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The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [129889]Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 July.

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.

Mr. Hughes: Is it not now completely true that the Labour Government are out of touch with gut British instincts? They were elected on a promise to make sure that pensioners

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The Prime Minister: Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that the Liberal Democrats' commitment was to raise pensions in line with prices, not earnings. Secondly, they asked us to help the poorest pensioners first, and the minimum income guarantee has raised the pension for the poorest--

Mr. Hughes indicated assent.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman says that that is right, but he has just been telling me it was all wrong. We have raised the pension for the poorest people by between £15 and £20 a week, and £6.5 billion has been spent in total. The extra money that we are putting into schools and hospitals is vastly in excess of anything that the Liberal Democrats ever asked for.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): Last Friday's announcement that Corus would make 600 steelworkers redundant at its Scunthorpe works will bring the number of workers there below 4,000. In 1979, there were more than 20,000 steelworkers there. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that his Government will give every aid and assistance to the local taskforce that has been formed to ensure that there are new jobs and opportunities for the area? Is he aware that last night my local newspaper, the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph--[Interruption.] Wait for it. Last night, the paper stated that the biggest hypocrite on job losses was the Leader of the Opposition, for trying to make political capital out of job losses in an industry largely destroyed by the Tories.

The Prime Minister: We will of course work closely with my hon. Friend's constituents to do all we can to protect them following that announcement. We will work hard to see that there are additional jobs, but people should know not only that the Conservative party decimated the industry but that it is now pledged to public spending cuts of £16 billion, which would devastate my hon. Friend's constituency and those of hon. Members throughout the House.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Two years ago, the Government announced spending of £21 billion, which they said would transform the national health service. Since then, the waiting list for the waiting list has grown by 150,000 and we have learned that there were fewer heart bypass operations last year than for 25 years. Is it not a disgrace that the Prime Minister is commissioning memos ludicrously entitled "Getting the Right Place In History"--even Napoleon did not commission a memo on that subject--when many people are struggling to get the right place in hospital, thanks to the incompetence of his Administration? Was not the adviser who wrote

absolutely spot on?

The Prime Minister: I thought that the right hon. Gentleman might want to talk about the memo rather than yesterday's spending review. Let me tell him what the

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first comprehensive spending review delivered for the health service--38 new hospital developments are under way, more than 6,000 more qualified nurses, 5,000 more doctors and every accident and emergency department modernised. Now let him tell us what £16 billion of spending cuts would deliver.

Mr. Hague: Does the Prime Minister not understand that he has talked about tens of billions of pounds for years, but things have got worse? As the same adviser told him:

[Interruption.] There is no point in people not wanting to listen to that advice, as the Prime Minister paid out thousands of pounds of the Labour party's money to get it. Some of us read it for 30p in The Sun.

We shall set out our own plans on public spending, which will include--[Interruption.] They do not want to hear.

Madam Speaker: Order. There are a lot of noisy people.

Mr. Hague: We shall set out our own plans on public spending--to spend what the nation can afford. They will include the reform of the welfare state, from which the Prime Minister ran away so pitifully. If he thinks that he is going to spend £16 billion more than a Conservative Government would, he had better work out which £16 billion of additional tax rises he will levy on the people of this country.

The Prime Minister said that he would be tough on crime, and promised 5,000 additional police officers. Police numbers have now fallen, thousands of criminals have been released early, and violent crime is up 16 per cent. Was it not the Prime Minister's trusted adviser who said--[Interruption.] We can read more of it. Was not the trusted adviser who said that "TB" and his Government were "soft on crime" absolutely spot on?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman said that he would publish his plan for spending cuts, but I can tell him that the Conservative research department has already published it this morning. The document says that the revenue gap will be £16 billion, and helpfully sets out where the cuts will fall, region by region. For the north-west, there will be cuts of £1.7 billion; for Yorkshire and Humberside, £1.2 billion; for the midlands, £2 billion; for London, £1.8 billion. We know where the right hon. Gentleman's spending cuts will fall, and every Conservative Member of Parliament will have to answer for that.

The right hon. Gentleman said that surely the Government's spending plans would mean that taxes would have to go up. Conservative Members are all nodding, so I shall read out what the shadow Chancellor said the day after the Budget:

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Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister is the man who said that he had no plans to increase tax at all. Since he said that, people have paid more tax on their petrol, pensions, marriages and mortgages. When the Prime Minister came into office, the poorest fifth of households paid 37 per cent. of their income in tax. Will he give the latest figure from the Office for National Statistics for the poorest fifth of households?

The Prime Minister: I can tell the right hon. Gentleman about the tax burden, as it is set out very clearly. The tax burden is actually falling this year, and is due to fall next year. However, it is correct to say that for the first two years, we took the measures necessary to get rid of the deficit. As a result, we have the lowest inflation in Europe, and interest rates at 6 per cent, not 10 per cent. as they were under the right hon. Gentleman's Government.

As for petrol, it is no use the right hon. Gentleman going round promising that he will cut people's petrol duty. Let me quote his shadow Chancellor again, from Frost on Sunday:

Hon. Members: More, more.

Mr. Hague: There is a lot more. They are welcome to a lot more. I was asking the Prime Minister about the poorest fifth of households in this country and how much they pay in tax. The answer is that their tax has gone up from 37 per cent. of their income to 40 per cent., because under this Prime Minister, tax rises are for the many and not the few. He is the Prime Minister who said that there would be no tax increases at all. Does he accept the truth when the adviser who wrote to him--who has written to him a lot in recent weeks--tells him that he has been

When it comes to tax, is that not absolutely spot on?

The Prime Minister: I wonder what the right hon. Gentleman's adviser is saying to him about his tax guarantee. To return to what he was saying about spending and tax--as a result of the commitments that we have given, the tax burden is falling, as I have said. I accept that we have made a choice to put investment into schools, transport, the police and the health service because we believe that that is the right priority for the country. The dividing line at the election is now clear: it is between a party willing to invest in our public services, and £16 billion of cuts under the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hague: Madam Speaker,

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Can anyone think of anything more pathetic than a Prime Minister so short of ideas after three failed years in office that he sends a memo round Whitehall asking for "eye-catching initiatives"? He begs for "something tough" that

People who got their place in history did not send round memos asking for eye-catching initiatives. Winston Churchill did not ask for blood, sweat and eye-catching initiatives. Was not the person who wrote

absolutely spot on?

The Prime Minister: Apart from the points that the right hon. Gentleman made on the health service, education and crime, he says that he wants waiting lists to go down even further. Well of course, but that requires investment. He said that he wanted police numbers to start rising again. I agree, and that is exactly what we will bring about, but it needs investment. He said that there should be a reduction not only in class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds, which we have reduced, but in other class sizes. We agree, but that requires investment. The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to realise that we are putting in the investment, and he has pledged to cut it.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about how he will run a more prudent economic policy, but I point out to him--this is another item of policy, so he will not be aware of it--that his shadow Chancellor has not merely given a commitment to £16 billion of cuts; he has made spending commitments. Here they are: £1 billion on private medical insurance--[Hon. Members: "Ah!"]--the reintroduction of the assisted places scheme--[Hon. Members: "Ah!"]--more money for the Territorial Army--[Hon. Members: "Ah!"]--detaining all asylum seekers; giving them back their benefits; more money for farmers; more money for tobacco tax; more money on prisons; and Finance Bill amendments that total--[Hon. Members: "They are all saying yes."]--Well, it is such a large sum of money. Their amendments to the Finance Bill total £4.5 billion. Not only can the Leader of the Opposition not tell us where his spending cuts will fall, he cannot even finance the spending commitments he has made.

Mr. Hague: No one any longer believes the Prime Minister's fiction about the Government's figures, let alone his fiction about the Opposition's figures. He need not be concerned about whether he is personally associated with eye-catching initiatives. As crime rises, he is personally associated with it. As the national health service deteriorates, he is personally associated with it. As taxes have risen, he is personally associated with that. As the Government drift, he is personally associated with that. Does he not realise that he does not need to write memos about getting his place in history, because we, and the British people, will make him part of our history far sooner than he ever expected?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman said that we were making up the figures about his spending

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cuts pledge. He said that those figures were made up, but they are not. The Conservative research department has shown spending cuts of £16 billion.

The right hon. Gentleman is right. Of course I am personally associated with all the spending in the review: the extra money on schools, the extra money on hospitals, the extra money on transport, the extra money on defence, the extra money on all those services we need to provide a stable, prosperous future for our country. What is the right hon. Gentleman personally associated with? [Hon. Members: "Cuts."] The Leader of the Opposition is personally associated with what his shadow Chancellor has done--it is the nearest to political hara-kiri that I have ever seen in an Opposition leader. His shadow Chancellor has committed the right hon. Gentleman and his party to £16 billion of cuts. From now until election day they will pay the price, and then they will pay it finally.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): Following the Chancellor's announcement yesterday, and in view of the fact that unemployment in Scottish constituencies such as mine has been almost halved since the general election--in accordance with our promises--does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) was wise to decide to throw in the towel as the leader of the Scottish National party?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that I should comment on the decision of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan to stand down. My hon. Friend will be aware, however, that the Conservative party wants cuts of £1.4 billion for Scotland. I am sure that will be of enormous assistance to my hon. Friend and his colleagues when they fight the next election.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Will the Prime Minister confirm that yesterday's statement by the Chancellor finally brings to an end 21 years of Conservative spending? As the Labour Government stuck to the Tory spending limits during the first three years of this Parliament, will he give us the official figures for the number of operations cancelled, the number of police positions lost, and the number of pensioners who dipped into comparative poverty, during that period?

The Prime Minister: It is correct that we had two tough years on public spending. Let me explain why. We faced a situation in which national debt had doubled; there was a borrowing requirement of £28 billion, and we were paying out more in interest payments on the debt than we were spending on the school system. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that 18 months ago, many people were predicting recession.

It was important for us to stabilise the economy first. We have done that; we have cleared the deficit and got public finances under control. Secondly, we had to make sure that we got people off benefit and into work--there are almost a million fewer benefit claimants now. Thirdly, we have to make that investment. We made it only when we had got the public finances sorted out, because, in all honesty to people, that is the only way that is sustainable.

Mr. Kennedy: Would it not be fair of the Prime Minister--these are the official House figures--to confirm that the price paid over that period has been

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179,000 operations cancelled, 1,700 fewer police officers and 400,000 pensioners who have dipped into poverty? When he puts those figures in that context, will the Prime Minister tell the House and the people who voted for him last time that this has been, to coin a phrase, a price well worth paying?

The Prime Minister: No. May I correct the right hon. Gentleman on the subject of pensioners, which I think that he or one of his colleagues raised last week? Those figures refer to the period before the minimum income guarantee, which will make a big difference to pensioner poverty, came into effect. Even in the straitened economic circumstances of the first two years, we put more money into schools and hospitals than the Liberal Democrats promised in their election manifesto.

We had to decide what the key priorities of the country were. It was no use spending money unless we had sorted out the public finances and the economy on a sustainable basis. As a result we have a healthy economy, we have strong public finances and we have large numbers of people off benefit and into work--something that the new deal has helped enormously, incidentally, and the Liberal Democrats opposed the windfall levy that paid for it.

Now what is important is to make the investment in education, skills, technology, science and transport that will increase the productive capacity of the economy, and then increase investment in law and order and health care, which increase people's security. Those are the right priorities for the country.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): Which does my right hon. Friend think will be of more interest to my constituents--a two-month-old leaked memo, or the £60,000 for each of the secondary schools in my constituency?

The Prime Minister: Of course we know why the Conservatives want to talk about that. However, what we should talk about is the clear strategic decisions that have been taken by both political parties over the past two weeks--for us, to put investment in our future first; for the Conservatives, to put boom and bust, and spending cuts guaranteed, before our essential services.

Q2. [129890]Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell): The television documentary on Saturday night showed that Alastair Campbell is at the heart of the spin machine for the Labour party. Can it be right that he goes on getting a £96,000 salary, paid for by the taxpayer? When I last asked the Prime Minister about Mr. Alastair Campbell's salary, he answered a totally different question about spin doctors. Will he this time answer the question that he has been asked, not one that he has not been asked?

The Prime Minister: I am entirely satisfied with the job that my chief press spokesman is doing--[Interruption.] Once again, the Conservatives are delighted to ask about anything other than the comprehensive spending review. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman of what he said before the election, in April 1997. He said that by

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embracing the minimum wage and the social chapter, the Labour party would increase unemployment and cut child benefit. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Mr. Townend, you are bursting a blood vessel.

The Prime Minister: We will see how many of the Conservative questions are about the spending review. What the right hon. Gentleman will have to explain at the next election is where he will find £24 million of spending cuts.

Q3. [129891]Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that now that the new deal has been made permanent, it will benefit the unemployed and, more importantly, it will benefit young people? Will he congratulate the 434 young people in my constituency who have benefited from the new deal? Does he also agree that if Conservative Members ever got back into power, they would wreck the new deal?

The Prime Minister: Of course Conservative Members are committed to scrapping the new deal. The new deal has been of fundamental importance, not just in getting people off benefit and into work, but because it has resulted in some of the £3.5 billion savings on benefits. My hon. Friend is absolutely right--the Conservative party would scrap the new deal, and many of the cuts that it would then impose on the schools, transport and health budgets as a result of its spending cuts guarantee would also have a deeply adverse effect on my hon. Friend's constituents.

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I shall ask a question about the comprehensive spending review. Will the Prime Minister tell my constituents not how much extra money will go into health and education, but how it will address the postcode lottery and bring about a fairer funding formula for education--both areas in which my constituents in Tewkesbury are disadvantaged?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that as a result of the extra money going into the health service, and in accordance with the advice tendered to us by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, we are able to fund drugs better in the health service. It is our desire to use that money to get rid of the postcode lottery.

I shall of course tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what the rest of the spending will do in his constituency: it will help to get more doctors and nurses, and it will help to do other things, such as rebuild the accident and emergency departments if they need refurbishing. It will help to bring new information technology into the national health service. It will also help to get waiting lists and waiting times down, but I am afraid that at the next general election, he will have to explain to his constituents why there should be £24 million of cuts. I understand that he wants more money for his constituency, but the tragedy for him is that we shall provide it, whereas his party would cut it.

Q4. [129892]Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): In Barnet the police are very overstretched because of the sheer size of the geographical area that they have to cover--33 square miles, with 20 shopping centres. That

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is not unusual for outer London. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that as the result of the very welcome announcement yesterday, the resources will be devoted to the police service in outer London to enable it to tackle the real problems of violent crime and vandalism, which cause such fear in our communities?

The Prime Minister: As a result of the announcement that was made yesterday, of course there will be more money for front-line policing, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make an announcement about that shortly. That is very important. I understand that there are two prospective Conservative candidates in my hon. Friend's constituency, because one was too extreme to be allowed to stand by Conservative central office, so my hon. Friend will be in the happy position of being able to ask one or both of them where they will find the £24 million of cuts.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Is the Prime Minister aware that in Vale of York the price of unleaded petrol has reached 96.9 pence a litre, which is more than £4 a gallon? Is he proud of the fact that he has increased petrol prices by 3.3 per cent. in line with inflation, but pensions by only 1.1 per cent.? Does he want pensioners to receive the message that petrol prices will go up, and they will have less money to pay for it?

The Prime Minister: In answer to the Leader of the Opposition, I have said that in fact, the system that we use to calculate pensioners' increases is precisely the one that has been used for many years. In respect of petrol prices, as I have said at the Dispatch Box in the last year, the bulk of the increase has been due to the rise in the oil price--but I accept that in the first two years, we took the necessary action through the fuel duty escalator, which was introduced by the previous Government, to cut the deficit. A moment ago I read out what the shadow Chancellor said. The hon. Lady can sympathise with her constituents, but the fact is that she is not pledged to cut a single penny of the duty on petrol. It is important to recognise that there are choices, and we believe that it is sensible to have a stable economy and to invest in public services.

Q5. [129893]Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): In April I raised the issue of the long-term care of the elderly with my right hon. Friend. According to the Chancellor, we are likely to hear good news next week about additional finances for that. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that those additional finances will be sustained over a good number of years, thereby alleviating the hardship that many elderly people feel when receiving care in their own homes, or in residential or nursing care?

The Prime Minister: We will, of course, ensure that that is sustainable, if we have the authority to do so as the elected Government over the next few years. I do not want to prejudge the announcement that will be made next week, but it is important that we ensure that the issues of long-term care that were raised by the royal commission, which we set up, are properly dealt with. Again, we know that the Conservative party would cut the very money that we shall put into that.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): Will the Prime Minister give a straightforward, concise

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and reasonably cogent answer--[Laughter.] Yes, I know that that last requirement will not be easy--to the question posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton)? Let me repeat that question, because clearly he did not hear it the first time: as Mr. Alastair Campbell will clearly play a central part in Labour's election strategy--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Government Members should listen to the question. [Interruption.] Order. Listen to the question, and listen to the answer.

Mr. Hayes: As a recent television documentary revealed that Mr. Alastair Campbell is to play a central

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role in the Labour party's election strategy, should he receive a salary of almost £100,000 funded by the taxpayer?

The Prime Minister: As I have just said to the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton), I am entirely satisfied with the work that Alastair Campbell is doing and with the fact that it is entirely proper, and entirely within the rules that are set out, that he does that work. Again, although the hon. Gentleman may think that the big issue in his constituency at the next election will be Alastair Campbell, I can tell him that it will be £24 million of cuts.

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Madam Speaker: I have to tell the House that yesterday, together with other right hon. Members, I attended upon Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to deliver the House's message of congratulation on her 100th birthday. Her Majesty made the following reply:

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