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The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [155693] Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 February.

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.

Sue Doughty : This morning in Guildford, I visited the picket line of the Association of University Teachers. Guildford is a high-cost area where teachers, lecturers, health care professionals and other public sector graduates are hard to recruit and retain. Does the Prime Minister accept that massively increasing student debts will make the problem much worse?

The Prime Minister: I hope that the hon. Lady understands that the purpose of the proposals that we have put forward for higher education is to get more

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money into the universities and the university system so that they can, for example, pay their lecturers better. That is in addition to the money that we are putting into our education system. For example, in her local education authority, we are allocating about £600 per pupil more in real terms than a few years ago. That is far more than the Liberal Democrats ever asked us to do. But we could not put all that additional money into schools and, indeed, into our universities unless we changed the system of university funding to make it fair for the student, fair for the family and fair for the taxpayer.

Q2. [155694] Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Chief Superintendent John Holt on the commitment that he has shown to community policing? From today, there will be 19 community safety officers in my area, in addition to a full complement of community beat officers and some very lively and active special constables—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Are not those people the very heart of policing and the heart of the community? Is not that the level of policing that communities want, and not just the headline policing that we so often see? Will my right hon. Friend encourage divisional commanders such as that one?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted that special constables are lively and active in my hon. Friend's area; I hope that they are so throughout the country. There are about 11,000 special constables in the country but, in addition, as she knows, there are more than 3,000 community support officers and record numbers of police today. The reason is that we have managed to increase the Home Office budget significantly over the past few years. We will carry on increasing that budget, and I can tell the House the policy that we will not adopt, which is to freeze the Home Office budget in cash terms, which would mean a real-terms cut—the policy of the Conservative party—and, obviously, fewer police.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): In his manifesto, the Prime Minister promised that there would be no excessive council tax increases. Under his Government, council tax has gone up by an average of 60 per cent. Why has he not kept his promise?

The Prime Minister: We have kept our promise to fund councils—[Hon. Members: "No."] Yes. In the end, what we do from central Government is allocate a certain amount of grant from central to local government. That grant has gone up 30 per cent. in real terms compared with when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was in office under the last Conservative Government; there was then a cut of 7 per cent. Let me just tell him that, this year, every single council will receive a real-terms, above-inflation increase in the grant from central Government. It is for councils to set their tax, but there is absolutely no reason for double-digit tax increases this year.

Mr. Howard: One of the main reasons for the 60 per cent. rise in council tax under this Government lies in the burdens imposed on local authorities by this Government—increases in national insurance contributions, the tax hit on pension funds, the

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mountain of red tape associated with so-called best value and comprehensive performance assessments, and much more. Are not the burdens imposed by the Prime Minister's Government the main reason why council tax has gone up by 60 per cent. since Labour came to power?

The Prime Minister: No, they are not. Incidentally, let me also say to the House that we will take no lessons on waste in local government from the person who introduced the poll tax.

In relation to council tax, there is absolutely no reason for high council tax increases this year. Last November, the Local Government Association said that it thought that there was a shortfall of about £800 million. We then provided an extra £760 million, which is why many councils are now posting increases below the rate of inflation, or of less than 5 per cent. There is no reason why there should be the rises in council tax of previous years. The fact is that we are increasing the amount of money that we give to local authorities. In the end, the increases are up to them, but they should bear in mind the fact that for many people council tax increases are a burden to bear, which is why we have increased the subvention to them.

Mr. Howard: Why will not the Prime Minister, just for once, accept some responsibility? Let us take an example of what has happened under his Government; let us take Sedgefield, his constituency. It has the second highest council tax in the country. It has a Labour-controlled district council, a Labour-controlled county council and a Labour Government. It even has a Labour Member of Parliament. Is none of them responsible for the council tax in Sedgefield?

The Prime Minister: Of course, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman refers to band D council tax in Sedgefield—[Interruption.] No, no; the average council tax in Labour areas is actually below that of Conservative areas. [Hon. Members: "No"] Oh yes, it is.

It must obviously be the case that the amount of council tax is at least in part—surely the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept this—linked to the amount of money that central Government give to local government. Now, it is beyond doubt that we are increasing the amount of money from central Government to local government. What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman's policy? We saw that described—[Interruption.] Let us just work out what would happen if we adopted his policy. His policy is for a real-terms cut in local government spending with a cash freeze that would mean £2.5 billion off local government support. That is a 10 per cent. increase in the council tax alone.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): Is the Prime Minister aware that Mr. Peter Finnegan, from Bolton-on-Dearne in my constituency, has recently completed a 50-day vigil to protest against the amount of national health service funding currently going to children's hospices? Is he aware that children's hospices receive on average only 7 per cent. of their funding through the NHS, whereas adult hospices receive more than 35 per cent. of their funding through the NHS? Does he agree that that funding differential is far too

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great and that the Government should seriously consider putting more money where it is needed—into children's hospices?

The Prime Minister: It is obviously important that we try to increase the amount of support that we give to hospices for both adults and children. However, I know that my hon. Friend will recognise that there has been a massive increase in the amount of investment going into the national health service. In fields such as the care of children with cancer, there has been a huge increase in support, investment, consultants and equipment. It is important that we do what we can for hospices, but hospices are part of a broader pattern of health care treatment in this country. I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that increases in investment are delivering real improvements in the national health service.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): Can the Prime Minister clarify whether his Government are currently in negotiations with the Government of Tanzania over our paying them to accept failed Somali asylum seekers from Britain?

The Prime Minister: We are in negotiations with the Tanzanian Government on how we can process claims for asylum nearer to the country of origin—

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Offshore!

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Jenkin, I expect better from you—[Interruption.] Order. I am not responsible for the answers of the Prime Minister, but I am responsible for good order in the House. I will not have this shouting.

The Prime Minister: If anyone thinks that this is the fantasy island, they are wrong. Let me point out to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) and to the Conservatives that if we get an agreement on this provision, it will allow us to process some of the claims, but it could not conceivably deal with the main issue of asylum.

Mr. Kennedy: In the light of that answer, does the Prime Minister recognise that this could be the beginning of an international trade in displaced people? That would be a very bad precedent to set. Will he therefore tell the House whether, in addition to those negotiations, he is negotiating with the Governments of any other countries on this issue?

The Prime Minister: I honestly cannot understand the objection to seeing whether it is possible, if people are going to make asylum claims and begin their asylum journey close to the country of origin, to try to process some of those claims there. That is what we are negotiating with the Tanzanian Government, and those negotiations are being conducted in a perfectly amicable atmosphere. I do not think that there is any question of this ending up in a trade of displaced people. That is an absurd thing to say. I repeat, for the benefit of the Conservatives, that even if we manage to establish some of these centres, there is no way in which they can possibly deal with the bulk of the asylum problem. That has to be dealt with by the measures that we take here.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that the National Institute for

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Clinical Excellence published guidelines this morning on the treatment of infertility in the national health service. The Secretary of State for Health responded by saying that, as far as the recommendation for three interventions of in vitro fertilisation was concerned, one such intervention would be available throughout the country by April next year. That should be greatly welcomed as it will stop the postcode prescribing that we have had for many years. Will my right hon. Friend tell us when we are likely to see full implementation of the NICE guidelines?

The Prime Minister: We hope that over the next couple of years we shall see at least very substantial progress towards implementation of the full NICE guidelines, and that they will allow us to end the current postcode lottery, as my right hon. Friend says. The first steps towards that will be taken within the next year. This will increase provision of IVF for people in their local area. In the longer term, however, we think that we can extend it even further, but we will release details of that when we are ready to do so.

Q3. [155695] Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Can the Prime Minister confirm whether the licensing guidelines for weapons components are the same as those for weapons systems? If they are not, as the report published today by Oxfam, Amnesty International and the International Action Network on Small Arms suggests, will he explain why it is unacceptable to export weapons systems to certain countries while it is acceptable to export weapons components that can be assembled into weapons systems?

The Prime Minister: My understanding is that there are common criteria that cover both types of purchase and export. As a result of the intervention of this Government, this country now has about the toughest rules in Europe on the export of such weapons and weapons systems. I do not agree with the position taken by the Liberal Democrats and some non-governmental organisations, which would effectively mean that we could not export weapons at all.

Q4. [155696] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend and colleague, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is introducing new measures to deal with the mis-selling of pensions and with companies that abuse their pension schemes. I know that my Coventry colleagues will agree with my drawing to the Prime Minister's attention the plight of Massey Ferguson workers who were shamefully treated by that company after long years of service. I notice, however, that there seems to be an omission in the proposals in relation to pension holidays. Will the Prime Minister comment on that?

The Prime Minister: I can say two things to my hon. Friend. First, as a result of the measures that we are introducing, there will be a pension protection fund and a pensions regulator who will focus on tackling fraud, bad governance and poor administration. In addition, the Pension Commission will report back in due course on the private pensions regime. I totally understand the position of people who have seen their pension fund

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destroyed and their ability to get a good pension limited by what has happened to their company. It is precisely for that reason that we are introducing the legislation.

Mr. Howard: On Sunday, the Prime Minister announced with great fanfare that he was going to provide head teachers with guidance that would give them, specifically, the power to do random drug testing in their schools. Was he aware that they had the power and had already been given the guidance?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong; the guidance is to be issued next week.

Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister really ought to have a word with his Secretary of State for Education and Skills, because the guidance had been issued by the Department for Education and Skills just six days before the Prime Minister's interview. It urged "extreme caution", causing the Secondary Heads Association to say that heads could conclude only that they should not touch random testing with a bargepole. Six days later, the Prime Minister blundered in, sounding very enthusiastic, and saying, "I back random drug testing in our schools." Is it any wonder that teacher representatives say that there is complete and utter confusion about the policy?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman appears to be against the policy; I think that he is wrong. [Interruption.] He says that he is not against the policy. So, he is in favour of the policy, but simply wanted to make the point about last week rather than next week. What a pathetic piece of opportunism. If we are both in favour of the policy, let us agree that it is a good idea.

Mr. Howard: I am not going to take any lectures about opportunism from a Prime Minister who has based his whole career on opportunism. There he sits, Mr. Opportunism himself. I am in favour of the policy, but I am also in favour of a bit of competence in Government. I expect the Prime Minister to know whether the Department for Education and Skills has issued guidance. After nearly seven years in the job, is it not time that he realised that he is being paid to govern our country, not to chase newspaper headlines?

The Prime Minister: After about seven weeks as Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Gentleman should learn how to make a point sensibly. If he is in favour of the policy, let us work out how we make it work. Incidentally, he said in his opening question that teachers are all against the policy, but let me read what the head of the National Association—[Interruption.] I thought that he was reading out the quotation because he was against the policy. Now that we understand that he is in favour of it, let me tell him what the National Association of Head Teachers says:

The policy is an addition to allowing police officers in certain schools; it is an addition to drug education officers; and it is an addition to the largest ever increase

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in education spending. So, the next time that we have a debate about this, why not have it on the merits of the policy?

Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy) (Lab): At the first north Wales criminal justice board conference on 18 September in Llandudno, which is in my constituency as my right hon. Friend will know, the chair of the board, Mr. John Grant Jones OBE, drew attention to the difference between the perception of levels of crime and the actual situation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when we use crime statistics we should do so in a reasonable but, more importantly, a responsible manner?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is of course right. According to the British crime survey, crime has fallen significantly over the past few years, but it is obviously still a huge problem for people who are facing it. That is why we introduced new measures in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and those on antisocial behaviour, and why we have the largest ever number of police officers in this country.

I stress again the importance of ensuring that we invest in the criminal justice system and in additional numbers of police. Conservative policy is to freeze that in cash terms. Let me emphasise what that would mean: thousands fewer police officers in Britain. [Interruption.] I am afraid that that is their policy, and they are stuck with it.

Q5. [155697] Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The National Village Halls Forum will today deliver a petition to No. 10 Downing street signed by 37,000 people, including 4,000 from Wiltshire, who are concerned about the future funding of a vital rural resource. Village halls have been strapped for cash since 1997 as lottery money has been diverted to other causes. Will the Prime Minister commend the efforts of the National Village Halls Forum in bringing an important issue to our attention? What will he do to make sure that village halls get a better deal, particularly in the light of the incipient merger between the new opportunities fund and the community fund?

The Prime Minister: I cannot answer specifically the precise point on village hall funding, although I will make sure that the hon. Gentleman gets an answer on it. Of course, I commend the work of the pensioners forum on village halls—[Hon. Members: "What?"] Sorry. The whole point about extra spending, however, whether on this or on any other matter, is that his party has now said that it will cut in real terms all that spending. It is no use him or any other Back-Bench or Front-Bench Conservative Member calling for more money when the shadow Chancellor has said that he will cut the money.

Q6. [155698] Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): In July 2002, the steel workers at Allied Steel and Wire Sheerness and Allied Steel and Wire Cardiff were made redundant and their occupational pension schemes placed into administration. Across the House, 120 MPs represent more than 200 occupational pension schemes that are also either in deficit or in administration. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister institute a public inquiry so that we can find out

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exactly what are the debts in those 200 schemes, and what the solutions could be, so that we can finally put this problem to rest?

The Prime Minister: First, obviously, I am aware of the situation being faced by members of Allied Steel and Wire pension schemes. I have immense sympathy for them, other scheme members and other people in a similar position. We are looking at what we can do to help. My hon. Friend will know, however, that a court proceeding is currently under way, and that the pension protection fund Bill is going through the House of Commons. Obviously, we will examine carefully the concerns that he and others have raised.

Q7. [155699] Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): While I appreciate that the Prime Minister has many of the world's problems to resolve, can he give some priority this week to a crisis in Southend-on-Sea, where the local council has been told in a census that its population has declined significantly, with substantial problems for finance, when all the other evidence shows that that is wrong? Is he aware, in particular, that the report says that we have 1,000 fewer houses than the number that are paying council tax, and that in four wards beside where I live, there are many fewer people living than the number on the voters' register? Is not there a danger for the Government that if one of their highly paid quangos cannot calculate the number of people living in Southend-on-Sea, confidence will be undermined in the Government's wider policies?

The Prime Minister: I understand that the Office for National Statistics has met Southend-on-Sea council to discuss its concerns about the census results for Southend. Apparently, it is working with Southend-on-Sea council and conducting a study to improve understanding of the difficulties in estimating accurately the local population. That includes an analysis of the local data. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I do not wish to prejudge those findings.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. [Hon. Members: "Hear, Hear."] I am enjoying this.

The Prime Minister will know that the Children's Fund is to see a reduction in its budget. Can he offer some assurance to families in Lower Caversham in my constituency, where the Children's Fund has been doing tremendous work?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Children's Fund has done tremendous work. I shall look at the issue that she raises in relation to the position in her constituency.

Q8. [155701] Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Is the Prime Minister content that hundreds of thousands of children are living in overcrowded accommodation, and that new Labour, in six years, has built just 1,343 council houses? In contrast, the Thatcher Government, in their first six years, built 365,000 council houses. Does he agree that if new Labour had built as many council houses as the Thatcher Government, hundreds of thousands of children would not be living in overcrowded accommodation?

The Prime Minister: It is not simply a matter of the number of council houses, is it? It is also to do with the

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overall housing budget, which is spent in many areas involving, for instance, registered landlords and housing associations. That budget has actually doubled over the past few years. But no, I am not content with the situation, which is why we want to increase the housing budget still further—although the hon. Gentleman should recognise, surely, that we have already increased it substantially. Since we are debating Labour and Conservative policies as a result of this question, I might add that the Conservatives would freeze, in cash terms, the amount going to housing.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab): An employer in my constituency recently advertised jobs for 12 chefs, but has not managed to fill any of the vacancies. As my right hon. Friend knows, Scotland faces a significant demographic challenge. Does he agree that organised migration has an important part to play in helping to sort that out?

The Prime Minister: It must obviously be organised, and it must be subject to proper laws and rules, but my hon. Friend is right to say that we should never denigrate migration to this country. It contributes a massive amount to our economy. It is important that we change the asylum system, for example, and that is exactly what we have done. It is important that we have proper rules for migration. But we should never decry the amount that migrants bring to our economy, and the work that they do.

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