HC Deb 21 January 2004 vol 416 cc1314-22
Ql. [149311] David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

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.

David Burnside

I look forward very much to joining the Prime Minister in the Lobby later today to support the amendment in his name on the unity of the United Kingdom, which states that all Members of the House will have a right to debate, speak on and participate in all matters affecting all parts of the United Kingdom. In my part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and in the Irish Republic, very serious allegations have been made that political parties such as Sinn Fein are being funded by the Provisional IRA through criminal activity. Would the Prime Minister join me in making the United Kingdom's law uniform and in applying to Northern Ireland the same legislation on the funding of political parties as applies in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I agree entirely with what he said: I hope we will always have one class of Member of Parliament in the House. Secondly, I would like to say that any criminal activity of the sort he has described is completely unacceptable—we cannot have a situation in which people are expected to sit in government with political parties that are attached to active paramilitary organisations. In relation to his point about political parties, certainly it is important that in the course of the review we look at all the issues that are raised, in order to make it absolutely clear that there cannot be a situation in which a political party is being funded by anything other than purely democratic and peaceful methods.

Diana Organ (Forest of Dean) (Lab)

At a recent meeting that I held with senior police officers in the Forest of Dean we discussed the relationship between crimes such as theft and burglary and those committed by people with a serious drug habit. However, one officer expressed his concerns about the message that the declassification or reclassification of cannabis sends young people, and said that it would prove problematic to the non-tolerance policy that is excellently used in Forest of Dean schools. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the new classification of cannabis does lead to a mixed message with young people and drugs?

The Prime Minister

I do agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we have a very clear message that possession of cannabis remains a criminal offence and that, whatever the reclassification, the police still have the power of arrest in relation to it. I think what is hoped is that the police will be able to concentrate, obviously, particularly on hard drugs, which are a huge problem. The link between heroin and crack addiction and crime is well known, and it is important that the police use all their efforts to bear down on it, but it does not alter the fact that the possession of cannabis remains a criminal offence, and I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to make that clear.

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

Will the Prime Minister read out to the House what his manifesto at the last election said about top-up fees?

The Prime Minister

I do not have the precise words in front of me, but I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what we said. [Interruption.] We said we will not introduce top-up fees. In particular, I would point out to him that we are changing the existing fee structure totally, so that people will no longer have to pay up-front fees; instead they will have to pay something when they graduate, on a fair basis—far fairer than the existing system.

Mr. Howard

I do have the manifesto here, as it happens. I am sorry that the Prime Minister cannot bring himself to read out the words on which he asked all his hon. Friends to stand at the last election. What he said in that manifesto was: We will not introduce 'top-up' fees and have legislated to prevent them. Is it his case that, when he actually said that, what we should have all understood by those words was, "We will introduce top-up fees; we will legislate to introduce them."?

The Prime Minister

But what people can know is that instead of the existing fee structure in which fees are paid up front, instead of the existing system with no maintenance grant for poorer students, instead of having a system where there is no cap on fees, we will have no up-front fees—so no family has to pay those fees when their children are going through university the reintroduction of maintenance grants for poorer students and a cap on fees. That surely is a fairer system than the present system. Over the past few days, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been saying that we don't have proposals on tuition fees, yet at the selfsame time, his shadow spokesman is saying: Let me place on record…every young person should have the chance to go to university without paying tuition fees. The right hon. and learned Gentleman himself wrote a short time ago to all people in the Conservative party saying that he would scrap all tuition fees, including existing fees. So if we are going to have a debate about respective policy, what exactly is his policy now?

Mr. Howard

We have made our policy absolutely clear. Both my party and the right hon. Gentleman's party stood on the same pledge at the last election. We are not going to break our promise to help him break his.

The Prime Minister told "Newsnight" this week that universities would be substantially better off as a result of his policy. The Education Secretary told the House last week that the costs of the Bill will all be met from the higher education budget and not from additions to that budget. If that is right, the universities would actually be worse off. Who is right—the Prime Minister or the Education Secretary?

The Prime Minister

That is complete nonsense. The universities will be about £1 billion a year better off as a result of higher fees, although those fees are not to be repaid until the graduate actually graduates—and on a fair basis. What we have also done, however, is reintroduce maintenance grants for poorer students, so one part of the money goes to universities and another part goes to poorer students. That surely is a fair system, and better than the existing system. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he is sticking to his existing policy, but let me just quote what the vice-chancellor of Buckingham university said after a meeting with the Conservative education spokesman: Tory education spokesman said to me, 'It does not matter whether' our policy '"is the right policy or the wrong policy…Once we are in power we can then start to really think sensibly about what we should be doing.' Does he also recall, a short time ago when he became leader, saying about the politics that he was going to implement: No narrow…opportunism for us."? What is this if not the most risible opportunism that we have seen?

Mr. Howard

The Prime Minister may regard sticking to election promises as opportunism: we do not. He has conspicuously failed to endorse what the Education Secretary said last week. I put again to the Prime Minister what the Education Secretary said. He said that the extra costs associated with the Government's Bill will be met from the higher education budget and not from additions to that budget. The costs add up to well over £1 billion. The fees will raise about £900 million. If the Education Secretary is right, is it not clear that universities will be worse off?

The Prime Minister

The extra fee income goes to the universities, which is why they are going to be able to increase their funding per student by about 30 per cent. The other money goes to the students themselves—especially those from poorer backgrounds—and is also to ensure that they do not have to pay anything up front. That is why it is a better deal for universities and students—I would have thought that even the right hon. and learned Gentleman could have got that. As for saying that he is going to keep to his policy, he has not been able to keep to his policy over even the past few weeks, never mind the past few years. Let me repeat what he said the other day. He said, "We now have no proposals on tuition fees." How can that lie with the comments made by his education spokesman, who said that he is committed to scrap all fees? Which is it: scrapping all fees or no proposals?

Mr. Howard

I have told the Prime Minister exactly what our policy is. This debate is about his policy, and we will be voting next week on his proposals and his attempts to bully his hon. Friends into breaking their election promise. Is it not absolutely clear that the top-up fees policy is a complete dog's breakfast and that the Prime Minister and his Education Secretary do not even know from one day to the next what their proposals involve or who is going to pay? Will it be students, will it be taxpayers, will it be the universities—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Skinner, let the Leader of the Opposition speak. I am telling the hon. Gentleman not to shout across the Floor. He is not entitled to do so.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)


Mr. Speaker


Mr. Howard

Should not the Prime Minister simply admit that he has got it all wrong and that he should scrap his Bill, instead of forcing his Members of Parliament to break their election pledge?

The Prime Minister

What we should do is continue with a policy that gives universities an extra £1 billion a year, that relieves all families of the obligation to pay up-front fees at all and that operates a fast, fairer system of repayment so that, for example, a graduate who earns £18,000 a year after graduation pays just £5 a week. We should proceed with a proposal that reintroduces maintenance grants and support for the poorest students. That is fair for universities, fair for middle-class families and fair for families with lower incomes. Surely that is the right thing to do, as the OECD said yesterday. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right: yes, next week is a test for the Government, but it is also a test of the credibility of the Opposition, and he has just failed it.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab)

This morning's dispatches from the French capital confirm the unfortunate impression that there are those among our Gallic cousins who are sneering at the prospects of a UK Olympic bid. I am far too communautaire to indulge in low abuse of a nation that has problems of its own, but what can the Prime Minister do to convince those of us who still harbour a smidgen of cynicism that the UK Olympic bid is realistic and attainable?

The Prime Minister

Anybody who heard the presentation made by Barbara Cassani and her team last week would have heard a bid that is technically good and that gives this country the chance of hosting the world's greatest sporting event in the world's greatest capital city and of doing that immensely well. The more that people look at the bid, the stronger they see it. As for commenting on anyone else's bid, of course that would be quite wrong.

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

Last night, in his State of the Union address, President Bush referred to the search for weapons of mass destruction-related programme activities". Can the Prime Minister confirm that that is what the Iraq survey group is now searching for and, in the process, explain to us all exactly what that means?

The Prime Minister

The President was referring to Dr. Kay's report—the Iraq survey group report—which has already indicated evidence of the concealment of weapons of mass destruction programmes. The Iraq survey group, of course, looks not merely for the programmes, but for the weapons themselves.

Mr. Kennedy

We began on the issue of weapons of mass destruction. The Prime Minister then moved on to finding weapons of mass destruction programmes, and, last night, the President spoke of the search for weapons of mass destruction-related programme activities". As the rhetoric of both the Prime Minister and the President on this vital issue has kept shifting, does that not underline yet again, at the end of the day, the need for an independent inquiry into the entire basis on which this country was taken into the war in Iraq?

The Prime Minister

The Iraq survey group, as I said a moment or two ago, continues the search not just for programmes and the evidence of concealment of those programmes, but for the weapons themselves. It is important that it continues to do that. As for the existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, there can be no doubt—absolutely no doubt—that those weapons existed. That has been said not only by this Government and the United States Government, but was set out in detail over 12 years by the United Nations and its inspectors. It is the job of the Iraq survey group to find out what has happened, which it will do. When it comes up with its final report, we can debate it.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a large amount of the antisocial behaviour faced by people in all constituencies across the country is perpetrated by the under-16s? If the fixed penalty notices that are issued to 16 and 17-year-olds as part of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 are successful, will he consider extending them to the under-16s?

The Prime Minister

The point that my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right. The new measures will obviously give the police and others important powers to deal with antisocial behaviour. She is also right in saying, however, that there is another issue to address since much antisocial behaviour, I am sorry to say, is caused by youngsters under the age of 16. It is precisely for that reason that we have the power to extend fixed penalty notices to them. We are considering the time scale in which we can do that. I very much hope that we do it as soon as possible.

Q2. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con)

Given that the Prime Minister's rationale for war in Iraq, as he confirmed just a moment ago, was based on the presence of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, how does he reconcile that with our battle tanks and armoured vehicles being sent into the front line without the requisite chemical filters?

The Prime Minister

With regard to equipment, I know that there is a particular issue in respect of Sergeant Roberts, and again I express my condolences to his widow. In respect of some of the other issues, the National Audit Office looked carefully at the whole question of equipment in the Iraq conflict and whether that equipment was proper or not. It found that, on the whole, it was a tremendous success. The conflict involved a huge logistical operation that was difficult to carry out, but it was carried out. In respect of specific issues, we consider each and every one of them, and we will look into the issue that the hon. Gentleman mentioned as well.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

When the Conservatives were in office and introduced the initial student loans Bill, their higher education spokesperson was described by Lord Beloff as the Pol Pot of academia. In order to tackle some of those problems, and they are being tackled by the Government's proposals, instead of scrapping student debt after 25 years, why not tackle them from the other end? When people have immediately graduated and are in greater need of assistance, why not provide them with a holiday from debt? That would assist many people, including mature students.

The Prime Minister

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's point. We are trying to meet his concerns in two ways. First, we are relieving families of the obligation to pay up-front fees. As I think I said to him the other day at our parliamentary meeting, about 26 per cent. of students whose parents are not eligible for help with the up-front fee at the moment have to fund part of it out of their own pocket. The abolition of the up-front fee will help them.

Secondly, in relation to my hon. Friend's specific point, it is precisely because we recognise that people need more help at the outset of their career that we have changed very significantly the basis on which the combined maintenance and fee loan is to be repaid. At the moment, students repay their maintenance loan at the rate of more than £17 a week if they are earning £20,000 a year. For both maintenance and fee, we are halving that rate. We are trying to achieve what my hon. Friend articulates, but are doing it in a way that does not mean that we have a shortfall on public finance that we cannot make up.

Q3. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

Last year the New Forest basic command unit was reduced by five police officers. This year it is to be reduced by a further five officers. Can the Prime Minister explain why, despite increased resources and higher taxes, public services are deteriorating?

The Prime Minister

Obviously I do not know the precise details of the basic command unit in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but I have here the police numbers for Hampshire as a whole: there are more than 240 more police officers than there were in 1997. I will write to him and tell him exactly where those extra officers are. I also point out to him that, alongside extra police officers, there are more teachers, more nurses and more jobs in his constituency, and on every indicator—the health service, the education service and crime—it is better than it was in 1997.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab)

Are not the overwhelming majority of students in the United Kingdom already subject to variable tuition fees? Is there the slightest evidence, anywhere in the UK, that variable fees have deterred students from doing part-time degree or further education courses, or joining the Open university?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: there are now variable fees for postgraduates and part-timers. One of the things that we are able to do in this package is introduce some support for part-time students. By setting a sensible cap and giving universities freedom, while giving a huge boost to students from poorer backgrounds, we will increase the possibility of such students having the right and the ability to go to university.

Q4. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con)

The Prime Minister is aware that the week before Christmas I visited my constituent Majid Narwaz, who was being held in jail in Cairo with the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and of the hon. Members for East Ham (Mr. Timms) and for West Ham (Mr. Banks). The Prime Minister will be aware also that at the end of the trial, when a verdict was expected, the court adjourned for five months. He can well imagine how the families felt when those four individuals were brought to court on Christmas day, for a two-minute hearing, and the case was adjourned, yet again, until 25 March.

Will the Prime Minister now agree to meet the families of those men, and will he personally contact President Mubarak to intervene in this human rights issue, because the Government representations so far have been to no avail as far as the families are concerned?

The Prime Minister

I understand the issue for the families of those involved in the trial. It is important to explain the background to the case: four British nationals were detained on 1 April 2002 and accused of being involved with the Islamic Liberation party, which has been outlawed in Egypt since 1974. I say that simply to indicate that this is obviously an issue of huge sensitivity for the Egyptian authorities as well as our own.

I have instructed our ambassador in Cairo to call on the Egyptian Foreign Minister to express our concerns about the case. I know that Baroness Symons met the families last week to hear, first hand, of their concerns. I fully understand their disappointment at the delay, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will closely keep track of the case. I ask him to understand, however, that because of the history of these issues in Egypt, this is a sensitive matter for the Egyptian authorities too.

Q5. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab)

Is the Prime Minister aware that more than 200 MPs from all parties have now signed early-day motion 200 calling for pension compensation for Allied Steel and Wire workers and others? Why should our constituents have to put up with a pensions injustice that civil servants, Ministers and Members of this House would never tolerate for themselves? Is it not a disgrace that despite the fact that the Conservatives have been pretending in public to support those workers, in private the party's pensions spokesman has written to his Back Benchers, telling them not to sign the early-day motion?

The Prime Minister

I am aware of the situation facing members of Allied Steel and Wire in relation to their pension scheme. Obviously, I have great sympathy for them and for other scheme members. As my hon. Friend will know, we have announced proposals to establish, first, a pension protection fund, which will be the first ever insurance scheme for defined benefits in the United Kingdom, so that employees do not have the injustice of seeing their pension rights disappear if their scheme winds up. Secondly, there will be a more active pensions regulator to focus on tackling fraud, bad governance and poor administration, and on encouraging best practice. I understand the problem. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Minister for Pensions have been meeting representatives and affected members from Allied Steel and Wire. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to do all that we can to resolve the situation.