HC Deb 28 January 1998 vol 305 cc344-50
Q5. Mr. Pike

Until 1 May last year, we had 18 years in which the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The people in my constituency of Burnley welcome the steps that the Government have taken to address the problems of giving the poor a fairer deal. What other steps does my right hon. Friend consider as priorities to eliminate poverty for those in work and those out of work?

The Prime Minister

The first thing to do to eliminate poverty is to get into work those who are presently out of work and who could and want to work, which is why we are making the largest single investment that any Government have ever made—£3.5 billion into the welfare-to-work programme. That is already helping young people and others to come off the benefit system and into work. Under the Conservative Government, the number of workless households doubled in 20 years. Many people on benefit want to work.

Secondly, the 10p starting rate for tax will help to incentivise many people and reduce some of the problems in the interaction of the tax and benefit system.

Thirdly, of course, the minimum wage will make a difference, because it will allow people some dignity in the pay packet that they get and make it clear that employers cannot undercut other employers by paying poverty pay.

Q6. Mrs. Gorman

Given that the Prime Minister and his Government are now in office, and therefore are answerable for their spending, does he agree that the £12 million that was detailed in the national press, and that his Government have squandered on wallpapering, partying and taking their friends and relatives abroad goes against the exhortation that he gave to his own Members of Parliament: that they were not in office to enjoy the trappings of power? Does that not mean that his exhortation has fallen on deaf ears?

The Prime Minister

No. The hon. Lady obviously was not listening to what I said earlier, when I made it clear that, on all those items that the Conservatives are belly-aching about, spending by this Government is less than that by their own Government.

As for the other items that the hon. Lady mentioned—all that stuff about VIP suites and everything—again, the rules are precisely the same. The spending is precisely the same. Those are never criticisms that we made of the Conservatives. The criticisms that we made of them were to do with the conduct of Members of Parliament, in particular taking money for questions. That has not happened under this Government, and never will.

Ms Blears

The Prime Minister has reiterated today his belief that education is the foundation for success in life. Will he join me in congratulating Lowry high school, an inner-city school in Salford that was virtually written off by the Tories—[Interruption]—where school attendance has improved by a massive 20 per cent. in the past 12 months? Does that not show that, with confidence, determination and the support of a Labour Government, we can all succeed? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

Just look at Conservative Members, who were shouting and bawling during that question. When questions are about schools, they now groan as if they were irrelevant. The education changes that we are putting through are already yielding results. These are difficult times, given the spending proposals that we inherited from the previous Government. But the extra money will get there, the reform will take place, standards will improve and the education revolution that we promised will be delivered.

Q7. Mr. Yeo

Why did the Government overrule the unanimous view of all three political parties on West Sussex county council and the view of their own specially appointed expert panel, and insist that West Sussex accept another 13,000 homes over and above the 38,000 already agreed?

The Prime Minister

We did it for precisely the reasons that, under the previous Government, such plans were also altered on several occasions. That happened in relation to Kent, Berkshire, Bedfordshire and several other counties. As Conservative Members keep talking about the green belt, may I say that we are applying precisely the same policy as the previous Government, except that we plan to tighten it to ensure that the green belt is better protected. Once again, the Conservative party defines opposition as opportunism and hypocrisy.

Q8. Ms Keeble

Does my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the improvement in primary school test results?

Mr. Soames

What about Cheltenham Ladies College?

Ms Keeble

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in Northamptonshire, the decision to switch funding from the assisted places scheme to primary schools means switching the equivalent of £949,000, which is enough to employ more than 50 extra teachers? Does he agree that that is a powerful sign of the Government's determination to improve education for all? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

There they go again—it is unbelievable. What about Cheltenham Ladies college? That is the Conservatives' education priority—[Interruption.] We are trying to raise education standards for all the children of the country. Just look at Conservative Members—they have nothing to say about it. We are getting the extra money from the assisted places scheme and using it to reduce class sizes; we shall have extra money next year; and primary school results are improving already. In both secondary and higher education, we shall achieve results that are the product of investment plus reform. Twenty years of educational betrayal by the Conservatives will be turned round by a new Labour Government.

Mr. Brazier

The Government have shown a lenient and compassionate attitude towards terrorist prisoners, particularly over the Christmas period. Will the Prime Minister turn his mind to the plight of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright, who were convicted of a killing that was carried out on duty, unpremeditated and in dangerous circumstances? After nearly six years in prison, is it not time that those two young men, who risked their lives to serve all of us, were granted a compassionate release?

The Prime Minister

I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises, but, rather than comment on the individual cases, it may be better if I express my view to him in writing.

Q9. Ms Ward

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in my constituency of Watford, the previous Government's legacy is an ever-increasing housing problem caused by their refusal to release capital receipts for house building? A constituent who came to my surgery on Friday has been on a council house waiting list for more than 11 years, with no prospect of getting accommodation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to support Hertfordshire county council's plans for building on both urban and limited green-belt areas is right? It will ensure that homes are available to my constituents, that the environment and green belt are protected, and that urban areas are not further packed with housing, taking away the green belt available to my constituents.

The Prime Minister

Yes, and on Hertfordshire my hon. Friend did not mention that, as a result of the proposals over all, there is greater protection of the green belt. In Hertfordshire, as in Newcastle, which the Conservatives have also been going on about, the rules have been applied in precisely the same way as before. The big difference, to which my hon. Friend rightly draws attention, is the additional £900 million from the release of capital receipts that will allow homes to be built and refurbished for people in our constituencies who really need them. As a result of the previous Administration's policies, whereas we used to spend £11 billion on housing investment, we now spend roughly that or more on housing benefit. We must build homes for our people to live in, and clean up the mess and the rubbish left to us after the Conservative years.

Mr. Malins

All hon. Members want to continue the battle against crime: the Prime Minister has said so on many occasions. Is he not making a mistake, so far as the county of Surrey is concerned, by cutting dramatically the budget of the probation service and the police? Does that not send the wrong message? The only people to benefit will be those who practise crime.

The Prime Minister

I do not know enough about the particular circumstances in Surrey, although I shall look into the matter, given the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Overall spending on the police has increased, not diminished, and is more than the Conservative Government intended to spend. I do not doubt that there are problems with his police authority. Indeed, there are problems in schools and hospitals in many parts of the country: that is what the new Government are addressing. The plain fact of the matter is that we are being more, not less, generous than the Conservative Government whom he supported.

Q10. Mrs. Ellman

Does the Prime Minister agree that concentrations of chronic ill health found in constituencies such as mine after 18 years of Tory rule can be tackled only by mounting a major assault on poverty, unemployment, poor housing and social exclusion? Does he also agree that, to be successful in achieving change, efforts are required at national, regional and local levels?

The Prime Minister

Yes. The social exclusion unit is designed precisely to bring together the work of different Government Departments. In the past 20 years, an increased number of people have suffered problems of poor housing, poor educational opportunity, crime, drugs and low levels of employment, which must be tackled together. That is the purpose of the new unit that we have established. The additional money from capital receipts, the welfare-to-work programme and the raising of standards in schools will all play their part in regenerating such areas, many of which are urban areas where levels of unemployment among young people are sometimes as high as 50 per cent. We must tackle unemployment, because it is not just a problem for those individuals; it is a blight on the whole country.

Q11. Sir Peter Emery

Can the right hon. Gentleman be happy, as he promotes policies for the unity of the family, at the private actions of his Ministers at the Foreign Office? Would he recommend their behaviour as an example to the rest of the country?

The Prime Minister

There have been Ministers in Conservative Governments whose marriages have broken up and who have remarried. That will happen in our society today. It is typical of Conservatives that they seek to exploit that, and it is beneath the right hon. Gentleman. Let me nail another part of the lie, which is that I used to go on about the private lives of Conservative Ministers. That is rubbish: it is not correct. Conservatives pretend that the problems that they got into with financial sleaze are echoed in the Labour party, so they continue to raise those matters. However, the country will not be fooled.

Mr. Alan Simpson

When the President of the United States rang the Prime Minister to ask about plans to attack Iraq, did my right hon. Friend inform him that there would be no international consensus in support of such adventurism? Whatever plans the President may have, at this time more than any other, he would be well advised to keep them in his pockets.

The Prime Minister

It is foolish to call "adventurism" attempts to bring Saddam Hussein back into line with United Nations Security Council resolutions. In the past few years, the inspectors who have been inspecting the so-called sites in Iraq have uncovered detailed evidence of the building of biological and chemical weapons of warfare and of nuclear weapons. That process carries on the whole time. Saddam Hussein has tried to prevent access to 45 presidential sites. There is no doubt at all about what is going on beneath cover of those sites.

Incidentally, lest people think that this is a case of Saddam Hussein's not having enough money to provide for his people, let me point out that he is spending billions of dollars on new presidential sites and on weapons of destruction while his people are starving. He could get the money perfectly easily under the food-for-oil provisions, but he is not doing that, because from the very beginning he has been embarked on the process of building up weapons of mass destruction.

Let me say to my hon. Friend that, while it is all very well to make remarks about the President and all the rest of it, it is not very sensible when we are dealing with circumstances in which a dictator is prepared to abuse his power to launch war on his neighbours—and if he is not stopped, and stopped soon, the effects will be worse for the whole world in the long term.