Previous SectionIndexHome Page


7. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): What impact proposals for Government modernisation will have on the Government's equality programme. [101549]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): Our commitment to modernising the civil service includes our targets to double the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the senior civil service within the next five years. Having more women and ethnic minorities in the civil service will improve our equality programme and how we deliver it for everyone, particularly through the duty on all public authorities to promote equality of opportunity.

Fiona Mactaggart: Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that there are no less than three Departments with lead responsibility for equality and tackling discrimination--the women's unit in the Cabinet Office, the race relations unit in the Home Office and the sex and race equality division in the Department for Education and Employment? Does she have any plans to join up the work of those Departments to make our attempts to tackle inequality and discrimination more efficient and effective?

Marjorie Mowlam: In the Cabinet Office, we are looking into how we can prioritise the mainstreaming of the equality issue. We do that by working across Departments. My hon. Friend asked whether it is better to bring those units together. Our present view is that it is not, because if equality is central to every policy, it is better that the units are in the Departments to ensure that that policy is implemented. However, I hear what she says. We have discussed this matter, and as a result of her question we shall certainly think about it again.

15 Dec 1999 : Column 264


The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [101572] Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 15 December.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Heath: I thank the Prime Minister for that answer, and welcome him to the last Prime Minister's questions of the millennium.

Why will a school in London that he knows well get from the Government next year £4,446 per pupil--and it says that it is not enough--whereas the school that my children attend in Somerset is allocated by that same Government just £2,984 per pupil? That is more than £1,400 less for each and every child in the school. His Ministers admit that that inequality is wrong, but they talk about stability for three years--I call it prolonging unfairness. When will our children get a fair deal from the Government?

The Prime Minister: I shall not go into the individual allocations for each school. I shall merely point out that, under the Government, education spending is rising substantially. It will increase by about 17 per cent. in real terms. After what I accept were two difficult years, we are providing for the next three years the largest increase in education spending that this country has seen. That will help children in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as well as children in constituencies around the country. Class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds are falling and thousands of schools are getting the help that they need, as a consequence of which exam results are improving. As a result of the Government's education policies, we are once again increasing the proportion of national income that we spend on education. That stands in stark contrast with the record of the Tories.

Q2. [101573] Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): While deservedly enjoying the forthcoming celebrations, will my right hon. Friend reflect that it would be right and proper--[Hon. Members: "Reading."] Indeed, I can read--to mark the contribution of older people and pensioners to this century by eliminating pensioner poverty in the next?

The Prime Minister: We are doing a lot to reduce pensioner poverty. Millions of pensioner households receive the £100 winter fuel payment. From autumn 2000, more than 3 million pensioner households will benefit from free television licences for pensioners aged 75 or over. The minimum income guarantee will help many of the poorest pensioners. It is this Government who have cut the VAT on fuel that was imposed by the previous Government, and have restored free eye tests for pensioners, which were taken away by the previous Government. As we now know from the speech made recently by the shadow Social

15 Dec 1999 : Column 265

Security Secretary, the £100 and all the other things we have done for pensioners would be taken away by a future Conservative Government.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Since 1999 was meant to be the year of delivery, will the Prime Minister tell us the latest figure for the fall in the number of police since the last election?

The Prime Minister: I have accepted that the number of police has fallen since the last election--as, indeed, it was falling for the two and three years before the election. However, as a result of what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has now announced, the number of recruits will rise again, and police numbers will rise again. They fell in the first two years because we implemented, as we said we would, the published plans of the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member.

Mr. Hague: The number rose by 16,000 under the last Government. Why does the Prime Minister not read out the number? It must be there, in his folder. It is in the Home Office annual police statistics. The number of police has fallen by 1,062 since the last election, and this was meant to be the year of delivery. So much for delivering on the Prime Minister's promise to be tough on crime.

If the Prime Minister does not want to give that number, will he now tell us how many more people are waiting to see hospital consultants than at the time of the last election?

The Prime Minister: Actually, the waiting list figures have fallen. It is true that the out-patient figures have risen, as they have been rising for 10 years. The in-patient waiting lists, however, are coming down, as a result of the additional money that we have put in.

If I may return to police numbers for a moment--[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asked. He said that the last Government had increased the number of police. That is correct if we take the entire period between 1979 and 1997, but, during the years when the right hon. Gentleman was a Cabinet member of the last Government, police numbers actually fell. As I have said, as a result of the additional money that the Home Secretary has allocated, those numbers will now rise.

I can give the right hon. Gentleman the figures for the Metropolitan police. Yes, numbers fell in the first two years, but there are now over 500 more officers appointed on probation who can then take their place in the Metropolitan police, and numbers will start to rise again. I accept that during the first two years it was difficult, because we had to clear the public financial deficit and sort out the situation that we had inherited; but more investment is now going into schools, hospitals and dealing with crime. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that that is the extra spending that he described as reckless and irresponsible.

Mr. Hague: What all that waffle means is that the number of police has fallen in the year of delivery, and the plain fact that the Prime Minister does not want to read out what is in his folder. It is all there: according to

15 Dec 1999 : Column 266

the Department of Health's statistical bulletin, the number of people waiting to see hospital consultants has risen from 248,000 to 512,000. That is the fact--actually.

Those are people who, because of the Prime Minister, are being made to wait to be on a waiting list. The number of people waiting for two and a half years to hear him tell the truth about this has risen to 55 million. So much for delivering on waiting lists.

If the Prime Minister does not want to give the facts about that, however, will he tell us the truth about this? Will he tell us by how much the tax burden has risen since the last election?

The Prime Minister: Let me first deal with what the right hon. Gentleman said about health. He is wrong. We have actually treated an extra 175,000 out-patients this year, and we shall treat an extra 300,000 next year. It is true that waiting lists were rising for years before we came to office, but we have reduced in-patient waiting lists by more than 70,000 from the level that we inherited. As for tax, as I told the right hon. Gentleman a couple of weeks ago, in the first two years we cleared the financial deficit, but next year--or, rather, in the current financial year--the tax burden is falling, not rising.

Actually--[Laughter.] This is important. I now have the figures for the Conservative plans published just before the last election by the Cabinet of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member. They show that the tax burden this year and next year will be lower than under the plans that he endorsed before the election.

Mr. Hague: We are asking the Prime Minister about his year of delivery, which he announced 1999 was going to be. It is no good saying that our figures are wrong, because they are the Government's figures. I have quoted the Home Office annual police statistics and figures from the Department of Health statistical bulletin. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the tax burden in this country has grown from 35.6 per cent. to 37.7 per cent. of gross domestic product since he came to office, yet he said that there would be no tax increases. So that people know where their increased taxes are going, will he confirm that the cost of Government administration has risen by £1,100 million since the election--enough to pay for thousands of police and tens of thousands of hospital operations?

The Prime Minister: I do not confirm that. On tax, the same figures that the right hon. Gentleman quoted show that this year the tax burden is falling. This year, which I said was the year of delivery, the tax burden is falling, in-patient waiting lists are falling, class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds are falling and unemployment is falling. That is precisely what we said we would do.

As for the number of police, I have accepted that for the first two years we adhered to the plans that we inherited when we came into office, but now, thanks to the extra 5,000 recruits, those numbers will rise. Those are the facts about how we are delivering for people in this country. The right hon. Gentleman cannot actually dispute any one of them.

Mr. Hague: The figures that I have given on the vastly increased spending on Government administration come from the Treasury's public expenditure statistical analysis.

15 Dec 1999 : Column 267

Actually, that is where they come from. What is the point of spending an extra £1 billion on bureaucrats and advisers when the Prime Minister is not prepared to read out the facts that they put in front of him? The only way to get the truth about this Government from a Prime Minister is to ask the Prime Minister of France. [Interruption.] It is true.

Is it not true that one of the Prime Minister's aides said to the Independent on Sunday:

The figures show that his year of delivery has been a year of fewer police, longer waiting lists, higher taxes and more bureaucracy. Should not his new year's resolution be to keep the promises that he has been breaking over the past year?

The Prime Minister: If I could go back through the issues, on health, the in-patient waiting lists were actually rising for years and years. They have now started to fall and are nearly 80,000 below the level that we inherited. That is the fact. Class sizes for five, six and seven- year-olds are 300,000 below what we inherited. Crime is below the level that we inherited. I have already made the position on police officers clear. The tax burden is falling this year. If we are going to debate the respective positions of the two parties, it is worth saying--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order on both sides.

The Prime Minister: We accepted that we were going to have two difficult years. [Hon. Members: "The microphones are off!"] That is probably because the people operating them thought that the Conservatives had stopped listening, so there was no point in turning them on any more.

When we came to office we had a £28 billion borrowing requirement and the national debt had doubled. As a result of the measures that we have taken, unemployment is falling, we have 700,000 extra jobs and we have got through a downturn without a recession for the first time in decades. Since someone is holding up our pledge card, let me go through it. We promised that we would keep inflation and interest rates under control--a promise kept. We promised that we would cut youth unemployment--a promise kept. We promised that in-patient hospital waiting lists would fall--they are falling. We promised that we would ensure that class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds would fall--they have fallen.

If we adopted the right hon. Gentleman's position of opposing all the spending increases that we have proposed, where would hospital waiting lists and class sizes be then? The right hon. Gentleman also opposed the new deal that has reduced unemployment. In the end, the right hon. Gentleman can use whatever lines he likes. Yes, we had two difficult years, but we are delivering for the people of this country and their choice is between higher employment and stability under this Government or spending cuts and boom and bust under a Government led by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the Government's greatest

15 Dec 1999 : Column 268

success stories has been the year-on-year improvement in primary school performance? Will he join me in congratulating teachers throughout the United Kingdom on delivering yet another improvement in the key stage 2 results published last week? However, will he accept that there are still problems in the presentation of the league tables in that schools representing the poorest communities can never get to the top of the tables as currently constituted? Will he assure the House that the Government will modernise the system of league tables and recognise the value added by primary schools to their pupils' performance?

The Prime Minister: We are always looking at ways to improve the information provided by the league tables. We must take account of the fact that social factors will play some part. I have two points to make. First, as a result of the measures that we have taken for primary schools there has been an astonishing increase in literacy and numeracy. Those proposals were opposed by the Conservative party. Secondly, on secondary schools, the new specialist and beacon schools are already showing a big lift in GCSE results. That is good news for the future and it shows the difference between the two main political parties.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Leaving to one side--the House will be relieved to know--the year of delivery, will the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the House join me in acknowledging that, in terms of human progress and despite the terrible ravages of war along the way, it has been an unbelievable century of delivery in terms of prosperity, education, health, communications and so on? [Interruption.] The Conservatives seem to have difficulty with that notion. I do not know why, as they helped to contribute to it.

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that all that welcome progress has been purchased with one terrible toll, which is the effect on our planet's natural environment? Will he rethink his recent changes in Government policy on road building and concreting over substantial swathes of the green belt in southern England for house-building programmes? That can hardly be the right way to begin a commitment to the environment in the next century.

The Prime Minister: The amount of greenbelt land is increasing, not diminishing. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has increased the amount that must be built on brownfield sites to a 60 per cent. target from the 40 per cent. target of the Conservatives. Therefore, those criticisms are not justified. On road maintenance, many of the things such as bypasses that have been announced by the Deputy Prime Minister are important for communities. On the environment as a whole, thanks to the Deputy Prime Minister, we have delivered through the Kyoto summit probably the biggest and best step forward in environmental standards that the world has seen for a long time.

Mr. Kennedy: Let us move the focus away from the Deputy Prime Minister and back to the Prime Minister. During his time in office the Prime Minister has not devoted exclusively a single speech to the environment. When the Prime Minister sets that mood music from the

15 Dec 1999 : Column 269

top, he can hardly be surprised that his Government are not behaving in an environmentally sustainable way. Why, for example, has he not honoured his pledge before the last election that he would publish a green book to accompany the Budget? Should he not take the opportunity of the new year to redouble his efforts on these issues to make sure that in the next century we begin to contribute to undoing the environmental damage of the last century?

The Prime Minister: The criticism on environmental matters is unfair. As a result of the Kyoto summit, countries undertook an obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and this country will hit our targets. We have a set of proposals that will enable us easily to meet the Kyoto targets, and that was the biggest step forward. We also led the way at G8. It is not true to say that I have not spoken about the environment; I have spoken about it. I mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister because the Kyoto summit would have failed without him. It is a tribute to him that it succeeded.

Ms Hazel Blears (Salford): I was delighted to be able to welcome my right hon. Friend to Salford last week, when he opened an extension to our wonderful metrolink system--which has now carried 1 million people in the conurbation. May we have his support for the massive extension of the metrolink system across the conurbation--which would help to keep our city moving and improve our environment?

The Prime Minister: The metrolink is a great example of an integrated transport system, and its establishment has--voluntarily--reduced the number of car journeys by 2.5 million in the area. It is a great tribute to a modern transport strategy. Now, we have to ensure that we deliver that type of programme in different parts of the country.

Q3. [101574] Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell): Does the Prime Minister think that it is right that a member of his Cabinet should sell her memoirs--for untold sums, and a reported advance of £350,000--when she is still a member of the Government?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend has acted entirely in accordance with the rules.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central): Since this is the season of good will towards all, will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Leader of the Opposition on his year of delivery? In particular, does my right hon. Friend agree that an astonishing achievement of the Leader of the Opposition has been to deliver a Conservative party that, today--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. I must remind him that the Prime Minister is responsible only for Government policies, not for the Leader of the Opposition's achievements.

Q4. [101575] Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Does the Prime Minister share my concern that--despite recent improvements, thanks to the fabulous efforts of staff--patients waiting at Kingston hospital's accident and emergency unit still face painful waiting times in an out-of-date building? Will the Prime Minister,

15 Dec 1999 : Column 270

therefore, personally intervene to ask the London region's NHS executive to confirm urgently that the new investment needed to modernise Kingston hospital's accident and emergency department will be announced? Will he give me and my constituents the assurance that the long delays in pushing ahead with the new investment will end, so that people suffering those long delays at Kingston's A and E department may, at long last, expect such waits to end?

The Prime Minister: The regional office of the NHS Executive will be receiving the capital allocations in the first week of January, and it will be able to inform Kingston hospital of the outcome in the following week. If approved, work will start as soon as possible. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman some solace that there is news on the way quickly. I assure him that the executive understands why the project is regarded as a very high priority. I should also point out that--as he will know--Kingston hospital has already received £2 million from the accident and emergency modernisation fund, and that, this year, the health authority has received an extra £11 million funding.

I agree, however, that there is still an awful lot more to do in accident and emergency departments right across the country. That is why, by the end of next year, every accident and emergency department that needs it will have been refurbished--which is one step on the way to improving the national health service. Although Liberal Democrat Members support those changes, those capital allocations and that expenditure was opposed by Conservative Members.

Q5. [101576] Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the educational success of Wolsey school in Croydon in the New Addington education action zone, which became one of the top 30 improving schools in Britain through a combination of information technology, adding value to numeracy and literacy, providing breakfast clubs and fresh fruit at tuck shops--to add to nutrition and aid concentration--and using counselling techniques to improve the self-esteem and expectations of children, combined with business mentoring? Does he agree that the hope and opportunity provided by the school spreads a message throughout the land that we can provide pathways out of poverty through educational success in education action zones?

The Prime Minister I understand that the percentage of year 6 pupils reaching the required standard or better at Wolsey junior school has improved by 8 per cent., taking it to 84 per cent., which is a fantastic achievement for the school. Indeed, the schools in that education action zone have raised their performance by about 8 per cent. in English and an amazing 22 per cent. in maths. For all the education action zones, the average performance in maths improved by 14 per cent. Since as my hon. Friend spoke Conservative Members were shouting derogatory remarks about how Conservative support would grow in my hon. Friend's constituency--

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Tory gain.

The Prime Minister: I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman should be so arrogant as to think that. One reason why there will not be a Tory gain is that under this

15 Dec 1999 : Column 271

Government the results have improved by 14 per cent., but the Conservative party is opposed to the very changes that made that happen. When my hon. Friend's constituents realise that the Conservatives are also opposed to the minimum wage, the working families tax credit, the new deal and sound economics, there will be even more Labour voters in that Croydon constituency.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): Can the Prime Minister explain why, under the Freedom of Information Bill, information on ministerial offices, staffing levels and staffing costs should not be made available for public scrutiny?

The Prime Minister: The provisions of the Freedom of Information Bill will allow more information to be disclosed than the code of practice under the previous Government. What is more, for the first time, there will be an independent commissioner who can require disclosure. I do not think that we should take lessons in freedom of information from a Conservative Government who opposed such a Bill at the last election and had 18 years in which they could have introduced one but refused to do so.

Q6. [101577] Helen Jones (Warrington, North): Does the Prime Minister agree that, on the eve of the 21st century, it shames this country to have so many people sleeping on the streets? Will he ensure that the Government not only provide accommodation but tackle the host of other problems to which many people who sleep rough are subject, such as alcohol dependency and mental health problems, so that some of our more unfortunate citizens can be given a real chance of a better life?

The Prime Minister: As a result of the measures that have already been taken on rough sleepers, the numbers have fallen in the past six or nine months from 2,500 to 1,600, but our desire now is to ensure that we can tackle the rest of the problem. The £200 million that has been allocated from within the existing comprehensive spending review settlement will be invested in a variety of measures: new hostel beds, new housing association homes in London and a better approach to co-ordinating measures to deal with the different problems that homeless people face. It is a scandal that so many homeless people are still on our streets. This Government at least are committed to tackling that scandal and to ending it.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): Does the Prime Minister accept that his earlier answers to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition will lead many people to conclude that the year of delivery that the right hon.

15 Dec 1999 : Column 272

Gentleman has promised has ended as a year of deceit? Will he at least come clean on the tax burden and admit that, whether or not he hopes that it will fall in the next three years, in the current year it is higher than the one that he inherited?

The Prime Minister: The tax burden this year is falling, not rising. I said that in the first two years of this Government we had to take some difficult decisions to clear the financial deficit. I also pointed out that our tax burden is less than that planned for by the previous Conservative Government. However, there are only two choices. Either we ensure that we get rid of the financial deficit and put the economy in the shape in which it is today--where we are delivering jobs, stability, low inflation and low interest rates--or we go back to the days of the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported and of whom he was a Minister, who saw 1 million manufacturing jobs go, had interest rates at 10 per cent. for four years or more and who wrecked this country through two big recessions and had record repossessions. Everyone remembers the days of boom and bust under the Tories. Under this Government, for the first time in years, people realise that new Labour is the party of economic competence today.

Q7. [101578] Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): Is my right hon. Friend aware that 100 years ago, in 1899, the House of Commons was prorogued for Christmas on 27 October? [Interruption.] And people complain about the length of our recesses! Is he also aware that in that year, the key concerns of hon. Members included the situation in Ireland? Is it not the case that further important developments this week in the peace process have meant that we have more grounds for optimism for a peaceful and prosperous new year in Northern Ireland than we have had for many generations?

The Prime Minister: In respect of the recess, I hear what my hon. Friend says, as we all do, but I do not suppose that we should refer that point to the Modernisation Committee.

There could be no better present for the new millennium than a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. We have come a very long way--things are happening today in Northern Ireland that people would simply not have believed possible before. The most heartening aspect is the sense, right across the communities in Northern Ireland, that there is for the first time some confidence and hope about the future. There are many difficulties along the way, but if a new millennium and a new start mean anything--and anything that we can look forward to--it will be a lasting future and peace for the children of Northern Ireland, who deserve a future better than the past that they have had.

15 Dec 1999 : Column 273

Next Section

IndexHome Page