Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 4th July 2001.

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Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield 2:30 pm, 4th July 2001

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 July.

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 further such meetings later today.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Will the Prime Minister praise the work of the special constabulary? He will he aware that there are 7,500 fewer special constables than there were four years ago. In Lichfield, which is typical of many cities, we have only two or three regular police officers on duty on Friday and Saturday nights. What steps is the right hon. Gentleman taking to restore the balance and recruit more special constables? I am referring not to the regular police but to the special constabulary.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right: we do need to recruit more special constables. As he knows, changes to the health and safety regulations impacted on the number of special constables, but we are taking measures to increase their number. The hon. Gentleman is also right to suggest that those increases run alongside the increase in numbers of the regular police. We need both to police the country properly.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley

As we are likely to be giving Railtrack between £20 billion and £25 billion of taxpayers' money during the next 10 years, can we not use it as a lever to block the fat-cat pay-offs to some of the former directors of Railtrack who have so clearly failed the public?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We do not have power to do that, but we do have power to make sure that the money that we are putting into the railways—a huge £60 billion investment during the next 10 years—is used to provide not just the track, which is in desperate need of renovation, but the trains and capacity that the transport infrastructure of the fourth largest economy in the world demands.

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

The House will regret the resignation as First Minister of Northern Ireland of Mr. Trimble, who has shown the utmost courage, integrity and statesmanship. Does the Prime Minister agree that we should be in no doubt about what has forced the right hon. Gentleman to take that action? It is the IRA's refusal to keep the promise that it made more than a year ago to put its arms beyond use, despite all the gains that they have pocketed, including the release of prisoners. On a day when another fatal shooting has tragically taken place in Northern Ireland, will the Prime Minister assure the House that no more ground will be given, such as more policing reforms or the scaling down of security, in advance of the decommissioning of weapons, which remains a fundamental obligation under the agreement?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I join in the condemnation of the killing of the Catholic man by paramilitaries. It is a tragic and terrible event which is a mark of precisely the past in Northern Ireland that we want to leave behind.

Secondly, I agree totally with what the right hon. Gentleman said in respect of Mr. Trimble. As leader of the Ulster Unionists, he has shown enormous courage in the past few years in trying to push the peace process on. There is no doubt that decommissioning is an obligation under the Good Friday agreement. It is an obstacle to progress now, and that is why it is so important that we have rapid progress on it.

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

We wish the Government every success in dealing with this problem, but does the Prime Minister agree that it would be wholly wrong to reward republicans for their intransigence and to punish democrats such as the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and others, who have done everything required of them? On Monday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that a range of sanctions was open to the Government. Can the Prime Minister tell us what any of those sanctions are? In his published letter to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann, on 10 April 1998, he said that if the existing provisions on excluding people from office turned out to be ineffective, he would support changes to them. Will that now include enabling the Government to exclude Sinn Fein Ministers from the Executive if there is still no movement on arms?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have a range of powers available to us, one of which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Obviously, we keep the use of all those powers under review. We are about to go into a process of protracted—I hope not too protracted—negotiation about how we resolve the current impasse. I do not think that it is sensible for me to say what we will or will not do in circumstances that may arise if that negotiation fails, but I do say this: the outstanding issues are absolutely clear. Obviously, we need to ensure that we have a police service that attracts support from all parts of the community, that the institutions have stability, and that, as we can do so, and in accordance with the proper demands of security, we bring about a more normalised situation in Northern Ireland. There has already been huge change in that regard in the past few years, but it is also important that those who sit in government and want to be part of the democratic process are committed to exclusively democratic means. There has always been a point, right from the beginning of the process, when people had to choose between the democratic process and having alongside it a paramilitary organisation that is still capable of exerting force and pressure of an unacceptable kind.

I think that that moment of choice is here and now. We have to ensure in the negotiations in the next couple of weeks that we find an arrangement that allows us to resolve those outstanding issues and to do what I still believe the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland want: to see the agreement for the peace process implemented. Even people who may have hesitated in the last election or even voted for parties that were opposed to the agreement did so not because they disagreed with the principles underlying the Good Friday agreement, but because they wanted to see it implemented. Now it has got to be implemented in all its stages and forms.

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

Does the Prime Minister recall that, in 1997, a Bill was brought to the House to cut benefits for lone parents? It was not the brightest thing my right hon. Friend did, and towards the end of that year he admitted that it was almost certainly a mistake. The press is filled today with stories of cuts in disability benefits. Can I have an assurance that we are not going to travel down the road we travelled down in 1997, because it is bound to be strewn with difficulties? If my right hon. Friend wants a Bill off the shelf to do some good for the Labour movement, he should get stuck into those fat cats like Gerald Corbett and the rest, but leave the sick and disabled alone.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Well, the road may be strewn with difficulties, but I must say to my hon. Friend that the proposals made today on incapacity benefit by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions are entirely sensible and justified. It cannot be right that people coming on to incapacity benefit will be paid on average about £4,000 a year for, say, 10, 15 or 20 years, with no one ever checking whether they have recovered from their injuries and are able to work. It is therefore important that we apply a proper test and ensure that the vast amount involved—£7 billion a year—is spent properly, and that we will do.

S

This response is based on an utterly ludicrous premise. People on IB are already subject to periodic medical examinations, so this notion that nobody checks on their injuries is preposterous and dishonest. The 7 bn is "spent properly": we have one of the most stringent gateways to sickness benefits of any European country, I would regard that as applying "a proper test". Fraud is negligible...

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Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Does the Prime Minister agree with the conclusion of London Transport Commissioner Bob Kiley that the Government's proposed public-private partnership for the future of the London underground should now be terminated and that control of the London tube should instead pass to Transport for London?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I do not agree with that view. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there was a meeting yesterday between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and Mr. Kiley. We will make our position clear on Mr. Kiley's representations to us in due course. Given the vast amount of extra investment that we are putting into the tube—we are prepared to guarantee it over a period which has never before been guaranteed for investment in the tube, in terms of amount as well as the fixed term for which we are putting the money in—it is essential that we get value for money and that we ensure in the building work that is done that there is risk transferred to the private sector. Otherwise, we will repeat the mistakes of the Jubilee line and end up with a huge cost overrun, and the building work will not take place on time. Again, it may be difficult, but it will be done.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

The Prime Minister says that, but in the past 48 hours the talks, according to the commissioner, have been getting nowhere, and commuters and travellers have suffered well-publicised distress on the London underground. After four years of a Labour Government, is that not a pathetic verdict on the right hon. Gentleman's ability to deliver an effective, safe and affordable quality transport system for the capital?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course the tube is not of the standard that London deserves. For precisely that reason, we are committed to some £13 billion worth of investment in the next few years. It is essential that the money is spent wisely and that we get the best value for money. We need a modern tube that is publicly run but privately built. The Jubilee line is the classic example of the old way of doing things: a cost overrun of more than £1 billion and the work being done two or even three years late. It is therefore essential to get value for money.

Record investment is being made, but, as ever, I must tell the Liberal Democrats that it is not simply a matter of money; we must ensure value for money. We offer record investment to people in London, but the money must be properly spent.

Photo of Mr Roger Casale Mr Roger Casale Labour, Wimbledon

The Prime Minister is aware of the urgent need to equip our armed forces with a modern, reliable and secure communications system, which is fully integrated across our armed forces and inter-operative with NATO systems. I am sure that, in the next two weeks, he will give full and proper consideration to several competing bids from around the world to provide such a system, including one from Thales, which employs 200 people in my constituency. Does he agree that considerable benefits would accrue to the manufacturing base and the skills base in this country, and that our exports in the high technology sector would receive a great boost, if such a system could be built and delivered in the United Kingdom?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

If it could be built and delivered in the UK, of course it would benefit our manufacturing industry and protect jobs. However, we have to go through a specific negotiating and bidding process. I understand that the decision will be made in a few weeks.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Why did the Prime Minister tell the House in the previous Parliament that incineration was an essential part of a waste strategy? Is he not aware that other countries recycle more than 50 per cent. of their waste, compared with the pathetic 8 per cent. that we manage in this country? Will the right hon. Gentleman rule out incineration and thereby remove the toxic cloud that hangs over Newhaven in my constituency? Will he also undertake not to fiddle the public inquiry system to drive through incineration?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is true that we need to increase the amount of recycling, and we are doing that. However, pulling out of all incineration, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, would cost a great deal of money. That can be done over time, but we face many demands. Indeed, almost every question that I am asked is a demand for money. We have to balance those competing claims. We shall make progress as we can, but if we peremptorily pulled out of incineration altogether, we would have a financial shortfall that we could not cover, and there would be nothing that we could do with the resulting waste.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

On President Bush's madcap scheme for missile defence, may I gently suggest to the Prime Minister that, rather than our trying to act as an honest broker between the United States and the European Union, British interests would be better served by telling the Americans the truth, which is that it will not work, that there are no takers and that the real threats to our security are climate change, the AIDS pandemic and impoverishment caused by the grossly unfair workings of the global market?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree—[Hon. Members: "Ah."] Perhaps I can begin by stating the points on which I agree with my hon. Friend. I agree with him about Kyoto, the AIDS pandemic and the impoverishment of a large part of the world's population. That is precisely why, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development explained earlier, we are doing so much to combat AIDS in the developing world. We are also pushing forward the Kyoto protocol and we have considerably increased the amount of aid that we give the developing nations.

I am afraid that I do not agree that the Americans are wrong to identify weapons of mass destruction as a genuine threat. They are a genuine threat. [Interruption.] We need to be prepared to look at all systems that are necessary—[Interruption.] Obviously I am delighted to have the support of the Opposition. We must consider all offensive and defensive systems. I also do not agree that it is wrong for us to act as an honest broker between the United States and our European partners. It is an article of faith for me—I believe this deeply—that when the US and the EU cannot resolve their differences properly, the world is a less stable and less prosperous place. It is important that we keep an open mind. We have not yet received a proposal from the United States. When we do, we shall declare our position on it. In the meantime, we shall do everything that we can to bring the US and the EU closer together.

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

May I warmly commend the Prime Minister on that reply? Any remaining puzzle as to why Mr. Mullin is no longer in the Government has been resolved.

Whose fault is it that the Government's policy on involving the private sector in the national health service is so entirely unclear?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not accept that it is. The private finance initiative in the national health service, for example, and with our schools, is delivering huge benefits. That co-operation with the private sector is an important part of rebuilding our schools and hospitals.

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

The Prime Minister is one of the few people who thinks that that is clear. The head of the British Medical Association has said:

"The Government's thinking is opaque and unclear."

The general secretary of the Trades Union Congress has said:

"There is confusion and lack of clarity from the Government."

The chairman of the parliamentary Labour party has said:

"There needs to be more done to clarify the boundaries."

The general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union has referred to

"a cocktail of policy confusion."

The former Secretary of State for Health, Mr. Dobson, said that

"there hasn't been any clarity about what's envisaged."

Is not the confusion coming from the top of the Government? Despite all the statements to the contrary, will primary care groups be able to commission clinical services directly from the private sector?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As we have said throughout, there is no intention to privatise clinical services—neither have we ever said that primary care trusts will privatise clinical services. It is important to enable primary care trusts and others, where appropriate, to work with the private sector. For example, 3,000 general practitioner premises are being renovated throughout the country, bringing in more than £1 billion worth of investment with the private sector. The right hon. Gentleman may be opposed to that—indeed, there may be many who are opposed to it—but I think that it is a thoroughly good thing.

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

Well, now we know why everybody apart from the Prime Minister finds his policy completely unclear. We have just had a typical example. The question to which he failed to give a simple yes asked him to support a statement straight out of his concordat with the private sector, which was signed by the Government last October. I shall ask the question again, and I shall read from the document. It refers to primary care groups or primary care trusts commissioning directly from a private or voluntary health care provider. Is that still the position?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course, and they do it every day. For example, when we have severe winter pressures, they should be entitled to use private sector or voluntary sector providers. There is a difference between privatising a public service, which is the policy of the Conservative party, and providing a better public service in co-operation with the private sector, which is the Government's policy.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question is that in circumstances where there is a shortage of capacity in the public sector and we can use the private sector to get an operation done within the NHS, free at the point of use, yes, the providers should be able to use it.

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

Well, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that saying no to one question and yes to the same question a moment later does not constitute a clear policy on behalf of the Government. Is it not time that he stopped facing both ways on this policy? He wants services to be managed by the private sector, but not run by private companies. He signs up to primary care groups buying from private providers, but the Secretary of State for Health says that private companies should not provide any clinical services. The right hon. Gentleman makes bold statements about radicalism, but feeds trade union leaders on a diet of reassurance and asparagus tips. Is it not time for him to admit that his plans to involve the private sector while not allowing it to do anything will turn out yet again to be words without substance and spin without delivery?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, because when we can work with the private sector to provide a better public service, we will. I have given one example: the private finance initiative. When we came into office, it had completely stalled under the previous Government. It is now delivering the biggest-ever hospital building programme and being extended to the new GP premises. If the new surgical units, for example, can be better managed by the private sector—even though the staff are employed by the national health service—to give better value and service to the patient, let it happen. When we can commission private sector care—for example, under winter pressures or in other circumstances—within the national health service, free at the point of use, we do so.

When we can build better schools using the private sector, we will do so. When we need to obtain private sponsorship for schools, we will do so. In every case, however, it will be about ensuring that we deliver a better public service. Let me say to all hon. Members that we were elected on a mandate of investment and reform. We are putting record amounts of money in, but the change needs to happen, too. It is change for a purpose: to put the patient first, to put the pupil first, and to make sure that we deliver better public services, which the Conservative party failed to do.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Labour, Waveney

Pensioners in my constituency are very pleased that they no longer have to pay £6 a year for their concessionary half-fare bus pass. However, the pass is primarily valid only in the area covered by the local authority—in my case, Suffolk. Pensioners are, therefore, asking for a concessionary scheme for longer-distance travel. What plans does my right hon. Friend have further to extend concessionary travel for pensioners?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We are going to extend it so that it will also be available for long coach journeys. This is all part of trying to provide pensioners with a better deal: the winter fuel allowance, the higher than normal basic state pension rise, the free TV licences for the over-75s, and now concessionary fares for pensioners. It is all part of making sure that they get the security and the dignity that they need in old age.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Is the Prime Minister aware that the crisis in social services funding is now so severe that Bristol city council has been forced to adopt a policy of not moving an elderly person from hospital into residential care until two elderly people in residential care have died first? Does he accept that it is not in the interests of elderly people to be kept in hospital when they are ready for discharge? Does he also accept that the bed blocking that results is not in the interests of the NHS? What is he going to do about it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that bed blocking is probably the most urgent problem that we face in the national health service. We need to do two things. First, we need to provide substantial additional funding, which we are doing. There will be some £900 million additional funding for social services. Secondly, we need a far better system of co-operative working between social services and local hospitals. Although it is absolutely true that we have severe bed blocking problems in Bristol and in other places, there are parts of the country in which these problems have been resolved. So, once again, I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that we need the money going in, but we also need the change. I agree that this is an urgent problem, and we are seeing what other measures we can take to deal with it.

Photo of Kali Mountford Kali Mountford Labour, Colne Valley

Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to read the Huddersfield Daily Examiner? On the front page, he will learn what can happen when GPs embrace change. The primary care group in south Huddersfield has embraced real change and, as a result of co-operation, has been able to give a £1.5 million cash boost to the local hospital. By embracing the talents of its own GPs, it has been able to use those talents and to cut waiting lists. Is not that the kind of appropriate reform that we can achieve—unlike what has been said by the British Medical Association, and unlike the failed individual GP fundholding of the Conservative party?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, may I apologise for not having read the Huddersfield Daily Examiner? In retrospect, I wish I had. May I also commend the GPs in my hon. Friend's area for the changes that they have made, and say once again that the vast majority of our doctors do a wonderful job in the national health service? However, it is important that we make changes as well as ensuring that the money is going in.

The changes are opposed by certain GPs, and I understand the reasons for that—for example, they might oppose NHS Direct or the walk-in centres, or they might oppose the requirement that we give an appointment to a patient within 48 hours. All those changes can be properly embraced, and we will work with doctors to enable them to do so, but we have to ensure that the extra money that is going in brings about a better service. The doctors in my hon. Friend's area have shown exactly how that can be done.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

By way of contrast with the question asked by Kali Mountford, is the Prime Minister aware of the enormous pressures on GPs on the south coast, and in particular in Worthing, where surgeries have more than three times the national average of over-85s on their books and most have closed their lists? A recent survey of doctors in West Sussex showed that as many as 90 per cent. are planning to leave the profession well before the age of 60, and an alarming number are at their wits' end. What is the right hon. Gentleman doing to make it easier for those experienced GPs to stay on in their profession, rather than constantly giving us those fantasy figures about new recruitment, as if doctors could be grown from packets of seeds?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

They are not fantasy figures on recruitment. There are about 1,000 extra GPs compared with four years ago. As opposed to the previous Government, who cut the number of training places for doctors, we have increased it. I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's specific problem in a moment, but, overall in the country, GP home visits have dropped by half and night visits by a third since 1990. The number of GPs seeking early retirement is down, not up. However, it is correct that in certain parts of the country—the hon. Gentleman's may well be one—the position is very difficult indeed.

Precisely for that reason, we are trying to work with GPs to make sure that practices are changed so that they get the money and the resources going in and so that there is better use, for example, of practice nurses and other professionals who can help with the stress that doctors have. We are willing at every stage to consider what more we can do to encourage people to stay in the profession. Indeed, we have already said that we shall offer some £10,000 to those who want to stay on.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman says that that may not be enough, but, with the greatest respect, it is more than was ever done in 18 years of Conservative government. We still have a great deal more to do, but money is not all we need. We also need to change the way that GP services work in the hon. Gentleman's area and in others. To those who were critical at the BMA, I say that we are prepared to work with them in a partnership for change, but it is important that we have genuine change in the NHS.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is bound to be concern if the severely disabled are forced to undergo reviews every few years? Following on from the remarks of my hon. Friend Mr. Skinner, will he bear in mind the anxiety that exists among so many of the disabled over what is in the news today? Will he give a commitment now that he is willing to meet the organisations representing the disabled before any firm proposals are put before the House, because we do want to avoid a row, don't we?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am happy to meet groups representing the disabled. However, I will not apologise for the reforms that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has proposed, because they are important. Let me repeat that we are spending some £7 billion a year on incapacity benefit. The numbers trebled between 1979 and 1997. I think every Member of the House knows that people were transferred on to incapacity benefit to disguise the true levels of unemployment in the 1980s. Therefore, it is important for new claimants that we do not leave people on benefit for 10, 15 or 20 years, but that we are prepared to make sure that those who take money from the state have that money justified. If people are severely disabled and cannot work, we will give them every protection—indeed, we will increase it. However, if people can work, it is our responsibility to help them do so.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Does the Prime Minister recall that, at about this time last week, Andrew Mackinlay asked him a rather penetrating question about appointments to the peerage? Does he remember trying to put his hon. Friend down by accusing him forgetfulness? He said:

"My hon. Friend forgets that the independent Appointments Commission has taken away prime ministerial patronage".—[Hansard, 27 June 2001; Vol. 370, c. 638.]

Will the Prime Minister apologise to his hon. Friend for accusing him of forgetfulness given that he himself seemed to forget that he had appointed his own secretary a peeress without any reference whatever to the Appointments Commission and in breach of the rules laid down by him for the conduct of that commission? Is it not about time that we had more accurate answers from the Prime Minister?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The independent Appointments Commission has indeed taken away prime ministerial patronage. It is for the hon. Gentleman's party and my party to appoint the people whom they want to be working peers.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Labour, Gillingham

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the teachers and pupils at two of my local schools, Twydall infants and Parkwood infants, for their hard work and commitment, which has been recognised by the award of beacon status? Although many of the measures that we have taken have helped to raise standards, will my right hon. Friend inform the House of the steps that are being taken to deal with the serious matter of teacher shortages, which concerns head teachers in my constituency and elsewhere?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, after years of Conservative cuts, we are increasing the number of people coming into training by between 25 per cent. and 30 per cent. Secondly, we are offering bursaries to teachers. Thirdly, for certain shortage subjects we are writing off student loans for trainee teachers. Finally, we are putting substantial extra investment into schools, which will yield more teachers, more classroom assistants and better buildings. That is all part of the investment-plus-reform programme that is essential for the school service. I pay tribute to the work of teachers, pupils and parents in Gillingham, which I am sure mirrors the achievement of teachers and pupils in many parts of the country.