HC Deb 07 February 2001 vol 362 cc918-23
Q 1. [147668] Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 7 February.

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.

I also spoke on the telephone to Mr. Sharon, the new Israeli Prime Minister, and offered our help in the difficult times that may lie ahead for the middle-east peace process.

Mr. Edwards

The decision by Corus last week to shed 6,000 steel jobs will have a devastating effect in south Wales, especially at the Llanwern steelworks in my constituency, where 1,300 jobs are about to be lost. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the management of Corns, and especially its chairman Sir Brian Moffatt, have treated the work force appallingly and have not co-operated with the Government? May I urge him to put pressure on Corns to work with the Government, the work force and the National Assembly to save those jobs and secure British steel production in the future?

The Prime Minister

We hope that, even at this stage, Corus will be prepared to rethink its decision. We are in close touch with the company, the work force and Members of the Welsh Assembly who have been active on the issue. The Corns work force are highly productive and highly skilled, and they deserve a decent future. I know that it is no consolation to them or to people in other parts of the country where jobs have been lost, but I was pleased at the announcement of new jobs at Bridgend earlier in the week and at Ellesmere Port. We must do everything possible to safeguard highly skilled, productive jobs in the United Kingdom.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The Foreign Secretary repeated this week that the Government, if re-elected, would make an assessment on joining the euro early in the next Parliament. Does "early" mean in the first two years of that Parliament?

The Prime Minister

"Early in the next Parliament" means exactly what it says. It would of course be within two years.

Mr. Hague

Ah, progress. The Prime Minister is more forthcoming than the Foreign Secretary, who said that early meant early, or the Trade and Industry Secretary, who under the helpful headline "Byers reopens cabinet split on single currency", reiterated his support for the single currency last night. If "early" means within two years, could it mean within months of a general election?

The Prime Minister

It has been made clear already that it does not mean that. What is important when that assessment is made is that the economic tests are met. What is absurd is the right hon. Gentleman's position, which is that he will rule out the single currency in principle, but only for one Parliament.

Mr. Hague

It is no good the Prime Minister trying to distract attention from his policy, which is under scrutiny this afternoon. The Government have not known what "early" means. They do not know whether it means months or years, so when he says—[Interruption.] Let us get this clear. When he says that he will make an assessment on abolishing the pound early in the next Parliament, is he ruling out that being within months of a general election?

The Prime Minister

I did that about a year or 18 months ago. Of course we will not move immediately, but we will do it within a reasonable time frame. Surely the issue is what the sensible policy to have is. Is it to judge according to the economic tests or to rule the single currency out on political grounds? The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the speech by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. My right hon. Friend said that if we were to rule out the euro on political grounds, which is the right hon. Gentleman's policy, we would lose massive inward investment. [Interruption.] No, it is not waffle; it is jobs in this country. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman—perhaps he will comment on it when he gets back up—that Nissan said in terms that if we ruled out the euro for the next Parliament on political grounds, the investment in Sunderland would not come.

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister has a cheek to lecture anyone on manufacturing jobs when 6,000 manufacturing jobs have just been lost under his Government and one third of a million have been lost in this country since he took office. Now that the Prime Minister has partly adopted the policy that he has always criticised—of ruling out joining the single currency for a certain period—because he will not make an assessment until many months after the election, and as he is so clear about the timing, will he tell us, on this central point in his coming manifesto, how the question in that referendum would be phrased?

The Prime Minister

The question can be phrased at a later time, but the issue is perfectly simple: whether we join he single currency or not. The question is, what is the right policy? We have made it clear that the tests should be the economic tests that have been set out and the convergence of the economy. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can explain to the House why, if he is against the single currency as a matter of principle, he is against it only for five years.

Mr. Hague

There is only—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer!"] I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman. There is only one honest policy: to tell the country what a future Government would do. The Prime Minister is unable and unwilling to tell us what he will do because he does not want to admit that he wants to scrap the pound after the coming election. He is not able to be more forthcoming about the timing. He is not able to say what the question will be. It would be easy to conclude that he does not know very much; actually, he does know the answer to those questions but he does not want to admit it. Why does he not have the courage to tell the country that he wants to scrap the pound after the next election?

The Prime Minister

We have said that, in principle, we favour Britain joining a successful single currency; in practice, the economic tests must be met—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Answer!"J I answered the right hon. Gentleman's question when he first put it—rather to his surprise. The final decision will be for the British people in the referendum. That is all absolutely clear. What is not clear is how one can be against it as a matter of principle, but only for five years. The real agenda was let out of the bag—rather well—by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) in a speech yesterday. He said: I urge my fellow countrymen and women to agree with me that we must renegotiate this unhappy relationship"— with the EU— before it is too late. Conservative Members are nodding.

I have explained our policy: to make a judgment according to the tests, and to do it in a way that allows the British people the final say in a referendum. There is no question of our renegotiating our basic terms of membership of the European Union. Given that the right hon. Member for Wokingham is again one of the party people at Conservative central office, perhaps the Leader of the Opposition would like to get up and disown him.

Mr. Hague

Our policy is to be in Europe but not run by Europe—a policy supported by the vast majority of people in this country. The Prime Minister's European policy is like his Minister for Europe—not trusted by anyone, giving no straight answers, and half the Cabinet wants to get rid of it. Everyone knows that his European policy is to keep the Minister and dump the pound. Should not his policy be to dump the Minister and keep the pound?

The Prime Minister

These stirring speeches in favour of the pound would be much more convincing if the right hon. Gentleman said that he was not ruling it out for just five years. That is an absurd position to be in. Of course, he did not answer the question about the right hon. Member for Wokingham, because the right hon. Gentleman was not the only one to say that. At the weekend, the Leader of the Opposition was forced to intervene with Baroness Thatcher. He was forced to stand up to her, which, for him, took a lot of courage. He slapped her down and said: I'm pleased to say I enjoy excellent relations with Lady Thatcher". [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh! I am sure that he does. The truth is that our policy—to judge, according to the economic tests, what is good for British jobs, British business and industry—is the right one. The final decision will be for people to make in a referendum. The real reason the right hon. Gentleman rules it out, in principle, as a matter of politics, is that he knows—as we saw a moment or two ago—that a large part of his party want out of Europe altogether. If we did leave, we would lose jobs, investment and influence. The truth of the matter is that it is not I who have to explain my policy; the right hon. Gentleman has to explain his. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call Steve Pound—

Hon. Members

Keep the pound—[Laughter.]

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

Being loved by the entire House is an experience that is completely new to me.

Did the Prime Minister see the report in The Times today listing the Cardinal Wiseman high school in Greenford as one of the most improved high schools in the country, notwithstanding the fact that my wife is a governor and my daughter a pupil of that school? Will the Prime Minister pay credit to Paul Patrick and his staff at Cardinal Wiseman and agree with me that here is graphic evidence of an education system that is improving and a Government who are delivering?

The Prime Minister

There is one pound that we shall definitely keep.

In relation to the education system, yesterday's Ofsted report showed that nine out of 10 secondary schools are improving, that primary schools have made a huge step change and that there is improvement in the standard of teaching. Of course, it also drew attention to problems in the schools, but that is precisely why it is important that we make the extra investment. Over the next few years, massive investment will go into our primary and secondary schools and into university education. We will put that money in, and the Conservative party would take it out.

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

On the subject of education and following on from his response to the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound), will the Prime Minister guarantee that he will not put up student tuition fees if his party wins a second term of office?

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman is referring to top-up fees, we have already made it clear that we do not favour top-up fees.

Mr. Kennedy

The Prime Minister should surely recognise, because the Government's own research demonstrates, that students and potential students are being disadvantaged and put off going into the tertiary sector as a result of his policy. We have got rid of tuition fees in the Scottish context. Why does he remain wedded to that tax on learning in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

First, actually there have been 500,000 extra students in further and higher education since we came to office. Secondly, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to look at the following words very carefully: We support the Government's proposal to end maintenance grants and replace them with income-contingent loans as the fairest way of securing a greater contribution from students."—[Official Report, 16 March 1998; Vol. 308, c. 995.] That was said, during the passage of the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), the Liberal Democrat education spokesman.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is more than aware of the anxieties being felt by steel communities throughout Great Britain, which of course includes Teesside. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cancellation by Sir Brian Moffatt of a meeting with Back Benchers representing steel communities is a continued sign of his sheer indifference to the devastation that he has caused?

The Prime Minister

As I said a moment or two ago, it is important that we carry on working with the company and we hope that, even at this stage, it can reconsider. I know that my hon. Friend speaks for many of her constituents when she talks of their anger, because these are well-paid, highly productive and skilled jobs, often in areas of high unemployment; but we will stand ready to help, as we have done before, in any way that we can.

Q2. Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Is the Prime Minister proud of a record that has seen the number of vacancies in secondary schools double in his term of office? Is he proud to see secondary school class sizes at their highest for 25 years? Is he proud to see an inspector's report, published yesterday, that says that indiscipline in our schools is getting worse year by year, and that teacher recruitment over the lifetime of this Parliament is down by about 14 per cent? Is the 3.7 per cent. that the Government have given teachers adequate reward for that endeavour? The £200 million that local authorities will have to find to bridge the gap between what the Government have given and what they will have—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Prime Minister knows what the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

The Prime Minister

Let me correct the hon. Gentleman on the facts. The inspector's report actually found that nine out of 10 secondary schools were improving. It is true that he found, in a minority of schools, that there was an increase in disruptive behaviour. He then went on to say, however, that the Government were taking action to deal with that, and that that action would deal with it. We are putting in an additional £200 million to deal with some of the unruly pupils and some of the excluded pupils.

In respect of class sizes, as the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been an increase of something like 0.3 of a pupil since the election. Class sizes in secondary schools have been going up for a very long period of years. However, in primary schools, class sizes have fallen as a result of the additional money that we have put in. Now, we are making a £5 billion increase in investment in education. Of course, there is always more that we can do, and we have to do more. However, given that we are spending five, six or seven times more on education than they ever asked us to spend, it really is absurd of the Liberal Democrats to accuse us of not spending enough.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people in Israel, and obviously many outside, hold the newly elected Prime Minister of Israel to be indirectly responsible, as he knew what was going to happen, for the massacre by a Christian Lebanese faction of Palestinian men, women and children—even babes in arms—in September 1982? Does my right hon. Friend agree that what happened yesterday will make it that much more difficult to have a peace process working in Israel and for the Palestinians, and that one of the ironies is that Sharon's victory yesterday will bring satisfaction to many terror groups in the Arab world?

The Prime Minister

The fact is that Mr. Sharon has been elected Prime Minister, and it is important now that we, as a country, do everything that we can to further the peace process in the middle east. It is important for the middle east, and for the security of the whole world. Whatever differences there have been before, it is important that we work with the duly elected Prime Minister in Israel. The process is in a very fragile state indeed, and not just Britain, but the European Union and the United States of America, have to do everything that we can to put the process back on track and work with Mr. Sharon to deliver it.