HC Deb 23 June 2004 vol 422 cc1330-40
Q1. Valerie Davey (Bristol, West) (Lab)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 23 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.

Valerie Davey

Unemployment has fallen dramatically in Bristol since 1997. Indeed, long-term youth unemployment has dropped by 95 per cent. Given this Government's outstanding achievement in promoting jobs, will the Prime Minister debunk the myth put out by the Leader of the Opposition that the European constitution will be a matter of job loss?

The Prime Minister

I certainly will. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we have created about 2 million jobs since 1997, alongside the introduction of the minimum wage and the signing of the social chapter, which some people rather ill-advisedly said would cost jobs, although they have not. At the same time, it is important that we maintain the programme of the new deal, which the Conservatives want to scrap, through which about 1 million people have been helped. It is also important that we retain our membership of the European Union, because 3 million British jobs depend on it.

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

One of my constituents has just been told that she must wait 20 months to get radiotherapy treatment for her breast cancer. Why should she not have the right to choose an NHS hospital that could treat her more quickly?

The Prime Minister

I am not aware of the specific facts relating to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's constituent, but I agree that it is very important that we make sure that that person, and many others who need help in respect of breast cancer, for example, get the care that they need. That is why this Government have introduced minimum times in order to make sure that people are referred to consultants, and why we have increased massively the amount of investment, including in breast cancer care. I would simply say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we need only compare the record of his Government with ours to see how much better off people are under this Government.

Mr. Howard

I do not think that that will be of much comfort to my constituent. The Prime Minister says that things have got better. Is he aware that, in 1998, 28 per cent. of patients had to wait longer than four weeks for radiotherapy, but that, in 2002, 81 per cent. had to wait longer than four weeks? Is that what he means when he says that things have got better?

Now, can we get back to my question? If my constituent and her general practitioner can find an NHS hospital that can treat her more quickly, why should not she be able to go to that hospital for her treatment? Why is the Prime Minister denying her that choice today?

The Prime Minister

It is this Government who, as capacity increases, are giving patients choice for the first time. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks, "Where is this improvement in the health service?" Let me tell him where it is. For example, there are 950,000 more elective admissions compared with 1997—that is improvement. There is a 59 per cent. increase in heart operations and a 70 per cent. increase in cataract operations. Every single waiting time and waiting list is down from 1997.

Let us compare that with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's record in government—when waiting lists rose by 400,000, when training places for nurses and GPs were cut, when 60,000 general and acute beds were lost and when the entire hospital building programme ground to a halt. This Labour Government, through investment and reform, are making the health service better. His only response is not a right to choose, but a right to charge.

Mr. Howard

I am afraid that my constituent will have noticed that the Prime Minister has not answered the question I put to him, and it was a very simple question. He is denying her the choice she needs to get her radiotherapy treatment and he will not explain or justify that.

The Prime Minister has just produced a list; well, I have a list too. Let us be clear: after seven years of Labour, and record spending, we still have 1 million people on waiting lists; average waiting times are up; deaths from superbugs have doubled; there are three new managers for every new doctor, and two for every new nurse; administration costs are up by £2 billion; Britain is now 18th out of 19 in the international health league table; and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which he is very fond of quoting, says that there have been no real improvements in health care under Labour.

So, the real question is, how do we make things better? The Health Secretary said this morning that the answer is more targets. Does the Prime Minister agree with him?

The Prime Minister

I simply do not know the details of the case of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's constituent—he cannot expect me to—but the notion that the treatment of breast cancer has got worse in this country under this Government is utterly absurd: it has got better on every single measure. He says that we should get rid of all performance targets. Let me explain to the House what that means: getting rid of any targets for maximum waiting times and waiting lists, getting rid of the improvements in our accident and emergency departments, and getting rid of the obligation to treat people with breast cancer more quickly—that is what it means.

Let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what I will not do. I will not introduce, as he apparently wishes to—and perhaps we can now discuss this—a subsidy to those who take out private health care, which would mean that if people wanted to avail themselves of it they would have to pay, under his proposals, some £2,000 for a cataract removal, £5,000 for a hip replacement and almost £10,000 for a heart bypass.

The difference is very simple: we are, as capacity expands, introducing; the right of choice within the health service; the right hon. and learned Gentleman would introduce, having opposed every penny piece of that money for capacity, a right to charge, and patients would end up having to pay 50 per cent. of the cost of their operation—what a typical Tory measure that people will reject.

Mr. Howard

They are paying already under this Government—not 50 per cent., but 100 per cent.—and 300,000 of them a year, which is three times as many as were paying when the Prime Minister came into government. That is the truth of the health service under his Government, and he cannot even bring himself to say whether he agrees with what his Health Secretary said this morning.

Let me tell the Prime Minister what his Health Secretary did say. He said of the NHS that "it needs … more targets". Does not that tell us everything we need to know about this Government? Is it not the truth that there are two visions for the future of the national health service: the Labour vision of more targets, more bureaucrats, more centralisation, less freedom for doctors and nurses, and phoney choice for patients, and the Conservative vision of an end to centralisation and targets. real freedom for doctors and nurses, and the real right to choose for patients?

That is what works in other countries such as France and Sweden, which have better health care than we have here. Why will the Prime Minister not let us have that here?

The Prime Minister

May I say how delighted I am that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has decided to make the national health service the battleground for the next election? I welcome that ye y much. He has one problem, however: his record. For 10 years, he was a member of a Government who put up every single waiting list and under-invested in the national health service. It is true that they had performance targets—they had a performance target that everyone had to be treated within 18 months: the trouble is, they never met it. Let me tell him what the difference is—we have put in the money, which has got the largest hospital building programme under way, which has provided 70,000 extra nurses and thousands of extra doctors and which is making sure that waiting lists and waiting times are falling, that cancer deaths are down by 10 per cent., and that cardiac deaths are down by 20 per cent.

What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal? It is incoherent in virtually every aspect, but as with the pupil's passport, in the end, whatever gyrations of policy his party goes through, me thing is always consistent—it is a subsidy to the private sector to get people out of a public service. That is the Conservative party's policy. It will mean that people have to pay for half the cost of their operation outside the health service. Up to the next election, we will remind the British people not just of the Conservative party's record, but of the proposal that it now has to take money out of the health service and subsidise private health care—same old Tories, same old policies, same old philosophy, and he same old rejection by the British people.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab)

Two years ago, there were 80 burglaries a month in Worksop; last month, there were 18. Two years ago, there were 11 overdose deaths from drug addiction in Bassetlaw; this year, to date, there has been none. Two years ago, no one was being treated by GPs for drug addiction; today, there are 150, and that is going up. Is that not the way forward for drug treatment in Britain?

The Prime Minister

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned long and hard on this issue. He sensibly recognises that the programme that we are now embarked on—we are at the star t of it—will allow us eventually, throughout the country to offer a clear choice, if I may put it like that, to drug abusers who are also criminal offenders: they can either get drug treatment, and we will help to cure their addiction, or they will face increasing penalties, and they will be less likely to get bail and more likely to receive a custodial sentence. That measure of toughness on sentencing;, and ensuring that we give them treatment, is the best way to proceed.

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

Does the Prime Minister recognise the force of the argument being made today by the chairman of the Audit Commission? He makes the central point that providing widespread choice across public services would require impractical levels of extra resources". Does the Prime Minister agree with that analysis?

The Prime Minister

No, I am afraid that I do not. If I may say so, I am rather happily placed between the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who wants choice to get out of the public service, and the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), who does not want choice within the public service. If there is choice within a system in which there is not increased capacity, the bulge will simply be moved around the system. Therefore, the important thing is to increase capacity and then provide the choice. That is what we are doing, people are welcoming it, and it is one of the reasons why waiting times and waiting lists are falling so rapidly.

Mr. Kennedy

I am sure that the chairman of the Audit Commission will note with great interest the Prime Minister's comments on his remarks. Was not the lesson for us all from the recent local elections that for many people the debate about choice misses the point? What people want are quality public services available to them locally, not a false debate about choice.

The Prime Minister

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman's experience of the local elections was quite the same as mine. I did not think that the issue at the local elections was choice in the health service. In fact, I seem to remember the Liberal Democrats fighting on a slightly different tack from that in most of their propaganda.

The right hon. Gentleman rather misdescribes the article by the chairman of the Audit Commission that was in the Financial Times this morning. I read it and I think that it was more balanced than he suggests. Of course what people want is a decent hospital or school right on their doorstep. However, what is important is that, as a means of getting that—let us be honest about it: not everyone is in the position where they have a decent hospital or school on their doorstep—if there is spare capacity elsewhere within the system as we increase capacity, they should have the freedom to go elsewhere within the national health service. That is precisely what we are advocating. [Interruption.] We are not advocating a subsidy to private health care, which is the policy of the Conservative party. Therefore, I think that we have the perfect point and counterpoint. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West wants an unreformed national health service. The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe wants to support the private sector at the expense of the health service, and we want a reformed and modernised national health service for the 21st century. I think that that is exactly the position that we should be in.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op)

Does the Prime Minister accept that a large part of the huge increase in NHS spending rightly goes to pay substantial increases in salaries to GPs and consultants? Will he therefore remind the consultants in particular that we expect value for money and priority for NHS patients?

The Prime Minister

That is exactly what the new contract helps with, and, of course, the single tariff within the health care system will allow that to happen to an even greater extent. Interestingly, as a result of the reforms that we are introducing, the private sector cost, when that sector contracts with the national health service, is falling, so we are getting major gains in the interaction between public and private sector—but to the benefit of NHS patients.

Mr. Howard

Does the Prime Minister agree with Home Office expert Robert Owen, who told Swansea Crown court that it was accepted by Government that the true figure of immigration was considerably higher than the official figure and that, for example, the number of people from China living in Manchester is six times higher than Government figures suggest?

The Prime Minister

There is obviously an issue to do with illegal immigration in particular. We have tightened the immigration rules, and the other day we announced further measures. Of course, there are issues about immigration in this country, as there are in every major developed country around the world, but, for example, in respect of asylum, which was a particular problem in our system, the asylum numbers are now well down on where they were a short time ago, and we are now processing claims in an average of about two months, which used to be 18 months under the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I do not doubt that there are still issues in relation to immigration. Of course there are, but we are tackling them systematically.

Mr. Howard

Mr. Owen also said—on oath—that the number of routes into Britain was "unbelievable" and that some criminals had abandoned drug dealing because people smuggling is more lucrative. In the light of those remarks, how can anyone have confidence in the Government's control of immigration?

The Prime Minister

Many people have different views about how serious the issue to do with immigration is. We have accepted the fact that there are abuses in the system. That is why we are tackling them systematically, but I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman accepts, as I do, that it benefits this country to have people coming here to study, for example, or on work permits. It is absolutely correct, however, that we need to expand the numbers within the immigration and nationality department, as we have been doing, in order to tackle illegal immigration, drug smuggling and people smuggling. That is why we are setting up the new serious organised crime agency and why we will make certain proposals on organised crime over the next few months, but it would be wrong to suggest that these problems are new, and that they are simply limited to this Government in this country. We are taking measures to tighten the procedures. Many of those measures to tighten the procedures and, for example, to restrict the right of appeal, which elongates proceedings unnecessarily, have been opposed by the Conservatives in the House of Lords.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)

Will the United Kingdom Government be supporting the United States Government in their attempt to get a renewal of the United Nations Security Council resolution that exempts US troops from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court—and if so, why?

The Prime Minister

The Foreign Secretary has just helpfully told me that discussions are taking place at the moment—hon. Members can work that one out for themselves. Whatever the position of the United States on the International Criminal Court, we have always made it clear that we take a different position. We have been one of those who have moved very strongly in favour of having an International Criminal Court, and I happen to think that the concerns of the United States, although I understand them, are misjudged when one looks at the facts. However, we have made that position clear to the United States throughout and it is for the United States to take forward its position and for us to take forward ours. I hope that we can reach an agreement—this is what I would prefer—whereby both we and the United States were satisfied with the workings of the International Criminal Court.

Q2. Pete Wishart (North Tayside) (SNP)

Given the deteriorating situation in Sudan, with 1.2 million people now displaced and the prospect that an estimated 360,000 will die in the next two months, will the Prime Minister commit his Government to working fully with the international community to ensure that that horrendous situation is addressed? Will he personally go to the United Nations to ensure that a Security Council resolution is secured and delivered?

The Prime Minister

We have, of course, supported Security Council resolution 1547, which urges the Government of Sudan and the various groups in Darfur to observe the ceasefire allow unimpeded humanitarian access and conclude t political dialogue without delay. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are the second biggest bilateral donor in that situation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development went out to Sudan to look at the situation there and see what more we could do to help. As a Government, we have been in touch with the Untied Nations as well as with the Government of Sudan. The situation is very serious, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything that we possibly can to deal with it. The Foreign Secretary had a meeting with the relevant officials this morning to work out how we can take the matter forward.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North) (Lab)

Would it not strengthen Britain's moral leadership, in seeking to use our presidency of the G8 and the EU next year to focus the world community on initiatives to tackle global poverty, if we were to set a clear timetable for reaching our UN target of giving 0.7 per cent. of GDP in overseas aid?

The Prime Minister

We are committed to meeting the UN target. It is correct that we have not as yet set a specific timetable to do that, and my hon. Friend will know that there are bound to be resource constraints, although I have to :ay that we are making steady progress towards the target. It is worth pointing out that in 1997, the proportion that we gave in aid was 0.26 per cent. and that by 2005–06 it will be 0.4 per cent. Obviously, we want to see that figure move higher, but that will be the highest level sine, 1981. We will be committing in bilateral aid about £1 billion a year to Africa. I have already indicated that for our G8 chairmanship next year, the two key priorities should be Africa and climate change. We will therefore focus a great deal of our effort on Africa, through the Commission for Africa in particular.

Q3. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con)

As the Prime Minister know, EU institutions are the subject of repeated scandals about waste and fraud, and the auditors have refused to sign off the European accounts for the past nine years. Under the European constitution, however, the same bodies will have more powers in 11 new areas. Why does the Prime Minister want to give more power to institutions that are inadequate even for their existing tasks? Specifically, why did the Government representative on the Convention that drew up the constitution fail to table a single amendment—or to support mine—to clean up and reform the same institutions?

The Prime Minister

I agree, and there is no doubt that these institutions need to be reformed. Indeed, one of the jobs of the new Commission President—when he or she is appointed—will be to take that programme of reform forward. That is absolutely clear. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that, whatever the difficulties, in my book that is no reason for leaving the European Union or for trying to renegotiate our essential terms of membership.

It was no surprise that the right hon. Gentleman made a point about the EU, but the face of the matter is that he and several of his colleagues—possibly now a majority of his colleagues on the Conservative Benches—want to use rejection of the treaty to force a renegotiation of Britain's existing membership and relationship with the EU. They will use any argument to do so. In my view, if there are problems of accountancy or fraud within the EU, we stick in, it and sort them out; we do not get out of the EU, which would not be good for Britain or for British industry.

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

My right hon. Friend has stressed the democratic advantages in the proposed European Union constitution for our Parliament Will the proposals bring similar advantages to the European Parliament? Surely we should be advancing to wards all power to all the Parliaments.

The Prime Minister

In certain areas, there will be a greater right of co-decision through the European Parliament. That is important, but there will also be—[Interruption.]—a good balance between the European Parliament and the national Parliaments, which for the first time will have the ability to have some say in Commission proposals. People have missed the significance of that. The ability of one third of the national Parliaments to send proposals back to the Commission will give a greatly enhanced right—indeed, a right for the first time–for those Parliaments to have a say in European legislation. I think that that will help. Yes, there will be greater co-decision in the European Parliament and there will also be greater ability for the European Parliament to interact with national Parliaments.

Q4. David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP)

Let me try to help the Prime Minister regarding his press conference on Friday this week at Lancaster house, which he will chair after yet another meeting of the political and local parties from Northern Ireland to assess whether progress has been made in the peace process. When he is talking to all the political representatives there, will he attempt to tell the republican leadership that its time has run out and that it is holding up the establishment of Stormont four years after the end of decommissioning as specified in the Belfast agreement? After he has told that leadership that its time has run out, will he turn to the leaders of the democratic parties—the Ulster Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist party, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party—and facilitate, by legislation if necessary, the formation of a cross-community Executive? We could then have devolution up and running at Stormont and no longer vetoed by Sinn Fein-IRA.

The Prime Minister

I have been making it clear since my speech of November 2002—the so-called acts of completion speech—that there is no way in which we can get these institutions back up and running unless there is a complete and total cessation of all paramilitary activity. That has been made clear throughout. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be making exactly the same points again. However, it is important to try, if we possibly can, to reach agreement on a basis that includes all political parties. That has to be on a clear, shared democratic understanding. I can assure him that there is no way in which we will try to force people into an Executive to share power with others unless they are prepared to give up their paramilitary activity completely. I do say to him, however, that I hope that if the IRA definitively and clearly ceases paramilitary activity and gives it up so that the campaign of violence in all its aspects becomes a thing of the past, the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party will be prepared to go into government with it. In my view, the challenge is for the IRA to give up violence completely, and then the challenge is for all the parties to come together and make the Executive and institutions work.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)

The South West London elective orthopaedic centre, which serves my constituency, is the largest orthopaedic centre in Europe. It has been open only three months and this year has the capacity to undertake 3,150 hip and knee replacements. May I ask the Prime Minister to ensure that the centre continues to get the funds to help the many people who need it, rather than subsidise private operations for the few?

The Prime Minister

I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that we will certainly continue funding for that centre. Indeed, we will have more such centres up and down the country so that people can have more choice. However, I point out to the Opposition that they opposed our introduction of diagnosis and treatment centres. They go on about choice, but I repeat that the choice that they offer is to leave the NHS. The Government are giving people choice inside the NHS.

Q5. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister accept the clear recommendations of the Electoral Commission and the Select Committee before all-postal ballots are extended? Does he agree that there should be better safeguards against fraud, including individual voter registration?

The Prime Minister

I think that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), said yesterday that we would study those recommendations carefully. Of course we want to make sure that we minimise any possibility of fraud, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that postal voting means that we get a higher turnout.

Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although the Scottish National party wants to char ge its leader as often as the Tories, the people of Scotland will never take on an independent—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That has nothing to do with the Prime Minister.

Q6. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con)

When the Prime Minister next discusses working-class issues with his Health Secretary, will he consider the widespread concern around the country about the siting of telecommunications masts? Will the Government consider altering the planning laws, so that applicants will have a duty to prove that there is a need for a mast, and that there are no associated health risks?

The Prime Minister

What we should do is make sure that we proceed carefully, according to the scientific evidence. Experts in the field prepare reports and reviews for the Government, and we must take account of them, but it would be foolish for us to make a decision that was not based o r the scientific evidence. Therefore, I will proceed very carefully—as the Government are doing—but the decision that we reach will be in the interests of all the community, and it will be based on proper scientific knowledge and expertise.