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Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 2nd March 2005.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford 11:30 am, 2nd March 2005

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 2nd March.

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 will have further such meetings later today.

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

The greatest assets this country has are the skills and talents of its people, but many women are excluded from using their abilities in work because of the difficulties of combining a job with having children. How will the Government help to overcome those obstacles?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am delighted that my hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to say that when we came to office maternity pay was just over £50 a week. We have doubled it, and we have increased maternity leave from 14 weeks to 26 weeks. We want to increase that to nine months from April 2007. We have introduced paid paternity leave, and we are also now offering wrap-around child care between the hours of 8 in the morning and 6 at night for children aged three to 14. Under those measures, we will go from a country with some of the worst provision in Europe to one with some of the best. That is a record of which we can be proud.

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

Margaret Dixon is a 69-year-old pensioner who lives just outside Warrington. She is in constant pain and desperately needs an operation. Because she has a weak heart, she has been told that her chance of surviving that operation is less than 50:50. On seven separate occasions, she has been given a date for the operation, been prepared for it and said goodbye to her family in case she did not survive. On each of those seven occasions, her operation has been cancelled. She has praised the doctors and the nurses; but can the Prime Minister explain how, after eight years of his Government, all the money they have spent on the NHS and all the promises they have made, that can happen in Britain today?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have to look into the details of the particular case the right hon. and learned Gentleman mentions. It is true that, literally seven or eight minutes before Prime Minister's questions, he faxed me some of the letters about this case, but obviously I have not had the opportunity to look into it. If it is as described, it is completely unacceptable, but I do not know the details of it. Frankly, probably neither does he at the moment. However, I think that it is wrong to take a case which, if true, is unacceptable, and to try to make what I believe to be an exception into a rule for the national health service.

The fact is that the vast majority of people treated by the NHS—a million every 36 hours—are treated extremely well. Let me remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that when he was a Cabinet Minister waiting lists went up by 400,000. They have fallen by more than 300,000 under this Government.

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

Mrs. Dixon's is not an isolated case. Last year, 67,000 people had their operations cancelled—an increase of 10,000 compared with five years ago. On five of the seven occasions when Mrs. Dixon's operations were cancelled she was actually in hospital being prepared for the operation. Will the Prime Minister tell us why he thinks so many operations like Mrs. Dixon's are cancelled in that appalling way, causing such trauma not just to the patients and their families, but to the doctors and nurses who are involved as well?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course it is unacceptable if an operation is cancelled, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman failed to point out that the number of operations that are cancelled is a very small proportion of the overall number of operations. There are millions of people who have operations in the national health service every year and are extremely well treated.

Let us be quite clear what the right hon. and learned Gentleman and his party are trying to do: they are trying to use an individual case to undermine the basic principles of the national health service. Let me make one thing quite clear: he and his party opposed every penny of the extra investment that can be seen in extra nurses, extra wards and new hospitals, and in the fact that cancer deaths are down by more than 30,000 under this Government and cardiac deaths are down 25,000 a year.

Yes, there are problems in our national health service—there are in all health care systems—but any reasonable person looking at our health care system today would see exactly where the money is going and why it is so wrong for the Conservatives to oppose that.

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 talks about the fall in the number of deaths from cancer and heart disease. That is of course very welcome, but the OECD has said that that is part of a long-term trend that started long before the Government came to power and it has not got better under Labour. Nothing that the Prime Minister has said explains why the number of cancelled operations has increased.

In the case of the hospital where Mrs. Dixon hopes to be treated, the number of high dependency and intensive care beds has fallen under this Government. No one denies that more money has been spent on the national health service, but it has not reached the front line. Is it not the case that there are more bureaucrats than GPs in primary care trusts; that the number of managers in the NHS is increasing three times as fast as the number of doctors and nurses; and that average waiting times have gone up in the past four years? Is it not the case that Mrs. Dixon and the 67,000 patients who have had their operations cancelled represent the real world and the real NHS, and that the Prime Minister is living in an entirely different universe?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the reason why, for example, the number of cardiac deaths is falling is, to a large degree, the investment made by the Government—opposed by him and his party. Secondly, of course there are cases—exceptional cases, I believe—in which operations are cancelled or patients are not well treated. It is a calumny on the national health service to say that that is the rule. The rule is that people are treated excellently in our national health service.

When the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that more bureaucrats than nurses and doctors are appointed, that is completely false. There have been about 70,000 to 80,000 extra nurses and more than 10,000 extra doctors appointed; there are people working in our national health service today who would not be working there but for the extra investment that we have put in.

What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal? That is what he does not tell people. It is to take £1 billion out of the national health service and spend it on his voucher scheme, which would give people who go private half the cost of their operation.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Only if they could afford the other half. Do these Tories never learn? Let the hon. Gentleman tell us how an old-age pensioner, living on their pension, will afford a hip operation. They have never changed and they never will change, which is why they should never get back in charge of our health service.

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 having any of that simulated anger from Labour Members. Does not the Prime Minister know that the number of people without any medical insurance who have to pay out of their own pockets all the cost of going private because they cannot get the treatment that they want under the national health service has tripled, to 250,000 a year under this Government? That is the reality of the national health service under this Government. We will increase investment and improve the service so that we have a health service of which we can be truly proud.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

May I say how delighted I will be if we spend the next few months arguing about the national health service and which party would be best left in charge of it? When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a member of the previous Government, waiting lists indeed rose by 400,000. People were waiting more than 18 months for their operations. We had hospital buildings that were virtually falling to bits and cuts in the number of beds. He mentioned high-dependency beds, but we have increased the number of those beds.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Although I am only going on the letter that I received literally minutes before I got in the Chamber, I thought that the chief executive of the hospital had explained to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it had been given £3 million for extra high dependency beds next year. I agree that it would be better if that came quicker and if we were able to make faster progress, but I will never agree with introducing charges to the national health service.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes—those vouchers will go to anyone who is able to afford half the cost of their private operation. Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman come to the Dispatch Box to explain how people would pay for the other half if they did not have the money.

Hon. Members:

More!

Photo of Mr Gerry Steinberg Mr Gerry Steinberg Labour, City of Durham

Is the Prime Minister aware that this is a desperate day for Durham, my constituents, perhaps many of his constituents, and also for me, because I could be asking my last Prime Minister's question on this sad note? Is he aware that LG Phillips today announced the closure of its Durham factory, which has made cathode tubes for televisions for more than 30 years in my constituency? It was announced this morning that 800 people will be made redundant, even though Phillips knew for the past seven years that cathode televisions were becoming obsolete in favour of flat-screen televisions. Does the Prime Minister agree that Phillips, in acting like an ostrich, has let down its loyal work force by failing to invest in new technology? Will he ensure that everything possible is done to alleviate this absolutely desperate situation and to assist the hundreds of workers who will be made redundant in July?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am obviously aware of the situation. The reason why it is happening is the switch to flat-screen televisions. If my hon. Friend would like, he and I can meet to discuss how best to make progress. I assure him, however, that we will do whatever we can to put in place an emergency operation for the workers who might be made redundant so that we can work with them to provide additional jobs. I am happy to say that unemployment in County Durham is at a 30 or 40-year low, so other jobs are around. However, those people, especially skilled workers, will find things difficult, so we will do absolutely everything that we can to help them.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Would the Prime Minister acknowledge that if we are seriously to tackle the ongoing discrimination against women in the operation of our pensions system, the best way of doing so would be to establish their automatic entitlement to pensions based on residence, not national insurance contributions? Many women lose out because they have to take time out of the labour market to bring up children or care for elderly people as well.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said, there is a case for that. On the other hand, we must make sure that we can afford it, as the bill will run to several billion pounds.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Yes, we can certainly do it. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that all the indications show that it is the oldest pensioners who tend to be the poorest pensioners? Given women's longevity, clearly two thirds of the poorest pensioners are women. Why does he not see the merit of frontloading the system for people aged 75 so that they receive an extra £25 a week or £100 a month, which would tackle that inequality much more effectively than at present? That is what we are arguing—why will he not argue it as well?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As a result of the additional sums of money that we have put into helping pensioners, nearly 2 million pensioners who used to live in acute hardship no longer do so. For example, the poorest pensioners in 1997 were expected to live on only £70 a week. The pension credit guarantees at least £110 a week for single pensioners and £167 for couples. It is also correct that we introduced the winter fuel payment and free TV licences for over-75s, so we have done a lot.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am about to do so, thank you very much. If we were to do what Mr. Kennedy suggested, we would have to explain where we got the money from. His proposal, as I understand it, is to take that money from top-rate taxpayers by raising their rate to 50 per cent—[Interruption.] Where is it from then?

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

There would be £5 billion of annual public expenditure savings.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that I will come back to the right hon. Gentleman on that, as it sounds a little too simple and glib. If we are going to make promises to pensioners—and we have provided an awful lot more for pensioners—we have an obligation to explain responsibly where that money will come from; otherwise he, like the Opposition, is making promises that he cannot possibly keep.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

My constituency of Birmingham, Northfield will receive over £1 million of neighbourhood renewal funding in the coming year, all but £75,000 of which will come from the central Government-funded neighbourhood renewal fund. The money will have a significant impact in cutting crime, expanding youth facilities and improving the environment so that strong communities can be safe communities. Can I put it to my right hon. Friend that it is vital in the years to come that that level of funding be sustained? Could he tell me what the impact would be if there were a £35 billion cut in public—

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I can assure my hon. Friend that it is important to keep the regeneration money going, because it is doing good in many communities, including his own. I have seen for myself in different parts of the country how local communities, including some of the poorest and most deprived, have been able, through Sure Start programmes, housing regeneration and employment schemes, to make a better life for the people in those areas. It is vital that we keep the money going. My hon. Friend is right that we have increased the number of police officers in the west midlands and elsewhere, which is why it is important that the investment be kept there. I can assure him on behalf of the Government that we will never ever agree to the cuts proposed by the Opposition.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

As the Prime Minister may know, today is my 40th birthday and yesterday was St. David's day, but neither of them is a public holiday yet. Would he therefore be willing to meet a cross-party delegation to discuss the case for making at least one of them a national holiday for Wales in future?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his 40th birthday. [Interruption.] I would commiserate if he were 50, but he can still be congratulated on his 40th. In respect of St. David's day, I hate to be a spoilsport, but there are strong arguments for public holidays for many things. [Interruption.] Those arguments are made on behalf of many other parts of the country. However, before we could do such a thing we would have to have extensive consultation, not least with business. I am afraid that unless I could be sure that it would not damage the economy in Wales and elsewhere I could not agree to such a holiday. I wish that I could give Lembit Öpik a better birthday present, but probably the best thing we can do for his 40th birthday is continue with a Labour Government.

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Labour, Falkirk East

Is the Prime Minister impressed by the fact that the Post Office, which was rescued from privatisation by the election of a Labour Government, is on target to make a £400 million surplus, thanks to the hard work of its work force and the sacrifices they have made? Can the Prime Minister give a commitment that the Labour Government will go into the general election pledged to carry out the Labour party's Warwick agreement, that we will have a fully publicly owned Post Office in good health, and that we will review the work of the regulator to ensure that the Post Office can deliver the universal service obligation to deliver letters to all our 55 million constituents?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am, of course, committed to the Warwick agreement. The employees of the Royal Mail do an excellent job, often in very difficult circumstances. I think my hon. Friend will acknowledge that the change programme going through the Royal Mail is necessary because of the competitive pressures to which it will be subject. The employees of the Royal Mail do a good job and are a national asset, and I certainly would not want to see them wasted.

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 Prime Minister said that further debate would not improve the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. On Monday it did. The Home Secretary conceded that decisions on house arrest would be made by a judge. We welcome that, and we hope that debate in the House of Lords will improve the Bill further. We have now put forward the additional safeguard of a sunset clause, over and above the other improvements that we seek, to ensure that Parliament has the time to consider these issues properly before any permanent legislation is put in place. Does the Prime Minister support that proposal?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I do not support it. Let me explain to the right hon. and learned Gentleman why. Let me also try and explain why we have to legislate now. The present law, as he knows, is that people can be detained in prison without trial. There was the House of Lords judgment a short time ago, which effectively said that that was incompatible with human rights and that the legislation should not be in place.

On 14 March the renewal of that legislation comes up. That is why we must act now. It is not that we are rushing the Bill through without due cause. It is because on 14 March we will be faced with a situation where we have no legislation in place, or we have to put back in place detention without trial, in defiance of the House of Lords judgment.

There are two sorts of orders that we are introducing. One is a control order, which effectively means that someone could be detained up to 24 hours in their own home. That is what is called a derogating control order, because it means there would be a derogation from our human rights obligations. I point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that that will effectively be subject to a sunset clause, because if we introduce it, and we will introduce it only if there is another vote of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, my understanding is that it becomes annually reviewable and renewable. In other words, that part of the Bill is already subject to a sunset clause.

Non-derogating orders are measures short of something that requires us to derogate from human rights legislation, such as access to certain people being restricted, or certain areas being restricted, or restrictions on mobile phone or internet use. The police and security services tell us they need these powers in order to be able to deal with the terrorist threat that we face. Those are, as I understand it again, to be subject to an appeal to a court within 14 days. There will also be a three-monthly report on the use of those powers by an eminent and independent person. I think those are sufficient safeguards for the civil liberties of the subject, and I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to reconsider his position on the matter and to allow us to present these proposals in a unified way.

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

It would, indeed, be highly desirable if we could arrive at a consensus on these issues. That is why we have put forward a number of proposals, of which the sunset clause is only the latest. The Prime Minister must be aware that there is concern in all parts of the House, which is why more than 60 Labour Members of Parliament voted with me on Monday night. Would it not be far better if the whole of the legislation were made subject to a sunset clause provision, so that Parliament had the opportunity to consider it all in a proper way, instead of its being rushed through the House and ramrodded through, as is currently happening?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have already explained the position in respect of derogating control orders, which will effectively be subject to a sunset clause because they have to be renewed each year. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks whether it would not be better if the other powers were subject to debate. There will, of course, be the continual reports by the independent person charged with assessing the way these control orders are used, and they can and will be debated by the House.

Since 11 September, more than 700 people have been arrested for various terrorist offences. That is a significant number of people, some of whom—I am not saying all of them, by any means—would, if they could, engage in serious terrorist activity that would cause severe loss of life in this country. The police and the security services tell us that they want these powers. It would frankly be bizarre if I took up the right hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion not to have these powers but instead to re-legislate detention without trial in prison. That would be a very odd thing to do. We have the powers. They were recommended by the Newton committee and by the police and security services, and I do not believe that they are an affront to civil liberties. On the contrary, I believe that they are a proper balance between the civil liberties of the subject and the necessary national security of this country, which I will not put at risk.

Photo of Helen Southworth Helen Southworth PPS (Rt Hon Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary), HM Treasury

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Warrington hospital continues to receive investment, such as the £6 million for the accident and emergency unit, which is now in operation, and the £3 million for intensive care facilities, which has been agreed, so that my constituents continue to get a quality health service, free at the point of need?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The investment that is going into my hon. Friend's constituency is going into constituencies up and down the country, and that is why it is so wrong and unfair for Conservative Members to try to denigrate what is happening in our health service today. Indeed, the recent reports on accident and emergency treatment and on care for cancer patients show just how much progress has been made. None of that is to say that things do not go wrong in our health service. Of course they do; that is part of any health care system in the world. But we can be proud of the fact that our NHS is on the way back.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

Last week, the Government introduced a new licensing regime for all sports and community clubs across the country. Commenting on the new fees involved, the chairman of the Central Council of Physical Recreation said that

"the effect is likely to drive sports clubs out of business. It is completely unacceptable to devastate the British sporting landscape so that the Government can appear tough on crime."

Given that the Government made a number of commitments to the contrary during the passage of the legislation, why have they said one thing and done another?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am afraid that I will have to look into the particular point that the hon. Gentleman makes, because I doubt very much that our intention is to devastate sports clubs or sporting facilities throughout the country. I might point out that this Government are putting more money into our sports facilities, with specialist sports schools, and encouraging people to take up sport. I do not quite understand the link with crime, but I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman on the matter, as I suspect that the facts may be rather different from those that he has given.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Since Labour brought in the minimum wage against fierce opposition from the economic wizards on the Opposition Front Benches who claimed that it would cost jobs, the number of people employed in my constituency has increased by 10,000. I am pleased that the Labour Government continue to increase the minimum wage by more than inflation, but there are still some people—home workers, cockle pickers and other exploited and sweated workers—who do not get the minimum wage. Will the Government organise a major campaign to tell people about their rights at work and how to claim them?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We certainly will do that. It is important that we ensure that people are aware of their rights under the minimum wage legislation. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that literally hundreds of thousands of people have benefited from the introduction of the minimum wage. The uprating is extremely welcome. It shows that we can combine a strong high-employment economy with social justice and fairness. I think that it was somebody sitting not too far away from me who described the minimum wage as "extreme, dangerous and absurd," and said that it would cost 2 million jobs. We introduced the minimum wage and we got 2 million extra jobs.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Shadow Economic Secretary (Treasury)

In several parts of my constituency of Rayleigh, NHS dentistry has effectively ceased to exist. Several years ago, the Prime Minister promised that everyone would have access to an NHS dentist. Is that not another example of why we can no longer believe a word that he says?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman should know, we are introducing more dentists to the country and significantly increasing training places for dentists. If he were to talk to dentists in his constituency, they would point out to him that the previous Government introduced the disastrous contract for dentists and cut training places. Perhaps he should point out to them that when this House voted on extra money for NHS dentistry, he and his party voted against it.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

Last Monday, yet another safer neighbourhood team was set up in Edgware in my constituency, and it will soon be followed by teams in west Hendon and Hendon central. It will build on the success of the teams in Colindale and Burnt Oak, where the police have reduced antisocial crime by one third. Is it not a good example of how we are making great efforts to increase police numbers in my constituency and throughout London?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

What is happening in my hon. Friend's constituency is also happening in many London constituencies and elsewhere. We have record numbers of police, who are being supplemented by community support officers. However, many communities still need a neighbourhood policing team, which is why it is important that we continue to expand the numbers of CSOs and police officers, who can use the new legislation to police our local communities more effectively. We will continue to increase the Home Office budget, but the Conservative party has pledged to freeze it, which would cut the numbers of police and CSOs.