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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 407: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2003

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Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Assets Recovery Agency


If he will make a statement on the work of the Assets Recovery Agency. [120566]

I have been informed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Office that the Northern Ireland branch of the Assets Recovery Agency has six cases that are currently under active investigation. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the agency has been granted investigative orders, including search warrants, by the High Court in two cases on 13 June and 23 June. Indeed, search warrants were executed yesterday at three premises in County Down by Assets Recovery Agency staff, with the support and assistance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the progress that the Minister reports. May I underline how important it is that the agency produces results, in particular with regard to the leading godfathers of paramilitarism and racketeering, because they are largely the same? I do not need to go into names, but the agency needs to target very quickly leading paramilitaries who we know control the major rackets. I hope that the agency will go after them and not just go around gathering up smaller fish.

On accountability, because the body does not exercise police powers, it is not subject to inspection by Her Majesty's inspectorate. Will it come under the purview of the inspectorate of criminal justice? In that respect, we welcome the appointment of Lord Clyde as inspector. Will he have a supervisory role, because it would be wrong if that body turned out to be the only element in the broad spectrum of criminal justice that is not subject to an inspection arrangement?

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's words about the good work that the agency has undertaken in Northern Ireland. However, on accountability, the Northern Ireland branch of the Assets Recovery Agency is part of a UK-wide agency. Along with other partners of the Organised Crime Task Force, its accountability is often to Ministers and other Departments outwith Northern Ireland Office responsibilities. In this case, I believe that the current accountability arrangements are appropriate.

May I assure the Minister that support for the Assets Recovery Agency comes not just from the small parties in Northern Ireland, but from Northern Ireland's largest political party as well?

Is the Minister aware of the concern that the bulk of the cases considered by the Assets Recovery Agency involve loyalist paramilitaries, whereas the largest amount of money has been obtained by republican paramilitaries? Is there any step she can take to ensure that there is a proper pursuit of republican paramilitaries? Does she think that the Assets Recovery Agency could give any assistance to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) to recover some of his recent lost assets?

I am grateful to receive support for the Assets Recovery Agency, from whatever quarter it comes. On the selection of cases, it is important to remember that that is pursued by the agency and it is entirely for its director, supported by the assistant director of Northern Ireland, to determine. She must act in accordance with her statutory duty to use her powers in the way that she considers best calculated to reduce crime. However, we know of the clear links that exist between paramilitary organisations and organised criminal networks in Northern Ireland. We are very conscious of those links and pursue all organised criminals, whatever their political persuasion or complexion.

In the context of assets recovery, is there not a danger that the IRA will not disarm, not because it still believes that it can bomb its way to a united Ireland, but because it needs its arms to sustain the menace of its criminal activities?

That does not apply just to the Provisional IRA, but to all paramilitary organisations that we have established are clearly engaged, or associated with, organised criminals who operate not simply within localities in Northern Ireland, but with organised criminal networks across the UK, Europe and the world. We must oppose those groups. The hon. Gentleman is right that they use their ill-gotten gains for the pursuit of terrorism. It is precisely because of that link, and the Government's recognition of it, that we established the Organised Crime Task Force in the first place.

Peace Process


If he will make a statement on the peace process. [120567]

We are pursuing with the political parties how the devolved institutions might be restored and the remainder of the Belfast agreement fully implemented. It is essential to such advance, however, to have clarity on both the future of paramilitarism and the stability of the institutions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that following recent developments in the Ulster Unionist party, a significant majority remains in favour of the peace process in the Ulster Unionist party and in the Unionist electorate, and an overwhelming majority is in favour of it in the electorate at large? Will he take the opportunity to work with those who favour the peace process and marginalise the fringe groups that do not?

I cannot agree with what my hon. Friend said in his last sentence about marginalising groups that do not agree with the Good Friday agreement. It is my job to talk to all political parties in Northern Ireland, irrespective of their political standpoint. However, I very much agree that the vote at the Ulster Unionist Council last week indicated that a majority of its members are still in favour of the Good Friday agreement. I agree with my hon. Friend that the majority of people in Northern Ireland believe that the best way forward is through the Good Friday agreement, and I also agree that the polls suggest that that includes the Unionist community. I believe that people in Northern Ireland want an end to paramilitary activity, and want the stability of the institutions that will be achieved through the Good Friday agreement.

Would the Secretary of State tell the House how an amnesty for on-the-run IRA terrorist suspects can contribute to the peace process? Does he understand the growing public anger at the continuing persecution of former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and those who served in the security forces in tribunals such as the Bloody Sunday inquiry, where millions of pounds worth of taxpayers' hard-earned money is being squandered?

I would not agree that money is being squandered. However, I agree that it is important for us at some stage to draw a line under what has happened in the past 30 years in Northern Ireland. There will come a time when we want to achieve a normal society in Northern Ireland, and I believe that we are going in that direction. As for the on-the-runs, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the proposals discussed at Hillsborough do not include an amnesty for on-the-runs, but they do make provision for a proper judicial process. He will also be aware that that process is linked in to acts of completion by the IRA, so it is entirely conditional on what happens in that area.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the peace process, which has now stalled, cannot be put back on track until there is firm, verifiable demilitarisation and destructuring by the paramilitaries, both republican and loyalist? Does he also agree that Government policy and attitudes to date have not created common ground among nationalists and Unionists who support the Good Friday agreement, so it is essential that the Government undertake a drive to ensure that paragraph 13 on decommissioning, destructuring and the cessation of violence against the community is immediately implemented in its entirety, particularly by the Provisional IRA, so that we can re-establish the devolved institutions of partnership.

My hon. Friend is entirely right that progress on restoring the institutions of the Good Friday agreement rests on the confidence and trust that need to be built up between political parties in Northern Ireland. That can be done only if the issues addressed in paragraph 13 about paramilitary activity are dealt with. My hon. Friend is entirely right about that, and his personal history in Northern Ireland is such that we listen to him with great respect. I believe that in the months ahead we will resolve these problems, which are extremely difficult at the moment. However, it is important that the House realises that unless we resolve the problems first, of paramilitary activity, and secondly, of the stability of the institutions we will not get a properly restored Executive in Northern Ireland.

Paragraph 8 of the validation, implementation and review section of the Good Friday agreement states that

"the two Governments and the parties in the Assembly will convene a conference 4 years after the agreement comes into effect, to review and report on its operation."
It is now more than five years since the agreement was signed and four and a half years since the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was passed, but that review has not even started yet. Why not?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that we have had reviews of the Good Friday agreement under paragraph 7. A review under paragraph 8, which makes provision for a more general, deeper and intense review, will take place before the year is over. It is important for political parties and the two Governments to get together to look at the issues that divide us and ensure that the Good Friday agreement is implemented in full. However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that if that is to happen we must rebuild confidence between parties, and to do so we have to address the issues that I referred to earlier.

I went to Belfast last week on a cross-party visit and was struck by the positive changes since I first visited many years ago, with the development of the city centre and the work of those such as the East Belfast community partnership to promote regeneration, jobs and skills. I also found considerable good will towards implementing the Good Friday agreement and returning to a normal life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the priority must be to rebuild trust and move back towards an effective power-sharing Executive and Assembly?

My hon. Friend is right. We must rebuild that trust in order to move forward in the process. She is also right to draw the House's attention to the improvements in the life of people in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998. She is aware that there are now 34,000 unemployed people in Northern Ireland, which is the lowest figure since 1975; that the increase in economic activity in Northern Ireland is such that it is the fastest-growing region or nation in the whole of the United Kingdom; and that there has been a 25 per cent. increase in tourism in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement. She is particularly aware that the security situation in Northern Ireland is much improved on what it was in 1998.

On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), to the Northern Ireland Front Bench. He and I are old sparring partners, and we look forward to his contributions on this important subject.

As it is clear that the peace process has been paralysed since the Government decided to cancel the elections, and the parties have turned in on themselves, and as there continue to be murders by loyalist paramilitaries and attempted murders by republican dissidents, and the Garda Commissioner and the Chief Constable have both expressed their concern about the security position over the past few days, would it not be sensible to shelve all plans for any reductions in intelligence gathering or security capability in Northern Ireland, including the plans to dismantle the observation towers in south Armagh?

The hon. Gentleman knows that any actions that are taken with regard to security installations are dealt with on the basis of the level of threat. He also knows that the normalisation paper that was discussed at Hillsborough, and which appears in the joint declaration, is entirely related to acts of completion by the IRA. The hon. Gentleman is right that, towards the autumn, it is important for us to engage in intensive discussions and negotiations with political parties in Northern Ireland so that we can have an Assembly in Northern Ireland. In addition, we want the Executive governing Northern Ireland, so that people who are from Northern Ireland can govern the people in Northern Ireland.

Is not the whole point that there have been no acts of completion, so reductions in our capability are inappropriate? Even if the Chief Constable and the General Officer Commanding were prepared to countenance the dismantling of those towers, is it not rather foolish to give away that card for nothing, in advance of the comprehensive negotiations that we all hope can resume before too long?

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that the decision to dismantle the towers is entirely in line with the wishes of the GOC and the Chief Constable. I repeat that acts of completion by the IRA, particularly with regard to paramilitary activity, are linked to the rest of the normalisation paper, which is in the joint declaration. All our efforts are bent on ensuring that in the autumn we resolve our difficulties, we have an Assembly and we have an Executive, so that the process can move forward.

Does the Secretary of State agree that for the first time in history, the vast majority of the people of Ireland north and south have voted together on how they wish to live together, by overwhelmingly voting for the agreement? For that reason, it is the duty of all true democrats to implement the will of the people. Certain Opposition parties that wish to overthrow that agreement are overthrowing the principle of consent, which was the fundamental principle of Unionism. If they do that, what damage are they doing to their own people?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. In 1998, people north and south voted overwhelmingly for the Good Friday agreement, and the institutions of that agreement are the only way forward. I know that my hon. Friend is also aware that for us to move forward and to ensure that those institutions are restored, we have to restore the confidence and trust between parties in Northern Ireland, and that is based on ensuring that there is an end to paramilitary activity and that the institutions in Northern Ireland are stable.

Terrorist Links


If he will make a statement on the links between (a) Sinn Fein and (b) the Provisional IRA and (i) Batasuna and (ii) ETA in Spain. [120568]

The political and ideological relationship between Sinn Fein and Batasuna are well attested, as evidenced by recent press statements from Sinn Fein.

The Minister will surely be aware, if she listens to her intelligence advisers, that ETA-Batasuna and IRA-Sinn Fein are identical and integrated organisations. In the case of our home-based IRA-Sinn Fein organisation, the Sinn Fein president and chief negotiator sit in the army council. The Minister should also be aware that under the definition of proscription of organisations in the Terrorism Act 2000, Sinn Fein should be on the list of proscribed organisations. Is it not time that the Government had the same courage as the Spanish Government and put Sinn Fein on the proscribed list until it acts as a democratic party?

The hon. Gentleman is right that Sinn Fein is the IRA's political wing and as such the two are inextricably linked. However—it is important for us all to bear this in mind—the Spanish do not regard Batasuna as supporting the peace process. Sinn Fein does support the peace process. Unlike ETA—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may disregard that if they wish, but unlike ETA the IRA is on ceasefire, and it is worth bearing in mind the difference in the behaviour of the two organisations. However, hon. Members will know, and will have heard the Government state many times, that ceasefires on their own are no longer enough to restore trust and confidence and to allow the re-establishment of the institutions. The IRA has to make it absolutely clear that all paramilitary activity, as set out in paragraph 13 of the joint declaration by the British and Irish Governments, will come to an end.

The Minister has admitted that Sinn Fein and the IRA, a terrorist group operating in part of the United Kingdom, are inextricably linked. Why, then, do the Government persist in trying to insert into all accountable Executive positions in part of the United Kingdom a group linked to and inextricably part of a terrorist organisation? Despite the Secretary of State's determination to close his eyes to reality, if he looks along this Bench in the House of Commons today he will see the reality—that the policy of supporting Sinn Fein in Government in Northern Ireland is supported only by a rump of the Unionist party as led by—

I repeat that, unlike ETA, the Provisional IRA remains on ceasefire. The cost to Spain in terms of ETA's continuance of its terrorist programme has been 46 deaths since 1999. The comparisons with the Provisional IRA deserve scrutiny. The Provisional IRA, in our assessment, remains on ceasefire. However, as I said earlier, and it bears repeating, ceasefires on their own are no longer enough.

The Minister will be aware that all the structures to deal with terrorism must work properly, whether in Northern Ireland or outside it. Will the Minister confirm that, as of now, necessary investigations into the criminal activities of loyalist paramilitary groupings cannot be properly processed by the police ombudsperson for the very good reason that the Government will not fund those investigations? Will the Minister take the opportunity now to tell the House that the Government will fund at least three investigations into not just serious irregularities, but murders?

I am afraid that I do not agree with my hon. Friend on the point that he has made. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland received the whole of the budgetary requirements that she put forward in the case that she made. We met her request in full. The cases that she takes forward are a matter for her to prioritise within the budgets that she is required to manage.

The Minister may maintain that the IRA "remains on ceasefire", to use her words, but the reality is that the current problems in Northern Ireland politics are caused by the IRA's failure to complete and the Government's repeated concessions to it. Is she aware of the recent poll conducted by Millward Brown Ulster, which clearly states:

"If the IRA was to disband, 76 per cent. of Unionists would support the Good Friday agreement"?
Is it not crystal clear where the Government's efforts must lie?

I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's comments. The complete transition to exclusively peaceful means is the contribution that all paramilitary organisations could make and which the people of Northern Ireland deserve. As I have said previously, statements or words on their own are not enough. The people of Northern Ireland, in order to have the confidence that all parties engaged in the peace process are fully wedded to democratic means, need to see actions that follow through on the words that they say.



If he will make a statement on the criminal activities of Northern Ireland paramilitary organisations outside Northern Ireland. [120569]

The Organised Crime Task Force's most recent assessment is that two thirds of the organised crime groups in Northern Ireland have links to paramilitary organisations. Clearly, a number of those groups undertake their criminal activities both across and outside Northern Ireland.

Good operational links already exist between law enforcement agencies nationally and internationally, as my hon. Friend has good reason to know in his constituency—[Interruption.] I will continue to work with. Organised Crime Task Force members with UK-wide responsibilities to assist in the fight against national and international organised crime—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the House, and it is unfair to those who are in the Chamber for Northern Ireland questions.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Given her very heavy work load, I am sure that she is unable to read the Dundee Evening Telegraph and Post or The Courier and Advertiser, but she will be aware from last week's reports in the Belfast News Letter and The Irish Times of the 26-year sentences handed down to five members of a Protestant paramilitary organisation, the Red Hand Commando, for their armed robbery at a Dundee public house last year. On speaking to the chief constable of Tayside, I was told that there was little consultation between the authorities in Northern Ireland and the police force in Tayside and Dundee. Given the statements that she has made today, I hope that she will do all that she can to ensure that greater efforts are made to improve liaison between the two organisations on the mainland and in Northern Ireland.

I am surprised to hear my hon. Friend's comments and I shall look into the case that he raises. I had understood that the Police Service of Northern Ireland indeed provided written statements and that an officer testified in the court case. I had concluded on that basis that there were good relations. I know that such relations exist on an operational basis between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other police forces throughout England and Wales and, indeed, Scotland. Where such good links need to be developed, they are developed and built upon, and they are to be commended.

The Minister will be aware that a very good Bill, the Crime (International Co-operation) Bill, has just completed its Standing Committee stage. What discussion has she had with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland about the implications of that Bill for tackling paramilitary organisations in the Republic of Ireland?

As the hon. Lady knows, I regularly meet the Chief Constable to discuss a range of issues. No concerns as such have been raised directly with me about the implications for Northern Ireland of the Bill to which she referred. I am aware of the very good relationships that exist between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the law enforcement agencies in the Republic of Ireland, and I will do all in my power to foster those good relations so that we can continue to see successful joint operations of the sort that recently led to interception of the vehicle bombs that were thankfully intercepted at the border at the weekend and in Londonderry.

Is the Minister aware of the increasing concern, particularly in border areas in Northern Ireland, about paramilitary groups in the Irish Republic, including the various factions of the IRA, who are making preparations for further bombs like the one to which she alluded? Thankfully, that was intercepted in Londonderry, but there are many more. Is she aware of the concern of people in Northern Ireland regarding those preparations?

I am indeed aware of such concern in Northern Ireland. The dissident republicans continue to pose a serious threat. However, as I have said, due to the very good co-operation that exists between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana in the Republic of Ireland, there has been a large degree of success in dealing with dissidents in both the north and the south of Ireland. That success will continue, and I will continue to do all that is in my power to foster good co-operation between those law enforcement agencies.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked


Q1. [121372]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 June.

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join with me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in Iraq. The Royal Military policemen do an extraordinary and heroic job in trying to bring normal and decent life to people in Iraq, and the whole country and their families can be immensely proud of them, even as they mourn them. Our thoughts are also with those who were wounded after they were attacked in Iraq yesterday.

May I also express on behalf of Members on both sides of the House our deep sadness at the death of Paul Daisley? He was a conscientious Member of Parliament who represented his constituency well, and he will be sadly missed. Our thoughts are with his family at this time.

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.

I echo the Prime Minister's sentiments.

May I ask the Prime Minister about a report that was submitted to this House by the health service ombudsman earlier this year, which revealed the scandal of elderly people being means-tested and charged for their health care? When will the Government act to compensate the thousands of elderly victims and reassert the principle that health care is free on the basis of need, regardless of a person's bank balance or age?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have already introduced free nursing care for certain people. To extend that right the way through all types of care would cost well over £1 billion, possibly £1.5 billion. We believe that that money is better spent on trying to provide support for people in their own homes. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that as a result of that support, around 40 per cent. more people get support in their own homes today than did a few years ago.

Q2. [121373]

Many MPs will have received hundreds of letters and cards on fair trade, and many will attend fair trade rallies in their high streets this Saturday. What message of hope and support can my right hon. Friend offer the fair trade movement; and what actions can he take to ensure that developing countries have the right to protect their vulnerable people and traders and to sell their products to rich countries, and that they are given assistance to regulate transnational companies?

First, we will carry on with the most substantial increase in aid and development assistance that this country has seen. This Government are committed to continuing that support. Secondly, we will carry on trying to write off the debts of the most highly indebted countries, which are often prevented by the servicing of those debts from giving the assistance to their people that they need. Thirdly, we will make sure at the world trade round in Mexico in September that we get the action to move world trade forward so that we liberalise world trade and do not ask those poorer countries to stand on their own two feet, then deny them access to our own markets.

May I join with the Prime Minister in sending our condolences to the family of Paul Daisley, the former Member for Brent, East?

The Prime Minister is right that on today of all days we should pay tribute to the dedication and bravery of our armed forces on active service in Iraq. As the Prime Minister said, our deepest sympathies are with the families of the dead and wounded. There are those who will say after this news that we should back away from our obligations to Iraq. Does the Prime Minister agree that this instance should serve only to reinforce our resolve to bring peace and the rule of law to Iraq and to enable the Iraqis to take care of their own future?

Yes, I agree completely. It is worth pointing out that despite yesterday's terrible events, the people of Iraq now have the prospect of hope for the future, and of a proper, prosperous and indeed democratic country. The work of British servicemen and women there is of immense importance not just to that country, but to the whole region and the wider world. Even at this moment in time, it is particularly important that we redouble our efforts to bring stability to that country, which is the surest way of bringing stability to the rest of the world.

Clearly the security situation in Iraq remains difficult. There are reports that remnants of Saddam Hussein's army are still active and I understand that some non-Iraqis are involved in terrorist activities. Reports today indicate that British soldiers at al Majarr al Kabir may well have been the victims of an armed mob. Given all that speculation, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to give a personal and candid assessment of the security situation in Iraq today?

First, we should know far more about the incident in the next 24 hours. This is the background; in the al Maysan province, the people liberated themselves from Saddam but British forces have attempted to make sure that the local population—who regularly carried machine guns and small firearms—were disarmed of those weapons. There had been problems which may form part of the background. However, it is simply too early to say. We should be in a better position within the next 24 hours to know the origins of the group that attacked our forces.

I should point out that there are some 14,000 British troops in theatre, with 10,000 in Iraq. We are also bringing in forces from other countries; over the next few weeks, 19 or 20 countries will be participating, with a total force of several thousand men. We are trying to make sure that, at every level, we have the troop requirements that we need. I spoke to the Chief of the Defence Staff this morning, who said that local commanders believe they have sufficient troops on the ground at present. Should they require more troops, we will make sure that they are available.

As I have said, I believe that we must see this through. Given what the Prime Minister has just said about the security situation, what time scale does he envisage for the restoration of order in Iraq and, perhaps, for the eventual return of British troops?

Already, we have reduced the British troop requirement; there were some 46,000 there during the conflict, and there are now 14,000 in theatre. I cannot be sure exactly when those troops can come home. However, we shall replace the troops that are there with others.

I would assess the security situation like this: it is still obviously serious because, at present, former Ba'athist elements are trying to regroup and may pose a threat to our forces and particularly to the American forces in Baghdad. However, as a result of the work of British, American and other troops inside Iraq, a couple of thousand civilian policemen are back patrolling the streets of Basra. Many towns have now reinstituted proper political local councils. There are tremendous problems—as inevitably there will be—but it is important that we get a balance. There are also real improvements. Progress is being made in public services, with the reopening of hospitals, oil refineries and schools. The job, literally, is to rebuild the country and that will take time; however, it is necessary to take the time to get the job done.

My right hon. Friend will share the concerns of many in this country about the deteriorating political and human rights situation in Burma and, in particular, the continued unwarranted arrest of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Will the Government press strongly for her immediate release, the release of all political prisoners in Burma and the restoration of democracy? Does he agree that in the circumstances, now is the time to stop British trade with Burma?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We have made the strongest possible representations in respect not merely of the release of the leader of the opposition, but of the restoration of proper human and democratic rights in Burma. The European Union also issued a strong statement at the European Council. On trade, we are making it clear to British companies that we do not believe that trade is appropriate when the regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of its people.

On behalf of my colleagues, may I also extend my sympathy to the family of Paul Daisley, following his sad passing? Our sympathy also goes, of course, to the grief-stricken families of the six murdered British soldiers and to those who have been so seriously injured, whom we wish Godspeed and a swift recovery. We link that to the shock that is being felt at the Colchester barracks, where the six lost soldiers came from. Let us hope that the authorities, or those responsible for these atrocities, will see sense and respond to the British field commanders' request this morning by handing over the culprits within the next 48 hours.

In line with what the Prime Minister has just told the House, based on his conversations this morning, the armed forces Minister has indicated the desirability of internationalising the coalition. Will the Prime Minister tell the House which other countries would play a predominant role? For example, has he taken the opportunity to discuss with President Putin, during his state visit this week, what contribution Russia might make?

I am sure that all those countries, particularly those represented on the Security Council, will want to play their full part. The assistance that Russia might give us is, of course, a matter that I can discuss with President Putin this week. As I said a moment ago, about 19 or 20 countries have pledged additional assistance. There are already soldiers of other nationalities in the British sector in Iraq, and that is set to build in the next few weeks. I have no doubt, particularly after the passing of the UN resolution, that we shall have a good response to our calls for assistance. I repeat, however, that at the present time the local commanding officers believe that they have sufficient troops for the job.

On a related topic on Iraq, the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that, when the February dossier was approved for publication by the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister himself had assumed that its contents had come through the normal channels. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, at the point at which he authorised the publication of that dossier, he was not aware that sections of it had been lifted from a student thesis on the internet?

I can confirm that. I would also say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is important, amid all this coverage, to realise that the contents of that dossier—and, indeed, of the first dossier which I presented to the House—are accurate.

The Leader of the Opposition asked a question about time scales. Listening to Northern Ireland Questions earlier, I was reminded that that Province was still directly ruled from this place, more than 30 years after direct rule was put in place. We desperately require an exit strategy for Iraq, and some idea of the time scale for our troops remaining in that country.

I think that there are better analogies in regard to what is happening in Iraq. If we look at Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan, we see that—as is the case in Iraq—at the height of a conflict there is a very large troop requirement. But the number of British troops now in Afghanistan, Kosovo or Bosnia is significantly reduced. Our exit strategy must be based on making sure that we maintain our pledge to help Iraq to be rebuilt as a stable and prosperous country, because if it is not rebuilt in that way, and if it were to continue under the type of regime that Saddam Hussein represented, it will continue to be a threat to the region and to the wider world. Even before this conflict began, during the 10, 11 or 12 years since the previous Gulf war ended, thousands of British troops have been patrolling the no-fly zone; so British troops have not been absent from Iraq since the end of the first Gulf war.

Q3. [121374]

What does the Prime Minister have to say to the Kimber family in my constituency, who, like many thousands in this country, have been wrongly assessed under the child tax credit system? They have now been told to repay £2,447.70 by tomorrow and, if necessary, to remortgage their house to do so, because in the words of the collections adviser at Reading, "Gordon Brown wants his money back." Is it any wonder that so few people are taking up this benefit?

Of course I apologise to the hon. Gentleman's constituent for any mistake that has been made. He says that very few have taken up this benefit, but I think that somewhere in the region of 4 million people have done so. Whatever the circumstances of his constituent, for which I have already apologised, I think that most of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who are in receipt of this benefit will be appalled to know that the Conservative party is opposed to it and would take it away.

As the Prime Minister is aware, I have written to him on several occasions about the dangers of Sellafield. Now that he has clear research evidence of the serious damage that Sellafield is doing to the Irish sea, does he not think that the time has come to close it down?

I am afraid that I must say to my hon. Friend that I do not think that that is the case. I should point out to him that all these issues are governed by international rules that we are obliged to abide by, and by an international authority that determines whether we are obeying our international obligations properly. I should also point out that on each occasion this issue has been looked at, the allegations made in respect of Sellafield have turned out to be wrong.

Has the Prime Minister ruled out any more increases in national insurance?

The national insurance changes that we have put through are sufficient to make sure that we raise the money for the national health service. Any decisions are taken in the Budget, but the decisions that we have taken on national insurance are adequate for the health service rise in spending.

Last week, the Prime Minister was forced to give a pledge not to raise the higher tax, but that pledge is worthless if he does not rule out increasing national insurance as well, because under Labour it is a tax on income that goes all the way up the income scale. So will he now pledge not to raise national insurance again, or do we have to get the Leader of the House to make a speech on that, too?

What I have said to the right hon. Gentleman is that the national insurance rise is adequate to fund the health service spending that we have. He is right to say that that rise goes all the way up the income scale—we thought that the fair thing to do. The fact is that, as a result of that rise, there is money going into our national health service, there are 50,000 more nurses, inpatient and out-patient lists are far below what we inherited in 1997, and we have the largest ever hospital building programme under way.

The plain fact of the matter is that we make no apology for having introduced that tax rise: it was the right thing to do to fund the national health service. The right hon. Gentleman, by opposing it, is opposed to that investment, and I assume from what he has just said that he would reverse it.

Now we know that the Prime Minister's pledge of last week, like all his other tax pledges, is meaningless. Let me remind him that he is the man who said:

"We have no plans to increase tax at all"—
and who then took an extra £5,500 from every household in Britain. He is the man who said that people "shouldn't" suppose that he planned to increase national insurance—and who then increased it by £8 billion. When the Leader of the House confessed last week that
"too many middle-income employees"
have been hit under Labour, was he not right? Was not his real crime that he committed new Labour's cardinal sin: he told the truth about Labour and tax rises?

The tax take as a percentage of national income this year will actually be lower than in eight of the 11 years that Margaret Thatcher was in power. Secondly, we have given a lot of help to families through the working families tax credit and the child tax credit. It is correct that we have raised national insurance by 1 per cent., for the reasons that we have given. But I should also point out that as a result of the stable economy, we have more people in work today, living standards are up by 10 or 15 per cent., and we have more support for families and the lowest mortgages for 40 years.

As for the extra money going into our schools and hospitals now, we make no apologies for that. It is the right thing to do, and the right hon. Gentleman has made it very clear today that, at the next election, people can choose either extra investment in health and schools with us, or 20 per cent. cuts across the board with him.

Every year more than 2,000 children in Greater Manchester have their teeth taken out under general anaesthetic. Is it morally right to allow them to go through that pain when we know of a safe and effective measure to reduce it? Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Water Bill will clear up and sort out the law on water fluoridation, giving communities in this country the power to choose it?

As my hon. Friend knows, there are proposals to ensure that local people are properly consulted on issues connected with water fluoridation, but he also knows that there are strong views on both sides of the argument. The matter should be left with local people, as we have described. If the arguments in favour are as powerful as my hon. Friend says, I have no doubt that they will win the day.

Q4. [121375]

Yesterday the Foreign Secretary described the dodgy dossier as "a complete Horlicks", so is it time to say "night, night" to Alastair Campbell?

As I said earlier, that part of the dossier was entirely accurate and the mistake of not attributing it was accepted at the time. I would simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in respect of that dossier and the first dossier, not a single fact in them is actually disputed.

Q5. [121376]

Will the Prime Minister condemn again the terror tactics that ruin Israeli lives? Will he also condemn the terror tactics that ruin Palestinian lives? In the west bank and Gaza strip, I saw widespread arbitrary detention and torture, expulsion from land and property, access denied to health care and water, and now a wall that will seal off Palestinians—in some cases, from their own families, farmland and livelihood. Does the Prime Minister believe that the humanitarian consequences of those policies are grave and that they undermine moderates at a time when we should all support the road map for peace?

There is a lot in what my hon. Friend says. It is true that the very purpose of terrorism is to undermine the moderate voice of the Palestinians. The difficulty is that it is also right to say that literally scores of Israeli citizens are being killed in these appalling terrorist acts. That is why I tell my hon. Friend that we have made our position clear on extra-judicial killings by Israeli forces and on terrorism.

It is important to recognise that unless we manage to get a security position in the Palestinian Authority whereby the terrorist attacks can at least be minimised, the Israeli Government will inevitably come under huge pressure to take retributive action. The only way through it, I am afraid, is to make sure that we get a proper process going with a security plan in place. That is what we are working for. To be quite honest, we can condemn as much as we like, but unless we have a viable security plan in place, it will be very difficult to make progress. That is why I hope that it will be in place as shortly as possible.

Did I hear the Prime Minister correctly when he described a plagiarised document with words and meanings altered as "factually accurate"? When exactly did he first realise that the dodgy dossier was a complete Horlicks? Was it after Colin Powell told the Security Council that it was a fine document with exquisite detail of deception? Why did he not tell the rest of us before taking this country to war?

The reasons we went into this conflict are well known, as is the hon. Gentleman's position. He was opposed to it then, and he is opposed to it now. As to the facts set out in the dossier, they are correct. Whatever their provenance, it does not alter the fact that they are correct. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may disagree with the action that we took. That is his right, but I defend that action because it was the right thing for this country to do. I simply tell the hon. Gentleman that removing Saddam from power and making sure that that country and region are stable and successful for the future is right for Iraq, right for the region and right for the wider world.

Q6. [121377]

May I turn the Prime Minister's attention to premium bonds? Does he think that it is right that many of my constituents are barred from entry to premium bonds, given that the minimum amount that can be purchased is £100? That might be all right in the leafy suburbs, but could not that massive price be reduced, with the help of new technology, to allow all our constituents entry into that worthwhile savings scheme?

It is certainly something that can be considered, but my hon. Friend will know what the problem is. If the minimum is lowered to too low a level, the bureaucratic costs of making the transactions are too great. He will know that the average purchase of premium bonds is some £4,500, so we would have to be sure that any change we made was not outweighed by disproportionate bureaucratic costs.

Q7. [121378]

May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our forces in Iraq and in sending our sympathy to the bereaved families? Will he join me in paying tribute to the continuing work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which faces difficulties locally but continues to serve this country abroad, including training police officers in Iraq?

I certainly do pay tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and to all those police officers in Northern Ireland who do a superb job on behalf of their local community and—as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out—who provide their services in different parts of the world, where their particular expertise and experience is invaluable.

No, I am satisfied with the Government's tax plans, as my hon. Friend would expect.

Q8. [121379]

Why are teachers being made redundant in Poole this year—and many more facing redundancy next year—when education is meant to be the Government's priority?

Let us be clear that overall there have been some 25,000 extra teachers. As a result of the funding issues with which we are familiar, a small number of teachers have been made compulsorily redundant. In fact, some teachers are made redundant every year. Overall, however, we have had a massive increase in the number of teachers over the past six years and the funding per pupil in our schools has risen significantly. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that whatever the problems of funding with schools in his or any other area, they cannot be improved by cutting back on education spending, which is the policy of his party.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the proposals by the EU tax Commissioner to put VAT on stamps. That would be a backward step for our postal services and would have a disproportionate effect on the poor and elderly. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to veto any such proposal and send a letter back to the EU marked "return to sender"?

I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. I thank the Prime Minister for his warm words of condolence. It was announced within the last hour that the six military policemen who lost their lives yesterday were all from the Colchester garrison. This is the darkest day for the garrison in the past 60 years, and I am sure that the whole House would wish to convey our condolences to the families of those six people.

I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am sure that he is right when he says that he speaks for the whole House.

My right hon. Friend will know that it is two years since we had the disturbances on the streets of Burnley. Last week, we celebrated the first annual general meeting of the building bridges project that was set up between the Muslim and Christian faiths in Burnley. Does he agree that it is communities working together, and the Government working with local councils, that will solve the problems of towns such as Burnley, and not the extremists who cause division wherever they go?

I am sure that my hon. Friend's words will be echoed by the whole House. He is right that the building bridges project has been successful in trying to achieve better community relations. He is also right to say that those who advocate extremism, or who want to turn their anger on people who are immigrants to this country, do nothing for community relations or for their own local communities and peddle disastrous misconceptions and misrepresentations. The way forward is good, solid community relations between people of all faiths and backgrounds, and I believe that that vision is supported by the vast majority of people in the country.

Q9. [121380]

The head of MI5 has talked about the inevitability of a major terrorist threat. Whatever confidence we may have in our security services and emergency services, is it not the case that our civil preparedness is not as good as it should be? Why has it taken more than two years to produce even a draft Bill on civil contingencies? Why was the major exercise in London cancelled? Why have the Government no plans for an emergency broadcasting system? Are we really prepared?

First of all, the head of the intelligence services was simply drawing attention to what has been said on many occasions, in respect not just of this country but of any western country. Indeed, we can see from the terrorist acts of the past few weeks that not only western countries are at risk from such attacks. These people will attack Muslims or people from any part of the world where they can perpetrate their terrorist atrocities. In relation to preparedness, the Government have spent literally hundreds of millions of pounds making this country more prepared. I pay tribute to the work of our intelligence services and of those in our public services. I believe that they have prepared this country as well as it possibly can be prepared for any such terrorist eventuality.