HC Deb 28 April 1999 vol 330 cc333-42
Q1. Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

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

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.

Ms Drown

In the light of the recent bombings in Brixton and the east end, will my right hon. Friend send a clear message from the House that this country is proud of its multicultural communities, and values the huge contribution made by members of ethnic minorities to business, culture, and much more? Will my right hon. Friend also assure the House, first, that the Government will do all that they can to protect the communities that are threatened by these vicious right-wing groups, and, secondly, that they are determined to fight the racism from which the violence flows?

The Prime Minister

The attacks have been attacks not just on the Afro-Caribbean and Bangladeshi communities; we regard them as attacks on the whole of British society. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We are resolved, and I believe that the British people are resolved, to show utter determination in defeating the scourge of racism.

Let me say two more things. First, I congratulate the police on pursuing their investigations with the utmost vigour. Secondly, we can be proud of the way in which the communities in Brixton and Tower Hamlets—whatever their background—have come together to condemn these outrages, and to give the police every assistance.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I entirely agree with what has been said by the Prime Minister and by the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown). I went to Brick lane on Monday, and what the Prime Minister said is absolutely correct.

May I reiterate the Opposition's support for the NATO action in Kosovo? Does the Prime Minister agree that, although it is deeply distressing when civilians are hurt and killed—as has happened again—President Milosevic must not think that those tragic consequences will weaken our resolve in the House of Commons to ensure that the NATO action succeeds? Will he comment on this morning's reports that there are difficulties over the implementation of an oil embargo, particularly the legal basis for it? Does he agree that the rules of engagement, and their basis, must be absolutely clear?

The Prime Minister

I certainly agree with the latter point. Of course the rules of engagement must be legally clear: that is why NATO is currently studying the best way in which to implement the embargo. Let me point out, however, that the European Union has agreed an oil embargo, and that the European Union associates—which include Serbia's neighbours, and countries such as Cyprus—are already associating themselves with it. The United States, contrary to some reports, is implementing a comprehensive trade ban that includes oil. We in this country will do all that we can to ensure that the economic sanctions imposed on Serbia are effective, and that no oil gets through to the Serbian military.

As for the events that occurred overnight, we take every single precaution that we possibly and reasonably can to prevent civilian casualties. We deeply regret them when they occur; but they are not the only tale of casualties overnight. There are also the 200 Kosovar Albanian men who were massacred in a village near Djakovica, adding to earlier reports of the previous killing of some 470 men in the same place.

The difference, quite simply, is this. Whenever there are civilian casualties as a result of allied bombs, they are by error. We regret them, and we take precautions to avoid them. The people whom the Serb paramilitaries are killing are killed deliberately. That is the difference between us and them.

We must carry on with this action, utterly united, utterly resolved to see it through to a successful conclusion.

Mr. Hague

While I agree with the Prime Minister's last point, some concerns have been expressed that an oil embargo would be legal under international law only if it were introduced on an essentially voluntary basis, and that, if it is only voluntary, it will not be effective. There are reports that many countries have agreed to an embargo—the Prime Minister has just reiterated that—but that Russia has not agreed to it, and that it may be easy to get round it. How effective will it be if it is not a complete embargo?

The Prime Minister

The simple answer is that it will be as effective as we can possibly make it, consistent with proper rules of engagement and international law. I should point out to those who raise Russia specifically that the sea is not the only route for oil into Serbia, and that Russia is not the only or even the main supplier. Therefore, there is a very great deal more that we can do. We have some experience of enforcing these types of embargoes in different parts of the world, and I believe that that experience will be well used in this case.

Mr. Hague

Finally on Kosovo, on the question of ground troops, last week, Government sources said that NATO would not consider the option of a ground operation for another four to five weeks. Yet is it not the case that the length of time required to assemble and deploy troops, and then to allow the refugees to return before the winter, means that any decision on the use of ground troops would have to be made in the very near future—in the next couple of weeks? Therefore, is it not true that, if we want to take up that option, time is running out?

The Prime Minister

It is certainly right that time is a factor; but it is for precisely that reason that NATO charged the Secretary-General of NATO and NATO planners with reviewing and updating all assessments and all options. That is what we agreed at the NATO summit, and that is what is now being done.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

Will the Prime Minister congratulate our young United Kingdom chess players, who have won so many world titles and records recently? Does he agree that the best way of making the United Kingdom the top chess nation in the world is to recognise chess as a sport, and to end the discrimination of United Kingdom chess players, who suffer from lack of training facilities, lack of finance and very little organisation of chess games in schools? Is it not time that we joined the 100-plus nations of the world that already recognise chess as a sport and fund it accordingly?

The Prime Minister

It is at a moment like this that I look along the Front Bench in search of inspiration, but do not find any. [Interruption.] Yes, I have just located the inspiration, but, unfortunately, she is rather far away from me. My hon. Friend's comments sound thoroughly persuasive. Perhaps the safest thing for me to say is that I shall make further inquiries and write to her.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Given that, for the first half of this Parliament, Labour adopted the Conservatives' spending plans, and that, for the second half of this Parliament, the Conservatives intend to adopt Labour's spending plans, would not voters in next week's elections be justified in concluding that, when it comes to delivery of public services, there ain't much difference between them?

The Prime Minister

I agree that the Liberal Democrats have certainly been consistent throughout: they have consistently said that they will spend more money, and more money, and more money. What they have not ever done consistently is say how all those bills are to be paid. The idea that they will all be paid with that 1 p on income tax—which, as I understand it, is not even Liberal policy any more—is nonsense. I suggest that people should vote for the party that has managed to get mortgage rates to their lowest level for more than 30 years, that has sorted out public finances, and that is now making the biggest ever investment into schools and hospitals.

Mr. Ashdown

The record actually shows that we were the only party at the general election to publish a fully costed manifesto. [Interruption.] That is absolutely correct; and, unlike Labour in opposition, we have always done so. Let us come now to the delivery — because the Prime Minister often tells us that it is not about inputs, but about outputs. Does not the record show that the right hon. Gentleman promised to make class sizes smaller, but that, for the majority of children, class sizes have become larger? He promised to bring down waiting lists, but waiting times are now at record levels. He promised to put more police on the beat, but the Government have cut the number of police in Britain. Does the Prime Minister really think that two years ago Britain voted to kick out the Tories in order to make our public services worse?

The Prime Minister

If I can just correct the right hon. Gentleman: first, we have reduced class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. There now are 130,000 pupils in classes of under 30 who would not have been otherwise and, for the first time, class sizes in primary schools are actually falling. We have reduced waiting lists and the right hon. Gentleman is wrong about waiting times, which we have also reduced.

As for the Liberal Democrats' costed spending plans, first, they can cost them in the certain knowledge that they will never have to carry them out. Secondly, they advocated spending less money than we are spending under our comprehensive spending review, so I suggest that people stick with their first instincts and vote Labour.

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West)

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Home Office staff and the staff of Leeds city council on organising the smooth transfer and accommodation of Kosovan refugees in my constituency? Is it not an example that might be followed elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in making the arrangements work and thank the people of Leeds-Bradford and the surrounding area for the magnificent way in which they have welcomed the refugees from Kosovo. That is in the very best British tradition. We will certainly be taking further refugees from Kosovo. We also are probably doing as much if not more than any other nation out there in Macedonia and Albania to make sure that the refugees are looked after properly.

Q2. Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Does the Prime Minister recall my letter of 18 March concerning the proposed closure of the Thorn Lighting plant in Hereford with the loss of some 348 jobs and the transfer of some of the production to the Spennymoor plant in his constituency? Given that the local authority, the chamber of commerce and the trade unions are in talks with management trying to save the Hereford plant, and given that Spennymoor gets some Government grants that the Hereford plant does not receive, will the Prime Minister ensure that there is a level playing field for both factories?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I do recall the hon. Gentleman's letter of 18 March. Of course, any proposed closure is distressing, but it is of course a decision for the company. I understand that members of the local task force are due to meet my hon. Friend the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry in the next few weeks. The chambers of commerce, the training and enterprise council and the Employment Service are ready to help, so I hope that they can be of assistance to the hon. Gentleman's constituents. Although I recognise that it is no consolation to those whose jobs are under threat, it is worth acknowledging that unemployment in the hon. Gentleman's constituency has fallen by some 14 per cent. in the past year. We very much hope that we can help those who face redundancy and do everything that we can to assist them over the coming weeks.

Q3. Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

Further to the earlier exchange on Serbia, does the Prime Minister agree that the welcome signs of division within the Serbian regime are indeed a direct result of the solidarity shown at the recent NATO summit? Will he assure me and the House that he will do everything possible to ensure that the strength of NATO is maintained with the simple humanitarian objective of allowing the refugees to return and rebuild their lives?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the divisions now appearing in the Belgrade regime. It was Mr. Draskovic who said to his own people, only a couple of days ago, that his fellow leaders were simply lying: Lying to the people that any day now we are going to prevail over NATO, that NATO is about to collapse, and that Russia is on the verge of starting World War 3. But NATO has never been stronger and more homogenous". I believe that that is a result of the NATO summit. What is important is that we demonstrate complete determination and resolve that we shall not rest until NATO's objectives are met, and until an international military force goes into Kosovo and allows those people to return to their homes in peace.

Q4. Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Will the Prime Minister guarantee that before he holds another referendum he will implement the recommendations of the Neill Committee on the fair conduct of referendums?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman may know, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is due to publish a draft Bill on this matter shortly, but I point out to him that it was the Labour party that asked the Neill Committee specifically to look at these issues, after the previous Conservative Government refused to allow that. It will be our particular pride to introduce those recommendations.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, although the House and the whole world is united in horror at and opposition to the ethnic cleansing and brutality by Milosevic in Kosovo, the indiscriminate destruction of the infrastructure of Yugoslavia and the killing of innocent citizens—many of whom have been long opposed to President Milosevic—does nothing in the short run to help the refugees, and that in the view of many people, including me, that destruction and killing amount to a war crime in themselves?

The Prime Minister

I simply disagree with my right hon. Friend, for the reasons that I gave earlier. However, he prefaced his remarks by saying that whole world condemned the ethnic cleansing going on in Kosovo. I simply ask my right hon. Friend what, in those circumstances, does NATO do? Do we stand by and let it happen, or do we act?

Mr. Benn

Use the United Nations.

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend shouts to me that we should use the United Nations. We know the reasons why the United Nations would not have given us the ability to act. Either we acted, or we stood aside and let the horror continue.

I received a letter today from the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter). It concerned a meeting that he attended with two women—Dr. Dobruna and Professor Kelmendi—just a few days ago. I shall read a section of that letter to my right hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman said that the women told the meeting that although immediate events are obviously paramount, they mentioned that even by February of this year, 45 per cent. of Kosovan villages had been destroyed, and that documentary evidence exists to support this. I ask my right hon. Friend also to look at the statements that were made on behalf of NATO and the allied forces today, which list just some of the appalling atrocities that have been carried out by the Serb forces. My right hon. Friend should read some of the accounts from the refugees, who include young women who have been raped and abused so badly that they will never now be able to have children. Is my right hon. Friend saying that we should stand aside and let that happen, in Europe? That would be the ultimate moral outrage.

Q5. Dr. Michael Clark (Rayleigh)

Is it not true that, even though Scotland will have its own Parliament, English taxpayers' money will continue to go north of the border, that Scottish Members of Parliament will continue to come to Westminster to vote on English matters, and that one third of the Cabinet will be Scots? Can the Prime Minister sympathise with English people who want independence from Scotland? Can he support our slogan, "No representation without taxation"?

The Prime Minister

I had not thought that that was the policy of the Conservative party—although one can never be sure nowadays, as it tends to change quite quickly. However, I say to English nationalists what I say to Scottish nationalists: England and Scotland are stronger and better off together.

Q6. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

In bombing Yugoslavia, what distinction is made between bombing acceptable military targets and unacceptable civilian targets, and why are factories, bridges and televisions stations included in the first category rather than the second? Surely some distinction must be made between the two.

The Prime Minister

First, and by way of example, the bridges are used to transport Serb militia and troops, and they are a vital part of keeping Milosevic's war machine going. Secondly, as I have said already, the difference is that we do all that we can to avoid civilian casualties. The casualties inflicted by Milosevic are deliberate.

We cannot yet know how many people Milosevic has butchered in Kosovo, but I warn the House that the number will be very considerable. Day after day after day we hear from refugees tales of the residents of whole villages being rounded up and shot and of hundreds of young men being taken away never to be seen again. We must recognise that the only chance the refugees who have managed to escape will ever have will come if NATO continues its action and is successful. The best and most eloquent advocates for NATO action are the refugees themselves.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

In the light of accumulating evidence about the environmental risks of genetically modified crops, mounting public anxiety and statements during the past 24 hours by Tesco and Unilever, does the Prime Minister still reject the idea that it would be sensible to ban those crops until research into them has been completed?

The Prime Minister

We are making sure that no crops or foods are available until they have been properly and rigorously tested. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that there is concern about the subject. However, a representative of Tesco, which he mentioned and which has said that it will withdraw GM foods, said on the radio this morning: It has absolutely nothing to do with safety or concerns about safety at all. We're well satisfied that the products we market have been exhaustively tested with regard to their human and environmental safety. It is absolutely right that Tesco should take its own commercial decision. I have made clear the Government's position on GM foods, and we do not intend to change it.

Mr. Hague

Will the Prime Minister confirm that a day after the last time we discussed this matter on the Floor of the House, when he said that it was necessary to proceed on the basis of the best scientific evidence, English Nature, the Government body that advises him on these matters, wrote to him? The letter said: It is important that English Nature can be in a position to reassure the public that the technology is environmentally safe, with decisions being made on the basis of good … science. We cannot assure the public about this currently. This month, new evidence has emerged from scientists that pollen from GM crops could spread more quickly than was previously thought. Why will the right hon. Gentleman not see common sense? Is the case not overwhelming for a ban on these crops until we have completed research?

The Prime Minister

Until research is completed, none of these crops can be made available. What the right hon. Gentleman asks for is already Government policy. He is trying to elide English Nature's concerns about biodiversity with food safety scares, and that is wrong. I am well aware that there will be a ready market for what he says in some parts of the media, but it is wrong.

Mr. Hague

It is precisely English Nature's concerns about biodiversity about which 1 am asking, and about which the Prime Minister has totally failed to answer. On his point about food retailers, does he accept that nearly all major food retailers have announced that they want to be able to sell GM-free products, for whatever reasons or motives? Is there not an opportunity there? If the right hon. Gentleman cannot see the case for reassuring the public about the crops, can he not at least see the commercial sense in ensuring that the United Kingdom preserves a GM-free source of supply, at least until the effect on other crops is known? That is what a lot of people in this country want.

The Prime Minister

First, the right hon. Gentleman said that I had not answered his question. I have answered him specifically and plainly: no crops are available and no foods are available unless properly tested. Secondly, are he and his Front-Bench team really raising the issue of tougher labelling for GM foods? When in Government, he blocked labelling of GM foods. We introduced it.

We all know what the game is, so let me say to the country that I entirely know about, understand and sympathise with people's concerns about GM foods. However, if people study properly the scientific evidence, they will have to conclude three things: first, that there is no evidence that GM foods are unsafe; secondly, that there is evidence about biodiversity and its effects; and, thirdly, that that is why we should proceed with the greatest caution and the toughest regulation, which is precisely what we are doing. It would also be sensible if, before sending a signal to the whole biotechnology industry that we shall proceed on the basis not of science but of scares, we reflected on the fact that the argument should be presented in a more balanced way.

Q7. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the National Assembly for Wales must work in the interests of all the people of Wales? Does he also agree that the only way to guarantee the implementation of the Government's programme to build a strong economy in Wales, to invest £1 billion extra in the national health service, to raise school standards and to give all pensioners free travel within three years, is to ensure a Labour majority in next week's Welsh election?

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Go on, disagree.

The Prime Minister

I shall not disagree with that; I agree with it wholeheartedly. My hon. Friend is right to say that there is additional money for the national health service and for schools, a better deal for pensioners and a 20 per cent. increase in child benefit—and you only get that under Labour.

Q8. Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing crisis in nursery education, with at least two pre-school playgroups or nursery schools closing every week? Will he confirm that it is his Government's policy both to restrict parental choice in nursery education and to throw many dedicated professional nursery school teachers and ancillary workers on the scrap heap?

The Prime Minister

That is nonsense. The Government are expanding nursery education. We have got rid of the discredited nursery voucher system introduced by the previous Government, and we are expanding child care and other provision for children at a rate matched by no other Government this century.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

May I revert to the issue of public service output and delivery, and ask my right hon. Friend whether he has seen the report that, for the second year running, Labour-controlled South Tyneside council, which he knows is in one of the most deprived areas in the country, has been adjudged the best performing local authority in England? Will he join me in congratulating its councillors, officers and other employees, and encouraging them to continue their good work and show that a Labour local authority produces the goods, and produces the best?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to congratulate South Tyneside on its work, especially in helping young people and in education. On both counts, it stands among the best in the country.

Q9. Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

On 10 April, the Chilean Government issued decree No. 209, which suspended all flights between Chile and the Falkland Islands. Will the Prime Minister now ask his Foreign Secretary to apologise for wrongly claiming that the suspension of that air link was a purely commercial decision by the airline, and will he tell the House, and the Falkland islanders, what formal protest he has made to the Chilean Government on behalf of the islanders, who are suffering greatly because of the Government's incompetence?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that we disagree with the decision, and we have made representations to the Chilean Government about it. The Pinochet decision is a matter for the law, and the law must take its course. I would hope that even the Conservative party would recognise that.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

On the subject of education funding, is my right hon. Friend aware of the remarks made today by the Tory leader of Cambridgeshire county council, who said that as the Government increase the standard spending assessment for education, he will reduce the county council's contribution, so the schools in my constituency will see no benefit from education spending? Can there be any reason why anyone who cares about education would ever vote Tory again?

The Prime Minister

That is the reality of Conservative education policy. They cut spending on education that is vital for children. It is all very well for Conservative Front Benchers to say that they are in favour of more education spending—or at least some of them, I am not sure how many—but the reality on the ground is the Conservative party moving further and further to the right.