HC Deb 23 June 1999 vol 333 cc1160-70
Q1. Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 23 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further such meetings later today.

Helen Jones

Given the stunning 60 per cent. fall in youth unemployment and the creation of 100,000 jobs under the new deal, will the Prime Minister tell my young constituents how many apologies he has received from the Tories, who were content to leave them on the scrap heap, and the Liberal Democrats, who thought that it was not worth spending money on them? Does he accept that people in heartland Labour seats such as mine and in middle England know full well that Labour promised and delivered on the new deal and youth unemployment, whereas the Tories and the Liberals offered them no deal?

The Prime Minister

It is true that 100,000 young people have now found jobs through the new deal, and that 85 per cent. of them were not subsidised at all. That is in addition to Bank of England independence, which has produced the lowest interest rate for 30 years; the largest ever rise in child benefit; the minimum wage; 2 million families helped by the working families tax credit; and, this autumn, a f100 bonus for pensioners. All those measures have one thing in common: the Tories would scrap them.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

In this crucial and difficult week for Northern Ireland, in which hon. Members on both sides of the House desperately want to see the Good Friday agreement implemented in full, does the Prime Minister recall the commitment that he made to the people of Northern Ireland on the morning of the referendum last year, when he said: Representatives of parties intimately linked to paramilitary groups can only be in a future Northern Ireland Government if it is clear that there will be no more violence and the threat of violence has gone. That doesn't just mean decommissioning, but all bombing, killings, beatings, and an end to targeting, recruiting, and all the structures of terrorism."? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that those criteria have been satisfied by the Loyalist or Republican paramilitaries?

The Prime Minister

I do hold to those commitments. It is important that anyone who goes into the Executive in Northern Ireland is fully committed to peace. In respect of the ceasefires, I know that there are difficult judgments to be made, and obviously they are made on the advice of the Chief Constable. We keep those judgments under review, but we believe still at the present time that the judgments that we have made are the right ones.

Mr. Hague

Does the Prime Minister agree that the beatings, shootings and mutilations continue and are being carried out by organisations that actually signed the agreement? Terrorist structures remain fully operational and fully armed and 277 terrorists are back on the streets, including yesterday the Brighton bomber walking free. Do not those grim facts show that the real obstacle to progress is not the Ulster Unionist party, the SDLP, the Government or the Opposition, but the refusal of terrorist groups to decommission their illegal weapons?

The Prime Minister

Well, they have to decommission their weapons; that is clear. It is an obligation under the agreement. These judgments on ceasefires are very difficult indeed. For example, during the previous ceasefire under the previous Government there were prisoners who benefited from a reduction in sentence under the earlier legislation that was in place. Between April 1995 and January 1996, seven people were murdered by organisations generally regarded as front organisations for the IRA. The then Government took the view that in the round the ceasefire remained in place. I say that not to score points, but merely to show how difficult these judgments are. We have one last chance to push for peace in this process and I hope that the whole House will give us its support in trying to achieve it.

Mr. Hague

They are difficult decisions. The Conservative party and millions of people across the country support the Good Friday agreement and want it to succeed, but look with dismay on the early release of terrorists and their possible inclusion in Government when not one gun or ounce of Semtex has been handed in. However, I am pleased to hear the Prime Minister say that they must decommission. As we approach next week's deadline, will he give an undertaking that until there has been a credible and verifiable start to decommissioning, he will not ask the First Minister of Northern Ireland to enter an Executive with Sinn Fein?

The Prime Minister

I am not going to end up negotiating the terms of the agreement in the next few days. I said last night and last week—and have done so on a number of occasions—that there are two essential foundation blocks for the process to work. One is that everyone accepts that there is an inclusive Executive that involves all parties that are committed to peace. The second is that there has to be decommissioning. My view throughout has been that the sequencing is a matter for negotiation, and that can be judged between the parties. However, there must be no question at all but that decommissioning is an obligation under the agreement.

I made that very clear at the time of the Hillsborough declaration, when I said that decommissioning is not a pre-condition but is an obligation deriving from the commitment in the Agreement, and that it should take place within the timescale envisaged in the Agreement and through the efforts of the independent International Commission on Decommissioning. Last week, I said: Decommissioning is not a prior pre-condition of the Executive. But it is plainly part of the process. All parties are obliged to help bring it about. No-one will believe that a party with a close connection with a paramilitary group could not bring about decommissioning. There is a negotiation that we must have, and I hope that all parties will approach that with an open mind. However, the first key thing is to get straight whether people do agree with those two foundation blocks. I do not yet know whether they do. We have not had from any paramilitary group an absolute commitment to decommissioning at all—in any time scale. We need to be sure of those things before we move forward.

Q2. Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)

Further to these exchanges on Northern Ireland, is it not a fact that the progress made so far has been based on the bipartisan support in this House, which we so freely gave while in opposition? As some people do not appear to recognise that fact, will my right hon. Friend emphasise yet again how important it is that every party in this House understands the need for all of us to get behind the Good Friday agreement, as it is the only hope for peace in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister

The Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—is the only chance for peace. If this agreement goes down, the result will not be that there will be decommissioning—there will be no decommissioning. The result will not be an end to violence. There is no doubt at all that there will be renewed violence. I want to try to preserve this one chance for peace that Northern Ireland has. Every person in the Government—including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—has done nothing since the election but try to facilitate the process. That is all we can ever do. I hope that the people of Northern Ireland, from whatever community, realise that the vast majority of people in Britain simply want to allow the deal to work so that they can have a peaceful future for their children.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

As Northern Ireland now balances precariously between peace and a return to conflict, is it not the case that although some of the compromises necessary to secure the Good Friday agreement may well have been uncomfortable—even distasteful—the fact is that it remains the only vehicle we have for peace; that those who seek to unpick one element of it run the risk of undermining the integrity of it as a whole; and as with the last Government, so with this—those who support peace in Ireland ought to be supporting the agreement rather than playing politics at home?

The Prime Minister

There is only one way forward—the Good Friday agreement. I endorse entirely what the right hon. Gentleman says—people cannot pick different parts. Of course parts of it are distasteful, particularly when people see prisoner releases. However, I hope that I have indicated by going back over previous ceasefires that distasteful things happened then, but the previous Government were right to continue pushing for peace and we are right to carry on doing the same.

Mr. Ashdown

Is it not also the case that history and the people of Ireland, north and south, are not likely to forgive those politicians—whether in Ireland or elsewhere—who are not prepared to make the last compromises to secure peace? Does the Prime Minister agree that the letter of the Good Friday agreement does not say that decommissioning should be a precondition, but that it should be a commitment? But the spirit of it is quite clear. It says that those who have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of arms in the past must now provide concrete evidence that they see the future for Ireland on the basis of removal of arms from Ireland in the future.

The Prime Minister

It is right—I think everyone accepts—that it is not a precondition, but it is a requirement of the agreement. There is no doubt about that. What I would like to do with the parties next week is to sit down and work out when and how that process of decommissioning happens and when and how we set up the Executive on an inclusive all-party basis. But people have to accept—before we can do that negotiation—those two foundation blocks. My view is that decommissioning should have happened two years ago. It should have been happening all the time. It should never have been the case that people had weapons in the first place. But we work with the reality we are in and we try to change that reality, which is what the whole process has been about.

Before people dismiss that and say that nothing has been gained from the past two years, I remind them that we have agreement on the constitutional basis for Northern Ireland, agreement to the principle of consent, agreement to an Assembly, agreement to north-south bodies, agreement to the British-Irish Council—[Hon. MEMBERS: "What about decommissioning?"] Yes, we understand that decommissioning has yet to be resolved, but I am saying that we have made a lot of progress. For heaven's sake, let us have some good will to make the rest of the progress too.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

May I thank my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for the successful outcome of the negotiations with BMW to ensure investment in the continuing success of the Rover plant at Longbridge in the city of Birmingham? May I specifically welcome the link between the grant and the investment by BMW in ensuring a full range of models and investment in improving skills and competitiveness?

The Prime Minister

The BMW group's decision is a massive vote of confidence in the UK car industry and in the future of Rover. It will result in a further £1 billion investment in Longbridge. Not only will that secure the long-term future of Longbridge and more than 8,800 jobs, but it will result in the creation of a new plant capable of competing with the best in the world. That is great news for Longbridge, for the west midlands and for the country as a whole.

Q3. Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

When the Prime Minister meets his obligation in his manifesto, as he said he would, to hold a referendum on Lord Jenkins's proposals on proportional representation, how will he vote—yes or no?

The Prime Minister

I thought that I dealt with this question extremely well last week when I said that, on the Jenkins committee report, we have not ruled out the option of a referendum before the election, but we have made it clear that, as the Jenkins recommendations could not be introduced at the next election, there is a case for leaving it until afterwards. I will obviously listen to the debate.

Q4. Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

Has my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had time to notice, among all his other pressing engagements, that it has been a less than glorious summer for British sport? Are we not paying a terrible price for losing 5,000 school playing fields under the previous Government and for losing 75 per cent. of sporting fixtures between schools under the previous Government? Is it not time that we stopped being the gallant losers of world sport and started investing in success, and is that not what the Government's proposals this week are designed to achieve?

The Prime Minister

Yes, this is an extra £60 million to set up 600 school sportspeople to go round and ensure that we build up sports. We are also introducing legislation to protect school playing fields, because under the Conservatives 40 a month were being sold off. The Conservatives failed sport in this country; and under the new Labour Government we are making a fresh and new start.

Q5. Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

The House of Lords yesterday amended the House of Lords Bill to give some statutory backbone to the Government's promise to reduce the Prime Minister's powers of patronage over the future appointment of life peers. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to welcome that amendment, and indicate whether the Government will accept it? If not, why on earth not?

The Prime Minister

We introduced the Appointments Commission. For the first time, there will be an objective process of appointment. We are making two great changes. The first is to introduce objectivity for the first time, by means of the Appointments Commission. That will happen in time for the new year honours list for the millennium. The second change is that we are getting rid of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords, who support the Conservative party alone. Both reforms are well worth having.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that earlier today there was a very serious rail crash on the west coast main line. I am sure too that he will support me in wishing all those who have been injured a full and speedy recovery and in thanking the emergency services for their prompt and brave action. Is he able to give the House an update about the number of casualties, when the line is likely to reopen, and whether there will be a full and independent inquiry into the causes of the accident? Does he agree that it is wrong for people to speculate on those causes until we have more information?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that the whole House will join in offering sympathy to the injured and to their families. I know no more than is already publicly available—that more than 30 people were taken to hospital, of whom four have been detained. As for an inquiry, I can tell my hon. Friend that a rail accident inspector is at the scene to investigate the cause of the accident. Any further inquiries should wait until we have his report.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

The whole House does, indeed, join with the Prime Minister in sending sympathy to all involved in that crash.

Last month, the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the CBI that the Government are committed in principle to economic and monetary union and have committed our country … to make a decision early in the next parliament. Does that remain the Government's policy, or will the Prime Minister listen to the debate on that one as well?

The Prime Minister

Yes, it does remain the Government's policy—absolutely.

Mr. Hague

So, the Government's policy has not changed—the Prime Minister's spin doctors will be disappointed. Given that the right hon. Gentleman is committed to joining the euro, and that most people clearly disagree with him, what are his campaign plans to persuade them?

The Prime Minister

I shall carry on arguing for our point of view, which is better than the ridiculous position in which the right hon. Gentleman has put himself. After all, it was Lord Gilmour who said—[Laughter.] Even he is now derided. It was Lord Gilmour who said, in reference to the right hon. Gentleman, that it is the hallmark of weak and unpopular leaders … to be eager to put their small feet down, usually in the wrong place. I have made our position clear. We do not agree with joining the euro irrespective of the economic conditions, and we do not agree with ruling it out irrespective of the economic conditions. We believe in testing it and keeping the option open, by reference to the economic conditions that we have laid down. That is a clear position.

Now can the right hon. Gentleman answer us this? Is it 10 years? [HON. MEMBERS: "You answer the questions."] I know that I answer the questions, but the right hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to do so now. Is the euro still ruled out for 10 years, or for ever?

Mr. Hague

The Prime Minister knows what our policy is. Only the Prime Minister can think that the one thing in the world that he is committed to in principle he is not committed to in practice. The truth is that he is 100 per cent. committed to abolishing the pound, and 0 per cent. willing to justify it. He is 100 per cent.-proof new Labour, 100 per cent. arrogance on this subject, and 0 per cent. courage. Does he not now face a choice with regard to the euro? That choice is between admitting that he was wrong in committing this country to abolishing the pound, and having the guts to argue that case against the clear policy of the Conservative party, which is to keep the pound at the next election. That is the policy that the country supports.

The Prime Minister

We have heard it now. The right hon. Gentleman is the man who will fight to save the pound at the next election, but at the election after that, he will give it away. What a ridiculous policy. He accuses me of lacking clarity, but he has appointed as Tory spokesman the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) who, when asked whether the Conservative party would change its policy, said: Whether our party changes its policy will depend on what the right policy is."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 17 June 1999; c. 659.] The right hon. Gentleman has turned the Conservatives into a monomaniac, single issue party. We did some research before Prime Minister's Questions today, and we found that he has asked me more than 50 questions on Europe. How many has he asked on education? None. How many questions has he asked on crime? Two. He has sold his political soul to the extreme right wing of the Conservative party, and at the next election, the Conservatives will be rejected again.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to glance through Hansard this week? If he has, he will have noticed that, on successive days, spokesmen from the Conservative party have reiterated the Opposition's intention to abolish the national minimum wage and the working families tax credit. What effect would that have on the Labour Government's commitment to abolish child poverty?

The Prime Minister

Of course, the Conservatives are opposed to the minimum wage, opposed to the working families tax credit, opposed to the rise in child benefit and opposed to the new deal—all policies that create greater fairness and help for families. One reason why the Conservatives are so obsessed with Europe is that they wish to conceal the fact that, on every other major policy issue, they are moving further and further and further to the right. When there is not even a place in the Conservative party for people such as Ian Gilmour, a decent one-nation Tory whom Conservative Members deride, we can see just how extreme they are.

Q6. Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Will the Prime Minister join me in praising retired workers from the former National Bus Company for their perseverance over the past few years in seeking to regain money looted from their pension fund by the Conservatives at the time of privatisation? For the first time as Prime Minister, will he also praise a trade union—the Transport and General Workers Union—for its campaign to secure the return of the money? In Opposition, Labour said—and the pledge was also given by the Deputy Prime Minister at last year's party conference—that the money would be returned in full. Why, then, did the Government seek to give back only £100 million when the real sum is £360 million.

The Prime Minister

I am delighted to pay tribute to the Transport and General Workers Union—of which I am a member. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That is as radical as it gets.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the pensioners from the National Bus Company should get a fair deal. We are committed to achieving that, and to ensuring that they receive full payment. That has been our commitment throughout, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman might congratulate the Labour Government on delivering on that commitment.

Liz Blackman (Erewash)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the high level of cynicism expressed by teachers in my constituency when we heralded the onset of the literacy hour? Is he surprised to learn, nine months down the road, that cynicism has turned into delight at the high quality of training received by teachers, the quality of resources and the tangible progress made by their charges?

The Prime Minister

In respect of literacy and numeracy, when we came into office, 40 per cent. to 50 per cent. of 11-year-olds were not up to the requisite standard, so that when they left primary school, they went to secondary school without a basic grounding in literacy and numeracy. As a result of the changes that we have introduced, we are making huge progress on getting those numbers down, and on improving literacy and numeracy. My hon. Friend may be aware that, in a recent poll, more than 90 per cent. of those engaged in literacy and numeracy studies welcomed those studies. That, in addition to the extra investment in our schools—especially in school buildings, in computer technology and in the reduction of class sizes in our primary schools—gives us a very solid record of which to be proud.

Q7. Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Given that the Prime Minister is the only motorist allowed to use the M4 express bus lane, what advice would he give to those considering the future of that pilot scheme?

The Prime Minister

Why do we not wait to see what evidence the project actually produces—which I should have thought was the right course? That project was asked for by the Highways Agency; it will be tested over a period of months. Why do we not wait to see what it comes up with, in terms both of reduced congestion and of better services for passengers?

The hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt whatever that the Labour Government have had to clean up the backlog of road repairs that we inherited. Indeed, the transport spokesman of the Tory party accused us of taxing the motorist, but of not putting the money raised from those taxes into roads. We received the figures today; we are putting in £3 billion more than the previous Conservative Government put in.

Q8. Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Mencap on its report "Living in Fear", published on Monday? The report identifies the harassment and bullying faced by many people with learning disabilities. Does that not illustrate the importance of the Government's disability awareness campaign? That campaign should be warmly welcomed throughout the country. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the Government are committed to ensuring that the Disability Rights Commission has all the practical support necessary to ensure that all discrimination against disabled people is tackled promptly?

The Prime Minister

The Disability Rights Commission Bill comes back to the House next week. We congratulate Mencap on its report, which we welcome. The report draws attention to the problem of the bullying and abusing of people with learning difficulties. My hon. Friend will know of the additional resources that we are allocating to the new deal for disabled people—almost £200 million. We believe that the first-ever Disability Rights Commission will make a big difference to the rights of disabled people in this country.

Q9. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Will the Prime Minister explain to the House why 500 people in this country are dying unnecessarily every year because of long waits for bypass surgery? Furthermore, will he explain why, according to Ben Bridgewater, a consultant heart surgeon at Wythenshawe hospital, it is worse now than it was a year ago?

The Prime Minister

Actually, waiting lists are down substantially on what they were a year ago. [HON. MEMBERS: "Waiting times?"] Waiting times are down as well. [HON. MEMBERS: "They are up."] No, that is wrong; waiting times are down and waiting lists are down but, yes, people are still waiting for treatment. The idea that the problems of people waiting in the health service were created by the Labour Government—[Interruption.]. We had 20 years of Conservative Government that undermined the health service. Today, the figures show that 2,000 more doctors have been recruited to the health service, and that there are thousands more nurses. There is the biggest hospital programme that we have ever had and the largest ever investment in the health service. Yes, it will take time, but do not let us ever take lessons from the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Conservatives, who never believed in setting up the health service, never supported it and would undermine it if they ever got the chance again.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

Yesterday, Warwick university received the go-ahead from the Government for a new medical school, with an extra 113 places for trainee doctors. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is needed for the NHS in Coventry and Warwickshire, and elsewhere throughout the country, is not the advocacy of more private insurance, but more of such public investment?

The Prime Minister

Of course. The extra money going into the health service is providing more nurses and doctors, but it takes many years to train a doctor—and it takes three years to train a nurse. However, we are recruiting those extra people and putting the investment in. At the next election, the choice will be very clear—between a Labour Government who are beginning the process of rebuilding a national health service of which this country can be proud, and a Conservative party that is now committed to privatising large parts of the health service and forcing people to take out private health care because the Conservatives will not put investment into the health service. That is another example of the Tory lurch to the right.

Q10. Jackie Ballard (Taunton)


Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Madam Speaker

Order. Jackie Ballard.

Jackie Ballard

I should like to ask the Prime Minister about leadership. Does he agree with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that the people of this country are not yet ready to accept the single European currency? If he does, when will he take a lead on the issue—or is his concept of leadership following the focus groups?

The Prime Minister

Oh, I am really wounded by that; I really am.

I believe in setting out a sensible position on the single currency, which is to say that we judge it according to the economic circumstances. As I said recently—and as I have said for a long time—the two absurd positions on the euro are, first, to say either that one rules it out for ever or, even more ridiculously, that one rules it out at the next election but will welcome it at the election after that. Alternatively, there is the position that the hon. Lady has just espoused: joining the single currency now, irrespective of the economic conditions.

Jackie Ballard


The Prime Minister

If that is not the hon. Lady's position, I suspect that she is in the same position as us. We judge the matter according to the economic test: is the single currency good for British jobs, British investment and British industry? If the hon. Lady agrees with that—and she is nodding her head—she should support my leadership.