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The Prime Minister was asked—

Middle East

Q1. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister of Israel. [53173]

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I have had many discussions with Prime Minister Sharon over the past weeks and months.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am sure that the Prime Minister would join me in condemning both the suicide bombing attacks that have taken place on Israel and the attacks on the Palestinian people by the Israeli armed forces. Will he, however, make it clear to Prime Minister Sharon that the only way to bring about a long-term, realistic peace in the region is for Israel to withdraw from Palestine; to accept United Nations resolutions on Palestinian self-determination; to allow an independent United Nations investigation into the massacres of Jenin; and to recognise a Palestinian state? Until that position has been achieved, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the British Government cease all arms sales to Israel?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the whole House would like to join me in condemning totally the appalling

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outrage that has happened in Israel, in which 16 innocent people have lost their lives. That takes the total, incidentally, of Israeli civilians who have been killed since the beginning of March to 100. And for those people who sometimes do not understand the strength and depth of the feeling in Israel, I hope that this latest outrage reminds them of the precise extent of the pressure that Israel and Israeli people are under. At the same time, of course it is right, as my hon. Friend points out, that many Palestinians—many hundreds of Palestinians—too have lost their lives

There has been a strong statement of condemnation from the Palestinian Authority about this latest terrorist attack. But it needs more than simply a strong statement. There must also be action. And I want to make it clear that, as far as we are concerned, we the British Government—and, I hope, the wider international community—are prepared to work with the Palestinian Authority in any way that is possible, in order to ensure that they have the proper security apparatus that they require and that that is properly enforced throughout the Palestinian Authority, because we cannot have a situation where every time it seems as if there is some hope of political progress, that progress is immediately derailed by a terrorist attack.

Unless the fate of any political process is to be in the hands of the latest suicide bomber, we must do more than ensure that a political process can be restarted properly; the most immediate task now is to ensure that we have in place proper security measures within the Palestinian Authority that allow those in Israel some confidence that, if they start to talk, they will not carry on suffering these appalling outrages, for which there can be absolutely no justification whatever.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): Will the right hon. Gentleman of course express, when he next meets Mr. Sharon, the sympathy of the entire House for the latest outrage that has been perpetrated in Israel? Will the right hon. Gentleman also say how pleased we are that Mr. Sharon does seem to be moving towards some dialogue, and that we all hope that that will lead to peace within Israel?

However, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether he has seen copies of the documents that were captured by the Israelis in Ramallah, which clearly appear to implicate Mr. Arafat himself in the funding and organisation of these terrorist atrocities? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that, on that basis, Mr. Arafat can form part of any further discussions?

The Prime Minister: We will of course study the documentation that has been provided by the Israeli Government. I believe, though, that what is important is that we have some means of ensuring that the claims about the Palestinian Authority and their complicity in acts of terrorism are properly adjudicated upon, so that we do not have claim and counter-claim every time one of these terrorist attacks occurs.

There is no doubt at all, therefore, that the immediate task—because otherwise I believe that political progress is impossible—is to try to find some way of ensuring that there is a verifiable security apparatus in place inside the Palestinian Authority and their territories. If that cannot be done, it is very difficult for Israel to negotiate, if it

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believes that Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority are indeed complicit in terrorism. On the other hand, if the condemnation by the Palestinian Authority is genuine, we have indeed a true tragedy, where we cannot make any political progress, and where each time one of these terrorist attacks occurs, whatever progress there is immediately dissipates. We have to find a way through that.

In relation to the lifting of the siege of Ramallah, we have tried as a Government to play our part in providing some means of ensuring that, if people are alleged terrorists, they are properly and verifiably under lock and key. But we need to make sure that we build on that and try to put the same type of process in place right across the Palestinian Authority; otherwise we will be faced with this situation time and again. In the end, the casualties are clear: there are innocent Israeli civilians dying in very large number, and there are innocent Palestinian civilians dying as well. It is a tragedy that is now pretty much a catastrophe, not just for that region, but for the world.


Q2. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 8 May. [53174]

The Prime Minister: This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further meetings later today.

Mr. Mullin: May I draw the Prime Minister's attention to the case of a 14-year-old boy in Sunderland who was shot in the back last week by an out-of-control youth with an air weapon and to the fact that the doctors are unable to remove the pellet from his back? Is my right hon. Friend aware that that is only the latest in a series of incidents involving air weapons and out-of-control youths? Does he think that the time has come for us to take a look at the regulation of air weapons?

The Prime Minister: I recognise my hon. Friend's interest in this area and his work in it, too. I should perhaps point out that, under the Firearms Act, it is already an offence to give an air weapon to a person under 14 or to sell one to a person under 17. It is also an offence for anyone to have a loaded air weapon in public. As my hon. Friend will know, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation has, in conjunction with the police, launched its own campaign on air weapon safety. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a serious and growing problem, and in the context of doing everything we can to bear down on the issue of street crime and antisocial behaviour, we will certainly look urgently to see what more is required.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): May I join the Prime Minister unequivocally in his comments on the tragedy today and condemn those who have perpetrated that outrage? May I also join him, without any gap whatever, in saying that the important need is for short-term security for those in Israel and for a settlement at the earliest opportunity?

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On a more domestic issue, though, the Transport Secretary, with characteristic candour, writing a little while ago, said to his constituents that, among other things,

Does the Prime Minister agree with that characteristic honesty?

The Prime Minister: Of course I do.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Well, the Prime Minister might like to cast his mind back to February, when the Transport Secretary made a statement to the House. I remind him that it was entitled, "Resignation of Martin Sixsmith". Only yesterday, the Transport Secretary's own Department issued a statement saying,

Why is the Transport Secretary therefore still in his job?

The Prime Minister: Because I do not accept that people were misled at all. [Interruption.] The facts were set out in Sir Richard Mottram's statement of 25 February, to which the Secretary of State referred in his statement of 26 February. It was clear that the Secretary of State had been told that Mr. Sixsmith had agreed to resign. It was equally clear that Mr. Sixsmith disputed that he had resigned. Therefore, the parties were not in agreement. Therefore, there had to be a negotiation. All of that was actually set out in Sir Richard's statement of 25 February and repeated by the Secretary of State on 26 February. Terms have now been agreed, and he has indeed departed.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Oh what a wondrous web we weave when first we practise to deceive. Let me remind the Prime Minister what the Transport Secretary actually said:

He also said:

We now learn that Mr. Sixsmith did not resign; he remained a salaried employee in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The taxpayer will have to pay £200,000 to secure his release. Before he was elected, the Prime Minister said, "No more lies." Why has he not dismissed the Transport Secretary?

The Prime Minister: For the simple reason that, if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the agreed statement, what blows a hole in his argument is that it makes it clear that any dispute with Mr. Sixsmith was in good faith. The right hon. Gentleman cannot rely on the agreed statement between the Department and Mr. Sixsmith on the one hand and dispute it on the other. It had been agreed in good faith, and, as the Secretary of State made clear on 26 February, Mr. Sixsmith was to leave on terms to be agreed. Those terms have now been agreed, and the truthful point is that the reason why the right hon. Gentleman wants to raise all these issues is that he has nothing to say about the serious issues of the day.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I really do think that the Prime Minister is keeping very bad company these days.

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Most people out there know that they would have been dismissed from their jobs for half of what the Transport Secretary has done. There is a different rule for this Government, however. I remind the Prime Minister that he said:

I agree. It is an opportunity to get rid of the lies and broken promises: he should dismiss the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions right now.

The Prime Minister: It does not surprise me that, yet again, what the right hon. Gentleman wants to do is to raise any issue other than those that matter to people. As I said, both sides accept that any misunderstanding was in good faith. I suggest that we get on and debate the real issues concerning the people of this country—transport, health, schools, crime and the economy. On all those issues, of course, he has nothing whatever to say.

Q3. [53175] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): One more missed deadline, and still the Wembley project stumbles on. After this extra time, will there be a penalty shoot-out between Birmingham, Coventry and London? What does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have to say about the continuing debacle to the 85 per cent. of English football fans who live outside London? Does not this show that our party is still too susceptible to the metropolitan elite? Being told, "All's well apart from the finance," is like asking, "Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the opera?"

The Prime Minister: First, let me thank my hon. Friend for that question. Secondly, there are those who make a perfectly good case for siting the national stadium in Birmingham, in Coventry or in other parts of the UK—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Bolsover.

The Prime Minister: Or, indeed, in Bolsover. But in the end, these are decisions for the Football Association. The only way that the Government can take this decision ourselves is if we end up financing the whole project. We do not intend to do that. It is therefore a decision for the FA. It has agreed the funding in principle, and it should be allowed to get on with that. The point that my hon. Friend makes about the siting of the stadium may be perfectly reasonable, but it is not a decision for the Government. It is for the FA, and it should be left with the FA.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): On 27 February, the Prime Minister replied to me here that he retained full confidence in the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions because of his statement to the House on the previous afternoon. We now know that a vital aspect of that statement is materially inaccurate. Will he now explain to me, under his terms, how he still retains full confidence?

The Prime Minister: I gave the answer a moment ago. When the Opposition were all crowing about the agreed statement that had been made between Mr. Sixsmith and the Department, I pointed out that the statement makes it perfectly clear that any misunderstanding was in good

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faith and, therefore, the allegation that somehow the Secretary of State had misled Members of the House was wrong.

Mr. Charles Kennedy: The reason for the statement from the Transport Secretary to which the Prime Minister referred was to correct the misleading impression that the Transport Secretary had given in an earlier television interview. How many goes does the Transport Secretary get? The Prime Minister is very fond of, "Three strikes and you're out." Should the Transport Secretary not be out?

The Prime Minister: No, Mr. Speaker, for the reasons that I have already given.

Tony Cunningham (Workington): I recently met members of my local mountain rescue teams. This year is the International Year—[Interruption.] Obviously, there are supporters of my mountain rescue teams on the Opposition Benches. This year, the teams are busy promoting the international year of the mountain. Bearing in mind that many areas in mountain regions suffered badly as a result of foot and mouth, will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the skill and courage not only of the mountain rescue teams in my constituency—the Keswick and Cockermouth mountain rescue teams—but mountain rescue teams throughout Britain, who I am sure the whole House will agree do an absolutely fantastic job?

The Prime Minister: They do, indeed. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend and his constituents on all the work that is done in Cumbria on mountaineering. I had an opportunity to see that myself last July when I visited the national mountaineering exhibition at Rheged. I remember it very well, and I was immensely impressed by the work that the teams do. I am sure that they will make a very valuable contribution to the United Nations international year of the mountain.

Q4. [53176] Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): If the misunderstanding referred to earlier was in good faith, will the Prime Minister authorise the expenditure of public money to enable the Secretary of State for Transport to sue for defamation against The Daily Telegraph, which this morning described him as

The Prime Minister: For the precise reasons that I gave, those allegations are false. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State goes on to deal with the issues that really concern the people of this country. I note that, when the Leader of the Opposition had the chance to ask me about transport, he did not ask one single thing about the performance of transport, but merely went on with this issue, with which I have already dealt.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): In my constituency, a group of women have formed Mothers against Drugs, which is an admirable organisation that fights all forms of drugs, drug taking and drug pushing. However, a young mother came to see me with a despicable product known as "freekee drops", which her five-year-old had purchased from an ice cream van and

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with which the child had then mimicked the actions involved in taking drugs. The drops come in a packet shaped like a syringe.

Every Member in the House has a responsibility to drive the product from shops in the United Kingdom. Moreover, given the fact that the drops are produced in Spain and that the Spanish hold the presidency of the European Union, will my right hon. Friend hold discussions with his counterpart in Spain to get him to cease the production of this product? If my right hon. Friend cannot do that, will he at the very least embarrass the importers into not stocking the product on the shelves in their shops?

The Prime Minister: I understand that this issue has been raised with the trading standards agency in Glasgow, where the issue first came to people's notice, and with the Food Standards Agency. I shall certainly look into the issue and get back to my hon. Friend. I understand the problem to which he draws attention. In particular, we must make sure that no young person is tempted into drugs through this route. That would obviously be wholly wrong and wholly inconsistent with everything else that we are trying to do.

Q5. [53177] Bob Russell (Colchester): The award of the Queen's Jubilee medal to members of Her Majesty's armed forces is welcome. However, is the Prime Minister aware that the Retired Officers Corps seems to have been overlooked? Given that many of those men and women have served upwards of 30 years and that they still serve Queen and country—often wearing uniform in military bases—will he use his influence to ensure that members of the Retired Officers Corps receive the Queen's Jubilee medal?

The Prime Minister: I understand entirely the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He will know that members of the armed forces who retire are no longer serving members and become civil servants. That is the technical reason for the decision. I know that not many people are in those retired officer grades and it is worth looking into. However, the problem is whether there would be a read-across into other areas and instead of taking account of one very exceptional case, we end up having to take account of many other exceptional cases too. If I may, I will look into that and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): I welcome the Government's commitment to making parents accept responsibility for their children's behaviour. However, can the Prime Minister assure the House that any proposals to penalise parents will not disproportionately affect the poorest households while allowing better-off parents to escape relatively scot free?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree that any proposal must be neutral in terms of the family's income. It is a question not of whether the family is middle class, poor or wealthy but of whether the parents have failed to exercise proper responsibility in respect of antisocial behaviour and truancy. I agree that we must ensure that the measures we take bear down on any families, irrespective of their level of income, who are allowing the situation to continue. My hon. Friend will know that there is much

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support, right across the country, for ensuring that we bear down in every way that we can on the menace of antisocial behaviour in our communities which causes so much needless distress.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Does the Prime Minister think it right that NHS patients waiting for tests for illnesses such as cancer or heart disease should be excluded from the official waiting list figures as they are right now?

The Prime Minister: I think the NHS waiting list figures should be the same under this Government as they were under the last Government and, as far as I am aware, they are exactly the same. We are applying the same tests in exactly the same way as the previous Government, which is what should happen.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Well, the National Audit Office made it quite clear that they are not the same, so let us get back to the facts. Some 250,000 people are waiting for angiograms, scans, endoscopies and body scans. The King's Fund says that, if anything, that is an underestimate. We know that hospitals up and down the country already collect those data, so why does not the Prime Minister simply answer this question: why does he not instruct his Health Secretary to include those people on the waiting lists as they should be?

The Prime Minister: Because the waiting list figures are done in precisely the same way as they always have been done. Of course I accept that people are waiting for treatment, but I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that there are now something like 25 per cent. more heart operations every year; there are 40 per cent. more cardiologists, and 20 per cent. more cancer consultants; and more than 90 per cent. of people with suspected cancer who are urgently referred by their GP see a consultant within two weeks, as opposed to just over 60 per cent. when we came to power. In addition, as regards the in-patient waiting list, virtually every single indicator is now in the right direction.

I agree entirely that much more needs to be done, and as we are on the subject of policy at long last, let us ask the right hon. Gentleman what he would do. Our response to the problem is to invest in the national health service. We want to see more money invested in the health service—more consultants, more doctors, more nurses and more equipment. Will the right hon. Gentleman please tell us what he wants to see?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): On the subject of money, has my right hon. Friend had a word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the past few days to ensure, as he said a little earlier, that everyone carries the same burden? Will the Chancellor introduce rules to change the Tories' 1993 Act that exempted certain people from having to pay inheritance tax? Will he bring the royal family into the net, in jubilee year?

The Prime Minister: Just for a moment there, I thought that that was going to be a helpful question.

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I am sure that the Chancellor has heard what my hon. Friend said, but I do not think that he will have anything to comment at this stage.

Q6. [53178] Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): On the question of money again, does the Prime Minister care to reflect on a parliamentary written answer that he gave me on 10 April? Can he explain to the House why last year the Department of Health spent £93,000 on entertainment when the combined budget of No. 10 and Chequers was £21,000 less?

The Prime Minister: If anything really indicates the state of the Tory party, it is that question. I am sorry, I do not have a detailed record of the entertainment budget either of the Department of Health or of Downing street or Chequers, but I tell the House what I do have—I have a plan to get money into the NHS to improve the service for people. The fact that the hon. Gentleman used to ask me about how bad the health service was in his area but is now unable to do so is an indication of the progress being made.

Jim Knight (South Dorset): In the last week, I have seen for myself in my constituency the success of drug treatment and testing orders, referral orders and the youth offending team, but in places such as Swanage and Portland, antisocial behaviour continues, along with complaints about the cost and bureaucracy of implementing antisocial behaviour orders. Is the Prime Minister confident that local authorities and the police have the tools necessary to deal with this scourge in our community?

The Prime Minister: Drug treatment and testing orders are a very important weapon in the hands of the courts which give people a very clear choice: if they repeatedly commit offences and are on drugs, they can either go to prison or take proper drug treatment. I have found from talking to magistrates around the country that those orders have been very successful where they have been applied; however, we need to start to extend the concept so that we make sure that where people who are drug addicts are charged with offences and have a criminal record, they also, if possible, receive drug treatment. Otherwise, they will be back out on the streets committing the same types of offences.

Antisocial behaviour orders have been successful where they have been applied, but we need to ensure that there are more of them. The Home Secretary is in the process of making sure that we slim down the bureaucracy associated with them, and it is important that they are seen as one of a range of measures to deal with the menace of antisocial behaviour. I am only sorry that neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats are supporting us on these measures.

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Q7. Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): Why will the Prime Minister not commit to deliver to the people of my constituency the same standards of health care that people in other European countries routinely experience? [53179]

The Prime Minister: It is at about this time that one needs a planted question, I always feel.

That is exactly what we are working on: we are trying to get money into the NHS, which is why we now have more doctors, nurses and consultants, why waiting lists are falling and why new hospitals are being built—they are being built now. Indeed, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, the NHS has received in the region of £98 million extra. With great respect to him, I think that his was an excellent question. He is right; that is precisely what we have to do, and I only wait for the moment when he starts to cross the Floor.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I thank the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer for their visit to Belfast last Thursday. I very much welcome the investment and reform initiative that further consolidates the new institutions in Northern Ireland. Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the formal agreement between the Police Service for Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana in the Republic of Ireland, which will facilitate the pursuit of terrorists and organised criminals? Will he, after 17 May—the date of the election in the Republic—have further urgent talks with the new Government of the Republic with a view to implementing fully outstanding matters from the Good Friday agreement: the north-south parliamentary forum, the north-south consultancy forum and the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland? Will he undertake to pursue those vigorously?

The Prime Minister: We will of course pursue all aspects of the Good Friday agreement. The work that the Northern Ireland Policing Board has already done is remarkable. Although there is great concern in Northern Ireland at present—I am sure there is—for understandable and obvious reasons, there is a clear need to demonstrate clearly on behalf of all parties associated with paramilitary organisations that they have indeed given up violence for good, properly and totally. The agreement reached and announced last week by myself and the Chancellor, along with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, indicates the degree of progress that can be made when the political process is continuing and people have a chance to lead their lives in some sort of normality. I still believe, whatever the problems, that we have to carry on making progress, and I can certainly provide an assurance that we will do everything that we can to implement the remaining stages of the Good Friday agreement.

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