrument, without any constraint in the Bill.

As hon. Members know, the Opposition are very worried about that. We are worried about statutory instruments being used for that purpose anyway. The Government know that, with their massive majority, they can always get them through. The problem with a statutory instrument is that one cannot amend it, whatever the circumstances and however they may have changed. Therefore, it is, as I have said before, a blank cheque. Nevertheless, this is a restriction. It does not go very far but it would be illogical, if we oppose a measure, to oppose some restriction on the measure. Therefore, we will not oppose the amendment.

I have, however, two immediate concerns. One has been brought to the fore by some of the remarks by the Minister of State about acts of completion. She recognised, and I am glad that she did, that many of us in the Opposition and in Northern Ireland, which is perhaps even more important, have the gravest doubts about the use of that word and see considerable suspiciousness in the Government's determination to talk about an abstraction when a concrete act is what is required.

As I have pointed out, to talk about acts of completion is a contradiction in terms. It is an oxymoron. One cannot have several acts of completion. If one is completing a process, that is one act. One cannot complete it again a second time the next day, the following Tuesday and the following month. It has either been completed or it has not.

Why are the Government using that oxymoron? Again, that can only excite the gravest suspicions. My first concern is that the Government may still have in mind that they wish to settle for something less than full decommissioning and disbandment of the IRA and of other paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. We should not settle for anything less than that.

If the settlement that it is now widely anticipated will be reached on Thursday is based on anything less than full decommissioning and full disbandment, it will not be a definitive settlement. It will not be closure. It will not be completion. Why? Because there will have to be another round and perhaps another after that and another after that. Until the Government say, "We will not settle for anything less than full decommissioning and disbandment," there will always be a paramilitary organisation there that has weapons, there will always be a question of how to negotiate to persuade them to get rid of those weapons and there will always be paramilitary organisations involved in training, procurement, recruitment and all the other things that paramilitary organisations do. There will be a continuing threat to peace in Northern Ireland and to democracy in Northern Ireland and we will continue to have political parties that have a private army at their back. Therefore, we will not have achieved anything.

5 pm

If the Government are to be taken remotely seriously, and if there really is a fork in the road—the Prime Minister used that phrase in his speech in Belfast in November—and a choice between peaceful and non'peaceful means, that choice has to be made 100 per cent. this Thursday. This is perhaps the last opportunity before Thursday for me to repeat what the Minister has heard me say countless times before in the past one and a half years: we must settle for nothing less than complete decommissioning and complete disbandment. It is therefore a mistake to suggest that we will settle for anything less. It is wrong to use some other intermediate term or abstraction; we should be using a phrase that is extremely definite, extremely clear and extremely unambiguous. For the Government to introduce an element of ambiguity where there should be none is not tactically clever; actually, it is tactically very foolish.

I turn to my second concern. If, as the media tell us, matters are moving towards the crunch and we may get a settlement on Thursday—perhaps with the help of the honest brokerage of, or pressure from, the President of the United States in Belfast today and tomorrow—and if it really is the balanced, comprehensive and definitive settlement that we Conservatives have called for for a long time, we shall of course welcome it with great enthusiasm. However, we shall naturally examine it with scepticism, to make sure that it really is such a settlement.

Whatever happens, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Parliament, as I know you will agree, will have to take a decision, and it should have the right to do so as soon as the facts are known. It is therefore very important—I hope that the Minister will forgive me for saying now what I have said to her privately—that a statement be made to Parliament on Thursday. If the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister are to make an announcement on Thursday—I hardly think that Mr. Speaker would not consent to interrupt business for such an important matter—we, too, should have a statement, regardless of the time. If the Prime Minister cannot be here himself, my opposite number, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, would be the natural person to make such a statement, in order to explain to Parliament what has happened, and to allow it to take a view. It would be utterly wrong for such a statement to be left until Friday, when everybody else has had their say in the media, and for us still not to have heard from an authoritative and unambiguous source about what happened in Belfast. It would be a crying scandal and an insult to Parliament for such a statement to Parliament to left until after a weekend of speculation.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that perhaps matters will not move quite as fast as he fears? In terms of deciding on the package and on acts of completion—I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the semantics of "acts of completion"; I would prefer the phrase "complete acts"—the crucial element is the decision of the Ulster Unionist party. We will take the decision as to whether we rejoin an all-inclusive Executive. As our party's leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), has said often in this House, we will not be jumping first again, as we have done in the past three or four years. We need some time to see whether disbandment and destruction of illegal weapons and explosives is complete and absolute. Unless that is achieved, we will not enter into an Executive.

I am reassured to hear the hon. Gentleman say that, and he is right to do so. He is also right to set out the score in advance, so that there can be no misunderstanding about what needs to be done. He will undoubtedly agree with me that any misunderstanding could be absolutely fatal. Any sense on the part of Sinn Fein, or of anybody else, that something less than the real thing will be settled for—that eventually, if necessary, 85 per cent. will be settled for–would be absolutely disastrous, and could cost us the last real chance to bring to its consummation the peace process launched by the Belfast agreement. We all know that, if we do not grasp this opportunity now, it will be very difficult to continue that process under any circumstances much beyond this summer. I am therefore glad that the hon. Gentleman has made his point so clearly.

I of course understand that the Ulster Unionist party will need to take its time on this issue, and I am sure that we will hear its view, along with those of the other parties in Northern Ireland, in due time, which must be in their time. However, I was talking about the Government. If they publish the Hillsborough document on Thursday, come to some provisional agreement with another Government—I am thinking, of course, of the Government of the Republic of Ireland—and make a statement to the press, a statement must be made to this House at the same time. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) is nodding, and all of us, as parliamentarians, must agree with that principle.

When we are dealing with important matters that have been the subject of detailed negotiation, and when the moment comes for the Government to make a public statement, perhaps jointly with the Government of the Irish Republic, about what agreement has been reached, we cannot allow everyone except the House of Commons to be informed. The parties are told, along with the press, the local media in Northern Ireland, the media in the United States and Australia, but all sorts of speculation, as ever, gets mixed up in the reporting of these matters. The British public might be somewhat confused, but if the Government will not issue an authoritative statement to the House, it leaves us in an impossible position. I trust that the Government will not do that.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for generously taking a second intervention from me this afternoon. In view of what he said earlier, does he agree that when the Secretary of State makes a statement on any agreement coming out of Hillsborough, it is vital to spell out any additional changes to policing in Northern Ireland? The hon. Gentleman will know that after the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill had passed through the House and before it went back to the other place, changes were made to the Belfast sub-groups and further changes were made to allow people with criminal and terrorist convictions to become independent members. At the Ard Fheis in Dublin, Sinn Fein said that that had not gone far enough. It was still unhappy and its spokesman on policing, Gerry Kelly, is reported to have said that

"they have not yet achieved the threshold for a new beginning to policing."
Clearly, Sinn Fein is looking for still further advances. Does the hon. Gentleman expect the Secretary of State to announce even more changes in his next public statement?

I hear what the hon. Lady says. She is always well informed about such matters, and she is right that policing is a sensitive subject for both republicans and Unionists in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Lady knows, in negotiating processes, none of the parties secures 100 per cent. of their desiderata. It would be an unnatural and peculiar negotiation if they did, because no negotiation would have been necessary in the first place. It is perhaps natural at this stage that various parties are saying that they do not like this or that.

The Government have the responsibility to make a success of the peace process. I know that they want to do all that they can, but they must take their own decisions on the basis of their conversations, whether individually or jointly, with the political parties. We have said all along that it is a mistake to think that one can square with one party by giving away some concessions and then try to do the same with the next party. That is not possible because everything is interlinked. Only general and contingent conversations are possible: if we are to secure effective agreement, all the parties have to be taken along with the Government almost simultaneously. The Government must be the judge of their own tactics and they can decide whether they want to listen to us. When they have not done so in the past, they have come adrift, but when they have followed our suggestions, they have secured favourable results on the whole. Let us hope that they have learned their lesson.

The Government must also be the judge of the right time to go public and make a statement about what progress has been achieved, and to clarify how they envisage the future of the process. We are told through the media—not through a statement to the House of Commons—that we are coming to a crunch this week and that a statement may be made on Thursday. I hope so: we all hope that sufficient progress will have been made to warrant such a statement. However, if a public statement is to be made, it must be made—ideally, first—to the House.

I realise that a joint statement with the Irish Government presents greater difficulties, but I see no reason not to make a simultaneous statement—or within just a few hours—to the House, following any joint declaration, whether in Belfast or elsewhere, by the two Governments. That was certainly the procedure adopted by the previous Conservative Government after the Downing street declaration. Indeed, a statement was made to the House within two or three hours of that declaration. I hope that the Government will follow that good precedent. They have not said that they will not, and I trust that they will. As I said, because of the difficulties in the past and in the light of the suspicions in some people's minds, it is right to make the point in public now. I hope that I shall have no further occasion to mention that, except, perhaps, to say on Thursday that I am grateful for such a statement being made as quickly as possible after any intergovernmental declaration.

I hope that that is not controversial. Obviously, if the Minister wishes to respond, I shall listen intently. I hope that the Government's business managers and the Leader of the House have taken note of these feelings. On this, if nothing else, I believe that I speak with the support of a wide range of parliamentarians on both sides of the House.

The amendment was tabled by the Liberal Democrats and supported—grudgingly, I now realise—by the Conservatives. It would introduce an order preventing the powers on ex-prisoners becoming members of district policing partnerships and the Belfast sub-groups from coming into force until the Assembly had been restored.

We all agree that we would not want such powers to be introduced until acts of completion had taken place. Everybody understands that, and it has been debated recently, but the argument is based on whether it is possible specifically to define "acts of completion" to the extent that that could be included in the Bill. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) does not have a full recollection of what I said, although obviously he can re-read my speech in Hansard. The crucial element was my challenge to Ministers to accept either that they had to include acts of completion in the Bill, or that they had to concede the apparently obvious point that every Secretary of State has chosen to maintain some political flexibility in defining acts of completion.

That was a stark option and, in fairness, the Secretary of State went a long way towards implicitly accepting something that we already knew: that Secretaries of State would maintain that flexibility, which is no greater than that displayed by John Major when he was Prime Minister and by many of his Ministers when they were in charge of Northern Ireland policy.

In the intervening time, I have been persuaded that it is difficult, legally, to define what can be construed as an act of completion. For me, it would need to consist of decommissioning, an end to paramilitary beatings, shootings and intimidation and a statement from paramilitary groups lifting the threats against those exiled from their homes and allowing them to return.

For me to say that I am persuaded that it is hard to define acts of completion is not to suggest that I have changed my view. I never thought that it was easy to define. Had the Secretary of State asked my advice, it would have been for the Government to say that acts of completion were as much symbolic statements as they were measurable in any practical sense. To that extent, following consideration and discussion, it seemed appropriate for us to move forward in line with amendment No. 48A towards something that seemed to be significant progress on how the Bill was laid out.

In my judgment, amendment No. 48A effectively adds considerable responsibility to the Northern Ireland parties in terms of the decision-making process and of how far the paramilitaries have come. The fact that the restoration of the Assembly is an essential element provides us with a creative solution to at least part of the problem.

Disappointingly, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford sought to gain party political capital from the fact that the Liberal Democrats have approached this issue pragmatically. I counsel him to he cautious. It was, after all, the Conservatives who signed the amendment. Clearly, Conservative Members who thought that we might gain a significant victory signed the amendment grudgingly. The hon. Gentleman himself said that the Conservatives were going to vote against some Northern Ireland measures on principle, although we established from his words—it is all there in Hansard—that they disagreed with only two of the 298 clauses of the Bill in question. However, the retreat was sounded and the Conservatives abstained. The Conservatives criticised the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but were unable, during cross-questioning by me and others, to say what they would have done as an alternative, apart from some bluster about the fact that the Government were punishing the wrong people.

On another occasion, the Conservatives, led by the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, voted against the extension of an amnesty that they had introduced. That is cynicism; it is an inconsistent approach to Northern Ireland politics. By comparison, the Liberal Democrats try to take an honest, transparent and constructive approach.

5.15 pm

Everything that the hon. Gentleman has said—every allegation that he has—made has been misinformed or fanciful. In parliamentary terms, I cannot put it more strongly than that. The suggestion that we criticised the Government for suspending the institutions without proposing an alternative is absurd. Last July, before the crisis—we expected there to be a further crisis, given the Government's tactics—I set out our alternative, which was to provide the Secretary of State with powers to suspend. All the hon. Gentleman's comments are completely nonsensical. My noble colleagues in another place accepted the amendment, albeit reluctantly—as I rightly and advisedly pointed out—because the more desirable amendment, which, given the assertions of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues last Thursday, we had every expectation would pass with Liberal support, was not accepted because the Liberal Democrats changed their mind. As always, they simply run away as soon as they hear sound of cannon fire. They only need a telephone call from No. 10 saying, "Please fall back into line" and they fall back into line.

I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman's words, even when they are directed at me. I am smiling only because his retort was so well constructed, but in response may I ask him whether it is beyond his capacity to understand the point that I made? I am sure that it is not, and that he is being mischievous. I remind him of what I said only a few days ago to the same Members to whom I am speaking now, standing in this very spot—or within six inches of it: the Government should eit