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Rain Forests (Brazil)

10. Mr. Sheerman: What steps she is taking to work with the Government of Brazil to ensure that its continued economic development does not result in further destruction of its rain forests. [18430]

Clare Short: Our technical co-operation programme with Brazil is our largest in Latin America and focuses heavily on the environment. Our major activity is forestry, in particular addressing sustainable management issues in the Amazon rain forest. We are also active in the G7 pilot programme to conserve the Brazilian rain forest which seeks to reduce the rate of deforestation in a manner consistent with the sustainable development of the area's natural and human resources. More widely, we are working to help to ensure that economic development and trade in forestry products is managed sustainably and is combined with protection of sensitive habitats.

Mr. Sheerman: Will my right hon. Friend mount a serious investigation into the allegations of corruption in IBAMA--the environmental agency that is supposed to protect the rain forests? There are allegations that no fines are ever paid, that the loggers get off scot free and that from top to bottom, IBAMA, which we help to fund through the G7, is corrupt. There are further allegations that more logging than ever before is going on in the rain forests of Brazil. Will my right hon. Friend mount an investigation?

Clare Short: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I would be more than happy to investigate the points he raises. I hope that he will let me have whatever details he has. The lesson of sustainable forest management is that if the local poor people can manage the future of the forest, they conserve it. It is when short-term commercial interests come in that we get the destruction of forestry.

Mr. Randall: Only 1 per cent. of the United Kingdom aid budget goes towards sustaining biodiversity. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to increase that percentage, bearing in mind the fact that, at the current rates of habitat destruction, the forests of Africa could disappear by 2050?

Clare Short: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's figure is correct, but I doubt it. There is a strong and growing environmental strand to our work. We are doing a lot of work on conserving forests in Cameroon, and learning how to conserve the other remaining forests of Africa. Forestry and sustaining biodiversity are major priorities of our work. Some of that work is done through the global environment facility, which is an international treaty that we helped to fund. Work is being done on replenishment, but I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

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Assistance (Poorest Countries)

11. Mr. Evans: What plans she has to assist the poorest countries in the world. [18431]

Clare Short: We shall focus our energies and resources on the elimination of poverty and mobilising the political will necessary to meet the international poverty eradication targets by 2015. To that end, we shall work in partnership with other donors, Governments of developing countries and others--including the private sector--who are committed to eradicating poverty.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for that answer. While targeting the poorest countries, will the Secretary of State also take note of the pockets of poverty in other parts of the world? I make a particular plea on behalf of Brazil, where Church groups and other voluntary organisations are working to help with the problem of the street children.

Clare Short: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I agree with him. The poorest countries must have the top priority for resource transfers and investment to enable them to work their way out of poverty, but many middle-income countries have serious problems. As our White Paper says, those areas do not need big resource transfers, but need support for changes that will protect the neediest people. We are committed to that work, including work with street children in Latin America. [Interruption]

Madam Speaker: Order. Conversations are much too noisy. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am delighted that the House agrees. It will now come to order.


The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [18451] Mr. Clapham: If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 December.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I met with ministerial colleagues and others and will have further meetings later today.

Mr. Clapham: I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that coal makes a significant contribution to the British energy economy. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom deep coal mining industry is facing a crisis. Will my right hon. Friend consider short-term measures that may help the industry, such as looking at the negotiations with the French on the interconnector, introducing a restraint on opencast mining and increasing the stocking obligation of the generators? That would allow the British coal industry to survive until the initiatives of my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry have been introduced.

The Prime Minister: We are looking at many of the things that my hon. Friend has discussed and put on the agenda today. I understand that the three main

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UK generators--National Power, PowerGen and Eastern--and RJB Mining have agreed in principle to make supply arrangements covering the period between now and 30 June 1998. That will allow the UK deep mine coal industry to continue production at present levels without immediate redundancies or pit closures. That is a six-month delay. However, it is important that we use that opportunity to review the long-term energy requirements of the nation and make sure that we have an energy policy consistent with a competitive industry and the long-term energy needs of the country.

Mr. Hague: The Opposition will support the Government tonight, as we believe that married couples should not be discriminated against by the benefit system. Clearly, the Minister who has resigned in the past half hour does not agree with that. Does the Prime Minister believe in that principle?

The Prime Minister: I believe that, in the choice of priorities that we have available to us, helping lone parents off benefit and into work is the best thing that we can do for them. That is why we have a package worth £200 million specifically for lone parents.

Mr. Hague: Let me ask the Prime Minister the same question again, as he did not answer it. Does he support the principle that married couples should not be discriminated against, or does he just want to save the £5 million at stake next year from the measure?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman says that the figure is £5 million. It is not £5 million or anything like it. Over a period of time it amounts to hundreds of millions of pounds. It is important to emphasise that lone parents currently on benefit will lose no cash whatever. Of course the right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the effect is to equalise arrangements for married couples on the same income. If the Government had unlimited resources, no doubt such a change would not be necessary, but we believe that it is better to spend the available resources on helping lone parents off benefit and into work.

Mr. Hague: Why, then, did the Prime Minister not have the courage to say that before the election? Does he recall the Secretary of State for Scotland saying that the proposal had nothing to do with moral principles or an effective welfare system but was designed to win popularity at the Tory party conference? Will the Secretary of State for Scotland be joining us in the Lobby tonight? Why was the Labour party not straight with people before the election?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. I have in front of me the comments that we made before the election. We said that

and that

    "we can offer better and different ways of getting single parents back into work."

There is a choice within the priorities. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he will support the Government tonight. Perhaps he can now say whether he will support the Government's £200 million programme helping lone parents back into work.

Mr. Hague: We will support the Government when they are right and we will oppose them when they are

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wrong. It is extraordinary for the Prime Minister to claim that Labour said that it would do this before the election. When the Secretary of State for Social Security was asked whether she would introduce the legislation, did she not say:

    "No, of course not"?

Did not the Financial Secretary say that it was

    "a shameful attack on lone parents"?

Did not the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport say that with such a policy the previous Government were going in completely the wrong direction? Which way will he vote tonight? Why was the Labour party not straight with people before the election?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry, but that is simply not correct. My right hon. Friend made it clear before the election, as I did--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order.

The Prime Minister: We made it clear before the election that we would stick within the existing budget. We said that it was important to give lone parents a chance to get off benefit and into work. That is why we have not only the £200 million programme for lone parents as part of the new deal, but the £300 million programme for after-school clubs and centres. That will mean that all lone parents will have after-school care for their children. Independent research suggests that lone parents who get work will receive some £50 a week more. We have made a simple choice within priorities. Now perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will say whether he will support us in our programme to help lone parents off benefit and into work, where they will be better off.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister is quite right to pursue that policy. I asked why he was not straight about its implications before the election. Does he recall saying on Radio 4 when asked about it:

That is what he actually said. He was not straight with people before the election. Why can he not concede that he was wrong not to be level with the country before the election?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry, but once again the right hon. Gentleman is reading out only one part of the sentence. I said before the election:

[Hon. Members: "Oh."] The Opposition either want the facts or they do not. I suspect that they do not. The right hon. Gentleman is supporting us today, but it is a simple choice between the Conservative party, which would put through benefit changes but not offer help in getting people back to work, and the present Government, who are helping people off benefit and into work. That is the difference that people will remember at the next election.

Mr. Hague: Tonight we shall vote for a principle that is right, while the Labour party will be dragged through the Lobby to vote for a measure which before the election it called shameful, malign and completely wrong. Is that

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not another example of a Government without principles and without values? Is it not a case of us having the courage of our convictions and one resigned Minister having the courage of his, but of the Labour party in general having neither courage nor convictions?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has still not told us whether he supports our welfare-to-work package. As for the difference in priorities between the Conservative party and Labour, there is the £3.5 billion welfare-to-work programme; that is not a Tory policy. There is the £1.2 billion school building programme; that is not a Tory policy. There is the £900 million release of capital receipts; that is not a Tory policy. There is the £50 extra help with heating bills for pensioners; that is not a Tory policy. There is the section 11 funding cut reversed by this Government; that is not a Tory policy. There is also the housing benefit change reversed by this Government; that is not a Tory policy.

There are different priorities, but we believe that the most important thing is to help lone parents off benefit and into work, and to do so in a way that does not lose control of public finances. No one will go back to the days of the record borrowing requirement of the Conservatives. We shall take the tough decisions necessary, but balance them with fairness to help those people back into work.

Ms Abbott: Does the Prime Minister accept that even if the new deal for lone parents is 100 per cent. successful, there will always be women, especially mothers with children under five, who are not able to work? How does he justify cutting those women's benefits?

The Prime Minister: First, as I pointed out before, for existing lone parents there is no cash loss of benefit. The change effectively means that those who come on and become lone parents will get the same as couples on the same income. That is not exactly as my hon. Friend has represented it.

Secondly, I must tell my hon. Friend very frankly indeed that we were elected as a Government because people believed that we would keep a tight control on public finance, and because we said clearly before the election, as I repeat now, that what is important is to get as many people as possible off benefit and into work. What they need for the future is not to live in a household and bring up children where there is no work in the family, but the chance to get into work. We shall help them to do so. With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, I think that that is a better way of achieving our aims.

Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister has talked about a choice of priorities, and about limited resources. Very well then: if he were to close the loophole used by the very rich to avoid taxes through offshore trust funds, that would generate a sum equivalent to twice what is needed to restore the cut for lone parents. If there is a choice of priorities, why does he not do that first?

The Prime Minister: What the right hon. Gentleman says is simply incorrect. In the Budget measures were announced that will raise some £1½ billion through closing various tax loopholes. The Liberal Democrats will always say that there are easy, painless ways of getting money.

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There are not, I am afraid. Choices and priorities have to be decided, and no matter what the short-term difficulty may be, I shall carry on doing that.

Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister has a choice; he has just ignored it. We agree with the Government about the need to break dependency. We applaud them for providing child care for single parents who want to work. But why does that have to be paid for by single parents who have to stay at home? Does the Prime Minister not realise that people are simply bewildered about why a Labour Government should choose to ask the poor to pay for the poor while the rich can continue to duck their taxes?

The Prime Minister: That is simply not right. The right hon. Gentleman says that he fully supports our welfare-to-work programme, and the arrangements for single parents under that programme, but his party refused to support the windfall tax that brings it about. As I explained to one of his hon. Friends last week, the Liberal Democrats will sit there and ask for more money for everything. [Hon. Members: "No."] But they do; not just for schools and hospitals, but for jobs, transport and the environment. There are limited resources.

When we came to power, we made it clear that we had to stick within existing budgets and guidelines because we were not going to lose control of the money that is available. Within the money that is available, we have lots of difficult choices--I have just listed a whole series of them--but we will not lose control of financial prudence within the limits that we have. We have given that additional £200 million to lone parents and £300 million more for after-school care clubs which will look after not merely the children of lone parents, but others. I believe that that is the right choice to make.

Mr. Snape: Will the Prime Minister help the House in tracing the £190 billion of public money revealed recently by the Liberal Democrats as being available for expenditure on public services? Has he heard the rumour that the money has been buried in a magic forest by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, where it is being guarded by his economic advisers--Tinky Winky and the rest of the Teletubbies?

The Prime Minister: I certainly think that Tinky Winky would make a better economic spokesman for the Liberal Democrats.

Q2. [18452] Mr. Townend: Why was the Prime Minister not more honest at the election on another matter? Why did he not tell middle England that savers who took full advantage of TESSAs and PEPs would be penalised? Is that not the height of hypocrisy when the Paymaster General--the man who dreamt up these proposals--is a beneficiary of a multi-million-pound Channel Islands trust? Does this not show that, under new Labour, fat cats flourish while middle England suffers? The Prime Minister said, "Put your trust in me." His Ministers put their trusts offshore.

The Prime Minister: First--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: First, the hon. Gentleman is wrong in what he said about the Paymaster General. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order. I have never known such intolerance and noise during Prime Minister's questions.

The Prime Minister: Secondly, in relation to individual savings accounts--as I pointed out to the

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Leader of the Opposition last week--6 million people will get the chance to put money in tax-free accounts. That is a considerable increase. Not merely the same amount of money but more money will be available by way of tax relief. For couples, £100,000--in other words, £50,000 each--will be the amount that can go into the fund. In addition, and contrary to what has been said by the Opposition, this is not retrospective at all, and there will be full protection for people up to April 1999. That is a far better deal, offering more help to more people than the Conservatives offered.

Ms Dari Taylor: Many of our youngsters are facing a serious crisis. One in 10 children who are absent from school are supposedly on GCSE courses but feel confident neither about being on those courses nor about their success. Many of them who are in youth courts--some 42 per cent.--are excluded from schools. The previous Administration excluded those youngsters and put them in this position. [Interruption.] Will our social exclusion unit embrace them and ensure that they do not feel excluded? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, despite the scorn and derision of Opposition Members. Much of the crime in our country today is created exactly as a result of high levels of deprivation, with families that are sometimes third-generation unemployed. That is precisely why we are putting £3.5 billion into the welfare-to-work programme, which will allow those youngsters to come off the dole and have some chance of finding work and opportunities for the future. That is a better and more intelligent use of resources, allowing them to stand on their own two feet and be independent, and giving them the chance, often for the first time in a generation, to work and earn a decent standard of living. That is the way to help people on benefit.

Q3. [18453] Mr. Willis: I returned this morning from Ireland, having met about 40 women's groups in Belfast yesterday, all of which asked me to convey a message to the Prime Minister about lone-parent benefits. They have few child care facilities and live in areas of high unemployment, yet he wants to take a benefit away from them and harm the poorest people when he should be tackling the rich. Will he accept what the Chancellor is reported as saying in The Guardian today: that by closing tax loopholes and using that money we can tax the rich rather than the poorest in our society?

The Prime Minister: The point on tax that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) made earlier is nonsense: the money is not available to substitute in the way that he said. I hope that the hon. Gentleman said to people in Northern Ireland that £140 million was there specifically to help people, including lone parents, off benefit and into work.

No existing lone parent is losing cash money--I have made that clear already--and the impact of our measures will be to allow many people the chance to get help with child care, with skills and with educational opportunities for the first time in their lives. The hon. Gentleman will

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have to face the fact, as we have, that within limited resources that is the right priority for people and their future.

Lorna Fitzsimons: Will my right hon. Friend emphasise the importance of the Kyoto summit and the leading work of the Labour Government in getting the politicians to acknowledge the importance of an agreement for tomorrow's generation, our children, as opposed to the vested interests that some of them seem to be putting first? Will he ensure that all the signatories carry through the agreement to which they sign up?

The Prime Minister: We hope very much that we can reach agreement in Kyoto. If we can, it will be an extremely important step forward. If the percentage reductions currently under discussion are agreed, it will be less than we and other European countries might have wished, but it will be a huge step forward from where we were even a few weeks ago.

If we can get the developed countries to agree substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the 1990 levels by 2010 and then, equally important, bind in the developing countries to play their part, we will have created for the first time the framework in which the world can make real progress. The part played by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in achieving that has been absolutely marvellous.

Rev. Ian Paisley: Will the Prime Minister explain to the people of Northern Ireland how he can argue that he must meet Gerry Adams tomorrow, in the same way as he meets the leaders of democratic parties in Northern Ireland? Is it not a fact that those other leaders, who represent constituencies in the House, do not come to Downing street with three members of an outlawed Army Council that controls Semtex for bombs and weapons for murder? Is he not aware that those very members were in post when Downing street was blown up in an attempt to kill the previous Cabinet of this country?

The Prime Minister: Of course I recall that, as I recall all the violence and injury caused by the Provisional IRA over a very long period, but if we cannot get parties talking in the process we will never get a lasting settlement to the problems of Northern Ireland. Every party to the talks process has to sign up to the principles of democracy and non-violence. In my view, it is essential that if they do so they are treated in the same way as other parties, which means meeting me and other people in the course of the process.

There never has been and never will be any concession in respect of violence offered by those to whom the hon. Gentleman referred or by anyone else: if they return to violence they will go out of the talks. The only alternative to involving everyone in the talks process and trying to make progress is ending up with the situation with which he is very familiar, in which children grow up in divided communities and there is violence, sectarianism and all the scars of history that have been on the people of Northern Ireland over centuries. If we can remove that by getting people talking, it is worth taking a few risks to get them to talk.

Mr. Hoyle: Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been a downsizing in my constituency of Chorley,

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where the leader of the Conservatives officially left the party last night to join the Labour party? That is along with the downsizing of the Liberal party Democrat after a senior Liberal Democrat councillor also crossed the floor to join the Labour party.

The Prime Minister: I am glad to hear it. I await with interest the application of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). My hon. Friend is right in that many of those who used to support the Conservative party can see what a hopeless shower the party is, in opposition as well as in government, and are coming over to the Labour party.

Q4. [18454] Mr. Blunt: When the Prime Minister considers the past seven months, will he think about vitamin B6 users, home owners who have a mortgage, home owners who are presumptuous enough to want a doorstep, car owners, sports pistol enthusiasts and country sports enthusiasts? All those people, as well as those of us who are partial to a rib of beef, want to know why the Prime Minister was not honest with them before the election and why he did not tell them that he aspired to be not so much the Queen's first Minister as the nation's first nanny.

The Prime Minister: First, on the banning of beef on the bone, as the hon. Gentleman knows, advice was tendered a week ago by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee--the scientific body that advises us. The chief medical officer then gave his advice and we followed that advice to the letter. Had we not followed that advice, we would have been subject to criticism.

As for what the hon. Gentleman says on interest rates, of course we could have carried on as the previous Government did at the end of the 1980s when there were warning signs in the economy. We ended up with interest rates at 15 per cent. for a year, record repossessions and record bankruptcies. We have taken the measures both to cure the budget deficit and to bring inflation under control that were necessary. One of the best but certainly most curious things is that the Labour party is now the party of financial prudence, not the Conservative party.

Mr. Home Robertson: My right hon. Friend may recall that a former Prime Minister once said that the national health service was safe in her hands, but that we ended up with a demented, bureaucratic internal market in which doctor had to compete against doctor and hospital had to compete against hospital, and patients had to be very patient indeed. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this week's White Paper is an important step towards reinstating the NHS as a national health service? I must choose my words carefully, but may I say that it is very welcome that we are implementing a vital socialist policy so early in our career.

The Prime Minister: Bit radical, that. Madam Speaker--[Interruption.] It is interesting, is it not, that

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Conservative Members do not ask a single question about the health service the day after we put together a White Paper on it. It is tremendously important that we are not merely getting the additional resources into the NHS but ending the absurdity of hospital competing against hospital and doctor competing against doctor, which is wholly contrary to the ethics and principles of the NHS. In addition, over time we can reform and improve the NHS so that in three or four years we no longer talk about saving it, but talk about the massive changes and improvements brought about by a Labour Government, a Labour Government having introduced the NHS in the teeth of the opposition of the Tories.

Q5. [18455] Mr. Laurence Robertson: Is the Prime Minister aware of the enormous number of representations that I and other hon. Members have received from councils, charities, companies and individuals regarding the removal of advance corporation tax credit? Does he accept that, devastating though his raid on pension funds will be, his Government would have been subject to far less opposition if he had at least been honest about his intentions before the election?

The Prime Minister: First, as I said in answer to an earlier question, the tax promises of the Labour party were clear before the election and we have kept every single one of them--[Hon. Members: "No."] Yes we have. Secondly, in relation to advance corporation tax, the Confederation of British Industry welcomed the changes we proposed, which is merely an indication of how far away today's Tory party is from business. Thirdly, after the initial transition period, there is a £2 billion corporation tax cut for business as a result of the changes--yes, cut for business--and it is this Government, a Labour Government, who have introduced the lowest corporation tax rate and the lowest tax rate for small businesses this country has ever seen.

Helen Jones: Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent historic decision in Ottawa, where 110 countries joined together to ban land mines? Will he undertake to do everything possible to persuade those countries that have not yet signed the agreement that it is the real way forward to remove that scourge from our planet?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right--[Interruption.] Opposition Members may oppose it, but the land mines treaty has done a superb job and we on Government Benches support it thoroughly. Furthermore, it is another initiative in which the new Government played a leading role. In addition, we are providing extra help and resources in order to remove existing land mines in other countries. It is a great step forward and I am particularly proud of the part our Government played in it.

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