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13 Nov 2002 : Column 26—continued

David Burnside (South Antrim): The Prime Minister will recognise that Northern Ireland's secondary schools have a higher standard of academic results than any other part of the United Kingdom. Will he give the House a commitment that he will not follow up the decision by the Minister of Education, Martin McGuinness, in abolishing selection procedure and destroying the grammar school system in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that my right hon. Friend with the relevant responsibilities will have heard

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the hon. Gentleman's submission. I am aware that it is a controversial issue in Northern Ireland. Perhaps I will let my right hon. Friend get back to the hon. Gentleman with the detail of it.

In relation to health and education, let us be clear. Of course there is still an immense amount of progress to be made but the money has made an immense difference to constituencies up and down this country. Go into any school and see the capital investment there. Look at the extra number of nurses—tens of thousands extra. Look at the extra number of teachers. The right hon. Gentleman went on about teacher vacancies. Actually, he was wrong in what he said; but there are 20,000 more teachers today than there were five years ago and there are 80,000 more classroom assistants.

Does that solve the problem? No, but it is better than the situation where funding per pupil was getting cut in our schools, and where we had a 400,000 increase in the number on the waiting lists in the national health service. As a result of what we are trying to do now, we have the chance for the first time in a generation to get the reforms through in our public services that we need, backed by substantial extra investment.

Whatever the problems in the Conservative party, the Conservatives' real problem is that when it came to the test of whether they were really going to change, when it came to the test of whether they were prepared to back the investment in our public services, they voted against that investment.

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Every day, the company pension rights of British workers are getting worse. All we are promised by the Government is another Green Paper and more delay. Does the Prime Minister think that there will be any decent pension schemes left by the time he legislates?

The Prime Minister: It is not correct to say that we have done nothing in relation to pensions and pensioners. A massive amount of money has been put into helping the poorest pensioners. We have the pension credit. There is the state second pension and the stakeholder pension. The purpose of the Green Paper is to try to simplify the system. It will be extremely important that we take the long-term decisions necessary in relation to pensions but we are only going to get to be able to do that on the basis of what works, which is why we set up the two reviews under Mr. Sandler and Mr. Pickering, and we will implement the recommendations that they have made.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Does the commitment in the Queen's Speech to high levels of employment extend to the fishing communities around our coastline? The Prime Minister will know from his own recent experience that if the French fishing industry were facing mortal threat, President Chirac would be personally involved in defending it. What personal initiative can the Prime Minister offer to fishing communities in their time of need?

The Prime Minister: First, unemployment in this country is far lower than in France. The best protection

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that we can give to people is to create jobs in the economy. Secondly, it is a cruel deception to pretend to people in the fishing industry that there is some easy solution to the problems that they face. We have said that we will sit down with the industry, in light of the decisions of the European Council, and try to work out what we do if we have to decommission ships and if people are laid off to make sure that those people are properly looked after and protected. We will do everything we can to do that, but to try to say that there is some easy solution that will prevent any job losses in the fishing industry is not being honest with those in the fishing industry.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): The Prime Minister said that he was concerned about hospital waiting lists. Is he aware that 40 beds are blocked at any given time at the Royal Bournemouth hospital as a direct result of the cuts of #3 million a year that he has made to the social services budget, which means that there are no places in nursing homes? How does he reconcile that with his ambition to reduce waiting lists?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point, which I shall answer. We have a Bill—his party is opposing it, incidentally—precisely to make sure that we deal with the issue of delayed discharges and bed blocking. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support it. I do not know the exact position in his constituency, of course. However, if he is saying that his constituency needs more money than we have provided—I am sure that a real increase was provided—how on earth can he support the position of those on his party's Front Bench, which is to oppose even the money that we have put into the NHS?

What is more, the Conservatives are opposed not only to the money, but to the reform. Effectively, they are saying that they want to scrap all targets, which they attack all the time. I make no apology for saying that if we are putting extra money into the NHS, we want to see reductions in waiting lists and waiting times, because that is important for people who use the service.

The reason why the Conservatives must oppose the reform is that their reform proposal, in so far as there is one, is not about improving the health service or state schools. As came across clearly in the response of the Leader of the Opposition to an intervention, they want to provide a subsidy for people to go outside the NHS.

Mr. Duncan Smith: They are doing that now.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman says that they are doing that. Fine; we have had an admission that that is his policy. Let me spell out to his right hon. and hon. Friends the consequences of that policy. His policy would mean that we had to take #1.5 billion out of the current NHS budget, with that money going to a tiny percentage of the overall NHS clientele. How would a pensioner who does not have much income afford to pay the money in order to get the subsidy? When the right hon. Gentleman talks about giving people a subsidy to go outside the state education system, how will taking that money, by way of subsidy, out of the state education system improve the quality of education for the millions of children who depend on state education in this country?

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That is why the choices could not be more stark. The choice could not be more stark on crime, where the Conservative party has now got itself into a position where it is opposing the measures that we are taking on crime and antisocial behaviour; on the investment programme, where we want the investment to go in and the Conservatives want to take it out; and on reform, where we are trying to reform the public services as public services and they are trying to make sure that the public services stop being for the public at all.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): When will we see the introduction of NHS dentistry into Market Harborough?

The Prime Minister: The hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that that is a problem. That is why we have created a system in which people can get to an NHS dentist—[Interruption.] If the hon. and learned Gentleman gives me chapter and verse on the cases, I will have them looked into. However, when we came to power, the previous Government had wrecked NHS dentistry in this country. The idea that the Conservative party, with its record on the national health service and dentists, can turn round and tell us that we are the ones responsible for that situation! We are the ones trying to put it right, by investment and reform, and the Conservatives are opposing it.

It is not merely a question of the Conservatives having opposed the investment, having opposed the reform and opposing the criminal justice and antisocial behaviour measures: the Conservatives also have no coherent policy whatever for the economy. We have delivered in this country low inflation, low interest rates and low unemployment; we are now making a major investment in science and technology. The communications Bill announced in the Queen's Speech will free up the market in communications and the planning Bill will simplify procedures, but all these things would be put at risk if we returned to the disastrous policies that, under the last Conservative Government, gave us interest rates of 15 per cent., interest rates of 10 per cent. for years or more, and 3 million unemployed. [Interruption.] The Conservatives say that they have heard it all before, and I can tell them that they will hear it all again from now until election time.

On the issues of foreign policy, the Leader of the Opposition and I of course agree on the need to go through the United Nations and disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, but I hope that, as one part of any changes that the right hon. Gentleman is looking at in the Conservative party, he will change its disastrous policy towards the European Union. There is no way that this country can be a leading player in the European Union unless it has a constructive and engaged policy. It means of course that we have to stick up for British interests, but British interests are about being inside the European Union, not being on the outside.

At every level in this Queen's Speech, whether it is on the economy or in relation to Europe—


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