HC Deb 08 December 1999 vol 340 cc818-26
Ql. [100378] Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 8 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 be having further such meetings later today.

Mr. Harvey

What hope and reassurance can the Prime Minister give to distressed families in Bristol, Liverpool and elsewhere, including my constituency, who years ago underwent the grief of burying babies only now to discover that hospitals retained hearts and other organs without telling them? Given the breakdown of NHS accountability in Bristol when I and others first began asking questions, how confident are the Government that hospital authorities will give full and frank answers to the chief medical officer's investigation? Will the Government keep open the possibility of a public inquiry to examine witnesses under oath and recommend changes in the law?

The Prime Minister

I entirely share the concern of the hon. Gentleman's constituents and, indeed, many people up and down the country whose original tragedy has been compounded by this dreadful affair. It is precisely for that reason that the Health Secretary has announced an independent and full inquiry. That will be completed as soon as possible. We are quite determined that the practice should be stamped out.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

Does the Prime Minister agree that Steven Spielberg's project, which is worth tens of millions of pounds to our economy, is simply excellent news for Britain? Thus encouraged, will he support Lord Puttnam's campaign to preserve some of Britain's oldest cinemas, so as to pass that physical aspect of our heritage to the 21st century?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted at the news that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are to make their new production in this country. It is tremendous news for the entire British film industry, and shows the good state of British art and culture.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Does the Prime Minister accept that the Deputy Prime Minister's strategy of persecuting the motorist, undermining the road haulage industry, botching the sale of air traffic control and abandoning even the pretence of a policy on London underground is a complete failure and does not remotely represent an integrated transport policy?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept a word of what the right hon. Gentleman said. In this area, as in many others, what is actually happening is that, after 18 years of Conservative neglect, we are having to sort out the problems that we inherited—but we are sorting them out.

Mr. Hague

What an utterly complacent answer. If the Prime Minister thinks that transport is improving, he is viewing it from the window of a Daimler heading down the M4 bus lane.

I have here the Government's annual report on their commitments, which says, item: Develop an integrated transport policy. Assessment: "Done." The Government actually think that they have done it, but the only thing that the Deputy Prime Minister has integrated is a chicken masala with an afternoon nap.

The Deputy Prime Minister said last year: I will have failed if in five years' time there are not fewer journeys by car … I urge you to hold me to it. Car use has increased by 13 per cent. since he took office. What is there to show for his two and a half years of stewardship of transport?

The Prime Minister

Let us leave aside the jokes and consider the policy position. It is correct that road usage has increased, but there has also been a 15 per cent. increase in rail usage, a 12 per cent. increase in London underground usage, and, for the first time, an increase in the use of buses. In other words, there is an increase in demand on the whole system. We will spend more on transport, more on London underground, more on London transport, more on road maintenance and more on railways than the plans that we inherited from the Conservative Government proposed. That is not a joke; it is policy, which will make a difference to the people of this country.

Mr. Hague

The question was about what had been achieved. The Government's annual report states: "integrated transport policy—done." I shall outline their achievements: shambolic U-turn on the tube—done; botched plans for air traffic privatisation—done; hypocritical attacks on car drivers—done; attacks on the haulage industry—done; complete failure of the railways—done. We do not know where the Deputy Prime Minister is, but now that the Prime Minister has appeared on the front cover of "Hello" magazine, is it not time that the Deputy Prime Minister was in "Goodbye" magazine?

The Prime Minister

I have already explained the increased pressures and the increased usage of public transport and the roads. How do we ensure that we spend more money on transport—[HON. Members: "What have you done?"] Conservative Members ask what we have done—I shall tell them. We are spending £500 million more on transport than the plans that we inherited proposed; indeed, we are spending over £500 million more on London transport. In addition, there are 1,800 new rural bus services under this Government; we have completed the Jubilee line, which the previous Government botched; and we have sorted out the channel tunnel rail link, which was a total mess when we took over. Of course, there is more to do, but we are doing it far better than Conservative plans and policies ever accounted for.

Madam Speaker

I call Mr. McDonnell.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)


Madam Speaker

McDonnell is the name.

Mr. McDonnell

It is nice to be recognised. The Prime Minister will know that this morning a listening device was found in the car of the president of Sinn Fein. Will he launch an immediate inquiry and make it clear to all sides—possibly even to our security forces—that nobody will be allowed to undermine the peace process?

The Prime Minister

I never comment on security allegations and I do not intend to do so now.

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

Given the Prime Minister's statements on the road this week, has he had an opportunity to examine the main findings of today's Joseph Rowntree Foundation report into deprivation and poverty in our country? Two and a half years into a Labour Government, with a rock solid majority and supported by a benign economic scenario, which of the main conclusions depresses him most: the greater proportion of people on low incomes; the growing gap between those on low and medium incomes; the increasing number of young people who have to be counselled for drug abuse; or the steady increase in premature deaths, especially in the north of England and Scotland?

The Prime Minister

First, the right hon. Gentleman does not point out, as the authors do, that the report covers only a short period of the Government's tenure, before the main policies that we introduced have taken effect. Those policies include: a record rise of 20 per cent. in child benefit; the working families tax credit; and the new deal for the unemployed. The Liberal Democrats opposed the latter policy, which has meant that approximately 360,000 young people have got the chance of gaining work or skills for the first time—150,000 are now in unsubsidised jobs. The issue is not whether we agree that poverty exists, but what we do about it. We are acting on it.

Mr. Kennedy

I am sure that the Prime Minister, like the whole House, would acknowledge that there is a correlation between income, environment and life expectancy. That being the case, is it not profoundly concerning for us all, and most of all him, that the life expectancy statistics are that much notifiably worse in the north of England and in Scotland than in other parts of the country? Does that not point to the need for a drastic upgrading of Government policy to give more help to those most in need—not only middle England, but those who elected the Government and are looking to them for most but getting least?

The Prime Minister

Again, the life expectancy variations are far greater within nations or regions than between them. Rather than trying to divide up the country, surely we should be united around policies that target need wherever it exists—whether in inner-city Glasgow, London, Liverpool, Manchester, Plymouth or any of our main cities. All have problems.

I agree that there are urban problems and rural problems, too, but that is why we have policies such as those that I have outlined: the minimum income guarantee for pensioners; the working families tax credit, which I was talking about a moment ago and which will give an income boost to 1.5 million low-income families; the 10p starting rate of tax; the minimum wage; and paid holiday, which many people in this country are getting for the first time. The difference is that we now have a Government who recognise that tackling those problems is part of the responsibility of the Government. We are not indifferent to social exclusion, in whatever part of the country it exists. We want to tackle it, and that will take time, but we have a policy agenda—which I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will support—that will tackle it.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

While the Government are clearly right to tackle poverty and inequality wherever they exist, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to say from the Dispatch Box that it is Government policy to create prosperity throughout the nation and, at the same time, to reduce the disparities— especially those relating to infrastructure—between the more and the less prosperous regions of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

Of course it is, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there are disparities between regions as well. My point, simply, is that the disparities that stand out as starkly, if not more so, are those between different income groups within regions. As for regional development and infrastructure, he is absolutely right, which is why 60 per cent. of the increased spending on development agencies is going to the northern parts that need it most. We have to get more investment into those areas to attract jobs and companies, and that is precisely what we are doing. [Interruption.] As for the hecklers on the Conservative Front Bench, let me tell the House that the one thing that I found, whatever part of the north-west I went to in the past two days, was that, whether people debated the north-south divide or not, everyone knew who was responsible for inequality in this country: Conservative Governments who, for 18 years, not only created social division but managed to wreck the economy in the process.

Q2. Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

As revealed in the diaries of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) in The Sunday Times last week, it appears that the Prime Minister considers that being effective at one's job is a qualification for the sack. Given the ineffectiveness of Government policies, inasmuch as half our air space is being privatised and 500,000 homes are being built in the south-east in spite of the protestations that there is no north-south divide, how much more effective does the Deputy Prime Minister have to be before the Prime Minister will consider it safe to fall under a bus, if he can find one?

The Prime Minister

I cannot remember what I am supposed to have said about the hon. Gentleman according to the diaries, but I think that it may have been right, whatever it was. He should look at the policies that are being pursued. We are increasing transport expenditure. In relation to air traffic control, of course safety has to remain in the public sector. We are trying to strike the right balance between public and private finance to do the reconstruction work necessary to make our air traffic control system work properly. It is the same with the tube. Only under the Labour party's proposals does the private sector take the risk on construction contracts with the public sector running the essential service. It is called public-private partnership, and it is the right policy for the country.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Will my right hon. Friend assure the 3 million workers who are now entitled to four weeks' paid holiday a year that we will protect those rights to the utmost? The Conservative party has said that it would scrap them. It would also scrap the minimum wage and the 26 new rights at work that we have introduced. Is that not typical of a scrap heap Opposition? [Laughter.]

The Prime Minister

Conservative Members can laugh as much as they like, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Come the next election, we will remind people that the Government introduced paid holiday and the Conservatives would take it away; that we introduced a minimum wage and they would scrap it; that we introduced the working families tax credit and they would take that away; and that the Conservatives opposed the extra increase in child benefit and are opposed to the £100 that pensioner households are receiving this week. I suspect that, when the Conservatives fight the next election on those policies, there may be a little less smiling.

Q3. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Now that the Prime Minister has returned from his visit telling people in the north-west that there is no north-south divide, will he turn his attention to the very real divide in the provision for cancer services across the country? The Christie hospital in Manchester receives half the revenue funding that is given to the Royal Marsden, even though the two hospitals are the same size and do the same things for the same number of patients. Will he come up with the resources that the Christie needs to have its own intensive care unit, so that it can be declared a cancer centre for surgery for the north-west, which is the only region that does not have one?

The Prime Minister

When the hon. Gentleman compares the Christie hospital with the Royal Marsden, anyone would think that this problem had suddenly appeared in the past two and a half years. We applaud the work that Christie hospital is doing, especially on cancer.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

It is not applause but money that it wants.

The Prime Minister

I was asked to stop applauding and give money. It is being awarded—£4 million from the new opportunities fund for specialist cancer equipment. That is giving money.

Q4. Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

This Christmas, 500 dealers in the City of London will each receive bonuses of £1 million or more, whereas, as my right hon. Friend knows, every family in the north-east of England will be touched by the facts about poor health, low skills and poor opportunities which he set before the country this week. Will he assure all his many friends in the north that the formula for spending will reflect our needs and will enable the gap in health and hopes to be closed?

The Prime Minister

Of course we want to remove the gap in health and the education inequalities that exist up and down the country. It is precisely for that reason that we have committed the £40 billion of extra spending. The new deal for school buildings will benefit thousands of schools, including many in our constituencies. Health inequality is undoubtedly linked to poor income levels. Poverty is one of the great factors in poor health. We are targeting these inequalities through our policies such as the new deal for the inner cities, which will put £800 million into some of the most deprived inner-city areas. We are tackling these issues at source, wherever they exist. I really believe that, whether it is north, south, east or west, that is the best way to do it.

Q5. Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

The Prime Minister should know that, on 25 November, the director of nursing at Radcliffe infirmary in Oxford wrote to general practitioners in my constituency saying that there was now extreme pressure on the hospital, and asking them to slow down their rate of referral. A few days later, on 1 December, the director of nursing wrote again, saying that the hospital had now adopted the level 3 escalation procedure. Hon. Members may know, but others may not, that level 3 means that accident and emergency cubicles are full, that an overwhelming number of patients are on trolleys and that patients can no longer readily be taken off ambulances.

The Oxfordshire health crisis is severe, yet the Prime Minister, along with his Government, has overseen the closure of Burford community hospital. The chairman of the community health trust has resigned as a result. Will the Prime Minister listen? Will he keep the hospital open? At the very least, will he agree to review the matter personally?

The Prime Minister

The decision about Burford was made by the local health authority. I understand the hon. Gentleman's unstinting support for the hospital, and I do not in any way diminish the point that he has made or the pressures that people are under. I witnessed some of those pressures when I visited a hospital in Manchester. We are trying to improve the situation by reducing the pressures, through new services such as NHS Direct, large amounts of additional funding and the recruitment of extra doctors and nurses—there are thousands more in the system than when we came to office. Improving the situation will take some time, however, because the accumulated problems are extremely serious.

Q6. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

In the context of the recent national debate on the way forward for health care, is the Prime Minister aware of events in Warrington? While the local hospital was modernising and improving its services, a private hospital that had been built in its grounds went bust and has now been bought by the NHS. Does the Prime Minister conclude from those events that the Tory plans to privatise health care are not only morally indefensible but economically illiterate? What would he say to the health care workers whose service was described by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) as thoroughly second rate?

The Prime Minister

I congratulate everyone at Warrington hospital on the work that is being done there. We are trying to provide new services to make access to the health service easier. Yesterday and today alone, 1.5 million people have visited the service NHS Direct on-line, and nearly 1 million have now contacted NHS Direct.

New services are being provided, but we understand the pressures that people are under. What would be disastrous is the Conservative plan—described as a Trojan horse policy by the Conservative health spokesman—which would mean that in non-urgent cases, including hip replacement cases, people would be forced to take out private insurance. Many simply could not afford to do that.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

How much have the Government spent so far on the national changeover plan in preparing to join the euro?

The Prime Minister

As we announced at the time, we will spend some tens of millions of pounds on that, but it is absolutely the right thing to do, ensuring that British business is prepared for something that will affect us in any event.

Mr. Hague

The question was how much has already been spent on the national changeover plan. The Government are spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on preparing to join the euro early in the next Parliament, but they will not say how much has been spent. When challenged, the Northern Ireland Office gave details of the tens of thousands of pounds that it had already spent, but other Departments have been instructed not to do so.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary said in the House: Unnecessary secrecy in Government … has long been held to undermine good governance … and my party has long been committed to change."—[Official Report, 7 December 1999; Vol. 340, c. 714.] What is the ball park figure? What has been spent so far— £10 million, £20 million, £100 million?

The Prime Minister

As I said a moment ago, when we announced the plan we said what the cost would be. [Interruption.] We announced what the cost would be, and people therefore know how much we will spend on the changeover plan. [Interruption.] People know how much we are going to spend. The issue is whether it is sensible to have a changeover plan. Our answer is that it is sensible, because otherwise we would not be in a position either to be prepared for the euro—which will affect business in this country—or to join the euro, even if the country voted for it later.

Mr. Hague

Well, "people" evidently know how much we have spent so far. Will someone tell the Ministers in the Government where the people are who know the answer because Ministers are not able to provide the answer? Only the Northern Ireland Office is able to provide the answer—congratulations to the Northern Ireland Office.

When the Governor of the Bank of England and the outgoing lord mayor of London speak of the City thriving outside the euro and the vast majority of people in this country want to keep the pound, is it not time to drop the Prime Minister's commitment in principle to join the euro and his commitment to make a decision early in the next Parliament? Then the cost of the national changeover plan can be reduced to zero.

The Prime Minister

That is a fascinating example of the difference between the right hon. Gentleman's jokes, lines and gags and policy, because the two people he has mentioned—the Governor of the Bank of England and Lord Levene—are actually both in favour of the changeover plan. There is no point the right hon. Gentleman looking dazzled by that; it is true. Therefore, as ever with him, he can make as many smart comments as he likes, but, in the end, the question is: is it sensible to have the changeover plan or not? The two people whom he has just quoted support the changeover plan. They support the policy of prepare and decide. I quote the Governor of the Bank of England—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I have had enough of Members who are shouting from sedentary positions.

The Prime Minister

The moment we move to policy, Conservative Members are disconcerted by it. They cannot work it out. The Governor of the Bank of England said: This, in my view"— describing Government policy— provides a solid foundation for a continuing, positive and constructive relationship between the United Kingdom and other EU member states, including those participating in … the euro. In other words, the policy that we have of prepare and decide is the right one. Why? Because, first, it will affect business. From 1 January 2002, those notes and coins will be in circulation. British businesses will be doing business in Europe, so to scrap it, which is the right hon. Gentleman's policy, would be absolute rubbish. When he gets back up, let him name one single business organisation that supports that. Secondly, it allows us—[Interruption.] Let him name one business organisation that supports that.

Secondly, under prepare and decide, it gives us the option. He would rule out the option—if he is not going to have a changeover plan—for ever. That is, of course, where Margaret Thatcher and the new right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) are pushing him. What this country wants is not a Leader of the Opposition pushed around by those who want to take his job, but a Prime Minister who actually gets on with the job.

Q7. Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister aware that 39 towns have applied for special city status to celebrate the new millennium? Can he confirm that, overwhelmingly, the most coherent and convincing bid has come from Dover? Considering our proud history and our attractive gateway location and given that, in the British Isles, the very first sunshine of the new millennium will break over our famous white cliffs, does he agree that, on 1 January 2000, when Dover gets its special status, it will be the best reason for celebrating since we won the seat of Dover from the Tories on 1 May 1997?

The Prime Minister

I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that no one puts the case for Dover better than him. However, if I had to adjudicate between all the bids now, it would be very difficult. What is absolutely sure is that, while Dover and the Government are marching forwards into the 21st century, the Tories will be marching backwards.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

A very important decision will soon have to be taken on the next British synchrotron, and that decision will have big implications for future investment in big science and important implications for international collaboration. Will the Prime Minister take a personal interest in that important decision?

The Prime Minister

I certainly will take a personal interest in it. As I explained to people in the north-west when I was asked about the project, in which they also have an interest, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is closely considering it, and I shall closely consider it, too. We will have to take the best decision in the interests of science and technology.