HC Deb 24 May 2000 vol 350 cc960-8
Q1. Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 May.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been working throughout the night on exhausting domestic matters, and there are no official engagements today. I am sure that the country and the House will wish to join me in expressing warm congratulations to my right hon. Friend, his wife and family on the birth of baby Leo, 61b 12oz—now that is a killer fact.

Mr. Bradshaw

I warn my right hon. Friend that thousands of pensioners in Exeter still expect the Government to do a great deal more for them. They welcome much of what has already been done and would be horrified at the prospect of the Tories taking it all away again. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House exactly how much more the Government have spent on pensioners compared with the previous Government, and why any pensioner should trust a party that condemned 3 million of them to live in poverty?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. He can be assured that we will do well by the pensioners—make no mistake about it.

Let us get the facts right. We are spending £6.5 billion extra this Parliament over and above what the Tories planned to spend on pensioners. Now they say they will scrap the £150 tax free help with winter fuel bills and free television licences for the over-75s, which is worth £102 tax free. That much is clear from their proposals, but what they are offering is totally confused. On Sunday, the shadow Chancellor said that the Tories would raise pensions only in line with prices; today, there are different stories in different newspapers. This lunchtime, the shadow Chancellor said that the statement is a limited announcement and there will be no new money. I should say it is a limited announcement! If we listen to the Leader of the Opposition and we listen to the shadow Chancellor, it becomes clear that Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley are not the only ones going through a separation.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

We warmly welcome the Deputy Prime Minister to the Dispatch Box. We understand that the Prime Minister wants to spend time with the newest member of his family, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending him and all members of his family our warmest wishes.

Has the Deputy Prime Minister actually read the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, which will be warmly welcomed by pensioners up and down the country? Does he agree with the view of his right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)? He welcomed our policy and said: Pensioners will be pleased with the news that one of our major parties is saying that we should give money in the form of pensions and not in one-off payments. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's warm remarks about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—the House will certainly accept them.

Although the right hon. Gentleman says that pensioners will welcome the Conservatives' proposals, it is clear that the shadow Chancellor does not. That is a start. As for the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), if he is happy with proposals that abolish the winter fuel allowance, free television licences and free eye tests—all considered to be gimmicks—I wholly disagree with him. That is the kind of unthinkable thought that I do not accept.

Sir George Young

The Deputy Prime Minister should know what Downing street said when his right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead was appointed: Tony has enormous regard for his abilities. All pensioners will be better-off under our proposals. If the Deputy Prime Minister cannot endorse the views of his right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, does he agree with his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle)? [Interruption.] He said: Pensioners believe the winter fuel payments and concessionary TV licences are a diversionary measure… What pensioners want is an increase, week on week, in the basic pension. That is not just a matter of economics; it is a question too of pensioners dignity. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman may be promising to do things for pensioners, but it is fair for us to point to the record of the previous Government: 18 years—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must now come to order. I have heard enough from both sides. I want to hear the questions and answers.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I want to deal with some of the killer facts, Madam Speaker.

During 18 years of Tory Administration, 1.5 million pensioners were living in poverty. The Tories scrapped the earnings link with pensions, which is one of the major complaints. They scrapped free eye tests and check-ups. They also presided over the pensions mis-selling scandal, at a cost of £3 billion. The pensioners and the country will measure the record of performance of this Government against the Tories phoney promises built on phoney money.

Sir George Young

I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister did not mean to commit his party to restoring the link with earnings.

I am slightly surprised that the right hon. Gentleman does not agree either with his right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead or with his hon. Friend the Member for Walton. When the Deputy Prime Minister appeared on "On the Record" with John Humphrys on 7 May, he expressed some sympathy with the policies that are being put forward today.

Instead of the paternalistic gimmicks of the Government, we will give all pensioners an increase in the basic pension of at least £5.50 a week. All pensioners will be better-off under our proposals. Is it not time that the Government learned the lesson of their local election defeat and started to give pensioners the dignity, choice, independence and respect that they deserve?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman can come to the Dispatch Box and still make those promises when they were rejected by the shadow Chancellor within two hours of their announcement.

On the question of the minimum income guarantee, we were the party that guaranteed that for pensioners. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the earnings link. We are providing more than £6.5 billion, which is more than would be given under the earnings guarantee, and we have already linked the minimum income guarantee to earnings. We have produced for the pensioners. It is absolutely clear that a minimum guaranteed income for 1.5 million pensioners was produced by Labour; free television licences for those aged over-75 were produced by Labour; free eye tests for the over-60s were produced by Labour; and a winter fuel allowance of £150 was produced by Labour. The Tories believe in conning pensioners; we believe in helping them.

Miss Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that Lancashire county council has placed the completion of the M6 Heysham port link road as number one on its list of transport priorities? Will he join me in reaffirming the Government's commitment to allocating funding to strategically important roads such as the M6 link road to Heysham port, so that it can be completed at the earliest possible time?

The Deputy Prime Minister

That issue is very much part of the integrated transport planning that is now going on in my hon. Friend's area. I am very sympathetic towards it. However, the matter is subject to a planning inquiry at the moment and the House will understand that I cannot comment on it.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the right hon. Gentleman pass on the congratulations of the Liberal Democrats on the delightful arrival in the Blair family? It has the added benefit of bringing the right hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box on an occasion that is unlikely to be repeated this side of the general election. Will he take this opportunity to tell us why the Government support the giving of another £29 million to the company running the millennium dome, which has already received massive loans that it is unlikely to repay?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Nine months is a long time in politics and the right hon. Gentleman should not assume that I will not be back at the Dispatch Box—not that I am bidding for that pleasurable duty, I am bound to say. I am sure that the House will understand that.

An awful lot of the gripes about the dome are not properly targeted in the right direction. The facility has been attractive to many people and something like 6 million to 7 million people will visit it, which is almost as many as voted for the Tory party at the general election.

We produced a facility for a millennium celebration that will be seen to be successful. It was provided not for a one day party, but as a facility that all can enjoy for 12 months. On the financial requirements, it is true that the request for further money was granted, but it is hoped that that will be paid back over a period of time.

Mr. Beith

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that many pensioners will be impressed by the way in which money is being lavished on the project? Has he not now recognised that pensioners were insulted by the 75p pension increase, and that they would be equally insulted by anybody offering money with one hand and taking it away with the other, which is what the Conservatives' proposals amount to? Does he realise that unless pensioners are given significant real rises this side of a general election, the whole Government will be spending more time with their families?

The Deputy Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman reads the Liberal Democrats' manifesto, he will know that all his party promised was pensions related to prices. That is precisely to what he referred. We have done that and more in giving pensioners the winter fuel allowance and the other measures to which I referred. We have given up to £6.5 billion more in pensions, so it is a bit much for him to berate us for simply giving what he calls the 78p on the pension—[HON. MEMBERS: "75p."] We gave a lot more; all he promised was 75p.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending condolences to the family of Katie Kazmi, one of my constituents who was recently brutally murdered in a frenzied knife attack by a former Broadmoor psychiatric patient? Yesterday, it came to light that Mr. Williams, the assailant, was released into the community in 1995 and was supposed to be subject to regular supervision and random drug testing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be an urgent inquiry to examine the failure of systems designed to protect the public from the violent behaviour of such individuals?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sure that the House would want me to express on its behalf our condolences to those affected by the serious matter raised by my hon. Friend. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is to conduct an inquiry into the matter and is to have a meeting with my hon. Friend to discuss those facts.

Q2. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

What is the Deputy Prime Minister's view on individual learning accounts?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I must say that I was somewhat sceptical of individual learning accounts when they were announced. However, I have met several people in industry who have developed those accounts, which are welcomed by the workers because they get the kind of education and training that they want. Birds Eye, a company in my area, wants more resources for the accounts as they do the job that the Tories failed to do, which is to train our work force.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Will my right hon. Friend pass on warmest wishes from all my constituents to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his wife on the birth of their latest child? Will he tell them that our only regret is that, unlike his mother, Leo has not enjoyed the privilege of being born in Fairfield hospital in my constituency? Will he remind them of our long-standing invitation to the Prime Minister's wife to visit Fairfield hospital and open the new maternity unit that is being built as a result of the hospital's multi-million pound redevelopment, and for which we waited 18 years?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I shall certainly pass on the good wishes mentioned by my hon. Friend.

There are an awful lot of hospital openings, and nearly 30 new hospitals are on the stocks, which is the highest recorded level of new hospital building in this country.

Q3. Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Given that the Government have effectively sponsored a genetically modified crop trial in Wales against the word of an Environment Minister, without consulting a Welsh Agriculture Minister and against the express wish of the Welsh Assembly, will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the Government chose a field in Flintshire only because they thought it was in England? If that is the case, which will he shift—the crops or the border?

The Deputy Prime Minister

As I have spent a great deal of time in Flintshire—and was born in Prestatyn—I certainly would not make that mistake. We acted as quickly as possible on the GM seed mix-up. We had to take proper advice and then my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made a statement to the House. That should reassure the House and put the statement in its setting. The experts have said that these crops pose no risk to human health or the environment.

Q4. Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

Could I share with my right hon. Friend some satisfaction that waiting lists in the health service have dropped? Much has been done, but there is still much to do. I remind my right hon. Friend that in my constituency during the last winter period we experienced considerable problems in the health service. I wonder whether he will make a small wager with me—if I predict that there will be another winter this year, what will he predict for the health service?

The Deputy Prime Minister

A continuing improvement, as there has been under Labour during its three years in office. We said that we would reduce waiting lists and we have done so by more than 100,000, and we are only three years into the life of this Government. We have increased the number of nurses, which was reduced under the previous Administration. The £150 million for critical care beds, which will provide more than 250 of them, will certainly help us with the difficult periods that are associated with winter. People can trust a Labour Government. We created the NHS and we have put more resources into it than any other Government. It is our creation, we are proud of it and we will build on it.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Can I take the Deputy Prime Minister back to the dome? Is he aware that 50 of his hon. Friends have signed an early-day motion expressing "deep concern and alarm" that the decision to give an extra £29 million to the millennium dome will deprive the New Opportunities Fund of moneys that would otherwise go to education, health and the environment? Does he share those concerns?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sure that the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) did not sign the motion. The dome idea was established by the previous Administration, endorsed by this Administration and, as I understand it, by the Cabinet of the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member. We have to be clear that money from the Millennium Commission does not compete with that for hospitals and schools. It is not able to give resources to hospitals and schools. So far, none of the resources provided has denied funds to either hospitals or schools. That is the challenge for us; we think that we have achieved it in the dome.

Sir George Young

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall the Labour Minister who said that the dome would be the first big test of competence for the Labour Government? He should recognise that because it was him. He also said: If we can't make this work, we're not much of a Government. As he is in charge for the next two weeks, will he overrule the decision of the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary to give £29 million more public money to the dome?

The Deputy Prime Minister

No, I will not. On the right hon. Gentleman's point about my comments on whether the dome would be a success and that that should be a measure of the Government's competence, I happen to believe that it has been a success. It is the second most attractive facility to visitors. Almost 6 million people have visited the facility. That is a huge amount of people. More than 80 per cent. of those asked whether they had enjoyed the facility said that they had, and many of them intend to return to it. For a facility that celebrated the millennium, it has been successful in attracting visitors. I might say that it enjoys—apparently—the full support of the Leader of the Opposition who, on the first day of this year, made it clear that we should all get behind it and support it.

Sir George Young

If the dome has been such a success, why are so many people being sacked? The contents of the dome stand as a monument to the vanity and emptiness of new Labour. First, the Government blamed the chief executive, and sacked her. Then, they blamed the chairman, and sacked him. Is it not time that someone in this Government had the courage to stand up, take responsibility and resign?

The Deputy Prime Minister

We inherited a business plan that had been prepared by the previous Administration—we endorsed it. That plan estimated that 12 million people would visit the facility. The latest estimate is between 6 million and 7 million people, which shows that such a facility is highly successful in attracting people. In those circumstances, hon. Members on both sides of the House should recognise the large measure of agreement in setting up the project. Seven million people is nearly as many as the number who voted for the Tory party at the election, something which must be taken into account. If the right hon. Gentleman feels that the dome is a monument to what he calls new Labour, what sort of monument to the previous Administration is rail privatisation, which he introduced?

Q5. Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

In line with the wishes of Labour's national policy forum, do the Government have proposals to increase the say of people in the English regions over their regional affairs? May I remind my right hon. Friend that more than 20 years ago, the then Labour Government rightly assessed the spending needs of people of Scotland and Wales, which has been protected ever since, rightly, by the Barnett formula? When will the Government do the same for the English regions, particularly the less-well-off ones such as the north-east?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend says because we have both been advocates of decentralisation in central and regional government. There is a point of difference between the two sides of the House on the matter, but I firmly believe in regional government. It is our manifesto position and we are presently looking at what we will put in our next manifesto. [Interruption.] Let us be clear: I will argue for regional government. That is how parties make their decisions. There are different views, there are democratic debates and we come to decisions. With the Labour party and a Labour Government, they are delivered. We have delivered in the House not only by having a Committee to deal with regional affairs, but by bringing in regional development agencies, one of which played its part in the west midlands recently by creating 35,000 jobs and increasing investment—but the Opposition say they will abolish those agencies. I disagree with them and we shall put it to the electorate. I have no doubt that we will have development agencies, further steps towards decentralisation and a proper allocation of resources between the areas.

Q6. Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister reconsider his decision to close the Oban coastguard station in the light of recent evidence to the Transport Sub-Committee that it will cost more to close down than to keep open? Will he look again at the overwhelming evidence and expert advice that he has received on the importance of the station to that area and also the dangerous maritime area that it covers, rather than listening to one man—Lord Donaldson? He should consider the fact that we are deeply disturbed that it will be closed.

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Lady will be aware of many of the decisions that have been taken in the past couple of years. I inherited a proposal for the closure of a certain number of coastguard stations. I had an independent assessment made by Lord Donaldson and it was looked at by the Select Committee as well. Lord Donaldson reached a compromise on the matter and proposed that the station and another one or two should be closed. That will not affect the level of safety. It was an independent assessment by a judge who has considerable experience in maritime matters, and I accepted his conclusion.

Q7. Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister convey to the Prime Minister and Mrs. Blair the sincere congratulations of my party on the birth of their son? I hope that his labours in other directions in Northern Ireland bear equal fruit this weekend.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that the purpose of the Good Friday agreement and the Patten commission was to create a police force in Northern Ireland that would be acceptable to both communities? Is he aware that the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill, which is now before the House, fails miserably to achieve that by commission and omission and that all those endeavours, which are the kernel of peace in Northern Ireland, could be frustrated by the terms of the Bill? Will he use his best endeavours to rescue that Bill so that it will receive support right across the community, because nationalists cannot support it as it stands?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I really understand what my hon. Friend is saying on that matter. There is a great deal of concern in the House about those issues, and that was reflected in the debate on the police. There will be a Second Reading as soon as we come back after the recess and many of those matters will be discussed and thrashed out in the debate, as they were a few days ago. His point about everyone having to come to an agreement to get understanding is absolutely important. I cannot prejudge the outcome of the Ulster Unionist council meeting on Saturday, but we call on its members to consider whether they can obtain a better offer than this. They have to give serious consideration to that. Everyone on both sides of the House would like to see agreement and continuing efforts towards peace in Northern Ireland.

Q8. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Given the debacle of the genetically modified oilseed crops, can the Deputy Prime Minister assure the House that the Government know of no other cases of similar contamination of other crop varieties—for example, maize?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sorry; I must apologise to the House. I missed the hon. Gentleman's question because there was some talking.

Madam Speaker

Will the hon. Gentleman repeat the question? If Members would be quiet, we would hear the questions. Raise your voice, Mr. Syms, too.

Mr. Syms

Given the debacle involving genetically modified oilseed crops, can the Deputy Prime Minister assure the House that the Government know of no cases of similar contamination of other crop varieties—for example, maize?

The Deputy Prime Minister

We have no evidence and no information on that, but the hon. Gentleman can be assured that if we receive information we shall certainly tell the House about it.