HC Deb 17 May 2000 vol 350 cc323-32
Q1. Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 17 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 have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Winnick

Is it not good news that the murderous leader of the rebels in Sierra Leone has been captured and taken to a safe location? Will he be tried for crimes against humanity, as I hope he will? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be unfortunate if we were ever to apologise when British service personnel are acting in defence of international law and the authority of the United Nations? Perhaps a few isolationists on the Tory Benches will learn that lesson.

The Prime Minister

We can be very, very proud of our armed forces and what they have done in Sierra Leone. I believe that they should have been able to perform their task without some of the carping and quibbling from Conservative Members because the whole world is witnessing and applauding their central role in trying to deal with the so-called rebel army, which, in truth, is a criminal gang that has visited the most appalling atrocities on innocent civilians in Sierra Leone. I hope that the whole House is behind our armed forces in their efforts.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The chairman of the Police Federation has said that the reductions in police numbers in the past 18 months have left some communities with no policing at all and produced a sense of disorder and anarchy in some inner-city areas. Why does the Prime Minister think he said that?

The Prime Minister

I do not believe that policing is in crisis; I do not agree with that. I accept that the numbers, which went down by 2,000 in the last years of the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member, continued to go down in the first three years of this Government. By the end of this year, however, those numbers will be rising again as a result of the additional funds that we have put in—money that he is committed to take away from the police.

Mr. Hague

So the Prime Minister does not understand why the Police Federation says that. He is meant to be able to cope with these questions now. His office sent a memo around the civil service, a report on which says: Rattled Tony Blair has caused fury in Whitehall by issuing new orders to civil servants to stop William Hague making a fool of him in the Commons. The memo from his private secretary says that the "lines to take" prepared for the Prime Minister are often unusable and the facts are wrong. Well, we have been telling him that for years and nothing has changed. Why is it still the same today?

The Police Federation has said that because police numbers are down by 2,300, thousands of serious offenders have been released early and crime is rising for the first time in six years. If the right hon. Gentleman has not understood that problem, will he listen to the former Minister for Welfare Reform who said that welfare fraud is so serious no Minister tells the public its true scale and the Government have abandoned his attempts to combat it? Why does he think that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said that?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps I can quote what the right hon. Gentleman's own chief constable has said on crime. The chief constable of North Yorkshire said: Our crime figures put into context some of the wild claims that have been made about the supposed wave of lawlessness sweeping rural England. Across North Yorkshire's largely rural two million acres we are driving crime down year after year. I have the latest crime figures for the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, and they show a fall of 3.2 per cent.

On welfare, welfare bills for economic and social failure, which rose under the Tories by 4 per cent. in real terms every year, have fallen under this Government.

Mr. Hague

The reason that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said what he did is that welfare fraud is now up to £7 billion. The Prime Minister ought to know that because, after all his broken promises, fraud should be his special subject; he should know about these things. The number of successful prosecutions for housing benefit has been halved, and the Green Paper on benefit fraud has been shelved, but if he does not understand that problem, does he have an answer to the accountants Ernst and Young? They said last week that the burden of direct personal taxation in the current financial year is at the highest level for 20 years. Why does he think that they said that?

The Prime Minister

The actual report of Ernst and Young made it clear that the tax burden next year and the year after is falling. [Interruption.] Yes, but it is more than that. The right hon. Gentleman's shadow Chancellor was interviewed a few days ago on how he could pay for both his tax policy and his commitments on spending. He said that the Conservatives can do it because now fortunately the national finances are good enough.

Mr. Hague

What the Prime Minister needs to learn about is the family finances of the families of this country. The reason, which he does not know, why Ernst and Young said what it did is that the typical working family is paying £670 more in tax under his Government per year and the overall tax burden has gone up by 8p on the basic rate, or the equivalent of—and he said no tax increases at all.

If the Prime Minister does not understand the tax figures, did he understand the comments of the Confederation of British Industry yesterday? It said that the Government's policies all add up to the biggest and most damaging overhaul of…regulation for 20 years. Why does he think that the CBI said that?

The Prime Minister

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman why the CBI said that because I have figures here for the CBI and the burden of regulation. The main part of it is the minimum wage. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was in favour of the minimum wage now. The second part of it is paid holidays under the working time directive. Is he against that? The third part of itߞI have an interest in this—is parental leave. Is he against that?

Mr. Hague

Once again, wherever they are looking for the facts, they are not coming up with many because £10 billion of extra regulation is the cost without the minimum wage, according to the British Chambers of Commerce. The Prime Minister clearly does not know what is happening in the real world, so does he know what is happening in the Government? Why did the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland yesterday blow open the Prime Minister's real intentions on the euro? Was he speaking for himself, or for the Government?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept even the premise of the right hon. Gentleman's question. What the Secretary of State said, perfectly rightly, was that, of course, if one is outside a fixed currency area, then one's exchange rate will vary against the currencies inside it. I would have thought that even the right hon. Gentleman could have got that one.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the memorandum from the civil service a bit earlier and all these killer facts. Fortunately, this week, it has given me some things that I would like to tell the House. The system has got better. This is what it says: crime doubled under the Tories—killer fact; unemployment trebled under the Tories—killer fact; interest rates reached 15 per cent. under the Tories—killer fact; child poverty tripled under the Tories—killer fact; there were 40,000 fewer beds in the health service under the Tories—killer fact. Killer judgment—we should not have the Tories back again.

Mr. Hague

The truth is that the Prime Minister is in office now and responsible for these matters—that is the killer fact. So now we know from him that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland speaks for the Government on the euro. That will be big news to a lot of people, including the Chancellor. They talk about the euro, but they are out of touch on crime, they are out of touch on tax, and they are out of touch on welfare fraud. We now have a Prime Minister who hears but does not listen, who speaks but says nothing, and who pretends to lead but is going nowhere.

The Prime Minister

I am afraid I must tell the right hon. Gentleman this. He talked about our record in government, but the killer facts do not stop with his record. Killer fact—inflation is now at its lowest level for 25 years; killer fact—there are 920,000 more jobs under this Government; killer fact—1.2 million children have been lifted out of poverty.

Killer judgment? How about this, from his very, very own—[Interruption.] Yes, this is from that mine of quotations, the shadow Chancellor: Well, governments are in a strong position when the economy is doing well, there's absolutely no denying that and I'm not going to go around saying that the economy is not doing well. I gave the killer facts and he gave the killer judgment—and so will the British people at the next election.

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Like many other Members, from time to time I have to explain to my constituents why their close relatives have not been allowed into this country to attend weddings and funerals. Does my right hon. Friend agree that my task will be made more difficult if Mike Tyson, who has been convicted of a serious criminal offence, is allowed into the country for purely commercial gain?

The Prime Minister

I am tempted to say that that is a decision for the Home Secretary—and I should be glad about that. Let me simply say, however, that I am afraid I agree with the Home Secretary's previous decision. He will obviously have to make his decision over the next few weeks, and I am sure that he will do so.

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

When the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said last night that as long as we remained outside the euro we could not protect our industry against an overvalued pound, was he on-message or off-message?

The Prime Minister

Of course, as I just pointed out to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), if we are outside a fixed currency area our exchange rate will vary, but whether we should join a single currency depends on the meeting of economic conditions that we have set out time and again. That is the sensible position.

Lest anyone should think that the issue of currency stability is new, let me quote from what the Chancellor said in his initial statement to the House in October 1997. He said: The potential benefits for Britain of a successful single currency are obvious in terms of trade, transparency of costs and currency stability.—[Official Report, 27 October 1997; Vol. 299, c. 583.] He went on to say, however: The economic conditions, which are really about sustainable convergence, have to be met. That is the position, and it remains the position.

Mr. Kennedy

As the Prime Minister has had some time to think about the position since the Chancellor's statement, can he give the benefit of his analysis, as of today? When does he expect us to meet the Chancellor's economic criteria, and does he hope that we will meet the Government's criteria? Is it not about time that he began to give a real national lead?

The Prime Minister

The timetable is as I have set it out many times, and that was repeated by the Chancellor in his statement.

There are really three positions on the single currency. One is to rule it out as a matter of principle. The second is to say that we will join immediately. The third is to say that whether we join depends on the economic conditions' being met. But the timing depends on the economic conditions. Unless the right hon. Gentleman believes that we should join now—

Mr. Kennedy

indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

In that case, the right hon. Gentleman believes the same as me—that it depends on the meeting of those economic conditions. The sensible position on the single currency is to say that the test is jobs, industry and British investment. The final say is with the people in a referendum, and what would be most damaging would be to rule it out for five years, 10 years or whatever arbitrary period the Conservatives have in mind. The best thing is to keep the option open and to exercise it according to the economic conditions. If that is not the right hon. Gentleman's position, he should say so.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

On the question of Europe, could my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he can envisage any realistic circumstances in the foreseeable future in which, having applied all the necessary tests, he might conclude that it was not in the British national interest to join the single European currency?

The Prime Minister

As I said a moment or two ago, we have already set out the timetable for an assessment of that, as we have said, early in the next Parliament. However, it is the economic conditions that count. [Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members disagree with that, but I believe that in the end the test for the British people—they will have the final say in a referendum—will be what is good for British jobs, British prosperity and British industry. The sensible thing is not to set ourselves an arbitrary time limit, but to say that we should judge it according to the economic conditions. That is precisely what we have done.

Q2. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Could the Prime Minister explain why, last week, within hours of giving his personal pledge to this Chamber that Labour Members of the Greater London Assembly would abide by their manifesto commitment not to introduce congestion charges, the Labour Deputy Mayor said that they were possible—that it was just a matter of technicalities? Did someone forget to tell the Prime Minister, or is his word just worthless?

The Prime Minister

No, the Labour Members of the GLA, as far as I am aware, have made it clear that they do not support congestion charging.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

If Stella Rimington is to publish her memoirs, can we be sure that they are not selective? Will there be a chapter about 1986, when she acted as an agent provocateur for David Hart and Margaret Thatcher against the National Union of Mineworkers?

The Prime Minister

First, if the memoirs are not selective, they will be the first ones that I have ever come across that are not. Secondly, anyone who has occupied the type of position that Dame Stella Rimington occupied has to go through a procedure to publish memoirs, and that is the procedure that she is going through now. That is something that will take its course in the normal way. I really cannot comment on what happened in 1986—when, as my hon. Friend probably recalls, we were not in office.

Q3. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Whether or not a commercial broadcaster will cover the Queen Mother's 100th birthday celebrations, does the Prime Minister share my disgust at the BBC's arrogant refusal to provide live coverage of them on either of its two terrestrial channels? If he does agree, what will he do to persuade the BBC to take an alternative course of action, and how will he spell out to it the meaning of public service broadcasting?

The Prime Minister

I hope that, later, a way through on the matter will be found. I think that everyone would like to see a televised broadcast of the Queen Mother's celebration, because everyone wishes her well. It will be a fantastic event for the whole nation. I therefore very much hope that the matter can be resolved.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as we have had traffic congestion for decades in the Aire valley, in my constituency, it is extremely welcome news that the Government have accelerated construction of the £60 million Bingley relief road? However, would he take it from me that my constituents are very worried indeed about what would happen to that scheme—about whether it would be scrapped—if the Conservatives' spending cuts guarantee were ever implemented?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions tells me that my hon. Friend was extremely active in ensuring that that decision was taken. I therefore congratulate him on the decision, which I am sure is good news for his constituents. Of course, the point that he makes about Tory spending is right. At some point before the next general election, Conservative Members will have to explain how they can go around the country saying that they will chop everyone's taxes at the same time as increasing spending in virtually every single policy area. Their sums do not add up. At some point, they will have to explain them.

Q4. Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Does the Prime Minister understand that the people of north-east Scotland were devastated by yesterday's announcement that RAF Buchan is to be downgraded, with the loss of 350 jobs and almost £10 million a year to the local economy? Does he also appreciate the resentment caused by the fact that, when the number of control reporting centres in the air surveillance system is being reduced from three to two, the two that are being retained are in England, whereas the centre that has been closed is the advanced one, in Scotland? What assurances can he give to hard-pressed Aberdeenshire council on how it will be able to cope with this latest blow to the local economy, which is already coping with cuts and redundancies?

The Prime Minister

Of course we will do what we can to help Aberdeenshire council, but the changes that are taking place are part of an overall review of how we make best use of the resources that we have. In those changes, there will be things that people find unpopular or unpalatable, but they are necessary to put the service on a sound footing for the future. We will work with those who are displaced to make sure that they are provided for elsewhere.

Q5. Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one month before the last election, the then Tory Government effectively closed my local hospital—Queen Mary's, Roehampton? Is he further aware that in the past month, the new Queen Mary's hospital has been given the go-ahead for building to start next year? Does he agree that that shows the difference between a Tory Government who closed hospitals and a Labour Government who open hospitals?

The Prime Minister

That is an important announcement for my hon. Friend's constituency. Although many people want to point to the bad things and the difficulties that the health service has, it is worth pointing out the good news, too. There are many cases throughout the country of change happening on the ground, allowing us to build new hospitals and recruit more nurses. We have seen from the figures today that, although there is a long way to go, in-patient and out-patient lists are coming down. Yes, we have a great deal more to do, but real change is happening and I wish that among some of the coverage of the bad cases and the problems we got some coverage of some of the good news that is happening as well.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

May I refer the Prime Minister to the recent statement by the IRA? In particular, I refer to the passage that says that it will initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put arms beyond use. What does "beyond use" mean? Does the Prime Minister agree that a system under which dumps are occasionally inspected would not be a satisfactory outcome? We want proper decommissioning within the terms of the legislation that is on the statute book for it.

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. The dumps are an important confidence-building measure, but they are not a substitute for the full action that needs to be taken under the legislation. The legislation refers to arms being permanently unusable. It is very important that people understand that the confidence-building measure is a first step, but no more than that. A re-engagement with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning also has to be undertaken. We then need to make progress until the weapons are completely, verifiably beyond use.

Q6. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Will my right hon. Friend accept through me the sincere thanks and appreciation of the miners and the mining communities for the initiative and help that he and his Government have given to the mining industry, thereby demonstrating confidence in and loyalty to those communities? Will he consider including clean coal technology along with energy renewables, thereby encouraging investment in the construction of clean coal power stations, which in turn would ensure a long-term future for the miners?

The Prime Minister

It is important to support clean coal technology. Particularly when there is still tremendous change in the mining industry, it is important that we do what we can to help. That is why the Government provided additional help for the coal industry a few weeks ago. I am pleased to see that unemployment in my hon. Friend's constituency has fallen by more than 20 per cent. in the past year. That is important. Employment is also up in his constituency. That shows that even in parts of the country undergoing economic change, there are other jobs there. We are trying to help people through the process of change and we are on their side. We will do what we can to give the coal industry a secure and environmentally beneficial future.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the Prime Minister accept that the Conservatives take tremendous pride in the success of British arms in Sierra Leone? It is quite wrong for him to suggest that it should be otherwise. Will he also explain to the House why, in view of his much-vaunted and much-hyped plan for European defence co-operation, not one of our European allies and friends has come to help us in what is a very difficult task?

The Prime Minister

I absolve the hon. Gentleman entirely from the carping and quibbling that I talked about earlier, although I do not absolve those on the Conservative Front Bench and other Conservative Members. The hon. Gentleman asked about European forces. A UN force is primarily expected to deal with the situation in Sierra Leone and it is natural that forces should have been drawn from India, Nigeria and Jordan. We have played a supporting role. Obviously, we have an interest in Sierra Leone, as the former colonial power, and our troops have made a magnificent contribution. However, we should not necessarily expect that to be right for the European force.

Q7. Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

Parish councils in my constituency have raised with me the issue of rural policing. Police numbers in Warwickshire fell under the previous Government, but they will now rise by 52 over the next two years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that increased police numbers are central to addressing rural concerns, as opposed to the knee-jerk suggestions that we have heard from the crime doublers opposite?

Hon. Members

Bye bye!

The Prime Minister

The Conservatives are all shouting, "Bye bye" to my hon. Friend, but I think they have forgotten Romsey. Their memories are very short. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Not merely has burglary declined by 10 per cent. in his area, but there are 52 new recruits to the police service. It is worth pointing out that in 24 of the 43 forces crime is falling. We shall ensure that because of the extra recruits that will be coming on throughout this year, by the end of the year police numbers will rise again. If we carry on running a sound and strong economy, as the shadow Chancellor would have it, we shall be able to get the money in for the future that will allow those numbers to rise even further over time.

Q8. Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

We have not forgotten Romsey.

Eight months after the Prime Minister promised access to dentistry for all, not one dentist in my constituency is taking new national health service patients. Earlier today, Government Whips phoned my office to find out what my question was about, so I know that the Prime Minister's response will be well prepared. However, I hope that he does not just tell my constituents that they can phone and go. They are fed up with having to travel 20 miles even for emergency treatment. When will the Government take effective action to end the crisis in dentistry?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Lady is right to say that I did get some briefing on her question. [HON. MEMBERS: "Are we going to hear the answer?"] I will tell the hon. Lady what it says here anyway. The numbers registered with dentists in Somerset are increasing—they are 5,000 up on last year. However, I accept that NHS dentistry went into steep decline under the previous Government. We are now acting at every single point on the health service, but it will take time. We have set the date for the end of next year to make sure that everyone who wants access to NHS dentistry can have it. The numbers are already up. Up to 800,000 more people have had the opportunity to register with a dentist. Dentist figures in England are up to 18,000, but there is still a long way to go. I recognise that in the hon. Lady's constituency and elsewhere there may be people who still have to be dealt with under the programme, but given time we will do it.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that anyone who invites a convicted rapist and attacker of old people in a road rage incident to star in a boxing match is hardly acting consistently with the Government's message against crime and violence and, in particular, violence against women?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I cannot offer my hon. Friend anything other than what I said in response to the same question a few minutes ago.

Q9. Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

I make no apology for returning to the issue of a gratuity for former far east prisoners of war. The Ministry of Defence is said to be against it on the grounds that it would set a precedent. Does the Prime Minister share my view that it is a matter not of precedent but of principle, that we owe these men a debt of honour and that it is a debt that we should pay?

The Prime Minister

As I think I said to the hon. Gentleman when he raised the matter a couple of weeks ago, it is under consideration. A decision will be announced as soon as possible. It would not be wise for me to say anything more until it is announced.

Q10. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that at the 1995 United Nations social summit the previous Conservative Government made a promise to put in place an anti-poverty strategy for the United Kingdom? Is he further aware that shortly afterwards the then Secretary of State for Social Security said that such a plan was unnecessary? Given the appalling scale of poverty that the previous Government left behind, will my right hon. Friend ensure that his Government are not so complacent, and that a full report is given to the social summit when it reconvenes in Geneva next month?

The Prime Minister

We can be very proud of our record on child poverty. As I said earlier, during this Parliament 1.2 million children will be lifted out of poverty. There has been a 26 per cent. increase in child benefit in real terms, and the working families tax credit is benefiting—by more than £20 a week in many cases—some one and a quarter million families.

People should know that this is a key dividing line between us and the Conservative party. The Opposition are committed to scrapping every bit of the changes that we have introduced over the past few years. They are against the rise in child benefit, they are committed to scrapping the working families tax credit, and they are committed to scrapping the new deal. Those are three of the best reasons that I can think of for never voting Tory again.