Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Wales – in the House of Commons at 1:39 pm on 18 February 1998.

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Photo of Dennis Canavan Dennis Canavan Labour, Falkirk West 1:39, 18 February 1998

Will my right hon. Friend have a word with his friend, President Clinton, about the multilateral agreement on investment, which would prevent the rejection of an inward investor with a record of damaging the environment, ill-treating workers or refusing to employ local workers? Bearing in mind that the United States of America is proposing that agreement and yet, ironically, has negotiated an opt-out for its own states and local authorities, will my right hon. Friend either reject the agreement in its entirety or negotiate a similar opt-out for local authorities in this country, and for the Scottish Parliament?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am afraid that the answer to that is no. Let me explain why. The multilateral agreement on investment is supported not just by the United States, but by Britain. Indeed, we have been active in promoting it, for a very good reason. Contrary to some of the things that are being said, it does not prevent decent regulations, either on labour standards or on the environment. What it does prevent is means of discriminating against foreign companies, and it is actually very important for British business and British exports that we prevent countries using regulation as a backdoor means of discriminating against foreign investment.

We are people who gain, in Scotland and elsewhere, from free trade. We want to promote it as much as possible, and an agreement such as this does not, in any shape or form, prevent us imposing decent minimum standards for our work force. It does mean that we, in common with other countries, cannot use that as a back-door method of discrimination. I think that, once that point is understood, people will support that investment agreement.

Mr. John M. Taylor:

Under the Prime Minister's proposals for compulsory trade union recognition, does a majority of the work force mean a majority of those voting or a majority of those entitled to vote? [28431]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I have just said to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant), a range of issues are being discussed and considered, and it would not be appropriate or right to give an answer until the consideration is over.

Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Labour, Stretford and Urmston

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many thousands of women, including many in my constituency and in the north-west, work for poverty pay, and that millions of pounds are spent subsidising the worst employers? Therefore, is not the national minimum wage a good deal for the country, but vital for women? Are not the Tories continuing to fail women by opposing it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Literally hundreds of thousands of women will benefit from a statutory minimum wage; that is one of the reasons why we are committed to introducing it. It is also important that we reduce the vast benefits bill—now running at more than £3 billion a year—for subsidising low pay.

Every other country in the civilised world has some minimum threshold of pay. There is no reason why we should not have one too. It is right for the work force and, what is more, it is better in the long term for the efficiency of our economy. There is no way in which this country can compete as a low-wage, low-skill economy.

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

Last week, the Prime Minister told me that the Human Rights Bill would not lead to a privacy law and that there was no need to amend it. When did he change his mind?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I made it clear then that there was no backdoor privacy law, and I make it clear again now. That is precisely why the Home Secretary—if people had listened to his speech—said exactly how that could be prevented in the course of the Second Reading debate on Monday.

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

We all know a U-turn when we see one— even though this is a particularly welcome U-turn. Last week, the Prime Minister said that our questions on this subject were a lot of trivia. This week, what he dismissed as a lot of trivia is now Government policy. While he is in the mood to accept amendments, will the Prime Minister also accept the Lords amendment that guarantees religious freedom? People of all faiths are worried that, under the Bill as drafted by the Lord Chancellor, religious schools may have to accept as teachers people whose way of life or faith is incompatible with the ethos of those schools.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On the first point, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, last week, I said that we should consider the representations of the Press Complaints Commission and others. We considered them and we came up with an answer that the right hon. Gentleman appears to agree with, yet he still criticises us.

In relation to the second point—I think that the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) raised it last week—we said that we should consider it. The Home Secretary is still considering the matter. When we have a proper opportunity in the course of debate to make our position clear, we shall do so. My information is that there has been no active, practical problem with this so far. We are discussing whether we need an amendment to make it absolutely clear.

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

We know that the Prime Minister and the Government are considering the matter. However, the Human Rights Bill is more than halfway through its passage through Parliament, and it is time that the Prime Minister stopped dithering and made up his mind. The Lord Chancellor could have sorted it out ages ago if he were not so busy flicking through furniture catalogues. When will the Prime Minister make the decision that the Churches and religious schools are waiting for? Does it not worry him a bit that, for the second time in two weeks, he must consider amending the Human Rights Bill in order to protect human rights?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, it does not concern me at all. It is entirely sensible, during the passage of a Bill in which the overwhelming majority of issues are supported by members of the public, to consider points that are raised during debate. If we were not considering them, the Leader of the Opposition would attack us for that. I do not understand the purpose of this interchange. As for furniture and fittings, that is something that has occupied the Opposition more than us.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

Is the Prime Minister aware that 90 per cent, of lone mothers would like the opportunity to work? [Interruption.] Given the start that the Government have made in supporting and promoting the new deal programme, what more can be done to enable women to take up the four options in the new deal and encourage businesses and employers to play their part in assisting women into work?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is interesting that Opposition Members jeer and shout about the prospects of getting lone parents back into work. They appear unable to ask a serious question about any issue that actually concerns members of the public.

As a result of the Government's actions, an extra £300 million will be available for people to bid into for child care programmes. One of the biggest inhibitions that lone parents face in getting off benefit and into work is that they cannot get enough help with child care. This fund, which is especially set aside over and above the Conservatives' pledge, is there precisely to help them to do so. I am delighted that my hon. Friend supports it.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Liberal Democrat, South East Cornwall

Will the Prime Minister visit Fowey and St. Barnabas, Saltash hospitals in my constituency and explain to the patients, doctors and nurses there why, when the Government pledged to save the NHS, those hospitals are about to be closed? As a Liberal Democrat former bank manager, I am quite used to looking at both sides of the balance sheet. Why does the Prime Minister concentrate only on expenditure and fail to use any additional income that he has received to help relieve some of the misery in the NHS in Cornwall?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am delighted to hear that the hon. Gentleman was a bank manager. There should be a job going as the economic spokesman for the Liberal Democrats.

Additional money is going into the national health service, but it will take time to turn it round. We have always made that clear, because it is necessary to make sure that we bring the public finances under control. We are putting more money into the health service than the Liberal Democrats asked for in their election manifesto. It will take time, but it is better to make sure that we get there in a way that is consistent with running a stable economic ship, rather than do it in the way that the Liberal Democrats suggest, which is to spend money on every problem under the sun, trying to pretend that it grows on trees, when in the real world it does not. That is the difference between government and opposition.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Labour, Salford

In the national press yesterday, the Langworthy area of Salford was described not as Coronation street, but as desolation street. It is true. Good, decent families are terrorised by crime and drugs, and surrounded by dereliction, as a direct result of 18 years of uncaring Tory policies. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me and local people that this Labour Government will tackle the desperation in our inner-city areas caused by the Tories?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Some £900 million of capital receipts has been released, and there is a £3.5 billion welfare-to-work programme, the additional £200 million that is going to help pensioners with their fuel bills, and the £300 million that I mentioned for child care. For the first time, through the social exclusion unit, there is a Government who are trying to deal with all those inner-city problems—poverty, housing, unemployment and poor educational opportunity. It will take time, but we shall do it, and my hon. Friend's constituency and others throughout the country will see the benefit and the difference between this Labour Government and the previous Conservative one.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

Has the Prime Minister seen the recent letter to the press from three former and very distinguished members of the armed forces, calling for a more restrictive arms policy? Will he assure the House that his proposals for the European Union code of conduct on arms sales will be strong enough to prevent another scandal like the arms to Iraq scandal, so that we never have to face an enemy that we ourselves have armed?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely share that objective. Any action that is taken on a European level must be negotiated with other European Governments, and the hon. Lady will know that there are sometimes difficulties in doing that. Our commitment is firm. The idea of a code that operated on a Europewide basis was an initiative of this Government. We shall prosecute it as speedily as we can.

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

Was not the best news this week the announcement that there is an extra £10 billion in income tax receipts? That will be very helpful in the Budget.

I hope that my right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the rest of the Cabinet, most of whom are spending Ministers, will be able to take part in an exercise that will take us further and further away from the discredited policies of the previous Government and their Tory spending plans. We must wean ourselves away from those in order to save a little for a rainy day and elections—[Laughter.] Oh yes, and long term. We must make sure that the bulk of that money is used to repair the national health service, renew our education system and repair the social fabric. There will be no tax cuts for the rich, and we shall leave the Tory leader fiddling away with his zero-hours contract.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes; I agree with most of that. The measures that we have taken on the economy will bring the public finances back into balance and cure the Budget deficit left to us by the Conservative party, which will for ever be known as the party of boom and bust. We are not going back to those days. Precisely because of the prudent way in which we have managed the economy, we shall be able to get the investment into our health service and schools that the country wants.

Photo of Mr Ronnie Fearn Mr Ronnie Fearn Liberal Democrat, Southport

Is the Prime Minister aware that three theatres and three arts centres have closed in north-west England over the past few months, and that museums there are in a desperate state? Not only that, but Southport pier, which is the longest pier in Europe, is in danger of being lost for good. When will the north-west of England get a fair crack of the whip?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We are trying to ensure that it gets a fair crack of the whip. I do not want to rehearse all the arguments that I have already advanced to the Liberal Democrats. We made a commitment that we should live within the spending constraints that we inherited. Many of those constraints were unrealistically low in many ways because of various things that were supposed to happen but did not under the previous Government. As soon as we can get help to the north-west and other areas, we shall.

However, I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we do not make the mistake that was made at the end of the 1980s, when people thought that the economy was fine and that we could put ever-rising amounts of money into it. Then, two years later, under the Conservatives, we had record interest rates of 15 per cent., record borrowing, record bankruptcies and record repossessions. If we are cautious, it is for a good reason.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

When the Tory party was telling us that Britain was booming, many small businesses in my constituency were going bust. Do not small businesses need economic stability for growth? In particular, should we not encourage them to take part in the new deal, which will present both them and the people they can then employ with an opportunity?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have been delighted by the response from many small employers, as well as large, to the new deal. About 800 employers have already signed up to it. We believe that there will be many, many more. I know that many Members—I hope on both sides of the House but I know certainly on the Government Benches—are organising meetings of the employers in their areas to try to get them interested in the new deal. The scheme has generated enormous enthusiasm among many young people who wanted the chance to work and who are now being given it by the Government.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

I return to the subject of trade union recognition in the hope that the House can have a clear answer to the questions put by my hon. Friends the Members for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) and for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). Does the Prime Minister agree with the Confederation of British Industry that trade union recognition should require a majority of those in the workplace to vote in a ballot? May I have an answer, yes or no?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, the hon. Gentleman cannot, until the consideration is out of the way, which is what I have explained to the hon. Members for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) and for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). The hon. Gentleman would not expect, when there is a consultation process under way, for me to pre-empt it now. As soon as the decision is made and the consideration is completed, we shall come and tell the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

With reference to last night's overwhelming majority vote, does my right hon. Friend agree that whether or not military action is taken depends entirely on the Iraqi dictator and no one else? Can more be done to nail the lie—it is a lie—that it is the United States, Britain and other countries that are engaged in warmongering, when every effort is being made, as my right hon. Friend said today and as we know, to enable diplomatic efforts to reach a solution? The responsibility for military action, if it comes, must surely lie with the Iraqi regime and no one else.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes. If you will permit me one moment, Madam Speaker, I shall explain to the House briefly why the presidential sites are particularly important.

In the first few years of the existence of the United Nations weapons inspectors' programme, the inspectors became convinced that Iraq was operating a mechanism to conceal the amount of weapon-making capability that there was. The breakthrough came in 1995, when the son-in-law of Saddam defected to Jordan and said that such a programme was going on. He later returned to Iraq and was murdered. It was then clear that organisations such as the Special Republican Guard and others were involved in concealment and that that involved presidential sites. The inspectors could not get access to those sites but they could see equipment being moved around inside them. Some of those sites are vast compounds—not just palaces—with hundreds of buildings within them.

The inspectors could see equipment being moved around and documents being burnt. For that reason, they started to ask for access to them. Effectively, they have been refused that access for the past two years. That is why this all arises. The idea that this has suddenly come up or that we have suddenly started to take seriously the possibility of those presidential sites being used for weapon-making capability is wrong. We have seen this all the way through. That is why it is important that we make Saddam back down. Iraq is saying, "You can go into those sites, but only once." We have to be able to go into them regularly, to monitor them. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that we are able to get into those presidential sites. That is why we have taken the action that we have.

Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot

Does the Prime Minister recall giving a pledge during the general election campaign, when he told ITN that the Labour party wanted to extend the scope of PEPs and TESSAs, so that the idea that it would take any action against them was completely absurd? Is he aware that not only I but many other hon. Members have received letters from the public, who are greatly exercised at the action taken by his Chancellor? Does he not feel a sense of shame that he has betrayed so many ordinary people, many of whom put their trust in him?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I do not accept that in any shape or form. In fact, as a result of individual savings accounts, more people will be able to save. Under the current proposals, a couple will be able to put £100,000-worth of savings into it. It is important— whatever the Conservative party may think—that millions more ordinary people will be able to save for the first time.