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Dr. Lewis: What a disappointing reply that is, especially as so many hon. Members, including the Father of the House, believe that today would be a very good day to bury Jo Moore as a special adviser, and the discredited Minister for whom she works. As that is not going to happen, will the Prime Minister confirm that Jo Moore was present at the meeting between the Transport Secretary and the chairman of Railtrack on 25 July? Will he arrange for the minutes of that meeting to be published today?
The Prime Minister: I do not know who was present at that meeting. No doubt if the hon. Gentleman tables a question on the matter, it will be answered. As for the first part of his question, I am afraid that I disagree with him.
Paddy Tipping: Will the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues arrange to meet the President of Pakistan, General Musharraf, when he is in London this week? Will my right hon. Friend use the opportunity to discuss the President's desire for a short, concise campaign in Afghanistan, and to stress and strengthen the importance of the other two strands of the campaign, namely forging stronger diplomatic links and bringing about more efficient delivery of humanitarian aid?
The Prime Minister: President Musharraf has taken a very brave and principled stand in respect of the coalition's efforts in Afghanistan. It has not been easy for him, and I pay tribute to his leadership in doing so. I want to assure my hon. Friend and, indeed, President Musharraf, that we shall work with Pakistan in terms of humanitarian aid, which is enormously important, and of an operation in which Pakistan is presently bearing an enormous burden. We shall also work with them to ensure that, once the regime headed by Mullah Omar departs from Afghanistan, we can have in place a broad-based regime, with a Pashtun element in it. I believe that Pakistan can help us in that regard. I certainly support the stand that the President has taken and we shall make clear our support in the meetings that we have with him this week.
Mr. Duncan Smith: It is amazing that the Prime Minister can go on expressing full confidence in a man whose judgment is so bad that it led him to keep Jo Moore while dumping his respected director of information. That same man was attacked only yesterday by the chairman of Railtrack[Hon. Members: "Oh."] They do not want to listen to this, but the truth is that this same man was attacked yesterday by the chairman of Railtrack, who said that the Minister's[Interruption.]
Mr. Duncan Smith: The chairman of Railtrack said that the Minister's account of their meeting was not true. This is the same manhe has got formof whom the chairman of BMW said that he had completely misrepresented a crucial conversation between them. This is the man whose recollection of conversations and meetings had got so bad that the Select Committee on
The Prime Minister: Let us deal, for the moment, with the substance of the Secretary of State's decision. At the time Railtrack came to us, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, it had already asked for £1.5 billion worth of investment and we had agreed to that. It had also announced that it would have to increase substantially the amount of money on the west coast main line. It then indicated that Railtrack's deficit by next March, even if all that additional money were put in, would be £1.7 billion. In those circumstances, it was quite clear that the company could not carry on as before. Therefore, the decision was taken, by my right hon. Friend, to make sure that we put both the finances and the structure of the company on a sound footing for the future.
It may be the caseI believe that it isthat the Conservative party is saying that the shareholders should be given their demand of £3.60 a share. Let me explain to the House what that would mean. If we acceded to that demand, it would literally mean taking £1 billion or more of taxpayers' money£50 for every household in the countryand giving it to the shareholders. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether that is his policy, and justify it?
Mr. Duncan Smith: This is enlightening: the Prime Minister avoided any reference to the Secretary of State; and, worse still, he did not back up what the Secretary of State said about his meeting with the chairman of Railtrack. The Secretary of State stood by and watched as small investors and railway employees bought shares which he knew were worthless, because he had already decided to send Railtrack to the wall. The Secretary of State's conduct has been so bad that the Financial Services Authority is now having to investigate allegations that he misled investors. Is it not the latest example of behaviour of a Minister who is addicted to spin and, when the spin fails, there is no remorse, no regret and no resignation? Will the Prime Minister recognise once and for all that, to all decent people, the Secretary of State represents the unacceptable face of new Labour?
The Prime Minister: First, I certainly do stand by what the Secretary of State said. Secondly, the shareholders[Interruption.] The issue is as I have just described to the right hon. Gentleman: the company was in effect bust. That is clear. It wanted more and more money; indeed, it wanted effectively an open-ended guarantee of extra taxpayers' money.
The shareholders want not sympathy from the right hon. Gentleman but money from the Government. That is perfectly acceptable. As I understand it, the Conservative party's position is that it backs the shareholders' claim for £3.60 a share. [Hon. Members: "That is not the issue."] With respect, that is the issue. Does one accept that and hand the £1 billion over, or not accept it? We believe that the £1 billion is better spent on the railways. If the right
Q3.  Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the tragic and unnecessary death last year of my constituent, PC John Antony Thomas, who died after contracting deep vein thrombosis on a return flight from his honeymoon in Hawaii? PC Thomas was only 30 years old. He had just had a thorough police medical check and had been given an A1 bill of health. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing public concern about DVT among airline passengers since the death of my constituent? Emma Christoffersen, aged 28; Nigel Walcott, aged 40; Arwyn Thomas, aged 28; and the 45 other people
The Prime Minister: I should like first to express through my hon. Friend my condolences to the families of his constituents who have died as he described. As he probably knows, United Kingdom long-haul airlines have taken a series of measures to address the issue. Although we do not intend to have a separate inquiry ourselves, the World Health Organisation is conducting specific research into the problem and we intend to participate in that programme.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister replied to me that the humanitarian aspects of the Afghanistan campaign were every bit as important as the military ones. That being so, what effort is he making to ensure that the £700 million of multilateral aid that has been pledged is getting through? As current reports show that less than half of that aid has reached the places that it should, will the Prime Minister back President Chirac's call this morning for a high-level donor meeting at the first opportunity?
The Prime Minister: I do think that the idea of a donor meeting is sound, and it is one of the things that we discussed the other evening when President Chirac was at No. 10 Downing street. I also believe that it is essential that the humanitarian aid gets through. The money is pledged, as the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, and additional efforts are being made by the World Food Programme to get food through. It has very substantially increased those efforts and is now running well over 1,000 tonnes per day.
The present difficulty, however, is that even if that food and other aid go in, by their actions the Taliban are obstructing that aid from reaching those for whom it is intended. I therefore hope that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in urging the Taliban authorities to do everything that they possibly can to co-operate with the UN aid agencies and to ensure that the food that is there for delivery to people in Afghanistan actually reaches its destination.
Mr. Kennedy: The whole House and the whole country will of course agree with that last sentiment. I think that, on the military side, many of them will also share the great sense of public and international unease
The Prime Minister: No, I will not seek that assurance. Cluster bombs have been used in five instances, one in respect of a terrorist training camp and the other four in respect of front-line Taliban troops. They are not what are called sub-munition cluster bombs; in other words, the bombs that have been used explode on impact. They are weapons that are legal, and they are necessary in certain specific circumstances.
I tell the right hon. Gentleman what I have told others when they have raised such issues. There is no easy or pleasant way of fighting this type of conflict. The single most important thing now is that we take whatever action we possibly can to ensure that the Taliban troops are weakened and that those who represent the forces opposed to them can move forward. I believe that that is happening. The air strikes have done immense damage to the terrorist networks of al-Qaeda and to the whole machinery and military infrastructure of the Taliban.
If we want this conflict to be brought quickly to an end, we have to fight it vigorously. We will fight it by doing everything that we possibly can to minimise civilian casualties. That is what we do, and the vast majority of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan are nowhere near civilian areas, never mind targeted on civilians. Nevertheless, the plain fact is that it is not easy in any conflict to avoid civilian casualties entirely. The difference between us and al-Qaeda and the Taliban is that we try to minimise civilian casualties; bin Laden and his people try to maximise them.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on taking time out from an extremely busy schedule to sign the pledge in recognition of Muslim Awareness Week? What type of signal is sent out when the Leader of the Opposition fails to turn up and
Q4.  Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Can we now ask the Prime Minister whether he agrees with the assertion of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions that the current state of Railtrack can be blamed on the directors? If he does, how on earth can he explain why in October the chairman of Railtrack, John Robinson, was offered the job of heading the new not-for-profit company?
The Prime Minister: I do not think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has exclusively blamed the directors. Indeed, I think that he has cast his net rather more widely. I think that a large part of the blame should be laid on the party that privatised the railways in the first place.
As for Mr. Robinson, he is undoubtedly someone of very great ability, but the fact of the matter is that the company was not solvent. We had a simple choice, which is what the Opposition want to obscure: were we to carry
Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): I know that my right hon. Friend is not the world's greatest fan of the Tobin tax, but does he agree that we in this country should lead in finding new ways of funding development aid? Ifdread the daya Conservative Government ever returned to power, the first thing that they would cut is development aid.
The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend on this at least: development aid is extremely important. We have increased it by some 45 per cent., it is rising as a proportion of national income, and it is making a big difference in different parts of the world. Thanks to my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development, we have also done an immense amount on debt relief for the poorest parts of the world. I hope and believe that we can do more with other countries.
All I would say about the international financial system is that I think that what most of the poorest countries of the world want is greater access to western markets. We should make that a part of the new World Trade Organisation negotiations.
Q5.  Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): What comfort can the Prime Minister offer my constituents in South Woodham Ferrers, who overwhelmingly oppose plans by the Liberal-run Chelmsford borough council to force 1,700 new houses into their town against their will? For his part, will the Prime Minister consider abolishing Labour's national housing targets, which force ever more houses into local communities against the wishes of the people who actually live there?
The hon. Gentleman's points were obviously put to him very strongly by his constituents, but whatever Government are in power, over a long period, they must balance the issues. They must balance planning and new construction with the desire of people already in housing developments not to have new people moving in. As a matter of fact, we have adopted a very balanced approachoverall, I think, a rather more balanced approach than that of the last Government.
Let me say to the hon. Gentleman with the greatest respect that, while I know that there are difficulties in all these areas, I do not think that we could have a blanket ban on any new build at all. I do not think that that would be sensible. We have to strike a balance, and I believe that we have.
Q6.  Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): When my right hon. Friend meets President Bush, will he put high on the agenda the plight of hundreds and thousands of Afghans, caused by the failure of food to get through to villages in Afghanistan?
The food is there, and we will make every effort to get it through. I think that the idea of a donor conferencesuggested, I believe, by President Bush as well as President Chiracis very sensible. But in the end, for getting the food to Afghanistan and the people inside it, we depend not just on the donors but on those in charge of vast tracts of Afghanistan, namely the Taliban, to allow the food through.
Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister misses the whole point. All those patients who have to queue up for the NHS know that it is not improving and all his words do not change anything. In far too many areas, as patients also know, it is getting worse. His own Department's figures show that the number of patients now being treated in routine operations is at a standstill. One in four patients are now waiting for more than six months and the number is rising. The British Medical Association said only a few days ago that the Government have no chance of meeting their six-month in-patient target set just before the election last year. Given the evidence provided by his own Department's figures, are not members of the public entitled to ask where all the money has gone?
The Prime Minister: Let me explain to the right hon. Gentleman exactly where the money has gone, and since he wants me to use the Department's figures, I will. Since 1997, there have been more than 500,000 more operations, more than 1 million more new out-patient appointments and more than 250,000 more emergency admissions. Cataract replacement operations are up 33 per cent., heart operations up 14 per cent., knee replacements up 22 per cent., waiting lists are down by more than 100,000, and there are 17,000 more nurses and almost 7,000 more doctors. Of course, there are still fundamental problems in many parts of the health service, but the additional money that has gone in has yielded those
Mr. Duncan Smith: There he goes again, always reeling off endless figures and endless nonsense. The right hon. Gentleman talks again of more time and more money, but patients who have to queue up know that it is not working. Worse than that, doctors also know that it is not working. I have a letter from an orthopaedic surgeon who writes:
The Prime Minister: Well, he read it, he did not read it well, and it was not worth reading anyway. When the right hon. Gentleman says that the money has had no impact at all, that is wrong. As a result of that money, there are more nurses and doctors, there are more people being treated, accident and emergency departments have seen real changes and so have GP premises. Of course, there is a long way to go, because four or five years ago the number of beds had been cut, the number of nurses had been cut, there were no new hospitals being built and there was underfunding in the health service. All that will cure that is the money going in and the changes being made. The difference between us is that we are committed to that money and the right hon. Gentleman is committed to taking it back out.
Q7.  Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): May I express to my right hon. Friend and his colleagues my gratitude for, and appreciation of, their efforts to repair the damage caused to the mining community by the previous Conservative Government? A lot has been done, but much remains to be done. Will he comment on the delay in payment of compensation to miners crippled with chronic bronchitis and emphysema? Will he also address the matter of compensation for the dependants of mineworkers who have passed away? Those dependants are entitled to compensation. Finally, will he also address the delays in the payment of compensation to people suffering from vibration white finger?
The Prime Minister: The total amount of compensation already paid out for respiratory disease and vibration white finger is somewhere in the region of £600 million, and £1 million is being paid out every day. There are still delays with some of the claims because each claim has to be individually validated, but I agree with the implication in the first part of my hon. Friend's question: over the past few years, this Government have done a massive amount to assist the mining communities. Money has been made available for regeneration and for new job and community projects and, as I said earlier, more than £600 million has been used to deal specifically with miners' diseases. That means that the total invested
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Is the Prime Minister aware of the anxiety and trauma being experienced by millions of policy holders with the Equitable Life assurance society? He has rightly established an inquiry under Lord Penrose to look into what many people perceive to be a catastrophic regulatory failure. With that in mind, does he stand by the statement made by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who said that the Government had an open mind about compensation?
The Prime Minister: Of course I stand by whatever my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary has said. The Financial Services Authority report has already been published, and the inquiry that we have established will get to the facts. It is on the basis of the facts that we then must make up our minds about what the Government's response should be. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider that a reasonable way to proceed.
Q8.  Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): As many of our young men and women face conflict in Afghanistan, is my right hon. Friend aware that, at home, almost 900 young Britons lose their personal battles against heroin every year? Will he make it clear to the Northern Alliance and others that any peace settlement must ensure that the murderous trade in heroin ceases immediately?
The Prime Minister: I have two things to say in response to my hon. Friend. First, what has happened since 11 September has had more than a merely economic effect. One of the major reasons for relating what is happening to Afghanistan to our own national interest is the drugs trade, and the fact that 90 per cent. of the heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan.
Secondly, the experience of countries such as Pakistan has shown that it is possible to take action to stamp out the drugs trade, and its growth in particular countries. One of the things that we must do in the reconstruction of
Q9.  Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): The Prime Minister has been arguing, rightly, on behalf of democracy around the world. Will he now turn his mind to democracy in this country? Can he give me three good reasons why the second Chamber of this democratic Parliament should not be elected, rather than appointed or anointed?
The Prime Minister: The first reason would be that the cross-party royal commission under Lord Wakeham specifically recommended that the House of Lords should not be wholly elected. The second reason is that I think that it is important that the House of Lords is not made up simply of full-time politicians, but should represent a broader range of influences. The third reason is that I believe that the House of Lords should be a deliberating and revising Chamber, as it is now, and that it should not be a replica of the House of Commons.
Q10.  David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Does the Prime Minister believe that the mob violence that we saw from elected politicians in Stormont yesterday will have any long-term effect on the prospects for peace and stability in Northern Ireland?
The Prime Minister: No is the short answerat least, I hope that it is the right answer. Rather than look at those unfortunate scenes that we saw on the television, we should be better focused on the enormous step forward that was taken in Northern Ireland yesterday. I pay tribute to what my right hon. Friend has done as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and I pay particular tribute to the Ulster Unionist party and all those who have taken part in putting the institutions back on their feet again: the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Alliance, the Women's Coalition, Sinn Fein and others, all of whom have worked to make sure that the peace process in Northern Ireland is allowed to move forward again. We have only to look at what has happened in a different part of the worldthe middle eastto see what happens when a peace process breaks down. Whatever scuffles and slightly unseemly incidents may have taken place yesterday, we should take great comfort from the fact that the institutions are back up and running again, with a First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I am sure that the people of Northern Ireland will welcome that most of all.