HC Deb 10 March 2004 vol 418 cc1512-22
Q1. Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 March.

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 shall have further such meetings later today.

Miss Widdecombe

Does the Prime Minister still consider that most people in this country think that he is a pretty straight kind of guy?

The Prime Minister

I hope that most people recognise that the Government have delivered record levels of employment—[Interruption.] It is the Government's record that should matter in the end: a huge cut in unemployment, the lowest mortgages and inflation for 30 years, improvements in the national health service and the best school results ever— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Miss Widdecombe, when you ask a question it is polite to wait for the answer▀×even if you consider it not to be an answer.

The Prime Minister

There is one other thing: the British crime survey shows lower crime than when the right hon. Lady was a Home Office Minister—a pretty good sort of record.

Q2. Helen Jackson (Sheffield. Hillsborough) (Lab)

I was going to congratulate my right hon. Friend warmly on last week's launch of his Commission for Africa, until I realised that gender equity has not been mentioned and that only one of the 10 commissioners is a woman. Does he acknowledge the widespread evidence that shows that development aid is most effective when it has a strong focus on women, and will he adjust the commission accordingly?

The Prime Minister

I have no doubt that other women will join the commission. My hon. Friend is right to say that some of the issues have a strong gender focus, but I point out that we will increase bilateral aid from this country to Africa over the next couple of years to £l billion a year, which will mean that we have literally trebled aid to Africa since we came to power. That is in stark contrast not only to the record of the previous Administration, but to the Conservative party's current proposal to cut overseas aid in real terms.

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

Who authorised the change of policy towards migrants from eastern Europe who say that they want to set up businesses in Britain?

The Prime Minister

It was, so I understand, authorised by managers in the Sheffield office.

Mr. Howard

I understand that an inquiry is taking place into the matter. Meanwhile, Mr. Moxon, the man who told the public the truth, is suspended, and the managers to whom the Prime Minister refers, who introduced the secret policy, and the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration, who did not have a clue what was going on, are still in place. Why is that fair?

The Prime Minister

It is for the Department to decide its own personnel procedures in respect of each individual. That is right, and as it should be. However, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised the issue, let me deal with one or two of the facts. There have been statements in various quarters that the matter involves some 11,000 people a week. It actually involves specifically people from the accession countries that are about to join the European Union. The total number of applications in the last year was under 40,000 and the vast majority were already here legally. Of course it is important to establish exactly what happened, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Minister for Citizenship and Immigration has announced the inquiry. No doubt any disciplinary procedures will follow the outcome of that.

Mr. Howard

Let me see if I can help the Prime Minister. He is obviously rather uncomfortable about the matter and he is, after all, Minister for the Civil Service. Mr. Moxon, the whistleblower, is here this afternoon. He is willing to meet the Prime Minister and me to tell us what happened. Will the Prime Minister meet us this afternoon?

The Prime Minister

No, I will not. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, when he was Home Secretary for several years under the last Conservative Government, would never have tolerated such a thing. Surely the issue is simple: a practice developed in that office that should not have developed. The Minister has already made that clear and she has also made it clear that she was not aware of it. I am trying to put the matter in context, because it is not the case that it involves hundreds of thousands of people a year. It almost certainly involves only a very small number of people— [HON. MEMBERS: "Forty thousand?"] No. The vast majority even of the 40,000 were already here legally. Therefore, the number of people claiming entry into this country would have been much smaller than that. Nor is there any reason to believe, because they come principally from countries such as Poland, that they were here for any bad purpose.

Mr. Howard

I thought that the Prime Minister, just for once, might be interested in finding out what is going on in his Government. Under this Government, Ministers do not know what is happening in their Departments; Departments deny the truth and then have it dragged out of them; people are allowed to stay in the country without any proper checks being made; and the only person who suffers is the whistleblower who tells the truth. Does not that say everything about the way in which this Government works, and does not the Minister for the Civil Service think that he should speak to the civil servant to find out what is going on?

The Prime Minister

No, it should be left to the Department to conduct its disciplinary inquiries in the proper way. I have no doubt that that is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have done when he was Home Secretary. The fact that he is now saying that I should personally take charge of this matter is utterly ludicrous. An inquiry is under way in the Department because of a practice that should not have developed. Instead of exploiting the issue—as he does every one of these issues—he should try to ensure that we have a measured, sensible debate about migration, not one that takes place on the basis of scary headlines that turn out to be wrong.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend recently visited the Airbus factory at Broughton. I am sure that he will be as concerned as I am at the decision of the Environment Agency to prevent dredging of the Dee at Mostyn dock, which will effectively stop the export of the A380 wings. Can he assure me that that £30 billion project will not be endangered and that the decision will be reversed in the public interest? Can he further tell us when he expects the Environment Agency to join the rest of us in the real world?

The Prime Minister

I know from my visit to the plant what a tremendous project it is, and how vital it is to the local economy with its thousands of highly skilled jobs. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has discussed the issue already with my hon. Friend, and he would be pleased to do so again. I hope that we can resolve the matter satisfactorily in the coming period of time, because obviously it is important for the work force and the future of an important industry.

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

Does the Prime Minister agree with Lord Penrose's report into Equitable Life, which concluded that it was not merely reckless company management that led to the scandal, but negligent regulation by the Government?

The Prime Minister

I agree with Lord Penrose's report. In fact, it put the majority of the blame on the society itself, but of course the regulatory issues going back many years are among the things that it investigated, and we stand by the conclusions that were drawn.

Mr. Kennedy

Does the Prime Minister accept, however, that the Government's complacent and misleading response to the report will come as a serious disappointment to the million people who have lost so much, and undermine the faith of millions of others? Will he give an undertaking to ask the parliamentary ombudsman to establish once and for all whether there was Government maladministration?

The Prime Minister

I understand that there has already been a finding that there was not maladministration with respect to one of the cases brought, but of course the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration has the full powers that have been conferred. I have to say, however, that there was nothing complacent about our response. We commissioned the report and made a statement to the House about it and its implications. The plain and simple question is whether the Government can commit themselves to paying compensation that would run into billions of pounds—

Mr. Kennedy

I did not ask about compensation.

The Prime Minister

I know that the right hon. Gentleman did not ask about that, but a casual observer might have thought that he was implying it. All parties in the House recognise that it would not be possible to do that, so of course we will carry on doing whatever we possibly can, including implementing the Penrose recommendations. Any other investigations involving outside bodies are obviously a matter for them.

Q3. Mr. Graham stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)

My right lion Friend will be fully aware that the level of public resources going into public services is heavily dependent on the number of people living in an area, and he will be further aware that that is particularly true for the health service. I am sure that he knows that Mr. Cook, the Registrar General at the Office for National Statistics, botched the census so badly that he miscounted by 25,000 people. Can he therefore assure the people of Manchester who use the health service that the funding that they would have got if Mr. Cook could count will be provided, and that Mr. Cook will soon become an unemployment statistic?

The Prime Minister

I know that this is a matter of great concern to my hon. Friend and to people in Manchester. It is part of the discussion that we are having about the census, and once that is resolved we will see what implications there are. However, it is fair to say that it is always difficult to perform these censuses, which are usually a matter of controversy; they are often hotly contested. I hope that he understands that what was done was done in good faith, and we obviously await the outcome of the current discussions.

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

Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about treatment for some 2,800 people who are going blind unnecessarily as a result of wet age-related macular degeneration. He said that he would look into it and write to me, but I have yet to hear from him. I know that some NHS patients are now being treated, but many more could be. As the Royal National Institute of the Blind told the Prime Minister last week, there are nearly 50 centres with the necessary specialist equipment and support staff, who could be treating many more NHS patients today. Will—[Interruption.] Will the Secretary of State for Health contain himself and stop chuntering, and will the Prime Minister now act to deal with the situation?

The Prime Minister

We are acting to deal with it. I have indeed looked into it, and the reason why there was a delay of nine months instead of the normal three is that we had to build up the proper capacity in order to deal with this properly. The nine-month extension was agreed with the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, which made the recommendation in the first place.

In respect of the other centres, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary was saying that he thinks that the right hon. and learned Gentleman was citing an estimate given to him by a private firm. I do not know. I have not looked into that myself, but I will do so. When I examined the facts on the basis of what he put to me last week, they turned out not to be correct. This was not a matter of the Government refusing to act when the capacity was there. The reason for the delay was that we had to build the capacity in order to treat people properly.

Mr. Howard

I have not been relying on any information from a private firm; I have been relying on information from the Royal National Institute of the Blind, which is not at all convinced by what the Prime Minister says. It wrote to him and told him about this matter last week. It said: The Government are dragging their feet…There is no shortage of doctors…We know of 50 centres around the country that can provide people with treatment who otherwise may go blind. The situation as it now stands is a sham and it has effectively denied people treatment for far too long. The truth is that patients need this treatment to stop them going blind, and doctors want to treat them to stop them going blind, so why will the Prime Minister not intervene to sort out this mess?

The Prime Minister

We have made it absolutely clear that we will use whatever capacity is available. [Interruption.] If the right hon. and learned Gentleman would listen for a moment, we have made it clear that we will use whatever capacity is available. The reason why we have not dealt with the situation in the normal three-month period is that the advice that we have is that the capacity is not available to deal with people at the moment. We are using whatever capacity we can, and using the additional six months to build up extra capacity.

We are aware of the RNIB's making these claims, but they are disputed, I am afraid, by those who actually have to implement this policy. That is why I said at the outset that this extension of time was agreed with NICE, whose recommendation we are implementing.

Mrs. Helen Liddell (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab)

The Prime Minister will be aware of today's sensationalist stories about the security of electricity supply. Will he ensure that the Government, in putting the record straight about these scare stories, do not lose sight of the fact that future electricity generation is indeed an issue, largely because of increased demand, the run-down of coal and nuclear stations, and our very relaxed attitude to energy efficiency? Would it not be a tragedy if the nation's economic ambitions were held back by failings in energy policy?

The Prime Minister

What my right hon. Friend says is absolutely right. That is why it is important that we carry on pursuing a balanced energy policy, and that we make sure that we use a number of different sources of energy. It is one of the reasons why, over the past few years, we have sought to make sure that, as well as maintaining a coal industry, we are also maintaining the nuclear industry and importing energy, where we can, from secure sources. That is why it is important that people's beliefs about the electricity supply are not ruined by programmes that, let us say, are being a little speculative about what might happen over the next few years.

Q4. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury) (LD)

My constituent, Miss Caroline Cocker, wants to buy a home of her own. She has been to see her building society mortgage adviser, who told her that because of her student debt of £12,000, the building society cannot lend her enough. The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education recently admitted that top-up fees are likely to push student debt up to some £20,000. What does the Prime Minister think that that will do to the housing market?

The Prime Minister

Let us first look at the issue of debt. It is correct that students can already take out a £12,000 maintenance loan. Under our proposals, they will be charged and will pay back, once they graduate, up to £3,000 a year for a three-year course, so that is another £9,000. But this is not a debt like an ordinary mortgage debt. Nothing is to be paid back until people have the means to pay, and it is linked to their ability to pay and carries no real rate of interest. That is surely better than doing what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, which is to raise the top rate of tax to 50 per cent., or what the Conservative party would do, which is to cut the number of students going to university.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of his Sedgefield constituents and many of my North Durham constituents have benefited greatly from the scheme, introduced by a Labour Government, through which miners and former miners who were exposed to coal dust are compensated? That is a real achievement that is of benefit to those communities. Will he join me in condemning the small minority of claim handlers and solicitors who are plundering victims' compensation for costs, despite the fact that those costs are covered by the Department of Trade and Industry under the scheme?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right to say that the compensation paid to former coal miners has been of enormous benefit to those who suffered greatly as a result of the work that they did, and a substantial amount of money has been paid out. He is right, too, to say that there are worries about the way that some cases have been handled, and each case had to have legal representation. I understand that the Law Society is investigating some of the complaints and that the Department of Trade and Industry has written to the solicitors concerned. I hope that we can make s ire that, if any money is unfairly taken from clients, it is returned to them.

Q5. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con)

The Strategic Rail Authority has proposed to cut completely the rail service on the Maidstone to Ashford line outside peak periods. Given that this is a vital transport facility for many local communities, and that the proposal breaks specific undertakings given by the Government at the time of the channel tunnel rail link, will the Prime Minister act to prevent those proposals?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly look into the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Everything has to be done within the transport budget—that is clear and that is right. However, it is obviously important that we maintain the services. I shall look into the hon. Gentleman's point, but I cannot give him any undertaking until I have done so.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he has no plans to alter the gun laws, and in particular that he will never countenance the use of guns by children? Does he not find it rather worrying that one Conservative Member does not seem to know the primary difference between the use of a car and the use of a gun?

The Prime Minister

It is extremely important that we maintain the ban on handguns. Introducing that ban was one of the first things this Government did. We did it with a great deal of opposition from the Opposition Benches. I hope that everyone now understands that it was the right measure and a good measure, and we will maintain it.

Q6. Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con)

The Prime Minister is aware of the thorough report last week by Surrey police on the tragic deaths of four young soldiers at Deepcut barracks in my constituency. I know that he will want to join me in sending condolences again to the families of those soldiers and in paying tribute to the police and to the Army for its constructive response to the recommendations by the police. However, the Prime Minister may not be aware of the huge concern felt in that small village in my constituency about subsequent reports that the barracks site may soon be sold for a second huge housing development on a barracks site in that same small village. Will he agree to meet me and local campaigners, county councillor John Phillips and Mrs. Shirley Coveney, because there is huge concern that the Deputy Prime Minister's plans to concrete over further parts of Surrey will be hugely damaging?

The Prime Minister

I reiterate my sympathy for the families who are concerned in the Deepcut affair in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words about the Army.

In respect of any new housing development, the hon. Gentleman will know that it is obviously for the Ministry of Defence to decide what land it can sell. Housing development is important in the south of England. I do not think that that concreting over—it is making sure that people have homes that they can live in. The hon. Gentleman will also know of the tremendous concern that people live that the shortage of housing in the south-east is putting up prices, especially for first-time buyers. Every Government must keep a balance in these matters, and we try to do so by making sure that 60 per cent. of the development is on brownfield sites. I think that that figure is being met and even exceeded.

Q7. Phil Sawford (Kettering) (Lab)

I welcome the news of additional funding for the police to include targets for CCTV cameras, crime hotspots, community wardens, anti-drugs work and reducing crime. However, may I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention a recent article in the Kettering Evening Telegraph, which suggests that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) has promised to provide 180 more police officers for the north of Northamptonshire? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Northamptonshire receives its fair share of resources? Does he think that anyone in Kettering, Corby and Wellingborough will be fooled by the promises of the Conservative party?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right that we have record numbers of police officers—more than 138,000, the highest number ever. I can assure my hon. Friend that I will not be going down the route proposed by the Conservative party, which is a freeze on the Home Office budget. That would mean a cut of up to £1 billion in that budget, which would mean fewer police officers, fewer CCTV cameras and fewer opportunities to cut crime. There is a very stark choice in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

Is the Prime Minister aware that members of all political parties on the Scottish Select Committee found the evidence of Customs and Excise yesterday in favour of strip stamps on whisky bottles deeply unconvincing? Therefore, with a week to go before the Budget, will he call a halt to those daft, damaging, job-destroying plans, and instead give proper consideration to the industry and union-backed proposals both to combat fraud and to safeguard vital jobs in a vital industry?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be notified of the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Q8. Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab)

Many young people in Erewash have no earnings protection and are open to exploitation by unscrupulous bosses who pay them a pitiful wage for often quite responsible jobs. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what progress he is making on delivering the minimum wage for our young people?

The Prime Minister

The minimum wage is not benefiting simply young people alone—about 1 million people benefit from it. From October this year it will be raised to £4.85 an hour and by that time more than 1.5 million will benefit from it. Some people said that unemployment would go up as a result of the minimum wage, but there are now 1.75 million more jobs in our economy. I hope that next week we will be in a position to say more about the national minimum wage and its impact on young people, which will no doubt find support—at least on this side of the House.

Q9. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

Why are the Government seeking to reverse the long-standing ban on the export of live horses, which will result in many of our ponies facing a miserable journey to southern Europe to be turned into salami.

The Leader of the House (Mr. Peter Hain)

Animal welfare!

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend has said, not entirely helpfully, that animal welfare is the key to all of this. I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about this matter; I cannot give him an off-the-cuff answer.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister aware of the decision by Tesco to purchase local corner shops and close their post offices without any prior consultation with Members of Parliament, the Post Office or indeed members of our local communities, including those present today from Longlevens in my constituency? Does my right hon. Friend agree that Tesco should work with, not against, local communities on this particular issue?

The Prime Minister

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned strongly on the matter, which is an issue of concern in his constituency. I also know that Tesco has said that it will work closely with post offices in respect of this matter, and I would be pleased to know the outcome of the discussions. It is important that when post offices are reviewed, and if they are within the Tesco framework, account should be taken of local views.

Q10. Sir John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West) (Con)

If the Prime Minister is determined to ignore the plight of Equitable Life pensioners, will he at least listen to Alan Pickering, whose report he commissioned? Having ignored him in the Pensions Bill so far, will he listen more carefully in Committee? Will he also take note of what Alan Pickering said today, when he called for the Government to abandon the present system of means-testing and move to a pension as of right for all citizens, paid for eventually by an increase in the pensionable age?

The Prime Minister

There are a number of points there. First, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that we are not ignoring the plight of Equitable Life pensioners. Their plight is serious and difficult, but let us be absolutely honest with each other in the House. It is a matter of whether or not we pay compensation to those people. I have studied carefully the comments of Conservative Front Benchers, and they have not committed themselves to compensation. A few moments ago I had an exchange with the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, who is not committing his party to compensation. These people need not sympathy, but help, and we are looking into what help we can properly give them. However, it would not be responsible of me or anyone else to say that we could underwrite the entirety of the losses stemming from Equitable Life. I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that.

As to the Conservative party's proposal to get rid of pension credit and bring in the basic state pension at a higher level, the reason behind the pension credit—which is now benefiting millions of pensioners in this country—is that we believe that it is important to direct the most help to the poorest pensioners. That is why, in comparison with what we inherited in 1997, we are spending an extra £9 billion a year on pensions. We are determined to ensure—it is why we have lifted so many pensioners out of poverty—that the help goes to those who need it most.

Q11. Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab)

The Prime Minister talks about pension credit and he is obviously aware that there are millions and billions of pounds in the Chancellor's coffers that have not been taken up. Will he and his Ministers look into finding other ways of getting pensioners to take up entitlements that they have not taken up? Also, why can they not have free travel in the regions of England, as happens in Scotland and London?

The Prime Minister

I will take up that last point. My hon. Friend is right to say that free travel is a tremendous thing for a lot of pensioners, and I know that there is a desire to extend it to England. As for pension credit, we are doing our very best to improve take-up, but my hon. Friend will know from his constituency that thanks to the pension credit and the minimum income guarantee, literally millions of pensioners have seen their incomes rise substantially. Surely that is a better way to go than the Conservative party's proposal to raise the basic state pension by a smaller amount—and they have still not said how on earth that could possibly be funded or costed.

Q12. Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister join the people of Gibraltar in celebrating 300 years of Britain's sovereignty this year, and will he take this opportunity to reassure the people of the Rock that his Government will never again enter into shameful discussions with Spain over the sovereignty of British Gibraltar?

The Prime Minister

I am happy to join the celebrations of the people of Gibraltar, and to say to them yet again that there will be no change in their constitutional position without their consent. However, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that the discussions that took place were initiated under what was called the Brussels process, which was started by the Conservative Government. [Interruption.] Oh yes they were—and it is perfectly sensible that we continue those discussions. I also want to say that, yes, it is important that we protect people in Gibraltar, and we have given them that constitutional guarantee, but our relationship with Spain is also important to this country in the modern world. In the early 21st century, Spain is one of our key partners in the European Union. That does not mean that we alter our commitment to the people in Gibraltar, but it does mean that we regard Spain as a friendly ally, not some hostile foreign power.