HC Deb 10 June 1998 vol 313 cc1068-76
Q1. Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 June.

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 have further such meetings later today. I hope to keep an eye on the Scotland-Brazil game, and I am sure that the whole House joins me in wishing the Scottish and English teams the best of luck in the World cup.

Mr. Touhig

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the statement made by a Conservative that he would be proud to act like a football hooligan in defence of the rights of the hereditary peerage? I am sure that all hon. Members believe that football hooligans are a mindless lot and would want to condemn that statement. Will my right hon. Friend condemn it and, further, assure the House that the Government are determined to end the right of hereditary peers to sit in Parliament?

The Prime Minister

I confirm that. It is not just the injustice of hereditary peers sitting in the other place and making laws; there is an in-built majority of three to one in perpetuity for the Conservative party in the House of Lords, irrespective of who wins the general election. The Salisbury convention exists for that very reason and I hope that the Conservative party will not do anything to break it. I challenge the Opposition to deny that they will. If they do break it, that will be the greatest constitutional outrage of all.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The Prime Minister has always said that Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament must resign. Last month, Baroness Symons said that when she answered questions on 10 March all she knew about an investigation into Sandline was what she had read in a newspaper. We now know from the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office that that was not the case. Has the Prime Minister asked for her resignation?

The Prime Minister

No, I certainly have not. Furthermore, I believe that there is no evidence whatever that Baroness Symons has deliberately misled the House of Lords or anyone else.

Mr. Hague

Does it not concern the Prime Minister that the Foreign Secretary has spoken several times about this affair in the House—the Prime Minister may not be aware of that as he is hardly ever here—yet every answer he has given has implied that no Minister knew about the investigation until mid-April? Is it not absolutely clear from evidence given to the Select Committee yesterday that at least one Minister was informed in early March? Did the Minister fail to tell the Foreign Secretary or did the Foreign Secretary fail to tell the House?

The Prime Minister

No. Neither. First, on the subject of my attendance in the House—I point this out again to the right hon. Gentleman—I have answered more oral questions in my first year of office than did my predecessor in his last year in office. Also, I have made more statements and spent more time answering questions in the House. I say that so that we all get the facts.

As for the Sandline matter, an inquiry is in place. From what I have seen, I repeat that there is no evidence—indeed, there is not a shred of evidence—that any Ministers have deliberately misled anybody, or any evidence in support of the original allegation, which is that they have taken part in a great conspiracy to supply arms in breach of a United Nations arms embargo. There is not a shred of evidence to support that allegation and there never has been. This is simply an example of an Opposition with nothing to say about anything serious.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister obviously hopes that he reaches his reshuffle before the truth catches up with his Ministers. Is not the worst thing about this entire affair what it tells us about the condition of the Foreign Office—a Department of state known for its diplomacy and professionalism that has been reduced in one year to a place where telegrams are sent but never arrive, where answers are given but have to be retracted, where papers are submitted but no one ever reads them and where Ministers do not know what is happening in their own offices, let alone overseas? And it is presided over by a Foreign Secretary who boasts that he does not need to finish the paperwork. Can the Prime Minister put his hand on his heart and say that he is proud of his Foreign Office team?

The Prime Minister

Let me say what those questions indicate about the Opposition. We have India and Pakistan and all the problems of nuclear proliferation. We have Kosovo and instability in the Balkans. The middle east peace process is stalled and we have Eritrea and Ethiopia. We have the upcoming European Union summit.

Those are the issues that I expect the Foreign Office to concentrate on. If we had a serious Opposition, they would concentrate on those issues.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that last week's increase in interest rates was greeted with dismay in areas such as he and I represent, which depend on exports and manufacturing for their prosperity? Is my right hon. Friend just a little afraid that in our two-speed economy employment growth in the hard-hit regions will always be undermined by monetary policy that is aimed at the overheating regions?

The Prime Minister

Of course I understand the concern at any interest rate rise, but the very worst thing that could happen is that by not taking action to produce monetary stability and financial prudence we would return to the conditions that we had under the Conservative Government, when we had interest rates of 15 per cent. for a year, record repossessions, record borrowing and record bankruptcies. That would be the worst thing of all for British industry. There are difficult decisions, but they are the right decisions and we shall continue to pursue the right policies for the long-term strength of the country.

Q2. Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

The Prime Minister is aware that the decision whether to close four hospitals and a maternity unit in Cornwall now rests entirely with the Secretary of State for Health, and has done since February. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the delay in taking a decision is severely lowering morale and that some staff are seeking alternative employment, which may effectively close the hospitals simply because there is delay in making a decision?

Can the Prime Minister try to speed up the decision so that the four hospitals and the maternity unit can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the national health service in the knowledge that they have a secure future?

The Prime Minister

I speak from memory, but I seem to recall that the chairman of the health authority has indicated that the health authority's original decision was not taken primarily on cost grounds. However, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that of course we want to ensure that a decision is taken as quickly as possible. There have been many representations about the matter and we want to ensure that the decision is taken in the right way.

Q3. Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

When my right hon. Friend talks to his ministerial colleagues on the outcome of the consultation paper on the modernisation of local government, will he reflect on previous Governments' attitude that local government is an expensive luxury rather than an essential part of our democratic system? If the Government want people to vote in local elections and value local government, the House should set an example by giving credit where credit is due and refinancing the services that have been devastated for decades.

The Prime Minister

I am happy to pay tribute to the vast majority of local government and local councillors, who do an excellent job on behalf of their local communities. As we have set out recently, it is obviously why important that we try to modernise the institutions of local government, but we are well aware that local authorities are essential in delivering the best public services for people, which is one reason why we have put additional money into schools for this financial year and hope to put in additional money in future years. We want to decentralise power to them, but we also want to reform and modernise them so that they provide efficiency and best value.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Our first and firm aim, of course, must be for a diplomatic solution in Kosovo, but is not one of the lessons of Bosnia that diplomacy seems to work rather better with President Milosevic if it is backed by a clear and credible threat of compulsion?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I agree with that entirely, and it is precisely why we are trying to arrange the maximum support so that we can take military options should diplomacy fail.

Mr. Ashdown

Then will the Prime Minister confirm that if President Milosevic refuses to respond to calls to silence the heavy weapons that he is using against his own civilian population, the international community might have to do it for him?

The Prime Minister

Certainly that is my view. Obviously, we must build the maximum support in the international community. That is why we are having a series of meetings at the moment, culminating on Friday in a meeting of the G8 Ministers and a meeting of the NATO Defence Ministers. My own view, as I have stated clearly during the last couple of days, is that the only circumstance in which we will ensure that President Milosevic responds to diplomatic pressure is if that is backed up by the credible threat of the use of military force. The sole hurdle that remains in our way at present is obtaining the necessary support for that course of action. We are working as hard as we possibly can. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been having a host of meetings recently, and he will be having more meetings tomorrow and in the next few days to obtain that necessary diplomatic support. If we can do that, we will be in a position to make that diplomacy work, and if it fails we should be in a position to take the military action that is necessary.

Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

Knowing my right hon. Friend's interest in tennis, I am sure that we shall soon be seeing him in the Labour-held constituency of Wimbledon for the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet club championships there. While he is there, will he take the time to visit Wimbledon Park first school in my constituency where, thanks to the Government's new deal for schools, all the children are already wired up to computers—[Laughter.]—and even helping their local Member of Parliament track down the Wombles on the internet?

The Prime Minister

I had not realised that our school reform programme has gone quite that far. The £1.3 billion school repairs programme is helping us to get the internet and new technology into schools. That is tremendously important because our children need those skills for the future. They were denied them for a long time. The purpose of the programme is to allow schools to carry out the repairs that they need, which is often important if they want to build better classrooms and install new technology. That is precisely what will give our children the best chance of education in the future.

Q4. Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

Quite apart from the fact that waiting lists are rising, is the Prime Minister aware that full ambulance cover was recently withdrawn in the largest town in my constituency, Haverhill? Is he also aware that for the first time in the history of the county of Suffolk school budgets are being cut across the board? Does the Prime Minister understand the growing disillusion about his failed promises on health and education, or does he merely dismiss my constituents' anxieties as "overblown hoo-hah"?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not dismiss them at all. I can tell the hon. Gentleman's constituents that we are putting more money into Suffolk—in hospitals and in schools—than the Government the hon. Gentleman supported planned to put in and, if we take the right decisions on public spending, we shall get more money still over the next few years. We shall meet our pledge on waiting lists and, after 10 years of rising class sizes under a Conservative Government, we shall get class sizes down.

Q5. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

Almost one in six of the people who have visited me in my constituency surgeries over the past year have been from the hard-pressed agriculture community. Does the Prime Minister agree, on hearing the remarks of Ben Gill, who is also a North Yorkshire farmer, that today's success in Brussels on the recommendation to lift the ban on British beef is due to the patient diplomacy of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture—[Laughter.] Conservative Members laugh, but the concerns of many of my constituents are founded on the failure of Conservative policies over 18 years. All credit should be given to my right hon. Friend.

The Prime Minister

I pay tribute to the work my hon. Friend has done on behalf of the farming industry. The decision to lift the ban in respect of Northern Ireland was an important first step; the Commission's decision today is a very important further step because it applies to the whole of the UK. However, there is still a long way to go and I counsel caution until we are through all the various stages of the European negotiations. It is right to point out, however, that not only did the previous Government give us the BSE crisis; they ended up causing what has probably been the most diplomatically disastrous episode in the country's history.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, according to figures from the Library, a typical family is more than £1,000 a year worse off through tax and mortgage increases since the Government came to office? Is he also aware that Treasury Ministers have so far refused to publish official figures on that subject, presumably because they are scared to do so? Will he instruct the Treasury to publish up-to-date figures showing the tax burden on families?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, Treasury Ministers have published the figures.

As a result of the decisions that we have taken, we have managed to get rid of the huge Budget deficit that we inherited from the previous Government. The right hon. Gentleman is right: the interest rate decisions have been difficult for people. The alternative—the policy proposed by his party—was no interest rate rises at all and no action to cut the deficit. Under the policies proposed by his party on the Finance and Social Security Bills, there would have been an extra £6 billion-worth of spending. Those are precisely the policies that would have returned us to Tory boom and bust which, thank goodness, we are escaping.

Mr. Hague

How can the Prime Minister say that Treasury Ministers have published such figures when they have not, and everyone knows that they have not? We have now seen tax increases for pension fund holders, home owners, married couples, businesses, and now even for charity aid workers overseas. That is from a Prime Minister who said at the election that there would be no tax increases at all. Now the Government plan more taxes for people who drive cars, for people who park cars and, incredibly, for people who put out the rubbish. Is it not bad enough that the Prime Minister breaks all his early pledges without taxing people who put them in the bin? If he is to impose all those new taxes, should not he at least publish the figures that show what the tax burden on families will be?

The Prime Minister

The rubbish that has just been recycled comes from the right hon. Gentleman. The measures that we have taken have been absolutely necessary to cut the Budget deficit. The choice is simple: either leave the huge borrowing and national debt that we inherited from the Conservative Government, which would put inflation back in the system and give us cycles of boom and bust again, or take the decisions that we have taken. We have taken the right decisions in the interests of the country. Long-term interest rates are now down to their lowest level since we last won the World cup. Those decisions have been difficult, but they have been absolutely necessary to deal with the economic situation and to ensure that we have the long-term stability that the country needs.

Mr. Hague

Does it not come to something when, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister cannot even answer a straightforward question, such as whether he will publish a set of figures that until last year had been published for the past 17 years? The fact that the Government will not publish the figures shows that they are not straight with people about taxes. His pledges on taxes, which have gone up, are like his pledges on waiting lists, class sizes and inflation, all of which have gone up. Does he not understand that when he made those pledges people expected him to keep them and not to do the opposite?

The Prime Minister

We shall keep each of the pledges that we made. [HoN. MEMBERS: "When?"] After years of rising waiting lists and rising class sizes under the Conservatives, we shall get them down. We are taking measures to ensure that we squeeze inflation out of the economy. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] Now. We are taking the measures now to tackle the Budget deficit. As for broken promises, we remember the last Conservative Government. We remember the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues who now occupy the Opposition Front Bench going into an election promising that they would never raise VAT and then raising it straight after the election. We remember them and their 22 tax rises that they promised they would never make. The Labour party made promises on tax, waiting lists and class sizes; when we go into the next election we shall have kept every single one of them.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

May I refer the Prime Minister to today's report of the Office for Standards in Education, which shows that under the Tory Government the gap between the best and the poorest schools grew wider? May I also refer him to Essex county council, where the Tories lost a by-election in Basildon last week largely because of their poor record on education? The council has cut £3 million from the education budget and has closed schools in Basildon. The public know that they can trust Labour on education—not the Tories.

The Prime Minister

I am pleased to say that there is strong evidence that standards are getting better, but we are concerned about the widening gap between the best schools and those down at the bottom of the list. It is important to put investment into our schools, which we have done this year and hope to do again in future years, and to combine that with reform to tackle failing schools. We need to reform the structure of the teaching profession to get the best possible people into teaching, to maintain a school repairs programme to give our schools the facilities they need and to replace the nursery voucher system with proper nursery education. We have a programme of investment and reform that I believe over the medium and long term will give this country exactly what it needs: the best skilled and educated work force that we can possibly achieve.

Q6. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

How many jobs does the Prime Minister believe will be lost in this country as a consequence of the withdrawal of the concession on duty-free goods for travellers by air and sea within the European Union, which was somewhat impetuously agreed by the previous Government and quite culpably confirmed by the present Administration, against the wishes of Labour as well as Conservative Members? How can the British people have faith that the UK presidency will protect their interests on this matter, on EU tax on arts sales in this country and on the issue of withholding tax on savings?

The Prime Minister

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman's purpose was probably more to attack the previous Government's record on Europe than ours.

It is extraordinary of Conservatives to come after us on duty free. In 1991, they agreed to the abolition. That abolition can be overturned only if all the other European Union countries agree to overturn it, and the majority have indicated that there is no prospect of their supporting such a move. It would be dishonest of us to pretend that we can get something changed when, as a result of a measure agreed by the previous Government, which the hon. Gentleman supported—well, more or less—we cannot. That is the truthful position. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make any proper complaint, I am afraid that he will have to direct it at the previous Government.

Q7. Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Last Wednesday, we heard a good deal in the Chamber about corruption in local government. Will the Prime Minister confirm that this Government will take tough action to stamp out corruption wherever it occurs, and whichever party is in power?

Does the Prime Minister recall the former leader of the Conservative party saying, in May 1995, that the party would condemn proven cases of malpractice and individuals found guilty in courts of law? In spite of that, when, six months ago, Dame Shirley Porter was found to have lied to the High Court and to the district auditor, we heard not a word from the Leader of the Opposition. Is it not about time that the Tories came off the fence, stopped prevaricating and gave us some answers about the scandal in their back yard?

The Prime Minister

We shall be vigilant against corruption, from whatever quarter it comes. I will simply say that, after all the scandals involving Westminster council, we have still heard not one word of condemnation, not one word of apology and not one hint of action from the Conservative party.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

About eight weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment told Derbyshire county council that it could have an extra £1 million to spend on reducing class sizes. This week, the Deputy Prime Minister announced that he was capping Derbyshire to the tune of £1 million. It will cost more than £500,000 to re-bill every household in Derbyshire as a result of the Deputy Prime Minister's decision. Can the Prime Minister explain the logic of that?

The Prime Minister

In fact, Derbyshire received £2.9 million more specifically for education, and it is receiving a great deal more than it could possibly have received under the spending plans on which the hon. Gentleman fought the last election. He is the last person who is able to attack the position with any credibility.

Q8. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in my constituency, as elsewhere, vulnerable witnesses—at least one in 10, according to some estimates—are often subject to harassment and victimisation? Is he aware that that has an adverse effect on the administration of justice? Does he, like me, welcome the publication of a report today and the consultation period that will follow it, while also feeling that what we need is action—and soon?

The Prime Minister

The protection of witnesses is of concern throughout the House. Today, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published a report containing more than 70 recommendations to improve the way in which vulnerable or intimidated witnesses are treated by the criminal justice system. They include more protection for rape victims, new measures to help child witnesses and greater use of technology such as closed-circuit television to help those who are vulnerable and may be subject to intimidation. I hope that, as a result of the report's recommendations, we shall be able to reduce the intimidation of witnesses. That would play a major part in securing more convictions.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

When does the Prime Minister intend to keep his promise—published in The Licensee and Morning Advertiser on 1 May 1997—to conduct a full, comprehensive and independent review of smuggling and illegal cross-border shopping involving tobacco and alcohol?

The Prime Minister

We are carrying out that commitment. Within the European Union, as well as on our own account, we are taking concerted action to try to reduce such activity. We are well aware of the problem, but it can be tackled only if we are prepared to tackle it not just in our own country but across our borders.

Q9. Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

What would be my right hon. Friend's reaction if a Member on the Government Front Bench advocated the legalisation of crack, heroin or Ecstasy? Is the cause of the war against drugs helped or hindered by the existence of such an advocate on the Opposition Front Bench—in the shadow health team of all areas—or is it time for the Leader of the Opposition to reflect on his lamentable choice of personnel?

The Prime Minister

I am a little in two minds about that since I think it is probably in our interests for the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) to remain on the Opposition Front Bench. It is not the policy of Her Majesty's Government to legalise drugs.

Q10. Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

Is the Prime Minister aware that serious concerns are being expressed by general practitioners in my constituency and throughout the country about the introduction of primary care groups and the risk to general medical services funds which could devastate the further development of a primary care-led national health service? Will the Prime Minister hold a ballot of GPs on this issue and take lessons from the previous Conservative Government on giving GPs the opportunity to put the best interests of their patients first?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Lady must forgive me if I am a little hesitant about taking lessons on the NHS from the Conservative Government. There are concerns among GPs, including concerns about their budgets, and they are being discussed actively with them by the Health Minister. In the end, it is important to take decisions about the health service working, of course, in partnership with doctors and nurses and others who work in the national health service. Those decisions should be taken in the interests of the national health service as a whole to ensure that it delivers the best service for people. The purpose of the primary care groups is to ensure that we do not have a two-tier system, as we had under the Government the hon. Lady supported. We are also making the best use of the resources that go into the national health service—which, of course, have been increased under this Government, not cut.