Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:48 pm on 25th June 1997.

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Photo of Mr Dennis Turner Mr Dennis Turner Labour/Co-operative, Wolverhampton South East 1:48 pm, 25th June 1997

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 June. [3885]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I also met Margaret Gibney, the young schoolgirl from Belfast.

Photo of Mr Dennis Turner Mr Dennis Turner Labour/Co-operative, Wolverhampton South East

I was wondering whether my right hon. Friend has had an opportunity yet to study my Weights and Measures (Beer and Cider) Bill? It is an important consumer measure for millions of beer drinkers in Britain. I can advise my right hon. Friend that what beer drinkers want is a full pint of beer with the froth on top.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I know that my hon. Friend, as chairman of Bilston Springvale club, always gives good value for money. I thoroughly applaud his campaign to make sure that the British pint is a good, honest pint.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I agree with the Prime Minister about that.

When the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) says that he was threatened with expulsion from the Labour party if he campaigned against a Welsh Assembly in the forthcoming referendum and the Secretary of State of Wales denies that, which one is telling the truth?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman, and I again welcome him to the Dispatch Box, that no one has been threatened with expulsion. People are perfectly entitled to state their position, provided, of course, that they do so in accordance with the rules of the parliamentary party.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

So let the whole House get it clear: when the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent says that he was told twice that he would be kicked out of the Labour party if he stood for beliefs, we have the Prime Minister's personal assurance that he was not telling the truth.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can give my personal assurance that no such threat was made.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

In that case, who authorised Mr. Huw Roberts—a special adviser at the Welsh Office—to tell local council officials that their relationship with the Welsh Office would be jeopardised if their local Member of Parliament did not support the policy of the Labour party? Do not local council officials have a higher responsibility to the wider electorate, and not to the unity of the Labour party?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is absolutely right. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I have asked for an investigation into this matter, and I am told— [Interruption.] If hon. Members would just wait a minute. I am told that that allegation is untrue as well, so perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will now withdraw it.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The whole House will hope that it is untrue and the whole House will look forward to seeing the result of the investigation in due course. Just so we have this absolutely clear, when the Secretary of State for Wales tells The Daily Telegraph that individuals in the Labour party must not flout the party election manifesto, but the Secretary of State for Scotland tells the House, as he did a few weeks ago, that any Member of Parliament has a right to speak his or her mind as he sees fit, which one is speaking for the Government?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have just made it clear—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Perhaps I will make it clear again. One: Members of Parliament are perfectly entitled to speak their mind. Two: there is no truth in the allegation that pressure was put on councils or that they had been told that they could not have the resources or any of the rest of it. If that were the case, it would be quite wrong. It is not the case, and perhaps now the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw the allegation.

Hon. Members:

Withdraw.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Will the Prime Minister therefore give us a cast-iron guarantee that he will come to the House with the result of that investigation? Does he not regard it as an extraordinary state of affairs that different Cabinet Ministers give conflicting views on this matter and that investigations into it have to be mounted? What will he do to stop the arrogant behaviour of his Government on these matters and to ensure that there is an honest and open debate?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Unfortunately, and I understand these problems, I think that the right hon. Gentleman prepared his last question before he heard the answer. I have just made it clear that I investigated the matter this morning. There is no truth in these allegations. People are perfectly entitled to speak their mind. They are entitled to do that and that has been made clear by everyone concerned. It is important that we now get on and debate the principles that underlie the devolution debate. I can only say to the right hon. Gentleman that, if he carries on with points like this, no wonder he has no Members of Parliament left in Wales or Scotland.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas:

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an effective partnership between Government and industry is essential if we are to get our young people off the dole and into work? Can he assure the House that the business community is delivering practical support for the Government's welfare-to-work programme? [3886]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can indeed confirm that that is the case. We are absolutely delighted at the response we have already received from the private sector in respect of the welfare-to-work plans. The fact that there are so many public companies that are prepared to come forward and make a commitment to taking young people who are unemployed off the dole and giving them proper skills and education, with the chance then to get into a decent job, is a very great tribute to the British sense of social responsibility and to our companies in particular.

Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Does the Prime Minister accept that there remains, I fear, some confusion as to whether the Government will permit the transfer of funds from one Department to another to solve the coming winter crisis in health and education? The Sunday newspapers, quoting a Government source in Denver, said that they would, but the BBC, quoting the Chancellor on Monday, said that they would not. Which is Government policy?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This is our continuing debate at Prime Minister's Question Time. As I have said on many occasions, the position is the same as it has always been. The overall control totals must be kept within; the departmental spending limits are there and for these two years will be kept within. As the Chancellor said, of course—as we said in our manifesto—if social security can be reduced, it will be possible to spend more money on education. As I said to the right hon. Gentleman last week, if, in theory, there were a great pot of money that could be used, that would be fine, but there is not; that is the problem. We have had to take those tough spending limits precisely because of the position that we have inherited.

Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown Leader of the Liberal Democrats

The Prime Minister's respect is reciprocated, but the question remains and I fear that it remains unanswered. Will the departmental ceilings, such as that on the distribution of the contingency reserve, be allowed to increase?

Let me explain to the Prime Minister why that is so important. Waiting lists are getting longer again. The number of emergency operations that have been cancelled at the last minute is increasing again. The hospital trusts are £300 million, and more, in debt, and sinking further into debt at the rate of £1 million a day. If something is not done about that, there will be mayhem in the NHS this winter, and the longer it is left, the worse it will get.

Hon. Members:

Oh.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely understand the problems that there are in the health service and in our education service. I do not think that Conservative Members should be shouting about that; they created those problems. We must do the best we can within the overall limits of public finance, because of the enormous debt burden that we have inherited and the need to take tough action. We simply cannot avoid that, but within those limits we shall do what we can.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

Will the Prime Minister confirm that it remains his intention within the lifetime of this Parliament to deprive hereditary peers of their voting rights; if it is his intention, does he agree that the Wild Animals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, recently introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) to ban hunting with hounds, provides us with a welcome opportunity to deal with two mediaeval relics at the same time—hereditary peers and fox hunters, on territory on which we have overwhelming public support? [3887]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is our intention to remove the voting rights from hereditary peers in the House of Lords, and there will also be a free vote on fox hunting.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

If I may revert to the question that was asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), it is clear from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that it is not possible for both the Secretary of State for Wales and the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) to be correct. Either one or the other is correct. Why should we support the version of the Secretary of State for Wales? Is not the proper way forward to cause the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman to come to the House to make a personal statement, so that we may judge for ourselves?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I have tried to explain to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, when I read about these reports, correctly guessing that they might be raised at Question Time, I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales about that, and I have given the assurance that I have given the House.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

The latest results for educational achievement at key stage 2 in Birmingham schools show a clear correlation between poor results and a high turnover in school populations. That is something that has bothered me ever since the year I discovered that, in my primary school, on an outer-city estate in Birmingham, only one child— [3888]

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Lady has been here long enough to know that this is Question Time and we do not want a long preamble about her earlier life.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Only one child at year six had been in the school since the reception class. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the crusade to drive up standards in schools gives special attention to the needs of those schools in which the school population changes almost entirely over a three or four-year period, and to the causes of that problem?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the problems of schools when they have a large transient population. That is one of the issues that will be addressed in the education White Paper which will be published shortly. It is also important to realise that, in Birmingham, about 10,500 five, six and seven-year-olds are in classes of more than 30, thanks to what the previous Government did. Those are some of the issues that we shall address, and we shall address them urgently.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

Will the Prime Minister confirm or deny the report on the front page of The Scotsman that the Government are recasting the detail of the taxation proposals for a Scottish Parliament? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, since the election, the Deputy Prime Minister has told us that the White Paper will be published after the referendum, the Prime Minister has told us that the devolution Bill will be published before the referendum, and the Prime Minister has also told us that sovereignty will reside in this place, not with the Scottish people? Now there is confusion over the tax-varying powers. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand why the people of Scotland are beginning to wonder whether his full enthusiasm and attention to detail are devoted to this subject?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, the Minister of State has already denied those reports on the lunchtime news—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman realises that. Secondly, there is absolutely no confusion about the devolution plans, and there is huge support for them in Scotland and elsewhere. That support would be increased if the hon. Gentleman's party finally came off the fence and supported them too.

Photo of Martyn Jones Martyn Jones Labour, Clwyd South

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his magnificent speech on the environment in New York? Does he agree that human population pressures are a major factor in the degradation of the global environment, and that the way forward is to implement the action plan produced at the Cairo population development conference, at the heart of which was the idea that females' right to choose the size of their families is a most important feature in sustainable future growth? [3889]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right in the concern that he raises. We fully support the Cairo programme for action. Indeed, we spend about £70 million a year on support for family planning and other measures. It is tremendously important to the future of the developing world.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

Does the right hon. Gentleman share the view that the provision of nursery education by local education authorities should be without discrimination? Is he aware, however, that that is not the case in Suffolk, where nursery education is provided under the umbrella of the Labour-controlled county council's anti-poverty programme? May I tell the Prime Minister of the increasing concern of parents in Suffolk, who find that nursery education there is based on damaging nostrums of social engineering issuing from members of his party? [3890]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not know about the situation to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but if he looks at the record of Labour and Conservative councils throughout the country, he will find that the record of Labour authorities on nursery education is far superior to that of Conservative authorities.

Photo of Claire Ward Claire Ward Labour, Watford

What are the Government's views on the recent publicity surrounding the launch of alcoholic icepops, following the controversy of the alcopops drinks and their influence on under-age drinkers? What action do the Government propose to take against those products?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made clear, a working party has been established—[Interruption.] I am sorry that Conservative Members find this a matter for mirth: many parents are very worried about it. It is important that we work with the manufacturers and others to deal with the problem. I can assure my hon. Friend that that is precisely what we will do—without, it appears, the support of the Conservative Opposition.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Social Security)

Will the Prime Minister tell the House when and, more important, how the Government plan to keep their pre-election pledge to help a group of disadvantaged pensioners who are having to use their savings below the £16,000 maximum to pay for their own residential care? That is because Labour and Liberal Democrat-controlled Sefton council refuses to accept the will of the House and says that, until these pensioners' savings have fallen to £1,500, they will have to pay for themselves. [3891]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I really am surprised that a Conservative Member has the nerve to raise that matter. Many elderly people have difficulties with community care and paying nursing home costs precisely because of the problems left by the last Conservative Government. This Government are trying to deal with those problems.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I just want to prove the theory that somebody on this side is allowed to speak his mind. Now that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has discovered a great big black hole in the country's finances arising out of the fiddles that the last Tory Government carried out, will my right hon. Friend reflect on the fact that, come next Wednesday, we shall have a great opportunity to find additional revenue to fill the black hole created by that lousy, rotten Government? We can then ensure that we have more money for the health service, for education and for doing many of the things that we need to do in order to continue to win power again.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The decisions on the Budget will have to await the Chancellor of the Exchequer next week, but 1 certainly agree with what my hon. Friend says about the mess left by the last Conservative Government. I do not know whether this worries him more than me, but I find myself increasingly in agreement with him on many issues.