HC Deb 17 January 2001 vol 361 cc340-6
Q7. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating schools in the London borough of Merton, one of the five most improved boroughs in the country in terms of school standards? Will he congratulate in particular the children and staff of Malmesbury primary school, who have achieved an improvement of 140 per cent. in the past five years? Does he agree, however, that there is still much to be done, especially in high schools? Will he give the House a commitment that a future Labour Government will concentrate on improving standards in such schools?

The Prime Minister

Funding has increased by some £450 per pupil over the past few years. In the last three years of Conservative Government, it fell by about £60.

We are now committed to providing, over the next few years, the largest investment that the country has ever seen. We know from the commitments given by the shadow Chancellor that the Conservative party is intent on cutting that investment in Britain's schools, and also on getting rid of the new deal for investment in our schools. There will be a simple choice before the people: investment under this Government, or cuts under that party.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

When the Foreign Office Minister responsible for Government policy on missile proliferation says that he is opposed to the development of a ballistic missile defence system, is he speaking for the Government?

The Prime Minister

We have not said that we are opposed; what we have said—[Interruption.] No. We have said that until a proper proposal is before us, we will not make a detailed comment on it. That is entirely sensible, which is why the right hon. Gentleman's intervention last week was so misjudged.

Mr. Hague

The Minister responsible is the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who said: I don't like the idea of this programme, limited or unlimited. The programme to which he referred was the ballistic missile defence system.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—I do not know whether the Prime Minister remembers CND, but it certainly remembers him—said: we are currently campaigning against American plans to set up a missile defence system. The Minister is a fully paid-up member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Will the Prime Minister make it clear that, despite being responsible for this area of policy, the Minister is not speaking for the Government?

The Prime Minister

I have made the Government's position absolutely clear is. When there is a proposal from the United States for national missile defence, we will make our declaration on that proposal. We have not yet received a proposal. It is an extremely sensitive issue, for reasons that are entirely obvious—which is why the right hon. Gentleman's blundering about does no good either to us or to our relationship with the United States.

Mr. Hague

Is it clear, then, that if the Minister says that the Government are not in favour of the idea, he is not speaking for the Government?

The Prime Minister

I have already said that we have not actually received a proposal on national missile defence. I personally said earlier, in exchanges not with the right hon. Gentleman but with others, that we entirely understand America's reasons for wishing to develop the system; but until there is a proposal, it would be rather foolish to say how we react to that proposal. All that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to do—joined by others on the Opposition Front Bench—is create mischief between ourselves and the United States. That is foolish and wrong, but fortunately it will get him nowhere.

Mr. Hague

For all that wriggling, it is still not clear whether the Minister speaks for the Government in the world, or for CND within the Government. The Prime Minister has not been able to clear that up. Will he accept that if he makes the country's position clear now, we shall be able to reassure our ally, shape the system that will eventually be created, and take a lead in NATO?

It is not just a case of waiting to accede to requests; it is a case of making a positive statement of intent. Should not the Government now stop dithering and use this opportunity to make a clear statement that Britain will support the new Administration in the United States?

The Prime Minister

In other words, before we receive the request, we should respond to it. That is the right hon. Gentleman's latest foreign policy announcement. It is so ridiculous. It would be a good idea if he paid some attention to the words of President-elect Bush just a few days ago on 8 January. He said that it was an issue that had to be handled with very great care and he was listening to what people were saying. That is an intelligent response from our ally, the United States of America. That is precisely what we will do. When there is a detailed request, we will make our response to it. That is the intelligent way to proceed. An unintelligent and foolish way to proceed is to say that, whatever request may be made to us, we will accede to it before it is even made.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I call David Lammy.

Mr. David Lammy (Tottenham)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my sorrow and would wish to send his condolences to the parents of Anna Climbie. May I seek his assurance that he will scrutinise and implement the recommendations of Lord Laming's inquiry in due course?

The Prime Minister

I think that the whole House knows that it was a needless and dreadful tragedy in wholly unimaginable circumstances. This poor little girl was murdered by people who were supposed to be caring for her, but the fact is that she was let down by the system as well. The statutory inquiry that we have announced under the chairmanship of Lord Laming will get to the bottom of what went wrong. It will make a full report to us, which we will scrutinise very carefully. I am sure that we will act on the recommendations that the inquiry makes to us. It is a terrible case. Again, I am afraid, we have to try to learn the lessons of how the system let down that poor innocent and helpless child.

Q8. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

Is the Prime Minister aware that Hillingdon community health council and Harrow CHC have both formally objected to the proposed closure of the world famous Harefield hospital? Is that example of independent thinking why he wants to abolish CHCs?

The Prime Minister

No, it is not. It is correct that the health authority made some proposals on the future of Harefield hospital at the end of last year. Those proposals may be subject to referral to Ministers for a decision. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that any final decision will be made in the interests of the local community.

Q9. Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

I welcome the Government's commitment to neighbourhood renewal. My local authority is in discussions with a private developer that will lever in some £400 million of development on an integrated transport system. However, that depends on a link road to the M6, which borders the Pemberton area in my constituency, the 172nd most deprived area in the country. Will he do all he can to ensure that the Government office for the north-west, the Highways Agency and other Departments and agencies work with the local authority and the private developer to lever in the money and ensure that the scheme is an important part of redeveloping the neighbourhood and former coalfield community?

The Prime Minister

I can give my hon. Friend that undertaking. We will work with the Highways Agency, the north-west regional office and others to do our very best to get that private investment. It is all part of a series of proposals that will regenerate our inner cities. Again, it is an example of money that will be invested in some of the most deprived communities in the country. Again, it is an example of investment that we are putting in that would be taken out by the Conservative party.

Q10. Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

People laughed when I first raised the potential devastation that would result from tai impact between an asteroid and the earth. There is no middle way with asteroids. In the light of that and of the Government's near-earth object task force report, which confirmed every claim that I had made about the dangers and made 14 recommendations for action, will the Prime Minister consider raising the matter, with the prospect for international co-operation, at the next G8 summit?

The Prime Minister

The report of the task force on near-earth objects and asteroids was published last September, and the Government and considering it. We shall announce our response to it shortly. The Department of Trade and Industry has established a small implementation team to oversee the preparation of that response, which I am sure will be eagerly awaited on both sides of the House.

Q11. Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) on miners' compensation? I heard what my right hon. Friend said about the legal side of the matter, and we know that the process is rather cumbersome and long. Unfortunately, however, we have many old miners who were assessed at least two years ago but are dying before they see a penny of compensation. Will he intervene and see if we can create a fast-track process to get that money to those old miners and their widows?

The Prime Minister

The frustration that my hon. Friend expresses is absolutely right, and I share it. Indeed, some people in my own constituency are in exactly the same position. That is why, from last September, we introduced, as far as we were able, a fast-track scheme. The problem is that it is impossible—I assure him that I have looked into it myself on many occasions—entirely to short-circuit the point that I made earlier, which is that there has to be an individual assessment in each individual claim. There are literally more than 130,000 claims simply for respiratory illness. Some of those claims will be entirely valid, but some may not be. As we are talking about paying out very large sums of taxpayers' money, it is essential that we look into the matter in detail.

I know how frustrating the process is, and we are trying to speed it up as much as possible, but there is a limit legally to what we can do. I hope that my hon. Friend is able to explain that to his constituents. I understand entirely his frustration, and I share it.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

If the Prime Minister is in favour of completing the various tasks that he set himself for this Parliament, why is he not in favour of fixed-term Parliaments?

The Prime Minister

Because I share the view of many of those who have occupied this position before me that that is not the right thing.

Q12. Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to plans for a new community hospital on the site of the Nelson hospital in my constituency, which will provide a focus for primary and secondary care and for the integration of health and social services? Such innovative projects are possible only because of the money that the Labour Government are putting into the health service. Would not hopes for the realisation of such important projects be dashed if the Conservatives were ever again to take power?

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

You will be out.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right in the sense both that we are putting extra investment into the health service and that Conservative Members have refused to commit themselves to matching our additional funding for social services, which are a vital part of achieving improvements in the national health service. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) keeps shouting across to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Casale) that he will be out at the next general election, but we will just see. [Interruption.]

Let us just see. When people are given the choice, let us see whether they want increased stability under Labour, or boom and bust under the Conservatives; jobs under Labour, or unemployment under them; investment in our public services, or cuts under them. I am still waiting for an answer to my question to them on the economy.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Prime Minister clarify why he misled the audience on "Question Time" last year, when he told them that he had voted for the Foster Bill, which he had not, and that it had been lost in the House of Lords, which it had not? In view of his lamentable attendance record in the House, will he tell us how he will vote today, and why?

The Prime Minister

I have made it quite clear, and my position has not changed. I am opposed to fox hunting for the reasons that I have given on many occasions. As for what I said on "Question Time", we shall wait and see exactly what happens in the other place. However, I think that it is absolutely certain that the will of this place will be made very clear.

Q15. Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Does the Prime Minister agree that in this, the Year of the Volunteer, the Government should follow the excellent example of the Scottish Parliament and remove the £10 fee that volunteers for voluntary youth organisations must pay?

The Prime Minister

I suppose that that is another spending commitment on behalf of the Liberal Democrats. As a matter of fact, the Government are doing a lot for volunteering, as the hon. Gentleman knows. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a package of measures on volunteering last week that was widely welcomed. We want to encourage people to volunteer, but Liberal Democrat Members must recognise that there comes a point when there is a limit to how much taxpayers' money one can spend. In particular, instead of telling us how much more public money they are going to spend, they must tell us how they are going to fund that public money.

Q16. Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)

The editor of the Newham Recorder, Mr. Tom Duncan, is much respected in the east end of London. In this morning's edition of the newspaper, he welcomed the launch earlier this week of the Government's neighbourhood renewal project. However, he criticised the Conservative party for its consistent failure to give leadership since the east end began to be regenerated. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the resources allocated to the project will be adequate to see the job finished this time?

The Prime Minister

The job will, of course, take a very long time indeed, but the resources will be put into it. Those resources are going into inner cities up and down the country for the simple reason that this Government and this political party believe in prosperity being spread to every part of our country. We also believe that no one should be shut out and excluded from our society. [Interruption.] Conservative Members can shout as much as they like, but they wrote off our country's inner cities, just as they wrote off the mining communities. This Government are bringing prosperity to those areas, so that every one of our citizens gets the chance to succeed.