HC Deb 10 May 2000 vol 349 cc830-40
Q1. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 May.

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.

Mr. Bercow

My constituent Nicole Wanford is raising two young children by herself working for an income of just over £200 a week. When her employer tried to help her by giving her a bonus of just over £600, the state confiscated £439 in tax and withdrawn benefits. In the light of those facts, does the Prime Minister agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who thinks that the working families tax credit—this massively expensive scheme—will help to eradicate poverty, or with my hard-working constituent who knows that it has made it impossible for her problems to be solved?

The Prime Minister

I obviously do not know about that particular case, but the working families tax credit is helping 1.25 million low-income families. Many of them to whom I have spoken are benefiting by £15 or £20 a week. What they should really know is that its entirety would be scrapped by an incoming Tory Government.

Q2. Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

May I express sincere congratulations and thanks from the people of Northern Ireland to the Prime Minister, and to the Taoiseach, for the successful conclusion to their endeavours, not just on Thursday and Friday last, but during the many weeks before?

Is the Prime Minister aware that certain aspects of the new accord did not, of necessity, have the prominence that they should have had? First is the issue of the loyalist paramilitaries putting their weapons beyond use. Does the Prime Minister agree that the weaponry and explosives of the loyalist paramilitaries are just as deadly as those of the IRA? Secondly, is he aware that in Northern Ireland today and every day we are subjected to a daily round of shootings, horrible beatings, intimidation and press gangs that affect ordinary men and women in their houses, in their streets and in their estates? Will he use his best endeavours on both those accounts, and renew his energies to bring those matters to a conclusion? We know from the past that the loyalist and republican paramilitaries who are on ceasefire have control of these issues.

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says. Those beatings are barbaric and have no place in any civilised society. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that loyalist paramilitary weapons must be treated in exactly the same way as republican weapons. They would do equal damage were they to be used, and not put beyond use as they should be.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the continuing peace process in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to him and his party for their constructive attempts to make this process work. Whatever the difficulties, I still believe that it is the best way forward in Northern Ireland. Despite the beatings, let us never forget that hundreds of people used to be killed in outrages every year, and soldiers used to patrol every part of Northern Ireland. We have made enormous progress already, and with good will on all sides we will get this job done.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

I support all the remarks of the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). From this side of the House, we welcome the statement by the IRA and the renewed hope for full implementation of the Good Friday agreement. The eyes of the world will now be on paramilitaries, loyalist and republican, to see that they implement that side of the agreement.

Let me turn to a different subject. Today we have heard alarming reports from Dagenham of an end to 70 years of car production. Will the Prime Minister confirm that in the last Parliament the number of people employed in manufacturing rose by 70,000, whereas under his premiership the net loss of manufacturing jobs stands at 206,000—and the figure is rising?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman's opportunism knows no bounds. No sooner has he had to conceal his disappointment at the Rover deal than he leaps on Ford. As for manufacturing jobs, what he omitted to tell the House is that in the first two years of the 1990s, under his Government, 1 million manufacturing jobs were lost.

Mr. Hague

To thousands of people working in manufacturing today, that kind of answer is no longer good enough. Slogans from past elections are irrelevant to the 21st century. Let us hear the actual facts—the actual facts from the House of Commons Library, independently respected. The number of employees in manufacturing in Great Britain has fallen by 206,000 since the general election.

As no senior member of the Government has ever worked in a business, why do they not listen to some people who do? Why does the Prime Minister not listen to his friend Lord Haskins, who says that entrepreneurs are being distracted from running and growing their businesses by the cumulative burden of taxation and…regulation. Will the Prime Minister now give the House the figure from the British Chambers of Commerce for the cost of extra red tape and regulation under his Government?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps I could quote something to the right hon. Gentleman about regulation. We passed volumes of new rules and laws interfering in almost every aspect of business and social life. Source? The shadow Chancellor.

As for Ford, the details will be announced on Friday. I do want to deal with that. We will of course do all we can to protect the jobs that can be protected. Thirty-six thousand people are employed by Ford in the United Kingdom, 9,000 of them at Dagenham. We will be there, ready to help, with money, investment and advice for any who do lose their jobs.

Let us be clear: the problem of manufacturers, particularly those selling into Europe, is the current strength of the pound. The problem is not helped by the right hon. Gentleman's attempts to exploit it. Everyone in manufacturing industry remembers the early 1990s, when 1 million jobs were lost, output fell by 7 per cent. and investment fell by 28 per cent., so no one will take lessons from the Conservatives on manufacturing.

Mr. Hague

The actual figure is £10 billion for red tape and regulation. The weakness of the euro is not the only problem of manufacturing industry; the behaviour of the right hon. Gentleman's Government is an additional problem. Why is what Lord Haskins said not written in that folder that he is always consulting? There must be something in that folder other than "If pressed, waffle for as long as you can."

Given today's reports, coming on top of so many others of recent weeks, is it not the case that unless the Government stop piling extra taxes and regulations on business, more manufacturing jobs will be lost—to add to the 200 a day that have been lost since the Prime Minister took office—and his Chancellor's pre-election pledge that manufacturing industries will grow again will be exposed as yet another promise that he has totally and shamefully betrayed?

The Prime Minister

I note that, on Ford, the right hon. Gentleman has not a single constructive solution to offer. As for manufacturing jobs, many are also being created. In the past few months, jobs have been created at Vauxhall and IBC Vehicles; 1,300 jobs have been created at Nortel, 1,000 at Honda and 1,000 at Quantax.

Yes, there are jobs that will also be lost, particularly in a period of massive economic and structural change. The difference is that this Government, as we did with Rover, stand ready to help people through that process. If it is all right to quote the shadow Chancellor again, he described yesterday, when the problems of the strong pound were put to him, which, in fact, is worrying manufacturing—[Interruption.] Conservative Members say it is all a weak euro. Let me quote to them from their shadow Chancellor. He said: We have to get used to the idea that a strong currency is not a bad thing. It is a reflection of a strong economy. Thank you, shadow Chancellor.

Q3. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber)

The Prime Minister will be well aware of the extent of worries about pensioner poverty throughout this country. Will he do his utmost to have a vigorous uptake campaign for the minimum income guarantee and will he look at the group of pensioners who have been thrifty throughout their lives, who have some pension and who have some savings? Will he take on board their needs in the pension review?

The Prime Minister

Yes, we will. Perhaps I should explain that, in this Parliament, we will be spending some £6.5 billion more on pensioner incomes than was forecast by the previous Government. That is, incidentally, £2.5 billion more than the cost of uprating the basic state pension in line with earnings, but what we have done is to try to target as our first priority those who are poorest. One million of the poorest pensioners will be up to £20 a week better off as a result of our changes. Also, the winter allowance, now at £150, is paid tax free to pensioner households and is outside the benefit system, as are the free TV licences for the over-75s, so, again, it helps those in most need, but I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We now have to ensure that those who are above benefit levels and below income tax levels who have saved all their lives are given the help that they need.

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

Will the Prime Minister concur that, of all the various electoral messages that were sent at the last diet of elections at the end of last week, by far the most telling was the verdict of Romsey? [Interruption.] Given that that is obviously taken as read, may I say to the Prime Minister that the serious verdict from Romsey was not a party political one? It was a triumph for the politics of hope and the future in our country, as opposed—[Interruption] that is all we need to know: just look at them—as opposed to what the Conservatives endeavoured to achieve, which was the triumph of the politics of fear, division and prejudice. That is the issue.

The Prime Minister

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) on her victory in that by-election. Secondly—[Interruption.] Well, Conservative Members are on about us losing our deposit in that by-election. I would have thought it rather worse to have lost one of the Conservative's safest seats in the entire country. If that had happened to us just before the last election, we would have been slightly concerned, but do not worry—carry on being unconcerned.

In relation to the other issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises, it was a sign of the courage of his own campaign locally that people did not respond to what was a quite irresponsible campaign on behalf of the Conservatives. I am pleased that that was decisively rejected by reasonable people.

Mr. Kennedy

I congratulate the Prime Minister on that reply—I could not have put it better myself. However, will he also acknowledge that what came through loud and clear from Romsey, from voters of all political persuasions and of none, was the genuine feeling—I follow the question just asked by my neighbouring Member, the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart)—that pensioners are getting a raw deal from the Administration? [Interruption.] Would the Prime Minister therefore—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. Mr. Kennedy, speak up.

Mr. Kennedy

Would the Prime Minister acknowledge the legitimate concerns of pensioners in this country who want, in the words of the most recent Labour manifesto, to share increasingly in the increasing prosperity of the nation?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that, there, the consensus must end, although it was a great relationship while it lasted. On the right hon. Gentleman's point on the basic state pension, I remind him—not just to make a political point, but to make another one which I shall come to in a moment—that the 1997 Liberal Democrat manifesto stated: The basic state pension will remain indexed to prices. It went on to say: We will create an additional top-up pension for pensioners with incomes below Income Support level. That is, of course, the minimum income guarantee. That is precisely what we have done.

We had to decide—as the Liberal Democrats did when they drew up their manifesto—if we are to spend more money, who we help first. The truth is that pensioner incomes in this country are more varied than they were 30 or 40 years ago. If we simply put money on the basic state pension, many pensioners would not necessarily need that money, but would receive it, whereas some of the poorest pensioners would not receive any help at all. We therefore decided to start with the poorest pensioners first.

The winter allowance—we never even promised to provide it, but we have done so—is paid to everyone. We are now seeing how we can help those other pensioners. However. I make no apology for saying that we started with the poorest first.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the people of Reading not only for their imaginative city centre—which the Minister for Local Government visited last week—but, in common with the people of Romsey, rejecting the Conservative party's right-wing racist claptrap and re-electing their Labour council with a record majority?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to congratulate my hon. Friend and his council. Of course, the almost 900,000 extra jobs in the economy played a part, too.

Q4. Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Events in west Africa emphasise the importance for Britain of naval power. They also emphasise the importance for Britain of retaining its shipbuilding industry. Appledore, in my constituency, has been asked to tender for two new tank-carrying vessels. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that tenders from overseas companies will be carefully scrutinised for subsidies, and that he and the Government will support British shipyards such as Appledore which have a track record of building high-quality ships on budget, on time, every time?

The Prime Minister

Of course we will do what we can to support the shipbuilding industry. Moreover, we will not only do that within the rules, but will ensure that other countries keep to the rules also. I was delighted to hear that Appledore has just been awarded a second contract for a fisheries patrol vessel. My understanding is that a consequence of that order is that Appledore has been able to rescind all 300 redundancy notices that it had to issue when no orders were in prospect. That is excellent news. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman's constituents and the company, and I wish them well in the future.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to our service personnel who, at this moment, are doing such a vital job in Sierra Leone? Does he agree that that crisis and similar crises in other African countries show the increasing need for co-ordinated, stronger United Nations peacekeeping and intervention forces to deal with such problems?

The Prime Minister

I agree with that last remark. Obviously it is important that British troops are in Sierra Leone at the moment to organise an evacuation and secure conditions to ensure the safety of our citizens. The paratroopers, as ever, are carrying out their mission with great efficiency. The evacuation is continuing. It is likely to take several more days—possibly a week—to ensure that our people in the outlying areas are brought to safety. It is right that I should also take this opportunity to condemn completely the activities of Mr. Sankoh and the Revolutionary United Front. It is important that we do everything that we responsibly can to safeguard democracy in Sierra Leone. This country has played a very great part in doing that in the past couple of years and we should continue to do so.

Q5. Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

In the United States, police numbers have gone up and crime has gone down. In the United Kingdom, under this Government, police numbers have gone down and crime has gone up. Why do not the Government fund a really effective police force?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Crime has fallen under this Government. What is more, the previous Government, when he used to support cut police numbers for their last three years. Crime was falling at the time, but what most people remember about the previous Conservative Government is that they doubled crime.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

The UK Safety Group in my constituency, which produces footwear for the military, has just announced the closure of a factory and the loss of 65 jobs. It says that the only way it can maintain and retain defence contracts is by outsourcing its work to Brazil, where workers are paid scandalously low wages. Surely that cannot be right. Will the Prime Minister intervene to look at the defence contracts and help to ensure that those jobs are kept in Blaenau Gwent, which is one of the poorest communities in the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

I shall certainly look into that case, but I have to say once again that it is important that we realise that, particularly in a modern global economy, there will be jobs lost and jobs gained. We should do everything that we can to protect the jobs that we can protect and to help people who lose their job to get another job. We shall do that. I shall look into the particular circumstances of my hon. Friend's constituency case, but it is important that we emphasise to people that there is a limit to what the Government can do. We should do what we can do, but not pretend that we can protect people against every aspect of competition in a global economy, because it would not be right to say that.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

This morning, the Conservative members of the London Assembly reconfirmed their manifesto pledge to oppose congestion taxes in the capital. Does the Prime Minister expect the Labour members of the Assembly to stick to their manifesto pledge and join us in opposing congestion taxes?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the Labour members will abide by their election pledge.

Mr. Hague

So will the Prime Minister make it clear to the new mayor of London that there is no point in even trying to introduce congestion charges, since the Labour and Conservative members together will vote against them with a two-thirds majority, and the idea should therefore be abandoned today?

The Prime Minister

Consensus appears to be breaking out on every side this afternoon. I cannot see many advantages in the situation, but one advantage is that I am not responsible for the new mayor. However, I am responsible for the Labour members and I assure the right hon. Gentleman that they will abide by their manifesto. I am sorry if my answer took him by surprise.

Mr. Hague

Nothing that the Prime Minister says takes us by surprise any more. The Prime Minister is directly responsible for the new mayor, because the right hon. Gentleman's behaviour got him elected. The Prime Minister is also responsible for the Labour candidates who pledged no congestion taxes. Now that he is on our side on congestion taxes and has said that he is against them and expects the Labour members to stick to their pledge, will he join us in the House of Commons tonight in voting to save the rest of the country from this crackpot scheme of the Deputy Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

No, we will not. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the first time that congestion charges were mentioned as a part of Government policy was under his Government, shortly before the general election. As for the Labour members of the Assembly—I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has had to ask me this three times to get the same answer—they will abide by their manifesto.

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

Is the Prime Minister aware that this morning, 16 social service care managers in Kent received redundancy notices as a result of the fact that, one month after setting its budget, Conservative-controlled Kent county council is already £10 million overspent?

Despite the fact that the Government have totally reimbursed the cost of asylum seekers to Kent, the council continues to take an additional £3 from council tax payers. Will my right hon. Friend arrange as soon as possible to meet the Tory leaders on Kent county council to insist that that money is returned and to arrange a visit for prudence to county hall in Maidstone with the purpose of introducing some financial management to the Tories that run the council?

The Prime Minister

I do not know whether I can promise absolutely to meet the Tory leaders in Kent, but I hope that people up and down the country realise what happens when the Tories are in charge of basic public services. When we came to office we found that in the health service, they had cut the number of nurses and the number of hospital beds. The hospital building programme had stalled and there was underinvestment in the national health service. What is happening in social services in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere shows why it is important that we never let the Tories back again.

Q6. Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

This country now tops the European league table for asylum seekers. Does the Prime Minister still believe that three detention centres will be sufficient, or should there be a fourth?

The Prime Minister

I suppose that at least the right hon. Gentleman had the courage the raise that issue, which is more than can be said for the Leader of the Opposition. In relation to asylum, of course the key factor is that the measures that were introduced in April will make a difference. They include the withdrawal of cash benefits, penalties for those bringing in illegal immigrants, and, as we said a long time ago—it was prefigured back in the July 1998 White Paper—we will increase the number of detention centres. However, detention centres are for people whose applications have been turned down. We will not follow the advice of the Conservative party and lock up every single applicant. That would be hugely expensive and it would certainly be unlawful.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

One day, I should like to ask my right hon. Friend a question about something other than Rover, but today is not the day. Will he join me in congratulating John Towers and his team on proving all the critics wrong and acquiring Rover Cars for the Phoenix consortium? Does he agree that the great thing about the Phoenix bid is that it has been a real co-operative effort involving the trade unions, who have been magnificent, and the support of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry from day one? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the real tribute has to go to the workers at Longbridge and their families, who have had to put up with the most appalling uncertainty for too long? They have come through that and can now get on with what they do best—making quality cars that people want to buy.

The Prime Minister

They do make quality cars. As my hon. Friend said, it has been a co-operative effort and we pay tribute to Mr. Towers and to the trade unions. I certainly pay tribute also to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for the immense amount of work that he did. The work force have earned their colours here and they have done quite magnificently. It is as a result of their dedication and the faith in them that Mr. Towers was able to put together his bid. We wish it well and we stand ready to help in whatever way we can. For those people who will lose their jobs—who are now, thankfully, far fewer in number—we stand ready to help with money, investment and advice on getting a new job.

Q7. Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

As there is still widespread public concern about the high level of crime and the low rate of detection, following his exchange with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), does the Prime Minister agree that another lesson of Romsey is that populist, simplistic and inappropriate solutions to that issue were clearly rejected by the electorate? If he agrees, will he and his Government please reconsider their populist and ill-considered proposal to remove from many innocent people the right to choose trial by jury, which he opposed at the general election? Will he instead take measures that defend the liberties of the innocent and secure the prevention of crime and its better detection, which that does not do at all?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman about the right to trial by jury. This is a change that was recommended by a royal commission. It is supported by the Lord Chief Justice. It is unquestionably right. In Scotland, for example, such a right in those terms has never existed, and no one has ever complained that the criminal justice system in Scotland is flawed as a result.

The reform is not just right in its own terms. It will speed up the system of justice and save money that can then be put into police numbers that do precisely what the hon. Gentleman wants, which is to prevent crime. However, I am afraid that we are not able to spend more money on police and push the numbers back up again, after years of decline in police numbers, if we omit to take the measures necessary to do it. As I have said many times to Liberal Democrat Members, there is no point in carrying on asking us to spend more and more money on all sorts of different projects without any idea of how they should be paid for.