HC Deb 11 February 2004 vol 417 cc1410-4
Q5. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab)

The Government have rightly attached great importance to the question of fair access to universities through their proposal for the Office for Fair Access, but given that 43 per cent. of young people go to universities yet 100 per cent. go to secondary school, and considering the importance of secondary education in the prospects of young people of continuing to university, is there not an even more powerful case for an office for fair access to secondary schools?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend's point is partly met by the independent schools adjudicators, who oversee complaints and disputes about admission arrangements. I think the other thing I would say to him is that the more we can encourage, especially in the poorest parts of our country, the development of really good quality secondary schools—the specialist schools—and the city academies are an attempt to do this, and excellence in cities is another—the best chance our young people will have in those schools of getting good quality education, irrespective of their wealth. It is certainly important that we keep under review how we develop that programme to ensure that access is indeed fair.

Q6. David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP)

May I ask the Prime Minister what is in the best interest of the United Kingdom: the re-election of pro-war President Bush, or the election of anti-war Senator Kerry?

The Prime Minister

Can I just say to the hon. Gentleman that I have learned enough in my six or seven years as Prime Minister not to interfere in the American presidential election? That decision is, and should be, for the American people alone.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)

The Prime Minister will be aware that the International Monetary Fund has recently revised its growth predictions for the British economy in 2004. Instead of a growth figure of 2.4 per cent., it now estimates growth of 3.1 per cent. Does he agree that that is eloquent testimony to the success of the British economy?

The Prime Minister

Yes, it is. It comes on a day when unemployment has yet again fallen. We now have more than 1.5 million more jobs in the economy than in 1997, when some people said that we would lose 1 million jobs in the British economy. We have actually got record levels of employment, and unemployment is now at its lowest level for well over 25 years and almost 30 years. That is a result of the stable economic policies pursued by the Chancellor, the new deal and the measures that we have taken to ensure that opportunity is not the privilege of a few, but open to the many.

Q7. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD)

Is the Prime Minister comfortable with the fact that because the council tax is unrelated to ability to pay, he pays the same council tax, earning £175,000 a year, as the security guards who provide security in the House of Commons and are paid less than £17,000?

The Prime Minister

There is a debate about how local government is best financed, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman that when one actually looks at the different systems of local government finance, the first starting point on which everyone should agree is that there is no perfect system. One can point to anomalies in respect of any system, but I do not myself think—although of course we look at this with an open mind—that local people would like to have their income tax decided by local authorities. If that is the Liberal Democrats' policy, I think that they would be as well to conceal it pretty carefully.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)

The Government have been extremely successful, especially in introducing programmes that are targeted at young people who are at risk of offending. Does the Prime Minister therefore understand the disappointment of a number of projects in my constituency that at this late stage of the year are facing significant reductions in their funding under the children's fund? Will he agree, at least, to go back and look again at the children's fund because although investment is important, consistency is important too? The programme has not been running for long and it is important that we give such programmes the benefit of the doubt.

Hon. Members

Spot on.

The Prime Minister

Opposition Members say, "Spot on," but as I recall, they opposed the financing. The point that my hon. Friend makes is important. There is a danger for some of the programmes that are not financed on a recurrent basis that funding comes to an end. I will look into the situation in her constituency. Obviously, there is always a limit on the amount of money that can be spent, and we are investing a considerable amount in the children's fund, neighbourhood renewal projects, and so forth. There is a particular issue of what happens when those projects are up and running and doing well and funding is suddenly cut short. That is precisely what we are looking at now, which will obviously form part not just of deliberations on the Budget but of the comprehensive spending review.

Q8. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

The events in Morecombe bay were both tragic and unpardonable, but further to the Prime Minister's answer to the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith), does he recognise that also at the heart of the matter is the pool of illegal immigrants in this country who fall easy prey to the despicable activities of illegal gangmasters? In the light of that tragedy, what action will the Prime Minister take to remove those people from this country?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason that we do remove illegal immigrants from this country—actually, thousands and thousands a year. That problem faces this Government as it did the previous Government and Governments right around the western world. This goes far wider than the particular tragedy and is not in a sense to be connected with that, but the debate that we have been having on the subject of identity cards is a very relevant question for the future because we will not be able to control the problem with the old methods.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend referred to a decrease once again in unemployment, but there is still growing concern about the number of people on disability benefits who are not getting the opportunities and choices that others receive. What more can the Government do to give people on incapacity benefit and disability living allowance the opportunity to take part in constructive society?

The Prime Minister

There are two measures in place: there is a tax credit that is available for disabled people to ensure that work pays for them; and there is also, of course, the new deal, which specifically targets some of those who are disabled or on incapacity benefit. My hon. Friend's point is absolutely right; there are still far too many people on incapacity benefit who could be brought off benefit and into work. One thing that we must do is ensure that they understand the opportunities that are now available and the support through the tax credit system, which will in many instances give them the opportunity to work and make them considerably better off.

Q9. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con)

With the inclusion of the 10 new countries in the European Union, the United Kingdom is set to lose £3 billion of European regional funding for 2007 to 2013. Do the Government intend to supplement that shortfall to present levels, and will they do so by taxing the hard-pressed British taxpayer even more?

The Prime Minister

I cannot entirely work out what angle the hon. Lady is coming from. Is she asking us to support the programmes or to ditch them? I thought that it was a matter of common cause across the House that we supported the accession countries entering the European Union. Obviously, as that happens, unless we increase dramatically the overall amount of the EU budget, there will be less for those countries that are already in the EU and are wealthier. Of course we look at specific programmes and whether we need to bridge the funding for them, but it is important to recognise that the alternative is either not having those countries in the EU—that would be a huge mistake for Europe—or pushing up the European budget, which we have made clear, as the Chancellor did again yesterday, we do not favour.

Q10. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

Last year, one in four deaths in England and Wales led to an autopsy, as opposed to one in eight in Scotland and to one in 12 in Northern Ireland. Does the Prime Minister agree that many of those 121,000 autopsies caused unnecessary distress and delay to already grieving families? Is it not time that the coroner service was urgently reformed to ensure consistency across the UK—not least in the reporting of drugs-related deaths?

The Prime Minister

I understand from my right hon. Friend that proposals on the reform of the coroner service will be published shortly. It may be as well to wait for the outcome of that.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC)

After months of trying, my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Keys, secured a meeting with the Secretary of State for Defence last week to receive a briefing about the current state of the investigation by the special investigation branch into the death of their son, Lance Corporal Tom Keys and five other military policemen last June. In that meeting, not a word was said about the military policemen having to return ammunition rounds before going on duty or, indeed, losing essential medical supplies, apparently for audit purposes. The Ministry of Defence liaison officer rang late on Friday evening to tell them about that, because it was being broken in the press on Sunday. Mr. and Mrs. Keys, through me, are asking the Prime Minister when they can ever expect to learn the truth about the death of their son.

The Prime Minister

First, I express once again my condolences and sympathy to the family of the hon. Gentleman's constituent. May I tell them, through him, that I understand their anxiety, and that it is the reason why there is an inquiry? Once it has completed its work, and we know exactly what happened to those six members of the Royal Military Police, we will obviously be in a better position to communicate with the families on the basis of precise details. However, those six people died in the course of their duty in circumstances in which they demonstrated enormous courage and bravery—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has asked about medals, but it has already been made clear that we will look at that later when the inquiry is complete.

May I simply tell the hon. Gentleman that those people died with immense bravery, trying to make Iraq better? No matter what is going on in Iraq at the moment—these terrible terrorist attacks were almost certainly instigated by people outside Iraq and are directed against Iraqi people—it is crucial to the security of the region and the world that Iraq is helped to achieve stability, prosperity and democracy in the long term. That is precisely what those people, including the hon. Gentleman's constituent, were doing, which is why the House, while it should answer the questions that the hon. Gentleman has quite properly asked, should thank that person and all those who have died in the service of their country doing something very important for the future of the world.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I will take points of order after the statements.