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Better Government for Older People

6. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): If he will make a statement on the better government for older people programme. [116389]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): The 28 pilot projects are formally at an end as pilot projects, but some are continuing because they have been successful. The Government will evaluate them over the coming months and it is our intention to report by June.

Mr. Burstow: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but given that all the news releases issued about the programme boast of a series of "listening to older people" events across the country involving Ministers, can he tell us how seriously people can take those meetings when the Government have shown only this week how deaf they are to the voices of pensioners by failing to give them a decent increase in the basic state pension--just 75p? Are not the Government listening to but not understanding pensioners?

Mr. Stringer: What was in the hon. Gentleman's party's previous manifesto? Absolutely nothing on that

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issue. It is clear that, over their period in office, the Government will have put £6.4 billion into pensioners' pockets. After 20 years of Conservative rule, the disparity between pensioners on the lowest incomes and those on the highest incomes was higher than it had ever been. By providing the minimum income guarantee to pensioners and free eye tests, the Government have done more for pensioners than his party or the Conservative party would do.


The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [116414]Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 5 April.

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.

Mr. Luff: In a recent letter to me, Philip and Ruth Bull of Evesham wrote:

How much more tax will pensioners such as the Bulls and all married couples below pension age have to pay from tomorrow as a result of the abolition of the married couples allowance and what my constituents describe as "This ludicrously discriminatory ruling"?

The Prime Minister: First, I hope that the hon. Gentleman pointed out to his constituents that the Conservative party reduced the married couples allowance from 40 per cent. to 15 per cent. Secondly, they are getting the basic rate cut in income tax. Thirdly, they will be entitled to the £150 winter fuel allowance. Those two things would be taken off them by a Conservative Government. In addition, we are putting in a lot more support for younger families with children through the extra child benefit, which would also be taken off the hon. Gentleman's constituents' grandchildren by a Conservative Government.

Q2. [116415]Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Is it not the case that the Government's plans to modernise the national health service will meet their objectives only with a substantial increase in the number of nurses and with an expansion of nurses' role that recognises their talent and expertise? Does my right hon. Friend therefore welcome today's news that 5,500 more nurses are working in the health service and the announcement that those nurses will have more power? Is it not a mark of nurses' good judgment that at yesterday's Royal College of Nursing conference, 81 per cent. were not reassured by the words of the leader of the Conservative party because they know that he would privatise the NHS?

The Prime Minister: It is the case that the number of nurses has increased by 5,500. When we came to office,

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the number of nurses in training had been cut. Now we are seeing an increase in the number of nurses. Also, the £5,000 for each ward--the capital help that nurses will get--will give them more power, and will also allow us to improve some 10,000 wards. We already know that the Conservative party's promises on health spending are hollow because it is committed to two things: first, private medical insurance tax relief--£1 billion out of the health service budget, half of which is a deadweight cost going to those who already have private medical insurance--and, secondly, refusing to support the increase in tobacco duty, which is £400 million. There is a £1.5 billion hole in its health spending plans already.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): May I ask the Prime Minister about a matter that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry dodged and evaded this morning?

Last week in Munich BMW issued an account of precisely what its chairman said to the Secretary of State in December. It states:

When the DTI issued the same statement in London on behalf of BMW, the words of the BMW chairman had been carefully changed to make the position appear less dramatic. The words "for the R30" had been inserted, to make it seem that the statement could not have applied to the investment in Rover as a whole. This morning, the Secretary of State denied both accounts, including the account that he himself distributed to journalists in his office last week.

After that tale of doctoring and denial, would we not be right to conclude that nothing the Secretary of State says can any longer be believed?

The Prime Minister: No. The Secretary of State has given the fullest possible account. I think that what the right hon. Gentleman is saying is absolute nonsense. Of course the grant aid was very important, which is precisely why they had the conversation. As I explained to him last week, we were trying to make sure that the process was hastened. However, it had nothing to do with the ultimate decision.

What I find absolutely ridiculous is the right hon. Gentleman's focusing on who knew what when. Surely the real issue is what we do about the thousands of people who face losing their jobs. Instead of the right hon. Gentleman backing BMW's account of conversations with the Secretary of State, it would help if we had some co-operation from him in the making good of jobs of people at Longbridge.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister seems to be extraordinarily sensitive about who knew what when. Of course this is about things other than the grant aid. Do not this morning's documents show that BMW says the decision was also due to

The Secretary of State is even now sitting on the Competition Commission report that makes that point. The decision was also due to the

    charges made for workplace parking.

It was this Government who introduced the power for that.

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Does not this whole sequence lend credence to what BMW also said at the weekend--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House will come to order.

Mr. Hague: We know that Labour Members do not want to hear it, Madam Speaker, but they had better hear.

BMW said:

BMW reported a conversation that its chairman had with the Prime Minister:

    Blair's attitudes and opinions seemed to be many and varied. I have heard him say different things.

That sounds like a pretty honest account to me.

Is it not clear from this that the DTI could and should have taken earlier action to avert or alleviate the situation?

The Prime Minister: The series of meetings with BMW took place because everyone knew there was a critical situation. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] Of course they did. That was the very reason for the meeting that took place on 10 March.

The plain fact of the matter is that the company was losing £2 million a day. What we must do now is make sure that we can save whatever jobs we can--the Secretary of State, quite rightly, is working on that--and establish a taskforce with the money that is necessary to help people who do lose their jobs to find new jobs.

What I find both pathetic and ridiculous is the right hon. Gentleman's concentration on trying to back BMW's claims against the Secretary of State, rather than trying to make sure that those who do face the loss of their jobs actually get new jobs--which is what I intend to concentrate on.

Mr. Hague: If the Secretary of State is concentrating on the future, why is he spending his time doctoring BMW's statements--[Interruption.]--which he had agreed with BMW, and then denying that he made the statement in the first place?

Of course a huge amount of work must now be done. The DTI has major responsibilities in supporting the taskforce, making competition decisions, providing regional assistance and keeping in touch with all the businesses involved. Is the Prime Minister going to express the confidence in his Secretary of State that he failed to express last week, or is he going to take the right course and have a new Secretary of State who focuses on the future rather than covering up his recent failures?

The Prime Minister: First, of course I do. This exchange only shows the right hon. Gentleman's lack of judgment. Rover employees--who, understandably, are really anxious about the future--will know that the people who sold the plant to BMW are the people sitting on the Opposition Benches.

Secondly, what we have to do now is to save as many of the jobs as we can, which we are doing--urgent discussions are going on. We are leaving no stone unturned to do that. We also have to ensure that we put

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the money and the work in place to help not only the Longbridge workers, but those who are in the supply chain. That is precisely what we are doing. I am only sorry that, because the right hon. Gentleman has nothing serious to say about the issue, he has to carry on in this way.

Q3. [116416]Mr. Piara S. Khabra (Ealing, Southall): Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the brutal murder by terrorists of 35 Sikhs in a small town in Kashmir? Will he also confirm the Government's commitment to fight against international terrorism--which is engaged in killing innocent civilians to destabilise communities, and is promoted and supported by countries that are well known to the international community?

The Prime Minister: We condemn all acts of violence that bring suffering to the people of Kashmir. We are of course appalled by the murders on 20 March, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary immediately made a statement condemning the massacre.

We are similarly appalled by the loss of life during a protest in Kashmir on 3 April, and we welcome the Indian decision to hold a judicial inquiry. We condemn terrorism in all its forms, wherever it occurs and whatever its motivation.

The United Kingdom is of course deeply troubled by continued violence in Kashmir. Our role in the matter, however, must be to encourage both India and Pakistan to find a just and lasting solution that is acceptable to the people of Kashmir. I think that that is the most sensible and responsible position for us to adopt.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Why is the Prime Minister spending a smaller share of our national wealth on pensioners than the Tories did?

The Prime Minister: We have not merely increased the amount of money that we are spending on pensioners, we have increased the amount of money far beyond anything that the Liberal Democrats have ever promised pensioners. Over the whole of this Parliament, we are increasing the amount by £6.5 billion. So that the electors know it: that is £6.5 billion that the Liberal Democrats never promised they would spend.

Mr. Kennedy: In a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb), the Government have confirmed that the share of national wealth--which is increasing--going to pensioners will decrease steadily over the course of this Parliament. In its manifesto at the previous general election, the Labour party said--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Kennedy: Labour Members do not like to have their own words quoted back to them, Madam Speaker, but they are going to have them quoted back. At the last general election, Labour said:

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    The prosperity of the nation is going up, but the share going to pensioners is going down. If the Prime Minister wants to take the credit for the increasing prosperity, he should have the guts to take the blame for having sold pensioners down the river.

The Prime Minister: First, I think that people should understand that the Liberal Democrats never promised that they would re-link the state pension to earnings. Furthermore, every time they say to people that that is what they would do, they have not the faintest idea how they would pay for it.

Secondly, 1.5 million pensioners will benefit from the 10p rate on savings income by up to £150; 200,000 pensioners have been lifted out of tax entirely; 3 million pensioners over 75 will receive free television licences; the minimum income guarantee will increase the income of 1 million poorer pensioners; and the winter fuel allowance will go to 8.5 million households. Now, would we like to do more? Yes, of course we would like to do more, but we have done an immense amount for pensioners, particularly the poorest pensioners. What is not an honest policy for any party is to say that they would do more and more and spend more money and never say where the money would come from. That is not a serious policy or an honest policy, but it is the policy of the Liberal Democrats.

Q4. [116417]Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the genuine concerns about the possibility of a significant increase in air traffic, notably from London airports? In particular, will he note the on-going fears of many of my constituents and those in surrounding areas about the idea that RAF Northolt in west London could be expanded to become a feeder airport for Heathrow, with all the resulting pollution, noise and environmental damage for those under the flight path?

The Prime Minister: I can indeed give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. I know that he has been campaigning on the issue for some time. He will be aware that the Government do not believe that the circumstances have changed to warrant reopening the issue of RAF Northolt and we do not intend to consider any proposals to develop it as a major civil airport, because it is clear that the environmental consequences would be unacceptable.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): According to the Child Support Agency, only one third of absent parents pay maintenance in full for their children. Will not the Treasury be the only beneficiary of the removal of tax relief on maintenance?

The Prime Minister: No, I think that everyone will benefit, in particular from the new system that we are introducing for the Child Support Agency. It will be a far simpler and far fairer system. As the hon. Lady knows, the great problem with the Child Support Agency is that many of the costs are eaten up by bureaucracy. As a result of the simpler system, that will not be the case. We will

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get the money in more fairly and there will be a benefit not to the Treasury, but to those who have to pay maintenance.

Q5. [116418]Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the new Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, which came into force this week, is welcomed by my constituents and is already having an effect in Dover? Will he ensure that the provision for asylum will continue and that we will not be diverted or deflected by the disgraceful and shameful behaviour of the tabloids and the Tories, who seek to link increases in local council tax with asylum support?

The Prime Minister: Despite what the Conservatives say, my hon. Friend is right that we are establishing a national asylum support system to replace the shambles that we inherited from the previous Government. The Conservatives have proposed an extra £500 million of spending a year, because they want to revert to the cash benefit system in place of the system that we are introducing. They also oppose our action on road hauliers who bring in illegal immigrants. That is an extraordinary position, but it means that never again should my hon. Friend or any other Labour Member take lessons about asylum from the Conservatives.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): This week, the UK managing director of Cisco, one of the world's largest companies, said:

Does the Prime Minister understand why one of the world's largest companies is saying that and will he explain the reasons to the House?

The Prime Minister: It is precisely because of the concerns that have been raised that we have a consultation paper with three options. We shall discuss the issue with those concerned. If firms such as Cisco have legitimate concerns, of course we have to deal with them, but we also have to deal with tax avoidance. If the right hon. Gentleman is saying that we should not attempt to deal with that, perhaps he will get up and say so.

Mr. Hague: Of course we should deal with tax avoidance. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Hague: We should deal with tax avoidance, but that is not what one of the world's largest companies is talking about. It is talking about the extension of national insurance contributions--another stealth tax introduced by the Chancellor--on which there has been no consultation paper. The Prime Minister poses for pictures with computers but, when one of the world's largest computer companies threatens to pull the plug on UK investment, he does not know what it is talking about. That is not a good sign.

According to a report published yesterday, 50,000 IT consultants are either emigrating or thinking of emigrating, or they are not returning to the UK from overseas assignments--if only we could be so lucky with

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the Deputy Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister understand why thousands of IT companies are taking their business abroad? Will he explain that to the House?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is talking absolute nonsense. Of course there is a paper about the share options, as it is important that we ensure that there is no tax avoidance. We will listen to legitimate concerns and act on them, but it would be wholly wrong to allow tax avoidance to take place on the back of any of those practices.

As for British business, the economy has never been stronger. We have 800,000 new jobs, growth is up, and for the first time in 30 years we have come through a slowdown without a recession. Inflation is down, and for the first time in decades we have got rid of Tory boom and bust.

Mr. Hague: So either the Prime Minister is unaware of what is happening in the high-technology sector, or he does not care about it. The British Chambers of Commerce said yesterday that

Those words are borne out by the Prime Minister's remarks in the past few minutes. While the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is waving goodbye to the old economy, is not the Chancellor--with stealth taxes and regulations--slamming the door on the new economy?

The Prime Minister: I was thinking that there is at least one economic migrant who has come back to this country instead of staying abroad. They are not all leaving--some are coming back.

What the Leader of the Opposition is saying really is nonsense. Of course it is important for us to ensure a good climate for business. That is why we have reformed capital gains tax and reduced corporation tax, but we must also ensure that tax avoidance does not take place. We have a balance to strike, and we are trying to strike it in the right way.

As for business, I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the latest survey of business confidence published by the London chamber of commerce and industry today. It reports that 62 per cent. of businesses expect turnover to increase, and that only 6 per cent. expect it to decline. It adds that 45 per cent. of firms expect to take on staff, and that only 7 per cent. foresee a fall in staff numbers. It reports that only 34 per cent. of firms say that they may have to raise prices, and that profit expectations are the highest for three years. That is the reality.

Hon. Members: More, more!

Madam Speaker: No. No more. I call Mrs. Gilroy.

Q6. [116419]Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a most welcome aspect of this year's Budget is what it does for older

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people with modest savings? Will the Government build on that by recognising thrifty pensioners in future Budgets?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this matter. The Government are consulting on the idea of a pensioner credit that will help pensioners who are above benefit levels but who are not well off. For example, we have rejected Liberal Democrat calls to put everything on the basic state pension because pensioner income levels vary in this country.

Some pensioners are very poor, some are relatively well off, and there is quite a large band in the middle. Therefore, trying to solve all such problems by putting everything on the basic state pension will mean that some of the money will go to people who do not need it, and that some of the poorest pensioners will not be helped.

To make sure that we help the poorest pensioners we want to introduce the minimum income guarantee, while the 10p tax on savings and higher capital limits will help the better-off pensioners. To help precisely those pensioners to whom my hon. Friend has drawn attention we need to consult now on the pensioner credit.

Again, this is an argument in which sensible people know that the system has to change in time and I am pleased to say that we are leading its reform.

Q7. [116420]Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Why should the council tax payers of Uxbridge be penalised for the Government's policy failures on asylum seekers?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid to have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the fact of the matter--I hope that his constituents understand this--is that if we pursued the policies that he is advocating, we would restore cash benefits. That is one big way to reduce the number of asylum seekers! The Conservative party was in favour of restoring cash benefits--[Interruption.] Well, Conservative Members do not seem to think that it is their policy, but I am afraid that it is.

Secondly, there was an instance yesterday of the way in which we are tackling lorry drivers who bring in illegal entrants at the port of entry. I will give the hon. Gentleman the facts because they bear on what will happen to his constituents. About 2,000 illegal immigrants enter in that way each month. As a result of the measures that we introduced, we have the power to tackle that. The Conservative party also opposed those measures. Indeed, it put out a statement today saying that it would get rid of that fine for road hauliers. We all know that the problem of bogus asylum seekers is real. The difference is that we are tackling it and he is not.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Millions of people are threatened with famine in Ethiopia. What are we doing to help?

The Prime Minister: From memory, I think that according to the latest figures from the Department for International Development we are providing about 10 million tonnes of food aid for people in Ethiopia. I think the total cost is more than £2.5 million, but we are also attempting to do other things. As my hon. Friend knows, the continuing conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea is one of the main reasons why this is such a problem. We

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are doing everything that we can to bring the sides together. We are providing immediate aid and we are trying to work on a long-term solution.

Q8. [116421]Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Will the Prime Minister now condemn the absurd attack by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment last week on grammar and high schools in the borough of Trafford--the local education authority that achieves the best results in the north-west of England and which the right hon. Gentleman accused of standing in the way of the Government's objective of increasing standards?

The Prime Minister: I am pleased to say that we are increasing standards. The hon. Gentleman will know that in primary schools, for example, they have never been higher. If he wants to get into a debate about grammar schools--this will not appeal to everyone in the House--I remind him that the party that closed more grammar schools than any other was the Conservative party.

Q9. [116422]Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): Earlier today, during the Adjournment debate in the Scottish Grand Committee on alleviating pensioner poverty in Scotland, the Sutherland commission on the long-term care of the elderly was mentioned. Is the Prime Minister in a position to tell us when the Government will announce the response to the last of those recommendations?

The Prime Minister: Yes. The response will be announced as part of the comprehensive spending review. The royal commission recommendations, which have a number of spending implications, will be considered within the overall context of the Government's spending proposals. When that review is brought forward, we will state our views on the royal commission's report. In the meantime, we have allocated additional money over three years to help fund respite care and we are extending direct payments to people aged 65 and over. Again, that is a change from the spending plans of the previous Government.

Q10. [116423]Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): Parents of schoolchildren in Northumberland have written to the Prime Minister to protest that the county council has cut £1 million from school budgets and are asking how that squares with the right hon. Gentleman's much- publicised commitment to education. How will the Prime Minister reply to those letters?

The Prime Minister: I do not know the facts of the case that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, although I will

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obviously look into them. One of the best ways in which we are dealing with the matter is through the Budget, which is putting money directly into schools to enable them to spend it on the things that they want. In addition, I am sure--although I do not know the specific examples--that schools in Northumberland will have benefited from new deal money, which is money that the Conservative party would take off because it opposes the new deal, and from the literacy and numeracy strategy which has raised standards in primary schools--a programme that the Conservatives opposed. We all remember that when we put education money into the education budget in the previous comprehensive spending review, those on the Opposition Front Bench called it "reckless and irresponsible". The one thing of which I can be sure is that more is happening--and better--in education in Northumberland than under the previous Government.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): Next week, the Secretary of State for International Development will be meeting with other people in the education forum. I know that she will do a good job because I have seen half the brief that she is preparing. Because of the fears of some organisations that some members of the forum are dragging their feet, will the Prime Minister lend his support to the aims, principles and objectives of universal primary education? The future of literally millions of children depends on it.

The Prime Minister: This is a very important initiative--indeed, we support it 100 per cent. I am delighted, again, that the Department for International Development has been at the forefront of the notion of bringing in universal worldwide primary education. It is immensely important for developing countries, and it goes alongside the work that has been pioneered both by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development and by the Chancellor in debt relief.

One of the things that I am most proud of in this Government is that after years of ignoring the issues of debt, overseas aid and development--

Hon. Members: Oh!

Madam Speaker: Order. Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: Yes--years of ignoring the pledge to raise overseas aid and development as a proportion of national income. One of the things I am most proud of is that, whereas it fell under the previous Government, under this Government it is now rising. That is yet another difference between them and us.

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