Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 4th December 2002.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) 2:30 pm, 4th December 2002

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

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 will have further such meetings later today.

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

Does the Prime Minister agree with smallbusiness europe, a body funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, which has estimated that the agency workers directive recently passed by the European Parliament could cost 250,000 temporary jobs? The CBI says that if he had not signed up to the social chapter, we would not have to accept this job-destroying directive. Is the CBI right or wrong?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is precisely for the reasons outlined by the CBI that we have been trying to make sure that the directive is amended and changed. I very much hope that we will get a satisfactory outcome that will preserve the flexibility of our labour market, but which will also make sure that some agency workers—in some cases, they are badly exploited—are given the protection that they need. I believe that signing the social chapter was essential in order to keep this country's influence in social affairs.

Photo of John Smith John Smith Labour, Vale of Glamorgan

In the light of the tragic accident in my constituency yesterday, which resulted in the death of 12-year-old Stuart Cunningham-Jones and serious injury to several youngsters, will my right hon. Friend consider setting up a review into the legislation governing the safe transportation of our children to and from school on public service buses?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I share my hon. Friend's horror at yesterday's accident, and my deepest sympathies go to the family of Stuart Cunningham-Jones and to everyone else affected by this tragedy. As my hon. Friend may know, a full-scale inquiry by the police and the Vehicle Inspectorate is under way. I think that we should await the outcome of that report before we take further steps, but I will keep him closely informed.

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 his Chancellor that top-up fees would prevent young people from low-income families from going to university, and are therefore a ridiculous idea?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, in January the Government will publish their conclusions on the student finance review. However, one thing that is absolutely clear is that the status quo is not an option, because universities need more money. Let me give him the facts. They need more money because funding for higher education per student was cut by 36 per cent. under the previous Government. Student-staff ratios have doubled and there is an £8 billion backlog of repairs and investment, so we have to change the existing system.

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

The Prime Minister has said what is clear, but what is not clear is whether he agrees with his right hon. Friend the Chancellor. What is the point of a review, as he describes it, if the Chancellor has already made up his mind? The Chancellor may not have told the Prime Minister, but at a breakfast with The Guardian—[Interruption.] Yes, at a breakfast with The Guardian he said—no doubt over muesli—that he favoured a graduate tax. Does the Prime Minister agree with him about that as well?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The position of the Government will be set out in January. If the right hon. Gentleman is driven to trying to replay second-hand reports of what might have happened at a breakfast held by The Guardian, that indicates the depths to which he has sunk. The fact is that the status quo is not an option. We need to get more money into our university education system, and it can come from the taxpayer, the parent or the student. If it comes from the taxpayer, that means that the majority of people—who pay their taxes but who have not been to university—will have to pay. If it comes from parents, the danger is that the possibility that parents might be forced to pay large amounts of money up front could indeed deter people from university education. The final alternative is the student, yet we do not want students to get further into debt. It is a difficult problem. We are resolving it. We will publish the conclusions in January.

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

But the Chancellor is going around saying things that are completely different from what the Prime Minister has just said. The result is that students up and down the country do not know whether Labour wants them to pay higher fees or higher taxes. If the Prime Minister wants a genuine review, as he has described it, surely he needs to overrule his Chancellor? Will he get to the Dispatch Box and tell us: when the Chancellor said that he was in favour of graduate taxes, was he right or wrong? Yes or no?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As a review is due to be published in January, it would be absurd for me to give its results now. I assure the right hon. Gentleman, however, that everyone is agreed that we need more money for universities. That should be done in the fairest way possible that does not deter people from lower-income families from going to university. This is an issue that any Government in power would have to tackle.

If the Leader of the Opposition wants an example of muddle and confusion, let me tell the House what he said his solution was. [Hon. Members: XAh!"] Yes, three days ago, the right hon. Gentleman said:

Xwe have a crisis of funding for higher education".

His answer to the problem was:

Xthere are lots of ways you need to look at it, possibly endowing them with money from further sell offs, in this case, we are talking about Channel 4".

The Leader of the Opposition's idea is that we are going to fund the whole of university education by selling off Channel 4 TV. [Interruption.] If I am wrong, he can come to the Dispatch Box and say so.

There will be a review. We will publish it in January, and I shall tell the Leader of the Opposition what it will do. It will increase access to university. It will not mean that parents will have to pay thousands of pounds up front in fees. It will allow people the chance to go to university, which hon. Members on the Government side of the House favour, and the right hon. Gentleman does not.

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

Arising from talks that I have had with firefighters in my constituency, I should like to put three points to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

Thank you for putting me right, Mr. Speaker.

In the firefighters' dispute, does the Prime Minister agree that just as there can be no victors, there should be no vanquished, and that we should all be working towards a settlement of the dispute that is fair to all involved and gives us peace in the fire service for the next 25 years?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree with that. We do not want people to feel humiliated. The firefighters of this country, as I have often said, do a fine job of work. I have said it before and I shall say it again: we never sought this dispute. However, I know that my hon. Friend will agree that any settlement has to be fair right across the public service. That is why we have said that firefighters can have the pay award under the existing formula, which is as generous as—if not more generous than—the awards given to teachers, nurses, police officers, members of the armed forces and others. However, if they want more, that has to be paid for by changes in working practices. The one thing that has emerged over the past couple of weeks is that our claim that these practices need change is valid. I hope that people get around the table and negotiate on that basis.

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

The Prime Minister has again confirmed that the status quo for university education funding is not an option. Will he confirm that he is saying that top-up fees remain under active consideration by the Government?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Whenever a review is held, it is important to wait for its outcome. My point is that universities need more money because college lecturers are not paid enough, and there is a massive backlog of repairs. There was a 36 per cent. cut in funding per student under the Conservative Government. We have managed only to keep the situation stable, even though we have put more money into universities. We need to get more money into the university sector, but we shall do so in a way that improves access to our universities rather than deters it.

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

People notice, however, that when given the opportunity, the Prime Minister still refuses to rule out top-up fees. Given that the Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for International Development are against them, why does he not look to the Scottish experience, which has kept access to education free at the point of need, reintroduced grants for poorer students and is a much better way forward than the top-up fee?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. He omits to say that under the Scottish system, all students have to pay something. There are two separate issues. First, are we to have a flat fee for all universities or will there be a variable fee, with different universities charging different fees? Secondly, if we have a variable fee and agree that all universities should not be treated the same, where do the additional sums of money necessary for universities come from? I am afraid that it can come from only three sources—the taxpayer, the parent or the student. What is important is to put together those elements in the fairest possible way. The one thing that I did not notice the right hon. Gentleman say is whether he agrees with me, and with what the Leader of the Opposition said a few days ago, which is that universities desperately need more money. If they do need more money, before the consultation process is over in early January, let us hear from him about his proposals as well.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Labour/Co-operative, Sheffield, Heeley

Last week the Chancellor announced changes to the landfill tax from next April. Many community projects, such as Heeley city farm in my constituency, have benefited from the scheme. Can the Prime Minister confirm that under the reformed scheme, such community projects will continue to benefit?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I understand that the changes will be introduced in the financial year 2005–06. We are consulting on the effect of those changes, but I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend and I am sure that we will take what she says into account.

Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald

Does the Prime Minister agree that it is a basic duty of the Government to supply places for all those whom, for the protection of the public, the courts believe should be in custody? If so, why, despite inheriting the biggest prison-building programme this century and a reduction in overcrowding, do we have the worst overcrowding in our prisons for 10 years?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, we are increasing the amount of money that we are spending on prisons and expanding prison places. With the greatest respect to the right hon. Lady, there is an inconsistency in what she says. The very reason why there are more people in prison is precisely that it is the duty of Government to find places in prison for those whom the courts sentence. It is important to realise that we are increasing the supply of places, but I do not think that we can limit arbitrarily the number of people whom the courts send to prison. We are trying to make sure that there are more prison places precisely so that the courts can obey the principle that the right hon. Lady has outlined.

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

Why did my right hon. Friend not say to the last Tory questioner that we are doing our best to keep the prison population down? We have kept two butlers out of jail in the last three months. What is wrong with a system of justice that allows these people to prepare cases while the police go along with those people at the palace, with the result that the taxpayer finishes up with a loss of 2 million quid? We could use that money for the firefighters.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I had a bad feeling that you were going to call him, Mr. Speaker.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Certainly not. If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will reply diplomatically: the Crown Prosecution Service is learning the lessons of both cases—and I hope that it will learn them quickly.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Last week I asked the Prime Minister about the Chief of the Defence Staff's concerns about training. The right hon. Gentleman replied with the claim:

XHe did not say that".—[Hansard, 25 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 40.]

Given that the Downing street website quotes Admiral Boyce as using almost the very words I put to the Prime Minister last week, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us who we should believe?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My apologies, but I have not checked in with the Downing street website today. I thought that the hon. Gentleman's point was that the Chief of the Defence Staff had said that as a result of the firefighters' dispute, we could not undertake operations in Iraq. I was pointing out that the Chief of the Defence Staff did not say that: he said that we would have the full operational requirement that we needed. I do not have before me the exact words that I said last week, or exactly what is on the Downing street website, or exactly what the Chief of the Defence Staff said—but I think that I am more right than the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Chair, Education & Skills Committee, Chair, Education & Skills Committee

May I take my right hon. Friend back to the question put by my hon. Friend Ms Munn? Is he not aware that the landfill tax credit scheme is the best and most innovative environmental tax yet introduced by the House, and that it will be not in 2005–06 but next April that we shall lose between 3,000 and 5,000 jobs in environmental innovation, and £500 million of matched funding will also be lost to environmental innovation? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will look seriously at the matter, and will invite a delegation to visit him to talk about it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I shall certainly treat what my hon. Friend says very seriously indeed. I know that landfill tax credit schemes near my constituency have been of enormous benefit. I am informed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that we are going to protect the projects that are valuable, so perhaps I can correspond with my hon. Friend about the matter—and if he is dissatisfied, yes of course I will see him and his colleagues.

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

Can the Prime Minister tell us how many major road schemes have been started since May 1997?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sorry, I do not know the figure offhand, but I think I am right in saying that there will be 10 of them in this financial year and the next.

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

What the Prime Minister should know is that the Government have started fewer schemes for improving major roads than in any five-year period since the second world war. They have cancelled bypasses and relief schemes that would have eased congestion, so could he perhaps now tell us how many major road schemes were actually completed last year?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I say, I do not know the answer offhand, although I shall send the right hon. Gentleman the answer. What I do know, however, is that I think I am right in saying that there are 10 such road schemes this year and next year. It is correct, of course, that for our first two years of government we froze spending. We inherited a very difficult budget deficit and we thought it right to do that, but we are actually putting a substantial amount of money into road schemes now.

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

It is always promises with the Prime Minister, but not a single major road scheme was completed last year—not one. The result is gridlock Britain. Average journey times under the Labour Government are up by one fifth. The M6 and M25 are virtually car parks, and average traffic speeds in central London are down to 3 mph. After five years of Labour Government, is it not true to say that British motorists pay the highest taxes in Europe for the most congested roads?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It certainly is right to say that there are severe problems on our roads, which require major investment. That is why there are transport plans for an extra £60 billion worth of investment in our roads. I agree entirely that we need more roads investment—that is why we are putting in the extra money—but I am afraid I have to point out that it was only a few days ago that the right hon. Gentleman and the shadow Chancellor told us that they were against all that extra investment, so however difficult the situation is with us, it would surely be even more difficult if we took his advice and cut back the very investment that we are putting in.

Photo of Robert Marshall-Andrews Robert Marshall-Andrews Labour, Medway

Does the Prime Minister believe that a reduction in human wickedness can be achieved by a reduction in civil liberty?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I do not believe that. What I do believe—and I assume that this is what my hon. and learned Friend was getting at—is that a criminal justice system that fails to convict the guilty and does not have the confidence of the public is not a criminal justice system that we should support. I believe passionately that reform to our criminal justice system is long overdue, and I hope that both sides of the House will support the proposals put forward by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, which are the result of a long study and work carried out, as my hon. and learned Friend knows, by Lord Justice Auld, who is very experienced in the criminal justice field.

I believe that those reforms to our criminal justice system are long overdue. If we are to reduce the stock of human evil, as my hon. and learned Friend put it, of course it is important that we must protect civil liberties—but we must also protect the civil liberty of people to go around free from fear.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor Conservative, Solihull

Since the Government's airport consultation process was overturned by the High Court, what comfort has the Prime Minister for the Solihull residents who are now experiencing blight without compensation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

A lot of what people have said about the consultation process is that it has been too quick, but obviously we have to make sure that we give people the chance to put their views, and, necessarily, when we engage in a review of air transport policy there will be a period of uncertainty. I am afraid that that is the inevitable consequence of having to look at every option.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Lawrence Mrs Jackie Lawrence Labour, Preseli Pembrokeshire

May I remind the Prime Minister, just in case he has forgotten, that Wales had led the way yet again by introducing free bus transport for pensioners—an example that is shortly to be followed in England? Will he consider extending that concession to disabled people and students in full-time education, both for their own benefit and to decrease car use, but without penalising our pensioners?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right in saying that the policy of the Welsh Assembly includes free bus passes. Our policy is for concessionary half fares. Of course there is also discretion for local authorities, and the new Connexions service will offer certain young people discounts on travel to allow them to get to school or college. However, in the end, all those things come at a significant cost, and it is important to balance out the costs and make sure that the money is used most effectively.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, Westbury

In 1997 the Prime Minister appointed the first ever Minister for Public Health. Since then, excess winter deaths among our elderly, TB, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, the teenage abortion rate and the health gap between the rich and the poor have all increased. Clearly, the Prime Minister's stewardship of public health has been a disaster. When is it going to improve?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not accept the figures that the hon. Gentleman gives, incidentally. With smoking and in other areas, the Government have made considerable advances. In relation to public health, surely the most important thing is not only the gap between rich and poor, but the overall amount of money that we are putting into the national health service. We are treating more people—[Interruption.] We are getting more nurses and doctors into the health service. In the hon. Gentleman's constituency and others, we are building more hospitals. All those things matter to the people of this country, and each and every penny to pay for them is opposed by him and his party.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt Labour, High Peak

We all recognise that secure recognised borders for Israel and Palestine are an essential part of a long-term middle east solution, and the Prime Minister referred to that with some passion in his speech to the Labour party conference. Can he tell us how he is helping to take that agenda forward?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I hope very much that we get progress in the middle east on the necessary key issues: security reform, political reform for the Palestinians and final status negotiations. Obviously, the situation is complicated by the advent of the Israeli elections. None the less, I believe that there is a real will and sense in the international community that the issue of the middle east peace process has to be dealt with urgently. That was my position, and it remains my position.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The 1997 Labour manifesto said that the drugs tsar would be

"a symbol of"

Labour's

"commitment to tackle the modern menace of drugs".

Can the Prime Minister tell the House what has happened to him and his targets?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that as a result of the extra finance that we are putting into drugs spending, the budget will increase from more than £1 billion to £1.5 billion. [Hon. Members: XWhat about the tsar?"] One of the things that Keith Hellawell said, and one of the main targets that we had, was to increase the treatment of people for drugs, and that treatment has gone up by somewhere in the region of 10 per cent. under this Government—and, as I say, all that investment is opposed by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Labour, Liverpool, Walton

Does the Prime Minister accept the assessment of the intelligence service that whatever else Saddam Hussein is guilty of, he is almost certainly innocent of the charge of associating with al-Qaeda?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

What I have said is that we have no evidence directly linking the Iraqi regime to the attack on 11 September. That is true. I would also say, however, that I believe that the issues of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism are linked indirectly. I believe, however, that unless we tackle that issue they will at some point be directly linked. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the world today is a test for the United Nations and the world community. We have laid down a clear demand to the Iraqi regime. If we were to give up on that demand at this moment, that would have a serious impact on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. As I said, that issue is linked indirectly to international terrorism at the moment, but I believe that it could be linked directly to international terrorism.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

Yesterday—not a day too soon—the Home Secretary announced an expansion of drug services in the criminal justice system. Does the Prime Minister really think that that will help drug addicts in prisons who need help now, such as my constituent, Ben Launchbury, about whom I wrote to him on Monday? Is it right that Ben, who was sentenced to four and a half years for drug-related crime in February, should still be denied access to treatment for his heroin addiction 10 months later, apparently because he was moved from Gloucester prison to Manchester prison to deal with overcrowding? The Prison Service now says that it cannot afford to move a single prisoner to Channings Wood prison in Newton Abbott.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman said, he wrote to me about this case, and I shall certainly look into it for him. If the facts are as he described, however, it is not acceptable. That is precisely why we need extended rehabilitation programmes for prisoners on drugs. We also need to make sure that that treatment is available in the community. The point that I was trying to make earlier is that we are extending these programmes significantly—drug treatment in prison and drug treatment out of prison—but there is a huge unmet need. It will take time, through the new National Treatment Agency, to provide treatment for all who need it, and it is very expensive treatment. I agree, however, that there is no point in having these people in prison on drugs and not giving them rehabilitation.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell Labour, Linlithgow

On page 7 of yesterday's document on human rights in Iraq appears the statement that, for failing to qualify for a World cup football match, the Iraqi team were caned on the soles of their feet. As FIFA investigated this matter and on 4 November 1997 made a statement that there was no truth in it whatever, do the Government have better information on a footballing matter than FIFA?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I would not say that we had better information than FIFA. But leaving aside that incident—[Interruption.] There may be a disagreement between FIFA and the Government or the Iraqi authorities there. I ask my hon. Friend to focus on the human rights abuses in Iraq that are beyond doubt. A couple of days ago I met 10 Iraqi women, all of whom have suffered seeing their families disappear and their relatives tortured, and who are subject to death threats even now. The Iraqi football team may be one matter, but these human rights abuses are self-evident. No one who has talked to people who have lived through the regime of Saddam Hussein can dispute that it is an appalling, brutal and terrible regime.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

When the Prime Minister was still a lad, before his tuition-free days at university—[Laughter.]—was the Prime Minister then aware that the policies of real Labour Governments, and of one-nation Conservative Governments, had effectively ended homelessness in this country? In his current privileged position, is he aware that, after a quarter of a century of right-wing Governments, both Conservative and new Labour, we now have a housing crisis again? When will his Government do something to provide decent housing for homeless people, particularly for the underclass that has developed under new Labour?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The problem with my university education was that it was indeed often tuition free. Again, homelessness requires substantial investment, and we are putting that investment in. There are still problems, particularly with the number of families needing accommodation in the south. However, there is no point in the hon. Gentleman saying that we are pursuing the same policies as the last Conservative Government. He knows that is not correct. We are putting a massive additional sum both into our public services generally and into housing in particular. It is probably never enough—and, frankly, it never is enough for the Liberal Democrats. In the end, it all has to be paid for, and I do not think that it is fair to say that we have done nothing. The hon. Gentleman will know, for example, that we have cut the number of rough sleepers by two-thirds.