HC Deb 22 April 1998 vol 310 cc810-20
Q1. Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 22 April.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

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

Ms Perham

I welcome my right hon. Friend's efforts in the cause of peace in both Ireland and the middle east. As he knows, there is a large and thriving Jewish community in Ilford, North. In the light of the 50th anniversary of Israeli independence, what are my right hon. Friend's hopes for the summit in London on 4 May and for the reinvigoration of the peace process and a real prospect of stability and security for Israel and her neighbours?

The Prime Minister

The present stalemate in the middle east process is obviously dangerous for those immediately concerned, for the region and for wider stability throughout the world. I am pleased that Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Arafat have agreed to come to London for meetings on 4 May with the United States Secretary of State. I plan to meet both of them as well.

We will play any role that it is helpful for us to play, although I stress again that we should not cut across anything being done by the United States. I believe that, if there is good will on both sides, progress can be made

If progress is not made, the dispute will continue to threaten not only the stability of the middle east, but the stability of the entire world.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I want to take this first opportunity in Prime Minister's questions to welcome the agreement in Northern Ireland and to congratulate the Prime Minister on the role that he played in it. I also pay tribute to everyone who has shown courage and integrity in the search for peace. I reiterate the Opposition's support for the Government in the difficult job of turning the agreement into a lasting peace.

Against that background, will the Prime Minister give reassurance to those of us who are naturally uncomfortable with the early release of prisoners? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that before a terrorist prisoner is freed, it will be established that he does not pose a risk to the public? Will the right hon. Gentleman also assure us that, in the proposals for the Royal Ulster Constabulary—whose courage has been so great for so long—we can be confident that the integrity of policing in Northern Ireland will never be undermined?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support and, indeed, for his offer that we campaign together in the referendum, which I welcome. I also pay tribute to the former Prime Minister for the work that he did in bringing about this settlement.

The right hon. Gentleman raised two specific points. First, I can confirm that prisoners who are a threat or who are attached to organisations that are carrying on violence will not be eligible for early release under this proposal. Those who are released are, in any event, released on licence, and that point must be well emphasised.

Secondly, in respect of policing, I again pay tribute to the work that the RUC has done. I emphasise absolutely that there is no intention whatever of having anything other than a police force that can carry out the work of policing. The desire is simply to make sure that it can do so with the support and active consent of all sides of the community in Northern Ireland. There is no question of having paramilitaries running around organising local police establishments, and so on. I am happy to lay those fears to rest and to assure people that the independent commission will look at all these things in the context of making sure that we have a successful police service for all the community in future.

Mr. Hague

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that reply. Naturally, we are also concerned that no decommissioning of terrorist weapons took place in the run-up to the agreement. I welcome the undertaking given by the Prime Minister in a letter to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) that no Member of the New Assembly will be appointed a Minister until any paramilitary associates that he may have had have engaged in substantial decommissioning. Is the Prime Minister happy to reaffirm that reassurance today?

The Prime Minister

Yes. We said that we want the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. The agreement provides for the process to start immediately and, indeed, to be completed within two years. Meanwhile, it would obviously be a travesty of democracy if parties associated with paramilitary organisations held Executive office in the assembly while they continued to be engaged in or to threaten terrorism. It is precisely for that reason that the agreement provides that those Members of the Assembly can be excluded or removed from office if they fail to live up to their commitments. We have made it clear that we will keep these provisions under review and strengthen them if necessary.

Mr. Hague

While again welcoming the Prime Minister's reply and accepting that this undertaking cannot be given effect under the heads of agreement, may I ask whether he will consider incorporating the undertaking in the legislation setting up the assembly, which is to be introduced later this year? Such an intention would again have the very strong support of the Opposition.

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. We made it clear in the letter that I wrote to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, that if, over the first six months or so, these provisions are shown to be ineffective, we shall support changes to give them real teeth. The way to do that is obviously a matter for consideration, but I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am well aware of the necessity for people to be sure that those who hold Executive office in the assembly are genuinely committed to peace. If they are not genuinely committed to peace, it will be very difficult for people to work with them in any event, but it is important that we have that clearly established right at the very beginning.

Once again, I pay tribute to the courage of the leader of the Ulster Unionists in particular in the work that he has done to bring about this agreement. We have an agreement that in the end can work only if all parties decide to make it work. There is a limit to what we can do, in the House or elsewhere, if people are not genuinely committed to a package that is balanced and sensible and based on principled work. I believe that we have such a package. We have designed the structure, as it were, for peace, but now people have to get on and build it.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his initiative and on managing to get the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President to come to London to restart the peace talks? The best prize that those who want to support Israel can give Israel and the Palestinians is an arena in which they can talk to each other as a means of moving towards a resolution of the problems between the two countries. The reward for Israel is peace with all its Arab neighbours; will not that reward come about only with the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the Israeli state in that area?

The Prime Minister

As I said a couple of days ago, the final status talks will examine what it means to give the Palestinians self-determination, in which statehood is an option. Many people in Israel are discussing that. Progress is possible, but interim issues—not just economic issues but the issue of redeployment—have to be resolved as quickly as possible to allow the final status talks to get under way. We shall certainly do everything that we can to facilitate that.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The world economic competitiveness league tables published today show Britain once again near the bottom of the world league tables for education. Does the Prime Minister think that the position will be improved by forcing schools to sack more teachers and having class sizes at a 20-year high and rising?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely because we realise the link between education and competitiveness that we are putting so much more money into education. Not only are we putting in extra resources this year in respect of current spending, but we are putting extra resources into the school building programme and technology for schools. In each case, we are putting in more than the right hon. Gentleman's party ever asked for before the election.

Mr. Ashdown

Of course we know the Prime Minister's familiar claims about the money that the Government are putting into education and health. Frankly, they require a degree of economic manipulation that would make Arthur Daley blush. Let me turn from inputs to outputs and ask the Prime Minister a very simple question: does he really believe that those who voted Labour last year to improve the quality of their child's education seriously expected their child's school to have to sack another teacher this year or for their child to be educated in a class that was too large under the Tories, but is getting larger under Labour?

The Prime Minister

They expected us to keep our commitments, and we are doing that. We are not merely putting additional money into education; we also got rid of the nursery voucher scheme and replaced it with proper nursery education. We are putting more money into the school building programme than any Government have ever done and we are also ensuring that schools get the help that they need with new technology. Of course it will take time, but it is utterly irresponsible for Liberal Democrats to say that all the problems not just in local government but in respect of the national health service, education, pensions and the environment can be tackled by a possible 1p extra that they may or may not put into the education system. It really is not a serious way of conducting politics and I believe that the public know it.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

In view of the devastating losses suffered by people in Northampton and elsewhere in the midlands during the Easter floods, including the loss of life, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give people in Northampton and the midlands that lessons will be learned, especially in relation to early warning systems, flood defences, planning issues and the pressing financial needs of people who lost everything during the floods?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can give that assurance. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has already said that local authorities and others facing extraordinary claims as a result of the flooding can make claims under the so-called Bellwin scheme and they will be considered very sympathetically. May I take this opportunity, as I am sure my hon. Friend would wish me to do so, to pay tribute to all the emergency services who worked so hard and well to cope with the emergency that existed?

Q2. Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, when Cherwell district council was Conservative controlled, the district council precept for band D council tax was just £1? Now, after three years of Labour control, it is a staggering £55, with no improvement whatever in services. Given what Labour has done to Oxfordshire county council this year—the average council tax will be £100 more than it was two years ago—with a double-digit increase in council tax bills at the same time as cuts in social services and education, does the Prime Minister find it surprising that in a number of wards in my constituency the Labour party is not daring to put up candidates for the local government elections on 7 May?

The Prime Minister

I think that it was unwise of the hon. Gentleman to raise his last point, as, throughout the country, the Conservatives are failing to put up candidates in more than double the seats than is the case for the Labour party. He will be aware that the average council tax is lower in Labour areas than in Conservative areas.

Q3. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in contrast to what the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said, there is widespread delight in the south-west at the extra Government money for schools, including brand new schools in my constituency and in Torridge and West Devon? That is after waiting 50 years during which the Tories did nothing.

In the autumn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer ruled out the United Kingdom's joining the single currency before the next election except in unforeseen circumstances. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the artificial strength of the pound, possibly for the next couple of years, could represent those unforeseen circumstances?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely with the first part of the question. On the second part, I believe that the decision whether to join the euro must be part of a longer-term process than the fluctuations in the market value of the pound. Two thirds of the appreciation of the pound happened before May last year. Boom and bust, however, would be the worst possible outcome for industry, manufacturers and others. It is essential that we take the measures both to cure the Budget deficit that we inherited and to ensure monetary stability over the long term. We have done that, which is one reason why long-term interest rates are now below the level that we inherited last May.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I must warn the Prime Minister that this question is not answerable with the term "boom or bust" anywhere in the text. When will he extend the clemency that, at his instructions or with his consent, has been granted to murderers and terrorists in Northern Ireland, who have been released from long prison sentences, to British service men, who, believing themselves to be either defending their comrades in arms or acting in the service of the Crown, remain in prison?

The Prime Minister

As the Secretary of State said on Monday, we are considering the cases of the two people to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred. I believe that what we have put forward on prisoners is right and justifiable as part of the wider deal and package. As we made clear, there is no question of allowing anyone out, even on licence, unless we are satisfied that that person does not pose a threat to security or safety.

Q4. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

In connection with the middle east peace summit in London, does my right hon. Friend agree that, in seeking to reopen the Oslo peace process and to regain the trust of the Palestinian people, it is crucial that the Israeli Government give firm assurances that they will desist from the policy of building and expanding the illegal settlements?

The Prime Minister

Again, as I said yesterday, it is important that there is time out on unilateral actions, including settlements. It is now essential that we reach the point at which, on 4 May, we see exactly what the differences are on these interim agreements, which cover the range of issues, and then, as soon as they are resolved, proceed to the final status talks. In the end, that will be the only way—in respect of settlements or anything else—in which we can provide stability in the middle east in the long term.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)

Although it would be churlish, Prime Minister, not to wish you well in your efforts for peace in Northern Ireland, despite one's reservations about their success, perhaps you—not only as Prime Minister, but as a lawyer—will answer the following points. First, is it open to one party to a multiple agreement unilaterally to give assurances about the agreement's alteration, whether on decommissioning, the review of the police or the release of prisoners? Secondly, are you aware—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Member should say, "Is the right hon. Gentleman aware".

Mr. McCartney

I beg your pardon, Madam Speaker.

Is the Prime Minister aware that Sinn Fein will claim that it is a political party with a mandate and that it is not the IRA and does not possess any weapons? Any suggestion that it should be expelled either from the assembly or from office will meet the same response that was given in relation to entry to the talks: "We are not the IRA."

The Prime Minister

Of course I am aware that that is Sinn Fein's claim. It is precisely because of our position on that issue that it was expelled from the talks for a time, as were loyalist political organisations attached to paramilitary groups. I made it clear, and I make it clear again now, that we will support changes if the existing provisions are not working properly, but the hon. and learned Gentleman must recognise that the package, because it is based on principle, offers the chance of a way forward in Northern Ireland.

The principle is that the basis of consent is secured. There will be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the people there—that is, after all, the historical principle for which people who say that they support the hon. and learned Gentleman's position have been fighting for years and years and years—and that principle will be balanced by a proper recognition of nationalist identity and fair and equal treatment for all.

Anyone should be able to recommend that position to their people as a right, proper, fair way forward for the future; and it is the future that we should start addressing.

Q5. Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian)

What efforts have the Government made to alleviate the economic crisis in south-east Asia, bearing in mind the fact that many thousands of workers in the United Kingdom are employed directly or indirectly by companies from that part of the world?

The Prime Minister

We are doing what we can. We are fully engaged in seeking global solutions to Asia's economic problems. We have been movers and motivators behind the International Monetary Fund package of help to some of the south-east Asian economies, which has produced greater stability, especially in Korea. We continue to work with those countries to produce that stability. The crisis in Asia will inevitably have a knock-on effect on all our economies, but we are doing what we can.

We recognise the fact that a large number of Scottish jobs are dependent on those Asian economies and we will use both the European Union and our position as chairman of the Group of Eight countries to try to improve the financial systems in south-east Asian economies. In the end, that will be our best guarantee that the problems can be ironed out and that they can resume the steady growth that benefits us all.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Does the Prime Minister agree with the judgment of the sheriff court in Selkirk that the beef-on-the-bone regulations are a manifest absurdity? Will he repeal this ridiculous ban?

The Prime Minister

No. The reason for the decision was the recommendation of the chief medical officer, who said: I strongly advise that it be done. The judgment was based on a technicality and leave to appeal has been given. I do not think that it would be right to act against the representations of the chief medical officer.

Mr. Hague

It is no good hiding behind the chief medical officer. Ministers are paid to make judgments and to take responsibility for them. Is it not the truth that the regulations were drafted in haste and without proper consultation? The Institute of Trading Standards Administration says that the Government have left it to enforce the unenforceable. With a legal touch like that, it is no wonder the Prime Minister gave up the Bar for politics—unlike the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who sometimes gives up politics for the bar.

According to the judge, the Minister of Agriculture has destroyed the present system of meat distribution and undermined the Food Safety Act 1990 in one sentence. How much confidence does the Prime Minister now have in him?

The Prime Minister

What the right hon. Gentleman says about the judgment happens to be wrong. It was based on a technicality, and we have been given leave to appeal. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has always said, it is necessary for the ban to remain until the scientific and medical evidence shows that the threat is receding. In the light of the history of bovine spongiform encephalopathy—the right hon. Gentleman will be familiar with that—it would not be sensible to act contrary to the strong advice of the chief medical officer, which I quoted. If the right hon. Gentleman believes that it would be right, he is not acting responsibly.

Mr. Hague

I asked the Prime Minister about confidence in the Minister of Agriculture, and we have not heard much about that. The ban has been described by consumers as unnecessary, by retailers as ridiculous, by inspectors as unenforceable and now by judges as absurd. Is it not time that the Government exercised a bit of common sense and said that, in a free country, people should choose for themselves?

The Prime Minister

No. If I may correct the right hon. Gentleman: first, environmental officers have not said that they cannot enforce the ban and, secondly, the Consumers Association actually welcomed the decision on it; so he is wrong on both those counts. Thirdly, it is at least arguable—the inquiry will demonstrate this or not—that we are in this mess over BSE precisely because the previous Government failed to act, which has left us with a bill for BSE that is running to £2 billion a year. We are now having to engage in the difficult process of getting that ban lifted. The first part of it is under way in Northern Ireland and I very much hope that, in the next few weeks, we will get the rest of the ban lifted through the date-based scheme. It would not be sensible for us to act against the express advice of the chief medical officer. If the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member had acted a little more responsibly in the early years, we would perhaps not have faced the colossal mess in which the Conservative party put us and from which we are trying to extricate ourselves.

Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean)

Does the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the new basis for calculating the unemployment statistics? Is that not giving us a true and honest picture of the jobless rate? Does he also agree that that is in stark contrast to the past 18 years, when there were 35 different methods of calculating the rate and the Tories continually fiddled the unemployment figures?

The Prime Minister

Fiddled figures—that brings back happy memories of all those press releases.

It is right that we should make the figures a sensible expression of true unemployment levels and it brings us into line with internationally accepted standards. I am delighted that the Office for National Statistics has done it; it is right and I support it.

Q6. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Christie hospital, which is the north-west of England's regional specialist centre for cancer treatment, is in the depths of a financial crisis and has had to close down a £1 million linear accelerator machine? Is he further aware that the national health service guidelines recommend that people receive radiotherapy in two weeks and that they are having to wait five? How does he square that with the priority that he says he is giving to cancer treatment and what is he going to do about it?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps, first, the hon. Gentleman could indicate by a nod of his head whether he supported the spending plans of the previous Conservative Government on the health service—[Interruption.] It is hardly surprising that the hon. Gentleman will not tell us. The Government are putting in an extra £2 billion this year, over and above the money allocated by the previous Government. Obviously, it is important that we carry on making improvements as we can to the NHS, and we are spending far more on cancer treatment than the previous Government. I accept that there is a still a lot more to do, but let us be clear that what we are doing is clearing up what we inherited from 18 years of Conservative Government.

Q7. Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

At a time when we are trying to encourage responsible citizenship, does the Prime Minister agree that it is also appropriate to support the nations that are trying to deal with any potential threat from the misuse of nuclear material? If we chose to sit on our hands or turn our faces away from the problem, as some people encourage us to do, it would not only set a dreadful example of citizenship but be a terrible betrayal of those other nations that are seeking to deal with that difficult problem.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is entirely right. May I point out to the House two facts, which have been absent from some newspaper reports today? First, the total amount of intermediate waste that will be added to Dounreay is two drums-worth; 14,000 are already stored there. Secondly, it is quite wrong to say that the United Kingdom alone is taking action. The United States has already taken 350 kg of irradiated HEU.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Highly enriched uranium.

The Prime Minister

The United States has also taken 600 kg of unused highly enriched uranium from Kazakhstan, and Russia has taken 137 kg from Iraq since the Gulf war. [Interruption.] Other European countries are making other contributions. That is why we thought it important to do what we did. As secrecy has been shouted about, I must point out, first, that we have followed the normal rules for transportation of civil nuclear fuel. Secondly, we could not, of course, make an announcement as such, because the reason for our action was the fear of rebels taking over the civil nuclear reactor again. Thirdly, we had already prepared a parliamentary answer, and we shall give full details the moment that the transportation has occurred, which is entirely in line with normal practice.

Q8. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Is the Prime Minister willing to employ his boyish charm and that engaging smile—I want him to say yes—in talking to the French authorities, to sort them out and to ask them to agree to a fair deal for British fans for allocation of World cup tickets?

The Prime Minister

We are concerned about the situation. I gather that 10 million calls had been made to the French authorities by lunchtime. We are in touch with them about how we can improve both the allocation of World cup tickets and the system of allocation. I cannot offer an instant result, but I shall do my best to ensure that British fans are treated fairly and to improve the system for allocation of World cup tickets. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will join me in hoping that, when fans get their tickets and go to the games, they will see victories for British teams.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Points of order come after questions, and I have a private notice question.