Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 1:47 pm on 14th July 1999.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Opposition Whip (Commons) 1:47 pm, 14th July 1999

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 14 July.

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 have further such meetings later today.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does the Prime Minister think that it is right that this country should be selling off its precious gold reserves in order that it can instead invest in depreciating euros?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The monomania of the Conservative party on Europe is astonishing. The gold price has actually been falling for two years, so if it carried on falling and we did not sell, we would lose money. I should have thought that even today's Conservative party could make that sum work out.

Photo of Mr Lawrence Cunliffe Mr Lawrence Cunliffe Labour, Leigh

Does my right hon. Friend agree that people throughout the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic are resting their hopes today for peace on the actions of the Northern Ireland politicians? Does he further agree that the people will not forgive, forget or understand if their politicians fail to seize the best chance for peace for a generation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I hope that all the politicians in Northern Ireland make their very best efforts to secure this chance for a lasting peace and settlement in Northern Ireland. To that end, we shall table amendments today in line with the Good Friday agreement, but amendments that will reflect, I think, many of the comments that were made on both sides of the House in yesterday's debate.

In particular, those amendments will focus upon ensuring that decommissioning happens, in accordance with the timetable that has been laid down by de Chastelain, in the Bill; making it clear that any breach of that timetable will lead to the automatic suspension of the institutions; and ensuring that we can clearly and formally identify the parties that default either in decommissioning or in devolution.

We have listened very carefully to the comments made in the House yesterday. We shall therefore table further amendments in an effort to provide a basis upon which all people can agree this last step in the Good Friday agreement process. If they can, Northern Ireland faces the prospect, for the first time in a generation, of a secure, stable and peaceful future.

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

The Prime Minister has obviously made an important announcement about the Northern Ireland legislation, and we welcome the fact that the Government are now ready to amend the Bill. Obviously, the Opposition hope that this means that the Government are responding to the genuine concerns, expressed in the debates last night, about the lack of failsafes in the legislation, and we anxiously await the details.

On other matters, I know that the Prime Minister will be aware of the case of Heather Begbie, whose parents took the Government to court for breaking their promises on the assisted places scheme. Will he now honour the pledge made to that 11-year-old girl and hundreds like her, that he would allow children on that scheme to receive support until the end of their education—or does he, like the lawyer representing the Secretary of State at the hearing, claim that pre-election promises are irrelevant?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have not broken any pre-election promises. On the contrary, let me read what we actually said before the election. If a child has a place at a school which runs to age 13, then that place will be honoured through to 13. It was a manifesto commitment that we phase out assisted places, and we did so to provide smaller classes for the five, six and seven year-olds in this country. Far from breaking a promise, we have kept the promise.

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

How can the Prime Minister talk about reducing class sizes when class sizes have now gone up in secondary schools, primary schools and nursery schools? He has not even kept that promise. Before the election, he wrote to parents: Any children already on the scheme will continue to receive support until the end of their education. Which of those words is he going to try to get out of? Is not this a saga of misrepresentation and broken promises? If he had any sense of shame, would he not now redeem his promise? Will he do so?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman on the facts. For the first time in 10 years, class sizes are falling, not rising. From this September, an extra 160,000 five, six and seven-year-olds will be in class sizes of under 30 because we have phased out the assisted places scheme. As for breaking promises, let me read, for example, a quote from The Daily Telegraph, weeks before the election. It reported: David Blunkett, the Labour education spokesman, said…Pupils with assisted places who are in primary education will have them honoured to the end of the primary stage.' That was made absolutely clear throughout, which is one reason why we won the court case and did not lose it.

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

Here are the Government's figures for the average class sizes of maintained primary schools: 1997, 28.1; 1998, 28.3; 1999, 28.4—an increase in every year so far. The Prime Minister says that he has not broken his promise. Here are the words of the judge in this case—Mr. Justice Kay, Queen's Bench division—when he handed down his judgment: It is a sorry state of affairs when a Secretary of State has to explain away his own letters as mistaken…and a statement of the Prime Minister as an incorrect representation of policy". The Prime Minister made a commitment to these children and he broke his promise—just like the promises on waiting lists, on class sizes, on taxes, on tuition fees, on grammar schools and on junior doctors. When it comes to broken promises, he is now for the many and not the few.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, the words that he has quoted were written after the election, not before it. Secondly, we made it clear in the manifesto that we would phase out the assisted places scheme. That was one of the five pledges that we made. Thirdly, we have passed legislation which makes it clear that we will see children through to the end of their primary school stage—but we were not going to use taxpayers' money to fund them afterwards.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the many, not the few. First, he is wrong—we have brought down class sizes in primary schools. [Interruption.] He is wrong, and I will set out the figures for him. Secondly, he said that we have been for the few, not the many. Class sizes this year will fall for five, six and seven-year-olds—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Class sizes will fall for 160,000 five, six and seven-year-olds. That will mean that, over the two years of this Government, 280,000 fewer children will be in class sizes of more than 30. As the right hon. Gentleman is now saying that he would keep the assisted places scheme, he would be spending £50 million on 1,600 pupils. We say that that £50 million should be spent on smaller class sizes for 160,000. That is what I mean by saying that we are for the many, not the few,

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

Did my right hon. Friend notice that the Leader of the Opposition, wisely in my view, avoided any question on the economy? [Interruption.] Could that be because last year he said

Hon. Members:

Order.

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

Order. Let us cool it. It is not bucket and spade time yet. Will the hon. Gentleman now put his question very succinctly, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister is responsible only for Government policies and not for those of the Opposition?

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the fact that the Leader of the Opposition spoke—[Interruption] He spoke of a downturn caused by Downing street, but unemployment has fallen by 80,000 this year. [Interruption.] Will my right hon. Friend release some Government officials to assist Conservative Members with their forecasting?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can see why the Conservatives wanted to shout the question down. Fortunately, I am responsible for Government policy, not Opposition policy. Let me tell the House what Government policy has delivered. Unemployment is down, and employment up 400,000, at record levels. We have record levels of inward investment. Does my hon. Friend remember the Conservatives saying that it would all dry up if Labour came to power and that if we introduced a minimum wage 2 million jobs would go? Employment up, interest rates down, inward investment up: that is new Labour working.

Hon. Members:

Oh no!

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

Do not worry; it is almost the last one. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Hooray!"] That is the best cheer that I have ever had.

As the Good Friday agreement hangs by a thread, may I warmly welcome the important statement that the Prime Minister made? I and many millions of others hope that it will finally provide the reassurance to enable the process to go forward. I suspect that there is not much more that we can say to assist the process, so I shall turn to another subject.

As the Prime Minister considers his reshuffle in the near future—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Not you."] It is far too late for me. I ask the Prime Minister to reflect on the fact that we now have twice as many Ministers as when we governed half the world. The previous Government increased the number of Ministers even as they sold off all the public, nationalised industries and hived off three quarters of the civil servants to arm's-length agencies, and the current Government have shown reluctance to reduce the number, despite the fact that we have devolved large amounts of power to Scotland and Wales. For how much longer can we justify Governments of the day asking everybody else to do more with less while they do less with more?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is a bit unfair, if the right hon. Gentleman is not taking a ministerial job, to wish away everyone else's. Ministers are amply busy with the tasks that they do. He says that Ministers do not have the same responsibilities as before, but often they have more. Considering the economy, education, today's crime figures or the lifting of the beef ban, Ministers are doing a rather good job.

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

If the Prime Minister simply looks at the most recent Scottish and Welsh Question Times, he will see that that is not the case. We have devolved power to Scotland and Wales, but there are still seven Ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Offices. Of the nine questions asked at a recent Scottish Question Time, only three were relevant. He has a real opportunity to set a standard for the rest of the Government and show that now that we have devolved power he can work with a smaller Government, and he might start with the Scottish and Welsh Offices.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have already said that devolution makes a difference, but, in relation to the overall duties that Government Ministers carry out, the position is as I have said. I shall await with interest the question from the right hon. Gentleman at the next Question Time.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I am glad that we have been reminded that the reshuffle is in the air, and I hope that the Prime Minister will not presume that I am grovelling for preferment if I bowl him a soft one. Does he agree that, at a time when Britain still has deep concentrations of those who are food poor, it is scandalous that the European Union spends £600,000 a day paying farmers to plough back food that has been produced, instead of distributing it? It also pays farmers £27 million a week to grow nothing.

Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for a revision of those policies so that we distribute the food that has been produced freely to the poor and look to a shift in subsidy priorities away from non-production to organic production, conveniently thereby parking the GM wagon at the wayside, with about the same promotion prospects as I suspect I have?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend should not be so modest. It was such a good question that he should keep his pager with him at all times. [Laughter.] That is not a promise. His point about agricultural production is right, but there will be more pressure on the European Union than it yet realises as a result of the World Trade Organisation negotiations. We would have liked bigger cuts in agricultural production subsidies at the Berlin summit, but a lot of progress was made and it will benefit British consumers to the tune of about £1 billion a year. A lot more can still be done, and the WTO negotiations will provide us with an ample chance of pushing through free trade measures around the world. That would benefit many of the poorest and most developing countries.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

If the accident and emergency unit at the Royal hospital, Haslar, in my constituency were to be closed, there is no doubt that lives would be lost in ambulances on the congested roads to the remaining hospitals. What will the Government's message be to the bereaved?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

When I was in Portsmouth, I made it clear to people that although the Haslar hospital is a Ministry of Defence hospital, not an NHS hospital, we have to ensure that the services that are available at that hospital are available elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman will know that one of the reasons why we granted one of the new hospital projects to Portsmouth was precisely because we understood the difficulties any closure might cause.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Hall Green

Has my right hon. Friend seen the Opposition's astonishing attack on traffic-calming measures? When I was responsible for those matters on Birmingham city council, we were overwhelmed by the level of public demand. I seek his assurance that this Government will not abandon safety schemes that we know dramatically reduce injuries and save thousands of lives, especially children's lives.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The evidence is that those road-calming schemes have cut accidents and deaths by some two thirds in the areas affected. That is a considerable record, and it would be disastrous to abandon them. I am also still waiting to hear from the Opposition how they can abandon the fuel duty escalator—which, after all, they introduced—for this and subsequent years, which would leave a £10 billion hole in the public finances. When we were in opposition, we used to be asked occasionally where the money would come from; it is about time they were asked that.

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

Now that the Scottish Parliament is up and running, English and Welsh Members do not vote on purely Scottish matters. Why does the Prime Minister think that Scottish Members should vote on matters concerning only England and Wales?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Because they are all United Kingdom Members of Parliament and we should have one class of United Kingdom Member of Parliament.

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

The Prime Minister has already created two classes of Members of Parliament—those who vote on matters in their own constituencies and those who vote only on matters in other people's constituencies. Does he agree with the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) who has said that he simply does not have the brass neck to vote on purely English business? In his previous answer, was the Prime Minister ruling out, for this Government, decisions on England and Wales being made by English and Welsh Members of Parliament?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The position is the same as it was when Stormont was in existence, for example. In those circumstances, that would be the position again if devolution happens in Northern Ireland. There is one class of UK MP in this Parliament. That is the way it should stay.

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

There is no longer one class of MP. Is not it clear from the Prime Minister's answer that he does not want to face up to this question, that he has not thought through the consequences of what has happened in Scotland and Wales, that he has not understood that making a success of devolution requires the fair representation of the voters of England, and that, if he refuses to make such changes, he will have weakened the United Kingdom and gerrymandered the British constitution?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I do not agree with that, for a number of reasons. First, the right hon. Gentleman forgets to point out that all Members of the House vote on overall expenditure in Scotland and Wales. Secondly, he says that it is wrong for Scottish MPs to vote on purely English matters, but he was quite happy for English MPs to vote on nursery vouchers in Scotland and on the removal of responsibility for water services. Most of all, he was quite happy for them to vote to impose the poll tax on Scotland.

I believe that the settlement that we have is sensible. The choice that should not face people in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland is between the old system, which had failed—that is why there was so much pressure to change it—and the break-up of the United Kingdom. The real supporters of the Union are those who are able to modernise it and wish to do so.

Photo of Dr George Turner Dr George Turner Labour, North West Norfolk

The House will want to welcome today's good news on the lifting of the beef ban. My rural constituents will certainly breathe a sigh of relief. Step by step, this Government are putting right what the previous Government got wrong. For the next step, will my right hon. Friend assure me that the rural White Paper to be published this autumn will pay particular attention to planning and transport in rural communities, to redress the damage done by 18 years of Tory neglect?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On BSE, we are delighted with the decision to lift the beef ban, although recovering the lost export markets will not be easy. [Interruption.] Conservative Members can shout and bawl about that, but when we came into office there was not a prayer of getting the beef ban lifted. That has come about because of the hard work of Ministers here, and also because the Government have a constructive rather than destructive attitude to Europe. That is why we got the beef ban lifted, and it is another example of new Labour working.

As for the rural and countryside issues, I am sure that the White Paper will address them, and that it will make particular mention of the fact that this Government have put extra resources into rural transport.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

But does the Prime Minister think it right that Scottish MPs should be able to vote for a ban on hunting in England, when English MPs have no right to vote on the same subject in Scotland?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I said, that is precisely the situation that applied under Stormont. These arguments went on in the 1960s, and it was felt right to carry on with the system that we have. I believe that to be the best option, especially as all MPs, including English MPs, vote on the total budgets for Scotland and Wales.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

May I ask my right hon. Friend to guess which Administration, at their mid term, presided over inflation rates of nearly 12 per cent. and unemployment at 2.8 million? Will he compare those figures with those achieved by his own Administration at their mid term, when inflation is at 2.3 per cent., interest rates at 5 per cent. rather than 12 per cent., and unemployment is down to just over 1.25 million? With record numbers of companies wanting to come and invest in Britain, what is the secret of our success? Is it that we are keeping to the principles and policies on which we ran for election?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Everyone remembers the recessions of the early 1980s and 1990s under the Conservatives when interest rates were at 10 per cent. for four years or more. When we came into office, the national debt had doubled and borrowing was at record levels. We sorted out the public finances, got interest rates down to the lowest level for more than 30 years, achieved record levels of employment and saw unemployment down to its lowest level in more than 25 years. The Government have laid the foundations for economic success after years of—it is time to repeat this phrase—Tory boom and bust.

Photo of Mr John Townend Mr John Townend Conservative, East Yorkshire

When the Government decided to sell gold, did they anticipate that the price would fall by 33 cents to $2.55 an ounce? Did the Prime Minister realise that that would adversely affect the economies of third-world countries, particularly South Africa, and put black miners' jobs at risk? Is it not nonsense to spend more money on overseas aid to South Africa while undermining that country's major industry by putting pressure on prices? Will the Prime Minister undertake to meet the delegation from South Africa and to say that there will be no further gold sales?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It would be rich to take lessons about South Africa from the Conservative party, which supported apartheid for many years. Let me deal with the latest Tory obsession—gold sales. We sold gold on the technical advice of the Bank of England, and lots of other countries have also sold gold. As I have said, the price of gold has fallen over the past couple of years. It is entirely sensible to have our reserves in a broader portfolio, and that is what we have done. Other countries have done it, too.

The Conservative party's utter obsession with Europe leads hon. Members to link gold sales to the euro in some bizarre way. Argentina and Switzerland are also selling gold, and what that has to do with the euro I do not know. It is only Tory obsession that makes them raise this matter. We acted on technical advice, and sales were carried through perfectly sensibly. We got the best deal for the country.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Does not today's Public Accounts Committee report on the flotation of Railtrack prove beyond doubt that the privatisation of the railways was a gigantic rip-off? Will my right hon. Friend assure us that the Government will make greater demands on Railtrack to rejuvenate the rail network, including the west coast main line which serves Stafford?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course, it—[Interruption.] Well, the Tories should apologise for having sold the railway system for the price that they received. They do not like to hear the facts. The railways were sold for £1.9 billion and are now worth £7.8 billion. Even a Tory can work out that that is not a good deal for the taxpayer. The prospect of increased investment in the railways by the Labour Government, and the introduction of the Strategic Rail Authority that will return some co-ordination to the fragmentation of privatisation, will make sure that people receive a better service.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

The Prime Minister will be aware that plans for objective 1 funding for disadvantaged areas such as South Yorkshire are being finalised. He may also be aware that experience from other areas such as Merseyside revealed difficulties with matched funding. Will he do all that he can to ensure that Government funding in objective 1 areas can be used as matched funding so that we may maximise European Union-funded regeneration opportunities?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course, as I have said before, we will get the very best deal we possibly can. The hon. Gentleman must accept, however, that this issue arises only because we achieved at the Berlin summit the best deal on structural funds that the UK has ever had. We must make the best use of that money, a principle to which we are as dedicated as the hon. Gentleman. I make no point against the hon. Gentleman's party by saying again that it was only because of our constructive, sensible and engaged attitude towards Europe that we managed to get a decent deal for Britain.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Is it intended that Foreign Office documents relating to Michael Ashcroft should be put into the public domain as they are certainly in the public interest? Do the Government intend to refer all matters relating to Michael Ashcroft to the Committee on Standards in Public Life? Are not such actions necessary in view of Mr. Ashcroft's role in political life in Britain and in funding the Conservative party?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course, the Neill Committee is there and available for such matters to be dealt with and I am sure that they will be.