HC Deb 13 May 1998 vol 312 cc367-74
Q2. Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 13 May.

The Prime Minister

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.

Mr. Hawkins

The Prime Minister spent over an hour in the House last week explaining the problems of the European summit by saying that Mr. Duisenberg had intended the result of the agreement that was reached. What is his reaction to the fact that, later last week, Mr. Duisenberg gave a completely different version of events?

The Prime Minister

I shall settle one matter once and for all: I am told that it is pronounced "Doysenberg", although I am well aware that I added somewhat to the confusion in my answers last week.

Mr. Duisenberg has not given a version different from mine. The position is precisely as I set it out last week. He has said that he intends to go early, but that he is not obliged to do so. That is the point of principle that meant that the discussions continued for 10 or 11 more hours. We made it clear that that point had to be agreed, and it has been agreed. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Conservative Members were saying that the deal would wreck the stability of the financial markets. As in so many other matters, they have been proved completely wrong.

Q3. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

The new deal is clearly a tremendous opportunity for unemployed young people, but it must not be allowed to become a substitute for apprenticeships. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the funding that is available for training apprentices and school-leaving trainees will not be adversely affected by the new deal?

The Prime Minister

It will not be adversely affected. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend and the House that, as a result of the provisions, the number of people on modern apprenticeships is up to more than 100,000, which is an increase of more than 50 per cent. since last year. The new national traineeships that we are implementing and the new deal will mean that, over the next few years, hundreds of thousands of young people will be given their first chance to get high-quality skills, high-quality education and a decent job.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Has not the spectacle of the past week at the Foreign Office been yet another shambles presided over by the Foreign Secretary? Now that the Prime Minister has had a couple of days to reflect, does he agree that Foreign Office officials knowing of a possible breach of a UN arms embargo and not informing the Foreign Secretary for seven weeks is more than just "overblown hoo-hah"?

The Prime Minister

No is the answer to both those questions. There may have been a lot of hype in the media and on the Opposition Benches, but we have the matter fully in perspective.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister calls it "a lot of hype". A UN arms embargo sponsored by this Government has apparently been broken by a British company. A Minister has misled a Select Committee of the House of Commons. A Minister did not ensure that he had the facts before he took part in a House of Commons debate. The Prime Minister does not think that that is important because he has nothing but contempt for the House of Commons. He hardly ever comes to the House of Commons—except on Wednesday afternoons. What instructions has the Prime Minister given the Foreign Secretary to ensure that he gets a grip on his Department and does not repeat the fiasco?

The Prime Minister

I should point out one little fact to the right hon. Gentleman. I have made more statements in the House than my predecessor did in the year before the election—and answered more questions.

I think that I have finally discovered why the Tory party is so upset. We are accused of having helped a democratically elected regime. That is the Tories' problem. When it comes to gun running to Iraq, they are all right. I do not regret a single word that I have said about this. I described it as overblown hoo-hah and that is what it is.

Mr. Hague

It seems that the Prime Minister has given no new instructions to the Foreign Secretary and that he has taken no action about what happens in the Foreign Office. We know that, in this Foreign Office, telegrams go missing even while the Foreign Secretary is appearing on the BBC 2 documentary "How to be a Foreign Secretary", in which he said: I have recognised that you can be a successful Foreign Secretary if you focus on the big questions and not necessarily … finish the paperwork. Is not it time that the Prime Minister gave the Foreign Secretary some new instructions about the running of his Department? Should not we have an inquiry—held in public, not behind closed doors—so that we can all see how the Foreign Office is run?

The Prime Minister

Absolutely not is the answer. The Foreign Secretary does not require lessons on how to be the Foreign Secretary. It is the Leader of the Opposition who requires lessons—on how to be Leader of the Opposition. If he is really good to me, I might tell him—but I doubt he would learn.

Mr. Hague

No one will be impressed by the extraordinary complacency of a Prime Minister who takes no action on the Foreign Office and who has refused in the past few moments to hold a public inquiry. Is not the Foreign Office being run like a Dad's Army outfit, by a Foreign Secretary who combines the pompousness of Captain Mainwaring, the incompetence of Private Pike and the calm of Corporal Jones? Now that the Foreign Secretary has blundered in and out of the middle east peace process, offended the entire Indian sub-continent and been called two-faced by an heroic Chinese human rights activist, should not even the Prime Minister conclude that Britain deserves a better Foreign Secretary?

The Prime Minister

As I said a couple of days ago and as I said in the House last week, if people have deliberately breached the UN arms embargo, that is wrong. The policy on which I expected the Foreign Office to have focused over the past few months was one of restoring a democratically elected regime in Sierra Leone over a military junta that was put there by a coup d'état. I find it remarkable that, in a week that has seen a really important and difficult foreign affairs issue—nuclear testing by India—riots in Indonesia and problems in Kosovo, the right hon. Gentleman gets up and asks what might impress a sixth-form debating society but does not impress me.

Q4. Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

Does the Prime Minister share the sinking feeling that I had on reading the Rail Regulator's latest report, with its catalogue of fines for lateness and short trains—including a massive £405,000 fine on South West Trains, my local rail operator? Does he share my anger that that is still happening despite all the promises that the Conservative party made at the time of privatisation? Will he assure me that he is working towards a better system of rail regulation through the strategic passenger authority, which I believe is forthcoming?

The Prime Minister

We warned the previous Government that the way in which they were privatising the public railways would end up in precisely the present situation, with many people feeling that their services have deteriorated although their fares have gone up. However, I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that help is on the way. The forthcoming transport White Paper will address those issues specifically and ensure that the regulatory flaws that we inherited from the previous regime are corrected.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

One might ask who sold the Indonesians the water cannons. [HON. MEMBERS: "They did."] Yes, Labour did; that was their ethical foreign policy. As for Sandline, is it not clear that the Government have now settled on what might be termed the Thomas à Becket defence—"We wanted that to happen but we specifically did not ask for it to happen"? In foreign affairs, one has from time to time to do good things by less than perfect means, but was it not rather cack-handed of the Government to hope for covert action in support of President Kabbah while passing legislation to make that illegal in Britain, and at the same time pretending that the whole thing was part of an ethical foreign policy?

The Prime Minister

No. Let me again make it clear for the right hon. Gentleman. There should be no breach—no deliberate breach—of the UN arms embargo. That should not happen in any set of circumstances; neither have we ever sought to say that it should. However, what is absurd about the situation is the fact that the context in which help was being provided was one in which we were deliberately, as a matter of policy, giving every help that we could to the democratically elected regime. Of course that should happen, within the law. All that I can say is that so far we have had allegations that the law has been broken, but no proof or evidence.

Mr. Ashdown

Can the Prime Minister and I at least agree on this: despite his sincere intention to do things differently, on this occasion his Government have become the second Government to be entangled in a controversy about illegal arms? The conclusion is simple: the systems are wrong, even if the intentions are not. It is time that we started to institute a more effective mechanism for the scrutiny of arms sales. May I make two propositions? The first is that we should establish a public register of arms brokers and arms sales so that we can see who sells what to whom; the second is that we should establish a proper system of parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of the whole matter.

The Prime Minister

I simply dispute the premise of the right hon. Gentleman's questions, which is that we knew what was happening but let it go on because the ends justified the means. We have never said that, and that is not the case. There is no shred of evidence in anything that I have seen that Ministers connived at such a policy. We all know what has actually happened here. Perhaps I should say something candidly to our friends and colleagues in the media. They have had six days of this matter rolling round the news schedules and on the front pages of all the newspapers. That is their prerogative, those are their priorities, but what is the priority for the Government is my priority and my prerogative. The fact that they decide that something is of huge importance does not mean that it is.

Q5. Mr. Phil Woolas (Oldham, East and Saddleworth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the clothing and textile industry is vital to many communities, including my constituency, and is important to our national economy? Is he aware that the all-party parliamentary group on clothing and textiles has recently been re-established, with support from all parts of the House, with a strong membership and with a free subscription? Does he agree that the many clothing and textile companies that depend on exports in one of the most fiercely competitive markets in manufacturing require above all else a stable currency in which to succeed?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend and congratulate him on the work he has done to establish the all-party group on clothing and textiles. The textiles industry is one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the United Kingdom, with sales of more than £17 billion. We are putting in place a strategy that will help companies operating in that sector and others, not least by cutting corporation tax to its lowest level ever, by improving the tax system for small businesses, by investing more in skills and education and by ensuring that we do not return to the boom and bust years of the Conservatives.

Q6. Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

How can the Prime Minister claim credit for the outcome in Sierra Leone when he says that he did nothing to bring it about?

The Prime Minister

I am not saying that we did nothing: we did a great deal to bring it about. We sent HMS Cornwall down there on a humanitarian aid mission and we appointed a special representative to help President Kabbah. We have helped Sierra Leone with aid and with money for schools, hospitals and transport. What we have not done is help Sierra Leone with arms. That is the difference. At some point, Opposition Members might wake up and understand the difference between helping a democratically elected regime properly and helping improperly. I know that they will not understand the difference, but we do.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Today, President Clinton is in Berlin to mark the 50th anniversary of what was undoubtedly the greatest victory by the west and the allies in the post-war period: the breaking of the Berlin blockade. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House how the Government will honour those RAF service men and women who played a vital role in breaking that blockade? How will we pay tribute to that selfless campaign?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will attend the allied museum opening ceremony in Berlin with his French and American counterparts. The Queen's Colour Squadron, RAF aircraft and bands will participate in various events planned for the coming months to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the airlift. In addition, I understand that the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Defence and the Post Office are actively discussing issuing a set of commemorative stamps. We shall play a full part in those celebrations, which are rightly being held around the world.

Q7. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

How can the Prime Minister spend an hour in the House last week arrogantly trying to convince hon. Members that the whole Sierra Leone incident was nothing but hoo-hah when he knows perfectly well that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise is conducting a serious inquiry involving criminal charges relating to Sierra Leone?

The Prime Minister

Customs and Excise is conducting an investigation into whether a company has breached a particular order. That investigation must take its course—no one has ever suggested anything different—but I am afraid that I do not share the view held by the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends that there is evidence that Ministers have engaged in some great conspiracy to run arms to Sierra Leone. There is no such evidence.

Q8. Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituent, Stephen Long, was held for a number of years by the Japanese and treated in a cruel and degrading manner in defiance of all the conventions regarding prisoners of war? Is it asking too much for the present Japanese authorities—perhaps through the emperor—to make a full apology for the terrible treatment of allied prisoners of war by the Japanese? I am far from being anti-Japanese or anti-German—I have no reason to be—but if successive post-war German Governments have apologised for what the Nazis did, why can the Japanese not apologise also? Why should they not do that very quickly so that people such as my constituent can hear that apology in their lifetimes?

The Prime Minister

Of course I sympathise with the sentiments behind by hon. Friend's question. He will know of the words spoken and written by the Japanese Prime Minister a short time ago. We must never—and will never—forget, or indeed forgive, the suffering of those people. We in no way diminish our respect for their suffering by saying that we are pleased that today we have a new and different relationship with modern Japan. We shall continue to remember them because they deserve to be remembered.

Q9. Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

Does the Prime Minister believe that, over the past year, our relationships with India, the middle east and west Africa have been handled by the Foreign Secretary with great distinction?

The Prime Minister


Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

This week, the Indian Government resumed nuclear testing. Furthermore, the tests took place in a particularly politically sensitive area of the sub-continent. Will my right hon. Friend use the United Kingdom presidency of the European Union and his influence with other world powers to ensure that the condemnation of the Indian Government is worldwide?

The Prime Minister

We have already expressed our deep concern at the nuclear tests carried out by the Indian Government—today, we called in India's ambassador to express that concern directly to him. It is extremely important that we ensure that the non-proliferation treaty is sustained. We urge restraint by surrounding countries, particularly Pakistan. The nuclear tests are deeply disturbing; they inevitably diminish our chances of producing the safe world in which we all want to live.

Q10. Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

Yesterday, leaders of the Edison project said that the Government had assured them that a company could run an education action zone for profit, yet the National Union of Teachers has said that it has had a commitment that that will not be allowed. Which of them is right?

The Prime Minister

As I understand it, companies will be allowed to participate in the education action zones and to make a profit if they are successful. If companies are involved in education action zones—I suspect that this may be the reason for the difference between the two positions—they must abide by the rules on the way in which schools and education authorities are run. Moreover, zones are run under the aegis of the education authority, so although nothing disturbs whether the company is profitable, companies will not make profits out of the schools.

Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that school truancy and exclusions, which rose so greatly under the previous Government, are now a serious issue, not least because they are strongly associated with subsequent poverty, crime and underachievement? I welcome the announcements that have been made this week, particularly the targets of reducing truancy and exclusion by a third. Will he assure the House that schools will receive the wherewithal to reintegrate young people. both for their own good and for the good of the community in which they live?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will know that we have put additional resources into schools and that more investment will come. However, it is important that the investment is tied to reform. Thirteen thousand children are permanently excluded, and 100,000 children are temporarily excluded, from school every year, but the package that we announced on truancy and exclusions will make a significant difference. It will give the police powers to pick up children who are playing truant, and it will impose new responsibilities on parents. Equally important, it will also ensure that children who are excluded are not left with two or three hours' schooling a week—so that they roam the streets or do whatever they like for the rest of the time—but are put in a structured setting where they will receive a proper education.

Q11. Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

As the Prime Minister prepares for the G8 summit in Birmingham on Saturday, will he reflect on the fact that the Jubilee 2000 campaign for the cancellation of debt in the poorest countries in the world—representing about 1 billion people—is hugely more popular than the Government's proposal to commemorate the millennium by building a dome at Greenwich? I offer him a way out of his dilemma and a way in which to make the dome far more acceptable. Will he call for the papers on the desk of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that propose using the dome as a place where individuals, companies and the public sector, with the Government, can sign up to a package of practical proposals that would cancel the debt that is owed to Britain? Will he also recommend similar proposals to the other countries of the G8?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman may know, there has been a series of meetings about proposals to encourage debt relief. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has suggested mechanisms to allow people to give more money in charity to the developing world and has led the way in new proposals for debt relief. We will discuss those matters at the G8, and we are well aware of the Jubilee 2000 activities over the weekend. The people involved obviously want us to do more to help the developing world. We are considering how we can make progress, and in the communiqué that we eventually issue, if it is as I hope it will be, there will be concrete measures to bring relief to the countries concerned.

Q12. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, following last Thursday's council elections, my constituents in Harrow have the advantage not only of a Labour Government but, for the first time, of a new Labour council? Will he congratulate those people who voted Labour on Thursday on helping to end an incompetent and inept Liberal Democrat administration that cut school budgets yet, in line with the windy hypocrisy of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), continually tried to shirk responsibility for that action?

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman accused another Member of Parliament of being a hypocrite. He must rise now and withdraw that remark.

Mr. Thomas

I apologise, Madam Speaker. I withdraw that remark.

The Prime Minister

I send my congratulations to all my hon. Friend's colleagues in Harrow who achieved such a marvellous result, and to all those who have helped to ensure that people will get not only prudent finance but decent public services under a Labour council.