HC Deb 01 December 1999 vol 340 cc294-304
Q1. Dan Norris (Wansdyke)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 1 December.

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 have further such meetings later today.

Dan Norris

By any standards, this has been a truly momentous week in the history of Northern Ireland. Will the House join me in paying tribute to the hard work and courage shown by politicians—especially the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)—and everyone else in Northern Ireland?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in saying that it is incumbent on all those currently involved in the Northern Ireland peace process to ensure that they continue to show that courage, and that they carry on their tireless work so that the best possible opportunity for peace in a generation can properly be grasped and turned into reality?

The Prime Minister

I can confirm that this afternoon the Queen made the order that devolves powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly from midnight tonight. That will create the first Government in about 25 years who are directly accountable to the people of Northern Ireland. It will come alongside the creation of new north-south institutions, changes to the Irish constitution, the dropping of the territorial claim to the north and the appointment by the IRA of an authorised representative to discuss the modalities of decommissioning with the Independent Commission on Decommissioning. I pay tribute to the leader of the Ulster Unionists, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and to all those in Northern Ireland who have had the courage to drive the process forward. There will be many difficulties on the way to the achievement of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland, but I believe that one huge, giant step forward has been taken.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I concur with the sentiments and hopes expressed by the Prime Minister? I congratulate all those involved and I thank the hon. Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) for his remarks about my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major).

On a different subject, today, the Audit Commission described benefit fraud as a serious and growing concern, and stated that progress in dealing with it has been "disappointingly slow". Is not it time that the Government introduced new proposals, including the Opposition's proposal to give benefit fraud officers and inspectors the same powers as those held by tax inspectors?

The Prime Minister

Of course, we have introduced further powers to tackle benefit fraud—and, indeed, tax fraud. I agree that we must be vigilant at all times in respect of those matters. However, at the same time as we are cracking down on the abuses and the fraud, it is important to ensure that we provide opportunities for people—especially the young unemployed. That is why it is important that, while we are tightening up the benefit system, we are also introducing the new deal to give those young people hope.

Mr. Hague

I am asking a specific question about what will be done about benefit fraud. If the Prime Minister thinks that the problem is currently being tackled by the Government, he is not living in the real world. The National Audit Office pointed out that there is no evidence of any improvement in stemming losses. This morning's Audit Commission report states that substantial work is needed to tackle fraud more effectively.

Does the Prime Minister know of any reason why he should not adopt our proposal to give benefit fraud officers the same powers as tax inspectors—to search premises, to investigate accounts and to collect information? That would show that we are prepared to bring the full force of the law against those who cheat the taxpayer?

The Prime Minister

Of course, we should use the full force of the law to defeat those who are engaged in benefit fraud. Last year, we saved about £200 million in income support alone. During the course of a Parliament, that would add up to a saving of £1 billion [Interruption.] Before Opposition Members shout about this, they should remember that they were in power for 18 years and faced the same problem. However, I agree that we should constantly look at ways that we can improve the service, which is why we have taken some seven or eight different measures to tackle benefit fraud since we came to office. But of course we shall always carry on looking for more and better ways of doing it.

Mr. Hague

It is no good for the right hon. Gentleman just to say that he is considering various options. That is what he has been saying to job applicants from the Liberal party for years, and nothing happened. He says these things, but nothing is done.

The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who used to be Minister for Welfare Reform, said earlier this year—[Interruption.] It is no good for hon. Members to shout about it. Billions of pounds of taxpayers' money are at stake, spent on the authority of this House. The right hon. Gentleman says: Taxpayers have every right to feel genuinely angry about the Government's inability to tackle benefit fraud. Talking about tackling the problem is not enough. That is the comment from the Labour Benches.

Will the Prime Minister adopt the following proposal—tougher penalties for people who deliberately defraud the system, including community service sentences on top of existing penalties?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman said that we were not taking any measures. We are of course taking measures. We have invested an extra £100 million in checks on housing benefit claims. We have extended, for example—[Interruption.] Conservative Members asked for measures; I am just telling them what they are. Section 19 of the Social Security Administration (Fraud) Act 1997 has been extended to housing benefit from September this year. The benefit fraud inspectorate has been beefed up and changed, and can now play a far greater role in ensuring better standards in the tackling of benefit fraud.

As a result of the measures that we have taken, total social security spending is actually falling in the areas of economic and social failure, for the first time in decades. Under the last Government, of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member, the social security budget rose by 4 per cent. in real terms every year. By contrast, it is now rising by only 1 per cent. in real terms. That is due to the measures on child benefit, working families tax credit and pensioners, and it is deliberate. Tackling fraud is one part of it; the other part is reforming welfare, which, after 18 years during which Conservative Governments did nothing, we are finally tackling.

Mr. Hague

The right hon. Gentleman attacks the last Government, but the last Government had "spotlight on benefit cheats" campaigns that saved tens of millions of pounds, which the present Government have abandoned. The last Government introduced new penalties to make them available to local authorities, which have now not been implemented.

The right hon. Gentleman is not answering the questions that I am putting to him today. I am asking about false claims. Anyone would think that that was his strong subject, after most of his answers in recent months. Is he aware, from today's report, that 40 per cent. of councils do not even require applicants to give their national insurance number on their application for benefit? So will he adopt this common-sense proposal—[Interruption.] A common-sense proposal—he is allowed to adopt common-sense proposals. Will he oblige all local authorities to ask for national insurance numbers on benefit claims?

The Prime Minister

I am totally happy to consider all those measures, but I emphasise to the right hon. Gentleman, as I have been trying to tell him in my answers, that we are taking a series of measures, which we believe are the most effective measures, to root out fraud.

Anyone would think that this issue had just arisen in the last two years. It was there under the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a part. We are actually tackling the problem. For the first time, for example, all local authorities must abide by the same rules in rooting out benefit fraud. That was never done under the Conservative Government.

I return to the point that I notice that the right hon. Gentleman has not denied, which is that, under the last Government in the last Parliament, social security spending was rising by 4 per cent. in real terms every year, and now it is falling in the areas of economic and social failure. That is the biggest saving for the taxpayer that we could have.

Mr. Hague

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the rules applying to local authorities, but today's report clearly says, on page 23: At present, only one in five councils is actually following the rules. I am simply suggesting to the right hon. Gentleman how to make local authorities follow the rules. The truth is that he has not tackled the issue because he will not tackle Labour local authorities that are not fighting fraud.

Millions of people work hard and pay ever higher taxes under the present Government. Billions of pounds of their money are being fraudulently taken away. Is it not the case that if the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to give fraud inspectors the powers that we have talked about and toughen penalties and require local authorities to deal with the problem, he will have gone on talking about this issue but not dealing with it?

The Prime Minister

We are of course dealing with it. As ever, the right hon. Gentleman is quick with his jokes, but less quick with his judgment. If he looks at the measures that we have taken, he will see that they compare very well with the measures that were taken under the previous Government. However, I agree: we must always look at how we can do more. However, in taking more measures, it is important to tackle benefit fraud, but, at the same time, we are encouraging people to get off benefit and into work, because that is the single, biggest element of fraud.

Under the previous Government, we know what we ended up with—one in five non-pensioner households with nobody working at all. The new deal has put 150,000 young people alone into work and the economic policies of the Government have cut unemployment with 700,000 extra jobs now in the economy. Of course, we must deal with the fraud aspect, and we are doing it a darned sight better than the right hon. Gentleman's Government ever did. However, we will not tackle that side of the problem properly unless we also grant people opportunity, which is what we are doing. His policy—by getting rid of the new deal, abolishing the working families tax credit and pursuing measures that would push up unemployment—has the opposite effect.

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

The Prime Minister will be aware that, this week in my constituency, 3,000 workers lost their jobs in the Barmac fabrication yard, which is a tragedy for the work force and for the families facing a bleak Christmas without a wage or any earnings. Will he urge the key oil companies—British Petroleum, Shell and Texaco—to bring forward their exploration work in the North sea and provide my constituents with a new year full of hope rather than despair?

The Prime Minister

There is obviously a limit to what we can do because of the situation in which we find ourselves with the maturing of the United Kingdom's oil and gas fields which has caused the downturn in fabrication work and with the 1998 collapse in world oil prices. However, we can try to put all the main bodies together, which we are doing in the oil and gas industry task force. We are looking now at how we can develop the right initiatives to protect the livelihoods and jobs of people in the position of my hon. Friend's constituents. I know the concern about this. We believe that the task force will be able to bring forward proposals that will help such people, though I again have to say that there will be a limit to what we can do given the state of the market.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

I assure the Prime Minister that the only Opposition party leader worried about a job application should be the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). It arrived from Kensington and Chelsea yesterday afternoon and gift wrapped in time for Christmas.

May I return to the exchanges with the Prime Minister last week about policy for the tube in which he dismissed our policy of a bond issue, which would save £150 for every Londoner? He also said that such a policy had bankrupt New York, but a senior former official in New York described that statement as a complete and utter untruth. Will he justify his policy by means of genuine argument and not by inaccurate rubbishing of international comparisons?

The Prime Minister

I did not say that; I said that New York had gone bankrupt. The bonds were issued not by New York, but by the state government, and they are another matter altogether. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting, as I doubt he is, that central Government issue bonds for the London underground, he will have a lot of explaining to do in the course of the election campaign.

There are three alternatives. The first is the Conservative proposal that was confirmed again last week by the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), which is to privatise the entirety of the tube. The second is the proposal of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) for bonds, but to keep everything in the public sector. That would mean that we would not get the construction work done on cost and to time. The best way—[Interruption.] I am capable of doing my own publicity for that.

The best way is to have the public sector do what it does best—run the trains and the underground and be responsible for safety and for drivers—and have the private sector come in to do the construction work needed by the tube. The alternative is to leave everything in the public sector, including the construction work. We would be back in the position that we faced with the Jubilee line, which overran by £1.4 billion and came in almost two years late. That would not save people in London money; it would cost them money.

Mr. Kennedy

But only last week, our mutual friend was telling me that his policy would get the tube completed on time. Seven days later, what has happened? Railtrack has been deemed unable to submit a bid; the Deputy Prime Minister is performing a U-turn; there are further delays to tube improvement, and the Government's policy is completely off the rails. Will not the Prime Minister admit that, in seven parliamentary days, his policy has gone from rolling stock to laughing stock?

The Prime Minister

We have had one Leader of the Opposition's top 10 jokes, and we do not need another from the right hon. Gentleman.

The policy that the right hon. Gentleman is putting forward does not answer my key point. Under that policy, the construction work of the tube would be left in the public sector. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, it would. I had better explain the Liberal Democrats' policy to them. Their policy is to construct the London underground through bonds. Yes? Which are issued by London—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. This is not a free-for-all. The Prime Minister is at the Dispatch Box.

The Prime Minister

That policy certainly would not be free for Londoners, and everything would stay in the public sector. If the right hon. Gentleman considers what has happened with the Jubilee line, he will realise the dangers of having that construction work in the public sector. The best way is to let the public sector do what it does well, but get the private sector to do the construction work, which means that the private sector carries the risk and we get the work completed on time and to cost. That is the sensible way, rather than privatising everything or keeping everything as it is, because those two alternatives do not work.

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

I welcome very much the Prime Minister's decision to have a review of the Government's policies on the north-south divide, which I know will be much appreciated in the north-west. However, as well as reviewing the Barnett formula in that process, will he encourage my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to consider ways in which we can imaginatively use brownfield sites to bring housing back into our inner cities? I am thinking particularly of ways in which small and medium businesses could be allowed, with concessions, to renovate for housing the areas above their shops.

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason that when we came to office we raised the amount of building that had to be done on brownfield sites. We have increased it from the previous Government's figure of about 40 per cent. of new housing and set a target of 60 per cent. We have also increased the amount of greenbelt land. We have to make sure also that we get the right balance in housebuilding in the south, which is why we are now studying the independent report that we have been given.

There is a real sense in which we have to make sure that the future of our regions is a planned future. Another measure that will help is the regional development agencies, which will be set up throughout the country. Another point that people should note about the shadow Environment Secretary is that last week he gave a firm commitment on behalf of the Conservative party that he would abolish every regional development agency. That is something that we will be reminding him about closer to the election.

Q2. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Is the Prime Minister aware that all Staffordshire Members of Parliament had a crisis meeting with our chief constable yesterday? Is he aware that after using all reserves and the maximum available council tax, and following the most recent financial settlement, which was announced by the Home Secretary only a few days ago, the chief constable is having to dissolve the rural crime unit and disband 250 men and women from the service, including 165 front-line police officers? Is he aware that that is happening up and down the land? My specific question for the Prime Minister is, does he agree that fewer policemen equals less crime prevention and less crime detection?

The Prime Minister

That is the reason we are recruiting more officers, after years of falling numbers under the Conservatives. Because the hon. Gentleman raised the same matter the last time he questioned me in the House, I looked up the numbers, and I do not really understand his point. The Staffordshire constabulary had more officers at the end of March 1999 than in March 1997; crime in Staffordshire fell in the 12 months to March 1999; and the funding for Staffordshire constabulary will increase by more than the national average, at 3.3 per cent. In its recent report on Staffordshire, the inspectorate of constabulary said: The force can justifiably be proud of the continuous improvement it has made in an area of crime that is of major concern to many communities. That is a good write-up.

The figures do not appear to accord with the hon. Gentleman's words. I shall, of course, look into the matter, but must point out that, if we compare the funding that we are giving to police services throughout this country with the funding set out in the previous Conservative Government's plans, we find that we are increasing the amount of funding over and above the Conservative plans. That is true, not only in the area of crime, but in schools and hospitals. The one set of people that is not entitled to complain is comprised of Conservative Members of Parliament who supported the previous Government.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Prime Minister ready to disclose to the House the nature of the discussions he has had with Liberal leaders about their relations? Did they include discussions about a coalition, the possibility of appointing Liberal Members to the Cabinet, or the long-term desirability of a coalition? His answer has a considerable bearing both on the balance within the House and on electors when they come to make up their mind as to the meaning of their vote in any future general election.

The Prime Minister

The answer is, no, I do not intend to disclose the contents of private conversations. However, my right hon. Friend can look at my Cabinet and see that there are no Liberal Democrat members of it, as far as I am aware.

Q3. Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Today is world AIDS day. Does the Prime Minister agree that few of us realise the true scale of the HIV epidemic, with up to one in four adults HIV positive in some parts of the developing world? Is he aware that, in 1998, the United Kingdom recorded the highest number in its history of HIV sufferers diagnosed in one year? Will he make the fight against AIDS, both in the UK and abroad, a Government and a personal priority?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman raises an important subject. In this country, there are more than 18,000 people—a larger number than most people realise—living with HIV-AIDS and receiving treatment from the national health service. We are spending £234 million on treatment. Internationally, we are leading on the issue and we are contributing to the effort to find a vaccine. At the Commonwealth conference in Durban, I announced a contribution of £14 million to the international AIDS vaccine initiative; thus, we are the first Government to donate to that initiative.

Of those with HIV, 95 per cent. live in developing countries. In some of those countries, life expectancy has fallen from the mid-60s to the mid-40s. We have to tackle the problem, not only through international support, but through education. With the Department for International Development, we are working hard in those countries to break down taboos about talking about the issues. In that way, we can get education programmes in place, and funding should then follow.

Q4. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that support for the working families tax credit and the minimum wage comes from those who benefit from them and from the vast majority of people who support a fair and just society?

The Prime Minister

I believe that the vast majority of people support the minimum wage and the working families tax credit because they are making work pay. One of the reasons why we have managed to reduce unemployment and to increase employment while keeping inflation under control is that we have reformed the tax and benefit system and made work pay. That is why it would be a tragedy if the Conservative party were returned to government. It is pledged to scrap both the minimum wage—it confirmed that again last week—and the working families tax credit. Its return would mean millions of low-income families having their income cut. I cannot think of anything more regressive and foolish.

Q5. Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

This time last week the Prime Minister confirmed to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) that the guarantee of the Secretary of State for Health that no one will be denied the drugs that he or she needs remains valid. In the light of that, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that tomorrow his Government, notwithstanding the assurances that were given when the National Institute of Clinical Excellence was set up, will attempt to impose by regulation a change in the constitution of that body so that it not only promotes clinical excellence, which is its ostensible function, but explicitly takes into account available resources in doing so? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that is tantamount to confirmation that patients will be denied drugs that they need on the ground of cost, and that the Secretary of State's guarantee is worthless?

The Prime Minister

The idea that the institute should not take into account cost effectiveness is absurd. Of course it should do that. The Conservative party's approach to this issue is one of complete hypocrisy. I shall give the hon. Gentleman three facts. First, we are increasing spending on drugs in the national health service by about 8 per cent. a year. Secondly, for the first time, NHS spending as a proportion of national income under this Government will rise by more than 6 per cent. Thirdly, the additional money that we are putting into the health service—far more money than was ever promised by the Conservative Government—is opposed by the hon. Gentleman's party as reckless and irresponsible. Again, the one group that should not complain is that of Conservative Members, whose answer to the problem of the health service is to privatise a large part of it.

Q6. Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Given that certain countries in Seattle are trying to limit the agenda of the World Trade Organisation talks, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the British delegation will push for the widest possible discussion so that our objectives of protecting the environment, recognising fair employment laws and tackling world poverty can be achieved?

The Prime Minister

At Seattle we shall be pushing for free trade because we believe that that is in the interests of the entire world. It is particularly in the interests of the developing world. We are in favour of good labour practices and high environmental standards, but we must ensure that all these things are conducted in such a way that they do not become a back-door form of protectionism, which would be wrong for developing countries.

In addition, as a result of the initiative on third world debt, 38 of the world's poorest nations will have their debt cut by $100 billion. That has been pioneered by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development. It is something of which this country can be justly proud.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

As a man who fully intends to live with his cancer rather than let it kill him, I have a vested interest in the answer to this question. Is the Prime Minister aware of the enormous discrepancy between the amount of money that is being poured into the cancer that kills most women and the trickle of money that is going into the cancer that kills most men, namely prostate cancer? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that he will keep the matter under review and secure the necessary funding so that the next generation may be at less risk.

The Prime Minister

That is a perfectly fair point. It is true that we have put more money into breast cancer. We are going to move on to other cancer areas, including prostate cancer. By December 2000 all urgent GP referrals will be seen by a consultant within two weeks. I know that there is still a very long way to go but we will get there. I hope that if we continue with the prudent management of the economy, the three-year good spending round that we have had for this financial year and the next two financial years can be carried on in the later three-year period.

Q7. Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Women's National Commission on its 30 years of work to ensure that the voices of women are heard in government, and in particular on its recent work to end the conspiracy of silence surrounding domestic violence?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to congratulate the Women's National Commission on its sterling work over the past 30 years. We recently published a document on domestic violence, and we are giving a great deal of support to women through the first steps national child care strategy, the biggest ever rise in child benefit, the working families tax credit, and extra cash for cervical screening and breast cancer treatment. We are providing support for part-time workers and support through the minimum wage. We are giving many women the chance of paid holiday for the first time in years. Those measures have two things in common: they were all introduced by a Labour Government, and they would all be abolished by a Tory Government.