Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Organised Crime

5. Caroline Flint (Don Valley): What assistance is being provided by the United States to assist in combating organised crime and gangsterism in Northern Ireland. [42007]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): The US has consistently supported us in our policing efforts, most recently by FBI training. Separately, in a step to assist our fight against organised crime, last Tuesday I appointed a US expert, Professor Ronald Goldstock, to provide an international perspective on the problem. He was the director of the New York organised crime taskforce for 13 years.

Caroline Flint: It is a sad reality that organised crime has fed the troubles, violence and intimidation in Northern Ireland for many years, blighting families and especially children. I welcome the appointment of Professor Goldstock, who is a respected man of high calibre.

20 Mar 2002 : Column 295

However, will my right hon. Friend explain in a little more detail how the professor will help the Government to make progress in the fight against organised crime?

Dr. Reid: Ron Goldstock brings a wealth of experience to assist us in our efforts in the fight against organised crime. We are already trying to resource the police in very difficult circumstances, and the organised crime taskforce has made a considerable start under my hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibilities for security. Ron Goldstock will be charged with analysing the impact of organised crime on society and, particularly, with recommending ways of building cross-community support for the fight against organised crime, especially, although not exclusively, among those who would masquerade as the defenders of either community. I am sure that he will make a major contribution to our efforts.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [42033] Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 20 March.

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 meetings later today, including a meeting with Prime Minister John Howard of Australia to discuss the very welcome suspension of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth.

Sir Michael Spicer: Why are there more strikes when we have a Labour Government?

The Prime Minister: That is an ill-judged question. The number of days lost through strikes are fewer under this Government than they were under the previous Conservative Government. I am afraid that that was a foolish question to ask.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Will my right hon. Friend join me and the thousands of constituents who have written to their Members of Parliament to back the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children campaign to stop parents or carers killing their children? It is a shock to the House to learn that every week one or two children are killed by their parent or carer—the person who is meant to love and care for them, and keep them safe. Will he undertake to carry out all the necessary measures and legislative changes that are backed by all the children's charities?

The Prime Minister: We certainly support those moves. We support entirely the NSPCC's worthwhile Full Stop campaign, which will have the support of the vast majority of hon. Members and parents throughout the country.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Since the Prime Minister came to power, more

20 Mar 2002 : Column 296

than 50,000 care home beds have closed. Does the Prime Minister think that that has anything to do with his policies?

The Prime Minister: No. Incidentally, in relation to that 50,000, the net figure is 19,000 places and the reason for that number is clear—many of those care homes are in private hands and have been sold off. However, as a result of the measures that the Government have introduced and the money that we have put in, some £1.4 billion will be spent on initiatives to help the elderly in care homes and in their own homes in the next few years. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Conservative party opposed that additional £1.4 billion when we announced it in the last Parliament.

Mr. Duncan Smith: As usual, the Prime Minister seems to shuffle off blame. Care homes are closing simply because the Government have weighed them down with expensive rules and regulations. For example, why should nursing managers with 20 years' experience have to abandon their patients to take qualifications just to keep their jobs? Why should married couples who have been living together for decades have to split up because the rules say that their home needs more single rooms? On 18 May 2000, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) warned the Government that their policies would result in

Is that not exactly what has happened?

The Prime Minister: First, the regulations to which the right hon. Gentleman refers are the care standards regulations. I hope that the Conservative party supports high standards for our care homes, and I would have thought that it would do so. Actually, the principal reason why many of these homes have closed is that the owners believe, for understandable reasons, that the level of fees given by the Government are not high enough. We understand that, particularly when they are often sitting on extremely valuable property which they could sell for a great deal of money. However, the only way that we will get the necessary fees paid to those care homes is to put more money into the system. I repeat that the Government have committed £1.4 billion over the next few years both to help care services in local authorities and to give people better chances of being looked after in their own homes. We are putting that money into the system to rectify the problem, and the right hon. Gentleman opposed it. Perhaps when he gets to his feet he will explain how he will manage to improve the situation of people in care homes when he is opposed to the investment in them.

Mr. Duncan Smith: What the Prime Minister absolutely fails to point out is that, far from putting money in, the expensive cost of regulations takes money out of the system. The director of the Independent Healthcare Association said:

The Prime Minister has been destabilising them for five years. As a result, we now have an NHS that is in almost permanent crisis. People cannot get their operations because there are no beds available. There are no beds

20 Mar 2002 : Column 297

available because those occupying them cannot get beds in care homes, and those in care homes live in fear of being evicted because their care home may be closed. That is not health care; it is Kafka-care. The reality is that the people who will suffer are the most vulnerable in society.

The Prime Minister: First, on the point about operations in the national health service, let us not forget that the vast majority of people—more than 70 per cent.—get their operations within three months. This year, the Government have increased the number of beds in the national health service for the first time in years. The right hon. Gentleman talks about waiting lists, but let no one forget that, in the years before we came to office, waiting lists in the health service went up by 400,000. They have fallen by 100,000 under this Government.

In respect of care homes, as a result of the additional money, we are able to look after more people in their own homes—that is what they want—and we are able to increase the level of fees given to those care homes. If the right hon. Gentleman opposes the provisions of the Care Standards Act 2000—which allow, for example, some of the people working in those homes to get paid holidays for the first time in their lives—let him get up and say so now.

Hon. Members: Answer.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): Does my right hon. Friend agree that today's British workers are among the most productive in Europe? Does he not further agree that it is not over-ambitious for those same workers to expect and enjoy the same rights as those enjoyed by their counterparts throughout Europe?

The Prime Minister: That is exactly right. That is why, when the Government came to office, we signed the social chapter and we introduced the minimum wage. We have introduced the first proper rights of trade union representation and we have introduced the right to paid holidays for the first time for literally hundreds of thousands of people who never used to get the chance of a holiday. In those circumstances, I say to my hon. Friend that it is important that we manage to combine both enterprise and fairness in our economy. Each of the measures that we introduced, including the social chapter, were bitterly opposed by the Conservative party.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): In expressing continuing support for the further British troop deployment to Afghanistan announced this week, may I ask the Prime Minister to clarify one aspect of that? The British are already involved in peacekeeping and there will be British forces in the mountains in a combat role. Why are we combining both roles when the Americans do not wish to do either?

The Prime Minister: There have been British forces engaged in fighting in Afghanistan for a very long time. Those troops, together with those in the international security assistance force, amount to about 6,000 British

20 Mar 2002 : Column 298

troops in total who are involved in the Afghan operation. To put that into context, that is about one tenth of the number deployed in the Gulf war.

It is important to remember that several hundred of the 1,700 troops that we announced earlier this week would be deployed are already in Afghanistan. Many more are near the theatre of operation and, of course, thousands of Americans troops have been there for a very long time, and will remain there. Some of the way in which this has been reported is not in accordance with the facts.

Mr. Kennedy: I am sure, however, that the Prime Minister and the House will acknowledge that the Chief of the Defence Staff publicly cautioned against dual roles and against peacekeeping and combat forces being in the same place at the same time. Why has the Prime Minister come to the opposite conclusion?

The Prime Minister: I have not. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Chief of the Defence Staff fully supports the deployment of our forces. They are not being deployed in the same areas—the security force is in Kabul and is performing a fundamental role in restoring security to Afghanistan.

As I have pointed out throughout, there was always going to be a period in which we would have to mop up the last remnants of Taliban and al-Qaeda resistance. There are groups of people in the mountains whom the American forces have already been fighting, and Canadian forces have been fighting alongside the Americans. Indeed, at the moment about eight different countries are fighting in Afghanistan alongside the United States of America. British forces have also been there for a significant period. It is important that we get the job done. I do not believe that there is any mismatch between the security force operating in Kabul and the forces that will, as I said, deal with the last remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That is a necessary part of prosecuting the war in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the comments of one of his recent predecessors, who declared the European Union "unreformable". Does he agree that, although it might seem that way if one stands on the sidelines and carps at it, it appears quite different if one is involved in the process?

The Prime Minister: Our membership of the European Union has been wholly to the benefit of this country. It is to the benefit of British jobs and the British economy, and it is right for British influence in the world that we remain part of the European Union. I am only sorry that so many people in the Conservative party today want to take this country back to the margins of influence in Europe, because that is not a patriotic thing to do. It is not in our national self-interest; it is actually a betrayal of that self-interest.

Q2. [42034] Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness): In Skegness, in my constituency, hundreds of jobs and thousands of tourists will be adversely affected by the ill-judged recommendations in the Government- sponsored Budd report on gaming. After four months of

20 Mar 2002 : Column 299

delay and dithering, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to disown, and dissociate himself from those proposals?

The Prime Minister: We commissioned the independent report for very good reasons. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is studying it and she will make an announcement in due course. Before making up his mind and alarming his constituents unduly, perhaps the hon. Gentleman should await the outcome of the consultation.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): My right hon. Friend will know that many people are concerned about levels of crime, particularly street crime. People tell me that they cannot understand why the courts do not deal adequately with persistent offenders. Can he reassure them and the House that the Government are determined to take action to ensure that persistent offenders are dealt with effectively and swiftly by the courts?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Of course, overall, crime—which doubled under the previous Conservative Government—has fallen under this Government. However, a serious problem exists with street crime, and one of the things that we are looking at is how to increase the number of secure accommodation places, precisely to ensure that those who are likely to commit further offences are not allowed back on the streets on bail.

Q3. [42035] Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I wonder whether the Prime Minister might take the time to study the recent report of the Northamptonshire-South community health council, which reveals that the total number of nursing home beds in the south of that county declined by almost 25 per cent. in the 30 months from January 1999. Will he note that the report of which that forms part is on delayed discharges from hospital, and is he the only person in the country who can see no connection between those two facts?

The Prime Minister: No, of course there is a connection. We allocated some £300 million of additional money before Christmas precisely in order to reduce delayed discharges. As a result, they have come down significantly. Indeed, according to my meeting yesterday with people in the health service, I think that more than 1,000 beds have been freed up through that additional money.

I should tell the hon. Gentleman, who takes a slightly more reasonable view of such matters than some of his hon. Friends, that one reason why we have to make that extra investment into the national health service is precisely in order to deal with the problem that he draws attention to. However, the way to get in that extra investment is to support the policies of this Government, rather than to oppose that investment, as his Front-Bench colleagues do.

Q4. [42036] Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood): Will my right hon. Friend join me in expressing sympathy to my constituent, Daniella Perry, an eight-year-old girl who was savagely attacked by a dog in a community centre in Fleetwood? In that particular case, the dog has been protected, but the young girl has not,

20 Mar 2002 : Column 300

because the attack took place on private property—even though that private property is a community centre run by the local council and open to the public.

The Prime Minister: First, I express my sympathy to my hon. Friend's constituent and her family. Secondly, I know that the Minister of the relevant Department is in touch with my hon. Friend about that case and will be happy to meet her to discuss it. Obviously, beyond that particular case, it is a serious matter that may have implications for the general state of the law.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): In 1997, the Prime Minister said:

Given that 80 per cent. of the population turned out on Monday to oppose his plans for joint sovereignty, does he now stand by every word of that statement?

The Prime Minister: I do stand by it and of course we have not put proposals to people in Gibraltar yet. When we do put those proposals—[Interruption.] Well, that is the process that we have agreed. We have agreed that there should be a process under which we discuss with the Spanish Government certain proposals. When those proposals are agreed, they will be put to people in Gibraltar. Of course, people in Gibraltar will have the final say, as I have always indicated.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister says "yet", but his Government briefing yesterday was that a deal with Spain on joint sovereignty had already been agreed, that it will be presented within months and that whatever—I repeat, whatever—the result of a referendum, the deal will remain on the table and the Government will withdraw political and economic support from Gibraltar unless it agrees to that deal. To be absolutely clear about the issue, will the Prime Minister now answer two questions? First, if the people of Gibraltar refuse to accept the deal in a referendum, will those plans be torn up and taken away? Secondly, will Gibraltar suffer any economic or political reprisals and will it continue to be supported by the British Government regardless, through the EU?

The Prime Minister: Of course there will be no reprisals or penalties applied to the people of Gibraltar if they reject the plans. If they reject the plans, the plans are rejected by them. There is no question of the plans being able to proceed without their consent. That has been made clear throughout. I must say to the right hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members that this is a process that began under the last Conservative Government—[Hon. Members: "No."] Oh yes. This total opportunism by the Conservative party has to be exposed. The process began under the previous Conservative Government and it began for a very good reason: the present arrangements between Spain and Gibraltar suit nobody. They do not suit the people of Spain or Gibraltar or Britain. Therefore, under the Brussels process, which began under the previous Government, proposals will be put to the people of

20 Mar 2002 : Column 301

Gibraltar, but—as I have said throughout—there can and will be no change to the constitutional position of Gibraltar without the consent of the people of Gibraltar.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister did not answer the question. [Hon. Members: "Yes, he did."] No, he did not. I asked specifically whether those plans would be withdrawn, torn up, taken away or whatever he wants. In other words, those plans would not lie around to bully the people of Gibraltar. Is it not the same for everybody? We have a pattern with this Government, whether it is a 90-year-old worried about their health care or Gibraltarians who want to stay British. First, the Government try to smear them. If that fails, the Government try to threaten them. If that fails, finally the Government abandon them. When will the Prime Minister accept that the people of Gibraltar do not want this deal? Is it not a reality that whatever he says, and all the spin, we can no longer trust his word?

The Prime Minister: As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman in the last two answers I have given, if the people of Gibraltar do not accept the plans then they cannot be proceeded with.

Q5. [42037] Colin Burgon (Elmet): Moving from a rock to sport, last Friday I had the honour of officially opening the sports facilities at the Wetherby sports association in my constituency. Those magnificent facilities are being delivered, first, thanks to a £500,000 lottery grant via Sport England, and secondly, thanks to the dedication of voluntary workers such as the chairman, Seamus Picker, and his team of volunteers. Bearing in mind the role that sport plays in this country in developing a healthy and socially cohesive nation, will my right hon. Friend outline to the House what plans the Government have for supporting sport at the grass-roots level in the many years ahead that we shall be in power?

The Prime Minister: First, I pay tribute to those in my hon. Friend's constituency who have been working so hard on sport, which is dear to the hearts of many people throughout the country. There are more than 100,000 local amateur sports clubs up and down the country. We are working with them at the moment to see how they can apply for charitable status, because that is a big issue for them, but in addition there is an announcement that some £200 million of lottery money will be spread throughout the country, which will encourage these sports clubs.

It is important that we give this encouragement to sport not only for its own sake but because, as many people now recognise, it is one of the best anti-crime policies that we could have. It is also as good a health and education policy as virtually any other. It deserves to be supported and we will support it.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Can the Prime Minister tell me why, after nearly six years of a Labour Government—[Hon. Members: "Five."]—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Barker: Five, then. Why, after five years of a Labour Government, in my constituency, are women with breast cancer—[Interruption.] They may find it a

20 Mar 2002 : Column 302

laughing matter, but to me it is deadly serious. Why are women with breast cancer waiting an unprecedented 20 weeks to begin life-saving radiotherapy treatment?

The Prime Minister: I will certainly look into the facts in the hon. Gentleman's constituency as, I have to say from experience, often when these points are put to me by Conservative Members on their constituency facts, they do not turn out to be exactly as they were represented to me. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman about breast cancer, as a result of the measures that have been introduced by the Government, we are referring people to a consultant within two weeks, and now 95 per cent. of people get referred within two weeks. That compares with just over 60 per cent. when we came to office. There is a particular problem with radiography at the moment, not just in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but throughout the country—partly because, of course, there are many more referrals as a result of the two-week limit. But as a result of additional investment and the amount of equipment that we are putting in, cancer waits on the whole are down, not up.

I think that if I quote the Health Select Committee report on cancer research published this morning correctly, although the Committee said that there was still a great more to do, it specifically found that there had been significant progress on cancer in the past couple of years.

Q6. [42038] Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree that the very welcome decision of the Commonwealth to suspend Zimbabwe fully justified an approach that sought to bring on board the rest of the Commonwealth rather than a unilateral approach by this country. Given the reports today of the charge for treason being pursued against Morgan Tsvangirai, can my right hon. Friend tell the House what further steps he would like the Commonwealth to take to try to give the people of Zimbabwe the Government of their choice?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The Commonwealth will of course consider what further steps to take. The decision to prosecute Mr. Tsvangirai is an indication of why the decision to suspend Zimbabwe is so justified.

I pay tribute to the courage and leadership not just of Prime Minister Howard, but of President Mbeki and President Obasanjo. This has been a difficult issue for them in the current situation, particularly for South Africa because there is worry about instability in Zimbabwe, but I think that it was the right decision and that it sends a very clear message that not just the Commonwealth, but Africa is in favour of democracy and that Africa will not compromise with the issues of democracy. I believe that it has given a significant boost to the prospects of getting a partnership deal at the G8 in June that will allow, in exchange for Africa sorting out some of its problems of governance, a long-overdue increase in aid from the developed world.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire): As I am sure that the Prime Minister is not aware of a dispute that is going on between two Departments, will he look into the fact that, despite the strongest recommendations from the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Culture, Media

20 Mar 2002 : Column 303

and Sport is refusing to give the Queen's jubilee medal to holders of the Victoria Cross and the George Cross? Will he look into that to ensure that the bravest of the brave are not deprived of that honour, which they so richly deserve?

The Prime Minister: I will look into it, although I give the hon. Gentleman no promises.

Q7. [42039] Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): Does my right hon. Friend agree that to increase capacity in the NHS we need to increase the number of consultants who work for it full time? My constituents are impressed with the skill and professionalism of consultants, but concerned about the lucrative private practices that many of them have. Will he speed up the reform of the consultants contract so that doctors who are trained by the NHS work exclusively for the NHS and get the rewards that they deserve?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend will know, an intensive programme of negotiations on the new consultants contract is under way, and both the British Medical Association and the Government are negotiating in good faith on its terms. I can say to him at this stage that many consultants work immensely hard for the NHS all over the country, and they are highly dedicated and committed people. I am sure that we will find a resolution to those negotiations that allows consultants to work for the NHS while ensuring that they have the freedoms that they need.

Q8. [42040] Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Given the Prime Minister's commitment to tackling youth crime and speeding up youth justice, can he tell my constituents why the Government propose to close Kingston magistrates court, which has the busiest youth court in south-west London? As he may not have heard about that proposal before today, can he give me his personal assurance that he will look into it and intervene to prevent the closure of an efficient and well regarded courthouse?

The Prime Minister: In the light of the hon. Gentleman's question, I shall certainly look into it, but I have to say to him that closures take place for all sorts of different administrative, as well as cost, reasons. In respect of youth offending overall, as a result of the measures that the Government have introduced and the extra money that we have put into the system, we have halved the time that it takes to get persistent youth offenders to court.

As regards Kingston magistrates court, I shall have to look into it as I do not know the facts.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): I welcome the philosophically substantial speech that my right hon. Friend gave last week at the London school of economics, especially its contrast between the social individualism

20 Mar 2002 : Column 304

that he advocates and the selfish individualism that has so often characterised proceedings in this House. However, does he agree that some of his current policies are somewhat inconsistent with those principles, notably his policy on the House of Lords, and will he send them back to the drawing board?

The Prime Minister: I hesitate to revisit the scene of an earlier triumph.

To answer my hon. Friend's question, we believe that it is important to combine fairness and enterprise throughout, and that is what we as a Government are doing. In respect of the House of Lords, a consultation process is under way and we are listening to the responses to it. There are many different voices. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) is pointing to Labour Members to suggest that there may be differences on our Benches. I must say to him that I read very carefully the speeches that were made in the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and few Conservative Members supported his proposals. We all have a little homework to do on this. We must find a way forward that allows the House of Lords to remain an effective revising Chamber, but I personally should not like to see it competing with the House of Commons.

Q9. [42041] Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): On the crisis in the care homes sector, does the Prime Minister think that it is a bit rich to describe as investment the throwing of taxpayers' money at a problem that his Government have themselves created? Last Friday, I visited a care home in my constituency that is having to spend £30,000 to improve a perfectly adequate heating system just to meet the arbitrary standards that the Prime Minister praised a few minutes ago. Will he please revisit that policy before the care homes sector descends into complete crisis?

The Prime Minister: I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about the care home standards regulations and rules, which were the product of detailed consultation. Indeed, I remember that hon. Members from all parties supported many aspects of them at the time. It is important that those homes have proper care standards. I cannot comment on the specific heating system in the home to which he referred. However, he says that the extra money that we are investing in social services is simply wasted. With the greatest respect, that is nonsense.

Care homes' biggest problem is that they do not believe that the fee levels are high enough, when they are often sitting on highly valuable real estate. In those circumstances, we have increased the amount of money that is put into social services, and people's ability to remain in their own homes and be looked after there. We believe that that is properly called investment. The hon. Gentleman has to decry it because he and the Conservative party opposed it.

20 Mar 2002 : Column 305

Next Section

IndexHome Page