HC Deb 21 July 1999 vol 335 cc1180-90
Q1. Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 July.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I met the Israeli Prime Minister and later visited Winsford in the Eddisbury constituency. Later today, in addition to my duties in the House, I shall be meeting ministerial colleagues and others.

Mr. Forth

With which of the views expressed on the future of the European Union by the Prime Minister's friend and protegé, Mr. Prodi, does the right hon. Gentleman disagree?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to say that Mr. Prodi made a speech today with which I agree wholeheartedly—it was a speech about the reform of the European Commission and how to make Europe more accountable. If it were not for the total anti-European obsession of the Conservative party, the Opposition might at long last find something to applaud in what he said.

Q2. Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a top priority for the proposed Strategic Rail Authority is to encourage the transfer of traffic from road to rail? Does he also agree that the east-west rail project that is intended to link towns and cities throughout the east and centre of England—including Bedford and Kempston—is precisely the type of imaginative scheme that the SRA ought to push forward to boost local and regional economies, and to raise the quality of life for all of us?

The Prime Minister

On the east-west rail link, I am pleased to say that my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London has been considering the proposals that have been made. She suggests looking at a phased approach that would allow sections of the proposed link to be updated and improved—delivering immediate benefits. More than that, the Strategic Rail Authority can restore order to the chaos of privatisation; in particular, it can ensure that public money is well spent after the scandal of the sale of our rail industry, at a loss of more than £5 billion—for which we have still not received an apology from the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The Prime Minister must know as well as anyone that the Army is now severely overstretched: 89 per cent. of its forces are committed in some way. Given the extent of those commitments and the need to back up the Regular Army, would it not now be wise to reconsider the huge reductions in the Territorial Army? The Prime Minister can ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who has just entered the Chamber.

The Prime Minister

The changes that have been made in the Territorial Army—[Interruption.] Let me remind Opposition Members that a Conservative Government cut defence spending by almost 30 per cent. and they cut the Territorial Army as well. The changes are to the benefit of the Territorial Army, which will be better used in the future. As a result of the strategic defence review that the Labour Government have undertaken, we shall have defence forces who are far better able to carry out the capabilities that we want.

Mr. Hague

The changes are obviously not to the benefit of the Territorial Army. As for lecturing us about the past, the Conservatives were maintaining the defences of this country when the right hon. Gentleman was waving a CND placard. We are talking about what is happening now. Are not the facts clear? The Army is 6,000 below strength, with more people leaving than joining and, at the same time, the Government are cutting the Territorial Army by 18,000, with the result that TA engineering battalions are being disbanded when we need more engineers. If we are not to undermine the future effectiveness of the Army, should not the Prime Minister at least postpone those decisions?

The Prime Minister

No, because the decisions were taken as a result of the strategic defence review that was conducted with the full support of our armed forces and has been widely admired right around the world. It is as a result of what we are doing that we are able to meet the capabilities that we have set out—and will in future have better capability, especially in areas such as strategic lift—whereas the previous Conservative Government actually left us unable to carry out the capabilities we inherited.

Mr. Hague

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should listen to the Select Committee on Defence, which has a Labour majority and which said in its report: The cuts in the TA infantry"— and— engineers … are shortsighted. The TA are … a valuable resource of long term insurance against the unexpected … We urge the MoD to reconsider the cuts. That was even before this year's events in Kosovo, since when the TA infantry battalions have been cut by more than half. Would it not be in the long-term interests of this country to reconsider or postpone those huge reductions?

The Prime Minister

No, for the reason that I gave. The changes that have been made will result in our armed forces being in a better position to carry out the capabilities that we have set for them. That is not only my view, but that of the Chief of the Defence Staff. The review has been conducted with immense care. It was the first time that any Government had come in and looked at what our capabilities would be. As I said, the result of that review has not only been widely admired but is expected to be imitated around the rest of the world.

As for the performance of British troops and the Territorials in particular, I pay tribute to the way in which our armed forces have worked, especially in Kosovo, and I pay tribute to the Territorial Army. However, just as changes were made when the Conservatives were in government, it is important that we make changes. The difference is that we are making them with the full agreement of the armed forces.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating a group of women from my constituency who are driving a truck full of aid to Kosovo? Will he reassure the House that the Government are responding to the support aid agencies that are helping refugees, who often have only the clothes in which they stand?

The Prime Minister

I thank all elements of the voluntary sector. People in my hon. Friend's constituency and throughout the country, in community groups, church groups and the voluntary sector, have raised an immense amount of money for Kosovo and have sent out a lot of aid and help to the people there. Britain can be immensely proud, not only of our armed forces, but of the contribution that the people of this country have made to the people of Kosovo.

Madam Speaker

I call Mr. Ashdown. [Interruption.]

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Yes, yes, I shall miss you all too.

I am reluctant at this late stage to try the patience of the House by returning to an issue that I have raised several times. However, having returned this morning from Pristina, I ask the Prime Minister to recognise that, although we won the war at no inconsiderable cost, it is important that we do not lose the peace. There is a race on in Kosovo between order and disorder, and disorder has made a flying start. In that context, I remind the Prime Minister of the international promise to have 3,000 police officers in Kosovo—there are only 70 there now. Into that vacuum, criminality and political intimidation are moving fast. Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that no stone will be left unturned in the effort to move the British contingent out there fast and that he will urge his alliance partners to do the same?

The Prime Minister

I certainly will give that assurance. We have been urging many of our partners to recognise—particularly in relation to troop movements—the importance of getting our forces to Kosovo as quickly as possible. I believe that the conference that will be held on 30 July in Sarajevo will provide an opportunity to make good the promises that we made during the Kosovo conflict. We made those promises not merely to the people of Kosovo, but to the surrounding front-line states and the Balkans region. I intend to make good the promises that this Government and this country made.

Mr. Ashdown

I am grateful for that assurance. However, this is a practical matter. Those policemen are needed on the streets of Kosovo today and there has already been a delay. I ask the Prime Minister to solve this puzzle. He will undoubtedly agree that the professionalism of the average British police officer would be of considerable advantage in Kosovo, where our police officers could make a considerable contribution. Why, therefore, has the Home Office decided that, because the Kosovo police will be armed, British police can perform only purely administrative duties? If British policemen can be armed in special circumstances in Manchester, why can they not be armed in Kosovo?

The Prime Minister

The decision on exactly how the British police forces will be used will be taken on the ground. That is a matter best left to the people on the ground to decide, rather than trying to decide it here. British police officers are ready to go to Kosovo and we are trying to clear obstacles there rather than here to facilitate their relocation. As for troops, we have troops stationed in Kosovo and we want to ensure that other countries make a contribution as well.

As this is the right hon. Gentleman's last Question Time, I pay tribute to the tremendous contribution that he has made to British politics in the past few years, not least on Kosovo and Bosnia, where he was well ahead of the rest of us and right long before the rest of us.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Does the Prime Minister believe that those patients who suffer from multiple sclerosis, the side-effects of chemotherapy or other chronic pain should be prosecuted and jailed for using medicinal cannabis?

The Prime Minister

The same regime applies to those people as to any others. Penalties are a matter for the courts, which will take account of all circumstances. I really cannot comment further except to say that I do not believe that it would be right to change the law in relation to cannabis.

Q3. Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

The retirement of a leader brings many changes— [HON. MEMBERS: "Too late."] Je ne regrette rien. The retirement of a leader brings many changes, not least for the retiring leader. In light of the Sutherland report about the provision of care for the elderly, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and others will be able to enjoy the benefits of long-term residential care—when the time comes—without having to sell their houses to pay for it?

The Prime Minister

I suspect that it is just as well for the hon. Gentleman's future in this place that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) is retiring.

As to the Sutherland report, we have already acted on some of the royal commission's recommendations. For example, we have improved services for carers by allocating £140 million over three years to help fund more respite care. We are extending direct payments for people aged 65 and over and we have announced our intention to establish a proper commission for care standards, as soon as parliamentary time allows, so that residential and nursing homes can be regulated and inspected by an independent agency.

As for the funding of long-term care, we are considering both majority and minority report recommendations. We want to put an end, so far as is humanly possible, to the situation where people face either poverty in old age or selling their homes to pay nursing care costs. We must do that in a financially responsible way and we will make our position clear in due course.

Q4. Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Will the Prime Minister's holiday reading include the 1999 United Nations human development report, which recently noted that income inequality in the mid-1990s in the United Kingdom was greater than in any other developed country? Does he share my concern about that leaden, not golden, Tory legacy? Will he encourage our Government to bridge the chasm that exists between the rich and the poor in our land as rapidly as possible?

The Prime Minister

Our desire to do that is our reason for introducing the new deal, which is the largest ever programme for the long-term unemployed, which is opposed by the Conservatives. It is the reason for the working families tax credit, which gives help to 1.5 million low-income families and which would be scrapped by the Conservatives. It is the reason for the minimum wage, which would also be scrapped by the Conservatives, and for the £100 bonus for pensioners, which is opposed by the Conservatives. Those are all policies that will help to reduce inequalities in this country, and that is a good and right new Labour message.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The operational assumptions that underlay the strategic defence review were wholly exaggerated, as demonstrated following the deployment to Kosovo. The strategic defence review cut £500 million from the defence budget. How can the Prime Minister reconcile that cut to the budget with the overstretch that our armed forces are now facing?

The Prime Minister

First, we have, through the strategic defence review, enhanced our main capabilities, which is important. Secondly, as I said earlier, the review was carried forward with the consent and support of people in the defence and armed forces because they recognised that the services had to modernise. That stands in sharp contrast to the previous Conservative Government, who conducted no proper review and who cut spending, as I said, by over 30 per cent.

Q5. Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis)

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when he will introduce the promised legislation on the funding of political parties? Will he ensure that those proposals include safeguards to address the understandable public concern about the funding of a major political party by a UN ambassador to a foreign country?

The Prime Minister

I am pleased to say that a draft Bill will be presented to the House next week. As part of our commitment, we shall ban foreign donations and ensure that donations over £5,000 are disclosed. We should not forget that the legislation has been brought about by the recommendations of the Neill committee, and that the Conservative party, when in government, consistently blocked any independent inquiry into public financing.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

After the events surrounding formula one and fox hunting, we can see that in only one party is a large donation followed by a change in policy, and that is in the Labour party.

Figures released by the House of Commons Library today reveal that average class sizes throughout the country have risen in the past two years. Will the Prime Minister now admit that when he said at Question Time last week, "class sizes are falling", a true statement would have been, "class sizes have risen"?

The Prime Minister

That is wrong. Class sizes have fallen. For the first time in 10 years, we are seeing falls in primary school class sizes. When the right hon. Gentleman quoted primary school figures to me last week, he took the figure for one key stage and omitted all the rest. If one takes all the figures together, one sees that primary school class sizes are falling, and so are class sizes overall.

Mr. Hague

I asked the Library to take together figures for all primary schools, nursery schools and secondary schools, and the answer is that average class sizes have risen in the past two years. That is here in black and white, and the right hon. Gentleman can have the figures. Why does he not read out the Government's own figures for average class sizes, not only for five to seven-year-olds, but for nursery, junior and secondary school classes? Class sizes have stayed the same for five to seven-year-olds and they have risen for every other age group. Why does the Prime Minister not read out the figures?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong; I shall give him the figures. For the first time in 10 years, class sizes in primary schools are falling. For the first time in five years, overall average class sizes in all maintained primary and secondary schools in England fell between January 1998 and January 1999—since the general election. More than that, as a result of our phasing out of the assisted places scheme, there will be an extra 160,000 five, six and seven-year-olds in classes of fewer than 30. The right hon. Gentleman's party is committed to reintroducing the assisted places scheme and getting rid of the money for the reduction in class sizes. If that is not so, let him come to the Dispatch Box and say so now.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister does not want to read out the figures because they show that class sizes have risen. He promised smaller class sizes in all classes to the whole country. It is even written on one of his famous mugs. I will show him one; it says: "Smaller Class Sizes". It does not say that for five, six and seven-year-olds. [Interruption.] I know that he wants to see the back of his mugs, but he will have to wait for the reshuffle—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I want to see the mug and hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying.

Mr. Hague

All that the mug says on the bottom is: This product needs warm, soapy water". When the Prime Minister publishes the Government's annual report next week, will he skip the warm, soapy water and explain to people that on this, as on so many other things, he has broken his election promise?

The Prime Minister

There is only one mug in this place. We know the difference between the two parties. The right hon. Gentleman prefers the assisted places scheme to reducing class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds. When the annual report is published next week, it will show the fact that, for the first time in years, class sizes are falling; that hospital waiting lists are down; that unemployment is down; that we have the lowest interest rates for more than 30 years; that crime is down.

What the report will not show, but what I shall tell the House now, is the difference between the Labour party and the Conservative party. We are introducing, through the largest ever investment in schools, better schools for all our children. The Tory party opposes that extra investment and opposes the money for smaller class sizes, and that is because it is happy to stand for fox hunting and hereditary peers. When it comes to the minimum wage and class sizes, we need a Labour Government.

Q6. Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any consideration of the problems of public transport should start from recognition of the Conservatives' 18 years of underinvestment and neglect? Does he agree that, although the additional £517 million announced last week for the London underground is very welcome, the Government must do far more to put right the legacy? Will he assure the House that they will take all necessary steps to increase investment and modernise in order to make the public transport system something of which we can truly be proud?

The Prime Minister

Again, there is an important difference between Labour and the previous Conservative Government. Our proposals for London underground mean an extra £500 million funding for it. We propose to increase by 30 per cent. funding for the railway system. On roads maintenance, we are due to spend an extra £900 million. The truth is that we inherited a chaotic, underfunded system from the Conservative Government, but under this Government, it will, step by step, get better.

Q7. Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

The Prime Minister will soon be setting off on a well-deserved holiday. As he sits in the VIP lounge at Heathrow or Gatwick airport, would he care to read the report "The Future of National Air Traffic Services"? It says that the Government should re-evaluate its proposals for Public Private Partnership for National Air Traffic Services to ensure that they are entirely compatible with the safe and expeditious movement of air traffic", and that any decision to opt for a Public Private Partnership for NATS should be deferred until the Swanwick Centre is opened. Does the Prime Minister agree with me, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, an ex-Transport Minister in his Government and many Labour Back Benchers that he should deal with safety first, and get the Swanwick centre up and running before breaking his pre-election promise on NATS in the pursuit of profit and privatisation?

The Prime Minister

A public-private partnership is precisely what we did promise, and of course we shall look very carefully at what the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee and other Committees say about this. However, we must get not just the best value for money—safety obviously does come first—but the best system for the future. I do not think that involving private sector management in these situations is necessarily wrong, but we shall, of course, evaluate the matter and do the best thing.

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

May I welcome the meeting that my right hon. Friend had this morning with the Prime Minister of Israel? Can he comment on those discussions and say how the Government can assist Israel and its neighbours in securing a peace of the brave?

The Prime Minister

I was very impressed by the degree to which the new Prime Minister of Israel was determined to take forward not just the Palestinian track, but the Syrian track, and to try to get a lasting settlement in the middle east. For our part, we have said that we shall give Israel every support that we can in achieving a proper and just settlement, which recognises the need for justice and the security needs. I was pleased that the new Prime Minister of Israel felt that Britain and, indeed, the European Union could play a part in trying to bring about peace in the middle east, and we shall certainly be happy to do so.

Q8. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Is the Prime Minister at all concerned that one of his Back Benchers, the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), is prepared to abuse parliamentary privilege to smear a man who cannot answer back? Does he now acknowledge that the United States State Department has stated that it has never raised any concerns about the conduct of Michael Ashcroft with either Belize or British Ministers? Will he not instead condemn his hon. Friend for abusing his position when he was a member of Westminster city council planning department, when he voted against a planning application by Waitrose in preference to one by Safeway, which just happened to be one of his clients?

The Prime Minister

There is a very simple response to the hon. Gentleman. The Conservative party can refer this entire case to the Neill committee. So why does it not do so? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I remind the House that serious charges against another hon. Member must be made by tabling a motion on the Order Paper.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister genuinely believe that the bipartisan approach to the Northern Ireland peace process is still alive, or does he share the view of some Labour Members that there are elements within the British Conservative party that have done all that they can to undermine the progress that we have made during the past 18 months?

The Prime Minister

I would simply say that I hope very much that the bipartisan approach is maintained, because Northern Ireland should not be an issue of party politics. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It was not when we were in opposition. I hope very much that bipartisanship is maintained, because it is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland that it should be.

Q9 Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Does the Prime Minister recall saying, on "Question Time" on 8 July, The point I am making is we've still got far too many people waiting to see a consultant and on the waiting list"? He went on to promise significant improvement by the time of the next election. Given that the number of people waiting who have been referred by a general practitioner to a consultant has doubled in the two years since the Prime Minister was elected, will he now undertake to publish monthly figures not only for waiting lists, but for those waiting for the waiting lists, so that the British people can see what is happening?

The Prime Minister

Again the hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. Waiting lists have come down under the present Government. Waiting times have also come down. In relation to out-patient lists, this year, we have treated 200,000 more people than last year—far more than the previous Conservative Government did. And yes, it will take time, but we have introduced NHS Direct. An investment of £21 billion is being made in the health service, opposed by the Conservative party. We are renovating every accident and emergency department in the country. We are introducing new cancer services. We have 7,000 more doctors and 15,000 more nurses coming in. Yes, it will take time, but the health service will get better under the present Government, not least because we, unlike the Conservative party, believe in it.

Q10. Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest)

As the minds of hon. Members turn towards their holidays, does my right hon. Friend agree that they will be joined this year by an extra 2.5 million people, who are getting paid holidays for the first time? Does he recall that Conservative Members, when in government, decided to oppose in the courts British people having paid holidays, rather than letting them go on those holidays? Does he agree that one effect of that opposition is that the British public will give Conservative Members a long time on holiday and out of government?

The Prime Minister

That is what they deserve. The Conservative party is opposed to the proposals for holiday leave. It is opposed to the minimum wage. It is opposed to any basic standards in the workplace. It is opposed to the working families tax credit—that boost to 1.5 million low-income families. It is opposed to it because the true one nation party of British politics today is on the Government side of the House of Commons. The Conservative party, as is obvious, is increasingly extreme, divided and out of touch.