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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2003

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Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked

Peace Process

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the peace process. [113801]

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the peace process. [113806]

We shall continue to work for the restoration of trust necessary for the effective functioning of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, on the basis of the Good Friday agreement and the proposals published by the two Governments earlier this month, with the aim of holding elections to the Assembly in the autumn. Progress depends on absolute clarity on both the future of paramilitarism, and the stability of the institutions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the one hand, we need absolute clarity about the end of paramilitary operations and, on the other hand, we need to make it clear that if the IRA co-operates in that way, we will not allow further hurdles to be put in place to stop it playing its full part in the democratic process?

I agree that trust is absolutely necessary for the process to succeed. There is no question but that the breakdown of trust was the reason for the Assembly's suspension last October, which was a direct consequence of paramilitary activity. My hon. Friend knows that during the past few weeks various efforts have been made to try to ensure that we get greater clarity from the IRA. We have made some progress, but not enough.

It is interesting that this week's Belfast News Letter contained the results of an opinion poll. It clearly showed:
"If IRA made a statement that they would never again use weapons under any circumstances",
support in Northern Ireland for the restoration of the institutions would greatly increase. Indeed, the poll also showed:
"If IRA decommissioned all weapons and disbanded",
that support would increase even more.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the postponement of elections to the Assembly brings the danger of a period of drift for the peace process, which is certainly to be avoided? Will he consider, as a matter of urgency, convening a paragraph 8 comprehensive review of the agreement that would involve dialogue among all the parties in the Province? That will have to be done by December at the latest, in any case.

The hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot allow a vacuum to exist in the months ahead. As he will know, representatives of the Government met representatives of the Irish Government in London yesterday and had more than three and a half hours of discussions and negotiations about where we should go. Both Governments agreed that we should ensure that the momentum continues and that we maintain progress. To that end, I shall hold a series of meetings in Belfast over the next two or three weeks with parties in Northern Ireland to find out how we can best make progress. The hon. Gentleman is also right that the paragraph 8 review needs to be held before the year is out. I shall take soundings among the political parties to find out their opinions on the best time for the holding of the review.

The Secretary of State has often stated that clarity and trust must be established to process the re-establishment of the institutions of Northern Ireland. He says that he will negotiate with the parties. Will he state clearly that all parties will negotiate together so that the atmosphere of secret deals being done may be permanently eradicated? In the aftermath of the Stakeknife revelations, will he accept that trust in the Government as an impartial participant has been seriously eroded and that action needs to be taken? Will he state that an appropriate and urgent inquiry on Government participation in the Stakeknife process will be undertaken?

I cannot comment on intelligence issues. I do not agree with my hon. Friend that trust in the Government has broken down due to recent newspaper reports. I think that he would agree that after three decades of conflict and division in Northern Ireland, it is almost inevitable that issues such as those to which he refers will come out over time. It is important for everyone to realise that the process is sufficiently robust to withstand such circumstances.

On the round-table talks, I shall listen to what the parties say during the coming weeks. I rule out no specific format or process. We are all concerned with whatever is best for movement forward so that we can restore the institutions and hold elections.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that, if and when we have a successful peace process, one of the great benefits for Northern Ireland will be the opening up of the Province's tremendous tourist potential. Does he realise that other countries throughout the world put a lot of money behind their constitutional celebrations, such as the United States, which promotes Independence day on 4 July, and France, which promotes Bastille day on 14 July? When will the Northern Ireland Office give some support to our great constitutional celebrations, which are coming up on 12 July and 12 August, to promote the colour, the pageantry and the music, and to bring tourists into Northern Ireland to celebrate the great constitutional events in our history?

The hon. Gentleman is right: tourism has increased tremendously over the past number of years. One of the great advantages of the Good Friday agreement is the fact that tourism has been able to increase. I know that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that. People now come to the island of Ireland in numbers that they never did before, as a consequence of the great progress that has been made, economically and socially, over the past five years.

I shall have to consult on the other matter that the hon. Gentleman raised. I know that the different traditions in Northern Ireland enrich Northern Ireland, and as a consequence people want to go there.

May I give the Secretary of State the opportunity to complete the answer that the Under-Secretary attempted to give in a recent debate that was cut off because of a shortage of time? Will he tell the House, in clear and precise language and without using terms that can be conveniently interpreted at a later time, what the IRA—an illegal terrorist organisation—must say and do before ordinary, decent people in Northern Ireland can exercise their democratic right to vote?

It is encapsulated in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration, on which the two Governments agreed. That is as clear as crystal. There should be a full, immediate and permanent end to paramilitary activity, by which we mean targeting, training, the procurement of weapons and surveillance. There must also be an end to paramilitary beatings and so-called punishment beatings, to the incitement of rioting and to exiling.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House, frankly and clearly, which aspects of the joint declaration he proposes to go ahead with and implement in any event, and specific ally which are contingent on acts of completion by paramilitaries?

The issues that are contingent on acts of completion include the legislation and details of on-the-runs. They include what has been termed the so-called Sinn Fein clauses in the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003, which have to return to this place for agreement by both Houses after restoration, and the full normalisation package, which is in the annexe to the joint declaration. The issues that will be implemented are those that should be implemented because they are part of the Good Friday agreement. They include human rights, equality, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots, criminal justice and other matters.

I appreciate that clear answer. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what he has got in return for agreeing to dismantle the two observation towers in South Armagh?

I hope that we have got progress in the process. The dismantling of the two towers was part of the normal process of returning to a normal society in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman knows that the normalisation package—the annexe to the joint declaration—referred to normalisation at a much greater pace and at a much greater intensity. That does not mean that we will not go further with what is necessary to ensure that Northern Ireland returns to being a normal place.

Stevens Inquiry

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the Stevens inquiry. [113802]

Sir John Stevens's report is to the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Sir John has indicated that specific criminal investigations continue and that files will continue to be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. It is important that the criminal justice process takes its course.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. What will the Government do to get to the bottom of allegations of collusion and murder by members of the security forces? What assurances can my hon. Friend give the House that the Government are pressing for total co-operation in the supply of information by members of the security forces? Will she confirm that it will never be this Government's policy that murder can be justified, even to protect valuable intelligence sources?

The Government take allegations of collusion very seriously. We will study the recommendations that Sir John Stevens makes in his report. The recommendations are a matter for the Chief Constable to take forward, but it is precisely because we take allegations of collusion so seriously that the British and Irish Governments appointed the Canadian judge, Peter Cory, in May 2002 to examine allegations in relation to six high profile cases, with a view to advising what further action, if any, is needed.

We have always required public authorities to act within established guidelines when using covert human intelligence sources. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 has improved structures for the management of informants and ensured greater accountability.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in admiring the work of the policemen, policewomen, soldiers and women soldiers who have worked in the various intelligence agencies in Northern Ireland. Will she confirm that the allegations about the identity of the so-called agent Stakeknife will not imperil continuing intelligence operations in the Province?

In their fight against terrorism, the security forces use a variety of techniques, including covert human intelligence sources. It is difficult and dangerous work, and we owe a great debt to those who engage in it. However, it is important that wrongdoers be brought to justice. As I said in my earlier answer, the Government are open to scrutiny. It is important that we take seriously allegations such as those investigated by Sir John Stevens.

Have the Government yet identified where, and at what level, the obstructions encountered by Sir John Stevens during his inquiries originate?

We will study the findings of Sir John's report carefully. His recommendations, particularly those to which the hon. Gentleman refers, are for the Chief Constable, and there are issues for us to study closely and take forward. It is important that Sir John Stevens receives the fullest co-operation that it is possible to give, and that is our aim.

Given that the credibility of the Stevens inquiry continues to be seriously undermined by the non-co-operation of the family of the late Pat Finucane, what steps have been taken to encourage the family to co-operate with the ongoing Stevens inquiry?

That is a police investigation, and the investigations continue. It is important that the criminal justice process is upheld. It is, however, a matter for the Finucane family. In the normal course of events, I would encourage the fullest possible co-operation with the police.

Does the Minister agree that it would be repugnant to prosecute members of the police and armed forces when more than 440 convicted terrorists have been released early from prison?

No. There is no moral equivalence with terrorists. Wrongdoers in any of the security forces—the armed forces or the police—ought to be brought to justice. That is the Government's objective.

International Year For People With Disabilities

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what provision he is making in Northern Ireland to mark the international year for people with disabilities. [113803]

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

The Government are committed to supporting the European year for people with disabilities in Northern Ireland, and committed to bringing forward a programme of initiatives, events and activities, in line with the commitments given by the previous Northern Ireland Executive. I have launched a Northern Ireland grants scheme to augment the UK-wide scheme. Thirty-four disability organisations in Northern Ireland have received more than £300,000 in grants for specific projects.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that children are involved in all events marking the international year for people with disabilities? What steps are likely to be taken to involve children in this year's world Special Olympics?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on behalf of children, especially those with special needs. She recently had cause to be even more interested in children—I understand that she became a grandmother for the first time last week. I congratulate her on that.

I am pleased to advise hon. Members that there is a strong focus on children in the arrangements for the international year. For example, some of the successful Northern Ireland grant applications were from groups with projects that are specifically geared towards children with disabilities. The world Special Olympic games are being held in the island of Ireland for the first time in their 25-year history. The events are targeted mainly, but not exclusively, at children.

Does the Under-Secretary accept that Mencap's campaign for more respite care, especially for those in the older age group, must be considered and enforced? Does he also agree that it would greatly benefit Northern Ireland and the people of Iraq if the Iraqi Special Olympic team could come to Lame? Will he facilitate that, unless there is adequate reason to prevent it?

I agree that there needs to be a continuing focus on respite care. I am taking that forward in my current capacity as Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety.

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and for Culture, Media and Sport have been working together to try to resolve the problem of the Iraqi team for the Special Olympics, whose members were due to be hosted in Lame. I am also pleased to say that the necessary resources to secure the Iraqi Special Olympians' attendance have been identified through the games organising committee and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We are trying to establish contact with the team to confirm that it still wishes to participate in the games.

I thank the Under-Secretary for what he has said so far, but in recognising the valuable contribution that people with disabilities can make to life and society in general, may I press him to outline the progress in implementing the recommendations of the Disability Rights Taskforce, which reported in 1999 in Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the need to take forward the recommendations of the Disability Rights Taskforce and I pay tribute to him for his contribution to that. The relevant departments in the Northern Ireland Office intend to implement all the recommendations as quickly as possible.

In addition to the excellent initiatives that my hon. Friend outlined, does he agree that, in recognition of the tremendous work of the reverend and hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), we should implement fully the Disabled Persons (Northern Ireland) Act 1989, which he pioneered, especially its advocacy and representation provisions?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his consistent advocacy of such issues. He has an enviable reputation. One cannot underestimate the importance of advocacy in relation to matters that people with disabilities have to tackle. My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that.

Commercial/Industrial Development (Banbridge)

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on commercial and industrial development in the Banbridge area. [113804]

There is a significant amount of positive economic activity in the Banbridge area, including a major new development at Gilford Mill and one proposed at Bridgewater Park, which together could create around 3,600 jobs. At 1.6 per cent., the claimant unemployment rate is the joint lowest of all the 26 district council areas.

May I refer the Under-Secretary to the problems that are being experienced not only in Banbridge but in Northern Ireland generally as a result of slowness in decision making in the planning service? He rightly referred to two major developments in the area. I am especially worried about the business park at Cascum road, Banbridge. It is in competition to attract major developments with sites in the Republic of Ireland, which has a much more effective and quick decision-making process. Will the Under-Secretary consider that and ensure that the recent application for the extension of the business park is decided quickly so that a development that could be significant not only for Banbridge but a wider area goes ahead?

I acknowledge the work that the right hon. Gentleman has done in successfully promoting the development of the site at Cascum road, Bridgewater Park in his constituency. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who has responsibility for planning, will have heard what he said about the urgency of processing the planning application. She is committed to modernising the planning system, and we want to ensure that there is no undue delay in this case.

The Minister will be aware that in recent months several thousand job losses have been announced in the manufacturing sector across rural towns in Northern Ireland. What plans does he have to meet representatives of Invest Northern Ireland to address that ongoing crisis in the manufacturing sector?

The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that I have regular meetings with staff at Invest Northern Ireland, which is totally committed to supporting manufacturing in the region. A range of programmes are available to support manufacturing companies, and they will continue to be made available over the coming years. As a Government, we are committed to ensuring that we have a growing manufacturing sector and a growing service sector in Northern Ireland. As the process of Northern Ireland's returning to be a normal region continues apace, I am sure that the manufacturing sector will continue to survive and thrive. It has already grown by 15 per cent. over the past five years. [Interruption.]

Security Forces

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the political controls over undercover operations mounted by the security forces in the Province. [113805]

Operational control rests with the responsible agency, but all operations are properly authorised within a statutory regulatory framework. We have always required public authorities to act within established guidelines when using covert human intelligence sources.

Order. There is noise from both sides of the Chamber. It is discourteous to hon. Members who are asking questions that so much conversation is going on.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

My right hon. Friend said earlier that trust is a vital element in the rebuilding of the stalled peace process. I am sure that he agrees that the disclosures of the Stevens inquiry and the revelations of the activities of Stakeknife will do nothing to aid that process. Will he give a guarantee that, in the wake of the Stevens inquiry, any steps that he takes will be based on increasing the accountability and transparency of the security forces? Will he assure us that he will take all possible steps to stamp out subversive murderous activity by paramilitaries sponsored by security forces?

I said earlier that I do not believe that the peace process has been adversely affected in any way by what has occurred over the past few weeks. We have put procedures in place through the Stevens report and the Cory inquiry to deal with those matters. My hon. Friend will be aware that this Government enacted the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which provides a legislative framework governing the use and authorisation of covert investigation techniques. In addition, we set up the Intelligence and Security Committee of both Houses.

Although building trust in Northern Ireland is important, saving lives is even more important. Will the Secretary of State join me in giving support to the intelligence services in Northern Ireland? Let us not forget that they were fighting what was called a war against one of the most sophisticated terrorist organisations in the world, which was extremely tight and difficult to infiltrate. As a result of that infiltration, hundreds of innocent people are alive today in Northern Ireland.

Yes, I agree with that. I also agree that there have been three decades of conflict and division in Northern Ireland and that, inevitably, awful things have happened during that time. I agree with the main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's point, and I know that he agrees with me, too, that the intelligence services have to operate within guidelines laid down by this House of Commons and by the Government.

Is the Secretary of State concerned that intelligence sources appear to have been prejudiced by leaks from official sources?

I deprecate leaks of any type that might endanger the process. I have said in earlier answers, however, that I believe that the process in Northern Ireland is sufficiently robust to withstand such allegations.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked

Engagements

Q 1. [114590]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 May.

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

The Government's decision to bid for the 2012 Olympics is to be warmly welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend identify some of the tangible benefits that could flow from the bid, if it is successful, to cities and communities outside London? Furthermore, as chair of the all-party Scottish football group, may I ask him to join me in sending best wishes to Glasgow Celtic for tonight's UEFA cup final? It is the only British team left—with the exception of this Government—that has an interest in Europe.

I believe that if we can secure the Olympics for this country there will be enormous benefits not only for London but for the whole of the United Kingdom, in terms of industry, tourism, jobs and, of course, sport. I am sure that the whole House will join my hon. Friend in wishing Glasgow Celtic the best of luck tonight.

The right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) says that the Prime Minister has been "outmanoeuvred" on the euro by a politically obsessed Chancellor. How would the Prime Minister put it?

I am never short of advice on this particular issue. I have to say that everyone will have to wait for the announcement by the Chancellor on 9 June.

So the Prime Minister is not denying that the Chancellor is politically obsessed and outmanoeuvring him. [Laughter.] Those words from his close personal friend show how vicious and personal this feud has become. The reality is that Labour is divided from top to bottom on the euro. Meanwhile, 30 of the Prime Minister's own Back-Bench MPs have signed up to a referendum on the constitution. Are they right?

No, I believe that they are wrong. We do not need a referendum on whatever constitution comes out of the intergovernmental conference. I note that when the Conservatives were in office, the now shadow Foreign Secretary and the now shadow Chancellor—

Yes, that is true. They voted against a referendum, and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) voted in favour of a referendum. That is why I do not think that I need lessons from him on splits over Europe.

Well, if the Prime Minister wants to get into the past, let us just dwell there for a second. Perhaps he will recall saying of the European Union:

"We'll negotiate a withdrawal from the EEC"
because it
"has drained our natural resources and destroyed jobs".
Those are the words of the Prime Minister. I warn him, therefore, that if he wants to get into the past, he should remind himself that, when it comes to Europe, he has done more U-turns than a dodgy plumber. [Interruption.] Oh yes. The truth is that his party is now divided on the Convention on the constitution, as well as being divided on the euro. As Labour MPs know, the constitution was not mentioned in their manifesto, so the Prime Minister has no mandate. Why will he not have a referendum on the constitution and let the British people decide?

The reasons I am against a referendum are the reasons we have often given. The stories being told about what may be proposed in the Convention or at the intergovernmental conference are wrong. This is an important step, however—making sure that when Europe enlarges to 25 countries, Europe can work.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to debate about the European Union and our membership of it, let me remind him that he is still a member of Conservatives Against a Federal Europe. It has said that if we cannot attain our ends by negotiation,
"we must withdraw from the European Union."
The true agenda of the right hon. Gentleman and many other Conservative Members is to get this country out of the European Union. That would be a disaster for Britain, British jobs, British industry and British influence.

The truth is that whenever the Prime Minister comes to the Dispatch Box to answer a question, he just makes it up as he goes along. Last week, for example, he stood there and said that this constitution was necessary for enlargement. The House of Commons Library, however, says

"the Convention and its outcome are not prerequisites for accession, the sole basis for which is the Accession Treaty".
The Prime Minister should get his facts straight.

While we are dealing with the constitution, let me say that it is a reality that up to 10 European countries plan to have referendums, a growing number of the Prime Minister's own Back Benchers demand a referendum, and the vast majority of the British people want to have their say. So why is the Prime Minister frightened of giving the British people their say?

As a matter of fact, a majority of the 25 countries in the European Union are not granting referendums. Their reasons are exactly the same as those set out by the last Government on the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty.

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the real issue he wants to raise is Britain's withdrawal or non-withdrawal from the European Union. Changing the way in which Europe works is vital if a Europe of 25 is to function effectively. It is essential that we make these changes. The right hon. Gentleman wants to vote no to them even before they have been agreed—and the reason for that is that he and many other Conservative Members remain opposed to Britain's membership of the European Union.

The truth of the matter is that the Conservative party has not changed on this issue since before the election, and it would be a disaster were Britain to follow that course and leave Europe.

Will my right hon. Friend welcome the Home Office's award of £85,000 to Suffolk police for the recruitment of 15 community support officers? Will he join me in encouraging the chief constable to allocate a fair proportion of those officers to the borough of Ipswich, where they may be able to support all the agencies that are trying to tackle serious antisocial behaviour in the south-east corner of the town?

We will obviously have more community safety officers. I hope that all police forces take advantage of the possibility of providing them, as they are a good and helpful support to the police; but we are also going to have record numbers of police, in my hon. Friend's area and elsewhere. We have two major pieces of legislation, the Criminal Justice Bill and the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, and the combination of record police numbers and additional powers will help us to keep crime falling.

May I ask the Prime Minister a question of which his right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) helpfully gave me notice? If he does not agree with his right hon. Friend's description of the Chancellor, will he take this opportunity to disavow it?

As I have said, I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman and everyone else will have to wait until 9 June for the assessment. But I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, as the Chancellor said last night, what we require in Europe is not half-hearted acquiescence but whole-hearted engagement. I think that when the 9 June statement is made, the right hon. Gentleman will find that it corresponds with that vision.

Is not the Prime Minister's real problem not the economic circumstances, but the political conditions of the Chancellor? The more he allows himself to be boxed in by the Chancellor's conditions, the more his policy will be characterised as dither and delay, just like John Major's.

I profoundly disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that the economics are irrelevant. There are three positions on this European debate. What he has effectively said, and the Liberal Democrats have said for six years is that Britain should join the single currency immediately, irrespective—

Yes it is—[Interruption.] Throughout the entirety of the previous Parliament, never mind this one, the Liberal Democrats' position was that we should join the single currency immediately, so they would say yes, irrespective of the economics. The Conservative party says no, irrespective of the economics. We say yes, if the economic conditions are right. That is why the sensible position is that the debate is about the economics, jobs, industry and investment, and that is what 9 June will make clear.

The number of asylum seekers crossing the channel and coming into the port of Dover has reduced so dramatically in recent months that asylum seekers from other parts of the country are now being bussed into Dover to fill empty spaces in our accommodation centre. Does my right hon. Friend expect tomorrow's asylum statistics to reflect the dramatic downward trends in Dover, and can he assure me that this bussing business is just a temporary arrangement?

I can assure my hon. Friend that, as the numbers come down and as other induction centres are opened, the problems in areas such as his will diminish. I cannot say exactly how quickly that will happen but I can assure him that we are very alive to his points. We need to get the number of asylum applications down precisely in order to relieve pressure on areas such as Dover.

Q2. [114637]

Does the Prime Minister share the concern of a number of my constituents, who are well qualified IT professionals with the relevant skills, that 21,000 IT work permits are granted every year while 56,000 British IT professionals are looking for work? Will he agree to investigate whether the granting of 200,000 work permits a year—that is a fivefold increase on last year—is in any way detrimental to the economically inactive in the UK?

There has not been a fivefold increase in work permits. The number has been rising for a considerable time, however, which is, of course, partly because greatly increased activity in the economy means there is rising employment and falling unemployment. Those who gel work permits are specifically audited for their ability to get work in this country—people want them to work for them—and I do not think that it is right to set those people against those who are looking for work. I simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that in his constituency, as in others, unemployment has fallen dramatically over the past few years and there are increasing employment opportunities for people in IT and other sectors as well.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the outbreak of shareholder power at GlaxoSmithKline, where a £22 million payout to the chief executive in the event of his failing to do his job properly was rejected? Does my right hon. Friend agree that such rewards for failure are repugnant?

It is a matter for the shareholders, and what we have done is given them the ability to influence such decisions; I do not think that ultimately they should be taken by Government. It is important that the shareholders in those institutions are able to make their voice heard, and what we have seen this week is evidence of their ability to do that. The changes in corporate governance are in stark contrast to the total refusal of the Conservative party when it was in power to take any of those measures.

Q3. [114638]

Leaving aside for now the issue of the telephone tapping of conversations between Mo Mowlam and Martin McGuinness, is the Prime Minister really comfortable with armed police coming in the middle of the night to the house of distinguished and responsible journalists in Belfast, arresting them in front of their young child, breaking into their study and taking papers? Is that what should be happening in our country today?

I will not comment on the individual circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman has just mentioned because I do not know about them. However, it is extremely important that we enforce the law in every respect, and I simply say this to him and to others: it is particularly important when we are dealing with highly sensitive security information that we make sure that the law is properly upheld and that the ability to keep those issues secret is also upheld. I understand why newspapers and others will take a different view, but I happen to think it extremely important that the work that our security services and police services do, when it is supposed to be kept secret, is indeed kept secret.

Yesterday, Toyota announced an additional shift at its Burnaston plant in my constituency, bringing 1,000 extra jobs to it. Would the Prime Minister care to comment on the implications of a decision such as that for the assessment of working skills in my area, and for the attractiveness of the UK to inward investment?

I am pleased to say that we are still attracting inward investment. The 1,000 extra jobs in my hon. Friend's area are excellent news both for it and for the whole of the country. These jobs indicate not just a high level of industrial activity but increased levels of skills as well. That is one of the reasons why we have, I think, the best rate of unemployment anywhere in the industrialised world at the moment.

At Edenham high school in Croydon, children are being sent home early and teachers face the sack. Who does the Prime Minister think that the parents should blame—the Labour Education Secretary or Labour-controlled Croydon council?

First, in relation to the individual school, I understand that the local education authority is visiting it today to discuss its budget. I am not in a position, and nor is the right hon. Gentleman, to comment in detail on that budget. I would point out, however, that the schools budget for Croydon has increased by more than double the rate of inflation. That, again, if I may say so, is as a result of additional investment being put into schools. Whatever the problems schools have at the moment, they would be infinitely worse if we were not supporting that investment but cutting it—as the right hon. Gentleman wants to do—by 20 per cent. across the board.

I will tell the Prime Minister what the Conservatives will end up cutting: tuition fees, crime, asylum, bureaucracy—and the Government at the next election. But instead of arrogantly trying to say what we will do, why does he not offer an explanation to the parents of the 700 children who will be on the streets this afternoon? The problem is not just happening in Croydon. Up and down the country, schools have run out of money and teachers face the sack. [Interruption.] Oh yes. In Cornwall, Torpoint school is getting rid of two teachers and two support staff, and its head told the Education Secretary yesterday that he had failed. So it is now clear that the Education Secretary has utterly botched the new funding system—that is the reality. So will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to get to the Dispatch Box and apologise to all the parents, teachers and governors?

We have in fact had, as I said, an almost 12 per cent. increase in the schools budget. That is a massive increase on any basis. In addition, over the past few years we have had rises in the number of teachers, rises in the number of classroom assistants and support staff, and the biggest ever investment programme in schools. I have accepted that there are real problems with some schools this year, and we are looking into those, but it cannot be the right answer to the schools funding issue to refuse to support the increases that we are putting in, and instead actually to cut the investment going into schools. So whatever criticisms we get from teachers or local education authorities, a party that wants to cut 20 per cent. off the education budget—

Oh yes—that is the right hon. Gentleman's policy. A party that refuses to support the investment and would cut the schools budget is not a party that can criticise us.

Mass killing of civilians is going on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What action is the Prime Minister taking to ensure that adequate UN forces get into the region urgently to prevent further massacres?

I spoke to Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, about this the day before yesterday. A UN force is being put together now to go into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I understand that France will make a considerable contribution to that. Given all our other engagements, we are seeing what support we can give, but it will be very important to try to make sure that that force is properly led and properly supportive; otherwise, we will revisit the terrors of the Congo of a decade or so ago. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are doing everything that we can to avoid that.

Q4. [114639]

The Prime Minister is no doubt aware that the first anniversary of the Potters Bar crash has just passed, but is he aware of the plight of the bereaved and injured? They are still waiting for a full explanation of how the accident happened, and for someone to accept responsibility, as has been the case with similar incidents previously. Will the Prime Minister and his colleagues give serious consideration to the call from the families for a public inquiry?

I understand the concern of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and I understand too why it is a particularly difficult situation for them, when so long a time has passed. However, the Health and Safety Executive has said that it wants to conduct the most thorough investigation. It has not completed that yet, and it is not for us to tell it when to complete it. Obviously, as soon as that investigation is completed we will analyse the outcome, and announce any further proposals at that time.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Gloucester city council on its endeavours to regenerate acres of brownfield land in my constituency? However, he may be aware that one scheme, at St. Oswald's park and valued at more than £100 million, received the green light for local planning in August 2001 and is waiting for approval from Government. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that projects with very real regeneration credentials are speeded up through the planning process?

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. I do not know about the particular development to which he refers, but we do want to ensure that development on brownfield sites is speeded up. It is precisely for that reason that we are putting forward proposals to make the planning process work faster. I hope that we will have a result on that in the near future.

Q5. [114640]

The Prime Minister will be aware that the Scottish Parliament agreed at the beginning of this year to pay compensation to hepatitis C sufferers in Scotland who contracted the disease through contaminated NHS blood products. However, not a penny piece has yet been paid, as a result of dithering by Westminster over jurisdiction. Can I inject a sense of urgency into the debate and ask the Prime Minister to confirm today that Westminster will not frustrate the will of the Scottish Parliament to pay compensation under exemption from the benefits clawback regulations? Surely the Prime Minister would agree that the people involved have already waited far too long for justice.

I am aware of the Scottish Executive's decision to pay compensation to hepatitis C sufferers. I am not aware of the other particular problem to which the hon. Lady has just drawn attention. I shall look into it, and write to her about it.

Q6. [114641]

Will my right hon. Friend inform the House of the measures that we can take to alleviate the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe under Mugabe? He will be aware that inflation there is at 228 per cent. and unemployment at 80 per cent., that 75 per cent. of the industrial base is not being used at present and that people are starving. Does he accept that there is a need to speak urgently to President Mbeki to make sure that, sooner rather than later, he exerts his influence and prevails on Mugabe to resign?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had a meeting with the President of South Africa just last week. We continue to press at every possible level for action against Zimbabwe. The situation there is obviously deteriorating rapidly—it is appalling, in humanitarian and political terms, and in terms of the economic situation for people. That is why it is important, particularly in relation to the Commonwealth, that we continue to make it clear that the actions of Zimbabwe under the Mugabe Government are utterly unacceptable.

What is the right rate of exchange for entry into the euro?

The issues to do with the rate of exchange will, of course, be discussed at the time when the assessment is made.[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked about the right rate of exchange. Fixing the rate of exchange would happen when we decided to enter the euro.

Q7. [114642]

Does my right hon. Friend consider it possible that further amending the UN draft resolution to mandate the early return to Iraq of both organisations of UN weapons inspectors could help to reunify the international community, to reassert the authority of the UN, and to provide credibility in the face of scepticism that the extent and immediacy of the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which precipitated the rush to war, now seem possibly to have been exaggerated?

In respect of the UN resolution, discussions in the UN Security Council are proceeding extremely well and I hope very much that we can reach agreement this week on a new UN Security Council resolution. That will also deal specifically with the return of UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In relation to weapons of mass destruction, as I have said before, we are conducting a thorough search of all potential sites. We are also interviewing scientists and experts under the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, and I can assure the House that when all that evidence has been accumulated—I think people will find that it is very telling indeed—we shall present it and there can be a proper debate about weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime.

Q8. [114643]

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating my constituent, Velma Paterson, on her successful hip operation under the NHS? May I tell him that she was delighted with the clean, modern hospital, the excellent medical staff and the tremendous post-operative care, but can he explain to me and to her why she had to have her operation in France?

Yes, I can explain that. It is also the case that hon. Members on both sides of the House will know of constituents who have had superb care in the NHS in this country. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituent recognises that it is only because we are prepared to pay for operations, should people have to wait too long on the NHS, that she was able to get that treatment. The vast majority of people get their operations on time, in the NHS, in this country, but, for the first time, if they are unable to get that treatment within a specified time, we are prepared to pay here, abroad or wherever to reduce their suffering. However, all that, including that constituent's operation, could not take place without the investment in the health service—[Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition may be tired of hearing that, but he is going to hear it from now until the next general election. The truth is that without the extra investment, that constituent's operation would not have been done, and I hope that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) tells her that.

As someone who supported the operation to overthrow Saddam Hussein before, during and after the war, I welcome the progress at the United Nations, but does the Prime Minister agree that we need to make further progress in controlling civil unrest and in training forces in non-lethal methods of crowd control so that we can establish a stable environment for the new Iraqi interim regime?

My hon. Friend is right, and, if we are able to secure the UN resolution in the next few days, I hope that it will also allow us to access greater support from other countries. The situation in Baghdad is improving and the situation in Basra, in the south, has rapidly improved, but there is still a long way to go. If we can get the help of other countries, we can make even faster progress.

Q9. [114644]

The Secretary of State for Wales, the Government's representative on the Future of Europe Convention, described the outcome as merely tidying up. I think that the Prime Minister and I share the conviction that it is in Britain's national interest to be a member of the European Union, and to be a leading member. Would this not be an opportunity to explain again to the British people, 30 years after we joined, what the benefits are, and would it not also be an opportunity for the Prime Minister to assuage the fears of those who feel that this is something more than tidying up?

There is a very good opportunity to explain to people the benefits of the European Union. What the hon. Gentleman says is right; he represents a strand of the Conservative party that is, I am afraid, all too little represented on the Conservative Benches. People ask what has come out of Europe to Britain's benefit. What has come out for the past few decades is peace, prosperity, rising living standards and the chance to play a part in the world's biggest strategic alliance and single economic market. I think, therefore, that there will be an opportunity both when the assessment is announced on 9 June and in respect of the Convention to hold a proper public debate in this country about Europe. I look forward to that debate, during the course of which it will be seen increasingly that those who really want to wrench Britain out of Europe—as do Conservative Front-Bench Members—are in a minority.

Q10. [114645]

The European Court of Justice has decreed that Governments should no longer hold golden shares in companies, the European Commission does not believe that Governments should dictate the shape or form of public interest companies that can take on services, and the European Central Bank is touting the idea that Governments should no longer run health services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European Union's privatisation agenda is running a bit ahead of itself and could even reach the stage where it threatens some of our flagship policies?

Obviously, we shall study the judgment about the golden shares carefully. In relation to the national health service, I simply point out to my hon. Friend that one of the reasons why we want to raise health service and health care public spending in this country is precisely that we recognise that we are not spending enough on the national health service. It is thus rather an odd charge that if we were part of the European Union we could not spend the money that we wanted on health.