HC Deb 13 December 2000 vol 359 cc630-40
Ql. [141781] Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 13 December.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is with President Clinton in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the House will join me in hoping that the visit is successful and in welcoming the President, once again, to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Green

The Deputy Prime Minister will be concerned about newspaper reports quoting nurses at the William Harvey hospital in my constituency who say that staff shortages are putting patients' lives at risk today. I would not expect the right hon. Gentleman to know about or to comment on local services, but nationally, can he tell the House what percentage of the new nurses recruited in the past 12 months are now working full time?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I do not think that we should take any lectures on this. We have set a target of 20,000 nurses, and 16,000 more nurses are now working in our health service. That is the answer for those who believe in the NHS. Our priority for the health service is 16,000 more nurses and 5,000 more doctors.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's personal commitment to the coalfield areas and ask him to turn his attention to the problems of the textile and clothing industry in those areas. In particular, will he look at the 2,500 job losses in the east midlands, including Amber Valley, which will result from the sell-off of the clothing division of Coats Viyella and see what urgent action can be taken to find new jobs for those tragically facing redundancy just before Christmas?

The Deputy Prime Minister

This is a matter of considerable concern. As my hon. Friend knows, the taskforce is looking at the problem that she has mentioned. I should point out that the stability in our economy should be welcomed by the textile industry and any industries involved in investment. I hope that the taskforce will be able to offer some encouragement and help for that problem.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The Government have set five economic tests for joining the euro. What are they?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I did not hear exactly what the hon. Lady said—[Interruption.] She spoke quickly. If she asked about the tests for joining the euro, I can tell her that we have made that absolutely clear. There will be an economic test on the convertibility of European currencies and there will be a test on the effect the euro will have on our investment and our economy. Those are the conditions that we have laid down and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will address the matter soon after we win the next election.

Mrs. Browning

I will speak more slowly because we are looking for a substantive answer from the Deputy Prime Minister. He has a folder in his hand and, if he does not know the answer by heart, can he now answer questions that other Ministers have resisted? The Government say that the five economic tests are measurable and independent. Can he report progress on each of them to the House? Are we achieving convergence with the economies of the EU on each of the tests?

The Deputy Prime Minister

We have always made our view clear to the House—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear. When he made some assessments a few months ago, he did not feel that we could meet the conditions. He said that he would report to the House after the next election and give an assessment of the tests, which include financial services and employment.

Mrs. Browning

Is it not clear from the Deputy Prime Minister's answer that not only are the Government not monitoring the convergence criteria, five of which were set by the Chancellor, but they have failed to produce reports that put that information before the House? The Deputy Prime Minister has failed again today to answer that question. Is it not the reality that there are not five economic tests but one political test—whether the Government can get away with it? Will they not do anything to scrap the pound, whether it means setting meaningless tests, fiddling a referendum, or a conspiracy of silence at the next general election?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I remind the hon. Lady that those tests will again be measured and considered by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, and will be brought to the House. I am bound to say that her history on these European issues has not been helpful either to her own side or to the European argument.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Shrewsbury yesterday to see for himself the severe flooding that has hit the town. In total this year, businesses and homes have been flooded out six times. I urge him to cut through the red tape and to help Shrewsbury to find the investment that is needed for a new flood defence scheme.

The Deputy Prime Minister

The whole House will identify with the concerns of people who have suffered bad experiences from floods during the past few months or so. I know that Members on both sides of the House have visited those areas and offered sympathy on behalf of all of us. In reality, what we have to do is much more about investment in flooding. There has been increased investment in flooding both by the previous Administration and by this Government. Indeed, the £51 million that I announced is designed to bring forward some of those flood schemes.

With regard to people who are suffering at present from the floods, we have set up bodies in those areas to see how we can further help them. There will be a statement by the Environment Agency on the consequences of the floods. The House will then be able to debate the lessons and to see exactly what we can do about them.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister not a test question, but a question to which millions of travellers would like the answer? By what date does he expect the frequency, punctuality and timetable that existed before the Hatfield crash to be in operation again on our rail system?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Everyone is concerned about that matter. Indeed, in my discussions with Railtrack I have made it clear that we want the timetable to be back as quickly as possible, but I recognise the massive amount of work involved in checking all the lines; it is a considerable job. A tremendous amount of re-railing is needed—300-odd miles, with about 600 cross-over points—which creates real problems.

Our concern was to ensure that the Strategic Rail Authority and all those who are involved—the train companies and Railtrack—got a common programme. I asked for a national recovery programme some weeks ago. Railtrack did not meet the timetable the first time. The new management has now produced the rail recovery programme.

I have made it clear to those in management that I expect the rail recovery programme to set dates, times and sustainable timetables. Under those circumstances, I give them until January, as does the Prime Minister, to see how far they go in delivering—but let me be clear. The problem is so great—there has been massive disinvestment over decades—that they have said in their recovery programme it will possibly be Easter time before they complete the programme and are back to normal service.

Mr. Beith

Although much of the chaos results from the fragmentation and mess of the Tory privatisation, since we cannot have a date, can we know who is in charge, given that there are almost daily ministerial meetings and summits through which the Government acknowledge that they must take on some responsibility? What is the role of the Strategic Rail Authority in sorting all this out? Is it a responsibility that will stay with the Deputy Prime Minister's Department, or is a consequence of all this that the Department of Transport will be floated off again, and these responsibilities with it? Many people are suffering rail journeys twice as long as they used to experience; the service is extremely unpredictable. What will be done?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman was not listening to my reply. I gave a date. I said that the recovery programme expected that we would be back to normal service by the Easter period—and the timetables; it is all identified in the recovery programme. It will be impossible to get a sustainable timetable if we do not have a recovery period for all the work that has to be done on the track, and it is considerable.

We have asked the Strategic Rail Authority, which is now in being after the House passed the legislation—no thanks to the opposition either of the Liberals or—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] For whatever reason, they delayed the legislation dealing with the railways. The Strategic Rail Authority will produce a strategic plan at the end of January, setting out dates and times. It will make for a more modern railway, but it should be recognised that privatisation was a botched job, to say the least, and we are trying to clear up the mess.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the massive investment and effort that has been put in over the past two years by central and local government and the work force at Vauxhall, Luton to secure the future of that plant? Does he understand the anger of the work force and the local community at the slap in the face, just before the festive season, of the announcement by General Motors of the closure of that car plant? Will he join me in making representations to General Motors at the highest level to ensure that the company takes full responsibility for ensuring the financial future of the families affected, the work force and the local community?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The whole House will agree with my hon. Friend. It is a tragic day for the workers who received that information during the past 24 hours. The House will also agree that it is a great pity that they were not informed earlier. Later today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will make a statement on the matter and hon. Members will be able to question him about the details. As we showed at Longbridge, the Government are prepared to intervene where they can to help in these matters. In response to the situation at Rover, we established a taskforce and a regional development agency, which, I might add, the Opposition would abolish if they were ever elected. Those bodies played a major part in addressing the problems in the midlands. I am sure that, once again, they will have a role to play in my hon. Friend's constituency, but we shall have to wait for the statement from my right hon. Friend.

Q2. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The nation greatly enjoyed the Prime Minister on television last night. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with his right hon. Friend, as was widely reported this morning, that life on the railways now is hell, or does he agree with his noble Friend Lord Macdonald who, echoing Lord Callaghan's famous remarks, said that there is no crisis on the railways? Which of them is right?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman should know from his membership of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs more than most hon. Members do about the incompetence in the industry. My right hon. Friend Lord Macdonald made it clear that there was a crisis in investment and a crisis in management. Anyone who looks at the tape of that interview will find that it is not a proper representation—[Interruption.] The New Statesman is quite famous for changing the character of what was intended or meant in order to make a headline. One can check that, but at the end of the day it is a bit much coming from a member of the party that was in government, established Railtrack and caused the ruddy mess. The crisis in our rail industry came from the privatisation of Railtrack and the rail industry by the previous Administration.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)

The Deputy Prime Minister is aware that the weapon of terror is used not exclusively against sovereign states but sometimes by them. I know that he will be aware of the massacre of 29 Tamils at the Bindunuwewa detention camp in Sri Lanka. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the centre for human rights and development that the massacre was co-ordinated and carried out with the complicity of the local Sri Lankan police? Will he assure my Tamil constituent whose family suffered in this dreadful action that Britain will give no support to terrorism, from whatever source?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Everyone in the House will be concerned at the acts of terrorism carried out by the Tamil groups, and we offer our sympathy to all who have suffered the consequences. I can say on behalf of the Government and the whole House that we condemn any such terrorism.

Q3. Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Given that only five of the 16 Bills in the Queen's Speech apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, what does the Deputy Prime Minister think that voters of England and Wales will feel when they see Scottish Members trooping through the Lobby to vote on matters that relate exclusively to England and Wales and over which he and I have no reciprocal rights in Scotland? Does he agree that, pending a proper constitutional resolution to the problem, all Scottish Members should follow the honourable example of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and take a vow of abstinence, starting with the Hunting Bill on Monday?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The issues surrounding two-tier government concern everyone in the House. They did not seem to concern the previous Administration when it came to Northern Ireland, and in opposition we supported their initiative in that respect. The hon. Gentleman's views are well known, and these controversial matters will continue to be debated in the House.

The view that I have always held is that devolution for Scotland and Wales will lead the way to further decentralisation in the United Kingdom, in the form of regional government. Others no doubt have different views, but we are consulting on the matter. The point is that we believe in decentralisation because we saw the damage brought about by a highly centralised Thatcher Government. A decentralised form of government will bring decisions nearer to the people of this country.

Q4. Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

Ever since the time of Adam, local government has complained about the amount of central Government funding for local services. Will my right hon. Friend, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and representatives of local government sit around a table in the near future and thrash out a system that is understandable and which targets money so that it goes where it is needed?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Matters of local finance have always caused considerable controversy, as the poll tax and other matters have shown. It is a matter of record that the amount given in grant by this Government has risen this year by 6.7 per cent., or £2.8 billion. In the four years since 1997–98, central Government grant to local government has gone up by 13.6 per cent. in real terms. That compares with a cut of 6.9 per cent. in the previous four years. However it is measured, the Government have a very good record when it comes to the resources and priority given to local government. We have secured real-terms increases, not the real-terms reduction that was the record of the previous Administration.

I share my hon. Friend's concern about local government finance, and that is why we have published a Green Paper on the subject. We are now consulting on it, and will return to the House with our conclusions.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Perhaps I can ask the Deputy Prime Minister a question that he might be able to answer. He has agreed with Lord Macdonald and admitted that there is crisis in the railway industry. He protests that he is merely clearing up the mess, but is not it the case, after four years of this Government, that we have a rail system in which 10,000 trains run late, the bill to industry in the past two years has amounted to billions of pounds, this year's Christmas post is in turmoil, and it takes passengers nine hours to get from Nottingham to London?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is a bit of a cheek for the hon. Lady to come here and talk about the railway industry in that way, given that Conservative Front Benchers have disowned the way in which it was privatised. The industry's organisation is wrong—the chief executive of Railtrack has said that it has the worst kind of organisation. The right hon. Lady therefore has a bit of cheek to stand up and criticise what is going on.

The record shows that the Government are trying to get the rail service back on line: 93 per cent. of London commuter services are running, and 78 per cent. of inter-city services and 96 per cent. of other services are running. Punctuality has increased and, although it is not as good as it should be, the improvement must be seen against the background of the problems faced by Railtrack. It is not enough, however, and I have to make sure that the improvements and changes advocated by the Strategic Rail Authority, and implemented and discussed by the rest of the industry, will be sufficient to bring back normal service to Britain's railways.

Mrs. Browning

I wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister could move on to another crisis. Does he agree with the Prime Minister that there will be a crisis in the national health service this winter?

The Deputy Prime Minister

He did not say that, just as Lord Macdonald did not say that there was no crisis in the rail industry. My right hon. Friend said that there are difficulties and that the Government are putting extra resources into the NHS to resolve them. As I understand it, more than 90 per cent. of health trusts have already stated that, because of those extra resources, they are better fitted to deal with problems this winter.

The Opposition are attempting to make the problem sound worse than it is. We have provided more nurses, more doctors, and more resources. We are beginning to turn round a health service that was our creation, but which the Opposition have, in the past, opposed.

Mrs. Browning

If the Deputy Prime Minister will not accept that there is a crisis, will he listen to the words of a doctor? Dr. Stuart Withington, the director of intensive care at the Royal London hospital has said: We are seeing crisis every day in intensive care, cancelled operations, refused emergency admissions, non-clinical transfers to other units. It is just a battle zone every day. The Government have been in power for four years, and there is a crisis in transport, a crisis in health and a crisis in the police; and the Department for Education and Employment is realising that there will be a crisis in teacher recruitment very shortly.

The Government were elected saying that things could only get better, yet they have plunged our public services into crisis. Has not this just been a long, sorry story of all spin and no delivery?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Either the hon. Lady is ignorant of the facts, which clearly shows from her question, or perhaps this is a case of bad judgment on her part. When one looks at her history and past statements, one sees that she worked as a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the previous Government during the BSE crisis, and was named in the Phillips report and got the judgment wrong. She said that the minimum wage was the kiss of death to employment, but the number of jobs has gone up in her constituency and 1 million more people are back in work. The hon. Lady was also the campaign manager for the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). Her judgment is wrong, not the facts.

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

In the spirit of Christmas, will my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister make my constituents in Rugby even happier by announcing that he will provide the extra money for the western relief road that the Tories failed to deliver in 18 years?

The Deputy Prime Minister

In the spirit of Christmas, I can announce that tomorrow £8.8 billion will be made available for local transport plans, out of the £180 billion investment planned for the next 10 years—far beyond any amount given by the previous Government. The local transport plans will cover light rail systems, road systems and the bus and rail industries. My hon. Friend must wait until tomorrow for the spirit of Christmas, but I do not think that he will be disappointed.

Q5. Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that the National Rail Enquiry Bureau has been giving false information about the running of trains on the west coast main line between Stockport and London for the past two weeks? Is he aware that the bureau refused to put that information right until it had been notified by the Association of Train Operating Companies, even though it knew that the information was wrong? Does he share the anger of my constituents not only that it takes four hours to get to London, but that it takes two weeks to get information to the National Rail Enquiry Bureau?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. Since the whole terrible business started after the Hatfield tragedy, we have constantly sought information from Railtrack on these matters. Looking carefully at the problems, one realises that, if one wants a reliable timetable, it is crucial to have a national recovery programme. The difficulty facing some of the train companies was that, when they set their timetables, they found that further examination of the track brought more train restrictions. It is impossible to maintain a sustainable timetable on those grounds.

Last week, we were given the national recovery programme. A sustainable programme is now planned: one from before Christmas up to the new year, and then, it is hoped, from the new year to the spring period, when the national recovery work will be completed and there will be a proper timetable. I am pushing very hard, as is Lord Macdonald, to make sure that a better timetable with better information is produced. But we must keep our eye on the ball and make sure that the recovery programme is completed.

As I have said before, if Railtrack is unable to deliver its national recovery programme, that will be a comment on the abilities of the new management. I support them; I want recovery—it is their promise and it is for them to deliver.

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the development of the Allerton bus and rail interchange in my south Liverpool constituency will be an important part of the on-going regeneration of the area? Tomorrow morning, when he hands out his Christmas presents as he makes his announcement about transport investment, will he consider the claims of my south Liverpool constituency and the redevelopment of the Allerton bus and rail interchange?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I do not want to appear to be too much like Santa Claus—or I should be inviting everyone to ask what will be in tomorrow's statement. However, the statement is a good one; it is about improving transport. It does of course consider Merseyside—as it does every region in the country; hon. Members can wait for that until tomorrow.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. John Butterfill—not here.

Hon. Members


Q7. Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister realise that the main line to the south-west is completely out of action yet again? London is in effect cut off from the south-west. Does he accept that his comments about the lack of investment in the rail infrastructure over many years and the failure to keep the Victorian engineering works throughout the country up to date—especially in the south-west—show that there has been a complete failure under successive Governments? Does he regret the fact that his party, in opposition, failed to stop the sell-off of Railtrack and failed to make sure that we could keep Railtrack under public control by simply ensuring that, if a Labour Government were elected, they would bring the company back into public control with a bond system?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The reality was that public sector industry—especially British Rail—had been denied resources for a number of decades. I made that point as constantly when I was in opposition as I do in government. Let me be clear that considerable changes were required in the long-term financing of rail. At least I was able to make a happy agreement with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to raise that £180 billion; what that has to do is guarantee long-term investment. The two or three-year Treasury rule was no good for our public sector capital investment.

Some parts of the main line to the south-west are still single line running; that is wholly unacceptable for a main line system. That is a reflection of the inadequate money—inadequate capital. I have come up with a formula based on the business that I inherited—Railtrack, a privatised railway concern. That will mean that long-term investment is found and will improve the quality of our railway.

I realise that the Transport Sub-Committee has made some comments about Railtrack today. We shall take them into account. However, we have to get on with the job; one part of that is ensuring that we get the resources—we have done that.

Q10. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Did my right hon. Friend watch the BBC "Sports Review of the Year" on Sunday, which featured my constituents Jason Queally and Jeanette Brakewell—both of whom were Olympic medallists? Was my right hon. Friend as disappointed as I was that Tanni Grey-Thompson, also an Olympic medallist, was unable to collect her award with the other winners because nobody had thought to provide a ramp for her wheelchair? Is that not a lesson to us all that we must press ahead at full speed with the implementation of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to put a stop to such insulting treatment of one section of society?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The whole House will be concerned that people were unable to receive their awards for that reason. Our Disability Rights Commission exists to correct it. In several policy matters—I know about those in transport—we are meeting requirements under the legislation to ensure that access is a right and is available to everyone. The House will want to express its sorrow that those people could not accept their awards and I hope that, at some point in the future, arrangements will be made so that they can enjoy them.

Q8. Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

Many of my constituents in Torridge and West Devon, like many people in the country, are having their lives devastated by repeated flooding of their homes and businesses. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the formula for apportioning the flood defence budget seriously disadvantages rural areas? Weight is given to housing density twice over; once is fair but twice is unfair. Will the Deputy Prime Minister undertake to review the formula immediately to ensure that a fair proportion of the flood defence funding goes to our rural towns and villages?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman makes a sound point, which was also made in our discussions about what we could do about the floods a few weeks ago. It is connected with the arguments and judgments made by the Treasury and others about cost benefit, which I felt was inadequate because it did not take into account how often certain people are affected by flooding. This is not just about how many houses are involved but about how frequent flooding is, and I do not think that the present cost benefit analysis allows for that. I have ordered an inquiry, and the Environment Agency and others will make a report, so I hope that we will be able to deal with the problem.