HC Deb 01 May 2002 vol 384 cc938-48
Ql. [51697] John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 1 May.

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.

John Robertson

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the economy of Scotland, particularly that of the central belt, is buoyant, and I thank him for that. Can he assure me that the UK-wide aviation review will be based on fair and open competition, and that any public funding decisions will take into account the effect on local economies? Will he also ensure that airport costs are the same throughout the country, and can he assure me that the links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports, which are vital to Scotland's growth, will be started and completed quickly?

The Prime Minister

The aviation White Paper that will be published shortly will set out the options and deal with many of the issues raised by my hon. Friend. As for the rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports, I think that a clear understanding exists that there is a lot to recommend both projects. We are urgently looking at the matter with not just the British Airports Authority, but the Scottish Executive and the Strategic Rail Authority, and I hope that we will have some news to announce shortly. I know of my hon. Friend's interest in the matter, and I am sure that, given the buoyancy of the economy in Scotland, those projects could add to it.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

In the past week, the Government have announced a new target for violent crime by September, the docking of child benefit from truants, putting police into schools, and giving London 700 more police. Given that the local elections are—strangely—tomorrow, does the Prime Minister feel that it is any wonder that the public are cynical about such gimmicks?

The Prime Minister

It is not merely that we have announced more police officers for London; we have actually provided more. It is not merely that we have announced the measures on youth crime to which the right hon. Gentleman refers; they are part of a continuing series of measures to deal with every single aspect of youth crime. We know that overall crime has fallen in the past five years, but we have a serious problem with street crime and antisocial behaviour. Of course, the difference is that we are trying to deal with this issue, but the Conservatives have opposed every single one of the measures that we are proposing.

Mr. Duncan Smith

All four were gimmicks announced in the past week. The reality is that the Prime Minister has announced extra police officers seven times in five years. Even today, he announces that police numbers are at their highest level, but they have only just reached the level that he inherited when he took office in 1997. As many people are leaving the Met as are joining it. Because of the Government's red tape, the force now needs 12 police officers just to spare one to go on street patrol. Will the Prime Minister confirm that today's gimmicky announcement amounts at best to no more than—in fact, just under—two extra beat officers per London borough?

The Prime Minister

First, we have actually got the highest ever level of police officers. That is the result of investment that the Conservatives opposed. Since we are talking about comparative records, the Conservatives promised in 1992 that there would be 5,000 more police officers. In fact, they cut the number of police officers in that time. We have increased the numbers to a record level.

It is not only the Government who are taking action on street crime. The police are also taking action and the Metropolitan police safer streets initiative is already having an impact on reducing street crime. The difference is that we are sitting down with the police and others in our criminal justice system, working out each and every measure that we need to take to tackle the problems, and the right hon. Gentleman opposes them. He is even opposing the community safety officers that could be out there on the street, helping the police in their work.

What is more, the right hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party are also opposing the measures to confiscate the assets of drug dealers and others involved in organised crime. Some Opposition Members look a bit puzzled by that—they should know what their Front Benchers have been up to. If he is serious about crime, let him support us on community safety officers and on the Proceeds of Crime Bill, now going through the House.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is typical of the Prime Minister, when faced with a requirement for more police officers on the streets, to want to put part-time officers on the streets, not real ones. Just now he said that the Government were succeeding in bringing down violent crime. I remind him that violent crime has risen by 20 per cent. in the last three years. Nobody believes a word he is saying.

Let us get back to one of the gimmicks that the Prime Minister announced this week—taking child benefit away from the parents of truants. The Deputy Prime Minister rubbished it on Sunday and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions rubbished it on Monday. So whose idea was it, and when will it be introduced?

The Prime Minister

First, on the crime figures that the right hon. Gentleman has just given—over the last five years crime has fallen, not risen: it doubled under the Conservatives. However, we have accepted that street crime is a real issue. What I said to him was that recently, as a result of the operation by the Metropolitan police, the figures have been going in the right direction. We need to continue that and make sure that it happens in each of the 10 main crime hotspots.

In relation to child benefit, or any other benefit, we are examining proposals for dealing with antisocial behaviour. We will look at every measure necessary to bear down on the problem of truancy, antisocial behaviour and juvenile offending. If the Conservatives wish to oppose those measures, let them do so. It will show only how completely out of touch they are with the British public.

Mr. Duncan Smith

No one believes a word that the Prime Minister says. Out there, the public know that violent street crime is rising, but he will not even admit that. He pretends that it is falling. It has gone up by more than 20 per cent. The reality is that all the detection and clear-up rates in London have halved since he took power. When will he understand that the public do not want gimmicks: they want crime to be stopped?

The Prime Minister

I have accepted that street crime is a problem. I continually say that when the right hon. Gentleman asks me, because it is true. The question is: what can we do? We are taking action on truancy, action to ensure that people who are paid benefit take some responsibility in return, action to ensure that persistent offenders are not bailed and back out on the street again and action to provide more police officers because we know that street crime is a problem. The difference is that the Government are taking action to do something about it but he is opposed to that action.

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Will the Prime Minister confirm that he has received the largest amount of correspondence from individuals on one subject that any Prime Minister has ever received, given that more than 1 million cards have been received from citizens across Ireland expressing their deep concern about the safety of the Sellafield nuclear plant? Is he prepared to take the necessary steps to remove those concerns?

The Prime Minister

I am aware of the concern that has been expressed. However, the Sellafield plant and any other plants in this country are subject to the strictest national and international standards. Those standards are regularly reviewed. The plants are regularly inspected and none of those inspections has ever found a problem, such as the problem alleged in the press and by other political parties. Of course we take the concerns seriously, but there is a proper procedure and it would be wrong to close down nuclear facilities or start putting large numbers of people out of work without sufficient evidence from the relevant bodies to back it up.

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

Will the Prime Minister say which members of the Cabinet support his plan to withdraw child benefit from the parents of persistent offenders?

The Prime Minister

As I just said to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), when we have a firm proposal, we will put it forward for consideration. However, as I said, we are examining the matter. What is more—[Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman wants to oppose the measure, let him oppose it. We are not examining the proposal only in relation to child benefit. We are also looking at housing benefit, and the persistent antisocial behaviour and offending by families in receipt of that benefit. The vast majority of people in this country will support the idea that people who get benefits from the state owe some responsibility in return. If the Liberal Democrats are opposed to that, let them say so.

Mr. Kennedy

The Prime Minister seems keen to encourage opposition, but I was merely inquiring about his level of support. Will not this idea go the same way as the half-baked notion that youngsters on a Saturday night should be taken along the street to the nearest cash machine to pay their dues to society? Would not it be better to bury this idea here and now, once and for all?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not agree at all. The right hon. Gentleman may not realise it but fixed-penalty notices are now law. They will start to be issued in July, as will drug treatment testing orders, and the right hon. Gentleman must also bear in mind the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders, parenting orders and reparation orders. We will take whatever measures are necessary to crack down on the problem.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman and other Liberal Democrat Members that every Labour Member knows that problems of antisocial behaviour and juvenile crime must be tackled, and we will take the measures necessary. Given that 80 per cent. of the children who play truant are out on the street with an adult, I believe that most people realise that it is time we made sure that parents took responsibility for the behaviour of their children.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have seen press coverage over the weekend of British citizens held in jail in Saudi Arabia. They include one of my constituents, Mr. Alexander Mitchell. The prosecutor in that case has asked for lengthy jail sentences for some, and the death penalty for Mr. Mitchell. I know that some contact has been made with the Saudi authorities and the Saudi royal family. Will my right hon. Friend not only sustain that contact and the pressure, but step up the pressure immediately and treat the case as a matter of urgency?

The Prime Minister

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concerns about the case of Sandy Mitchell. I realise that this is a very difficult time for Mr. Mitchell and, of course, for his family. I appreciate also the measured way in which my hon. Friend has put his question. We are indeed in constant contact with the Saudi authorities. I believe that it is understood by the family—and I know that it is by my hon. Friend—that the best way to approach the matter is not in a public manner but to act behind the scenes so that we can ensure that we do the very best for Mr. Mitchell in these circumstances. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do so. As I said a moment or two ago, we have contact with the Saudi authorities at every level. We will maintain it, and ensure that we do everything that we possibly can to assist Mr. Mitchell and his family.

Q2. Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister was asked: Will there be a debate on a motion in the House before there is any conflict in Iraq? The Prime Minister responded that we will ensure that the House is properly consulted."—[Official Report, 17 April 2002; Vol. 382, c. 574.] Will the Prime Minister clarify that answer? Will he assure the House that a debate will take place on a substantive motion before he commits British service men and service women to any further attacks on Iraq? Yes or no?

The Prime Minister

I have nothing to add to the reply that I gave before. I simply say that since 11 September, for example, there has been the fullest debate and consultation with the House, and I am sure that that will continue to be the case. However, let me point out that we have not yet taken action in Iraq.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that upholding the principles of justice and the rule of law is as important internationally as it is at home? As the United Nations has decided that it should investigate the serious allegations that war crimes may have been committed in Jenin, is it tolerable that Israel, as the accused party, should seek a veto over what is investigated, who investigates it and the result of that investigation in advance? If it is not acceptable, is it not time for the international community to say what it is prepared to do about it?

The Prime Minister

I very much hope that the UN mission to find out the facts in respect of what happened in Jenin can go ahead. We are in discussion with the Israeli Government, as are the United Nations, the United States Government and others. I know that those negotiations are at a difficult and delicate stage, and I do not want to say more than that I hope very much that the mission goes ahead. As my hon. Friend may know, we too are working very hard to alter the position that currently obtains at Ramallah, where Chairman Arafat is. I do not want to say more about that at this stage, but I think that the proposed fact-finding mission, headed by the UN, with a responsible delegation, would be right not only for the international community but for Israel. I hope that the obstacles in the way of that mission can be removed.

Q3. Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating West Oxfordshire district council, whose council tax rate of £40 is one of the lowest in the country? Is he aware that this Conservative-controlled council is investing in recreation centres, social housing and doorstep recycling? Does it not show that we can have quality local services without fleecing taxpayers?

The Prime Minister

Of course, but if we look at the 10 top council taxes that are levied in the country, five of them are levied by Conservative councils and none by Labour.

Q4. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

One of the areas in which the Government have made a real difference in their first five years has been on debt relief and international development. With a few weeks to go to the G8 summit, will the Prime Minister tell the House what progress he is making in building political and financial support within the international community for the New Partnership for Africa's Development?

The Prime Minister

It is one of the Government's proudest achievements to have increased significantly overseas aid and development and also, in moves that have been pioneered by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development, to remove the very high burdens of debt from the most highly indebted countries. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus attention on the partnership for Africa that we hope will be agreed at the G8 summit in Canada in June. That will mean that in return for Africa taking the measures necessary on governance, corruption and conflict resolution, there should be better terms of trade, aid and help given to those African countries. Given that a child dies every three seconds in Africa as a result of conflict, famine or disease, it is high time that the international community faced up to its responsibilities for Africa and, in partnership with African countries, offered some hope for the future.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Does the Prime Minister recall his Deputy saying just days after the 1997 election—[HON. MEMBERS: "We won!"] This is what he said: I will have failed if in five years time there are not … far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it". Has the Prime Minister held him to it?

The Prime Minister

It is correct that traffic on the roads has increased. It has also increased, incidentally, on rail and the underground. In part, of course, that is because of the 1.25 million extra jobs in the economy. We have had very high levels of economic growth, as opposed to the recessions that we had under the Conservatives.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Now we know that a promise is only a promise if it is not made by the Deputy Prime Minister—no one ever holds him to it. As the Prime Minister knows, punctuality and reliability on the railways have got worse—that is why people are going back on the roads. Delays on the underground have doubled—that is why people are going back on the roads. The Deputy Prime Minister was the Minister responsible for the whole five years. Now we have a new Transport Secretary and he has completely failed to put any of that right. After five years, is not it always the same with the Government? No one takes responsibility, no one apologises and no one resigns.

The Prime Minister

As I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman a moment or two ago, the numbers of people on rail and underground have risen, not fallen, under this Government. In respect of the rail industry, yes, there are tremendous problems—in part because of a botched privatisation supported by the right hon. Gentleman and his friends.

If the right hon. Gentleman is asking what we take responsibility for, I shall tell him: the strongest economy for decades, with the lowest inflation and interest rates; the lowest unemployment in the western world; 1.25 million extra jobs; the best primary school results the country has ever seen; more teachers; more nurses; and record sustained investment in the national health service. In addition, there is the minimum wage, banning handguns, banning land mines, extra money for aid and development, and constitutional reform. Yes, there is a lot that we can take responsibility for and be proud of.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Does my right hon. Friend share people's concern about the future of the justice system, where those who engage in serious street crime, burglaries and drugs do not get custodial sentences, yet people who find lost property can end up with a custodial sentence? Will my right hon. Friend look into that to see what we can do to ensure that the justice system in this land is fair and efficient?

The Prime Minister

I shall certainly look into the point that my hon. Friend made at the end of his question. He is right to draw attention to the very serious problem of people being bailed and back on the street again when they have a serious record of criminal offences and are then charged with another criminal offence—especially when it involves people with a known drug addiction who have previously committed criminal offences. That is precisely why we are tightening up the law in those areas. As I have already said, I will look into the point made by my hon. Friend.

Q5. Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Contrary to what the Prime Minister said a few minutes ago, the issue is not one of civilians supporting the police, but of giving civilians police powers. If he wants community support officers to be able to detain people for up to 30 minutes, but not to arrest them, what does he imagine will happen when a gang of young thugs does not want to be detained? Would not it be far better to ensure that proper police powers are given only to people who are fully trained, properly paid and fully qualified, rather than introducing a system that smacks of policing on the cheap?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman's point would have some validity were we decreasing the number of police officers: we are not—we are increasing them. Conservative Members are completely wrong in their opposition to community safety officers. For example, in constituencies where such support officers currently work informally with the police they have been immensely successful at reassuring the public and also in having a deterrent effect on local crime. Of course, it is the case that we need more police officers. We are providing more police officers and they have the appropriate powers, but I think it wholly wrong of the Conservative party to oppose the idea that, as well as police officers with the full range of powers, we have community safety officers who can act in support and give a real sense of security to local communities. Like many other measures that we have introduced, I am sure that, once they are actually introduced, the Conservatives will say that they supported them all along.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, given the current international situation—especially the priorities of Afghanistan, the middle east and Africa—it is vital that the World Service receives adequate funding to continue broadcasting in languages such as Pushtu, Persian and Urdu? Will my right hon. Friend, with the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary, look favourably during the comprehensive spending review at the World Service's bid for further moneys from the Foreign Office grant to continue broadcasting in those languages?

The Prime Minister

First, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the World Service, which does a magnificent job. I saw for myself, in the interviews that I did with Pushtun radio for Afghanistan, how hugely important it was in getting a message through to ordinary people in that country. Obviously, the spending review is being conducted during the next few months. I shall take that as a very bold and good early bid, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been listening.

Q6. Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Bearing in mind today's Select Committee findings on the individual learning accounts that the Government failed to take early advice and failed to heed the warnings of the potential for abuse, does the Prime Minister agree with the Select Committee's findings that there is at least a moral case to pay compensation to training providers who acted in good faith, but whose schemes were terminated by the abrupt ending of the scheme?

The Prime Minister

It had to be terminated for reasons that I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands, but we have just received the report. We will consider it carefully before making detailed determinations on it; but, of course, we will study very carefully the conclusions of the Committee.

Q7. David Hamilton (Midlothian)

I believe that I am now living in possibly the most dangerous time that I can ever recall in my lifetime, and I was at school during the Cuban crisis. I believe that the problems in the middle east are of such a nature that we are living in a tinderbox. I refer to the question asked earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). At what point does the Prime Minister feel that it would be appropriate to take action against Israel, which is committing atrocities against the Palestinians?

The Prime Minister

As I have said before—not today, but when answering questions on this in previous Question Times—the most important thing for us to do is to try to resolve the situation. I know that there are very strong feelings, understandably, about what has happened in Jenin and elsewhere. Of course it is always important that we say also that there are tremendously strong feelings in Israel about the terrorist acts that have meant the loss of so many innocent civilians in Israel, too.

I regard our best role as working with the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and others to try to resolve this. That is why the most important thing in the immediate term is to deal particularly with the situation at Ramallah, which is very serious indeed, and at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem. We are working very hard to try to give both sides a way out of the immediate impasse and then, in the longer term, we have to restart the political process. It is not a lack of concern that means that we are not out there every day with statements that Israel should do this, or that the Palestinians should do that.

We really believe that the best way to be influential and effective in this situation is to work with the parties to get something done. We can all condemn what is happening and, for understandable reasons, people take very strong positions on it, but the main thing is to get the situation resolved because I agree with my hon. Friend totally that this situation is very dangerous, not just for the middle east, but for the wider world.

Q8. Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Will the Prime Minister comment on his Chancellor's biggest change in personal taxation, which was to put a duty on pension funds through the changes in advance corporation tax, which means that pension funds are £5 billion a year worse off than before? Does he realise that that is a major contributor to the closure of final salary schemes, which means that millions of people in their 30s and 40s will no longer be able to look forward to a retirement with independence and security? Will he apologise to those people, or is it part of the Government's policy to put people on means-tested benefits?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept that, and I do not accept that that measure has the consequences that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I would also point out that, of course, we have massively cut corporation tax for businesses. In addition, it is extremely important that we have now altered the situation that we inherited five years ago, when we were paying out so much in interest payments on the national debt that it exceeded all the money that we spent on the school system. It was therefore important to ensure that we brought that debt under control. That has made for a more stable economy, more and better financing and a situation where the stock market has risen. All those things help pension funds, rather than not. So I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that I do not accept the premise of his question. In particular, I do not accept that we were wrong to take that measure; it was necessary both in its own terms and to sort out the problems of the economy that we inherited from the previous Government.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is aware that I have nagged him and his Ministers relentlessly about the need for a new Scottish air traffic control centre. Will he therefore accept my welcome for today's announcement that, in future, Prestwick will control almost 70 per cent. of all UK air traffic? Does he agree that this should confound the critics who said that the centre would never come about, and does he accept that it illustrates the advantage for Scotland in its partnership within the UK?

The Prime Minister

We promised the modernised Prestwick centre, and we promised that to my hon. Friend's constituents. Like so many other things, it has been delivered.

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