Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 20th October 2004.

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Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in sending our thoughts to Margaret Hassan, who has been taken hostage in Iraq. She has dual Iraqi citizenship and has lived in Iraq for 30 years. She is immensely respected, married to an Iraqi and has worked tirelessly to help the country. We are doing what we can to secure her release.

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 Tom Harris Tom Harris PPS (Rt Hon John Spellar, Minister of State), Northern Ireland Office

Employment in my constituency and throughout the whole country is at record levels. Britain is working. However, is it not an unexpected consequence of the Government's economic success that we face unprecedented skills shortages?

Does the Prime Minister accept that if we are to encourage a new generation of young people to embark on apprenticeships, they must be guaranteed parity of esteem with those young people who choose instead to go to college or university?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on both points. As he rightly points out, there are now 2 million more people in work than in 1997. I am pleased to say that there are record levels of employment in this country today. However, I entirely accept that we need to do more on skills. That is why we have increased the number of apprenticeships from 75,000 in 1997 to 255,000 today. I can tell the House that that will increase further to 300,000 by the end of next year. What is more, we are ensuring that the vocational pathways for 14 to 19-year-olds are put on parity of esteem with the academic route. That is precisely what my hon. Friend wants, and it is right for the country.

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

May I begin by joining the Prime Minister in the remarks that he made about Margaret Hassan? Our thoughts, and indeed our prayers, are with her and her family.

I make it clear at the outset that I do not regard it as appropriate for deployments in wartime to be subject to a parliamentary vote. The official Opposition will not, therefore, be calling for a vote on the proposed redeployment of the Black Watch battle group.

However, Parliament does need to be given proper and accurate information. On Monday, the Defence Secretary said that no decision had been taken on the redeployment of the Black Watch. Yesterday morning, the Foreign Secretary said that a decision had been taken in principle. Later yesterday, the Prime Minister said that no decision had been made. Will the Prime Minister now be straight with Parliament and the country? Has a decision been taken and, if so, what is it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, a decision has not been taken, for the reasons that General McColl explained this morning; I hope that Members of the House heard what he said.

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would understand, and I hope that the House understands, that there is a limit to what I should say, and can say, about where British troops might be deployed on operations in Iraq. We cannot fight terrorists and insurgents in Iraq by advertising our movements or disclosing the nature of operations.

I will, however, say this in answer to his question. We are about to enter a period of increased activity in Iraq. That is nothing to do with the American elections; it has everything, however, to do with the Iraqi elections in January. There has also, as General McColl pointed out this morning, been a spike in activity during Ramadan. We have to create the conditions in which fair elections under UN supervision can take place. To do this, there has been a request from the American military to the British military to fill in a gap as American troops are redeployed. That is being assessed now by our military. It will be assessed in the normal way and subject to a recommendation. As General McColl made clear, it is a military request for operational reasons that will be considered on an operational basis. If we do it, the Black Watch will still be back home by Christmas at the end of their six-month period.

Some 650 troops are involved. I cannot say exactly where in Iraq they are going but I can say that much of the speculation has been wholly ill informed and that, for example, they are not going to Falluja or Baghdad. They will remain under the operational command of UK forces.

I shall make one more thing clear. There has been speculation that the British military, especially the Chief of the Defence Staff, are unhappy that such a request has been made. That is completely untrue.

A request has been made. There is now a military assessment. The military will make a recommendation and a final decision will be made.

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

Of course we share the objectives that the Prime Minister set out and we support proper action taken in their pursuit. We all have the greatest admiration for the Black Watch, who will perform any duties that they are asked to undertake with the bravery and distinction that has been the regiment's hallmark over many centuries. I welcome—I am sure that they and their families welcome—the Prime Minister's comment that they will, after all, be home for Christmas.

However, the question that everyone in the country and all hon. Members are asking is: given that there are 130,000 American troops in Iraq, why is it necessary to take 650 men from the British forces in southern Iraq and redeploy them further north?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, not all the 130,000 American troops are fit for that particular purpose. Secondly, the American military have made a request to our military, who are considering it on a purely operational basis. I do not believe that our commanders, as, indeed, General McColl made clear this morning, would want British troops to do that unless they thought it necessary for the achievement of our overall objectives. With the greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, General McColl and those on the ground in Iraq are in a better position to make that judgment than me or him.

Photo of Marsha Singh Marsha Singh Labour, Bradford West

Does not the Prime Minister believe that the hole that he has dug in respect of Iraq is big enough? Is not it time to listen to the British people and to say no to the Americans, and high time that we stopped digging?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am afraid that I cannot agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that we are right to be in Iraq and that we can be immensely proud of the contribution that our British troops have made there. I think that we should be thankful that they are engaged wholeheartedly in the operation, and I believe that the stabilisation of Iraq and bringing democracy to that country is in the national interest of this country, never mind the United States. We participated in the operation from the outset because we believed that it was the right thing to do. I believe now that it was the right thing to do. We have to stand firm and see it through, and we will.

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

I join the Prime Minister in extending all our thoughts and sympathies to the family and the professional colleagues of Margaret Hassan. We all hope for her safe return.

I am sure that the Prime Minister appreciates the great stress and anxiety that the families of Black Watch soldiers are experiencing. An indicative example is a mother who e-mailed Sky News on Monday to say that her son had been back on a training course here in Britain but

"was told yesterday that he was returning today to go and help the Americans. This decision has been made obviously."

Does the Prime Minister recognise that he will have to go further to convince mothers and families in the face of their legitimate concern?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman really thinks that what he has just said will help to relieve the anxiety of people in the Black Watch. The fact is, as I have said, that this has to be decided on an operational basis. The recommendation will come from our military and on the basis of that recommendation, a final decision will be made. I have to say that I think we should be glad that we have soldiers of the capability of those in the Black Watch, who are ready, willing and able to do this job. Irrespective of whether people were for the war, as I was, or against it, as the right hon. Gentleman was, it is surely right that we should now do everything to make sure that the Iraqi elections can take place, the country can progress towards democracy and the terrorists can be defeated.

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

The whole House has the greatest admiration for the armed services, not least the Black Watch. There is no question about that. However, to return to the exchanges about possible British deployments that the Prime Minister and I had here in May, I said at that time that further deployment should come

"only at the request of the British commanders on the ground", and should take place

"only for the purposes of enabling them to fulfil more effectively the role that they are currently undertaking".—[Hansard, 12 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 350.]

I have to say to the Prime Minister that we would oppose the proposed deployment, because it does not meet the requirements that we set out in May. If, in due course, the Prime Minister is confident of the case for acceding to the request that the Americans have made, will he come and test his argument by putting it to the House for a decision?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

With the greatest respect, what the right hon. Gentleman just read out suggested that he would not support a further deployment—although this is not an additional increase in the number of troops—unless it were operationally necessary. That is what he has just read out. If, however, it is the advice of our commanders on the ground that it is operationally necessary, is he then going to say that the troops should be deployed or not? What he is actually saying to me—

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

You are supposed to be answering the question.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am answering it. I am saying that what I am actually being asked to do by the Liberal Democrats, even if the recommendation comes from our commanders to engage in this operation, is to overrule it politically. [Interruption.] Well, that is what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. I only wish that he had more than two questions to ask me, so that we could carry on this exchange.

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Prison Officers Association membership has voted overwhelmingly to oppose market testing in prisons, in the face of strong rumours that certain civil servants are trying to entice American companies to take over young offenders institutions? Does he agree that this would cause disruption in the service, and would also be politically undesirable?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

What we have to do is make sure that the primary consideration is not just cost and efficiency, but the right way for these establishments to be run. It says somewhat optimistically in my briefing that I hope the members of the Prison Officers Association will work with us to rise to these challenges, but I am not entirely sure that that is what will happen. Whatever happens, however, it is important that we ensure that the way in which our prisons are run is the most cost effective, and that we do our best for the juveniles in those establishments. The criteria that will be applied to any contracting process will be cost and the standard of the service.

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

Yesterday, the Government announced the return of matron to help to deal with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus—MRSA. They made the same announcement in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2004. It is what they always say when they do not know what to do. Will the Prime Minister confirm that neither the new chief nursing officer nor any other nurse—nor, indeed, the local infection control teams—has the power to ensure that infected wards are closed?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The number of matrons we have introduced is about 3,000 since we made that announcement, so it is wholly untrue to say that we have not brought in new people. Furthermore, in respect of MRSA, of course the state of infection in a ward is a primary consideration in regard to whether the ward remains open, and they have full powers to make sure that they can do this.

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

But I am afraid that what the Prime Minister has just said is not the case. The National Audit Office has found cases of managers refusing to close infected wards, even when infection teams have recommended that they be closed, because that would result in their missing Government targets. The Prime Minister should know this, because I have made this point to him before. Does he now agree that that is completely unacceptable?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course the state of infection in wards must be taken into account by matrons and managers when they decide whether to keep a ward open. Nothing is more important than the good health of patients in those words. Let us be clear: the only reason that we know about MRSA and the infections in our hospitals is that we collected the data that the Conservatives refused to collect. As for the targets on waiting times, I do not resile in any way from the need to set strong targets for outputs on waiting times and waiting lists because of the extra investment. Let us remember that when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office, waiting lists went up by 400,000; they are now down by 300,000, as a result of the investment that he voted against.

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 is wrong again. On the day that families of victims of MRSA are lobbying us in Parliament, are we not right to be sceptical of yet another Government initiative, when we have had 21 initiatives, endless re-announcements, and billions of pounds of taxpayers' money spent, yet the number of people dying from MRSA has doubled under this Government? When are the Government going to stop talking and allow doctors and nurses to deliver the cleaner hospitals for which everyone in the country is crying out?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let us remember who forced the contracting-out of cleaning services in the national health service—the Tories. Who refused to put better investment in the health service? The Tories. Who came to this House and voted against every single penny of extra investment? The Tories. We accept that MRSA is a problem; of course it is. There is also a problem with dentistry. There are always problems in the health care system. But let us make it clear what are no longer problems, which were problems in the Tory years: we have cut waiting lists, so that the maximum waiting time is now half what it was under the Tories; 97 per cent. of patients are able to see a GP within two days; more than 96 per cent. get decent cancer care within a two-week period; cardiac deaths have fallen by more than 20 per cent.; cancer deaths have fallen by 10 per cent.; and there are an extra 80,000 nurses. I do not doubt that MRSA is a problem. Of course it is. But the national health service today is a service on its way to renewal, whereas when we took over, it was a service in a state of collapse.

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

The answer that we have just had from the Prime Minister tells us volumes about his attitude to the truth. He suggested—the Health Secretary urged him on—that there was some link between infections in hospitals and contracting-out. [Hon. Members: "Yes, there is."] His Back Benchers say, "Yes, there is." I am surprised that the Health Secretary has not told them about the Department of Health's study, referred to in the Health Service Journal on 7 October, which says in terms that there is no link between contracting-out and MRSA. When will the Prime Minister stop pulling the wool over people's eyes and start taking action to deal with the problems that the country faces?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sorry if—[Interruption.] I am sorry if the right hon. and learned Gentleman believes that the standard of cleaning in our hospitals has nothing to do with MRSA, but plainly it has—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is why we are imposing greater controls on cleaning. I have accepted that MRSA is a problem, which is why the Health Secretary announced the programme yesterday to tackle it. As I pointed out a moment or two ago, only under this Government have we had the figures that tell us the true extent of the problem.

If we compare the national health service in 1997 with the national health service now in 2004, we see that it is unquestionably better—better in terms of buildings, better in terms of the numbers of doctors and nurses, better in terms of the quality of care, and better in terms of waiting lists and waiting times. Yes, it is true that there are still more challenges, which we must tackle. But we know the truth—we do not have to speculate—about when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office: waiting lists went up, investment was cut and the health service was in despair. That has changed as a result of this Government's measures.

Photo of Russell Brown Russell Brown Labour, Dumfries

The Prime Minister may well be aware of the suggestion by the Council of Scottish Colonels of a union between the Royal Scots and my local regiment, the King's Own Scottish Borderers. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is to meet me to discuss that, but we are talking about a merger with one of the strongest regiments in terms of recruitment and retention. Does the Prime Minister agree that the Council of Scottish Colonels has really done no more than fudge the issue, and come up with entirely the wrong recommendation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The important thing is this. Obviously there must be a change in the way in which the armed forces work in today's world, because they perform a different set of tasks now. Today we often need a far more flexible and adaptable force than would have been needed 30 or 40 years ago.

On the other hand, we are currently considering—on the basis of recommendations from the Scottish colonels and others—the best configuration of those battalions. We said that the number would be reduced from 40 to 36, but the precise nature of the arrangement is still under discussion. It is being implemented by the armed forces themselves, and when we have an outcome we will announce it. I assure my hon. Friend, however, that as we have constantly increased spending on our armed forces, their ability to function effectively in the modern world will be the test of what happens.

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

If the Government are serious about tackling antisocial behaviour, I am sure the Prime Minister will agree that the role of the youth service is vital. Will he agree to meet a group of members of the Youth Parliament and hear their concerns about the Government's agenda of forcing learning outcomes on the youth service? Young people work hard all week, and often at weekends too. What they want is somewhere to go and relax and have fun, rather than being forced to achieve a learning outcome on a Friday or Saturday night.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am actually proud of what the Government have done on antisocial behaviour. We have introduced new legislation that is making a big difference in communities up and down the country, as I heard for myself in discussion with police officers yesterday. We are increasing investment in youth services, and it is important that we do so. I might add that the Conservative party voted against that investment.

If by "learning outcomes" the hon. Gentleman actually means results in our schools—[Interruption.] I happen to think that the best learning outcome is learning of the basics in schools. The fact is that the number of pupils passing exams and attaining the right results at 11, 14, 16 and 18 has gone up under this Government, and was down under that represented by the hon. Gentleman's party.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

May I take the opportunity to thank the Prime Minister and the Chancellor for their intervention in the proposed closure of Jaguar in Coventry? The labour force appreciates their efforts very much.

Having said that, may I ask the Prime Minister what progress has been made?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have actually spoken to both the company and the unions. I have asked them both to ensure that the proposals they have made are subject to proper scrutiny by unions and company jointly, and I understand from the conversations I had the other day that that will shortly take place. I hope that they will be able to give commitments on the long-term future of Jaguar and, indeed, Ford in the country.

Photo of Hugo Swire Hugo Swire Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The failure of the Government's pension policy is causing widespread alarm in east Devon. Why is the Prime Minister still so obsessed with means-testing pensioners?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We introduced pension credit in order to help the poorest pensioners, some of whom were on appallingly low incomes a few years ago. Two million pensioners have actually been lifted out of acute hardship as a result of our measures, and I suspect that many of them are in Devon. I think that if the hon. Gentleman goes and asks his constituents who receive pension credit whether they like the Tory proposal to take it off them, he will find that they do not.

Photo of Ms Debra Shipley Ms Debra Shipley Labour, Stourbridge

Will my right hon. Friend give his support to the measures in my Children's Food Bill? Does he realise that if he does so, he will be in the company of hundreds of MPs from all parts of this Chamber and some 120 organisations, including the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal College of General Practitioners, cancer charities and the Food Commission? Does he further realise that the only people who do not support my proposals are those who are making large sums of money by promoting food that is high in fat, sugar and salt to children?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her work in this area. As she knows, a Government White Paper on public health will be published in a few weeks, and I think that she will have to await the proposals in it.

Photo of Robert Smith Robert Smith Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

The Prime Minister rightly praised the capabilities, strengths and professionalism of the Black Watch, and said that they would be home in time for Christmas. Did he also tell them that they face amalgamation on their return, and does it really make sense, at a time when the British Army is being called on to step in and cover the US army's overstretch, that we should be looking to cut the size of our own?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is a question not of cutting the size of our own Army, but of the right configuration of battalions and regiments. That is subject to review by the armed forces, and they will decide the function of the Black Watch in that regard. I again suggest, given that proposals have been made by the Scottish colonels on this issue, that we await the outcome of that review, because it may not be exactly as the hon. Gentleman thinks.

Photo of Desmond Turner Desmond Turner Labour, Brighton, Kemptown

My right hon. Friend has presumably had an explanation from the Americans as to why, given their massive military commitment in Iraq, they need to call on our own overstretched forces. Can he share that explanation with the House?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will share what I can properly share with the House. As I said a moment or two ago—it is important to understand this—although it is true that there are 130,000 American troops and 9,000 British troops in Iraq, not all are suitable for the particular tasks that they are being called upon to do. It is important that we recognise that there is also an immense amount of cover in Iraq that Americans provide us. We are doing this as a joint operation in Iraq. If a military recommendation is made to us to do this, it will be done for operational reasons—for reasons agreed by our commanders out there. Of course, we have immense pride in the troops and the work that they do, but I hope that my hon. Friend understands that only a certain number of them are capable of doing some of the operations that they will be called upon to do.