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Millennium Compliance

8. Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): If he will make a statement on the progress and cost of year 2000 compliance by Government Departments. [47926]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark): My statement in the House on 8 June 1998, Official Report, column 716 gave the results of the latest quarterly review. They show that central Government are so far making good progress in achieving millennium compliance. However, we are not complacent; the review raised a number of concerns, which I have taken up with the Departments concerned. The latest estimate of the costs of millennium compliance within central Government is £402 million.

The next quarterly return is due in September. As that will fall during the recess, I propose to write to all Members during the recess to report the results. I shall also arrange for all relevant information to be placed in the Libraries of the House and on the internet.

Mr. Bruce: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, but can he confirm that the Government have not allocated any new money to Government Departments to tackle that problem? Can he also confirm that, despite the fact that, three months ago, the Prime Minister said that he would put new money into training 20,000 bug busters, not a single one has started a training course, let alone started work?

Dr. Clark: Every Department of central Government was aware of the cost implications of millennium compliance, and figures for those implications were built into the estimates that we inherited from the previous Administration. In his Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that £30 million was to be made available for the training of 20,000 bug busters. That process is on course. We have had discussions with the training agencies to ensure that the right course is made available to people. We are also discussing with small and medium companies how they can best release people for training, so that they can do their own millennium compliance. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: I should be obliged if conversations were not quite so loud. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I see that the House agrees with me. Thank you.

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Electronic Information

9. Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): What steps he has taken to permit individuals to supply information electronically to Government. [47927]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): The Government have been working closely with the public and private sectors on identifying new ways to enable people to supply information electronically to Government.

Last December, we launched the "intelligent" form, which enabled people to register as self-employed at a bank. That model has now been extended by the launch of the Post Office-led "Open for Business" pilot, which enables people to register as self-employed in a post office, library, a community-based "telecottage" or local government office. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy has said, the Barclays bank Endorse project, which uses a smartcard-based digital signature service, enables registration on the internet to take place in people's homes.

Mr. Quinn: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that many people are phobic about information technology? If we go for a process of open government under which the citizen will be allowed to provide feedback, many people who are allergic to IT will need assistance and encouragement. What are his Department's plans to encourage that process?

Mr. Kilfoyle: In reality, many projects are being encouraged, not just by my Department but by Government, to raise the standard of IT literacy throughout the nation. There will be a parallel approach to the fulfilment of the information technology era. Hard copy forms of information and electronic forms will run contemporaneously. There will always be those who lag behind new developments.

Open Government

10. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What recent representations he has received on his Department's open government proposals. [47928]

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. David Clark): I recently received the report of the Select Committee on Public Administration in response to the White Paper, "Your Right to Know". I am studying that report and its 44 detailed recommendations.

Mr. Amess: Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how he can reconcile his Department's proposals for open government with the practice of arranging meetings between Ministers and the general public to discuss policies, when the only members of the public who are invited to such meetings are those who are soppy about the Labour party? How can he reconcile his proposals on open government with the practice of leaking sensitive material before it is reported to the House? Is that not taking openness a bit too far, and is not the truth about the Government that they are open to no one other than Labour party supporters?

Dr. Clark: I simply have no idea of what the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question was about. In answer to

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the second part of his question, we and the Government have made it quite clear that we deplore the leaking of all Government documents. In terms of the recent assertion about the leak of a defence document, the Prime Minister has announced that there will be a leak inquiry to ascertain how that came about.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross): I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement of a leak inquiry into the appearance of a defence document before selected journalists. The Government's proposal on open government is to ensure that, under the process of democratic discussion, everyone--and not just the chosen few--is equally informed.

Dr. Clark: The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw the House's attention to the need for freedom of information legislation that will provide the hyphen between the Government and the people. I passionately believe that more freedom of information in the genuine and true sense will obviate the occurrence of young whippersnappers leaking and bragging to the press about how they can get access to Ministers and influence Government decisions.

11. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): What steps he has taken to make his Department more open. [47929]

Dr. David Clark: Openness is intrinsic to good government. In addition to my proposals for a radical and robust freedom of information Act, which will be the flagship for openness, much more is being done. We do not need to wait for the Act to provide our citizens with more and better information, as I have shown in my quarterly reports to Parliament on the year 2000 problems. Our proposals are to open up quangos and to ensure 50:50 representation on them for men and women. The Government have been open in providing information to their citizens on the internet, and we shall continue to do that.

Ann Clwyd: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his commitment to openness in government. I know from his strong freedom of information proposals that he believes that it is essential to our democracy to have that openness. I hope that he may long continue in his present post; despite the malign briefing against him, he has done an excellent job. However, some other Government Departments are not as committed to openness as his Department. For example, too many answers start with the words, "Because of disproportionate cost," and, despite the fact that we spend £32 million a year on Chevening scholarships, Departments are not prepared to say even to whom we award those scholarships. It is essential to a Government who are committed to openness in government that we have that freedom of information legislation in the next Queen's Speech.

Dr. Clark: This Government are committed to freedom of information legislation. We had the declaration in our manifesto and we shall deliver on that manifesto commitment. We believe that, if we are going to rebuild the trust between Government and the people, we must empower people by giving them information. That is precisely what our new Bill will do; that is precisely the new Bill that this Government will introduce.

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PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked--

Engagements

Q1.[47949] Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 8 July.

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.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Is the Prime Minister aware that, in Southend-on-Sea, where Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors have just imposed savage increases on home help charges for the disabled and elderly, and are planning to close three old folks' homes--not because they are nasty, but because there is not enough money--there is huge anger at the fact that the Government have had no difficulty in finding an extra £1.5 million to increase the number of political advisers by 50 per cent? Does not the Prime Minister think that it would strengthen our democracy if he simply allowed civil servants--respected people--to tell people the truth, whether good or bad, rather than employ that huge and costly army of news twisters, who many of us think are an insult to democracy?

The Prime Minister: No, I do not know about the particular circumstances in Southend that the hon. Gentleman has raised--[Interruption.]--although I have to say to him and his colleagues who are shouting about it that, of course, as a result of keeping to tough spending limits in the first two years, we have had difficult financial decisions to make. But I hope that he realises that, as a result of what the Government have done since they came to office, we have put more money into the health service, into education and into social services. That is a huge difference between the Government whom he supported--more or less--and the Government whom I lead.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): In view of the recent reports in The Observer, will the Prime Minister consider one constructive suggestion? The ministerial code should be amended to prohibit Ministers and officials from dealing with people who are lobbying on behalf of others, where those people have, within the past five years, been employed as aides or advisers to any Minister. Will he add, by way of a gloss, that the legitimate way in which to petition Parliament or the Government is either directly to Government offices, or through the agency--the legitimate and open agency--of elected Members of Parliament?

The Prime Minister: Of course Ministers or Members of Parliament will meet lobbying groups and organisations as part of their normal work, and there is nothing wrong with that; but I agree with my hon. and learned Friend that the concern that has been expressed--and I do take it seriously--does show, as I said yesterday, that we have to be extremely careful about any relations between

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lobbying firms and special advisers and those in Government. I have instructed the Cabinet Secretary, therefore, to revise the rules that we inherited that govern such contacts and to strengthen them in any way that he thinks fit. In particular, there can be no circumstances that ever justify either passing confidential or inside information to a lobbyist, or the granting of any improper preferential access to, or influence on, Government. These rules will be strengthened and they will be published. Anyone found breaching them will be out on his ear.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Why does not the Prime Minister tackle the culture of cronyism that he has created in his Government, instead of talking about rules that should already be observed across the Government? After the allegations in The Observer at the weekend, a national newspaper sacked one of its columnists, a lobbying company suspended one of its directors and another reprimanded one of its employees. The only organisation who have not acted against their employees or investigated their employees are the Government. When will the right hon. Gentleman act, rather than protecting the cronies with whom he has surrounded himself?

The Prime Minister: First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back. Secondly, I can tell him that we have investigated each allegation in The Observer in turn. I shall go through them for him. First, there was the supposed leak of a Select Committee report. We investigated that--no Minister was involved and no Members of Parliament were involved. A member of a lobbying firm simply took a press-embargoed copy. That should not have happened, but obviously it was not the Government's fault.

Secondly, there was the allegation of a leak of selective information in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's Mansion House speech. There was no such leak; indeed, the information concerned was not even in the speech. Thirdly, the allegation about Mr. Liddle, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, was based on talk at a cocktail party at the Guildhall. A freelance journalist claiming to be an American business man said that he wanted to invest in Britain. He asked Mr. Liddle to help, and he perfectly properly agreed to do so. It is emphatically denied that, in doing so, he in any way offered to act on behalf of a lobbying company. The journalist claimed to have words suggesting that on tape, but it is now admitted that that claim was false and that no such tape exists.

We have investigated these matters very carefully. Instead of making general allegations, the right hon. Gentleman should make a specific allegation, provide the evidence for it and, of course, we would then investigate it.

Mr. Hague: I am grateful for the welcome back, but even with my sinuses I can smell the stench from these revelations. As for this so-called defence, of course some things did not involve Members of Parliament or Ministers--it is not MPs and Ministers who are running the affairs of this Government.

The central allegation about Mr. Liddle has not been disproved: it has been denied by Mr. Liddle. If it had involved an ordinary civil servant, investigations would now be under way and disciplinary action would be in prospect. Saying that people drank too much champagne

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on the night and could not remember what they had said would not be regarded as an adequate or convincing defence.

When will the right hon. Gentleman stop protecting the money-grabbing cronies with whom he has surrounded himself and start--[Interruption.]. They are indeed feather-bedding, pocket-lining, money-grabbing cronies. When will the right hon. Gentleman clean up the Government's act?

The Prime Minister: Perhaps I could return the right hon. Gentleman to the facts. The right hon. Gentleman alleges that if Mr. Liddle had been a civil servant he would have been suspended immediately. I have checked that with the head of the civil service and it is not correct--he would not have been suspended. Secondly, all the right hon. Gentleman's other allegations have been investigated and found to be false. I understand why he wants to suggest that this Government are the same as the Government of whom he was a member--[Hon. Members: "Worse."] This case is not Jonathan Aitken; it is not Neil Hamilton; it is not cash for questions; and it is not Asil Nadir. Those allegations were made and proven, whereas not a single allegation in The Observer article is true.

Mr. Hague: Only people in the Prime Minister's inner circle would think that a fireside chat with someone with a hangover disproves the allegations. The problem is not just the allegations but the whole culture that he has now created--in which hon. Members can be hung out to dry; Ministers, such as the one sitting next to him, can be briefed against; and members of his inner circle are the untouchables. The right hon. Gentleman has created a culture of cronyism--in which the Paymaster General hangs on to his job because he has villas in high places, and in which Ministers do not even blush when they try to make the wife of his private pollster the deputy chairman of the BBC. Let the Prime Minister tell the House whether he even recognises that there is a problem of cronyism over which he now presides.

The Prime Minister: If I may return the right hon. Gentleman to the facts, just a moment ago he alleged that I had put someone connected with me forward for the BBC deputy chairmanship. I have had nothing whatever to do with those who have been put forward for the BBC deputy chairmanship. If he has any evidence to the contrary, perhaps he will produce it. All the other allegations are general ones. He is making general allegations because he knows that he cannot sustain a single specific one: it is a classic smear tactic.

The one allegation that the right hon. Gentleman has not made--perhaps he is about to make it--is that we leaked the strategic defence review. Such an allegation would not surprise me. We have instituted an inquiry into how the leak happened. The BBC correspondent Robin Oakley said that, at six o'clock yesterday, he was shown a copy of the document by a Conservative Front Bencher. If I find that anyone in the Ministry of Defence, or any other Ministry, was involved in leaking that document, I will dismiss him. Would the right hon. Gentleman do the same?

Mr. Hague: Only a Prime Minister in desperate trouble could believe that the leak of a Government document

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did not somehow originate with the Government. How ridiculous! He cannot admit that there is a problem of cronyism--which all the rest of the country can see--because the problem goes to the heart of new Labour, in which cronyism has taken the place of principle. In the words of the former aide to the Chancellor--who is chuntering on--the


    "Labour Government is always of two minds . . . On big issues especially, they don't know what they are thinking."

Does the Prime Minister not realise that government without principle quickly becomes government for sale--which is what is beginning to happen?

The Prime Minister: People will again note that the right hon. Gentleman has made no specific allegation or tried to substantiate one. All we have had is the usual windy rhetoric and general allegations. Until very recently, he and the Conservative party were trying to claim that we were responsible for the leak of the strategic defence review. I notice that he has not repeated that claim today, or said that he would take action against anyone involved in the leak.

As for saying that we do not get the big issues right, we have in the past few days published our proposals on the Child Support Agency--[Hon. Members: "Leaked".] We have also published our proposals on the rough sleepers initiative, on numeracy and on the defence review--[Hon. Members: "Leaked."] They were certainly not leaked by us--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: Those are all very serious issues, and the Government's policy to deal with them is correct. The right hon. Gentleman has nothing to say about those issues, because the Opposition have no policy criticism that they can sustain against the Government. He is reduced to making wide allegations with no particularity. He does that because he wants to try to prove that we are the same as the previous Government--but we are not, and we never will be.

Mr. Hague: Of course these are all serious issues and they should all have been brought to the House before they were brought to the media, as should every other Government announcement. This is a serious issue in which former aides of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Minister without Portfolio--wherever he happens to be skulking at the moment--appear to have offered access to Government and Government information in return for a fee, and the Government have not been able to disprove it. That is an extremely serious matter and it is taken seriously by the people of this country. Will not the Prime Minister come to see in time that it was a defining moment in the record of the Government when people were able to see the Government for what they are--too many cronies and too few principles?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman gets no better with repetition. He keeps making great allegations of cronyism and corruption. He bandies around the words, but he will not make a specific charge and sustain it because every allegation made in The Observer has been investigated and found to be untrue. The reason that he carries on with all this rhetoric about

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the Government is that he and his party--as is noticed more in the country than anywhere else--have nothing whatever to say about the big policy issues of the day.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): Given the Leader of the Opposition's sinuses, I will not ask him how he thinks Westminster city council smells. A report by Alan Langlands, chief executive of the National Health Service Executive, states that under the previous Administration, health authorities and emergency care services in the north-west were facing collapse. Since we have been in government, we have spent an extra £19 million on the South Cheshire health authority and an extra £9 million on North Cheshire to improve care in cancer treatment, to reduce waiting lists, to improve intensive care treatment for young people and to attack the winter crisis. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that under our Administration the health service in the north-west will never again face collapse?

The Prime Minister: By giving it the investment and the reform that it needs. Of course my hon. Friend is right. Since the election, we have put substantial extra sums of money into the health service over and above Conservative spending plans. Of course there was a defining moment a few days ago when the shadow Chancellor said that the Government were spending too much. That is the position of the Conservatives. Their attack on us in respect of public services is that we are spending too much, so let us never hear anything more from them about waiting lists or any other public service matter.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): Whatever problems the Government have over the events of the past couple of days--they have some and I hope that they will tackle them--I know of no sight more stomach-churning than the Conservative party accusing others of sleaze. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House will come to order to hear the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ashdown: Surely the issue that should worry us today is not so much the job prospects of a couple of cadet new Labour insiders, but the jobs of tens of thousands of people across the country that are now placed in jeopardy as a result of the rising pound and rising interest rates. Does the Prime Minister not realise that he could take a decision today that would relieve the pain immediately: he could come off the fence on the single currency, set a target date--subject to a referendum--and give the economy, the country and industry the lead that they so desperately need?

The Prime Minister: As I think I have told the right hon. Gentleman before, the worst reason for making a decision to join the single currency would be some short-term advantage in the currency markets. That would not be sensible at all. The economic policy that the Government are pursuing is to make sure that we have monetary stability, which is why we gave the Bank of England independence to set interest rates, which have had to go up--they should have gone up before the election and they have had to go up since in order to squeeze out inflation. We will also ensure financial

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stability through curing the Budget deficit. That is the right long-term policy for the country. I have no doubt about that; and I have no doubt, either, that it is ultimately in the best interests of industry, although I understand the concern about the short-term problems that have resulted from the rising pound.

Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister has given that answer before. It did not wash then, and it does not wash now. If he took the decision that I have suggested, the pound would come down tomorrow, interest rates would come down next week, investment would keep coming into this country over the next decade, and Britain would have more influence in Europe right through into the next century. Why does he not realise that, on this occasion, long-term interest and short-term advantage coincide? He will have to take such action soon; why not take it now?

The Prime Minister: It is because I do not believe that short-term advantage and the long-term position coincide. If the pound were to be brought down artificially tomorrow, and if we, say, cut interest rates when the monetary conditions were not right to do so, the result would be inflation--the very problem that we had under the Conservative Government. If we do not take the action necessary to root out inflation, put the economy on a stable footing and ensure that the public finances are in order, we will be back to the days of 15 per cent. interest rates and the record repossessions and bankruptcies that occurred under the Conservatives. The policy mechanisms in place are precisely designed to avoid that.

A decision on the single currency must be taken in the national economic interest. Given the national economic interest, and as our economy has not converged with the economies of continental Europe, it would not be sensible at the moment to say that we would join.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): What do students with A-levels from Eton, Charterhouse, Wellington and Westminster schools do during their first year at St Andrews and Edinburgh universities? Does my right hon. Friend share my suspicions about the motivation of some of their parents, who happen to be members of another--hereditary--House and who keep on voting for public subsidies for that, no doubt, very interesting first year?

The Prime Minister: If I may deal with tuition fees, I suggest that people who have doubts read the speech of Lord Dearing--who, after all, chaired the committee that was set up by the Conservatives when in government--in which he backs the Government's case to maintain our position on Scottish tuition fees. He does so for the very sensible reason that, if we were to do what the Opposition are suggesting--although I believe them to be completely opportunist in so doing--we would end up having to find another £27 million. It would be far better to spend that money on improving university education.


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