HC Deb 16 July 1997 vol 298 cc390-8
Q3. Mr. Clappison

Given the answer that the Prime Minister gave my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and given that the Prime Minister now has responsibility for employment, is he prepared to say whether he believes—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Some hon. Members seem to think that this is not a proper question, but it is a perfectly proper question.

Mr. Clappison

Is the Prime Minister prepared to say whether he expects unemployment to be lower or higher than it is now at the end of the current Parliament? [7027]

The Prime Minister

I expect that, as a result of the measures that we are taking—particularly the welfare-to-work programme—we will get unemployment down. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that, if we do not tackle structural, long-term and youth unemployment, the economic costs and burdens that increased so significantly under the last Government will remain. We are not going back to those days.

Q4. Mr. Gordon Prentice

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the overwhelming majority of people found guilty of perjury receive immediate custodial sentences? Is it not astonishing that the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, crusader for truth and arms dealer, Jonathan Aitken, should swan off on holiday in California and France? I understand that press reports today suggest that Jonathan Aitken has now returned to the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend urge the Leader of the Opposition to ensure that Jonathan Aitken stays in this country, faces the music and does not do another runner? [7028]

The Prime Minister

I do not want to comment on any particular cases. Obviously, issues relating to perjury or any other criminal offence are matters for the appropriate authorities.

Mr. Ashdown

The Prime Minister promised that his Government would be about education, education, education. Good words, but how are they honoured by forcing Somerset and Oxfordshire to sack more than 140 teachers?

The Prime Minister

As I said to the right hon. Gentleman last week, we have made the single largest investment in education that any Government have ever made. Before the Budget, he asked for a £500 million programme of school repairs over the Government's lifetime—[Interruption.] No, over the lifetime of the Government: Liberal Democrat Members should read their press releases properly. We gave double that amount, but the right hon. Gentleman now criticises us for not giving enough.

Mr. Ashdown

The Prime Minister knows perfectly well that that money is for next year, not this year, as I pointed out last week. Does he understand that those two councils are not examples of high spending and inefficiency? Oxfordshire has the second lowest spending and Somerset the most cost-effective delivery of education in the country. Is it not true that, whatever the Government provide next year, the real reason for this devastating cut is that they have adopted Conservative education cuts and have decided to spend less on education this year than the Conservatives would have spent?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that. I am not criticising the activities of the councils to which the right hon. Gentleman has drawn attention, but the Budget has had to be very tight this year because of the huge structural deficit in the public finances that we have inherited. If we do not take action now, we shall be in a serious position in the coming years. We have set aside for next year the largest single increase in investment of any Government. That is a far greater record than that of the previous Administration.

Q5. Mr. Ennis

Does the Prime Minister agree that the Government's proposal to disband the current, two-tier GP fundholding system is a giant step forward in the rebuilding of the national health service? Does he also agree that, in future, the treatment that patients receive from the national health service will be based purely and simply on clinical need? [7029]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am astonished that the Conservative party has attacked our proposal, because it will ensure that people are treated on the basis of need and not according to who their doctor is. It is based on two simple ideas—rebuilding the national health service, and fairness—neither of which the Conservative party understands.

Q6. Mr. Öpik

If I could get the House the Commons Library to confirm that the Welsh Office will be £55 million worse off in real terms over the next two years than it would have been under the Tories, would the Prime Minister believe me? [7030]

The Prime Minister

I have already made it clear to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) that the settlement has had to be extremely tight. I say to the hon. Gentleman sincerely that the only way we will get public finances under control is to take the measures that we have taken, including those that were in the Budget. If we do not do that, we will end up with old Tory boom and bust, and we are not going down that route.

Q7. Dr. Lynne Jones

Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the decision of the employment appeals tribunal that gives transsexuals the protection of the Sex Discrimination Act 1975? Does he agree that more needs to be done to help to combat the appalling discrimination faced by sufferers of gender dysphoria? In particular, they should have the right to have their birth certificates amended to give their correct gender. [7031]

The Prime Minister

I have not seen the tribunal decision to which my hon. Friend refers, but I have no doubt that it will be studied by the appropriate people.

Mr. Donaldson

Will the Prime Minister explain how the Government's policy of no contact and no communication with Sinn Fein-IRA can be reconciled with the approach of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has confirmed that there have been six telephone calls with Sinn Fein, and that the Government responded to Sinn Fein by letter on 9 July? Has the Prime Minister's repudiation of Sinn Fein-IRA following the murders of the two policemen in Lurgan now been set aside, and is a new policy being pursued?

The Prime Minister

No. What we said after the Lurgan murders is that there would be no meetings between Sinn Fein and the Government, and there have been no such meetings.

It is correct, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made clear, that there have been responses to telephone calls and letters, and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. I want a situation in which either Sinn Fein gives up violence and comes into inclusive talks or, if it does not, it is absolutely clear that it is not coming into those talks because it will not give up violence. If this has to be given clarification so that everyone is under no doubt as to the Government's position, that will be done. The basic principles remain: consent, which is absolutely essential, of the people of Northern Ireland to any change made; and no one participating in those talks unless they give up violence unequivocally and clearly.

Q8. Mr. Llew Smith

Madam Speaker—[Interruption.] I am obviously grateful for the howls of support.

Over the past 12 months, I have tabled approximately 100 questions and have had two Adjournment debates on matters relating to measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations. Would the Prime Minister care to comment on the dramatic increase in the number of children suffering from Crohn's disease and autism after such vaccinations? Will he commit himself to organising independent investigations—I emphasise the word "independent"—into possible links between those vaccinations and the diseases? [7032]

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, which I know he raised in an Adjournment debate earlier. In assessing the evidence on this matter, the Government rely on the independent expert committee, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, and we follow its advice. It has considered all the evidence of a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism and Crohn's disease. It concluded that, on balance, no such link existed. This evidence, I am advised, is kept constantly under review and is reassessed and re-evaluated. Should there be any change in that, of course the committee will act on it, and so will the Government.

Q9. Mr. Spring

When the right hon. Gentleman next travels to his constituency, will he look afresh at the delicate balance between our cities and towns and the countryside? Is he aware of the real concern among many people who live in our country areas that their way of life is under threat and that their interests are marginalised? Does he, as Prime Minister of the whole of our country, not recognise the illiberal inconsistency of his supporting and defending the often quite genuine concern and viewpoints of many minorities in our country, while denying the self-same freedoms to those with whom he happens to disagree? [7033]

The Prime Minister

Of course we do not want to see conflict between town and countryside. The issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised and the points that he has made will be weighed by all Members of Parliament in the run-up to the vote on the Bill. I am sure that every hon. Member will look at it very carefully. I do not believe that there should be any conflict between town and countryside that prevents us from examining this issue dispassionately and properly.

Mr. Blizzard

I should like to say how much people in my constituency will welcome this morning's announcement on the reintroduction of fairness to the national health service. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the importance of efficiency and the effective use of resources in the national health service, particularly in the light of comments that were made to me yesterday by a most senior consultant director in my local NHS trust, who said that there was no doubt that the internal market has been an enormous waste of resources which is depriving patients of the care they need?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, one of the reasons for getting rid of the internal market that the Conservatives introduced is the enormous cost—£150 million a year just to administer fundholding. If we look at the way in which the NHS has gone in the past few years, we see that one of the reasons why this Government were elected was to restore the national health service as a proper national health service, based on need, not ability to pay, and that is a manifesto commitment that we will carry out with pride.

Q10. Mr. Tyler

I accept that some welcome progress has been made in dealing with the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis caused by the previous Government, but may I ask the Prime Minister whether he has had drawn to his attention the critical situation that is developing in cattle markets throughout the country, from Caithness to Cornwall, as a result of the reduction in the over-30-months scheme payments which will be made on 4 August, and the consequent collapse in beef prices? Those prices are now down to about a third of what they were last year. Will the right hon. Gentleman's Ministers be prepared to meet those of us from livestock areas who have this crisis on our doorstep? [7034]

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department will be prepared to meet anyone with a concern about this issue. The hon. Gentleman will realise that the problem is that it is necessary to try to get the costs of the compensation scheme down, because they will run over a period to about £4 billion. It is essential that we try to reduce those costs. I am aware of the situation in the cattle markets and I am sure that that is one of the reasons why the matter will be closely examined by the Minister of Agriculture, who will be in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Q11. Mr. Hanson

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming yet again the fulfilment of another Labour pledge—the publication of the devolution White Paper next week? When will he be able to come to Wales to campaign for the yes vote, and what steps does he intend to take to ensure that there is a massive yes vote, which the people of Wales so richly deserve? [7035]

The Prime Minister

I believe that these proposals will give Wales a strong voice. They will improve the decentralisation of government, which is important for the long-term future of this country. I shall go to Wales on Friday, and I have no doubt that I will be going to Wales many times during the forthcoming months.

Q12. Mr. Tyrie

Will the Prime Minister tell the House and the country what he meant when he said some months ago that Labour had no plans to raise taxes at all? [7036]

The Prime Minister

We actually set out in our manifesto very clearly the commitments on tax. We have kept to those manifesto commitments. We have also kept to the commitment that we gave that we would introduce a windfall tax to cure the problems of unemployment in this country. We said that we would increase expenditure on schools and hospitals, and we did so. The difference between this Government and the old Tory Government is that we make promises and keep them.

Mr. Pike

The Prime Minister will know that many people in low-pay constituencies such as mine, Burnley, will be very concerned by what the Leader of the Opposition said earlier today about working conditions. Will my right hon. Friend repeat the news that this Labour Government are committed to giving a fair national minimum wage as soon as possible to the people of this country?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One thing that I did not mention to the Leader of the Opposition is that, in the United States, for example, which has a lower unemployment rate than we do, there is a minimum wage. There will be proper and fair treatment for people, first, because it is right in its own terms and, secondly, to save the vast public expenditure on benefits in the present system. What sticks in my craw is Tory Members attacking the minimum wage when they would never for a single instant have any relative of theirs paid that amount of money.

Q13. Mr. Luff

Why does the Prime Minister think that there are more people in work here and fewer jobless—[Interruption.] I am sorry that Labour Members think that is funny. Why does the Prime Minister think that there are more people in work here and fewer jobless than in any other European Union country? [7037]

The Prime Minister

I have already given the hon. Gentleman the example of the United States, where fewer people are unemployed, but, as I said to his leader just a few moments ago—the hon. Gentleman should have listened—there were more people unemployed when the Tories left office than when they came to office. They shake their heads. I suggest that they go to the same House of Commons Library and see the figures.

Mr. Gunnell

Will my right hon. Friend welcome today's inward investment in Yorkshire, and join the Deputy Prime Minister, who is welcoming that investment on-site? Does the Prime Minister agree that the combination of a Labour Government and Labour-led local authorities, all committed to inward investment, will improve our performance in coming years?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right, and we welcome that inward investment. It is very good news. I seem to remember being told before the election that all the inward investment would dry up once Labour came to power. Another Tory lie bites the dust.

Q14. Mr. Welsh

Does the Prime Minister intend to introduce a proportional representation voting system for future European Parliament elections? If so, will he guarantee that the distinctive political systems in Scotland and Wales are specifically recognised in any such set-up? [7038]

The Prime Minister

It is our clear manifesto commitment to introduce proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament. The electoral systems in Scotland and Wales will be set out clearly in the White Papers on devolution that will be published shortly.

Mr. Sheerman

My right hon. Friend shares with me an enthusiasm for the European Union, but does he share my concern that there should be a strict criterion of democratic excellence before we allow enlargement? My constituents have expressed two worries. The first is that many of the European countries coming into the EU do not have a long track record of being stable democracies. The second is that they will be a net drain on the EU's resources. Will my right hon. Friend keep a careful eye on progress and ensure that our national interest is not damaged by the new entrants?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to some of the difficulties associated with enlarging the European Union. However, I think that enlargement is right as a process. This country should be fighting for changes in some of the ways in which Europe works to ensure that enlargement happens in the best way possible for existing countries as well as those coming in. Chief of the changes will be fundamental ones to the common agricultural policy. The way in which it works is a disgrace, and it should be reformed in the interests of all the people of Europe.

Q15. Mr. Burstow

Has the Prime Minister seen the report published by Scope today, which reveals that, of the polling stations surveyed, 81 per cent. had two or more access problems? Will he take urgent action to deal with the issue? In particular, will he consider the problems of blind or partially sighted people and introduce any necessary legislation that will enable them to vote unaided and in person at polling stations by using Braille templates and large print? [7039]

The Prime Minister

We welcome the study by Scope, and we will take its suggestions seriously. It is obvious that people should be entitled and able to vote irrespective of any disability they have. As most people found at the last election, the current position is not satisfactory. We will look at any ways to improve it.

Mr. Mike Hall

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the announcement by the Economic Secretary of a reversal of the cut in the number of customs officers will help this Government in their fight to combat drug crime?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the biggest worries about the cut in the number of customs officers was that it would impede the fight against crime, especially international crime. My hon. Friend will be aware of the discussions that the Foreign Secretary has been having in Moscow. It is important that we have the right controls and checks on our frontiers so that we can bear down on any form of international crime coming into this country from the rest of Europe. It is an extremely serious problem, and one of the matters that will form the centrepiece of our presidency of the G8 summit next year.

Q16. Mr. Stunell

Does the Prime Minister accept that figures supplied by the House of Commons Library show that the total to be spent on education next year will be only £10 million more, allowing for the changed inflation allowances? Does he further accept that that comes on top of large cuts in education in this financial year by many authorities throughout the country? [7040]

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that education authorities will not get the benefit of the money that will go into education next year. The hon. Gentleman is right to say—I say this to all his hon. Friends who are raising this issue—that the settlement will be tough; there is no doubt about that. We have a simple choice: we can go back to the days of the early 1990s, with a borrowing requirement of more than £40 billion, with all the damage that that did, or we can take the action which is necessary now to put our finances on a prudent and stable footing. The money from the windfall tax going into school repairs and the additional funding for education together make the largest single injection of finance into education that any Government have made for some time.

Mr. Barry Jones

Does my right hon. Friend recollect visiting the Raytheon Jets factory last September? May I persuade him to instruct the Secretary of State for Defence to award a contract for my constituent to service the very jets that the Ministry of Defence now flies?

The Prime Minister

I certainly admire my hon. Friend's audacity, although I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to award contracts to any company from the Dispatch Box. I know the Raytheon Jets factory very well, and I am sure that it will submit an excellent bid.

Mr. Soames

On the day that the Secretary-General of the United Nations is to unveil a programme of reforms, will the Prime Minister reflect for a moment on the extraordinarily distinguished role that the United Kingdom has played over the years in the United Nations, not least in peacekeeping operations, in which our troops have given a golden account of themselves? Will he tell the House precisely what his ambitions are for reform of the United Nations?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's sentiments on the United Nations and the part that Britain has played in it. We are proud of playing a major part in founding the United Nations. United Nations forces—in which Britain has played such a notable part in recent years—have done an outstanding job, and I congratulate all those who have been involved in them. The most important aspects of UN reform are that it reforms internally, in its secretariat, and externally, by drawing up the right principles to allow us to decide when it is appropriate to intervene and when it is not. The Government intend to be heavily involved in that process, and I believe that the new Secretary-General has made an excellent start in his work on both aspects.