HC Deb 02 July 1997 vol 297 cc288-94
Q1. Dr. Lynne Jones

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 2 July. [4957]

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, we had a Cabinet meeting to discuss the Budget. I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In between, I am delighted to say that I was able to watch Mr. Tim Henman win magnificently at tennis.

Dr. Jones

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the CBI, chambers of commerce, a string of economists and even the Bank of England that tax increases and not rises in interest rates are needed if we are to convert the threatened consumer boom into sustained growth in a productive economy? Would not fair taxation changes in a generally upward direction be welcomed by the public, who want to see more spent on health and education?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will have to wait for the Chancellor's statement a little later, but she is right to draw attention to the appalling state of the public finances left to us by the previous Government.

Mr. Hague

Will the Prime Minister tell the House who gave authority to the Treasury press office to confirm certain details of the Budget in advance of its presentation to Parliament?

The Prime Minister

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, as far as I am aware, all Treasury officials have done is to confirm that we will do what we said we would do before the election. This may be a novel proposition for the Conservative party, but it is not for us.

Mr. Hague

Is the Prime Minister aware that on top of this morning's disclosure by the Treasury, the Financial Times quotes a senior member of the Government as confirming that changes to dividend tax credits will be included in the Budget—something which was not the previously stated policy of the Labour party and was not in its election manifesto? Is he aware that Hugh Dalton, the Labour Chancellor who resigned over a Budget leak—admittedly, he was old Labour and one could trust him—said that one must always own up? Who will own up for that particular leak? Will the Prime Minister mount an investigation into that leak and, in common with previous practice on Budget leaks, will it be a police investigation?

The Prime Minister

I have never heard anything quite so absurd as this.

Mr. Skinner

Hold a referendum.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right—why not hold a referendum? I say to the right hon. Gentleman that at least with this Government, the whole of the Budget was not leaked.

Mr. Hague

It is all very well for the Prime Minister to make light of the leaking of Budget details which affect billions of pounds on the markets and the savings of millions of people. He should mount an investigation into the leak. If he does, will he make a better job of it than last week's investigation into the behaviour of the Secretary of State for Wales? When he gave us his assurance last week that an investigation had been carried out to his satisfaction, did he know that in the course of that investigation the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith), who made the allegations, had not been contacted?

The Prime Minister

My advice to the right hon. Gentleman is to quit while he is behind. As for his going back to last week's Question Time, I think that he should stop flogging a dead horse.

Mr. Hague

My advice to the Prime Minister is to answer the question that he is paid to answer. My advice to the Prime Minister is that when there is incompetence in the Treasury, or when Budget details are leaked without authorisation, the buck stops there, with the First Lord of the Treasury.

Does it not worry the Prime Minister even a little that, after his personal assurances to the House last week, one of his own Members of Parliament said, "What the Prime Minister—I am sad to say—said is wrong"? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if and when these matters are properly investigated—as they should be—the rules of conduct that he so publicly sets for others must apply to the Labour party, the Government and himself?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's statement, which will be made in a moment, but I can give him this assurance. We set out some clear promises in our manifesto, and we will maintain those promises: we will keep them. One of the great differences that people see between the Government and the Opposition is that when we make promises, we keep them.

Q2. Mr. Rammell

In the nine weeks since my election, I have received literally hundreds of letters from my constituents in Harlow about a wide range of issues; but I have yet to receive a single letter demanding a referendum on the outcome of the Amsterdam summit. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me—and, it seems, with the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—that there is no need for such referendums, and that they should not take place? [4958]

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend. I am rather surprised that the Leader of the Opposition did not raise that as his big point at Prime Minister's Question Time.

Apparently, the reason why some people say that there should be a referendum is the extension of qualified majority voting. I have looked carefully at both the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty, and there are vastly greater extensions of qualified majority voting in both. Not one word about a referendum did we ever hear from Conservative Members—but then they are consistent at least in their inconsistency.

Q3. Mr. Tyler

In the light of the outcome of the Aitken affair, can the Prime Minister confirm that he is examining the role of the Cabinet Secretary—and, indeed, the implications for the reputation of the civil service for impartiality—given the invidious role in which the Cabinet Secretary was put, apparently as a result of Government activity? [4959]

The Prime Minister

I cannot confirm that. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that any allegation will be properly investigated. Many of these matters, however, are currently in the hands of the various authorities that should investigate them, and it would not be right for me to comment on them, certainly at this stage.

Q4. Mr. Pickthall

My right hon. Friend will understand the concern of those living in areas bordering the northern parts of the Irish sea about the revelation of the secret dumping of radioactive material in the Beaufort Dyke. I commend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), for the speed with which he has made the information public, but will my right hon. Friend assure us that such secret dumping is not happening now, and cannot happen in the future? Does he agree that this is a fine example of the need for open government? [4960]

The Prime Minister

I can confirm that, contrary to assurances that were given in good faith by Conservative and Labour Governments, some radioactive material was, apparently, dumped at Beaufort Dyke in the 1950s. Our understanding and my advice is that it was of an extremely small nature and that it poses no risk either to human health or to the environment. We have received further information, and as it becomes available we will make it public, because we are concerned to ensure that anything that is alleged is brought out into the open so that people can know exactly what happened.

Sir Sydney Chapman

Can the Prime Minister inform the House as a matter of open government whether the impending so-called anti-sleaze Bill will contain a provision to make it an offence for a Member of Parliament to induce another Member of Parliament to give up his seat in return for a peerage?

The Prime Minister

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, in contradistinction to the previous Government, we shall uphold the highest standards in public life.

Q5. Mr. Berry

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the warm welcome given by disabled people to the Government's pledge to introduce comprehensive and enforceable civil rights legislation, and not least by the 1,000 or so people who lobbied Parliament yesterday? What action is being taken to implement that manifesto commitment? [4961]

The Prime Minister

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that he has done for disabled people. We are currently considering his Disability Rights Commission Bill. Our discussions with employment Ministers and disability organisations are continuing, and I am sure that they will result in the fulfilment of our manifesto pledge. It is worth pointing out that advances that have been made in the field of disability have always been criticised at the time and have always ended up benefiting the vast majority of people in the country, disabled or not.

Mr. Ashdown

Earlier, the Prime Minister told us that when he had made promises he would keep them. At the general election, he made two promises: that the Government would cut taxes, and that they would improve public services. Does he believe that he can keep both?

The Prime Minister

I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman waits for the Budget statement that is about to be made.

Mr. Ashdown

Let me be more specific: one of the Prime Minister's key pledges—I think that they were called sacred pledges—was to cut class sizes, but the Government are forcing local authorities to continue to sack teachers. How is it possible to cut class sizes and to kick out teachers at the same time?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are committed to cutting class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds to 30 or fewer. We are committed to that, and we will do it. That is to be funded by phasing out the assisted places scheme. That Bill is on its way through the House of Commons now. We said that we would do that, and we will do it. If we do not, the right hon. Gentleman can come back and tackle us on it.

Q6. Mr. Soley

Following the successful transfer of sovereignty in Hong Kong, does my right hon. Friend agree that we have a genuine opportunity, over the period for which the Anglo-Chinese agreement continues, not only to exercise our rights and duties in respect of the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong but to build a much more productive and positive relationship with the people and Government of China, with a two-way exchange to the benefit of the people of both countries? [4962]

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is important to realise that the basis of a strong and stable relationship with China, which we want, is adherence to the joint declaration. That is the basis of the freedoms of the people in Hong Kong and we will expect it to be adhered to. In particular, it is important to put the elections that should be held within the year in the context of that joint declaration.

It is also the case that, through the joint liaison group between Britain and China, which will exist up to 2000, and with our continuing commitment for 50 years under the joint declaration, we shall have a continuing interest in Hong Kong. It is in the interests of Britain, China and the people of Hong Kong that we make sure that the joint declaration is kept to strictly—which we will—and that we build upon that a strong and good relationship with China for the future; we will do that, too.

Sir Peter Tapsell

Does the Prime Minister understand that his attempt to trivialise allegations of a Budget leak can only be damaging to his reputation, especially in view of his many statements that he would aim, as we all hope that he will, for the maintenance of the highest possible standards in public life? Is he aware that the alleged statements by Ministers, which were circulating as rumours throughout the City for the whole of yesterday, resulted in the largest rise in the FTSE index for five years? This is a very serious matter. [Interruption.] Hon. Members opposite are always attacking the fat cats so it is rather extraordinary that they are so much in favour of them now when they are getting their cream from Labour ministerial leaks.

The Prime Minister

To my certain knowledge, I have sat through 14 Budgets of the previous Conservative Government, and some of my hon. Friends have sat through 18. There is Budget speculation every year. It happens all the time; it happened under the previous Conservative Government and I do not doubt that it will happen for ever. It is simply a matter of the way it goes. As for the leaks about which the Conservative Opposition are complaining today, those are things that we said that we would do in our manifesto and intend doing.

Q7. Mr. Healey

Is the Prime Minister aware that the legacy of the previous Government has left the Rotherham area with the highest unemployment rate of anywhere in the Yorkshire and Humberside region? Nearly one in three of our unemployed are under 25. Will he therefore spell out what guarantees he can offer to the young people of Rotherham and Dearne that their job prospects will improve under the current Government? [4963]

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. No doubt if I mention the windfall tax I will be accused of leaking the Budget, but that measure was set out clearly in our election manifesto. The purpose of it is to give a chance to young people in my hon. Friend's area, my constituency and many other parts of the country who do not have hope and opportunity, or the possibility of getting a job or decent skills. They will get that chance for themselves because it is right that they should have the chance to do well for themselves and on behalf of the country, because the whole country benefits from a fairer, more decent and more civilised society.

Rev. Martin Smyth

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that threats from the Provisional IRA or loyalist Protestant volunteer forces are neither wanted nor helpful at this time? Does he also agree that there is something wrong when, although civil servants were aware of an aide-memoire response from Sinn Fein, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was, apparently, not informed? Surely in open government civil servants should advise Ministers accurately.

The Prime Minister

I am not entirely sure that I understood one part of the hon. Gentleman's question and forgive me if I did not. I will write to him if there is any misunderstanding.

The aide-memoire was passed by the Government to Sinn Fein in the circumstances that I explained last week. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the case against threats or intimidation to the process. We will resist them now, and if the set of circumstances ever comes about in which there are all-inclusive talks, we will resist them then as well. What we want to see is a lasting political settlement, but the only people who have the right to play any part in that are those who are giving up violence, not those who are following it.

Q8. Mr. Jim Cunningham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when crime is committed in the community we all become victims of it? Can he therefore say what the Government intend to do to protect the victims of crime? [4964]

The Prime Minister

I can tell my hon. Friend that, tomorrow, the Home Secretary will announce a series of measures that will improve the treatment of victims within our court system. In particular, they will try to deal with the intimidation of victims and witnesses, which is an extremely serious problem. I can assure my hon. Friend that crime is an issue which is raised with us continually and we will act upon it.

Q9. Mr. Wigley

Is the Prime Minister aware that in Wales, and no doubt elsewhere, health trusts and health authorities are teetering on the verge of bankruptcy because of a lack of funds? Because of underfunding by the previous Government, nurses are being sacked; beds are being closed; and commitments on community hospitals are not being fulfilled. Will he give an assurance that his Government will provide adequate resources to ensure that in the coming winter no one goes without a bed in hospital if in need? [4965]

The Prime Minister

We shall do our very best to ensure that that happens. I have to say two things. First, it is important that any money that we spend on the national health service goes into patient care, which is why we are committed to ending the Conservative internal market and making sure that that money goes to patients rather than bureaucrats and administrators. Secondly, it is extremely important that we take all the steps necessary to make sure that the national health service is available for people on the basis of need, not ability to pay. I assure the hon. Gentleman that those two principles will underwrite everything that we do.

Ms Hewitt

Does my right hon. Friend agree, without tempting him into any Budget leaks, that millions of families who have been struggling to pay more than 20 tax rises imposed on them by the previous Government will be hoping in this afternoon's Budget for a cut in the rate of VAT on fuel and for a commitment to reduce, and not raise, tax rates for ordinary working families?

The Prime Minister

I can certainly say, without in any way entering into Budget discussions, that we will adhere to our promises. Those promises include cutting VAT on fuel. When the last Government introduced that it caused enormous distress to ordinary families throughout the country, and especially to pensioners, who ended up bearing the brunt of it.

Q10. Mr. Willetts

Can the Prime Minister confirm that he supports the principle of independent taxation of husband and wife? Would it not be inconceivable to go back to the days when the incomes of husband and wife were taxed jointly? Will he therefore assure the House that nothing in the Government's review of integrating tax and benefits will undermine that principle? [4966]

The Prime Minister

As I have said to other hon. Members, I am not getting tempted into anything that might happen later this afternoon. We set out our principles on taxation clearly in our manifesto and we will keep to them.

Mr. Corbett

Can the Prime Minister confirm that his Government attach high importance to giving every possible assistance to helping the two Cypriot communities reach agreement on a federal bi-zonal solution to what has unhappily been known for the past 25 years as the Cyprus problem?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I can confirm that we remain committed to that. We will have the European Union presidency in the first part of next year. As I said to the House a week ago, we are committed to using the presidency to find the long-term solution to the problem of Cyprus that everyone wishes to see.

Q11. Mr. Rendel

Given that the money from the cancellation of the assisted places scheme cannot become available to the Government for at least another year, and that many local education authorities are already threatening to sack teachers this year—Labour-run Bury, for example, is threatening to sack 167—does the Prime Minister admit that teacher-pupil ratios will continue to get worse and that the number of primary school children in classes of more than 30 will continue to grow for at least another year? [4967]

The Prime Minister

What I can confirm is that tremendous problems have been left to us. We have to deal with those problems as we can, making progress in the way that we are able to, given the difficulties of public finances and all the rest that we have inherited. In this matter, as in others, people expect us to make progress as we are able. If we had the support of all parties in the House to get through the measures that we need to get rid of the assisted places scheme and put in place the funding of lower class sizes, we would be able to make swifter progress. We will do all that we can consistent with the proper management of the nation's finances. If I may say so, that is the difference between government and opposition.