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Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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Q7. [119738]

If he will make a statement on UK relations with Syria.

The UK is committed to a policy of constructive and, where necessary, critical engagement with Syria. This allows us to support reform while maintaining a robust dialogue on issues of concern.

The Prime Minister will be well aware of a statement by the Foreign Secretary on 6 May that Syria gives support to what he described as "rejectionist terrorist organisations". Bearing in mind the fact that it was possible for me to compile in less than half an hour this not-so-dodgy dossier on the long record of Syria's chemical and biological weapons programmes, does the Prime Minister believe—he ought to, because this information came straight from the internet—that we should be worried by any threat that terrorist groups might obtain chemical or biological weapons from the Syrian regime?

Syria's support for terrorism is an issue that we have raised constantly. The closure of the offices of rejectionist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a step in the right direction, but we have to go far further. Issues to do with weapons of mass destruction are also concerning—the hon. Gentleman is right about that—but we believe that the best way to pursue those concerns is in dialogue with the Syrian Government, and that dialogue is of a frank and critical nature. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue to raise those issues with them. I have done so personally at meetings with President Bashar. I have no doubt that, if we can get a peace process going in the middle east, it will be essential that Syria, and indeed other countries, cut off all support for these terrorist groups, otherwise they will derail the whole process.

Is it not a matter of concern that some formidable figures in Washington—Feith, Bolton, Wolfowitz, Perle and James Wolsey—have urged for some time that there be further action not only against Iraq but against Syria and Iran? Can we have a cast-iron guarantee that the British Government will do everything possible to oppose military action against Damascus or Tehran?

We have never had a proposition put to us by the American Government for such military action, but what they have said—and we agree with it—is that there are real concerns to do with weapons of mass destruction and with terrorism, and it is important, by the process of dialogue that I have just described, that we get both Syria and Iran to change their position on these issues. If they do not change their position on terrorism, the middle east peace process is put at risk. If they do not change their position on weapons of mass destruction, the world becomes a less safe place. We are right to pursue this frank but critical dialogue, and we will continue to do so.

Q8. [119739]

Just over an hour ago, in Westminster Hall, the Minister for Europe made it clear that the Prime Minister had no intention of raising the issue of Chechnya with President Putin on his visit next week, and he also advanced the argument that we should judge Russia differently from other countries because of the circumstances that it faces in the conflict in Chechnya, where the Russian security forces have been largely responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 people. Will the Prime Minister now make it clear that he will raise that issue with President Putin next week and state clearly that Britain expects Russia to abide by the same standards of behaviour as any other member of the Council of Europe?

We do expect that of Russia. The Foreign Secretary said that he will raise the issue with his opposite number. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that I always raise the issue of Chechnya with President Putin, but I do so in a way that recognises the point that, as a result of terrorism emanating from extremists based in Chechnya, the Russian people have also suffered a very great deal. It is worth pointing out the fact that, when we finally won the conflict in Iraq, some of the people who were still offering resistance were extremists from Chechnya. Yes, it is important to raise the issue of human rights, but it is also important that we support Russia in its action against terrorism. It is also fair to say that, as a result of President Putin's political initiative, there is now a chance of a proper political solution in Chechnya. I hope that we can agree both on the need for human rights and on the need for a complete end to any form of terrorism emanating from Chechnya.

Q9. [119740]

My right hon. Friend will be very aware of the explosion in information in the medical sciences. Indeed, Britain is in the forefront of that. We are to have a genetics White Paper next week, and there are new drugs, new treatments and new technologies, including the favourite of the Prince of Wales: the grey goo nanotechnology. Will he therefore resist the efforts of the European Union directive to prevent full clinical trials, funded by the national health service? In no way will that directive promote patients' safety, and I hope that he will join in resisting it.

That is a valid point. It is important that, in interpreting the EU directive, we ensure that we carry on doing the trials that are necessary in this country. I know that my hon. Friend has fought for this for a long time. It raises some of the issues that I mentioned a few moments ago. It is important in relation to these questions that we proceed on the genuine basis of science. Science is a vital part of our industry. My hon. Friend's point about clinical trials is right, and we will certainly take it into account when we come to discuss how we will implement the EU directive.

Q10. [119741]

The Home Secretary said with characteristic candour this morning that it was blindingly obvious that the Government reshuffle had been mishandled. Will the Prime Minister say with uncharacteristic candour who was responsible for that?

As we will discuss in a moment, I stand fully behind the changes—[Interruption.]—and when we debate the statement, the most interesting thing will be to see whether the leader of the Conservative party agrees or disagrees with those changes.

For many of our constituents, general practice is the most important face of the NHS. In some areas, however, it is difficult to recruit new GPs. I appreciate the fact that investment has helped to produce more doctors than ever before—and more in training than ever before—but what more can be done to ensure that newly qualified doctors see general practice as at least as important as acute medical care?

My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of primary care; indeed, our health care system is based on it. What we are doing is introducing a series of measures—including money, incentives and payments—to encourage people into the health service as general practitioners, particularly in areas that are under-doctored at the moment. Additionally, we have a programme in place to introduce GPs from abroad to help boost our numbers. My hon. Friend will know that, since the Government came to power, there has been a huge increase in the number of nurses as well GPs, though we still have a lot further to go.