Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 12th December 2001.

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Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:30 pm, 12th December 2001

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 December.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Before listing my engagements, may I say—I hope on behalf of all Members of the House—how sad we were to learn of the death of Sir Ray Powell? He was a great servant of the people of Ogmore, a champion of the valleys, a long-standing and loyal member of the Labour party, and an excellent Member of Parliament. I believe that he will be deeply missed on both sides of the House.

In relation to my engagements, 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 Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the financial difficulties experienced by the councils in my constituency when providing essential social services for the vulnerable—the young and the elderly? Does he agree that it is essential to provide adequate, good social care, along with better funding for the national health service?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do agree with the hon. Lady. It is important that, in addition to the national health service being properly funded, social services are funded too. I know that the hon. Lady will agree that the settlement of—I think—6.7 per cent. for Dorset for the next year is excellent, and it should allow that council to make greater provision for people in respect of social services.

Photo of Linda Gilroy Linda Gilroy Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton

Three months on from 11 September, will the Prime Minister share with the House his view on the outlook for fighting terrorism? In that regard, will he say what importance he attaches to the emergency legislation before the House this week?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of not letting the time that has elapsed since 11 September dim either our outrage at the events of 11 September or, indeed, the absolute certainty—shared on both sides of the House at the time—that it was right that we strengthen the law in order to make sure that we could deal with the dangers of terrorism in our country and elsewhere in the world. We have put forward those measures, on advice, because we genuinely believe them essential in order to fight terrorism properly. They are, in my view, necessary in order to diminish the risk of terrorist attack in this country and elsewhere, and I hope that—even at this stage—both sides of the House will support the measures and allow us to put them in place as soon as possible so that we can prosecute the war against terrorism successfully in this country as well as abroad.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

May I join the Prime Minister in paying our respects to Sir Ray who was, as he said, a much-respected Member of the House? He was not always an easy Member—a tough Member and a tough opponent—but none the less a much-respected Member. Our condolences go from this side of the House to all his family.

Last week, the Prime Minister said that he was committed to increasing spending on the health service to 8 per cent. of national income. Yesterday, the Chancellor said it was not a commitment but a policy. So, what is it? Is it a commitment? Will the Prime Minister confirm that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In fact, the Chancellor said exactly what I said. The fact is that it is, indeed, the policy of this Government to increase our spending on the national health service, and the figures will, of course, be set out in the comprehensive spending review. That is a manifesto commitment that we have made as well. Now, we are committed to increase public spending in the NHS—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would now tell us whether he is?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I think that the Prime Minister ought to talk more to his best friend, because his best friend does not think that that is a commitment, but if it is a commitment, perhaps he would now like to comment on this: the Chancellor said that the NHS was the most efficient form of health care available to this country—and he is nodding. If that is indeed the case and the Prime Minister achieves his 8 per cent., does he expect that the health service in this country will be at an equivalent standard to health services in Europe?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Certainly. The very reason why we wish to increase health spending is to bring our health care system up to the best in Europe. That is precisely what we want to do, and that is the purpose of the money that we are spending at the moment on more doctors and more nurses, on the new hospital programme, on cancer treatment and on cardiac treatment, and elsewhere. Of course, there are still big problems to overcome, but we believe that the combination of investment, plus reform, will work. Now, I repeat that we are in favour of spending that additional money in the national health service—is the right hon. Gentleman?

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Prime Minister therefore believes that he will achieve those standards. So perhaps he would like to comment on the fact that, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, more than 8 per cent. is already being spent, yet Scotland has the lowest survival rate of breast cancer and lung cancer of any major European country. In Wales, the number of people waiting for out-patient treatment has doubled and those waiting more than three months for treatment has quadrupled. In Northern Ireland, the Labour party's sister party, the SDLP said yesterday:

"We spend a higher amount than the Irish Republic or anywhere in England. However, our waiting lists are far the worst of any UK region and are worsening all the time."

Does that not show that his and his Chancellor's figure of 8 per cent. is vacuous and that he made it up as he went along, and does it not show that, because they have abandoned health service reform, it is not just about money? The reality is that he does not have a clue and he does not have a cure for the health service.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course, it is true that the health service needs reform as well, which is precisely why we are reforming it by making sure, for example, that 75 per cent. of the budget will be devolved to the local primary care trusts. We are reforming it in the new contracts for doctors, nurses and consultants. We are reforming it in the new system of inspection and accountability, and in the national service frameworks, but, of course, it also needs money. That is absolutely true, and we know from the right hon. Gentleman's article in The Daily Telegraph that putting money into the

"NHS is like pouring water into a colander."

Let me come to the right hon. Gentleman's own health authority for a moment, and say what that money has done there. If he says that it is all wasted, let me tell the House what has happened in his own health authority: a 25 per cent. reduction in in-patient waiting lists; £1.8 million to modernise the accident and emergency wards at Whipps Cross and King George; £1.8 million to expand critical care services; £205,000 so that local hospitals can introduce booked-admissions systems; and £149,000 earmarked funding for heart disease services. Now, all that money has improved health care services in his own health authority. What part of that money does he think is like pouring water into a colander? [Interruption.]

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in condemning the recent escalation of violence on both sides in the middle east. What diplomatic pressure is the United Kingdom Government putting on the Israeli Government to return to the peace process, to de-escalate the cycle of terror in the region?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

What is important is that pressure is put on both sides to return to the peace process. There is a very dangerous situation in the middle east in which Israel is faced with suicide bomb attacks against its citizens, which is an outrage and must cease, and the Palestinian Authority and people within its area are obviously living in very difficult conditions.

My view remains that the initial security steps have to be taken as soon as possible, and then the peace process has to be relaunched, based on two points of principle: the first is Israel's existence, secure and confident in its own borders, and accepted by the whole of the Arab world, and the second is the need for a viable Palestinian state. If people accepted those two fixed points of principle, we would have a chance of getting a peace process that worked. That is not only in the interests of the outside world; it is most profoundly in the interests of the citizens of Israel and the people living within the Palestinian Authority area.

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

May I fully associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the appropriate expressions of condolence which have been extended, by all parties now, to the family of the late Sir Ray Powell? I reassure the House that if ever there was a case of cash for questions, I should be sending an invoice to the leader of the Conservative party.

In view of the shocking news this morning about 30,000 proposed job losses for postal workers over the next 18 months, and the revelation that the unions say they were not consulted and had no advance warning, may I ask the Prime Minister whether the Government were consulted, and if so, what view did they take?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, it is not a matter for the Government; it is a matter for the company and the unions. We gave the commercial freedom to the Post Office that people wished for. The Post Office faces an extremely challenging and difficult time, and of course I would regret any job losses in the postal sector. However, it is important that the matter is dealt with by the company and the unions, taking account of the fact that there will need to be big changes in postal services over the next few years.

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

There will be rightful dismay in the country that 30,000 job losses are not considered a matter even for consultation with the Government. That is unbelievable. What assurances can the Prime Minister give in light of those tens of thousands of job losses that postal services will be maintained, in rural as well as urban Britain, on an equitable and equal basis into the future?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course it is our responsibility to make sure that postal services are maintained in the rural parts of the country, and that is precisely what we will do. I did not say that the Government did not regret any job losses in the industry; I said specifically that we do. However, I also said that the Post Office faces very challenging times, and these are matters to be worked out between the company and the unions.

If the position of the Liberal Democrats is that they would intervene, say that there should be no job losses and give an undertaking that they would give whatever amounts of public money were necessary to achieve that, I would be interested to hear that from them, but I doubt it very much. If I may say so, it is a classic example of what someone once said about the Liberal Democrats:

"It is easy for the third party in British politics to make promises which they know they will never be in Government to implement and be responsible for."

That was one of his hon. Friends, Mr. Marsden.

Photo of Claire Ward Claire Ward Labour, Watford

I welcome the Government's decision to extend the pub and club licensing hours over the new year, but may I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the fact that in those very pubs and clubs many women will become victims of the date-rape drug, GHB? May I encourage support for the police campaign to make sure that people are aware of the potential for drinks to be spiked? Will my right hon. Friend discuss with the Home Secretary the need to ban the drug at the earliest opportunity?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right—she makes a very good point. The Government have accepted a recommendation made by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that GHB be controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, and we strongly support the police campaign. She is right to draw attention to the dangers: we are working in conjunction with the police to draw public attention to those dangers and to protect the public from them.

Photo of Mr Peter Duncan Mr Peter Duncan Conservative, Galloway and Upper Nithsdale

Following today's further extraordinary and damning suggestions, does the Prime Minister retain full confidence in the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, his hon. Friend Nigel Griffiths?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do, yes. Any allegations made should be investigated by the appropriate authorities; they are being investigated and I believe that those authorities will make their decisions shortly.

Photo of Bill Rammell Bill Rammell Labour, Harlow

I warmly welcome the additional extended cost of living allowances awarded last week to nurses in Harlow and throughout Essex; they will make a real difference to recruitment and retention. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to continue to get such improvements, we need extra public investment? In that respect, will he reject out of hand the views of those who advocate private health insurance? Is that not the system used in America, where 40 million people are denied access to the hospitals they need? Does not the Conservatives' support for such a system demonstrate more clearly than anything else that they have learned nothing from two crushing general election defeats?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. Although problems persist in the recruitment of nurses, consultants and doctors, over the past few years more than 20,000 extra nurses have been recruited to the national health service, as well as almost 7,000 doctors and consultants. It is important that we keep the programme going. The reason that we are able to attract more nurses is the financial help we are giving. The scheme to which he refers has been extended to north and south Essex, and it is extremely important that we take such measures.

The problem with the Conservatives' proposals is that simply putting money into private medical insurance is not an answer—people are already entitled to take out private medical insurance. What the Conservatives really want is to force people to take out such insurance, which will result in many people not getting the treatment they need.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Will the Prime Minister tell us whether train delays due to track and signals failures have gone up or down since he pushed Railtrack into administration?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My understanding is that figures will be published within the next few days, but those figures are for April to October and so cover only a small part of the period since the company went into administration. The figures for October onwards will be published early next year. However, as I understand it the problems with train delays began in September, before the company went into administration.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The reality is that all the figures from the companies and Railtrack show that train delays have jumped by 45 per cent. since the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions put the company into administration. The Prime Minister mentions one set of figures, but is it not a fact that the Government have decided not to publish any figures during the winter months but to wait until spring next year? Is his Transport Secretary looking for another good place to bury bad news?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, that is not the case. The reason the company had to go into administration is that it simply could not carry on as it had been, asking for billions of pounds in public subsidy and not providing a decent service to rail users. It is right that the company goes into administration, that it is sorted out and put on a new basis for the future that will allow it, in time, to deliver a better service to rail users. The idea that the problem of the railways started with administration is false: the problem started with probably the most botched privatisation in the history of privatisations.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

There he goes again—more blame for everyone else—the same old story. The Prime Minister spent six months with his Transport Secretary finding ways to take over the railways and he has done it. Only a few weeks ago, he was blaming Railtrack's management, saying that the process would cut the expenditure that they were wasting, yet he is now to spend £1 million on a chief executive for Railtrack, having only just got rid of the last one for a third of a million pounds. It is absolutely ridiculous. The right hon. Gentleman will get no more investment because none of the private companies will invest any money in his railways, which his Deputy Prime Minister botched up along with his Transport Secretary.

Is it not the truth that the Prime Minister and his Deputy Prime Minister clearly wanted a train set for Christmas? Now they have one they cannot run it. The reality for the public is that there will be delays, cancellations and a winter of discontent.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Again, I have gently to point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the problems—I think that most people accept this—with the railways were twofold. First, there was under-investment over a long period. Secondly, rail privatisation ended up with a fragmented system that was unsustainable.

When we put Railtrack into administration, it was literally asking us—with great respect, this is the point that the right hon. Gentleman does not deal with—for billions of pounds of extra public money. We believe that that system could not continue. We must ensure that public money that is put into the railways goes to improve the railways. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the salary of the new chief executive. The biggest difference between us on the funding of the railways is that the right hon. Gentleman has given a commitment that if he were in office he would be bailing out all the Railtrack shareholders. That would mean £1 billion paid out to them, but not to improve the railways.

With the greatest respect, the right hon. Gentleman and his party were the people who started the problems in the railways as a result of privatisation. It will need time and investment to sort them out. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that no one believes that the Conservative party would do it.