HC Deb 29 March 2000 vol 347 cc332-42
Q1. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 29 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 will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

In his Budget, the Chancellor announced an extra 10,000 nurses. The following day, the Prime Minister himself announced an extra increase in resources for the national health service up to 7.6 per cent. Both major announcements had to be withdrawn and corrected. Will the Prime Minister promise straightforwardness and honesty in future health announcements?

The Prime Minister

I can indeed confirm that in addition to the 4,500 nurses already in the health service under this Government, there will be another 10,000. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the chance to make that clear. The 7.6 per cent. increase is referable to the 8 per cent. target, and we will meet the 7.6 per cent. target too.

Q2. Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I thank the Prime Minister for sharing the anger of all at Rover Longbridge, the components suppliers and all those who work in the dealerships at the bombshell dropped by BMW in its disposal of Rover. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the Opposition find this funny. Will my right hon. Friend send a message to the many thousands who will march through the city this Saturday to demonstrate the importance of manufacturing and the car industry to our city, our region and our nation?

The Prime Minister

First of all, I know how desperately serious the situation is, and I fully understand and share the deep concerns that the march demonstrates. I can tell my hon. Friend that we will carry on doing everything that we possibly can. Our action includes the £129 million that we have already allocated to support Rover Longbridge investment and to make sure that people who will lose their job will have the chance, through that investment, to gain another job.

The taskforce is now up and working. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is at a meeting with BMW, and is working with the company to protect the jobs that can be protected and to make sure that BMW fulfils its proper responsibilities. This is a deeply serious situation; we are aware of its seriousness, and that is why I am sure that many of my hon. Friends will be on that march, making these points, on Saturday.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

We agree with the Prime Minister about the level of public concern and we support the work of the taskforce, but is he aware that, this morning, the chief executive of BMW UK told the Select Committee that, last year, the losses at Rover were such that the whole BMW group was at risk? There are reports today that, on 20 December, the chairman of BMW as a whole told the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry: We may have to reconsider our whole investment in Britain altogether. Can the Prime Minister confirm that?

The Prime Minister

No, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made it clear that the conversation, which, if I recall rightly, took place on 22 December, was about the need to speed up the application to the European Commission for aid funding. As a result of that conversation, my right hon. Friend got in touch with the Commission, which agreed to fast-track the application. It is incorrect to say that BMW's chairman informed him that the company was about to close Longbridge.

Mr. Hague

The precise words in question are: We may have to reconsider our whole investment in Britain altogether. BMW did not walk in with a "For Sale" sign, but those words appear to provide a pretty important clue. It is reported that the chairman of BMW says that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry knew before Christmas how serious the position was. The message was crystal clear, even at this … stage. That contrasts with the statement the Government made two weeks ago, that they did not know what was going on and they had not been told anything at all.

Are there not only two possibilities: first, that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was warned of the seriousness of the situation and did insufficient about it; and, secondly, that he should have known, but knew nothing, despite the fact that it now turns out that Rover had been offered for sale to General Motors and Ford? When £150 million of taxpayers' money is involved in the securing of tens of thousands of jobs, is it not his business to know such things? Is that not what he is for?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman tries to make political capital of the situation—I really am. I have already explained the conversation that took place with the chairman of BMW. The claim made at the time was in respect of the European Commission aid application; we did everything we could to accelerate its progress, and we succeeded in fast-tracking the application. However, that was not the issue that determined BMW's ultimate decision. That decision having been made, we can do only one thing: work night and day, as we will, both to put in the money necessary for reinvestment and to ensure that those who are displaced and lose their jobs find other jobs. The truth is, the right hon. Gentleman has no alternative policy to offer.

Mr. Hague

When the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry presides over a mess of such magnitude, he is meant to be held to account in the House of Commons. That is one of the things for which the House exists, but we have to ask the Prime Minister because the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made only rare appearances in the House in the past two weeks.

Does the Prime Minister not find it disturbing that his right hon. Friend provides a classic example of this all mouth, no delivery Government? He announces the Government grant with great fanfare at the time, but fails to secure its delivery and allows it to become bogged down in European Union bureaucracy. Despite clear messages from BMW, he fails to understand the seriousness of the situation and then denies having been told anything of any significance. He is seen everywhere when the jobs seem secure, but is nowhere to be seen when they are at risk. Finally, the best defence he can muster is that, as the UK's Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, he knew nothing about the likely fate of tens of thousands of jobs and £150 million of public money. Does the Prime Minister still have confidence in the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry?

The Prime Minister

I think that some of those who work at Longbridge will remember who sold off Longbridge. As for saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has never gone near Longbridge, he went there immediately after the announcement was made. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment, Welfare to Work and Equal Opportunities is there today.

As has been made clear by everyone, the reason for BMW's decision had nothing to do with the European Commission application. We have done everything that we possibly can. The only intelligent way forward is to make sure that we make the investment in the future for Longbridge that can be preserved, and help those who will lose their jobs to find others. The worst thing that we could do for the midlands and the car industry is return to the disastrous policies pursued by the Conservatives when they were in office. In case people have forgotten, let me remind the Leader of the Opposition that, when he was a member of the last Conservative Government, 1 million manufacturing jobs were lost in this country. The one group of people from whom the Longbridge workers will take no lessons is the Conservative party.

Q3. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

It must be progress for a Lancashire Member to be able to praise an initiative from Yorkshire. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the Yorkshire building society's campaign against excessive cash machine charges? It has produced a petition with more than 100,000 names, which was presented to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on Monday. Does my right hon. Friend agree—[Interruption.] Yes, he was on the job.

Madam Speaker

Order. Come along, Mr. Marsden.

Mr. Marsden

Does the Prime Minister agree that the efforts of banks such as Barclays and others in this direction, and in the closure programme of branches that goes with it, threaten to undermine everything that the Government are doing for rural areas to tackle social exclusion and help pensioners? Will he use all the powers at his disposal to cap cash machine charges and to address the issues?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will be aware that yesterday the banks and building societies ruled out the possibility that consumers could be charged twice for one cash withdrawal. That is a step in the right direction. However, the banks and building societies need to go further if they are to meet the concerns of their customers. I know that some banks and building societies have already indicated that they do not propose to impose any cash machine charges, and we welcome that. We shall continue to make sure that they live up to their responsibilities properly.

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

On Northern Ireland, does the Prime Minister concur with the views that were expressed to me repeatedly by all parties in recent days in both Belfast and Dublin that, given the suspension of the Assembly, the big worry is that a political vacuum will now develop? What priorities are the Government and the Prime Minister pursuing to try to ensure that such a vacuum does not develop?

The Prime Minister

It is very important that a political vacuum does not develop. That would be dangerous for Northern Ireland. We will do everything we can, both working with the Irish Government and with the parties in Northern Ireland, to make sure that that does not happen. Rounds of discussions have been taking place already between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the parties in Northern Ireland, and we will carry on these discussions in the next few weeks to make sure that we can put the institutions back up again. That is the best security for people in Northern Ireland.

It is a frustrating process. Every major question has been resolved by the Good Friday agreement. Every major point of principle can be resolved. It would be a tragedy if we lost this chance for peace. I believe that there still exists the residual will in Northern Ireland to find a way through.

Mr. Kennedy

I am sure that the whole House will wish to support the Prime Minister in those sentiments. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that as long as the Assembly is suspended—let us hope that it can be restored as soon as is politically possible—the Council of the Isles stands suspended as well?

There is deep concern in Belfast and Dublin, as well as in our country, about Sellafield, an issue that could properly be discussed and considered in the context of the Council of the Isles. Given that that option is not available, and given also the grave concerns about Sellafield on both sides of the Irish sea, what steps are the Government taking on this issue?

The Prime Minister

Ministers have made it clear to the chairman of BNFL that we want to see big changes in the way that it is run and managed. The chairman is due to report back to Department of Trade and Industry Ministers by early April on the plans for that. New senior management is now in place. It is important to emphasise that the Health and Safety Executive has given a safety clearance to reprocessing. The work force is immensely dedicated, talented and skilled. I am sure that with that dedication and talent, the clearance from the HSE and the new plan that will be submitted, BNFL can go back on a sound and secure footing for the future.

Q4. Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

My right hon. Friend has no doubt seen the recent Audit Commission report, with its damning criticisms of the inadequate help and the poor provision of essential equipment, aids and adaptations for elderly people and people with disabilities. Surely that state of affairs in modern Britain is totally unacceptable. What does he intend to do about it?

The Prime Minister

We have, of course, seen the Audit Commission report. We agree that its findings of poor performance in many areas over some time are unacceptable. This morning I discussed that and other health service issues with the heads of the Audit Commission, the Commission for Health Improvement and the social services inspectorate, together with a number of key doctors, nurses and managers who are driving through change in the national health service. I was deeply impressed both by their commitment and by the recognition right across the service that there are many examples of excellent practice, and also many examples in which practice is falling far short of what is acceptable.

I have no doubt that now that the issue of resources in the NHS has been resolved, at least for the foreseeable future, the health service has the chance to put in place the changes and reforms necessary to deliver tip-top service for the patients. It is heartening that the people working in the health service are, in my view, fully up for the change that needs to take place.

Q5. Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware of the widespread support in the House for his Government's proposals on climate change and renewable energy. Is he aware, however, that applications for large-scale wind farm development in mid-Wales and Ceredigion are not decided by local authorities or by the National Assembly for Wales, but are still decided by the Department of Trade and Industry? Will he undertake to use his influence to review that legislative oversight and, in the mean time, will he give an undertaking to my constituents that his Government will not seek to push through a planning application in the face of local authority or National Assembly opposition?

The Prime Minister

I cannot promise any legislative changes to the relationship between the Welsh Assembly and this Parliament, but I heard what the hon. Gentleman said. If he will allow me to do so, I shall write to him.

Q6. Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

Has my right hon. Friend noted the social security report this morning, which shows that the gap between poor pensioners and rich pensioners has increased significantly over the past 20 years? Is not the minimum income guarantee a good way of addressing that? Will he give it his personal backing, and is not that the duty of every hon. Member, and above all, perhaps, members of the Opposition, who did so little for the oldest and poorest pensioners when their party was in power?

The Prime Minister

It is correct that the Conservative party opposed the £150 winter allowance and the minimum income guarantee, which increase the incomes of the poorest pensioners by some £500 a year. We want to make sure that those who are entitled to the minimum income guarantee claim it. That is why we are launching the minimum income guarantee take-up campaign. As part of that campaign, we shall write to more than 2 million pensioners who, we believe, may be eligible, to encourage them to claim. The minimum income guarantee will make a real difference. Pensioners' incomes vary, and we must make sure that they are getting more help, especially those living in poverty.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

This weekend, a senior Cabinet Minister was reported as saying that if the Government are defeated again in the Lords on section 28—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh.] It is no good Labour Members not wanting to talk about it. It was the Government who introduced the measure into Parliament. It was reported that if the Government are defeated again in the Lords on section 28, the Prime Minister will simply say I tried and failed; now good riddance to the issue. Is it true that he is now ready to back down on section 28?

The Prime Minister

No, it is not true. We remain committed to the repeal of section 28, and we remain set against the mischievous propaganda campaign which has suggested that repealing section 28 will mean that children in our schools will have their sex education lessons changed. That is completely untrue. Since 1994, under the previous Government, section 28 has not applied to schools in England and Wales. If the right hon. Gentleman disputes that, let him now get up and say so. If he does not dispute it, he should stop associating himself with that propaganda.

Mr. Hague

If the Prime Minister is not ready to back down on this, why does he have his Ministers running around telling newspapers—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] It is the Prime Minister who has to answer the questions at Question Time.

If the Prime Minister is not ready to back down, why does he have his Ministers running around telling newspapers that he is heartily sick of the issue and ready to give up on the whole thing? Is it not because he likes to say different things to different people at the same time in order to fool all of the people all of the time? Let us get this straight. Just so that we know what we have to do to get him to back off on this politically correct nonsense, will he tell us whether, if the Lords defeat the measure one more time, he will abandon it?

The Prime Minister

We remain committed to the repeal of section 28. I notice that the right hon. Gentleman did not say whether he accepts that it has not applied to schools in this country since 1994. There is one reason and one reason only why people are concerned about the repeal of section 28: because they are being told that it affects sex education in schools. First, sex education in schools has been the prerogative of teachers, parents and governors since 1994. Secondly, any parent has the right by law to withdraw their child from any sex education in schools.

I know that it is my job to answer the questions, not the right hon. Gentleman's. But, if he does not want to be accused of hiding behind prejudice, he should say whether he accepts that what I have just said is true.

Hon. Members


Mr. Hague

I am very happy to move to the other side of the Chamber and answer the questions at any time.

Section 28 applies to councils administering schools and it applies to the advice and material that councils give to schools. Now that I have answered the Prime Minister's question, let us have an answer to mine. When will he realise that the majority in this country are tolerant and understanding, but that they do not want their children subject to politically correct propaganda? That is why he has lost the argument, and that is why Members of the Cabinet go around saying that this has been a distraction. Is it not time that the Government focused on delivering services that people actually want instead of wasting time and money on the Labour party's pet political projects? Why does the Prime Minister not listen to the common sense of the great majority of the people and abandon this now before it goes to the Lords again?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, and let me repeat to people, section 28 has nothing whatever to do with sex education in schools. It never has had. As I say, since 1994, it has not even applied to schools. The truth of the matter is that the campaign is based on people who do not want to come out and say that they are prejudiced against gay people. They do not want—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker


The Prime Minister

They do not want to say that they are prejudiced against gay people, so they hide behind the issue of child protection. No child will be forced to take part in gay sex lessons in schools. No child will engage in school sex lessons that are wrong. Sex lessons in schools will carry on being the prerogative of teachers, parents and governors. Parents will carry on having the right to withdraw their children from those sex education lessons. Those are the facts. The right hon. Gentleman knows them, and—just occasionally—he should stand up for what is right rather than join in a campaign that misrepresents the facts and would have no chance of gaining any popular support if it did not misrepresent the facts.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan)

Is the Prime Minister aware that a Ministry of Defence spokesman has stated that British shipyards are at risk of not receiving the pending roll-on, roll-off ferries order? Does he also know that, before any decision has been made, a Minister has told a shop steward that the order is likely to go to Germany?

The Prime Minister

I am not aware of that. The Ministry of Defence has not made its decision yet. My hon. Friend should at least await that decision.

Q7. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The recent cancer summit at No. 10 Downing street was described by the World Health Organisation cancer chief as a silly photo opportunity and orchestrated hype with nothing at the end to show for it. Will tomorrow's farmers summit at No. 10 Downing street be more substantive? Will farmers go home with something more than a free photo opportunity and a copy of the Prime Minister's speech?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman opposes the additional work that we are doing on cancer services; £50 million is going towards those services. Perhaps he should listen to Dr. Mike Richards, who said that the cancer service programme that we are establishing will result in a dramatic increase in the treatment of cancer patients in the next few years. The best way in which to improve cancer services is to support the additional investment in the health service under this Government.

We have had a week of waiting for an answer from the Conservative party. Does the position that the shadow Chancellor set out—tax cuts come first—remain the same, or do Conservative Members support investment in public services? Until they come out and explain how they will support measures to invest in public services, their protestations about the health service will ring hollow.

Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South)

Is the Prime Minister aware that BMW has stripped out the capital plant equipment for the new Mini line in Longbridge and transferred it to Birmingham international airport? Will he explain to the chairman of BMW that there is no airport at Cowley, and that if he wants to keep his word this time, and build the new Mini in Oxford, it would be best to drive the equipment down the M40?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that we can pass on my hon. Friend's comments to the chairman.

Q8. Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Prime Minister recall that when he and I contested the Beaconsfield by-election, he was welcomed to the constituency by the headline in the local paper, "Benn-backing Barrister is Labour's Choice"? That is Benn-backing rather than Ken-backing. Does he know that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) supports my Bill to provide targets for organic food and farming? At tomorrow's summit at No. 10 Downing street, will he explicitly acknowledge the need to expand organic foods—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. I cannot hear a word. [Interruption.] Order. This is a Parliament and hon. Members must be heard.

Mr. Tyler

At the summit for farmers tomorrow, will the Prime Minister reiterate his commitment, which he made at last month's National Farmers Union annual general meeting, to an expansion of organic food and farming? Will he prevent his Whip from shouting "Object" to my Bill?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for reminding us of Beaconsfield and how far he has moved to higher and better things.

We are increasing support and subsidy to organic farming. Consequently, the number of organic farmers is increasing. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes that. I hope that at tomorrow's summit we can provide a short-term strategy and long-term assistance for farming.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

The Prime Minister has already referred to the problems that the banks are bringing to many of our communities. As the Postal Services Bill is making its way to the other place, does he believe that the other side of the coin is ensuring that the post offices can be the saviours of community banking? Will he assure the House and my constituents that the Government will do everything in their power to make sure that they can do so?

The Prime Minister

We remain fully committed to the network of nationwide post offices and we want to see them thrive. For that very reason, we have worked with the Post Office to install some 3,000 cash machines nationally at post offices in smaller towns and villages. The first 400 will be installed this summer. We are also working with the Post Office for a longer-term strategy to make sure that we can carry on with the sensible changes to and modernisation of the Post Office that allows those post offices to remain central to local communities.

Q9. Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I was in my constituency this morning and village post offices were again the topic of conversation. As the Prime Minister has said, he is making some moves in that direction, but can he guarantee that no village post office in my constituency will close in 2003?

The Prime Minister

I can scarcely contemplate the cheek of the Conservative party: it asks for a commitment when it was responsible for closing hundreds of rural post offices when it was in office. We will carry on working to make sure that they have a secure future, but let us be clear about the changes on automatic credit transfer. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we inherited that investment from the previous Government. The reason for those changes—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is the truth. It was inherited from the previous Government. As a result of it, many of the transaction costs will be reduced. However, we have made it clear that those who want to get their benefits in cash will carry on being able to do so and we will sit down with the people in the Post Office and work out a viable way forward for the future.

We need to make the changes because they are the right changes to make, but we will do everything in our power to safeguard rural post offices. We are not going to take lessons from a Conservative party that closed the rural post offices and is now mounting a completely opportunistic campaign when the very authors of the pressure on the post offices today sit on the Opposition side of the House of Commons.