HC Deb 24 March 2004 vol 419 cc874-84
QI. [163178] Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 March.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

I am delighted to have been asked to reply. As the House will know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Madrid today. He is attending the memorial service to pay tribute to all those who lost their lives. As the House will know, I represented this country in Madrid last Friday with other European leaders, to join the Spanish people in their protest against the terrorist outrage. I witnessed their grief and anger, and I expressed our solidarity with them. I am sure that the whole House would wish to do so again today.

Mr. Webb

I welcome the Government's plans to protect workers who lose their jobs after April next year because their company has gone out of business, leaving them with a pension fund without enough money in it. The Deputy Prime Minister will know, however, that 60,000 workers are already in that position and have few or no pension rights. Does he believe that we should also support the people who lose out before the Government scheme comes in, and will he put pressure on the rest of the Government to ensure that that happens?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the great concern over this matter, which has been discussed in the House. Some of the issues involved are before the courts. We have made it clear that the difficulty in these situations is that we need greater regulatory control, and we have taken action on that. We are also taking steps to improve the protection of workers' pensions in existing funds. In regard to those who have lost out at this stage, discussions are continuing with my right hon. Friends, and we shall take into account the views expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that most people find it difficult to understand what is objectionable about having to prove that they are who they say they are? Given the problems that we have with organised crime and terrorism, is it not time for us to have an identity card scheme, so that many Conservative Members will be able to prove that they are who they say they are?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I shall avoid the temptation to define who people in the House are. ID cards are a matter of controversy. The idea has caught the attention of the House in debates over a decade or so, and I can assure hon. Members that the controversies and discussions continue. The Government have made it clear that they would work towards a compulsory card system, and we shall be doing that in stages. We shall also give the House every opportunity to vote on the issue. It is clear that ID cards can play a part in our campaign against the acts of terrorism that we must act against.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con)

We fully appreciate that the Prime Minister cannot be in the House today, and we join him in paying tribute to the people of Spain at this time of great grief. I understand, however, that, astonishingly, he will then go on to visit Colonel Gaddafi. That visit is highly questionable, and its timing even more so. This country has suffered especially from Libya's support for terrorism, in the form of the murder of Yvonne Fletcher, Libya's supply of arms to the IRA and its complicity in the murder of more than 200 people over Lockerbie. Welcome though Libya's commitment to disarmament is, we should never forget the victims of Gaddafi's sponsorship of terrorism. Does the right hon. Gentleman at least agree that, if the Prime Minister meets Gaddafi, he should sup with a very long spoon?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I note the right hon. and learned Gentleman's comments on that serious issue, but I think that he, like me, recognises that it is right to continue discussions. It was a British initiative that got one country to begin to take steps to renounce weapons of mass destruction, and as I understand it, he welcomes that. All other issues to do with talking with that country are a matter for judgment, and I think that the judgment that we talk to these people is an important one. I note that a representative of the families of those who were killed in the Lockerbie bombing has welcomed the fact that talks are taking place. I might add that the previous Administration began talks with the IRA, which eventually led to a reduction in deaths and terrorist actions. We have to strike a balance, and the Prime Minister has got the balance right.

Mr. Ancram

As I said, we welcome the move towards disarmament, but that does not mean that we should forget what happened in the past or what is happening now. Can the Deputy Prime Minister guarantee that the Prime Minister will raise Colonel Gaddafi's financial backing for President Mugabe's evil regime in Zimbabwe and make it clear that such support is totally unacceptable?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Again, I think I understand the concerns that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has expressed, but the original deal on Zimbabwe came from the Lancaster House agreement in the 1980s between Prime Minister Thatcher and Mugabe. That has some connection here. The only point I want to make about that is that it is still absolutely essential to try to secure agreement by talking. Acts of violence do not help, whichever part of the world they might take place in, whether it is Ireland or Libya. We have to keep the peace, talk and talk, and eventually get an agreement. To a certain extent, that has been achieved in Ireland, preventing additions to the kind of horrific death toll that cost 3,000 lives. The answer must be to keep on talking while at the same time maintaining a robust defence against terrorists and their deadly actions.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) (Lab)

In this year's spending review, will the Government show that they really are at the forefront of tackling global poverty by setting a timetable to achieve the United Nations target of spending 0.7 per cent. of GDP on international aid? If Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands have been doing that for 20 years, why cannot we?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes a serious point about how much aid we give to developing countries. We have increased the amount, I understand, from about 0.2 per cent. to 0.4 per cent. That does not reach the target, but it is going in the right direction. We must also take into account the resources and help that we have given in reducing the debt problems of the third world. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has worked extremely hard to get international agreement on that. While it is right to say, "Keep on pressing", because this is an important responsibility for us, we have to take into account what would be likely to happen to that programme in view of the Tories' announcements on budget spend and cuts. They mean that that programme would take a nosedive, not increase, as it is doing under this Government.

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

I believe that the thoughts of us all are with the people of Spain today. On the matter of Libya, we on the Liberal Democrat Benches certainly support the Prime Minister's visit.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister recall that a year ago, when the House of Commons was persuaded to endorse military action against Iraq, the Government welcomed the publication of the road map and committed themselves actively to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. What is his assessment of the prospects for that road map today?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his supportive remarks; I think he is absolutely right. The talks that are to take place in Israel are the only way forward to find agreement, and it is important to get co-operation with our European partners. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it absolutely clear that we deplore the action by the Israeli Government, but let us make it clear that the road map is the only way forward. We have to keep hoping that the parties who are signed up to it will agree to it and begin to implement it. The recent announcement by the Israeli Government that they will remove themselves from the Gaza strip is very welcome, but we need to look at the conditions. It is the only way forward, as indeed I would say the Good Friday agreement is still the only way forward in Northern Ireland—talking and talking.

Sir Menzies Campbell

The whole House can accept that Israel is entitled to live at peace within secure and recognised borders. But when the Government's view is that settlements and the so-called security fence, when built on Palestinian land, are illegal under international law, and when the Foreign Secretary, in his trenchant opinion of yesterday, asserts that the assassination of Sheikh Yassin was unlawful, unacceptable and unjustified, what concrete steps are they prepared to take to persuade Israel to comply with international law?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Again, the point is well made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. That matter has concerned an awful lot of people in the House. The assassination to which he referred has been denounced by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who has made it clear that it was an illegal act, which should not have taken place and which will make the situation much worse, as we can see today. The wall itself was a unilateral measure that will not provide lasting security for people in Israel, which we all recognise. At the end of the day, there must be a negotiated settlement, which is always the more difficult way, and acts of violence or such unilateral actions will not help. The situation is escalating from day to day. Talking at the table is still the only solution, and in talking with other leaders in Europe, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will seek again to try to get discussions and negotiation under way on the road map.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the 42 per cent. drop in unemployment in my constituency? Does he realise that the most important factor, particularly for those on lower wages, is the rise in the national minimum wage? Can he tell me when that will go up to £5 an hour?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am grateful for the remarks about the drop in unemployment, which is sometimes ignored by the general public. I came into politics to reduce unemployment. Under the Tories, it went up to 3 million. We have seen a reduction in that, and connecting that drop to the minimum wage, as my hon. Friend does, reminds us that the current Leader of the Opposition said that introducing the minimum wage would increase unemployment by 1 million. In fact, the opposite happened: we had the minimum wage, millions of people benefited from it, and we increased employment. Throughout the period of Labour Government, we have seen employment increasing by a quarter of a million in every year we have been in office. At the same time, we have increased the minimum wage and have recently announced the new date for the minimum wage increase.

Q2. [163179] Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)

What are the Government planning to do to help the Plain English Campaign celebrate its 25th anniversary later this year? What will the Deputy Prime Minister do personally to help it wage its war on gobbledegook?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman, from time to time, may get his grammar right, but his thinking on politics and his common sense are often missing. And to that we can add the sketch writers as well. But I will not be addressing the conference.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab)

May I tell my right hon. Friend that 250 young people in my constituency have not been offered a secondary school place owing to failings of administration by Kent county council? That is causing huge problems not only for the young people involved but for their parents, because the county council has not even managed to run its own scheme in an efficient manner. Will he use his good offices with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to ensure that Kent county council gets its act together for next year, even if it cannot sort out the problems this year, so that young people can be given a decent place, near where they live, at a school they want to go to, so that they can get the education they deserve?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am quite shocked to hear that Kent county council is not providing what it has a legal obligation to provide—places for children in its area. It seems to spend more time thinking about the 11-plus than about providing places. The resources provided by this Government for education are unsurpassed, and that is why we are getting better standards and more places, in newer schools. We must face the fact that, even with the £8.5 million that has been promised by the Chancellor, on top of the increase in investment, the Conservative party voted in the Lobby last night against such an increase for education. Perhaps the Tories could explain that to Kent county council.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con)

Last week the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the Government were to cut 40,000 civil servants' jobs. Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us how many extra civil servants the Government have hired in the last three years?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I cannot give the answer, quite frankly, but I will write to the right hon. and learned Gentleman as soon as possible. I ask him to bear in mind that changes take place in the work force in a number of areas, which is natural in a growing and thriving economy. As I said earlier, we have increased the number of jobs offered by a quarter of a million each year. That means well over a million—nearly a million and a half—new jobs. The announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the name of efficiency—I thought that the Opposition were calling for efficiency from Government, and an end to waste—should be seen against the background of the growth in jobs that he and this Government have created.

Mr. Ancram

Like the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister has not answered the question. The only difference is that the Prime Minister doesn't answer because he won't, while the Deputy Prime Minister doesn't answer because he can't. Let me help him. I asked how many extra civil servants the Government had appointed over the last three years. The answer is 40,000. Now they are cutting 40,000. First they hire them, then they fire thern. That is not exactly competent government.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister answer this question? What percentage of the Government's spending is being wasted?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The immediate answer is that we have cut the percentage of GDP that goes into administration. The figures were given by the Chancellor in his Budget statement, and I noticed at the time that there were no comments, cheers or shouts from the Opposition, because my right hon. Friend had shot most of their foxes in the lead-up to the Budget.

Even the 40,000 figure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned, which I believe is correct, must be seen against the creation of a quarter of a million jobs each year—something that could not be achieved by the Opposition. Just think of the increase in the number of doctors, nurses and teachers that has taken place under this Government. There is no doubt that all those people face having their jobs cut simply because of the Opposition's commitment to cutting public expenditure by £18 billion in two years. It is just hypocrisy for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to go on about waste, administration and unemployment.

Mr. Ancram

Let me help the Deputy Prime Minister again. He says it is hypocrisy to talk about waste. Even the Government's own report says that up to £20 billion—almost 5 per cent.—is wasted.

Let me try asking the Deputy Prime Minister about tax. At least we may get an answer this time. The Government are borrowing more than £140 billion over the next five years. The ITEM Club, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund have all warned of further tax rises under Labour. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with them?

The Deputy Prime Minister

We will take no lectures from the Opposition about borrowing. When they were in government, they borrowed nearly as much in a single year as the amount that the right hon. and learned Gentleman says will be borrowed over five years. The fundamental criticism is that whereas we borrowed to invest, he borrowed to keep people on the dole because of the failure of his economic policies.

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to see the benefits of what we did, he should look at his own constituency, where long-time unemployment has fallen by 96 per cent. As for education, there is an extra £660 for pupils. Crime has fallen, and there is more than £90 million for the primary care trust. Those are the benefits for the right hon. and learned Gentleman's constituents from this Government's policy. Perhaps he would explain to them why he wants to cut the amounts.

Mr. Ancram

Once again, the Deputy Prime Minister has not answered the question I put to him. I asked whether expert economists were right in saying that there would be further tax increases under Labour. I cannot understand why the Deputy Prime Minister is being so evasive. The Prime Minister is not watching him. Has he not finally got what he has campaigned for throughout his political life—more taxes, more borrowing, more bureaucrats? After seven years of embarrassingly having to mouth new Labour slogans, why can he not just be happy that he has got what he wanted?

The Deputy Prime Minister

In fact, there is now less tax, more employment and more investment, and we have reduced the bands of tax, which was never achieved under the Conservative Government. There is no doubt that the argument at the coming election will be whether money should be raised to pay for public services or to pay for tax cuts. We have no promise of cuts from the Opposition—they say that they will look at that, and that they might do it, but they will not commit to it. All that we can be sure of, as promised by the Leader of the Opposition, is that they will cut investment in public services. That is the choice that we will have at the coming election, and the Leader of the Opposition will have to answer for it, just as anyone else would.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab)

I realise that there are some questions that the Deputy Prime Minister cannot answer in detail, for obvious reasons of security, but I personally find the prospect of a 30 ft-high concrete wall topped off with razor wire surrounding the Palace of Westminster utterly grotesque, and it would probably be ineffective. What is the Deputy Prime Minister's view?

The Deputy Prime Minister

That is another piece of speculation that I would put down to press prattle. There is no substance in it.

Q3. [163180] Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister personally intervene to ensure that the chaotic mess in our post office system is sorted out? He might not be aware of this, but last week, the main post office in Romford was closed at only four days notice. Coupled with that, a number of local sub-post offices are threatened with closure. When will he restore order to this vital public service?

The Deputy Prime Minister

There will be a debate on that matter later, but we have discussed it at Question Time and during debates, and the Prime Minister has always made it clear that £400 million has been put in to develop the post office system and to prevent closures. That closures are continuing has been admitted from this Dispatch Box, but that amount of money has been put in to modernise and to help, and it has prevented a lot of closures. That has been going on for a long time. We have made it clear that pension payments can be made through a post office or a bank, and we are trying to find a good way of operating that will keep as many post offices as possible in existence. Many more would have closed had it not been for the financial support that this Government have given.

Q4. [163181] Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will know that even in my constituency, which is in a borough where housing is relatively cheap by London standards, it is becoming virtually impossible for someone on an average income to get into the housing market or to find property to rent. I appreciate the steps that my right hon. Friend has taken this week to help key workers to buy, but does he accept that that does not really address the problem of the overall supply of affordable housing? What does he intend to do to deal with that problem in London?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments on the announcement yesterday of the £670 million programme for houses for key workers in London and the south-east. He probably knows that English Partnerships will today announce a further £150 million programme for 2,000 homes for key workers to be built on in-fill brownfield sites in London. I believe that one of those is in my hon. Friend's constituency. He refers to affordable homes, and the Housing Corporation will announce today a £3.3 billion budget for a programme of 67,000 affordable homes in England. That contribution will take housing investment to a level that is double what we inherited in 1997. That contrasts, yet again, with the cuts in housing proposed in recent Opposition plans.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con)

The Deputy Prime Minister's decision to overrule all the statutory planning authorities, including his own inspector, in their approval of development schemes in Ellesmere has provoked a petition signed by more than 85 per cent. of the town's electorate. Will he agree to meet a delegation of those people?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman knows that everyone with responsibility for planning who stands at this Dispatch Box has to wait until the full planning procedures have been completed, and I am not sure whether they have been in the case that he refers to. Ministers are always available to discuss these matters, but they will reserve their judgment on planning issues. No Minister has ever been in doubt about that. I cannot give a yes or a no in this case, because I do not know what stage planning is at.

Mr. Paterson

The right hon. Gentleman overruled it.

The Deputy Prime Minister

Thousands upon thousands of planning decisions are taken, usually in my name. I often pick up a newspaper and find that it tells me—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. When a Minister answers, I expect hon. Members to be quiet.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I will consider what the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) has said and will write to him about it.

Q5. [163182] Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is normally fairly ludicrous when the non-elected Chamber lectures this elected Chamber on democracy, and that it is not merely ludicrous but dangerous and despicable when the official spokespersons of the major Opposition parties deliberately block the planned pilot schemes for postal votes in the European and local elections for the north-west and elsewhere, put party political advantage to the fore and leave a door wide open for the British National party?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes a very serious point, and Lords amendments to the legislation in question will be debated later today. I find it completely unacceptable that the Lords should make judgments on the planning and procedures for the European parliamentary and local elections; it should not be up to unelected people to take such decisions. We have greater moral authority to take decisions on such planning, and we have said that four regions will be involved.

The Opposition and their spokesperson in the House of Lords implied that they oppose postal ballots because they feel that such a system is a bit too convenient for voters. The Leader of the Opposition was asked in an interview for theYorkshire Post whether he would accept the result of the referendum if people decided to vote for regional government. He said: We wouldn't necessarily regard ourselves as being bound by that kind of majority. I hear a lot of talk about referendums, but the Leader of the Opposition is telling us that they might not accept the judgment of the electorate in this referendum. It has been suggested in this place and in the House of Lords that such ballots might have more to do with the convenience of the electorate than with getting the greater turnout that all-postal ballot pilots have already achieved. Let us have more democracy and participation, and less hypocrisy from the Opposition.

Q6. [163183] Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough) (Con)

What are the qualities that the Deputy Prime Minister looks for in a European Commissioner, and does the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) possess any of them?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) would be well able to do the job, and the same is true of a lot of other Labour Members. I read in the press that I am backing certain people. The press have got it wrong again, but I do not want to get into personalities. The Labour Benches are so full of talent that the decision will be a difficult one for the Prime Minister.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Department of Health has published a very important document today, entitled "Winning The War On Heart Disease." As chairman of the all-party group on heart disease, I welcome that document, but what extra measures can we adopt to ensure that we build on the successes that we have achieved to date?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has drawn attention to that document, which points out that we are making some remarkable advances in respect of heart operations. That is welcome news, and to be fair, the Opposition spokesman on the national health service has also welcomed it, saying: No one welcomes those improvements more than I do. It is excellent news that progress has indeed been made".—[Official Report, 22 March 2004; Vol. 419, c. 597.] We want to build on that progress, and I should have thought that Members on both sides of the House would take the view that the national health service does a wonderful job and that we want to do all that we can to improve it. We have made our position clear, which is that billions of pounds in resources have to be put into the health service, whereas the Opposition have decided that, basically, they want to reduce resources. That will provide a clear choice. I have often heard it said that there might be some more money for health and education, but I should like to see their proposals.

I concede that the Opposition have said that they would not subject health and education to the kind of cuts that they are prepared to implement elsewhere, but I shall wait to see exactly what that means. An £18 billion cut in the first two years of a Tory Administration would mean that nearly everyone would he open to such attacks. If the Opposition want to say that the cuts would affect only defence, housing and other such areas, then okay, let them be clear about it. But on health, we have the success story of winning the battle against heart disease. All Members will welcome the fact that death rates are down by 23 per cent., and our target is to deliver 6,000 extra operations one year earlier.