HC Deb 21 July 2004 vol 424 cc319-28
Q1. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

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

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before listing my engagements, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the two firefighters killed tackling a fire in east London yesterday. They died doing an extraordinary and heroic job and our thoughts are with their families at this time.

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.

Mr. Leigh

On behalf of all his colleagues, may I warmly congratulate the Prime Minister on the 10th anniversary of his election as leader of the Labour party today? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Does the Prime Minister recall that, in those halcyon days in 1994, he said that it was wrong that we were wasting millions of pounds on accountants and bureaucrats in the NHS instead of spending it on doctors and nurses? Is it not a shame that, 10 years on, the National Audit Office still does not have a detailed cost breakdown of how much of the £61 billion extra investment is reaching the front line? Can we please have detailed cost breakdowns between spending and overheads on the front line? Will he provide Parliament with the information that we need?

The Prime Minister

Administration costs as a proportion of overall expenditure in the health service are falling, but since the hon. Gentleman wants the figures, what we have been able to achieve in the national health service over the past few years are 67,000 more nurses, 19,000 more doctors, and reductions in every single part of waiting times and waiting lists, including in his own constituency.

Q2. Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab)

May I with sincerity congratulate my right hon. Friend on his 10 years as party leader, in consequence of which Hastings and Rye are now Labour towns, benefiting from around 2,000 fewer victims of crime? Will he join me in congratulating the Hastings crime reduction partnership on that success, which is due in large measure to the 37 street wardens and community support officers who are now walking the streets and making them safer?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Supplementaries should be brief.

The Prime Minister

I know that it takes my hon. Friend some time to go through the achievements. It is correct that we are putting more support officers and neighbourhood wardens into operation on our streets. That is important because people welcome them where they have been in operation. We should not forget either that we have 12,500 more police officers since 1997, and it is this Government who are going to carry on increasing the police budget—unlike the Conservative party, which is going to impose a cut in the police budget by the cash freeze announced by the shadow Chancellor.

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

I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives yesterday and in expressing our sincere sympathy to their families.

I, too, would like to congratulate the Prime Minister on his 10th anniversary as Labour leader. They have been 10 years of deep frustration for the ambitions of my party and for the ambitions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is not here today.

In his acceptance speech 10 years ago, the Prime Minister said that he would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Can he tell us what has happened to violent crime since he became Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

Under the British crime survey, violent crime is down, not up, since we took office. It is true that recorded violent crime is up, but overall, crime is down since we came to power. As I have just said, we have increased the number of police officers by 12,500. That contrasts with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's record, as he cut the number of police officers serving on Britain's streets.

Mr. Howard

The British crime survey figures do not include murder, rape, drugs offences or crimes against children, which is why the Prime Minister never mentioned them when he was Leader of the Opposition and why he then used the recorded crime figures only. On the recorded crime figures, violent crime has gone up by 64 per cent. since 1998. For the first time in this country, 1 million violent crimes were committed in a single year. The Prime Minister has also said that too many of the guilty are going free. Can he tell us how many people guilty of these violent crimes are brought to book?

The Prime Minister

First, in respect of violent crime, the British crime survey is calculated in exactly the same way as it was when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office, and the figures indicate that violent crime is down. Secondly, crime overall has fallen but, yes, there are real problems with violent crime. That is why we have the new Criminal Justice Act 2003 coming into force, which will make a big difference in many parts of the country. It is also why we have more police officers and new measures on antisocial behaviour. None of this would be improved by his plans to cut the police budget in real terms.

Mr. Howard

I am not going to cut the police budget; that is absolute nonsense. The Prime Minister was also talking nonsense when he said that overall crime had fallen. On the recorded crime figures, crime has gone up by 15.5 per cent. since 1998. The Prime Minister did not answer my question. He certainly has been good at very many things over the last 10 years, but answering questions is not one of them. Clear-up rates for violent crime have fallen by nearly a third. Over 500,000 violent crimes were not cleared up, which is one of the reasons why too many of the guilty are going free. Let us look at another issue. Will he tell the House how many criminals he has let out of prison under his early release scheme who have committed more crimes when they should still have been in prison?

The Prime Minister

First, we have increased the number of prison places in this country. Yes, it is true that some let out under early release—who would, of course, have been released later in any event—have committed crimes, but it is a small percentage of the overall figures. [Interruption.] Two per cent., I am told. Let us go back to the essential question. Crime has actually fallen under this Government, not risen. The Leader of the Opposition said a moment ago that he does not intend to freeze the law and order budget. Let me read what the shadow Chancellor has said: I have agreed with my shadow Cabinet colleagues that the baseline for spending across all of these departmental budgets— that is, outside the NHS and schools budgets— will be 0 per cent. growth for the first two years. That is in cash terms and it includes the law and order budget, does it not?

Mr. Howard

No, it does not, because we have also explained how we will save over £1 billion a year on the paying of benefits to asylum seekers. Let us get back to crime. On the recorded crime figures, about which the Prime Minister always talked when he was in opposition, there have been 800,000 more crimes committed a year than in 1998. That is an increase of 15.5 per cent. Since his early release scheme was introduced, nearly 2,000 prisoners have committed crimes when they should have been in prison. They have been responsible for nine serious sexual crimes, 163 burglaries, 47 robberies and 462 other violent crimes, whose victims will not have been comforted by the Prime Minister's assurance that that is a small percentage. What is tough on crime about that?

The Prime Minister

Tough on crime means making sure that we toughen up the penalties for serious offenders and for drug pushers, which we have done. It also means making sure that we increase the number of police on the streets and that we back that up with community support officers, which we have done. It further means getting crime down overall, which we have also done.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he is going to save £1 billion through the reduction of asylum costs, but that is going back to his fantasy island, is it not? We have been doing a little research on this. Apparently, the shadow Chancellor actually says that he is going to save £1.8 billion on asylum costs; unfortunately, that is the whole of the immigration budget. [Laughter.] So perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman will explain, given his proposed freeze on the law and order budget, how he would maintain police numbers, improve investment in the criminal justice system and carry on getting crime to fall.

Mr. Howard

Anyone who thinks that I would not make sure that the Home Office gets the resources that it needs is living in fantasy land. This week, the Prime Minister launched another of his five-year plans full of gimmicks and schemes, like the ones he has had before. Can he tell us how many people have been marched to a cash point, how many have had their housing benefit docked, and how many are appearing before night courts? Is any one of the gimmicks that he has previously announced still in operation?

The Prime Minister

Certainly. Thousands of fixed penalty notices have been given up and down this country. [Interruption.] They are on-the-spot fines and they have been welcomed by police throughout the country. The right hon. and learned Gentleman actually opposed fixed penalty notices, and incidentally he also opposed the introduction of community support officers; perhaps he will tell us whether that is still his position? As for it being fantasy that he would cut the Home Office budget, perhaps he will now accept that when he was Home Secretary, having promised to raise police numbers, he actually cut them.

Mr. Howard

Everybody knows that crime fell by 18 per cent. while I was Home Secretary, which is more than even the Government's target for the next five years. Now, let us get back to my question. I did not ask about fixed penalties; I asked about cash points. The answer to the question that I asked the Prime Minister is none—no thugs have been marched to cash points, no one has had their housing benefit docked and the courts do not sit at night. Is not the truth that every one of these failed initiatives is typical of this Government's dismal record on crime? Ten years on from his acceptance speech, have we not had just more slogans, more spin, more gimmicks and more initiatives, none of which are tough on crime or on the causes of crime?

The Prime Minister

Fixed penalty notices are of course on-the-spot fines, and they are to be combined with antisocial behaviour orders, closing down crack houses, making sure that the police have the power to close pubs and clubs where disorder occurs, making sure that courts have a proper information technology system, and putting more community support officers and police on the beat.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to compare 10-year records and I am very pleased to do that. Let us look at them, mine and his. Under this Labour Government, we have more people in work, the first ever minimum wage, the lowest interest and inflation rates for years, the best ever exam results, and more teachers and nurses; moreover, crime is down. Under the right hon. and learned Gentleman, what happened? When he was Secretary of State for Employment, unemployment went up, and when he was Home Secretary, police numbers came down. And we should never forget that he was the one who introduced the poll tax. So on comparing 10-year records, we are doing pretty well.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that some very good things came out of the 1960s, most notably the then Government's determination to tackle for the first time through legislation the scourge of discrimination, which affects millions of our fellow citizens? Does he also agree that now is the time to look again at our laws and to make them easier for victims of discrimination to use, and to encourage the prevention of discrimination in the first place, thereby greatly improving the life-chances and opportunities of millions of our fellow citizens?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely. The strengthening of the law against discrimination has been an important part of this Government's agenda over the past few years. Whatever the difficulties in our society, we should be pleased that discrimination forms no part of the respectable part of politics, and all politicians in the main political parties regard the idea of playing politics with race and discrimination as completely out of order.

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

On Sudan, and the unfolding catastrophe in Darfur, I welcome the extra £28 million that the Government have pledged for direct assistance. What scope does the Prime Minister see for further practical steps on the back of that welcome decision, to assist the millions of Sudanese facing ethnic cleansing and starvation?

The Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the additional resources, which mean that after the United States of America we are the largest bilateral donor in this situation. The key things now are, first, to ensure that whatever aid is given goes through to the people who need it most, and secondly, to keep up pressure on the Government of Sudan to ensure that they deal with the real problems that are giving rise to the violence and ethnic cleansing. We must continue, along with the United States, to put as much pressure as we can on them to do that.

Mr. Kennedy

I certainly thank the Prime Minister for that reply. Does he agree that the international community must recognise the absolute sense of urgency here, not least the fact that we cannot expect only 60 United Nations monitors and 300 troops adequately to patrol an area the size of France? Will he continue to send every conceivable signal to the rest of the international community about the urgency involved, because the real danger in humanitarian terms is that we could be facing the obscenity of another Rwanda?

The Prime Minister

It is for that very reason that we have been in touch not only with the United States but with other countries on the issue over the past few weeks. I myself have spoken twice to Kofi Annan about it. We will continue to work closely with the United Nations and with the other countries involved in this, and to monitor the situation very carefully. We rule absolutely nothing out in this situation. Let us see how the results of the extra aid develop over the coming days. We will keep a very, very close watch on this, and I am in contact with other Ministers on it literally every day.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that over the next few months MPs of all parties will receive substantial complaints in their postbags about fireworks misuse. Yesterday, 8 tonnes of fireworks were seized in Gloucester. Does he accept that, unless we strengthen the Fireworks Regulations 2004, which are currently before the House, we will continue to suffer the problems of the illegal importation of fireworks and we will not have a system for licensing retailers?

The Prime Minister

I agree. The regulations were laid before the House last Friday, and we are also implementing everything that was contained in the Department of Trade and Industry consultation document on the issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the campaigning that he has done on this subject over a long period.

The measures in the regulations include making permanent the offence of possession of fireworks in public by under-18s; a curfew on the use of fireworks between 11 o'clock at night and 7 in the morning, with certain exceptions such as Diwali and new year's eve; limiting the period in which fireworks can be supplied to the general public unless a licence is obtained from the relevant licensing authority; and a maximum noise limit. We have introduced the measures because of the problems to which my hon. Friend draws attention, and we will keep them closely under review.

Q3. Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD)

The Deputy Prime Minister closed the Oban coastguard station and two other stations despite many warnings that lives would be put at risk because of the loss of local knowledge. Earlier this week, the Transport Committee found that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency had failed to carry out a full impact assessment of the closures. In view of that finding, will the Prime Minister set up an independent review to carry out a full impact assessment, and reopen the centres if that is what the review recommends?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman an independent inquiry, but I can tell him that I will look further into the issue and get back in touch with him about it in writing. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister says that a great deal of extensive consultation took place before the decisions were taken. There will always be difficult decisions to take in this area, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman and write to him with the details.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)

However much purple haze rains down on my right hon. Friend, will he stand firm in upholding the primacy of the welfare of children, especially in those few cases where intervention by mediation or court ruling is necessary to determine contact with the separated parents?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right in saying that it is the interest of the child that should always be of paramount consideration. I am sure that that will continue to be the case, and the process that we are discussing today will not alter that basic principle.

Q4. Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

Yesterday the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary quite rightly paid tribute to our armed forces in prosecuting the Prime Minister's illegal and unpopular war in Iraq. The rewards for their efforts are seemingly cuts and amalgamations, so what would the right hon. Gentleman say to my constituents serving in the Black Watch or some other historic Scottish regiment who have been put in the firing line abroad only to be stabbed in the back at home?

The Prime Minister

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he does his case no good whatever by that type of statement. Let me point out to him that, under this Government, defence spending is rising. Of course there are changes in how we spend the defence budget. That is sensible. As the world changes, it is important that we make changes to how we spend the money in relation to defence. No reductions in front-line troops are anticipated by the review today, but it is important to make sure that the record amounts of money that we spend on defence are spent in the most sensible way. Rather than talking about an illegal war, the hon. Gentleman should recognise that most of the people in his constituency serving in the regiments that he described will be proud of what they did in Iraq.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde) (Lab)

Is it not clear that, in this new century, the era of narrow-minded nationalism is passing? To that end, does my right hon. Friend agree that it does not matter which particular no-hoper leads the nationalist parties, because it is their philosophy of isolationism and separatism that is being consigned to the dustbin of history?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes his case very well, and I have to agree with it. It is interesting that, after devolution, which many people said would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, the UK is actually stronger today. I welcome that, and I think that most people realise that, for example, with the Scottish Parliament, the legitimate aspirations of the Scottish people have been recognised, while the UK has been kept strong because the United Kingdom is in the interests of all the people who live in it.

Q5. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)

In the Prime Minister's first answer, he gave the impression or claimed that all hospital waiting times had been reduced. If we include constituents in Sedgefield with mine in Worthing, how many people have been waiting more than a year for audiology tests? Is the figure higher than when he became Prime Minister or higher than when he became leader of the Labour party?

The Prime Minister

I do not know the figure off-hand, but I can look into it. However, I would have to say to the hon. Gentleman that anyone looking at the NHS today knows that, although there are still major problems, it is getting better as a result of the investment and reform that we have made; and the extra nurses and extra capacity, along with the changes, are delivering substantial falls in waiting times and waiting lists right across the piece. I would be astonished if that were not the case in his area; it certainly is in mine.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op)

Just published—and a source of possible inspiration for many Members—is the autobiography of the late Jeremy Bray, MP, who combined a scintillating intellect with a profound sense of feeling for his fellow human beings. He constantly talks about his own fallibility and his limitations. Is my right hon. Friend confident that the mechanisms that he has in place for dealing with his own fallibility and limitations are sufficient? [Laughter.]

The Prime Minister

I am absolutely confident that the mechanisms for judging my fallibility are infallible.

Q6. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

Does the Prime Minister recognise that his leadership and policies contributed to the collapse of the Labour vote in last week's parliamentary by-elections? What does he say to members of his party who feel that, after 10 years, he should honour his promise to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and step aside?

The Prime Minister

What the hon. Gentleman should do is realise that the Government of the country is decided, ultimately, at a general election. We look forward to meeting the Liberal Democrats at that election.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will recall that we are celebrating 30 years of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974. May I urge him to bring forward new and tough legislation that will confront the issue of corporate killing?

The Prime Minister

First, I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of the Health and Safety Commission over the past 30 years. We will prepare proposals on this matter and publish a draft Bill later in the year. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that the matter to which he refers raises very complex issues, and that we need to get the balance right on corporate responsibility.

Q7. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD)

The Prime Minister and the Government believe in widening participation in higher education, as does my party. However, the number of young people in England aged between 18 and 20 applying to university has fallen as a proportion of the total number of people in that age group. In fact, the figures are down to about 12,000 below the level that one would have expected over the past two years. I believe that that is because of tuition fees and top-up fees. Can the Prime Minister offer any other explanation?

The Prime Minister

First, I do not believe that the numbers are falling. The numbers of people going to university are rising. If the hon. Gentleman allows me, I shall check the statistic that he gave me before I agree to it. Secondly, it is important to recognise that the Government are putting more taxpayer's money into higher education. However, if Britain is to compete with the very best and get even more people into university—and especially people from lower-income backgrounds—we have to change the system of funding. We are reintroducing grants and making sure that children from the poorest families get £3,000 a year in support, but we are saying to those who get the benefits of a university education that they should put something back into the pot after they graduate, for the general good of the country. I do not think that unreasonable. If, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we were to put in even more money by means of a 50 per cent. top rate tax, that would not be good for the economy. Even if we raised the money—which we would not—I do not think that it would be the right priority for spending.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)(Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate British Telecom on its new system to block customers' access to child pornography websites? That stops a staggering 10,000 attempts a day to download images of children being abused and raped. Vodaphone has now agreed to use similar technology. Will the Prime Minister now call on all internet service providers and mobile phone companies to follow that example and help stamp out that despicable trade in children's misery?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and we will certainly do so. We welcome the BT initiative to block access to web pages containing images of child abuse. We would encourage any measure that other internet service providers take to reduce the availability of such images. We will be inviting leading service providers to a meeting in September to consider what can be learned from the experience of the BT initiative, and how that can be extended across the piece. However, I know that this is a serious issue of public concern, and I assure my hon. Friend that we are acting on it.

Q8. Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

When defence Ministers said that Piers Morgan should take full responsibility for publishing fake photographs in his newspaper, and when Alastair Campbell said that Gavyn Davies should take full responsibility for the BBC's output, would it have been an adequate defence to say that they acted in good faith?

The Prime Minister

In our debate yesterday, we went through all the various issues in relation to this matter—[HON. MEMBERS: Answer!] I will answer, very directly. It is not simply a question of having acted in good faith. We acted on the intelligence that we had. I defy anyone to look at that intelligence and say that they would not have come to the same conclusion. I believe that we took the right decision, and I stand by it. I believe that the world, Iraq and the region are better places as a result.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the number of apprenticeships that have been developed in the Clyde—some 250 in the past few years and another 100 about to start in the coming year. Can he allay my concerns about what will happen with future orders, to ensure that those 350 young people have jobs in the decades to come?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely by keeping the strong economy that we will encourage such apprenticeships. As my hon. Friend may know, we have seen a rise from 70,000 modern apprenticeships to 250,000 in the country as a whole. It is the combination of investment in training and skills and a stable economy with high levels of employment that is the best guarantee of increasing prosperity, not merely in my hon. Friend's constituency, but throughout the country.

Q9. Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

The Prime Minister will be aware that the star ratings for trusts were released today, and that a target for primary care trusts is access to a GP within 48 hours. I wish to share with him a brief email that went out from Southampton City PCT: Just a reminder that the Primary Care Access Survey will take place this Wednesday … between 11am and 1pm. If you … have any problems hitting the … 48hrs … target, please contact …. Will the Prime Minister admit—

Mr. Speaker

Order. A short supplementary would have been fine. Can the Prime Minister answer?

The Prime Minister

I shall do my best. First, the star ratings are given by the independent Healthcare Commission. Secondly, my understanding is that the Liberal Democrats are against all these performance targets—the guarantees for people about access to GPs, the waiting list and waiting time targets. It is very odd of the hon. Lady to say that we should be even more vigorous and rigorous in ensuring that they are met. I remind her that we are putting more money into the national health service, including in her area, than the Liberal Democrats ever asked us for.