HC Deb 24 April 2002 vol 384 cc324-34
Ql. [49373] Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

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

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.

Mr. Greenway

Does the Prime Minister recall that Labour's strategy for sport at the 1997 general election promised to tackle the decline in school sport by ending the sale of playing fields? Does he therefore share my surprise that a written parliamentary answer that I received yesterday shows that, far from slowing, the rate of such sales is accelerating under his Government, to the extent that proceeds of more than £140 million were received in the past three years—more than ever before? Does it remain his policy to protect playing fields, or is this just another hollow promise, like the one on tax?

The Prime Minister

Well it does, of course, remain our policy, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, under the Conservatives, some 1,400 playing fields were sold off, and that figure is down to three a month under this Government. In addition, there is £1 billion of extra investment going into sport, and for the first time pupils will be able to do at least a few hours' sport a week, something denied them in 18 years of Conservative Government.

Q2. Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, at the end of February, I raised with him the need for more investment in maternity services and, in particular, a bid just submitted for a £12 million investment programme to modernise maternity services at Northwick Park hospital, which serves my constituency? Is not it the case that, since the end of February, what has changed is that our right hon. Friend the Chancellor has released the moneys for comprehensive reform of the NHS, and that the Conservative party's now not-so-secret agenda to attack the NHS has been revealed to all? When will front-line services be able to get access to the extra cash that has been released, and will my right hon. Friend apply some extra pressure on the relevant NHS officials so that we can get on with the job of modernising maternity services in Harrow?

The Prime Minister

I gather that the business plan for £12 million of investment in Northwick Park maternity hospital was agreed in March. My hon. Friend is right to point out that, as a result of last week's Budget, we will be able to sustain that investment right across the NHS so that in years to come there will be investment and reform throughout. We continue to believe that a rebuilt NHS is the best insurance policy and the best security that people in this country can have.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The Prime Minister once described child curfew orders as "eminently sensible". Can he tell us exactly when the last one was issued?

The Prime Minister

No, I cannot, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that, because of the representations made by local authorities, we have now dropped the age for curfew orders. Along with antisocial behaviour orders, which certainly have been used and are now being used more widely, they are a very important part of the armoury that the police and local authorities can use in future. I hope very much that they will be supported by the Conservative party, rather than opposed.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister may well have dropped the age for child curfew orders, but he has not issued a single one in the last two years. He mentioned antisocial behaviour orders. He promised that 5,000 of them would be issued every year; to date, a total of only 500 has been issued. Parenting orders, another one of Labour's ideas, have been announced by the Home Secretary five times in the past four weeks, and there have been 50 stunts and initiatives since the Home Secretary took office. If stunts and initiatives stop crime, can the Prime Minister tell us how many muggings there are in London?

The Prime Minister

I can certainly say that street crime in London has gone up, although it is important to realise that overall crime has gone down, and burglary and car crime have fallen significantly. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we need more measures to deal with crime. That is why the Government are now making greater provision for restrictions on bail, making sure that persistent juvenile offenders are brought to court more quickly, making sure that we have specialist courts that deal with street robbery, and getting more police on the beat.

Finally, we are introducing community safety officers to act alongside the police. I think that community safety officers will have an important impact in the fight against crime in London and elsewhere, but the Conservative party in the House of Lords apparently opposes them. If the right hon. Gentleman really supports the drive against street crime, is he prepared to change that position and support the legislation?

Mr. Duncan Smith

With a shortfall of 500 police across England, the reality facing the Government is that we need more police on the beat, not people acting as police.

The Prime Minister did not answer my question about London. Muggings and violent crime have increased: there are now 192 muggings a day, which is 50 more than at this time last year—one for every initiative that the Home Secretary has introduced since taking office. Street crime in the capital has increased by 40 per cent. and the clear-up rate has halved since 1997. It is no good the Home Secretary sneering—figures for his constituency show that robbery has increased by 50 per cent. Is it not true that because of Labour's failure to tackle and reduce street crime and violent crime, criminals now do not need to run from the scene of a crime, they only need to walk?

The Prime Minister

First, let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that overall crime doubled under the last Conservative Government, whereas it has fallen under the Labour Government. Secondly, on the number of police officers, in the years before we took office police numbers were falling, not rising, whereas now this country has record numbers of police officers. Thirdly, on street crime, I am sorry that he thinks that nothing is being done; in fact, in the past few weeks, as a result of the Metropolitan police's safer streets initiative, street crime has fallen, not risen. As a result of the additional measures being taken, we are confident that by the end of September we will have brought that problem under control, although it will of course be difficult.

When the right hon. Gentleman mentioned community safety officers, his hon. Friends shouted that the police opposed them, but at our meeting today, the police made it clear that they are in favour of community safety officers. We are increasing the number of police officers, but it is important also to have people in support roles to help them. I urge him again to allow the legislation through the House of Lords, so that we can get on with taking measures that I believe will be widely supported across the country.

Q3. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

France has brought many good things to the world, including the skills of the football world champions. Does the Prime Minister share my confidence that the country of Thierry Henry, Frederic Kanoute, Gerard Houllier and Zinedine Zidane will remain a vibrant, multiracial European Union democracy? Does he agree that the best message of solidarity that we in this country can send to the people of France is to reject the vile, racist, xenophobic politics of the anti-Semitic Islamophobes of the British Nazis, the British National party, on 2 May?

The Prime Minister

France is a strong and a decent country and I have no doubt that its people will reject the form of extremism represented by Mr. Le Pen. I find those policies repellent and I believe that many people throughout the world do too. There is no future in that type of narrow-minded racism and nationalism, and most people understand that not only are such policies wrong, but they offer no real solution to the challenges that face the world's developed countries. I sincerely hope and believe that they will be rejected not only by people in France, but by people throughout Europe and the wider world.

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

Without doubt, the Prime Minister's last sentiment will be widely echoed, as it is shared by all the mainstream parties in domestic politics.

Will the right hon. Gentleman justify his latest decision, which is to prevent 7,000 armed forces pensioners from being able in future to collect their armed forces pension via the post office?

The Prime Minister

We are of course in discussion with those groups and other groups to make sure that we can allow them to collect their pensions in the proper way, but there have been certain difficulties of which the right hon. Gentleman is aware and which it is important that we sort out.

Mr. Kennedy

But the Ministry of Defence has already said that as far as it is concerned it is proper to prevent armed forces pensioners from collecting their armed forces pensions via the local post office because it is "more cost-effective". Is that not just the thin end of the wedge? Which deserving group in society will be next?

The Prime Minister

First, in relation to the issue, I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman what I said a moment or two ago. In relation to things being cost-effective, however, I do not think that it is wrong for the Ministry of Defence or any other Department to take into account the effect of cost on policy. As I said to him a moment ago, we shall look carefully at the issue with that particular group of pensioners, but on cost-effective policies generally, I remind the Liberal Democrats that it is not wrong for the Government to take into account the effect of cost on policy.

Last week, incidentally, I told people about the spending pledges of the Liberal Democrats. In the past week, they have called for over £1 billion more on social services; more money for affordable housing; money to fund research into a bovine tuberculosis vaccine; cuts in fuel duty; more money for transport; more NHS facilities in rural areas; £750 million more for small businesses; and more money for amateur sports clubs. I am sorry, but in the end, even the Liberal Democrats must realise that cost can sometimes be an issue.

Q4. Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

The Prime Minister will be aware that hardly a family in the United Kingdom is unaffected by cancer, but is he aware that the problem in Scotland is particularly acute? One in three men contract the illness and there have been decades of underinvestment in the Beatson cancer centre. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be a widespread welcome for the new investment announced in the Budget if it makes a meaningful difference to the Beatson and Scotland's cancer patients? However, is he also aware that there will be widespread anger at the uncaring, heartless and extreme decision by the Tories to vote against every penny of new investment for the NHS and the cancer sufferers of this country?

The Prime Minister

First, I believe that my hon. Friend is right in saying that there will be a broad welcome for the additional investment in the health service. I know that the Scottish Executive have planned some £60 million of additional cancer spending in Scotland, which will improve diagnosis and treatment for cancer patients. I simply say in relation to the Conservatives that they have the test; if they really are the party that says that it can represent the vulnerable, what greater proof of that could there be than supporting the national health service which helps vulnerable people up and down the country?

Q5. Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Street crime in Castle Point and across Britain is making people's lives a misery. Why has street crime rocketed to record levels under Labour?

The Prime Minister

First, in the hon. Gentleman's own area and areas across the country, crime is down overall under this Government; it doubled under the Conservatives. There has, however, been a real problem in relation to street crime, which is precisely why we are introducing the additional measures that I described earlier.

I hope very much therefore that the hon. Gentleman will support the additional measures on street crime such as refusing bail to persistent offenders, and more secure accommodation and prison places. But, as I understand it, the Conservative party is opposing investment in those issues too. I hope that neither he nor his hon. Friends tell us that we should provide more prison places and more secure accommodation for offenders when they oppose the money needed to deliver them.

Q6. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

When will the Prime Minister do something about state subsidy junkies? Is he aware that one organisation has received a massive 300 per cent. increase in handouts from the taxpayer since 1997 with no improvement whatsoever in its performance? Does he agree that that shows that pouring money into unreformed institutions is a waste of time? [Interruption.] Yes, you've got it. The answer of course is Short money paid by the taxpayer to the Conservative party

The Prime Minister

The Government gave that additional money and voted for it as an act of generosity towards the Conservative party. I am afraid, however, that Conservative Members have not really repaid the money that we put in with any greater sense of reform or change within the party. I regret to tell my hon. Friend that I think that that will remain the position.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

By the time of the next general election, when health spending in Britain has reached the European average, will we have European standards of health care?

The Prime Minister

I believe that we will have huge improvements in our standards of health care, and that in many areas they will be as good, if not better. However, I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that it was a 10-year plan that we set out in 2000. It will take us time to get there, but already we can see substantial improvement from the investment that has gone into the health service. Of course, we believe in putting that money in. The Conservative party is voting against that money and investment going in.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Another one of those 10-year plans that we never get to the end of. Four months ago— [Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister would not know anything at all about the Budget; he was busy visiting beaches somewhere else across the world. Let us be clear. The Prime Minister said four months ago that our standards of health care would certainly have reached European standards. Now he seems to be drifting away from that, so let us find out what those standards are and see whether he is prepared to pledge them.

In Germany, there are no waiting lists. In Denmark, patients have a legal right to treatment within four weeks of seeing their GP. In France, people are twice as likely to survive liver cancer as people in Britain. Those are the sort of standards that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister say they will achieve by the next election. Will the Prime Minister pledge today to achieve those standards by the next election?

The Prime Minister

We have set out in the health service plan and afterwards the precise targets that we will reach in 2005—for example, that the maximum waiting time is taken down to six months in 2005 and to three months in 2008, and that waiting times as well as waiting lists come down. However, what Germany, France and Denmark all have in common is substantial extra investment in the health service. We are pledged to put that investment in. Is the right hon. Gentleman pledged to support it?

Mr. Duncan Smith

Those countries have substantial extra investment, and better systems that run health care better. The Government are not changing a thing in the health service to improve health care. For example, the Prime Minister is on record as saying that there would be 2,000 more GPs. We discovered that last year there were only 18 more. He said that he would reduce waiting times, but 35,000 more people are waiting for up to a year for their operations. With a record like that, no one will ever believe the Prime Minister again. The only way to convince the voters of this country is for him to say at the Dispatch Box that he pledges to achieve European standards of health care for European levels of money. Nothing less will do.

The Prime Minister

The targets that we have set out are the targets to which we shall adhere. Indeed, we have already been meeting them. In contrast to what happened in the Conservative years, when health service waiting lists went up 400,000, they are more than 100,000 down under this Government. Also, there is no one waiting more than 15 months. There are, for example, 25 per cent. more heart operations, 40 per cent. more cardiologists and cancer waiting times are falling. The targets that we set out are the ones that we will keep to.

I return to the central question. The only way that we will meet our targets or get anywhere near European levels is if we put the extra money in. A moment or two ago, the right hon. Gentleman said that he agreed that more money should come in. Either it comes in through general taxation, to which he is opposed, or it comes in through charges or social insurance or private medical insurance.

The right hon. Gentleman has had time to go and study all those other systems. Let him now tell us where he will get the extra money for the health service. If he is not prepared to say, we know from the words of his health spokesman that the Conservatives' strategy is to run down the health service so as to denigrate it and reduce public support, and we will know that that is the strategy that he is following. We have said that we will put the money in, and we have said where it will come from. Now let the Leader of the Opposition say where his money will come from and how much it will be.

Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham)

Does the Prime Minister agree that Europe must be a place of racial tolerance, equality and freedom, alongside economic stability? In condemning Jean-Marie Le Pen and his extremist views, will the Prime Minister take further steps to ensure that article 13 of the treaty of Amsterdam—a manifestly important article opposed by the Conservative party—is implemented by our European partners?

The Prime Minister

It is important that we translate article 13 into law and that is supported by the Government. Those anti-discriminatory provisions will send the clearest possible signal not just about British values but about European values. I believe that the vast majority of people, not just in France but elsewhere, will reject the politics of Le Pen and agree with my hon. Friend that to live in a decent multiracial, multicultural community is the right way for the modern world. The truth is that many problems exploited by people such as Le Pen are challenges not just in Britain or Europe, but right across the modern world, and the way to deal with them is through respect and tolerance, not through division and racism.

Q7. Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Has the Prime Minister read the independent analysis in the Financial Times which shows that 50,000 care home beds have been lost under his Government? Surely that is why there is a bed blocking crisis in our hospitals.

The Prime Minister

I think that the net figure is 19,000, but that is enough. It is a lot, that is true. We are doing two things about that. First, we are trying to put more money into support for people in their own homes, since people would obviously like that if possible. Secondly, the principal problem faced by many of the care homes is the low level of fees, which the real-terms increase in social services spending of 6 per cent. will hugely help. I cannot for the life of me see how the right hon. Gentleman or any other Conservative Member can complain about care homes and the amount of money that they have and then oppose the very method of putting money into them that is necessary to improve the situation.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)

Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning Israel's refusal to allow the UN investigating team into Jenin? What does it have to hide and what will the British Government do about it?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that we believe that the UN mission should go into Jenin. It is important that the UN mission does go in, not just for the middle east peace process and the people who have suffered so much, but for Israel's reputation. Discussions are taking place about the form and composition of that mission and I am confident that they will yield the right result. As I say, that the mission should go in is very much in the interests not just of the Palestinians and the wider world but of Israel.

On the broader issue, I again say that it is important that we recognise the suffering and the bloodshed of the innocent Palestinians who have died, but also the suffering and the bloodshed of the innocent Israeli civilians who have died. In the end, the only way through this is to re-engage with the political process. We can all take different positions on Israel and the Palestinians, but in the end the only thing that will work is to revive the political process and put that in place of the military and security measures that will never be an answer on their own.

Q8. Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

Given that at least 5,000 NHS beds are blocked on any one day, when it comes to the new system of fining councils, what estimate has the Prime Minister made regarding the cost that local government will have to bear and the effect of that on council tax?

The Prime Minister

Of course, the very reason for putting a large additional settlement into social services was precisely so that they can deal with such problems. Since we came to office, bed blocking is down by a quarter, and one reason for that is the additional £300 million that the Chancellor found before Christmas which has had a big effect on delayed discharges. Again, that was opposed by the Conservative party. As I understand it, the Conservative party is not merely opposed to the additional money going into social care, but to the reform. That reform is important because if we are putting in the additional money we must ensure that councils bear some responsibility for dealing with the issue. We now have the situation where we are committed to the money and the reform and the Conservative party is apparently committed to neither.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Has Kuwait indicated support for further military action against Iraq?

The Prime Minister

We have not got to the stage of military action against Iraq, so this issue has not arisen. Of course, Kuwait is a country that has as much cause to be fearful of Saddam Hussein as any other. After all, it was Saddam Hussein's attempt to annex Kuwait that led to the first Gulf war. I say to my hon. Friend what I have said to many hon. Friends and other hon. Members: we are not at the stage of military action. When and if that issue arises, I have no doubt that we can answer all those questions.

Q9. Angus Robertson (Moray)

Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the greatest threats posed by xenophobic and extremist parties such as the Austrian Freedom party or the Alleanza Nazionale is their inclusion in government? Does he not agree that completely the wrong signal is sent out by building up special alliances with Governments that include neo-fascists, such as that in Italy?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not think that it is wrong to have a proper relationship with the Italian Government. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that if he ends up confusing the current Italian Government with the policies of Le Pen, he will do a disservice not only to Italy, but to the cause of anti-racism.

Q10. Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh), has the Prime Minister seen the Internet pictures that we have been sent from Jenin of the mutilated bodies of women and children, some of whose heads were blown off? If he has seen the photographs—I hope that his advisers have shown them to him—does he not think that they give the lie to Israel's claim that the people killed in Jenin were hardline Palestinian militants who elected to fight to the death"? Is it not time that we stopped pretending that this is a balanced conflict, when one side is armed and capable of fighting while the leader of the Palestinian Authority is trapped in Ramallah without communications and the state of Israel is using force well beyond justifiable measure to impose its will upon people in its occupied territory? It is time to get back on the side of the innocents, and to treat the state of Israel as it is at this time—a pariah.

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I do not agree with that last remark, but I will come to it in a moment. In relation to what has happened in Jenin, the call of the international community is for a mission to go in there. It would be rather odd if I were to state a concluded view before that happened. It is better that the mission goes in there, does its work and comes to its conclusions. We can then all have the debate informed by that.

It is a question not of balance, but of understanding. There has been misery and bloodshed on both sides in this dispute. I honestly say to my hon. Friend that the single biggest risk of any such dispute is that one side forgets the other side's innocent dead and murdered. The fact is that there have also been Israeli citizens who have been blown up in cafés and restaurants and at religious ceremonies.

It is so important to get the political process going because we can stand here for ever and debate who is to blame for this situation, why it has happened and what the consequences are, but we know what the consequences are—misery and suffering for all the people concerned. Of course, it is utterly tragic that those young Palestinians and women and children have died, but the point that I am making is that we can wring our hands about that bloodshed, but we will not get an end until we get a political process started. That is where we are putting our efforts, and we are doing so in the best way possible: we are not out there shouting at both sides, but acting behind the scenes to try to do everything we can to pull them together and get them back into a political process.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

When the Prime Minister said before the last general election that he would not put up taxes on income, what precisely did he mean?

The Prime Minister

What was in the manifesto.

Q11. Anne Picking (East Lothian)

Does the Prime Minister share my sadness at the closure of the very last deep coal mine in Scotland in Longannet? Will he also commend some of my constituents who did their best to try to save the pit, including Brian Davie, who was up to his neck for hours in water with a rope tied around his waist to try to save it? Does he also agree that the Tories have eventually succeeded in shutting down a great mining industry? They started that agenda and I think that they should be downright ashamed of themselves for it.

The Prime Minister

I know that the workers at Longannet, my hon. Friend's constituents and the Department of Trade and Industry did everything that they could to save the mine, but, because of the difficulties involved, it has had to close. The Minister for Industry and Energy is in discussion with my hon. Friend and other local Members, and I can assure her that we will do everything that we can to expedite the redundancy payments and other payments, and to work with those who have been made redundant to ensure that they have the possibility of further work.