Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 25th May 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale 11:30 am, 25th May 2005

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 May.

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. Here is something that perhaps I, Mr. Howard and the whole House can agree on: that we wish Liverpool the best of luck in tonight's Champions League final.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

What message does the Prime Minister think that his eve-of-poll flying visit to Scarborough gave to voters, who then sensibly elected my hon. Friend Mr. Goodwill? Was the Prime Minister not advised that his journey by helicopter would be seen in sharp contrast to the everyday misery for motorists of long delays and traffic jams on the A64, which was the biggest local issue in the election? When will his Government give the people of Ryedale and Scarborough a road fit for the 21st century?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I would remind the hon. Gentleman that as opposed to the 356 MPs that we have on this side of the House, he has 197 on his side. Secondly, whatever the answers to Britain's transport problems, cutting the transport budget, which was at least the policy of the Opposition before the election, is certainly not one of them.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

Last week, I attended an auction of promises organised by students at Biddenham school in Bedford to raise funds for the "hope house" orphanage at Bloemfontein, in South Africa. I was lucky enough to bid for the mystery prize, which later turned out to be a pen donated by the Prime Minister, with his name inscribed on it. It will obviously be a collector's item at some point in the future. [Interruption.] I thank my right hon. Friend for supporting that initiative and for making Africa a priority. May I ask that while we—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

I think that the hon. Gentleman is near the end of his question, so let him finish.

Photo of Patrick Hall Patrick Hall Labour, Bedford

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while we rightly condemn some young people for antisocial behaviour, we should not forget that there are thousands who do good work—like the people of Biddenham—because they care about this world?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. It is not just young people but the whole of this country who are committed to the changes that we want to make in favour of Africa. Such changes include not just increasing our aid—under this Government, aid to Africa has trebled—but making sure that we put together a proper and comprehensive plan for Africa that gives that continent, which is the only continent that has gone backwards, not forwards, over the last 30 years, some hope for the future. If we can get some support for our proposals, I believe that we will provide such hope.

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

I take particular pleasure in joining the Prime Minister in wishing Liverpool every bit of good luck tonight.

A teacher is assaulted every seven minutes in our schools, so the Prime Minister was quite right to say that school discipline would be a priority for his new term. Is not the obvious way to deal with that to give head teachers the final say over expulsions from their schools?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we have asked a head teacher to head up a panel of people who will report to us by, I think, December, and we will follow their recommendations very closely. We have an appeals committee because it was set up under the previous Government, and the reason for it is to try to avoid ending up instead with needless court cases. Only a very small percentage of pupils excluded from school—such exclusions are actually down somewhat over the past few years—go back into that school following agreement reached on appeal. But, I think it important that we look not just at school exclusions and appeals, but at the whole range of measures that are necessary to give teachers and head teachers the clear understanding that they should be in charge of the class.

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 knows that appeals panels do not offer immunity from legal challenge, and he also knows how much anguish appeals can cause—every time he tries to sack a Minister, they appeal to the Chancellor, who promptly reinstates them. [Laughter.] In 20 per cent. of appeals, the head teacher is overruled. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Education Secretary got it completely wrong when she said on the "Today" programme on 20 May that that figure was "a printing error"?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There are two different figures: the percentage of pupils who, having been excluded, are let back into school is 2 per cent., and the percentage who succeed on appeal is 20 per cent. The previous Government introduced an appeals system because schools, quite apart from local education authorities, were worried about law cases involving them or local education authorities. Every single aspect of the issue will be examined by the panel appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and we will study its recommendations carefully.

I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition agrees with me about the importance of parents backing up teachers when teachers discipline their children. When we were growing up, if children got told off at school, then they were likely to get told off at home, and it is time that we returned to that.

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

I agree with that, but the problem is that the Prime Minister has been talking about the issue for years. His 1997 manifesto said:

"Teachers will be entitled to positive support . . . to promote . . . sound discipline."

His 2001 manifesto said something almost identical to that. Were they printing errors too?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No. In fairness, the previous Government introduced the concept of appeals. We have changed the nature of appeals, so that head teachers now sit on the panel, which means that there is a far greater chance that the decision of a head teacher who excludes a pupil will be upheld. We have, if anything, tightened the system, but, as I have said, we are prepared to take a further look at the matter.

We must tackle other issues in addition to excluded pupils. This Government have doubled the number of places in pupil referral units for pupils who have been permanently excluded. We must also examine what happens to pupils who are temporarily excluded, because they do not get proper teaching outside the classroom at the moment. We must examine the idea of establishing units within schools where pupils who misbehave are sent. We must look at a range of issues rather than just examining appeals, which we will look at, too.

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 had eight years to look at those things. People do not want him to spend more time looking at those things—they want action.

Let us turn to another of the Prime Minister's priorities for his new term—tackling antisocial behaviour. Last week, the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety said that offenders on community service should be "identified". The Leader of the House then claimed that she was just "thinking aloud". However, the Home Secretary promptly backed her up, saying that putting offenders in orange uniforms is

"not only a goer. It's happening now . . . in many parts of the country."

So what is the policy? Is it a goer or not?

Hon. Members:

You are!

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is most unkind.

Schemes already exist to identify people who have committed offences or antisocial behaviour, but, again, that policy is part of a far bigger picture. The same is true of schools, on which it is worth pointing out that school discipline is an issue, but it is not the only issue. Investment in schools and increasing numbers of teachers and classroom assistants are also important issues, and we have been tackling them over the past eight years. On antisocial behaviour, when we introduce fresh legislation in addition to our previous legislation, which has had a real impact on antisocial behaviour in communities, I hope that we will get the Conservative party's wholehearted support in this House and in the other place.

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

If that legislation is sensible, of course we will support it. But I asked the Prime Minister a specific question: is the idea of offenders in orange uniforms Government policy or not? The Home Secretary said that he visited a scheme

"where people on community service wearing uniform were doing the whole place up", but the person responsible for the scheme said that they were just wearing disposable blue uniforms bought at a local DIY store to protect their clothes from paint. The Prime Minister's official spokesman described all this as

"part of a continuum of ministerial thinking"— just like marching yobs to cashpoints, docking housing benefit from problem families and giving record tokens to youngsters to encourage them to behave. Is it not a pity that when there is recognition on both sides of the House that antisocial behaviour is a serious problem—[Interruption.]

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

All we get, apart from antisocial behaviour in this House, is Government by gimmick, knee-jerk policies for long-term problems, and Ministers who just make it up as they go along.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, on antisocial behaviour and fixed penalty notices, let me remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that in the region of 90,000 fixed penalty notices, nearly 4,000 antisocial behaviour orders, almost 9,000 curfew orders, almost 200 crack house closure orders and almost 500 dispersal orders have been issued. Antisocial behaviour legislation, which has been applied by record numbers of police, is working because we have increased the numbers of police. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will remember that when he was Home Secretary he actually cut the numbers of police.

As for crime overall, let me quote from the Association of Chief Police Officers:

"The British Crime Survey shows that crime has reduced over the last ten years and that violent crime has remained stable . . . We feel it is important that all crime statistics, which forces publish regularly, should be put into context and communicated in a responsible way to the public".

That was a from press release entitled, "The Conservative Party Local Press Adverts on Violent Crime". If it comes to a discussion on crime, I prefer the words of ACPO to those of the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Yes, crime is a major issue. We continue to deal with it, and we will bring forward fresh legislation. I repeat that I hope that all parties in this House—including, incidentally, the Liberal Democrats—and in the other place realise that the public want extra numbers of police, they want community support officers, and they want antisocial behaviour legislation. Under this Government they will get it, and they should also get the full support of both Houses of Parliament.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

What can my right hon. Friend do to help people like Gavin Fisher, a young man from Mitcham whose identity has been stolen? On more than one occasion his parents have been sent frantic by calls from the police to say that he has been arrested, only to go to the police station to find that it is not him. He receives threatening letters and court summonses from train companies on whose trains he has never travelled; Thameslink says that there is nothing that it can do. How can my right hon. Friend help my constituent and his desperate parents?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will be introducing some measure of help later today. It is important to emphasise that the abuse of identity costs this country billions of pounds a year. We have the new biometric technology. We have, in any event, to move to new biometric passports as a result of other changes happening around the world. This is an important moment where we decide that we will legislate so that we can enable identity cards to be taken forward. I look forward to the support of my hon. Friend on that issue, and perhaps even the support of Mr. Howard, who used to be, at any rate, a great advocate of identity cards.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Does the Prime Minister agree with Adair Turner, who described the Government's current pensions system as "a complete muddle" and went on to say that the current reliance on means-testing is "not sustainable"? Does that not, coming from him, demonstrate the need for genuine urgency to sort out the mess?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is not what Adair Turner says in his interim report, but the very reason we set up the commission was to try to deal with the long-term pensions issues, and it is important that we do that. If, when the right hon. Gentleman refers to means-tested benefits, he means the pension credit, let me point out to him that about 2 million pensioners in this country have been lifted out of acute hardship. They could not have been lifted out of that poverty but for the pension credit.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats

If the Prime Minister and the Government are serious—I believe that they are—about trying to establish an all-party consensus on long-term pensions reform, surely he will acknowledge that there first needs to be consensus in the Government on means-testing. Last weekend, the Chancellor implied that pensions reform could be postponed into the next Parliament. Does the Prime Minister intend to have a pensions consensus established while he is still in tenure?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We shall do our best to establish a consensus on the subject, but it must be on the basis of making difficult decisions—not something that the Liberal Democrats are famed for—to ensure that whatever system we introduce is fair and can be paid for. The reason why, over the past few years, we have tried to give more money to the poorest pensioners is that, when we came to office, many pensioners faced a choice each winter literally between the money that they needed to heat their flat or home and the money that they needed in order to eat. A lot of that problem—not all of it—has been mitigated by the pension credit. Of course long-term factors have to be carefully considered, but I am proud of this Government's record on pensioners, and particularly proud that we focused first on those who are the poorest in our society.

Photo of Doug Henderson Doug Henderson Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne North

My right hon. Friend will know that we are about to enter the last lap of the long and somewhat tortuous decision-making process to decide the host city for the 2012 Olympics. He will also be aware that the worlds of politics and sport deny that the Government of any country should have a telling influence on the process, but he will recognise that that is not always the reality. Will he indicate to the House what the Government intend to do over the next six weeks to back the London bid?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I said when I addressed an event to commemorate the centenary of the British Olympic Association the other day, we will give the bid every support. We have already been doing that and, as a result of work across Government, the London 2012 bid is probably the best bid—certainly the best technical bid—in the field. That is a result not only of the excellent work done by Lord Coe and his team, but of the work done across Government. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to push that as much as we possibly can. The whole country is behind the bid—I know that all political parties are—and I think that the British public are enthusiastic about the prospect of the Olympic games being hosted in London.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

A 1999 EU directive designates pet cemeteries as landfill, and that includes Pets at Rest on the Isle of Wight, where only four or five animals are buried a year. That offensive classification incurs an inspection fee of £2,600, which will put Pets at Rest out of business. The Labour party's manifesto promised to bear down on European regulation. Why did the Government introduce the regulation in the first place and what will the Prime Minister do to keep Pets at Rest in business?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The answer is, I do not know. I will have to get back to the hon. Gentleman on that.