Engagements

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

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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 Wayne David Wayne David PPS (Rt Hon Adam Ingram, Minister of State), Ministry of Defence

In the Prime Minister's busy schedule, has he had a chance to see Monday's copy of The Western Mail? If so, he will have seen an excellent report of Wales's tremendous victory on the rugby field against Australia on Saturday, but he will also have seen a very good report about a boom time for the Welsh economy—some 120,000 jobs have been created in the Welsh economy since 1999. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that record is in sharp contrast to what the Conservative party did when they were in power?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have now had the opportunity to see the front page of The Western Mailthat is at least one front page that I welcome. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: unemployment in Wales has halved over the past eight years; employment is at record levels; more than 100,000 people have secured jobs through the new deal; and Wales has had the second fastest growth rate in the UK. That should please everyone in Welsh constituencies or of Welsh origin.

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

I know that retirement will be on both our minds today. When the Prime Minister's former chief economic adviser said last month that

"the Government has no long-term strategy on pensions" and that the Chancellor was leaving pensions policy in "a complete . . . shambles", does the Prime Minister think that he was referring to the £5 billion a year pension tax, the spread of means testing or the Chancellor's plan to sabotage Lord Turner's report, which at least tries to do something about the problems that the Chancellor has created?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what he can expect in retirement, thanks to this Government. There is the winter fuel payment—[Hon. Members: "Hooray!"] There is the council tax rebate—[Hon. Members: "Hooray!"] There is the reduced VAT on fuel—[Hon. Members: "Hooray!"] There are the restored free eye tests—[Hon. Members: "Hooray!"] Once he is over 75, there is a free television licence—[Hon. Members: "Hooray!"] An extra £11 billion spent on pensioners 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

It is such an enticing prospect that I expect that the Prime Minister will want to join me very shortly. Is not the problem that the only retirement for which the Chancellor is planning is the Prime Minister's? The truth is that under this Government more than 10,000 occupational pension schemes have collapsed and the amount of money people save has almost halved. Does not the Prime Minister see that there is a growing consensus that, in order to deal with this mess, we must ditch the Chancellor's obsession with means testing? That is our view and that of the pensioners' groups and the industry, and of Lord Turner. We also know that it is the view of the Prime Minister, because he once said:

"we can end means testing for pensioners once and for all."

Will the Prime Minister now, just for once, stand up to his Chancellor and, with our support, do what needs to be done to sort out one of the greatest challenges that the country faces?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will also have seen that Adair Turner made mention of the fact that, thanks to the pension credit and the minimum income guarantee, we have lifted nearly 2 million pensioners out of hardship and poverty. Of course, we need to secure pension provision for the long term and we will do that, but let us be in no doubt at all that it is the result of the Government, and the means that we have used to lift pensioners out of poverty, that has allowed us for the first time to go through winter periods with pensioners no longer forced to choose between the heating they need to stay alive and the standard of living that they want. We will take no lessons in pension provision from the party that was responsible for pension mis-selling, which left millions of pensioners in poverty in 1997.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for Merseytram line 1. However, given that yesterday the Secretary of State for Transport announced that the scheme was to be dropped by his Department, will my right hon. Friend have a sharp word with him about the extreme prejudice his Department has shown towards Merseytravel, the promoters of the scheme?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely understand the desire for the Merseytram scheme, and in December 2002 we committed somewhere in the region of £170 million to that scheme, but the trouble is, as my right hon. Friend knows, that the costs of the scheme have risen considerably. So we are perfectly willing and happy to make that contribution to travel on Merseyside, but it has to be done within an overall framework that is affordable.

M

I would like to ask ,why most of the tram projects IE, Leeds ,Blackpool,Liverpool, Manchester. have been scrapt.Surprise surprise Rt Hon Alister Darling,contisuance.tram sceam has been approved.!!

Submitted by Mary Spreadbury

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

Given that there is undoubtedly broad agreement with Lord Turner that the present system of means-tested, muddled and inadequate state pensions cannot be maintained, and if the Chancellor is not to exercise a veto on the direction in which Lord Turner wants to go, will the Prime Minister give the House a commitment today that he will legislate following Lord Turner's proposals and that he, as Prime Minister, will see the reforms through?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has already said, we will publish our response to the Turner proposals next year. I have no doubt at all that we will end up with a long-term framework for pensions that has as its basis a decent basic state pension and a much simplified way for people to save. However, I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman, as I said to the Leader of Opposition, that the fact is, as Lord Turner himself acknowledges, that without pension credit we could never have lifted pensioners out of poverty. Long term, we need the type of framework that I set out but it has to be affordable. I am aware that the Liberal Democrats do not always put that at the forefront of their concerns, but any party that wants to be in government must take it into account.

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

The Chancellor will be the person in the House most interested to hear that the Prime Minister did not give a commitment to see pension reform through while he was Prime Minister, in answer to my direct question. Can the Prime Minister at least give the House a commitment about another concern that we all share? Pension reform, as and when it comes, must once and for all end the scandalous inbuilt discrimination against women in the current operation of the benefit of the state pension system. Will the Prime Minister give us that commitment and make it a top priority?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Again, there is an issue about women who are not properly credited in and cannot get the full state pension. Of course, that is an issue; Lord Turner addresses it and we have to address it in response to his report. However, I have to say again to the right hon. Gentleman that whatever proposals any party comes up with have to be properly costed and affordable. For example, I have looked at the Lib Dems' pension policy and it is true that in terms of its commitments everyone would cheer, but when we come to how they would pay for it they say that they want to shift public spending priorities. I do not know what that means, so at least that is one thing we have in common.

Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick PPS (Rt Hon Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Since 1997 in Preston, the number of people claiming jobseeker's allowance has reduced to 1,400. Long-term unemployment is down by 81 per cent. and youth unemployment is down by 43 per cent. May I say to my right hon. Friend that Labour is working, so why should anyone bother voting for another party, even if it has a new leader?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is of course right that the numbers who are unemployed are down and the numbers who are employed are up. The most important thing—apart from the effect on people's livelihoods, living standards and prospects for success in life—is the fact that as a result of the reduction in unemployment and increases in employment, we are spending about £5 billion a year less on benefits. That is why part of the welfare reform that the Government have managed to put through is getting people off benefit and into work, and it is why the new deal should, of course, remain.

Photo of Julie Kirkbride Julie Kirkbride Conservative, Bromsgrove

May I remind the Prime Minister that in 1997 there were three acute hospitals in Worcestershire? His Government closed one in Kidderminster, and they are threatening the Alexandra hospital in Redditch, which he might remember visiting during the general election. In response, I am sure that the Prime Minister will tell me his usual mantra about the amount of money that the Government are putting into the NHS. However, is it not a simple fact that my constituents and many others are entitled to ask where all that money is going? Given that the maternity unit is being axed and the Alexandra's accident and emergency department is under threat, are we not entitled to ask where all the money is going and what the Prime Minister is going to do about it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me congratulate the hon. Lady on her powers of prediction, because I am indeed going to say that the three primary care trusts in her area have been allocated a total of £509 million, which is a cash increase of almost 10 per cent. Over the past few years, we have of course reduced waiting lists and waiting times, and we have better cancer and cardiac care. However, whatever Government are in power and however much money they give to the national health service, there still must be proper financial accountability. We are working with her local NHS trust to try to ensure that it puts in place the measures necessary to reduce its deficit. The deficits that the NHS is carrying are not in every single trust in the country. They are specifically in some trusts, so we have to ensure that those trusts come back into balance.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Mayor of London on achieving record levels of police in London, with some 4,000 more officers than when the Leader of the Opposition was Home Secretary? Will my right hon. Friend work with the Mayor of London to ensure that the roll-out of safer neighbourhoods teams is completed on time—by April 2007?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is important that we continue this year and next year to roll out the local community policing teams. The combination of warranted police officers and community support officers is enormously popular in London and elsewhere. As a result of that, we have been managing to get crime down, but there is still a great deal more that we have to do, including, as my hon. Friend says, rolling out the neighbourhoods policing teams, and also ensuring that we introduce the new measures on both organised crime and antisocial behaviour.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I agree with the hon. Lady. We will wait and see what happens next week.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

The Prime Minister will be aware that this afternoon the Shields family will be delivering a major petition to No. 10 Downing street. The petition calls for justice for 19-year-old Michael Shields, who is serving a 15-year sentence in a Bulgarian jail for a crime to which another man has confessed. Will the Prime Minister impress upon the Bulgarian authorities the seriousness of the situation and the determination of those supporting Michael Shields to see justice? Will he agree to meet the Shields family at an appropriate time?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised the issue with both with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary of Bulgaria, and has done so in the proper way, as this is subject to an appeal that Mr. Shields has lodged. I understand entirely the concerns of the Shields family and the consular staff are doing all that they can to assist them and the legal team to prepare for the final appeal, and they will continue to do so. At the present juncture in time, that is all that I can reasonably say.

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

Returning to the issue of retirement, everyone knows that this is my last appearance at the Dispatch Box. What they want to know is how many more appearances the Prime Minister will make at the Dispatch Box. Will he confirm that it is still his intention to serve a full third term?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I repeat all the things that I said before the election and, indeed, subsequently. May I say, however, that as the right hon. and learned Gentleman is taking his leave of us today, we wish him well?

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

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his good wishes, but they will not deflect anyone's attention from the fact that he refused to confirm whether he is going to serve a full term. Why is he being so coy? Surely, this is something that we are entitled to know. Everyone knows that I am going next week, and they want to know when he is going. Why will he not tell us? Is his coyness due to the fact that he has been listening to his Environment Secretary, who said at the weekend that he should give his successor a decent

"chance to settle in and make [his] own mark."

A simple yes or no will do: will he serve a full term?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have answered that before, and I answer it again in the same way now. I entirely understand why the right hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to see my retirement, but he is the fourth Conservative leader I have faced. Next week, I shall face the fifth, but I must say one more thing to Opposition Members. If one looks at all the previous Conservative leaders I have faced, the first one was Conservative leader for six years; the second one for four years; the third one for two years, one month and 16 days; and the right hon. and learned Gentleman has lasted just two years and one month. I do not know whether that is a very good basis on which the next one should start.

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 ending exactly as he started two years and one month ago: by refusing to answer any of the questions that I have put to him. Everyone knows that retirement is a time for reflection. The Prime Minister said of his party:

"I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in. I have stripped them of their core beliefs . . . What keeps it together is . . . power."

When he said all that, did he realise that he would end up needing their votes?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what we have done in eight years of government. We have delivered the strongest economy in the G7. That is what politics is about, not the points that he is making—it is about delivering for the people of this country. We have record levels of employment. Youth unemployment is down, and ordinary unemployment is down. There is record investment in the national health service and education, and record numbers of police officers. How does that compare with his record? When he was Employment Secretary, unemployment rose by 1 million. When he was Home Secretary, the Conservatives cut police numbers by 1,000, and when he was leader of his party he lost the only election that he fought.

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

Two years ago, I held up a dossier called "Blair: His Past". Today I have one called "Blair: His Legacy", which shows that taxes have gone up; crime is up; MRSA up; truancy up; means-testing up; borrowing up; savings have gone down; productivity growth down; competitiveness down; manufacturing employment down; crime clear-up rates down; numbers of servicemen and women, down; and reform blocked. That is the Prime Minister's legacy, but I have just one last question. The Prime Minister once said:

"My project will be complete when the Labour party learns to love Peter Mandelson."

Can he give us a progress report on that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I may have to say, on that one, a lot done, a lot left to do. However, there is one simple test of whether one succeeds or fails in politics, and that is based on putting one's case to the British people. The British people elected the Labour party in 1997, they elected it again in 2001, they elected it again in 2005, and, given the current state of the Conservative party, I have no doubt that they will do so again when the next election comes.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

I have never called for my right hon. Friend's resignation. I hope he will never have cause to call for mine. I know that he wants to invest in the science base and see it grow, but recent short-term decisions by Government agencies in Newcastle concerning stem cells and health protection, and in Portsmouth concerning our involvement with commercial satellite research on a European level, have put vital parts of our science base at risk. Will my right hon. Friend arrange to meet hon. Friends and others who are concerned about this, to get important parts of our science base back on track?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, I am grateful for the opportunity to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues in order to discuss that. He is right in what he says. The important thing is that we have put extra investment in the science base—indeed, we have more than doubled it over the past few years. But my hon. Friend is right: we must make sure that co-operation takes place across Europe. We also have to make sure that the right relationship between business and science is established. That is where many of the knowledge jobs of the future will come from. I shall be happy to meet him and his hon. Friends in order to discuss the matter.

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening Vice-Chair (Youth), Conservative Party

When asked last week about means testing, the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions told me that socialism is the language of priorities. Is it a priority for the Government to penalise people who have worked hard all their lives and saved, when they get to retirement?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It would be right that my right hon. Friend should not entirely take that quotation as his own. I think it was Nye Bevan who said it first. I thank the hon. Lady for the opportunity to demonstrate my Labour credentials. It is just as well I was reminded by my right hon. Friend. The reason why the pension credit has been so important is that it has allowed us not just to lift pensioners out of poverty, but to reward their savings. That is one of the ways in which the pension credit works. Yes, of course there are real issues about the long-term pension framework in both the public sector and the private sector, but they must be dealt with in a framework that allows us to achieve the objectives that the Government want: to make sure that people get a decent standard of living in retirement, that we deal with pensioner poverty, as we have done successfully over the past few years, and that people have an easy and simplified vehicle to save and top up whatever the state can give them.

Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the West Yorkshire police force on the remarkable crime reduction figures that were published on Monday, and in particular the Calderdale division in my constituency, on the best crime reduction figures not only in the force, but in the whole of the UK?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am delighted to congratulate West Yorkshire police. That is part of the work being done by police forces right across the country, which has seen crime come down so significantly over the past few years. We now have record numbers of police and under this Government, as the latest British crime survey figures show once they are broken down, crime has fallen in every region of Britain.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Health)

Will the Prime Minister contrast his manifesto commitment to build more community hospitals with the fact that around the country about a hundred of them are faced with the axe, two of them in my constituency? Will he understand that my constituents are fed up with his rhetoric about spending more and more of their money, when all they see around them are things closing down?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The investment to create the new generation of community hospitals will go ahead, but in every single area people have to decide how they will best configure their own local health services. The hon. Gentleman says that all people can see is closures, but I will tell him what people see. They see, for example, in cancer and cardiac care, massive improvements since 1997. They see in new hospital buildings the importance of the capital investment that we have put in. When we came to office, many people had to wait over 18 months for their operation— sometimes over a year—in their tens of thousands. From the end of this month, there will be a six-month maximum wait; by the end of 2008, an 18-week maximum from the GPs' surgery right through to the operating theatre. These are the changes that are being made. But, of course, how the money is spent is best done at local level. For the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to say that nothing in the health service has improved over these past few years—[Interruption.] So a lot has improved; well at least we are agreed on that.

Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Labour, Blackpool South

My right hon. Friend has just returned from the Euromed summit in Barcelona. Does he agree that, despite the difficulties, we need to continue to support and encourage the Maghreb countries of north Africa, in particular, to implement the practical commitments and agreements reached at that summit, for the sake of our social cohesion, security and migration policies, as well as theirs?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is entirely right. One of the important things that came out of that conference was the agreement of the code of conduct on terrorism, which contained the sentence that terrorism can never be justified, and included some of the strongest language that we have ever managed to agree at Euromed on this issue. That is extremely important not just for the measures that are contained in that agreement, but in terms of the signal that it sends of the absolute determination of all of us to defeat the scourge of terrorism. Sitting round the table at Euromed, it was interesting that not merely European countries such as Spain and the UK have suffered from terrorism, but countries such as Egypt, Algeria and Jordan. That combined determination to defeat it was very evident.

Photo of Nick Clegg Nick Clegg Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing anger in Sheffield and throughout south Yorkshire among bus passengers at the way in which what are in effect private sector bus monopolies can chop and change bus routes and raise fares without any meaningful public consultation whatever? Will he undertake to look into the inexplicable difference in the way in which bus services here in London are regulated in the interests of passengers, and yet bus passengers elsewhere are left to the erratic whim of bus companies themselves?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do know that that is an issue that causes anger in many constituencies in Sheffield, because my hon. Friends tell me that it does, and it is something that we keep under review. I am afraid that I cannot say any more at this stage.

J

Well this isn't good enough. The fare increases in Sheffield is a scandal. One round was justified in terms of higher oil prices, when it...

Submitted by Joe Otten Continue reading

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the three-star primary care trust in Ellesmere Port and Neston has just had another way-above-inflation increase in its budget. It has succeeded in driving down coronary heart disease and has been amazingly successful. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, as PCTs are reorganised, communities such as mine that have pockets of significant disadvantage are not left out in the restructuring?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The point that my hon. Friend makes is entirely reasonable, and yes, we should ensure that that position is safeguarded during restructuring. What my hon. Friend draws attention to is the fact that the additional sums of money—in his case an increase in real terms of 5.8 per cent.—has meant that we can improve services for people and bring waiting times down, all within the NHS where there is more hospital building and more nurses, doctors and consultants, who, in addition, are better paid than ever before. That is why in nurse training, as in teacher training, more and more people are willing to come forward, despite high levels of employment, for those occupations. But he is absolutely right: we must ensure that in the change in the boundaries, we safeguard the interests of the poorest communities.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Prime Minister will be aware of the waste of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money in the Paddington health campus, which has failed. Will he then explain, as I am sure that he wishes to avoid any future waste of money, why no Health Minister was willing to give evidence to the independent inquiry?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have no doubt that we will get the right mix of services for the hon. Gentleman's constituency and others. He knows why the campus could not go ahead, but that should not detract from the fact that hundreds of millions of pounds of extra money is going into hospital building. The real-terms increase for the health authority in his area—[Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members do not want to hear about the increases in health spending, but they are going to. I do not know why a Minister did not go to the committee—[Interruption.]

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In my own way, I do not know why a Minister did not attend, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman and tell him why. There you go—that is one in two years. [Laughter.] The real-terms increase in health service spending in his area is more than 6 per cent., which means 3,800 more nurses, 500 more consultants and 30 more GPs. That is a very good reason why people in his constituency and elsewhere should vote Labour.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is widespread concern in north Wales about the suggestion that there should be an all-Wales police force? Will he make it clear that the excellent progress in neighbourhood policing in north Wales will not be threatened by any reorganisation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The issue is obviously important for my hon. Friend's constituents and others, and we will certainly make sure that whatever is done in north Wales best meets the needs of local policing.