HC Deb 29 October 1997 vol 299 cc891-9
Q1. Mr. Dismore

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 29 October. [12435]

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I shall have further meetings later today.

Mr. Dismore

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that, in the former Chancellor, there is at least one person on the Opposition Benches who will make a decision on economic and monetary union in accordance with the national interest? As the former Chancellor is so at odds with his own leader, would he not be well advised at least to turn up for the next woolly jumper bonding session?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that we can build a national consensus behind the position that the Government set out on Monday. That position is: if it is successful and the economic benefits are clear and unambiguous, Britain should be part of a single currency; it is not realistic to join during this Parliament, but we should prepare now to be able to join early in the next Parliament if the single currency works and those economic tests are fulfilled. I am delighted that the former Chancellor—whatever his desire to move more quickly—can see the need to join across political parties and put a clear position to the country, because it is the national interest, not Conservative party divisions, that should determine the issue.

Mr. Hague

Does the Prime Minister recall being asked in the Evening Standard during the election campaign: Will Labour introduce tuition fees for higher education? Does he recall replying: Labour has no plans to introduce tuition fees for higher education"? Does he regret that now?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not, because I made it clear that we would await the outcome of the Dearing committee, which we did.

Mr. Hague

Is not the fact of the matter that the Prime Minister said one thing before the election and is now doing the opposite afterwards? Does he understand why hundreds of thousands of students and families feel misled? Is he regretting that and is he going to give them an apology?

The Prime Minister

No. I made it clear throughout that we should abide by the recommendations of the Dearing committee, which was set up by the Conservative Government. There is a very simple choice: either we decide to lift the cap on student numbers and get more finance to the front line of the universities, or we reform the system. We have to reform the system to improve the situation in higher education. That is what we have said throughout.

Mr. Hague

It would be one thing if the Prime Minister said that he would abide by the recommendations of the Dearing report if that was what he intended to do, but is he not ignoring that report by abolishing the maintenance grants for students from poorer families? Under his proposals, poorer families will be the hardest hit. Will not that make it harder for them to send their children to university? Is not that a breach of trust—and the wrong thing to do?

The Prime Minister

No. The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on every point. As a result of our proposals, the poorest families will be exempt from tuition fees—they would not be under Dearing. What is more, repayments will begin at a higher level of income. That will help poorer families too. The truth is that the Conservative Government set up the Dearing committee and now the right hon. Gentleman is walking away from the recommendations of his own committee.

Mr. Hague

Does not the Prime Minister see that it is he who is walking away from those recommendations and that this is a matter of whom people can trust? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Yes, it is. Does he recall being asked on the same day: Will Labour tax pension funds? Does he recall replying, also in the Evening Standard: Our public expenditure plans require no extra taxation"? Now that the right hon. Gentleman has clobbered pension funds with £5 billion of extra taxation a year, does he agree that he misled millions of future pensioners as well as future students?

The Prime Minister

No, we were tackling the Budget deficit left by the Conservative Government. I am intrigued by this line of questioning, as we were told on the news a little earlier that the right hon. Gentleman would ask me about monetary union. I just wonder why he is not asking me about monetary union.

Mr. Hague

It is my job to decide on the questions and the right hon. Gentleman's job to provide answers. He is the Prime Minister and he is meant to give the answers. If he does not think that these subjects are important to millions of families, he has another think coming.

Is it not becoming clear that this Government practise politics without values, politics without conscience, and politics without principles? Is not the lesson to be drawn by the whole country the fact that if people trust this Government today they pay for it tomorrow?

The Prime Minister

We are witnessing a Leader of the Opposition who is so scared that he does not even dare ask the question about monetary union which he said this lunchtime he was going to ask—

Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I need some Zubes around here, with all these gentlemen shouting. May we have some calm, please?

The Prime Minister

There are some good candidates for that advice on the Conservative Benches, certainly.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about principles. We remember the principles of the previous Government: the national health service, which they wrecked and undermined, the school system that they let down, their promise never to put VAT on fuel, which they then put on fuel. We remember a party so rottenly divided that it could not make up its mind on monetary union—and dare not ask a question about it today.

Q2. Mrs. Humble

I welcome today's announcement of additional funding for the national health service. It will mean an extra £12 million for the health authority covering my constituency, among others. What steps do the Government intend to take to modernise the delivery of health care and to tackle the underlying causes of ill health? [12436]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: today's allocations amount, over this year and the next year, to more than £1.5 billion more for the health service under a Labour Government than under the Conservative spending plans.

We shall also invite every health authority and council in England to bid to become one of the new health action zones, which will work through joint management of budgets and one-stop health centres. The zones will bring together the professionals—general practitioners, pharmacists, community nurses, social workers and others—and the idea is that they will be able to find fresh, better ways of delivering health service care for the future.

We are not only putting in the extra investment that our health service needs—far in excess of that which would have been put in by the Conservatives—but modernising and improving the health service.

Mr. Ashdown

I will ask a question about monetary union. Is not the significance of the statement made by the Chancellor on Monday not as much its time scale as its clear and unequivocal expression of support in principle for the single currency and for Britain's joining it?

The Prime Minister believes that the Government will take that decision later rather than earlier. I think he is wrong; I think it will come at him much faster then he believes. He may believe that the decision, to be driven by the national interest, may be taken after the next general election, but will he at least admit that if it is in the national interest for it to be taken earlier, there is nothing to prevent that happening?

The Prime Minister

We simply do not believe that it is in the country's interests. That is why we said that we do not propose to enter a single currency in this Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that in principle we have said that there are benefits in a single currency and in a single market. That is precisely why we have set out the very clear statement that the Chancellor made on Monday—so that we have a framework in which we can move forward in future.

Mr. Ashdown

Does the Prime Minister not realise that it is illogical to say in one breath that this decision will be taken in the national interest and to say in the next that it will be driven by the electoral agenda? That makes no sense. Will the Prime Minister at least agree with the former Chancellor to this extent: that if the Government now set a clear and decisive lead on this matter, they have nothing to fear from a referendum, even an early one, because the decision to enter the single currency will enjoy such cross-party support in the House, and such wide support in the country, including from the Trades Union Congress and the Confederation of British Industry, that that referendum can be run as soon as the Government call it in the national interest?

The Prime Minister

Yes, but the crucial test is the national economic interest and at the present time, as we have made clear and as the Treasury assessment that we published on Monday makes clear, our economy simply is not convergent with the other European economies. That is why it is not in our interests to join and, indeed, on the basis of the Treasury assessment, we shall not be convergent for some period of years. That is why the Chancellor set out a framework of stability where all the central issues of principle are answered, but where we give business a clear framework within which to plan ahead.

All the way through, it is not a political set of considerations that drive this; it is a determination of the national economic interest. That is what is important.

If you like, Madam Speaker, there are two groups of people with whom I would disagree although they hold perfectly principled positions. One says that we should go into a single currency, come what may, irrespective of the economic circumstances; I disagree with that. The other is the view now taken by the Conservative party: to rule out in principle going into a single currency even if it will bring economic benefits to Britain.

In my view, the sensible thing to say is that the test must be clear and unambiguous economic benefit to Britain, and that is the test on which we shall take the decision.

Mr. Cash

On Monday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, disgracefully, refused to address the political and constitutional implications of the single currency. Does the Prime Minister agree that the British people deserve an explanation of those constitutional political implications in principle? Will he give the British people a White Paper in which he sets those out? Does he accept that, if he does not do so, although he may be walking on water as far as domestic politics are concerned, he will drown in Europe?

The Prime Minister

First, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for all his help at the general election? Secondly, may I tell him that I would have been delighted to answer the constitutional issues if they had been put to me by the Leader of the Opposition—as we were told on the lunchtime news they would be?

The answer is very simple. Of course constitutional issues are at stake, but in the end the question is whether they operate as a constitutional bar to joining if the economic benefits are clear and unambiguous. Our answer to that is that there is no constitutional bar. What is the Opposition's answer?

Q3. Mrs. Ballard

My constituent, 19-year-old James Humphreys, received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for a first offence of purchasing Ecstasy tablets for friends. I do not condone his actions, but his imprisonment and exposure to hardened criminals could blight his whole future. Will the Prime Minister now respond to the chorus of advice, not least from senior police officers and judges, that a royal commission is urgently needed to look into the use and abuse of drugs in society and the appropriateness of mandatory prison sentencing? [12437]

The Prime Minister

I am sorry that I cannot agree with the hon. Lady. I accept that she should want to raise an issue of concern to her constituency but, as far as I am aware, the individual concerned was charged and convicted of intent to supply drugs. People who supply or intend to supply drugs should expect to be severely punished. In relation to the bigger issue of drug abuse, the Government already have an independent statutory adviser in the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Secondly, we appointed recently an anti-drugs co-ordinator, Keith Hellawell, a former chief constable, who will formulate, with the Government, a strategy to combat drug misuse. Given the number of young people who have died as a result of drug abuse over the past few years, we would be foolish to proceed on this matter other than with very great caution.

Mr. Hope

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, nowadays, many young people leave school unprepared for taking on the challenges of becoming parents? Could not we develop the school curriculum to allow young people to learn more about parenthood in the classroom, better to prepare them for adult life?

The Prime Minister

I agree that it is extremely important that we try, in the course of the schooling that we give our children, to teach them about the obligations of parenthood. It would be best if those things were learnt in the home as well.

Q4. Mr. Nicholas Winterton

The Labour party has announced that the Government will introduce legislation to incorporate the European convention on human rights into English law. Does the Prime Minister accept that Democracy demands that the fundamental rules governing citizens' behaviour, and the fundamental rights protecting citizens' freedoms, should be decided by Parliament and not by the judges"? I quote the late John Smith. Why are the Prime Minister and the Government ignoring those wise words? [12438]

The Prime Minister

I see the Foreign Secretary nodding his head—[Interruption.] Rather, the shadow Foreign Secretary—let us not be presumptuous. I must say, however, that the shadow Lord Chancellor agrees with that proposal. Perhaps there should be a little more bonding on that one.

Mr. Winterton

I was not there.

The Prime Minister

I always knew that the hon. Gentleman was a man of judgment. What is important about that issue is that it repatriates decisions to this country. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] It is not rubbish. At the moment, people can sue under the European convention on human rights but they must go abroad—to Strasbourg—to do it. Our proposal means that they can exercise the right here at home, in our courts.

Q5. Mr. Winnick

Is not there the best chance since 1920 for peace in Northern Ireland arising from the current talks? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if all sides put forward their maximum demand and show no flexibility or accommodation, not only will it be extremely disappointing but it will be a tragedy for the people of Northern Ireland, the large majority of whom yearn—there is no other word to describe it—for a lasting peace? [12439]

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to all the work that he has done over a number of years to speak out on these issues, which he has done with great commitment. What he says is absolutely true: the only way we shall get a lasting political settlement in Northern Ireland is if people put the ancient enmities aside and realise that there is a broad measure of agreement on what a future political settlement may look like. If we ensure that the overwhelming majority of moderate people, not the small groups of extremists, determine the agenda, we shall get the result that we need.

Q6. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

When I worked at the Child Poverty Action Group, there was widespread support for the director, who is now the Minister for Welfare Reform. Does that Minister have the Prime Minister's support for thinking the unthinkable and proposing pension improvements? He has consistently said that there can be no pension reform while the state earnings-related pension scheme remains, but the Prime Minister has declared himself in favour of SERPS. Are those positions consistent? [12440]

The Prime Minister

I have complete confidence in my right hon. Friend's duties. He will issue a Green Paper on the matter shortly and I suggest that the right hon. Lady read it.

Q7. Mr. Burden

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the two dreadful recent firework accidents in the west midlands; one in which 14-year-old James Townsend suffered severe injuries to his hands because of a banger, the other in which 24 people were injured at a bonfire party. Does he agree that that proves that the Government were right to introduce tough new firework safety regulations and that we now need to move on to a proper, recognised training scheme for people who want to operate firework displays? In the run-up to bonfire night, we must ensure that the fun is put back into fireworks and the danger taken out of them. [12441]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. The new firework regulations, which represent the toughest crackdown on dangerous fireworks in the history of the United Kingdom, will make a significant contribution to safety. I therefore share my hon. Friend's welcome for these measures. The Fireworks Bill that is to be introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mrs. Gilroy) will provide the Government with the capability to deal with a number of fireworks issues that are outside the scope of present regulations. I greatly welcome her initiative.

Mr. Jack

The Prime Minister has often spoken of his commitment to the national health service. I hope that he will agree that a plentiful supply of new doctors coming into the service is vital for its future. If he agrees with that proposition, what does he say to the British Medical Association, which has strongly criticised his proposals on tuition fees for those embarking on six-year medical courses, as the BMA believes that tuition fees will discourage many people from offering themselves for training as doctors?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong. First, we have protected those coming into the medical profession. Secondly, in contrast to the Government of whom he was a member, we are putting an extra £1.5 billion into the national health service.

Q8. Mr. Pickthall

Did my right hon. Friend notice that in yesterday's debate the Conservative spokesman on defence, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), said that anti-personnel land mines saved lives? Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to reassert that the Government's policy is to save lives by getting rid of land mines, not finding excuses for them? [12442]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. We have made clear our commitment to a complete ban on anti-personnel land mines. We are banning them in the UK and we intend to sign the Ottawa convention in December banning them internationally. We accept that not all users of land mines will sign the Ottawa convention, but we will encourage them to do so and look for other ways in which to engage all states in a global ban. That is long overdue, it is right and it has the overwhelming support of the public, not only in Britain but throughout the world, and we shall play our full part in bringing it about.

Q9. Mr. Beggs

Will the Prime Minister and the Government consider urgently what financial assistance they may give Larne borough council in my constituency, which has been offered £2.5 million by the Millennium Commission to develop a spectacular sea cliff path at the Gobbins in Islandmagee? Matching funding of £2.5 million would impose too big a burden on local ratepayers and we may lose the opportunity to develop a national tourist attraction. Can the Prime Minister help to bring together central Government and local government so that we maximise the benefit of millennium funding? [12443]

The Prime Minister

Of course we shall consider carefully all the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. I know that he met Lord Dubs, the Minister responsible for environment and agriculture in the Northern Ireland Office, on 11 September to promote the case for funding the project. It was made clear at that meeting that the Government are enormously constrained in funding terms as to what we can provide. However, as we promised at the meeting, officials from the Department of the Environment and Agriculture are today meeting Larne borough council to consider how best the council might advance the project. We support the project, but we must try to do so within public finance constraints.

Q10. Mr. Mitchell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of the footballs that British kids play with are made in Sialkot in Pakistan by other children—many of them as young as five or six—who work as bonded labour in sweated conditions for as little as lop an hour? Will he do all he can to ensure that the brave initiative taken by the Secretary of State for International Development and FIFA to bring an end to that abuse is carried through as quickly as possible and is extended to other industries that use sweated labour to produce sporting goods for the British market? [12444]

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: I welcome very much the initiative taken by the Secretary of State, who is in Oslo today attending a conference on child labour. I also welcome the fact that FIFA has got behind the initiative.

As a result of the funded initiative that the Government have announced, we hope to help some 7,000 children move from bonded labour to proper education and skills training. This is a problem not just in Pakistan but throughout the developing world, and we shall do everything we can to build on and advance the initiative. I think that it will have the support of the vast majority of people.

Q11. Mr. Whittingdale

Can the Prime Minister explain why the Secretary of State for Social Security said in January that she would not implement any cuts in single parent benefit and yet, only a few weeks after the general election, introduced legislation that will cut single parent benefit? Is that not another breach of trust by the Government? [12445]

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman forgets that the Government he supported introduced the cut. The Secretary of State made it absolutely clear, before and after the election, that we must keep within the tough spending guidelines we set out because of the mess that we inherited from the previous Government. However, we have introduced a very important £200 million programme for single parents. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take up the cut with those who introduced it: the previous Conservative Government.

Dr. Starkey

My right hon. Friend may be aware that in my Milton Keynes constituency a project of reparative youth justice has been in operation for some time. It has demonstrated considerable success in getting young people and their parents to face responsibility for their crimes and cut the rate of reoffending. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that the Home Secretary's proposals to extend that sort of approach to youth justice nationwide are implemented as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

I agree. My hon. Friend will know that the Home Secretary gave his full support today to extending that scheme. It is part of a series of measures that are being taken to tighten the juvenile justice system and part of a system to ensure that final warnings are given to young people so that they know exactly where they stand. It is also part of our proposals to halve the time it takes to bring juvenile offenders to court to be dealt with and properly punished. It is one of a series of measures that allow us to address the causes of crime through better employment and skills training for young people and to ensure that those who commit crimes and terrorise people are dealt with properly and firmly through the criminal justice system.