HC Deb 19 April 2000 vol 348 cc970-80
Q1. Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 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 will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. St. Aubyn

The brutal deaths in Zimbabwe bring home to us all the fragility of basic human rights around the world. Is the Prime Minister still "comfortable" with the Russian President, Mr. Putin, whose actions in Chechnya to win votes dwarf anything yet tried by the Mugabe regime? Is the Prime Minister still comfortable with Mr. Putin, whose attack in London on Muslims was couched in such fascist terms? If the Prime Minister is still comfortable with Mr. Putin, why should any of us still feel comfortable with this Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

First, I was pleased that President Putin came to this country; I think that it is an important relationship. We made clear our concerns over human rights in Chechnya and those concerns were expressed very forcefully to him. However, I also said—and I believe it—that it is better that we remain engaged with Russia rather than isolate it. I believe that that is the view of the overwhelming majority of the international community. I find it curious that members of today's Conservative party do not want us to welcome President Putin here from Russia; they do not want us to welcome the President of China here; they no doubt do not make any European leaders very welcome, and when we have closer relations with the Americans we are the Americans' poodle. I do not think that Conservative foreign policy is a very good basis upon which to conduct the foreign policy of this country.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Monday's announcement of £100 million of state aid to the British coal industry, following hard on the heels of an extra £200 million of assistance to British farmers, demonstrates clearly to the people of a constituency such as Selby—which happens to have 3,000 farmers and 3,000 miners—that this Government, unlike some in the 1980s and 1990s, will not pass idly by on the other side of the road when communities are in trouble, but will provide assistance to manage economic change?

The Prime Minister

It is important—particularly if there is a relaxation of the stricter gas consents policy—that we provide finance for the coal industry to go through the period of restructuring in which it is engaged. That helps people with their jobs, and it also helps with a more balanced energy policy for this country. It is right that this Government—in circumstances where industrial restructuring is taking place—stand behind people, help them and work hard for their future.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The whole House will have been horrified to hear of the brutal murders that have taken place in Zimbabwe in recent days. Given the daily deepening crisis, is it not now clear that the right vehicle for a firm response is the Commonwealth? Is the Prime Minister aware that the Government would have the support of the Opposition for initiating in the Commonwealth decisions on at least the possibility of suspending Zimbabwe and for investigating the possibility of freezing the international assets of Mugabe and his associates?

The Prime Minister

Of course the situation in Zimbabwe is disgraceful and we condemn utterly the barbaric attacks on farmers, which are totally unacceptable. The question is what should be the right response of this country. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are in touch not only with other African leaders in the area, but with people who represent the Opposition and the farmers union in Zimbabwe. It is important to consult those people and take their advice, and we are acting in accordance with that advice.

Of course we are pursuing every avenue open to us at Commonwealth level. A meeting will take place in about 10 days to discuss the action that the Commonwealth will take. It is important that we make sure that the action that Britain takes as a country helps those people in Zimbabwe, and does not make the situation worse for them.

Mr. Hague

Of course I am grateful for the Prime Minister's reply, although many people might think that 10 days is a long time to wait for a Commonwealth meeting when events are moving on by the hour and it must be possible to have an earlier meeting. It is also important to listen to Opposition figures and others in Zimbabwe. However, Mr. Chavanduka, the editor of the Zimbabwe Standard, asks: How much worse must the situation in Zimbabwe get before action is taken? Words will not affect Mugabe, but pressure from Britain might. Is not the clear lesson of history that tyranny must always be dealt with firmly? Is it not at such moments that the Commonwealth family of nations comes into its own? Will the Prime Minister try at that meeting, whenever it is held, to initiate a high-level Commonwealth delegation, backed by the threat of a firm response, to try to persuade Mugabe to uphold the rule of law, to end the illegal occupation of farms and to put a stop to intimidation and murder?

The Prime Minister

The meeting is, as I said, taking place in about 10days, but we have already been in touch with Commonwealth partners, as well as with the United Nations; indeed, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, last night. We have also been in detailed touch with Opposition leaders. The leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change rejected a call from the British Conservative Opposition to suspend Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. I point out also that Mr. Tim Henwood, the president of the Commercial Farmers Union in Zimbabwe, has said: I call on everyone involved internally and externally to refrain from emotional reaction and interference. Zimbabweans will solve this problem. There is a difficult balance to strike. I have utterly condemned the situation. Of course I condemn it, and we want to take any action that is helpful to those people in Zimbabwe. Contrary to some reports in the press in the past few days, we are taking action not only at the European Union level—although of course that is important—but at a Commonwealth level and in the United Nations, but it is best that we are guided by those with most to lose, and not by those who are commenting on the situation from a safe distance.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

The House will welcome the Prime Minister's measured response to this delicate, difficult situation. The Leader of the Opposition has referred to the rule of law. The Prime Minister has referred to the United Nations, the European Union and Commonwealth countries. Will he give the House an assurance that he and his Government will take a positive lead to ensure that the rule of law is restored in Zimbabwe?

The Prime Minister

Of course we will do so. However, as I pointed out a moment ago, we will do so in the way that is most helpful to the people in Zimbabwe.

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

The whole House will share the sense of revulsion about the murderous events in Zimbabwe. Does the Prime Minister concur that talk of sanctions at this time could only help to solidify President Mugabe's position and allow him to return to his rhetoric about colonialism and external threat, and to make a dangerous situation worse? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the real priority for the Foreign Office and the Government is to get President Mugabe to return to his senses on this issue and agree to a restoration of the rule of law, stop the incitement to violence from the top and, most important, sign up internationally, in front of the global community, to a firm date for full and free democratic elections?

The Prime Minister

Those are sensible propositions. That is precisely what we should be doing and it is what we shall do.

Mr. Kennedy

I thank the Prime Minister for that reply. There might yet prove to be a need for an asylum option for some of those who are under threat, either opposition politicians or farmers. As this country historically and internationally has a proud and noble tradition of offering asylum, will the Prime Minister assure the House that, if any opposition politicians or farmers from Zimbabwe come to this country, they will not be greeted by a detention camp, as the Conservatives have proposed?

The Prime Minister

There are abuses of the asylum system, and we are dealing with those abuses. However, I agree that it is important that we all deal with that issue in a responsible manner.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that today is an historic day for millions of disabled people in Britain, with the introduction of the Disability Rights Commission? Will he join me in congratulating the commission and its chair, Bert Massie, who today made it clear that, either by force of argument or by force of law, the commission will ensure that never again will disabled people in Britain be regarded as second-class citizens?

The Prime Minister

It would not be right to welcome the establishment of the Disability Rights Commission without also paying tribute to my right hon. Friend and all the work that he has done over many years for disabled people. The essence of the proposal, which we as a Government were proud to introduce, is to ensure that disabled members of our society are full and equal participating members of that society. We are proud that that is so.

Q2. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Does the Prime Minister agree that people's confidence in politics is often undermined by politicians' deceptive use of language and their economy with the facts?

The Prime Minister

Of course I do.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Consequent to the reference made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) to politicians' use of language, will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in commending the Home Secretary who, last week, gave indefinite right of entry to a Kurdish boy in my constituency who, last year, at the age of 13, escaped from Iraqi murderers and torturers to arrive in this country? Which does my right hon. Friend regard as preferable: that the boy should have been allowed to await the decision of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in my constituency with his elder brother, who already has refugee status; or that he should have been put in a prison camp, as the leader of the Conservative party proposes?

The Prime Minister

I think that my right hon. Friend's point is that it is important to make a distinction. As I said, there are real abuses of the asylum system and we have to deal with those abuses. That was the purpose of the legislation introduced last year and it is the purpose of the measures that we are taking now. However, this country should always be willing to take in those who are genuinely fleeing persecution. That is a noble tradition of ours and I, for one, would not like to see it disappear.

Q3. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

Given that three sub-post offices have recently closed in my constituency and that last night the Postal Services Bill was amended so that the Secretary of State may take powers to devise a scheme to maintain the sub-post office network, will the Prime Minister say when those powers will be taken and what the detailed contents of the scheme will be, so that those who have to invest in such a vital service to my community know when they can do so?

The Prime Minister

That is precisely the reason why we have a process in place that allows us to discuss with sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses the need to ensure that post offices have a viable future. The powers taken under the legislation add a further dimension, by allowing us to ensure that they have a future. As I said last week, of course there has to be change and of course post offices will do new things in future. Inevitably, larger numbers of people will want to receive their benefits—whether child benefit or their pension—through their bank account. We are sitting down with the parties now and working out a programme for the future. That is the right way to proceed.

Q4. Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

While I do not doubt that the Prime Minister is as pleased as any Member of Parliament by the drop in the unemployment figures announced today and by yesterday's announcement that long-term interest rates are at their lowest for 35 years, does he accept that his Government will be judged not by those things but by the way in which they improve the standard of living of poor and middle-income families, who suffered so much under the Conservatives?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted that employment is up to a new record level of 27.8 million. Well over 800,000 more people are in work today than when we came to office; 420,000 young people have joined the new deal, with more than 190,000 of them in jobs; and long-term and youth unemployment are down by 70 per cent. since the election. That is a Labour Government delivering for the British people.

Q5. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Why has the Prime Minister refused to take any action over a clear breach of the ministerial code by the Deputy Prime Minister? Is it not absurd to have delegated that matter to be resolved by the Deputy Prime Minister himself?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says at all.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that people and political parties who go around stirring up issues relating to the plight of asylum seekers in Britain breed only intolerance and disharmony in our society, and that we, along with everyone in this nation, should seek a society that is more tolerant to the plight of those individuals?

The Prime Minister

As I have said, the problem with the asylum system is being sorted out by the measures that the Government have taken, but it is important to remember that the problem is not exclusive to Britain—it occurs throughout Europe. Although one would not know it to read some of the information in the media on the subject, Britain is around ninth out of 15 in terms of the number of asylum applications per head; Germany has more asylum seekers than us; in Switzerland the numbers have doubled; in Belgium and Austria they have tripled; and, as I discovered last night in the course of other conversations in Ireland, asylum seekers are a problem there too. It is important to recognise that it is a problem that we need to deal with. We are dealing with it, but—this is the point that my hon. Friend rightly makes—it should be dealt with in a reasonable, responsible and tolerant manner.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that, in the financial year just ended, the Government spent £633 million more on the cost of administration in Whitehall than even they had planned, and that the cost of running No. 10 Downing street rose by 23 per cent. in a single year?

The Prime Minister

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman did not want to raise the issue of asylum.

On the cost of central Government, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. In real terms, the costs of Government are falling and are less than they were in the last year of the previous Government.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister says that I am wrong, but these are the Government's figures published by the Government last week. The right hon. Gentleman is spending £10 million on his own office. These figures are available for £15.30. He says that the costs of Government are falling in real terms, but when inflation is 2 per cent. and his costs in No. 10 Downing street go up by 23 per cent., how can they be falling in real terms?

The truth is that this is a Government who spend more money each year on spin doctors, political advisers and bureaucracy, and nowhere more so than in No. 10 Downing street. Will he now confirm that, for the first time in a quarter of a century, the Government plan more civil servants this year than last year, and that the costs of running the Lord Chancellor's Department have increased by £106 million?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that. Again, in real terms, the cost of Government is falling. The percentage costs of Government are lower than when the right hon. Gentleman was in office. The right hon. Gentleman is simply dealing with cash money, not real-terms figures, as he knows perfectly well. If we take the real-terms figures, we are spending less. As for the money in No. 10 Downing street—[Interruption.]I am just informed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that there has been a threefold increase in the Opposition's Short pot, so when the right hon. Gentleman gets to his feet for the third time, he can offer us our first spending cut.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister will not answer the question. He says that he does not accept the figures, but they are the Chancellor of the Exchequer's figures. How has the Lord Chancellor spent £100 million? He cannot have spent it all on wallpaper. [Interruption.]Instead of conferring with the Home Secretary, will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government plan the first increase in the number of civil servants in a quarter of a century, and that the cost of running the Department of Trade and Industry has risen by £114 million in three years?

The Prime Minister

No, I will not confirm that. Why does the right hon. Gentleman raise the matter? I shall explain: he has a big hole in his tax and spending plans, so he runs around the country claiming that if he gets rid of a few special advisers he can rebuild the health service and cut everyone's taxes. He has said that he will cut everyone's taxes, spend the same amount of money, and spend even more on defence, farmers, local government—and asylum to judge from yesterday's reports. He makes his pathetic attempt at the Dispatch Box because Haguenomics is beginning to be found out. By the time we get through with the Conservative party in the next general election, the right hon. Gentleman's economic policy will be in ruins along with his party.

Mr. Hague

So, the right hon. Gentleman will not confirm the figures; he does not like the figures—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


Mr. Hague

So now we know—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. That does not mean the noise can start again.

Mr. Hague

Now we know that the Lord Chancellor spends an extra £100 million, and the Prime Minister does not know why; the Department of Trade and Industry spends £114 million more, and he does not know why; the Home Office spends £440 million more, and he does not know why. According to the Government's own figures, they spend £2,000 million more on pen pushers, not police; on bureaucrats, not teachers; on spin doctors, not real doctors. The Government tax so much more, but deliver so much less.

The Prime Minister

All I can say on value for money is that if the right hon. Gentleman gets three times the amount of Short money, he should get better advice.

Under this Government, the number of nurses is up; the number of doctors is up; the number of teachers is up. The only thing that is going down is the Tory party.

Hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Not today.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley)

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the number of nurses is up. I went to my local pathology department in Huddersfield royal infirmary last week—I hope that my right hon. Friend will find time to visit it. It was clear from my visit that the Labour Government arrived not a day too soon to provide much-needed investment. The 8.75 per cent. in cash terms—more than 7 per cent. in real terms—is a genuine investment, and the modernisation fund is also important to departments such as pathology departments. What advice would my right hon. Friend give the Huddersfield royal infirmary and other trusts when they apply to the modernisation fund this month?

The Prime Minister

The modernisation fund is an important part not only of getting more nurses into the health service but of ensuring that we modernise facilities. That is why all the accident and emergency departments in the country are being modernised if they wish. The Opposition, through their medical insurance plans and their refusal to support the increases in tobacco duty, have a £1.5 billion hole in their accounts. If they were re-elected, there would be fewer nurses and less modernisation in the national health service. That is one very good reason why it is not safe in their hands and never has been.

Q6. Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Is the Prime Minister able to reassure disillusioned pensioners that Blairism has succeeded, or are the press reports true which say that his party has effectively written off pensioners as a group worth cultivating?

The Prime Minister

No, they are not true at all. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman what we have done for pensioners: there is an extra £6.5 billion of spending; 1 million pensioners are benefiting from the minimum income guarantee; pensioner households have the £150 winter fuel allowance, and there are free eye tests for those pensioners as well; value added tax on fuel has been cut; and the over-75s in his constituency will have free television licences. Of course pensioners want us to do even more, but the one thing they should know is that if they ever got a Conservative Government back, those changes would be reversed and that money taken off them.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

My right hon. Friend is aware that I have the honour to represent a number of survivors of the Nazi holocaust. Does he agree that many of those who find safety in this country contribute to the well-being and richness of our nation? Does he share my view that there is nothing at all patriotic about threatening to incarcerate every asylum seeker while campaigning for the freedom of dictators such as Pinochet?

The Prime Minister

Again, let me emphasise what we are doing to tackle abuses. We are speeding up the process and 11,000 decisions are being taken in a month. We are hiring extra immigration officials—another 700. The new changes such as the withdrawal of cash benefit and the introduction of fines for hauliers who take part in illegal immigration will enable us to tighten up the system and make sure that those who abuse it are not allowed to do so; but I say to my hon. Friend, as I said to the House a moment or two ago, there is a duty on us all to treat this issue responsibly and not inflame or exploit it. We need to tackle the abuses of the system. We are doing that, but we should never turn our backs on those fleeing persecution and we should never put at risk our reputation as a tolerant, multiracial society. We should be proud of it.

Q7. Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

On top of the highest petrol prices in Europe and a collapse in farm incomes, is the Prime Minister aware of the impact in a rural area such as Suffolk of council tax increases of four times the rate of inflation? The county council has put the tax up by 28 per cent. over the three years since he took office. To whom does he ascribe that huge increase—central Government or the county council, which is Labour led but propped up by his friends, the Liberal Democrats?

The Prime Minister

First, I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the average council tax is less in Labour areas than in Conservative areas. Secondly, under the previous Government there was a 19 per cent. council tax increase in the few years before we took office. In relation to the countryside and farmers, we announced a package that included both short-term aid and long-term help for the farming industry, but demands for extra spending made in the House do not sit well in the mouths of Conservative Members who tell their constituents that they will cut everybody's taxes. At some point, as we discovered with the Leader of the Opposition earlier, they will have to make a choice.

Q8. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

Health service funding in Warwickshire has increased by £60 million since the general election—a 30 per cent. increase in cash terms. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any party that claimed that it could sustain such increased investment in health care while cutting taxes, regardless of the economy's performance, would be all mouth and no credibility?

The Prime Minister

It is the Conservative party's position that it would reintroduce private medical insurance measures, which would be an immediate £500 million cost just for those who already have it. [Interruption.] Conservative Members shake their heads, but that is their policy. At some point, if they want to be taken seriously, they should start defending it openly. They would spend less money on health, and their tax and spending plans do not add up, but the important thing is that, having sorted out the public finances and laid the foundations of a stable economy, we are able to make an extra investment in the health service—not only this year, but in succeeding years as well. That is why I can tell the House the latest figures on nurses: 5,500 more nurses have come back to nursing and the number of student nurses has risen from 11,200 to 16,000. We are laying the foundations for a better-staffed health service for the future.

Q9. Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Rural fire services have vast areas to cover and they are under constant financial pressure. They are essential services that we all value. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be in the interests of council tax payers if fire authorities, like the police, were separate precepting authorities for the purposes of that tax?

The Prime Minister

I know that in the hon. Gentleman' s constituency and in many others people want additional spending, but the Liberal Democrats cannot carry on asking for more and more spending without saying where that money would come from. If they say that there should be more spending, it is important that they are honest about their tax plans. The hon. Gentleman talks about a separate precept as if that meant nothing. He presumably wants a separate precept so as to raise the amount of money taken from it.

In the past few weeks, the Liberal Democrats have called for more spending on pensioners and health, more spending on post offices, more spending on farming, more spending on incapacity benefit, more spending on buses, railways, the environment and housing, more spending for nurseries, schools and universities, more spending on the countryside, the regions and inner cities, more spending on benefits and more spending on police. At some point in time, the word "credibility" should enter the Liberal Democrat dictionary.