HC Deb 31 March 1999 vol 328 cc1080-8
Q1. Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 31 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I was in Belfast together with the Taoiseach, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and leaders of all the parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Flight

Is the Prime Minister satisfied that the Chancellor's written reply about who leaked the Social Security Committee draft report meets the requirements for openness in the code of conduct for Ministers?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I am satisfied.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

My right hon. Friend knows of the massive pressure on my constituents and the whole of the west midlands from continuing uncertainty about BMW's investment plans for the Longbridge plant. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry spoke today to Professor Milberg, the chairman and chief executive of BMW. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of those discussions?

The Prime Minister

I have received the following information. I am pleased to say that the Secretary of State and Professor Milberg have reached agreement on the level of assistance to be provided. This will now be put to BMW's management and supervisory boards for their consideration. I am informed that their next meeting will be in the week beginning 12 April. I hope that hon. Members will understand that, at this stage, I cannot say more about the details, but I am delighted that we can now look forward to BMW making Longbridge a world-class plant for the next century, and one that will achieve the highest standards of productivity and working practices.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I first say to the Prime Minister that, across the House, we all hope that the negotiations from which he has returned in Northern Ireland are successful, and that all parts of the Belfast agreement of last year will be implemented?

Secondly, may I ask him a question about Kosovo of which I have given him notice? Everyone in the House will be moved and angered by the spectacle of thousands of helpless people driven from Kosovo. We support the announcements on aid that the Government have already made. Does he agree that we need to go further, and that, with so many appeals for donations in progress, the Government should at least match, pound for pound, the money given in all voluntary donations to the charities and aid agencies concerned?

The Prime Minister

I have literally just received the letter that the right hon. Gentleman sent me. I will certainly consider the proposal that he makes. I would point out, however, that we have already given several million pounds in help for refugees and we have just committed an additional £10 million; but, of course, I will consider his request.

Mr. Hague

I recognise that the Government have already made announcements about this matter and that the Secretary of State for International Development is to make a further statement in half an hour's time. Does he agree that it is unlikely that the help offered by the Government, or by any Government so far, anywhere in the world, will be adequate to meet the problem, and that this proposal for matching funds would have the advantage of encouraging many additional donations and channelling more money directly through the aid agencies and charities concerned? Will he assure me that he will deal with it as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

I will, but I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that we have already made a massive commitment to aid for refugees. Indeed, we have been supporting the Kosovar refugees since early 1998. It is worth pointing out that there were 330,000 refugees before the NATO campaign ever began. There are, of course, more now. We are putting an extra £10 million into the latest relief effort. The European Commission has also provided additional money for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There is an additional contribution from Germany, and more from the United States. Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey, Italy and Japan have all given money. We are sending more money and supplies out today to help the refugees and we shall carry on doing everything that we possibly can.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the distaste, embarrassment and resentment of the people of Scotland at the disavowal of the Scottish National party leader of the United Kingdom involvement in the defence of the people of Kosovo and of the opposition to the unacceptable face of Balkan nationalism?

The Prime Minister

The claim made by the SNP that economic sanctions would work in this situation is palpably ridiculous. No one believes that to be the case. The only alternatives are to take the action that we are taking or to leave these poor defenceless Kosovar Albanian people to the mercy of the Serb killing machine. I find it appalling that the SNP should have chosen the latter course.

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

The Prime Minister knows that he and our forces have the support of Liberal Democrats for the action in which NATO is currently engaged. Does he agree that the test of the effectiveness of the action will be whether the Kosovar people are able to return to their homes in safety in due course?

The Prime Minister

Yes; that is precisely right. That is why it is important that we have an independent force on the ground that can help them to do that.

Mr. Beith

Whether or not Milosevic signs up to an agreement, can the Prime Minister imagine the hundreds of thousands of frightened and dispossessed people going back to their homes unless they know and are confident that there are troops to protect them? Is not the alternative to that instability and long-term refugee camps in several neighbouring countries?

The Prime Minister

Yes, and that is why it is particularly important that we carry on the action now and intensify it. I believe that the ploy yesterday by Mr. Milosevic does not impress this country and will not impress other countries. What we have to do is intensify the attacks, and that is what is happening now, today. The attacks that have been carried out today on the actual troops repressing the people in Kosovo will inflict real damage on Milosevic's tanks, artillery and the thugs carrying out the killing and repression in Kosovo. They will keep on until he agrees to come back into line with the agreements that he made last October, ensures that people are treated in a civilised way and agrees the terms that NATO has set.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in Northampton and elsewhere in the midlands will have bitter memories this Easter because it is exactly a year since the floods that devastated about 4,000 homes and killed five people? Although I recognise the enormous strides made in flood defences and warnings in the past year under the leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, what message does my right hon. Friend have for the people of Northampton and elsewhere who, while they want to look forward, will find that their minds are drawn back to the suffering in the past year?

The Prime Minister

A lot of steps have been taken in the past year or so to cope with the problems of floods. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister informs me that further discussions are to take place. We shall certainly keep my hon. Friend well informed of them.

Q3. Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

How does the Prime Minister reconcile bombing murderers in Kosovo with releasing murderers in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

We are engaged in Northern Ireland in trying to implement the Good Friday peace agreement. I would have hoped that we had the wishes of the whole House behind us on that. The idea that we can compare sitting down and trying to get the Good Friday agreement implemented with the killing of innocent civilians in Kosovo could come only from today's right-wing Conservative party.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the favourite newspaper of the Leader of the Opposition—the current issue of the Rotherham and South Yorkshire Advertiser? Its front page contains the statement "Good News Week" as 4,000 jobs are created in Rotherham and a Japanese company relocates there. Is it not a fact that this occurred during our watch, and that the message from the people of Rotherham is that a return not merely to the boom-and-bust years that destroyed their jobs, but to any form of Conservative control—council, regional or national—would be a disaster?

The Prime Minister

I regret to say that I have not yet read the Rotherham and South Yorkshire Advertiser, but I shall correct that omission later today. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I am delighted that he mentioned boom and bust before I did. Our policies have given us the lowest interest rates for more than 30 years and have sorted out the public finances that are a contrast to the years of Conservative decline.

Q4. Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

The Prime Minister is aware that the Liberal Democrats have welcomed and supported the Government's emphasis on further education during the past two years. That was long overdue and is much deserved. Given that the Government are putting £2,300 into every full-time training place for the new deal, how does the right hon. Gentleman explain the fact that only two thirds of that money actually arrives at the college gates and that £700 is wasted on a paper chase of contracting? Does he agree that that is a scandal and that something must be done to get the £78 million back into the colleges; and what is he going to do about it?

The Prime Minister

I gather that, on the whole, that was a supportive question. First, I will say that, in relation to the new deal money, I seem to remember that it was the Labour party that wanted the windfall tax on the utilities in order to fund the new deal, but other parties did not.

In relation to the money that is going in, I should like to look into the figures that the hon. Gentleman has given before I accept them simply because he has stated them—[Interruption.]—if he does not mind. I hope that he will agree that, of course, we want to reduce the administration as much as possible, but one of the advantages of the new deal is that it gives real quality advice to young people before they pick up whatever option is available to them. When I talk to young people about the new deal, I notice that all the things that people used to say about skivvy schemes, youth training and so on are not said about the new deal. I do not know how much of the £700 is geared to that, but I shall look into what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Q5. Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Will my right hon. Friend convey the thanks of my constituents in the Vale of Glamorgan and of all the people of Wales to all those who worked extremely hard to secure a massive £1.8 billion in structural funds for Wales at last week's European Council summit in Berlin? Is that not the clearest illustration that the Government's policy of constructive engagement with Europe is delivering for real people—not only in Wales, but throughout the UK? Will he contrast that with the behaviour of Opposition Members, who continue to squabble with each other over Europe, when they are not taking tea with military dictators?

The Prime Minister

I cannot think what my hon. Friend is referring to.

The objective 1 status for west Wales and the valleys is a very good deal for Wales, but the most important thing about it is that it will secure funding for the next seven years and will help regeneration in the area. We achieved the best deal that this country has had for years and years at such an economic summit—not by the idle posturing that characterised the diplomacy of the Conservative party, but by serious, constructive engagement resulting in success.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to the position in Kosovo? Does he agree that President Milosevic has now succeeded in expelling much—probably most—of the indigenous population from Kosovo? Will he tell the House whether it is the policy of NATO to compel President Milosevic to reverse that position and, if so, how?

The Prime Minister

Yes, of course it is our policy to do so, and that is precisely the purpose of the attacks that are being made on him.

As for the displacement of people, again I point out that that displacement was happening long before the NATO attacks ever began. It is the most muddle-headed type of thinking imaginable, when innocent people have been driven from their homes, somehow to put the blame on the one group of people trying to defend them.

Let me read to the right hon. and learned Gentleman what some of the people from Kosovo have said. Speaking only a short time ago, Mr. Havoli, in answer to the question, "Do people in Kosovo support the NATO action?" replied, "They absolutely do." Professor Isa Ximberi said: Everyone we have managed to be in touch with in Kosovo said their only hope was now NATO. They would be devastated if NATO now stopped without finishing the job. Finishing the job is what we intend to do.

Q6. Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

At this grave time, the tragedies of world war two and the absolute horror of the holocaust teach us the terrible cost of appeasing tyranny and genocide. Does my right hon. Friend share my sadness that that lesson does not appear to have been learned by the leader of the Scottish National party?

The Prime Minister

I have already said why I think those remarks were shameless. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital that people realise that, if we were not carrying out the NATO air strikes, the campaign that Milosevic had prepared would go unchecked. Forty thousand troops had been built up in the area over the past few months, along with 300 tanks. They were there not for a picnic, but to begin the process of ethnic cleansing, and we now know that that process began days before the NATO attacks began. The only right course for us to take is to learn the lessons of the past and not appease this dictator, but to carry on until we have brought about the proper terms of settlement.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Next Tuesday, the savings habits of millions of people will be affected by the abolition of personal equity plans and tax-exempt special savings accounts and their replacement by a scheme that is more complicated, more costly and more highly taxed. Is the Prime Minister surprised that savings in this country are now falling?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that about individual savings accounts. They are a far simpler scheme, not least because they do not require people to hold their money for so long, which is why they have been so widely welcomed by so many people.

Mr. Hague

Three things are clear. First, the Inland Revenue says that ISAs will be more costly for savers than the current schemes. Secondly, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have halved the most that can be saved tax free, which is, of course, a disincentive to save. Thirdly, the supermarket savings revolution that they were meant to be launching is already a flop, with Sainsbury pulling out of it—obviously "Good savings cost more at Sainsbury's" was not going to be a very attractive slogan. Should not the Government now give a last-minute reprieve to PEPs and TESSAs, before more is done to damage Britain's savings culture?

The Prime Minister

No. A host of organisations is offering ISAs. First, they are easier—money can be put in and taken out more easily than used to be possible with TESSAs and PEPs. Secondly, they will allow millions of people who were not able to save under the old PEPs and TESSAs regime to save for the first time. Thirdly, if I may say so, the savings ratio is actually increasing next year.

Mr. Hague

Well, it is 7.4 per cent. in the Treasury's current document, and it was 10.5 per cent. when the Government came to power, so it would need to increase a great deal to make up for that. The last time I asked the Prime Minister about this issue, he talked about 6 million new savers in answer to any question—I notice that we do not hear about 6 million new savers any more. Is not the truth that the Government have imposed a swingeing tax on pension funds, which is a broken promise, and that they have now abolished highly successful savings vehicles, which is a broken promise? Does the Prime Minister not understand that that damages future investment in our economy and the independence of families who want to save, and that that is a grievous mistake?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not agree with that. The right hon. Gentleman gives figures on the savings rate, but I shall tell the House the lowest savings rate in this country over the past 20 years. Under the Conservative Government, in the 1980s, the rate fell to 3 per cent—that was the position under the Conservatives. Many more people will be able to save with ISAs. The single most important thing for people in this country—which is as a result of the Government's sorting out the doubled national debt and the £28 billion borrowing requirement—is that interest rates are at their lowest level for more than 30 years. When did the Tory Government ever achieve that?

Q7. Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that today we should celebrate the ending of the two-tier system in the health service, the ending of GP fundholding and a return to the fundamental principle of the NHS: equal access for all? Does my right hon. Friend agree also that the problem of recruiting GPs to disadvantaged areas in Wales could be addressed by proceeding with the salaried service for doctors, which would be particularly attractive to women?

The Prime Minister

The salaried doctors scheme allows a doctor who cannot or does not wish to become a GP principal to work in general practice in a more flexible manner. My hon. Friend has campaigned on this issue for some time, and she will understand that we have made a big difference by abolishing the system whereby doctor competed against doctor and hospital competed against hospital. We have returned the national health service to the principles on which it was based.

We now know the Conservatives' plan for the national health service. They would attempt to solve health service problems by forcing more and more people to opt for private medicine. We believe that the answer to health service problems is the £21 billion that we are allocating to the NHS—which the Conservatives oppose.

Q8. Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

Does the Prime Minister recall saying at the time of the general election that the Tory cuts in mortgage interest tax relief were a tax increase? However, in the Budget, the Chancellor called his cuts in mortgage interest tax relief a spending cut. Which is correct?

The Prime Minister

The basis on which we have calculated mortgage interest tax relief is precisely the same as under the previous Government. However, I shall be fair to the hon. Gentleman. If we were to include mortgage interest relief at source as a tax change, we would also have to count the increase in child benefit, the winter fuel allowance and the minimum income guarantee for pensioners as tax changes as well; if we did that, counting all those things not as spending, but as tax, the hon. Gentleman would be quite right: it would add up to not a £4 billion Budget giveaway, but a £6 billion Budget giveaway.

Q9. Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

Tomorrow sees the introduction of the national minimum wage in this country. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the employer in my area who told me that he opposes the national minimum wage? That employer employs three young people whom he pays £65 to £70 a week and, at this time of year, expects to work 60 hours a week. Does my right hon. Friend share my dismay at the attitude of Opposition parties who, when my hon. Friends and I sat through the night in Committee, did nothing to help the poorest paid in this country?

The Prime Minister

The minimum wage will give 2 million people in this country a pay rise and put a floor beneath their wages. We must also take into account the working families tax credit, which makes work pay and helps low-income families. It illustrates perfectly the difference between the political parties. The Conservative party proposes abolishing the working families tax credit, which would create a massive tax rise for low-income families, and abolishing the minimum wage. That would lead to the low-wage economy that the Conservatives think is the future of Britain, and we know is not.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

I wonder whether the Prime Minister remembers promising that his Government would maintain high standards in public life. Is he ashamed of the actions of his Secretary of State for Health, who, since 1 May 1997, has appointed to health trusts and authorities no fewer than 228 Labour councillors? Is he aware that every year, under his Government, the national health service is putting £1.4 million into the pockets of Labour councillors, and will he apologise for that?

The Prime Minister

I certainly will not apologise for having changed the system. Everyone knows what used to happen under the Tory Government. An independent system now appoints people. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would want to support the vast sum of additional spending going into his constituency under this Government which it was denied under the previous Conservative Government.

Q10. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his work in ensuring the retention of objective 1 European structural funds for Merseyside to support the continued regeneration of the Merseyside economy. Will he assure me that he will do his best to ensure that Merseyside receives the full additional benefit of those funds? Does he welcome the start of the work of the North West regional development agency? Will he make efforts to ensure that those European structural funds are disbursed with the agency, so that maximum strategic use is made of the moneys available for investment in Merseyside's economy?

The Prime Minister

I should point out that we got the biggest extension of objective 1 status of any country in the European Union. The continuance of that status for Merseyside is good news. The regional development agencies will start work tomorrow, and the objective 1 status will obviously play an important part in enabling the North West RDA to carry out its remit. Our purpose is to get the right balance of public and private investment into those areas so that they can attract the jobs and industry of the future.

Q11. Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the financial plight faced by the growing number of cystic fibrosis sufferers who are now living on into adulthood as a result of advances in medical research? Does he recall the "Health 2000" document, published by the Labour party before the previous general election, which made a commitment to abolish prescription charges for cystic fibrosis sufferers? Will he now tell the House when his Government plan to fulfil that commitment?

The Prime Minister

I am well aware of the problem to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention. We shall carry out all our commitments in "Health 2000". I point out to him and his hon. Friends that it is as a result of our actions that we have been able to give more help to people suffering from a range of complaints. We have done better than the hon. Gentleman's Government ever did.

Q12. Angela Smith (Basildon)

In the same month that UNICEF and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have launched a new campaign for the rights of children, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Basildon hospital on using £500,000 of new Government money to create separate out-patient and in-patient facilities for young children in the accident and emergency department?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I am delighted to congratulate the hospital in my hon. Friend's constituency. As a result of the new money that the Government are providing, the accident and emergency and out-patient departments of hospitals around the country will be helped. That is a result of the Government's extra investment in the health service. We are not merely getting waiting lists down, but putting into the health service the capital investment that it needs.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

As the Prime Minister fritters away the golden economic inheritance—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

Mr. Jenkin

How does the Prime Minister claim to have ended boom and bust and how can he look representatives of the road haulage industry in the face? I draw his attention to a fax from a road haulier in the right hon. Gentleman's constituency which I have received since the Budget. It says: I am now having to battle for the survival of my company which employs 18 people. Why does the Prime Minister not do something for the road hauliers, instead of lecturing them about their industry, about which they know far more than he does?

The Prime Minister

First, I suppose that it is an advance that I have now got Tory Members using the term "boom and bust"—we have been trying for that for a long time.

Secondly, as for the "golden legacy" that we inherited from the Conservative party, it consisted of a national debt doubled, a £28 billion borrowing requirement and inflation back in the system. This Government have cured all that. As for the road haulage industry, the fuel escalator was introduced under the previous Government—by people now sitting on the Opposition Front Bench. The best news for industry is that the Government have not merely cut corporation tax, but, yes, we have at long last ended Tory boom and bust.