HC Deb 17 March 1999 vol 327 cc1114-24
Q1. Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 17 March.

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 such meetings later today.

Mr. Heald

Since the Prime Minister claimed last week that taxes are set to fall next year, numerous economists, including Anatole Kaletsky in The Times, have described his comments as being completely false. Will he therefore accept the House of Commons Library's figures, which show a whopping £7.1 billion increase in taxes for next year? Does he agree that the public want less tax, not stealth tax? Will he promise to publish a list of all his stealth taxes and hidden taxes, entitled not "Your Financial Health Check", but "Your Financial Stealth Check"?

The Prime Minister

The public will remember the 22 Tory tax rises. We certainly do.

Let me refer the hon. Gentleman to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which published an analysis last week indicating that every single decile—every tenth of the population from the bottom right up to the top—gained as a result of the Budget. There will be a net tax cut next year of £4.5 billion, and direct taxes will be down by £9 billion.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Should not the outside police investigation into the foul murder of Rosemary Nelson be absolutely thorough and unhindered in any way? Since those who put that brave lawyer to death describe themselves as loyalists, should we not say without contradiction today that those murderers are traitors to everything that this country stands for?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. No stone will be left unturned in the hunt for the killers, whose clear intent in murdering Mrs. Nelson was to stir up tensions in the local and wider communities and to attack the political process. The investigation by David Phillips, chief constable of Kent, will be independent—as my hon. Friend wishes—and he will be given every possible assistance by the RUC. The investigation's remit will be very wide.

Let us be clear about what the killers are trying to do. They are trying to wreck the hopes of peace for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. They are not loyal to anything other than their own bigotry and prejudice. That is not a loyalty shared by any sensible member of the United Kingdom.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I agree with the Prime Minister's last remarks.

Following the devastating report on the European Commission, may I ask the Prime Minister three specific questions? First, does he agree that the huge pay-offs involved should not apply—presumably they were never intended to apply—to Commissioners who are forced to resign in disgrace?

Secondly, does the Prime Minister agree that, in addition to procedural reforms, the Commission should do less, and do it better? Thirdly, is there any reason why we should not agree across the House that the appointment of new British Commissioners should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and the approval of the House?

The Prime Minister

It is interesting to reflect on the three points put to me by the right hon. Gentleman who had 18 years to act on them, but never did.

In respect of the pay-offs, if someone is guilty of fraud or misconduct, they will, of course, not apply. In respect of procedural reforms, I believe that the reforms that we set out yesterday, which were based on the findings of the committee of inquiry, and which would overhaul the whole financial management system, are the right reforms. I do not know exactly what the right hon. Gentleman believes the Commission should not do that it is doing at present.

In respect of parliamentary scrutiny, appointments are of course always subject to parliamentary scrutiny, but the system of appointment that has applied under successive Governments is the best system.

Mr. Hague

The right hon. Gentleman has not appointed Commissioners before and I have not been involved in such appointments. This is an opportunity to talk about the future, not the past. Is it not an opportunity to enhance the role of Parliament? The right hon. Gentleman has never missed an opportunity to diminish its role in the past two years. Can he not agree for once to expand it? People will listen to his lectures abroad more if reform starts here at home. Why should not a parliamentary Committee scrutinise the nominations for the European Commission?

The Prime Minister

Parliament is always entitled to scrutinise whatever it wishes. The right hon. Gentleman tries to say that the past 18 years were nothing to do with him. This is all part of the new campaign to say, "We were wrong. Everything that we did was wrong in those 18 years." However, the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the last Tory Cabinet. On the nomination of European Commissioners, he made his nomination on behalf of the Conservative party and, as far as I can recollect, his letter never once mentioned that it should be done differently.

Mr. Hague

I am telling the Prime Minister that we now have an opportunity to do things differently. His response—as ever—to the enhancement of the role of Parliament is utterly inadequate for Parliament and for the occasion. Will he also accept that it is of paramount importance to tell the Commissioners that they must do less? The report that we saw on Monday stated that the Commission was implementing policies over which it was exceedingly difficult to exert effective control and was pursuing highly expensive programmes that it could not manage. So, should not the Prime Minister stop signing up to the Commission doing more, as he has been doing with the employment chapter, the European social model and so forth, and say instead that real reform means doing less?

The Prime Minister

The theme of the right hon. Gentleman's intervention was less opportunity than opportunism. On the Commission doing less, the employment chapter is an attempt to move away from the regulatory model and was pioneered in part by this Government to do so. As for the other issues, the comments made by the former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), and the former Prime Minister are worth investigating: that is, how we ensure that the Commission is held more properly to account. That is precisely what we are going to do, but we will do it better if we are working constructively in Europe in alliance with other countries, rather than indulging in the anti-European rhetoric that characterises the Conservative party today.

Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham)

As a former Greenwich councillor and someone who has supported the millennium experience since before most people knew that there were two "n"s in "millennium", will my right hon. Friend confirm that the New Millennium Experience Company has succeeded in achieving its target for sponsorship for the dome? Will he also comment on the fact that the dome is becoming the internationally recognised symbol of the year 2000? Does that not demonstrate that it will be a resounding success, not merely for my borough, but for this country?

The Prime Minister

With the eyes of the world on us at midnight Greenwich mean time, it is entirely appropriate that we should celebrate the millennium in that way. We also believe that the resultant incoming tourism will benefit not merely London, but the whole country and will run to several billion pounds. Not a single penny piece of taxpayers' money will be used on the dome itself. We believe that the sponsorship target of £150 million will be met fully. I can announce today that schools will get maximum benefit from the dome at minimum cost. One million school children from schools throughout the United Kingdom will be able to visit the dome for no charge—10,000 schools will benefit.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

In so far as the Brussels fiasco of the past few days was a scandal waiting to happen, is it not worth remembering that no Government in Europe were more responsible for the appointment of Mr. Santer and for resisting any expansion in the powers of the European Parliament to hold that Commission to account than the Conservative Government? [Interruption.] A little more quiet regret from this side of the channel would be most welcome.

What urgent steps will the Prime Minister take to ensure that, following the welcome resignation of Mr. Santer today, the Commission is not left leaderless, Europe is not left incapacitated and the essential reforms—

Hon. Members

Give him the job.

Madam Speaker


Mr. Ashdown

I assure hon. Members that it would be subject to scrutiny.

Will the Prime Minister ensure that Europe is not left incapacitated and that the essential reforms that are on the table for the Berlin summit are not indefinitely delayed?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. Labour Members liked the idea, which is a good omen.

In respect of the two points raised by the right hon. Gentleman, first, the reform package should be agreed as quickly as possible. Those reforms are far-reaching, but they are based on what the committee of inquiry revealed and we can put them into practice quickly. Secondly, we should get the new President and the new Commission in place as soon as possible, but we should ensure that we have the right person for President.

Mr. Ashdown

I thank the Prime Minister for that answer. Is it not clear that, just as we are embarked on the wholesale reform of Britain's political institutions, so we must now embark on the root-and-branch modernisation of Europe's institutions? Is it not also clear that, at the heart of that reform, there is now an unanswerable case for a new constitutional settlement for Europe which takes the powers of the European institutions and makes them clearly defined, clearly limited and clearly subject to full democratic accountability?

The Prime Minister

I confess that I am hesitant about trying to draw up a new constitution for the whole of Europe, and the right hon. Gentleman would find that other countries would also be hesitant. However, it is important that we consider the longer-term reforms that are going to bring about greater accountability between the people of Europe and the institutions of Europe. The European Parliament is obviously one avenue; the Council of Ministers is another; and the way in which national Parliaments interact with the European Parliament and the European institutions is another. At the conclusion of our presidency, we made a series of proposals at Cardiff and, although they were not taken up at the time, the time has now come to return to them.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the resignation of the European Commissioners will have no effect on the negotiations on objective l status for communities such as my own? Will he also make a statement about progress on matching funding from the Government if those negotiations are successful?

The Prime Minister

In respect of my hon. Friend's first point, I do not believe that the fact that the Commission has resigned should affect the efficacy of the Agenda 2000 negotiations; those negotiations are now firmly in the hands of the Council of Ministers and the Heads of Government meeting next week. On his second point on additionality or matching funding, the Government will have to consider that in due course.

Q2. Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

In the tax year 2000, is a wife who stays at home to look after others worthy of a tax credit?

The Prime Minister

The working families tax credit will help precisely such a person—[Interruption.] The Tories complain about it now, but, the other day, they complained that we would give the tax credit to people whose incomes were at too high a level. Now, they are complaining about the opposite. The working families tax credit will help the very people about whom the hon. Lady is talking. If there is a family in which one member of a couple is an earner, that family will be better off as a result of the working families tax credit—some people will be better off by up to £20 a week.

Q3. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the shocking statistics on child cruelty in Britain, where one child dies every week from abuse or neglect, and the chances of an infant aged less than 12 months being murdered are five times greater than for the rest of us? Does he know that the reason why the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children launched its "Cruelty to Children Must Stop, Full Stop" campaign in advertisements yesterday is that most of us prefer not to confront those horrible statistics? Can he assure us all that he will confront that horrible abuse and ensure that the Government do everything in their power to make Britain a safe place for children?

The Prime Minister

Two things are happening in that regard. First, the Protection of Children Bill, which the House should pass, will greatly improve the safety and protection of children. Secondly, the range of measures that we are taking to tackle social exclusion—such as poor housing and poor educational opportunities—and the sure start initiative for young people will strengthen our society and give hope to children who are presently without it.

Q4. David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

The Red Book published with the Budget is full of references to the Government's desire to help business. Why do the Government then contradict that policy by introducing measures in the Budget that will increase taxes on business by £3.2 billion in the next three years?

The Prime Minister

We are cutting corporation tax for business. Under this Government, Britain will have the lowest corporation tax that we have ever had.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that Jock Santer—[Interruption.] I have forgotten his name already, Madam Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that Jacques Santer suspended the Dutch official who originally reported the European Commission to the European Parliament illustrates that, far from being whiter than white, he is irredeemably stained? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should celebrate the mass resignation of the Commission as a victory for democracy, and that the future of Europe lies with increasing democracy and financial transparency, and ending the era of "I'm all right, Jacques"?

The Prime Minister

I welcome the statement that Jacques Santer has made today. It is correct to point out that we have managed to get to the truth of the matter because the European Parliament decided to set up the committee of inquiry. That is a victory not just for the European Parliament, but for the forces of democracy.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

When the Chancellor raised diesel duties by 12 per cent. last week, why did he not mention it in his speech?

The Prime Minister

The Chancellor specifically mentioned the fuel escalator in his speech.

Mr. Hague

The Chancellor made no reference whatsoever to the 12 per cent. increase in diesel duty. Is that not a further example of the misleading presentation of a dishonest Budget? Has the Prime Minister seen the widespread forecasts that 53,000 jobs will be lost in the haulage industry? The Budget foreshadowed the loss of 53,000 transport jobs while the Deputy Prime Minister—who has responsibility for transport—was chasing angel fish around a coral reef. The Prime Minister has claimed that business taxes are going down, and he has done so again today. After the Budget, the British Chambers of Commerce said: Business today is more heavily taxed and more heavily regulated", and will be a total of £6 billion worse off each year than it was before the last election. Is it not time the Prime Minister had the guts to admit that that is the truth?

The Prime Minister

I certainly understand the problems of the road haulage industry as it has set them out. However, one group of people have no right to criticise this Government: the previous Conservative Government. Let me give the facts to the House. The price of derv has risen by 7p since the election, but it rose by 26p under the previous Government. It is true that duty has increased as a result of the fuel duty escalator, but the previous Government introduced the fuel duty escalator. The highest single rise in duty in the past 10 years occurred in 1995 under the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Cabinet.

Mr. Hague

To describe accurately the Prime Minister's answers about business taxation would be unparliamentary. The fact is that those duties have increased by 11 per cent. on average under this Government and by 7 per cent. in the last Parliament. The Prime Minister will not answer straightforward questions about diesel duty and about how much taxes have been increased by the last three Budgets because he does not want to admit that his party's commitment at the last election not to increase taxes at all was a total lie.

The Prime Minister

No, that is not correct. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I have the facts if hon. Members want them. The last five rises by the right hon. Gentleman's Government were 10 per cent., 10 per cent., 13 per cent., 10 per cent. and 7 per cent. That averages a much higher figure than he is quoting. I also point out to him that this Government have frozen vehicle excise duty for 98 per cent. of lorries, and offered a £1,000 road tax discount for low-emission lorries and a £400 million subsidy in low-sulphur fuel discount. We have also cut corporation tax. In each of those areas, we stand in very good shape in any comparison with the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, in this Chamber 50 years ago today, almost to the minute, a Labour Government introduced the Bill that became the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949? The first national park was the Peak District, and, of course, it is still the best. Will he agree that last week's announcement about a statutory right of access to the countryside is a fitting way to mark the 50th anniversary of that wonderful Bill?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend and I once did a photo opportunity together in High Peak, so his question brings back happy memories. I entirely agree that the announcement is a most fitting way to mark the 50th anniversary of that historic legislation, with a Bill that will open up access to people in a sensible and consensual way. Yet again, this party is standing up for the rights of ordinary people, in contrast to the Tory party, which is always standing up for the rights of privilege.

Q5. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Has the right hon. Gentleman had the time today to reflect on his failure to answer the question put to him last week by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) about the £250 million that the self-employed will have to pay as a consequence of the Budget statement for the alignment of their national insurance contributions with those of employees? If he did not know about that consequence, surely he is not fit to be First Lord of the Treasury and, if he did know about it, he was demeaning his office because he should have shared that information with the House.

The Prime Minister

To give the hon. Gentleman the facts, we have cut the entry fee for national insurance contributions for the self-employed. They benefit, as everyone else does, from the cut in the basic standard rate of income tax. I know that Conservative Members do not like it, but, under this Government, the basic rate of tax, like that of corporation tax, is the lowest that it has ever been.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

May I tell my right hon. Friend about the case of my constituent, 63-year-old Ted Dudley, whom I have been advising? His lungs are chock-a-block full of asbestos and he is fading away with mesothelioma cancer. He knows precisely when he came into contact with that asbestos. It was for a few months in 1954, when the brake linings on a machine that he was driving gave off the dust. It is probable that those brake linings were made with white asbestos. Will my right hon. Friend therefore take note of the Health and Safety Executive, which says that there is no safe working threshold for white asbestos and has approved the substitutes as safer than white asbestos? Will he support a unilateral ban on the importation into the UK of white asbestos and materials containing it?

The Prime Minister

I know that the case of my hon. Friend's constituent is not an isolated one, and, like those others, it is tragic. We shall, of course, reflect carefully on the points made by the Health and Safety Executive and my hon. Friend. We have continually said that, on white asbestos, we must proceed according to the scientific evidence, but we are well aware of the points that have been made by many campaigners, such as my hon. Friend, and we shall take careful account of them.

Q6. Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Does the Prime Minister consider himself a socialist?

The Prime Minister

I get asked some hard questions. The hon. Gentleman will like this answer. We redrafted clause IV so that the first line says: The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party.

Q7. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Today is St. Patrick's day, the day that Irish people throughout the world like to celebrate. Many seek to return to the island of Ireland itself to engage in celebrations. There are some people, however, from Northern Ireland who have been placed in exile by paramilitary groups, who are not allowed to return for celebrations or for any other purposes. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the practice of paramilitaries and calling for an end to this activity? Would it not assist the peace process considerably if the paramilitary groups did that?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says. There can be no justification for these so-called exile sentences; they are simply another form of terrorism. My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the necessity to make sure that the peace process deals with all these various issues. The single greatest danger that Northern Ireland faces is that the will of the majority in the centre—the vast majority who want the process to succeed—will be pulled apart by the extremes. Whether it is the murder of Mrs. Nelson, exile sentences or so-called punishment beatings, it is all an attempt to pull apart the vast consensus for peace in Northern Ireland. The best response to it is to say that whatever incidents of violence are carried out in Northern Ireland we, the decent majority, will carry on constructing a peaceful structure for the people there.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

Will the Prime Minister tell the House what instructions he has given his Ministers about what the proper action is when they receive leaked Select Committee reports?

The Prime Minister

We have answered extensively parliamentary questions on this matter. As for the right procedure, I understand that that is being looked into by the House. Whatever recommendations are made, we will fully abide by them.

Q8. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been a fairly sophisticated attempt to smear my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, using apparently classified material about my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)? Will my right hon. Friend call for an inquiry into what has happened? Might this be the right moment to bring the security and intelligence services under the scrutiny of Parliament?

The Prime Minister

As we have said many times, we believe that the Intelligence and Security Committee is the most effective way for the work of agencies to be scrutinised. As for the attempt to smear my right hon. Friend, he has made it clear that this is an obvious and amateurish fake. He has written to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington. I agree that it is not a trivial matter. If she would like to show my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the full contents of the paper sent to her, I know that we would be happy to consider whether there is anything that should be referred to the police for investigation.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Has the Prime Minister noticed that the Commissioners who have been most directly accused of cronyism are almost entirely socialist Commissioners? Does he, therefore, agree that it would be extremely good if the people of Britain elected an overwhelming number of Conservative MEPs to keep them in their place?

The Prime Minister

For a Conservative Member who disagrees fundamentally with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen's policy on Europe, that was a remarkably supportive question. The answer to it is that the committee of inquiry looked into Commissioners of all political hues. I believe that the people of this country would be better voting for a party that is united on Europe—[Interruption.] I repeat—united on Europe, rather than a party riven with division that reduced this country to having less influence in Europe than at any stage of our membership of the European Union.

Q9. Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

May I turn to an issue that will directly affect many people in this country? My right hon. Friend will not have missed the trailing over the weekend of the idea of reforming housing benefit. Of course, that reform will be welcome, but does he recognise that it was the policies of the Conservative Government, in trying spuriously to apply market forces to council and housing association rents, that led directly to the unsustainably high housing benefit costs today?

The Prime Minister

Yes, of course it was the policy of the previous Government that turned an investment of £10 billion in housing into a housing benefit bill of £10 billion. We want to look at housing benefit as part of housing policy as a whole. That is why we have announced our intention to publish a Green Paper on housing later in the year. The purpose of the reform, as with our other welfare reforms, will be to focus help on people getting back into the labour market and working for themselves. As a result of the Government's policies, we have more people at work. Under the new deal, 200,000 young people are being helped. We know from the policies advanced by the Conservative Opposition that they would scrap the new deal, the working families tax credit and the minimum wage. So much for caring Conservatism.