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International Development

Volume 294: debated on Wednesday 21 May 1997

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Great Lakes Region

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what further assistance her Department plans to provide in the Great Lakes region of Africa; and if she will make a statement. [310]

I should explain that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), is at a meeting of the Caribbean development bank, so I am here on my own today.

Since 1993, the United Kingdom has committed £178 million—bilaterally and through the European Union—to help the people of the Great Lakes region to survive. The population desperately need peace and security to rebuild their lives. We hope to work constructively with Mr. Kabila's new Administration, with other Governments in the region and with international partners to try to secure stability and sustained economic and social development in the region.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. May I be the first formally to congratulate her on her richly deserved appointment? Does my right hon. Friend welcome, as I do, the establishment of a new Government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? What plans does she have to assist that Government to establish democracy and rebuild the economy? What plans does she have to assist the Government of Rwanda to ensure that there are speedy and fair trials of those accused of genocide?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his generous remarks.

The fall of the Mobutu regime in the Congo—as it now is again—is a fantastically important opportunity for Africa and for the long-suffering people of Zaire. An Administration in Kinshasa committed to respect for human rights and national consensus in transition to representative and elected government will be an enormously important step forward for the region.

Tomorrow I shall discuss with Vice-President Kagame of Rwanda the way in which we can work together to secure that aim, and next week I shall meet ex-President Nyerere. We all want to work with the new Government, and if they will respect human rights, we will work together with the whole international community to bring economic and social development to that very important part of Africa.

It is also important that the Rwandan refugees return home, that there should be proper trials for those accused of genocide and that human rights are protected so that the people of Rwanda can also look forward to social development in a more stable and peaceful future. Again, we shall do everything in our power to work in partnership with the Government of Rwanda to achieve that aim, constantly stressing to them that respect for human rights is crucial to further progress for their country.

Third-World Debt

2.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what recent discussions she has had regarding the reduction of third-world debt; and if she will make a statement. [311]

I had an encouraging meeting with the president of the World bank last week. The Government strongly support the heavily indebted poor countries initiative and are pressing for its speedy implementation. Our aim is to produce tangible results quickly for the most needy countries and to bring about a once and for all exit from their debt problems.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to one of the best jobs in the Government and I am sure that she will do it well. Has she given consideration to persuading her colleagues at the Treasury unilaterally to remit some of the debt owed to the Export Credits Guarantee Department by some of the most indebted countries, and will she make any relaxation of indebtedness conditional upon respect for human rights?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. To be fair, the previous Administration worked hard in their later years to achieve success on debt cancellation. Britain's record on cancelling debt owed bilaterally is very good, but we cannot make further progress without getting partnerships across the international community. It is important that we get momentum behind the initiative and start to make progress.

Uganda has been named as the first candidate to exit from debt, and Britain has volunteered to make an extra payment to make up for the fact that the African development bank is not in a position to make its payment. The previous Administration made that clear, and we are standing by that commitment. We hope that other Governments will work similarly. Once we get progress and success, I believe that the initiative can be built upon and that we can begin to give some of the neediest countries in the world the chance to work their way out of poverty.

I, too, offer my congratulations to the right hon. Lady. She has a warm heart and an independent spirit. I suspect that she will need both qualities, not least in dealing with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Does she agree that it is disappointing that only Uganda has entered the framework set down for the highly indebted poor countries by the International Monetary Fund and the World bank last year, and that Uganda will be eligible for debt relief only in 1998? What practical steps can be taken to maintain the momentum to which the right hon. Lady referred? Is she satisfied that the criteria laid down in the heavily indebted poor countries initiative are wide enough to allow the most rapid entry of as many countries as possible into its framework?

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his kind remarks. He is right that we should like more rapid progress, but we have to take partner countries with us. Not all countries are as persuaded of the need to make progress as Britain is. Uganda has been named, and there is preliminary agreement on the eligibility of three other countries—Bolivia, Burkina Faso and Cite d'Ivoire.

I have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is anxious to show what a warm heart he has on this matter, and we shall do everything in our power to ensure that rapid progress is made. Any support, suggestions or help from any part of the House on ways in which we can achieve that outcome will be welcome.

I, too, unreservedly welcome the right hon. Lady to her post. We should pay tribute to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer for their work on debt reduction. I was pleased to hear the right hon. Lady's fine words on the heavily indebted poor countries initiative and to know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a warm heart on the matter. However, a warm heart will not reduce debt. How much do the Government intend to make available for the initiative? They said that they would make money available when they were in opposition.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks. I have already paid unreserved tribute to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Uganda is first and Britain is committed to making additional payments because the African development bank is not in a position to pay its share. We cannot say exactly what the amount will be until the calculations are made, but Britain is in advance of other countries. We are determined to make progress on Uganda and very keen for our partners to make the same sort of commitments. We shall do all in our power to make fast progress.

It is in the interests of justice, and of the whole world, that we should deal with the desperate poverty entrenched by debt. In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 per cent. of people live in poverty. We shall make no progress until we deal with debt.

Kenya

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement on aid projects that the United Kingdom is currently funding in Kenya. [312]

Within the context of the overall policy review that I am conducting, I intend to concentrate our aid programme on improving the access of the poor to essential health services and basic education, and on finding ways to increase the incomes of smallholder farmers and the urban poor.

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment and I welcome her reply. Will she discuss with the Kenyan authorities two issues which cry out for urgent action? The first is the plight of street children and their horrendous suffering. The second is the substantial increase in the number of people with AIDS. Will my right hon. Friend urgently consider helping on those two issues with advice and, if possible, with financial aid?

Britain is a large donor in Kenya and, potentially, can attempt to use its influence. Developments in Kenya are worrying and patchy. There has been a deterioration in the level of primary education and a growth in the level of poverty. As my hon. Friend said, the problem of AIDS is also very serious. We are reviewing all our spending and commitments so as to concentrate on those in greatest need. The two groups in Kenya to whom my hon. Friend referred are obviously in great need.

It is a pleasure to see the Secretary of State in her place. May I ask her whether the aid programme is funding the secondary education in Kenya of any refugees from southern Sudan where secondary education is in turmoil?

I am afraid that I do not know the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question, but I will find out and write to him.

Aid And Trade Provision

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what plans she has to carry out a review of the aid and trade provision. [313]

As I have said, we are reviewing all our expenditure programmes. I am determined to concentrate our efforts on poverty eradication. This means that we are necessarily reviewing the aid and trade provision.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment and I am reassured by her answer. During any review, will she consider the recommendations made by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs during the last Parliament when it looked into the Pergau scandal? Most of the ATP aid was being focused by the Tory Government on Indonesia and China—two countries which do not have the best human rights records. Among the developing countries, Indonesia is the sixth largest recipient of direct foreign investment. How could the Tory Government have justified concentrating 17 per cent. of ATP aid on that country? I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that we should be directing that aid towards the poorest peoples in the world.

During the review we shall, of course, take account of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report. I share my hon. Friend's concerns and I am reviewing our aid programme to Indonesia. Many people argue that the aid and trade provision does not meet either development or commercial objectives very well. We want absolutely to concentrate all our efforts and all our resources on the eradication of poverty. That means that we must look seriously at the way in which the aid and trade provision has pulled our aid spend in a different direction.

In greeting the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box, I welcome her review of Britain's overseas aid programme, particularly the review of the aid and trade provision that she has announced. Will she focus much more on the aid and trade provision to the mutual benefit of British industry and commerce and the recipient countries, thereby enhancing political and commercial connections between them while at the same time diminishing Britain's contribution to the European Union's aid programme, which is not nearly so well targeted as the British one and is often wasteful and misapplied?

As I have said, we are reviewing the aid and trade provision, but perhaps our thinking goes in a slightly different direction from that of the hon. Gentleman. The aid programme is not about the promotion of commercial opportunities. That is an important objective of Government policy, but the aid programme should be part of a bigger strategy for eliminating abject poverty in the world. That is in the long-term interests of everyone and, indeed, of commercial activity. If there is less poverty, there will be more commerce.

On European Union aid, the hon. Gentleman will know that it was his Government who, in Edinburgh, made an agreement which meant that up to 40 per cent. of our aid spend should go through the EU and unfortunately I have inherited that. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the performance of EU aid is patchy and I shall be doing everything in my power to use our influence in the EU to try to get the concentration on poverty eradication in EU spending in the same way as we want to achieve that from our own aid spending.

Child Labour

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what steps she is taking to stop the exploitation of child labour in third-world countries. [314

The tragedy of child labour, bad though it is, is not just the current exploitation of children but the fact that they are deprived of education, which will blight their lives permanently. We intend to strengthen our support for the International Labour Organisation's efforts in the developing countries to eliminate hazardous and exploitative child labour. Promoting universal primary education—an achievable objective throughout the world if the world community decided that it wished to achieve it—is a crucial part of the solution.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment. Last week Christian Aid published a report on the exploitation of children in the manufacture of sports goods. An Indian child as young as seven receives just 12p for hand-stitching an Eric Cantona football which retails in Britain at £9.99. Will my right hon. Friend appeal to all sports stars, sports clubs and the sports industry to co-operate with Governments, non-governmental organisations and the International Labour Organisation to phase out the exploitation of child labour and to introduce, where appropriate, special development measures to protect family income and children's rights to health and education?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Christian Aid report was very useful and we welcome it strongly and applaud the publicity accrued on this serious issue. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend for not calling for an immediate boycott of the goods involved. People who are concerned about child labour often do that, but it can lead to the children being thrown into an even worse situation in which they have to live as beggars on the streets or are even forced into prostitution. We need the type of partnerships that my hon. Friend suggested.

We should like sports firms and others who find that the products that they buy are produced by child labour to use their influence to press our Government, the companies involved and Governments in developing countries to plan the phasing out of child labour. In many countries, parents cannot find work, but children are employed. In this respect, the history of our own country is an experience on which we can draw. There must be regulation to phase out child labour and ensure that children are in education, where they belong, so that they have brighter prospects.

Will the right hon. Lady focus particularly on the evil of bonded labour in those countries where it is still rife? Such labour is the 20th-century equivalent of slavery, and children especially suffer from it.

The right hon. Gentleman is right. Bonded labour is a scourge of the world. As he says, it is akin to slavery and we shall take action on it. I believe that we should take whatever action we can, in co-operation with other Governments.

The proposal for a human rights clause in the World Trade Organisation so that no country can obtain access to the most privileged terms of trade unless it guarantees the right of labour to organise and that there will be no child labour and no bonded labour is one of the ways forward for the world. We shall join with the American Government and others in supporting that call, which will provide a long-term solution.

In the meantime, we shall take what action we can, wherever we can.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her appointment as Secretary of State and I welcome what she has just said. Is she prepared to use the Government's influence on the World Trade Organisation to ensure that all future trade negotiations and trade strategies which are agreed will include a specific commitment to full recognition of all ILO conditions by all signatory states, as a major part of ending the disgraceful exploitation of children and ensuring decent rights for all workers in developing countries?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We consider that the pressure for a human rights clause in the World Trade Organisation is crucial, not only to make progress on child labour but to prevent the globalisation of the world economy leading to the pushing down of standards across the world. Minimum conditions that all countries are required to meet before they obtain access to the most privileged terms of trade will provide a platform for everyone across the world. It is a very important change and we shall do all that we can to achieve it.

Aid Target

6.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development when she expects the Government to meet the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product in their contribution to overseas aid; and if she will make a statement. [315]

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development when she estimates that spending on overseas aid will reach the target of 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product. [318]

We remain committed to the 0.7 per cent. United Nations aid target and to reversing the decline in United Kingdom spending. As we said during the election campaign, however, we shall work within existing ceilings this year and next. I am currently reviewing expenditure plans and putting in place a coherent strategy to tackle global poverty, which will be published in the White Paper promised in the Queen's Speech. As we demonstrate progress, additional resources will be made available.

I welcome the right hon. Lady to her position and congratulate her on her strong commitment to and understanding of development issues. Does she share my concern that this country now contributes just 0.28 per cent. of GDP in overseas aid compared with 0.51 per cent. in 1979? The rich in this country have had tax cuts, but the poor in many countries have lacked basic food and shelter.

Given the right hon. Lady's strong commitment, is she capable of persuading her colleagues—particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer—to ensure that, despite the stringent financial conditions that he has imposed on the Cabinet, sufficient funds will be made available to meet the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent.? Will she set a time scale for that?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: Labour's record on aid is a proud one—we reached 0.51 per cent. of GDP and rising towards the target. The Conservative Government, who so rightly have lost office, left us with a contribution of 0.27 per cent. of GDP—even worse than the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave.

We need a higher aid spend, but we need to spend our aid money better. We need coherence across all our policies on debt, at the International Monetary Fund, the World bank, the European Union and the Lome renegotiations. In that way, we can focus our efforts on the measurable eradication of poverty.

While I can hardly change the Department's aid spend this year—although I can do so at the margins—because it takes so long to work up sensible and strong projects, I am busy working to redirect our energies next year. It is in the year after that, however, that I shall need more resources because we shall have plans in place to spend the money properly. I hope and intend that that will be so.

In adding my voice to the general welcome that has been extended to the right hon. Lady in her new role, may I ask if I am right in interpreting her previous answer by suggesting that while the Chancellor of the Exchequer may or may not have a warm heart, he is most unlikely to have an open purse? If those are the circumstances that she faces, can she give any clearer indication of how she will make the aid spend more effective?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but I thought that I had been talking about that for some considerable time this afternoon. Too much of the current aid spend goes on projects which are worth while in themselves but are not focused on the eradication of poverty. I am very supportive of the plans outlined in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Assistance Committee report, which stated that the world should set itself targets including that of halving world poverty by the year 2015. All the donor countries would then work in partnership with developing countries to reach measurable progress.

If we work in such a way, we may then begin to believe that in the new millennium we shall see the end of abject poverty in the world. Currently, poverty affects one in four people. The aid spend is an important part of that plan, but it must be based within strategies which deliver progress; otherwise, money may be spent on good causes, but we shall not reach progress.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer cares very deeply about that agenda and I am extremely optimistic that he and I will work beneficially together to get the progress that we want.

Will my right hon. Friend assure Labour Members that a Labour Government will never repeat the cut imposed by the Tory Chancellor in his Budget this year, when he reduced overseas aid by £180 million? That deliberate cut imposed untold hardship and misery on hundreds of thousands of African and Asian families so that the price of gin and whisky in this country could be reduced by 27p. Such was the motive behind that attempt at general election popularity.

The Conservative party fought the election on a commitment to move to an aid spend of 0.7 per cent. of GDP, but year upon year the Conservative Government cut the aid budget. As I said earlier, they also gave up to 40 per cent. of our spend to the EU and thus lost control of it. Their record is poor. We fought the election on a commitment to halt the decline and to increase the aid spend and we intend to keep all our manifesto commitments.

When my right hon. Friend conducts her expenditure review, will she examine closely the way in which Brussels officials manage the know-how and PHARE funds? In terms of devolution, surely Britain's contributions to the funds should be managed by my right hon. Friend and her Department.

The know-how fund is managed from Britain by my Department, with the Foreign Office co-operating. The PHARE fund is a European Union programme; it therefore has to be managed differently, but it should be complementary. The spending on that fund, like that on all other funds, must be reviewed to make it more effective than under the previous Administration.

The Secretary of State was correct when she said that we need to spend all our money better. Is she aware that Oxfam says that 19 water tanks, providing 28,500 people with 10 litres of clean water a day, could have been provided through our aid budget for the absurd cost of the Foreign Secretary's glitzy presentation of the mission statement? Was that money well spent?

I have to say that that is an extremely cheap point—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman served as a Minister in a Government who have just been booted out of office and who consistently cut, cut and cut the aid budget to give tax cuts to their wealthy friends. The new Administration will ensure that our aid spending eradicates poverty as effectively as possible, but it is also our duty to announce the priorities of our foreign policy—and that is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs did.

Africa

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what are her priorities in respect of Africa. [316]

I aim to work in partnership with African Governments—what we need is not donor countries telling other countries what to do, but partnerships—and with international institutions on strategies to eliminate poverty through sustainable economic and social development. That will be underpinned through support for good governance and human rights. Priority will be given to programmes which help the poorest people in Africa. As I have said, we intend to outline our strategy in the promised White Paper.

I add my voice to those welcoming my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her post and wish her well in that work. She will bring a refreshing change to it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the resolution of the conflict in southern Africa is a considerable priority and that it is important to support the efforts of the South African Government and, in particular, President Mandela in his current efforts to bring peace and to resolve that conflict? In so doing, we shall lift out of poverty many of the millions of people who have had conflict heaped on them in circumstances of dire poverty, leading to a worsening of the situation almost beyond human comprehension.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: poverty often leads to war, which just worsens the cycle. Africa has suffered gravely, but there are grounds for optimism. The absolute decline in its economy has been turned around. Governments such as Uganda, Ghana, Ethiopia and Eritrea are doing well. The change of regime in the Congo could be an enormous opportunity for progress. That would also help to resolve the situation in Angola. There is now a real opportunity for Africa, and we must work in partnership with those Governments to make progress.

I warmly welcome the right hon. Lady to her post. Although there can be optimism at recent developments in Africa, does she agree that one of the major priorities should be a move towards better government among some of the countries to which we give aid? Will she assure the House that she will use the ability as a donor Government to insist on better practice by many Governments in Africa, linked to aid?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The needy people of Africa need good governance so that there can be partnerships with developed countries and real progress can be made. We shall use all our influence to try to achieve that aim. The beauty now is that Africa has its own examples of good governance and success, such as Uganda and Ghana, which means that there is the chance of a home-grown African model spreading to others. So yes—we shall do that and there are real opportunities now.

Rain Forests

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for International Development what steps she plans to take to ensure that the United Kingdom's international development policies contribute to the preservation of the world's rain forests. [317]

My Department has 200 forestry projects under way in 41 countries at a total cost of £200 million.

At the UN General Assembly special session on environment and development in June, which I hope to attend with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, we shall work to secure more effective international action to improve forest management.

I thank the right hon. Lady for her very comprehensive answer. Is she aware of the tremendous support being given by a range of British companies to a rain forest protection programme in Guyana undertaken by the Amerindians, using modern technology to publicise worldwide the threat to their rain forests? One of the industrial partners in that project is British Telecom. If British Telecom is affected by the windfall tax and has to reduce its expenditure on that project, will the right hon. Lady undertake to lobby the Chancellor of the Exchequer to safeguard that vital rainfall—wind forest—rain forest protection plan?

I am not sure whether I heard the right hon. Gentleman correctly—is he advocating a rainfall tax? I am very disappointed in him: questions about the future of the world and its poorest people and the future of the rain forests are important to the whole of humanity and should not be used to make cheap political points.

Prime Minister

Before I call the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), I remind the House of the new method of handling engagements questions. The Member with the first such question should call out the number of his or her question in the normal way. After the Prime Minister has described his engagements, that Member will be asked to put a supplementary question. For the second and subsequent engagements questions, the Members who tabled the question should not call out the number of the question but simply put their supplementary question as soon as I call their name. Members with substantive questions on the Order Paper should, of course, continue to call the number of the question.

Engagements

Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 May. [340]

I have had various meetings with Ministers today to discuss the implementation of our election pledges. I will have various meetings later, in particular in relation to young people and skills. In addition, I have attended a meeting of the Labour party's national executive.

I warmly welcome the Prime Minister to his role of answering questions and I am grateful to him for finding the time in his diary to do so. At some point he might consult the House about these changes. I also wish him well in dealing with the massed ranks of his own Back Benchers as they lose their political virginity.

Will the Prime Minister agree today to compensate pensioners for any damage done to pension funds as a result of the windfall tax and changes in advance corporation tax which he might propose?

I first have to say yes, indeed, we have had a busy day because this Government, unlike the last Government, are governing in the interests of the people of this country. Secondly, the windfall tax will not harm pensioners at all. What did, however, harm pensioners was the last Government's imposition of VAT on fuel. It is precisely for that reason that we propose cutting it.

It is an honour to be called during the Prime Minister's first Question Time to make a serious attempt to question the Prime Minister. Given that at present only one crime in 50 leads to a conviction, does my right hon. Friend recognise the need for effective measures to prevent crime as well as a criminal justice system in which the public can have confidence? Will he tell us what measures the Government will take to prevent crime?

Certainly I shall. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, today my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is announcing a series of measures that I hope will have a beneficial effect on cutting crime. He is of course announcing first, that we say that children between the ages of 10 and 13 are able to tell the difference between right and wrong and the law should be changed in that respect. Secondly, we are going to halve the amount of time it takes to get persistent juvenile offenders to court. Thirdly, he has announced a review of the entire youth justice system. Much of the behaviour of some young tearaways and thugs makes life hell for people. We are committed to taking action and again, unlike the previous Administration, action we will take.

Q2.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether the Government will argue for a zonal lifting of the European beef ban? If they will, will he outline a time scale within which we can expect the lifting to occur? Will he also guarantee that the beef ban will be lifted in Scotland at the same time as it is lifted in Northern Ireland? [341]

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are in negotiations with the European Commission and with our European partners to try to get the best possible deal on lifting the beef ban. One part of lifting the ban, of course, is a certified herd scheme. It is important not only that we apply that scheme in Northern Ireland, which has a traceability scheme, but that we discover how we can lift the ban in other parts of the United Kingdom.

I should tell the House that the BSE situation that the Government have inherited is quite appalling, and not only because of its expense. The way in which the negotiations were handled was a disgrace, and it will take some time to sort out the situation. The early indications, however, are that we are able to get a far better deal than the previous Government. We shall do everything that we possibly can, in the interests not only of the farming industry but of Britain's good standing abroad.

Is the Prime Minister aware of widespread public concern about the growth of drug abuse in the United Kingdom? Over the past decade, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of drug offences. Will he provide an outline of the Government's plans to deal with the drugs crisis?

Yes. As my hon. Friend may know, we are committed to proper testing and treatment for all offenders who have a drugs problem. Additionally, however—as we announced before the general election—we will appoint one individual, whom we will call the drug tsar, who will co-ordinate all aspects of the fight against drug abuse and the link between drug abuse and crime. In many parts of the United Kingdom, as much as 50 per cent.—possibly more—of crimes are linked to drug abuse. It is absolutely essential that we bear down on every single aspect of the problem. By putting one person—who will be responsible to the Home Secretary—in charge of all aspects of co-ordinating Government policy on the problem, we believe that we will give ourselves a far better chance of dealing with that evil in our midst.

May I, first, welcome the Prime Minister's attempt to find a new format for Prime Minister's Question Time? Such an attempt was undoubtedly too bold for some, but the Prime Minister's efforts will have been worth it if we find a format that is a little less confrontational and a little more rational.

Is it still the Government's intention, in the next two years, to spend not a penny more on education than the Conservative Government whom they defeated?

First, I am delighted to hear the right hon. Gentleman's welcome for the change in the format of Prime Minister's questions. I hope that, in time, it will prove to be for the benefit of all hon. Members.

There are differences on education spending between ourselves and the previous Government. The first important difference is that we will phase out the assisted places scheme and reduce class sizes for all five, six and seven-year-olds. Secondly, the nursery voucher scheme will, rightly, be replaced by proper nursery education for our children. Thirdly, the windfall tax will have some impact on the skills and training part of the education budget, helping young people back into work through better skills and training.

The Prime Minister knows that the figures that Ministers quote on the abolition of assisted places do not add up. Even if they did, however, surely it is true that the Government will not deliver next year, and that they may deliver very little in the subsequent year. Therefore, are not the consequences of the Government's policy that teachers who were to be sacked because of Conservative policies will be sacked, that class sizes that were to rise next autumn will rise, and that the serious situation in books and equipment facing schools this winter because of Conservative policies will not get better under a Labour Government, and may even get worse?

No; I do not accept that. Reducing class sizes will be achieved partly by employing extra teachers. The right hon. Gentleman said that the figures do not add up, but they were checked by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which found that they added up, and even that there was money to spare. It is very important to understand that the vast majority of people—parents who use the state education system—understand that it will take time to put things right. It will take time, because of what we have inherited. Those people now know that they have a Government who have the right values, who are committed to the state education system and who, over time, will improve the system, as we have promised to do.

Having fought the general election on a platform of no hundred days of dynamic action—the definition of dynamic action changing from one Prime Minister to another—having introduced a Queen's Speech with 26 Bills, much to the delight of the public, having made the Bank of England independent, having severed supervision of the banking system from the Bank of England and having introduced a new system of regulation for the City of London, can the Prime Minister tell the House what he proposes as an encore?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is, of course, important that we start to make a difference in the areas where the people of this country elected us to make a difference—in our schools, in rebuilding our national health service, in giving hope to our young people and in the measures, as my hon. Friend rightly says, in relation to the Bank of England. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor took decisive action at the very beginning and he is to be congratulated on that. It is far better now that we take the politics out of setting interest rates and that we do not play politics with people's mortgages. As the National Association of Estate Agents said just the other day, in the long term that will lead to lower mortgage rates and, therefore, to a better deal for home owners.

In view of the apparent confusion in briefings from Ministers over recent days, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House which companies and which classes of companies are likely to be liable to the windfall tax? Will he also please explain to the House why the chairman of British Telecom apparently felt that his company would not be liable?

I heard what the chairman of British Telecom said the other day and I was delighted that he indicated that he had the good judgment to vote Labour in the general election. The idea, however, that the chairman of British Telecom or anyone else was in any doubt that we intended to introduce a windfall tax is rather hard to believe. As the right hon. Gentleman knows because we have said this many times, the actual companies will be decided by the Chancellor in accordance with precedent, which is to make any moves in relation to the Budget in the Budget. That is the proper way in which to do it. The companies and the amount of the windfall tax will be decided by my right hon. Friend in the normal way.

Sir lain seems to be rather regretting his vote already, but I will let that pass for the moment. I find it surprising that the House of Commons is to be the last to be told who will be liable to the tax in view of the private briefings that are going on. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can confirm to the House that no one acting in his capacity or no one from the Labour party when in opposition gave any indication, clearly or in terms of a nod and a wink, that British Telecom would not be included in the tax. Can the Prime Minister be categorical about that please?

I certainly can be categorical. Everybody has known that the decisions on who—whether British Telecom or anyone else—will be liable for the windfall tax will be taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the normal way. It is perfectly obvious that that should be the case. Prior to the Budget, it would be wholly wrong if my right hon. Friend announced the companies or the amounts of the windfall tax. In following that precedent we are following precisely what the previous Conservative Government did in relation to the windfall tax on banks.

The House will note that the right hon. Gentleman replied in the generality but did not reply specifically. He did not provide the House with the categorical assurance I asked him for; perhaps he will do so in just a moment. If the tax proceeds, it will lead to an extra tax on gas, water, electricity and telephones. I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). If the tax gives rise to an increase in bills for many people on low incomes, will the right hon. Gentleman follow the precedent set by the previous Government and increase social security benefits to compensate for that? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that if he does not, the populist tax on fat cats he proposes will be a tax that hits most those who have least?

I shall resist the temptation to say that that was the soundbite, because I have a feeling that I used to use a few of those myself at one time. No, that is not the case. There is a cap on prices. Some of the regulators have already said that they would not consider it right for the windfall tax to lead to any increase in prices.

The reason for introducing the windfall tax is clear. There is no doubt that vast excess profits were made. There is also no doubt that it is essential that we give hope and opportunity to those hundreds of thousands of young people at present without them in our society. There will be a great deal of agreement, not just among those who do not have opportunity, but even among those who are perfectly well off, that if we do not tackle the problems of a growing underclass of people cut off from society's mainstream without any chance of a job, with poor educational opportunities, without the chance to do well in life, we shall end up, as the previous Government did, paying more and more in welfare bills and having less and less for future investment.

May I make a simple plea to my right hon. Friend on behalf of St. Helens, which is an industrial town? Perhaps he could find time to have a word in the ear of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and suggest to him that, if slanted towards encouraging investment in industry, the June Budget would undoubtedly help our manufacturing base—for home consumption and overseas exports—and thus the welfare of all our people.

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I have no doubt that the Chancellor will receive a great deal of advice and assistance in the weeks ahead. He will have listened carefully to my hon. Friend and I have no doubt that he will take it into account.

Q3.

How will the Prime Minister fund his programme for young people when the money from the windfall tax dries up? All the experts agree that it will and that he will need extra money. [342]

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman seems to understand, as his leader did not, that money is needed to tackle the problem. I agree wholeheartedly on that. The windfall levy is a one-off, but by getting young people off benefit and into work, we shall save money in the long term. Conservative Members shake their heads, but there is no doubt that there are young people in this country who are leaving school without any proper qualifications. If they do not get the right chances on skills and apprenticeships, they will never make anything of their lives.

During the election campaign, I met some third-generation families in which the father has not worked, the son has not worked and the grandson is not going to work either. Unless we try to give them some sort of chance to escape from that welfare dependency, we shall be in this difficulty for ever.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the problems that our communities face not just from the causes of crime but from the underlying aggressive and loutish behaviour? What are the Government going to do about that?

My hon. Friend is right. That is one reason why the measures that we announced in the Queen's Speech tackle not merely juvenile offending and other criminal offences, but disruptive, noisy or anti-social neighbours. All hon. Members who have talked to their constituents will know of the misery caused by small groups of people who act in an anti-social way. This Government, at long last, is going to do something about it.

Q4.

Do the Government intend to limit the amount of time that British fishermen can spend at sea to meet cuts in European quotas, as suggested by the Fisheries Minister? [343]

Against a background of negotiations that were not well handled by the previous Administration, we are trying to secure the best deal for our fishermen on quota hopping and on other issues so that we can put in place a long-term framework to guarantee their future and offer some stability.

Q5.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that an estimated 120 million anti-personnel land mines are planted around the world? Every 20 minutes, those land mines kill or maim someone, often harming young, innocent children. When does my right hon. Friend expect to fulfil Labour's commitment to ban those evil weapons for good? [344]

I can tell my hon. Friend that the Government will announce later today that we will ban the import, export, transfer and manufacture of anti-personnel mines. We shall also phase out the United Kingdom stocks of anti-personnel land mines and ban the trade through the United Kingdom of all such land mines. They have caused enormous carnage, often to wholly innocent civilians, including children. The sooner that Britain gives a lead in this the better. It is the right and civilised thing to do.

Will the Prime Minister undertake a review of the somewhat curious arrangements for science policy that he has inherited?

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider two points in particular: first, whether it is right to have the Government's chief scientific adviser located, not in the centre of government, but in one of the Departments that he is responsible for supervising, and secondly, whether it is sensible to have two separate Ministers responsible for research councils and for universities when research council funding is integral to the funding of universities?

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for giving me notice of it. I pay tribute to his work in education and science when he was a Minister in the previous Administration. The review that is being conducted by the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), will examine both the points that he raised. I give no undertakings at all as to the outcome of that review, but it will certainly examine those issues.

Q6.

So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the framework document remains on the table as that will provide a fair settlement for both communities in Northern Ireland, as well as for cross-border bodies? Does he agree that there is a particular responsibility on the part of the IRA to end its murderous terrorist campaign which has caused only pain, suffering and numerous deaths in the past 25 years? Is it not obvious that no amount of terrorist activity will in any way change the position in Northern Ireland? [345]

I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the activities of the IRA. Of course, all the documents that were negotiated by the previous Government remain on the table. As my hon. Friend knows, my officials are talking to Sinn Fein, but I should make it clear that there is no question of Sinn Fein participating in any talks whatever unless there is a clear, credible and unequivocal ceasefire. That should be demonstrated in word and deed. Sinn Fein and everybody else should be under no illusions whatever about that.

I endorse what the Prime Minister has just said about the terms of entry into talks for Sinn Fein.

I am sure that he will ensure that that will be borne home to Sinn Fein in any discussions with officials and that he will ensure that discussion does not move into negotiation as that would not be permissible. I am sure that the Prime Minister is bearing in mind the fact that an election is taking place in Northern Ireland today. In the light of that and in the light of the comments by the Irish Prime Minister and by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that he has commended, that a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for murder, does he think that it was wise for officials in the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office to arrange for events to take place today that would only boost the standing of Sinn Fein?

If I understand rightly, the events to which the hon. Gentleman is referring involve the transfer of prisoners. I shall return to that in a moment. In respect of the talks with Sinn Fein, there is no question of their being about a negotiation of a ceasefire. They are to make clear the Government's terms and conditions for Sinn Fein's entry into any such talks. Secondly, in relation to the two prisoners who have been transferred, I have made inquiries and it is clear that the arrangements were put in train before the general election. It follows the transfer in the past year of nine prisoners who were convicted of terrorist offences. It should not be seen in any way as a signal to Sinn Fein.

Pensioner Poverty

Q7.

To ask the Prime Minister what proposals he has to alleviate poverty among existing pensioners. [346]

We are doing everything that we possibly can to alleviate poverty among Britain's pensioners. Many hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of Britain's pensioners enjoy a good standard of living; there are many more who do not. That is one reason why we are looking urgently at the help that can be given to Britain's poorest pensioners, and, of course, it is one reason why we are committed to the cut in VAT on fuel.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for pensioner poverty is the complexity and sometimes arbitrary nature of the income support cut-off points? Will he find time—unlike the previous Government, who refused—to look at the work done by Lancashire county council's welfare rights service, which has managed to find ingenious means of getting 15 per cent. more pensioners to claim income support—about 7,000 individuals, totalling about £4 million going into pensioners' pockets in Lancashire? Will he use his immense influence to ensure that the Government's programme for ending pensioner poverty begins with getting pensioners the rights and benefits to which they are entitled?

I am very happy to congratulate the work of those who are bringing home to pensioners the entitlements that they have. I should say two other things to my hon. Friend. The review of pensions that is being undertaken by the Department of Social Security will include how we help those pensioners in greatest poverty. In addition, I hope that he can say to his constituents, as I would say to the country, that previous Labour Governments have done well by Britain's pensioners—always—and we will do well by them again. [Interruption.] We have done very well, as indeed they know. Although, no doubt, there will be different ways of doing well for a different age, we shall continue to do our best by Britain's pensioners.

Engagements

Q8.

If, as the Prime Minister indicated some moments ago, a lifting of the beef export ban is not exactly imminent, is he able to indicate what kind of approximate time scale our beef producers might reasonably expect? In the meantime, what steps are his Government taking to restrict imports into the United Kingdom of beef products that do not meet the same very high standards required of our domestic producers? [347]

We obviously want to do everything that we possibly can to encourage and bring about the lifting of the beef ban. I say to the hon. Gentleman with the greatest respect that I do not think that plucking out arbitrary timetables has a very good history in the matter. We remember what happened before. [Laughter.] I am sorry to bring back bad memories. I believe that we can make progress and I am hopeful that progress is being made. The very fact that we have a Government who are arguing the case sensibly and constructively gives us a far better chance than we had under the previous Administration.

Q9.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the indignation and outrage felt among bus passengers in north-east Lancashire, who have been left high and dry by Stagecoach? Even as I speak, bus fares are going up, services are being cut, drivers are leaving in droves and the situation is in crisis. Is not such a situation, where private monopolies have driven out public interest, a shaming indictment of the previous Government's policies? [348]

In the interests of non-confrontational exchanges across the Floor, we will leave it to others to judge whether the situation is a shaming indictment. The one thing that is quite clear is that there are severe problems with the regulatory system at the moment. That is why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is, in addition to his rain-making duties, undertaking a review of bus regulation. We are well aware of the need to ensure, particularly for people in rural communities, that they get the bus services that they need.

Q10.

Will the Prime Minister find time to visit employers in my constituency of North Wiltshire who tell me that they will lay off workers the morning after he brings in the minimum wage? Does he agree that the tragically high level of youth unemployment on the continent of Europe is not least because of the job-destroying minimum wage in Europe? [349]

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that the United States has a minimum wage and a lower unemployment rate than we do. In contradistinction to the position here, that is now a matter for agreement between the republicans and democrats. It is a pity that we cannot obtain the same agreement about decency. Employers will be fully consulted about the level at which the minimum wage is set and how it is implemented. That is very important. I do not believe that the Conservative way of competing on the basis of low wages and low skills is the right future for Britain. We will compete in the future by investing in our people and by employers recognising that if they treat people fairly, they will get the best out of them. If that is one change that an incoming Labour Government can make, we will have done a service to the whole country.

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that in this first session of Prime Minister's questions we have already got through more questions than we used to in two quarter-hour sessions? It has been a more civilised and informative event than ever before and I look forward to more in the future. On the question of the national minimum wage, many of us take great pride in the fact that the Labour party has stuck to that policy through thick and thin and intends to implement it as early as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments and I hope that people will understand that this is a better way to organise Prime Minister's questions. The Select Committee on Procedure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is establishing will look at ways that it can be improved in the light of experience.

On the minimum wage, I do not wish to repeat what I said earlier, but some 800,000 people in this country are paid £2.50 an hour or less. There are reasons of efficiency for introducing some basic minimum threshold for pay, but there are also reasons of decency and fairness, and we shall do it.