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Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2003

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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.