Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 13th March 2002.

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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 meetings later today.

Photo of Geraldine Smith Geraldine Smith Labour, Morecambe and Lunesdale

The Prime Minister will be aware of Consignia's current proposals, which threaten the financial position of the Post Office, jeopardise the provision of post office services and threaten thousands of postal workers' jobs. In view of that and of the fact that the Post Office is, after all, a publicly owned company, will the Prime Minister tell me what representations he has made to Postcomm—the postal regulator—about those appalling proposals? Will he also tell me whether he has asked for an extension of the consultation period, because it has been appallingly short?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely understand people's concerns about Postcomm's proposals. As my hon. Friend will know, Consignia—the Post Office—faces major structural challenges to do with changes in technology, changes in the market and changes in the liberalisation of postal markets right across Europe, but I know that it will be mindful of the primary duty of Postcomm, which is to protect the universal service. I know also that people will listen very carefully to the representations being made by my hon. Friend and many others, and I am sure that we shall find a way through that allows us to make the necessary changes to the Post Office, while ensuring that basic services are protected.

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

Now that the Prime Minister has finished his latest Government relaunch, may I take him back to phase 1 of new Labour? In his 1997 election manifesto, the Prime Minister promised "zero tolerance" of street crime. Five years on, will he tell us exactly what he meant by that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I meant that it is important that the Government get crime down, and I am happy to tell the right hon. Gentleman that crime has actually fallen under this Government since 1997. It is true, however, that street crime has gone up very sharply in London and elsewhere in the last year. It is precisely for that reason—

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing. First, there are more police officers—more than 1,000 in the last year. Secondly, there are major changes to the criminal justice system. Thirdly, we are making sure that we have sufficient secure accommodation places for young offenders. In each of those areas, therefore, we are taking action. Yes, I accept entirely that street crime has been a problem, particularly in the last year, but we are acting on it.

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

The Prime Minister, as ever, talks about the things that he was doing, but he fails to recognise that none of them has had any effect on bringing down street crime. In London alone, there are 218 street crimes every day; 150 knife crimes every week; and 275 gun crimes every month—so much for phase 1 and failure, but no apology. In phase 2, the Prime Minister made another manifesto pledge. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not like being reminded of what they promised, so let us remind them. He said that he would bring 100,000 more criminals to justice under the next phase of Government. Was that not another worthless pledge?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No. First, I shall deal with street crime. Contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, I did not say that there was no problem with street crime; I admitted that there was a problem. He said that we were refusing to say what we would do about it. Let me repeat to him that we need extra police officers; we have got 1,000 extra in London. We need measures to change the criminal justice system; we are taking those measures. We need more places in secure accommodation; that is precisely what we are doing.

As a result of the Metropolitan police safer streets initiative, taken in the last few weeks, there has been a 15 per cent. drop in street crime. However, we need to do more. We need even more police officers, which is exactly why we are increasing the numbers to the highest level that this country has ever seen. We need to make sure that the Proceeds of Crime Bill goes through so that we tackle some of the organised crime. Many of its measures are being opposed by the Conservative party in Parliament. We need the major changes to the criminal justice system outlined in the Auld report. We support those changes and we support the extra numbers of police through investment—does he?

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

As ever, when the Prime Minister is asked a direct question, we get more promises and pledges, but never any delivery. I asked him a specific question about his promise to bring 100,000 more criminals to justice. He did not answer it. The reality is that his figures show that he has gone backwards. Some 80,000 fewer criminals are being brought to justice. Nine out of 10 crimes go unpunished and, when criminals are caught and convicted, under his Government they are released early to commit more crimes. Surely he must now agree with the chairman of the Victims of Crime Trust, who said:

"I have never seen the criminal justice system in such disarray."

Is that a good verdict on phase 2?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman accuses us of making promises but not delivering on them. This country has the highest numbers of police that it has ever had. The reason for that is additional investment. The vast majority of police in this country do a superb job, but two things are needed: first, we need to make sure that we carry on getting additional police numbers, which we will do; and, secondly, we need to introduce the major changes to the criminal justice system that we want.

If we look at crime over the past few years, we see that there is a real problem with street crime. However, overall crime is down. Let us compare that with the record of the 18 years under the Conservatives. The Conservatives cut police numbers before we came to office—[Interruption.] Yes, they did. The Conservatives scrapped the housing allowance, which did more damage to the recruitment of police officers. The number of convictions fell by a third. The amount of time that it took to get persistent young offenders to court soared, and crime doubled. The last people from whom we will take lessons on crime are the Conservatives.

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

I remind the Prime Minister— I know that he does not like being reminded of this—that he has been in power for nearly five years. He cannot go on blaming somebody else. Not one of the measures that he has mentioned has had a positive effect. Street crime is rising, violent crime is rising, and muggings are up. All of those are failures by the Government. Worse than that, fewer people are being brought to justice and more dangerous criminals are on the street—no wonder police morale is at an all-time low.

The Prime Minister gave one pledge: that he would put more police on the streets. The only place he has put them on the streets is here in Westminster, where they are getting angry about this lot. The reality sits on his shoulders: phase 1, make the promise; phase 2, break the promise; phase 3, blame anybody else.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let us go back to police numbers. As I said, the vast majority of police officers in this country do a superb job, with immense dedication and commitment. Let us remember that when we came to office the numbers of police in London and elsewhere were falling; today, we have the highest number of police officers that we have ever had. Since we came to office, car crime and burglary have gone down. It is true that street crime has gone up, which is precisely why we are introducing these measures: more secure accommodation, changes to the criminal justice system and more police on the beat. All of that requires support for our proposed changes to the criminal justice system and extra investment. Let me repeat what I said a moment or two ago: that is what we say is the solution—will the right hon. Gentleman now back it?

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Regent's Park and Kensington North

Those of us with an interest in homelessness have warmly welcomed this morning's announcement that in two years' time the Government intend to end the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for families. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that bed and breakfast is only the sharp end of a housing crisis that is affecting public sector recruitment in London as well as homelessness? Will he ensure that the comprehensive spending review makes resources available to boost housing supply, particularly in London and the south-east, to help with public sector recruitment and to fulfil the target on bed and breakfast?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sure that what my hon. Friend says about the problems of housing in London and elsewhere is true. It is for that reason that we have been seeking to increase investment. In particular, the starter homes initiatives for staff such as teachers, police officers and nurses in London will ensure that at least hundreds of people in those professions get the chance of a decent home in London, which they need to go to work.

As for homelessness more generally, my hon. Friend will know that we have cut the number of rough sleepers, but we are well aware of the fact that bed-and-breakfast accommodation is not the right accommodation—medium or long term—so we are looking urgently at how we manage to increase the provision of housing and reduce the reliance on bed-and-breakfast accommodation.

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

When thousands of police officers make their way to Westminster to lobby us all, and when one listens to the genuine sense of anger and betrayal that they feel, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to explain to them why they are so mistaken?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I believe, as I said a moment or two ago, that the vast majority of police officers do a superb job. They do a great job with immense dedication and commitment. I think, however, that the right hon. Gentleman will find that the vast majority of police officers agree with the changes that we are making to the criminal justice system and agree with much of the police reform that we want to introduce. It is true, however, that there are points of disagreement. They are now subject to conciliation, which I hope very much will allow us to reach an agreement. As the chairman of the Police Federation said earlier, the right hon. Gentleman will find that there is a very large measure of agreement on the Government's programme between the police and the Government.

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

I do not know about the points of disagreement, but the points of agreement are pretty well camouflaged, judging by what has been said by police officers today. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that he is now beginning to preside over the biggest period of public sector discontent since the winter of discontent? Whether it is teachers in London, police officers at the door here at Westminster today or rail workers, is not the hard fact of the matter that many public service employees do not value the Government because they do not think that the Government value them?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There are about 140,000 more public sector staff compared with when we came to office. There are more nurses, more doctors, more police and more teachers. The truth, however, is that, no matter how much money is put in and no matter how many people we recruit, the Liberal Democrats never think that it is enough because they think that there is a bottomless pit and that we can simply get as much money out of it as they can possibly imagine. The truth of the matter is that, of course, we value public service staff enormously, but I think that the Liberal Democrats will make a very big mistake if they set their face, as they have, against any changes in the health service, any changes in education or any changes in the police or criminal justice. It is important that we work with staff to get these reforms but, in circumstances in which we are putting in the largest investment any Government have ever put into health, education and policing, it is also important that we make sure that we get the reforms necessary to make that money work.

I said to the right hon. Gentleman a moment or two ago that the vast majority of the police do a fantastic job. He will have seen from the advertisement of the Police Federation that it supports much of what the Government are doing. There is a process of conciliation and we will go through it. However, I think that he and several other Members of the House will find, in a few weeks' time, that we are with the police and on the same side making the changes that we all want to see.

Photo of Mrs Helen Jackson Mrs Helen Jackson Labour, Sheffield, Hillsborough

Does my right hon. Friend agree that unilateral action by major states in this modern, interdependent world is usually inappropriate? Was he as angry as the steelworkers in my constituency at the action taken by the Government of the United States to impose tariffs on our steel exports—the best exports in the world—and will he support his Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in making direct representations to the United States Government to get them to reverse that decision?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course we totally disagree with the decision taken by the United States and we have been making our views clearly known to the American Administration for the past few months. The decision will be subject to a procedure under the World Trade Organisation, invoked by the European Union. I very much hope that the United States changes its position. I very much hope that if the WTO rules in our favour, it will change its position. I think that most people realise that not merely is the decision wrong in terms of international trade, but it is not an answer to the problems of the US steel industry.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

Perhaps the Prime Minister can explain why this lunchtime not one of the 55 London Labour MPs could be bothered to meet rank-and-file members of the Metropolitan police across the road. Will he arrange to meet them and listen to what they really think, apologise and show more bottle than his MPs?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will meet police officers. Indeed, the Home Secretary met them this morning and we are well aware of their concerns.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

Does the Prime Minister agree that if the serious concerns about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction are borne out by further information, the United Nations should be the first port of call for raising the problem so that we get the broadest possible coalition to counter the threat?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course it is to the United Nations that we have constantly gone because of the problems of Iraq acquiring weapons of mass destruction. It is for that reason that many, many UN Security Council resolutions call on Iraq to destroy those weapons and to let the inspectors back into the country to ensure that they are destroyed. For that reason, we will continue to put maximum pressure on Iraq to come back into line with international law and UN Security Council resolutions.

Photo of Nigel Waterson Nigel Waterson Conservative, Eastbourne

Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether he favours an amnesty for IRA terrorists on the run—yes or no?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I said in Prime Minister's questions last week, we have no doubt that the issue has to be dealt with. How that is done, however, is a matter of discussion. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman and to those of his hon. Friends who oppose dealing with the problem at all, that over the past few years we have made very significant progress in Northern Ireland. People sometimes forget just how enormous that progress is. I hope that whatever measures we take, people will look at them in that light. I also hope that when people gaze across to the situation in the middle east, they see what happens when a peace process fails.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

May I welcome the Government's commitment to eradicate poverty and social exclusion? Is my right hon. Friend aware of any steps that are being taken to ensure that families on the minimum wage and working families tax credit are not inadvertently penalised for working?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The very reason why we introduced the combination of the minimum wage and the working families tax credit was to ensure that families are better off when they work. Those who work full time, with a minimum income of about £225 a week as a result, are some £90 a week better off than they would have been on income support. That makes a huge difference.

One reason why we have been able to put our public finances in such a healthy position is precisely because we got down the bills for the social and economic failure of the Conservatives. Unemployment rose to more than 3 million under the Conservatives; we have managed to get 1 million extra jobs in the economy. My hon. Friend will know that many of those people who are working are doing so precisely because we have made work pay.

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

Does the Prime Minister agree with what the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions said last December? He told the House that

"there is no reason why . . . there should be large increases in council tax."—[Hansard, 4 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 169.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do, because the amount that we have given in the local government settlement—more than 7.5 per cent.—makes the settlement one of the best that local government has had for a long time. In the five years of this Government, there has been a 20 per cent. real terms increase in the amount of money that we have given to local government. If the right hon. Gentleman compares that with the five years of the previous Government, when there was an increase of less than 1 per cent., he will see that my right hon. Friend was entirely justified in making that comment.

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

It is another fine mess that the Secretary of State has gotten him into. The Prime Minister needs reminding about something. He seems to think that everything is all right, but bills are set to rise by three times the rate of inflation for the fifth year in a row under this Government. The reality is that a typical household now pays £300 a year more in council tax than when he came to power. He perhaps does not visit his constituency that much, but he may want to recognise that those who have the worst of it will be very angry. It is a stealth tax by any means. I remind the Prime Minister that a few years ago he said:

"We've no plans to increase taxation at all."

Yet again, is not the reality: phase 1, make a promise; phase 2, break a promise; phase 3, blame anybody else?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman a moment or two ago, it is councils that set council tax bills, but they do so on the basis of the settlement from central Government. The fact is that that settlement has been far more generous than during the previous Conservative years. Nor is the settlement merely more generous; when we announced in the comprehensive spending review that we were increasing it by 7.5 per cent., his party said that that was too generous. If he were on this side of the House, council taxes would be even higher.

Photo of Mr Hilton Dawson Mr Hilton Dawson Labour, Lancaster and Wyre

In fair trade fortnight, will my right hon. Friend welcome initiatives such as that in Garstang, in Lancashire, which is linking with New Koforida, a village in the cocoa-producing area of Ghana? Are not such local initiatives precisely in line with new economic policy for African development, and with efforts to make globalisation work for the poor across the world? [Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sorry that Opposition Members jeer, because the point that my hon. Friend makes is right. As the Chancellor has said, we have recently taken some £200 million off Ghana's debt. That has been achieved because Ghana qualified under the heavily indebted poor countries rules, and it has therefore reduced its debt repayment substantially. That money can now go into its health and education services. As a result of changes led by this Government, not only has aid to Africa been doubled; because of debt relief—led by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development—countries across the world can put their money into basic services that improve the lives of their people, rather than into debt repayments. That is not just morally good and right for Africa; it also means that we can do business with those countries in the future, and that they will be more wealthy and prosperous, and more stable as a result.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

Is the Prime Minister happy—[Hon. Members: "Yes."] Is the Prime Minister happy to allow the teaching of creationism alongside Darwin's theory of evolution in state schools?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I am very happy. Secondly, I know that the hon. Lady is referring to a school in the north-east, and I think that certain reports about what it has been teaching are somewhat exaggerated. It would be very unfortunate if concerns about that issue were seen to remove the very strong incentive to ensure that we get as diverse a school system as we properly can. In the end, a more diverse school system will deliver better results for our children. If she looks at the school's results, I think she will find that they are very good.

Photo of Claire Ward Claire Ward Labour, Watford

I should tell my right hon. Friend that, like many of my colleagues, I shall meet police officers this afternoon.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the continuing disproportionate response of Israeli armed forces in Palestine is making it increasingly difficult to achieve a peaceful solution? Will he ensure that this Government, in supporting the views expressed by Kofi Annan, concentrate on bringing both sides back to the negotiating table before any more innocent Palestinian or Israeli lives are lost?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree very much with the United Nations Security Council resolution that demanded the immediate cessation of all acts of violence. This is a situation in which tragedy is rapidly turning into catastrophe for that part of the world. What is necessary—and I hope that it will arise from the visit of Anthony Zinni, the US special envoy—is, first, that minimum steps of security be agreed on both sides to restore confidence; and, secondly, that we get back into a proper process that leads to a settlement of the issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In my view, there is no alternative but to start from two fixed points of principle in that process. The first is the right of Israel to exist securely, and that should be accepted not just by the Palestinians but by all the Arab world. Secondly, there should be a viable Palestinian state, and that should be accepted by Israel and the international community. If we started from those two fixed points of principle, the other matters could be negotiated. What we need in the meantime are the minimum steps of security and confidence that would allow some of the hatred and bitterness that exists at the moment to ebb and allow space for the process to begin again.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

The Prime Minister will be aware of the mass lobby of Parliament by the Police Federation today. Given that we all expect the absolute loyalty of the police—and receive it—is not it high time for the Home Secretary to enter into respectful negotiations with the Police Federation and to desist from rubbishing it from afar?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend has been entirely respectful in the conduct of the negotiation. Most people accept that three things must be done: first, we need to increase the number of police officers; secondly, we need reform in policing to ensure that we use police officers more effectively and that they spend as much time as possible out on the street and not in the station; and, thirdly, we need to make the changes to the criminal justice system that we all—well, certainly Labour Members—want to see. For that reason, it is important to continue in conciliation, which is where we are, with the police officers so that we ensure that in the end we get an agreement, because the vast majority of police officers actually support the programme of change. They have real concerns about some of the changes to their terms and conditions of employment, and that is precisely what is the subject of conciliation at the moment.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that at the end of the process the vast majority of us agree on all three things, but they can be done only if people are first prepared to agree the extra investment that increases police numbers and, secondly, to agree to the fundamental changes in the criminal justice system that will mean that when people are arrested and brought to court, they are subject to a proper judicial process.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Labour, Wythenshawe and Sale East

The Prime Minister will be aware that on Monday the Queen began the final countdown to the Commonwealth games when she launched the jubilee baton relay. With the City of Manchester stadium almost ready, with 500,000 tickets already sold and with 10,000 volunteers ready to welcome the athletes and visitors, will my right hon. Friend ensure that all Government Departments continue to liaise with the games organisers so that in July in Manchester we can all look forward to a wonderful celebration of international sport and friendship?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The stage is indeed set for the Manchester Commonwealth games to be enormously successful. As my hon. Friend pointed out, more than 500,000 tickets have been sold already. Manchester, which is an exciting, go-ahead city at the moment, is well geared up for it. I assure him that all Government Departments will carry on working with Manchester to ensure that it is the success and showcase for the city that we want to see.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Upminster

Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that I can take to the Police Federation this afternoon that community support officers, as proposed in the Police Reform Bill, will not be imposed on police authorities by ring-fencing or any other means, and that the authorities will retain the freedom to spend their money on real police officers?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course community support officers will not be imposed; there has never been any question of that. The hon. Lady should realise that, with the number of additional police officers and the increasing numbers of civilian staff that we have, we must have the flexibility to use different methods to police our communities properly. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition paid tribute to the community warden scheme in Kent a short time ago. Such schemes are operating all over the country, and they will not be imposed on people, but there has to be flexibility to use civilian and police staff better for the future.

In circumstances where we are increasing the number of police officers, paying tribute to the fantastic work that they do and increasing the number of civilian staff, it is very difficult to say that we are taking our obligations to the police other than seriously. I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that the changes in the Police Reform Bill should go through. I hope that she and other Conservative Members will support the changes to the criminal justice system and drop their opposition to the Proceeds of Crime Bill. I hope that all Members will support the extra investment in our police that we want to see.