Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 9th February 2005.

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Photo of Professor Ross Cranston Professor Ross Cranston Labour, Dudley North 11:30 am, 9th February 2005

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 9 February.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

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

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

I want to ask my right hon. Friend about identity cards. All the evidence on the doorstep and on the phone in Dudley, North is that more than 80 per cent. of people support ID cards. Obviously, they do not want a "Show me your papers, please" society, and that is not what is being proposed. The one issue raised with me is cost, in particular to the less well-off. May I ask for an assurance that the cost of ID cards will not be disproportionate for the less well-off?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The point that my hon. and learned Friend makes is right. It is important to realise that the cost of going to biometric passports, which we should do because other parts of the world are doing so, will be about £70. The additional cost of the ID card is only about £15. That is why it represents a sensible way of proceeding. In our view, identity cards, with the new technology that is available, are necessary in the fight against illegal immigration, organised crime and terrorism, and in order to protect our services. Their introduction is the right thing to do and I hope that, rather than facing both ways, all the Opposition parties will support us on that proposition tomorrow.

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

Last week the National Audit Office said that the Government had spent nearly £900 million on improving behaviour in schools and reducing truancy, but as we know, behaviour in schools has not improved and truancy has increased. Was the money well spent?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The amount of money that was spent on truancy specifically was a tiny proportion of the £860 million. Let me explain how it was spent. The vast bulk of it was spent on pupil referral units, in order to educate pupils excluded from schools. When we came to office, there were only 7,000 such places, many of them for only a couple of hours a week. There are now 13,000 such places and those pupils get full-time education. Yes, that money is well spent.

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

But large numbers of children still do not spend all the school day in pupil referral units, as the Prime Minister well knows. Last week we had an Ofsted report saying that nearly one in 10 secondary schools have unsatisfactory levels of behaviour, and the number of schools where behaviour is unsatisfactory shows no sign of reducing, so the money is clearly not well spent.

Let me ask the Prime Minister about something else. This week the Public Accounts Committee said that £500 million could have been saved if the Government had managed the surge in asylum applications in 1999 and 2000 more efficiently. Was the PAC right?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I should like to go back and answer the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question about truancy. He cited the Ofsted report. Let me give the quotation in full:

"Parents in England can and should take heart at the considerable improvements in our education system over recent years. We have made a move from a system that educated a few superbly and the rest indifferently to one that is attempting to educate everyone very well"— the difference between Tory and Labour policy.

As for the report on asylum, the allegation is that instead of spending the money on removals we should have front-loaded it to deal with applications. We believe, however, that increasing the proportion of removals is also a very important way of getting asylum applications down, which is why we do not agree with the report. The difference between this Government and the administration over which the right hon. and learned Gentleman personally presided is that in 1996 about 5,000 asylum seekers were removed and in 2003 it was 18,000—not good enough, but a darned sight better. Before people talk about the numbers, let me also tell him that the latest asylum figures indicate that when he was Home Secretary applications went up 50 per cent. and the numbers were roughly what they are today.

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

If there are fewer asylum seekers, obviously fewer will be removed. It is no use the Prime Minister trying to throw back to the past. The permanent secretary at the Home Office said:

"The truth of the matter is that we got into real difficulties at the end of 1999."

Now let us get back to the billions of pounds of taxpayers' money that this Government have wasted. Two weeks ago, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies said that taxes would have to increase by £11 billion if there were another Labour Government. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he would not put up the top rate of income tax. Will he give the same pledge on national insurance contributions?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I want to return to the point that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made—[Interruption.] Oh yes, just to pin him down exactly. He was saying that the proportion of people removed to the numbers of asylum seekers was the same. Wrong. Actually, he only ever managed to remove about two in 10 failed asylum seekers. The figure is now five out of 10—yes, a long way to go, but a lot better than his system.

Secondly, no. We will make our commitments on tax plain at the time of the manifesto, as we have done before. While we are talking about waste, though, let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman about waste that this Government have never incurred—the waste on the poll tax, the Black Wednesday waste, and the waste of 3 million unemployed when he was Employment Secretary. Yes, we never engaged in that waste, and we never will.

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

It is no use the Prime Minister talking about keeping his tax pledges for the manifesto, because he gave one yesterday, and everyone now knows that yesterday he gave a pledge on the top rate of income tax and today he has refused to give a pledge on national insurance contributions. So billions of pounds have been wasted, taxpayers are not getting value for money, and everyone knows that taxes would go up under another Labour Government. Is it not now clear which tax it would be?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will tell the House what is clear. There was one party that gave a pledge that it would not put VAT on fuel—a specific election pledge—and the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his party voted for it, and if it had not been defeated in the House of Commons that would have hurt pensioners and some of the poorest people in our country.

I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman exactly why we have been able to sustain a strong economy and put money into public services, and I do not accept that this money is wasted. When we have money going into extra teachers and nurses and better equipment in schools and hospitals, that money is not wasted. When waiting lists are not up by 400,000 but down by 300,000, that is not money wasted. When we have 2 million extra jobs and 1 million helped by the new deal, that is not money wasted. When we have the lowest inflation, mortgage rates and unemployment for decades, that is a successful economic policy, not the boom and bust that people remember.

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Labour, Stevenage

Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the bravery of two young firefighters, Michael Miller and Jeffrey Wornham, who lost their lives in Stevenage last Wednesday trying to rescue a resident from a blazing block of flats? Will he also join me in extending condolences to the families of all those who lost their lives in this tragedy?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely concur with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend, and I am sure that the whole House will want to join in paying tribute to the two firefighters killed tackling a fire in her constituency last Wednesday. They died doing an extraordinary and heroic job, and I know that we will all wish to send our sympathy and condolences to their families.

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

The Prime Minister asserted again a few moments ago that he saw identity cards as essential in the fight against terrorism, but given that identity cards did not prevent the Madrid bombings; that the 9/11 bombers travelled under their own identities; that they will not be compulsory in this country for 10 years; and that visitors to this country will not require them, how will they make such a difference to the fight against terrorism?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The reason why this measure is supported not only by the Government but by the police and the security services is that people believe that, particularly when we have biometric passports and the biometric technology available, we can construct an identity card that gives us the best possible protection against crime and terrorism. No system will prevent all crime and all terrorism: the question is whether it actually enhances the security of our country. When this technology is available, and when we are going to apply it in any event to visas and passports, it seems to me to make sense to use it to give us an identity card and bring us in line, frankly, with best practice around the world.


it seems to me to make sense to use it to give us an identity card and bring us in line, frankly, with best practice around the world.

This statement is clearly not true and i feel the labour gov would fair better if it stopped making rash statements such as the one above,which is basically a lie.

Submitted by stinky will

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

But the Prime Minister must recognise that 10 million people in this country, many of them pensioners, do not possess a passport and do not have the intention or the need to get one in future. Under his proposals, those 10 million will be required to travel distances to centres to have the tests carried out, and then to pay for the privilege. That is a further reason why we will oppose identity cards tomorrow, as we have before—unlike some others.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is for that very reason that we have said that the Identity Cards Bill is enabling legislation. We have always made it clear, under pressure from all quarters in the House, that before there is a final move to compulsion, there will be a rigorous evaluation and a chance for this House to debate it again, but the Bill allows us to get this project under way. I believe that many people now recognise, particularly, as I say, with the possibilities of the new technology, that we can genuinely make a difference to our own security, to the fight against crime, and to the protection of our public services. In the world in which we live, where there are people who will cross borders to a far greater degree than ever before, and organised crime and terrorism are far more sophisticated than ever before, I do not think it is wrong or a breach of anyone's civil liberties to say that we should have an identity card. Most people carry some form of identification anyway. I think it is long overdue, and we should get on and do it.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson Labour, Wantage

Will my right hon. Friend accept an invitation to visit the Rutherford Appleton laboratory in my constituency to see the new Diamond synchrotron, which is nearing completion there? It is the biggest single investment in the history of British science, made by this Government, and it is a very apt symbol of the commitment that this Government—and the Chancellor and the Prime Minister—have made to the future of British science.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The synchrotron is a very important innovation indeed, and I can assure him that the increase in the science budget, which is a vital part of this country's future prosperity and competitiveness, will be maintained under this Government.

Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk

The former Home Secretary said that there is no obvious upper limit to immigration, and the current Home Secretary agrees. What does the Prime Minister think?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I have said on many occasions, I do not believe in the quota system that would be applied by the Conservatives. We should have a system whereby we welcome in people who are genuine refugees and people whom our economy needs to work here, and whereby we tackle and weed out the abuses. That is far more sensible than the arbitrary quota system that the hon. Gentleman supports, although he cannot actually tell us what the number is.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to assure the House and the rest of the world that he intends to continue an engagement with Iran, rather than joining in any American-led military attack or military threat towards Iran, either in the near future or the distant future?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We are pursuing the policy of engagement, which we have conducted with France and Germany, and indeed with the United States' full support. I have to say to my hon. Friend that it is important also to make it clear to Iran—I hope this is a message that he will join in sending to the Iranian Government—that it cannot breach the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency and cannot develop nuclear weapons capability. That is the very clear wish of the entire international community. I happen to believe, however, that it can be pursued by diplomatic means of engagement.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The abusers will be weeded out, and as a result of the end of chain migration, the numbers will probably fall, because it will be clear that those who come in either abusing the system or without being covered by the restrictions that the Home Secretary is placing on them cannot settle here. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposals for a fantasy island for asylum seekers—again, it might be nice to know where it is—and literally halving the immigration service budget will simply make the problem worse.

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

I am interested that the Prime Minister has again raised overseas processing centres. I have a letter from him to the President of the European Council. It reads:

"Dear Costas,

I am writing to ask for a very short discussion at the Brussels European Council . . . of an idea we have been developing . . . asylum seekers arriving in the UK and other EU member states could be transferred to a transit processing centre where their claims would be assessed . . . The centre would be located outside the EU."

So the Prime Minister is interested in overseas processing centres, too. The difference between us is that he will do it only with the EU, and we will do it on our own; and he is all talk, and we will take action. Is not the difference between us the fact that we will impose an annual limit on immigration and he refuses to do that, so that only a Conservative Government can be relied on to bring immigration under control?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, the letter to which he refers was publicised at the time. Let me point out the two important differences. The vast majority of people claiming asylum do so now not at port but in country. They could never be covered by any processing centre. In any event, neither all the other countries in the European Union nor the United Nations could agree on a way forward. I therefore ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman: which country is prepared to take Britain's asylum claims and process them? There is no such country. That is why, for the four years when he was Home Secretary and asylum claims rose by 50 per cent. and applications took 20 months to handle, he never did any of that. If it was such a good idea, why did not he do it?

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee

Since my right hon. Friend has stated that bringing about peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is his top international priority, will he take encouragement from the developments that reflect his determination and pressure? Will he also ensure that there is no backsliding by any of the parties involved? Since he has spoken of it as a priority of his premiership, may I congratulate him on breaking the record of my old boss, Harold Wilson, for length of service as Labour premier?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. The middle east peace process is at an important juncture and I hope that it will be possible to make progress. Yesterday's meeting was of historic importance, but it is important that we do everything that we can to build on it. I greatly hope that the conference that we shall call and hold in London in early March allows us to give the Palestinians the plan that they need, so that when Israeli disengagement from Gaza and parts of the west bank happens, they have what they need in terms of the beginnings of an independent viable state. Only if that can be agreed have we any chance of reaching the solution that I think everyone wants: two states, with a secure Israel and an independent Palestinian state, living side by side in peace.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Does the Prime Minister recognise the authorship of the following promise, made just before the 1997 election?

"The party I lead will carry out in government the programme we provide in our Manifesto beforehand. Nothing more, nothing less, that is my word."

Does he recall that that immediately followed a firm commitment to direct elections to the House of Lords and a firm commitment to a referendum on a fairer electoral system for the House of Commons? Which of those two broken promises does he now most regret?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I recall, we set up a commission under Lord Jenkins that gave us various options for electoral reform. In respect of the House of Lords, I have come to the conclusion that the only way we are ever going to get House of Lords change is if there is an agreement in this House on a free vote. The fact is that there are different views right round the House on the best way to reform the House of Lords, but I think that that is the more sensible way through.

Photo of Mr Iain Luke Mr Iain Luke Labour, Dundee East

I welcome the decision by the Ministry of Defence to increase the death in service payment from April this year by four times the pay level of the deceased. Will the Prime Minister consider backdating the payment to the time of the outset of hostilities in Iraq, so that the families of the servicemen who have given their lives in the supreme sacrifice for their country will get the benefit of that payment?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Once again, let me pay tribute to the work that our servicemen and servicewomen have done in Iraq. It has been quite superb. I said yesterday to the Liaison Committee that a discussion now has to take place in Government. We are reviewing the compensation payment arrangements and I hope that we can make an announcement on that shortly.

Photo of Adrian Sanders Adrian Sanders Liberal Democrat, Torbay

Since the privatisation of the water industry, 30 per cent. of the nation's coastline has to be cleaned up by 3 per cent. of the nation's population. Consequently, water bills are disproportionately high in the south-west region, and they are going to increase. Will the Prime Minister meet a delegation of south-west Members to look at ways of mitigating the impact of the nation's highest water charges on some of the lowest-income households in the UK?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am always content to meet people to talk about issues such as these. Of course, this is a question of balancing the amount of money that has been put into the water industry and the investment that is there, with the necessary quality controls. I am not saying that the situation that the hon. Gentleman described does not exist or cause concern in the south-west—I know that it does. On the other hand, it has caused concern for a considerable period. The difficulty is that this will, in the end, be a question of finance, and of ensuring that we did not disadvantage another part of the country, were we to change the system.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Labour, Ealing North

May I tell the Prime Minister that there has never been a better time to be a school pupil in Ealing, North? The 18 years of leaking roofs and cold comfort in the classroom have been banished by a massive schools programme. However, we have concerns for the future of the excellent excellence in cities initiative. What can the Prime Minister say to reassure me and Paul Patrick, the headmaster of Cardinal Wiseman high school, who has instructed me to appear in his study after assembly on Friday?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend and I should probably hope that such instructions and their consequences have changed since we were at school. The point that he makes about investment in our schools and classrooms is absolutely right: it has been of tremendous importance. We have only to go to a school in any constituency to see the investment that has gone in. The excellence in cities programme has also driven up results significantly, and it is important to recognise that we now have the best ever primary school results, the best ever GCSE results and the best ever A-level results. These are certified by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. It is also important to recognise that every single penny piece of the additional investment was opposed by the Conservatives.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Parliamentary Leader (Westminster), Spokesperson (Constitutional Affairs; Treasury), Leader, Scottish National Party

Is the Prime Minister aware that, at about the same time as he came to office, the Norwegian Government decided to devote a portion of their oil and gas revenues to a fund for future generations? That fund is now worth £80 billion—the income from it is greater than the Norwegian oil and gas revenues—and it stands as a permanent legacy for the people of Norway. We know that BP, Shell and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are doing very well out of oil revenues this year, to the tune of billions of pounds, but what permanent legacy for the people of Scotland from the oil and gas round their coastline can the Prime Minister point to?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Surely what is relevant is a legacy of stable economies with low mortgages, low inflation, low unemployment, many more jobs and record investment in Scotland. None of that would have been achieved without this Government's actions. The worst thing that could possibly happen to Scotland is the separatism advocated by the hon. Gentleman, which would do immense damage to Scottish jobs, Scottish business and the Scottish economy.

Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Metropolitan police in Bexley on becoming one of the two safest London boroughs over the past 12 months? Residential burglary and motor vehicle crime are down by 18 per cent. and the number of special constables recruited is higher there than in the rest of London put together. Will he also—

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I offer my hon. Friend a word of congratulation to the police, community support officers and the communities themselves on the work that they are doing. The increase in police numbers, backed up by community support officers and neighbourhood wardens, is making a difference to community policing in many parts of the country. That, combined with new laws on antisocial behaviour, is giving communities a chance to fight back for the first time. Those communities have to use the powers and extra investment, and as his constituency shows, many are doing precisely that, and to great effect, for their local communities.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

The Extradition Act 2003 allows UK nationals to be removed to the US without prima facie evidence and without reciprocity. If extradited, the so-called Bermingham three and my constituent, Mr. Giles Derby, being non-Americans, face little prospect of bail under US law. That means that they will have to spend many months in a Texas jail before they are finally brought to trial. Is it not about time that we stopped acting as America's poodle and revisited our unbalanced and unfair extradition arrangements with the US?


Absolutely spot on. No Government should ever agree to unbalanced Treaties. Mr Blair seems not to address this point.

Submitted by Richard Powell Read 1 more annotation

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The modern Conservative party never ceases to amaze me. First, the extradition agreement that we entered into with the United States was, of course, post-11 September, and I happen to think that it was justified and right. Secondly, as for talk about our being America's poodle, I think that it is time we recognised that the American or transatlantic alliance has served this country well. We should support it, and hon. Members who have some sense of this country's history and future should stop denigrating it and start supporting it.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unfair for only people like myself with a Sikh background and those from the Jewish faith to receive protection by law from abuses of religious hatred? Does he further agree that we should do whatever is in our power to ensure that all religious faiths, including the thousands of Christians and Muslims in my constituency, receive similar protection? Does he also agree that both sides of the House should support that legislation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I hope people do. It is an anomaly when faith groups associated with a single race are protected from incitement to hatred, but multi-ethnic faith groups are not. The legislation was requested by key leaders in all the major faith communities and it has to be said that it prohibits the stirring up and the incitement of religious hatred. Prosecutions will have to be brought, of course, through the Crown Prosecution Service, with the Attorney-General's consent. I really think that the idea that it will interfere with comedy and the normal run of things as part of our way of life is absurd. The fact of the matter is that incitement to racial hatred has ended up with none of those problems. Incitement to religious hatred represents a change to the law that is long overdue. It makes the law fair. I hope that we can give sufficient assurances, as the Bill passes through the House of Commons, so that people realise that there is no intention to curb proper freedom of speech, but there is an intention to ensure that all parts of our community are treated fairly.

Photo of Mr Archie Norman Mr Archie Norman Conservative, Tunbridge Wells

Does the Prime Minister recall, prior to the 1997 election, making a pledge to do something about the anomaly of prescription charges for cystic fibrosis sufferers? Does he remember reiterating his support in the House both in 1999 and in 2001, and does he realise that many thousands of sufferers spend their entire lives struggling to live on expensive medicine? It was his words that gave them hope, and delivery is now a matter of trust.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I understand the suffering that people go through and the need for extra help for them. We are helping in different ways, through the extra investment going into the NHS. We must ensure that, whatever we do for one group of sufferers, we can justify in respect of other groups as well. That is the reason for the delay and hesitation, but we continue to keep the matter under review. I shall be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on this subject, but I assure him that we have put a lot more help into treating the sufferers of cystic fibrosis.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

The single regeneration budget money that has been invested in my constituency has allowed a flexibility in funding to meet the needs and aspirations of my local community. Sadly, however, many of the initiatives that have come from the local community face an uncertain future because SRB funding will come to an end in the next two years. Will my right hon. Friend investigate how we can provide some sustainability for those initiatives in the future?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The point that my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right, and it is why we are looking at ways of sustaining that investment. However, it is worth pointing out that the SRB and the money going into the regeneration of local communities are having a tremendous impact. That is exactly why the point that he raises is something that the Government are looking at. I hope that we can find ways of ensuring that we protect as far as possible the money that is going into local communities and doing such a fantastic job for them.