HC Deb 24 March 1999 vol 328 cc384-93
Q1. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 March.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

I have been asked to reply. As the House knows, the Prime Minister is in Berlin today, attending the special European Council. I have spoken to him this morning about the situation in Kosovo. We agreed that we should take this military action with total resolve. This is a difficult decision and we have to see it through all the way.

Mr. George

Constituents are anxious that the Prime Minister should be successful in securing objective 1 status for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly in Berlin this week. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that if the Prime Minister returns victorious, that will also be a personal triumph for Cornwall's MEP, Robin Teverson, who has fought so long and hard for such an outcome? Does he also accept that local partners in Cornwall should be given every encouragement to get on with the important tasks in hand, without unnecessary European or United Kingdom Government interference?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The actions of everyone involved will bring about the achievement of objective 1 status and recognition of the special problems of Cornwall, and my right hon. Friend is dealing with those matters in Berlin. The establishment of development agencies, introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), has also played an important part. We all look forward to developments in Cornwall and to the improvement of prosperity there, brought about by a Labour Government.

Q2. Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

As you know, Madam Speaker, many hon. Members, not least those from the north-east of England, give a high priority to regional issues, but this morning our Prime Minister asked the British people to be ready to make sacrifices so that the Albanian Muslims of Kosovo can take their proper and rightful place in our common European home. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that, at the first indication that the Government of the Yugoslav Federation are willing to accept the deal accepted by the representatives of the Albanian Muslim majority in Kosovo, the hostilities that are about to commence will be instantly terminated?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend made it absolutely clear yesterday that NATO is united and stands ready to take military action if Milosevic does not change his position and the repression continues. If, in those circumstances, he does not stop creating terror among the people in Kosovo—whole villages continue to be burnt no fewer than 25,000 people have been displaced in the four days since the peace talks broke down—President Milosevic should be in no doubt that we will take whatever action is necessary to avert a humanitarian tragedy. He has his part to play.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

The Deputy Prime Minister will know from our joint visit to Omagh after the tragic bombing there that I recognise his abhorrence of terrorism and share his determination to make the Good Friday agreement work. I know that he will share my disgust at the sight of the murderer of Lance Bombardier Stephen Restorick laughing in court after he received three life sentences and boasting to his friends that he would be out in 16 months. Will the Deputy Prime Minister convey to the Prime Minister the strong feeling registered earlier in this House that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should give an assurance that that evil man will not be released until Sinn Fein/IRA have given in their arsenal of weapons?

The Deputy Prime Minister

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made clear a few moments ago, we will observe the Good Friday agreement. The exchange of prisoners, and the freeing of prisoners, is in line—[HON. MEMBERS: "Exchange?"] I withdraw the word "exchange". I apologise; I made a slip.

The freeing of prisoners is part of the Good Friday agreement, and we will observe it. Notwithstanding all the difficulties, and all the disgust that may be felt at the time, that is what we agreed to and what we intend to implement.

Mr. Lilley

I had hoped that the Government would be clearer than they have been about the obligation of Sinn Fein/IRA to hand in weapons. This week, the Home Secretary has sent unclear and confused signals about the Government's willingness to delay the release of prisoners. Is it not time that the Government sent the clear signal that the Good Friday agreement must be implemented in full? That means not releasing any more murderers while the terrorists on both sides refuse to give up their guns and bombs. Why do the terrorists want to keep their weapons, other than to use them or threaten to use them?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I find it difficult to accept that the right hon. Gentleman's aim is to secure agreement in Northern Ireland, given the language that he uses. We all know that the next few days will be critical to establishing a settlement on the Good Friday agreement. Assent to certain actions will have to be secured, and my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are very much involved in that.

The whole House has made it clear that we want agreement in Northern Ireland, and we are nearer to achieving that agreement than we have ever been. There are fewer murders, and there is more eagerness to secure agreement. We should place more emphasis on the words that encourage people to come together in agreement and dialogue, rather than using the language used by the right hon. Gentleman.

Q3. Mr. Alan Johnson (Hull, West and Hessle)

I agree very much with what my right hon. Friend has said, but may I change the subject? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the introduction of a national minimum wage next week will be supported around kitchen tables throughout the United Kingdom—not least in the magnificent and historic city of Kingston upon Hull?

The Deputy Prime Minister

As a former commis chef who once spent most of his time around a kitchen table, let me say that I was protected by the wages councils that the previous Administration abolished, driving millions into poverty pay. I am particularly proud to be a member of a Labour Government who are introducing a statutory minimum wage from which millions will benefit from next week.

Let me be helpful to the Opposition. We intend to advertise to the people of this country, informing them of their rights in relation to the statutory minimum wage. In the interests of impartial advertising, I invite Opposition Members to suggest a form of words making it clear that the Tories fought the minimum wage tooth and nail, and would still abolish it if they ever got the chance to do so.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

As the Deputy Prime Minister well knows, there is widespread support on all sides for the action that, regrettably, now appears to be imminent in Kosovo. Does he agree that, precisely because British troops are going to be committed, it is necessary to have a clear, definable, achievable political end that will show what we are trying to secure, and will tell us when we should stop? Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to define explicitly the aims that we seek to achieve through the actions that we shall take in Kosovo during the next hours and days?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The Prime Minister told the House yesterday that the minimum objective of NATO action would be to curb continued Serbian repression in Kosovo, in order to avert a continuation of the humanitarian disaster that we all agree is taking place. NATO action would therefore target the military capability of the Serb dictatorship.

Mr. Ashdown

With great respect to the Deputy Prime Minister, what he has told us is the legal justification, not the political aim. A political aim gives an outcome which is stable and durable. While it might be desirable that we reduce President Milosevic's capacity to kill Albanians, that will not produce a stable Kosovo. May I suggest that the aims of the action should be these: in the first instance, to persuade President Milosevic to sign up to the Rambouillet agreement; and if, as I anticipate, that fails, to ensure that this is seen as the first step in the establishment of an international protectorate in Kosovo?

The Deputy Prime Minister

With the greatest respect, if the right hon. Gentleman had been here yesterday, he would have heard the Prime Minister address himself to that matter. As he made clear yesterday, Milosevic must do what he promised to do last October, and these are the objectives of the action: end the repression, as the House has been calling for; withdraw his troops to barracks; get them down to the levels that he agreed in that agreement; and withdraw from Kosovo the tanks, the heavy artillery and other weapons that he brought to Kosovo last January. That is the minimum condition to end the repression in Kosovo.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Will my right hon. Friend please urgently inquire into the disastrous developments in Vaux Breweries, which has its headquarters in Sunderland, my home town? Is he aware that some of the shareholders have pulled the plug on a management buy-out, against the wishes of the chairman, Sir Paul Nicholson? Is he aware that those shareholders are Mercury Asset Management Ltd., led by Carol Galley, who was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, the Bankers Trust and Hermes Pensions Management Ltd., which was the former Post Office pension fund and is led by Alastair Ross Goobey? Will he call those shareholders in to explain why they are prepared to sacrifice 700 jobs in Sunderland and Sheffield for the sake of only £2.5 million of extra shareholder value?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am aware of that concern. It has also been expressed to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins). I believe that Members have made it clear to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. We are concerned about the matter. The Secretary of State and his Ministers are prepared to discuss the issue and will make the necessary arrangements.

Q4. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

If NATO air strikes indirectly cause the situation of innocent people in Kosovo to get worse, rather than better, what then?

The Deputy Prime Minister

We are confident, of course, that the strategy that we are embarked on now will have the effect of reducing the Serbians' capability of continuing to repress the people in Kosovo. I believe that that will happen and that the strategy will achieve the ends that we have set out.

Q5. Angela Smith (Basildon)

Many of us find it very difficult to understand the mentality of those who abuse and inflict cruelty on children. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has estimated that one child a week dies from cruelty. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give his support, as many hon. Members on both sides of the House already have, to the NSPCC's full stop campaign to end cruelty to children within a generation? Will he give his personal support to the pledge, sign it and do what he can to stop such cruelty?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The Government welcome the NSPCC's initiative of this week. Indeed, many of the plans that the NSPCC is proposing are in line with the Government's strategy to help more children to be protected from harm and to be given the best possible start in life. I am sure that every hon. Member feels exactly the same about that and that there is common agreement between us.

As for my personal support, I am pleased to say that, at the end of January, I helped to launch the NSPCC's vision for children campaign and signed the petition that my hon. Friend talked of. I did it with the director of the society. I am sure that all hon. Members would like to express full support for all the society does.

Mr. Lilley

This week saw a mass demonstration by lorry drivers who face ruin after the Budget. The Confederation of British Industry, the chambers of commerce and road transport unions all say that 50,000 jobs will go. Was the Deputy Prime Minister consulted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the job-destroying fuel tax increases; if so, did he argue against them?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Yes, I did hold discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. We are agreed that we desire to achieve a better environment in the United Kingdom, with increasing economic prosperity. In our debates on the lorry industry, it has become clear that—although there is much talk of travelling and transferring abroad—operating costs for the United Kingdom industry are about £600,000 less than in places such as France, Germany or Belgium. Costs for UK operators are therefore considerably different from those of their competitors abroad. That has been confirmed by an international consultant's report stating that costs for UK operators are two thirds those of some of their major competitors.

If there is concern about jobs, I should say that the boom-and-bust cycle under the previous Administration—of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member, helping to develop the Treasury's boom-and-bust policy—directly caused hundreds of thousands of hauliers to go to the wall. So we have no reason whatsoever to be apologetic for ensuring that the road industry has a proper part to play—and that the haulage industry has an essential part to play—in an integrated transport policy, which we are now developing.

Mr. Lilley

So the right hon. Gentleman was consulted, he did agree—and he apparently believes that all those truckers came to London to thank him for the benign regime that he has put in place for them! Is he aware of the case of Shaun Neal, of Harwich, who says in today's newspapers: We were struggling before the Budget … Now we haven't got a chance. … Every corner we turn we have been hit by another"— Government—"tax"?

The bogus figures that the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned will not convince Shaun Neal or hauliers in Labour Members' constituencies. Since the Government have now been forced into crisis talks with the road haulage industry, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House whether he is prepared to discuss withdrawing the Budget fuel tax rise?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I think it is a bit much when someone from the previous Administration, who introduced the fuel tax escalator—which has created much of the cost that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about—asks us to remove it. We will not. The Budget is set. We believe that it is a fair Budget, and that it deals with the type of economic problems that we inherited from the previous Administration. All the signs show that it is successful: lower interest rates, increasing growth—those facts show a successful economy.

Perhaps I should give the right hon. Gentleman a quote from the previous Chancellor, who—when talking of those who are critical of the fuel escalator—said: Any critic of the Government's"— the previous Government's— tax plans who claims also to support the international agreement to curb carbon dioxide emissions will be sailing dangerously near to hypocrisy".—[Official Report, 30 November 1993; Vol. 233, c. 939.] That is precisely what the right hon. Gentleman is doing.

Mr. Lilley

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that his refusal to give a clear promise to discuss the withdrawal or reduction of those tax rises will come as a bitter blow to the Road Haulage Association—which has said that without those issues on the table, the talks are worthless? Is it not typical of the Government that they offer no real help? Is it not shameful that he, as Secretary of State for Transport, was off playing Jacques Cousteau when the Government decided to introduce the measures? Is not his refusal today the final proof that they are a tax-raising Government who do not care about British truckers, British business and British jobs?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is quite clear from what the right hon. Gentleman says that he does not concern himself with the British environment. Ours is a balanced judgment between economic prosperity and the best environmental solution. We think that we have achieved that balance in the Budget. I tell him that, yes, we are holding discussions with the industry—more than were held by the previous Administration—in a forum that my right hon. Friend has convened. Of course we shall discuss in that forum the concerns of the road haulage industry.

As for the cheap jibe on diving, the people of the United Kingdom can make a judgment on whether—[Interruption.] They can. Whether it is on saving the tiger or on diving among the reefs, we have to make a judgment. I shall, as Secretary of State for the Environment, try to do that. I can however tell the right hon. Gentleman that although I dived to 80 ft, I did not dive deep enough to reach the low Tory poll rating.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating most warmly those Brits who received magnificent awards at the Oscars this year? Does he accept that, from day one, the Government were determined to build the foundations for even greater success in future? When the film action report is published next month, will it ensure that at least 20 per cent. of the films projected in British cinemas will be British, thereby illuminating the British genius to which Richard Attenborough frequently refers?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The whole House would want to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating the British film industry on its tremendous achievements. However, it was sad that some of them were based on American rather than British money. We feel that that could be improved and the proposals by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget are a step towards making it a totally British operation.

Q6. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

On the subject of stealth taxes, who does the Deputy Prime Minister think is to blame for the fact that the Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors who run Worcestershire county council have raised the council tax by more than four times the rate of inflation? Is it them, is it him or is it all of them?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It has become clear since various authorities have announced their proposed council taxes that the average council tax increase under Tory councils is something like 9.8 per cent. whereas under Labour councils it is something like 6.7 per cent. So we are witnessing better value under Labour councils than under Tory councils.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

May I tell the Deputy Prime Minister of the concern of a large number of car component manufacturers in my constituency and in the rest of Birmingham and the west midlands about the time that the Government are taking to decide how much investment they want to make in the future success of Rover? Will he contact his ministerial colleagues today and ask them to reach a quick decision, to allow Rover to build on the success that its management and work force have achieved over the past few years?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The House will understand the concerns that have just been expressed. Indeed, the Government are actively involved in the matter. I shall certainly pass on my hon. Friend's views to my ministerial colleagues, particularly the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Q7. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Is the House Library's arithmetic accurate when it reveals that next year taxation will rise by £7.1 billion as a result of the Chancellor's three Budgets? How does the Deputy Prime Minister explain the contrast between those figures and the spin that the Chancellor placed on the Budget?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman can refer to page 14 of the Red Book. I am not aware that the actual figures are disputed. The total amounts are disputed and how they are allocated has been a matter of argument, but there is no doubt about the overall tax benefits to many thousands of people. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about tax, is he not also concerned about Hampshire county council, which has increased council tax by 9.4 per cent. despite receiving one of the highest settlements?

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

One of the main reasons for long-term unemployment in my constituency is the previous Government's lack of interest in the British shipping industry. At one time there were 1,800 shipworkers in my constituency; now there are 58. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government will take measures to halt any further decline in the industry?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I agree very much with what my hon. Friend says. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it clear that he is concerned about the decline of the shipping industry. He has appointed Lord Alexander to look into financial policies that could reverse that decline. We have heard a lot from the Conservatives about lorry companies flagging out abroad to a flag of convenience. They presided over a fall in the British merchant fleet from 1,400 ships to fewer than 200 under flags of convenience. Whenever I protested, I was told that it was all about competition. What a different attitude they have to the lorry hauliers' flag of convenience argument.

Q8. Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Is the Deputy Prime Minister in favour of parental choice and selection in education? [Interruption.]

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sorry, I did not hear that.

Madam Speaker

If hon. Members were less noisy, we would hear the questions.

Mr. Fraser

I am prepared to give the Deputy Prime Minister enough time to try to answer the question. Is he in favour of parental choice and selection in education?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sorry that I did not hear the question. The selection system, and the 11-plus particularly, worked against me. I believe in a comprehensive education system. We should be able to meet the demands of all children, however gifted, in a comprehensive system. That is what we are trying to do with our "education, education, education" policies.

Q9. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Did my right hon. Friend share my satisfaction when he read page 16 of our White Paper setting out our proposals for freedom of information legislation, which makes it clear that we intend to set a test for those who wish to stop disclosure of information? They will have to demonstrate that substantial harm would ensue. Has my right hon. Friend also noted that recommendation 9 of Sir William Macpherson's report says that the police should be brought under freedom of information legislation and that the substantial harm test should apply? Will he tell the House that we stand by our commitment set out in our White Paper and that we accept the unambiguous recommendation of Sir William Macpherson?

The Deputy Prime Minister


Mr. Mackinlay

And if not, why not?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am pleased to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Sketch Writer, East. We have made clear the important principle in the White Paper. We hope that the Bill will be published in early May and it will address that point.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

In view of the ruling of the Law Lords a short time ago and their comments on the substantial reduction in the number of extraditable charges, when will we get a decision from the Home Secretary on the Pinochet case?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The legal arguments on the state of immunity have been given the most careful and thorough consideration. Our highest court, sitting with seven Law Lords, has today given its judgment. The case remains sub judice and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will consider the judgment.

Q10. Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the importance of transport infrastructure to the regeneration of east London. His commitment to the channel tunnel rail link and its benefits not only to east London but to the whole country are well documented. Will he advise us of the progress that is being made on the Jubilee line extension, which, with the docklands light railway, is a key element to drive forward the regeneration of east London? What success is he achieving in rescuing the scheme from the chaos left by the Conservatives?

The Deputy Prime Minister

We are confident that London Transport will open the Jubilee line extension in time for the millennium. We are in regular contact with London Transport and we are monitoring the situation closely. The House will be aware that I had to renegotiate the channel tunnel rail link agreement. The original agreement was disastrous for the taxpayer. The project was bankrupt, and we had to regenerate it. By a new form of financing, we were able to rebuild the channel tunnel rail link, which has now been started. The investment of more than £5 billion has been very important in the rebuilding of the Thames gateway area.

Q11. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confine his remarks to the Ribble valley? The council tax in the Ribble valley is rising by 7.5 per cent.—more than three times the rate of inflation. We have a Liberal Democrat borough council and a Labour-run county council. Many of my constituents have had wage increases at the rate of inflation, and many are farmers whose wages have actually decreased. What does the right hon. Gentleman consider an excessive rise in the council tax? What protection can he give to the people of the Ribble valley from being clobbered by an increase of three times the rate of inflation?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The House will expect me to give my considered judgment on the council tax increases in all local authorities shortly. I have to report my judgment to the House. That is the normal practice, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will await that statement.

As for the hon. Gentleman's constituents being clobbered by the Budget, let me tell him that 11,400 families, 17,000 pensioners and 1,700 small and large businesses in Ribble Valley benefited from the Budget. More than £25 million extra was provided for education in his constituency, and £222 million for health. How can he talk about his constituents being clobbered? It is about time he talked to them about a successful Labour Government beginning to repair the damage done by the previous Administration.