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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

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Duchy Of Lancaster

The Chancellor was asked—

Freedom Of Information

When he will publish the White Paper on freedom of information. [15090]

A White Paper on our proposals for a freedom of information Bill will be published shortly.

I thank the Minister for his reply. How does he propose to make the information that will become available under the legislation accessible to the ordinary citizen, not just to lobbyists?

It will be important to give a great deal of publicity to the freedom of information Act. The code has been partly ineffective because of inadequate publicity. I also believe that the amount of press publicity surrounding freedom of information will ensure that virtually everyone is aware of the legislation.

When the Chancellor of the Duchy publishes the White Paper, will he at the same time publish the advice that has been rendered to Ministers by officials about the scope of freedom of information and its method of application?

When we publish the White Paper, it will contain the Government's proposals for consultation. Part of the process of that debate will concern how we deal with information to Ministers. On the one hand we need to be as open as possible; on the other, we must retain the central confidences that will allow the business of good government to continue.

Will the freedom of information legislation apply to devolved government in Scotland and Wales? If so, will it be introduced via the devolution legislation or by a subsequent Act of this House?

The parts of public information that relate to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly will be matters for those authorities. How we bring that about will be a matter of detail that we will examine as we work through the consultation period.

As much public business today is carried out on behalf of the Government by contractors in the private sector, will the Chancellor of the Duchy ensure that the White Paper does not exempt such contractors from the requirements of disclosure that would be in place if the business were carried out in-house by the Government?

The right hon. Gentleman has a fair point. The nature of government has changed a great deal in recent years. With so much privatisation and contracting out, public business that would in the past have been carried out by Government Departments is now being done by private organisations. It would be wrong of me to pre-empt the Act, but this is the sort of issue that we are examining in the committee that is considering the White Paper.

Will the Animal Procedures Committee under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 be part of the freedom of information Act, thus ending the shabby secrecy that vivisectionists have been able to hide behind under the Tories?

I believe that that particular legislation is one of the 200 Acts which contain clauses relating to the release or disclosure of information. If my memory is right in that respect, we shall deal with it in the White Paper. If not, I shall write to my hon. Friend.

In the interests of freedom of information, will the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why he found it necessary to make trips to Australasia, the United States and Canada in order to study open government? In connection with those trips, as reported in The Times on 20 October, we on the Conservative Benches at least hope that it is not the case that a smear campaign is being conducted against the right hon. Gentleman by a senior colleague—not, surely, something that we would want to expect from an open Government.

We on the Government Benches take the view that, if we are to modernise our constitution, the freedom of information legislation is very important. We also take the view that we will probably have only one opportunity to put such legislation on the statute book, so we must get it right on the first occasion. Therefore, I felt that it was right and proper not to reinvent the wheel but to learn from experiences elsewhere. It just so happens that, whereas the Conservative Government did not have the guts to face up to that difficult issue, we are prepared to grasp the nettle.

I felt it right and proper to go to the United States of America, which has a long history of freedom of information, and also to go to those three Commonwealth countries, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which have introduced freedom of information Acts in the past 15 years, so that when we compiled our legislation, we could ensure that, we were using the best practices from the experiences in those Westminster models.

Departmental Appointments

If he will make a statement on the Government's policy in respect of appointments to the press and information departments of Government Departments. [15091]

All appointments to the permanent civil service—including those in press and information divisions—are made on the basis of merit through fair and open competition.

If that blameless description is true, and if there really is no politicisation of press and information appointments, as is widely reported, will the

hon. Gentleman explain why no fewer than eight senior civil servants in press and information departments have suddenly found an overwhelming desire to spend more time with their families?

First, the figure is seven, not eight. There are a variety of reasons for such changes. Bernard Ingham, in his memoirs, points out that, when Viscount Whitelaw returned from Northern Ireland, he was out of a job because Viscount Whitelaw brought his own press officer with him. It is a matter of public record that the chief press officer and the Minister without Portfolio have endorsed the impartiality of the press officer service within the civil service. That has been the case in the past, is the case at present and will remain the case in future.

Is not it rather rich of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) to complain about the Government in this respect when the Conservative party was responsible for pumping tens of millions of pounds into Government propaganda campaigns which masqueraded as Government information?

However much the Conservative party pumped into propaganda when they were in government, they signally failed on I May. The Labour party made it abundantly clear before the election that it would be an integral part of a Labour Government's modus operandi to present their case effectively and impartially. Not only is it necessary for the Government to do that: it is their responsibility.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the fact that seven press officers—:that is, about one third of the leading press officers in Government Departments—have found it impossible to work with the directives being issued to them by their Ministers makes it absolutely plain that what we are seeing is the politicisation by the Labour party of the civil service?

Needless to say, I completely reject that allegation; more important, so did Sir Robin Butler when he appeared before the Select Committee. It is perfectly in order that there should be staffing changes in press offices as elsewhere with the advent of a new Government. Indeed, without divulging the particulars of individual cases, there was a variety of reasons why people chose at that time to vacate their job in a Department.

Better Government Programme

3.

If he will make a statement on the progress of his better government programme. [15092]

We are making good progress in developing the better government White Paper, which will set out a vision for public service into the new millennium. Our aim is to make government simpler and more responsive to citizens. That will partly be achieved by using the latest developments in information technology to improve the services we offer. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set the target that one quarter of Government services should be deliverable electronically within the next five years.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that the better government initiative should involve the talents and experience of those in local government, where a number of improvements in service delivery have already been introduced?

Yes. I think it essential that we involve ordinary citizens at every level of government. Ordinary citizens do not distinguish between tiers of government, whether central or local; all they are interested in is the quality of the service that they receive. The better government initiative aims to end the perception that government is only about queues and forms. I am determined that local government will be involved in the initiative because local government is involved in many exciting initiatives in service provision. In order to co-ordinate and learn from those experiences, I recently set up a working group as part of the central-local partnership initiative, so that we can look at the various pilots and try to spread best practice.

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that he has told me in a written answer that it is not Government policy for Ministers to be accessible by e-mail? With all the talk about better government and information technology, would it not be a good idea either for Ministers to have e-mail addresses instead of handing out a sheaf of replies consisting of "I will reply to the hon. Gentleman as quickly as possible", or for him to tell me that Ministers have no intention of having e-mail addresses?

The hon. Gentleman does not understand my answer correctly if he thinks that I am saying that it is not my policy to encourage Ministers to have e-mail addresses or to use them. In fact, I do have an e-mail address and it is public. My reply to the hon. Gentleman was that the information is not held centrally and therefore I cannot provide him with the answer for which he asks.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the better government programme is absolutely essential if we are to bring government closer to the people, overcome some of the cynicism people feel towards government and take better decisions in the future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We fought the last election on the issue of the regeneration of our country, economic, social and democratic. Part of that appeal was the democratic appeal and, through our better government initiative, it is our hope and intention to involve many more of our citizens in the running of their country.

Non-Departmental Public Bodies (Women)

4.

What measures he will be taking to increase the number of women on the boards of executive NDPBs. [15093]

All Departments encourage women to apply for public appointments and are committed to fair selection procedures. As part of that process, Departments are currently drawing up individual plans for the increased representation of women on public bodies. Those plans will include specific targets for each Department and will cover the period 1998 to 2001.

The Minister will be aware that, of those women who currently hold public appointments, the vast

majority are in unpaid, not paid, appointments. When drawing up his targets, will the Minister ensure that there is a target for equal representation of women in paid as well as unpaid appointments?

It is certainly the Government's policy to encourage women to participate at every level within what is commonly known as the quangocracy. The commissioner for appointments has set out a code of practice in which equal opportunity is a central element. In addition, the public appointments unit is actively seeking more women nominations to its list—it currently stands at 31 per cent. of its total—so that Departments have a ready reservoir of willing and-[HON. MEMBERS: Able."] That is not my word. I am talking about willing and well qualified women who are available for appointment to both paid and unpaid non-departmental public body jobs.

Will the hon. Gentleman consider looking at the staffing of foster homes, which are often privately run, many of which have been in the news lately for severe abuses of children? Does he agree that, if more older women were used to head those institutions, there would be less of the abuse that we keep reading about in our newspapers and which is such a disgrace? Older women would not have the wool pulled over their eyes in these matters.

I do not know if the hon. Lady is suggesting that the Government should nationalise private foster homes—I doubt whether she is. What the hon. Lady is suggesting is not within our remit, but I will pass on her comments to the appropriate Ministers.

Charter Objectives

5.

If Her Majesty's Government plan to provide for penalties or sanctions for non—compliance with charter objectives; and if he will make a statement. [15094]

We are committed to relaunching the charter programme so that it meets the needs and wishes of people who use public services on a daily basis. That is why we are currently consulting on how best to do this, including looking at issues of compliance. Details of the new programme will be published as part of the better government initiative.

Are Ministers aware that the patients charter, to which the Government are committed, says:

"From April 1995 the NHS is broadening the 18-month guarantee"—
that last word is in bold print—
"of admission into hospital to cover all admissions into hospital."
When the Government took office, there were 155 people for whom there was no treatment in 18 months and, yesterday, we learned that there were 818 people for whom there was no treatment in 18 months. As a result of the guarantee being broken, will there be compensation for the individuals affected, will they be admitted to hospital, or is the guarantee—it is much more important than a pledge—worthless in terms of guarantees about NHS treatment under this Government?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in which he likened turning round the situation on waiting lists to turning round a super-tanker. The previous Government left a dreadful legacy, and that is why my right hon. Friend and the Government have taken immediate action, including the provision of £269 million this year. They have appointed a waiting list action team, led by Stephen Day, with task groups in each of the eight regions to ensure that by next March we have looked at that 18-month limit and are turning round the huge lists that were bequeathed to us by the last Government.

Quangos

6.

What representations he has received about changes in the working practices of quangos. [15095]

Over the past few years quangos have been roundly criticised for being too secretive, unaccountable and unrepresentative. Last week I published the "Opening Up Quangos" Green Paper, which addresses those criticisms and sets out our plans to make quangos more open, accountable and effective.

This is open to widespread consultation and I look forward to receiving the views of people from throughout the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. I welcome the Green Paper, which I am sure will shine light on the secretiveness and unaccountability of the quangos set up by the Conservative Government. Given my right hon. Friend's commitment to freedom of information, may I ask him whether quangos will be covered by a freedom of information Act?

We shall introduce a number of measures to open up quangos, including open annual meetings, publishing the minutes and annual reports. We are also, keen to encourage a wide cross-section of the community to become involved. The freedom of information legislation, as I said, will have wide coverage, right across Government. I cannot anticipate what the White Paper will contain, but I am pretty sure that my hon. Friend will not be disappointed.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the effectiveness of quangos essentially depends on who is selected to serve on them? When they consider that matter, will quangos refrain from selecting people purely on the basis of political correctness?

I am delighted that at long last the hon. Gentleman, and I hope his colleagues, have seen the light. We live in a pluralistic society, and it is important that quangos and other bodies that help to advise the Government represent a cross-section of our society. I believe that one of the reasons why quangos got such a bad name over the past 18 years was the manner in which the previous Government stuffed them with their own appointees.

Does the Minister recognise that most citizens are not interested in changing the working practices of quangos, but rather in bringing them under direct democratic control, especially at local level?

Nowhere do people feel more strongly about that than in Northern Ireland. What steps do the Government intend to take to restore democracy to the Province?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The document that I produced last week referred to the 1,000 or so quangos that are national, but in addition to those, there are thousands that have regional, provincial or local application. I hope that out of the consultation and the on-going debate on democracy and about our devolution proposals, we will find it possible for some of the local and regional quangos to be subsumed by local government.

Open Government

7.

What action he plans to take to increase openness in government; and if he will make a statement. [15097]

The White Papers on freedom of information and better government which I am preparing will both increase openness in government.

I believe that in a modern society, open government is good government. Our proposals will change radically the culture of government in Britain and the way in which public information is handled.

I am grateful for that reply, but who will decide what is to remain secret and what will not remain secret? Will it be the same civil servants who, as we saw during the Scott inquiry, are rather unenthusiastic about the concept of open government, or will there be an independent element in the appeals process?

It is important that any legislation on freedom of information includes a strong, fair and easy-to-use appeals system, and does not leave the individual helpless in his or her attempt to get information. There are various ways in which that can be achieved, but the Government are studying the model of an independent information commissioner.

The Government make much play about open government. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether he considers that holding a referendum before publishing the Bill to which the referendum refers is no more than a crude opinion poll, not a referendum?

We had referendums in Scotland and Wales before powers were devolved, and we have made it clear that we will use the same instrument before we introduce regional government into England.

Non-Departmental Public Bodies

8.

How he intends to ensure the accountability of non-departmental public bodies. [15099]

The Government are determined to make quangos more open and more accountable.

In our "Opening up Quangos" Green Paper we set out ways to improve the accountability of quangos. I am inviting Select Committees to have greater oversight of quangos, by looking at annual reports and by being involved in the new five-yearly reviews. I also plan to introduce codes of practice and registers of interest to quango boards wherever possible.

I believe that these and many other proposals that we put forward will ensure that quangos become much more accountable to the people they serve.

I know that my right hon. Friend appreciates that the quango state that was created by the previous Government removed huge areas of public expenditure from democratic scrutiny, with boards meeting in private with members who were unknown to the general public. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as part of his proposals for openness, the name of every member of every quango will be made publicly available, as will their register of interests, in a form that will be easily accessible to the average member of the public?

My answer is yes. At the same time that we published the Green Paper last week, we ensured that it was available on the internet. I intend to ensure that the internet includes the names of all quangos, their aims and objectives, and overall financial information. In addition, it is my intention to ensure that the names of all individuals on quangos appear on the internet, with the odd exception where one or two specialist committees deal with security or with the security of the individual, which might be at risk from publication.

Is the Minister able to give an assurance that it is his policy that henceforth all quangos will be subject to scrutiny by the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee? Will he concur that the best way to deal with quangos is to abolish many of them and return their powers to democratically elected local councils? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, when he is replacing clapped-out Tory placemen, he will not simply introduce Labour placemen?

The hon. Gentleman raises some serious points. First, we are trying to examine the raison d'etre of every quango to ensure that there is a reason for that body continuing to exist. Secondly, I have already said that we see a future, when considering regional and local quangos, for discussion to ascertain whether these bodies could be incorporated into the local government structure. That is the sort of issue that will be raised when we introduce our central-local government initiative. We have already discussed that.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we recognise that we live in a pluralistic society. It is right and proper that people from all sections and strands of the community are represented on quangos.

Freedom Of Information

9.

If he will make a statement on progress towards legislation on freedom of information. [15100]

I intend to publish a White Paper on freedom of information shortly, and after a period of consultation this will be followed by a draft Bill.

Will it be seen that no excessive charges are made for accessing freedom of information, so that the information will begin to be readily available? As the process will take a while, with the publication of a White Paper and ensuing legislation, can things be done in the meantime to open up the secrecy of the state?

It is essential that costs should not be a deterrent when use is sought of the eventual Act. As my hon. Friend says, some time will pass before that Act is on the statute book. It is important that we continue our efforts as a Government to be more open. We shall be encouraging the flexible use of the code. I am encouraging my colleagues to be more proactive about the release of information. Right hon. and hon. Members may have noticed that yesterday we took an opportunity to show our commitment to openness by releasing MI5 documents from the Public Record Office.

Does the Minister accept that freedom of information itself is necessarily no panacea for better government? What arrangements does he intend to make for the advice that is given by officials to Ministers? Will that advice be subject to the same rules, or is he intending to alter them and thus make it likely that officials will restrain themselves in giving full and frank advice?

It is quite clear to us that open government is part of modern government and good government. I have already made the point that, at some time, one has to make a balanced judgment between openness, which informs our citizens, and confidentiality, which is essential to the workings of government. We feel that our responsibility is to provide good government, and we certainly intend to ensure that we get that balance right.

Special Advisers

10.

What are the principal provisions of the contracts of special advisers; and what steps he is taking to ensure that they do not undermine the integrity and impartiality of the civil service. [15101]

The model contract for special advisers sets out the terms and conditions under which they are employed. For the first time under this Government a copy was placed in the Library of the House in June. It distinguishes clearly the role and responsibilities of special advisers and reinforces the integrity and impartiality of the permanent civil service.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. What action is he taking to ensure that, where statements by special advisers are dishonest, misleading and inaccurate, disciplinary action is taken? I refer in particular to matters relating to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Is it not important that the traditional professionalism of the civil service is in no way undermined by the activities of special advisers?

It is absolutely essential that the political neutrality and integrity of the civil service is maintained. The draft contracts make that quite clear. They also lay out quite specifically the terms and conditions under which the special advisers operate, and make it quite clear that they can be more free in speaking to the press on political matters.

Prime Minister

Engagements

The Prime Minister was asked

Q1.

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 November. [15120]

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

Will the Prime Minister spare the time to enlighten the House about the statement that he made last week, with what he described as enthusiasm and relish, on payments to the Labour party, when his enthusiasm and relish miraculously dried up so that he did not reveal the issue of the second payment? When he answers that question, could he do so with uncharacteristic frankness and humility, and without giving his usual impression of a Cheshire cat?

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that I take points of order after statements.

There was no further payment, as I have said. I would just point out to the hon. Lady that we returned the donation. We refused more donations. We consulted Sir Patrick Neill. We followed his advice. We published that advice. I do not believe that the Conservative party would ever have done the same in our position.

Q2.

In view of the £10 million to £14 million that Ecclestone gave to the Tories previously, as well as the £1 million given to us before the election, is there not a case for changing the law to limit the amount of money that any private individual can give to political parties? Does my right hon. Friend agree that all political parties represented in the House should be forced to declare to the last penny where their money comes from and to return all stolen money? Does he recognise that, if we are to reform party financing, we should do so soon and do so thoroughly? That is what the public want, and it is what Labour Members of Parliament want.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That is precisely why the terms of reference for Sir Patrick Neill should be as broad as possible. I also believe, to take up the point that my hon. Friend made, that it is important—and I have proposed this—that Sir Patrick Neill is able to look at all the donations that have been made, the names of the donors and the amounts, going back to 1992— [Interruption.] I am perfectly prepared, for myself, to have it go back 10 years.

I am delighted to say that, since I wrote to the leaders of the two other main parties, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has agreed to that proposition. I hope that the leader of the Conservative party will now agree to that proposition as well.

We have said that we will give the money back. [Interruption.] We have already made arrangements to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] We have already made arrangements to do so, and it will be done in the next few days.

The Prime Minister just told my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that the money had been returned. Are we to understand, five minutes into Question Time, that his first answer was not correct?

As we have made clear, we sought the advice of Sir Patrick Neill. We have followed that advice: we have followed it to the letter. I now think that the right hon. Gentleman should say whether he is prepared to accede to what both the leader of the Liberal Democrats and I have already agreed to.

I would have thought that, in this week of all weeks, even this Prime Minister would not be on his high horse—[Interruption.]

Order. Just a moment, Mr. Hague. I will have silence in this House when Members are asking questions. They must be heard.

I would have thought that, in this week of all weeks, even this Prime Minister would not be on his high horse in the Chamber. I will make my recommendations and proposals to the Neill committee; I will not prejudge its conclusions as the Prime Minister seems to.

Now we know that, when the Prime Minister told the House last week that he had already followed Sir Patrick Neill's advice to the letter, he had not actually done so, and he has still not actually done so. But, given that the Prime Minister has said that he ruled out further donations from Mr. Ecclestone on 5 November, why has the Minister without Portfolio said that he knew about such donations and ruled them out in October? Who is telling the truth, the Prime Minister or his sidekick?

I have made it clear, as I did in my television interview, that the decision was taken on 5 November—before, I may say, any press inquiry was made at all.

Well, we can take it from that that the Minister without Portfolio was not telling the truth in his statement.

Let us explore this a little further. [HON. MEMBERS: "Come on!"] I can understand why Labour Members do not want it to be explored a little further. Given that the Prime Minister has said that he ruled out further donations on 5 November, why did he ask Sir Patrick Neill two days later whether further donations could be accepted?

Because we had already made it clear in the letter to Sir Patrick Neill—which the right hon. Gentleman keeps quoting one part of, but not the other—that we had thus far refused the further donation. We therefore asked his advice about whether it was right to do so. We were advised that it was right to do so. We followed that advice.

Well, I have a letter here. It does say, as the Prime Minister says,

"The position which we have adopted thus far has been to refuse this ⁠ donation".
Then it says:
"but we wish to be advised whether this is a position which we need to maintain."
It also says:
"we should consult you on whether it may properly be accepted."

Are we to understand that, the next time the Prime Minister tells us that he has ruled something out—of course—he will take advice two days later on whether to do it after all? Does this explain why the Minister without Portfolio said on Saturday that the Government had behaved with complete propriety, but has gone on today to say that they have been behaving out of character?

What the right hon. Gentleman has just read out to me is precisely the answer that I gave him a moment ago. While we are on this topic, in June he promised that he would publish a full list of donors to the Conservative party. As far as I am aware, he has not published a single name. In August, the Conservative party said that it would publish its accounts, but it has not so far done so. It said that it would give back the money that it received from Asil Nadir, but it has so far not given it back.

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has agreed with me— [Interruption.]

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has agreed with me that we should disclose the names of donors and the amounts going back to 1992. [Interruption.] It is not a question of waiting for Sir Patrick Neill's conclusions; it is about the terms of reference. Does the Leader of the Opposition agree to those terms of reference or not?

The Prime Minister has already had to admit that he has not handled this matter well. He should not make it worse by failing to answer questions that are put to him in the House. Is it not extraordinary that the Government denied that the Labour party received money from Mr. Ecclestone and then admitted it; denied that the donation was £1 million and then admitted it; denied that the crucial meeting had been minuted and then published the minutes; denied the House a full account of the matter, which instead had to be dragged out piece by piece; and denied that the Labour party would accept further donations and then took advice on accepting them? Has not the Prime Minister's conduct been a shabby tale of evasion, which voters, when asked to trust him in future, will not lightly forget?

People who are watching this exchange will not forget that the right hon. Gentleman has failed to say why—he will have to answer the question at some point—he refuses to agree terms of reference that would allow Sir Patrick Neill to go back over the period from the 1992 general election onwards. The only reason why the newspapers or the Conservative party can go through Labour's donors is that we publish their names. The right hon. Gentleman has not published anything: no one knows where a penny of Tory money comes from. Before he criticises the Labour party, he should tell us where that money comes from and who gave it to the Conservative party. He should go back five years, as we are prepared to do. Until he does that, no one will pay the slightest attention to his criticisms.

Q3. [15122]

Will my right hon. Friend inform the House of the status and progress of his social exclusion unit? [Interruption.] Are not the objectives of his Administration the modernisation of Britain and the attainment of social justice? In Wales, many of our fellow citizens have no meaningful work, and have no hope for the future. How does he intend to tackle the problems that he has inherited from the Conservatives?

My hon. Friend is right. I am surprised that Conservative Members jeer about the problems that many people face. It is precisely because we believe in a proper approach to tackling not just unemployment but levels of truancy, exclusions from school, poor housing and poor educational opportunity that we have established the social exclusion unit, which will examine these problems in a proper and co-ordinated way. It is important that people realise that at long last they have a Government who take seriously the unity and cohesion of this nation.

Will the Prime Minister tell us which, in his view, should come first, an early pledge or a long-term objective?

It is important, of course, that we fulfil all the pledges that we gave to the electorate at the last general election, and we will fulfil them all. At the next general election we will be held to account for the performance that we have given.

I take it from that that an early pledge comes first, in which case will the Prime Minister explain why today the Chancellor is going around telling us that the Government's revenues are so buoyant that he can fulfil his long-term objective of a lop tax rate next year whereas the Secretary of State for Health is saying that he cannot—in five years—guarantee that the Government will deliver on their early pledge of lower waiting lists than we had under the Tories? Does the Prime Minister realise that people simply will not understand a Labour Government who say that they have enough money to spend on lower tax rates but not enough to deliver their own early pledges on lower waiting lists?

I certainly hope that my right hon. Friend did not say that, because of course we will fulfil the pledge that we have made to cut waiting lists by 100,000 or more from what we inherited from the previous Conservative Government.

I say to the leader of the Liberal Democrats, since I anticipated that he might raise this, that I went back and looked at the Liberal Democrat pledges before the last election. Before the election the Liberal Democrats asked that over the first two years of the Labour Government we put an extra £1.1 billion into the national health service. We are actually going to put £1.5 billion into the national health service, but now they say that that is not enough. Secondly, they asked for some £500 million to go into a school repairs programme. We are actually providing £1.3 billion and now they say that that is not enough. With the greatest respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I think he should learn the difference between opposition and opportunism.

[15123]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that despite 19 years of fiddled figures—[HON. MEMBERS: "Nineteen years?"] —a legacy of the last Conservative Government is a level of unemployment that is still unacceptably high, especially in my constituency where unemployment above the national average. I echo my right hon. Friend's welcome for the employment chapter in the treaty of European Union, and I urge him to use our presidency of the EU next year to take advantage of whatever initiatives there are to alleviate unemployment throughout the European Union, including in Great Britain and in my constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend. I think that it was 18 years of Conservative Government, but it seemed like 19 at the time. What is happening at the jobs summit this week in Luxembourg is tremendously important for the future of methods to tackle in particular long-term unemployment in the European Union. The Government have proposed a range of measures which focus particularly on education, on skills and on tackling youth and long-term unemployment.

I very much hope that the summit indicates a new approach by the whole of Europe in which we focus particularly on how we encourage the employability and adaptability of the work force. If we can achieve that at this summit, it will show the advantage of having a sensible, constructive approach to Europe that allows us to achieve the objectives that we all want.

Q5. [15124]

Will the Prime Minister explain what he sought to achieve in asking Sir Patrick Neill's advice on 7 November about the propriety of accepting a further donation from Mr. Ecclestone when he has already told the House that he decided on 5 November not to accept such a donation?

For the very reason that I have just given, which is that, having taken the decision to refuse further donations, it was important that we got his advice as to whether we had taken the right decision. We got his advice and we followed that advice. [Interruption.] That is precisely what we have said and, as I say, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman believes that, in the 20 years of Conservative Government, there was never any potential conflict of interest. But for the first time a Government actually took the watchdog's advice. We followed that advice, whereas the party of which the hon. Gentleman is a member would never have done the same thing.

What conclusions are we to draw from Madeleine Albright's discovery that not a single Arab country would support military action against Iraq?

All countries are concerned to ensure that Saddam Hussein obeys the United Nations security resolutions that were passed at the conclusion of the Gulf war. The reason why it is important that he does abide by those resolutions is that they concern the making of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. If he is allowed to carry on developing those weapons, the dangers, not just for the middle east, but for the whole world, are obvious and clear. He has deceived people, used chemical weapons on his own people, and invaded other countries without any possible justification. It is absolutely essential that he backs down on this—that he be made to back down. We will, of course, seek a diplomatic solution, but he has to back down because, if he does not, we will simply face this problem, perhaps in a different and far worse form, in a few years' time.

Q6. [15125]

If the Prime Minister had decided on 5 November— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, come on!"] I understand that Labour Members do not want to hear the question, but they will have to suffer in silence. If the Prime Minister had decided on 5 November that he definitely did not want to take further donations, why ask Sir Patrick Neill's permission to do so? Is not the truth of the matter that the Prime Minister was begging Sir Patrick to give him the green light to take more money?

I am intrigued that the hon. Gentleman should ask such a question as I understand that his last employment was as special adviser to Jonathan Aitken.

The hon. Gentleman seems able to shake his head. Perhaps he will indicate whether he will support me in saying that donations over £5,000 for the past five years should be disclosed to Sir Patrick Neill. Does he agree with that or not? Conservative Members cannot answer it because they do not dare.

Q7. [15126]

Does my right hon. Friend agree that evidence of already deprived and disadvantaged children being accommodated in children's homes and then physically and sexually abused shames our whole society? Will he assure the House and the country that the Government will respond to the Utting report with urgent and tough action?

My hon. Friend will know that there is to be a statement on this shortly by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. The Utting report does detail an exceptionally bad record of neglect, mismanagement and abuse. Obviously, we will study the conclusions carefully, but it is essential, after long years of neglect, that we clean the situation up, and we will do it.

Official Visit

Q8.

If he will make an official visit to White Rock above the River Dart, near Totnes. [15127]

I think this is the second time that I have been asked to visit the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I hope that he does not mind if I say that I do not have any plans to do so, although I visit all regions.

That answer will be a great relief to my constituents.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that White Rock is just a few miles from the home of the D'Oyly Carte at Coleton Fishacre, and that the D'Oyly Carte opera company may close next month, despite its popularity, simply because the Arts Council operates a cartel which prevents new entrants, however meritorious, from getting on its little list? Surely he does not wish to preside over a Government who will allow one of our great and precious British institutions to collapse when more than £200 million is unspent in the Arts Council's lottery fund.

We are continuing the policy of the previous Government. I do not know about the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I shall be happy to write to him about it. I will make a deal with him—if I do not go to his constituency, he will not come to mine.

I want to return to the question of tobacco sponsorship. Will the exemption of formula one from the ban on tobacco sponsorship affect the financial success of Mr. Ecclestone's long-postponed flotation of Formula One Holdings?

I have absolutely no idea about that, but in any event the exemption is right. As I pointed out last week, every other country that runs grand prix either has no sponsorship restrictions or makes special arrangements or grants exemptions for formula one. Australia, Canada, France, Germany and other countries all do that. It is important that we do it as well, because we do not want to lose the industry and the jobs associated with it.

I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that it was his party, when last in government, which blocked the European Union directive. We are trying to ensure that we get the maximum action on advertising in sponsorship to try to reduce the level of smoking—but in a way that does not damage sport or the industry.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that research has shown clearly that white asbestos is a carcinogen? Some countries in Europe have already banned white asbestos and any manufactures that include white asbestos. Is he further aware that the Health and Safety Commission supports a Europewide ban and that there are substitutes for asbestos? Will he seriously examine the case for a United Kingdom ban so that we can protect future generations of workers?

I thank my hon. Friend, who is right to draw attention to the issue. My understanding is that the Health and Safety Commission has advised Ministers on a mechanism and timetable for introducing a domestic ban on the import, supply and use of white asbestos. An announcement will be made shortly on how the Government intend to proceed. I know from the work that my hon. Friend has done on this matter over a number of years that he has had a long-standing commitment to a ban. I hope that shortly we will be able to give him the answer that he wants.

Q10. [15130]

I refer the right hon. Gentleman to European Union directive 91/439. Is he aware that the directive will affect 350,000 insulin-dependent diabetics by making it illegal for them to drive vehicles in groups C and D? Is he further aware that the decision has not been based on any actuarial evidence? Will he look at the matter urgently before diabetics start to lose their jobs in January because of restrictions on their licences?

The problem is that the current legislative position, which was introduced in 1991, reflects the advice of the expert advisory panel on diabetes and driving. To make a change, we would have to be sure that new scientific evidence and advice would justify a change to the original conclusion reached by the previous Government. If such evidence emerges, we would be happy to review the position, but until it does it would be difficult for us to argue the case for changing the directive. If the hon. Gentleman has any further information or if he wishes to draw our attention to different scientific advice from that which we have received, I suggest he submit it to my right hon. and hon. Friends for their consideration.

Solar Energy

Q11.

If he will make a statement on the Government's policy on solar energy. [15131]

The Government propose a new and strong drive to develop renewable energy sources in line with our manifesto commitment. The policy review announced by my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry will consider what will be necessary and practicable in order to achieve 10 per cent. of the United Kingdom's electricity needs from renewables by the year 2010. That is an ambitious target, but we believe that, if we put the right commitment into it, it will be possible. That will obviously make a substantial contribution to the measures that we need for the Kyoto summit.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he agree that the solar energy economy requires dispersed forms of energy conversion and supply, rather than the massive centralised power stations of today's electricity industry? Does he agree also that if we develop and maintain solar energy, we will return power and real autonomy to the regions—not only in the United Kingdom but in the rest of the world?

My hon. Friend is right, of course-[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Opposition Members may cavil, but it is a serious problem that the country has to deal with. We believe in increasing the amount of our energy resources that come from renewable energy, and we are encouraged by the growing use of solar energy. The trouble is that solar energy is still very expensive. We are putting more money into research, and we will make progress on it as soon as we possibly can.

Waiting Lists

Q12.

When he expects the Government's commitment to reduce waiting lists to the levels of 1 May to be achieved. [15132]

The appalling situation that we inherited from the previous Government, who consistently undermined the national health service, means that we will have to make progress as quickly as we possibly can. The extra £300 million that will be provided over and above what was allocated by the previous Government will be of enormous assistance in doing so.

Although I agree that the health service inherited problems, is the Prime Minister aware what a disappointment his answer will be to sick and elderly people in Oxford, West and Abingdon and elsewhere? Whereas it will take five years to implement an early pledge to cut waiting lists, as a first step, funds seem to be available to achieve the long-term aim of cutting taxes for the well-off. Is it not time that the Government governed, rather than merely acting opportunistically on their pre-election pledges?

We will fulfil our pre-election pledge. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] Opposition Members shout out, "When?", but they are the people who put up the waiting lists. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] They deny responsibility. It was nothing to do with them, was it? As I told the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), in the next two years, we will put more money into the national health service than the Liberal Democrats wanted us to before the general election.

Waiting lists have increased because of the situation that we inherited. Our pledge is that, at the next general election—when we again stand before the British people—we will have reduced waiting lists by 100,000 or more. We will deliver on that pledge. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on!"] As for Opposition Members, they are the people who undermined the health service. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, they are. This week marks the 100th anniversary of Nye Bevan's birthday. We established the national health service, in the teeth of Tory opposition, and we will rebuild the national health service, after 18 years of Tory disgrace.