HC Deb 24 June 1998 vol 314 cc1041-50
Q1. Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 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.

Dr. Turner

Is the Prime Minister willing to share with the House his reaction to the front page of today's edition of The Sun, which called him the most dangerous man in Britain"? Was he shocked, amused or flattered? More seriously, will he confirm that any proposal to join the European single currency will be based solely and completely on the national economic interest? Will he guarantee that the final word will be given by the British people through the ballot box, and not by The Sun?

The Prime Minister

As the House may know, my admirably objective press secretary simply gives me a digest of the newspaper headlines every day. All that it contained about The Sun was that I was described on the front page as having the potential to be a truly great Prime Minister". I cannot think why that did not make it into the headline. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will refuse-and have refused-to rule out joining a single currency as a matter of principle. The decision has to be based on our national economic interest. The position set out by the Chancellor last October continues to be the Government's position and will remain the Government's position. As my hon. Friend says, the final decision will be for the British people. Newspapers are entitled to their view, but we govern in the national interest.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

During the general election, the right hon. Gentleman made his top manifesto pledge the reduction of welfare bills. A year later, will he say how much the measures that he has announced will reduce spending on welfare?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I am delighted to do so. Since we took power last year, an extra 400,000 jobs have been created, unemployment has been reduced by 300,000 or more, and 30,000 young people have got jobs as a result of the new deal, which the Conservative party opposed. That, for the information of Conservative Members, reduces welfare bills by cutting unemployment, not by increasing poverty, which was the Tory way.

Mr. Lilley

I know that the Prime Minister is not good at the detail on this, but he has got the figures absolutely diametrically wrong. All his major reforms will increase welfare bills, not cut them. Welfare to work will cost an extra £3.5 billion on top of any savings. Reforms to family credit will cost £1.2 billion a year after any savings. The child support package will cost an extra £1.2 billion a year. Those are not my figures; they are the Chancellor's. The Prime Minister seems to dispute them. We know that he thinks that his Chancellor is psychologically flawed, but is he saying that he is arithmetically flawed as well? Labour promised to cut welfare, but that is another broken pledge.

The Prime Minister

First, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong for the simple reason that the 30,000 young people who have come off the dole as a result of the new deal are 30,000 youngsters who are getting not benefit, but the jobs denied them by the Tory Government. Secondly, his suggestion was very interesting. It seems he is opposed to the working families tax credit, a measure that will mean that no one who is in a job and who has children will earn less than £180 a week. He is opposed to our proposal that no one should pay tax before earning £220 a week. He is opposed to measures to reform the Child Support Agency. All that is very interesting, but it is not a manifesto that will win the right hon. Gentleman an election.

Mr. Lilley

The Prime Minister is tacitly admitting that he is going to break his pledge. He said that he wanted to cut welfare bills and encourage personal provision. Instead, he is taxing people's pensions to pay for his failure to cut welfare bills. Should not he stop relying on roadshows and reviews, get to grips with the details of his programme, and come up with some concrete savings instead of empty rhetoric?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman can always put his notes on the Dispatch Box and read them from there if he wants.

The new deal is a series of very detailed measures. They are in operation, and they are opposed by the right hon. Gentleman's party. They take people off benefit and into work. That is part of welfare reform, and very sensible, too. It allows young people who previously had no hope of a job to get one. It also means that, because of the measures that the Chancellor has announced on tax and benefit reform, people have an incentive to work. For the first time for them, work pays. The right hon. Gentleman's party also opposes the minimum wage. All those measures mean that, for the first time, young people or those who are long-term unemployed have the chance to work and to earn a decent living wage. That is the Labour way. We saw the Tory way for 18 years; it was rejected by the country, and it will be again.

Mr. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough)

Is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister aware of the excellent document, "Making the difference: a new start for England's coalfield communities", produced by the coalfields task force and launched successfully at the Acorn centre, Grimethorpe, last week? Does he agree that our Government must seriously consider many, if not all, the recommendations contained in that document if we are to succeed in regenerating our coalfield areas, which were so badly neglected by the previous Tory Administration?

The Prime Minister

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work on regeneration of the coalfield areas, both in his present position, and previously as the leader of his local authority. We believe that the report offers a valuable way forward. As structural change hits the coalfield communities, we are able to help people back to work or to start small businesses. We are able to bring inward investment from outside those regions. Those are the right ways for Government to act. After years of hearing a Government say that they had no responsibility for regenerating those areas, we accept our responsibility, and we are discharging it.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

May I join the hon. Member for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Mr. Ennis) in welcoming the coalfield communities report? I urge the Prime Minister to respond positively to it.

Bearing in mind what the Prime Minister said earlier, if No. 10 receives another call asking him to intercede on Rupert Murdoch's behalf with some foreign Government, does the switchboard have instructions not to put the call through?

The Prime Minister

No. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman on many occasions, what newspapers do, and their positions and their policy, are up to them. The Government set out a firm policy last October, which will be maintained. That policy is in the national interest. It refuses to rule out a single currency in principle, and it says that the test is what is good for British jobs, industry and investment. If we hold to that test, the United Kingdom will gain. To go down the Conservatives' route of saying that the single currency should be ruled out for ever, and that they would never join it under any circumstances, would go wholly against our country's interests, and I shall not support that.

Mr. Beith

Is not it important that, on this matter and many others, a diversity of opinion should be represented in the press? Does the Prime Minister recognise, after reflecting on the matter today, that he should take a bit more notice of the calls from many in the House and outside for some control of monopoly ownership in the media and for measures to deal with predatory pricing?

The Prime Minister

The one thing that, I think would be totally unjustified is that, just because a newspaper expresses a view on a single currency, we start legislating on it. There will be a variety of views on this in all quarters-in newspapers, in political parties and throughout the entirety of the political spectrum. That is perfectly natural. The important thing is for the Government to have a clear position and to carry it through in the national interest. People will have very strong views about this, but I am quite clear in my own mind that we have the right policy for the country, and I think it is my duty to put it forward. Conservative Members may disagree with it. That is their prerogative, but we have the policy and we will maintain it.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the concern among businesses and individuals about today's 7.5 per cent. interest rates and the 4.2 per cent. retail price index figure? However, does he recall that 10 years ago, under the Conservative party, we had exactly the same level of interest rates, exactly the same RPI level and twice as many unemployed people? [Interruption.] Will he assure me and the people of Britain that he will not repeat the stop-go policies that the Conservatives instituted which, within one year of the date that I am talking about, had doubled interest rates, increased inflation and still had unemployment higher than today? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

It is no surprise that Conservative Members want to bawl my hon. Friend down because they want people to forget that that is precisely what happened under Conservative policies. Under the policies pursued by the Conservative party, as the report of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development makes very clear, we ended up with interest rates at 15 per cent. for a year, record borrowing, record repossessions and the worst recession since the war. That was because that Government in 1988 failed to take the measures necessary to produce economic stability. Those days of boom and bust are over. They are what the Conservative party gave us and this Government are not going to repeat their mistakes.

Q2. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Does the Prime Minister accept that, after this morning, the sun has set on his strategy of deferring a referendum on economic and monetary union until after the next general election, that he has no political reason for further delay, and that it is in the national interest that he should stand up and lead from the front in countering the negative, nationalist propaganda emerging from some sections of the popular press?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

He's as barmy as that lot.

The Prime Minister

I think I go along with that. There is a job there as an official spokesman.

There are two absurd policies on the euro. One is to say, as does the Conservative party, that we are against it and will never join it no matter what the economic circumstances are. The second is the position of the Liberal Democrats, which is to say that we must join irrespective of the economic circumstances—[Interruption.] Well, the position that I believe to be sensible is that we say that we will not rule out joining it in principle and that we hope for it to succeed, but whether we join depends on whether it satisfies the test of our national economic interest. I believe that that is the sensible policy and I also believe that it is the policy that, the vast majority of people in the country will follow.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that he intends to continue the robust stance that he has adopted towards Serbia and President Milosevic over Kosovo, which has been much welcomed by both sides of the House? Will he impress on the Foreign Secretary the need to bring our American allies more strongly on board in this matter? The situation in Kosovo is grave and getting worse.

The Prime Minister

I would say that our American allies are on all fours with us on this policy. The reason why there has been discussion in the past few days about whether the NATO military option has gone back a little is not that we have changed our position in any shape or form at all. It remains the position that we are making certain demands of President Milosevic. If he does not obey those demands-ceasing the internal aggression in Kosovo and withdrawing his special units from it-that military option remains very much on the table. I hope that, as a result of the talks that he has had with both President Yeltsin and Mr. Holbrooke, the American representative, he takes the measures necessary to calm the situation down; but, if he does not, let me state unequivocally that the NATO military option remains.

Q3. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

Given that the leader of the Labour party has taken to blaming Conservatives in Essex for all problems, even though they have been in power for only a few weeks, will the right hon. Gentleman kindly apply those same rigorous standards to himself and the Government he leads, and tell the House and the country who is responsible for growing hospital waiting lists; who is responsible for increasing class sizes; who is responsible for growing inflation; who is responsible for rising interest rates; who is responsible for enlarging balance of payments deficits; who is responsible for increasing strikes; and who is responsible for our poor sporting performances? Will he not answer by repeating a rendition of last year's victory anthem, "Things Can Only Get Better"?

The Prime Minister

I take full responsibility for meeting every one of the pledges that we set out at the last election, and we will do so, which is why I am delighted that the Conservative party has made that the test of the success or otherwise of the Government. Let me point out that it is the Labour party that is putting extra money into the national health service, opposed by the Conservative party; it is the Labour party, after 10 years of rising class sizes under the Conservatives, that has got through the measures to reduce class sizes, opposed by the Conservative party; it is the Labour party that has introduced the new deal for young people, opposed by the Conservative party; and it is the Labour party that is introducing the measures to squeeze inflation out of the system, opposed by the Conservative party. Every single measure that we have taken has been opposed by the hon. Gentleman's party, and I hope that, when we come back and all those pledges are met, he will be the first to stand up and congratulate us.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the successful New Addington, Croydon education action zone bid was supported by Midland bank, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Abbey National, Marks and Spencer, British Telecom, Lloyds bank, Smiths Industries, Direct Line, Commercial Union and many other industries and companies? We need no lectures from the Opposition, who failed to form such partnerships to support education in their 18 long years of misrule.

The Prime Minister

Yes. I am astonished that the Conservative party should oppose those reforms, which are very important. They will allow a lot of experimentation within local education authorities, and they are going to improve standards in our schools. They are part of a programme that is to get extra investment into our schools-far more than the Conservatives were promising-and, at the same time, to introduce reforms that mean that that money is spent wisely. I believe that we shall see the results of those reforms shortly.

Q4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the Prime Minister set up an independent inquiry into the very serious allegations surrounding the accounts of the Kettering centre for the unemployed; and will he publish the report of the internal Labour national executive committee inquiry into those allegations?

The Prime Minister

I do not know about the particular inquiry to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall certainly make inquiries about it and write to him on it.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that members of the Ku Klux Klan are currently operating in my constituency? In light of this week's 50th anniversary of the Windrush-the first boat bringing Afro-Caribbeans to this country-will he urge the country to recognise that ethnic minorities do not represent a threat, but that we represent an opportunity? While this country has no need of pointed white hats, in this Chamber in particular we could perhaps do with a bit more colour.

The Prime Minister

I was delighted to be part of the Windrush celebrations. I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says about the nature of our society and the desire to see it as a multicultural, multiracial society. She will know that in the Crime and Disorder Bill which is presently before the House, there are new measures to deal with violence that is racially motivated and aggravated by that reason. We will certainly apply both that law and the existing provisions under the law to make sure that we root out any racism and any violence wherever we can.

I think that this country is proud of the changes that we have made over the past number of years, actually under both Governments, to bring about a society where people are valued irrespective of their ethnic background. That is the type of country I wish to bring my children up in. I think that it is the type of country that the vast majority of British people believe in.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

After last night's vote in the other place, does the Prime Minister still defend making students at Scottish universities pay more in tuition fees than students in the rest of the United Kingdom? UK students at Scottish universities will pay more in tuition fees than those from the rest of Europe.

The Prime Minister

No. The reason for this is perfectly simple. It would be wrong to have a situation in which English students came to Scotland and got the full benefit of the Scottish provisions. In respect—[Interruption.] That is because of the different courses that there are in Scotland. I do not think that it has been clearly understood-but I am delighted to say this-that students from other parts of the European Union are not entitled to the same benefits in terms of maintenance loans and the other support that is given. That is the reason for the change, and it is a perfectly sensible one.

Mr. Lilley

This is not about maintenance; it is about tuition and about fairness. It is patently unfair that an English student at a Scottish university should pay £1,000 more in tuition than a French student, and that a student from Northern Ireland should pay more than a student from Southern Ireland. The other place has twice asked the Government to think again. Is the Prime Minister too arrogant to admit that he has made a mistake, or will he simply now accept the Lords amendment?

The Prime Minister

No, because I do not accept that it is a mistake. Let me point out two things to the right hon. Gentleman. First, the number of English students applying to Scottish universities is up, not down. It is actually 33,000. Secondly, of course all those English students who come are able to get maintenance loans and other matters that support them in their university education. If we were to go down the course that the right hon. Gentleman has indicated, we would end up absolving from tuition fees all students in their fourth year at all universities in the United Kingdom. We obviously could not do it simply for Scotland. We would have to do it for all fourth-year students wherever they were in the United Kingdom. That would take out of some £27 million the higher education budget, and would not be a sensible use of money.

Mr. Lilley

After challenging his Chancellor's figures, the Prime Minister is now challenging his Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, who yesterday said that there had been a decline in applications north of the border.

The Prime Minister has an opportunity to rise above the mess that his Ministers have created, to rise above party argument and to rise above his hostility to the House of Lords. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not correct an injustice and accept the Lords amendment?

The Prime Minister

Because I do not accept that it is an injustice; I think that it is a sensible provision. As I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman, the provisions in Scotland are different from those in England. If we applied them in the way that the right hon. Gentleman wants, we would have to apply them, as I have said, to all fourth-year students in the whole of the United Kingdom. That would add another £27 million to the education bill. It would not be a sensible use of money. English students are, of course, available for the full range of help, which other European Union applicants are not. That is why it is not an unfair or mistaken measure. It is the right measure, and it is fair.

Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

My right hon. Friend will know that my constituency includes the poorest ward in England. As education is a key pathway out of poverty, does my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the announcement of education zone status made yesterday, and congratulating the Plymouth team which made the successful bid?

The Prime Minister

Yes, and I am sure that the innovations that have been introduced in Plymouth will have a great impact on the educational welfare of its children. The greater flexibility within the education system provided by the education action zones will be one of the great pioneering acts of this Government, and it is extremely important that we give it every support. We are delighted that local education authorities are now working with local groups, businesses, parents and schools to provide the best possible education for their children.

Q5. Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Will the Prime Minister tell the House why his promised annual report to the nation has been delayed by two months? Is it due to administrative incompetence or is he embarrassed by all his broken promises?

The Prime Minister

Neither. It will be produced in due course and the hon. Gentleman will see that it is extremely good.

Q6. Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Although it may not be possible in the Scottish Parliament, is it all right, Madam Speaker, if I ask an awkward question, even if it might cause embarrassment to the Government or the party? On the question asked by the deputy Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), why on earth should students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who are doing a four-year honours course at a Scottish university have to pay up to £1,000 more than students from any other country in the European Union?

Even in the House of Lords last night, when this matter was debated, the Government were gubbed by an even greater margin than Scotland was gubbed by Morocco. When we get a replay of the debate in this House, can we have a free vote, in view of the fact that applications to Scottish universities have gone down by 4.5 per cent. and that the Prime Minister said during the election campaign that Labour had no plans to introduce tuition fees?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is perfectly entitled to ask an awkward question; indeed, why change the habits of a lifetime? I see before me an interesting alliance.

For the reasons that I have given, we have made the right decision. As for tuition fees, my hon. Friend should not forget that under our proposals, not those of the Conservatives, a third of the poorest students will be absolved from tuition fees altogether and the next third will have them reduced as a result of parental income. We are able to do that, lift the numbers going to university and put more money into the front line of universities precisely because we have had the courage to reform. The Conservatives may be against reform, and so may my hon. Friend, but reform is right and will be carried through, not on a free vote, but on a whipped vote, because it is Government policy.

Q7. Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Will the Prime Minister clarify what appears to be some schizophrenia in his party's education policy? He said a moment ago that he supports education action zones to bring the worst schools up to the standard of the best and, no doubt, make them centres of excellence. How does he square that with the governors of the London Oratory school, who are on record as saying that Labour policies are trying to destroy schools like theirs by forbidding them to interview parents and pupils and to select from the whole of London, and by forcing them to take in an unspecified number of what are euphemistically called "challenging pupils"? We all know what that means. That will, to use the same word as the London Oratory, "destroy" the excellent basis of those schools.

The Prime Minister

First, the story is nonsense because the Government paper makes it clear that Church schools will continue to be able to interview pupils. The basis of the story is therefore wrong, and always was wrong. In relation to the rest of the question, I believe that our educational policies are supported by the vast majority of schools, teachers and parents, who want to see the right mixture of pressure and support-pressure to do well, but support and investment in the education system. For years under the Conservative Government, during which time the hon. Lady was a Member of Parliament, support declined as a proportion of our national income. This Government will increase support, as we promised to do.

Q8. Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that six senior consultants at Bristol royal infirmary have said that they tried to warn local trust managers, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Department of Health that death rates among cardiac child patients at the hospital were too high, but to no avail? Does not that mean that we need not only a health service that is not open and transparent, but one in which staff can raise legitimate concerns without fear of being ostracised by colleagues or reprimanded by superiors?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I recognise the genuine concern that my hon. Friend has about these issues; indeed, I pay tribute to her work in this area. It is because of those concerns that we are setting up a wide-ranging public inquiry, chaired by Professor Ian Kennedy, to get to the bottom of what went wrong in Bristol and ensure that it does not happen again. We also want greater openness in the national health service. We have said that so-called gagging clauses should be removed from employment contracts. We are opening up trust boards to make them more accountable, and we shall be publishing clinical performance information. 1 think these are all changes that augur well for the future of the national health service.