Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14 February 2001.

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Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South 12:00, 14 February 2001

May I welcome the employment figures published today? They show that unemployment in Wirral, South, for example, has fallen by a third generally since the last election, and by 80 per cent. among long-term unemployed young people. My right hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that structural change is occurring, not least in manufacturing, and that the picture will vary from area to area. Excellent though the figures are, does he agree that the Government will be judged not only by these excellent headline items, but by the way in which they handle the process and help the areas, individuals and communities that are affected by economic and industrial change? [Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

A moment ago, the Opposition were not interested in listening to what was said about interest rates; now they are not interested in jobs either. Today's figures show that unemployment is now at a record low for almost 25 years. Many people remember when 3 million were unemployed. The figures indicate, along with the fact that there are still 1 million vacancies in the economy, that we are finally providing the ability not only to have economic stability, but to put on top of that a productive job-creating base for the economy. That is immensely important.

I hope that the whole House recognises that when there are more jobs in the economy, more wealth is created for this country and we can make the investments in our public services that people so desperately need. There is a pretty obvious answer to why the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) never asks me any questions about the economy.

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

Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman for some figures. The Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), stated in a written answer on 23 January that the cost of asylum support was £664 million. Does the Prime Minister stand by her answer?

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

Even by the Government's standards, their reputation for honest answers has sunk to a new low. The real cost to the taxpayer was sent from the Home Office to No. 10 Downing street in the same week as the parliamentary answer was given. Total asylum support costs £835 million. The covering memo from the Home Office states: this report is for internal information…lines to take for public use will be provided separately". Will the Prime Minister stop using the lines to take for public use", give the real internal information, and provide a straight answer to the people of this country?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is quite wrong. The budget is as I set it out a moment ago, and accords with the figure that the right hon. Gentleman first put to me. He describes the costs that depend on, and fluctuate because of, the number of asylum seekers. They will go up and down. However, as a result of our measures, approximately three times as many asylum seekers are being removed now as five years ago. From next year, somewhere in the region of 30,000 will be removed. That will reduce those costs considerably.

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

Once again, the Government have been caught out on their statistics. We know that the budget was £660 million. The right hon. Gentleman and the Minister were asked about the cost. The Prime Minister talks about the number of removals; will he confirm that, of the 69,000 asylum claims that were rejected last year, only 9,000 claimants left the country? Taken together, do not the figures demonstrate the collapse of the Government's asylum policy? They have made this country a soft touch and turned us into the asylum capital of Europe. Everyone knows the Government's true record: a record number of applications, a record number of people avoiding deportation, and a record amount of deception and failure.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Perhaps I can give the right hon. Gentleman the facts The figure of 9,000 is correct. As I said earlier, that is three times the number of people who were removed five years ago under the Conservative Government. However, the overall number of people removed is some 46 000.

Which policies will reduce the number of those entering the country an end to cash benefits, penalties on lorry firms that bring in illegal immigrants, or a boost to the number of people who work in the immigration and nationality department? We have introduced all those measures; the right hon. Gentleman has opposed every one. Let me explain, so that the public understand, that he goes around the country telling people that asylum is a terrible problem while obstructing in the House of Commons every move that allows us to deal with it.

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that Britain has the highest number of asylum seekers per capita. In the past six months, Britain's numbers have remained constant, while Sweden has experienced a 53 per cent. increase, Denmark a 44 per cent. rise, France a 13 per cent. increase, and Belgium a rise of 16 per cent.

We say that our measures are best for dealing with asylum seekers; the right hon. Gentleman says that he would set up detention centres for all asylum seekers, genuine or not. Conservative Members nod their heads. We have proposed one detention centre at Aldington; they have opposed its establishment. They oppose one detention centre while saying that they will create 50. That says all that needs to be said about the right hon. Gentleman's policy.

Hon. Members:


Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

On Monday, the Prime Minister rightly set out the need to improve educational opportunity. Nowhere is that need greater than in the north-east of England, as he well knows. Will he promise the people of the north-east of England an early opportunity to decide for themselves whether they, like the Scots, want a political voice to tackle their deep-seated problems for themselves, rather than just being the victims of them?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I have said before, that is a matter for local people to decide. I understand the case for a regional assembly. The advent of the regional development agencies has been immensely important in the north-east and other areas. In our region, they have safeguarded some 11,000 jobs and brought in a great deal of inward investment. That is why I believe that it is so important that we keep the regional development agencies and build them up, rather than abolishing them as the Conservative party has suggested.

Photo of Mr Richard Body Mr Richard Body Conservative, Boston and Skegness

Will the Prime Minister help the lobby outside by telling us how many representative bodies have called on him to bring to an end community health councils?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) earlier, we will have to wait for the outcome of the consultation that will be announced soon. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the size the investment in the national health service is a better testimony to our commitment to the national health service than the cuts proposed by the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the warmth with which Polish people and people of Polish descent in this country welcome the setting up by the Government of a commission to examine the substantial contribution of Polish people—some of whom did not survive—in fighting alongside the allies in the second world war? Is he also aware of their hope that the Government will not be diverted from the path to enlargement of the European Union by the xenophobia shown by the Opposition?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have been advocates for the enlargement process right from the beginning. The vision of a unified Europe, east and west, is a vision of peace and prosperity for all the people in Europe for the future. That is why this country will continue to advocate enlargement, and why we will not allow any obstruction to get in the way of that enlargement process moving forward.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

Does the Prime Minister believe that physiotherapy provided to an elderly person who has suffered a stroke should be provided free in their own home or in a residential or charitable nursing home? Does he also believe that elderly people who are not in hospital but in their own home or in a residential home and require incontinence pads should be entitled to receive them free under the national health service? If he does, will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Health issues a proper definition of personal social care as soon as possible?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is important that the definition is right. Nursing care, in future, will be free. We had to take a decision— [interruption.] Opposition Members may grumble, but none of those provisions were free under the previous Government. Let me just point that out to them: we are introducing free nursing care. We have chosen not to introduce free personal care because it would cost about £1 billion, and we believe that that money would be better spent elsewhere.

I must also point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in addition to the investment in free nursing care, we are also investing a large sum of money in trying to provide for people to be looked after in their own homes. The number of at-home care packages has been increased by many tens of thousands. Those, of course, are funded by the state. I agree that it is important to have a precise definition, and we shall have one, but I believe that the balance that we have struck between nursing care and free personal care is the right one.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside

Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister give his personal attention to resolving issues concerning state aid that are currently holding back a number of important public-private sector investments in the Merseyside objective 1 area? Does he agree that speedy resolution of that issue is essential to enable the Government's policy of supporting private investment as part of regeneration to be maximised throughout the country?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely agree about the importance of proceeding as quickly as possible with the public-private partnerships that will yield such benefit in terms of investment and jobs in regions such as the north-west, particularly those undergoing structural economic change. I can offer my hon. Friend this assurance: we will do all we can to make progress quickly.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

In July, in the House, the Prime Minister promised Labour Members a free vote on the report "Shifting the Balance". On Monday—not that the Prime Minister troubled himself to vote—they were denied a free vote.

If the Prime Minister does not allow Labour Members a free vote on "Shifting the Balance" before the general election, what possible construction can the country put on the Government's behaviour—except the construction put on the Government's response to the Liaison Committee's first report by Peter Riddell of The Times, who said that the behaviour of the right hon. Gentleman's Government was arrogant, contemptible and mendacious?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I understand that the debate took place on a Tory Opposition day, so it is hardly surprising that we should oppose what the Opposition wanted. Let me offer the hon. Gentleman some advice, however. Next time he asks a question at Prime Minister's Question Time—perhaps a question on the economy—he should recall the words of Lord Strathclyde, which I think bear repeating. Just a couple of days ago, Lord Strathclyde said: I think there's always a danger of political parties peaking too soon, and I think William Hague and the shadow cabinet have very cleverly avoided that.