HC Deb 11 February 1998 vol 306 cc366-71
Q4. Mr. Gibb

Does the Prime Minister accept that his Human Rights Bill would give unelected judges the power to create a privacy law and leave this Parliament with just a 90-minute debate to rubber-stamp those judicial decisions? Is that not both undemocratic and unacceptable?

The Prime Minister

The answer to that is no. The British courts would be perfectly entitled, as, indeed, the Lord Chancellor has pointed out, to develop a law of privacy in relation to common law—never mind the European convention on human rights. I am informed by the Home Secretary of the fact that the shadow Lord Chancellor has supported incorporation of the European convention.

Mr. Barron

Will the Prime Minister tell us whether, if any changes have to be made to the national concessionary fuel agreements for retired miners and/or their widows owing to European legal requirements, the interests of those concessionaires will be looked after?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to raise that as a specific problem. It comes about as a result of European directives, and will mean that, if the directives are carried through, as is being proposed at present, there could be a problem for people with concessionary fuel allowances. Obviously that is a problem for many of my hon. Friend's constituents, and for mine, too. That is precisely why my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry has announced that he will look at all the problems associated with it. In the meantime, people will continue to get the full concessionary fuel allowance. We will announce what we can do about it at a later stage.

Q5. Mr. Peter Atkinson

Does the Prime Minister agree with his Lord Chancellor that the Press Complaints Commission should be given power of prior restraint over what newspapers can publish?

The Prime Minister

Again, the Lord Chancellor did not say that. What he actually said was that there should be self-regulation. Of course, the Press Complaints Commission is entitled to have the self-regulation that it wishes. This is another pretty pathetic campaign on behalf of the old Tory party. Like most of their other campaigns, it is based on a lot of trivia and mistaken premises.

Mr. Benn

Is the Prime Minister aware that all the opposition groups in Iraq, including representatives of the Kurds, are totally and completely opposed to the use of military action? Will he give an assurance that the Russian peace proposal, about which Tariq Aziz wrote to me this morning, will be considered by the Security Council and not rejected by the Americans, and that no force will be used other than by the authority of the Security Council? Is he aware of the puzzlement and disappointment that Britain, as one of the permanent members of the Security Council and president of the European Union, and with its role at the heart of the Commonwealth, should appear to be following slavishly instructions from Washington?

The Prime Minister

We are simply not going to agree on this, but let me tell my right hon. Friend why we are doing what we are doing. It is nothing to do with following the line from Washington—slavishly or in any other way. It is to do with the fact that Saddam Hussein has been developing weapons of mass destruction. As a condition of the Gulf war ceasefire, he was obliged—and agreed—to destroy all such weapon-making capability. Inspectors went in and uncovered literally thousands of weapons, vast biological warfare plants. They have uncovered quite enough to make us deeply alarmed at the prospect of Saddam Hussein's ever getting that capability.

He has now decided to try to prevent the inspectors carrying out their duty. It is our duty, I believe, in order to enforce the long-term security and peace of the world, to bring him back into compliance with the UN resolutions, and ensure that he is not able to develop weapons of mass destruction. I believe that that is right. We will of course search for a diplomatic solution, but Saddam Hussein should not be in any doubt—nor should anybody else—that, if we are forced to take military action to bring him back into compliance, we will do so.

Q6. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

Almost one in four children attend a school with a religious affiliation. Will the Prime Minister accept the amendment to the Human Rights Bill that safeguards the rights of those schools to select teachers who share the Christian, Jewish or Muslim faith of the school, and reject teachers whose way of life and faith are incompatible with the religious ethos of the school?

The Prime Minister

That is a perfectly fair point. I understand from the Home Secretary that, although this has not been a problem up to now, as a result of the concerns that have been raised, we are none the less considering it in the context of the Bill. I know that many families like to have their children educated in accordance with the religion in which they believe. That is something which we obviously wish to protect. We shall look at the concerns that have been raised and make our statement on it as soon as we can.

Q7. Dr. Lynne Jones

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House the reasons for the welcome decision to rethink the plans for increasing the waiting time for jobseeker's allowance—and would not the application of the same logic lead to the conclusion that it would be wise to defer cuts in lone parent benefits?

The Prime Minister

No, Madam Speaker, I am afraid that I cannot agree. The reason for the decision in relation to the jobseeker's allowance is that it forms part of the review of welfare provision that we are now making. In relation to lone parents, it is important for my hon. Friend to understand—I hope that she will take the point on board, as well as acknowledging the fact that she disagrees with the original decision—that some £200 million has been set aside for initiatives that help lone parents off benefit and into work, and that many of them up and down the country are already taking advantage of that. The situation does not fall into the same category as the jobseeker's allowance provisions, which we shall examine as part of the review of welfare.

Mr. Brooke

Why, in the Prime Minister's vocabulary, is so little use made of the word "freedom"?

The Prime Minister

Actually, I do use the word a lot. It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman has raised it, because when I was asked to give a speech in Washington on the values of the centre left, I described them as freedom, justice and progress. Those are the values that those on the Government Benches believe in; it is a pity that the Conservative party today—I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman is rather out of tune with much of it—does not believe in those values.

Q8. Mr. Savidge

Does the Prime Minister accept the fact that, as the Government inherited from the Tories a division between rich and poor comparable with that in the time of Charles Dickens, a major test of the achievements of this Administration will be our success in tackling social exclusion, in restoring hope to those in real need and in building a society united in common purpose and shared values?

The Prime Minister

Since coming to power on 1 May, we have had the £3.5 billion programme of welfare to work, the extra £2 billion worth of spending in our hospitals and schools, the £1.2 billion programme of school repairs and the extra £200 million of help for pensioners with their fuel bills. There can be no clearer demonstration of the values of a Labour Government, designed to help the whole country, and the Tory party, designed to help a privileged few.

Q9. Mr. Norman

I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that in this country the BBC plays an important role in the media and in press freedom. Will he therefore tell us whether he agrees with the remarks reported to have been made by his official spokesman, Alastair Campbell, to the effect that the BBC is a dumbed-down, bureaucratic and overstaffed institution, or with the early-day motion reportedly signed by 40 of his Back Benchers that describes those remarks as childish and offensive?

The Prime Minister

I yield to no one in my affection for the BBC, but whatever remarks were made by my press spokesman, they were a lot less than I remember people such as Norman Tebbit making in the 1980s.

Mr. McGrady

May I ask the Prime Minister to take a personal interest in the future of Downe hospital in my constituency, and to ensure that the Government's policy on equal opportunity and equality of provision and accessibility is applied to the people of Down and Mourne? Will he ensure that the Department of Health and Social Services in Northern Ireland is not unduly influenced by the medical mafia of the so-called "platinum two" hospitals in Belfast, or by the desk doctors in the Department?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will appreciate that I am not in a position to give him a statement about the particular hospital. However, I have heard what he has said and so has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I shall correspond with him and set out our position.

Q10. Mrs. Ewing

In the context of the benefits integrity project, is the Prime Minister aware of the fact that, of the more than 40,000 people who have been reassessed, 20 per cent. of those eligible for disability living allowance have had their allowance either stopped or reduced, and only 2.5 per cent. have had it increased? Is there any integrity in pretending that that is not Treasury-led?

The Prime Minister

This, obviously, was a project that we inherited, but it is important that we ensure that people are claiming the right benefit and it is entirely right to make proper checks to see that that is the case. The hon. Lady will have heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security announce changes to the procedure to ensure that we do not put at risk any of those people who are genuinely in need of benefit and in receipt of that benefit. Of course we will keep the matter under clear review, but it is right that we ensure that only people fully entitled to benefit receive it.

Mr. Levitt

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever problems unemployed people face—and there are many—their best chance of escaping their situation, be they young, long-term unemployed, disabled or lone parents, is by acquiring modern, appropriate and saleable skills?

The Prime Minister

Yes, of course, which is why we have provided additional money to help lone parents to acquire the skills they want. An additional £200 million has also been provided specifically to help those among the long-term sick and disabled who want to get off benefit and into work. Because the number of workless households doubled under the Conservatives in the past 20 years, this is the first chance that many of those people have had for years to get back into work, lead a better life, have a higher standard of living and make a contribution to society. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is precisely why the welfare-to-work programme is important.

Q11. Mr. William Ross

Does the Prime Minister recall that his letter to the Prison Officers Association on 6 July 1994 received a very warm welcome from that body? Will he refresh his memory this afternoon on what he wrote, and reflect that, if full trade union rights had been restored to that body, prison officers could have taken industrial action over security on the roofs of the Maze prison, which would probably have prevented the assassination of William Wright and the consequences that flowed from that murder? Will he now fulfil the promise that he made in the letter to restore full trade union rights to the Prison Officers Association?

The Prime Minister

I really do not think that we can draw the conclusion that, if industrial action had been an available option, the murder of Billy Wright would not have taken place. That is not right or fair. The hon. Gentleman knows that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made our position clear on industrial action by prison officers. He will also know that two reports on the Maze prison are to be published; as soon as they are, we will be able to discuss them.

Mr. Gareth Thomas

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the former employees of the National Coal Board, who have just secured victory—and the largest compensation award in British legal history—in their trade union-backed court case about the effects of emphysema and chronic bronchitis? Does he agree that the case illustrates the importance of trade unions in ensuring decent working conditions and social justice in the workplace?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I congratulate the many trade union officials who work throughout the country to secure justice for their people, which is why millions of people voluntarily choose to be members of trade unions in Britain today.

Q12. Mr. Robathan

Will the Prime Minister, particularly at this time of international tension, pay attention to the concerns of senior officers in the armed forces who fear that the Human Rights Bill may undermine the authority of commanding officers in the field? Will he ensure that the Bill is amended to safeguard military discipline?

The Prime Minister

I really do not believe that the Bill has any impact on commanding officers in the field. As I keep trying to explain to the Conservatives, people can already litigate under the European convention on human rights; the difference is that they have to take their cases to Strasbourg rather than to our own courts. The idea that by incorporating the European convention on human rights into law, as a vast number of European countries have, we will somehow inhibit our armed forces takes the Conservative campaign from absurdity to sublime absurdity.

Q13. Mr. Gordon Prentice

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity in his busy schedule to read the current issue of Country Life, in which the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Mr. William Waldegrave, predicts that there will be violent action, civil disorder and civil disobedience if the Labour Government enact a statutory right to roam? Will he tell Mr. William Waldegrave and those who think like him that such threats cut no ice with him, and that, like me, he believes that the Government should legislate for a right to roam?

The Prime Minister

I cannot say that I have seen the edition of Country Life, but it is an indication of how ridiculous some of the campaigns of the Conservative party are today. The Conservatives say that people having the right to roam or walk on moorlands on which they wish to walk will somehow put the countryside at risk. It will do no such thing. We are in discussion now as to the best way to proceed, and I believe that we can reach proper agreements on this matter. If not, the legislation is there and we intend to carry through our manifesto commitment. As for the Conservative party threatening civil disobedience, it only shows what has happened to the party of law and order.

Mrs. Roe

Is the Prime Minister aware that last May, patients from my constituency attending the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Welwyn Garden City were waiting a maximum of 12 months for elective surgery? Today, nine months later, they are having to wait 18 months. Does the Prime Minister accept that my constituents feel that they were conned by the Labour party at the general election, as it said that waiting times and waiting lists would fall? Is this not an example of the Labour party saying one thing at a general election and doing another in office?

The Prime Minister

No, it certainly is not. The spending proposals we inherited were the spending proposals of the Government whom the hon. Lady supported. What is more, we put an extra £300 million in this year and an extra £1.2 billion for next year. We will see at the next election whether our waiting list pledge has been confirmed. We will do that. Nobody believes that the NHS would be better with a party which spent 20 years undermining it than with a party which believes in it and will now rebuild it after 20 years of Tory rule.