HC Deb 27 January 1997 vol 289 cc5-11
5. Mr. Barry Jones

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister when he last met the Prime Minister to discuss the co-ordination and presentation of Government policy. [11115]

The Deputy Prime Minister

I meet my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister regularly to discuss many areas of my responsibility.

Mr. Jones

Why did not the Government discuss matters concerning the royal yacht with Her Majesty's very loyal Opposition? Why did the Government contrive a situation that caused deep embarrassment to the sovereign? The presentation of policy under the right hon. Gentleman is an unmitigated disaster.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster a few moments ago.

Sir Donald Thompson

When my right hon. Friend is discussing with his right hon. and hon. Friends the co-ordination and presentation of the Government's policies, will he not omit the way in which Government policy has enriched the north, the north-east, Wales and Scotland as well as the south?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that the House will recognise the further continuation of Government success as a result of Nissan's exciting recent announcement.

Mr. Prescott

Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain to us the difference between seeing my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about extra millennium expenditure and having discussions about the Queen's yacht?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Very simply, I saw the Leader of the Opposition as a millennium commissioner; I speak in the Chamber as a Minister.

6. Sir Teddy Taylor

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister if he will review the co-ordination of Government Departments in respect of the provision of information on Government policy on the European Union. [11116]

Mr. Freeman

We have no plans to carry out any such review.

Sir Teddy Taylor

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern and alarm that, throughout the recent big row about value added tax on food, no reference has been made to the fact that, under article 28.2 of the sixth directive, which, incidentally, was approved by the Labour Government, a right to continue a zero rate ended on 31 December 1996 and has continued only by a legal ploy, which is likely to be challenged at the European Court? Would it not be fairer to the electors if the Government and the Opposition were to make it abundantly clear to the people of Britain, instead of putting up silly posters, that there is a real danger that we shall shortly have to pay VAT on food and on children's clothes irrespective of who wins the general election?

Mr. Freeman

I very much regret that I cannot agree with my hon. Friend's analysis. I am sure that he is sincere, but there is no imminent danger of VAT being put on food.

Mr. Shore

On the co-ordination of Government policy and information about the European Union, will the Minister tell us whether today's release through the British press of the excellent article written by the Prime Minister, in which he makes clear his great repugnance of the idea of a European central bank on democratic grounds, was cleared with the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Mr. Freeman

I have not seen the reports to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. The Prime Minister, on behalf of a unanimous Cabinet, made our policy quite plain. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) may laugh, but I am repeating for the record the facts of our policy on the single European currency.

Mr. John Marshall

Will my right hon. Friend remind our colleagues in the European Union that this country has had much greater success in creating jobs that they have? The reason for that is that we have a relatively deregulated economy, whereas they have overregulated economies.

Mr. Freeman

Her Majesty's Government will continue to remind the British electorate of the advantages of our opt-out from the social chapter of the Maastricht treaty. We will also continue to remind the electorate that the Labour party would jeopardise that opt-out, increase unemployment and reduce our competitiveness.

7. Mr. Jim Cunningham

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister how many meetings he has had with his Cabinet colleagues and civil servants since October to discuss the presentation of Government policy. [11117]

Mr. Bates

That subject has arisen frequently in meetings during that period.

Mr. Cunningham

Does the Deputy Prime Minister remain in charge of Government policy, given that he was not allowed to present the case for the royal yacht?

Mr. Bates

Questions on that subject have already been answered. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] They have already been answered. The hon. Gentleman asked a serious question, and I shall give him an answer based on my experience. I visited India two years ago, not long after the royal yacht Britannia had been there. During its visit, £1.3 billion-worth of orders for British companies were secured, which meant thousands of jobs. The new royal yacht will mean 500 jobs for the shipyards—a subject that Labour Members used to care about, but that now only Conservative Members care about.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

When my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister discusses the presentation of Government policy, will he stress yet further the great success of the private finance initiative, particularly in north-west Kent, where, thanks to the PFI, we will get me brand new Darenth Park hospital? Will he contrast the Government's policy with that of the Labour party, which would have us waiting in the queue for Government handouts of NHS capital, as we have waited for the past 25 years?

Mr. Bates

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend's observations on the private finance initiative. I know of his interest in this matter. His constituents will benefit from our policies, which create extra beds and extra facilities in much-needed health care.

Mr. Donald Anderson

Were not the attempts to portray Government policy as full of probity, honesty and honour called into question by the cheating of the Government Whips just before Christmas? Why has there still been no apology for that cheating? Why have no heads rolled?

Mr. Bates

Perhaps because it was not cheating. It could be more easily explained as sheer incompetence by the Opposition Chief Whip.

8. Mr. Dykes

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his Department's role in co-ordinating Her Majesty's Government's economic and social policies. [11119]

Mr. Bates

My right hon. Friends and I work closely with colleagues to carry out the policies that are best for Britain. Our key policy themes include the delivery of economic prosperity, the upholding of decent common-sense values in the pursuit of law and order and justice, and the provision of first-class public services.

Mr. Dykes

Does my hon. Friend expect the forthcoming economic statistics to confirm the strong underlying growth trend in the United Kingdom economy?

Mr. Bates

We do indeed. I agree with my hon. Friend about that trend. This morning, we learned of yet more figures demonstrating strong growth: there has been a growth of 2.3 per cent. in gross domestic product. That further endorses the Government's performance in delivering good, solid growth that is non-inflationary, something that has eluded past Governments for about 50 years.

Mr. Wigley

Is the Minister aware that last Wednesday—the very day on which the announcement about the royal yacht was made—the Secretary of State for Wales announced, in reply to a question from me, that the Government could not go ahead with their commitment to a community hospital in Porthmadog which they had promised for the past seven years, because it had to await the private finance initiative? If the Government are providing public money for the royal yacht when private money is available, and not proceeding with hospital projects when no private money is available, what are their social priorities?

Mr. Bates

During this Question Time, we have heard of instances in which the private finance initiative is working for health care; I know, from experience in my part of the country, that that is happening. The subject will be dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales—but I seem to remember that, on that same day, my right hon. Friend announced the creation of 700 new jobs as a result of inward investment in Wales.

Mr. Congdon

I welcome the success of the Government's economic policies since 1992. Since that time, they have led to the best growth record in comparison with the other major European countries, and to a record fall in unemployment. Does my hon. Friend agree that all that would be put at risk by the imposition of a minimum wage and the implementation of the social chapter, as advocated by the Labour party?

Mr. Bates

Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for drawing that to my attention. Let me again stress the threat to jobs that would be posed by the possibility of an alternative Government. The reality is that the unemployment rate in this country is coming down, and my hon. Friend may be interested to learn—even if the Opposition are not—that the London chamber of commerce has today put paid to the myth promulgated by the Opposition that the jobs involved are all part time. It says that the growth in part-time jobs was greater in the 1950s and 1960s, and that these are new full-time jobs that are extremely welcome.

Mr. Winnick

Are we to take it that the person who heads co-ordination—the Deputy Prime Minister—denies any responsibility for the announcement about the royal ship? Is it not clear that that announcement was meant as an election ploy, but has backfired on the Government? Is it not a matter of deep regret that the Queen has been embarrassed in such a way by this Government?

Mr. Bates

Listen: we are not going to take that from the Opposition. [Interruption.] May I just make a few points clear? The hon. Gentleman, who is a very experienced Member of Parliament, may remember that, in the middle of the general election campaign of 1951, a Labour Government announced the placement of an order for the royal yacht.

Mr. Rowe

While taking an interest in the presentation of Government policy, will my hon. Friend remind the chattering classes who currently appear to be taken in by new Labour that, in 1979, they and their predecessors were convinced both that the country was becoming ungovernable and that the north-south divide was entirely unbridgeable? Both those factors have been turned on their heads by the success of the present Government.

Mr. Bates

I certainly endorse what my hon. Friend has said. It was generous of him to draw attention to the eradication of the old phrase "the north-south divide". The north is now sharing in the benefits of our present economic prosperity, along with the rest of the country. Last week, jobs were announced in England, in the shape of Nissan; in Wales, in the shape of a meat processing factory; and in Northern Ireland, in the shape of Shorts. This week, jobs have also been announced in Scotland. There is not a part of the United Kingdom that is not benefiting from this economic prosperity, and therefore there is not a part of it that would not be at risk from a Labour Government.

10. Mr. Hutton

To ask the Deputy Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the role of civil servants in the co-ordination and presentation of Government policy. [11122]

The Deputy Prime Minister

Civil servants continue to play a role in co-ordinating and presenting Government policy consistent with the spirit and the letter of the civil service code and the civil service management code.

Mr. Hutton

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that he agrees with the principle that civil servants should not be asked to take part in activities that could give rise to criticism that people who are paid from the public purse are being used for purely party political reasons? Will he therefore explain why, on at least two occasions in the past six months, that appears to have taken place, first, in the laughable attempt to cost Labour's manifesto commitments and, secondly, in the establishment of a so-called good news network in the business community to argue for Tory policies? Do not both those activities expose the fact that the Government have broken the spirit, at least, of those guidelines?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware that the costing of Opposition policies is carried out under guidelines established by the head of the civil service, so I in no way accept his first suggestion. The second suggestion is that civil servants were in some way improperly used in examining areas where supporters of Government policy might exist. That is the subject of an investigation by the Select Committee that is appropriately responsible for the matter, which took evidence from the head of the civil service, who made it clear that nothing improper had taken place. However, before the hon. Gentleman feels that I am wholly in accord with the spirit of what he suggests, he will be aware of the statement by the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher): leaked documents are particularly welcome. I promise to make good use of them. I have never read a more disgraceful statement by a Labour party spokesman positively encouraging civil servants to break their high standards.

Mr. Marlow

I believe that it is right that civil servants in the United Kingdom are not supposed to involve themselves in the organisation and presentation of Government policy. Why therefore is it right that Brussels's very own Dr. Goebbels, Geoffrey Martin, of the European Union office on the other side of the square, wishes to involve himself in the great democratic process known as the British general election? Will my right hon. Friend do something to stop that involvement happening? It is scandalous.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I will send a little note to the gentleman concerned drawing his attention to my hon. Friend's views.

Mr. Llew Smith

Will the Deputy Prime Minister inform the House whether civil servants or the Government co-ordinated the Prime Minister's statement over the weekend that, if we become part of a single currency, we will hand over economic decisions to an unelected and unaccountable European central bank?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman has obviously not been fully in touch with what has been going on recently on these matters because, if he had been, he would realise that the party that is threatening to hand over more power to the European movement and to extend qualified majority voting is his own party.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Would it be right to assume that civil servants did discuss the policy on the royal yacht with Ministers and to congratulate them as well as Ministers on the policy? Surely it has become clear from exchanges this afternoon and well before that, like its predecessor, the new royal yacht will earn billions of pounds, which will enable the Government to build many more schools, hospitals and the like than could be built for £60 million.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Let me make it absolutely clear that the decision about the royal yacht was taken in the normal practices of Government after discussion with officials from the Departments concerned and that the decision was collectively agreed by Ministers. But the whole House will have witnessed the most extraordinary thing: when the announcement was made, one conspicuous voice on the Opposition Benches, the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), had the guts and integrity to speak for Britain. If I have to choose between new Labour and old Labour, give me old Labour every time. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I think that Mr. Faulds is making it clear that he also caught my eye on that occasion and was very supportive. [Interruption.]