HC Deb 20 October 1999 vol 336 cc431-40
Q1. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 20 October.

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 be having further such meetings later today.

Mr. Boswell

Does the Prime Minister support the right of state school governors to solicit top-up contributions from parents to maintain essential staffing levels and the core activities of their schools?

The Prime Minister

Schools are perfectly entitled to ask for voluntary contributions from parents; they have always been entitled to do that. What must not happen is people being forced to pay such contributions.

Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the common approach to asylum seekers achieved at the recent summit? However, does he agree that it would be totally against the British national interest—and entirely crazy—for a British Prime Minister to threaten to block, or indeed to block, the enlargement of the European Union to include countries such as Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic? That is what the Leader of the Opposition proposed at his recent party conference.

The Prime Minister

We shall certainly not take such a course. I notice that the Leader of the Opposition is shaking his head, but that is precisely what the Opposition have proposed. In case any doubt remains, let me make it clear that the Opposition have said that, in government, they would insist on an amendment to the treaty of Rome. If such an amendment were not granted, they have said that they would block all European Union change, including enlargement.

If anyone wanted a clue to the real Conservative intentions, how about the following quotation, which I did not read out yesterday? The Conservative pressure group on Europe contains 13 Front-Bench Conservative spokesmen, and its vice chair, Mr. Roger Helmer, a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, said: The big stick is the threat of withdrawal … I don't rule out withdrawal as an option. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition will finally disown remarks such as that.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Whose fault is it that the Home Secretary was allowed to make an announcement about 5,000 more police officers that bore so little resemblance to the truth? Was it the fault of the Home Secretary, or of the Prime Minister, who allowed him to do it?

The Prime Minister

What my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said was as follows: So, over the next three years, on top of the 11,000 recruits already planned, we will be giving the police the money they need to recruit 5,000 more officers. That's 5,000 more police officers over and above the police service's recruiting plans. That is what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said. That is what he meant, and that is what he will do.

Mr. Hague

What the Home Secretary said is what he repeated in an article on Monday, when he wrote: There will be 5,000 more police officers. However, in a letter to the Home Secretary, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrote: Dear Home Secretary, I must stress that, as has been discussed at length … the package does not provide for 5,000 "additional" police officers … There should therefore be no references to this package being one for 5,000 additional officers … I am copying this letter to the Prime Minister". So the Prime Minister must have known, before the Home Secretary's speech, that the promise of 5,000 more officers was not the truth. Did the Prime Minister read the letter, and what did he do about it?

The Prime Minister

It is exactly the truth. Perhaps the best evidence of that came from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which, when the Conservative party got this matter off the ground, said: We regard Jack Straw very much as a man of his word. He has repeated his commitment … and we see this as real new money for extra recruits. There will be 5,000 more officers. The distinction lies between those 5,000 more officers and what happened when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the previous Government. They cut police numbers by 1,500.

Mr. Hague

When the previous Government left office there were 16,000 more police officers in this country, and 16,000 additional police officers. Under the previous Government, "more" and "additional" meant the same thing, as they usually do in the English language. Is the Prime Minister happy that the Home Secretary should write articles saying that there would be 5,000 more police officers? Was he happy for his press secretary to say on Monday that there will be 5,000 more police officers as a result of what Jack announced"? Will the Prime Minister clear up this matter? Will he tell the whole country whether, over the next three years, there will be 5,000 more police officers than there are now?

The Prime Minister

Yes, there will be 5,000 extra police officers. Yes, the £35 million is new money. Yes, as opposed to the plans that we inherited from the previous Government—of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member—which predicted a fall in police recruits, we will have a rise in police recruits.

Mr. Hague

Given that the number of police recruits is scheduled to be 16,000 over the next three years as opposed to 18,000 over the past three years, the Prime Minister's comment is no more truthful than those of the Home Secretary before him. Let him answer the question that I have asked. Let him cut the waffle—and cheer up about it; we have weeks of this before Christmas. Will there be 5,000 more police officers than there are now?

The Prime Minister

I have just said that the Home Secretary said that there would be 5,000 more recruits in addition—[Interruption]—yes, in addition to the 11,000 that there are already. Let me correct the right hon. Gentleman's statement that the previous Government increased the number of police officers. I have the figures, and from 1993–94 until the Conservatives left office, they cut police numbers every single year.

Mr. Hague

The evasion by the Prime Minister of such a straight question is a truly pathetic spectacle. Is he not ashamed that, for a few cheap, misleading headlines during the Labour party conference, his Government have behaved in such a way that the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation has said: This is a complete betrayal of the people and the police officers of this country"?

The Prime Minister

As I have just said, the Association of Chief Police Officers has said that this is real new money for real recruits. There will be 5,000 extra officers.

Another point is worth making. Under its guarantee, the Conservative party is committed to cutting public spending. The Conservatives have made a commitment on tax policy that cannot be financed without that cut. Let me tell my hon. Friends and the Opposition that whenever the Conservatives raise any question on health spending, school spending, transport spending or police spending, we know that they propose to cut Government spending, and that this Government are raising it.

Mr. Hague

These questions are about the integrity of the Government. Is it not part of the Prime Minister's job to set standards of truthfulness and integrity for the Government? Is that not what he spectacularly fails to do? He says that waiting lists are down when they are up, that class sizes are down when they are up and that taxes are down when they are up. Now he says that police numbers are up when they are down. Is it not time that he looked around the Cabinet table and was tough on lies and tough on the causes of lies?

The Prime Minister

First, as I have already said on police numbers—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


The Prime Minister

On tax lies, some people remember VAT before the last general election. On waiting lists, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. They are 60,000 below the level that we inherited. On class sizes, for five, six and seven-year-olds, they are now almost 300,000 below the level that we inherited. None of those things would have happened if we had taken his advice. His advice was not to cancel the assisted places scheme, so we would not have had the money to cut class sizes. [Interruption.] I was just trying to turn up this letter from him. A year ago today, he said: The shadow Chancellor and I, and many independent economists, have warned that your three-year spending settlement was reckless and based on hopelessly over-optimistic growth estimates. The fact is that we are spending more money on schools, hospitals and the police. He opposed that extra spending, called it reckless and irresponsible and asked for us to cancel it. The one group of people who can make no complaint about anything to do with public services are those who would privatise them rather than modernise them.

Miss Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating all those concerned with producing the Government's imaginative proposals for objective 2 areas, especially on having the good sense to include many traditional seaside resorts? Does he agree that the benefits that objective 2 funding brings to areas such as mine are a good example of how Europe really works, and expose the anti-European rantings of the Leader of the Opposition for the jingoistic nonsense that they are?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right, but it goes further than that. The Conservative party proposal, which is to have opt-outs for all countries in any area other than free trade and the free market, which is what the shadow Foreign Secretary said, includes structural funds. I do not know whether the Leader of the Opposition even knows that that is a consequence of his policy. We would not have a structural fund settlement under the Conservative party proposal. It is not merely that the Conservatives would be on a conveyor belt to withdrawal because that is the only way they could make their policy stick: they would be giving up literally billions of pounds from Europe that would go to hard-pressed constituencies the length and breadth of this country.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)


Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Kennedy

That is probably as good as it gets. [Interruption.] I know that my friends will do their best to help me.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it must be a source of political frustration to him and his colleagues that, after more than two years of Labour in office, the gap between rich and poor remains distressingly wide and deep? In particular, does he acknowledge that offering pensioners a miserly 73p basic state pension upgrade is adding insult to injury? If, as a member of a fairly poverty-stricken category, he was offered 73p extra income per week, what would he advise people to spend it on?

The Prime Minister

The gap between rich and poor is actually narrowing as a result of this Government's policies. There are hundreds of thousands fewer children in poverty. By the end of the Parliament, there will be 2 million fewer in poverty. The working families tax credit, the new deal and the extra increases in child benefit all contribute to that and were all, of course, opposed by the Conservative party.

Something else that is opposed by the Conservative party—and I hope when the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) is talking about pensioners he will take this into account—is the £100 that will be given to each pensioner household this November. That goes a very long way to boosting the incomes of pensioners. If we take into account all the help that this Government have given to pensioners, the average pensioner is actually getting more than if we had indexed pensions to earnings.

Mr. Kennedy

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that, as well as the income levels of pensioners, the other big issue about which everyone in the House should be concerned is the need for all of us—who, one day, will face pension provision ourselves—to have some continuity of policy?

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the great failings of British politics is that, since the consensus over the former state earnings-related pension scheme was broken under the previous Administration, we have not been able to re-establish all-party consensus for long-term basic state pension provision? Would he be willing, as Prime Minister, to hold talks on that matter with the leader of the Conservative party and myself to see whether we can achieve—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House will come to order. Mr. Kennedy, continue.

Mr. Kennedy

Many people want to answer for the leader of the Conservative party. Would the Prime Minister be willing to try to re-establish a tripartite basis on which long-term pension provision in this country could be conducted? That would make sense for all concerned.

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am always willing to try to move across party boundaries when it is in the national interest to do so. He is right that pensions are a very important area indeed. I would be very happy to work with him in relation to that, but I point out to him that the strategy for pensions reform, in respect of the new stakeholder pensions and of the state second pension, that we set out in the pensions Green Paper has received a widespread degree of support.

We are well on the way to formulating the right framework for pensions in future, but I agree that this is something that will transgress all political parties and will move through Governments—[HON. MEMBERS: "Transgress?"] I was trying to think of a polite way of putting it for the Conservative party. The issue will cross political parties and also move through Governments. I am perfectly happy to look at how such a cross-party consensus could be established, but must say that, on the basis of the Conservative attitude so far, I am not very hopeful.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Britain's air traffic control system is the safest in the world? Does he accept that there is real apprehension throughout the country about the complex part privatisation scheme that was announced by the Government just before the House rose for the summer recess? In recognising the importance of public opinion and the fact that such concerns are shared by air traffic controllers themselves as well as by airline pilots, will the Prime Minister assure us that there will be the fullest consultation with the whole aviation industry before any decision is taken to introduce legislation on that matter?

The Prime Minister

Of course there will be a full process of consultation. As to safety, my right hon. Friend will be aware that, as a result of the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals, safety will—for the first time—be separated out and dealt with properly in the public sector. Whatever the public-private sector partnership proposed for air traffic control, in respect of safety, we shall be improving the present situation.

Q2. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

May I remind the Prime Minister that my question to him of 9 June showed that, during the two years to March 1999, the 13-week-plus out-patients waiting list for Mid Essex had increased from 555 people to 2,422 people? Is he aware that, since then, the number has increased by a further 862 to 3,284 people? Does the Prime Minister not understand that fiddling the in-patient lists by allowing the out-patient lists to balloon out of control is a cynical exercise that is causing patients grave distress and suffering?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is simply wrong to say that the out-patient lists have grown as a result of the in-patient waiting lists. Actually, in his area, the in-patient waiting lists have fallen, and more out-patients are being treated—not less. More are being treated than before. More than half of out-patients— this is part of the confusion that lies at the heart of his question—never become in-patients. In fact, we are treating more out-patients and we are getting in-patient lists down.

Finally, the only way that we can get all lists down is by extra investment and reform, and change in the health service. The hon. Gentleman and his party are against that extra investment. It is no use the hon. Gentleman shaking his head. A few months ago, the Conservatives said at the Dispatch Box that extra spending of £21 billion on the health service was reckless and irresponsible. They cannot turn around now and say that they want even more spending than the £21 billion that we are putting in.

Q3. Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, at Prime Minister's questions a year ago, the Leader of the Opposition claimed that there was an economic crisis and demanded that the Chancellor be summoned to the House to explain the mess into which he had got the country? May I renew the demand for a statement from the Chancellor, so that he can tell us about record low inflation and interest rates, more jobs and less unemployment—policies that we would not get off the back of a lorry?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A year ago, the Tories were telling us to cancel the spending plans, saying that we had produced an economic mess and recession. In fact, as my hon. Friend says, we have the lowest inflation for 30 years, interest rates down, debt under control, employment up by 600,000 since the election, unemployment down and long-term unemployment halved. All of that would be at risk if the Conservatives' policies were pursued. They would scrap the working families tax credit, scrap the new deal and scrap Bank of England independence.

Although they tell us that they want to cut social spending, I can tell the House that, in the past few weeks, they have tabled amendments to the social security legislation for an extra £3 billion of spending. The truth is that their policies do not add up and they are not thought through. For that reason, among many others, they will never get the chance to put them into practice.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Prime Minister accept that, if he continues with the fuel price escalator for the course of this Parliament, it will be the equivalent of putting 5p on the basic rate of income tax, except that it will take the form of an unfair, back stairs form of taxation? When he was campaigning so hard during the Hamilton, South by-election, did he detect growing public opposition to fuel taxes, toll taxes and tuition fees? Is that why the Labour majority went from 16,000 to 500, or does he prefer the explanation offered by the Secretary of State for Scotland, that people are so happy and contented with the new Labour party that they cannot be bothered to vote for it?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is the one who fought the Scottish elections on putting up income tax. That was his very claim, and there is no point in his denying it now, let alone turning around and accusing us of putting up taxes. What is more, when we add up the spending promises of the Scottish nationalists, there is no way 1p on income tax would be enough. The truth is that their spending pledges and tax pledges are about as coherent as the Conservatives'.

Q4. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

What advice will my right hon. Friend offer the Leader of the Opposition when the right hon. Gentleman visits a betting—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Let me hear the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Ellman

What advice will my right hon. Friend offer the Leader of the Opposition on Friday, when the right hon. Gentleman visits a betting and gaming establishment in my constituency—a constituency in which unemployment has fallen by more than 22 per cent. since the general election? Given the Tories' record of economic failure, their opposition to the new deal and the minimum wage, and their hostility to Europe, what odds does my right hon. Friend recommend the Leader of the Opposition take on a Tory return at the next general election?

Madam Speaker

Order. I must remind the hon. Lady that the Prime Minister is responsible only for Government policies and that Prime Minister's questions have nothing whatever to do with the Leader of the Opposition. She has had a good try, but we must now move on.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

You will remember, Madam Speaker, that during yesterday's statement on the Tampere agreement, I asked the Prime Minister whether he could explain how we could have a common system of judicial authority when there was no common legal system. After some consultation with the Home Secretary, he told me that the common judicial authority would apply only to serious criminal cases where the countries concerned agreed that there was a case to answer that was applicable in either country. However, I see that paragraph 5 of the annexe to the report issued on the Tampere agreement states: Judgements and decisions should be respected … while safeguarding … legal certainty … and economic operators. It is clear that paragraph 5 envisages that common authority applying to civil cases as well. Will the Prime Minister explain?

The Prime Minister

I can explain it. Things such as small claims will be dealt with by co-operation between the judicial systems, and things such as extradition cases will be dealt with by the application of the court decisions of one country in another country; where serious crime is concerned. Neither of those things, however, imply any common judicial system.

Q5. Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the efforts made in Kent by local authorities and others to deal fairly with asylum seekers, and will he assure me that those councils will receive their fair share of funding? Is he aware that many of our problems in Dover stem from the asylum system shambles that we inherited from the Tories? Does he accept that the Immigration and Asylum Bill and the agreements secured in Finland earlier this week will go a long way towards relieving the pressure on us? As all that hard work is being done, will he also join me in condemning those who would exploit Dover's difficulties for their own political ends? Some of them are sitting on the Opposition Front Bench now. [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

As ever, the Conservatives want to deny their record in government. I gladly acknowledge the efforts made by local authorities in Kent to deal fairly with asylum seekers. They can now reclaim costs associated with supporting asylum seekers of up to £150 a week for single adults and £220 for families. My hon. Friend is right to say that the system that we inherited was a complete shambles. That is why we want to introduce fundamental reform—and the only way in which we shall achieve that is to have a simplified, far more streamlined procedure, and to deal with the cases more quickly. That is precisely what we are introducing—[Interruption.] It is no use the shadow Home Secretary shouting. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was a Home Office Minister when the Conservatives introduced the shambles that we are having to clear up.

Q6. Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Wales trusts the Prime Minister, because he told us to. Does he remember talking about objective 1 and 2 funding on 30 April—coincidentally, that was just before the Welsh Assembly elections—and saying: I won't let the people of Wales down"? In the spirit of that good faith, can he confirm whether he will provide new money from the Treasury for objective 1 and 2 matched funding?

The Prime Minister

I think that I said that after the election, as well as before. On both occasions I explained that within the comprehensive spending review, all those things have to be looked at. [Interruption.] We do not intend to let the people of Wales down. I have also said throughout that the only reason why we can have this discussion is that we achieved objective 1 and 2 status for Wales. We know that we have to make it good, but that must be decided in the proper normal way, through the comprehensive spending review. That is what we said at the election, and that is what we will hold to.

Q7. Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the members of the official Opposition and of the press who are anti-Europe refuse to recognise the benefits of the jobs, training, transport and community development that European funding has helped to bring to my constituency and to many other parts of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Does he also agree that as the United Kingdom negotiates further funding from Europe, it will speak with a stronger voice because of devolution and the partnership approach, which has already been demonstrated by the Scottish Parliament and the United Kingdom Government towards Europe?

The Prime Minister

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in putting forward a case for funding for her area. Our proposals for objective 2 coverage in Scotland for the next seven years will target the most needy areas of the country, and we envisage significant coverage for south Fife. She is absolutely right—we obtained a very good result for this country by patient, sensible and constructive negotiation.

As I pointed out a moment ago, Conservative party policy is to renegotiate the basic terms of the treaty of Rome and to block any change unless it is allowed to do so, and there is no support anywhere in Europe for that. [Interruption.] Let Conservative Members name a country that supports their policy. They can shout it out; they have done enough shouting. There is no country that supports them. [Interruption.] Norway? Norway is not a member of the European Union.

The plain fact is that we can make progress with sensible engagement under a Labour Government, or we can go along with the far right Thatcherites who now control the Conservative party and who have the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) under their thumb.