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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked

Antisocial Behaviour


What his Department's role is in reducing antisocial behaviour in local communities. [119747]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Phil Hope)

The Government recognise the impact that antisocial behaviour can have on local communities and people's quality of life. That is why we are taking strong and concerted action across Government to tackle problems of antisocial and nuisance behaviour. Examples of action being taken by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister include neighbourhood warden schemes, new measures to deal with antisocial tenants, and a new package of more than £200 million to create cleaner, safer, more attractive local environments.

I thank the Minister for that reply and congratulate him warmly on his appointment.

Last Friday, I visited Inspector Holland, at Swanage police station, to discuss antisocial behaviour in that part of my constituency. He informed me of the reluctance of many local agencies to use their existing powers for antisocial behaviour orders. Will the Minister assure me that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will issue clear guidance on how councils should use the new powers in the legislation that we are currently examining in this place and elsewhere, so that, even in Tory councils, where they are happy to do nothing and then blame the Government, we can ensure that the problem of antisocial behaviour is tackled properly throughout the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

I agree that it is important that local agencies make use of all the powers available to them to tackle antisocial behaviour. My hon. Friend has been at the forefront of local campaigns to reduce that problem in his constituency, pressing local councils to take more decisive action. I take this opportunity to urge all councils to use their new powers and the new resources that the Government have provided to tackle a problem that blights too many of our local communities.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his new appointment.

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can be held personally responsible for the new £200 million package to which he referred, but I am keen to know his view on how that package of measures to get rid of antisocial behaviour ties in with the Licensing Bill, to which we gave a Third Reading only the other night, and its plans to allow 24-hour drinking on all our streets—especially as regards central London.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks.

The hon. Gentleman must understand that we are working across Government to implement a range of programmes to tackle antisocial behaviour, so that on our streets we see new neighbourhood wardens and new community support officers who will be working hard in their areas, with local communities, doing a different job from that of the police, to tackle the kind of problem to which he referred. I am confident that they will be able to take serious steps to reduce crime rates and to ensure that the trend continues downward.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to the Treasury Bench in a long-overdue promotion.

As one of my hon. Friend's first duties, will he arrange a meeting with his counterpart at the Department for Education and Skills? My hon. Friend will know from his previous work that one of the keys to tackling antisocial behaviour is developing parenting and social skills in young people before they become antisocial. Will he discuss that with the DFES and consider asking his colleagues to include those skills for young people in the national curriculum?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. As well as measures to tackle crime, we are introducing measures to tackle the underlying causes of crime—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] My hon. Friend is right to point that out. Many of our constituencies benefit from programmes such as sure start, as well as from the children's fund, from Connexions and the youth service, which work with young people and families to deal with problems of low self-esteem and under-achievement at school. Those programmes are raising standards, attainment and aspirations in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our communities.

I, too, warmly welcome and congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new position. He was a distinguished Back Bencher and I am sure that he will quickly get used to defending the indefensible.

Although the hon. Gentleman has been at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for only a short time, does not he feel a degree of embarrassment that the average number of antisocial behaviour orders is less than 5 per cent. of what the Government predicted? Does he blame local councils for that, or is the real culprit a Government who mistake press releases for law enforcement? Local authorities can use such orders only against a backdrop of neighbourhood policing, so will he support the Conservative call for an extra 40,000 police officers on our streets?

Again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks, and I am glad that I do not have to defend a record of crime doubling under the Conservatives or to go into the next general election defending a pledge to cut public spending by 20 per cent. The facts are that there have been 785 antisocial behaviour orders up to last November, that the threat of such orders can have an impact on reducing crime and that the new Antisocial Behaviour Bill, which I hope the Conservative party will stop its foolish opposition to and start to support, will introduce new measures to clamp down on such problems in our communities.

Council Housing

If he will make a statement on his policy on funding council housing. [119748]

Our policy is to enable local authorities properly to manage and maintain their stock, while charging fair and affordable rents. All councils are required to bring their stock up to the decent homes standard. Indeed, since 1997, we have reduced the number of non-decent social homes by 500,000, and we are on track to ensure that all social housing is decent by 2010.

In a recent report in Property People, Lord Rooker is quoted as telling tenants in Hammersmith and Fulham that there would be "no exceptions" to the policy of making councils choose between stock transfer, the private finance initiative or arm's length management organisation options. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether that report is accurate? If it is not, will he assure the tenants who vote against those options that their local authorities will be adequately funded to meet the Government's very worthy decent homes target?

My hon. Friend exactly reports the options that we have got. The three options, as reported by Lord Rooker, are absolutely right, but there is an option for local authorities to stay with their housing stock if they wish. Those are the choices that they have, but we have made considerable changes and investment in housing has gone from about £750 million to £2.1 billion—a tremendous increase, against the Tory record of reducing housing investment every year.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that, at the end of 1997, 25,000 social houses were built in this country, but by the end of last year, the figure had fallen to 14,500 social houses built six years into a Labour Government? Why has that happened? Is not he ashamed that a Labour Government have turned their back on some of the country's poorest people?

It is a bit of a cheek for the hon. Gentleman to say that—he belonged to a Government who had a housing record that was, frankly, scandalous. They left us with a £19 billion disinvestment, which we have just referred to, and a year-on-year decrease in housing investment. As I told the House when I launched the sustainable community package, the record in housing of all Governments, over decades, has been poor and unacceptable. That is why we have invested the largest amount of money ever given to a housing programme—£22 billion. We intend to reverse the trend, and we have made major changes in improving the housing stock. The amount of money available is not enough to meet every demand, but it reverses the decline that we saw under the Tories, who produced a massive repair backlog and a year-on-year decrease and gave away £40 billion in subsidising the right to buy, instead of improving homes for the people. Half a million homes were repossessed between 1990 and 1997. That is the record of a Tory Government, and we will not take any lecture from them on housing policy.

My right hon. Friend will have seen the report from Hammersmith and Fulham, which was well prepared and indicated that tenants wanted to stay with the council. Indeed, I gave evidence to that very excellent committee. However, one of the problems in Ealing—another part of my constituency—is that a Conservative council doubled the rent overnight. When that happens, as I pointed out to the tenants, one of the problems of remaining under council control is that they become victims of political change at very short notice. If we want good quality housing in this country, we need a genuine long-term commitment, free of that sort of political gerrymandering of rents.

Indeed, that is the record that we inherited, and we have given local authorities the option to change from that system and to have a greater opportunity for continuity, to get the proper investment and to have decent quality homes. That is the dividing line between our policies and those that we inherited from the Tories.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister regard it as indispensable, in order to meet his communities plan targets, for private developers to be given access to Housing Corporation loans?

Housing Corporation funding is available for that and has been used in the past. We are looking at a range of public and private financing. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows from his experience in government, the reality of the housing situation is that there is a lack of adequate resources. We have turned more to using public and private resources to lift the amount of investment for housing. We are considering using private resources for housing corporations.

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), council tenants in my constituency warmly welcome the Government's commitment to the decent homes target and the extra funding that has been made available for council housing. However, they are against stock transfer and want to remain with the local authority. Will my right hon. Friend assure them that if they stay with the local authority, funding will still be available for the decent homes target to be met?

I understand my hon. Friend's point. He must know from his experience on housing that the disinvestment that occurred in the local authority housing stock means that something like £19 billion has to be found. We have to restart a housing programme. There are major problems in the south and the north and we need resources from public and private sources as well as the Exchequer. Given those circumstances, we have had to say that we will try to provide adequate funding for those who want to stay with local authorities, but we have provided alternatives, which the majority of councils are using to bring together public and private financing so that investment in housing to correct the disinvestment can be achieved more quickly.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister willing to consider the project just down the road at Elephant and Castle, which he knows about, and the project on the Aylesbury estate, which he and I have talked about, to find out how we can achieve what he told his colleagues? Where a regeneration scheme that is supported by the Government is going ahead, is there a way in which people who want to be council tenants can be assured of the same funding for new homes in the public sector as would be available if they transferred to registered social landlords?

Yes, but I have made it clear that there are a number of choices: regeneration programmes, private finance initiative programmes, stock transfer programmes and ALMO programmes. They all represent different approaches and they increase resources. I am trying to be fair to all sectors of the housing community, which is what the programmes are about. [Interruption.]

Order. May I say to the House that there are far too many extraneous conversations going on, the total volume of which is making it difficult to hear both questions and answers?

Regional Government

What representations he has received concerning the case for a referendum on regional government in Yorkshire. [119750]

On Monday 16 June, I announced that Yorkshire and Humberside would be one of the first regions to move toward a referendum for an elected assembly. Our soundings exercise shows that there is a high level of interest in the referendum across all groups and interests in the Yorkshire and Humberside region.

If the Yorkshire and Humberside assembly is to have effective powers to plan integrated public transport throughout the region and perhaps to initiate measures such as a region-wide concessionary fare pass for pensioners, will there be a continuing need for separate passenger transport authorities in west and south Yorkshire?

There is no intention of changing the passenger transport authorities at this stage—I think that they are doing quite a good job. Of course, the regional dimension of transport is important. We would give an assembly, especially an elected assembly, the opportunity to make decisions on transport in the regions, and in the context of a region, rather than only with regard to an area covered by a passenger transport authority. A passenger transport authority not only plans for the area for which it is responsible, but has responsibility for delivery. I am sure that there will be a close working relationship between the bodies.

May I crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and add my congratulations to the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope), on his arrival to the Front Bench? After his time with me on the Public Accounts Committee, I was unsurprised by his characteristically good opening performance.

The Deputy Prime Minister's idea of a good response is 833 people in favour of a referendum out of 5 million people in Yorkshire and Humberside. If a referendum is a good idea when 833 people want one, why is it a bad idea when 1.7 million people want one?

The right hon. Gentleman keeps referring to 8,000. As I think we made clear in our exchanges yesterday, that does not represent the total number of people who expressed a point of view. There were 50,000 people overall. Responses on petitions, for example, which may include thousands or hundreds of signatures, were considered as one response. We have had exchanges on the subject before. I justified the decision to the House on the basis that the three northern areas have shown an overwhelming interest in a referendum. We intend to give them that opportunity. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the one county council in our Yorkshire area—the Tory North Yorkshire county council—also wanted the referendum. I am happy to agree to that.

I am interested that the right hon. Gentleman returns to the principle of the block vote in his calculation of who supports his idea and I look forward to meeting him on the hustings. BBC "Look North", not known as a Tory front organisation, particularly as his son works for it, carried out a survey this week of 5,000 people—five times the number of people who responded to the right hon. Gentleman in Yorkshire—and nine out of 10 thought that regional assemblies were a bad idea. Why does he still insist on spending millions of pounds of public money and disrupting perfectly good local government to pursue his obsession with this daft idea?

The same BBC carried out a poll that said that 72 per cent. wanted a referendum. I am prepared to accept that. There will be a referendum and by God I look forward to debating that with the right hon. Gentleman.

Home Energy Efficiency

What plans he has to issue guidance to local planning authorities concerning minimum energy efficiency standards in (a) new and (b) existing housing. [119751]

Although we have no plans to issue specific guidance to planning authorities on energy efficiency standards for housing, the Government have recently brought in a number of measures to help improve energy efficiency in homes.

For example, the new building regulations, which came into effect just over a year ago, are expected to improve energy performance in new homes by some 25 per cent. The draft housing Bill, published in March this year, aims to replace the present fitness standard with a new housing health and safety rating system, which will allow local authorities to tackle cold hazard in existing homes, especially in the private rented sector. Also, our so-called "decent home" programme, begun in the year 2000 and to be completed in 2010, will bring all social housing and much private rented accommodation up to a reasonable degree of warmth through more efficient heating and better insulation.

I am grateful for that reply, but is my hon. Friend aware that as many as 100 local authorities have reported pathetic and paltry increases in domestic energy efficiency of as little as 1 per cent. in their areas since 1996? Is he prepared to wield the big stick and issue directions to them to up their performances?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. She is a doughty and knowledgeable campaigner on green issues. However, this time she has not got it quite right. The truth is that energy conservation authorities report improvements in domestic energy efficiency on an annual basis. Only one local authority reported a total overall improvement of 1 per cent. or less since 1996. Let me reassure my hon. Friend that we expect local authorities to continue improving their performance on domestic energy efficiency. To that end, the energy White Paper contains the commitment to review existing guidance to energy conservation authorities on complying with the requirements of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment as a Minister. Will he admit that the Government have not done enough to improve energy efficiency in houses? In particular, they have failed to take advantage of design conditions that would improve energy efficiency by maximising the use of natural daylight and heating. Will he introduce plans to encourage local authorities to improve their planning process to ensure that energy efficiency is paid the highest regard in new housing?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman., but I am grateful for his kind remarks. As I said, there are no plans to issue further guidance relating solely to energy efficiency in housing. However, many of our initiatives cover such matters more generally. For example, we are currently examining, together with other Departments, how to bring the use of renewables and the improvement of energy efficiency and its development more within the scope of the planning system. We are proceeding in the context of the review of planning policy guidance note 22 and the Government's wider planning reforms in a way that will not impose undue burdens on developers.

Local Government

What progress he has made with the balance of funding review of local government. [119752]

The steering group's first meeting on 28 April discussed key issues from the local and central Government perspectives. Our next meeting on 25 June will consider papers on principles, accountability, equalisation and international comparisons, along with proposals for further research. We will invite interested parties to submit papers later this summer.

What greater freedoms and responsibilities will that allow local authorities?

As my hon. Friend knows, we set out in our White Paper, which we published 18 months ago, proposed extensions of freedoms and flexibilities to local authorities, and we are legislating for that in our current Local Government Bill. However, the balance of funding review will explore a number of channels in which it is possible to extend that agenda to offer greater freedom for local authorities, particularly where that helps to drive up their performance and deliver higher quality services to their residents.

Does the Minister acknowledge that there can be a significant shift in the balance of funding only if local government has a fair local tax base? Will the Minister's review therefore consider scrapping the unfair Tory council tax? Does he not recognise that for councils like Kingston, which already raises 41 per cent. of its budget through the unfair council tax, the unfairness of the tax means that the burden on pensioners and those on low incomes is already far too harsh?

We have not ruled out any options from the review. We will take a broad view and consider a range of options. However, before rushing to precipitate conclusions, the hon. Gentleman ought to give consideration to one important factor: the ease of collection of forms of taxation. He will realise that there are certain advantages in taxation systems that relate to property, where evasion is much more difficult than with some of the other types of taxation that I know the Liberal Democrats tend to favour.

National Assembly For Wales

If he will submit evidence to the commission on the powers and electoral arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales. [119753]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Yvette Cooper)

The Government have provided the Richard commission with a memorandum of evidence. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has given oral evidence. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has not been invited to give evidence and would not expect to do so.

Before the reshuffle, the Deputy Prime Minister had overall control of relations between the UK Government and the National Assembly for Wales. Does he retain that position, and if so, what is the role of the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs? Is he, perhaps, head of a new Department of administrative affairs?

The position was set out last week. The Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for regional government in the English regions. My noble Friend the Lord Falconer is responsible for overall devolution issues arising out of the Act of Settlement, and the five people currently responsible for those settlement issues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are moving to the Department for Constitutional Affairs, as set out last week.

On Monday the Deputy Prime Minister said that some of the regional assemblies in England would be accorded tax-varying powers. Why has that consistently been ruled out for the Welsh Assembly?

That was not what my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said this week.

Postal Ballots

When he last met the Electoral Commission to discuss the all-postal vote pilot ballots and their possible extension. [119756]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
(Yvette Cooper)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions met the chair of the Electoral Commission on 22 May. Issues discussed included the highly successful pilot schemes held in May.

Given the success of the schemes and the increased turnout, is it not important that in 2004 at the local elections and the Euro elections, people still have the chance of all-postal ballots? What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that that happens?

My hon. Friend is right that the all-postal ballots increased turnout on average from about 33 per cent. to just under 50 per cent. We are looking at the implications for the combination of the Euro elections and the local government elections next year.


How many homeless households have been accommodated in bed-and-breakfast hostels since 1997. [119757]

I have placed in the Library a table detailing the number of homeless households accommodated in bed-and-breakfast hotels since 1997. The number increased from an average of about 4,400 in 1997 to more than 13,000 by the end of September 2002. That is plainly unsatisfactory and we have been taking action to address the issue, especially where it affects children. I am pleased to say that figures published yesterday show a fall in the number of such households to 12,200 in March this year. Importantly, the number of families with children in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has been reduced even more significantly, by almost 30 per cent. over the past year.

I shall certainly look at those figures. It is nice to hear a Minister admit that something has gone wrong. Why does he think that it has gone wrong so dramatically?

There are a variety of reasons, including such sadnesses as family break-up and evictions, and the general increase in house prices. The Government are committed to dealing with these things and we are investing new funds in social housing to eradicate the scourge of homelessness in our society.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked


Ql. [119732]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 18 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.

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to reject the artificially generated hysteria about the Convention on the Future of Europe? Will he confirm that, when it comes to the ratification of any future European treaty. he will do exactly what previous Conservative Prime Ministers have done—reject a referendum and ratify through an Act of Parliament in this House?

That is the procedure that we will follow. Of course, we have said that, should we recommend to people that we join the European single currency, there will be a referendum on that issue. There is no need to have a referendum on the Convention or the intergovernmental conference because they do not alter the fundamental constitutional arrangements. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is very important to reject the position of those who, as we have seen from the Conservative spokesman on the Convention, would want to change the essential terms of Britain's membership of the European Union.

Yesterday, the new Leader of the House—part-time Leader of the House—said that he had given up a third of his job in order to be an effective Welsh Secretary. Can the Prime Minister tell the House how much time the Secretary of State for Transport has given up to be an effective Scottish Secretary?

My right hon. Friend will spend as much time on Scottish affairs as is required, as he has already said, but let me point out to the right hon. Gentleman what the Conservative position is on the Secretary of State for Scotland. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"] The position on which he stood at the last election is this—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"] This is what the Conservative manifesto said: "We will keep"—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"]

Order. I appeal for calm and dignity in the House, and I would ask the Prime Minister to remember that his prime responsibility is to answer for the Government.

And in answering for the Government, I want to say why I agree with the proposition that I am about to read out from the Conservative party manifesto:

"We will keep the position of Secretary of State for Scotland with the holder of that position also having an additional UK role within the Cabinet."
So we have implemented Conservative party manifesto policy.

Let me remind the Prime Minister that he was elected to implement his own manifesto, and ask him where in his manifesto did he make a pledge to have a part-time Welsh Secretary, a part-time Scottish Secretary, a part-time Leader of the House or, for that matter, a part-time Secretary of State for Transport?

I have not finished yet. The Prime Minister will not get away as easily as that.

Let me remind the Prime Minister what he actually did pledge. Eight months ago, at the Labour party conference, he said that transport under Labour was "probably the worst area of public services". Will he explain how full-time chaos on the roads can be dealt with by a part-time Secretary of State for Transport?

I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to acknowledge that I now agree with Conservative party policy, at least in relation to the Secretary of State for Scotland. As for transport, we are investing billions of pounds in our transport system. That is public investment, and also private sector investment.

The problem that the right hon. Gentleman must explain is this. That investment programme was put to the House a short time ago, and it was voted against by the Conservative party. How can the right hon. Gentleman say that he is going to improve the state of Britain's roads and railways when he has opposed the investment that will make that possible?

It is the usual story. The Prime Minister is rattling out the same old Labour lie machine, every single time. [Interruption.] Oh yes.

Let us remind the Prime Minister exactly what state all his transport policy is in. One in five trains is now late. Train services are being cut by his Government. Train fares are set to be increased by his Government. Congestion on the roads is growing every single day.

So the Prime Minister thinks that a record like that—a record of chaos like that—can be dealt with by appointing a part-time Secretary of State for Transport. He must be the only person who does. Is that not the real reason why every pledge he makes is broken, and no one believes a single word he says any more?

First, let me say something about rail punctuality. Until the Hatfield rail crash, it was more or less constant. It is true that since Hatfield we have realised that the state of the railway infrastructure was infinitely worse than was anticipated. It is for that very reason, however, that we are committed to substantial investment. There are billions of pounds of public money, and also private sector money.

Now—can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is in favour of that extra investment or not? One thing is for sure: spending less money on transport is not going to help it.

May I ask a question about the current public debate on genetically modified food? The Prime Minister has said repeatedly that a decision on whether to commercialise GM crops should be made on scientific grounds, and that it should be established whether there is a risk to health or the environment. Quite so.

Is the Prime Minister aware that there have been no human feeding trials in either the United States or the United Kingdom to establish the health or biochemical effects of consuming GM foods? Does he agree that until such tests are carried out, an important option for the Government when they are reaching a decision later this year is the exercise of the precautionary principle? Does he agree with that, and will he ensure that it is taken on board very seriously?

I certainly think it is very important for us to take on board all the issues relating to GM food. The only other thing I have said, and I say it again, is that it is important for the whole debate to be conducted on the basis of scientific evidence, not on the basis of prejudice.

Let me also point out that the biotech industry in this country is immensely important, and it is important for its future that it recognises that decisions made by Government will be based on proper scientific evidence. I say this to my right hon. Friend in all sincerity: it worries me that there are voices, here and in the rest of Europe, that are not prepared to give enough consideration to the potential benefits as well as the potential downsides. All I say is that it is important to the future of our country and other countries that the decision is made on proper scientific grounds.

When both the former Foreign Secretary and the former Secretary of State for International Development told the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday that they had been told by MI6 that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction capable of posing a direct threat to British security, were they correct?

The intelligence that we put out in the dossier last September described absolutely accurately the position of the Government. That position is that Saddam was indeed a threat to his region and to the wider world. I always made it clear that the issue was not whether he was about to launch an immediate strike on Britain: the issue was whether he posed a threat to his region and to the wider world. [Interruption.] I must say that I thought that Conservative Members, who are muttering, agreed with that on the basis of the same intelligence.

But given the seriousness of the charges made by those two former Cabinet Ministers yesterday, does the Prime Minister think that this can be adequately investigated by a Foreign Affairs Committee to which he refuses to give evidence and a Joint Intelligence Committee which he controls? Can we not have a proper independent judicial inquiry?

The right hon. Gentleman says that I control the Intelligence and Security Committee, but he has a member of his own party on that Committee; I do not believe that he would agree with the assessment that he is controlled by me. There are senior members of the Conservative party on that Committee; they are not controlled by me, either. It is headed by a senior former member of the Government. It is entirely capable of investigating all the facts and getting to the truth. I hope that when the truth is finally told by that Committee, we will then have a debate on the basis of evidence, not on the basis of speculation, the vast bulk of which, I may say, is completely untrue.

The Prime Minister is aware that many of us in this House and outside it have long campaigned for the Executive functions of the Lord Chancellor to be transferred from an unelected, patronage-appointed official to a Secretary of State in this House answerable to the elected House of Commons. Will he confirm that under the new reforms those functions will now be exercised by an unelected, patronage-appointed official in the House of Lords answerable to the unelected House of Lords?

I do not think that many people would recognise my hon. Friend's description of the concept of an independent judicial appointments commission, which is what people have long campaigned for. I have to say to him that it does not surprise me in the least that having campaigned for many years for us to do something, when we do it he then opposes it.

Q2. [119733]

The Prime Minister will not allow Mr. Alastair Campbell to give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee on the Government's handling of information in the run-up to the war. Can the Prime Minister please tell us what he is trying to hide?

It has never been the case that officials have given evidence to Select Committees, neither is it the case that the Prime Minister does so, except in very limited circumstances, which we have set out. We have made it absolutely clear, however, that we will co-operate with the Intelligence and Security Committee in any way that it seeks.

Q3. [119734]

My right hon. Friend will be aware that my borough, Newcastle-under-Lyme, has made great strides in regenerating our old coal-mining areas, not least through the efforts of our recently retired council leader, Eddie Boden. Does the Prime Minister recognise, however, that in view of continued job losses in the pottery industry, we need to deliver strategic investment and vision for north Staffordshire as a whole? Would he therefore assist us in that by reviewing the efforts of our regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, in the potteries, and by ensuring that when Government jobs and agencies are relocated outside London, the claims of north Staffordshire feature strongly on the list?

First, I should express my condolences to those constituents of my hon. Friend who have lost their jobs at the Wedgwood pottery: I know that that will be a huge blow to the workers and their families. He is absolutely right to stress the importance of Advantage West Midlands. In fact, we have more or less doubled the budget over the past few years. My hon. Friend is also right in saying that there is a strong case for relocating some Government functions outside London, and I can assure him that we will take into account very carefully the position that he outlines.

Some 42 million people were consulted on regional assemblies. How many people said that they wanted one?

In the three areas where we said we wanted a referendum, people also wanted a referendum.

Of the 42 million people, a mere 4,000 said yes. That is 0.01 per cent. of the whole population. Will the Prime Minister explain why, when only 4,000 people say yes to a referendum, they get it, but when more than 1.5 million people say they want a referendum on the European constitution, he says no?

There should be a referendum in circumstances in which there is a proposal to alter fundamentally the Government's constitutional arrangements. That is not the case with the European Convention. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could specify the fundamental constitutional changes that the Convention outlines.

Perhaps the Prime Minister would like to tell us what constitutional changes are necessary for water fluoridation. He is now offering a referendum on that. The right hon. Gentleman changes his argument whenever he meets the question. He is fond of citing our position; perhaps I can remind him of some quotes from a book, which he may recall, that he published. He said:

"If there are further steps to European integration, the people should have their say at a general election or in a referendum."
We know that the Labour manifesto at the last election did not contain a single word about a European constitution. When will the British people get their say in a referendum?

Let me ask the Prime Minister another question. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not want to hear it. On the back of the book, he made a pledge to the British people. He does not want to hear it, but I shall read it to him. It stated:
"When we make a promise, we must be sure we can keep it."
[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] There is more:
"That is page one, line one of a new contract between Government and citizen."
Is not the reality that the Prime Minister has broken his contract with the British people? Surely that is the reason why nobody believes a word he says any more.

What we have promised is a referendum on the single currency, should we recommend it to the British people. We will keep that promise. We have never promised a referendum on the European Convention, for the simple reason that, as I said earlier, it does not involve a fundamental change to the British constitution. Indeed, we are in a bizarre position: everywhere in the rest of Europe, people regard the outcome of the Convention as good for Britain, yet according to Conservative Members, it is such a dire outcome for Britain that they want to reduce our membership to associate membership. We know why the right hon. Gentleman wants a referendum on the Convention: to vote no and get Britain out of Europe. That has been his game all along.

Q4. [119735]

I know that the Prime Minister will welcome the setting up last month of the London-wide race hate crime forum, a partnership that is led by the Metropolitan Police Authority and involves many statutory and voluntary groups in London, including Victim Support and the Crown Prosecution Service. Ten years on from the murder of Stephen Lawrence in London, will my right hon. Friend and the Home Secretary redouble their commitment to more front-line resources in the fight against race hate crime? The Ethnic Minority Center's racial harmony project and the Merton partnership against crime in my constituency show that the resources are being used to good effect.

My hon. Friend is right in what he says, especially as this year is the 10th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence's death. We have introduced nine new racially aggravated offences, which carry higher maximum penalties when there is evidence of a racist motive or racial hostility in connection with the offence. The Public Order Act 1986 outlaws incitement to racial hatred and I am pleased that the Metropolitan police have set up community safety units in every London borough. Although there is a distance to go, both the police and the Government take the issue seriously. As my hon. Friend says, by taking it seriously, we are having a direct impact on the problem.

Why does the Prime Minister persist in dealing with the dignified part of our constitution so casually and arrogantly? Does not he understand that his proposal to remove the Lord Chancellor without extensive consultation is an affront to the Crown and Parliament?

As we shall discuss in a moment, the whole purpose of the reforms is to give away the power of the Prime Minister to nominate a member of the Cabinet who has a judicial function, who appoints the judges and who is Speaker of the House of Lords. I should have thought that giving away the power to make such an appointment would be welcomed.

I am, because I did not count on the completely reactionary nature of today's Conservative party. I should have thought that people would welcome the fact that, rather than having a Cabinet Minister appointed by the Prime Minister, the House of Lords will have its own independent Speaker. Only today's Conservative party could oppose that as dictatorial.

Q5. [119736]

I warmly support the establishment of a supreme court in this country. I also warmly applaud the announcement earlier this week by the Deputy Prime Minister of the opportunity for people in the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber to vote for elected regional government. May I urge and encourage my right hon. Friend to support those campaigning for a yes vote in the regional referendums, thereby sending out the clearest possible message that devolution is not only right for Scotland and Wales but firmly in the interest of the United Kingdom as a whole?

In addition to what my right hon. Friend rightly says, there is a Government office in each of the three areas that we are suggesting as suitable for regional government—indeed, the Government offices for the regions were put there by the previous Conservative Government—but they have no proper democratic accountability. The purpose of the reforms is to introduce democratic accountability.

In view of the constitutional dog's breakfast that the Prime Minister has created in the relationships between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will he now appoint a Secretary of State for England—preferably an Englishman—to answer to the House on exclusively English matters?

I confess that I thought the Conservatives had now come to accept devolution in Scotland and Wales, but I assume from what the hon. Gentleman says that they have not. All that that indicates—[Interruption.] Well, that was the purpose of the hon. Gentleman's question. It only goes to show how completely out of date the Conservative party is.

Q6. [119737]

May I warmly congratulate the Government on a subject that will be of no conceivable interest to the Conservative party—namely our very positive response to the manifesto of the national Youth Parliament? I particularly welcome the proposal for a youth fund, which will give more resources to young people. May I suggest that the next logical step, alongside the review of the voting age by the Electoral Commission, should be a review of the corporate age of responsibility, so that well-established youth parliaments and councils could make more decisions on their own, rather than simply being consulted all the time? That would get more young people involved in the political process.

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does with the Youth Parliament. I have heard what he has just said about how it operates, and I am sure that we shall give the matter careful consideration.


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.