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Engagements

Q1.[42525] Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 3 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today. I have also sent a message of condolence to the people and Government of Germany about the appalling rail tragedy earlier today.

Mr. Mackinlay: Does the Prime Minister recall that, when we were in opposition, we used to groan at the fawning, obsequious, softball, well-rehearsed and planted questions asked by Conservative Members of the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)? Will my right hon. Friend distinguish his period in office by discouraging such practices--which diminish Prime Minister's Question Time--during this Parliament? Furthermore, in view of the rather depleted official Opposition, will he encourage rather than discourage--

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without fear or favour, and without showing partiality or affection--loyal Labour Back Benchers who wish to seek and provide scrutiny and accountability in this place?

The Prime Minister: I fully respect my hon. Friend's independence of mind, and shall do my very best to ensure that he retains it.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): On behalf of the Opposition, may I say that we wish to associate ourselves entirely with the Prime Minister's remarks on the tragedy in Germany?

In the new and highly welcome atmosphere of reconciliation in Northern Ireland, would it not now be appropriate for the Government to review as a matter of urgency the prison sentences of Guardsmen Fisher and Wright?

The Prime Minister: That review is being conducted. I should not say anything about it, as it is being conducted in a quasi-judicial capacity by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, I understand the concern that has been raised by the right hon. Gentleman and many others. I am sure that it is shared on both sides of the House.

Mr. Hague: We all understand that the cases are difficult, and I know that the Prime Minister understands the immense difficulties faced by our armed forces in Northern Ireland and the terrible pressures on soldiers, which can sometimes result in tragic incidents. I hope that he will ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to re-examine the matter, and to bring forward the review of the cases, which are causing growing public concern.

The Prime Minister: First, I give my warmest congratulations on the work that they do to our armed forces in Northern Ireland and to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In respect of the particular case, there was a court case which concluded on Friday 22 May; before that court case was concluded, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was not able to conduct her own review. Now that it is out of the way, she will do that, and do so as quickly as possible.

Q2.[42526] Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, in the past 12 months, the Government have given the go-ahead for the construction of 30 new hospitals--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Hutton: Thank you, Madam Speaker. Those hospitals amount to the biggest programme of modernisation and renewal in the history of the national health service. Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that the construction of those new hospitals is not only an excellent way to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the national health service, but provides further evidence that Labour Governments are always good news--[Interruption.]--for the national health service?

The Prime Minister: I fully concur with that. It is no surprise that Conservative Members do not like it, because they promised those new hospitals, but never built a single

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one. It is this Government who are building 30 new hospitals, six of them already under way, and spending a further £2 billion in the health service.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): Does the Prime Minister agree that, one, the efforts of the international community so far to persuade President Milosevic to exercise some restraint in Kosovo have had no visible effect; two, that the situation in the province is now speedily deteriorating; and, three, that in these matters it is far, far better to take strong, preventive action early than to wait until one is left with doing too little, too late?

The Prime Minister: I agree with that. The first meeting of the working group, which was convened in part by Britain, took place a few weeks ago; and, subsequent to that, a series of further meetings have taken place. In addition, Mr. Rugova is now in Washington and has met President Clinton; there will be an attempt to have further dialogue between him and Mr. Milosevic. I want to make it very clear that we are watching the situation in Kosovo extremely carefully. We believe that we cannot afford to have an extension of violence and disorder there--[Interruption.] Before, in a similar situation nearby, the international community acted with great firmness, and we must make sure that we do the same again. In answer to the question from the Opposition Benches, "Why bother?" we bother because disorder in that part of the world would have a huge impact on all of us, including this country.

Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister draws a parallel with Bosnia and is right to do so, but may I remind him that it was during the previous United Kingdom presidency in 1992 that we missed the decisive opportunity to act early in Bosnia? As the current President of the EU, will he consider these three actions: one, to reinforce the United Nations troops on the Macedonian border; two, to deploy a screening force from NATO on the Albanian border; and, three, to make it absolutely clear to President Milosevic that if he should act in gross contravention of international human rights and with the effect of destabilising the nations in the area, the international community will regard that as an act in violation of international law?

The Prime Minister: In respect of the specific action that we will take, I have already said, and will repeat, that we do not believe that we could afford to have disorder spreading in that part of the world. I hope that that is a sufficiently clear message to Mr. Milosevic.

In respect of the measures for which the right hon. Gentleman asked, he may like to know that Ministers have already commissioned military advice on support for United Nations and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring activity, as well as NATO preventive deployments in that region; we are looking very carefully at what we need to do. There are certain discussions currently going on between Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Rugova, and we are watching very carefully. Again, I make it clear that we do not believe that it could be in the interests of our country or of the world community to allow a similar situation to develop there as developed in Bosnia.

Q3.[42527] Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): Does the Prime Minister agree with me that the profits announced

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by Camelot, which amount to more than £1.5 million a week, are excessive, and that we ought to ensure that the next company chosen does not profit out of good causes? At the end of the day, the people who have lost by more than £1.5 million a week are the beneficiaries throughout the regions. Would not a fairer spread of lottery money throughout the regions be better?

The Prime Minister: We are committed to seeking an efficient, not-for-profit operator, and we want to maximise the money available for good causes. The National Lottery Bill will create the new opportunities fund, which will fund school clubs, information technology training for teachers and librarians, and healthy living centres, as well as the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. I hope that, as a result of the Bill, we will be able to get more money for good causes that would otherwise not be funded from public spending. As I say, we are committed to seeking an efficient, not-for-profit operator.

Q4.[42528] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The number of people on hospital waiting lists in Wiltshire has increased by 1,911 since Labour came to power this time last year. Does the Prime Minister therefore agree that now is a particularly unfortunate time for ward closures, such as that planned for the Cameron ward for the mentally ill in Chippenham and other similar wards in Trowbridge and Warminster? Will he join me in supporting the group that is opposing those ward closures? If he will not, will he accept that those closures are symptomatic of new Labour's approach to the health service?

The Prime Minister: No, I do not accept that at all. We are spending some £2 billion more than the previous Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported, spent on the national health service. What is more, the waiting list pledge that we made, we will meet--as we said that we would. When we meet it, it will be the first time in years that waiting lists have come down. They will come down under a Labour Government, having risen year on year on year under the Tories.

Mr. Roger Stott (Wigan): It is normal to preface a question, "Is my right hon. Friend aware". May I turn that round to say that my right hon. Friend is probably not aware that I spent the week leading up to the referendum in Northern Ireland in Derry, knocking on doors and persuading people to vote yes to the agreement? That agreement has been solidified by the votes of the people in both the north and the south of Ireland. As this is the first Prime Minister's Question Time since the result of the referendum, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend for putting in so much work to achieve that decision?

The Prime Minister: I should like to thank all the political leaders who did a lot to secure a yes vote in that referendum. That vote was a vote for the future in Northern Ireland; it was a vote to give the children of Northern Ireland a better future than that of their parents. I hope very much that the efforts of everyone will go to make the agreement work. We now have a set of structures and principles that can give Northern Ireland

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the future it needs. I hope that everyone there accepts the democratic will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland and makes this work for the future.

Q5.[42530] Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): The Prime Minister will know that, last week, the Socialist group in the European Parliament tabled a motion congratulating him on his conduct of the British presidency. He will also be aware that, quite rightly, the motion was heavily defeated. Who does he blame for the failure of the British presidency--the Foreign Secretary or himself?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept the premise of the hon. Member's question. The one issue that I would have thought it very unwise--even for a new member of the Opposition Front-Bench team--to raise is the subject of Europe, when the Conservative party is split from head to toe on the issue, there has been an interesting reshuffle that seems to me to have something of the right about it, and, even today, we are reading that Norman Lamont and the leader of his group in the European Parliament are falling out with one another.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): The Prime Minister will be aware that, last week, the people of Hong Kong held their first election since the handover to China. Despite the many deficiencies of the electoral system, two of the positive things about the election were the huge turnout--much bigger than expected--and the fact that the pro-democracy candidates, such as Martin Lee and Emily Lau, had an enormous electoral mandate. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to assure the ordinary people of Hong Kong of the continuing concern of the House of Commons, and of the fact that we will never allow trade or other strategic considerations to divert us from giving the maximum support and encouragement for the people of Hong Kong to move forward to full universal suffrage?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, I strongly support the agreement concluded in respect of the future of Hong Kong, and I am also delighted at the strong trade and investment links between this country and Hong Kong. One of the interesting things about the period since the handover is the fact that, despite some people's expectations, Hong Kong has been highly successful in very difficult economic circumstances, and its political circumstances have done nothing but improve.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): On the subject of reshuffles, as the Prime Minister has a Secretary of State for Health who does not know how many hospitals he is closing, and a Foreign Secretary who does not know how many coups he is supporting, may I suggest to him that a reshuffle in the Government might be in order?

We have heard today more revelations about Labour councils in Scotland, and about their spectacular mismanagement and gross incompetence in particular. Is the Prime Minister prepared to take some responsibility for the scandalous behaviour of so many of his party's elected representatives?

The Prime Minister: When the particular irregularities were brought to light, we acted. That is the difference.

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We are still waiting for action from the Conservative party over Westminster council. Perhaps when the right hon. Gentleman gets to his feet he will tell us what action he intends to take. We have taken action.

Mr. Hague rose--

Hon. Members: Answer.

Mr. Hague: I will answer. Westminster was in 1988--

Hon. Members: Answer.

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

Mr. Hague rose--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Mr. McNulty, just be careful.

Mr. Hague: Westminster was in 1988, when the Prime Minister was wearing a CND badge; we are talking about 1998, for which he is responsible. He says that the Government act, but the record of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Labour party is to have an inquiry and do nothing about it. They suspended the Monklands councillors, and they let them back in; they had an inquiry into East Ayrshire, and now they will not reveal the results; they have had inquiries into Paisley that never end and never report.

Is the Prime Minister aware that police chiefs have now said that they have had to send police officers into Renfrewshire council so often that, if it had been a pub, they would have closed it down? That is the position now; is it not time that we had an independent inquiry into the crisis in local government in Scotland so that we can see what the Prime Minister's party is doing to local government in Scotland?

The Prime Minister: First, every time that there has been an inquiry we have abided by the result. Secondly, the inquiry into the matter that the right hon. Gentleman is raising is independent. Thirdly, people in Westminster still live with the consequences of what Westminster council did.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister has still not given us an independent public inquiry into what is happening in Scotland. It is all talk and no action, as it always is with the Government now--talk about national health service waiting lists while waiting lists go up, talk about class sizes while class sizes go up, and talk about cleaning up local government in Scotland while the dirt grows every day. It is talk, talk, talk, and nothing to show for it. When will the Prime Minister stop talking about all those problems and start acting on them?

The Prime Minister: We have acted. We have acted by appointing the very independent people that the right hon. Gentleman has called for--and we did so before he called for them. That stands in the sharpest contrast to the way in which he has behaved in relation to Conservative councils. As for the national health service and class sizes, waiting lists rose year on year under the Conservatives, and class sizes went up for 10 years. We are going to get them down. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to make it a test at the next election whether we have met those

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pledges on NHS waiting lists and class sizes, let him do so--when he does, we will pass those tests and no one will ever believe that the Tories will do a good job on schools and hospitals.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North): Given that crime has doubled since the election of the last Government, will my right hon. Friend say what action this Government will take to cut crime in communities such as St. Helens?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right--under the Tory Government, not only did class sizes and waiting lists increase, but crime doubled. We are taking action in the Crime and Disorder Bill by introducing new parental supervision orders and measures on youth justice, and we are ensuring speedier justice in the young offenders courts. As a result of action that this Government are taking, we are already, in those areas where we have put in place the new proposals, halving the time it takes to get young offenders to court. That is the action that we promised; that is the action that we are delivering.

Q7.[42532] Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): When the Prime Minister is next chauffeur-driven through Chesham and Amersham to visit his second home--or is it his third?--at Chequers, will he stop to tell those 4,500 of my constituents, his neighbours, who are currently on the South Buckinghamshire waiting list for operations when they will finally have their operations--this year, next year, some time or never?

The Prime Minister: I was telling the House a moment ago how much extra money we have put in, so let me tell the hon. Lady that, as a result of the extra money this year--£1.7 billion--we will see this year, for the first time in years, waiting lists coming back down. We were never going to turn round 20 years of Tory government on the NHS in one year, but turn it round we will. When we do, it will be because we have a Labour government who believe in the NHS, not a Tory Government who spent 20 years undermining it.

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth): Is the Prime Minister aware that, after 18 long Tory years of complete mismanagement of the economy, the average household income in Great Yarmouth is only 50 per cent. of that in the rest of East Anglia? I am sure that my constituents warmly welcome the Government's initiative in implementing a minimum wage, but will he assure us that, before he brings the Low Pay Commission's report back to the House, he will also accept reports from other organisations on 16 to 18-year-olds and 18 to 21-year-olds?

The Prime Minister: We will listen to all the representations that we have had. It is important that we introduce a national minimum wage not only for reasons of justice, but because it is not right that, at the moment, we are spending £3 billion to subsidise low pay. However, we have always said, as we did in our manifesto, that we would introduce it sensibly--we must introduce it in a manner that is consistent with the overall and prudent running of the economy. We will do that to make sure that we meet our requirements for both justice and enterprise.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Does the Prime Minister recall telling the House six weeks ago that

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enriched uranium had to come from Georgia to Dounreay because the Georgians could not guarantee its safety? In the intervening period, the head of security at Dounreay has resigned because he could not guarantee the plant's integrity; there has been a serious nuclear incident, which has shut down the processing unit--the reprocessing was already shut; there could be criminal prosecutions; emissions have been underestimated by a factor of 10; and 170 kg of enriched uranium, which is enough to build 10 nuclear devices, have been lost or mislaid or cannot be accounted for. Will the Prime Minister tell the House where the lost enriched uranium from Dounreay is? Will he guarantee that no more nuclear materials will be taken into the plant in its current condition?

The Prime Minister: I really think that the Scottish National party has behaved with utter irresponsibility right from the start. First, the hon. Gentleman has just alleged that a nuclear accident caused the review by the Health and Safety Executive. It was not; it was the loss of electrical supplies to the fuel cycle area.

The allegations about the supposedly missing highly enriched uranium were based on a misinterpretation of 30-year-old records which are far from complete by any modern standards. The Atomic Energy Authority has explained already, in line with the results of its 1963 and 1973 investigations, that the discrepancies in the amounts of material arose because of accounting and measurement uncertainties. There is absolutely no evidence to back up the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman keeps making, for wholly irresponsible reasons, that any material has been stolen or has fallen into the hands of terrorists or foreign Governments.

I can confirm that no such material has ever been sent from Dounreay for use for United Kingdom weapons purposes, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads carefully what has already been said by the chief executive and others on the issue. For the hon. Gentleman to alarm the public in this way is irresponsible in the extreme, but entirely typical of him.

Q10.[42535] Dan Norris (Wansdyke): Following the tragic death and injury of 33 babies at Bristol Royal infirmary, the General Medical Council's inquiry heard that even my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health could not intervene in the internal running of the trust. What steps does my right hon. Friend intend to take to ensure that the medical profession is accountable and controlled so that the tragedy in Bristol can never happen again? Will he join me in praising Dr. Stephen Bolsin, the anaesthetist who tried to speak out at the time of the tragedy and sadly was unsuccessful?

The Prime Minister: I can say to my hon. Friend that the appalling tragedy at Bristol must never be repeated. We have given a commitment to the parents that there will be an inquiry into what went wrong. We believe that procedures have changed already. However, as we announced in our recent White Paper, we are committed to an independent commission for health improvement. Its job will be to ensure that quality controls are in place in every hospital in the country.

Every national health service trust will be visited every three to four years. The commission will have special powers to investigate whether there are particular problems in any hospital. Its findings will be made public

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and acted on, and patients themselves will have a voice on the commission. We believe that the combination of existing procedures--which have improved since these deplorable incidents--and the improvements that we shall put in will provide the best possible chance of avoiding any such tragedy happening again.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): I assure the Prime Minister that this is not a planted question. He will be aware from his security advisers that Mr. Gerry Adams and Mr. Martin McGuinness are believed to be members of the seven-man IRA Army Council. Will the Prime Minister give an unequivocal assurance to the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland that the representatives of terrorist groups that still retain their weaponry will not be placed in government over them until such groups agree to decommission and to commence decommissioning? Will he give a further assurance that, before the assembly elections, his Government will publish the draft legislation giving substance to the pledges that he made to the people of Northern Ireland during the referendum campaign?

The Prime Minister: Certainly we will give effect to the pledges that have been made prior to the assembly elections. That is absolutely right. As I have made clear throughout and do so again now, the provisions in relation to decommissioning and what I said about it before the referendum campaign stand and must properly be put in the legislation. I have also always made it clear that we regard Sinn Fein and the IRA as inextricably linked. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that in the House on Monday. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman, having been on the wrong side of the referendum campaign--perfectly honourably, as he is entitled to be--accepts the verdict of the overwhelming majority and, if he is elected to the assembly, goes in with the right spirit of mind to make it work for the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn): When my right hon. Friend attends the Cardiff summit in a couple of weeks, will he take the opportunity to ask his fellow leaders to check, when they return home, whether they have hereditary peers or hereditary members in their national assemblies? I think that he will find that they do not.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we want a modern democracy in Europe and a modern democracy at home? In abolishing hereditary peers, my right hon. Friend may well wipe out a large number of the Conservative's shadow Cabinet in the House of Lords.

The Prime Minister: It is an interesting reshuffle that puts 14 hereditary peers on the Conservative Front Bench.

We are committed to the reform of the hereditary element of the House of Lords, for two reasons. First, it cannot possibly be right that people sit as legislators in the Houses of Parliament on the basis that their birth makes them hereditary peers. Secondly, it is an absolute democratic scandal that hereditary Conservative peers outnumber the peers of the elected Government of the day by three to one. In other words, there is an in-built Tory majority in the House of Lords in perpetuity. That may be justified by the Conservative party because it believes in that sort of thing--but it is our job, as a new Labour Government, to remove that and make our Houses of Parliament democratic.

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