HC Deb 14 July 2004 vol 423 cc1399-410
Ql. [183733] Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab)

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

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.

Tony Wright

Amidst all the Prime Minister's preoccupations today, could I ask him about the elections? In just four months' time, the people of the United States may well elect a new Administration. Will he stand shoulder to shoulder with a new American Administration on climate change, the middle east and renewing the coalition against terror?

The Prime Minister

I will always make sure that this country remains a strong ally of the United States of America. As I said at the last Prime Minister's questions, it is not wise for me to intrude on the American elections, but I shall simply say to my hon. Friend that the alliance with the United States of America, however criticised from time to time, is a bedrock of this country's security. We should support it and be proud of it. In particular, I am proud of the part that we have played in sustaining it over the past few years.

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

Last weekend, the Health Secretary described hospital cleanliness as a new challenge, but in the Government's last NHS plan four years ago, they promised to tackle exactly the same problem. How have they done on the MRSA—methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—super–bug since then?

The Prime Minister

As the Health Secretary accepted, it is indeed a serious problem, which we have been tackling and must continue to tackle, as the National Audit Office report makes clear. I shall. however, read out one or two figures, as there has been discussion of our rate of infection and how much worse is it is than that in other European countries. In fact, the rate of hospital-acquired infection is 9 per cent. in England, compared with 7 per cent. in the Netherlands, 8 per cent. in Spain and Denmark, and between 6 and 10 per cent. in France. It is a serious problem, but we are not the only country to have it, and we are working very hard to eradicate it.

Mr. Howard

I do not think that those figures will give much comfort to people suffering from those infections or the families of the 5,000 people a year who die from them. Since the Government took office, the number of deaths from the MRSA super-bug has doubled, and today the NAO states that four years after its original report on the subject, the NHS still does not even have a proper grasp of the extent and cost of hospital-acquired infection". Why not?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman should acknowledge that in fact the NAO says that there has been significant progress in dealing with the issue, but he is right that we still have a great deal to do to get proper information. I would point out, however, that until we came to office, there was no mandatory reporting at all. Indeed, it was introduced by the Government three years ago, precisely because we recognised that that was a problem. With respect, that is why we should treat with a great deal of caution the comparisons that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made with 1997.

Mr. Howard

Perhaps the Prime Minister will treat with less caution something that the NHS chief executive admitted this morning—Government targets have made dealing with the super-bug "more difficult". Does he accept that Government policy has actually made matters worse?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not, but I accept that we need to make sure that we have the proper capacity in our NHS, because the higher the level of capacity, the easier it is to have isolation wards and so on. The Government are increasing that capacity in the NHS, and the Opposition voted against every penny of that extra investment.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op)

I hope the Prime Minister would agree that a community safety partnership—a crime and disorder reduction partnership—that has delivered a reduction of more than 50 per cent. in vehicle crime and a reduction of more than 70 per cent. in domestic burglary since it was set up deserves to be congratulated. Does he also welcome, as I do, the fact that there have been days in Plymouth recently when there have been no domestic burglaries—in a city of 250,000 people? Will he go on with our right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Home Secretary to ensure that the resources and the appropriate targets to deliver that can continue?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted with that good news from Plymouth, though we must be careful to state that we do not encourage criminals. It is important to recognise that there have been substantial falls in burglary. The crime rate is, however, still too high and although it has come down, we need to see it come down further. I am sure my hon. Friend is right to say that the combination of record numbers of police, now to be joined by community support officers, plus the changes in the criminal justice system, and in particular the measures in relation to the mandatory drug testing of people when they are arrested for certain categories of offence and the action on antisocial behaviour, are a very important part of cracking down on crime. That is why I am so sorry that the Liberal Democrats opposed all those measures in Parliament.

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

I thank the Prime Minister for that characteristic welcome. Returning to the National Audit Office report, what does he say to its finding that 50 per cent. of health service trusts said that they find the Government's drive to meet performance targets inconsistent with infection control? Does he accept that finding from the NAO on behalf of the trusts?

The Prime Minister

I accept that as we try to get more people treated and get people treated faster in the national health service that puts pressure on the system. But as I said to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), in my view it is important that we have performance targets for hospitals. It is important that we make sure that we are bringing down waiting lists and waiting times, as we are. We have said that MRSA is a serious problem and we are committed to tackling it, but let that not obliterate the huge progress that is now being made by NHS staff in the national health service.

Mr. Kennedy

It is significant that the Prime Minister has said that he accepts what the trusts are saying—that his targets are skewing their ability to deal with infection control. Why does it take seven years of a Labour Government and the problem getting worse and worse for the governmental response at the weekend to be simply to set yet another target? Surely cleanliness in our hospitals should not be a target: it should be taken as read by the patients when they enter the front door.

The Prime Minister

We are not saying that the answer is simply to set another target. We are taking action to try and make sure that the rate of infection is reduced. We must be careful that we do not misunderstand the position in that regard. We are taking action. The problem is serious, but it will not be made any better by extending the length of waiting times and waiting lists. We are expanding capacity in the national health service and making reforms. When we speak of MRSA, let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that the NHS treats about 1 million people every 36 hours. The vast majority of those people are treated excellently within the NHS.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab)

I have recently seen two patients whom I suspected of having cancer, both of whom have been seen, investigated and had planned treatment within one week of my decision to refer them. That is a target that my patients are extremely grateful to have. The huge improvement in the health service will be sustained only if the Government continue to put in the resources that we need for meaningful reform. Can my right hon. Friend say how we can sustain the improvement to make sure that performance gets even better?

The Prime Minister

We will pursue the reforms inside the national health service. The other important aspect is that we make sure that every single penny piece of the money going into the NHS stays with the NHS. We do not want to see a large subvention to those using private health care, which takes that money out of the national health service.

Mr. Howard

Can the Prime Minister tell us what assumptions his Chancellor has made about increases in council tax over the next three years?

The Prime Minister

There are no predictions on council tax, because the figure is an average of the past five years' figures. Last year, the actual amount catered for in the spending review did not result in the expected council tax rise. This year's council tax rise is less than 5 per cent. in Labour areas, more than 5 per cent. in Conservative areas and more than 6 per cent. in Liberal Democrat areas.

Mr. Howard

I am sorry that the Chancellor is not here to make sure that the Prime Minister is a bit better informed—he is probably still trying to decide whether to come and support the Prime Minister during the statement in an hour's time. Let me tell the Prime Minister the answer: the Chancellor is counting on council tax going up by 18 per cent.—almost one fifth—over the next three years, which, to take two councils entirely at random, would add £135 to the typical band A bill in Birmingham and £140 to the typical bill in Leicester. Last year, the Minister for Local and Regional Government said that council tax was very near "the limit of acceptability ", so why is the Chancellor planning those further huge increases?

The Prime Minister

He is not, for the very reason that I have just given.

On the basis discussed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, we should have had council tax rises of more than 8 per cent. last year, but the average was less than 6 per cent., for the precise reason that I have just given him. Average council tax rises are, of course, lower in Labour areas than in Conservative areas. The other interesting point concerns the right hon. and learned Gentleman's shadow Chancellor. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] Perhaps the Chancellor and the shadow Chancellor are having a conversation together. His shadow Chancellor said that he would freeze the local government budget in cash terms. [Interruption.] There is no point in the right hon. arid learned Gentleman shaking his head, because that is what the shadow Chancellor said. That freeze would result in a cut of £4.8 billion to the local government budget. What would that do to council tax?

Mr. Howard

It is interesting that the Prime Minister wants to trade council tax increases in Labour-controlled councils and Conservative-controlled councils, because the highest rate of council tax in the whole country is in Sedgefield, which has a Labour district council, a Labour county council and him as its Member of Parliament. Since he came to office, that council tax has increased by 70 per cent.—three times the rate of inflation. That is a rise of almost £500 for a band D household. The Prime Minister told people that there would be no excessive council tax rises under Labour. Is that not yet another example of his saying one thing and doing another?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong—the average council tax in Sedgefield is way below the highest in the country. Furthermore, the Conservatives keep using the band that includes only 10 per cent. of the properties in Sedgefield—90 per cent. of the properties are not in the band to which he is referring. It is typical of the Tories always to focus on 10 per cent., not 90 per cent.

In respect of council tax, it is true that there have been rises that we found unacceptable, which is why we took action and got them down this year. We have been increasing the money that we give to local government, which can use it on services. We have not had an answer to this question: if, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, council tax is too high, how on earth would cutting the budget to local government make it lower? It would make it higher, and I should have thought that even he could understand those mathematics, which will certainly be understood by people in Birmingham and Leicester.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab)

Will the Prime Minister turn his attention to the plight of the Chagos islanders, who were prevented from returning to their islands by an Order in Council on 10 June, which cannot be debated in this House, having won their right legally to return in 2000? Will he accept that there has been huge American pressure to depopulate those islands and prevent the islanders from returning? Will he meet the islanders and the Government of Mauritius, and allow the gross injustice of the 1970s to be reversed and the islanders to go home?

The Prime Minister

I know that this was discussed yesterday in Foreign Office questions, and my hon. Friend will be aware of the statement on the issue made by the Foreign Secretary. The position of Diego Garcia as a base—that is what this is about—is extremely important for this country, as it represents an important part of our security. I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend raises, but the Foreign Secretary dealt with them comprehensively in his statement.

Q2. Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con)

Before the local and European elections, Conservative Members, the independent Electoral Reform Society, and the Electoral Commission, which his own Government set up, all warned that there would be fraud and chaos in the all-postal pilot areas. There have been yet more allegations of serious fraud in the current by-elections. Will the Prime Minister now abandon the Deputy Prime Minister's obsession with all-postal voting before the daft regional referendums?

The Prime Minister

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The Electoral Commission is looking into the issue, and we will study its report carefully. It has the right people to produce an objective and independent report on the matter. There is a lot of evidence that postal ballots increase turnout; I should have thought that that would be welcomed in this House.

Q3. Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a just and lasting peace in the Israel-Palestine conflict is essential not only in its own right, but in terms of undermining any international support for terrorism? In the light of last week's condemnation of the Israeli wall by the International Court of Justice, and the damage that the construction of that wall will inevitably do to the chances of a proper peace, can my right hon. Friend tell the House what further steps the Government will take to ensure that the Israeli Government engage constructively in a solution to this crisis?

The Prime Minister

We have pressed the Israeli Government on several occasions to re-route the fence away from occupied territory, and we have expressed our grave concerns about the humanitarian suffering of the Palestinian people. I agree, however, that the key to many of the problems in the middle east is to get a negotiated settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, leading to the two-state solution—an Israel confident of its security and a viable Palestinian state. I assure my right hon. Friend that we will do everything that we can to make progress on the issue. I hope that as a result of the work that is being done over the next few weeks by the Quartet—the US, Russia, the EU and the UN—we will have something positive to say in this respect when we reconvene in September. I entirely agree that there is no more important issue in reducing some of the tensions in the world.

Q4. Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

Has the Prime Minister seen the research report in the British Medical Journal that shows a causal connection between British troops' service in the Gulf and infertility problems? Will he now insist that appropriate Ministers give evidence to the independent inquiry under Lord Lloyd, so that the appearance of secrecy surrounding this issue is dispelled once and for all?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I have nothing to add to what Ministers have already said on the subject. Of course, it is a serious issue, and we investigate it continually. I will discuss with my colleagues the issue of giving evidence. It is important that we make progress on the basis of the actual evidence.

Q5. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the recently published annual report of the Healthcare Commission, which expressed concern at the continued underfunding of those NHS trusts that have the greatest need. My right hon. Friend knows that this Government have funded the NHS to record levels, but will he take the opportunity of the comprehensive spending review to end once and for all the inequality in health funding that has blighted constituencies such as mine?

The Prime Minister

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's point. As he was gracious enough to say, we have massively increased the amount of investment that is going into the health service. Indeed, by the end of this spending review, somewhere in the region of three times the amount of money, in cash terms at least, will be going into the national health service compared with a few years ago. We are trying to ensure that we deal specifically with health inequalities, and that will be part of what the Health Secretary announces later in the year. Such inequalities do not always arise because some trusts are being unfairly treated—they sometimes arise because people in a particular trust area have severe problems. The Health Secretary is looking into that, and I hope that we can give my hon. Friend some solace later in the year.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con)

Is the Prime Minister aware of a breakdown in part of the planning process on the siting of base stations and transmission masts? Is he aware that, in practice, there is no effective local planning control and that the operating companies' code of practice is simply not being adhered to? Will he instruct the Deputy Prime Minister to talk urgently to the Local Government Association and other interested parties to resolve the matter, which is of increasing concern throughout the House and to so many of our constituents?

The Prime Minister

I do not dispute that the hon. Gentleman raises a teal issue for all parties and I am happy to engage in discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister and other colleagues. As I said in answer to a question on a different issue, it is important that we, as representatives of our constituents, are prepared ultimately to abide by what the science tells us about the risks, difficulties and dangers.

I entirely understand that there is a planning issue, but concerns about planning are often driven by people's worries about the supposed health risk and whether it exists. Both matters should be considered together.

Q6. Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)

Although I welcome the Government's commitment to providing more nursery places for children, can the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will take seriously the findings of a recent study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which warns of the dangers of starting nursery education too early and its impact on the child's character?

The Prime Minister

Common sense tells us that we must have a balance. However, I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that the expansion of child care and nursery education as well as Sure Start have played a huge part, especially in some of the most deprived areas of our country, in giving life chances to children who would otherwise be without them. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members also know that all the evidence shows that investment in a child's early years pays real dividends in later behaviour and developing a sense of responsibility. That helps to create a better society.

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

Last week, the Secretary of State for Defence stated that investigations into the deaths last year of the six military policemen at Al Majar al-Kabir are to be transferred to the Iraqi central criminal court. My constituents, the parents of the late Lance-Corporal Tom Keys, are concerned that the court will not proceed with the investigations. Worse still, the Iraqi Prime Minister has said that he is minded to grant amnesties to insurgents. Will the Prime Minister intervene personally to ensure that the investigation proceeds to a fair conclusion, especially since suspects' names are known? Will he make the strongest possible representations to the Iraqi Prime Minister about the unsuitability of granting amnesty to those murderers?

The Prime Minister

It is our understanding that the Royal Military Police special investigation branch has gathered sufficient evidence on the case for the central criminal court of Iraq to take on and direct the final stages of the investigation. In other words, we have evidence in respect of specific individuals. I shall certainly ensure that we stay closely in touch with what is happening. There has been an exaggeration of the extent of any amnesty to insurgents in Iraq, but I would personally find it unacceptable if those people were pardoned for their appalling crime. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall stay closely in touch with him and with the families about the issue.

Q12. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab)

In the light of concerns about wind power generation—it is relatively expensive and inefficient; it blights land and seascape, and it damages wildlife and marine life—does my right hon. Friend intend to re-examine the nuclear option, as other countries are doing, if we are to achieve our targets on carbon dioxide and global warming?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will know that I spoke about this in front of the Liaison Committee the other week. Nuclear power is an important source of carbon-free electricity, but the analysis of the energy White Paper showed that, at present, the economics make new nuclear build unattractive. However, I told the Liaison Committee that we are keeping the nuclear option open and continuing to invest in skills and research, but we would have to overcome both public concern and the cost issue. I entirely understand what my hon. Friend says, and as we move further to develop diversity of energy supply, we will have to keep all these options open.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East) (Con)

If the Government have increased funding to local authorities as the Prime Minister has just claimed, why are the schools in Bournemouth and throughout the county of Dorset facing a funding crisis for the second year running that is causing head teachers to make their staff redundant and to appeal to parents to come forward with extra money? Why did the Prime Minister not warn our schools at the last election that they would be facing starvation, starvation, starvation?

The Prime Minister

I do not know the precise situation in the hon. Gentleman's schools, but I will certainly find out about it in the light of what he says. All schools this year are receiving increases that have been passported through by the Government. They will then be given ring-fenced money directly. Over the last few years under this Government we have increased education funding dramatically. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that when the Government he supported were in power, in the last few years when his present leader was sitting in the Cabinet, they cut the funding per pupil. We have raised it substantially, and I would be astonished if we had not raised it in his area as well.

Q8. Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab)

Given that, in London, our good friend Ken can regulate the buses to determine routes and frequencies, why cannot we do the same in the great northern centres of population such as Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York and, in particular, Selby, where Arriva is planning significant cuts in bus services?

The Prime Minister

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. We introduced limited regulatory powers over bus services for local authorities four years ago, and we are currently consulting on ways of making it easier for the local authorities to use them. I know that my hon. Friend would not want us to forget, however, that it was this Government who guaranteed all over-60s and disabled people in England half-price or better bus fares on their local buses, and who in 2003 extended that provision to cover long-distance coaches. I entirely agree that there is an issue in relation to regulation, but bus use has recently gone up in this country for the first time in many years.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con)

Does the Prime Minister now regret his condemnation of the democratically taken decision by the people of the republic of Cyprus to reject Annan V? Will he give the House a clear undertaking that his Government will not support any measures in the European Union that would lead to a tacit recognition of the illegal regime in the northern part of the island?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I do not regret what I said then. I still believe that it would have been better if Kofi Annan's plan had proceeded; it was a fair settlement. I also think that, although we made it clear that Cyprus's accession to the European Union could not be dependent on unification of the island, it would obviously be better if some process leading to a settlement between the two parts of the island took place. We will continue to work for that—of course we will—but I thought that Kofi Annan's plan was well judged, and I hope that we can return to this issue and get it properly negotiated. There may be some changes to it, I do not know, but the basis of the plan was a sound one.

Q9. Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the private finance initiative contractor, Jarvis, has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for weeks now. This is putting at risk a large number of school repair schemes and other public sector works. Would he not think it sensible, given that Jarvis's share price has now collapsed to junk levels, to buy out all those public sector schemes, get them done in the public sector, and save billions of pounds of public money?

The Prime Minister

No, I am not sure that I would say that to my hon. Friend. [HON. MEMBERS: "Think about it!"] I am not even going to say that I am going to think about it. Obviously, there are issues that need to be sorted out in relation to the Jarvis contracts. However, let us never forget that PFI has delivered enormous benefits in terms of infrastructure building in our constituencies and communities. I know from my own constituency that there are schools and hospitals that would not have been built without it.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

On Monday, I met two of my constituents in Alma place in Clitheroe. The wife is disabled. Normally, she travelled to her local post office in Henthorn road in her wheelchair, and she enjoyed doing that. On Monday, we travelled in a vehicle past the post office, which is now closed, to another post office in the centre of Clitheroe, which is on a hill. We had to park some way away from it, then get out of the vehicle and travel up to the post office. Does the Prime Minister realise that his policy of closing post offices is causing such a deterioration in the quality of life of so many disabled people?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman must know, post office closures also proceeded under the previous Government, to the tune of several thousand. There is not a policy of post office closures, but as post offices undergo a tremendous amount of change, as fewer people collect their benefits from the post office, the Government must give an additional subsidy to post offices. Over the next few years, they will receive a subsidy of £1 billion. We are doing what we can, but we cannot simply put endless sums of money into post offices that are not commercially viable. That is why it is not fair to say that it is the Government's policy to close post offices. We are doing our best to keep as many of them open as possible. The only way of keeping more open is to spend even more money, to which he is opposed.