HC Deb 14 January 2004 vol 416 cc808-16
Q 1. [147480] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 14 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

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

Mr. Bellingham

Does the Prime Minister recall that during his recent visit to Iraq he was reported as saying to our armed forces that morale was high and that they would always receive the best possible equipment. If that is really true, why has Colonel Tim Collins just announced his resignation from the Army, citing among other factors very low morale and chronic equipment shortages?

The Prime Minister

Colonel Collins's decision is obviously a matter for him, but I believe that the morale of our armed forces is high. Certainly, the armed forces I met down in Basra are proud not merely of the work that they did in defeating Saddam Hussein, but of the work that they are now doing on rebuilding Iraq.

As for British defence spending, the hon. Gentleman will know that after many, many years of cuts under the previous Conservative Government, defence spending, in real terms, is now rising under this Government for the first time in a very long time.

Q2. Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab)

Writing in his diaries of a discussion on the timing of the 1992 election, Woodrow Wyatt quotes the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) as saying: "Unemployment never matters." The new deal, the New Opportunities Fund, the coalfield challenge and the working families and child tax credits have all contributed to a fall of 700 in unemployment in the Wigan borough. That is proof that the 16th forgotten credo of the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not be followed by this Government. But we do have a problem in places such as Wigan—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman—I can handle it. He should end with a question, now.

Mr. Turner

We have a problem with skills in the area—

Hon Members

"Question mark."

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister

I think that my hon. Friend was about to ask whether we would pursue policies that reduced unemployment. I am pleased to say to him that today unemployment has again fallen substantially. We now have 1.7 million more people in work than in 1997; long-term unemployment is at its lowest level for decades; and when we talk about waste in Government spending, let us never forget the billions that used to be wasted on people lying on the dole doing nothing, while now, as a result of the new deal, they are at work.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister now finally confirm that he will lead for the Government in the debate on the Hutton report?

The Prime Minister

As I said at the weekend, the details of the debate—whether there is a vote on it and who speaks in it—will be decided at a later time and announced in the normal way. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will have to be patient, but I can assure him that I have absolutely no intention of doing anything other than leading the Government's case on this issue. That is important, and I look forward to doing so.

Mr. Howard

I am very sorry that the Prime Minister cannot give a straight answer even to that question. Last week, the Prime Minister said that he was looking forward to the debate—now, he has got cold feet. When the Prime Minister was asked by Sir David Frost on Sunday about his use last week of the word, "totality", he said that it meant everything that has been said. Not just taking one bit out, here or there". Now, does that mean that some bits out "here or there" of what the Prime Minister said on 22 July were not true?

The Prime Minister

No. It does not. It means that when we have a report that we know will be published in the next few weeks, it is sensible to wait until it is published before we debate it. It is obvious from everything that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said in the past few days that he intends to prejudge the report. I do not intend to do so.

Mr. Howard

No, that will not do. I am asking the Prime Minister about what he said in the House seven days ago and in a television studio three days ago. Let me put to him a simple and straightforward question. On 22 July, he denied authorising the naming of David Kelly. Does he stand by that statement or is it one of the bits out "here or there" that he wants us all to ignore?

The Prime Minister

No, it is not. What is important, as I said in the House and again at the weekend, is to wait for the report. That may not do for the right hon. and learned Gentleman—I am sorry about that—but in my view, when we have a report that is about to be published, most people will regard it as sensible if we wait until the day of publication to make our judgments. It is perfectly obvious, not least from the 50-page document that the Conservative party issued a few days ago, that Conservative Members intend to make up their minds now. It does not matter what the report says; they have already made up their minds. I shall make up mine when the report is published.

Mr. Howard

But the Prime Minister has not answered the question. It is a simple question and the answer is either yes or no. I shall give him another opportunity. On 22 July, he was asked: Why did you authorise the naming of David Kelly? He replied, that's completely untrue. Does he stand by that statement—0yes or no?

The Prime Minister

I stand, as I have said on many occasions, by all that I said on the issue, but I believe that judgment should await the inquiry report. After all, the issue that is being raised is precisely that into which the inquiry is looking. Let it look into that and let us then have the statement and the debate on the basis not of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says but of what the judge says.

Mr. Howard

Does the Prime Minister have the faintest idea of how much damage he is doing to what is left of his reputation by refusing to answer this simple question? He has not answered the question and the country knows it. I will give him one last chance. I shall carry on asking the question until we get a straight answer from the Prime Minister. On 22 July, he was asked: Why did you authorise the naming of David Kelly? He replied, that's completely untrue. Does he stand by that statement—yes or no?

The Prime Minister

I have already answered it. I say again that those are precisely the issues that the inquiry will examine. The judge has all the material that he needs. It is completely absurd for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to raise issues about my integrity before the report has been published.

Since he has raised my integrity and effectively accused me of telling lies, I hope that if the report does not find those charges proven, he will have the decency to apologise.

Mr. Howard

If the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not want any shouting at the Leader of the Opposition. Let him ask his question.

Mr. Howard

If the Prime Minister takes that view of the charges that I have been making, why on earth has he not answered the very simple, straightforward question that I have put to him today? Is it not the case that the whole country has seen this afternoon just how desperately dodgy the Prime Minister's position has become?

The Prime Minister

I think that what the whole country has seen is the total opportunism of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is prepared to say that we should make judgments about this matter before the inquiry report has even been published— [Interruption.] Yes, that is precisely what the Conservative party's 50-page document has done. We all know that, on the day the report is published, he will stand at the Dispatch Box and call for my resignation. He will do that whatever the report says, and I only hope that the effect—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Prime Minister answer.

The Prime Minister

We know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will do that, and I only hope that the effect on my team's performance will be as dramatic as the effect on Mr. Houllier's team's performance when he called for his resignation.

Mr. lain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab)

Does the Prime Minister share my worry that the continued political stalemate in Northern Ireland and the suspension of the devolved political institutions in the Province will have a serious impact on the economic progress that we have witnessed there in the last year?

The Prime Minister

I am sorry, but I did not quite hear the first part of my hon. Friend's question.

Mr. Luke

Does the Prime Minister share my worry that, following the elections in November last year, the continued political stalemate in Northern Ireland, and the continued suspension of the devolved institutions in the Province, we might see a negative effect on the Northern Ireland economy, which has progressed so well during the last year?

The Prime Minister

Of course, I entirely agree that it is important that we try to break the deadlock over this issue. My hon. Friend makes a point that will be most obvious to people in Northern Ireland, which is that whatever the difficulties of the past few years, the Northern Ireland economy has seen the most astonishing levels of inward investment, of growth in employment and the reduction of unemployment, and a reduction in terrorist violence. It is still important, however, that we try to make progress, and we will work with all the parties to do so. However, as I have said on many occasions, I hope that people in Northern Ireland understand that if we compare the situation there today, from the outside, with that of 10 years ago, we now see a scene of the most dramatic improvement. There is still a long way to go, but we will do whatever we can to break the deadlock and get the peace process back on track.

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

While there will be perfectly legitimate and pertinent questions to be asked of the Prime Minister when Lord Hutton's report is produced, I am sure that many people in the House and in the country will find just a little ironic the sudden enthusiasm of the Conservative party leadership to ask the very questions that they signally failed to ask when these matters were being debated, and when some of us were putting those questions.

I would like to ask the Prime Minister about that self-same interview that he gave at the weekend, in which he made a reference to his policy on top-up fees. He described those who would vote against his proposals as carrying out a complete betrayal of the proper interests of the country". How can it be in the proper interests of the country that, under the Prime Minister's proposals, a graduate student earning £15,000 a year will pay a marginal tax rate of 42 per cent., which is more than a millionaire pays? How can that be fair?

The Prime Minister

At the moment, most students have maintenance loans, and the present system for repaying them is far less generous than the system that we are about to introduce. The reason why I say the new system is good is that it will be good for the families of students from poorer backgrounds, because those students will get £3,000 a year support, and it will be good for all families who put their children through university, because up-front fees are going to be abolished. It will also be good for the universities, because they will get about £1 billion a year extra income. The right hon. Gentleman's proposal is to take that money out of a 50 per cent. top rate of tax. He has written to me recently to say that the Liberal Democrats' only spending commitment is to that top rate of tax, which will go towards council tax, university fees and personal care. [Interruption.] I am delighted, but perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman gets up again he will explain this. In this month's edition of the magazine Pensioners' Voice, his party's pensions spokesman makes £4 billion worth of commitments. That is why I say that his figures do not add up.

Mr. Kennedy

Not for the first time and, I suspect, not for the last, the Prime Minister has presented a caricature of what we propose. But let us return to his policy on the issue of the day, which is top-up fees. He said in his last general election manifesto that he would not legislate in this way for top-up fees. He has broken that pledge. He is now facing students with the prospect of crippling £30,000 debts on graduation. Where does that leave the age-old argument about equality of opportunity rather than ability to pay?

The Prime Minister

We do not accept that that is what we are doing. At present people repay, for example, maintenance loans of £20,000 a year at a rate of about £17 a week. Under our proposals they will not have to pay more than £8.60 a week in combined maintenance money and fees, and poorer students will end up receiving a £3,000-a-year subvention to help them with both fees and maintenance.

I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that in the end it is not irrelevant to quote to him what he has said he will spend on pensions, because all this is about priorities. I must tell him that in the end I think that a deal that gives universities more money, reintroduces maintenance support for poorer students and abolishes all up-front fees for families whatever their incomes is a good deal for Britain's universities and university students. It is important that we spend the money in that way.

I must say one more thing to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not agree with his policy on the 50 per cent. top rate of tax, but let us suppose that an extra £1 billion could be raised from a 50 per cent. top rate. I simply ask whether it would not be better—as his party's pensions spokesman is presumably saying—to spend that money on pensioners rather than an even greater subsidy for university fees.

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman's policy is right in its own terms, and when he describes our policy as unfair he fails to take account of the massive widening of access that it represents for the people of this country.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab)

Harold Shipman took his secrets to his grave yesterday. He thereby robbed my constituents of the one consolation that he could have given them, which was the truth about what he had done. Does the Prime Minister agree that the one comfort that the House can give my constituents and the families of the victims is the knowledge that we will do everything we can to make sure that lessons are learnt? Does he agree that there should be a full debate in the House on the findings of Dame Janet Smith's inquiry into Shipman's murders, and will he establish a cross-departmental team to ensure that its recommendations are implemented and reported on publicly, so we can be certain that this tragedy will never happen again?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with the first part of what my hon. Friend has said. It is right for us to express our deep sympathy for all Dr. Shipman's victims' families, and to say that this must be a very difficult and emotional time for them.

Dame Janet Smith is currently completing her inquiry, and we expect to receive her final report in the summer. I cannot yet say exactly what the arrangements for a debate in the House will be, but I am sure that there will be a proper opportunity for Members to debate the inquiry's findings. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to suggest that the moment we have those findings we must ensure that we in Government are geared up to implement them fully.

Q3. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con)

Given that my constituency and others are seeing an influx of Travellers who buy green-belt land and then illegally develop it, with the planning laws able to do little about it, and given that, despite the support on both sides of the House and meetings with Ministers, the Government blocked my private Member's Bill which would have strengthened the planning laws and also reduced confrontation within communities, will the Prime Minister now meet me to discuss a growing problem that is causing anguish to many people?

The Prime Minister

I am always happy to meet hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are going to take forward planning legislation, and I am sure that some of the issues that he raises will fall within the scope of that Bill. It is absolutely vital, however, that we make sure that the planning laws are properly and quickly enforced. At present, there are two issues in relation to planning. One is that the planning system does not move quickly enough when it needs to do so to give planning permission. The other is that it often does not enforce the planning system quickly enough when the planning system is breached. Our Bill will address both those issues.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab)

While welcoming the news that waiting lists and waiting times are decreasing in our hospitals, I have a particular concern about certain areas such as orthopaedics and cataract surgery, in which it appears that waiting lists are still unacceptably long, perhaps because staff cannot be recruited for those specialties. What can be done to tackle those areas in which unacceptably long waiting lists persist?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend will know, the announcement of new diagnostic and treatment centres by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will have an impact on improving people's ability to get access to operations speedily. What we are doing effectively is increasing capacity within the system, as that is important. We need more capacity within the NHS, more nurses and more doctors, while at the same time giving patients greater choice and opening up diversity of supply within the health service, which we will continue to do. The news on health service waiting lists is good, not least because not merely are the lists now something like 200,000 below the level that we inherited but only about 360,000 people on those lists are waiting more than three months. That is still too many, but what it means is that many of those long waits that we used to see, of a year, 18 months or two years, are a thing of the past. We must progressively reduce that maximum waiting time, until we reach the point, in 2008, when the maximum waiting time will be three months.

Q4. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

Given today's reports that half the extra taxpayers' money taken to spend on schools and hospitals—some £70 billion under this Government—has patently failed to improve public services, with one Cabinet Minister saying, We have faffed around for ages, commissioning report after report and there has been a spectacular failure in our ability to deliver, despite swamping the nation in new laws", why on earth should our constituents continue to stump up even more in taxes to subsidise Labour's waste and failure?

The Prime Minister

First, I do not accept in any shape or form that that money is being wasted in our public services. For example, in the hon. Gentleman's education authority, there has been a spending increase of £590 per pupil. Does he call that waste? There has been a massive increase in capital allocations in his schools, 520 more teachers have been appointed, the primary care trust has had more than £214 million in funding, waiting lists are down, and his unemployment figures have fallen because of the new deal. Why is that all wasted money? Why do the Conservatives talk continually about waste in public spending? It is because they are against the public spending itself. Let us be clear about what is happening: the money in schools and hospitals is delivering a better service for people, and the Tory party's purpose is to run down support in our health service and in our state schools, because were it ever to get its hands on the levers of power again, we would be back to cuts and a downward spiral in public services.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the social and economic well-being of this country requires that more, not less, able people from all walks of life enjoy the opportunity of going to university?

The Prime Minister

I do agree with that. It is important that we recognise that in the early 21st century virtually every successful country will be widening access and participation in universities. The Conservatives say that the aim of getting 50 per cent. of people under 30 into university is hopeless and unachievable. Actually, 50 per cent. has already been achieved in Scotland and in many other parts of the world, and we have 43 per cent. today. It is therefore absolutely possible to achieve that aim. What is more, it is necessary that we improve both access to university education and to vocational training in the years to come; otherwise, this country will be a poorer place.

Q5. Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD)

May I ask the Prime Minister a very simple question? In 2001, when he launched the review of higher education, one key objective was to tackle student debt and the perception of debt. Given that the current average debt is about £9,000 and will have risen to more than £30,000 by 2010, how will he meet that objective?

The Prime Minister

Let us get the facts clear. A £12,000 maintenance loan is available at the moment. Even if the full fee of £3,000 is paid, there will be £9,000 over the average university course, even at the top level, so let us not pretend that debt is not known at the moment, or that the figure of £3,000 is higher than it actually is. The hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing to help families in those circumstances, and we are doing two very important things. First, we are saying that no family now will have to find those fees as their children are going through university. It moves to graduate repayment, which is a massive change, particularly for families with more than one person at university. Secondly, the graduate repayment of the maintenance loan and of the fee combined is infinitely more generous than the current one. That is why it is a good deal for students. I do not think it unreasonable or wrong to ask students—provided that the public carry on investing a large sum of money in our university system—to make a modest contribution back into the system when they are able to do so, linked to the ability to pay.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich) (Lab)

I recently visited the excellent Sure Start scheme in West Clacton, in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all those who have made that scheme such a success, and will the Government consider expanding and investing in such schemes even further? If there is any spare cash in the education budget, that is where it should go, which is where it is needed.

The Prime Minister

The point that my hon. Friend makes is right on two counts. Sure Start is helping about 400,000 of the most disadvantaged children in our country, but he is right to say that if we possibly can, we should look to extend and expand the Sure Start programme. It has been of enormous importance not just to children; it has helped a lot of parents as well, but of course, it is one of the things that the Conservative party has pledged to cut. I simply say to people that it cannot be right, when we are making a huge investment now in some of the poorest communities, which is manifestly working, to withdraw that support. The final point that my hon. Friend makes is also right. When looking at where we spend money, it is important that we recognise that we should spend it on under-fives and those people who need adult skills, as well as on those at university.