HC Deb 19 May 1999 vol 331 cc1057-61
Q4. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

My right hon. Friend will have seen the employment and unemployment figures, published today, which reveal that there are more people in work than ever. The claimant count reveals an annual national reduction of 72,000 and a reduction of 4,000 in my own region of the north-west. Is not that good news for, and a function of, the economy and is not it especially good news for those who are finding work? Do not those figures entirely repudiate the claims of the many merchants of gloom on the Opposition Benches who, since the election, have consistently and regularly tried to talk down this country's economy?

The Prime Minister

The figures published today are excellent news. They demonstrate that, since the election, more than 400,000 new jobs have been created. Just as important is the news that long-term unemployment has fallen by over 50 per cent. and youth long-term unemployment has fallen by over 60 per cent. That gives a great deal of hope to young people and the longterm unemployed. Of course, the Conservatives were predicting disaster and recession a year ago. Today's news may be bad news for them, but it is good news for the country.

Q5. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

The Prime Minister will no doubt remember that last week the Secretary of State for International Development promised that the Kosovan refugees who had family contacts in this country would be given priority among those who were given temporary leave to stay. The Prime Minister will not be aware that, for the past five weeks, I have been trying, on behalf of my constituent, Mrs. Merita Lumley, to get her father, mother, brother and sister out of Macedonia, where they are currently refugees. I have not yet received a single answer about that from any Department. Is not it time that action replaced rhetoric, or will this be just another empty promise?

The Prime Minister

First, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that we have done an awful lot for the refugees whom we have taken in. I am not aware of the individual case of his constituent; I shall look into that today and ensure that he gets a reply about it this evening.

Q6. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Labour party's victory in the Israeli elections? Does he agree that the results represent the best chance of a just and long-standing peace in the region? Will he use his best efforts to ensure that all parties agree on a speedy introduction of the Wye agreement?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to endorse my hon. Friend's remarks. I spoke to Ehud Barak yesterday and gave him our congratulations. His victory offers the middle east peace process a chance to move forward, and I know that that will be done on the basis of the Wye River memorandum, which offers a tremendous opportunity for rebuilding the middle east on the basis of security for Israel and justice for the Palestinian people.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Does the Prime Minister agree with the leader of his MEPs, Pauline Green, who said that we should abolish Britain's veto over asylum, immigration and every aspect of foreign and security policy?

The Prime Minister

No. We have set out clearly the position on the veto and we believe that it is important that we keep it for areas such as defence and taxation; but we do not agree with the Conservative party, which says that it is now opposed to any extension of qualified majority voting in any circumstances.

Mr. Hague

The leader of the Prime Minister's MEPs said on 12 January: We believe in the extension of majority voting on everything except changes to the treaty, the membership of new countries … and taxation". Labour MEPs have specifically voted for majority voting on asylum, immigration and foreign and security policy. Should not we be arguing not for giving up Britain's veto, but for maintaining it and—when the interests of the country are at stake, as with the withholding tax—using it?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman has a little difficulty with that, because I have just been informed that his own Tory MEPs have voted for the Conservative Euro manifesto, which argues for exactly the same abolition of qualified majority voting. He should get his facts right first. We have made our position quite clear; I do not, however, accept that we should rule out qualified majority voting in any set of circumstances. I remind him that the largest ever extension of qualified majority voting was made by the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. Hague

The trouble with the Prime Minister on Europe now is that we cannot take him at face value. Sometimes his MEPs take him at face value; he told them to clean up Europe and one put a hoover and his dry cleaning on his expense account. For years, he has tried to have it both ways. He says he stands up for Britain, but he wants to diminish the veto. He says he loves the pound, but he wants to abolish it. He says he is against a federal Europe, but the socialist manifesto that he has launched today prepares for a federal Europe. Is not it true that the veto is vital for Britain and his party cannot be trusted to keep it safe?

The Prime Minister

First, in relation to the veto, as I have pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman, the party that surrendered the veto more times than any other party in government was his. It is, however, entirely sensible, in certain areas, to have qualified majority voting—we would not have got the beef ban lifted and we would not get the single market completed without it. People have a simple choice at the European elections—one Government party with one manifesto or two Tory parties with two manifestos. After the lack of influence and weakness in Europe to which his party reduced us, I believe that people should stick with the Government and the party that knows what it is doing in Europe.

Dan Norris (Wansdyke)

On average, 40 children are abused before a paedophile is convicted. What can the Government do to address that problem and will they consider changing the burden of proof to ensure that those awful people cannot harm children in the way that they currently do?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend will know, the Protection of Children Bill makes a number of significant advances in that area, particularly in the way that we vet criminal records and make sure that the people who are looking after children are only suitable people. We of course look at all other potential aspects of that, but I believe that the work that is being done now to provide, for the first time in a Government, a cross-departmental view of how we look after, nurture and protect children and provide them with proper education is the best hope for the future our children have.

Q7. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

We have become accustomed to the Prime Minister bypassing the House of Commons. On how many occasions this year has he cancelled Cabinet or delegated chairmanship to a colleague? Does he still believe in collective responsibility and accountability to Parliament?

The Prime Minister

In relation to Parliament, I did a little bit of research on that the other day. I have answered more parliamentary questions in my first two years than my predecessor answered in his last two years. I have spent more time at Prime Minister's questions than he did. I have made double the number of statements to the House on which I can be questioned. Those are the facts. As for Cabinet, recently-and obviously, with the war on-I have not been able to attend the two or three Cabinet meetings to which the right hon. Lady refers, but I believe in collective responsibility. What is more, and unlike the Cabinet of which she was a member, I have my Cabinet behind me.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Returning to the topic of the European Parliament, does the Prime Minister agree that it is important that the British and other European Governments press for increases in the democratic accountability of the European Parliament and for it to be shown that expenses are being met according to what people spend? Is he concerned about the fact that Conservative MEPs last week rejected the reform package that would have greatly increased confidence in the European Parliament?

The Prime Minister

We support the independent auditing of accounts and expenses. We also support the new European statute that introduces far greater transparency. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Conservative party has refused to support the package that would give us the best opportunity to ensure that we root out fraud and inefficiency in the European Union.

Q8. Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the total salary paid to an individual who is a Member of the House, a Member of the National Assembly for Wales, and is also Secretary of State for Wales and First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales is £187,122?

The Prime Minister

I have just been informed that the hon. Lady is wrong about that figure, and the individual does not get the amount to which she referred.

Q9. Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley)

This morning, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport published an excellent report on the staging of international sporting events. It gave the organisers of the next Commonwealth games a clean bill of health. Its recommendations went further: it said that if this country is to get the most out of the next Commonwealth games, there will have to be direct ministerial involvement and more resources. May I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for the Commonwealth games, and ask him to consider those recommendations with a view to giving a positive response?

The Prime Minister

I welcome the report of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. We shall carefully consider its recommendations. The Manchester Commonwealth games is a tremendous opportunity for Manchester and for the country, but it is evident that questions of resources must be given careful consideration.

Q10. Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

A little while ago the Prime Minister told the House that it would be his particular pleasure—I think those were his words—to introduce legislation to implement Lord Neill's recommendations on the fair funding of referendums. Why is he intending to ask his troops—as we understand—to kill off tomorrow the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan)?

The Prime Minister

We are about to introduce our own draft Bill, which implements the Neill committee recommendations. The hon. Gentleman should remember that the Labour party set up the Neill committee on party funding when the party that he supports refused to have any inquiry into the matter.

Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

One in four men aged between 60 and 65 are currently in receipt of incapacity benefit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is inconceivable that such a proportion of men in that age group are incapable, and that that figure reflects the extent to which incapacity benefit was used under the previous Government to keep people off the unemployment register? Would not it be fairer and better if incapacity benefit reverted to the purpose for which it was intended, if people who can work were helped to find it, and if really disabled people, adults and children, got a much better deal than they currently get?

The Prime Minister

Everybody knows that in the 1980s the Conservatives used invalidity benefit to transfer people off unemployment benefit. That is the truth of what happened. We now have triple the numbers on incapacity benefit. There are more people on it than on unemployment benefit. Conservative Members are now complaining about that. Last week the Leader of the Opposition said that he wanted welfare spending to be cut to deliver tax cuts, but the first opportunity the Conservatives have for proper welfare reform they refuse it. Instead, the Government are taking the money that is saved and getting it to people who really need it. Those people who talk about welfare reform should have the courage to see it through.