HC Deb 16 June 1999 vol 333 cc383-92
Q1. Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I also sent a message to Nelson Mandela, who steps down as South African President today. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Griffiths

An hour ago, I spoke to Besian Krasniqi—a Kosovar refugee who is in Germany with his family—whom I met on 9 April in a Macedonian camp. He praises Britain's resolution and endurance, which gave him and every other refugee hope. He knows that he will not be going home next week or next month, but will the Prime Minister ensure that every refugee is enabled to go home as quickly and as safely as possible, irrespective of ethnic background?

The Prime Minister

I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work as chairman of the Scottish Charities Kosovo Appeal and his steadfast support of the cause of the refugees over the past few months. We are well on course for getting the refugees back. More than 26,000 Serb troops have already left; only 15,000 remain in Kosovo. There are 14,500 NATO troops now in Kosovo, including more than 6,000 British troops. However, the full horrors of what has happened to the refugees are only just coming to light. Our troops have been speaking just in the past few hours of what they have seen: attempted rapes, assassinations, shootings and, of course, the uncovering of mass graves. Thank goodness we intervened in Kosovo, thank goodness for the courage and professionalism of our troops and thank goodness for the support of the British people.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Now that we have all had the experience of a nationwide election under proportional representation, is the Prime Minister going to stick to his manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on changing the voting system for Westminster in this Parliament?

The Prime Minister

I would have thought that, after the campaign, the right hon. Gentleman would have been rather more keen on such a system than I am. Our position on the Jenkins commission has not changed, and will not change. We have already explained our position on the referendum.

Mr. Hague

Perhaps the position is so simple that the Prime Minister can explain it again. Why cannot he give a straight answer to a question about honouring a manifesto commitment? We have just had an election under a voting system that he insisted would not allow people to choose an individual candidate, which people did not like. He justified that system last year by saying: Under the system that we are proposing, we will give away seats … to the Tories—it is an act of generosity on our part."— [Official Report, 18 November 1998; Vol. 319, c. 931.] What we did not know is that he would put the Leader of the House in charge and she would be an expert at giving away seats. If he still thinks that proportional representation is a good idea, why does he not stick to his manifesto and give people the chance to reject further destruction of this country's tried and tested voting systems?

The Prime Minister

For the reason that we gave at the time, which is that the new system proposed by the Jenkins commission could not be introduced in time for the next general election.

Mr. Hague

Is it not fast becoming a hallmark of this Prime Minister that he is afraid to argue the case for the few things that he actually believes in? Almost every Member of the House says where they stand on this issue—the Foreign Secretary is in favour of it, the Home Secretary is against it—except him. Why does not he have the courage either to argue the case for it or to abandon the whole crazy idea?

The Prime Minister

For the reasons that I have given on many occasions. If we are talking about the European elections, we have set out our position on Europe, and on the single currency, very clearly, and I believe it to be the right position for the country.

Mr. Hague

If the right hon. Gentleman cannot remember the reasons for his policy, how can he expect everybody else to remember? But if last week's elections have told him nothing about proportional representation, have they made any difference to his plans for a referendum on joining the euro?

The Prime Minister

No, they have not, because I believe that our position on the euro, which is that the test is the national economic interest—is it good for British jobs, British industry, British investment?—is the right position, and that that is the right test. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman's policy, which is to rule it out for 10 years, arbitrarily, is the wrong policy. As I said to him last week, he may well get a short-term gain, but it will be at the expense of the long-term interests of the country.

I thought that one of the most significant moments yesterday was when the previous hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash), who was one of the people who had the Whip withdrawn from him under the last Conservative Government—[HON. MEMBERS: "No. Withdraw."] Well, let us say that he certainly was not hugely in favour of the last Government's European policy. I apologise if I mistook his protestations of loyalty to the last Prime Minister. That Member now says that he is in the main stream of Conservative policy.

The truth is that the Leader of the Opposition has sold the pass to the Euro-sceptics; they are now in charge of his party and his policy. Whatever the short-term gain, it is a long-term disaster for him and for the country.

Mr. Hague

Instead of saying that elections make no difference to him, should not the Prime Minister be listening to the people of this country? They do not want their Government to be committed in principle to abolishing their currency. Should not he, on that issue as on proportional representation, either have the courage to make the case for the euro or drop his commitment to abolishing our currency?

The Prime Minister

First, if the right hon. Gentleman asks about listening to the British people, of course we should listen to the British people. Indeed, it is unfortunate that over 75 per cent. did not vote in these elections. However, on the single currency, we have a position that is very sensible, surely—to say that the test is the national economic interest, and that what is wrong is to rule the single currency out in the next Parliament, even if it should be in the interests of British jobs, British industry and British investment to join.

The right hon. Gentleman has made his position—[Interruption.] I am told by people shouting that his position is now to rule it out for ever. I had thought that his position was to rule it out for 10 years. What a great point of principle that is. For 10 years it is entirely wrong, but in year 11 it becomes right. That is an absurd position. The true principled position for his party actually is to rule it out—for ever, which is what a majority of his party now want—yes. But I believe that, in the British national interest, we should join if it is in the interests of British jobs, British industry and British investment, and that is the right position for the country.

Mr. Hague

If he was listening to the British people, the right hon. Gentleman would discover that they do not want the Government to be committed to abolishing the pound. They want to be in Europe, not run by Europe. Has it not become evident in recent weeks that, on these vital issues, the Prime Minister is too scared to make his case and too arrogant to listen?

The Prime Minister

No, for the reasons that I have given. When more than 50 per cent. of our trade is with Europe and millions of British jobs depend on Europe, to leave Europe, as a large part of the right hon. Gentleman's party wants to do, or to go so far to the margins of influence that we have no strength or power in Europe, would be a mistake. He may gain some short-term benefit, but in the long term it would be a mistake for Britain. I will not follow him down that path.

Look at this country's position in Europe when we came into office. It had no influence, no strength and no power at all in Europe. This Government have had the beef ban lifted and the rebate preserved. We have ended up with the best deal on structural funds that the country has ever had. The true question is: in or out of Europe? The right hon. Gentleman and his party are increasingly taking Britain out of it.

Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South)

Will my right hon. Friend commend Francis Wheeler, a former constituent of mine and a National Bus Company pensioner, who took the previous Tory Government before the ombudsman for pickpocketing £122 million from his company pension fund? Does my right hon. Friend agree that now, under this Government, justice is being done?

The Prime Minister

Of course it is. The 50,000 National Bus Company pensioners will receive a massive £355 million boost to their pensions. We said that we were determined to settle the issue, and we have done so. We will do the just thing by those pensioners, who were let down year after year by the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

As the Prime Minister pointed out— [Interruption.] We Deputy Leaders should stick together. The Tories have got rid of one already this week. It is a bit like the lilies of the field—he toils not, neither does he spin any more.

Does the Prime Minister recognise that with three quarters of the electorate not voting last Thursday, when it comes to a real test in a referendum about a single currency, those in all three parties who recognise how important that is for Britain must give a lead and make it clear that, by staying permanently out of the currency, we give ourselves a lethal cocktail of a high pound, high interest rates, high job losses and a loss of influence in the world?

The Prime Minister

For a moment I thought that that was a late leadership bid.

The sensible position is to keep the option open and to say, as we have said, that the referendum will decide the issue finally. However, we have made it clear why we believe that it is right for Britain to be part of a successful single currency, provided our economic conditions are met. That is the sensible position. The Conservative position, which is to rule out joining the single currency for 10 years or for ever, is not sensible. If it is correct that Conservative MEPs will not join the Conservative party group in the European Parliament—[Interruption.] It would be a disaster for the country if they did not do that.

Mr. Beith

As there is something of the holding answer about that reply, I promise the Prime Minister that we will return to it.

Will he give further thought to today's business—the Immigration and Asylum Bill? If that Bill will reduce the backlog and quickly weed out applications that are not genuine, why on earth do we need to use poverty and a voucher system as a means of deterring genuine refugees who are fleeing from torture and oppression?

The Prime Minister

We are not consigning asylum seekers to poverty. Indeed, a voucher system already exists. However, it is important that we clean up the system. Many bogus claims are being made. It is not right that we carry on with the present system. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we inherited a mess, with a backlog of tens of thousands of claims. The new system will be fairer and faster and will deter the bogus asylum seeker.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

What would be the effect on the British economy if Bank of England independence were scrapped, interest rates were returned to the levels under the previous Administration, and the £40 billion for schools and hospitals were also scrapped? Would not those Tory policies represent a significant threat to the well-being of everyone in the country if that lot were ever re-elected?

The Prime Minister

The wisdom of our economic policies has been criticised at every stage by the Conservative party, which wants to reverse Bank of England independence, reverse the new deal and reverse the national minimum wage. It also opposes the extra spending on schools and hospitals. As today's unemployment figures show, this Government have delivered higher employment. We have halved youth unemployment, we have the lowest interest rates, we have inflation under control and we have got the public finances sorted out. That is a new Labour Government in action.

Q2. Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

Does the Prime Minister agree that many of the advantages of decentralising power to Scotland and Wales should now be available to the regions and counties of England, and that we should then move towards a federal system of government? Is not that the only answer to the West Lothian question and to fears about the possible break-up of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I cannot agree. We have made it clear that it is important that there is greater decentralisation in the regions. The reason why we have established in the north-east the Northern development agency is precisely to decentralise Government services. However, we must proceed with care and in accordance with the wishes of local people.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

May I welcome the news that the Government are seeking United Nations support for an initiative to ease sanctions on Iraq and relieve the suffering of innocent people, especially the problems of malnutrition and infant mortality? Can the Prime Minister give any further details on that initiative and say when he hopes to see real progress?

The Prime Minister

I hope that we can make progress soon, because it is important that we distinguish carefully between the sanctions that have been placed on Iraq to ensure that it cannot develop weapons of mass destruction, for example, and the humanitarian aid that we are giving to the Iraqi people. As I have emphasised here before, Saddam Hussein has the ability to help the Iraqi people by selling as much oil as he wants to buy food and medicine for them. He is choosing not to do so. We shall support any moves that allow more help to get through to the Iraqi people. We have no wish to increase their suffering. The ultimate cause of their suffering, however, is Saddam Hussein.

Q3. Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

Why does not the Prime Minister simply tell the House what the overwhelming majority of hon. Members and the country wants to hear, which is that he no longer supports proportional representation as a means of electing people to this House?

The Prime Minister

For the reason that I have just given: because I believe that the Jenkins commission deserves serious consideration, and we should give it. I do not see why the Tory party is so against a debate on it.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the rising tensions between India and Pakistan, which could lead to a full-scale war and possibly a nuclear confrontation? What steps are the Government taking to diffuse the situation and to resolve the dispute over Kashmir, which is the root cause of the deteriorating relations between the two countries?

The Prime Minister

We are urging both India and Pakistan to calm the situation down and resolve their differences. We know that the source of those differences is Kashmir, but it is important that they work out a solution in the interests of everybody. That is what we are doing, and we are also using what influence we have in international institutions like the UN to put pressure on them to do so.

Q4. Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Given that the IRA is clearly engaged in a programme of street confrontation, intimidation and murder, such as that of Mr. Downey last weekend, has it not clearly placed itself outside the terms of the agreement? Given, therefore, that the people of Northern Ireland always expected the Prime Minister to honour the commitment that he gave them on weapons last year, may I welcome his statement yesterday that we will now have to find another way forward?

The Prime Minister

We shall have to find another way forward only if the agreement fails, and I hope that it does not fail because I believe it to be the best chance that Northern Ireland has. There are still acts of violence, although I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not mention that there are loyalist acts of violence as well. Those acts of violence are totally unacceptable.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a statutory procedure for assessing what happens in the event that violence takes place, but I still urge him and others to give their help and support to make the agreement work. It has resolved the big constitutional issues of the day and, in particular, it has given the Unionists what they have been arguing for for more than 70 years since partition: the acceptance of the principle of consent, north and south.

I believe, even at this late hour, that, when people go back to the agreement, analyse its terms and really understand what it gives to the people of Northern Ireland—a good constitutional settlement for the future—they will support it.

Q5. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although there has been excellent co-operation between this country and Europe and the United States in the action in Kosovo, we seem to be slipping dangerously towards an international trade war that could impoverish all the advanced nations—indeed all the nations of the world? Will he take urgent steps, not only to discuss the trade situation between the US and Europe, but to urge a radical look at the World Trade Organisation?

The Prime Minister

I agree. The recent difficulties between the European Union and the United States are a serious problem and we have to work hard to ensure that it is resolved. Our position as a country has always been against protectionism and in favour of reform, in the WTO and elsewhere. Europe of course has to understand that, as a result of the WTO negotiations, we will have substantially to reform the way that parts of the EU work, so we are as well to begin on that now.

Q6. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

As the Prime Minister knows, the Government have accepted in the High Court that the previous Conservative Government acted illegally when they failed to implement properly European directive 77/187 on employment protection. What efforts are he and his Government making to introduce a compensation package for the 2,000 people who have taken out writs against the Government and the several others—including my constituent, Mr. David Atkins—with similar cases? When will that compensation package be finalised and when will the people concerned get their money?

The Prime Minister

This matter affects thousands of workers up and down the country and we are consulting widely with companies, unions and others on the revisions that have to be made to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981. Those will be implemented in July 2001 and will ensure proper protection for companies and employees. I will of course ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to respond to the particular points that the hon. Gentleman has made when he writes to him later today.

Jacqui Smith (Redditch)

On the day on which Thabo Mbeki takes over the presidency of South Africa, will my right hon. Friend outline what our Government can do to work with the new South African Government to ensure continued economic and social development in that country? Will he join Labour Members in wishing Nelson Mandela a long and healthy retirement? Does not he think that it is about time that Opposition Members, who called for Nelson Mandela's prolonged imprisonment and execution, made a public apology?

The Prime Minister

One reason why I sent the letter of congratulation to Nelson Mandela today is that he has been an inspiration to the whole world, for his principles and his conviction during the long years of apartheid. We wish Thabo Mbeki well; I believe that he will do an excellent job for South Africa. As for our own help to South Africa, we have a substantial bilateral aid programme. In particular, we have begun to do an awful lot of work with the South African Government and the South African people in relation to AIDS, which is a huge problem for South Africa. I believe that, with the right mix of policies and the right help from the world community, South Africa has a bright future.

Q7. Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

What does the Prime Minister think are the implications of the recent application by the European central bank to the Council of Ministers for permission to double its reserves of gold and currencies?

The Prime Minister

I do not believe that there are any implications in relation to the strength of the euro. The European central bank, like other central banks, is perfectly entitled to make whatever dispositions it wants. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Bank of England has given us advice about gold and gold sales. All central banks will have a mixture of currency portfolios. That is sensible, and it is only the Conservative party that sees some great conspiracy behind it.

Q8. Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff and the support services at Tinsley detention centre in my constituency, who work with ministers of all faiths to create a humane atmosphere in difficult and painful circumstances? Will he assure me that, as good as those facilities are, the stay of detainees will be as short as possible and detainees will be dealt with as quickly as possible to ensure that they go through the system, and that they are not held so that they feel that no one cares?

The Prime Minister

I know of my hon. Friend's long-standing interest in Tinsley house and the wider issue of asylum. Tinsley house is generally acknowledged for the excellence of the quality of its care and of the relationship between staff and detainees. The asylum arrangements that we inherited were a complete and total shambles, with a backlog of many years: tens of thousands of people are waiting for their cases to be dealt with. Our aim is, by April 2000, to deliver initial decisions on new asylum applications from families with children in an average of two months. I am satisfied that the changes we have recently made will allow that to happen.

Q9. Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

The Prime Minister will be aware that he and his Northern Ireland Ministers have repeatedly stated that Sinn Fein and the IRA are one organisation. In those circumstances, will he explain to the House what is meant by the suggestion that has been reported in the press that Sinn Fein might obtain its seats on the Executive by dissociating itself from its own action—with their other hat on as members of the IRA—of not decommissioning, and by expressing some regret? What is the Government's strategy on that issue?

The Prime Minister

I do not know what press reports the hon. Gentleman refers to, but they are wrong. There is no question of that happening. Indeed, my speech yesterday made it very clear that decommissioning is part of the agreement. What I actually said was that, since it is an obligation under the agreement for people to use their best faith to ensure decommissioning, and as nobody will believe that groups associated with paramilitary groups, if they are acting in good faith, cannot achieve decommissioning, people will expect decommissioning to happen. That is the position that we have set out, and I urge the hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members like him to support us. We have a critical time in Northern Ireland over the next two weeks, and whatever bits of nonsense there are in parts of the press that are, frankly, hostile to this agreement, it is the only chance of a peaceful future that Northern Ireland will get.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

On Europe, quite apart from what the Conservative party does—which is a matter for that party—is the Prime Minister aware that millions of people in this country are passionately in favour of European co-operation and have no desire to separate themselves from the continent, but believe that the democratic control of our own economy is a national interest? They are, therefore, of the view that that applies not only to Britain, but to Germany, France and everywhere else. Would my right hon. Friend take this argument seriously, because for democrats to be insulted as if they hated Europe and to be described as Euro-sceptics is offensive and wholly inaccurate?

The Prime Minister

That is an interesting new alliance. I take my right hon. Friend's point seriously. The position that he has adopted is entirely principled: it is opposition to a single currency, full stop, for good, for ever. That is not the Conservative party's position: its position is to be principled for 10 years and to be unprincipled thereafter. My view is that, in the modern world as we move closer together, there will be a pooling of national sovereignty. However, I do not suggest that we join the single currency unless I believe that it is in Britain's interest—in the interests of our jobs, our industry and our investment. For me, that national economic interest is the test. That is a principled position; the other principled position is that of my right hon. Friend, which is to say never. Those are the two clear positions. What is nonsense, is what we have heard from the Conservative party.

Q10. Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, following reports of cross-contamination of animal feeds in France leading to further cases of BSE, the French Government are reported to be seeking a Europe-wide ban on the use of meat and bonemeal in animal rations? When will his Government give British consumers and farmers the protection and support that they deserve, by seeking—[Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I did not hear the last sentence. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Let us be quite clear. I call the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) to repeat the last sentence of his question.

Mr. Greenway

I asked the Prime Minister when he and this Government would give British consumers and farmers the protection and support that they need by seeking what he knows the British agriculture industry has been requesting for two years: a ban on the use of meat and bonemeal throughout Europe, and a ban on imports of meat and poultry produced by that method in other parts of the European Union.

The Prime Minister

First, let me say that the industry has been seeking such a ban for much longer than two years. This has been going on for a very long time. Of course we are trying to do something about it, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, we have been having our own difficulties as a result of BSE. Once we sort the problem out—which we are: as the hon. Gentleman will know, the Standing Veterinary Committee is meeting today to discuss the matter—we can ensure that we deal with the other issues as well. The course that he is urging on us is one of complete—well, I will not accuse him of hypocrisy, because that would be unparliamentary; but it does not lie in the mouths of Conservative Members to attack us over BSE.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

I ask hon. Members to leave the Chamber quietly. This is an important point of order, which I want to hear.

Mr. Mullin

Thank you, Madam Speaker. As you know, I tabled question 11 to the Secretary of State for International Development. I arrived in the Chamber in good time to ask my question, only to discover that it had been grouped with question 1. I had not been informed of that. I subsequently checked to find out whether a letter had been put on the board, and it had not, although I understand that one is on its way.

May I ask you gently, Madam Speaker, to point out to Departments that, when they group questions together, the onus is on them to advise Members accordingly? Putting a letter in the internal mail and hoping that it will arrive in time is not good enough.

Madam Speaker

I entirely sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, who certainly arrived in the Chamber in good time for his question. I believe that it is incumbent on Departments to deal directly with Members when they seek to link questions. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: it is insufficient for Departments to put a note on the board in the hope that Members will pick it up. They may enter the Chamber through other doors.

I hope that all Departments will note what I have said.

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I entirely accept your reprimand. I am very sorry, I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), and I shall ensure that this never happens again.

Madam Speaker

I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman catches my eye and gets a little favour.