HC Deb 05 May 1999 vol 330 cc932-9
Ql. [82115] Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 5 May.

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 will have further such meetings later today.

Mrs. Gilroy

In this Red Cross week, will my right hon. Friend join me in recognising the important humanitarian work of the Red Cross Society, both here and abroad? The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are well known for their work providing care and comfort in crises. Is not their work to support international humanitarian law, and especially the Geneva conventions, also very important? By his flagrant breach of that law, Milosevic has put himself outside the pale of civilised society. Will my right hon. Friend do everything that he can to promote the Geneva conventions, both in seeking a solution to the Kosovo crisis and in the future?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to pay tribute to the work of the Red Cross. It is doing magnificent work in the Balkans and the volunteers are using every bit of energy that they can to help people there. We have given about £2.5 million to the Red Cross, and a total of £40 million in humanitarian assistance. I know that my hon. Friend would want me to mention also the humanitarian work of the British armed forces to help the refugees, which I saw at first hand. Our effort stands comparison with that of any country in the world.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The Health Secretary denied it yesterday, but will the Prime Minister now admit that the Government did indeed propose to the European Union raising the maximum working hours of junior hospital doctors from 56 to 65 a week?

The Prime Minister

On the contrary, under this Government, the number of junior doctors who work unacceptably long hours has fallen. When we came to office, 6,500 junior doctors worked more than 56 hours a week; we have cut that number to 4,800. Under our proposals, no doctor will be asked to work more hours than at present.

Mr. Hague

The facts are plain. The Government are proposing a higher hours limit. The Health Secretary denied it yesterday, and today the Prime Minister says, "On the contrary," but what is this minute of the Council meeting in Brussels, dated 15 April 1999, saying: The UK delegation is proposing the following text… 'an average of [65] hours a week during the first eight years …and an average of [60] hours a week for the remaining seven years'."? Only this Prime Minister would claim that an increase from 56 to 65 is a reduction. Can he confirm that what the Government are proposing would also last for 15 years?

The Prime Minister

No, not merely do I not confirm it, I deny it. We are reducing the number of hours that doctors work. There is a transitional period; the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned 15 years. That is necessary, since we must recruit more doctors, and training for some of the specialties takes 15 years. However, as a result of what we are doing, junior doctors' hours will be reduced. They are being reduced now.

Furthermore, we are going to increase the numbers recruited by 7,000 over the next three years, and we are increasing the numbers in training by 20 per cent. So, as a result of this Government, by the end of our first term in office, junior doctors will be working fewer hours and we will have recruited more doctors.

Mr. Hague

If it is so good for junior doctors, why does the British Medical Association say that it is a "slap in the face" for doctors and a betrayal of the patients"? The Prime Minister's position in answering those questions is to deny the truth, except the point that it will happen for the next 15 years—which he has now admitted.

The truth is that, the greater the claims that the Government make about the health service, the less they deliver. They said that they would reduce waiting lists, and they went up. Now, there are twice as many people waiting to go on the waiting lists. They claim that they are trying to reduce junior doctors' hours, and those hours are increased by the document. Is not the BMA right to say that that is a betrayal of doctors? Is it not a betrayal of all the promises that the Government made on health?

The Prime Minister

No. Let me repeat what I said to the right hon. Gentleman, and let us see whether this time he can understand. Junior doctors' hours are being reduced. As for the working time directive, his party is opposed to it. He must now be saying that he is in favour of it, but he has been against it all the way through. As for the numbers of people going into the health service, we are increasing those, too—more doctors, more nurses. And we are putting an extra £21 billion into the health service. Are the Conservatives in favour of that extra £21 billion? We do not know.

Mr. Hague

More hours.

The Prime Minister

Let the right hon. Gentleman take it one more time. Under this Government, junior doctors are working fewer hours. That is what we have delivered—better than at any point when the Conservatives were in office. All that questions on the health service from the Conservatives reveal is that, on that as on so much else, they have not the faintest idea what they are talking about.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the most precious things in this country is the right to free speech? Is not the only thing more precious the right to life? Given that, and in the light of the recent atrocities in my constituency and elsewhere in London, will he look at tightening the laws governing incitement to racial hatred so that individuals—or groups—who are guilty of it face penalties, and, in this country, the only thing that we nail is intolerance?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason that we are considering how we extend the law, in order to ensure that incitement to racial hatred is a crime. We shall do everything that we can to make it clear that, although we live in a tolerant democracy, we shall be intolerant of racial prejudice and racial bigotry. Wherever these people rear their ugly heads, the forces of democracy will be there, ready to deal with them.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The Prime Minister has told us this week that he wants a society that is tolerant at home and compassionate abroad. How does he believe that he is contributing to that by pushing through this House a piece of Tory legislation, the chief characteristic of which is to seek to deter asylum seekers by treating them with a mixture of delay, penury and injustice?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that at all. The aim of the legislation is to reduce the time spent dealing with asylum claims so that, by April 2001, the initial claims for asylum should be dealt with inside two months, on average, and any subsequent appeal may be handled within four months. Anyone who has studied the present asylum system knows that it is not working properly. There is a huge backlog of cases, and proper, genuine asylum seekers often do not get the treatment that they need. We are changing the law precisely to ensure that genuine asylum seekers are treated properly.

Mr. Ashdown

If the aim of the legislation, and of the Government, is to reduce the queue, they are failing comprehensively, as the queue has got longer and longer under this Government.

Let me put the following to the Prime Minister: the denial of social security benefits to asylum seekers is "inhumane". That statement is not mine—it was made by the present Home Secretary at the last election. If it was true then, why is not true now? To put it another way: does the Prime Minister believe that he is fulfilling the great tradition of this country—that of showing generosity and compassion to those who seek refuge on our shores—by providing an asylum seeker with an allowance for her child of 50p a day?

The Prime Minister

First of all, the right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong about the facts. We opposed the Conservatives' withdrawal of all benefits to asylum seekers. That is not the process that we are putting in place now. What we have done is to say that, if we want to make a fundamental change, we have to make the system quicker and more effective.

There has been a rise of 42 per cent. in the number of cases, even while the backlog remains. The right hon. Gentleman says that the backlog is getting worse: it is, but that is precisely why we need the new legislation to change the system. When the new system is in place, we will be able to deal with asylum claims better, more effectively and more quickly. Genuine asylum seekers will be made welcome, but we do not want claims to be stacked up for years and years—as they are at present—and then not dealt with properly. It is no use the right hon. Gentleman giving that display of outrage if he is not prepared to confront the facts and understand that, without reform, the system does not help genuine asylum seekers—indeed, it harms them.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

Given that the new deal is intended to provide lasting and worthwhile employment, does my right hon. Friend agree that it will be of no help to the Conservative party in finding a new chairman, now that Mr. Portillo has refused the job?

Madam Speaker

Order. That is not the business of the Prime Minister and is rather a wasted question.

Q2. Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Will the Prime Minister please explain how the democratic rights of my constituents in Beaconsfield have been enhanced by Scottish devolution? Under the Radioactive Substances Act 1993, the disposal in Colnbrook in my constituency of radioactive waste coming from Scotland is subject to authorisation by a United Kingdom Minister. However, after 1 July, it will be subject to authorisation by the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament. I will not be able to ask a parliamentary question of that person, and the House will not be able to hold him to account in relation to his duties in this country under the 1993 Act.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. If radioactive material comes through England, it is subject to the English authority. In addition, I believe that devolution will benefit all the people of the United Kingdom. Before devolution, people faced a choice between the status quo —which was not accepted in places such as Scotland and Wales—or separatism. Now, people have the proper choice of devolution, and I believe that that will be supported in England, as well as in Scotland and Wales.

Q3. Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Further to the last question, let me say that we are on the eve of the completion of John Smith's unfinished business—the re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament after nearly three centuries. That is the settled will of the Scottish people as demonstrated at the referendum. Amid the short-term problems of politics, will not the first-ever democratic election of a Scottish Parliament be a truly historic event?

The Prime Minister

The Scottish Parliament was called unfinished business by John Smith. There is no better expression of his values and love of democracy than the Scottish Parliament. It offers us the chance of an enhanced and strengthened United Kingdom, in which those things that are distinctively Scottish can be handled in Scotland. Where it is right to co-operate and work in partnership, we shall do so within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

The whole House will have been appalled by last week's bomb outrage in Soho. I regret that two of the three people who died—Andrea Dykes and John Light—were constituents of mine. On behalf of the House, may I invite the Prime Minister to send condolences to their families and best wishes to all those who were injured, including Julian Dykes, who does not yet know that his wife, who was four months pregnant, was killed?

We cannot comment specifically on the case, because someone has been charged with the murders. May I suggest, however, that security cameras have an important part to play in detecting and preventing crime?

The Prime Minister

On the last point, that is part of the reason why we have committed an extra £150 million for closed circuit television cameras, which do a tremendous job as we try both to cut crime and to identify the people who commit crime.

In his first point, the hon. Gentleman spoke for the whole House. I certainly send my heartfelt sympathy to the families of those people who died as a result of a callous and brutal act. They and their families will have the support, thoughts and prayers of the whole House.

Q4. Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Will my right hon. Friend liaise with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on the new deal? It seems that there is great difficulty in filling some jobs being advertised in some parts of the country. Those jobs are not attracting applications, even though they require no special qualification. My attention was drawn to The Daily Telegraph yesterday, which noted that the Conservative party is advertising for candidates, but finding great difficulty in receiving any applications. Can the Prime Minister offer any advice?

Madam Speaker

Order. The question relates to the new deal.

The Prime Minister

All I can say is that the new deal applies only to permanent jobs and would not therefore be suitable.

Q5. Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)

After the fiasco over junior doctors' hours, does the Prime Minister recall that his Government made a pledge to the nurses in February that this year's pay settlement would be met in full from 1 April? Is he aware that many nurses received no additional pay in their April pay packets and that many NHS trusts are having great difficulty in financing the unfunded element of the nurses' pay settlement? What is he going to do about that?

The Prime Minister

On junior doctors' hours, we are decreasing hours, not increasing them. That is the fact. Secondly, on nurses, we are the Government who have increased nurses' pay by more than at any other point in the past 20 years. Thirdly, we are funding the pay increase out of the additional £21 billion described just a few months ago by the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues as reckless and irresponsible. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, but, as a result of what the Government are investing in the health service, there are more doctors and more nurses, and, for the first time ever, starting nurses are receiving a decent pay rise.

Q6. Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the transfer of 500 jobs from the Xerox plant in Mitcheldean in my constituency to Dundalk in southern Ireland, which may lead to the loss of 100 further jobs in local subsidiary companies? What support can the Government offer to help those 600 workers to find future employment, and what assistance can they give to local economies, such as that of the Forest of Dean, to sustain, improve and develop the vital manufacturing sector?

The Prime Minister

I know that there is a task force in the area, which is helping those people who are going to lose their jobs. Although 500 jobs are to be transferred from Gloucestershire, 1,750 remain and I understand that a further 250 are being created. Obviously, I share my hon. Friend's concern about any changes that are made, but those are commercial decisions for the company. I should point out that, fortunately, the UK remains a very attractive location for overseas companies: a record 600 projects were attracted here last year, creating some 46,000 jobs. Of course, during rationalisation and change, some jobs will go and some stay, but the difference under the Labour Government is that we are trying to put in place measures that will help people to find new jobs when, unfortunately, their jobs are lost.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Whose fault is it that the Prime Minister's own district council, Sedgefield, has one of the highest council taxes in the country? Is it the fault of the Labour council, or of the Labour Government?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to say that, as evidenced by the huge vote that we always get for Sedgefield's Labour district councillors, we enjoy the full support of all the local people.

Mr. Hague

We are talking about the Prime Minister's constituency, where something is wrong and it is nobody's fault. Is it not true that Sedgefield has the 13th highest council tax in band D, at £967? The right hon. Gentleman is in good company on the Government Benches, with Redcar at £1,033 and Hartlepool at £978—no wonder the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) always keeps a posh house in London. Why do people who live under Labour councils have to pay high council taxes for poor services, incompetent administration and Labour councillors, a string of whom have fiddled the books?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman has again got his facts wrong: the average council tax increase is lower in Labour councils than in Conservative councils; Conservative councils have higher than average increases in council tax; and the average council tax per dwelling is lower in Labour areas.

Mr. Hague

And is it not true that the highest council taxes are all in Labour authorities, except for those in Liberal-controlled Liverpool, which has the highest of all? Is it not true that, in Blaenau Gwent, the former Labour mayor has been convicted of fraudulent expense claims; that, in Lewisham, the Labour chairman of housing was sentenced to 60 days in Brixton prison; and that, in Doncaster, four Labour councillors have gone to jail and the man whom the Prime Minister sent in to clean it up has now himself been arrested? Is it not the case that they are now the only people left in the Labour party who have genuine convictions? Is it not the case that if people want low council taxes, honest local government and good services, they have to vote Conservative tomorrow?

The Prime Minister

No. I have to point out, not only that Labour councils have lower than average increases in council tax, but that all that the Conservatives do is take band D properties, when only 30 per cent. of properties are band D. If we take all properties, we see that people pay lower council taxes in Labour areas than in Conservative ones; moreover, they get better services—better education services and better local government services.

As for the respective merits of candidates, I can do no better than to quote the sole Conservative candidate for Rutland council, Mr. John Duckham, who, when asked why there were not many Conservative candidates in Rutland, replied: nobody came forward. It was not as though there were just no suitable candidates; we have long put behind us scruples about endorsing people purely on the grounds of their suitability. I think that we stand rather a good comparison.

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Today, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Council of Europe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the values for which the Council of Europe stands—democracy and human rights—are as relevant to Europeans today as they were 50 years ago? Does he also agree that vigilance is needed if those values are to be safeguarded and future generations of Europeans are to benefit from democracy and human rights?

The Prime Minister

It is right that the Council of Europe stands for those values, and we are fighting for them in Kosovo. It is worth pointing out that, since the second world war and the formation of the European Union, there have been tremendous strides forward within the EU in peace, prosperity and security. [Interruption.] I believe that to be the case. I think that Europe and the European Union have stood the test of time pretty well over the past 50 years. I think that the values of justice and democracy are the very values that we should be advancing now for south-east Europe and the Balkans.

Q7. Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

The Prime Minister will recall, that two weeks ago—not for the first time this year—I asked him whether he could give the House a date on which beef exports would be resumed. Yet again, he did not answer the question. Later that day, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in answer to a question in a debate, said that the Government were working to a timetable. Will the Prime Minister tell us where in that timetable is the date for the resumption of beef exports?

The Prime Minister

As I said to the hon. Gentleman last time, there had to be an inspection process first. I told him that an invitation was extended to the Commission. The Commission came between 12 and 16 April. Its representatives have gone back and they will prepare a report for the Commission. Once that report has satisfied the Commission that all the various obstacles have been overcome, a date will be submitted by the European Commission and agreed by us. That is the procedure that has to be gone through.

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman—I think that I said this to him last time—that I do not accept the idea that we should take lessons from the Conservative party about BSE. We have had to sort out the vast multi-billion pound mess that we inherited from the previous Conservative Government.