HC Deb 21 April 1999 vol 329 cc898-905
Q1. [80322] Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 April.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. After completing my duties in the House, I shall leave for Washington. I have sent a message on behalf of Britain to the United States of America expressing our shock and sympathy in respect of the appalling tragedy of the murdered schoolchildren in Littleton, Colorado. I know that the whole House shares those sentiments.

Mr. Jack

I should like to associate myself with the Prime Minister's final words.

May I remind the Prime Minister that, in the House this time last week, there appeared to be great confusion on the Government Benches about what exactly a withholding tax is? Last Friday, the Economic and Finance Council failed to come to an agreement on that matter. In the light of the damage that the imposition of that wholly unnecessary tax could do to the eurobond market in the City, will the Prime Minister give the House an unequivocal assurance that the Chancellor will not accept any proposal to impose the tax on the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said exactly that at the ECOFIN meeting. We shall not hesitate to use our veto, if that is necessary. The great difference between this Government and the one of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member is that we manage to succeed in Europe.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

This Government's agreement to pay compensation to tens of thousands of miners and their families whose lives were ruined by crippling bronchitis and emphysema was both welcome and long overdue. However, will my right hon. Friend do all he can to speed up payments? The sad truth is that thousands of miners have lost their battle for life while being forced to wait 10 years to win their battle for justice.

The Prime Minister

I understand that we have already made some payments, but we are conscious of the fact that we need to speed up the payment system. We are giving urgent consideration to that matter and I hope that, within the next few weeks, we will be able to indicate exactly what we can do to ensure that the money gets to the people who have waited a very long time for it, in very difficult circumstances.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I entirely associate the Opposition with the message the Prime Minister has sent to the United States in respect of yesterday's appalling crime.

In the light of today's disturbing reports of ethnic cleansing inside Montenegro, and of attempts by Milosevic to gain control of the Montenegrin police, will the Prime Minister say what assurances NATO may have given to President Djukanovic and what action the allies might now take?

The Prime Minister

We have already indicated to Montenegro that we fully support its position and that we shall defend its position. It is correct that there are reports of ethnic cleansing in Montenegro, but the single best thing that we can do is to make sure that our action against Milosevic is successful, so that ethnic cleansing is stopped there and elsewhere.

Mr. Hague

There is widespread agreement throughout the House that, now that we have embarked on the action in Kosovo, it must succeed. Yesterday, on the question of the use of ground troops, the Foreign Secretary told the House: We have said from the start that we do not intend to fight our way into Kosovo. We cannot".—[Official Report, 20 April 1999; Vol. 329, c. 680.] May I ask the Prime Minister whether newspaper reports this morning are to be taken as indicating a change in the Government's thinking on that matter?

The Prime Minister

As I said yesterday, the difficulties of a land force invasion of Kosovo against an undegraded Serb military machine are formidable, as they have been throughout. I have also said in the House before, and I repeat now, that Milosevic does not have a veto on NATO action. All options are always kept under review, and that is sensible for us to do. The right hon. Gentleman began his question by saying that, now we have embarked on the action, it has to succeed, and I agree that it has to succeed. I would also say that we were right to embark upon it, for, if we had not done so, ethnic cleansing would have continued, ethnic cleansing would have succeeded, and there would have been no chance whatever of reversing it. It is only through NATO action that we shall defeat the policy of ethnic cleansing.

Mr. Hague

I have one final point about Kosovo. There is no doubt that the action is taking longer than was hoped initially and that the humanitarian problems are on a much greater scale than was anticipated. With many refugees seemingly on their way out of Kosovo and no immediate prospect of any of them returning to their homes, is it not necessary to prepare to look after them for many months, including into the autumn? That means the proper provision of health care, sanitation, education for children and so on. Will the Prime Minister discuss that matter in his talks in the United States over the next few days?

The Prime Minister

Of course we will. As for the humanitarian action, I pay public tribute to the extraordinary work of the British troops. Their ability to cater for some 600,000 refugees in the past few days is nothing short of a miracle. We continue with the action that we have set out for the reasons that we have stated. I think everybody now knows—it is one of the reasons why we tried so hard to reach a political agreement—that the action that NATO has taken provides the only chance that those people will ever have of returning to their homes. In spite of what some people think about it, the Kosovar Albanians and the refugees—even those who have been involved in some of the most difficult NATO actions—have one united thought: unless NATO succeeds, there is no hope for them.

Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that business people in my constituency and the Dudley and Sandwell chamber of commerce complain regularly about a shortage of skilled people, particularly engineers? Can my right hon. Friend assure me and firms in my constituency that the Government are not only aware of the problem but determined to do something about it?

The Prime Minister

Over the next few years, the number of apprenticeships will increase by 200,000 as a result of the Government's specific funding commitments. We have long passed the stage when we regarded apprenticeships as an old-fashioned idea. Modern manufacturing and service industries need highly skilled, highly trained people. That is why the Government are spending more money than ever before to ensure that people have the skills that they need in today's markets.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the Prime Minister note that the Liberal Democrats wish to be associated with the message that he has sent to the American people about the terrible school tragedy in their country? On Kosovo, given that there is almost zero chance of reaching a worthwhile agreement with President Milosevic, does the Prime Minister accept that ground troops may have to go in to secure peace in Kosovo when Serbian forces have been sufficiently weakened as a result of the air strikes?

The Prime Minister

I do not have anything to add to what I have already said about the difficulties that would face a land invasion force with an undegraded and undiminished Serbian military machine. I repeat what I said a couple of weeks ago in answer to a question from the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown): Milosevic cannot have a veto on NATO action.

Mr. Beith

Is the Prime Minister further aware that the leader of my party will carry the message that the right hon. Gentleman has given from the Dispatch Box about the determination of the refugees to see action continue so that they may eventually return to their homes in safety under international protection? In his discussions with the United States President, will the Prime Minister keep in mind the strong public support for the action taken so far and for the need to take further action to ensure that refugees are not left in their current position, leaving an unstable situation in neighbouring countries?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I believe that public opinion here and abroad is very clear on that point. People have seen what has happened to the refugees and they regard it as not just a tragedy, but an outrage. People realise that we have a strategic interest in ensuring stability in that region. However, there is also a clear humanitarian cause. As I said yesterday at NATO headquarters, that is a just cause that we will pursue until we have succeeded.

Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the visit to Westminster this week of a delegation of Russian parliamentarians, which was part of a bilateral exchange visit organised by Baroness Smith and the Future of Europe Trust. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Russia has a key role to play in seeking a lasting settlement in the Balkans? What recent contacts has he had with the Russian Government about the military conflict and the refugee crisis in Kosovo?

The Prime Minister

I welcome very much the Future of Europe Trust meeting, and I was glad to hear of this week's visit by the six Russian parliamentary delegates. I agree that Russia has a significant part to play in bringing the dispute to an end. Indeed, this morning I gave an interview on Russian television in which I said precisely that. It is important that we continue to give a message to Russia that the conflict has nothing to do with NATO wishing to extend its sphere of influence; on the contrary, it is a campaign against ethnic cleansing and racial genocide, such as that for which the Russian people stood up and fought so bravely in the second world war.

We have close and continuing contacts with the Russian Government and, as I said a couple of days ago, we are working on a package of economic measures to put to the G8 summit which specifically relate to Russia.

Q2. [80323] Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Why was it necessary for the Government to defame Mr. John Simpson last week?

The Prime Minister

We did not defame John Simpson last week. In my view of democracy, he is entirely able to present whatever reports he likes, and we are perfectly entitled to say that those reports are provided under the instruction and guidance of the Serbian authorities. That is the proper way to conduct democracy. John Simpson can say whatever he likes, and we are entitled to make whatever comments we like.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I fully support the attacks on military installations and other military provisions in Yugoslavia and realise that there will be unfortunate collateral damage, but do we not often get things the wrong way round? We seem to be attacking civilian targets and that is leading to only collateral damage for the military. Will action be taken to ensure that such activity does not take place in the future?

The Prime Minister

The allied effort makes every possible attempt to avoid any civilian damage. Indeed, the civilian convoy that was damaged was hit precisely because it was mistaken for one of the military convoys that have been moving around Kosovo. Milosevic mixes up civilian and military convoys, and people are being used as human shields. We do everything that we possibly can to avoid civilian damage.

I say to my hon. Friend that, in a conflict such as this, there will be damage to civilians. We regret that and take every step to avoid it, but let us never forget that the tragedy that happened to the people in the convoy occurred without NATO desiring it and was the result of an accident, while Milosevic is deliberately killing people and having his soldiers rape women and drive families out of their homes. Let us never forget also that he began the conflict and that we need no lessons from him in the humanitarian care of refugees.

Q3. [80324] Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

Meat is imported which is from animals fed on feedstuffs that are illegal in this country and kept in conditions that are illegal in this country, but no beef has yet been exported from this country. Does the Prime Minister recall that two months ago, when I asked him when the beef export ban was to be lifted, he told me that European Commission inspectors had been invited to examine our abattoirs? Panic ensued in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and at 5 o'clock the following day, the chief veterinary officer faxed an invitation to Brussels. Will the Prime Minister now tell the House on what date beef exports will resume? If he does not have a target date, will he tell us why not?

The Prime Minister

First, the hon. Gentleman's comments on the Ministry of Agriculture are complete nonsense. There have been discussions between the Minister of Agriculture and the European Commission for a long time. The main inspections have now taken place—other parts of the process have still to be undertaken—and as soon as we get clearance we shall be able to export beef. We shall be able to do that much sooner than would have been possible if the Government who brought us the bovine spongiform encephalopathy disaster were still in office. It is this Government who got the beef ban lifted. We will get exports sorted out as soon as we possibly can. As I say, it is we who have had to clear up the mess left us by the previous Conservative Government.

Q4. [80325] Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

Now that we have decided to produce 1,000 more medical students, is not the time right to start thinking about training a new type of doctor? For example, in the interests of breaking down professional barriers in the health service and of producing patient-friendly individuals, could not people be taught in the same lecture rooms—occupational therapists, doctors, physiotherapists and nurses? Also, could we not start thinking about places such as Norwich, which has three schools—a research park, a university and a new hospital—which could teach such a course?

Is not my right hon. Friend heartened by how fast we can break down Conservative organisations, when the deputy Leader of the Opposition is talking about public investment in services? What will happen next? Will the Conservatives be using the national health service and asking for the closure of private hospitals?

The Prime Minister

Of course it did not take that long for the Conservative health spokesman, who advocated extending private health care to take over the national health service—that has lasted about three days, which, in my experience, is quite a long-standing policy commitment for the Conservatives.

As for Norwich, it has done some ground-breaking work. I agree that it is right to try to break down some of the barriers in nursing and in the medical profession more generally. Of course, with the £21 billion extra investment that the Government are putting into the health service, we are going to recruit an extra 7,000 doctors by 2002.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

At a time when more and more regulations and red tape are making life difficult for business in this country, why have the Government been ignoring their own better regulation task force?

The Prime Minister

It is this Government who set up the better regulation task force, and I can give the right hon. Gentleman some figures. In the first two years of this Government, we put through less regulation than the previous Conservative Government did in their last two years.

Mr. Hague

In that case, why is the Prime Minister ignoring his own task force? That was not a very straight answer, although I suppose that after last week's performance, we should be grateful that it was at least on the same subject. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] I do not know where the Deputy Prime Minister is; he is probably being briefed for Prime Minister's questions next Easter.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the leading business man who said: We were consulted on the Working Time laws, but our advice was ignored … It's all a bit of a dog's dinner", is not only the chairman of his better regulation task force, but his own business guru, Lord Haskins? Will he now revisit these regulations and reverse the Government's policy?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely because we have appointed Lord Haskins as chairman of the better regulation task force that we are in a position to consider the views that he has put forward. As for deputy leaders, I would rather have my deputy leader than the right hon. Gentleman's.

Hon. Members

Where is he?

Mr. Hague

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) is over there—at least he knows what subject he is talking about at each time of the day.

Is not it the truth that, in addition to the dog's dinners already introduced, and on which he is ignoring his own better regulation task force, the Prime Minister is about to flood small businesses with more regulations, from compulsory union recognition to the new food tax which will hit every corner shop in the land, and hit it unfairly? Is it not time that he called a halt to the production line of red tape and cut red tape as he promised he would?

The Prime Minister

I noticed an interesting omission from that list of regulations—the minimum wage. Are the Conservatives now in favour of it? The right hon. Gentleman's question would have had a lot more point to it had he taken on board the comment that I made in my first answer to him. We have put through less regulation in our first two years than the previous Government did in their last two years—and after all, he was a member of the Government then.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North)

May I join the rest of the House in sending my condolences to the people of Denver, Colorado, after the horrific incident that they suffered yesterday? Given that this country suffered a similar incident in Dunblane in Scotland not so long ago, will my right hon. Friend reiterate how important it was to ban handguns after that incident?

The Prime Minister

Because of Dunblane, the events of Littleton, Colorado are bound to evoke many special memories and emotions for people in this country. We were right to take the position that we took on handguns. The laws of the United States are a matter for that country. I strongly agree with the sentiments expressed by President Clinton last night, for it is important that we teach children properly about these matters in the classroom. I know that my hon. Friend and her constituents will look back on the tragedy of Dunblane, from which they are still recovering, and recognise how much better our future is as a result of the action that we have taken.

Q5. [80326] Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Like many hon. Members, over the past two or three weeks I have met representatives of many of the transport and haulage companies in my constituency, which are deeply concerned about their future and their competitiveness. Can the Prime Minister tell the House why his Government introduced in the Budget a massive increase in diesel tax of 11.6 per cent? As a result of that, and to try to ensure competitiveness, will he take on board the Conservative proposal that a levy should be introduced on drivers coming from the continent who wish to use United Kingdom roads, as is the case for our drivers when they go to the continent? Failing that, will he consider an essential user rebate for our haulage companies?

The Prime Minister

First of all, let us get the facts right. I repeat that the fuel duty escalator was introduced by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported, at least periodically. Secondly, the diesel price at the pump has gone up less under this Government—7p since we came to office—than it did in the last two years of his Government, when it went up by almost 10p. As for the Conservative idea that I believe goes under the name of vignette or Brit disc, which is the proposal to impose a levy on lorries, we shall examine it, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made clear. Let me explain to the House the inhibition on that proposal. The previous Conservative Government agreed a European directive limiting the amount of any such levy, so their current proposal is against the European law to which they agreed.

Q6. [80327] Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Would my right hon. Friend give a little advice to a company in my constituency, Tillery Valley Foods, which refuses to recognise the trade unions, even though the majority of the work force are already members of a trade union, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation? Will he explain to the House how we will ever introduce partnership into industry, for which he has been pressing, when one of the partners, the employers, ignore or treat with contempt the other partner in industry, the trade unions?

The Prime Minister

I shall not comment on the particular case in my hon. Friend's constituency. However, we have introduced legislation precisely to give people the basic right to be part of a trade union and, where a majority of the work force wants it, to have that union represent them. The legislation is fair and just, and gives effect not to the powers of trade unions, but to the rights and wishes of ordinary trade union members.

Q7. [80328] Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

Will the Prime Minister condemn the visit to Serbia last weekend by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) in the company of Mr. Paul Routledge of The Mirror? Does he agree that any hon. Member making such a visit runs a real risk of becoming the toast of Belgrade?

The Prime Minister

I shall say exactly what I think: that is a matter for my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon)—[Interruption.] Well, just a moment or two ago, somebody was getting on to me about whether we were attacking John Simpson. People have different views on this conflict. One of the things that we are fighting for is the right for people to have different views, whether in Serbia or here. Obviously, I do not agree with what my hon. Friend has said or done, but she has the right to do it, and we should defend that right.