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Disaster Relief

6. Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): If she will make a statement on the United Kingdom's international aid budget for disaster relief. [132186]

The Secretary of State for International Development (Clare Short): Internationally, 5 per cent. of development assistance is usually spent on disaster relief. The United Kingdom does not set itself a pre-ordained limit, but spends according to need. In the previous financial year, 11 per cent. of my Department's budget was spent on disaster relief. That compares with 5 per cent, in 1997-98, and 8 per cent, in 1998-99. This year, we have provided relief for floods in west Bengal, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia, a hurricane in Belize, and a typhoon and tidal wave in North Korea. [Interruption.] We are also continuing to provide humanitarian assistance to people affected by conflict in many parts of the world. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must ask the House to come to order.

Mr. Brake: I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. She will remember stating about the Mozambique floods;

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Will the Secretary of State tell the House what progress has been made in establishing a fully capable United Nations rapid reaction disaster task force?

Clare Short: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: an individual's chances of surviving a flood or other disaster are determined largely by the help available in the immediately succeeding hours. Although subsequent international assistance helps the country to recover, it is immediate action that saves people's lives, their animals and their livelihoods. Immediate action depends on strong systems already being in place in disaster-prone countries.

We are working with various countries and with the International Committee of the Red Cross to build up national red cross organisations. We are also working to strengthen the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, so that it can plan and deploy help and stockpiles of assistance around the world. Although the UNHCR is not as strong as it should be, it is strengthening, and it is a lot stronger than it was a few years ago. We will continue to work hard with the UNHCR to strengthen that international capacity. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that only the UN can play that central role.

Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): Would my right hon. Friend like to acknowledge the brilliant work that has been done by British civil engineers in disaster relief efforts around the world? May I also take this opportunity to congratulate her on her honorary fellowship of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which was awarded to her to acknowledge her efforts in international disaster relief?

Clare Short: I am grateful to my hon. Friend--my grandfather would be proud of the fact that I am now a properly qualified engineer--and agree with him. We have in Red R--Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief--an association of United Kingdom engineers who, at a moment's notice, will drop everything and work on projects to provide water and sanitation and to build dams. They proudly serve our country, and we should be enormously proud of them. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House take great pride in what they do.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): Does the Secretary of State agree that, sometimes, the most effective disaster relief should be delivered by the people living in the country? Does she not find it almost obscene that one of the richest countries in the world should be sending teams to sub-Saharan Africa to recruit nurses for the national health service, when those nurses should be left in the countries in which they have been trained?

Clare Short: I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point. Although it is good for people to share their skills internationally and to travel to other countries, and although we and other countries may have skill shortages and want to recruit internationally, we should not recruit highly skilled and expensively trained people from some of the poorest countries. As we develop our policy we must balance those two imperatives and my Department is trying to make sure that the Government do just that.

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The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [132211] Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 October.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): First, may I welcome you, Mr. Speaker?

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House I have further such meetings later today.

It would not be right for this Question Time to pass without paying tribute to the Father of the House, the right hon. member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), on his retirement. His 50 years continuous service in the House is a truly great achievement and I am sure that the whole House will join me in celebrating his long service.

On a sadder note, on behalf of hon. Members on both sides of the House, I should like to take this opportunity to express our profound shock at the death of Donald Dewar. Donald was an extraordinary friend and a fine politician. He was a tremendous servant of our country. I understand that, from Friday, a book of condolence will be made available for Members to sign in the Library.

Regrettably, another death occurred among Labour Members during the summer break: Audrey Wise was a great champion of women's and children's rights and made a very significant contribution to the political life of this country over many decades. She will be greatly missed.

Mr. George: I am sure that the whole House shares in those condolences.

The Prime Minister could be forgiven for believing that rural folk think of little else than supporting a handful of people who get their kicks from chasing wild animals all over the countryside. I can tell him that that is a sideshow; there are many more important issues. Here is a real test for the Prime Minister's rural credentials. Does he find it acceptable that, under the council tax system, once again this year £168 million of taxpayers' money will go towards subsidising the wealthy to have second homes when many thousands of rural folk do not even have their first home?

The Prime Minister: I am not entirely unsympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman has just said. A rural White Paper will be published shortly. We must emphasise the importance of services in our rural areas--services such as the health service, schools, rural post offices and transport services on which people rely. So I entirely agree that it is appropriate that we take all that into account and make sure that money is spent wisely for the benefit of people who live in the countryside.

Mr. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the excellent work of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which is based in Doncaster, in regenerating the former mining communities in England, Scotland and Wales? Does he

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agree that the Government need to give serious consideration to extending the lifespan of the CRT beyond its present three-year period?

The Prime Minister: Of course we keep that matter under constant review, but we have made a big financial commitment to the former coalfield communities. That money is an important part of regeneration. Without that investment, many people would have no chance whatever of getting a job again. That is why the Government are committed to making that investment over the next few years. We will then review the position. It is important to make that investment, rather than cutting it as the Opposition intend to do.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): I join the Prime Minister in his welcome to you, Mr. Speaker, and in the tributes that he paid to the late Audrey Wise and the late Donald Dewar, whom we will remember across the House as a most courteous, charming and talented man. We also join the right hon. Gentleman in his tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the end of whose 50 years in the House will be regretted by hon. Members in all parties.

On Thursday morning, the Prime Minister said that he was against the euro--at least for the rest of day. By that afternoon, he was in favour of it again. On Friday, he was reported to be cooling on the euro. On Monday, Downing street asserted that he was still as enthusiastic as ever about preparing for it. On Tuesday, we learned that he told the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown) that Europe was one of those issues where you have to mark your line and stick to it through thick and thin. Now, it is Wednesday and the prime ministerial jelly has wobbled back into Question Time. Will he tell us whether anything has happened over the past three months that has made any difference at all to his policy on the euro--yes or no?

The Prime Minister: We know from the great fly-on-the-wall documentary that the right hon. Gentleman rehearses his jokes very carefully. He should rehearse his policy a little better. It has always been the case that we do not say that we want to join the euro now, but neither do we rule it out. We keep the option open. The dividing line at the election will be between this party, which says that we keep the option open and give people a choice in a referendum, and his position, which--at least at the last telling--was to rule it out for the next Parliament.

Mr. Hague: Is it not the case that if the Government were not so arrogant and out of touch, their policy would have changed? Does he not agree that the pound and the euro are diverging, not converging, making any argument for early entry weaker, not stronger? Does he not agree that the idea that the euro is inevitable for everyone in Europe has now been blown away by the people of Denmark? Will he confirm that, in spite of all that, his policy remains to prepare for a referendum early in the next Parliament, which could mean, next year, scrapping the pound?

The Prime Minister: Our policy is, yes, to prepare and decide; that remains our policy. In principle, we are in favour but, in practice, the economic tests have to be met.

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The very things that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about show the wisdom of having a policy based on the national economic interest. The question that he has failed to answer throughout is how he can be against the euro in principle, but only for five years. That is an absurd policy and it will continue to be an absurd policy.

Mr. Hague: Nothing is more absurd than a Prime Minister who has committed us in principle to joining the euro saying last week that he was against it. He talks about his five tests; we know what they are: "Does Peter want it? Will Gordon let me? Will the French like it? Will Robin notice? Can I get away with it?" Why does he not listen to the Governor of the Bank of England, who said yesterday that it would not be in Britain's interests to risk membership of the single currency in the near future and that paving the way for joining it could destabilise our entire economy? Does not that mean that a policy of preparing for a referendum early in the next Parliament should now be changed, or is the Prime Minister as out of touch with the Bank of England as he is with the people of Britain?

The Prime Minister: The Governor of the Bank of England's policy is exactly the same. It is decided on the economic tests: jobs, investment and industry. The difference between the right hon. Gentleman and the Government is that, even if the euro were in our interests in terms of jobs, industry and investment, he is committed, as a matter of politics, to ruling it out in the next Parliament. If we ruled it out for the next Parliament as a matter of principle and on the basis of politics, it would have a devastating effect on British jobs and investment because industry wants to know that we will take the decision on what is best for the economy. That is why I say that we do not go in today because it is not right for the economy. However, if the economic tests are positive early in the next Parliament, we put it to the British people in a referendum. That policy is clear and right. A policy that is as clear as mud is to say that the right hon. Gentleman is against it in principle, but only for five years.

Mr. Hague: Is there no end to how out of touch the Prime Minister has become? Is he never prepared to admit that he has made a mistake? If he cannot admit a mistake on committing the country to join the euro, will he now admit that it was a mistake--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should not shout so loudly, as I cannot hear the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hague: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

If the Prime Minister cannot admit that he made a mistake in committing the country to join the euro, will he now admit that it was a mistake to increase petrol duties in this year's Budget?

The Prime Minister: No. I believe that the position set out in the Budget was right. What is more, that is the position that the right hon. Gentleman supported--[Interruption.] I am sorry, in July, when the shadow Chancellor was asked whether the Conservative party was committed to cutting petrol duty, he said no. On the

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Jimmy Young programme on 14 September, the Conservative leader was asked about cutting fuel duty, and said:

Mr. Hague: So the Prime Minister believes that the petrol price rises are nothing to do with him. We all voted against the Budget increases in petrol duties. We voted against them in March and April, at the time of the Budget, which is different from supporting them. Now the Prime Minister thinks that petrol price rises have nothing to do with him. What a load of unleaded nonsense he believes in. He has increased petrol duties twice as fast as the previous Government, and by more in three years than any Prime Minister in history. As First Lord of the Treasury, he has given us the most expensive petrol in Europe and brought the country to a standstill. Will he now accept that those increases in the last Budget were a mistake?

The Prime Minister: I continue to say that these decisions should be made in the proper way in the Budget process. We must not do anything that takes risks with economic stability or vital investment in public services. The truth is that the right hon. Gentleman's policy is a policy for boom, bust and instability, and for £16 billion worth of cuts in our public services. We reject both those policies and, from now until the general election, we shall carry on until we get answers to questions about them.

Mr. Hague: We simply want to give back to the people of this country the money that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have stolen from them, which the Prime Minister wants only for re-election purposes. This autumn, we see a Government who are still determined to scrap the pound, not listening to the people of this country on petrol taxes, presiding over rising crime, facing a growing shortage of teachers, and turning the national lottery into a national shambles. Is not the real story of the Government this autumn that they are lost in their own spin and failure and that we have a Prime Minister who will not listen, will not learn and will not lead?

The Prime Minister: When the right hon. Gentleman is on the jokes, he is fine, but when it comes to policy he does not have a clue. He says that we have a big surplus, but three months ago he and the shadow Chancellor told us that our spending plans were reckless, irresponsible and would lead to higher interest rates. The right hon. Gentleman is still saying that, but now he wants to spend the surplus in every way possible.

In the end, there is a simple choice: do we want stability or a return to late 1980s policy when there was a budget surplus that was blown? The shadow Chancellor was at the Treasury at the time, but three years later we had the largest deficit on record, families were dispossessed of their homes, and there were record interest rates, spending cuts and tax rises. Do we want that policy or a policy of sustained growth and prudent investment in our public services? In the debate in the country, it is time that the right hon. Gentleman gave answers to questions.

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Conservative Members do not keep their policies for long, so let me quote what the right hon. Gentleman said on the occasion of the shadow Home Secretary's little volte face on policy. When asked to criticise the right hon. Lady, he said:

It is about time that the right hon. Gentleman took his own advice--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is very noisy today. She should be quiet.

Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth): Do the Government have any plans to introduce into the national curriculum the geography of north-east England, given that the Tory party website puts Tyne Bridge in Sunderland, and Cleveland in Durham above Northumberland? Does not that show the Conservative party's contempt for the north-east as a region?

The Prime Minister: I think that the Leader of the Opposition, when he is on his countrywide campaign, will need a slightly better map.

May I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House? I am glad that he has made such a good recovery. I hope that, over the coming months, we will be able to provide him with all the ammunition that he needs to expose the Tory spending cuts and that party's proposed return to the economic instability that this Government have got rid of.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): May I welcome you, Mr. Speaker, to your post?

Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that the Tory privatisation of British Rail means that today there are 25 train franchises, 10 train operators, seven maintenance contractors, three regulators and four rolling stock companies? Is that a sane way to try and deliver a safe national rail network?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is right to describe the chaos of privatisation that we inherited, but the very reason why it is important to have the Strategic Rail Authority is that we will get a far better, co-ordinated approach in the future. The other necessity is large-scale public and private investment. That is why investment in transport over the next 10 years is absolutely vital to renew the transport infrastructure, and why the Opposition's proposals to cut that investment would be so damaging.

Mr. Kennedy: Given that safety is an important element of public transportation policy, will the Prime Minister rethink his proposed part-privatisation of National Air Traffic Services Ltd., which comes before the House of Lords again tomorrow? The Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs described the part-privatisation proposal as

yet the Prime Minister is pursuing it. Will he think again? The real danger is that he will turn NATS into the Railtrack of the skies.

The Prime Minister: We certainly will not do that, as the air safety aspects of the proposal will be kept in the

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public sector. That is why I do not agree that the proposal is the wrong thing to do. We are engaged in the process that is under way with regard to air traffic control services in order to get the significant sum of money--probably £1 billion over the next few years--that those services need to be invested in them.

As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has said many times, we have to make a choice. We are not able to provide everything from the public sector. If we can get money in from the private sector, while at the same time making sure that air traffic control safety issues are kept in the public sector, I think that we can get the best of both worlds.

Ms Helen Southworth (Warrington, South): May I welcome you to your post, Mr. Speaker?

Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that starving the railways of cash for years was a serious error of judgment by the previous Government, and that privatising them in the way that that Government did was another? Will he ensure that Railtrack and the train operators use the significant new investment that this Government are providing quickly, efficiently and effectively for customers?

The Prime Minister: We will put that investment in as quickly as possible, but it will take time. For many years, the railways were subject to underinvestment. We need to renew our transport infrastructure. The transport plan was well received, but it is important to emphasise that this is a long-term project. We have to ensure that investment is sustainable: it is no use putting money in one year and taking it out the next.

That is why it is so important that we do not take risks with economic stability. We are able to talk about putting more money into schools, hospitals and the transport infrastructure only because the economy has been growing strongly and there has been prudent management of the country's finances. We must not take any risks with that either, but my hon. Friend is right: we need to get that money into our transport infrastructure, and to ensure that it renews that infrastructure and makes it as good as any in Europe.

Q2. [132212] Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I know that the Prime Minister is a keen supporter of devolution. No doubt he will welcome the fact that, in next year's census, the people of Scotland will be able to tick a box to say that they are Scottish. Can he explain why the people of Wales will not be able to tick a similar box to say that they are Welsh? How does he suggest that we can remedy that disgrace? How does he justify this appalling treatment of the needs of the Welsh nation?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that no insult at all is intended to people in Wales. However, I understand that the National Statistician has announced today that there will be a new study into Welsh identity, using information gathered from the census--[Interruption.] If people wish to say that they are Welsh, we will count them as Welsh. That option exists, but obviously we are looking carefully at the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Q3. [132213] Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Will my right hon. Friend tell me why so far, apparently,

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there has been no favourable decision on compensation for former prisoners of war of the Japanese, although I accept entirely that no previous Government have acted in this respect? Should we not follow the example of the Canadians regarding our obligations to a what is now a very small number of people, who suffered so terribly as Japanese prisoners of war, were treated as work slaves and tortured? Surely it is not too much to ask that at long last we honour our obligations and do what is right.

The Prime Minister: As I have said before, I have always had a good deal of sympathy with the campaign mounted by the Royal British Legion for additional compensation to be paid to far east prisoners of war. The suffering that they endured was appalling; the nation owes them a particular debt of honour for the sacrifice that they made and the memories that they have had to live with, literally for the rest of their lives. My hon. Friend has made his points in a very good and convincing way. I simply ask him and, more importantly, those affected, to exercise patience for a little longer. These decisions need to be taken in the run-up to the pre-Budget report. I ask my hon. Friend to accept that I have a great deal of sympathy with the points that he has made. It will not be very much longer until the decision is announced.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): May I ask the Prime Minister to suggest to the Secretary of State for Health that he reconsider the plans to cut the number of acute hospital beds in East Kent by up to 15 per cent.? At the height of summer, individual hospitals--and, at one point, all three hospitals--had patients on trolleys in corridors and offices.

The Prime Minister: I understand from my right hon. Friend that the hon. Gentleman raised this point with him yesterday, and he said that he would look into this specific case. On the general picture, however, we are increasing the number of critical care beds as part of our preparations for winter. Although I know that there are still nursing shortages in certain parts of the country, all in all, according to the latest figures, there are 10,000 more nurses in the health service today than there were three years ago. Of course there will still be difficulties in particular parts of the country, but slowly, step by step, improvements are being made.

Q4. [132214] Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): Will my right hon. Friend please ensure that, during the next few weeks, when millions of pensioners throughout the country will receive notice of a winter fuel payment of £150 and a free television licence, all letters carry words to the effect that, in the unlikely event of a Tory Government, this will be the first and the last payment that they will receive?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is of course right. The £150 winter allowance is important for pensioners because it does not reduce their benefit and is not taken into account for tax purposes. The free television licence for the over-75s is also very important. I think that the Conservative party is wholly wrong in

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thinking that people want those benefits taken away. They do not--they will welcome the winter allowance, they will welcome the free television licences for the over-75s and I very much hope that they will also welcome what we do for pensioners as a whole.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): The Prime Minister frequently refers to the economic criteria for entry into the euro. Will he explain to the House whether he has any criteria relating to the political and constitutional implications of entry into a single currency?

The Prime Minister: There is a serious constitutional and political question here: whether membership of the euro should be barred on constitutional grounds. Our answer to that is no. In the end, the proper test is that of the national economic interest. That is not to say that there are not important questions, but we, as a political party in Government, have resolved them in the way that I have described.

Let me put the point back to the hon. Gentleman. What is surely absurd--I think that he might possibly agree--is to be against the single currency on constitutional grounds, which is a matter of principle, but only for five years. I believe the truth is that there are only two sensible positions. One is to rule it out altogether on constitutional grounds--a principled position, but one with which I disagree. The other is to say that it is essentially a test to be made on economic grounds--that is our position. I can understand the hon. Gentleman's position and I can understand our position. What I cannot understand--and I bet that he cannot understand it either--is the Conservative position.

Q6. [132216] Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I make no apology for returning to the question of rail safety, because commuters are travelling out of Bolton Trinity Street station on extremely overcrowded trains in what many people regard as unsafe conditions. For example, on 30 June a door flew open and a man who had multiple sclerosis almost fell out on to the track. Since the original franchises were let by the previous Administration with cost cutting in mind, is not refranchising an urgent necessity to improve the comfort and, especially, the safety of passengers?

The Prime Minister: Those are decisions that have to be taken in respect of each franchise. My hon. Friend is right in what he says about the mess of privatisation that we inherited, but every bit as difficult as that--in fact, possibly more so--was the chronic under-investment over a period of years. We have a simple choice in this country: if we want better public services, we have to invest in them and modernise them. That is the choice. We cannot carry on thinking that we can get decent public services--whether it be transport, schools, hospitals or police back on the beat--unless we are prepared to make that financial

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commitment. That is why, on our side, we are prepared to make the commitment and the Conservative side wants to cut it.

Q7. [132217] Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): Yesterday, the hon. Member for Central Fife (Mr. McLeish), who is about to become First Minister in Scotland, announced his proposals for the politicisation of the Scottish civil service, through preferential links with Labour MSPs and the Scottish Labour party. Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity unequivocally to condemn those remarks, especially as, under the Scotland Act 1998, responsibility for the good running of that civil service rests with him?

The Prime Minister: I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question at all.

Q9. [132219] Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): Earlier, the Prime Minister paid a tribute to the late Donald Dewar, who was well respected in this House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Donald Dewar had a lifelong commitment to social justice? Will not the greatest memorial to Donald Dewar be to continue with that crusade, taking a million more children out of poverty?

The Prime Minister: Of course, that is right. The campaign for social justice means that we have to take decisions, such as the new deal for the unemployed, the working families tax credit--to help make work pay for people--and the increases in child benefit. We know from the Conservative party that, in respect of each one of those things--the new deal, the working families tax credit and the increases in child benefit--they are committed to taking them off people in this country. I think it is right that people have them. One of the reasons why we have a million extra jobs in the economy is because we are helping people back into work and making work pay. As a result of that, we are saving money that we can then invest in our public services.

Q10. [132221] Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip- Northwood): What should I say to my constituents about--[Interruption.] What would the Prime Minister advise that I say to my constituents about the spending priorities of his Government in London--to my constituents and the patients of Harefield hospital, the premier cardiothoracic hospital in this country? Harefield faces imminent closure. The hospital has carried out more heart transplants than any other in the world. Yet in east London, with total equanimity, the Prime Minister sees more than £600 million of public money go down the drain with no shame or remorse from his friend Lord Falconer.

The Prime Minister: Leaving aside for a moment the particular case that the hon. Gentleman is making, the Government are putting investment into the health service while his party is committed to taking that investment back out. We really cannot have a situation where Conservative Members come to the House, stand up and demand extra money for public services when they are committed to cutting that money for public services.

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