HC Deb 29 April 1998 vol 311 cc320-30
Q1. Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 29 April.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I also did a live video broadcast on the internet. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mrs. McGuire

I thank the Prime Minister for his answer. A year ago, people in Stirling made their contribution to the election of a Labour Government by throwing out—I love to say it—the then Secretary of State for Scotland. Does the Prime Minister recognise that our emphasis over the past year on the economy, health and education has kept faith with those voters, and that we will build on that success in the second year? Will he comment on the fact that, in even the most critical analysis of our first year, we have not heard the cry, "Bring back the Tories!"?

The Prime Minister

Certainly not. Since last May, we have had the extra £1.3 billion to improve school buildings and the £1 billion on current spending. We have had the Bill to cut class sizes—the Education (Schools) Bill—and we have replaced nursery vouchers. The NHS has had £2 billion more. We have had the new deal for the unemployed. VAT on heating has been cut, and handguns have been banned. Child benefit is up. We have had referendums in Scotland and Wales, and there have been cash payments to pensioners. That is a record of which this Government are proud.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

A year ago, the Prime Minister promised to cut national health service waiting lists. After the year on which he has just been so busy congratulating himself, they stand at more than 1.25 million, up by 100,000. Will he confirm that?

The Prime Minister

Waiting lists had been going up for several years before we came to power. As a result of what this Government have done, we will fulfil our election pledge, and the appalling record on waiting lists of the right hon. Gentleman's Government will be reversed by ours. We made the pledge for this Parliament and we will deliver it this Parliament.

Mr. Hague

Is it not true that the figures mean that waiting lists have gone up by more than 2,000 for every week that the right hon. Gentleman has been in office? Is it not true that he promised to reduce waiting lists as an early pledge at the time that he made the pledge? Is it not amazing that, in the assessment of the past year published yesterday, the Secretary of State for Health says that the waiting list promise is a promise that is being delivered? Is it sufficient for the Secretary of State for Health to say now that, even by next year, waiting lists can only be back to square one and the manifesto commitment still not met?

The Prime Minister

No. What is amazing is the Conservatives having the impudence to attack anyone on their record on the national health service. We have put in £2 billion more than the Conservative spending plans, and we will get the waiting lists down. Yes, of course it takes time to reverse the record of the previous Government, but we will do it.

Mr. Hague

Is it not extraordinary that the Secretary of State for Health says that he is partly responsible for that failure, but that the Prime Minister never takes any responsibility himself? His colleagues made specific promises to keep hospitals open, and he is closing them. They promised to save the NHS and he is increasing spending by less than the Conservative average. They promised to cut waiting lists and waiting lists are now at a record high. Is that what he meant a year ago when he said that things could only get better? Is it not the case that, on the NHS, he promised so much and, on the NHS, he has let people down?

The Prime Minister

No. First, the amount of money we are putting into the health service—as I said, £2 billion over and above Conservative spending plans—means that we are raising health service spending by significantly more than was done in all the years that the right hon. Gentleman was in the Conservative Cabinet. Secondly, we will get the national health service waiting lists down—we will get them down. That is our pledge and, when we meet that pledge, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will stand at that Dispatch Box and congratulate us.

Q2. Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South)

Looking ahead to this weekend's historic summit, which will decide the founder members of economic and monetary union, does my right hon. Friend agree that a successful euro is important to Britain's economy? Is it not typical of Conservative Members that they still do not know whether they are in favour of anybody joining EMU, and are in total disarray? Will he confirm that any future decision to participate will be taken in Britain's national economic interest by the people of Britain through a referendum, and that the Government trust the people of Britain?

The Prime Minister

The policy of the Conservative party was a mess before the election and has been a catastrophe since the election. It is extremely important for Britain that the euro is a success, whether Britain is in or out of it. I believe that the fact that we now have a Government who have a constructive attitude toward Europe and who are working well with other countries in Europe is a significant plus, not only for Europe, but, more importantly, for Britain.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

If a successful euro is important for Britain, why on earth are the Government still sitting on the fence about it? As the Prime Minister, with understandable justification, celebrates the first year of his party in office, will he spare a little time to reflect for a moment on the fact that Britain's industrial sector is now officially in recession; that the reason for that is an uncompetitive pound; that his Government's inability to face up to taking a clear decision on monetary union means that he can do nothing in that respect; and that the price is now being paid in lost exports, and will soon be paid in broken businesses and lost jobs?

The Prime Minister

I do not agree with that. I cannot think of a worse reason for joining the euro than simply to bring down the pound in the short term—that would be a great mistake. In respect of exports, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the Confederation of British Industry has already indicated that, over the coming year, its forecasts for the rise in exports are greater than those of the Government. It is also the case that, at the moment, manufacturing employment is still rising. We are aware of the difficulties people are experiencing with the strong pound, but there could be nothing worse than to intervene artificially to try to bring it down and return to the days of boom and bust, which did so much damage under the Conservatives.

Mr. Ashdown

Does the Prime Minister not realise that this is one of those issues in which the short-term interest and the long-term advantage coincide? He will be forced down the track faster than he now believes is likely because his Government, like the last, are being led by events in Europe, rather than leading them. What he should be doing is adopting a declaratory policy, setting a target date for entry into single currency, following policies consistent with that aim, and holding a referendum on the principle before the next election. If he did that, the pound would go down, interest rates would go down, investment would go up and the Prime Minister would not be placed in the position, in which he is going to find himself this weekend, of presiding over a European meeting in which Britain ought to be playing on the field, but is relegated to standing on the touchline.

The Prime Minister

I do not agree with that at all. The right hon. Gentleman and his party believe in joining the euro no matter what the economic circumstances are. We believe that it is important that we join if the economic benefits are clear and unambiguous. That is the position that we have set out, and it is the right position. If we were artificially to try to intervene to take down the pound in the way that the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting, or, even worse, if we were to say that we would join the euro tomorrow and slash interest rates, irrespective of the domestic position of our economy, it would be a disaster for Britain, and for British industry.

The only way in which we shall deliver long-term economic strength is to cure the budget deficit, which we have done; to squeeze out inflation, which we have done; and to put economic policy on a stable footing for the long term, instead of repeating the boom and bust which, as people remember, gave us interest rates at 15 per cent. for a year or more and landed us with a doubled national debt. That was the Conservative record; we do not intend to emulate it.

Q3. Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Hon. Members will be aware of the appalling crisis and famine in Sudan. Is my right hon. Friend also aware that an opinion poll has recently shown that many young people in this country are deeply concerned about such issues and want to learn more about the problems of global poverty, yet feel powerless to do anything about them? Will he tell the House how we are responding to the crisis in Sudan? Will he give backing to efforts by schools and youth services to raise young people's awareness of these issues, and to mobilise those young people, as active citizens, to tackle issues of global poverty?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I am aware that this is a very serious issue indeed for many young people, and for many of us, which is one reason why the Chancellor gave extra help for people who want to make donations to the developing world.

The United Kingdom is one of the largest donors of aid to Sudan. We have pledged an extra £4 million; I believe that, since 1991, we have given more than £130 million. It is important, of course, that there is a ceasefire so that that aid gets through to the places where it is needed, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will have heard the comments of the Secretary of State for International Development a moment ago, in which she emphasised how important it is that we bring about political stability in Sudan, so that those people who are suffering at the moment can get the help that we are pledged to give them.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that he never knew the identity of anyone who contributed to his blind trust?

The Prime Minister

As I have always said, that is the case.

Q4. Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

Is the Prime Minister aware that if, on 7 May, the Labour party wins control of Wandsworth council, it intends to spend an extra £1.5 million on education, via the schools budget£a move that the director of finance has said is reasonable and something that he has no problem with? Does my right hon. Friend share my opinion that parents nationwide who share the Government's commitment to spending on education should vote Labour on 7 May?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to share that suggestion, but the point that my hon. Friend makes is right also in the sense that, in contrast to Conservative councils, Labour councils are ensuring that the money that we are giving on education gets through to the schools. We have had a glimpse of what Conservative-controlled councils will do in Essex, where, although an extra £27 million was given to the council, it decided to cut £3 million from the education budget. That is Conservative policy for you.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

The right hon. Gentleman has said clearly that he thinks that there should be a process of evaluation of the euro after it goes ahead, before Britain takes a decision as to whether it should participate. What minimum period does he believe would be necessary for that evaluation?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that we do not foresee Britain joining monetary union in this Parliament. I know that the hon. Gentleman's party has put some arbitrary date on joining, but I do not think that that is sensible. We should make a judgment according to our national economic interest and on the basis that I outlined a moment ago. Ruling out joining for 10 or 30 years, or whatever the hon. Gentleman's party's position is these days—I am not really sure—is just not in the country's interests. So I believe it sensible to keep with the policy that we have put forward.

Q5. Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, when I was surfing the internet today, I spotted the fact that the Institute of Directors—the real bosses—has come down in favour of a weak pound? Its members have joined the Tories and the Liberals in wanting a weak pound. I suggest that my right hon. Friend tell them, when he meets them in the big tent now and again, that they are the same people who are against the minimum wage, the social chapter, shorter hours for workers and longer holidays. Mark my words: if we ever had a weak pound, they would be against that as well. Remember the consequences: that lot devalued in 1992 and they lost the election. The history of Governments since the war shows that devaluations and weak pounds do not get you into Downing street.

The Prime Minister

That is one of the most imaginative bids for the presidency of the European central bank that I have heard. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. By contrast, the remarks of the director general of the CBI highlighting the need to increase productivity are perhaps a better way into the economic arguments.

As for the internet, surfing it today I came across the entry of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), which comes under the logo "Meet Your Heroes Live". It also includes Madonna, the Spice Girls and the Wombles—who will no doubt be delighted that Wimbledon now has a Labour Member of Parliament.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I am not surprised that the Prime Minister asks for up to two weeks' notice of questions on the internet, as we have never known him answer them live. Now that we have had a history lesson from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), may I ask the Prime Minister whether he thinks that Rupert Murdoch was right or wrong when he de-recognised the print unions in the 1980s and moved to Wapping?

The Prime Minister

I do not have the faintest idea what the right hon. Gentleman is getting at. What I can tell him is that, whether Mr. Rupert Murdoch agrees or not, there will be laws giving people the right to recognition, and they will be introduced by a Labour Government. It would be helpful to know whether the right hon. Gentleman intends to oppose or support them.

Mr. Hague

The right hon. Gentleman must know that Rupert Murdoch would never have been able to break the stranglehold of the print unions if a compulsory union recognition law had been in force at the time. Now the Prime Minister proposes to introduce such a law, hugely extending trade union power. Is not that an attempt to turn the clock back to the trade union laws that we last had in the 1970s? Does he really believe that what this country needs as it enters the 21st century is more trade union power?

The Prime Minister

If that was a pitch for Rupert Murdoch' s support, the right hon. Gentleman could do a bit better. We are not turning the clock back; what is surely important is that people should get basic minimum rights in the workplace. The right hon. Gentleman used to tell us that he was opposed in principle to the minimum wage. What is his position today?

Mr. Hague

This is Prime Minister's Question Time. The Prime Minister is trying to do a deal with the unions because they expect that in return for financing the Labour party. This is one pledge that he knows he has to deliver early. Instead of doing backroom deals with the Labour party's paymasters, should he not be telling them that the days of increasing trade union power are well and truly over and must never return?

The Prime Minister

If there is any brain left in the Opposition, it is time that they manifested it. The right hon. Gentleman seems to have the idea that, by giving people the right to union representation if they want it, we are committing some terrible act against employers. Every civilised country anywhere in the world grants such rights. The United States does so. As far as I am aware, every modern economy says that, if people wish to be part of a trade union, they should be able to do so.

There is a basic philosophical difference between Conservative and Labour. Whether in the context of the minimum wage or trade union recognition, basic minimum conditions of fairness at the workplace are perfectly consistent with a prosperous and efficient economy. That is our philosophy. It is not the right hon. Gentleman's, but I believe that ours is more in tune with the British people.

Q6. Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East)

Although I am sure that many people would respect Mary Bell for trying to create a new life with a new identity, will my right hon. Friend join me and the majority of people in Britain in expressing disgust and disappointment at the fact that she should gain financially from being the perpetrator of a heinous crime?

The Prime Minister

As I said this morning, most people would find it repugnant that anyone should benefit from crimes as heinous and appalling as those. It is right that the Home Secretary should look at how we can strengthen the law in that regard, as he has said he will do. The existing law, besides not being retrospective, would not deal with that case. It is important that we make sure that the law is tightened. The Home Secretary will consider that. Most people would consider it wrong that any money is received or paid over in respect of books written about such crimes.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

What personal initiatives has the right hon. Gentleman taken, as Prime Minister and with Britain holding the presidency of the European Union, to introduce proposals to stem the supply of drugs from South America through the Caribbean and from Asia through Turkey?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Lady may know, we have concluded with the countries coming into the European Union pre-accession pacts on organised crime, including drugs. We have also hosted several meetings at EU level to improve co-ordination in the fight against international crime and drug abuse. That will be one of the topics raised at the EU meeting in Cardiff and the G8 meeting in Birmingham.

Q7. Mr. Stephen Timms (East Ham)

The Government this week launched the new policy on tackling drug abuse, which has been widely welcomed, including by the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton), especially the announcement that the assets of drug dealers will be seized to fund anti-drugs work. How does that initiative fit into the Government's wider assault on social exclusion? Are not additional data required on the impact of drugs in our communities—data that have not been available in the past? Is it not a tragedy that up to 200,000 people in Britain have had their lives blighted by drug addiction?

The Prime Minister

The problem is serious, and we are pleased that there has been cross-party consensus on it. In the statement a couple of days ago, we acknowledged the work that had been done on the matter by Tony Newton, now Lord Newton. It is important that we tackle every aspect of the problem, not just through measures to seize the proceeds of crime, but through better education and better treatment, and by dealing with the problems of poor housing, unemployment and social exclusion, where drug abuse festers. There is no doubt that, unless we tackle both the supply and the demand, we have no chance of success.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

A school in my constituency has just sent a letter to parents asking them to contribute £10 a month because the school cannot make ends meet. One year on, is education, education, education still the Prime Minister's priority?

The Prime Minister

Yes. That is why we are spending more money on education than the Liberal Democrats asked for before the election. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am afraid that that is absolutely right. We are spending not merely more money on current expenditure, but more on the school repairs programme. I have always said that it will take time, but we shall meet our pledges. We are providing the extra resources, but they must be combined with reforming our schools to make them work more effectively.

Q8. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents in Scarborough and Whitby, along with many other people in North Yorkshire, will benefit from the £1.4 million extra spending on rural bus services? Does that not show clearly that the Government will deliver a national transport policy, unlike the previous Government, who presided over a decline in rural transportation to the extent that three quarters of parishes in England have no daily bus services?

The Prime Minister

Yes. The money announced in the Budget—£41 million for England and £50 million overall in the next three years£will go some way towards repairing the damage done by the previous Government. Literally only a quarter of parishes in England have proper rural transport services at present. Our Budget announcement is only a start: we want to go on and do more.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

When the Prime Minister responded a few moments ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), was he aware that, at the Neill committee meeting this morning, a Mr. Drucker—who was described as a major fund raiser for the Labour party—said that the beneficiaries of blind trusts know the identity of their donors? Accepting that the Prime Minister was speaking the truth about himself, is he entirely satisfied that Mr. Drucker was wrong about those members of the Cabinet who also enjoy the benefit of blind trusts?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman no doubt knows, Mr. Drucker left the services of the Labour party. Since then, he has launched a series of attacks on the Labour party to which I do not attach any credibility.

Q9. Dan Norris (Wansdyke)

Sidney Cooke, a highly dangerous paedophile, is currently residing in an Avon and Somerset police station. He has apparently expressed the desire to live in the west country, specifically in Bristol. What reassurances can the Prime Minister offer—while recognising that this is a very difficult problem and that the Government and the police are doing all in their powers to deal with it—to anxious parents, a worried public and hard-pressed professionals that Sidney Cooke is being dealt with in the best possible manner, and that a series of equally dangerous paedophiles who are likely to be released in the next few months will also be dealt with thoroughly and properly?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend may know, we are toughening up the measures that apply to sex offenders in the latest Crime and Disorder Bill. Those measures will greatly extend the periods of supervision that apply to sex offenders. We are also working, as a priority, on a new sentencing power for courts that will give the public proper protection from dangerously disordered offenders, including the most serious sex offenders. Such people could remain in detention for as long as regular assessments show that they remain dangerous.

I stress also—as I am sure that my hon. Friend would—that we must deal with such matters through the law and not through mob or vigilante violence. I fully understand people's enormous concerns, and we are addressing them in the correct way: through the law.

Q10. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to rule out the possibility of taxing the disability living allowance?

The Prime Minister

We published our proposals in our welfare Green Paper, and, as the hon. Gentleman will have seen, they did not include suggestions to tax disability living allowance. I should also point out that the previous Conservative Government made the biggest changes to the benefit system, removing some £2 billion from the disabled. Our proposals make it clear that money for the disabled will go to those who are seriously in need. That is the way it should be.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Does the Prime Minister accept the view expressed on many occasions by his Lord Chancellor that, if the system of twinning constituencies for the election of candidates to the Welsh assembly is adopted, it will be unlawful?

The Prime Minister

Of course we are looking at all the different ways in which to try to increase the representation of women in the Welsh assembly and in the Scottish Parliament. I simply say to my hon. Friend, if he is opposed to us trying to do that, that I think that the fact that we have more than 100 women on the Government Benches is a great thing not only for the Labour party, but for Parliament, and we should be looking at ways in which to do that in the Welsh assembly and the Scottish Parliament, too.

Q11. Mr. John Swinney: (North Tayside)

The Prime Minister may recall that, the first time that he answered questions as Prime Minister, 1 had the good fortune to be the first of the new Members to ask him a question. It is the only time that I have had the chance to do so before today. On that occasion, I asked the right hon. Gentleman whether he could give us a definitive time scale for the lifting of the European ban on the export of beef from Scotland to the international community. The right hon. Gentleman could not give us a definitive time scale that day. After 12 months in office, is he any further forward in giving us a definitive time scale?

The Prime Minister

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific date, if that is what he wants, because it is not possible to do that. I can say, however, that, for the first time, we have progress in that the Northern Ireland certified herd scheme is now through. I can also say—we hope very much that we have a reasonable prospect of achieving this—that there will be a date-based scheme that will affect Scotland and, indeed, all parts of the United Kingdom, which we can get to the Standing Veterinary Committee, probably in late May. That will be a considerable step forward. [Interruption.] As for the shouts from Conservative Members, we are having to debate this issue because of the mess that they left us.

Q12. Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, and, subject to a yes vote, next Thursday's London referendum, show that the Labour party is interested in devolving power, and that that is the ultimate answer to all those who accuse us of being a bunch of control freaks?

The Prime Minister

As if we ever would be. Of course, as my hon. Friend would expect me to say, he is right. We are decentralising power to Scotland, to Wales and, of course, to Northern Ireland if the referendum goes through there—and, if there is a mayor for London, to London. I am pleased to say also that, having fought a general election campaign on the basis that this would be a constitutional disaster, the Conservative party is now in favour of devolution to Scotland and to the Welsh assembly. From last night, it is also in favour of a mayor for London. By the time of the next election, I expect it to be in favour of the minimum wage, trade union recognition and our economic policies, too. That is a development that we welcome.

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