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Volume 459: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2007

Before I list my engagements for today, I again have the sad duty of asking the House to join me in sending our profound condolences to the family and friends of Rifleman Paul Donnachie of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, who was killed in Iraq at the weekend. We pay tribute to him for his dedication and sacrifice. This has been a difficult month for our forces in Iraq, and more so for their families. We send them our thoughts, prayers and sympathy 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.

The whole House will wish to join the Prime Minister in his expression of condolence.

If the Prime Minister had a quote for an extension on his house 18 months ago, which was resubmitted today for more than two and half times the original amount, I suspect that he might get a few more quotes. Could I ask him to do exactly the same on behalf of my constituents, all of whom will benefit from the A5-M1 link, and very kindly meet me and Highways Agency officials to find out why costs have escalated so astronomically, and to see what can be done about it?

Although the costs of the particular scheme to which the hon. Gentleman refers have escalated, it is only because the Government are making money available for investment that it can go ahead at all. I am perfectly happy to meet him to discuss the scheme, but the business case for the link has to be made good on the basis of the funding available from the Department for Transport.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the 10th anniversary of his premiership, and on the tremendous vision and leadership that he has shown in this country? What is the balance that must be achieved between understanding the hurt and concern of those bereaved or injured on 7 July 2005, and the need for maintaining absolute focus on the work of the Security Service and the police? We owe them congratulations and a debt of gratitude for the work done in Operation Crevice which, in early 2004, saved us from the most devastating terrorist attack that would have involved the most enormous loss of life.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the magnificent work that our security services and police do in protecting this country from terrorism. It is worth reminding ourselves that Operation Crevice was an enormous success for those services, focusing as it did on one of the many different plots against which they protect our country, day in and day out. I entirely understand the concerns of the families of the 7/7 victims, but I believe that the Intelligence and Security Committee report is the right one, and that at this stage it would be wrong, as my right hon. Friend indicated, to divert resources, attention and energy into anything other than fighting terrorism on all fronts.

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Paul Donnachie and the soldier from the Royal Signals Regiment who were killed in Basra in the past week. As the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said, the conviction of five British-born men for planning terrorist attacks on a massive scale reminds us of the risks that we face. However, the links between them and those responsible for the 7/7 bombings that killed 52 people in London raise a number of important questions. Given the need to enhance public confidence in the fight against terrorism and to answer those questions, will the Prime Minister clarify whether he has ruled out, once and for all, holding a proper independent inquiry?

I have ruled out having another “proper independent” inquiry. The fact is that the Intelligence and Security Committee went into all the issues in immense detail. It had to be somewhat cryptic in its report, because the case in Operation Crevice was sub judice at that point, but it received the vast bulk of the information and is now perfectly entitled to call for anything else it needs. The Committee went into immense detail, so I believe that it would be a mistake for us to have another inquiry as if their inquiry were somehow either not proper or not independent—it was both those things.

The Prime Minister says that the ISC report will be equivalent—as it were—to a full independent inquiry, but I have to say that I really do not think that is right. For all the good work the ISC does, it has limitations; it has no investigative powers, it has no investigator and it did not hear evidence from the West Yorkshire special branch. Are not those good reasons for an independent inquiry—not a public inquiry, but a full independent inquiry?

Let me make one thing clear. The ISC was perfectly entitled to ask for any information it wanted. As far as I am aware, everyone gave the maximum co-operation throughout so it would be wrong to say that in some way or other the Committee did not have the information it wanted. Any information the Committee wants it can have. The ISC is headed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who is a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and its members have experience in the intelligence and security field—many of them as former Ministers. We have to be clear about the reason why people want another inquiry. I totally understand both the grief of the victims of 7/7 and their anxiety to have another inquiry, but the reason why people want another inquiry is for it to reach a different conclusion. That is understandable, but in circumstances where the ISC has had access to everything it needed, and could have access to anything else it needs, it would not be responsible for us to have a further full independent inquiry that would simply divert the Security Service, the police and others from their task of fighting terrorism.

I have to disagree with the Prime Minister. The reason why people want an independent inquiry is the scale of what happened in London on 7 July, when 52 people were murdered and 700 were injured. The reason why people want a full inquiry is to get to the truth—[Interruption.] It is important. In the case of the intelligence failures before the Iraq war, yes, there was an ISC inquiry but the Prime Minister ordered the Butler inquiry as well. Is it not equally important to get to the truth in this case, too?

I am afraid that what I object to is the idea that somehow there has been an attempt not to provide the truth up to now. I do not believe for a single instant that the ISC did not get to the truth; indeed, it had the information revealed in Operation Crevice before it and looked into it in immense detail. Some of what has appeared in the media is, frankly, misleading and wrong; what the shadow Home Secretary has been saying is also wrong—I think that he said in a newspaper article the other day that MI5 and the security services had been starved of resources after 9/11. That is simply not correct. The budget has been doubled and we have dramatically increased the number of people working for our security services.

The whole point is that those people do an immensely difficult task. They went along to the ISC; the then head of MI5 gave evidence three times and special branch gave evidence—again contrary to what the shadow Home Secretary has said. The Committee was able to call for whatever information it wanted. If we now say, effectively, that the ISC inquiry was not adequate and if we hold another inquiry, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that we shall simply cause great anxiety and difficulty in the service and we shall not get any more truth—because the truth is there in the ISC; what we shall do is undermine support for our security services and I am not prepared to do that.

The Prime Minister will be aware that Labour has delivered on its commitment to build a new cancer unit in Leeds and that Leeds people know that only a Labour Government will deliver on a children’s hospital. A powerful campaign is being developed by parents and the Yorkshire Evening Post, so will my right hon. Friend use his energy and commitment to urge the NHS trust in Leeds to get its act together and submit a realistic plan to build a children’s hospital?

I shall certainly do exactly as my hon. Friend says. He is completely right: a huge multi-million pound investment has been set aside for Leeds. We want to see the best of services there and he will know, from experience in his constituency, that waiting lists have come down significantly and that there are extra doctors, extra nurses and, of course, a massive capital investment in the NHS.

Once again, I join the Prime Minister in his expressions of sympathy and condolence at the end of what he rightly describes as a most difficult month. Now that the former Secretary of State for Defence has admitted that there were serious errors in the planning for post-war Iraq, who takes responsibility for those errors?

The responsibility for everything to do with the conduct of the Iraq war is, of course, taken by the Government. The points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) made about deba’athification and the disbandment of the army are points that I have made before. However, let me just say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the reason why things are so challenging and difficult in Iraq is that we have al-Qaeda on the one hand—an outside terrorist organisation committing appalling acts of carnage in Iraq—and Iranian-backed Shi’a extremists on the other. Our job, in my view, is to stand up to both of those elements, as they are precisely the elements that we face in Iraq and Afghanistan and the world over.

But is it not clear where responsibility for Iraq lies? The President made the decisions, the Prime Minister argued the case, the Chancellor signed the cheques and the Tories voted it through. That is where the responsibility for Iraq is to be found.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s policy had been implemented, Saddam Hussein and his two sons would still be running Iraq. [Interruption.] Yes they would. Hundreds of thousands of people died in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. We removed Saddam. We are fighting terrorism now in Iraq. Our troops are there with the United Nations mandate and the full support of the Iraqi Government. It is not British soldiers or indeed American soldiers that are committing acts of terrorism in Iraq; it is people who are going there specifically to stop that country’s democracy working. I believe that our job is to stand up for Iraq and its democracy against terrorism.

If my right hon. Friend is not having an inquiry into the matters affecting 7 July, will he have another inquiry into Black Wednesday, on 16 September 1992? It is now apparent that new information has emerged. It appears that the Leader of the Opposition is in a photograph and he was not trailed at the time. I believe that that demands a new inquiry. It would suit this side of the House and it might even drive another man to drugs.

Actually, an inquiry is one way of dealing with that. The other way is to make sure that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) never gets his hands on the British economy again.

Q2. On 24 September 2002, the Prime Minister told the House that if Saddam Hussein was able to purchase fissile material illegally, it would be only one to two years before he had acquired a usable nuclear weapon. Given that a recent letter that I have from the Cabinet Office can find no basis for that claim—a claim that was not attributed to the Joint Intelligence Committee and which did not reflect the standing JIC assessment, as the Prime Minister knew very well—on what basis did the Prime Minister make that claim, both in a statement to the House and in the Iraq dossier? (135076)

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says at all. The fact is that if Saddam Hussein had been able to acquire fissile material, it would have allowed him to develop nuclear weapons. That is correct. The one thing that we know is that he was somebody who used, not nuclear, but chemical and biological weapons against his own people. So, let me just say to the hon. Gentleman, some people may take the view that Saddam was not a threat; that is not my view. He was a threat and we dealt with him.

On 20 May, a constituent of mine, Sir Richard Knowles, will celebrate his 90th birthday. Dick Knowles became the leader of Birmingham city council in 1984. Despite a Tory Government who did not believe in investing in our cities, he changed the face of that city. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Dick Knowles on his birthday, and will he share my hope that the weak and indecisive leadership that we are currently experiencing in Birmingham will soon come to an end?

I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. Let me join her in wishing Dick Knowles all the best on his 90th birthday. He did an immense amount for Birmingham. The work that he did is one of the reasons why Birmingham is such a thriving and successful European city today.

Two years ago, the Prime Minister told us that he would serve a full third term. Yesterday, he said that he would be off in weeks. He has told us who is going to wear the crown; can he tell us who wielded the knife?

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about leadership and candidates, I certainly will not be following his example regarding the Mayor of London. I can assure him that the person I will be backing for the leadership of the Labour party will at least be a member of the Labour party.

Why is the Prime Minister so coy? Why will he not tell us a bit about the man who will be our Prime Minister and how that man managed to get the better of him? Given that the Prime Minister said that he would serve a full third term, does that mean that when he walks out of No. 10 Downing street, this Parliament is at an end, or was that the last of his broken promises?

As the right hon. Gentleman asks me to tell him something about my right hon. Friend, I will tell him about what we have achieved together over these past 10 years: economic stability through the independence of the Bank of England; record investment in public services; better maternity leave and maternity pay; more support for pensioners; the repeal of section 28; a ban on tobacco advertising; the climate change levy; and, of course, the minimum wage. What do they all have in common? The right hon. Gentleman’s party voted against them.

Does my right hon. Friend share my growing concern about the seeming acceptability of taking cannabis and the fact that it can lead to mental health problems? Does he know how to grow one’s own dope—plant a Scottish nationalist?

My hon. Friend makes her point very well, which is why I hope that people vote tomorrow for the Union and for Scotland and England staying together, not for separation.

I seem to have upset some Members again, Mr. Speaker.

One part of the Government’s modernisation programme that is proving very popular with older people is bus passes for the over-60s. Is the Prime Minister aware that Lib Dem authorities such as Teignbridge are meeting that command, while the Tory mayor of Torbay and the Tory council of East Devon are denying older people the freedom to travel across Devon? Will the Prime Minister tell us which is right, and will he ask his successor to ensure that funding is available so that the scheme can continue—

First, I should thank the hon. Gentleman for paying tribute to what we are doing for pensioners. I have some other things to add that the Liberal Democrats have posted on their website about the Government’s record over the past 10 years. They have given the

“Blair/Brown years…4 out of 10”

[Interruption.] The six I kind of accepted, but what are the four things that we have got right, according to the Liberal Democrats? They are:

“stability for the economy. A Foreign Policy with an ethical dimension”—

[Interruption.] Wait for it. There is also the

“historic modernisation of our political system”


“with the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly”.


“After initially sticking to Tory spending limits, investment in Britain’s dilapidated public services started. The fruits of that investment can now be seen. In the NHS”—

this is from the Lib Dems—

“more staff, reduced waiting lists, better care in…areas such as cancer. In Education a schools building programme, better paid teachers, more books, and better equipment.”

[Hon. Members: “Hooray”.] People should not be voting Tory or Lib Dem; they should be voting Labour.

I know that my right hon. Friend is an enthusiast of both education and football, so may I draw his attention to the Aces scheme in my constituency, which is a partnership between West Bromwich Albion football club, local schools and the local authority that has raised academic standards by an estimated 9 per cent. over the past two years and is funded by the neighbourhood renewal fund? Will he make an undertaking to monitor that scheme and see what potential it has to be rolled out in other historically deprived educational areas?

I echo the congratulations that my hon. Friend gave to the scheme, and I thank West Bromwich Albion and all those other partners for the work that they are doing. It is important to recognise—and I have seen this for myself, for example, in the new facilities that are very close to West Bromwich Albion itself—that there has been a massive increase in regeneration in our inner-city areas, which is why it is important that we keep that funding going. Good use has been made of it, and it is producing better facilities and it has reduced levels of deprivation. I entirely support his congratulations to those involved in that scheme.

Q4. In 1997, the Prime Minister said that one of the reasons why people elected a Labour Government was their concern that the NHS was failing them and their families. [Laughter.] (135078)

And in 2007, consultants said that

“the present state of children’s services in Leeds is not fit for purpose and we are anxious about the continuing safety of children in hospital.”

May I ask the Prime Minister in the dying days of his premiership whether that is his NHS legacy in Leeds, or will he, before he goes, promise the people of Leeds that they will at last get the much needed children’s hospital that was approved in 2004 and shelved in 2007?

I wonder whether that was a planted question, because the NHS legacy is more staff. In the hon. Gentleman’s area, there have been 31,000 more NHS staff, including 7,000 more nurses, and there are reduced waiting lists—the number of people waiting over six months has fallen dramatically. In relation to the children’s hospital, yes, we are committed to that extra investment in the health service, but he should know that, for example, in “Making it Better”, there was a request for Leeds MPs to come along to a meeting, but he did not attend, which does not say a great deal for him.

Order. We cannot have points of order, and I am not responsible for the Prime Minister’s answers.

If it is not correct, I apologise entirely, but I am also told that the hon. Gentleman had two meetings arranged with the chief executive of the strategic health authority which he has cancelled, too.

The Prime Minister will be aware that yesterday, we had a visit in Northern Ireland from the President of the European Commission. At that meeting, the President made an announcement that he was instituting a taskforce to look into Northern Ireland’s position regarding the money that comes from Europe, and also to help new industry. Will the Prime Minister join me and the people of Northern Ireland in welcoming that announcement, and will he give us a promise today, before he leaves office, that he will back it all the way?

I understand the importance of the visit by the President of the European Commission, which was made partly in direct response to a request from the right hon. Gentleman. I can assure him that I will fully back whatever the Commission does to support investment and industry in Northern Ireland.

A company called Whipp and Bourne, which is one of the country’s largest manufacturers and exporters of switchgear, announced this week that it is to close, with the loss of 200 exceptionally well skilled jobs. The rumour is that the company may be intending to move to China or India. How can the Government encourage companies like Whipp and Bourne, first, to remain in my constituency, and, secondly to remain in the UK? I am meeting the trade unions on Friday, and I would like to give them some hope.

First, we should extend our sympathy to those who have lost their jobs and been made redundant as a result of the decision that the company has taken. It is difficult for us to prevent companies from deciding to relocate. The best thing that we can do for business and industry is to keep our economy strong, improve the levels of investment in skills, and make sure, as we now do, that where major redundancies are announced, we provide proper structured help for those who are made redundant. Where we can, of course, we also encourage companies to keep their location here in this country. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to discuss those possibilities with the Department of Trade and Industry. It is an unfortunate fact here and round the world that companies are highly mobile. The most important thing, however, is to keep the economy sufficiently strong so that we are always generating new jobs.

Q5. Yes, it is me again, Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister please use his final weeks in office to secure the release of the hostages Alan Johnston and Corporal Gilad Shalit, working together with the Palestinian Authority? I believe that that will secure a way forward for peace in the middle east. (135079)

I am sorry that Alan Johnston and, in a different context, Corporal Shalit are still kept as hostages. I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that their release would make a big difference in the middle east. In respect of Alan Johnston, there is no conceivable reason for him to be kept. He was a journalist doing his job out there. There have also been many calls from Palestinian leaders and Palestinian journalists for his release, and we continue to do everything we can to facilitate that. The hon. Gentleman is also right to say, in respect of Corporal Shalit, that his release would allow a whole series of things to happen, not least releases of Palestinian prisoners, and other things that would allow us to move the situation forward. There continues to be nothing more urgent than the middle east.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the efforts being made by the Welsh Assembly under Labour to promote social enterprise and co-operative initiatives? Does he agree that economic and social development in Wales depends on a continuation of the strong partnership between the House of Commons and the Assembly, both under Labour? Will he encourage people to fear the dangers of a negative nexus of nationalists and Conservatives?

When we look at the large investment in Wales and the tremendous strength of the Welsh economy—the action that has been taken by the Welsh Executive under the leadership of Rhodri Morgan has been essential in that— I should have thought that that is infinitely preferable to the ragbag strange coalition between the Conservative party and nationalists.

Q6. Today, Mrs. Ogg retires as sub-postmistress after 30 years’ service in the post office in Laurencekirk. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating her on her retirement, and ensure that when the Department of Trade and Industry announces the future of the Post Office, her successor enjoys the same success as he hopes his successor will? (135080)

Of course I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Mrs. Ogg on her service and the work that she has done over the years. I point out that it is a result of this Government that we have managed to invest about £2 billion in the post office network. We know that for all the reasons that are understandable it is still subject to intense pressure, but I hope very much that the successor in that post office is able to continue and make sure that the post office has a viable future, but it must be viable within the subsidy that we are able to give.

I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting my constituency a few weeks ago—[Interruption.] Opposition Members might consider this to be important. My right hon. Friend visited my constituency to review projects for local people who are suffering major change following the collapse of MG Rover a couple of years ago. Will he assure me that that support, particularly for community infrastructure, will continue? Does he agree that ongoing support from Government year in, year out for local communities facing change is vital, rather unlike what we experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s?

There has been a big change in the way in which we deal with situations in which there are large numbers of redundancies. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in respect of the collapse of Rover, as that was an important part of our bringing together all the different partners. We made a big investment from Government and, as I saw for myself when I visited his constituency, a large proportion of those people have now found alternative work and employment. An immense amount of effort has gone in, and I think that that is what a modern welfare state is about—not trying to pretend that we can stop companies closing if they are not profitable or a decision is made to relocate them, but getting underneath the work force and supporting them in their desire to achieve new work and be able to cope with the process of that redundancy. That has been immensely successful in relation to MG Rover, and I pay tribute to everyone engaged in it.

Q7. Recent court decisions have left us in the extraordinary position that the Government can neither deport nor detain dangerous foreign terrorists. These decisions flow directly from the Human Rights Act 1998. As it is within the power of this House to amend the Act and within the power of the Government to file a derogation from the European convention, why does the Prime Minister not introduce amending legislation so that this situation can be remedied? (135081)

Because it is not the problem. The problem is the European convention on human rights. The reason why there is a problem is the court case, I think in 1996, in relation to—I think I am right in saying this—those who were alleged to be engaged in terrorism in respect of India at the time. As a result of that case—I think it is called the Chahal case—this difficulty has been created. We are trying to get that decision overturned in respect of the European Court of Human Rights, and it is essential that we do so, because where I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman is that we cannot have a situation in which people come to this country and engage in acts of terrorism, inciting terrorism or encouraging terrorism, and then we are told that we cannot deport them back to their own country, even with a memorandum of understanding with that country, when they simply say, “We may be mistreated when we go back there”, despite what they are doing here. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing about it. What we are doing is trying to get that decision overturned. It is not correct, however, that it comes about as a result of domestic legislation. It comes about as a result of that case, decided under the last Government and under the European convention on human rights.