HC Deb 02 May 2001 vol 367 cc839-50
Q1. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 2 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I spoke to Sir John Stevens, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our congratulations to the Met police on a successful operation yesterday. I also had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further such meetings later today.

Mr. Robathan

Tomorrow, our capital city will be brought to a standstill by the RMT. Will the Prime Minister explain to all those who will have to endure tomorrow's chaos that the RMT not only gives his Transport Secretary a flat in Clapham, but pays the Hull, East constituency Labour party in excess of £1,000 a year, which should have, but never has, been declared in the Register of Members' Interests? At this time, is it appropriate that his Transport Secretary is in hock to the RMT?

The Prime Minister

First, what the hon. Gentleman says about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is simply not correct. Secondly, I agree entirely that the industrial action is unjustified.

As for the tube in general, I remind Conservative Members that this Government are investing in its future. The Conservative party cut that investment and is committed to privatising the tube.

Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham)

The Prime Minister will be aware that, in the last four years, his Government have taken 700 failing schools out of special measures, compared with just 27 in the last years of the Tories. The Government have also turned around failing local education authorities. Can my right hon. Friend assure Tottenham parents that, alongside the improvements in our primary schools, we can now have greater confidence in our secondary schools?

The Prime Minister

No fewer than seven failing schools in Haringey have been taken out of special measures in the last few years. That stands in sharp contrast to what happened before. I know that my hon. Friend will realise that, today, we have the best primary school results that this country has ever seen. That is as a result of the investment that this party has put in. The Conservative party is still committed to cutting that vital investment in the services of the future.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

On behalf of the Opposition, may I express my admiration for the tremendous job done by the Metropolitan police yesterday—not just by the senior police officers but by thousands of police men and women who had to put up with abuse and sometimes violent scuffles in order to maintain the peace in London yesterday?

On a less successful aspect of Government management, will the Prime Minister tell us which project he thinks the Department for Culture, Media and Sport can be proudest of: the national lottery operator, the dome or Wembley stadium?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, Wembley stadium is a Football Association project, not a Government project. Might I just remind him that the project was initiated in 1994, when he was a member of the Government?

Mr. Hague

All of a sudden, it is not a Government project. The truth is that the Government's handling of each of those projects has been a fiasco and has poured £750 million down the drain. If it is not a Government project, why did the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport say last year: We would have ended up with a fiasco if we had not taken action"? Why did he say that we were right to take the decision we did. We will have emerged … with possibly the best of both worlds"? That would have been an own goal had he not taken down the goal posts. Why did the Culture Secretary describe the new designs for Wembley as stunning, only for the Minister for Sport to say that it was the wrong kind of stadium? The Government have been involved throughout. They scrapped the design, closed the stadium and dug up the pitch. Will the Government now take responsibility and apologise to millions of sports fans for the huge mess they have created?

The Prime Minister

The bandwagonning activities of the right hon. Gentleman know no bounds. This was a project that was agreed in 1994. In 1996, again when he was a member of the Government, they agreed £120 million of lottery money and it was agreed as a Football Association project. I regret the fact that it has fallen through, and we must now sit down and work out a way through it so that we have a proper national stadium. However, it is absolutely absurd, in circumstances in which the FA has made it clear throughout that it should be its project with private sector backing, for the right hon. Gentleman to park his bandwagon at Wembley and blame the Government.

Mr. Hague

We are not taking lectures on bandwagons from a man who last week allowed the whole of Government policy to be dictated by Phoenix the calf. The Government never take responsibility for anything. They approved the design for Wembley stadium and said that it was magnificent. In the space of four years, they have spent £120 million closing Wembley stadium, one of the most famous sites in Britain, and £600 million turning the dome into one of the least popular sites in the world. Does not it sum up four years of this Government that they have spent a fortune of other people's money creating what did not work and wrecking what did work, while failing to deliver anything of practical value at all?

The Prime Minister

I now take that as the right hon. Gentleman's view that Wembley should never have been closed. Perhaps then he will explain why, in 1994, the Government of whom he was a member actually took the decision to have a new national stadium. As we are talking about reputations and what works and does not work, I treated the House a few months ago to the views of Mr. Nigel Hastilow, and today I wish to bring a new figure before the House—the parliamentary candidate from Bridgwater, Mr. Liddell-Grainger, whose local Conservatives have put out a leaflet that reads What we have to do is"—

Hon. Members:


Mr. Speaker

Order. Do not tell me how to do my job.

The Prime Minister

Just listen. They said that they had to explain to Conservatives who do not like William Hague that the only way to find a new leader is to get the Conservatives in power under William Hague so that a new leader can emerge from the more unknown Conservative Members". Fortunately, there is a very broad field.

As for delivery, it is this party that has put a record amount of money into public services—schools, hospitals, transport and police—and it is the Conservative party that would cut the money.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)


Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Howarth, I hope that you were not referring to me. I know how to conduct my affairs and I hope that you are not attacking the Chair.

Mr. Howarth

I shall raise a point of order at the end of Prime Minister's questions.

Mr. Speaker

You are perfectly entitled to raise a point of order, and I will not deny you that, but no one will shout at this Chair while these proceedings are going on.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that claims of a crisis in police recruitment and retention are as unhelpful to the police as they are untrue? West Midlands police last year recruited a record 547 officers and plan to do the same again this year. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to keep the investment that has made that possible at least at its present level?

The Prime Minister

Yes, the fact is that the number of police recruits is up something like 77 per cent. on last year. That means that as a result of the additional finances that have been put into the police, we have around 1,300 additional police officers. That is good news for my hon. Friend's constituency and many others, but it comes as part of a whole programme that is putting more money into recruiting public sector workers. Today, incidentally, we can also announce a 26 per cent. increase in graduate training applications for teaching. That is the investment that we have put in on the basis of a stable economy, delivering for the people of this country.

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

Will the Prime Minister confirm that, on average over the course of this Parliament, investment in schools, hospitals and pensions as a proportion of our national income is lower under his Government than under the previous Government?

The Prime Minister

No. It is absolutely true that, in the first two years of this Government's term of office, for the reasons that we have explained, we applied very strict spending rules to get rid of the large deficit. However, in the past couple of years, spending on health and education as a proportion of gross domestic product and the extra money that we have given to pensioners have meant that a steadily rising proportion of our national income is now going to those services and those people.

Mr. Kennedy

Given what the Prime Minister does admit in terms of his policy, will he explain why, in the past four years, out-patient waiting lists have risen, secondary school class sizes have grown, and the number of pensioners plummeting into poverty has got bigger? Is not that a sad indictment of his premiership, and does not Britain deserve better?

The Prime Minister

In respect of poverty and pensioners, the right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. The minimum income guarantee, the £200 winter fuel allowance and the free television licences for pensioners aged over 75 have lifted significant numbers of pensioners out of poverty.

On class sizes, it is right that there has been a rise in secondary school class sizes of, I think, 0.3 of a pupil. There have been rises in class sizes for many years. We said that we would focus particularly on five, six and seven-year-olds, for whom there has been a dramatic reduction in class sizes. Overall, the figures for class sizes in all our schools are down, not up.

In respect of waiting lists, our pledge was to reduce in-patient waiting lists by over 100,000. We have met that pledge. Again, it is correct to say that out-patient lists rose for the initial period under this Government. Now, out-patient and in-patient lists are falling together.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford)

I am delighted that Kersal and Charlestown in Salford have been allocated an extra £53 million through the Government's new deal for communities. That will mean that there will be a health centre, jobs, money to tackle crime and a real future for young people. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that regenerating inner-city areas and reinvigorating their communities will remain a top priority for a Labour Government? Will not that be in contrast to the Tories, who condemned generations of our young people to a life without a decent future?

The Prime Minister

It will remain a priority, not only because it is right that money goes into local communities but because it helps the people of those communities by giving them some chance for the future. One of the Government's proudest achievements is the creation of some 1 million extra jobs in our economy. As a result, the amount of money that we are spending on benefits has fallen dramatically. Giving people a standard of living and a good chance for the future is good not just for them but for the economy as a whole.

I know that my hon. Friend will be the first to accept that the measures taken to reduce the national debt mean that, whereas when the Government carne to office we were spending more on interest payments on the debt than on the school system, we are now spending £10 billion a year more on the school system.

Q2. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I know that the reports in the armed forces of the Ministry of Defence's planned cuts have already caused several soldiers to resign because they see no future for their regiments under Labour. Will the Prime Minister guarantee to those soldiers, the armed forces and the electorate that there will be no cuts in the regiments of either the Regular Army or the Territorial Army while he remains Prime Minister? Yes or no?

The Prime Minister

The stories about the cuts in regiments were denied by the Ministry of Defence at the time. They are not true. It is also the case that, over the next few years, there will be the first real-terms rise in defence spending in this country for a long time. With the greatest respect to Conservative Members, their protestations of affection for our armed forces would be a lot more credible if, when they were in office, they had not cut defence spending by 30 per cent.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that yesterday's pronouncement by President Bush that he is to ditch the anti-ballistic missile treaty is likely to move the world into a more dangerous phase? Does he also agree that, in that context, the expansion of NATO ought to be put on hold, as going ahead with it now would move the world into a much more dangerous state?

The Prime Minister

I understand entirely my hon. Friend's concerns, but I am afraid that I cannot agree with what he has said. I believe that the enlargement of NATO is vital to honour the promise that we gave to those emerging eastern European countries that are now democracies. I also think that President Bush has set out a case that we have to listen to about how this is a different world following the cold war—Russia is no longer an enemy of the west but, on the contrary, a partner. Therefore, it is important that we look at new ways of dealing with the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

We will make our deliberations on the more general issue of missile defence once we have a specific proposal from the American Administration. President Bush has set out a new argument and we need to listen to it. I also welcome the fact that he has made it clear that there will be consultations not only with close allies such as ourselves but with Russia. This is an argument that we must watch.

Q3. Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

Bob Kiley, the man who saved the New York underground, has described Labour's plans to part-privatise the London underground as fatally flawed, unworkable and dangerous. Why is the Prime Minister so committed to implementing them?

The Prime Minister

Because that is not the view of many others, including those who advised us on the original options. It is not a question of privatising the tube; it is about making sure that the infrastructure of the tube—the capital renewal work that is desperately important and needs billions of pounds to carry out—is done in the most effective way, giving the best value for money for the taxpayer.

We are prepared to put a record investment into the tube, but it must be done on the basis that the taxpayer gets value for money and that we do not repeat the experience of the Jubilee line, which ended up being constructed at a £2 billion overrun and a couple of years late. Therefore, it is important that we have the right relationship with the private sector so that the tube and the running of the tube remain publicly owned and in the public sector, but the construction work is done by the private sector.

Q4. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

The Prime Minister will be well aware of the despair felt by parents who discover that a child of theirs is taking drugs. What can he say to the parents in my constituency, whose anxiety is greatly increased because they cannot get the support and information they need to help their child? Will he ensure that some of the £200 million that has been allocated for community partnerships against drugs is used to support the families of drug users and those who work with them, such as the Footsteps project in Warrington, so that we can get real assistance to those in the front line of this battle?

The Prime Minister

The Footsteps project in Warrington is well known and highly successful. Part of the £200 million for community partnerships is precisely for that purpose. Something like £150 million will be put into drug action teams and projects around the country specifically to help families with drug problems.

It is important to recognise that drugs are often linked with the problem of social exclusion and with high levels of poverty, unemployment and deprivation in our inner cities. The investment in our inner cities that I mentioned a moment ago will also play its part in reducing the temptations for those youngsters to get into drugs.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

May I welcome the Prime Minister's disagreement with the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) on defence matters, and ask him whether he thinks that Britain would benefit from the protection of a nuclear missile shield?

The Prime Minister

As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House on many occasions, we do not yet have a specific proposal from the United States Administration. We do not know what technology they will use—sea-based or land-based. The United States is sending over a team to consult its closest allies next week, and we will be part of that consultation. When we have a proposal, we will make our determination. However, we have said that we understand the issues that the United States is raising and, of course, will always work closely with our American allies.

Mr. Hague

The President gave an extremely clear speech yesterday. The Labour Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence said this morning that now that the President has said that America will develop a missile shield: I think one has to decide yes or no are we going to support or not? Is not what is needed the clearest possible public statement of principle that we want a defence shield to be developed and that such a shield would be in Britain's defence interest? Will the Prime Minister now give such a statement?

The Prime Minister

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. What is important is to make sure that we have a proposal from the United States Administration upon which we can give a considered view. I understand all the reasons why the right hon. Gentleman simply says that, whatever the proposal, we should agree with it. However, it is sensible, as we have said before, to wait until there is a specific proposal and to give our determination on that, recognising, as we do, that the issues raised by the American Administration are real and correct in respect of weapons of mass destruction but also knowing that it is a highly sensitive issue and that we should handle it with care, as President Bush is indeed doing. The right hon. Gentleman seems more reluctant to do that.

Mr. Hague

It does not follow that, because it is a sensitive issue, Her Majesty's Government should dodge the issue. The Prime Minister continues to avoid giving proper and clear support to a missile shield, and that position has been noticed in the United States. Does he agree that missile defence gives the people of Britain the chance of defending ourselves in the future against the unimaginable horror of nuclear terrorism? Our closest ally is taking the lead on this issue. Is not it time that the Government had the courage to come out and support it?

The Prime Minister

It is not a question of courage. The question whether a missile defence shield could have an important role for this country is surely to be determined on the basis of the proposal that is actually put forward. It is important to study that proposal in detail and it is also important that we play a role in trying to make sure that whatever different views there may be are reconciled not just here but elsewhere. I believe that we can play such a role. We have made it quite clear already—I did so in the press conference that I held with President Bush at Camp David—that we understand the concerns that the Americans have raised. We recognise that it is a different world in terms of nuclear proliferation and missile defence than the world of 10, 15 or 20 years ago, but I believe it is important and right that we wait for a firm proposal before giving a firm decision.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on the recent publication of the pensioners' guide? However, does he accept that something needs correcting in it? It gives people who have been bereaved only three months in which to make their claim. MPs and others have people coming to them because of the major financial difficulties that those people face because of bereavement, so will my right hon. Friend take a real interest in the issue to ensure that that period is extended?

The Prime Minister

I was not aware of the particular point that my hon. Friend has raised, but I shall certainly look into it. The purpose of the guide is to help pensioners—not just poor pensioners, but others as well—in difficulty. Therefore, I shall certainly look into the point that he makes.

Q5. Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

Immediately before the previous general election, the right hon. Gentleman called for the publication of the report by the Standards and Privileges Committee on Mr. Neil Hamilton. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the same commitment to seek to ensure the publication of the Committee's report on the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson)? If he feels powerless to do so, will he instruct the Department of Trade and Industry to publish its report on the same Member?

The Prime Minister

It must surely be for the Privileges Committee to decide that; it is perfectly free to decide whatever it wishes.

Q6. Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, nearly 90 years after Lloyd George first introduced legislation insisting that all pubs close at a fixed time, this Government will at an early opportunity create a more modern, a more flexible and a more civilised liquor-licensing system?

The Prime Minister

That may be one of the legacies of Lloyd George that the Liberal party is less keen to own up to. My hon. Friend is absolutely right and, in this day and age, such a change in the licensing laws is very important. I pay tribute to him, because he has campaigned so long and so hard for this change in the law. It is in part due to the persuasiveness of his arguments that the change has come about.

Q7. Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I know that the Prime Minister will join me in offering his sympathy to the families of the three Montgomeryshire farmers who have tragically taken their own lives since the foot and mouth crisis began.

Because the welfare cull has been delayed, some livestock are dying in the fields of mid-Wales, so will the right hon. Gentleman be willing to respond personally to some proposals that I would like to send him on speeding up the welfare cull and to tackle the desperate levels of stress in our rural communities?

The Prime Minister

I shall certainly respond to any document that the hon. Gentleman sends me. There have been real problems with the welfare scheme, partly because of the large number of animals involved and because the restrictions on movement have been so great. We have recently been able to lift many of those restrictions, and something like 16,000 farms have been removed from them within the past few days. The numbers in the animal welfare scheme are falling the entire time, the backlog is reducing and many animals are being withdrawn, so it is likely to be far easier to implement the scheme than we originally thought. In addition, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has provided invaluable advice.

Of course, many farmers have suffered deep distress during the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and that is one reason that we agreed to match the funding for such schemes as the rural stress network. I shall certainly consider any cases and documents that the hon. Gentleman sends me.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Parents and parents-to-be will welcome today's announcement on the recruitment of more midwives and the £100 million that is to be spent on maternity units up and down the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the priority for maternity services should be 1:1 midwifery care for women during labour, a reduction in the unhealthily high caesarian rate in this country, and improved post-natal care for families?

The Prime Minister

I agree with all my hon. Friend's points. Part of today's announcement is designed to deal with those issues. There will be about 500 extra midwives in the health service by this time next year and an extra 2,000 over the next five years. We have been keen to expand that sector for some time. However, that policy should be seen alongside the additional money for accident and emergency departments, for the extra 17,000 nurses who now work in the health service and for the hospital-building programme, which is involved in 68 projects around the country, and the record investment that will go into the service in the next few years. Although it has taken time to achieve that, the money is going in and yielding a benefit.

Q8. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

Is the Prime Minister aware that foot and mouth has had a devastating effect on a number of industries apart from agriculture, in particular on racing? Is he also aware that because of cancelled race meetings, many jockeys have lost many rides and will not be compensated through a business rate scheme? Will he provide another form of compensation?

The Prime Minister

Additional money has, of course, been provided for various schemes, including for the tourism industry today. I am not aware of the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I shall certainly look into it.

It is worth pointing out that the single most important consideration is that we manage to eradicate the last of the foot and mouth epidemic. I should like to pay tribute to the work done not just by the Army but by MAFF officials, who have done a heroic job at a local level and have managed, within two months of the epidemic starting, to reduce the number of cases to single figures a day, which is where we are now. There are still many issues to work out and problems will arise, but, as the operation has reduced the number of cases substantially, the pressure both on the farming industry and others is reducing. However, I shall consider the specific issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, of which I was unaware.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Although we readily acknowledge the serious problems caused to farmers by foot and mouth, should not the same sympathy be shown to our beleaguered fishing industry? Many fishermen face ruin. If we are to have an adequate decommissioning scheme to reduce the United Kingdom fleet, should not Brussels aim to reduce the whole of the European Union fleet? It should not be aimed purely at the British fleet.

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend; of course the scheme should not be aimed simply at the British fleet. The cut in quotas is severely affecting the fishing industries of all European countries. We are well aware of the problems of the fishing industry, which is why my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recently announced the decommissioning scheme. We hope to build on that, and provide support and assistance for the fishing industry and its communities to adapt in the way that they must. However, we have come to recognise, over a long period of time, that the trouble is that there is no alternative but to cut the amount of fish caught in the North sea, because of the problems of conserving stock. We face a difficult decision, which we cannot avoid, but we are doing what we can to help the fishing industry through these times.

Q9. Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Why does the Chancellor of the Exchequer keep pretending that the economy is not slowing down when it manifestly is?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman asked a question about the economy because it is rare for Conservative Members to do so. The reason that the Chancellor is, as he needs to be, cautiously optimistic about the British economy is because under this Government we now have the lowest inflation in Europe; it is because after national debt doubled, we have reduced it very sharply; it is because we have a million extra jobs in the economy; it is because we have halved the rate of long-term unemployment; and it is because mortgage rates are half of what they were in the Conservative years. In other words, it is because we have a lot to be proud of.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I will take the private notice question first.