HC Deb 12 June 2002 vol 386 cc856-66
Q1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning—I suspect, in common with millions of others—I watched the England match, and I am sure that the whole House will wish to send our congratulations to the English team on reaching the next stage of the finals. Indeed, my next meeting was with the Prime Minister of Denmark—to discuss the next match, of course. This evening, I shall meet the President of Nigeria—of course, to discuss the last match. In addition, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

David Taylor

Given that German jobless figures are soaring to 4 million and French voters are veering sharply to the right, should not my right hon. Friend be discouraging some of his Ministers from their overzealous promotion of the euro, which is partly responsible? Are not the Chancellor, as ever, and Mr. Rupert Murdoch, for once, absolutely right to urge great British caution towards that fundamentally flawed folly?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for that opening question after the recess. No, I believe that we should stick to the economic tests. If they are passed, we should put the issue to the British people in a referendum. I have to say that I believe that the European economy—after all, its interest rate is 1 per cent. lower than ours—has created 5 million jobs in the past few years, and many countries in Europe are now joined in a single currency area. I do not accept what my hon. Friend says about the European Union; I believe that it is in this country's interests to be a member of the EU, to make our weight felt in the EU and, should the economic tests be met, to be part of the single currency.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

May I join the Prime Minister in congratulating the England team? Like him and many others, I watched the match, but I did not watch it with him, which is probably a blessing for my side. May I suggest, however, that of all the people whom he is planning to advise and discuss in the next 20 minutes, given his record, he does not give advice to Sven-Goran Eriksson on who to pick for the next game?

Will the Prime Minister give a personal apology to Pam Warren and other survivors of the Paddington rail crash for his attempt to discredit them?

The Prime Minister

I endorse entirely what the Department for Transport said last week about that. I do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says because there was never any attempt to discredit Pam Warren or anyone else. However, I stand entirely by the apology given by the Department for Transport at the time.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister is very careful with his words, but what he has said is very clear. [Interruption.] Oh no, he is very careful with his words because, when referring to the same set of words used before, Pam Warren said that they were totally inadequate. She went on to say that the actions of his Government were very nasty and spiteful, and if anyone is going to apologise it has to be Tony Blair. So, I repeat, will he now give Mrs. Warren and the other survivors the apology that they deserve?

The Prime Minister

I entirely understand why Pam Warren said that, because she had been told that there had been an attempt to find out or dig up dirt, as it was said, on her. That is simply not the case. Indeed, no inquiry was ever made about Pam Warren, but the Department of Transport said at the time—I endorse this and concur with it entirely—that it apologised for any distress caused to Pam Warren by a story about her that was actually false.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Weasel words. This is the same man who promised to bring in a new politics of honesty and trust, yet when any member of the public—Rose Addis, Pam Warren or anyone else—criticises the Prime Minister, his Government throw the weight of their machine at investigating their private lives and crushing them. I give him one last chance. He has the opportunity to get up and apologise now, without equivocation and without qualification, to Pam Warren for trying to discredit her.

The Prime Minister

First, in respect of Rose Addis, let us be clear. The hospital concerned asked the right hon. Gentleman to apologise for saying that the treatment given to her was wrong. There was never an attempt to discredit her; that is quite wrong. We are entitled, in circumstances in which the hospital disputed the complaint, to make that dispute clear. Secondly, in respect of Pam Warren, the truth is—if we want the truth—that there was never an e-mail attempting to dig dirt on her. If the right hon. Gentleman has such an e-mail, he can now produce it.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Is the Prime Minister aware that since the introduction of the softly, softly approach to cannabis in my constituency and the borough of Lambeth, there are more drug dealers on the streets than ever, many young children are going to school in the morning zonked out on a very hard kind of cannabis, and more and more residents are being harassed and almost attacked by drug dealers on their way home from work? That approach has released 1.8 extra police officers. Will the Prime Minister do something about cleaning up these gangs of criminals and stick up for decent law-abiding citizens and residents who are fed up with being experimented on?

The Prime Minister

I would point out to my hon. Friend that serious crime has fallen in Lambeth. It is important, however, to give careful consideration to the results of the experiment that was carried out. If we do not do so, and if we had refused to carry out such an experiment, even though the police and others locally were saying that it was sensible to do so, we would have been criticised the other way. We need to consider carefully the results of the experiment.

In relation to street crime in London, however, I know that my hon. Friend will support the Proceeds of Crime Bill, which will allow us to get at the assets of drug dealers—I am afraid that that legislation is opposed by the Conservative party—and the measures on street crime, particularly restrictions on bail for persistent offenders, which we believe will have a serious impact on cutting street crime. She will know from the latest figures produced by the Metropolitan police that that measure is having that effect.

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

When the Prime Minister became aware that a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Defence had recently taken up a private sector post with a commercial lobbying company with defence clients on its books, was he satisfied that the spirit and the substance of the rules governing such transfers had been met?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I was. The Ministry of Defence has carried out the relevant processes which apply to the whole of Government. The permanent secretary certified the arrangement, and it was made in consultation with the Cabinet Office in the normal way.

Mr. Kennedy

In terms of public perception, does the Prime Minister not think that special advisers should be subject to exactly the same rules as senior civil servants? For many people, this case, and the Government explanations attached to it, stretch credulity. When will the Prime Minister take further action to clean up this state of affairs?

The Prime Minister

I disagree, I am afraid, that action is necessary to clean it up. The permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence applied the rules in the normal way, and the Cabinet Office was consulted in the normal way. That is the right and proper way to do it, and that is precisely the system that has been used for many years. Rather than dealing with perception—the right hon. Gentleman's question and that of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) were about the perception that they want to create—is it not about time that we dealt with the reality? The reality is that special advisers, whether for Labour or Conservative Governments, do a perfectly good job. I fully support the special adviser system and it would be deeply unfortunate if we got rid of it.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that one insurance company has chosen to withdraw cover from areas that are judged a flood risk? People in much of my constituency in the Trent, Derwent and Dove valleys rely heavily on the insurance industry and on flood protection to ensure that they can live a normal life. Will my right hon. Friend emphasise the need for additional spending on this matter in the spending review?

The Prime Minister

We are spending substantial additional sums of money—running into many millions of pounds—on flood defences. Of course, I shall look into the particular point that my hon. Friend raises. It is a problem that we need to tackle with the insurance companies to try to ensure that everybody who can possibly get insurance gets it. I am afraid that one of the things that we know from the work that has been carried out and from the analysis of the changing nature of the climate is that these problems may well recur.

Q2. Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

If the Prime Minister recommends to the British people that they should abandon the pound sterling in a referendum and they reject his advice, will he resign?

The Prime Minister

I think that we should wait until we get to the referendum and then 'wait for the result.

Q3. Ross Cranston (Dudley, North)

My right hon. Friend will recall that three years ago, the health White Paper. "Saving Lives"—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Ross Cranston

That White Paper announced a plan for an alcohol strategy. Since that time, the charity Alcohol Concern has estimated that there have been about 2 million serious incidents of violence around pubs, 130,000 deaths from excessive alcohol consumption and numerous incidents of domestic violence. Will my right hon. Friend crank the machinery so that we have an alcohol strategy in place?

The Prime Minister

We will be investing somewhere in the region of £30 million in action against under-age drinking in particular, which is a serious problem. I point out too—it is important that the public understand this—that the police and local authorities now have two very specific powers to deal with this issue. First, they can seize alcohol from those who cause a nuisance in public places and, secondly—this is particularly important—the police will now be given the power to close licensed premises when there is a likelihood of trouble and they can arrest those who do not allow the alcohol to be seized when asked to do so. Those powers will give us considerable leverage on a problem that I know causes disturbances in many city centres in many parts of the country.

Q4. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)

In view of the close friendship between the United States and the United Kingdom, is the Prime Minister aware that the talks aimed at liberalising transatlantic services from Heathrow have stalled twice? Intense pressure has been put on No. 10 officials by British Airways and Virgin Atlantic because they do not want more competition. Bearing in mind the fact that he believes in open skies, will he put his seal of approval to an open skies policy across the Atlantic from Heathrow? Will he kick-start the talks?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we are keen to liberalise the US-UK air services agreement. That is important, but it must be done on terms that are fair. The competition must be fair, otherwise we will put the jobs of thousands of British employees at risk. I am, in principle, very anxious to restart this process, but it must be on the right terms. At present, those terms are not right, but we are in intensive discussions with the American Administration to try to get the process going again.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

It is said that we are all Thatcherites now. May I, as a Bevanite who aspires to be a Blairite, tell my right hon. Friend that there are those of us who would rather undergo root canal surgery without anaesthetic, be cast away on a desert island with the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)—with no ear plugs—or even be entertained to a full and frank discussion in the Whips Office, than accept such a description? May I ask the Prime Minister for his view?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I am delighted that we have moved this country away from Thatcherism. The problem with Thatcherism is that it took no account of social division; it grossly underinvested in our public services; it did not care about unemployment; and it isolated this country in Europe. That is precisely why I am delighted that we have a new Labour Government today to put the situation right.

Q5. Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

The Prime Minister of the Irish Republic recently stated that the decommissioning of all illegally held weapons and explosives must take place within a year and that the IRA must be disbanded. When will the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have the courage to set and achieve the same objectives?

The Prime Minister

First, we have to make sure that no level of paramilitary activity is considered acceptable, because no level of paramilitary activity is acceptable. I can go further and say specifically that by that I mean not the procurement of weapons, not the targeting of people and not the so-called punishment beatings that are actually acts of criminal violence. The absence of attacks on security personnel or bombing campaigns is not enough. A temporary or tactical ceasefire is not enough. If people want the process to survive, they have to make the democratic choice in absolute and not partial terms. The existence of any paramilitary activity is inconsistent with that.

I also believe, however, that the peace process offers us the best chance of achieving that aim. Even though I know that it is under strain, for the reasons implicit in the hon. Gentleman's question, it is precisely because people have got to make that democratic choice that there cannot be a halfway house. If we look over the past few years and at Northern Ireland as a whole, the vast majority of people have benefited from the peace process, the economy has benefited and security has benefited. We now have to work together to ensure that the aim that both the Taoiseach and I want to see is achieved.

Q6. Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Does the Prime Minister agree that if we are to eradicate pensioner poverty, pensions should be linked to earnings?

The Prime Minister

I do not, for the reasons that we have given many times. The best way to eradicate pensioner poverty is to do what we are trying to do. In particular, the minimum income guarantee is increasing pensioners' incomes far and above the rises that would result from a link to earnings. Universal elements, such as the winter fuel allowance, the free television licence for the over-75s and the new pension credit when it comes into effect, will help people on lower incomes far more than if we simply linked their pensions to earnings.

The trouble is that if we link the basic state pension to earnings, we will never get enough resources from Government to give such a lift to the basic state pension as it attempts to cure pensioner poverty. We have therefore to distinguish between different groups of pensioners. Some are relatively well off, some are very poor. It is the right duty for this Government, with our principles, to help the poorest most.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Last year, the Government said they would take away the driving licences from absent parents who failed to pay child support. They announced that three times and the idea received big headlines. Can the Prime Minister tell us how many people have lost their driving licences?

The Prime Minister

No, I cannot, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that as a result of the measures that we have taken to make parents face up to their responsibilities, the Child Support Agency is now working far better than the hopeless mess that everyone remembers, which we inherited from the previous Government.

Mr. Duncan Smith

After such big headlines and so many announcements, the answer is that one person has lost their licence out of nearly 200,000 parents who failed to pay child support. Two years ago, the Prime Minister announced that benefits would be withdrawn from people who failed to do community service. It was spun, and I quote him, as a fundamental to our reform of welfare". To date, that policy has saved less than £5,000. Can he tell us now how much that scheme cost to implement?

The Prime Minister

No, but what I can do—[Interruption.] I will send the right hon. Gentleman the figures on how much the scheme has cost. Let me deal with the Child Support Agency. The test, after all, is whether or not more parents are facing up to their responsibilities. If we look at the figures—I will send the right hon. Gentleman the precise figures and perhaps we can discuss them next week—more people are facing up to their responsibilities now than they were a few years ago. In relation to community service orders, more people are fulfilling their obligations, and that is what we want to see.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The one group who are not facing up to their responsibilities are the Government. The answer to the question is that to make a small saving of £5,000, the Prime Minister spent £300,000. On Monday, he was back to his old tricks, when he re-announced plans to get more sick and disabled people back to work. I remind him that he spun exactly the same set of stories three years ago, but the number of people on incapacity benefit is rising. By next year, he will have increased the welfare budget by more than the health or education budgets. Surely the reality for the Prime Minister is that the unspun headline is simply, "He talks a good game, but when will he deliver?"

The Prime Minister

Let us deal with the welfare budget. If we leave aside the tax credits and the pensioners' help that we want to spend money on, and take the social security budget that is based on social and economic failure, we are saving £4 billion a year over and above the levels of spending that were in place when we came to power. Indeed, leaving aside the areas in which we want to spend money, social security bills are falling in real terms for the first time in years.

As for what we are doing in the welfare state, we are managing to get those bills down because we have an extra 1.5 million people in work. Although when we came to power hundreds of thousands of young people were on the dole. I can tell the House that as a result of the new deal, the number of young people who are on the dole today is 4,500. That is the difference that we can make by ensuring that we save money on failure and can then spend it on pensioners and working families, which is where we want to spend it.

Hon. Members

More, more.

Mr. Speaker


Q7. Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

I doubt that my right hon. Friend is aware that Lewisham is the safest inner-London borough in which to live. However, there is still a problem in the Downham area of my constituency of young tearaways terrorising people with their behaviour. Will my right hon. Friend give me reassurances that I can share with my constituents about what the Government will do about that problem?

The Prime Minister

We must do a combination of two things. First, we must take measures on street crime, as we are doing with the Metropolitan police, the Crown Prosecution Service and magistrates in London. Those are significantly successful and are beginning to reduce the figures for street crime. Secondly, we must invest in facilities for young people, and that is why the investment in my hon. Friend's constituency—in sports facilities, in youth services and in the new deal—is important. We will not deal with the issue of what she calls young tearaways unless we make sure that they know that if they commit offences they will be punished, and try to provide alternatives so that they can engage in lawful conduct and proper behaviour, enjoying themselves without disrupting the lives of others.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I know that the Prime Minister feels much put upon by the press at the moment, and I am sure that we all share his pain in that regard. If it is true that Mr. Mick Jagger has some good news coming, no one would begrudge Sir Michael such an honour, but the Prime Minister's stated policy is that honours should go to ordinary people who do extraordinary things and provide inspiration for others at times of great personal suffering and trauma, so would not Mrs. Pam Warren be a suitable candidate for such recognition?

The Prime Minister

We should give honours to a range of different people. While honours are given to people who are famous and celebrated, this Government introduced honours, and in particular knighthoods, for head teachers who have done an excellent job with their school. We will always have a mix of people in the honours system, and so we should have.

Q8. David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

In my constituency the police hold many outstanding arrest warrants against individuals for whom they have no current address, while the local jobcentre and Benefits Agency hold those addresses but are fortudden to co-operate with the police by the Data Protection Act 1998. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Act is there to protect the innocent, not the guilty, and it should not be used in this instance as an obstacle to the fight against crime?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why we want to make sure that requests for information are now considered in respect of all crimes, not only the most serious. There have to be proper safeguards for the civil liberties and privacy of the individual, but the information is vital to the police in their work and I am sure that it should be made available to them.

Q9. Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

I presume that the Prime Minister is aware of the BBC 2 programme that followed the Metropolitan police paedophile unit for the past two years. It is clear from that and other evidence that paedophile activity is much greater than many of us had realised, and might have been accentuated by the internet. There are three police paedophile units—I hope that the Prime Minister is listening.

The Prime Minister

I am.

Sir Paul Beresford

Good. There are three police paedophile units in the country, the largest being the Metropolitan police unit. In the mid 90s, that unit had approximately 17 policemen; in 2000, staffing dropped to 15; it is now down to 13, of whom only eight are operational. I assume that the Prime Minister is concerned about child abuse by paedophiles. That being so, will he tell us what the Government are going to do and when they are going to do it, and will he accept a small deputation on the matter?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly consider any request the hon. Gentleman makes, but the position within the Metropolitan police is obviously an operational decision for the police. I do not know what other measures the force is taking, but I know that the Metropolitan police treat the issue very seriously. As for the Government, we have made it clear that we want to tighten the law in that area, and we will do so as soon as possible.

Q10. Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

The traffic commissioner responsible for bus services in Bristol said recently, I don't want to penalise the public by penalising the bus company. Given the commissioner's ineffective powers, what more can the Government do to involve and protect the largest group of users of public transport, bus passengers?

The Prime Minister

The best thing we can do is make sure that we invest in bus services, especially rural bus services. Some £200 million is to go into rural bus services, and there are many more services available. Furthermore, under the Transport Act 2000 local authorities have the opportunity to produce transport plans and strategies. However, I think that such decisions are better taken locally.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is a reception in the House today for victims of cystic fibrosis? It is a debilitating disease from which victims suffer all their life and die prematurely. Does he remember pledging in 1997 to withdraw prescription charges for victims of that disease and reiterating that pledge in the House in March 1999? Does he realise that victims were entitled to take that pledge at face value and that it meant a great deal to them? Is this not a good occasion on which to demonstrate that it was not merely a politician's promise, but that he meant it sincerely and is now going to deliver?

The Prime Minister

First, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about cystic fibrosis and the suffering it causes. Only the other day I met a cystic fibrosis sufferer who made exactly the same points. True, we have to consider the matter within the context of the overall sums that the Government are putting into the health service; on the other hand we are aware of the things that were said previously and we intend to honour them.

Q11. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

This week is national carers week. Six million people—including my constituent Mr. Norman Hosker, who is in his 50s and cares full-time for his 80-year-old mother, who has osteoporosis—save this country about £57 billion a year. Knowing that, and in view of a recent survey showing that only a fifth of local authorities currently have additional fund ng to implement the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000, will my right hon. Friend look favourably on further measures to assist carers in the comprehensive spending review?

The Prime Minister

We have put some £500 million into extra support for carers, which has meant that some 300,000 carers nationally have benefited financially. I agree—the reports that are being published today by the Department of Health are an attempt to do this—that we need to get greater co-ordination into the work that is done at a local level. That is precisely what those reports address today. Of course, the issue will be discussed in the next comprehensive spending review.