Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 17th March 2004.

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Photo of Mr Gareth Thomas Mr Gareth Thomas Labour, Clwyd West 11:30 am, 17th March 2004

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

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Before I list my engagements for the day, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing our deep condolences to the Spanish people and the families of those who died in the terrorist attack in Madrid last Thursday. It underlines the threat that we all continue to face from terrorism in many countries, and why we must work together internationally to safeguard our people against such attacks and defeat terrorism in all its forms and wherever it rears its head.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Photo of Mr Gareth Thomas Mr Gareth Thomas Labour, Clwyd West

I am sure that the whole House would wish to be associated with my right hon. Friend's remarks about the Madrid bombings. What steps are the Government taking to combat the continuing threat of terrorism?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have to take every measure that we can in terms of security, we all have to be vigilant and we have to realise that while there were terrorist attacks before, the present problem began with the attack on the United States on 11 September 2001. When people talk of the most recent attacks being retaliation, they should recognise that 11 September was an entirely unprovoked attack on the people of the United States of America. The truth is that these fanatics will stop at nothing in pursuit of a fanatical cause based on a perversion of the true faith of Islam. The only alternatives we have are to confront it or be defeated by it. I believe that the vast majority of people, in this country and throughout the free world, want to confront terrorism and to defeat it.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I join the Prime Minister in expressing the sympathy of everyone on these Benches with the Spanish people, those who were injured and the families of those who lost their lives in last week's appalling atrocity in Madrid. I also endorse the sentiments that the Prime Minister has just expressed.

Do not those events reinforce the harsh truth that Europe is not immune to attack by al-Qaeda and that, as we know from the chilling statements that that organisation has made, there are no concessions that will stop those attacks? Should not everyone now recognise that there is no such thing as an opt-out from the war on terror?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree with that entirely, obviously. It is worth pointing out that the countries that have been hit by that form of terrorism include Kenya, Tanzania, Indonesia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Tunisia, Pakistan and Morocco, as well as Spain. There is no way to appease those people. They have no cause that any negotiation can take place upon. They have made that clear, as they did in the chilling statement that they put out a few days ago, in which they said:

"You love life and we love death".

Unfortunately, that is the nature of the people we are dealing with, and that is why we have to defeat them.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Polish Prime Minister has rightly warned that revising our positions on Iraq after terrorist attacks would be to admit that the terrorists are stronger and that they are right. Does the Prime Minister share that view?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do share that view, and I thank the Polish Prime Minister, and the Polish people, for the steadfast position that he has taken in the war against terrorism. It is worth reading the statement put out by the Abu Hafs al-Masri brigades of al-Qaeda last Thursday—I can put a copy in the Library. That statement indicates that the war on which al-Qaeda is engaged is not simply in respect of the issue of Iraq; it also mentions Afghanistan, Palestine and Kashmir. It goes on to say that it is right to kill innocent Jewish people in whatever country they happen to be, apparently for no other reason than that they are Jewish people. The statement then goes on to cite campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan.

In other words, the idea that if we were to give in over the issue of Iraq it would be an end of the matter so far as those groups are concerned is completely and hopelessly naive. The fact is that those people will continue; it is a war on our way of life—a war on our democracy and a war on our freedom. That is why we must redouble our efforts and defeat it. The best way to do that is for the whole international community to stand firm.

Photo of Tom Clarke Tom Clarke Labour, Coatbridge and Chryston

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a large number of Kurds were killed or kept in detention after a football match in Syria last Friday? As the Kurds have little confidence in the Government of Syria seeking to defend them, what steps will my right hon. Friend take to restore human rights for Kurds in Syria, as elsewhere?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I hope that we will continue to put pressure on Syria to treat fairly all people of whatever ethnic or religious background, but I think that the best thing we can do is to have a state next-door to Syria, namely Iraq, in which Kurdish people, Sunnis and Shi'as all live and work together in peace, in a stable, prosperous and democratic country. Yesterday, there was some surprise at the poll that indicated that a majority of people in Iraq were optimistic about the future. I have to say that the only thing that surprised me was that people were surprised. Iraq has swapped government by a brutal, psychopathic, murderous dictator for the possibility of Kurds and other people in Iraq living together in stability and peace. If that happens in Iraq, it is the best possible omen for the rest of the world.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, may I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy and condolence that have already been made?

Does the Prime Minister agree that, irrespective of our attitudes towards military action against Iraq, we now have a continuing moral responsibility to the people of that country, in particular with regard to security and reconstruction? Does he believe that a greater role for the United Nations will help us to implement that responsibility; and what progress is being made in New York to find a fresh UN Security Council resolution?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do agree, first, that it is important that we stay in Iraq and that our troops stay in Iraq, working with the Iraqi people, and I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the support of his party for that position, despite our differences over the war. Secondly, yes, we all agree that there should be a greater role for the United Nations. That is why we are working hard with the UN, with Special Representative Mr. Brahimi, to ensure that we get a proper and orderly handover of power to the Iraqi people, because in the end—another thing indicated in the poll yesterday—the vast majority of Iraqi people want Iraq to be run by Iraqis. That is our position as well.

Photo of Menzies Campbell Menzies Campbell Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

May I ask the Prime Minister to turn his attention to Afghanistan, in substantial parts of which al-Qaeda now appears to have been re-established? How can we best carry on the campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and at the same time maintain our commitment to the people of Iraq? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that Her Majesty's Government provide sufficient financial resources for our armed forces to meet those obligations?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will do that, but the best way to defeat that organisation—we are now looking at the situation in the context of NATO—is to ensure that in those parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban is not strong, which is the vast majority of the country, we have sufficient reconstruction teams, as they are called, working with the military of several nations to restore order in the country. That has obviously been very successful around Kabul, as well as in other places in Afghanistan. Down in the south-east of the country, where the main problem is with the Taliban, it is important that we free up as many of the American troops that are at present elsewhere in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda there.

These are all parts of the same struggle. When people ask us, for example, "Why are we in Iraq?", that is a perfectly legitimate question and I can answer it. There is another question that people should ask themselves. That is, "Why is al-Qaeda trying to get into Iraq at present?" Why is it trying to get into Afghanistan again? It is because it knows that if we manage to lift these once failed states into a state of prosperity and stability, that will be a hammer blow to its fanaticism.

Photo of Mr Keith Bradley Mr Keith Bradley Labour, Manchester, Withington

In the light of the Government's welcome announcement of a substantial increase in the funding of science research, and the recognition by the Department of Health of the Wolfsons molecular imaging centre at Christie cancer hospital in my constituency as a world-leading clinical research facility, will my right hon. Friend consider the merits of allocating some extra money to this pioneering centre for cancer treatment, as currently only a small proportion of its budget is allocated from central Government funds?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The issue of medical research is obviously extremely important. I think that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor may have something more to say about that in a moment. I pay tribute to the Wolfsons molecular imaging centre, which is on the site of Christie hospital in my right hon. Friend's constituency. It performs a very important research task. It is important that two things happen: first, that we continue with the additional investment in cancer services in the NHS. There has been investment of more than £500 million in that in the past few years, which is making a big difference to the treatment of cancer patients. Cancer deaths have fallen by 10 per cent. over the past few years, alongside a 20 per cent. fall, or more, for cardiac deaths. Secondly, we need to invest in research for the technology and the cures of the future. I am sure that people will have heard with interest what my right hon. Friend has said.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Will the Prime Minister rule out further tax rises if his party wins the next election?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will continue to run the economy in a stable way and generate money for investment in our public services. Whatever pledges we make on tax will be in our manifesto. The pledges that we have made so far on the basic and top rates of tax have, of course, been kept.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am sorry that the Prime Minister cannot give a straight answer to a straight question. There was a time when he was very free with his promises, even if they turned out to be wholly worthless. In 1995, he said that his party had no plans to increase tax at all. Since then, we have had taxes on marriages and on mortgages. We have had taxes on petrol and on pensions; taxes on small business and large business; and taxes on those who buy a house and on those who go on holiday. Council tax is up by 70 per cent. To take just one of the right hon. Gentleman's tax rises, will he promise not to increase national insurance again—his tax on jobs and pay—if he wins the next election?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We certainly did put up national insurance, and that was to increase the investment in the NHS. The right hon. and learned Gentleman voted against it. He therefore voted against the investment in the NHS. When we are talking about tax promises, I am surprised that he has the nerve to come to the Opposition Dispatch Box. Does he remember promising not to put VAT on fuels? Does he remember promising not to double VAT? Does he not remember the tax rises under the Conservative Government all through the period when he was sitting in Government?

Yes, this Government put up national insurance to fund our NHS, but we have managed to run the economy with lower mortgages, lower inflation and lower unemployment than the Conservatives, and we have increased investment in public services. When did the Conservatives ever do that?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Let me remind the Prime Minister about some rather more recent events. Before the last election he said that people should not suppose that he would raise national insurance, but he did exactly that in the first Budget afterwards. So in return for these taxes does he agree with one of his Ministers who said last month:

"Too often a lot of money has been spent but very little seems to have been achieved"?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman exactly what has been achieved. We have just heard figures for what has been achieved from investment in the health service. Not only do we have new hospital buildings and the biggest hospital building programme since 1948, but we have 50,000 extra nurses and 14,000 extra doctors. Cancer deaths are down 10 per cent. and cardiac deaths are down over 20 per cent. There are extra operations and out-patient appointments, and lower waiting lists and waiting times. That is what the extra money has bought us, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted against every penny of it.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

That is not what the Prime Minister's Energy Minister says—a man who was a rising star in the Government, at least until today. He said:

"In a year or so we're going to have an election in the UK"— he is clearly well informed—

" . . . when people will say, 'We've paid a lot of taxes, but what has really been achieved with all that money?'"

He is spot on—people will indeed say so at the time of the next election, and if they know that Ministers think so too, why on earth should anyone disagree?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I explained what the money in health had bought, so let us look at the money for education. I am absolutely delighted that we are having this argument. Go into any primary school in this country—results are up by more than 50 per cent. compared with when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office. Look at the school results on GCSEs and A-levels. Go into the schools and see the new buildings and new computers. See how many extra police officers there are in the country today. All that is in stark contrast to the position when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in government. When he was Home Secretary he cut police numbers. When he was Employment Secretary unemployment went up; when he was Minister for Local Government he introduced the poll tax; and when his whole shower were in power we had higher inflation, higher interest rates and higher unemployment, so let us continue this argument between now and election day.

Hon. Members:

More!

Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea

While we are on the subject of education, will the Prime Minister find time in his schedule to write to the leader of Wandsworth council to ask why he has gone back on his promise to passport this year's school budget in full and is withholding more than £0.5 million intended for Wandsworth schoolchildren, yet supports his party's plans for a pupils' passport, which could take between £1 billion and £2 billion out of school budgets?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We certainly will not adopt that policy, but I must tell the House that if one studies the policy statements from the shadow Education Secretary and the chairman of the Conservative party, it is quite hard to work out what their policy is. As far as I can make out, it is for a pupils' passport that would allow people to leave the system and take that money to private schools.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman says no, but the brains of the Tory party—I cannot remember his shadow position—said on the "Politics Show":

"I'm talking about using the pupil passport as a . . . contribution to higher fees already being charged by private schools."

I can tell my hon. Friend Martin Linton that if I could work out what their position was I would attack it; but in any event, we should be clear that the best way to get education not for a few but for many, and to push standards up, is to carry on with the programme of investment and reform under this Government.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

Can I drag the Prime Minister back to reality and invite him to bang a few heads together in the Department of Health, which is threatening one of his major projects in my constituency, Jobcentre Plus, a service that I welcome? Is he aware that arbitrary and retrospective funding changes—[Interruption.]

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Is the Prime Minister aware that arbitrary and retrospective changes to the funding rules for the Department of Health are threatening eight major health projects in Worcestershire, one of which is a one-stop shop in Droitwich that brought together Jobcentre Plus, a major new health centre, the police, the district council, the county council, the citizens advice bureau and other voluntary groups? His Government are threatening the creation of precisely the kind of joined-up government that they claim to support.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I shall certainly look into the project that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Surely he should recognise that what he is calling for is even more money in the national health service. [Hon. Members: "No."] No, he is just calling for more money in his own constituency, not in anyone else's. I will look into the point that he makes, but the intelligent thing, surely, is to recognise that the investment in the national health service is yielding results. That is why it is so unfortunate that the Opposition propose to cut it.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour/Co-operative, Loughborough

As it is national science week this week, has the Prime Minister had time to reflect on the neglect of our science research and development and technology base over the past 50 years? Is he aware that companies such as Intelligent Energy in my constituency, which has grown out of the university, are excellent examples of what can be achieved? It is a world leader in fuel cell technology and in developing its products for the developing world, with projects in South Africa already.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that any increase in spending is evenly spread around the country so that institutions such as Loughborough university, which has a track record in innovation, delivery and collaboration with business, get their fair share, rather than being concentrated in the hands of a few universities, to ensure that the growth we have seen in our local economy continues and is a model that will be replicated across the whole of the UK?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I understand that the Department of Trade and Industry is providing over £3 million to Intelligent Energy to assist in the development of fuel cell technology at Loughborough university. The point that my hon. Friend makes is right. The UK is one of the best places in the world for biosciences. It is important that we carry on with the huge investment in science that we are making. That is why it is so unfortunate, again, that the Opposition are pledged to freeze, and therefore cut in real terms, the spending on science. Investment in science is one of the surest ways to entrench the economic stability we have for the future.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will tell the hon. and learned Gentleman what I do not regret: I do not regret at all that we are proceeding with the proposals to make sure that the person who is in charge of our court system sits in the Department running the courts and delivering a better court system for the people of this country. The present incumbent is the first holder of that office to have his office in the building from which the courts are administered. That is why it is the right thing to do.

Photo of Ronnie Campbell Ronnie Campbell Labour, Blyth Valley

Although it was good to see the minimum wage being increased this week, does the Prime Minister agree that anything under £5 an hour in this day and age is peanuts? I will give the Prime Minister one thing—it was his Government who introduced the minimum wage. If it had been left to the Tories or to the wishy-washy Liberals, we would not have had an agreement.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is as close as I will get to an unqualified statement of support from my hon. Friend, and I welcome it. We have not merely extended the minimum wage to 16 and 17-year-olds, but from October 2004 the adult rate will increase to £4.85. That will help 1.8 million low-paid people. It is a huge bonus for some of the poorest families in the country. Alongside the working families tax credit and the child tax credit, it indicates how much we are doing to help hard-working families get into work, stay there and make work pay.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Chief Whip, Spokesperson (Agriculture; Culture; Environment; Heritage; International Development; Sustainable Energy; Transport)

I have a letter from a 10-year-old constituent who lives on a sheep farm at Tregaron. He writes:

"I would like to run the farm someday when I'm older and I'd like to ask if there is a future for me in farming."

Does he have a future in farming?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course there is a future in farming. However, it is important that we recognise that our farming industry, like other farming industries in Europe and around the world, will undergo great change. That is why when Sir Don Curry headed up our commission that looked into the future of farming he came out with recommendations that will put farming on a more sustainable basis for the future. If the hon. Gentleman's constituent grows up and talks to people who are in farming, he will find that they recognise that change has to happen, but they want the Government there working with them to make the change happen in a proper way. That is what we are doing.

Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on publishing the alcohol strategy on Monday, which set out in hard evidence the social and economic costs of binge drinking in this country, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that unless some parts of the industry smarten up their act in relation to advertising and promotion, which contribute to this culture, further Government regulation is inevitable?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is important that we work in partnership with the industry to encourage responsible drinking, and my hon. and learned Friend is entirely right in what he says on that. It is also important to recognise that as a result of legislation passed in this House the police now have considerable powers to shut down pubs or clubs where disorder as a result of excessive drinking is routine, and they also have a full range of measures, including fixed penalty notices, to deal with drunk and disorderly behaviour. Therefore we need two things: we need a more responsible attitude on the part of the industry, but we also need to make full use of the police powers that have now been introduced.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The Prime Minister knows that the Conservative party has solidly supported him in the war against international terrorism, but I urge him to read the report of the Defence Committee, chaired by one of his right hon. Friends. Is he really happy that, when we face this threat, we have the smallest Regular Army for more than a century, the smallest reserves for several centuries, and our logistic capability has been so emasculated that we cannot even get chemical protection and body armour, and in some cases even ammunition, to the front line?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will respond fully to the Defence Committee's report, but it is important not to exaggerate the situation. Our armed forces have performed magnificently in extremely difficult circumstances, not just in Iraq but in other arenas in the world, and they are a huge credit to this country. As for defence spending overall, contrary to some newspaper reports, the Government are increasing defence spending in real terms. I have no doubt at all that we will continue to make a big commitment to defence, and I hope that, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says that it is important to have a cross-party consensus on these issues, he will change the position of his own Front-Bench spokesmen, which is to freeze defence spending in real terms, which would mean a cut in the amount of money going to defence.

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to my constituency last week to open the King's academy, which is a great testament to the Government and their contribution to education. Will he join me in congratulating David Vardy and his team, who put the project together, with the local authority and the Government, to build this great monument in my constituency? What support will the Government give to ensuring that the academy excels in the same way as all the other education initiatives for which the Government are responsible?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming me to his constituency. The King's academy is a remarkable achievement by Mr. Vardy and his team. The city academies are just being opened now; there is a programme to roll them out across the country. They are important because they provide state education to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in this country. There is nothing more inspiring, particularly when one knew the old school that the King's academy replaced, than to see the brand new buildings, the total commitment of the teachers and staff, and the pupils there eager to learn. It is one of the best examples of modern social justice that I can think of.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister of State (Home Office)

Just down the road from Chequers, Chesham hospital, the Misbourne ward at Amersham hospital and the intensive care baby unit at Wycombe hospital are all threatened with closure, and the acute trust and the mental health trusts have huge deficits. Yet the Government spend 18 per cent. less on health care than the national average on every man, woman and child in Buckinghamshire. Can the Prime Minister tell me why the people of Buckinghamshire are worth 18 per cent. less?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I shall look into the precise figures that the hon. Lady uses, but according to my figures the Chiltern and South Bucks primary care trust has had over £117 million of funding for the last year. I entirely understand why she would like even more money going into her primary and secondary care services, but it is important to recognise that we are making a huge additional investment in the NHS.

I hope that people realise that there is clear choice, which was made even more manifest by what the Leader of the Opposition did earlier today, even if the hon. Lady wants more money: we are in favour of the money that we are investing continuing to go towards the national health service and delivering results to the people of this country, and the Conservative party, whatever its members like to say, opposes that investment. That is the difference between a party that is committed to maintaining, reforming, changing and renewing the national health service and one that is committed to getting rid of it.

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

My right hon. Friend knows that some of the poorest countries in the world, especially Ethiopia and Niger, are currently denied additional debt relief, effectively by the US, German and Japanese Governments, even though they are entitled to such debt relief under the agreements of the G8 countries. I am sure that he agrees that if the world community fails to live up to its promises about such matters, it will make it more difficult to tackle other issues, such as the threats from world terrorism. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the leaders of those countries and urge them to stop blocking the debt relief?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will do all we can. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been leading initiatives to ensure that we get debt relief for the poorest and most highly indebted countries. I assure my hon. Friend that we will use every means possible not only to maintain a leadership position for this country, but to try to relieve the debt burden on some of the poorest people and countries in the world.