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Engagements

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

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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.