HC Deb 26 May 1999 vol 332 cc344-53
Q1. Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday, 26 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 shall have further such meetings later today. I will also be attending the celebrations to mark the opening of the Welsh Assembly.

Mr. Hawkins

Does the Prime Minister share the commitment of his socialist Members of the European Parliament to giving the European Union power over our savings taxes and capital taxes?

The Prime Minister

We set out our position yesterday on the savings tax. We believe in a sensible and constructive attitude in Europe that manages to secure victories for Britain in Europe, unlike the isolated and the divided regime of the Tories which brought us nothing but defeat in Europe.

Q2. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

Last week, this House voted for extra benefits to be paid to severely disabled young people, and it also saw the completion of the Standing Committee on the Disabled Rights Commission Bill, taking this country a step closer—or a roll closer, in my case—towards ensuring that there is an end to discrimination against disabled people. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that all Government buildings and Departments will become models of good practice in dealing with disabled people, and that not only will the necessary ramps, lifts and toilets be in place, but that they will work when a disabled person wants to use them?

The Prime Minister

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend entirely. It is important that the Government and the public sector give a proper lead in installing facilities and making them work. I am sorry if there have been such problems recently. We are proud to create the Disability Rights Commission, which is a big step forward. Over the lifetime of this Parliament, we will be providing more money for disabled people to help them with their problems and to help them to get back to work. We are making the necessary reforms to make sure that money goes to those who need help the most. Our reforms are right in principle and will make sure that, for the first time, many disabled people up and down the country will get the help that they need.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Instead of negotiating an European Union directive on savings taxation, which includes the withholding tax and threatens thousands of jobs in this country, should not we be making clear that all such directives are unacceptable to this country? Should not the whole idea have been vetoed at the beginning?

The Prime Minister

The stories in some of the newspapers this morning that we have agreed to the withholding tax are, as we told them, complete and total nonsense. There is no change in our position. There will be no withholding tax imposed on Britain by Brussels. There will be no agreement to anything that damages the eurobond market. There will be no agreement; there has been no agreement; there is no agreement. However, we will win the argument—that is the difference.

Mr. Hague

If that is the case, why did the German Finance Minister say after yesterday's meeting that the withholding tax had taken a big step forward? How did he get that impression? How did it come about that the account of the meeting issued to Agence Europe says: In the absence of the British point of view on the issue of"— tax on savings— the debate was short"? How did it come about that the British Chancellor was present at a meeting at which the British point of view was absent? The account stated that the Chancellor of the Exchequer undertook to clarify his country's position in June. How convenient—to do so after the European elections. Is not it always the case that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor pretend to be robust and reassuring in the House of Commons, and are then pathetically weak in the Council of Ministers on these issues?

The Prime Minister

We have been asked to make proposals to deal in a better way with the tax evasion that, perfectly rightly, worries many countries in Europe. I have made it clear here—and I will do so again—that we will use the veto if necessary, but that it is better to win the argument, because there are many other issues on which we will require support from other countries.

On tax harmonisation and the veto, only 18 pieces of tax harmonisation have been agreed by any British Government, and all of them were agreed by the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. Hague

Every time I talk about the future, the Prime Minister talks about the past. Is it not time that the Government showed the way on taxes in Europe? Instead of all the rubbish in the European socialist manifesto that he has signed about harmful tax competition, should not we be celebrating tax competition, extending our tax advantages and widening the gap in taxes rather than trying to eliminate it?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason that we have got the lowest corporation tax ever, under a Labour Government. It is not only the 18 tax harmonisation measures that the Conservatives agreed: they agreed 42 extensions of qualified majority voting.

Because of our attitude, which seeks to be positive and engaged and to win in Europe, we have secured the rebate that the Conservatives said we would never secure; got better deals on structural funds than ever before, which they said that we could not do; secured the highlands and islands deal, which they said we would never get; and got the BSE ban lifted, which they had imposed. The choice is very, very simple. We can have isolation, division and failure with the Tories or constructive engagement, partnership and success under Labour.

Mr. Hague

What a stream of fiction. If there is nothing to worry about on tax, why are the 200 items of national tax measures now being harmonised by the EU treated as a Government secret, only discovered at all by internet users who speak Dutch? They do not normally look for the details of tax harmonisation proposals. After all the evasions, secrecies and half-truths over the measures, will the Prime Minister agree to publish the list of them?

The Prime Minister

May I deal with the supposed 200 hidden taxes? The Tories got that story on the front page of The Mail on Sunday, which would print any old rubbish that they send it. The secret proposal is in fact the Code of Conduct Committee, which is chaired by a Treasury Minister. So secret is it that we had a full debate on it in the House in December.

Mr. Hague

As usual, we get assertions from the Prime Minister that are total rubbish. There has been no debate about the 200 measures now before that committee. This is a Government who are supposed to believe in freedom of information. The Home Secretary said: everyone will have the right … to information held by bodies across the public sector."—[Official Report, 24 May 1999;Vol.332,c.21.] Will the Prime Minister now publish the full list of the 200 measures under discussion?

The Prime Minister

There are no 200 hidden measures, just as we have not given up the veto, agreed to a withholding tax or agreed, for example, to paper-boys, double-decker buses or curved bananas being banned, or any of the rest of the Euro-twaddle that the right hon. Gentleman comes out with. At some point, he and the other people who parrot the same nonsense in the newspapers, should realise that Britain is in the European Union and it is right that we should be, so for heaven's sake let us make the best of it.

Mr. Hague

So the answer is no, the right hon. Gentleman will not publish the list. The trouble for the Government is that nobody can believe anything that they say on Europe. It is freedom of information on Monday and the concealment of information on Wednesday. It is tax competition here and tax harmonisation over there. The Prime Minister loves the pound at election time and wants to abolish it the rest of the time. Do not the people want the Government of this country to say what they mean, to do what they say and to keep us in Europe, not run by Europe?

The Prime Minister

On the Freedom of Information Bill, the previous Government had 18 years to introduce such a measure. We have now done it.

I have already dealt with the right hon. Gentleman's nonsense about tax. I return to this basic point: the withholding tax is a classic example of the right and the wrong ways to do business for Britain in Europe. There is a problem with tax evasion in European countries. We will not agree to anything that harms the City or the eurobond market or agree to Brussels imposing a withholding tax on Britain. However, as the Chancellor has secured, if we can show other countries a better way of dealing with their legitimate problems while protecting our interests, that is a better way to do business in Europe.

We had 18 years of Conservative Government and their diplomacy in Europe. What did it do? It led us to marginalisation, a lack of influence and the worst situation for Britain in Europe since the second world war. Slowly but surely, a different Government with a better attitude are rebuilding British power and influence. That is the best way to proceed: success under us; failure under the Conservatives.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

May I ask the Prime Minister to turn his mind to the situation in Yugoslavia? Does he accept that, after two months of bombing, seeing hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Kosovo, hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties in Yugoslavia and an environmental disaster caused by the use of depleted uranium and the bombing of chemical works, it is time to achieve a peace settlement by involving, rather than bypassing, the United Nations? Is it not time to involve Kofi Annan in a peacekeeping mission rather than watching NATO trying to undermine the situation and continue an illegal war? The United Nations should have been involved from the beginning.

The Prime Minister

First, on a point of fact, in the last day, the United Nations body responsible for the environment has said that the Serbian claims are nonsense and untrue—there has not been the environmental damage claimed. My hon. Friend referred to civilians who have died in Serbia, but I hoped that he would mention also the thousands of people who have been butchered in Kosovo.

We would dearly love it if the United Nations were able to come in, resolve the issue and allow the refugees to return. There have been 72 United Nations resolutions in the past few years asking Milosevic to do the right thing, but he is not a man who cares for the United Nations. He is not acting according to international law: he is pursuing a policy of racial genocide. Anybody who believes in the basic principles of justice and humanity should support our case.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Is not the significance of NATO's decision yesterday almost to double the ground forces around Kosovo simply that NATO has at last given itself the means of widening the option for the use of ground forces—if time requires or the military situation allows—from peacekeeping to peacemaking?

The Prime Minister

There is no doubt at all that it is a significant and a right move, taken on the basis of NATO's comments yesterday. I think that it is important that we have demonstrated our clear intent and determination to make sure that there is a sufficient force so that the refugees can be allowed home properly.

Mr. Ashdown

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that very important answer. Is it not also the case that NATO's much-loved phrase "keeping all options open" has, with an insufficient ground force until now, meant only one of two things: bombing or compromise? This important decision means that we have invested what was until now merely a declaration with the means of making it an imminent reality.

The Prime Minister

As I said, NATO's announcement was made in the terms that it expressed. There is a growing recognition that the air campaign is doing immense damage to Milosevic. In the past two days, scores of tanks and artillery in Kosovo have been hit. However, it is important to ensure that we have sufficient ground forces—we will need them on any basis—to do the job of getting the refugees back home.

Mr. Alan Johnson (Hull, West and Hessle)

The Prime Minister will be aware that there is wide cross-party support in the House for the ex-distant water trawlermen, who petitioned him this morning at 10 Downing street. Those men lost their jobs as a direct result of a Government decision; they were promised compensation in the House and have received nothing; £100 million was given to trawler owners, not one penny of which went to the crews. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the passage of time in no way diminishes the legitimacy of their claim, and will he assure me that his Government will give it urgent and proper consideration?

The Prime Minister

I certainly can assure my hon. Friend that we shall give urgent and proper consideration to any claim, but obviously I do so without prejudice to the outcome. We are aware of the strength of feeling and we are aware that the passage of time has not diminished it.

Q3. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Why has the Prime Minister allowed the disgraced European Commissioners to remain in office for the past two months, drawing their salaries and making 120 important decisions? Is it not the case that their resignation was a complete and utter sham?

The Prime Minister

No, it is not the case, and there will soon be a new Commission. I make an appeal to the Conservative party which will fall largely on deaf ears: it would be sensible, now that we have a new Commission President, and new Commissioners will soon be in position, if we tried just for once to work with them sensibly and constructively, rather than attacking them all the time.

Q4. Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Further to my right hon. Friend's exchanges with the leader of one of the two Conservative parties fighting the European elections, does he agree that the choice in Europe is between a Government who fight for Britain's interests, build coalitions with allies to get their way and have decisions made in their favour, and a party that stands on the sidelines shouting abuse and then experiences resounding electoral defeat, as it did two years ago?

The Prime Minister

That choice is very clear. I know that, in the European elections, people will not want to let the Conservatives in by the back door; no one wants that. The Conservative party's division on Europe obviously remains and is even being exhibited in these elections. A divided party cannot get the best deal for this country. We learned that when the Conservatives were in government, and we learn it now that they are in opposition.

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

Will the Prime Minister explain to my constituents why, after two years of a Labour Government and in spite of much rhetoric from Ministers, they are worse off? They are worse off financially because of additional hidden taxes, an enormous hike in petrol prices and higher council tax bills, such as Labour and Liberal-controlled Hertfordshire county council's 9.5 per cent. increase this year. Their commuter journeys to London are disrupted by deteriorating train services—[Interruption.] It is true. Their NHS hospital waiting times have soared since May 1997, and Princess Alexandra hospital is closing 25 beds. In my constituency, more children than ever before are not being offered their first choice of school when they transfer from primary to secondary school.

Is it not the case that the Labour party misled the electorate at the general election and is incapable of fulfilling its promises?

The Prime Minister

First, living standards in this country are rising. I am surprised that the hon. Lady did not mention that, under this Government, interest and mortgage rates are the lowest for more than 30 years. We are the Government who put the extra investment into schools and hospitals which her Front Benchers described as irresponsible. We are the Government who are introducing the working families tax credit, which will greatly help low-income families. We introduced the statutory minimum wage. We are reducing class sizes. We are getting waiting lists down. Those are all promises fulfilled.

Q5. Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

Will the Prime Minister ensure that the network of small town and rural post offices does not fall victim to the correct abandonment of the Horizon project earlier this week? That was an ill-conceived and public relations-led Tory information technology project which failed. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that my post offices will stay open?

The Prime Minister

I can assure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to a nationwide network of post offices. The reforms that we announced at the end of last year aim to help the Post Office to continue to provide such a network. Those reforms will ensure the strict protection of the public service commitment, including universal public service obligations.

We announced earlier this week that the network of almost 19,000 post offices will be equipped with a modern, on-line IT system by 2001. That will enable rural post offices to modernise their existing services and secure their viable long-term future.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

This is a straightforward, specific question; I hope that it will be answered in a similar vein. Why, for secondary, nursery and upper-age primary school pupils, are class sizes getting larger under Labour?

The Prime Minister

They are not getting larger. For the first time—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman does not like the answer. For primary school pupils, class sizes are falling; we have got 130,000 five, six and seven-year-olds out of class sizes of more than 30, where they used to be under the Government whom he supported; and in secondary schools, we are getting the adult-pupil and teacher-pupil ratios down. The extra investment that we are making is already paying dividends.

Q6. Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government remain committed to reform of the welfare state—which was created by a Labour Government and will be reformed by a Labour Government—and the chaotic welfare system that they inherited from the previous Government? Will he confirm that they will tackle both those reforms to end abuse of the system while remaining sensitive to the needs of people who, through no fault of their own, are entirely dependent on benefits, which are still very low?

The Prime Minister

In the first two years of this Government, social security spending has been controlled for the first time in ages. Through the new deal, we have been able to offer young people and the long-term unemployed a chance to go back to work and get skills and training. For the first time, we have offered single parents the chance of proper child care so that they can go to work if they wish. We are reforming the welfare state, but in a way that is humane and just, and gets help to people who really need it.

What a contrast with the Conservative Government, who, for 18 years, talked about welfare reform, but under whom the costs doubled, the number of those on benefit rose and rose and no young person in the inner city got the chance of employment, which we are now providing. The Labour party is the party of radical welfare reform, which is conducted in the right and proper way.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

May I ask the Prime Minister a simple numerical question, which is incapable of being subject to spin or general guff? What was the average secondary school class size when he came to power, and what is it today?

The Prime Minister

As I have just pointed out—[Interruption.] The ratio of teachers to pupils in secondary schools is falling; it is not rising. Not merely is the ratio falling in secondary schools, but primary school class sizes have come down, not gone up. I know that Opposition Members do not like the answer, but that is the answer.

Q7. Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)

Tomorrow, the Deputy Prime Minister will be visiting my constituency in east London—and he will be exceptionally welcome—to officiate at the groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of the building of Excel, which, when completed, will be the largest exhibition and conference centre in the United Kingdom. Despite such exciting initiatives, 13 of the 20 most deprived wards in the UK are in Greater London, where we have more unemployment than Scotland and Northern Ireland combined. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to support the regeneration of the Thames gateway? Does he agree that the areas of London for which objective 2 status is sought have an exceptionally strong case?

The Prime Minister

I certainly understand my hon. Friend's point. I know that, along with his colleagues, he will be meeting Ministers to argue their points on objective 2 status. I gather that Excel, once completed, is expected to create about 14,000 jobs. It is the latest of a series of public-private projects for regeneration of the docklands and elsewhere, and is exactly the right type of co-operation between the private and public sector for the future.

Q8. Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Will the Prime Minister tell the House this afternoon whether the devious drift to regional government in the United Kingdom, the likely tax harmonisation with the European Union, with all the additional costs for most businesses and individuals in this country, and the sale of our gold reserves—or much of our gold reserves—for a devalued euro are his way of submerging the United Kingdom into a Europe of the regions, thus making the holding of a referendum totally irrelevant?

The Prime Minister

No is the answer to all those points. If I may deal with one—

Mr. Winterton

Deal with all of them.

The Prime Minister

If I may begin by dealing with one of them, on the gold reserves, throughout the world countries have been selling gold in order to diversify their reserves. It has happened—[Interruption.] I was not aware that Argentina or Switzerland were about to join the euro. Lots of different countries have been doing it. It was always rubbish that this was anything to do with the euro; it is nothing to do with it.

As for regional government, we have said that we shall work with the regions. If they want greater power, we are prepared to give it.

As for the development agencies that are being set up in the regions, I cannot speak for the hon. Gentleman's region, but I shall speak for mine, the north-east, where everyone welcomes the idea. It is a good idea to co-ordinate investment to get new investment into the region. I appreciate that the Conservatives are opposed to everything to do with greater power to and decentralisation of the regions, just as they are opposed to Europe, but they should not wish all their problems on the rest of us.

Q9. Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis)

Experience as a magistrate and from the work that I have done in my constituency has made me well aware of the extent of the problem of drug abuse. Sadly, many children in secondary schools today are experimenting with drugs such as heroin. For some people, financing their habit is not a problem. For others, it is, and they resort to criminal activity, ranging from petty theft to more serious offences, such as burglary, fraud and deception.

I am aware of many of the voluntary projects, such as The Zone drop-in project in Halesowen, which are offering advice to young people and their families, and authorities such as Sandwell health authority, which are setting targets to reduce the amount of drug abuse. Therefore, I welcome the Government's proposals on drug abuse.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me, however, that, in addition to those targets, he will ensure that there is an increase in the availability of treatment and rehabilitation centres? Punishment alone is not a sufficient deterrent.

The Prime Minister

Yes. We are increasing the resources that are going to treatment and rehabilitation. We have introduced penalties as well, such as the drug treatment and testing order, to put criminals with drug problems into treatment. For the first time, assets seized from drug traffickers convicted in this country will be channelled back into action against drugs.

The Government have launched a major programme and attached to it are specific targets to cut drug abuse. For the first time, we are co-ordinating actively across Government Departments the fight against drugs and drug abuse.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

The Prime Minister knows that I am not one of those who oppose our membership of the European Union, and no one who has listened to him today can have any doubt of his commitment to the well-being of the European Union, but in relation to withholding tax, surely he knows that it would not be uniquely damaging to the United Kingdom, but would be extremely damaging to the European Union as a whole. Therefore, does he not have a duty to do everything in his power to prevent it from occurring?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman said that he was not opposed to the European Union, and I agree with him in everything else that he said. That is precisely why the sensible response is for us to say to the rest of Europe, "Yes, you have a problem with tax evasion in certain countries"—and it does. Germany has a serious problem with companies simply crossing borders as a means of tax evasion. We are saying, "Look, we can deal with that problem in a different way." The hon. Gentleman is right that the withholding tax, if it were imposed throughout Europe by the centre, would damage not just the UK, but other countries. It is for that reason that we are engaging constructively, and doing our very best to ensure that the damage is not done, but that, instead, we offer those countries a better, more sensible way of dealing with their problems.

Q10. Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that cancer is the No. 1 killer disease in England and Wales. Will he therefore join me in congratulating the Royal Shrewsbury hospital and local Shropshire charities on the wonderful care that they give cancer patients and their families? Can he update the House on the outcome of the meeting that he held last week with top cancer specialists, which gave a great boost to all those who are involved in the crusade against cancer?

The Prime Minister

One in four people will die of cancer. That is why the Government are committed to making our cancer services the best in the world. We have invested an extra £60 million directly in services for the three most common cancers, and are committing another £150 million to get state-of-the-art equipment in our hospitals, increasing the number of cancer specialists and providing up to 15,000 extra nurses, as well as increasing spending on cancer drugs. That is all part of the largest single increase in investment in the health service—the £21 billion—that any Government have ever made. Conservative Members may not like that, but it is the right thing to do, the country likes it, and it stands in contrast to the undermining of the health service by the Conservative party.

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