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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 403: debated on Wednesday 9 April 2003

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Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Small Business


When he next expects to meet representatives of small firms to discuss administrative burdens on business. [107067]

I have met representatives of small business on several occasions recently to discuss various issues of mutual interest. I shall be happy to meet them again in the future, but I am sure that we all hope that it will be a local Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment who does that shortly.

I am grateful for that reply. Small business is obviously vital to job and wealth creation in Northern Ireland, and what it needs at the moment is fewer burdens and less red tape. Does the Minister agree with CBI Northern Ireland and the Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland, which are very concerned about the job-destroying agency workers directive? What will he do to try to stop the implementation of that directive?

On red tape, I will not apologise for the Government introducing the minimum wage, improving maternity leave and paternity leave, giving millions of employees the right, for the first time, to paid holidays, and tackling discrimination against the disabled. On the agency workers draft directive, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have concerns about it, which are shared by CBI Northern Ireland and throughout Great Britain. We want to make sure that it does not propose disproportionate costs on business, and our negotiating strategy certainly reflects that.

Has my hon. Friend considered the use of the existing regulatory reform procedure for the removal of any genuinely unnecessary and unhelpful burdens?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Northern Ireland better regulation strategy seeks to reduce burdens on business and, as part of that strategy, the regulatory impact assessment has been revised completely. A number of other measures have also been introduced that seek genuinely to reduce administrative burdens on business.

Only yesterday, CBI Northern Ireland informed me that the Northern Ireland Office was considering a new administrative burden on business, under the single equality legislation, to increase compulsory work force monitoring. Will the Minister go further than merely talking to local business people in Northern Ireland, and set up a taskforce to report to him within six months, representing the CBI, the Institute of Directors, chambers of commerce and the small business sector, under the subject heading, "Reducing the burden on business of all sizes"? Let us reduce the burden rather than increase it.

My Department is in regular discussions with the Economic Development Forum on a range of issues that affect business. I would like to pay tribute to the former Administration for setting up effective partnership structures in Northern Ireland, which have ensured that there is already close dialogue between the CBI and Government. I am sure that that will continue in the future.



What recent discussions he has held with the Northern Ireland party leaders about the future of the devolved institutions. [107068]


If he will make a statement on the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland. [107070]


What recent discussions he has had on the prospects for re-establishing the Northern Ireland Assembly. [107072]

Before I answer, I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to the vital contribution made by soldiers from Northern Ireland and from the island of Ireland—notably in the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment—in Basra and southern Iraq. Our thoughts are with their families, and our sympathies and prayers are with the family of Lance Corporal Malone and those who have sacrificed their lives in Iraq.

We had intensive discussions with the parties last month in Hillsborough, and yesterday between President Bush, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. Those discussions have confirmed our belief that there is now a large measure of shared understanding among pro-agreement parties—[Interruption.]

Order. It is unfair to the Secretary of State that so many conversations are going on in the House. I know that hon. Members have other things on their minds, but those who wish to take part in Northern Ireland questions want to be heard, and they want to hear the Secretary of State.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps I should repeat my last sentence. We had intensive discussions with the parties last month in Hillsborough, and yesterday between President Bush, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. Those discussions have confirmed our belief that there is now a large measure of shared understanding among pro-agreement parties on the way forward in Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply. I agree that building trust between the parties is an essential ingredient in any way forward. Can he say what contribution the visit of President Bush has made to accelerate that process?

Yesterday's meeting at Hillsborough was extremely important, and reflects the United States Administration's commitment—previous Administrations were similarly committed—to ensuring that they encourage all the pro-agreement parties to come to an agreement. The President spent quite a lot of time talking to individual parties and their leaders in Northern Ireland, and takes a personal interest in these matters. The most important thing is that the President, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach—the Heads of the Governments most involved in making peace in Northern Ireland were in Belfast during what is the most important week, I believe, since the Good Friday agreement was signed.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that devolution has been a success in Northern Ireland, as a recent poll has shown, and that the majority of people are for devolution? Does he also agree that we need to restore trust and confidence between the political parties in Northern Ireland? What is he doing to ensure that the political parties are part of the process to restore the required institutions and to achieve lasting devolution in Northern Ireland?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of devolution in Northern Ireland. Part of the Good Friday agreement was that people in Northern Ireland would be governed by people from Northern Ireland who, because they lived and worked there, had a huge interest in the decisions that they made. I believe that devolution will be restored in time, but what my hon. Friend said about trust and confidence are vital. None of this will work unless trust and confidence are built up between the political parties themselves. The only way in which we can achieve success in the process before us is for the parties themselves to engage with each other and restore that trust. That is what this week is about, and I obviously hope that success is in front of us.

I warmly welcome the engagement of the United States Government in the problems of Northern Ireland, but does my right hon. Friend agree that without demilitarisation we can never have proper rule of law and a proper democracy in Northern Ireland? What progress has been made on the demilitarisation and the decommissioning that was promised by the IRA?

My hon. Friend is right that a vital part of the Good Friday agreement is that there will be what is termed "normalisation", so that Northern Ireland becomes just like Scotland, Wales or parts of England in terms of military presence, and that that is predicated on a stable, peaceful society. That is why decommissioning too is a vital part of the Good Friday agreement.

The Secretary of State knows that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are planning to go to Northern Ireland tomorrow. Reference has been made to a joint declaration that, I understand, indicates the sort of things that the Government might do in the event of acts of completion from the Irish republican movement. Does the Secretary of State agree that, in that case, it would be extremely ill-advised of the Government to publish a joint declaration unless they were absolutely sure that the republican movement would deliver genuine acts of completion both on demilitarisation and disbandment that would be convincing for the public of Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that none of this will work unless there is a commitment from the IRA and paramilitaries in general to ensure that we live in a peaceful and democratic Northern Ireland. He knows too that there must be a cessation of paramilitary activity—real, total and permanent—and that the picture would not be complete unless the Government's declarations and statements from the IRA indicated that there was no longer paramilitary activity. In both cases, we would have to go forward, because acts of completion apply right across the board.

First, within that anticipated joint declaration, will the Government address the sectarian voting system that operates in the Assembly and serves to reinforce divisions rather than to resolve them? Secondly, can the Secretary of State confirm what the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), promised yesterday: while the Assembly is suspended, from now on we will get the chance to table amendments to statutory instruments rather than having to vote on each one on a take-it-or-leave-it basis?

On the last point, I shall obviously have to look into that. The question of secondary legislation clearly depends on the success of the discussions and negotiations, and the sooner devolution is restored in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly takes its own decisions, the better. As for the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the way in which Members of the Assembly vote in the Assembly is a matter for a paragraph 8 review, which is due in the autumn.

May I echo, on behalf of the Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman's words of tribute to the gallantry and brilliant professionalism of the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment? We are all extremely proud of them. May I also echo his words of condolence to the families of the fallen?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we warmly welcome yesterday's joint British-Irish-US statement on the peace process? On the understanding that the words really do mean that the Government will settle for nothing less than 100 per cent. completion of decommissioning and disbandment, we strongly endorse that declaration. Does he agree that, if decommissioning is to meet the criteria in the IRA's own undertaking of 6 May 2000 that IRA weapons should be put beyond use
"in such a way as to … ensure maximum public confidence",
a greater degree of transparency will be required in that process in future?

The hon. Gentleman is right to echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that no agreement is possible and no deal can be reached unless there are acts of completion right across the board, including the activities of the IRA. To that extent, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. May I also thank him for his tribute to the soldiers who have fought and died in Iraq?

If, as the whole House hopes, an important statement is made on Thursday by the two Governments and by other parties to the process, will the right hon. Gentleman take the earliest opportunity—and I mean the earliest opportunity—to come before the House to make a statement? Parliament, as well as the media, has a right to hear an authoritative account of what has gone on, to ask questions and to consider the matter. If that statement were delayed beyond 24 hours at the very latest, it would be a real abuse of Parliament, which we are all hoping to avoid, because we sincerely want to do everything possible to support the Government in these important negotiations.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is hugely important that the House is kept informed of developments in Northern Ireland, and that as soon as possible a statement would be made to the House with regard to the declaration and to other matters that we are discussing in that respect.

Assets Recovery Agency


What assessment he has made of the likely impact of the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland. [107069]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Desmond Browne)

The Assets Recovery Agency came into operation on 24 February, in both Belfast and London. The formidable powers of the agency to recover criminal assets will help to reduce crime and disrupt criminal enterprises. That will help to alleviate the impact of crime on communities in Northern Ireland as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply, but will the agency be able finally to expose many of those in Northern Ireland who use the term "paramilitary" as a cover for what they really are—vicious criminal activists?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The selection of cases to be pursued by the agency is entirely a matter for its director, supported by the assistant director for Northern Ireland, who must act in accordance with their statutory duty to use their powers in a way that they consider will best reduce crime in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom. The reality is that, in Northern Ireland, a significant proportion of organised crime is related to paramilitary organisations. In fact, it is estimated that about half the organised crime networks are linked to paramilitarism. I would, of course, expect the agency's annual plan to take that into account.

Can the Minister tell the House what discussions he has had with the Assets Recovery Agency on bringing its important activities within the remit of the new chief inspector of criminal justice, with which he is very familiar?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her specific question. I have not as yet had the opportunity to have discussions with the assistant director for Northern Ireland, or the director, in relation to that matter, but I will be in touch with the hon. Lady when I do.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern expressed by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee as regards the manning of the Assets Recovery Agency, so I am delighted to hear that we are making progress on its activities. Will he continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the organisation is effective and look at the success of southern Ireland's assets recovery agency?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the success of the Criminal Assets Bureau in Dublin greatly assisted the development of the policy relating to the Assets Recovery Agency. I can reassure him, and the other members of the Select Committee, that they need have no concerns on resources. The agency is adequately funded, and the initial budget for the United Kingdom for this financial year is £13 million. Of course, that and other matters will be kept under review. There are about 90 staff, including the Belfast branch, and the number is likely to grow in respect of case load and success. The Assets Recovery Agency will play a full part in Northern Ireland in the work of the organised crime taskforce, which has had significant success and is chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister of State.

Does the Minister agree that, even if the peace process makes great strides forward this week, which we all hope, there will still be an enduring threat from organised crime? We want an end not only to terrorism, but to the racketeering that has been so hideously linked with it.

Of course, I agree with the hon. Gentleman's assertion. If his question is about whether we will ensure that the Assets Recovery Agency and the organised crime taskforce target those very circumstances, he has my assurance.

Public Services


What plans he has to allow local authorities in Northern Ireland more powers to provide services demanded by local communities; and if he will make a statement. [107071]

Last year, the Northern Ireland Executive initiated a review of public administration. That review is undertaking a comprehensive examination of the roles and responsibilities of all parts of the public sector in Northern Ireland, including local government. Decisions arising from the review will be a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the interests of the community and the people of Northern Ireland, good, efficient and democratic local government is essential to allow decision making, which impacts on the destiny of local people, to be nearer to the people? Will he ensure that any decision that is taken is in the best interests of those people so that we can have peace and loyalty in Northern Ireland?

I agree with my hon. Friend that good, efficient local administration is what we all want, whether it be in Northern Ireland or Great Britain. A lot of good work is already being done in local government in Northern Ireland and by the local strategy partnerships. Decisions on the review of public administration will inevitably be long term, and we hope that a restored Executive will be taking them in due course.

I declare a registered interest. When is the review of public administration likely to be completed and will transfer of greater responsibility be delayed until that happens? When did the Minister or the Secretary of State last meet representatives of the Northern Ireland Local Government Association to discuss those issues?

The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), regularly meets local government representatives. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the original timetable for the report on the review of public administration was for December this year. Given suspension, it is unlikely to be achieved, but I hope that, with an early restoration of devolution, it will be possible to carry out the necessary public consultation that everybody wants so that decisions can be taken, probably in 2004.

Paramilitary Activity


How many (a) punishment beatings and (b) forced exclusions there have been in Northern Ireland in the year to 31 March 2003; and if he will make a statement. [107073]

Between 1 April 2002 and 31 March this year—[Interruption.]

Order. The House is still far too noisy. Allow the Minister to be heard.

There have been 300 paramilitary-style attacks: 137 assaults and 163 shootings. There are no figures available that indicate the number of persons who may have been forced to leave Northern Ireland through paramilitary intimidation. We call on those with influence over paramilitary groups to call a complete end to those barbaric attacks and acts of intimidation.

Does the Minister agree that true peace in Northern Ireland will be established not just by the absence of bombs and bullets on the streets of Northern Ireland but by the complete ending of exclusions and punishment beatings by the paramilitaries, which so scar the communities affected?

Yes, I do. I utterly deplore and condemn those vicious attacks, in many cases upon teenagers who, as a result, are often maimed for life. There is no place for such activity in a modern democratic society.

Does the Minister agree that our thanks should be given to those in England, Scotland and Wales who have helped bona fide exiles? At the same time, is it beyond the capacity of the Government to perceive the difference between those who have an influence but do not use it and those who have encouraged people to come back to Northern Ireland and then ordered their murder? Surely we can no longer trust such people, even in negotiations.

I agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman says. There is clearly no place for such paramilitary activity, the brutality and cruelty of it, and it should cease completely. We look to those with influence to ensure that that happens.

Will my hon. Friend challenge the myth that is perpetuated by paramilitary groups that exiles have invariably been involved in antisocial activity such as drug-running, whereas, in fact, many have been those paramilitaries' opponents, a number have been informers who have saved people's lives and others have just run into trouble on a personal basis with paramilitary groups?

I absolutely agree and endorse what my hon. Friend has said and pay tribute to him for the many occasions on which he has campaigned for the return of exiles and for an end to such activity.

Republican Exiles


What discussions he has had with Sinn Fein/IRA about the early return of exiles to Northern Ireland. [107074]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Desmond Browne)

The Government have consistently made their position clear. The exiling of individuals is a despicable practice that we wholly condemn. It must end and those exiles must feel free to return in safety.

Will the Minister say whether the issue of exiles from Northern Ireland was on the agenda of discussions between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister at Hillsborough over the past few days? If it was, can the Minister say what advice he is giving to those families who wish to return to Northern Ireland? What practical assistance can be offered to them about their security should they return? Can he confirm that the return of exiles to Northern Ireland must take place before any concessions are made to so-called on-the-run prisoners?

I am unable to answer the detail of the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question at this stage. What I can say is that through the forces of law and order in Northern Ireland, the Government offer security to those who wish to return. As for the third part of his question, of course, it is clear that all aspects of the current discussions are interlinked and they can be considered only in the context of acts of completion. The practice of exiling must end and those who have been exiled must feel able to return to Northern Ireland.

Echoing the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), many people in Northern Ireland are appalled at the prospect of a deal for on-the-run terrorists, many of whom have committed serious atrocities. People see that as a serious injustice. Will the Minister assure us that priority will be given to the exiles, many of whom are innocent and have not been found guilty of any wrongdoing?

I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about those in the unfortunate position of having been exiled. I have been working with, among others, the Maranatha community in trying to establish support for such people and to develop a suitable policy.

As for the hon. Gentleman's main point, he knows that the British and Irish Governments recognised at the Weston Park talks that the issue of terrorists on the run needed to be dealt with, and that steps should be taken for the purpose. As the Prime Minister made clear in his speech in Belfast, the Government will only contemplate such steps, and difficult issues such as on-the-runs, in the context of acts of completion.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [107852]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 9 April.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I am sure that the whole House would once again like to express its deep condolences to the families of the servicemen and others who have lost their lives during the last week of the conflict in Iraq. Again we salute their courage, and give our heartfelt gratitude for their sacrifice.

May I associate myself with the Prime Minister's words about those who have fallen in battle in Iraq?

May I ask the Prime Minister, however, whether he is aware of another battle—the battle to save Britain's pharmacies in the light of the Office of Fair Trading report? Will he assure me that his Government will not introduce any policies that would fundamentally threaten the future of Britain's pharmacy network, and the remarkable job that pharmacies do for people throughout Britain?

Of course it is vitally important that we maintain the pharmacy network. It is also important, however, that we pay due attention to reports that are given to us about the virtues of competition. I am sure that we will strike the right balance between those two objectives.

As the coalition forces move deeper into the Iraqi cities, they are uncovering, being guided towards and being shown torture chambers, rape rooms and other horrifying evidence of the brutalities committed by Saddam and his henchmen—a sickening picture of the killing inflicted on innocent people. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that this evil is eradicated from Iraq by ordering the hunting down of these people-butchers?

I think we would also want to express our deep regret at any loss of innocent civilian life during the conflict, It is, I am afraid, the unfortunate consequence of war, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the plight of people in Iraq under Saddam—not just the torture chambers and the routine barbarity, but the literally thousands of people killed and brutalised every year by Saddam's regime. According to recent estimates from some of the non-governmental organisations, some 1 million children are suffering from malnutrition as a result of the way in which the country is run. I hope that when we assess the humanitarian picture, for all the difficulties that naturally exist there at the moment, people will understand that for the vast majority of people in Iraq the absolute humanitarian priority was to be rid of the regime of Saddam Hussein.

In the last three weeks, British and American troops have defeated Iraqi forces and taken Basra, and it now seems that the regime is fast losing its grip on Baghdad. Even as we speak, Iraqi people are celebrating in the streets. This has been one of the most brilliantly executed campaigns of recent history. May I join the Prime Minister in paying heartfelt tribute to the professionalism and bravery of British troops in Iraq, and in remembering those who have given their lives for this country?

I congratulate the Prime Minister on the role that he has played, standing together with our American allies, in liberating the Iraqi people and ousting this evil dictator. He will recall, however, that at the end of the last Gulf war Iraqi generals signed a document of surrender on behalf of the Iraqi regime. The current regime is in complete collapse, it appears, and we all want to prevent further unnecessary loss of life. Given that, from whom do the Prime Minister believe—or from whom do his advisers believe—the coalition can now accept an unconditional surrender?

First of all, in respect of our troops and what they have done in the past few weeks, I wish to record once again our pride in their enormous courage, professionalism and skill, and to pay tribute, in fact, to the coalition troops as a whole, because the American troops, in that remarkable advance on Baghdad, also showed their professionalism and skill. Indeed, I pay tribute—because it is not always possible to do this—to the Australian and other special forces, and to other support staff, who have played their part, too.

In relation to who we would take a surrender from, it is extremely difficult, as we speak, to know what is left of the governing higher ranks of Saddam's regime. I think that the best way of answering that would be that we must be clear that whoever we accept a final declaration from to the effect that, so far as Saddam's regime is concerned, the war is over, whoever it is has that proper authority. I cannot at the moment make a judgment as to who that may be, but one thing that we must—

I will resist all temptation at this point. So we will have to wait and see.

On Monday, certain reports indicated that the Defence Secretary appeared to make light of some of the looting in Basra. However, this morning, as looting spread to Baghdad, the aid agency said that it would not deliver aid to Basra until security was ensured. I also understand that there are now reports that members of the regime are using the disorder to cover themselves while they remove evidence from government buildings. Will the Prime Minister confirm that British troops are now policing the streets in Basra and arresting looters? Given that British commanders have recently said that their forces are thinly stretched, does he believe that policing in Iraq will require reinforcements either from the UK, or perhaps from some other countries?

The answer to the latter point is that it may do; again, we just cannot be sure at the moment. However, in respect of Basra, our armed forces are doing their very best in what is a difficult situation. I think that there is bound to be a certain amount of disorder, and probably a certain amount of lawlessness, in the aftermath of the collapse of Saddam's regime in places such as Basra. But the troops are doing their level best to restore order. There is an inhibition on them, however. This is what I think would be called in military jargon a semi-permissive environment: in other words, it is not yet fully secure for our troops.

Obviously, our military commanders want to make sure that, in employing whatever troops they employ, as it were almost on policing duties, they do not put their lives at risk. Subject to that, they do believe that the situation is more under control today than it was yesterday. They are also meeting local officials to try to make sure that, within the local community, order is restored. Just before I came to the House, I was briefed on the fact that some of the local leaders are now coming forward and offering their assistance in making sure that this policing happens. Indeed, some of those people who looted and took property yesterday are returning it.

Returning to the weapons of mass destruction, there have been potential finds of illegal missiles, chemicals and suspect warheads. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that there should be an independent verification by UN weapons inspectors, and what steps are being taken to ensure that this should happen?

We are in discussion with the United Nations about this. Plainly, it would be a good idea from every perspective to make sure that there is some sort of objective verification of any potential weapons of mass destruction that are seized. As we speak, there is obviously an investigation going on into certain of those weapons that were taken a few days ago, and tests are being carried out. However, it is important, I think, for the international community as a whole that, as we establish control—and, indeed, as people working on these programmes are free to come forward and speak to us—we make sure that a legitimacy is given to this, so that there can be some objective assessment of the truth of the situation. Certainly, so far as we are concerned—perhaps this allows me to say this once again—we have no doubt at all that these weapons of mass destruction exist. I say to people who sometimes say, "Why haven't you been finding them as you've gone through the country?" that the truth is that there has been a six-month campaign of concealment. It is not surprising that we have not found them. We need the evidence of the experts and scientists, but we are convinced that we will get it.

Over the past few weeks, the war of words between Syria and the United States has escalated. Does the Prime Minister share US concerns about Syria, and what does he believe that Syria must do now to ease those concerns?

There are two issues, the most immediate of which is the suggestion that Syria was supplying arms or equipment to the Iraqi regime for the war. Syria has assured us that that is not the case, and I made it clear in a recent conversation with President Bashar that it would be unacceptable. Secondly, there is a longer-term issue, which is the need to make sure—especially if we are moving forward with a process of peace in the middle east—that all support by countries such as Syria for terrorist organisations and those who want to destroy any prospect of peace in the middle east ceases, and ceases entirely.

The whole House would agree that the reconstruction of Iraq must be run by the Iraqis. However, there must be an interim authority, which is to be run by General Garner. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether that interim authority will have the specific endorsement of the United Nations?

Two processes are involved. One is the office that will be run by General Garner and others, including British people, in the immediate post-conflict situation. Then, as soon as possible, the interim authority should be an Iraqi interim authority and we should develop that as soon as we can. That is why we are suggesting a series of ways to ensure that we find out who are the proper representatives from the different groupings in different parts of the country and bring them all together. In that process, the coalition forces will have a role and the United Nations should have a role. I see no reason why, if we approach the problem sensibly and given that Kofi Annan has now appointed a special adviser, we cannot do that in a collaborative way. If we do so, the interim authority is likely to have the legitimacy that it needs. It is important that it has that legitimacy and is seen to have it in the outside world. If, as we said yesterday, the United Nations has a vital role in that process, it will make the task all the more easy to do.

I note the Prime Minister's remarks. He will be aware of President Chirac's unhelpful remarks yesterday saying almost exactly the opposite, which means, in a sense, that we may not be able to achieve such a resolution. However, the International Development Secretary has said that, without a UN resolution, coalition troops will represent "an occupying army" with no legal right to reconstruct Iraq. Does the Prime Minister share her view?

In respect of President Chirac's remarks, it is important to look also at the remarks of the German Chancellor and of the spokesman of Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, who gave a broad welcome to what was said yesterday. There will obviously be many negotiations and discussions about the problem. In the end, it depends on whether people want to reach an agreement or not. If they want to reach an agreement, it is perfectly easy to do so. Yesterday, President Bush could not have been clearer in saying that the UN should have a vital role, not just in humanitarian aid, but in relation to the reconstruction of the country. I believe that we should wait and see how it develops. We are in constant discussion with the countries concerned. Indeed, I am due to speak to President Chirac later today, and, with good will, we will reach a way through.

One of the reasons for going into Iraq was to establish the rule of law. Can my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that none of the prisoners taken by Her Majesty's forces will be transferred out of their custody until their position has been properly established by independent tribunals, and that they will not be sent to Guantanamo Bay without there being a proper reason for it?

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that any of our prisoners of war will be treated fully in accordance with international law, which lays down strict rules in respect of that matter and we shall abide by them.

In paying tribute to the courage and professionalism of our armed forces, does the Prime Minister agree that we owe it to them—[Interruption.]

Does the Prime Minister agree that we owe it to them as much to the innocent Iraqi civilians to win the peace, having successfully prosecuted the war? Does he agree that it will be vital that relationships with Russia and our European allies are properly re-established so that we can get into Iraq the funding that will be central to the reconstruction?

It is obviously vital that we do all we can to make sure that Iraq gets the future that we have set out for it. I hope that Russia and other countries will co-operate with us in that regard. In the end, the critical thing will be to make sure that we deal with the immediate humanitarian situation and that the Iraqi interim authority is run by Iraqis who are genuinely representative of the whole country. We set out a process yesterday that allows us to get there and I hope that Russia and other countries co-operate with us in it.

When the Prime Minister met the American President, was the President able to indicate whether the American Administration would accept the Israeli Government's interpretation of the middle east road map—that it is all subject to possible amendment at a future stage?

The road map is not just a set of steps in a process, but a set of very clear undertakings that must be entered into by both sides. The road map has been drawn up by the United States, the EU, Russia and the UN. I do not doubt that there will be all sorts of representations made about it. However, the fact is that the road map is there as a way through. Therefore, in its essential particulars, we must abide by it and make sure that it is implemented. That is why the right hon. Gentleman will have heard the United States President say, once again, that we are committed not just to publishing the road map, but to implementing it. Of course people will make representations—they are bound to—but implementing the road map means exactly what it says.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reconstruction of Iraq, particularly following the decades of neglect by Saddam Hussein, needs the involvement not just of the UN and all its agencies, but the World Bank, the IMF and the G8 countries? Should not our main concern be that once the media spotlight is off Iraq, we maintain our commitment to the restoration of prosperity and democracy?

I agree entirely. However, I should point out that the conflict is not yet over, and there are still difficult things to do. As we speak, there is still intense resistance—not broad spread among the Iraqi people, but among those parts of Saddam's regime that want to cling to power. It is not over yet, but I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is essential that we make sure that we commit to the reconstruction of Iraq. It is fair to point out that Iraq—unlike Afghanistan, where we had to deal with a country with few immediate resources—is potentially a wealthy country. The tragedy of Iraq is that its wealth has not been used for the Iraqi people. When we read that Saddam Hussein's wealth appears to be $3 billion, while his people live in poverty—60 per cent. are dependent on food aid—we can see just how much there is to be done. However, with the natural wealth that there is in Iraq, that is work that can be done.

Q2. [107853]

Notwithstanding the tremendous success of our troops, sadly there have been large numbers of civilian casualties. Hospitals in Baghdad are crying out for urgent assistance. Can the Prime Minister assure the House that coalition forces will do all they possibly can to get that assistance there as soon as possible?

Of course we will do that and, as we speak, teams are working alongside American troops in order to do so. I should point out two particular problems. One is that, as parts of Saddam's regime have moved out of areas, they have cut the power, harming our ability to provide humanitarian assistance and power, particularly to hospitals and other necessary areas. The second is that it cannot be pointed out too often that we make every effort to avoid civilian casualties, but there is a problem because of Saddam basing the headquarters of some of his special republican guard and local security services in the most densely populated residential areas. That makes it all the more difficult for us to act in a way that preserves as much civilian life as we possibly can. That said, probably more care has been taken with targeting in this military conflict than any in recent times.

Q3. [107854]

Is the Prime Minister aware of the reported deaths of almost 1,000 civilians in one day last week? Those deaths were not televised; they took place in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a conflict that has claimed almost 4 million lives, making it the deadliest war since world war two. Will the Prime Minister use his influence to use the upcoming G8 meeting to increase the numbers of UN observers and peacekeepers? Will he ensure that just because those deaths were not televised, the victims will not be forgotten?

My hon. Friend makes an entirely justified point. I assure her that we are working closely with the UN and other troop-contributing countries to ensure the deployment of what was supposed to be almost 9,000 UN peacekeepers. They were mandated by the UN last December and we are trying to insert them into the situation there. Once again, we exhort all parties to abide by UN Security Council resolution 1468, which condemns violations of human rights and international humanitarian law and calls on all parties to cease their hostilities immediately. I assure my hon. Friend that, even with public attention naturally focused on Iraq, we continue to be as active as we possibly can on this issue.

Is the Prime Minister pleased or saddened by reports that the tests for the UK joining the euro have not been met?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the assessment is made.

Q4. [107855]

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Thanet council, working closely with the Government, has worked wonders in regenerating the district, creating business parks and even a new university campus. However, we still have great difficulty in getting developers to prefer to work on brownfield sites and the renovation of existing houses over developing greenfield sites. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we focus attention on making sure that arrangements are in place that will encourage people to develop our old Victorian towns?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on the issue that he raises. It is extremely important that we make every effort to develop brownfield sites and to make sure also that we take back into use homes that have been empty for a long time. Without in any way previewing what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to say later, I hope that my hon. Friend stays around for the Budget statement.

In considering precisely what role the UN will have in postwar Iraq, will the Prime Minister reflect on the record of the UK and the US in building durable democracies in Germany and Japan? Does he not think that that record compares rather favourably with the UN's record in Somalia?

The reality is that there are examples of the UN working well, and of its working less well. What is clear is that the UN does not want the sole responsibility in the matter, and in any event that is simply not practical. What is important, however, is that the UN is involved and, as we said yesterday, that it has a vital role. We will be the occupying forces. If we set up the Iraqi interim authority in the right way, working with the UN, we will get a representative body that can then take charge of its own country. The key thing is to make sure—perhaps through joint commissions, as happened in Afghanistan and elsewhere—that we get a broadly representative Government. As I said a moment or two ago, I believe that this is a situation where, if people want to find a proper solution, they can. The fact that Kofi Annan has appointed a special adviser is important, as it allows us to work with him. With good will, we will get this job done in the best way for the Iraqi people. This matter should not be a diplomatic wrangle: it should be about what is best for the Iraqi people for the future.

Q5. [107856]

In the USA, prominent proponents of war with Iraq are now demanding regime change in Iran and Syria. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the consternation that is caused by the conjunction of that with comments about those countries made by Rumsfeld, Rice and even Powell, and the aggressive strategic theories of the Bush Administration? Will the Prime Minister impress on our US allies that a precedent has not been set for further pre-emptive wars without international consensus, in the middle east or elsewhere?

What is actually being said by the US Administration and ourselves is that any actions being taken by Syria and Iran at the moment should not interfere with the proper progress of the military conflict, nor with building Iraq properly for the future when the conflict is over. That is why we have said to both Syria and Iran that it is important that they do not provide military help to people who are engaged in action against coalition forces. I think that that is a perfectly reasonable position, and I respectfully say to my hon. Friend that I would not read any more into it than that.

Given the growing importance of humanitarian aid in the war against Iraq, and given the fact that we send nearly £1 billion to the EU overseas aid package—money that is largely spent by Brussels for political purposes, as evidenced by the fact that the top 10 recipients are all countries bordering the EU—will the Prime Minister now override his Secretary of State for International Development and divert that money to Iraq, which is where it is far more desperately needed?

The debate over humanitarian aid in the EU is of long standing. In fact, my right hon. Friend is one of many Secretaries of State in different parts of the European Union who have been asking for changes in that regard.

I have to say two other things to the hon. Gentleman. First, the aid that we give to those surrounding European countries is still important, because they are countries that are undergoing a process of reconstruction. Secondly, I have no doubt at all that the European Union—we will be able to discuss this further next week—will want to give full humanitarian assistance to Iraq. The EU naturally has a role to play in that, and can play it very well.

Q6. [107857]

Given the vital importance of the small business sector to the well-being of our economy, and given that many small businesses tell me that their staff are their greatest asset, will the Prime Minister explain the benefits to the small business sector of the new rights for working people?

That is an important issue. We have changed the rules to enable more small employers to claim back 100 per cent. of maternity, paternity and adoption payments, so we are improving the situation for them. We are also significantly increasing maternity pay and the length of time that people can take in unpaid leave, and taking measures on flexible working. That will give more and more people the opportunity to balance work and family life. It is also good for employers because, as my hon. Friend rightly says, staff are their main asset.

The Prime Minister will be aware that a great deal of discussion is going on about a new police college in Northern Ireland. Does he share my concern that strand 1 of the agreement has been breached by the offer of the Republic of Ireland Government to fund some £30 million if it is built in Ebrington in Londonderry, which would support only one political party? On Budget day, would we be right in assuming that perhaps the 30 pieces of silver is now $30 million?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give him an answer off the top of my head: I will have to correspond with him about that.

Q7. [107858]

Does the Prime Minister share the pleasure that pupils, teachers, governors and parents must feel on the publication of the international study yesterday showing that English primary school pupils are among the best readers in the world; and will he go on working with his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to ensure that the strong and stable economy, which underpins the investment that helps to achieve that success, continues?

We certainly will continue that work. For England to be third behind Sweden and the Netherlands out of 35 countries, ahead of France, Germany, the United States and many other countries, is a tremendous tribute to what has happened in our primary schools over the past few years. It has happened because of reform through the national literacy and numeracy strategy and investment that represents the largest-ever increase in education funding that this country has ever seen. That is why it is very important to continue that investment, not cut it by 20 per cent.

Q8. [107859]

Is the Prime Minister aware of the desperate state of farming in this country, which is borne out by the latest news that Brandons turkey factory went into receivership yesterday? Will he ensure that common agricultural policy reform does not work entirely to the disadvantage of British farmers and to please French and German farmers?

Of course we will. We also recognise that the farming industry has been undergoing a huge period of structural change, which it has been undertaking for several years. The best way to proceed is through the Curry commission, which we established some time ago. I am sorry for the hon. Lady's constituents whose jobs will be lost as a result of the changes that have been announced, but I assure her that we will continue to try to get the best deal we can out of the Agriculture Council.