HC Deb 08 September 2004 vol 424 cc710-7
Q1. Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 8 September.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in sending our profound sympathy and condolences to the people of Beslan and Russia. I have spoken to President Putin, and expressed that on behalf of the British people. We share in Russia's grief in this dark hour for that country, and we mourn with the people of Beslan as they continue to bury their dead. The video released last night simply underlines the inhumanity of terrorists who can target and murder children. It is evil that was, until it happened, beyond the contemplation of anyone.

The whole House will also join me in sending our condolences to the families of the three British soldiers who have lost their lives in Iraq since the House rose on 22 July. They were doing an extraordinary and heroic job, and we can be proud of them.

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. Greenway

First, may I associate my Ryedale constituents with the sympathies that the Prime Minister expressed to the people of Beslan and to the families of British soldiers killed in Iraq during the recess?

What possible justification can there be at this time for cutting infantry numbers by 6,500 and abolishing some of our finest regiments, such as the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment and the Green Howards in Yorkshire? Does the Prime Minister not recognise that that regimental system, sustained and supported by local communities, sets the British Army apart from all others, particularly in the vital role of peacekeeping? Would not it be an act of extreme folly to lose those qualities in these uncertain times?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the amount of money that we are putting into defence is increasing, not decreasing. It is important that we use that money effectively in the future, and the plans put forward, which have the support of the chiefs of staff, allow us to make sure that we can carry out the duties that our armed forces do superbly around the world, and allow us to do that in a modern way. That is necessary, because some of the things that we require today were not required a few years ago. [Interruption.] I cannot refrain from pointing out to Opposition Members who are shouting at me that defence spending was cut substantially under the Conservative Government.

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab)

Building on the comments of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, is it not a fact that to combat the lethal, dangerous and odious relationship between nationalism and fundamentalism, moderate opinion, both majority and minority, in our country and elsewhere, has joined together in attack and condemnation of these horrendous events?

The Prime Minister

What is important, as I said to President Putin in our telephone call, is that we recognise that this extraordinary form of virulent and extreme terrorism is an evil that we all face and that we must confront together. I express my total solidarity with him and with the Russian people in doing so.

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

I join the Prime Minister in expressing our anguish and heartache at the terrible events in Beslan. We shall never forget the haunting images that have filled our television screens in the last few days. I also join him in expressing our deep regret at the continuing loss of life in Iraq, and in particular the loss of the three British servicemen to whom he referred.

Do not these events show yet again that we must be resolute in our determination to defeat terrorism wherever it takes place and to protect the safety of people in our own country? Will the Prime Minister look again at the possibility—about which I wrote to him on Sunday—of appointing a single Minister to be responsible for homeland security, with nothing to think about and nothing to do apart from protecting our people from the threat of terrorism?

The Prime Minister

I join the right hon. and learned Gentleman in, and concur wholeheartedly with, his remarks about the need to fight terrorism effectively abroad and here. It is not simply because it came from him that we have not accepted the proposal for a particular Minister to be in charge of homeland security; it is because we believe that the present arrangements under the Home Secretary work well. I should also say that we have someone who co-ordinates all our security measures across Government and we believe that that works well.

Of course we do this on the basis of advice. If we were advised that there were better ways of dealing with the security situation, we would adopt them, but I actually think that our security forces are currently doing a very good job on behalf of this country. We believe that, given the joint terrorism action centre and the measures taken by the security co-ordinator, these procedures are as good as they can be.

Mr. Howard

I understand the points that the Prime Minister has made, but it is of course for advisers to advise and for Ministers to decide. I ask him to continue to keep this question under review.

Let me turn to other matters. Does the Prime Minister regret the resignation of his Secretary of State for Work and Pensions?

The Prime Minister

Of course I do, because of the substantial contribution that my right hon. Friend made to reducing unemployment and providing help for the poorest pensioners. One of the best things that he did was, of course, implementing the new deal, which has helped 1 million people into work. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will now withdraw the absurd proposal to scrap it.

Mr. Howard

In that case, why would friends of the former Work and Pensions Secretary—whose departure the Prime Minister has just regretted so much—say that he was sick and tired after three months of poison and briefing against him"? Who could possibly have been responsible for that?

The Prime Minister

Why do we not actually debate the policy? Why do we not debate what we are doing? Let me just tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what we have done on welfare reform: 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty, 1.8 million pensioners have been lifted out of poverty and pension credit is helping pensioners by providing up to £1,000 a year. The new deal is giving us 1 million extra people in work and a 30 per cent. fall in new entry to incapacity benefit. That is a record of which my right hon. Friend and we can be proud. Name me a Conservative Government who ever achieved it.

Mr. Howard

Why will the Prime Minister not break the habit of a lifetime and just answer the question for once? He apparently thinks that the membership of his Cabinet and the way in which he runs his Government are of no consequence. He thinks that they do not matter. Well, they matter to his party chairman, who complained last night about the ill-discipline and briefing within the Westminster village", and they matter to his former Chief Whip, who knows a bit about the way in which this Government are run and who has attacked what he called the style of government that allows ministers of the crown to be briefed against". Who is responsible for that style of government?

The Prime Minister

The fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is prepared to start debating briefings in the press with me only indicates the utter absence of any policy proposals on his part. He has just published today his proposals on student finance. One would think that he might ask me about them; perhaps he is about to do that. Or perhaps it is because they actually treble the interest rate on student loans that he will not.

I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what the test of a Government is. It is not what appears in the newspapers every day, but this: 2 million extra jobs, the halving of unemployment, the introduction of the minimum wage, the lowest interest rates and inflation for 30 years and 2 million pensioners lifted out of poverty. I said this a moment or two ago, and I repeat it now. What Conservative Government of whom the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a member ever achieved an economic and social record like that?

Mr. Howard

I will certainly respond to the Prime Minister's challenge on our proposals for student finance. I will tell him the difference between his proposals and ours: Labour has broken its promise and scrapped free higher education; we will keep our promise and restore free higher education. This Government are giving more money to poorer students, but taking it straight back through student fees; we will have lower student debt and grants for poorer students. That is the difference between our policies and his.

Is it not extraordinary that the Prime Minister simply refuses to answer for the way in which his Government are run? In the last few days, his former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, his former Chief Whip and his current party chairman have all criticised his style of government. Will he now, at the Dispatch Box, accept responsibility for the style of government that they have so clearly condemned?

The Prime Minister

I am glad that I lured the right hon. and learned Gentleman on to student finance, because I would like to talk a little about that. First, his policies have a gaping hole of £500 million in them, which will be withdrawn from universities. Secondly, he says that he would keep student grants for poorer students. Actually, we set that at £2,700. Perhaps he could just confirm that his grant is £1,500, which is a halving of our grant. Thirdly, he would not restore free higher education, because instead of students getting interest rates at the rate of inflation, a commercial rate of interest would be charged, so instead of interest being 3.5 per cent., it would be 8 per cent. That means that the amount that many people on average and lower incomes pay under student finance would treble—a typical Tory policy.

As for the style of government, that is surely a matter of the record of the Government, and the record of this Government is one of which we can be and are proud.

Mr. Howard

Is not the shambles of the way in which the Government are run one reason why they have so completely failed to deliver on their promises? As the Prime Minister's Pension Secretaries come and go, let me quote the words of his first Minister for Welfare Reform. The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) yesterday said: The big issue that ought to be worrying the whole of the Government because it's worrying voters, is that when Labour came to office we had one of the strongest pension provisions in Europe and now probably we have some of the weakest". Is that not the fact of the matter and the record of the Prime Minister's Government? Is the pensions crisis not down to the failure of his Government and is it not time that he stopped changing his Ministers and started changing his policies?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not agree that we should change the policy, because it has delivered for pensioners, in real terms, £10 billion extra a year. It means that 2.5 million pensioner households benefit from the pension credit and the minimum income guarantee. It means free TV licences for the over-75s, a winter fuel payment of £200 a year, reduced VAT on fuel, restored free eye tests and now the pension protection fund, which will help people whose pensions are unfunded by their employers. All those things will help pensioners now and in future.

But the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal on pensions is this: he wants to get rid of the state second pension. Let me spell out to the House what that means. Twenty million people would lose out, including 15 million low-income households and 2.5 million carers. It is a disastrous policy. [Interruption.] Oh yes, we will remind people of this from now until election day. His other policy is that the pension credit, which helps 2.5 million people, will be phased out. If that is not the case, perhaps he will stand up at the Dispatch Box and tell us.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Coop)

I associate myself and my constituents with my right hon. Friend's remarks about the tragic events in Beslan and the death of our servicemen in Iraq.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, ultimately, defeating Muslim terrorism in Iraq depends on the majority of peace-loving Iraqis having a stake in their own community? What assessment has he made of progress in restoring vital public services such as education and health, and other measures designed to improve the quality of life for the great majority of peace-loving Iraqis?

The Prime Minister

What is happening in Iraq and in Afghanistan is vital to the fight against international terrorism. Essentially, in Afghanistan, 10 million people have registered to vote, despite people often being assassinated on the way to registering, and in Iraq we have a UN-blessed process that should lead to elections in January 2005. The terrorists in both those countries are trying to stop the electoral process and the reconstruction, because they know that if we manage to put Afghanistan and Iraq on their feet as stable democratic countries, that is the biggest blow that there can be to international terrorism. I assure my hon. Friend that we will stick with this and see it through, because it is in the interests not only of security in those countries but of global security.

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

May I entirely associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the very proper expressions of sincere condolence to the citizens of Beslan and their families for the appalling atrocities that have been visited on them, and to the families and loved ones of the three British soldiers who have lost their lives in Iraq since we last convened here?

Returning to domestic pensions policy, does the Prime Minister recognise the fact that the typical woman retiring today will draw a basic state pension of just £51, which is little more than half the full state pension level? When does he intend to introduce steps to overcome that continuing blatant discrimination against women in the operation of the pension system?

The Prime Minister

The interaction of the state second pension, which I was talking about a moment ago, and the pension credit is designed precisely to ensure that we help people on the lowest incomes in particular. As the right hon. Gentleman has asked about pensions, I must say that I cannot agree with his proposal of yesterday, that single pensioners over 75 will get an extra £25 a week by abolishing the Department of Trade and Industry. He says that abolishing the DTI would bring in £8 billion immediately, but that is not the DTI's administration costs, it is the entire budget that it administers. Abolishing it would mean the whole of British science being cut by two thirds and all regional selective assistance would cease. When we have this debate on pensions, we should at least have it on the basis of serious costed proposals.

Mr. Kennedy

Over coming months we shall certainly have that debate and the ultimate test on the outcome will be decided by the electorate at the general election—but let us get back to the policy that we are living with, which is the Government's policy, which I asked about. The Prime Minister refers to pension credit, yet according to the Government's own figures published today, 2 million pensioners—two out of five of those eligible—are not receiving the means-tested benefits to which they are entitled. He should not be surprised by that, because we know that the Government, again according to their own figures, budget on the very assumption that there will not be that take-up. Surely, in a comparatively wealthy country such as ours, we could now afford, politically and economically, to offer our older citizens the genuine dignity and positive security that they deserve.

The Prime Minister

Of course, everyone in the House would agree in principle with that, but the question is how we are to pay for it. We established the Pensions Commission last year under Adair Turner, which will publish its interim findings in October, precisely so that there can be a proper public debate about not only today's pensioners but future pensioners. There are real issues there and if we want to commit ourselves to funding even greater state provision for people who will become pensioners in future years, we must say how that will be paid for, and we must do so in a realistic way, from the taxpayer base that we have.

I am sure that that will be a major issue over the coming months. When the interim report by Adair Turner's commission is published, we can at least see what the facts are and then what the real choices facing our country are.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

In Warwickshire, 35 antisocial behaviour orders have been issued to date—six in my constituency—and 30 more are under consideration. Does my right hon. Friend agree with Chief Superintendent Whitehouse in Leamington who tells me that ASBOs are now much easier to obtain and highly effective in dealing with some of our worst offenders?

The Prime Minister

I think that ASBOs are far easier to obtain now, which is why somewhere in the region of 2,500 of them have been granted. As my hon. Friend would recognise, they are part of a wider range of measures on antisocial behaviour. On the basis of a visit I made to Harlow recently and other visits around the country, I think that antisocial behaviour legislation is now being used by local authorities and the police to make a real difference to antisocial behaviour. There is nothing that makes people in this country angrier than not using the new powers that have been given to the police and local authorities. I urge them to use those powers.

Q2. Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)

How much hope does the Prime Minister hold out for making progress on the agreed road map for peace in the middle east?

The Prime Minister

Progress depends critically on two things: first, on an end to terrorism, or at least the best possible methods of achieving that end; secondly, on both sides being willing to negotiate the solution set out in the road map. I hope very much that we can return to the road map. We need to do that—it is vital. I mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan earlier as part of the front line in the war against terrorism, and it is also true to say that progress in the middle east would make an enormous difference to the ability to recruit people to international terrorism.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

What about the wall?

The Prime Minister

Liberal Democrat Members shout about the wall and about Israel. We have made our criticisms of that clear. However, it is also fair and right to point out that innocent Israeli citizens are being killed and maimed by terrorist acts. If we want a lasting solution, we have to stop the terrorism as well as urge Israel to negotiate.

Q3. Anne Picking (East Lothian) (Lab)

I am sure that the whole House will welcome the Commission for Africa and congratulate the Prime Minister on setting it up. Does he agree that there is no better cause here at home than that of supporting fair trade? In my own community, sterling work is being done to support the cause and our local authority is planning to become a local authority fair trade council. Will he use his good offices to encourage other local authorities to do the same?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says and we support fair trade—about £500,000 goes to various promotions. Sales of fair trade products have risen by almost 50 per cent. in the last couple of years. I entirely agree that it is one important way in which people can show their commitment to those countries that desperately need fair trade to be extended.

Q4. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)

Does the Prime Minister believe that it is acceptable that some pensioners have to spend a third of their income in council tax?

The Prime Minister

We would all like to see council tax come down, but it can do so only if councils decide to levy less council tax and if the central Government grant to local government is maintained. I have to point out to the hon. Gentleman that his party's policy is to freeze the grant given to local authorities, which would make a £4.5 billion shortfall in the money given to local authorities. That cannot help reduce council tax for pensioners or anyone else.

Q5. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, if the reports that action will be taken within this fortnight to bring into law a hunting with dogs Bill are correct, it will be warmly welcomed on this side of the House? Is it not totally unacceptable that the House of Lords should have some permanent veto on a measure that has been carried with such a large majority in the House of Commons? Hunting with dogs is a barbaric practice that should have been abolished years ago.

The Prime Minister

I have said that we will find a way of resolving that issue and we will.