Dr. Jones: This afternoon, the Secretary of State cited the withdrawal of weapons that were already reaching their retirement age as examples of the Government's contribution towards disarmament and he also gave misleading information on Trident, when he knew full well that Trident can destroy far more targets than can Polaris. Is it not clear that the Government are simply paying lip service to their obligations under article 6 of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, thus undermining its renegotiation? Why have the Government not set criteria for entering Trident in future strategic arms reduction negotiations? When will the Government stop clinging to their multi-million-pound nuclear--
Column 821Adjournment debate some time, I shall look at her application sympathetically. We are in Question Time and I urge all hon. Members to put their questions briskly.
Mr. Rifkind: The questions may have been too long, but they enabled the House to hear the true voice of the Labour party. It is perfectly clear that the Opposition Front-Bench team has been acutely embarrassed by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament sentiments which have been expressed right across the Opposition Back Benches this afternoon. I am sure that the country, as well as the House, will note that and draw the appropriate conclusion.
Mr. Streeter: Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, had he been a member of parliamentary CND, he would have been at a great disadvantage in any negotiations on nuclear non-proliferation? Does he share my concern that not only the shadow Secretary of State for Defence but the Labour leader was a member of parliamentary CND? Does that not undermine their credibility over our nuclear deterrent?
Mr. Rifkind: It is certainly the case that if we want expert advice on nuclear disarmament, we have the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence and, I think, half the shadow Cabinet who have been, and in some cases still are, active members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Dr. Reid: This one has not been a member of CND, but he still has a damn sight more concern for getting rid of nuclear weapons than that bunch sitting on the Government Front Bench. Why is the message always negative? Why did the Government refuse a moratorium on nuclear weapons? Why did they refuse to limit the number of warheads deployed on Trident? Why did they refuse to announce the number of warheads on Trident? Why do they refuse even to ratify the chemical weapons convention? Why, for once, can they not send a positive signal to encourage a successful outcome of the renegotiation of the non-proliferation treaty?
Mr. Rifkind: I entirely accept that the hon. Gentleman is one of the few who were not members of CND. [Interruption.] But why in this exchange did we get the organ grinder-- [Interruption.] Why did we not get the organ grinder and have to make do with the monkey instead? The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the reduction of nuclear weapons in a nuclear world should be treated with the greatest care and caution. [Interruption.] I am glad that the most prominent ex-member of CND, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), has now arrived.
Mr. Freeman: As one of the defence industry's major customers, my Department naturally takes a keen interest in developments that affect the size and structure of our supplier base. We therefore have regular contact with representatives of United Kingdom defence companies at all levels.
Column 822and technicians who work in the defence industry? The Government's apathetic approach shows them no future other than to transfer skills out of Britain or to go on to the scrap heap. Why does the Minister not immediately create a defence diversification agency so that we can have short-term and long-term planned transfers into other work and keep those highly skilled personnel here in this country after the work that they have done for the defence industry?
Mr. Freeman: We recognise the important skill that is in our defence industrial base. Defence Ministers have a responsibility for that. However, to create a defence diversification agency, which the Opposition Front- Bench spokesman--the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Fatchett)--said in our last debate on the Navy would merely seek to effect a culture change in industry, without the commitment of substantial--
Dr. Reid indicated dissent .
Mr. Barnes: Will the Prime Minister tell us how education authorities such as Derbyshire can have millions cut off their education budgets in real terms and be expected to manage? Will he tell them how they can do that without sacking teachers, destroying education or increasing class sizes in the area? Many angry parents, teachers and governors in Derbyshire would like to know the answer to that. It is time now for the oracle to speak.
The Prime Minister: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first one to acknowledge that the amount spent per pupil has risen over and above inflation by 50 per cent. since the hon. Gentleman's party was last in government and looking after education. I think that he would also concede that if local authorities were prepared to make education more of a priority than they do at present and if they were determined to make teachers a priority within their education budget rather than other matters, they would be able to meet the obligations that they were required to meet.
Mr. Walden: Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the interest shown by Manchester grammar school in returning to the state sector? Will he give imaginative thought to the way in which such moves could be financed, bearing in mind that building bridges across our two- nation education system is a national priority?
Column 823quality in education. I must say that I am not so enthusiastic about the Manchester proposal as my hon. Friend.
Mr. Blair: When Sir Bob Reid, who, after all, is a supporter of rail privatisation, says that the Government's plans are intensely bureaucratic and inordinately expensive--in short, a nightmare--should that not make any sensible Government who consider the public interest think again?
The Prime Minister: I shall come in a second to whether he is right. Sir Bob has always argued for a monolithic, vertically integrated railway, but he was unable to persuade us that that was the right way to proceed. As the right hon. Gentleman presumably does not know, a number of other countries that have privatised their railways have adopted precisely the same model that we have adopted, and not the model proposed by Sir Bob.
Mr. Blair: Should not Sir Bob's words carry compelling argument with the Government as he is a supporter of privatisation? Is this not just another item on the bill for Tory dogma? With prescription and water charges up at the weekend, taxes up next week and now the fiasco of rail privatisation, is it any wonder that the British people believe, and know, that they are worse off under the Tories?
The Prime Minister: The soundbite came earlier this afternoon. The right hon. Gentleman refers to dogma. The Labour party has tried to smear every privatisation we have had, just as it is trying to smear this one. As it has been wrong on every occasion in the past, it is wrong again. The reality is that the Labour party is philosophically opposed to private ownership and, while Labour remains in the pockets of the railway unions, it will continue to put the unions first and the passengers last.
Mr. Duncan Smith: Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities, far from complaining about what they call cuts in education, would do far better thinking carefully about the money that they have failed to raise from the rates, the community charge and the council tax? Councils such as Lambeth have arrears running at over £100 million which they have failed to collect. Are not such councils punishing pupils as a result of their incompetence?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The Leader of the Opposition referred a few days ago to truancy. What the right hon. Gentleman neglected to say was that the highest level of truancy occurs in education authorities run by the Labour party, and that the only reason we know the truancy figures is because of the performance tables which we introduced and to which the Opposition objected.
Mr. Ashdown: In the light of the Prime Minister's previous answers, will he nevertheless confirm that he has heard of the widespread concerns of parents about their children from governors who have been forced to sack teachers because of education cuts? Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that, in the face of cuts in the Government's allocation for education amounting to £50
Column 824per primary school pupil and £200 per secondary school pupil, he simply cannot dump the whole blame on to councils? Does he not realise that the country wants him to think again? Will he do so?
The Prime Minister: Of course I understand the concerns of parents that education is properly funded, and that is why I made the point to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) about the increase in resources under the Government in recent years. The right hon. Gentleman cannot deny the Government's achievements in benefiting parents, pupils and teachers by changing the curriculum. Equally, he cannot deny that local authorities could do far more than they have done to seek savings without turning directly to the teacher in the classroom. What the right hon. Gentleman should be saying to people--not least his own education authority --is, "What other savings have you sought before you have gone directly to the teacher in the classroom?"
Sir Ivan Lawrence: Would my right hon. Friend allow any member of his Front-Bench team to visit convicted IRA terrorists in English prisons and to campaign to have them returned to Northern Ireland? Would he consider such action to be tough on crime, and on the causes of crime?
Ms Hodge: Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that it is the first duty of a free media to report the truth irrespective of Government bullying? [Interruption.] Clearly, Conservative Members do not agree. Is it not time that the Prime Minister and his colleagues took heed of the advice of the Daily Mail and Sir Bernard Ingham and stopped whingeing?
The Prime Minister: I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to tell us on how many occasions Mr. Alastair Campbell has complained to the BBC in the past few weeks. As to her substantive question, of course I welcome truthful reporting. I always welcome it and I like seeing it.
Mr. Whittingdale: Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Maldon district council, which yesterday received nearly £22 million following the transfer of its housing stock to the Plume housing association? Is he aware that that will enable the council to improve services and to continue to set the lowest council tax in Essex? Does that not demonstrate once again that Conservative councils deliver better services at a lower cost to the council tax payer?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend refers to Maldon, but he could equally well have referred to a very large number of Conservative authorities, which, on balance, provide a council tax that is far lower than that of authorities run by the Labour or Liberal parties. Equally,
Column 825I congratulate Maldon on taking advantage of the policies to bring in private finance and to provide better services generally to its council tax payers. I believe that runs right the way across the gamut of local authority services. For those people who talk about the homeless, I note the very large number of empty properties in Labour-controlled authorities in inner London and in the middle of many of our great cities.
Mr. Townsend: During my right hon. Friend's recent and successful visit to the middle east, did he have time to talk to Prime Minister Rabin about his country's unwillingness to declare that it is now a nuclear power and to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Recalling my right hon. Friend's excellent work in getting the United Nations Security Council to approve resolution 687, which called for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the middle east, how will that be achieved if Israel cannot be persuaded to change its mind?
The Prime Minister: We did discuss that and a range of other matters, and I made it clear in my meetings that we believe that the future of the non-proliferation treaty is extremely important and we hope that everyone possible will ensure that it can be extended indefinitely. The indefinite and unconditional extension of that treaty at the conference in April and May would be in the best interests of everyone, not only in the middle east but in other parts of the world where there is equal difficulty in persuading participants to sign up to the treaty.
Mr. Alexander: As we are marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war this year, will my right hon. Friend look sympathetically at the amendment that was recently passed to the Pensions Bill in another place and restore to war widows the right to a war widows pension, even though they have been widowed or divorced from a second husband?
The Prime Minister: We are considering the amendment that was passed in another place the other day and a second amendment that was also passed there and will make our decisions known when the matter returns to the House.
Mr. Hughes: Will the Prime Minister assure the House that when he and his Ministers decide, in the next few days, about the future of Guy's hospital, they will take account of current circumstances, which are that a building that has just cost £154 million to build, Philip Harris house, is waiting to be used for the benefit of the health service? Will they decide to use that building and not to close an accident and emergency unit in less than four years' time, because the circumstances that justify its continuing existence may be just the same then as they are now?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of the question that he proposed to ask this afternoon. As he said, there has been a consultation about the future of services at Guy's and St. Thomas's, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to make her decisions known shortly. I know that she will take into account the views of everyone concerned and what the hon. Gentleman said, including his remarks about Philip Harris house.
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