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Mr. Soames: My right hon. Friend certainly said no such thing. The new public expenditure plans--announced, endorsed and warmly welcomed by my right hon. and learned Friend--mark the end of upheaval in defence. We are now able to preserve our front-line capabilities to sustain and enhance our equipment programmes and the armed forces look forward with confidence to a brilliant future.
Mr. Mullin: That is a pity because, if the Minister had been able to get there, he would have found himself rubbing shoulders with representatives of some of the world's most unpleasant regimes, including military attache s from China, to whom I did not think that we were supposed to sell arms, and a delegation from Iran. What on earth was he doing to allow such a delegation to attend arms fairs here? He might also have found equipment capable of use in torture on sale, or available, through that exhibition. Does the Minister think that sponsoring events of that kind is the best use of British taxpayers' money?
Mr. Freeman: It is a private exhibition. No taxpayers' money is involved. The hon. Gentleman knows that any arms equipment that could be used for torture or violating human rights is not exported under licence from this country. I sometimes wonder whether he and the other 39 unilateral disarmers should not pay a little more attention to the United Kingdom's excellent defence record on exporting the most excellent equipment, including some that is manufactured in his constituency.
Column 846such as the Paris air show? Is it because he wants to view at such occasions British equipment in which the British taxpayer has invested a large amount of money, such as the European fighter aircraft? Is he sanguine that, in view of the German Parliament's decision not to continue funding the development of that aircraft, it is likely to appear in Paris?
Mr. Freeman: There is no threat to the Eurofighter programme. I very much agree with my hon. Friend that we Conservatives very much admire the efforts of British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, GEC and many others with a magnificent record of defence export sales--£5 billion expected this year. I wish that the Labour Front-Bench team would not be so grudging and would welcome that excellent achievement.
Mr. Griffiths: For how long will the Secretary of State wash his hands of that problem and of the responsibilities? Does he not realise that when no-fly zones become free-fire zones for the Serbs and when safe areas become unsafe areas for slaughter, Orwellian language is alive and well and thriving in the Ministry of Defence here?
Mr. Rifkind: The hon. Gentleman might feel better for the use of such language, but it bears no relationship to the excellent work that the United Nations is doing in Bosnia, which has led to a cessation of hostilities and has meant that British forces are able to carry out their responsibilities, throughout the vast majority of Bosnia, without the risks and dangers that they faced there a short time ago.
Mr. Brazier: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that those people who think that there are simple, surgical and overnight solutions to some of Bosnia's problems would do well to consider the Russian experience in Chechnya?
Mr. Rifkind: My hon. Friend is right to emphasise that if one wants to take part in a war, one has to send a war-fighting capability. The United Nations has not gone to Bosnia to fight a war, but it carries out its responsibilities with all the professionalism that we would expect.
Dr. Reid: The Secretary of State must agree that there must ultimately be a political solution in that tragic theatre of war. Within that context, does he accept that the presence of the United Nations protection force in Krajina is not only a vital prerequisite to a peaceful solution there, but an integral part of our military contribution to peacekeeping? Will he assure us that he and his colleagues in the Cabinet and the Ministry of Defence will
Column 847use their good offices to ensure whatever pressure possible for the continuation of the UNPROFOR presence in Krajina after the present mandate expires?
Mr. Rifkind: It is, indeed, highly desirable that the United Nations should be permitted to continue its work in Croatia as, otherwise, there could be a recommencement of the fighting in that country, which could have dangerous implications for the whole of the Balkans.
Mr. Streeter: Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that his reply will greatly reassure all right-thinking people, particularly the 4,000 people in Devon and Cornwall whose jobs rely on the Trident contract? Will he resist calls for a further defence review from the leader of the Labour party and the Labour defence team, all of whom are former members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament? Is not a review led by such people unlikely to support Trident?
Mr. Rifkind: My hon. Friend is correct because every defence spokesman on the Opposition Front Bench has been a declared opponent of Britain's nuclear deterrent. We would all be grateful to know whether the shadow Defence Secretary is still a member of CND or has left that organisation because, until now, he has declined to inform either Parliament or the country as a whole.
Sir Fergus Montgomery: Has my right hon. Friend read the remarks by the chairman of Daimler-Benz in Germany, who has warned that he will move his firm out of Germany if the social chapter continues to pile costs on his business? Does not that show that my right hon. Friend's stand in safeguarding the British opt-out is absolutely right and beneficial to British business? If Daimler-Benz decided to come to this country, would my right hon. Friend welcome it? May I suggest that there are many suitable sites in north-west England?
The Prime Minister: I did see the remarks by the chairman of Daimler -Benz. I would, of course, be delighted to welcome Daimler-Benz to the United Kingdom, just as we welcomed Honda, Black and Decker, Samsung, Toyota and many others. My hon. Friend may not yet know that a survey today found that job prospects in Britain are better than in any other country in the European Union. Ironically, on this day of all days, socialist Members of the European Parliament, including
Column 848Labour MEPs, have called for an end to our opt-out of the social chapter. I suggest that they speedily seek an audience with the chairman of Daimler-Benz.
Mr. Blair: On rail privatisation, does the Prime Minister accept that it is a necessary consequence of setting a guaranteed level of service below the existing levels of service that private operators will have the right and the power to cut existing services, and that he will be powerless to stop it?
The Prime Minister: I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that, this afternoon, the operators will make it clear that they do not intend to cut services. However, they do intend to exercise their freedom to increase services. Unless one is to sterilise the British rail system in its entirety, they need that flexibility. They will provide additional services and will say so this afternoon. If the right hon. Gentleman were serious about improving the service, he would not stand in the way of those reforms for his own ideological reasons but would join us in modernising a railway that can and will provide a better service for people in the future.
Mr. Blair: First, on the point about additional routes that operators are seeking today, will the Prime Minister confirm that those who are making those bids today are wholly owned British Rail subsidiaries, and that that will not bind the private operators? Secondly, if he is so certain that they will keep or increase existing services, why not specify and guarantee that in their contracts?
The Prime Minister: I made that point in terms of directing the improved services at the times and on the tracks that people want. The right hon. Gentleman might be reassured by what the chairman of Railtrack will also be saying today. He makes it clear that it is on the cards that the operators may want to increase their services still further and want additional track agreements with Railtrack to enable them to do so. It is becoming clear that those interested in running the service are interested, as are the Government, in improving the service and not leaving it in its present inadequate state.
Mr. Blair: The right hon. Gentleman wants to improve the service, but is not it true that, under privatisation so far, some services have been cut, some are to be removed altogether, through ticketing is to be reduced and, today, he cannot even guarantee the existing level of service? In those circumstances is it any wonder that the public would prefer to keep British Rail as a public service, not break it up and sell it up to satisfy some faction in the Tory party?
The Prime Minister: I know that the right hon. Gentleman wants to continue his political campaign against private ownership of British Rail. But he might make himself a little better informed about the existing situation before he begins to spread such scare stories. Under the present nationalised service arrangements, no service is protected--nor was it under any previous Labour Government--and never has been. The passenger service requirements to be unveiled today will, for the first time, underpin minimum contractual guarantees. The service provided will be in two components: the minimum guarantee to ensure that those services cannot be cut and the additional service that the private sector has already
Column 849indicated that it will run in addition to the minimum guarantee. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will now look at the reality and stop spreading scare stories.
Mr. Sims: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the responsibility for both the manner and pace at which the European Union develops lies with the Governments of the member states, individually and collectively, not with the Commission, which is the Union's servant, not its master?
The Prime Minister: Yes, I can confirm that to my hon. Friend. I think that there will be a number of members of the European Union at the forthcoming intergovernmental conference who will wish to ensure that the primacy of the European Council itself is enshrined and improved. I do not believe that the United Kingdom will be alone in seeking those particular changes. We all wish to see the European Union develop in a satisfactory way that is compatible with the interests of the people and the nation states across Europe. We have a number of positive proposals to make to that end, and we shall set them out in the weeks ahead.
Mr. Clarke: Given that the American Congress and Senate have accepted that there is evidence to confirm the existence of Gulf war syndrome and given that 421 former British service personnel have been identified as suffering in a similar way, does the Prime Minister agree that there is an urgent need for an inquiry? Does he accept that, as those people were willing to give their lives when he asked them, he has a moral responsibility to ensure that such an inquiry takes place?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Medical Research Council has thus far found no evidence of Gulf war syndrome. We have told people who believe that they are suffering from any ailment as a result of the Gulf war to come forward and be examined so that we may determine the position for ourselves. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is wrong in the way that he refers to the American Government. I do not believe that they have made the statement that he attributes to them.
Mr. Marshall: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Hendon school in my constituency was the first school in London to become a grant-maintained school? Since then, it has been transformed and is now heavily oversubscribed. Will my right hon. Friend welcome the increased popularity of grant-maintained schools, particularly among the Opposition? Does he agree that it is disgraceful double standards for those who seek to deny others the freedom of choice to then exercise it themselves?
Column 850practise--it is self-evident that that has not been the case with education in the past. Of course, all parents want what is best for their children, and they are right to do so. We wish to ensure that the freedoms which are exercised quite correctly by Opposition Members in the interests of their own children are not denied to other people by Opposition policies.
Mr. Ashdown: Given that education is the key to the country's future, how does the Prime Minister justify cutting the allocation for education to local education authorities by a sum equivalent to £50 less for every primary school pupil and £200 less for every secondary school pupil in the land?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman knows what the funding increases have been over recent years. I also give the right hon. Gentleman credit for appreciating that, quite apart from the increased resources that have gone into education in recent years, we have improved the quality and standard of education significantly through our reform of the curriculum; the opportunity that we have provided to schools to become grant maintained; the opportunity for testing children and for parents to know what that testing is; and through the publication of the performance tables, which ensures that there is peer pressure on bad schools.
It would be more gracious for the right hon. Gentleman, who claims to be concerned about education--and I am sure that he is--to acknowledge those reforms which are now accepted in practice even by the official Opposition.
Mr. Pawsey: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he has no plans to abolish grammar schools, grant-maintained schools, city technology colleges, the assisted places scheme or the charitable status of independent schools? Can he further confirm that he has no plans to introduce a graduate tax? All of those ideas are being actively promoted by Opposition Members.
The Prime Minister: I am certainly pleased to confirm that to my hon. Friend. In recent years we have set out a series of education reforms which have now been accepted by the trade unions and teachers and welcomed by parents and many others. I believe that we can now look forward to a period of improvement and stability in education. The changes proposed by the Labour party will recreate unnecessary chaos. We have stability in education and we must retain it. We do not want the denial of choice that is proposed by the official Opposition.
Column 851the larger member states, does not the Prime Minister agree that, far from being the right man in the right place at the right time, he is in fact the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time?
The Prime Minister: It would be extremely difficult to find a Commission President candidate who, on those two points, would not take the same position as the present President. If the right hon. Gentleman cares to plough through the rest of the Commission President's speech perhaps he will welcome the fact that the President said that many people perceive a
"bureaucratic, byzantine, technocratic Brussels maze."
The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt agree with that. The President also gave top priority to tackling Europe's declining competitiveness, completing the single market in telecommunications and energy, ensuring the proper performance of single market rules, free trade and a strong common foreign security policy. Each and every one of those are British priorities in the European Union and they have been endorsed by the President of the Commission.
Mr. Bellingham: Will my right hon. Friend find time this afternoon to have a word with Department of Social Security Ministers? They will tell him that since last August, 10,500 non-British residents have been refused income support. That is a great saving to the DSS, despite opposition from Labour and the Social Affairs Commissioner. Does not that vindicate Government policy of concentrating benefits on people who need them
Column 852most, in stark contrast to Labour which, in respect of benefits, is prepared to turn a blind eye to fraud and abuse?
The Prime Minister: I entirely agree about the nature of changes introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. I do not believe that any British taxpayer is happy subsidising people who have no close ties with the United Kingdom but who have been receiving benefit payments without having made contributions. The changes we made bring the United Kingdom more in line with our European partners, whose safety-net benefits are not normally available to our nationals freshly arrived in their countries.
Mrs. Jane Kennedy: Is the Prime Minister aware that as the result of the botched introduction of reduced junior doctors' hours, the accident and emergency unit at Broadgreen hospital in my constituency is being forced to close its doors sooner than planned? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that means patients presenting themselves for emergency treatment will suffer greater anxiety and pain, and that doctors and nurses will face greater stress? Will the Prime Minister accept that nothing less than the resignation of the Secretary of State for Health will satisfy the people whom I represent?
The Prime Minister: I think that even the hon. Lady's hon. Friends felt that she did not get the last part of her question right. I will not take lectures on health from the hon. Lady. As she is clearly aiming at what is happening in the health service, perhaps she will say whether she agrees with statements by Labour's official health spokesman and other Labour Members as to the level of health spending. There are substantial differences. The Labour party is utterly split on that issue, as on so many others. One day, the hon. Lady and her hon. Friends will concentrate on the remarkable improvements achieved by people in the national health service, not carp and criticise week after week after week, and seek to undermine the service.
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