HC Deb 29 October 2003 vol 412 cc294-304
Q1. Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 29th October.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before listing my engagements, I would like to speak on the subject of Iraq. I hope that the whole House would join me in condemning the brutal and wicked terrorist attacks on the hotel Al Rashid on Sunday, on the Red Cross and Iraqi police stations on Monday, and the further attacks that took place yesterday. Those attacks were the work of evil people who do not wish to see a stable and prosperous Iraq, and we shall continue to do everything that we can to thwart them and reconstruct the country.

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

Mr. Simon

Could the Prime Minister tell me how to explain to my constituents in Erdington that they can get better cancer treatment if they move to London?

The Prime Minister

The issue of how to make sure that the drugs passed by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence guidelines are rolled out across the whole country is one of the matters that we are looking into now. It is only as a result of those guidelines that we have been able to increase the number of people who have access to life-saving cancer drugs. As my hon. Friend will know, the three-year progress report on the NHS cancer plan showed that cancer deaths are down by something like 10 per cent. over the past few years. We have seen the largest fall in lung cancer in Europe among men, the largest decline in breast cancer among women, and there are 30 per cent. more cancer consultants. All that is the result of the extra investment going into our NHS.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

I join the Prime Minister in his condemnation of the attacks in Iraq and express our commiserations to the families of the people who have suffered directly as a result.

According to the Home Office, which country has the biggest crime problem in the western world?

The Prime Minister

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, if he is talking about our crime rate, according to the British crime survey, crime rates are down 25 per cent. over the past few years. That contrasts very much with the doubling of crime under the Conservatives when they were in office.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Figures released by the Home Office last Friday show that people are more likely to suffer crime in Britain than in any other country in Europe or north America. So will the Prime Minister tell us which country has the highest level of violent crime in Europe?

The Prime Minister

Again, as I have said to the right hon. Gentleman before, yes—violent crime has risen in this country in the past few years and it has been rising in Britain for 20 years. However, as a result of the street crime initiative, street robbery is now down and overall crime is down, not up, in this country.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Again, the Home Office tells us that there are more violent crimes in Britain than in any other country in Europe. That includes Germany, which has a much larger population than Britain. The Prime Minister said here that he would be tough on crime, but gun crime is up, violent crime is up and overall crime is up. Is it not a reality that, under Labour, Britain is now the crime capital of the western world?

The Prime Minister

No, that is not correct. As I said, under the Conservatives, crime doubled; car crime doubled; burglary more than doubled; violent crime went up 73 per cent. It is true that we still have a lot more progress to make, even though crime is, according to the British crime survey, down 25 per cent. That is no consolation to victims of crime. However, a crime Bill is going through Parliament now—the Criminal Justice Bill, which will give us tougher sentences for murder, longer sentences for dangerous sex offenders, longer sentences for violent offences, five-year minimum sentences for gun offences, and which will change the criminal justice system so that those people who are guilty are convicted in the courts. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why, having told us that he cares about violent crime, he is opposing those measures in this Parliament?

Mr. John Hume (Foyle)

Would the Prime Minister agree that, for the first time in history, the people of Ireland as a whole, both north and south, have declared how they wish to live together by endorsing overwhelmingly, in referendums, the Good Friday agreement? Does he agree, therefore, that it is the duty of all true democrats to implement the will of the people, by implementing all aspects of the Good Friday agreement? Will he confirm that his Government are totally committed to implementing the agreement in full, and that they will not depart from it in any way?

The Prime Minister

We are indeed committed to implementing the agreement in full. The part that my hon. Friend played in bring the agreement about is a real tribute to him, and to his dedication to people in Northern Ireland. I want to make it absolutely clear that it is vitally important that we continue with implementing the agreement in all its aspects, as it is that agreement—and that agreement alone—that offers the best chance of a prosperous, good, stable and secure future for people in Northern Ireland. There is no other agreement on offer apart from the one that we negotiated with painstaking difficulty, as my hon. Friend knows, over a number of days. I hope very much that, as a result of what happens over the next few weeks, we are able to take that agreement forward and implement it in full. This summer has been the most peaceful in 30 years, and it is important that we carry on working to bring about a peace that is lasting and durable.

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

Under this Government, council tax has risen by 70 per cent. since 1997. How can the Prime Minister justify the unfairness of that, especially in respect of pensioners?

The Prime Minister

I understand the difficulties that pensioners and others will have with council tax rises, but the job of central Government is to fund local government adequately. The right hon. Gentleman will know that, under the previous Government, in the last three years before we took office, there was a real-terms cut of about 7 per cent. in the amount of money that central Government gave to local Government. We have now raised that amount by about 25 per cent. in real terms. In the end, council taxes are set by local authorities, but the Government's job is to make sure that we give a proper amount of support to local government, and we are doing that.

Mr. Kennedy

Given that so many people, not least pensioners, are being clobbered by the high percentage increases, and that the level of support from central Government is not there when and where it is needed, would not it be far better to scrap the unfair system that is the council tax and replace it with a tax related to people's ability to pay?

The Prime Minister

There is no doubt that there is a proper debate to be had about the future of local government finance, but the right hon. Gentleman knows that the Liberal Democrat proposal to substitute a local income tax for the council tax would mean that people's income taxes went up by something like 6p in the pound. That is a huge burden. As I have said on many occasions, the right hon. Gentleman simply cannot afford all his pledges on behalf of the Liberal Democrats out of raising the top rate of tax, or by means of a local income tax or anything else.

I do not know whether the House wants any more details, but I said last week that the Liberal Democrats had 70 commitments. The cost of those commitments would run to literally billions of pounds. It would take too long to go into detail, as we would run over the time available for Prime Minister's questions—[HON. MEMBERS: "Aw!"] They include things like £400 million for village halls. We all support village halls, but £400 million? Other commitments are £750 million for small businesses, and an extra £2 billion for road traffic accidents. A further 25 commitments were made at the Liberal Democrat party conference. My favourite was commitment 65, which stated: Funded training for teachers and specialists on sex education, providing them information and material to aid honest, non-judgmental and thought-provoking lessons. Let me suggest that commitment 71 should be funded training for Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesmen to aid honest, non-judgmental and thought-provoking lessons on financial discipline.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker


Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

In view of the renewed interest in crime figures, especially on the Tory Benches, will my right hon. Friend consider whether back-stabbing should become a criminal offence?

The Prime Minister

I admit that in the past few years the incidence of that has increased, but I regret to say that on the evidence available there is not much that we shall be able to do about it.

Q2. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

On a day when there is some interest in votes of confidence, will the Prime Minister make Government policy clear on a matter that may turn out to be far more important to Britain's prosperity than matters being dealt with in Committee Room 14? Will the Government deny this week's reports that Crossrail faces a Government axe; and will the Prime Minister give his personal vote of confidence to Crossrail so that the private sector can invest knowing that it will go ahead?

The Prime Minister

No. We remain convinced that Crossrail is an important project for London, that it is well worth supporting and that it could have real benefits for Londoners and, indeed, the whole country, but it is important that we as a Government sit down and work out how it can be funded. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the amount runs into many billions of pounds. Nevertheless, we are confident that if we sit down and look at the project in the right way, we can make progress with it.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Derian House, a children's hospice whose tenth birthday took place on Monday? I hope that he will send his good wishes. Will he also use his good offices to ensure that there is better funding for hospices throughout the country, direct from the national health service?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to send my congratulations to the hospice in my hon. Friend's constituency. Obviously we give a certain amount of funding to hospices, but we are well aware that they wish that to be more, and we think constantly about how we can support them through the NHS and in other ways. I will certainly take my hon. Friend's comments into account.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

"If there are further steps towards European integration"—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no need to shout.

Mr. Duncan Smith

"If there are further steps towards European integration, the people should have their say at a general election or in a referendum." That is what the Prime Minister said in 1996. When did he change his mind?

The Prime Minister

I have not. If there is a single currency recommendation from the Government, people will have a referendum. I do not believe, however, that the constitution now being discussed in Europe merits a referendum.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister must be the only person in Europe who thinks that the European constitution has no constitutional implications for Britain. Does he agree with the French Prime Minister, who said recently that any true European would want a referendum?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not. I do not believe it is necessary to have a referendum unless there is a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between the member state and the European Union. I remember that three years ago we were told that the Nice treaty merited a referendum, because it would destroy parliamentary government in this country. We have had the Nice treaty in force for several years, and it has not done so. I do not believe that this treaty, which does not alter the fundamental nature of the relationship between the member state and the European Union, merits a referendum.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Let me remind the Prime Minister—because he has a very short memory—what the constitution actually provides for. It provides for an elected president, a European foreign minister, control over asylum policy, a charter of fundamental rights, and a European army—all of which the Prime Minister says is only a tidying-up exercise. That is why the German Foreign Minister has said: This is the most important treaty since the formation of the Common Market". Why is the Prime Minister the only leader in Europe who will not tell the truth to his own country?

The Prime Minister

Actually, the majority of countries in Europe are not having a referendum on the treaty. I do not suggest in any way that it is not important, but it does not alter the fundamental constitutional relationship.

We know what game the Conservatives are up to. Just a few days ago—not a few years ago; a few days ago—the shadow Attorney-General published his pamphlet about Conservative policy on Europe. He says that he wants Britain to retire to a trade association agreement with the rest of the European Union—that being what he calls sphere 1 European countries, which are not full members of the European Union. The right hon. Gentleman nods. That means withdrawal from the European Union.

In so far as one can work out what the policy of the Conservative Front Bench is, that is now the policy of the Conservative Front Bench. People can forget the business about a referendum. This is not about a referendum, for the Conservative party; it is about the Conservatives' desire to take Britain out of Europe, which would be a disaster for this country.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

The Prime Minister has seen that crime is the issue of the day and has referred to the Lords and the Criminal Justice Bill. Can he explain to the House why the Conservatives, who have always been tough on crime, are now in alliance with the Liberals to shred the Bill, to the detriment—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is not a matter for the Prime Minister.

Q3. Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Last Tuesday in Hillsborough, the Prime Minister felt frustrated because he and the Taoiseach were privy to details about decommissioning. The right hon. Gentleman qualified that a little on Wednesday at Question Time when he said that they had certain information, but not the full information. However, he assured us all that if people knew what he knew they would be satisfied.

Can the Prime Minister tell us today whether he is satisfied, when we know that there is fresh procurement of weapons? Has the IRA given dates for further decommissioning? Has it given a final date, or are we still getting IRA flannel?

The Prime Minister

No, we still have to make sure that decommissioning is completed in full and that it happens within a reasonable and proper timetable; for example, the Government have set out a two-year process for normalisation in Northern Ireland. However, just as it would be wrong to say that we have everything that we need—because we do not—it would be equally wrong to say that we are still in the same position as several years ago. We are not. The truth is that Northern Ireland has moved forward considerably, because people, not least Unionists, have had the courage to take difficult decisions to negotiate with people they used to regard as enemies so as to try to bring about a better future for people in Northern Ireland.

The best thing for people such as the hon. Gentleman to do, if they really have the interests of the people of Northern Ireland at heart, is to try to help those who are working to make sure that the agreement we reached five and a half years ago is implemented in full.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

Would the Prime Minister accept that appointments commissions have a tendency to appoint people like themselves—as witness the appointment of the noble Baroness Howe, who became once, twice, three times a Lady? Would he further agree that a more representative and democratic second Chamber could be produced, without direct elections, by widening the responsibility for appointments to include the devolved Assemblies, local government and major voluntary and professional organisations?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend's question indicates, there is a range of views. I have made clear my own position, but I do not doubt that the debate will continue over the coming months. In the end, there will be a free vote for the House to determine the outcome.

Q4. Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

Could the Prime Minister take this opportunity to clear up any embarrassment that may inadvertently have been caused to General de Chastelain, and confirm to the House that the general did not intimate to him the extent of any decommissioning that had taken place?

The Prime Minister

I stand entirely by what I said last week at the Dispatch Box. General de Chastelain has done an excellent job in extremely difficult circumstances; but as both I and the Irish Prime Minister have said, certain information was given to us by General de Chastelain and I had very much hoped that it would have been possible to provide the full information to everybody.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

While I welcome what my right hon. Friend said earlier about the reduction in deaths from cancer in this country, does he share my concern that not all women with breast cancer are receiving the drugs to which they are entitled, according to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence? Can he tell me what he intends to do to get rid of those disparities?

The Prime Minister

We are looking at what we can do to reduce those disparities. This is a good example of where there has been significant progress but there are still things to do. Since April 2001, an additional 200, 000 women have been invited for screening for breast cancer, as a result of the expansion of the breast-screening service to 65 to 70-year-olds. As I said a moment or two ago, there has been an increase of about 30 per cent. in the number of consultants. The staff at the Royal Marsden to whom I spoke yesterday were in no doubt that there had been a significant improvement in cancer care over the past few years; but under our new guidelines, we have to make sure that there is no postcode lottery and that care is given in the same way to people throughout the country. That is what we are trying to do. A tremendous amount of progress has been made, but there is still more to do.

Q5. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Last week I asked the Prime Minister to meet the parents of Private Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut barracks, and he suggested that the Defence Ministers meet them first; I felt that was reasonable. However, is he aware that the legal and political advisers of the parents are to be excluded from that meeting? What could the Defence Minister possibly want to say to the parents that he dare not share with those advisers, who will find out the information anyway? I would ask the Prime Minister to honour the wish of the parents and allow those advisers to attend the meeting with the Defence Minister.

The Prime Minister

There are reasons and worries, which was why that information was given to the hon. Gentleman, but I do understand the point that he is making. If he leaves the matter with me, I will speak to the Minister of State about it. I understand his desire to attend the meeting so I will see what I can do about it, but the difficulty has been caused, apparently, by the fact that there are legal issues arising out of whatever may be said at any meeting. So if he will leave it with me, I will do my best for him.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

Two elderly constituents of mine recently gave up a rented home that they loved and had lived in for many years. solely because of the antisocial behaviour of their neighbours. Does my right hon. Friend agree that social landlords need to be given stronger powers to tackle antisocial tenants, and that having been given those powers, they should use them?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is one very important part of the measures in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, which is why I hope that it gets the full support of the House. There are issues to do with antisocial behaviour orders, with social landlords and with the licensing of landlords, and the Bill contains really comprehensive measures to deal with those. The legislation will not come into effect until January or February next year, but I think it will make a real difference.

Q6. Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

South West Water customers pay the highest water and sewerage charges in the country, but national benefit and pension rates do not recognise that. Is that fair?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the independent water regulator has started a review of water prices for 2005 to 2010 and obviously it will need to balance carefully consumer protection and security of supply against price. I am sure that the regulator will listen to the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed, but he will have in the end, of course, to set a charge for the whole of the country.

Q7. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

Has the Prime Minister had the opportunity to reflect on his visit to Nottinghamshire last week, when he met both the police and victims of crime? Police numbers in Nottinghamshire are at record levels but performance is relatively weak. The solution of the Police Authority is a massive injection of extra funds. But does the Prime Minister agree with me that sustained funding can come about only if best practice is adopted, if there is a commitment to value for money and if there is a reform—a revision—of existing policies?

The Prime Minister

I think my hon. Friend is right. It is worth paying tribute, as I know he would, to the efforts that Nottinghamshire police have made recently, because their latest figures show robbery down 9 per cent. and overall crime down almost 3 per cent., compared with the previous quarter. The funding levels have gone up. I know there are still issues to do with funding in respect of Nottinghamshire and I heard those concerns when I was there last week, but I also think my hon. Friend is right in saying that there is best practice, and if we can get some of that best practice moved across all authorities, including Nottinghamshire, it is the combination of the extra investment, the extra officers and the reform that will do the trick.

When I was talking to the Nottinghamshire gun crime unit, in Nottingham, its members also laid stress on the need for changes to the law. That is why I come back to the point that this Criminal Justice Bill will be very important indeed in giving the police the powers that they want, and it really should be supported.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

In June, a constituent of mine, Lance-Corporal Tom Keys, was unfortunately one of the six military policemen killed in Al Majar Al Kabir. Since that time, strenuous efforts have been made by his parents and by me to receive some basic answers to some basic questions, and the only consistent answer from the Ministry of Defence is that we may never know what happened. With great respect, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence last week, asking for an urgent meeting, so that the parents can be persuaded, or at least convinced, that something serious is going on in terms of the inquiry. Will the Prime Minister please intervene personally to ensure that that meeting does take place urgently?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. Once again, I offer them my condolences for the loss that they have suffered. The Ministry of Defence and the Army out there are trying to do everything they can to find out exactly what happened. If they say that they may never know exactly what happened, that may simply be the truth, and people may have to know that because of what happened. I know that they are making every attempt to lay the minds of the families to rest. I am sure that he will get further information from the Secretary of State when he sees him.

Q8. Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth)

Many companies in Great Yarmouth often mention the problems that they have with skills shortages and trying to recruit skilled craftsmen for their industries. They also recognise that there has been a substantial investment in universities and in encouraging students to go there. However, many students do not have the desire or indeed the academic ability to go on to university education but would like to go into skills training. What is my right hon. Friend doing to try to redress the skills shortage and to encourage those students whom I represent who want to go into apprenticeships but are being denied access to a trade?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend raises a valuable point. We are spending almost 1 billion a year on work-based training for young people. That is important because, as he rightly says, some young people will want to go into an apprenticeship rather than university. We now have more than 230,000 young people undertaking modern apprenticeships in England. That is the highest number ever and of those, 67,000 are in manufacturing and engineering. It is important to realise that we have the possibility of providing high-quality education and skills for all our young people through a combination of widening access to universities and getting more people into modern apprenticeships.

Q9. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Can the Prime Minister confirm that a No. 10 spokesman recently proposed that local councils should be forced to hold a referendum before increasing council tax by more than double the rate of inflation? Does he recall that two weeks ago he agreed that the Treasury Red Book forecast a 7.4 per cent. increase in council tax for next year? So, why does he go round the country raising people's hopes when he knows that he cannot deliver?

The Prime Minister

I have not come across those comments by a No. 10 spokesman. On council tax, as I said in answer to an earlier question, central Government are providing large real-terms increases to local government. What cannot possibly help the council tax payer is the policy of the Conservatives, which is massive cuts in public spending. Those cuts would necessarily impact—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It is what their leader said. [Interruption.] I am just quoting what their leader said, which is that there would be a 20 per cent. cut across the board. How will that help council tax payers?

Q10. Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

While I accept the fact that my right hon. Friend has no reverse gear, might it not be possible—if only for a moment—to find a neutral gear on the subject of student top-up fees and to re-examine alternative systems of student finance that would allow students from hard-working families, perhaps just above the threshold of any bursary scheme, to make their university choices on the basis of which course best suits them rather than on cost?

The Prime Minister

The trouble is that if we stay in neutral, universities desperately need more money and we need to widen access to universities—I know that my hon. Friend wants more and more people to go to university and the only way we can achieve that is to get more funding to the universities. The Government are going to put in more, but we think it fair to get rid of the up-front fees—to say that no one pays those, but that instead they will pay something on graduation. For example, that would mean a graduate earning £18,000 paying back about £5 a week in fees. I do not think that unfair. What is more, we are getting rid of fees—at the moment the bottom 40 per cent. of the population do not pay fees. We are looking into how we give help to lower-income families. The one thing that we cannot do is to end up with the status quo being maintained and cutting the number of students at university, as the Conservatives want.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire)

When the Prime Minister took the decision in the spring to postpone the elections in Northern Ireland, many people thought that that was a right and brave thing to do. He has now called an election when the stumbling block of arms decommissioning, which meant that the setting up of an Executive was unlikely, is still there. Has he not now got the worst of both worlds?

The Prime Minister

I do not believe so because it would be impossible, frankly, to postpone elections in Northern Ireland indefinitely. It is important that people renew their democratic mandate, but we have made a lot of progress since March. We were not able to make all the progress that we wished for, but we now have a clear undertaking from the IRA to the cessation of all paramilitary activity.

We have actually now got an independent Monitoring Commission that is able to look at any paramilitary activity that is undertaken and, if it is undertaken, declare it as a breach of the promises that have been given, whether by the IRA or by any other group. We have also got a situation where, frankly, we have the best chance of a proper working relationship that we have had for years between the various people in Northern Ireland.

Now there is always a judgment to be made about this, but in the five and a half years since the Belfast agreement—the Good Friday agreement—the truth is that we have come an enormous way in Northern Ireland, and the most sensible thing is for people to recognise that such processes are always difficult, that the movement is always incremental and that it is often absolutely painstaking, but it is worth it because if we look at Northern Ireland today. in terms of the living standards and the quality of life for most people there, it is frankly unrecognisable from 10 years ago.