Mr. Burns: Does the Prime Minister agree that the incidence of beggars in the street caused by economic migration to this country is an affront? Will he answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) asked him two weeks ago: why do
The Prime Minister: First, we are making available up to £10 million of extra special grants to support local authorities this year. As for the rules on asylum, they were introduced by the Conservative Government. In the teeth of Conservative opposition, this Government are changing the asylum rules so that from 3 April proper asylum measures will be in place for the first time, no thanks to the Conservative party.
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): Is my right hon. Friend aware that people throughout the west midlands and all areas that depend on the Rover group are holding their collective breath this afternoon as reports come from Germany? Does he agree that it is intolerable that people should hear about further threats to their livelihoods from a newspaper leak in south Germany? Does he also agree that BMW and the Government agreed an aid package on the basis of BMW's long-term commitment to the Rover group and that BMW should remember that in its board meeting tomorrow, and keep faith with the many thousands of people throughout the country who have kept faith with them over the years? Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to safeguard jobs in that vital manufacturing industry?
The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend. We have made it clear that we have been willing to back BMW's plans with Government support. That has been made clear repeatedly in the past few months, and was reiterated today. We are in close touch with the company. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry spoke to the chairman of Rover today; he will also speak to the BMW chairman. He has made clear the enormous strategic importance that we attach to safeguarding Rover's future. We shall do everything we can, including making good our offer of support, to safeguard the future of the plant.
Mr. Hague: Yesterday, the Prime Minister's press secretary said that the Government had increased taxes. In that new spirit of honesty, will the Prime Minister admit that Labour's promises on taxes at the election were a total, barefaced election lie?
The Prime Minister: I certainly will not. We promised that we would not raise the basic, standard or higher rate of tax, and we kept that promise. For the first two years, the Government's duty was to cut the huge deficit that we inherited. However, this financial year, the tax burden falls; that will happen again next year. Future years depend on Budget decisions. No risks will--or should--be taken with the strength and stability of the economy.
We inherited a national debt that had doubled and a borrowing requirement of £28 billion. When we came to office, we were paying more in interest payments on the debt under Tory plans than we were spending on the whole school system. I make no apology for saying that we cut the budget deficit in our first two years. We were right to do that.
Mr. Hague: And the Prime Minister still will not admit what is clearly true: he has broken that whole long list of election promises. Now that he is letting his press secretary speak on the record, he will have to get used to this problem because we can see that his answers are less honest than those of his press secretary. "Less honest than Alastair Campbell" are not words that any of us want on our tombstones. His Government have increased taxes on mortgages and marriages, petrol and pensions, savers and self-employed, large businesses and small, air travel and
The Prime Minister: No. The figures are 36.5 per cent. for 1997-98 and 37.4 per cent. for 1998-99, falling to 37 per cent. this year and 36.8 per cent. next year. I also have the figures that the right hon. Gentleman agreed to when a member of the Cabinet in 1996. I think the House should hear them: 36.3 per cent. in 1997-98, 36.6 per cent. in 1998-99, and 37.1 per cent. and then 37.6 per cent. We can simply look at the Tory record. If it is immoral to raise taxes ever, then the last Tory Government were immoral, were they? I have looked at the record under Margaret Thatcher. The tax burden rose by 3 per cent. Was she immoral? [Hon. Members: "Yes!"] I am sorry to say that about someone who I know means so much to the right hon. Gentleman, but we do not have to look at the last Tory record. Let us look at the last two years of the Tory Government, when he was a Cabinet Minister. The tax burden went up a full 2 per cent. Was he immoral?
PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the largest accounting firms in the world, says that the Government's figures are a less accurate indicator, because they involve reclassifying items in the middle of the period. That is polite accountant-speak for a barefaced election lie, which is what we were talking about at the beginning. The figures also show that the tax burden will continue to rise from this year to next year, from next year to the year after and so on, until the last possible date for a general election.
What is the right hon. Gentleman's policy? His policy is the Tory tax guarantee. That was tried before, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and what did it give us? Interest rates went through the roof, 1 million jobs were lost in manufacturing alone, there was record borrowing and recession; and then what? Twenty-two Tory tax rises.
Yesterday, the right hon. Gentleman said that it was the moral duty of Government always to cut taxes. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]. Hon. Members say "Hear, hear"; I say that a return to boom and bust is not moral. What is moral about 3 million unemployed? What is moral about 1 million small businesses going to the wall? What is moral about 1 million homes being repossessed? What is moral about 4 million children living in poverty that we inherited?
Mr. Hague: What is moral about breaking every promise on taxation, and delivering worse public services at the same time? Let us have an answer now: does the Prime Minister admit that he has broken all those promises? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Mr. Hague: Every independent organisation agrees that the tax burden is continuing to rise. No independent organisation accepts the figures that the Prime Minister just gave, because there is no institute of manipulation and broken promises.
The Prime Minister: No. The promise that we made about the basic, standard and higher rates of income tax has been kept, and rightly too; but we do not, I repeat, make any apologies for having got rid of the budget deficit in our first two years. Surely what the country needs above all else economically is stability and strength, and surely, when there are more jobs, higher living standards, more take-home pay and greater stability in the economy than we have had for years, that is the right test of an economic policy. If we went back down the road proposed by the right hon. Gentleman--massive tax cuts, at the same time as promises of extra spending--we would end up with cuts in public spending, increased taxes, and boom and bust. That is the truth.
Mr. Hague: We would not end up with those things. Of course we would not. What about saving the hundreds of millions of pounds that are being spent on asylum seekers because the right hon. Gentleman has made this country a soft touch? What about saving tens of millions of pounds on preparing for the euro, when people do not want to join the euro? What about saving the extra £1,000 million that the right hon. Gentleman has spent on running Whitehall? What about saving on the welfare budget, which has run out of control while we have proposed savings of £3 billion?
The Prime Minister: As for that last rant, let me first deal with the welfare position. Under this Government, the welfare bills on social and economic failure are £4 billion down as a result of the new deal. On welfare spending, even if the working families tax credit, the increased child benefit and the extra money for pensioners, which the right hon. Gentleman is opposed to, are included in that--let me give him the figures--it is a 1 per cent. real-terms increase over this Parliament. When he was in office, it was a 4 per cent. real-terms increase, so contrast that with the idea that he will get all this money out of the welfare budget.
As for asylum, the right hon. Gentleman's party opposed the measure that we are introducing from this April to replace the benefits for everyone with a tougher, tighter system. The Tory proposals on the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which the shadow Home Secretary tabled, would have added £500 million to the bill, so, next time he engages in some economic debate, let him get his facts right.
Angela Smith (Basildon): The Prime Minister will be aware that many Labour Members take every opportunity to lobby him for extra resources for our constituencies, particularly in health and education. Has he received any representations from Conservative Members for cuts in services in their constituencies, given their tax guarantee? Does he believe that we can spend more if we are getting less in?
The Prime Minister: I should inform the House of the latest stage of the Conservatives' thinking. What they now desire to do is not just to oppose the extra money on schools and hospitals as reckless and irresponsible; they are now saying that they are going to savage the welfare budget. But the part of the welfare budget that they will savage is the extra £100 for pensioners, the extra child benefit, the working families tax credit and the new deal. We will expose it day in, day out before the election.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): The House is rightly concerned about possible overheating of the economy, but we should be much more concerned about the clear overheating of the leader of the Tory party. Will the Prime Minister resist the Conservative-led endeavours to get into a Dutch auction about tax? Will he take this opportunity to confirm that it remains his commitment and his ambition to get our health service spending--what people really care about out there--up to European levels sooner rather than later?
The Prime Minister: We want to ensure that proper funds go into the national health service. We want, too, to ensure that hard-working families get the benefit of saving as much of their income as they can, which is why we have the basic rate income tax cut, but taxes should be cut consistent only with the proper management of the economy. Of course, that is the case.
Mr. Kennedy: At a time when we are seeing cardiac operations postponed, insufficient provision in intensive care, and the health service not meeting the aspirations that it felt it could attain under a new Labour Government, should not the priority for the Chancellor and the Prime Minister be further investment sooner rather than later, rather than a tax cut next month, which all evidence of public opinion shows people do not want as the public priority?
The Prime Minister: It is, of course, important to get the investment in the health service, but I emphasise to the right hon. Gentleman that we are already putting a substantial amount of extra investment into the health service. This is, after all, the first year of significant additional increases in health spending. For the first two years, for the very reason that I was giving earlier, we had to ensure that we brought the public finances under control, but we need to ensure that we get that extra investment--and we are. That is the very
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned heart disease. There are problems in cardiac and cancer specialties. They can be cured only by more specialist staff, more intensive care beds and more consultants. We are investing in all three of those, but it does take time. This year, for example, we will have another 70 cardiac specialists coming on stream. In the years following, we will have even more than that, but it has to be done step by step, obviously, as a result of the problems that we inherited and as a result of the time that it takes to train people.
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to express the House's gratitude to the members of the disability rights task force for the excellent work they have carried out over two and a half years? Does he have a message today for the newly appointed members of the Disability Rights Commission, who start their work next month?
The Prime Minister: We are proud of the work that will be undertaken by the Disability Rights Commission. I am sure that it will do an excellent job. That was a manifesto commitment, and we have fulfilled it. I am delighted to see that it has so much support everywhere in the country.
Q2. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given that there are now over 48,000 school classes with 31 or more pupils and that the number of secondary school classes with 36 or more pupils has more than doubled since he took office, should the Prime Minister's election slogan have been not "education, education, education", but "humbug, humbug, humbug"?
The Prime Minister: There are 300,000 five, six and seven-year-olds in classes of fewer than 30 pupils who were not in classes of fewer than 30 pupils during the time of the previous Government. The reason for that is simple: we took the measures necessary to reduce class sizes and we made the necessary investment. The hon. Gentleman opposed that investment. The truth is that we can get class sizes down only if we make the additional investment in the system. We are making that investment and the hon. Gentleman's party is opposing it.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): One of the things that is wrong with the Leader of the Opposition is that he gives slapheads a bad name. I have a possible untapped tax suggestion for the Prime Minister, which could be developed. The exchange of goods and services throughout the world accounts for only a small amount of the money that changes hands. Most money is involved in currency speculation. If there were to be an internationally led tax on currency speculation, it would raise millions of pounds that could be used in Mozambique and other areas to tackle problems in the third world. Will our Government take a lead to see that that is on the agenda, because it needs to be done, not just by this Government but by other Governments and financial centres?
The Prime Minister: That is an interesting suggestion. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will have paid close attention to it. The best way to help the developing world is through the cancellation of debt. I am proud of the fact that our Chancellor and our Secretary of State for International Development have led the way on that. The Government are also increasing the aid and development budget, which means that millions of people throughout the world are feeling the benefit of our policies. I have a feeling that, although we will pay careful attention to my hon. Friend's suggestion, we will continue with our policy.
Q3. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): In welcoming the lobby here today, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he agrees that our dairy farmers are the best and most efficient in Europe, but have suffered the costs of gross negligence because of the Tory handling of BSE and the lowest prices in Europe as a result of the Government's failure to protect them from the larger processors and supermarkets? Does the Prime Minister really believe that 8p a pint for our dairy farmers is enough for them to survive? If not, what action will he take?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, on 30 March I have a meeting with representatives of the National Farmers Union and representatives of farmers in every part of the United Kingdom. We will see what measures we can take to help the dairy industry and other sectors, such as the pig industry, that are experiencing real difficulties. As I have said constantly, there is a limit to the amount of public subsidy we can provide. We are putting in a significant amount of money. We understand that the position has worsened recently, particularly for the dairy sector, and we will do what we can. I will say no more before the meeting on 30 March. We are aware of the problems, but we need long-term solutions as well as solutions to get them over a short-term crisis.
Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): Will my right hon. Friend forgive me if I tell him very bluntly, man to man, that--[Interruption.] Yes, I have been waiting years to tell my right hon. Friend this, whether he likes it or not. Does he know that, in my constituency, 4,200 Airbus workers are cheering the Government's decision to pay £530 million into the Airbus project, which will create 1,400 jobs in my constituency?
May I also tell my right hon. Friend that, among the work force, there is just a little perplexity that there seems to be some tardiness by the Welsh Assembly in its apparent inability to pay just £25 million in grant? Will he address that issue, send for the First Secretary--[Interruption.] Thank you very much for the £530 million.
The Prime Minister: I shall certainly use my renowned influence with the Welsh Assembly to make the points that my right hon. Friend has just made. It is a very important investment, which will not only bring jobs, but safeguard a large part of the United Kingdom's technological and skill base.
The Prime Minister: That is about the level of today's Conservative party. I do not know what nonsense there is about me having a butler--thank you very much--but, if the hon. Gentleman has any complaint--[Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: If the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) has any complaint, he can take it to the appropriate authority. I should have thought that, when he had the chance to ask a question of the Prime Minister, he might have thought of a better one.
Q5. Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): Now that the £28 billion inherited public deficit has been eliminated, does the Prime Minister agree that it is a cause of optimism that, this year, economically, we have decreasing unemployment, stable prices and economic growth? Does he agree that a strong economy is needed to deliver a social justice agenda, for stronger public services, and for improvements for the poor and disadvantaged in our society? At the core of it, at the next general election, is not the real moral choice between a Government who care for a social justice agenda and an Opposition who, 20 years ago, threw such an agenda overboard?
The Prime Minister: It is important not only that we have rising prosperity in the British economy, which we have, but also that that prosperity is extended to everyone. That is the difference between the two sides. It could be no more clearly demonstrated than in the new deal, a policy that has delivered literally 200,000 people in unsubsidised jobs. The Conservatives consigned those 200,000 people to the scrap heap. Under new Labour, those people have been given choice and opportunity. That is the difference in the moral values between the two parties.
Q6. Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Having declared my interest in livestock, I have also readily taken the advice of my friends to look after my day job. Does the Prime Minister accept reports that, compared with their Great Britain counterparts, Northern Ireland farmers have fared disproportionately badly, sustaining a 79 per cent. drop in income since 1995, compared with a 60 per cent. drop in Great Britain? Will he give us an assurance that he will urgently consider the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Select Committee on the current problems in the livestock industry, and seek Treasury support to bring relief urgently?