Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East): It is costing twice as much.

The Deputy Prime Minister: If it is costing twice as much, why does not the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) stand and say that the Labour party will halve the cost, and tell us how it is going to do that? The fact is that it has no idea of how to run a railway, or, indeed, a whelk stall.

The right hon. Gentleman has a very clear commitment on a statutory national minimum wage, which we can explore. He told us that--again, this is black and white, no qualification--there should be, and there will be, a statutory national minimum wage. The right hon. Gentleman nods his head.

Mr. Prescott: Absolutely.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Right, well let us therefore parade in evidence the right hon. Gentleman's

6 Mar 1997 : Column 1049

election address of 1992. Very helpfully, he did something that is rare for the Labour party and costed the minimum wage. He argued for a statutory minimum wage of about £3.40 an hour. He will not deny that. It was in his election address. If there is any doubt--[Interruption.] I had only a little time to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation today, but I have calculated that £3.40 an hour in 1992 would be £4.26 an hour now. Is that the figure, or was £3.40 in 1992 too high and therefore £3.40 today would be adequate, even allowing for inflation? Or is there another figure? Is there any figure? We saw the energetic nodding of the right hon. Gentleman's head--I think that even he knows that when he nods his head it means that he is agreeing with what I am saying--[Interruption.]

Mr. Prescott: That was extremely funny.

The Deputy Prime Minister: It was extremely funny.

The problem is that the right hon. Gentleman has given a whole new meaning to the saying, "Economics first and foremost, stupid". The annual cost of a minimum wage of £4.26 an hour is £3,700 million. I do not say that that is the figure that Labour has in mind, but it must have some figure in mind, so why cannot it tell us what it is?

The shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment has been helpful again. He said:

He was quite categoric. Labour must have done some calculations. How many teachers? That is not difficult to work out. How long a period? Anybody can get a slide rule. What is the cost? We think that it is £1,300 million a year.

Then the shadow Chancellor told us that, under Labour, the tax and benefits system and the benefit tapers must be addressed. The cost of reducing the tapers would be £1,800 million a year. Let me show hon. Members how that massive confidence trick is pulled.

About a fortnight ago when I was on television with the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, he was asked: "Should anyone, regardless of age, have access to free eyesight and dental tests as a matter of routine?" It was a perfectly reasonable question, and a matter of high politics. I have no complaint about that. He replied: "Yes, I think it should be a right." Anyone listening to that might have thought that yes meant yes, and that if it was to be a right, a Government of which he was deputy leader--and now, as I read in The Sunday Times Secretary of State for the Environment --would give it legal backing.

I hardly said a word on that particular point, but I was amazed a day or two later to read, "Three more Tory lies". I had not said anything. It was the right hon. Gentleman who said that it would be a right. The article said:

We never said that it was. He just said it a fortnight ago, conveniently in the middle of the Wirral, South by-election.

Mr. Prescott rose--

The Deputy Prime Minister: Of course.

Mr. Prescott: The Deputy Prime Minister will recall that, in that debate, I was asked by a person in the

6 Mar 1997 : Column 1050

audience whether I believe, as he rightly reported, that eye and dental tests should be free in the health service. Those were not the exact words, but that was the intention of the question. I said that that should be the aim of a national health service--[Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister can check the record if he likes.

I said that it should be the aim of a health service that was introduced by a Labour Government who gave those pledges and commitments in 1945. That was what we brought to this country and that should be our aim. I was then asked whether that was a commitment and I made it clear that it was not a commitment, but an aim. When the Government sought to reduce the rate of taxation to 20p, they said that it was an aim, not a commitment. What is the difference?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We have achieved that for a large number of people. The right hon. Gentleman does not even know that we have reduced the rate of income tax to 20p for a large number of people. The shadow Chief Secretary is looking closely at his papers. It is embarrassing for the Opposition when the deputy leader of the Labour party does not even know the minimum rate of taxation. It is no wonder that they keep him under wraps for most of the time. However, the right hon. Gentleman has been extremely helpful and we must take his comments extremely seriously--[Interruption.] My hon. Friends must be fair to the right hon. Gentleman.

It is important that we should not mislead or misquote anyone or omit anything from the record. Helpfully, I have the quotation from the BBC programme "Close Up North" on 20 February 1997. The words are here and I shall put them on the record. The right hon. Gentleman said:

When he was told:

    "You've got to find the money to finance it",

he said:

    "I agree, and we have to deal with that particular argument."

If you had been listening, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as an elderly person--[Interruption.] I was making no reflection on you, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I was trying to recall the person who asked the right hon. Gentleman that question. If I recall, it was an elderly person who was concerned to find out whether there would be free eye tests under a future Labour Government. If I had asked that question, I would feel that I had been conned by the right hon. Gentleman.

It is a technique. Whatever cuts or adjustments we have made, the Opposition have criticised them. They have made pledge after pledge, amounting to £30 billion, but they never answer the question: where will the money come from?

The Opposition have made one or two interesting commitments. They pledged that income tax rates would not rise under Labour, but that did not fully convince a sceptic electorate, so they made a new pledge that the Government's public expenditure plans would remain in place for the next two years. The fact that they consistently voted against them has been swept to one side. They are now committed to the levels of departmental expenditure set out in the Red Book, with the exception of the deputy leader of the Labour party who does not know the basic rates of tax, but has probably been briefed by the shadow Chief Secretary.

6 Mar 1997 : Column 1051

The position is quite incredible. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer pointed out, there is a £12 billion black hole in Labour's expenditure plans. If the Opposition retain our figures, they will have to carry out the reforms that we have factored in and allowed for in preparing the Red Book figures. Their reaction last month to our proposed privatisation of London Underground suggests that new Labour's late conversion to Tory policies still does not embrace privatisation, despite the evidence of the past 15 years. Will the deputy leader of the Labour party confirm that a Labour Government would proceed with the privatisation of the national air traffic service and the sale of other assets that would raise £1.5 billion in proceeds that are included in the Red Book figures?

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Before we step off the underground, can we be told who will pay for all the repairs that are desperately needed to the crumbling tunnels of the underground?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a simple question to answer. The whole point of privatising the underground is to raise the funds to pay for the necessary renovations. If the underground is crumbling, how does the Labour party propose to pay for renovating it? That is the question and there can be no answer unless a Labour Government would proceed with our plans to privatise the underground and use the funds in large measure to carry out urgent repairs and improve standards, as we are determined to do.

Of course the Opposition would have to go further. Last November, they opposed our reforms of the social security system. That is a perfectly legitimate option. The shadow Secretary of State for Social Security condemned the Budget changes to bring the structure of benefits for lone parents into line with that for two-parent families. The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) spoke eloquently and I have no complaint about her explanation as to why the Labour party opposed a change that would produce revenues that are factored into the Red Book figures. She said:

That is a clear statement of the hon. Lady's position on the policies included in the Red Book.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security has generously asked the hon. Lady many times to clarify her position. He wrote to her and her reply had only one point of major interest: it completely avoided the question. However, the proposal would raise £60 million.

Labour has also opposed our proposals in respect of the private finance initiative in the national health service. The hon. Member for Peckham, keeping at it, voiced new Labour's approach to all the modernisation and described it as

6 Mar 1997 : Column 1052

    She appeared to show a sad misunderstanding of the PFI and Labour support for it. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East has claimed that he invented the whole idea some years ago.

Next Section

IndexHome Page