HC Deb 10 February 1999 vol 325 cc312-20
Q1. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 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 have further meetings later today.

Mr. Stewart

My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the importance of land reform in Scotland, from the historic struggles of the Highland Land League to reform crofting laws, to difficulties that the Knoydart Foundation is having in my constituency, where it is attempting to run its own 17,000-acre estate. Does he agree that land reform should be one of the essential high priorities in the new Scottish Parliament, and that the Scottish Parliament does not want separation and dislocation?

The Prime Minister

I know that the Scottish Labour party's proposals on land reform have been widely welcomed. As my hon. Friend knows, I was delighted that, last week, we flushed out the Scottish National party's proposals for starting independence negotiations literally the day after any success that it may have in the Scottish Parliament elections. People now know that there is a clear choice between devolution and the costs of divorce.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

When the Foreign Affairs Committee describes the workings of the Foreign Office as being like an episode of "Yes, Minister", and the Labour Chairman of the Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Oh yes, he is sitting on the Labour Benches—says that that great Department of state is being turned from the Rolls-Royce of Whitehall into an old banger, whom are we to hold responsible?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that that is the case. We shall respond carefully to the Select Committee's recommendations, as I said yesterday. Having studied the report in great detail, I think that the Committee's criticisms of the civil servants were disproportionate and unfair.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister says that he will respond carefully, but the Government were dismissing the report before it had even been published yesterday. The Prime Minister was saying that Ministers should be exonerated before the report had even been published. The answer is that no one will take responsibility. The report describes failures at every level of the Foreign Office, including Ministers dealing in half-truths. It describes how Ministers were unaware of a Customs raid on their Department for three weeks. It says that many of the problems would not have occurred had Ministers explained their policies to their officials. If the Foreign Secretary, not civil servants, is not to be held responsible for the condition of the Foreign Office, who is?

The Prime Minister

As I have explained, I do not accept that. All the facts to which the Select Committee drew attention had already been covered by the Legg inquiry. The allegations, most ridiculously made by the former Home Secretary, who is now the shadow Foreign Secretary, were dismissed by that inquiry. As I said yesterday, we shall of course respond to the detailed points that the Foreign Affairs Committee has made, but I think that its criticism of civil servants is unfair, because it puts in the context of today, with all the focus on the breach of the arms embargo, events that happened months and months ago when the context was completely different. In those circumstances, the report's criticisms of civil servants were disproportionate and unfair. As civil servants cannot reply, I shall reply for them.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister has clearly not studied the report carefully. He said that everything in it was covered by the Legg report, but paragraph 72 of the Select Committee report says: One aspect of the Sandline affair which has worried us is the way in which intelligence information received from the Ministry of Defence was treated with … cavalier disregard by the FCO … It is also extraordinary that Sir Thomas Legg … were misinformed. If they were misinformed about this, then is it … not impossible that they were misinformed in other areas? Is this not a story of incompetence, half-truths, secrecy and contempt for Parliament, for which the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister are responsible? It is not a happy situation for the world's top moral and spiritual leader to be presiding over that.

The report was produced by hon. Members from both sides of the House, who studied the issues at great length. Does the Prime Minister intend to take the report seriously, or to treat the House, its Committees and their reports with complete arrogance and contempt?

The Prime Minister

As I have already said and will repeat for the third time, we shall consider carefully the points that the Select Committee has made. I emphasise yet again that it did not find that Ministers had engaged in some great conspiracy to breach arms embargoes, and it did not find any of the Opposition's allegations correct. It launched serious and vehement criticisms of the behaviour of certain civil servants. I happen to think that those criticisms are unfair. [Interruption.] I am asked on what grounds. I shall tell the House on exactly what grounds they are unfair.

The criticisms of civil servants were directed at their conduct in the early months of 1998. At that point in time, the focus in the House was on how we could do more to help the democratically elected regime in Sierra Leone. When we had the debate in the House on 12 March last year, not a single member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee spoke, and the Opposition Front-Bench Members demanded that we did even more to help the democratic regime in Sierra Leone.

All I am saying in respect of the civil servants is that it is important not to apply, with the benefit of hindsight, counsels of perfection and rules, when that is not fully justified if we take account of the context at the time.

Q2. Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many small firms should do more to meet the challenge of millennium compliance? Will he ensure that the Government make every effort to help them attain the standards being achieved by many larger corporations and by Government Departments?

The Prime Minister

Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend for his work in this area. The position of larger United Kingdom firms is encouraging, as almost all of them have made proper provision for dealing with the millennium bug. We have trained 11,000 people to help companies deal with the millennium bug, and we are training a further 10,000.

I give a warning to small and medium businesses in Britain. About 80 per cent. of them will be able to deal with the millennium bug, but a large proportion are not yet in a position to do so. They must ensure that their systems are in order for 2000. We will assist them by giving them free help and advice, but they must ensure that they are millennium compliant for 2000. Britain is now a leader, if not the leader, on this in the world. That will be no good if our small businesses do not follow the lead of larger companies and the public sector and ensure that they are millennium compliant for 2000.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Yesterday's report on Sandline was one of the most damning ever delivered on a Government Department. Is not the more serious issue the fact that, while the Government have been playing pass the parcel with the blame for this matter, in the past year the terrible tragedy in Sierra Leone has repeated itself? The rebels who were defeated by Sandline arms have now been re-armed, apparently with the assistance of another British company. Sierra Leone is again under assault, and thousands have been killed.

The lessons to be learned from the arms to Iraq scandal, Sandline and the unabated flood of weapons into every trouble spot in Africa are clear. Unless and until we establish a proper international regime for the control of arms, those scandals will not end—they will occur again and again. When will the Government support such a measure?

The Prime Minister

It is as a result of the Government's actions that we have tightened arrangements for arms sales both here and in the European Union.

I thought for a moment that, at long last, we were going to reach the real issue, which is not Sandline or even the Foreign Affairs Committee's report, but what we do about the situation in Sierra Leone. Whatever the Conservative party may say, I make no apology for the support and help that we have given the democratically elected regime in Sierra Leone. It is rightly fighting the rebels because, if the rebels were allowed to gain control, they would encourage destruction and death on a vast scale. This Government and this country, together with Nigeria, are doing all that they can to help that democratically elected regime. That, I suggest, is the real issue.

Mr. Ashdown

In that case, the Government have failed, because the rebels who were defeated have now been rearmed—again.

The Government say that they are in favour of an international regime for arms control. Good. Does the Prime Minister find it odd, though, that, less than two weeks ago, when the Germans in the European Council proposed that we publish the European report on arms sales, the Government declined to support them? Will he now give an undertaking that, when the Germans return on 18 March with a European code for arms brokers, the Government will support them this time?

The Prime Minister

First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman we have been leading the way on arms control in the European Union. Secondly, it is true that the rebels have been rearmed, but they have not been rearmed by this country; they have been rearmed by sources wholly outside this country. What is important, surely, is for us to focus on how we can help the democratically elected regime in Sierra Leone, and that is precisely what the Government are doing.

Q3. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Has the Prime Minister considered that all the enthusiasm for tax-exempt special savings accounts, new retirement pensions, stakeholder pensions and individual savings accounts is making our 10 million existing pensioners feel a bit left out in the cold? Perhaps they feel that their huge voluntary efforts in the community do not count enough. Will the Prime Minister find ways of combining initiatives from all Departments—not least the Treasury—to produce a programme that will give a significant boost to existing pensioners and the quality of their lives in Britain today?

The Prime Minister

We are giving substantial help to pensioners with the new stakeholder pension schemes, from which up to 5 million people can benefit, and with pension sharing on divorce. Moreover, for the first time, we are introducing a pension for carers. Nearly 10 million pensioners benefit from winter fuel payments, and there is a £2.5 billion programme to help the poorest pensioners over the next few years.

Yes, we always look for better ways of co-ordinating Government help; but it is this Government who are helping pensioners with their winter fuel, having cut the VAT on fuel that the last Government increased. We are also providing the poorest pensioners with the help that the last Government denied them for decades.

Q4. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Does the Prime Minister believe that cutting the married couples allowance and now, perhaps, taxing child benefit are ways in which to tackle the country's spiralling divorce and illegitimacy rates? In the light of yesterday's ministerial admission that, under the working families tax credit, nearly everyone will be eligible for state-funded child-care payments provided that they are not the actual mother or father of the child concerned, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he sees any role for marriage in his new model family policy?

The Prime Minister

First, it was the last Government—with the hon. Gentleman's support—who cut the married couples allowance first. Secondly, I take it from what the hon. Gentleman said that he is against the help with child care that we are giving people. We are in favour of helping people with child care, because it is an important part of enabling them to raise their children—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I will not have barracking and shouting.

The Prime Minister

Helping with child care is an important part of enabling people to balance work and family responsibilities.

Thirdly, it is this Government who, from April, will make the largest increase in child benefit that the country has ever seen. Surely that is the way in which to help families.

Q5. Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that crude league tables do not always tell the full story of a school's success, and that the notion of added value, which shows how staff are driving up standards in schools to improve educational quality, is just as valid? At Carr Manor high school in Moortown, Leeds, where recently a new library was opened, the head made it clear that it was reading books and developing literacy that were the keys to that added value, which can so substantially affect a child's future and improve it.

The Prime Minister

I congratulate all those at Carr Manor high school in my hon. Friend's constituency on the work that they are doing. Again, it is because of the extra money that we have given for school books—£1,000 for every school—and because of the stress on literacy and numeracy that yesterday's Ofsted results showed such improvement in our schools. Yes, there is still a long way to go, but yesterday's Ofsted report shows that, under this Government, significant improvement in all those areas of literacy and numeracy is finally taking place.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

As the Chancellor is preparing the Budget for next month, will the Prime Minister tell the House by how much taxes have increased since he took office?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have set out our proposals in the Budget, but he will be aware that business tax has come down under this Government. Of course, as a result of the national insurance cut, from this April, every worker in the country will get a tax cut.

Mr. Hague

It was a pretty straightforward question and there is a pretty straightforward answer, which is to add together the figures in the Red Books—the Government's own books—on the last two Budgets. They show that the total tax increase for this financial year of the last two Budgets is £6,800 million, which is £260 for every taxpayer in the country in pension taxes, petrol taxes and mortgage taxes. The Prime Minister does not seem to be aware of it at all. I hope that he has not done his own self-assessment, or he will be in trouble. If he does not know the actual figure for tax increases, will he remind the House instead of the specific pledges that he made about the level of taxation at the last general election?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is what we have kept to. We said that we would not raise the basic or higher rate of income tax. As for what he quotes out of the Red Book, he will be aware that the projections made by his Government before we took office were the same.

Mr. Hague

The columns in the Red Book are the changes from previous plans. If the Prime Minister does not know that, he had better have a good look at the Red Book, but he does not even know what he said at the last election. In September 1996, he said: We've no plans to increase tax at all". He said in the City in September 1996: We want people to pay lower taxes". He said on "The World At One" in January 1997: the programme of the Labour Party does not imply any tax increases at all. Now, he cannot remember those things. With a memory such as that, he could get a job in the Foreign Office any day. Is it not time that he started to live up to those promises and instructed the Chancellor to prepare a Budget that will meet them, instead of betraying them, as he has done twice before?

The Prime Minister

We have met all the promises that we made. We promised that we would cut VAT on fuel and we did. People remember the 22 tax rises under the right hon. Gentleman's Government, in breach of all their promises. However, what he is now saying is that it would be his policy to change all those issues, all those matters—that he would reverse them all. Would he? Of course, he would not. What we have done for the first time is to get rid of the huge national debt that was inherited from the Conservative party. The £28 billion borrowing has gone. We have the lowest mortgage rates for over 30 years. Employment is up 400,000. We have halved youth unemployment—and how have we done it? We have rejected the politics of boom and bust, in favour of a stable economy. [Interruption.] Oh yes! It is not the Government, but the Opposition who suffer from amnesia. We shall remind people at the next election that they can have boom or bust again under the Tories or stability under Labour.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East)

Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the recent announcement by the Nissan motor company of 800 new jobs in my constituency, giving hope and opportunity to many of my constituents who have been denied them for too long?

The Prime Minister

I very much welcome that new investment. I also welcome the commitment to continuing inward investment in Britain. As my hon. Friend will know, we are setting stable conditions for industry so that we can come out of this downturn and prosper in future at the same time as tackling structural unemployment through the new deal. That is the best combination of policies for the future of the country.

Q6. Mr. William Cash (Stone)

In December last year, I called on the Prime Minister to give the British people and the House a White Paper on the constitutional, economic and political implications of joining the single currency. He refused. Is he now aware that there is a early-day motion on the Order Paper signed by Labour Members, Liberal Democrats, Euro-sceptics and Europhiles on both sides of the House and by hon. Members representing the Ulster parties, calling on the Prime Minister to provide the British people with the truth about the constitutional, political and economic questions arising from the single currency? Will he now review the position set out in the White Paper?

The Prime Minister

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on becoming a consensus politician after all these years. The position that we set out is the right one. Of course there should be a full and proper public debate, and we look forward to being part of that debate. Whether or not his Front Bench would wish it, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will also be part of that debate, but it should cover the whole range of issues in respect of monetary union. Frankly, we can have that debate without White Papers, but it should be based around the facts. However, the hon. Gentleman, and very many now—it is probably the majority position in the Conservative party—have set themselves against monetary union irrespective of the arguments and before the debate has even taken place. I believe that that is wrong and contrary to the best interests of the country.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Does my right hon. Friend understand the sense of betrayal among the work force at BP in Grangemouth who, having taken large numbers of job losses and redundancies to reach world-class status and attract substantial investment, have been told today that they are likely to face another 450-plus redundancies? Will he ensure that Scottish Office Ministers get round the table with me and the management of BP to ensure that, where jobs are being outsourced and put out to contract, they remain in the Scottish economy for the benefit of the stakeholders who share in the future of that industry?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that there will be discussions between my hon. Friend and the Ministers concerned. The oil industry is in difficulty as a result of the price of oil having dropped quite dramatically. My hon. Friend will know, however, that BP has made it clear that the investment that it announced late last year to create new jobs has not been put at risk by today's announcement. Obviously, we sympathise very much with the jobs that are now at risk and we shall do whatever we can to help, but it is good to know that BP has reiterated its commitment to continuing and further investment in the oil industry in Scotland.

Q7. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the cost of a first-class postage stamp is greater than the extra 25p a week—just 25p a week—for older pensioners? Is it not about time that the Government gave a first-class pension to pensioners?

The Prime Minister

Of course it is important to do that. It is important also that, when we have proposals from the Liberal Democrats, they are costed proposals.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

They are.

The Prime Minister

I very much doubt that, based on experience. Regardless, let me not criticise the Liberal Democrats. I should, however, point out to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) that, although he talks about 25p per week, our introduction of the minimum income guarantee for pensioners will ensure that a single pensioner will receive at least £75 per week, and that a couple will receive at least £116 per week. When we add on top of that help with winter fuel bills, we are giving at least the poorest pensioners in our society considerably more help than he admits.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some temporary workers in my Corby constituency experience awful exploitation at the hands of employment agencies, and face penalty clauses of £1 an hour if they fail to complete a contract? Will he ensure me that the Employment Relations Bill will, after it becomes an Act of Parliament, enable a root-and-branch overhaul of the regulations governing those employment agencies, so that we can have fairness for every individual in the workplace?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that my right hon. Friend has listened to the points that my hon. Friend has made. Fairness at work cannot deal with all the difficulties that people face at the workplace. However, it will mean that, for the first time, people will have basic rights that have been denied to them in the United Kingdom but are simply the rights taken for granted around the world. From what was said in last night's debate, we now know that Conservative Members would, if they were elected to power, get rid of the minimum wage, get rid of the family-friendly provisions in the fairness at work Bill, and get rid of the basic trade union rights that everyone else in the world takes for granted.

Q8. Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

Does the Prime Minister agree with the view that wealth creation is more important than wealth redistribution?

The Prime Minister

I think that both are extremely important.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that, in the next few months, consultation exercises will be launched across the country to examine the implications for localities of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Will he join me in welcoming the enthusiasm with which many of the partners have entered into the work that they have to do? This morning, I was at the launch in King's Lynn of consultations between West Norfolk borough council, Norfolk county council and the Norfolk police. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important partnership will be between those who serve the community and the community itself? Will he join me in encouraging the public to have their voices heard during both the audit and the development of the crime and disorder strategies that their communities need?

The Prime Minister

I urge the public to get involved in the consultations on crime strategies in their area. Over the next three years, £250 million extra will be going into crime prevention. The new crime and disorder legislation will allow us to deal with violent and unruly neighbours who are making people's lives hell in estates across the country. I urge people to use the powers, which are available and can make a big difference to the safety and security of our communities. People should know that they have a responsibility to behave properly towards the area in which they live.