Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:49 pm on 5th November 1997.

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The Prime Minister was asked—

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 5 November. [12355]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This morning, with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, I launched a White Paper setting out the Government's commitment to sustainable development and the elimination of international poverty. I shall have meetings with ministerial colleagues and others later in the day.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Conservative, Ribble Valley

Will the Prime Minister confirm that his decision to give away the essential British veto over European research matters now means that he will not be able to block plans by other European Union countries to increase the budget by 24 per cent., which means a £2 billion increase in that budget? Will not the British taxpayer now have to pay higher taxes because of his betrayal of the British national interest?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No. I do not think that I have ever heard such nonsense. I am rather surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not make a case for a referendum on the Amsterdam treaty, but perhaps that is because, a couple of days ago, Lord Howe said: Fortunately, the public has reacted to this proposal with complete indifference. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] The simple answer is no. We protected the national interest fully at Amsterdam in contrast to the negative, foolish isolationism of the previous Government.

Photo of Helen Jones Helen Jones Labour, Warrington North

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be widespread welcome for the first White Paper on international development to be published for 20 years? Will he tell the House whether it will deal with the needs of children, millions of whom die under the age of five because of poverty?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is an important White Paper. It will allow us to put our aid and development programmes on a sound footing. In particular, it means that any money that is spent abroad by this country is spent on the basis of long-term programmes that work not just to the benefit of those individual countries but for the long-term benefit of the developing and developed world.

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

Has the Prime Minister seen reports that the European Commission wants to extend to tens of thousands of smaller British firms regulations that now apply only to large multinationals? Can he confirm that British businesses are opposed to that? Can he confirm that the Government are opposed to that? Now that he has signed away our veto by signing up to the social chapter, can he also confirm that there may be nothing that he can do to stop that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No. We have already made our position clear; we do not believe that such extensions are sensible. It is simply a Commission proposal at present. Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that the biggest extension of qualified majority voting was agreed by the Government of which he was a member.

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

I am asking the Prime Minister about the social chapter. Given that he is opposed to these regulations, does he now regret signing away our veto? Can he give small businesses a guarantee that he will prevent those regulations coming into force—yes or no?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I have already made clear to the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] As I have already made clear, joining the social chapter is manifestly in Britain's interests because this side of the House does not believe that treating people fairly and getting a good deal for the country are inconsistent objectives.

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

Now that we have had the old propaganda, let us have an answer. Can the Prime Minister give a guarantee that he will prevent the regulations to which he is opposed and to which British small businesses are opposed—yes or no?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have already made it clear that this is a Commission proposal and that we do not believe that it should be extended. The right hon. Gentleman is making a pretty transparent attempt to hide the fact that his party is hopelessly divided on the issue. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, the Leader of the Opposition said: The days of disunity, factions and wings, groups within groups … is over"—[Interruption.]

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

Order. The House does not have to listen, but hon. Members must be heard. Let us hear what the Prime Minister has to say.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thought that they would enjoy hearing the words of the Leader of the Opposition. He said: The days of disunity … is over. It's finished. It's out. And as long as I am leader it will never come back. I do not think that we need lessons from the right hon. Gentleman in leadership.

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

It is no good the Prime Minister giving the answers he prepared last week to the questions he is being asked this week. If he has such faith in his negotiating power, will he make a better fist of negotiating in the social chapter than he made of the border control agreement? Does he not regret boasting to the House in June that if we wanted to opt into the border control agreement no other country could block it? Now that the Foreign Secretary has said that that was a misunderstanding and other countries could block it, is it not clear that what the Prime Minister said in the House was wrong?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

For 18 years the Conservatives failed to get a deal on border controls. It is this party that got the deal on border controls and, for the first time, it is a legally binding deal. I simply say this to the right hon. Gentleman: when are we going to hear about this referendum?

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

Order. Mr. Leslie, this is not a football match.

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

We have got used to the Prime Minister dodging questions at these sessions, but we have not been used to its becoming more pathetic as the questions go on. The fact is that he went to Amsterdam, signed away this country's legal rights by accident and came back with a letter saying, "Don't worry about it." That is not very good for a lawyer, is it? After all this, is it not obvious that the assurances that he offered businesses about European regulation before the election are like the assurances he gave to students and to people with pension funds—absolutely worthless?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

After the past couple of weeks, I think that business prefers our position on Europe to that of the Conservatives. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that we not only got a good deal for this country in Europe; we managed to set the country on a different path in our relations with Europe that allows us to play a part in leading in Europe, not to be perpetually isolated in Europe. Whatever he may say, I think that a large number of people who support the Conservative party want this country to behave sensibly in Europe—and we will.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Will my right hon. Friend recognise that it is hypocritical of some Conservative Members to decry the fact that we are not able to take into account the wind chill factor in cold weather payments when, within the past 12 months, they have blocked a Bill that would have done exactly that? Is it not true that, as a result of our changes to value added tax on fuel, we have given a far better benefit to every pensioner in the country than the wind chill measure would have given them?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservative party broke the link with earnings for pensioners, it would end the tax relief on pension contributions, and it was responsible for the greatest pensions scandal—the mis-selling of pensions—the country has ever seen. The Conservatives promised that they would never raise VAT and then doubled it. My party promised to cut VAT and kept the promise.

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

Will the Prime Minister confirm that one of the Government's key commitments is to equal opportunities throughout the United Kingdom?

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

I am grateful for that confirmation. Will the right hon. Gentleman then tell me how that commitment is consistent with the fact that the Government are to require English, Welsh and Northern Irish students at Scottish universities to pay for their fourth year, whereas Scottish students and students from every other European country will not have to pay? That means that students from the south of Ireland will have their fourth year in Scotland paid for by the British taxpayer whereas students from the north of Ireland will have to pay for it themselves. How does he justify that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, that is not entirely accurate. Students from inside the European Union but outside the United Kingdom last year numbered some 350; they will not be eligible for maintenance loans so they will be in a worse position than British students, whether English or from other parts of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Claire Ward Claire Ward Labour, Watford

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it remains the Government's intention to prohibit the introduction of the rapid draw lottery known as Pronto, based on the American system Keno? Does he agree that if it were introduced it would damage the national lottery and give rise to great concern about an increase in gambling?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that concern. I understand that the Home Secretary is considering a number of representations on the subject and will announce a decision shortly.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

Can the Prime Minister explain why, if someone commits murder and terrorist offences against the people of Bosnia British troops are dispatched to arrest him and bring him to trial, whereas if someone commits murder against the people of the United Kingdom and terrorises them for 25 years, all he will feel is the warmth and glow of a prime ministerial handshake?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is difficult enough to achieve a settlement in Northern Ireland without that type of utter perversion of the truth. The plain fact is that we shall seek to bring terrorists to justice wherever they may be, but it is important that we try to seek a long-term settlement in Northern Ireland. I supported the Conservative Government through every difficult decision that they had to take on this issue because in the end that was manifestly in the interests of the country. I very much hope that the Conservative party can put aside party differences on this and do the same.

Photo of Ms Oona King Ms Oona King Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

Is the Prime Minister aware that on this day in the Chamber in 1940 the then Prime Minister commended civilians on their courage during the first years of the second world war? Subsequently, 60,000 British civilians died in that war, 30,000 of them Londoners. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should provide an adequate memorial for the civilians who died? Will he therefore call in the planning application for the Hermitage site so that a fitting memorial can go up? If the poppies that we are all wearing today are to have any meaning, we must give those people a suitable memorial.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend. I cannot give a commitment on any particular planning application, but we shall obviously consider her representations carefully. As for the civilians who died during the war, everyone in this House—especially the generations of us who grew up after the war—realises the debt that we owe not just to the troops who died but to the civilians who gave their lives, often in difficult circumstances requiring the greatest courage.

Photo of Mr Richard Page Mr Richard Page Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

The Prime Minister will remember that just before the summer recess, in response to a question from a Conservative Member, he said that he thought that the green belt was a good thing. Is he aware that in Hertfordshire a recent poll carried out by the local council showed that 95 per cent. of those who responded agreed with him by rejecting Hertfordshire county council's structure plan to build on the green belt? Will the Prime Minister support the majority of Hertfordshire voters in their campaign against building on the green belt? Will he call in the plan and ask the county council to examine regeneration as a solution, rather than destroy the green belt in Hertfordshire?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I shall not comment on the application to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn attention. I recall the question that I was asked. I drew attention to the fact that the proposals about which I was being asked had been drawn up by the previous Government. Of course we support the green belt and it is important that any planning applications are considered in conjunction with our support.

Photo of Mr Malcolm Savidge Mr Malcolm Savidge Labour, Aberdeen North

On law and order, does my right hon. Friend recognise the need not only to allay continuing and legitimate public fears but to discourage illegitimate vigilantism of the sort that my constituency suffered earlier this year, by introducing measures to protect the community from sex offenders who pose a continuing risk? Will the Prime Minister outline his plans to deal with that problem?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the range of powerful new measures we have already taken to improve the criminal justice system. He is also right to point out the public's concern about the risks posed by sex offenders who are not already subject to the Sex Offenders Act 1997. We shall therefore announce today new powers to protect the public from such sex offenders. Community protection orders will be applied to sex offenders whose conduct poses a serious threat to children and the public. I hope that those measures will go some way towards allaying the public's justifiable fear about these matters.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry)

May we now have a straight answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition's question? If the Prime Minister genuinely believes that the Commission's proposals for new regulations and penalties for the information and consultation of employees should not apply to British small businesses that employ as few as 50 employees, how can he guarantee that under the social chapter the proposals will not be applied to them?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have made our position absolutely clear. Moreover, in the end the choice is whether we want to be part of the social chapter or not. This side of the House says, unhesitatingly, yes and I believe that the vast majority of British business wants a better, more constructive fresh start in Europe.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Labour, Norwich South

Following my right hon. Friend's meeting on sustainable development this morning, will he take this opportunity to reinforce the Government's commitment to a fully sustainable, integrated transport strategy? Is he aware that many parts of the country, including East Anglia, have suffered from severe underinvestment in road and rail transport links over the past two decades? Following the Government's welcome review of transport and trunk road policies, what prospect can he offer those parts of the country?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the importance of transport policy as part of our policy of sustainable development. That is precisely why we have committed ourselves to our own proposals and targets and why we have been part of the European Union's commitment to proper binding targets for the long term. The Kyoto conference, which is coming up shortly, will provide a further opportunity for us to take international action. In the meantime, at the conclusion of our consultation on transport policy, I hope that we can offer for the first time the genuine prospect of a proper national integrated transport strategy, which has been overdue for a long, long time.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

In view of the tremendous improvement in inward investment that the previous Government secured for this country through maintaining a flexible labour market—I welcome the cheer on the Labour Benches for it—will the Prime Minister now please answer a question that he has had a great many chances to answer? This is a simple question and he has had lots of time to go through his notes. Given that much of that flexibility will be removed under the social chapter, to which he has signed up, how will he guarantee to small businesses that they will not suffer from those inflexibilities?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There are no proposals under the social chapter to stop flexibility. That is the simple answer. We have a simple choice: we can be part of discussions in Europe or be shut out from them. That is precisely why British business would prefer us to be engaged in discussions that might affect it, rather than excluded from them. If the right hon. Lady wants to know what British business really fears about Europe, it fears the policy of her party, which she and the person sitting next to her—the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke)—do not agree with.

Photo of Mr Clive Soley Mr Clive Soley Chair, Parliamentary Labour Party

We recognise the importance of the family to social structure and to individual welfare, and I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the concern about the lack of integrated policies on the family under the previous Government. Can he tell us what this Government have done to bring about an integrated policy towards the family, bearing in mind the importance of that issue for Britain?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I said at conference, we have set up a ministerial group that is looking at every aspect of family policy. Part of the reason we have laid such emphasis on getting the long-term unemployed back to work and on trying to deal with the problems of education in our education system is that those are two of the ways in which we can best strengthen family life. As we have made clear throughout, whether in the tax and benefit system or in any other area of policy, the family is an essential part of British society and we should do everything that we can to support it.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

The small and medium businesses in this country have—[Interruption.] It is worth trying the question a different way round. Small and medium businesses in this country have already faced four interest rate rises and a raid on pensions under this Government. Will my right hon. Friend confirm—[HON. MEMBERS: "Come over, then."]Will the right hon. Gentleman-it is tough on this side—confirm that, under the Labour Government, those businesses, as well as having to deal with millennium compliance and prepare for the euro, will have to take on board the working time directive—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]—the parental leave directive—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]part—time rights for workers—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]—the burden of proof in sex discrimination, and now new workers councils? Would he advise business voters in Winchester and Beckenham to vote for such commercial suicide?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I know that it is tough on that side, but we will just have to disagree about the social chapter. I believe that many small businesses welcome our proposals, not least the cut in corporation tax to the lowest it has been, with particular reference to small businesses. I repeat—although I do not think that we will greatly advance the argument between us—that what business fears is a business community trying to do business with the rest of Europe and a Government who end up being isolated and separated from the rest of Europe. That is why, if the hon. Lady had the interests of business at heart, she should join us—as I thought for a moment she would—rather than continue to support the views of her party leadership, which are contrary to the best interests of business.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Manchester, Blackley

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that in 2002 the Commonwealth games will take place in Manchester. The games will bring jobs and prosperity to my constituency of Manchester, Blackley and to Manchester and the north-west generally. Has he considered to ways in which the games could be used to improve the image of our country internationally?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, we certainly have considered that. It is tremendous for Manchester and for Britain that we will host the Commonwealth games in 2002. We are confident that they will be highly successful. The Government and the UK Sports Council are working closely with the Manchester team. There is an interdepartmental group to assist Manchester in the delivery of a successful event. We are delighted that Manchester is hosting the games. We know that they will be a great success and the Government will give them every support.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

I am not going to ask the Prime Minister about small businesses. Exactly one year ago today, the then Leader of the Opposition described the national health service as being in a state of crisis and the Tories' spending plans as a sticking plaster to get them through the election. As hospital waiting lists are now increasing, and as the Department of Health confirmed today that expenditure this year will be less in real terms than it was under the Conservatives, how would the Prime Minister describe this Government's spending plans?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I would describe them in this way: we have allocated an extra £300 million this year— that is a fact—and we will allocate another £1.2 billion next year over and above the Conservative spending plans. Of course I am aware that the health service and hospitals face very difficult times. We cannot put right in six months the problems of 18 years—we accept that—but this Government are committed to the national health service and we are starting, in difficult circumstances, to put more money into it.

The Liberal Democrats can call for more money for everything, but they do not have to deliver it. Labour has to deliver it, and we shall do that in the best way possible in the interests of the future of not just the health service, but the country.

Photo of Mr John Gunnell Mr John Gunnell Labour, Morley and Rothwell

Does the Prime Minister agree that, when schools develop excellence in some specialism, such as technology or languages, it is important that the wider community of local schools benefits also? How will the Government's policy ensure that help goes to the many and not just the few?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The purpose of the announcement that has been made today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is to ensure that the benefits of specialist schools reach beyond those schools. The number of such schools will increase from 260 to about 330 by next September, when we will want to increase the number further. We hope to devote about –9 million in private sponsorship to developing those schools. It is precisely because we are insisting that those schools share their resources with the schools around them that we can say that the policy will benefit the many and not the few.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Last Thursday it was four, by Monday it was 12, and by yesterday 20 workers were suspended without pay by Coats Viyella for wearing poppies. One of the 20 workers suspended is a veteran of the Falklands war. Does the Prime Minister agree that, when the House enacted the fair employment legislation it never intended it be used to produce this sort of result? Will he assure the House that the review of that legislation will ensure that this sort of thing never happens again and that British workers will never again be penalised for wearing poppies at work?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course I agree that people should not be penalised for wearing poppies. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that both traditions and both sides of the community in Northern Ireland want to support what happened in the second world war and realise that people of whatever religion made tremendous contributions in fighting and in winning that war.

Photo of Austin Mitchell Austin Mitchell Labour, Great Grimsby

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in welcoming today's White Paper on international development. It is the first such paper for 20 years—so shamefaced were the Conservatives about their record of cutting aid from 0.5 per cent. of gross domestic product to 0.27 per cent. last year. The White Paper is doubly welcome because it puts the moral dimension back into aid by cutting prestige projects such as the Pergau dam and focusing on the poorest of the poor in those countries. Does my right hon. Friend agree also that aid will be undermined unless we reach agreement about debt and stop the debt treadmill in poor countries, which are spending an increasing proportion of their overseas earnings on debt repayments?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows that there will be a statement shortly on the Government's White Paper. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that we must focus aid on the poorest countries while ensuring that it is not wasted on projects such as the Pergau dam—which was a scandal under the previous Government—but is spent in a way that contributes to countries' overall development.

My hon. Friend will know that the money that is raised in making the Commonwealth Development Corporation into a public-private partnership will go into aid and development, so that will increase our resources there. In relation to the debt burden, finance Ministers, under the prompting of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed a series of measures to relieve debt in the developing world. We support that very strongly indeed.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Does the Prime Minister agree that the United Kingdom is trading in an international—not just a European—arena? Is he further aware that we are highly regarded because of our relatively low-cost economy, which is growing, and that our unemployment is coming down, unlike most countries within Europe'? Why does he seek to reverse that by signing up to European social chapter and other regulations? That may be popular in the Confederation of British Industry, but the CBI does not represent British industry. We do; and it does not want them.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I should congratulate the hon. Gentleman on, for the first time in my memory, being on his party's message. It was very well delivered, too. We are just going to have to disagree on the social chapter. The fact is that there are no measures in the social chapter that will cause problems for British business. That idea is absolute nonsense. We were told before the election, I seem to recall, that if Britain signed the social chapter half a million jobs would flood out of the country. It has all been nonsense. What is important is that we are part of the debate in Europe. The Government of this country—and this is in the interests of business—stand up for British interests best when they play a positive, constructive and forward-looking role. If the Conservative party does not learn that soon, it will spend a long time in opposition learning it.