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13 Nov 2002 : Column 20—continued

3.31 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before I respond to the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address, let me first pay tribute to our colleagues Jamie Cann and Sir Ray Powell, who died during the last Session. Jamie Cann served Ipswich for nearly 10 years as its Member of Parliament, and for many years before that as a member and later leader of Ipswich borough council. His sudden death was a sad loss to us all. As we all know, Jamie had strong views, which were often forcefully expressed, but he was immensely well respected. His funeral service was full to overflowing and the affection that the people of Ipswich had for him was clear to all. I know that the whole House will mourn his loss.

Sir Ray Powell's death after 22 years' service as a Member of Parliament was a great shock. Ray was known throughout the House as Whip and latterly Chairman of the Committee that oversaw the construction of Portcullis House. It was said of Ray—I know accurately—that he could predict the result of any

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vote, and I mean any vote, in this place. It helped that he was the Whip in charge of accommodation. He was a true voice of the valleys, and all of us are the poorer for his loss. The House extends its condolences to the families of both Ray and Jamie.

I have heard many speeches proposing and seconding the Queen's Speech, from both sides of the Chamber and I have to say that I think the two we heard today were among the best that I have ever heard. I give my warmest congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes)—[Hon. Members: XWhat about his grandson?"] I was reflecting on that. It is kind of my right hon. Friend to have called his grandson Blair, although I cannot promise him that if and when I have a grandson I will call him Foulkes. We will reflect on that. We can always set up a review.

My right hon. Friend made an immensely humorous and generous speech. It was the hallmark of him that when he spoke about his time as a Minister—he was very kind about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State although he himself performed an enormous service and did a lot of tremendous work—what came through was what always comes through with him: his general optimism and hope for the future. It was an excellent speech and I commend him on it.

The statistic that impresses me most about my right hon. Friend is that when he was first elected in 1979, his majority was just 1,500. Last year it was 15,000. There were 22 Conservative Members in Scotland when my right hon. Friend was elected and now there is only one. So his contribution has taken many forms. He has done his constituency proud today and we thank him for it.

As we know, the loyal address was seconded by my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King). I echo entirely the Leader of the Opposition's words about her predecessor Peter Shore, whom I knew for many years as well. Even if I did not always agree with him—on some issues I strongly disagreed with him—he was someone of genuine integrity. He commanded the immense respect of all people, whether his political opponents or political friends.

I thought that the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow was marvellous. What she said about housing in her constituency and about the work that she did in relation to genocide is absolutely right. We wish that she had identified the Conservative Whip. She did not, but I hope that she will identify him at least to the Leader of the Opposition, because that could be immensely useful.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the education results in her constituency and local borough. They have improved dramatically, including a 7 per cent. increase in GCSEs. That is a tremendous tribute to the teachers, pupils and parents in the schools in her constituency. She made a marvellous speech that was witty and also contained serious points. She came into the House as one of the youngest Members of Parliament and it is clear that she has a long and successful political career ahead of her. [Hon. Members: XAh."] However, how and when it will be successful I cannot say.

I hope that the House will forgive me if before I respond to the Leader of the Opposition's speech directly I say something about the firefighters' dispute,

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which he mentioned. I am sorry that the leadership of the Fire Brigades Union has chosen confrontation. The firefighters have been offered 11 per cent. over two years. That is more than nurses, teachers and police officers—much more. All that is asked in return is the modernisation of plainly outdated practices.

The offer came out of the independent review by George Bain, the man who headed the commission that introduced the minimum wage and who sat with two others, one from local government and the other last year's president of the TUC and himself a trade union leader. The idea that such a review was biased in some way is, therefore, palpably absurd. It was an entirely persuasive and reasonable report that I commend to people to read.

All of us in this House I hope pay tribute to the hard and sometimes dangerous work that firefighters do, but with inflation at around 2 per cent., no Government could yield to a wage claim of 40 per cent. with the insistence that it is unlinked to any change in working practices. It is not just this Government who could not contemplate doing so: no Government on earth could yield to such a claim. If we said yes to 40 per cent. for firefighters, how could we, or any Government, say no to a 40 per cent. claim for teachers, nurses or police officers? If we said yes to all, the consequence is so clear that it hardly bears spelling out. After all the hard work to get low inflation, low unemployment and low mortgage rates—in each case, the lowest for decades—and to stabilise the economy, we would simply wreck it and take this country back to days that I believe we all hope have gone for ever.

No Government—and certainly not this Government—want a confrontation. We especially do not want one at this time. The suggestion that amidst the current security issues the Government have tried to engineer this strike is offensive and wrong. On the contrary, we have tried our utmost to be as reasonable and as generous as possible, within the limits of what is possible.

Even now, I hope that common sense will prevail after this 48-hour stoppage. We have been in discussion with the union about emergency cover in the event of a major incident, which is obviously important. Meanwhile, we will continue to make all preparations to minimise risk to the public in so far as we can do so, guided by the best professional advice of our armed forces. I know that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister wishes to make a statement on that tomorrow, with your permission, Mr. Speaker.

I welcome the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) to his first Queen's Speech debate as Leader of the Opposition. It has been a busy few days for him, and we are here to help. We know that he is on XDesert Island Discs" next week, so I thought that we could help with one or two choices of music. For example, everyone could choose a Beatles song—[Hon. Members: XHelp!"] My hon. Friends are unkindly suggesting XHelp!". I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends have any messages for him, but perhaps they would suggest XHello, Goodbye"—XYou say hello, and we say goodbye." To celebrate his political roots, what about, XI Can't Let Maggie Go"? To mark his contribution to the last Conservative Government, he could perhaps

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choose XRebel, Rebel". To commemorate his year as Conservative leader, I think XThe Sound of Silence" has the right ring to it.

The other thing about XDesert Island Discs", which is where we can really help, is that the right hon. Gentleman gets to choose a book, and I have the perfect volume for him. It is a work published by Common Courage Press, its title is, indeed, XUnite or Die" and its author is one Fidel Castro. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—that is the very point that I was going to make. He is shouting out, XHe's still there," and he is. Yes, 42 years is what hon. Members have to look forward to with the right hon. Gentleman.

I have not always studied the Conservative party website with assiduity, but I have studied it for today. It shows that the right hon. Gentleman, at any rate, is carrying on unabashed:

I have some good news for him. A News of the World opinion poll on potential Conservative leaders was published a few days ago: the bad news is that he is behind the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), but the good news is that he is three points ahead of Basil Brush, so there is hope for him yet.

The truth about the position of the Conservative party is that its problem is not disunity, but what it unites around. It is policy that is the problem, because the right hon. Gentleman stood up at that Dispatch Box and effectively repeated the Conservative position of opposing investment in the national health service and in schools. [Interruption.] Oh yes. He got up and attacked the increases that we are introducing in April. That is because he does not agree with putting the extra investment into the health service.

Yesterday, the Conservative party made it clear that it is opposed not merely to the extra spending on schools, hospitals and the police—all the extra money that we are putting in. It also said that it would scrap the sure start programme, which has brought hope to people in communities up and down this country.

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