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Commons Chamber

Volume 404: debated on Monday 28 April 2003

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House Of Commons

Monday 28 April 2003

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Asylum Seekers

1.

What plans he has to establish reception centres outside the European Union for processing asylum applications. [109755]

The Home Secretary presented the Government's proposals for new international approaches to asylum processing and refugee protection to his European Union counterparts on 28 March. Positive and constructive discussions are continuing with other member states, the European Commission and relevant international bodies, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We are looking to the Commission to bring back its considerations at the next European Council meeting in June. and we will take a view then on the next steps.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and urge my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to continue to press his proposals. My hon. Friend the Minister will know that Australia uses the island country of Nauru as a centre for processing asylum applications. Is not the great benefit of that system that it has almost resulted in the end of people trafficking into Australia? If we could use such a system to bear down on the trafficking of people into the European Union, could we not speed the processing of applications, to the benefit of genuine asylum seekers, while avoiding the problems that we experience in trying to deport unsuccessful applicants?

Certainly, we developed the proposals in part because we believed that the sum total of countries' asylum systems—the global asylum system—is failing, and particularly failing refugees. Because refugees have to enter countries illegally, one of the perverse effects of the current system is that it has fuelled the rise of criminal gangs that smuggle people for profit. My hon. Friend is right that cutting out the criminal gangs would be an important consequence of processing claims in a third country. It would not only deter people from illegal entry, thereby starving the gangs of their supply, but help reduce both the high level of criminality associated with that activity as well as the risk and misery that often accompany those who have to rely on people smugglers.

With many economic migrants claiming political asylum and making a mockery of our immigration rules, with accommodation centres proving extremely unpopular, as witnessed by the 32,000 signatures on the petition against an accommodation centre at Lee-on-the-Solent, and with the deportation targets now being completely abandoned, is it not clear that the present system is not working and cannot be made to work? if the Government choose to follow Conservative policies on this occasion, we shall not complain but congratulate them.

If we look back over the past 18 years, it is not clear what Conservative policies on asylum were; in fact, it was an abject neglect of asylum policy that led to the current situation. If the hon. Gentleman looks back over the Labour Government's policies, he will see that we are taking action domestically, and jointly with France, to secure our borders and legislating to reduce unfounded claims and deal with them more effectively. As well as improving the efficiency of the system that we inherited from the Conservatives, he will see that those domestic measures and international measures, together with the UNHCR proposals to look again at the implementation of the convention, are the way to deal with the current problem—not the 18 years of neglect that we saw under the Conservatives.

I welcome the proposal that will allow people to make asylum applications from outside the UK. Can my hon. Friend give us more information about how such centres will be set up? What agreements will be necessary with the countries in which they are placed? Who will actually make decisions in those centres? Is it intended that the UNHCR will decide who is to be allowed to come to the UK, or will Home Office or Foreign Office officials be working in those countries when the centres are established?

I thank my hon. Friend for his questions, which are relevant and important. He has clearly given much thought to some of the implications of the proposals. We are considering them and discussing them with other member states and the UNHCR. There are several options on who would determine the claims. It may be important for individual member states to participate jointly in the enterprise to ensure that they have a presence and ownership of decision making. It is equally important to develop a mechanism that has the international credibility that the involvement of the UNHCR, and perhaps of the International Organisation for Migration, would give us, so that all member states can be assured that the centres are operated with a degree of independence and credibility.

I cannot give my hon. Friend detailed answers to his questions, except to tell him that all the details are important and that is precisely what we are exploring at present.

I welcome the hon. Lady's comments and the substantial move that the Government have taken towards a policy that the Conservative party has been advocating. Will the Government go further and consider applying a quota system, which would be much fairer in allowing in larger numbers of genuine asylum seekers while ensuring, through the UNHCR, that the determination of the applications takes place abroad? Has she any comment to make to the House about the amount of money that might be saved by that system and how that money might then be used in the Home Office budget?

I am glad that the Conservative party is hanging on to our coat tails in agreeing that that is a sensible way forward. In fact, the proposals arose from the extensive research that the Home Secretary put in train, which looked in great detail at the situation globally. We do not support the Conservative party's policy of a fixed quota. Clearly, in addition to the status determination issue that I raised earlier, there would have to be an agreement about how the claims accepted in the processing centres would be shared among the participating countries, but that is very different from having an absolute quota for the United Kingdom itself. Of course, a big question that arises with quotas is what happens to the person who comes after the quota has been reached. For example, how would Opposition Members deal with the claimant from Zimbabwe who arrived after the quota had been reached? Would they send that person back? Perhaps they would be interested in answering that.

On costs, we certainly think that the proposal offers a completely different way to use our resources more effectively, not least because it enables us to offer more effective protection and ensure that more of our resources are spent helping refugees throughout the world, rather than processing largely unfounded asylum claims.

Gun Amnesty

2.

If he will make a statement on the gun amnesty. [109756]

The gun amnesty has been a substantial success. By 23 April, the police had taken in 17,216 guns and 483,000 rounds of ammunition. In the west midlands and south Wales, they have taken in two rocket launchers and, in Cumbria, they have taken in hand grenades. We believe that the fact that those weapons are not available for use by criminals is a great success.

I thank the Home Secretary for his decision to grant a gun amnesty, and I congratulate him on the early success on this important issue, which concerns many of my constituents. May I draw his attention to the fact that guns have been used in my constituency and a number of people have been killed? What further steps are the Government taking to address that complex problem?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Criminal Justice Bill will be amended to provide a five-year minimum sentence for carrying a gun, the measures that we have announced on Brocock and converted guns and the new measures in relation to age and other aspects of the ownership of air weapons. Those measures, together with the consultation that we have undertaken across the country, and the work with young people, as well as appropriate communities, are already yielding fruit. The recall of the round table meeting, which will take place this Wednesday, is intended to take that further.

Despite the Home Secretary's words, it is clear that the gun amnesty has been an abject failure in parts of London. Will he make it clear that, rather than putting more statutes on to the statute book, efforts will be made to ensure that we have proper enforcement in London? That involves a vast increase in police numbers, which is what most Londoners now demand.

The two things are not coterminous. The need for additional police in London is undeniable, and we are doing something about it—such as investing more than 6 per cent. this year alone in terms of resources for London. But let me challenge the hon. Gentleman head-on: why does he say that the amnesty been a failure? In three weeks, 17,000 weapons have been handed in, compared with 23,000 immediately after the Dunblane tragedy, when the last amnesty took place. I do not think that 17,000 weapons and 483,000 rounds of ammunition being handed in is a failure; it is a substantial success.

We all welcome the success of the amnesty, but does my right hon. Friend really believe his assertion that it will affect the availability of guns to criminals who wish to use them in the furtherance of crime?

I would not have said it if I did not believe it. The 8,500 shotguns, which are stolen and used to kill other people, are significant. It is true that a percentage of deaths from gun crime, particularly in the Metropolitan London area, involve converted weapons. Converted shotguns and other weapons are included in the 17,000 that have been handed in. Let us rejoice in what we are achieving rather than continually belittling the progress that is being made.

Do the Government have any way of estimating how many guns are held illegally? Is he satisfied that the provisions in the Criminal Justice Bill will be sufficient to ensure a significant downturn in the number of gun crimes, which, as the Home Secretary will know, have gone up by 80 per cent. in the last six years?

I do not believe that the measures in the Criminal Justice Bill alone will achieve the goal. As we have said all along—this was the outcome of the consultation—it requires not only a change in culture but a commitment by those communities most affected by and most likely to be the victims of gun crime. The second issue that the hon. Gentleman raises is whether I believe that the five-year sentence is likely to be successful in deterring people. I believe that it is: not on its own but in sending out a signal. If we can get those messages across, we will encourage communities and individuals to be part of that solution.

Juries

3.

What plans he has to increase the protection of jury members from intimidation and threats. [109757]

The Government are making provision in the Criminal Justice Bill for trial by judge alone in cases involving jury tampering and the risk of intimidation. A number of measures already exist to protect jurors and the proposals in the Bill seek to deal with the very small number of cases that those measures cannot address satisfactorily.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. Does he accept that the protection of jurors and witnesses is vital to the criminal justice system? What discussion has he had with the Labour-led Scottish Executive on providing secure, safe, separate witness areas in courtrooms? Does he believe that such a proposal should be universally adopted?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of providing effective protection for both jurors and witnesses. I have not had any such discussions because those matters are, of course, entirely for the Scottish Parliament. As I am sure he will know, we have already taken a number of steps to tackle the problem, including separate waiting rooms, although that is not always possible in all courts, and enabling people to give evidence from behind a screen or by a television link. The importance of the measures contained in the Criminal Justice Bill is that they will send out a clear message to anyone who thinks that there is benefit to be gained by trying to suborn a jury that it will not succeed. If they seek to do so, the criminal justice system will have an effective response to make sure that justice can be served.

Is the Minister aware of the comments of his noble Friend Baroness Helena Kennedy, who described the proposals in the Bill as a

"wholesale assault on civil liberties"
and a "knee-jerk reaction"? If he does not agree with her, what guarantee exists that the proposals in the Bill will not fundamentally undermine the right to trial by jury?

I do not accept that the proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill to deal with the intimidation of jurors constitute an assault on civil liberties. On the contrary, those who seek to suborn jurors are trying to undermine the criminal justice system, and it is right that we should have effective measures to prevent that.

The second point is that a very strict test has to be passed before the new provisions come into play. In the first instance, there must be a real and present danger that jury tampering would take place, and it must be the case that either the level and duration of the trial would be such as to place an excessive burden on the juror or that any other measures that could be taken, including 24-hour police protection, would not be sufficient, so that, in the interests of justice, the trial should be conducted without a. jury. The House will recognise that that is a strict test to deal with a small number of serious situations in which attempts are made to subvert the course of justice.

Metropolitan Police Force

4.

How many police officers are serving in the Metropolitan police force; and how many were serving in May 1997. [109758]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

The Metropolitan Police Service had 26,868 police officers on 30 September last year, 191 more than in March 1997. The increase should be seen in the light of boundary changes that have reduced the metropolitan area. In addition, the Metropolitan police have 498 community support officers, and the Metropolitan Police Authority's budget for this financial year allows for an increase of 1,200 officers by March next year.

I note that reply and welcome the improvements that have been made and, according to my hon. Friend, will continue to be made. Is he aware that many London Members such as me, who have large ethnic communities in our constituencies, are deeply concerned about the lack of police officers, men or women, who come from an ethnic background? London's police force is totally unrepresentative of its population. Will my hon. Friend and his Department urgently consider the recruitment of ethnic police officers, men or women, into the Metropolitan police?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and it is not only recruitment but retention that we need to bear in mind. The Metropolitan police have 1,286 officers from ethnic minorities, which is 4.9 per cent. of the force strength. That is well above the national average, but of course it is nowhere near a reflection of the community that the force is policing, so we need to continue all our efforts not only to recruit but to retain officers from ethnic minorities.

Ministers will know that the beginnings of the increase in numbers in the Met are very welcome, but is that recruitment at the expense of other police forces in the country? Is the hon. Gentleman aware that six police forces—City of London, Merseyside, Cumbria, Staffordshire, Sussex and West Yorkshire—have between them lost 633 officers in the same time, even though their council tax increase this year is, on average, 29 per cent.? Nine forces have had no increase at all—[Interruption.]

Will my hon. Friend continue increasing police officers in the Met until they number 28,000 and, in due course, 30,000? We recognise that the increase, together with the appointment of street patrols and community support officers, has already borne fruit in the form of the sharp reduction in street crime that the Home Secretary was able to announce last year in Wandsworth.

We intend to continue investing in the crime fighting fund opposed by the Conservative party. The increase in police numbers in the Met is far higher than the 191 that I mentioned because the boundary changes effectively result in 890 officers moving from the Met to other forces. The increase, boundary for boundary, is already of the order of 1,000 and, as I said, the new budget for the coming year allows for the further recruitment of 1,200 officers.

Having recently finished the parliamentary police service scheme, I pay the highest tribute to the quality of officers serving in the Metropolitan police, regardless of their ethnic background. While it is welcome that an extra 1,200 uniformed personnel are expected by March next year, in my borough of Hillingdon we are promised only one extra uniformed officer. Will the Minister therefore consider appointing reserve officers, who will meet exactly the same criteria for training and experience as the regular force, but will be paid only when they serve, not as specials but as regular reservists?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments about the quality of people coming into the Metropolitan Police Service irrespective or their racial background, but may I correct him in one regard? There will be more than 1,200 additional uniformed staff—he and his colleagues like to forget that, as well as those extra police officers, there are already 500 community support officers in the Met, and their numbers will be augmented in the year ahead. The allocation in the Metropolitan Police Service is a matter for the commissioner, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that it is for the Home Secretary or me to tell him where he should deploy that force.

Last year's pay reform package allowed police authorities and, indeed, the Met to make special priority payments to officers where there are recruitment or retention difficulties, greater than average responsibilities or where the needs of the job are more demanding than average. The Police Federation points out that in some cases that has had a perverse effect, leading to constables being paid more than sergeants, sergeants more than inspectors and inspectors more than higher ranks. Does the Minister believe that that is good for the effective organisation of the Metropolitan police?

We wanted to reward police officers on the front line and those whose performance is exceptional, and have sought to do so. Of course, we will keep the way in which those payments have been arranged and made under review, along with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the commissioner and the Metropolitan Police Authority.

In common with every other questioner, I welcome the slight increase in numbers in the Metropolitan police, but does the Minister accept that the lesson of New York is that it is not a slight increase that is required but a step change in the numbers of police officers in London? Does he accept that, as part of a national programme of adding 40,000 extra police officers, we need to add about 8.000 in London to get to the point where the level of policing in London is comparable to that in New York?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I shall just ask him, if I may, to go back to his figures on New York. He may have noticed that there has been a drop in police numbers there in the past few years. He should not underestimate the number of additional police officers here. As I have said, taking boundary changes into account, there are already 1,000 additional police officers in the Metropolitan area, and there are plans for a further 1,200. The right hon. Gentleman comes up with these ideas but how he is going to pay for additional police officers? Who knows where that money will come from? He belittles the fact that we have record numbers of police officers, something that his party failed to achieve when in government.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving the House a taste of the various rhetorical devices that the Government have used to avoid addressing this question. I wonder whether we can strip away the party political badinage for a moment, because Question Time is a good opportunity to try to get clear answers to difficult questions. It is clear that the Minister has two options, and I hope that he can tell us which one he is choosing. One is that he does not accept, for some reason or other, that a step change is needed in the level of policing in London, and the other is that he accepts that one is needed, but does not have the funds to achieve it because it is not one of the Government's priorities. Which of those two positions is the Minister taking in the face of our proposal for an increase of 8,000 officers in London and 40,000 in the country as a whole?

The right hon. Gentleman should at least accept that, in the 12 months to September 2002, there were an additional 4,337 officers, which is the biggest single increase in any one year since 1976—when a Labour Government were in power. How on earth does he reconcile his promises on police numbers with the insistence of his hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) on a 20 per cent. cut in public service spending? The right hon. Gentleman cannot do so despite his best endeavours.

Terrorism

5.

What extra resources he has committed to combat terrorism in the UK in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. [109759]

The Budget last year allocated £87 million for counter-terrorism. That was supplemented by votes from individual Government Departments. In April this year, I announced a further £330 million, which was allocated from this year's Budget.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. There are much welcomed improvements in Northern Ireland, including the peace treaty, and we hope for longer-term peace following the post-Iraq situation. However, global terrorism remains a threat to the world. There is public concern and concern in the House. Can he give us some reassurance? What are the Government doing to inform the public about counterterrorism activities?

I accept entirely the international action against rogue states. The tremendous efforts of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland continue to build on the progress that has been made in peace in Northern Ireland. There is still a major and outstanding threat from cells and networks that have been accepted throughout the House as being a risk to us. That is why we all have a part to play, and why we set up the website on 19 March: 275,000 pages have been accessed by individuals since then. That indicates that people wish to have information and to be part of the solution.

I welcome the additional money and pay tribute to the work of the intelligence services, the police and other law enforcement agencies in combating a real and extremely serious threat. Does the Home Secretary agree that the threat is not just terrorism from Ireland, and Northern Ireland, but particularly from elsewhere in the world, and that it is a bubbling problem, especially in some of our metropolitan areas? Does he agree that it is important that we regain a handle on who leaves the country, as well as on those who come into it? What plans does he have to deal with that problem?

First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the nature of terrorism has shifted, so a real threat remains. Secondly, successive Governments have struggled with how best to monitor those who depart, in circumstances where we do not have identity cards, although we have invested quite heavily in the past two years in appropriate surveillance equipment at ports. Unlike many places in the world, we have fluidity in terms of people coming in and out of the country. In the United States, for example, a tiny fraction of the population has a passport, but more than 30 million of our population regularly move in and out of the country, while 90 million travel through our airports. This is a real challenge, and one that we need to examine.

After many weeks of an obvious gap in combating terrorism, will the Home Secretary tell us when he proposes to announce a new Minister of State with responsibilities for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attack? If not, why not?

Until my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister determines a comprehensive reshuffle, the post that was occupied by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) has been occupied by Lord Falconer, who has been working directly to me. I have taken on further responsibilities in addition to the counter-terrorism measures that I already held, including all the work that we do with MI5.

Asylum Seekers

6.

What the expected waiting time is for an asylum seeker to hear whether an application has been successful. [109760]

The targets that we set for reducing the time taken for decisions on asylum claims have so far been met, and most new applicants can now expect to receive an initial decision within two months. The latest period for which there are confirmed statistics is April to September 2002, when 76 per cent. of new substantive applications received initial decisions within two months.

That is, indeed, welcome news, but will my hon. Friend consider ways of improving the flow of information to asylum seekers about the progress of their application? I am sure that she is aware that at present many asylum seekers find that their only source of information is their local MP. That puts a heavy burden on many hon. Members, who have a heavy asylum work load.

I am well aware that many asylum seekers want to use their MP—I have signed a large number of such letters today, as 1 do every week. I understand the pressure that that creates on Members of Parliament. There is an issue for some of the representatives and solicitors of asylum seekers, and the commissioner is looking into the effectiveness of all the people who undertake that duty. Some of the solicitors and representatives are not keeping people fully informed. The inspector of prisons raised that issue recently in relation to people in detention. I am actively seeking to ensure that we provide a good flow of information for people in the detained estate.

Does the Minister accept that the best way of ensuring not just a rapid initial application, but a rapid full process, with deportation for those who fail, is by means of an overseas centre? Will she confirm the reply that she appeared to give me four weeks ago, that the kind of overseas centre that the Government have in mind would consider only applications from abroad, and not from the very large numbers of people still arriving in this country?

As I said earlier, we are considering in detail which asylum seekers who claimed in-country should be transported to a transit processing centre abroad. That is one of the potential benefits of the scheme, but it would not necessarily be the most efficient way of processing every single application. We have already made great progress with, for instance, non-suspensive appeals and the safe country list, which have enabled us to deal quickly with people in those categories. It might not make sense to transport those people; it might make sense to keep them in this country, continue to process them quickly and remove them, as we are doing for those categories.

The biggest obstacle to making sure that we have an end-to-end view of a cohort of people and how long each stage is taking has been the lack of a good computer system. The hon. Gentleman may remember that the Conservative Government's promise to deliver such a system failed and led to some of the problems that we now face.

Can the Minister help with a particular problem that has emerged? Quite often, a successful asylum applicant's solicitor or representative gets a notice stating that they are to be granted indefinite leave to remain. At that point, the National Asylum Support Service withdraws support and the asylum applicant loses housing benefit and any other financial benefit, yet there seems to be a succession of inordinate delays before the status letter is sent out. Thus, successful asylum applicants end up in penury, awaiting a simple letter that will enable them to get benefits, work and somewhere to live. That is causing enormous hardship to a number of successful applicants. Can the Minister do something about it?

I accept that, as my hon. Friend says, that has been a problem in some cases. We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to find ways of speeding up the process in all cases. It is not an overwhelmingly large problem, but I am aware that it has existed, and I agree that in all cases we must be quicker in getting those status letters out.

Does the Minister accept that the time taken to process and notify applicants is a direct function of the number of them? Is the Prime Minister's pledge to halve the number of asylum seekers by September to be believed? If it is, precisely what impact does the Minister expect that to have on the time taken to process and notify applicants? Will she confirm that the last time the number of asylum seekers was half the level at which it was in September—her baseline figure—the cost was barely more than half the present cost? In other words, the Government will be spending close to £1 billion less if they meet the Prime Minister's targets already announced.

First, clearly, the total volume of the intake of new claims is a significant determinant of how we can manage all stages of the process: initial decisions, appeals and the money required to support people during the process. That is why our top priority, in addition to removing people, is to reduce the intake. On the hon. Gentleman's specific question about our commitment to reduce that to half by September, I can tell him that it is to be believed. I have every reason to believe that we will achieve it with what we have put in place already, let alone measures that are to come on line. That will have significant implications on the amount that we must spend on the whole system.

Community Support Officers

8.

What plans he has to increase the provision for community support officers. [109762]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

Last year, we provided £19 million of funding for 27 police forces. They have recruited 1,338 community support officers. This year, £41 million is available to continue to support the existing CSOs and to provide for further growth. The results of the second bidding round will be announced shortly.

Many of us think that the introduction of community support officers is a very welcome initiative to tackle antisocial behaviour, which is one of the scourges of modern society. When my hon. Friend considers increasing the number of community support officers and their distribution, will he ensure that divisions outside inner-city areas are also considered so that we have a fair distribution of CSOs to tackle antisocial behaviour in all our communities, including my own in south Nottinghamshire?

We have received bids in the second round from forces that did not apply the first time. By the end of that round, the overwhelming majority of police forces throughout the length and breadth of the country will have recruited CSOs in either year one or year two. The way in which forces deploy CSOs is a matter for their operational determination.

Can the Minister explain the anomaly that community support officers—welcome as they are—can be recruited through the crime fighting fund, whereas the recruitment of retired police officers, who are extremely valuable because of their experience and specialist skills, cannot be given the same priority to access that finance?

The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. The crime fighting fund exists for the recruitment of police officers, not CSOs.

Iraq

9.

What the evidential basis was for his statement in the United States on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. [109763]

The United Kingdom consistently maintained that Iraq continued to pursue the development of weapons of mass destruction. This assertion was based on the first report by the executive chairman of UNSCOM, Richard Butler. Saddam's regime had not provided, and never did provide, any evidence to support its claims that its weapons of mass destruction programmes were no longer active. Refusing unfettered access to unsupervised scientists and constant changes to declarations relating to relevant materials underlined the Government's belief in the existence of such potential.

Could the Home Secretary forgive a tinge of scepticism, as it appears that all that stuff about weapons of mass destruction was got from a website by Mr. Campbell's young things? It was not even run past the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was only 50 yards up the corridor. It would have been very simple to consult the JIC. What happens now about all the accusations of forgery by Dr. el-Baradei in relation to the yellow cake for which Iraq was supposed to have asked Niger? Just forgive us our scepticism.

My hon. Friend is entitled to his scepticism and we are entitled to address the reality, which is that the uranium that he mentions, which was in the Government's assessment last September, was, according to all the intelligence available to us, being sought in considerable quantities from Africa. We have no reason to believe that that intelligence evidence from several sources was incorrect. The priority since the end of the three-and-a-half week conflict has been, of course, to restore civil society, protect the civilian population, restore medical provision and ensure humanitarian aid. The process of finding what Saddam Hussein has been up to will be long and difficult, but I am absolutely certain that the majority of hon. Members believe that we have brought about a situation in which peace in the middle east, and peace and prosperity for the people of Iraq, can be obtained.

Does the Home Secretary agree that it would not be at all surprising if some of the people responsible for either developing those weapons of mass destruction or harbouring or running them were to apply for asylum in this country now that the conflict is over? Does he also agree that it would be quite wrong for anyone associated with the regime or the Ba'ath party to be granted asylum? Will he ensure that that is the case?

I agree with myself on that. We have made it clear that those who have been engaged in any way with the regime and its actions against its people or its threat to others would be automatically disqualified from receiving asylum. That is true under the 1951 convention and our domestic law. We will stick to that, whoever it is and whatever posts they held in the Saddam regime.

Prisoners (Dependent Children)

10.

What proportion of (a) male and (b) female prison inmates have dependent children. [109764]

Information on the number of prisoners with dependent children is not routinely collected. However, surveys conducted between 1994 and 2000 indicated that 59 per cent. of men and 66 per cent. of women had dependent children. The Prison Service works closely with family support groups in maintaining prisoners' family ties.

May I suggest to my hon. Friend that such information should be routinely collected and published? Does he note from the "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" trial that the judge stated that he was not going to give an immediate prison sentence to Major Ingram and his wife because they had dependent children, yet many working-class women get immediate prison sentences for relatively minor offences when they have dependent children? Does my hon. Friend agree with the Halliday report that there must be more consistency and, if that principle is to be applied, that it must be done so more broadly? [Interruption.]

I am just waiting for the outbreak of coughing to subside.

I agree that there needs to be greater consistency. On the collection of information, part of the difficulty is that 200,000 or so people pass through prison every year and prisoners may not always choose to give correct information about their family circumstances when they are first questioned. However, we have just completed the second of our resettlement surveys of about 2,000 prisoners who are about to leave prison and who may be more inclined to give accurate information about their family circumstances and those relating to their children. We shall publish that later in the year.

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that the importance of maintaining family ties to reduce reoffending is now better understood across the criminal justice system. It is one reason why the Prison Service is working much more in partnership with voluntary organisations to maintain family links. I saw a good example of that at Wayland prison in the eastern region, where, as a result of our partnership with the Lankelly Foundation and the Ormiston Children and Families Trust, it is operating an all-day visits facility for children so that they can spend time with their fathers.

The hon. Gentleman's emollience is all very well, but what plans does he have to stop or minimise the operation of the "churn"—the phenomenon whereby often large-scale movements and transfers of prisoners take place, critically at short or no notice—given that the effect of those disruptive movements damages the chance of training, undermines the prospects of rehabilitation and reduces the links between prisoners and their families?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the disadvantages that the phenomenon of churn, which he accurately described, creates for prisons in trying to work with prisoners and for prisoners themselves. One of the answers is to provide additional prison places so that we can reduce the rate of churn, which is precisely what the Government are doing, as he will be only too well aware.

Identity Cards

12.

If he will make a statement on plans to introduce identity cards. [109766]

We published a consultation paper on entitlement cards and identity fraud on 3 July 2002. We are at the moment making a detailed assessment of the 2,000 responses received to the consultation exercise, which ended on 31 July. Many organisations and individuals have expressed support for a card scheme, and that has been backed up by other research on the public's views, which we will publish alongside our response.

Does the Minister agree with what the assistant information commissioner, Jonathan Bamford, said about the idea of an ID card:

"Do we risk changing the fabric of our society so that the highest level of identification becomes the norm for the most mundane of services"?
Let us bear in mind that, when Labour was in opposition, it said that the cost of such a scheme—some £600 million—would be better spent on extra police officers.

No, I do not agree with those comments. It is interesting that the Information Commissioner himself has said that there are no insurmountable privacy or data protection obstacles in respect of such a scheme and has welcomed some of the Home Secretary's proposals about how legislation might be implemented if the Government decide to take that course of action.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main issues will be whether there are better things to do with the £2 billion or £3 billion cost of introducing ID cards? Will she give an undertaking that any estimates received from IT companies of the cost of introducing them will be treated with great scepticism in the light of previous such estimates?

In terms of the benefits of a particular scheme, my hon. Friend will make up his own mind on the basis of the consultation paper that we circulated and the discussions that have taken place. As I said, the 2,000 responses that we have received from individuals show that ordinary members of the public generally do not share his concerns. The responses have been about 2:1 in favour of introducing a scheme.

I also point out that the proposal does not involve investing large amounts of public money, although some up-front expenditure would certainly be involved. The cost of the scheme would be borne by individuals as they applied for cards, just as people will have to apply for passport and driving licence cards in the fulness of time, as those provisions are also coming on line and people will have to make a payment for them.

Does the Minister not realise that when Australia tried out the proposal to introduce an ID card, it was initially enormously popular, but only until people realised how much personal information Government officials would have access to? As a result, the proposal became the Australian equivalent of the poll tax and was dropped in the face of mass demonstrations and huge public hostility.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has read the consultation paper, but if he has, he will recall that what is being proposed is not a card that would hold large amounts of information. It would be a gateway providing a very secure identity access to other databases for the individual, but the particular databases to which the card might give access would obviously be determined through the process of legislation on which we would embark. It would not be able to add to those through any other mechanism, so Parliament would have its say.

A system of compulsory identity cards would be a very useful tool in dealing with the upsurge and recurrence of football hooliganism. What discussions have taken place between the Home Department and the English Football Association regarding the forthcoming match against Turkey in Istanbul? If the Football Association does not make any tickets available to English supporters, will the Government assist it in ensuring that supporters do not—

Reverting to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb), what is the difference between "access" and "gateway"?

I do not think that there is a particular difference in this context, except that providing access to a number of databases would, as I said, be determined by Parliament, so the extent to which the card became a gateway would be as limited or as extensive as Parliament determined.

Illegal Encampments

13.

What guidance he gives the police in addressing the problems posed by illegal encampments. [109767]

The Government recently published for consultation operational guidance for local authorities and police on managing unauthorised camping. The consultation period closes on 23 May and final guidance will be published later in the year. We have also announced that we will introduce new powers of eviction when parliamentary time allows.

I welcome my hon. Friend's answer. Will he reflect, however, on the anger of communities such as Shardlow, Barrow on Trent, Foston, Swadlincote, Castle Donington, in a neighbouring constituency, and elsewhere in South Derbyshire, at the appalling nuisance of unauthorised encampments, and the lack of knowledge that police forces sometimes have of basic environmental protection law? Does he agree that one step might be to ask them to enforce the existing law with more rigour?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I recognise entirely the problem that he describes and, judging from the response in the Chamber, many hon. Members on both sides of the House have direct experience of it. There are already extensive powers, and it is important that they are used effectively. I commend to all hon. Members the consultation paper, because one of the points that it makes forcefully is the need to do precisely what my hon. Friend suggests. I urge hon. Members to look at that document and to let us have their views and comments, because we want to ensure that there are effective powers to deal with the problem and nuisance that my hon. Friend so starkly describes.

As I understand it, the Government are giving the police extra powers to evict illegal travellers' encampments provided that local authorities provide sites for the permanent establishment of travellers' encampments that can be properly designated and run. The trouble is that planning restrictions are not being eased to enable local authorities to build those sites. Will the Minister undertake to examine that weakness in the Government's proposals?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that is a matter for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but I undertake to draw it to the attention of my colleagues. The benefit of the new powers that we propose to make available is that they would apply without the conditions that affect the section 61 powers that the police have under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. They would also cover, for example, industrial estates and road lay-bys, which are not covered by the current powers, and deal with the phenomenon which I am reliably informed is described as "hedge-hopping", whereby those who are removed from one field can then transfer their encampment to another one. That is what we seek to achieve, provided that the relevant local authority makes the provision that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

As the Minister will be aware, a few weeks ago several thousand of my constituents in Crawley, Round Green and Stopsley presented a petition to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary concerning the midsummer mayhem that they experienced as a result of an illegal traveller encampment that was chased around Luton and South Bedfordshire. Is he aware that there was a very different approach between the Luton police force and that of South Bedfordshire? As a result, residents of Stopsley—

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for telling hon. Members about the different approaches of two forces. That reinforces the point that I made a moment ago—namely, that fairly extensive powers already exist, but we wish to add to them for the reasons that I outlined. It is helpful if forces co-operate, share information and work with local authorities to ensure that they use those powers in the interests of protecting the constituents of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members.

Street Crime

14.

What new measures he intends to bring forward to tackle street crime. [109768]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

The street crime initiative is ongoing. It covers measures such as crime reduction, resettlement of offenders, faster court processes, education and summer activities, as well as police activity to deal with offenders. In the first six months, street crime fell by 16 per cent. in the areas covered, and £25 million of additional money has been allocated to support continued operations against it.

On Friday night, I broke up a fight in which six youths were kicking to pulp another youth outside Benfleet police station in my constituency. There was not a policeman to be found. Does the Under-Secretary accept that the only way in which to tackle street crime, and get on top of crime generally. is to provide the 40,000 additional police officers that only the Conservatives will deliver?

All those that the Conservative party did not provide when it was in government for many years, presiding over a doubling of crime. The street crime initiative has been a phenomenal success and led to substantial reductions in robbery and snatch thefts in the areas covered. We intend to keep it up.

Middle East

3.31 pm

With permission Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on Iraq and on the middle east peace process.

Let me start with the security situation in Iraq. Large-scale combat operations are over. The overwhelming majority of the country is under coalition control. The vast bulk of Saddam Hussein's forces have been defeated, dispersed or isolated, although minor pockets of resistance remain in Baghdad and some other towns.

When the House rose for the Easter recess, the main challenge confronting coalition forces was civil disorder and looting in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the regime. It would have been a miracle had there not been such an outburst of anger, frustration and lawlessness in a country where the population had lived for so long in daily fear of torture, arbitrary arrest and summary execution.

In the past two weeks, the looting and civil disorder has declined. In Baghdad, local police have offered their services, and joint patrols with coalition troops are under way. An effective curfew is in place. Baghdad's main hospitals are working and the United Nations Office of the Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq reports that clean water is available in most parts of the city.

More widely, schools and markets are reopening. Local hospitals are resuming normal service and field hospitals, including those supplied by Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are functioning well. Electricity and water supplies are reaching most parts of the country. Again, the UN Office of the Humanitarian Co-ordinator has said that it is about to declare the area to the south of Baghdad "permissive".

In Basra—the centre of the area under British military control—United Kingdom forces are carrying out joint operations with local police and providing food and water through aid distribution points established on the outskirts of the city. A local judicial system is being established with our assistance and encouragement. Thanks to help from British engineers and local Red Cross workers, the three main power stations supplying Basra are now up and running, and the city's electricity and water supplies have been restored to pre-conflict levels. In some respects in the south facilities are already in better shape than before the military action commenced. The seaway into Umm Qasr is being dredged to take larger vessels and the grain store is open. The railway line from the town to Basra, which had not worked for many years, is now running, thanks to British military engineers, and plans are in hand to reopen the line all the way to Baghdad.

I shall pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport the all-party message about the important role that the British military might play in this country.

In northern Iraq, essential supplies of wheat, oil and medical goods are being delivered unhindered. UNICEF reports that all schools in the north have reopened, and that the vast majority of people displaced by the conflict have now returned to their homes.

In the coming weeks, coalition forces will increasingly share the burden for the delivery of essential services and aid with the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, and with UN agencies and nongovernmental organisations. When, just before Easter, I visited Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, I discussed ORHA's plans with its head, Jay Garner, and other colleagues of his based then in Kuwait. Mr. Garner moved into Baghdad with most of his colleagues just a week ago, and a number of other countries, aside from the US and the UK, are now making substantial contributions to that organisation. Australia, Denmark and Japan have already provided personnel. Others, including Spain, Romania, South Korea and Italy, are about to do so. For our part, we have so far provided 20 British staff, including one of Mr. Garner's three deputies, Major General Tim Cross, a serving officer with the British Army. We will be making further contributions to OR HA to help get Iraq back on its feet.

As well as meeting humanitarian and other essential needs, and starting the process of physical reconstruction, a key objective of the coalition is to support a viable political process that allows the Iraqi people to create representative, democratic government for themselves. In Basra and the south-eastern sector, which we control, we began this process at a local level by sponsoring representative town meetings. Similar local and regional meetings, based, not least, on that model initiated by the British military, have been held elsewhere.

On 15 April, the first meeting of national Iraqi representatives was held in Nasiriyah, with about 60 delegates present. That meeting was attended by a senior British diplomat, Edward Chaplin. A second such meeting—on a larger scale—is being held today in Baghdad, with an estimated 250 delegates in attendance, including a number of Shi'a clerics. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) and a senior Foreign Office official are attending that meeting. We will of course ensure that the House is informed of its outcome.

We hope that the current process of consultation will culminate in a national conference of Iraqi representatives. This would, first, set up an Iraqi interim authority to take over progressively responsibility for the administration of Iraq. Secondly, it would create a constitutional framework to prepare the ground for the election of a democratic Government run by the Iraqi people themselves.

As President Bush and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have made clear, the United Nations will have a vital role in Iraq's reconstruction. Last week the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1476, which will extend the new arrangements for the UN's oil-for-food programme until 3 June.

In the coming weeks, the Security Council will have to consider a range of other issues. Those will include the future of the sanctions regime and the subsequent management of Iraq's oil revenues.

There is also the question of the future arrangements for verifying Iraq's disarmament of weapons of mass destruction. In his presentation to the Security Council last week, the head of UNMOVIC, Dr. Hans Blix, recognised that
"in a situation that is still insecure … civilian international inspection can hardly operate,"
and that

"some of the premises upon which the Council established UNMOVIC and gave it far-reaching powers … have changed."
He also accepted that coalition authorities would be as eager as UNMOVIC to find weapons of mass destruction.

In the absence of the secure environment referred to by Dr. Blix, the task of locating this material inevitably falls to coalition forces. We are actively pursuing sites, documentation and individuals connected with Iraq's programmes. Both the UK and the US have deployed specialist personnel and will be sending more in the near future.

But the investigations are unlikely to be quick. The inspection process itself will be painstaking and detailed. The testimony from scientists and documentation about WMD development and production programmes will be the key to determining the fate of the prohibited equipment, materials and munitions. But we cannot expect witnesses to come forward until they are fully confident that they can speak freely.

Even so, I know that some hon. Members have expressed concerns about the justification for military action in the absence of discoveries of illegal Iraqi weapons. Let me make two observations in this connection. First, military action was taken on the basis set out very clearly in Security Council resolution 1441, namely that Iraq's
"non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles"—
posed a threat

"to international peace and security."
The evidence against Iraq was then—and remains—overwhelming. It was charted by UNMOVIC in damning detail in the 173 pages of its report, "Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq's Proscribed Weapons Programmes", which was published in New York late on Friday 7 March, and which I published before the House in Command document 5785 the following Monday, 10 March. My second point is that Saddam had ample time to conceal his WMD programmes prior to the start of military operations. Indeed, his experience in concealment dates back to the early 1990s.

Before I move on to the middle east peace process, let me say this. It is only 19 days since Baghdad was liberated, and barely two weeks since the end of serious fighting. In that time, civil disorder has subsided and—as we saw in the joyous Shi'a pilgrimage to Karbala last week—the Iraqi people have begun to savour the taste of freedom. Of course there are problems associated with this dramatic change for the Iraqi people after more than 20 years of coping with a brutal and vicious regime, but a new and representative Iraqi Government, run by the Iraqi people and for the Iraqi people, will help to guarantee this freedom for future generations. Despite all the immense challenges that lie ahead, I know one thing for certain: Iraq's future will be better than its past.

Of course, the middle east will never look forward to a secure future as long as a settlement to the region's most intractable dispute apparently remains beyond reach. For the past months, Her Majesty's Government have therefore worked tirelessly to secure the publication and implementation of the road map—a document agreed by the Quartet group of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union that sets out a path to a peaceful settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I greatly welcome the commitment from President Bush to devote as much effort to this cause as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given to the search for peace in Northern Ireland.

Later this week, the Palestinian Legislative Council will be asked to endorse the appointment of a new Cabinet for the Palestinian Authority. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, one of the main architects of the Oslo accords, this Cabinet has, I believe, the courage and ability to take the tough measures necessary to clamp down on terrorism and to lead the Palestinians into a constructive dialogue with the Israelis and the international community. This, and action by the Israeli Government to ensure that the Israeli defence force acts strictly within international law, should bring to an end the spiral of killings that has claimed more than 3,000 lives on both sides over the past two and a half years.

Once the Palestinian Legislative Council endorses Mahmoud Abbas's Cabinet, the road map will be published. Then, for the first time for a long time, we should be able to speak of a peace process in which the parties themselves are actively engaged. The road map charts a course to the outcome that the House and the entire world wish to see: a secure state of Israel alongside a viable, separate state of Palestine, consistent with UN Security Council resolutions and the principle of land for peace. We will maintain our very close dialogue with the United States to push this process forward, and we will do all that we can with them and our European partners to help with the implementation of the road map.

With visionary leadership and courageous statesmanship from both sides, the outcomes that I have described for Israel and Palestine can, in our judgment, be achieved within the time scale set out in the road map—that is, by 2005. If that happens, it will not just bring an end to the misery of millions of Israelis and Palestinians who live every day under the shadow of indiscriminate violence; it will remove the single greatest source of resentment and mistrust that bedevils relations between the west and the Muslim world. I know and believe that both sides of the House will support the Government's efforts to secure this great prize.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for giving me advanced sight of it. The House will have shared my mixed feelings as we learned from Saturday's edition of The Times that we nearly lost the right hon. Gentleman as Foreign Secretary before the war began, and that our support apparently saved him. I suppose that every silver lining has a cloud.

Although the war is over, our armed forces are still engaged in Iraq in the promotion of public order and security and in the process of initial reconstruction. With their courage, professionalism and dedication, they are once again doing us proud. The overarching priority now is to rebuild confidence within Iraq and in the wider region. I believe that the key elements are that, along with the maintenance of public order and security, basic public services and amenities are restored; that the elimination of weapons of mass destruction is achieved; that the interim administration and any system of government that emerges from it will be genuinely representative of Iraq as a whole, including women, and will not create disfranchised minorities on religious or ethnic lines; and that real progress can be made on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Could the Foreign Secretary reassure the House on a number of points? The Prime Minister, in his press conference this morning, insisted that weapons of mass destruction would be found in due course. He had no doubt. The Foreign Secretary seemed to dilute that view in his statement. What is his position? Is it that weapons of mass destruction will be found or that they will not be found? Will he confirm that, if they are found, independent verification will be essential? The Prime Minister had no such doubts this morning. Does the Foreign Secretary share his certainty?

Will any independent verification be carried out by the United Nations inspectors? If not, why not? Will the Foreign Secretary clarify what role the United Nations will play in the oil-for-food programme? Washington wants sanctions lifted and the oil-for-food programme phased out. France has proposed a temporary suspension of sanctions and a gradual phasing out of the oil-for-food programme. Russia wants the United Nations Secretary-General to run the entire programme until an internationally recognised Iraqi Government come into power, which, as we know, could take several years. What is the Government's view on that central question?

In looking to the future shape of the Administration and Government of Iraq, are there any democratic outcomes that the Government would find unacceptable? If so, what are they? What discussions have there been in Iraq about possible forms of government that would underwrite power-sharing and avoid disfranchisement or secession?

What practical steps are the Government taking to ensure that countries such as France do not seek belatedly to engage in the commercial exploitation of Iraq? Does the Foreign Secretary share my suspicion that their recent repositioning on sanctions may have more to do with economic advantage than with altruism?

Is the right hon. Gentleman confident that members of Saddam Hussein's regime, wherever they may be hiding, will be returned to Iraq to face the legal consequences of the crimes that they perpetrated against the people of Iraq? Can he tell us yet where and under what law they will be tried?

The confidence of the whole region will be massively strengthened by genuine progress in the middle east peace process towards the two-state solution. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that dialogue between the two sides, at whatever level, would be an important step forward, and does he join me in welcoming Ariel Sharon's reported invitation to Abu Mazen to meet him in Jerusalem for discussions? Will he give such dialogue all possible encouragement, especially if the publication of the road map is further delayed? Does he foresee any reasons why it might be further delayed?

We have supported the Government in the removal of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction because we believed it right and in our national interest to do so. Now, the challenge is to build confidence and stability across the region. That, too, we believe, is right and in our national interest, and so long as that remains the Government's objective and they pursue it with due competence, they will continue to have our support.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and I shall answer some of the specific questions that he asked. On the role of women in any new government whom we assist in creating, we are very strongly committed to ensuring that women play a proper role inside any government. [Interruption.] I hear some muttering from behind, and I should say that I am not in partisan mode. We are committed to ensuring that women play a full role in any government of Iraq, and with luck, they will do so in the Conservative party at some time in the future. We wish to see the full implementation of United Nations resolution 1325, passed unanimously by the Security Council, which calls for wider participation by women in Governments of all countries that are member states of the United Nations. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire, has already spoken today in Baghdad about the importance of ensuring that there is a proper role for women.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me whether I am certain that WMD will be found. I am not certain where they are—such certainty seemed to be the implication of what he was saying—but I am absolutely certain that Iraq had illegal possessions of—[HON. MEMBERS: "Had?"] Hang on a second. I am absolutely certain that Iraq had illegal possessions of weapons of mass destruction, and recently. Therefore, there is every reason why they ought to be found, and that is the position of the Government.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the oil-for-food resolutions. The oil-for-food programme is a United Nations programme that was rolled over by resolution 1472, and again last week by resolution 1476, until 3 June. It will continue as a United Nations programme until the Security Council makes decisions about the future of oil-for-food and of the sanctions regime.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether there are any democratic outcomes that are unacceptable. Well, we cannot have it both ways. If we wish to see a democracy established in Iraq as elsewhere, we have to accept that in the end, such a democracy is one in which the people of Iraq—like the people of this country—have to make up their own minds about their own future. That is the essence of democracy. Of course, there are some outcomes—outcomes that would lead to a change in the territorial integrity of Iraq—that would be unacceptable.

Of course that is true, because that is a matter that affects international peace and security, in which the international community has a role. But within that, we have to establish strong and robust political institutions in Iraq, and to have some confidence and faith in the Iraqi people to run their own government—a confidence and faith in their ability that the dictator Saddam Hussein never had.

Perhaps I might take a moment, Mr. Speaker, to thank you and colleagues on both sides of the House for the messages of support that have meant a great deal to me and my family in recent weeks. However—to the business of the day.

Can the Foreign Secretary give the House some illustration of what the Government envisage as a vital role for the United Nations? Does not a vital role involve more than merely acting in an advisory capacity, or being concerned with humanitarian relief? What progress has he made with his entirely sensible suggestion that there should be a United Nations-sponsored convention to consider the future of Iraq? In recognising Dr. Blix's reservations about civilian inspection in an insecure environment, does that mean that when security is established, there will be an opportunity for Dr. Blix and the inspectors to return? In the meantime, can we take it that they will be invited to provide independent verification if any suspect materials are discovered?

Dr. Blix told the Security Council before the conflict that the inspectors could complete their task in some months. What is the Government's estimate?

The appointment of Mahmoud Abbas is one of the most encouraging events in the middle east peace process for a long time. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it would not have come about without the promise of the publication of the road map? Does not that make it vital to keep to the timetable in the road map, lest momentum be lost? Finally, will the Foreign Secretary take the opportunity to make sustained representations to the Israeli Government to suspend all new settlement activity, including the building of a so-called security fence on the west bank?

May I first say how pleased I am to see the right hon. and learned Gentleman in his place and on such good form? I am sure that, in saying that, I reflect the sentiment of the whole House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's wise contributions, which he has made over many years, have been greatly missed by us all.

I was asked about the vital role for the UN to which President Bush and the Prime Minister committed themselves at Camp David and again at the Hillsborough summit a few weeks ago. There is an essential role for the UN to play for—example, in the suspension or lifting of sanctions; the future of the oil-for-food programme; the question of the title to Iraq's oil; working alongside the coalition and any putative Iraqi representative domestic institutions in building governance; and, more generally, supporting reconstruction. There is also the issue of weapons inspections.

However, precisely how the UN's vital role turns out does not depend solely on the United Kingdom and the United States, the two key coalition partners, but on the degree to which we can secure active co-operation from our other partners in the Security Council. It is a matter of history that we were able to secure that co-operation in the run-up to resolution 1441, but after 8 November, we were unable to maintain it and, sadly, no second resolution was possible, leaving the international community divided.

In the UN headquarters in New York and in capital cities, detailed discussions are now taking place about how to ensure that the UN is able to play a vital role, but to do so constructively in a way that is not disruptive of the coalition, nor gratuitously disruptive of the process towards democratisation in Iraq. I am as committed as anyone—and so is the Prime Minister—to the fullest possible role for the UN, but it requires work, activity and good will by others as well as ourselves.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) for what he said about the middle east peace process. I should like to take this opportunity to respond to one of his questions to which I previously omitted to reply—whether I welcomed Prime Minister Sharon's offer to hold meetings with Prime Minister Abu Mazen as soon as the road map has been published. OF course I welcome that, as I welcome any positive steps by either side in the conflict to put the terrible and violent past behind them.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) asked whether we are ready to call for the suspension of all new settlements. Yes, we have already done so, but I am happy to reinforce that point. We are also keen to see an end to the building of the fence, which is taking more land that belongs to the Palestinians into what amounts to Israeli territory.

The whole House will surely welcome the progress report made by my right hon. Friend in respect of both Iraq and the middle east peace process. Given the great scepticism among Arab opinion about the bona fides of the coalition, does he agree that the best means of persuading Arab opinion of our even-handedness is the manner in which we deal with Iraq and implement the road map?

Is he confident that at the end of the process all the countries of the region, including Iran, will be ready to accept the existence of the state of Israel?

I agree with my right hon. Friend's overall sentiment. Having been in a representative but significant part of the Arab world, in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, two weeks ago, I have to say that sentiment towards coalition action is interestingly ambiguous. Certainly none of the predictions about massive and sustained protest in the Arab street came to pass. A great many people in the Arab street, as well as those in Arab Governments, have been only too glad—as we anticipated—to see the back of Saddam Hussein and of the instability that he brought to the region and the terror that he brought to his own people.

The road map is critical, however. Time without number, I have made the point that, yes, Security Council resolutions such as 242, 338 and 1397 impose obligations on Israel: broadly, to recognise the 1967 borders, to withdraw from the settlements, to secure a resolution of the refugee issue, and so on. However, those resolutions also impose the clearest possible obligations both on the Palestinians to end terrorism and to co-operate with Israel, and on all the Arab and Islamic states to recognise the state of Israel and to accord it the same respect that any state in the world has the right to expect—its very existence should not be challenged on a daily basis. There cannot be peace in the middle east between Israel and the Palestinians unless all three sides recognise their obligations and responsibilities.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, in advance of the coalition invasion, his Department and others, including the Prime Minister's office, were repeatedly warned that hugely important antiquities and works of art in Iraq were in danger of being looted? What response did he make to those warnings; and now that we know that more than 100,000 antiquities have disappeared, what is he doing to get them back?

We were warned, and the coalition forces were, of course, aware of the great importance of the museum of Baghdad and its holdings to antiquity and to our sense of the origins of our own civilisation. It is, therefore, the most appalling tragedy that the museum was looted in that way. However, that happened because of the military situation in Baghdad at the time. Although I realise that the hon. Gentleman is not one of them, it is easy for people to say, from the safety and comfort of their armchairs, that the US military should have taken immediate action. However, the problem that the US military faced at that time and for some days afterwards was that, the moment they left their armoured personnel carriers or tanks, they were shot at and some of them were killed or injured. That made for a difficult environment, which was different from the one that obtained in Basra. Would that the situation had been different and that it had been possible to put a proper cordon around the museum.

As regards the future, much work is being undertaken by the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries to help the Iraqis to rebuild their holdings. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is taking a close personal interest in that. Tomorrow, the British Museum is holding a meeting about the whole situation to consider what more can be done.

Recollecting that the peace efforts of Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak were destroyed by deliberate acts of terrorism carried out by Palestinian terrorist groups, and taking into account the fact that those terrorist groups can be relied on to carry out such acts in order to destroy this peace process, will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that when such acts take place—as they will—the Prime Minister of Israel will not be allowed to use them as a pretext or a device to delay or disrupt the peace process, and that the Government will insist that the peace process be completed by the date set out in the road map? Furthermore, will my right hon. Friend tell the Israeli Government that, if they want to demonstrate their good faith in the process, the first thing they must do is end the virtual imprisonment of Yasser Arafat in his headquarters in Ramallah?

My right hon. Friend is correct to say that the good offers that Prime Minister Barak made to the Palestinians were effectively sabotaged by escalating violence by rejectionist terrorist groups. All sides have a responsibility to act with restraint in this situation. Of course, that includes the Israeli Government; but in addition, it includes those countries in the region that have been sponsoring or financing rejectionist terrorist groups. One of those was Iraq, which has now been dealt with, but there are other countries to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred in his press conference this morning. We seek dialogue and cooperation with Syria and Iran, for example, but we also expect to them to exert new restraint on those rejectionist terrorist organisations in so far as they have direct influence over them.

May I suggest to the Foreign Secretary that, if the Palestinian-Israel problem is to be settled, we all know pretty much what the terms of that agreement and deal will be—they were discussed and so nearly agreed at Taba—but the difficulty will be to get both sides to accept that agreement? That will involve an awful lot of arm twisting, and I wonder whether I can bring him back to the role of the other states in the region because, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have a vital role to play. From his knowledge of the current state of the negotiations, does he believe that those countries are playing a positive role and that they meant what they said at the Arab League summit in Beirut this time last year, when they said that they would offer Israel recognition and peaceful, normal relations with its neighbours in exchange for the recognition and creation of a Palestinian state?

I am in no doubt that Egypt and Saudi Arabia are fully committed to the processes set out in the road map, and I had conversations about that with Prince Saud, the Saudi Foreign Minister, when I was in Riyadh just two weeks ago. In addition, it is important for the House to note that the single most important factor that led to the change of heart by Chairman Arafat to approve Abu Mazen's Cabinet was pressure from President Mubarak of Egypt and, in particular, his dispatch of his head of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, who played a most constructive role in Ramallah itself to end the impasse and ensure that Chairman Arafat endorsed that Cabinet.

My right hon. Friend will recall that, a few weeks ago, I asked that documents found in Iraq should be very carefully collected, but some very interesting documents have turned up. The point that I make today is about the story on the front page of The Daily Telegraph—it is the lead item—concerning Indict. It alleges that French security services were assisting Iraqi intelligence agents deliberately to threaten the lives of British subjects. We had two bomb threats on that day: one in Paris, with the message that everyone in the building would be dead by the end of the day and another in London, with the same message, and we had to clear our office in London. We made a full report to the French police. We made a full report to the British embassy in Paris, and we were told that the special branch followed it up, but we heard nothing further.

What did the Foreign Office do, and what was the response? It is time we had a full inquiry into those alleged activities on both sides, and I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that that takes place.

I cannot give a detailed response to my hon. Friend just now; I will undertake to follow up the points that she has made in the greatest possible detail, reply to her and make a written statement to the House about the matter, and we shall take it from there.

Following on from that, is it not a fact that, usually when enemy capitals are captured, an intelligence objective subcommittee will have previously arranged for the incoming forces to secure such obvious intelligence targets as the foreign ministry headquarters and the intelligence organisation headquarters? Why was that not done in this case? Why was it left to The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph and their enterprising journalists to find out what our own intelligence people should have found out?

The situation in Baghdad was not one in which every building could be secured. That is the simple truth of the matter. I have already given an answer to the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) about the reasons why the museum of Baghdad ended up being looted. Of course, the coalition recognises its responsibilities, among other things, for the collection of intelligence, and is doing so. We must also recognise, however, that in the aftermath of a military defeat of the kind that took place 19 days ago, a degree of disorder and lawlessness was likely, which others exploited.

I too welcome the statement on Iraq and the progress that is being made, particularly in reference to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary's words with regard to governance and democracy. Great patience will be needed on the part of the coalition to bring about the successful governance of Iraq. I share his view that democracy is perhaps the greatest force for progress that the world has ever seen. Regrettably, however, that ancient doctrine is not necessarily shared by those who are of a fundamentally religious turn of mind. In view of the fact that he was prepared to give assurances about the role of women in the governance of Iraq, can he give similar assurances that we will not see the rise and rise of religious fundamentalism and the clerics taking over the governance of Iraq, perhaps bringing about just as oppressive a regime as that which we have successfully dismantled?

My point to my hon. Friend is that, in the end, that is something for the Iraqi people to decide. If they have strong representative institutions that are democratic—the essence of democracy is that people are able to change peacefully a Government with whom they disagree—that is for them to decide. I do not believe for a second that any future Government will remotely meet the terrible standards set by Saddam Hussein: quite the reverse. If my hon. Friend looks around elsewhere in the Islamic world—at Turkey, Indonesia and next door in Iran—he will see those peoples paying full respect to their religion, just as we do in this country and in this House, where we still have a Church by law established. He will also see, however, those countries—Turkey, Iran and Indonesia—trying to come to terms with principles of democracy and with post-agrarian society, and I believe that Iraq, too, can do that.

What steps are the Government taking to destroy safely the unexploded munitions littered across Iraq, which, since the end of the war, are believed to have killed some 80 civilians and wounded another 400, many of whom are children?

Every step is being taken to deal with those munitions. It is in the interests of coalition forces as much as it is in the interests of local people to ensure that they are disposed of safely. It is a further indication of the utter irresponsibility of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen that he left those munitions in such dangerous places in the first instance.

What representations has my right hon. Friend made to the Israeli Government about two British subjects: Tom Hurndall, who was shot in the head and seriously injured by Israeli soldiers, and Ian Hook, a UN worker, who was shot and killed by the Israelis?

I have personally made a number of representations in respect of the second gentleman to whom my hon. Friend refers, including to the previous Foreign Minister, Bibi Netanyahu. As to the first gentleman she mentioned, our concerns about what happened to him were raised by the permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office in a conversation with his counterpart at the end of last week. I am happy to give her further details.

May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to the questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) regarding the possible trial of members of the former Iraqi Administration? I am sure that he will agree that he has had ample time, together with the American Government, to reflect on that matter. Will he please tell us what is the likely mode and venue of trial? Will he also please tell us what steps he will take to ensure that the trials are fair? Lastly, will he give an assurance that those people will not be dropped into the legal black hole that is Guantanamo Bay?

I cannot give the right hon. and learned Gentleman a precise, definite answer because these matters are still subject to discussion with the United States Government, and they will not be resolved until a functioning interim authority has been established. We want the Iraqi people, in the main, to take responsibility for ensuring justice in respect of former members of the regime. They had no effective justice system during the 24 years of Saddam Hussein's rule, but historically Iraq had a reasonably well functioning and fair judicial system. I held a discussion last week with British Ministers about how our Government could aid and assist in the creation of a new judicial system in Iraq, and I am happy to write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman about that.

There is a question as to whether an international tribunal should be established to try the leaders of the regime. We have not ruled that out, but I am sceptical because of the vast costs of the international tribunals set up to deal with Yugoslavia and, even worse, Rwanda. The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not mention the International Criminal Court, but let me say that it does not have a direct role because its jurisdiction is only for events that took place after July last year.

Can my right hon. Friend explain why anyone here should not be absolutely delighted that a murderous tyranny has been destroyed, and why they should not congratulate those involved in the armed forces? As to the middle east conflict, does my right hon. Friend accept that there will need to be a great deal of pressure, not least from the United States, on Israel to give up the illegal occupation that dates from 1967 and the notorious settlements that are in defiance of international law?

I share my hon. Friend's sentiments; it is for others to explain if their sentiments are different. On pressure on the Government of Israel, I have to say that from my direct conversations with President Bush I am quite clear about his commitment to push forward the road map and to engage in robust conversation with the Government of Israel. As I have said, there must be an equivalent response by the Palestinians and the Arab states if the progress charted in the road map is to produce a reality.

To achieve a settlement by 2005, the Foreign Secretary has called for visionary leadership and courageous statesmanship that has probably not been seen in Israel and Palestine since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. He has already intimated that the British Government are open to the possibility of enforcing the road map through a chapter VII resolution of the United Nations under international law. What prospect is there of the United States at least admitting that possibility?

I am sorry that I cannot, in that respect or any other, speak directly for the United States Government. However, I can repeat that they are completely committed to implementing the road map. At Hillsborough, President Bush did not have to say that he would devote to that the same energy as the Prime Minister has devoted to the Northern Ireland peace process, but he did say it, and it is an indication of the way in which he has gripped the issue and is putting his own reputation and great office on the line to ensure that, after so many decades of strife, we secure the prize of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

To what extent has my right hon. Friend used his influence and friendship with the regime in Iran to try to persuade it to withdraw from Iraq the Iranian-based activists who are intent on establishing a new tyranny modelled on the ayatollahs' in Tehran, or does he expect the Americans to follow up their threats against the Iranian regime with action?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have repeatedly made it clear that there are no plans or intentions to take any kind of military action against Iran: quite the reverse. I commend the constructive approach that the Iranian Government had taken even before military action was taken against Iraq, and we are grateful to them for the co-operation that has been achieved. We look for the Iranians to continue to play a constructive role in supporting the establishment of Government and political institutions, and to do so in a benign way.

Would the right hon. Gentleman congratulate the Kurdish people on the help that they gave during the conflict, and would he take all possible steps to ensure that Turkey does not in any way interfere with their right to govern themselves within a Kurdish region under a single Iraqi democratic federal state?

I am happy to do so. The Kurdish people were very courageous indeed in resisting Saddam Hussein's tyranny. Their current leaders are involved in the conference in Baghdad and we hope that they play a constructive role in Iraq's future. It is important that they, as well as countries in the surrounding area, recognise and respect Iraq's territorial integrity. If that happens, the stage is set for the stability of the whole region. If, however, there are challenges to Iraq's territorial integrity, we will have greater problems than anticipated.

Does the Foreign Secretary recollect from his history that on orders from Washington in 1945 one of the first things that the American and British armies entering Berlin had to do was get hold of Nazi documents because of likely trials? Why have the answers on documents that have already been given this afternoon not been at all convincing? It is not difficult to seize documents and take them into custody, so why were they left for other people to go through?

With respect to my hon. Friend, I have already answered that question. The world is far from perfect. If it had been possible to secure all those sites, that would have happened, but it was not possible any more I may say, although I was not born at the time, than it was possible in Berlin in 1945.

I welcome the Government's restated position in favour of independence for Palestine and secure borders for Israel, but did the Foreign Secretary on his tour of the middle east speak with servicemen and women deployed there about their widespread concerns about service pensions? What is he doing to maintain the morale of troops in the middle east, and those who have just returned, on that important question?

I saw a number of British servicemen and women, and greatly admired their complete commitment to the cause for which they had been fighting, and for which some of them had given their lives. The issue of pensions for British servicemen and women is properly a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Is the Foreign Secretary concerned about reports of sales of chemical precursors to Syria, given President Assad's practical support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and their determination to ensure that there will not be any peace between Israelis and Palestinians?

I am always concerned about such reports, and we look at them thoroughly. As I said earlier, while we seek active dialogue with Syria it is crucial that Syria end its support for and financing of rejectionist terrorist groups operating inside Israel and the occupied territories and, furthermore, that it recognise that if it wishes to be admitted fully to the international community it has to take that action and stop equivocating about its position on those terrorist groups.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware of considerable speculation in the past fortnight that the French Government were involved in briefing the Iraqis in the run-up to the war about the American and EU plans. Indeed, they were involved before then in helping the Iraqi Government to breach sanctions. Is the Foreign Secretary aware of anything either in the Foreign Office or coming out of Baghdad that would support either accusation?

Can my right hon. Friend say, first, whether or not relations between the coalition and Syria have improved as a result of the conflict; and secondly, can he reassure the public that Syria is not next on any hit list that may be around?

The answer is that relations with Syria have changed. They have deepened, and there is now a more serious dialogue with Syria. Syria is not—to use the language that my hon. Friend uses—on any list. I have already made that clear, and so has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Equally, Syria has responsibilities which we hope that it will meet.

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), I too was on the board of Indict that she set up for a couple of years. The documents that she has mentioned should be in the hands of the American and British Governments. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the Government get hold of the documents that The Daily Telegraph and other newspapers have, study them, comment on their authenticity and then make a statement on the motivation, for instance, of the French Government in threatening to impose a veto on any United Nations resolution, of any other Governments, and of any individuals mentioned in the documents who opposed the war so vociferously?

I simply repeat the answer that I have already given my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley. To provide the sort of answer that I promised my hon. Friend, we shall have to get hold of the documents.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary knows, I represent a large Jewish population in Redbridge. They are concerned, as I am, about the security and future of Israel. My right hon. Friend talked about visionary leadership and constructive dialogue in the process. Does he really think that as long as Mr. Arafat retains any influence or position that is likely to occur?

I hope that my hon. Friend and her constituents—I know the area that she represents very well—will recognise just what movement has taken place among the Palestinians, and the decision by Chairman Arafat, under external pressure, to recognise Prime Minister Abbas's Cabinet, including the effective head of security, Mr. Dahlan, who was not being approved by Chairman Arafat. Those events represent a significant change by the Palestinian Authority as a whole towards an effective peace process. I also know—I say this to my hon. Friend and her constituents, many of whom have relatives and friends in Israel—that the best chance that we can have for providing a safe future for Israelis is to get the peace process going, to secure the implementation of a road map and to have a secure state of Israel alongside a viable state of Palestine.

The Foreign Secretary rightly reiterated his determination and that of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that the new structure of governance in Iraq should be as broad and wide as possible, and should have the support of the international world, and he referred to the United Nations. The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that not everybody believes that that is the view of the American Government. It is thought by some that they are less concerned about the role of the UN.

Are any other Governments represented at today's meeting? Were any others invited apart from the British and, obviously, the Americans? In other words, what role is being played already, or asked to be played, by the UN or individual Governments that have taken an interest in the Iraq situation, to help to form an interim Government?

It was President Bush who used the phrase "vital role" for the United Nations. I am clear that he stands by that. I have already explained to the House precisely how that role turns out. That depends not only on the United States and the United Kingdom but on other partners in the Security Council, and the constructive approach that is shown by them.

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a direct answer as to whether other countries were directly represented at today's meeting in Baghdad. I can say, however, that Australia, Denmark and Japan have already provided personnel to the organisation that is headed up by Jay Garner, which is also running the Baghdad conference. Other countries, including Spain, Romania, South Korea and Italy, are about to do so.

Does my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agree that the priorities for the coalition forces in Iraq should be restoring and maintaining order, and helping with reconstruction and feeding the people, rather than searching every corner of the country for weapons of mass destruction? Will he urge some of our colleagues and the media to have patience? After all, my right hon. Friend has just a passing interest in making sure that the job is done thoroughly.

In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) a moment ago, the Foreign Secretary said he was confident that Saddam Hussein had had weapons of mass destruction. Does he accept that those words are quite different from those that the Prime Minister used this morning, when he said that he was certain that our forces will find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? How confident is the Foreign Secretary that in the reasonably near future he will find, at the very least, concrete evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

My answer is, as ever, entirely consistent with the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The crucial point that we must all understand is that it is beyond peradventure that weapons of mass destruction have existed—biological and chemical weapons. They were well charted in the 173 pages of UNMOVIC's last inspection report dated 7 March this year.

Although the Iraqi people can be divided into Sunni, Shi'a, Kurds, fundamentalists and secularists, do they not have many common interests as doctors, electricians, construction workers, engineers and railway workers? What role will there be for a reemerging trade union movement in the democratisation and reconstruction of Iraq?

I applaud my hon. Friend's concern about that. As he knows, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is working closely with him and with others to encourage the establishment of one of the key political institutions in any democracy: a trade union movement.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome

4.31 pm

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on severe acute respiratory syndrome. SARS was first reported to the World Health Organisation by a number of countries in south-east Asia in mid-February this year, although subsequent information from the Chinese authorities suggests that it probably started to emerge in southern China during November last year. It presented initially as an unknown illness causing fever and severe chest symptoms, including pneumonia. Since then, laboratories around the world, including those in the United Kingdom, have been working to pinpoint the precise cause of this serious new illness. At this stage there is neither a test to diagnose SARS, nor an antidote to treat it.

SARS has spread to 26 countries, but it has been concentrated in a handful of areas, with major outbreaks in Hong Kong, Hanoi, Beijing and other parts of China, Singapore, and Toronto in Canada. According to the most up-to-date information, which I received from the WHO this morning, there have been 4,836 probable cases of SARS worldwide and 293 deaths.

There are, of course, understandable public concerns about the impact that SARS might have in the United Kingdom. I can confirm to the House that in this country to date there have been just six probable cases of SARS. The last reported case was admitted to hospital on 10 April. All the patients involved were quickly identified and have been successfully looked after by the NHS. All have now returned home and are well. The chief medical officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, has advised that at present SARS poses a low risk for people in this country, so, serious though SARS is, it is important to keep it in perspective.

Our response has been to take a precautionary but proportionate approach. The handling of SARS in this country has been informed, as it must continue to be, by the best scientific and medical advice. In particular, the chief medical officer and the new Health Protection Agency, in advising Ministers and the health service, have been working extremely closely with the World Health Organisation, which has the global responsibility for dealing with the disease. Throughout, we have followed WHO advice to the letter.

It might help the House if I set out the action that has been taken to date and the further action that we now propose.

First, we have provided early, accurate information to both the public and the health service. The CMO contacted all doctors on 14 March and subsequently on 7 April with detailed information on the symptoms and signs of SARS, and what to do if they encountered a possible case. Up-to-date information on SARS is also available to the public on the WHO, HPA and Department of Health websites, as well as through the NHS Direct telephone helpline, which many members of the public have contacted.

Secondly, we have put in place high-quality public health surveillance to enable the disease to be tracked closely. In early March, the Health Protection Agency set up a system for reporting suspect and probable cases. Thirdly, the chief medical officer issued advice to people travelling abroad on 2 April and, subsequently, on 23 April in line with WHO recommendations. He strongly advised against travel to specific SARS-affected areas. That remains his very strong advice.

Fourthly, the WHO has advised that passengers should be screened on departure from the countries affected, and as a further precaution, in line with that WHO guidance, information has been distributed to the main airports in this country giving advice to returning travellers on SARS.

Fifthly, we have laid down, in line with WHO advice, specific requirements through guidance issued by the CMO on 14 March and 7 April on the management of patients within NHS hospitals to reduce the risks of cross-infection.

Sixthly, and perhaps most importantly for the long term, we have put our country's considerable scientific expertise to work in helping to identify a causative organism for SARS. The HPA central laboratory in Colindale was a key part of the international collaboration that led to the identification of the likely cause. It is also at the leading edge of work to discover an accurate diagnostic test.

Over the past few weeks, we have been able to draw on the UK's strength in public health and infectious disease control to deal with the threats posed by SARS. I must stress, however, that this is an evolving situation. We are keeping our plans and policies constantly under review, learning lessons where they need to be learned, building on good ideas wherever they are to be found and, especially, tracking the disease very closely in collaboration with our counterparts in other countries throughout the world. For example, this week we sent an expert from the HPA to Canada to assist, but at the same time to learn as much as possible from the unfortunate events in Toronto so that we can build the lessons learned there into our own plans here.

So far, the approach taken on dealing with SARS in this country has proven effective. There is, however, no room for complacency. My clinical and scientific advisers have stressed that we need to retain flexibility in how we respond, not least because we do not yet fully understand how SARS spreads. We do know that most of the cases have been transmitted between people who were in close contact with one another—for example between health care workers and SARS patients—rather than through normal social contact among the wider population. However, we cannot at this stage reliably predict whether the SARS virus will maintain its current pattern of attack, change in infectivity or find new routes of transmission. That is why it is so important to strike a balance on how we respond to it.

Some have asked why we do not adopt a policy of screening all entrants to the United Kingdom from countries that have had cases of SARS. The problem is that there is no such test. Screening involves asking people a series of questions about their health to identify any signs or suspicious symptoms. That is being done, according to WHO advice, at airports in the areas most affected.

I am advised, however, that the early signs and symptoms of SARS occur commonly in the general population and are associated with a cough, cold or minor viral infection. Air travel, with its propensity to induce dry throats and coughs, is also a potential source of a large number of false leads, so trying to identify a genuine case of SARS is, as the CMO has put it, like looking for a needle in a haystack. With 4 million British and other visitors travelling between this country and the most affected areas each year, quarantining all those with such non-specific symptoms would be simply impractical. Indeed, I have been advised by our scientific experts that none of the six probable cases of SARS so far identified in this country would have been prevented or detected by screening at points of exit or entry, and still less on aircraft themselves. Instead, each case was picked up because of the patient's awareness of SARS and, of course, because of the high level of awareness among NHS staff.

Fortunately, the evidence so far is that people transit SARS only once they have symptoms of the disease, and not before. With a disease incubation period of up to 10 days, successful identification and treatment of SARS sufferers has so far been achieved by concentrating public health expertise on people who have returned to this country and developed the disease in the succeeding days. However, this is a changing situation globally and if our experts advise changes to our approach, we will not hesitate to introduce new measures.

Others have asked why we do not make SARS a notifiable disease. In this early and important stage of the SARS outbreak it is vital that we find out about all cases of the disease through rapid notification of cases rather than through the slow and bureaucratic processes associated with the notifiable disease regime. Unfortunately, that regime has become associated with significant under-reporting of disease. In any case, it is extraordinarily unusual for a person in this country suffering from an infectious disease to refuse treatment, reject advice and persuasion and necessitate calling the police compulsorily to detain them. We do not foresee that that power will be necessary in detaining people who fall ill with SARS at this stage.

For the benefit of the House, however, I should mention that the Public Health (Aircraft) Regulations 1979 do provide the power to detain for examination any person leaving an aircraft where there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that they are suffering from or have been exposed to infection. The Public Health (Ships) Regulations 1979 contain a similar provision. I can tell the House that should the CMO advise me that wider powers have become necessary, SARS will be made notifiable. I am advised that, if necessary, we could make it so within 48 hours.

We remain vigilant to the threat posed by SARS to public health in our country, so I can also tell the House today that I am taking further action following advice from the CMO. First, following emerging evidence from the main affected areas that SARS spreads through poor cross-infection control measures, all chief executives of NHS organisations are being reminded to ensure that rigorous controls are in place when treating a patient with possible SARS. That communication will also include an instruction to defer the start date of appointments of any foreign recruits to the NHS from SARS-affected areas.

Secondly, I am taking steps to check that the exit screening from ports of departure is indeed robust. The UK is this week sending observers to those areas to ensure that passengers are being screened in line with WHO guidance. Where we have doubts that that is the case, we will consider screening passengers on specific flights on entry to Britain, including asking them to make a signed declaration that they have not been in close contact with SARS cases and do not have symptoms themselves.

Thirdly, I intend with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to ask airlines returning passengers from SARS-affected areas to distribute information along with boarding cards. We also intend to discuss with the airlines other means of informing passengers about SARS on all long-haul flights from affected areas.

Fourthly, I remind all airlines of their obligations to provide a declaration of health when a plane arrives in this country.

Fifthly, next month at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, I will meet other Health Ministers to discuss whether any further measures above and beyond those already taken could be put in place at a European or international level.

The whole House will want to pay tribute to staff in the NHS for their prompt, effective and successful action in responding to SARS. The best advice that I have is that the UK, alongside many other countries that have experienced a very low incidence of SARS to date, may see further cases over the months ahead. Given the importance and ease of global travel, we cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. Given the complexity of detection, the test of success of our disease control policy rests on keeping to an absolute minimum the spread of the disease and successfully treating those affected.

To date, the NHS has met that challenge because of the precautionary but proportionate approach that has been taken. We will continue to be vigilant, we will take whatever means are necessary to safeguard the public health of our people and we will continue working with the international community to tackle and, in time, defeat this serious new disease.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and I thank him for making it available to the Opposition in advance.

He is absolutely right in the main thrust of his comments about the present situation in the United Kingdom. We are fortunate, especially given the amount of passenger traffic coming into the United Kingdom, that we have not had more cases of SARS, as has happened in Hong Kong and China. The staff who have looked after the cases in this country are to be congratulated on that. The question is, however, whether we are doing all that we can to keep it that way.

I am sure that the Secretary of State would be the first to agree that reports that the worst is over might lead to complacency, which would be highly regrettable. The outbreak in China is still gathering pace and is certainly not contained. If we look at the measures that have been taken in Asia over the past few days, we see that Taiwan has imposed a two-week ban on the entry of visitors from badly affected areas after the island announced its first SARS death on Saturday, that South Korea and the Philippines are taking new measures, and that in Singapore, although cases are declining with the imposition of stringent measures, including thermal imaging of air passengers, the quarantine regulations are being strictly enforced. To those who say that those Governments are going over the top, I point out that the director general of the WHO said this morning that such measures are not over the top, but prudent and necessary.

The Secretary of State said that we have had just six probable cases in the UK. Are any suspected or probable cases being investigated at the present time? If so, how many?

The issue on which I have the greatest disagreement with the Secretary of State is that of the notifiability of the disease. He says that it is extraordinarily unusual for a person in this country to reject advice and persuasion and to require detention. That is, of course, correct, but his approach is based on the presumption that somebody who is unwell with a high fever will act rationally. He says that if the situation gets worse, the Government will make it a notifiable disease, but, by his argument, they will do so only if the processes that have already been put in place have failed. The 1979 regulations that he mentions are inadequate, because they allow only for individuals to be detained for examination: they do not require someone to be quarantined and treated. Why are the Government denying the protection that the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 was introduced to provide? It is pointless to say that if the situation gets worse we will use the powers that we already have, as we should be using them to ensure that it does not arise in the first place.

I welcome what the Secretary of State said about increased information for passengers—that should have been done long before now—but I wonder whether the checks that are supposedly taking place at airports of departure are really taking place. I can say from my own experience that when I recently passed through Singapore as a passenger I was not given proper information about what would be happening in relation to SARS.

May I ask the Secretary of State about one or two of the measures that he proposes to introduce? He says that he will defer the start date for those coming into the United Kingdom to work in the NHS. For how long will he do so, and how will that be determined? Will that measure be kept in place until the entire SARS outbreak is under control? He says that if we send observers to airports of departure and they see that checks are not being made, he will ask for a declaration from passengers that they have not been in contact with SARS and do not have the symptoms of SARS. How will people who have been in Hong Kong or Singapore know whether they have been in contact with someone who has had SARS? That makes such a declaration utterly meaningless.

I am sure that the Secretary of State's officials looked at all the tests that could be of assistance, given that he said that we may find that passengers are not being properly screened before arriving back in the United Kingdom. For example, what advice has he received from his officials about using an actin serum screening test, which was originally developed as a screening test for blood transfusion, to act as an early marker for infection of donated blood?

It is used widely in Belgium and Germany. Someone who contracts a virus has an increased rate of apoptosis—more cell death—which produces actin fragments in the blood stream. Although it is non-specific, it becomes positive during the incubation period. Will the Secretary of State and his scientific advisers re-examine the experience of the use of the test and its possible application in the case of the failure of policies in airports to which he referred? We should use everything at our disposal to maximise public safety.

The judgment is not whether all that needs to be done but whether all that can be done is being done. The last thing we want is an increase in the number of cases when we could have taken action to prevent that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and questions. He said that we were fortunate not to have more cases in this country. I believe that it is a not question of good fortune but of good policy, good judgment and, most important, the action of the NHS and our public health services in this country. We are extremely fortunate to have one of the best public health systems in the world. The hon. Gentleman is aware of that and the measures that have been taken in the past few years to strengthen that system, most notably the creation of the Health Protection Agency. Steps have also been taken to strengthen public health powers locally through primary care trusts and regionally through the appointment of directors of public health.

The hon. Gentleman asserted that the spread of SARS was gathering pace. He should be cautious. Before I came to the House, I heard the latest advice from the WHO. It said that although there were major anxieties about China, it was pleased with progress in other countries, notably Singapore and Vietnam. It is important to maintain a sense of perspective and proportion. Otherwise, we simply will not get the policy right. The hon. Gentleman and I want to get it right.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the number of suspected cases as distinct from probable cases. The WHO has advised that we should try to identify the numbers of suspected cases and probable cases. In the latter, the balance of probability is in favour of the presence of a SARS infection. At this time of year in the part of south-east Asia that we are considering, there is a high incidence of flu-like illnesses alongside the new and emerging infection of SARS. It is therefore unsurprising that some people who return from those countries report symptoms that could be a cough, a cold, flu or, in the worst case, SARS. To date, about 50 suspected cases have been investigated and dismissed. The number of definite probable cases remains six.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned notifiability and considered whether the powers under the 1979 aircraft and ship regulations give us powers that he claimed that we did not have. Our lawyers advise me that we have precisely the powers that we need both to take people off a plane and ensure their hospitalisation.

I have taken clinical and scientific advice about the start date for new staff. We are proposing a 14-day breathing period to the NHS. Again, that is a precautionary approach given that the incubation period for SARS appears to be two to seven days or perhaps 10 days.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the declaration from passengers would mean anything if we took that route. He will find on examination that that is being done in other countries. I am not sure whether it is done in the United States but, for example, Air France has adopted such a policy. It is important to get some indication in the absence of any screening test. The hon. Gentleman knows the science as well as I do. There is currently no diagnostic test.

There is no blood or urine test to detect whether a person has SARS. The only screening that can be undertaken is to ask people some questions, and that is precisely what we propose to do.

I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman, who has been droning on on the radio and on television over the past few days, although thankfully he kept his remarks to a minimum today, would welcome the measures that we are taking because they are precisely in line with the precautionary but proportionate approach that is necessary.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but what the hon. Gentleman cannot get away from is that, despite the many visitors that we have each and every week from those areas that have been affected by this appalling new SARS virus, the cases that have presented, precisely because of the precautionary and proportionate approach that has been put in place, number just six. That is not a ground for complacency, but it is the foundation on which we seek to build, and it is important that we do so on the basis of the best scientific and clinical advice and avoid the situation that we have seen in previous public health scares, including those under his Administration, where it is politicians who decide the course of clinical and scientific policy.

The Secretary of State is sensible to make it clear to the population that there is a problem but that it should be kept in proportion, and both his Department and, in particular, the chief medical officer are to be congratulated on the sensible advice that they have given. However, will my right hon. Friend keep reminding those who are most at risk—primary care and emergency workers and those in A and E departments—that they must continue to be vigilant? It would be particularly sad if they were to relax their vigilance, even for a short time, because they believed that the problem had been dealt with. Will he offer to areas such as Hong Kong and Singapore, which have a high standard of public health, any possible support that can be given by the NHS and its specialised services?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I echo the tribute that my hon. Friend paid to the chief medical officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, who throughout has played an important and leading role in handling the SARS problem.

My hon. Friend is also right about the need for vigilance. We have distributed two alert notices to doctors in the NHS already, of which I think she is aware. We have also provided further detailed guidance through the web so that doctors can access information quickly and easily.

I also agree with my hon. Friend's point about our international responsibilities. Our predominant responsibility is to serve this country and to ensure that we protect its public health, but we also have some wider international community obligations, particularly in countries that have been more adversely affected. As I said, experts from the HPA will travel to Canada this week and we will also send HPA experts to other countries that have been adversely affected.

I, too, welcome the statement and the advance sight that we had of it. We share the concern of the House about the potential impact of the epidemic, not only on Britain's public health and on the well-being of world economies, but particularly on populations in developing countries that have neither the hospitals nor the public health structures adequately to treat the infection or to contain its spread. In that respect, reports of cases in India now are extremely worrying.

Liberal Democrats believe, as I think does the Minister, that in public health matters it is important to take advice from professionals and from the science base, which is now global. But is it not also incumbent on Ministers, when formulating policy to tackle an epidemic such as this to set out the detail of the advice and the reasons why those decisions have been taken?

For example, with regard to the MMR vaccine, the right hon. Gentleman will know that Liberal Democrats have no criticism of Ministers' decisions, nor of the way in which they explained precisely why they took such an approach, but does he understand why it is difficult for those of us who broadly support the Government's approach to understand why Ministers do not take the opportunity now to require SARS to be notified in order to give environmental health departments and hospital authorities reserve powers to insist on compliance with public health authorities? He needs to explain why that is not happening.

The Minister with responsibility for public health has merely cited the chief medical officer's advice, without setting out the evidence and reasons for it. Given the potential seriousness of a UK outbreak, does the Secretary of State accept that claiming that notification would be too bureaucratic is not a satisfactory reason for not making the disease notifiable and providing those powers? Is it not the case that the so-called bureaucratic system of reporting need not replace the current system? If the Secretary of State believes that the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 is unwieldy, does he not agree that it is regrettable that successive Governments have not followed the advice of the chief medical officers, given in 1988 and more recently, to update that legislation?

On airport screening, does the Secretary of State accept that, while World Health Organisation guidance recommends screening at the airport of departure, it does not advise against screening at the airport of arrival? Would it not be appropriate to use our immigration and entry system to provide the information needed and, possibly, to provide temperature screening? Will he also explain what advice he has had from the chief medical officer on asking passengers to sign forms when they might not even have the language skills to do so? No clinician would take such an approach, as such action would require a consultation.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the isolation of asymptomatic people—even if they have passed through Singapore, as the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has done—is, as the CMO advises, unnecessary? It could be counter-productive, as it could lead to unjustified discrimination and stigma, and might deter people with symptoms from coming forward. This problem is going to be with us for months, at best, and probably for years. The worst-case scenario is that it could affect the world for decades. The House must revisit the problem, and I hope that the Secretary of State will take the opportunity of forthcoming health legislation to provide the framework to update our public health legislation in the way that has been recommended serially by chief medical officers over the last 14 years.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think that isolating the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) would be rather a good policy. The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) must have written his speech—I know that it is only hand scribbled, but for him that is progress—before having read my statement, because I have tried to explain precisely the reasons for our decisions on the notification of SARS. We keep an open mind on that matter, however, and if I get the advice from the CMO to change that, I will.

The hon. Gentleman made two important points. First, on the modernisation of public health legislation, the chief medical officer made recommendations to us about modernising the notifiable disease framework within a broader context, and I have some sympathy for them. We shall obviously keep that issue under review. The second point that the hon. Gentleman made, which is extremely important in dealing with these issues, is that while our action must be proportionate, it must also be based on the best scientific and clinical advice that we can get. There are good reasons for that. Anyone who remembers the outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and variant CJD will know how important it is for Ministers not to give false assurances from the Dispatch Box, but to rely in as open and transparent a way as possible on the best scientific and clinical advice that we can get, precisely so that we can take a precautionary and proportionate approach.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the chief medical officer on the measured and sensible way in which they are handling this situation? It is very reassuring for everyone in the country. I also thank my right hon. Friend for his assurance that he is to send observers to other parts of the world to ensure that, as far as possible, people are screened before they get on to aeroplanes. Clearly, the most effective way of controlling this outbreak is to ensure that people who are suspected of having the disease are prevented from travelling before they can spread it any further.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on recent reports that China has severely under-reported the number of cases there? There has certainly been a big stir in the media about that. Is he now confident that the Chinese Government have a policy and measures in place accurately to report the number of cases, so that we can be sure that we are getting the full facts?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. So far as observers are concerned, we have been in contact with the various British embassies in the affected countries about the situation. As I said in my statement, we shall be sending observers during the course of this week, particularly to the worst-affected areas, to double-check that the procedures that those countries say are in place are properly in place and that they comply with WHO guidance.

As for the under-reporting of the number of SARS cases in China, we rely not only on our excellent embassy staff in Beijing, Hong Kong and other parts of China that are affected, but on the guidance and expertise of the WHO. If the WHO is satisfied that the reporting in China is now accurate, we can also be satisfied that that is so.

Those of us with constituencies in boroughs containing major ports of entry into the United Kingdom will not be wholly reassured by the Secretary of State's statement. Will he institute right away a proper screening of inbound passengers from areas that are already seriously affected by the disease? Is it not better to be over-cautious than under-cautious, especially in view of the great risk of further spread of the disease in environments such as the London tube system, where as everyone knows there is close contact between individuals? What measures are airlines taking to protect air crew, especially flight attendants?

The hon. Gentleman asks me to do the impossible and to come up with a form of screening that can detect the virus. We do not have the technology or the science to enable us to do that.

Temperature screening does not give us an indication either. The virus, particularly in its early presentation, shares many symptoms with coughs, colds and other viral infections. There is not a simple test. If there were, we would put it in place, as would Governments throughout the world. I am sure that the WHO would quickly advise us to do so. The only screening that we can do is to try to ascertain from passengers coming from SARS-affected areas whether they have been in contact with the disease. I realise that that is far from perfect, but the hon. Gentleman must understand that this is a new and emerging infection, that we are trying to learn as we go, and that the best scientific experts in this country and throughout the world are being deployed on that task.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was neither satisfied nor reassured by my statement. I accept that he has a view about that. However, if he is not prepared to believe me, I hope that he will believe some of the leading scientific and clinical experts in this country. Professor Roy Anderson, who is a leading epidemiologist from Imperial college in London, was interviewed by John Humphrys on the "Today" programme on Saturday. John Humphrys asked:
"Professor Anderson, are we sufficiently on top of this one do you think?"
Professor Anderson replied:

"I think so, yes. I think the sort of doom and gloom predictions have been rather exaggerated. This is not a highly transmissible infection. It's been effectively contained in most of the developed countries in the world with very limited number of cases, Britain being a good example".

I feel reassured by the Secretary of State's statement, and I have absolute confidence that a properly funded national health service with an effective public health infrastructure is the best way to deal with this problem. I want to refer to an issue that was raised by one of my constituents on Thursday last. She is a parent escort for nine special needs children. She accompanies them back and forth to school, and one of them has just returned from a SARS-affected area. My right hon. Friend can understand the concern of other parents in the school or on the bus each morning. The local education authority was unable to give effective advice, except to monitor the progress of the child who had come back from the far east. What information does my right hon. Friend have about the level of infectivity prior to the display of symptoms? Can he reassure the House that there is proper liaison at local level between the health service and LEAs and other public bodies?

Separately but in tandem with the advice that the chief medical officer has distributed to the national health service at local level, the Department for Education and Skills has also distributed information to LEAs through its channels. If it is helpful to my hon. Friend, I shall get a copy of that advice sent to him.

Fortunately, to the best of our knowledge, at this moment in time at least, people with SARS are not infectious until the symptoms appear. People with flu are highly infectious during the period leading up to the appearance of symptoms, but this disease appears on the face of it to be different. That should give us ground for optimism.

My final point is a response to my hon. Friend's first. A situation such as this clearly reveals the considerable strengths of a single national health service for our country, which are integrated provision and the integration of public health services at local, regional and national levels. That is why we on this side of the House, at least, intend to maintain a national health service.

Can the Secretary of State assure us that the advice given by the chief medical officer about areas that people should not visit is reflected in that given by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

If I may be forgiven a constituency question, the Secretary of State may or may not know that after Glasgow and Edinburgh, Toronto is the third most populous Scottish city in the world. Many of my constituents go to and fro between Scotland and Toronto, particularly when taking their holidays. The big issue is whether they should cancel, or indeed in some cases book, trips to see their kin and loved ones in Toronto in July, August, September or October. What advice should we give to them?

I am extremely reluctant to get involved in Scottish matters in general and Scottish holiday matters in particular. The best advice to which I can refer my hon. Friend is that given by the chief medical officer, and if it will help him, I will make sure that he gets a copy of it.

Officials within the Secretary of State's Department have said that it is bureaucracy that is preventing this disease from being notifiable; in fact, the problem is under-reporting and under-notification through current legislation. Does he agree that his officials' comments have further undermined professionals' confidence in the reporting and notification system, and that those comments have not helped during the current outbreak? If he genuinely believes that the level of bureaucracy is at fault and that it is the reason why notification reporting has not been used for SARS, how does he intend to remove or to improve it?

As far as under-reporting is concerned, the fault lines in the official notification system have been a cause for some concern not only for people in my Department but for public health professionals. As the hon. Gentleman must be aware, under-reporting has got progressively worse, rather than better, over many years. However, he will also know from the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease episode that other systems of reporting can be at least as effective—they are often more effective—as the official disease notification system. Indeed, to the best of our knowledge, at least, vCJD is almost 100 per cent. successfully reported. All of the cases that are identified are properly reported.

The hon. Gentleman will share my desire—particularly in the early phase of what is a serious outbreak of this disease—that all cases be reported as quickly as possible with the minimum of bureaucracy, and that is what is happening. Cases are being reported directly to the chief medical officer and also to the new Health Protection Agency, rather than going through the form-filling exercise of which the hon. Gentleman is doubtless painfully aware.

Given that the disease is much more well established in China, what is known about its profile in the later stages of its evolution in China in terms of spread, growth, transmission and mutation? Indeed, what is known about the actions that the Chinese are taking to combat the later stages of its evolution? Would it not be a good idea to take such actions in a pre-emptive way as a precautionary measure?

As far as action in China is concerned, I understand that the Chinese Government are taking the matter and the accurate reporting of cases extremely seriously. Without accurate epidemiology, this or any other country will simply not be able to deal with the problems.

We know that the worst cases of the spread of SARS—including, tragically, not only those in China but in Toronto—have occurred where there have been inadequate cross-infection control procedures, particularly in hospitals.

We know from information from the Canadian authorities and through the World Health Organisation that, because several cases in Toronto hospitals were not spotted quickly, the isolated nursing procedures now recommended by the WHO were not put in place, leading to the fairly rapid spread of SARS. Many people adversely affected have been in close contact with SARS sufferers, so they tend to be close members of the family or, sadly, health care workers who have had to treat SARS patients. We know that much, and, because we know it, we can act appropriately and proportionately. That is why we are providing the advice and adopting the approach that we are.

In his statement today, the Secretary of State was dismissive of the notifiable disease regime, effectively ruling it out as an effective tool in the battle to secure public health. If it is really as bad as that, what does he intend to do to reform it?

The hon. Gentleman was present during my statement and he knows full well that I did not say that. I said that if I received advice from the chief medical officer that further powers were necessary, on top of those already available in legislation through the 1979 regulations, we would not hesitate to take them. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it is important to take decisions on the basis of the best clinical and scientific advice, which is what we will continue to do. The fact that we have done so to date is one of the reasons why we have so few SARS cases in this country so far, and we shall continue to adopt the same approach in the weeks and months to come.

Should we not put SARS more into perspective, as I am probably in greater danger of catching malaria? Should we not be more worried about the three children in hospital in Scotland with E. coli? Does not the panic caused by outrageous statements made in the media by Tory and Liberal spokesmen—I am glad that they were a little more responsible today—create tremendous problems? We should tell people that of course it is safe to go to Toronto. If we continue with this panic, not only transportation, but our economies will be adversely affected. If that happens, many more young children in the developing world will die of malnutrition as a result, which is something that we should really be worried about.

I think that it is right to take the SARS outbreak seriously, but I also think that it is important to keep it in perspective and in proportion. I read with interest in one of the weekend papers an article by Dr. Robert Baker, who is a specialist in infectious diseases at King's College hospital in London. He reminded us that in the course of a day, 3,000 children die of malaria worldwide; that nearly 3 million more people will have died of tuberculosis by the end of 2003; that 40 million people have died from AIDS; and that in the USA, ordinary influenza kills between 20,000 and 30,000 people each and every year. There are also several thousand such deaths in this country alone. However, that is not to downplay in any way the significance of a new and serious illness.

My right hon. Friend is right that we have to keep a sense of proportion about SARS. I simply refer him to what Dr. Vivienne Nathanson, head of science at the British Medical Association, said about the problem:
"It is extremely important that the public does not panic over Sars. The Department of Health, the Health Protection Agency and the World Health Organisation are taking all appropriate steps."

What particular measures has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that SARS does not spread to the nations and the regions of the United Kingdom? Given the current purdah in the Scottish Parliament, what discussions has he had with representative bodies in Scotland to ensure that the disease does not spread there?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the chief medical officer in England has discussions, through the Health Protection Agency and the usual channels, with chief medical officers in the other countries of the UK. On public health issues, we try to maintain as far as possible a UK-wide response, so our response in England is largely mirrored in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Given that the largest number of people entering this country from SARS-affected areas will come through Heathrow airport in my constituency, will the Secretary of State or a member of his ministerial team meet local Members of Parliament and representatives of primary care trusts and the local authority to discuss the resource implications of these incidents, especially in the light of his second recommendation that there should be wider screening of incoming passenger flights under certain conditions?

My hon. Friend has written to me about those issues and I know that he has received several representations from members of the community and possibly from staff at Heathrow. I thank people who work there, especially those working in public health and the environmental health officers who have behaved extremely responsibly. Indeed, they have, off their own bat, introduced a system of random boarding of aircraft arriving from some SARS-affected areas to ensure that airlines are fulfilling their international health obligations. That is very welcome and if we can extend that system we should do so.

My hon. Friend asks about a meeting with a Minister from the Department of Health. I am sure that we can arrange that.

What advice and reassurance can the Secretary of State offer the family of a teenager in my constituency who has a severely damaged immune system? They have already withdrawn her from school so that she does not come into contact with children returning from seriously affected countries after the Easter holiday. Would it not be helpful if the Secretary of State's guidance to local education authorities included information about the number of children returning from such areas and monitoring of their health?

The best advice that I can give is to refer the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to the information that is widely available through various websites, including NHS Direct. If he or his constituents have been unable to obtain access to that advice, I shall be more than happy to provide it in written form so that he can pass it on to them.

Given the importance of rigorous control of cross-infection, to which the Secretary of State referred, does he share my concern that scrupulous attention to hygiene and infection control in the NHS—for example, by hand washing—should be a key ingredient to ensure that not only SARS but any infection does not spread? Given that only a few years ago an Audit Commission report showed that hand washing was not being adequately done and given the fact that it is still not being adequately done, can we be as confident as the Secretary of State that the matter will not become a wider problem in the health service?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise those concerns, which many of us share. That is why we have sent two communications to the NHS—a third will be sent either today or later this week—stressing the importance, at senior and chief executive level, of ensuring that the appropriate infectious disease control mechanisms are in place in NHS trusts. It is not simply a question of hand washing; probable SARS cases will need to be treated in an isolated environment. The WHO recommends barrier nursing. So far, such processes have proven effective in that they have successfully looked after six people with probable SARS and limited further spread. It is that—the limitation of further spread—which is so important in dealing with this serious illness.

Tax Credits

5.23 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker, with your permission, I should like to make a statement about the child and working tax credits that have been introduced this month.

The introduction of the child tax credit is the biggest single change in support for families since the Beveridge reforms of the 1940s, and a more radical change than the introduction of child benefit 25 years ago. Ninety per cent. of families with children are eligible to benefit from the credit.

The new tax credits represent the biggest-ever investment in families; no Government have spent so much on children and families. A single-earner couple working full-time at the national minimum wage, with two children, will receive about £400 a year more from the new tax credits compared with the working families tax credit and the children's tax credit which they replace. Some families are receiving as much as £4,800 a year; more than £90 a week for the maintenance of two children—a doubling of support since 1997. With these new tax credits, some groups are receiving extra child support for the first time, including student nurses and students.

We are integrating the tax and benefits system to produce a fairer system, so the new tax credits are administered by the Inland Revenue and they continue to be paid to families when they move from welfare into work. The child tax credit is being introduced at the same time as the working tax credit, with its more generous help for low-paid workers, including disabled men and women or older people returning to work.

I want to deal with each of the issues about the introduction of child tax credit that MPs have brought to me; but, first, it will perhaps help the House if I update it about the details on the current take-up of the new tax credits. I am pleased to say that the Inland Revenue has received more than 4 million applications. In addition, 1.3 million families on income support and jobseeker's allowance will be transferred automatically from next April to the child tax credit, but they are already benefiting from the increased level of support.

There are many, including some Members, who said that families would simply not apply for the new tax credits and that take-up would be, and remain, low. That is simply wrong. All those families with incomes below £58,000 are entitled to receive a tax credit. More than 5.3 million people have either applied or are receiving it already. As a result, enhanced family support is reaching a far larger number of people than the old system of family credit or the working families tax credit, which it replaces. So far from people failing to claim those new tax credits, millions have claimed, and because we are not complacent, the take-up campaign will continue.

I remind the House that families can still claim and get their tax credits backdated to 6 April. So with more than 4 million claims received in addition to the 1.3 million on income support and jobseeker's allowance, let me remind the House that families were given a choice about how often they receive payments: they could request to be paid either weekly or monthly. In addition to those on income support and jobseeker's allowance, more than 1 million families asked to be paid weekly, and the Inland Revenue is already making regular payments to those families. Most of those families are now in their fourth week of payment.

However, two thirds of families asked to be paid monthly. The first date for monthly payment is today, followed by payments throughout the rest of this week. Indeed, one of the facts that the helpline has consistently had to confirm is that the earliest date for the first monthly payment is 28 April. So today, as planned, we have begun, as we told families, to pay the 2 million due to be paid every four weeks. I can tell the House that our aim is that those families will get their money by Friday of this week.

The Inland Revenue informed families that they should claim their tax credits by 31 January, so that their awards could be set up in good time for the payment of tax credits to start in April. I have to tell the House that nearly 1 million claims have been received since the beginning of March. Those claims are being processed as fast as possible by the Inland Revenue, which is prioritising people who have asked to be paid weekly and those families who claimed working families tax credit.

Some Members have also raised with me instances of families who did not receive their money when they expected it, particularly those who had claimed tax credits before 31 January but had not received their award notice or payment. I apologise for the difficulties experienced by individual families, and I can assure the House that the Revenue is doing all that it can to put things right. The Revenue has now contacted almost all those families, and the vast majority of them are already receiving payment. It is our intention that anyone who has made a complete application and has yet to receive money will do so by the end of this week, and arrangements are in place to make interim payments to people where necessary.

Our first priority has been to ensure that all families receive the money due to them, but it has also been necessary to increase the number of staff to provide advice on the helpline by more than 700. At its peak, the helpline was receiving nearly 2 million calls a day, and it is still receiving 400,000 a day. In addition, the number of staff covering the MPs' helpline has been tripled, and because some claimants are now using the M Ps' helpline number, the Inland Revenue will set up a new, additional direct number for MPs. I will write to every Member individually to inform them of the new number. So 1.3 million income support claimants are receiving their payments—as planned. For weekly claims, we are already paying more than 1 million families—as planned. From today, for monthly claimants, we are making payments to 2 million families—as planned—and we will continue to raise the number of payments as more and more claims are processed over the coming weeks.

In doing so, we are tackling the problem of child poverty that we inherited and ensuring decent family incomes, in and out of work. We are making work pay for a wider range of people, helping them to help themselves out of poverty and to stay out of poverty. We are tackling the barriers to work by enabling people to afford the child care that they need. We are investing an extra £2.7 billion in supporting families with children and those in low-paid work.

Because our child tax credit is available to nine out of 10 families with children, in and out of work, on top of child benefit, to the main carer, money no longer depends on the work status of the adult in the household, and the stream of income stays with people when they move into work. In the same way, the working tax credit will reach a wide range of those at risk of being in poverty even though they are in work, as well as continuing to support disabled workers and working families with children.

It is a big undertaking to deliver a reform on this scale. We are determined, however, to pursue the objectives that we have set ourselves on tackling poverty and making work pay, and to make the investment in our country's future that these tax credits represent. The numbers who have claimed belie the persistent criticism that people would not claim, so we are well placed to do that.

First, may I thank the Paymaster General for her courtesy in allowing me prior sight of her statement and in responding to the call for a statement, which I made in the letter that I sent to the Chancellor more than 10 days ago?

Can the Paymaster General respond to the following three areas of concern? First, on the numbers involved, can she confirm the astonishing claim reported in the press this morning that even now, almost one month after the new system was introduced, 300,000 people have not had their benefits paid despite submitting their application forms by the January deadline? Is not that problem about to get worse? Those who have opted to receive payments on a four-week cycle are now due to receive their money. How many of those families will fail to receive their payments on time?

Secondly, in view of the fact that Ministers have already withdrawn the old structure of financial support, which the new system was meant to replace, does the Paymaster General accept that the onus is on them to make sure that no one is out of pocket? What plans does she have to compensate those families who have lost out? How many families have received the emergency interim payments; what are the criteria for those payments; and what has been done to advise others who may be eligible of the availability of those payments? Will she now respond to the call from the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), for an emergency extension of social fund loans to those in need as a result of this crisis?

Thirdly, what of the advice that claimants are meant to receive? Can the Paymaster General tell the House more about the current state of the so-called telephone helpline and why that effectively collapsed despite costing £53 million to set up? When will it be fully operational again? What would she say to those such as the man who reportedly made more than 2,400 attempts to get through on the helpline, only to be put on hold for a quarter of an hour and told that the form that he needed would take 15 days to arrive? What efforts are being made to contact those who are eligible for help but have not applied for the credits?

On take-up, the right hon. Lady gave the numbers of those who have applied. Can she give the number of those families who are eligible who have not applied? Is it not the case that that figure is in the region of 1 million?

Is it any wonder that even before this shambles the Government Chief Whip told The Scotsman that the Chancellor's flagship system of tax credits is not appreciated or understood by the low paid? Is it any wonder that even before this shambles, as recently as last December, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that
"the tax credit system has not had the transforming impact we thought it would have and should have"?
These tax credits were the Chancellor's brainchild. He was happy to boast about them at the time, but he has since gone rather quiet on the issue. He said in his Budget just three weeks ago that the system would allow parents to balance work and family life so that they can make "real and effective choices". So how would he answer my constituent, Mr. Bridges, who said:

"I am now facing the decision as to which bills to stop paying…to ensure I am able to feed our children",
and that

"getting help from their helpline is like picking the six winning lottery numbers—nearly impossible"?
Another of my constituents says:

"I cannot begin"—[Interruption.]
Labour Members ought to listen to this—it is their constituents, as well as ours, who are suffering. My constituent says:

"I cannot begin to tell you how frustrated I am, and how concerned I am about the state of my finances… How do I feed my children? How do I pay my rent?"
Are not hundreds of thousands of families as worried as they are? As one claimant told us,

"being on a low income I need the money when it is due, which is why I applied five months ago".
Is it not the case that this shambles is entirely the Chancellor's responsibility? Is it not the Chancellor who, since October 1999, has introduced five new tax credits for families, scrapped four of them and then introduced two new ones? Is it not the Chancellor who was warned by the then shadow Chief Secretary that the scheme carried the risk of leading to

"even greater bureaucracy and complexity in our tax system and of it failing to be able to deliver to the needy when they are particularly in need of support"?—[Official Report, 10 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 608.]
Is it not the Chancellor who should be at the Dispatch Box today, accepting responsibility and apologising to the hundreds of thousands of families who have needlessly been caused distress and dismay because of his incompetence?

Just three weeks ago, the Chancellor decided to call his Budget Red Book "Building a Britain of economic strength and social justice". Has a Red Book title ever been so inappropriate? Independent commentators have been queuing up to say that the Chancellor has got his figures on the economy wrong again. So much for economic strength. Will not the families caught up in this tax credit shambles view his promises on social justice as another sick joke?

Ministers said that with this new system there would be one point of claim. Is it not clear that there is in fact one point of blame, and does it not reside in the person of the Chancellor? Once these immediate problems have been resolved—if they are resolved—is there not a need for an urgent inquiry to look both at the administrative problem and at the Chancellor's policy decisions which brought them about?

Let us take this nice and slowly for the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I am greatly encouraged that he and members of his party who said that this would be a disaster and that nobody would claim are now backing off from that allegation. To suggest that the system is a shambles is a travesty. Some 5.7 million families may benefit from the new tax credits; 3.2 million are in payment or about to be in payment. If we add to that the 1.3 million families, included in the 5.7 million, who are on income support and jobseeker's allowance and who have received their extra money, the right hon. and learned Gentleman can see immediately that although he may wish that millions have not applied, that is not the case.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked a series of questions. With regard to the claims made before 31 January, as I said in my statement, the current position is that those families are receiving payment or are about to receive payment, or there are outstanding inquiries that we are rapidly trying to conclude.

With regard to those families who did not receive the payment when expected, who felt that they would experience difficulties or were already doing so, as I said in my statement, the Inland Revenue will make an interim payment, and those payments are being made. There is no need to resort to the social fund—an interim payment can be made. With regard to compensation, as I have told the House repeatedly, if there are circumstances in which people did not receive the service that they were entitled to expect I shall certainly look very closely at that.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman also asked about the helpline. I have explained to him that 700 extra staff were put on to the helpline to help with the enormous demand, at the height of which there were 2 million calls. Those staff are now in place. We are meeting 2 million claims this week, so calls will start to decline, and are already doing so. If the Inland Revenue received an application from a family by last Friday it will pay the family by next week unless there are outstanding queries to which we are awaiting a reply from the claimant. That does not spell a system in chaos. Millions of families are already receiving payment and millions more are about to receive payment this week. By the end of next week, the remainder who have replied will either receive payment or will have been contacted by the Revenue for further clarification.

A good scheme is in danger of getting a bad name because of a number of problems that claimants are experiencing. The credits may be coming through soon for a number of people but, nevertheless, there are masses of problems. The MPs need the helpline for exceptional cases—it is something that we are obliged to push and argue for on behalf of scores of people in our constituencies. They may represent only a small percentage of cases but are important in getting this right.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to get this right and ensure that people receive payment when they expect it. Many people rang the helpline asking for confirmation of when the first four-weekly payment would be made. Such payments will be made today and throughout the rest of the week. The MPs' helpline is there to assist Members in any way that Members feel is appropriate. The number of staff working on that helpline has been tripled and, as I have told the House, to assist MPs, an additional helpline will be made available to cope with any queries about payment. However, I stress again that 3.2 million families are already receiving payment or are about to do so, and 1. 3 million families on income support or JSA are already receiving their money, which means that over 4 million families—5 million nearly—are in payment. That is a success story, but it is vital that all those families who want to receive the money get it speedily and, where there are difficulties, an interim payment is made.

The Minister keeps saying that things are going as planned, yet my constituents could not get through on the phone and are not getting the payments that they need to pay their bills. Contrary to what the right hon. Lady has just said, not 5 million but 4 million are either getting payment or, in her words are "about to receive" it. How many of our constituents have heard those words as they try to pursue the payments that they need to pay their bills?

Is it not a fact that 1 million have not claimed—twice as many as the Government said—or is that now "as planned"? Is it not the case that 1 million at least are not expected to receive payment for some time to come—that is the real admission in today's statement which the Minister glossed over—or was that "as planned"? Although the Department now likes to blame our constituents for not getting their applications in by 31 January, is it not the case that 300,000 people who met the timetable have not got their money? In any case, where in the prominent advertising did it say that people had to get their claims in by 31 January? The advertising material—it was the main warning of what people had to do—did not feature that information with any prominence.

Ministers are now struggling with the problem. Are they at least prioritising? Do they have a system in place to enable them to prioritise those who are most needy and still missing out?

Will the Minister explain why she has failed to give us any figures on the working tax credit? Is it true, as rumoured, that that system has been a total disaster, with almost no take-up? Will the Minister give us the figures? She clearly knows them because she has disaggregated the child credit claim figures.

What lessons will the Minister draw from this fiasco for the pension credit that is now coming down the line? What will the Government do to make that simple? We still have no claim form. We have no idea of the notes that will be involved. We know that Ministers are already banking on 1 million pensioners failing to claim even though they are entitled to do so. That is because they find the forms too difficult to complete or they find it too demeaning to go through the means-tested process. Is it not time that Ministers admitted that the system is too complicated, that pension credit should be abandoned and that pensioners instead should be given decent pension increases, especially elderly pensioners who experience the most difficulty in completing the forms but are in most need of the money?

Does the Minister regret not accepting the proposal that was made by Liberal Democrat Members in Committee that the existing benefit book system should be allowed to continue after 1 April where payments for credits have not been processed, which Ministers said at the time was unnecessary? They were clearly wrong.

I do not regret never taking the advice of the Liberal Democrats. Had I done so in this instance, the 3.2 million people in receipt of or about to be paid their child tax credit or working tax credit would not have the increased payments. The popularity of the scheme is clear. Four million claims have been received and tens of thousands of claims are coming in every day.

There is not a missing million. I shall try to explain it again: 5.75 million families are able to benefit and 4 million claims have already been received. We must add to that the 1.3 million who are on income support or JSA. There is not a missing million.

The hon. Gentleman asked specifically about claims that are coming in now, and about prioritisation. I can confirm that as we receive claims we are prioritising those who wish to have their payments made weekly, and trying to get that money to them as quickly as possible. Secondly, we are prioritising those who have previously been on working families tax credit or disabled persons tax credit. As I have said, by next week the Inland Revenue expects to have processed the claims that it had received as of last Friday. Payments will be made to the families unless there are outstanding inquiries relating to the details on the form.

Given the huge take-up, I fail to understand how any reasonable person in the Chamber could say that take-up has not been a success.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, but does she recognise that the failures of the system have caused real hardship for many of my constituents, such as Mr. and Mrs. Russ Jones of Sacristow, County Durham, who wrote:

"We rely on this money on a day to day basis."
They say that the income has ceased. The letter continues:

"Yesterday was my son's birthday. I had the heart-breaking task to tell him that we were not able to buy him a gift."
Will my right hon. Friend explain to Mr. and Mrs. Jones and many other constituents of mine who have contacted my office over the past week, why, as in the Jones's case, even though they made an application eight months ago, processing has not taken place? Why have Mr. and Mrs. Jones had to spend more than seven days trying to get through to the helpline? Will my right hon. Friend apologise to Mr. and Mrs. Jones and others and seriously consider paying compensation to some of the people who have suffered badly because of the failures of the system?

Of course I apologise unreservedly to my hon. Friend and his constituents, and to the other hon. Members who have indicated that similar circumstances have been brought to their notice. I reiterate that the Inland Revenue can and should be making an interim payment in such cases. Of course, as my hon. Friend says, we need to consider this matter urgently. I take note of his point about compensation, and I will come back to him on the specific case.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke
(Rushcliffe)