HC Deb 11 July 2001 vol 371 cc783-92
Q1. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 11 July.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

I have been asked to reply. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is currently engaged in the talks about Northern Ireland in Shropshire. I know that the whole House—with few exceptions—will want to support the Prime Minister in his efforts to find a way forward at this critical time.

Mr. Brady

Will the Leader of the House guarantee that all AS-level results will be published on 16 August?

Mr. Cook

I am not in a position to give such a guarantee. However, the review by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has concluded that the new changes have been warmly welcomed and should be supported. There is support throughout schools for the principles of the new changes. The new system has also encouraged a retention rate among pupils. On that basis, we can conclude that we have introduced a system that tackled a problem that was ignored by the last Government. For generations, people have complained that post-16 education is too narrow. We have tackled that. It is a shame that the Conservative party did not do so in its 18 years in office.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a new state-of-the-art private finance initiative hospital has opened recently in my constituency? Apart from the main worry that there may not be enough beds, is he aware that patients, staff and visitors to the hospital have to pay high parking charges, resulting in mayhem in the surrounding streets? Is he also aware that patients are being ripped off by the consortium, with extortionate charges being made for television and telephone usage, and that they even have to hire vases for flowers? Unbelievably, many patients suffer the indignity of having to walk from their ward to the theatre for their operation, because the private consortium charges £30 for a portering service. Is that—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think I will let the Leader of the House answer.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his helpful question. Of course I understand the concern that some charges cause. I have seen the same happen in my constituency, where car parking charges have been introduced by a hospital that has nothing to do with the private finance initiative. I would have hoped that my hon. Friend and his constituents welcomed the fact that they have a new hospital. Half a dozen other towns in Britain also have a new hospital, built in record time, as a result of the PFI. Owing to the involvement of private finance, we are now in a position to offer the NHS the largest hospital building programme in its history, and of that we are proud.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

We all wish the Prime Minister well with the talks on Northern Ireland.

Are the Government happy in principle to see the United States withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty if that is what its missile defence plans require? Yes or no?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that we invited the United States Administration to enter into dialogue with Russia on the future of the anti-ballistic missile treaty. She will be aware that both presidents met recently in Slovenia and have started discussions on a new strategic framework. Our own view has always been that there may be a way forward, but that it is a way forward that should be sought by agreement between the two who are parties to the anti-ballistic treaty—as we of course are not.

Mrs. Browning

But now that Poland, Spain, Italy and the CDU in Germany have given their support to the American plans, is it not time the Government published the Ministry of Defence threat assessment in respect of both the deployment of British troops and the UK mainland? Is it not true that the Government's position is that they continue to sit on the fence? In one week alone, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Gentleman have faced a series of hostile questions from the Benches behind them. Indeed, 197 Labour MPs have now signed early-day motion 23 opposing the American scheme, so the Government do not dare take a firm position.

The Prime Minister's press secretary said that the president's plans were broadly a good idea. Does the Leader of the House think that they are broadly a good idea?

Mr. Cook

It is impossible for the Government to express support for plans that do not exist; nor could those countries express support for plans that do not exist. At present, the only specific proposal is to provide missile interceptors and radar in Alaska—that is a long way from our ministerial responsibilities.

John Mann (Bassetlaw)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the views of the overwhelming majority of my constituents about Finningley airport and its development? The majority are not NIMBYs but YIMBYs—yes in my backyard, please. Can we hope for a fast-track public inquiry on behalf of the YIMBYs in my constituency and on behalf of the regeneration of the area and the aviation industry generally?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is considering measures that can be taken to expedite the public inquiry. My hon. Friend will understand that we have to go through the full procedures, and as the Government will act in a quasi-judicial capacity I cannot comment on the case at present. I assure him, however, that the Department is considering how we can hold a public inquiry as soon as possible in order that my hon. Friend and his constituents can make their views known.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Prime Minister has the support and good wishes of my party in seeking a satisfactory outcome to the Northern Ireland talks?

To refer back to the question put by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), does the Leader of the House agree that when the Government consider the role of the private sector in public services, especially the private finance initiative, they must look at the full range of evidence so that no individual PFI ends up costing the public more than a publicly funded alternative?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to tell the right hon. Gentleman that value for money is one of the two major aspects that are examined when any scheme is considered. All schemes are evaluated against that. One of the issues that has introduced risk and unpredictability to the cost of hospitals is the time in which they are delivered. So far, all six PFI hospitals that have been constructed have been delivered on time, within time, and thus without the risk of the additional costs that have previously caused problems in the health service.

Mr. Beith

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has apologised to my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) for appearing to cite in a written answer a non-existent report by the National Audit Office and a selective appraisal of PFI projects in order to try to put a better case than actually exists for the funding of those projects? Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that that illustrates the danger that, when Governments become committed to a policy such as PFI, the Government machine starts to put before Parliament and Ministers only those facts that fit the policy? Will the right hon. Gentleman make it his business as Leader of the House to ensure that Parliament can get at all the facts that it needs to scrutinise the Executive, so that we do not get hospitals and schools that cost more than they should, or other policy disasters?

Mr. Cook

I am all in favour of Parliament having access to all the information and all the facts. Indeed, it is my broad impression as Leader of the House that the PFI is not an issue that has gone unexplored and unventilated in the Chamber. On the specific point to which the right hon. Gentleman refers—the answer from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—it is true that there was not one NAO report that led to those figures but seven different ones. The figures quoted were absolutely accurate.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

May I tell my right hon. Friend what immense personal pleasure it gives me to see him in his new role? Does he agree that our instruction to deliver from the people of the north-east, including high standards in schools and health, also involves full employment, revisiting the Barnett formula and a directly elected regional assembly?

Mr. Cook

I am sorry to disappoint my right hon. Friend, but my current role expires in 20 minutes' time. I hope that he will give me a pass mark if I can agree with him on only two of the three points that he put to me. We have no plans to revisit the Barnett formula, but on the other two matters I fully agree with him. Unemployment is the lowest it has been for a generation, with 1 million more people in work than at the previous general election, and we have put forward proposals by which regions such as the north-east can have their own regional assembly, which will enable local people to decide how best to deliver local services.

Q2. Dr. Bob Spink (Castle Point)

May I say, but with great sincerity, what a great pleasure it is to see the Leader of the House in his new role? Will he join me in congratulating all who work in or raise funds for hospices, particularly the children's hospice movement? There are 24 children's hospices in this country and they get an average of about 5 per cent. Government funding, but the children's hospice, Littlehaven, in Castle Point, receives only 2 per cent. Government funding.

I make no political point in this at all. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Sincerely, I ask simply that we can work together to review the funding mechanisms for all hospices so that we can get the balance right between voluntary sector funding and Government funding.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to respond to the hon. Gentleman in the tone and spirit in which he asked his question, and fully to acknowledge and recognise the excellent work that is done by the hospice movement, which is able to provide care and attention not just to patients but to relatives at a very difficult time. I believe that the whole House shares my admiration for that patient work.

On funding, we have made a commitment that we shall look to support the hospice movement in the course of our NHS plan. In the particular case of the hon. Gentleman's health authority, it is for it to decide how much to provide to Littlehaven hospice. We believe that it is right that local decisions should be taken by the local health authorities, which is why we shall carry forward a programme of further decentralisation within health service funding. However, I would record for the hon. Gentleman and the House the fact that, this year, his health authority has had an increase in funding of over 8 per cent., and I hope that that will enable it to meet the demand to which he refers.

Q3. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Would my right hon. Friend ask the Prime Minister to look again at the proposal in the Queen's Speech to legislate to allow positive action such as all-women shortlists in parliamentary selections? Would he consider extending that provision more widely to include other selections, and would not that have the merit of allowing the Conservative party to have an all-women shortlist instead of an all-loser shortlist?

Mr. Cook

I share my hon. Friend's concern to see more women on shortlists, and that is why we shall seek to bring forward legislation as soon as we can. In the context of the current election, I do hope that it is not too late for the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to come to the aid of her party. I see that the press have been comparing the Tory leadership elections to "Big Brother". That, I think, is unfair—to "Big Brother". At least when they have a vote in "Big Brother", someone gets kicked out.

Q4. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

Could the right hon. Gentleman explain why, when I try to raise the issues of falling police numbers, low police morale and poor detection rates in Sussex in the House, I am fobbed off by Ministers with the assertion that it is a matter not for them, but for the chief constable, yet only a few days ago his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary took it upon himself, in effect, to sack the chief constable of Sussex by means of a press release?

Hon. Members


Mr. Cook

I am very happy to answer. The fact of the matter is that, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware and as I am pleased to report and repeat to the House, police numbers in England and Wales have gone up by more than 1,300 in the past year. I am also pleased to say that we can expect even larger increases in future years, as in the past year the number of those entering police training is up by no less than 75 per cent.

Q5. Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

The PFI developers in this country are quite rightly under attack for renegotiating the loans associated with building schools and new hospitals and for getting cheaper loans and taking the profits. I fully support the PFI, but I do object to those large companies making a substantial profit on the back of public sector investment. Will the Minister take this opportunity to renegotiate the PFI guidelines to ensure that, if profits are being made, they are redistributed to the public sector which financed those initiatives in the first place?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a valid concern. There are only a few cases where there have been refinancing deals, but I am pleased to say that we have changed the rules so that 30 per cent. of any gain will return to the health service. Let us also not lose sight of the fact that we would not be able to sustain our present hospital building programme if we had not shown innovation and imagination in involving more private finance. The previous Government, under the Conservatives, spent £30 million examining private finance initiatives and never launched a single one.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Last week the Prime Minister told us that he made no apology for the Government's proposed changes to incapacity benefit. Are not vulnerable people being caused unnecessary anxiety in this country because of the bungled, bureaucratic way in which the Government currently manage incapacity benefit applications? Are not the Government really responsible for that? The Government should tidy up and improve the systems that they use, not force vulnerable people to be subject, every three years, to a medical assessment.

Mr. Cook

As I told the right hon. Lady last Thursday—I am very happy to repeat it again on this occasion as I obviously failed to convey my meaning clearly—the new scheme will not apply to present claimants. Therefore, none of those currently claiming incapacity benefit need have any anxiety on that score; nor need new claimants, as it is a clear commitment of this Government that we will help those who can work into work and provide security for those who cannot work. That has to be the right principle, and I rather wish that it had been the principle followed by the Conservative party in office; its current leader introduced the medical tests for incapacity benefit, as a result of which thousands of our constituents lost their incapacity benefit.

Mrs. Browning

It is not the principle of medical testing someone's application for incapacity benefit, but the way this Government administer it that is the problem. In a report that does exist—it was published in March this year—the National Audit Office shows very clearly that the Government's incompetence is causing public money to be misused in incapacity benefit applications. It said that £12 million could be saved for every week that the process was speeded up, but the Government pay the money, the medical assessment takes place months later and the money is never reclaimed by the Government if the person concerned does not qualify. Because of that incompetence, the Government will now force sick people to be subject to yet more tests, with more bureaucracy and more problems for people who will have to keep reapplying to justify the fact that they are disabled or have an incapacity. That is where the problem lies—not with sick people.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is looking for ways to speed up the system. It is a bit rich to express concern about alarm among claimants and then suggest that it is regrettable that the Government do not pursue current claimants when the benefit is removed. I can think of nothing that is more likely to alarm and dismay claimants. Her Government used incapacity benefit as a means of disguising the high levels of unemployment. Now that we have got unemployment down to its lowest level for a generation, we can ensure that we target disability benefits on the disabled so that they get the security they need.

Mrs. Browning

The problem is the way in which the Government administer the scheme. If the right hon. Gentleman will not take my word for it, what does he think of the words of Lord Ashley of Stoke, who knows a bit about disability? In a letter in The Times today, he says: The Government has the power to repeatedly reassess if it wishes, and it undoubtedly uses it. The proposed changes are unnecessary.

Mr. Cook

The test was introduced by the leader of the hon. Lady's party and caused many people to lose their incapacity benefit. The proposal of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will ensure that we approach the problem systematically, to avoid the outcome that she mentioned in which people have to wait a year before they are assessed. The genuinely disabled will get the benefit that they need and continue to get it without pressure being placed on them not to.

Mrs. Browning

In the Welfare Reform and Pensions Act 1999, the Government took powers for themselves that they have failed to use. It is because of that failure that they are going to subject disabled people to the tests. Last week, the Prime Minister also reassured us that people who are genuinely disabled would be supported. Indeed, he said that the Government would go further. What did he mean by that?

The disability living allowance was introduced by a Conservative Government and awarded for life to people with lifelong disabilities. We can all recall that they lost that recognition of lifelong disability at the hands of the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). When the Prime Minister says that people with lifelong disabilities are going to be helped, does he mean the way in which the Government helped them in the previous Parliament—by reducing and removing the lifelong recognition of people who were clearly born with a disability and are going to die with it?

Mr. Cook

I cannot accept the hon. Lady's characterisation of what the Government have done for the disabled. We introduced the disability income guarantee and have ensured that children as young as three and four have access to the mobility element of the attendance allowance. In all those ways, we have put money into helping the disabled, which the last Conservative Government never did.

I remind the House that it is not our intention to bring in additional medical tests to penalise people on incapacity benefit. The measure aims to provide help, which they did not receive when the hon. Lady and her partners were in government, for those who want to find work. Let us not lose sight of the fact that 1 million people on disability benefits say that, given the opportunity and assistance, they would prefer to be in work.

Q6. Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Only this morning, I attended the launch of the neighbourhood management programme in my constituency, which is yet another example the Government tackling social exclusion. Indeed, the begging bowl that we have been holding out from Hastings and Rye for some time has been filled over and over again, and we are very grateful. However, my constituents now want a hand up rather than a handout. Will my right hon. Friend impress on the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions the need for an early and positive decision on the access to Hastings study, including the bypass?

Mr. Cook

I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend hopes to make an announcement very soon. He is well aware that the Hastings bypass raises complex issues and differing views have been expressed on it. I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to his concern.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that next week the Government will lay before the House an order that will take back the powers vested in the new Policing Board and recall the old police authority, because at the talks that he has mentioned the SDLP and Sinn Fein/IRA have refused to put nominees on to the board?

Mr. Cook

On the question of what we will do next week, decisions have yet to be made, so I cheerfully invite the hon. Gentleman to join us at business questions tomorrow. I stress that to achieve a stable and peaceful outcome in Northern Ireland it is important to have an efficient police force that commands the support and confidence of all parts of the community in Northern Ireland, and the Government will not be deflected from that objective.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

Yesterday, Edgware school in my constituency was given the go-ahead to become a city academy. That presents an exciting challenge to the school, which serves many disadvantaged children. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that children from disadvantaged areas continue to have priority for places at the school, so that they benefit from the magnificent extra investment that the school will receive in the next few years?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome to the new city academy in Barnet, and I am sure that his constituents are grateful for the new facility. It is important that we develop education in a way that provides diversity and specialisation and responds to the special needs of the area that my hon. Friend represents. The school will be publicly funded and therefore be part of the state sector, so I hope that it will be able to respond to my hon. Friend's plea to continue to give special priority to those who live in the area.

Q7. Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to a potential disaster in west Wales? The Ministry of Defence wants to withdraw £750,000 of public funding from the apprenticeship scheme at Aberporth following privatisation. Not only will that endanger 80 jobs in my constituency, but it threatens an objective 1 bid for a high-tech technology park at Aberporth that would offer precisely the sort of job creation opportunities that I am sure the Government welcome. The decision rests wholly with the MOD and the Secretary of State for Defence. Will the Leader of the House make sure that the proposal to withdraw is rejected and that high-class training—the best in the United Kingdom—continues at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, Aberporth?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to offer the hon. Gentleman reassurance. First, the MOD has given an undertaking that all apprentices currently at the school will continue to be funded and will therefore be able to complete their apprenticeship. Secondly, the MOD is discussing with the trade unions future intakes of apprentices in the area. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the whole point of the MOD proposals is to provide long-term stability and a future for the facility; and where possible to extend, not narrow, the opportunities for young people in his area.

Q8. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

After the recent appalling events in Bradford and elsewhere, what is my right hon. Friend's assessment of the state of race relations in Britain today, and what are the Government going to do to ensure that everybody from every community in Britain has equal access to opportunities and the ability to contribute positively to our society?

Mr. Cook

I entirely share my hon. Friend's concern about the recent riots in Bradford. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a statement to the House yesterday, and we all agree that there is no justification or excuse for the violence we witnessed there; it must not be accepted.

I do not, however, want the impression to be given that the events in Bradford are typical of race relations in Britain. The Government have taken many steps to improve race relations: we introduced the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 precisely to address the issue that my hon. Friend raised, which is to put an obligation on all public service providers to provide their service in a way that treats the races equally and reaches out to minorities. If there is one issue on which I hope all parties in the House are united it is that we must defend democracy against those racist organisations that have helped to foment violence and now seek to profit from it. We must not allow their poisonous message to succeed.

Q9. Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the sheer despair that has led nearly all the junior hospital doctors in east Kent to talk of an impending catastrophe because of undercapacity? Does he realise that they have been issuing hand bells to people waiting on trolleys in our three accident and emergency units to draw attention to their problems? Does he really think it right that our local health authority wants to spend £100 million on a bureaucratic reorganisation that is opposed by both local community health councils and which will not provide one single extra bed or nurse?

Mr. Cook

I am very pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that funding for his health authority in the current year is up by almost 9 per cent. on last year, and that throughout the lifetime of this Government the average increase in funding for his health authority has been double the average increase under the Government whom he supported. If he had pressed that Government at the time, his hospital might be in a better position than it is now.