HC Deb 26 July 2000 vol 354 cc1102-10
Q1. Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 26 July.

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.

I have written to Chancellor Schröder, President Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin on behalf of the people of Great Britain to convey our shock and heartfelt sympathies over the tragic air accident that occurred in France yesterday, which has led to the loss of so many lives. I know that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deepest condolences to the families and friends of the deceased.

Mr. Donohoe

I am sure that the whole House endorses the sentiments expressed by the Prime Minister.

Last week we heard the splendid news, for both England and Scotland, of the spending review. However, could one small change be made? My right hon. Friend will be aware that the floodgates have opened in terms of the illicit trade of alcohol into the UK. In my constituency, in particular, it has become a new profession at the cost of the retail trade. Given your retiral this week, Madam Speaker, and knowing that you like a wee dram, may I ask my right hon. Friend to have a word with the Chancellor about reducing the price of the duty on a bottle of whisky?

The Prime Minister

I know that my hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in this matter as chairman of the all-party Scotch whisky group. I accept entirely that the problem of smuggling exists, which is why we are taking action on it, but this is not a matter of small change. We need to maintain the real value of Government revenue, and the cost simply of freezing all alcohol duties on an indexed basis this year would be £165 million. I am afraid that that is money that we desperately need for the very public service changes that I know my hon. Friend wants.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I join the Prime Minister in expressing our sadness at yesterday's terrible air crash in Paris, with the loss of 113 lives? We join him in passing on our deepest condolences to the families in Germany and France—and now, we understand, one in Britain—who have lost their loved ones. As one of the partners in the Concorde enterprise, and given that our own air accidents investigation branch has unrivalled expertise, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it will be involved in the inquiry into the crash and will he assure the French Government that we stand ready to help in any way that we can?

The Prime Minister

I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that we stand ready to help in any way that we can. I understand that our people are co-operating with the French authorities.

Mr. Hague

I am grateful for that reply. May I now turn to a domestic political issue?

On Monday night, the House of Lords voted in accordance with the wishes of the people of this country to defeat the Prime Minister's campaign to repeal section 28. Does he agree that, on this issue, the House of Lords has more accurately reflected public feeling than the House of Commons?

The Prime Minister

No, I believe that clause 28 is a piece of prejudice. It is right to remove it and I remain committed to removing it. The objection to its repeal—that somehow we would allow schools to have homosexual sex education lessons—and all the rest of the propaganda that was put forward during the course of the campaign has now been comprehensively put down and rubbished by the amendments that we have put forward, so, no I do not agree with him. It is the right thing to do and I believe that we should do it.

Mr. Hague

If the Prime Minister does not recognise that the Lords are more in touch with the country on this issue, it shows how out of touch he has become. He could at least listen to his own supporters in his own party on the issue: the Labour peer Lord Stoddart who said there has been an outcry…throughout the country and Lord Mishcon who said that the Government misunderstand the mood of our people.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 February 2000; Vol. 609, c. 444–76.] He could listen to more than a million people in Scotland who voted to keep section 28—more than voted for any party in the Scottish parliamentary elections. Is it not an undeniable fact that the Lords have more genuinely reflected public opinion on this issue?

The Prime Minister

A lot of the public concern on this was based on the belief that somehow, as a result of repealing clause 28, schools would be forced or allowed to teach gay sex education in schools. That is simply not true. As a result of the amendments tabled to the Learning and Skills Bill, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows now, it is made absolutely clear that sex education is for schools, parents and teachers, and, what is more, that any parent has the right absolutely to withdraw their children from sex education.

I think we know what the right hon. Gentleman is doing. It is exactly the same as he did over the asylum issue—it is pandering to prejudice and it is not a pretty sight.

Mr. Hague

That was a nice lecture from Mr. Eye-catching Initiative himself, wasn't it? Has not the right hon. Gentleman's crusade for political correctness gone far enough? He has been told by Church leaders to scrap his campaign; he has been told by Parliament to scrap it; he has been told by the public at every opportunity to scrap it; he has packed the other House full of his cronies and he still cannot get it through the other House. Will he now scrap the repeal of section 28 from the next Session and from his next election manifesto?

The Prime Minister

I repeat that the reason I believe it is right to repeal the clause is that, having taken account of the one serious objection put forward by people—their worry about sex education in schools—it is now a piece of prejudice pure and simple. The right hon. Gentleman knows that, I know that and so do Members of the House.

As for packing the other place with my cronies, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Conservative party still has more life peers than we do. I hear what the House of Lords says, but I believe that we took the right position on this issue and I shall continue to hold to it.

Mr. Hague

Is it not a hallmark of recent months that the Prime Minister is more and more adrift from the people of this country? He presses on today with section 28; he has let out thousands of violent criminals ahead of their parole date; he is spending millions of pounds on preparing to join a currency opposed by the British people; he has raised taxes on the poorest households in the country; and then he sends round a pathetic memo asking if anyone knows why he is out of touch. Does he agree that the Government—and this even applies to him—are out of touch with "gut British instincts"?

The Prime Minister

I notice that the right hon. Gentleman is not raising today the economy or public services. Why is he not doing so? It is because he has nothing to say about the real issues. I will tell him what concerns the British people: jobs—a million extra of them; the lowest inflation in Europe; interest rates at half the level that they were under the Tories; and extra spending on schools, hospitals, law and order and transport. The right hon. Gentleman's jokes are all very well, but he should get to the Dispatch Box now and debate the real policies.


We shall debate the real policies. There are 2,500 fewer police than there were three years ago; 150,000 more people are waiting to see a hospital consultant now than three years ago; and 98,000 more violent crimes were committed in this country last year than in the previous year. That has happened under the Prime Minister's stewardship. It is a pity that he cannot agree that the Government are out of touch with "gut British instincts" because he wrote that. He is out of touch not only with the people but with himself.

The Government have lived by spin and they are now dying by spin; they have lived by gimmicks and are now known for nothing but gimmicks; they have orchestrated leaks and are now drowning in them. The Prime Minister's sole purpose was to follow public opinion; he is now utterly out of touch with the majority in this country.

The Prime Minister

We finally got the right hon. Gentleman down to policy. He wants more police on the beat; that means more spending. He wants fewer people on waiting lists; that means more spending. He wants extra money for schools; that means more spending. We are committed to spending more money on such programmes. However, the right hon. Gentleman has a policy of £16 billion worth of cuts. Perhaps when he next gets to his feet, he can explain last week's Conservative party research department note. It is very interesting, and tells us where the spending cuts will be made.

On health, the note states: We will match the spending on health that Labour announced in the Budget. However, on education, the notes states: We will match what we can afford. On crime, it states: We will match what we can afford. On transport, it states: We will match what we can afford. On defence, again it states: We will match what we can afford. If the right hon. Gentleman can give a commitment to match us on health, let us have commitments on the other programmes.

Madam Speaker

I call Mr. Eddie O'Hara.

Hon. Members

Where is the last question from the Leader of the Opposition?

Madam Speaker

Order. I can count. I call Mr. O'Hara.

Q2. Mr. Eddie O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

As a member of the Chairmen's Panel, may I take the opportunity to thank you publicly, Madam Speaker, for your distinguished service to the House, and wish you all you wish for yourself in your retirement?

Let me put on my battered very old Labour hat. It is a matter of record that the Tories in government reduced millions of pensioners to poverty, and that the Liberal Democrats promised a rise in pensions in line with prices, not earnings, funded by an infinitely flexible penny on income tax. Is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister aware that the eyes of pensioners are on his Government, and that their view is refracted through the prism of 75p? Will he assure me that the summer message to my pensioners in Knowsley, South is that £6 billion is just for starters and that they ain't seen nothing yet?

The Prime Minister

Of course, my hon. Friend is right about the Conservatives' record. They scrapped the earnings link, they put 1.5 million pensioners in poverty and they increased VAT on fuel. It was right for us to make pensioner poverty a priority. Consequently, 1 million pensioners are up to £20 a week better off through the minimum income guarantee, and 3 million pensioners will benefit from free television licences for the over-75s. On top of that, the winter fuel allowance is now £150. We know for certain that the Tories would take every one of those benefits from pensioners.

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

May I entirely associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the perfectly correct condolences expressed by the Prime Minister and the Conservative party leader following yesterday's tragedy? Moving back to the domestic political agenda and, indeed, the earlier exchanges, may I ask the Prime Minister when the Government propose to repeal section 28?

The Prime Minister

We have said that we will declare our position at some later time. We are obviously considering the best way to do so, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we remain committed to repealing clause 28 because that is the right thing to do

Mr. Kennedy

Does the Prime Minister agree, however, that even though the pose that the leader of the Tory party is yet again adopting on this matter is an affront, an equal but different constitutional affront is the fact that if a deal had not been done with Lord Cranborne, the hereditary peers still in the House of Lords would not have been in a position to thwart the clear, overwhelming view of the democratically elected House of Commons? I encourage him to continue and to stick to his convictions over the repeal of section 28, but will he go further and commit himself to establishing—sooner rather than later—a completely and thoroughly democratically elected House of Lords?

The Prime Minister

I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman's last remarks, but on his opening comment it is important that we repeal section 28 for the reasons that I gave earlier. We have dealt with the one justifiable objection that people had. We have even made sure that the very objection made to one particular piece of propaganda, which is the only piece that could ever be pointed to by opponents of the repeal—namely, something issued by Avon health authority—can be made no longer. There is absolute protection for parents and teachers and children in school.

I say this to Conservative Members: they may think that they will gain support in certain quarters, but I genuinely believe that this country is a tolerant country. We are sufficiently mature, in the 21st century, to say that people who are gay are entitled to the same treatment and rights as other people in our society.

Q3. Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the excellent settlement for Wales in last week's comprehensive spending review? He will know that during the past year the Welsh nationalists have mounted a virulent and corrosive campaign over match funding. However, the settlement gives a 5.4 per cent. real-terms increase across all public spending and an extra £421 million for objective 1 funding. Does he agree that the priority is to develop imaginative schemes that will provide long-term jobs and growth in the gross domestic product, and help to repair the 18 years of damage under Conservative government?

The Prime Minister

Of course the objective 1 additional funding that has been made available for the next three years—some £420 million over and above the Barnett formula—will do a great deal for regeneration in Wales. Also, as a result of the new deal and, indeed, the strength of the economy, unemployment in Wales has fallen considerably. Once again, my hon. Friend will note that the additional objective 1 money in Wales is precisely what would fall under the cosh of the Tories' £16 billion spending cuts

Q4. Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

What would the Prime Minister say to my constituent Mr. Alistair Scott of Wanlockhead whose 30-year-old haulage business has just closed, largely because he cannot compete and return loads from England because he is up against hauliers who have many vehicles based in France, where they can buy DERV at 54p a litre as against 84p a litre in this country? What would he tell Mr. Scott—that things can only get better?

The Prime Minister

First, the hon. Gentleman's political party has not merely made no commitment whatever on petrol duty, but is committed to putting taxes up for business in Scotland. Secondly, it is of course correct to say that petrol prices have been higher here. I have explained on many occasions the reasons for that. It was important that we removed the deficit that we inherited when we came to office. The very best thing for business as a whole in Scotland and the rest of the UK is a strong, well-run economy. Under this Government, it has got that.

Q5. Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

My constituency has some of the worst health statistics in the country, which is why the extra money for the NHS is most welcome. However, do we not have to ensure that those resources are targeted where they are most needed, and efficiently delivered? That is why the NHS national plan is most important. We do not need what the Leader of the Opposition talked about in his speech yesterday—the privatisation of the NHS.

The Prime Minister

The Opposition are committed to taking £1 billion for their private medical insurance plans, and that money will come straight out of the national health service. The benefit of the spending review is that it allows us to make an investment in our hospitals and in our primary care facilities, and to increase the number of nurses and doctors in the NHS. Taken together with the other spending—investment in education, skills and transport infrastructure—it offers the genuine chance of opportunity and security for all in our society.

Q6. Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and surbiton)

The Prime Minister will be aware of a recent report commissioned by Britain's top universities, which recommended charging students top-up fees of up to £4,500 a year. Will he give the House a categorical assurance that the Government will not introduce top-up fees for students, and would not introduce them if they were re-elected?

The Prime Minister

We have no plans to introduce top-up fees. It is important that we get additional funds into our universities. Therefore, under the spending review we are putting extra money into the university system, which is vastly in excess of anything that he, as a Liberal Democrat, promised his electorate at the last election.

Q7. Mr. Ivan Lewis (Bury, South)

Does the Prime Minister agree with me that politics is essentially about choices? People gloat at memo leaks while the Government get on with the job of repairing leaking school roofs that have disfigured our education system for too long; they concentrate on spin doctors while the Government get on with the job of recruiting new doctors to rebuild our national health service; and they launch bogus campaigns to save the pound while the Government deliver an economy of 1 million new jobs. My right hon. Friend's initials may be "TB", but "not to be" is the destiny of the Conservative party.

The Prime Minister

I certainly agree that there are clear choices. There is the choice between stability and boom and bust, and between lower unemployment under this Government and higher unemployment under the Conservative party. It is difficult to know exactly what choice to make when one reads interviews such as that with the shadow Chancellor in The Spectator a day or two ago. He was asked by the interviewer whether his plans meant that he would announce lower spending. He replied: We reject the language of cuts. The interviewer asked: You mean you won't be cutting? Answer: We may or may not be spending less. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will have a lot of questions to answer between now and the election.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Does the Prime Minister believe that focus groups are the stuff of leadership?

The Prime Minister

No. That is why, when we announce our additional expenditure plans or even when we take positions that are put to me by the leader of his party as unpopular, we do what is right.

Q8. Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

As this is the last Prime Minister's questions that you will preside over, Madam Speaker, may I congratulate you on controlling this near riot every week? If the Prime Minister offers you a law and order job, please accept it.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the Commission for Racial Equality's report "Inspecting schools for race equality", which says that the Office for Standards in Education has failed to fulfil its lead responsibility to ensure racial equality and to challenge racism in schools? Many inspectors were unaware of that responsibility and considered it unimportant, like Christmas tree baubles. One of them said that Ofsted's priority was "under-achieving white boys". Ofsted's chiefs have whinged at the report's findings, which is pretty rich for an organisation that is used to dishing out criticism. When other organisations have been criticised, they have made changes and improvements. Will my right hon. Friend require Ofsted to do the same?

The Prime Minister

To be fair, Ofsted has indeed replied. It points out that the findings rely on analysis of only about 30 reports out of a total of more than 30,000. It also says, however, that the CRE report contains criticisms that it will take on board, which I think is the right and responsible thing for it to do.

Q9. Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

Millions of people take their main holiday abroad nowadays, but many also take a second holiday in a United Kingdom seaside resort. Will the Prime Minister give a lead to his hon. Friends and the country, and take a second holiday in one of those UK seaside resorts which have so much to offer the holiday visitor?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly consider that carefully, but at present I am concentrating on my first holiday.

Q10. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Is the Prime Minister aware that extra education spending in my constituency has halved the number of infants in classes of more than 30 and financed 48 projects under the new deal for schools, many in the most deprived areas? Which of those investments in our young people does he think could be described as "reckless"—the extra teachers, the new classrooms, or the newly announced sure start programme for Warrington? Will he tell my constituents how many of those projects he thinks could survive £24 million worth of Tory cuts?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that many of the things that have been done in schools in her constituency, and constituencies up and down the country, are a result of the new deal. The Conservative party is opposed to the new deal, and committed to scrapping it.

As for the additional spending announced last week, we now know that the Conservatives are opposed to it, and would reduce it by £16 billion. We also know, from what I have read out today, that whatever the Conservatives may say about health spending—and I do not think they are credible on that either—they now accept that in each and every other area they will make substantial cuts.

Q11. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Can the Prime Minister explain why, if state-owned British Nuclear Fuels can find £40 million from public funds to compensate the Japanese for nuclear fuel problems, we cannot find some public funds to compensate Britain's former Japanese prisoners of war?

The Prime Minister

As I have said before, we will make our decision on the issue of Japanese prisoners of war in due course; but neither the right hon. Gentleman nor any other Conservative Member can come to the House and start asking us to increase public spending. The right hon. Gentleman cannot say that he wants more spending when his party is committed to cutting spending.

Let me explain to the right hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members what exercise they will be engaged in over the coming months and years. They will have to explain why, in every constituency in the country, £24 million worth of spending is to be cut. If they think that will be easy, let me read them what one of their shadow Finance Ministers said a few days ago. He said: The economies we have to find, I admit, will not be easy.

Q12. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as we head for the recess, the overwhelming majority of the British people are satisfied that we have focused not just on the needs of the moment, but on the needs of the next three years? We are not spending money on diversions, but are focusing on health, education and dealing with crime, as people want us to. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that our direction is the direction of the British people?

The Prime Minister

That money is going directly into the services that people need. As the Chancellor pointed out last week, the big difference is that whereas under the last Government 42p in every pound of additional spending went on social security and interest payments on debt, under this Government 83p in the pound goes to the very public services that the country wants. Not only will we create a more just society through our spending, but we will create the economic prosperity of the future.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

Just three weeks ago, the Prime Minister gave three reasons for refusing to drop his Bill to take away the right of every individual citizen to choose trial by jury. Is he aware that every one of those reasons has been demonstrated to be incorrect? First, he said that the Bill was supported by the Lord Chief Justice, but we now know that the Lord Chief Justice had written to the Home Secretary expressing strong misgivings. Secondly, he said that it was supported by the Runciman royal commission. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order and hear the question.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Secondly, the Prime Minister said that it was supported by the Runciman royal commission, but Professor Zander of that commission has expressly disavowed the Bill. Thirdly, he said that it would save money, and we now know that two thirds of that money comes from the fact that it is supposed that old lags with many previous convictions who now get 11 months' imprisonment will get just three and a half months from the magistrates. Does the Prime Minister accept that all his reasons were wrong?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not accept that any of them are wrong. I will send the right hon. and learned Gentleman the comments of the Lord Chief Justice supporting what we are doing. I will send him the comments of the royal commission supporting such a change. I will also send him the evidence from Scotland, where they have had such a change for many years without any of the problems that he claims for it here. As for the spending gains, yes the Bill will free up extra resources for the criminal justice system, although I have to point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, as a result of his shadow Chancellor, even if it were the right thing to do, he could not afford to do it.

Madam Speaker

Thank you. Time's up.