HC Deb 05 May 2004 vol 420 cc1330-40
Ql. [170147] Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 5 May.

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. Marsden

Does the Prime Minister welcome the initiative on launching countrywide education maintenance allowances, which will give 16 to 19-year-olds from limited-income families up to £30 a week to stay on and get qualifications? Will he celebrate that radical initiative, which will benefit up to 1,000 families in Blackpool, and the historic achievements of this Government in contrast with the Conservatives, who would shut down life chances, trapped as they are in their Thatcherite past?

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to say that the education maintenance allowance will benefit more than 350,000 young people in the next financial year. However, that is not all. In addition, 250,000 people are now on modern apprenticeships and the new deal for the unemployed has helped 1 million people into jobs. That is why it is important that we continue with those policies, not scrap them as the Conservatives would.

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

British servicemen and women have made, and are making, enormous sacrifices in Iraq on our behalf and on behalf of the Iraqi people. Does the Prime Minister agree that the allegations published in the Daily Mirror have done enormous damage to the reputation of our forces? If they turn out to be true, does he agree that the severest action should be taken against those involved? If they turn out to be false, does he further agree that that is a matter of the utmost seriousness for which the editor of the Daily Mirror will have to take full responsibility?

The Prime Minister

Of course allegations of this nature are extremely serious. If they are true, that is completely unacceptable: everybody, whether or not they have supported the action in Iraq, would say that. On the other hand, if they are not true, that is also extremely serious. They are being investigated by the Royal Military Police, who should be allowed to carry out their investigations—I have every confidence that they will do so properly and truthfully—and we can then debate the findings.

Mr. Howard

Turning to the handover of sovereignty on 30 June, will the Prime Minister now answer the questions that I put to him last week and the week before? Who do the Government think should be responsible after 30 June for security issues, the deployment of troops and the custody of detainees? Can the Prime Minister now tell us whether it is likely that more British troops will be sent to Iraq?

The Prime Minister

On the first point, after 30 June, there will be a complete handover of sovereignty to the new Iraqi Government—they will have complete and full sovereignty. However, as people in Iraq recognise, they will have to maintain coalition troops there to help with security and order. At the present time, we are sitting down and working out what are the right arrangements to ensure that we have not only the maintenance of the coalition troops that is necessary to provide security in order to allow the political process to work, but the right degree of co-operation between the new Iraqi Government and those coalition forces. Obviously, that will have to take into account the need to maintain order and the need to have firm lines of command—particularly for British and coalition troops, who need to know where they stand on these issues, but also to ensure the full involvement of the new Iraqi Government. That is the best that I can say at the present time while those discussions are continuing.

In respect of any additional troops who may be required, we are in discussion with our coalition partners and with the Americans about the possibility of providing more troops for different parts of the country. Those discussions are not yet concluded. As I said in the House previously, we will keep the matter under constant review—it is important to do that.

I want to point out that, although the allegations against British troops are extremely serious, and I have already said that they should be fully investigated, I hope that they do not detract from the work that is being done by thousands of British troops, who risk their lives in Iraq to make the country better. They serve this country well and work to the enormous benefit of the majority of Iraqi people. When I spoke to some of the Ministers from Iraq last week, they wished me to pass on to everyone their support for the work of British troops in places such as Basra to help the Iraqi people.

Mr. Howard

Of course, I entirely agree with the Prime Minister's last comments and I understand what he said about the position after the handover. Indeed, he has helpfully set out some of the criteria that should be in place when those decisions are made. However, he has not told us what the British Government believe should happen. Does he not owe the House an account of the Government's view of those critical issues? Given that we are less than two months away from the handover, does he agree with the White House spokesman who said last week that what is envisaged after 30 June is the transfer of full sovereignty but only limited authority?

The Prime Minister

No. I have not read those specific comments but I saw those of Secretary of State Colin Powell. I believe that they say the same as I said a moment ago: of course, full sovereignty will he transferred to the Iraqi Government but the practical necessity for coalition troops to remain means that there must be a proper authority under which they operate. That will be negotiated with the Iraqis. There is no point in my trying to go into the details now, while it is being discussed. The main thing is to ensure a proper system of co-operation that both abides entirely by the principle that the Iraqis are in full, sovereign control of Iraq after 30 June and makes sure that British, American and other coalition troops have proper chains of command. Frankly, it is better for me not to speculate about that at this point but to leave it to the people on the ground to work out the best arrangement.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of post office closures throughout Lancashire? The problem is that people are being bribed to close them through the enhancements that Royal Mail offers; there is no business case for the closures. The only losers are the public who use the post offices. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that Members of Parliament, local authorities and everybody can see the business case and open the books rather than accepting the post office closures that are taking place?

The Prime Minister

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concern. As he knows, we made it clear that the Post Office had to have the commercial freedom to operate in the way in which it believes appropriate. On the other hand, it will have heard my hon. Friend's comments and we believe that it is important that proper consultation takes place.

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

In view of the worrying bomb attacks in Athens today, does the Prime Minister believe that there is any need for the Government to review their intended security measures to safeguard the interests of the British team at the summer Olympics?

The Prime Minister

Like every other Government, we remain in constant contact and dialogue with the Greek Government. Our current view is that the games should go ahead as planned. Of course, we keep those matters under review, but the right hon. Gentleman should not take that as an indication that our view is about to change. We are in constant dialogue but we have every faith in the way in which the Greek authorities are handling matters.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

On another sporting topic of this week, what is the Prime Minister's personal opinion about whether the English cricket team should undertake its tour of Zimbabwe? Personally, I am against it; is he against it?

The Prime Minister

The position is exactly as I set it out when I was last asked that question. However, there is a difference between stating my personal view, which I previously outlined at the Dispatch Box—[HON. MEMBERS: "What is it?"] As I said then, we would prefer the team not to go, but there is a difference between expressing a personal view and ordering the team not to go, which I think would step over the proper line. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will meet the England and Wales Cricket Board tomorrow. However, many people believe—in my opinion, rightly—that the problem resides with the International Cricket Council.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)

Yesterday saw the launch of Labour's local government campaign and, I understand, a few clumsy events in Birmingham as well. It was also a significant political anniversary. If the Prime Minister could spare the country any of the mistakes of the '80s and '90s, what would they be?

The Prime Minister

Most people would remember mass unemployment going over 3 million. They would particularly remember unemployment rising by more than 1 million when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was Employment Secretary. Contrast that with 2 million extra jobs in the British economy since this Government came to power.

Mr. Howard

When the Minister of State, Department for Transport, with characteristic candour, said that he wanted to tax people out of their cars, was he speaking for the Government?

The Prime Minister

We are not taxing people out of their cars. What we are doing is making a huge investment in public transport, in roads as well as rail, and that is important for the future of the country. What is more, it is only as a result of that additional investment that we are able to see the improvements that there are.

Mr. Howard

The Prime Minister should have paid a bit more attention to what the Transport Minister said. He went on to say: I don't think fuel is particularly expensive in Britain", and that some people think that it's cheaper than it should be. Does the Prime Minister think that it is cheaper than it should be?

The Prime Minister

We have set the fuel duties; they are set in the Budget. Actually, it is true that motoring costs have fallen, not risen, in the past few years. But the point is that we are making our commitment to transport clear by putting a substantial extra investment year on year into our transport system. As a result of the policies outlined by the shadow Chancellor, however, it is the Conservatives' proposal to cut in real terms the transport budget in this country—[Interruption.] Oh yes it is. They are prepared to cut every single budget other than those for the national health service and schools, and even those are to be depleted by their patient and pupil passports. The fact is that we are putting the money in and the right hon. and learned Gentleman would take it out.

Mr. Howard

I understand why the Prime Minister does not want to talk about what his Transport Minister said, and why he would prefer to talk about our plans, which he consistently misrepresents. He will not say whether he thinks petrol is cheaper than it should be, but the Chancellor obviously thinks that it is, because he is going to put petrol tax up again in September. Is that not just the latest example of Labour letting people down?

The Prime Minister

We removed the fuel duty escalator. The right hon. and learned Gentleman says that his proposals are not for a cut in every budget other than the NHS and schools, but the shadow Chancellor has said quite specifically that there would be no real-terms increases in any of those budgets. What that means—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I would say to the Prime Minister that the policy of the Opposition is not really for the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Order. Let me chair the proceedings of the House of Commons. Perhaps a change in the way of addressing the Chamber would be helpful.

The Prime Minister

You are absolutely right, Mr. Speaker, and I apologise. Let me tell the House which policies I will not pursue on behalf of the Government. I will continue to invest in additional numbers of police in this country. We will continue to invest in the new deal for the young people of this country. We will continue to increase local government spending in this country. We will continue to fund additional increases in pensions for pensioners in this country. What we will not do is reintroduce the poll tax, abolish the minimum wage, abolish the new deal and cut public spending. That is what we will do, that is what we won't do and that is why the British people will support us.

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab)

I recently visited four schools in my constituency to discuss the need for a global campaign for education. At Our Lady's high school in Motherwell, I was presented with a petition, which said: We call upon the UK Government to increase support to poorer countries to ensure that every child has access to high quality basic education. What message does the Prime Minister have, not just for the signatories of that petition, but for the millions of people throughout the United Kingdom who agree with its sentiments?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend touches on a point of great concern to people in this country and worldwide: the need to increase the provision of education in the developing world. He will know that the first millennium development goal of the United Nations is to make sure that primary school education is available to all children in the developing world. The plain fact is that, although as a Government we have invested around £1 billion in education in the poorest countries in the world, there is still a great deal more to do. I hope that some of the conclusions of the Africa commission can help with this issue.

Q2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

As the Prime Minister makes more promises to the people of this country, does he recall the handwritten promise that he made to the people of Northern Ireland that said: Those who use or threaten violence to be excluded from the government of Northern Ireland"? Now that he has accepted the first report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which states clearly that Sinn Fein remains responsible for the ongoing terrorist violence in Northern Ireland, will he keep that promise from 1998?

The Prime Minister

It is precisely because we kept that promise that Sinn Fein is not in government at present. Let me remind the House that we have suspended the government of Northern Ireland on that basis. What is important is to make sure that there can be no way that anyone comes back into government in Northern Ireland unless it is absolutely clear that violence and paramilitary activity have been given up for good.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab)

Does the Prime Minister agree that fighting crime is essentially a partnership between the public and police? Will he commend the South Derbyshire crime and disorder reduction partnership, whose record is among the best in the country? Will he pick out in particular the example of the event that I attended last week involving the introduction of a joiner to go around assisting elderly people with home security? Is there a case for making sure that the best practice of such partnerships is shared across the country?

The Prime Minister

Let me congratulate those in my hon. Friend's constituency who have been engaged in this home security plan. It is an important example of good practice and we are trying to make sure that that is rolled out across the country. The Home Office is having meetings with practitioners from different parts of the country, to help not just with home security, particularly for the elderly, but to deal with antisocial behaviour. That is one major issue on which the community, if it comes together properly, can make a huge difference.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)

Does the Prime Minister agree with his Minister for the Environment, who said that building on flood plains was inappropriate" If he does, can he explain the extraordinary report of his inspector Mary Travers on the Tewkesbury local plan? She actually proposed building on flood plain between the villages of Longford and Innsworth, building on green belt and building that would cause villages to coalesce. Will he investigate that report, call it in and explain it?

The Prime Minister

I will certainly—[HON. MEMBERS: "Full answer."] There is not much help in my notes anyway.

I will certainly investigate the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. Obviously, I cannot make any promises about calling in the report, which is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to consider. Since the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of housing, I will point out that today marks the fulfilment of restoring 1 million additional homes to decent housing under this Government's housing investment. I know that that is nothing to do with his point, but at least it is in my notes.

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that pacification by brute force, whether the mass killings at Falluja, the alleged use of torture, or the unilateral annexation by force of significant sections of the west bank, will only inflame resistance and not produce a just or lasting peace? Will he therefore loudly declare, on behalf of the international community, that there must be bilateral negotiations between the opposing sides, because only a political settlement by mutual consent, and not a militarily imposed settlement, will have any hope of proving long-lasting?

The Prime Minister

We must distinguish clearly between two separate situations. In respect of Iraq, let me repeat again that, if there has been abuse of human rights, torture or degradation of prisoners, that is wholly unacceptable and it is what we went to Iraq to get rid of, not to perpetuate. However, I should point out every time I answer this question, because I think it only fair to British troops, that the vast bulk of British troops out there would also be horrified if any such incidents had taken place.

Let me tell my right hon. Friend about just some of the things that British troops have been doing over the past few days. They have been providing new, safe drinking water for up to 100,000 people, installing electricity pylons, ensuring that they can run training courses for primary health care assistants and rebuilding the Basra sports station, as well as engaging in literally thousands of local infrastructure projects. When we investigate these allegations, it is important to take a balanced view.

As for what is happening in Falluja, I am pleased to say that we are trying to bring in Iraqis to police the situation themselves. I think that that is sensible. I believe there is a possibility—I put it no higher—that we can calm the situation and get it under control. The more that we "I raqi-ise" the security aspects, the better things will be.

In respect of the middle east, I believe that everything should be part of a negotiated settlement between the two sides. I do not think that we should prejudge that negotiated settlement in any way. I think it right for us again to maintain balance—to condemn, of course, any illegal activity and reprisals, but at the same time to condemn the terrorists who also kill innocent people.

Q4. Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD)

Why does the Prime Minister think he is losing the trust of the British people?

The Prime Minister

In the end, that is a judgment that the British people will make at the ballot box. In the end, what will count is whether we have delivered on the stable economy, the improved public services, the reduction in poverty and the reduction in crime that formed the basis on which we were elected. I believe that in respect of all those we have a very good story to tell.

Q5. Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab)

The new children's centre in my constituency caters for more than 900 children through a combination of nursery provision and a Sure Start programme. While that excellent initiative is tackling disadvantage at its roots, in some parts of my constituency, parents have no access to such good facilities. What plans has the Prime Minister to expand the network of children's centres so that children can be given the best possible start in life and parents can have access to good, affordable child care? Does he believe that that would be aided by the massive cut in the budget for the under-fives that the Conservatives would impose?

The Prime Minister

The Sure Start programme now helps about 400,000 children living in disadvantaged areas. That is a huge step forward. I think that virtually everyone who speaks to people engaged in the programme sings its praises. In addition, we are setting up children's centres around the country, and I hope that that provision will reach parts of Warrington that Sure Start has not reached. There will also be a growth in real spending on child care of some 17 per cent. over the next few years. All the evidence suggests that investment in children's early years results in better schooling for them in later life and a more responsible attitude towards society as a whole.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con)

I am sure that the House welcomes Sinn Fein's exclusion from government in Northern Ireland because of its breach of the Good Friday agreement. Can the Prime Minister explain why he has excluded the three peaceful political parties from government as well?

The Prime Minister

In the end, we must find a way forward, and one that will be agreed on by everyone. I think that everyone accepts that, if we can possibly do so, it is best for us to do so with all the main political parties that have support in Northern Ireland being represented in the Government; but, as I explained in the speech of October 2002, that can only happen if it happens alongside not just an absolute undertaking to cease all forms of paramilitary activity, but a fulfilment of that undertaking. It is precisely this issue that is holding the situation up, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that there have been real gains in Northern Ireland as a result of the peace process.

Q6. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab)

Now that there are record numbers of teachers in our schools and an unprecedentedly high level of pupil achievement, may we think about those who ensure that our children can cross the road safely to get to school? Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to school safety crossing patrol officers, who do such valuable work in looking after our children? Is he aware that some of them are little better off than they would have been had they stayed on benefits, which could be rectified if they received a higher level of earnings disregard? Will he look into that so that our lollipop men and women can be rightly rewarded?

The Prime Minister

I know that my hon. Friend has tabled an early-day motion on school crossing patrol officers and I am happy to pay tribute to the fantastic job that they do. As for paying them more, he will also know that the new employment credit should help them to supplement their earnings. One reason why we have rising employment in this country is that, as well as having the minimum wage and the new deal, we are making work pay for people. Of course, we keep the level of their earnings under constant review.

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

Turning back to post office closures, in terms of public service, how can it be right that a busy sub-post office such as that at Buchanhaven in my constituency is offered £100,000 to close but no incentive, encouragement or support to stay open?

The Prime Minister

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes but, again, that is an issue for which the Post Office must ultimately take responsibility. I am sure that he is making those points to the Post Office, but it must make sure that it can balance the books and that the financial systems are in place to enable it to work within the financial limits that it has set.

Q7. Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of a recent report into child care by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. Further to his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), will he look at further expanding nursery provision and building on the provision that we have already seen in our schools? Good quality nursery care is vital to provide both an environment in which young children can socialise and the support that their parents so badly need.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A few years ago, we promised a guaranteed part-time nursery place for every four-year-old, and we have now fulfilled that for every three-year-old. It is our intention to ensure that we continue with Sure Start, extra child care places and the new children's centres, so that we get comprehensive provision for the under-fives. As I said a moment ago, that is a solid investment in those children's future, which will repay a dividend not just to them but to the whole of society.

Q8. Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD)

The Prime Minister has on previous occasions referred to the welcome 10 per cent. reduction in cancer mortality outcomes, which is largely due to a reduction in men's smoking and improvements in breast cancer care. However, will he and his Government look into the differences in outcomes between those from disadvantaged and those from advantaged groups? In particular, will he examine the effect of target-driven appointment systems on disadvantaged groups not getting their appointments when they should?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Lady's point about the advances that have been achieved is right and it is worth pointing out that in the past few years we have managed to invite far more women for screening. We have also ensured that additional cancer equipment is going into our hospitals. However, her point on some of the more disadvantaged areas is also true. The truth is that the large majority of people now get access reasonably quickly, but we have to ensure that that is extended throughout. I hope that the additional investment, which will run into hundreds of millions of pounds over the next few years, will do that, but I entirely understand and accept the point that she makes.

Mr. Kerry Pollard (St. Albans) (Lab)

May I welcome the extra £3 billion that has just been announced for housing? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that money could be well used to reduce housing waiting lists and provide local housing for local people in my constituency and that it could enable key worker housing to be provided, thus helping to provide essential local services? Will he ensure that a good slice of that money goes to St. Albans?

The Prime Minister

Of course, the money will be allocated on an entirely fair and objective basis, but my hon. Friend is right to welcome the substantial additional investment in housing, which enables us to ensure both that we bring up to proper standard some of the poorest social housing in our communities and that we have the key worker housing that we need—that point is incredibly important. That must go alongside an expansion in the number of houses, carefully targeted, with the majority on brownfield sites, as my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has outlined. If we do not provide additional housing in the south, it will be extremely difficult for people, and especially for young people trying to get on the housing ladder.

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