HC Deb 18 November 1998 vol 319 cc930-8
Q1. Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 18 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Valerie Davey

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the young people at a Bristol comprehensive school that was visited today by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment have a clearer understanding of democracy and the importance of elections than do the anachronistic hereditary members of the House of Lords?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I fully agree. It is not merely the fact that the hereditary peers can decide policy in the House of Lords, but that the in-built Tory majority—three to one—in the other place means that, whatever the election result, the House of Lords can overturn the will of the House of Commons. That is not democracy.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Of the 20 Labour Back Benchers who have spoken in the House and in Committee about the closed-list system for European elections, how many have spoken in favour of it?

The Prime Minister

Nobody voted—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] Nobody voted against it. In the House of Lords—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


The Prime Minister

Just to correct what the Leader of the Opposition said this morning: although he tried to pretend that it was a broad-based alliance in the House of Lords, only 21 of the votes against the Government in the House of Lords last night were not cast by Tories or hereditaries. That shows them in their true colours.

Mr. Hague

The question was: how many Labour Back Benchers in the House have voted for closed lists? Why does the Prime Minister not ask one of the Chinese mystics to whom he is turning to teach him the ancient art of answering the question? The answer is that one Labour Back Bencher has spoken in favour of closed lists in the House—and even he spoke against them in Committee.

Labour Members are too embarrassed to speak in favour of a closed-list system, and the Prime Minister is too embarrassed to admit that they are embarrassed. Why does he not admit that the Cross-Bench peers voted against the Government last night, that the Law Lords voted against the Government, and that all the bishops who were present voted against the Government? Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that all independent opinion is against a voting system that denies the voters the right to vote for the candidate that they prefer?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not accept that at all. As I have just said, quite contrary to what the Leader of the Opposition is telling people, only 21 of the votes upon which he relied last night were not cast by Tories or hereditaries. Supporting the Labour party's position were the Liberal Democrats, Cross Benchers—[Interruption.] So the Tory party is happy to rely on hereditary peers, but not on Liberal Democrats. Well, I prefer the support of people elected by the people, not hereditary peers—that is the answer. I think it fascinating that Conservative Members count the hereditary peers as more important than people who are democratically elected.

The system that we are proposing brings us into line with other European countries; it is our manifesto commitment. It is wrong to say that it does not list the candidates; the ballot paper lists parties and candidates. The system is used for France, Germany, Spain, Greece and Portugal. The only countries that use the Tories' system are Finland and Sweden. This, however, is no longer about the system; it is about the hereditary Tory peers in the House of Lords.

May I give the right hon. Gentleman some advice, as I know that he is in need of an image consultant at the moment? The right image for him is not to wrap himself in the ermine of hereditary peers.

Mr. Hague

It has come to something when the only independent support that the Prime Minister can find is from the Liberal party, which last week was not meant to be independent at all. It is funny that, when the Lords defeated the previous Government on their Criminal Justice Bill, the shadow Home Secretary of the time said: This is a resounding victory for common sense. Who was the shadow Home Secretary? The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). There was no whining about an affront to democracy on that occasion, was there?

The Prime Minister is having difficulties with his questions today. He has his file with him; why does he not read out what his beloved Jenkins committee said about closed and open lists?

The Prime Minister

I am not going to do that—the right hon. Gentleman can read it out, and he can ask his own questions. Under the system that we are proposing, we will give away seats, both to Liberal Democrats and to the Tories—it is an act of generosity on our part. If he wants to end up using his hereditary majority in the House of Lords to overturn that, that is a matter for him. The Tories have the power to do that in the House of Lords—they can frustrate the will of the House of Commons. But if he does that, and we go back to the old system of first past the post—[HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."]—which I think some of my hon. Friends—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman has even managed to make me loved by the Labour party.

If we go back to the old system of first past the post, we will watch with delight as the right hon. Gentleman's candidates fight each other for selection. If he uses the House of Lords to overturn the will of the democratically elected House of Commons, and to overturn a system that is used by two thirds of citizens in the European Union, that will show, first, that he has the strategic vision of a bat—because that will do his party more harm than any other party—and, secondly, that when it comes to democracy, the Tories prefer hereditary peers to the will of the people.

Mr. Hague

Is it not fascinating that the Prime Minister has so few arguments to advance his case? I am so sorry that he cannot read from the Jenkins report—Lord Jenkins will be most put out—but fortunately, I have a copy: never travel without it. Lord Jenkins says: it is crucial that the voters' right to express their view of individual candidates should be maintained … For this reason we greatly prefer an open list, to a closed party list".

So every independent person can see what the Prime Minister cannot see—that the real affront to democracy is his plan to deny the voters the right to vote for a candidate whom they prefer. Is he not overriding every word of caution and every constitutional check and balance to expand the power of his clique of cronies at the expense of the power of the people?

The Prime Minister

First, Lord Jenkins voted with us rather than with the Conservatives. Secondly, what the right hon. Gentleman is saying is that there is no argument in favour of the list system that we are putting forward. As I have pointed out, the vast majority of people in the European Union vote according to the system that we are putting forward. It is the system that is used by most large countries. Under the system that the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward, a candidate with fewer votes could get elected over someone with more votes, which is plainly absurd.

In any event, the right hon. Gentleman has never dealt with the essential point: is the will of the House of Commons the will that should be upheld, or is it the will of the Tory hereditary peers? Perhaps he can get up and admit that it is only with Tory hereditary peers that he comes anywhere near winning this vote. That is the real issue: Conservatives' support of hereditary peers, or our support for an elected House of Commons.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister knows that that is not the case. If he looks at the figures that he has in front of him, he will see that 47 Cross-Bench peers voted with the Opposition and 12 with the Government. The three bishops voted with the Opposition and not with the Government. Four Law Lords and ex-Law Lords voted with the Opposition and not with the Government. If those people had voted the other way round, the Government would have been successful. The reason why the Prime Minister lost in the House of Lords is that he lost the argument—and he has lost the argument in the House of Commons as well.

The Prime Minister

No, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. Without Tory hereditary peers, he would have come nowhere near winning the vote. The truth is that he wins only through Tory hereditary peers. What he has done today is to decide not merely against his own party's interest, but to use Tory hereditary peers to frustrate the will of the House of Commons. That is his choice, and he will live with its consequences.

Q2. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I was not sent here by the voters of Norwich, North to be dictated to by a bunch of in-bred, homozygous recessives. It is estimated that one in two people in this country will contract cancer by 2010. Does the Prime Minister agree that we need to tackle its causes—asbestos, tobacco and other agents? Does he further agree that the inequalities throughout this country in care and in the treatment and detection of cancers are not consistent with the modern society that we are going to construct? Does he now agree that the time for Britain against cancer has come, and that part of the success story in the United States—a national cancer institute—might be an element of our plan?

The Prime Minister

It may be part of our plan, but already, as my hon. Friend will know, we are putting some £20 billion into the health service—that is extra—from next April; that is opposed, of course, by the Conservative party. The Government have guaranteed that everyone with suspected cancer will be seen by a specialist within two weeks of their general practitioner referring them as an urgent case, so we are not just putting that extra money in: we are directing some of those extra resources to cancer.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the work that he has done in campaigning on the issue. We are also going to ensure, of course, through the £2.5 billion hospital-building programme, that we get the right buildings and infrastructure as well.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)


Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Ashdown

I am grateful for that expression of support from both sides—truly non-tribal.

As we are discussing actions in Committee, is the Prime Minister aware that, when open lists in the European elections were debated in Committee in the House of Lords, the Conservatives refused to vote in favour of them and the Conservative spokesman claimed that open lists were "manifestly unfair"? Is this not absolutely clearly an example of extraordinary opportunism and double standards on the part of the Conservative party? Worse, is there not now a risk that the actions of the hereditary peers will deny the voters of Britain a fair electoral system for the European elections—a system for which two thirds of them voted in last year's general election?

The Prime Minister

Of course that is true. It is a manifesto commitment on the part of the Government that is being frustrated.

I have just turned up the figures relating to hereditary peers. The largest single group voting with the Conservatives were hereditary peers, who made up just over half the vote. As I have said, if we put Tories and hereditary peers together, we find that there were only 21 other votes. Talk of the great so-called cross-party and Cross-Bench alliance is absolute and utter nonsense.

What the right hon. Gentleman says is true: the system represents a manifesto commitment. Under the system that we propose, the ballot paper will list parties and candidates, so it is nonsense to suggest that voters will not know which group of people they are voting for. Our system would bring us into line with the majority view in the rest of the European Union—but the Opposition do not care about the manifesto commitment; they are more interested in using hereditary peers to frustrate the will of this place.

Mr. Ashdown

So does the Prime Minister agree that the proper constitutional process now would be for both Houses to pass the European Parliamentary Elections Bill today, on the basis that the Government will ensure that the review that they have already promised will take place after next year's elections will be conducted by an independent body such as the electoral commission proposed by Lord Neill? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I will have order. Three Members, whom I could name, are shouting their heads off. It must stop.

Mr. Ashdown

Will the Government ensure that the review will be conducted not by the Government, but by an independent body such as the electoral commission proposed by Lord Neill and supported by the Conservative party, which will then be able to recommend appropriate improvements and a more open procedure for subsequent elections?

The Prime Minister

That is a perfectly good suggestion. We have made it clear throughout that we are happy to arrange an independent review. The suggestion is intelligent, but we have an Opposition who are not interested in the issue at all. What they are interested in doing is using the issue to make a point of their own about the House of Lords. I happen to think that they are not making a very sensible point. As I have said, under the system that we propose ours will be the party that gives up seats. I think the Conservatives will find that their short-term diddling will lead to quite a long-term problem for them.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

And now for something completely different.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the board of Vaux, which employs 670 people in Sunderland and a couple of hundred in Sheffield, is putting its brewing interests on the market? Although the two companies concerned are profitable, and although Vaux has received a bid from its own management to run the companies as a going concern, it is contemplating selling them to one of its rivals, which will close them down, sack the work force and thereby eliminate a competitor. I know that we are all supposed to believe in market forces nowadays, but does my right hon. Friend agree that such action would represent the unacceptable face of capitalism?

The Prime Minister

I understand my hon. Friend's concern, and the fact that people are worried about their jobs. I am sure that those people will take account of my hon. Friend's powerful case. As he knows, the decision is not one for Government, but I am aware that he has made his case to those concerned, and I hope that they will listen carefully.

Q3. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

How many times must the Paymaster General fail to register his financial interests before the Prime Minister has the courage to sack him from the Government?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will make his statement after Question Time. I hope that the House will allow him to do so. The Committee has made findings, to which he will respond. He should be left to respond to those findings. As my right hon. Friend has already pointed out, this refers to a time before he was a Minister. He accepts that it was an oversight on his part, and I think that the House should listen carefully to what he has to say.

Q4. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

Will the Prime Minister—in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on the latest literacy and numeracy initiatives—urge him and all Departments to press ahead with expenditure in areas that will promote social inclusion? Will he congratulate my own borough of Blackpool on appointing a reader in residence in their schools, to promote reading among parents and children? Will the Prime Minister emphasise again to the House that such actions demonstrate the Government's commitment to public expenditure and to social inclusion, as opposed to the social exclusion practised by the House of Lords?

The Prime Minister

There are three things that we are doing for people in the position of my hon. Friend's constituents. We are putting £19 billion extra into education next year; ensuring that there is the new deal for young unemployed and long-term unemployed—our action has resulted in youth unemployment for over six months being cut by between 30 per cent. and 40 per cent.; and introducing the working families tax credit, which will improve the earnings of low income families. The three measures will help constituents—such as those of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members—throughout the land. All three measures are opposed by today's Conservative party, and nothing could better demonstrate the difference between us.

Q5. Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

Is the Prime Minister now aware that his continued support for the closed-list system is seen by so many as one more example of his contempt for the democratic process and for the electors of the United Kingdom, and as further evidence of the Government's desire to control, control and control?

The Prime Minister

On a point of fact, all the systems that have been discussed—all of them—are list systems that parties put into effect. As I said, the list system that we are proposing is used by most of the large countries in the European Union. The idea that we are proposing something that has never been heard of before is therefore absurd. The system was, of course, pioneered in the United Kingdom—in Northern Ireland, by the Conservative party.

Surely the democratic monstrosity is not the House of Commons deciding that one variant of the PR system is the best, but the Conservative party using its permanent in-built majority of Conservative hereditary peers—elected by no one and accountable to no one—to overturn the democratic majority in the House. That is how the vast majority of people will see it.

Q6. Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe (Leigh)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his announcement last week of £1.24 billion extra for police forces has been received with acclamation by both police and public? Is he aware that there is a growing appreciation among the British people of the fact that our Labour Government are determined to defeat crime at every possible opportunity, reinforcing once again the public's confidence in Labour's tough policies on crime?

May I also tell my right hon. Friend that certain chief constables are essentially scaremongering about their budgets? If the chief constable of Manchester is right in prophesying that his police authority's budget—which he has not yet received—will be short to the tune of £18 million, 224 police support jobs will have to go. Would it not be complete folly if we failed to find a few million extra quid to avoid major damage to our police force, so that we do not undermine our successful policies in dealing with crime?

The Prime Minister

There is a lot of negotiation at about this time of year on budgets. However, no allocations have yet finally been made. We are quite considerably increasing the police budget. My hon. Friend drew attention also to policies on law and order, particularly those on youth justice and crime and disorder. This Government, unlike the previous one, are not only being tough on crime but—through the new deal—tackling the underlying causes of crime. It is important to get both parts of that equation right.

Q7. Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

If the Prime Minister is serious about securing economic stability, does he accept that it requires not just an independent Bank of England, but a strategy for stabilising exchange rates and bringing our interest rates closer into line with already low European rates? Is not that failure of policy the reason why today's Treasury survey of independent economic forecasts shows that manufacturing industry is predicted to decline sharply next year, contrary to the Chancellor's forecasts? Is he now so confident that manufacturing industry will avoid recession in 1999?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear—indeed, I made it clear a couple of days ago—that industry and jobs face a tougher time in the next year. The question is: what is the right way to get through this? We believe that Bank of England independence and keeping tight control of fiscal policy—which we have done, slashing the enormous budget deficit that we inherited from the Conservatives—are the right things to do. If we combine them with measures to improve working conditions for people, such as the working families tax credit and the new deal, on which the OECD report today specifically congratulates us, we have the best chance of weathering the storm. The difference between us and the Liberal Democrats is that, although they want interest rates down, they want spending massively increased.

Mr. Bruce

indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but on any basis they do. It is important that we get the right mix of monetary and fiscal policy. I believe that we have done that. That is why long-term interest rates are at their lowest for more than 30 years. Holding our nerve and staying firm on the policies that we have set out provides the best chance for this country to come through in the next 12 months.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I am a firm supporter of the first-past-the-post system, and am utterly delighted that the suicide club on the Conservative Front Bench and their cronies along the Corridor are determined to maximise the number of Labour Members of the European Parliament and minimise the number of Tory MEPs. As attempts are being made to label my right hon. Friend a control freak—something that I have been told to say is completely alien to his nature—does it not strike him as bizarre that the unelected Chamber along the Corridor is trying to block his attempts to minimise the number of Labour MEPs who could be elected on a first-past-the-post system, thereby seeking to disperse power, authority and representation away from his Front Bench?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend makes an immensely persuasive case. Our proposal means that we would give away seats in the European elections next year. If the Conservatives wish to take us down another route, that is a matter for them. However, as my right hon. Friend implies, it is wrong for them to use hereditary Conservative peers to do so.

Q8. Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

On Monday, the Prime Minister told the City that he found economic stability sexy. Does he realise that British business would find him rather more sexy if he stopped flirting with Europe and made up his mind on the euro? When will the Prime Minister stop teasing British firms with his ifs and his buts, commit himself—and make a date?

The Prime Minister

I believe in a sustained period of wooing before relationships are entered into. What business wants above all is to know that the Government are going to hold to Bank of England independence and tight fiscal policy, making the additional investment in infrastructure, schools and hospitals next year.

In the past few weeks the Conservatives have provided the country with a simple choice. They would scrap Bank of England independence, they oppose our investment in schools and hospitals next year, they would scrap the working families tax credit and they would scrap the new deal. That is their decision. Business has a clear choice. And, of course, the Conservatives would rule out the euro for—is it two Parliaments or 10 years?

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


The Prime Minister

I cannot wait for the Euro-selection contests to begin in the Tory party.

There is a simple choice, and business knows it. It now has a clear choice between this Government, who are pursuing the right policies for long-term stability, and a Conservative party that would return us to boom and bust.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that his Government have brought in good working practice such as the minimum wage and the working time directive, and are also striving for ethical trade? Is he aware of the fair trade initiative, which ensures that people in other countries get a decent wage and decent working conditions as they produce the products for us to consume here? Does he welcome the fact that many people in my constituency, including societies, community groups, Churches, schools and even my researchers, have all decided to choose fair trade products?

The Prime Minister

The principles behind the fair trade initiative are admirable, although as a Government we must be careful not to do anything that would inhibit free trade. I agree 100 per cent. with my hon. Friend about the minimum wage. Again, that represents a clear difference between ourselves and the Conservative party. We believe in minimum standards in the workplace, and think them fully consistent with a competitive economy; whereas the Conservatives oppose minimum standards such as the minimum wage. Workers will go into the next election knowing that, if they vote Conservative, the minimum wage will be withdrawn from them.