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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2003

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Office Of The Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked

Social Housing


If he will make a statement on his policy for (a) improving the quality of and (b) increasing the quantity of social housing. [112970]

On 5 February I launched the sustainable community action plan. It marks a step change in our approach to housing in communities. We will invest £22 billion over the next three years, including £5 billion for affordable homes and £2.8 billion to bring local authority housing up to decent housing standards.

My district council has been attempting to sell a mobile homes park in Ringwood to its residents, who in turn have made an enormous effort to raise the mortgage money. The deal has been jeopardised by the abolition of local authority social housing grant. What can I say to the residents of Stillwater mobile homes park to reassure them that they will not be left behind, and that they will get a fair deal?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the local authority housing condition grants were not being used in a proper manner. Some authorities were not using them to provide the social housing for which they were intended. I explained to the House why I had changed the arrangements in the community plan. Difficulties were caused for projects that were half finished, so we have applied different arrangements from those that are in the process of implementation. The project referred to by the hon. Gentleman does not fall into that class, and I assume that a certain amount of planning took place in the hope that the money would be available.

On balance, I think that our judgment was correct. I think that what the hon. Gentleman should tell his constituents is that the argument was very much against the implementation of the right-to-buy policy in this instance.

Will my right hon. Friend explain exactly how social housing will be improved by the warm homes initiative?

In the community programmes we allow for money not just to build houses but to enable them to meet the new energy standards that we are applying. That is not happening in most parts of the country, and I shall ensure that greater priority is given to it.

The Deputy Prime Minister has claimed in the past that abuses of the right-to-buy scheme reduce the availability of social housing for new tenants. On Monday, the Government introduced their plans for savage cuts in the discounts available to right-to-buy tenants. Are those cuts designed to stamp out abuses, or simply to deny the right to buy to thousands of poorer tenants?

I think the right hon. Gentleman would agree that where there is abuse we should deal with it, because this is the taxpayer's money, but the reduction in interest rates under our policies—which is considerably greater than any reduction that occurred when his party were in government—has allowed more than 1 million people to buy their houses. The subsidy of nearly £40 billion simply allowing people to buy houses, rather than allowing the public stock to be improved or increased, worked against a good housing policy.

May I drag the Deputy Prime Minister back to the question? Cutting discounts by more than half will not hit the abusers; it will hit the poorest tenants. Only on Monday the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), confessed that these savage cuts were designed to reduce the number of families exercising the right to buy by 9,000—and it will be 9,000 of the poorest families.

Most of those families cannot afford to move out of social housing, so few if any of the homes will be released to new tenants. According to the figures given by the Under-Secretary of State on Monday, only about 30 homes a year will be released for new tenants in London. Denying the right to buy to 9,000 families will deny the public purse £900 million—about enough for 5,000 new social homes.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that what he is doing is not only shattering the hopes and dreams of 9,000 poor council tenants who wanted to own their homes, but denying thousands of homeless people their chance of occupying social housing?

If the last Administration had been seriously interested in increasing the housing stock and the availability of social housing, they would not have reduced the moneys available to local authorities to provide social housing, year on year. Their sole housing policy was to provide the right to buy. We have restricted that by reducing the discounts in housing crisis areas. We think that that policy is right, and we intend to pursue it.

I repeat: I think that our policy of reducing interest rates is better than spending £40 billion on subsidising houses simply to implement the principle of the right to buy for 1 million people, and it increases the number of people owning their homes by the same amount. The right hon. Gentleman should have discussed that during his most recent bonding session with his leader.

Planning System


What resources he will give to local authorities to speed up the planning system. [112941]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Tony McNulty)

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has a comprehensive planning reform agenda. We are tackling the structure, processes and culture of the planning system. We accept that authorities need more resources to deliver service improvements, so we are making an additional £350 million available to them over the next three years for planning, of which £50 million is already being distributed this year.

I am grateful for that reply, but does my hon. Friend accept that the UK's renewables industry has often faced very significant delays in obtaining decisions through the planning system, whether favourable or unfavourable? Given the considerable potential of renewables to deliver the significant environmental benefits that the Energy White Paper refers to, the extra jobs that could be created in the manufacturing and offshore industries, and the new income streams for rural areas that renewables could deliver, is it not now time that the planning system had a presumption in favour of renewables, rather than the neutral position that it currently takes?

I commend my hon. Friend for his work on behalf of the all-party group on renewable and sustainable energy, and for his interest in this area. Planning policy guidance 22, which is 10 years out of date, does need updating. Among other things, the criteria must include greater clarity and less delay, but I am afraid that it would be totally wrong for the planning system to have a presumption in favour of any type of development.

For the benefit of those of us who could not serve on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill Standing Committee, can the Minister tell us when the House will consider it on Report? He says that he wants to speed up the planning system, yet the Committee finished its proceedings four months ago. Is it not true that delays in the planning system are more down to central Government than to local authorities?

I would very much like to tell the hon. Gentleman that he was sorely missed in Committee, but he was not. It is certainly still our intention to get that Bill approved and on the statute book as soon as we possibly can.

In Redhill—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That is the only example of turkeys appearing to be in favour of Christmas—a Christmas that I am trying to arrange for them. In Redhill, a major development by Linden Homes, involving more than 500 homes and including a significant amount of social housing, has been mired in the planning process for more than a decade and a half. It is running into planning problems with Network Rail, as access to the site is required from underneath a railway line. I am meeting representatives of Network Rail and Linden Homes next week, and I should be very grateful if the Minister could get an official from his Department to observe that meeting and report back to him on how Network Rail is going to assist in getting us through the planning process.

Strangely, in recent weeks I have listened far more carefully to the hon. Gentleman than previously. However, I am afraid that I am unable to comment on specific planning applications, as they might end up on my desk or those of my colleagues.

Although I welcome the extra resources that local authorities will get during this period, is the Minister prepared to consider the financing of local authorities that have a lot of difficulty in, and spend a great deal of money on, removing illegal encampments of travellers? Will he please meet a delegation from my local authority, which has spent well in excess of £100,000 in legal fees just to ensure that the planning process runs smoothly?

I accept that this is a serious issue, and I have had numerous meetings on it. I am more than happy to meet a delegation from Nuneaton to discuss it further.

Retail Developments


If he will make a statement on his policy on the construction of retail developments on the outskirts of urban areas. [112942]

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the parliamentary statement "Planning for Town Centres", which was issued on 10 April. It summarises and clarifies the Government's planning policy for town centres and retail development. We remain firmly committed to focusing retail development in town centres. This policy is working, and we now have more in-town than out-of-town development than at any time since the mid-1980s.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his answer, but does he recall the application for a retail development in the mining town of Burntwood, in my constituency? Some 10,000 people signed a petition in favour of it, the inspector approved it, Lichfield district council approved it and Staffordshire county council, which is Labour controlled, also approved it. Why did the Deputy Prime Minister refuse it?

I think that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the ruling that I cannot comment on a matter that is under legal challenge. Every Secretary of State would have to give the same reply to the House. It certainly applies in this case. The hon. Gentleman is usually on record as a supporter of out-of-town development. He has obviously changed his mind: we have not.

May I express my appreciation of the Deputy Prime Minister's work to regenerate urban town centres? Does he accept that the urban renewal programme that he has put in place could be another vehicle to help regenerate town centres? Could guidance be given to regional development agencies and regional assemblies to help them to revitalise urban town centres?

My hon. Friend knows that that is a key priority for the Government. We have concentrated on urban development, particularly retail development. In 1992, about 190 out-of-town shopping applications were granted, which rose to 1,200 in only five years. We are now concentrating more on the development of in-town urban areas—a decision that was greatly influenced by advice from the regional assemblies and regional development agencies. We greatly encourage them to adopt that policy.

Housing Renewal Pathfinders


What impact housing renewal pathfinders are having on the areas they cover. [112944]

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women
(Mrs. Barbara Roche)

We have invested £2.66 million in each scheme so that long-term, robust plans to revitalise communities can develop. The first tranche of £4 million funding is available for radical action to begin this year, and more for those moving ahead with completed plans.

Is the Minister aware that communities such as Thurnscoe, East and Mexborough in my constituency are already benefiting from the funding that she is providing? The number of empty and void properties in my constituency, which can attract antisocial behaviour and are often the cause of disorder and nuisance, is diminishing. Does the Minister agree that if we are to continue to be successful in the pathfinder areas, we must adopt a bottom-up approach that will give local communities a direct input into resolving the problems in the housing areas where they live?

I agree and I know that the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty) visited the pathfinder in my hon. Friend's constituency—and was impressed by what he saw. It is essential to secure community involvement and the schemes are predicated on the fact that the community will be involved. It is also right to target measures to reduce antisocial behaviour.

Does the Minister accept that many pathfinder areas are precisely those with a predominance of houses at the bottom end of the council tax bandings? If the rebanding goes ahead and a half-A or minus-A band is introduced, what will be the impact on councils of a significant increase in council taxes marginally up the bands? Will the nearly poor be required to pay yet again for the very poor?

The right hon. Gentleman makes important representations. He will know that no decision has been taken on rebanding, but I shall view his representations as part of the process.

I welcome pathfinders in areas such as my own where the housing market has completely collapsed, but rather than more plans, strategies and assessments, people want to see a visible sign of change on the ground. Can the Minister assure me that the pathfinder area in Burnley and Pendle will be adequately resourced so that crumbling and rotten houses can be torn down?

I have to say that that is exactly what is happening. Action is being taken on the ground. I have seen the pathfinders in action and demolition is taking place. Some of the old crumbling houses are going; new mixed housing is taking its place; and communities are being revitalised. The involvement of local people and action plans are necessary to achieve that.

Regional Government (North-West)


If he will make a statement on plans for regional government in the north-west of England. [112945]

We have asked for further responses by 16 May to our soundings exercise on the level of interest in each English region in holding a referendum on an elected regional assembly. We will announce shortly after that date which region or regions will proceed first towards referendums.

While I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, is he aware that polls suggest that 78 per cent. of people in the north-west know "not very much" or "nothing at all" about the Government's proposals for regional authorities, and that only three out of 10,000 have responded to the soundings? Does that make it clear to him that the north-west is not interested in regional government? We do not want more bureaucracy. People identify with their districts, boroughs or counties, and I repeat that we do not want regional government and all the expensive bureaucracy that goes with it.

I am always a little suspicious of polls and I prefer to look at the evidence of individuals who have responded. The hon. Gentleman will probably be interested to know that we have so far had 2,535 responses from the north-west region and 1,530 of those come from his county of Cheshire. [Interruption.] He may have had something to do with that. We will consider the responses carefully after the deadline, which is this Friday, and then my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will make his decision.

Fond as we are of Macclesfield on Merseyside, does my right hon. Friend agree that a Greater Merseyside authority would make far more sense than a north-west authority?

We believe that the people of the region should take the decision, and that is why we are engaged in the soundings exercise. We will make an announcement on the basis of the soundings on whether referendums will take place and, if so, in which regions. It will then be for the people of each region to decide whether they want an elected regional assembly. That is democracy and choice, and we think that it is a good idea.

Does the Minister realise that the level of interest in the northwest is such that the only people who turned up to a recent meeting organised to discuss the issue were a chief executive of a council and his wife? That is not my idea of a good night out. Does he recognise that business, industry and voluntary organisations are pulling away from the existing regional assembly, and does he agree that this is a solution in search of a problem?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with meetings with a derisory attendance from his experience of Conservative party meetings. We are seeking the views of people via various options, including letters, meetings—if people choose to hold them—and other responses to the soundings. We will take account of the total response. Clearly, if only two people attend a meeting, it would not be given much weight in the assessment of the level of interest.

Part of the confusion in the minds of the people in Cheshire, including the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), is caused by the misinformation that has been put out by Cheshire county council. Will my right hon. Friend tell the people of Cheshire that the proposals for regional government would not create a further tier of government, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but an alternative and much better structure of government?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have always been clear that there must be no question that any additional tiers of government or bureaucracy will be created. That is why we have made it clear that, when there is a vote in favour of an elected regional assembly, local government in that region must be reorganised to a wholly unitary structure. Through an amendment in the other place to what is now the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003, we have recently provided that people in those two-tier areas will have a say in a second vote on their preferred form of unitary local government. Once again, the Government are giving choice to people in respect of efficient and streamlined administration, and better local government.

The Minister said that he would look at the level of interest in a region. In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), he said that he had received 2,000-odd responses from the north-west. What proportion of the total population of the north-west is that?

The hon. Gentleman will know that other people often undertake similar exercises. For example, the Liberal Democrat party and its Focus leaflets will probably get a derisorily small number of responses, compared with what we are receiving. Getting 2,500 responses from people represents a very good level of response—[Interruption.] We look forward to seeing what they say. We will analyse the responses, and take decisions accordingly.

Houses In Multiple Occupation


What steps he is taking to improve the condition of houses in multiple occupation. [112946]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The Government published a draft housing Bill on 31 March, taking forward our commitment to introduce the mandatory licensing of larger houses in multiple occupation, and also a new housing health and safety rating system.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am sure that he is aware of the growth in the number of houses of multiple occupation in places such as Loughborough, which is trying to accommodate large increases in the number of students, and of the problems that that is causing in the centre of town. Will my hon. Friend ensure that any licensing system has real teeth so that we can try to tackle the problem and give local residents a real choice? Also, will he look again at the current exemption given to landlords? If their houses are occupied by students, they are exempt from paying council tax. Those landlords run the houses as businesses, and they are benefiting from that exemption.

I hear what my hon. Friend says about council tax. We do not want students to be liable for council tax. In connection with quality of housing, it is precisely because so many students live in substandard housing that we want to extend the definition of HMO to cover student housing, and to allow for the licensing of student landlords in certain circumstances. However, my hon. Friend will be aware that the Conservative party has devised a novel solution to the problem of poor student housing—it is going to cut the number of students.

Is the Minister aware that many small guest houses in Norfolk towns have closed, and have become bed and breakfast establishments and homes in multiple occupation? That has encouraged a lot of youngsters on the dole—the so-called Costa del Dole syndrome. What does he plan to do to discourage that from happening?

The hon. Gentleman mentioned specific issues that affect many seaside towns with areas where many tenants live in single large blocks, in bedsits and so forth. It is precisely because some of those larger houses of multiple occupation need licensing and better management that the Government are introducing the housing Bill that is now in draft.

Social Exclusion


What assessment his Department has made of the links between transience and social exclusion in seaside and coastal towns. [112947]

The Minister for Social Exclusion and Deputy Minister for Women
(Mrs. Barbara Roche)

The Department has not made a formal assessment of the links between transience and social exclusion in coastal and seaside towns. I know that this issue is a particular problem in my hon. Friend's constituency, and that the local education authority is currently preparing a report on the subject.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, and for the interest that she and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister have shown in regeneration issues, in Blackpool and other seaside towns. Is she aware of recent research from Sheffield Hallam university showing that there is a significant, continuing and long-term inflow into coastal towns of people with low skills, low employment prospects and, often, poor health? With that in mind, does she agree that we need a more targeted and focused approach? Would she look at the coalfields initiative, and consider whether a similar initiative could be adopted for seaside towns, along the lines of a seaside regeneration taskforce and trust?

I should be very interested to read the research produced by Sheffield Hallam university. I agree that the subject of transience and social exclusion is important. That is reflected in the neighbourhood renewal strategy, and my hon. Friend's constituency benefits from that funding. However, I shall certainly look to see what we can do.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was born in the coastal town of Prestatyn, and he will be aware of the dramatic decline of seaside towns in the UK over the past 30 years, which has been as great as that in any steel, coal, rural or inner-city community. What additional help can be given to seaside towns to help them to recover?

I have already mentioned neighbourhood renewal funding, and many regional development agencies cover coastal towns and recognise that responsibility. I shall make certain that my hon. Friend's interest is communicated to them.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked


Q1. [112955]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 14 May.

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

Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, I could say a word about Monday's bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia. These attacks were a cowardly and disgraceful terrorist atrocity. They will, however, make the United Kingdom and our allies across the international community only more determined to track down terrorists and to stamp out terrorism.

I would like to offer our profound condolences, those of the Government and, I believe, the House to the victims of the attacks and their families and to the Saudi people. I have sent condolences personally to Crown Prince Abdullah and to President Bush. It has to be pointed out that, although of course, tragically, some of the victims may be American and indeed British, the victims will, as ever with these terrorist atrocities, primarily be Muslims.

I am sure that we all wholeheartedly share the Prime Minister's comments.

Given the whispers around Westminster earlier in the week that the relations hip between the Prime Minister and his Cabinet is not so much a meeting of minds but more one of meat and vegetables, can he tell us when there was last a full discussion, in full Cabinet, on the subject of the euro?

There are regular discussions of Europe and, indeed, of all the issues connected with Europe. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there will be the fullest possible discussion before the decision on the single currency is announced. The hon. Gentleman knows the timetable for that, as it has been set out by myself and the Chancellor on many occasions.

My right hon. Friend will recall the case of Mr. Sandy Mitchell, my constituent, who is in jail in Saudi Arabia. Mr. Mitchell was accused of bombing in Saudi. Since then, he has continually pleaded his innocence, along with others. Will my right hon. Friend step up the diplomatic and political pressure on the Saudis? In view of the horrific bombing yesterday, it is clear that there must be serious doubts about the conviction of Mr. Mitchell and others.

As my hon. Friend knows, we remain deeply concerned about the case of British nationals detained in Saudi Arabia, who have been accused of involvement in a series of bombings. He will know that we are working vigorously to resolve that case. The best thing for me to say to him at the moment is that we are fully aware of the concerns, and the best thing for the individuals concerned and their families is that we carry on working in the way that we are to try to secure their release. I promise my hon. Friend that we shall continue to do so.

May I join the Prime Minister unreservedly in his comments with regard to the atrocious bombing in Saudi Arabia? I think that the whole House will share his view on that, without question.

The Prime Minister will be aware that referendums on the European constitution are proposed in up to 10 European member states. Why cannot the British people have one, too?

For the same reason that we did not hold a referendum on the Maastricht treaty or on the Single European Act. I see no case for having a referendum on this matter. Indeed, many of the allegations made about the impact of the European Convention are scaremongering. The Convention is important because we are modernising Europe as another 10 countries join the European Union. It is important that we make every effort to ensure that the accession of those 10 countries goes ahead, because a united Europe, with those eastern European countries inside the European Union, is in our interests and the interests of Europe.

The Prime Minister has to admit that, since he came to power, there have been 34 referendums on issues even as momentous as whether Hartlepool should have a mayor, and he has promised referendums on regional assemblies as well, as the Deputy Prime Minister agrees, but the European constitution will decide how every citizen of this country will be governed. Why will not the Prime Minister simply let the British people have their say?

The reasons against having a referendum are those that I have just set out, and they apply to the previous Conservative Government too. But in relation to those issues that are said to be the reason why we should have a referendum—for example, that we will suddenly yield up defence or foreign policy to the European Commission—are simply false. European defence and foreign policy will remain intergovernmental, and will therefore remain the property of the Governments inside the European Union. The plain fact of the matter is that the reason why the right hon. Gentleman wants a referendum is to vote no to enlargement in order to vote no to the European changes that are taking place, because I am afraid that, under his leadership, the Conservative party remains utterly and implacably opposed to Europe.

It may have escaped the Prime Minister's notice but the reason why I want a referendum is that the British people can say no. [Interruption.] Oh yes, and the reality is that everybody else thinks that the same idea of the British people having their say should exist. He knows that the president of the Convention says that that should be a necessity, as does everybody else. We know that the British people overwhelmingly want to have their say. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but it is true. Has the Prime Minister become so out of touch, so arrogant, so reliant on a small group of people—oh yes—and so reliant on a small group of friends that he will not let the British people have their say?

What is very clear, as the right hon. Gentleman has just admitted, is that he wants people to say no to European enlargement. That will mean that those—[Interruption.] He has just said that he wants them to be able to say no to the question, and he would be leading the campaign against it. So what we now know from the Conservative party is that it is against the enlargement of the European Union and that it is against those new countries coming into Europe because, under his leadership, the Conservative party is against Europe. That is a disaster for jobs and industry in this country.

The reality for the Prime Minister is that he will not trust the British people. Let them be the judges of what they want. The Convention will include foreign policy, home affairs, transport, criminal law, asylum and many other issues. Why cannot they be allowed to decide? Is not the reality that a member of his Cabinet said that since the first days when he got to power the Prime Minister ruled by

"diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought through policy … that comes from on high."—[Official Report, 12 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 38.]

The Prime Minister has the opportunity to prove that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) and her words are wrong. If he gives the British people their say, he will do that, so why does he not prove her wrong now by saying from the Dispatch Box that he will give the British people the chance to vote on the constitution?

I have just given the reason. I said why the previous Government did not give people referendums, for example, in relation to Maastricht and the Single European Act. However, when the right hon. Gentleman lists the topics in the European Convention, he is indeed simply listing the topics, but European defence and foreign policy will remain wholly intergovernmental. Therefore, the idea that it somehow changes the nature of this county's foreign or defence policy is simply wrong. The truth is that, after a time of very wise silence on the issue of Europe, the right hon. Gentleman has decided to put the Conservative party back in the position of being opposed to Europe, and it is now opposed not just to the single currency but to accession by the 10 new states. [Interruption.] There is no point in his saying that he is in favour of accession but opposed to the European Convention, which is necessary to make the accession work. If he wants to get up again, let him tell us whether in such a referendum he would say vote yes or no.

Yesterday, yet more mass graves of murdered Iraqis were seen. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that forensic evidence was key to building a case against Milosevic for his crimes against humanity? Will he respond to the demands of Human Rights Watch and ensure that forensic experts are sent into Iraq so that relatives can properly identify loved ones and that those responsible for human butchery can stand trial?

My hon. Friend's question is very sensible. Incidentally, I hope that for those people who had some doubt about the wisdom of removing Saddam Hussein, the reports of mass graves are an indication of how brutal, tyrannical and appalling that regime was, and what a blessing it is for the Iraqi people and for humankind that he has gone from power. On my hon. Friend's specific point, we are looking urgently at how we redouble our efforts to protect the sites and to make sure that we gather the evidence. No matter what the exact forum is in which people should be tried for these crimes, it is undoubtedly true that we need to protect the forensic evidence that will allow us to try them.

On the Iraq issue, on 25 April, the Foreign Secretary said that the United Nations would have a vital role to play in the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Now, the United States ambassador at the UN has said that the UN will have no role for the foreseeable future. Who is right?

I have always said that there should be independent verification at the end of whatever finds we make in respect of weapons of mass destruction. I have no doubt that the UN will be involved in that, and what the American ambassador to the UN was saying was simply that coalition forces, who are currently seeking to restore security on the ground, are not going to have the UN back in now, although we are in discussion with the UN and allies as to how we can have such independent verification later.

On 7 March, the Prime Minister said that the United States and our country would not touch Iraq's oil revenues, yet the draft UN resolution gives the United States and us total control over those oil revenues. Does the Prime Minister therefore understand why so many people now feel so let down?

That is absolute nonsense. Let me explain the situation to the right hon. Gentleman. First, in relation to the UN's vital role, its primary role must be not just in respect of humanitarian aid but in respect of reconstruction in Iraq and the development of a new Iraqi interim authority. Our resolution makes it clear that the UN special co-ordinator is to be involved in all those aspects. Indeed, the preamble to the UN resolution that we have tabled reaffirms specifically the "vital role" for the UN. In relation to the points that he was making in respect of the oil revenues, it is not true that we will be running the oil revenues of Iraq. What we have said is that they should go into an independent fund with an advisory international board, which will have the UN representative on it and representatives of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and that that development fund money should be used exclusively for the people of Iraq. In those circumstances, the idea that the US and the British are getting their hands on Iraqi oil is completely fatuous.

Since the Prime Minister seems to be developing a fondness for taking action against those people who disagree with him, can he set out for the House the precise limits, as he sees them, of free speech?

I think—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Answer."] Well, I think that is a very fine example of what we really want to encourage in this House. With the greatest of respect, in relation to Iraq, or any other issue for that matter, I have not noticed that people have been afraid to speak their minds. They have been speaking their minds in many different places and in many different guises, and long may that continue. Instead of arguing about whether we have free speech or not—which we do—let us argue about the actual details of the policy itself because that is, perhaps, a better argument and debate to have.

Q2. [112956]

The Deputy Prime Minister said that he wanted to make local government funding more easily understood. Can the Prime Minister explain why the average increase for Derbyshire districts this year was some £570,000, yet for Conservative-controlled Derbyshire Dales district council it was an increase of £33,000? When will the council tax payer of Derbyshire Dales get a fair deal from this Government?

Everyone in the hon. Gentleman's area and other areas in the country got a substantial increase in the investment going into education. That is true. We are working on school funding problems in the way that we have explained. However, it must surely be the case that the last thing that Derbyshire or any other part of the country needs is the possibility of 20 per cent. cuts across the board, which is the Conservative proposal. So yes, it may well be true that Derbyshire and elsewhere want more money, but they know that under the Conservatives they will get less.

Over the last four or five years, a university campus has been established in my constituency with close co-operation between the universities of Paisley and Glasgow, the Open University and Bell college. Student figures in that time have grown to more than 1,000. Can the Prime Minister explain what impact yesterday's announcement by Leader of the Opposition on student fees would have on rural areas such as mine?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will not be following that policy decision for the simple reason that it would mean an immediate £500 million loss of income to universities in this country. Nothing could be more unfair or more disastrous for universities. It would mean literally—[Interruption.]

It would mean 150,000 fewer students each year able to go to university and, at the very time universities need more money, they would lose £500 million. That is not a fair deal. It is a disaster for students and universities.

Q3. [112957]

In answer to my question on 2 April, the Prime Minister assured the House that the future of Gibraltar played no role whatsoever in his negotiations with José Maria Aznar in securing the support of Spain for the war against Saddam Hussein. Will the Prime Minister now assure the House similarly that control over the straits of Gibraltar played no part in those negotiations?

Despite what the Prime Minister said about Iraq's oil, is it not the case that at the moment the United States, not the United Nations, has de facto control of the oil? Is it not the policy of the United States that the United Nations should be reduced to the international Mother Theresa in the world, with no real political control whatsoever? Is it not about time that this country stopped appeasing the world domination ideas of Bush and his cronies?

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on a good example of free speech? Secondly, he is wrong—the oil-for-food resolution governs the oil revenues, and is administered by the UN. The idea is to transfer the revenues from Iraqi oil into a special separate trust fund, which will be administered in the way that I have described, with the UN, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank represented on it. It is to be used exclusively for the interests of the Iraqi people. With great respect to my hon. Friend, we are conducting a negotiation with other members of the UN Security Council, which I hope will be successful. It provides for a vital role for the UN, not in the sense of the UN governing the coalition or the coalition governing the UN, but the two working in partnership.

As the Prime Minister pointed out earlier, the atrocious events in Saudi Arabia have shown all of us that the war on terrorism is clearly far from won, reinforcing the need to show in Iraq that we can be a force for good in the region. There is growing frustration that while it took four weeks of a magnificent campaign to defeat the Iraqi regime, after five weeks of peace, there are still serious shortages of food, water and health care in places such as Baghdad. I believe unequivocally that prosecuting the war was right, but how can the allies now avoid the growing charge of being deficient in planning for the peace?

It is important that we take our responsibilities very seriously to make sure that, having won the conflict, we restore services and, indeed, improve them—in many cases, they were in an appalling state before the conflict. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that in the south of the country we have gone a long way towards doing that. Improvements are still needed, but the situation is improving all the time. In Baghdad, it has been particularly difficult because the security situation has been difficult. However, there is now a renewed vigour in ORHA—the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance—and I am sure that in the coming weeks we will sort out the enormous logistical problems in dealing with this situation. Naturally, a lot of attention is focused on things that are going wrong, but there also are many things in Iraq today that are going right.

In doing that, it is obviously vital that the coalition act within the bounds of international law. This week, the former International Development Secretary, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), made a startling claim that the Government have been acting against the advice of the Attorney-General, yet the Foreign Secretary is on record as saying that they are not. Both have clearly seen the Attorney-General's advice and both cannot be right. To resolve this split, and to show that he or his Government have nothing to hide, surely the Prime Minister should now publish the Attorney-General's advice today?

It is not the practice of Governments to publish the Attorney-General's advice, and I am not going to depart from that. However, I can point the right hon. Gentleman to the Attorney-General's clear statement last night that the actions of the British Government have been in accordance with international law. Indeed, there is no possibility of our acting in a way inconsistent with international law. That would be wholly wrong—I would not countenance it and neither would anyone else.


Q5. [112959]

What instructions coalition forces have received about seizing documents in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry and secret police headquarters that are likely to form the basis of legal action.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence indicated on 6 May, UK commanders have been told that evidence believed to be linked to war crimes or crimes against humanity is to be secured so that it may be examined by investigating authorities. I understand that similar instructions have been issued to US forces in Baghdad. Now that the security environment in areas of Baghdad is more permissive, efforts are under way by the coalition to secure and assess the kind of documents to which my hon. Friend referred. However, at the time of entry into Baghdad, coalition forces were naturally engaged in other priority tasks, in particular seeking to stabilise the security situation and minimise loss of life.

Pertinent to the Prime Minister's opening statement on the dreadful events in Saudi Arabia yesterday is the question of why there was no proper custody of documents of such potential importance that they could have thrown light on the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction or possible links with al-Qaeda. What does that say about the priority, or lack of it, accorded to intelligence?

The instructions issued to both UK and US coalition forces were to attempt to secure any documents that might be in the possession of the Iraqi authorities. However, when they were first going into Baghdad, their priority was obviously winning the conflict, and they had to pay close attention to the security of their own forces.

Now that the situation has cleared somewhat, we are trying to make sure that we gather up all the documentation in relation to weapons of mass destruction and in relation to appalling crimes, the like of which we are now seeing. We will obviously want to use those documents in order to show people exactly what happened.

The premise of my hon. Friend's question is not right. It is not that we did not bother about documents. As the coalition forces were going into Baghdad, the priority was winning the conflict. Now that the situation has cleared somewhat, we are, of course, doing everything we can to gather up the documentation. It is in our interest to do so.

The Prime Minister's explanation is inadequate. On Monday the Defence Secretary told the House, in answer to a similar question, that the reason why The Daily Telegraph got its hands on the documents before the coalition forces was that it had journalists on the spot. The true situation is that The Daily Telegraph journalist returned by land to Baghdad from Jordan on 11 April, two days after the fall of Baghdad. He did not go into the Foreign Ministry headquarters where he got the documents until the following Saturday. On the following Tuesday—that is, 13 days after the fall of Baghdad—he told the BBC that

"Iraqi government ministries are effectively open to anybody who wants to walk in and look for documents."

That was a straight failure by the coalition, and the Prime Minister should accept responsibility for the failure to get such important documents under our control.

I cannot comment on what the hon. Gentleman knows—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] about The Daily Telegraph, as I suspect that his sources in The Daily Telegraph are better than mine. In relation to the documents, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the building in Baghdad was not in the British area of control, but the instructions given to coalition forces from the US and the UK were identical. As far as I am aware, every effort was made to secure the documentation and to secure those buildings. Even two days after the fall of Baghdad—[Interruption.]—even a few days after the fall of Baghdad, there was a desperately difficult security situation, and it is not surprising if the commanders on the ground were paying attention first to the security of their own forces. However, I have no doubt that any documentation that we have managed to secure will be extremely helpful, both in respect of the crimes against humanity and in respect of weapons of mass destruction.


Q6. [112960]

Has there been any progress in the implementation of the road map for peace in the middle east between the Palestinians and the Israelis?

Yes. The road map has been published and the priority must be the implementation of phase 1. That means improved security from the Palestinians, a freeze on settlement activity, and continuing assistance by the international community for reform and humanitarian assistance. I hope that we now have a situation where, for the first time in many, many months—indeed, for the first time in a couple of years—there is the real prospect of progress on the Palestinian issue. I very much welcome the attempts of Secretary Colin Powell and the American Government, working in concert with other Governments, to push the matter forward. We wi11 continue to play our full part in that.

Q7. [112961]

Is it right that foundation hospitals should be based on a discredited star rating system that completely ignores whether or not sick patients get better?

It is nonsense that the star system does not take account of sick patients and whether they get better. It is based on 10 different elements to the star rating. No star rating system is perfect, but that star rating has enabled us for the first time to make a comparison of hospitals across the board. It is interesting that the Conservative party is not just opposed to the extra investment in the health service; it is now opposed to reform in the health service, as well.

In October last year, a 15year-old constituent of mine, Anthony Waklin, was killed by a speeding motorist while cycling through his home village, Wool. The 18-year-old driver concerned already owed £1,400 in driving fines and had no licence or insurance. Last week magistrates sentenced him to a paltry £200 fine and a two-year driving ban. Can my right hon. Friend please assure my upset and concerned constituents in Wool that amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill will prevent such injustices in sentencing from happening again?

I totally understand the concern of my hon. Friend and his constituents. I should say to them that we have tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to increase the maximum penalty to 14 years' imprisonment for the three offences of causing death by dangerous driving, causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs and aggravated vehicle taking where death results. The actions of dangerous and irresponsible drivers can be devastating not only for victims and their families, but for whole communities. That is why I think that it is entirely appropriate that we increase the penalties for such offences. I hope very much that the amendment will receive the support of the whole House.

Q8. [112962]

Can the Prime Minister explain why inward investment is falling in this country, but increasing in countries that are part of the eurozone?

Issues to do with trade and investment will of course form part of the assessment, but we still get a very substantial amount of inward investment in this country, I am delighted to say.