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The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join with me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in Iraq. The Royal Military policemen do an extraordinary and heroic job in trying to bring normal and decent life to people in Iraq, and the whole country and their families can be immensely proud of them, even as they mourn them. Our thoughts are also with those who were wounded after they were attacked in Iraq yesterday.
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have already introduced free nursing care for certain people. To extend that right the way through all types of care would cost well over £1 billion, possibly £1.5 billion. We believe that that money is better spent on trying to provide support for people in their own homes. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that as a result of that support, around 40 per cent. more people get support in their own homes today than did a few years ago.
Q2.  Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): Many MPs will have received hundreds of letters and cards on fair trade, and many will attend fair trade rallies in their high streets this Saturday. What message of hope and support can my right hon. Friend offer the fair trade movement; and what actions can he take to ensure that developing countries have the right to protect their vulnerable people and traders and to sell their products to rich countries, and that they are given assistance to regulate transnational companies?
The Prime Minister: First, we will carry on with the most substantial increase in aid and development assistance that this country has seen. This Government are committed to continuing that support. Secondly, we will carry on trying to write off the debts of the most highly indebted countries, which are often prevented by the servicing of those debts from giving the assistance to their people that they need. Thirdly, we will make sure at the world trade round in Mexico in September that we get the action to move world trade forward so that we liberalise world trade and do not ask those poorer countries to stand on their own two feet, then deny them access to our own markets.
The Prime Minister: Yes, I agree completely. It is worth pointing out that despite yesterday's terrible events, the people of Iraq now have the prospect of hope for the future, and of a proper, prosperous and indeed democratic country. The work of British servicemen and women there is of immense importance not just to that country, but to the whole region and the wider world. Even at this moment in time, it is particularly important that we redouble our efforts to bring stability to that country, which is the surest way of bringing stability to the rest of the world.
Mr. Duncan Smith: Clearly the security situation in Iraq remains difficult. There are reports that remnants of Saddam Hussein's army are still active and I understand that some non-Iraqis are involved in terrorist activities. Reports today indicate that British soldiers at al Majarr al Kabir may well have been the victims of an armed mob. Given all that speculation, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to give a personal and candid assessment of the security situation in Iraq today?
The Prime Minister: First, we should know far more about the incident in the next 24 hours. This is the background; in the al Maysan province, the people liberated themselves from Saddam but British forces have attempted to make sure that the local populationwho regularly carried machine guns and small firearmswere disarmed of those weapons. There had been problems which may form part of the background. However, it is simply too early to say. We should be in a better position within the next 24 hours to know the origins of the group that attacked our forces.
I should point out that there are some 14,000 British troops in theatre, with 10,000 in Iraq. We are also bringing in forces from other countries; over the next few weeks, 19 or 20 countries will be participating, with a total force of several thousand men. We are trying to make sure that, at every level, we have the troop requirements that we need. I spoke to the Chief of the Defence Staff this morning, who said that local commanders believe they have sufficient troops on the ground at present. Should they require more troops, we will make sure that they are available.
Mr. Duncan Smith: As I have said, I believe that we must see this through. Given what the Prime Minister has just said about the security situation, what time scale does he envisage for the restoration of order in Iraq and, perhaps, for the eventual return of British troops?
The Prime Minister: Already, we have reduced the British troop requirement; there were some 46,000 there during the conflict, and there are now 14,000 in theatre. I cannot be sure exactly when those troops can come home. However, we shall replace the troops that are there with others.
I would assess the security situation like this: it is still obviously serious because, at present, former Ba'athist elements are trying to regroup and may pose a threat to our forces and particularly to the American forces in Baghdad. However, as a result of the work of British, American and other troops inside Iraq, a couple of thousand civilian policemen are back patrolling the streets of Basra. Many towns have now reinstituted proper political local councils. There are tremendous problemsas inevitably there will bebut it is important that we get a balance. There are also real improvements. Progress is being made in public services, with the reopening of hospitals, oil refineries and schools. The job, literally, is to rebuild the country and that will take time; however, it is necessary to take the time to get the job done.
Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill): My right hon. Friend will share the concerns of many in this country about the deteriorating political and human rights situation in Burma and, in particular, the continued unwarranted arrest of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Will the Government press strongly for her immediate release, the release of all political prisoners in Burma and the restoration of democracy? Does he agree that in the circumstances, now is the time to stop British trade with Burma?
The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We have made the strongest possible representations in respect not merely of the release of the leader of the opposition, but of the restoration of proper human and democratic rights in Burma. The European Union also issued a strong statement at the European Council. On trade, we are making it clear to British companies that we do not believe that trade is appropriate when the regime continues to suppress the basic human rights of its people.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): On behalf of my colleagues, may I also extend my sympathy to the family of Paul Daisley, following his sad passing? Our sympathy also goes, of course, to the grief-stricken families of the six murdered British soldiers and to those who have been so seriously injured, whom we wish Godspeed and a swift recovery. We link that to the shock that is being felt at the Colchester barracks, where the six lost soldiers came from. Let us hope that the authorities, or those responsible for these atrocities, will see sense and respond to the British field commanders' request this morning by handing over the culprits within the next 48 hours.
The Prime Minister: I am sure that all those countries, particularly those represented on the Security Council, will want to play their full part. The assistance that Russia might give us is, of course, a matter that I can
Mr. Kennedy: On a related topic on Iraq, the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that, when the February dossier was approved for publication by the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister himself had assumed that its contents had come through the normal channels. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, at the point at which he authorised the publication of that dossier, he was not aware that sections of it had been lifted from a student thesis on the internet?
The Prime Minister: I can confirm that. I would also say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is important, amid all this coverage, to realise that the contents of that dossierand, indeed, of the first dossier which I presented to the Houseare accurate.
Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): The Leader of the Opposition asked a question about time scales. Listening to Northern Ireland Questions earlier, I was reminded that that Province was still directly ruled from this place, more than 30 years after direct rule was put in place. We desperately require an exit strategy for Iraq, and some idea of the time scale for our troops remaining in that country.
The Prime Minister: I think that there are better analogies in regard to what is happening in Iraq. If we look at Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan, we see thatas is the case in Iraqat the height of a conflict there is a very large troop requirement. But the number of British troops now in Afghanistan, Kosovo or Bosnia is significantly reduced. Our exit strategy must be based on making sure that we maintain our pledge to help Iraq to be rebuilt as a stable and prosperous country, because if it is not rebuilt in that way, and if it were to continue under the type of regime that Saddam Hussein represented, it will continue to be a threat to the region and to the wider world. Even before this conflict began, during the 10, 11 or 12 years since the previous Gulf war ended, thousands of British troops have been patrolling the no-fly zone; so British troops have not been absent from Iraq since the end of the first Gulf war.
Q3.  Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): What does the Prime Minister have to say to the Kimber family in my constituency, who, like many thousands in this country, have been wrongly assessed under the child tax credit system? They have now been told to repay £2,447.70 by tomorrow and, if necessary, to remortgage their house to do so, because in the words of the collections adviser at Reading, "Gordon Brown wants his money back." Is it any wonder that so few people are taking up this benefit?
The Prime Minister: Of course I apologise to the hon. Gentleman's constituent for any mistake that has been made. He says that very few have taken up this benefit, but I think that somewhere in the region of 4 million people have done so. Whatever the circumstances of his constituent, for which I have already apologised, I think that most of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who are in receipt of this benefit will be appalled to know that the Conservative party is opposed to it and would take it away.
Mr. John Hume (Foyle): As the Prime Minister is aware, I have written to him on several occasions about the dangers of Sellafield. Now that he has clear research evidence of the serious damage that Sellafield is doing to the Irish sea, does he not think that the time has come to close it down?
The Prime Minister: I am afraid that I must say to my hon. Friend that I do not think that that is the case. I should point out to him that all these issues are governed by international rules that we are obliged to abide by, and by an international authority that determines whether we are obeying our international obligations properly. I should also point out that on each occasion this issue has been looked at, the allegations made in respect of Sellafield have turned out to be wrong.
The Prime Minister: The national insurance changes that we have put through are sufficient to make sure that we raise the money for the national health service. Any decisions are taken in the Budget, but the decisions that we have taken on national insurance are adequate for the health service rise in spending.
Mr. Duncan Smith: Last week, the Prime Minister was forced to give a pledge not to raise the higher tax, but that pledge is worthless if he does not rule out increasing national insurance as well, because under Labour it is a tax on income that goes all the way up the income scale. So will he now pledge not to raise national insurance again, or do we have to get the Leader of the House to make a speech on that, too?
The Prime Minister: What I have said to the right hon. Gentleman is that the national insurance rise is adequate to fund the health service spending that we have. He is right to say that that rise goes all the way up the income scalewe thought that the fair thing to do. The fact is that, as a result of that rise, there is money going into our national health service, there are 50,000 more nurses, in-patient and out-patient lists are far below what we inherited in 1997, and we have the largest ever hospital building programme under way.
and who then took an extra £5,500 from every household in Britain. He is the man who said that people "shouldn't" suppose that he planned to increase national insuranceand who then increased it by £8 billion. When the Leader of the House confessed last week that
"too many middle-income employees"
have been hit under Labour, was he not right? Was not his real crime that he committed new Labour's cardinal sin: he told the truth about Labour and tax rises?
The Prime Minister: The tax take as a percentage of national income this year will actually be lower than in eight of the 11 years that Margaret Thatcher was in power. Secondly, we have given a lot of help to families through the working families tax credit and the child tax credit. It is correct that we have raised national insurance by 1 per cent., for the reasons that we have given. But I should also point out that as a result of the stable economy, we have more people in work today, living standards are up by 10 or 15 per cent., and we have more support for families and the lowest mortgages for 40 years.
As for the extra money going into our schools and hospitals now, we make no apologies for that. It is the right thing to do, and the right hon. Gentleman has made it very clear today that, at the next election, people can choose either extra investment in health and schools with us, or 20 per cent. cuts across the board with him.
Andy Burnham (Leigh): Every year more than 2,000 children in Greater Manchester have their teeth taken out under general anaesthetic. Is it morally right to allow them to go through that pain when we know of a safe and effective measure to reduce it? Will the Prime Minister ensure that the Water Bill will clear up and sort out the law on water fluoridation, giving communities in this country the power to choose it?
The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, there are proposals to ensure that local people are properly consulted on issues connected with water fluoridation, but he also knows that there are strong views on both sides of the argument. The matter should be left with local people, as we have described. If the arguments in favour are as powerful as my hon. Friend says, I have no doubt that they will win the day.
The Prime Minister: As I said earlier, that part of the dossier was entirely accurate and the mistake of not attributing it was accepted at the time. I would simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in respect of that dossier and the first dossier, not a single fact in them is actually disputed.
Q5.  Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Will the Prime Minister condemn again the terror tactics that ruin Israeli lives? Will he also condemn the terror tactics that ruin Palestinian lives? In the west bank and Gaza strip, I saw widespread arbitrary detention and torture, expulsion from land and property, access denied to health care and water, and now a wall that will seal off Palestiniansin some cases, from their own families, farmland and livelihood. Does the Prime Minister believe that the humanitarian consequences of those policies are grave and that they undermine moderates at a time when we should all support the road map for peace?
The Prime Minister: There is a lot in what my hon. Friend says. It is true that the very purpose of terrorism is to undermine the moderate voice of the Palestinians. The difficulty is that it is also right to say that literally scores of Israeli citizens are being killed in these appalling terrorist acts. That is why I tell my hon. Friend that we have made our position clear on extra-judicial killings by Israeli forces and on terrorism.
It is important to recognise that unless we manage to get a security position in the Palestinian Authority whereby the terrorist attacks can at least be minimised, the Israeli Government will inevitably come under huge pressure to take retributive action. The only way through it, I am afraid, is to make sure that we get a proper process going with a security plan in place. That is what we are working for. To be quite honest, we can condemn as much as we like, but unless we have a viable security plan in place, it will be very difficult to make progress. That is why I hope that it will be in place as shortly as possible.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Did I hear the Prime Minister correctly when he described a plagiarised document with words and meanings altered as "factually accurate"? When exactly did he first realise that the dodgy dossier was a complete Horlicks? Was it after Colin Powell told the Security Council that it was a fine document with exquisite detail of deception? Why did he not tell the rest of us before taking this country to war?
The Prime Minister: The reasons we went into this conflict are well known, as is the hon. Gentleman's position. He was opposed to it then, and he is opposed to it now. As to the facts set out in the dossier, they are correct. Whatever their provenance, it does not alter the fact that they are correct. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman may disagree with the action that we took. That is his right, but I defend that action because it was the right thing for this country to do. I simply tell the hon. Gentleman that removing Saddam from power
Q6.  Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): May I turn the Prime Minister's attention to premium bonds? Does he think that it is right that many of my constituents are barred from entry to premium bonds, given that the minimum amount that can be purchased is £100? That might be all right in the leafy suburbs, but could not that massive price be reduced, with the help of new technology, to allow all our constituents entry into that worthwhile savings scheme?
The Prime Minister: It is certainly something that can be considered, but my hon. Friend will know what the problem is. If the minimum is lowered to too low a level, the bureaucratic costs of making the transactions are too great. He will know that the average purchase of premium bonds is some £4,500, so we would have to be sure that any change we made was not outweighed by disproportionate bureaucratic costs.
Q7.  Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): May I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our forces in Iraq and in sending our sympathy to the bereaved families? Will he join me in paying tribute to the continuing work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which faces difficulties locally but continues to serve this country abroad, including training police officers in Iraq?
The Prime Minister: I certainly do pay tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and to all those police officers in Northern Ireland who do a superb job on behalf of their local community andas the hon. Gentleman rightly points outwho provide their services in different parts of the world, where their particular expertise and experience is invaluable.
The Prime Minister: Let us be clear that overall there have been some 25,000 extra teachers. As a result of the funding issues with which we are familiar, a small number of teachers have been made compulsorily redundant. In fact, some teachers are made redundant every year. Overall, however, we have had a massive increase in the number of teachers over the past six years and the funding per pupil in our schools has risen significantly. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that whatever the problems of funding with schools in
Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the proposals by the EU tax Commissioner to put VAT on stamps. That would be a backward step for our postal services and would have a disproportionate effect on the poor and elderly. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to veto any such proposal and send a letter back to the EU marked "return to sender"?
Bob Russell (Colchester): I am grateful to you for calling me, Mr. Speaker. I thank the Prime Minister for his warm words of condolence. It was announced within the last hour that the six military policemen who lost their lives yesterday were all from the Colchester garrison. This is the darkest day for the garrison in the past 60 years, and I am sure that the whole House would wish to convey our condolences to the families of those six people.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): My right hon. Friend will know that it is two years since we had the disturbances on the streets of Burnley. Last week, we celebrated the first annual general meeting of the building bridges project that was set up between the Muslim and Christian faiths in Burnley. Does he agree that it is communities working together, and the Government working with local councils, that will solve the problems of towns such as Burnley, and not the extremists who cause division wherever they go?
The Prime Minister: I am sure that my hon. Friend's words will be echoed by the whole House. He is right that the building bridges project has been successful in trying to achieve better community relations. He is also right to say that those who advocate extremism, or who want to turn their anger on people who are immigrants to this country, do nothing for community relations or for their own local communities and peddle disastrous misconceptions and misrepresentations. The way forward is good, solid community relations between people of all faiths and backgrounds, and I believe that that vision is supported by the vast majority of people in the country.
Q9.  Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The head of MI5 has talked about the inevitability of a major terrorist threat. Whatever confidence we may have in our security services and emergency services, is it not the case that our civil preparedness is not as good as it should be? Why has it taken more than two years to produce even a draft Bill on civil contingencies? Why
The Prime Minister: First of all, the head of the intelligence services was simply drawing attention to what has been said on many occasions, in respect not just of this country but of any western country. Indeed, we can see from the terrorist acts of the past few weeks