HC Deb 01 November 2000 vol 355 cc701-10
Ql. [133667] Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 1 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further such meetings later today.

I should like to take this opportunity to express my appreciation to the local authorities and the emergency services for their unstinting efforts and all their work in helping and supporting people affected by the recent storms. I am sure that the House will also join me in offering sympathy to all those people in the areas affected.

Mr. Illsley

Given the absolute shambles into which our national railways have descended as a consequence of the disastrous Tory privatisation and the subsequent failure of Railtrack and the train operating companies to invest in even the most basic safety measures, does my right hon. Friend think that it is now time to look again at the structure of our national railways, including the number of train operating companies—

The Prime Minister


Mr. Illsley

I can understand my right hon. Friend's enthusiasm for me to sit down, but does he think that it is time to look again at our national railway industry, particularly at reducing the number of train operating companies and perhaps at returning Railtrack to public ownership?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps I got up at the right point; I do not know.

Of course there are structural questions about the railways. That is one reason why the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority gives us the opportunity to deal with the problems of fragmentation in respect of privatisation. The other thing that is absolutely vital is extra investment in the railways. Through the transport plan, we have the opportunity over the next 10 years for—literally—the largest ever infrastructure investment in our railways that the country has ever seen. It is vital—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will not tolerate the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) interrupting all the time.

The Prime Minister

It is vital that we get this extra investment in the railways, and one reason why the Conservative plans to cut that investment and impose £16 billion worth of cuts on our public services would be so disastrous.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

On behalf of the Opposition, may I associate myself with the Prime Minister's opening remarks and the tribute that he has paid to local authorities and emergency services that have coped in extreme circumstances, and with the condolences that he has sent to the families of people who were tragically killed?

On another cross-party matter, as we approach Remembrance day and the thoughts of the nation turn once again to those men and women who gave their lives or suffered terrible injuries in defence of our freedom, would not it be an appropriate time to do the following two things? First, in the light of the Canadian judgment two years ago, should not Members on both sides of the House agree to overturn the policies of successive Governments—Labour and Conservative—and compensate the remaining survivors of far east prisoner of war camps?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government will support our call today for a permanent memorial in London and in Northern Ireland as a fitting tribute to those members of the armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary who have died defending the whole of the United Kingdom from terrorism over the past 30 years?

The Prime Minister

We are indeed sympathetic to the latter point, which is why it was announced earlier that we are looking at the prospect of putting up a memorial to the officers and soldiers who have died. Their bravery was absolutely outstanding throughout the entirety of the troubles.

As for far east prisoners of war, I cannot add anything to what I said last week, because they are one of the matters with which the pre-Budget report deals. However, it is the case that successive Governments have failed to make good our obligation to those people; the Conservative Government failed to do so during their 18 years in office. I hope that we shall be able to do something for them and that, when we do so, it will be taken as a recognition of the enormous debt of gratitude owed by the whole country.

Mr. Hague

I thank the Prime Minister for his reply about the memorial and we look forward to next week's announcement in the hope that it will be treated in that spirit and not in a party political spirit.

Turning to more controversial matters, since the Government's pre-Budget statement is always characterised by endless spin, cynical distortion and gross omissions, will the right hon. Gentleman admit today what the total tax burden on the country was when he took office and what it is today?

The Prime Minister

As I have said many times before, the tax burden this year is falling. It is correct to say that we tightened fiscal policy in our first two years in government, but I am pleased to be able to say that that policy was relaxed and the tax burden increased by more when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Cabinet, during the last two years of Conservative Government.

Mr. Hague

Why can the Prime Minister not give a straight answer to a straight question? Why can he not give the figures? There must be something in the folder through which he is leafing, and we are happy to wait for him to find the answer. In fact, the total tax burden was 35 per cent. when he took office and it is 37 per cent. today. The typical hard-working family in Britain faces £670 a year in extra tax. Is he aware that figures from the House of Commons Library, which are to be published this afternoon, show that the tax burden on businesses and families is now higher, under his Government, than at any time in the history of Britain?

The Prime Minister

That is nonsense, and I can deal with both the right hon. Gentleman's points. In fact, the figure was 35.3 per cent. when we entered office. It is correct to say that the tax burden went up in our first two years in government; it is coming down this year. However, the increase is less than occurred in the last two years of Conservative Government, when the figures, from memory, were 33.3 per cent. and 35.3 per cent. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will explain how he came to be a member of a Cabinet that raised the tax burden in that way.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's £670—the figure Conservatives keep mentioning—we have done a little research into it. Of that sum, £400 is assumed to be the result of the changes in advance corporation tax that were made a few years ago, whereas, in fact, as a result of pension funds rising 70 per cent. because of rises in the stock market since the election, those sums are entirely illusory. The next £200 is based on the assumption that every family in the country smokes at least 20 to 30 cigarettes a day. That is why the House of Commons research on which the Conservatives base their claim stated, in terms, that the figures were not for a typical family.

Mr. Hague

Those are the increased taxes. Now we know why so many people think that the right hon. Gentleman is an out-of-touch and arrogant Prime Minister—those are the taxes that people pay on their petrol, pension, marriage and mortgage which he and the Chancellor have levied. If he does not know that they are now the highest in history, he is in for a shock, because that is what the figures published today by the House of Commons Library will clearly demonstrate. The people hit hardest by his stealth taxes are the poorest in the country. Let him look in his folder for some Government figures from the Office for National Statistics and tell us what proportion of the income of the poorest households was paid in tax when he took office, and what proportion is paid today.

The Prime Minister

First, on mortgages, as a result of getting rid of Tory boom-and-bust economics—[Interruption.] let me give the right hon. Gentleman the facts. Under the previous Conservative Government, interest rates averaged 10 per cent; under this Government, they have averaged 6 per cent. That is a saving of £1,000 a year for the average family.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to fuel tax, and we have done a little research on that. In the previous Parliament, fuel tax was raised by more during the period of office of the Government of whom he was a member than it has been raised in this Parliament.

As for the tax burden on ordinary families, the working families tax credit is the best thing that has happened to lower income families for years. However, the right hon. Gentleman is committed to getting rid of it. The £16 billion worth of spending cuts—that is the Tory commitment, which he can deny if he dare—would hit schools, hospitals, police and transport. Labour is the party that is standing up for hard-working families. The right hon. Gentleman is the leader of a party that would return them to boom and bust.

Mr. Hague

That would be a fine answer if this were Prime Minister's waffle time, but it is Prime Minister's Question Time. The figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in 1997 the poorest fifth of households paid 37p of every pound of income in tax, and now pay 40p to the Chancellor, which is another record. These people thought that the Government would help them, and they have been utterly betrayed. One reason for that is that petrol tax increases have hit the poorest people. What was the tax—will the Prime Minister tell us properly and factually this time—on a litre of petrol when he took office, and what is it today?

The Prime Minister

I have already said that the tax on a litre of petrol increased in the previous Parliament by more than it has in this Parliament. As the right hon. Gentleman is saying that he would cut the duty on fuel, how come that in between the Budget and the protests he never gave that commitment? I shall quote from his interview on GMTV on 13 September, when he said: We wouldn't cut taxes today because there's been a protest yesterday. You can't run the country like that. Absolutely right, we cannot.

Whatever we can do on fuel, it cannot be at the expense of people's mortgages increasing or being unable to do something for pensioners, or being unable to meet the commitment to invest in public services, which is vital.

The right hon. Gentleman's policies—the £16 billion worth of cuts and boom-and-bust economics—would return us to the position of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Conservatives destroyed the homes of millions of working families, when they put them out of work, when they sent their mortgages through the roof and when they increased their taxes. The country never wants to go back to those days.

Mr. Hague

We have not had a single straight or factual answer to a question. The tax on a litre of fuel has been increased by the Prime Minister from 46p to 61p, the fastest rise in three years in the history of the country. Is it not clear that the right hon. Gentleman has given us the fastest rise in petrol prices, the biggest tax rise for the least well-off and the highest tax burden in the history of the country? He is the Prime Minister of the heaviest taxes, the largest increases, the deepest distortions and the shallowest answers ever in the history of Britain.

The Prime Minister

As I have said—the right hon. Gentleman has not disputed this—fuel duties rose more in the previous Parliament than they have during this Parliament. However, there is another point. It is important for families to have economic stability after the years of boom and bust, and we are delivering that for them. It is important also that we have more people in work, and there are 1 million more in work today than there were a few years ago. Further, it is important that we get investment in our schools, hospitals and transport system, and we are getting that.

In addition, it is important that we do something for the poorest people in our country. That is why the new deal, the working families tax credit, the rises in child benefit and the extra help for child care are important. On each of these things, there is the clearest possible choice between the political parties. There is stability under Labour and the highest levels ever of employment, or a return to boom and bust under the right hon. Gentleman, and 3 million unemployed. The choice is between investment in our public services or cuts under him. The choice is between help for the poorest families or cuts to the new deal, to the working families tax credit and even—the Conservatives admitted this today—to free television licences for the over-75s. When those choices are put before the country, the right hon. Gentleman's jokes will not be enough. When it comes down to policy, he gets it wrong every time.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Some hon. Members have said that they cannot hear. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should give the Prime Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members a hearing.

Q2. Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that people from my constituency are among those most at risk in the country from dying early from coronary heart disease? Although I welcome the new £50,000 chest pain clinic that will open in our local hospital in January, can he assure me that the Government will invest more in coronary heart care through a national health service that is free at the point of delivery and based on medical need, and not through madcap private medical insurance schemes proposed by the Conservative party that are based on ability to pay?

The Prime Minister

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to put the largest ever investment into the health service. That is one reason why, as a BBC survey revealed today, 90 per cent. of health authorities believe that they are better prepared for the winter because there will be more available beds and more nurses.

Again, the choice could not be clearer: the Conservatives plan to spend £700 million just by giving tax relief to people who already have private medical insurance. Let me explain so that people understand what that would mean: all the extra help for this winter—the beds, nurses and planning—would be lost. We need a national health service fit for all the country, not simply a private sector for the few.

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

The Prime Minister said to the leader of the Conservative party that he wanted to give more support to our pensioners. The whole House would agree with that. Will he acknowledge that when people in this country reach the age of 80, they receive, under his policies, the princely sum of an extra 25p a week? Does he agree with the Minister of State, Department of Social Security—his pensions Minister—who described that as an insult and a festering sore on the National Insurance System? If so, will he do something about it?

The Prime Minister

I like to think that we have done something about it. The £150 winter fuel allowance and free television licences for pensioners over the age of 75 show that we are helping people already. No one could possibly claim—and I do not—that the supplement to people at the age of 80 greatly assists them but, having done a significant amount for pensioners in this Parliament, I hope that we can do more.

Mr. Kennedy

I think that the House hopes that, next week, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will do more. As his pensions Minister acknowledged, many people of that age send the 25p back because they feel insulted by it. If the pensions Minister believes that the Government are insulting pensioners, the Government must do something about it. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell his Chancellor—and strengthen his resolve—that next week the country and the Commons will be looking for a good deal more support, especially for our elderly pensioners?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the country will be looking for that support, but I do not think that anyone has ever pretended that the supplement at the age of 80 is additional or proper recompense for pensioners of that age. [HON. MEMBERS: "Change it."] There are all sorts of ways to get more financial help to pensioners. I have outlined some of our measures. The Chancellor has, of course, already introduced the minimum income guarantee for the very poorest pensioners. It is worth again pointing out that about 500,000 pensioners in this country, usually elderly women whose husbands may not have made proper contributions or who have not themselves made contributions, do not get a basic state pension. Obviously we wanted to help those people first. We now recognise that we need to do more for those who may be above benefit levels and who have saved all their lives, and we will do that.

I would add one further thing. We are talking about a surplus and how we use it for the best benefit of the country. It is worth reflecting, however, that a few years ago, we were not talking about a surplus. We had a doubled national debt and a £28 billion borrowing requirement. Whatever we do, we must make sure that it is limited by what is sensible in the overall interests of the economy. If we simply treat the surplus as something that we can spend overnight, without thinking about tomorrow, we will repeat exactly the mistakes that the country made in the late 1980s and early 1990s. What started off in 1989 as big tax cuts and big spending increases very soon ended in recession, job losses, spending cuts and, finally, tax rises.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is wrong for the fuel protesters to go under the banner of the Jarrow crusade? If those protesters are so considerate of their fellow working man, should not people ask where they were in the 1980s, during the miners strike? Furthermore, is not the destitution experienced by the Jarrow marchers and their families during the 1930s incomparable with the relative prosperity that exists today? Is not the proposed action a cheap publicity stunt?

The Prime Minister

The circumstances of the Jarrow march were completely different. I make two additional points to my hon. Friend. First, however strongly the protesters feel, it cannot be right for them to try and demonstrate their feelings by interfering with the country's food supplies or bringing the country to a halt. That is not a responsible way to behave, no matter how strongly they feel.

Secondly, it is important for the protesters to realise that were we to accede to their demands, that would have one of three effects, without any doubt whatever: interest rates, and therefore people's mortgages, would go up, or there would be less scope for helping pensioners, or we would have to reduce spending on public services. We will do what we can, but we will not do anything that puts at risk the strength of the economy or the support for essential public services.

Q3. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

First, I thank the Prime Minister for visiting my constituency two weeks ago to commemorate the death of a police officer, PC Kalwant Sidhu, killed pursuing criminals in Twickenham.

Secondly, on the law and order theme, is the Prime Minister aware of the evidence that was presented to Parliament yesterday by senior oil industry executives of 180 documented cases of violent intimidation by some of the people whom the leader of the Conservative party described as fine, upstanding Englishmen? Can the House have an assurance that if there is further disruption by the fuel protesters involving intimidation or blockage of the public highway, the police will act quickly and decisively to uphold the law?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the police will act quickly and decisively, but it is wrong that they should be put in such a situation. As I said a moment ago, we have a right of protest and demonstration in this country, but people should protest in a way that is lawful and that does not bring the entire country to a halt. That cannot be right. Whatever people feel about the price of fuel, it is important that the demonstrations take place in a way that is responsible, not extreme and irresponsible.

Q4. Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

Is the Prime Minister aware that since May 1997 there are an additional 47 teachers in classrooms in The Wrekin, and 37 additional classroom assistants? Is he aware that that is one of the reasons why standards of numeracy and literacy are rising, and why there is now not a single five, six or seven-year-old anywhere in The Wrekin or in Shropshire in a class of more than 30? Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the education authorities of Telford, The Wrekin and Shropshire county council, and above all the governors and teachers in the schools, who are delivering that change?

Will he please acknowledge also that every welcome initiative from the Department for Education and Employment brings with it a bureaucratic burden on teachers, from which they desperately need to be released so that they can do their best work, which is in the classroom?

The Prime Minister

I appreciate that there is always a tension between the desire to make sure that the initiatives are carried through and that teachers are not overburdened with paperwork.

On class sizes, I pay tribute to the schools, and especially the teachers who have managed the process of change. According to today's figures, some 450,000 fewer infants are in classes of more than 30. That is a fantastic achievement, which has been made possible only by the extra investment that we have put in. We announced in September the best primary school results that the country has ever had. That, too, was made possible only by the investment that we have made. That is why it is so important that we make the extra investment in education and that we do not follow the Conservative party's path, which would lead to cutting that investment.

Q5. Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the anxiety of frail and elderly people in East Anglia? Since the summer, they have had to endure circumstances in which the hospitals in the region have been on red alert because of an admissions crisis. Does he know that the number of blocked beds in Suffolk hospitals is now at an all-time high due to the dehumanising incompetence of the county council, which is Labour led, but propped up by the Liberal Democrats?

The Prime Minister

I shall get back to the hon. Gentleman on the specific question about his health authority; I think that he has given a one-sided view of what has happened there.

In general terms, it is important that we make additional investment in the health service. The investment in extra nurses, doctors, hospital buildings, information technology and critical care beds is important. However, the Government are committed to making that investment in the health service whereas the hon. Gentleman's party is committed to cutting it.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

The Prime Minister will know that two young people from Armthorpe in my constituency died tragically from vCJD. It has now emerged that a third victim also had close links with Armthorpe. In view of that, can my right hon. Friend assure me that potential clusters of vCJD cases will be fully investigated and that the results will be made public as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

At the moment, an investigation into the so-called clusters is taking place, and the results will be published. In addition, the Government are establishing a fund, which will benefit sufferers and the families of people who have died. We are therefore trying to ensure that we gauge the exact scale of the problem and whether there is some new variant of CJD. We shall carry on working on that. When the results are available, we will make sure that they are published.

Q6. Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

May I ask the Prime Minister a question of which I have given him notice, and that follows on from the previous question? Who, in the machinery of government, now has responsibility for determining policy on risk and hazard in food and health? Who is responsible for promulgating those risks to the public? If the policy should fail at any time in future, what are the criteria for compensation?

The Prime Minister

The latter point will probably have to be judged on each case that arises. On the first point, the Government have overall control of policy, but the purpose of establishing the new Food Standards Agency was to try to improve the transparency of the advice that we get. We have also tried to achieve that with scientific advisory committees, to which we have appointed consumer representatives. I believe that the Food Standards Agency will give us a better objective basis on which we can make the assessments.

However, in government, we will find the balance between risk and the public policy measures to limit it increasingly difficult to strike. That applies across a range of issues. A sensible and reasonable debate about that is a necessary aspect of getting public policy right. BSE is one of the most dramatic instances, but there are other examples of difficult balances to be struck. Whatever the transparency of the information that we give people, difficult public policy judgments remain, and they have to be made by Government. They are more easily made by Government if they are informed by a proper public debate on the balance between risk and policy.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

Does the Prime Minister share the profound anxiety of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment about the aspect of the Royal National Institute for the Blind report that dealt with bullying of young people who are blind or have sight impairments? Does he agree that the best response is to consider the complete eradication of bullying by amending the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which would thereby give children the right that adults already have?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps I could write to my right hon. Friend about his last point. As for his first point, it is precisely because we are worried about the impact in schools on those who are blind or partially sighted that we have made additional money available for special educational needs. I hope very much that that money will enable us not just to offer such pupils a better form of teaching, but a better environment in which to be taught.