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5. Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): What recent discussions she has had with leaders of sub-Saharan African countries regarding democracy in Zimbabwe. [46044]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Both my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Foreign Secretary are in regular contact with a number of African leaders about the situation in Zimbabwe. The damaging impact on the economy, including severe food shortages, is profoundly worrying in a country where 75 per cent. of the population live in poverty and one in three adults are HIV positive. We continue to provide humanitarian aid.

Mr. Hendry: Does the Minister accept that the election result in Zimbabwe poses serious questions to the viability of the New Partnership for Africa's Development? Is he proposing changes to the scheme in the light of that result? Will he also make it clear in any dealings that he has with leaders of sub-Saharan countries that silence in response to the election result is simply not an option, and that a failure to condemn absolutely the conduct and the result of the election will amount to complicity with Mugabe and his wicked ways?

Hilary Benn: The Southern African Development Community and the Commonwealth, the UK, the European Community and others have made clear their view that the election in Zimbabwe was neither free nor fair. I would not agree that the future credibility of the New Partnership for Africa's Development is under threat. It represents the best hope for the future of sub-Saharan Africa, and its most important element is the commitment of the leaders of sub-Saharan Africa to taking responsibility for dealing with the problems of the continent. We need to support them in that process because it offers the best way forward, not only for Zimbabwe but for the whole continent.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Minister realise that hon. Members in all parts of the House have relatives and families in Zimbabwe? What is he doing to ensure that UK aid workers in particular are protected from Mugabe's thugs and that UK aid reaches those in need and does not go to Mugabe and his henchmen?

Hilary Benn: The most important thing is to ensure that we work through NGOs, Churches and others to make sure that the humanitarian aid that we are rightly continuing to give gets to the people who need it. When concerns are expressed about interference in the process, we must ensure that they are investigated thoroughly, just as they are being investigated by the World Food Programme in relation to two or three incidents. The

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people of Zimbabwe are not responsible for the Government they have, which is why they continue to rely on our support and we continue to give it.


The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [46070] Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 17 April.

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 will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. McFall: I welcome the Wanless report, which was published this morning, and the ensuing debate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best insurance policy for all citizens is a publicly funded NHS that is free at the point of use? Will he strive to maintain and build on the consensus that has existed since 1948 and which saw the NHS as a clear, enduring and practical expression of our values as a country? Does he accept that the Government have to demonstrate that change must be effected on the ground with results? Will he not be put off by the discordant voices that are trying to say that the NHS cannot or will not work? Is not the best thing that can be done for the country that the Leader of the Opposition—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: I am happy to say that I agree with all that. In fact, I probably agree with what my hon. Friend did not say as well as with what he did say.

As I am sure my hon. Friend understands, the foundation is a strong economy with low inflation, low interest rates and now the lowest unemployment of any major country in the world today. On that basis, we can invest in our public services like the national health service and make the changes that are necessary. The reason why it is important to make the investment in our health care system is that that is indeed the best insurance policy that people in this country can have.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Does the Prime Minister agree with the former Labour donor Lord Haskins, who said about the Department of Health's contract for smallpox vaccine:

The Prime Minister: No, I do not agree with those comments. The contract was given entirely in accordance with the normal rules and in a proper way.

Mr. Duncan Smith: These comments follow the Prime Minister's comments yesterday that concerns about speed and protecting national security are the key and that containing this matter behind a secret wall is somehow important. Can he now explain why the United States was

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able to protect its own citizens and national security, hold an open procurement process and deploy its vaccine more quickly than we have in the UK?

The Prime Minister: Again, I do not agree. The advice was quite clear that, in line with national security, it was important that the details of the contract were not dealt with through public procurement. However, many companies were asked to tender, and the company that was chosen and recommended by officials was chosen entirely in accordance with the proper rules. This is just the latest smear from a Conservative party that has absolutely nothing whatever to say about the serious issues of the day.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Methinks the Prime Minister protests too much. Does he not understand that hiding behind national security, as he has again done today, simply fuels people's suspicions about his motives? Given that the head of PowderJect has given this Government their largest single donation since the election, should that not have set an alarm bell ringing in Downing street signalling that the procurement process needed to be even more open, not less open? So instead of sending his Cabinet Ministers out like sheep bleating about the sudden need to find state funding for political parties, is not the real solution that we need an open and transparent Government?

The Prime Minister: On the process, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the permanent secretary to the Department was consulted, and he said that that was indeed the right thing to do for the country and its needs. However, in talking about openness and transparency in funding, let me remind the House that during 18 years of Conservative Government, we had no openness or transparency and nothing was said about funding. The only reason why these allegations can be made is because we have indeed published the names of those who donate to the Labour party.

Let us put the matter to the test. We as a Government, under the law that we introduced, have said exactly who has donated to the Labour party in our time in office. The right hon. Gentleman is now the leader of the Conservative party, so let him go back through the records of 18 years of Conservative Government and publish the names of the donors and the amounts donated, and the countries that they came from. He has that information in Conservative party central office. He wants openness and transparency, and this Government have given it. Let him stand at the Dispatch Box and pledge it for his party.

Q2. [46071] Vernon Coaker (Gedling): A new breast cancer unit, a new neurology department, a new cardiac centre and new wards at Nottingham City hospital have all been made possible by this Government's record investment in the NHS. Will my right hon. Friend recognise, however, that it is not buildings but staff who make the NHS? Will he look at the pay and conditions of porters, cleaners, nurses and doctors, and see what we can do about recruitment and retention problems in the NHS?

The Prime Minister: What is obvious from any consideration of alternative systems around the world is that we have a capacity problem in the British health care system. We have insufficient doctors, consultants and

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nurses, and for that reason we are expanding numbers—including, for example, some 14,000 extra nurses in the past year alone. However, we also need to ensure that we open up greater training opportunities for doctors, consultants and nurses, and we are doing that in every area. I believe that it is right to say to people in this country that, if we want to improve our health care system, we have to pay for it. The fairest and best way of doing that is through the national health service, funded in the way we have described.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Can the Prime Minister explain why the Chancellor was able to announce in the pre-general election Budget tax reductions for next year of £3 billion, given that we have been told to expect tax increases in today's Budget? What went wrong in between?

The Prime Minister: What the Chancellor also did in the last comprehensive spending review was to announce the biggest sustained increases in health and education spending that we have had. Indeed, the reason why our education system is now among the top eight in the world is precisely because of the investment. As the British Medical Association and others have said, the reason why real improvements are now happening in the national health service is because of the extra investment.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): No one believes that.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman says, "No one believes that," but I think that most people prefer to listen to those who work in the health service, rather than to a Conservative party that has a strategy of denigrating and running down the health service at every turn. However, we do of course need to sustain those improvements in this spending settlement, and that is precisely what we want to do.

Mr. Kennedy: I am sure that a lot of people in the country will agree with that last sentiment so far as the Conservatives are concerned. However, is it not a fact that, at the last election, the Liberal Democrats argued for honest and fair taxation and for more investment in the health service? We would welcome that, but does not the Prime Minister regret the fact that he did not have the courage to do the same?

The Prime Minister: It was clearly important to strengthen and stabilise the economy and to achieve the current strong economic situation, and, on that basis, to invest. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman might say that the Liberal Democrats would have invested more. In fact, in 1997 they asked for an extra £500 million for the health service, but in the last Parliament we put in £5 billion.

The trouble with the Liberal Democrats is that they are very good at making spending commitments but less good at controlling numbers. For example, they have recently asked for more money for personal care, teachers, doctors, nurses, police, dental services and more hospital beds. They asked for the abolition of prescription dental and sight charges, the scrapping of all tuition fees and the reintroduction of all student grants. They also asked that benefits be given to all students during the summer

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holidays and for an increase in housing benefit; the payment of no-fault compensation, compensation for Gulf war veterans, greater spending on debt aid relief, and the giving of greater subsidies to small and medium-sized farmers. [Hon. Members: "More."] Of course they want more—they always want more—and that was just this month's spending commitments. If we are talking about integrity and honesty, to pretend that we can get that much spending out of that 1p of tax is not a very honest way of conducting matters.

Q3. [46072] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): The national minimum wage is one of our finest achievements so far. Does the Prime Minister agree with me as a fellow Christian socialist that currently low hourly rates are neither ethical nor egalitarian? Does he hope that today's Budget at last meets the nation's needs for progressive policies so that there is a radical redistribution?

The Prime Minister: I can agree that that is important. The minimum wage should be seen alongside other measures such as the working families tax credit, which not only increased people's pay dramatically but provided an incentive to work. There is a reason why we have managed to secure such low unemployment in this country—there are 1,250,000 more jobs—at the same time as introducing a minimum wage, which the Conservative party told us would destroy 1 million jobs. In addition, we did that on the basis of ensuring that we take measures to stimulate business and enterprise. It is the combination of those two achievements together that gives us the economic position that we have today.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): My constituents learned this morning that the Prime Minister spent £28 million on an empty dome that is inaccessible to the public. Does he realise that they would have welcomed just a few of those millions being spent on the provision of national health service dentistry in Market Harborough, where there is none, and on the building of the new hospital, which was supposed to be completed by 2005 but, owing to NHS financial shortages, will not now be completed until well into the next decade?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly say that it is important that we make additional investments in the national health service. I hope, therefore, that he makes it absolutely clear later today that the Conservative party supports the additional sums for the national health service. What is beyond any doubt, however, is that the one group of people who simply cannot criticise health service spending in this country are those who, when in office, underfunded the national health service and do not support the extra investment now.

Q4. [46073] Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the James Paget hospital, which serves my constituency, for more than meeting the targets for reducing waiting times for in-patients and out-patients? With record levels of investment going into that hospital, resulting in more beds, a new accident and emergency unit, new operating theatres and a new maternity unit, does not that show that

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the best and fairest way to fund the health service is through general taxation, not charges and private insurance, as favoured by the Conservatives?

The Prime Minister: I congratulate all those in my hon. Friend's constituency who have worked so hard in the health service to secure those improvements. However, the position that he describes is replicated in many constituencies up and down the country. Of course we still have a long way to go to make the improvements that we need in the national health service, but as the report by the NHS chief executive showed just a couple of weeks ago, substantial improvements are happening. We need to build on those. The investments over the past few years have yielded results, but they need to be deepened and strengthened until the national health service is once again what people want it to be—the pride of this country and the envy of the world.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): What does the Prime Minister have to say to the nine of my constituents who have had to leave Rothwell House care home in Leighton Buzzard because it cannot afford the new £30,000 lift required by the Care Standards Act 2000 when all the residents can use the existing stair lift quite happily?

The Prime Minister: What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that that is precisely why extra investment is required in social care. [Interruption.] No, I am sorry, the answer to the problems of social care in this country is not to diminish the standards necessary to provide decent care. The answer is to keep those standards high, to improve them, and to put additional sums of money into social care, so I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be supporting what the Chancellor says today, rather than opposing it.

Q5. [46074] Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): The Prime Minister will be aware that one of the main obstacles to furthering the middle east peace process is the widespread perception that when outrages such as Jenin happen, the western response seems to be muted, whereas there would be loud condemnation if they happened in any other country. What is he doing to dispel that perception and move the middle east peace process forward?

The Prime Minister: We have made it clear throughout that Israel should withdraw from the occupied territories. We have also made it clear, however, that the Palestinians should cease their acts of violence and terrorism. Both those things need to happen. Without repeating all the things that I said in the House last week, I say to my hon. Friend that I believe it is essential that we relaunch a genuine political process that binds not only the main two parties to the middle east peace process but the Arab world, the European Union and the wider international community. I hope that such a process can be relaunched soon, because it is the only way. Irrespective of all the things that are happening in the immediate term in Israel and in the Palestinian territories,

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it is absolutely obvious that without relaunching a proper political process, there is no prospect of bringing hope or peace to that region.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Will the Prime Minister tell the House by how much council tax has increased in Sedgefield this year?

The Prime Minister: The average council tax for people in Sedgefield is round about £740.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Council tax in Sedgefield is up by more than 13 per cent., which is six times the rate of inflation. Band D council tax in the Prime Minister's constituency is now the highest in the country. It is the very highest council tax that anybody is paying. As a council tax payer in Sedgefield, will the Prime Minister now tell us who he blames for this—the Labour council or the terrible Labour Government?

The Prime Minister: First, the right hon. Gentleman talks about band D in relation to Sedgefield. That is a rather typical Conservative thing to do, because only 6 per cent. of the properties in Sedgefield are in band D. If we take 100 per cent. of the properties there, the average council tax is well below many of the high council tax averages that we find in Conservative areas. If the right hon. Gentleman does not want councils to spend this money, perhaps he will tell us what services he wants them to cut.

Mr. Duncan Smith: That is rather typical of the Prime Minister. He did not really want to answer that question. Perhaps he has a vested interest. Simply put, both the Labour council and the Labour Government are to blame. The Labour Government are the ones who have increased the costs to councils, through the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Labour councils cost people more across the board. In Labour council areas, band D council tax is at least £135 more than in Conservative council areas. [Interruption.] I do not know why the Liberal Democrats are looking so smug. It is at least £160 more in Liberal Democrat council areas. Does not that show that Labour councils, and their Liberal friends, cost more and deliver less?

The Prime Minister: No, it does not. I pointed out a moment ago that only 6 per cent. of Sedgefield properties are in band D. It is necessary for the right hon. Gentleman to concentrate on that 6 per cent., but perhaps I can concentrate on the other 94 per cent. The average council tax in Sedgefield is actually well below those of many Conservative authorities.

I return to the point that I made a moment ago. We have increased by 20 per cent. the real-terms spending for social services in Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat council areas, whereas it was cut during the last few years of the Conservative Government. If the right hon. Gentleman wants us to provide the extra services that his hon. Friends are calling for, surely he should support us in increasing the investment in social services and in the national health service. Of course, what he wants to do is complain about the council tax on the one hand,

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and complain about services being depleted on the other, yet he refuses to back the extra investment necessary to build those services up.

Q6. [46075] Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): Although I of course welcome today's news that unemployment has fallen again, my right hon. Friend will be aware that manufacturing still faces problems as regards exchange rates in general and the euro exchange rate in particular. No matter what is done about productivity gains, efficiency gains and new understandings between management and unions, our exporting manufacturers still face a barrier that is sometimes difficult to surmount. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what the Government are doing to help manufacturing in those circumstances?

The Prime Minister: First, it is important that we welcome the fall in unemployment, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for doing so.

Manufacturing industry has been through a particularly difficult time for the reasons that he gives, although there are recent signs of some improvement. The most important thing for manufacturing industry and for the economy as a whole is stability and growth. It is precisely because of the way in which the Chancellor has managed the economy that we have ended up in a situation where this country has effectively weathered the potential economic downturn better than any other country of a similar size in the world. We now have the lowest inflation and the lowest interest rates that we have had for many, many decades. [Interruption.] Conservative Members are talking about recession. Under this Government we have had growth; under them we had the two worst recessions in living memory.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Given the Prime Minister's sudden but touching personal interest in the subject, will he tell the House realistically how long he thinks that Mr. David Beckham would have to wait for an operation on his foot under the national health service?

The Prime Minister: I must say to the hon. Gentleman that if anything indicates the state of the Conservative party today, it is that question.

Q7. [46076] Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): The Prime Minister will be aware of the £6.5 billion upgrade of the west coast main line and is probably aware of a proposed £6.5 billion new route from Edinburgh to London. Will he ensure that there is fairness in the allocation of scarce resources in transport and therefore support the upgrading of the Crewe to Holyhead line, which is hopefully to be electrified, to ensure that we get the tourists, investors and freight that are so necessary to our north Wales economy?

The Prime Minister: I cannot give my hon. Friend all the commitments that he wants for that individual line, but certainly the additional investment in transport will mean that we can considerably upgrade our rail network in every part of the country. I am afraid that I shall have to delay for some time before being able to make any commitments on his particular line.

Q8. [46077] Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Were the six Parliamentary Private Secretaries who

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yesterday voted against Government education policy, and said that specialist schools should be forced to reduce the proportion of pupils that they can select on ability, right?

The Prime Minister: No, I believe that the position of the Government was right.

Q9. [46078] James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): Last summer, one of my constituents lost her partner in a car crash. The Teachers' Pensions Agency is refusing to pay her a pension because although she lived with her partner for 10 years and they had children together, they were not married. Is my right hon. Friend aware that almost 90 per cent. of private sector pensions would pay out in those circumstances, but less than a third of public sector pensions do so? Will he put pressure on the trustees of our public sector pensions to rectify that clear injustice?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend raises a valuable and important point. I express my sympathy to his constituent for her loss.

The Government have made it clear that we are ready to extend benefits in the event of death to unmarried partners in any schemes where members wish that and are prepared to meet the cost. Obviously there is a limit to how much can be funded by the taxpayer, but we are trying to facilitate it within the circumstances of individual schemes.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing concern in Northern Ireland about the thought that prisoners—not prisoners, but terrorists on the run—might be returned under special conditions at a time when nothing is being done to restore the exiles who have been put out of the Province by the IRA?

Is he also aware of the great concern that although the president of Sinn Fein-IRA can hold a commemoration dinner and prepare a memorial for terrorists slain in the campaign, the British Government apparently expect soldiers' relatives to pay £100 for memorials for their soldiers who have been slain?

The Prime Minister: We will come forward with proposals about the so-called on-the-runs at the proper time. I have nothing further to add to what I said about that a moment ago. I understand the position of the relatives of those who lost their lives in the service of the RUC or the armed forces in Northern Ireland. They performed a brave and courageous service and we are well aware of our debt of gratitude to them.

I shall look into the specific point that the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) made, but we have tried to make significant financial provision. I understand the sensitivity of the issue at this time in Northern Ireland and we will concern ourselves with all the matters that he raised.

Q10. [46079] Martin Linton (Battersea): Will the Prime Minister ensure through the action group on street crime that Operation Safer Streets continues not only for the rest of the year but with the same number of police officers? Figures that were published today show that has already succeeded in reducing street crime by 17 per cent. in

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Wandsworth in March compared with the same month last year and by 20 per cent. throughout the safer street boroughs. Will he include Wandsworth in the street crime initiative areas that are to pilot the new powers under section 130 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 to detain 12 to 16-year-olds who commit crimes when on bail?

The Prime Minister: I understand that Wandsworth is one of the 10 areas that have been chosen for the initiative. We want to ensure that street crime is comprehensively tackled because although crime overall has fallen, there has been an epidemic of street crime, often linked to mobile phones, by very young offenders. We are trying to ensure that we get the proper measures for the police and the courts to deal with it. My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to ensure that the investment is also there. Perhaps he will be patient about that.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): Some Conservative Members would have the Prime Minister go to war with Iraq before the Chancellor can finish his Budget speech; some Labour Members would have Saddam Hussein round for tea and crumpets. What is the Prime Minister's thinking? Will there be a debate on a motion in the House before there is any conflict in Iraq?

The Prime Minister: I hope that that question did not take long to prepare. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to describe those who believe that Saddam Hussein presents a genuine threat as warmongers or those with hesitations as friends of Saddam Hussein. There is a serious issue to debate. We have made it clear why we believe that Saddam Hussein poses a threat and that weapons of mass destruction are a serious problem. However, I have also said many times that we will proceed carefully and deliberately, not precipitately, and that we will ensure that the House is properly consulted.

Q11. [46080] Hugh Bayley (City of York): If the British people want better health services, they know that they will have to pay more through charges, private insurance or taxation. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Wanless report that charges or private insurance would be more expensive for middle-class families than taxes, and would provide poorer services for them and for poor people who could not afford to pay charges or go private?

The Prime Minister: The report that was published this morning is not the only one. There is also the report from the King's Fund and the BMA report, which was published some time ago. All made it clear that they believed that if we accept the need for more resources for health care, the fairest and most efficient method is through the national health service. It is important that those who support alternative systems spell out their costs. The social insurance system of France and Germany, where there are enormous problems because of rising costs, and the American system, whereby people have to pay a large sum of money out of their own pockets and

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pay charges without getting the necessary health insurance in many cases, mean a heavy cost on the individual. We are not considering whether we should fund our health care system better; everyone accepts that we need to do that. We must consider the fairest and best method. We believe that it is through the national health service.

Q12. [46081] Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): On jobs and manufacturing, does the Prime Minister know that Bright Steels, a specialist steel manufacturer in my constituency, recently made 60 workers redundant? That is a large proportion of a small firm's work force. It blames the recession in manufacturing and the proposed import tariffs by the United States on British steel. Does he understand that people in manufacturing in this country will judge the Chancellor's Budget on the support it gives the manufacturing base? Will he continue to press President Bush not to include specialist steels in the proposed import tariffs?

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The Prime Minister: Of course I shall continue to make that case very strongly to President Bush. I also say to the hon. Gentleman that I sympathise very much with his constituents who have lost their jobs in being made redundant. However, the problems of manufacturing have been acute over the past number of years because of the very strength of the pound against the euro. What is important is to recognise that, for manufacturing industry and, indeed, all industry in this country, the single best thing we can do is never return to the days of boom and bust, where in the early 1990s—[Interruption.] Well, I am glad that Opposition Members shout at that, because it gives me an opportunity to remind the House of what it was like when they were in charge of the economy. We had interest rates of 15 per cent. for a year, interest rates of 10 per cent. for four years, millions of manufacturing jobs were lost and unemployment was over 3 million. Fortunately, with this new Labour Government, those days are long gone.

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