This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in wanting to pay our respects on the 50th anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen's accession to the throne.
I do urge people not to pay attention to what is sometimes called Government advice. The Government are in fact giving advice on the basis of the advice given to them by independent experts. That advice, which is that the MMR vaccine is safe and is best done in combination rather than separate jabs, is supported not only by the Government's independent advisory committee, but by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association and the Faculty of Public Health Medicine. No fewer than 90 countries around the world use the MMR vaccine, including every major industrialised country, and 500 million doses of the vaccine have been given since 1972. I say to people that the scaremongering—and it is scaremongering—about this vaccine is wrong. Often, such scaremongering does not matter, but in this case it does. If anybody has any doubts, the full evidence is available and can be given to any parent who wants it.
It has risen; however—[Hon. Members: "How much?"] It has risen by about 20,000; however, the number of operations as a whole has also risen by more than 500,000; 19 out of 20 operations are done on time; the average waiting time for an operation has fallen since 1997; and, therefore, although it is correct that the number of cancelled operations has risen, if we look at the number of operations as a whole—more than 5.5 million in this country—I think that the national health service has a record to be proud of.
The answer is quite correct: 50 per cent. I have to tell the Prime Minister that that is not just a figure. He talks about the rise in the number of operations done, but the numbers that have been cancelled have risen as well, and that is a real tragedy for those who have to wait. [Interruption.] Well, the reality—he may not want to hear this—is that this is not one or two cases, but 80,000 people who have had their operations cancelled on the day when they were expecting to have them. That is a matter of fear and anxiety for 80,000 people—many more than when he came to power. So, as those numbers have risen and 80,000 people have had their operations cancelled, will he now tell us the reason why?
As I explained a moment ago, far more operations have been done by the national health service—about 500,000 more. Less than 2 per cent. of operations are cancelled, which should put the matter in perspective. The only answer is indeed to increase the capacity of the health service, including more nurses, doctors and consultants, as well as other staff, and more beds. That is precisely why we are increasing investment in the national health service. The right hon. Gentleman is in favour of cutting that investment. Therefore, whatever the problems of cancelled operations—I say that they should be put in perspective—the remedy that he has, which is to cut that investment, is the wrong remedy. The remedy that we have—invest and reform—is the right one.
"public sector net investment over the five-year period since Labour came into power" is
"the lowest figure for any five year period since the Second World War".
The Prime Minister is in government and it is his record. The answer that he did not give to my question is that hospital beds are in short supply because they are being blocked by people who cannot get a care home or nursing home bed. The figure that he did not want to provide is that 40,000—nearly 10 per cent.—fewer care home beds are available since 1997 when he took over.
Age Concern says that the care sector is in crisis. The head of the Registered Nursing Homes Association said that Government policy was to blame. The Government's policies are damaging the NHS. Is not the Prime Minister's real achievement after five years to have increased both the queue to get into hospital and the queue to get out?
Public sector investment in the health service has increased under the Government and is continuing to increase. We are roughly the only major industrial country anywhere in the world that is increasing expenditure on health and education as a proportion of national income. Is it the Conservative party's case that we are not spending enough on health and education? When we announced our spending plans, Conservatives called them reckless and irresponsible. We know that the right hon. Gentleman wants to run down the national health service because he does not believe in it. The clearest evidence of that came yesterday, when the Leader of the Opposition said:
"The health service doesn't serve anybody . . . It doesn't serve doctors or nurses. It doesn't help the people who are treated."
What an insult to the NHS and the people who work in it! Conservatives denigrate the health service because they want to undermine it. We want to increase investment, whereas the right hon. Gentleman would cut it.
Will my right hon. Friend make representations to the United States authorities about a British national who is currently on death row in Georgia? His name is Tracy Housel and he is severely brain damaged. Although he has been on death row since 1986, his execution date is likely to be set this month. Will my right hon. Friend say what representations he believes he can make? Will he please act quickly, before the date is set?
The Foreign Secretary has written to the Governor of Georgia and the state board of pardons and parole, urging them to commute the death sentence to a term of imprisonment. We shall continue to make representations to the state of Georgia. I hope that my hon. Friend understands the position and that we shall continue to make representations on behalf of that individual, who I believe is a joint US-UK national.
I want to ask the Prime Minister a question of which I have given him prior notice—in the sense that the leader of the Tory party will ask him the same question this time next week. Yesterday, the Labour-dominated Transport Committee described the Government's proposals for the part-privatisation of the London Underground and their claims that it would save £4.5 billion as inadequate and flawed. How does the Prime Minister explain that?
I explain it by saying that, of course, the Committee is entitled to its view, but the value-for-money reports are being considered at the moment. They will be published and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will make a statement about that. The safety case—in so far as that is a point of criticism—is being assessed by the Health and Safety Executive; that is entirely proper. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends must explain—if they oppose the public-private partnership which allows major infrastructure work that is urgently necessary to be done on the London underground—how they would make up the £5 billion shortfall if they took out the private element.
Everybody in the country knows that the railway system is in a state of chaos, thanks to privatisation. Why do not the Government listen to the majority view of Londoners, and to the advice of the Labour-dominated Transport Committee and decide not to go down the route of part-privatisation for the tube? Should not the Prime Minister swallow his pride and stop this disaster in the making?
Let me explain to the right hon. Gentleman again why we believe that this is important. The London underground will remain in the public sector from the time that the tube opens until the time that it closes. The reason that we are engaged in this public-private investment partnership is so that the infrastructure work, which is urgently needed in the tube, can be done. [Interruption.] I urge Liberal Democrat Members to listen to the arguments, rather than heckling. If we decide to do this in the old public sector financing way, we will lose the billions of pounds of private investment necessary, and all the evidence is that, if we do it in that way, the work will run over budget and over time. It is important, however difficult the decision may be, to take the right decision for the future. This plan is ready to go; it will get immediate money into the tube; and we are doing it not out of pride but because we believe it to be the right thing to do.
When my right hon. Friend is preparing his in-flight reading for the next couple of days, would he care to take with him the report on the Chinook crash? I hope that he will look, in particular, at paragraph 174, in which Lord Jauncey and his colleagues unanimously come to the conclusion that
"the reviewing officers were not justified in finding that negligence on the part of the pilots caused the aircraft to crash."
I realise that the primary response to that will be from the Ministry of Defence, but will the Prime Minister accept that many of us, who have sympathy with the Department in a variety of ways, feel that the Gordian knot of self-interest that surrounds the Department on this issue must be cut through? We look to my right hon. Friend for a better, clearer and fairer understanding of a complex issue that has been dealt with by some of the most distinguished jurists in the other place. They have come up with a conclusion that drives a coach and horses through the views of the—
My hon. Friend is obviously right to say that this is a complex issue, although I hope that he would also acknowledge that those who conducted the original inquiry are wise and celebrated people as well, and experts in that particular area. Obviously, we have to study the report, and we shall do that. We shall study its complex technical detail and give a proper response in due course.
Is the Prime Minister aware that some 350 jobs had been lost in the town of Malmesbury before yesterday's devastating news of 820 redundancies as a result of James Dyson moving some of his business to the far east? The Prime Minister will understand that that is appalling news for a town of only 4,500 people. Nationally, 350,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since the right hon. Gentleman came to power, and manufacturing industry is now officially in recession. Will he accept personal responsibility for this, or will he seek to blame someone else?
It would be right, surely, to point out that there have been 1.2 million extra jobs altogether since we came to office. It is correct to say that manufacturing has gone through a difficult time; of course it has. It has done so in many parts of the world, but I believe the best thing for manufacturing is low interest rates, low inflation and a stable economic environment, and that is what manufacturing has. If we were to go back to the policies that the hon. Gentleman used to support under the Conservative Government, which caused massive manufacturing job losses and a huge cut in manufacturing output and investment, that would be the worst thing. Having said that, of course we are deeply disappointed at Mr. Dyson's decision, but that is a decision for his company.
The Prime Minister will be aware that the performance and innovation unit's report on future energy supply is now widely available on the internet, and that it confirms that renewable sources should have a vital and increasing role in the future. [Hon. Members: "Reading."] The UK is uniquely rich in wave and tidal energy sources, but if this potential is to be unlocked, it will require a lead from the Government. [Hon. Members: "Reading."] If this can be given, there is the potential for a new green industry, providing thousands of jobs. Will—
Over the next three years, we have committed about £260 million in an extensive capital grants programme for renewable energy. We have a target to reach 10 per cent. renewables by 2010. [Hon. Members: "Reading."] [Laughter.] There will be a—[Laughter.] I am told—[Laughter.]
What the Prime Minister just said on the MMR vaccine deals with the world as he wishes it to be, not as it is. The fact is that tens of thousands of parents do not accept his assurances that the vaccine is safe, however good the medical evidence. Instead of calling them scaremongers, should he not give them the choice of three separate vaccinations on the NHS?
I really have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the position that the Conservative party has adopted today is, in my view, totally irresponsible. Let me tell him why that is the case. The evidence that I have read out is evidence not just about the importance of the MMR vaccine but about the importance of having it in combination, rather than in separate jabs. Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that the evidence that that way is better comes from right round the world—not just this country. It comes from 90 different countries. [Interruption.] Can I say this to the Opposition? This is important, so let me at least give them the evidence, as that is what people are asking for.
Every single piece of independent research that has been done around the world has found that it is important to have the MMR jab in combination, not separately. Let me inform the House that, most recently, the major US conference, as reported in the American medical journal Pediatrics, said that
"the available evidence does not support the hypothesis that MMR vaccine causes autism or associated disorders."
It went on:
"Separate administration of measles, mumps and rubella vaccines to children provides no benefit over administration of the combination MMR vaccine and would result in delayed or missed immunisations."
Two further pieces of evidence are important. Between 1994 and 1999, for various reasons, Japan went for separate jabs, rather than the MMR combination. Over that time, when there were no deaths from measles in Britain, there were 85 in Japan. In addition, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that when a previous Government had to face a similar issue in respect of whooping cough, as a result of pressure it was decided not to give the vaccine in the original form. As a result of that, the immunisation programme virtually collapsed. As a result of that, some 100 children died of whooping cough.
This is a serious issue and I simply say to Opposition Members: read the evidence. Incidentally, the press have continually said that we have failed to provide the evidence. The evidence is published on the Department of Health website and it is available for anybody to see. Any parent who writes to the Department of Health can have the evidence, so I urge all Members of the House to have a care as to what we say on this issue, because, genuinely, the safety of children is at risk.
Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to deny today's story in Newcastle's The Journal, which says that he, or his office, has personally intervened in the drafting of the forthcoming regional government White Paper to insist that it contain a clause stating that regional government cannot go ahead without the abolition of the county councils?
On Sunday the Prime Minister said that the trade unions were "standing in the way of good public services". Does he stand by that?
I said that anyone who opposed the necessary reform of public services was standing in the way of improvements necessary for public services. I also said that those who, like the right hon. Gentleman, want to cut essential investment in public services were grossly undermining them.
I think that answer says it all.
The Prime Minister has clearly apologised to the trade unions, as was reported today. He has gone grovelling to them. When the general secretary of the TUC called his comments "juvenile" and "bizarre", was he defending the Conservative party? When Unison issued its big advertisement attacking that, was it defending the Conservative party?
In no shape or form are we giving way on the reform programme in the health service and the education service. [Hon. Members: "How much?"] Well, the amount of money given to the Labour party—thanks to the procedures we introduced—is there for people to see.
It is important that we carry on with the reforms in health, education, transport, and law and order, but the reforms should be matched by investment. I will take on either people like the right hon. Gentleman who want to cut investment, or people in the trade union movement or elsewhere who want to halt the advance of reform. "Invest and reform" is right. Now perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us what his position is.
The Prime Minister took a long time not to answer the question. Let us now give him the answer. The figure is £8 million, in a six-month period last year—and in the case of two unions that are either on strike or about to strike, it is nearly £1.25 million.
Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the Leader of the Opposition, but I must tell him that the Prime Minister is here to answer questions as Prime Minister, not as leader of the Labour party. [Interruption.] Order. I am talking about the rules of the House, which the House has given me to protect. Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition could ask another question.
This issue goes right to the heart of the Government. While I fully respect what you say, Mr. Speaker, I must point out—[Interruption]—if I may—that it is about what is happening on the railways and in the Post Office. I am simply raising an issue, and asking a question about whether there are links with and reasons for Government policy. I would like to pursue that line if you are agreeable, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps I can ask the question—[Interruption.]
I will certainly ask the question, Mr. Speaker, but perhaps in a slightly different way.
No wonder the Prime Minister grovels to the trade unions after having attacked them, from one day to the next. The truth is—this is the reality for the present Government, so heavily linked to the trade unions—that five years ago the Prime Minister used to talk about "24 hours to save the health service"; on Monday, it was 24 hours to save his donations. Instead of briefing and retreating, attacking and withdrawing, why does the Prime Minister not cut his links with the strikers and the wreckers?
In regard to the actual industrial dispute, we have made it clear that we believe the strike action is totally unjustified and should not take place. In relation to the national health service, however, there is a real issue, as there is in relation to investment in our public services. The strategy of the Conservative party is absolutely clear, and that is why we will not adopt it as a Government—
Fortunately, the policy of the Conservative party will never be the policy of this Government, but there is a real issue in respect of public services. What is important is that we end up with the investment and reform that our public services need. They are getting substantial investment over the next few years. In each of these areas, there is a substantial reform programme. As I have said, whether it is those who are opposed to reform, or those who are opposed to investment, we will take both of them on and we will win that battle for our public services.
Is the Prime Minister aware that tomorrow will see the naming of the 2,500 runners in the Queen's jubilee baton relay, which will effectively launch the run-up to the Commonwealth games in Manchester later this year? Will he join me in congratulating those runners, who literally straddle the world? Every one has been picked because of their contribution to local communities. Will he join me in wishing them every success in launching what will be the most successful multi-sports event in this country for many years?
I certainly join my hon. Friend in his congratulations for all those who are organising the Commonwealth games. The Queen's jubilee baton relay will be launched by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham palace on
"the longer the administrator's work has gone on, the more financial difficulties he has uncovered."—[Hansard, 19 December 2001; Vol. 377, c. 288-9.]
On three separate occasions since then, the Railtrack administrator has publicly said that that is not the case. Who is telling the truth?
The petition that was presented to the court announced debts of about £1.7 billion, which is exactly why Railtrack was put into administration. The Railtrack administrator will publish the full details of what the debts were at a later time. When that happens, the hon. Gentleman may have to withdraw the implication of his question.
Will my right hon. Friend consider visiting Kettering general hospital to look at the new orthopaedic theatre, the new CAT scanner, the £900,000 investment in intensive care and the £1 million plans for a new dermatology unit? Does he agree that, after that massive investment in our health service, the real wreckers are those on the Conservative Benches?
I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend's constituency hospital in Kettering, although preferably not as a patient—[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I think that most of us would like to maintain our good health if we possibly can. What my hon. Friend has described in his constituency could be described in most constituencies up and down the country. There is a massive amount of investment going in. Figures published yesterday on recruitment to the health service show, for example, that we have met the target on the number of nurses in the national health service plan some two years early. I say to my hon. Friends and indeed to Opposition Members that, with the progress over the next few months, I think that people will start to see in their constituencies exactly the same level of investment and change as people already notice in respect of the school system.
Is the Prime Minister aware that on the day of the Twin Towers disaster, there took place in this city an arms trade fair sponsored by the Ministry of Defence? Among the customers at that fair for state-of-the-art weaponry were both sides in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Would it not be a useful start to the Prime Minister's mission to Africa if he announced that henceforth this country will not sell arms to both sides in African civil wars?
I do not know about the particular point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but I will investigate it and write to him. Our arms sales to Africa run at about 1 per cent. of total arms sales, so it is important to put that in context. There are also, incidentally, jobs and industry in this country to consider. Of course it is important to take care who we sell arms to, and we do. The desire of African nations is for the partnership for change in Africa—which covers a whole range of issues, including aid and trade, investment and governance—to be satisfactorily put together for the G8 summit in July, so that the developing and developed world can give Africa the chance that it needs.
The Prime Minister will be aware that, even before the dropping of cluster bombs in Afghanistan, it was one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world. In fulfilling his pledge not to walk away from that country, will he outline what the Government are doing to help clear land mines there?
We are, I think, providing several million pounds for the clearing of mines in Afghanistan. Part of the function of the international security assistance force is precisely to ensure that we give every help to the Afghan authorities in clearing mines from the area. My hon. Friend would be pleasantly surprised by the amount of progress being made there in very difficult circumstances. On the humanitarian side, although there are still real problems as a result of drought, and some instability in certain parts of the country, the World Food Programme now reckons that it is getting more aid into Afghanistan than ever before.