HC Deb 24 February 1999 vol 326 cc379-88
Q1. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 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 meetings later today.

Mr. Bennett

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Labour party does not deserve to be in office if it does not promote justice and fairness, especially by ensuring that people of all races and colours enjoy equality and that all creeds are respected? Does he agree that we should be happy to be judged at the next election on our record in promoting that?

The Prime Minister

I am proud that it was this Government who set up the Lawrence inquiry. I am happy to accept its judgment, and the judgment to which my hon. Friend has just referred. I should like to add that I think it right today to praise Doreen and Neville Lawrence for their courage and dignity. As a nation, we should confront honestly the racism that still exists in our society: as a nation, we should find within ourselves the will to overcome it.

The publication of today's report on the killing of Stephen Lawrence is a very important moment in the life of our country. It is a moment to reflect, to learn and to change. It will certainly lead to new laws but, more than that, it must lead to new attitudes, to a new era in race relations, and to a new more tolerant and more inclusive Britain.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Does the Prime Minister agree that every decent person in the country, regardless of politics, will wish to show sympathy and support for the family of Stephen Lawrence, and will feel shame and disgust that his murderers have not been brought to justice? Does he also agree that, if some good is to come out of that appalling crime, we must all learn the lessons of what went wrong and commit ourselves to build a nation in which every citizen, regardless of colour or creed, is treated with justice and respect?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman's sentiments. It is also important today to recognise that the report and its findings should not lead us to conclusions about only the police service, or any other service in British society; the report is about the whole of British society and its public services. It is also about what we must all do—collectively, across the political parties—to make sure that those appalling events lead to an improvement in race relations throughout the country.

Mr. Hague

Following on from that, does the Prime Minister agree that our police force will need—and will want—changes to be made to root out racism and to prevent such an injustice happening again? However, will he also agree that to condemn every police officer in London or the country as racist would itself be prejudiced and wrong? The great majority of men and women in the police force do their best in an incredibly difficult job, on behalf of their fellow citizens. Does he share my hope that we will debate the lessons of today's report with frankness and honesty, and that a hunt for scapegoats will help no one?

The Prime Minister

I agree that it is important that we debate the report honestly and properly, and that we act on its recommendations. What is important today, not only for the Lawrence family but for the whole of our society, is that the report's recommendations—whose implementation my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will set out later—deliver the most comprehensive agenda for improving race relations for many decades. The test of our sincerity as law makers in this House is not how well we can express sympathy with the Lawrence family, but how well we implement the recommendations to make sure that such an incident never again happens in our country.

Q2. Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read The Western Morning News today? If so, he may have noted that in a exclusive survey commissioned by the newspaper, seven out of 10 firms in the west country would welcome being able to join the euro. Will my right hon. Friend note that people who know about and care about British jobs, investment and trade warmly welcome his statement yesterday that we have a national changeover plan, which is good, decent, British common sense?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, I take a keen interest in all the regional press, and in The Western Morning News in particular. Her point is surely right. The vast majority of British business wants the sensible, balanced course set out by the Government yesterday, in which we indicate our direction, set down the conditions in our national economic interest and make sure that we make the necessary preparations so that the British people can have a proper choice. That is the true way, no matter what is said by that part of the Conservative party that is hostile to everything to do with Europe. That is how properly to implement British national interests.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

In a few moments, the House and the country must consider the very public consequences of the private tragedy of the death of Stephen Lawrence. I hope that, as the Prime Minister has said, those consequences will extend well beyond the police force and bring changes to our society as a whole. I see no point, however, in seeking to anticipate a report that will be published in a few moments time.

May I, therefore, ask the Prime Minister a question of concern to the people of Scotland? Is he aware, and can he confirm, that under his Government the education budgets of 29 out of 32 Scottish local authorities have been cut by £100 million in real terms?

The Prime Minister: From this April, we have given the largest single increase in education over the next three years that our country has ever known. That money is going to schools in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It had been denied them for years by the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. Ashdown

I am surprised to hear the Prime Minister attempt to deny my figures, which came from his own Scottish Office. Will he confirm, therefore, some further figures from the Scottish Office? For every £100 invested in Scottish education by the Tories, his Government are investing £96. The figures also show that by the end of this Parliament, Scottish education and schools will be more underfunded than they were three years ago under the Tories. Why should Scotland put up with second-class education under Labour? Does the Prime Minister not realise that if he will not fund first-class education in Scotland, the Scottish Parliament will have to do so for him?

The Prime Minister

On the budget for Scotland and education, what the right hon. Gentleman says is complete nonsense. We have made an increase in education spending, not just for Scotland but for the whole of the UK. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland recently set out a programme to ensure more nursery education and more people going into higher education. A school building programme outside local authority budgets is also providing literally millions of pounds for rebuilding Scottish schools. With the greatest of respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I must tell him that what he says about the figures is nonsense. If people want to increase provision for education, they should vote for the party that is, in government, putting through the largest education increase that the country has ever seen.

Q3. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

While I utterly condemn violence from whatever source it may come, does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that Turkey would be wise to accept the advice of the European Union by ensuring that the trial of Abdullah Ocalan is both fair and seen to be fair? As one who visited northern Iraq at the beginning of last year, may I assure the Prime Minister that now is the time for all parties to come together to heal old wounds? In the light of new evidence of ethnic cleansing, would my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will support and defend Kurdish organisations that are genuinely and passionately committed to peace and to individual human rights?

The Prime Minister

We condemn terrorism in all its forms. However, we have said repeatedly that Ocalan should receive a fair trial and that his physical safety should be assured.

As for the Iraqi Kurdish groups, my right hon. Friend knows that the Government have long-standing contacts with both main groups. We welcome the agreement that their leaders signed in Washington last September to enhance full reconciliation. I also point out that we support the Kurds through the United Nations oil-for-food programme, and our bilateral programme for northern Iraq is worth £3 million a year. RAF aircraft continue to patrol the no-fly zone precisely in order to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish groups have told us how much they value the work that the Government have done, in the form of aid and military assistance, to protect the Kurdish people.

Q4. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Five years ago, the French Government were prepared to invoke the Luxembourg compromise to save a few thousand jobs in French shipyards. This Thursday, will this Government be prepared to invoke the Luxembourg compromise to save 5,000 jobs in the British art market? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is right [Interruption.] It is a very serious issue. We obviously oppose the directive and we shall continue to do so. We rule out absolutely nothing with regard to the tactics that we employ in this area. We will ensure that we get the best deal possible for Britain. As a result of the Government's previous efforts, substantial concessions have been made available to Britain. However, they do not go far enough and we cannot agree to the directive at present.

Q5. Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

Does my right hon. Friend recall, as I do, the previous Government's promise that rail privatisation would result in major improvements in rail services? The only changes that my constituents have experienced are higher fares and poorer services. [Interruption.] Will my right hon. Friend ensure that tomorrow, at the rail summit, which will be chaired by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister—[Interruption.]—and at which all key players in the rail industry will be present, the fare-paying public and the taxpayers get a better return for the £1.1 billion subsidy that the rail industry has taken from them?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend should pay no attention to the catcalls from the other side. After all, rail privatisation is one of the many scandals that we inherited from the previous Conservative Government. It has delivered a poorer service for the customer and, because of the way in which the Conservatives sold it, hundreds of millions of pounds have been lost to the public purse. If the Conservatives had any sense of shame, they would apologise for that. However, as with so much else, we will clean up their mess.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that the present situation is unacceptable. Rail companies that cannot or will not deliver will simply have no future in the industry. It will take time, but we will put the rail industry back on its feet and save it from the predicament in which the Conservatives left it.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Will the Prime Minister now answer the question that he failed to answer yesterday every time that it was asked? Will he make the pound shadow the euro before the next election?

The Prime Minister

I certainly did answer that question yesterday: I said no.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister did not say no yesterday. [Interruption.] No, he did not.

Madam Speaker

Order. This noise is very time consuming.

Mr. Hague

In any case, the Prime Minister is not being straight with the people of this country on this subject. That is because article 121 of the Amsterdam treaty says that to join the euro requires the observance of the … margins provided … for at least two years, without devaluing against the currency of any other Member State". The Chancellor's advisers say it; the responsible European Commissioner says it; so why does not the Prime Minister come clean and admit to people that that is what he would have to do to join the euro?

The Prime Minister

Because it is not, and I do not accept it. I have been asked this many, many times—is it our intention to go back into the exchange rate mechanism and to shadow the euro? The answer is no, but what we will do is conduct economic policy in this country's national interest. That is precisely what we are doing, and that is the right thing to do. This is the latest of the euro scares, and it will fail like the other ones.

Mr. Hague

It is the Prime Minister's friend Gavyn Davies who says that at some point the Bank of England will have to be told to 'shadow' the euro (instead of inflation) for a two-year period". Is that a euro scare from Gavyn Davies? It is the European Commissioner responsible who says: If and when the UK decides to join the euro it will have to comply with the same conditions as … the first wave countries. There were five criteria for membership". Is the European Commission spreading a euro scare? Is Gavyn Davies spreading a euro scare? Is not the truth that the Prime Minister does not want to admit that he will have to run the economic policy of this country in the interests of joining the euro and not in the interests of Britain?

The Prime Minister

With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, he is trying to catch up on what he lost yesterday. [Interruption.] After all, after yesterday we have got two Tory parties. One says, "No never," the other agrees with us, and he is the leader of neither of them. The answer is that, as other countries have not been members for two years of the exchange rate mechanism, there is no obligation upon us to do it and we do not accept it.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister tries to refer to who lost yesterday. Is he aware that in the last six hours, 100,000 people have called The Sun to say that they want to keep the euro? [Interruption.] What is more, they regard him as a love rat. He has produced a national handover plan that does not come clean on the costs of joining the euro, that does not explain how the business cycles would converge, and that does not come clean about the fact that with convergence nowhere in sight, his plan means running the British economy in the interests of his campaign to join the euro and not in the interests of this country.

The Prime Minister

A more interesting poll may be how many of the right hon. Gentleman's Back Benchers will wish to keep him. I do not want to start another debate in the Conservative party. The national changeover plan has been produced with the consent, and at the request, of the vast bulk of British business so that we can make sensible preparations for entry into the euro, provided that the economic conditions that we have set out are met. It is supported by the overwhelming majority of people who understand that irrespective of one's view of the euro, it is surely important to make preparations. What is utterly absurd is the position that he has landed himself in, which is to say that the euro will be a disaster next Parliament but may be entirely acceptable the Parliament after. The truth is that our position sets out a clear direction and the economic conditions. It is balanced, sensible and right, and it is what this country, I believe, will accept.

Q6 Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

After that, may I ask a sensible question? Is the Prime Minister aware that at lunchtime today a petition containing 31,000 signatures was handed to my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) protesting against proposed closure of the Coastguard station in Liverpool? Given that Liverpool is now developing rapidly again, that gas and oil production in Morecambe bay and the Irish sea is continuing, and that Blackpool seaside resort attracts 18 million visitors a year, will my right hon. Friend instruct the appropriate Minister to reverse the decision before lives are needlessly lost?

The Prime Minister

I cannot instruct the Minister to do that. I am sure that the Minister, who will have the petition, will have heard the representations. If my hon. Friend would like to arrange a meeting with the Minister, we will arrange that. I shall take a personal interest in the matter and respond to my hon. Friend in detail, setting out the reasons for the Government's decision when we take it.

Q7 Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

Is the Prime Minister proud of the fact that a Labour Prime Minister and a Labour Government are introducing means-testing of widow's pensions?

The Prime Minister

We believe that the reforms of bereavement benefits are right in order to ensure both that the money goes to the people who need it most, and that we can afford, within public spending, to extend widow's benefit to widowers. It is a compromise, but we believe it to be a sensible one.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirm today's figures, which show that 36,500 people, including almost 3,000 qualified nurses, have sought to rejoin or join the staff of the national health service? Does not that reflect a massive vote of confidence in this Government's plans for the future of the NHS?

The Prime Minister

The nursing line that has been set up to try to attract people back into the nursing profession has, I am very pleased to say, been immensely successful. As my hon. Friend says, more than 36,000 people have already contacted it. Over the next few years, we are making available funds for another 10,000 nursing places. There are already 2,500 more nurses in training. Although there are many other problems with which we need to deal, and are dealing with, at least many people working in the national health service see a Government who are making a start on rebuilding it.

Q8 Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

It is some time since Ministers announced European agreement on lifting the beef export ban, but farmers in my constituency tell me that no beef has yet been exported. The reason for that is that the Government have not yet invited European Commission inspectors to look at the abattoirs that will be involved in the trade. When will that invitation be issued, and when will the first side of beef be exported?

The Prime Minister

It was always anticipated that beef exports would not begin immediately. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the inspection needs to happen. We have of course invited the inspectors, and I believe that they will be visiting in the next few weeks. However, the matter is for the European Commission as well as the Government. We also want to make absolutely sure that, when the inspection happens, it is successful. A successful inspection is necessary for the final stages of the lifting of the ban.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement last week of much needed investment in inland waterways? Will my right hon. Friend give every encouragement to the Deputy Prime Minister's Department to bridge the last gap in the canal link between Lancashire and Yorkshire in the Rochdale area, which will benefit not only the environment and jobs but tourism in the wonderful borough of Rochdale?

The Prime Minister

This is an act of reconciliation that, obviously, we shall try to encourage. I am pleased to say that British Waterways is meeting the chief executive of the council later this week to discuss whether it can assist in any way.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

It says here.

The Prime Minister

Well, it does say that here. Not even I can pretend to be an expert on the Rochdale canal. As it also says here, there is an application for Millennium Commission funding to ensure that the last part of the link is completed. Obviously, I cannot say whether that will be successful, but I wish the council well.

Q9. Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

If the euro goes on collapsing at its present rate, will the Prime Minister consider using the pound to prop it up? By the way, I asked about shadowing yesterday, and the Prime Minister did not say no.

The Prime Minister

I have always said no to that question. We shall not use the pound to prop up the euro and we shall not shadow the euro. We are setting out a sensible future course for this country. People, such as the hon. Gentleman, who are opposed not only to the euro but to everything European, are perfectly entitled to that view, but it is not in the country's interests.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

Will my right hon. Friend extend his support—I am sure that he will—to the Minister who is involved in the negotiations on common agricultural policy reform, which will improve rural diversification, increase the market focus of agriculture in our country and extend the care of our environment? Will he comment on the supposedly helpful remarks of the Leader of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister

Those remarks were very unhelpful to our negotiating position. We believe that it is possible to achieve significant reform of the common agricultural policy and we shall argue for that. That is right not only for British farmers but, more importantly, for consumers in Britain and across Europe.

Q10. Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that we have often been told by advocates of British membership of the exchange rate mechanism that it proved so disastrous for British industry and agriculture because we went in at the wrong exchange rate? Will he now tell us what he thinks may be the right rate of exchange for the pound sterling to enter a single European currency, not just on the day, but for ever?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that it would be sensible to start negotiating that at the Dispatch Box. I remind the hon. Gentleman that his Government took Britain into the exchange rate mechanism at that rate and then had us exit from it with colossal cost to the nation.

Q11. [71238] Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that when he made his statement on the euro yesterday, it was welcomed by an ex-Deputy Prime Minister, an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, an ex-Prime Minister and an almost ex-leader of the Liberal Democrats? Is my right hon. Friend sure that he has got this right?

The Prime Minister

I think that their remarks were of rather more value than those of someone who may, in time, be an ex-leader of the Conservative party.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I remind the Prime Minister of the recent forthright and unequivocal comments by the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Aherne, about decommissioning and the formation of an Executive. In the light of those remarks, what advice would the Prime Minister now give to the Irish republican movement?

The Prime Minister

The advice is very clear: they should decommission their weapons. We have always said that, and I repeat it. I agree with what the Taoiseach said. The whole agreement must be implemented and we must know that violence has been given up for good, as we have always said. It is unreasonable to expect people to sit down together unless they know that that is the case.

Q12. Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester)

The people of Worcester have been on a promise for over 40 years to get a new hospital. When my right hon. Friend visited Worcester last July, he promised to give the project a shove. Has he anything to report to the people of Worcester?

The Prime Minister

When I visited Worcester last July, I gave my hon. Friend a personal assurance that the hospital would be built under the private finance initiative. I am delighted to say that there is a decision that allows the Worcester PFI scheme to progress. Of course, not only will a new hospital be built which was not built under the previous Government, but the large amount of extra investment in the health service in Worcester and elsewhere from this April will allow us to provide capital equipment in our hospitals, more doctors and nurses and better primary care and to start rebuilding the national health service after 18 years of neglect under the Conservative Government.