Oral Answers to Questions — Engagements

Photo of Mr Laurence Robertson

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury, Conservative)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 April.

Photo of Mr Tony Blair

Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

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.

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Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury, Conservative)

I have given notice of this question.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the explosion that took place last year at the Cleansing Services group, a chemical works in my constituency. The explosion occurred even though we had given the Environment Agency plenty of notice that the site was not safe. Given the company's total disregard for the environment and its neighbours, to the extent that even the fire and rescue service cannot guarantee that it would turn up at another incident on the site, does he agree that closure is the only safe option? Will he order a public inquiry into the Environment Agency's abilities to monitor such a site? Will he please action those things today?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

The issue of closure is a matter for the Environment Agency. It has suspended the waste management licence, and it will remain suspended until the agency is satisfied that it no longer needs to be. If I can turn to the issue of a public inquiry—I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his question—this was, of course, a private company. We asked the chairman of the Environment Agency to take personal responsibility for producing the initial report, and he did so. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it was a very hard-hitting report on the lessons to be learned. We understand the concerns and calls for a public inquiry. A further agency report is due shortly. As soon as we receive that report, we will then make a determination as to whether there should be a full public inquiry.

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Ms Linda Perham (Ilford North, Labour)

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is great concern in my constituency about street crime and youth vandalism, especially on local buses? Will he give the highest priority to continuing the drive to improve police recruitment and retention?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I am delighted to say that the number of recruits is up by some 77 per cent. There is the largest increase in police numbers for more than a decade. As I gather that some Opposition Members have been criticising the Government for spending money on advertising campaigns, I point out that this money is being used to get more teachers, nurses and police in our public services. That is the difference between a party that is investing in our public services and a party that is committed to cutting them.

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Mr William Hague (Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)

Given that the Government have now spent more than £62 million of taxpayers' money on advertising themselves and their schemes in the first three months of this year—more in three months than ever before in history—how much have they allocated to the British Tourist Authority to promote tourism overseas in the light of the foot and mouth crisis?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

We have already allocated, as was described the other day, some £6 million to the tourist councils. There is, however, more money that will be allocated to them, which we will be announcing in the next few days. As for the money that is being spent on Government advertising, let me repeat again that the vast bulk of this is for campaigns that either ensure that we recruit the people we need for our public services, or that we are making sure that, for example, people entitled to the children's tax credit get it. I might just remind the right hon. Gentleman that, a few months ago, the Conservatives were complaining about recruitment in the public sector and saying that we had to do something about it.

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Mr William Hague (Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)

The Government spent £3.5 million on the anti-benefit fraud campaign, which, according to their evaluation, led to no increase in reporting benefit fraud. The Government's report stated: the result of the campaign was that respondents … perceived benefit fraud as easier to commit than they had previously thought. That report is available in the Library.

The sum of £3 million has been spent on promoting take-up of the minimum income guarantee. Again, the evaluation states that it has missed … 500,000 pensioners who are entitled to MIG but do not claim it. It is therefore ludicrous for the Prime Minister to claim that such things are indispensable.

There are 1.75 million people working in the tourist industry. Bookings have decreased massively, and the BTA says that it needs £7 million now to stop bookings being cancelled. Is not it time that the Government stopped spending record sums on advertising themselves and spent some of it on advertising Britain?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Although it is true that some people have yet to take up the minimum income guarantee for pensioners—which, of course, Conservatives oppose—hundreds of thousands of pensioners throughout the country have that guarantee for the first time, thanks to the Government.

I agree that we need to do everything that we can for the tourist industry. Some £200 million of benefit to business is out there as a result of Government expenditure. The best thing that we can do for the tourist industry is help bring trade back to tourist areas. I ask the right hon. Gentleman and Opposition Members to help us by showing a responsible attitude to the countryside that allows it to be open where it should be and enables tourism to return to it.

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Mr William Hague (Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)

It is no good agreeing with what we say but doing nothing about it. The Prime Minister does not appear to understand the urgency of the problem. Five weeks ago, I proposed to him an emergency interest-free loan scheme—an emergency loan scheme to help rural businesses—yet the Government have responded with an interest-charging scheme that would plunge more into difficulty. After five weeks of dithering, will he introduce an interest-free loan scheme and realise that there is a difference between spinning and delivering?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

As I explained to the right hon. Gentleman, we believe that it is better to build on existing schemes rather than introducing an entirely new scheme, which costs £500 million according to his figures. Doubtless the shadow Chancellor has told him where he will get the money—Or perhaps not. So far, more than £32 million has been allocated in rate relief and extending the small firms loan guarantee scheme has meant another £22 million and there is additional support for regional development agencies. There is £90 million of direct Government support and, as I have said, up to £200 million of benefit to businesses.

I have spoken to many people in the tourist industry—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman has, too—and they say that they mostly need people to return to their areas. The position is not helped by people such as the shadow tourism Minister, who, when the case of the slaughterman with symptoms of foot and mouth disease—it remains unconfirmed—was announced, said that it was a massive setback for the tourism industry and would not help it. People in the tourism industry need less of that and more helpful talk from the right hon. Gentleman.

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Mr Jeff Ennis (Barnsley East and Mexborough, Labour)

Does the Prime Minister know about the new millennium clinic in Montagu hospital in Mexborough? Its waiting time for hernia and other minor operations is only four to eight weeks. Will he join me in congratulating all the staff, who have recently been awarded beacon status? Does not that underline what can be achieved under a Government who are firmly committed to the future of the NHS, unlike the Conservative party? [Interruption.]

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Opposition Members are being a trifle hopeful vis-à-vis my hon. Friend.

As it happens, I know about the millennium clinic at the Montagu hospital in Mexborough, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the waiting times are down to four to eight weeks. This is part of a programme throughout the country that is putting money into accident and emergency departments, building new clinics, hiring more nurses and doctors, and making sure that, year on year, we get the investment into the health service that it needs. It will take time to do that, but that money is now coming in and the investment stands in sharp contrast to the commitment of the Conservatives to cut that money. As we know from the shadow Chancellor this morning, they are still opposed to the Government's spending plans.

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Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness West, Liberal Democrat)

Given one of today's reports, will the Prime Minister clarify the situation in respect of the future of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Does he intend to scrap it, reform it, restructure it or change it in due course? What is he going to do?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

The report in this morning's newspaper was nonsense.

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Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness West, Liberal Democrat)

May I, therefore, say to the Prime Minister that one of the lessons of the present foot and mouth difficulties that the country has been confronting is that a rural affairs ministry in the Scottish context has proved to give a more co-ordinated and integrated approach than the best efforts of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at Whitehall level? May I recommend to him that, if he is looking at the future of MAFF, he should look at that model?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

Although I am pleased at the progress that has been made in Scotland, it has to be pointed out that in Scotland the disease is effectively only in one part of the country. In England, the disease has been in many different parts of the country, and has therefore involved a far bigger logistical and practical exercise.

I would also point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, as a result of the policy that has been pursued, the average number of cases per day now is about one third of what it was a few weeks ago. We are therefore slaughtering tens of thousands fewer animals every day. In relation to the normal food production chain, we are now back up to about 90 per cent. of pigmeat production, about 80 per cent. of cattle and almost 50 per cent. of lambs. There is still a long way to go, but we are making enormous progress. I remind Opposition Members that there were predictions that we would be up to 80 cases a day by about this point; in fact, we are nowhere near that, and the numbers are coming down.

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Mr Des Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun, Labour)

This morning, 3,100 skilled and productive Motorola workers and their families woke to the grim reality of redundancy. What immediate Government support is proposed for them? Will my right hon. Friend reassure them that they are not to be sacrificed because it is cheaper and easier to sack Scottish workers than their continental European equivalents? As Motorola will continue to be a very important manufacturer in Scotland, even after the Bathgate plant is closed, what commitment has it given to a continued presence in Scotland and to future investment?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

First, I totally understand the concern in my hon. Friend's constituency and in many others at the loss of jobs at Motorola. In relation to the response of the Government, we are obviously working now with the Scottish Executive to see what we can do to help the workers affected. I would also like to quote William Dunn of West Lothian council, who said last night: However, in the last 12 months, we have created over 7,000 jobs within West Lothian and we see that we can at least take some of these people into our economy … straight away. We shall obviously have to work to make sure that that happens.

On consultation, we conformed fully with all the European Union requirements on this, including those on consulting about collective redundancies in European works councils. I do not think that that is the issue. Just in the past 10 weeks, in this sphere of industry, there have been 100,000 job losses worldwide. In many countries round the world, there have been job losses as a result of the downturn in that market. What we have to do is work very closely with the Scottish Executive and with the work force to make sure that those who are made redundant are found new jobs.

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Mr Stephen Day (Cheadle, Conservative)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the great surprise outside in the country at his reported proposal to supply free CDs to habitual young offenders? He is used to turning the meaning of the English language on its head. Does he not agree that this gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "He's got a record"?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I can only guess that it took the hon. Gentleman a very long time to think that one up.

There is only one problem with the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question, which is that it is completely false. There is no question of giving any incentives to young offenders. What I announced in respect of proposals to reward young people engaged in voluntary work is not for young offenders; it is for those young people who are undertaking voluntary work in their local communities. As ever, the Conservative party got hold of the wrong end of the stick.

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Mr Clive Efford (Eltham, Labour)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to figures published this month by the employment unit on the new deal for under-25s? They show that 380,000 people passing through the new deal have found jobs, rather than the 250,000 figure that we said that we would achieve at the last general election. Moreover, there has been an 80 per cent. reduction in youth unemployment in my constituency.

Does that not contrast with the "On your bike" policies of the last Government—"On your bike" being, of course, what the Tories are itching to say to their leader after the next election? Does it not also demonstrate—[Interruption.]

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

We have not yet extended the new deal to Leaders of the Opposition, but I note my hon. Friend's representation.

Long-term youth unemployment is down by some 80 per cent. There has been a huge reduction over the past few years, but it has been achieved not merely through the strength of the economy but through the new deal itself. However much Opposition Members may oppose it, tens of thousands—indeed, hundreds of thousands—of young people and others have had, for the first time in their lives, some real hope and real opportunity, and a chance to make something of themselves. In a decent civic society, if we want responsibility from people we should also give them opportunity.

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Mr John Redwood (Wokingham, Conservative)

When, after the thousands of job losses that took place yesterday—not just at Motorola—the Prime Minister says, "No more boom or bust", how does he define an economic bust?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

If that was a leadership bid, it was unfortunate. I can define a bust: it happened when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the last Conservative Government. It happened not when debt was under control, unemployment was falling and interest rates were low, as is the case under this Government, but in the early 1990s when interest rates were at 15 per cent., debt was soaring, taxes were going up and public spending was being cut.

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Mr Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton, Labour/Co-operative)

Is the Prime Minister aware of a project in my constituency, where the area police team has established a mobile unit that it calls "the pod"? It is funded by the local authority and the Guinness Trust housing association. The pod can be moved rapidly from problem area to problem area. It provides a focal point for the community, raises the profile of the police and is working well. Will the Prime Minister consider using the same initiative in other areas? Will he also confirm that 13 additional police officers are on the way to Rochdale's Heywood and Middleton division this year?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I am sure that the extra police officers are well worth it.

The pod scheme has been an immense success in my hon. Friend's area, and we are considering how it could be extended to other parts of the country. Ultimately it is a decision for local police and local authorities on the ground, but there is increasing evidence from around the country that youth offending can indeed be reduced provided that the right measures are in place—investment, and also the local strategic partnership that brings together police, local authorities, schools and others. That is one reason why overall crime is down by some 10 per cent. since the last election.

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Mr William Hague (Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)

Before the last election, the Prime Minister promised not to increase taxes at all. Will he now repeat his promise?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

What I promised before the last election was that we would not increase the basic or the top rate of tax. We have not done that. As for any commitments we give at the next election, I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the manifesto.

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Mr William Hague (Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)

The Prime Minister knows that he did not just promise no increase in tax rates. On 21 September 1995, he said: We have no plans to increase tax at all". On 2 August 1996, he said: Our proposals do not involve raising taxes. On 8 January 1997, he said that the Labour party's programme does not imply any tax increases at all. The reason that he cannot repeat those promises is that he knows that he has introduced 45 new taxes in this Parliament—the largest increase in any peacetime parliament—and if he really believed that he had cut taxes, there would be no reason not to repeat those promises. Let us test whether even he believes the things that he has said. Will he repeat his promise of no tax increases at all?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I have already said what promises we gave at the last election. The right hon. Gentleman says that we said that nothing would change at all, but he forgets that we promised a utility tax to fund the new deal, and we implemented it. In fact, the tax burden rose in the period in which he was a member of the Cabinet. In the first part of this Parliament, it is true that tax revenues rose, because we had to deal with the huge deficit and doubled national debt that we inherited, but the other reason why the overall amount of revenue is higher now is that vastly more people are now in work than in the Tory years.

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Mr William Hague (Richmond (Yorks), Conservative)

The Prime Minister will not repeat his promise because the truth is that he broke it and he knows that he broke it. He said that there would be no tax increases at all, but he has levied higher taxes on marriages, mortgages, petrol, pensions, savings, charities, insurance policies, house buying, cars, small businesses, large businesses and self-employment. Is not it the case that whether he makes yet another bogus pledge on income tax rates or not, the British people know that taxes have gone up under Labour and will always go up under Labour?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

That would be slightly more credible were it not for the fact that the actual tax burden is lower than in six out of the 10 years under Mrs. Thatcher—if I can mention that person to the right hon. Gentleman. I have just explained to him how the tax burden went up in the last two years of the Government of whom he was a member. If the children's tax credit, the working families tax credit, the cut in the basic rate of income tax, and the lower national insurance charges—especially for those at the lower end of the income scale—are taken into account, many people have had substantial reductions in income tax.

More important than anything else is the fact that we have an economy in which, as a result of the prudent measures that have been taken, mortgages are running at half the level they were in the Conservative years. That is why the average mortgage holder is saving around £1,500 a year. The issue is not simply the amount of tax taken, which—as I said—is often a function of the number of people in work: it is also the strength of the economy and the number of jobs. In all those areas, we are in an infinitely stronger position as a result of the measures that we have taken. As I said to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) earlier, if we were ever to follow the path that he suggests, we would be back to Tory boom and bust and everyone's taxes would go up.

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Mr Phil Sawford (Kettering, Labour)

Will my right hon. Friend give a warm welcome to the observations of the shadow Health Secretary who, after his visit to Kettering general hospital earlier this week, said that it seemed that hospitals in the area were not doing badly? In the past four years we have had massive investment, including a new endoscope suite, a new orthopaedic theatre, a new ophthalmic unit and a new CAT scanner. I could go on. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we carry on at the present rate, the Conservatives might some day recognise that we are doing very well in Kettering?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I am sure that the local people will recognise that. The investment in the health service is matched by the record investment in schools. I am sure that my hon. Friend could have read out a list of schools receiving capital investment, and I know that Kettering will receive extra police as a result of our investment.

Before Conservative Members get too confident about their chances in relation to my hon. Friend, I remind them that we will go into the next election promising to carry on that investment in schools, hospitals, police and pensions. I shall remind them what they will fight the next election on because it was set out by the shadow Chancellor in a letter to The Times this morning, in which he repeated the fact that he will reduce the 3.3 per cent. increase in public spending, to which we are committed, to below 2 per cent. So that means—[Interruption.] "Yes", they are all saying. That amounts to the £16 billion in cuts to which we know that the Opposition are committed. The choice for my hon. Friend's constituents will be very simple. It will be between investments under us and cuts under them.

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Mr Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford, Conservative)

Does the Prime Minister recall my asking him at Prime Minister's Question Time on 2 December 1998 whether he stood by his party's commitment before the last election to legislate on age discrimination? His answer was: Yes, we stand by it."—[Official Report, 2 December 1998; Vol. 321, c. 879.] Does he still stand by it? Does he still intend to legislate on age discrimination in this Parliament, or will that be just one more broken Labour promise?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I take it that that is a commitment from the Opposition to introduce such legislation—not that they did anything about it during their 18 years in office. In a series of agreements with employers, we have set out codes of practice to be followed by them in relation to age discrimination. We have not ruled out age discrimination legislation, but we thought it right to try the voluntary approach first, because that is what large parts of business wished us to do. I have no doubt that, had we introduced age discrimination legislation, he would have accused us of over-regulating industry.

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Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff North, Labour)

What measures does my right hon. Friend have in mind for continuing the drop in unemployment, which has already resulted in the lowest unemployment rates in Wales for 25 years? In my constituency, it has resulted in a decline in youth unemployment of 70 per cent., and a drop of 90 per cent. in long-term unemployment.

Photo of Mr Tony Blair

Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

What we will do, of course, is continue with the new deal, which helps into work those who are especially vulnerable in the labour market, such as long-term unemployed young people, lone parents, and so on. However, the single most important thing for the Government to do is to carry on running a strong and well-disciplined economy. The difficulty with the Conservative party's plans is that, because they mean that we would go back to the policies pursued in the early 1990s, very many fewer people would be in work and mortgages would be far higher. The only way that we are going to make sure that we keep the number of jobs in the economy that we have at present is by running a strong economy, with low inflation and low interest rates, with the national debt under control and with big investment in the public services that guarantees jobs in the future.

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Mr Nick St Aubyn (Guildford, Conservative)

This week, the Government granted a permit for an incinerator in Guildford that is 10 years out of date. Until Ministers get to grips with the health risks of such incinerators—and the strategic need for them—should not we have a moratorium on them?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I am sure that this is a problem that Governments of all political colours have had to deal with for years. It is a difficult matter, but there is a need for such facilities, as the hon. Gentleman will understand. Of course such decisions are difficult, because people never want such facilities in their local patch. However, any Government in power would have to decide that such incinerators have to go somewhere. I am sure that we will listen to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but the truth is that, irrespective of which party is in government, this is something that has to be done.

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Mr Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow, Labour)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Cammell Laird shipyard in my Jarrow constituency is the last working yard on the south bank of the Tyne? May I urge him to make every effort to ensure that the successful bidder for the yard continues the Tyneside tradition of shipbuilding and ship repair? Will he make extra efforts to ensure that the City spivs now circulating do not get their hands on the yard, which they will flog off and strip of its assets so that they can build yuppie houses for their friends?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

I will deal with the Cammell Laird aspect of that question. Of course, I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend's constituents. Given Cammell Laird's continuing interest in Ministry of Defence work, it is important that we do everything that we can to help the company. In that connection, I know that my hon. Friend will be aware that there has been a huge boost in the number of apprentices at the yard, and elsewhere in the shipbuilding industry. However, it is obviously important that the yard competes for work on the same basis as other yards.

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Mr Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath, Conservative)

Following the Government's humiliating defeat in another place last night, will the Prime Minister finally agree with the views of medical charities, the British Medical Association and the Opposition and withdraw his mad plans to abolish community health councils?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

No, we will not, because the replacement of community health councils by patient forums and patient councils is, we believe, and as the College of Health made clear earlier, a better way to make sure that patients' interests are represented. There has been a debate about community health councils for many years, but patient forums and patient councils will bring patients better into the machinery of decision making in the health service than anything before, which is why this move has been welcomed by the NHS Federation and the College of Health.

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The Prime Minister is experienced in the terrible consequences that follow when foot and mouth occurs in a locality. Will he translate that experience to Northern Ireland, a small geographical area which is totally dependent on agriculture? Some 75 per cent. of its livestock has to be exported, and the tourist industry is devastated. We will not be able to afford to pay consequential loss compensation out of our block grant, which is insufficient for those purposes. Given the £37 billion surplus in the Treasury, will he give an assurance that extra funding will be made available to Northern Ireland for the financial fallout of foot and mouth?

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Mr Tony Blair (Prime Minister; Sedgefield, Labour)

We are looking to see what we can do to help businesses that are suffering as a result of foot and mouth disease. However, I go back to the point that I made a short time ago. The only way to help tourist businesses is by bringing tourism to them. In respect of the overall situation, we have to ensure that the disease is eradicated. The measures that we have taken over the past few weeks, difficult and ghastly though they have been, with the number of animals that have had to be slaughtered, are the only way that we are able, and have been able, to bring the disease under control. Unless we can eradicate the disease quickly, there will be no swift return to normality for the areas affected. We will look at the help that we can give and some measures will be announced in the next few days, but the single best thing that we can do is to eradicate the disease as swiftly as possible so that life gets back to normal.