HC Deb 09 June 1999 vol 332 cc638-46
Q1. [85185] Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 9 June.

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 such meetings later today.

Dr. Wright

I congratulate the Prime Minister—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Oh.") Wait for it. I congratulate the Prime Minister on having referred the issue of party funding to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Is he aware that there is still a party that gets about one third of its income from its treasurer, who is a tax exile in Florida and who moonlights as the Belize ambassador at the United Nations? When a party has to go, baseball cap in hand, to a billionaire in Belize for its funding, should Lord Neill not be asked to re-examine the issue?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for those reasons that we are committed to introducing legislation. It was this Government who ensured that we could scrutinise party funding properly—[Interruption.] If the Leader of the Opposition denies the facts that my hon. Friend mentioned, perhaps he will say so now, when he asks his question.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

As we know, the only group who can buy votes and influence in a party are the trade unions in the Labour party. The comments of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) are total rubbish. Does the Prime Minister think that the story of the euro so far—[Interruption.] We know that Labour Members do not like talking about the euro.

Does the Prime Minister think that the story of the euro so far— story of fudged borrowing rules, exchange rate instability and economic divergence, all wrapped up with chaotic political handling—has weakened or strengthened the case for joining the single currency?

The Prime Minister

I believe that our position is the correct position—to support a successful single currency, to say that in practice the economic conditions must be met, and to make preparations so that this country has the option to join. The most foolish thing for this country to do would be to adopt the position that the right hon. Gentleman set out this morning for the Conservative party, and rule out the single currency for ever. That would not be in the interests of British jobs, British industry or British investment.

Mr. Hague

The question was whether those events had weakened or strengthened the case for joining the euro. Almost everyone in the country except the Prime Minister and the Chancellor thinks that that case has been weakened. The Italian Treasury Minister says: We have all agreed that the less we talk about the euro, the better it is". He must have been in charge of the Labour party's election campaign. Does the Prime Minister seriously believe that the decision to allow the Italian Government to break its deficit rules—a decision to which the Chancellor was a party—has not weakened the case for joining the euro?

The Prime Minister

The case is as we set it out in February. If the right hon. Gentleman's position now is that we rule out joining the euro for ever, that is wrong. We have the correct position, which is that the test for joining is our national economic interest. That is because more than 50 per cent. of our trade is with Europe and more than 3 million jobs are dependent on Europe. The anti—Europeanism of the Conservative party is a betrayal of the British national interest.

Mr. Hague

My position is to keep the pound at the next election. The Prime Minister's position is to abolish the pound after the next election. He seems to think that recent events make no difference. Even the governor of the European central bank—one of the two people qualified to talk about it—has said that recent events have not done the euro any good. Has the Prime Minister seen the accumulating evidence, contained in the recent International Monetary Fund report, that the UK economy is diverging from the continental economies, not converging with them? Does he agree that that weakens the case for joining the euro?

The Prime Minister

It is correct that, under this Government, Britain has the lowest interest rates for more than 30 years, and that the public finances have been sorted out. However, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The case with regard to the euro remains as we set it out in February.

However, the right hon. Gentleman has now said that he rules out joining the euro at the next election, but apparently not at the election after that—a fatuous position to be in. There are two serious positions on this matter. One is ours, which is dependent on the national economic interest, and the other is to rule it out as a matter of principle. The right hon. Gentleman's position is to rule out joining for the next Parliament, but to rule it in for the Parliament after that. That is an absurd position, and has to do with the division in the Conservative party, not the national interest. If he wants to, in these European elections the right hon. Gentleman can make the case for ruling out the euro. I shall carry on addressing the British national interest, because that is in the interests of this country.

Mr. Hague

We are asking the Prime Minister to address the issues. People are sick and tired of him claiming to love the pound at election time and then committing us to abolishing it afterwards. Does he acknowledge that, increasingly, many politicians in other countries have spoken of the euro as the foundation of closer political union? Chancellor Schroder, with whom he was campaigning yesterday, called it a "stepping stone" to a political union. Is the Prime Minister so dogmatically committed to abolishing the pound that he cannot see that that major constitutional risk weakens the case for joining the euro?

The Prime Minister

Our position is not dogmatic; it is clear, and based on whether the euro is good for British jobs, investment and industry. It is a pragmatic position. What I was pointing out to the right hon. Gentleman is the absurdity of his position, which is that he rules out joining as a matter of principle at the next election, but that he rules it in as a matter of principle at the election after that.

The right hon. Gentleman has decided to define the modern Conservative party by its anti—Europeanism. For example, he is now saying—he said it again today—that he would renegotiate the terms of British entry into the European Union. [Interruption.] We see that Conservative Members behind him are nodding their heads. It would require all 14 other member states to agree that. When the right hon. Gentleman gets to his feet, will he name one other Government who support that position?

Mr. Hague

Is not it the truth that, irrespective of all the evidence, the Prime Minister wants to con the country into thinking that joining the euro is inevitable? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. That is enough.

Mr. Hague

That is why he has committed us to join it in principle. Is not it the actual truth that this country has a choice, and that it can make a success of the pound if it wishes to do so, and be in Europe without being run by Europe? People who want to impress that on the Prime Minister should vote for the Conservative party tomorrow.

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that there will be a referendum of the British people, and the idea that we can bounce them one way or the other is absurd. The position that we have set out is surely sensible. The test is the national economic interest.

I have pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman the absurdity of his position, which rules out entry for the next election but not for the one after that. We have seen him sharing an election platform with Michael Portillo who, I am sure, is right behind him—knife in hand. Mr. Portillo's position is to rule out entry in principle and for good. For the European election campaign, the right hon. Gentleman has effectively adopted Michael Portillo's position on the pound. He wants to renegotiate British entry into the European Union and to cancel the changeover plan so that we cannot enter the euro even if we want to. During the past few days, he has also said that he wants to withdraw from the defence initiative that we have begun with our French colleagues. That is a recipe for leaving the United Kingdom with no strength, power or influence in Europe. No matter what short-term tactical gain he believes he will achieve, that is not in the strategic, long-term interests of Britain. Nor, I can honestly say, is it in the interests of the Conservative party.

Mr. David Lock (Wyre Forest)

Can my right hon. Friend tell me what the attitude of the British Government would be if another country told the European Union that it would like to renegotiate the treaty of Rome, tear up the rules of the single market and turn the clock back 20 years? Does he agree that the British Government, like every other Government, would say that that was a preposterous stance that amounted to leaving the EU? Is the Opposition's policy of renegotiation really a fig leaf to cover up their intention to leave Europe entirely?

The Prime Minister

That is the logic of their position. The Leader of the Opposition cannot name a single Government who support his position, yet the Conservative party says that it would be right for Britain to remain in the European Union only if we were allowed to renegotiate our terms of entry. I can see Conservative Members nodding at that. Unless the right hon. Gentleman can name one Government who support his position, the logic of that position is that the Conservatives will have to leave the EU. Given that more than 50 per cent. of our trade is with Europe, that would be a mistake for Britain.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Judging by the exchanges that we have heard—[Interruption.] I shall take that as a welcome.

Judging by the exchanges that we have heard, it is clear that the vision of the leader of the Conservative party for Britain in Europe is nothing more than an exit sign in lights. Is not the choice before the British electorate tomorrow simple? We can have a Britain on the edge of Europe and preparing to get out of it, or a Britain prepared to play a constructive role in Europe, but determined to reform it. I suspect that the Prime Minister would like to be placed in the second category, so why is he opposed to more openness in the Council of Ministers and why were his Members of the European Parliament opposed to holding individual Commissioners to account for their actions? Why does his party oppose allowing the MEPs more powers to hold the Commissioners to account?

The Prime Minister

On his points of detail, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong about the Labour MEPs. They were among those in the European Parliament who managed to hold the Commission to account. On his first point, the right hon. Gentleman is right. We want to be in Europe and we want to reform it. That is one reason why we launched the reform document yesterday in Britain with Chancellor Schröder. It is remarkable that the Conservatives criticised us even for sharing a platform even with the leader of Germany. It is an extraordinary reflection on how extreme they are that they do not believe we should even share a platform with people who are our allies in the European Union.

Mr. Ashdown

The Prime Minister says that he wants reform in Europe. May I give one example of where the record parts company with the rhetoric? Not many weeks ago, a proposition was put down in Brussels by, as it happens, the Liberal Democrats to ensure that MEPs were paid expenses only against receipts. Labour MEPs blocked that proposition. Why?

The Prime Minister

That is completely wrong. We have supported the Members' statute, and have said its introduction should be quickened. We also proposed the anti-fraud office that the EU is setting up. The right hon. Gentleman's attempt to say that Labour MEPs have a bad record on reform is simply untrue. The reason why we have now got a chance of getting those things done is that if people vote for Labour MEPs, they are at least voting for people with some influence in the Parliament.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

In this national carers week, will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking all those who care for people with Down's syndrome? This week they are running their health alert campaign, which has shown that there is some discrimination in parts of the national health service against people with Down's syndrome. Will he join me and others to combat all forms of discrimination against people with learning difficulties?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I support that and, of course, it was as a result of this Government and the policy that we put forward some time ago that an extra £140 million has been committed for carers. I support fully what my hon. Friend said.

Q2. Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Does the Prime Minister share the view of his Health Secretary that NHS staff are to blame for the recent rise in waiting lists because they took holidays at Easter?

The Prime Minister

He did not say that at all. What he did say, which is true, is that waiting lists are now 65,000 down from what we inherited at the last election, and I can tell the House today that waiting time figures are down as well.

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

Can my right hon. Friend clarify the Government's position on the state funding of parties? Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), it cannot be right for any party in this House to be so dependent on a tax exile billionaire for its funds. While he is at it, can he get to the end of an important issue: has the Conservative party paid back the £18,000 blood money from Milosevic?

Madam Speaker

Order. That was totally out of order and a waste of time.

Q3. Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Will the Prime Minister support the Bill overwhelmingly backed in this House yesterday that would ban the import of meat from countries with low animal welfare standards?

The Prime Minister

As I think we said when the Bill passed yesterday-at least I hope we did-we will consider it carefully. We cannot give a guarantee because of the implications there may be for trade, but we will certainly look sympathetically at it. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to ask me about Europe, but then he agrees with me more than he agrees with those on his Front Bench on Europe.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

With the extension of NHS Direct and the introduction of walk-in health clinics, will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government intend to provide high-quality health services where and when people want them, in contrast to the Conservative party, which still believes that the only way to do that is for a privileged few to pay to go private?

The Prime Minister

As a result of the additional funding that we are putting in, there will be some 7,000 extra doctors and 15,000 extra nurses in the health service. About 1,000 GP practices are to be modernised and every accident and emergency department that needs it will be updated and renovated. Also, as a result of the walk-in centres and NHS Direct, people will have the best modern health service that we can have. It will take some time, but the health service will return to its principles of care at the point of need for all, irrespective of ability to pay. That stands in contrast to the comments of the Conservative party's health spokesman and spokeswoman who want to make sure that people are forced to go private rather than use the health service.

Q4. Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

May I remind the Prime Minister that when the Conservatives introduced the bus lanes on the M4 Heathrow spur, they were additional lanes that did not increase congestion? How are we to judge the success or failure of the bus lanes that his Government have introduced on the M4, which have caused enormous congestion and pollution? Are they just another Labour anti-car stunt to pander to the anti-car lobby?

The Prime Minister

No, they are not. They arise from a suggestion of the Highways Agency, and are an experiment that it is sensible to carry out. We shall consider the results of the experiment carefully, both in terms of congestion and of safety.

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

During national carers week, it is appropriate that we acknowledge the contribution made by millions of carers of all ages in providing personal care and support to many people with disabilities. My right hon. Friend will no doubt recall that, exactly a year ago today, he announced that the Government would introduce a national strategy for carers. The strategy was launched in February this year. It contained a pledge that social services would be allowed to provide services directly to carers as soon as possible. Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing such legislation as a priority?

The Prime Minister

I spoke earlier of the extra grant of £140 million over three years, which will enable local authorities to provide a wide range of services to give carers a break. As my hon. Friend will know, we intend to amend legislation to give local authorities powers to provide services directly to carers. In the context of that change, we will consider the case for extending direct payments to carers for the services.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

Yesterday, the Prime Minister gave us the quite welcome news that the European Council had actually advocated lower business and labour costs. However, can he explain to the House why there is no mention-indeed no hint-of that policy in the manifesto for the European socialist party that he has adopted as Labour's manifesto for tomorrow's elections?

The Prime Minister

The policy set out clearly yesterday is in the document that I launched with Chancellor Schröder. In respect of what has happened in this country, we have cut corporation tax to its lowest level ever. I should have thought that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would welcome the fact that we now have the support of a leading country in EuropeGermany—in ensuring that we can lower business and labour costs. We cannot commit every country in Europe to that policy, but we believe that it is the right policy and we are building the necessary alliances in Europe to achieve it. That stands in stark contrast with his party's position—to build no alliances with anyone.

Q6. Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown)

The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on his efforts on the world stage in pursuit of world peace. Will he use his increasing world stature in the interest of reducing world poverty and, in particular, will he use it to help to persuade our more reluctant partners among the G8 countries, at the forthcoming Cologne summit, at least to support the proposals made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer so that we can make a substantive start on reducing the burden of international debt on the poorest countries in the world? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

I assume that that cheer is one of congratulation, and I accept the congratulations of my hon. Friend. I thank him very much indeed. His question is important because this country is at the forefront of initiatives to reduce third-world debt. That is important. We have announced a series of measures that would allow a cut of at least $50 billion in the debt of the world's poorest countries by the end of the year 2000. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced a $100 million further contribution to the trust fund set up to meet the costs falling to the World Bank and other regional development banks. However much the Conservative party may decry those types of initiative to reduce third-world debt, large numbers of people in this country support measures to reduce third-world debt and understand—even if today's Conservative party does not—that our generosity does not stop at our shores.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

Tomorrow, many people will vote in the European elections. Will the Prime Minister join me in saying that this should be the first and the last time that not a single voter is able to vote for a single candidate in an election? It is a disgrace that no elector can affect what happens to a mainstream party candidate.

The Prime Minister

I do not agree. We had this debate during the passage through the House of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999. The policy is the right one because the new system is far simpler for voters and far better—it is a more democratic system. It is also a system under which we are bound to do less well. I disagree with the hon. Gentleman: not only is it the right system, but it is the system used by most other countries in the European Union.

Q8. Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

May I tell my right hon. Friend of the anxiety felt at Shotton steelworks in my constituency and at British Steel plc about the potential impact of the energy tax which, by 2001, might be some £230 million for the industry? Will he monitor the impact of the tax on industries in Britain? My steelworkers were glad that, yesterday, they were able to meet my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and make their case—she said that she would consider the impact of the tax.

The Prime Minister

Any money raised by the climate change levy is given back to industry through cuts in national insurance costs. However, we understand that there are many energy-intensive industries that may have particular problems. For that reason, we have said that we will meet them and consult with them on the impact of the proposals, and we shall certainly do so.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

In view of the fact that another terrorist murder took place in Northern Ireland last week, and given that there has been no decommissioning of terrorist weapons, will the Prime Minister now call a halt to the release of terrorist prisoners? If his answer is no, will he explain to the House why he apparently treats terrorist murderers so leniently, but is so hard on British ex-soldiers?

The Prime Minister

First, anyone who has committed a crime after the time of the signing of the Good Friday agreement is not eligible for early release, so that response would not be appropriate. Those who are responsible for that appalling attack will not be eligible for early release.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman and many other Conservative Members have, in effect, been saying for a significant period of time that we should bring the Good Friday agreement to an end—[Interruption.] They can shout and bawl as much as they like, but that is effectively what they have been asking for. I believe that that would be a mistake; it would be the wrong thing to do. We have now set a timetable to try to get over this last remaining difficulty.

I hope that the Conservative party will put the interests of people everywhere in the United Kingdom ahead of whatever views it might express that would undermine the agreement. I hope that it will support the Labour Government in the same way as we used to support the Conservative Government in getting the peace agreement through.