Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 7th July 2004.

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Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Before I list my engagements, I would like to express our condolences on behalf of the Government and the House following the death of the Austrian President, Thomas Klestil. He will be sadly missed, and our thoughts are with his family at this time.

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.

C

Austrian "President", obviously. There's an obituary of the chap here:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/07...

Submitted by Chris Lightfoot

Photo of Andrew Love Andrew Love PPS (Rt Hon Jacqui Smith, Minister of State), Department of Trade and Industry

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the proposal for a city academy in my local area? Will he support that application in the Department for Education and Skills? When he publishes his education plans shortly, as well as expanding the academy programme, will he guarantee that there will be no tax concessions for those who wish to take their children out of the state system?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I am delighted about the proposal for a city academy in my hon. Friend's constituency. I know that he is working, as we are, with the local authority to ensure that that happens and that it will be a great advance for education in his area. I can assure him that we will carry on with the record investment in education in this country. I want to make it clear on behalf of the Government that there will be no return to the 11-plus and selection. There will be no subsidy to private schools. Instead, there will be an education system providing excellence not for a privileged few, but for all.

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

There are 21,000 state schools in Britain. Two years ago the Government launched a flagship policy, which they called the power to innovate, to give schools freedoms over the way that they manage themselves. How many schools have been granted freedom under that initiative?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not know the precise number that have been granted freedom, but what I do know is that, under this Government, all schools have got greater freedom and independence than they had before; that is absolutely right. But let me make it clear to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, alongside the extra investment that we are putting in, what we will not grant is the freedom that he wants, which is the freedom to give a subsidy to those who send their children to private schools.

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

I thought that the Prime Minister was in favour of a choice of providers. That is what he said just a short time ago, and that is what we would give parents, but he did not answer the question that I put to him, which was about a specific policy—the power to innovate. The answer is that, out of 21,000 schools, just four have been granted those freedoms.

Now, let us look at another of the Prime Minister's initiatives. The Government have boasted that they have provided the opportunity for the most successful schools to expand. How many schools are expanding under that initiative?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Actually, many schools in the country are expanding their numbers, because we have given them a power to expand. However, it is absolutely right that, at the same time, we will not allow a situation to develop where schools are cut adrift and where failing schools are not given the help that they need to succeed.

If I may just go back to the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made about choice in education—[Interruption.] Oh yes—choice in education depends on raising standards in schools, does it not? Let me just remind him that, when we came to power, there were 450 failing schools in this country. Today, the number is less than half of that. The results at primary schools are up. The results at GCSE are up. The results at A-level are up. All because of an investment in a reform programme that he opposed.

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

And one in three children who leave primary school in our country still cannot read, write and count properly.

Now, the Prime Minister has not answered the question that I just put to him. It was a very specific question on one of his specific policies. He really must do better and try to answer the questions. He is not setting a very good example to the children in our schools. The answer is that, under that initiative, just four schools are benefiting.

Now, let us look at another of his initiatives. Two years ago, he launched another flagship policy, which he called earned autonomy, and which the Secretary of State for Education and Skills promised to promote energetically. How many schools have benefited from that initiative?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

All 2,000 of the specialist schools in the country are indeed getting more autonomy, as are foundation and voluntary-aided schools. Since we are debating statistics and who is in need of remedial treatment, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that a third of children left school at 11 without the requisite standards in literacy and numeracy, but I think that he could go on a literacy and numeracy course, because actually 75 per cent. of children are now up to the standard in English with 73 per cent. in maths. What were the figures when he left office? The cheek of the Conservatives is that they are going round the country saying, "Isn't it a scandal that we still have 11-year-olds leaving school without the best results they could get?" Yes, it is, but it is a scandal that we are putting right—measures he opposed. Of all the extra investment going into our education system, he opposed every single penny piece.

Yes, thankfully, results are going up under this Government, but that contrasts with another record—let me read it to the House. [Hon. Members: "No."] Yes. In 1997, teacher numbers had fallen by 36,000, funding per pupil had been cut, barely half of all 11-year-olds were up to the standard in reading, writing and maths and fewer than half of all children got the right GCSEs. That is the difference between a Tory record and Labour achievement.

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

The Prime Minister has just admitted that the state of our education is a scandal, but he has been in office for seven years. He has not answered a single one of the questions that I have put to him today. The answer to the last question that I asked about his earned autonomy initiative was that not a single school has been granted earned autonomy—not one! Not a single school has been allowed the freedom that the Prime Minister promised the country at the last election. When parents hear him talking today about school freedom, expanding popular schools and giving parents more choice, all of which we have long called for and supported, will they not recognise that we must judge the Prime Minister not by what he says, but by what he does, and that what he does is never what he says?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me repeat that all the specialist schools have greater autonomy and freedom, which I pointed out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman a short time ago. Since we are talking about scandals in the education system, yes, I think that every single child who is deprived of a decent education in this country represents a loss and social injustice to that child and the country. Let us look at what we have achieved. In seven years, the number of failing schools has halved and the number of state schools getting over 70 per cent. good GCSEs has doubled. The city academies are a great innovation in our system, as are the specialist schools. We have put up the results in primary schools, at GCSE and for A-levels.

All that has happened, but it is true that we need to do far more. The way to do that is to carry on putting money into, and changing, our public services. The truth is that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to give people a subsidy to go out of the public services. Let me make the situation clear, since we are again having the debate that I hope we will carry on having from now until election day. The difference is between extra investment in the public services by this side, and cuts in public investment by that side. The difference is excellence for all, not a return to selection. It is no tolerance of failure, as opposed to his policies, which would cut our children adrift. Let us carry on having this debate.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

My right hon. Friend might be aware of reports in today's press showing that the constituency with the fastest growing rise in affluence in the country is the High Peak of Derbyshire. That clearly has a lot to do with Labour's management of the economy and also high-quality local representation. Does he agree that the people who have gained most from an increased quality and standard of living are the pensioners who are receiving pension credit and the 9,000 families in High Peak who are now benefiting from child tax credit?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is important that we are giving special help to those who need it most through the working families tax credit, through the pensioner credits and through the other things that we have done for pensioners over the past few years, which amount to many billions of pounds a year.

The other point that my hon. Friend makes is also right. Over the past seven years, we have seen 2 million extra jobs, dramatic falls in unemployment and the longest period of stability that the country has enjoyed in economic policy for many years. Contrast that with just 10 or 15 years ago, when constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend were often facing interest rates of 10 per cent. or even 15 per cent. We had 3 million people unemployed when Mr. Howard was sitting in the Cabinet, and an economy that went from boom to bust. [Hon. Members: Hooray!] I am delighted to return to that theme. That is precisely why we will continue with the policies of economic stability, low unemployment and investment in our services.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

What guarantees can the Prime Minister give us that his education plans will not result in a two-tier state system, with chosen schools getting the lion's share of the money and the rest being left behind?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can give the right hon. Gentleman the guarantee that we will ensure that there is not a return to selection, which will end with schools choosing parents rather than parents choosing schools. That is why we reject the policy of the Conservative party. We will also ensure that we carry on giving investment to all our schools. The vast bulk of the investment that we have put into our education system has gone on a fair basis to all the schools in the country, and most of it has gone, to, for example, excellence in cities programmes, to some of the most disadvantaged schools in our community.

I do not accept that we do not have a two-tier system now. Unfortunately, we have a many-tiered system. We must improve the quality of all our schools.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Following on from that, is the Prime Minister guaranteeing that he will run a common admissions system for all state-funded schools? If he does not, he will get into exactly the difficulty to which he has just been referring. Surely he will acknowledge that people want high-quality local state schools. They do not want a Labour Government trying to outbid the Tories when it comes to selection.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We already have specialist schools. In the secondary education system, more than half of the schools are specialist schools. I do not know whether Liberal Democrats are still opposed to specialist schools. Are they?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Never been opposed. I think that we will check that one out.

The rules on selection are exactly the same as those for specialist schools, and they have not led to anything like that which Mr. Kennedy is talking about. We are making sure that where schools are failing, we intervene and we help them. That is why we introduced specialist schools and excellence in cities. The city academies that the right hon. Gentleman now appears to be opposing—[Interruption.] Am I right in that? So the right hon. Gentleman is not opposed to specialist schools, he is not opposed to city academies and he does not want to return to selection. I think that he should cross the Floor.

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

This Government are leading the world—[Interruption.] It happens to be true. They are leading the world in their response to the desperate humanitarian situation in Darfur in the west of Sudan. Having, along with other members of the all-party group on Sudan, witnessed the shocking plight of hundreds of thousands of people who are facing disease and death over the next few months as the rains come, I ask my right hon. Friend whether the Government will do even more, whether they will encourage other European Governments to do much more, and whether they will join in a united appeal throughout the nation to top up the support that individual people from across the United Kingdom can contribute to relieve the suffering of those who are in the most desperate and appalling plight imaginable.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will do everything that we possibly can in respect of Sudan and the situation there. The United States and the UK are leading the aid effort in Sudan. I spoke to Kofi Annan yesterday to develop the right strategy. Colin Powell, as my hon. Friend will know, has been in Sudan. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has visited the country. The food is there now but we need to be able to get it through to people. We also need to be able to control the activities of the militias there. We have a set of plans and proposals for both, but I want to make it quite clear that we expect the Government of Sudan to co-operate and, if they do not do so, we will have to consider what further measures to take. It is not acceptable, however, if the aid is there that it does not get through to the displaced people.

Photo of Angus Robertson Angus Robertson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Despite global instability and military overstretch, Treasury bean counters are undermining Scottish regiments. Defence Ministers are acting like fearties, and the Labour First Minister Jack McConnell will not even stand up for Scottish service personnel, their families or veterans. Will the Prime Minister give the House an assurance that not one Scottish regiment will be amalgamated or disbanded?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, the hon. Gentleman will have to await the outcome of the spending review, and any proposals for our military based on it will be set out in future. However, we have increased defence spending in real terms, and we take immense pride in our armed forces, in Scotland as elsewhere in the UK. I regard it as a bit of cheek for the Scottish National party to complain about the state of the British military.

Photo of Robert Wareing Robert Wareing Labour, Liverpool, West Derby

Does my right hon. Friend still believe that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I told the Liaison Committee yesterday that, although I was confident that those weapons existed last year, I have to accept that they have not been found. However, let me tell my hon. Friend that there is clearly no doubt at all that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and I suppose that he would accept that. It is the case that he used them against his own people, but it is also true that we have not found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, although we have found plenty of evidence of intention, capability and intent. I simply say to my hon. Friend that it is sensible to wait for the outcome of the work of the Iraq survey group, but I certainly do not accept in any shape or form that Iraq was not a threat to the region and the wider world. I repeat again what I have said on many occasions: I believe that the world and this country are safer without Saddam Hussein in power.

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

Does the Prime Minister agree that someone who backs child suicide bombings and is banned from the United States because of his alleged terrorist links should not be allowed into this country?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I assume that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is referring to the situation reported in the newspapers overnight and today concerning a particular cleric. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has already indicated that we will keep this under strict review. There are rules that must be applied, and they will be applied to this particular individual. I do not want to comment at the moment on his case—that is a decision that my right hon. Friend must make, and he will make it according to the criteria that have been set out. Let me make it clear, however, that we want nothing to do with people who support suicide bombers, whether in Palestine or elsewhere, or terrorists. My right hon. Friend must make his decisions according to the relevant criteria, and he will do so. I will not comment further on the case.

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

But why has the decision not already been taken? When I was Home Secretary[Interruption.] Oh yes, crime went down—[Interruption.]

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

When I was Home Secretary, I used my powers to ban people whose presence here was not conducive to the public good. I banned them. Why does not the present Home Secretary do the same?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is not a party political issue, for goodness' sake. We are totally opposed, as is everyone, to people coming to this country and using their visit as a platform to express views in support of terrorism or extremism of any sort. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—the right hon. and learned Gentleman should know this from his time as Home Secretary—must consider the issue and apply certain criteria. He will do so and make the decision accordingly. We have to be sure, however, that if someone is excluded from this country, that is done in a lawful way. That is my right hon. Friend's job, and he will carry it out.

Photo of Piara S Khabra Piara S Khabra Labour, Ealing, Southall

President Bush vowed to capture Osama bin Laden, dead or alive. In view of the latest tape recordings apparently made by bin Laden, what progress have the armed forces made in their search of the border regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Along with the Pakistani authorities, we continue to search for bin Laden, and there has been nothing to report since the last time I spoke about the matter. My hon. Friend knows that that border region is extensive, and it will take some time until we are sure that we are on bin Laden's track.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous PPS To Shadow Foreign Secretary, International Affairs, Opposition Whip (Commons)

Lord Steel, who introduced the Abortion Act 1967, now says that the limit on abortions performed for social reasons should be halved to 12 weeks. What does the Prime Minister think?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is a matter of free vote and conscience on both sides of the House. I have not had an opportunity to study the evidence in detail, but if the situation has changed, it would be advisable to re-examine the question. Certain criteria set out when abortions are lawful, and if the scientific evidence has shifted, it would be sensible to take that into account. I have not had an opportunity to study the evidence in detail, but I am sure that the Government will study it, and if we have proposals to put before the House, we will put them.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

The Prime Minister will recognise that pockets of antisocial behaviour still exist, even in the great city of Leicester—I am not referring to the visits over the past few days by so many hon. Members, who behaved quite well. Does the Prime Minister propose to introduce new legislation to toughen up the law on antisocial behaviour, which will help many of our constituents who face that menace, and does he expect to receive cross-party support?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I hope that there is cross-party support on the issue, and it would be good to receive cross-party support. It would be good to think that all parties in this House had combined in order to defeat the menace of antisocial behaviour, but I must say that the Liberal Democrats have disappointed us up to now. I hope that the Liberal Democrats are honest enough to own up to their policies: they opposed closing down crack houses in 48 hours, they opposed fixed penalty notices for antisocial behaviour, they opposed the speeding up of the process to evict noisy neighbours and they opposed fines for the parents of truants. We are working on the better education of the Liberal Democrats, but as my hon. Friend knows, it is a hard task.

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

If the Government get their way, at the end of this Parliament it will be illegal to swat a pet insect, but it will still be legal to swat a child. How can the Prime Minister justify that approach to the most vulnerable in our society?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am still working out the point about the insect. Above all else, people should apply a modicum of common sense—I know that that is an alien concept to the hon. Gentleman and his party. To be frank, I think that most people know the difference between abusing a child and administering parental discipline in a sensible way, and I do not believe that we cannot find a common-sense way through the issue. Most people in the country think that there are serious issues to discuss in relation to the abuse of children, and yes, we must make sure that the law is in a proper state, but in this instance, more than any other, the law would benefit from the application of a lot of common sense.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar

Does my right hon. Friend welcome this week's Supreme Court ruling that US courts have jurisdiction over the detainees in Guantanamo bay, which at least makes the situation clear? That means that the US courts, and not the President, would set the rules by which the detainees could be tried in the States, and those rules would be fair. Is it my right hon. Friend's preference that the British detainees should be tried over there, or does he still intend that they will return to British courts?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Our position remains the same: if the Attorney-General is not satisfied that the rules applying to the trials of the detainees at Guantanamo are consistent with the standards that we expect, we need the detainees to return here. That is not the issue at the moment; the issue is making sure that if the remaining detainees—five are back already, but four are still there—are returned to this country, we have proper mechanisms in place, so that we are sure of our own security and can protect our own security, which is also an obligation of Government.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

What have the Government got against the 4.4 million people in this country who are aged over 75? Why are they specifically excluded from the NHS improvement plan target relating to reducing deaths from cancer, heart disease and stroke?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that the position of the hon. Gentleman's party is to get rid of all targets in the national health service, so I assume he is saying that there should be no targets for anyone, not that we should extend them to people over 75. I am delighted that he raises the issue, however, because as a result of this Government's measures cancer deaths among people over 75 are down by 10 per cent. and heart deaths are down by 20 per cent. We have nothing against people over 75—on the contrary, we have introduced special help for those over 75 who are in poverty, and free TV licences for all. That is more than the Tories ever did for them.

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

In the light of the recent research on the census by the university of Sheffield, which shows that there is continuing inequality in health between the north and the south, will the Prime Minister have a word with the Secretary of State for Health with a view to returning to Manchester the millions of pounds that were stolen from its health services as a result of the appalling failure of the Office for National Statistics during the census to count the thousands of extra people who live in the city of Manchester?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Apparently—because it says so here—my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the report of the findings on reviewing the population estimate for Manchester will be published tomorrow. I hope that that means he will be pleased with the findings as well as with their publication. I know that he and other hon. Members from Manchester have raised this issue before; obviously, the Office for National Statistics must undertake to consider it.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will accept, however, that whatever his concerns about the impact of the census estimates, we still put a major amount of additional investment into Manchester. As a result, as I recently saw for myself on a visit to Manchester, there is an enormous amount of new hospital building and equipment, as well as extra nurses and doctors. I hope that my hon. Friend will be at least partly, if not wholly, satisfied with what he hears tomorrow.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Sayeed Mr Jonathan Sayeed Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

Does the Prime Minister believe that Senator Kerry would make a good President of the United States?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I believe that just as the choice for the British people is a choice that they make, the choice for the American people is a choice that they make.

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

This week, Dame Shirley Porter handed over £12 million of the £40 million that she owes for her part in the illegal Conservative homes for votes policy. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Labour councillors, including Labour leader Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, and others on their part in exposing and pursuing the scandal over the past 15 years? Does my right hon. Friend understand that most people believe that Shirley Porter is indeed nothing like a dame, and that steps should be taken to remove from her the title of which she has proved so unworthy?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It says here:

"The Government has no powers to intervene in or judge the settlement that Westminster City Council has reached with Dame Shirley."

So there it is. I think that I had better leave it to my hon. Friend to make any other comments.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Government's policy of inclusion is being prayed in aid by educationists and health authorities in order to close special schools? Does he understand that many parents with severely disabled children—I speak as one of them—feel that the only place outside home where their children will get the care, therapy and chance to blossom that they need is in a special school? Will the Prime Minister ask the Education Secretary to consider that; and will he ensure that common sense prevails and these schools are kept open?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I agree that some children's needs are obviously best met in special schools. Certainly, the purpose of any policy of inclusion is neither to abolish special schools nor to take children out of an appropriate environment: it is to ensure that if those children are able to be in mainstream schooling, they can be. Of course, I agree that that should not lead to a situation whereby children for whom it is not appropriate to be in mainstream schooling lose the possibility of a special school. I am perfectly happy to ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to respond to the hon. Gentleman directly on the points that he raises.

Photo of Mr Gareth Thomas Mr Gareth Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Paul Murphy, Secretary of State), Northern Ireland Office

How important is our membership of the European Union to British jobs and overseas investment in the United Kingdom? What would the Tory policy of getting out mean—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas knows that it is good news that foreign investment is still coming into the country. Much of that is specifically geared to our membership of the European Union and to the activities of companies in Europe. Any proposal that Britain marginalise itself in decision making in Europe or withdraw from the European Union would be disastrous for jobs, industry and investment in this country.