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Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2003

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Q1. [109740]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 30 April.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Will the Prime Minister read this week's report, "Sustainable Communities in the South East" from the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government, and note this remark in the summary:

"The impact of developing so many homes in the South East, one of the most densely populated regions in Europe, has not been fully assessed"?
Why are these houses being imposed on the south-east by central Government and why are the councillors who are being elected tomorrow so unfit to make those decisions for themselves?

Of course I shall study the report, but the hon. Gentleman will know that it is important that we increase the number of houses to supply houses for people to live in. He will also know that we have tried to ensure that those developments happen in particular areas. I do not think that it is either right or responsible to suggest that, whatever Government were in power, we would not still want to proceed with a housebuilding programme. What we are doing, however, is proceeding in a much more controlled way with a much higher percentage of development on brownfield sites than on greenfield sites. We have increased the amount of area in the green belt.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the report of the Select Committee on Treasury on Europe and the UK, which was published this week and provides for the first time a comprehensive and balanced study of the issue. It says that, whatever decision is taken, there will be risks, opportunities, costs and benefits, but inaction in itself will be a powerful decision. Given that the UK is at the bottom of the league in terms of public knowledge and understanding, can he assist by indicating where the euro features in his political agenda?

First, I welcome the report of my hon. Friend's Committee, which I think was an excellent contribution to the debate. He will have to wait for the outcome of the tests, which will be published by the Government in due course, within the time limit that we have set. I have no doubt at all that that will then stimulate a very lively debate in the country.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the primary school governor who said:

"our most needy children … stand to lose most"
from the way in which the Government have fixed school funding?

I do agree that there are obviously schools in London and elsewhere that are facing particular problems at the moment. We are looking urgently into whether the money that has been allocated to local education authorities has been passed on properly to schools, but I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, in cash terms, there is an almost 12 per cent. increase for our education system in this country. Of course, it is better that we increase the investment going to our schools rather than have a 20 per cent. cut in schools investment across the board.

Those are the words of Fiona Millar, one of the Prime Minister's closest Downing street advisers. She did not do what he has just done and blame councils; she blamed the Government. Just like thousands of teachers, parents and governors, they know that he has been in power for six years and that he is to blame. But if he does not agree with her, does he agree with the deputy head who said:

"There are major budget problems right here in schools in Mr. Miliband's constituency. He should come to schools here if he doesn't believe it"?
Well, does the Prime Minister believe her?

I just said to the right hon. Gentleman that I accept that there are problems for particular schools and in particular local education authority areas. On Friday, we will publish an analysis of exactly what money has gone to local education authorities and how it has been used. The one thing that is undeniable, since he raised the issue of the six years of this Government, is that we have put more money and investment into our schools than ever before. Indeed, since we are quoting individual constituencies, let me quote his for a moment. In the past few years, it has received an extra £770 per pupil in Waltham Forest. It now has a £200 million project to deliver improvements to all 92 schools in Waltham Forest. The number of infants in class sizes of more than 30 has fallen from 1,000 to nothing in Waltham Forest, and it has the best primary school results and GCSE results that it has ever had. That is all as a result of six years of Labour Government, with every penny piece of that investment opposed by the Conservatives.

May I just say to the Prime Minister that in my area, the authorities are proposing to cut three special needs schools that have run out of money because of the Government? Before he starts making claims, he should find out the facts. He should listen to somebody else—Dame Jean Else, who is not just any head teacher, but the head of one of his flagship schools, whom he personally honoured. She says that she would rather resign than sack any teachers and see her school suffer. As heads like her up and down the country have to make decisions about sacking teachers, will the Prime Minister tell the House how many extra bureaucrats he has employed at the Department for Education and Skills since he became Prime Minister?

I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman the number of bureaucrats. I can tell him, however, the number of extra full-time equivalent teachers that we have had since this Government came to power—it is 25,000. If it is correct, as he says, that schools have problems—I have accepted that there are obviously schools with certain problems—the answer to those problems is not to cut back on the investment that they have received. The fact of the matter is that none of the investment that is now going into schools up and down the country would be happening if we adopted the policy that he advocates and made a 20 per cent. cut in services across the board. That is the Conservative policy, which would be a disaster for our schools. It may well be that some schools want more money, but his policies would mean less money.

The answer to the question is that the number of bureaucrats in the Department for Education and Skills has grown by 25 per cent. since 1997. It is the usual story: under this Government—under Labour Governments—bureaucrats do well. The extra money that the Government have given to schools, as he says, is money that he has taken away through extra taxation and changes to pension requirements—money that is taken away with the other hand. With council taxes up 60 per cent. and school services being cut across the country, is it not the real case that Labour tax more, waste more and deliver less?

Just take our school system—it is indisputable that over the past few years we have had the best primary school results that the country has ever seen; we have had the best GCSE results that the country has ever seen; we have had extra investment going into school buildings and schools in every constituency; and we have had 25,000 extra teachers. So the real distinction is this: yes, of course, people will always want even more money, but we are putting record investment into our schools, and if people vote for the Conservatives they are voting for a 20 per cent. across-the-board cut in services. That is the simple truth that he cannot deny.

Yesterday, Corus announced that Redcar steelworks is to be disaggregated from the rest of the firm and will have to sell its raw steel in a steeply competitive world market. I can tell the House that that will be very hard indeed. We reacted positively by setting up a group of stakeholders—the regional development agency, the local council and other local enterprises—to work with Corus to look for a solution. The Prime Minister needs no reminder that if we fail and the plant closes, the number of jobs lost will probably be 12,000 or more. Teesside workers are very staunch in adversity. May I ask the Prime Minister, firstly—

Order. The hon. and learned Lady is not in the law courts. She should ask just one question.

I am grateful for the advice, Mr. Speaker, but this is obviously a big issue. I must ask the Prime Minister first, secondly, and altogether: can we have all the help that the Government can give in our fight for survival, and will he take a personal interest in these excellent workers who are threatened on the doorstep of his constituency?

I would like to express my sympathy to any of my hon. and learned Friend's constituents and those of other hon. Members who may lose their jobs as a result of the closure that has been announced. The Department of Trade and Industry is in touch with the company, the work force and Dutch counterparts. We will do everything to minimise the impact. I know from my constituency experience that when jobs are lost, the Government have the ability through Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions to put in place a programme of rapid response to try to ensure that people are helped into other jobs. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that that full service will be available in her constituency.

Will the Prime Minister give an absolute guarantee that the hundreds of thousands of families who have not received the benefits to which they are entitled because of the Government's bungled reform of the child tax credit system will all be compensated by the end of next week?

Those applications are being processed as quickly as possible. Millions of people have already received the benefits to which they are entitled and we will make sure that those who are eligible for the entitlement receive it as quickly as possible. I point out that hundreds of thousands of families will gain enormously as a result of the changes.

That is less categorical than the assurances that the Paymaster General gave in the House only on Monday. Thousands of families with children are suffering now because the money is not coming through. When people are late paying their tax, the Revenue is quick to impose penalties. Is the Prime Minister considering recompensing people in the same way?

I stand entirely by what the Paymaster General said on Monday. Some 2 million claims have been processed this week and we are making every effort to deal with the new system as quickly as possible. The right hon. Gentleman should understand that, in the end, it will enormously benefit millions of families throughout the country. There have been difficulties with processing some of the claims and we shall resolve them as quickly as possible.

May I remind the Prime Minister of his written parliamentary reply on 19 December 2001 to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), in which he reaffirmed the doctrine of his predecessor, Lord Wilson, that no Members of Parliament would have their telephones tapped? Will he comment on the fact that the telephone conversations of Jonathan Powell with the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) and the then right hon. Member for Redcar were tapped? The Prime Minister said that he would make an exceptional statement to the House if and when any Member of Parliament's telephone was tapped. It is not a question of personality but of principle: Members of Parliament's telephones should not be tapped. The Prime Minister is in charge of the security and intelligence services; they have been insubordinate and are not subject to proper control and scrutiny by this place.

I understand why my hon. Friend raises the issue. I simply say that I reconfirm the Wilson doctrine but I do not and will not comment on security matters.

Q2. [109741]

I have given notice of my question to the Prime Minister's office. More than 1,000 jobs in my constituency depend on Appledore Shipbuilders. It is the last commercial shipyard in the country. Worldwide commercial shipbuilding is in deep recession and Appledore is fast running out of work. The shipyard has nearly secured a contract to build a large offshore construction vessel. There is considerable equity in the project, but the banks have demanded a Government loan guarantee. Such guarantees are available to our European Union and other competitors. The company has been in negotiations for a guarantee with the Department of Trade and Industry for a long time. Will the Prime Minister give us his support so that we get the loan guarantee and the contract as soon as possible? We shall use plenty of British steel in the process.

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for prior notice of his question. The Government are well aware of the long-standing importance of Appledore Shipbuilders to the local economy and recognise the difficulties that the company experiences. I know that the hon. Gentleman has made representations to my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions. The hon. Gentleman knows that discussions about the orders that are being sought are commercially sensitive. They are currently taking place and it would not be right for me to disclose the details of the outcome of the deliberations. However, I assure him that those making the decisions will listen carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said and that the company will be weighed in the balance with others that are bidding for the work. We understand the importance of the home credit scheme; approximately £120 million has been made available to the sector as a result of it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we are doing everything possible to help his company.

I would like to place on record an appreciation of the Herculean efforts that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are making to establish peace in all Ireland and to re-establish the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. Will the Prime Minister give the House a brief assessment of the current situation, and a confirmation that the elections will take place on 29 May? Further, in his assessment of the assurances of non-violence, will he take it on board that violence is occurring on a day-to-day basis? In my small home town last week, two people were shot, and three families were evicted by republican paramilitaries. The same is being done by loyalist paramilitaries. Words will not be adequate in these circumstances; action, and proof of action, is what is required to underpin our democracy.

My hon. Friend asks for an assessment of the situation: it is fraught and difficult for the very reason that he has just given. There can be no question of reconstituting the Government in Northern Ireland, as everyone wants to see, unless not only are the undertakings clearly given but the actions follow those undertakings. That is why we have proposed a system in which we ensure that people cannot engage in paramilitary violence or activity if they wish to be associated with any party that is in government in Northern Ireland, and in which we have a proper system of verification and sanctions in respect of people who breach that undertaking. I very much hope that we can still make progress, but time is obviously running out for this. The whole basic principle of the Good Friday agreement is that we implement what is in it on the basis that everyone is committed to exclusively peaceful means. Until we can be clear on that, there is not a basis for reconstituting the Government in Northern Ireland.

Q3. [109742]

Does the Prime Minister really believe that the council tax system that he inherited from the Conservatives is the fairest way of raising money for local government services, and that the bills that people have just received are fair costs for the services delivered at local level?

There is no doubt that there is an extensive debate about the best way to conduct local authority taxation. Whatever system we have has its flaws, and this is obviously a system that we inherited. I have to say, however, that even if we look at the alternative systems, those who advocate them are not always willing to be very open about their implications. Indeed, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given me this opportunity; I was hoping that I might get it from the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). It has to be said that the briefing note from the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the council elections raises the issue—in addition to the fact that the average council tax is lower in Labour areas, let me say—of the local income tax, which is part of the Liberal programme. It states that

"we are happy to say we would expect an average of around 3 per cent.",
in terms of the increase in income tax as a result of that policy. The briefing then goes on to say:
"however, we don't want to be drawn extensively into this".
[Laughter.] So, I think that it is now time for the Liberal Democrats, having started the debate, to lead it on this issue.

Q4. [109743]

Does the Prime Minister accept that, when crime is falling but the fear of crime is rising, it is important that policing should provide reassurance to the public? Will he therefore congratulate the police community action team based at Risley in my constituency, whose commitment to community policing has brought about a significant reduction in nuisance and antisocial behaviour in that area? Will he also assure the rest of my constituents, who do not yet have the benefit of such teams, that his Government will encourage the spread of this form of community policing and will ensure that it is properly funded?

We will encourage the spread of that community policing. It is extremely important and I congratulate those in my hon. Friend's constituency who have made such a difference on antisocial behaviour. Of course, the new legislation that is coming up, both on the criminal justice system and in the Antisocial Behaviour Bill, will give us an opportunity across the House to take action on an issue that is of enormous importance to our constituents. That is why I hope that the Bill, when it is introduced, will receive support from every quarter of the House. It will allow the police to impose the penalties that they want, and allow us to bring people who transgress and commit antisocial behaviour to court quickly and to have the right range of penalties so that those people are dealt with properly.

On the issue of European defence, the Prime Minister said to the House that

"it would be a tragic mistake … if Britain opted out of the debate on European defence and left the field to others."—[Official Report, 13 December 1999; Vol. 341, c. 22]
Yesterday, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg met to discuss European defence. Why was not Britain involved?

For a very simple reason: four countries were involved yesterday and 11 were not. We are part of the 11.

The reality of not being involved with the others, as the Prime Minister rightly says, is the fact that he started this whole process at St. Malo years ago. He now has seen and will witness the fact that he has become a spectator while others shape the Euro army to break NATO, so he has no one to blame but himself. It is clear from yesterday that the Germans want a separate budget, that the Belgians want a separate headquarters—[Interruption.]

The French want nothing to do with the Americans at all, so if that is the case, does the Prime Minister not agree that he started this and that it was his big idea? He kick-started it and now they are driving off without him.

No. The very reason why the meeting was held yesterday is that those countries were not satisfied with our initiative, which tied European defence to NATO. That is precisely why they felt the need to do what they did yesterday. That is why it was not a good idea for us to be there. [Interruption.] Actually, the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that we should not have been there. [Interruption.] Yes. So we are in agreement, and that is a very good thing. [Laughter.] I have been a bit short of that recently.

Q5. [109744]

The Prime Minister will no doubt have read the early-day motion standing in my name, which has been signed by a couple of Liberal Democrat colleagues, supporting the excellent work by the Electoral Commission in the "Who Cares?" campaign, which is trying to encourage turnout in the Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections. Does he share my disappointment that no nationalist or Conservative Member has seen fit to support it? One might suspect that they have an interest in keeping the turnout down.

I simply say that, obviously, in the Welsh Assembly elections there is, as my hon. Friend indicates, a fundamental choice between either continuing with the Welsh Executive as constituted at present—they are looking after the interests of people in Wales—or waking up on Friday to the potential of a nationalist Executive who would do enormous damage and wreck Wales. They would end up with people being on a path towards separation of Wales from the United Kingdom. That is the one policy that the nationalists stand for, and therefore the one policy that they do not want to talk about.

Q6. [109745]

In my constituency, our schools are short of money, the tax credits are a shambles and remain unpaid, we have a failing hospital and we are short of 200 police officers. What my constituents want to know, Prime Minister, is this: given that we are paying more taxes, why, under your Government, does nothing work?

The hon. Gentleman says that there have been no results from the extra investment, but I have to say to him that, according to the figures that I have, in Hertfordshire local education authority, which is his education authority, there are 500 more teachers. The number of infants in classes of over 30 is down from 11,500 in 1997 to under 400 today. The best results that his LEA has ever achieved in primary schools and in GCSEs were achieved under this Government.

The hon. Gentleman says that we are starving them of money. I totally understand why people will always want more money going into health and education, but we have put a substantial amount in, and might I remind him that that investment—every penny of it—has been opposed by him? So when he is talking to his constituents, he may well make his criticisms of the Government, but perhaps he will then go on to explain why a 20 per cent. across-the-board cut would help.

Q7. [109746]

I welcome the Government's commitment to improving access to higher education, but the problem for many of my constituents is that the nearest university is nearly a hundred miles away. A report that is due to be published soon deals with the provision of degree-level university courses in Cumbria. May I ask the Prime Minister to take a personal interest in the report, which is vital to the people of west Cumbria?

I will take an interest. I believe that Sir Brian Fender's report will be published shortly. Obviously decisions on funding must be made by the Higher Education Funding Council, but I know that my hon. Friend has made a very powerful case.

If it eventually transpires that at the time of our invasion Iraq no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction capable of threatening this country, and that the Prime Minister led this country into war on the basis of a false assumption, will he resign?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if, having refused to engage in all sorts of speculations, I refuse to engage in them now. Let me tell him, however, that I am absolutely convinced and confident about the case on weapons of mass destruction. I simply suggest this to him, and to others who believe that somehow this was all a myth invented by us: I refer them first of all to the 12 years of United Nations reports detailing exactly what weapons of mass destruction were held by the then Iraqi regime. We are now, in a deliberative and considered way, investigating the various sites, and we will produce the analysis and the results of that investigation in due course. I think that when we do so, the hon. Gentleman and others will be eating some of their words.

Q8. [109747]

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the four Labour-controlled councils in Northamptonshire have set the lowest tax increases this year, and that the three Conservative councils have set the highest? With local elections taking place tomorrow, has he any advice for voters in Northamptonshire?

Vote Labour: that is the advice.

It is true that the average council tax is higher in Conservative than in Labour areas. That is one very important part of this. But it is also important, obviously, that we continue the additional investment in our local communities. That investment is supported by the Government—the extra help given to pensioners and other people in our local communities who need it. We can either keep that investment and that help for people, or we can take it out with the Conservatives' 20 per cent. across-the-board cuts.

If and when the Northern Ireland Assembly election takes place on 29 May, and if the Provisional IRA has not totally stood down its full terrorist and criminal organisation and all its activities that make it impossible for my party, the Ulster Unionist party, to join a power-sharing Executive with it, will the Prime Minister encourage and support the formation of a cross-community Executive so that we in Northern Ireland can benefit from the advantages of devolution?

At the moment we are trying to ensure that everyone moves forward, and I hope that everyone does. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not think it very helpful or sensible to speculate on the circumstances in which people refuse to move forward with others.

I made the speech that I made last October to indicate that people understood that there might be a period of transition: that political parties associated with paramilitary groups might make the transition from being parties prepared to have violence in one hand and political activity in the other to being parties committed to exclusively peaceful means. That period of transition is over. What must happen now, if the Government are to be reconstituted and to have any of the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland, is a complete cessation of all paramilitary activity of whatever nature, followed by a process enabling us to put all the arms in Northern Ireland beyond use. Every single party must be committed to that. If the parties are not committed to that, it will be very difficult to reconstitute the Northern Ireland Government in the way that we want.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will accept—they have been very brave in the decisions that they have taken—that the Northern Ireland peace process has delivered an immense amount to the people of Northern Ireland. But we have reached the point of decision, where we need, as I have said before, acts of completion, and those acts have to be absolutely definitive for us to make progress now.