Oral Answers to Questions — Engagements

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th June 2000.

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Photo of Phyllis Starkey Phyllis Starkey Labour, Milton Keynes South West 12:00 am, 28th June 2000

May I tell my right hon. Friend that in October 1999, the waiting time for a cataract operation at Milton Keynes general hospital in my constituency was 12 months, whereas now, thanks to additional Government funding for an extra ophthalmic surgeon, the waiting time has been reduced to between four and six months? That is much better, although there is still room for improvement. Does that not demonstrate that the best way to reduce waiting lists in the NHS is to use public money directly to recruit extra doctors and nurses, and not, as the Conservative party proposes, to waste £1 billion on tax relief for private health insurance, half of which would be for those who can already well afford to pay for private insurance?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am delighted that the waiting times for cataract operations are coming down in my hon. Friend's area, although as she rightly said, there is still a considerable way to go. Of course, the Conservatives want to drive everyone needing non-urgent treatment, such as a cataract operation, out of the NHS altogether. We still have not had an answer from them as to how their £1 billion plan for private medical insurance would be funded, if it is not to be funded from cuts in the NHS.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

When the Prime Minister next enjoys a weekend in the Buckinghamshire countryside, will he commit himself to preserving that countryside for my other constituents by overturning the unwanted and excessive housing targets that his deputy now wants to impose?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me point out that the targets put forward by the Deputy Prime Minister are lower than those for many of the years of the previous Conservative Government, of which the hon. Gentleman was a proud supporter. [Interruption.] That is entirely true. Secondly, we did not accept the original plans, and we have increased the amount of building that must take place on brownfield, rather than greenfield, sites.

In addition, obviously we are trying to make sure that we do not end up with no houses being built in the south-east at all, since that would put extraordinary pressure on the people already living here. A balance must be struck, and most people believe that the Deputy Prime Minister, in accepting figures well below those in the plans put forward by the independent body, has steered a wise course and reached a sensible compromise.

Photo of Margaret Moran Margaret Moran Labour, Luton South

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent opening by Vauxhall Luton of a £5 million research and development engineering technology centre, and the investment of £189 million in United Kingdom plant? Will he join me in congratulating all the workers of Vauxhall Luton on the work that they have put in to secure that investment? Does he not agree that that is a significant boost to UK manufacturing industry, which stands in sharp contrast to the actions of the Conservatives, under whose regime 26 million manufacturing jobs were lost—[Interruption.] Manufacturing output dropped by 28 per cent., and they constantly talked down UK manufacturing industry?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that it was actually 2.6 million jobs that went under the previous Government. [Interruption.] Conservative Members seem to be rather proud of that record. There is good news not just from Vauxhall but from Leyland Trucks, too. Manufacturing has been through a difficult period indeed, but the single most important thing for the whole of our industry is to maintain stability in inflation and in the interest rates in the economy. All the manufacturers whom I speak to—even those who are worried about the high level of sterling recently and about manufacturing—accept that the last thing they need is a return to the policies of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when interest rates were at 15 per cent. for a year, and a million or more manufacturing jobs went in a couple of years.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

Will the Prime Minister confirm the story in The Guardian today that his press secretary, the fabled Alastair Campbell, has instructed every Department to produce at least two good news stories every week for two months during the summer recess, to cheer up the Labour party's image? Is it not time that that gentleman was taken off the public payroll and put back in on the payroll at Millbank, where he belongs?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree with the hon. Lady; it was an entirely redundant message since there is lots of good news that we can tell people about—for example, the record literacy and numeracy results in primary schools, the additional spending in 11,000 schools up and down the country, the 250,000 jobs got through the new deal, the extra money for pensioners, the extra money for children and child benefit, the extra money for schools and the extra money coming for the police after the comprehensive spending review. I agree that he need not have sent that out; we can do it ourselves.

Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Liverpool, Garston

Will my right hon. Friend welcome, as I will, the close of business in the House today, by which time, if all goes well, the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill will have completed its passage? Will he join me in ensuring, to the extent that he can, that those in the other place do not interfere too much with the Bill, so that the Government can fulfil yet another pre-election promise?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Certainly, to the extent that I can, I will.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

Does the Prime Minister accept that No. 10 Downing street is an historic building of considerable public interest? Does he not think that, as he is the head of a so-called modern Government, it is about time he got out? Is it Government policy to ask the present occupant of Clarence house to vacate it—and when will all this end?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that we should all stay put.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to encourage local authorities such as Tory-controlled Gedling borough council to use the new powers that the Government have given them to tackle anti-social behaviour in their communities? People are fed up with the yobs. They are fed up with bad neighbours. They want something done about it. We have given local authorities the powers. Is it not about time that they used them?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. A breach of such an order is a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of five years in prison. Although the use of those orders is now on the increase, far more could be done. There is nothing worse than if a family has to live in an inner-city estate or in a town next to families that perhaps are engaged in criminal activity, drug dealing and all the rest of it. They make their lives absolute hell, and those anti-social behaviour orders are there to be used. I urge all local authorities to use them, particularly the Conservative ones that are slow to do so. They are there for the protection of the public, and the more we use them, the better.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Will the Prime Minister have a word with the Department of Health about its disingenuous policy of, on the one hand, stating that it opposes euthanasia, while, on the other hand, it allows passive euthanasia by the withdrawal of medical treatment, including food and fluids, from those who are not dying, thereby making even more vulnerable the frail, the elderly and the disabled?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not believe that that is the policy of the Department of Health at all.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Canning Town

Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and Sir William McAlpine performed the topping-out ceremony at EXCEL, London's new international conference and exhibition centre in docklands in my constituency, barely a year after the Deputy Prime Minister performed a ceremony at the beginning of building. EXCEL opening in November will be a key element in the regeneration structures for east London. However, one of the more eagerly awaited pieces of transport infrastructure is the channel tunnel rail link coming into Stratford. Can the Prime Minister reiterate the Government's commitment to the building of phase two of CTRL, which is important not just to London and the Thames gateway area, but to the whole of the UK, to provide fast rail access to Europe?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can certainly confirm the commitments that we have made. Of course, that is an infrastructure project that will bring not just better infrastructure but jobs to the area. I know that my hon. Friend has been working hard with other hon. Members in regenerating that particular part of London. As a result, literally thousands more jobs are being created. That is good for local business and local people.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I will not confirm that at all. I thought that it was a good report, but it was Lord Wakeham's report.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham Labour, Barnsley West and Penistone

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Health and Safety Commission recently announced its future health and safety strategy, including 10-year targets. Those targets are to reduce ill health in the work place, to reduce fatalities and to reduce the number of major injuries. Does he agree that those targets need teeth, that the Government should look towards legislation that will support sanctions against people who breach health and safety legislation, and that named directors of companies should be responsible for health and safety policy?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a serious issue, which is why, a short time ago, the Deputy Prime Minister set out a new strategy that sets targets for improvement over a period of 10 years. The cost to the economy of health and safety failures is some £18 billion a year. Fatal accidents cost 400 people a year their lives, and 25,000 have to give up work due to accidents, never to return, so I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that it is a very important issue. We will work with employers, trade unions and others to improve the situation.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Bearing in mind the fact that 11 men have lost their lives in the fishing industry in my constituency in the past three and a half years, leaving 23 children without fathers, does the Prime Minister understand just how disappointed the industry was when the Minister of Agriculture cut fishing safety grants in May last year? People were encouraged when the Deputy Prime Minister promised to reinstate them a year ago, but there has been no action since then. Will the Prime Minister intervene to ensure that fishing safety grants are improved, so as to improve fishing safety throughout the UK?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I express my sympathy to the families of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who lost their lives. Secondly, on the forward-spending plans of the Government, I am afraid that he will have to wait for the comprehensive spending review.