HC Deb 03 February 1999 vol 324 cc922-32
Q1. Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 3 February.

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. Taylor

How does the £39 billion extra burden on business in this Parliament square with the enterprise culture? Are the Government signalling right and turning left?

The Prime Minister

No; I would have thought that turning right applies more to the hon. Gentleman's party. The figure that he quotes is not correct. Indeed, under this Government, we have the lowest ever corporation tax and the lowest ever tax regime for small businesses. In addition, under this Government, we are consigning Tory boom and bust to history, where it belongs.

Q2. Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

Some of us on the Back Benches fear that our karma might be to return in the next life as Scottish Tories. Will my right hon. Friend therefore reassure us that, in this life, this Labour Government will continue, through socialist policies of redistribution, to tackle the massive inequalities in health, in access to decent housing and in wealth, which continue to disfigure and scar our country? Although we all accept that wealth creation is of course essential, may I remind him of the wisdom of the old clause IV, which never let us forget that the only true creators of wealth are the workers by hand or by brain"? It is for them that the Labour party was created. It is in their interests that a Labour Government should govern.

The Prime Minister

Let me tell my hon. Friend what we are doing in this life to promote social justice. One hundred and thirty thousand Scottish families will benefit from the working families tax credit, 183,000 people in Scotland will benefit from the national minimum wage, the new deal for the unemployed has halved youth unemployment since the election and child benefit is up by more than 20 per cent. All those policies, opposed by the Tories, have been introduced by this Labour Government. This Labour Government believe that there is no inconsistency between policies that promote business and enterprise, and the pursuit of a more just society.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

So who does the Prime Minister think should be the next manager of the England football team?

The Prime Minister

Not the right hon. Gentleman, anyway. I am content to leave that to the Football Association.

Mr. Hague

We all thought that Glenn Hoddle's comments were outrageous and all joined in saying so, but given what the Prime Minister has just said, does he accept for future reference, and on reflection, that there is a limit to the number of things that politicians should poke their noses into—[Interruption.] There is—and that lecturing football associations on whom they should sack is beyond that limit?

The Prime Minister

I really cannot believe that the right hon. Gentleman is raising that issue. Of course, by making the comment himself, he has already commented on the issue. I suggest that he look at what I actually said.

Q3. Angela Smith (Basildon)

Can the Prime Minister confirm how many telephone calls have been made to the nurses recruitment hotline since it was set up? I understand that, in the first few hours, there were more than 3,500. Will he pay tribute to Basildon hospital, which, before this initiative, recruited nurses by getting returners to work and paying for their training to get them back into the NHS? However, may I remind him, and ask him to ensure that he makes it clear, that new money that goes to the NHS must be put into front-line services and the nurses who serve the country?

The Prime Minister

As a result of the pay award that has been made to the nurses, the starting pay for a newly qualified nurse will increase by 12 per cent. In addition, 70,000 junior qualified nurses are to get an increase of over 8 per cent. As a result of our changes, next year two out of three nurses will earn more than £20,000 a year. Moreover, the number of people who have phoned the hotline—the number of calls that have been made—is now more than 7,000. It will take us time to rebuild the national health service, but we are on our way to doing it.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The pay rise for nurses is very welcome, but is it not also the case that, on Monday, the Government raided their own funds for modernising the health service to provide nurses with decent pay? Why should better pay for nurses have to mean worse services for patients?

The Prime Minister

But it does not. The modernisation fund has a specific sum of money within it for pay. That is the part that has been used. The rest of the modernisation fund, which is nine tenths of it—£1 billion—is intact and being used for such things as waiting lists, primary care projects, mental health projects, capital projects, doing up accident and emergency departments, and public health and community services. In addition, an extra sum of money is going into new technology in the health service. So the premise of the right hon. Gentleman's question is wrong.

Mr. Ashdown

Well, then, the Government's own statement made in July last year was wrong, because that statement, made in July 1998, specifically gives the purposes for the modernisation fund. It includes, as the Prime Minister has suggested, waiting lists, capital investment, education and training for staff, health education, primary care and mental health. It does not include pay. So I ask the Prime Minister once again: why have the Government taken £100 million out of front-line services for patients when the Chancellor has more than 50 times that sum in his Treasury reserves?

The Prime Minister

I think that that is more than a little churlish. Actually, I forgot to mention, when I gave the figures, that £120 million is going out from the modernisation fund for education and training, in addition to what I have just mentioned. However, in respect of paying nurses more, we happen to believe that giving nurses a better pay rise, attracting more people into the health service, is part of building a better health service. Nurses—such as those to whom I spoke who were getting their training down in Wales yesterday—believe that it is important both that we get modernisation in the health service and that they get the decent pay that they deserve. Under this Government, we are delivering both.

Q4. Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the massive support, in last night's vote, for reforming the House of Lords, and especially the words of support by the former Tory Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath)? Apart from showing the Tories in tatters on that issue as usual, does it not prove that the Government want to create a second Chamber fit for the 21st century, whereas the current Leader of the Opposition merely harks back to the 18th, possibly the 17th, or the 16th, or whenever his last reincarnation was?

The Prime Minister

I think it is safe to say that only those on the Front Bench of the Conservative party are arguing the case for hereditary peers. The reasons for the reform are clear and sensible. First, it is wrong in this day and age that, by birth, such people can make laws. Secondly, and equally important, because of hereditary peers, the Conservatives have an in-built permanent majority of three or four to one in one of the two Houses of Parliament. It is plainly right that we should change that situation, which is regressive, backward—looking and unjust.

Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)

Does the Prime Minister accept that, for many people in Northern Ireland, the peace process is all take and no give, as far as Sinn Fein—IRA is concerned? Will he put the release of terrorist prisoners on hold until the mutilations and murders stop and the decommissioning of weapons starts?

The Prime Minister

Without repeating what I said in the exchanges last week, it is worth pointing out to the right hon. Gentleman that, were we to bring the entire process to an end, the result would not be less violence in Northern Ireland. I repeat what I said previously: punishment beatings and appalling atrocities were also going on during the ceasefire under the previous Government. However, as I have made clear, the best possible way in which we can push the process forward in Northern Ireland is for all aspects of the agreement to be implemented. We have made enormous progress, and I hope that both sides of the House can work to make more.

Q5. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, throughout the country, under the new deal, youth unemployment has fallen? Is he also aware that, in Coventry, under the Coventry version of the new deal, youth unemployment has fallen by more than 30 per cent? Will he commend the Coventry scheme to the rest of the country? Does he recall that the Opposition voted against the new deal and the windfall tax levy? Should not the Opposition apologise to every young person in the country?

The Prime Minister

As a result of the new deal, the rate of youth unemployment has very nearly halved since the general election—50,000 young people have gone into jobs, and 200,000 or more are going through the programme. That is a good step for the country on anybody's terms. We know that it was opposed by the Conservative party, and that the Conservatives are still opposed to it. They are wrong. They do not understand that high levels of youth and long-term unemployment are a blight on the country's future.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The Prime Minister will know that there is huge public concern about the possible health and environmental impact of genetically modified crops. There was a debate on the subject in the House today. Why have the Government not accepted the advice of English Nature, which is by law the Government's adviser on those matters, by delaying for at least three years the commercial release of those crops, until more research is done?

The Prime Minister

We are doing research on that, and a Government committee is examining the matter. We must proceed on the best scientific evidence. The potential of genetically modified crops is very great indeed. It is important that we proceed logically and scientifically, not simply on the basis of prejudice on either side of the debate.

Mr. Hague

We agree that we must proceed on the basis of scientific evidence, but the Government are overruling advice about the environmental impact from the expert body which, by law, exists to advise them on such matters.

It has also emerged that there was a meeting at which it was decided to use supermarket loyalty cards to monitor the purchase of genetically modified foods in various parts of the country, and then to monitor the cases of cancer in the corresponding areas. When concerns exist on such a scale, would it not be better to impose a moratorium, and to do so now?

The Prime Minister

I do not think it would be sensible to impose a moratorium. I am informed that the committee is meeting today. It is important that we proceed on the basis of the scientific evidence. These are big issues, and of course there is public concern about them. The first stage of meeting that public concern is to debate the information. I assume that the right hon. Gentleman is advancing the Opposition's position. It is curious that they should ask for a moratorium geared to a particular number of years, rather than proceeding on the basis of the scientific evidence.

Mr. Hague

It is not curious that the Opposition are asking for a moratorium—English Nature is asking for one. [Interruption.] It is no good Labour Members sneering about English Nature. That body is paid by the Government to give advice on these matters. The effect of the muddle in Government policy is to increase public concern, not to decrease it. Why do the Government not do the common-sense thing, listen to the advice of their experts and at least put on hold the release of new and unfamiliar seeds until the research is done?

The Prime Minister

I think that it would increase public concern if we adopted the course of action that the right hon. Gentleman advocates. A Government committee is looking at the issue on the basis of scientific evidence, and I think that that is the best way to proceed. The worst way to proceed would be to raise fears in the public mind before the evidence is put before the people. With the greatest respect—I do not think that this should be a great political issue between the parties—the right hon. Gentleman's course of action is wrong. I think that it is far better and more important to proceed on the basis of scientific evidence.

As for food safety issues—far be it from me to accuse the right hon. Gentleman of opportunism—I point out that most of the main problems with food safety in this country have resulted from the Conservative Government's legacy.

Q6. Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his Government today allocated an additional £112 million to guarantee places for 60 per cent. of three-year-olds in pre-school nurseries in Scotland? Will he take the opportunity, when he makes his welcome visit to Scotland on Friday, to remind parents, teachers and educators in Scotland that the Labour party is the only party in Scotland with published policies for Scottish education, and ask them to sit down in a spirit of co-operation and realise the vision that is set out in Labour's excellent document "Targeting Excellence: Modernising Scotland's Schools"?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The increase of £112 million for pre-school education will allow many more three and four-year-olds to attend nursery school in Scotland. Some 100,000 children in Scotland will receive grant-funded pre-school education in the next school session. We are the only political party in Scotland with proposals that increase the amount of nursery education. There can be no more important start for Scottish children than getting the education that they deserve.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

Will the Prime Minister do everything in his power to assist the 750 employees of Lucas-SEI in Ystradgynlais in my constituency who are about to lose their jobs because of the closure of the manufacturing plant? Does the Prime Minister propose to visit this stricken community, whose people are the salt of the earth? Will he comment on the activities of the chief executive of Lucas Varity, Victor Rice, who stands to benefit by £17 million from the takeover by TRW? Does the Prime Minister not think that that is the unacceptable face of global capitalism at work?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, Ministers are in discussion with the company and we will do all that we possibly can. We sympathise very much with anyone who risks losing his or her job as a result of the sale. It is important to see what we can do and, as soon as we are able to give details, we shall do so.

Q7. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), is due to meet Families Against Intimidation and Terror to discuss beatings and intimidation in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Prime Minister will agree to meet that group at a later stage. Would it not be a good idea if Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were involved in monitoring beatings and intimidation in Northern Ireland and reporting on those events? That would put pressure on the paramilitary groups to back down. Amnesty seems to favour this notion; will the Government give it good passage?

The Prime Minister

The idea advanced by my hon. Friend has also been proposed by the leader of the Ulster Unionist party. It is certainly worth considering, and I look forward to discussing it with the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) later this afternoon.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

Why does the Prime Minister believe that it is right to levy the same food tax on a small corner shop as on a Sainsbury's superstore?

The Prime Minister

I assume that it is a matter of common ground between us that the Food Standards Agency should be established and that the cost should not be borne entirely by the taxpayers—although they bear the majority of it at present. The question is whether it is better to do that by a flat-rate or a graduated charge. That is one of the issues that will be considered during the consultation process. We proposed the idea originally because we thought that it would be much simpler and easier to administer than a graduated charge. However, that is one of the things that the consultation paper will address.

Q8. Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of Volvo's announcement last week on closing its factory in my constituency, with the loss of 450 jobs. Realising the impact that that will have on my constituency and the surrounding area in Ayrshire, he will be pleased to know of the effect of the intervention of a Minister. May I put on record my thanks for the work that has been undertaken by the Scottish Office?

My right hon. Friend will also be aware that, in November, I asked him a question about the air traffic control system at Prestwick. What influence has been brought to bear, and what has been done by the Government, since that question was asked?

The Prime Minister

First, on the issue of Volvo, as my hon. Friend knows, the Scottish Office is having discussions with the company. The potential for job losses obviously exists for reasons that are outside the Government's control, but we will continue to have those discussions.

In respect of National Air Traffic Services, we are firmly committed to a two-centre strategy. I can assure my hon. Friend that one of those centres will be at Prestwick. That is good news for Scotland, and it will ensure air traffic control facilities in Scotland for a long time. I also understand that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has written to my hon. Friend, offering to meet him to repeat these assurances.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the huge suffering being experienced by the people of Gibraltar, who are having great hardship imposed because of an alleged secret deal with the British Government, which, in fairness, the Foreign Office has denied? As he claims to have established a special relationship with the European Union, is there really nothing he can do to protect the Gibraltarians, who are wholly peace-loving people, against illegal, bully-boy tactics by the Spanish Government?

The Prime Minister

We are in fact working very closely with the Gibraltar authorities. As a result of that, and as the hon. Gentleman has probably read this morning, the Chief Secretary in Gibraltar has made arrangements in order to bring this dispute to an end, on which we very much hope there will be proper progress.

In relation to Gibraltar more generally, the position of the Government is unchanged. There is no secret deal of any nature at all. We continue to do everything we can to ease the tension between Spain and Gibraltar. The point that I always make to anyone from the Spanish authorities is that the best way forward for them in their relations with Gibraltar is to treat those relations with sensitivity.

Q9. Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I am afraid that this is getting a bit like Scottish questions.

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that virtually every unit in the armed forces of the United Kingdom has its share of Scots, that it is not unheard of for English, Welsh and Irish personnel to serve in Scottish regiments and that the British armed forces are all the stronger for that?

That said, has my right hon. Friend read the nauseating words of Colonel Stuart Crawford, the Scottish National party defence spokesman, who describes the Scots Guards as a quasi-mercenary regiment … tainted by their association with England"? Will my right hon. Friend condemn the nationalist plan for ethnic dismantling of the armed forces of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

I think that these are not the first of SNP comments on defence that have dismayed people. Quite apart from wanting to dismantle the whole of the defences of Scotland, get Scotland out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, abandon the nuclear protection and a whole series of other things, and as well as not being trusted on defence, the SNP is not trusted on tax and jobs, and it is not trusted with running a Scottish Parliament which it wants to use as a ramp for independence. Scotland and England are stronger together.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, in Kent, North Yorkshire, north London and elsewhere this year, parent will be set against parent, teacher against teacher and governor against governor by his sudden-death grammar school ballots? Is that not simply a class-ridden obsession with structure rather than standards?

The Prime Minister

No; because under our proposals people are able to vote, whereas under the system that the previous Government had in place the decision was made by the local education authority. Given Conservative Members views on local education authorities, I should have thought that they would be with us on this one.

Q10. Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)

Is the Prime Minister aware that Swan Hunter shipbuilders on the Tyne have been offered the chance to submit a bid for one of the Royal Navy supply ships that is out for contract? If it is successful, the £130 million contract will provide many thousands of new, highly skilled jobs on the Tyne for many years to come. Is he also aware that, if it is successful, it will be the first time that ships have been built in the Tyne for many years? To satisfy the companies, communities and trade unions that have worked towards obtaining the contract, will he give an assurance that there will be a level playing field?

The Prime Minister

We are delighted at Swan Hunter's success. It is one of 10 companies that we believe have the technical expertise and capability to build the two new landing ships. It has been passed a copy of the initial draft specification, and has been asked to provide indicative prices. I cannot say any more about that at this stage, except that the shipping industry on the Tyne has a tremendous and proud history, and it would be great to think that it also has a proud future.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that, during the talks process, Sinn Fein told him and the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic that it could not force the IRA to decommission weapons?

The Prime Minister

No. It is clearly set out in the agreement that decommissioning is part of the agreement, and that Sinn Fein, like every other party, is expected to do what it can to bring about decommissioning. It is bound by that agreement. If I may say respectfully to the hon. Gentleman, it would be foolish of us to agree that Sinn Fein is under no such obligation. It should be under that obligation; it is in the agreement, and we intend to hold Sinn Fein to it.

Q11. Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

My right hon. Friend will recall the meningitis outbreaks across the country over Christmas, and may know that in Rotherham we had seven cases in nine days, including two tragic deaths of students at Wath comprehensive school. Is he aware that three quarters of the cases in Rotherham in the past year have been of meningitis type C, for which there is a vaccine? Given that this local pattern is reflected nationally in the growing proportion of meningitis C cases, will he use his offices to encourage the Secretary of State for Health to take a fresh look at the arguments for and against a national vaccination programme?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have heard my hon. Friend's question. I am not able to give my hon. Friend an answer this afternoon, but I shall make inquiries and write to him about the matter.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood)

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that schools should be free, if they so wish, to adopt a policy of selection by interview or examination?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend has set out the Government's position on selection, and I refer the right hon. Gentleman to that. As a result of the Government's policies, there will be greater investment in our schools, which was denied them by the previous Government. Whatever policies are pursued on selection, if there are not enough properly funded, good schools for parents to choose from, children will not get a proper education. The difference between this side and his party is that we believe in an education system for all our children, not just a few.

Q13. Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are some ex-service men in the country who have been wrongly deprived of and denied war pensions for many years? If he does, does he also agree that it would be sensible to give back to the Secretary of State the discretion to award backdated war pensions in appropriate and compelling cases—a discretion that was denied by the previous Government?

The Prime Minister

I know that my hon. Friend has an Adjournment debate on this subject. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will listen carefully to my hon. Friend's claims and representations. We will always consider ways of improving the situation, but we must do so within the Government's overall cost budget. We shall certainly listen to my hon. Friend's representations.

Q14. Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

When does the Prime Minister expect the rate of growth in the United Kingdom economy to return to 3.5 per cent. per annum or better?

The Prime Minister

We have set out our growth forecasts for the Government and, as a result of the policies that this Government have pursued, we are predicting an increase in growth next year and growth in—[Interruption.] Perhaps Opposition Members could listen to the answers. We are predicting that growth will go over 3 per cent. in two years' time. So the position that the hon. Gentleman outlined is answered. What would be most disastrous, however, is if we were to pursue the policies that he wants pursued, including taking away Bank of England independence, scrapping the new deal for young people, getting rid of the working families tax credit and doubling the national debt. The Labour party will be the party of economic stability, not the boom and bust of the Tories.