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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 4 June 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked



What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary about the number of unemployed people in Wales in (a) May 1997 and (b) May 2003. [116421]

Unemployment in Wales is down 45 per cent. since April 1997 and down at least 33 per cent. in every Welsh constituency. Youth unemployment in Wales is down 79 per cent. during the same period and long-term unemployment is down 84 per cent. The Welsh economy is on track for long-term sustainability and prosperity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In Preseli Pembrokeshire, we exceed that figure, with a 46 per cent. fall in unemployment. Despite that, 75 jobs have recently been lost in Milford Haven in my constituency, primarily because of a lack of broadband facilities. Will he please hold discussions with BT and particularly the regulator, which seems to be the stumbling block in this instance, to see whether moves can be made to roll out broadband in Wales to avoid such unnecessary loss of jobs in future?

I shall certainly do that. My hon. Friend makes a good point. Broadband is being rolled out extensively across Wales, but more needs to be done, particularly for rural areas, including Pembrokeshire, and she makes her case very well.

Will the Secretary of State please tell the House what is being done in Wales to increase employment opportunities for those between the ages of 50 and 65? When he replies, will he also tell the House what is happening with regard to the under-employed in the Wales Office?

I shall answer the serious part of the hon. Gentleman's question first. He asked what is being done for older workers. The Government have a strategy in place to assist older workers, including, in particular, those in valley communities who lost their jobs in the days of heavy industry and have found it difficult to get back into work. To that extent, I am delighted that levels of economic inactivity are falling and that there was a 54,000 cut in economic inactivity last year. That is the first time that that has happened for a very long time.

In respect of the Wales Office, I say to the hon. Gentleman that he either wants a strong Wales Office or he does not. Of course, Plaid Cymru wants to abolish the Wales Office as it wants independence for Wales and does not want anybody representing it in the United Kingdom Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that jobs in the manufacturing industry in Wales are crucial to the economy? I am sure that he is aware that a joint report by the Department for Work and Pensions and the Office of Fair Trading about the UK insurance market is about to be announced. Does he agree that some manufacturing companies in Wales will look keenly at the findings of that investigation, because their survival will be decided in relation to the heavy burden of insurance policies on such companies?

The Government are addressing the issue, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to join me in welcoming the 25,000 new manufacturing jobs that have been created in Wales in the past year and, in particular, the reports in recent days that new optimism and opportunity are opening up for Welsh exporters as a result of the strengthening of the euro against the pound. That has provided a big window for Wales, especially in Europe.

On behalf of the Opposition, may I wish the Secretary of State best wishes for his happy event on 14 June?

Since the Secretary of State came to his post, we have seen a massive decline in the manufacturing industry. The latest big name closure is that of LG in Newport, with the loss almost 1,000 jobs. Does he put that miserable record down to the fact that he has not been paying enough attention to Wales?

We have created 68,000 new jobs in Wales in the past year. Employment has increased to record levels from the miserable level under the Tories. Some 25,000 new manufacturing jobs have been created. Yes, the LG closure is a disappointment. The project involved about £247 million of public money and was supported by one of the hon. Gentleman's predecessors, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), then Secretary of State for Wales. It has shown that what we should do is disperse our investment support across a much wider base of economic activity rather than concentrate it in one prestige project, which found that it could not continue its activity because of world demand.

The Minister is not dispersing support, but dispersing manufacturing jobs in Wales—that is the problem. Order books have contracted for the past six months and exports are down for the past four months. Instead of swanning around Europe selling out British interests on the European Convention, should he not be spending more time listening to the voices of manufacturers talking about matters such as the climate change levy and the extra burdens of red tape and offer an apology for the 1 per cent. jobs tax that his Government introduced last April? Manufacturing is in meltdown in Wales, and the Government must act before more thousands of jobs are exported to his beloved Europe.

The hon. Gentleman obviously swotted very hard for that question, but we should stick to the facts. The reality is that for the seventh consecutive month business activity in Wales remains above the British average, that the latest export figures for Wales show a rise of 9 per cent. on the fourth quarter of last year compared with the same period a year ago, and that Welsh companies are doing better than other British companies. The hon. Gentleman wants to run down manufacturing in Wales. I recently visited the finest and largest manufacturing centre in Britain—Airbus in Broughton, which is an example of more manufacturing jobs being created in Wales. Some 25,000 new manufacturing jobs were created last year, compared with the dreadful record of the Tories, who massacred our manufacturing sector.

Defence Aviation And Research Agency


When he last met the Secretary of State for Defence to discuss the progress of the Red Dragon Project at RAF St Athan; and if he will make a statement. [116422]

I welcome the fact that the construction of a new state-of-the-art repair and maintenance facility by the Defence and Aviation Repair Agency at its headquarters base in St. Athan is under way. The DARA development will also be the focus wider plans by the welsh Development Agency to develop a high-tech aerospace park at St. Athan. That leading-edge facility will secure and create around 4,000 new jobs.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. I, too, am delighted to hear that the £80 million super-hangar that is being constructed in my constituency in the Vale of Glamorgan is well on schedule. However, when he next meets the Secretary of State for Defence, will he seek an assurance that during the construction of the hangar sufficient work is directed to DARA from the Ministry of Defence to maintain current manning levels? I fear that if that assurance is not forthcoming, a large number of highly skilled, highly paid jobs could be at risk over the next 12 to 18 months.

I should pay tribute to my hon. Friend. No one has worked harder to secure that development in his constituency. He is a model constituency MP and deserves to be re-elected with a resounding majority at the next election.

As for the matter that he raises, I am aware of his concerns, which he has discussed with several of my ministerial colleagues. I shall certainly bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. In saying that, I should also point out that Wales is currently doing very well out of defence industry contracts, including Oshkosh, General Dynamics and Cogent. The Red Dragon project in my hon. Friend's constituency is the icing on the cake.

Will the Minister actively support a strategy to make Wales a global aerospace centre of excellence, with projects such as Red Dragon in the south and related civil and military aerospace projects in north and mid-Wales, where our regional airport structure and manufacturing companies, such as the beleaguered KTH company, might be well suited?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good and important point. I re-emphasise what I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) about the Welsh Development Agency's development of the aerospace park project at St. Athan. That is central to what the hon. Gentleman wants to achieve. I am sure that, working together in partnership with the Government here in Westminster, a Labour Government in Cardiff and the WDA, we will achieve it.

Local Government Elections


What consultations he has had with the First Minister on the date of the local government elections in Wales. [116423]

I have discussed with the First Minister my view that, although the date of local government elections is a matter for the National Assembly, it should be combined with the European elections a month later.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Would it not also make sense if, as well as having the Euro elections and the council elections on the same day, both elections took the form of an all-postal ballot? If European countries can have different systems for the European parliamentary elections, why cannot we in the United Kingdom opt to conduct ours via an all-postal ballot system, so as to increase the turnout and give greater to access to voters?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Government are considering this matter and trying to encourage more postal voting. Indeed, many more postal votes were cast in Wales—there were four times as many in my own borough—as there were in the last Assembly elections. That is an encouraging trend, but my hon. Friend raises a valid point.

A commission recently reported on electoral arrangements for local government in Wales and made recommendations about the introduction of voting at 16 and the use of a proportional system for voting. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with colleagues in the Assembly about introducing those recommendations?

I am horrified by the Secretary of State's first response. The local elections were moved by a full 12 months so that they would not be on the same day as the Welsh Assembly elections, and the turnout was a miserable 38 per cent. I know that the Secretary of State is not keen for the people of Wales to have a say in how they are governed, but will he please give an assurance that the local election date will not be moved by another month? Also, while we are at it, let us have a vote on the European Convention.

I shall come back to the question of Europe in a minute, if you will allow me to do so, Mr. Speaker. On the Welsh side of the hon. Gentleman's question, the turnout in the English local elections was only 30 per cent. The Government are planning to hold the European elections and the English local elections, including the Greater London elections, on the same day next June. There is a strong case for doing the same in Wales. On Europe, this Labour Government have held more referendums than any other Government. [Interruption.] The Conservatives have never held a referendum on anything. The treaty that will come out of the European Convention will be subject to exactly the same parliamentary procedures. [Interruption.]

Agency Workers


When he next expects to meet representatives of employment agencies to discuss the use of agency workers in the small firm sector in Wales. [116425]

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have no plans to meet representatives of the Wales and south-west region of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation. However, we would be happy to meet them if asked.

I am sorry that the Minister is not going to meet them in the near future, because has he had a chance to consider the possible impact of the agency workers directive on the recruitment of temporary staff in Wales? Is he aware that the CBI has estimated that the directive could cost more than 60,000 jobs in Wales alone? Surely, if he and the Secretary of State really want to help manufacturing, they will do all that they can to stop that job-destroying directive.

The hon. Gentleman has raised this matter about seven times in the House. He is certainly persistent and diligent in pursuing it, and I do not criticise him for that. Yesterday, at the Employment and Social Policy Council, my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions at the Department of Trade and Industry failed to reach agreement on the Commission's proposals. The British Government's position is that we will continue to work for a directive that gets the right balance between protecting agency workers and protecting their jobs.

Does my hon. Friend welcome the opportunity for the small firms sector that will arise from the welcome news today that Celsa is to restart steelmaking on the ASW site in Cardiff? Will he do all that he can to ensure that the jobs that might be advertised by employment agencies go to redundant steelworkers from ASW?

I do indeed welcome the news that the project that Celsa is engaged in at the former ASW plant in Cardiff is to go ahead. I take note of my hon. Friend's point, and I would say that any agency recruiting workers for Celsa in Cardiff would certainly have to look in the first instance at the former employees of ASW. Their skills are in very high demand, and I have no doubt that the quality work force who were treated so badly by ASW will provide an excellent work force for Celsa.

National Health Service


If he will make a statement on the national health service in Wales. [116426]

Under our Government the national health service in Wales has been receiving record investment, and record numbers of patients are being seen.

The Health and Social Care Bill says that foundation hospitals will provide goods and services from the NHS for people in England. Why is Wales excluded, given that 26,000 people from Wales seek treatment in England each year?

One of the Conservatives' problems is their inability to recognise that devolution was designed to allow different parts of the United Kingdom to do things differently. That is what is happening in Wales. The hon. Lady does not, of course, advertise the fact that the Conservatives believe in 20 per cent. cuts in health spending. [Interruption.] Oh yes, they do. Their leader has advocated those cuts. Moreover, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), a former Secretary of State for Wales, says that 20 per cent. is not enough. What does the hon. Lady believe in, and what does the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) believe in?

Despite what is said by the knockers in the Conservative party who presided over a long-term decline in the health service, is it not the case that under this Government a record number of new hospitals have been built, a record number of nurses have been recruited, and a new cancer centre has been built at Glan Clwyd hospital in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under the Conservatives, 100 hospitals were closed in Wales. Under Labour, 10 new hospitals are being built or have already opened. We are recruiting 3,500 more NHS staff, an extra 6,000 nurses, an extra 525 consultants and 175 more GPs. That is an excellent record, compared with the dreadful record of the Tories.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with colleagues here and in Cardiff about the impact of the establishment of foundation hospitals along the border with Wales? What has been the effect of recruitment of staff from Welsh hospitals, and the treatment of patients from Welsh hospitals in the English foundation hospitals?

Obviously patients have the right to cross the border in either direction, but we are keeping the matter under close review, and I have already discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Coal Miners' Compensation


When the Welsh subgroup of the coal health claims monitoring Group last met; and what assessment was made of the effectiveness of the claims procedures. [116428]

The Welsh sub-group last met on 7 April, when I was delighted to welcome my hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Havard) as members.

The progress on payments under both the respiratory disease and the vibration white finger schemes in Wales speaks volumes for the valuable contribution made by the group.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but could he be a bit more precise and let me know what criteria—[Interruption.]

Could my hon. Friend tell me what criteria are used to determine priorities when the miner's estate is the beneficiary, and what is the current position relating to payments in Wales and specifically in my constituency?

I can tell my hon. Friend that £4.5 million has been paid for respiratory disease in his constituency, £1.3 million has been paid under the vibration white finger scheme, and £228 million has been paid for respiratory disease throughout Wales. We may not be able to see light at the end of the tunnel, but at least we can see the tunnel for the first time.

The priorities are the oldest miners, the most ill, and the widows. As for estate claims, if there is any indication of a short life expectancy the process may be accelerated and the claim considered more urgently. We will, however, look at cases individually. I pay tribute to the Minister for Energy and Construction, who has been wonderfully supportive in especially difficult cases, helping to secure for our miners the justice that they so richly deserve.

There is one group of former miners in Wales on which there has been absolutely no progress—not a single penny has been paid. I refer, of course, to those who worked in the private mines. Since those mines were licensed by the National Coal Board, which received a levy on every tonne of coal produced, do not the Government have a responsibility to those men, whose suffering is every bit as real as that of those who worked in the nationalised industry?

I recognise the justice of the hon. Gentleman's point. Our monitoring group has discussed that issue, which continues to be the subject of discussions between solicitors representing the claimants and the Department of Trade and Industry. We have done everything we possibly can to bring the matter to the top of the agenda.

National Assembly Elections


What assessment he has made of the level of voter turnout in the last elections for the National Assembly for Wales on 1 May. [116429]

The turnout in the recent Assembly elections was disappointing and the Government and the Electoral Commission are looking at ways of addressing that issue.

The Secretary of State is absolutely right. The actual turnout for the Assembly elections in Wales was extremely disappointing at 38 per cent. If that had been the turnout at a general election, the House would be bewailing the end of representative democracy. Does it not show that the people of Wales do not believe their Assembly is worth anything at all and that their local government and this House are where decisions are made? When will he understand that devolution is not always the answer to the problem?

Presumably, exactly the same logic applies to the borough of Macclesfield, where the turnout was just 30 per cent.—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Gentleman suggest, therefore, that that item of representative democracy should disappear? Of course not.

The hon. Gentleman is a great patriot for Macclesfield—I will not take that from him—and an excellent Member of Parliament but the truth is that turnout in all elections at every level has been falling across the democratic world. It is a great concern and we should all address it seriously.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the reason for the low turnout in the Assembly elections is probably that voters did not believe that the Assembly was relevant to the problems in the communities? If we are to increase the turnout in the next Assembly election, can he advise the leadership of the Assembly to stop wasting money on projects such as the glorified opera house in Cardiff bay, which cost £100 million, and instead spend that money to create jobs in some of the most deprived valley communities?

It is important that we recognise that Cardiff and Wales should be going for world-class excellence in every area. The valley communities that my hon. Friend and I represent are part of that drive to make Wales a world-class nation. In respect of turnout, I do not think that one can draw the conclusion that he has reached. The turnout at the Scottish elections was much lower but the Scottish Parliament has greater powers. The turnout at the last general election was lower than at the previous one. We must address the issue across democratic politics on a non-party basis.

Higher And Further Education


What plans he has to encourage closer links between higher education and further education institutions in Wales. [116430]

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are very aware of the Assembly Cabinet's strategy for reconfiguration within the Welsh continuing education sector. We strongly welcome the progress that is being made towards greater collaboration between higher education and further education institutions in Wales.

Will my hon. Friend continue to study the proposals from University of Wales college, Newport and Coleg Gwent for close integration of the work of the two institutions to enable students in south-east Wales to progress seamlessly to higher levels of skills and qualification, and will he commend that model elsewhere in Wales and the United Kingdom?

I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming the important work on closer links between Coleg Gwent and the University of Wales college, Newport. I know that he takes a keen interest in that issue. I also welcome the support being given by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales for that reconfiguration and closer collaboration. A total of £5.3 million is being made available across the principality. I will continue to take an interest in the progress on that work. Those close links are important to the development of education in Wales.



What discussions he has had with National Assembly colleagues regarding implementation of the Broadband Wales programme. [116431]

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend—

That is always wise, Mr. Speaker.

I have regular bilateral meetings with National Assembly colleagues, and Broadband Wales is one of the many subject areas discussed.

I apologise, Mr. Speaker—I was so excited about getting in on Wales questions. May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his colleagues in the National Assembly on the roll-out of broadband in Wales, and on the £110 million that has been invested to ensure affordable broadband in the region? Does he agree that the roll-out of broadband is as important in Wales as it is in Scotland, that it is rapidly improving and that a celtic alliance between the two nations should be supported?

The answer is yes, and I welcome the highest talent from all parts of the House to Wales questions.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked


Q1. [116549]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 June.

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.

UN weapons inspectors said 12 weeks ago that it was their "strong presumption" that Saddam Hussein had not destroyed, among other things, 10,000 litres of anthrax, 80 tonnes of mustard gas and large quantities of VX nerve agent. Where are these weapons and what does the Prime Minister say to allegations that their threat has been exaggerated? Does he share my hope that one day, every leader who gases, tortures and buries—dead and alive—hundreds and thousands of his own people will be removed by force?

In relation to weapons of mass destruction, my hon. Friend is of course right to say that it was accepted by the entire international community, and not least by the UN Security Council, that Saddam Hussein did indeed have weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the security of the world, which is why the resolution was passed last November. In respect of the search for weapons of mass destruction, I would point out to the House that the Iraq survey group, which is 1,300 to 1,400-strong, is literally now just beginning its work, because the priority after the conflict was to rebuild Iraq and to make sure that the humanitarian concerns of the Iraqi people were achieved. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to inform the House that the Intelligence and Security Committee actually contacted the Government in early May to conduct an inquiry into the role of intelligence in Iraq. I welcome this and I can assure the House that the Government will co-operate fully with it.

As for my hon. Friend's other point, I hope that we all recognise that in addition to the weapons of mass destruction issue, as I saw for myself in Iraq, the people of Iraq, whatever the problems of rebuilding that country, are delighted that a brutal dictator who murdered hundreds of thousands of their people has gone. And the British Army and the British people should be proud of the role that this country played in removing him.

The Leader of the House has said that rogue elements within the intelligence services are undermining the Government and that their numbers are growing. Does the Prime Minister agree with him?

It is obvious from what the "Today" programme has said—if that source is to be believed—that of course there was somebody from within the intelligence community who spoke to the media. But I want to say that the security services and intelligence services do a superb job on behalf of this country. Over the six years that I have been Prime Minister, they have been magnificent in the information that they have given, in their professionalism and in their integrity.

The question is not the "Today" programme but that the Leader of the House made very serious allegations about the security services. I agree with the Prime Minister that the security services fulfil a monumental role on behalf of the Government, but the Leader of the House said that they are seeking deliberately to undermine the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister can clear this up right now. Can he tell us how senior he believes these people are and how many of them there are, and what he intends to do about these allegations?

In fairness to the Leader of the House, he did not say that the security services were engaged in anything, but that somebody from the security services was talking—and it is pretty obvious that that is the case. The right hon. Gentleman asks me who it is and how senior, but according to the BBC, the source is anonymous, so obviously I do not know. There is serious point in what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I do not believe that the person who is talking is a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee and I want to make it clear to the House—I have spoken and conferred with the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee—that there was no attempt, at any time, by any official, or Minister, or member of No. 10 Downing street staff, to override the intelligence judgments of the Joint Intelligence Committee. That includes the judgment about the so-called 45 minutes. It was a judgment made by the Joint Intelligence Committee and by that committee alone.

The Leader of the House, in an interview with The Times and on the "Today" programme, did not talk about one person, but about a growing number of members of the security services. The Leader of the House made allegations about the security services—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—and the Prime Minister is not supporting him. We are also hearing allegations from others in the security services that the Prime Minister misled Parliament and the country in the run-up to the war. Those are highly serious allegations. Surely the essential way to deal with the problem is for the Prime Minister to publish the dossier given to him by the JIC before the one that he published in September. Will he do that today?

In relation to all those issues, the Intelligence and Security Committee is at full liberty to go through all the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments and produce a report on them. Because of the importance of the issue, it is only right that a report be published so that people can make a judgment on it. However, the claims that have been made are simply false. In particular, the claim that the readiness of Saddam to use weapons within 45 minutes of an order to use them was a point inserted in the dossier at the behest of No. 10 is completely and totally untrue. Furthermore, the allegation that the 45-minute claim provoked disquiet among the intelligence community, which disagreed with its inclusion in the dossier—I have discussed it, as I said, with the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee—is also completely and totally untrue. Instead of hearing from one or many anonymous sources, I suggest that if people have any evidence, they actually produce it.

But the Leader of the House is not an anonymous source. The Prime Minister stands in his place saying that these allegations are wrong. If so, and if he did not add the 45-minute point to the dossier, why will he not publish the dossier given him by the JIC before he finally published the one in September? Surely that would clear up the point, because it was given to him as evidence that could be put in the public domain. He can do that now and clear the matter up. Of course we welcome the fact that the Intelligence and Security Committee will look into it, but I remind the whole House that the Prime Minister will let that Committee see only the intelligence reports that he wants it to see. It reports directly to him and he can withhold any part of, or all of, its reports. However, the Committee is being asked to investigate the Prime Minister's role and that of his closest advisers. Given the allegations made by the Leader of the House today, surely the only way to clear up the problem is to have an independent inquiry?

As far as I am aware, the Leader of the House was not making an allegation about the intelligence being wrong. On the contrary, he was rebutting the allegation that the intelligence was wrong. In relation to the Intelligence and Security Committee, it is not true that I will withhold from it the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments. I will give it all the JIC assessments. In addition, the Committee can, in accordance with its normal practice, interview those people in the security services who drew up the JIC reports. That is surely a fair way to proceed. I will then publish the report.

If I may say so to the right hon. Gentleman, he had intelligence briefings as well. I suspect that the problem for him is that he has been wondering over the past few days whether to jump on this particular bandwagon or not, and he has made the wrong choice.

The allegations made by the Leader of the House today have changed everything. He is alleging that elements of the security services are actually seeking to undermine the Government. The Prime Minister cannot pretend that this is just a simple and small issue. The whole credibility of his Government rests on clearing up these charges. I simply say to the Prime Minister that these allegations are not going to go away. He has one former Cabinet Minister who says that he has duped the Cabinet; another says that he committed a monumental blunder; and, today, the Leader of the House has attacked members of the security services. Surely the reality is that the only way is to hold an independent judicial inquiry, if he will not produce the evidence, and to do it today.

I have already said that we will produce all the evidence for the Intelligence and Security Committee. I really think that that is the sensible and right way to proceed. It can then come to a considered judgment and I will publish the report. I repeat that all the allegations that have been made are completely without any substance. Indeed, if the right hon. Gentleman wants me to, I shall go through a few more. For example, it was reported that there was a meeting in New York between the Foreign Secretary and Colin Powell in which they expressed their doubts about weapons of mass destruction. On the day concerned, the Foreign Secretary was in France. As for the allegation in The Mail on Sunday that the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, ambushed me over weapons of mass destruction—lies. I have the following statement from the German embassy:

"The German embassy rejects in the strongest possible terms your"—
The Mail on Sunday's
"claims made on today' front page article … The content and the quotations attributed to Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer are pure fiction."
That at least is consistent. It was alleged that the source for the 45 minute claim was an Iraqi defector of dubious reliability. He was not an Iraqi defector and he was an established and reliable source.

The truth is that nobody believes a word that the Prime Minister is saying now. [Interruption.] That is the truth. We now have the unedifying sight of the Leader of the House being sent out to do the Prime Minister's bidding and to attack elements of the security services, which is disgraceful. Will the Prime Minister either publish that dossier right now, or hold an independent inquiry so that the public can judge for themselves?

Again, let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman that what the Leader of the House was saying was what was clearly true, which is that there were people speaking anonymously to the media. I want to repeat, however, that in respect of Iraq and of every issue that I have handled over the past few years, our intelligence services have been absolutely magnificent.

I say, with the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, that the fact is that in the end there have been many claims made about the Iraq conflict. It was claimed that hundreds of thousands of people were going to die in it; that it would be my Vietnam; that the middle east would be in flames; and—the latest claim—that weapons of mass destruction were a complete invention by the British Government. The truth is that some people resent the fact that it was right to go to conflict. We won the conflict; thanks to the magnificent contribution of the British troops, Iraq is now free, and we should be proud of that.

Q2. [116550]

May I remind my right hon. Friend of the serious school funding problems in my constituency? While there are arguments about whether the Government provided enough money or whether the local authority has passed on all that it should have done, parents and teachers are not bothered about who is at fault. They look to us to sort out the problems, to make sure that there is enough money for this year, and that there is no repeat next year. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to get to the bottom of the story of what has gone wrong this year and guarantee that sufficient money will be made available next year to ensure that education in schools in my constituency is of the high standard that we have come to expect?

Again, let me say that I totally understand the concerns that my hon. Friend raises. They are the reason why Ministers have had several meetings with representatives of the Barnet authority. As my honourable Friend knows, Barnet received a 7 per cent. floor increase in education formula spending share per pupil. That was a significant uplift, but it is true that some schools still have problems. We are working hard to see exactly where those problems are located and how to deal with them. However, along with a significant uplift in pension contributions and extra teachers' pay, there has been real pressure on local education authority budgets. In some cases, the full amount of education spending has not been passed through. We need to make sure that it is passed through. That is what we are looking at, in respect of both this year and next year.

The Prime Minister is saying that more time is needed and asking for public patience when it comes to finding categoric evidence of weapons of mass destruction, but does he not understand that many people, in this country and internationally, treat that with some scepticism? More time and a degree of patience with regard to the progress already being made were exactly what Dr. Hans Blix appealed to the UN for. The Prime Minister was unwilling to extend that courtesy to Dr. Blix, despite having voted for it. Why then does he expect people to extend that courtesy to him?

For two reasons, the situation is completely different. First of all, what I said in relation to Hans Blix: I do not have the words in front of me now, but I think that what I said in this House, when asked many times, was that, if Saddam was co-operating fully, time was not the issue. The process could take as much time as Dr. Blix needed. However, if Saddam was not co-operating fully—and even Dr. B1ix found that he was not—that meant that Saddam was in breach of resolution 1441.

The second point is that of course the situation is different now that Saddam has been removed from power. The first priority after the conflict—and this, quite rightly, is the reason for the pressure on us—is to take the humanitarian and reconstruction measures necessary to put Iraq back on its feet. The Iraq survey group is 1,300 or 1,400 strong, and it is the main group charged with going into Iraq, investigating all the sites and interviewing the scientists and witnesses. That group is starting its work now—literally now. The reason I ask people to be patient is that the group has just gone into Iraq: it should be allowed to get on with its job, investigate the sites, interview the witnesses and then report back to us.

If the Prime Minister acknowledges that public scepticism exists, rightly or wrongly, will he acknowledge also that it is liable to be increased by the comments of the Leader of the House about the rogue elements in the security services? Who are the public to trust if the Government are letting it be known that they cannot wholeheartedly trust their own security services? Does not that underline the need for a fully independent judicial review of just what has gone on?

The intelligence that formed the basis of the dossier that we put out last September was based on Joint Intelligence Committee assessments. There was never any question of Ministers, officials or anyone else trying to override that. With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, the Intelligence and Security Committee will be able to go through all those intelligence assessments. If the Committee wants to refer to those assessments, it can. That will then be published in its report. Rather than having allegations made by anonymous sources that are completely untrue, is it not better that people with evidence should present it to the Intelligence and Security Committee and allow that Committee to make a judgment?

The right hon. Gentleman says that there is scepticism about the matter, but perhaps he should go back and look at some of the words that he has used and the false allegations that he has made. Then he will see where the scepticism might have originated.

Middle East

Q3. [116551]

What plans he has to visit Bethlehem before 25 December to discuss progress on a settlement of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

I am sorry to hear the Prime Minister say that. Christmas could not be celebrated last year in Bethlehem because of the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. International voluntary workers, including Alistair Hillmans, a constituent of mine, were illegally arrested by the Israelis on territory that is not theirs. Given the new determination under the new middle east peace plan—the road map—would it not be good if the Prime Minister could say, "I will be in Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas this year."? Would it not be good if such towns as Jenin, Tulkarm, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Dura and Dhahiriya were all part of a consolidated Palestinian state?

My hon. Friend's point is right. It is important to do all that we can to make sure that there is freedom of access to Bethlehem this year. As he rightly points out, as a result of the situation in the middle east, people were not able to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem last year. However, it is worth pointing out that, for the first time in several years, we have the prospect of the peace process in the middle east moving forward. I very much welcome the initiative that President Bush has taken in that regard. If we can get some sort of normalisation under way, I have no doubt that it should include access to Bethlehem. I am sure that that will be one of the points that those who are trying to negotiate the first steps in reviving the peace process will take into account.

Why does the Prime Minister not grasp the nettle and reaffirm the probity and efficacy of his Government by holding a clear judicial inquiry into the matters that are of public concern?

I have answered the allegations that people have put. I have answered them not only on my own behalf, but on behalf of the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. There is a proper way of proceeding. The all-party Intelligence and Security Committee will look into these matters, as it has asked to do, and will make a report. The specific allegation made about the 45 minutes is one that the Committee is perfectly able to investigate and reach conclusions on. I hope that if it concludes that what I have said from the Dispatch Box is correct, our security services—never mind the Government—will receive an apology from those people who made that allegation.


Q4. [116552]

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Liverpool on becoming the European capital of culture? Will he also congratulate Cardiff, which put in a great bid, and the other cities on the shortlist? What plans are there to build on the success and momentum created in Cardiff and the other shortlisted cities?

I offer my warm congratulations to Liverpool on becoming the European capital of culture. For my own safety, I should point out that the decision was taken on a recommendation by an independent committee—

There is an established and reliable source for that, anyway.

My commiserations go, of course, to those cities, not just Cardiff, that made fantastic efforts in their bids. Because they have done so well, the Government intend to invest a particular sum to ensure that those cities that did not win, because Liverpool did, will still be given a chance to develop as cities of culture.

Q5. [116553]

The governors at Neville Lovett community school in my constituency are likely to have to disband its learning support unit in order to balance the books. Does the Prime Minister think it right that those who need support in their education are likely to lose it because the Government have not got their sums right on school funding?

Obviously, I do not know the situation in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. However, we have put in a huge increase in his area, Hampshire, over the past few years, and there was a particularly large increase this year. I cannot say for sure exactly how the money has been allocated by the local education authority, but I do say to Conservative Members who say that they want even more money to go into education that it is curious to demand that when their policy has been not to support extra investment, but to cut it by 20 per cent. across the board.

Does the Prime Minister recall saying in the September debate that we knew that Saddam had been trying to buy uranium from Africa? Has he been advised since then that it is accepted that the documents on which that claim was based were forged? I have never questioned the good faith of my right hon. Friend, so could he not save the Intelligence and Security Committee a lot of time in its inquiry by correcting the record now on the alleged uranium from Africa, and on the alleged weapons ready in 45 minutes, and say that he regrets that, in all good faith, he gave the House information that has since turned out to be wrong?

No, I am afraid that I have to say to my right hon. Friend that I will not do that, for this reason. There are two quite separate allegations. My right hon. Friend started with the allegation about uranium from Africa. There was intelligence to that effect. I shall not go into the details of the particular intelligence, but at the time it was judged by the Joint Intelligence Committee to be correct. Until we investigate properly, we are simply not in a position to say whether that is so. In respect of the 45 minutes, however, that is a wholly different allegation. I have to say to my right hon. Friend that the Joint Intelligence Committee made that assessment on its own behalf with no interference from anyone. I shall certainly not stand here and say that that assessment is wrong, as the committee's judgment is that it was right. The committee is in a better position to make that judgment than either me or, with respect, my right hon. Friend.

Q6. [116554]

Yet again, Greenpeace has today highlighted the use by the Government, in the Home Office, of timber from unsustainable sources. Will the Prime Minister accept that the use of unsustainable timber must be stopped—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must let the hon. Lady ask her question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?] Because her name is on the Order Paper and she is entitled to ask a question.

There is evidence from Greenpeace. We should declare war on the illegal use of timber and end the mass destruction of forests once and for all.

I am getting instructions from further along the Bench. Is this to do with a fence around Marsham street?

I regret to say that, along with everything else, I am not 100 per cent. up to speed about the fence around Marsham street. The Home Secretary seems to be disputing rather vigorously the claim that is being made.

Probably he would. I shall look into the matter and drop the hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) a line about it. It may be an issue to take up with the contractors rather than with the Government.


Q7. [116555]

What action he has taken since 14 May to gather documentation in relation to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

We believe that documents relating to Iraq's WMD programmes have been carefully concealed, including at the homes of scientists and other personnel connected with those programmes. As I informed the House a moment or two ago, a new organisation, the Iraq survey group, has been set up to take charge of the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, among other things. The group will harness intelligence resources and the investigatory skills of about 1,300 to 1,400 staff from the US, the UK and Australia. It will subsume the existing smaller operations and investigations being carried out by the US military. It will also include former United Nations arms inspectors, and it represents a significant expansion of effort in the coalition hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

Tonight at 7 o'clock, Mr. Speaker has given me an Adjournment debate on the situation in detention of Tariq Aziz. Could the Prime Minister ask the junior Minister at the Foreign Office who will be replying to the debate to enlarge on the processes by which the documentation that is found may relate to trials, not only of Tariq Aziz but of some others? Do we not have to be rather careful, whatever our views, about victors' justice? Surely those people have to be brought to trial one way or another?

I agree with my hon. Friend: they have to be brought to trial in a proper way. That is something that we are discussing at present both with our allies and with the United Nations. I shall certainly pass on to my hon. Friend, the Foreign Office Minister who will reply to the debate, the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has made. I hope, however, that he will recognise and support us in one thing. Sometimes over the past few days, it has been almost as if the whole issue of Saddam and weapons of mass destruction were a curious invention. The weapons of mass destruction issue and Saddam have been around for 12 years in the UN, as have Saddam's efforts at concealment.

When I was replying to my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), I forgot one point. It is sometimes said that it is very curious that, if those weapons were ready to fire, they were not found immediately. The answer to that lies in the very point we made in the dossier, which is that once Saddam started to realise that United Nations inspectors were coming back in, as I think I said continually at the Dispatch Box, there was then a concerted campaign of concealment of the weapons. Indeed, I think I also Said—if not at this Dispatch Box, then elsewhere Publicly—that one benefit of that, although there were obviously a lot of problems with it, was that it would make it more difficult to reassemble those weapons; but that does not in any shape or form dispute the original intelligence.

As for the other point that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow makes, about the tribunal and how these people are tried, I can assure him that if they are tried they should be tried according to proper and due process.

Those of us who argued that the conflict in Iraq was illegal continually had the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction thrown at us by the right hon. Gentleman and others. Is it not high time to have a full public inquiry? It is not good enough for the Prime Minister to rely on a report by the Joint Intelligence Committee, because he can be selective as to what he produces, and when all is said and done, the Committee is answerable to him.

I suspect that whatever we did would not be good enough for the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that he and his colleagues were opposed to this from the very beginning, and from the moment the conflict ended and all their predictions of disaster turned out to be untrue, they have been looking for a way of getting back into the argument, saying it was all a terrible mistake.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman one thing. I have been to Iraq and spoken to those Iraqi people; yes, it is true that there is an enormous job of reconstruction to be done in that country, but seeing the literally tens of thousands of bodies in mass graves uncovered in Iraq, and realising that these people had been deprived of freedom for decade upon decade, let us be thankful that someone who was a threat with his weapons of mass destruction and also a brutal tyrant has been removed once and for all.