HC Deb 26 November 1997 vol 301 cc964-72
Q2. Mr. Gapes

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 26 November.

The Prime Minister

This morning, I attended a meeting of the national executive committee of the Labour party. I also visited Ted and Joyce Hawkes, an elderly pensioner couple who have benefited greatly from the measures announced yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I shall have further meetings later today.

Mr. Gapes

Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing better demonstrates the difference between our Government and the Conservatives than the fact that, last winter, the Conservatives put VAT on fuel for millions of pensioners, whereas yesterday my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a cut and millions of pounds extra for pensioners this winter? Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister assure the House that speedy action will be taken to ensure that millions of pensioners benefit from that as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I certainly will. I should point out that the measures announced yesterday by my right hon. Friend mean that all pensioners will get £20 help with their fuel bill, and there will be £50 help for the 1.7 million pensioners on income support. Taking into account the cut in VAT on fuel, the abolition of the gas levy and the reduction in VAT on energy efficiency materials, pensioners will have £100 a year extra help. That is the difference between a Labour Government who keep their promises and a Tory Government who broke them.

Mr. Hague

May I ask the Prime Minister a question which need not be a matter of party controversy, but which the Chancellor declined to answer yesterday? I welcome the provision made to help disabled people into work, even though it seems foolish to pay for it through a one-off tax. Can the Prime Minister give us an assurance that his pre-election promise not to raise taxes covers disabled people on benefit?

The Prime Minister

As the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has already said, we shall conduct a comprehensive spending review properly, but we shall do so on a basis that keeps our election pledges.

Mr. Hague

This is an important point. Many disabled people who are watching our exchanges will be anxious to know the answers. It has been reported in newspapers that the Government are considering taxing disability living allowance and attendance allowance. Will the Prime Minister rule out taxing those benefits for disabled people?

The Prime Minister

I have already said to the right hon. Gentleman that we made all our pledges at the election. We shall keep to those pledges. If there are any changes to disability benefit or anything else, they will be announced here.

Mr. Hague

Those are pretty weasel words. Any changes will be announced here—but no assurances about what those changes would be.

I ask the Prime Minister for another assurance. Can he at least give an assurance that disability living allowance will continue to be paid directly to disabled people and will not be paid to town halls to distribute or spend on their behalf?

The Prime Minister

I have already said to the right hon. Gentleman that the comprehensive spending review will continue as it should. It is an absurd game to get into ruling this in, ruling this out. He should not go on the basis of newspaper reports. Any changes will be announced in the proper way.

Mr. Hague

With this Government's willingness to speak to Parliament, one has to go on the basis of newspaper reports. Can the Prime Minister be serious that such a proposal is under consideration? Does he believe that Islington council knows better how to spend the money of disabled people than they know themselves? It should not need a review to answer that one.

Since the right hon. Gentleman is so keen on reviews, will he look again—if he would listen to the question instead of to the Chancellor—at the Lord Chancellor's plans for legal aid, which could prevent people who are seriously disabled in accidents from pursuing personal injury claims? Is not removing their entitlement the wrong way to reform legal aid?

The Prime Minister

First, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong about what he says are the effects of the Lord Chancellor's plans. Secondly, it was the Conservative Government who cut benefit for millions of disabled people. I remember that when we, as an Opposition, proposed better rights for disabled people, his Government opposed them. We shall take no lessons in helping the disabled or the unemployed from him and his Conservative party.

Mr. Hague

I am asking the Prime Minister for an answer, not a lesson. Our Government increased spending on disability benefits by 300 per cent. Our Government took the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 through the House. If the Prime Minister built on that legacy, he would have the Opposition's support. Disabled people will have found his answers today disappointing as well as unconvincing. He has done nothing to allay the fears that his Ministers have stirred up. Will he at least give an assurance that he will provide clear answers to those questions and put the minds of disabled people at rest— and do so before the European Day of Disabled People next week?

The Prime Minister

I have never heard anything quite so pathetic as the right hon. Gentleman trying to raise a load of scares and nonsense. We had a pre-Budget statement yesterday, but he has not even asked a single question on it, and that is because he knows that it was good for business, it was good for the unemployed, it was good for pensioners, it was good for child care and it was good for the country. The Tories have already lost a reputation as being the party of law and order, they have lost a reputation for being the party of business and they have lost a reputation for being the party of prudent finance. In short, they are a lost cause.

Mr. Hume

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is essential, and in the public interest, to establish the full truth of what happened on the streets of Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972, especially in the light of the evidence now supplied to him by the Irish Government? What steps is he prepared to take to establish that truth?

The Prime Minister

The Government certainly recognise the pain and distress caused by the events on 30 January 1972, and also recognise that they are still there after 25 years or more. Extensive and detailed material has been submitted by the relatives and the Irish Government. We shall consider it fully, and it is being examined by officials now. No options have been ruled out, but all the material must be fully examined. When it has been, and the conclusions reached, we shall announce them.

Q3. Mr. Leigh

If the Prime Minister cannot spend as much as he would like—and I understand why— on disabled people in Lincolnshire, may I suggest another way in which he might help the people of Lincolnshire? He could give them a Christmas present and support a campaign that is supported by everybody in Lincolnshire, including the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), and all political parties. It would do much for business and tourism in the area. It is the campaign, which is being waged across the county, to upgrade and dual the A46 between Newark and Lincoln. It would cost only a flea bite. The Prime Minister has only to say yes and I promise him rave reviews in the Lincolnshire Echo tomorrow.

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he wants on that road scheme. [Interruption.] Tory Members ask, "Why not?" but they were in power for 18 years and did not do it themselves. However, that is not to prejudge the issue one way or another, because it has to be considered by the relevant Ministers. The hon. Gentleman said that the Government did not do much for the people of Lincolnshire yesterday. Actually, we did an enormous amount. We put extra money into schools and hospitals— more than his Government wanted to give them. We have had the windfall tax, which will give young people there the chance of jobs and skills. We have got a deal for pensioners and pensioner households of £100 a year or more and we cut value added tax on fuel. I think that we have done rather well by the people of Lincolnshire.

Q4. Mr. Jim Cunningham

I welcome the Chancellor's statement yesterday on child care proposals, but is my right hon. Friend aware that the obstacle for people who want to work is often the lack of provision of child care? Will he try to expedite the implementation of the proposals as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

We shall try, in the light of the announcement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, to make progress on that as quickly as possible. The effect of the £300 million programme will be to raise the number of out-of-school child care clubs from some 3,500 at the moment to 30,000. That is an ambitious target, but we believe that we can reach it. By helping parents with the way in which the child care clubs are set up, we shall give a lot of support and help to parents, especially lone parents who desperately need it. That is an excellent example of how Government can help people back to work and ensure that people carry out better their responsibilities to their own children.

Mr. Ashdown

May I return to a question that I fear the Prime Minister failed to answer last week—which comes first, cutting class sizes and waiting lists or cutting taxes to achieve the 10p tax rate?

The Prime Minister:

We actually wish to do both. The decisions that are made on tax are, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, a matter for the Chancellor. We had two specific pledges on which we fought the last election. One was getting class sizes down for five, six and seven-year-olds and the other was on the waiting lists.

Mr. Moss

They are going up.

The Prime Minister

Yes, because of the situation that we inherited. We shall ensure that we put both pledges in place by the time of the next election and then the country will see the difference between a Government who keep their promises and a Government who break them.

Mr. Ashdown

I am surprised that the Prime Minister cannot tell us which comes first, an early pledge or a long-term aim. It is a simple question. Let me put it in this way to him. He has told us that there are hard choices to make, and this may not be his Government's fault. Nevertheless, it is a fact that he is now presiding over the longest waiting lists on record in the NHS, and class sizes that are predicted to be the largest for 20 years. Surely now he can tell us that an early pledge to cut waiting lists and class sizes comes before a long-term aim to cut income tax.

The Prime Minister

I am glad, first, that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that that is not the fault of the present Government. That is an important point to make. However, we are actually putting in additional resources both to schools and to hospitals, in real terms, over and above the resources that the previous Government put in. That will allow us, in time, to meet both those pledges.

We want to try to reduce tax rates at the bottom end of the income scale precisely because that will help people back into work. It is part of a package. We can do both, but I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends that that can be done—we can get a better starting rate of tax for people as well as getting class sizes and waiting lists down—only if we run the economy in an effective and efficient way. That means keeping a tight grip on public finances and not giving in to every demand that is made. I am afraid that that is the difference between government and opposition.

Maria Eagle

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to see a recent MORI poll—showing support for the Government at 51 per cent. and support for the Opposition at 35 per cent.—which was undertaken in Richmond, Yorkshire? Does he attribute that result to the policies of the Government or to those of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that I can claim credit for that; all the credit belongs to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

Q5. Mr. Chope

Will the Prime Minister rule out time-limiting incapacity benefit to 13 weeks? If not, is he not being cruel and cynical in refusing to lift the threat hanging over disabled people?

The Prime Minister

What is cruel and cynical is nonsense such as that from someone who was a member of a Government who cut incapacity benefit for millions of people. We have said that there will be a comprehensive spending review, and it would be foolish to answer that question until the review is completed. The hon. Gentleman should not read anything into that, and neither should disabled people.

Mr. Ivan Lewis

In view of the Prime Minister's commitment to maintaining pre-election promises, how does he justify the extra £3 billion made available to schools and the extra £1.5 billion made available to the national health service in the first six months of his Government, when that money was not even mentioned in our pre-election promises? Does he accept that the term "value added" could well be applied to his Government?

Hon. Members


The Prime Minister

No matter what the Tories say, I think that that is a very good point. It shows that I may have understated the matter before. We are not only keeping our promises; we are doing better than our promises.

Q6. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones

Does the Prime Minister share my view that the preferred location of the Welsh Assembly should be Cardiff, and that the city hall there is a very fine building indeed? What can he do to impress upon the Labour leaders of Cardiff city council the damage that they will do to the prestige and economy of our capital city if they are not reasonable in their terms for that building? Might the assembly have to look for a new home?

The Prime Minister

I certainly agree that Cardiff city hall is a fine building, but the hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will publish a consultation document setting out the range of options—in Cardiff and elsewhere—for the location of the assembly. That will be done before the Bill setting up the assembly receives a Second Reading.

Q7. Mr. Blizzard

Does my right hon. Friend agree that teachers are the most valuable resource in education? May I report from schools in my constituency that teachers greatly welcome the £2.3 billion extra money allocated to schools, and also the ideas in the education White Paper? However, as they were disparaged, undermined and blamed for most of the ills of society for so many years by the previous Government, teachers' morale is low. [Interruption.] Will the Prime Minister join me in praising teachers, the overwhelming majority of whom work tirelessly for their pupils, and will he place special emphasis on raising teacher morale?

The Prime Minister

I certainly agree with that, and my hon. Friend should not be put off by the shouts and calls from the Opposition. It is important that we have high teacher morale and I willingly congratulate the vast majority of teachers who do an excellent job in schools up and down the country, often giving of their own time voluntarily to help their pupils. The most important thing that can be done to improve teacher morale is to give the Government's commitment to investment in our schools. That is why over an additional £1 billion is going in next year and why we have a £1.3 billion school repairs programme, which is funded out of the windfall levy, for the lifetime of this Parliament, which will allow thousands of schools to be refurbished and to upgrade their facilities.

Q8. Miss Widdecombe

Does the Prime Minister feel the slightest tinge of embarrassment that the latest donation of £1 million to the Labour party comes from a company that is paying its workers £2.98 per hour? Can he at least assure us that the £1 million will not buy an exemption from the minimum wage? Finally, will he tell the House, which is dying to know since he said that it would be done quickly, when he eventually repaid Bernie Ecclestone?

The Prime Minister

The only reason why anyone knows who donates to the Labour party is that we disclose it. In June, the right hon. Lady's party leader said he would disclose the name of donors, but he has never done it. In June, he said that he would publish the Tory party accounts—he has never done it. That is the party that has now said that it will refuse to disclose the past five years' worth of donations. We shall take no lessons from a party that has never ever disclosed a single thing about the dubious money that it gets.

Q9. Dr. George Turner

Will the Prime Minister tell the House what response he got from the Leader of the Opposition when he called for all parties to reveal their sources of finance for the past five years? Does he agree that the Neill committee will, at worst, be crippled in its investigation of party finance unless it has full information and disclosure? In those circumstances, will my right hon. Friend carefully consider making sure that the House has the opportunity to ensure that all parties are made to disclose their sources of finance and to open their books? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

I hear a Tory Member shouting out how boring this subject is. It is remarkable how quickly the Tories have lost interest in it. In answer to my hon. Friend, they smuggled out last Friday—the day of the Winchester and Beckenham results, let me remind them—the news that they were refusing to give the details of previous negotiations. Of course it is difficult for Sir Patrick Neill to decide how the present system is working unless he knows how it worked under the previous Government. The Labour party and the Liberal Democrats are willing to make disclosures, why are not the Tories?

Mr. Peter Bottomley

The Government will note that there will be a service in Westminster abbey tomorrow to commemorate the arrival 25 years ago in this country of Ugandan Asians who were expelled by Idi Amin. Will the Prime Minister join me in saying that we shall work together for the time when the colour of someone's skin is no more important than the colour of someone's eyes or hair?

Does the right hon. Gentleman regret the fact that, when the most senior black elected official in this country—Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers Union—came up for re-election, he gave his personal backing to the person who was challenging him?

The Prime Minister

The latter part of the hon. Gentleman's statement is factually wrong. It is unfortunate, in a question that should have tried to bring people together, that he should have made a silly and wrong point.

On the more serious point about Ugandan Asians, we and, I am sure, hon. Members of all parties, are delighted to pay tribute to the work that they do in our community. They are deeply respected people. The aim of a multicultural, multiracial society is one that all Government Members, at least, fully endorse.

Q10. Mr. Bayley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a considerable part of the appalling rise in crime that this country faced under the previous Government can be put down to the anti-social behaviour of persistent young offenders? I urge him to take further action to target those offenders by making them face up to the consequences of their crimes, by putting right the damage that they do to their victims and their communities.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why the Home Secretary will publish his paper on youth justice tomorrow; it will be widely welcomed in the country, as it will ensure that we get a youth justice system that actually works. Many people, especially the elderly, have their lives made absolute hell by gangs of youngsters who are out of control and are not being dealt with properly by the system.

Our proposals will deal with that, but it is important to say that one of the critical differences between us and the previous Government is that we are trying to tackle the underlying causes of crime as well. That is why I put our measures to tackle the problems of the youth justice system side by side with the new deal for the young unemployed, which gives them the chance to lead a more responsible life and shows that we shall build a different, one-nation society, based on values of opportunity and responsibility going together.

Mr. Malins

Can the Prime Minister clear up something that is confusing me? How is it that, whenever something is going wrong, such as lengthening hospital waiting lists or increased class sizes, he thinks that it is the previous Government's fault, whereas whenever something is going well, such as the state of the economy and unemployment, he takes the credit? Where is the logic in that?

The Prime Minister

I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman will spend most of his time confused, but I shall try to elucidate the matter for him. I heard the Leader of the Opposition and other Conservatives saying yesterday that we should give them the credit for all the good things that we have been able to do, but they are opposed to the windfall tax, which has provided the new deal for the young unemployed and has happened because there is a Labour Government.

The cut in value added tax on fuel is being implemented by the Labour Government in the teeth of Conservative opposition. The £300 million child care package is available only because we put lottery money into it—a move that the Conservatives opposed. They had 18 years to do what we did yesterday on pensions, and we did it. The new Labour Government are delivering. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is no longer confused.

Q11. Mr. Bill Michie

Most hon. Members welcome the Chancellor's announcement of £300 million of extra funding for out-of-school clubs, which will be beneficial to nearly 1 million children. We know from experience and from what we have seen in the press that many children are vulnerable. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that part of the funding will be used to ensure that proper checks and supervision are carried out by professional people, especially in local government, to ensure that the staff working in those clubs do not cause any problems?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. It is obviously important, in such a big and ambitious programme, to make proper provision to ensure that the staff are suitable. The Department for Education and Employment will work closely with the Home Office to do that. As part of the new deal for the young unemployed, 50,000 places will be allocated specifically to train people and give them skills in the job of caring for young children. It is precisely by combining high qualifications and rigid tests of suitability with the places available that we have the best chance of both meeting our target and avoiding any possible abuse.

Q12. Mr. Nicholas Winterton

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) said—

The Prime Minister

Where is the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Winterton

I am over here. The hon. Member for Garston has said that a poll carried out in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) has shown considerable majority support for the Prime Minister's policies. Is that not because the Prime Minister has adopted Conservative policies, and has inherited from the Conservative Government the strongest economy in Europe? From Richmond we have a leader of the Conservative party who is a man of integrity, courage and considerable intelligence. He will become the next Prime Minister of our country.

The Prime Minister

I know that the hon. Gentleman used to sit above the Gangway; he now sits over in the corner. He is saying that I support the same policies as he does—I get the message. We shall build on that for the future. Indeed, we shall have to make some more room on our side of the Chamber.

I shall not go back over what I have already said, except to say that the windfall tax, the child care package, the deal for pensioners and the extra money for schools are all very different from the policies of the previous Administration. Those policies are welcomed by the vast majority of people. The reason people—I hope—support the Government and gave the Opposition such a drubbing is that they can see a Government who are delivering on their promises, in stark contrast to what went before.