HC Deb 12 April 2000 vol 348 cc355-64
Q1. Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 April.

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 meetings later today.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our most profound condolences to the family of Bernie Grant, who died at the weekend. He was a dedicated constituency Member who worked tirelessly for the cause of social justice. He was an inspiration and an example to black people and others throughout the country. He will be deeply missed.

Ms Keeble

I also send my best wishes to Bernie Grant's family. He helped me some years ago when I was a council leader and I had huge admiration for him. He will be deeply missed.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Labour-controlled Northamptonshire county council has today announced a £4.4 million cash windfall, as a result of the recent Budget, to pay for 5,400 extra child care places, and an £8 million cash windfall to do up the county's schools? That is in a year when we do not even have council elections. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows that Labour is delivering on the big issues that affect the lives of my constituents, while the Tory Opposition can only sit on the political sidelines and brand those spending plans as reckless?

The Prime Minister

About a half of schools will get new buildings and facilities as a result of the new deal for schools, which is opposed by the Conservatives. I am delighted to say that the extra £1 billion of Budget spending for education will mean that in the three years between 1998–99 and 2001–02 there will be an average real-terms increase of some £300 per pupil. That increase of £300 per pupil compares with the reduction of £50 per pupil in the three years of the last three Budgets of the Conservative Government. That is the reason why people should choose a Labour Government who care about education over a Conservative Government who undermined it.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I associate this side of the House with the Prime Minister's remarks about Bernie Grant, and join him in sending our deepest condolences to Bernie Grant's family?

On a different subject, does the Prime Minister recognise that what has brought thousands of sub-postmasters here today, with a petition with 3 million signatures, is the fact that the Government are presiding over a record number of closures and a threat to thousands more post offices? Will he now listen to the wholly reasonable campaign for people to be able to receive benefits and pensions in cash at post offices without the compulsory use of bank accounts and introduce a proper swipecard system, as we planned, so that the future of post offices can be secured, not destroyed?

The Prime Minister

The first thing that should be pointed out is that the Conservative Government closed 3,000 post offices and planned to privatise the Post Office. The Conservative party still plans to privatise it. Of course we all want to see post offices thrive, but we must ensure that that is done against the background of necessary modernisation. More people will want to draw their pensions, child benefits and other benefits via their bank accounts. However, let me make one thing absolutely clear, again: no one will be prevented from continuing to receive benefits in cash at the post office if he or she wants to, and not only monthly but weekly. We will work with the post offices to give them a viable future, but like every other institution—they recognise this—they will have to face the challenges of modernisation.

Mr. Hague

Everybody involved in the lobby down the Committee Corridor knows that those are meaningless reassurances. They know also that the number of post office closures in the last year of the previous Government was 116, but that in the last year under the right hon. Gentleman's Government there will be 500 closures. We had a policy to save post offices; the right hon. Gentleman has a policy to close post offices. Is it not sickeningly hypocritical of the Government to launch hopeless boycotts of banks while swinging the axe on thousands of small businesses? Is it not undeniable that a system such as the Conservative Government proposed to introduce would have saved hundreds or thousands of post offices, which now are being condemned to closure?

The Prime Minister

No. Of course, the last Government did not actually introduce the new system, and I shall explain why. When we came to office, there was probably no greater shambles than the Horizon project. It was three years behind schedule. It would have cost hundreds of millions of pounds more than the present system. It is a cruel deception to pretend that that project would have provided an answer. The system that we are suggesting will still allow people, if they want to, to get their pensions or their child benefit in cash, while recognising that more and more people will want them paid through their bank accounts.

We must now work out with the post offices and others how they can have a viable future. That is exactly what we are trying to do. The 3,000 figure for closures that I gave the House is correct. However, let me give the average for Wales when the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Wales—it quadrupled in the years 1992–97 and averaged 90 a year.

Mr. Hague

Give the answer now—if the project was such a shambles, why did the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), the then Secretary of State, say 18 months after the Government came to power that the project was important? He added: I feel confident that the project will be properly completed. Now we know that those assurances meant nothing. It was not the project that failed, it was Ministers who failed. The problem was not smart cards, it was stupid government.

The right hon. Gentleman says that people can still collect their pensions or benefits in cash, but who will bear the transaction cost of the collection of benefit from a post office when it goes via a clearing bank? How can people collect their benefits in cash if the sub-post office has already been forced to close? Asked these things, the Minister of State, Department of Social Security, said that the Government do not have answers to all the questions—[Official Report, 29 March 2000; Vol. 347, c. 451.] The Minister is obviously an understudy for the Prime Minister. Will the right hon. Gentleman now change his policy and complete the project that we planned, to save the post offices before it is too late?

The Prime Minister

Again, I stress that if the right hon. Gentleman is saying that he would reintroduce the benefit payment card system, that is a commitment of hundreds of millions of pounds, without the slightest prospect of that project being able to do what the previous Government said it could do. No doubt that is why they did not introduce it. The information technology platform is important, which is why we are introducing it into post offices.

We are also sitting down with the Post Office to see how many post offices can provide some of the banking services. Barclays has already agreed to take part, and 3,000 post offices—[Interruption.] It is surely sensible to take these steps. Three thousand post offices are to have cashpoint services, but we must face the hard realities. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says that we have to make welfare savings. This system will allow us to make welfare savings of £600 million a year—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House is having its fun, but it will come to order now.

The Prime Minister

At least we know that the Conservative party would refuse that offer. It would turn it down and not allow new services to be provided by the Post Office. What a ridiculous position to be in.

More and more people—

Hon. Members

More, more.

Madam Speaker

Order. One or two people will be leaving the Chamber in a moment—and, Mr. King, you might be one of them.

The Prime Minister

Half a million more people each year choose to get their pension or child benefit through their bank accounts. That will carry on, so inevitably the post offices are faced with a process of change. The question is how to deal with it. The best way is make sure that people can still get their benefits in cash, if they want to do so, but that we work with the post offices to provide a new range of services for the future. That is better than proceeding with the policies of the previous Government, who did not introduce their benefit payment card, which would have cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Their actions had already resulted in the closure of 3,000 post offices. That is not a sensible policy for the future.

Q2. Mrs. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to a matter that is of great concern in Scotland, especially in the central belt? He will be aware of the world-renowned quality of shipbuilding on the Clyde. Does he share my concern at the speculation that the Ministry of Defence order for roll on/roll off ferries could go overseas? That could have damaging consequences for the long-term future of shipbuilding on the Clyde.

The Prime Minister

I am fully aware of the uncertainty over the order, but I stress to my hon. Friend that no decision has been taken—contrary to some of the speculation in the media.

I stress also that United Kingdom warship orders are coming up, and Scotland can be expected to benefit. For example, it is most probable that the type 45 destroyer first of class will be assembled and launched on the Clyde. That is a different order altogether, but I stress that a decision has not yet been taken. However, I also emphasise that the Government recently spent about £500 million on defence equipment from contractors based in Scotland. Orders are coming, but it is important that we take decisions not only on the best commercial grounds but in the best interests of our shipbuilding industry.

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

May I associate my hon. and right hon. Friends, especially those who represent London constituencies, with the tributes that have been paid to the late Bernie Grant?

To return to the issue of post offices, will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the previous Conservative Government had a plan to save them? I am sure that King Herod had a similar plan to save the first born. The Prime Minister is right to condemn the 3,000 post office closures that took place under the Tories, but will he not at least express regret at the 500 closures that have taken place under Labour?

The Prime Minister

Of course, but we must try to provide post offices with the best guarantee of a good future. No one can stand here and guarantee that no post office will ever close. I said that half a million more people each year now decide to get their benefits paid through their bank accounts. We cannot stop them. If more and more people want to do that, there will inevitably be a challenge for the post offices.

We are very happy to sit down with the sub-postmasters and post mistresses and work out the right way forward. However, it has to be done on the basis that we recognise the modern realities, and there has to be a limit to Government subsidy.

Mr. Kennedy

Given that the Government are proposing to transfer benefit payments and pensions away from the post offices to the banks—and I am not sure that hitching their wagon to Barclays is sensible at the moment—will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government have projected that savings of £640 million will accrue over the next five years? If the House is serious about the future of rural post offices, would it not make sense to reinvest those savings in the network so that it has a viable future?

Finally, will the Prime Minister confirm that, when in opposition, the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), who is now Paymaster General, wrote in a letter that the Tories' plans were totally unacceptable to the Labour party because they targeted those members of our society who are least well off, such as those on benefits and pensions…? If that was the case then, why is it not the case now?

The Prime Minister

The Conservative policy was then, and is now, to privatise the Post Office. The privatisation of the Post Office would lead to the closure of rural post offices. We have to balance two different things. The first is obviously to make sure that if people so wish, they can get their benefits paid through their bank accounts, and the second is that if they still want to receive them in cash, they should be able to do so. We have given an absolute commitment, which I have repeated again today, and, what is more, they can collect them weekly as well as monthly. We must work out the best way to do that.

The new system will not be introduced for two years and then there will be a transitional period of two years. We have time to work out the right future for the Post Office, but it must be done on a basis that is sustainable for the future.

As for welfare savings, I accept that the Liberal Democrats always want more money to be spent—that is part and parcel of what they are about—but for the Conservatives to go around the country saying that they will fund tax cuts through welfare savings and then to oppose every single aspect of those savings is absurd. The £140 million that it is estimated will be saved as a result of reductions in fraud is also important.

I make no apologies for the policy—it is right. We now have to work out how we deal with the consequences of the fact that more and more people over time will get their benefits paid through their bank accounts. We have offered a proper partnership to the post offices, which is surely better than giving a guarantee, which could not be sustained, that no post office will ever close. It is surely better than the Tory plan which is, I repeat, to privatise the Post Office.

Q4. Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the very welcome new deal for communities programme, operating in Liverpool and elsewhere, and boosted by today's announcement, will be fully effective only if we continue to have a successful economy? Does he accept that the triumph of the new deal programme generally is a vindication of the importance of redistribution and intervention in our economy, and please can we have more of both?

The Prime Minister

Of course, as a result of the partnerships that have been announced today a considerable sum of money will be available. Indeed, £31 million will go to an area in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Overall, to tackle the problems—particularly of inner-city deprivation—the Government introduced the new deal, which is cutting unemployment. Some 800,000 new jobs have been created. Also, 1 million people are benefiting from the minimum wage and the working families tax credit benefits 1.25 million families—while free eye tests, the new winter fuel allowance and the new minimum income guarantee all help pensioners. Those policies show that it is part of the Government's essential mission to tackle poverty in this country.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

When I asked the Prime Minister some time ago what the effect would be on Britain's emissions of the moratorium on gas-fired power stations, he did not know. His right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions thought that the effect would be so small as to be laughable. It turns out that the effect is, in fact, so large that it countervails the whole effect of the climate change levy. Did the Prime Minister not answer me because it was embarrassing, or did he not know because the Government had not worked out the figures? If he disagrees with my facts, he may wish to know that they were contained in an answer given to the House last month.

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman is speaking on behalf of the Conservative party, I hope that people in the coal industry will realise what it means for them. We are on course to hit the entirety of our Kyoto targets on CO2 emissions. The Government have taken the lead on that, and our commitments will be met—and met in full. That is the best answer that I can give to the right hon. Gentleman.

Q5. Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Does the Prime Minister welcome the most important recommendation made by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Liaison in its report "Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive", which, if implemented, would mean that the Government would never again choose who should be charged with scrutinising them and holding them to account through the Select Committee system? That would be a welcome and universally acclaimed constitutional change. Will my right hon. Friend use his authority to ensure an early vote on the matter, which should, by convention, be a free vote as it is a House of Commons matter? That would allow us to put the proposal in place before the general election and to say goodbye to the parliamentary choreographers on both the Government and the Opposition Front Benches who choose who shall serve on Select Committees.

The Prime Minister

I do not think that anyone has ever accused my hon. Friend of being choreographed by anybody. I have been given some rather wise advise from my right-hand side, which is that our response will be made in due course.

Q6. Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Prime Minister accept that sterling's appreciation by 40 per cent. against the deutschmark over the past four years has made life extremely difficult for those who produce and export everything from cars in the midlands to ships on the Clyde? Has he read the comments attributed to the Secretary of State for Defence in today's Scottish press, to the effect that metal bashing is no longer a vital national asset? Will he take this opportunity to distance the Government from that attitude and to show that he recognises that shipbuilding is a high-technology, not a low-technology industry? Will he indicate that he understands the vital contribution of the Govan yard and offer his personal involvement in securing its future?

The Prime Minister

First, the comments attributed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence are absolute nonsense. Secondly, I have already answered my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mrs. McKenna) on the order referred to by the hon. Gentleman. However, I must add that the SNP is the one group of people with absolutely no right to raise the issue. There are 20,000 Ministry of Defence personnel in Scotland, and £500 million a year is spent on defence equipment orders. The SNP wants British armed forces out of Scotland. The SNP's separatism plans would close Govan, Faslane, Coulport, Yarrow and RAF Lossiemouth and lose 20,000 MOD personnel. When it comes to a choice between the SNP and Labour on defence and its contracts, people are better off with us.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)

The whole of Scotland will welcome the Prime Minister's assurance that there is everything to play for over the contract for six roll on/roll off ferries. Will he guarantee that the competition for the contract will be held on a level playing field? Will it be taken into account that foreign competitors are reportedly moving cheap labour from eastern and central Europe into their shipyards? People are living in containers on the docksides and in the shipyards, and that sort of competition is wholly unfair.

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland depend on Ministry of Defence procurement spending, each and every one of which would be in danger of being sunk by the flagship policy of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), which would make England a foreign country and break up this small island?

The Prime Minister

On my hon. Friend's first point, yes of course there is everything to play for, and of course it is important that there be a level playing field. With procurement contracts, as they are not defence contracts as such, we are bound by the procurement contract rules of the European Union in the same way as every other country. I can tell my hon. Friend that we shall scrutinise carefully any bids to make sure that they fall in line with those rules. As for what my hon. Friend was saying about the policy of the SNP, I wholeheartedly concur.

Mr. Hague

The whole House will want to join in congratulating the Royal Ulster Constabulary on the richly deserved award of the George Cross by Her Majesty the Queen today. I know that the Prime Minister will agree that it is a fitting tribute to its service and sacrifice, with 300 officers murdered and 10,000 injured over the past 30 years.

Does the Prime Minister also accept that many people will find it difficult to understand how the proposal to strip the RUC of its title sits easily with that wholly justified award today? Will he at least think again about that and agree that it would be a mistake to introduce any of the security-sensitive measures in the Patten report before there is lasting peace and decommissioning?

The Prime Minister

The award is absolutely vital for the RUC and totally deserved in view of what has happened during the past 30 years. It is vital that its officers' service be recognised throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. Many died during that period and many others have suffered loss of limbs. Their families have often lived in the most appalling fear and terror. I am delighted and honoured to pay my tribute to the RUC for all the work that it has done.

The Patten report made a series of recommendations about the RUC name. We believe that that report, with the amendments that the Secretary of State has already discussed, is the right way forward. Although we listen to the concerns that people have, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees that it is essential in future that Northern Ireland should have a police force and a police service that can attract recruits from all sides of the community. That is all that the Patten recommendations are designed to achieve.

Mr. Hague

Of course we agree with the objective that the Prime Minister has expressed, but does he acknowledge that the capability and capacity of the main terrorist organisations remain, in the words of the Chief Constable, "undiminished", and that, as events last week confirmed, the threat from dissident groups continues? Will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that there can be no question of introducing measures such as large cuts in the manpower of the RUC, or allowing Sinn Fein on to policing boards, while the IRA hangs on to its guns and bombs?

The Prime Minister

We will take no risks whatever with security in Northern Ireland; of course not. The number of people in the RUC is dependent on the security situation, but the actions of a small group of dissidents should not hold up progress towards a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland. Irrespective of the actions of those dissidents, it is surely important that we try to implement proposals that are designed to give us a police service and a police force in Northern Ireland that can attract people from all the different parts of the community.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that that is the right objective. After all, the Patten report was drawn up by Chris Patten, a former Northern Ireland Office Minister in the Conservative Government, and the committee that drew up the recommendations was made up of a very balanced group of people. It would be unfortunate if the right hon. Gentleman and his party now decided to disagree with those recommendations.

Q7. Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

By the time of the next general election, will hunting with dogs be banned, as most people believed that Labour had promised to do at the last general election?

The Prime Minister

As I said, Lord Burns will publish his report in due course. The Government will then state their position and the House will have an opportunity to vote. Let us be quite clear that the views of the House are already well known—and so are mine.

Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the enormous contribution made by public libraries over the past 150 years towards enhancing the lives of British people? Does he recognise the continuing importance of public libraries to the knowledge economy and the information society?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I do. What is more, as a result of lottery money that is being used for libraries, we are making sure that everyone in the country has an opportunity for education. The proportion of national income spent on education having fallen in the last few years of the previous, Conservative Government, it is now rising again under the Labour Government. The investment in schools and hospitals is one very good reason for people to come out and vote Labour on 4 May.