HC Deb 21 November 2001 vol 375 cc308-18
Ql. [14176] Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 November.

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 have further meetings later today.

Mr. Paice

I wonder whether the Prime Minister knows of the case of a single mother in my constituency who needed a hysterectomy—[Interruption.] I do not know what Labour Members find so funny about a lady needing a hysterectomy. She had to move her young children from a village school to London schools while she was in hospital, but the operation was cancelled only a day before it was due to take place. Does the Prime Minister have any idea of the distress and trauma that she and her children suffered? That is only one out of 1,000 operations that are cancelled each week under his national health service.

The Prime Minister

The NHS performs 5.5 million operations every year, but of course I understand the immense pain and suffering caused to anyone whose operation is cancelled. For precisely that reason, we are introducing measures to provide that if an operation is cancelled for non-clinical reasons—for example, because there are not enough surgeons or beds—it will be performed within a specified period elsewhere. That is a change from the previous Government's policy.

Q2. Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)

In a week when the Government's target of half of all pupils achieving five A to C grade GCSEs has been met a year early, will my right hon. Friend congratulate Aldercar community school in my constituency and its staff and pupils? The percentage of pupils who achieve such grades there has increased by 36 points in the past four years. That makes it one of the schools that has improved most in the country. Will he encourage other schools to follow its example to try to persuade every pupil, even their large numbers of statemented pupils, to enter for qualifications? Even in such difficult days abroad, does he agree that there is some good news at home?

The Prime Minister

It is important that the target of 50 per cent. of pupils achieving five good GCSEs has been met. I believe that Tony Cooper, the head teacher at the school that my hon. Friend mentioned, was secondary head of the year in 2000. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"] It is amazing how well informed I can be. He is one of a growing number of head teachers throughout the country whose results have improved significantly. Results in some of the new specialist schools have improved by 15 per cent. or 20 per cent. Taken with the primary school results, that represents a significant step change, which we must maintain and develop further.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

One of great successes in the war against terrorism has been this country's role in holding together the coalition with the United States. Will the Prime Minister reaffirm that Britain and the United States remain as one in pursuing our objectives, namely, the removal of the Taliban, bringing bin Laden and al-Qaeda to justice and delivering humanitarian aid? Will he confirm that there is full agreement on how to pursue those objectives?

The Prime Minister

Yes, I am happy to confirm that. There is complete agreement on the military objectives of removing the Taliban regime, which I am pleased to say is largely now achieved, and making sure that we pursue and hunt down the terrorist network of al-Qaeda, on which we have made considerable progress. There is complete agreement on making sure that we get the humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, which is absolutely vital; and on the political and diplomatic front, because there will be a meeting next Monday of all the various ethnic groupings in Afghanistan. That is a huge step forward. People would not have thought it remotely possible a short while ago. I also commend the attitude of the Northern Alliance in that regard. Many people feared that it would not join such a broad-based grouping, but clearly it is doing so.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Families of troops up and down the country are obviously concerned about husbands and wives who may be on deployment. Will the Prime Minister, making it clear that some are already on deployment and possibly in action, confirm that the number of troops on stand-by remains the same as last week, that no decision has yet been taken on whether or when they will deploy and that any such decision will also be made in full consultation with the United States?

The Prime Minister

Of course it will be made in full consultation with the United States. The troops were put on 48-hour stand-by for a purpose. Perhaps it is just as well that I say this, because it may be the reason for some of those incorrect stories arising. The situation in Afghanistan is obviously developing day by day. Two weeks ago, people would have been surprised at where we are today. In fact, they would have been astounded at the progress that has been made. A lot of people did not believe that the military strategy would succeed as fast as it did. They then worried that the Northern Alliance, having secured its victory, may, for example, run amok in Kabul or commit atrocities in different parts of the country. That has not happened.

We have to keep the troops on stand-by to use as and when appropriate, but a degree of flexibility, far from being a hinderance, is the only sensible position to take. Both we and the United States—indeed, other coalition partners—have troops on stand-by. How and when and where we deploy them is a matter we can decide day by day. We should retain the flexibility to do so as we wish.

Q3. Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

Will the Prime Minister join me in recognising the considerable efforts being made by airline staff and those in associated industries to deal with the aftermath of 11 September? Does he recognise that much needs to happen to alleviate the pain of that industry? Will he give us assurances that all is being done to assist? Will he take the time to visit those hard-working staff at Gatwick, who would be pleased to see him?

The Prime Minister

I appreciate the concerns of my hon. Friend's constituents at this time. Our airline and aviation industry, in common with industries round the world in that sector, has obviously experienced difficult times. We believe, however, that the European Commission is right to say that there should be no general bail-out of companies and it is important that all countries stick to those rules.

The Commission has also set out guidelines that allow us to compensate for the four days after 11 September. We are considering how we can help companies within those guidelines, but it is important to keep to them. Of course, we shall work with my hon. Friend, her constituents and the companies concerned to do all that we can to help them through this time, recognising that the problem obviously affects aviation and airline industries everywhere in the world.

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

When there are so many acute shortages in so many specialist staff areas of the health service, does the Prime Minister not think it ridiculous that many doctors who have served the health service with distinction for years, if not decades, are unable to apply for specialist consultant posts because they qualified in a non-European Union country?

The Prime Minister

There is an issue here, and, as a result of examining it over time, the Government are already considering changing the rules that allow registrars then to train for a further period that allows them to become consultants. It arises because of the way that the rules have been applied rather than racism in the national health service, as has been suggested in certain quarters. That is an unfair charge to make. It is important, however, that we ensure that the rules are changed so that there can be obvious transparency about how people can qualify fully as consultants.

Mr. Kennedy

The review is certainly welcome, but the Prime Minister rules out racism. Did he not hear the remarks on that very issue made on radio only this morning by the Secretary of State for Health? As the figures show, a vastly greater proportion of white doctors than non-white doctors achieve consultant status in the health service. Many of those non-white doctors qualified in the EU. There is an issue to address with urgency. The Health Secretary thinks so; surely the Prime Minister should give the House an undertaking that he will investigate and legislate.

The Prime Minister

I think that what the Secretary of State for Health said was that we must look at any charges that were made very carefully.

The right hon. Gentleman's first point related to the distinction between EU and non-EU people. That distinction is based on our membership of the European Union and the rules within the European Union, not on any rule that is discriminatory vis-á-vis race. Of course we will investigate any charges that are made, but it is important to realise that the particular issue raised this morning arose from rules that we are reviewing rather than from any attempt to discriminate between people of different races.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

After his no doubt healthy breakfast, did the Prime Minister have a chance to read the leader in The Guardian? Does he agree that affordable designer casualwear should be available in supermarkets throughout the country?

The Prime Minister

I probably study Guardian editorials less than my hon. Friend does. As for designer wear, I am afraid we must abide by the rules set out in the court proceedings. That is regrettable, but obviously we study these matters very carefully.

Q4. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

In 1997 there was a surplus of nursing home places in Gloucestershire; now there is a severe shortage. Whom does the Prime Minister blame for the crisis? [HON. MEMBERS: "You."] Does he blame his own Government's regulations, or does he blame the Lib-Lab pact that runs Gloucestershire?

The Prime Minister

That is a bit of an open goal, given that the last Government massively cut the number of beds in the national health service and elsewhere. In respect of nursing homes, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have provided a great deal of extra money for the NHS to deal with social services. [Interruption.]

I must point out to Opposition Members that there is a clear difference between us and them. I entirely agree with them that nursing homes have complained about the level of fees and also about the lack of sufficient resources—which is precisely why we are increasing investment—but the difference between the hon. Gentleman and us is that we believe that the additional money should go in, while he wants to take it out.

Q5. Colin Burgon (Elmet)

In the light of unfortunate remarks made by a certain gentleman called Mr. Nigel de Gruchy, what message has the Prime Minister for the thousands of committed classroom assistants in my constituency and around the country—and for other staff who give valuable support to teachers, enabling them to deliver the results of which we have spoken today?

The Prime Minister

As well as the increase in the number of teachers, there has been an increase of, I think, about 44,000 in the number of classroom assistants in the past few years. They do invaluable work in our classrooms. They are part of the changing pattern of teaching provision in our schools which will allow us to secure more teachers but also more classroom assistants and more information technology assistance. That in turn is part of the creation of a modern environment in which schooling can best take place. Classroom assistants play a vital role in the process.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

May we now have an answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson)? Nursing homes are closing all over the country because of new Government regulations, and as a result patients are blocking hospital beds when they could be cared for better elsewhere. Chase hospital in Bordon, in my constituency, is consequently in danger of losing beds. Does the Prime Minister agree that that is unacceptable, and will he look into it?

The Prime Minister

I certainly will, but let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman. It is true that some private nursing homes are closing; as they will tell the right hon. Gentleman, that is largely because of their worry about the level of fees. [Interruption.] Regulation has been mentioned, and it is true that some of them raise issues relating to the minimum wage; but I thought the Conservative party had changed its position on that. As for other regulations, they concern standards of care in nursing homes, and were supported by both parties in the House.

In respect of the other point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, again, it is absolutely true that unless we have proper provision out in the community, there is greater pressure on hospital beds. Again, it is precisely for that reason that just a short time ago we announced still more money for social services, nursing homes and the national health service. That is money to which the Labour Government are committed and which he and his colleagues are committed to opposing.

Q6. Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Carers and Disabled Children Act 2000, which was introduced by the Government, can make a significant difference to the lives of Britain's 6 million carers, but that many carers are not aware of their rights under that Act? Will he do everything in his power to ensure that local authorities undertake the assessments, which they are required to conduct, and do what they can do to help Britain's 6 million carers?

The Prime Minister

We are engaged at the moment in putting together an information campaign that allows carers to know exactly what they are entitled to. Incidentally, all the provisions of the Act will come into force in Wales as well, or they did do on 1 July. We totally understand that it is one thing to provide those rights for carers, but that unless they are aware that they have them and of how to exercise them, it will be a futile exercise. It is for that reason that we are making sure that they have the information that they need.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority said of investors' confidence in the Government: tremendous damage has been done by Stephen Byers' actions". Does the Prime Minister agree?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not, for the reasons that I gave the last time the right hon. Gentleman asked that question. I believe that it was absolutely essential that we stopped pouring billions and billions of pounds of public money into a company that was effectively bust and that was not being managed adequately. For that reason, we believe—this is the difference between us—that whereas he would pay the shareholders an additional £1 billion from taxpayers' money—

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

Oh yes, that is the position of the Conservative party. We believe that that money is better spent on the railways.

Mr. Duncan Smith

But it was the right hon. Gentleman's Government who appointed Sir Alastair and who described him at that time as a "highly respected figure". Sir Alastair is also supported by investors on both sides of the Atlantic, one of whom, a head of an American investment fund, said: We would now be unwilling to invest in any enterprise"—

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)


Mr. Duncan Smith

Oh yes. He has said they would be unwilling to invest in any enterprise regulated by the Government, because we couldn't be sure they would live up to their commitments". Why does the Prime Minister not admit that investors cannot trust this Government and that people who travel on the railways will have to put up with more delays and more taxes?

The Prime Minister

If we followed the path that the right hon. Gentleman has set out, I assume that he would have carried on simply putting public money into Railtrack; alternatively, he would have us pay the £1 billion to the shareholders. I am afraid that in the end there has to be a simple choice: do we carry on putting that money in or do we say, "Enough is enough—we cannot put in any more money"? We have to restructure that industry in order to ensure that the money that goes in actually gets to improve the railway system.

As I say, the difference between us is that we believe that every single penny piece of that money has to go to improving the rail network, whereas the right hon. Gentleman's position is that he would take literally £1 billion or more of that money from the taxpayer and give it to the shareholders. If he denies that perhaps he would say so when he gets to his feet. His shadow Chancellor and his shadow spokesman on the railways have both said that they agree with the shareholders' campaign for a minimum handout of £3.60 a share. If that is the case, it amounts to more than a £1 billion subsidy. So, the difference between us is that I say that the money goes to the railways, while he says that it should go to the investors.

Mr. Duncan Smith

We are now clear about the Prime Minister: he would rather stand by a Minister than those thousands of investors who have lost money. Those investors are not fat cats, they are pensioners and people who work on the railways. What does he say to Mrs. Lloyd—[Interruption.] Labour Members do not care. Mrs. Lloyd lost all the money that she invested in Railtrack, money which was meant to be used to help a sick relative. She has written to the—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have told Mr. Donohoe before that he should not shout across the Chamber. I have told him before, and he will not do it again. It is out of order.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Prime Minister must tell the House what he will say to Mrs. Lloyd, who has written to him five times about her lost investments and who has not received an answer. She is a lifelong Labour supporter, but she will not vote Labour again because of what this Government have done to her. In her letter, she writes: Stephen Byers is a real con man who will say anything and do anything and hopes to get away with it. Is she not absolutely right? Is it not time that the Prime Minister told the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to go?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman has just made it clear in his answer that he would indeed back the claim of the investors. He has asked about an investor, so let us discuss the matter, because he has just accepted that he would back the claims of the investors that the Government should reimburse them at the level of the original share price at the time of privatisation. That would amount to a sum of money of more than £1 billion.

I accept entirely that small investors will be affected by what has happened to Railtrack. However, the only choice that the Government can make is whether to bail out people in that situation, or say that we cannot go on putting billions and billions of pounds of public money into a failed company.

In the end, no matter how many times the Leader of the Opposition gets to his feet, he must accept that, when it comes to a choice between putting the money into the railways and bailing out investors, he would bail out the investors. I am afraid that that is the difference between the Government, who believe in rail transport as a public service, and the Opposition, who do not.

Q7. Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the news this week that the courts are increasingly making use of antisocial behaviour orders? What about people in my constituency of Hall Green—and, I dare say, in many other places—who are denied the relief from persistent harassment, intimidation and distress that these orders provide? What should they do when their local authority, and/or the police, persistently fail to use the powers that Parliament has given them?

The Prime Minister

Antisocial behaviour orders have a very important role to play, and almost 500 have been granted up and down the country. Any resistance to their use by police and local authorities would be unfortunate, as there is nothing worse for people than to live on estates or difficult streets with those who engage in petty theft or drug dealing. The antisocial behaviour order can play a real role in reducing tensions and disorder in local communities. I urge them to be used, in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere.

Q8. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Will the Prime Minister please tell me why the latest Department of Health figures show that the number of people in this country waiting more than 18 months for treatment has increased from two to 208?

The Prime Minister

The increase, as I understand it, is limited almost entirely to a certain number of trusts. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"l Each of those trusts is being given a dedicated team to reduce the 18-month waiting list. However, the hon. Gentleman did not point out that the latest figures show that the number of patients waiting three months has fallen. Overall, waiting lists have fallen, which means that hundreds of thousands of people are waiting a shorter time for treatment. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but waiting lists since the Labour party came to power are down, not up, as are waiting times. Down too, for example, are cardiac waiting times and the time it takes to refer patients for cancer treatment.

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) said that 208 people are waiting more than 18 months. That is unacceptable, but I shall simply point out that 70 per cent. of people get their operations within three months, and that more than half a million operations are now being performed every year. The 208 figure is wrong, and we should change it, but we should not forget that the vast bulk of people are getting the treatment that they need.

Q9. Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the collapse of Atlantic Telecom, which has caused severe difficulty for thousands of telephone subscribers, particularly businesses which are heavily dependent on the telephone? Will the Prime Minister take action to ensure that the lines, and specifically the existing telephone numbers, of the businesses concerned are protected before the service is withdrawn in four days time?

The Prime Minister

I understand that my hon. Friend is meeting the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness at the Department of Trade and Industry later today to discuss the concerns of Atlantic Telecom's customers. I also know that Oftel is having discussions with Atlantic's administrators. This is a serious problem, because it can affect many business customers and other people. My hon. Friend the Minister also met the Director General of Oftel yesterday. I hope very much that we can have a smooth transition to a new company, responsible for the new business, but it has to be sorted out with the administrators and Oftel as well as with my hon. Friend the Minister.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the serious damage done by the repeated press reports, which are obviously officially inspired, about the differences between him and the Chancellor of the Exchequer? There is one detailed report that the Chancellor used bad language—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—and stamped his feet after a private meeting. If the Prime Minister is not prepared to say where these reports come from, can he at least give us an assurance that he is not picking on the Chancellor for not being as enthusiastic about the euro as the Prime Minister himself?

The Prime Minister

One thing is for sure—I knew that we would get to Europe one way or another. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question, because it gives me the opportunity to say that according to the OECD, we are predicted to grow at the fastest rate of any G7 country. We have the lowest inflation in Europe and the highest employment rate of any of our major competitors. We have the largest share of foreign direct investment in the European Union and we have halved youth unemployment. That is down to the work of the Chancellor, and he has done that work better than any Conservative Chancellor anyone can remember.

Q10. Martin Linton (Battersea)

In view of the very high rate of asthma in my constituency, will the Prime Minister look at yesterday's report on lung diseases from the British Thoracic Society, showing that they kill even more people than heart diseases or cancer, and occur at nearly twice the European average? Will he ensure that we tackle those diseases with as much determination as we tackle heart disease and cancer by offering medical treatment and preventive measures such as action on air pollution and smoking?

The Prime Minister

I should like to make one point about the British Thoracic Society's report, which compared Britain with other European countries. One would not realise it from the coverage this morning, but the report was based on data from 1970 to 1998. The number of people dying from lung cancer has actually fallen by 1,500 in the past few years. Some 60,000 people were helped last year to stop smoking, and access to cancer specialists is faster than before. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that there is a great deal more to do. In particular, far more research needs to be done, which is why the Government are funding a multi-million pound research programme specifically into the issues he raised.

Q11. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Is the Prime Minister aware that many Conservative Members greatly admire his handling of the current world crisis? However, is he also aware that if we had in place a common foreign policy, it would not be the Prime Minister travelling the world but probably Romano Prodi? If we had in place a Euro-army, the Prime Minister would almost certainly have much less control over his British forces, currently on stand-by. Will he confirm that he will abandon completely all further moves towards European integration?

The Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words at the beginning of his question, but his intervention sums up the problems of Conservative Eurosceptics. First, the hon. Gentleman said that we should not have a common foreign and security policy, but we have someone in the European Union who is already in charge of the common foreign and security policy—Mr. Solana.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman seemed to think that the European Commission should not be involved in European defence. Under the European defence proposals, the European Commission is not involved in European defence. Thirdly, he seemed to think that we are setting up some sort of Euro-army. We are not. We are agreeing to have the capability in Europe should we wish, individually as countries, to decide to commit ourselves to peacekeeping or humanitarian missions. We can see why that is necessary from what is happening in Macedonia and in the Balkans today. We have the capability to form a proper defence force so that we can provide for keeping the parties apart in Macedonia and elsewhere, and provide the opportunity to build a peace process there. A European defence capability is simply an additional weapon in our armoury for defence purposes, alongside NATO. It is entirely sensible. What is happening in the Balkans shows why it is necessary and it would not make the slightest difference to anything that we are doing in Afghanistan at the moment.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a report in the Daily Record claimed that service men and women on stand-by for Afghanistan have no suitable clothing for the winter that they would endure there? Will he investigate that claim and, if it is true, do all he can to alleviate the problem?

The Prime Minister

I will examine the claim, but many such claims are made and when they are investigated are found to be absolutely baseless. I assure my hon. Friend that the British troops, who are among the best trained and equipped of any in the world, will be properly equipped for any mission that they may undertake in Afghanistan.

I wish to take the opportunity to say that if we look at what British troops are doing in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Sierra Leone, it is clear that they are making a huge contribution to world security and peace. Of course they must have the proper equipment and we will ensure that they do so.