HC Deb 28 October 1998 vol 318 cc328-38
Q1. Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 28 October.

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.

Mr. Flight

I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that a common European Union withholding tax would be disastrous for employment and for the earnings of the City of London. Will he agree to use our veto if necessary to stop that happening?

The Prime Minister

We will certainly use our veto to stop any measure that will harm the City of London. I have to say that not all measures that we agree with our European partners would do that, but if any measure did do that, we would certainly not hesitate to use our veto.

Q2. Mr. Alan Johnson (Hull, West and Hessle)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that in the House last night the Conservative Opposition attempted to prevent British workers from being protected by basic minimum standards for hours of work, rest breaks and paid holidays. Will he assure me that the Government will continue to promote fairness in the workplace, thus ensuring that the Conservative party, which opposes the minimum wage and minimum standards, will remain a very minimum party?

The Prime Minister

We will certainly introduce the minimum wage. We believe that the Opposition's calls for the minimum wage to be cancelled next year are wrong and do nothing for people on very low incomes, for their families or for the economy. We believe that basic, fair, decent standards in the workplace are fully compatible with an effective and dynamic economy.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The Prime Minister committed himself at the election to a referendum on the voting system in this Parliament. Is he still committed to it?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that we will state our position when the Jenkins commission reports tomorrow.

Mr. Hague

What is wrong with answering a question in this House yes or no? Does not the Prime Minister's answer reveal that he has got himself into something that he does not know how to get out of? He now has the Foreign Secretary, wherever he is, passionately in favour of proportional representation, the Leader of the House passionately against it, and himself passionately concerned to avoid answering the question, not knowing whether to betray the Liberal party or the Labour party. He has got himself into an indecisive position, like the late—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister has become as indecisive as the late Lord Wilson, who also had a faithful dog called Paddy, although not on this particular subject. On 11 February 1997, he said in the Financial Times: We have made it clear all the way through that we are committed to a referendum and we are committed to it as part of our programme for the next Parliament". Does that apply—yes or no?

The Prime Minister

As indeed I said a few days ago, we have always envisaged holding a referendum this Parliament, but we have also said that we shall wait for the Jenkins commission, to see what precise system of voting change it proposes. I should have thought that it was sensible to wait for the Jenkins commission to report before stating a view on it.

Mr. Hague

How is it that a commitment in the Labour party manifesto depends on the writings of the former leader of the Social Democratic party; and that the Prime Minister now envisages keeping a promise, but will wait to see whether he is going to do so? [Interruption.] Even he is laughing at the silliness of his own answers.

Is it not time the right hon. Gentleman stopped blundering into constitutional upheavals without knowing what they will lead to, and are there not higher priorities for the Government, with jobs being lost every day and with hospitals facing a crisis this winter? These are the real people's priorities. Should he not be dealing with them instead of trying to gerrymander a system that has served our country well?

The Prime Minister

First, we have made it clear that it is sensible to wait for the Jenkins commission to report, because obviously, the system that Lord Jenkins proposes will be relevant in determining the position of the Government and the referendum.

As for the people's priorities, since the Government came to power we have reduced the unemployment that we inherited from the Conservatives. There are now 400,000 extra jobs, and 100,000 children are being taught in classes whose size has been reduced since the Conservatives were in government. Under the present Government, after years of lengthening waiting lists, waiting lists are shortening. Under the Labour Government, thanks to the new deal, 140,000 young people are off the dole. That shows this Government addressing the mess inherited from the Conservative Government.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the women in Stourbridge on taking a stand against domestic violence and joining the NSPCC and the police locally tomorrow, at a meeting, to bring attention to the appalling reality of violence in the home? One in 10 women suffered violence in the home last year, and one in four have done so at some time in their lives. Is my right hon. Friend aware that—even worse—in 70 per cent. of cases where the woman was abused, the child was also abused; and that, in 90 per cent. of cases where the woman was abused, the child was in the room or next door? This cannot go on.

The Prime Minister

Yes, domestic violence has been a problem that has probably been going on for a long period, but we are more aware of it today than ever before. I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the police are taking it far more seriously now, and will produce, over the next few months, a plan to try to reduce domestic violence and help its victims.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that loss of life on a substantial scale, starting with children and the elderly, is now only weeks away in Kosovo? [HON. MEMBERS: "Not again."] I am amazed to hear that from the Conservative Benches. Of course it is right that President Milosevic should have responded to the credible threat of the use of force, and that NATO should now preserve that on a hair-trigger. Should not our urgent attention now turn to the pitiful plight of the refugees who are suffering as a result of President Milosevic's brutality? Is not the scale and urgency of the international effort nowhere near what is necessary to preserve them and prevent a catastrophe yet to come?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is still an awful lot more to do. We have provided £1 million to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for co-ordination and shelter for the people who have been displaced. We have also given extra money to a range of non-governmental organisations. In addition, we are sending our own assessment team to ensure that supplies get to the people who need them.

A few weeks ago there were 50,000 people living outside. That has now been reduced to 10,000, so we are making progress; but I agree that we have to keep the activation order in being so that we can take action at any time if it looks as though Milosevic is not going to comply with the agreement into which he has entered. If he does not comply, we shall remain of the view that we must act, if necessary by military force.

Mr. Ashdown

The fact that the people are coming out of the forest does not mean that their lives will be saved. They are moving to appalling disease, overcrowding and, in many cases, homes that have no roofs and food that has been wasted and exhausted in the past few months. Britain has taken the lead in pressing for stronger action in Kosovo.

Will the Prime Minister now give us an undertaking that Britain will take the lead in pressing for the resources and urgency necessary to resolve the humanitarian problem? In particular, as we have used NATO aircraft to such good effect to persuade President Milosevic to comply, could we not use NATO aircraft to ship in the resources and materials necessary to ensure that those who have suffered from his brutality are able to survive the coming winter?

The Prime Minister

I certainly can give an undertaking that we shall do whatever we can. I am advised at the moment that we do not think that the delivery of humanitarian assistance would be helped by the use of NATO planes, but I understand that additional measures are being taken to try to ensure that daily relief convoys reach the parts of the country that they are currently not reaching. We shall keep the situation closely monitored.

The 40,000 who have come in from the outside have not just been left. They are being provided with the medical and food assistance that they need, but there is an awful lot more to do. I understand that, and we shall keep up the pressure all the way. It is a pity that we did not show the same international will that we are showing now six months ago, when this could have been dealt with far more easily and when we could have managed to get together exactly the right type of international co-operation that we needed. This country was taking a lead throughout that time.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the disturbing report in today's issue of The Journal of Newcastle, using figures compiled by the Northern Development Company, that we are losing five manufacturing jobs in the northern region for every one being created? I therefore welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend has forced the issue of jobs and growth to the top of the European agenda, but I urge him to go further and please his friends in the north by working with the French and the Germans to forge a consensus around new Keynesian economic and financial policies.

The Prime Minister

We should do what is sensible for the long-term strength of the economy. There are three essential elements to the economic policy that we have outlined, which I believe to be in the interests of the north as well as of the rest of the country. The first is an end to the disastrous boom and bust of the Conservatives. Interest rates at 15 per cent. for a year or more and manufacturing output falling by 7 per cent. —that is the Conservative record. The first thing is to end that boom and bust by the new fiscal and monetary rules.

The second thing is the new investment that we need, particularly in education, skills and technology—the Conservatives are opposed to it—because that investment raises productivity. The third thing, which has been of particular value in the north-east, is the new deal, which tackles social exclusion. All those measures are opposed by the Conservatives; all of them are in the interests of the north-east economy. We shall have difficult times, but we shall be in a better position to weather those difficult times if we take the right decisions for the long-term strength of the economy.

Q3. Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that nobody still requiring medical treatment has been taken off national health service waiting lists?

The Prime Minister

People who are on national health service waiting lists and require medical treatment are dealt with in the normal way. I am not aware of any change at all to that practice.

Q4. Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to tell my constituents who live around Wembley stadium about his discussions with the president of FIFA earlier this week? Will he assure us that Mr. Blatter did not leave these shores without being fully aware that England, in its bid to stage the world cup, has some of finest club grounds anywhere in Europe, and that Wembley stadium will be the finest new national stadium anywhere in the world?

Will the Prime Minister confirm that our Government will do everything in their power to ensure that not only the national stadium but all the transport infrastructure necessary for people to get there safely and securely are ready on time, in order that nothing stops football coming home in 2006?

The Prime Minister

Yes. There is a £300 million redevelopment project at Wembley. Wembley will be the finest stadium anywhere in the world. Mr. Blatter made it clear that, although he obviously recognised the strong case for an African country hosting the 2006 world cup, given the right facilities and infrastructure to do so, he also recognised England's very powerful case—with the finest stadiums in the world, massive new investment going into those stadiums and, as he pointed out, England of course being the motherland of football.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Since last week's Question Time, Ernst and Young has predicted that 500,000 manufacturing jobs will be lost in the next two years and the CBI has said that business optimism is at its lowest for 18 years. Does the Prime Minister still think, "Crisis, what crisis?"

The Prime Minister

I still think, as I said last week, that what is important is to get the issue in balance. Third quarter growth figures just reported show an annual rate of growth of 2.5 per cent. Since this Government came to power, 400,000 net new jobs have been created.

I agree that there will be a slowdown. I agree, too, that we are inevitably affected by what is happening around the world. I should point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union have all downgraded their growth forecasts for next year. We will be affected by that. The best way of getting through that difficulty is to hold firm to strong fiscal and monetary rules and the additional investment in education and our public services—not to cancel Bank of England independence or that investment, which is his policy; that would simply lead us back to boom and bust.

Mr. Hague

Well, I am glad that the Prime Minister has begun to realise that there is a problem. Business optimism may be at an all-time low, but Government complacency has so far hit an all-time high. A job is being lost every 10 minutes, and the Prime Minister has been inventing a new excuse every two minutes. The CBI has called for a cut in interest rates. We have called for a cut in interest rates. Even the Chief Secretary has been calling for a cut in interest rates. Will the Prime Minister instruct the Chancellor to announce when he comes to the House next week a change in policy sufficient for the Bank of England to cut interest rates by a full 1 per cent.?

The Prime Minister

I assume that we just heard the right hon. Gentleman's policy announcement that he wants us to scrap Bank of England independence. Half the Conservative Members are nodding their heads and the other half shaking them. As I told the right hon. Gentleman last week, and as I repeat today, all international institutions have downgraded their growth forecasts. However, as I also told him last week, a net 400,000 additional jobs have been created. His alternative, cancelling investment in schools and hospitals next year and cancelling Bank of England independence, would be a disaster for the British economy. When his policies were last implemented, interest rates were at 15 per cent. for a year or more and our schools and hospitals did not have the investment that they needed. That may be the right hon. Gentleman's policy to weather these difficulties; it is not ours.

Mr. Hague

Businesses in this country need a change of policy from the Government, not a history lesson from the Prime Minister. I can tell the Prime Minister that there is a serious problem out there, the economy is heading in the wrong direction, and the Government now have limited time to do something about it. Will he now put in place the conditions for lower interest rates, and does he realise that unless he does so he will have been fiddling with the voting system while jobs burn?

The Prime Minister

First, may I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that interest rates are coming down? Secondly, with the coming slowdown and the world economic situation that I have described to him, our choice is to adopt either the policies that we have adopted or the policies that he advocates. The question therefore is: is scrapping Bank of England independence the right thing for the economy? We say no. We do not have a policy from the Conservatives—or rather, we hear two inconsistent policies at the same time from them.

We believe that in the circumstances that I have described, it is sensible to put extra investment into our schools, our transport, law and order and the health service. What is the right hon. Gentleman's policy? As far as we can find out from his shadow Chancellor, it is to cancel that spending. That is wrong. The third part of our policy is to keep in place the new deal, which is giving young and long-term unemployed people the chance to get into work. The right hon. Gentleman's policy is to cancel that.

Those are the choices. Are those policies—Bank of England independence, strong fiscal and monetary rules, extra investment in our schools and hospitals, and the new deal for the unemployed—the right ones? We say that they are—and we still have not had an answer out of the right hon. Gentleman as to what he proposes.

Q5. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government remain fully committed to the introduction of the working families tax credit, and that such a policy, alongside the national minimum wage, is crucial to the low-paid in constituencies such as mine? Does my right hon. Friend not find it incredible that at Question Time on Monday last week, the shadow Secretary of State for Social Security advocated cutting that tax credit before we have even introduced it?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend has, of course, rightly corrected me. I said that the Opposition had not said what their policies were, but they have made one very specific policy commitment. They have said that their answer to the economic crisis—the Leader of the Opposition looks puzzled; he should check on what his shadow Ministers are saying. The Opposition have now said that they would cancel the working families tax credit.

The vast bulk of that would be family credit for 800,000 families. Working families tax credit will mean that from next October, low-income families, if there is anybody working in the family, will have a minimum income of £180 per week, and they will be able to have an income of £220 per week before paying tax. For some of the poorest income-earning families that will be a £23 a week incentive to get into work. The Conservatives are saying that we should cancel that.

What possible response is it to any economic difficulties to say that the price has to be paid by low-income families who need help to get back into work? Since the right hon. Gentleman has not used up his quota of questions, he should get up and tell us whether he stands by his shadow Minister, or whether he disagrees with him.

Q6. Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe)

Is the Prime Minister aware that when General Pinochet handed over to the democratic government of President Aylwin, the Chilean people decided to draw a line under their turbulent past? Does he understand that the crass way in which the British Government have handled Mr. Pinochet's latest visit to this country is threatening democratic stability in Chile and damaging British interests?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman's question is based on a misunderstanding of what has happened. The judicial process has not involved the Government issuing warrants for arrest. That is done by the Spanish authorities through Interpol to the British magistrates, who take it from there. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's question is misjudged and wrong.

Q7. Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at the end of this month, the BBC—through its agent, Television Licensing—will withdraw from hundreds of pensioners in Dundee their entitlement to concessionary television licences because, it says, they no longer qualify following changes to the local council's house letting policy? Does he agree that the question of who is to blame for this matters not at all when set against the disgraceful reality that frail and elderly pensioners—who have done nothing wrong—are now facing a surcharge of £96 which they cannot afford and which they should not be asked to pay?

Will my right hon. Friend use his influence with the BBC to ensure that all existing concessions are preserved; more importantly, will he instruct my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to initiate an immediate review of the dog's breakfast of concessionary television licences so that some sanity and justice for the pensioners can at last be brought to bear on another mess that we inherited from the Tories?

The Prime Minister

I know that my hon. Friend has particular concerns about the way in which the scheme is operating for some of his constituents in Dundee. All Members of Parliament know that the way the concessionary scheme operates is an aching and continual grievance that pensioners feel. It is for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has recently announced that the scheme—including the concessionary television licence—will be reviewed next year by an independent review panel. That will report by the end of July 1999, when we will consult on the proposals and on how the scheme can be improved.

We need to be aware that in proposing changes to the concessionary licence scheme, people will never want to lose money through it; and that if everyone gained the same amount, it could be very expensive. That is why the system needs to be looked at as a whole, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced.

Q8. Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford)

What contacts has the Prime Minister had with Lord Jenkins to discuss the recommendations of his commission for fiddling the voting system?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept in any way what the hon. Gentleman says. I have discussions with Lord Jenkins, as I have with lots of people. However, most people think that it is entirely sensible to proceed as we are so that we can get a proper report on an alternative to the present system, which people can then discuss. If the Conservatives do not want to be a part of the debate, that is up to them. They opted out of the constitutional debate on Scotland and Wales, but were then forced to accept it. They have opted out of the debate on the House of Lords now. They are wrong—it is sensible to have the debate.

Q9. Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it remains the intention of the Government to introduce a Food Standards Agency, despite the rumours and speculations emanating from so-called informed sources?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can certainly confirm that. The establishment of a Food Standards Agency is a commitment by the Government which we intend to honour and carry out. My hon. Friend will know that we must put our legislative programme together taking account of all the various issues. However, we remain committed to doing it as quickly as possible. We all know the reason why we are having to set up an independent Food Standards Agency: because the party of BSE and E. coli never took the decisions necessary—but we will.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Last month, unemployment—according to the statistics used by the previous Government—rose. [Interruption.] Went down, rather. However, according to the figures that the Government now use, unemployment increased. Which one is right?

The Prime Minister

That question was muddled from beginning to end. On the International Labour Organisation count, there was a marginal increase; on the benefit count, there was a decrease. Since we came to office, there has been a substantial decrease. All I am telling the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues about unemployment is that it is important to get it in balance. New jobs are still being created the whole time. Faced with the world economic downgrading of forecasts of growth, the economic financial crisis and the slow down, the question is: what are the right policies? We believe for example that cancelling the new deal would have a disastrous effect on unemployment.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

You have said that four times.

The Prime Minister

That is because at some point I hope to get a response from the Opposition and to find out whether they are in favour. I agree that there should be an economic debate and argument, but the Conservative party would be in a better position to conduct that debate and argument if it had some serious policy position of its own; it does not.

Q10. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the proposal of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to call a meeting in Barnsley on 10 November to discuss the distribution of lottery funds in the former coalmining areas? Records show that we have lost out considerably as regards those funds. The meeting is welcome, but it must be meaningful. Will he impress on the Secretary of State the fact that, following the loss of culture and sporting facilities and of jobs and job opportunities, there is every justification for the miners and mining communities requesting that meeting; and will he give it his blessing?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I am delighted that the meeting is taking place; of course, it was organised by the Government. My hon. Friend will know that the coalfields task force, which the Government established, said in its report in June that an increased share of lottery proceeds had a significant party to play in helping to regenerate the coalfield areas. Obviously, we will do what we can to ensure that any lottery moneys that come into those areas help to regenerate them. New deal money, too, will help by giving retraining and re-skilling opportunities to many of those people who have lost their jobs to industrial restructuring. That is an important part of the Government's programme which, as ever, is opposed by the Opposition.