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The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): Crime for profit is unacceptable in any normal society, but the nature of organised crime in the Northern Ireland context is particularly odious. We must not allow racketeering to affect the development of a normal civic society in Northern Ireland, and nor will we. For that reason, the Secretary of State announced on 25 September the establishment of an organised crime taskforce under my chairmanship, to co-ordinate at a strategic level the fight against organised crime. That taskforce has now met and a range of initiatives are being considered.
Ms Winterton: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is it not the case that many criminals in Northern Ireland are profiting from tobacco smuggling, a high-return, low-risk activity? What measures is he taking to combat that crime and to stop criminals profiting from it?
Mr. Ingram: That problem is tackled on a multi- agency basis. Customs and Excise, which, in the main, leads initiatives against such criminality, has produced some marked successes this year. We are only three quarters of the way through the financial year and 45 million illegal cigarettes have been confiscated. That is a 100 per cent. increase on last year, when 22 million were confiscated. We can tackle that illegal activity if agencies work as they have been doing and we make them more effective, but we need the support of the community. The more information the RUC and Customs and Excise have, the more successful they will be.
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): The fact that the agencies have managed to seize 45 million cigarettes serves to highlight the scale of the problem, but is it not a fact that the smuggling of road fuel far exceeds that activity? What undertaking has the Minister received from the Chancellor of the Exchequer that effective steps will be taken to end that fuel smuggling?
Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman alights on the important issue of the smuggling of illicit fuel. Customs and Excise is able to show marked successes in dealing with that. However, the important thing is not just preventing the movement of fuel but closing down the laundering plants that produce substantial quantities of illicit fuel. This year alone, 13 fuel plants have been closed, and we calculate that that has prevented some 40 million litres of illicit fuel from entering the Northern Ireland economy, so we can claim some success, but we will not stop there.
Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Is the Minister aware that almost one third of all motor fuel consumed in Northern Ireland is believed to be smuggled, and that while the number of registered vehicles has increased by 125,000 since 1995, the amount of legally imported fuel has dropped by nearly 50 per cent.?
Mr. Thomas: When the general secretary of the Wales TUC said this week that manufacturing in Wales was in crisis, was he whingeing or telling the truth? When will the Prime Minister meet industrialists and inward investors in Wales to discuss what steps are needed to stop the current haemorrhage of jobs?
The Prime Minister: There are indeed serious problems in parts of manufacturing industry, particularly those affected by the strength of sterling and the weakness of the euro. However, the overall picture on manufacturing is not as bad as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Indeed, manufacturing investment is up, exports are up and productivity is up. It is important to realise that although real difficulties are suffered by certain manufacturing sectors, there are enormous success stories in Wales and elsewhere.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East): The Prime Minister will no doubt wish to join many others in congratulating the three towns granted city status this week, my own town of Wolverhampton included.
It is important that we keep the stability in the economy which has given us interest rates that are, on average, almost half what they were when the Conservative party was in power. It is important also that apart from running a strong economy, we make sure that wherever people lose their job, we are on hand with help so that they get a new job. That is precisely why we have invested so much money in those areas--money that the Conservative party would cut.
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): When the Government decided to use electronic tagging, which we support, for their disastrous early release scheme, which we strongly oppose, the Home Secretary said:
Have any serious or sexual offenders been released under that scheme?
The Prime Minister: It is correct that some have been, but overall the scheme is working extremely well. When it was put before the Select Committee on Home Affairs, it was supported unanimously by Conservatives. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has decided to take a different position now. It is important that we exclude serious sexual offences. We have done so and taken the other measures necessary to tighten up the scheme.
Mr. Hague: What the Prime Minister did not make clear is that when Members on both sides of the House supported electronic tagging, they had the assurance of the Home Secretary that I have just quoted. Now, almost 27,000 prisoners have been released under his scheme, including those who have committed offences of robbery, drug trafficking, grievous bodily harm with intent, attempted murder and sexual offences against children. Those people have been let loose to offend again. The result has been more than 1,000 crimes committed by people who have been released early, including robberies, kidnapping and two rapes. What does the Prime Minister have to say to the victims of those crimes?
The Prime Minister: First, the right hon. Gentleman should point out that the scheme is for people who are released two to four months before the end of their sentence in any event. Secondly, the scheme that we now have is precisely the one which was put before the Select Committee and which it endorsed. Of course, in certain circumstances, people have committed offences from early release, as, indeed, under ordinary parole schemes. That is true, but in the end, it is better to have a system that allows us that than one that does not. That is precisely why all Governments, including the one of whom the hon. Gentleman was a member, have early release parole schemes.
The Prime Minister: The only difference between the parole scheme that operated under the right hon. Gentleman's Government and our scheme is that people are now tagged when they are released. It is true of any early release scheme that some will reoffend, but that is not to say that we should not have such a scheme.
Yes, it is right that police numbers have fallen for something like seven years--10 years in London. As a result, we found the money in the comprehensive spending review to increase the numbers of police recruits. Now, in 27 of the 43 forces, more people are joining the police service than leaving it--for the first time in seven years. We are committed to that extra investment in the police service. Let the right hon. Gentleman put his money where his mouth is and say what he has consistently refused to say: that he supports that extra investment.
Mr. Hague: We set out our spending plans stage by stage. If the Prime Minister is banking on fighting the next election in the belief that we will be proposing a reduction in the police budget, he is even dafter than we thought.
Will the Prime Minister now admit that the combination of what the Government have done has undermined the morale of the police force and damaged the fight against crime?
the situation is far more frustrating nowadays than at any time in my 28 years of service.
Will the Prime Minister now admit that the combination of what the Government have done has undermined the morale of the police force and damaged the fight against crime?
The Prime Minister: What I certainly accept is that police numbers are an issue and that they have been falling. It is for precisely that reason that we have put in the additional sum of money. As a result, police numbers can now rise. Indeed, let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that, for the past two months, for the first time in 10 years, the number of people being recruited to the Metropolitan police in London has been greater than the number of
Let us return to the difference between us. The right hon. Gentleman says that he has not yet made his position clear--well, he can say that again--but let me quote the shadow Home Secretary. When asked a short time ago whether she would support our investment, the right hon. Lady answered:
Mr. Hague: We had 3,000 more police officers only three and a half years ago. I have given the Prime Minister his answer: if he thinks that we shall propose a cut in the police budget, he is off his head. That is not what we shall propose at the next election. Now, will he answer our questions about the morale of the police force? Does he accept that one of the reasons for the collapse in morale is the way in which the Macpherson report has been used to undermine the police--[Interruption.]--used by others to undermine the police? The head of the Police Federation says:
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with his own police Minister, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), that there has been "an impact on morale"?
The Prime Minister: It is of course right that, after the Macpherson report, it was extremely important that police officers understood that they should carry on using the stop-and-search powers that they have. It is precisely for that reason that, in January this year, I said in the Police Federation magazine, after my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had said the same, that the police should carry on using those powers. Indeed, contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman was saying last week, those powers are still in use, and the latest figures we have indicate that they are as much in use in respect of people from ethnic minorities as they are in respect of those from the white population. Let me put this point to the right hon. Gentleman. When we launched Macpherson in February 1999, he said to me:
What is affecting police morale now is the issue of pay and allowances. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that the single most disastrous element in that respect was the decision made by the Conservative Government, when he was a member of the Cabinet, to get rid of the London housing allowance for officers. We have now put an extra £3,300 per year on the pay of new recruits joining after 1994. That is part of our investment, which is why it is not good enough for the right hon. Gentleman to attack us without being prepared to commit himself to the investment to which we have committed ourselves. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he made a commitment in July that he would not match our spending, saying that it was unsustainable. He may talk about police morale in London, but we are the Government who are putting more money into the Met. He is committed to taking that money back out again.
Mr. Hague: The right hon. Gentleman has obviously prepared his answers on the basis of certain questions, and they are not relevant to the questions that we are asking. We are clearly not committed to taking the money out again. The right hon. Gentleman could at least have read on when he quoted me. I went on to say:
Why did he not read the rest of the passage?
Now that we know that we cannot believe the right hon. Gentleman's figures on crime, I ask him whether the following is right. Police numbers have fallen by 3,000 since he came to power. That is right. The number of constables has fallen from a peak in the spring of 1997. That is right. Voluntary resignations from the police force have increased by 60 per cent. under Labour. That is right. Crime has increased by 4 per cent. in England and Wales in the year to April. Violent crime has increased by 16 per cent. Robberies have increased by 26 per cent. More than 26,000 criminals have been released early and 1,000 crimes have been committed by those criminals. Instead of being tough on crime, the right hon. Gentleman has been tough on the crime fighters instead.
The Prime Minister: I remind the right hon. Gentleman of one uncomfortable fact for the Conservative party. In its 18 years of office, crime doubled. Crime has fallen under this Government according to the British crime survey. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that in the first three years of the Labour Government police numbers have fallen. However, they also fell when he was a Member of the previous Cabinet. They have fallen for seven years. In London, they have fallen for 10 years.
We have to decide how we deal with the situation. We decided that it was right to put in additional sums to recruit police officers. That is why I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that when the next recruitment figures are published, they will show that police numbers are rising. His position is to cut the very money--[Interruption.] I know that July may be a long time away in policy-making terms, but in July he said:
We are making it clear . . . that a Conservative government will increase public spending by a smaller proportion than . . . growth of the economy.
Mr. John Hume (Foyle): In the light of the Prime Minister's discussions in Nice last week, does he agree that European union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution, given the first half of the previous century, when in two world wars millions of human beings were slaughtered? Who could have forecast that the same peoples in the second half of that century would come together? For that very reason, would it not be a good idea, given that the right hon. Gentleman was discussing a European army last week, to discuss also the setting up of a department of peace and reconciliation and a Commissioner for peace and reconciliation at European level?
The Prime Minister: I do not know whether it would be wise to suggest another Commissioner at this point, but I say to my hon. Friend that there is no doubt at all that the European Union has been a force for security and peace in our world. There may be those on the other side of the House who wish us to withdraw from the EU, but I think that we should be proud of the fact that we are members. We should be in there to make the EU work for this country and get the best out of it for Britain. That is the common-sense view.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): In the festive spirit, may I inquire whether the Prime Minister and his family will manage to take a well-earned break abroad after Christmas? Can he confirm whether, should he be out of the country, the Deputy Prime Minister will add his presence to every other Department of responsibility, as opposed to transport, of which he is making such a success?
The Prime Minister: To get to the point about which the right hon. Gentleman asks by a circuitous route, it is important that we make sure that the transport system has the investment that it needs and the rail recovery plan, which has been important. After Hatfield, it was absolutely right that we and Railtrack took the steps to ensure that safety was restored to the railways. We are putting the extra investment in--there is no alternative to that. The plain fact of the matter is that British railways have been under-invested for more than 20 years, and it is time that we put that right.
Mr. Kennedy: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the funding of the railways has been cut by 25 per cent. since he became Prime Minister? We face a Christmas period in which passengers have chaos before them--
The Prime Minister: First, I do not recognise the figures that the right hon. Gentleman has given. Secondly, investment in the railways is set to increase by a dramatic amount over the next few years. However, it is the case that--as with the police and, in part, as with the national health service--we had to be careful on the money that we spent because when we came to office there was a very large level of debt. It was important to clear that. Now that we have the stability that we need in the economy, we are able to put in the public service investment that we require so that we can have additional teachers that we need and, the additional police that we need so that the extra investment in the railways can be done.
I make another point to the right hon. Gentleman. In each case, we shall put in far more money than the Liberal Democrats ever asked for. The one thing that is absolutely, consistently sure in politics is that, however much money we put in, the Liberal Democrats want more.
The Prime Minister: KFOR is there, obviously, to keep the different sides apart. It is performing that task--I think in difficult circumstances--extremely well. I do not know whether my hon. Friend means the actions taken by certain of the extremist Kosovar Albanian groups, but, precisely for that reason, additional measures were announced in the past few weeks and are being taken.
I say to my hon. Friend that, were it not for the fact that we allowed those refugees from Kosovo to go back, we would have, in addition to all Europe's other problems, 1 million Kosovar Albanians seeking refuge in parts of Europe. We were entirely justified to do what we did. There will be difficulties of course, because of the ethnic hatred which goes back a long way, but it is right that KFOR is there. I think it is doing an excellent job.
Q2.  Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): The Government grant for rural policing in Surrey next year is only £11,000. The chief constable wrote to me today to say that that is equivalent to only £20 a week for each Surrey borough. He also warns of the adverse impact on the services provided by Surrey police. Is it not clear that there is new crime in our communities because the Government have denied our police the support and the flexibility that they need to do the job?
The Prime Minister: Given that part of the extra money that we announced was specifically for rural communities, and given the fact that the hon. Gentleman and every other Opposition Member who spoke condemned that extra spending at the time, it is the richest opportunism for the Conservatives to say that there is a problem and that more money is needed, and then, when it comes to more money, oppose it. That is absurd.
The Prime Minister: The most important thing for any home owner is low mortgage rates. The House will remember that over the past three years, we have had average mortgages and average interest rates of about 6 per cent. The House will also remember what happened under the previous Government, when interest rates went to 15 per cent. for a year and 10 per cent. for four years. I know that the Opposition do not like to be reminded, but that is what happened when they were in government. As a result of this Government stabilising the economy and getting rid of the previous level of debt, mortgages have come down. As a result of measures such as the working families tax credit and other help, people have the income with which to buy homes. The single most important thing that we can do is to make sure that we keep the economic stability that we have, and never, under any circumstances, return to boom and bust.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I remind the Prime Minister that on 24 November last year, I asked him to keep the promise made by his Health Secretary, who said in the Chamber that no patient
I was specifically referring to my constituents who needed beta interferon to treat the progressive disease, multiple sclerosis. More than a year later, we have no decision from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. My constituents' lives have deteriorated and, in many cases, will be beyond the help of that much-needed treatment. Is not the Prime Minister ashamed that he has let down patients so badly? Does that not show that all his guarantees are worthless, and that one cannot trust a word that he says?
The Prime Minister: First, the postcode lottery on drugs was not invented by the Government. It went on under the hon. Lady's Government, year in, year out, as she well knows. Secondly, it is correct that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence is considering beta interferon. That is the right thing to do, so that on the basis of a proper assessment, we can make sure that people get the drugs that they need. I point out to the hon. Lady that there is, again, a simple choice: if we want people to get the extra drugs that they need, not just in respect of multiple sclerosis, but in respect of cancer, yet again, we need extra investment and money going into the national health service. I remind her that whereas we are committed to that extra money, she and every Opposition Member are committed to cutting that extra money.
The Prime Minister: Without stating what will be in the White Paper tomorrow, there is a general recognition that the law on adoption needs changing, that it has been far too inflexible in the past, and that there have been children who, given the chance to have a loving and decent home, were prevented from getting that home by the inflexibility of the current system. In the White Paper tomorrow, we will make sure that additional flexibility is introduced. I hope very much that the document will get a warm welcome in every part of the House.
Q6.  Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon): Does my right hon. Friend remember the cancellation of £600 million of investment in London Transport, and the postponement for two years of the refurbishment of the Northern line? That was a direct result of the last Tory Budget, in 1996.
The Prime Minister: We are back to what is one of the key debates between the two parties. We are indeed committed to increasing investment in the London underground in the next few years, and in transport generally. What we know from the shadow Chancellor is that he is committed to cutting that investment.
Let me tell Opposition Members that--if the issue is police numbers, if the issue is the national health service, if the issue is our schools, or if the issue is transport--we are very happy to have this debate with them. We believe in investing in our public services, and they believe in cutting them. We know that because, in 18 years of government, that is precisely what they did.