HC Deb 09 December 1998 vol 322 cc312-9
Q1. Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 9 December.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Throughout the day, I have been kept informed of developments in the efforts to establish the facts in the tragic and horrifying killing of the hostages in Chechnya. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing condolences to the families and friends of the victims.

Sir Peter Tapsell

Is the right hon. Gentleman content with the ever-growing prospect of his being remembered as the Prime Minister who destroyed the United Kingdom and subjected England to foreign tax collectors?

The Prime Minister

There speaks the authentic voice of today's Conservative party. No: we believe in the policies of devolution, we believe in a constructive attitude in Europe—and, actually, I would prefer to be remembered for having destroyed the Conservative party.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of a recent case at Bury general hospital, involving deaths following alleged misdiagnoses of cancer sufferers and the recall of 40 women for a review of their test results? Does he share my concern about the fact that, in such instances, the medical profession has an unfortunate habit of closing ranks? Does he agree that the case shows how important it is that nurses should be confident enough to report their anxieties to senior management, and also shows the importance of improved quality control in regard to consultants' records? Can he assure us that the Government are committed to improving that quality control?

The Prime Minister

As well as putting extra money into cancer services in the NHS, we shall introduce a new system in the national health service Bill. The aim of that system will be to monitor the quality of decisions, to offer advice, and to give us the best chance of ensuring that the tragic events to which my hon. Friend has referred are not repeated. It is important for us to introduce those proper quality controls, so that people can have faith in their diagnoses.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

After all the bluster that we have heard from the Government about harmonising European taxes, is it not amazing that the letter that the Prime Minister signed this morning, along with the German Chancellor, fails to rule out the harmonising of capital taxes, fails to rule out the harmonisation of savings taxes, fails to rule out the harmonisation of value-added taxes and calls explicitly for more harmonisation of corporate taxes? Is this not the latest attempt to cover up the threat of tax harmonisation with meaningless reassurances and waffle?

The Prime Minister

In the matter of bluster, I recognise when I have met my match. As for taxes, we have made our position clear. We will oppose any measure that is against Britain's national interests, in taxes or in any other regard. What we will not do is return to the years of Conservative diplomacy that left this country without influence at the margins of Europe. We will not do that, because it is not in the British national interest.

Mr. Hague

Has the Prime Minister seen what the German Government have been saying to the French press over recent hours? A Bonn official, who asked not to be named, said that Germany was also hoping in Vienna for progress towards harmonising taxes, as Germany is a high-tax, high-regulatory state, while countries such as Britain can be more attractive to businesses because they have lower taxes and fewer regulations. Where is the Prime Minister's diplomacy when that is the actual agenda of the German Government? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore come clean and tell the House the Commons which British tax reliefs the Financial Secretary is now negotiating to harmonise away?

The Prime Minister

The only Government who agreed to harmonise taxes in the UK were the last Conservative Government, just as they agreed more qualified majority voting than any Government have done before or since. I repeat: we will judge every issue according to the British national interest. We have no intention of agreeing to raise taxes across Europe. We want a lower tax burden on our people, but the way in which to get that argument through is to win the argument by staying firm and engaged, not by glorying in it, as the Conservative party is doing as an excuse to indulge its anti-Europeanism.

Mr. Hague

Nothing that the Prime Minister has done remotely resembles standing firm. If he will not tell the House what is actually being negotiated, we will, because we have the list here: the shipping tax relief that he voted for; the film tax relief that he introduced; the enterprise zones that his constituents work in. Those are currently being negotiated. No wonder the European tax Commissioner says that the Government are "fully on board" with tax harmonisation. Is not the Prime Minister's endless habit of saying one thing to one audience and another to another finally catching up with him? Is not the truth that, however much he protests, no one believes him on that subject any more?

The Prime Minister

First, the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises are from the code of conduct working party on tax. The code of conduct working party was established under the previous Government. Secondly, as for what the rest of Europe thinks, let me give him just a sample of what the rest of Europe is saying. The French Prime Minister said: Neither the French nor the British have any thought about unifying taxes. Harmonisation does not mean uniform tax. Nobody wants somebody else to choose for his country corporation tax or income tax. The Irish Deputy Prime Minister said: Instead of calling for what would effectively be higher corporate taxes, European leaders should be concentrating on bringing corporate and other taxes down. The Spanish Prime Minister said that higher taxes would be a recipe for inefficiency and higher costs. The Italian Finance Minister said that the harmonisation of corporation tax would be untimely, questionable and above all hardly feasible". The European employers said:

Tax competition is the only counterweight against the constant upward pressure on Government revenues. There is a debate going on in the European Union, but what is important is not to exercise the old Tory tactic of using the debate as an excuse to get out of Europe. We should use it rather as an opportunity to make the case for a sensible Europe for all our futures.

Mr. Hague

What does our Prime Minister say? One thing in one place—in the House of Commons—and another thing in the Council of Ministers. The people who are driving tax harmonisation are the European socialist politicians whom he has encouraged for years. We have only to look at the Foreign Secretary's biography: Cook finished his long day"— Labour Members will be interested in this— with a visit to Oskar Lafontaine at the headquarters of the SPD. Lafontaine is an old friend from the Socialist International … The two gave each other a bear hug, for old times' sake. Anyone who is prepared to give the Foreign Secretary a bear hug is capable of harmonising the taxes of the United Kingdom.

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, in the words of Oskar Lafontaine, our British colleagues have asked us not to use the word harmonisation, but co-ordination"? Is it not clear from that remark that harmonisation and co-ordination mean exactly the same?

The Prime Minister

The moment the right hon. Gentleman gets back to his debating points, he reckons he is on strong ground. As he is quoting, perhaps it would be best if I quoted to him the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said: The next time that I have a discussion with William, I shall seek to reassure him that the views of Oskar Lafontaine are not likely to be the views of the European Union. That is what the Conservative former Chancellor said.

The truth of the matter—and the strategic error that the right hon. Gentleman has made—is that the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is running Conservative European policy. That is where the Conservative party is today. It has decided that it wants to be an anti-European party, and it will get support from certain quarters for that.

The Conservatives can have that support. I will defend the British national interest—that is the difference between us—because it requires this country to be part of Europe. It is important that we are a part of Europe. Whatever smart debating points the Leader of the Opposition makes in this debate, the truth is that his position would return us to the years of Conservative isolation. There is no better example of that than the beef war. Two years of Conservative diplomacy; a declared war on Europe; no result. Eighteen months of Labour Government; the ban lifted. End of story.

Mr. Hague


Hon. Members


Madam Speaker


Mr. Hague

Whenever the Prime Minister mentions smart debating points, we know that he has none of his own, and he has just shown that again. There is nothing anti-European about believing that we should decide our taxes here in the House of Commons. The truth is that the right hon. Gentleman now has to ask the Germans to use a different word. He has become the Basil Fawlty of Europe. Every time he meets a German, he goes around saying, "Don't mention the tax harmonisation." The letter that I have here is yet another example of his giving one impression in Europe and another in the United Kingdom. We have no guarantees that any commitment that he makes in the House he will keep in the Council of Ministers; that any principle to which he was attached last week is a principle to which he is attached this week; or that we can be confident that any promise he makes now he will stand by tomorrow.

The Prime Minister

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is getting very far on this matter. I simply repeat that there is a debate in Europe about the future direction of Europe. There is a debate about economic reform, and tax is a part of it. We will win that debate if we stay firm but stay engaged. The choice is between two different approaches to Europe. The only Government who agreed to tax harmonisation were a Conservative Government. For example, at the Vienna summit this week, we will ask that the duty free issue be reopened. Why do we have to ask that? Because the Conservative Government agreed to harmonisation and the abolition of duty free. We will try to get our way by staying firm to the British national interest, but staying engaged in Europe. The right hon. Gentleman has given in to the Euro-sceptic wing of his party, which is running his policy. He wants to glory in every obstacle in Europe because it is an excuse to be anti-European. We see those obstacles as things to be overcome because it is in this country's interests to be part of Europe. That is the difference between us.

Mr. Ivan Lewis (Bury, South)

Will my right hon. Friend consider asking his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he will incorporate a new clause into the fairness at work legislation—the right of hereditary peers to claim unfair dismissal when they are sacked simply for pursuing the objectives of their employer? Furthermore, will he ensure that in such cases the compensation cap is withdrawn?

The Prime Minister

Lord Cranborne said to the Leader of the Opposition, "Back me or sack me", and the right hon. Gentleman succeeded in doing both.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I hate to change the subject, but is the Prime Minister aware that more than 300,000 pensioners whose incomes are too low for them to pay tax are still waiting for the Treasury to decide whether, as promised, there will be a rethink on the Budget decision to remove from them a tax refund worth on average £75 to each of them? Is the Paymaster General still dealing with the matter?

The Prime Minister

No. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already made it clear that we shall let those pensioners know as soon as a decision has been reached, but a whole series of issues has to be decided alongside that and we shall deal with the matter as soon as we possibly can.

Mr. Ashdown

I am surprised to hear the Prime Minister say that, as I have a letter from the Treasury less than two months old indicating that the Paymaster General is still dealing with the matter. Indeed, six months ago the Paymaster General himself promised that it would be dealt with "as soon as possible". Is it not clear that there is confusion over the matter and that the price of the Prime Minister's desire to preserve a lame-duck Minister is now being paid out of some of the poorest pockets in the land? For their sake if for no other, is it not now time to resolve the matter?

The Prime Minister

We shall make the decision as soon as we possibly can. We have said that and we shall keep to it.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

As a young person struggling to walk, I had cause to be grateful to the Motability scheme for supplying me with a car, which transformed my life. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the previous Labour Government, and Alf Morris in particular, on introducing the Motability scheme and Motability, which will hand over its millionth car this week? Can he assure me that the present Labour Government will continue to pursue policies that will make it easier for disabled people to play a full part in society?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to participate in the events surrounding the 21st anniversary of Motability. I am happy to pay tribute to the previous Labour Government, and Lord Morris in particular. As my hon. Friend will know, the extra money provided under the new deal to help disabled people to work—almost £200 million—will be well used. The disability rights commission, on which we intend to legislate in the coming Session, will also make sure that the barriers to disabled people playing a full part in society are removed.

Q2. Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire)

The Prime Minister will be aware of the distress and hurt felt by Maxwell pensioners, hundreds of whom live in my constituency, when they learned that Robert Maxwell had stolen their pension funds. As more of Robert Maxwell's activities are revealed—and bearing in mind that he was a former Labour Member and an enthusiastic Labour supporter—can the Prime Minister assure the House that all the Administration have clean hands as regards dealing with that crook?

The Prime Minister

Yes, and if the hon. Gentleman has any evidence to the contrary, he should supply it.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as people await the decision of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, it is worth reflecting on the difference that the independence of that body has made and comparing the present position with that of 10 years ago, at the same point in the economic cycle, when there were 1 million more people unemployed than today, when inflation was twice what it is today, when interest rates were 13 per cent. and when we had a Tory Government?

The Prime Minister

We are, of course, hitting the inflation target, and long-term interest rates are at their lowest level for more than 30 years. The reason why we are able to achieve that is that we have in place Bank of England independence and proper controls on spending that allow us to keep public finances under control and put an extra £40 billion into our schools and hospitals. As the deputy leader of the Conservative party repeated just a few days ago, the Conservatives are against Bank of England independence, and we know that they are against our spending proposals. We are in a better position this economic cycle precisely because we have pursued the policies that they oppose.

Q4. Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Can the Prime Minister give me three good reasons why the Paymaster General should remain in office?

The Prime Minister

I have always said, first, that anybody who is guilty of serious wrongdoing will be dismissed. I have secondly, however, made it clear that I will always, with any Minister, go on the basis of evidence, not on the basis of what the media say or what the Conservative Opposition say.

Q5. Angela Smith (Basildon)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the independent panel for special educational needs has branded Essex county council one of the worst in the country for supporting pupils with special needs? Is he further aware that one of the worst problems that that causes is delays in assessment which mean that children cannot reach their full potential? Can he assure the House that the Government will provide that all children, especially the most vulnerable—even those in the Tory-led Essex county council area—will be given full support by the Government to help them reach their potential? What action can he take to ensure that Essex county council fulfils its obligations?

The Prime Minister

The Government expect all local authorities to meet the needs of young people with special educational needs. We have given Essex county council an extra £29 million for education—an increase of almost 6 per cent. The Government have launched a £60 million action plan for pupils with special educational needs— a doubling of the central funding available. There is no reason at all why the needs of those children should not be properly looked after. I stress to my hon. Friend that it is an investment when we pay that money over to councils and they use it properly. Those children have abilities and, if we give them the right support, those abilities can flourish. I expect and hope that all councils will follow the Government's lead.

Q6. Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Does the Prime Minister have any regrets about the clumsy and arrogant way in which his Government lectured Oskar Lafontaine, the German Finance Minister, about how best he might present European tax plans? Does he realise that that will not be allowed to hide the truth from the British people—that what our European partners really intend is tax rises for this country?

The Prime Minister

The only way in which we shall get a serious debate on this issue is on the basis of fact. I have read out to the hon. Gentleman a list of leaders of other European countries who have made it clear that they do not support increasing taxes across Europe. On the contrary, they want to get taxes down. The hon. Gentleman has to come to terms with the psychology of the Conservative party today. Every time there is a problem in Europe or someone makes a remark in Europe, the Conservatives are desperate to use that as an excuse for their policy. It is not in the British national interest to adopt that attitude. It is in the British national interest to make sure that we win arguments in Europe, not use arguments as an excuse for turning our back on Europe.

Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

Yesterday I visited the showroom of the Scottish Apparel Group here in London. I was told by the managing director of Traditional Weatherwear, manufacturers of high-quality waterproof clothing in my constituency, that the company had increased turnover by 30 per cent. and exports by 40 per cent. in the past six months. It has taken on 12 apprentices. Will not the attitude of the Opposition in talking down the economy damage the prospects of those young people and of hard-working manufacturers throughout the country?

The Prime Minister

I congratulate the company to which my hon. Friend refers. The best way of dealing with whatever economic difficulties we face over the next year is to hold firm to the key policies that the Government set out: proper Bank of England independence, proper rules on public spending, extra investment in our future—particularly in education, skills and apprenticeships, as she rightly says—and making sure through the new deal and the working families tax credit that people have incentives to work. That is the best policy to weather any storm that comes.

Q7. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Since 1985, Britain has saved tens of billions of pounds thanks to the hard-won rebate from the European Union. Under the previous Government, the EU rebate was not negotiable. Is the EU rebate still not negotiable, and how long will it remain so under this Government?

The Prime Minister

Even in France—to deal with the point that was made earlier—I made it quite clear that the British rebate will stay. It will stay because it is right and because, even after we take account of all the changes in Europe over the past few years, we are a net contributor above countries with higher incomes than ours. That is why it is right. I do not doubt that all sorts of other countries in Europe will put all sorts of things on the table and raise all sorts of issues. We shall raise some of our own issues as well, but I repeat that the best way to get the result that we want is to stay engaged in the debate, not to walk away from it.

Q8. Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the first decade of the new millennium, for the first time in our history, the over-60s will begin to outnumber the under-18s? Does he agree that that will require a new policy approach to matters such as health, welfare, housing and work? Does he welcome the debate of the age campaign, which is holding an exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall of the House and which will raise public awareness of that demographic shift and ensure that we start to make plans for the future?

The Prime Minister

I welcome Age Concern's debate of the age—indeed, I have participated in it. It is excellent that we are looking at how the senior citizens of this country can play a part in all the various work of this country. As my hon. Friend will know, I make particular reference not only to the additional money that we are giving to the poorest pensioners, but to the free eye tests, concessionary travel and winter fuel payments that help some of the elderly. However, the importance of the debate of the age is that it can enable us to get the very best from senior citizens, who have an immense amount to contribute to this country, if they are given the chance to do so.