HC Deb 11 December 2002 vol 396 cc246-9
Q1. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

If he will list his official engagements for 11 December.

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 will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Kidney

Great amounts of money are going into the national health service for the likes of workers' pay and primary care trusts, such as the one based in Stafford, but will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government's evident good intention to support the health service will not he undermined by their plans for foundation hospitals?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I can confirm that. Foundation hospitals will be NHS hospitals and will service NHS patients. They will have greater freedom in the local community—they will be owned by the local community—to develop the services that NHS patients want. My hon. Friend is right; there is record investment in the national service, which is opposed by the Opposition, but it must be matched by reform—giving, on the basis on earned autonomy, the freedom to the front line to innovate and create in the way that the health service needs.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Is the Prime Minister concerned about the loss of integrity surrounding the No. 10 press office and information provided by the Government, and how does he intend to restore it?

The Prime Minister

No, I believe that all questions have been properly answered.

Mr. Duncan Smith

That is the most extraordinarily complacent answer. After 10 days of half-truths and evasions, the Prime Minister knows that questions remain about the changing of deportation dates after officials admitted contact with ministerial staff, the breaching of the ministerial code and the conduct of the civil service. Surely, the Prime Minister should ask for an independent inquiry to clear up this matter.

The Prime Minister

First, the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department have answered all the questions put to them, and have done so conclusively. Secondly, on the ministerial code, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the Cabinet Secretary has replied to him, and I have put the terms of that response in the Library of the House. Thirdly, I do not believe that anything remotely warrants the inquiry that he seeks.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister refers to the Cabinet Secretary's letter. In that letter he states: I do not propose to respond to your invitation to detail what advice I gave to the Prime Minister and when. So there is no information in the public domain that will settle the issue. I remind the Prime Minister that he said a few years ago: We are here to uphold the highest standards and that his Government would be whiter than white, purer than pure". After what has happened, people simply do not believe what he says. Does he not understand that the only way to restore integrity to his Government and to No. 10 is to hold an independent inquiry? Why does he not do so?

The Prime Minister

First, the Letter does deal with the issue of the ministerial code, and it deals with it in detail. Secondly, as I just said, the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department have responded to all the allegations that have been made, all of which, I may say, have turned out to be false. Thirdly, it is typical of the right hon. Gentleman that he dives into the swimming pool just as the water is running out.

Q2. Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley)

Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am that Mr. Cook, charged with the 2001 census, cannot count, and that he massively underestimated the population of cities such as Manchester with its large ethnic minority and student populations? Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that those figures are not used in the planning of vital public services?

The Prime Minister

The Office for National Statistics, as my hon. Friend knows, conducts an examination of the census, and it is confident that the 2001 census provides the most accurate estimate of the population, both nationally and locally. I know that that is a matter of great controversy in Manchester, and that the national statistician has met the chief executive of Manchester city council on two occasions to discuss the estimates. I understand that the dialogue is ongoing, but my hon. Friend will understand that we must base our deliberations on the figures of the census, unless we believe them to be wrong. As the figures are checked by the ONS, we must take its advice.

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

On Iraq, given that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has criticised the style and approach of the American Administration in its handling of the Iraqi dossier, does the Prime Minister share the Secretary-General's criticism?

The Prime Minister

I am not aware of the circumstances to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, but I can tell him that the United States and the Secretary-General are agreed on the key issue: that there is a United Nations resolution, that it must be obeyed, and that if there is a breach, action must follow.

Mr. Kennedy

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to reaffirm that the perception should be that the United Nations is the sovereign authority in all this business, and that that underpins the international coalition of interest against weapons of mass destruction and terrorism in general? If that perception becomes misguided or misinformed internationally, it is the worse for all of us.

The Prime Minister

It is, of course, important that in all circumstances the integrity of the UN is upheld. I believe that it is being upheld. The resolution was passed unanimously by the Security Council. All those who backed the resolution are sovereign nations. I believe that it is right that we study the dossier provided by Iraq and see what is contained in it. The basic point remains that that declaration has to be honest and transparent, and if it is discovered not to be honest—in other words, if there is a breach of the duty to co-operate—action must follow.

Liz Blackman (Erewash)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that 2002 is autism awareness year, and Members from across the House, the National Autistic Society and others have played their part in raising the profile of the disability. One positive thing that has come forward is that it is to be used as an exemplar in the children's national service framework. To date, no information has been given about the resources to be put behind that initiative. Will he press for those resources to be announced so that we can all get an insight into the kind of support that children with autism will have both now and in the future?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend has campaigned on this issue long and hard and she will know that earlier this year just over £2.5 million of additional money was allocated for research into autism. Autism affects many children in Britain and it is important that we study both its effects and its causes. I can assure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to doing that and to ensuring that the policies for research and for the health service generally take account of a condition that I know causes great difficulty for parents and carers who look after the autistic.

Q3. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Chancellor says that he believes in a fair tax system, so does the Prime Minister think it fair that council tax payers in Lancashire should next year have to pay a 13 per cent. increase in council tax, almost six times the rate of inflation, when council tax in the county has gone up by some 47 per cent. since 1997?

The Prime Minister

I simply point out that the Government have put substantial additional sums of money into the local authority settlement. I think that I am right in saying that somewhere in the region of 25 per cent. additional money has gone into local authorities during the past few years. That compares with a cut in funding in the few years before we came to office. Therefore, particularly after my right hon. Friend's announcement earlier this week, we have been very generous to local authorities, and it is obviously important that they use the money properly.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

When my right hon. Friend attends the European summit at the end of this week, will he gently suggest to the German Chancellor that, in the interests of the European economy, perhaps Germany should consider withdrawing temporarily from the European monetary union, so that it can recover control over its interest rates, exchange rates and public expenditure, and therefore take the necessary measures to try to arrest its serious decline into deflation and economic depression?

The Prime Minister

It has to be said that, from time to time, my diplomatic triumphs at certain European summits are not always exactly as I would wish with one or two other leaders in recent memory, but I do not think that it would be wise or diplomatic for me to suggest to Chancellor Schröder how to run the German economy. I am simply delighted that the British economy is in such good shape.