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Northern Ireland

Q2. [69904] Lady Hermon (North Down): When he next plans to visit Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister: I have no immediate plans to do so.

Lady Hermon: I thank the Prime Minister for that response. Obviously, the people of North Down will be disappointed that he is not coming there on his holidays.

The Prime Minister will recall that, when he last came to Northern Ireland, he took responsibility for laying down clear principles for those who are moving from violence to peaceful democratic means. He also gave an undertaking that he would spell out the consequences for those who did not abide by those principles. Republican violence has continued, and loyalist violence has continued, including the appalling murder of a young

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Catholic this week. Will the Prime Minister please tell the House what the principles are and what the consequences are of breaches of those principles?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will make a statement in great detail on this later today. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will give a more extended answer than I would do normally.

We all signed up, in the Belfast agreement, for a transition from violence to democracy in Northern Ireland. We did not expect it to happen overnight, but neither is it acceptable that this transition should now stall. Now, more than four years after the agreement was signed, it is increasingly urgent that it should be clear that paramilitary organisations are not engaged in any preparations for terrorism and that they should be stood down altogether as soon as possible.

It is also intolerable that paramilitaries should have played a part in recent sectarian disturbances, which have brought localised violence to the streets of Belfast and elsewhere, including the shocking murder of Gerard Lawlor to which the hon. Lady referred. These disturbances call for and will be met with a strong and effective security response. My right hon. Friend will spell that out in his statement later.

It is no longer sufficient just that there should be no terrorist violence. We have to be clear that preparations for violence have also ceased. My right hon. Friend will make it clear that, in reviewing the ceasefires, he will give particular weight to any substantiated information that a paramilitary organisation is engaged in training, targeting, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, or any similar preparations for terrorist violence in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.

We should not forget the enormous benefits that the agreement has brought to the people of Northern Ireland. All of us have a lot to lose if it fails. If, however, there are in future such fundamental breaches of the commitment to exclusively peaceful means, they will be taken into account in assessing the ceasefires. It is right that, with the passage of time, these judgments should become increasingly rigorous.

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): Does the Prime Minister agree that the credibility of the Government has been greatly weakened by their equivocation in attributing violence to particular paramilitary organisations? Could I advise that he calls the sheet absolutely clean to give confidence to the communities of Northern Ireland, particularly those communities that are under siege at the moment, night after night, especially in north and east Belfast? They need protection, assurance and some understanding that their plight is recognised and will be addressed as a matter of grave urgency.

The Prime Minister: I understand exactly what my hon. Friend says. It is for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will make a statement later today. I hope that what he says will go some way to convincing my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that we intend to take very seriously what are appalling breaches of security at the moment. The truth is that, for many people in Northern Ireland, the agreement has

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brought enormous benefits. I know that my hon. Friend believes that, and so do his constituents. However, there are people in north Belfast, east Belfast and elsewhere for whom the whole concept of a peace process must seem very far away indeed. We must make sure that the small number of paramilitaries on both sides do not wreck what is the one decent chance for a good future for Northern Ireland that we have.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): Does the Prime Minister recall using almost precisely the same terminology in an article in the Belfast News Letter on 22 May 1998 when he was campaigning for a yes vote in the referendum? Four years of violence from the Provisional IRA has not seen any action from him whatever. Would he take the word of a serial promise-breaker if he were a Unionist in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister: First, I do not accept that nothing to the good has happened in the past four years. I do not accept either that nothing has happened on the republican and IRA side. There have been significant steps forward. However, I also accept—this the purpose of what I have said today and of the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—that it is not enough for people simply to be on ceasefire and think that there is some tolerated level of violence. It cannot be tolerated; no level of violence can be tolerated.

People in the House will remember that there have been times when the whole process has been disturbed and even times when the Executive bodies in Northern Ireland have had to be suspended as a result of the difficulties in making the transition. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the colleagues in his political party that I still believe that the Belfast agreement in 1998 represents and continues to represent the best chance of a peaceful future. Let us be clear. The terrible things that are happening in north Belfast at the moment have been happening for a long time in Northern Ireland—for far too long. Associated with them are a whole lot of other acts of violence. We have now made substantial advances in Northern Ireland and I will defend this agreement to the utmost, because it has given people in Northern Ireland a chance for the future. However, I accept entirely—that is why we have to return to the issue again today—that there cannot be some accepted level of paramilitary violence on the ground. Ordinary, decent, law-abiding people in Northern Ireland—that is the vast majority, whether they are nationalist, Catholic or Protestant—have to be protected, and that is why we will adopt the measures that we will set out later today.


Q3. [69905] Roger Casale (Wimbledon): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it will be a bad day for English football when Wimbledon FC is moved to Milton Keynes? Is not the best way to harness football's potential for good in our society by strengthening, and not by severing, the links between football clubs and their local communities? Will he do what he can to make sure that no new public money is given to sponsor the move to Milton Keynes? Any such money should go to the newly

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formed AFC Wimbledon which may, one day, find its way back to Wembley as well as finding its way back to Plough lane. [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: Opposition Members may complain, but I recognise a Member of Parliament with his finger on the pulse about the things that matter to his constituents. It is not my decision as to whether Wimbledon FC moves to Milton Keynes, but I pay tribute to the stoicism and determination of the club's supporters, who have been stoical and determined through some difficult times.

My hon. Friend asked what we can do. We can put more money into grass-roots football and sport, and that is what we are doing—£62 million to be precise along with the Football Foundation and others. That is an important contribution to allowing clubs, such as Wimbledon, to thrive.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I welcome what the Prime Minister said about Northern Ireland, but I hope that the Secretary of State will spell out without obscurity the clarity of the new action that the Government will be prepared to take to deal with those who commit terrorist acts.

On the subject of education, in 1998, the Government limited the right of schools to exclude disruptive pupils. Since then, there have been four times as many assaults on teachers. Does the Prime Minister accept that undermining the right of head teachers and schools to deal with disruptive pupils has plunged them into serious difficulty?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept that. We have made it very clear to head teachers that they have and must have the absolute right to exclude pupils, particularly for violent assaults upon teachers. We have made sure that that message is understood by schools. I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister knows very well that head teachers find it impossible to deal with disruptive pupils because they have been undermined by appeals panels. Eight out of ten teachers now say that they have been physically threatened by pupils, and a third of all teachers have had to deal with offensive weapons in the classroom. Does not the Prime Minister see the obvious connection between his decision in 1998 to undermine head teachers' powers and the terrible problem that now exists for teachers in schools?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept that we have undermined head teachers' ability to take action against pupils who are violent towards teachers. That is complete nonsense. We have always made it clear—and let me make it clear again now—that of course head teachers must have, and do have, the power to exclude pupils who have been violent towards their teachers. Violence against teachers should not be tolerated in any shape or form. Importantly, as a result of the measures that we have taken and the investment that we have put in, we are ensuring that pupils who are permanently excluded receive full-time education—as opposed to the situation that we found in 1997 whereby they would end up with perhaps a couple of hours schooling a week, then be out on the street. That is the right thing to do, and we will extend it

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to temporary exclusions as well. In my view, the most important thing is not just to give teachers protection against violence, but to ensure that pupils who are excluded are not out on the street, but in full-time education.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The fact is that as a result of the Government's action fewer pupils are being excluded. A third of all decisions by appeals panels now go against schools. In a recent case, it cost £10,000 for the school concerned to fight the appeals case. Many schools will not even take cases to appeals panels because they cannot afford to. We know that half the teachers who leave the profession do so because of poor discipline. In a recent trade union report, a teacher is quoted as saying:

Surely the Prime Minister can understand that if he prevents head teachers and governors from having the power to get rid of disruptive pupils, they will be undermined and teachers will fail to teach in the classroom.

The Prime Minister: Let me repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that of course head teachers have the power to exclude disruptive pupils who are violent against their teachers, and that happens. Where head teachers take that action, we support it and support it fully. We have made that clear on every occasion.

As for the numbers of teachers leaving the profession—yes, it is true that teachers have left as a result of discipline problems in the classroom. That is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills announced the measures that she did. Let us be clear that as opposed to this time last year—never mind five years ago—there are 9,500 extra teachers in our schools. What is more, as result of major investment there has been the biggest increase for many years in the number of teacher trainees. Again as a result of investment, we are providing pupils who are excluded with the proper schooling that they never used to get. That is all down to the investment that we are putting in, which helps teachers in our classrooms. It is investment that we are committed to, and investment that the right hon. Gentleman is not committed to. I therefore suggest to him that over the holiday period—I recommend that he does not spend it in Florida—he decides to come back in September and agree to the investment programme in schools, hospitals and elsewhere, because if we want to put our public services right, cutting the money that goes to them is not the right way to do it.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): The Prime Minister will be aware of the concern throughout the country that by the time the House returns in the autumn we will be at war with Iraq. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may groan, but many millions of people are concerned. Does he take seriously the view, which was most recently expressed by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, that it would be wrong to go to war with Iraq without a fresh and distinct UN mandate?

The Prime Minister: As I have made clear on many occasions, the position set out by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is right, in that whatever action we take must be legally justified, and we will ensure, if we get to

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the point of action, that it is. However, I reiterate what I said a moment ago: we have not yet reached the point of decision, and should we do so, of course the House will be properly consulted. People are perfectly entitled to express their views on these issues. But my view remains that weapons of mass destruction are a serious threat, and it is important that we deal with it. How we deal with it is an open question. If decisions are taken, there will be ample opportunity for the House to be consulted.

We cannot have a situation where Iraq continues to develop weapons of mass destruction. In respect of UN resolutions, I simply point out to my hon. Friend that the UN has passed 27 resolutions on Iraq and its programme for weapons of mass destruction, and Iraq is in breach of almost every one.

Q4. [69906] Mr. John Baron (Billericay): Given that the Deputy Prime Minister is about to force an extra 200,000 houses on local communities in the south-east, when my constituency's infrastructure is already overstretched, does the Prime Minister accept that in a truly democratic society, local people should decide the right level of local development, not politicians sitting in Whitehall?

The Prime Minister: Of course the views of local people are extremely important, but I hope that the Conservative party realises that in circumstances in which it is necessary to develop housing in the south-east, but in a manner consistent with the split between brownfield and greenfield sites and with the preservation of the green belt—which we have increased by some 30,000 hectares since we came to power—it is important to try to balance concerns. That was precisely the reason for the Deputy Prime Minister's statement. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has his constituency angle, but the Opposition do themselves no favours by pretending that this is not a serious issue that has to be addressed.

When my right hon. Friend made his statement last week, he stated the situation correctly. The House should understand that we have to deal with this problem. How it is dealt with should be a matter for debate, but it is not responsible of the Conservative party, even as an Opposition, to pretend that there is not a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Hugh Bayley (City of York): Although many areas in the north of England face the serious problem of low demand for social housing and abandonment by existing tenants, there are a very few authorities in the north which face higher rising house prices and lengthening waiting lists than the south. In the City of York, house prices and rents have risen by 20 per cent. in the past year and homelessness has risen by 60 per cent. Will the Prime Minister have a word with the Deputy Prime Minister and ask his Department to consider whether those few authorities in the north could be treated in a similar way to authorities in the south which face the same problems?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes the entirely sensible point that not all local authorities in the north are in the same position. He will know that the

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Deputy Prime Minister is due to make a statement on these issues in the autumn, and I have no doubt that he listened carefully to what my hon. Friend just said.

Q5. [69907] Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): Can the Prime Minister tell me the average level of NHS funding for children's hospices and how much his national insurance rise will cost them?

The Prime Minister: I do not have those figures, but I shall certainly send them to the hon. Lady. However, I am sure that she will agree that the investment in the NHS, whether in the hospice movement or elsewhere, is important. It is important for hospices because the greater the ability of the NHS to cope, the less the pressure on the hospice movement. That is why I should have thought that if the hon. Lady wanted to raise this issue, she, unlike some of her hon. Friends, would have at least supported the additional money going into the health service.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Will the consultation with the House of Commons to which the Prime Minister referred in his answers to my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) take place before or after the commitment of British forces to military action in Iraq?

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The Prime Minister: As I have already said, we have not taken the decision to commit British forces. When that decision is made, we will consider the best way to consult the House in the normal way and in the normal circumstances.

Q6. [69908] Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Prime Minister will recall that on 3 July at column 222 of Hansard I asked him whether he would review the working of the Care Standards Act 2000, which has led to the closure of 47,000 beds. He refused. Yesterday, his Secretary of State for Health reversed that policy. Will the Prime Minister now apologise to all those elderly people who have suffered because their care home has closed?

The Prime Minister: We have listened to the concerns expressed; the hon. Gentleman should be pleased about that. As for saying that 47,000 places have closed because of the regulations, that is complete and total nonsense. Yes, it is important that we deal with the regulation issue, but that is not the only problem that care homes face. As they said yesterday, they also face the problem of low fees. That is why we have increased by 6 per cent. in real terms the funding that goes into local authority social services. It is complete hypocrisy and opportunism on the part of the Conservative party to complain about the closure of care homes when it opposes the investment that those homes need.

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