HC Deb 06 May 1998 vol 311 cc710-20
Q1. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 6 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. Later today, together with the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), I shall pay a visit to Northern Ireland.

Mr. Crausby

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that Conservative councils across the country have failed to pass on the £ 2.5 billion that the Government made available for education, unlike Labour-controlled Bolton council, which delivered the full allocation? In those circumstances, how can he ensure that our children all receive a first-class education?

The Prime Minister

We have provided £835 million in current spending, and £1.3 billion over the Parliament for the school repairs programme. There is a clear difference between Labour councils, which have passed that money on to their schools, and Conservative Essex council, which was given an extra £27 million, but which cut £6 million from its education budget. The answer to the question of how to secure children's education is to vote Labour in the elections.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I offer the continuing support of the Opposition for the efforts of the Prime Minister today to secure a yes vote in the Northern Ireland referendum, alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) who contributed so much to this historic opportunity? Does the Prime Minister share our grave concern about last week's IRA statement that it had no intention of decommissioning its arms? In the light of today's reports from Sinn Fein, will he urge Sinn Fein-IRA to sign up to the whole agreement at its meeting this weekend?

The Prime Minister

Yes. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, it is important to emphasise that people must sign up to the whole agreement and not to bits and pieces of it. The whole agreement stands as a package, and everyone who says yes to it is saying yes to all the agreement. They cannot say yes to the bits they like and leave aside the bits that they do not like; they must sign up to the agreement in its entirety.

Mr. Hague

May I welcome what the Prime Minister has said in the past about the need for decommissioning to take place before Sinn Fein members can serve as Ministers in the assembly? I also welcome the assurances that he has given in the past about the conditions to be attached to the early release of prisoners. Does he agree that prisoners should not be released early until the organisations to which they belong have substantially decommissioned their weapons?

The Prime Minister

It is essential that any agreement is signed up to in full. The only organisations that can qualify to take seats in the government of Northern Ireland and can expect the early release of prisoners are those that have given up violence for good. I can do no better than to quote the words of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), with which I wholeheartedly agree. In his speech today, when referring to decommissioning, he 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. I agree with that entirely. In other words, there is no general amnesty. There must be an absolute giving up of violence, and it cannot be just a tactical ceasefire for a tactical reason.

Mr. Hague

Again, I welcome the general assurances that the Prime Minister has been able to give. May 1 urge him to include such provisions in the relevant legislation when it comes before the House? At that time, Opposition Members will argue strongly that the IRA cannot have prisoners released if it does not give up its guns and explosives.

The Prime Minister

Again, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is essential that organisations that want to benefit from the early release of prisoners should give up violence. Decommissioning is part of that, of course, but it goes further. 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. What is more, there is provision in the agreement for that to be kept under constant review.

What we cannot have, in terms of security for people, is a tactical ceasefire following which organisations whose prisoners have been released return to violence. As I said at the beginning, the agreement must be viewed as a whole package. People cannot buy into bits and pieces of it. I hope that everyone signs up to it, but I cannot make it clearer that, if they do, we expect to hold them to the whole agreement.

Q2. Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

I note from my right hon. Friend's engagements that he will not have much time for his family today, which is his birthday. May I wish him many happy returns? May I also remind him, in regard to family policy, that we inherited from the Tories the longest working hours in Europe, low pay and the worst child care? Can he explain how the Government will help parents to do a good job at work and at home— unlike the Opposition, for whom spending more time with their families means getting the sack?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for her congratulations, although I am getting to the age at which birthdays are a matter of regret. I can tell her two important things that we are doing for the family. First, for working families, there is the family tax credit, which will help families on lower and middle incomes. Secondly, for families in which mothers may not be working— but whether or not they are working— there is a 20 per cent. increase in child benefit. Those two concrete measures will help families. Together with the measures on parental leave, they show that the Government are doing our best to let families balance work and family life.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Does the Prime Minister agree that for Britain to be implicated in covert sales of arms to Sierra Leone, in direct contravention of UN Security Council resolutions, is wholly inconsistent with any believable concept of an ethical foreign policy?

The Prime Minister

Of course we cannot possibly be in breach of UN resolutions, and that is precisely why the matter was referred to Customs and Excise. I do not want to say more at this stage, but that must be so.

Mr. Ashdown

Of course we must wait for the outcome of any inquiry, but does the Prime Minister agree that for his self-declared concept of an ethical foreign policy to have any validity, any official discovered to be implicated would have to be dealt with in an exemplary manner, and any Minister discovered to be implicated would have to resign?

The Prime Minister

As I said, I do not want to go into what the inquiry may reveal, but of course people cannot possibly deliberately breach UN resolutions, whether they are officials or Ministers. If anyone is found to have done so, disciplinary action will follow.

Q3. Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure effective co-ordination between providers of nursery schooling and the playgroup movement? Does he agree that the playgroup movement has made a fine contribution to British society over the years, and that it took some heavy knocks because of the nursery voucher scheme? Will the new money that his Government are giving to playgroups help their flagging morale?

The Prime Minister

Yes. The £6 million today will very much help playgroups and others. Of course, they have been badly hit by the nursery voucher scheme. That is one reason why we have replaced it with provisions that allow proper nursery education for all four-year-olds. We will then begin the task of bringing that to three-year-olds as well.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, in 1994, the Labour group on Croydon council pledged not to increase the council tax for the life of that council? He speaks a lot about partnerships between Government and local authorities. Who is to blame for that broken promise: the Labour Government or the Labour council?

The Prime Minister

Croydon council has given excellent value for money to its local residents. The hon. Gentleman knows, of course, that we are within the limits that were applied by his Government when they were in power. However, even within those limits, the services that are being provided by Labour councils, particularly in sectors such as education, are significantly better than those in Conservative councils. That is a matter of fact and another good reason why I hope that people will support their council in Croydon tomorrow.

Q4. Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm three incontrovertible facts? This year, the people of Dudley will see, first, £7 million extra going into Dudley schools' budgets, secondly, a £3 million programme of repairs and improvements to school buildings and, thirdly, a £66 million IT project getting under way under the private finance initiative to wire up every school to the internet as part of the national grid for learning. Do not those three facts demonstrate the Government's commitment to education, education and education, and can we have the same again next year please?

The Prime Minister

This is all money over and above what the Conservatives were pledged to spend. It is all going into schools, but I give my hon. Friend the fourth incontrovertible fact: Dudley schools have also benefited from £104,000 over and above Tory spending plans on school books.

Q5. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Will the Prime Minister join me in sending good wishes to the 2nd battalion of the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, which will shortly celebrate its new colours parade at Windsor castle? In doing that, does he agree that the infantry and yeomanry battalions of the Territorial Army provide a disproportionate good to society in terms of both training young people and their town depots, which are the public face of the British Army?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to pass on my congratulations to those people. I hope that they will welcome the outcome of the strategic defence review that is under consideration. I have no doubt that they, like other people within the defence services, will remember the days when a Conservative Government were in power and defence was cut by 30 per cent.

Q6. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Cambridge city council, which is Labour controlled, on keeping its council tax increases below the rate of inflation, in contrast with Cambridgeshire county council, which is Conservative controlled, the rate increases of which have gone up by more than three times the inflation rate and which, at the same time, has failed to spend all the extra money that has been allocated to it on education? Will he join me in urging voters everywhere tomorrow to look at those value-for-money issues and, of course, to reject resoundingly the Mickey Mouse economics of the Liberal Democrats?

The Prime Minister

Yes, of course. The fact is that, as we have seen in Essex, with the Conservatives, people get bigger bills with smaller services. I hope that people remember those lessons when they vote tomorrow.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Does the Prime Minister accept that, for at least two years before Britain joined a single currency, the pound would have to shadow the euro?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not accept that because it is not the case, as the European Commission itself has made clear recently.

Mr. Hague

I am sorry that the Prime Minister cannot accept that requirement, because it comes from the conclusions of last weekend's meeting of Finance Ministers, which was chaired by the Chancellor. The requirement is clear in the statement— which he, as a Head of Government, supported and approved. Now he says that he will not join the euro in this Parliament, and that he will not shadow the euro. Will he give a guarantee that, during this Parliament, he will not instruct the Bank of England to shadow the euro?

The Prime Minister

There is no instruction to shadow the euro, and I have no intention of giving such an instruction. The point that the right hon. Gentleman is making on the exchange rate mechanism is simply wrong. Italy, for example, is being allowed to go forward in monetary union, despite not having been a member of the exchange rate mechanism for two years.

Mr. Hague

Italy joined the ERM in November 1996, and will have been a member of it for two years when the single currency is created. It is no wonder that the Italian Prime Minister said that the Prime Minister was ill prepared for last weekend's meeting. Is it not clear that, to prepare for entry to the single currency, we have to shadow the euro? Will that not entail instructing the Bank of England to target a certain exchange rate, rather than to control inflation in Britain? Is it not clear that that is what the Government will have to do in this Parliament, to enable any Government to enter the single currency early in the next Parliament— as the Chancellor intends, although the Prime Minister is afraid to say so? Is it not time that the Prime Minister— particularly after last weekend's fiasco in Brussels, over which he presided— came clean about his intentions on the matter and told the British people the truth?

The Prime Minister

No. If I may correct the right hon. Gentleman on a point of detail, he was wrong about Italy. The fact is that the two-year period would end in May— which was when the decision was taken. It is, therefore, wrong to suggest that Italy fulfilled the two-year period. A few weeks ago, the European Commission report made that fact clear. The right hon. Gentleman's other point on shadowing the euro was absolute nonsense, as there is no such requirement. The test of our ability to join monetary union is whether we have sustainable economic convergence—which is judged, although not absolutely, according to the criteria in the Maastricht treaty. Those criteria are taken into account when deciding whether there is sustainable economic convergence. Therefore, his point— that we have to shadow the euro before going into monetary union— is simply wrong.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating both staff and councillors at the Labour-controlled South Tyneside council— which was named in Sunday's report in The Observer as the best council in the country— on providing the best services and the most efficient management? On behalf of those very hard-working staff and councillors, will he also ask for an apology from the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who, on a recent visit to south Tyneside, openly criticised how the council was run? Does not the council's success show what we have always known: that the Tories have never been able to run local government; that the Liberal Democrats will promise the earth but deliver nothing in local government; and that only Labour-controlled local government provides the type of services that the people not only need, but expect?

The Prime Minister

The lesson is absolutely clear: if people want both prudent finance and decent public services, vote Labour tomorrow.

Q7. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

Will the Prime Minister also congratulate Aberdeenshire council, which has the great fortune not only of not having an election tomorrow, but of not having a single Labour councillor on the council? On a more serious point, does the Prime Minister recall that, on 25 February, he said that he wanted to see the benefits— especially the jobs— that come from investment in the oil industry? Does he realise how dependent the economy not only of Aberdeenshire, but of the rest of the country is on investment in the oil industry? Does he realise also that one thing that anyone making an investment decision would like to have is some certainty in planning for the future? As the Government have indicated a wish to take more tax out of the industry—but have not yet said how they will do so, and seem to be delaying publication of their consultation on the matter— will he give some assurance to the industry that he realises that stability is crucial in getting money and investment into the economy of the north-east?

The Prime Minister

The oil industry currently has an enormously favourable tax regime. However, we are well aware of the importance of oil companies to investment in the hon. Gentleman's region. I think that oil companies probably welcome the fact that there will be consultation on the new regime— that we have not simply implemented it without consultation, but are saying that there should be proper consultation before it is implemented. The hon. Gentleman will find that most companies welcome that consultation rather than decry it.

Q8. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares the anguish and concern felt by the British public when they see the children of Sudan dying on television before their eyes. The immediate concern is no longer that of access, according to UNICEF to which I spoke this morning, but the shortage of food, the shortage of money to buy supplies and the shortage of aeroplanes. Thousands of children are at immediate risk. Cannot we do more to help them?

The Prime Minister

The situation in Sudan is a great tragedy. It has come about as a result of the long-running civil war, which has resulted in food shortages and drought. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has announced a £4 million pledge towards the 1998 United Nations appeal for Sudan. More than £800,000 has already been provided to the Save the Children Fund, and £200,000 has been given to UNICEF's nutrition programme for Sudan. A further £1.25 million has been allocated through the European Communities programme. As we hold the presidency of the European Council, we have issued a statement urging all parties to the talks to adopt a positive attitude and come to an agreement. In the end, it is only if there is a ceasefire in place that this aid can get through and we can start to rebuild the shattered lives of the people in that region. No one who has seen the pictures and the tragedy of what is happening can be anything other than deeply alarmed and concerned. That is why we are trying to get more money to the region and also trying to make the diplomatic moves necessary to establish the ceasefire.

Q9 Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

The Prime Minister will be aware of the concern expressed in all parts of the House and in the House of Lords about the proposals to downgrade the Territorial Army. Will he consider America, Australia and some of the other countries with which he is familiar, and note the greatly increased role that they have found for their citizen combat forces? May I suggest that there is more at stake than just the essential pride that communities feel in their own territorial forces, and that also at stake is this country's ability to regenerate a substantial force in the event of an unforeseen conflict?

The Prime Minister

I have to say that the hon. Gentleman's party was responsible for cutting the Territorial Army considerably. Of course we understand the importance of the Territorial Army. It obviously has a key role to play, but it should be a role fit for the modern world. That is why the strategic defence review is under way. It is considering all our defence forces and how they best fit into the strategic demands of the modern world. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will save his comments until we publish that review. I think he will find that, unlike the previous Government who simply cut the defence expenditure and forces— and cut them savagely— we are trying to make sense of modern defence forces and a foreign policy for the modern world.

Q10. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Given that many of Britain's beaches are still badly polluted with sewage, that raw sewage regularly finds its way into our rivers, that untreated sewage is still spread on farmland and that the water companies have made massive profits in recent years, will my right hon. Friend give a clear instruction to the water regulator that we want these environmental problems fixed, and fixed quickly, and that the water companies can do that without putting up their prices?

The Prime Minister

The Director General of Ofwat is currently examining how best to ensure that the investment is forthcoming without harm to consumers, and we are spending £2 billion bringing bathing water up to the EU average. However, it is important to make sure that any investment has a significant and direct impact, and that it has it quickly. That is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is making sure that the water companies and local authorities are working closely together on that.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Italian gross domestic product, as published by the International Monetary Fund, incorporates the underground economy, which is by definition unmeasurable, so Italy's debt to gross domestic product ratio is false, misleading and grossly understated?

The Prime Minister

The matter was investigated by the European Commission and the European Monetary Institute, which both found in favour of Italy being allowed to join monetary union. The Conservative party, however, should be a little more honest with itself—or at least the part of the Conservative party that is opposed to Europe. It is opposed to the euro under any conditions and, truthfully, it is opposed to any country being in the euro. It is opposed to Britain being in the euro on any basis. Some nod, some shake their heads. That is the Tory party. The criticisms of people such as the hon. Gentleman, who in truth are viscerally opposed to everything European, do not carry a great deal of weight with me or anyone else.

Q11. Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my local borough council, which has set the second lowest council tax in the north-west and ensures that the extra money that it has been allocated for education goes to schools? Unfortunately, we do not have annual council elections this year, but there is a by-election. My right hon. Friend may be surprised to know that the Conservatives have been unable to find a candidate to fight that seat. Is it a case of Tory incompetence or is it pure surrender?

The Prime Minister

The Conservatives are not putting up a candidate for more than 240 council seats. That may be a wise, strategic judgment on their part. However, it is important to emphasise again that if people want the money given to local authorities for education to go to schools, the record shows that Labour councils get that money to the schools and Conservative councils do not.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Does the Prime Minister agree with the Treasury Select Committee that it will take at least five years to assess whether the Government's own economic tests for participation in a single currency have been met?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not agree with that. The judgment as to when the economic criteria are met is best made without reference to any arbitrary time, but according to the tests that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out some time ago. In the end, there are two questions to be decided in respect of monetary union. The first is whether there is an absolute constitutional barrier. I do not know what side of the argument the hon. Lady is on. but we say that there is not. The second is whether, in economic terms, it is good for British jobs, investment and industry. That is the test that we will apply and it is an economic test. It would not helped by having to be applied at some arbitrary date; it has to be applied according to our national economic interest.

Q12. Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton)

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate a group of parents in my constituency on successful establishing Leo's out-of-school club, which will greatly benefit the area? Will he do everything possible to ensure the establishment of more out-of-school clubs, to provide good, safe care for children and increase the opportunities available to their parents?

The Prime Minister

Yes. The Government have set aside £300 million precisely to boost the number of after-school clubs. We hope that over the next few years, some 30,000 more will come into being as a result of the Government's policies. After-school clubs allow children to be better educated and families to balance better the responsibilities of work and family life. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has recently opened one of those clubs in her constituency.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the commitment made by the Deputy Prime Minister that next year, the Government will pick up the cost of the debt to the South Yorkshire supertram, which ran up because of the failure of the previous Government to meet their commitments? What assurance can he give the people of South Yorkshire that, unlike the previous Administration, his Government will stick to their promises?

The Prime Minister

The position— I have just checked with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister— is that he will meet the representatives of the local authority to discuss the issue. Obviously, we cannot give a commitment until that discussion has taken place. However, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we are having to clear up the absolute mess that was left by the previous Administration. We shall do the best that we can in conjunction with the local authority.

Q13. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health told the House less than two hours ago that fluoridation of the water supply can cut dental decay by between one third and one half, and that all 55 applications made by health authorities since 1985 to fluoridate the water supply have been turned down by unelected water companies. I have a meeting with my local dentists on Friday to discuss the politics of dentistry, and it would be helpful if I could tell them the Prime Minister's views on fluoridation.

The Prime Minister

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on finding a national health dentist after 18 years of the Conservatives being in power. Secondly, there is strong evidence that water fluoridation can reduce tooth decay, but our public health White Paper will set out our intended framework for fluoridation, which will be based on extensive consultation. Local consultation is carried out as a compulsory part of any new scheme to add fluoride to water. My hon. Friend asked me for my personal opinion. I cannot pretend to be an expert on the matter, but from what I read, it seems to be better, rather than worse, for people's health.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

Will the Prime Minister consider the advantages of a free vote on the predatory pricing of newspapers, so that hon. Members who do not want to vote for the commercial interests of Mr. Rupert Murdoch need not do so, and, disregarding their pagers for a while, can enjoy a vibrant democracy rather than a vibrating one?

The Prime Minister

The Competition Bill will bring our law into line with that in Europe. It will allow us, for the first time, fully to investigate predatory pricing. We have repeatedly said why we opposed the amendment tabled in another place—it would mean that newspapers would not be able to compete against each other at all. That would not be sensible. Most hon. Members now accept that that amendment is not the best way forward. We must bring our legislation into line with that in Europe; that is what the Bill will do and I am sure that hon. Members will support it.