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The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [103443]Mr. John Heppell (Nottingham, East): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 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 be having further meetings later today.

I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with the families of the seven fishermen who are missing at sea off the Isle of Man. Our profound sympathy is with them all.

Mr. Heppell: May I say what an honour it is to ask the first question of the millennium? [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] I only hope that it is not the last.

Is the Prime Minister aware of the reports of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and of Saatchi and Saatchi showing that after two decades of Tory Government, we had the worst poverty record in the developed world? But my right hon. Friend will be reassured to know from the Saatchi and Saatchi report that at least the Tories were embarrassed about it. Under this Government, 170,000 jobs have been created under the new deal. In my constituency, youth unemployment has been reduced by 75 per cent. When does my right hon. Friend expect the Leader of the Opposition to be embarrassed about the lack of support

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for measures that directly tackle poverty? Or is the Tory party now so extreme as to be incapable of embarrassment?

Madam Speaker: Order. I am sure that the Prime Minister will select from that question the section which relates to his responsibilities.

The Prime Minister: Delighted to do so, Madam Speaker. The new deal has meant that 170,000 young people have gone from the dole into work, into unsubsidised jobs. There are tens of thousands more.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Rubbish.

The Prime Minister: It is a pity that the Conservative party opposed the new deal, but it always has opposed measures that reduce unemployment and help people who are poor. I met some of these young people yesterday. For the first time in their lives, they have some hope, confidence and prospects for the future. I hope, just for once, that the Conservative party will stand up for unemployed people.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): First, may I associate the Opposition entirely and sincerely with the Prime Minister's remarks about the missing fishermen?

Turning to the Government's responsibilities, when the World Health Organisation says that this country's preparations for a flu outbreak have been among the worst in Europe, when people have had their cancer operations cancelled for the fourth time, and when families of relatives who have died say that they are angry with the Government for saying that the national health service is coping, does the right hon. Gentleman stand by the remarks of the Secretary of State for Health--that the NHS is coping well?

The Prime Minister: Let me read out what the chairman of the British Medical Association, Dr. Ian Bogle, has said:

As the right hon. Gentleman has opportunistically sought to make capital from this matter, let me point out that half the patients currently in intensive care have illnesses related to flu. Some 600,000 people attended accident and emergency units during the Christmas period, a rise of 32 per cent. Accident and emergency admissions were up 13 per cent.

I agree that there are real capacity constraints, and we need more doctors, nurses and intensive care beds. For precisely that reason, we are putting extra investment into the health service. I said that the right hon. Gentleman was being opportunistic because he has opposed that investment.

Mr. Hague: Why does not the Prime Minister wake up and recognise that the system is not coping for some people? That is the fault not of hard working doctors and nurses, but of a Government and of Ministers who did not prepare for the winter. Why did the Prime Minister not

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listen last night to the daughter of a woman whose operation had been cancelled for the fourth time? On the news, she said:

    "I think it is about time Tony Blair started to realise the reality that NHS hospitals are facing on a day to day basis. The Government is trying to cover it up by saying that hospitals are coping, but they are obviously not."

The situation has been made worse by the Prime Minister's broken promises and by his political distortion of clinical priorities. He has become another Labour Prime Minister saying, "Crisis? What crisis?" If the NHS is coping well, will he give us the statistics for which we asked a month ago? How many people are waiting to see a hospital consultant, and how does that compare with the figure when the Government came to power?

The Prime Minister: I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has attacked the waiting list pledge, as a result of which we have reduced in-patient waiting lists by 80,000. I have outlined previously what has happened on out-patients, but more are being treated than ever before. I do not for a moment dispute that the pressures on the health service as a result of the flu outbreak have been serious. Half our intensive care beds are occupied by people with illnesses related to the flu.

I also accept that there are genuine capacity constraints, and that we need to build capacity. Let me once again tell the right hon. Gentleman the facts about what we are doing. Since our campaign to bring more nurses into the health service, 2,600 nurses and midwives have returned to employment. A further 2,500 nurses and midwives are undergoing practice courses to return. As a result of the increase in pay that we gave to starter nurses last year, there has been a 24 per cent. increase in the number taking degree courses this year. Applications for midwifery training have risen by 50 per cent. Four hundred more cancer specialists and 400 more cardiac specialists are in training.

All those things take time--three years to train a nurse and seven for a doctor. It takes years to build hospitals. The difference between the Government and our predecessor is that we recognise the constraints in the health service and are tackling them. Our job is to modernise and improve the NHS, while the right hon. Gentleman's proposals involve privatising a large part of it.

Mr. Hague: Does the Prime Minister have the courage to give the information that I have requested? We had the first question of the millennium from the hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell); can we have the first answer from the Prime Minister? Some 248,000 people were waiting to see a consultant when he came to power, and there are 512,000 now--VIPs and ordinary people, as his friend Lord Falconer would probably put it. The only thing that has risen faster under the Government is the cost of political advisers. Does that not tell us all that we need to know about a Government more interested in style than in substance, in making promises than in delivering on them, in blaming others than in taking responsibility--and more interested in spin doctors than in real doctors?

The Prime Minister: I notice that not a single fact of what I said did the right hon. Gentleman dispute. While we are being lectured by the Opposition, let us not forget that, under the previous, Tory Government--[Interruption.] Let me give them the figures: 40,000 beds

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had been cut, when we came to office; nurses in training had been cut; and spending as a percentage of national income had also been cut.

I have done some research on the right hon. Gentleman's time as Secretary of State for Wales--this is the man who lectures us. In his time as Welsh Secretary, he cut the number of doctors; he cut the number of hospital beds; and he cut the number of nurses, midwives and health visitors.

As for "real" doctors, the extra doctors in training are real, the extra nurses in the health service are real, the extra £21 billion is real. Let us never forget that the right hon. Gentleman's policy is to make sure that everyone with a non-urgent operation has to take out private health insurance. That is not the answer to the health service. Yes, there are problems, but the choice is between modernising and rebuilding the health service under us, or privatising it under the Tories.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Is it not important that we consider the experience of other countries which are suffering from the same flu epidemic? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the United States of America, which spends twice as much on health as we do, but in a largely private health system such as the Opposition are proposing, is struggling, as are we and other European countries? That is despite the fact that, in the States, up to a third of the beds in many hospitals are normally vacant. They still cannot cope with the extra cases. Is that not a lesson for us as regards the foolhardiness of Tory policies?

The Prime Minister: That is precisely why we shall not implement them. If I might expand on the remarks of my hon. Friend, there were reports in The New York Times, during the past two days--[Interruption.] I was going to read them out in response to further questions from the Leader of the Opposition, but I never got any. In The New York Times, for example, it was reported that the wave of flu has become widespread, overwhelming emergency rooms, filling hospital beds, and forcing postponement of operations. In many overcrowded rooms, people are simply leaving without being treated. In Ireland, hospitals in Dublin and around the country were forced again to cancel almost all routine surgery and procedures. In Sweden, all the intensive care facilities are full; some non-urgent operations have been cancelled and closed-down wards are having to be reopened. Elsewhere--in Italy, Norway, Germany, France and Switzerland--there are huge problems as a result of the flu outbreak.

Having said all that, let me return to the point: we accept that there are fundamental capacity constraints in the national health service; we are working to tackle them. However, the way to tackle them is not what is being urged on us by the Opposition, who say that private health care will take the strain. It simply will not. The only alternative is to get money and reform, over time, into the national health service--and that we will do.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): As the Prime Minister does like to keep his promises, does he not have to admit that his promise to save the NHS is, in the depths of the current crisis, looking very threadbare indeed? As he is recommending--correctly--more money for the NHS,

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will he make it his priority not to go ahead with another Tory-style tax cut in April, but to give that money to the health service instead?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman needs to co-ordinate his remarks with those of his economic spokesman, who attacks us for putting up the tax burden. Let us get it straight; either we decide that we shall put in the extra investment or we do not--it has to be paid for. We are putting in extra investment. We said that there would be two tight years, and there were, because we needed to sort out the financial deficit. This year is the first year of substantially increased funding. Next year will be the same. The year after that will be the same. If we carry on running a stable economy, we shall get the extra resources for a good three years after that. Already, next year, the proportion of national income spent on the health service is to rise to more than 6 per cent. for the first time. I accept that, meanwhile, there are people suffering and not getting the care that they need in parts of the health service, but it must be done stage by stage, over time, in a way that is consistent with the proper running of an economy.

Mr. Kennedy: Going back to the issue of promises, may I ask the Prime Minister about another matter--his promise to pursue an ethical foreign policy? Does he support the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary in opposing the resumption of the sale of arms to Pakistan until democratic guarantees are in place, or is he going to support the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence, which appear willing to put profits before conscience?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman's question is based on a misunderstanding since, as far as I am aware, there is no dispute between Government Departments. The same rules will apply as apply to any arms sales, but as far as I am aware, there are no proposed sales taking place.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston): I know that it is outwith the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister, but I should like him to assure the House that there will be a fair and just decision regarding the entry to Britain by Michael Tyson. I am appalled by the way that the four candidates for London mayor have used Mike Tyson as a political whipping-boy, and I am concerned regarding the economic effect that it will have on hoteliers and the service industry in Manchester.

The Prime Minister: Anyone would be ill advised to use him as a whipping-boy. I know of my hon. Friend's long-standing interest in boxing, but the matter is being dealt with by the immigration service, and it must deal with it according to its rules, in the normal way. That is the proper thing to do--to play it by the book.

Q2. [103444]Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): The Home Secretary has described the English as very aggressive and violent. Does the Prime Minister agree?

The Prime Minister: That is a complete misconstruction of what the Home Secretary said. I say this as one very peaceful English person to another--[Interruption.] Well, I was born in Scotland but brought

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up in England--I am delighted to say--and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree with the Home Secretary that the last thing that we want is a resurgence of English nationalism. I am British, and proud to be British.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): The Prime Minister's Government has, since May 1997, dealt with many of the bad policies that we inherited from 18 years of Tory rule. Will he look at an issue that is causing housing problems in many parts of the country--the fact that we treat VAT on new build totally differently from VAT on improvements and repairs to our housing stock? Is it not time that we had parity, to enable us to deal with our housing in a better way?

The Prime Minister: I think I should treat that as an early Budget submission and leave it to the good offices of the Chancellor.

Q3. [103445]Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Is the Prime Minister aware that in Sussex the bodies of my constituents are being transported around the county, from overflowing hospital mortuaries, in vans that are normally used to transport rubbish to the local tip? Is he aware that the only reason we have any empty intensive care beds is the lack of staff to attend to them; or that at Worthing hospital, where we already have some of the longest waiting times in the entire country, all elective surgery has been cancelled, affecting particularly harshly my many elderly residents?

Will the Prime Minister now apologise to my constituents and to all the NHS staff who have been caused great distress and suffering? Will he apologise, rather than continuing to con them with these soundbites about the NHS never having been better than under Labour?

The Prime Minister: What I said was that there were real problems in the national health service, and that we were tackling them. For example, there are 100 more critical care beds, which include intensive care beds, this year than last. In all parts of the country we are trying to bring in more doctors and more nurses, but as the hon. Gentleman's constituents would know, it takes time to train doctors and nurses and we are tackling these problems.

Mr. Loughton: How much longer?

The Prime Minister: It will take time, but the hon. Gentleman should remember, when he is talking about waiting lists, that waiting lists are now 80,000 below the level that we inherited from the Government whom he supported.

Q4. [103446]Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): As my right hon. Friend will be aware, child poverty trebled under the previous Government. Is he also aware that the Child Poverty Action Group estimates that, within two years, 800,000 children will be lifted out of poverty as a result of this Government's initiatives? However, the Child Poverty Action Group warns that more may still need to be done to abolish child poverty altogether within

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20 years. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Ministers are aware of these findings and work together closely to achieve the target that he has set?

The Prime Minister: I am pleased that the Child Poverty Action Group has indicated that our policies will indeed lift children out of poverty. That helps to correct some of the reports published recently that were mainly based on statistics up to the time we came to office. As a result of the working families tax credit, the minimum wage and the increased child benefit, we will lift a very substantial number of children out of poverty. That is only the first step. The other thing is to make sure that we carry on the new deal, so that we carry on giving work, hope and opportunity to young people.

It is appalling, but true, that every single one of those policies was opposed by the Conservative party. Indeed, last week, it made it clear that it was opposed to the minimum wage. People will go into the next election knowing, if the Tories win, that if they have a minimum wage, it will be taken away from them; if they have the working families tax credit, it will be taken away from them; the extra child benefit will be taken away from them and the new deal will be scrapped. Only someone with the misjudgment of the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) could have that as his election programme.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): Can the Prime Minister tell the House what Blairism is?

The Prime Minister: It had its first outing on 1 May 1997 and resulted in an election victory and a majority of 179.

Q5. [103447]Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Does my right hon. Friend recall a year ago the constant dire warnings from Conservative Members of the adverse effects of the introduction of the national minimum wage? Job losses and worse were predicted. Will he now confirm that independent reports have indicated that the national minimum wage has given 2 million people increases in their pay packets, and there has been an increase in employment of 130,000? Indeed, in Luton, we have seen a drop in youth unemployment of 67 per cent. and large employers, such as Whitbread, have thoroughly welcomed the minimum wage and say that it was introduced well and without any adverse effects. Does my right hon. Friend agree that all that suggests that the verbiage from Conservative Members on the minimum wage is about as reliable as their verbiage on tax?

The Prime Minister: Employment is up by more than 700,000 since the election and long-term unemployment has halved. That is an excellent result. My hon. Friend is quite right. The minimum wage has not had any of the adverse impacts that were proclaimed by the Conservative party. The truth is that Conservative Members opposed it

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because it was an act of fairness. What they do not understand is that, in a modern economy and modern society, fairness and prosperity go together.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): On Monday, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said of a particular promise that the right hon. Gentleman had made:

That was about the Prime Minister's promise to hold a referendum on proportional representation in this Parliament. So when are we having the referendum?

The Prime Minister: As I explained the last time the right hon. Gentleman asked me about this, as a result of the Jenkins report it is not possible to have a referendum on that particular proposal prior to the election. However, our commitment still stands and the debate goes on.

Mr. Hague: It was a very simple question, and the Prime Minister said earlier that he had the answers to my further questions. Before the last election, he said:

The Government's annual report says that item 130, which is a referendum on voting systems, is "on course." When will that happen? As the Prime Minister has now consulted the whole Labour party on that matter, will he tell us what the result was?

The Prime Minister: We said that we would have a commission, which has looked into the matter and reported. We shall of course abide by the commitments that we have made.

Mr. Hague: Has the Prime Minister seen the Home Secretary's comments? I shall have to turn to another page of my notes for them, but they are well worth waiting for. He said that the results of Labour's grassroots consultation exercise on the voting system, which showed a five-to-one majority against change,

Does the Prime Minister agree with that, and if so, why does he not now get on and hold the referendum so that the Conservative party and the Labour party can campaign together against this whole crazy idea?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is certainly looking for the issues on which he can unite with others. As for the Home Secretary's comments, I find them extremely interesting. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] That is a compliment.

As for the Leader of the Opposition's strictures on the Labour party, I shall offer him some advice. I would bother less about the Labour party than about the party that he is leading. It is not surprising that he wants to give me advice about the Labour party when the biggest queue is the one to get people out of the Conservative party. I think that he realises that, in future, although he will no

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doubt look for all sorts of cross-party issues, he should look to managing his party before he seeks to manage mine.

Q6. [103448]Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Further to the earlier exchanges on the NHS, would my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the staff at the Conquest hospital in Hastings, who, faced with a doubling of emergency admissions over the past three weeks, have achieved the outcome that no one in need has been turned away? In welcoming the significant increase in funding that has made that possible, will he treat with contempt the whingeing by the Tories, who ran down the NHS when they were in power and whose big idea now is more about offering privatisation than encouragement to the staff who are working so hard?

The Prime Minister: It is absolutely right to say that as a result of extra investment the NHS will get better--I am delighted that that is happening in Hastings--but there is still a long way to go. Hospitals, particularly in some inner-city areas, are still coping with enormous pressures, and we must relieve them.

My hon. Friend is also right to say that the key issue is the distinction between the policy that we have and the Conservatives' policy. I shall again quote the Conservative health spokesman, who said of the Tories' plans:

We have thought them through. They mean that anyone facing one of a number of non-urgent operations, including cataracts, hernias, and hip replacements, will be forced to take out private health insurance. It is impossible to do that, and the Tories go down that path because of their tax guarantee. They say that they will cut taxes in

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any set of circumstances. That is the biggest example of their lurch to the right and is part of the new extremism of the Conservative party. Hon. Members should not take my word for that; they should take the word of certain Tory Members. Their tax guarantee means that the Tories know that they cannot pledge to spend more on the health service.

I say again that, for all the difficulties in the health service that we are working on, the choice is clear--modernise it or privatise it.

Q7. [103449]Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given his professed commitment to freedom of information and the fact that there is no reference in the legislation or the regulations to any such power, how does the Prime Minister justify the Government's decision to prevent local parents from seeing the list of feeder school ballot petitioners in Ripon?

The Prime Minister: I do not know the answer to the detailed question, but I am perfectly prepared to write to the hon. Gentleman to give him it. The real difference between the system now and the one before is that, previously, local authorities could decide to close these schools, but now the decision is left to parents by ballot. I may say that no such school has been closed.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): The Prime Minister earlier referred to people suffering. He must be aware that there are many today shivering in misery, with despair deep in their bones, who feel that they have no future and who turn their faces sadly to the wall. Can he offer balm of Gilead or some soothing words to the Conservative party?

Madam Speaker: Order. I made a new year's resolution to be much nicer to my colleagues, but I will not allow the Prime Minister to respond to that question.

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