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The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): As the House is well aware, I had a meeting this morning with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has since announced his decision to resign from the Government later today. I would like to pay the warmest possible tribute to him for the tireless efforts he has made to secure peace in Northern Ireland--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]--and also for his personal courage and sense of duty in coming to the House this afternoon to answer questions on Northern Ireland before departing the Government.
Mr. Cash: Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity of this Question Time to spell out the truth to the House of Commons and to the country regarding the events surrounding the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?
The Prime Minister: I accept that the reply of the Secretary of State, through his office, to inquiries from a newspaper at the weekend was misleading and resulted in the House of Commons and the Lobby being misled--and I accepted his resignation on that basis.
On the information presently available to me, I believe that the application for naturalisation of the individual in question was decided in accordance with the proper criteria--and so does the Home Secretary. None the less, I have asked Sir Anthony Hammond QC, former Treasury Solicitor, to review the case fully so that we can be sure that the application was dealt with properly in all respects. Sir Anthony will report his findings to me and we will publish them.
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): Will my right hon. Friend join me in recognising the immense contribution of many individuals and organisations in the preparations for national holocaust memorial day--the first of which will take place this Saturday, 27 January? On that day, we can remember all the victims of the holocaust, learn the lessons of the holocaust for today's society, and stand together to confront racism, anti-semitism and intolerance, wherever they may occur.
The Prime Minister: I entirely agree. National holocaust day is an important innovation, which I hope and believe has the support of all right hon. and hon. Members. It will allow us to commemorate dreadful acts of racism--particularly those in the 20th century--and serve as a reminder to young people in particular that the events of the second world war and the racial genocide that was exhibited then should never be repeated in humankind.
Now that the Prime Minister has notched up the historic achievement of being forced to sack the same Minister for the same offence twice in 25 months, does he recognise that his career-long dependency on the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) has been a monumental error of judgment?
The Prime Minister: I do not suppose that I ever expected the right hon. Gentleman to behave graciously at all on the resignation of my right hon. Friend, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House that I believe that the job done by my right hon. Friend in Northern Ireland well merited his position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I think he has made an enormous contribution to it; indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that I doubt whether the process in Northern Ireland would have been sustained so well but for his commitment. I therefore believe it was right that he occupied that position, and I also believe that he is a bigger man than many of his critics.
Mr. Hague: The fact is that to reappoint in September 1999 a disgraced Minister 10 months after he was forced to resign, in breach of every convention and precedent, was a demonstration of the arrogance with which the Prime Minister wields his power. To spare himself and the country going through this a third time, will the Prime Minister now guarantee that his right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool will not be running the election campaign of the Labour party and will not return to office in any Government led by him?
The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend has already made that clear in the statement that he gave earlier. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that I think my right hon. Friend has done the right thing; I think that he has done the honourable thing. It is a long tradition in this House that when someone does that, we pay tribute to it. I am only sorry that once again the Leader of the Opposition has lived down to my expectations.
Mr. Hague: The right hon. Member for Hartlepool has done the right thing, but it is a pity that the Prime Minister's judgment led him to have to do it twice within the space of one Parliament. Does this not go wider than the matter of the right hon. Gentleman, because he has been central to everything that the Prime Minister has done? It was the right hon. Gentleman who picked the Prime Minister out; the right hon. Gentleman who briefed the press for him; the right hon. Gentleman who stabbed the Chancellor in the back for him; the right hon. Gentleman who spun all of his campaigns for him. Is not the fact that the right hon. Gentleman's statement sadly could not be relied upon the reason not only that he has had to go, but that he has been at the heart of the entire new Labour project?
The Prime Minister: I think the Leader of the Opposition probably wrote most of that before my right hon. Friend resigned; he just forgot to change the script. I repeat that I believe it was right that my right hon. Friend came back into Government as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I honestly believe that, in the broad
Mr. Hague: This is not about the broad sweep of history; it is about the conduct of the Government--the disgraceful conduct--of the Government. Has this not told us everything we need to know, not about the right hon. Member for Hartlepool but about the way in which the Government do their business? The Prime Minister said that they would be purer than pure and, as with every other pledge, he has failed to deliver. When asked to choose between high standards of government and the low politics of his cronies, he has unerringly chosen the latter. He has set those standards himself. In every incomplete answer in the House, in every distorted accusation and in every piece of baseless spin, the Prime Minister has set the standards of the Government. In a Government where standards of truth, honesty and integrity have taken second place to spin and smear, is he not truly the first among equals?
The Prime Minister: I really think that by that performance the right hon. Gentleman diminishes himself far more than he diminishes anybody else--[Interruption.] I believe that. I made it clear that if people did something wrong, they would pay the penalty; and my right hon. Friend has paid the penalty--that is true. I also believe that he can be very proud of his record and the contribution that he made while he was in Government. As for the rest of the nonsense the Leader of the Opposition has spoken, I have no intention of getting into it.
May I tell my right hon. Friend that the steel company, Corus, has given hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds to its shareholders, but now plans to make thousands and thousands of its magnificent work force redundant and that that cannot be right? It must be unjust. May I also tell him that steelworkers at Shotton in my constituency stand to lose their cold strip mill, even though they are the most efficient and effective work force in the product? Does he agree that the activities of Corus will denude our manufacturing capability? No nation can be great without a steel industry.
The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right to raise the concerns of his constituents and to pay tribute to their skill and productivity. They are among some of the most highly productive and skilled workers anywhere in the country--or, indeed, the whole of Europe. We therefore very much regret the discussions that are presently going on in the Corus company. We shall do everything that we can to avoid that situation, and we have already made that clear to the company itself.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Does the Prime Minister agree that if there is an error of judgment at work in the Chamber this afternoon, it is perhaps the error of judgment that fails to acknowledge that the Prime Minister, as a result of this morning's events, has confirmed that Ministers of the
The Prime Minister: I do not believe it is necessary to review the code; it is necessary to make judgments under it. I think that the code is indeed justified in its own terms. I thank the right hon. Gentleman, however, for the tone of the rest of his remarks, which stand in contrast with the Conservative Opposition, who, I suspect, have for some weeks tried to get out an argument on policy and failed, and are all too happy to turn to something else.
Mr. Kennedy: May I further ask the Prime Minister a question on policy, and a very important policy it is, too--the continuation of the Northern Ireland peace process? Given the exchanges earlier this afternoon in the Chamber, will he confirm that the momentum of the Government remains undiminished in seeking to make the progress that both sides of the House want, but to which only two parties have given voice in the House this afternoon?
The Prime Minister: I want to place on record the importance of the Northern Ireland peace process, yet again. Whatever the difficulties and whatever the obstacles in the way of its completion, Northern Ireland today is a better and more prosperous place than it was a few years ago, before that peace process came about. Of course--because it is a process, not an event--it will take an enormous amount of work, and, of course, it takes immense political courage by those involved, but I am sure that it is better to be involved in pushing the process on than to stand aside and hope that it will fail. I have no doubt at all that, for the people in Northern Ireland, the peace process still represents the only conceivable chance of the stable and decent future that they deserve.
Kali Mountford (Colne Valley): Since last week when my right hon. Friend told the House that he had had no application from the Americans for a nuclear base in Yorkshire, my constituents have been made fearful by the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition. I have told them that they should write to him and tell him about his error of judgment, but what can my right hon. Friend say to my constituents to put their minds at rest?
The Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend--as, indeed, I said in the exchanges with the Leader of the Opposition last week--that when we get a proposal, we will consider it carefully and make our decisions on it, but our closeness to our American allies is well known. However, this is in the box marked "Handle with care"--which is what we will do.
Q2. Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): Is the Prime Minister aware that the recent increase in police numbers in Hampshire has merely restored the force to its 1998 levels? We are still 90 police officers under budget and a further 95 short on recruitment. Although the package for the Metropolitan police is welcome, does he realise that the offer of a free rail season ticket is inducing officers who work in Eastleigh to leave the Hampshire
The Prime Minister: We are, in fact, awaiting a response from the Police Negotiating Board to our proposals, which are designed to attract and recruit officers in areas such as Eastleigh. Although those areas are not within the London region, they are none the less areas with buoyant levels of employment where house prices are high. We are waiting for the board to come back to us on those proposals.
As for Hampshire, I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that its number of police officers has increased. I emphasise once again that that is only because of the levels of investment that we are putting into the police. We are also making investment available in Hampshire and elsewhere so that we can continue to recruit in the coming years. If we can bolster that with a package--albeit it one that might be different from the London package--that attracts new recruits to an even greater extent, we will make progress faster.
Q3. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Bolton hospitals have the second-highest mortality rate in the north-west and the eighth highest in the country, according to a recent report. The Wigan and Bolton health authority was the second farthest away from target for health funding in 1997. Does my right hon. Friend agree that my constituents and those who live in similarly deprived areas deserve better targeting for health expenditure in the future?
The Prime Minister: It is indeed important that we manage to put the extra investment in the health service into areas such as that represented by my hon. Friend. One reason that we know how the different areas now compare in terms of health performance is because we publish the data. One reason why we are able to see whether, for example, similar hospitals in similar areas are performing differently is because we have conducted and published a review of those data.
However, there is no alternative in the medium and long term to getting the extra investment into the service. We need to ensure that it goes into primary care services to increase the number of doctors and nurses and to increase the facilities in our hospitals. We are providing that investment. As my hon. Friend knows, the difference between Labour and the Conservatives is that we believe in investing in our public services and they do not.
Q4. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Is not the Prime Minister seriously concerned that he presides over a political system in which it is possible for a very rich man to purchase for £10 million the foreign and economic policy and choice of leader of a major political party? In view of today's events, what does he propose to do to stop rich people seeking to purchase political influence in that way?
Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): I think my right hon. Friend is aware that yesterday my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) and I returned from the west bank and the Gaza strip. The visit was organised by War on Want, and we had the opportunity to meet President Arafat and representatives of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry.
During our visit, President Arafat offered intensive peace talks, which have subsequently been suspended following the deaths of two Israelis. Given that more than 300 Palestinians have also died and that this weekend an Israeli settler who killed a Palestinian 10-year-old child was sentenced to six months' community service, will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the early resumption of those peace talks, because we must do all we can to achieve comprehensive settlement on the basis of resolutions 242, 338 and 194?
The Prime Minister: I concur entirely that it is important that the peace negotiations get back under way in the middle east. Indeed, quite apart from reasons of stability in the middle east, there is the knock-on effect that instability there has on all countries in the region and on western countries, including our own. I believe that it is important that those peace talks resume, because the one thing that we have learned from our own peace process in Northern Ireland is that, if these processes are not solved or at least managed, they slip backwards very fast indeed.
The tragedy of the middle east is that people were so close to agreement and then, in the past few months, it has fallen apart again. Therefore, I am very happy to play whatever part I can--we do what we can--to make sure that the peace negotiations resume in the interests of not just the Israelis and the Palestinians, but the whole region and the wider world.
Q5. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): Has this country got its priorities right when million-pound cheques of public subsidy are given to large agribusiness holdings, which do not need them, while small and efficient family farms, which are the bedrock of rural life, are going out of business in their droves?
The Prime Minister: I know that a debate has often gone on about the levels of subsidy to large and small farms. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has particular cases in mind, but I emphasise to him that, overall, we in this country pay out about £3,000 million a year by way of subsidy to the whole farming industry. Incidentally, that is more than we pay out to all the other industries of the country put together.
However, it is important that we review constantly how that money is used. One of the reasons that we want reform of the common agricultural policy in the European Union is to make sure that we reward and help efficient farms--whether small or large--and do not subsidise farms that perhaps need to diversify or change their practices.
The Prime Minister: What my hon. Friend says is entirely right. We have very much urged that course upon the Corus management. There are difficulties with certain manufacturing companies as a result of the strength of the pound or the weakness of the euro over the past few months. That problem has somewhat abated now, and that is why I hope that Corus uses that as an opportunity to rethink this policy.
The fact is that we have an economy that is immensely strong and that is doing very well, but there are pockets, particularly in the manufacturing sector, that face very hard times. We will do everything that we can as a Government, within proper limits, to help, but I hope that Corus recognises that it has a work force as dedicated and as skilled as any work force in the country.
Q6. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Is the Prime Minister aware that, yesterday, British Sugar announced the closure of the Bardney factory in my constituency and of other sugar factories around the country? Sugar beet has been one of the few buoyant sectors in agriculture. It is being put at risk in the atmosphere of uncertainty caused by the everything but arms initiative and quota arrangements where the Government's message, at best, has been mixed.
Does the Prime Minister appreciate that, up and down the country, as farmers face the worst agricultural depression since the 1930s, they cannot understand why the Government are promoting measures that are, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, damaging to the cause of farmers? Is he also aware that there is hope? The people are gathering and, on 18 March, the greatest march ever will descend on this capital--
The Prime Minister: I am aware of the announcement that was made yesterday, although I do not agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said about the reasons for it being made. However, in respect of agriculture, farmers have been facing a very difficult situation over the past few years, and that is for three reasons primarily. First, there has been a collapse in commodity prices, not particularly in relation to the industry that he mentioned but in others. Secondly, farmers have had the problems of BSE. Thirdly, they have had to deal with the problems of the very strong pound.
We are doing everything we can. We have had emergency aid packages for farmers. I have just pointed out the huge subsidies that we pay out, although I recall that the hon. Gentleman was never keen on subsidies as a matter of principle when he was in government; perhaps
Q7. Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South): Will my right hon. Friend take no lessons from the party of Neil Hamilton, Lord Archer and Jonathan Aitken, but continue resolutely with record public spending on health, education and other public services and warn the public of the dangers of the £16 billion worth of cuts from the Conservative party?
The Prime Minister: Of course, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are very big choices--the last thing that the Conservatives ever want to discuss--before the country. There is stability in economic policy versus a return to the levels of interest rates, debt, mortgage repossessions and unemployment seen under the previous Administration. There is 1 million extra jobs versus 3 million unemployed. There is the extra investment in public services versus the £16 billion worth of cuts in public services. Whatever spring in their step the Conservatives have today, when it gets to those big choices, I can assure them that they will lose and we will win.
Q8. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): On 25 February 1998, I asked the Prime Minister to come to Ribble Valley to see for himself the plight of the countryside, but he was too busy to come. Since then, things have got decidedly worse, with more post office closures, local rural schools closing--one closed in my constituency only last year--the highest petrol taxes anywhere in Europe, country pursuits now facing extinction and farming facing the worst crisis in more than 60 years.
The Prime Minister would not come to Ribble Valley three years ago, but on 18 March the countryside will come to him. Will he give a commitment to the countryside to remain in London on 18 March and to receive a delegation of marchers from Ribble Valley, so that they can tell him face to face how bad it is in the countryside these days?
The Prime Minister: First, let me put the hon. Gentleman right on a few facts. Yes, it is true that there have been closures of rural post offices: there were about 3,000 closures under the previous Conservative Government and that process has continued for reasons with which we are all familiar, but the current Government are putting in additional investment to try to give rural post offices a future. On the issue of rural schools, I honestly do not know how he or any other Conservative Member has the cheek to go on about the closures--the Conservatives closed hundreds of rural schools, whereas the Labour party is putting investment into our schools. As for fuel duty, I shall point out only one fact: in the last Parliament, there was a greater increase in fuel duty than there has been in the current Parliament. Those are the facts.
As for the future, the countryside needs two things: a stable economy, which we are providing, and help for the farming industry, which we are providing. Most of all, people in the countryside need investment in their schools, their hospitals and their police. Before the hon. Gentleman tries to capitalise on any grievances they have, he should explain to them how he will revive those schools, hospitals and police when he is committed to cutting the very investment on which they depend.
Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North): May I tell my right hon. Friend that in my constituency youth unemployment has fallen by 73 per cent. since the advent of the Labour Government? Last week, employers expressed deep concern about the Conservatives' threats to abolish the new deal. Will my right hon. Friend give further reassurance that the new deal will continue to be an important part of Labour's programme?
The Prime Minister: The new deal will certainly remain a very important part of the Government's programme because it has helped to cut youth unemployment. Long-term youth unemployment has fallen by about 70 per cent. We remember the days when hundreds of thousands of this country's young people had no hope; the new deal has given them hope. The new deal has provided investment in our schools. How many Members of Parliament, including Conservative Members, have got extra investment in their local schools as a result of the new deal? It has also helped many lone parents to get back into work when they want to do so.
The danger of the Opposition is not merely that they are committed to cutting the new deal--a policy that will cut that hope for the young and that investment in school buildings--but also that, as the shadow Chancellor said the other day, they are committed to taking half a billion pounds off single parent benefit in this country, at the same time as abolishing the new deal that helps single parents to get away from benefit and into work. That is another very good reason why the people of this country will see through the Opposition whenever the election comes.
Q9. Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): The Prime Minister may be aware that the UK Parliament has been overtaken in the use of new technology by other bodies such as the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Given his public commitment to placing the UK at the forefront of the information age, does he believe that his Government could and should do more to support the UK Parliament, so that citizens can properly engage with representatives in this House?
The Prime Minister: As something of a novice in the new technology, I can certainly undertake to discuss that matter with my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench. Of course, it is important for this Parliament to set a good example in the use of new technology. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that support for such technology is important for every single part of our country. I am happy to support him in his endeavours in this place.