Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:39 pm on 4 March 1998.

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Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Labour, Birmingham, Erdington 1:39, 4 March 1998

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 March.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. Later today, I shall have further such meetings.

Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Labour, Birmingham, Erdington

In offering our sympathy to the families of the two men who were so brutally and senselessly murdered last night near Newry, will the Prime Minister confirm that he will not allow criminal fanatics to derail the peace process, which people from both communities so very much want to succeed?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes. We can all use the normal and right but ritualistic language about an evil atrocity, those appalling murders, and how senseless and wicked they are. They are all of those things. I think that the two men who were murdered last night—two friends across the community divide—in a sense symbolised the future in Northern Ireland. The gunmen, in the evil atrocity that they committed, symbolised the past. We have now got to make progress—real progress—in the talks. That should be our mission, so that the hopes of the future drive out the demons of the past. That is what we intend to do.

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

On behalf of the Opposition, may I echo and support the Prime Minister's remarks?

On a different subject, the Prime Minister says that he made clear throughout the election campaign that he would implement the Dearing recommendations on higher education. We have made clear that, if he does, we will support him. Why has he broken his promise?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have not broken a promise at all. We have accepted substantially the Dearing proposals, with this change, which was, in fact, made quite clear during the election campaign: we believe that it is better to replace the maintenance grants with help for lower-income families with tuition fees. There is a choice. We can have either no maintenance grants but help for low-income families with tuition fees or a flat-rate tuition fee, which is what Dearing suggested, and help with maintenance grants. I am afraid that we cannot have both.

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

The Prime Minister is breaking his promise. He said that he would implement the recommendations of the Dearing committee and he is not implementing the recommendations of the Dearing committee. Does he realise that, by not implementing Dearing, his proposals will mean that the poorest students will either be £2,000 worse off in total or will not go to university at all? What is his justification for that policy?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, precisely the opposite is the case for the reason that I shall explain to the right hon. Gentleman. I repeat that we did not break any promise on this. We made it clear that we believe that the maintenance element should go. Under our proposals, one third of students will be exempt from tuition fees and another third will pay a reduced amount, so a large proportion will pay either no fees or reduced fees. Under the Dearing proposals they would all, irrespective of their income, have to pay the £1,000 tuition fees. That is why our proposals will help lower-income students, not harm them. In addition, as a result of the proposals that we have announced, whereas Dearing said that contributions should be repaid when people reached an income of £5,000 a year after leaving university, our figure is £10,000 a year, so we are giving additional help to low-income families in that respect as well.

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

Let us get this clear for the Prime Minister, because he clearly does not understand his own policy. It is no good his saying that he is not charging the worst-off students tuition fees. They do not pay tuition fees now—but they do get grants, and the Prime Minister is abolishing them. If one abolishes a grant that is most generous to the worst-off people, the worst-off people will be the hardest hit. Anybody in the country can work that out. If that is not the case, why have overall student applications fallen by 4 per cent. this year and applications by mature students fallen by 18 per cent? So much for lifelong learning. For the sake of thousands of students and families, will the Prime Minister now, before it is too late, implement the actual recommendations of the Dearing report, as he promised to do?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let me explain it to the right hon. Gentleman again. The Dearing proposals, which he says we should support, are that everybody, irrespective of income, pays a flat-rate tuition fee. Under our proposals, one third are entirely exempt and another one third pay reduced fees. That is why our proposals are better for lower-income families. Secondly, we have to introduce the reform because under the Conservative Government there was a cap on student numbers, which means that only 30 per cent. of school leavers are entitled to go to university. As a result of our reforms, we shall get about 500,000 extra students into further and higher education over the next five years. That is why our reforms are a better deal for universities, for students and for the country.

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

The facts do not support the Prime Minister. Under the previous Government, higher education was hugely expanded, but now the number of applications is falling. Students and their families feel betrayed, and they are right to feel that way. They are right to be angry at the Government's deceit and double dealing. The Lords amendments passed on Monday night would give some help to the worst-off students. Even the Prime Minister cannot argue about the fact that those amendments would give more help to the worst-off students. Will he now acknowledge that the Government have got that part wrong and agree to accept the amendments?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The answer is no, for the very reason that I have already given the right hon. Gentleman—but let me give it to him again. Under his proposals, students who under our proposals will be exempt would pay tuition fees. He must accept the fact that they would pay that extra money. In addition, under his proposals, as under the previous Government, there would be a cap on student numbers—but we can now raise that cap. Also as a result of our proposals, an extra £165 million will go into higher education next year. That is why the vice-chancellors have welcomed our proposals.

The choice is simple. The right hon. Gentleman says that applications have fallen, but there will be more students in further and higher education next year because of our proposals. If we were to return to the system that he proposes, fewer students and less money would go into universities and fewer people would get the chance of a university education. That is why our proposals are better for Britain.

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

The Prime Minister talks only about tuition fees; he neglects to mention the grant, which he proposes to abolish. That is a key part of the equation. Before the election, the right hon. Gentleman said that he had no plans to introduce tuition fees; during the election campaign, he said that he would implement the Dearing report; after the election, he broke both promises. As soon as the Government got into office, power went to their heads, their principles went out of the window and their promises went in the bin. Is not their treatment of students a shabby tale of deceit from beginning to end?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I explained in my very first answer, there is a choice. Either the situation is left as it is, with maintenance grants and full tuition fees, or we do not have maintenance grants but exempt the poorest students from tuition fees. We have chosen the latter course because it is better and fairer. As for lectures from the Tories about student poverty, they introduced the most discredited student loans scheme that the country has ever seen. Students know perfectly well about the raw deal they got under the Tories. That is why they will not believe a word of what the right hon. Gentleman says now.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire Labour, Stirling

Given the image of pastoral tranquillity before 1 May 1997 that has been painted by the Conservative party, would the Prime Minister be surprised to find that one of the last pieces of research on rural affairs from the Scottish Office under the Conservatives showed significant decreases in gross domestic product and incomes, and a massive increase in homelessness? Would it not have been more appropriate for the Conservative party to reflect on their government than to don a corporate Barbour jacket and plunge headlong into collective denial?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Conservatives are in a state of denial about their record over 18 years. Following the Conservatives's period in office, 450 rural schools have been closed, only one in four parishes now has a bus service worthy of the name, crime is up, poverty is up and they gave the country BSE. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Let me repeat it—they gave the country BSE.

On that point, fortunately, I have good news to report from Brussels today. There has been a majority for the Commission proposal which, if held at the Agriculture Council next week—I very much believe that it will—will mean that the export certified herds scheme is through. At long last, after long years of Conservative failure, there is at least some light at the end of the tunnel.

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

Can the Prime Minister tell us in what year of this Government he expects to start to make progress on his early pledge to reduce NHS waiting lists?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I want to make progress this year and further progress next, but that must be done against the background of keeping a tight discipline on public spending, sorting out the structural budget deficit we inherited and making sure the public finances are sound. As soon as that is the position we will be able to put into health the investment that we need to get waiting lists down.

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

The Prime Minister knows that he has not made progress this year—in fact, waiting lists have gone up by 100,000. Is he aware that NHS waiting lists went up by 250,000 during the whole term of the previous Government? It is predicted in a recent and respected report that this Government will achieve an increase of 250,000 in NHS waiting lists by the autumn. Does the Prime Minister understand the gravity of that? If that were to be achieved, would he count it a success or a failure?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course I do not want that to happen. Before the election, the Liberal Democrats asked for £1.1 billion extra health spending. We put in £1.5 billion, but they say it is not enough. We want to get waiting lists down, and we shall. I hope that when we achieve the reduction that we have promised we will get cheers instead of the cat-calls we get now. We have to do that against the background I described. The Conservatives doubled the national debt and we will now pay out in interest payments on that debt this year more than we spend on the whole schools system of the UK. It is precisely for that reason that the Chancellor—I entirely agree with him—has made it clear that investment in our schools and hospitals has to depend on sorting out the public finances.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The Conservative party spent 18 years letting those people down. It will take time, but I can assure the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) that, at the next election, the pledge we made will have been fulfilled.

Photo of Ken Livingstone Ken Livingstone Labour, Brent East

Will the Prime Minister confirm that he has been lobbied by members of the Confederation of British Industry who want Labour to drop its commitment that trade union recognition should be granted when a simple majority of those voting in a ballot vote for recognition? The CBI proposes instead that there should be no change in the status quo unless an absolute majority of all workers—even those not voting—vote for it. Will he point out to the CBI that, if such a system had applied in the general election last year, the Conservative party would still be in government and that we have no intention of having one rule on ballots for ourselves and a different one for trade unions?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I think that we were both elected under the first-past-the-post system, but perhaps that is another argument. It is important to realise that I have been lobbied by all groups, not only the CBI, on this matter. The Government are considering the matter—we shall make our views known in due course. I hope very much that a different approach by the Government can bring business and trade unions together—as we have found on many issues, not least the social chapter and the minimum wage—on trade union recognition. If there are outstanding questions, we shall have to resolve them in the Government. We shall make our views known once that decision has been reached.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

Does the Prime Minister's new-found enthusiasm for the countryside apply to rural hospitals? If so, will he send a message of support to the staff of the Ongar War Memorial hospital and the surrounding community? Until 1 May last year, the hospital had a safe and secure future in the national health service, but, under the Labour Government, it faces closure. Do community hospitals have a safe place in the NHS?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It certainly was not the case that they had a safe and secure place until 1 May. As I said, we have spent £1.5 billion more than the Conservative Government were going to spend. In respect of the services that the hon. Gentleman mentions and others, we will do our very best within existing spending constraints. When we can, we shall put in the extra resources that are needed, but the Conservative Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported, closed hundreds of community hospitals.

Photo of Mrs Maria Fyfe Mrs Maria Fyfe Labour, Glasgow Maryhill

As we approach International Womens Day, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to reaffirm the Labour party's commitment to the principle of an equal number of men and women in the Scottish Parliament? Has he come across the advice of Noreen Burrows, the professor of European law at Glasgow university, who said that Europe would help, not hinder, our efforts to achieve that? Will he take such views into account before final decisions are made?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We certainly shall take those views into account. We fully support equal opportunities for women. Indeed, it is as a result of the changes that the Labour party made that so many women Members of Parliament are sitting on the Labour Benches. It is a change that we want to see elsewhere in the United Kingdom as well.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Conservative, Mid Norfolk

Will the Prime Minister admit that he misled the British public about students and that, as a consequence of the Government's action, the poorest students will now be worse off?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I will not confirm that, as it is not true. Moreover, our proposals differ from those of the Conservatives, not only because, as I said earlier, the Conservative party would charge everybody tuition fees, but because, under its proposals—if it accepts the Dearing report—students will start to make repayments after earning £5,000 a year whereas, under our proposals, they will do so after they have earned £10,000 a year. Our proposals will help, not hinder, the poorest students.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

The Prime Minister has expressed the importance of tertiary colleges in developing skills for the local work force. Will he comment on the tragedy facing Gwent tertiary college, which was probably the most successful in Wales? The previous principal, Sue Parker, with the support of the college's corporation, turned the college into a financial disaster almost overnight—indeed, it is now accused of misusing European funds. Will the Prime Minister support our demands for the corporation to be sacked and insist that investigations are carried out to ensure that projects that expect European money receive that money—and that that money is not spent on general running costs? Will he also support our demand that such corporations should be taken out of the hands of big business and put into the hands of democratically elected and accountable local authorities?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I certainly support what my hon. Friend says about the misuse of public funds. I am well aware of his long-standing interest in, and concern about, the situation and of the fact that he raised it in a recent debate in the House. I understand that the chair and the vice-chair of the college have resigned and that the principal has left. I understand that a recovery plan is in place and that the college is determined to turn things round.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend and the House that Welsh Office Ministers intend to keep a close eye on the situation. I understand that there is to be a meeting between one of those Ministers and the Gwent Members of Parliament within the next few days. I shall certainly insist that I am kept informed.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Conservative, Vale of York

The Prime Minister referred earlier to the certified herds scheme. Will he give us an assurance that the cost of setting up and running that scheme, not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom, will be met by the Government?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The limitations of the help that we have offered were set out in the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last week. We are well aware of the difficulties that farmers face because of increased costs on top of all the problems with BSE. That was the reason for the statement last week. I shall certainly consider how that fits in with the hon. Lady's point.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

When the time comes—in the distant future, one hopes—for my right hon. Friend to publish his memoirs, may we take it that he will be giving HarperCollins a wide berth?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That question might possibly be a trifle premature. I shall certainly seek my hon. Friend's advice. He may even merit a chapter; who knows? I understand that the Leader of the Opposition's biographer is having a little difficulty finding a publisher. Perhaps they can apply.

Photo of Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith Conservative, Wealden

It is clear from earlier exchanges between the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that the Prime Minister broke an election pledge. I say that because the Dearing report did not present a choice between the abolition of the maintenance grant and the introduction of tuition fees. Does the Prime Minister accept that the choice was made not by Dearing but by the Labour Government?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No. I do not accept that, for this reason: the same amount of money can be made to go only so far. If we did not have tuition fees for all students and we retained the maintenance grant, there would be something like a £500 million hole in the budget for student finance. That is why there is a choice between keeping the maintenance grant system or having tuition fees but exempting low-income pupils.

We decided that it was fairer to have exemptions from tuition fees so that two thirds of students will pay no fees or lower fees and will be in a better position on repayments, not having to repay any money until they are earning £10,000 a year or more. That is a choice within the given budget. It is the best choice for students and it is entirely in line with what we said in the general election campaign.

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

Given the Government's key commitment to attacking poverty by rooting out long-term unemployment, will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the 77 businesses that recently signed up to support the new deal in Plymouth, following the employers' launch? Will he also join me in congratulating the Employment Service staff in Plymouth on the energy, enthusiasm and determination with which they are making a success of the new deal, in partnership not only with business but with the private, public, voluntary and community sectors?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I congratulate the staff and the businesses that have participated. Indeed, we are getting a superb response from businesses and people around the country. In the new deal so far—[Interruption.] I am sorry that the Conservative party opposes the new deal, but it is supported by the vast majority of businesses and the country. As a result of the new deal, 5,000 young people are already in unsubsidised jobs and more than 1,000 lone parents are off benefit and in work. That is a huge saving for the Exchequer, quite apart from an opportunity for them.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Given the Prime Minister's—[Interruption.] I recognise that the children must settle down, Madam Speaker. Given the Prime Minister's professed support for a business-friendly Europe, can he give the House a specific example of one European directive or regulation that he will fight successfully to have repealed during the United Kingdom presidency of the European Union? Does he understand that if he cannot, for all the soundbites it will show that he has no influence in Europe?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As a matter of fact, I can. Last week, as a result of the work done by my noble Friend the Minister for Trade, we have secured a considerable liberalisation of the telecommunications regime, which means changing and getting rid of the European legislation that was hindering the development of the market. I very much hope that we can join hands across the divide and welcome that.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

Does the Prime Minister agree that the situation in Kosovo is extremely worrying? Does he also agree that it could become the worst thing that Europe has seen since 1945? Will my right hon. Friend tell the Foreign Secretary that when he meets Mr. Milosevic tomorrow he should leave him in no doubt that the international community has learnt the lesson of appeasement in Bosnia and that we will not stand idly by while he ignites another ethnic war in Europe?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The Foreign Secretary will give that message to Mr. Milosevic very strongly. The situation in Kosovo is extremely grave. That is why the Foreign Secretary has extended his programme to see Mr. Milosevic tomorrow and he will deliver him that message. That shows again the importance of the role that Britain can play, not merely in Bosnia but in the whole region in stabilising it, bringing peace and attempting to prevent conflict growing. I have no doubt that if there is substantial conflict there, or indeed in Bosnia, it will have an impact on us and on the whole of Europe as well as on that part of the world.