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Duchy of Lancaster

8. Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): If he will make a statement on his duties in relation to the Duchy of Lancaster. [63725]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I administer the Duchy on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen. My responsibilities include the administration of the Duchy's estates and finances, the appointment of magistrates in the Duchy area, appointments to Church livings and several appointments in connection with the Duchy's historic duties.

Mr. Pike: As my right hon. Friend is aware, one of his duties is the administration of the Duchy benevolent fund, and his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) introduced new methods to improve the way in which that money was dealt with in Lancashire--the County Palatine. Has his Department been able to monitor how effectively the new methods are working, and is there a surplus in the fund, for which worthy causes in Burnley could now make a bid?

Dr. Cunningham: Yes, I can confirm that we will monitor how the fund works and I shall write to my hon. Friend about that matter. As for the people of Burnley benefiting from the fund, I can inform the House that anyone living and operating in the Duchy of Lancaster territories can benefit from the benevolent fund, if their applications are approved.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): As the whole House is aware of what a wonderful Department the right hon. Gentleman runs and how efficient he is, can he explain how his officials have got so tied up in red tape that they can deliver only three new regulatory initiatives to the Deregulation Committee for the next six months? If our law is so perfect and does not need improvement, will he examine European directives?

Dr. Cunningham: I am not sure what that question has to do with my responsibilities as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but, as I have already told the hon. Gentleman, we are considering that matter and I hope that we shall introduce some more proposals before too long.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): Does my right hon. Friend look forward to celebrating the 600th anniversary of the Duchy of Lancaster this year in the glorious city of Lancaster and, at the same time, welcoming the full fruits of the comprehensive spending review, the national minimum wage, the minimum pension guarantee and all the excellent things that a radical, reforming Labour Government have introduced?

Dr. Cunningham: The answer to that question is yes.

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Electoral Reform

10. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): If he will make a statement about the Cabinet Office's co-ordination of the Government's constitutional reforms in respect of changing the system of electing hon. Members. [63727]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): The Cabinet Office's role is to ensure that proper collective consideration takes place and that the Government's business is conducted in a timely and efficient way.

Sir Sydney Chapman: There has been a deafening silence since the publication of the Jenkins report, save for general opprobrium during the debate in the Chamber. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm, on behalf of the Government, that there will not be a referendum on that issue in the lifetime of this Parliament?

Mr. Kilfoyle: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Jenkins commission said that the matter was extremely complex and that, whatever changes might be anticipated, they could not be introduced before the next election. The Home Secretary stated that there should be a wide and open debate on any proposals, and that debate is now under way.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): The hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that answer, in view of what was in the Labour manifesto. Will he explain how the Government define the difference between a pledge, a promise and a commitment?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I prefer to say that we said in the manifesto that we would set up a commission. We did that, and it has reported. I should add that, of our 177 manifesto commitments, 172 have already been implemented or are already under way.

Press Officers and Spokesman

11. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): What representations he has received regarding the role of Government press officers and spokesmen. [63729]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): I have been asked a number of questions by hon. Members. The Government responded on 11 January to the Select Committee on Public Administration's report about the Government information and communications service. The Committee was due to consider the report at a meeting yesterday and will decide when it should be published. Naturally, that is a matter for the Committee.

Mr. Ruffley: Why will not the Minister investigate the serious allegation that Mr. Charlie Whelan could not discharge his functions as a Government press spokesman because he had been bought by the former Paymaster General, and that the former Paymaster General had paid his wages when the Labour party was in opposition?

Mr. Kilfoyle: That is a bit rich, coming as it does from a Conservative Member who spent most of the 1990s acting as special adviser to that thoroughly discredited

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Government. It is has been stated clearly that Mr. Whelan intends to retire from his position--[Hon. Members: "When?] He has done the honourable thing on grounds that were never recognised by the Conservative party: that, once the purveyors of the message become more important than the Government of the day's policies, it is time for them to go. We have learnt that lesson; the Conservatives never did.


The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [63748] Mr. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 13 January.

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 shall have further such meetings later today.

I am delighted to inform the House also that, earlier today, John Brooke was released following his five-day ordeal at the hands of his Yemeni kidnappers. We understand that he is safe and well, and will return to the country tomorrow morning.

Mr. Dobbin: This is the first question to the Prime Minister in the final year of this millennium, so I feel rather politically important at this point in time. On behalf of fellow Back Benchers, I wish the people of my constituency and the country a happy and prosperous end to this historic period.

More specifically, has my right hon. Friend seen the unemployment figures announced today? I note that in my region, more and more people are getting back to work, and in my constituency more than 200 new jobs have been created. Will my right hon. Friend give his continued support to the creation of even more highly skilled and well paid jobs, and, unlike the previous Government, introduce the additional protection of a national minimum wage?

The Prime Minister: I trust that Opposition Members will welcome today's fall in the unemployment figures. It is worth pointing out that, even facing an economic downturn, under this Government interest rates are coming down, we have £40 billion of new investment in schools and hospitals from April, 50,000 youngsters have found jobs under the new deal, and youth unemployment is at its lowest level since the mid-1970s. That is the difference between the policies for stability under this Government, and boom and bust under the Conservatives.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Does the Prime Minister now regret that the Health Secretary said, just two months ago, that the national health service can look forward to the winter with confidence?

The Prime Minister: As a result of the money that we have put in--money opposed by the previous Government--we have managed to get through this winter in far better shape than we otherwise would.

Mr. Hague: There was no answer to the question there. In the past few weeks, we have seen intensive care bed

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availability at its lowest ever level, doctors and nurses under even more pressure than before, pregnant women told not to give birth, refrigerated lorries used as temporary morgues, and people on trollies in hospitals. All those people were told they could look forward to the winter with confidence. Have not this Government's decisions made the NHS's winter difficulties worse than they should have been?

The Prime Minister: It is this Government who have put in £2.5 billion extra over the spending plans that we inherited from the Conservative Government. I visited one accident and emergency department last night, and I shall tell the House exactly what it said the problems were: a shortage of nurses; a lack of proper co-ordination between hospitals and social services; and a lack of long-term investment in the health service--all problems left to us by the Conservative Government, and all dealt with by the incoming Labour Government.

Mr. Hague: For the Prime Minister, there is always someone else to blame. The NHS is in crisis, and he says that the Government are innocent. Whatever happens in this Government, everybody always says that they are innocent. The Trade Secretary resigns, and he is innocent; the Paymaster General resigns--now we know why he was called the Paymaster General--and he is meant to be innocent; the Chancellor's press secretary resigns, or intends to resign, as we have just been informed, and he is innocent; the NHS is in crisis, and the Prime Minister is innocent. St. Tony, the angel of Islington, is always innocent.

The Government announced in November money that could have been announced in September. They cut the number of trainee nurses that we had announced and distorted clinical priorities by their targets. Why do not they take responsibility for something for a change?

The Prime Minister: It did not take the right hon. Gentleman long to try to get off the subject of the health service. His allegation that we have cut the number of nursing trainees is absolutely false. I will tell him why we have the problem with nursing shortages in the national health service today. The Tories cut by 4,000 the number of places between 1992 and 1994--while he was in government. There are 2,500 more trainee nurses today than there were when we came to office. Furthermore, if the Tories had matched our commitment to training, there would be 14,000 extra nurses on the wards.

It takes three years to train a nurse. We are putting in more resources, training more nurses and will see that nurses are properly rewarded and that there is recruitment and retention in the health service. In other words, we will deal with the appalling mess that we inherited from the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman, who said nothing about the health service, was a member.

Mr. Hague: And of course the right hon. Gentleman says nothing about an increase in trainee nurses that would have been 14 per cent., but that this Government have achieved 11 per cent. The reason that they have not been able to handle matters this winter is that they have been too busy attacking each other. The Prime Minister has been too busy: first, trying to protect the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), and then trying to rehabilitate him. What is the Prime Minister doing

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treating the right hon. Gentleman as the come-back kid, when he is actually the kick-back kid? Why does he not recognise that?

Have not the past few weeks been a disgrace? Is it not time he buried the spin-doctoring politics of new Labour along with the self-serving, high-living career of the politician who invented it?

The Prime Minister: Perhaps we can return to the health service for a moment. The right hon. Gentleman made a specific allegation that it was our decision to cut planned new nurse training places by 3 per cent. I have looked into that allegation. That cut was actually made in January 1997, when his Government were still in office. In fact, far from cutting back, we achieved about 1,500 new nurses in training--more than were due that year.

Mr. Hague: What about some answers on the money announced in November that could have been announced in September, and the complete distortion of clinical priorities? While the NHS has been in crisis, personal feuds have taken the place--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. This House will come to order. Members will be heard--[Interruption.] Order.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister refuses to take responsibility for the Government's decisions. While the NHS has been in crisis, personal feuds have taken the place of political principle, personal loans have taken the place of political priorities. Does he not realise that, on that basis, no matter how often he relaunches the Government, a Government who believe in everything and in nothing cannot succeed?

The Prime Minister: One thing in which we do believe is the national health service. As a result of this Government's proposals, we have put in an extra £2.5 billion above the Conservative's published spending plans. We know what the Conservatives would have done, and we have exceeded it by £2.5 billion. From April, a further £21 billion is going into the NHS--what the right hon. Gentleman's shadow Chancellor calls "reckless and irresponsible spending". So the idea that the right hon. Gentleman is in a position to make any criticisms of the health service is absurd.

As for all the personal feuds, I will tell the House what would worry me about any Cabinet Minister, past or present. It would worry me if I ever caught any of them being filmed making train journeys across Spain.

Q2. [63749] Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North): Will my right hon. Friend join me--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I cannot hear the hon. Lady, and she needs to be heard.

Ms Keeble: Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the staff of Northampton general hospital, which I visited on Monday? I saw the outstanding work that the hospital has done in caring for people--superb work that is undermined by remarks such as those that we have heard from the Leader of the Opposition. What I have said applies not just to the

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accident and emergency department, but to wards throughout the hospital where staff have coped superbly with the influx of admissions resulting from the flu crisis.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the sterling work done by those and other NHS staff throughout the country who have dealt with--not created--a flu crisis underlines the need for a good pay settlement for nurses, enabling us to recruit and retain staff in an important profession?

The Prime Minister: The additional £21 billion that will be provided from April will ensure not just that we are better able to deal with the nursing shortages in the health service, but that we can make better capital investment in the service and provide better services for cancer patients and children, among others--so that, in other words, we are better able to fashion and run a health service for the 21st century. That is the commitment that this Government have made to the national health service.

We know the problems that hospitals face. We know the difficulties that they have had over the past few weeks. We know them, and acknowledge them. The great difference is that this Government are pledged and determined to do something about them.

Madam Speaker: Mr. Ashdown.

Hon. Members: Oh!

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): And a happy new year to you too.

Earlier today, the Prime Minister expressed the hope that his Government would be judged not on the basis of scandals, but on the basis of their record on crime, health and education. On which of these three would he like to be judged? Would he like to be judged on the basis of falling police numbers, longer NHS waiting times or the worst crisis in teacher recruitment for more than a decade?

The Prime Minister: There are problems in schools and hospitals; but let us analyse for a moment some of the problems that people no longer raise in the way that they used to. NHS waiting lists have fallen by more than 100,000 in the past few months. That does not mean that problems do not still exist in the health service, but we are tackling them.

There are 100,000 five, six and seven-year-olds who started school in September in classes of fewer than 30 who would otherwise not have done so, and there is a £2.5 billion investment programme for schools. Over the next two or three years, every school will be linked to the internet and given the computer equipment that it needs. Yes, teacher recruitment is a problem--which is why we are presenting proposals to transform teacher recruitment, teacher training, teacher performance and teachers' pay over the next few years.

The right hon. Gentleman asks on what we would like to be judged. We would like to be judged on the basis of the progress that we are making--and, at the next election, we shall have fulfilled each of our manifesto pledges.

Mr. Ashdown: But that is a promise. The truth is that the Government are travelling in the wrong direction. Does the Prime Minister dispute any of these three facts? There are now 780 fewer police officers than there were

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when he was elected; there are 10,000 vacancies for teachers in our schools; and there are 8,000 fewer nurses than the NHS needs. Does the Prime Minister not understand that the people did not vote to kick out the Tories in order to make public services worse?

Let me put this to the Prime Minister. If he were a Labour voter, lying on a trolley outside a ward that had been shut because the nurses could not be found to staff it, would he be more interested in what the Government had promised, or in why the Government had not delivered?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Sack him!

The Prime Minister: I do not think that we will put that one to the vote.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise, if he reflects and is reasonable about it--I am sure he will be--that, of course, there are still huge problems in the health service. We do not put right 20 years of neglect in schools and health in 20 months, but there are things happening in the health service. We have got rid of the Tory internal market which cost so much and did so much damage. We are introducing, for example, proper nursery education for four-year-olds. There are the extra kids in class sizes under 30. Waiting lists are coming down. Yes, we have to deal with waiting times too. We have to deal with nursing shortages, and we are. There are 2,500 more trainee nurses today than there were when we took office.

Therefore, I do not dispute that, to people who are facing difficulty today, it comes as cold comfort to be told that the Government are going to do it--but we are going to do it. [Hon. Members: "When?"] In our 20 months in office, we have done more already for the health service than that lot ever did, but we will do more. At the next election, people will see that the promises that we made on schools and health are exactly what we have delivered.

Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the critical situation in Sierra Leone and I know that he will share the concerns of my constituents who have family and friends in that country. What steps are being taken by the Government; and what are the prospects for United Nations intervention to ensure that water and food are delivered to the beleaguered people of the capital city?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend raises a very serious issue. We are trying to do all we can to work with the UN agencies to bring humanitarian relief to people who are suffering from the rebel attacks on Freetown and, indeed, other towns in Sierra Leone. We are also in constant touch with the Nigerians because they are leading the ECOMOG forces that are trying to repel, along with the Ghanaians, those rebel forces.

Appalling atrocities have been carried out by the rebels and we are doing everything that we possibly can under the UN resolutions that have been passed to give assistance to the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone. It is important that we do all we can to support the democratic Government there.

Q3. [63750] Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): What does the Prime Minister say to the thousands of angry parents who, even if it was inconvenient to them,

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and unlike him and many of his Cabinet cronies, followed the advice of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and ensured that their children were back for the first day of term? Is it not a case of "do as we say, not do as we do"?

The Prime Minister: I have explained the circumstances of that. I having nothing to add.

Madam Speaker: Order. We do not allow families to be used as battering rams across the Floor of the House.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Given my right hon. Friend's meeting with Mr. Mbeki last week in South Africa, does he not agree that South Africa's role is crucial in terms of wealth throughout Africa? Does he agree that the commitment to the full potential of wealth creation is important, if only to deal with matters such as crime reduction in almost all the regions of the continent of Africa?

The Prime Minister: One of the benefits of our new relationship with South Africa and of the recognition and support for the huge increase in overseas aid and development that has been introduced under this Government is that we are able to help countries such as South Africa to deal with their problems of crime and economic development, and to overcome the enormous problems caused by apartheid.

I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friend that I am confident about the future in South Africa, but I am particularly confident about our ability to play a constructive partnership role with South Africa in giving it and its people the best chance in the future.

Q4. [63751] Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Mon): The Prime Minister will have seen the report this morning in the Welsh press that--[Laughter.] I am sure that he will have been briefed on it, anyway. The report stated that a significant section of the Labour party in Wales, disgusted by the drift towards Conservative values, is threatening to form a breakaway party. If those party members throw themselves overboard in such a manner, will the Prime Minister throw them a lifeline? Or does he accept their view that, although Wales needs devolution, his policy is to wed Wales to London?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that there was a point in there somewhere. The hon. Gentleman talks about Conservative values. I do not think that the new deal for the young unemployed in Wales is a Conservative value. I do not think that additional money for the health service in Wales is a Conservative value. I do not think that extra help for pensioners in Wales is a Conservative value. I also do not think that the help that we are giving in terms of regional development in Wales is a Conservative value. That is why I believe that people in Wales will vote Labour.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): As the Prime Minister is undoubtedly aware, the United Nations has designated 1999 as the year in which we can celebrate the contribution made by older people to our communities. Will he join me in congratulating the Salford project, which has brought together older people and young disaffected students in gardening projects, so that Salford

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really is beginning to bloom? Will he confirm that the Government--unlike Opposition Members, who seem determined to raise issues of tittle-tattle and gossip--will put the well-being of older people right at the heart of our policies? The important issues in the United Kingdom include the well-being of older people in our community and the contribution that they make.

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend will know, last June the Government established within government a group to ensure that we co-ordinate policies for elderly people. I congratulate her project in Salford on all the work that it is doing. The new deal for communities is putting hundreds of millions of pounds into the inner city, to help all people in the inner city--the young, the middle-aged and the elderly alike--to play their full contribution in society.

Q5. [63752] Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Is it true that the first that the Prime Minister knew of the loan from the former Paymaster General to the former Trade Secretary was on Thursday 16 December?

The Prime Minister: Yes.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government remain 100 per cent. committed to introducing legislation on fairness at work at the earliest possible opportunity? Does he agree that the Government's fairness at work policy and our action on the national minimum wage, the working families tax credit and the new deal demonstrate that we have done more for all working people and for the trade union movement than any other British Government in very many years?

The Prime Minister: Yes, we remain completely committed to it. My hon. Friend has just described more Labour values--and very right they are, too. In particular, the minimum wage will for the first time give people in the United Kingdom the right not to be paid below a minimum amount. It will help literally hundreds of thousands of people in this country. The working families tax credit, which is opposed by the Conservatives--they would scrap it; they would take it away--means that low-income families will have to be earning at least £11,000 a year before they pay a penny in tax. That is a Labour Government working for the people of this country.

Q6. [63753] Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Following the resignation of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, why will not the Prime Minister order the Cabinet Secretary to conduct a full inquiry into the financial disclosure of all Ministers and subsequently to publish the results in a proper register?

The Prime Minister: There are rules that have to be followed by all Ministers. Those rules apply to each and every one of them.

Q7. [63754] Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): While we are making good progress on delivering on our manifesto pledges on education, even given the demoralised state of the education sector that we took

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over from that lot opposite, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a further challenge to equip the British people with the skills, particularly information technology skills, that they desperately need to create jobs and wealth into the next century? Will he consider setting up a task force to bring together the many disparate but excellent schemes that exist to ensure that we become the information technology learning centre of the world?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend's suggestion is excellent, but we have got there already. We co-ordinate through a task force the bringing of computer literacy into schools and the training of teachers in it. Over the next few years, not only will all schools be wired up to the internet and kids get the chance to have the computer equipment, as I said earlier, but we shall be spending a large amount training teachers for it. That is in addition to the £55 million that was announced yesterday in support of the national numeracy strategy, around two thirds of which will support the training of teachers. That literacy and numeracy strategy is also opposed by the Tory party. The Conservatives are apparently even against children getting the basics right at 11.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): The Government have promised a 20 per cent. cut in emissions. So far, their legislation has increased emissions, both from domestic fuel consumption and by protecting coal against gas. What legislation does the Prime Minister intend to introduce to cut emissions to meet the promises that he has given the world?

The Prime Minister: A document will be published later this year on sustainable development and how we shall meet the targets that we have set out. We are also taking a series of measures that will help, not just in the European Union but here as well, not least of which are measures on energy conservation and public transport. Those are part of the reasons why the emissions are so great and why we have to tackle the issue. The right hon. Gentleman used to have responsibility for that, so he will know that, thanks to the work done by my right

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hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, we have been in the lead on those issues not just in the European Union but throughout the world.

Q8. [63755] Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): The BBC studios at Pebble Mill are the second largest employer in my constituency. There is considerable disruption at the moment to do with the planned refurbishment of those studios. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to remind the BBC that as a public service broadcaster it has a responsibility not just to the nation, but to the regions? That involves a commitment to regional production facilities in cities such as Birmingham.

The Prime Minister: I am all in favour of regional television and regional newspapers--more so on some days than others. My hon. Friend has made her point to the BBC. I hope that those at the BBC have listened. I share her sentiments.

Q9. [63756] Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Is the collapse at Beachy Head to be viewed as a symbolic warning to the nation of the right hon. Gentleman's apparently growing feebleness in defending Britain's European rebate and our general rights of veto within the European Union?

The Prime Minister: Our position on the rebate and the veto has not changed at all. The hon. Gentleman and I have a simple disagreement and we may as well be clear about it. He would like to see Britain out of the European Union. A large number of his hon. Friends agree with him. I am afraid that they are the predominant group in the Conservative party today.

I happen to believe that Britain's national interest is best served by being constructive in Europe. That way, we get more out of Europe. The best test of that is that after years in which the Conservatives were unable to get their own way on the lifting of the beef ban, this Government came in and, 18 months later, got it lifted. Conservative Members may disagree, but I believe that the vast majority of people in this country do not support the anti-Europeanism of the present-day Conservative party.

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