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Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:43 pm on 28th January 1998.

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Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe 1:43 pm, 28th January 1998

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 28 January.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for that information.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have a three-part strategy for welfare reform: the welfare-to-work programme to get people back into jobs, the minimum wage so that the jobs are worth while and the benefits reform so that people who cannot work receive the help that they need? Does he agree that, as the Conservative party opposes the first two and is interested only in cuts in the third, its offer of help is nothing more than pathetic political posturing?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes. The welfare-to-work programme will be of enormous benefit to hundreds of thousands of people, particularly young people and the long-term unemployed. Of course, the provisions that will allow more people to get off benefit and into work, through changes in the benefit system, will do likewise.

The 10p tax rate will help many low income families and the minimum wage will provide the first real attempt to put a floor under wages and get rid of the appalling poverty pay that exists in many parts of our country. It is fair, it is right, and the fact that it is being opposed so staunchly by the Conservative party only reveals the difference in values between the two political parties.

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

Does the Prime Minister agree that there is a difference between a spouse and a partner?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, and the rules that have been applied are the same rules that have been applied under all Governments.

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

They are not the same. My right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) never applied the rules in the way that the Prime Minister has applied them. If he thinks that there is a difference, will he say whether Ministers who treated the word "spouse" in their code of conduct as meaning "partner" have broken that code?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, they have not.

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

The Prime Minister has made those bland assertions. He published a code of conduct with a great fanfare; he ordered Ministers to obey, not just the spirit, but the letter of that code. The first time that it is not obeyed, he says that it meant something different anyway. Will he now publish a new code of conduct for Ministers so that taxpayers can be clear when they are paying for spouses and when they are paying for partners, and that they are not paying for both at the same time?

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

I am sorry that the Prime Minister is so tetchy today. Let me ask him another question. He said that his Government believe in high standards. Let us get this straight—[Interruption.]

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

Order. I want less of that behaviour.

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

Let us get this straight. If it were true that a Minister sacked a civil servant and sought to replace her with a close friend at public expense, that would be unacceptable. Does the Prime Minister agree with that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course that would be wrong. That is not, however, what happened. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the particular person was not a career civil servant. She was appointed personally by a former Conservative Foreign Secretary. When her contract came to an end, she was replaced by a career civil servant.

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

Will the Prime Minister agree that the Foreign Secretary's behaviour was certainly secretive, clearly open to misinterpretation, probably unwise and possibly worse? Is it not time, in everyone's interests and so that the Foreign Secretary does not have to use the time in international press conferences to mount a public attack on one of his own office staff, for him to come to the House and give a full statement to clear the matter up?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No is the answer to that. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman engages in that type of question shows how completely useless and pathetic the Conservative Opposition are. Since he appears to be suggesting that the sleaze and scandal that enveloped the previous Conservative Government are the same under the present Government, let me tell him what people objected to. They objected to cash for questions for Conservative Members of Parliament. They objected to money in brown envelopes for Conservatives who became Ministers. They objected to money coming from Chinese drug dealers. They objected to parliamentary Committee reports about Back-Bench Members of Parliament being suppressed before the most recent general election.

You know, Madam Speaker, since he became Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman has not asked a single question on schools, on health, or on crime. He is Leader of the Opposition, and today we have seen why he will stay so.

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

It is not the Opposition who have made this an issue; the behaviour and incompetence of Ministers have made it an issue. People throughout the country think that the way in which Ministers have behaved in recent weeks shows that power has gone to their heads, and, if they have nothing to hide, they should be prepared to come to the House and make a full statement and be accountable to it.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Since I am on my feet and the right hon. Gentleman has made mention of other allegations, let me give the House the facts on the so-called amount of money being spent by Ministers. On overseas visits, considerably less money will be spent by the Government this year than was spent by the Conservative Government in their last year. On official residences, including refurbishments, more money was spent by the previous Conservative Government than has been spent by the Government this year. On ministerial hospitality, in the last full year of the previous Government, more than £2 million was spent; this year, we have spent £1 million.

While I am on my feet, on the subject of Downing street receptions, there will be fewer receptions this year, under me, and they will cost less money than under the previous Prime Minister. My case rests.

Photo of John McAllion John McAllion Labour, Dundee East

Friday marks the 26th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Deny, and my right hon. Friend knows that the families of those who were killed and wounded by British Army gunfire on that day have been trying, ever since, to establish the truth of what happened and the truth about who is responsible for what happened. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity of this anniversary week to announce his intention to establish an international committee of lawyers to carry out an open, honest and comprehensive inquiry into all the events surrounding Bloody Sunday, so that those matters may be finally laid to rest?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend might have anticipated, we are discussing and considering the material that has been submitted to us. When we are in a position to make a statement, we shall do so, and it will be announced to the House in the usual way.

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

The Prime Minister might like to address a serious question. Does he rule out the possibility of a referendum on a single currency in this Parliament?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I explained to the right hon. Gentleman last week, we have made it clear that we do not believe that this country will be in a position to join a single currency or to have a referendum on that subject during this Parliament.

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

The question that I asked the Prime Minister was whether he rules that possibility out. His answer last week and today was so "majoristic" that it might have come from his predecessor. To the question, "Is it possible to have a referendum on a single currency during this Parliament?", there are three possible answers: yes, no or maybe. Which is it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have made it clear that we believe neither that there will be a referendum during this Parliament, nor that there should be, for the reasons that I have given. I gave them to the right hon. Gentleman last week, and I shall give them to him again this week. The position is such that the economic convergence necessary simply will not be in place. That is why we have said no.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton

Is not the minimum wage a key part of helping people out of poverty and into work? Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating our hon. Friends who have just completed a marathon twenty-six and a half hours in Standing Committee to make progress on the National Minimum Wage Bill, in the face of ill-founded delaying tactics from the Opposition?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to point out that a huge benefits bill is paid by this country—more than £3 billion a year—as a result of low pay. It is surely right that we should bring Britain into line with virtually every other civilised country by providing a floor underneath wages, so that they should not fall beneath a certain minimum level. Many countries, including the United States, have even lower levels of unemployment, yet there is a minimum wage. I do not believe that treating people fairly, paying them a decent minimum wage and offering them good job prospects are inconsistent with each other.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

Can the Prime Minister explain how Britain's reputation in the world is improved by having a Minister in his Government who dare not set foot in Belgium because he is wanted for questioning by the Belgian tax authorities?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is rubbish, again. On this smear, the Tories began by claiming that the Paymaster-General had taken money out of the country and avoided paying UK tax. Neither of those allegations is true. The Tories carry on making those allegations because, as ever, they have nothing to say about the important issues of the day.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Labour, Gillingham

I welcome the decision to abolish the nursery voucher scheme, which was bureaucratic and wasteful. We know that that will release £126 million towards implementing our pledge to provide a place for every four-year-old who wants one. Young families and those involved in that service provision in my constituency of Gillingham welcome that decision. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the pledge is rapidly implemented, so that we give our children a good start in life?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We are making as much progress as we can. We shall be able to fulfil our pledge of nursery places for four-year-olds, then we shall make a start on three-year-olds as well. That is an important part of providing the education system that we need for the 21st century. Across every aspect of education—in primary schools, secondary schools and higher education—we are making progress in raising standards and giving our children the education that they need.