Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9 May 2001.

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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 such meetings later today.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

We now know that the Prime Minister's contact with the Hinduja brothers' was far greater than he has disclosed, including a stream of correspondence and at least two meetings. Can the Prime Minister explain why he did not tell Sir Anthony Hammond's inquiry that he attended a private dinner at the Hinduja brothers' London residence just six months before the Government granted a passport to G.P. Hinduja?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

If the hon Gentleman has any complaints about my propriety or anyone else's, he should make them to the proper authorities in the proper way. However, I think that that question says a lot about today's Conservative party. Conservative Members do not want to talk about the economy, the health service, schools or jobs, and that is because, on the serious issues of the day, they have nothing whatever to say.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

Is my right hon. Friend aware that even in my south-coast city of Brighton and Hove there are still thousands of people in social exclusion, still suffering from the after effects of 18 years of Tory rule? [Interruption.] Will he ensure that the next Labour Government continue the war on poverty and social exclusion, wherever they are found—north or south—into the next Parliament?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

From the reaction of Conservative Members, I think that they are suffering from 18 years of Conservative Government.

The measures that we have taken on social exclusion, including the new deal, which has helped to cut youth unemployment by more than a half, the working families tax credit, which has given hope to more than 1 million families, and the extra investment going into our schools system, help every citizen in need in our country. The choice is between this party, which would keep those measures and build on them, and the Conservative party, which would get rid of them.

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

Will the Prime Minister join me in wishing well Members of all parties who have announced that they are leaving the House, including two who came here more than 50 years ago—my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who will certainly be missed on both sides of the House, and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who will mainly be missed on our side of the House?

On other matters, at the last election the Prime Minister said that he loved the pound. Will he renew this worthless vow in this election?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let me join the right hon. Gentleman in what he said about the Father of the House and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield. Personally, 1 wish that they were both staying—for different reasons.

On the pound we have set out our position many times. In principle, we are in favour of joining a single currency. In practice, the economic conditions have to be met. The difference between the two political parties is that, should we recommend that we join the single currency, we will give the final say to the British people in a referendum. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can explain how he can be against the single currency in principle, but only for five years?

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

Two weeks before the last election, this article appeared:

Tony Blair last night declared for the first time that he loved the pound. He said,'I know exactly what the British people feel when they see the Queen's head on a ten-pound note. I feel it too. There are emotional issues involved in the single currency… it's about the sovereignty of Britain.' Was not his emotional exploitation of the Queen's head before the last election just like his emotional exploitation of schoolchildren at this election? And why does he not come clean, be straight with people and admit that he wants to ditch the pound as soon as he can get away with it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We said before the last election that the test would be what was right for British jobs, British industry and British investment, and that is indeed the test. Should we recommend to people that we join the single currency, of course the people will have the final say in a referendum. What we should not do as a country is isolate and marginalise ourselves in Europe, when 3 million jobs in this country depend on Europe.

As for schools, let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that it is this Government who have cut class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds, and who have put a huge investment into our schools. Thousands of schools up and down the country have had money under the new deal for schools. Again, the difference is that we would keep that money and build on it and the right hon. Gentleman would cut that money.

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

Even the schoolgirls yesterday saw straight through the right hon. Gentleman. As we read in this morning's press:

One girl covered her head with her pullover as Mr. Blair rambled on about devolution. One wrinkled her nose and said, 'He's a big crook'"— No wonder they made it a beacon school.

The right hon. Gentleman said in one of his famous memos:

On the euro we need to be…clearer. The truth is the politics is overwhelmingly in favour…and it would be far better to be open and upfront about this. That was him, so let him now be open and upfront with the people of the country. Will he now come clean with the people of this country and say that he wants to ditch the pound at the earliest opportunity?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First of all, in respect of the euro, let me repeat to the right hon. Gentleman, in principle we are in favour. In practice the economic conditions have to be met, and the difference is between our commitment to determine that according to what is good for British jobs, British industry and British investment and the right hon. Gentleman's determination that people should not even have the choice of joining the single currency, even if it is right for jobs and investment. Again he refuses to explain why, if he is against the single currency in principle, he is only against it for five years—a fatuous policy.

As for the rest of what the right hon. Gentleman says, I think that that is an indication of how he intends fighting this campaign. Let me tell him how we intend fighting the campaign. First of all, we shall start with the economy, and let me spell out the difference between us. Under the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member there were 3 million unemployed and interest rates of 15 per cent., and national debt doubled; this party has the lowest inflation in Europe, mortgage rates half of those in the Tories' years and a million more people in work. Now if the right hon. Gentleman wants a proper debate and campaign, let him get up and ask a question on the economy.

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

The right hon. Gentleman briefed the newspapers yesterday that he wanted to take on the Tories over Europe, so come on, take on the Tories over Europe, instead of whining about it when we ask about Europe. In the last year I have asked the right hon. Gentleman 20 questions on health, and answers we have had zero; 23 on crime, answers zero; 38 on tax and the economy, answers zero. So now answer a question about Europe. The central deception before the last election was that the right hon. Gentleman claimed to love the pound and the moment it was over, he prepared for joining the euro. And is not the central deception at this election that he pretends to give people a choice while planning to bounce them into the euro? Does not that leave the only choice for people who want a straight and honest approach to Europe to support the Conservative party?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In respect of the euro, it is important that we give the British people a choice. Should we recommend that we join the euro, they will have the final say in a referendum, and that is as it should be on a decision of that importance, but as we are debating Europe, let me remind the right hon. Gentleman that his policy is to oppose the treaty of Nice and, therefore, the enlargement of the European Union and to renegotiate Britain's essential terms of entry into the European Union. He has been unable, throughout the course of the last few years, to name one other country that supports those two positions, so perhaps if we have some quiet, we will now let Conservative Members shout out the name of one country that supports that position. There is none. He will therefore go into the election promising to renegotiate the essential terms of our entry into the European Union. That will put jobs at risk, investment at risk and industry at risk, so I am happy to debate Europe with him, but I think it remarkable that he is unable to debate the economy, schools, hospitals and crime.

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

Only one of today's party leaders has ever campaigned for withdrawal from the European Union, and it was not me and it was not the chap on his knees over there; it was the Prime Minister. His spin and broken promises on the euro are like his spin and broken promises on everything else; he said things could only get better, but secondary school class sizes are the highest for 25 years, hospital waiting lists are up, the asylum system is in chaos, the transport system is at a standstill, violent crime has soared and the rights and powers of our country are being given away Why does he need a second chance to be all spin and no delivery?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let us judge whether we have delivered on our promises by reference to a particular constituency—how about Richmond, Yorks for example? In Richmond, over 17,000 pensioners have benefited from the winter allowance of £200, and over 8,000 will benefit from the free TV licences. Since April 1997, long-term unemployment in Richmond is down 60 per cent. through the new deal. Waiting lists in the right hon. Gentleman's health authority are down 1,500, and there are 400 more nurses. At the present time as we speak, £600,000 is being spent on the Friarage hospital, Northallerton's accident and emergency department. The following schools have benefited from the new deal for schools: Applegarth primary, Brampton primary, Northallerton college, Richmond secondary school and Stokesley secondary school. In respect of class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds, the number in his constituency over 30 is now zero. In addition, in the past year, crime has fallen by 6 per cent. In addition, over 11,000 families have benefited from child benefit increases. So we will let the country judge whether the negative rant on his side or the specifics on mine arc more credible.

Photo of Mr Giles Radice Mr Giles Radice Chair, Treasury Committee, Chair, Treasury Committee

As a retiring Labour Member, may I wish my right hon. Friend, and hon. Friends, every success in the coming election? May I say that the Government have successfully combined economic competence with social justice and compassion and thoroughly deserve a second term, which will be vital for the future of tin country, especially in its relations with the European Union?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is, of course, right because if the Conservative party were elected and pursued the policy of opposing the treaty of Nice, which would wreck the enlargement process, and of renegotiating Britain's essential terms of entry into the European Union, the effect, since no other country in the entire European Union would support it, would be to face this country with a choice of either humiliation or exit from Europe, and neither is a very palatable choice to face. That is why I say that the right hon. Gentleman may make his jokes at the Dispatch Box, but during the campaign, he will have to answer those points on Europe, and he has no answers to them.

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

In yesterday afternoon's homily, the Prime Minister acknowledged that his Government had failed to deliver in certain specific key policy areas. Looking back over the course of this Parliament. what is the Prime Minister's greatest personal disappointment on policy?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is obviously the case that in the first two years, as a result of the need to get the deficit down—the doubled national debt and the high borrowing we inherited from the Conservatives—tough spending decisions were taken. However. we now have a stable economy; we have mortgage rates that are about half what they were during the Tory years; there is low inflation and there are more jobs in the economy. Investment is going into every area of our public services. Of course, it will take time to see that investment through, but the essential difference between ourselves and the Conservatives is that we want that investment to go in while they would cut it and take it out.

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

The Prime Minister could have mentioned schools, where secondary class sizes have gone up. He could have mentioned hospitals, where out-patient waiting times have soared, or he could have mentioned crime, where there are fewer police. With hindsight, does he not regret sticking to the Tory spending plans during most of this Parliament? Did not he raise hopes so high for millions at the previous election that by this election millions are deeply disappointed in him?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I do not regret the tough first two years because they were necessary. We wanted to avoid the situation that we got into during the early 1990s—the same policies that the Conservatives have at present. We would have ended up in the same position—boom and bust, high interest rates, high levels of unemployment, and with many people in the country in difficulty. So those first two years were necessary.

In respect of the specifics, the right hon. Gentleman's comments are either wrong or incomplete. It is correct that out-patient numbers went up during the first two years; now they are falling. The in-patient waiting lists have fallen by more than 100,000, as we pledged. On secondary school class sizes, the number is 0.3 of a pupil—it was going up for years before we came into office. However, we said that the priority was to get class sizes down for five, six and seven-year-olds—that we have done.

Police numbers were falling for years under the Conservatives. Because of tough spending limits, I agree that those numbers carried on falling during the first three years. During the past year, however, they have risen by 1,400 and during the next three years, if the country backs the investment going in, we shall have the largest-ever number of police in this country.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn Labour, Chesterfield

May I thank the Prime Minister for all his very hard work during the past four years and the Leader of the Opposition for the help that he has given during that time? May I also express the hope that on 7 June people realise that many thousands sacrificed their lives to give us the vote, and that if people do not use it they betray that inheritance? Finally, will he believe me when I say that this is not a coded request for a peerage? I do not believe that in the second Chamber—however reformed—it would be possible to pursue an interest in democratic politics.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am not sure how to answer the last part of that question. I thank my right hon. Friend for his support in the coming election. Whatever disagreements we may have had in the Labour party, I think that most people in the country have a deep respect for his integrity and for his sense of devotion to the House.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

This is my last ever Prime Minister's question; indeed, it is the first time that my name has appeared in this part of the Order Paper since February 1997—[HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] Is the Prime Minister content with the state of higher education under his Government? Is he happy that even though research funds secured are now the only yardstick for judging university staff, the starting salary of a researcher in a London university is £4,000 less than the starting salary of an assistant lift attendant on the London underground? Is that really his commitment to "Education, education. education"?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that we need more resources in further and higher education which is, of course, why we are putting that money in. However, our priority during the first few years was to get the money into nurseries and primary schools. In the second term, if we are elected, we also want to get money into secondary schools and universities. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, whereas under the previous Conservative Government the funding of science fell very, very sharply, under the Labour Government we shall be making a larger investment in science than this country has seen since the 1960s. Of course, it is only because we have been able to reform the system of student finance that we are able to get the money that does go into further and higher education actually into the front line of university provision.

Photo of Mr Lawrie Quinn Mr Lawrie Quinn Labour, Scarborough and Whitby

After four years of steady progress in creating jobs in my constituency, does my right hon. Friend recognise the devastating impact of the closure of the Plaxton bus factory in my constituency, which is detailed in early-day motion 645? Will he endorse the progress made in the few days since last Thursday by our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in setting up a rapid reaction force to work for the people of Scarborough and North Yorkshire? Will the Prime Minister assure the House that he will do his best to make sure that bus building in Scarborough survives?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am aware of how important that industry is to his constituency and I welcome the progress made at recent meetings between my hon. Friend, the trade unions, the management, the Minister for Competitiveness, and other interested parties. Looking at all the options for sustaining a viable work force is the right way forward and we remain hopeful that, with the right spirit of partnership, which has certainly been present there up to now, we shall be able to find a way forward for my hon. Friend's constituents and the industry.

Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

The Prime Minister knows that I always give him credit where it is due. I should like to congratulate him on a speech on welfare spending that he made in 1997, in which he said that the rate of spending on welfare in this country was unsustainable, the country could no longer afford it, and the money was going to all the wrong people. Why then, since he has been in power, has the welfare budget gone up by £20 billion, why is it consuming the same percentage of national resources as it was in 1997, and why by 2004 will the percentage of families receiving means-tested benefits have risen from 24 per cent. in 1999 to 40 per cent.?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman reminds me that I said that the money should go to the right people. That is precisely what is happening—it is going to right people. The money to which he refers includes pensions, the £200 winter fuel allowance, free television licences and extra pension money, as well as the working families tax credit, which is also important.

What I actually said in 1997 was that we had to distinguish between the bills of economic and social failure under the Conservatives and the social security spending that we wanted to be increased, such as pensions and help for low-income families. That is what we have done. Measures such as the new deal combined with the strength of the economy have resulted in the bills of economic and social failure falling and in our having £5 billion extra to put into schools, hospitals, police and transport. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reminding of what I said in 1997; I am pleased to say that we have done it.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the minimum wage, which was introduced by this radical Government in the teeth of opposition from the Tories and without even one Scottish National party Member of Parliament bothering to turn up to vote for it, is being undermined to a terrible extent in the catering and hospitality industry? When he forms his next radical Government in a few weeks, will he consider introducing legislation to stop rip-off bosses paying catering workers £2 an hour, then topping up wages to the minimum wage using credit card payments and tips given into restaurant kitties?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am aware of the problem. As my hon. Friend will know, the Low Pay Commission made some statements on it recently. The minimum wage has meant that hundreds of thousands of families have been able to get a decent income for the first time in their lives. It must be seen alongside the working families tax credit, because the combination of those two measures has resulted in many low-income families having a minimum income for the first time, and many people being willing to go out and get jobs because they are paid more to work than they used to be paid on benefits.

Photo of John Taylor John Taylor UUP, Strangford

Does the Prime Minister recall that in 1998, when the people voted for the Belfast agreement, they rightly anticipated the decommissioning of illegal firearms in Northern Ireland? I should like to place on record my appreciation of the work done by the Prime Minister and his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), on Northern Ireland issues: they have helped us greatly.

However, does the Prime Minister recall that one year ago, in May, the IRA said that it would put its arms beyond use by June 2001? Does he agree that that appears not to be happening? Does he understand that the decommissioning of illegal firearms is tremendously important to the people of Northern Ireland if peace and democracy are to be sustained? I was glad to hear the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady) say so earlier this afternoon. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that, if he remains Prime Minister after the election, he will ensure that it continues to be an obligation that the IRA decommissions its illegal arms in Northern Ireland?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, may I reciprocate by saying how much I value the work that the right hon. Gentleman has put into the peace process in Northern Ireland in the past few years? He has made an enormous contribution, and I thank him for that. In respect of decommissioning paramilitary weapons, of course that should happen. We are aware of the obligations under the Good Friday agreement, which must be honoured in full. I very much hope that we will be able to make progress on that and other outstanding issues, which we will do as quickly as possible if we are re-elected to form the Government of this country. The right hon. Gentleman will agree that, whatever the difficulties of the process, there is no doubt at all that for the people of Northern Ireland it offers the only sensible and secure way forward. That is why, whatever the problems, we shall certainly do everything that we can to ensure that the obligations of all parties under the agreement are fully honoured.

Photo of Mr Eric Clarke Mr Eric Clarke Labour, Midlothian

This is my last contribution to the House because I, too, am retiring. I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government for all they have done for the mining communities in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, especially with regard to emphysema, bronchitis, white finger and the money that has been given to the Coalfields Regeneration Trust to help those communities. However, one bit of business is not finished—my right hon. Friend is smiling because he knows what I am going to say. What are we going to do for the men who were sacked during the miners strike? Can we start by buying them back into the miners pension fund?

To hon. Members on both sides of the House, and everyone who has been a friend, I say thank you—it is nice knowing you.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In respect of the sacked miners, my hon. Friend knows of the discussions on that. It is a difficult issue, for reasons with which he is well familiar and that I have outlined to him personally. On the mining communities as a whole, I am glad he recognises the substantial investment that has been made in them. We have not merely tried to save the existing mines, but have ensured that those people who suffered—and there is considerable physical suffering as result of working down the mines—are properly compensated. I know that that has also taken time, because each case has to be individually considered, but the commitment is there. As a result of the work done by the Deputy Prime Minister, an enormous amount of investment has gone into the coalfield communities to help them get back on their feet and have a decent standard of living for their people when the mining industry has finished in their area.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Liberal Democrat, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross

If the Prime Minister has influence over the agenda of the next Government, will he build on the achievements of this Parliament in reforming the two Houses of our legislature? Will he advance the process of democratisation and give the people of Britain an opportunity to vote for a fairer electoral system for the two Houses of Parliament?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On the later question, I have nothing to add to what I said before in the House. On the former, I would not agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Gentleman's agenda for reform of the House of Lords. It is important that we initiate a reform that makes it more representative, but which does not end up in gridlock or competition between the two Houses of Parliament. That we will endeavour to do.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

Does my right hon. Friend share the dismay of charities, churches and aid organisations that are appalled at the Opposition's decision to oppose the Internationa1 Development Bill, which is one of the finest pieces of legislation? Does he agree that if, at this eleventh hour, they do not change their mind, his new Government will make the commitment to the poorest people in the poorest countries a major aspect of his agenda?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I hope very much that the Opposition would support the International Development Bill. It is an important Bill that indicates what I have to say is a clear and sharp division of values between the two sides of the House. One of the proudest achievements of this Government over the past few years has been writing off large amounts of debt and increasing aid and development as a proportion of our national income. It is a tragedy that the Opposition remain opposed to those policies, which I believe are supported by the vast majority of people in the country.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

This is the last question to the Prime Minister, so he can relax now.

The Prime Minister spoke to children in a school in Southwark yesterday, so will he reflect on the fact that every child there receives support from the Government to the tune of £42,700? Will he also reflect on the fact that, had he chosen to hold that meeting in Stockport, every child there receives only £27,400? Does he believe that his boast of "Education, education, education," has been fulfilled when there are such gross inequities in the funding of schoolchildren in different parts of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There are issues in respect of the funding of local authorities, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is the subject of a local government finance Green Paper that will be succeeded by a White Paper in October. However—whether in Stockport or any other part of the country—as a result of what the Government have done, there are huge amounts of additional investment going into education. There is the largest amount of money going into education over the next few years that this country has seen for a very long time, if not ever. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, who is a Liberal Democrat, that we are putting in far more investment than his party ever sought at the previous general election. It is all part of the investment that is going into our schools, our hospitals, our transport and our police and we are doing that on the basis of a strong and stable economy. It is the combination of a stable economy and investment in public services that I believe will recommend itself to this country.