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Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 21 May 2003

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Q 1. [114590]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 May.

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.

The Government's decision to bid for the 2012 Olympics is to be warmly welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend identify some of the tangible benefits that could flow from the bid, if it is successful, to cities and communities outside London? Furthermore, as chair of the all-party Scottish football group, may I ask him to join me in sending best wishes to Glasgow Celtic for tonight's UEFA cup final? It is the only British team left—with the exception of this Government—that has an interest in Europe.

I believe that if we can secure the Olympics for this country there will be enormous benefits not only for London but for the whole of the United Kingdom, in terms of industry, tourism, jobs and, of course, sport. I am sure that the whole House will join my hon. Friend in wishing Glasgow Celtic the best of luck tonight.

The right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) says that the Prime Minister has been "outmanoeuvred" on the euro by a politically obsessed Chancellor. How would the Prime Minister put it?

I am never short of advice on this particular issue. I have to say that everyone will have to wait for the announcement by the Chancellor on 9 June.

So the Prime Minister is not denying that the Chancellor is politically obsessed and outmanoeuvring him. [Laughter.] Those words from his close personal friend show how vicious and personal this feud has become. The reality is that Labour is divided from top to bottom on the euro. Meanwhile, 30 of the Prime Minister's own Back-Bench MPs have signed up to a referendum on the constitution. Are they right?

No, I believe that they are wrong. We do not need a referendum on whatever constitution comes out of the intergovernmental conference. I note that when the Conservatives were in office, the now shadow Foreign Secretary and the now shadow Chancellor—

Yes, that is true. They voted against a referendum, and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) voted in favour of a referendum. That is why I do not think that I need lessons from him on splits over Europe.

Well, if the Prime Minister wants to get into the past, let us just dwell there for a second. Perhaps he will recall saying of the European Union:

"We'll negotiate a withdrawal from the EEC"
because it
"has drained our natural resources and destroyed jobs".
Those are the words of the Prime Minister. I warn him, therefore, that if he wants to get into the past, he should remind himself that, when it comes to Europe, he has done more U-turns than a dodgy plumber. [Interruption.] Oh yes. The truth is that his party is now divided on the Convention on the constitution, as well as being divided on the euro. As Labour MPs know, the constitution was not mentioned in their manifesto, so the Prime Minister has no mandate. Why will he not have a referendum on the constitution and let the British people decide?

The reasons I am against a referendum are the reasons we have often given. The stories being told about what may be proposed in the Convention or at the intergovernmental conference are wrong. This is an important step, however—making sure that when Europe enlarges to 25 countries, Europe can work.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to debate about the European Union and our membership of it, let me remind him that he is still a member of Conservatives Against a Federal Europe. It has said that if we cannot attain our ends by negotiation,
"we must withdraw from the European Union."
The true agenda of the right hon. Gentleman and many other Conservative Members is to get this country out of the European Union. That would be a disaster for Britain, British jobs, British industry and British influence.

The truth is that whenever the Prime Minister comes to the Dispatch Box to answer a question, he just makes it up as he goes along. Last week, for example, he stood there and said that this constitution was necessary for enlargement. The House of Commons Library, however, says

"the Convention and its outcome are not prerequisites for accession, the sole basis for which is the Accession Treaty".
The Prime Minister should get his facts straight.

While we are dealing with the constitution, let me say that it is a reality that up to 10 European countries plan to have referendums, a growing number of the Prime Minister's own Back Benchers demand a referendum, and the vast majority of the British people want to have their say. So why is the Prime Minister frightened of giving the British people their say?

As a matter of fact, a majority of the 25 countries in the European Union are not granting referendums. Their reasons are exactly the same as those set out by the last Government on the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty.

The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the real issue he wants to raise is Britain's withdrawal or non-withdrawal from the European Union. Changing the way in which Europe works is vital if a Europe of 25 is to function effectively. It is essential that we make these changes. The right hon. Gentleman wants to vote no to them even before they have been agreed—and the reason for that is that he and many other Conservative Members remain opposed to Britain's membership of the European Union.

The truth of the matter is that the Conservative party has not changed on this issue since before the election, and it would be a disaster were Britain to follow that course and leave Europe.

Will my right hon. Friend welcome the Home Office's award of £85,000 to Suffolk police for the recruitment of 15 community support officers? Will he join me in encouraging the chief constable to allocate a fair proportion of those officers to the borough of Ipswich, where they may be able to support all the agencies that are trying to tackle serious antisocial behaviour in the south-east corner of the town?

We will obviously have more community safety officers. I hope that all police forces take advantage of the possibility of providing them, as they are a good and helpful support to the police; but we are also going to have record numbers of police, in my hon. Friend's area and elsewhere. We have two major pieces of legislation, the Criminal Justice Bill and the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, and the combination of record police numbers and additional powers will help us to keep crime falling.

May I ask the Prime Minister a question of which his right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) helpfully gave me notice? If he does not agree with his right hon. Friend's description of the Chancellor, will he take this opportunity to disavow it?

As I have said, I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman and everyone else will have to wait until 9 June for the assessment. But I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, as the Chancellor said last night, what we require in Europe is not half-hearted acquiescence but whole-hearted engagement. I think that when the 9 June statement is made, the right hon. Gentleman will find that it corresponds with that vision.

Is not the Prime Minister's real problem not the economic circumstances, but the political conditions of the Chancellor? The more he allows himself to be boxed in by the Chancellor's conditions, the more his policy will be characterised as dither and delay, just like John Major's.

I profoundly disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that the economics are irrelevant. There are three positions on this European debate. What he has effectively said, and the Liberal Democrats have said for six years is that Britain should join the single currency immediately, irrespective—

Yes it is—[Interruption.] Throughout the entirety of the previous Parliament, never mind this one, the Liberal Democrats' position was that we should join the single currency immediately, so they would say yes, irrespective of the economics. The Conservative party says no, irrespective of the economics. We say yes, if the economic conditions are right. That is why the sensible position is that the debate is about the economics, jobs, industry and investment, and that is what 9 June will make clear.

The number of asylum seekers crossing the channel and coming into the port of Dover has reduced so dramatically in recent months that asylum seekers from other parts of the country are now being bussed into Dover to fill empty spaces in our accommodation centre. Does my right hon. Friend expect tomorrow's asylum statistics to reflect the dramatic downward trends in Dover, and can he assure me that this bussing business is just a temporary arrangement?

I can assure my hon. Friend that, as the numbers come down and as other induction centres are opened, the problems in areas such as his will diminish. I cannot say exactly how quickly that will happen but I can assure him that we are very alive to his points. We need to get the number of asylum applications down precisely in order to relieve pressure on areas such as Dover.

Q2. [114637]

Does the Prime Minister share the concern of a number of my constituents, who are well qualified IT professionals with the relevant skills, that 21,000 IT work permits are granted every year while 56,000 British IT professionals are looking for work? Will he agree to investigate whether the granting of 200,000 work permits a year—that is a fivefold increase on last year—is in any way detrimental to the economically inactive in the UK?

There has not been a fivefold increase in work permits. The number has been rising for a considerable time, however, which is, of course, partly because greatly increased activity in the economy means there is rising employment and falling unemployment. Those who gel work permits are specifically audited for their ability to get work in this country—people want them to work for them—and I do not think that it is right to set those people against those who are looking for work. I simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that in his constituency, as in others, unemployment has fallen dramatically over the past few years and there are increasing employment opportunities for people in IT and other sectors as well.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the outbreak of shareholder power at GlaxoSmithKline, where a £22 million payout to the chief executive in the event of his failing to do his job properly was rejected? Does my right hon. Friend agree that such rewards for failure are repugnant?

It is a matter for the shareholders, and what we have done is given them the ability to influence such decisions; I do not think that ultimately they should be taken by Government. It is important that the shareholders in those institutions are able to make their voice heard, and what we have seen this week is evidence of their ability to do that. The changes in corporate governance are in stark contrast to the total refusal of the Conservative party when it was in power to take any of those measures.

Q3. [114638]

Leaving aside for now the issue of the telephone tapping of conversations between Mo Mowlam and Martin McGuinness, is the Prime Minister really comfortable with armed police coming in the middle of the night to the house of distinguished and responsible journalists in Belfast, arresting them in front of their young child, breaking into their study and taking papers? Is that what should be happening in our country today?

I will not comment on the individual circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman has just mentioned because I do not know about them. However, it is extremely important that we enforce the law in every respect, and I simply say this to him and to others: it is particularly important when we are dealing with highly sensitive security information that we make sure that the law is properly upheld and that the ability to keep those issues secret is also upheld. I understand why newspapers and others will take a different view, but I happen to think it extremely important that the work that our security services and police services do, when it is supposed to be kept secret, is indeed kept secret.

Yesterday, Toyota announced an additional shift at its Burnaston plant in my constituency, bringing 1,000 extra jobs to it. Would the Prime Minister care to comment on the implications of a decision such as that for the assessment of working skills in my area, and for the attractiveness of the UK to inward investment?

I am pleased to say that we are still attracting inward investment. The 1,000 extra jobs in my hon. Friend's area are excellent news both for it and for the whole of the country. These jobs indicate not just a high level of industrial activity but increased levels of skills as well. That is one of the reasons why we have, I think, the best rate of unemployment anywhere in the industrialised world at the moment.

At Edenham high school in Croydon, children are being sent home early and teachers face the sack. Who does the Prime Minister think that the parents should blame—the Labour Education Secretary or Labour-controlled Croydon council?

First, in relation to the individual school, I understand that the local education authority is visiting it today to discuss its budget. I am not in a position, and nor is the right hon. Gentleman, to comment in detail on that budget. I would point out, however, that the schools budget for Croydon has increased by more than double the rate of inflation. That, again, if I may say so, is as a result of additional investment being put into schools. Whatever the problems schools have at the moment, they would be infinitely worse if we were not supporting that investment but cutting it—as the right hon. Gentleman wants to do—by 20 per cent. across the board.

I will tell the Prime Minister what the Conservatives will end up cutting: tuition fees, crime, asylum, bureaucracy—and the Government at the next election. But instead of arrogantly trying to say what we will do, why does he not offer an explanation to the parents of the 700 children who will be on the streets this afternoon? The problem is not just happening in Croydon. Up and down the country, schools have run out of money and teachers face the sack. [Interruption.] Oh yes. In Cornwall, Torpoint school is getting rid of two teachers and two support staff, and its head told the Education Secretary yesterday that he had failed. So it is now clear that the Education Secretary has utterly botched the new funding system—that is the reality. So will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to get to the Dispatch Box and apologise to all the parents, teachers and governors?

We have in fact had, as I said, an almost 12 per cent. increase in the schools budget. That is a massive increase on any basis. In addition, over the past few years we have had rises in the number of teachers, rises in the number of classroom assistants and support staff, and the biggest ever investment programme in schools. I have accepted that there are real problems with some schools this year, and we are looking into those, but it cannot be the right answer to the schools funding issue to refuse to support the increases that we are putting in, and instead actually to cut the investment going into schools. So whatever criticisms we get from teachers or local education authorities, a party that wants to cut 20 per cent. off the education budget—

Oh yes—that is the right hon. Gentleman's policy. A party that refuses to support the investment and would cut the schools budget is not a party that can criticise us.

Mass killing of civilians is going on in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What action is the Prime Minister taking to ensure that adequate UN forces get into the region urgently to prevent further massacres?

I spoke to Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, about this the day before yesterday. A UN force is being put together now to go into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and I understand that France will make a considerable contribution to that. Given all our other engagements, we are seeing what support we can give, but it will be very important to try to make sure that that force is properly led and properly supportive; otherwise, we will revisit the terrors of the Congo of a decade or so ago. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are doing everything that we can to avoid that.

Q4. [114639]

The Prime Minister is no doubt aware that the first anniversary of the Potters Bar crash has just passed, but is he aware of the plight of the bereaved and injured? They are still waiting for a full explanation of how the accident happened, and for someone to accept responsibility, as has been the case with similar incidents previously. Will the Prime Minister and his colleagues give serious consideration to the call from the families for a public inquiry?

I understand the concern of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and I understand too why it is a particularly difficult situation for them, when so long a time has passed. However, the Health and Safety Executive has said that it wants to conduct the most thorough investigation. It has not completed that yet, and it is not for us to tell it when to complete it. Obviously, as soon as that investigation is completed we will analyse the outcome, and announce any further proposals at that time.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Gloucester city council on its endeavours to regenerate acres of brownfield land in my constituency? However, he may be aware that one scheme, at St. Oswald's park and valued at more than £100 million, received the green light for local planning in August 2001 and is waiting for approval from Government. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ensure that projects with very real regeneration credentials are speeded up through the planning process?

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. I do not know about the particular development to which he refers, but we do want to ensure that development on brownfield sites is speeded up. It is precisely for that reason that we are putting forward proposals to make the planning process work faster. I hope that we will have a result on that in the near future.

Q5. [114640]

The Prime Minister will be aware that the Scottish Parliament agreed at the beginning of this year to pay compensation to hepatitis C sufferers in Scotland who contracted the disease through contaminated NHS blood products. However, not a penny piece has yet been paid, as a result of dithering by Westminster over jurisdiction. Can I inject a sense of urgency into the debate and ask the Prime Minister to confirm today that Westminster will not frustrate the will of the Scottish Parliament to pay compensation under exemption from the benefits clawback regulations? Surely the Prime Minister would agree that the people involved have already waited far too long for justice.

I am aware of the Scottish Executive's decision to pay compensation to hepatitis C sufferers. I am not aware of the other particular problem to which the hon. Lady has just drawn attention. I shall look into it, and write to her about it.

Q6. [114641]

Will my right hon. Friend inform the House of the measures that we can take to alleviate the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe under Mugabe? He will be aware that inflation there is at 228 per cent. and unemployment at 80 per cent., that 75 per cent. of the industrial base is not being used at present and that people are starving. Does he accept that there is a need to speak urgently to President Mbeki to make sure that, sooner rather than later, he exerts his influence and prevails on Mugabe to resign?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had a meeting with the President of South Africa just last week. We continue to press at every possible level for action against Zimbabwe. The situation there is obviously deteriorating rapidly—it is appalling, in humanitarian and political terms, and in terms of the economic situation for people. That is why it is important, particularly in relation to the Commonwealth, that we continue to make it clear that the actions of Zimbabwe under the Mugabe Government are utterly unacceptable.

What is the right rate of exchange for entry into the euro?

The issues to do with the rate of exchange will, of course, be discussed at the time when the assessment is made.[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked about the right rate of exchange. Fixing the rate of exchange would happen when we decided to enter the euro.

Q7. [114642]

Does my right hon. Friend consider it possible that further amending the UN draft resolution to mandate the early return to Iraq of both organisations of UN weapons inspectors could help to reunify the international community, to reassert the authority of the UN, and to provide credibility in the face of scepticism that the extent and immediacy of the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which precipitated the rush to war, now seem possibly to have been exaggerated?

In respect of the UN resolution, discussions in the UN Security Council are proceeding extremely well and I hope very much that we can reach agreement this week on a new UN Security Council resolution. That will also deal specifically with the return of UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In relation to weapons of mass destruction, as I have said before, we are conducting a thorough search of all potential sites. We are also interviewing scientists and experts under the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, and I can assure the House that when all that evidence has been accumulated—I think people will find that it is very telling indeed—we shall present it and there can be a proper debate about weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi regime.

Q8. [114643]

Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating my constituent, Velma Paterson, on her successful hip operation under the NHS? May I tell him that she was delighted with the clean, modern hospital, the excellent medical staff and the tremendous post-operative care, but can he explain to me and to her why she had to have her operation in France?

Yes, I can explain that. It is also the case that hon. Members on both sides of the House will know of constituents who have had superb care in the NHS in this country. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituent recognises that it is only because we are prepared to pay for operations, should people have to wait too long on the NHS, that she was able to get that treatment. The vast majority of people get their operations on time, in the NHS, in this country, but, for the first time, if they are unable to get that treatment within a specified time, we are prepared to pay here, abroad or wherever to reduce their suffering. However, all that, including that constituent's operation, could not take place without the investment in the health service—[Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition may be tired of hearing that, but he is going to hear it from now until the next general election. The truth is that without the extra investment, that constituent's operation would not have been done, and I hope that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) tells her that.

As someone who supported the operation to overthrow Saddam Hussein before, during and after the war, I welcome the progress at the United Nations, but does the Prime Minister agree that we need to make further progress in controlling civil unrest and in training forces in non-lethal methods of crowd control so that we can establish a stable environment for the new Iraqi interim regime?

My hon. Friend is right, and, if we are able to secure the UN resolution in the next few days, I hope that it will also allow us to access greater support from other countries. The situation in Baghdad is improving and the situation in Basra, in the south, has rapidly improved, but there is still a long way to go. If we can get the help of other countries, we can make even faster progress.

Q9. [114644]

The Secretary of State for Wales, the Government's representative on the Future of Europe Convention, described the outcome as merely tidying up. I think that the Prime Minister and I share the conviction that it is in Britain's national interest to be a member of the European Union, and to be a leading member. Would this not be an opportunity to explain again to the British people, 30 years after we joined, what the benefits are, and would it not also be an opportunity for the Prime Minister to assuage the fears of those who feel that this is something more than tidying up?

There is a very good opportunity to explain to people the benefits of the European Union. What the hon. Gentleman says is right; he represents a strand of the Conservative party that is, I am afraid, all too little represented on the Conservative Benches. People ask what has come out of Europe to Britain's benefit. What has come out for the past few decades is peace, prosperity, rising living standards and the chance to play a part in the world's biggest strategic alliance and single economic market. I think, therefore, that there will be an opportunity both when the assessment is announced on 9 June and in respect of the Convention to hold a proper public debate in this country about Europe. I look forward to that debate, during the course of which it will be seen increasingly that those who really want to wrench Britain out of Europe—as do Conservative Front-Bench Members—are in a minority.

Q10. [114645]

The European Court of Justice has decreed that Governments should no longer hold golden shares in companies, the European Commission does not believe that Governments should dictate the shape or form of public interest companies that can take on services, and the European Central Bank is touting the idea that Governments should no longer run health services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the European Union's privatisation agenda is running a bit ahead of itself and could even reach the stage where it threatens some of our flagship policies?

Obviously, we shall study the judgment about the golden shares carefully. In relation to the national health service, I simply point out to my hon. Friend that one of the reasons why we want to raise health service and health care public spending in this country is precisely that we recognise that we are not spending enough on the national health service. It is thus rather an odd charge that if we were part of the European Union we could not spend the money that we wanted on health.