HC Deb 17 June 1998 vol 314 cc356-66
Q1. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 17 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 be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Baker

May I draw the Prime Minister's attention to a press release that was issued by the Labour party just before the last election, on the subject of the privatisation of air traffic control? According to the press release, the privatisation is an own goal and shows how out of touch the government is. It commands no public support, and will undermine public confidence in Air Traffic Control". Does the Prime Minister now agree with himself? Does he not think it rather dangerous to perform U-turns with aeroplanes?

The Prime Minister

No. As we made clear before the election, we are prepared to do anything necessary, both for public finances and to ensure that we secure the right investment in air traffic control. The public-private partnership that we have announced means that 49 per cent.—a golden share—stays with the Government. It will secure the investment that we need, and will give us a new regulatory body to improve air safety. I take it from the fact that the hon. Gentleman is now opposing the measure that that is another spending commitment on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.

Q2. Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the many thousands of Scotland supporters who enjoyed themselves so peacefully in France? Does he recognise that the vast majority of England supporters are also peaceable, and a credit to the nation and their team? Will he, however, lead the House in condemning the mindless minority of English hooligans who have terrorised the people and the city of Marseille, and will he give a commitment that action will be taken as a matter of urgency? England prides itself on the claim that it is the home of football, but, if such scenes are repeated, it will unfortunately be renowned as the home of football hooliganism.

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree. I congratulate the Scottish fans on the way in which they have behaved throughout the World cup—and, as my hon. Friend rightly says, the vast majority of English fans have behaved extremely well. We condemn, without reservation or qualification, the mindless minority who do nothing but bring disgrace on themselves and the name of our country abroad, and we have already introduced a huge package of measures in an attempt to stop such things happening. There was merely a trickle of restriction orders when we first came to power; there are now more than 70. We have put together probably the biggest package of measures for co-operation between the French and the British police that has ever been known.

Let me say this to my hon. Friend and to others. The problem is that, although we can stop known hooligans, if they are known, the vast majority of those who have been picked up by the French police have no record of football hooliganism that would appear on criminal records—or even on our database, which is the most extensive in the world. However, we will consider whatever other measures we can take, so that that small minority is eliminated from watching football throughout the world.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I support the Prime Minister's sentiments. He clearly shares the anger that so many of us felt when pride in the victory of the England football team was coupled with shame at the behaviour of hooligans. We are tabling amendments to the Crime and Disorder Bill, which will be debated next week, to place new restrictions on thugs travelling to overseas football matches, and to make them pay compensation for the damage that they cause. Can we expect the Government's support for those amendments?

The Prime Minister

We shall certainly consider any amendments, and if they would improve the situation we would be very happy to accept them. In debates on the legislation, Conservative Front-Bench Members have tried to water down, rather than strengthen, the anti-social behaviour orders. If sensible amendments could make a difference, we shall support them. However, we must also consider ways of ensuring that restriction orders—the powers that already exist—are used more comprehensively. In particular, we must try to deal with the problem of intelligence on football hooligans, which is not as great as we need it to be, even though we have the most extensive database in the world. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy), we can stop football hooligans only if they are known.

Mr. Hague

I agree entirely with what the Prime Minister said about the need for intelligence, although when he talked about the Opposition Front Bench—[Laughter.] He will find a good deal more intelligence among Opposition Members than he will among those sitting around him. When the Prime Minister referred to Opposition Front-Bench Members, he was mixing one set of amendments with another. Does he accept that there is a strong case for such measures? The view of this country from overseas is severely affected by these incidents. While he is quite right to talk about improved co-ordination, it is important to do everything we can to toughen up the legislation.

The Prime Minister

There is no point having a prolonged debate on this matter, but the right hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench spokesman described the proposals as dangerously unworkable. We are perfectly happy to examine any amendments that are tabled. We must also consider the restriction orders and the basis of co-operation with other police services. We should also encourage employers to take strong action against people who are convicted of football hooligan offences abroad. I hope that strong action is taken against convicted football hooligans who are employed by the public service or by the armed forces.

We can take all the measures we like—we should take whatever measures are necessary—but we must be quite clear where the responsibility for such violence lies. It lies with those individuals who do not represent the best either of Britain, of England or of English soccer.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Yorkshire and Humberside region has been the first to set up a regional chamber in anticipation of the establishment of regional development agencies next year? Does he agree that regional government for England would be a further step towards the Labour Government's objective of giving more power to people in the regions to take decisions over their own lives?

The Prime Minister

Regional development agencies will act as important co-ordinating bodies for attracting inward investment and for improving the circumstances of local economies. Having championed subsidiarity in Europe, we should champion it at home as well.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

In the Budget, did the Chancellor really intend to penalise retiring small business men and women while creating a huge tax loophole worth perhaps hundreds of millions of pounds to some of the richest in the land, including some partners of certain merchant banks?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that the Chancellor has done that.

Mr. Ashdown

Has the Prime Minister seen the very clear report today, which says that the Chancellor has done exactly that? Has he read the report in the Financial Times, which says that the Chancellor has, indeed, done exactly that? The report in the Financial Times concedes the case, because one of the right hon. Gentleman's Ministers has apparently said, "Yes, we've got it right, and this proves that we need to get it—we've got it wrong, and this proves that we need to get it right."[Laughter.] I shall say that again, in case it is misunderstood. The Minister said, "We've got it wrong, and this proves that we need to get it right." Surely there cannot be any benefit in the Government creating large tax loopholes for the very rich while telling teachers and nurses that they must have pay rises less than the rate of inflation. The Prime Minister has said that hard choices must be made. This is an easy one: spend more money on providing decent public services for the many, and less on large tax breaks for the few.

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that that is nonsense. The 10 per cent. capital gains rate is designed to encourage long-term investment, and we believe that it will do so. As for the cost measure and the implication that we could pass this money on to other people, that is simply not the case. I believe that the vast majority of people support this measure, because it will encourage long-term investment in business and industry. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is against it.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

As one who had the good fortune to be at Wembley in 1966 on that glorious day when England won the World cup, may I congratulate the Prime Minister on his role in securing an honour for Geoff Hurst? However, it has created the expectation that every English footballer who scores a hat trick in a World cup final will receive a similar honour. Could my right hon. Friend send an urgent message to France saying that that expectation will be fully realised?

The Prime Minister

I think that the wisest course is probably to wait until the hat trick has been scored.

Q3. Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

The Prime Minister will be aware that his Foreign Secretary has refused to release to the Select Committee copies of the telegrams that were sent to the Foreign Office by our high commissioner in Sierra Leone. Is that because copies were forwarded to No. 10 Downing street?

The Prime Minister

No. My right hon. Friend has made it quite clear that that must await the outcome of the Legg inquiry when we will deal with it in accordance with the normal rules of the Pergau inquiry that took place earlier. I am sorry that Conservative Members, despite their best interests, still cannot manage to get anybody in the outside world interested in what has been a ridiculous Opposition caper from beginning to end.

Q4. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will know that Lucas in my constituency proposes to make redundant next month 70 workers who make compressed natural gas bottles for vehicles. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this country needs to do more to encourage the use of environmentally positive fuels, such as compressed natural gas, for road vehicles of all types? Does he agree that such a policy would be good for jobs and the environment?

The Prime Minister

It would and, of course, we have taken a series of measures, particularly in the foresight vehicle link programme, and in his Budget the Chancellor took measures to promote vehicles that use more environmentally friendly fuel. In the end, of course, businesses have to be run as such and I greatly sympathise with the plight of my hon. Friend's constituents. I know that he recently met my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry to discuss whatever help we can give.

Q5. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)

Can the Prime Minister confirm the independent figures that have been produced by the House of Commons Library which show that after his first year in office the average family is £1,000 a year worse off as a result of tax and mortgage rate increases?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not confirm that. From memory, the House of Commons note upon which the Opposition rely states that it all depends on the assumptions that are fed in by those who are asking for the information. The £1,000 includes, for example, rises in excise duty, five sixths of which were introduced by the previous Government. We all remember who put up taxes by over £1,000 a year. It was the Conservative party in direct breach of its election promises.

Q6. Yvette Cooper (Pontefract and castleford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the conviction rate for rape is a shocking 9 per cent.? Is he also aware of a new locally-driven West Yorkshire initiative that is trying to tackle the problem by providing specialist training for prosecuting barristers? Can he assure the House that Ministers will take a direct interest in that programme as it develops, and that if it is successful, they will encourage the Crown Prosecution Service to adopt the programme throughout the country?

The Prime Minister

An interim report was published by the Home Office in December. The final findings will not be available until early next year. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is already taking action. He has announced a series of proposals to improve the way that rape victims are treated by the criminal justice system. They include special measures to make the process of giving evidence less intimidating, a ban on defendants personally cross-examining the victim and powers to enable the court to clear the public gallery when a victim is giving evidence. In the light of the final report to be published early next year, we shall decide what other measures we need to take.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

On a day of disturbing economic statistics for wages and jobs, will the Prime Minister make it clear that he will not give in to the President of the Board of Trade, many of his Back Benchers and the Trades Union Congress when they call for the implementation unamended of the Low Pay Commission's recommendations?

The Prime Minister

We shall make our conclusions on the Low Pay Commission known when it is right to announce them. The continued Conservative opposition to a minimum wage shows how totally wedded they are to—[Interruption.] It is over here that we want to see them. These are the people who oppose any minimum wage at any level. These are the people who are happy that hundreds of thousands of people are paid less than £3 or less than £2.50 an hour. These are the people who believe that a strong economy can be built on sweatshop wages, but people on this side of the House do not.

Mr. Hague

It is a good job the Prime Minister is not on "Just a Minute", because we have heard deviation, hesitation and repetition, all in one answer. Are not three things now clear? Today's figures show a rapid rise in wage inflation and the first signs of an increase in unemployment. The introduction now of the Low Pay Commission's recommendations is likely to make both problems worse. Is it not essential that, if he cannot abandon those proposals for a minimum wage, he should at least water them down, as the Chancellor wants him to do?

The Prime Minister

I totally disagree. Employment in the past year, under this Government, is up more than 400,000; unemployment is down 270,000; youth unemployment is down 60,000; and we have 30,000 already on the new deal, which is another policy opposed by the Conservative party. Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman gets to his feet now, he will tell us whether he intends to repeal the minimum wage legislation if elected, or keep it.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister wants me to tell him our policy in future years when he will not tell us his policy today. Is it not extraordinarily complacent of him to dismiss the concerns about unemployment that inevitably arise from today's figures? Is it not incredibly arrogant of him to say that he will not water down the recommendations, when every newspaper has been briefed that that is what the Chancellor wants to do? How is it that every newspaper in the land can be told what the Chancellor thinks about this, but the Prime Minister does not have the courage to tell his own Back Benchers in the House of Commons? Is it not true that he and the Chancellor have decided that the minimum wage has got to be watered down? Let us hear from him frankly, now, at the Dispatch Box, that that has got to happen.

The Prime Minister

What is absolutely clear is that, as ever, the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues believe that the answer to the problems of the economy is low wages. We do not believe that; we support a minimum wage and we shall introduce it. I do not know anybody who believes that it is the low-paid who have responsibility for any difficulties that there are. The responsibility lies with us to ensure that we have a proper, strong economic policy, in which we take the right measures for monetary and financial stability. Let us be clear on one thing: the Conservatives have opposed every interest rate rise since the election and every measure to cut the Budget deficit. If we carried on with the policies that the right hon. Gentleman wants, rather than with our policies, we would end up in the boom and bust that we had under the Conservatives, with interest rates at 15 per cent. for a year, record repossessions, record bankruptcies and record recession. That was his Government's record, but it is not going to be ours.

Mr. Hague

If there is no difficulty about a minimum wage, why is the Prime Minister finding it so difficult to reach a decision on it? He attacks the previous Government, but does he not recall that he inherited the best economic situation of any new Government? He inherited low inflation, low taxes, low interest rates and falling unemployment, but now we see taxes up, inflation up, mortgage rates up and unemployment heading that way. Does he still think that things could only get better?

The Prime Minister

I suspect that for the 400,000 extra people in work since the last election things are better. I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman how else they have got better. We are going to avoid the economic crisis into which the previous Government plunged us in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Let us remember what we inherited—we inherited record borrowing and a doubled national debt. We, not the Tory Government, put those things right. It is we who have put the financial deficit in order. The Tory party, when in power, ran a deficit on the current account of £12 billion every year. We are going to run current account surpluses. We are going to get down the national debt that it doubled. We are going to avoid boom and bust and put our economy on a stable footing, which the Tories never did.

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

Does the Prime Minister agree that National Air Traffic Services has a record of safety and efficiency which is second to none? Will he consider that commercial interests could jeopardise that record, and will he give a categorical assurance that the new Scottish centre at Prestwick will go ahead as planned, no matter which option is chosen for the future structure of NATS?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I understand that contract negotiations for a new air traffic control centre at Prestwick to replace the existing centre are under way between National Air Traffic Services and Sky Solutions, the preferred bidder. That will continue to be the case. Of course, as a result of the proposals that we are putting forward for air traffic control, an extra £1 billion will be invested in it, which is the best news for the service and for jobs that there could possibly be.

Q7. Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

On 6 May, the Prime Minister told the House with reference to the Northern Ireland agreement: It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence. Decommissioning is part of that". Does the Prime Minister stand by that statement? If so, could he explain to me, so that I understand, why that requirement is not provided for as a prerequisite in the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill which is currently before the House? Is not there a danger that those who affirmed the agreement and voted yes will consider that they did so under a false prospectus?

The Prime Minister

There is no reason to do that at all. I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's point in a little detail because it is important.

On 6 May, I did indeed say that, and I stick by it 100 per cent. Indeed, I went on to say: It is not just a question of decommissioning, but a question of making sure, as the agreement says, that there is a complete and unequivocal ceasefire."—[Official Report, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 711.] I also quoted the speech of the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), who said: When sensitive matters such as prisoner release on licence are discussed—for which, as the Government has made clear, there is no general amnesty—the independent Commission, and the Secretary of State, are bound to have regard as to whether decommissioning has taken place. [Interruption.] The shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can make his remarks later if he wishes.

I then went to Northern Ireland the next week and said in my Balmoral speech, which set out precisely what we were going to do: In clarifying whether the terms and spirit of the Agreement are being met and whether violence has genuinely been given up for good, there are a range of factors to take into account. One of those was full co-operation with the Independent Commission on decommissioning, to implement the provisions of the Agreement. That is precisely what we have now put in the Bill which states: "the Secretary of State shall in particular take into account"— it then lists various items— co-operating fully with any Commission of the kind referred to in section 7 of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997. In other words, that is precisely what we said we would do. We have put it in the legislation in order to make it quite clear that although, as I said, we cannot alter the agreement or insert new legislative preconditions, decommissioning is an essential part of the package. Those parts of the package in respect of decommissioning have to be obeyed, as everything else. That is what we said before the referendum; it is what we are saying now, and it is in the legislation.

I have to say to the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that we supported the previous Government through thick and thin on this. We shall look very, very carefully at any amendments that are tabled, but they cannot rewrite the agreement. Decommissioning remains an essential part of the agreement, and our legislation is fully consistent with what we established before the referendum.

Q8. Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

The Prime Minister will recall that, in his speech last October in Brighton, he said that it was worth reminding ourselves of how much negative discrimination there really is. Given that statement, and the fact that he has now signed the Commission for Racial Equality's leadership challenge, will he tell the House precisely what action he will take to ensure that black and Asian people are fully represented in the highest levels of the civil service and in Government appointments to quangos?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend may know, there are a series of Government programmes to promote people from ethnic minority backgrounds coming into the public service, and the Government are currently working with the Windsor fellowship and other community organisations to ensure that black and Asian people are encouraged to apply for careers in the public sector. We are also fully committed to the Commission for Racial Equality's leadership challenge, which seeks to promote equal opportunity policies in public and private organisations.

It is also appropriate that we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the arrival, at Tilbury docks, on 22 June 1948, of the SS Windrush. I believe that those people and their descendants have made a great contribution to a Britain that is proud of being a multicultural, multiracial society.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

How can the Prime Minister justify spending annually over £1 million of taxpayers' money to fund employment of Labour party spin doctors at No. 10 Downing street?

The Prime Minister

We follow precisely the same rules that have been applied by other Governments and in exactly the same way. The fact that we do so rather better than the previous Government is a reflection on them rather than us.

Q9. Mr. Malcolm Chisholm (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

This week, I received an answer from the Scottish Office stating that more than twice as many women between the ages of 35 and 54 die from breast cancer than from any other single cause. What action are the Government taking to tackle that greatest single cause of premature death? Will the Prime Minister tell us also whether further care will be given to older women by extension of routine screening beyond the age of 65?

The Prime Minister

First, I pay tribute to the work done by my hon. Friend on the issue. We have put in place a series of proposals that will mean that—by April 1999, for breast cancer, and by 2000 for other cancers—there will be a maximum two-week waiting time to see a specialist after an urgent GP referral. Implementing that proposal is being funded specifically out of the money that was raised by getting rid of the internal market that did so much damage to the national health service. Women over 65 are not routinely invited for screening, although they are entitled on request to a free three-yearly scan. It is important that that entitlement should be more widely known and taken up. We are currently looking at ways in which we can improve the publicity given to it.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Is the Prime Minister aware that it is now almost 12 months since two British aid workers—Camilla Carr and Jon James—were taken hostage in Chechnya? Does he realise that, last week, an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation from the House raised the matter with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and received an assurance from the Russian Government that they will do everything that they can to ensure the hostages' early release? Bearing in mind the fact that their families are keen to raise the profile of the hostage issue in Britain, will the Prime Minister say that he, like me, will maintain his personal interest in the issue and do everything that he can to ensure that Camilla and Jon are returned home safely?

The Prime Minister

I certainly shall. As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, I have raised the issue myself a number of times with President Yeltsin, who has indicated that he gives his full support to efforts to find and free the hostages. Tomorrow, the Home Secretary will see the Russian Minister for the Interior. We are deeply concerned about the hostages—we have been deeply concerned about them all the time that they have been in captivity. We shall continue to do everything that we possibly can to locate, to find and to free them.

Q10. Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, according to the Jarman index, I represent the most deprived area in Britain? Is he also aware that Tower Hamlets suffers from the greatest overcrowding in housing in Britain—in fact, 10 times the national average? Will he join me in congratulating the council on reducing the housing waiting list by 10 per cent. over the past year? Will he give us further assurances that more money will be made available for housing in the poorest areas of Britain?

The Prime Minister

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The capital receipts initiative has already put some £50 million into London authorities. The figure will increase to almost £170 million this year. Obviously, that will make a difference to housing waiting lists, as will the inner cities initiative which attempts to deal with some of the worst housing estates. Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that, under the new deal, large numbers of people who are long-term unemployed, lone parents or young people who have been unemployed for a significant period of time can get help to get a job. Getting a job and earning a decent standard of living is one of the most important factors in providing better housing.