HC Deb 23 July 1997 vol 298 cc943-52
Q1. Mr. Bayley

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 23 July. [8386]

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning I had ministerial meetings with colleagues and attended a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party. Later today I shall have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen.

Mr. Bayley

Based on his visit to the Nestlé international research centre in York, does the Prime Minister accept that York has become not just a United Kingdom, but a European, centre of excellence in bioscience? It has 1,500 food scientists and bioscientists working for international companies, four MAFF agencies and a university with a 5* rating in bioscience research. Does my right hon. Friend agree that York would be the ideal location for the executive arm of the food standards agency? Will he ask the relevant Ministers to consider the York bid seriously?

The Prime Minister

I well remember my visit to Nestlé. I know that York's claims to be the location for the food standards agency are strong, particularly since the Meat Hygiene Service is already located there. My hon. Friend will understand that those claims have to be considered in accordance with the usual procedures and in line with other claims being pressed on us, but I can assure him that we will give them the utmost consideration.

Mr. Hague

I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that the whole House should welcome any ceasefire in Northern Ireland which might allow people to live without the threat of terrorist violence. We all hope that it is not a cynical tactic but the beginning of a genuine and lasting renunciation of violence.

In that spirit, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to confirm the assurance that he gave me in the House four weeks ago—that there will be no question of substantive negotiations with Sinn Fein proceeding without early parallel decommissioning of illegal terrorist weapons?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice that he was going to raise this topic and for the support that he has given the Government.

The position is and must remain that the ceasefire in Northern Ireland must be clear and unequivocal and tested in both word and deed.

There have been statements in certain parts of the press and elsewhere that the Government's position on decommissioning has changed. It has not changed in any way. It is our desire to see decommissioning during the course of the negotiations. It is precisely for that reason that we have put in place a scheme under which an independent commission will be established. We want a decommissioning scheme available for discussion when negotiations begin on 15 September. We are trying to find a way through the current impasse, but we will do so in a way fully consistent with the principles that we have set out.

Mr. Hague

I welcome the Prime Minister's assurance that the Government's position has not changed. Can he confirm his assurance that progress can be made only by agreement in the talks, reached on the basis of sufficient consensus, and confirm that he has no intention of seeking to impose solutions?

The Prime Minister

We certainly want to ensure that those elements of what was called by the previous Prime Minister the triple lock remain in place—that an agreement should be negotiated, not imposed, that there should be a referendum which confirms the agreement and that it should be agreed also by the British Parliament.

Things are at a very difficult stage at the moment. We welcome the ceasefire. We are not in the slightest bit dewy eyed about it; we understand the cynicism that many people in Northern Ireland must feel about it, but we still believe that it is better to have the ceasefire than not, and it is better—if we can do so consistent with principle—to have people talking rather than fighting.

Q2. Mrs. Fyfe

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the worry that many of us will have about access to further and higher education will be that people might be deterred because of financial circumstances? Specifically, will he consider the issue of longer courses such as medicine and the Scottish four-year honours degree, which I very much hope will be retained? Those courses might cause considerable difficulties if we do not think carefully where we are going. I seek reassurance from my right hon. Friend on those questions. [8387]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend can be given those assurances. First, in relation to higher education in Scotland, we will of course consider very carefully the special position of Scotland.

Without in any way prejudging the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is about to make, I can tell my hon. Friend that there will be proper protection for low-income families. We will not tolerate people being put off going to university as a result of the means of their parents. That is point No. 1. Point No. 2 is that we want a loans system that is fair and geared to people's ability to pay. That will also be part of the settlement. Point No. 3 is that we do not want additional parental contributions. Point No. 4 is that we must get more money into our university system.

We face a clear choice. If we want to increase student numbers and raise the amount of investment in universities, and we were to do it with taxpayers' money, it would cost a very substantial amount—something that people simply would not tolerate—so we must look for a better way to do it. Dearing was set up as an all-party initiative by the previous Government.

I believe that decisions on the funding of post-16 education must be taken in the interests of the long-term future of Britain and we will not shrink from taking them.

Mr. Ashdown


Hon. Members

Get on the other side.

Madam Speaker

Order. This is time-consuming.

Mr. Ashdown

Is not it curious that the Conservative party, which in government welcomed and called for cross-party co-operation wherever it could get it, including on Northern Ireland, now in opposition criticises it whenever anyone else engages in it? It is Conservatives' hypocrisy that lost them power weeks ago and it is Conservatives' hypocrisy that will keep them out of power for years to come.

Leaving aside for a moment the procedural wrangling, is not the central question in the Northern Ireland situation this—thanks to the courage of some Unionists at the time of the marching season and the response that we have received from some of the nationalist community, Northern Ireland now has an opportunity for peace which many believed it would not have again and which if lost now may not come again for a long time to come? Are not the wishes of the Northern Irish people and the duty of their representatives absolutely clear—to break away from the procedural wrangling and get down to the substance of the talks?

The Prime Minister

In relation to the first part of what the right hon. Gentleman said, I thought that he did rather well, so I have nothing to add. Secondly, I agree entirely with what he said about Northern Ireland. There is the opportunity for peace. I understand the concerns, especially among those in the Unionist community. I would simply say that, two weeks ago, we were being accused of betrayal and treachery by elements of the nationalist community over Drumcree. This is a difficult situation. I know why members of the Unionist party felt they had to vote against the decommissioning agreement today. I am pleased that the leader of the Ulster Unionists is not walking out of those talks. We shall try to find a way through because, in the end, that is in the interests of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland and that is what they want to see.

Mr. Ashdown

I am grateful for the Prime Minister's statement. Does he agree that, while the remaining months of the summer may offer a pause for reflection and for the taking of breath, unless the Northern Ireland politicians can begin to achieve together some progress once autumn comes, we may once again face failure in the whole process?

The Prime Minister

We must proceed on the basis of the principles that we set out, in particular that the ceasefire must be clear and unequivocal and the consent principle, which is at the heart of our approach to the issue of Northern Ireland. The most important thing, and the reason we want to try and find a way through the impasse of decommissioning, is that for almost 18 months talks have been going on but there have been no talks about the substance of the lasting political settlement in Northern Ireland. I am concerned to find a way through that impasse so that at long last we can talk about the nature of that lasting political agreement. There is support among the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, at least around the two basic principles: some form of devolution—a devolved Assembly for Northern Ireland— and some form of north-south co-operation. There are tremendous disagreements about the detail of those but there is support for those two principles, so the sooner we can get on to debating the substance, the sooner we can build the lasting political settlement that we need.

Ms Moran

Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming not only the IRA ceasefire but moves by all parties who have at their heart the interests of peace in Northern Ireland? Will he confirm that the timetable that he set out previously for the substantive talks that he just mentioned will be adhered to and will progress with all speed?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Not many elements in this situation command virtually an entire consensus, but one of the elements that does is the desire of all people to see us get on with the substantive negotiations. That is why we set out the timetable a short time ago. We shall keep to that timetable and we shall continue to ensure that we get it through.

Q3. Mr. Welsh

Is the Prime Minister aware—

Mr. Skinner

Play your cards right for a Cabinet Committee place.

Mr. Welsh

I shall try again. Is the Prime Minister aware of our concerns about welfare-to-work participants' access to choice, which will be either restricted or non-existent? Will he guarantee that youngsters will have access to all four choices before their benefits are cut from the princely sum of £38.90 to zero? [8388]

The Prime Minister

The important thing is that the choices are there for young people. There is not the choice of simply remaining on benefit because that is in the interests of neither young people nor the country. It is essential that we get those young people off benefit and into work. We are offering not Mickey Mouse schemes but quality skills, education and work programmes. We have been delighted with the response from the private sector. We believe and hope that a large proportion of the proposals that we shall make to those young people will involve the private sector, and a range of choices will be on offer to them.

Mr. Benn

Will the Prime Minister confirm the full briefing given by No. 10 yesterday that a Cabinet consultative Committee is to be set up under his chairmanship, that Sir Robin Butler will sit on it, that Liberal Democrat Members of the House will be on it and that they will be required to sign the Official Secrets Act and thus receive information that will be disclosed neither to the House nor to hon. Members who are not party to that arrangement? Did he notice that The Independent this morning describes this as an unprecedented constitutional move and says that on earlier occasions, in 1931 and 1977, Prime Ministers made statements about instituting changes of this kind?

The Prime Minister

First, it is not unprecedented. My right hon. Friend mentioned some of the precedents. Secondly, in relation to the terms of reference and the membership of the Committee, parliamentary questions will be answered on that. Thirdly, even if it were unprecedented, I say that if it is the right thing to do, why not do it?

Q4. Mr. Hawkins

Will the parents of pupils at grant-maintained secondary schools in towns such as Uxbridge all be given a vote on whether those schools retain grant-maintained status? [8389]

The Prime Minister

Those parents will be given the same opportunities as others, under the White Paper. The proposals leave a substantial measure of control in the hands of grant-maintained schools.

Mr. Derek Foster

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the United Kingdom can prosper in the information society only if we use all the skills and talents of all our people? Does not that require driving up the quality of higher education and substantially widening access? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, in the Government's response to Dearing, nothing will be done to restrict access to higher education of students from poor families, mature students, ethnic minority students and disabled people?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can assure my right hon. Friend that our proposals will be designed to safeguard the position of low-income families. He will hear that clearly when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment speaks in a moment. Moreover, we have issued the proposals because we want to extend the possibility of higher education to more people. The Dearing committee was established precisely because people realised that the present system was not working. The previous Government were obliged to put a cap on the number going into higher education because of that.

It is not true to say that this is the first time the issue of tuition fees has ever been discussed. Part-time students, students in further education colleges and postgraduate students are familiar with it. We need a system that is fair, does not involve additional parental contribution, is linked to students' ability to pay and safeguards the country for the long term. That is what we will provide.

Mr. Hague

Will the Prime Minister confirm that his Welsh Assembly would have no powers over the police, even though a Scottish Parliament would have such powers?

The Prime Minister

Yes. The Welsh Assembly will not have powers in the same way as it will have powers in relation to schools and hospitals, but as I said in Wales on Friday, it will be able to debate issues concerning law and order and it will have direct influence, because local government is one of the things that will be devolved to the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Hague

Why, then, did the Prime Minister tell people in south Wales last week that a Welsh Assembly would run the police and have powers over law and order? To use his phrase of a moment ago, if he thought that it was the right thing to do last Friday, why not get on and do it?

The Prime Minister

As I said last Friday—I have just explained this to the right hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "No you have not."] With all due respect to the Conservative party, perhaps Opposition Members should listen to a party that got some Welsh Members of Parliament rather than to a party that lost them all. However, Conservative Members do not like to listen, which is why they are in opposition and why they will stay there.

As I said in Wales last Friday, the Welsh Assembly will have the chance to influence law and order in the Principality but, as I made clear, there will not be the same powers as in relation to schools and hospitals.

Mr. Hague

Waffling and wriggling will not get the Prime Minister out of the question. Let me remind him of what he said. A Welsh Assembly means decisions about schools, hospitals and law and order can be taken here". Why was that the Prime Minister's policy last Friday, when he was in Wales, but not this week, when he is in London? Let us get this straight. He said that the Scottish Parliament would be a parish council and then that it would not be. He promised to publish the devolution Bills before the referendums and then said that he would not. He said that a Welsh Assembly would run the police and now he says that it will not. Are not people entitled to be worried that these must be pretty ill-thought-out proposals if he cannot even understand them himself?

The Prime Minister

I repeat my answer for the third time. The Leader of the Opposition quoted one part of my remarks in relation to law and order and not the other. [HON. MEMBERS: "Aah."] If he reads my comments, he will see that that is so. As to devolution more generally, the Conservative party has just agreed that there should be a Londonwide body, with an elected mayor, to oversee the governance of London. Let me quote the leader of Wandsworth council. [HON. MEMBERS: "The question is about Wales."] Opposition Members do not want to hear it. He said that it was time that Londoners had a voice for London. If it is good enough for London, why is it not good enough for Wales?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Will the Prime Minister congratulate our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the tough and effective way in which he negotiated a deal in Europe on bovine spongiform encephalopathy and beef imports? Does not it show that the way forward is to sit down and talk to the Europeans, who then respond positively?

The Prime Minister

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the agreement that he secured last night. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is absolutely right to say that that is the proper way to negotiate. Moreover, the agreement negotiated by my right hon. Friend was precisely the agreement that the previous Government tried, and failed, to negotiate. Once again, we are showing the way to govern.

Q5. Mr. Streeter

I am sorry that the Prime Minister is having such a bad day. [Interruption.] Perhaps I can ask him an easier question, which he might be able to answer. What did he mean when he said in Scotland that sovereignty would rest with him, as an English Member of Parliament? [8390]

The Prime Minister

As I explained a million times at the time, sovereignty remains with the United Kingdom Parliament, of which both the hon. Gentleman and I are Members—in case he had not noticed.

Mr. Radice

Following the speech by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Chatham house last Thursday, will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister tell the House what steps the Government are taking to introduce a national debate on the pros and cons of a single currency?

The Prime Minister

The measures that we are taking were set out in the Chancellor's speech. It is important that we have a proper national debate about the issue, because it will affect us, whether we are in or out of the single currency. It is therefore important to ensure that the business and financial sectors and others are fully prepared while the Government retain the option of whether to join.

Q7. Mr. Swayne

Can the Prime Minister really be satisfied with the fact that, yesterday, his senior ex-ministerial colleague, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), described his Welsh devolution proposals as a "constitutional mystery tour"? [8392]

The Prime Minister

I have not come across the hon. Gentleman before, but I gather from my hon. Friends that virtually everything is a mystery to him. I prefer the words of the Conservative Welsh Office spokesman in the Lords until 1994, who said: The current status quo is untenable … The Assembly is the only way forward that is on the table.

Ms Keeble

Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the results of the Nationwide building society ballot, which found three to one in favour of the existing directors and therefore of the building society's retaining its mutual status? Does he agree that that is a sign that many people are turning away from the quick buck and towards more long-term care in their financial planning?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was delighted to see the result and I think that the right decision was made.

Q8. Mr. Richard Allan

Is the Prime Minister aware of the legal advice given recently to the World Development Movement that the Government could cancel, without penalty, export licences granted by the previous Government? In view of that advice, will he confirm now that no more Hawk jets will be exported to Indonesia? [8393]

The Prime Minister

No. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that he will take a decision on this in respect of the criteria that we have already laid down. If there is any decision to revoke licences, it will, of course, be notified to the House, but the position is not as the hon. Gentleman just set it out.

Mr. Reed

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend— [HON. MEMBERS: "Reeding."] I think that Opposition Members should—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Reeding."] May I congratulate my right hon. right Friend on delivering our election promise for Scottish and Welsh devolution? Does he share my belief that the people of the English regions, including the best known and well-loved east midlands region, should benefit as soon as practicable from the same benefits as will result from the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend should not be put off at all by the jeering of Opposition Members. Whenever we talk of keeping election promises, they do not quite understand it. It is an alien language to them, but we are trying to tutor them.

In relation to devolution and decentralisation, yes, it is important that decentralisation happens in English regions as well. That is why many parts of business and industry are co-operating with local authorities in the east midlands, the north-east and elsewhere. They think that it is in the interests of their region. That is a better way than the government by quango that we suffered under the Conservatives.

Q9. Mr. Burstow

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Royal College of Nursing is about to ballot its members at St. Helier NHS trust hospital in Carshalton over the possibility of working to contract to demonstrate their concerns about the pressures on the accident and emergency department at that hospital? Does he accept that the RCN would not be undertaking such an initiative unless it had grave concerns about that department? Therefore, can he give my constituents an assurance that, this winter, they will not face the prospect of waiting for hours on hospital trolleys as they did last winter under the previous Government? [8394]

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason and because of the difficulties experienced by many hospitals throughout the country that we have pledged to put £1.2 billion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Next year."]—next year into the national health service. That allows health authorities to plan ahead to a far greater extent than at present and it is why we have got rid of the wasteful, inefficient, Conservative internal market, so that money that is spent in the national health service is spent on patient care rather than on more accountants and bureaucrats, which is what happened under 18 years of Conservative government. I say to the hon. Gentleman and to people in the health service that it will take time to put it right, but at least they have a Government who are starting to put it right. I think that they welcome that.

Mr. Gapes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposals of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan for a fundamental modernisation of the United Nations deserve widespread support throughout the world and that there is now no excuse whatever for the United States Congress to block repayment of the arrears that they owe?

The Prime Minister

As I said in the House, I think a week ago, we very much support the reform programme of the Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan, and want to see that the arrears of the United States are properly taken care of. We believe that that is possible. There is a different mood about since the reform programme was started by the Secretary-General. We will play our full part in ensuring that the arrears are cleared and that the Secretary-General's reform programme is put through.

Q10. Mr. Evans

What action is the Prime Minister taking to assist international hauliers based in this country? As he knows, they have been hit by the high value of the pound, which is making them less competitive with their foreign competitors, and that has been exacerbated by three interest rate rises since the Government took power. They have also been hit by strikes in Greece, Spain and France, where their lorries either could not work or, even worse, were damaged. These British companies are still waiting for compensation to come through. We have all heard about this wonderful new co-operation that the Prime Minister has with our European neighbours. Will he now sit down with his European counterparts and ensure that these British companies get their compensation? [8395]

The Prime Minister

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman recognises the benefits of a co-operative approach. We will do our best to do what he says. We are of course trying to obtain compensation; we are also trying to clean up the very significant mess that the last Government left for us in respect of compensation and other matters.

Let me take up what the hon. Gentleman said about interest rates. The plain fact is that interest rates have had to go up because the Government he supported failed to take the necessary action. They failed to take it on the Budget deficit and they failed to take it when inflation began to come back into the system. We will not go back to the days of Tory boom and bust. This Government will run the economy efficiently.