Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 3rd November 2004.

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Photo of David Wright David Wright Labour, Telford 11:30 am, 3rd November 2004

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 3 November.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our warmest congratulations to President Karzai of Afghanistan. It was the first ever election for the Afghan people and a remarkable tribute to them and to the power of democracy. Like everyone else, I await the outcome of the other presidential election with interest.

Photo of David Wright David Wright Labour, Telford

I can say with some confidence that I am sure the people of Telford, Pennsylvania will have voted for John Kerry last night. Unfortunately, most of their countrymen did not do the same. When my right hon. Friend calls President Bush in the next few hours to congratulate him, will he push him very hard on the middle east peace process?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I meant what I said a moment ago. We must await the outcome of the presidential election in the United States. I can tell my hon. Friend, however, that I believe that progress in the middle east, the democracy that now exists in Afghanistan and the democracy that is to come, I hope, in Iraq—those three things together—would be the single most significant contribution we could make to the reduction of terrorism and of the power of terrorists to recruit to their cause in the world. I assure my hon. Friend that I will do everything I possibly can to work with the President of the United States to secure that progress in the middle east.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sure that the Department has had discussions with everyone to do with the Gambling Bill, and I am sure that that is absolutely normal. It is what the Department would expect to do. As far as I am aware, there has been no discussion about how it will reduce taxes for casino owners or others. I also think that we should be able to discuss the rights and wrongs of the Bill without hearing utterly absurd allegations of interference with the public interest.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

We should indeed, but we should also know whether such discussions have taken place. I am surprised that the Prime Minister did not answer that question. It is something that he should have known, given the widespread concern expressed by the police and others about the effects of the Gambling Bill on money laundering and organised crime.

I have here an email from a senior official at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the operators of the biggest casino in Las Vegas. It begins, helpfully,

"Hello all. I am about to head out of the office until Sep 9th now so could I encourage you all not to send in letters for a bit".

It goes on:

"For our work on Money Laundering directive No. 3, still interested in seeing estimates as to what the transactional limit would be. Also interested in any other material you feel we should see about this".

Does the Prime Minister accept that the Department has held discussions with the casino operators about relaxing the rules on money laundering?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have not seen that particular email—of course I have not—but if the right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to suggest that the DCMS has had corrupt conversations with people—[Hon. Members: "Yes."] It is utterly absurd. We have been conducting this consultation process on the Gambling Bill for several years. We had an independent report from Sir Alan Budd, and then two bouts of legislative scrutiny. We have taken the utmost care to try to get this regime right. Having initially supported all this, the Conservatives—with their usual lame opportunism—came along a few weeks ago when they realised that a media campaign was on, and tried to create scare stories. Even now, I suppose that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is trying to make accusations of corruption. I really think that that is pretty shoddy.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

As usual, the Prime Minister has answered a question that I did not ask and failed to answer the question that I did ask. I ask him now to accept that the Government, and the DCMS in particular, have had discussions with foreign casino operators on relaxing the rules on money laundering. On Monday, these allegations were put to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. She said that they were "untrue". She went on to say:

"Discussions on the money laundering directive are a matter for the Treasury".—[Hansard, 1 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 51.]

Is it not clear that what she told this House on Monday was completely wrong?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not think that that is clear at all; actually, it is not clear from what the right hon. and learned Gentleman read out from the email a moment or two ago. Of course there will be discussions with casino operators—and, indeed, with everybody—about the Bill's impact, but money laundering issues are, as my right hon. Friend said, a matter for the Treasury; that is absolutely clear. But what is the right hon. and learned Gentleman actually suggesting? Is he suggesting—if so, he might as well say it openly—that there have been corrupt discussions involving casino operators in order that we relax the rules on money laundering to let them launder money? It really is a completely absurd allegation.

The fact is that, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman well knows, 90 per cent. of this Bill is about regulating gambling better. It is true that we are allowing regional casinos to operate and removing the restriction on them, but there are also a whole series of new restrictions on gambling in this country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said very fairly the other day that she would listen to concerns raised from all parts of the House about this Bill, and we will. But for the right hon. and learned Gentleman, after a four-year process, to suddenly stand at the Dispatch Box and make such an allegation simply reflects on him.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Let me make crystal clear what I am suggesting. I am suggesting—indeed, I have demonstrated—that discussions have taken place on money laundering between the DCMS and the biggest casino operators in Las Vegas, and that the Secretary of State denied that in this House on Monday. We know that the Government have been offering concessions on money laundering to the operators of those casinos, and that the Secretary of State tried to cover it up. What is the Prime Minister going to do about it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sorry, but I do not accept at all that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has somehow shown that concessions have been offered on money laundering to casino operators. It really is ridiculous of him to suggest such a thing. I could at least understand it if he were putting forward his opposition to the Bill on the basis of what it actually says, although he probably feels somewhat discomfited by the fact that, as I said, the Conservative party supported these measures until a few weeks ago. But to mount an allegation of such a serious nature on the basis of some email that he has picked up is utterly absurd.

Photo of Mr Seamus Mallon Mr Seamus Mallon Social Democratic and Labour Party, Newry and Armagh

The Prime Minister will know that Annetta Flanagan, one of the three young people taken hostage in Afghanistan, is a constituent of mine, and will be aware of the intense grief that her family and the community feel. As he continues to strive for her safe release, will he make it clear that no dogma, no creed and no political objective can justify her kidnapping, that of Margaret Hassan or that of anyone else? Will he agree that that humanitarian message would be much more powerful, effective and listened to were it not diminished by the number of innocent Iraqi women and children who have been killed to date, which cannot be justified by many people there—

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In respect of the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I agree entirely with him. In respect of the second part, we do not accept the figures released by The Lancet last week at all. The Iraqi Ministry of Health has put out figures for the six months up to October, which suggest just over 3,000 deaths, but that includes people who are either terrorists or insurgents and those who have been the victims of terrorist attack. We do everything we possibly can to limit civilian casualties, but when our troops and Iraqi forces come under fire, they have to return fire. The way to stop all civilian casualties in Iraq is for insurgents and terrorists to lay down their weapons, allow the elections to go ahead in January and allow Iraq to become a stable democracy.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

May I ask the Prime Minister about the other democratic decision that is bound to have preoccupied him this week, the north-east regional assembly referendum? Will he take the opportunity to urge voters there not to repeat the mistake that the Scots made back in 1979 by voting no to devolution, only to have to wait 20 years to see it established? Does he agree that, with only 24 hours to go, it is most important that north-east voters take the opportunity to go out and vote yes?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I agree entirely. Devolution has been shown to work in Scotland and in Wales and London-wide government has also been shown to work. The fact that the north-east assembly will be handling hundreds of millions of pounds of money will mean an actual reduction in the overall number of councils in the north-east. It is right to have devolution and decentralisation of power and I support that.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Staying on the subject of referendums, we would all agree that one of the lessons of the north-east campaign is that the more positive campaigning is done in advance, the better it is when the decision is reached. As all parties in the House are committed to a referendum at some point on the European Union proposed constitution, when is the Prime Minister himself going to get out, with cross-party support, and begin positively to make the case for that constitution?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I always do, not only when I am asked, but on any occasion when I can talk about it. It is entirely sensible that Europe changes its rules when there is a Europe of 25 members, which will become 30 over time. It is right to have a modern framework of rules for Europe, provided, as the new constitution makes clear, that we protect our own right to determine our tax rates, our foreign policy and our defence and retain our opt-in in relation to asylum and immigration. Provided all of that is correct, the people of this country will believe that it is right for us to be at the centre of Europe, not on its margins.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

Many workers at Jaguar in Coventry who live in Rugby and Kenilworth are very angry at the way in which Ford has handled the future of the Browns Lane plant. The car industry plays a very important role in the growing strength of the west midlands economy. Can I ask my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to continue to do everything possible to secure the long-term future of Jaguar in the west midlands?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, in respect of the Browns Lane plant, my hon. Friend, who has been active on the issue, knows that we have spoken to the company and the unions, urging them to sit down and to try to work out a proper way forward. I understand the strength of feeling, especially as the work force feel that they were given assurances on the future of the plant. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has recently spoken again to the parties concerned. I am sure myself, however, that it is also important to press for assurances about the long-term future of Jaguar in the west midlands, and we will continue to do so.

Photo of Mr Howard Flight Mr Howard Flight Special Envoy To the City of London, Economic Affairs, Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Will the Prime Minister please confirm that, so long as he remains Prime Minister, he will not abolish the earnings limit on employees' national insurance contributions?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have absolutely no plans to do so.

Photo of Wayne David Wayne David Labour, Caerphilly

The Prime Minister will agree that antisocial behaviour needs to be tackled firmly. I believe that the measures announced this week for an extension of spot-fines will certainly help in that respect. Does he also agree that measures to tackle graffiti and to break up teen gangs, which have not been supported by all Members in the House, have been particularly successful? Can we look forward to more measures of that kind in future?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that it has been important to add further offences to the fixed-penalty notice regime. Also, the antisocial behaviour legislation is working, and working well, as was obvious from last week's report. We need to make sure that that is used right across our communities. I am delighted to say that the Liberal Democrat spokesman on these issues recently said about ASBOs:

"Having gone round the country I can't, hand on my heart, say these aren't a useful thing."

Unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats voted against all the measures in the Bill that introduced these provisions; we look for their conversion, one by one, on these matters.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There is no reason why shoplifters should not get a criminal record. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is referring to fixed-penalty notices, it is important that we are able to levy such notices, but the full criminal law still applies.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Let us be clear about what is happening. As a result of a law passed by this Government that came into force on Monday, shoplifters will be punished by means of a fixed-penalty notice, such as applies to people parking on a double yellow line. Right? Shoplifters will no longer get a criminal record. Right? Shoplifters are being told that they can steal up to £200 worth of goods, and in exchange get a fixed-penalty notice of £80. Right? That means that they can take £200 and get fined £80. This week, the Government produced a charter for shoplifters. Is that what the Prime Minister meant when he talked about being tough on crime?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman gets worse. First, the fixed-penalty notice is not a substitute for the ordinary criminal offence. [[Hon. Members: "It is."] No, it is not, as police officers are perfectly entitled to arrest the person involved and charge him under the law. However, if they decide—

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The police officers. If they decide that they want to serve a fixed-penalty notice, they can do so. I remind the Leader of the Opposition that fixed-penalty notices have been welcomed by police right across the country. Fixed-penalty notices are not a substitute for the existing criminal law; they are in addition to it. Right?

Photo of Michael Jabez Foster Michael Jabez Foster PPS (Rt Hon Lord Goldsmith, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Solicitor General), Law Officers' Department

Whatever their views on Iraq, many of my constituents are anxious that British troops who are there at Christmas should have the best possible contact with their families. Does my right hon. Friend agree that something should be done about restoring the free post to troops in Iraq?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has been considering the strong representations on this matter that have come from all sides of this House. I am pleased to announce that, in the run-up to Christmas, the Ministry of Defence will help friends and relatives send postal packets free of charge from anywhere in the UK to all service personnel serving overseas. We will see what happens after that period, but Christmas is a special time, when our thoughts are with those who are deployed overseas. We wish to recognise the exceptional commitment made by our servicemen and women world wide.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Is the Prime Minister aware that in much of east Sussex and Kent women with breast cancer are having to wait three months for radiotherapy, and that that wait is expected to rise to five months as a result of a shortage of radiotherapy equipment and operators? Is he aware that breast cancer is the second biggest killer among women who die of cancer, and that if it is not treated within five months there is a much higher risk that the cancer will return? Is it not completely unacceptable that people living with the physical, mental and emotional problems associated with cancer must wait so long for treatment that genuinely could determine whether they live or die?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is, of course, absolutely unacceptable, which is why we have been taking action on it. Breast cancer services in the UK are certainly improving faster than anywhere in Europe, and are now a match for the very best in the world. I do not know about the situation in the hon. Gentleman's constituency or area, and I shall look into it. However, we have made a huge investment into cancer services and hired extra cancer consultants. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has brought in an extra 600,000 MRI scans. That shows that we are trying to deal with the radiology bottleneck in the treatment of all cancers, and we shall look to do more. Finally, I shall look into the specific circumstances in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and write to him.

Photo of John Battle John Battle Labour, Leeds West

We all welcome the successful outcome and process of the elections in Afghanistan, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that promised international development funds actually reach the newly elected President and his government, so that there is proper, local sustainable economic development both to tackle poverty in Afghanistan and to undermine the pernicious poppy cultivation that washes up as drug abuse in our communities?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I totally agree with my right hon. Friend. We are making efforts to ensure that the money gets through and, in forthcoming weeks, we shall announce a new programme on the eradication of the drugs trade in Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, we have seen what will, I believe, be a temporary increase in the amount of poppy cultivation. We have to bring that back down again, but we must also make sure that the economic development of Afghanistan—there is growth of about 25 or 30 per cent. a year—is not distorted by people feeling that their only livelihood is in cultivation of the poppy. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; we have to deal with the matter at an international level, and we will do so.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the concerns of local authorities such as mine about the growing problem of Travellers who buy or occupy land in rural areas and then flout the planning laws to build on it, resulting in a considerable amount of money and time being spent to rectify the problem through the courts? Will the Prime Minister intervene to ensure that local authorities are given the greatest powers possible to combat the problem and to protect local residents whose lives are made such a misery by that antisocial practice?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, and I have held discussions with hon. Members about it. My understanding is that we are actually giving local authorities greater powers to ensure that they can take immediate action in the courts, rather than having a drawn-out process that often means that buildings or dwellings are erected by Travellers before there has been a chance to take action. However, we are looking at the matter again to ensure that the powers are sufficiently tough. I know from my own constituency that the issue can be serious and I think that the combination of measures that we are taking will make a genuine difference. But I am looking at the issue myself and, on that, too, perhaps I can get back to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

Will the Prime Minister give the House an assurance that when the United States launches its bomb-into-submission policy on Falluja, our Army will not become involved in any way in what are collective punishments that indiscriminately kill innocent civilians?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have to say to my hon. Friend that the situation is simple. There is a Government in Iraq who have been appointed by the UN; not, as some people say, by the US, but by the UN. There will be elections supervised by the UN in January. What we are saying to people in Falluja—this is from the Iraqi Government, never mind the multinational force—is, "Lay down your weapons, submit to the authority of that UN-appointed Government, participate in the election, and see from the election how much support you have". But what we and the Iraqi Government cannot allow is a situation where outside terrorists and others use Falluja as a base to mount operations and kill innocent civilians and our soldiers, who are doing a job blessed by the United Nations Security Council resolution. To describe that as collective punishment of Falluja is gross, if I may say so to my hon. Friend. The collective punishment that is being visited on people in Iraq is collective punishment by suicide bombers and people detonating vehicles and trying to stop the democratic process taking place; our job is to make sure that it does.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Opposition Whip (Commons)

May I draw the Prime Minister's attention to the case of a pensioner who lives on one of the islands in my constituency? She has poor eyesight, but is able to go to the post office every week to collect her pension. However, she and many other pensioners with poor eyesight will find it difficult, if not impossible, to work with Post Office card accounts, and to recognise the cheques that the Department for Work and Pensions plans to send through the post instead of pension books. Will the Prime Minister agree to keep pension books for pensioners who, owing to poor eyesight, are unable to work with the Post Office card account and for whom cheques are unsuitable?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My understanding is that the Post Office is working with the Royal National Institute of the Blind to make sure that the problem is overcome. It is obviously a problem for people who have impaired sight but, as I say, it is my understanding that discussions are now taking place between the Department for Work and Pensions and the RNIB to resolve it.

Photo of Mr Iain Luke Mr Iain Luke Labour, Dundee East

I am sure that the Prime Minister welcomes the real impact that community wardens have had both north and south of the border, but will he do all he can to expand the system so that all communities benefit from this very positive scheme?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Clearly, if we keep the investment going in, we have the possibility over the next few years of having not just record numbers of police but supporting that with community support officers and neighbourhood wardens. I would like to see a situation in which every community that needs one has a community patrol, so that we are back with a visible, uniformed presence on our streets in our local communities. Where this is happening throughout the United Kingdom, it is having a major impact not just on crime itself but on the fear of crime.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

The Volcker inquiry into corruption at the United Nations during the oil-for-food scandal will not report for a number of years, by which time many of those implicated will have retired. Given the implications of that scandal for the urgently needed reform of the United Nations and the fact that money from the programme is subsidising the insurgency in Iraq that is threatening the lives of British servicemen and women and British civilians, why did the Prime Minister not raise the issue in any way with the Secretary-General during his visit to London a week ago?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have, of course, raised this issue with the Secretary-General and the United Nations on previous occasions. It is a serious question. It will take some time to get to the bottom of what has happened but we, in particular, have a very firm belief, for very obvious reasons, that if the oil-for-food programme has been abused in any way, the people who have abused it should be held to account. I simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that these issues are also being raised by the UN high-level panel that the Secretary-General established a short time ago. That will report over the next few weeks, and there is a British representative on it. That will give us the additional protection to make sure that such things cannot happen in future.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

May I welcome the Prime Minister's assurance that, in conjunction with the President of the United States, he will be giving priority over the coming months to the middle east peace process? What can he do in practice to ensure that reality on the ground in the middle east reflects the theory of the road map? Part of that involves pressing for an end to suicide bombings—a point that he makes frequently—but will he also address the comments of Mr. Dov Weisglass, a senior adviser to Ariel Sharon, who said that disengagement from Gaza is not a furthering of the peace process but a freezing of it and that the agenda for a Palestinian state has been taken off Israel's agenda with the blessing of the President of the United States?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have not seen those remarks and I would like to see the context before I commented on them specifically. My very clear view—I believe it is shared by President Bush and certainly by the international community—is that the disengagement plan from the Gaza is important. I welcome it; I applaud the fact that Prime Minister Sharon is proceeding with it. However, it is a first step and if it is used properly, it can help us to get back into a proper process of peace negotiations that lead to a final settlement based on the two-state solution; an Israel that is confident of its security and a viable Palestinian state. I do not know of any statements that contradict that, but that is the vision—the only vision in my view—that will bring a lasting peace to the middle east.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Secretary of State (Environment)

Despite the fact that weapons of mass destruction have not been found in Iraq, the Prime Minister has always argued that a change of regime there was legitimate. The Foreign Secretary's secret and personal memo to the Prime Minister dated 25 March 2002 advised him:

"Legally there are two potential elephant traps:

(i) regime change per se is no justification for military action".

What exactly did the Prime Minister understand that to mean?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let me repeat this again, as I have done many times in the House; I understood that to mean that the legal grounds had to be a breach of United Nations resolutions. That was precisely what the legal grounds were. I should point out that the Iraq survey group, which is prayed in aid by many people on the existence of readily deployable weapons, makes it absolutely clear that there were multiple breaches of United Nations resolutions. That is why the legal basis was not merely clear at the time; it is clear now and was actually adhered to.

Photo of Anne Begg Anne Begg Labour, Aberdeen South

Will the Prime Minister say that in any future pension strategy, a Labour Government will ensure that pensioners on the lowest incomes will see their incomes rise by more than 55p a week for a single pensioner and 5p a week for a pensioner couple, which is what the Scottish nationalists proposed yesterday?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think I can safely say that I would absolutely deplore such a policy. I had not come across the proposal myself, but now that I have, I am shocked and outraged by it. It only goes to show what a bad idea it would be to vote for them.