HC Deb 16 June 2004 vol 422 cc766-76
Q1. Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 16 June.

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.

Mr. Wiggin

The Prime Minister will be aware of the horrendous crash on the A49 in my constituency last Monday in which lives were lost and the fireball was so large that houses nearby caught fire. Will he please look into what can be done to prevent such loss of life to my constituents in the future?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to look into the incident for the hon. Gentleman and I shall write back to him with details of what we can do.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East) (Lab/Co-op)

Have I got good news for our Prime Minister? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has good news for the Prime Minister, but he must put a question to him.

Mr. Turner

In the fair-trade city of Wolverhampton last Thursday, Labour gained eight seats from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. Does the Prime Minister have a message for the good folks of Wolverhampton about what was very much a wonderful Labour day?

sThe Prime Minister

My message to the good people of Wolverhampton would be, "Congratulations on your good judgment—try to spread it around a little bit over the next few months." Of course, that result was brought about by the Government's record on the economy and public services. Just today, we have some more good news for the people of this country: unemployment is at a 30-year low and there are now 2 million more jobs than when this Government came to power and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) left office.

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

When he is in Brussels tomorrow, will the Prime Minister do what the majority of the British people want him to do and say no to the European constitution?

The Prime Minister

I will protect the British national interest on tax, foreign policy, defence and all the other issues that we have set out. It is important that Britain remains at the centre of decision making, and I wish to ensure that it does so. I believe that that is in the interest of this country, and that the position of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, or of those who explicitly want to withdraw from Europe, is totally wrong and contrary to our national interest.

Mr. Howard

But everybody knows that the Government's so-called red lines are red herrings. Everyone knows that the constitution transfers yet more power from Britain to Brussels. Even if the Prime Minister gets all his red lines, it will involve giving up more than 20 of our vetoes. If I were in his place, I would say no. The British people want him to say no. Which part of the word "no" does he not understand?

The Prime Minister

What everyone understands is that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's position is to say no to not only this constitutional treaty, but any constitutional treaty, and then to renegotiate Britain's terms of membership of the European Union. People know that that position simply cannot be maintained—[Interruption.] I shall tell Conservative Members why. It is for the reason given by the former Conservative Deputy Prime Minister yesterday. When he was asked about the renegotiation, he said: It's not going to happen. Of course it's not going to happen … the fact of the matter is, if you are part of the European movement, as based in the Council of Ministers … you are not going to allow a substantial re-negotiation. He said that because it is the reality of government. We should secure a good deal for this country that protects our fundamental national interest, but does not marginalise us in the European Union.

Mr. Howard

Well it is certain that no renegotiation will take place under this Prime Minister, but the truth is that the argument over the constitution and the constitutional conference that will take place this week provide this country with a huge opportunity. If other member states want to do things that we do not want to do, why cannot we say to them, "We don't want to stop you doing what you want to do, as long as you don't make us do what we don't want to do"? I do want to bring powers back from Brussels to Britain—that is exactly what I want—and this should be the opportunity to do that. Why does not the Prime Minister take that message to Brussels and say no to this constitution?

The Prime Minister

First, because the provisions for enhanced co-operation in this treaty allow other people to go ahead if they wish to do so, which is why it would be particularly foolish for us to veto the entire treaty. Secondly, on the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement that he would negotiate many of the things in the European Union, perhaps he will confirm that he can do so only if every other member of the European Union agrees. That is why his position is fundamentally disingenuous; he cannot renegotiate our terms of membership. The true choice is either in or out. It is about time that he showed a bit of proper leadership and, instead of running towards the UK Independence party shouting, "Me too," stood up to it and took on the argument.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

I have in my hand a Liberal Democrat leaflet that says: Tony Blair has lost support over our run-down health services". I can tell my right hon. Friend that, having extensively market-tested the service over the past few weeks, I can personally praise my GP service, the Countess of Chester hospital, the Mersey regional ambulance service and the cardio-thoracic unit. I say to him, keep up the investment—it is a fabulous service and it is the jewel in Labour's crown.

The Prime Minister

First, may I say how delighted we all are to see my hon. Friend back in his place and well again? His experience is one shared by many people in this country. People get absolutely fed up with those who continually run down the national health service when it is obvious that the combination of money and reform is delivering a better service. Waiting lists are down; waiting times are down; cancer and cardiac deaths are down; accident and emergency services are improving; and the largest hospital-building programme since the beginning of the NHS is under way. We can be proud of our NHS, provided that we keep up those policies of investment and reform.

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

In the House on Monday the Prime Minister acknowledged that he has little expectation that this United States Government will sign up to the Kyoto treaty on climate change. Does he agree that that further emphasises the need for Europe to be seen to be taking a lead? Will he commit the Government to join France, Sweden, Holland and Denmark in pressing the principle of contraction and convergence as the fairest way forward for controlling greenhouse gas emissions?

The Prime Minister

We already are working very strongly with the European Union to make the case for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; indeed, this Government have been leading the way. In fact, much of the Kyoto treaty would not have been negotiated but for the skill of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that in the end what is important, as well as those measures that he mentioned, is the investment in science, technology and energy efficiency which gives us the best chance, in the long term, of combining economic growth and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Kennedy

The Prime Minister's positive tone is very welcome. On a practical example, to advance the green agenda, as such a large and growing proportion of Europe's greenhouse gas emissions comes from air travel, will he lead a push at European level to apply to the aviation industry the principle that the polluter must pay? Does he agree that the environmental agenda is a classic example of how Europe can lead in the world and Britain can be seen to be taking a real lead in Europe?

The Prime Minister

That may be a classic example of advocating a policy that one does not believe that one will ever have to implement. I say to the right hon. Gentleman sincerely that I believe that it is important that we take on the challenge of aviation fuel. I believe that the best way of doing that is investment in science and technology to produce better fuel efficiency. That is something that is happening in this country. To be fair, some of the main research is going on in the United States at present. I would not favour trying to impose arbitrary restrictions on people's travel.

Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab)

House prices in my constituency rose by a staggering 40 per cent. in the past 12 months and there is an urgent need for affordable housing. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the provision of affordable housing is a priority for his Government? In the light of the Barker review, will the Government encourage the use of brownfield sites and publicly owned land for affordable housing?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in what she is saying. We are supporting the funding of affordable houses. We have doubled the funding for it, and we supported the creation of about 230,000 new affordable homes. My hon. Friend is also right to say that we have to try to expand housing development on brownfield sites particularly, which is why we increased the proportion of new build on brownfield sites. We put it up to 60 per cent., and we are exceeding that target at the moment. That, together with the protection of the green belt—that is important, too—gives us a viable housing option for the future. It is important that we build new houses. That is the only way to ensure that we are increasing supply in circumstances of rising demand.

Mr. Howard

Someone in my constituency has to wait 349 days for a knee operation; 60 miles away, they could be treated in 33 days. Does not this show that patients should have the right to choose which hospital to go to in the NHS?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely for that reason that we are introducing a programme of expanding capacity in the health service so that in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's area and others we are able to provide a greater range of opportunities for people. It is this Government, for the first time in the context of the health service, who have introduced the ability of people to choose.

Mr. Howard

Well, let us have a look at the difference between the Government's plans and our plans. Under the Prime Minister's plans, if someone has been waiting for more than six months they will, if they are lucky, get the choice of one additional hospital somewhere in the country, selected not by them but by the system. That is Labour choice. Under our plans, patients will have the right to choose whichever hospital they want to go to within the NHS, and free of charge. Is not that a real right to choose? Is not that what patients should have?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to join battle on this issue. Let me tell him exactly what our policy is. It is to expand the choice as we expand the capacity. Without the investment in the NHS, choice is entirely meaningless. That is why the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal on choice—the patient passport—is to say that a Conservative Government would pay 50 per cent. of the cost of the operation within the private health care sector. What a typical Tory proposal. First, the choice goes only to the few who can afford to pay 50 per cent. of the cost of their operation. Secondly, it is to help people go out of the NHS, not stay in it. Thirdly, it takes money from the NHS. That is the difference between us and them. We want the NHS to be better and the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to wreck it.

Mr. Howard

No, Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister will never get away with that. The choice that I have been talking about is choice within the national health service, free of charge. Let me tell the Prime Minister that his Government have forced people into the private sector, as 300,000 people without any private health insurance have to go out of the national heath service to pay for their operations—three times as many as the number who did so when the Government came to office. We are not going to force anyone out of the national health service. We are going to give people choice in the NHS, which is the difference between his policy and ours. In every other walk of life, choice drives up standards. Why does the Prime Minister say that health should be a no-go area for choice?

The Prime Minister

We do not. We simply say that we have to expand capacity. When we took over the national health service in 1997, we found under-investment, waiting lists up for both in-patients and outpatients, and every single aspect crying out for extra investment. The right hon. and learned Gentleman had spent 10 years in government. I was reading his speech yesterday—very interesting, too—in which he said that he came back to the front line of politics because of his anger at the state of the national health service. He must have been incandescent when he was in government. He was so angry that it left him speechless, because he never raised the state of the national health service. If he wants the debate between now and election day to be about who cares for Britain's national health service, let him come on and have it.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op)

Will the Prime Minister find time to visit the London borough of Redbridge? Although we have not had a local council election, he will find that the Tory-majority council now has a Labour leader—Councillor Elaine Norman—because the Tory group split. The 33 Tories divided 16:16, with a tossed coin deciding the remaining vote. Eleven of those councillors then stayed away, so that Labour and Liberal members had to form the administration. Is that not another example of the shambles of the modern Conservative party?

The Prime Minister

At points I found it quite difficult to understand what was going on in the Conservative party, but yes, it certainly seems a shambles.

Q2. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con)

Is the Prime Minister aware that prisoners in Gloucester jail can get dental treatment on demand, paid for by the NHS? One of my constituents, however, was told the other day that he would have to wait 18 months for a missing filling to be replaced, as no NHS dentists in Gloucestershire are taking new patients. What is the Prime Minister doing about that situation, or is it case of going to jail if you want dental treatment?

The Prime Minister

Again, if the Conservatives want to mention the state of dental services in our country, I should say that yes, there are real problems, which we are addressing, but they arise primarily because of the contract for dental services negotiated when the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party was in office.

Mr. John MacDougall (Central Fife) (Lab)

Would my right hon. Friend join me in expressing concern about the growing number of young people throughout the country involved in substance abuse, particularly the inhalation of lighter fuel? Will he also welcome and support the many campaigns and groups, some of which, such as the LOST campaign—the Lee O'Brien Solvent Trust—in Central Fife, were founded on tragic personal loss and are doing a tremendous job to raise awareness in young people?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is quite right to raise that issue, and I know that the Scottish Executive take it very seriously. We have started to consult with the key stakeholders in preparation for an attempt to put together a national approach to substance abuse. That is part of a changing series of laws on issues that impinge on antisocial behaviour, and I hope that we will be able to publish the outcome of the consultation in the next few months.

Q3. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con)

My limbless, Thalidomide-victim constituent, Vivien Barrett, who has a few fingers only at shoulder level, nevertheless embroiders, knits, teaches music and sings for charities, and surely deserves our unqualified admiration. Given that her needs and those of all the other Thalidomide victims will inevitably increase with age, would the Prime Minister accept that a decision to make all payments from the Thalidomide Trust tax-free, as well as being right in itself, would be warmly welcomed by my constituent, Members across the House and people throughout the country?

The Prime Minister

First, the whole House would join in the admiration that the hon. Gentleman expresses for his constituent. I am not sure of the position in relation to tax-free pay-out, but I will certainly look into it. If there is something we can do, I am sure that we will, but obviously that must be balanced with other considerations.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab)

On 2 July—a very important date—Sharp Manufacturing of Japan will be opening its manufacturing centre for photovoltaic cells and solar cells in Wrexham. What effect does my right hon. Friend think withdrawal from the European Union would have on that investment decision?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes a good point—the importance of people understanding that it is in this country's interest to be part of the largest economic market in the world, and that many companies come and invest in the UK, locate here and provide jobs here on the basis that it is an entry into the European Union. That is why to withdraw from the EU would be such a disaster for our economy.

Q4. Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con)

Sedgefield's Thrislington limeworks will mean that the Prime Minister is familiar with Environment Agency proposals to amend the substitute fuel protocol to potentially allow the burning of toxic industrial waste in lime and cement kilns. Does the right hon. Gentleman still hold the view that he expressed in 1994, when he called for a ban on the burning of industrial waste at Thrislington? If he does, will he join other constituency MPs in objecting to the Environment Agency's ridiculous proposals?

The Prime Minister

The Environment Agency explanation, of course, is that there will be sufficient controls to meet environmental objections. It is important to realise that the agency's position is not that it does not accept that there is a legitimate issue that must be dealt with, but it has proposed safeguards and controls that it says are adequate to meet those objections. When we have an independent Environment Agency, it is important that we take account of what it says.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that in a modern parliamentary democracy, the self-regulation of the opinion polling organisations has broken down and there are no longer any standards or barriers to stop unscrupulous operators moving into the industry? Will he initiate talks with other party leaders so that we can get a cross-party agreement that opinion polling should be honest and have integrity?

The Prime Minister

I think we will wait and see what direction the polls move in—[Laughter.] No, my hon. Friend makes a serious point. I will make sure that the chairman of the Labour party is aware of it, and perhaps he can take it up with the other parties.

Q5. Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con)

I hope that the Prime Minister and the House will join me in condemning the violence that we have seen in Portugal, and the appalling behaviour and rioting that we saw in several towns and cities in this country after the England football defeat. Regrettably, one of those towns was Boston in my constituency. To stop further repetition of such events, will the Prime Minister guarantee that there will be no repeat of the Home Secretary's decision to penalise the Lincolnshire police authority as the only authority in England and Wales that had its per head funding cut last year? Furthermore, will the Prime Minister—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There are other hon. Members who want to get in.

The Prime Minister

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is right to make the latter point and refer it back to what happened in his constituency. I should point out that there are more police officers in his constituency than there were seven years ago, and also that the funding has gone up for all police authorities as a result of the minimum guarantee that was given by the Home Secretary. In respect of the outbreaks of disorder, let me make it clear that those are intolerable and the police should come down heavily—I have no doubt that they will, as they have new powers that enable them to do that—and make sure that those who engage in such disorder face heavy penalties. It is worth pointing out that those, whether in England or in Portugal, who have engaged in disorder are a tiny minority. I do not believe that they are true English football fans. They bring shame upon our country and upon the vast majority of decent English football fans who simply want to enjoy the game.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is aware that advances in medical science mean that life-threatening diseases can be kept at bay by the use of drugs, rather than unpleasant and invasive treatments such as chemotherapy He is also aware that those drugs are often very expensive and are not provided free on the national health service. Will he undertake to look into the matter and see what more might be done to assist people on modest incomes who need drug treatment in order to fight diseases such as cancer?

The Prime Minister

The point that my hon. Friend makes is one of the reasons why we introduced the National Institute for Clinical Excellence in order to evaluate drugs and say whether they should be available on NHS prescription. By and large, it does an excellent job of work. He is right, however, that drugs are continually coming on to the market that can improve people's conditions. That is one of the reasons why we have been able to reduce cardiac deaths, for example, by 20 per cent., through the use of statins. It is best that, in the end, these decisions are made by the institute, but we certainly make sure that the funding is available when it decides that a drug should be made generally available.

Q6. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con)

So that nurses are not recruited from prohibited developing countries and are properly checked, there are guidelines stating that the NHS should use only recruitment agencies that are on the approved list. However, the case of Mr. Tawanda Machingura, an illegal immigrant from Zimbabwe who recently pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a vulnerable patient while working as a nurse in a local hospital, clearly shows that those guidelines are failing, as he was recruited via an agency that was not on the approved list. I have raised this issue with the Secretary of State for Health, but have not received any indication that any further action will be taken. As a matter of urgency, will the Prime Minister therefore now introduce measures to ensure that the NHS does not recruit illegal immigrants or nurses from prohibited developing countries, to ensure that patients have the security that they deserve and require?

The Prime Minister

We do, of course, have guidelines in place, and we look the whole time at whether they need to be strengthened. The vast bulk of the nurses whom we bring in to this country—we need more nurses as we train more—are not from places such as Zimbabwe, but it is obviously important that we look to see how we can strengthen the guidelines, and we do so. Regrettably, there will always be cases in which those guidelines are not implemented as they should be, but in each case, and in the particular case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, we sit down and try to learn the lessons, and if changes are necessary, we will make them.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab)

Will the Prime Minister congratulate the Bedfordshire and Luton road casualty reduction partnership, together with other similar partnerships in other parts of the country, which, through the programme of speed cameras and other measures, have successfully reduced the number of people killed and injured at camera sites by an average of 35 per cent.? Does he agree that we should expand and develop that programme of speed cameras, on the basis of the compelling evidence that is widely available? Does he also agree that the campaign against cameras—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One supplementary is fine.

The Prime Minister

It is important that we use speed cameras where it is clear that there is a proven benefit to the safety of motorists and others. That is precisely the policy that the Government pursue. My hon. Friend is right to say that, although there is obviously concern, for perfectly understandable reasons, about the use of speed cameras, the reduction in deaths has been approaching the region of 900 in a year as a result of the introduction of such cameras in places where there are accident hot spots, and they can play a real role. We require a balanced policy, and that is the one that we have.

Q7. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con)

When the Prime Minister uses the word "choice" in relation to the delivery of public services, what does he mean?

The Prime Minister

I mean that as capacity in the health service, for example, expands so that we have more nurses, doctors and hospital provision, and the new diagnostic and treatment centres, we can say to the patient, "Instead of having to wait as long as you used to wait, you can choose to go to where there is capacity in the national health service." That is our position, in counterpoint to the position of the Conservative party, which is to say that people who can afford half the payment to go privately get choice. That is the difference between Labour choice within the national health service, and Tory choice to go out of it.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)

Does the Prime Minister agree that the frequently espoused view that the British people are intrinsically anti-European is absurd? But does he also accept that there is widespread antipathy to the waste, bureaucracy and lack of accountability associated with some of the EU institutions, and to the perceived decline in power of the nation state? Can he tell me what the Government intend to do to tackle both the perceptions and the realities associated with those issues?

The Prime Minister

The important thing is to ensure that we engage in reform in the European Union but we cannot reform in the European Union by leaving it. It is therefore important to recognise the basic point that membership of the European Union is in Britain's political and economic interest. It is best to form alliances with others to seek change in the European Union rather than getting out of it, with all the disastrous consequences that that would entail.