HC Deb 02 February 2000 vol 343 cc1033-42
Q1. Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 2 February.

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.

Mr. Khabra

May I take the opportunity to thank the Prime Minister for coming to my constituency, accompanied by the Deputy Prime Minister, to celebrate Labour's first 1,000 days in power?

My question concerns the economy. The Prime Minister is aware that, between 1990 and 1992, 140,000 businesses failed and 188,000 mortgage repossessions took place. That was due to the dogma of Tory party politics. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is putting his question.

Mr. Khabra

Will the Prime Minister outline how Labour is helping small businesses and business in the community to prosper across the country and in my constituency?

The Prime Minister

We have reduced small business tax, but, most important, we have produced stability in economic management after the boom and bust of the Conservative years, and there are 800,000 more jobs in the economy since this Government came to power. We have also introduced a minimum wage, a working families tax credit and Bank of England independence. The Conservative party would scrap every single one of those measures. Indeed, today, the new shadow Chancellor has recommitted himself to the tax guarantee and said that we are spending too much money, so let us hear no more complaints from Conservatives about schools and hospitals. We are spending more. They would spend less.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I first express, as we have not done so in the House yet this week, our horror at last Friday's attack on the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) and our deep sadness, which will be felt across the whole House, at the death of Andrew Pennington? We send our condolences to his family and our good wishes to the hon. Gentleman for a speedy return.

Is the Prime Minister aware that, since he took office, the backlog of asylum seekers has doubled? Is he aware that some councils now spend more on bogus asylum seekers than on looking after elderly people? Is he aware that the Home Secretary said in 1996 that, if a Labour Government did not speed up applications, they "shall have failed"? Will the Prime Minister now confirm that the Home Secretary has failed?

The Prime Minister

I concur entirely with what the right hon. Gentleman has said about the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) and Andrew Pennington. We all join in sending our very best wishes and our sympathy to the hon. Gentleman and our profound condolences to the family of Mr. Pennington.

On the Home Secretary's record, of course, it is precisely for that reason that we have introduced the new asylum provisions. That will mean that we can speed up the asylum seekers cases. We can distinguish better between the bogus and the non-bogus cases. Of course, we inherited a system that was a complete mess. As a result of our legislation, in many ways opposed by the right hon. Gentleman's party, we can now clean it up.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister has been there for three years now and it is always promises. The cheque is always in the post, or going to be in the post. It is not just us saying that. The Labour majority on the Public Accounts Committee says that the Government are not living up to their responsibility and that the response of the Home Office is, to say the least, inadequate. He should know that, in the last full year of a Conservative Government, the number of asylum seekers fell by 30 per cent. [Interruption.] Oh, some of the figures are arriving. Let us hope that they are the right figures. Let us hope that they show that, since he has been in office, the number has increased by 140 per cent. It follows decision after decision by the Government to weaken asylum policies.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House the latest figures—now that the Home Secretary has started passing him figures—on what proportion of people served orders to leave the country actually left the country in the past year?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that we have taken no action on asylum. As a result of the measures that we have introduced, we shall be able to shorten dramatically the length of time that it takes to deal with asylum cases. We know the reasons why the number of asylum cases has increased. Most of the cases that are coming in are from countries such as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, providing a very good reason why the numbers have risen in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe. There was also a time under the previous Government when asylum seeker applications rose dramatically.

The only way of dealing with it is to have in place a proper, fast and effective way of dealing with those cases, which is precisely what we have done. We have also changed—this is important—the benefit rules for asylum seekers. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that Conservative Members opposed our changing those rules, despite having complained about them. If we had adopted the amendments tabled to the Immigration and Asylum Act by Conservative Members, we would be paying out £500 million more.

Mr. Hague

The reason why the numbers have increased is that the Prime Minister has made the United Kingdom a soft touch for asylum seekers—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, it is. The Prime Minister clearly does not know the numbers, but he ought to, because it is a national scandal. In the past year, 19,000 people were served orders to leave the country, but 6,800 actually did so. More than two thirds of the people whom he thinks should be deported are not deported.

So for the Prime Minister it is more promises—the cheque is in the post. The Government have reversed deportation decisions taken by the previous Government. They have abolished the fast track list and failed to enforce our controls on illegal working. On this issue as on so much else, he is all talk—no delivery.

The Prime Minister

It is completely untrue to say that we have dismantled the controls on immigration and asylum, because we have been tightening them up. We have also had to do so in the face of opposition from Conservative Members. A moment ago, I mentioned the benefit rules. I should mention another provision that Conservative Members have opposed—the provision that fines lorry drivers who bring illegal asylum seekers into the country. The right hon. Gentleman opposed that measure. Therefore, let us not have it from him that we inherited a perfect situation, because we inherited a backlog of tens of thousands of cases—[Interruption.] Yes, because the system was at fault.

Our Government reformed the system. From April 2000, the new system will be in place, with new rules on benefit and new holding centres being opened up, so that claims can processed quickly and we shall be able to get the numbers back down again. Those are the measures that we have introduced, clearing up the mess that the right hon. Gentleman left us.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)

Is the Prime Minister aware that, after its decontamination, the former Ravenscraig steel site in my constituency is now ready for rebuilding? I remind the House that the workers at that steel site felt betrayed and abandoned by the former, Conservative Government. Will the Prime Minister accept from me, a former steelworker, an invi1tation to come and see for himself how Ravenscraig is rising from the ashes of its industrial betrayal?

The Prime Minister

That is great news. I know that my hon. Friend worked at the Ravenscraig steelworks for 14 years, and it is good to see that regeneration project under way. People will of course remember that the previous Government closed the steelworks complex, with the loss of 1,200 jobs—[HON. MEMBERS: "Boring."] It was not boring for the 1,200 workers who lost their jobs. However, it will be a better and more interesting life for those who will now be able to work there again.

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

I thank the Prime Minister, the leader of the Conservative party and many others from both sides of the House who, over the past few days, have expressed their condolences for the dreadful murder of Councillor Andrew Pennington and the vicious assault on my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones). Those sentiments have been much appreciated. I am sure that we all agree that nothing so outrageous will cause any of us in any party or any part of the country to undermine the vital link with our constituents of enabling them to come to see us.

As the rural agenda is to the forefront this week, in advance of the Prime Minister's visit to the south-west tomorrow, and given the importance of post offices to rural communities, will he tell us how many rural post offices closed during the first two years of his Administration?

The Prime Minister

We have given a strong commitment to rural post offices. The previous Government were committed to privatising the Post Office. That is not our policy. As a result of the measures that have been announced, we shall be able to protect rural post offices in future.

Mr. Kennedy

The House of Commons Library figure is 476. The chief executive officer of the Post Office predicts that, if the Postal Services Bill is passed, a further 8,000 post offices will close. That is almost half the national network. Will the Prime Minister rethink the legislation and consider the possibility of subsidy? If he does not and that many post offices go, it will be a further nail in the coffin for villages and rural communities throughout the land.

The Prime Minister

The figure of 8,000 is wrong for the reasons that I have just given. In the Bill, we are ensuring that we protect rural post offices. So that everyone understands, let me explain the issue. The Department of Social Security and the Benefits Agency will move to paying all benefits via personal bank accounts. It is expected that, by then, the Post Office will have extended its arrangements with the banks to offer a range of banking facilities on an agency basis. That will enable people to continue to collect their benefits in cash. It would be very foolish—I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting this—not to modernise the way in which benefits are paid. We should surely modernise so that benefits are paid into bank accounts for people who want that, but we shall make arrangements for those who do not want that to enable them to continue collecting their benefits in cash. That is a sensible arrangement. Now that the technology exists, it would be foolish to leave post offices to carry on paying benefits in the same old way. That would cost a lot more money. As for further subsidies, it is time that the Liberal Democrats stopped asking for more money to be spent on everything without making a single suggestion as to where that money will come from.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for reminding the House and the country that the great divide between Labour and the Tories is that Labour will rebuild the national health service while the Tories would just privatise it. When he is considering the specific measures that will allow Labour to close the gap between Britain's health spending and the European average, will he look at the artificial ceiling on national insurance contributions and a more progressive system of corporate tax contributions, which are far lower in Britain than in most of our European counterparts? Will he also reflect on whether the current public mood would prefer us to put a penny into health rather than taking it off tax?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend has a lot of support from somewhere. I do not agree with him on tax. We were right to cut corporation tax. However, he is entirely right to say that the Conservatives have made a big strategic decision on the health service. I do not know whether anyone has read today's "Clear Blue Water" pamphlet, but it spells out starkly that their policy is to drive large numbers of people out of the health service and to make them take out private medical insurance. For those over 65, it will cost £60 to £80 a week to get private medical insurance. The only way to tackle the problem is our way: more hospital buildings, more nurses and doctors into the health service and more facilities. We are doing all that. The way to do it is to modernise the national health service, not to privatise it.

Q2. Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

Is the Prime Minister comfortable with what he has read in today's papers concerning the purchase of shares by the editor of the Daily Mirror? Does he agree that it is only fair and reasonable to all concerned that the Press Complaints Commission should examine the issue?

The Prime Minister

I can truthfully say that that is really not a matter for me.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to praise the teaching profession, particularly in light of the generous pay award that teachers received yesterday and their hard work putting into effect the reforms that the Labour Government have introduced in the past two and a half years?

The Prime Minister

Teachers have delivered magnificent results in our primary schools, with the best-ever results in literacy and numeracy. I believe that the performance-related pay proposals are increasingly winning support. It was a good settlement for the teachers, but we are now linking an even greater pay award to standards and results. That is the right way to do it. Teachers and parents should realise that if the Conservatives had been in government, the money would have been taken back.

Q3. Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

British farming and the countryside are in deep crisis. Post offices and village shops are closing. Will the Prime Minister reconsider his plan to pay benefits directly into bank accounts and preserve more rural post offices?

The Prime Minister

I think that the hon. Gentleman is a Conservative Member. His party's plan at the election was to privatise the Post Office. It is absurd that he should stand there and tell me that we should not pay people's benefits in the most effective way. The way to deal with the problems of post offices and others is to modernise the system, but to make sure that we can still allow people to collect their benefits in cash if they so wish. As for the rest of the hon. Gentleman's question, I said yesterday that the farming situation is serious, particularly in sectors such as the pig industry. We need a proper long-term strategy; we do not need simply to pay ever-greater subsidies because we cannot do that. As for the countryside, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that, under this Government, the policy of closing rural schools has been put in reverse.

Q4. Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

In view of the forthcoming elections and the by-elections in Wales and Scotland, will my right hon. Friend tell us what lessons the Government have learned from the people of Falkirk, West, who elected their Member of the Scottish Parliament with the biggest vote, and the biggest majority, in Scotland?

The Prime Minister

First, it is good to see the hon. Gentleman back again. I remind him that it was this Labour Government who delivered devolution to the people. Many previous political parties—indeed, previous Labour parties—promised devolution. We delivered it. We are also delivering the working families tax credit, the minimum wage and the new deal, all of which have helped people in his constituency. I believe that that is one reason why people will return loyal Labour Members of Parliament at the next election.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Does the Prime Minister still think, as he has claimed on various occasions, that it would be "fatuous", "absurd" and "daft" to rule out joining the euro in the next Parliament?

The Prime Minister

Of course I do. Our policy remains exactly the same: to keep the option open and determine it according to the British national interest. That is a more sensible position than the right hon. Gentleman's position, which I thought I had described as fatuous. It was fatuous of him to say that he would oppose it as a matter of principle for five years, but consider it as a matter of principle in the sixth year.

Mr. Hague

The president of the European Central bank says that our economy is out of step. He said: if ever the UK decides to join, you are talking about years from today". The former Labour Foreign Secretary, Lord Owen, said: the time has come to rule out UK membership … for the next Parliament". Is that not now the view of the sensible mainstream majority of the country? In addition to his previous answer, can the Prime Minister confirm that he will fight the next election determined to keep open the option of joining the euro in the next Parliament?

The Prime Minister

Of course—because we have set out the policies; I repeated them last Friday. The decision is simply this: there are those people who say that we should join the euro now, regardless of the economic conditions; then, there are those people, such as the right hon. Gentleman, who say that we should not join the euro, regardless of the economic conditions. I happen to believe that the sensible test is British jobs, British industry and British investment.

To rule out the euro in the next Parliament—hon. Members should remember that the final decision lies with the people in a referendum—is foolish and backward. I shall have no part of that, either at the next election or in the future. That is the position held by the right hon. Gentleman and that is the difference between us.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to quote sensible mainstream people, there were many people in his own party who used to be in the mainstream but are not there now, because the mainstream of his party is now the extreme of politics.

Mr. Hague

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his answers. I thank him for making it clear that the only sure way to keep the pound is to support the Conservative party at the next election.

The Prime Minister

There will be a referendum. The choice is with the British people. The question is whether we remove that choice and say, "Even if it is in Britain's interests, even if it's best for jobs and industry and business, then we are not going to give you that choice at all". That is not a sensible position. It is a position born from the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has subcontracted his leadership to the extreme right in his party.

Are people such as the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), now outcasts in that party? Is the former Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) now an outcast in that party? Is the former Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), also an outcast? Those people are addressing the national interest.

What is in the national interest is to keep the option open, to make the preparation so that we can join if we want to do so, to give the final choice to the British people in a referendum, but not to end up retreating to the sidelines of Europe for the sake of pandering to a few anti-Europeans in the Conservative party.

Mr. Tom Pendry (Stalybridge and Hyde)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the statement made by the Secretary of State for Health yesterday, informing the House that he was setting up an independent inquiry into the issues raised by the murders committed by Dr. Shipman, has gone down well in my constituency? People there are understandably still deep in shock as a result of the court's findings. Will my right hon. Friend use his best endeavours to ensure that the inquiry is thorough and expeditious, and that the Government act speedily on its findings?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I am sure that that will happen. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has been doing to help his constituents to come to terms with a terrible tragedy. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the relatives and friends of those who died.

The vast majority of doctors provide an excellent service for their patients. It is important to say that straight away. This case was highly exceptional. However, we must learn lessons from it. I am sure that the General Medical Council will consider those lessons. We shall learn them through the independent inquiry announced yesterday. We shall act on them; indeed, we are already taking certain measures.

However, it is important that we realise that this was a highly exceptional case. Doctors look after their patients throughout the country. There is no more important relationship than the bond of trust that exists between doctors and their patients. They do a fantastic job for this country. This has been a terrible, tragic and exceptional case. We have to learn lessons from it; we will learn them and we will act on them.

Q5. Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

If the Prime Minister is prepared to speak only equivocally about the future of this country's relationship with the euro, will he at least speak clearly about the consequences of the present strength of the pound, especially on the farming industry, which he addressed yesterday? In these circumstances, how can he fail to respond to the needs of the farming industry by making the compensation payments for the strength of our currency, which he is allowed to make and which have been agreed by the European Union?

The Prime Minister

What the right hon. Gentleman has not pointed out to people but I will is that we are paying out hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation for the strength of the pound. However, if we were to make the claim that he is suggesting, 70 per cent. of that money would have to be repaid. In other words, it is a very large public spending commitment. To put the matter into context, we are spending £3.5 billion in agricultural support. That is more than the support that we pay out for the rest of British industry put together. It is important and right that we do so. Agriculture and farming are important to our country and they are, as I accepted yesterday, in a state of crisis. The only way of dealing with that is a long-term plan for the future and not the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives promising that they will end up paying out large sums of money in the short term. That is simply not going to be the answer.

As for the euro, it is not an equivocal position; the tests are quite clear. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to go into the euro tomorrow—

Mr. Maclennan


The Prime Minister

Then the right hon. Gentleman's position is, I suspect, the same as mine. It depends on the national economic interest. That is the proper test. We are not convergent with the euro at the present time, which is why it would not be sensible to join now, but we have set out the economic conditions. Provided that those economic conditions are met, we will make the recommendation to the British people. We have said that, and we will hold to that.

Mr. Bob Laxton (Derby, North)

From time to time, the media pass comment on the ability, and sometimes the inability, of party leaders to control their parliamentary party. Does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps an extreme form of control freakery happens when a leader of a party who is unable to control his Back Benchers seeks the assistance of another party leader to help him along the way a little?

The Prime Minister

I cannot quite think to what my hon. Friend is referring. Anyway, it is all fine—the new relationship between the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor is all sorted out, because the shadow Chancellor has described the Leader of the Opposition this morning as "unassailable".

Q6. Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Have the Government got the courage, decency and honesty to admit that no decommissioning of terrorist weapons has taken place in Northern Ireland? Will they stop putting unfair pressure on the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland and the long-suffering Unionist party and place the blame where it rests—firmly on the shoulders of the terrorists, Sinn Fein-IRA?

The Prime Minister

There has to be decommissioning; there has not been decommissioning. Under the agreement, it is quite clear that decommissioning is supposed to happen. There is no doubt about that at all. I am interested, as ever, in trying to find a way through this—be under no mistake about that. I know that people, such as the hon. Lady, have not been in favour of much of what we have done in the past two and a half years or indeed of the Good Friday agreement—

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

What have you done?

The Prime Minister

What have we done? For all the difficulties in Northern Ireland today, we have the best chance of peace that we have had for generations, there is investment pouring in and there is peace in place that may not be perfect but is a million miles better than what was there before. There has to be decommissioning and, if there is not, there is going to be a serious problem with the process. There is no doubt about that, which is why we are now working day and night to try to overcome that difficulty. I simply say to the hon. Lady that to dismiss everything that has happened in Northern Ireland is wrong, and we are not putting unfair pressure on people. We are trying to make sure that we find a way through that allows peace and stability for the future. At the heart of this deal in the Good Friday agreement is a good deal for both sides.

Let me explain it once again so that people understand. It is that we end up with the principle of consent accepted by everybody; it is that we end up with the relinquishment of the territorial claim of the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, which we now have; it is that we have institutions that reach across the communities in Northern Ireland, which we now have; and it is that we have justice and equality for nationalists in Northern Ireland with a recognition of their nationalist aspirations. Decommissioning is part of that and it has to happen, but let no one doubt how far we have come and therefore how important it is to try to save it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not a fact that, whatever happens in the present difficult circumstances, the Good Friday agreement should remain on the agenda? It was a fine achievement and it is fair to both communities. By refusing even to start decommissioning, is not the IRA playing into the hands of the very people who were opposed to the Good Friday agreement from day 1, who include, I believe, the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton)?

The Prime Minister

That is why there has to be progress on that issue. To be blunt, at present there is insufficient progress for General de Chastelain to make the report that needs to be made. However, I hope that we can still bring home to everybody the need to make that progress because of the importance of the peace process. This is the moment when we have to know where we stand on this particular issue, and that is the importance of the discussions that are going on now.

Whatever happens in the next couple of days, I shall carry on working to try to make the peace process take root because, in the communities of Northern Ireland, people desperately want it to work, but not at any price, which is why decommissioning has to be, and is, part of the agreement. Before we dismiss the progress that has been made, we should remind ourselves that, if we do not sort out the peace process and get it moving forward again, there are people who will not grow up in normal conditions and some who will not be alive at all. We should never forget that that is what is at stake.

There are very few things in politics that one can affect profoundly, and this issue is one of them, so we shall carry on working to resolve it as best as we can. There is no doubt that there is a serious problem and, unless there is substantial progress, we will have a serious crisis on our hands. I hope that we can get over that difficulty and that all Members of the House will try to help us to do so.