HC Deb 11 June 1997 vol 295 cc1133-42
Q2. Mr. Burstow

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 11 June. [1407]

The Prime Minister

I had a meeting today with Transport Commissioner, Mr. Neil Kinnock. Later today, I will go to France for a meeting with President Chirac. In addition, I have had meetings with Cabinet colleagues.

Mr. Burstow

Will the Prime Minister consider, in national carers week, that the only way in which the Government can make a difference to Britain's 6.8 million carers is by providing the additional resources necessary to implement fully both the spirit and the letter of the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act 1995? If the Government do not deliver on that, all they will be offering is tea and sympathy.

The Prime Minister

I would like to pay tribute to the enormous amount of work done by the almost 7 million carers in this country. They do it in circumstances of great difficulty and often of genuine hardship. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Carers (Recognition and Services) Act was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Mr. Wicks). We are, of course, committed to implementing it

It is extremely important, if we are to put caring on a proper basis for the long term, that there be the right co-operation between community care services and local health services. That is something which we are also committed to doing. Of course, we have to work within the available resources, but we will none the less make substantial progress on the Act.

Mr. Connarty

The Prime Minister may have noted last week that the Securities and Investments Board instructed one major pensions company to retrain its whole work force because they are still mis-selling pensions. Can he assure the House and the country that the Government will ensure that people who are mis-sold pensions will be fully compensated for what is essentially an abuse of a position of trust by the pensions companies?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. About 600,000 people have been mis-sold pensions. It is an absolute scandal, and one which we are determined to put right. My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary has already agreed to bring together the various pensions groups to consider how the situation can be put right. It is important that people should be given proper compensation. In advance of the meeting, we cannot detail the specific recommendations that will be made, but we are considering the problem urgently. We have acted on it with considerable speed after coming to power, and we will act on it further as soon as we can.

Q3. Mr. Spring

Given the immense importance of the American air force presence at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, is the Prime Minister aware of the anger and anxiety in my constituency following calls by local Labour councillors for the bases' closure? Will he take this opportunity to condemn those anti-American sentiments and will he institute whatever is required within his party to put a stop at once to damaging anti-NATO activities? [1408]

The Prime Minister

I am not aware of the comments to which the hon. Gentleman adverts, but, as he should know, we are strong supporters of both the alliance with America and NATO, and it is absolutely clear that there is no question of the bases being closed. The Labour party in government has done an extremely good job in securing a good future for the transatlantic alliance that we hold dear.

Mr. Corbett

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is his Government's intention to ensure that before this Parliament is over people with disabilities enjoy the same civil rights as the rest of us?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend points out, we are of course committed to making sure that those who are disabled get proper civil rights. We have made that clear all the way through. I pay tribute to the work that he and many of my hon. Friends have done in trying to promote disabled people's rights.

When the measures in the United States were introduced, there were great shouts that they would put companies out of business, that people would not be able to cope and that the cost burden would be too great. In fact, business has gained as a result of the introduction of those measures. It is precisely because we believe that disabled people have a good and genuine role in our society that we are committed to the rights that my hon. Friend describes.

Mr. Heseltine

During the election campaign, the Labour party's spokesman on schools, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), gave an assurance that children with assisted places which go up to the age of 13 would be able to keep those places when the scheme was abolished. Will the Prime Minister confirm that that is the policy of Her Majesty's Government?

The Prime Minister

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise this, and I hope that my answer will give him some satisfaction. The position, as he knows, is that the vast majority of children on the assisted places scheme are there for secondary education between the ages of 11 and 18. He will know also that prior to the general election his Government also introduced assisted places for those in primary schools. In respect of those children in primary schools up to the age of 11, there is under the Bill an automatic right for assisted places to continue all the way through the schooling. In respect of those between the ages of 11 and 13, there is a discretion on the part of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment. The Secretary of State has already made it clear that those between the ages of 11 and 13, where the normal school leaving age in that area is—exceptionally—12 or 13, will be protected as well. He has also made it clear that school children between the ages of 10 to 13 in the middle schools will also be protected. In respect of the subject matter that was raised in the debate last night—those children that come in aged four or five—the Secretary of State will make it clear today that he will exercise his discretion in respect of those children, provided that they have been given a promise or an understanding that their assisted place will go all the way through to 13.

Mr. Heseltine

The Prime Minister has outlined a range of discretion in respect of the powers of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment for children between the ages of 11 and 13. During the election campaign, a letter was written by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), the then shadow Minister for Schools, in which he said: If a child has a place at a school which runs to age 13, then that place will he honoured through to 13. There was no reference to discretion: it was a right.

The Prime Minister

Let me explain to the right hon. Gentleman why it is necessary to have a discretion. In respect of those children who have been given a promise or an understanding that they will go through to the age of 13, that—as was indicated by the letter—must be honoured, but there may be children who were not given a promise or understanding. It is important, to prevent abuse of the system, that we do not end up with taxpayers' money being spent subsidising private school fees for children between the ages of 11 and 13, when no such promise or understanding was given to the parents. In respect, however, of those children for whom an assurance was given, that assurance will be honoured.

Mr. Heseltine

The fact of the matter is that no question of discretion was mentioned during the election campaign. A quite specific commitment was given and the Government are reneging on that commitment. The fact is that last week the Prime Minister did not know the difference between a Bill and a White Paper: this year he does not know the difference between the ages of 11 and 13. Everyone will remember that in the election he said that they would honour their specific pledges or they would not be trusted. Already, it is obvious that this Government cannot be trusted.

The Prime Minister

All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that if that was a late leadership bid, I think it will be unsuccessful. If I can put him right, I have made it clear that the assurance that has been given will be honoured. It is important that there is a discretionary element, because we must avoid abuse of the system. If no promise had been given that the schooling would extend to 13, it would mean that two years' worth of taxpayers' money was being given to a child when no such assurance had been given. Let me explain why this is necessary to Conservative Members, who have attempted—I do not say in respect of this, but in respect of other things—to delay this legislation as much as they possibly can. It is necessary because people should have a perfect right to send their children to private schools if they wish, but taxpayers' money should not be used to subsidise that. Taxpayers' money should be used for the state education system. We will use that money to cut class sizes for the five, six and seven-year-olds in our state education system. I believe that the Conservatives' refusal to understand the importance of that is yet another reason why they lost the election.

Mrs. Heal

Could my right hon. Friend tell me the answer to the sum 203 minus 5? Is he aware that half the nine-year-olds in England are unable to do that sum and that a recent survey revealed that we lie tenth out of 17 countries? What will his Government do to ensure that basic literacy is not an optional extra for our school children?

Hon. Members


The Prime Minister

I feel as if the shadow of Dan Quayle is standing over me. Of course, my hon. Friend and I both know the answer, so there is no need to say it.

Mr. Skinner

The Tories only add up to 164.

The Prime Minister

But can they count? That is the point. We have of course taken action on literacy and numeracy as one of the Government's first priorities. I feel that prioritising those areas is the right thing for our Government to do. Many things should be changed in the primary school—and, indeed, the secondary school—education system, but there is no greater priority than getting basic literacy and numeracy skills right. We have set rigorous targets for that and we intend to meet those targets. Again, if we carry that through—and I believe that we shall—we will have done something very substantial not only for individual children but for the whole future economic and social prosperity of our nation.

Q4. Mrs. Ray Michie

Does the Prime Minister agree with his colleagues both past and present who signed the Claim of Right based on the sovereignty of the Scottish people or does he, as was widely reported before the general election, still believe that sovereignty rests with him as an English Member of Parliament? [1410]

The Prime Minister

The simple fact is, as, indeed, the Constitutional Convention accepted, that ultimate sovereignty rests with the Westminster Parliament. Of course that is so.

Mrs. Ewing


The Prime Minister

Well, it is actually there in the Constitutional Convention. In respect of the Claim of Right and sovereignty of the Scottish people, what could be better than giving them the sovereign right to decide in a referendum whether they want a Scottish Parliament? That is surely the sensible way to proceed. Having watched the debate with considerable interest over the past few months, I believe that the vast majority of people in Scotland, including the constituents of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mrs. Michie), are less interested in those types of constitutional intricacy than they are in seeing how the Scottish Parliament delivers better health, better education, better law and order services to the people. If we all concentrated on that, we would get a long way.

Mr. Barnes

At the general election, Labour stood on a programme on opencast mining that contained 10 points. What progress has been made on that? It is of vast importance to many of our constituents.

The Prime Minister

I cannot off the top of my head tell my hon. Friend exactly what progress has been made. He will know that, in his area, it is a major issue. It is in my constituency, too. If he will allow me, I shall ensure that I write to him to say exactly what progress has been made on the points that he raises.

Q5. Mr. Flight

I am sure that the Prime Minister will be aware that the majority of shares in the privatised utilities are owned by pension funds or pensioners. Will he assure the House that, as the previous Government provided compensation to pensioners who suffered from the increase in VAT on fuel, the Government will provide compensation to pensioners and pension funds that suffer a loss of value in their savings and investments as a result of the windfall tax? [1411]

The Prime Minister

Rather than compensating them for having put VAT on fuel, the previous Government, whom no doubt the hon. Gentleman would have supported, should never have put it on in the first place. As for pension funds and the windfall tax, I really do not know how anyone looking at the results of the companies over the past few weeks can doubt the wisdom and basic fairness of a windfall tax. It is the right, fair way to put in place a jobs and education programme for our young people that is desperately needed in many parts of the country. I should tell the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches that we were elected on that mandate. That was the promise we made and, unlike the previous Government, we will carry through our promise.

Mr. Linton

In carrying out his programme of constitutional reforms, will the Prime Minister consider laying down at least minimum standards of democracy for the election of the Leader of the Opposition?

Madam Speaker

Order. Questions must be asked of the Prime Minister for which he has a responsibility.

Mr. Linton

Will my right hon. Friend introduce minimum standards of democracy for all elections that affect the conduct of the House? As the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) won the first ballot with 49 votes, whereas my right hon. Friend, when elected Leader of the Opposition, won 508,000 votes at the same stage—more than 10,000 times more—will he also consult the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am tolerant of new Members, but let me make the matter clear so that everyone is aware. Let us have a seminar for just one moment. Questions must be asked of the Prime Minister for which he has responsibility. He has no responsibility for what happens on the Conservative Benches. I now call Mr. Ashdown, who I am sure has a very good question for the Prime Minister.

Mr. Ashdown

As always, Madam Speaker, as always

At the election, the Labour party said that it would retain for two years, if I recall correctly, not only the Conservative Government's overall spending plans, but even the individual departmental budget ceilings. Is that still Government policy?

The Prime Minister

The position is precisely as we outlined it during the election campaign. The comprehensive spending review will be announced at 3.30 pm today. The purpose of that is simply to ensure that we get the best value for money for the spending plans that are put through

In all honesty, we have inherited a national debt that doubled under the previous Administration. This year, we will pay out in interest payments on the debt that they ran up more than we spend on law and order or defence. For that very reason, we have to make absolutely sure that we keep a tight rein on public spending.

Mr. Ashdown

The departmental spending review may well commit the Government to maintaining that two-year ban in terms of the overall total and the individual budget ceilings. The Government know that we think that it is wrong that one cannot raise targeted taxes for targeted expenditure on education, but surely it must be plain dotty that savings cannot be transferred from one Department to another. The effect of that, as the Prime Minister must surely know, is to deepen the crisis in education.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that when he wrote the Labour manifesto for the election he made a commitment not to allow dogma to intrude into children's education? Do not the Government apparently intend to do precisely that?

The Prime Minister

I say, with the greatest respect, that I do not think that that is a substantial point.

The comprehensive spending review, which will be announced at 3.30 pm, is precisely designed to ensure that we get proper value for money. It is always possible to say that we should be spending more money on every single part of Government expenditure.

Mr. Kirkwood

He was not saying that.

The Prime Minister

He was. He said that he would have preferred targeted taxes to increase public spending. He stood for election on a programme that, perfectly honestly and perfectly rightly according to his views, called for tax rises in connection with virtually every aspect of Government expenditure.

We made a clear and specific pledge during the election, and we will carry it out. We have to do that in difficult financial circumstances—and that is the responsibility of Government—because the previous Administration got public finances into their current state. They did that despite North sea oil, the asset sales and all the rest of it. For that very reason, we have got to keep a tight rein on public spending. We will do that, but we will not do so dogmatically—of course not. For example, we will phase out the money on the assisted places and use it to reduce class sizes; for example, we will make sure that the windfall tax helps young people on training programmes; for example, we will cut national health service bureaucracy. That is precisely what I would call using public spending wisely and making sure that when we put a tax in place, it is fair. That is what we have done.

Q7. Mr. Home Robertson

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the wider effects of the division and inequality that we have inherited from the previous Administration? Will he consider the position of people on low incomes in this country? Surely it is bad enough that they have a low standard of living. Is it not worse still that a disproportionate number of them also suffer from bad health, which often leads to early death? After all the years of procrastination and neglect by the outgoing Administration—starting with the cover-up of the Black report on health and inequality in Britain in 1980—what will the new Labour Government do to make things better for people on low incomes? [1413]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to raise that concern. It is for that reason that the Secretary of State for Health has asked Sir Donald Acheson to conduct a further review into inequality and the link between wealth and health. It is important to do that because the Black report, which was commissioned by a Labour Government, was effectively buried by the last Conservative Government. These inequalities do matter and there is no doubt that the published statistics show a link between income, inequality and poor health. It is important to address that issue, and we are doing so. The purpose of the windfall tax is to address that matter on behalf of young people and the long-term unemployed. We are also addressing the issue by introducing the minimum wage, which will help those on low incomes, and with welfare measures, particularly those designed to get single parents back to work. [HON. MEMBERS: "Boring."] Conservative Members may shout, "Boring" but most people in this country want those issues to be tackled.

Mr. Alan Clark

Most people in this place would agree with the Prime Minister that an invited audience is more congenial than any other sort. We are an elected body of representatives. What are we to infer from the fact that the Prime Minister has halved the number of occasions on which he comes to the Chamber to answer questions and instead goes round the country to speak to hand-picked audiences selected by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) at supposed question-and-answer sessions?

The Prime Minister

There is precisely the same amount of time for Prime Minister's questions. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is setting up a Select Committee to look at the procedures of the House and related issues. Politicians should go round the country and talk to the public more often. It is important that members of the public, as well as Members of the House, get the chance to question the Prime Minister.

Q8. Mr. Cousins

Does the Prime Minister agree that the people and the Government of Britain owe a moral duty to the people of Hong Kong that will not end with the handover ceremony next month? [1414]

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is an important matter and I shall be attending the handover ceremony. I anticipate that the present Prime Minister of China will be there. We are committed to the Joint Declaration, which protects the rights of people in Hong Kong, and we shall do everything in our power to ensure that it is carried out. We have a considerable obligation to the 6.5 million people who live in Hong Kong. My hon. Friend will remember how, in the previous Parliament, we helped some of those people to obtain their proper rights of citizenship and passports precisely because of our concerns. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand from what I have said that we take those concerns and the interests of those people very seriously indeed. Although we wish to have good relations with China—they are important both for Hong Kong and for the British national interest—we want to ensure that the words of the Joint Declaration are carried out.

Q9. Mrs. Ewing

Will the Prime Minister—and, I hope, the House—join me in sending good wishes to the people of Eigg, who are this week celebrating the long-overdue community ownership of their island? When will there be a comprehensive reform of the feudal system of land tenure in Scotland—I mean reform, not review, which seems to be this Government's favourite word? [1415]

The Prime Minister

On the latter part of the hon. Lady's question, I can make no promises. I am, however, happy to send my good wishes to the people of Eigg and I hope they enjoy their celebration very much. Unfortunately, I shall not be there with them.

Q10. Mr. Jim Cunningham

As we are to have a free vote on the use of handguns, does the Prime Minister accept that Parliament has a moral responsibility to support a ban on handguns and that we owe that responsibility particularly to the parents of Dunblane and to other parents who are concerned about their children? [14161]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend knows that that is to be the subject of debate later. We owe a moral responsibility to the victims of Dunblane and their families, which is why we have brought forward legislation on the matter. It is true that the last Government did a great deal in the banning of handguns, but we believe that all handguns should be banned. That is my personal belief. There will be a free vote on the issue and I shall personally support the proposed measures, because they are the right ones. We all remember the day of Dunblane and what happened there and we want to do everything in our power to make sure that it never happens again.