Oral Answers to Questions — Engagements

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th June 2000.

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Photo of Mr Christopher Gill Mr Christopher Gill Conservative, Ludlow 12:00 am, 7th June 2000

As a former naval person, I am very concerned to learn that the interval between ordering new warships for the Royal Navy is longer now than since the reign of Henry VIII. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity of telling the House why, since he came to power more than three years ago, not one new warship has been ordered for Royal Navy?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have, in fact, a very full procurement programme, but I do not think that we should take any lessons from a political party that cut defence spending by 30 per cent. It is this Government who are increasing the procurement programme.

Photo of Brian Jenkins Brian Jenkins Labour, Tamworth

Does my right hon. Friend agree with my constituents and the many ex-service men in this country that the Hollywood film "U-571", which portrays American sailors retrieving the Enigma machine and codes, is an affront to the memory of the British sailors who lost their lives in this action? I refer in particular to Lieutenant Tony Fasson and Tamworth-born Colin Grazier. They were both awarded the George medal posthumously, and were both local heroes.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend says. The two people he mentioned fought with great distinction and bravery; of course, we honour their memory. We hope that people realise that those were people who, in many cases, sacrificed their lives in order that this country remained free.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

While the Prime Minister was away, did he have the opportunity to study the election results in Basildon—[Interruption.]—where Labour lost overall control, or in Southend where every Labour candidate lost? If he did not have time to do that, was he able to study the remarks of his right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), and of his hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)—[Interruption.] They can be summed up by his noble Friend, Lord Sawyer who said that the right hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.]

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

Order. The House will come to order—[Interruption.] Order. Mr. Amess will be heard.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

If the Prime Minister could not take in the election results, can he take in the remarks of his right hon. and hon. Friends, summed up by the noble Lord Sawyer, who said that the right hon. Gentleman was remote and completely out of touch, unlike the noble Baroness Thatcher. Before the Prime Minister looks for an answer in the book in front of him, what is his answer to the senior citizen who came to my surgery on Friday and said that the right hon. Gentleman's party is interested only in young people and could not care less about the elderly?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Was that a planted question?

I think that the local election results the hon. Gentleman studied were those in Basildon and that is why he ran off to Southend. Frankly, on the results of the general election, that was the wisest judgment he ever made.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

When does my right hon. Friend expect fox hunting to be banned?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The Burns report will be published next week. The Home Secretary will make a statement and I am sure that the House will want to make its views known then.

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

Statistics in the past week show that health service waiting lists are up by 16,000 and that the number of new general practitioners joining the NHS is at its lowest for a decade. Last week, the Government also sent out 13 million survey forms, saying that they did not know how to run the national health service and would someone please let them know. Those forms were meant to be in on Monday. What proportion of the 13 million have been returned?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Waiting lists are 100,000 below the level we inherited when we came into office. There are almost 4,000 extra doctors. It is perfectly sensible to consult people on the future of the health service. We will publish a plan in July, which will allow us to use the huge amount of extra money the Chancellor put into the health service.

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

The closing date was 5 June—two days ago. The Prime Minister is obviously embarrassed, because he talks about a first-class health service, but the Government could not deliver a second-class letter. Was that not a costly public relations exercise? Is it not true that the money should have been spent on operations? Was it not another example of the distorted priorities that doctors have complained about since the right hon. Gentleman came into office?

This morning, the Prime Minister gave a speech and received the rare honour of a slow handclap from members of the Women's Institute. He has had three hours to think about that. Why does he think it happened?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On health service funding—just to get it right for the right hon. Gentleman—whereas, when we took office, that funding was actually falling as a proportion of national income, it has now risen. No one should ever forget that he is committed to cutting the amount of health spending that the Chancellor has put in.

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

The Prime Minister clearly has no idea why it happened and it is a mark of an out-of-touch Prime Minister that he does not know why he is out of touch. He is now totally out of touch with what is happening in the health service where more consultants are taking early retirement than ever before, more managers are leaving, fewer doctors are joining and 400,000 people are on a waiting list for a waiting list. This is a Government of gimmicks, empty words, empty gestures and public relations exercises. They are no longer even competent at them. Have we not seen in the past few weeks that the right hon. Gentleman has abandoned middle Britain and that middle Britain is abandoning him?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Are 5,000 more nurses in the health service an empty gesture? There are 4,000 more doctors and every single accident and emergency department in the country will be refurbished if it wants it. There are 100,000 fewer people on the waiting lists and there has been the largest ever increase in health spending. People remember the national health service as it was under the Tories and what is more they now know that if the right hon. Gentleman's party came back to power, because of his plans on private health, £1 billion would be taken out of the health service tomorrow. Ours are the priorities that middle Britain wants.

Photo of Ms Julia Drown Ms Julia Drown Labour, South Swindon

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the support that the House gave last month to raising the age of recruitment to the armed forces from 16 to 18? In the light of the vote, will he undertake to reconsider the issue with a view to bringing UK practice into line with that of our European partners?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am afraid that I cannot offer my hon. Friend the assurance that she wants. We have had a long tradition in this country of tying the age at which people go into the armed forces to the school-leaving age. Many of the people who join before the age of 18 are among those who stay on longest in the armed forces. I understand the arguments, but I am not convinced by them.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

Why does the Prime Minister disagree with those 63 per cent. of his constituents in Sedgefield who oppose abolishing the pound and joining the euro? When will he have the courage to tell them the answer, because it is manifestly obvious that he does not have the courage to tell the House?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Neither my constituents nor, indeed, any of our constituents have been asked to join the euro now. The question is whether we should rule it out for the next Parliament. We are the party that is offering people a referendum so that they have a choice. If we recommend joining the euro, people will have a choice. However, the Conservative party would take that choice away from them. The constituents of mine to whom I talk would prefer to have the choice.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Skelmersdale in my constituency has one of the country's lowest rates of entry into our universities? That is not the result of a lack of talent, but the result of a lack of tradition of entry into higher education, and a whole range of social obstacles. Nevertheless, the citizens there help to finance the universities through their taxes and particularly the extra funding that Oxford and Cambridge receive from the taxpayer. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a duty of the Government to ensure that the citizens of Skelmersdale and millions like them have an equal opportunity to get into our universities and perhaps especially our most prestigious universities? Does he further agree that, if the Leader of the Opposition is correct and a class war is brewing, the citizens of Skelmersdale and the millions like them should win it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is extraordinary that the Conservatives should want to tolerate such a situation. May I give another fact from the Sutton report? Some 65 per cent. of those getting three A grades at A-level are from state schools , but they make up only 53 per cent. of the intake at the top universities. I should have thought that it was sensible to say that we all have a responsibility: the schools to encourage their pupils, the universities to go out to try to draw in a larger number of people, and us, as a Government, to fund education properly. That is why we are the party of opportunity for all and the Conservatives are the party of the few.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Conservative, Mid Worcestershire

The Prime Minister has bizarrely claimed that abolishing the historic right to trial by jury for hundreds of offences is a modernising measure. Will he now confirm—as the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) was forced to do in Committee yesterday—that the measure's real purpose is to save the Treasury money because most convicted criminals will serve much shorter prison sentences that will be imposed by magistrates rather than by Crown courts?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I said that it will allow us to save money, which is a good thing as it allows us to put money into the criminal justice system. It was recommended by a royal commission and the Lord Chief Justice said that it was right. Scotland has not done it for ages, and has not experienced any of the problems that have been raised. Finally, at the moment, the system is being abused. It is no good Conservatives touring the country with the piddling little measures that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) is going on about when they are not prepared to take on the major issues that will clean up the criminal justice system. Unless we are prepared to take measures against drug dealers and abusers of criminal justice, the criminal issue will never be dealt with properly.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour/Co-operative, Loughborough

Is the Prime Minister aware that, despite the overall strength of the economy, the textile sector has suffered over the past few years? Will he join me in welcoming the £10 million in aid that was announced yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and ensure that that is not the end of the story but the first step in strengthening that industry, which has a proud future in our economy?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is important to help the textile industry through a great period of restructuring and change. There is no doubt that the high level of sterling has caused it particular problems. However, in future, it must increase productivity, and produce goods with higher value added. The purpose of the money and programme that we are introducing is to try to help it do that and is the best way of guaranteeing the security of people's jobs.