Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 17th December 2003.

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Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth 11:30 am, 17th December 2003

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 17 December.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This morning I met the President and members of the Iraqi governing council and congratulated them on the measures that they are taking to improve the lives and prosperity of the people in Iraq. I also had meetings with ministerial colleagues and, in addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

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

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Warwickshire secondary schools on their excellent results in the key stage 3 tests and their year-on-year improvements—particularly Ashlawn school, up 13 per cent. in English, Bishop Wulstan and Harris schools, up 9 per cent. and 13 per cent. respectively in science, and Kenilworth school, up 10 per cent. in maths?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am very happy to congratulate Warwickshire schools. The point that my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right—the tables today show an enormous improvement in results at 14 across the country: 12 per cent. up in English since 1997; 11 per cent. up in maths; 8 per cent. up in science. A £500 million programme of investment, every penny piece of which, of course, was opposed by the Conservatives, has improved results dramatically.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Can the Prime Minister tell us how much the cost of running central Government has increased since 1997?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The percentage of administration costs in central Government is actually lower than it was in 1997.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

So the Prime Minister does not know how much it costs to run his Government. It is £20 billion. That is nearly £7 billion more than in 1997. I am surprised that he does not know, because I gave him the figures five weeks ago. Can he tell us now how many more civil servants are employed by central Government compared with 1997?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There are fewer civil servants than there were, for example, 10 years ago, but it is correct that recently numbers have increased—in the Prison Service and to deal with pensions and immigration issues. But overall, as I said a moment ago, the actual percentage costs of administration are lower now than they were in 1997.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The answer is that there are 47,000 more civil servants in central Government compared not with 10 years ago, but with 1997. It is as many people as HSBC employs in the whole of the United Kingdom. So the Prime Minister does not know how much his Government cost or how many people they employ. Could he now give us the figure in the pre-Budget report—perhaps the Chancellor will help him—for Government spending on inspectors, regulators, paymasters and policy makers?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I repeat that the cost of administration as a percentage of central Government spending has actually gone down, not up, under this Government. Secondly, perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman will tell us how many of the additional prison officers, for example, he would cut, given the need to increase prison numbers—remembering, of course, that when he was Home Secretary he cut the numbers of police officers on Britain's streets. With regard to the Gershon report, yes there is £9 billion for central Government, but that includes the primary care trusts, the Food Standards Agency, Ofsted and the Prison Service. If he disagrees with that, how many jobs in such bodies would he would cut?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Let me remind the Prime Minister that this is Prime Minister's questions. I will make the Prime Minister an offer. If he wants me to answer the questions, let him give me a slot every week for Leader of the Opposition's questions. I would be very pleased to do that. He can choose the day—any day of the week—and I will be very pleased to answer his questions. But, just for the moment, he is still Prime Minister: it is my job to ask him questions and it is his duty to answer them.

If the Prime Minister had got as far as page 140 of the pre-Budget report—he may not have done that, but if he had—he would have come to paragraph 6.47 and he would have been told that the answer to my question is £12 billion: more than the entire budget of the Department for Transport. Is it any wonder that the Cabinet Secretary said last week that bureaucracy and paperwork are now the main concern of civil servants? Does the Prime Minister agree with him?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let me again correct the right hon. and learned Gentleman on his figures. He is giving figures for the entirety of what central Government and local government do. The reason why there is a figure in the pre-Budget report is that for the first time this Government have actually put together the figures that are available. Again, let us be clear. Those are not the only numbers of people employed that have gone up—we have also got 55,000 extra nurses, 25,000 extra teachers, 14,000 extra doctors, 9,000 extra police, and 80,000 extra classroom assistants. Those people are the reason why the results in the health service, education and law and order are going up under this Government.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am afraid that the Prime Minister has not read the pre-Budget report. The Cabinet Secretary said that bureaucracy and paperwork are out of control because of the Government's target culture. That is where the money has gone. Can the Prime Minister confirm that according to the pre-Budget report—again, I will give him the reference: it is table B24 on page 237—public sector investment has almost halved under this Government?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Actually, public service investment is rising under this Government, literally day in, day out. When we came to office, we were spending £30 per family in the health service; it is now £80 per family in the health service. That is the result of the extra investment. There is a reason why the school results are better today at key stage 3—when we came to office, only half the children were passing their tests at 11; now, three quarters do so. There is a reason why every single indicator on heart disease, cancer and national in-patient and out-patient waiting lists is better than in 1997—it is the extra investment, and the truth of the matter is that every single penny piece of it was opposed by the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Conservative party.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

It is a very great pity that the Prime Minister has not read the pre-Budget report, because the truth is that he has been rumbled. The Government's own figures show that public sector investment—that is, hospitals, schools and roads—has almost halved since he became Prime Minister, while spending on bureaucracy, regulators and red tape has rocketed. Does not that prove that this is a Government who are taxing and spending and failing; that people are faced with ever-higher taxes and ever-failing services; and that after six and half years, this is a Prime Minister who has lost his grip and a Government who have lost their way?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let us just look at the national health service. As a result of extra investment, it is in a better position than it ever was when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in power. We know why the Conservatives want to run down the NHS: they want to get rid of it.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the pre-Budget report, which I have read. It shows that, as opposed to 3 million unemployed under the Conservatives, 1.5 million extra jobs have been created under Labour; as opposed to interest rates of 10 per cent. and 15 per cent., they are now at their lowest for decades; and as opposed to double-digit inflation, we have the lowest inflation for ages. Let us look at—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to compare the past with the present. He has apologised for the poll tax, but is he sorry about his opposition to the minimum wage? Is he sorry that he increased unemployment by 1 million? Is he sorry that he cut police numbers when in power? He is not sorry—[Interruption.]

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Labour, Blackpool South

Does the Prime Minister share my concern that in all the focus on and debate about tuition fees, there is a danger of losing sight of the genuine benefits that the Government promise part-time and continuing students in their higher education proposals? Will he ensure that, in discussions with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the needs of those students and others in the further education sector are not neglected in the funding, whatever the outcome of the top-up fees debate?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right; we must remember that many students are part-time. Many have to find much of the money for their courses themselves. It is therefore important to have a proper, balanced system of funding for pre-school, at-school and after-school education, not only for those who go to university but for the literally hundreds of thousands of people who want to get better adult skills and the 200,000 people who are on the modern apprenticeship scheme. I assure him that the interests of part-time students will be taken fully into account.

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

I return to the issue that I raised with the Prime Minister this time last week, when I asked him whether he believed it fair for graduates who earn around £35,000 a year to contribute 50 per cent. of their income to the state, yet unfair—his word, not mine—for those who earn more than £100,000 to pay 50 per cent. of their income to the state under our proposals. How can he justify one and not the other?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, on graduates making a fair repayment for the investment in their education, it is not unfair to tell people that they should make some contribution. I should have thought that most people would accept that. As was just pointed out, the interests of other people must be taken into account—education for under-fives and provision for those who need adult skills and those on apprenticeships. We propose a fair system of repayment whereby, for example, graduates who earn £18,000 a year pay £5 a week—that is much better than the current system, even with maintenance loans.

The right hon. Gentleman's proposal is unfair because it is unrealistic, given the Liberals' huge list of spending commitments, to say that they will get all the money from a 50 per cent. top rate of tax. We went through that with the Liberals when they had a commitment to fund everything out of 1p on the standard rate of income tax. We all remember that, and also that whenever the figures were examined they were incredible.

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

Oh, Mr. Speaker, there he goes again. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, last week his party produced a document that cited 70 Liberal Democrat spending commitments. We had a look at that document—I have written to the Prime Minister about it—and some of them are spending cut pledges. So much for the economic literacy of the Labour party.

Returning to the substance and detail of the Prime Minister's proposals, he will not say why it is fair that a graduate earning £35,000 is expected to make a 50 per cent. contribution to the state under his proposals, when he would consider it unfair for someone earning more than £100,000 to be hit with a similar level of debt. And what about those people who are earning only £15,000 a year? The Prime Minister is proposing that they should pay an effective tax rate of 42 per cent. Is that fair?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have already said why I think it is fair to have a graduate repayment system. In relation to the 70 spending commitments that the right hon. Gentleman has made, I shall be happy to return to the House on the next occasion with the details of those commitments. I shall give the House a few examples now, however. There is a commitment to spend £2 billion on the railways—[Interruption.] Well, there is. It will either come out of the 50 per cent. or from somewhere else. There is a £400 million commitment for village halls. There is also a pledge to increase, either significantly or dramatically—I cannot remember the exact word—the amount spent on doctors and nurses in the health service. Will that all come out of the 50 per cent? The best thing would be if we both had a look at the right hon. Gentleman's spending proposals when we are not doing other things over the Christmas break, so that we can discuss them again when we come back.

Photo of Judy Mallaber Judy Mallaber Labour, Amber Valley

Will my right hon. Friend welcome the launch of the national 24-hour helpline on domestic violence on Monday, the day of the Second Reading of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill in another place? Will he also ensure that adequate resources are put in to back up that hotline by providing refuges all round the country for victims of domestic violence?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The helpline is going to be extremely important. It will provide 24-hour access to emergency refuge accommodation and an information service that will benefit thousands of women and children. I agree with my hon. Friend that we must ensure that the coverage is as extensive as we want it to be. According to the latest figures, domestic violence now accounts for almost a quarter of all violent crime. We are introducing new measures and putting more money into tackling this issue, but the most important thing—besides the money and the measures—is for Parliament to make it clear by voting unanimously, I hope, on the Bill that domestic violence has absolutely no place in our society and that we are prepared to do whatever it takes to root it out.

Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Liberal Democrat, Romsey

The Prime Minister wants 50 per cent. of young people to go to university. He also claims that graduates will attract premium salaries. Will he admit that his aim and his claim are incompatible?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I will not. It is surely important that we increase the number of young people going to university. When I went to university, about 7 per cent. of school leavers went; the figure is now well over 35 per cent. It is important that we carry on increasing young people's access to university, but that has to be funded in a fair way. There will be an end to all up-front fees, so that families and parents will not have to pay anything up front. It is not unfair to ask graduates to make a fair repayment once they have graduated, rather than take all the funding out of general taxation. The more people look at this, the more they will see that that is a fair way to do it.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

The Prime Minister will be aware that CITES—the convention on international trade in endangered species—is to meet in Thailand in October next year. He might not be aware, however, that it appears that more endangered species are smuggled through Thailand than anywhere else in the world. Only this month, more than 100 tigers and 116 orang-utans have been discovered in police raids on two establishments in Bangkok. This followed an investigation by Jim and Alison Cronin of Monkeyworld in my constituency, who are campaigning to rescue Naree, a chimp performing in a Bangkok zoo, who will die from infections if she does not receive urgent specialist treatment in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Right! The United Kingdom is a leading player in the convention on international trade in endangered species, and was one of the first countries to sign up to the convention. I understand that the Thai Government are making a major effort to improve enforcement of the convention in Thailand. We have provided in the region of £1.4 million in financial support for convention initiatives on species protection. There is a wildlife crime intelligence unit with the aim of targeting and disrupting wildlife crime and the major criminals involved. People may laugh at this, but it is a serious issue and involves a lot of organised criminality. It is important that we ensure that the convention is adhered to in all countries.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

Over the Christmas recess, will the Prime Minister contrast the performance of his Government with the achievements of the Attlee Government—real achievements by a real Labour Government? The Attlee Government built 1,000 council houses a week, whereas new Labour has achieved only 3,000 in six years. As a result of a quarter of a century of Tory policies, we are now suffering the worst housing crisis for three or four generations. Hundreds of thousands of children will be living in inadequate accommodation this Christmas. What do a real Labour Government intend to do about that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his early career move to join the Liberal Democrats rather than the Labour party. Frankly, we need no lessons about our pride in the Attlee Government. I believe that the Attlee Government would be immensely proud of 1.5 million extra jobs, of the 500,000 children lifted out of poverty, and of the record investment in health and education, which is a lot more than the Liberals ever did.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

For more than 3,000 families, Christmas celebrations this year will be turned into tragedy because one of their family members will be killed or seriously injured on Britain's roads. Does my right hon. Friend welcome the work being done by safety camera partnerships, which, with the sensible use of speed cameras, have capped accidents by more than 35 per cent? Will he consider implementing the proposals for tougher speeding and drink-driving penalties that have been under consideration since December 2000?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes an important point about safety camera partnerships. The eight pilots have shown a 35 per cent. reduction, which represents a reduction of about 280 people in the number of people killed or seriously injured. As a result of those partnerships, many families whose lives would otherwise have been blighted have not suffered such tragedy. There are 42 police force areas involved in the partnership programme. We will publish a report of the programme's operation of the scheme in the new year, and then we will take the decisions on how to roll it out across the rest of the country.

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)

We read this week that all potential candidates for honours will be vetted for anti-Government and anti-Blairite sympathies. Does not that rather narrow the pool unrealistically?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Like many reports, that one was complete nonsense. I gather that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has written to all the Welsh MPs offering them the chance to make nominations, so there is an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Derek Wyatt Derek Wyatt Labour, Sittingbourne and Sheppey

Would my right hon. Friend be prepared to host a meeting at No. 10 for the executives of the Rugby League and the Rugby Football Union, the Super League clubs and Premiere Rugby to establish a rugby foundation that would do for rugby—both union and league—what the Football Foundation has done for football?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I would certainly be happy for the Government or myself to be involved in such a programme. My hon. Friend has done an immense amount to forward the cause of rugby. In the past few years, rugby union has received about £45 million in lottery awards, which is part of a £1 billion investment in school sport, including almost £700 million to enhance school sports facilities. I agree that there is a case for having a rugby foundation to do the same for rugby as the Football Foundation does for football. I would be very happy to be involved in that in any way.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Prime Minister mentioned his time at university. He was at the same college as me at the same time, as he may remember. The Prime Minister is not very good at answering this question—but how is it fair that neither he nor I will pay back a single penny of the cost of our expensively acquired Oxford education, while he wants graduates to pay a higher rate of marginal tax than millionaires?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think we should both draw a veil over our time at university together. I think that would be wise in both our cases, if I remember rightly—but we will leave that for another time.

The point, surely, is that, as I said a moment ago, when we were at university very few people left school and went on to university. Now, there are five, six or seven times as many. We want people to be able to go to university, if they have the requisite ability.

After the big expansion of the 1990s, funding per pupil has dropped by some 35 per cent. If we want to expand opportunity for people, it is important for us to get more money into universities. Everyone agrees on that. The question is: what is the fair way in which to do it? I say that rather than taking the money from the general taxpayer—the vast bulk of taxpayers have never been to university—it is surely fair to ask the graduate, on graduation, to make a reasonable and fair payment back into the system.

I do not think that that is unfair. It is part of a change that is taking place in universities in this country and around the world. What we do not want in this country is to be left behind, either in providing access for students or in the excellence of our universities.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Labour, Stockton South

Like every other Member, I am delighted that Saddam Hussein has been captured, and I am pleased that we are making a commitment to a fair trial. Will my right hon. Friend help to secure fair treatment for a 22-year-old from my constituency, Urslaan Khan, who has been in prison in Iraq for the past six weeks? No evidence of misdeed has been tabled, and no legal representation has been obtained. The young man's parents are positively distraught, as any parent would be. I ask my right hon. Friend to help secure fair treatment for him.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I gather from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that he wrote to my hon. Friend last night, and I know that the British office in Baghdad has taken a close interest in the case. I cannot comment on the facts other than to say that we will of course lodge our interest—indeed, we have already done so—and that I know my right hon. Friend will be in touch with my hon. Friend again about the case.

Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Minister (Education)

Does the Prime Minister still rule out a referendum on the European constitution in all circumstances?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have been over that ground many times. As I have said before, if the constitution altered the fundamental nature of the relationship between the member state and the European Union there would be a case for it, but it does not and it will not. We have set down lines so that we preserve the nation state in all its attributes—in relation to tax, social security, foreign policy, defence and treaty change. In respect of all those, and in respect of financial resources, the attributes of the nation state remain. Indeed, an all-party House of Lords Select Committee has said that, if anything, the constitution transfers powers from the Commission to member states. That is why I say that it is not necessary to hold a referendum.

Photo of Tony Lloyd Tony Lloyd Labour, Manchester Central

At this time of year, pensioners in my still deprived inner-city constituency know very well why they voted Labour when they receive the winter fuel allowance. Nevertheless, for many of those same pensioners transport in inner-urban areas is not good, and access to the private car does not exist. The Department of Transport has introduced the urban bus challenge in parts of Manchester, giving those deprived groups access to public transport where the Tories' deregulation has failed them so badly. Will my right hon. Friend try to roll out that programme, so that pensioners can have access not just to the money that the Government have given them but to hospitals and shops, and enjoy a normal way of life?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to mention the additional help given to pensioners, particularly some of the poorest, who are many pounds a week better off as a result of the Government's policies; but I entirely understand his point about the urban bus challenge. We are supporting some four projects in Greater Manchester, and I gather that a further £20 million will be allocated as a result of this year's competition, which is nationwide. That is in addition to fare concessions. However, it is important for us to go on looking at ways to enhance the mobility of pensioners—who, as my hon. Friend said, have enjoyed a better standard of living under this Government, but need to be helped still further.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Given that the Government have told every further education college in England that it will receive an increase of not less than 2.5 per cent. in its funding next year, rising to 5 per cent., how can it be that Sutton Coldfield college was told last week that it faces a cut of £1.3 million and up to 75 redundancies? In view of this apparent act of bad faith, will the Prime Minister look into the matter personally and agree to receive a delegation from the college? If he can help us on this one point at this time of year, we in Sutton Coldfield will regard him as Father Christmas rather than as Scrooge.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I obviously do not know about the situation in respect of that particular further education college; I am very happy to look into it, and to write to the hon. Gentleman. However, I hope that he will be so good as to accept that overall—I know that this is no consolation if there are indeed problems at the Sutton Coldfield further education college—this Government are putting a massive amount of money into further education and education generally. If he will forgive me, I have to point out that this Government brought all that additional money before this House, but he and his colleagues voted against it.