Skip to main content

Prime Minister

Volume 406: debated on Wednesday 11 June 2003

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

The Prime Minister was asked

Engagements

Q1. [118362]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 11 June.

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 confirm that the Minister for Europe spoke for the Government when he said that the prospect of a deal with Spain over the sovereignty of Gibraltar was simply zero?

The Minister certainly did speak for the Government. However, what he actually said was that there could be no question of any deal going through without the consent of the people of Gibraltar. We have always made that clear. That remains the position. I have said it myself, and the Minister for Europe said it too.

Change is often difficult to handle, for our constituents and for those delivering public services. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the deal struck between West Sussex county council and Crawley borough council to deliver a stunning new secondary school and new facilities for leisure in my constituency represents the sort of change that will deliver our public services?

The investment in my hon. Friend's constituency is matched by investment across the whole country. In terms of capital funding, we as a country are now spending about four or five times what was being spent when this Government came to office. As a result of that, we have the best school results—at primary level, and in GCSEs and A-levels—that the country has ever seen.

The Chancellor said on Monday that he would wait until next year and then see whether his tests on the euro had been met. Surely the Prime Minister would agree that his policy is now wait and see?

It is, as the Chancellor described, to take the preparations necessary to make sure that Britain is in a position, should the economics be in the right place, to join the single currency.

So the Prime Minister confirms that the policy is now wait and see. I remind the Prime Minister of what he used to say about the self-same policy. He said that it led to

"paralysis in the Government—even the big man of the Cabinet cannot get his way. The Government are weak, divided and are being pushed around by their factions."
So there it is. In his own words, the Prime Minister's policy is weak and uncertain. However, British business needs certainty. Will the Prime Minister now tell us whether his deal with the Chancellor means that next year's Budget will be the last chance of this Parliament to trigger an assessment of the euro?

We set out the measures that will be taken over the next year, and said that we would return to the assessment in the Budget. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer!"] Well, I am absolutely amazed that the right hon. Gentleman should return to the scene of the last Conservative Government, because who was the person creating all the trouble? I thank him for this question—I do not know whether it was planted by my right hon. Friend—as it gives me the opportunity to read out what he was saying at the self-same time. He said:

"The public is ready to go for Britain repatriating its powers from the EU"—
I see Opposition Members nodding in agreement—
"which could eventually mean pulling out."
That was the right hon. Gentleman's policy then. The truth is, it is his policy now.

The only person in this House who has stood on a manifesto to get out of the European Union is the Prime Minister. Having attacked the last Government for their policy of wait and see, it is he who has now adopted the very same policy. His failure to answer the specific question of whether next year will be the last chance to trigger an assessment shows that we will have exactly what the Chancellor foretold six years ago—a running commentary that will damage British business.

Let me remind the Prime Minister that he used to say that we can have unity without clarity, or clarity without unity, but we cannot have both. Has the Prime Minister at last discovered the third way—no clarity, no unity and no credibility at all?

What we have set out is why the benefits of the single currency are very clear. We have set out the obstacles remaining to British membership, and we have set out a way of removing those obstacles.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the evidence for British business. Let me tell him what would be a disaster for British business—withdrawing from the European Union. If he says that that is no longer his policy, perhaps he will explain why he was a member of CAFE—Conservatives Against a Federal Europe—which said:
"If it is not possible to attain these ends by negotiation, we must withdraw from the European Union".
He was a member of that organisation, was he not? This is what it says on its website now:
"Conservatives Against a Federal Europe has closed down and will remain closed while Iain Duncan Smith is leader of the Party."
In other words, the only reason it has closed down is that the lunatics have finally taken over the asylum. The disaster for British business and Britain is the policy that the right hon. Gentleman actually believes in.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that issues such as antisocial behaviour and policing levels are important to communities such as mine. Will he set out his policy on how he will reduce crime and ensure that the police on our beats are increasing in number, not just now but in future?

The most important thing, which is why I hope that the Anti-social Behaviour Bill gets the support of the whole House, is to give the police the powers that they need, and, in particular, to put in place fixed penalty notices for those who commit antisocial behaviour and to support drugs proposals that, in the country's main crime areas, will mean that we have a proper testing facility for all those people who are arrested for the main criminal offences. If they are tested positive, they can then be referred for treatment; if they refuse to take treatment, that can be taken into account when bail is applied for. I hope that the whole House will support those proposals, which will be important in giving the police the powers that they need.

As and when the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs conducts its investigation into Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, if the Prime Minister and Alastair Campbell are invited to give oral evidence, will they?

There are two inquiries. One is in relation to the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I met it yesterday and made it clear that we will co-operate in any way at all. In relation to the Foreign Affairs Committee, in accordance with convention, I will not, and nor will officials, attend that Committee. The Foreign Secretary will, as will the permanent secretary to the Foreign Office. That is entirely in line with convention, but I may point out that, by dint of appearing in front of the Select Committee on Liaison, I am the first Prime Minister to have appeared before a Select Committee?

Given the massive and understandable interest in all that, if the principal players involved do not appear in the public gaze to give their evidence, will that not simply underscore the view, which has wide support in all parties in the House, that there should be an independent judicial review?

The proposal that the Foreign Secretary and the permanent secretary should go to the Foreign Affairs Committee is entirely in line with convention and practice. Again, let me say to the right hon. Gentleman in relation to the allegations that have been made that, as I pointed out in the House last week, there is not a shred of truth in any allegation—

He could have fooled me. He has been making a few allegations. The fact is that there is no truth in them whatsoever. If there is any evidence to justify those allegations, it should be brought forward.

When the Berlin wall was constructed, the international community protested vigorously. Why have its protests been so muted about the building by the Israelis of a 217-mile-long wall on Palestinian soil? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Israelis are really serious about peace they should stop building that wall now?

It is precisely because we want to see the situation change, including removing security measures like that, that we are engaged in discussion with the Israelis and the Palestinians to try to ensure progress. I am sure that my hon. Friend would also agree that it is important, as part of that peace process, that the Israelis be given proper guarantees about their security. It will be very difficult to make progress in that area, but I am sure that the only way to do so is the way that President Bush described, so that we have an end point, which is the two-state solution, and a series of measures in respect of both security and then lifting the restrictions to enable law-abiding Palestinians—the vast majority—to go about their daily business. However, that has to be negotiated. I understand the concerns about the security fence, but the only way to make sure that those things are off the agenda is to get a proper peace process moving forward.

Q2. [118363]

Does the Prime Minister believe that the risk of terrorism in the UK is greater or less since the war with Iraq?

I think that there is a risk of terrorism the whole time, irrespective of the war in Iraq. The best evidence and proof of that is where some of the most recent appalling terrorist acts have taken place. As far as I am aware, Morocco was not a great supporter of the war in Iraq, but it was subjected to brutal terrorist assaults. There is no way in which those terrorists can be appeased. Trials of people connected with al-Qaeda are happening all over Europe, in countries that supported the United States of America and in countries that did not. By hiding away at the back on any of these issues, we are not going to stop the terrorists; we shall only stop them when we confront them and defeat them.

Q3. [118364]

On Monday, among other events, a new block of school buildings opened in Swadlincote, in my constituency. More than half the schools in my area have received capital investment over the last six years—compared with the misery of Tory rule. However, in a fast-growing area such as South Derbyshire, which is attracting more and more people to it, we desperately need to sustain that investment. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that is what we can expect?

The investment will be sustained, as a result of the measures that the Government have put in place in the comprehensive spending review. In Derbyshire, for example, capital spending has increased from about £5 million to well over £60 million. That is precisely the difference between a Labour Government who believe in investing in education and a Conservative party with a policy of 20 per cent. cuts across the board.

Given the Prime Minister's answer to his hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd), perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us how many teachers are facing redundancy right now?

According to the Department for Education and Skills, there are about 500 net redundancies. We are looking carefully at each of those, however, to see where the local education authority or the Department can help. I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that there are about 25,000 more teachers in place than when we came into office.

I remind the Prime Minister that the figures that he has given are from only the third of schools that have declared their position so far. The estimates show that at least 800 teachers face the sack as a direct result of the funding crisis. When the Secretary of State for Education and Skills said that

"the overall level of redundancies…will be of the same order as in past years"—[Official Report, 22 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 1136.]
will the Prime Minister confirm that he was not telling the truth?

I will not confirm that at all. It is correct that every year there are teachers who are made redundant, and the estimates that I have given are the correct estimates. Of course it is true that certain schools in certain parts of the country have faced real funding problems, partly as a result of increasing costs, partly as a result of the changing of the formula. However, overall the position is as I have described, which is that there has been a very large increase in school funding.

Increases in national insurance, problems over the funding—it is down to the Government. And the Education Secretary was simply not telling the truth. The reality is that the figures for redundancies are that, this year, three times as many will face the sack as last year. So the Education Secretary, as ever, first tried to blame schools, and then when that failed he tried to blame councils. Surely he now has only himself to blame.

Six years ago the Prime Minister promised to make education his first priority. Now the Government are sacking teachers. Should not the Prime Minister immediately get to the Dispatch Box and apologise to parents, teachers and governors for this, his crisis?

First, as I say, it is important to get the issue in context. Actually, it is a small minority of the schools that are affected but some have been affected seriously. We are looking, with their local education authorities and those schools, at what we can do to help. The right hon. Gentleman says that we have let down the education system over the past few years, but let me remind him that, by contrast with the situation that we inherited in 1997, we have not just 25,000 more teachers but 80,000 more support staff. We have the best primary school results that we have ever had, the best GCSE and A-level results and the largest ever capital programme.

It is true that, as a result of the pressures on costs, not least the one-off payment on pensions, there have been real difficulties for some schools, but the answer to that cannot be the right hon. Gentleman's policy of opposing the extra investment in schools and imposing a 20 per cent. cut across the board. Perhaps he can tell us how such a policy could possibly help any of the schools in financial difficulties.

Q4. [118365]

While visiting new mums at the new maternity ward at the Luton and Dunstable hospital on Friday, we were delighted to hear of an extra £1.6 million Government funding for a new operating theatre. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that Luton has one of the highest levels of child mortality and heart disease and inherited one of the lowest levels of funding? Will he, when he reviews the fair funding formula, ensure that it is fair, and in the meantime, encourage his health colleagues to dish out some extra dosh so that we can more rapidly tackle the legacy of health deprivation and underfunding that we inherited from the Tory Government?

My hon. Friend will know that the primary care trust had a real-terms increase of, I think, almost 8 per cent. in its funding, but obviously there is still a lot more to do, which is why that substantial funding increase is to be maintained in future years. But it is worth pointing out that her story of improved facilities at her local hospital is replicated in many constituencies in the country, and that whatever the difficulties, both on out-patient waiting and in-patient waiting, all the indicators are in better shape than in 1997. In the cardiac and cancer fields in particular, there has been massive improvement, and overall the NHS is performing more operations and seeing more people than ever before. There is a long way to go, but it is simply not true to say that the NHS is not making progress.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the assertion that the fundamental moral and legal justification for the invasion of Iraq was the possession by that country of weapons of mass destruction, posing an imminent threat to its neighbours, and that whilst regime change is very welcome, of itself it is not justification for the invasion of a sovereign country?

It is precisely for those reasons that we set them out in United Nations resolution 1441 and that we passed the resolution in the House. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said to other hon. Members, that the Iraq survey group, which is the body charged with looking into the issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, is starting its work now; surely the best way of dealing with this is to wait until it has accumulated the evidence and then we can discuss and debate it.

Q5. [118366]

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has delivered many extra resources to education, and in my part of the world—in Staffordshire and specifically in Tamworth—we no longer have leaking roofs or outdoor toilets and conditions have been far, far better. However, will he explain to the parents of children in Staffordshire why Staffordshire is still at the bottom of the education funding league and why teachers are still having to be made redundant? If we sent the cash, what is the problem?

I think that my hon. Friend would allow that we have increased investment in Staffordshire very considerably. He knows the debates that will always continue about the proper way in which the grant is distributed, and I also know that there have been particular problems in particular schools in Staffordshire. Again, I think that he would agree with me that when taken as a whole over the past few years, there has been a massive increase in capital and revenue spending in Staffordshire. We will obviously look at the problems to which he has drawn attention, but it is worth pointing out that in Staffordshire—and elsewhere—as a result of that investment, we have had record school results throughout the county.

Can the Prime Minister explain to the House what damage is being done to Britain from remaining outside the euro?

If the economic conditions were met and Britain did not go into the euro, Monday's assessment spelled out very clearly what the damage would be in terms of lost trade, lost investment and lost living standards for our consumers. But, of course, the economic conditions have to be met.

Q6. [118367]

May I remind my right hon. Friend that hundreds of people are killed needlessly every year in accidents at work and that many others have their lives claimed by transport disasters? The public are outraged by the failure of the justice system to bring those responsible before the courts. I welcome the Home Secretary's recent announcement of a draft corporate manslaughter Bill. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that that Bill becomes law as quickly as possible so that we can create a powerful incentive for big business to take health and safety as seriously as the need to make profits?

That is important, obviously, and the Government will publish proposals for legislation by the end of the year. It is important to point out that the proposals are directed at the corporations themselves, which is the area of weakness in the current law. The criminal liability of individual directors will not be targeted by the proposals. However, I must tell my hon. Friend that I know the strength of feeling on the issue, which is why it is important that the proposals be brought forward.

Q7. [118368]

Does the Prime Minister understand the widespread concern expressed to me by a number of my constituents about the need for equal treatment of parents in access disputes? Is he aware that some fathers have had to go back to court 30 or 40 times to have straightforward access agreements honoured? Will he ensure that the new powers to deal with the issue that were proposed to the Lord Chancellor by the advisory committee some 16 months ago are implemented without delay?

I will certainly look into the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. Obviously, the primary responsibility is on the courts to decide on access, but certain proposals were put to the Lord Chancellor for change. I shall find out the precise state of those proposals now and write to the hon. Gentleman about that.

Has my right hon. Friend read the Treasury documents on the euro—[Laughter]—that say that if we had joined the euro in 1999, unemployment would now be higher but that if we ruled out joining for all time, we would lose out on trade and growth benefits valued at £3 billion a year? Does he agree that he was therefore right to reject the policies of both the Liberal Democrats and the official Opposition?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. Leaving aside the Liberal Democrats' policy, it would be absolutely disastrous for this country to be in the "never" position of the Conservatives. They are now in the position that even if it were shown to be in the interests of the country to join in terms of jobs, stability, industry and trade, they would refuse, as a matter of dogma, to do so. That is not a serious policy for government.

Q8. [118369]

The Prime Minister will be aware, with respect to the European constitution, that there are current proposals to endow, by constitution, exclusive competence to the EU on fisheries. Have the UK Government written to the EU to oppose the proposals? If they have not done that, why did Scotland's First Minister tell the Scottish Parliament two weeks ago that they had?

We have had a common fisheries policy for many years, as the hon. Lady knows. Although some say that it would be good for Britain to withdraw from it, I do not believe so. There are real problems with the depletion of fishing stocks, which have to be addressed by the policy proposals that are being put forward. The common fisheries policy has always been decided in Europe.

Q9. [118371]

A recent report by the European Central Bank called for a comprehensive review of the state-funded health service. It also called for a move towards an insurance-based health service. Is that not another case of bureaucrats—unelected, faceless—telling member states what to do and what not to do?

I am not entirely familiar with the report to which my hon. Friend draws attention, but I can assure him that the health spending of this Government is well protected thanks to the proposals in the comprehensive spending review. It is just as well to point out that our aim is to get this country up to the level of European health spending. So I think it would be rather odd if people were to suggest that high levels of health spending were somehow inconsistent with membership of the single currency.

Q10. [118372]

The Chancellor has reaffirmed that there will be a referendum on the euro eventually. Why then is the Prime Minister ruling out in advance a referendum on the European constitution, whatever the constitutional changes or implications may be? What is the logic or sense in that?

What I am saying is that the Convention does not in fact put forward proposals that fundamentally alter the constitution of this country. [Interruption.] No, they do not. What I have also said, which is true, is that people like the right hon. Gentleman, who as a matter of fact is advocating a referendum irrespective of the outcome of the intergovernmental conference, see that—he has to be honest about this—as the first stage to getting Britain out of the European Union.

Let me read what the right hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the European Convention—is that not right?—said just a few weeks ago:
"The very nature of the European Union is incompatible with democracy and accountability".
He also said that it was time for Britain to step back and become an "associate" member of the EU. He nods. That is the true agenda of a very large part of the Conservative party today. They should have the honesty to come out and say that that is their position. Perhaps then we could have an honest debate in this country about the European Union.

Q12. [118374]

Will my right hon. Friend give priority to an issue that is making the lives of some of my constituents a misery, especially on these long, hot summer nights? Despite a very welcome decrease in overall crime in Stevenage, youth nuisance is still causing a great deal of trouble.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend says that crime overall has fallen. Measures on antisocial behaviour will be taken forward by the legislation that we will introduce in the House. I do not know whether these apply in Stevenage, but last year, for the first time, we ran throughout the country summer schemes for young people. As a result, the number of robberies declined by more than 30 per cent. in the areas where the schemes applied. It is important that this year we extend those schemes as far as possible throughout the country.

Q13. [118375]

With respect to the European Convention, how can something that sets up a single foreign policy, a single defence policy, a single economic policy, a single social policy, a single police force, a single judiciary and a single Convention be a tidying-up exercise?

Because it does not: that is the central point. Foreign and defence policy is going to remain with member Governments. It is not going to be transferred to the European Commission. It will still be dealt with by unanimity. Therefore the case that somehow we are about to hand over British foreign policy or defence to the European Union is simply not true.

The truth about the hon. Gentleman's position is that he too is someone who wants to renegotiate Britain's essential membership of the European Union. That is right—he nods. At least he is honest about it. Let us be quite clear about this. The reason why some Opposition Members want a referendum on the Convention is not that they seriously believe that it is about to give away foreign and defence policy, but that they want to paralyse the European Union as the first step to getting this country out of Europe. That is the true argument. Labour Members are going to join in that argument with relish, because it is not patriotic. It is not in the British national interest; it is a betrayal of the British national interest.

Q14. [118376]

Given that it is the season of reshuffles—[HON. MEMBERS: "Give him a job."] Not in the running. However, I would like to ask a question about the future position of the Secretary of State for Wales. There is a lot of talk about retaining a voice for Wales in the Cabinet, and I would like an assurance that that will be done by keeping an independent Secretary of State in any reshuffle. Who has the job is a different matter—that is for the Prime Minister—but the process is more important than the person.

I am afraid that in relation to all those questions my hon. Friend will have to wait.