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

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Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 2:30 pm, 30th October 2002

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 30 October.

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 Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

My right hon. Friend will understand how important sure start, and other programmes designed to tackle the needs of some of the most vulnerable children in our society, have been in constituencies such as mine. However, many families in my area still have acute problems. Will my right hon. Friend spell out, especially on a cross-departmental basis, what he intends to do to tackle need in such families?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The issue that my hon. Friend raises is an important one for children at risk. It is true that the Government have implemented several measures—such as sure start, the new Connexions and the new help for communities through the new deal—but a Green Paper will be published early next year on the whole issue of children at risk, including how to ensure that they do not take up crime, and their family, mental health and educational problems. It is right that that is dealt with across government by a Cabinet sub-committee, which it will be, and also that we ensure that the proposals we make bear down on one of the main reasons for social exclusion in our society today.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Labour manifesto said:

XWe will not introduce top-up fees".

Does the Prime Minister still stand by that promise—yes or no?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course we stand by our manifesto.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

If the Prime Minister stands by that specific promise in his manifesto, can he say why the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, when asked on Saturday to rule out top-up fees, did not rule them out? Should students believe the Secretary of State or the Prime Minister?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We of course stand by our manifesto, but I do not believe that the issue is top-up fees. The issue is how we ensure that our top universities get the freedom and the independence that they want, and how we make sure that as those universities develop they are able to guarantee access for poorer students. I assure the right hon. Gentleman not merely that we will stand by our manifesto commitment, but that when we publish our proposals for a review of higher education and finance, it will be against the background of increasing access for the poorest students in our society.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The right hon. Gentleman starts by pledging himself to his manifesto, and then he starts to fudge. Let me remind him of what the manifesto said:

XWe will not introduce top-up fees and have legislated to prevent them".

However, on Saturday, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills was asked a direct question:

XDo you rule out top-up fees?"

He said, XNo". The Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. Either he stands by his manifesto promise, or he stands by his Secretary of State. Which is it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sorry to have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Government stand together on that point. [Hon. Members: X Answer!"] With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I have already answered. There is a serious issue about university finance for the future. There is an issue about freedom for universities, which is important, and an issue about how we ensure that British universities, which are among the best in the world, remain in the top 10 universities—and more—of the world.

However, there is also an issue about—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. This is out of order. Hon. Members are out of order when they shout so loudly, Miss McIntosh.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There is also an issue about whether we increase the amount of investment in our higher education. I do not want to prejudge the proposals, but when we publish them I think that the right hon. Gentleman will see that they will make sure that our top universities are able to compete with the best in the world. I should have thought that he would agree with that. He will see also that the Government will increase the amount of money going into higher education so that, irrespective of their social background, our young people will get the university education that they need.

The Leader of the Opposition asked me a question, so let me ask him one. [Hon. Members: XNo!"] It is just to get him into practice. The Government are committed to increasing university education and the finance for it. Is the right hon. Gentleman now prepared to drop the commitment of the Conservative party, which has refused to match the additional spending? We believe that increased university education can be delivered only with the additional spending that we want.

Photo of Nick Palmer Nick Palmer Labour, Broxtowe

I very much welcome the package of measures on fireworks announced by the Department of Trade and Industry, which includes spot fines for offenders who throw fireworks and cause alarm on the streets. However, under the current legislation on this matter—which the Government inherited—such fines can be applied only to people over 18. In Broxtowe, we have cracked the problem of pensioners throwing fireworks at each other. We need legislation to prevent teenagers from doing so. Will my right hon. Friend commit to new legislation to curb the scourge of fireworks?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, is the short answer to that. We will introduce legislation, and we believe that there is also a role for fixed-penalty notices in such cases. Fixed-penalty notices are being piloted in three different areas of the country. They have been immensely successful. The only worry of the police forces that have worked with the orders is that they think that they do not extend to a wide enough category of offences. We are looking carefully at that in terms of the legislation coming up in the Queen's Speech.

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

The Prime Minister said a moment ago that the issue was not top-up fees. Is he saying that he rejects the—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I will not tolerate hon. Members shouting.

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

It must be election fever.

When the Prime Minister says that the issue is not top-up fees, is he saying that he rejects the argument that they would lead to a two-tier university system and deter potential students from lower-income backgrounds?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree entirely that any system that prevents people from going to university because of their family backgrounds and income is wholly wrong. That is why I suggest that, when he sees our proposals, the right hon. Gentleman will find that they are in large part about improving access for students from poorer backgrounds.

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

Will the Prime Minister clarify when the much awaited and delayed review of student finance will appear? When it does appear, will he address the concerns of more than 50 Back-Bench Labour Members who have signed a motion along the lines of my opening question? Will he take this opportunity to make it clear to everybody that he will not introduce university top-up fees as long as he is Prime Minister?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, on the timing of the review, the fact that there is a new Secretary of State obviously means that there will be a further delay in publication of the review. However, I hope very much that it will be published in the next few months.

Secondly, I stand by the manifesto commitment, but there are serious and real issues that the review must tackle. We cannot allow to continue a situation in which our top universities are not able to compete in what is effectively a world market today. I agree that any solution to this problem is extremely difficult, but it would be irresponsible of any Government, faced with this situation, not to ensure both that we give the universities the freedom that they need to compete and that there is better access for students from poorer backgrounds.

Obviously, I cannot prejudge the outcome of the review, but I hope that when we come up with those proposals the House will consider them sensibly. People who disagree with them can make some proposals of their own. However, it would be wrong of the right hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party to pretend that there is not a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

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

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no contest in the bid for the European capital of culture? The winner is the city of Birmingham, with its fusion of culture and diversity, where more than 20 languages are spoken, with its festivals of Eid, Diwali, Baisakhi and the Caribbean carnival, and where, of course, Christmas is celebrated. We have, to name but a few, a symphony orchestra, the Council of Faiths, the School of Jewellery, and we have more canals than Venice—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. The hon. Gentleman can praise his native city some other time.

Photo of Mark Oaten Mark Oaten Liberal Democrat, Winchester

Does the Prime Minister accept that unless this country joins the euro, Germany and France will continue to dominate, he will have more summits cancelled, and this country will lack influence?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I think that we should join the euro if the economic tests are met, and that is the Government's position. If we joined the single currency irrespective of the economic conditions, it would be a mistake. I had not appreciated that that was the position of the Liberal Democrats.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Well, the leader of the Liberal Democrats says that it is not, in which case he is in exactly the same position as me. As for the disagreement with France, it is important that we argue our corner at these summits. Personally, I think that to have ruled out common agricultural reform would have been a mistake—a mistake for Britain and a mistake for Europe.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

The Prime Minister will know that the United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has said that the United Nations must take a decision on Iraq this week. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether he would support the United States if it chose to conduct a war on Iraq without UN sanction, and whether the House would have the opportunity to vote on that matter and decide whether it would go down the same path?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not think that Colin Powell said that the resolution had to be passed this week, but of course it is important that we get a new UN resolution—that is what we are working for at the moment. It is best not to speculate on what might happen if we do not, because I believe that we will get one and it is important that we do. As for debates in this House, I refer my hon. Friend to what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said on the issue—obviously, I stand by that entirely. I am sure that the House will have the fullest possible chance to debate that issue.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

Following the question from Alan Simpson, will the Prime Minister tell the House and the country what moral difference he sees between those UN resolutions that bind Israel and Palestine and those that bind Iraq, and how that judgment will affect his decision making in the forthcoming months?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what the difference is. First, it is important to point out that the resolutions in respect of Israel and the middle east peace process apply to all the parties in the middle east, and to recognise Israel's difficulty when it is being met by terrorist acts from within the occupied territories. Secondly, I hope that he will realise, as I do, that United Nations resolutions in respect of Iraq—specifically, on weapons of mass destruction—should be obeyed. If he does agree with me on that, he must obviously face up to the issue, which is what we should do if Saddam Hussein refuses to abide by those resolutions.

To revert to the middle east peace process, having said that about UN resolutions in respect of Israel, I still believe that those resolutions should be obeyed in full; and I very much hope and believe that it is essential, not just for the middle east but for the wider world, that a peace process be restarted there as quickly as possible.

Photo of Eric Joyce Eric Joyce Labour, Falkirk West

The Prime Minister will be aware that today is national breast cancer awareness day. Will he join me in commending the efforts of the organisers of the Xwalk for a cure" event in Falkirk, which raises funds locally for breast cancer charities, and in congratulating the national breast cancer charities, such as Breakthrough Breast Cancer, for their efforts in this area, which are so important to so many of our constituents?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I congratulate all those who have been involved in the breast cancer awareness campaign. As my hon. Friend knows, 97 per cent. of patients with suspected cancer are referred to a consultant within two weeks. There has been a significant increase in the number of people in the national health service working on those issues and, although we obviously still have a long distance to go, there is no doubt at all that the treatment of cancer in this country is improving.

Photo of Michael Jack Michael Jack Conservative, Fylde

I should like to ask the Prime Minister a question about CARATs. He will be aware that the Counselling, Assessment, Referral, Advice and Throughcare scheme is an extremely successful prison-based programme, designed to break the link between the prisoner and drugs prior to release, but that not all prisoners who want to take part in the programme can do so. Will he look at the question, from within the existing prison budget, to ensure that adequate resources are available to enable all prisoners who want to take up CARATs programme to benefit from its outcomes?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is a very good point. It is important that we extend the programme throughout the prison system. Sometimes that is difficult, as there is obviously a limit on the amount of resources available, but the right hon. Gentleman will know that, over the past few years that the programmes have been extended, there has been far more focus on both drug abuse within prisons and getting offenders off drugs and therefore less liable to reoffend when they leave prison. The new national treatment agency for drug abuse is working with the police, the prison authorities and others in order to ensure that we have the best possible programmes, and not only within the prison system.

What is important is that, at least in the highest crime areas. we look at—as the Home Secretary is doing—how we can ensure that we end the absurd situation when someone can be arrested for an offence, tested positively for drugs and then put back out on the street without even the prospect of proper drug treatment. We need to explore that issue not only within the prison system but outside as well.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

Could I ask the Prime Minister to tell us exactly how rude he was to Mr. Chirac? Did he remind the French President that if he was not in the Elyseée he would almost certainly be in jail? Could I urge my right hon. Friend to be as rude as it takes to get Europe to sort out the idiocy of the common agricultural policy, which British consumers are paying for with their wallets and which the poor of the world are paying for with their lives?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On the first point, I have to say that, no, I did not say that to the President. If that is a bid for a diplomatic post, it is certainly one of the more unusual ones.

My hon. Friend's point on the CAP is important. That was why it was important to preserve the prospect of real and detailed agricultural reform. I wholly understand why the French position is different, but this is not just a British priority; common agricultural reform is important for Europe. We have managed to reduce the amount that we spend on agriculture from 60 to 45 per cent., but truthfully, if we look at the money that we are spending in the European Union, we could spend it better if so much was not still being spent on the common agricultural policy, often very inefficiently—even for the farming industry.

The other issue, which I think my hon. Friend implies, is that it is extremely important to ensure that at the world trade round we make a good offer from the European Union for the developing world. Those are the poorest countries in the world, they desperately need access to our markets, and we should not let them down.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Have 24-hour waits in accident and emergency departments been eliminated?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, they have not been eliminated but they are significantly down, I think is the answer.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Prime Minister should check what his Department of Health is saying. It states categorically that the 24-hour waits have now been eliminated, so clearly the Prime Minister does not even believe what his Department is saying. But this week the BMA said that one in five A and E departments actually has patients waiting for more than 24 hours. Whom should we believe—the Government or the doctors?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

What the Government said was that the very long waits for admissions—more than 12 hours—are down, and it is also correct that, I think, just under 80 per cent. of patients are seen within four hours, but it is right to say that there are still far too many too long waits in accident and emergency. I would accept that entirely, but the BMA proposals for changing the situation are threefold: first, that we should have more consultants in A and E; secondly, that we should have more nurses; and thirdly, that we should have more beds. As a result of the additional funding in the health service, there are now 100 more consultants; there are 600 more nurses just in the last year alone; and there are 700 more acute beds. The solution to the problem, therefore, is to put more money into the health service, not less. That is why, with very great respect, we can take criticism from the BMA over this, but the one person who is not in a position to criticise is the right hon. Gentleman, because he is in favour of scrapping the investment that we need.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Prime Minister is all over the place. His own Department said on its website today that waits of more than 24 hours have been eliminated, so they either have or they have not. If they have not, his Department should not go putting it up on its website. The reality is that, as the Prime Minister must know, two thirds of A and E consultants say that the health service is not getting better—in fact, it is getting worse. Whom should we believe—the spin doctors or the real doctors?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Actually, if the right hon. Gentleman looks at the BMA report, it is indeed true that it says that more than a third of the consultants say that things are getting worse and that just over a quarter say that they are getting better. However, as I told him a moment or two ago, they also point out that there are now some 400,000 more people being treated in accident and emergency departments; they therefore say that the Government's record means that we have to put more investment into the beds, the doctors and the nurses. I repeat: whatever the solution to the problem to which they rightly draw attention, the solution is not to cut the funding that they need.

Photo of Martin Caton Martin Caton Labour, Gower

Just before the summer recess, the Government agreed to pay compensation to the families of young Kenyan tribes people killed or maimed by British munitions at the Dol Dol and Archer's Post army training grounds in Kenya. I congratulate the Government on making that settlement, rather than taking those people through the courts, but can the Prime Minister now assure me that clean-up procedures have been put in place so that there will be no more victims of British munitions either in Kenya or elsewhere in the developing world?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have done what we can to make sure that there is proper regulation regarding the control, conduct and supervision of people while using Army ranges. My hon. Friend, who has taken a deep interest in this issue, will also know that we have settled some 200 cases. It is important that we do more, and we are doing more. The Ministry of Defence is now considering the remaining cases, and I hope very much that this situation will be cleared up, not just to his satisfaction, but, more importantly, to the satisfaction of the families of those who are serving in our armed forces.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry)

Will the Prime Minister find time today to have a look at the case of my constituent, Mr. Frederick Matthews of Heacham, who is suffering great pain and inconvenience as the result of a haemorrhage in the pupil of his left eye? There is a clinically proven treatment and his doctor wants to treat him, but the local hospital has said that the NHS will only fund it if he goes blind in the other eye. Is that not madness? Is it not very hard on my constituent? Will he look at the policy affecting Mr. Matthews and hundreds of other people? Does he recall that when he came to see us during the election campaign he said that, under Labour, the NHS would get better? Is he surprised that Mr. Matthews does not now believe him?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On the particular case of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, of course, I cannot comment, but I am perfectly happy to look into it. However, on the general point about the national health service, of course the Conservatives will say that it is getting worse. [Interruption.] Of course they will, because they are against it. They want to use whatever problems there are in the national health service to say that it is a flawed idea whose time has gone.

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is yes, of course there are still big problems in the health service, but massive investment and improvement are also going on. The vast majority of people get good treatment in our national health service, and it is an insult to doctors, nurses and those dedicated staff of the health service always to pretend that everything is going badly. There are problems—we are working on them—but the national health service is actually improving.

Photo of Gwyn Prosser Gwyn Prosser Labour, Dover

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Budget 2000 crackdown on big-time smugglers has reduced cross-channel smuggling by 76 per cent., and has cut associated crime. Will he join me in applauding the hardworking Customs officers at Dover and condemning those parts of the press that seek to undermine their efforts?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I certainly welcome the work that Customs officers do in my hon. Friend's constituency and other constituencies up and down the country. They often work under very difficult and trying circumstances. It is important, of course, that we make sure that they operate under sensible rules, which is why the Treasury announced changes the other day. Let me say to my hon. Friend—and through him to his constituents—that we applaud the hard work done by Customs officers, which is necessary because of the problems of smuggling.

Photo of Patrick McLoughlin Patrick McLoughlin Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

What message would the Prime Minister give to farmers in my constituency who have seen their income substantially decline since he has been in office? Is that decline caused by his growing influence in Europe?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is, of course, correct that farm incomes have dropped, but not just in this country. It is also the case that many farmers face severe difficulties. They will not be helped out of those difficulties, however, by the hon. Gentleman pretending that somehow there was an easy and magical solution. They have been hit by two things: by BSE and foot and mouth disease, and by the fact that world commodity prices have dropped. Let us remember that we are putting more money into the farming industry than into the rest of British industry put together, and the only way in which to provide a viable future for farming is to continue putting in that money and support, and to try to make sure that agriculture changes over time. That is why the best way forward is to implement the proposals of the Curry commission, which we set up, on the future of farming. It will not help any part of the farming community, however, to pretend that a magic wand can be waved and all its problems will disappear.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

I am normally reluctant to raise the issue of antisocial behaviour, but it is a subject of which I have some knowledge. In view of the success of the four area trials of on-the-spot fines for hooligans, does the Prime Minister plan to extend the scheme throughout the country, including my constituency?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We certainly have plans to roll out the scheme across the country. I am sorry if the Conservative party is opposed to those plans—I think that it is—as it would be making a very big mistake. The plans will be enormously popular with the police and with local communities, because the essence of tackling antisocial behaviour is to provide the police with a simple way of enforcing the law and penalising those who break it. The whole purpose of fixed-penalty notices is to get round some of the bureaucracy associated with the court processes and so on, and to provide a simple and easy remedy for the police to use. Not only do we believe that the scheme should be rolled out across the country, but we are looking at how the powers and penalties can be extended, as the principle applies to dealing with antisocial behaviour in many forms.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister), Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

On the eve of the urban summit, does the Prime Minister agree with the Deputy Prime Minister that Britain's building industry is

Xthe most inefficient in the world" and a major cause of Britain's affordable housing crisis? Even if he does share that extreme view, should not his Government take more blame for five years of ineffective housing policy rather than scapegoating others for Britain's affordable housing crisis?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We are putting an immense amount of money into housing, as the hon. Gentleman knows. The important thing is that the building industry faces real challenges in relation to skills and the use of land. If he listened to the statement that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made before the summer break, I hope that he would realise that the answers to the housing issue lie in many different facets. One of them is to make sure that our building industry and the private construction industry build the houses that are needed in particular parts of the country, such as the south-east. I hope very much that he will support that policy rather than oppose it.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister want higher education to get its fair share of the 6 per cent. growth money allocated to the Department for Education and Skills?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course I do. That is why it is important to realise that, as part of the proposals, we will put additional sums of money into higher education. That is the position of this Government, who want to invest in higher education. The Conservative party is, of course, committed to cutting the education money that we have got. [Interruption.] Oh, yes: it is committed to cutting education money, not just for universities but for schools as well.