Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — International Development – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd November 2000.

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Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield 12:00 am, 22nd November 2000

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 22 November.

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 having further such meetings later today.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

The Prime Minister regularly refers, quite rightly, to the importance of law and order, and the importance of the defence of the realm. Is he not a little concerned that he might go down in history as the Prime Minister who destroyed the most effective police force in the world—the Royal Ulster Constabulary—and undermined the most successful defence alliance of all time—NATO?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No doubt we will discuss the European defence initiative later. NATO is fully in support of the European defence initiative—[Interruption.]. I know that that is an inconvenient fact to Opposition Members, but it is the truth. In respect of the RUC, we decided as part of the Good Friday agreement that we would have an independent commission headed by a former chairman of the Conservative party who was also a former Northern Ireland Minister. The commission produced a series of proposals which are not designed to undermine the RUC, but are designed to make sure that we can attract people from all sectors of the community into the police force of Northern Ireland. That is manifestly, I believe, in the interests of all in Northern Ireland who want people, whether they are Catholic or Protestant, nationalist or Unionist, to join the police service of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

In welcoming the extra £1.8 million that the Government have given to the East and West Kent health authorities to help with winter pressures, may I tell my right hon. Friend that there is a bid to the Department of Health for an extra £750,000—at least—to assist with the care of the elderly over the winter? Is my right hon. Friend able to assure me that Health Ministers will examine the issue seriously so as to give confidence to elderly residents throughout Kent that services will be paid for and available?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that we are putting record additional resources into the national health service. Indeed, several hundred million pounds are going into the NHS and social services to deal with the winter crisis. As for my hon. Friend's constituency issue, I shall come back to him on his request. By contrast with the Conservatives, who would cut public spending on our main services, the Government are committed to getting in that investment.

The French and Germans want the Western European Union to be merged into the European Union. This would undermine NATO…?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes I do agree with that. The proposals made in 1997 would have meant that NATO and European defence ran alongside one another rather than European defence being an issue where NATO as a whole did not want to be engaged. It is for that very reason that we sought changes in the policy, and secured them.

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

It is no good the right hon. Gentleman's pretending that what is on the table now is different from before. What he said was an ill-judged transplant operation. What he told The Guardian would undermine the US commitment to Europe. Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the comments of General Sir Peter de la Billière, who commanded our forces in the Gulf war? He said that

it is difficult to comprehend how we are to meet the increased commitments implied in these proposals … without seriously weakening our commitments to NATO.

Should we not put our faith in someone who led from the front in the Gulf war rather than in people who ran from the front in the cold war?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Perhaps it would be as well to agree with the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Guthrie, who said:

I've never heard anyone in authority in the chain of command in this country, whether they he ministers or servicemen, talk of a European army, navy or air force. There is an argument that a strong, more assertive Europe will undermine NATO. I think that wrong. A Europe that remains allied to the US simply because of its own weakness is of limited value. In addition, NATO has supported the proposal. What is more, the US President, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, have all supported it. The idea that the proposal undermines NATO or the US relationship, when NATO and the US Government have supported it, is a proposition that could only come from the Leader of the Opposition.

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

The Prime Minister likes to say that there is no European army. Mr. Prodi of the European Commission said:

I'm not joking when I call it a European Army. He added:

You could call it Mary—Ann, you could call it Margare—a good name for an Army and an even better one for a Prime Minister a Prime Minister who believed in a strong defence of this country.

Is it not clear that we are faced with a political project? The French Prime Minister said:

If we manage to achieve this in the year 2000, we will have crossed a milestone to the creation of a united political Europe. Is it not obvious—[Interruption.] I shall wait for some order. Is it not obvious, in the words of four Foreign Secretaries, that it is an openly political project that will weaken and challenge the NATO alliance?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Interestingly, on Sunday the right hon. Gentleman was on the Dimbleby programme. When asked whether he would withdraw Britain's contribution to the force, he said:

Well this of course depends on what happens at the time that we take Government. What has changed between then and now? The right hon. Gentleman put his finger on it when he mentioned Margaret. She has come out and told him what to do, and suddenly the bandwagon has become armour-plated. I gather that the right hon. Gentleman now has to sum up his policy in six words. Here are six words for him: "Lady Thatcher, you lead, I'll follow."

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber.

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

The Prime Minister's whole life has been a bandwagon, from selling out to unilateralism in the 80s to selling out to federalism today. We have been doing our own research into quotations from the past. Just before the Prime Minister joined the Labour Front Bench, the magazine "Sanity", of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, said:

Parliamentary Labour CND supports the removal of all nuclear weapons from British territory. That was signed by M Beckett, AN Benn and ACL Blair. The Prime Minister has gone from sanity to vanity in one short career. Now, against the advice of the former commanders of the British Gulf war forces, the leader of the Falklands taskforce, the commander of the US fleet in the Mediterranean, the former Secretary-General of NATO, and the former Chief of the Defence Staff, we are getting the expertise of people whose military experience consists of waving placards at American air bases. Does the Prime Minister think that all those people are fundamentally dishonest?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let us return to the facts. First, there is no proposal for a European army, which was made clear by the statement that was made three days ago:

This process … does not involve the establishment of a European army. Secondly, there will be a European defence operation only when NATO chooses not to be engaged. Thirdly, there is a complete British veto on whether there is any European defence operation, and specific British consent has to be given to each individual mission. The idea that British troops are going to be marched off by the Brussels Commission in a euro-army is just a euro-scare.

The Tories are raising this because they have lost on the economy and on boom and bust, they have lost on public services, which they are committed to cutting, and they have lost on poverty, which they are committed to increasing. So they come back to the issue of Europe. We will support the true national interest, which is to be engaged and constructive in Europe, fighting for Britain's interest, but seeing our European partners as allies not opponents.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I am going to call the Leader of the Opposition again. He must not be shouted down, as that brings the House into disrepute.

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

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Was not the real reason the Prime Minister did a U-turn by committing a quarter of our Army, a quarter of our Air Force and half the Navy to a European army revealed yesterday by the French Foreign Minister? He said:

Tony Blair can't go as far as he would like because [of] public opinion in his country … on the euro, but on defence he saw he could move. He … changed the British position. Is it not true that this has nothing to do with the defence of our country, but everything to do with going with the flow in Europe and building a European superstate?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Again, on the facts, it is the case that there can be no use of British troops without specific British agreement to each and every mission. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that UK troops should never fight alongside other troops or—as this is limited to peacekeeping and humanitarian missions—be engaged except with NATO, may I point out that, since 1990, there have been 23 separate military operations, of which 20 have not been under UK command, and 17 have been non-NATO. How can it be right that our troops can perform alongside those from Argentina, India, Pakistan, Nigeria right round the rest of the world, but not alongside French and German troops? That is absurd. We will carry on having complete control over British forces wherever they are used. This is not against NATO. On the contrary, as has been pointed out by NATO itself, it helps to give us an extra option when NATO chooses not to be involved.

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

We simply agree with the former Labour Chancellor and Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Healey, who says:

The alliance is a proven and effective tool for crisis management. Why replace it? Do we not have, for the first time ever, the defences of the nation being sacrificed to the political vanity of one party and one man? He is creating a European army in everything but name, building a European superstate in everything but name, and unless he is stopped he will leave us with a United Kingdom only in name.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As usual, when it comes to the pre-prepared jibes, the right hon. Gentleman is fine, but when it comes to the argument, he does not have an argument as to why British troops should not be alongside others in this way. The argument was put best in this way:

Our objective must be to strengthen the European pillar of the Alliance and improve European defence co-operation 
 If we wish to … ensure that our views continue to be given due weight by future US Administrations, the European Allies must find answers to some difficult questions: Are we able to take on a larger share of the responsibility for our defence? … The answers make it evident that such problems have to be tackled jointly. Who was the author of that pamphlet? It was the submission made in 1984 to the European Council by the then leader of the British delegation, one Margaret Thatcher. I rest my case.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

The Government have just received a dividend from Railtrack of £300,000 in respect of their 0.2 per cent. shareholding. Will my right hon. Friend use that money to increase the Government's equity stake in the company?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, but with the private sector, we are making a record investment in our transport infrastructure, which it desperately needs. As the Treasury White Paper showed today, Britain is seriously under-investing in schools, hospitals, transport and the police. That is why we are proposing such a huge increase in capital investment in Britain. That is why it is so wrong for the Conservative party to be committed to cutting that vital investment for our public services.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

May I bring the Prime Minister back to an item of domestic policy, rather than wider European policy? Incidentally, it is quite ironic that the Leader of the Conservative party wants to speak about European policy on a day when it has become clear that he cannot even command his own MEPs, who are joining us.

With regard to the Government's education policy and the position in the schools, will the Prime Minister confirm the statement that has been put on the record by the Department for Education and Employment: that the ratio in our secondary schools between pupils and teachers is worse now than when he took office?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, the ratio is 0.3 worse than it was in 1997. Those class sizes had been increasing for] about 10 years before that. We had to decide where our first priority was. As we said in our election manifesto, our first priority was to get money into primary schools and reduce infant classes. That is why the pupil:teacher ratio in primary schools has fallen. We are putting a substantial amount of extra investment into secondary schools, but it is less of a priority there than it has been in respect of primary schools.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I thank the Prime Minister for that straightforward reply. Does he agree that many within the education sector, as well as the parents themselves, concerned about their children, feel that there is a sense here of robbing Peter to pay Paul? Will he also acknowledge that, simply to return to the position that we were at in terms of class sizes and pupil:teacher ratios in 1997, an extra 9,000 teachers are urgently required for the education sector?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is precisely why we have been increasing investment in teacher training. It is also why, earlier this week, the first rise in teacher recruitment for eight years happened and why we will be recruiting some 28,000 additional teachers this year. As for robbing Peter to pay Paul, that is simply not correct. There is a huge increase in overall investment in education. I remind the right hon. gentleman that he stood at the last election on a manifesto commitment to put an extra 1 p on income tax to pay for education. The extra education spending that we are putting in is four times that amount.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever the noise or silence in this place, the issues that matter to the British people today and in future will be the economic stability and competence, the increasing job opportunities and the decent health and education opportunities delivered by the Government? Those are the issues that will matter, and not the hysterical diversionary antics of the barmy army that is the Conservative party today.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree with that one—those remarks were uncontroversial. However, the serious point made by my hon. Friend is that we have clear choices: between stability or a return to boom and bust, between investment in our public services or cuts under the Conservatives, and between action on poverty—such as the £200 winter allowance and free TV licences for over-75s—and the Conservative proposals to scrap those schemes, as well as the new deal and the working families tax credit. That is a difference not only of policy but of fundamental values and philosophy.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

At the last general election, the Prime Minister promised the people of Preston more police officers. Currently, one in 10 of Lancashire's officers are either sick or on light duties, and the officers promised via the crimefighting fund will merely replace those who are retiring. Will the Prime Minister explain to the people of Preston when they will get extra officers to meet the rising tide of violent crime in the town?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman managed not to point out that crime has fallen in that particular police force area. He is, of course, correct about police officer numbers, which is why we are putting in the extra money to recruit more police. Conservative proposals, however, would mean cutting that investment in police.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman says that that is not his party's policy. Let me quote remarks made by the shadow Treasury spokesman last Wednesday; he said that it was true that the Tories were not committed to Labour's spending plans. So we know that, if the Conservatives were elected, they would cut back on those plans.

I am surprised also that the right hon. Gentleman did not mention the Eurofighter project, on which thousands of jobs in Preston depend. [Interruption.] Yes; thousands of jobs depend on the project. Now the shadow defence spokesman is putting a question mark over it, no doubt because it contains the word "euro". I think that people in Preston will be interested in that as well.

Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams Labour, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

Does my right hon. Friend agree that global warming is the biggest environmental challenge faced by the world, is difficult to tackle and has far-reaching consequences? Britain has a good record on the matter, as does the European Union, but the United States is finding it difficult at the Hague summit to commit itself to making genuine reductions in carbon emissions. What does my right hon. Friend have to say to the American delegation in The Hague?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I hope that we can agree in The Hague on the importance of keeping to the Kyoto targets on climate change. We have had enough experience, not only in this country, but around the world, of the need to take action on climate change. This country will be at the forefront of that. We will comfortably meet our targets by 2010 and many other countries will also do so. It is obviously essential that the United States, which has the largest economy in the world, should also be committed to taking action. I hope that we can secure agreement in the next few days. It is vital for the future of the world.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Will the Prime Minister undertake today to veto the proposed treaty changes at Nice which would extend qualified majority voting to cover worker representation, including co-determination? If those changes become law, they will allow the imposition of worker directors on boards.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This may come as a shock to my hon. Friends, but the answer to that question is, yes, we would veto those proposals. We will be in a far stronger position because we will not be taking such an absurd line—ours is set out in Government policy. Because we are not vetoing every change, including those that are in our interest, we are, as ever—as a result of what we do—more likely to secure our objectives.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Back to European defence. Now that the Americans have made their position clear—William Cohen, the United States Defence Secretary in October last year and, on Monday, Madeleine Albright—is it not just a little arrogant and patronising of the Opposition to say that they know United States interests better than the United States does? Since all the European North Atlantic Treaty Organisation members that are not part of the EU—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that he is asking about the Opposition's policy, but it is not for the Prime Minister to answer for that. Will he rephrase his question?

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Since all the European NATO members that are not part of the EU have pledged contributions to the force, what sort of political signal would be sent if, as the Leader of the Opposition suggests, we withdrew? Would not a withdrawal be a sign of a new isolationism?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course it would be absolutely disastrous. If the Opposition went to the European summit and said that they would withdraw from European defence co-operation even if NATO and the United States were in favour of it—of course, they already have their proposal to block any enlargement of the European Union unless the rest of Europe agrees to a treaty change—the rest of Europe, to a single entity, would say that it would not accept that. That would alienate not merely all the people inside the European Union, but all the people waiting to come into the European Union.

Here are some quotes that we will not read in some of our best-known newspapers. This is one from the United States Deputy Secretary of State:

We want to see a Europe that can act effectively through the Alliance or, if NATO is not engaged— [Interruptionl]—listen—

or, if NATO is not engaged on its own. Period. End of debate. The other quote is from William Cohen. He is the United States Defence Secretary, so perhaps he knows a little bit about United States defence policy. This is what he said just a few weeks ago: "We agree with this" policy—that is, European defence co-operation—

not grudgingly, not with resignation, but with wholehearted conviction.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

Is the Prime Minister aware of the deep anxiety felt in the UK sugar industry—among both growers and manufacturers—at proposals for reform of the EU sugar regime? Does he agree that while the everything but arms proposals are well intentioned, they could devastate both African and Caribbean as well as Pacific producers? Why should Britain suffer quota cuts in sugar when we have only 50 per cent. self-sufficiency and other member states have a massive surplus?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and, yes, we are concerned about the proposal. I gather that there was a debate on it a short time ago. Of course, that is precisely why it is important that, if we wish to influence the proposals coming out of Europe, we are constructive, we are engaged in Europe and we have a leading role in Europe. So many different items come up, day on day on day, that it is important that this country remain in a position from which it is capable of influencing the rest of Europe, which is precisely why I believe our policy is right.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are probably about 800 people with autistic spectrum disorders in his constituency, but that it is not possible to produce exact figures because no one collects them and there is no agreed mechanism for screening people with autistic disorders or for collating the figures? Will he put his support behind initiatives to collect such data, to agree an objective method of screening and assessing autistic people, and to apply it to children at an early age? Will he put the Government's resources behind supporting those children?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Autism is one of the least understood, but most frightening and difficult conditions, for families in particular, to contend with. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the importance of the issue. We are committed generally to more resources in this area and we also support strongly the work of a £350,000 research programme being undertaken by the British Medical Research Council. I shall certainly look at other ways in which we are contributing to that, and perhaps I could write to him about that.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

Will the Prime Minister, along with the Home Secretary, review the way in which the Criminal Cases Review Commission deals with its work? Is he concerned, like me, that it took some time for the commission to refer the case of Stephen Downing, who has been in prison for some 27 years, to the Court of Appeal? Will he also ensure that, when a review takes place, bail can be granted straight away?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving some notice of his question. If I may, I shall choose my words carefully in responding to him. I understand that Mr. Downing's case is complex. The commission was asked as part of its review to explore many lines of inquiry, which, I am told, it was at pains to investigate thoroughly. Early in the review, Mr. Downing's representatives told the commission that they wanted fresh and more detailed representations on his behalf. These were received in July 1999, and they are carrying on their review in the light of those representations. In the light of the hon. Gentleman's raising it with me, I will take a personal interest, in the sense of finding out exactly what the current position is in respect of the case, and I will contact him about it.

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

Having just arrived from the NATO parliamentary assembly meeting in Berlin, may I tell my right hon. Friend that a resolution was passed by NATO parliamentarians unanimously supporting the creation of a European rapid reaction force? Does he agree that the main reason why they did so is that such a force would enhance NATO's military capability—a capability that was dangerously undermined by the Conservative party when in government?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course the support of NATO parliamentarians probably will not be reported in many quarters here, but it is true that they support the creation of that force, where, as I say, NATO as a whole is not engaged. One of the best examples, and one of the reasons why it is supported, was Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, where for years British and French troops struggled with others to try to maintain peace. America, and therefore NATO, did not wish to be involved, yet we did not have the proper European defence capability to engage in that mission successfully. It is precisely for that reason that, in a sensible and mature debate, it would be recognised that NATO remains the cornerstone of our security, but it is important, where NATO is not engaged, to have a European defence capability.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

This not an answer but a lecture.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sorry it is a lecture, but the hon. Lady needs one.