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PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked--

Engagements

Q1. [119380]Sir Raymond Whitney (Wycombe): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 3 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I met Nelson Mandela, as well as having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Sir Raymond Whitney: Does the Prime Minister accept that it is not enough for the international community to sit back until elections are held in Zimbabwe? If the present scale of killings and intimidation of political parties continues, the results of any such elections will be meaningless. Will the Government now do more, in collaboration with our international partners, to seek to restore the rule of law in Zimbabwe?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree that the situation in Zimbabwe is very serious, but the hon. Gentleman will have seen yesterday's statement by the Commonwealth ministerial action group, which made it clear that the elections should be free and fair and that the violence and killing must stop. He will also know from the negotiations that took place in this country last week that we have made it clear, as we have done throughout the situation, that we are prepared to help, but only if the violence and illegal occupations cease.

It is necessary not only for the international community but for this country in particular to make that absolutely clear, and we have done so. We are working at every single level of the international community to get that point across, and we will carry on doing so.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): My right hon. Friend will know that one of the meetings that he held this morning was with a delegation of stewards from the Longbridge plant in Birmingham. Is he aware of the strength of their feeling about safeguarding both the future of that plant and the future of car manufacturing in Birmingham? Will he comment on the fact that sales of Rovers have risen dramatically in the past two months and that the company's market share is now 12 per cent? Will he do all that he can to safeguard the future of

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the plant, including providing tangible support for a credible business plan, so that we can retain the industry, which is strategically important for the west midlands?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the Rover is a good car, as sales show. It is essential that we put together a plan that will give Longbridge a viable future; that we safeguard as many jobs as possible, and that for those people who unfortunately lose their job we stand ready to help them through the process of change. I made it clear to the people from Longbridge whom I saw this morning that the Government stand willing to do whatever we can to safeguard the existing jobs and to make sure that anyone who does lose their job gets the best possible chance of a decent job in the future. We shall carry on, as we have been doing over the past few weeks, working night and day to bring about that solution.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Last year, vandals rioted in the City, destroying property and terrifying law-abiding people. On Monday, the same groups defaced the Cenotaph and dishonoured our war dead. The Prime Minister has said that such events cannot happen again, so will he now abandon the Government's wretched weakness on law and order? Will he support the call of mayoral candidate Steve Norris to do all in his power to see that annual display of violence banned for next year?

The Prime Minister: As the Home Secretary indicated yesterday, and as I have said, of course we shall do everything possible to ensure that those appalling, disgraceful scenes do not happen again. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that his capacity to exploit any situation is absolutely unlimited. As for his mayoral candidate, I read his Evening Standard advertisement today, and there was one word missing, and its first three letters are "con".

Mr. Hague: The right hon. Gentleman talks about exploiting the situation, but he is the one who went down to the Cenotaph yesterday, peeled an onion, and said, "It can never happen again." We want to know what he is going to do to make sure that it never happens again. After last year's events, the Home Secretary said that the Government would do everything possible to prevent a repetition; now, the Prime Minister says that it cannot happen again--but it has already happened twice. The violence of that demonstration was widely predicted and advertised; my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary wrote to the Home Secretary about it. Why not say now that it should be banned next year?

The Prime Minister: First of all, it is unfortunately not the first time that riots have occurred in London: some people remember a few in the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, we have to sit down sensibly with the police and other authorities to make sure that those disgraceful scenes do not happen again. That we shall do. Nothing is helped by the right hon. Gentleman, as ever, leaping on any passing bandwagon.

Mr. Hague: We remember the 1980s, when the right hon. Gentleman was parading around with a CND badge--he knows all about what happened in the 1980s.

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Do not these events require a change from utter weakness on law and order? Is he not soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime? What sort of signal does it send to rioters that he has released early more than 700 people convicted of violent disorder or affray, when the Home Secretary promised not to release serious offenders? Is it not time that we stopped releasing thugs before their sentences have been served?

The Prime Minister: On the last point, I would cite the unanimous support of the all-party Home Affairs Committee, which at the time included the person who is now the Conservatives' Front-Bench spokesman on law and order. The fact is that it is the Labour Government who have introduced "three strikes and you're out" for burglars and toughened up the youth justice system; it is we who have put more money into law and order, when the right hon. Gentleman was pledged to cut the money going into law and order.

Mr. Hague: At the time that that Committee expressed support for the policy, the Home Secretary said:


Since that time, they have released early 19 sex offenders, 22 people convicted of cruelty to children and 2,500 convicted drug dealers. By releasing criminals early, preventing tougher sentencing and cutting police numbers, are not the Government weakening the fight against crime, and is that not a total betrayal of everything the Prime Minister promised the country?

The Prime Minister: The fact is that, under the Tories, crime doubled--they never like to be reminded of it, but crime doubled. Under the Labour Government, crime has fallen. It is this Government who have introduced the measures on burglary and youth justice. What contribution did the right hon. Gentleman make to tougher sentencing the other day? He has now said that he rules out a mandatory life sentence for murder. Am I right, or am I wrong?

Mr. Hague: For self-defence, as the Prime Minister knows full well.

To fight crime and prevent future riots, would it not be a good start to elect tomorrow a mayor of London who will be on the side of the police, rather than on the side of the rioters? Since the right hon. Gentleman has now tried every other means of preventing the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) from becoming mayor of London, will he now join all his friends and supporters on The Mirror in saying, "Vote Conservative tomorrow"?

The Prime Minister: Some of us recall the shadow Home Secretary talking about the riots yesterday. Whom did the right hon. Lady decide to attack? She attacked the police. We should support the police in this situation. We will take no lessons on law and order from the Conservative party, which doubled crime and, when the right hon. Gentleman was in the Cabinet, cut police numbers as well.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as we sit in this Chamber, there is a count in the Conisbrough ward in my constituency, where there

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has been a full postal ballot as part of our pilot scheme to modernise the way in which people vote? I am pleased to tell my right hon. Friend that we are looking at a 45 per cent. turnout. Will he extend his congratulations to the person who I know will be re-elected: Councillor Gerard McLister?

The Prime Minister: I hope that my hon. Friend is right in her predictions. The point that she makes is serious. It is important that we raise the numbers of people participating in local democracy. Early results indicate that the experiment is well worth pursuing. We shall obviously have to evaluate results carefully, but if we get 10 or 15 per cent. higher turnouts as a result of the new system, it will be one reform that will hugely strengthen the whole of our democracy.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): In condemning utterly the evil thuggery that we all witnessed in central London two days ago, may I turn the Prime Minister's attention to another form of evil in our society: the evil of racism? Does he agree that the appalling attack on the black care worker in Birmingham two days ago--he was racially abused and then set on fire--should act as an important pointer to every politician in this House that we should not conduct ourselves in a way that plays or panders to the worst fears of racial prejudice?

The Prime Minister: I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Kennedy: Does the Prime Minister further agree that, when one is talking about issues such as asylum and immigration, particularly with elections approaching, to use saloon-bar language is nothing more than gutter politics?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) may laugh, but it is extraordinary that he has not from the Dispatch Box put the positions that he has been putting in the country. The reason that he does not do so is that he knows perfectly well that his arguments would not stand up in proper debate.

Let me make one point. Asylum, and the growth in the number of asylum seekers is an issue, and we are trying to deal with that issue. However, one thing is a cruel deception: to go around the country telling people that all the problems of the health service and schools and old-age pensioners could be solved if only we locked up a few asylum seekers.

Let me give the House the facts. The total cost of asylum is less than one fifth of 1 per cent. of Government spending. It is a problem, we are dealing with it, but we should not, any of us, exploit it--particularly not someone whose desperation is rather greater than his judgment.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): Three thousand pensioners in my constituency qualify for the minimum income guarantee. For a single pensioner, that means £16 a week--a 25 per cent. cash increase--more

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than they were receiving at the general election. What can the Government do to ensure that those who qualify for the minimum income guarantee get it?

The Prime Minister: We are trying to ensure that people who are entitled to the minimum income guarantee get it. Altogether, this Government will put in some £6.5 billion additional expenditure for pensioners. There is of course now the £150 winter fuel allowance and free eye tests and free television licences for those aged over 75.

It was also very important that we dealt with the problems of the poorest pensioners first. That is what the minimum income guarantee does. For some couples, it will mean gains of up to £20 a week. I am proud that a Labour Government are tackling the issue of pensioner poverty. Pensioners--any of them--should not forget that the Conservative party would take those things off them again.

Q2. [119381]Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): The right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has said that he does not know how to cast his second preference vote in the election for which he is the Labour candidate. This morning on the "Today" programme, the Secretary of State for Eduction and Employment announced that it was no good asking him how he would do so because he was opposed to the very electoral system. As that electoral system was designed by the Prime Minister, perhaps he would give us his advice on how he will cast his second preference vote.

The Prime Minister: No.

Q3. [119382]Mr. Eric Clarke (Midlothian): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should be thanked--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman finish.

Mr. Clarke: I thank my right hon. Friend on behalf of the miners who suffer from emphysema, bronchitis and white finger, but one group of people in the coalfields has been left out: the sacked miners, who suffered injustice, according to the inquiry conducted by the Select Committee on Education and Employment. May I suggest as a start the reinstatement of those miners to the miners pension scheme for them and their families?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, the Department of Trade and Industry has undertaken a review of what happened with regard to dismissals and re-employment around the time of the 1984-85 miners strike, and will shortly announce its findings. I hope that those in the mining industry recognise that we have given support to the mining industry, most particularly for those people who suffered as a result of working down the pit. After years and years during which people fought and were not able to gain compensation, it is this Government who have come up with the compensation scheme. It is

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taking time to push that through, but we are pushing it through, and I hope that over the next couple of years, people will see the benefits.

Q4. [119384]Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Doubtless, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have told the Prime Minister that more than half the Bank of England's gold and currency reserves are now held in euros. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity of telling the House by how much the value of the nation's reserves has slumped since the decision was taken to sell off the nation's gold? On gold, is he aware that Germany has increased its holdings of gold threefold, from £10 billion 12 months ago to more than £30 billion today?

The Prime Minister: I cannot work out the precise point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I am sure that it is against Europe; of that we can be sure. The Bank of England has a diverse range of assets, as do other countries. Some countries have sold gold; some countries have not. I am entirely content with the way in which the Bank of England has handled the matter. I suggest to Conservative Members that they get a new obsession, as that one is wearing rather thin.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the comments of the Leader of the Opposition on law and order will sound pretty hollow to the people of Halifax, where the Conservatives are fielding a would-be councillor with a long criminal record, some of it as recent as last September? [Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Home Secretary recently visited Halifax and the local police station, and must be aware of that man's activity. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the message that that sends to the people of my constituency?

Madam Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister has no responsibility for Conservative candidates.

Q5. [119385]Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): Following his meeting with the Royal British Legion last month, will the Prime Minister give favourable consideration to the case for a gratuity to former far east prisoners of war? More than 7,000 of them still survive, British heroes every one. Is not such a gesture to the living the best answer to those who would deface our monuments to the dead?

The Prime Minister: I have heard first-hand from former prisoners of war and from their relatives and friends about the appalling suffering that they endured when they were held prisoner in the far east. They are immensely brave people, to whom we owe a great debt. A few weeks ago, I, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, met the chairman and secretary general of the Royal British Legion, and we agreed then that we would look again at the policy on the far east prisoners of war, including the question of compensation. That we are doing. I make no commitment at this stage, but we told them that we would consider carefully the points and the representations that they had made, and we will do so.

Q6. [119387]Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr): After years of Tory dithering, the Prime Minister will be aware how pleased we were in my constituency when the new Scottish air traffic control centre was given the go-ahead.

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However, in the light of recent suggestions that that will be put at risk in the longer term by the proposed public-private partnership for National Air Traffic Services, what further assurances can my right hon. Friend give me today about the security of the 700 jobs in my constituency?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on the issue and I can assure her that the strategic partnership agreement, which will be concluded under the NATS PPP, will guarantee the construction of the new Scottish centre at Prestwick and its continued operation as part of the two-centre strategy, and that construction will provide and guarantee the 700 jobs in Ayrshire.

As for NATS and the PPP more generally, it is important to realise that the whole issue of safety regulation will be kept in the public sector. What is done in partnership with the private sector will be the investment in the necessary infrastructure. Conservative Members may shout, but no one should forget that their policy is to sell off NATS in its entirety, whereas our policy is to retain a 49 per cent. stake for the Government.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): As the Prime Minister is presiding over severe damage to the UK manufacturing base with the consequent harm to jobs, will he take the announcement of the welcome merger of the London and Frankfurt stock exchanges as an opportunity to give a clear signal of positive measures that he will take to bring the sterling crisis under control?

The Prime Minister: There was a moment during that question when Conservative Members stopped cheering.

We understand the problems caused by the strength of sterling, although that is more to do with the difficulties that the euro has had during the past few months. For example, the sterling-dollar ratio has barely changed. The worst thing that we could do is to try artificially to devalue the currency, and that we will not do. What we will do is carry on with the policies that provide stability in the long and medium term for Britain and its industry. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the last time a Government tried policies that failed to bring stability, in the late '80s and early '90s, we ended up with the loss of 1 million manufacturing jobs, a very deep recession and interest rates at 10 per cent. for four years or more, and I do not want to repeat that experience.

Q7. [119388]Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton): Is not it unacceptable that decades of inequalities in health should continue, and should not the record expenditure announced recently in the Budget be targeted towards reducing that inequality? That is particularly important in areas such as mine which has the highest child mortality in England, and that is why it is so welcome to have the extra £1.5 million for Halton general hospital and the 8 per cent. increase in spending for the North Cheshire health authority, in stark contrast to the Opposition's policies.

The Prime Minister: As a result of the extra money that has now gone into the health service, we shall be able not only substantially to increase funds in the next four years, but to bring about the necessary changes and modernisation to expand hospital service provision and to

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deal with patients in a better way. Again, everyone should understand that that additional expenditure in the health service would immediately be taken away by a Conservative Government because the Opposition are committed to changing the tobacco duty and do not support that part of the health service funding plan, and their private medical insurance scheme would cause an immediate £500 million loss just for those who already have private medical insurance. Therefore, if ever there was a Conservative Government, there would be a £1 billion shortfall and the money that has gone to my hon. Friend's constituency would go out again.

Q8. [119389]Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Does the Prime Minister agree that one of the contributory factors to the growth of xenophobia towards asylum seekers, after the Tory leader, is the impact on council budgets in London and the south-east of England? Why did the Government capitulate to the shrill right-wing populist campaign from Kent county council, reimbursing all its costs, while London boroughs of all three parties, which behaved calmly and responsibly, will have to pick up the bill which, in my borough, amounts to £30 on an average council tax bill?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's comments about Kent. It was important for the Home Secretary to react in the way that he did because of the pressures on Kent county council. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that he is happy to see the hon. Gentleman to discuss the position in his constituency. There is a problem with the increasing number of cases, but we have dealt with that in the right way: by changing the system, making sure that the removals happen faster and that the cases are processed faster, and penalising those who bring people into this country illegally. That is the right way of dealing with the problem, not the wrong way, which is exemplified by the Conservative party.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Is the Prime Minister aware that Labour-run Exeter city council levies a lower council tax but delivers a higher level of service than any of the surrounding Tory or Liberal Democrat-run councils? It is the only council in Devon to be awarded beacon status for excellence. Does not that show that people are better served and better off--locally and nationally--with Labour?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend entirely.

Q9. [119390]Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): In the final advertisement of the official Labour party candidate in today's Evening Standard, he asked people to "Vote Frank", not for the Labour party. Is that because the party to which he belongs has deserted him throughout this campaign, or because the appalling scenes in Parliament square and at the Cenotaph have led the candidate to desert his party?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman heard what I said earlier about the Conservative party candidate. The right policy for the tube is for the private sector to do what it does best: the building and construction work; and for the public sector

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to do what it does best: running the service and being responsible for safety. The Tory party plans to privatise the tube. Nobody wants that.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Is the Prime Minister aware that while unemployment in my constituency has dropped by about a third since the general election, it is still the highest in Scotland? Does he agree that the removal of assisted area status from most of my constituency is not likely to be helpful in those circumstances? Does he further agree that it would be best if Govan Shipbuilders was kept on the Clyde?

The Prime Minister: Of course I believe that, but discussions are on-going about how the new map is allocated in the United Kingdom as a result of the changes that are happening all over Europe because of enlargement. My hon. Friend's point about unemployment is well taken: 800,000 or more jobs have been created since the general election, 200,000 of them through the new deal. Many people in every constituency throughout the country have managed to get work that they would not otherwise have got because of the new deal. [Interruption.] Conservative Members are trying to shout us down because people should know that the Conservative party is committed to scrapping the new deal and putting people on the unemployment scrap heap.

Q10. [119391]Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): With further reference to Monday's events, when will the Government raise the pay of both uniformed and civilian police staff, especially in London, to maintain recruitment and particularly quality?

The Prime Minister: An offer is currently before the negotiating board. There is a real problem. It is difficult for many police officers to live in London because of the cost of housing here. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has put an offer before the police negotiating board, and we are in discussion about it. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's question means that he will support us when we make additional public investment available for the police service.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): While the Prime Minister rightly recognises that what is happening to the Rover Group is primarily a west midlands problem, does he acknowledge that it is causing major job losses throughout the motor components industry, including in constituencies such as mine, where 600 redundancies have already been announced? That is especially worrying at a time when we, too, are losing assisted area status. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that whatever hope is given to the west midlands will ripple to other areas that are affected by job losses in the motor industry?

The Prime Minister: Yes, we certainly see that as our task. When economic structural change affects people's jobs, it is our job as a Government to be on their side and to help them through that process of change. That type of economic and structural change is happening all over the western world and Europe. We cannot prevent some of that change, but we can try to help people through it, help them find new jobs when they lose their jobs and

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help to support industry in any way we can. That is precisely what the Government are doing and will carry on doing.

Q11. [119392]Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): May I ask the Prime Minister personally to look into the case of Colin Hughes? He is well known to many of us as a BBC producer, despite the fact that he is a wheelchair user and

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dependent on a carer for almost all his essential personal functions. His support from the independent living fund is being subjected to a means test, which will effectively halve his income. Does the Prime Minister think that that can possibly be fair?

The Prime Minister: I do not know the facts of the individual case. I am perfectly happy to look into them, following the hon. Gentleman's question.

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