Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st January 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet 12:00 am, 31st January 2001

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 31 January.

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 be having further meetings later today.

Photo of Stephen Ladyman Stephen Ladyman Labour, South Thanet

Yesterday, we had to confront the pain of the parents whose children were involved in the organ-stripping scandal at Alder Hey hospital. Does that not put in perspective some of the trivia in which we politicians sometimes get bogged down? After the malpractice at Bristol royal infirmary, the horrors of Harold Shipman and the scandalous events about which we heard yesterday, should we not focus on the need to drive through reform and rebuild public confidence in clinical practice in this country?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. All hon. Members will have been appalled by the findings of the report published yesterday, and I condemn, without reservation, the practices at Alder Hey, which have added to the grief and pain of parents and relatives who had suffered enough through losing their children. Unfortunately, the chief medical officer's census of organ retention shows that Alder Hey was not alone in that practice. It is therefore essential that we introduce measures to amend the Human Tissue Act 1961 to clarify the basis on which consent is given, ensure that organs and tissue are specified, and make it a criminal offence to ignore the response of relatives.

As we focus on those appalling events and take action to ensure that they are not repeated, we should also pay tribute to the work that the vast majority of doctors, surgeons and nurses undertake day in, day out in our health service. We should not allow appalling circumstances to disguise the fact that, in the main, they provide a fantastic service to the people of this country.

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

I concur with the Prime Minister's condemnation of the practices at Alder Hey and look forward to the introduction of new measures. I also congratulate and pay tribute to the great majority of health service staff.

Let us consider another pledge that the Prime Minister made in recent years. He promised that the new asylum laws that came into force last year would deter the bogus asylum seeker."[Official Report, 16 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 386.] Does he accept that, once again, he has failed miserably to deliver?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I do not. Decisions are now outstripping applications for the first time. Last year, 110,000 decisions were made. The latest asylum figures, which have just been published, show a sharp reduction in applications. It is correct that large numbers of asylum applications have been made here, as they have elsewhere in Europe. However, the Conservative party opposes the important measures that we have introduced to deal with that. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to raise the matter, but he always refuses to tackle it.

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

The Prime Minister says that there has been a reduction in the number of applications. However, the figures that were published last Thursday constitute an all-time record of nearly 100,000. It is a good job that he does not give such answers to his press secretary; he would get the sack these days.

On the Government's figures, unfounded asylum applications are running at 78 per cent. of a hugely increased number. The Government said that they would disperse 65,000 people, but they dispersed only a fraction of that number. The voucher system has failed and a panic review is under way. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the latest United Nations figures show that more asylum seekers came to Britain than any other European country last year?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

What I said was that the last month's figures showed a sharp fall, which they do. However, it is not the case that Britain is the only country suffering an increase in the numbers of asylum seekers. Between January and October last year, Ireland had a 65 per cent. increase, France a 30 per cent. increase, Sweden a 28 per cent. increase, Belgium a 20 per cent. increase and the Netherlands a 15 per cent. increase.

The question is what measures are necessary to reduce those figures. We have introduced two measures. One is to take away cash benefits for asylum seekers; the other is to make sure that those who bring asylum seekers in, in the backs of lorries and by other means, are subject to criminal penalty. The two measures that we have introduced are important in reducing the number of asylum seekers. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is his policy to get rid of both those measures?

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

It is our policy to take a much tougher approach, and the Prime Minister knows it. Normally, he seeks to amend his answers by going to Hansard afterwards. He does not normally amend them in his very next answer, claiming that he had said that it was only in the last month that the number of applications had fallen, but omitting to say that the number of applications in the last quarter was higher than in the same quarter of the previous year, and omitting to say that in the last quarter, the figure was higher than in any quarter of last year, and that the number of applications is, therefore, rising.

The reason for that increase is that the Government have been unfailingly weak. They have promised new laws, but the only result is that the crisis has deepened. By allowing Britain to become a soft touch for those who wish to abuse the system, and by making life much more difficult for genuine refugees by failing to deal with the problem, has not the Prime Minister once again been all spin and no delivery?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let us deal with the right hon. Gentleman's allegation that we are a soft touch for asylum seekers. We have taken two measures to ensure that our rules are tougher. The right hon. Gentleman said that he wanted tough action. These are the two measures: we withdraw cash benefits and we make sure that there are penalties for people bringing people into the country illegally. A third measure that we have introduced is to increase dramatically the number of people dealing with claims, which is why the backlog has dropped from more than 100,000 to a little more than 60,000, and why the number of decisions being made is now higher than the number of fresh applications coming in. Those are the three measures. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a serious policy debate about how we ensure that people do not abuse the system, will he say which of those measures he supports and which he does not?

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

My constituents are well aware of the investment that the Government have made in the national health service, because our hospital, Chase Farm hospital, was under threat of closure for 10 years under the previous Government. It is now secure and has a newly refurbished accident and emergency department. However, it has many old buildings that need replacing. Everyone except members of the shadow Cabinet thinks that those are important issues, and we fear that if the matter were left to them, we should never see a new building. For the peace of mind of my constituents and many others, will the Prime Minister re-state the commitment of this Government and any future Labour Government to continuing to invest in the fabric of our hospitals

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I certainly will. We will continue the record investment going into the health service, which is ensuring that accident and emergency departments up and down the country are being refurbished and that more nurses are coming into the health service.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) made an interesting speech yesterday. I do not doubt that hon. Members know that he has been saying that he now wants to match our commitments on public spending. He wants to match our commitments on health, education and so on. This is what he said yesterday: At the next election Labour will be proposing large increases in public spending. That is dead right. There will be spending on nurses, doctors, teachers and police. He goes on—[Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members do not want to listen to this, but they are going to have to. The right hon. Gentleman goes on: We have argued repeatedly that these increases are unsustainable. If they are unsustainable, how is he going to match them?

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

Moving on from asylum and immigration and this afternoon's latest dose of pebbledash populism from those on the Tory Front Bench, will the Prime Minister turn his attention to long-term care for the elderly? In Scotland, long-term care in the home will be provided free. Why is he prepared to go on justifying charging people for that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The devolved Parliament and the devolved Executive are perfectly entitled to decide to provide that free care. We believe that the money would be better spent elsewhere in the national health service. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman only that we cannot spend the same money twice.

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

The Prime Minister must acknowledge, however, that the Sutherland report, which led to that policy initiative, was UK-wide. If it is good enough for one part of the UK, why is it not good enough for the rest?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is a difficult argument to use in respect of devolution as people are perfectly entitled to use their money and overall resources in different ways. We have decided that it is best to have free nursing care, which will mean improvements for many thousands of people in our country. The question is simply one of resources. In the end, as I have said to the right hon. Gentleman many times, we have to decide how best to spend the money. We believe that it would be better spent on other things in the NHS, particularly as about seven out of 10 of those who receive personal care already receive assistance from the state. For that reason, we believe that the additional money—it would cost about £1 billion to achieve free care in Britain as a whole—would be better spent elsewhere in the NHS. Again, the devolved Executive are entitled to create such a difference. That is the consequence of devolution.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Has the Prime Minister had a chance to look into the proposal that I put to him recently about growing surpluses in the miners' pension fund and the amount that has gone to the Government since the Tory privatisation of the industry in the mid-1990s? Will he have a look at the matter with a view to ensuring that, in agreement with the trustees of the miners' pension fund, a lump sum should be paid to every single retired miner and widow? That would put clear blue water between us and the Tories. When they were in power, they shut every pit in Derbyshire and many other coalfields, and they would not pay the miners a penny piece.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Under the mineworkers' pension scheme, the income of its members has risen by about 30 per cent., but there are provisions that protect the Government, who have a contingent liability of, I think, £20 billion under the scheme. I will certainly look carefully into what my hon. Friend has said, but I am afraid that I can give him no guarantees.