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Unemployment Rates

8. Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): If he will make a statement on the percentage of the population currently unemployed in (a) Gwynedd and (b) Wales. [72460]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): In January 1999, 7.8 per cent. of the population of Gwynedd were unemployed and the figure for Wales was 5.9 per cent.

Mr. Wigley: Does the Minister accept that both those figures are far too high? Does he accept also that, if we achieve objective 1 status for the west of Wales--which includes Gwynedd--and the European Union gives its highest priority to the problems of that area, the United Kingdom Government should do likewise in reviewing the assisted area map and give the whole of the objective 1 area in Wales top-level priority?

Mr. Hain: We are giving the whole objective 1 area of Wales top-level priority. Because of the Labour Government's achievements, we have the chance of delivering one of the best boosts that the right hon. Gentleman's constituency, west Wales and the valleys have ever had, by drawing down European funding.

Since Labour came to power, 300 youngsters in the right hon. Gentleman's area have been given the chance of a job with training under the new deal and £7 million of regional assistance has been provided to companies in his constituency to bring in 1,000 new jobs or safeguard existing jobs.

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PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked--

Engagements

Q1. [72483] Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 3 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Today, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I was also briefed on the hideous murders of eight tourists in Uganda. The high commission is seeking to establish the facts, and we are obviously in close consultation with the Ugandan authorities. The House will know that four of the dead--Joanne Cotton, Martin Friend, Mark Lindgren and Stephen Roberts--were British, and the thoughts of the whole House will be with their friends and families, to whom we pledge to do all in our power to bring their killers to justice.

Mr. Gill: Given that his Secretaries of State for Wales are partial to forbidden fruits, what steps will the Prime Minister now take to ensure that moments of madness involving beef on the bone do not, in future, constitute an offence? Will he now revoke the ridiculous and discredited ban on beef on the bone, or is it the case that his European puppet masters will not let him?

The Prime Minister: I thought for one moment that we would get through a question from the hon. Gentleman without a hit on Europe, but I was mistaken. On beef on the bone, I gather that the event to which his question relates was designed to promote the Welsh beef industry, and I can only say that it had considerable success. The ban is in place because, as he knows, the chief medical officer has given us what he terms his strong advice that there should be further tests. Obviously, we shall lift the ban as soon as that is consistent with medical advice.

Q2. [72484] Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Is the Prime Minister aware that this Sunday will mark 300 days until the new millennium? Is he aware also that in those 300 days, the level of debt repayments from poor countries will mean that the lives of millions of children in Africa alone will be lost? I congratulate the Government on their good work on debt relief, including today's announcements, but, as the millennium approaches, will my right hon. Friend agree to consider the outright cancellation of the debt of those poorest countries that are committed to tackling poverty, so that we can take a lead in ending that unnecessary loss of children's lives?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend raises an issue of concern to millions of people in this country and throughout the world. She will know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced the millennium target for debt relief of £50 billion to the world's poorest countries by the end of 2000. That is right, and we shall lead the campaign internationally to cancel as much debt as possible. She will know also that the new Labour Government have increased the overseas aid budget by

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the largest amount ever, and after years of that budget declining as a percentage of our national income, it is now rising for the first time in two decades.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): I associate the Opposition with the Prime Minister's remarks about the tragic events in Uganda.

On a subject closer to home, the Prime Minister may recall that he and I received a letter from Mr. Nelson, an NHS patient who has been told to wait 80 weeks to see a consultant in a trauma and orthopaedic clinic. Will the Prime Minister confirm that people waiting in that manner, of whom there have been many more in the past two years, do not appear in the waiting list figures that were published yesterday?

The Prime Minister: The waiting list figures are published and calculated under this Government in exactly the same way that they were under the previous Government. Partly as a result of providing money over and above what the Conservatives promised for the national health service, we are bringing waiting lists down.

Mr. Hague: The figures are calculated in the same way and they reveal that waiting lists are longer under this Government after two years, and that the real scandal is the number of people, such as Mr. Nelson, who are waiting to be on waiting lists. That figure is double what it was two years ago. Is not the truth that there are now nearly half a million people waiting for hospital appointments as a direct result of managing the national health service for the sake of appearances rather than patients? Are not the Government now just spinning the figures and playing with politics instead of serving the patients?

The Prime Minister: No. First, I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's confirmation that we are indeed calculating the figures in precisely the same way as the last Government, as his shadow health spokesman has been saying the opposite month after month. Secondly, we have brought down health service waiting lists after years of rising lists. As for the number of out-patients, I can give him the latest figures. During the third quarter of 1998-99, 68,000 more were treated than in the previous quarter.

Mr. Hague: I will give the right hon. Gentleman the figures, too--468,000 people waiting for hospital appointments compared with 248,000 only two years ago. The Government calculate the figures in the same way, but they have moved people who would have been on waiting lists to waiting to be on waiting lists. The chairman of the British Medical Association consultants committee himself said:


Should not the Prime Minister stop spending £150 million on dragooning GPs into new bureaucracies and concentrate it on this instead, and reduce the real waiting lists in our health service?

The Prime Minister: No, because the right hon. Gentleman is wrong on both counts. Not merely are we

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treating more out-patients than before, but we are treating several hundred thousand more in-patients; so in respect of both in-patient and out-patient lists, we are treating more people. In addition, from 1 April, the Government are going to introduce £21 billion extra spending in the national health service, having sorted out the mess left behind by the Tories. That £21 billion is opposed by his party, and described as reckless and irresponsible. That is why this country will trust us, not him, with the health service. [Interruption.]

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Was it on purpose or by mistake that the oil pipeline between Iraq and Turkey was hit?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry; I did not hear the first bit of that question.

Madam Speaker: Nor did I. This is a very noisy House; it ought to be a little quieter. Mr. Dalyell, let us have your question again.

Mr. Dalyell: Was it on purpose or by mistake that the oil pipeline between Iraq and Turkey was hit by a missile or bomb?

The Prime Minister: No, it certainly was not on purpose, but we do not yet even know the extent of the damage, if any. Let me explain to my hon. Friend again why it is necessary that we police the no-fly zones. In Iraq, it is necessary in order to protect both the Kurdish people and the Shia Muslims from the brutality of Saddam Hussein. If he wants to stop those patrols, he can come back into line with the United Nations resolutions, stop butchering people for whom he has responsibility, and start behaving like a responsible leader in the world.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): As the Serbs mass troops and armour on the Macedonian border and as Kosovo slips back into widespread conflict, will the Prime Minister give us his assessment of the realistic prospects for success at the reconvened Rambouillet talks, when they take place?

The Prime Minister: It would be a brave person who predicted an optimistic outcome. On the other hand, we have made good progress in two ways. First, the framework for autonomy in Kosovo is now in place and agreed. Secondly, there is significant progress--not yet total agreement--on the idea of having an outside force in Kosovo in order to make sure that the agreement works. The implementation conference is on 15 March. I believe that there is every prospect that we may get the two sides in agreement. We will obviously do everything that we can in the meantime to make sure that that happens.

Mr. Ashdown: But is it not the case that the west's attempts to find peace in Kosovo have been severely hampered by our reluctance to state clearly what it is we are trying to achieve? Is it not now essential that we recognise what everyone understands to be the truth, but which no one has yet dared to say--that the actions of the Serbs in Kosovo have removed from them the moral authority to govern Kosovo on the basis of 5 per cent. of the population, that the only sensible interim status for

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Kosovo is as an international protectorate, and that although independence cannot be a solution in the short term, it cannot be excluded as a long-term option?

The Prime Minister: The way that we have set out is more practical. The right hon. Gentleman says that our objectives are not clear; they are clear. They are, first, to get agreement on the constitutional programme for Kosovo, which has now been agreed by both sides--that is why it is not very helpful to talk about a different constitutional settlement altogether--and secondly, to establish a force in Kosovo in order to police that settlement and make it happen.

In the meantime, the two most important things in my judgment are, first, sending a message to Kosovo Albanians that they must avoid provoking new clashes, and that we are not going there in order to be their fighting force for independence--that is not our role--and secondly, our responsibility to say very clearly to President Milosevic that, if there is renewed repression in Kosovo, we remain ready immediately to take military action against him. Giving that clear message to both sides and making progress on the constitutional settlement are the best way forward. The danger of the way forward outlined by the right hon. Gentleman, which may have attractions for one side in the dispute, is that we would fail to get general agreement.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): In view of this Government's important additional investment in science, engineering and technology, does my right hon. Friend welcome the launch last week of the Athena project, which aims to increase women's participation in science, and to retain women in science and progress them in scientific careers? Will he confirm that Departments that employ scientists will be at the forefront in implementing the project's aims?

The Prime Minister: I confirm both those points. We welcome the project and the fact that it offers the opportunity to open up prospects for more women in science. Britain has the potential to lead the world in many areas of science and technology. We are working on ensuring that inventions and scientific achievements in this country are also exploited commercially in this country for the benefit of our future prosperity.

Q3. [72485] Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Where in the Labour manifesto did it warn that the effect of Labour policies would be to reduce the rate of economic growth from 3.5 per cent. to just 0.5 per cent. in less than two years?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman may recall the recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which said that that rate of growth was unsustainable--[Interruption.] It says that the only way in which to ensure proper growth in this country is to pursue the policies for economic stability that this Government have undertaken, such as Bank of England independence, which Conservative Members oppose, the sorting out of public finances, so that we do not have the doubled national debt that we inherited, and, of course, an end to--[Hon. Members: "Boom and bust."] Boom and bust, exactly.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow

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(Mr. Dalyell), my right hon. Friend referred to accidental damage to the oil supply line from Iraq to Turkey, which carries oil under the United Nations oil for aid programme. Is he aware of the other, unofficial supply of oil between Iraq and Turkey, which is for cash? It is funding the Baghdad regime and supplying money to keep the Republican Guard in place. Given that it is in breach of UN resolutions, will he raise with his American counterparts the need to take military action to block that supply, which is carried by truck? Many of us believe that if that line is broken, the Baghdad regime will fall.

The Prime Minister: One of the targets in the military action that we took before Christmas was precisely directed at ensuring that the sanctions regime was upheld. My hon. Friend's point is absolutely right and justified. We cannot say often enough that Saddam Hussein is able to sell as much oil as he wants for food and medicine for the Iraqi people. We will not allow him to get round the sanctions and use that oil money to build up a weapons arsenal.

Q4. [72486] Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): In his manifesto, the Prime Minister promised to promote saving, which is a key to growth in future. Why is it then that, under his Government, the savings ratio has gone down by a third?

The Prime Minister: We are promoting savings and we are doing it, first, by introducing the pensions reforms that will allow people, many of them lower-income people, to save for the first time in years. As for pensions and savings, what most people remember are the pension mis-selling scandals under the previous Government, which we sorted out when we came in.

Q5. [72487] Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): On Monday, the treaty banning landmines came into effect--and I hope that we can all take some credit for the part that our country, our Prime Minister and our Foreign Secretary played in that--but Russia, China and the United States have not signed up to the treaty. We can be sure that, since Monday, more mines have been laid in the world than have been cleared. Can the Prime Minister assure us that Britain will not be a home to anyone who deals in landmines, or to any dirty money that is generated by selling them? No amount of laundering can wash the filth from profits that are made by planting landmines to maim women and to cripple children.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend will know of the very strong position that we have taken internationally on that issue. We will continue to do so. Last week, we announced the destruction of the last of our land operational anti-personnel mines, which happened four years ahead of the deadline that was set in the Ottawa convention. We are also increasing our annual funding for demining-related activity. I can assure him that we will do all we can not merely to implement the convention, but to try to persuade all members of the international community to do the same.

Q6. [72489] Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): I wonder whether the Prime Minister would consider the advantages of the political parties allowing their Back Benchers more freedom to speak their minds and to vote

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with their consciences, so that this place might become rather more the free Parliament of a free people, and rather less a rubber-stamp assembly.

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman is in a party of one, it is obviously a fairly easy issue for him, but I happen to believe that we are perfectly entitled as a Government to put through our programme. What is important is that we do deliver that programme. That is precisely what we are doing.

Q7. [72490] Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the day that Wales elects its National Assembly will be a day of historic importance not only for Wales, but for the British state? Does he agree that what Wales must avoid like the plague is nationalism and separatism? Does he also agree that what my constituents are looking for are real jobs, better hospitals and improved school services?

The Prime Minister: That is precisely what the £2.4 billion plans that were announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales will deliver for Wales: better schools and hospitals. The new deal will deliver better jobs and the economic policy of the Government has delivered lower mortgages.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Three weeks ago at Question Time, the Prime Minister failed to answer a question asking by how much he had increased taxes in the past two Budgets. In fact, he said:


The Confederation of British Industry says in its Budget submission to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that taxes on businesses are up by £5 billion a year, so who is the telling the truth: the Prime Minister or the CBI?

The Prime Minister: Actually, the CBI has welcomed our reform of tax. [Laughter.] Yes, it has. If the right hon. Gentleman is talking about the reform of tax credits, of course, that will yield from the next couple of years onwards a £4 billion tax cut for business. I assume that it is his policy to reverse the policy now, in which case it will be interesting to know how he pays for it, but it is under this Government that corporation tax and small business tax are the lowest that they have ever been.

Mr. Hague: Evidently, we have as much chance of getting a straight answer out of the Prime Minister as of meeting the Minister for the Cabinet Office in economy class, or of meeting the Secretary of State for Wales at a meeting of the Electoral Reform Society. The truth of what the CBI says is that the previous two Budgets resulted in an extra tax burden on businesses of more than £5 billion a year since Labour's election. That figure is not confined to the taxes that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned; it includes more corporation tax, more fuel duties, more stamp duties and lost dividend tax credits. Will he now acknowledge that his claim three weeks ago that business taxes have come down was complete and utter rubbish?

The Prime Minister: No, I will not. As I have just said to the right hon. Gentleman, we have cut corporation tax. If we consider the figures, the tax burden will increase

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over this Parliament at or below the level predicted by the Conservatives in their last Budget. What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is wrong. However, at the same time, we have managed to sort out public finances, to get interest rates at their lowest level for more than 30 years and to get inflation back under control, all of which the right hon. Gentleman's Government failed to do.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister told the House that business tax had come down and it is an indisputable fact that it has gone up by billions of pounds. Contrary to specific election promises and contrary to every statement in the House, the Government have raised taxes on businesses by stealth and on the whole country by stealth. Before we debate next week's Budget, is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman started to tell the truth about the previous one?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to say that the Government, by introducing the working families tax credit, will make 1.5 million families better off, some by up to £20 a week. Child benefit is coming in--an extra £130 a year to 5.5 million families--[Interruption.] Hon. Members think that it does not matter that these families are getting more money. National insurance has been cut, as has value added tax, corporation tax and long-term capital gains tax.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's mention of the petrol duty fuel escalator, it is correct that there is such an escalator. Under this Government, it is 6 per cent., and 5 per cent. of it was introduced by his Government. If it is not now out of order to quote the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) to Conservatives, I shall read out what the then Chancellor said when he introduced the escalator. He said:


The other part of the business tax is the windfall tax. I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is opposed to that, too.

Mr. Hague indicated assent.

The Prime Minister: There we are. So he is opposed to the new deal. So hundreds of thousands of young and unemployed people know that if they vote Tory, they will get put out of a job. It is this Government who are developing not only low interest rates and not only Bank of England independence, but £40 billion of extra spending, and the new deal is delivering jobs where the Tories delivered despair.

Q8. [72491] Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the royal commission on its report on the problems of continuing care for the elderly, caused by the acutely difficult and unsustainable system left to us by the previous Government after implementation of the Community Care (Residential Homes) Act 1993? Does he agree that the sooner the Government are able to address the recommendations of the report, with all the resource difficulties that are involved, the more grateful the British public will be?

The Prime Minister: We set up the royal commission and it says that it wants a full public debate on the

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proposals; I hope that that takes place. We need a solution that stands the test of time. It is worth pointing out, as I am sure that my hon. Friend will acknowledge, that, in the meantime, it is this Government who have been breaking down barriers between health and social services. We are providing an extra £750 million over three years to promote rehabilitation and prevention. We have introduced the new strategy for carers, which is worth £140 million over the three years. We must have the debate on the royal commission's report. We will come out with the best affordable solution possible. If we can manage to do that, we will have undertaken a task for the country which was avoided for 18 years under the previous Government.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The Prime Minister may have noticed recent newspaper reports that he is considering putting some money into the international manned space station. As much as he and I might like to compare notes on which of our colleagues we would like to put into orbit, does he accept that current moneys spent on space science and earth observation are very thinly spread, and that many excellent science projects could be backed by the Government if they were prepared to put further funds at their disposal, not least the Beagle 2 Mars lander project?

The Prime Minister: I have a feeling that we might just agree on the people we would put up in space. I also accept the hon. Gentleman's comments. We shall make a decision on the matter in the near future. What is important is that the money that is available is put into science projects that will really bring a benefit to the United Kingdom. When we make the decision, we shall announce it, and I shall write to him.

Q9. [72492] Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): As you can see, Madam Speaker, as there are so many people on the Government Benches, more of us have taken to bringing our own seats.

The Prime Minister: Very little adds up with the SNP. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right in pointing out that the drop in the oil price demonstrates the importance of our having a balanced economic strategy to develop the whole of the United Kingdom. The Government have not merely delivered a lower unemployment level in Scotland, more jobs for Scotland and lower mortgages for Scotland, but--if we pursue the

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right stable economic policies--there will be a prosperous economic future for Scotland. That would not happen under separatism or with divorce.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Three or four weeks ago, the Prime Minister made great play and many soundbites about how the nation owed a debt to carers. I wrote to him about two of my constituents--one of whom is a carer, and the other of whom is her disabled husband--who are being made homeless at least in part because of a failure of his Government's Department of Social Security. When he wrote back, he told me that the money owed to them had been paid, but he did nothing and suggested nothing about how they could be prevented from being made homeless. How does he dare to claim that he cares about carers? When he answers that question, will he also tell my elderly constituent, Mrs. Hollanby--who is currently awaiting assessment of a glaucomatous condition--the difference between a pending list, a waiting list, and a waiting for a waiting list?

The Prime Minister: On the first point--as I wrote to the hon. Gentleman, explaining the circumstances--we have done exactly what any Government would do in those circumstances. As he rightly said, it is not correct to suggest that the situation is all the result of the Department of Social Security. Secondly, on his other point, we are putting extra money into the national health service precisely to get the waiting lists down, after years of rising waiting lists under the previous Government. I remember that when the hon. Gentleman sat on the Government Benches, waiting lists were going up year after year, and he never said a word about them.

Q10. [72493] Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): Yesterday, we heard from the Health Secretary that 140,000 qualified nurses no longer work in the health service. May I tell my right hon. Friend of a nurse in my area who wants to return to work after maternity leave, but who cannot do so because the shift patterns are incompatible with her child care needs? I welcome the Health Secretary's statement that he has now told health trusts to offer family-friendly policies. Does the Prime Minister agree that all Departments should lead by example in offering and encouraging family-friendly policies, and that getting people back to work is good for families, good for the health service and good for the economy?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely. The civil service is looking at how it can improve its flexibility in employing women with families, particularly younger families. My hon. Friend is right to say that a big problem in recruiting people back to nursing in the health service is the inflexibility of the present system. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has pledged to change that. The child care tax credit and the additional money that we are putting into child care provision should also help. People must be allowed to balance the work that they need with the family that they love. That is the purpose of our policies.

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