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Local Government Finance

Q4. [151081] Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): What plans he has to reform local government finance.

The Prime Minister: The local government finance Green Paper, published last September, set out options for reform, including how we distribute revenue grant to local authorities, their capital finance regime and local taxation. A White Paper setting out decisions on the way forward will be published later this year.

Mr. Chaytor: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The issue is important for my constituents in Bury, North, who want to see a funding formula based on agreed measures of need and not on historical accident. Will the White Paper appear early in the next Parliament; and does "early" mean in the first 12 months?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise answer to that last question. However, I can tell him that we understand very well the strength of feeling. As he knows, it is an immensely complex and difficult area so it is right that reforms are carefully considered; but in any event, it is worth pointing out that, particularly as a result of the extra money that we are putting into education and social services as part of the health plan, all local authorities will have received a very considerable increase in funding. We are aware,

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however, of the complaints of unfairness in different parts of the country; that is the reason, first, for the Green Paper and then for the White Paper that will follow.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): When the Prime Minister looks at the reform of local government finance, will he look into why towns such as my constituency of Bournemouth receive a lower than average increase in standard spending assessment year after year--3.8 per cent. this year--whereas our rival resorts, such as Labour-controlled Brighton, get nearly 6 per cent?

The Prime Minister: On any basis, of course, the money that we are giving local authorities is considerably more than was given under the previous Conservative Government. I understand the complaints about the fairness of the existing system. That is the system we inherited; it was in place for many, many years, as the hon. Gentleman knows. That is precisely why we are reviewing it.


Q5. [151082] Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): My right hon. Friend is aware of the vast number of applications from former mine workers and widows of miners for compensation under the emphysema and bronchitis regulations. We are concerned about the delay in paying that compensation and about the causes of the delay. The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), is working hard to speed up the process. Will my right hon. Friend advise the House what action he intends to propose to ensure that those compensation claims will be paid speedily and without excessive delay?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, this problem affects many constituencies--indeed, it affects my own constituency. The difficulty has been that the payment of money has, by law, to be checked in each individual case. That is what has held up the process. However, as a result of what has happened, some £350 million has been paid out in miners' compensation; that continues to rise--about £1 million a day is being paid out. Together with the settlement for 100,000 former miners on their pension claims, that is a considerable indication that we are trying our hardest to bring some hope and help to those in former mining communities. I know that my hon. Friend will be the first to join me in saying that it is only because the Government introduced those measures that the issue of compensation and its speed arises at all.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): The Prime Minister knows that the first sitting of a UK youth parliament took place recently. About 250 young people worked extremely hard over a weekend to prepare a manifesto. Will the Prime Minister do those young people the honour of meeting some of them to discuss some of their very sensible proposals for the future?

The Prime Minister: I congratulate all those who took part in the youth parliament. I am not sure that I can give them here and now the absolute assurance that I will meet

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them, although my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has offered to do so, but if I have the time I will do so myself.

Q6. [151083] Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the school in the village of Middleton is delivering improved education, despite the fact that half the pupils are in temporary or mobile accommodation and the other half are in a building that is overcrowded and needs much investment? Has the Prime Minister got a message for Middleton and the many schools like it, of which, despite our considerable efforts, there are far too many in Norfolk and elsewhere because of the Conservative party's 18 years of neglect? Has he a message that I can take back tonight?

The Prime Minister: Of course, under the new deal for schools, some 17,000 schools have benefited, and as a result of what was announced in January this year, there will be an £8 billion investment from the new deal and the Government's extra investment for schools over the next three years. That means an actual benefit for schools in Norfolk of over £30 million from the new deal for schools. The one thing that we know, unless its policy has changed in the past couple of days or so--which is always possible--is that the Conservative party is committed to scrapping the new deal. That is right, is it not? [Hon. Members: "Yes."] My hon. Friend asks for a message for people in Norfolk: people in Norfolk will have £30 million going into their schools to renovate their buildings if they stick with the Labour party, and they will lose that money if they go with the Conservative party.

Q7. [151084] Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove): The Prime Minister has often spoken of his admiration for his former teacher, Mr. Eric Anderson--a former rector of Lincoln college, Oxford and now the provost of Eton. Does he therefore agree with his former teacher, who says that the criticisms made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the admissions policy at Oxford, in which he claimed that it is biased against women and pupils from state comprehensive schools, were deeply unfair, unjustified and offensive to the many dons at Oxford who try their best to be fair to all the candidates who apply?

The Prime Minister: It is a bit below the belt to be asked about the comments of my old housemaster, but I have to say that I am just informed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment that the admissions from state schools are up, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would welcome the additional money that we are giving to help that process--or, at least, she would welcome it if it were not part of the cuts that the Conservative party is committed to introducing.

Q8. [151086] Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Is my right hon. Friend aware that more than 110,000 people have benefited from the minimum wage in my region, while unemployment in my region is at a 20-year low? However, does he remember receiving a piece of advice in March 1998 from a very influential source, saying that the minimum wage is the height of irresponsibility? In the light of that advice, will he please

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help my memory by informing us who that might have been? Does he now consider that the minimum wage was a bad idea, given that advice?

The Prime Minister: It plainly was not that influential a source of advice, since we proceeded with the minimum wage. It is worth pointing out what those in the Conservative party said. The shadow Chancellor said:

The Leader of the Opposition said that the minimum wage is the height of irresponsibility. The shadow Secretary of State for Social Security said:

We are delighted that those sinners have come to repentance now, but the important point is that large numbers of people are benefiting from the minimum wage and the fact that it is now introduced--and introduced with the consent not simply of trade unions and people at the workplace, but of enlightened business, too--shows conclusively what the Labour party has always said: we can have a socially just economy and an economically efficient economy at one and the same time.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): May I ask the Prime Minister to turn his attention again to Zimbabwe? How long can a Government who intimidate judges, expel independent journalists and harass their political opponents expect to enjoy membership of the Commonwealth?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right. The behaviour that the Government of Zimbabwe have exhibited towards their own citizens is, of course, disgraceful. [Interruption.]

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May I say in relation to the shouting of Conservative Members that all the way through, however, we have to judge what is right and best, giving account to those who are actually opposed to the regime, but have to live in Zimbabwe as opposed to on the Opposition Benches. It is for that reason that we have taken measures that I think are sensible and right in terms of reducing our aid programme and reducing or cutting our military training advice to the Zimbabwean regime. We shall continue to put pressure on them through every single forum we can, including the Commonwealth. However, the important thing for the people in Zimbabwe is to get change.

Q9. [151087] Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston): Will my right hon. Friend join in the unanimous welcome given to last night's Second Reading of International Development Bill? Does he see that as another indication of progress from the Department for International Development, particularly as it focuses on eradicating world poverty? Combined with the Government's initiatives on international debt, that truly indicates remarkable successes which the world will be speedy to recognise.

The Prime Minister: It is one of the proudest achievements of the Government that we have not merely introduced the International Development Bill, but have increased aid and development money as a proportion of our national income. In particular, I pay tribute to the extraordinary leadership of my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development. Between them, they have given leadership in respect not merely of this country but of the wider world. I believe that our obligations do not stop at these shores. Indeed, it is not merely right, but is in our long-term interest to offer a helping hand out of poverty to the poorest regions of the world.

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