HC Deb 15 October 2003 vol 411 cc105-14
Q1. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 15 October.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before listing my engagements, I would like to express our condolences on behalf of the Government and both Houses to the family of Gareth Williams, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who died suddenly on 20 September. He was an extraordinary man with excellent judgment and a fine intellect who earned the respect not only of his Cabinet and Government colleagues but of members of all political parties. He was a kind and generous man who sparked huge affection in all who knew him, and he will be deeply missed.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Robathan

Does the Prime Minister remember his commitment of September 1999 that by September 2001 anyone will be able to find an NHS dentist? Last month, September 2003, I received a document on dentistry from the Leicestershire strategic health authority, which said that in Leicestershire there are currently problems—across the county, and around Lutterworth in south Leicestershire because there are no practices accepting new NHS patients. When will the Prime Minister fulfil his promise to my constituents and the people of Leicestershire on dentistry?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly look into the situation in Leicestershire. We have made huge attempts to make sure that people can get access to NHS dentistry. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was under the Government whom he supported that NHS dentistry was done more damage than at any time since the NHS started. I would also point out that whereas we are now increasing resources going into the NHS, his policy is to take them out.

Q2. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill)

As the Prime Minister will be aware, low pay still remains a problem for thousands of workers in this country, particularly in cities such as Glasgow where they form the largest income group. Does he agree that the minimum wage is one of the best ways to tackle that problem, and will he consider repeating next year this year's excellent decision to raise the minimum wage above the rate of inflation?

The Prime Minister

There are now 1.3 million workers in Britain who have benefited thanks to the minimum wage. The lowest paid have had their incomes increased by £1,500 a year as a result of the minimum wage. We are proud that this party introduced the minimum wage. We remember being told by some that introducing a minimum wage would cost 1 million jobs. In fact, we have managed to introduce the minimum wage and gain 1 million jobs.

Mr. Lain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

May I join the Prime Minister in sending our condolences from this side of the House to Lord Williams' family? As he said, Lord Williams was highly respected by those in all political parties.

The Minister for Local Government says that council tax bills have reached "the limit of acceptability". Does the Prime Minister therefore agree that it would be unacceptable for them to rise further?

The Prime Minister

We have said that we will use the capping powers if necessary in respect of unacceptable council tax rises. I would point out, however, that we have funded a 25 per cent. real-terms increase in the money going to local government since 1997. In the end, of course, it is for councils to decide their level of council tax.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister, as ever, seeks to blame councils for those rises, but he knows that it is his Chancellor's hike in national insurance, the pensions tax and the huge salary increases that he has put down on councils that are to blame. He has said that the limit of acceptability has been reached, so why does the Red Book say that the Chancellor is banking on council tax increases of 13.5 per cent. over the next two years?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that we are not prepared to see unacceptable rises in council tax. We have said that we will use the capping powers if necessary. However, I repeat that it is necessary for central Government to fund local government generously. We are funding it generously and, in the end, it is for councils to decide their own level of tax.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The average family is now paying more than £1,000 in council tax and the Chancellor says that, on top of all that, they must pay £150 more over the next two years. This comes on top of council tax increases of 70 per cent. since this Government came to power. All this is from a Prime Minister who said he had no plans to raise taxes at all. Has not the council tax under this Government become the biggest stealth tax of all?

The Prime Minister

No. As I said in answer to an earlier question, I believe that the responsibility of the Government is to fund local councils generously. A 25 per cent. real-terms increase since we came to power is very generous. It compares with the 7 per cent. real-terms cut in the few years before we came to power.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about national insurance and, yes, it is correct that national insurance has been an additional cost, but we make no apology for having raised national insurance to fund the national health service better. If he is saying that he would remove that national insurance increase, perhaps he will say so.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Given the Prime Minister's clear commitment and preference for an appointed rather than an elected second Chamber, will he share with the House his views on what kinds of qualities he will be looking for in those who he wishes to see appointed?

The Prime Minister

I have given my view. So far as Labour Members are concerned, my preference, which is probably in accordance with the views of most Prime Ministers before me, would be for ones who would actually support the Government.

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

I wish to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the very proper expressions of condolences to the family of the late Lord Williams. Those of us in all parties who worked with him in both Houses held him in great affection and respect. He will be greatly missed.

Is it the Prime Minister's personal preference to introduce legislation to the House to bring forward a scheme for identity cards?

The Prime Minister

As I have said before, I believe that identity cards have a place but two issues have to be resolved, which is why the Government are looking at them. The first is in relation to the logistics of such a card and the second is in relation to the cost. When we look at the levels of benefit fraud and the problems that arise from asylum and immigration, I think that, in principle, yes they are a good idea.

Mr. Kennedy

At the end of that answer, the Prime Minister said yes, in principle, he thinks identity cards are a good idea. The Home Secretary publicly said on the record this week that there are divisions within the Cabinet on this matter. Given that there is such disagreement around the Cabinet table, can we therefore assume that, despite the Prime Minister's personal preference, there will not be legislation in the Queen's Speech for identity cards?

The Prime Minister

We must wait for the Queen's Speech to see what is in it. In relation to the two issues that I have just described, there are issues of cost and logistics. However, the question is whether those issues can be overcome, and that is precisely what we are looking at now. I remember a similar debate about identity cards under the previous Government, but I happen to believe that in today's world, where we have masses of migration across national frontiers and where there are real problems with fraud, if we can overcome the questions about costs and logistics, yes, in principle, identity cards are the right thing to do.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Following the previous question, does the Prime Minister accept that if we claim benefits or any kind of entitlement from the state, it is not unreasonable to show who we are? Is there not overwhelming support for the principle of identity cards, so that we have a society in which people claim what they have the personal right to claim?

The Prime Minister

It is for precisely that reason that the issue arises. The question, particularly with the new biometric technology, is whether there is a way in which the costs of introducing such a scheme will be justified by the benefits that we get back as a result. That is precisely why we need to undertake the detailed work, and we are doing that. I would have thought that that was sensible for any Government to do.

Q3. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Has the Prime Minister had a chance to look at yesterday's report by the centre for education and employment research at Liverpool university, which concluded that this year's education funding crisis has forced schools, including many in Norfolk, to shed 21,000 staff, which has led to larger classes, poorer teaching and a reduced curriculum? With two thirds of all schools in England and Wales being worse off, what has happened to his election promise of "education, education, education"?

The Prime Minister

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what has happened to that. Since this Government came to office, we now have 25,000 more teachers and 80,000 more classroom assistants. I shall tell him what he has actually got in Norfolk—almost 400 more teachers, 1,000 more teaching assistants and 1,300 more support staff. I agree that there are schools that have had problems with their funding this year—that is absolutely true—but the answer to that cannot be his policy, which is to impose cuts on state school funding. With the greatest respect, he should ask himself how he managed to go through the Lobby to vote against increases in education spending.

Q4. Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall)

Every week I receive letters from my constituents who are concerned about bullying, neighbour nuisance, vandalism, graffiti, thuggish behaviour, abandoned cars and the dumping of rubbish. That sort of criminality is not acceptable to decent citizens. Will the House join me in congratulating the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on investing millions of pounds in schemes to tackle antisocial behaviour? Will the Prime Minister also assure the House that his Government will monitor the progress of the antisocial behaviour action plan?

The Prime Minister

Everyone recognises the huge problem of antisocial behaviour, and the new powers that will come into effect early next year—especially with fixed penalty notice fines—will allow the police and others, such as local authority officials, to deal promptly and summarily with antisocial behaviour. Where the fines have been piloted, they have been immensely successful. From what was being said by many police officers throughout the country yesterday, I think that they now have available the range of powers to tackle antisocial behaviour. It is also important to point out, as I am sure my hon. Friend would like to, that whereas this side of the House supported the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, the Liberal Democrats opposed it.

Mr. Lain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Will the Prime Minister say how much a typical pensioner couple will have to save over their lifetime to avoid a means test?

The Prime Minister

I cannot say the exact amount, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that about 2 million pensioners have already benefited from the pension credit, which means, in many cases, that they benefit by £8, £10 or even more a week. His proposal, which is to take that money off them, would be disastrous for them and the poorest pensioners in our country.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Under the Prime Minister's own figures, 1.4 million of the poorest pensioners now will not get even an extra penny from the Chancellor's scheme. Under the Prime Minister's Government, persistent pensioner poverty has actually risen since 1997. Now, a pensioner couple will have to save £180,000—that is a massive amount—just to escape his means test, and that from the Chancellor who said that he would end the means test for our elderly people". Will the Prime Minister now tell us how many more pensioners are on means-tested benefits since 1997?

The Prime Minister

Those who are on the pension credit are, I think, absolutely delighted to be on it because it gives a substantial uplift to their income. That goes alongside the winter fuel allowance, free television licences for over-75s and above inflation increases to the basic state pension. Let us be quite clear: this Government have done a huge amount for the poorest pensioners in our community, but every single one of those measures has been opposed by the right hon. Gentleman and his party.

Mr. Duncan Smith

There are now 6 million pensioners on the means test—that is 2 million more than when the Prime Minister came to power in 1997. Two million pensioners have to go cap in hand to his Government just to make ends meet. Why will he not take people out of the means test, raise the state pension and give pensioners dignity and independence in retirement?

The Prime Minister

This is the Conservative party that now says that it is the great champion of linking the pension to earnings, but they are the people who took away the link between earnings and pensions. As for saying that people go cap in hand, in light of the 2 million pensioners and the many hundreds of thousands to come who are receiving large additional amounts, we make no apology for saying that the poorest should get most. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can explain how he can afford his policy without taking that money off those pensioners who are on pension credit? Every one of those 2 million pensioners, including those people who are watching us now, knows that his policy is to take that money off them.

Q5. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the work of the Territorial Army, currently employed in the reconstruction of Iraq, and in particular the 175 members of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers, based in my constituency, who are involved in infrastructure work and force protection? I talked to the commanding officer, Colonel David Caulfield, this morning. He wants to acknowledge the support of employers in allowing their staff to work for the TA. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the TA leaves Iraq, there will be a great deal of humanitarian and infrastructure work for it to get involved in developing countries throughout the world?

The Prime Minister

I concur with my hon. Friend. I pay tribute to the four members of the Territorial Army who lost their lives while on mobilised service in Iraq. Our condolences are with their families, friends and colleagues.

The work of members of the TA who are from my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere has been of enormous assistance. As a result of what the British Army—both Territorials and regulars—is doing in the south of Iraq, it is possible to see real progress on the ground. When people hear the tragic cases of terrorist bombings and attacks, I only wish that they would also realise that massive good is being done by British and American troops. We can be proud of what they are doing.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

Does the Prime Minister accept that the two parties from Northern Ireland that were invited to Downing street on Monday cannot deliver stability in the Province? Will he announce that elections, which he has twice postponed in North Ireland, will be allowed to proceed, that there will be no more attempts to save Dave or to appease the IRA, and that the people of Northern Ireland will have their say and choose who will negotiate a better way forward for them, based on an agreement that Unionists as well as nationalists can support?

The Prime Minister

We accept that elections should go ahead and we are considering when those should be. However, I have two things to say to the hon. Gentleman. First, I believe that the agreement has delivered tremendous benefits for people in Northern Ireland over the past few years. No one who returns to Northern Ireland now after an absence of, say, seven, eight or 10 years could fail to see the progress that has been made. With the greatest of respect to the hon. Gentleman, that progress is a result of the courage of those leaders, including Unionist leaders, who have been willing to participate in the process.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman says that some other agreement is waiting out there to be negotiated. As I said to some of his colleagues when they came to see me, I do not know what that agreement is, but I do not see him or his colleagues negotiating a better agreement. The agreement that we have is the only agreement on offer. To say anything else is deeply to mislead the people in Northern Ireland.

Q6. Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra), does the Prime Minister agree that antisocial behaviour is an issue not just in inner-city areas, but in many rural and semi-rural areas, such as former mining constituencies such as the Rhondda and Sedgefield? My constituents are sick and tired of the antisocial behaviour of a few ruining the lives of the many. They want a police service that is so well resourced that the phone is answered every time and every incident is dealt with robustly. Will the Prime Minister assure my constituents that that is not simply a vain aspiration but his determined intent?

The Prime Minister

Overall in my hon. Friend's constituency and the country, crime has fallen in the past few years according to the British crime survey. We have record numbers of police officers and, in addition, community support officers. He is right, however, to draw attention to the fact that we need legislation to go with that. Antisocial behaviour legislation is important, as is the Criminal Justice Bill. I simply say to Opposition Members that the Conservatives in the House of Lords are still opposing central measures of the Criminal Justice Bill dealing with organised crime, previous convictions and other things that the police say are necessary in the fight against crime. I appeal to both sides of this House and the other place to support those measures because they are necessary in the fight against crime.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

In his party conference speech, the Prime Minister promised to change asylum laws and end what he called the gravy train of legal assistance, and to stop judicial interference in such matters. How does he square that with the European constitution, under which all those matters will be transferred to the European Union to be decided by majority voting and asylum and immigration rights will be permanently entrenched in the charter of fundamental rights, which will be part of the constitution? That will mean more judicial intervention.

How can the Prime Minister promise things at home, while simultaneously negotiating the transference of all these matters to another jurisdiction?

The Prime Minister

The simple fact is that I am not. It is absolutely clear that the charter of fundamental rights does not enlarge the jurisdiction of the European Court. As for the laws that we propose in this country, under the European Constitution we shall have every right to pass them, and we will do so. I hope that when we do, we shall have the support of the right hon. Gentleman's party as well.

Despite what is, as usual, being said by the Conservatives—who have returned to their obsession with Europe after a brief interlude during which they appeared to depart from it—the plain fact is that we need this constitution to make a Europe of 25 work well. I make no apology for saying that this country's place lies not where the Conservatives want it, at the margins of Europe, but at the centre of Europe, leading in Europe.

Q7. Tony Cunningham (Workington)

I taught for some 17 years, and have spent a lot of time in schools in my constituency. It is fairly obvious that educational standards are rising. This summer we saw some of the best examination results that we have ever seen. It is also fairly obvious that teachers are working harder than they have ever worked. While I am sure the Prime Minister will join me in paying tribute to their efforts, does he agree that we really need to do something about their workload?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right: overall, standards have risen significantly over the past few years. They have risen substantially in primary schools, and GCSE and A-level results are better.

My hon. Friend's point about teachers' workload is important. That is why we are negotiating a national agreement to reduce the workload. It is also important to get the right support staff into schools, which is why the introduction of 80,000 additional classroom assistants is so significant.

Q8. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Which policy does the Prime Minister think would find more support with his Back Benchers, the Conservative pledge to link pensions with earnings or his own commitment to introduce tuition fees?

The Prime Minister

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I think about both policies. In respect of tuition fees, I think that the Conservative policy of taking £500 million out of the university budget immediately would be disastrous for universities. [Interruption.] Yes—that is the Conservatives' pledge. They may think it an easy pledge to make; we will see how they explain it to the students who will have to leave universities as a result.

As for pensions and earnings, I think—as any sensible person does—that the additional money we give to pensions is best targeted at the pensioners who need it most. What the hon. Gentleman will have to explain come the next election is why all the pensioners on pension credit will lose it under the Conservative plan.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Will my right hon. Friend give a categorical assurance that should Israel and the United States engage in hostilities against Syria, this country will not be involved?

The Prime Minister

We have absolutely no plans to engage in hostilities in respect of Syria. That is what my hon. Friend would expect me to say. Let me also say that it is extremely important, obviously, for Israel to conduct itself with restraint in these very difficult times, but I hope that my hon. Friend understands how hard that is for a country such as Israel, a democracy that faces the carnage of so many of its citizens in these appalling terrorist attacks. It necessarily feels that it must react and do something about that.

I think that, in the end, the only way forward is to put the middle east peace process back on track according to the road map that has been set out. I hope that those who look at the situation in the middle east realise that although, of course, there is misery and degradation on the Palestinian side—which is why the peace process is so important—there is also terrible innocent suffering on the Israeli side. It is important for us to recognise and remember that because there is too often a tendency for the international community to look only at the faults on one side, and not at those on all sides.

Q9. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Why does the Prime Minister dislike pensioners so much? Let us look at the facts. One of the first acts of his Government was to raid their pension funds. Then he and his Government bullied millions of pensioners into switching their pensions away from post offices to banks, thereby closing hundreds of post offices, four of which have recently closed in my constituency. Now we see pensioners struggling to pay the obscene increases in council tax—up to 70 per cent. since his Government came to power. For the Government to give some money with one hand and claw back more with the other is not a decent policy for our pensioners. When will the Prime Minister start supporting our pensioners and stop kicking them at every turn?

The Prime Minister

This Government have introduced larger than average rises in the basic state pension, the winter fuel allowance of £200, free TV licences for the over-75s and the free eye test. We are introducing in the pension credit money for the poorest pensioners, millions of whom will benefit as a result of it. People remember 18 years of a Conservative Government who broke the link between earnings and pensions, and who were associated with all the scandals of private pensions. As this is the Conservatives' latest opportunism, let me remind them what their social security spokesman said just a couple of years ago about re-linking earnings to pensions—that that is uncosted and unaffordable. The Conservatives have a plan in which they do not really believe, and which will mean that pensioners lose hundreds of pounds a year, because the pension credit will help pensioners and the Conservatives will take it off them.

Liz Blackman (Erewash)

Like many Members, I represent a former mining community. Many former miners in my constituency have been compensated for the lung disease and vibration white finger that they contracted as a result of their former occupation. Others await redress. Can my right hon. Friend give me an update on the progress of the compensation scheme towards meeting those outstanding claims?

The Prime Minister

I do not have the exact figures, but I understand that hundreds of millions of pounds have been paid out in compensation claims. I know that there are still claims outstanding. As my hon. Friend recognises, part of the problem is that each claim has had to be assessed individually. We have made real efforts to speed up the process. Apparently, £1.6 billion has already been paid out, and I hope very much that we can deal with the remaining claims as swiftly as possible.

Q10. Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

Considering that the Government were supposed to replace the special waste regulation for hazardous waste but have not done so, how are we supposed to trust them with radioactive waste? How much do the Government propose to spend on compensating communities that agree to have a radioactive waste management facility?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps I can write and give the hon. Gentleman a more detailed reply. With reference to radioactive waste, there are rules, plus an independent objective body that assesses risk. Those rules must be adhered to and the body makes a report on them. Some of the concerns that people have often turn out to be far less well grounded than they think.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the fact that call centres make simultaneous calls to customers, and when a customer answers, all the other calls continue ringing and cause a nuisance, particularly to the elderly, when they answer the phone and find that there is nobody there? This has been happening ever since the call centres started moving abroad. Will my right hon. Friend look into the situation, and also try to stop call centres relocating abroad?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure that I can promise to stop call centres relocating. In the end it is a commercial decision that they must take, but I shall look into the point that my hon. Friend makes about the calls.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

Council tax now represents the single largest outlay for many pensioners across the country, including those among my constituents in Rayleigh. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment to review the new formula spending share arrangements that determine how much money goes from central Government to local government, in order to overturn the iniquitous situation whereby so much money has been taken from councils in the south with the effect of subsidising Labour's friends in the north?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman's last point is simply incorrect. In fact, all councils have received real-terms increases since 1997; that compares with real-terms cuts in the last few years of the last Conservative Government. I have to say to him and his colleagues, who are asking for more money to be spent on virtually everything that they can think of—from schools to local government; even to hazardous waste—that the policy of the Conservative party is to cut public spending. That cut in public spending, which would include local government, would result in less money going to local government and therefore even more money on council tax. Whatever the solutions to the problems that the hon. Gentleman raises, they are not those put forward by his party.