Skip to main content


Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Ql. [111502]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 7 May.

This morning I met the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard. I know that the whole House will want to welcome him to the Palace of Westminster today, and I am delighted to pay tribute to the brilliant contribution made by Australian forces alongside British and American troops in securing the liberation of Iraq—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] After that moment of consensus, in addition to my duties in the House I will have further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others later today.

But does my right hon. Friend agree that no industry underpins our manufacturing more than the steel industry—particularly the special engineering steel that constitutes 80 per cent. of our exports of aerospace steel? That industry is based in my constituency and I believe that it may be at risk from the announcement made by Corus last Tuesday. Will my right hon. Friend not ask, but insist, that the new management and leadership at Corus work in partnership with the Government and with the representatives of the work force to ensure a proper, viable potential plan for steel in this country that builds on new markets and does not squander opportunities?

My hon. Friend is right in saying that it is important to work in partnership with the company, the unions and, indeed, our Dutch counterparts. That is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is doing. I also welcome the Select Committee on Trade and Industry inquiry into the future of the steel industry, which starts today. For any people who lose their jobs, we will put in place every possible measure to ensure that they find fresh jobs and acquire the training and skills necessary to get them.

I join the Prime Minister in welcoming the Australian Prime Minister to the House: he is a true ally of this country.

However, with hundreds of schools budgeting for deficits and threatening to sack teachers, will the Prime Minister tell the House whether his education department passed on all the available money to schools last year?

The Department for Education and Skills has passed on a record increase—some where in the region of 12 per cent. in cash terms. The Department has just published an analysis of what local education authorities have and have not passed on. The 12 per cent. cash terms increase that we are giving to education stands in stark contrast to the 20 per cent. across-the-board cuts in education spending that the right hon. Gentleman wants to see.

The Prime Minister failed to answer the question. The Department for Education and Skills held back £1 billion from schools last year. Last Friday, the Prime Minister had the cheek to blame councils for underspending. After five Labour education Bills, three Labour Secretaries of State for education and all the moneys raised in taxes, schools are in deficit and teachers now face the sack up and down the country. Turning to the health service, will the Prime Minister tell us whether there are more bureaucrats or beds in the NHS today?

First, on education, we are putting about £2.5 billion extra into education. May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that there are now more teachers in our education service, more classroom assistants and support staff and more capital investment going into schools, which, again, stands in contrast to his commitment to cut that spending?

As for the national health service, what he says on beds and bureaucrats is complete nonsense.

According to the Prime Minister's own Department's figures, there are now more bureaucrats than beds. After the fifth reorganisation of the health service in six years, hospital admissions are now falling, treatments are flat, and a record number of people now have to seek treatment outside the NHS.

Turning to crime, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether violent crime is rising or falling?

I can see why the right hon. Gentleman wants to leave these subjects pretty quickly, given the answers that he gets. I will deal first with the national health service: he made some comments and I think they should be answered. Let me point out to him what the extra investment has bought: 750,000 more elective admissions since 1997; a 37 per cent. rise in heart operations; a 56 per cent. rise in cataract operations; 1.4 million more out-patient appointments a year; 96 per cent. of people who are diagnosed with cancer seeing a specialist within two weeks; and 50,000 extra nurses. Let that stand in contrast to a rise of 400,000 in waiting lists under the Conservatives.

As for crime, it has fallen, not risen, under this Government.

The Prime Minister's own Department's records show that violent crime is up by 20 per cent. in the last year alone, and gun crime under this Government has doubled. The Prime Minister therefore failed to answer that question, too. The point is that he has had 14 criminal justice Bills and a £5 billion increase in the Home Office budget, against which that failure stands in stark contrast.

On transport, can the Prime Minister tell us whether traffic congestion has risen or fallen under his Government?

First, let us deal with crime. We should carry this exchange forward, and I look forward to talking to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment about mortgage rates, jobs, inflation and several other things. In relation to crime, it is correct that violent crime has been going up for around 15 years. Overall, however, crime has fallen, not risen, under this Government. As the right hon. Gentleman talks about stark contrast, I will give him the stark contrast: under this Government, crime has fallen, whereas under the Conservatives, it doubled. That is the stark contrast. Incidentally, I thank him for the opportunity of pointing out that we have more police officers today than we have ever had. As for transport congestion, it is true that that has risen.

The Prime Minister knows that six years ago his Government promised an integrated transport strategy and his own deputy pledged to get people out of their cars. There has been a rise of 7 per cent., however, and the reality is that a quarter of trains now do not run on time. Given that record of failure, will the Prime Minister tell the whole House how much extra he plans to take from taxpayers this year?

First, in relation to the tax burden, it has fallen in the last year. It is absolutely correct that the national insurance rise has been introduced this year to pay for a massive increase in national health service funding. If the right hon. Gentleman does not support that rise, let him tell us how he intends to match the extra investment going into the health service.

It has not just risen—this year alone, it will rise by £26 billion. After six years of Labour Government, the tax burden is up for every household by £5,500—an increase. In return, taxpayers have received teacher redundancies, falling hospital admissions, more violent crime and a transport system in chaos. For all the Prime Minister's talk of reform in the public services, is it not the case that after six years of Labour Government all we have is more tax, more waste and more failure?

Let us look at the results. In respect of schools, we have the best primary school results the country has ever seen. We have the best GCSE results the country has ever seen. We have the largest hospital building programme under way since the beginning of the 1948 NHS. Never mind that the right hon. Gentleman talks about more bureaucrats, we have more nurses in our health service. Every waiting list and waiting time, nationally, is in a better position than in 1997; and crime is down, not up.

I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the economy. I shall mention it for him, too. In respect of the economy. we have the lowest mortgages for 40 years; we have the lowest unemployment for 30 years; we have the lowest inflation for 30 years; and we have the highest employment ever. That is the difference between Labour and Tory.

Q2. [111503]

My constituents are seeing genuine improvements in the quality of their health service locally: Northwick Park hospital, which serves my constituents, is in the top 10 according to The Sunday Times good hospital guide and a £15 million investment programme in maternity services is due to start shortly. However, there is real concern locally about the possible move of the regional cancer centre from Mount Vernon hospital, which also serves my constituents, because of the possible break-up of the excellent clinical team that operates from the hospital. If the proposal should survive and land on Ministers' desks, can my right hon. Friend assure me that, before they take a decision, the appropriate Minister will meet me and a delegation of my constituents?

I am sure that a Minister will do so if it comes to the point that my hon. Friend describes. My understanding is that those proposals have been put forward by the strategic health authority; they are now under consultation not only by local clinicians but by local people. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that overall there has been a substantial increase in investment in cancer care, and that has yielded significant results for cancer treatment in this country. I am sure that there will be all sorts of local debates about the best way to configure that provision and I assure my hon. Friend that, before any decisions are taken, his representations will be taken fully into account.

Returning to the earlier exchanges, the only thing that seemed to be missing from the comments of the leader of the Conservative party was that his cat had died under a Labour Government.

The genuine case for local decision making, decentralisation and reform within the health service is valid, but the proposal for foundation hospitals will inevitably create two-tierism in our national health service. What does the Prime Minister have to say to the staff and patients who will find themselves left behind?

I would simply say that the best answer is that given by health service professionals and workers in the health service, who support the idea of greater devolution and also the idea that it should be on an earned basis, so that we ensure, before the extra freedoms and powers are given, that those hospitals are at the highest possible standard. We are then putting a substantial sum of money into other hospitals in order to raise them to the same standard. It is completely absurd for the right hon. Gentleman to say that he is in favour of local devolution and then to oppose the very proposals that give it.

The Prime Minister is focusing on the issue of foundation hospitals, but he must reflect on the fact that he has a set a target for 2004 that will involve 3,000 fewer hospital beds than when he came into office six years ago. How does he explain that away to the British people?

We are actually increasing the number of hospital beds at present. It is true that they were declining for a long period. Sometimes, that could be for good reason: people could decide to carry out day care cases rather than have patients stay overnight in hospital. At the moment, however, we are increasing the number of beds in the hospital service. It is absolutely right to say that, as a result of the additional investment that we are putting in—the largest-ever investment in the health service—we shall be increasing the number of staff working in the health service, the number of beds, the number of GP premises, the number of hospital refurbishments and, indeed, of entirely new hospitals. The important thing is to ensure that, at the same time as we are making that massive investment in the health service, the public see real reform taking place, because that is the basis on which they are prepared to support funding the health service.

Perhaps my right hon. Friend has not yet had time to study last week's results of the elections to the Scottish Parliament. Is he aware that the election of list members under a complicated system of proportional representation has had a bizarre outcome, to say the least? Will he therefore guarantee that he will never introduce any form of PR for elections to this Westminster Parliament?

I have no doubt that there will be an ongoing debate on this subject, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I will listen very carefully to it.

Q3. [111504]

Does the Prime Minister recall that in written answers to me and in an oral answer to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) last week. he confirmed that he adheres to the Wilson doctrine relating to the telephone tapping of Members? When that doctrine was outlined on 17 November 1966 to one of my predecessors as MP for Lewes, Sir Tufton Beamish, it was indicated that there would be "no tapping whatsoever", and that if there were to be a change of policy, the then Prime Minister would make a statement to the House.

It now seems that at least one MP has been subject to telephone tapping, yet no statement has been made. Will the Prime Minister therefore state quite categorically whether any Member of Parliament has been subject to telephone tapping since 1997? This is an important constitutional matter and needs a straight answer; indeed, the Wilson doctrine requires that he give it. Will he do so now?

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman but I have nothing to add to the answer that I gave last week.

Q4. [111505]

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Attorney-General on his successful appeal against lenient sentences for the notorious Pitt Bull Crew, a drugs and gun gang in Manchester that is responsible for murder and violence? Does he also agree that if we are to defeat the gun gangs in our cities, we must not only offer ways out of the gun and gang culture for those young men who want to get out, but ensure that the courts hand down sentences that are warranted for those involved in murder, extreme violence and witness intimidation?

First, I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in Manchester in respect of this issue. I know that it has troubled many of his constituents over a number of years, and he has played a significant part in shaping the Government's proposals in this area. Obviously, I support strongly what the Home Secretary said in relation to sentencing principles earlier today. In respect of gun crime, too, my hon. Friend will know that, as a result of the amnesty, we reckon that something in the region of 25,000 guns and more than 500,000 rounds of ammunition are being or will be being handed in to the police. But that has got to come alongside tougher sentences—in particular, a mandatory five-year sentence for anyone convicted of illegal possession of, or distribution of, prohibited firearms. I hope very much, both in respect of what the Home Secretary said and of gun crime, that these proposals have the support of the whole House.

Q5. [111506]

If the Prime Minister is serious about genuine reform in the NHS, why is he not supporting the Health Secretary against the Chancellor in the debate on the borrowing powers for foundation hospitals?

The proposals are those set out in the Bill; therefore, those proposals should be supported—and will be supported—by everybody. But let me put the question to the hon. Gentleman, since he will be voting against these proposals today. How can he say that he is in favour of local devolution of the health service, and then vote against the measure that actually delivers it? That simply shows that one part of the Opposition is against the investment and the other part of the Opposition is against the reform; only this side stands for investment plus reform.

The Prime Minister will be aware that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has issued an appeal to the International Labour Organisation and to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions to involve themselves in the creation of a democratic trade union movement in Iraq. Will he have words with President Bush to establish that the President also presses for this, and supports the development of a labour movement as part of the democratic movement in Iraq?

One of the great advantages of the liberation of Iraq is that the people there should be able to enjoy the same human rights as people enjoy in other countries that have a greater history of democracy and representative government. One of those essential freedoms and rights is the right to be a member of a trade union, and I have no doubt at all that that will form part of the dispensation in the new Iraq that is being created.

Q6. [111507]

I am sure that the Prime Minister, having recently visited the base, will join me in saluting the airmen and airwomen o f RAF Lyneham in my constituency, whose Hercules aircraft are the first and last out of every conflict. Does he agree that a significant part of the outstanding success of Operation Telic in Iraq recently was down to the fact that the Hercules were able to take the stores and personnel in and out? Does he also agree that all future conflicts will equally depend on RAF Lyneham?

I think that I know the point behind the question, having visited the base. First, let me express my thanks and gratitude to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, to all those who work at RAF Lyneham and to the families of the servicemen and women, because they have been extraordinary in their support for our armed forces. In respect of RAF Lyneham, I have nothing to add to what I said when I was there, but I accept and understand the very important role that it has played in previous conflicts and, I have no doubt at all, will play in future conflicts, too.

Q6. [111507]

The Prime Minister will know that British consumers now owe £48 billion in outstanding debts to credit card companies—twice the public sector borrowing requirement. Does he agree that consumers need to be able to compare and contrast the complicated fees and charging structures offered by different card companies? Will he back moves to introduce an honesty box to standardise the presentation of those charges across the industry, so that consumers can choose the best credit card to match their needs and reduce their burden of debt?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in this issue, and it is a very serious issue, which is why the Financial Services Authority is looking at it at the moment; indeed, the Government are also looking at it in the context of the review of the provisions of the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Ahead of that, I can tell him that the Department of Trade and Industry has been meeting the credit industry, the regulators and consumer groups to chart the right way forward, and there is indeed enthusiasm for the so-called honesty boxes referred to by my hon. Friend, to set out in advertisements or application forms the key applicable interest rates and charges. I have no doubt at all that that will be an important way to ensure that, when people borrow, they borrow responsibly.

I do not doubt the Prime Minister's commitment to public services. May I draw his attention to one of the most basic of all public services—waste disposal—where it seems that the Government are on a strategy that is drifting towards a disaster that will make the fridge mountain look like a molehill? May I ask him to read paragraphs 77 and 80 of last week's all-party Environmental Audit Committee report on that point and to reflect personally on the very serious implications of what that Select Committee has found?

I will certainly reflect on the Environmental Audit Committee's report, and I certainly hope that we have learned some lessons from the attempt to implement previous European Union directives. Perhaps I can get back to the hon. Gentleman and correspond with him on the particular point that he raises.

Q8. [111509]

How will my right hon. Friend recognise, reward and thank the teachers and support staff up and down the country who have helped thousands more children to learn to read, to get good GCSEs and to qualify for university?

There has been a lot of talk, obviously, about the difficulties that schools and local education authorities have had. One reason for that is the substantial additional increments in pay and the support for pensions that we are putting into the system, and the simple and best way to support teachers is to try to create the environment in which many good schools develop and in which they are happy to teach, because they perform a magnificent job for our children, which is shown in the results that we are achieving. As one earnest of our commitment to our school system, in virtually every constituency—certainly in my own, but I am sure in my hon. Friend's also—we can see the results of the large capital investment programme in primary and secondary schools up and down this country.

Q9. [111510]

Spain has a Conservative tax-cutting Government, with real foundation hospitals. Does the Prime Minister understand why my constituents David and Victoria Beckham might be considering moving there?

The principle of not-for-profit hospitals is also known in Germany, which has a social democratic Government.

Q10. [111511]

Before Easter, I participated in a conference in Qatar on democracy in the Arab world, which included representatives from all across the Arab and Muslim world. There are very big moves among people in those countries to improve democracy and accountability. Can the Prime Minister assure me that his Government will provide help and support to women and men in those countries who are working for more democratic government that is consistent with their countries' traditions and the principles of Islam?

I assure my hon. Friend that we work on our own account and also inside the European Union to promote democracy, good governance and civil rights. It is worth pointing out that, just in the past year or so, there have been elections in Yemen, Bahrain and Morocco, and a referendum has been held in Qatar to approve the new constitution. There are also forthcoming parliamentary elections in Jordan. There is, therefore, a continuing programme of work happening. We and our European partners will do everything that we can to shape the emergence of democracy in the Arab world and to support it, although ultimately these decisions must be for the Arab people themselves.

Q11. [111512]

The 1997 Labour manifesto said of comprehensive schools:

"Children are not all of the same ability, nor do they learn at the same speed. That means 'setting' children in classes to maximise progress".
Will the Prime Minister explain why, six years later, two thirds of lessons in the first three years of secondary school still take place in mixed ability classes?

In the end, these decisions have to be for the teachers and head teachers themselves, but we have done everything that we can to encourage them. The hon. Gentleman will find that to be the case particularly in the new specialist schools, which are getting superb results up and down the country. In opening up the diversity of supply in our education system, we are indeed catering for children of different abilities, and perhaps the best response is to point out yet again that, over the past few years, we have had the best set of school results that this country has seen. According to a recent international report on education, this country now ranks third in terms of how our 11 year-olds are taught in our schools. That is surely something on which we should congratulate our education system.

Q12. [111513]

The Prime Minister will know the case of Catherine Meyer, whose two sons were abducted by her German husband nine years ago. My right hon. Friend kindly wrote to the German Chancellor about the case, but received a very unhelpful reply. Will he please write again to Chancellor Schröder and remind him that it is wrong in principle for individuals to use the German courts to deny a mother access to or contact with her children for almost a decade? Surely we expect better from an EU partner.

My hon. Friend has made numerous representations on Lady Meyer's behalf and, as he rightly says, I have raised the case with Chancellor Schröder. I will reflect carefully on what my hon. Friend has asked me to do, but I should point out to him that we are in touch with the German authorities and discussing a whole range of issues to do with family cases. Obviously, we have to be sensitive about the

degree to which we seek to interfere in the jurisdiction of another country, but, subject to that, I will certainly reflect on what my hon. Friend has said.

Q13. [111514]

The Prime Minister will have read the report from the European Central Bank about the impact on the national health service if we were to go into the euro. Will he be prepared to defend the euro, or the national health service and our whole social service structure?

With the greatest respect to that report, I believe that the maintenance of the national health service is entirely compatible with Britain being part of the single currency. Whether we are part of the single currency depends, as the hon. Gentleman knows, on the five tests.

Parents are understandably confused about school finances this year. In Westminster city council, funding for education has gone up by 65 per cent. since 1997, yet schools are in serious difficulties this year. Meanwhile, the council has found £21 million to spend on other priorities, including a new call centre, while not passporting all the money through to schools. Will my right hon. Friend do what he can to ensure that money is passed through to schools and, when that is done, will he act sympathetically towards those authorities facing broader financial difficulties because of factors such as the census and the mainstreaming of the school standards fund?

The answer is yes to both points. We have obviously put a series of questions to local education authorities, including the one mentioned by my hon. Friend, and it is extremely important that we get proper and detailed answers to them. We can then work out exactly what action to take. She is absolutely right to say that, overall, there has been a massive increase in the investment going into education in this country, which is why it is important that that money is passported through to the schools.

Q14. [111515]

Following the Prime Minister's answer to the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), who referred to the outstanding cancer centre at Mount Vernon hospital in my constituency, which is regrettably under threat of closure, will he consider the future of the equally outstanding Harefield hospital in my constituency? Its Anzac centre was recently opened by His Excellency Michael L'Estrange, the Australian high commissioner, in honour of the brave Australian soldiers who were treated there during the great war. The hospital has performed more heart transplants than any other in the world. If the Prime Minister wishes to reform the NHS and provide a foundation for progress, keeping Harefield hospital open would be a good place to start.

I entirely understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises but I hope that he would agree with me that, at least in the first instance, decisions on how we configure local health care should be taken by the local strategic health authority itself. Therefore, it is important that proposals are first made by the locality and followed by a consultation with local people and others who may use the services before finally the decision comes to the Government. If the hon. Gentleman talks to people involved in cardiac care in the country, he will find, as with cancer care, that there has again been a substantial improvement to cardiac treatment. Waiting times are significantly down and there is an increased number of consultants. That again is, of course, because of the additional investment what we are putting into the health service.