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The Prime Minister was asked--

Proportional Representation

Q1. [136892]Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What his policy is on proportional representation.

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The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): We set out our position in October 1998, and again in June 1999, and it has not changed.

Dr. Lewis: Why is it that the Prime Minister is so much more reticent about his position on proportional representation with Members of this House than he used to be with the former leader of the Liberal Democrats when he was trying to carve out a shady deal for a permanent Lib-Lab coalition based on PR? If he will not answer that, will he at least answer this? Will he give an assurance that he will not give his support in the future to a system based on the alternative vote--which is not even proportionate, but simply exaggerates the winning party's number of seats even more than the first-past-the-post option does?

The Prime Minister: The latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question betrayed a certain nervousness. On the first point, we have introduced proportional representation for the European elections and for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. In relation to PR, however, I am not in favour of any system that breaks the link between constituency and Member of Parliament.


Q2. [136893]Angela Smith (Basildon): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 15 November.

The Prime Minister: 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.

Angela Smith: Does the Prime Minister recall the dire warnings from Conservative Members that the national minimum wage would cut the number of jobs in this country by more than 1 million? [Interruption.] Does he therefore share my scepticism about their apparent conversion now that we have the highest employment levels for a generation? Nevertheless, many young people, including those who came to my youth forum just last week, feel somewhat disadvantaged. Will my right hon. Friend therefore consider removing the temporary differential youth rate for those who are under 22?

The Prime Minister: As we said at the time, we shall keep that under review. However, I think that it is important to recognise that the way in which the minimum wage has been implemented should not, and currently does not, affect youth unemployment levels. Indeed, long-term youth unemployment has been more than halved under this Government. As for my hon. Friend's comment on Conservative Members, as she read out the prediction that they made before the general election, some of them were shouting, "We were right." I do not think they realise that the position has changed, and that there are now 1 million more jobs in the economy, with the introduction of the minimum wage, than there were at the time of the general election.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Last week, the Prime Minister tried to blame everyone but himself for the dome disaster. Now, we have had the National

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Audit Office report and a full account of his Cabinet meeting. Can he confirm that the member of the Cabinet who insisted that the project should proceed and said that it "could even make money" was him?

The Prime Minister: It is certainly true that I said that it should proceed. It is also true, however, as we demonstrated conclusively last week, that funding for the dome, financial management, the dome and the site itself were all agreed by a Cabinet committee when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of it. We still have not had his admission that he was a member of that committee. Perhaps he will admit it, or not, when he asks his next question.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minster did not only say that it should proceed. From the minutes of that meeting, we know the following:

In that meeting, should not the Prime Minister have listened to the Foreign Secretary? He said:

It is a pity that the Foreign Secretary is not here to tell him that again.

We also know from the National Audit Office report that, in July, when Lord Falconer told Parliament that the dome was trading solvently, he must have known that that was not the case. As Ministers who do not tell the truth in Parliament are meant to resign, when is he going?

The Prime Minister: First, the right hon. Gentleman should not confuse Cabinet minutes with what appears in The Mail on Sunday. Secondly, if he is in the business of quotes, this one is from December 1999:

Who was that? It was the Leader of the Opposition.

Hon. Members: More!

Mr. Hague: Of course we enjoyed the party: we were laughing at the right hon. Gentleman. So there we have it: no resignation and a special exemption from the ministerial code for the Prime Minister's old flatmate. We used to have government by Parliament, then it was by Cabinet. Now we have government by clique. Is not the only reason that the right hon. Gentleman clings on to the discredited dome Minister that, although he may be a useless Minister, he is very convenient as a human shield? Should not the Prime Minister now be man enough to stand at the Dispatch Box and apologise to the nation without blaming it on somebody else?

The Prime Minister: Last week we had the major economic statement for the country and one might have expected the right hon. Gentleman to have asked about it. It is interesting that, this week, he cannot ask about the economy or public services.

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As for the dome, we have said already what the difficulties were and why we still proceeded with it, but if we want to quote at each other across the Chamber, since last week we have discovered something else. In the past few months the shadow culture Secretary has been travelling around the country telling people that the dome is a disaster, asking how we could ever have done it and saying what a waste of money it is. What does he turn out to be? He was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the National Heritage Secretary in the last Conservative Government, and this is what he has said:

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Maclean, be quiet.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said:

Why does not the Leader of the Opposition take his bandwagon and drive it off somewhere else?

Q3. [136894]Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): While I welcome the extra money for schools in the pre-Budget report, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very important that it is paid out as quickly as possible? Assuming that the Welsh Assembly uses the £9.9 million allocated to it by the Chancellor for schools, schools in my constituency will get a welcome and much-needed boost.

My constituency includes Whitchurch comprehensive school, the biggest comprehensive school in Wales, ysgol Glan Taf, the Welsh medium school as well as Corpus Christi Catholic school and Llanishen and Caathay schools. Does my right hon Friend agree that allowing schools to decide their own spending priorities will assist staff, teachers and parents?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to read out the list of schools in her constituency because each one of them will get extra money from the Labour Government. What we now know, courtesy of the shadow Chancellor, is that the Tories would take that money back off those schools. That extra money is there. It is going into the largest real-terms rise in education spending that this country has seen for years.

I know that my hon. Friend has a certain influence in the Welsh Assembly. I hope very much that the Assembly will make sure that that money gets through to the schools that need it to improve our children's education.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): On the national health service, is the Prime Minister aware of the number of so-called excess winter deaths that occurred last winter, and will he confirm the figure?

The Prime Minister: I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman means by the term "excess winter deaths," but it is of course the case that there were severe pressures on the NHS last winter. Those pressures will be easier this year, at least in terms of our being prepared for them,

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because of the additional money that has been put into the NHS. As many people in the NHS have been saying over the past few days, in winter there is always more pressure. However, we are better prepared and the health service is better funded.

In addition, I can tell the House that there are now some 10,000 more nurses in the health service than three years ago, and that 5,500 nurses are returning to the service as a result of the nurse returner campaign.

Mr. Kennedy: Successive Governments have recorded the numbers of excess winter deaths occurring in the December to March period, when the number of unfortunate deaths rises as a result of climatic and other conditions. Last year, the figures showed that there were 54,000 deaths in the period. There will be another national winter crisis this year. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge in the House this afternoon what he has acknowledged elsewhere--that the persistent underfunding of the health service in the first half of this Parliament means that doctors, nurses and patients will have to cope with excess winter deaths again? Does he not accept that there is a degree of urgency about the need for a national plan to combat this disgrace in our country?

The Prime Minister: This Government have put far more money into health service funding than the Liberal Democrat party has ever asked for. However, we had to make sure that any funding that we put into the national health service could be sustained year on year on year. For far too long, there was boom and bust in health service spending, with money put in one year being taken away the next. Now, over a four-year period, there will be the largest sustained increase in health service investment, and we will be able to keep it up. As a result, there are more nurses, doctors and beds. However, it will take time for those people to be trained fully.

In relation to hypothermia, the winter fuel allowance, the cut in VAT on fuel and the extra measures on home insulation show that the Government are doing our best to minimise the pressures. Those pressures will continue, but it is wrong to suggest that we have done nothing to correct the problem.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck): Will my right hon. Friend join me in extending our best wishes to the remaining British miners and their families, following today's announcement that the European Union has accepted the Government's aid package to the coal industry? I am sure that he will agree that that package will secure the jobs of many thousands of people. However, would he also agree that it is to the eternal shame of the Conservative party that, when in power, it set out to destroy not only Britain's mining industry but the people who relied on it totally?

The Prime Minister: People will remember the record of the Opposition. Many people in my hon. Friend's constituency and in other constituencies who are dependent on coal mining will welcome today's news. It is a case of the Government helping the industry restructure and make change in a way that preserves jobs

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and the fabric of local communities. That stands in sharp and stark contrast to the policies of the previous Government.

Q4. [136895]Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford): The people of Guildford are deeply concerned by plans to put a giant incinerator in our county town. This month, we learned that Government officials have tried to hide the health hazards caused by such incinerators. Why does that culture of secrecy still fester? Why did Labour and Liberal Democrat peers vote last night for a Minister's right to hide information, and against the people's right to freedom of information?

The Prime Minister: So now the Conservatives are the champions of freedom of information. [Laughter.] No, let us be fair. It is just that for 18 years, it slipped their minds somehow. Indeed, at the last election, I seem to remember that in their manifesto they called it an unnecessary gimmick.

I do not know about the actual case in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I will look into it and write to him about it, but, really, let us have no lessons from the Conservative party about freedom of information.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): Many hon. Members will have seen the media coverage of the village of Gowdall in my constituency, which has been submerged by the worst floods in more than 300 years. Residents are concerned and angry at some of the actions of the Environment Agency, fuelled by its refusal to meet villagers last night. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will ensure that there is an investigation into the actions of the agency; that the flood defences will be looked at and improved if necessary; and that the Government will play a full and active role in regenerating communities such as Gowdall, including fast-track support wherever possible?

The Prime Minister: I am certainly happy to look into the issue of the Environment Agency's refusal to meet residents in my hon. Friend's constituency who have been affected by the floods, and I will be in touch with him about it.

As for the efforts that we are making generally and nationally, we are spending a substantial additional sum of money on flood defences. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced new money--more than £50 million--to help with that. The rate of Government support under the Bellwin scheme, which reimburses local authorities for the costs of flood damage, used to be at 85 per cent. and is now at 100 per cent. I hope that that shows my hon. Friend and his constituents that we will give them some hope for the future.

Q5. [136896]Mr. William Cash (Stone): Will the Prime Minister explain how a European super-power would not be a European super-state? In his speech on 13 November at Mansion House, he said that it was obvious to him. Will he give the British people a White Paper on the constitutional and political implications of the process towards European integration?

The Prime Minister: Where nation states acting in unison can do more in common than they can alone, that, it seems to me, is the reason for the European Union.

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Examples of such states being able to exercise more power and strength together than alone include the current negotiations over Kyoto, world trade and areas of foreign policy where, as a result of us operating together, we are more powerful than individual nations. In other words, we are a super-power.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): The Prime Minister will know that last month Amnesty International launched its global campaign against torture. What steps will the Government be taking to meet the objectives of the campaign? Will my right hon. Friend be working in this Parliament to ensure that we have legislation to ratify the International Criminal Court statute and to outlaw the broking of torture equipment?

The Prime Minister: We are, of course, committed to making sure that we introduce legislation for the International Criminal Court. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that she seeks on acts of torture. This country has fought a very strong, solid campaign over a number of years in respect of human rights abuses wherever they occur, and we will carry on doing so.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Will the Prime Minister expand on his definition of a super-power which he offered a few moments ago? He said on Monday that he wanted Europe to be a super-power. Can he name a super-power at any time in the history of the world that has not had its own currency, its own taxes, its own army and its own Government?

The Prime Minister: I cannot name another institution like the European Union, which is precisely why it is a unique union of member states which are nation states coming together to exercise more power than they can alone exert. If the right hon. Gentleman wants an example of Europe as a super-power, he should look at trade negotiations. We are not able, as the United Kingdom, to make a real impact on world trade, but we are as the European Union. If the right hon. Gentleman disagrees with that, perhaps he can get up and say so.

Mr. Hague: We did not ask the right hon. Gentleman for two minutes of waffle about Europe. We asked him whether any super-power ever had not had those assets which we listed. We take it from his response that the answer is no. There has never been a super-power without its own currency, taxes, army and Government, just as there has never been a Prime Minister who used words so carelessly to please the audience of the moment. Now that the right hon. Gentleman has argued for a super-power, all he could say when the German Foreign Minister called yesterday for an elected head of Europe was that the "time was not right" for that idea. Can he think of a super- power, as he would have it, that has not had an elected head? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: In view of the events of the past week, that is a rather unwise question to ask me. Of course, Mr. Fischer has his view. He wants a European federal super-state. That is true. What is the response of Conservative Members? They hitch up their skirts, go to the sidelines and say, "Get on with the debate, we'll have

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nothing to do with it." We should enter into that debate and say why we are against the super-state but in favour of more co-operation.

The idea that we have no support for that position is absurd. A few weeks ago, President Chirac said:

I agree entirely. So we have Mr. Fischer arguing one thing and Mr. Chirac arguing something else. I am on the side of those who want Europe to co-operate more closely because it is in our interests to do so, but not to have a federal super-state. Where does the right hon. Gentleman stand?

Mr. Hague: We can get a straighter answer from a Florida recount than from the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House. He says that there is a difference between a super-state and a super-power, but there is no example in history to support him. Those who favour a super-state have taken support from his words. The truth is that he wants Europe to be a super-power when the only possible result of such a policy is the creation of a super-state and the end of Britain's independence. Cannot we now see that in the Government's handling of European policy we have a disaster in the making, a distinction without a difference and a Prime Minister without a clue?

The Prime Minister: As usual, with the right hon. Gentleman's pre-rehearsed little jokes, he makes his point. However, he has mentioned the negotiations that are coming up at Nice. His position is to be against any extension of qualified majority voting.

We have done a little research. In the course of the Maastricht treaty, there were 30 items of qualified majority voting agreed, including on free movement of capital, visas, economic guidelines, public health, education--shall I go on? [Hon. Members: "Yes."]--consumer protection, European transport and European regional development funds. In all 30 items. How many times did the right hon. Gentleman vote against them? Well, it is a round number that equates roughly to the Conservatives' economic and foreign policy credibility.

The best way to secure the best deal in Europe is to fight for British interests on issues such as tax, border controls and social security, but where it is in our interests to have qualified majority voting, to have that too.

The choice is simple: a Conservative party in the grip of those who would damage our country's true national interests or the Labour party, which will get engaged, and therefore get the best deal for Britain.

Hon. Members: More!

Mr. Speaker: Ann Cryer.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I called Mrs. Ann Cryer.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I could not hear.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that following the severe flooding of more than 200 homes in the Stockbridge area of my constituency two weeks ago, it is singularly unfortunate that the Conservative leadership of Bradford council is seeking to make political capital out of my unfortunate constituents?

The Prime Minister: The Leader of the Opposition went around the country a couple of weeks ago claiming that we were in crisis because of the floods, proving only that bandwagons can be amphibious. I do not know the circumstances of the Conservative leadership of Bradford council, and can only hope that it soon changes back to Labour.

Q6. [136897]Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Is the Prime Minister aware that his proposals to scrap community health councils--independent watchdogs for NHS patients, such as Cheshire Central and Chester and Ellesmere Port--is bitterly opposed by my constituents, by patients and by staff? Will he drop those plans?

The Prime Minister: I am aware that there is bitter opposition, which is why the proposals are being consulted on. If he goes round the country, however, the hon. Gentleman will find that people in certain areas do not believe that community health councils have been as effective as they might have been. It is precisely because we want to consult that we have issued the health plan. We will report back to the House in due course on the consultation.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the better regulation taskforce report on environmental regulation and farmers? Will he take from it the need further to improve control of British bureaucracy's implementation of European regulations?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I welcome that report, because it makes it clear that we should be careful in implementing European legislation to ensure that we do so with the lightest possible touch. However regulation is extremely important in such areas as safety issues, for example BSE. A balance must be struck, and we are trying to get it right. I very much welcome the report and believe that we shall act on it.

Q7. [136898]Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): On 13 July, the Prime Minister gave the House an absolute commitment that on the Liaison Committee's report on parliamentary scrutiny there would be free votes on the Government side. Last Thursday, the Leader of the House shaded that commitment by saying that it would be contingent on the Government putting down substantive motions. Will the Prime Minister honour his July commitment by ensuring that the Government put down substantive motions?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons tells me that she did no such

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thing. [Hon. Members: "Oh yes she did."] Well, there is always a free vote on House matters, and the right hon. Gentleman has my assurance that that will remain so.

Q8. [136899]Ms Claire Ward (Watford): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the difficulties that pensioners face in claiming their full entitlements? The measures announced last week are to be welcomed, but we know from the 60,000 currently claiming the minimum income guarantee that they still have problems in receiving what they are entitled to. What will the Government do to ensure that more people will be able to claim the minimum income guarantee?

The Prime Minister: There has been a problem, which is why we launched a campaign to ensure that pensioners entitled to the minimum income guarantee should receive it. I understand that about half a million more pensioners are now claiming it. Those measures, together with additional money for pensions, the winter fuel allowance and free television licences, are an important signal of our commitment to Britain's pensioners. In relation to the winter fuel allowance, free television licences and the Christmas bonuses, the Conservatives' policy is to take those things away from Britain's pensioners.

Q9. [136900]Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Royal Ulster Constabulary on intercepting the mortar bomb at Derrylin and the bomb in west Belfast that was destined for the City of London? Will he join us in calling for a moratorium on changes to policing until peace is assured in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister: On the first point, of course the work of the RUC has, as ever, been absolutely invaluable in stopping acts of terrorism. On the Patten reforms, we think that it is important that the reforms should proceed and that, at the same time, all the varied aspects of the agreement into which parties have entered should be implemented properly.

Mr. Speaker: Caroline Flint.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): My question has already been asked, so I shall sit down.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is due to make a speech today in which he will point out that there is a winners' circle of prosperity in London and south-east England to the detriment of other areas in the country. However, if 700 jobs go at Biwater Industries of Clay Cross, which manufacturers pipes, for no reason apart from a rip-off effect, north-east Derbyshire will become a losers' circle. Will my right hon. Friend therefore have a word with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to get that matter referred to the Competition Commission, which is the last means of saving those jobs?

The Prime Minister: I will certainly look into the issue in my hon. Friend's constituency and get back to him as soon as possible.

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