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23 Oct 2002 : Column 260—continued

Forensic Centre

2. Rev Martin Smyth (Belfast South): What plans he has to build a new forensic centre. [73999]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Desmond Browne): We are committed to providing alternative accommodation for the Forensic Science Agency and have accepted the recommendation in the criminal justice review that new dedicated accommodation would be desirable. The Forensic Science Agency of Northern Ireland, with the Department, is in the process of engaging consultancy advice to take forward a project to meet its long-term accommodation needs.

Rev. Martin Smyth: May I welcome the Under-Secretary's two new colleagues to the Front Bench, although I am sure that we all wish them a short stay in the Province?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking a positive step forward after the 10 years or so since the premises were demolished. Does he agree that the need for the Forensic Science Agency of Northern Ireland is as vital as ever? I pay tribute to its work and remind him that staff cuts have left the service short-handed in light of the new bombing campaigns.

Mr. Browne: On behalf of my new colleagues, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome. They share his hope that devolution is restored to Northern Ireland sooner rather than later.

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The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the significant contribution that the Forensic Science Agency of Northern Ireland has made to the investigation of crime. In many respects, it is a world leader. The service has put up with unsuitable accommodation for too long. It is fair to point out that it provides services for both prosecution and defence. It is seen to be independent of both, and its standing nationally and internationally has never been higher.

Peace Process

3. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): If he will make a statement on progress with the peace process. [74000]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid): There is at present in Northern Ireland a lack of confidence that all parties to the Belfast agreement will fulfil their obligations under it, especially the commitment to follow exclusively peaceful means. That has led to the suspension of devolved government, which I hope will be short lived. The peace process and the agreement remain, in my view, fundamentally sound, and the only way forward for Northern Ireland.

Dr. Palmer : Following on from some of the Secretary of State's previous replies, does he agree that in view of the unfortunate events and the blizzard of hostile comments by motivated politicians, the surprising thing is that there is still solid support for the peace process, and that as long as the police continue to find illegal arms, as they so successfully did yesterday, people would be horrified if the interruption to the Assembly were to lead to an end to the peace process?

Dr. Reid: I agree with my hon. Friend about the success of the police, not only yesterday but over the past few weeks. As I said, they are to be congratulated on that. On the devolved Assembly, it is my sincere wish that the suspension should be very short. I thank hon. Members for congratulating and welcoming my Ministers; I hope that theirs is a short term of office. I see that one of them has been moved already; his office was even more short lived than he anticipated—welcome to Northern Ireland.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I understand that considerable progress has been made towards announcing the appointment of the ceasefire monitor, who will of course play a key role in the peace process. When does the Secretary of State intend to announce that appointment?

Dr. Reid: Over the past couple of weeks we have been somewhat diverted from some of the issues on the agenda. If anything, on that matter, events have moved on even further, so I am sure that it will be considered, not least in our meetings with political parties next week and subsequently.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Will the Secretary of State answer the question asked by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)? When will he finally get round to appointing the independent monitor of violence?

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Dr. Reid: I repeat my welcome to the hon. Gentleman to the Front Bench. I thought that I had answered the hon. Lady's question. There are many issues to be considered and that is one of them. Events have moved on, and we have been somewhat busy over the past week trying to consult Ministers from Northern Ireland, including not least the First and Deputy First Ministers, and our colleagues in the Irish Government, to try to find a way forward on the governance of Ireland, on the implementation of the agreement and on breaking the impasse.

What is central to the question, and why I have no doubt that it will be raised again, is that we cannot sustain a level of trust sufficient to have a devolved power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland if some of the parties to it appear to be involved in criminal or violent activity. There is no question that this issue, the crossroads issue, will fall off the agenda.


4. Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): What restrictions the Government are placing on the purchase, possession, sale and use of fireworks in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement. [74001]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Jane Kennedy): Additional controls were, regrettably, required in Northern Ireland because of the widespread misuse of fireworks generally, throughout the community and particularly against the security forces in public order situations. The regulations, which came into effect on 6 May 2002, require a licence for the possession, sale, acquisition, handling or use of all fireworks except those suitable for indoor use.

Mr. Gardiner: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Has there been a reduction in using fireworks for making pipe bombs, which were extensively used against the security forces in the past? Has the change in the regulations meant a decrease in youth violence involving fireworks and damage to property? Does she believe that the mainland could learn from her piloting work?

Jane Kennedy: The misuse of fireworks to which my hon. Friend alludes is precisely why I introduced the regulations, albeit reluctantly. It is early days, but the signs are encouraging. Last week, the Derry Journal reported that local police said that, from their point of view, the new regulations have had a good effect. I intend to review and monitor the position in Northern Ireland, especially over halloween, and to learn from the experiences of both the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the ordinary folk in the community, who made such an issue of the matter last year.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 23 October. [74027]

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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 will have further such meetings today.

Dr. Naysmith: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Fire Brigades Union and the firefighters have a good case for a substantial increase in remuneration, but that they are currently pursuing the wrong tactics? Does he further agree that the sooner the employers and the union get together in meaningful negotiations, the better it will be for everyone?

The Prime Minister: Perhaps I should say at the outset that no one wants the dispute, and that we shall do all we can to avoid a dispute that would be damaging for obvious reasons. However, there are two difficulties. The first is a pay demand of 40 per cent., to which no Government could yield. Secondly, inasmuch as the firefighters want a new formula, for which we understand the reasons, it would be best for them to co-operate with the independent review, which can provide such a formula. If they co-operate with the review, I am sure that we can resolve the matter satisfactorily. Those with the interests of the firefighting service at heart, the public and the Government want that.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I agree with the Prime Minister that there is no reason for strike action. Will he confirm that the safety of the general public is more important than the sanctity of a picket line? Will he give troops access to the most modern firefighting equipment if the strike goes ahead?

The Prime Minister: I agree that public safety is the most important factor. There are practical issues such as training to consider, but we must also make a judgment. The dispute is not under way yet and we are doing what we can to resolve it. It is sensible to do what we can to try to calm matters and get the firefighters' union to understand that the way forward is to participate in the review, submit evidence to it and get the matter settled. We do not rule out anything to protect the public. However, at this juncture, we believe that allowing military personnel to operate the appliances that they have is the best way in which to proceed. We keep that judgment under constant review, but if we were to follow another path at this stage, we would probably exacerbate rather than resolve the dispute.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I hear what the Prime Minister says. I suspect that he would like to re-examine the comments that the Deputy Prime Minister made yesterday. Speaking about the practicalities, he said that it would take three months to train soldiers to use the equipment. That comment led me to ring the Retained Firefighters Union this morning. [Interruption.] Its members' sympathies may lie in the wrong place, but they told me that, in training to cope with emergencies, learning to drive a modern firefighting engine would take five days; learning the basics of specialist cutting equipment would take seven days; and learning to use breathing equipment would take 10 days. So, by the union's estimate, the Government would be able to put in place teams of troops trained to use this equipment not in 12 weeks—as the Deputy Prime Minister said—

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but in two weeks. Perhaps I can ask the Prime Minister once again what his plan is. Has he made contingency plans to give the troops access to that equipment?

The Prime Minister: On the training times, our best information is that the full range of training necessary would indeed take 12 weeks, as the Deputy Prime Minister said. There are, however, other things—to do with driving the appliances, for example—that would take a shorter time. The judgment that we have to make at the moment is whether it would be sensible for us to have troops going into the fire stations, taking out the fire appliances in circumstances in which the firefighters would not be co-operating, then returning them. That might simply inflame the dispute rather than cooling it down and ensuring that we are able to get it resolved satisfactorily. Having said all that, however, we are keeping the matter under review because the safety of the public must come first. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman understands that, in doing this, the best thing that we could possibly do is to try to avoid the dispute by ensuring that everyone comes behind the independent review. So we are keeping all those options under review, but I hope that he will agree that, at the present time, what we are doing is probably the best way of ensuring that we actually resolve this.

Mr. Duncan Smith: It is absolutely right to let all those who are likely to be engaged in the dispute know exactly what the Government are prepared to do. That means that if the Deputy Prime Minister is using a set of training figures that is not correct, it will mislead all those who are wondering what might happen. It is worth remembering that, when the Green Goddesses were last used, they were only 20 years old, yet two soldiers died driving them and 325 service men were injured fighting fires with that equipment. Today, that equipment is 50 years out of date. The job of the Government is surely to take all necessary steps to safeguard the public, regardless of the sensibilities of a striking union. I ask the Prime Minister simply this: should not he now send the very clear signal to that union that, if its members go on strike, the Government are likely to want to use the equipment that is sitting idle in the fire stations? Will he now say that that is the case?

The Prime Minister: First, the equipment is not sitting idle in the fire stations; it is being used by the firefighters. I would simply point out to the right hon. Gentleman that it is important that we do everything that we possibly can to make the right preparations. This is not just a question of the Green Goddesses; it is also a question of breathing apparatus—there are about 300 teams trained to use that—and the use of cutting machinery, for which there is special training. We are doing every single thing that we can to make proper contingency plans, but we take the view that, at this stage, forcibly to go in, take the fire tenders out of the fire stations and do the work that the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting would exacerbate and inflame the dispute, rather than get it resolved. I hope that that is not what he wishes.

I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman thinks there could be any doubt about the signal that we are sending to the firefighters. We are sending a very clear signal. We understand the issues that they have around

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the new pay formula, but there is a simple way of avoiding this dispute. There is an independent review into the pay formula: co-operate with the review; and realise that no Government could accede to a 40 per cent. wage claim—that simply is not on. If the firefighters do that and present their evidence, it can be looked at by the independent review and adjudicated on, and we can get on with running the fire service properly.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The issue is not whether the Government disagree with the pay dispute. We accept and agree with that. The issue is whether they are now engaged in a dispute about which they are not sending clear signals. The reality is that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister have both said that the problem about using modern fire appliances is to do with whether there are practicalities involved in training. The Retained Firefighters Union has said that that is not the case. So why cannot the Prime Minister be absolutely clear about this? If it comes to the question of whether he will order the troops to cross the picket line, the answer must surely be that he will, to safeguard the public.

The Prime Minister: There must be no question of any doctrine or ideology preventing us from protecting the public. Of course that is right.

Let me deal with the two issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman. There are real issues in respect of training—practical issues, which the Deputy Prime Minister rightly raised yesterday. As for whether we should send troops into the fire stations before the dispute has begun, at the very moment when we are trying to resolve it—

Mr. Duncan Smith: No.

The Prime Minister: That is, actually, precisely what the right hon. Gentleman is asking us to do—and it would end up simply exacerbating and inflaming the dispute at the very moment when we are trying to settle it. I hope very much that the Conservative party is not going to sit there trying opportunistically to exploit the situation, rather than ensuring that it is dealt with properly.

I say that in particular because, while the right hon. Gentleman talks of our not sending a clear signal to the firefighters, I could not be clearer. We cannot support the 40 per cent. claim. We believe it is important that the firefighters get behind the pay formula that will be worked out in an independent review, but no Government could agree to a pay award that would effectively cause chaos right across the public sector. It would mean, simply, not just that we would not be able to put into public services the extra spending that we want to put in, but that people's mortgages and interest rates would go up.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): What impact are parenting orders having on the reoffending behaviour of young people? [Interruption.]

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Hon. Members: Read it again!

Mr. Speaker: Order. Will the hon. Lady read it again?

Ms Munn: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. May I ask my right hon. Friend what impact parenting orders are having on reducing the reoffending behaviour of young people?

The Prime Minister: I thought for a moment that it was a question about antisocial behaviour orders. I was about to suggest that they might be applied to the Conservative party.

Parenting orders are having an impact, but there is a problem: the court procedures required to obtain such orders are not as strong or as tight as we need them to be. That is one of the things we are looking at now in the context of the Queen's Speech and forthcoming legislation. It is important for us to ensure that parents accept their responsibilities, and in particular that they make sure that their children turn up at school on time.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that it is precisely because all people in this country recognise the vital role played by firefighters that all people, equally, find it unbelievable that the leadership of the Fire Brigades Union think a 40 per cent. wage increase could possibly be acceptable, and indeed that strike action could in any way be allowable at this stage? Given that the sensible way forward is the FBU leadership's contributing to the Bain review, does the Prime Minister agree that the Government must also show intent to bring forward the timetable for the review so that it can report sooner rather than later?

The Prime Minister: The point about whether we can bring forward the review, which I think people made yesterday as well, is perfectly reasonable. Obviously in the end it is for Sir George Bain to decide how he conducts the review. The problem at the moment is that the firefighters will not co-operate with it in any shape or form. That means that they will not give evidence to it. They have instructed their members in the fire stations not to talk to Sir George Bain when he is conducting his review, and for that reason it is hard for him to complete it within the time scale that he would ideally want.

Obviously this is something that we keep under discussion. If it were possible to secure a change of attitude on the part of the firefighters' leadership and they could co-operate with the review, I have no doubt that we could ask Sir George to bring it forward. However, another point needs to be made. Right from the beginning, the employers have also told the firefighters that any award under the review would be backdated. Because of that, they are fully protected in relation to pay.

Mr. Kennedy : As a follow-on to the Prime Minister's latter remarks, does he agree that the pressure on the leadership of the Fire Brigades Union to allow its members to participate more fully—or indeed, participate at all—in the Bain independent inquiry would be increased constructively if he were able to discount some of yesterday's press reports that whatever

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the outcome of the Bain findings, the Chancellor will not make any additional sums available for possible funding of implications that may follow?

The Prime Minister: The Chancellor is not saying that. We have set up an independent review. It is important that everyone cooperate with it and we shall consider its outcome carefully and I have no doubt sympathetically, but of course it has to be done within the Government's overall spending limits. Another issue is the need to make sure that, if there is a new pay formula, it deals not only with pay, but with all the other issues. There are many issues involving the modernisation of the service, modernisation of the terms and conditions of employment, how we recruit and retain firefighters and how they cooperate with other agencies, particularly at the scene of an accident or fire. So there is a whole range of considerations. Of course we will consider carefully the outcome of the Bain review, but it has to be done, as one would expect the Chancellor to say, within the overall spending limit set by the Government.

Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): Will my right hon. Friend join me, and I hope all hon. Members, in welcoming the lobby of Parliament today by the Mental Health Alliance, which represents 50 organisations of mental health service users, providers, carers and professional organisations? Will he undertake to give careful consideration to the serious concerns that they have expressed about certain parts of the draft Mental Health Bill?

The Prime Minister: It is precisely because we decided to introduce a draft Bill that we are able to consider the consultations. I think from memory that just under 2,000 different consultations have been received. I understand the concerns expressed by members of the Mental Health Alliance. It is important that they realise that there is public pressure in a different direction. The public worry that some people, who tragically have a severe mental disorder, can pose a danger and threat to the public, so we need to strike a balance. Precisely because we realise that some of these issues are difficult, we decided to produce a draft Bill and that allows us to take account of these consultations before we publish the actual Bill that we will legislate.

Q2. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): In May, the Pensions Minister said that policies which were having the effect of raising levels of private saving were having a positive effect. Can the Prime Minister therefore explain why on Monday this week the Office for National Statistics identified that the figure for pension savings was some #43 billion lower than the figure that Ministers were using? What does he intend to do about that? Will he please ask the Chancellor to stop frightening those who are saving for their pensions with threats of higher taxes? [74028]

The Prime Minister: I do not believe that the Chancellor has done any such thing, but as the right hon. Gentleman will see from the ONS press release, the change was in the calculation of the amount of money

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that is available for pensions, not in the amount that people are saving. Indeed, that amount is going up, not down.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): Will the Prime Minister join me in recognising the potential contribution of Wales to the creative industries and welcoming the decision of the National Assembly of Wales to give the go-ahead for the largest film and stage studio in Europe, near Llanilud? To paraphrase XUnder Milk Wood": Praise the Lord, we are a creative nation.

The Prime Minister: All that and beating Italy too. Yes of course I pay tribute to the proposals. This particular project is immensely exciting, not just for Wales, but for the whole United Kingdom and I congratulate the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Executive on putting it together. I have no doubt that the spin-off in terms of jobs and industry will be enormous, so congratulations all round.

Q3. Andrew George (St. Ives): If the Prime Minister agrees that, to combat international terrorism, the United Kingdom should support actions that make it less likely rather than more likely, will he tell the House which he thinks would command more support at home and at the UN; the unilateral option of President Bush or the multilateral approach of President Chirac? [74029]

The Prime Minister: Since we are all trying to work on a UN resolution, it is important to recognise that, obviously, the best approach is to work through the UN and get multilateral action to make sure that Saddam knows very clearly that he must disarm his weapons of mass destruction and that if he does not, severe consequences—including, if necessary, military action—will follow. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts this fact also: that, in today's world—particularly in light of the news that has come out of North Korea in the past week—it is important that we work on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, that we are not complacent about it and that we recognise that we and the Americans are right to raise the issue. We need the broadest possible basis of action; let that happen through the UN but let the UN be the way of dealing with it.

Q4. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): The Prime Minister and the Government are taking commendable initiatives to increase support to victims and witnesses of crime. However, is my right hon. Friend aware of the National Audit Office report, published today, that indicates that referral rates to Victim Support by police forces vary alarmingly in different parts of the country? I know from cases that I have taken up in Blackpool how vulnerable and isolated victims can feel. Will my right hon. Friend take action on the report to make sure that all police forces countrywide are equally aware of the benefits of Victim Support? [74030]

The Prime Minister: We will certainly work with Victim Support to do that. As my hon. Friend may know, we have doubled the funding for Victim Support, which now helps about 1.5 million victims and witnesses

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every year. Victim Support has recruited 2,500 new volunteers in the past 18 months, but we need to make sure that the system is used in the same way throughout the country. That is precisely the point that has been raised and that is what we are working on now.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Two years ago the Prime Minister said:

Yesterday, Mr. Bircher, a senior orthopaedic surgeon, said:

Is Mr. Bircher's experience an isolated case, or does the Prime Minister think that the problem is caused by his Government's targets?

The Prime Minister: I certainly stand by what I said about the importance of clinical need. I gather that the allegations made by Mr. Bircher are being investigated by the local trust, as is entirely right. Once the trust has investigated, it will see whether the allegations are correct or not. Certainly it is the case that clinical need should come first.

Mr. Duncan Smith: It is not an isolated case. The National Audit Office, in its recent report, said that over half of all consultants said that clinical priorities were taking second place to Government targets. The British Medical Association said yesterday that targets

Is the Prime Minister now saying that this is just an isolated case, or is it that all those doctors, including the BMA, are completely wrong? Should not he take action to get the administrators and Government Ministers out of the process, stop setting those targets and let doctors take over again?

The Prime Minister: I find that an absolutely extraordinary thing to say. Obviously, the allegations have to be investigated and, of course, it is right that clinical need comes first. But what the right hon. Gentleman said at the end is extraordinary: that we should scrap any of the waiting list and waiting time targets. He shakes his head, but that is what he just said. [Interruption.] I heard him say it. I know he is a quiet man, but I heard that. Let me make this point to him. Of course we must make sure that clinical need comes first, but I have no intention of getting rid of targets to reduce waiting times and waiting lists because they are important for patients. The vast majority of people, including many who are watching now, will have received excellent service from the NHS and, incidentally, they know perfectly well that the reason why the Tories run down the NHS is that they are against the NHS. [Interruption.]Absolutely. However the problem that many people face is one of access into the health service. They wait too long for their operation, they wait too long to see their GP, and they wait too long in accident and emergency. Setting targets—[Interruption.] Waiting lists and waiting times are down since we came into office. The reason for that is precisely that we are putting in money and changing

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the system. If the right hon. Gentleman is now saying not merely that he is against the money going into the health service—that we knew—but against the reform of the national health service, I suggest that he gets quieter still. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Mark Todd.

Q5. Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): If I may, I shall speak up first on behalf of my constituents. From my own experience, some of the worst examples of anti-social behaviour are found among tenants—[Interruption.] Indeed, such examples are perhaps found among Opposition Members, as well as among tenants of private landlords. Such behaviour is often tolerated, at the very least, by those landlords, in defiance of their own tenancy agreements. We have been encouraged by many of the remarks made by my right hon. Friend, and by the announcements on housing benefit reform and a possible change of tack that would strengthen the controls. Will he enlighten us further? [74031]

The Prime Minister: What I can say is that, in terms of parenting orders, just over 2,000 have been made. It is fair to say that anti-social behaviour orders had a slow start, but about 700 of them have now been granted. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Ms Munn), the problem with both orders is that, often, the bureaucracy needed to achieve them is too cumbersome. We are looking at how to make sure that we tighten that up, and to ensure that they are easier to implement. For many people in this country, the problems of anti-social behaviour are right at the top of their agenda. They recognise that what we need are simple and flexible ways of making sure that, in a community, the vast majority of responsible, law-abiding people are the ones in control.

Q6. Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Can the Prime Minister tell the House if he still believes that the national Fire Brigades Union is XScargillite"? How exactly is he going to stamp on it? [74032]

The Prime Minister: As I said a moment or two ago, I think that the strike—in the words used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) yesterday—is Xsimply indefensible" for the reasons that I have given. Frankly, I had very much hoped that the Conservatives would have the honesty and sense to stand up and say that they agree with the Government, because actually, they do.

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