HC Deb 09 June 2004 vol 422 cc264-74
Q 1. [177335] Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 9June.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

I have been asked to reply.

As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is attending the G8 summit in Georgia and will then go on to attend the state funeral of the former President of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

I take this opportunity to express our deep sadness at the death of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South, Jim Marshall. He was a popular figure in Parliament and locally, and a great advocate for his constituency. He will be sadly missed.

Mr. Purchase

All of us, both here and in Jim's former constituency, would wish to echo those very fine words.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the good sense and decency of the people in my borough of Wolverhampton, where not one single person has been persuaded to stand as a British National party nationalist, fascist candidate in tomorrow's city council elections? In this special week when we remember the Normandy landings, which became a real turning point in the fight against racism and fascism, will my right hon. Friend implore and demand of the voters that tomorrow they follow the example of Wolverhampton and make our country a racist-BNP-free zone?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sure that the House will agree with much of what my hon. Friend says. The people of his city have shown good sense in many ways, not least in sending him here as their Member of Parliament.

My hon. Friend is right. too, to draw the House's attention to the dignified ceremonies that took place at the weekend to mark the courage and sacrifice of those involved in the Normandy landings 60 years ago. It is because of their bravery and sacrifice that we have the right to vote in the elections that are taking place tomorrow. I am sure that the House will want to urge all those taking part to turn out and to maximise the vote.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con)

I join the Deputy Prime Minister in his tribute to the late Jim Marshall. I believe that we will all miss him in the House.

I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister will also wish to join me in paying tribute to the late Ronald Reagan, a great President who challenged the march of communism and won. After all, how can he and I not pay tribute to a man who was known as the great communicator?

Does the Deputy Prime Minister now regret ignoring the advice of the Electoral Commission and going ahead with postal voting in four regions?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman made clear his judgment about President Reagan in the debate on foreign affairs on Monday. For my part, whatever people said about President Reagan at the beginning of his regime, I remember that he contributed to reducing weapons of mass destruction, which assisted in world peace today. [Interruption.] Well, people can make judgments, but I give my judgment as best I can. I remember the many cynical comments that were made about that man, but he did contribute to reducing the cold war. [Interruption.] I can only give the House my view and live with whatever people think about it.

As for all-postal ballots, let me make it clear to the House that the evidence is that the number of people participating in the elections is significantly higher than it has been. It must be the wish of everyone in the House that as many people as possible vote in elections. The returning officers are positive about the elections and say that they are going well. By last night, turnout had already increased by 6.8 per cent. in the north-east, by 6.1 per cent. in the north-west, by 8.6 per cent. in Yorkshire and Humber, and by 7.3 per cent. in the east midlands.

That is nearly an extra 1 million people participating in the vote. That must be a welcome factor, and I think that my judgment in asking for the four areas to be considered as all-postal ballot areas was right.

Mr. Ancram

The Deputy Prime Minister's complacency is breathtaking. Where has he been for the past few weeks? Thousands of electors have had postal votes sent back because they have failed to complete them properly, one council is having to operate three emergency polling stations because thousands of voters have not received heir forms in time, and voters in another area are being invited to go to the town hall. One in seven voters in the four regions said that they had not received their ballot papers by last weekend. On top of that, today we hear allegations that substantial numbers of voters have been intimidated, and that one employer told his staff that he would sack them all if they refused to support Labour. Does the right hon. Gentleman not understand the chaos that he is causing, and the worry and upset to all the voters who think that he is effectively depriving them of their votes?

The Deputy Prime Minister

A number of those allegations were made in 2003. The Electoral Commission looked into them to see whether there were any examples of bad practice or fraud, and after the investigation into the 100 pilot areas in 2003 it said that there was no reason to believe the pilot schemes had

resulted in an increase in the incidence of electoral offences".

That was the Electoral Commission's judgment then, and it will conduct mother review in the present pilot areas. Most of what we have heard is allegations. Let the proper investigation take place, and the House will have a chance to make a proper judgment.

Let us be clear: more than 1 million more people have participated in the elections already, and if we get the same rate of return t tat we had in 2003, that figure could become 2 million. I hope that many more people will vote by the end of the elections on Thursday night. That should be welcomed We shall conduct a review, and any electoral mispractice or fraud should be harshly dealt with. Indeed, Members will recall that in the past few weeks we read in the papers that in a postal ballot—although not in an all-postal ballot area—a Conservative councillor was jailed for forging ballot papers.

Mr. Ancram

The Deputy Prime Minister's complacency will send its own signal to many people in the country. He talks again about turnout, but this is not just about turnout; it is about the integrity of the system, confidence, trust and lack of corruption. Above all, it is about people being able to exercise their vote. The chaos of the past few weeks has been bad enough, yet the right hon. Gentleman still appears hellbent on holding all-postal ballots in his three regional referendums this autumn. Will he now abandon those plans, and will the Labour party stop playing fast and loose with democracy and restore to people the right to vote at the ballot box?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman recalls this, but there was no dispute between us that postal ballots and all-postal ballots should be encouraged. All parties have supported that principle; the only dispute is whether the allegations are correct. The pilot schemes will be reviewed, and the House will have proper time to consider a proper judgment made by the Electoral Commission. That is right, but let us celebrate the fact that a million more people will participate—indeed, already have participated—in the elections; the final figure may be greater than that. That should be a matter for celebration. It is not, as the leader of the Liberal party has said, a democratic disgrace.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

Do we need more single-sex Muslim schools?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will know that a number of the local education authorities, which have the right to make that choice, have decided that there will be some of those schools—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) reminds me, there are five. It is for the local education authorities to make such decisions, and we should leave it to them.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD)

May I associate myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes paid to Jim Marshall, a Member who was much respected in all parts of the House? Of President Reagan, may I say that whatever one's differences with him may have been, he will undoubtedly take his place as one of the most notable Presidents in American history?

However, may I ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether he agrees that the proposals at the G8 summit on improved debt relief for poverty-stricken African countries should stand alone and rot be dependent on the writing off of Iraqi debt? Will the Prime Minister take that position in Georgia?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Yes, and they do stand alone.

Sir Menzies Campbell

That was the shortest and, perhaps, the most acceptable answer that the Deputy Prime Minister has ever given. I doubt that I shall be so lucky the second time around.

On Iraq, given that the new United Nations resolution mentions neither weapons of mass destruction nor the Iraq survey group at all, and in view of the Prime Minister's statement yesterday that Saddam Hussein had what he described as "strategic intent" to develop weapons of mass destruction, are we now to understand that the Government accept that there were no actual weapons of mass destruction and that none are likely to be found, or. in the words of Dr. David Kay, are the Government still being delusional?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that we are all waiting for the final report on those matters. [Interruption.] I thought that we sit up reports to find out facts so that we can then debate them. It is right for me to say that we should await the n port. It is a pity that he has not really congratulated the United Nations on arriving at its unanimous agreement last night. Everyone in the House has been calling for that, so I should have thought that we should all welcome it, rather than giving out the party political stuff that we heard from the right hon and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), which was a disgrace. Given that such a fundamental decision has been made about Iraq, we should all welcome the fact that the UN is now playing a major part in finding a solution, which our Prime Minister has tried to put in place. A council is being formed and there will be elections in June. I have listened to many debates in the Chamber on Iraq, so is it not time for us to celebrate the fact that the UN is involved and we now have a satisfactory solution for not only coalition forces, but the Iraqi authorities, which very much welcome it?

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab)

Labour's tonnage tax has given a massive boost to the British Merchant Navy and has been of huge benefit to British shipping. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my dissatisfaction that that boost and expansion has not been matched by an increase in jobs for British seafarers and has not provided the training places that were promised?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am well aware of the point that my hon. Friend makes. He welcomes the fact that there has been more than a three-times increase in tonnage due to the change o the taxation arrangement to which the Chancellor agreed a few years ago. That has meant that this island nation now has its island fleet back again, which is welcome. However, the system was different from other tax arrangements because it included the condition that there had to be training for officers and crews. There has indeed been extra training for them, but I was disappointed that my union at the time, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, did not take up the training arrangements for all British crew members aboard the ships. In fact, its own training arrangement was set up, which has meant that fewer British seafarers have been involved on the ships. However, we should welcome the fact that the decline of the British merchant fleet that had gone on for decades has been reversed due to another of the Government's successful policies.

Mr. Ancram

In February, the Party of European Socialists issued a political declaration for Europe. Does the Deputy Prime Minister support it?

The Deputy Prime Minister

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the document was released in February. A great deal of fuss was made that it had not been given a public release, but it was released in February. It is a statement by the socialist parties in Europe on what they feel that the effects of globalisation will be on European policies. They made judgments on the economy, welfare and so on. I note that their judgment on the economy is close to the Maastricht policy introduced by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's previous Administration.

Mr. Ancram

Once again. the Deputy Prime Minister has not answered the question. The document, which was signed by the Minister for Europe in that capacity, calls for new European taxes, a common immigration policy, a single welfare system and the surrender of Britain's seat on the United Nations Security Council. Does that represent Government policy: yes or no?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman does not give a proper interpretation of what was said or, indeed, meant. It is not Government policy, either.

Mr. Ancram

That is quite extraordinary. We have a document, which is signed by the Minister for Europe in that capacity, not any other. I am looking at his signature: "Denis MacShane MP, Minister for Europe". Does he speak for Europe on behalf of the Government or is he out of line? In the latter case, why is he still Minister for Europe? Is not the document Labour's real policy agenda for Europe? Is that not why the Prime Minister has not made a single speech on Europe during the campaign and has, indeed, been the invisible man of the campaign? Is it not now clear that the only way to put Britain first in Europe is to vote Conservative tomorrow?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It may give a lot of heart to the Tory Opposition to pick out a document that we have said does not represent Government policy, but that is all to do with their fear of the United Kingdom Independence party position on withdrawing from the European Union. Why have they suddenly focused so much attention on European policy? It is because their polls tell them that people will not vote Tory but UKIP. That is why it is being said that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) is not leading his party properly or setting out a proper position on Europe.

Even Conservative Members are beginning to dispute that position. A Tory peer, Lord Willoughby—a proper Tory, and like the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) a proper Lord—branded his party's renegotiation policy as absurd. He said:

Expecting to renegotiate the EU treaties on our terms is like going to MacDonald's and ordering Lobster Thermidor.

As he continued:

It would be nice to have it, but it is not on the menu". I do not know what it is about seafood and politics, but I could not have put it better myself.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich) (Lab)

My question follows on from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser). When my right hon. Friend attended the ceremony for the launch of the new Queen Mary, he was right to say that it was a significant day for the revival of the red ensign. However, does he share my concern and that of my constituent who wrote to me to say that he contacted Cunard asking for a job as a British rating on its ships, but was told that it is not employing British ratings? Will my right hon. Friend personally intervene with the companies and the British Chamber of Shipping to ask them to honour their position on the tonnage tax and employ British ratings on their ships?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I must tell my hon. Friend that it is simply not true that the companies are not employing British ratings. When I attended the Queen Mary II launch, I talked to several of them. I also talked to them on the Queen Elizabeth. The companies employ British ratings and I do not know why they say that they do not. My hon. Friend has a deep interest in the subject and I shall take up the matter that he raises but I emphasise that the companies are employing British ratings.

Q2. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

In 1999, the Prime Minister promised that, by 2001, everyone would have access to a national health service dentist. It has now become impossible to register with a national health service dentist in the New Forest. Those who were registered increasingly find themselves deregistered. When will the Government's policies stop making matters worse?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am well aware of the problem that the hon. Gentleman mentions because I have experienced it. My dentist declared that he was going private and I declared that I could not stay with him. Many of our constituents have faced that problem. As the hon. Gentleman said, each one of us has been confronted with it. However, it is a bit much for him to get up and speak about it when he belonged to the previous Administration, who closed down the dental schools for training dentists, cut back on all such services and believed in a private health service—Conservative Front -Bench Members have made it clear that they want to dismantle the national health service.

Let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the number of national health dentists has gone up by 10 per cent. since 1997. There are 36 more consultants than there were in 1997 and the medical school intake has increased by 60 per cent.—[Interruption.] Well, it does take a little bit of time to train dentists. If the Conservative had not closed the dental schools down in 1993, we would not have the problem that we have today.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab)

The Deputy Prime Minister might know that, in a singular act of compassion, this Labour Government introduced an ex gratia payment scheme for those people in the haemophilia community who have contracted hepatitis C. Sadly, however, it was decided not to include in that scheme the families of the 232 people who have died from hepatitis C. Will the Deputy Prime Minister get together with my eight hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to see whether we can find the money in this budgetary year to give the families of those 232 people ex gratia payments in line with those being given to the rest of the haemophilia community?

The Deputy Prime Minister

To be honest, I do not know the exact details of the point made by my hon. Friend, but I can give him a promise that I will have a talk, as he suggests. The Chancellor is considering all these expenditures, and I do not know exactly what is being said or done, but one thing that I can promise is that a lot more money is being put into the areas that my hon. Friend is talking about. He has asked a specific question, however, and I shall have a look at this and write to him about it.

Q3. Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

I join the Deputy Prime Minister in welcoming yesterday's unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution on Iraq, but I am sure that he would agree that much more needs to b done to rebuild the unity and cohesion of the transatlantic alliance. Will he tell us what specific issues the Prime Minister will try to persuade his European counterparts to rebuild that unity around?

The Deputy Prime Minister

To be honest, I am sure that that will be one of the questions that the Prime Minister will address when he appears before the House on Monday. He will make a statement and that is one of the matters that he can deal with—[Interruption.] Yes, I may well be the Deputy Prime Minister, but I want to be honest with the House and I think that hon. Members would want to hear it from the Prime Minister himself, as he makes these decisions. I try to put these answers as clearly as I can, and I think that honesty is important in politics.

I remember that, when the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) was the vice-chairman of the Tory party, he produced the Maples report back in 1994. That was 10 years ago, and he gave an opinion about the Tory party at that time. In it, he said that people thought that what the Tor es were saying was

completely at odds with their experience, which led them to conclude that the Tories were "out of touch", "lying", "stupid" and "didn't care". Is that still his view?

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)

In Sheffield over the last four years there has been a fall of more than 16 per cent. in deaths among those under the age of 75, including a fall of more than 23 per cent. in deaths from circulatory disease. Does this not show that Labour's investment in the health service is not only changing people's lives but saving hundreds and thousands of lives across the country? Are these not the kind of statistics that the Opposition would rather we did not talk about?

The Deputy Prime Minister

On of the most pleasing aspects of the amount of resources going into the health service is the changes that are taking place. They take some time, however. The Black report on health showed some time ago that the differential in death and mortality rates between the north and the south was unacceptable. We are trying to correct that by putting greater resources into those areas and I am pleased to hear that that has happened in Sheffield. There is also evidence of it happening in Hull, and I am sure that it is happening elsewhere.

The thing that must be worrying most of our constituents, however, and which we should particularly bear in mind this week, is the announcement made by the shadow Chancellor that he envisaged the national health service vanishing in the next five years. That shows the difference between us, and the choice that we have to make. When the Conservatives say that they are going to do that, it will make the differentials in mortality rates and health between the north and south worse. That shows the considered indifference of the Tory Opposition.

Q4. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister find time today to pay tribute to the National Neighbourhood Watch Association, which is the UK's largest voluntary movement and is doing first-class work in his constituency and mine? Is he aware, however, that it faces imminent closure, because the Home Office is preventing it from signing a five-year commercial sponsorship agreement? That will be a disaster for tens of thousands of volunteers. Will he consider the issue very carefully? What does he have against this organisation, which prospered under the Tories, just as it appears his own NHS dentist prospered under the Tories?

The Deputy Prime Minister

First, everybody in the House will agree that the neighbourhood watch has been a very successful operation. It involves local decision making and involvement, and it has been good in helping to reduce crime. Alongside that, of course, as the hon. Gentleman will well recognise, there is now a record number of police :in Norfolk—1,500 officers in December 2003. While the neighbourhood watch is very important, so is the number of police, which was reduced under the previous Administration but has been increased by 1,500 officers. In Norfolk alone there are 70 more than in 1997, as well as 34 community support officers, which is an improvement in those programmes. We have seen a reduction in the crime statistics, and that is largely due to the Government's policy in increasing police and, at the same time, the good work of local initiatives in neighbourhood watch.

Q5. Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my concern that many of our indigenous industries are now the victim of employers exploiting cheap labour markets abroad. Just yesterday, an established factory in my constituency, Sara Lee, announced 162 redundancies. What measures are in place to address that situation and, in particular, the situation that affects communities such as a deprived area in my constituency, Port Glasgow, which is suffering from a great many job losses as we speak?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. The first point for me to make is that this Government have been very successful in increasing the number of jobs in Scotland, Wales and England. There are well over 2 million more jobs—a rate that has been considerably increased and something to be welcomed by all that is largely due to the stability in the economy.

I must also say that there are people who attempt to organise, and I saw them on my visit to Glasgow. The jobcentres themselves are putting about 4,700 people in work every day, so they are quite successful in that. I was impressed not only by the new deal, which has helped about 100,000 people back into work in Scotland, but by a group in Scotland, which started 28 years ago, so not under this Administration, and which should be given some consideration—the Wise Group. It has had quite a lot of money and has been getting people back to work very successfully for 28 years. I noticed also that there was a tremendous amount of money going into it from the European Community—vital funding of about £3 million in 2003. That reminds us when people are talking about these European elections that an awful lot of our jobs and training money are related to Europe. That is an important factor when the Opposition are really advocating that we should withdraw from Europe, which would have unemployment consequences.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con)

If the people of Yorkshire and Humber vote no in the regional assembly referendum in the autumn, can we keep our two-tier local government in North Yorkshire?

The Deputy Prime Minister

We have made it absolutely clear that if the people vote against any changes in the regional referendum, none of the local government organisation changes, as recommended in the referendum, will take place. They can say yes or no; if they say no, there will be no change and things will stay exactly as they are. However, I would ask the hon. Gentleman to talk to the Leader of the Opposition, who has made it clear that even if the vote is successful, he might not necessarily take any notice of it. That is hardly a democratic decision, but it is what I can expect from the Tory Opposition. They should keep working on their leader and at least get some honesty into the politics.

Q6. Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab)

What would my right hon. Friend say to constituents in Crawley who face changes to their emergency services? Despite unprecedented spending on health locally, senior doctors are recommending that those services should change. Will he ensure that I get access at the highest level to discuss this matter?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I understand my hon. Friend's concern and assure her that we are indeed taking this matter very seriously, as is the case with those at local level. I know that the Secretary of State for Health has been in touch with her, and he assures me that he will be very happy to meet her to discuss the matter on any occasion she chooses. He is available to do so. My final point to Members and voters in their constituencies, and the advice I would give them, is vote Labour.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)

Now that the Deputy Prime Minister proposes to allow the building of 18,000 new houses on green fields in Abington in my constituency, and has already overruled the local authority by allowing Travellers to develop greenfield sites in open country, is it any surprise that the local Labour party is so embarrassed by his actions that tomorrow it is not even contesting seats that it currently holds?

The Deputy Prime Minister

On the factual point, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that in the three northern areas alone, 90-odd per cent. of Labour councillors have been nominated and are fighting these elections, compared with 70-odd per cent. for the Tories.

With regard to housing, we are committed to providing housing for people. Particularly down in the south-east, it has N en denied to them for too long, either because it is too expensive or because we have not been able to build sufficient amounts. I have announced to the House a tremendous increase in such programmes, and we will continue to meet the needs of people, so that they are not told, "Go north, because there is no house here," and they can have a house near their parents and near where they have been brought up.

As for the planning. issue, I note the hon. Gentleman's point, but I give him the same answer that everyone gives from this Dispatch Box, from whatever Government. As I am one of the Planning Ministers, I cannot comment on the issue, as I might be making a decision at the end of the day. That is my obligation and my responsibility, and I will face up to it.

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