HC Deb 27 February 2002 vol 380 cc698-708
Q1. Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 27 February.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. McWalter

My right hon. Friend is sometimes subject to rather unflattering or even malevolent descriptions of his motivation. Will he provide the House with a brief characterisation of the political philosophy that he espouses and which underlies his policies?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

The Prime Minister

First, I should thank my hon. Friend for his question, which has evinced such sympathy in all parts of the House, about the criticism of me. The best example that I can give is the rebuilding of the national health service today under this Government—extra investment. For example, there is the appointment today of Sir Magdi Yacoub to head up the fellowship scheme that will allow internationally acclaimed surgeons and consultants from around the world to work in this country. I can assure the House and the country that that extra investment in our NHS will continue under this Government. Of course, it would be taken out by the Conservative party.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Does it remain a principle of the Prime Minister to sack any Cabinet Minister who lies?

The Prime Minister

Yes, of course. I expect the highest standards of propriety.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Yesterday, the Transport Secretary admitted to the House that he told the British people something that was fundamentally untrue. Before the Prime Minister came to power, he said: I would expect Ministers in a Government I lead to resign if they lie. if that is so, why is the Transport Secretary today still in his job and sitting on the Bench next to him?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman has said. My right hon. Friend came to the House yesterday and made an absolutely full statement, and he and his Department should now be allowed to get on with the issues that really matter to people—for example, issues to do with the botched privatisation of transport and the extra investment in our transport system that it needs. Of course, that is the last thing the right hon. Gentleman will ever ask me about.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Now we know that the Prime Minister clearly is not going to stand by his word. Under this Transport Secretary, rail delays are up by 40 per cent., and even last night passengers petitioned the Government to get rid of the Transport Secretary. After yesterday, no one will ever believe the Transport Secretary again.

Before the Prime Minister came to power he also said that under his Government there would be no more sleaze, no more lies, no more broken promises". It is bad enough that such a Cabinet Minister does not resign, but last night the Prime Minister rolled out the red carpet at No. 10 and congratulated him. Is it any wonder that the public's trust in politicians has fallen so low when the Prime Minister is too weak to root out dishonesty?

The Prime Minister

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman exactly what the Transport Secretary will concentrate on: sorting out a privatisation that has wrecked the state of Britain's railways, ensuring that we get the largest ever investment into the London underground and appointing the right people to the Strategic Rail Authority, so that we get the extra rolling stock and investment that the transport system needs.

Those are the issues, and there are two parallel agendas. One agenda—that of the Conservative party and parts of the media—is to do with scandal and gossip, day after day. The other agenda is about the economy, living standards, jobs, the NHS, education, crime, and the real issues of transport. He can concentrate on the first; we will concentrate on the second.

Q2. Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the excellent work of the Merthyr crime reduction partnership? Will he join me in congratulating it on receiving a British community safety award for car crime prevention initiatives in my constituency? [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] Is he also aware, however, that our efforts to extend crime prevention work are being frustrated because of the lack of use of antisocial behaviour orders? Will he therefore undertake to speed up both the implementation and issue of those orders? Will he ensure that they are used much more frequently—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House should let the hon. Member put his question. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is reading."] Order. I am not reading, and I am saying that the hon. Gentleman should be able to put his question.

Mr. Havard

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Will my right hon. Friend increase the frequency with which the orders are used when ex-offenders are returned to the community, so that we are equipped and armed to deal with crime reduction?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend should not be in the least surprised at the jeers from the Conservatives.

After all, he was asking a question about a serious issue that concerns his constituents. Of course the Conservatives are not interested in it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that antisocial behaviour orders are an important part of the armoury of law enforcement in our country today. We need to make them easier to use, because the one thing that makes life hell for people in their local communities is the serious antisocial disturbance and behaviour of groups, particularly of youngsters, and families. I urge local authorities and the police in his constituency and others up and down the country to work together to use the orders more widely. We shall announce shortly, however, changes to how they operate so that they are less bureaucratic and easier to enforce.

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

In spite of the somewhat inadequate inquiries of a minute or two ago, will the Prime Minister explain to people out there in the country why exactly he retains confidence in his Transport Secretary?

The Prime Minister

For the very reason contained in the statement made by the Secretary of State yesterday, where he explained exactly what has happened, and because I believe that in the end the judgment that should be made, and indeed will be made, about this Secretary of State and this Government will be on the real issues to do with transport—the things that actually concern people in this country. I know that the Conservative party does not want to argue about them, but we do.

Mr. Kennedy

There is no doubt that that is what the Transport Secretary and, indeed, the Government deserve to be judged on, but if their presiding over a shambolic railway system, the financial failure of air traffic services, and their ploughing ahead with the part privatisation of the London tube in the face of popular sentiment and their own Labour-dominated Select Committee add up to confidence in the Transport Secretary, will the Prime Minister explain what would lead to a loss of confidence?

The Prime Minister

Let me deal with each of those issues in turn. First, in relation to the railway infrastructure, we know the problems caused by the lack of investment over many years and a privatisation which I think is generally regarded as botched and wrong. It was absolutely right that after the Hatfield rail disaster there was a full audit of the state of the infrastructure, from which time it was decided that there would have to be almost a complete renewal of it. That will require time to undertake and large amounts of investment. We are getting that investment in. It is right that it will take some time to sort out the mess of privatisation, but it will be done.

Secondly, in relation to National Air Traffic Services, the right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong. In respect of air traffic control, there has been pressure on systems and on the companies operating them around the world as a result of 11 September. The difference is that, in fact, as a result of the public-private partnership, we have managed to get hundreds of millions of pounds into the Exchequer which can then be used for the purposes of rebuilding the infrastructure over time. [Interruption.] Never mind pointing at Labour Members—why does the right hon. Gentleman not listen to the answers that I am giving?

The third issue that the right hon. Gentleman raises is in respect of London underground. From this April, there will be the largest investment in the London underground since the tube was built. Yes, part of that money will come from the private sector. If we did not get the £4 billion or £5 billion from the private sector, we would have to take it out of the capital investment programmes for schools and hospitals and other things.

Those are the answers to the questions that the right hon. Gentleman asks me, but I agree with him about one thing: it is on those questions that ultimately we are and should be judged.

Q3. Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in my constituency as we speak, wild hares are being torn to pieces by dogs in that great spectator event, the Waterloo cup? Does he share the disgust with that activity expressed by 81 per cent. of those surveyed in the most recent poll, and their desire for hare coursing to be banned and the annual atrocity at Altcar ended? Will he please tell us when the will of the House, expressed by overwhelming majorities in recent years, will be implemented? When will we follow the example of Scotland and ban the hunting of our wild mammals by a minority's dogs?

The Prime Minister

There will be an announcement made on the timing of the vote that we promised both in the manifesto and in the Queen's Speech. That announcement will be made shortly.

Q4. Matthew Green (Ludlow)

I am sure that the Prime Minister agrees that Britain's livestock industry produces meat to the highest animal welfare and food hygiene standards in the world. Is he aware that imported meat often does not meet the same standards that we expect our farmers to reach, and is often cheaper than locally reared meat? For the sake of both the livestock industry and consumers, will he ensure that there is a level playing field, so that all meat imports have to meet the same standards as meat produced here?

The Prime Minister

I agree that that is an issue, and we are working on it with the farming industry. First, if imported meat is coming into this country in contravention of the rules, it should not be. That is why we are working with the industry to tighten the rules. Secondly, it is important to secure a sustainable future for British farming. The basis for that was outlined in the recent report by Sir Donald Curry. We need to make sure that we work with the farming industry to ensure that British produce, which is of really high quality, can be marketed and sold properly not only in this country, but throughout the world.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that police officers should not have to work long hours of overtime either to provide a first-class service, or to have a decent standard of living?

Prime Minister

I think it important that police officers work under terms and conditions of employment that are right for the modern age. I have no doubt that we will be able to work with those in the police service not only to make changes in terms of policing reform, but to make major changes to our criminal justice system which will deliver the type of criminal justice system and police service that we need in this day and age.

Q5. My. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Like hon. Members on both sides of the House, the Prime Minister rightly takes an active interest in Africa, not least because many countries on that continent are part of the Commonwealth. Does he share my grave concern about the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe? Does he not think it absolutely outrageous that in the middle of the presidential campaign, the president's opponent and two of his close colleagues have been charged with treason? In the event of—I hope—the right outcome and the election of the candidate of the Movement for Democratic Change, what contingency plans do the Prime Minister and his Government have to help that country out of the hellhole in which its people currently live?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely that what is happening in Zimbabwe is an outrage. The actions of Robert Mugabe are completely undemocratic, wrong and dictatorial. It is for that reason that we argued with other members of the European Union in favour of sanctions being applied; we will make the same case in the Commonwealth. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should now—and we are doing so in our discussions with other countries in Europe and in the Commonwealth—concentrate on making sure that if the result goes against Mr. Mugabe, although we cannot be sure that it will because of some of the appalling things that have been happening, we are in a position to ensure that the proper democratically elected Government of Zimbabwe are supported.

Q6. Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

It was announced today that 50 years of peat working is to end on three sites in the United Kingdom, including Hatfield moors in my constituency and Thorne moors in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes). Is not that landmark agreement a good example of how the Government are supporting conservation and sustainability? Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Thorne and Hatfield Moors Conservation Forum, which has for many years fought hard to save those precious peat lands? Will he commit the Government to supporting and promoting the alternatives to peat for Britain's gardeners?

The Prime Minister

I congratulate not just my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) but my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) on leading that campaign with the pressure group that led it locally. The issue is important. Three internationally important sites are involved. If we can discover ways of promoting sustainable development, benefits will flow for the whole country.

The House may think that these issues are unimportant, but if people read the latest data and work on sustainable development and on the environmental degradation that will cause huge problems throughout the world, they will realise that some of these issues are far more important in the long term than they may seem.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Will the Prime Minister tell us whether teacher vacancies in schools have gone up or down in the last year?

The Prime Minister

Teacher vacancies have gone up. Part of the reason for that, however, is that so many more teaching posts are available.

Mr. Duncan Smith

That must be one of the most feeble answers ever given. The figures slipped out by the Department for Education and Skills last Friday—this Government love Fridays—show that vacancies have almost doubled and that schools were short of more than 5,000 teachers in the last year, which is up from 3,000 in the year before. The Prime Minister talks about the number of new teachers being recruited. Will he tell us now how many teachers left schools in the latest year for which figures are available?

The Prime Minister

I do not have those figures, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that what he was saying a moment ago is absolute nonsense. Thousands more teachers are in place since we came to office. There are vacancies because schools are recruiting and have been given additional sums of investment. There are schools in my constituency, his constituency and up and down this country where we can see the new teachers, school buildings and classroom assistants.

The difference between the Government and the Opposition is that we believe that that investment should go in. Time and again, we ask the right hon. Gentleman for a commitment that the Conservative party supports that investment. Can we now have it?

Mr. Duncan Smith

Another feeble answer from the Prime Minister. If he wants to talk about my constituency, he should ask himself why at least one or two of those schools have had to struggle out of special measures while his Government have been in power. [HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."] The answer that he would not give is that 19,000 teachers left schools in 1999–2000. Ofsted reports that 20 per cent. of—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should let the Leader of the Opposition put his question. Some hon. Members are behaving rather childishly.

Mr. Duncan Smith

They would do anything to protect their Prime Minister—absolutely anything, Mr. Speaker.

Ofsted reports that 20 per cent. of newly qualified teachers have left the profession in the last three years. The Prime Minister must therefore answer this question. Instead of messing around with exams and piling more paperwork on teachers, why does he not address the problems to which teachers' leaders have drawn attention—morale going down, a lack of discipline and teachers leaving the profession?

The Prime Minister

Never mind about protecting me; it is the right hon. Gentleman who needs protection. Did I just hear him say, "messing about with exams"? I think that it is important that our children take exams. Fortunately, under this Government, exam results are going up. The numbers of teachers in schools have gone up for the simple reason that I have given—this Government are putting more money into our schools. If he talks to teachers not only in his constituency but up and down this country, he will find that they have seen the investment going into school rooms and school buildings.

As for schools in special measures, this Government have taken schools out of those special measures since we came to power. That is one reason why the Ofsted report to which the right hon. Gentleman referred concluded that education in this country is improving.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

Recently, my right hon. Friend met the Italian Prime Minister to discuss European Union matters. Is he not concerned that Silvio Berlusconi and Jacques Chirac are able, with their votes in the EU, to shape legislation that is binding on the people of Britain, despite the facts that neither is accountable to the British electorate and that both face serious corruption allegations? Also, their domestic policies are not the sort of policies that would be supported by most people in Britain.

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend has a deeply held and principled position, which is to be against our membership of the European Union. I happen to disagree with that. It is in the nature of legislation inside the EU that it has to be negotiated and agreed. I believe that we benefit far more from being constructive partners in Europe than from being semi-engaged in Europe.

When we came to office back in May 1997, this country was completely and totally marginalised in Europe. It had no proper power and no proper influence as a result of the divisions within the Conservative party. I am pleased that that is no longer the case. I know and believe that the vast majority of people in Britain, whatever worries they have about the EU—it is important that there should be EU reforms—believe that we should be in the EU fighting our corner and getting the best for Britain, rather than on the path to exiting the EU.

Q7. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Further to the question of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, will the Prime Minister say whether it is acceptable for a Cabinet Minister to lie and remain in office? Will he guarantee that he will not move the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions in the next reshuffle?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman said about my right hon. Friend.

Q8. Martin Linton (Battersea)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be aware of the murder of the estate agent Timothy Robinson in an horrific attack on a Battersea street a month ago today. What assurances can he give my constituents that there will be more bobbies on the beat in Battersea; that there will be more street warden schemes, like the scheme that is starting in Clapham Junction on 1 April; and above all that the Government, who have been so successful in reducing burglary and car crime, will dedicate the same resources and the same determination to ridding our streets of street crime?

The Prime Minister

May I first express my sympathy to the family of one of my hon. Friend's constituents? He is right to raise the issue of street crime, which is a serious problem in London and elsewhere in inner cities. It is for that reason that the Metropolitan police are taking action that is specifically targeted on it.

There are two things that the Government must do. First, we must provide resources for additional police officers. I think that in the past year, about 1,000 extra officers have been recruited to the Metropolitan police. We must carry on that programme.

Secondly, we must make changes to the criminal justice system that allow us to get people to court quicker and give us the opportunity not to give bail to those who may be a threat to our communities. We must ensure that sentences that follow convictions are proper sentences that fit the crime. I say to all right hon. and hon. Members that this will be a major part of the Government's legislative agenda over the next few years. If people are serious about tackling the problems of crime on our streets, they must back our legislation, because it is needed.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

In addition to the incompetence and muddle that now define the Prime Minister's Government, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is also the substantial charge of unfairness? Is he aware that West Sussex county council receives only £300 per week under the standard spending assessment for the care of an elderly person? An equivalent elderly person in Islington receives £917 per week. Will the Prime Minister do what he can, please, to restore the deficit of £13 million in West Sussex county council's social services budget, and ensure that the vulnerable elderly of West Sussex are properly cared for?

The Prime Minister

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the position in West Sussex, as I am not familiar with the details. Overall, there has been an increase in social services spending of about 20 per cent. in the past few years, which contrasts with the preceding few years, when there was a rise of barely 1 per cent. However, we accept that there is more to be done, particularly in making sure that care home places are available. For that reason, about £1.4 billion is to be invested over the next few years. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the position in his constituency and council area.

Q9. Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

This week's decision to allow pensioners to claim benefits for the first 13 weeks of a hospital stay is extremely welcome, but does my right hon. Friend recognise that the pay gap between men and women at work becomes a pay chasm in pension entitlement? Is it right that women should have to pay that price for caring for their families?

The Prime Minister

I understand my hon. Friend's point. In spanning any chasm, it is necessary to take account of the resources available. However, she is right to say that the decision to extend the entitlement to 13 weeks has been widely welcomed. That had been unchanged since 1948 and it will bring considerable relief, especially to many elderly people. It is worth pointing out that as a result of the above-inflation rises in basic state pension, the winter fuel allowance and the free TV licences, prescriptions, eye tests and so on—as a result of all those measures taken together, we will have increased the amount of expenditure on pensioners by £6 billion a year from April. That is an indication of our support and dedication to making sure that their dedication and commitment are properly recognised.

Q10. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

Given that the Employers Forum on Age estimates that it costs the country £31 billion a year to deal with ageism in the workplace, will the Prime Minister explain why it is sensible to delay for another five years legislation to deal with age discrimination in the workplace? Should we not be getting rid of age discrimination now and legislating in this Parliament and this Session?

The Prime Minister

Everybody wants to get rid of age discrimination; the question is how to do it in a sensible way that does not impose undue burdens on employers. As I think the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge, there are huge practical issues to be worked through to make sure that any type of anti-discrimination measures work. It is important that we do that in consultation with employers, particularly small businesses and others that may be affected. I entirely agree with the objective, but it is important that we implement it sensibly.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Will my right hon. Friend consider making further funding available for maternity services? In particular, will he ask our right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health to look speedily and sympathetically at a £12 million bid to modernise the maternity services unit at Northwick Park hospital, which serves my constituents? Although I recognise that significant additional funding has been made available to my health authority, which is clearly an excellent start, will my right hon. Friend encourage our right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health to recognise that further funding is necessary to get the unit modernised?

The Prime Minister

I know that an application has been submitted by those in my hon. Friend's constituency which will be considered in due course. He is right to single out maternity services as a necessary part of the Government's additional investment and expenditure. Precisely for that reason, we are making sure that additional resources go into our national health service.

Q11. David Burnside (South Antrim)

The Prime Minister will remember well the very difficult decision made four years ago as part of the Belfast agreement to release all prisoners in Northern Ireland, both republican and so-called loyalist, who were guilty of the most horrific crimes. The people of Northern Ireland backed that because the prisoners were released on licence. It was not easy, but because the prisoners were released on licence, they would go back inside if they committed further crimes and terrorism.

Will the Prime Minister give a commitment to the House that he will stop the process, which I believe is far advanced, of initiating and legislating for an amnesty for those who committed crimes in Ulster in the past 30 years? That would drive a coach and horses through the confidence of the law-abiding community in Northern Ireland in the Belfast agreement.

The Prime Minister

We have said that the issue of those people who have been charged with crimes in the past has to be dealt with. How it is dealt with is a matter under discussion, but the hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to this point: those convicted prisoners who were given early release were released on licence, so that if they breach the licence conditions, they can be put back in prison again. I hope that he understands that we accept that the measure was very difficult for people in Northern Ireland to accept as part of the Belfast agreement. However, I believe that that agreement, taken as a whole, has given us a chance for the future in Northern Ireland. So we must consider very carefully how to proceed, but I hope that we will have his support in ensuring that the Belfast agreement is maintained.