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Commons Chamber

Volume 403: debated on Monday 14 April 2003

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House Of Commons

Monday 14 April 2003

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Work And Pensions

The Secretary of State was asked—

Unemployment

1.

If he will make a statement on the most recent unemployment rate in (a) Tamworth and (b) the UK.[108704]

Since 1997, the claimant unemployment rate in Tamworth has fallen by more than 40 per cent. In February, it stood at 2.9 per cent. That compares with the national rate of 3.1 per cent.

Our policies are providing a stable economic environment that is helping more people to move into work. We are building on this by promoting flexibility with fairness in the labour market, so that it can adapt to changing circumstances and deliver high and sustainable employment for the future.

Would my right hon. Friend like to congratulate organisations such as the Tamworth Programme Centre, which I shall visit on Wednesday? It works with Jobcentre Plus to get people back into employment. Does he agree that active labour market reforms have produced the record high employment that we have today, at a time of world recession? That runs counter to the idea that high unemployment kept the rate of inflation down and was therefore a price worth paying.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the centre in his constituency that is working in partnership with Jobcentre Plus. Partnership work such as that has, in Tamworth, cut long-term unemployment by 76 per cent. and long-term youth unemployment by 82 per cent. I am sure that the centre is looking forward to my hon. Friend's visit on Wednesday. Unemployment is never a price worth paying.

Intermediate Labour Markets

2.

What steps he is taking to develop intermediate labour markets. [108705]

Intermediate labour markets work with disadvantaged people and seek to provide a supportive work environment, helping them to develop the skills needed to retain employment. They are widely used in the United Kingdom, and some are funded by new deal providers and local authorities.

The Department is investing £40 million in StepUp, a transitional work programme that will provide guaranteed jobs for up to 5,000 long-term unemployed people.

Does the Minister agree that the importance of intermediate labour markets was stressed by last year's report of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions? Will he give a commitment to mainstream such measures in the future work of his Department?

I have visited a number of intermediate labour market programmes, including the StepUp pilots. I am impressed by the work that they do, and particularly impressed by the enthusiasm that they seem to be able to raise in local communities—including enthusiasm from local public representatives and local providers. I can give my hon. Friend the commitment that he asks for.

Does the Minister accept that intermediate labour markets are welcome because they help into productive work people who are a long way distant from the labour market? At the moment, the funding streams are very flexible and insufficiently co-ordinated. During work on its recent employment report, the Select Committee heard that some providers were struggling as they tried to make sense of 10 different funding streams. Will the Government do something to co-ordinate the funding so that it is more easily available?

The hon. Gentleman chairs the Select Committee and its point was well made. In response, we are trying to find a way—within the Department and, indeed, across Government—of co-ordinating advice that is given to providers of not only intermediate labour market programmes but programmes more generally on which the Government rely. We are also trying to find a way of having an official to co-ordinate things and to work with lead providers to ensure that the range of provision is properly scoped and that providers have full information in front of them. However, the decisions will remain with the providers. An alternative approach, which is touched on in the Select Committee's report, would be to put the funding resources, or most of them, in one place. I think that that would mean that a whole range of programmes that are important to the Government would end up with less support. The right approach is to have better co-ordination, and we have made a start on that in the Department.

I welcome what the Minister has said. There are still parts of the country where long-term unemployment problems are deeply ingrained and where the private sector has yet to penetrate. Intermediate labour markets allow people to gain the confidence to get back into work. In my constituency, there are two very successful programmes—one in Havercroft and the other doing environmental work—but the funding streams are precarious. Will my right hon. Friend therefore encourage his Department to en sure that the funding streams are more robust in future?

Where, largely for historical and geographical reasons, unemployment is high, intermediate labour markets have an important part to play. If my hon. Friend writes to me about the specific funding issues for the two intermediate labour markets that cover his constituency, I shall—without making any specific promise—see what I can do to help.

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, I was seeking to catch your eye not on this question but on Question 4.

Precisely what assistance is given to people who have difficulty in accessing the employment market because they have no transport of their own, and what assistance is there for people to travel to Jobcentre Plus? There is not even one Jobcentre Plus in the Vale of York.

I understand what the hon. Lady says; indeed, she has raised the issue with me before. The question of how Jobcentre Plus can provide the new and exciting range of services to sparsely populated communities is an important one. A range of initiatives is under way, including subsidised transport arrangements, which will make a difference. Concentration on this issue in the Department, working with the Countryside Agency, is something that I take very seriously indeed—partly because of my former responsibilities. I acknowledge that, due to the rural nature of the hon. Lady's constituency, it is impossible to provide a Jobcentre Plus office physically within the boundaries of the Vale of York, so if there is an initiative that she thinks will help her constituency, I am more than willing to respond constructively to any specific representations she may wish to make.

Child Support Agency

3.

If he will make a statement on the speed with which assessments are made by the Child Support Agency. [108706]

If he will make a statement on the Child Support Agency reforms. [108717]

In 2001–02, about half the cases took less than 20 weeks to reach full assessment, but one in six took more than a year.

As the House is aware, the new scheme started on 3 March, and early indications are that both clients and staff are responding positively. By the end of the first year of operation of the new scheme, I expect the CSA to have arrangements for maintenance payment in place, on average, within six weeks from the first contact with the non-resident parent.

I thank the Secretary of State especially for that target. Is he aware that when his hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. O'Brien), whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber, asked him when he last met the chief executive of the CSA

"to discuss progress on county court judgments, committal proceedings and the withdrawal of driving licences for nonpayment of maintenance",
the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), replied:
"Ministers have regular meetings with the Chief Executive."—[Official Report, 30 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 996W.]
Technically, that could be described as a non-answer. Can the Secretary of State give some targets for the difficult cases where non-resident parents disappear, refuse to provide information and generally play havoc with the system?

We are in the process of setting demanding targets for the future operation of the CSA. The House will be aware that cash compliance is already up to 68 per cent. and that case compliance is up to 71 per cent. In the new system, we are setting targets of 78 per cent. for case compliance and of 75 per cent. for cash compliance. In place of the chaos and the huge backlogs that built up when the first scheme started, we have been making progress, and we are more ambitious for the future.

Figures from the Library indicate that the delay in introducing reforms to the CSA will cost lone parents about £90 million. What plans do the Government have to compensate lone parents for those losses?

Compensation would not be payable for the delay in introducing the new system, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It would have served lone parents and other recipients of maintenance badly if we had introduced the system when the IT was not ready. That would have risked repeating the chaos that occurred when the CSA first came into operation. It is good that we have got things right and that we set up the system only when the IT was capable of delivering an effective service. As much as anyone in the House, I look forward to the recipients of benefit also receiving, under the reforms that we have introduced, the child maintenance premium of up to £10 a week, which they have not received previously.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his efforts to make the CSA more transparent, more fair and more accessible to people in need of child support. In addition to speeding up the claims, will he take into consideration the accuracy of the claims and reducing the amount of paperwork that parents with care and even absent parents receive from the CSA, as it is difficult to understand and follow? In making the issue transparent, will he take action to ensure that the assessments are clear and correct, and to try to reduce the amount of paperwork involved in making assessments?

Very much so, and I pay tribute to the long-standing and informed interest that my hon. Friend has taken in improving the CSA's performance. The new system is very much simpler; it cuts dramatically the amount of information that has to be collected and the number of calculations that have to be made. That should build confidence in its provisions among not only parents with care but non-resident parents as well. It is an opportunity to start a new era of much more effective child support and its payment, which is the critical thing.

I appreciate the opportunity to press the Minister and to welcome the improvements, but how long will it take to deal with the backlog of parents who have been wrongly assessed, as they have been told that that will not happen for some time until new applicants have been dealt with?

The introduction of the new system for new cases should make it much more straightforward and easier to get such things right first time. As the hon. Gentleman suggests, one of the great disadvantages of the old system was that it was so complicated, because of all the factors that had to be taken into account, that barely had the initial assessment been made before new information became available and the assessment had to be adjusted—in many cases to the point where neither the parent with care nor the non-resident parent ever really knew where they stood. That accounts for the extent to which the backlog has built up, and of course we will do everything that we can further to clear it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that, of the 384,000 parents with care entitled to receive child maintenance, 193,000 receive less than their entitlement and 79,000 receive nothing at all—that is £250 million in unpaid child support? May I suggest to the Secretary of State that he enable every Member to suggest three child support cases in his or her constituency in which the sanction that the Secretary of State has to remove driving licences could be applied to those non-resident parents who deliberately and consistently evade their responsibilities, many of whom enjoy much higher standards of living than the parents to whom the money should go?

First, I acknowledge the close interest that the hon. Gentleman takes in such things and his contribution to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. It is perhaps unfortunate that we cannot allow a universal system to be dictated by whoever is top of an MP's list for action. We can use the sanctions that we have at our disposal, but the threat of those sanctions is more important. At the end of the day, what is important is not taking driving licences off people, but how many people pay because they fear that their driving licences would have been taken away. As I said, we have been improving both cash and case compliance, and our targets for the future are more ambitious, as I told the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). I will certainly do all that I can to ensure that sanctions are used where appropriate.

Pension Credit

4.

What the estimated impact has been on savings of the introduction of the pension credit. [108707]

When introduced in October, pension credit will for the first time reward, not penalise, savings, ensuring that those who have worked hard to save modest amounts will gain from having done so. The reward for saving will be up to £14.79 a week for single pensioners and up to £19.20 a week for couples. That is, of course, in addition to the guaranteed minimum income.

That is all very well—[Interruption]—but does the Minister not realise that he is creating a massive means-tested scheme for the elderly, specifically against his party's promise in 1997 and the wishes of the Chancellor? He has also created a massive disincentive to save—those are not my words, but those of the president of the Faculty of Actuaries—and a hugely expensive bureaucracy. Does he not realise on reflection that there is a much less expensive and more effective way to help poorer pensioners?

With all due respect, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has understood the scheme. Let us contrast it with what we inherited: pensioners with modest savings had them deducted, pound for pound, from income support, giving out entirely the wrong messages to those who had properly saved. The purpose of the pension credit is to recognise those modest savings and reward them accordingly. Given his interest in savings, I should have thought that he would have welcomed the pension credit.

As the Minister suggests that we recall the position that Labour inherited when it came to power, does he accept that since 1997 three quarters of all company pension schemes have either closed to new members or closed contributions to existing members, and that 11 per cent. of those schemes are now in the process of winding up? If we do not want all our constituents to end up on the pension credit, does not it behove the Government, once they have considered the response to their Green Paper, to introduce some very radical pension reform proposals?

As the right hon. Gentleman acknowledges, we have published our ideas in a Green Paper, on which we are consulting. I was at a consultancy meeting in the south-east of England this morning, at which we heard from a range of partners and stakeholders. We will introduce our proposals in due course. He is right that there is much insecurity out there, and we need to reassure people that when they save it is worth their while doing so. That is the purpose of the Green Paper and, at the risk of being relevant, it is the purpose of the pension credit.

Does the Minister accept, none the less, that, according to Institute for Fiscal Studies figures, by October three fifths of all pensioners will be eligible for means-tested benefits, and by the middle of the century, with no change in policy, four fifths of pensioners will be so eligible? Does he accept that there is a connection with the halving of the savings ratio since the Government took office, and the fact that almost half of the youngest element of the work force now has no second pension provision?

As the hon. Gentleman is a good territorial, 1 knew that his time would come.

Again, the hon. Gentleman is not giving fair acknowledgement to the fact that, with the pension credit, we are at long last trying to reward savings, which is an important element. There is a debate about means testing, but the pension credit involves a very simple incomes test, which ignores, for example, any income from savings below £6,000. That means that 85 per cent. of pensioners receiving the credit will have any income received from their savings ignored entirely. Furthermore, unless they have major changes in life circumstances, once people are receiving the credit they will not have to have their income assessed again for a period of five years. That means that, on average, those getting the pension credit will receive some £400 a year. I am particularly struck by the fact that some of the poorest pensioners, women, will benefit disproportionately, which is right and proper given their circumstances. In fact, 54 per cent. of those entitled to the credit will be single women. That is targeting that should be supported by the whole House.

Has my hon. Friend the Minister had a chance to read the Select Committee report on pensions, which says that nothing is inherently wrong with means-testing, as it reduces the high withdrawal rates—previously, about a third of pensioners lost all their occupatonal pension and now none does so—and recommends that we should increase the income disregard so that pensioners can do more work without having any of that clawed back by the pension credit?

I have read the Select Committee report. Having served under two distinguished Chairmen of that Select Committee, it is always the first thing that I read at night—[Interruption.] A bit of Lib-Labery there. We will consider the proposals most carefully. I emphasise, however, that we are determined to increase the take-up of pension credit. All those on the minimum income guarantee will be moved automatically to the pension credit. We will write to others and there will be a major television and press advertising campaign. I hope that all Members of the House, whatever their feelings about the overall policy, can join in in their constituencies to make sure that the poorest pensioners benefit from the pension credit. We all have a role to play.

The Minister says that all those on the minimum income guarantee will be put automatically on to the pension credit. There are 670,000 pensioners on the minimum income guarantee who do not actually get it. Why does he think that it will be any different with the pension credit?

I want to be entirely fair about this, and take-up is always an issue. With all due respect, it was an issue for 18 years in an earlier part of our social and political history. The important point is that the poorest pensioners are more likely than others to take up income support or the minimum income guarantee. The proportion of the total amount available has a higher take-up rate than the number of claimants eligible for it, because the poorest tend to claim it most. However, I am not complacent. That is why I have outlined a range of proposals, including an advertising campaign and our writing to all other pensioners, to ensure that they know about the pension credit and will claim it.

The hon. Gentleman has asked a perfectly proper question, but I repeat the point that we all have a significant role to play in our constituencies in ensuring that many of the most vulnerable and at risk claim the credit, which is worth a significant amount of money to them.

Pensions-Related Benefit

5.

If he will make a statement on the level of pensions-related benefit take-up. [108709]

The numbers receiving the minimum income guarantee have risen steadily by 170,000 since 2000, which is encouraging. We shall continue to streamline the claiming process to encourage pensioners to take up their entitlement.

As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has just said, we will write to all pensioners about the pension credit. I hope that, in a spirit of generosity, the hon. Gentleman will join us in our efforts by urging his constituents to claim what is rightfully theirs.

I thank the Minister for her response. She will be aware that £1.5 billion of pensioner benefits are not currently claimed and that the increase in the take-up of the minimum income guarantee in 2000—01 was just 1 per cent. She will also be aware that the Government's target for pension credit is just 3 million out of 3.8 million pensioners. Does she agree with the Public Accounts Committee that the Government's target lacks ambition? If she does, what does she intend to do about that poverty of ambition? Why should Members believe that the measures that the Government will introduce this time to increase take-up will be any more effective than the measures that they have introduced in the past?

I gather from that succession of questions that the hon. Gentleman and his party are against the pension credit. In that sense, he must explain why he is in favour of taking an average of £400 off half of all pensioner households before the next election.

We will make sure that we encourage all pensioners to claim their entitlement. We are doing more than any Government ever have by writing to each pensioner and by making it simpler to claim. Indeed, pension credit will be able to be claimed by making a simple telephone call. It would help us all if the Opposition parties, whatever their feelings about future pensions policy in this regard, stopped putting people off claiming the credit by saying that it is means-testing when it is not.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in the two recent take-up campaigns in South Tyneside, almost 350 pensioners were identified as not receiving the proper entitlement? That represented a loss of income to the borough of hundreds of thousands of pounds. The success of the campaigns was put down purely and simply to home visits. Will my hon. Friend congratulate the campaigns on their success, which were supported by her Department, and devote more money to home visits so that we can make sure that pensioners get what they are entitled to?

My hon. Friend is right. In fact, almost 150,000 people have received an entitlement of approximately £20 a week extra as a result of our take-up campaign. That must be good.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that home visits can make a difference. In that regard, the local service element of the Pension Service will be able to ensure that more vulnerable pensioners who otherwise might not take up the credit will have an opportunity to do so. We are putting more resources and efforts into the local service as we move forward to the better service for pensioners that the Pension Service will represent.

May I ask the Minister one specific question about these pension-related benefits? Will she assure Britain's 11 million pensioners that any changes to the main inflation index along the lines proposed by the Chancellor in his Budget last week will not affect the annual uprating of pensions and other benefits?

The hon. Gentleman will have to arrange for his Front-Bench colleagues to ask the Chancellor that question, because he knows very well that I am not in charge of making any such arrangements—the Chancellor is. He needs to ask his questions to the right Minister, as I am sure he knows.

This is a question about the uprating of pension-related benefits. It is a very important question, because the Chancellor proposes to change the index from the retail prices index to the harmonised index of consumer prices—HICP— which is apparently called "hiccup" for short. HICP tends to be lower than the RPI. If the Chancellor decides to change to that measure, he could cut the value of the uprating for millions of pensioners. Will the Minister give an assurance that the value of the uprating of pension-related benefits will not be reduced if the Chancellor changes his measure of inflation?

The Chancellor said that he was considering making such a change and, as he does so, he will no doubt examine carefully the impact that it might have on pensioners and upratings. The hon. Gentleman must make his representations to the Chancellor, but I can say that since this Government came into office, pensioner income has increased by 20 per cent. That is what I call a proper uprating.

Benefit Application Forms

6.

When benefit application forms were last revised to make them easier and simpler to complete. [108710]

The Department for Work and Pensions regularly updates its application packs to make them easier and simpler. As part of the Department's commitment to modernise our service, the introduction of telephone applications has proved particularly successful in simplifying and speeding up the application process. We are building on that success for those applying for the new pension credit.

While I note that reply, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be aware of the National Audit Office report that was published toward the end of last year. It clearly said that vast sums of money are not being claimed year on year by retired people who are entitled to benefits. That clearly happens because forms are too complex and long. That point was made repeatedly at a meeting of the Wandsworth pensioners forum in my constituency last month. Whatever changes the Department has made, they are insufficient to encourage people to claim the benefits to which they are entitled. Will he look again at the forms and their complexity and length?

And we do. I pay tribute to our staff in the Department who, for example, have recently won a plain English award for their work on trying to simplify forms. We also work closely with citizens advice bureaux. Obviously, we understand that forms are daunting at first sight, which is why the new Pension Service and people's ability to use the telephone to apply for benefits are so important. We shall take on board the points that my hon. Friend makes. We have made a lot of progress on our forms, but there is more to do. He raises a very important point for pensioners.

The Minister mentions the plain English award that the Department has won. I have in my hand a piece of paper from the Department. It is the standard letter sent to pensioners who apply for invalid care allowance, which begins:

"We are pleased to tell you that we have looked at your claim and decided you are entitled to Invalid Care Allowance".
The next sentence says:
"However, we cannot pay the benefit to you".
The letter continues:
"You are entitled to £43.15 a week from"
May, but the next sentence says:
"We cannot pay you from"
May.

Does the Minister understand why pensioners in my constituency think that that is complete rubbish? Will he examine both that specific letter and the way in which pensioners are urged to apply for a benefit that they then cannot get?

We are still grappling—[Laughter.]—with the old computer systems that we inherited from the laughing Opposition. We have invested in computer systems and will get things right in future. The problem that the hon. Gentleman raises relates to the overlapping rule, but I take the point. He has a piece of paper in his hands and recent events suggest that his party is still associated with appeasement.

I am happy that the Minister has held talks with the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux on the compilation of forms, but many local bureaux are overwhelmed by people seeking their assistance in filling them out. The Department should try much harder to simplify the forms so that people take up the benefits to which they are entitled.

Again, I understand the point, but let us consider what has happened in practice. The minimum income guarantee form has been reduced from 40 to only 10 pages, and people will be able to apply for pension credit by telephone when they can talk to another human being who will explain it to them. Obviously, the forms are often complex and we need to simplify them, but we are making great progress.

In general, the simpler the form, the better the take-up. The Department's figures show that the number of people claiming incapacity benefit and disability living allowance on the grounds of mental illness increased by a quarter and by three quarters respectively between 1997 and last year. Why should that be? Is it simply that the application forms for those benefits have been simplified—welcome though that is—and that take-up has increased as a result, or does the Minister think that there are more significant and potentially alarming factors to do with the state of mental health in Britain today? What practical policies do the Government have to assist those with mental health problems both to stay in work and to find work rather than becoming trapped in dependency on benefits?

Again, that is an important question. It is interesting that more people across the western world have claimed incapacity benefits not in the last six years alone, but since about 1979. It is also the case that in recent years the proportion claiming that benefit because of mental illness factors or stress has increased, and we need to understand that. We are emphasising the importance of joining up different agencies around the theme of rehabilitation, and a number of pilot studies on that will start soon. It is unacceptable to the individuals concerned—many of whom would like to work—that so many are on incapacity benefit. It is a big issue. The number of those on such benefits has increased roughly threefold since 1979. We all need to think hard about that and to take action, which is what we are doing.

New Deal (Leicester)

7.

If he will make a statement about progress with the new deal in Leicester. [108711]

The new deals are performing well in Leicester. Up to the end of last year, more than 4,000 people in the city had moved into work through new deals, including 1,200 in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the success of a company called Business2Business, which provides ethnic minority projects under the new deal and has taken on 800 clients since it began? Does he agree that the best way to deliver the new deal to the ethnic minority communities is to ensure that organisations within the communities are used so that they can fully engage with their potential clients? Will he come to Leicester to see our success?

My hon. Friend makes an important point in a powerful way. I am aware of the work carried out by the minority ethnic outreach providers. It is a relatively new initiative and is having an impact. The House might be interested to hear some examples of the work undertaken by the providers. They include holding surgeries in mosques to attract a wider range of people from minority ethnic communities and working in partnership with good employers, such as Sainsbury's, by having a stall within the shopping area to incorporate discussion of outreach services, but more needs to be done. I am happy to take up my hon. Friend's invitation to visit Leicester to see at first hand what is being done there and to discuss with the minority communities what more they believe we could and should do.

Retirement

8.

If he will take steps to encourage optional later retirement. [108712]

Yes, our Green Paper sets out proposals to increase options for older people to stay in work longer, which include drawing a pension and working part-time, providing better increments for those who defer taking the state pension, legislating against age discrimination and building on the age positive campaign to raise awareness of the business benefits of older people staying in the work force.

We all realise that we need to encourage people to stay on after age 65 if they are able and willing to do so. For many people, however, the main issue is that they no longer want to work 100 per cent. of the time, and they would like to have a gradual, phased retirement. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need to introduce measures to encourage and facilitate that?

I very much agree, with one slight qualification. It is not for the Government to say that people ought to work longer. The key thing is that they have a choice that enables them to bring into correspondence their expectations of income in retirement and their other interests. Of course, whether they want to continue working also depends on how fit they feel. As part of that greater choice, people should be able to work part-time and draw down a pension. We make proposals for that in our Green Paper, in relation to both the tax treatment and the scheme design.

As the Secretary of State said, raising the age at which people cease to work was one of the proposals in the recent Green Paper. Has he seen the Institute of Directors response to that, which was released today? It describes the Government as

"barely scratching the surface of the pension problem."
Ruth Lea said:
"There is no doubt about it, there is a pensions crisis in this country…people are not saving enough…the rates of return on pension saving have suffered, partly reflecting…the current Government's removal of the tax credit on dividend payments…We doubt if [the Government] recognise that there is indeed a pensions crisis."
Will the Secretary of State now admit that it was the Chancellor's £5 billion a year smash-and-grab pensions tax raid that caused the crisis? Should not he now apologise to the millions of British people who will enter retirement as the victims of Labour's pensions crisis?

We could take more seriously the crocodile tears of the hon. Gentleman and those of his right hon. and hon. Friends who mouth this stuff if they came to the House with a commitment to reinstate the provision that they complain is being taken away. However, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) is on record as saying that the Conservatives are not making such a commitment.

The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) referred to the Institute of Directors representations. We shall carefully consider those and the other 800 or more responses to the Green Paper. I am sure that the way to approach this challenge is through the mix of proposals that we have set out, combining informed choice, flexibility in retirement, radical simplification of the pensions landscape and opportunities such as those that I have just described, which will allow people to choose to draw down a pension and work part-time. We also want to provide protection for scheme members who feel vulnerable at the moment because of the schemes that have closed. All that and more will be in our response to the Green Paper.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and the Secretary of State. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful to have legislation on age discrimination? Has he considered the experience of B&Q, which has found that by employing older people it gets employees with greater experience and wisdom? Does not that also apply to the Government and the House of Commons?

The longer that my right hon. Friend can go on asking questions like that, the better. Like him, I commend firms such as B&Q and Asda, which have led the way not only in making the business case for employing older people but in showing that that has commercial and customer benefits. That extension of choice, together with a simpler occupational pensions system and greater security within that system, is the sensible way forward.

Employment

11.

What steps he is taking to help jobseekers find work. [108715]

We are taking a wide range of steps to help jobseekers to find work, including the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus, delivering a work-focused service to all; the new deals, which have got 750,000 people into work; employment zones and action teams, which are helping a further 90,000 people in disadvantaged areas, including 2,000 in Devon, to find jobs; the minimum wage and tax credits, which guarantee parents with one child £237 a week for full-time working; and new technology such Worktrain and job points, which provide information about jobs and training. Those policies have ensured that since the start of the recent global downturn, the number of people working in the UK has increased by 500,000.

I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I know that he is doing his best, but many employers in my constituency report a growing trend whereby young jobseekers arrive for a job interview but through their behaviour demonstrate that they are not remotely interested in taking that job, or perhaps any job. Does he think that we are down to a small but stubborn minority of young jobseekers who are happy to receive benefits from the rest of us but are not remotely interested in work? What does he propose to do about that?

The hon. Gentleman may have answered his own question, but he must not talk down his constituency. South-West Devon has a high standard of living, with only 1.3 per cent. of adults in the constituency unemployed. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman barracks me, saying, "It says here," and it does say so here, but the here from where I got the facts is his website.

The Minister will be aware that one of the most vulnerable groups of jobseekers is lone parents, but the new deal for lone parents has already moved 175,000 lone parents from welfare into work, and for the first time more than 50 per cent. of lone parents are in work. Despite the Opposition's threats to the new deal, will he confirm that that fine scheme has funds to continue?

I can confirm that. My hon. Friend is right to say that the Government have made progress in that respect. We are proud of the achievement, but more needs to be done, and we shall carry on until we have made work pay for lone parents and helped to bear down on poverty in lone parent households.

Further to the highly pertinent question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) and the Minister's somewhat neurotic reply, will the right hon. Gentleman now answer this simple and intelligible question: how many jobseekers have had their benefit docked or withdrawn after refusing three reasonable job offers?

With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, of whom we on this side of the House are very fond, I am not sure that he should accuse other Members of being neurotic. As for the answer to his question, he knows that the number is relatively small. He knows from our previous discussions that the action is intended to be a sanction of last resort, not a mainstream means of doing business.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend accepts that lone parents have been encouraged into work not only by the new deal for lone parents, but by the working families tax credit. In the past week, it has come to my notice that some people who applied for working families tax credit two or three months ago have not had their claim considered. In the light of last week's hiccup in the transition to the new child tax credit, will he engage with Treasury Ministers to ensure that those who are waiting for their claim for working families tax credit or the new child tax credit to be processed do not fall to the back of the queue and that their claim will be dealt with quickly? Many of the lone parents involved are already in work and desperately need that money.

Of course I will do what my hon. Friend asks, and ensure that officials in our Department take those issues up with Treasury officials. There are three things that we must not lose sight of. First, the success that the Government have been able to achieve in the labour market is due to the fact that a combination of tax credits and the minimum wage means that work pays. Secondly, the jobs are there and, thirdly, the Department's proactive approach to helping people through training, advice or even encouragement into those jobs is having a discernible impact on the labour market.

Pension Credit

12.

What estimate he has made of the number of pensioners who will be in receipt of means-tested benefits once the pension credit has been introduced. [108716]

About half of pensioners will be entitled to pension credit when it is introduced in October, and they stand to gain on average £400 a year. We want as many people as possible who are entitled to it to receive the pension credit. We outlined earlier this Session the measures that we are taking to improve take-up.

The Minister might have answered the question, but perhaps he could explain what his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), meant when she said in response to Question 5 that the pension credit was not means-tested. What on earth can she have meant?

This is an income-tested scheme, but it excludes those with savings of less than £6,000—[Interruption.] We are grappling with problems, but the Opposition are prattling about them. I would rather be grappling than prattling. We are grappling with the issue, and want to increase take-up as much as possible. The system will benefit pensioners. Whereas the previous Administration—[Interruption.] I know that it is boring to talk about it, but I shall do so. Whereas the previous Administration penalised people who saved, we are rewarding them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on behalf of pensioners in Hamilton, South, who welcome the minimum income guarantee and who will, I hope, benefit from the pension credit as well. However, will he join me in condemning those who continue to seek to carry on with the rhetoric of how we look at means-testing benefit instead of accepting the benefit and arguing strongly that pensioners have a right to receive it, and that right is not means-tested?

I thank my hon.Friend for a serious question about a serious issue that should be treated seriously by Members on both sides of the House. Pension credit is an important new weapon in our attack on pensioner poverty. I am pleased that in absolute terms pensioner poverty is now down by 60 per cent. under this Labour Government, and in relative terms the number of old people in poverty has declined by 400,000. Those are results, and we will get better results when we introduce the pension credit.

Final Salary Pension Schemes

14.

What measures he plans to take to address the problems surrounding the closure of final salary pension schemes. [108718]

Our Green Paper "Working and Saving for Retirement" sets out proposals to encourage employers to promote and persevere with pension schemes of all kinds, including defined benefit schemes. We value our voluntary system of pension saving because it has delivered good results. We must all play a part to ensure that it continues to deliver, including the financial services industry, the Government, employers, employees and their trade unions. For our part, we intend to simplify significantly the regulatory regime, which could save employers £150 million to £200 million a year in administrative costs.

I thank the Minister for her answer. However, since the Chancellor's decision to abolish dividend tax credit, £5 billion a year has been removed from people's pension funds, which has exacerbated the situation and led to the winding-up of 63,955 pension schemes. Will the Minister acknowledge the impact of that pernicious policy and the role that that tax has played in the current pensions crisis?

No. Mr. Speaker. I wish that when Opposition Members referred to the so-called £5 billion tax rate they would mention the concomitant £3.5 billion cut in corporation tax that accompanied it. Of course, they never mention the fact that pensions continue to enjoy generous tax privileges worth £13 billion a year. As for the hon. Gentleman's claim about the number of closures of final salary schemes, the Pension Schemes Registry figures for 2002 showed that in that year 3 per cent. of schemes closed to new members. He must remember that final salary schemes are still the most widespread form of provision. There are 5.7 million members of private pension schemes, 4.6 million of whom are in defined benefit schemes. We have £750 billion invested in occupational pensions, and while it is right that hon. Members should consider issues relating to private pension provision—

Order. I think that that will do the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds).

I warmly welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister on encouraging all employers to contribute to personal and other pension schemes, but is it not time that we started to consider placing a statutory obligation on all responsible employers to do just that?

The Government are not yet convinced that we should abandon the voluntary nature of our private pension provision. Neither, I notice, is the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which published a report recently. Our voluntary scheme has given good results and we should be wary of throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to make the voluntary provisions work better, but if that were not to succeed more compulsion would be the alternative. We all need to consider which is the best way to ensure more pension saving—the voluntary scheme or moving to more compulsion. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced a pensions commission, which, among other things, will consider some of those issues.

Is the Minister aware that some employers are not merely closing their schemes, but defaulting on their obligations to existing members? Will she investigate in particular the recent scandal of Lufthansa, which has told 200 long-standing UK employees that they must expect a cut of a third in their pension entitlement, despite the fact that the company is highly profitable and well able to service it?

I will have a look at that. The hon. Gentleman refers to one example, and there are others. The Green Paper sets out ideas on better member protection and ensuring that when schemes wind up, whether solvent or insolvent, there is a proper distribution of the assets in relation to the scheme. The downside of such behaviour from certain employers is that it undermines the faith and belief of all potential savers in private pension schemes. We have to get the balance right; otherwise, we cannot expect our fellow citizens to put their hard-earned money into long-term products such as pensions.

Jobcentre Plus

15.

If he will make a statement on Jobcentre Plus services in north London. [108719]

Jobcentre Plus services in the north London district are provided through our network of social security offices and jobcentres. Those will be replaced with new, integrated Jobcentre Plus offices in 2005—06.

Jobcentre Plus will continue to provide the same high level of service that has already helped over 1,300 people to move into work through the new deals in my hon. Friend's north London constituency.

As my hon. Friend is aware, I am very concerned about the lack of consultation on some of those changes. Can he explain why jobcentre customers and clients have so far not been consulted on the changes when offices close? In future, will customers be consulted?

I understand the question. Indeed, we shall have the opportunity in the Adjournment debate at a late hour tonight to discuss that important subject further. We intend to provide jobcentre services in the resource centre in my hon. Friend's constituency, and a job point will also be located in a local library. People can also phone Jobseeker Direct, so his constituents will be able to make full use of the excellent Jobcentre Plus service.

Child Care

16.

What progress is being made to provide child care for parents seeking work. [108720]

Since 1997, about 650,000 new child care places have been created, benefiting over 1.1 million children, which means that we are well on track to meeting our target of creating new places for over two million children by 2006. From this month, a child care partnership manager will be working in every Jobcentre Plus office to ensure that barriers to employment relating to child care are tack led and to encourage customers, where sensible, to consider a career in child care.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. She knows that I am fully aware of how much the Government have done to support families and, in particular, child care for parents in work and those seeking work. Will she consider the issue for lone parents, especially the need to settle their children in child care before they begin work as well as the necessary payments to cover that period? In addition, will she consider low-paid workers, in particular lone parents, who may find themselves out of work through no fault of their own? What measures can be taken to ensure that their children remain in settled child care before they embark again on a new job?

My hon. Friend is right that parents, particularly lone parents, when considering going to work need to feel that their children are safe and in an appropriate environment. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his Budget last week the idea of taster weeks to allow lone parents to check out child care provision so that they are sure that it is appropriate for their child before taking it up and going to work.

Iraq And The Middle East

3.30 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on Iraq.

I should emphasise at the outset that the conflict in Iraq is not yet over. There will be tough times ahead, and fighting as well as peace building still to do. However, less than four weeks from the commencement of the war, the regime of Saddam is gone, the bulk of Iraq is under coalition control and the vast majority of Iraqis are rejoicing at Saddam's departure. Whatever the problems following Saddam's collapse—and in the short term they are bound to be serious—let no one be in any doubt: Iraq is a better place without Saddam. This was indeed liberation, not conquest, and the Iraqi people, given a chance, are every bit as much in favour of freedom as people anywhere in the world.

Our commitment now is clear. Just as we had a strategy for war, so we have a strategy for peace. Iraq will be better—better for the region, better for the world, better, above all, for the Iraqi people.

British forces have performed in Iraq with extraordinary skill, professionalism and compassion. We can be deeply proud of them. We also send our warmest congratulations to the American forces who bore the brunt of the advance on Baghdad, and did so with remarkable military skill. As we mourn our own soldiers who have fallen in the line of duty, so we mourn theirs. Our thanks too to the Australian and Polish forces who helped, to the Spanish forces and to the over 40 or so countries that have given support.

We grieve also for the loss of journalists and others killed in Iraq and for Iraqi civilians and many of those conscript Iraq troops forced into the front line. If the forecasts of mass carnage proved thankfully wrong, none the less, innocent people died along with the guilty, and it places upon us a special and profound responsibility for Iraq's future.

Let me give an assessment of the current situation. The south of Iraq is now largely under British control. The west is secure, and in the major town of A1 Qaim fighting is diminishing. In the north, Kurdish forces have retired from Kirkuk and Mosul, leaving US forces in control. US forces are in and around Tikrit. They are meeting some resistance. But in essence, all over Iraq, Saddam's forces have collapsed. Much of the remaining fighting, particularly in Baghdad, is being carried out by foreign irregular forces. In Baghdad itself, the Americans are in control of most of the city but not yet all of it.

As is obvious, the problem now is the disorder following the regime's collapse. Some disorder, frankly, is inevitable. It will happen in any situation where a brutal police state that for 30 years has terrorised a population is suddenly destroyed. Some looting, too, is directed at specific regime targets, including hospitals that were dedicated for the use of the regime. But it is a serious situation and we need to work urgently to bring it under control.

Basra shows that initial problems can be overcome. I am particularly proud of the role that British forces, ably led by Major General Robin Brims, have played in Basra. Iraqi technicians and managers are now making themselves known to British forces. Together we are restoring many key services. Most public health clinics are operational. UK forces have supplied oxygen to A1 Basrah general hospital and are providing other medical support where they can. About 200 policemen have reported for work. Joint patrols started on 13 April. In surrounding towns, looting has either ceased or is declining, local patrols are being re-established and cooperation with city councils is going well.

Baghdad is the principal problem, though again the main looting is in areas not controlled by the American forces. It is, it must be said, still a highly dangerous environment for US soldiers. However, around 2,000 police officers have reported for work, there are some joint patrols in being and the head of the civil police department, not to be confused with the special security forces, has ordered police to return to work.

Some hospitals, where possible, are now being guarded and the first medical supplies are being flown in, but it is still very difficult. Staff are naturally still scared, water and electricity are a problem, but every effort is being made to improve the situation. As we speak, residents in some parts of Baghdad at least are now returning.

On weapons of mass destruction, of 146 possible sites known to us, investigations have begun in seven but, in any event, we know that for six months before the return of UN inspectors, Saddam put in place a systematic campaign of concealment of weapons of mass destruction. Until we are able to interrogate the scientists and experts who worked on the programmes, and the UN has a list of some 5,000 names, progress is bound to be slow. A specialised team, however, is beginning work and we are in discussion with allies and the UN as to what the future role of the UN in such a process may be.

Shortly, we shall begin formally the process of Iraq's reconstruction. We see three phases in this. In the first phase, the coalition and the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance will have responsibility under the Geneva and Hague conventions for ensuring that Iraq's immediate security and humanitarian needs are met. The second phase, beginning a few weeks after the end of the conflict, will see the establishment of a broad-based, fully representative Iraqi interim authority. Working with the UN Secretary-General, coalition military leaders and others will help the Iraqi people to identify which leaders might participate in that interim authority. Once established, the interim authority will progressively assume more of the functions of government. The third phase will then bring into being a fully representative Iraqi Government, once a new constitution has been approved, as a result of elections which we hope could occur around a year after the start of the interim authority.

In each phase, the UN will, as President Bush and I have said, have a vital role. I will have bilateral meetings at the Athens European Council with Kofi Annan and others. I welcome Kofi Annan's decision to appoint a special adviser, and I am pleased that at this weekend's World Bank and International Monetary Fund spring meetings all countries agreed that the two institutions should start looking at needs in Iraq as soon as the security situation allows. But the essence of all that we do is, as we said at Hillsborough, to ensure that Iraq is run by and for the Iraqi people. Iraq is a nation with a creative people, potentially wealthy, with a dynamic and prosperous future ahead of it. They do not need to be run from the outside by the US, the UK or the UN, and they will not be.

I also discussed the wider middle east peace process at Hillsborough with President Bush. He reiterated his commitment to the publication and implementation of the road map for peace.

There will be intense diplomacy over the coming days and weeks. It will be important to rebuild international relationships that have been fragile in these past weeks, to reach out and show common cause with all who now want to put the past behind us and work together for a stable and prosperous Iraq and for a peaceful middle east. With good will, that can be done, and, for the coalition, I can say that that good will exists. I hope that it is reciprocated. In Europe, there have been divisions. Between parts of Europe and the US, there have been divisions. Indeed, in many countries, in many parties, there have been divisions, but at least there is now a clearer basis for future agreement. As the full horror of Saddam's regime has become better known, so I believe there is acceptance that it is good that Saddam is gone. As the Iraqi people taste the fruits but also the travails of freedom, so there is a common will to help them to prosperity and greater democracy. There is a huge desire across the world to see definitive progress on Israel and Palestine based on the two state solution, proposed so forcefully by President Bush last. June. There is also, I hope, a recognition that a world split into rival poles of power can result in much discord but little advance for any new global order.

I am more convinced than ever before that partnership, not rivalry, is the best basis for future European-American relations. And for all the difficult times over the past few months, I remain committed to the United Nations, committed to making it more effective, committed to the notion that we need its legitimacy for the international community to be worthy of the name. But the surest way to make it so is to unify the nations that lead it. That will be a challenge in the weeks ahead.

So we are near the end of the conflict, but the challenge of the peace is now beginning. We took the decision that to leave Iraq in its brutalised state under Saddam was wrong. Now there is upon us a heavy responsibility to make the peace worth the war. We shall do so. We shall do so not in any spirit of elation—still less of triumphalism—but with a fixed and steady resolve that the cause was just, the victory right, and the future for us to make in a way that will stand the judgment of history.

Our armed forces have fought one of the swiftest and most successful military campaigns in modern times, and they are now winning hearts and minds in Iraq in building public order and in keeping the peace. I should like, on the Opposition's behalf, to pay tribute today to their skill, professionalism and courage, and to keep in our prayers and thoughts both those who have lost their lives, and the families who now grieve.

The fighting, as the Prime Minister said, is not yet over, but the world has been rid of an evil tyrant and an evil regime. The people of Iraq will at last have an opportunity to choose the Government whom they want, and to live, we hope, in peace and freedom. I should like also to congratulate the Prime Minister. He has carried, we certainly believe, a heavy burden in the past few weeks, but he will have been comforted throughout by the conviction that he was doing the right thing for Britain and for the rest of the world.

I should like to ask the Prime Minister about four specific issues: public order in Iraq, the humanitarian crisis there, its future government, and the wider prospects for the middle east. But before I do so, perhaps he could answer a question about another specific and relatively urgent issue. I understand that there are reports that the wife of Ian Seymour, a Royal Marines commando who was killed in a helicopter crash in Kuwait during the conflict, has been told to pay back his salary for the rest of the month and to move out of the home. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is a poor way to treat a family who have sacrificed so much, and will he ensure that this decision is reversed, and that no other bereaved family is treated in such a way?

On public order, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary said this morning that when tyrants fall, looting always follows, and we have seen pictures, particularly in Baghdad, of the looting of hospitals and shops, and even of the museum. The Prime Minister talked about the actions that are being taken. Will he now guarantee that no troops—certainly no British troops—will be withdrawn until Iraq achieves an acceptable level of stability and security? Can he also tell us whether other coalition countries have been asked to contribute to policing in Iraq, and, if so, what their response has been?

On the humanitarian crisis, can the Prime Minister confirm that only one hospital in Baghdad now remains open, and will he ensure, in line with what he said, that whatever drugs, medical equipment, doctors and nurses are needed will be flown in, if necessary, from our own field hospitals in Kuwait? The whole House will have been moved by the pictures of the plight and tragic case of Ali. Now that Medevac has confirmed that it can evacuate Ali to Kuwait, will the Prime Minister confirm that there will be no difficulty in the RAF's flying Ali or other, similar cases to Britain, if that is required medically?

The Prime Minister will also be aware that a humanitarian crisis is still unfolding. When does he believe the electricity and water supplies will be restored, perhaps in full? When does he believe the aid agencies will have a secure enough environment to return to the work that they say they are pledged to do?

As for the future of Iraq, the Prime Minister knows that oil revenues are essential to the country's reconstruction. Is he now pressing for the lifting of sanctions on all sales of oil? If so, when does he think that will happen? Does he agree that the welfare of Iraq's people should come before the repayment of state debts run up by Saddam's regime, and does he also agree that putting those state debts aside should be part of a new Marshall plan for Iraq?

The Prime Minister spoke about the three phases of reconstruction, but he knows that there are two views on a United Nations resolution and the interim Iraqi authority. The first, which appears to have been held last week by his Secretary of State for International Development and some others, is that a UN resolution is needed to make that authority legitimate; the second is that such a resolution is not needed. I asked the Prime Minister last week, and I must ask him again, whether he shares the view of his International Development Secretary.

Let me now ask about the wider prospects of the middle east. Does the Prime Minister accept that there is a danger that the coalition will give out mixed messages, particularly with regard to Syria? We understand that the Prime Minister has spoken to President Assad, and that he has sent a Minister to speak to the regime directly. Meanwhile, the American Government have said:
"There's got to be a change in Syria…The Syrians need to know they'll be held to account."
Is the Prime Minister's view the same as the Administration's in Washington?

In regard to the middle east peace process, we welcome the moves by the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazan, to establish his Cabinet, and also Prime Minister Sharon's reported concessions on the settlements. There are, however, reports that Yasser Arafat has very recently refused to accept some of the Cabinet candidates proposed by Abu Mazan. Does the Prime Minister see that as a retrograde step, and does he believe that it will delay the publication of the road map that is so needed to help stability in the region?

The war may be drawing successfully to a close, but a challenge at least as big now faces us—the reconstruction of Iraq and its restoration as a nation that believes in justice, the rule of law and the freedoms and rights of its own people. I assure the House that Conservative Members will be as resolute in seeing this through as we were in the prosecution of the war.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and for his support over the past few weeks. Let me say to him personally that there must have been times over those weeks when the issue presented, let us say, a tempting target for any Opposition, and it is to his credit that he remained steadfast in his support of the action.

Let me try to deal with the right hon. Gentleman's points in the order in which he raised them. I understand from the Secretary of State for Defence that the facts about Mrs. Seymour are not correct, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that because if they were correct they would be wholly contrary to normal practice, we will make sure that whatever needs to be done there is done.

Of course the British forces will stay until there is proper security in the country, although obviously we hope to ensure that some of the policing is done by local people as soon as possible. That is why it is encouraging that joint patrols are already taking place. Although people may find this strange, much of the problem for Iraqi citizens came from the special security forces, not the ordinary civil police, if I may put it like that. Many of those people could perform an adequate and good task for the future of Iraq. Other countries are already offering help in relation to policing and security.

As we speak we cannot be sure of the exact situation relating to each of the hospitals in Baghdad. What I do know is that the American forces are trying to take special responsibility for protecting the hospitals and getting medical supplies in, and they will do their very best to ensure that that is done. It is difficult, because certain parts of Baghdad are not yet safe. It is worth bearing in mind the fact, that both our soldiers and some of the American soldiers have been put at great risk when they have wanted to get on with the ordinary, normal business of protecting the population, but have found that the environment is not yet permissive enough for them to do so. We are well aware that that is a priority for us to tackle.

In relation to the evacuation of Ali Abbas or anyone else, we are in touch with the authorities in cases, such as his, which are not in the zone under our control. We will do whatever we can to help him and others in a similar situation. Within the past 24 hours, two Iraqi children have been flown out to the UK for medical treatment, but they were both from inside our area of control. We are working with the US forces to do what we can for Ali and others.

On electricity and water, one of the problems is that power has been sabotaged as the Iraqi special security forces have left particular areas. We are trying to repair it and we are working with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to do so as quickly as possible. In some parts of Basra, water and electricity have never been fully available to all the local population, but it is important to secure as great an availability as possible. I think that I am right in saying that the pipeline from Kuwait to Umm Qasr has already provided some 4 million litres of water. We are trying to repair the infrastructure there as quickly as possible—or to improve it, since it was often in an extremely bad state in the first place.

We obviously want to see sanctions lifted as quickly as possible, which will allow the Iraqi interim authority, once it is established, to operate far more freely. We should make as speedy progress as we can on that. The debts of countries were discussed at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings at the weekend and are being looked at by the Paris Club. I hope that people are generous in recognising Iraq's needs for the future.

In respect of the Iraqi interim authority and the UN, the issues have been somewhat superseded by the fact that we have agreed a process through which we will work with the UN Secretary-General to try to ensure that the right names and people come forward. In the south of the country we have already started the idea of a joint commission to get the right people to come forward—similar to what happened in Afghanistan—but in the end it will have to be endorsed by the United Nations. That was agreed several weeks ago and remains the case. I believe that, with good will, the problem can be well managed. In a sense, the IMF and World Bank meetings at the weekend went better than they might have gone, which is important.

In relation to Syria, the issue concerns any attempt by Syria to harbour people who are leading members of the Iraqi regime. When the US or anyone else talks about holding them to account, they mean in respect of that matter. I spoke to President Bashar Assad over the weekend, and he assured me that they would interdict anyone crossing the border from Iraq into Syria. I believe that they are doing that. The Foreign Office Minister will be present in Damascus to have further talks on the issue. Some of the wilder surmises in the media at the moment are simply riot correct: there are no plans whatever to invade Syria.

As for the Palestinian Prime Minister and his Cabinet, it is important to recognise that he has to be satisfied that he has the right Cabinet in place. I have read reports, but cannot verify them, about some disagreement between him and Chairman Arafat. I hope that that is not the case. The sooner that Cabinet can be put in place, the sooner the road map can be published and we can get started on a matter of vital importance. It may be that the liberation of Iraq provides a new context in the middle east, as well as Iraq itself, in which we can make progress on a lasting middle east peace process. I certainly hope so, and the sooner the Palestinian Cabinet is in place, the better.

In thanking the Prime Minister for his statement, we all endorse the genuinely felt sentiment about the skill and courage of the British forces who have undertaken their task and achieved an outstanding and remarkable victory.

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to confirm that it is crucial that the international community be involved in the rebuilding of Iraq, as regards both its infrastructure and its civic society? Does he agree that building consensus on the future of Iraq requires the securing of that degree of international support?

Stability in Iraq and the whole region must rest on the principle of legitimacy. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge, therefore, that the more the United Nations is involved in the process towards legitimacy, the more the post-war settlement will appear to be, and will be, stable?

The Prime Minister referred a moment ago to the UN, saying that he favours independent verification of weapons of mass destruction. Will he be a little more clear on that? Does he want the readmission of the weapons inspectorate under the auspices of the UN during the transition period? Does he favour that, and are the Government arguing for it?

The Prime Minister also spoke about Syria. A few days ago he said, and I use his words, that Syria should make a decisive break with its previous policies. To which policies was he referring? Were those policies in place when the President of Syria met Her Majesty the Queen officially not long ago? On the radio this morning, the Foreign Secretary said that he was unsure whether Syria had been developing chemical or biological weapons. He said that questions needed to be answered. What exactly will those questions be in the course of this weekend's discussions with the President of Syria?

A meeting will take place tomorrow between Iraqi opposition groups and coalition representatives. What more can the Prime Minister say about that? Will the UN be present, and will it participate in those discussions? Does the fact that those discussions are taking place mean that the earlier British idea for a UN-sponsored conference is off the agenda?

Does the Prime Minister agree that any policy for the rebuilding of Iraq must go hand in hand with a policy to rebuild our international institutions and the international order? We will never achieve one without the other.

In relation to United Nations involvement, we have the right framework within which that can happen. There should be a vital role for the UN at every stage, but we should not get into a competition between the coalition and the UN. If we approach the process in the right spirit—one of working together—we will find our way through. The fact that Kofi Annan has appointed a special adviser is a good omen in that regard.

That also applies in relation to any questions to do with weapons inspectors from the UN. That is a matter for discussion, and we should carry on those discussions in a reasonably calm way. There is no doubt that we will want some sort of objective assessment in respect of any finds that we make; that is in our interests as well as everyone else's.

On what was said about Syria and the break with previous policies, support for terrorism—terrorism that deeply, adversely affects the middle east peace process—should stop, and it should stop irrespective of what has happened in relation to Iraq. We have continually made that clear to Syria. On chemical weapons, people are simply pointing out that Syria is not a signatory to the chemical weapons convention. If Syria does have chemical weapons in its possession, it should be a signatory.

In relation to the coalition and Iraqi opposition groups, I hope that some of the conspiracy theories about people simply being parachuted in to take over the country can be laid to rest. What is important is that, in the end, the legitimacy of anyone—from inside or outside Iraq—will rest on their support from the Iraqi people themselves. The conference on Iraq that the Foreign Secretary has proposed is, I think, still possible. Some such event will be necessary, once we are further down the line, to ensure that we can bring the Iraqi interim authority into being. I have no doubt that the United Nations will have a vital role in that.

On international order, there is a lot of rebuilding. However, in the end, that will depend on the international order being formed around an international consensus about what it should contain. That is why it is important that the leading nations of the United Nations—especially those with permanent status on the Security Council—should come together through a common agenda. I repeat what I said in my statement: I do not believe that that will happen if people view the United States as one pole of power with some other pole of power set in opposition to it. That would be a disaster for the world. We should we work in strategic partnership with each other. That can be achieved, but it will require changes all round.

Will my right hon. Friend clarifiy the answer that he gave to the Leader of the Opposition? My right hon. Friend has repeatedly, and rightly, said that this was a conflict not with the Iraqi people but with the regime. None the less, there were inevitable deaths and casualties. Should it prove necessary and possible to evacuate some individuals—in particular, injured children—to this country to receive the best possible medical treatment, will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the ordinary processes of visa entry clearance and so on will not form any barrier to children receiving the speediest possible medical assistance?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Home Secretary has made provision for those ordinary processes to be set aside in respect of anyone who is evacuated.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that I, too, commend the leadership that he has shown in recent weeks in partnership with President Bush, and, indeed, the leadership and support that has been offered by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition? Does the right hon. Gentleman still believe that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction?

Yes, we do. There is no doubt at all that, over the years, Iraq has possessed those weapons. We are being asked to believe that, having in effect pushed the inspectors out in December 1998, the regime voluntarily gave the weapons up. I have always thought that incredible.

It was inevitable, after the campaign of concealment, that we would go in and that human intelligence—through experts and scientists speaking about the programmes and knowing that they could do so safely—would guide us to the weapons, which I have absolutely no doubt exist.

As the Prime Minister has said, our armed forces are carrying out their work with great skill. They still have a variety of military tasks to perform, such as the fighting of residual elements, the distribution of humanitarian aid and some difficult policing. What plans does the Prime Minister have for our forces—especially our reservists—to come home where work on their tasks is no longer required? Given that Tornado pilots will no longer need to police the no-fly zones, do we continue to need basing in Saudi Arabia?

The Secretary of State for Defence informs me that some things are beginning to happen already with the reservists; basing is a matter that is under discussion.

My hon. Friend made an important point at the outset. The Chief of the Defence Staff—whom I thank for all his hard work and commitment over these past weeks, along with others at senior levels of our armed forces—has just come back from a visit to the region. He describes in graphic detail how our forces are still often involved, in the same area, in fighting at one end and policing at the other. It is important to acknowledge that, although the regime has in effect collapsed, there are still sporadic outbursts of fighting and our troops still face significant danger.

All around the world, there is great concern about the looting of museums of Iraq and the threat to very important Iraqi antiquities, many of which were excavated by British archaeologists. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that the future of those sites and museums will be a high priority for coalition forces?

We certainly will make it a priority. At the moment, we are trying to secure the sites and to investigate how much material was taken from the national museum. At present, we cannot be exactly sure about that. We are taking steps—I think there will be a conference this Thursday, which the director of the British Museum will attend—to see what we can do. We shall also make provision to ensure that no stolen works of art can come on to the market. We will do everything that we possibly can; we understand that it is a serious responsibility for us.

Surely the whole House will rejoice at the fall of an evil regime and at the fact that the worst predictions—about refugee flows, the oil wells, massive civilian casualties, regional fragmentation and so on—have been confounded. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is now a unique opportunity to make progress in the middle east? As the pressure on Israel has been lessened, surely the Palestinians can, if they want, prevent the suicide bombers. How can there be a viable Palestinian state if the territory is criss-crossed with roads leading to the various settlements?

My right hon. Friend is exactly right. There is now a great chance for peace and stability in the middle east. It obviously depends in part on Iraq making the transition that we want to see. It depends, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, on us making progress in the middle east peace process. I hope that Prime Minister Sharon's interview today indicates that he is aware of Israel's responsibilities in that regard. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that we have to deal with those who would try to upset any peace process by terrorism. That means not just the individual people carrying out terrorist acts, but also the states, groups or people who support terrorists in that work. Every terrorist activity undermines the prospect of the peace process working.

Does the Prime Minister agree that, while the continuing danger to our forces on the ground most certainly must be recognised and given the highest priority, it is of fundamental importance in this sensitive period of transition to peace that the firing self-discipline of all coalition forces continues to be maintained?

The Prime Minister said that there were "no plans", as he put it, to invade Syria or to take action against Syria, but does not he know that there are people in Washington with an agenda—James Wolsey in particular—who go on and on about the need for regime change in other countries of the middle east? Do we have the unambiguous assurance that the British Government will not in any circumstances support military action against Syria?

I said that there are no plans whatever to invade Syria. All sorts of things may come out of the newspapers about various conspiracy theories to do with parts of the American Administration, but I have the advantage of talking regularly to the American President and I can assure my hon. Friend that there are no plans to invade Syria. What people are saying, however, is that it is important that Syria does not harbour people from Saddam's regime or allow any transfer of material from Iraq to Syria. I have spoken to President Assad and he has assured me that that is not happening. I have told him that it is important that he makes sure that that assurance is valid.

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the unfortunate consequences of the conflict in Iraq has been that, while the eyes of the world are understandably concentrating on Iraq, other evil tyrannies and despots are taking advantage of that to increase the oppression of their people? Will the Prime Minister show the same qualities of political courage and resolve that he has shown in the conduct of the military campaign in Iraq in a diplomatic campaign to deal with such evils? I am thinking especially of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, where the British Government have not shown sufficient determination.

We must make sure that we take every action that we can in respect of what is happening in Zimbabwe, which is a terrible and appalling situation. It is something that we discuss regularly not only with our American allies but with others in Europe. There must also be concerted action by countries in the region.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the valiant role of service personnel from Northern Ireland, including those in the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards. We now have a problem in policing the new situation. Will the Prime Minister consider drawing on the expertise of officers who served in the Royal Ulster Constabulary for 30 years and who took premature retirement?

May I, first, join in congratulating the Royal Irish Regiment and the Irish Guards on performing quite superbly in Iraq? We should look at using retired RUC officers. Indeed, the Defence Secretary tells me that representatives of our UK police have gone out to Iraq to see what assistance we can give. Obviously, former members of the RUC, for very obvious reasons, have particular expertise.

How convinced is my right hon. Friend that the Americans will take an even-handed approach to the Palestinians and to the Israelis in getting a middle east settlement? I am sure that he knows that there is deep suspicion in Muslim communities that those approaches are not very often even-handed.

My hon. Friend is right; there is a lot of scepticism—indeed, cynicism—in certain quarters about whether the words that we have spoken recently in relation to the middle east peace process are meant and are genuine. I believe that what President Bush has said he means, and it is worth pointing out that the road map is important in part because it was drawn up by the US, but also by the EU, Russia and the UN. That is an indication of it being even-handed. The point about the middle east peace process now is that we have an objective that is agreed by everybody—President Bush was the first American President to articulate it—and it is a two-state solution, based on Israel confident of its security and a viable Palestinian state. That gives us a sound basis for hope in the future.

There is obviously a pressing public relations need to have coalition troops patrolling the streets of Iraq's towns and cities as quasi-policemen, maintaining law and order, but will the Prime Minister assure the House that nothing will be done unnecessarily to damage the security of our troops, given that Iraq is still a very dangerous place?

Yes, and that is a very valuable point, and it is why the judgment must be left to the commanders on the ground. Where they can and do judge that it is safe for soldiers to patrol in berets and so on and move to a different method of patrol—almost a policing method—they do so, but that has to be their decision, and it would be wrong to put the security of our troops at risk in any way. I simply say that, in the aftermath of the collapse of the regime, it is inevitable that there will be a certain amount of disorder and problems, but it is interesting that in some of those cities, not least Basra, where a week ago those problems were very serious, they are at least now looking a lot better. There is still a distance to go, but they are looking better.

If it is found or strongly suspected that members of Saddam's regime are taking shelter in Syria, or that Syria is hiding weapons of mass destruction, what action would my right hon. Friend take to persuade Syria to give them up?

We have said that Syria should hand any people from the regime who may take refuge in Syria to the coalition forces. I have to say in fairness that the President of Syria has said that he does not believe that there are any such people in Syria. In relation to chemical weapons, I have nothing to add to what I said earlier, but there are conventions governing these things to which countries who have such weapons should be signatories.

The excellent military campaign that has got rid of Saddam Hussein's regime is, obviously, to be welcomed, but will the Prime Minister clarify something that he said in his statement? He said that the war was about ending the brutalised state under Saddam Hussein. Was that actually the war objective?

No. The objective is to make sure that Iraq is effectively disarmed of weapons of mass destruction, but while Saddam's regime refused to cooperate fully with the UN inspectors and refused to give up those weapons, its removal became an objective of ours, so things proceeded in that way. I think that I have said before, and I will say again, that although the reasons for our action and its legitimacy had to be contained within the issue of weapons of mass destruction, the appalling nature of the regime is a reason why we did take and should have taken that action with a strong heart and a good conscience.

May I put it to the Prime Minister that the whole world saw the priorities of the United States when it guarded the oil ministry but stood by while other ministries were trashed by looters, and while the national museum and three or four hospitals were trashed? Many of us who opposed the war did not believe that the reason for it was to get rid of the elusive weapons of mass destruction, and are even more convinced that the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq to get at the oil.

I have learned that nothing that I can say will eliminate people's conspiracy theories. The UK is a net exporter of oil, so we have no need of the Iraqi oil. Secondly, we and the US have made it clear that any oil revenues will go to the Iraqi people. Some indication of our good intent was surely shown in the renewal of the United Nations oil-for-food programme.

In relation to ministries in Baghdad, it is important to realise that the soldiers were going into a situation in which there were up to several thousands of snipers and people fighting in the streets, who were not necessarily armed with heavy weaponry but who intended to kill as many American soldiers as possible, and they could not provide immediate security cover to all the parts of Baghdad that they would have liked to have covered. It is important to have a sense of awareness of the dangers that American forces still face in those areas. It is not an easy environment in which to exist, but I know that they will do their level best to protect hospitals and sites of interest as soon as they can do so.

I simply say to my hon. Friend that I have had discussions on this matter for months and months, before the conflict began, and, clearly, I have intensive discussions on a daily basis. Not a single discussion that I have had with the American President has been about our desire, need or intention to get our hands on Iraqi oil.

The Prime Minister says that there are no plans whatever to invade Syria, but Mr. Wolfowitz is quoted as saying that Syria is a problem that needs to be dealt with. At the third time of asking, can the Prime Minister give the only commitment that he can give under these circumstances: United Kingdom forces will not participate in an attack against Syria?

There are no plans to invade Syria, so it stands to reason that we do not intend to invade Syria. When one looks at the statements that are supposed to come out of various parts of the Administration and one analyses their context, one finds that the context is the concern, which is why I spoke to the President of Syria: it is that Syria may be acting in a way, first, to support Iraqi forces, and, most latterly, to give refuge to members of the Iraqi regime. That is the problem with which we are trying to deal. It is being dealt with by my conversations with the President, and by the Americans and us making it clear what is acceptable or unacceptable. I suspect that this is another conspiracy theory that in time will fade away, but I have no doubt that it will be replaced swiftly by a fresh one.

When the Prime Minister meets Kofi Annan and other members of the permanent five, will he raise the need for Security Council resolutions to include some method of compliance rather than the issue being left in a vacuous state? Will he also address the question of Iranian exiles in Iraq? Can we be assured that they will not experience what the Cossacks experienced in 1945, when, as victims of war, they were pushed over to the Soviet side and were dealt with severely? People who are in Iraq in exile from Iran should be regarded sympathetically.

First, I agree with my hon. Friend that it is obviously important that any resolutions lead to action. Secondly, we will do our level best to protect any people in the circumstances that he describes.

yesterday, The Sunday Telegraph referred to Iraqi papers that show the Russian Government in an unfavourable light and, indeed, that they assisted the Iraqis. The article implies that The Sunday Telegraph journalist discovered the documents. Is that correct, in which case should not the sources be better secured on the ground? If it is incorrect and the story is based on Government briefing, would not the best course be simply to tell the public just that?

There are all sorts of documents in circulation at the moment. I really have absolutely no knowledge of the truth of these documents. Although I can think of less secure vehicles for protection and security than The Sunday Telegraph, I will not enter into that point. We are trying now—this is important—to make sure that we conserve as many of those documents because they will be interesting not least for the issue of weapons of mass destruction, but perhaps for many other issues, too.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that now is the time to remember the dead and injured, to push forward with humanitarian aid and law and order, but to join the Iraqi people in rejoicing and celebrating in the liberation of Baghdad, Basra and the rest of Iraq and to build a new Iraq that is founded on peace and reconciliation and run by the people of Iraq for the people of Iraq? Such peace and reconciliation should be underlined by a system in which Saddam's henchmen are brought to book not in Guantanamo bay but under the auspices of the United Nations.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I should say that about 30 countries are already pledging significant humanitarian aid.

I join the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in recognising the gallantry, determination and, above all, humanity of British forces in Iraq and, especially at this time, the patience and fortitude of their families. I agree entirely with the Prime Minister about the need to gain total control of the security situation before waging the war for peace on a huge scale, but will he nevertheless take seriously the point made by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) about the use of British police? Substantial numbers of relatively young men and women leave the police force and they would be ideally suited to going to Iraq to assist in the maintenance of good order. Will the Prime Minister see how he can push that forward?

I certainly will. It is a priority for us, because the better we can maintain order, the better it is for the people of Iraq and the less is the pressure on our soldiers.

Everyone rejoices at the fall of a brutal dictatorship, but will my right hon. Friend share with the House his thinking about how any subsequent war crimes tribunal may be able to bring to justice the perpetrators of the very many human rights abuses that happened in Iraq over the years of the Saddam dictatorship?

Again, that is a pertinent issue. We are discussing it with our allies and with the United Nations. It is important that any such tribunal would have legitimacy and would obviously be based in Iraq.

Further to the Prime Minister's earlier response about the objects sadly being looted from Iraq's museums and archaeological sites, can he give the House a firm assurance that any cultural objects that turn up in the United Kingdom having been looted from Iraq will be returned to museums in that country and not sold into private collections, so making it clear to any potential looters that there is no market for such material?

The Prime Minister deserves the support of the whole House in the tone that he has set on the need to build co-operation and on a new spirit with the other permanent members of the Security Council—France, Russia and China. If we are to get back to the tasks of the war on terrorism and the building of the middle east peace process, that co-operation will be important much further afield. In passing, I point to Kashmir as one issue that needs attention.

In that context, does my right hon. Friend recognise that the loud and strident voices in Washington on the question of Syria lead precisely to the suspicions that have been raised in the House today? Will he pass on to Washington the words of Javier Solana that perhaps now is the time for a rather quieter period from Washington?

To be fair, often people give the answers when they are asked the questions and that is one of the things that happens when there are constant debates and discussions. I think that the concerns that people have expressed about Syria are very clear and policy has not changed at all in relation to that. There has been a particular concern because of reports that senior regime figures were taking refuge in Syria. However, the worries about Syria's support for terrorist activity in connection with the Israel-Palestine issue are well known and have been there for a long time. I can only repeat what I said earlier. When my hon. Friend reads the context in which the remarks were made, he will find them a lot less alarming.

Kashmir is another issue and I hope that, with India and Pakistan, we can make progress on getting the resolution of a dispute that must obviously be resolved by those two countries. We will give any help and support that we can to ensure that the dispute has a better chance of diminishing as an item of conflict between the two countries, but that is a topic for another day.

Will the Prime Minister, whose leadership has been so well and properly recognised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, give some thought to a suggestion that I put to the Foreign Secretary the other day? During this difficult transitional period, will he consider appointing a member of his Government as a resident Minister in Iraq?

In view of one or two comments that have been made today, is my right hon. Friend aware that there is no need to apologise in any way for the fact that one of the most murderous and brutal tyrannies has been destroyed? That, in itself, is a victory for not only the people of Iraq, but humanity as a whole. Is my right hon. Friend sufficiently confident that the United States will put enough pressure on the fundamentalists in Israel—both military and political—who will use any device or trick to stop a sovereign Palestinian state coming into being?

First, I thank my hon. Friend for his support during the past few weeks; it has been remarkable and strong throughout. I hope that we recognise that fundamentalism on either side of the dispute in the middle east will not help. We have the basis of a settlement: the two-state solution. A process is set out in the road map to get us there, and I hope that we seize the opportunity that is offered of a new start in the middle east to make that progress.

Given that Iraq is now free, thanks to the heroic efforts of the coalition forces, does the Prime Minister think that any of the tens of thousands of members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party could have a legitimate claim to asylum in this country?

I know of no applications that have been received and I doubt that any would be welcome.

Will the Prime Minister confirm or deny that the coalition has a plan to sell off nationalised Iraqi oil to the highest bidder?

I do not know of that plan. The plan that we have is to ensure that the Iraqi interim authority takes control of the oil wealth of Iraq as soon as possible. The great thing is that as the new interim authority comes into being, sanctions can be lifted and the Iraqi people can therefore have the prospect of future prosperity. The appalling situation, which is necessary at the moment because of what Saddam did to his country, in which 60 per cent. of the population are dependent on vouchers for food aid could be ended. It is a question not of selling off Iraqi oil to the highest bidder, but of ensuring that the substantial wealth is used not for palaces, a power elite at the top or weapons of mass destruction, but for the Iraqi people.

No one can doubt the Prime Minister's commitment to the United Nations, but neither can those of us who are instinctive supporters of the United Nations be insensitive to the haemorrhaging of its support in Washington and elsewhere. Does he believe that that can be remedied with a change of attitude by France, China and Russia, or is he suggesting that more fundamental reform of the UN is required if it is to command universal respect again?

There are issues to do with how the UN works and operates, and some of those will take a long time to resolve. They are well known—membership of the Security Council and so on—but unless the leading countries in the world come to some sense of how we handle similar situations in future, the UN will be ineffective because there will be no agreement between the leading countries. In the end, that is what we have to work on. In particular, the international community—especially Europe—has a fundamental question to resolve: do we want Europe and other countries to develop as a rival to the United States or do we want to work in partnership with it? If it is the former, I do not think that we will resolve such disputes in the UN because there will be the same disagreement that there has always been, as there was in the days of the cold war when the UN often could not work properly because there were two blocs of power that would not support each other's strategic interests. The only way in which we are going to make the UN more effective is by resolving some of those underlying political questions. and that political question in particular.

Further to that answer, is it not true that part of the rebuilding process requires the UN to take a hard look at how it deals with states that have developed weapons of mass destruction, are brutalising their own people and are destabilising the region, therefore making the middle east, in many respects, the cockpit of violence for so many years? Part of that reassessment must be an ability to deal with—let us face it—psychopathic killers who take over nation states, destabilise the area and kill their own people. We are not dealing with that because the UN was initially set up for a different purpose. The world has changed and we now need to change the UN.

The point that my hon. Friend makes is right in the sense that such states pose a real threat. However, there are different ways to deal with them. In some circumstances, we can enter into a dialogue with those countries and help them out of the situation that they are in. One thing is clear: the continuation of brutally repressive regimes, allied to weapons of mass destruction, is a threat. That is why we have to deal with them and why the UN has to come together to do that in a concerted way.

Three times the Prime Minister has been asked about Syria, in response to which he has said that there are no plans to deploy force against Syria. The trouble is that that phrase has been used by the Prime Minister and many others in other contexts just before they have done exactly the opposite—for example, the Prime Minister said, "I have no plans to raise taxes at all." Can the Prime Minister find more forceful language to allay the concerns of the conspiracy theorists?

Let us not get into manifesto commitments on tax, which were very clear. I think that I have made the position clear enough. If people continue to raise that issue, it can only be because they are not listening to the very clear answer that is being given. I have given that answer throughout our proceedings today and give it again now: we have absolutely no plans whatsoever to invade Syria. I cannot put it any clearer than that. It is clear enough, I think, for most people. What is important is to recognise that no one on the other side of the water, so far as I am concerned, has said that there are such plans. We are in a situation in which I am asked about the latest conspiracy theory. Once it has been laid to rest, I have no doubt that will be replaced by the next one, as I said.

May I say to my right hon. Friend that I have listened to what he said and have no reason to doubt his sincerity in relation to Syria? However, many of us are deeply troubled by some statements on Syria that have been made by sources around the Pentagon, and sometimes by people in the Pentagon itself and the White House. If we are to win Syria's co-operation for a middle east peace and its confidence in becoming a full member of that part of the world, would not it be better for the United States to be a bit more unambiguous and to acknowledge to Syria that we have some concern about the fact that parts of its territory have been occupied illegally since 1967?

The best way to resolve that is through a reinvigorated middle east peace process that deals with the Syrian track as well. I have engaged in a dialogue with Syria and its President over the past few months precisely to try, through partnership, to deal with the issues of concern in respect of Syria. I hope and believe that we can deal with them in that way.

After the debate about whether Syria is harbouring regime figures—to be fair, the president has made it clear that it is not—and when we get the middle east peace process back under way, it will be important for Syria and other countries in the region to stop any support for terrorist groups whose aim is to disrupt the very peace process that everyone wants.

In joining in the Prime Minister's tribute to our armed forces, may I particularly flag up the bravery and professionalism of the aircrew, ground crew and airmen based in Norfolk? Many will be coming home shortly, but others will be staying in the Gulf for many months. Do they not deserve a tax rebate and a council tax rebate? Ironically, they would get the latter if they were in prison.

We apply the same rules that we have applied throughout. I pay tribute to the families of servicemen and women from Norfolk and elsewhere in the country. This must have been a deeply anxious time for them—it still is—and our thoughts should be with them. We are working to make sure that we bring servicemen and women back home as soon as possible.

May I confirm what my right hon. Friend said at the beginning of his statement? I know from conversations with Iraqis inside and outside the country that there is great rejoicing at the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and they are extremely grateful for the role that my right hon. Friend played. As he knows, the immediate needs of the Iraqi people are food, water, electricity and sanitation, and I hope that work on those can proceed very quickly.

I had a telephone call from an Iraqi woman who has lived in this country for many years. She asked me about information concerning the occupants of a certain prison. I asked her who she knew in the prison, and she said, "An uncle." I asked her how long he had been there and she said, "Twenty-eight years." We are short on information about what has happened to the occupants of those prisons, particularly notorious ones such as the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could obtain some of that information for the 4 million Iraqi exiles throughout the world who will have had relatives in many of those prisons.

First, it is right to record our thanks to my hon. Friend, who has fought an extraordinary and sometimes lonely campaign to bring home to people the true nature of Saddam's regime.

As the situation becomes more stable, we are trying to turn our attention to issues such as the prisons. My understanding is that some of them are deep underground, and there are still problems, particularly around Baghdad, in finding their exact location. We are working very hard on that, and I hope that in the next few days we will have greater progress to report. My hon. Friend is right to say that there are many people in the diaspora throughout the world who will be anxious for news of their relatives. I only hope that in the coming weeks we will be able to provide that information.

I have listened carefully to the Prime Minister's chosen and considered words in response to questions about Syria. I should like him to assure the House that not only will there be no invasion, but there will be no air strikes and no military incursions into Syria without United Nations resolutions under chapter VII.

I really do not think that I can make the situation any clearer. If the hon. Gentleman reads my words he will see that they provide all the clarity that anyone could possibly wish for.

The Prime Minister referred earlier to terrorist groups. He also said that most of the fighting in Baghdad is with foreign irregulars. Are not those jihadists from other countries who have no right to be there? Not only are they shooting at coalition troops but they are preventing the Iraqi people from returning to any semblance of normal life.

If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, will my right hon. Friend seriously consider setting up a homeland security department that brings together our intelligence and security agencies and other Departments, so that the people of our country can know that the battle against terrorism will continue in a high-profile way, in their interests and in their defence?

On homeland security, I have nothing to add to the Home Secretary's remarks. As for the foreign irregulars, my hon. Friend is right to say that people have come from several countries in the region and from different parts of the world—people from Chechnya have been discovered. Some are among those who are carrying on the fighting, and some have been carrying on the looting. There is a lot of evidence that the flow of people into Iraq has stopped. Some of those who crossed over from Syria, for example, have returned rather bewildered by what happened to them in Iraq and the way in which the Special Republican Guard treated them. Others will stay and fight because they are fanatics. That is one of the reasons why sporadic outbursts of fighting will continue for some time to come.

Northern Ireland

4.41 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on recent political developments in Northern Ireland.

The House will recall that, with great regret, we were obliged to suspend devolved government in Northern Ireland in October last year. We were left with no alternative following a series of events that gave rise to serious concerns about continuing paramilitary activity. As a result, it was evident that there had been a breakdown of trust on both sides of the community. It was also clear that an inclusive Executive on the basis set out in the agreement was not sustainable for the time being.

For six months, the two Governments have been engaged in extensive dialogue about ways of restoring trust and confidence and securing long-term peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The two Governments continue to emphasise what the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said in their joint statement on 14 October 2002: that the agreement remains the basis for political progress; that they remain committed to its full implementation; that concerns around the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means must be removed; that paramilitarism and sectarianism must end; and that there should be commitment to the full operation of the agreement and to the stability of the institutions.

The Prime Minister reiterated and developed those themes in a speech in Belfast on 17 October. He made it clear that it was now essential to complete the permanent transition to exclusively peaceful means. We had reached a crossroads, a fork in the road. Acts of completion were needed: the trust necessary for the system to work could not arise from any other foundation. The commitment to exclusively peaceful means should be real, total and permanent. If that happened, we could implement the rest of the agreement, including on normalisation, in its entirety. He also acknowledged concerns about the instability of the institutions: those, too, had to be addressed as an essential part of the way forward.

Since October, both Governments have been closely engaged with the political parties to find a basis consistent with those principles for restoring devolved government and completing implementation of the agreement. More important, the parties have increasingly engaged with each other, without the Governments present, to the same end.

Those efforts led to prolonged negotiations at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March in which the two Governments discussed drafts of proposals with the pro-agreement parties. What became clear by the conclusion of those discussions was that there was a very large degree of shared understanding between the parties on what needed to be done to set the process back on course, However, it was also clear that time was needed for reflection and discussion. The impending election, due on 1 May, would have impinged on that necessary process. We therefore asked the House to postpone the election for a period of four weeks, until 29 May.

When the President of the United States came to Hillsborough on 8 April, he, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said that the people of Northern Ireland and their leaders had a momentous opportunity to ensure that peace was strengthened and political stability secured. Since last October, there have been many hours of intensive discussions between the British and Irish Governments and the pro-agreement parties, which have led to the development of a comprehensive package of proposals. The two Governments judge these to be an excellent basis for acts of completion but, as the Prime Minister made clear at Downing street last Thursday, it is necessary to have absolute clarity about acts of completion. Without such clarity, the trust and confidence needed to restore the agreement's institutions cannot be fully rebuilt. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach therefore directed further intensive political dialogue, which has continued since last Thursday.

On 12 April, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach issued a further joint statement. They said that the two Governments were absolutely committed to upholding the agreement and were determined that it must be implemented in full. They said that all parties and groups had a collective responsibility to fulfil the promise and potential of the agreement. The House will be aware that the Provisional IRA yesterday made a statement saying that it would be passing to the two Governments a statement dealing with the status of its cessation, its future intentions, its attitude to re-engaging with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and a process of putting arms beyond use, and a third act of decommissioning. It said that it stood ready to issue this statement in due course.

I can confirm that the two Governments have received a draft statement from the Provisional IRA. The Governments have studied it with great care and have asked the IRA to clarify a number of questions arising from it. They believe that there has been progress and that the statement shows a clear desire to make the peace process work. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach continue to believe that we can move to the final implementation of the agreement if there is sufficient clarity and certainty from all sides.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve the long-term peace, stability and normality that is within reach through acts of completion. The two Governments pay tribute to the vision, dedication and courage shown by all those who have contributed to the work on acts of completion. The two Governments will continue to make every effort to bring about a basis for publishing the package of proposals, but it would not be right to publish the proposals, and they can have no status until the necessary clarity on all sides about acts of completion is in place. I recognise that the steps the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach outlined last October are indeed big steps for all the parties to make.

The Government will stand by their commitments. We will not ask anyone to surrender their legitimate aspirations. We recognise how significant are the steps that we are asking for, but the prize is huge and historic—for this and future generations. It is a prize that does not forget the past, but draws a line under it and moves on. So, I urge all concerned in this process to redouble their efforts, in order that future generations will stand back and admire the courage of those who took the long view, and chose the road to the future, not the past.

I start by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in letting me have an advance copy of the statement and for many opportunities for consultation over the past few weeks, which I much appreciate.

From time to time, we have had our difficulties and differences with the Government over their tactics in the last year or two, but never over our commitment to the Belfast agreement and, of course, to peace. However, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in declining to publish the two Governments' proposals in the light of the refusal of Sinn Fein-IRA to date to commit themselves irrevocably to complete decommissioning and ending the IRA as a military or paramilitary organisation he has our fullest support? Does he agree that nothing short of complete decommissioning, verified by the de Chastelain commission and as transparent as possible, will provide any solution? Otherwise, we shall simply face a series of crises over an indefinite future as each new tranche of decommissioning has to be negotiated in turn. Does he agree that it would be a fatal error to allow ourselves to become victims of such salami tactics from Sinn Fein-IRA?

Is it not the case that, under the Belfast agreement, paramilitary decommissioning should have been completed within two years—by May 2000? Is it not therefore right that Sinn Fein-IRA should be brought to understand that they cannot continue to play games with the peace process and with the rest of the community in Northern Ireland indefinitely and with impunity? Is this not the moment when we should consider other possible approaches and will the Secretary of State discuss that aspect in particular with our Irish partners and our American allies?

Will the Secretary of State also, and for the same reason, make it absolutely clear that the concessions envisaged in the document that the two Governments remain, at this moment, willing to issue are entirely conditional and contingent, and cannot simply be left on the table indefinitely?

Pursuing the same theme, does the Secretary of State recognise that, after five years of running after Sinn Fein, the time may be approaching when we may need to plan forward to enable an Executive to operate, if necessary, without Sinn Fein if it still cannot bring itself to take the decision to turn the republican movement definitively into a genuinely and exclusively democratic and peaceful political organisation?

May I ask the Secretary of State, not for the first time I know, to remove the slightest scope for ambiguity, misunderstanding or self-delusion, especially on the part of republicans, about what is required by ceasing to use the undefined and conceivably elastic term "acts of completion" in his public and private statements? Instead, he should use the concrete terms "the completion of decommissioning" and "the end of the IRA as a military or paramilitary organisation". Would not that best serve the principle of achieving absolute clarity—a phrase, I notice, that the Secretary of State used a few moments ago and which I heartily endorse?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman regarding the nature of any statement that might be made by the IRA—it should be clear and people should be able to understand it, right across the religious and political communities in Northern Ireland. I also agree that decommissioning is a vital part of the agreement. There are few of us still in the Chamber today who were present when the Belfast agreement was signed. All of us know that decommissioning was an essential part of it. We also know, of course, that the agreement says that we wanted decommissioning to take place, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, within two years of the Assembly elections.

It is important, as the hon. Gentleman also rightly said, to look at the picture as a whole. That is why it is important that we want to deal with the joint declaration in a way that is consistent with the commitment of everybody in this process, which is why we do not believe that now is the right time to publish it. I agree with him, too, on the importance of our allies. Certainly, there have never been better relations between the British and Irish Governments. Particularly in the past number of days, the whole House will have recognised that the unity in the approach taken by the two Governments has been uniquely good for the process. I think, too, that the role of the United States Administration has been particularly significant over the past number of years, but also over the past number of weeks and days, when Ambassador Richard Haas has played an enormously important role in the process.

The hon. Gentleman is right that, ultimately, we have to ensure that the democratic process in Northern Ireland continues. People in Northern Ireland have been pleased with devolution. They want Ministers who are from Northern Ireland, elected by the people of Northern Ireland and accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that the days ahead ensure that devolution will indeed be back with us in Northern Ireland.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Does he not think that Northern Ireland people are entitled to transparency when it comes to this issue? Therefore, will he consider publishing the so-called draft statement that the IRA has produced? Does he agree with me that there are people in IRA-Sinn Fein who will never be satisfied with anything that the Government give, or any agreement, unless it means that the people of Northern Ireland are no longer British and are part of a united Ireland? Will he therefore consider that at some stage we may have to accept that Sinn Fein-IRA are no longer entitled to be part of the democratic process in Northern Ireland, and that we shall have to go ahead and try to bring the democratic parties together to work for a devolved Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend refers to the role of Sinn Fein. The reality is that Sinn Fein had about 17 per cent. of the vote at the last elections to the Assembly and as a result of that was entitled to two Ministries in the Executive. I believe that the leadership of Sinn Fein and many people within Sinn Fein are committed to the democratic process. I agree with my hon. Friend that undoubtedly there are people, whether in the republican movement or in other political movements in Northern Ireland, who do not agree with the Belfast agreement. To want a united Ireland is a perfectly honourable course to take, so long as it is achieved by democratic means. The past week has been about trying to ensure that politics in future is exclusively democratic and nonviolent. That is what the Good Friday agreement was all about, and that is what we have to achieve.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for early sight of his statement. Does he agree that permanent acts of cessation of violence are ultimately the outcome and that acts of completion of decommissioning are the process? The problem is that there is not real confidence that either has yet been achieved.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need to see from paramilitaries more than one-off decommissioning gestures, which could be criticised as apparent public relations exercises rather than strategic intent totally to decommission? Even more to the point, does the right hon. Gentleman further agree that paramilitaries should also be expected to allow exiles back to their homes to ensure that paramilitary activity stops in those communities? Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that while Sinn Fein asks the Government to publish their declaration, the IRA has given no explanation for not having published its own declaration? That sort of opportunism begins genuinely to try the good faith that many of us have shown in believing many of the statements that the IRA has made in the past, claiming that it is genuinely committed to acts of long-term completion.

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is no place in Northern Ireland, or anywhere else that claims to be a democratic society, for paramilitarism. There is no room for it. It has gone out of fashion. It is no longer relevant. For those reasons alone, and there are many others, there should be no paramilitarism or paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman is right also in drawing the attention of the House to the important question of exiles. Many families in Northern Ireland want their loved ones back. People want to return to Northern Ireland. Those issues and the issue of victims are the result of 30 to 40 years of troubles in Northern Ireland. They need to be resolved in the spirit of peace and reconciliation. That is what we have been talking about over the past number of months.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the principles behind the Belfast agreement were an inclusive future for all political persuasions and traditions in the future of Ireland as a whole, and particularly in Northern Ireland, and that the statement that has been sent to the two Governments by the IRA and the intentions behind it are to be welcomed? Will my right hon. Friend indicate how long he expects further consultations to continue between the two Governments and the IRA so that this matter can be dealt with and there can be full speed ahead to the full implementation of the Belfast agreement?

I cannot give my hon. Friend details about the timing because we are still considering these matters. Where he is right, of course, is that there has to be confidence in the process across the political and social spectrum in Northern Ireland. That confidence is built on trust. Until we can rebuild the trust that collapsed during the course of last year, we shall get nowhere in the democratic and political process in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State referred in his statement to the Prime Minister's speech at the Belfast Harbour Commission last October and his reference to a fork in the road. Does he also recall the reference in that speech to this not being yet another inch-by-inch negotiation? The Prime Minister's objective was rightly to try to change the way in which things are done, and the expectations with regard to the way in which things are done, but is it not the case that since October we have unfortunately had another inch-by-inch negotiation? Is it not the case, too, that the very limited progress between last Wednesday night and today in terms of the IRA statement shows that the IRA does not feel any compelling need to address the fork in the road? Is not that the problem: there is lots of exhortation, but no significant pressure has yet been brought to bear to compel the IRA to make a choice? Is that not the issue on which the Government should now focus their attention?

My experience, like the right hon. Gentleman's, is that things can sometimes go rather slowly in Northern Ireland as long as at the end of the day we get the right result, and the right result in this case is to try to restore the institutions, get devolution back and move forward in the political and peace process. As for the IRA, he and others who have followed the media in the past number of days will have read every editorial in every newspaper, whether in Great Britain or Northern Ireland, that has pointed to the absolute need for the IRA to realise that we have entered a different world in Northern Ireland and that, in 2003, there is no need for paramilitarism.

I was pleased to assist my right hon. Friend as his Parliamentary Private Secretary five years ago when he played such a vital role in negotiating the Belfast agreement. He will remember that the clocks were held for some time and we went beyond deadlines until we got an agreement, but does he agree that the clock cannot be held indefinitely and that there is increasing frustration among many of us in the House at the intransigence and obstructionism that now seem to be in evidence? It is time that we made that decisive completion of the full implementation of the agreement.

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. He will recall from those weeks and months leading up to the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 that it was sometimes very difficult, very painful and very stressful, but at the end of it we thought—and I hope we had—that we had achieved an agreement, on which everyone in the island of Ireland had the opportunity to vote and on which they overwhelmingly voted positively. In that agreement, it says that we should move towards a peaceful, non-violent, democratic society in Northern Ireland. Everyone who signed up to the Good Friday agreement signed up to those principles. He is right in saying that the IRA, like all paramilitary groups, must accept the will of the people.

The right hon. Gentleman will remember the 27th day of November last year, when he sat on that Bench beside the Prime Minister and I asked the Prime Minister whether we were going to depend on another statement, or a complete repudiation by the IRA of violence, its disbanding and its ceasing to declare war on the people of Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister was loud and clear in his response:

"It is not merely a statement, a declaration of words. It means giving up violence completely in a way that satisfies everyone and gives them confidence".—[Official Report, 27 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 309.]
Is the Secretary of State now telling the House that that has been gone back on? He informed me and my colleagues that we would not hear anything about the package because it was not going to be renegotiated. He said that it was going to be put down on the table and that negotiations were over, whereas in the event there has been continual negotiation with the IRA—negotiation that is still evidently going on. Can the Secretary of State tell the House today what he means by "legitimate aspirations"? In his opinion, has the IRA any legitimate aspirations? Can he spell that out to the House and tell the people of Northern Ireland whether or not we are going to have the election on the day that he set for it?

It is certainly not my intention to move the date of the election, which is on 29 May, and the Assembly will be dissolved on 28 April. As to legitimate aspirations, the hon. Gentleman will agree with me that any political party in Northern Ireland has aspirations that are legitimate—so long as they are pursued peacefully and democratically. A united Ireland is a perfectly legitimate aspiration; the continuation of being part of the United Kingdom is a legitimate aspiration. All such aspirations are legitimate, so long as they are peaceful and democratic.

So far as the Prime Minister's statement on 27 November is concerned, I entirely agree with that, as one would expect; indeed, I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree with it too, because it is important that, above all, we commit ourselves to peace.

What arrangements are being made for the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which is based in Vienna and is monitoring Scots and Welsh elections, to monitor these elections as well?

I also invite the Secretary of State to consider this. We are acting as proxies. Where are our great allies and colleagues from the Social Democratic and Labour party on this critical occasion? If this issue is so vital for Britain and Ireland, I should tell the Secretary of State that some of us are sick to the back teeth of turning up here when our colleagues who are supposed to represent the nationalist and republican interest do not. The Secretary of State needs to take back this message and spell it out in stark terms: they cannot pretend to be Labour Members of Parliament if they do not turn up on vital occasions such as this. We are sick and tired of it, and the sooner the Labour party organises in Northern Ireland, the better.

I do not want to enter into that particular discussion today, but I will take back my hon. Friend's comments to SDLP Members of Parliament. So far as monitoring is concerned, that process applies throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that he is right to continue to combine political flexibility with certainty and transparency? However, will he also recall that there would have been no agreement had the IRA not made commitments that were accepted by everybody else in good faith, and that it would not be acceptable for the IRA to continue to make similar promises each time around, extracting more concessions from all the other legitimate political parties and the people of Northern Ireland time and again? That is not the way forward in terms of peace and building confidence, or of security.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the agreement was founded on everybody who signed it playing their part in it, including parties that represent republicans, nationalists, loyalists, Unionists and others. Through his own experience as a native of, and as a Minister for, Northern Ireland, he understands these matters extremely well. But I repeat—as he has repeated—that at the end of the day, it is a matter of clarity and of transparency.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the complete cessation of violence and the complete surrender of all illegally held arms are not concessions but the basic minimum requirements expected of anyone involved in the democratic process? Does he also agree that any ambiguity on the part of the IRA on this point simply plays into the hands of those forces in Northern Ireland, democratic and undemocratic, that want the Belfast agreement to fail?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who has played a significant role within the Labour party on these matters. He is absolutely right that what we are asking for is nothing exceptional, but something that the people of Northern Ireland themselves expect.

This is part of coming to terms with history, and the two Governments' co-operation follows the 18 years since the Anglo-Irish agreement. Can the Secretary of State say whether the overlapping leadership of Sinn Fein and the IRA—together with the leaders of the disloyalists, whose killings have marred the history of Northern Ireland just as much in the past 20 years or so—are prepared to give up the chance of publicity and power by violence, and whether they will stop intimidating their own people, just as they threaten people on the other side of the divide?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the communities in Northern Ireland that have been plagued by paramilitaries on both sides. That, unfortunately, continues, although to a lesser extent than it did. Until it ends—and it is an essential part of paramilitary activity, which must end—we will not have a peaceful Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State will know that it is taking some time to drag these words from the IRA. Does that not tell us something about the IRA's real intentions—the fact that it is so reluctant to make a statement that is clear and offers certainty?

In May 2000, the IRA told us that it would deal with the arms issue in a manner that would maximise public confidence. Instead, it smuggled in further illegal weapons from Florida. The IRA speaks with forked tongue. Is it not time the Secretary of State recognised that? And—here I echo what was said by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—is it not time he worked with the democratic parties to restore a proper democratic institution and administration to Northern Ireland? If the IRA is not prepared to move it must be left behind, and the rest of us must move forward without it.

Certainly the IRA, and indeed all paramilitary groups, must recognise the changing times. I agree that there is no place in Northern Ireland for the activities in which they have engaged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I—and, indeed, the other Northern Ireland Ministers—constantly have discussions with the democratic parties about the way ahead, and will continue to do so. At the end of the day, however, the people of Northern Ireland themselves will decide how they are to be represented when the elections happen.

Will the Secretary of State comment on the very strong feeling in Northern Ireland that no further concessions should be made to the IRA in advance of its disbanding and decommissioning totally? Will he also comment on the feeling that the package that is understood to be on offer is an affront both to the principles and practices of democracy and to the rule of law?

The hon. Gentleman must wait until he has an opportunity to see the proposals of the joint declaration. Some—I have indicated what they might be on a number of occasions during Question Time—were indeed linked to further progress on the issue of paramilitarism. Others constituted part of the implementation of the Good Friday Belfast agreement, and we must continue with them. They relate to issues such as human rights and equality.

At this year's annual Sinn Fein conference, the president demanded further extensive reforms to policing in Northern Ireland. We already have a 50:50 recruitment procedure, which is restricting recruitment because there are not enough Catholic applicants to match the Protestant applicants. Similarly, if a Catholic trainee drops out halfway through the course, a Protestant must be dropped as well. What further concessions or reforms can possibly be made if the trust and confidence of the people in Northern Ireland are not to be destroyed?

As the hon. Lady will know, the Police (Northern Ireland) Act was given Royal Assent only last week. It made a number of changes to the running of the police force in Northern Ireland, including the workings of the Policing Board. I understand the issues raised by the hon. Lady, which are a subject for debate here on another occasion, but what impresses me is the phenomenal transformation of the police, enabling them to represent everyone who lives in Northern Ireland. When I returned there after a gap of three years, those changes in the police were the most significant that I saw.

Will the Secretary of State remind the House how many mutilation beatings, shootings, forced exiles and acts of intimidation have been carried out by republicans over the past year? Given those facts, how much trust does he think can be placed in an organisation that speaks the language of peace and justice on the one hand and commits such evil acts on the other?

There is no excuse in this wide world for those acts, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are unfortunately committed throughout the community. So-called punishment beatings occur in republican and in loyalist areas, and I agree that they should not exist in any civilised country.

At the start of his statement, the Secretary of State referred to the reason for suspending the Executive and the Assembly as "serious concerns about continuing paramilitary activity, creating a lack of trust." Will he confirm that the reason why the Government suspended the Executive and the Assembly is that Sinn Fein-IRA—the republican movement—was found to have been involved, from last July to November, in a spy ring within the Northern Ireland Office? Will he also confirm that the Unionist community's lack of trust about ever again being in an Executive with Sinn Fein is based on Colombia, the ongoing investigation into the break-in at Castlereagh police station, Stormontgate and the Ormeau road? Is it not time to move on and have a voluntary coalition between the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, the ever-absent Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party? That would allow us to get Stormont up and running again without Sinn Fein.

The hon. Gentleman is right that the events that he described were responsible for a breakdown in trust between the political parties in Northern Ireland, which led to the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly. On the second part of his question, however, the institutions are based on the Good Friday agreement and the people of Northern Ireland voted for that agreement by a majority. It is therefore our duty to ensure that the agreement is implemented as soon as possible.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the democratic parties in Northern Ireland that do not have links to terrorism—and, more importantly, the people who vote for them—cannot indefinitely be held to ransom by the refusal of the IRA and Sinn Fein to submit to the demands of the agreement?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the republican movement must ensure that it is exclusively democratic and peaceful.

The Secretary of State has referred several times this afternoon to the agreement, which was voted for by the people of Northern Ireland. Will he accept that the promises made by the Prime Minister prior to that referendum were influential in persuading many people to vote yes? When will the Prime Minister deliver on the promises that he made?