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The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [54767] Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 15 May.

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. Clifton-Brown: Five days ago, we learned that the Secretary of State for Defence wrote to the Foreign Secretary saying that a "clear majority" of the people of Gibraltar were "opposed to the negotiations" being carried out by his Government and the Government of Spain. Will he therefore now seriously consider the request made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary that those negotiations should be suspended forthwith?

The Prime Minister: No, we will carry on negotiating in the way that we have described, as set out under the Brussels process that began in 1984, initiated by the Conservative Government.

Q2. [54768] Helen Southworth (Warrington, South): Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the staff, volunteers, parents and children of Westy sure start, which has just celebrated its first anniversary? I have been privileged to join them in the past 12 months and it has been a lot of fun, but it is fun that underpins a serious aim—to promote the physical, social and intellectual well-being of babies and young children in a disadvantaged part of my constituency. It is breaking the cycle of disadvantage and giving them opportunities to flourish at home and at school. [Interruption.] Will my right hon. Friend make sure that many more children have the opportunity to have a sure start in life? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: I am sorry that Conservative Members do not approve, but sure start is now helping 400,000 children throughout the country. The Conservatives may scorn such measures, but sure start, investment in education and the new deal for the unemployed are important measures; if we are taking strong and tough anti-crime measures, which we should do, measures that tackle the causes of crime are important too.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Why are there now more managers than beds in the NHS?

The Prime Minister: We have increased the number of beds. The number rose in the last year for the first time. I totally disagree with the right hon. Gentleman if he is

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saying that good management in the NHS is not important. It is important, and one reason why last Friday's figures show not just every single section of in-patient waiting lists down, but out-patient waiting lists down below the levels that we inherited, is good management within the health service.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister should remember what he actually said. In his 1997 manifesto, he said:

The NHS now has 210,000 managers, but fewer than 200,000 beds, so he has failed. It is small wonder that if looks at his own Office for National Statistics report, he will see that it tells us today that productivity in the health service has been declining since he took over. Will he now confirm that half the extra money that he has put into health care has not gone into improved treatment for patients?

The Prime Minister: The report to which the right hon. Gentleman refers—I think that it is the ONS report about which there were newspaper reports this morning—deals with the position up to 1999. It also makes it clear that it does not take into account improvement in the quality of health care. I believe, as the recent NHS Modernisation Board report showed, that the quality of health care is indeed improving. That is why, although the right hon. Gentleman used to be able to say to me that waiting lists were up for this month or that month, or that out-patient lists were above the inherited level, virtually every single indicator is now moving in the right direction, precisely because of the extra investment that we are putting into the health service, which he opposes.

Mr. Duncan Smith: After all that nonsense, no wonder the Prime Minister is being sponsored by the owner of the Fantasy Channel; it is absolutely idiotic. He knows that the public do not believe any longer that there will be any significant increase or improvement in health care. What they want to see is guaranteed treatment within four weeks, as in Denmark, no waiting lists, as in Germany, and the ability to choose their hospital, as in France. Will the Prime Minister answer this very simple question: will he tell us now whether we will get European standards of health care for European levels of spending by the next election? A simple yes or no.

The Prime Minister: We have set out precisely the targets that we will reach by the next election and we have set out when we will hit, and, indeed, exceed the European Union spending average. However, when the right hon. Gentleman talks about bed numbers and waiting in the health service, let us remember that the Conservative Government cut beds by 60,000 and saw waiting lists increase by 400,000. They ask what we have been doing for five years; I will tell them. We have half a million more operations and 1.3 million more out-patient appointments, and waiting times as well as lists are falling against every indicator. But I agree with the right hon. Gentleman: we have to do far more to get our health care standards up. That is why we are prepared to put additional investment into the national health service. Can we have a response from him on this question: is he in

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favour of that additional investment in the national health service or not? If he is not, all his protestations about his concern for health care are just hot air.

Q3. [54769] Ian Lucas (Wrexham): In Wrexham and north-east Wales there are 400 retired miners who have registered compensation claims for emphysema and are still waiting to be medically examined. They are elderly and vulnerable, and some of them are very ill. Will the Prime Minister, as head of the Labour movement, give me his assurance today that until all those men are seen, their local fixed-site testing centre in Wrexham will remain open?

The Prime Minister: I understand the sensitivity of that issue in my hon. Friend's constituency. Of course, it is only as a result of our introduction of compensation for miners in such a position that the issue arises at all. I have heard exactly what he has said, and if he will allow me, I shall look into the matter and correspond with him.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): In his television interview last night, the Prime Minister acknowledged that the state of the railways today is worse than when he became Prime Minister. Will he address the obvious question: why is it that, five years after the shambles of privatisation, a Labour Government have not done more to redress the situation?

The Prime Minister: I also explained why we did not take Railtrack back into public ownership in 1997. I explained, too, that the main issue that has arisen since 1997 has been what Hatfield revealed—that is, the need to restructure and re-engineer virtually entire parts of the track on British railways. It is precisely for that reason that it is important that we move away from the old Railtrack situation, whereby it was looking after its shareholders before its passengers. That is precisely why it is in administration at the moment. In addition, we must ensure that we get the investment into the railways for the future. That investment will deliver results, but it will take time.

Mr. Kennedy: Obviously, none of us would want to prejudge the outcome of the inquiry that will take place into last week's terrible accident. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister will acknowledge, as will the whole House, that the public want, expect and deserve safe, reliable and affordable rail services. Given that the timetable for implementing the recommendations for greater safety has been delayed, will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to say that he will put fresh pressure on Railtrack to bring forward those recommendations sooner rather than later?

The Prime Minister: First, the whole House would want to express its sympathy to the families who lost loved ones in the Potters Bar accident. Our thoughts are with them today in particular, as some of the first funerals of the victims of that accident are being held.

Secondly, without in any way minimising what took place at Potters Bar or the need urgently to make sure that we understand the lessons from it, it is important to stress—as, indeed, people from within the industry have been stressing—that, looking back over the past 20 years, overall safety on the railways is improving, not declining.

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Over the past few years, for example, collisions are down by some 12 per cent. and derailments are down by more than 20 per cent. The number of signals passed at danger—SPADs—is the lowest ever recorded. None of that detracts in any shape or form from what has happened, but it would be wrong to say that the whole railway system is in a state that means we need to fear for its safety.

Thirdly, in relation to the Cullen recommendations, the majority are either being introduced or have been introduced—or, where particular problems have arisen, we are working with the industry to introduce them. Of course, I certainly accept that they have to be introduced.

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the first sailing, later this week, of the super-fast Rosyth-Zeebrugge ferry from my constituency? Does he agree that that will be a real boost to the Scottish economy and tourist industry? Does he further agree that Rosyth's redevelopment would not have happened without partnership between the UK Government and the Scottish and European Parliaments, which, along with Fife council, Forth Ports and Scottish Enterprise Fife, have in five years transformed an area that had been left devastated?

The Prime Minister: I very much welcome the initiative that my hon. Friend describes. I understand that the existence of the ferry as a means of transport will relieve something in the region of 2.4 million lorry miles, so it has a beneficial environmental impact as well. My hon. Friend is of course right to congratulate all those who brought about the initiative. In particular, I know that she would want to point out that as a result of the measures taken by all the bodies that she mentioned, unemployment has halved in her area in the past five years.

Q4. [54770] Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Will the Prime Minister at last recognise the need for a full public inquiry into the foot and mouth epidemic, especially as foreign travel has now resumed, not least between Britain and South Korea, where this week there was an outbreak of that disease?

The Prime Minister: No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, for the reasons that I have explained many times before. I believe that the inquiries that are under way will provide the lessons that we need to learn.

Q5. [54771] Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Has my right hon. Friend read articles in the newspapers this week and last week about European Commission proposals to vet eurozone member countries' budgets before they are put to their Parliaments, and to reinterpret the Maastricht treaty more strictly in future? United Kingdom deficits arising from the Chancellor's recent increased spending on health will be well outside current eurozone limits. Does that not make a strong case for remaining outside the eurozone for the foreseeable future?

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

The Prime Minister: Plenty of support over there—but I am afraid that I cannot agree. Only yesterday, the

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Commission congratulated the Chancellor on his exceptional, prudent and brilliant management of our economy.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The Prime Minister talks a lot about using the benefits system; recently he suggested using it to punish criminals. Last year he launched a scheme to cut benefits for criminals who breached their community service orders. Can he tell us how many criminals have had their benefit cut?

The Prime Minister: I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman how many criminals overall have had their benefit cut. However, I can tell him that the combination of orders, not only those to which he refers but antisocial behaviour orders, reparation orders and action orders for young people, too, run into many thousands.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The answer is only 39. The Prime Minister said, as he is fond of saying, that the scheme would make criminals serve the sentences that they were given. How many criminals have completed their community service orders?

The Prime Minister: What I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that as a result of our measures, crime has fallen whereas it doubled under the Conservatives. [Interruption.] Oh yes, it doubled. Not only the community service orders but the new supervision penalties for those serving community sentences, halving the time it takes juvenile offenders to get to court, the Proceeds of Crime Bill and our other measures to toughen up the criminal justice system are making a difference. The Conservative party opposed them all. The orders to which the right hon. Gentleman referred are an important part of magistrates' and courts' powers.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister should try telling that to the British people, who know that violent crime is rising, not falling. The answer to my question, according to his latest figures, is that 40,000 criminals have failed to serve their sentences—yet only 39 have had their benefits docked. So that was just another gimmick. The public know that violent crime is increasing. Instead of gimmicks, would not it be better to do what they want, and put real police back on the streets, not confine them to their police stations?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman talks about police numbers, but in the few years before we came to office, they were falling, not rising. The Government have increased police numbers to the largest ever. I agree that there is a genuine problem with street and violent crime.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Do something about it.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman says, "Do something about it." That is precisely what we are doing. I shall tell him what we are doing, and find out whether he supports it. We are increasing the number of police officers; he opposed the necessary investment. We say that persistent offenders should not be bailed if they are on drugs; he opposed that. We say that the proceeds of drug dealers' crimes should be taken from them; the

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Conservatives also opposed that measure. We say that there should be more community safety officers to help the police; the right hon. Gentleman opposes that. He also opposed the measure to halve the time that it takes to get juvenile offenders to court. There is a problem, but the difference between us is that we are dealing with it, and he is simply exploiting it.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to see, hear or read reports of the happy and peaceful scenes in Sierra Leone yesterday when many people voted in their parliamentary and presidential elections? After 10 years of bloody civil war, does not Sierra Leone's return to peace and democracy in four short months show that Britain's decisive military intervention, backed up by United Nations peacekeepers and democracy-building organisations such as our Westminster Foundation for Democracy, can give hope and encouragement to other countries in Africa and elsewhere that are currently riven by conflict?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend, and pay tribute to his work in helping people in Sierra Leone. It is moving that as a result of work by this country, and by our armed forces in particular, Sierra Leone was returned to democracy. People there value their democracy. I agree that that sends the right signal across the world about the prospects for Africa, and that is as important as anything else. I hope that, as part of the partnership initiative that we take to the G8 this year, we can get stronger measures to deal with some of the outstanding conflicts in Africa that blight the lives of people, notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Sudan.

Q6. [54772] Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): I entirely agree with the Prime Minister—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I agree with him that fuel poverty, which results when people have to spend more than 10 per cent. of their income on heating, is unacceptable and should be eliminated. Does he agree that council tax poverty is equally unacceptable? Under his Government, why do more than 1 million pensioners have to spend more than 10 per cent. of their income on council tax? What is he going to do about that?

The Prime Minister: What we have done is to increase the amount of money going to councils by some 20 per cent., whereas the hon. Gentleman's Government were cutting it. As for fuel poverty, most people remember that the Government of whom he was a member introduced VAT on fuel. I do not think that pensioners liked that. What is more, the Conservatives opposed the £200 winter allowance and the additional sums of money going to pensioners, so I am afraid that I cannot take his protestations very seriously—although I thank him for agreeing with me.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): The Prime Minister will be aware that yesterday the House debated the modernisation of its procedures, and in particular, the replacement of the Committee of Selection with a

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Committee that would not consist wholly of party Whips. The Prime Minister did not record a vote yesterday. May I ask for his views on the issue?

The Prime Minister: I support the proposals put forward by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but there was a free vote—as the House would expect on such issues—and the House has spoken.

Q7. [54773] Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Faced with overwhelming evidence of IRA involvement in the promotion of terrorism in Colombia, what action does the Prime Minister propose to take against the IRA as part of his war against terrorism?

The Prime Minister: I agree that that is a serious issue, and that is why we are making it quite clear to Sinn Fein, and to any paramilitary organisations, that such behaviour is unacceptable. However—[Interruption.] I ask Conservative Members to reflect a little—when they oppose every single stage of what happens in Northern Ireland—on how much the last five years have brought Northern Ireland, and on how totally irresponsible it would have been if we had broken the bipartisanship that we used to offer the Conservatives on this issue. That included not criticising the Conservative Government when it was revealed that they were in secret talks with Sinn Fein and the IRA. I would have hoped that the same responsibility that characterised our relations with them when they were in office would characterise their relations with us, but I am afraid that I am disappointed.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli): Following his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that there is a common monetary policy in the euro area while budgetary policy is, in the main, still in the hands of the 12 nation states, it is not unreasonable for the Commission to argue for more of a common budgetary policy? Otherwise, economic convergence in the euro area will not continue, and the currency will not be stable on the international markets.

The Prime Minister: I agree with the position that is presently being taken in Europe about the degree of co-ordination, but I would point out to my right hon. Friend—as I did to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North a moment ago—that the Commission has supported this Government's Budget. I have to say to my right hon. Friend that we obviously differ on the issue of the single currency. The Government have an established position on that issue, and it is important that we recognise that the single currency is a reality today, and that we deal with that reality.

Q8. [54774] Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): What reply would the Prime Minister suggest that my colleagues and I give to the dozens of our constituents who complain that each of them must be one of the only two whom he claims are unfortunate enough to have been waiting more than 15 months for an operation?

The Prime Minister: In the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as in others, health service spending has been increased hugely, far beyond anything that people thought of before. The waiting list figures are drawn up

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on precisely the same basis as they were under the Conservative Government, and they are now below the levels that we inherited in 1997.

I would say first to people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as I say to people elsewhere, let us not exaggerate the number who have to wait. In fact, 75 per cent. of operations are now performed within three months, and the health service has much to be proud of. Secondly, I would say that we agree that there is still a problem with access. The only answer is to increase capacity in the health service. We are doing that with the investment that we are making, which is far in excess of anything that the Liberal Democrats ever wanted us to invest.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): The Prime Minister will know that this is Christian Aid week, and that all over the country people are uniting in support of the Trade for Life campaign to help developing countries. As part of that campaign, I am due to present the Prime Minister with thousands of postcards from my constituents. Will he tell them today that he supports their campaign, and—because it is both morally and economically right—will he do all he can to persuade other world leaders that we must cut a fairer trade deal for people in the developing nations?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree. I hope very much that as part of the agreement on Africa at the G8, we can secure better provision for access to western markets—to wealthier countries' markets. I also strongly support the work that is being done during Christian Aid week. As the Chancellor has pointed out to me, because of the tax relief available under gift aid the money now goes much further. I am very proud of the work we are doing on aid and development, and I know that it has huge support in the country.

Q9. [54775] Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Does the Prime Minister agree with the Leader of the House that there is now a centre of gravity in favour of reform of the House of Lords? Will the Government put a proposal in respect of the elected component of the reformed Upper Chamber to the Joint Committee? However, when there is a free vote in this House, will it be like the free vote that took place last night?

The Prime Minister: There will certainly be a free vote, because there are hugely different views across the House. It would be very foolish of anyone to say that there was unanimity in any political party—either in this House or in the other place. We have chosen this way of proceeding because it is what was put to us during consultation by both the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats. We listened, we have engaged with the process, and there will be a free vote at the end of the day—but I ask Members to realise that we will be deciding on the basis of what happens not just for this generation, but for future generations. I think we should act responsibly.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby): Will my right hon. Friend give us some idea of when the dossier, which I believe that he says he has, on the situation relating to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,

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will be published? I think it very important for us to have full information before a decision is—we hope—made in the House of Commons.

The Prime Minister: It would certainly be right to publish the dossier before any action was taken. We have not decided when to publish it, but if my hon. Friend or any other Member wants to know what Saddam Hussein has been up to—not the full details, which we can provide in due course if necessary, but the basic case against Saddam—he can already read the published information from the weapons inspectors who were in Iraq, which covers vast amounts of chemical and biological weapons as well as attempts to establish nuclear capability. As I always say, how we deal with the issue is open, but it is without doubt an issue, and there is enough published information to convince anyone of that.

Q10. [54776] Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): The Prime Minister is a "vision" sort of guy. What is his vision for Welsh manufacturing industry?

The Prime Minister: The vision is one of stability, and investment in skills and education. I think that despite the problems that manufacturing has experienced in Wales and elsewhere, for obvious reasons to do with the strength of the pound and the weakness of the euro, the single worst thing we could do is either lose control of Government finance or return to the old days of boom and bust—with 15 per cent. interest rates, and 10 per cent. interest rates for a year—or to the days when vast numbers of jobs and a vast amount of output were lost in manufacturing during the two recessions that we experienced under the Conservative Government. My vision is also of continued Labour government in Wales.

Q11. [54777] Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): Will my right hon. Friend join me and other hon. Members who represent seaside and coastal towns in welcoming the decision of the English Tourism Council to renew a marketing role? Will he go further and renew his focus on tourism so that by the time he comes to Blackpool for the Labour party conference in the autumn some of the anomalies in the standard spending assessment that discriminate against seaside towns will have been dealt with?

The Prime Minister: We shall deal with the issues concerning the SSA in due course, as my hon. Friend knows. He is right about tourism, and that is why English local authorities have been given some £90 million to improve their ability to attract tourists. I am delighted to say that despite all the difficulties of last year and the year before, we have a thriving tourism industry and we shall do all we can to support it.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): Is the Prime Minister aware that in recent years my home town of Kendal in Cumbria has not only suffered the impact of the foot and mouth crisis, which devastated tourism, to which he has just referred, but lost 352 jobs at AXA, 289 jobs at K Shoes—including 64 last month—and just

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yesterday 210 jobs at Scottish Provident? Will he ask his ministerial colleagues to consider the case for urgent extra help for that town?

The Prime Minister: At least the hon. Gentleman did not ask for a public inquiry. The loss of jobs in his and other constituencies is terrible for the people concerned. I understand that. It is precisely why we have taken so many additional measures in the Employment Service and the new deal to make sure that people who lose their jobs

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are given the chance of finding new ones. I do not think that we or any future Government will be able to tell people, "There is no way you can lose your job. We can protect you." We cannot say that, but we can say, "If you lose your job we will give you the best chance of getting a new one." That is what we are doing in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and other constituencies up and down the country, and that is why today there are about 1.5 million more jobs in the economy than there were five years ago.

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