Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Duchy of Lancaster – in the House of Commons at 1:40 pm on 4 February 1998.

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Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. Later today, I go to the United States of America.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is a national health service dentist in my constituency [HON. MEMBERS: "Only one?] Yes, only one, and he has to charge his patients £3 a month to continue dispensing on the NHS. Is that legal? Does it fit with the concept of a fully comprehensive national health service free at the point of use? What will the Prime Minister do to increase NHS dentistry in my constituency and elsewhere?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We want as much NHS dentistry as possible, but the hon. Gentleman knows that we have inherited a situation where the number of dentists on the NHS was slashed by the previous Government. However, as a result of what the Government have done, £1.5 billion extra is going into the NHS. That is not as much investment as we want, but at least under this Government we are getting the chance to rebuild and renew the national health service as the citizens of our country want.

Photo of Mr Rhodri Morgan Mr Rhodri Morgan Labour, Cardiff West

When my right hon. Friend flies to Washington, he will not need the services of rocket science to observe that the United States has a democratically elected upper house, whereas we have a Heath Robinson contraption, including the absurdity of an hereditary grouse-moors-R-us component with its built-in Tory majority. When is he going to bring that disgrace to democracy to an end and move the hereditary peers out of Parliament and put them where they belong: in the millennium dome as a permanent exhibition dedicated to feudalism in all its forms?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As soon as possible. I am delighted by reports that the Conservative party is changing its policy and will back House of Lords reform. There appear to be a few heads nodding and a few heads shaking. That is about par for the course for today's Tory party. It is essential that we remove a blight on the nation's democracy—that of hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords making laws. That has no place in a modern democracy, and under our Government it will be got rid of.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

When the Prime Minister goes to the United States later today, will he take with him the message that there is strong support across all political parties for the backing that this country has given to the United States in its firm stand on Iraq, in its determination to enforce United Nations resolutions and in dealing with horrific weapons of mass destruction? I am sure that he agrees with us that history has taught us not to be weak in the face of an evil dictator.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. It is absolutely essential that we bring Saddam Hussein back into line with the UN resolution under which he agreed that chemical, biological and nuclear weapons of mass destruction would be removed and destroyed. That resolution was passed by the UN, and it was an agreement that Saddam Hussein entered into: it was part of the deal that ended the Gulf war. It is absolutely essential that we enforce that agreement, otherwise we will have to deal with an even more dangerous situation a few years, or even a few months, down the line.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support and for the support of other political leaders. It is essential that we send out the firmest possible message to Saddam Hussein today and every day until he complies with those UN resolutions.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

In supporting the Prime Minister's remarks, may I ask him to agree that history has also taught us that we owe it to our armed forces to exhaust every diplomatic possibility before we use force, to have clear objectives for any military action and to ensure that the armed forces have all the support they need to attain those objectives if they are called upon?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, that is right. We must have the clearest possible strategic and military objectives in any action that we take. Let me repeat that it is our desire—and the desire of everyone involved—to find a diplomatic solution. No one wants to use force, but history has taught us, first, that, in the case of Saddam Hussein, unless diplomacy is backed up by force it will not be successful and, secondly, that it is of paramount importance to prevent his developing the weapons of mass destruction that he has been developing in this past period. His is not a theoretical or abstract capability: he has developed a real capability over a period of time. The proof of that exists, as does the proof that he has attempted at every stage to obstruct the UN inspectors so as to prevent them from carrying out their task.

Of course we shall seek a diplomatic solution. We all want a diplomatic solution, but no one should be in any doubt that our bottom line is that those Security Council resolutions necessary for the peace of the world will be enforced.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that a child in social class V is five times more likely to die before the age of 15 than a child in social class I cannot be tolerated? What are the Government doing to ensure that improving public health for all is given the highest priority?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is the Government's priority, which is why we have introduced proposals to improve public health. Experience has taught us that problems of ill health, particularly among children, are often connected with poverty, poor housing and high levels of unemployment. That is precisely why we have set up the £3.5 billion welfare-to-work programme, why we are tackling the problem of poor educational opportunity in our schools, and why the Deputy Prime Minister has released the first £900 million that will be spent on improving the quality of housing for our people. All those measures are necessary if we are to raise the living standards and health of all our children.

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

Given Saddam Hussein's record on cruelty and international aggression, will the Prime Minister explain what he believes the consequence would be if we failed to take the actions that may ultimately be necessary to convince and persuade Saddam Hussein that he cannot flout international law and thumb his nose at the international community?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I will. I should also tell the right hon. Gentleman and the House that we have issued a document, which we will send to all Members of Parliament today, detailing the exact weapons findings that the United Nations inspectors have made. For example, in the last six years they have uncovered some 38,000 chemical weapons, some 480,000 litres of live chemical warfare agents, 48 Scud missiles, 30 missile warheads and a vast biological weapon production plant which they then destroyed.

That is my first point. My second is that, at every stage, Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi authorities have lied and deceived people about the existence of those weapons. If anything could make clearer the case for our ensuring that the UN inspectors can carry out their work, it is that evidence. That is why I say that this is not a theoretical or an abstract threat; it is not a test of international virility or machismo. It is a genuine desire to ensure that we enforce the conditions necessary for peace.

The short answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question is that, if we do not stop Saddam Hussein, there is every possibility that he will develop weapons of mass destruction, and—on the basis of experience—use them.

Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Can my right hon. Friend think of a better or more inspirational celebration of the 50th anniversary of the national health service than the historic decision to keep St. Bartholomew's open as a world-class hospital dedicated to the service of people in one of the poorest parts of the kingdom?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As my two eldest children were born at Bart's, I well appreciate the importance of keeping it as a hospital in London.

The important feature of yesterday's announcement is that it allows to develop London's long-term health care needs. It is not just a question of Bart's; it is a question of the framework for the long-term development of primary health care services, mental health services and, of course, hospitals, which gives us the chance to build a national health service that is fit for the 21st century in London.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

When one of the Prime Minister's junior Ministers says that the green belt is "up for grabs" and other Ministers overrule the decision to reject housing development in the south-east of England—whereas in the run-up to the general election the Prime Minister and his party were saying that Labour would look after the countryside—is it not yet another Labour broken promise?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, it is not—and there has, perhaps, been no more hypocritical or opportunist campaign than the Conservative campaign on the countryside.

Let me explain the facts. First, we are continuing precisely the policy of the last Government, apart from the fact that we are tightening it. Secondly, when in government, the Conservatives said that they wanted 50 per cent. of development to be on brown-field sites; then, in their manifesto, it was 60 per cent.; then their junior environment spokesman said that it was 75 per cent.; then the Leader of the Opposition said that it was 66 per cent. Shall I tell the House what the Conservatives did in government? In government, it was 42 per cent. Whatever the Conservatives say now, it is not what they did in government, and this Government intend to do better than they did.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

When the Prime Minister goes to the United States of America, I am sure he will congratulate the President on the surplus in their budget. I wonder whether he, bolstered by his own popularity in this country and the popularity of this Government, will suggest to the United States President that it is time in a mature democracy that they looked again at the policy of oppression of the Cuban people and particularly looked at getting rid of the Helms-Burton Bill, which prevents the people of Cuba moving smoothly to a democratic situation.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not know whether that will be part of the conversation between us, but I am aware of my hon. Friend's views and he will be aware of the Government's position.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

Does the Prime Minister still agree with his Housing Minister that a target for building on brown-field sites of 60 per cent. or more would be a recipe for disaster?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I understand it, that is not what is being said, but in any event let me make one thing clear again. There is an idea that the present Government are in some way implementing a policy that was no part of the last Government's policy. It is completely in line, apart from the fact that we are trying to tighten it. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about Hertfordshire?"] Conservative Members are shouting about Hertfordshire. The Leader of the Opposition went to Stevenage to say that we were bulldozing green-field sites. We have considered the matter. The building in Hertfordshire is entirely in line with what the inspectors wanted: it is not the Government's decision. Furthermore, most of what has been done in Hertfordshire was done under the previous Government. They had 14,000 houses built on green-field sites and under our proposals there are only 7,000. Yet again there is nothing but an appalling, hypocritical opportunist campaign that does not even convince the Opposition, never mind the public.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Labour, Harlow

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the flat rejection by the Commissioner for Public Appointments of Conservative party complaints about appointments by the Secretary of State for Health to national health service trusts? Does he agree that the contrast with the record of the Conservative Government, when appointments were invariably based on whether applicants were card-carrying Conservatives, is stark? Does he further agree that, however hard Tory Members try to pretend that all politicians are as bad as they are, such bogus complaints and the scandalous debate that was initiated before lunchtime mean that their tactics will not wash? They know it, we know it and, more important, the public know it.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. They are an Opposition of trivial pursuits at the moment. The latest allegation is absolute rubbish. We wanted to make trust boards more representative of the communities they serve, and that is quite right. The Conservative health spokesman made an allegation that has been comprehensively rebutted by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. It is about time that, one of these days, having made a false allegation, they withdrew it.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

On the day of the National Farmers Union conference, will the Prime Minister tell the House by how much farming income fell in the past year?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It has fallen in the past year as a result of a number of factors. [HON. MEMBERS: "How much?"] We are putting in as much support as we possibly can, and rather more than the Conservative Government did.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am sorry that the Prime Minister does not know the answer. Perhaps he thinks that it is too trivial. The figures published in the past week by his Government show that farming incomes have fallen by 46 per cent. Will he acknowledge that the rural economy faces great difficulties? Has it not been the wrong time to cut the payments to the livestock sector and to reduce support for hill farmers? Will he at least give farmers a guarantee that in the coming year the forecast underspend on agriculture budgets will be put back into agriculture?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The payments to hill farmers that the right hon. Gentleman mentions are payments that we inherited from the previous Government.

Hon. Members:

indicated dissent.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Opposition Members shake their heads, but it is precisely the same amount—except that since we came to power we have increased it by £85 million. As I say, £1.6 billion is now going to support the beef industry. Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there is a serious situation in farming. That is why we produced the additional package. It is surely important that we manage to support farming in a way that helps it for the long term and in particular deals with the enormous problems that were left to it by the Conservative Government after BSE.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Government cut the budget by £129 million before increasing it by £85 million, so the Prime Minister cannot boast about that. The Government have imposed millions of pounds of extra costs on family farms. They have banned beef on the bone without needing to and have presided over a massive fall in farm incomes. The only hope they give to agriculture at the moment is that many Labour party members want to buy eggs to throw at the Chancellor. All we ask for is a clear answer to my question. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that money that is intended for the rural economy goes to the rural economy? If he cannot give that guarantee he will reinforce the growing belief that the Government do not care about the countryside.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

What a load of rubbish. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] Look at them.

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

Order. Mr. Paterson, save your voice for when you are outside the Chamber. Stop shouting.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, to blame us for the crisis in the beef industry, when the Conservatives were responsible for BSE, is extraordinary. Secondly, I am informed by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that, when they were in government, the Conservatives never once did what the Leader of the Opposition is now asking me to do. Thirdly, in relation to the agrimoney that the Conservatives are now saying we should seek, we are the Government who have sought extra money. I am advised that, throughout the entirety of the 20 years of Conservative government, they never once did that.

In relation to this countryside issue, as on all the others, people can tell the difference between an Opposition who are opportunistic and an Opposition who mean something. This Opposition have not a single constructive thing to say, which is why they are in opposition and we are in government.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

I hope that my right hon. Friend is aware of the huge support that he has in Northern Ireland for his personal determination to reach a settlement in Northern Ireland that will be accepted by everyone who is reasonable, but does he agree that there is a vital need to bolster the democratic process in Northern Ireland? Does he share the concern about—or will he at least study carefully—the BBC consultation document that, if implemented in full, would mean that United Kingdom mainland parties would no longer have political broadcasts in Northern Ireland? Does he realise how that could be perceived in Northern Ireland and, crucially, that it would mean that British citizens would feel even more excluded from democratic politics and from full and equal citizenship?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will know, of course, that the broadcasters are examining the arrangements for party political broadcasting, and it is for them to take the lead in that. I understand that she has concerns about the proposals and why she puts those concerns forward, but it is clear that these are matters for the broadcasters. I am sure that they will have heard what she has said and the remarks that I have made.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Liberal Democrat, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity of his flight to America with his economic adviser, Mr. Gavyn Davies, to ask him about his latest report on the UK economy in which he claims that there is plenty of scope for additional public spending, given the war chest that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is building? When he asks Mr. Davies about that, perhaps the Prime Minister will be able to deal with the problems that are faced by farmers in my constituency, the elderly and those who receive cold weather payments with regard to the crisis in public spending. Will he ask Mr. Davies to advise him on how to access the money that is in the war chest?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Gavyn Davies has not, as far as I am aware, supported the Liberal Democrats' claims of some great war chest. On cold weather payments, the Government are giving £200 million of help to pensioners, including £50 directly to pensioner family households who are on income support.

In relation to public spending, of course we understand that there are public services that need more investment. Indeed, we have contributed a substantial amount of additional investment to our schools and to our hospitals, but it is important that we do it noting that we must not go back to the days of the late 1980s and early 1990s when, after people said, "There is enough money to do whatever we want. There is no problem with inflation," mistakes were made by the previous Government and we ended up with interest rates at 15 per cent. for a year and record borrowing.

It is precisely to avoid that situation that we are being cautious on public spending. We are right to be. Of course we will invest, but we will do it when we can and consistent with the economy's having stable economic management for the future.