HC Deb 11 November 1998 vol 319 cc360-70
Q1. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 11 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Earlier today, together with you, Madam Speaker, right hon. and hon. Members and millions of people across the country, I observed a two-minute silence to commemorate the sacrifices made by so many on behalf of us all. Later today, in addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Mr. Chope

Is it not heartening that so many people participated in the two-minute silence this morning? As we are remembering those who gave their lives so that we could have our freedom, will the Prime Minister tell us why, in March this year, his Government decided to reject a grant application by St. Dunstan's, the charity which looks after service men blinded in the service of their country, apparently on the ground of insufficient priority? Will he today announce that he will reverse that decision?

The Prime Minister

No; we have actually done a great deal for such organisations.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is heartening that so many people observed the two-minute silence, which should be an event that unites the whole of this House and the country.

Miss Melanie Johnson (Welwyn Hatfield)

In view of the grave news today about the withdrawal of United Nations arms inspectors from Iraq—a further sign, if one were needed, of Saddam Hussein's willingness to flout international law—will my right hon. Friend tell us what steps the Government will be taking to deal with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq?

The Prime Minister

Saddam Hussein is in breach of not only the UN resolutions but the agreement that he made with Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General. His disagreement is with the whole world community. It is not a technical breach of the agreement—it is a substantial breach because it is clear from the evidence that, if unchecked, he will try to develop weapons of mass destruction. The evidence uncovered recently by French and Swiss officials of the attempt to decontaminate warheads is further proof of that. He may think that the international community lacks the will to act, but, if so, he is seriously and profoundly wrong. We will act if he does not immediately come back into compliance with the UN resolutions and abide by the agreement that he made.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The Opposition support the Prime Minister's remarks.

In the European elections next year, should not people be able to vote for the candidate of their choice, rather than for a party list that leaves them no such choice—and that, with the highly unusual exception of the Northern Ireland peace negotiations, has never been used in our country?

The Prime Minister

No, because the system we are proposing is far simpler. The election will cover all regions and there could be up to 50 names on a ballot paper and no individual constituencies, so I believe that our system is the best for those elections.

Mr. Hague

Is not the reason that the Prime Minister wants that system the fact that closed lists give power to party stooges? Is he aware that local people in the midlands complained that one of the Labour candidates imposed on them knew nothing of their area? The Birmingham Post reported Labour bosses as saying that he did know something about the area because he had acted in the Rocky Horror Show at Birmingham Rep earlier this year… and directed Kiss of the Spider Woman at the New Vic in Newcastle-Under-Lyme. Is not the truth that the Prime Minister wants a system that eliminates any kind of independent thinking? Is he not undermining the democratic traditions of this country for his own party purposes?

The Prime Minister

No. That is absolute nonsense. The difference is simply that, on the list that the right hon. Gentleman is proposing, people would be prevented from voting for the party alone. When we are electing people on the basis of regions, with very large numbers of people, the system that we are proposing is a far better and more simple one, which has been used extensively elsewhere. As he admitted in his initial question, the system was pioneered in Northern Ireland by the previous Government. As the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), said: I believe that this is a fair and balanced system that will produce a representative outcome. So, thank you for the suggestion.

Mr. Hague

If the Prime Minister reads on a sentence in the statement of my right hon. Friend he will see that he said: I have to say that there is no precedent that I know for the circumstances and complexities that exist in Northern Ireland."—[Official Report, 21 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 498–501.] That is how he justified the system. Why does the Prime Minister not give the full quote?

The Prime Minister is now trying to prevent one of his Welsh Members of Parliament from leading the Labour party in Wales, trying to prevent one of his Scottish Members of Parliament from even standing for the Scottish Parliament and trying to prevent one of his London Members of Parliament from being a candidate for mayor of London. So, to make vetoing people easier in future, the Prime Minister wants a system for the European Parliament that gives power to party officials and not to the voter. Is that not putting party before country?

The Prime Minister

No, it is not. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary pointed out in yesterday's debate, under the system that the right hon. Gentleman is recommending, perversely, someone could get elected with fewer votes than other people on the list. The system that we are proposing is therefore a far better one. It is also used widely elsewhere. As for all the right hon. Gentleman's other pre-prepared words on the Labour party, I very gently tell him that, when I want his suggestions on party management, I will drop him a note.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Will the Prime Minister congratulate Chorley and South Ribble, and Preston hospital trusts on the way in which they have brought together clinical services to ensure that patients come first, and the way in which the two trusts will continue to operate for the benefit of those constituencies?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I will congratulate them. I will also point out, as I am sure that my hon. Friend would want me to, that the extra £21 billion that will go next year into the health service—today we have had official confirmation that the Conservatives are opposed to that investment—will provide a better service for my hon. Friend's constituents and allow those two trusts to go from strength to strength.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Has the Prime Minister seen the recent report showing that up to 27 million pensioners in Britain could be in severe financial hardship in retirement because of the underfunding of pensions? Is there not only one sensible way of solving the problem in a practical manner—by introducing compulsory second-tier or stakeholder pensions? Next week, that will be proposed by the former Minister for Welfare Reform, the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). Will the Prime Minister and the Government support him?

The Prime Minister

We said that we will publish our paper on pensions reform in due course. I shall not comment on those findings until they are published. Of course we understand that pensions need full-scale reform, which is exactly why we are examining the issue. However, we have to ensure that reform is right for all categories of pensioner.

Mr. Ashdown

The Prime Minister says that the Government are undecided, but would not "confused" be a better adjective? Last week, the Financial Times was briefed to say that the Government would drop compulsory pensions. Yesterday, The Scotsman was told that they would back compulsory pensions. Which is right? If he cannot give us a date on which he will be able to tell us that, will he please at least tell us when the result will be published?

The Prime Minister

As I have already said, as we will publish our proposals, I should not tell the right hon. Gentleman what they are now. However, we can discuss the proposals as soon as they are published. I should tell him that, since the Government came to power, we have not only cut VAT on fuel to help pensioners but given them a special winter bonus. We have also introduced for the first time a guaranteed minimum income for pensioners. All those measures are worth while for pensioners, but I agree that we have to reform the system fundamentally. We are taking on an issue that was ducked by the previous Government for 18 years.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent action of President Clinton, who fired one of his political allies into space? Does that course of action commend itself to my right hon. Friend and would he be willing to discuss it with the Liberals when they next meet?

The Prime Minister

As I was just saying to the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, there are extensive consultations on that and I will get back to him in due course.

Q2. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Does the Prime Minister recall that, back in July, I asked him how he would meet the three-year spending plans that had just been introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Does he recall that he answered me by saying, "Unemployment bad, new deal good. It is simple. Geddit?" On the day that the Bank of England has said that the Chancellor's growth forecasts are hopelessly unrealistic, on the day that unemployment has again gone up and on the day that VAT receipts to the Treasury are going down, does the Prime Minister not think that his reaction back in July was just a tad optimistic and complacent?

The Prime Minister

First, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman reminded me of my answer to him in July as the question and the answer had slipped my mind temporarily. As he will know from today's figures, over the past three months employment has risen by 124,000. Since the election, 400,000 new jobs have been created, with 237,000 new vacancies in the past few months. There are 160,000 young people on the new deal, with 30,000 already in jobs. I can tell him today, and I hope that he will congratulate us on it, that youth unemployment—young people unemployed for more than six months—is now at its lowest level since the mid-1970s. That is a record of which any Government would be proud, but I take it from what the hon. Gentleman said about spending that he, too, is opposed to our spending plans for next year. I believe that that spending is right. It is the correct investment for the country, it is right for economic management, and I hope that one of these days the hon. Gentleman and those on the Opposition Front Bench will come round to seeing that.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The Prime Minister has been misinformed. Is it not a matter of record that the French and Swiss tests to which he referred proved negative? It is true that the first American test proved positive, but the second American test proved negative and that result was suppressed. Can he give the name of any Arab country—just one will do —which now supports military action against Iraq in the next month?

The Prime Minister

I know that my hon. Friend has just come back from Iraq and I understand his strong feelings on it, but the French and the Swiss found clear evidence that warheads had been decontaminated from weapons of mass destruction. On the evidence that we have compiled on Saddam Hussein, going back over a period of years, it is clear that he has attempted to develop weapons of mass destruction. After all, that is why he wants the inspectors out —so that we do not know about the weapons of mass destruction that he is developing. He is the only leader that I know of anywhere in the world who has used weapons of mass destruction–5,000 people, mainly women and children, died as a result of his use of such weapons.

Saddam Hussein made an agreement at the conclusion of the Gulf war and then made a further agreement with the UN Secretary-General. All we are saying is that he should abide by that agreement. That is not an unreasonable position. The quarrel that he has is with the whole of the international community and if we allow him to get away with a substantial breach of the agreement and to develop weapons of mass destruction, we will pay a very heavy price in the future.

Q3. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

If he will make an official visit to Newhaven.

The Prime Minister

I have no immediate plans to do so.

Mr. Baker

I am sorry to hear that, given the serious situation facing Newhaven, with the possible demise of the ferry after 173 years of running between Newhaven and Dieppe. Is the Prime Minister aware that one of the most famous people alleged to have used the ferry is Lord Lucan, when he was fleeing the country? What steps will the Prime Minister take to ensure that the ferry does not disappear as Lord Lucan did?

The Prime Minister

I did not catch the end of that question, but I assume that the hon. Gentleman was not asking me to search for Lord Lucan. The hon. Gentleman met the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) this week. He has been campaigning hard on the issue, as have some Labour Members. We recognise the importance of Newhaven as a port, but we have limited powers to influence commercial decisions by P and O Stena on operational and investment matters. However, we have put in place measures under the capital challenge scheme, under the single regeneration budget and in respect of European Interreg funding that have put millions of pounds into Newhaven. We know that the situation is serious, but there are limits to how far we can intervene in a commercial decision. I know that the hon. Gentleman will carry on fighting the case for his constituents. We shall do what we can within the constraints of government, but we cannot interfere with the decision that the company has made.

Q4. Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

Why is the Prime Minister afraid of giving the electorate the opportunity of voting for an individual candidate in the European elections?

The Prime Minister

I should like to add to what I have already said on that to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). The choice is between the system that the hon. Lady is proposing—which would prevent people from voting for a party alone, even though the majority of people will not know the merits of the individual members—and our system, which is simpler and better. It is used extensively abroad. People have the choice to vote for the political party that they want. I believe that that is a far better way to go.

Q5. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 1.5 million people in the United Kingdom suffer from diabetes, which is the main cause of blindness in those under 65? The national health service spends more than £2 billion per year on treating the effects of diabetes. Will my right hon. Friend look into the case for having a targeted, selective screening programme for diabetes so that we can deal more efficiently in future with a disease that kills, maims and blinds?

The Prime Minister

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done campaigning on the issue in the House and outside. Decisions on the introduction of a national screening programme will be made in the light of the report from the national screening committee, due early next year. We shall continue to work with the British Diabetic Association and others to improve care. The Department of Health has commissioned guidelines for clinicians about the most effective treatment of diabetes. The extra investment that we are putting into the national health service next year will improve services for all, including those with diabetes.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The Bank of England inflation report, published today, says that the working time directive will add to inflation. Does the Prime Minister agree with the Bank?

The Prime Minister

Actually, the Bank of England says that, although there may be some marginal effect as a result of the working time directive, we are going to meet the central projections for inflation and its growth forecasts are in line with those that we have put forward, to which the right hon. Gentleman has objected.

Mr. Hague

So, the Prime Minister agrees that the working time directive will increase inflation. Everyone knows that it will add to inflation and therefore to interest rates. Everyone knows that it will also add to unemployment. With the jobless total up by 7,000 today, is it not the worst possible time to add extra regulation and bureaucracy to the burdens that businesses now have to bear?

The Prime Minister

No. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that the working time directive was introduced by the European Union under the previous Government and would have had to be implemented by any Government—no matter who was in power. He may disagree, but I believe that the fact that employees, for the first time, will get four weeks minimum holiday entitlement is a good thing, not a bad thing.

The Bank says: it is not sufficient to warrant changing the central projection for … inflation two years ahead. The right hon. Gentleman did not mention that it also said: Measures such as the New Deal and the Working Families Tax Credit are designed to increase the supply of labour, and could lower the natural rate of unemployment.

Mr. Hague

It also says that the directive will cause an upward skew in inflation. If the best argument that the Prime Minister has for the working time directive is to pretend that the Conservative party was in favour of it, he is pretty short of arguments on the subject. Are not today's unemployment figures yet another sign of a downturn made in Downing street? Businesses are facing a flood of new regulations and bureaucracy. When will Ministers understand that red tape strangles businesses and jobs?

The Prime Minister

It is typical of the right hon. Gentleman that his response is to abandon the minimum wage and to get rid of minimum holiday entitlement, as he wants to do. Apparently, he also opposes the family-friendly policy of unpaid parental leave, and he wants to cancel the new deal and the working families tax credit.

It is important to get the situation in balance. Since the election, 400,000 more jobs have been created, and more than 237,000 new vacancies. Long-term and youth unemployment are down, and unemployment is down since the election. The question is, given the difficulties for jobs and industry over the next year, what is the right policy? We say that new fiscal and monetary rules and Bank of England independence are right. The right hon. Gentleman is opposed to those. We say investment in skills and education is right, including the biggest boost to education ever. He has set himself opposed to that and described it as a "spending spree" in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph. I assume that means that he is against it. Is he against it?

The third element is the new deal and the working families tax credit. The right hon. Gentleman has now said that he is against those. Let me remind him that the working families tax credit will make 1.5 million families £17 a week better off on average. Just so his Back Benchers understand it—everyone knows what a bold leader he is—they will all go into the next election saying that those 1.5 million people who are, on average, £17 better off will lose that money. Well, roll on that day.

Hon. Members

More, more.

Madam Speaker


Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

On a day when we rightly pay tribute to the generation who lived through the first world war and the many who died in it, will the Prime Minister resist the temptation to be distracted by the Liberal Democrats and address a different starting point? Surely if there is an act of remembrance that the country owes to the generation of today's pensioners, it is to do the one thing that the Tories in government steadfastly refused to do—to restore the value of the state pension and its link with earnings.

The Prime Minister

We have given our reasons, on many occasions, why we cannot commit ourselves to that. The reason is that the cost would be substantial, and the money would not be spread among those pensioners who need it most. We have made it clear that the crucial thing is to get help, first of all, to the poorest pensioners. That is the reason for the –50 winter bonus for those on income support and the minimum pension guarantee. I believe that the substantial extra investment of –2.5 billion over the next three years—opposed by the Tories, so we will take no lessons from them—which will get money to those who need it most, is the right thing to do. I think that most pensioners will understand that.

Q6. Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

The chief constable of my area claims that, in 1999–2000, he will suffer a budget cut of £6 million, which is the equivalent of 300 officers in Devon and Cornwall. The Government claim that funding is adequate. Who is telling the truth about the budget for the Devon and Cornwall police for that year?

The Prime Minister

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been helpfully reminding me, we are putting £1.24 billion extra into the police and the budget allocations have not yet been decided. If I have any news for the hon. Gentleman, I will write to him.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does my right hon. Friend recall the court decision at the beginning of this year, which stated that thousands of miners, ex-miners and their widows would receive settlements under the legislation on chronic bronchitis and emphysema? After all this time, those benefits have not yet been paid. Way back in the 1970s, under a previous Labour Government, we had a scheme to deal with pneumoconiosis and, later, asbestosis. We managed to find a way out of the problem by ensuring a sliding scale of payments, initiated through the Government.

We are having trouble getting the matter resolved. It is true that some lawyers are causing a little antagonism, but in view of the fact that my right hon. Friend can knock a few heads together and as we are meeting the Minister for Energy and Industry in a few minutes' time to try to resolve the matter, will he ensure that he gives us a chuck-on?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend could teach everyone one a thing or two about lobbying. I understand that we are trying to make early payments up front and I will look into the situation. I cannot commit myself to what he suggests, but we will do our best and I am sure that he will put all those points to the Minister when he meets him shortly.

Q7. Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

The Prime Minister will probably be aware that, next year, Cornwall and parts of Devon will see the first total eclipse in this country since 1926. Bearing in mind that the 1926 eclipse caused the largest mass movement of people by train in history and the fact that it is predicted that millions of people will try to visit a peninsula that suffers from infrastructure difficulties, the police, ambulance and fire services are expecting to have to pay out millions of pounds in extra costs. That will hit local services. So far, the Home Office has said that the problem is purely local. Surely the eclipse is a genuinely national event that needs national support. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask his colleagues to look into the financial costs that are about to fall on us?

The Prime Minister

I thought for a moment that we were going to get a Liberal Democrat on his feet without asking for more money, but we were disappointed. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that a large number of people will go to the area to see the total eclipse of the sun. I am sure that that will impose additional costs and burdens, but there is a formula for dealing with such matters. [Interruption.] Yes, there is and it will be applied in the hon. Gentleman's case as it would be in everyone else's. No matter how much the Liberal Democrats may want me to do so, I will not write blank cheques at the Dispatch Box.

Q8. Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern that exists about the World Trade Organisation's interpretation of article 20, which allows countries to prevent products that harm human, animal or plant life from being imported? Is he aware that a European Union ban on the sale of meat products derived from animals on which hormones have been used to accelerate growth was overturned by the WTO because it violated world trade agreements?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that such rulings prevent organisations such as the EU from protecting people on environmental and health grounds? At the World Trade Organisation negotiations next year, will he argue for greater priority to be given to those issues?

The Prime Minister

As I said at the 50th anniversary of the world trading system in Geneva in May, in general terms we believe in, and support, trade liberalisation, but it is important that we do not do so at any cost and that we consider the environmental impact of any proposals. The case that my hon. Friend raises is already before the WTO and was the subject of an Adjournment debate last week.

We have already made it clear that we support the European Commission's proposal for a high-level meeting on trade and the environment to thrash out those issues. However, there is more than one response to the problem that he mentions and to the WTO ruling, and we must proceed very carefully before we give a definitive view.

Q9. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Was not the Prime Minister's reply to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on the working time directive gratuitously superficial? Is it not the case that the increase in unemployment in this country has two causes—the extra burden of regulation and taxation, which amounts to some £39 billion, and the impost that we pay to the European Union, which is a net contribution of £2 billion? Moreover, the European Union's financial perspective is that its expenditure should grow by 19 per cent. The British worker is being hammered at home and milked abroad.

The Prime Minister

I saw that the hon. Gentleman received warm support for his question from Conservative Members, but I certainly did not mean to be gratuitous in my response to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I do not believe that the working time directive—which will give people the right, for the first time, to four weeks holiday entitlement—is an unnecessary burden on business. It is extraordinary, but entirely typical, that the Conservative party should believe that the way forward is to cancel any basic minimum standards that people have in the workplace.

On the money that we pay to the European Union, the hon. Gentleman has a perfectly honourable position—he opposes the European Union. That is not the Government's view. We believe that we gain enormously by being members of the European Union. We gain in trade—

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

You are Europe's poodle.

The Prime Minister

I do not know whether that was the Conservative party's third view. We gain enormously in trade, jobs and industry from our membership of the European Union. The best thing for us to do in the difficult time ahead—

Mr. Hayes

You're just Europe's poodle.

Madam Speaker

Order. I will not have the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) standing there shouting, something that has gone on throughout Question Time. I caution him that, if it happens next week, he will be sent out during questions. The same applies to all hon. Members. If hon. Members want to participate, they must take their seats.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman can go and join Mr. Portillo.

The way in which to deal with jobs and business over the next year is as I have described. The choice is simple: what is the best way in which to steer a course of stability in the year ahead? We repeat that the best way is to make the investments that we have made, to tackle the problems of social exclusion as we are doing and to hold firm to Bank of England independence. I believe that that position is supported by the vast majority of people in this country, who do not want a return either to underfunded public services or to the boom and bust of the Conservatives.