HC Deb 12 May 1999 vol 331 cc314-8
Q4. Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that last Thursday's elections produced two amazing results for the Labour party? One was that we demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that we were the most popular mid-term Government this century. The second amazing result to benefit the Labour party was that the Leader of the Opposition just managed to hang on to his job.

The Prime Minister

I am delighted if members of the Conservative party think that they did extremely well last Thursday. As for the Leader of the Opposition, I am sure that he has wide support in every part of the House.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

May I confirm to the Prime Minister that I continue to believe that he is entitled to the widest support in the House in the tragically difficult undertaking on which the country has embarked with the other members of NATO? During the process, which is likely to be long, people in this country will ask tough and difficult questions about the conduct of affairs. I believe that the Prime Minister's approach today is the right way to respond to those questions—not the approach of someone who appears to be in his office, who suggests that, if questions are asked about the conduct of the campaign, that somehow calls into question the basic loyalty of the House. If that approach is adopted and criticism is delivered in that way, it will only undermine the cross-party support that I am sure the Prime Minister is seeking to maintain.

The Prime Minister

First, I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says. One of the strengths of our democracy is that people are able to ask questions about the conduct of the war. I ask only that, in giving us that support, people recognise that, from time to time, there are extremely difficult decisions to make and that, particularly in a situation such as this, there are no easy options. I believe that the vast majority of Members of the House recognise that.

Q5. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The Prime Minister knows that I support the bombing of military targets in Yugoslavia, for exactly the reasons that he has set out once more today, but could we not avoid undue civilian casualties by following the principle propounded by Mary Robinson, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who asked us to err on the side of proportionality? In particular, cluster bombs should not be dropped in civilian areas, the Vinca nuclear research institute near Belgrade should not be attacked and we should contact the Americans to stop them using depleted uranium.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for the air campaign. We, of course, try to make sure that we avoid civilian casualties as much as we possibly can. In respect of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in particular, we have made it clear—and I make it clear again now—that we profoundly apologise, both to the Chinese people and to the Chinese Government, for what has happened. It was a tragic accident, but it should never have happened.

We do everything we can to avoid civilian casualties; I only ask people to bear it in mind that we are engaged in this air campaign because the dictator in Serbia is perfectly happy, as an act of deliberate policy, to butcher and murder ordinary civilian people. I know that those people who are planning this campaign and taking those decisions do so with the heaviest sense of responsibility. Indeed, the first thing that strikes anyone who has talked to British pilots engaged in action is their sense of responsibility. There is nothing gung-ho about them and nothing macho about the way in which they go about things. They recognise that they have this power for a purpose and they try to use it in a way that minimises civilian casualties.

Q6. Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

On 20 May last year, in column 952 of Hansard, the Prime Minister promised to review the way in which war widows pensions relate to housing benefit. A year has passed, and nothing has happened. This is not a very complicated matter and it surely does not take 12 months to review. The right hon. Gentleman has made a promise, but he has not delivered. Why not?

The Prime Minister

We have explained constantly that the problem is cost, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman that he supported a Government who were in power for 18 years and never did that. I appreciate that we now have the responsibility for those decisions. We have said that we will look at it, and we will do that, but the problem is simply one of cost.

Q7. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Tory gain."]—that we owe an enormous debt to our fanning community for producing high-quality food and maintaining our countryside? Will he do all in his power to ensure that there is a future for small family farms and for young farmers who enter the industry, and support for agri-environmental schemes and conversion to organic farming, in which there is tremendous interest in my constituency?

The Prime Minister

I love the way that the Tories celebrate their Scottish and Welsh election results; it is a marvellous thing to behold. In relation to—[Interruption.] The more they think it is a good result, the better we are.

In relation to farming support, it is correct that we have announced an aid package of over £120 million. Obviously, we recognise the difficult circumstances that farmers have been in, but I want to pick up one particular point on organic farming. Since coming to power, we have increased by eight times the support that we give to organic farming. There is now five times as much land in production for organic farming as there was when we came to office. I hope that we are trying our best to support the farming industry, but are also trying to invest in environmentally friendly forms of modern farming.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

The Prime Minister will be aware that we are within one week of the first anniversary of the Belfast agreement. People voted by a large majority for a democratic way of government in Northern Ireland, and for guns and bombs to be a thing of the past. Will the Prime Minister unequivocally reassure the House and the people of Northern Ireland in particular that, at a time when the godfather of terrorist godfathers, Martin McGuinness, has been nominated as a potential member of the Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly, he will stick to the promise that he and his Government made that illegal guns and bombs cannot be a part of a democratic process, and that there will be no question of forcing Sinn Fein into an Executive until it has met its obligations in that respect?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason that it is a term of taking office in the Executive that people forswear violence. Should they go back to violence, there are provisions to expel them from the Executive. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the Good Friday agreement—which, according to a recent poll, is still supported by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland—offers the only right way forward. We are looking at how to ensure that both sides of the community—obviously, in the hon. Gentleman's case, it is the Unionist community—have the trust and the confidence that violence has been given up for good, allowing people to go into government together. I hope that that occurs, because easily the best thing that could happen to the politics of Northern Ireland is that devolution takes place on the basis of a universal commitment to peace and democracy. Northern Ireland politics should debate not the sectarian issues that it has debated for so many years, but the ordinary issues of schools, hospitals, ordinary crime in our streets, local government—the issues that are the bread and butter of everyday politics here.

Q8. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that in three years' time—the Queen's golden jubilee year—Manchester will host the 17th Commonwealth games. They will be the biggest yet, and will provide a huge opportunity for the city, the country and the international sporting community. Now that the site for the stadium is being cleared for construction, will the Prime Minister continue to ensure the full support of the Government for the games, so that in 2002 we can all enjoy a celebration of Commonwealth friendship and sporting achievement?

The Prime Minister

The games in Manchester in 2002 will be the biggest multi-sporting event in Britain since the 1948 Olympic games. More than 5,000 athletes from some 70 countries will compete, and we have earmarked £112 million of lottery money for the building of the new facilities. I am sure that it will be a tremendous showcase not just for Manchester, but for the whole of Britain.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

In opposition, the right hon. Gentleman often accused the Conservative Government of selling off the family silver. Will he now tell the House and the country why he and his Government are selling off the family gold?

The Prime Minister

First of all, it was actually Harold Macmillan who used the phrase "selling off the family silver". Secondly, I assume that the hon. Lady's remarks mean that the Conservative party is now against privatisation in addition to its commitment to public spending. Thirdly, as for gold, I have never come across so much nonsense as that talked by the Conservative party. It talks as if this was some stealthy plan to get us into the euro. Countries all around the world diversify so that some parts of their reserves are in currency and some in gold. That is entirely sensible. Only today's Conservative party could be ideologically opposed to it.

Q9. Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the submission made by representatives of rural South Derbyshire at a packed meeting in Melbourne on the rural White Paper consultation? Many issues were raised at that vibrant meeting, and one of the suggestions made was that we should tackle the issue of how to encourage rural enterprise that is sustainable in a rural area, so that we move away from the dormitory culture of car-borne commuting in rural England and towards genuinely sustainable communities. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that suggestion?

The Prime Minister

I assure my hon. Friend that the role of small businesses, in particular, will feature largely in the White Paper that will be published shortly. That, of course, comes on top of the new rate relief for village shops, the financial support for farmers and the creation of the new Countryside Agency.

As my hon. Friend and the whole House will know, this side of the House of Commons now represents more rural constituencies than the other side. Long may that continue.