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Lifelong Learning

Q4. [32160] Mr. Chaytor: If he will make a statement on his plans to increase opportunities for lifelong learning.

The Prime Minister: I know that my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members have taken a keen interest in lifelong learning. The lifelong learning Green Paper was published on 25 February. We believe that it is essential that if we are to create the type of economy that we need in future, people should be able to train and re-skill throughout their lives. Our proposals will make a significant start on that.

Mr. Chaytor: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, last year, more than 50 per cent. of further education colleges--colleges responsible for about 4 million students--experienced financial deficits due largely to the imposition of the internal market and the unfair funding methodology used by the previous Government? Will he assure the House that, after the reform in the financing of university education, the Government will introduce a substantial new investment in lifelong learning, particularly for the overwhelming majority of young people and adults who have never had any prospect of going to university?

The Prime Minister: "I personally believe that" the Conservative

they should be

    "most . . . ashamed of."

[Hon. Members: "Rubbish."] Opposition Members shout "Rubbish" but I am quoting Steven Norris, who was a Minister in a previous Government. He went on to say:

    "you can acquit Labour of the charge of not being prepared to take the issue on."

Mr. Norris is right. What is more, as a result of the additional money that we are putting into further education, the university for industry, the £150 million to help people with training and skilling in the individual learning accounts and the 500,000 extra people who will go into further and higher education as a result of Government reforms in the next five years, we are at last making a start on getting the lifelong learning society that we need for the future.

Mr. Boswell: As I am sure the Prime Minister will want to acknowledge the achievements of the previous Government in giving the further education sector independence and pressing forward to advance adult literacy measures, will he explain his priorities in converting the White Paper that was promised into the Green Paper on adult learning that was delivered?

The Prime Minister: We have always made it clear that there should be a proper process of consultation. Some elements in that--for example, the individual learning accounts and the extra £150 million that we are putting into them--will happen in any event, which is

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extremely important. I acknowledge that the previous Government made some changes in adult literacy that we would support, but they cut funding drastically--particularly funding for further education, which was cut way below its tenable level. That is precisely why we are spending an extra £100 million on it next year, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome.


Q5. [32161] Mrs. Gorman: Given the fact that Conservative Wandsworth, despite a 10 per cent. cut in grant, has introduced the lowest council tax rate in the country, whereas Labour Liverpool, with a 10 per cent. increase in grant, has introduced the highest, will the Prime Minister--who is a canny Scot--recommend people who have their heads screwed on the right way to vote Conservative on 7 May?

The Prime Minister: No, I believe that people had their heads screwed on the right way on 1 May last year. In fact, the average council tax rise in Liverpool is about 5.5 per cent. It is true that Wandsworth has reduced its council tax, but that is largely because of the reserves that were built up under the previous Government. Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to reflect on the fact that, whereas Westminster has an increase of about 7 per cent., Islington has an increase of about half that.

Ms Kelly: Can the Prime Minister confirm that Government borrowing has fallen dramatically in the 10 months since the election? Is not that a clear example of the benefits of stable economic management and an end to boom and bust? Does not it represent an endorsement of the old slogan, "You can never trust the Tories with your wallet"?

The Prime Minister: Conservative Members might like to know that, under the Conservative Government, national debt doubled. As a result of Conservative mismanagement, we shall have to pay out more in interest payments on our debt than we spend on the whole of the schools system. We inherited a structural budget deficit and the return of inflation to the system. By giving the Bank of England independence in the setting of interest rates and by tackling the structural deficit, we have the chance for the first time in generations to end Tory boom and bust and to have prudent, stable management of the economy.

Mr. Hague: Who is to blame for the fact that this year's council tax rises average out at a record--the Government or councils?

The Prime Minister: The council tax rises are precisely those that were forecast by the Conservatives when they were in government. It is a bit of an own goal for the right hon. Gentleman to raise as an issue the very council tax rises that he supported when in government.

Mr. Hague: It is a bit of an own goal to say the opposite of what the Deputy Prime Minister said; he said that council tax increases would have been 7 per cent. under Conservative plans but will be 8.5 per cent. under the Government's plans. When will the Prime Minister start taking responsibility for his own decisions?

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The spending plans are his: it has been his decision to penalise the shire counties and neglect the rural areas once again; and it has been his decision to give one of the highest grant increases to Sedgefield, by some happy coincidence. Is it the responsibility of the Government or of councils?

The Prime Minister: It is the Government's responsibility to set spending limits. The point is that the spending limits are precisely the ones that we inherited, which is why it is patently absurd for the right hon. Gentleman to say that all this is the result of a Labour Government. In fact, the bills are rising in exactly the way they would have under the Conservatives. If people look back on Conservative administration of local government over the past 18 years, they will remember most not what the Labour Government have done now or in the past year, but the poll tax, for which the Tories were responsible.

Mr. Hague: People will remember that the Prime Minister said before last year's general election that there would be no tax increases at all. They will remember that they now pay higher council taxes, higher pensions taxes, higher savings taxes, higher mortgage taxes and higher business taxes. Are not people entitled to feel that they were conned at the election?

The Prime Minister: No. First, on council tax, we said that we would abide by the spending limits that we inherited, which is precisely what we did. Secondly, we said that we would not raise the basic or top rate of income tax, and we have kept that promise. The contrast lies in our keeping that promise and a Conservative party that, in the 1992 general election, said it would not raise VAT and that it would cut the tax burden year on year, but then imposed VAT and the largest tax rises in peacetime history. That is the difference between Labour and Tory Governments.

Mr. Burgon: Can the Prime Minister update us on the bid to hold the world cup in England in 2006? Does he agree that if we are to guarantee the success of the bid, one of the venues must be the great city of Leeds?

The Prime Minister: We certainly hope that we shall be able to host the world cup in 2006. We are making a strong bid to do so. About £600 million has been spent on British stadiums over the past period of time. I think that we have all the right facilities to make a successful world cup bid and I am quite convinced that we can do so.

Q6. [32162] Dr. Tonge: Does the Prime Minister agree that taxes are a way of providing good public services? Does he also agree that, as good local services are provided in the Richmond part of my constituency and our council tax rise this year will be of the order of 2.3 per cent., perhaps the electorate would like to consider voting Liberal Democrat?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that they will consider it. Of course it is important that the taxes that are raised go to provide decent public services. I cannot comment on the hon. Lady's particular situation in Richmond, but I can say that as a result of what the Government have done and their prudent management of finances, we are

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going to get extra money into schools and hospitals this year, extra money for pensioners and we have been able to cut VAT on fuel.

Dr. Desmond Turner: May I bring my right hon. Friend back to the issue of benefits? Despite the assurances that he and other Cabinet colleagues have given, will he reiterate that there is no intention to hit people on disability benefits? People are still anxious. Can he give an assurance to people who depend on disability benefits that they have nothing to fear from the benefits review?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly say that those people who are in need and disabled have nothing whatever to fear from the review. The plain fact of the matter is that the present system, as many who are disabled accept, is over-complex, often does not help those most in need and often does not give people the help that they need to get off benefit into work where they want to do so. Many disabled people would like the chance to work full time or to do some sort of part-time work. One of the reasons the Government have committed an extra £200 million out of the new deal to helping the disabled is precisely to give them that opportunity and freedom. People should pay no attention to the scaremongering, but they should realise that the Labour Government are undertaking necessary reform that will work in the end to their interests.

Q7. [32163] Dr. Julian Lewis: How can the Prime Minister justify the following actions taken by the Government at the end of last year: blocking a Bill to protect women from rape in psychiatric units, stopping due recognition for Sean Connery on account of his support for Scottish nationalism and the different treatment accorded to Professor Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong communist who just happens to be the father of the business partner of the girlfriend of the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

The Prime Minister: I have now remembered the pedigree of the hon. Gentleman. I have a terrible feeling that he was in the Labour party at one time. He then went to the Tory party. To judge by today's question on Sean Connery, he is about to go to the Scottish nationalists. He was pretty wacky then and he is pretty wacky now.

Q8. [32164] Mr. McWalter: My right hon. Friend will be aware that some health authorities and trusts think that the Conservatives are still in power and are trying to cut services. In some cases, they are contemplating closing over-subscribed hospitals. Will my right hon. Friend emphasise to such health authorities and trusts the Government's commitment to major improvements in health funding this year and in future years so that they can plan on a proper basis for the medium term and give people the assurance that they will receive a much better service from the NHS than they did under the previous regime?

The Prime Minister: We have put into the health service an extra £300 million over Conservative spending plans this year and an extra £1.2 billion goes in next year. That is a tremendous additional investment for the national health service. Of course, decisions about how to

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spend that money are taken on the ground. Health authorities must take decisions on the basis of local health needs as they see them, but it is important that we make sure that the NHS modernises, changes and adapts. We will get the investment in, but it comes in return for fundamental reform that helps the patients who need a decent health service for the future.

Mrs. Browning: If a Labour Member of Parliament fails to declare a directorship and subsequently becomes a Minister of the Crown, should he resign? If not, why not?

The Prime Minister: Those are matters for the Parliamentary Commissioner, as the hon. Lady knows. I know the case to which she refers. Her question is part of the usual Conservative smear campaign and I have not the slightest intention of getting into it.

Q9. [32165] Mr. Connarty: Has my right hon. Friend seen the National Audit Office report today on water pensions, which confirms what we suspected: that the public were ripped off by the Tories over water privatisation? Following on the scandal of the great rail report of last week, will my right hon. Friend instruct an investigation into all the privatisations that took place, to see just how badly the Tories swindled the public?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the National Audit Office will continue to make investigations. It is extraordinary that, as a result of Conservative privatisation, literally hundreds of millions of taxpayers' money, which could have been spent on better services, was lost and squandered. The fact that the Conservatives behaved so badly when privatising some of our essential public services is why they must never be allowed back in charge of those services again.

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