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The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [44176]Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 April.

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The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further such meetings later today.

Peter Bradley: This is a momentous day for my family and me, because this morning my wife and I, in common with thousands of parents up and down the country, took our children to school for the very first time. [Hon. Members: "Aw!"] Thank you—any contributions to their lunch boxes would be gratefully received. Will the Prime Minister assure me that he and the Chancellor will regard next week's Budget as a defining opportunity not just to sustain but to increase Government investment in public services, which will define the quality of life that our children will enjoy, and to create a national consensus about the society that we want to live in, about the limits as well as the extent of the Government's power to create such a society, and about the rights and responsibilities of each citizen in helping to achieve that?

The Prime Minister: I was not entirely sure what momentous decision my hon. Friend was about to announce. The key for the Government is to proceed on the basis of a strong economy that delivers the investment in our public services that we need. Already, record investment in education has produced the best school results this country has ever seen. We see from today's report by the chief executive of the national health service that most indicators in the NHS are moving in the right, positive direction, although there is a lot more to do. The only way we will be able to keep that investment coming through our public services is to make the right choices in the Budget to sustain that investment over the long term, so that the people of this country get the opportunities they need, and that depends on public services for all.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): In the future, if left unchecked, Iraq will be able to deploy its weapons of mass destruction against targets in western Europe, including the United Kingdom. As the last head of the United Nations inspectors makes clear, development of those weapons continues unchecked. Given that, will the Prime Minister confirm reports that he told President Bush over the weekend that if military action is needed against Saddam Hussein, the British Government will support and, if necessary, contribute to it?

The Prime Minister: The time for military action has not yet arisen. However, there is no doubt at all that the development of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein poses a severe threat not just to the region, but to the wider world. I draw the House's attention to the fact that, in my first statement to the House a few days after 11 September, I made it clear that the issue of weapons of mass destruction had to be, and should be, dealt with. How we deal with it will be a matter for deliberation and consultation in the normal way. After11 September, we proceeded in a calm and sensible way, and we shall do so again, but we must confront the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Not only is Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction, but it has also become apparent that it is a major sponsor of terrorism in the

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middle east, bankrolling many of the families of suicide bombers and providing terrorists with bomb-making equipment. In the United States, the Prime Minister spoke about a "regime change" in Iraq. Given his reported comments, will he confirm that getting rid of Saddam Hussein may now be an objective of the Government?

The Prime Minister: As I said in Texas, there is no doubt at all that the region would be a better place without Saddam Hussein. It is worth pointing out that the Iraqi people themselves would rejoice most at Saddam Hussein leaving office. We should never forget that that regime has a particular record: the Iran-Iraq war in which1 million people lost their lives; the annexation of Kuwait, which precipitated the Gulf war; and perhaps the most appalling act of all, the use of chemical weapons on the Kurdish people. There is no doubt whatever that the world would be a better place without Saddam. However, the method of achieving that is, as I said, open to consultation and deliberation. When the judgments are made, I have no doubt at all that this House—indeed, the whole country—will want to debate the issue thoroughly.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Does the Prime Minister believe that countering the growing threat from Saddam Hussein is about protecting lives in Britain and the lives of British forces abroad, and not just about supporting our allies? In the USA, the Prime Minister described those who refuse to accept the need to act as "utterly naive". Does he believe that they misunderstand the nature of the threat, or that they will simply refuse to accept any evidence that they are given?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that I should comment on other people's motives in relation to this matter, however kind it is of the right hon. Gentleman to offer me that opportunity—I am sure he wants to be helpful. The key issue is that this is not something that has suddenly arisen, and it is important that the House understand that. Before 11 September, a whole series of negotiations took place about potential new United Nations Security Council resolutions to put in place a better sanctions regime, and about how we try to ensure that weapons inspectors get back inside Iraq. The reason why the UN Security Council resolutions that were originally proposed and passed demand that weapons inspections take place in Iraq is precisely that the threat of weapons of mass destruction is real and present.

The issue is quite clear. As I said in my speech in Texas, Saddam Hussein has a very clear message from the international community: the weapons inspectors should go back in—anyone, any place, any time. That is the message that we must give him. Simply turning our backs on the issue of weapons of mass destruction is not an option. That is why I think it so important that we stand with the United States in saying that this issue is one that has to be, and will be, confronted. We will do so in a sensible and measured way, but we cannot allow a state of this nature to develop those weapons without let or hindrance.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): May I tell the Prime Minister how pleased I am that our right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment will attend the most important United Nations environment conference on rain forests next week? However, it is equally

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important that we have a commitment to the environment at home. Will the Prime Minister look closely at assurances given to me that timber used in the refurbishment of the Cabinet Office, at 22 Whitehall, is sustainable? If, as Greenpeace suggests, it is not, will he look again at his Government's contract?

The Prime Minister: Because of what happened earlier today, I am more acquainted with the fixtures and fittings of the Cabinet Office than I was previously. My understanding is that the timber that is being used is indeed certified as sustainable, so Greenpeace's campaign is misconceived. However, the matter will doubtless be looked into by those responsible.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): It is reported today that 3,000 post office branches in urban areas are scheduled to close. Does the Prime Minister support that?

The Prime Minister: No, it is not correct that 3,000 offices are scheduled to close. What is correct, however, is that there needs to be a major programme of change within the Post Office, which we are prepared to support with several hundred million pounds. The reason for that is perfectly simple: the current situation is not sustainable, unless we were to spend very large sums of public money in doing so. If that is the Liberal Democrats' position, perhaps they should say so.

Mr. Kennedy: The House will notice that the Prime Minister cannot side-step the facts. Since he took office, 1,500 post office branches in rural areas have already closed. Double that number are to close in urban areas, yet Labour's last election manifesto described those facilities as "an invaluable resource". By definition, how can they be an invaluable resource if 4,500 of them are to shut?

The Prime Minister: The reason why the change in the Post Office has to come about is precisely that it is not possible, unless we are to spend very large sums of money, to say that no post office will ever close. In fact, under the restructuring proposals, 95 per cent. of people will still live within a mile of a post office in urban areas, and as a result of the restructuring package, we will of course give the best protection possible to rural post offices. [Interruption.] I know that the Liberal Democrats always like to propose a problem but never a solution, but the fact is that, in the end, the only solution is to restructure. Even that will cost somewhere in the region of £270 million. If we were to go further by guaranteeing that no post office would ever close, no matter what its circumstances, the bill would run to hundreds of millions of pounds more. I am afraid that we simply cannot do that.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Given the Prime Minister's reported comment that those who take a different view from his on events in the middle east are utterly naive, may I ask him whether it is naive to be dismayed at the succour that has been given to Sharon by the mixed messages that have come from the American and British Administrations? Is it naive to be aware of the bellicosity of elements in the American Administration,

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based on ideology; or is it naive to believe in the centrality of the United Nations in resolving the problems of the middle east?

The Prime Minister: I have not described anyone who takes a different view from mine on Iraq as utterly naive. I said that it would be utterly naive to say that weapons of mass destruction were not an issue, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would not say that either. The issue is how we deal with that—I said what I said on Iraq a moment or two ago—but in relation to the middle east, it is not correct to say that there have been mixed messages. We are absolutely clear that we condemn entirely those things that are happening in the middle east at the moment, which is why Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories and do so now, as the American President has said; but we also—I hope that my hon. Friend would do so too—condemn without reservation the terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens: both must be condemned.

This is a difficult situation not because the messages are mixed, but because I am afraid there has to be a message of restraint and an end to violence for both sides. The only way in my judgment that we will get a resolution to this issue is not if we take sides on it, but if we actually make sure that, in a sensible way, we say to both sides that the Israelis have to withdraw from the occupied territories and cease the reprisals, and the Palestinians have to take action against those people engaged in terrorist attacks.

Q2. [44177]Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): In answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) a moment ago, the Prime Minister very properly said that there should be a period of consultation and debate before contemplating any military action against Iraq; but does he agree that, lying behind that debate, there would have to be the very fundamental principle that if a rogue state threatens the peace and security of this nation, it would be a gross dereliction of duty if we did not take military action against it?

The Prime Minister: Of course we must make sure that we are protected against any such state. I hope that this Government's record on issues such as Kosovo and Afghanistan and, indeed, in relation to Iraq shows that we are prepared to take that action. But I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, as I am sure that the whole House will, that action of this nature is very serious, that it should not be undertaken lightly and that it should be undertaken in consultation and deliberation with key allies.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Returning to the subject of Iraq, does not the Prime Minister agree that, dangerous and difficult though the situation in Iraq is, it cannot be tackled in isolation; and that, on the position in Palestine and Israel, we must tackle both issues without being seen to be exercising double standards, not only because that is fair and just, but because in the war against terrorism it would be counterproductive to be seen to be exercising those double standards?

The Prime Minister: Of course I agree with my hon. Friend; it is important that we act without double standards and that we act on both issues. That is precisely

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why we passed UN Security Council resolution 1402 in respect of the situation in the middle east at the present time, which made it absolutely clear that we support both Israel's right to security and a viable Palestinian state, and that Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories. Of course it is also important that we deal with the issues of weapons of mass destruction.

Some people say that America has not been engaged in this issue, but that is unfair. Secretary of State Colin Powell is now in the region. He will visit Israel shortly. That mission is extremely important. [Interruption.] Well, with the greatest respect, these issues are difficult to deal with, and the fact that the Secretary of State has been sent to the region is an indication of the earnestness of American intentions in relation to these issues.

It is also extremely important that we carry on, as we are, in intensive negotiations with everyone involved, including our European partners, the UN and countries such as Russia. The resolution of this issue will require a massive collaborative effort on the part of the international community, but no one should think it will be easy, because it will not.

Q3. [44178]Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): The Prime Minister may recall that a month ago I asked him about delays in cancer treatment. He reassured me that the Government were investing more. Is he aware of the anger and frustration felt by many cancer patients and clinicians because a high percentage of those specifically earmarked funds has been siphoned off, owing to NHS bureaucracy, and to financing low-priority activity such as reducing the debts of hospital trusts? What guarantees can he give that money specifically pledged by the Government to their top health priority is spent for the designated purpose?

The Prime Minister: We do need to make sure that money allocated to cancer treatment is spent on that. All I would say to the hon. Gentleman—to put what he has just said in a balanced perspective—is that the report that drew attention to the problem also said in specific terms that cancer services in this country were improving. More than 90 per cent. of people who are referred to a consultant are now referred within two weeks; the figure was just over 60 per cent. when we came to office.

We are investing a massive amount in cancer services, but the hon. Gentleman is right: more still needs to be done. I therefore hope that next week's Budget will give us an opportunity to make a sustained investment in cancer care—but also in other vital parts of the health service—over a considerable period. I hope the hon. Gentleman and his party will support us in that.

Q4. [44179]Gareth Thomas (Clwyd, West): I believe that the Prime Minister has been entirely right—[Laughter.] I believe that he has been entirely right to be as active on the international scene as he clearly has been in recent weeks. May I, however, seek a reassurance on behalf of my constituents that, in next week's Budget and in the coming months, the Government will remain committed to their highly successful domestic agenda—a strong economy, investment in public services, and repairing the damage that the Conservative party has done to our communities? [Interruption.]

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The Prime Minister: I thought it was a very good question. My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. The Conservatives never like being reminded that when they were in office interest rates were at 15 per cent. for a year and at 10 per cent. for four years, there was savage underinvestment in our public services, and unemployment rocketed. Fortunately, under this Government we have the strongest economy that we have had for decades, the lowest inflation, the lowest interest rates and the lowest unemployment. That is why the Conservative party does not like it.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Perhaps the Prime Minister would like to agree with this one. Commander Ward, the decorated squadron commander from the Falklands—a war whose 20th anniversary we now mark—said that the Prime Minister's decision to withdraw Sea Harriers would lead to the

Does the Prime Minister agree with that?

The Prime Minister: No. We are satisfied that the decisions we have made through the strategic defence review allow us to defend our country properly, and I pay tribute to the superb work done by our armed forces around the world.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister should know that in the strategic defence review it was proposed to phase out both the Sea Harrier and the GR7, but not before 2010, when a replacement aircraft was supposed to be available. He must also know that the aircraft that the Government are now talking about putting on the carriers—the GR7—is slower, has no air-to-air radar, and is not designed for air defence at all.

The Prime Minister may recall that Sandy Woodward, commander of the Falklands taskforce, said his decision meant that the fleet would now have to rely on United States carrier support if it ever carried out operations. In the light of that, will he not reconsider the rather stupid decision to withdraw Sea Harriers?

The Prime Minister: First, let me point out that the right hon. Gentleman is complaining about the amount that we are spending on defence. All these decisions are, in the end, about the resources available. I think people in the armed forces remember that when his party was in power it slashed defence spending. The first real-terms increase took place under this Government, when we came to office. As regards the right hon. Gentleman's specific point, I do not accept that the efficiency of our armed forces is being undermined by that.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister cannot go back to the pre-1997 Government, given that his own strategic defence review, on which he bases his evidence, makes it absolutely clear that that aircraft would stay in service until a replacement had been found. The Prime Minister's previous Chief of the Defence Staff, General Guthrie, recently said that

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The Prime Minister: I do not accept that our armed forces are at all in the state that the right hon. Gentleman describes. On underfunding, I was making exactly that point a moment or so ago. When his party was in office—[Interruption.] For 10 years, the Conservative party cut defence spending. Under this Government, the armed forces have had the first real-terms increase in defence spending for years. If Conservative Members are demanding that even more money be spent on defence, I hope that they will support the decisions that are announced in the Budget next week.

Q5. [44180]Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): In the context of Israel, I hope that the President was prepared to listen to my right hon. Friend's experience in Northern Ireland, which shows that the only way to build peace out of conflict is patient politics and persuasion, not bombs and bullying.

During those important discussions, did my right hon. Friend have time to mention the United States' imposition of steel tariffs and to point out to the President that that is no way to do business with a loyal friend and ally?

The Prime Minister: The action that the United States has taken—against many countries, obviously—is now the subject of European Union action under the World Trade Organisation. I made it absolutely clear that we fundamentally disagree with the United States' decision, which is not good for anyone, including the US steel industry. The action undertaken by the WTO is important. If the WTO finds against the United States, I hope that it will abide by that ruling. The more free trade there is, and the fewer restrictions on trade, the better.

Q6. [44181]Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Can the Prime Minister explain the difference between what we and the Americans are doing in Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda terrorism and what Israel is doing on the west bank to root out Palestinian terrorism? Why is one right and the other wrong?

The Prime Minister: In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, a process is under way to resolve a longstanding dispute, so the two situations are not identical. We will secure a lasting solution in the middle east peace process only when we understand that it cannot be simply a military solution. We will need a political solution. Israel will not go away; the Palestinians will not go away. The only solution will be based on recognising Israel's right to exist—that should be recognised by the whole Arab world—and on giving the Palestinians a viable Palestinian state in which to live.

Having said that, of course I deplore the terrorism that is taking place. It is terrible that there are so many innocent victims. In the end, as we have learned from bitter experience in Northern Ireland, the only solution is a political process that works.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East): Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is

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widespread support in the House and the country for the proposition that the Iraqis should comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions and allow unfettered access to arms inspectors? Will he give the assurance that before any military action that may eventually become necessary is contemplated, Saddam Hussein will be given every opportunity to comply with those resolutions?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend's point is right. Saddam Hussein is in defiance of the resolutions with which he should comply. However, he has the opportunity to comply with them now. He is not in doubt about what is necessary. The United Nations resolutions are clear; there are nine and he is in breach of every one. The international community's position is also clear. Whatever people think about the action that will follow, he must comply with the resolutions. To that extent, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Q7. [44182]Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): May I give the Prime Minister another opportunity to tell the House whether he has done a deal that involves an amnesty for IRA terrorists on the run?

The Prime Minister: It is not a question of a deal but of recognising, as we did in the Weston Park proposals, that there is an issue about people who in some cases have been charged and in others, convicted, and who have been out of the country for a long time but are not covered by the existing process. We shall find a way to cover them, and we will do that sensibly; we made that clear at Weston Park. It is not a deal but a sensible issue that needs to be resolved.

Q8. [44183]Phil Sawford (Kettering): Contractors are currently on site, preparing to start construction work on the £11.5 million Rothwell-Desborough A6 bypass in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the local authorities and all those local people who campaigned for that vital road for more than 25 years? Will he note the stark contrast between that public investment and the false promises and fantasy road schemes that we had from the Conservative party for so long?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to congratulate all involved in the Rothwell-Desborough A6 bypass. It is worth pointing out that my hon. Friend's constituency is one of many that will benefit from such schemes. The transport plan includes an increase of 44 per cent. over the previous 10 years in investment in our public transport system, road and rail. That demonstrates the necessity of the investment in public infrastructure that we will continue to make.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): The Prime Minister has clearly set out what he expects the Palestinians and Israelis to do. I doubt whether a single hon. Member does not support that. What did he and the President discuss doing if Israel continued to ignore UN resolutions and persisted in its current actions?

The Prime Minister: There is no alternative to continuing the pressure to ensure that it complies and, in line with that, that the Palestinian Authority takes the necessary action against terrorists. Even with the United

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States, there can be no resolution without some assistance from the parties that are directly involved. From the perspective of the international community, we will remain fully engaged. Not only the United States but the United Kingdom, the European Union, NATO, Russia—the whole international community—wants to help. However, to do that we need at least some give from the sides that are directly involved in the dispute.

Q9. [44184]Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Although I acknowledge the Government's recognition of Liverpool's housing needs by placing it in the new pathfinder housing area, does my right hon. Friend agree that they cannot be tackled without major new investment funds being made available? Will he support the provision of major funds to the new housing market renewal fund, which will tackle dereliction and its associated problems in Liverpool and elsewhere?

The Prime Minister: We are putting substantial additional sums into neighbourhood renewal programmes in Liverpool and elsewhere. When those schemes are properly co-ordinated, with all the various departments working together, they are very successful. I know that my hon. Friend will agree that we must also tackle some of the social disorder problems in those local communities. For that reason, the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on matters such as abandoned cars and street crime is so important today.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The Prime Minister sets standards in government. Will he tell the

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House whether there is a daily record of authorised, unattributable briefings or are some deniable? Is it a condition of ministerial office that those in government obey the code for Members? Who monitors the ministerial code and who requires Ministers to uphold it?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman has any complaints to make, he can make them to the normal authorities in the normal way. I am absolutely satisfied that much of what the Conservative party raises is complete nonsense.

Q11. [44186]Paul Flynn (Newport, West): On Friday last, when the final shift was worked at the heavy end of the Llanwern steelworks, it was announced that the steel boss who axed 6,000 steelworkers' jobs last year was to be rewarded with a bonus of 130 per cent., bringing his salary up to almost £500,000. Why, in almost every crisis of this kind, do the workers end up losing out and losing their jobs, but the steel bosses and bosses of other industries are allowed to gift themselves fortunes?

The Prime Minister: I do understand the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised. All I would say is that, as a result of the money that we are putting into those areas, the work that the Employment Service is doing, and the strength of the economy overall—some 26,000 jobs have been created in Wales over the past few years—we at least give people who lose their job the best chance of getting a new one. In respect of the bonus paid to the chairman of the company involved, I am afraid that that is not a matter for me.

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