HC Deb 25 March 1998 vol 309 cc491-500
Q1. Mr. Gareth Thomas

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I shall have further such meetings later today and shall speak at a dinner this evening of leading members of the Asian community, both to celebrate the enterprise of the Asian community and to reiterate our total opposition to racism in all its forms.

Mr. Thomas

Following his successful visit to France, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to administer the coup de grace to the law-making powers of the hereditary peers? Has he received any sign from the Opposition party in the other place that it will co-operate in this long-overdue reform of the ancien régime?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted that we are back on English today. I think that we shall stick with that. It is absolutely essential that we end up with a situation where we do not have people making the laws of this country on the basis of being hereditary peers. I think that that reform is long overdue and I hope very much that the Opposition will now tell us whether they support the principle of hereditary peers in the House of Lords because we could get this reform done more quickly with their consent. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition can tell us what his position is.

Mr. Hague

Does the Prime Minister agree that today's European Commission report fudges the criteria for entry to a single currency?

The Prime Minister

We are obviously considering the report that has been presented, but, no, I do not agree with the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Hague

The Maastricht treaty lays down that countries joining the single currency should have debts of under 60 per cent. of their national income or should be rapidly approaching it. On the Commission's own figures in this morning's report, eight of the 11 countries that are to join the single currency have a higher level of debt. Two of them have twice that level. Can he honestly tell the House that that is not fudging the single currency?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, a range of criteria are taken into account. We shall make our decision as president of the European Union and we shall do it on the basis of the report that has been submitted and also on the basis of the legislation that is set out in the treaty.

Mr. Hague

One of the countries has not only twice the recommended level of debt, but a higher debt level than at the time the Maastricht treaty was signed. The Commission says that the tendency is in the right direction. That is more ostrich than emu. Does the Prime Minister agree at least that it is essential for the success of economic and monetary union that there is genuine convergence, without any fudging?

The Prime Minister

The answer is that I do believe that, but, as I say, we take into account a range of different criteria and we will apply the treaty properly. I had understood that the position of the right hon. Gentleman's party was to oppose it altogether.

Mr. Hague

Whether Britain is in or out of a single currency, people of all parties have previously been able to agree that jobs and investment are at risk from a fudged single currency. The Prime Minister is president of the European Council at the moment. Does he not have a duty to Britain and to Europe to insist, and at the very least to argue, that only countries that clearly meet the criteria should join the single currency?

The Prime Minister

I agree that it is important for the single currency to work for Britain, whether we are in or out of it. I also agree that it is our duty as president of the European Union to ensure that the criteria are properly obeyed. We shall do so. All I am saying is that, if the right hon. Gentleman reads the report carefully, he will see that a range of criteria are set out. A judgment has to be made on that basis. We shall make it according to the report and to the criteria. We shall, in other words, carry out our duties under the treaty faithfully.

Mr. Hague

All the Prime Minister's answers this afternoon suggest that he will go along with the fudge. This will be one of the most important decisions that the European Council has ever made. People's jobs and businesses are at stake in countries inside and outside a single currency. If he would stand up for strict adherence to the rules, he would have wide support across the House, but is not the truth that, now that the crunch has come, he is not willing to make the hard choices?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not agree with that. Without repeating everything that I have already said to the right hon. Gentleman, yes, I believe that it is important that we adhere to the criteria, which is exactly what we shall do, but the worst thing for this country would be if it lurched into the type of anti-Europeanism that characterises his party. It is only as a result of the change in attitude since 1 May that we have a Government with any influence in the European Union at all.

Q2. Mrs. Ellman

Do not Labour's Budget decisions to increase child benefit by a record 20 per cent., to fund a national child care programme for the first time and to concentrate financial help on the poorest families and children, demonstrate Labour's commitment to equality and opportunity? Does the Prime Minister contrast that situation with the record of 18 years of Tory Budgets, which intensified inequality and division—[Interruption.]—trebled the number of poor people and produced the social exclusion that this Government are committed to tackling? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

I find it extraordinary that Conservative Members should shout at my hon. Friend when she is raising issues such as child care and help for the poorest families, which are precisely what government should be about. As a result of the changes that we have made in the Budget, child benefit is going up, there is greater help for people with their child care, there is obviously a cut for everyone on national insurance, and there is extra money for health, education and transport. The changes mean that the poorest households with children will gain an extra £490 a year on average and that 3.8 million children will benefit. I should have thought that that was a series of recommendations and policies that would command support across the House.

Mr. Beith

Bearing in mind the serious difficulties that are being faced by British exporters because of the exchange rate, does the Prime Minister think that the pound is either stable or competitive?

The Prime Minister

I am well aware of the problems that exporters have over the pound, which has a high value at the moment, but the Budget could take the pound down only if it engaged in revenue-raising measures that everyone would find totally unacceptable and that might not work in any event. We have to provide the right balance between fiscal and monetary policy. We have tightened fiscal policy considerably and, as a result of giving the Bank of England independence over the setting of monetary policy, we have also succeeded in that long-term interest rates are at their lowest for more than 30 years. That stability is precisely what British industry needs in the long term.

Mr. Beith

Does the Prime Minister not recognise that there is one thing that he could do in present circumstances—give a clear and unambiguous commitment that he will promote British membership of the single currency and that he intends Britain to be in the premier division, not the second division, to which the Leader of the Opposition would condemn us?

The Prime Minister

I cannot think of a worse reason for taking a decision of such fundamental importance for the future as monetary union on the basis of the level of sterling at a particular time. That would be foolish indeed. The right hon. Gentleman appears to be advocating getting the pound down by dropping interest rates. Monetary policy has had to be tightened since the election because inflation is back in the system. There is no way in which we should take any risks at all—in terms of either financial prudence or monetary stability—of going back to boom and bust. If we do that, we shall return to the end of the 1980s and the early 1990s, with interest rates at 15 per cent. and record borrowing, bankruptcies and repossessions. Those were the Tory years, and we are not going back to them.

Q3. Mr. McNulty

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the impending publication of the White Paper on the London assembly and the London mayor and the apparent conversion of the Tories to campaigning for a yes vote in the referendum, depending on which Tory one is talking to? However, will he strongly resist the extremely tempting offer from Lord Archer, who has promised to give up writing books if he is elected mayor? Although that may be an appropriate contribution to British literature, the alternative—an Archer mayoralty—would be a complete and utter disaster for London.

The Prime Minister

Our proposals for a mayor for London now have widespread support across the House. I am delighted that the Conservative party has come round to the idea and will campaign for a yes vote. Personally, I think that it will be a good thing for London and, combined with the highly imaginative proposals for London Transport by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, at least now, after years of neglect, we have the chance for a new start for London.

Q4. Mr. Collins

Why did the Prime Minister refuse to admit yesterday that he had interceded with the Italian Prime Minister on behalf of Mr. Rupert Murdoch, especially given that the British Embassy in Rome has now confirmed that that is exactly what he did?

The Prime Minister

What I said—I shall repeat it to the hon. Gentleman now—is that conversations between myself and the Italian Prime Minister, as conversations between heads of Government, should remain private. I have made it clear that BSkyB will be treated no differently from any other company.

Q5. Jacqui Smith

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as part of its work on implementing the new deal, the employment service in Redditch is already working with local agencies on training, enterprise, housing and welfare advice? It is also implementing a new deal guaranteed to continue working with young people until they have permanent work or training. Does he agree that such work is to the credit of the Employment Service in Hereford and Worcester and that it shows that we now have a Government who are keen to promote jobs, training and opportunity for all, as opposed to policing a burgeoning benefit bill and inefficiency, as we saw in the past 18 years?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the work that has already been done under the new deal and the numbers of people who now have the chance to get back into the labour market. Already, more than 1,000 lone parents have moved from benefit to work. Hundreds of young people are taking advantage of the scheme and thousands more will do so in the next few months. It is a great tribute to the Employment Service, employers and those who, for far too long, have not had the opportunities that they need. I hope that tomorrow's Green Paper will take the process one stage further. It is important that we have a welfare state in which there is work for those who can, security for those who cannot and opportunity for those who are denied it.

Sir Peter Tapsell

I congratulate the Prime Minister on the honour paid to him yesterday by the French Parliament, but will he explain why we see so little of him in the British Parliament?

The Prime Minister

During these Question Times, the hon. Gentleman gets precisely the same chance to question me as there used to be under the old system—it is just a shame that the questions from the Opposition are so poor.

Q6. Mr. Prosser

Does my right hon. Friend remember being in my Dover and Deal constituency before the general election and visiting the highly successful trust port of Dover, which the Tory Government were ready to sell off to the French? With the economic policies of this Government and the confidence that they engender, the port of Dover now handles one third of European trade, and is planning to build a second terminal. Last week it signed contracts that will create 1,600 new jobs. Is it any wonder that my constituents will never vote Tory again? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

I think that I heard the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) say, "Bring back David Shaw." I think that, when my hon. Friend won the Dover seat, he probably united both sides of the House.

I am delighted at the good news from the trust port: it shows exactly what can be done—new jobs, stronger service and a great sense of the future. That is precisely because we put the interests of the service before the dogma of privatisation.

Miss McIntosh

As a pro-European, does the Prime Minister accept that one of the criteria for joining a single currency is a two-year membership of the exchange rate mechanism? Can he envisage a time when it would ever be right for Britain to rejoin the ERM?

The Prime Minister

First, we have no plans to rejoin the ERM, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made clear on many occasions. Secondly, what is important is exchange rate stability. Those matters will be decided in the same way as I explained earlier to the Leader of the Opposition—according to a range of criteria. The hon. Lady will find that that is what a report from the Commission, published today, says.

Q7. Mr. Plaskitt

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lobby held yesterday against the Child Support Agency reflects growing concern that the agency has failed many families and children? Will he assure the House that the Government review will be completed as speedily as possible; and that it will concentrate first and foremost on the interests of children?

The Prime Minister

It is important that the review concentrates first and foremost on the interests of children. It will be published later this year. We believe it important to undertake fundamental reforms of the system, since most people now accept that the Child Support Agency is neither administratively satisfactory nor, often, fair and just in its decisions. That is why we undertook the review; as soon as it is ready, we shall bring it before the House.

Mr. Wigley

As the European Commission's new proposals for structural funds leave Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with no objective 1 status, will the right hon. Gentleman make a determined effort on the part of the Government to ensure that the newly defined western and coalfield region of Wales, whose GDP per head is 72 per cent. below the threshold for objective 1 status, enjoys objective 1 status under the proposals for the years 2000 to 2006?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the publication of the Commission's proposals for structural funds marks the beginning of the negotiations. We shall negotiate the best deal we positively can for Britain. I cannot give guarantees for particular areas, but we have said that the Commission's proposals are unacceptable because many of our areas would lose out. The purpose of the negotiation is to prevent that from happening. The last time that the Commission made proposals, we went through the same process of negotiation.

It is important to see this in the context of the enlargement of the European Union. Changes will have to be made to the structural funds, and it is important that they should be fair as between all the countries—hence our objection to the proposals as they are now. Change to structural funds is a necessary part of enlargement. If we want the end—enlargement—we must also will the means. We shall get the fairest deal that we can, but change there will be.

Q8. Mr. Clapham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, towards the end of the previous Government's term in office, the Social Security (Claims and Payments) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 1996 went through, restricting the backdating of disablement payment in cases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma cancer? Those diseases can be caused by exposure to white asbestos, a considerable amount of which still enters this country and is in many materials used by the construction industry. Will he therefore ensure that the current DSS review considers backdating payment to the date of development of those diseases? Will he press ahead unilaterally with a ban on white asbestos if the EU does not go ahead with a European ban?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend has raised this issue a number of times. A standard time limit on backdating those benefits is designed to ensure fair treatment for all citizens. There would be a problem if particular benefits were picked out and longer backdatings were allowed for some rather than others. However, we accept the special circumstances of people affected by asbestos. From April 1997, industrial injuries disablement benefit has been available where the disease has been caused by any exposure to asbestos at work, and the usual waiting period has been waived to pay benefits to sufferers as soon as possible.

On the second point, we have already toughened up the restrictions and regulations on the use of all types of asbestos in the workplace. We are presently working with European colleagues to get a Europewide directive on this, as we believe that that is a better way to proceed. It is important, however, that the action we take is matched by action elsewhere in Europe.

Q9. Mr. Ruffley

Why is the national tax burden increasing from 38.1 per cent. of gross domestic product last year to 40.1 per cent. of gross domestic product in five years' time?

The Prime Minister

Actually, if the hon. Gentleman compares our Budget proposals in the Red Book with those of the previous Government, he will see that, under both sets of proposals, the tax burden is set to rise.

Dr. Iddon

Last year, the Deputy Prime Minister asked the water companies to stop water wastage by investing some of their profits in infrastructure. All they have done is produce higher dividends for shareholders and, even more seriously, reduce water pressure, thereby endangering lives throughout the country, according to fire brigades. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an insult to the Government? Will he assure the House that more action will be taken?

The Prime Minister

Within the powers available to him, the Deputy Prime Minister is seeking to ensure that the problems to which my hon. Friend draws attention are dealt with. Dealing with water leakage was one of the initiatives taken straight after the election. It is regrettable, especially given that profits in the industry have been so high, that those complaints are still being made. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will keep the matter under review.

Q10. Mr. Tyler

Do not the BBC's proposals for political and parliamentary reporting not only undermine its reputation for public service broadcasting but blow sky high its charter obligations? Would it not be better to be honest, to dumb down completely and sell off channels to Rupert Murdoch?

The Prime Minister

Those are matters for the BBC, but it must act in accordance with its charter. It is the Government's job to make sure that it does, and we shall do that. I am sure that a lot of pressure will be exerted on the BBC by the hon. Gentleman and many others in the House who feel the same way.

Dr. Whitehead

I am sure that the Prime Minister agrees with me about the amazing all-purpose funding properties claimed for the Liberal Democrats' magic penny. After last week's Budget, does the additional money that the Government have put into the national health service now stand above or below the magic penny standard measure?

The Prime Minister

The extra money put into health, education and transport comes to far more than could possibly be raised by 1 p on the standard rate of income tax. Indeed, the Government are putting more money into hospitals and schools this year than the Liberal Democrats ever asked for. However, according to the Liberal Democrats' broadcast on the Budget, that 1p is apparently no longer necessary—the "p" has dried up! They now say that it should all come out of what they call the "Chancellor's war chest". The fact that the Liberal Democrats are now pursuing tax-and-spend policies that are only spend policies simply demonstrates the complete incredibility of their economic policies.

Q11. Mr. Rendel

In February, the Government announced that the jobseeker's allowance cuts that were part of the Conservatives' spending plans would be reconsidered as part of the welfare state review. In the light of that, does the Prime Minister agree that it would be best also to reconsider, as part of that review, the lone parent and council tax benefit cuts?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not agree with that. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear in his Budget statement that we would not go back to benefit for lone parents. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] I do not think that it is a shame; I think that it is right. I think that, pro rata, lone parents and couples should be treated in the same way. However, as a result of the help given in the Budget to all families with children, they are much better off than they would be either under the Conservative plans that were published before the election or under the Liberal Democrats' plans.

Dr. Stoate

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, although the Government pledged to stick to the Red Book targets of the last Government, we have invested significant extra money in the economy for health, education and the new deal for young adults? Will that not make a huge difference to the economy?

The Prime Minister

There is the £3.5 billion that has gone into the welfare-to-work programme, which, as I have said, is the largest programme of its kind that any Government have ever introduced. There is—as I have also said—the additional money for schools, hospitals and transport, and there is the additional money for child benefit.

The priorities have changed, but yes, it has always been necessary for us to keep a tight grip on public spending. Under the Conservative Government, the national debt doubled. This year, we shall spend more on interest payments on debt than we spend on our whole school system. It is to restore faith in public finances that the Chancellor has presented the measures that he has presented—but, within the public finances, the priorities will be Labour priorities, not Tory priorities.

Q12. Mr. William Ross

Does the Prime Minister recall that, when the body of Mr. Keys was discovered in the Maze prison, the first statement issued by the Northern Ireland Office was to the effect that his death had been due to suicide, although it was blatantly obvious that the man had not only been murdered, but had been tortured beforehand? Can the Prime Minister give us a guarantee that in future he will ensure that any statements that are issued are accurate? Can he also give a guarantee that the Government will now protect the lives of those in the prison, and that no more inmates will be murdered?

The Prime Minister

To the best of my knowledge, the report and the statement were correct in terms of what people believed on first finding the body. It is true that the findings then changed, and that the statement changed as a result. I cannot guarantee that every statement will always be accurate if the perception of the facts changes; what I can guarantee is that we shall do our best—as we have—to tackle any such problems, in the Maze prison or elsewhere.

As for what happened in the Maze prison, the regime there—which has been operating for some time—is, as the hon. Gentleman knows, under review. There is the report from Sir David Ramsbotham, and there is also the Narey report. We have agreed to publish those reports, so that people can make up their own minds. Of course the situation is desperately serious, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the statement made by the Minister at the time was made in good faith, even if it subsequently turned out to be subject to change.

Q13. Mr. Timms

When the last Government left office, was not unemployment still considerably higher than it had been in 1979? Youth unemployment was more than twice the overall level, yet there were large and growing skill shortages in key parts of the economy, particularly in information and communications technology. What steps will the Government take to ensure that the enormous new opportunities for work in information and communications technology will be available to young people in my constituency, many of whom would have been abandoned to unemployability by the last Government's policies?

The Prime Minister

Some £200 million additional finance was provided in the Budget, and that money can go towards tackling skills shortage problems. It is absolutely necessary that we deal particularly with the computer and technology problems that will arise as a result of the millennium bug, which is why the Government have singled out for more resources computer and information technology. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the large numbers of people— the 3.5 million workless families—who will, for the first time, have the opportunity to work and to earn a decent living.

Mr. Jenkin

How does the Prime Minister reconcile his grand words about rooting out corruption in Labour councils with the continuance in office of the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Pat Lally?

The Prime Minister

That is a quite bizarre question, because the Labour party has taken disciplinary action against that individual, who is, of course, perfectly entitled to go to the court, which is what has happened.

I contrast the actions of the Labour party on any allegations of impropriety—we have always acted, and acted straight away—with those of the Conservative party, which has to its discredit the scandal of Westminster. The Conservative party took no action against any of the people involved in that scandal, exactly as, before the general election, it took no action against Members of Parliament who breached the proper rules of conduct. The last people from whom we will take lessons on corruption or impropriety are the Conservatives, whose record is shameful.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I take points of order after statements.