HC Deb 12 November 2003 vol 413 cc278-86
Q1. Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West)

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

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before I list my engagements for the day, I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in expressing our deep condolences to the Italian Government, the Italian people and the families of those people who have been tragically murdered in the latest terrorist attack in southern Iraq; and also to the families of the 17 people recently killed in Saudi Arabia, five of them children, from the same type of terrorist source. That shows how very real and alive the terrorist threat is.

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.

Dr. Naysmith

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recent research report from the TUC that indicates that 170,000 workers are being paid less than the minimum wage. Does he agree that that is a scandal; and can he tell the House what he intends to do to ensure that unscrupulous employers do not cheat their employees?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that issue. That is precisely why we are working very hard with trade unions and voluntary organisations to ensure that people are paid the minimum wage to which they are entitled. We on this side of the House are proud that we have introduced the minimum wage and proud that almost 2 million people have benefited from it. We intend to carry on raising the minimum wage as and when we can to provide a better deal for the low paid at work; and we are proud that the Conservatives seem to have recanted their opposition—although we are somewhat sceptical as to whether they mean it.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

I begin by associating myself with the condolences that the Prime Minister expressed to the victims of both the outrages to which he referred. We send our sincerest sympathy to the families of the victims of those terrible events.

Two weeks ago, the Health Secretary said that he wanted to cut administration costs in his Department by a third. Can the Prime Minister tell us by how much those costs have gone up in the past five years?

The Prime Minister

Overall in the national health service, the biggest increase—I am sorry. First of all, I should welcome the right hon. and learned Gentleman to his new position and say how delighted I am that someone who was written off under the last Conservative Government is now given the chance to rehabilitate himself under Labour.

As for staff—yes, it true that we want to streamline and slim down the number of staff at the centre of the health service, but the biggest thing that we are doing is increasing the number of nurses and doctors in the health service. Of course, that is the result of the extra money that the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposed when he had the chance to vote for it a few months ago.

Mr. Howard

I am very grateful to the Prime Minister for his warm words of welcome, but 1 am afraid that he did not answer the question. Let me give him the answer. Administration costs in the Department of Health have gone up by a third, so an extra £229 million has been spent on running the Department of Health—and now the Health Secretary tells us that it was all a waste of money.

Let us try the Treasury. Has anyone told the First Lord of the Treasury how much administration costs have increased there over the past five years? Can he give us that figure?

The Prime Minister

I assume that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has already got the answer, but I can tell him about overall Government administration costs. As a proportion of spending, they have fallen under this Government.

Before I come to the Treasury, I should like to deal with what the extra money in the national health service has bought. The other day, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that all the money had gone into administration and none into patient care. The extra money means that we have increased the number of people who have hospital operations by 250,000; we have increased the number who receive primary care and cancer specialists; we have cut the number of people who suffer from heart disease; we have got 24 major new hospitals built; and we have 50,000 extra nurses. Again, he opposed every penny piece.

Mr. Howard

Well, Mr. Speaker, two questions asked and neither answered—not a very good start. Administration costs at the Treasury have increased by 52 per cent. Since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister, the cost of running Departments, not front-line services, has gone up by 50 per cent. That is nearly £7 billion a year. Is not that eloquent testimony to the Government's ineffectiveness, ineptitude and sheer incompetence, all at the expense of the hard-pressed British taxpayer?

The Prime Minister

Right, we want to talk about ineptitude and incompetence, do we? Fortunately, we have our record under the Chancellor, who is in charge of the Treasury, and that under the right hon. and learned Gentleman when he was an economics Minister in the last Conservative Government. Let us compare them and see who was inept and incompetent and wasted money. Under the Conservatives, when he was an economics Minister, we had 15 per cent. interest rates. When he was Employment Minister, there were a million extra unemployed, a million people in negative equity and £80 billion of Government debt. Under the current Chancellor, we have the lowest interest rates, inflation and unemployment for decades. A million and a half more people are in work.

Let me say one other thing: whatever we have done, none of us has introduced anything as bad as the poll tax. The right hon. and learned Gentleman introduced that, as well as giving us 15 per cent. interest rates and opposing the minimum wage. Same old people, same old policies, same old Tories.

Mr. Howard

Let me make it clear that I am happy to debate the past with the Prime Minister any day he likes. I have a big dossier on his past, and I did not even have to sex it up. We can talk about his personal pledge to leave the European Union or the time when he criticised America's "state sponsored terrorism"—I wonder whether he will raise that with President Bush next week. We can talk about the time when he praised the "fortitude and resolve" of the Wapping strikers. I bet that he does not remind Rupert Murdoch of that.

I am happy to debate the past with the Prime Minister any day of the week, but I rather think that the British people are more interested in today and tomorrow than in yesterday. We will take every opportunity to remind them of his discredited Government's failures today.

The Prime Minister

I am very happy to debate today with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. For example, let us consider what has happened in his constituency, where 11 schools have benefited from the new deal for schools funding that he has pledged to scrap. The number of five, six and seven-year-olds in classes of more than 30 has fallen from 12,000 to 249. We have had the best results ever for primary schools, GCSEs and A-levels, and all the waiting times are down. That is precisely the difference: this party is putting money into our public services and getting results in every constituency in the country. The right hon. and learned Gentleman does not simply represent the past—he would take us back to the past.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West)

In view of the timely visit by President Bush to these shores, will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to raise with him the issue of the illegal US steel tariffs, the decision by the World Trade Organisation on Monday on the legitimacy of retaliatory action and the implications that the continuation of the US policy would have on world trade?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of the steel tariffs. It is a subject that we have raised with the American Administration constantly, particularly following the WTO ruling. It is important that that ruling should be complied with and that the steel tariffs should be lifted. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be meeting the US Treasury Secretary next week to talk about these issues. I hope, incidentally, that if we can get a resolution of this issue between the European Union and the United States, it will give us some momentum towards restarting the World Trade Organisation talks, which are immensely important for Europe, America and the wider world.

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

Staying on the subject of President Bush's state visit next week, presumably the Prime Minister will raise with him the continuing indefensible situation of the British citizens being held in illegal limbo at Camp Delta. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will raise that issue with the President, and can we now expect a positive outcome to it, once and for all?

The Prime Minister

We have been in discussion with the American Administration about this issue for several months, and I hope that we can resolve it quickly. It is important to ensure—in the way that I have indicated to the right hon. Gentleman before—that it is resolved on the basis of a proper trial being held in respect of these people, any of whom can be charged. If that cannot be done, it is important that they should be returned. I do not want to say any more at this stage, other than that we are trying to resolve the situation, and that it is important that we do so. I hope, however, that the House and the country also take account of the fact that this situation—which I agree is exceptional—arose out of the situation in Afghanistan and out of a conflict in which British troops were involved. As well as ensuring that people get a fair trial, it is also important to protect the security of this country.

Mr. Kennedy

We hope that the Prime Minister will achieve an acceptable outcome next week in the discussions that take place. Presumably, he will also discuss with the President of the United States the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The administration of that country is clearly in a state of crisis, the attacks on allied troops have escalated dramatically, the Red Cross has been forced to scale down its presence, and the American administrator has now been recalled to Washington for urgent talks. As the leading partner with the Americans in this situation, what input are the British Government having to those talks?

After the state visit next week, will the Prime Minister undertake to come to the House personally to make a statement and to take questions on exactly what was discussed and what conclusions were arrived at?

The Prime Minister

I am very happy to keep the House informed as to the state of the discussions, both on Iraq and on other issues. Let us be very clear as to what is happening in Iraq. Yes, there are tremendous difficulties—there are bound to be, when terrorist groups and former members of Saddam's Government are prepared to kill any number of innocent people. The American and coalition forces are not trying to bomb the UN out of Baghdad, bomb the Red Cross out of its compound or ensure that ordinary innocent Iraqis are killed, as these people are doing. Of course it is difficult, but the implication of the right hon. Gentleman's questioning and of some of the comment that I read is that because Iraq is difficult, we should somehow get out and withdraw from the position that we are in. Well, I think that that is the worst thing that we could possibly do. We have got to stick with this and see it through. Our dialogue with the US Administration is constant at every level on this issue. It is important that we stick with this, because the reality is that we are the ones who are trying to make the lives of ordinary Iraqis better, and these terrorists and Saddam supporters are trying to stop us. That is the reality, and we should not forget it.

Mr. Patrick Hall ( Bedford)

Does the Prime Minister agree that if a political party were to promise patients' passports, pupils' passports—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let us hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

Mr. Hall

If a political party were to promise to spend more on all public services and to pay for that by cutting tax, might it not stand accused of trying to con the British people into believing that it is possible to get something for nothing?

The Prime Minister


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking questions that the Leader of the Opposition is qualified to answer. Next time I call him, he should have a better question to ask.

Q2. Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Is the Prime Minister aware of cases such as one in my constituency involving someone who, having had breast cancer surgery on 9 July, had to wait until the end of October to begin radiotherapy? Is he concerned about the current national shortage of radiographers? Has there not been a lack of joined-up action by Government to secure improvements in all stages of cancer treatment?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry about the difficulties experienced by the hon. Lady's constituent, but it is important to recognise that there have been substantial improvements in cancer care over the past few years. The number of cancer specialists and MRI scanners has increased. Whole new cancer wards have opened. There has also been an increase in overall provision running into hundreds of millions of pounds.

It is true that we still have a problem with the number of radiologists and radiographers, which is why we are substantially increasing the number of people in training. Training them takes several years, but we are considering how we can increase the number. Once we have solved that problem, we shall have closed the biggest gap between the cancer care system that we have and the one that we want.

Let us be in no doubt about one thing: if we compare the present position with that six or seven years ago, we see that not only are cancer deaths down by some 10 per cent. but the service as a whole has improved immeasurably as a result of our extra investment.

Q3. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

The Forensic Science Service is a hugely successful publicly owned organisation with an unmatched international reputation, but our Government, in their garage-sale privatisation drive, are putting this national treasure under the auctioneer's hammer. Does the Prime Minister understand why so many Labour Members feel unhappy about that and that we cannot stand by as mere silent witnesses?

The Prime Minister

I do not entirely recognise the policy from my hon. Friend's description. What is important is enabling the Forensic Science Service to attract private money and investment. This is all about improving the service, which plays an enormous part in combating crime. We must consider how we can run it and similar services more effectively, and secure more investment for them, both public and private.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Why was it necessary for the Prime Minister's spokesman to say yesterday that the relationship between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor continues to be one of the great strengths of the Government?

The Prime Minister

Probably because he was asked the question.

Mr. Howard

If the answer is true, why was that legendary peacemaker the Deputy Prime Minister brought in to mediate between them? Is it not an absolute disgrace that while the people of this country are feeling so let down over schools, hospitals and crime, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer spend their time squabbling over who should sit on the national executive committee of the Labour party?

The Prime Minister

Is it not extraordinary that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, with the record that he had in government, actually turns round and attempts to say that people in this country are suffering today under the Chancellor? If they are suffering under the Chancellor, what was it like when a million people's homes were repossessed through negative equity? What was it like when we had a million extra unemployed when he was Employment Secretary? What do the Conservatives think it was like when people experienced 15 per cent. interest rates?

A moment or two ago, Mr. Speaker, when you rightly disallowed the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Hall), it was interesting to note the Opposition's reaction to any discussion of their patients' passport policy. If we are talking about the national health service, what would be a disaster for people in the health service today is to be forced to top up their treatment with a voucher that would cost thousands of pounds for basic health care, which would mean that ordinary people in the health service did not get that care. It is not just the right hon. and learned Gentleman's record in government that we will be discussing; it is his policies now, because they are just the same as the policies that brought disaster before.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the dreadful house fire in Goole in the early hours of this morning, which sadly claimed the lives of three children under the age of six? The fire was of such intensity that firefighters' equipment melted and two firemen were injured. Will he extend his sympathies—as the whole House doubtless does—to the family concerned, and once again praise our emergency services for their excellent efforts in deeply harrowing circumstances?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to join my hon. Friend both in offering our sympathy and condolences to the family in his constituency and in praising the emergency services, which, in that incident as in so many others, did a fantastic job on behalf of the people of this country.

Q4. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

Who does the Prime Minister believe would make a better Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone or Nicky Gavron?

The Prime Minister

Of course, I always support the Labour candidate.

Colin Burgon (Elmet)

My two recent experiences of participating in planning public inquiries that affect my constituents in Bardsey and Methley and in Allerton Bywater, have confirmed my belief that such inquiries are the natural domain of highly paid barristers, employed by powerful commercial interests. They talk in a language, and use procedures, that ordinary people do not understand. Is it not about time that we looked at democratising the public inquiry system, thereby giving the public a real voice in the system?

The Prime Minister

On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I suspect that he may have found something that the Leader of the Opposition and I agree on. On the second part, we are of course going to introduce measures to change the planning system. I entirely agree that it is important to ensure that it is far more effective than it is currently, and that it distinguishes far more clearly between the cases that merit being considered for a long time and those that should be handled quickly. We have got to understand that one of the biggest brakes on our ability to develop brownfield sites is the slowness of the planning system. For that reason, it is important that the measures that we are introducing are supported, and I take it from what my hon. Friend is saying that they are coming not a moment too soon.

Q5. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Does the Prime Minister agree that local people and local councillors are best placed to decide on local issues, as their not doing so undermines local democracy and causes resentment? Given the enormous impact of the Milton Keynes and South Midlands study on South Bedfordshire, will he please ask the Deputy Prime Minister to accept South Bedfordshire district council's invitation for him to visit the area to reassess these proposals?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly pass on to the Deputy Prime Minister what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is of course important that we consult local people about these plans, and it is also important that we get plans that are right for the whole of the region, rather than for a particular district on its own. That is why I have no doubt that South Bedfordshire district council will be consulted in the normal way.

Q6. Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

The Prime Minister will know that the Department of Health has allocated £2.6 million to Berkshire under the choice initiative, which is drastically reducing waiting lists. Does my right hon. Friend share my optimism that even if we have a flu epidemic this year, waiting lists will continue to reduce? Does he share my dismay at Conservative party policies on spending?

The Prime Minister

I can certainly tell my hon. Friend that the policies of extending choice and building capacity within the health service will continue. When we came to office, many people were waiting up to two years for their operations. Now there is a maximum time of 12 months and very few people wait longer than nine months; we are going to progress to six months by 2005 and, if given the chance, to three months as the maximum wait by 2008. All of that comes only with the extra investment going into the national health service. On the basis of the recommitment that we have seen over the past few days to the policies of the previous Conservative leader by the shadow Chancellor and the new Leader of the Opposition, I can say that this issue will run and run. There will be a clear choice between those who want to rebuild the health service and those who want to get their hands on it in order to destroy it.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

Given the importance of the Scotch whisky industry, is the Prime Minister concerned that the ongoing crisis following Diageo's redesignation of Cardhu single malt is undermining the standing of that industry? Does the Prime Minister support ongoing cross-party efforts in the all-party Scotch whisky group to find a solution and enhance the good name and reputation of this important product at home and abroad?

The Prime Minister

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. To be frank, I am not an expert on how whisky is designated as opposed to drunk. It is true that we have frozen the duty on whisky for many years, which is important. As to the redesignation of Cardhu, I shall look further into it. I am not entirely sure that it is a matter for the Government—at least, I sincerely hope that it is not—but I will certainly study the comments of the all-party Scotch whisky group.

Q7. Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

The Prime Minister will know that the two key difficulties that Burnley has faced over the past couple of years have been 4,000 empty houses and problems in our secondary schools. Lancashire county council has a bid in to deal with the secondary school problems and has the vision to provide improved secondary education opportunities for all our children. During next month, under the Government's housing pathfinder renewal project, Elevate will put in a bid for the programme next year. Does the Prime Minister recognise the importance of ensuring that we receive a favourable answer from the Government to demonstrate that a Labour Government working together with Labour councils is the best way of solving Burnley's problems?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is making two points. First, on housing renewal, it is the case in some areas, particularly in constituencies such as his, that we have the opposite problem from that in the south-east, where there is pressure on housing and a desire to have more houses. In parts of the north-west and other parts of the north we have houses for which, frankly, we no longer have a proper use, and there is no market for them. That is why a housing market renewal fund of some £500 million has been established. I know that that will in part benefit my hon. Friend's constituency.

What my hon. Friend says about the school system is important. Some 41 bids are currently being considered for extra capital investment in schools. The decisions will be taken shortly, but it will mean something in the region of £2 billion extra in capital investment for schools in this country.

Q8. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

If things are going so well in the NHS, can the Prime Minister explain why my local hospital faces a deficit this year of £7 million or more? Can he give me a personal assurance that the pressure being brought to bear to tackle that deficit will not prejudice waiting times, waiting lists or patient care generally?

The Prime Minister

I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that it is important that the pressure on the deficit should not imperil the waiting lists and waiting times. I hope, however, that he recognises that in the past few years those have been falling substantially in his area and in other constituencies. The fact of the matter is that there is not a single in-patient or out-patient national indicator that is not in better shape today than it was six years ago, in 1997. As for the deficit, it is true that certain hospitals have deficits. They can carry them, obviously, but we are in discussions with them about it. But let us be clear: the implication of the hon. Gentleman's question is that we need even more money in our national health service, and I have to tell him that whereas Labour is committed to putting in that extra money, his party is committed to taking it out. That, I am afraid, is, was and will be the crucial difference between the two parties.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

May I turn the Prime Minister's attention to the review of local government finance? Many of us hope that it will make council tax fairer for pensioners and people on small fixed incomes. Can he assure us that, whatever the outcome, it will not have "something of the night" about it and will not return us to the nightmares of the past that have recently been haunting us?

The Prime Minister

I can simply assure my hon. Friend of this: the review will consider many things, but one thing that it will not consider is a return to the poll tax.