HC Deb 08 March 2000 vol 345 cc997-1006
Q1. Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 8 March.

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 such meetings later today.

Mrs. Brinton

Is the Prime Minister aware that one of the first 19 health service walk-in centres opens in my constituency on 10 April? Furthermore, will he take this opportunity to agree that such town and city health centre provision not only helps make health care more accessible but is a very good first step towards reducing health inequality?

The Prime Minister

National health walk-in centres are a very important innovation in making the health service more accessible to people. It is all part, of course, of the extra money that we are putting into the health service. We are going to build on the success this week of the 2,000 nurse recruitment campaign which was launched last week. It will become a permanent feature of the national health service. I can tell the House that, as at noon today, almost 15,000 calls had been taken by the national health service careers line from nurses who want to work in the national health service.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Will the Prime Minister give the latest figures for the fall in police numbers in London and the rise in street crime in London since he took office?

The Prime Minister

The strength of the Metropolitan police fell by more than 2,000 between 1993 and 1998. It is correct that there has been another slight fall between then and now, but I am pleased to say that the Metropolitan police force has been allocated additional funds from the crime fighting fund which will enable it to recruit some 1,100 new officers over the next three years.

Mr. Hague

The actual fall in the number of police officers in London is 792 since the right hon. Gentleman took office. Police numbers rose by 16,000 under the previous Government. Metropolitan police studies show street crime up by 50 per cent. It does not take a genius to work out the link between the two. Was not the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) right for once when he said: The real deterrent to crime is police on the streets, and we have less police on the streets today than the day Labour was elected. And he knows, because he has had something stolen from him. Will the Prime Minister now give us the forecast change in the number of officers in the Metropolitan police force for the next three years?

The Prime Minister

I have just said it. As a result of the funds from the crime fighting fund, we can now recruit an extra 1,100 officers. As for the quotation from my hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), it is pretty obvious whom the Conservative party is supporting, and it is not its own candidate.

Mr. Hague

It is pretty obvious that the Prime Minister is not even able to give a factual answer to a factual question. He should have another look in his folder—this is not under F for falsehoods but under D for disasters.

The actual numbers were given by the Home Secretary in parliamentary answers last month. Some 2,800 officers will be joining the police force in London in the next three years and 3,900 will be leaving. That is the Home Secretary's own expectation. Burglary in London is up by 5 per cent., car crime is up by 9 per cent., street crime is up by 50 per cent. and ballot rigging is up by 100 per cent. Is not this appalling situation the direct responsibility of a Prime Minister who is, yet again, all mouth and no delivery?

The Prime Minister

First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman on the numbers when he was a member of the Conservative Government: police numbers fell rather than rose, and crime in London doubled during the time of that Government. It is correct that without the additional funding we would not be able to recruit additional officers, but the right hon. Gentleman's party is opposed to that extra funding. As for crime and street crime, his party is opposed to the tough measures on drug offending that this party is introducing in the teeth of Conservatives' opposition. If his party were to support the Bill that the House considered last night, we would have an extra £120 million to fight crime and recruit police officers, but he prefers to spend it on lawyers instead.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his plans to meet farmers' leaders? When he does, will he give special attention to the unsubsidised pig and poultry sector? The sector's high-quality standards, such as those at Premier Poultry and many pig farms in my constituency, are being undermined by the strong pound and the cost of BSE precautions.

The Prime Minister

Of course the pig farming industry is in serious crisis, and there are a number of problems, not the least of which are BSE-related costs. Another problem is the additional cost of high animal welfare standards: for example, pig tethering. That was introduced in a Conservative private Member's Bill. It was a perfectly justifiable measure; but when we hear that the Leader of the Opposition is going to the National Farmers Union complaining about BSE costs when his lot gave us BSE, and complaining about pig tethering when he voted for it, we know where true hypocrisy lies.

I am meeting the farming industry. We are going to sit down and work out a short-term plan to get the industry through its immense short-term difficulties and a long-term plan so that we do not carry on simply giving out more subsidy without its being tied to a proper strategy for the future.

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

Is not the fair conclusion to draw from the events of the past few days that far from the Prime Minister being a control freak, he is in fact a control failure? The Leader of the Opposition asks him which of the candidates for London mayor he supports. Assuming that the Prime Minister is supporting the Labour candidate, to whom is he inclined to give his second preference vote?

The Prime Minister

As I am confident that we will be winning the campaign, we do not have to offer a second vote to anybody.

Mr. Kennedy

It is a sure sign that a Government are on the skids when they start to ignore the opinion polls. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that both the Labour candidate and the independent candidate voted in the Division Lobby for the Government's plans for the tube, and that Steve Norris, the Conservative candidate, has expressed some sympathy with them? Now that we are on to the issues of the election, is it not fair for Londoners to conclude that if they want a bond issue and a continuing legitimate public stake in a modernised tube, the only candidate who has put that forward is the Liberal Democrat, Susan Kramer?

The Prime Minister

To be blunt, I do not think that the opinion polls are particularly in favour of anyone on either side of the House. On the public-private partnership, surely the best plan is to get the private sector to do the construction work and the public sector to run the trains and be responsible for safety. That is why the PPP is sensible, and I could not put it better than this: The Docklands Light Railway Extension, financed through a public-private partnership, was completed early with no cost overrun. That shows that PPP can work. That was my candidate in the London elections.

The alternative is what Norris, the Conservative candidate, was in charge of during the four years he was Minister of Transport in London—the Jubilee line, which had an £1.5 billion overrun and was two years late. Only the Liberal Democrats could be silly enough now to be supporting it.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

I am sure that you, Madam Speaker, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are aware that today is international women's day; I trust that all hon. Members will join me in celebrating the contribution of all women to our societies, communities and families. Will my right hon. Friend welcome today's target, published by the women's unit and Ministers for Women, of 50 per cent. representation of women in public life? Does he agree with the comment of the chairman of Unilever that any woman who has brought up any children is one of the most experienced project managers? Is he surprised, therefore, that the Opposition's document "Clear Blue Water" suggests scrapping the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, the Equal Opportunities Commission and all other fair pay provisions? Is that not utterly out of step with today's society?

The Prime Minister

What I heard of my hon. Friend's question, I agree with. She is absolutely right. One thing that has of course changed is that, whereas there were only 19 women in Parliament in 1979, today there are 121, of whom 101 are Labour. We recognise, as others do, that there is still a long way to go, and we intend to get there.

Q2. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Why are the people of Reigate and Banstead and their elected councillors unfit to decide how many new houses should be built in their borough?

The Prime Minister

It is not that they are unfit to do that. We must respond, under normal procedure, to the plans that have been put forward—both the Serplan and the independent consultants'. The Deputy Prime Minister's statement was a very sensible way through, which allows us to increase brownfield building. It makes allowances for the fact that we are to have more housing in the south-east, but does so in a sensible way that allows us to match and monitor it as years progress.

It does no good for Conservative Members to think that, if they were in government, they would be coming up with a solution that entailed no new homes in the south-east. It would not be like that at all. We must balance the need for more homes with the need to protect our countryside, and I think that the Deputy Prime Minister has achieved that balance.

Mr. Phil Sawford (Kettering)

Would my right hon. Friend consider a visit to Rothwell, in my constituency? Is he aware that, following 18 years of government by the Conservative party, it was possible for children in that town to spend their entire school life in a mobile classroom? By the end of this year, however, owing to the policies of this Government, no children in that town will be taught in a mobile classroom.

The Prime Minister

More than 300,000 five, six and seven-year-olds are in classes of under 30, and as a result of the new deal money, thousands of schools have had the additional classrooms that they need. There are still, however, schools that require more work, and we hope to get there as soon as we possibly can.

Q3. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

To return to health, is the Prime Minister aware that waiting lists in the south-west are now worse than on the day he was elected? Does he know that one cannot get an NHS dentist for love or money? Does he know that there are fully equipped wards, such as one in the Verrington hospital in my constituency, which have been closed since Christmas because they cannot get staff? Does he realise that people believe what they see and not what he tells them? Is it not time for a Budget that forgets the spin and is squarely aimed at putting the NHS back on its feet?

The Prime Minister

Let the hon. Gentleman not pretend that the Liberal Democrats could fund all the promises that they make on schools, hospitals, pensions, local government, industry and whatever comes into their minds from a 1p increase in taxation, because that is not true. Yes, there are hospitals that need more nurses and staff. That is why we have launched the recruitment campaign and why there are now 4,500 more nurses and midwives in the health service than when we took office. Latest figures show an 80 per cent. increase in those registering for training. Over the next few years, as those recruits come through, there will still be wards that need more nurses, but nurses are being trained, they will get there and the health service will be rebuilt.

Q4. Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

Although the threat of drowning has receded for the people of Mozambique, the dangers of starvation and economic instability certainly have not. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that this Government will do all in their power to alleviate those longer-term problems and urgently consider the cancellation of Mozambique's debt?

The Prime Minister

Of course, the Chancellor has given the commitment to 100 per cent. cancellation of the Mozambique debt. The lead that he has given on debt relief throughout the developing world is appreciated in that part of the world. In respect of Mozambique, we have acted more quickly and given more than probably any other country—not only £8 million in direct emergency aid, but more assistance. Both the United Nations emergency co-ordinator, Ross Mountain, and President Chissano of Mozambique, have paid tribute to this country's efforts. However, I should like to pay tribute to our service people and aid workers who have performed heroically in difficult and harrowing circumstances.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

When the Deputy Prime Minister told the Financial Times yesterday that he was not a fan of directly elected mayors, was he making a statement of Government policy?

The Prime Minister

I think that that is hardly news, but my right hon. Friend is perfectly entitled to his view. However, I believe that a directly elected mayor for London is the right course.

Mr. Hague

First, will the right hon. Gentleman remind the Deputy Prime Minister, who says that he is not a fan of the idea, that he is introducing the Bill bringing it in? [Interruption.] Well, at least he now knows that he is introducing that Bill. Secondly, before we set up more devolved institutions and positions, has the Prime Minister learned the lesson that it is totally pointless and ultimately self-defeating for the selections and elections to those positions to be rigged, manipulated and dictated from No. 10 Downing street?

The Prime Minister

We are the Government who have, in accordance with our manifesto commitment, given people the vote back in London. The right hon. Gentleman supported the party that took the vote away from them. As for procedures in the Labour party, I will be responsible for those, because I believe in being responsible for my party. It is completely pathetic that the right hon. Gentleman, as Leader of the Opposition—leader of the Conservative party—is driven, first, to support Lord Archer; then, when he cannot get Lord Archer, Mr. Norris; and, now that he cannot get Mr. Norris elected, Ken Livingstone. What a comment on his leadership of the Conservative party.

Mr. Hague

What a comment on the right hon. Gentleman's leadership that he has obviously learned nothing from what has happened. Only a Prime Minister of breathtaking arrogance could have learned nothing from what has happened. He imposed on Wales a First Secretary whom nobody wanted in the job, including the First Secretary himself. He has imposed a stooge candidate in London, then tried to deny free post to candidates so that he can impose the stooge candidate on everybody else. Now we hear claims that Lord Rodgers, the Liberal leader in the House of Lords, was offered more Liberal peers in return for a pledge of good behaviour. Are not the Government creating a rotten political culture of cronyism and rigging? Does not the responsibility for that rest with the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

Oh, I see—having backed the independent candidate for London mayor, the right hon. Gentleman is now backing the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. May I point out the figures? The previous Prime Minister gave the Liberal Democrats 13 peers in seven years. I have given them 24 in two and half years—what generosity.

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

More, more.

The Prime Minister

I know they want more. The thing about the Liberal Democrats is that they always want more.

As for democracy, we have given the Scots a Parliament and the Welsh devolution; the Leader of the Opposition opposed that—[HON. MEMBERS: "We?"] Yes, we, the Labour Government, have given them democracy. We have given people back the vote in London that the Conservatives took away. Who are the democrats? The ones who scrapped the Greater London council and took away the vote, the ones who refused devolution in Scotland and Wales, the ones who never introduced change in the House of Lords—or the ones who have made our constitution fit for the 21st century?

Q5. Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that today is national no smoking day? It encourages people to quit smoking and is supported by many national newspapers and the BBC. Does he agree that the most important priority is to stop children starting to smoke, as more than 500 under-age boys and girls every day take their first puff? By the age of 20, more than half of them will be hooked. Does my right hon. Friend have a plan?

The Prime Minister

As someone who gave up smoking, I thoroughly applaud national no smoking day. Smoking causes some 46,000 cancer deaths a year, and more than 120,000 people a year in the UK die from smoking-related causes. Smoking costs the national health service £1.5 billion a year, which is the equivalent of 15 new hospitals. When we rebuild the health service, it is important that we also take the measures on prevention and public health care which allow us to put the resources into the health service where they are really needed.

Q6. Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

On 5 December 1999, the Prime Minister said that the north-south divide did not exist. Yesterday he denied that he had said that, and claimed that it did exist. That is par for the course for the Prime Minister. If he had spent more time in Sedgefield and less in Chequers and Islington, where he no doubt spends his time seeking ways to do over members of his party who have the courage to disagree with him, he might have come to that fairly obvious conclusion somewhat earlier.

The Prime Minister

The premise of the hon. Gentleman's question is wrong. When I issued the north-south report—[Interruption.] When was I last in Sedgefield? Last weekend. As for the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question, it is wrong. I did not say that the north-south divide did not exist. I said that the disparities within a region are as great as, if not greater than, the disparities between regions.

In respect of the region that the hon. Gentleman represents, what would a Government who cared about such matters do? They would introduce the new deal for the unemployed, because the region contains areas of high unemployment. What did the hon. Gentleman do? He opposed the new deal. Such a Government would introduce the working families—[Interruption.] No, the hon. Gentleman will have to listen now. Such a Government would introduce the working families tax credit for low income families, to make work pay. What did the hon. Gentleman do? He opposed the working families tax credit.

We introduced the development agency for the north-west that allowed us to bring in business investment. What did the hon. Gentleman do? He is committed to scrapping the north-west development agency. Finally, we introduced the minimum wage for low-paid workers and he opposed it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On Monday night, some 5 million or 6 million of our fellow citizens watched a programme produced by John Pilger, showing horrendous scenes of what was happening in Iraq. Can we be happy to pursue a policy for nine years that has such an effect?

The Prime Minister

No, we cannot be happy to pursue such a policy at all. We are not happy to pursue it, but the way to get the sanctions lifted is for Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq to come into line with UN resolutions, and stop trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.

This Government have taken the lead in the United Nations in trying to find a better method of ensuring that food and medicine get through to the Iraqi people. The opportunity exists for Saddam Hussein to feed his people and to provide them with medicines. He has billions of oil dollars that he could use for that purpose, but he does not. He uses the money to prop up his regime, and spends it on weapons of mass destruction.

If my hon. Friend wants to help the people in Iraq, I urge him, as I have urged him often, to help put pressure on the Iraqi regime and Saddam Hussein to fulfil their humanitarian obligations. The way to end sanctions is for them to come into line with the United Nations resolutions. If they do that, no one will be more pleased than the Government.

Q7. Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)

Now that the Deputy Chief Whip has joined the ranks of Labour Members who send their children to selective schools, will the Government drop their ideological hostility to selection?

The Prime Minister

People are perfectly entitled to send their children to whatever school they wish. However, if they send their children to selective schools, the taxpayer should not subsidise them. The difference between us and the Conservative party is that the Conservative party would reintroduce the assisted places scheme. That would mean that, for the sake of a few children who are able to get into a private school, hundreds of thousands of kids in primary schools would be in larger classes. People are entitled to spend their money however they wish, but the state should spend its money on state schools.

Q8. Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

When every Member of Parliament has young constituents whose lives are blighted by drugs, will my right hon. Friend applaud the initiative taken in Scotland, and will he give a positive lead in Europe to fight the scourge that blights so many lives and knows no national boundaries?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend entirely and I welcome the drug enforcement agency in Scotland. It plays a major part in Scotland's fight against drugs. As my hon. Friend knows, it is vital that the United Kingdom work together on the matter. When I speak to the Scottish Parliament tomorrow, I shall set out the ideas that we have been developing with Keith Hellawell, who is in charge of the Government's drugs programme, to take forward the war on drugs on an international level to deal with drug dealers and break the drug chain.

As the European Union enlarges, such co-operation will become increasingly important. Scotland needs to work with England in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom needs to work with Europe and Europe needs to work with the rest of the world.

Q9. Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)

In a prosperous country with a modern health service, it is unacceptable for people who have seen a consultant to wait more than a year for treatment. The Prime Minister knows that since he took over stewardship of the health service, the percentage of people who wait more than a year has doubled. My constituents were mesmerised by the Prime Minister speaking on the Frost programme and on "Newsnight", because one in 10 of them has to wait more than a year for treatment, yet in the Prime Minister's constituency, the figure is only one in 100. People who live in TS21 or 28 receive over £115 more for their health care than people who live in GU7 or 8—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady must put her question.

Mrs. Bottomley

Does such a system put an end to the lottery of care or tackle inequalities?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Lady certainly gets the award for brass neck, given her stewardship of the health service. Yes, we want to reduce waiting lists. Waiting lists and waiting times have been reduced, but they have much further to fall. The only way to reduce them and keep them down is through additional investment in the national health service.

Mrs. Bottomley

indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

She may shake her head, but it is true. We need more resources, and change and modernisation in the health service. The Labour party is committed to that; the Conservative party is committed to cancelling it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not unfortunate that the person who made the programme that has been mentioned and which was broadcast on Monday night minimised the responsibility of the criminal dictator of Iraq for the suffering of the people there? In acknowledging the necessity for sanctions, is it not important to try to find ways in which to assist the children who urgently need medicine, while bearing it in mind that the criminal dictator has never shown the slightest interest in the people who live in that country?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If Saddam Hussein co-operated with United Nations resolutions, money could go into Iraq to feed his country; the sanctions would be lifted and there would be no difficulty. However, he refuses to co-operate with the inspectors of weapons of mass destruction or to get money to his people through the oil for food regime. It is a tragedy; what is happening in Iraq to children and their families is terrible, but the answer is to ensure that Saddam Hussein comes back in line with international law. If he does not, the money will go to him, not to families in Iraq. It will be spent on weapons of mass destruction and we will be back where we were a few years ago.

Instead of producing a programme that presented only one point of view, the makers of Monday night's programme should understand that the international community is desperate to get help to families in Iraq, but that we cannot do it at the expense of allowing Saddam Hussein to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Q10. Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Does the Prime Minister recall coming to Cambridge during the election campaign and promising to reform the area cost adjustment, bearing in mind the fact that next year Cambridgeshire will spend £4.7 million above its education standard spending assessment and £8.4 million above its social services SSA to maintain current expenditure? It is absolutely clear that there will be no change in the formula this year, so what is his excuse for that broken promise?

The Prime Minister

The area cost adjustment was the system that Conservative Members were perfectly happy to support for 18 years, but now we are getting extra money into social services, extra money into education and extra money into local authorities and health. I remind the hon. Gentleman, as I remind every Conservative Member present, that they oppose that additional investment and the extra spending—they call it reckless and irresponsible. With typical Tory opportunism, they call for tax cuts and more spending at the same time. There is only one way that would lead—to boom and bust and cuts in services.