HC Deb 16 February 2000 vol 344 cc940-8
Ql. [108936] Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 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 be having further meetings later today.

Fiona Mactaggart

Is the Prime Minister aware that probably the greatest cause of crime in Britain today is drugs? In the small town of Slough alone, 43 problem drug users arrested in the past two months will be responsible for 5,000 crimes in the four to six weeks during which they wait for treatment. I spoke to Slough's police commander today, and he said that we need to do two things: provide better education to prevent young people from turning to drugs, and faster treatment for those problem users. May I tell the police commander that the Government are as serious as he is about drugs, and will deliver both those things?

The Prime Minister

There is no more serious problem than the link between crime and drugs. The Government have already introduced minimum sentences of seven years for drug dealers, mandatory drug testing, and new drug treatment orders. An extra £220 million is going into a strategy to fight drugs. The number of seizures of both hard and soft drugs is up. We are now looking into the establishment of drug courts, which are already being piloted in Wakefield. We welcome the new campaign being launched by the Metropolitan police, which has dramatically increased the lead on drug dealers, and has resulted in 700 extra people being arrested just in the past two weeks. We are determined to fight the drug menace at every level through tougher measures in the law, better provision in the courts, better education in our schools and better treatment for drug offenders.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The whole country and all parts of the House will have been shocked and saddened by the catalogue of abuse in many care homes uncovered by the Waterhouse report, which was published yesterday. We now know that hundreds of the most vulnerable children in our society were cruelly betrayed. The inquiry has come up with many sensible recommendations, as we always hoped it would. Can the Prime Minister give the House and the country a clear timetable for responding to this report, and for action, particularly in regard to the creation of a children's commissioner for children in care for all parts of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

It is, indeed, an appalling situation and an appalling catalogue of terror and tragedy inflicted on some of the most vulnerable children in our society. All parts of the House will be anxious to take action as soon as possible to act on the recommendations of the report. The Care Standards Bill and the Children (Leaving Care) Bill give us an opportunity to do so. We shall respond as soon as we possibly can.

The Care Standards Bill provides for a children's rights director in England and a similar post in Wales. We are obviously considering all the recommendations, and the issue is being taken forward by a ministerial task force. We shall implement the recommendations as soon as we possibly can, and I believe that we shall do so with the support of the whole House.

Mr. Hague

I am grateful for that reply. A children's rights director is not necessarily the same as a children's commissioner, but we all look forward to that proposal.

On an even more urgent aspect, the Prime Minister will be aware that 28 people were named in the report as being involved in cases of abuse but whose whereabouts are unknown. Will he assure the House that all resources will be made available to find those people, to have their cases properly investigated, where appropriate to bring them to justice and to ensure that they never work with children in care again?

The Prime Minister

Of course we will do that. It is necessary for us to do that. Moreover, under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 there are now new provisions in respect of sex offenders, which should give us some assistance.

The post of children's rights director will be a senior post within the National Care Standards Commission. The commission as a whole will be able to drive forward the process of raising the standard of care in homes, and there will be a specific children's rights director. We will implement all the other recommendations in the report as soon as we can.

Q2. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

I agree with what the Prime Minister has said about children in care, but will he now turn his attention to a specific group of national health service staff? Does he agree that the valuable contribution made to the NHS by midwives has not been properly recognised, and that the implementation of clinical grading by the last Government led to serious problems of recruitment and retention? Bearing that in mind, will he tell us what the Government will do to develop the role of midwives, and to make best use of their expertise? Will he ensure that we have policies not only to attract new recruits, but to keep experienced midwives in the profession?

The Prime Minister

I am pleased to pay tribute to the work of registered midwives. The number of midwives fell by some 1,000 under the last Government, but there are now more than 33,000 practising midwives, the most for three years. Last year alone, the number of applications for midwifery training rose by 50 per cent., and the number of widwives intending to practise has risen by 1,000. Action is being taken. Moreover, figures will soon show that there are more nurses and doctors in the system, and, having talked to the Government's cancer adviser two days ago, I can tell the House that there are now 50 per cent. more cancer specialists in training.

It will take time to deal with some of the problems, but they are being dealt with.

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

Has the Prime Minister seen the reports in today's press that the entrepreneur James Dyson, who is to commit a significant sum involving a substantial number of jobs, is likely to invest that sum in China, Hong Kong and Malaysia because of the strength of the pound and the uncertainty over the Government's commitment to the euro? Does the Prime Minister not recognise that, if we are losing investment opportunities of that kind, the Government need to make the case for the euro and promote the cause of Europe more strenuously?

The Prime Minister

I will not comment on the particular case, which involves a decision that a particular person must make. I think that the important thing is to join the euro only in circumstances in which it is economically beneficial to the country, and that is precisely why we have set out the economic tests and conditions. The test should surely be British jobs, British investment and British industry: that is a sensible test. We should not rule out joining the euro for political reasons, which is the position of the Conservative party, but neither should we be in a position whereby we join regardless of the economic conditions. That, surely, is to the best benefit of the whole of British industry.

Mr. Kennedy

Surely the Prime Minister must engage more seriously, given the serious campaign that has been launched by the leader of the Tory party. If ever there was a case of dodgy goods falling on to the back of a truck, that is it.

Does the Prime Minister not recognise that sentiment is slipping away from the sensible pro-European case, and that those of us in all parties who have shared a platform—including the former Tory Chancellor, the former Tory Deputy Prime Minister, himself, myself and others—must redouble our efforts to make the case, and to win in our vital national interest?

The Prime Minister

The case that I want to make is the case of the Government, and the case of the Government is that we should apply the test of the economic conditions. That is the sensible test, and I believe that it is the position of the vast majority of British people. They want the test to be one of Britain's national interest. The test is British jobs, British industry and British investment, and the people believe it is right that they should have the ultimate say in a referendum. That is why I disagree so profoundly with the position of the Conservative party. As for the Liberal Democrats, I am never sure whether or not they disagree with our position, and are saying that they would join on a basis other than the economic conditions.

I shall be emphatic. It will be done on the basis of the British national interest—that is the right test—not the ideology of anti-Europeans, or those who want to join the euro regardless of the economic conditions. It will be done according to them because that is the right thing for Britain.

Q3. Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

I am delighted that the Government's new crime fighting fund will mean that Greater Manchester police are able to recruit an extra 378 officers to tackle crime on the streets, but crime and disorder have left many inner-city communities deeply damaged. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will help local authorities such as Salford, especially their social services departments, which have to pick up the pieces, to care for children and their families and help to rebuild those communities?

The Prime Minister

We shall support local government and other players too in the inner cities who are trying to put together imaginative programmes to regenerate the inner city. That is why we are putting more money into education, more money into health and more money into fighting crime in areas such as Salford.

It is also why we are offering the new deal to some of the people in areas that are represented by my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members where there are high levels of unemployment. Where there is a doubt about whether work pays, we are offering a 10p starting rate, plus the working families tax credit. We are also offering, of course, better child benefit, so that we support families. That is the right way: acting both on the regeneration problems in inner cities and on the individual problems of people, to bring hope to communities and constituencies such as those of my hon. Friend.

Q4. Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

May I ask the Prime Minister a non-partisan question following his statement on drugs? He had the meeting this morning with Keith Hellawell. I have no doubt that he has now had a chance to see the letter that I sent him two days ago, at the request of my constituents who are providing voluntary and statutory services for drug misusers.

Given the problem of people in jail, where, 18,000 times last year, prisoners were detected using drugs, and there were only three prosecutions, would it be possible for the Prime Minister to co-ordinate the efforts of the Department of Health, the Home Office and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to ensure that those concerned with providing day centres outside prison do not find themselves martyred and sent to prison in the way that the Wintercomfort two were? In a positive way, without interfering in the judicial process, which is not appropriate across the Floor of the House of Commons, will he call together those involved in the statutory services and the voluntary ones, so that those who do follow the guidelines do not find themselves at risk of being prosecuted?

The Prime Minister

It is entirely sensible, obviously, to ensure that the strategy is a common one that works across all the different agencies. I have not yet seen the letter that the hon. Gentleman sent to me. I shall reply to it in due course, but may I say that, as a result of the new measures that we have introduced on drug testing in prison, the number of those who have had positive mandatory drugs tests in prison has fallen from 24.4 per cent. three years ago to 18.3 per cent. now. That is some help that is being given: better treatment, better testing in prisons.

The same has to be done effectively in the community as well. That is why we are introducing the mandatory drug testing treatment orders. We will be able to reach a situation, when the new Bill goes through, which I hope the hon. Gentleman and other members of his party will support, that will allow us—in circumstances where the police charge someone who is a drug addict and who, if they are allowed back out on bail, will simply commit more criminal offences—to give proper treatment.

That requires the treatment to be available, but it also requires the police to have the powers. Those two things going together is the best way that we are going to tackle this particular problem. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is one that causes concern in every single constituency in the country, but I was very heartened by the meeting that I had this morning. I thought that the strategy that was outlined by Keith Hellawell was exactly right. It will take time, but it will work.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend, in view of yesterday's horrifying report, draw to the attention of employers of child care workers that not only are they required by law to vet their employees now, but, if they have even suspicions of abuse, they are required under the Protection of Children Act 1999 to report them and to investigate them? No longer are they allowed to let someone retire early, to leave, or simply to dismiss them on some other grounds. That is the law now.

The Prime Minister

It is important that people realise that they have such a duty and that, if they simply pass the problem on to someone else, some other organisation or some other body, it is children in the end who will suffer. One thing we have learned about these cases over a long period is that, of course, we have to investigate any inquiries very carefully, but we must ensure that, when those inquiries are made and they do find abuse, we act upon it.

Q5. Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Prime Minister may be aware of recent reports that the United States company Myriad Genetics is seeking to patent the genes indicating susceptibility to breast cancer, which could result in British women being tied to using expensive tests from a single US company. Given reports, last September, that the Prime Minister was holding negotiations with the US president on how to keep the human genetic sequence in the public domain, will he tell us not only how those negotiations are going, but particularly whether he agrees with Bill Clinton's comment, last week, that such genetic patents should be kept narrow—so that only specific uses of the genetic code are patented, rather than the code itself, which belongs to all of mankind?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is somewhat overstating the matter of negotiations on genetic issues. We have not had any negotiations with the American Government on those issues, which of course are important. The most important thing that we have done is to introduce the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, which can evaluate drugs. We now have a proper, independent way of evaluating and ensuring that we make an assessment on the proper evidence. We have no interest in the particular issue to which the hon. Gentleman refers, other than to ensure that people get the best treatment possible. We have no more interest in one specific drug than another.

Q6. Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that sub-post offices—of which there are nearly 20 in my constituency, in villages such as Blairhall and Saline—provide a vital community service, as they are often the early warning system when an elderly or disabled person does not call in as usual for their pension or newspaper? Given the Government's commitment to building strong communities, does the Prime Minister agree that sub-post offices can not only be at their heart, but need the support and encouragement of us all?

The Prime Minister

Of course, they will get that encouragement and support. They are an important local network and focal point for communities. It is important, obviously, that we carry on introducing the new automation procedures—which will not force people to accept benefits in cash, but allow benefit to be paid into a bank account.

There has scarcely been a more hypocritical campaign than that of Conservative Members on this issue. Might I remind the House that it was the previous, Conservative Government who signed the contract for the automation? Had we cancelled the contract on coming to power, it would have cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Conservative Members—I got the figures out this morning—closed 3,000 post offices when they were in office. We shall do our best to support rural post offices, but we will not pay any attention to the hypocritical cant of the Tories.

Q7. Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

With which of the recent pronouncements on the future of Europe uttered by the Prime Minister's friend and nominee, Mr. Prodi, does the Prime Minister disagree?

The Prime Minister

We have set out our position in our own White Paper, which I commend to the right hon. Gentleman.

Q8. Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

Is the Prime Minister aware that there are currently six countries that execute juvenile offenders, including the United States of America, where, earlier this month, in Oklahoma, Sean Sellers was put to death for crimes committed when he was 16 years of age? Given that the Government oppose the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, will my right hon. Friend urge those six countries—and other countries that retain capital punishment—to introduce a moratorium on its use, because its barbarity and potential for injustice has no place in any country that claims to call itself civilised?

The Prime Minister

We oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, and we have ratified the death penalty protocols—not only to the European convention on human rights, but to the international covenant on civil and political rights. That position will not change.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The last time that I asked the Prime Minister about failing to keep his promises, he had to admit that police numbers had fallen by 1,000, but he assured the House that police numbers will rise again."—[Official Report, 15 December 1999; Vol. 341, c. 265.] Will he read out to the House the latest figures for police numbers, published a few days ago?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that police numbers have come down. Police numbers will rise again as a result of the additional money over and above the plans that we inherited from the Conservatives, which will allow us to recruit 5,000 extra police. Those are 5,000 police who, had we maintained the plans that the right hon. Gentleman agreed when he was in the Cabinet, would not be recruited.

Mr. Hague

What is wrong with reading out the numbers? They are here in the Home Secretary's parliamentary answer. Some Ministers answer questions even if the Prime Minister will not. The Prime Minister said that the figures would rise again. The latest figures show that the number of police has now fallen by 1,700 since he became Prime Minister. Crime is rising again and police numbers are falling.

At the same time, I asked the right hon. Gentleman about meeting his promises on health. He said that in-patient waiting lists were falling. Will he read out to the House the latest figures on in-patient waiting lists?

The Prime Minister

In relation to crime—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Answer !"I Do the Conservatives want the answers or not? Police numbers fell under the previous Government, during the time that the right hon. Gentleman was in office. Crime doubled. It increased faster than in any other western country. The chance of being a victim of crime trebled. The number of convictions and the proportion of convictions fell. The numbers of rapes, robberies and young offenders all rose. That was his record on crime.

In relation to waiting lists, they are 50,000 below the level that we inherited from the Conservatives. If the right hon. Gentleman is complaining about the numbers now, presumably he would like to condemn even more the time that he was in office.

Mr. Hague

All that is waffle. The accurate answer is that since the Prime Minister said that in-patient waiting lists were falling, the number has gone up by 36,000. There is no point in him shaking his head. That is the figure from the Department of Health. Out-patient waiting lists are a quarter of a million higher than when he took office. The assurances that he gave from the Dispatch Box on 15 December—only nine weeks ago on health and police numbers have already turned out to be complete and total rubbish. The Prime Minister also said in the House last year that he would deal better, more effectively and more quickly with asylum claims. Will he give us the latest figures for the number of asylum seekers?

The Prime Minister

The figures are 50,000 below the level that we inherited. There are more nurses in the health service than when the right hon. Gentleman was in office. There are more doctors in the health service. Waiting times are coming down and we have put massive new investment into the health service.

In respect of asylum, it is true that, like every other major European country, we have been hit with more asylum claims. That is why, from this April, we are introducing a wholly new procedure on asylum. That procedure was opposed by the Conservatives. The right hon. Gentleman attacks us on asylum. Yes, there is a problem, but we are dealing with it in the face of his opposition.

Mr. Hague

On this as well, the Prime Minister will not give us the figures. With his head for figures, no wonder it is taking him five days to count all those mayoral votes on his own. When he said last May that he would deal better, more effectively and more quickly with asylum claims, the backlog was 76,000 asylum seekers. Now it is 103,000. We have always known that he was not keeping the promises that he made at the last election. Now we know that he has not even kept the promises that he made in the House throughout last year. Waiting lists are higher when he said that they were going to fall, police numbers are lower when he said that they were going to rise and the asylum backlog is growing when he said that it was going to fall. Are not those facts the conclusive evidence that he is all mouth and no delivery?

The Prime Minister

Again, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. Now, as a result of the additional resources that we have put in, the immigration department is close to achieving 4,000 asylum decisions a month. That figure will rise to 8,000 a month by the late spring. The new rules will then come in and we shall be able to deal with asylum seekers more effectively.

In respect of health and crime, it is absolutely true that we need to do even more about waiting lists and police numbers. However, all these measures require the expenditure of money. The one group of people who cannot claim that any more money should be spent is the Conservative party, which is saying that it will put the tax guarantee before any increase in public spending. In case the right hon. Gentleman should doubt that—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

The Prime Minister

Just a few weeks ago, the right hon. Gentleman said that the tax guarantee meant that the Conservatives would not increase public spending. So he cannot complain about the need for more police; they cost money. He cannot complain about the need for more nurses; they cost money. He cannot complain about the waiting lists; reducing them costs money. He cannot complain about asylum seekers; it costs money to deal with them. Yes, it is true that every single promise that we made—on getting waiting lists down, getting class sizes down and increasing police numbers—will be met by the next general election, as we said they would be. The public know that whereas we will invest more in public services, the right hon. Gentleman, through his tax guarantee, will cut public spending. The tax guarantee is a boom and bust guarantee and an NHS cuts guarantee. That is the difference between the two parties. However much the right hon. Gentleman wants public spending, Labour will put in the investment and the Conservatives would take it out.

Q9. Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the growth of the internet has brought with it a growth in at-home shopping and working and that those trends will lead to a reduction in the demand for office space and shopping space? As a result, there may be a new renaissance in building new homes in new townscapes that will be environmentally sustainable and economically effective, using the technologies of the new century.

The Prime Minister

It is important that we drive through the internet revolution and make sure that people have access to computer technology. When we came to office in 1997, around one in 10 schools were linked to the internet. By 2002, more than 23,000 schools will be connected, with computer training available to 400,000 teachers. We already have 15,000 schools online. In addition, we shall be giving people special help to take computer courses. In last year's Budget, we set a target for a national network of 1,000 computer learning centres—one for every community in Britain. That is one reason why the number of people in employment is 800,000 higher than it was when we took office.

Q10. Dr. Michael Clark (Rayleigh)

Is the Prime Minister aware that the rumour that there will be a big increase in stamp duty on house purchase is being received with dismay in my constituency and elsewhere? Does he accept that this would push up the cost of purchasing a house in the south-east, where house prices are already expensive, and that it would reduce national mobility, particularly for those in the north who wished to move to the south? What would the purpose be of such a move, apart from being just another increase in taxation?

The Prime Minister

I shall treat that as an early Budget submission. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman's constituents were glad of an economy in which economic stability has been delivered, and we have 800,000 extra people in work, which stands in sharp contrast to the situation in the early 1990s—the last time the policies now advocated by his leader were pursued; they resulted in interest rates of 10 per cent. for four years or more, interest rates at 15 per cent. for one year or more, and literally millions of jobs lost.