Engagements

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

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Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 12:00 am, 31st January 2001

Two weeks ago, in answer to a question from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister made a promise to the House. He pledged that he would introduce legislation in this Session—those are the words he used: "this Session"—to make adoption easier. Can he tell us which aspects of his White Paper on adoption require primary legislation, and when the House can expect to see it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The short answer is that I cannot say offhand exactly which aspects require primary legislation and which do not require legislation. I can say, however, that we can push ahead with those that do not require legislation. In respect of those that do, I expect my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to present proposals shortly. I very much hope that those proposals will have the support of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Labour, Leeds Central

My right hon. Friend has strongly supported medical research, arguing that patients should not be denied its benefits. Is he aware, however, that of the 25 million people in Africa with HIV and AIDS, only one in a thousand can gain access to the life-prolonging drugs created by that research, because they are simply too expensive? Does he agree that the pharmaceutical companies have a moral obligation to make such drugs available to the people of Africa at a price that they can afford?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend may know that the Chancellor is looking at ways of actively encouraging the process, and ensuring that vaccines are available to people in Africa at a reasonable cost. It is absolutely terrifying to think that 95 per cent. of those with HIV live in developing countries, and that 70 per cent. are now in sub-Saharan Africa.

We are contributing to the effort to fund the process of finding a vaccine. We have invested some £14 million in the international AIDS vaccine initiative, and are also putting money into the treatment of other diseases in Africa such as malaria and tuberculosis. Moreover, as my hon. Friend will know, under this Government, the amount of aid and development money has been considerably increased. I should like us to take a range of initiatives, not just nationally but internationally through the G8 and the European Union, so that the scandal of HIV-AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa can be regarded as a matter that the whole international community should combat.

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

Was the Prime Minister's press secretary speaking for the Prime Minister last Friday when he gave his extraordinary briefing against the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course, he always speaks for me. I should add, however, that the right hon. Gentleman should not believe all the representations that he has read in the press.

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

The Prime Minister must be losing his grip on reality as well as losing his grip on his Cabinet. Given that he praised the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the House last Wednesday but then sent out his press secretary on Friday to rubbish the right hon. Gentleman are we to understand that he did not have the courage to express his views in the House, or are we to understand that the terms used about the former Minister, who was described as "detached", "lacking focus" and being in the same mental state as the former Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), were meant to be complimentary?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

He did not say that last bit at all, and he also paid tribute to the former Northern Ireland Secretary.

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

So it was all meant to be complimentary. No doubt when the press secretary described the Chancellor as having psychological flaws, that was also meant to be complimentary, and constituted a great tribute.

The Prime Minister looks hurt because we have dared to raise the issue that has consumed his Government for the past week—which has involved the sacking, at the instigation of his press secretary, of a Cabinet Minister who has since been rubbished by half the Cabinet. The Government have spent the last week in civil war. The Prime Minister has been rubbishing the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, while the rest of the Cabinet dine out on crocodile tears and champagne.

Is this not the real verdict on this Government, without an inquiry? A Government of spin and dishonesty—guilty. A culture of cronyism and favours—guilty. A Prime Minister who promised a new type of politics and has once again failed to deliver—guilty.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Shall I tell the House what the Conservative party is really angry about? Last week, my official spokesman compared Conservative economic policy to that of Mickey Mouse. I want to make it clear that he has been reprimanded strongly for that. We are a fan of Mickey Mouse. It was wrong to compare Conservative economic policy to that of Mickey Mouse.

I know exactly why the Leader of the Opposition wants to go back to the matter that he has raised. We have done a little research on the questions that he has asked in the past few months. He has asked one on Northern Ireland, two on adoption, four on the Hindujas—and another three,I suppose, today—seven on the dome and 14 on Europe. On education, he has asked none; on pensions, none; on transport, none; on jobs, none; and on poverty, none. How many has he asked on the countryside, the issue that Conservative Members care about so much? The answer, again, is a big zero

The Leader of the Opposition, who has nothing to say about any serious policy, is raising those types of issues. I am not hurt by that. [Interruption.] No, I am not hurt by it. I am delighted by it because it shows that, when it comes to jobs, the economy, schools, hospitals and crime, we win and he loses.

Photo of Marsha Singh Marsha Singh Labour, Bradford West

Will the Prime Minister join me in extending his profoundest sympathy to my constituents and to others in the United Kingdom who have lost family and friends in the greatest earthquake disaster in Indian history, a terrible human disaster? Although I welcome what the Government have already done—£10 million in aid has been made available—will he assure me and the House that he will monitor the situation and that, if more needs to be done, more will be done?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Department for International Development has already reacted quickly not merely in terms of the aid that has been made available—some of it has already been passed on—but in respect of the people. It has attempted, with other countries, to ensure that we send out teams of experts, people who can help with the terrible disaster. Our deepest sympathy goes to the people in India who have been affected and to relatives and friends not just there, but here too.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

Is the Prime Minister aware that, since he took office, in the county of Suffolk, there are 40 fewer police officers, crime has risen by 20 per cent. and, most horrifically and shockingly, crimes of violence are up 60 per cent? Only last week, the small post office in my rural Suffolk village was held up with almost unimaginable savagery. That is why so many of my constituents feel that the Prime Minister has let them down and that he misled them at the last general election.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course, it is appalling when a robbery takes place, as happened in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. As he knows, we are putting in more money to fund more officers on the beat up and down the country, which is why, over the next few years, we will increase the number of police to the largest ever in this country. We are managing to do that only because of the extra investment that we are putting in.

There will come a point when the Conservative party will have to choose between the two economic policies that it is now running. One is to tell everyone that it will spend more money. The other is to tell everyone that it will spend less. I think that most people know what Conservative policy is. We had cuts and privatisation before, and that is what we will get again. Until the Conservatives make a definitive statement on their economic intentions, we cannot take the complaints of people such as the hon. Gentleman seriously.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people of Lancashire are very appreciative of the orders that the Government have placed and the commitment they have shown to BAE Systems? Unfortunately, however, the loyal and highly skilled and motivated work force—who lobbied this Government and previous Governments to get those contracts—are being rewarded with thousands of job losses. That is not acceptable. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can use his good offices to meet the management of BAE Systems and the trade unions to see whether we can get that injustice reversed.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I understand that there have been no specific announcements of redundancies. However, because of our concern about some of the press reports, meetings were held between my hon. Friend the Minister for Competitiveness and the company. We shall ensure that we keep closely in touch. I certainly wish to pay tribute to the enormous work and skill of my hon. Friend's constituents and the many people at BAE Systems who do an excellent job. BAE Systems is a very fine company and we certainly wish to see people continue being employed there.

Photo of Ann Winterton Ann Winterton Conservative, Congleton

Does the Prime Minister think it fair that elderly people needing social care in England and Wales will be disadvantaged compared with those in Scotland?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am just about prepared to wear that from the Liberal Democrats, but may I remind the hon. Lady that she supported a Government who, for 18 years, could have done all that on nursing and personal care, but did neither? We are introducing free nursing care for the first time in this country. As I have just explained, we do not believe it right to spend £1 billion on personal care when we think it better and fairer to use that money elsewhere in the health service. It is up to the Scottish Executive to decide how they wish to use their money.

The one thing that I would say to the hon. Lady, as I have just said to the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), is that we have been asking Conservative Members for a commitment that they will at least match us on social service funding. We still have not had a commitment from them. If the Conservatives were to return to power, people would not only not receive free personal care, they would not receive free nursing care either.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

Many of us know of constituents whose daily lives are threatened by disruptive youths or by nuisance neighbours. I therefore welcome the Government's introduction and implementation of parenting orders, which are making a real difference to many communities across the country. However, may I ask my right hon. Friend what we can do to encourage local authorities to use antisocial behaviour orders more as a tool of intervention than as a weapon of last resort?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Antisocial behaviour orders, where they have been used, have been very popular indeed. That is because there is nothing worse for a family than living next door to people who are engaged in antisocial or criminal behaviour. It is essential that we take action, and I think that the provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 are very important. Moreover, as a result of legislation that we plan to introduce in this Session, a further battery of weapons including fixed-penalty notices will be available to police. We are quite determined to crack down on the yob culture in every way.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Conservative, Worthing West

May I ask the Prime Minister to look, not this afternoon but later, into the case of Mr. Krishna Maharaj—who is black and British, and a business man who has been in jail in Florida for 14 years after being convicted of murder? Clive Stafford-Smith has said that, of the 300 cases that he has examined, he is most convinced of innocence in this man's case.

Will the Prime Minister help the Foreign Office in its efforts at a consular level in Florida to look into the matter of the judge who heard the first week of the case and who was taken away in shackles after being accused of taking bribes? Other questions include whether, on two occasions, state attorneys went into Mr. Maharaj's cell, effectively to ask him for a bribe, and whether the Foreign Office can take up Governor Bush's suggestion that, although he did not know about the case, he was prepared to look into it? The case has had the support of the Home Secretary, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, a former Attorney-General and the Mayor of London.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The short answer is that I do not know about that individual case. I am perfectly prepared to look into it, although that should not be taken as prejudgment of the facts. I shall look into it and get in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Martin Salter Martin Salter Labour, Reading West

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the previous Conservative Government's decision to abolish the police housing allowance in 1994 was an act of monumental folly? It triggered quite unprecedented problems in the recruitment and retention of police officers in high-cost housing areas such as Reading, Thames Valley and elsewhere. Will he join me in questioning the wisdom of Thames Valley police authority, which has responded to the problem by flogging off 333 houses in the past six years? Furthermore, it plans to demolish 12 perfectly serviceable police houses to make way for a rifle range. Is that not simply Thatcherism gone mad?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The abolition of the housing allowance in the Metropolitan area and elsewhere, and the loss of police houses, obviously had a serious impact on police recruitment. The additional resources made available by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary mean that we are able to recruit more officers, although I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concern about the decision of the Thames Valley police authority.

If my hon. Friend will allow me, however, I can tell him that is not the only police service in the country that it is receiving more police officers. A press release today from the North Yorkshire police is entitled "Force Strength to Reach All Time High". It states that, as a result of the additional money that the Government are putting in, by March 2002 there will be more police officers in North Yorkshire "than ever before".