Will the Under-Secretary prompt the Assembly's new Health Minister to allow Welsh patients to receive badly needed treatment by registering across the border, for example, at the brand new 10,000 patient practice at Oswestry, where they are currently banned from registering? Does he know that the British Dental Association estimates that Wales is short of 50 NHS dentists and that half the present practitioners will retire in 10 years? Is not the state of NHS dentistry in Wales dire?
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Mr. Touhig: The Welsh dental initiative provides grants of up to £50,000 to practices to increase NHS dentistry provision. I am aware of the issue about mid-Wales and Oswestry and I have no doubt that my ministerial colleagues in Cardiff will take those matters on board. However, given the Conservative party's record when it was in government: the lack of investment in the health service; the closure of 70 hospitals, and the reduction in nurse and midwifery training, a Conservative criticising the health service in Wales has as much moral authority as the highwayman Dick Turpin complaining about the state of the roads.
Mr. Touhig: I have no doubt that my new colleague, the Assembly's Health Minister, will do a great deal to improve the quality of the health service in Wales, just as the Labour Administration have done since the Assembly's creation. As the hon. Gentleman well knows from living close to the border, we have been putting right 18 years of under-investment and reversing the run down of our health service that occurred when the Conservatives, who had the ability to do something, did nothing. We are making considerable strides and improvements. When it comes to an election, the people of Wales will know who stands up for the health servicethe Labour party.
Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend knows that the problem of NHS dentistry in Wales is not confined to the border area. For example, this month, in common with many people in Swansea, I learned that my dentist is going over to Denplan. That is all right for me but there is no assurance in Swansea that provision for those on low income or benefit will continue. That is a genuine problem. How does my hon. Friend, with the National Assembly, propose to tackle it?
I have already referred to the Welsh dental initiative. In the past two years, 10 new dental practices that offer NHS dentistry have opened and 26 have expanded their NHS dental provision. Grants of up to £20,000 are available to establish new vocational training places for dentistry in Wales. My right hon. Friend will recognise that, although there is a long way to go to improve the quality and spread of NHS dentistry provision in Wales, it will be helped by the continued investment and reform to which the Government and our colleagues in the Assembly are committed.
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Mr. Thomas: I am glad to know that the Secretary of State is discussing various matters. Perhaps he has discussed with the new Health Minister the fact that patients in Wales are being treated like animals according to one hospital nurse, who has been supported by her managers. Will he look at the case of my constituent, Susan Papworth, who has been told that she will have to wait six years for treatment for a growth on her thumb? Is not that symptomatic of the problems that the NHS in Wales is experiencing? A six-year wait for surgery is not acceptable and shows that the Labour Government in Wales have not yet got a grip on the NHS and the need to improve it in Wales.
Mr. Hain: I agree that a six-year wait is unacceptable. That is why the Assembly Government under Labour are continuing to invest, to recruit more consultants, nurses and doctors, and to open more hospitals, compared with the massacre in services that took place under the last Tory Government. Just as England has learned from best practice in Wales, so Wales must learn from best practice in England in relation to waiting lists. I am therefore encouraged that the new Health Minister in the Assembly Government has said that he intends to look at the reasons why England has been so successful in tackling waiting lists through the introduction of new treatment centres.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Perhaps I could start by updating the House yet again on the likely death figures for British people in the tsunami. I shall do this perhaps for the last time, but I thought that it might be helpful to give the House an update. The figure for category 1that is, those who are highly likely to be lostnow stands at 249, which includes 53 confirmed dead. Thankfully, therefore, that figure continues to fall. The figure for category 2that is, those unaccounted for in the regionis now 260, which is also substantially lower than previous estimates.
As the son of an Irish immigrant, may I point out to the Prime Minister that my first born was
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delivered by an Egyptian immigrant, and that my GP for 25 years was a Sri Lankan immigrant? Does he agree that we should celebrate the contributions made by immigrants to British society? [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] Does he further agree that we should create a safe haven for refugees while combating abuses in the system?
The Prime Minister: First, it is of course extremely important to tackle the abuses in the asylum and immigration system, and that is what the Government are doing. We will publish further proposals on that over the next few weeks. But I can tell my hon. Friend what we will not do. We will not keep out those people who have a genuine contribution to make to our economy and who are making such a contribution, and we will not shut our door to genuine refugees. In particular, we will not put forward unworkable, impractical, uncosted proposals such as those of the Conservative party.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): We all celebrate the contribution made by immigrants to our country. The question is: does the Prime Minister think that the overall level of immigration into this country is too high?
The Prime Minister: I think it is important[Hon. Members: "Answer!"] I will answer in this way: I think it is important to make sure that those who come into our country through the immigration route are people who can make a genuine contribution to this country. It is important that we tackle abuses, but I do not think that we should go down the road that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) has proposed. He says that we should try to process asylum claims in some far-off place, but he has still not told us where it actually is. As we are having this debate, perhaps he will tell us where this offshore place is in which he wants the claims to be processed.
Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister talked about an unworkable immigration policy. I will tell him about an unworkable immigration policy. It is one that introduces dispersal, then scraps it. It is one that brings in vouchers, then tears them up. It is one that describes a designated list as "racist", then reintroduces it six years later. It is one that connives in false applications for work permits, sacks officials for telling the truth and clings to Ministers who do not. That is an unworkable immigration policy, and it is not mine, it is the Prime Minister's.
The Prime Minister:
We have not given up our right to set our own laws and to control our own borders. What we have done is say that we should be part of the European system to stop asylum shopping. That allows us, incidentally, to return some 2,500 failed asylum seekers to Europe each year. It is correct that it also
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means that we cannot withdraw from the United Nations convention. I do not wish to, and let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman why.
The problem with asylum, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman well knows, is not the number of genuine refugees; it is people coming into this country claiming to be genuine refugees who are in fact economic migrants. Now, every single point he raised about our system is wrong, but let me ask him yet again, as we are having a debate about policy [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: The reason I am not in favour of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposal is that he is unable to tell us where he would process these claims. We have had four answers. In answer to the question:
When his shadow Attorney-General was asked whether he has had any preliminary indication from any country that it will handle them, the answer was: "No, of course not." The shadow Chancellor, when asked, "Where is it?" answered, "I have no idea". The shadow Home Secretary said that
Is not the real difference between us this: under the Prime Minister's Government, there is no limit on immigration, no proper control of asylum and control of our borders has been given away to Brussels? We will introduce a limit on immigration, a quota on asylum, 24-hour security at our ports and a points system for work permits. I think decisions on immigration should be made here in Britain. He thinks they should be made in Brussels. Is not that the real choice facing the country?
The Prime Minister:
No, it is not. Let me make this clear straight away: I do not favour withdrawing from the 1951 UN convention. It is not the problem. The
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problem is how we stop people coming into this country and claiming asylum when they should not and how we remove them again, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman has announced recently that he would cut £900 million from the asylum and immigration budget through establishing what he calls the Australian-style agency. Well, I have been doing a bit of research on Australia and its agency and I can tell the House that, first, Australia's arrangements for processing offshore do not relate to in-country asylum seekers, yet the majority of British asylum seekers seek asylum in-country. Secondly, it costs even more to process them than it does in this country. So, if we were to find such a country to process offshore the claimsthe right hon. and learned Gentleman has not told us where it isthat would double our immigration costs, not halve them. That is why his proposals are completely unworkable.
Let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman what I believe we should do: we should let people into this country who can work and contribute to this economy and we should deal with the abuses of the asylum system, but we should not end up putting forward unworkable, impractical solutions that would make the problem worse. Just for the record, no, I am not accusing him of being a racist. He is not a racist; he is just a shameless opportunist.
Q2.  Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): Out of 300 deaths a year by drowning, seven take place in swimming pools, and the rest in reservoirs, rivers and canals, such as those in Colne Valley. Given the obvious health benefits of learning to swim, will my right hon. Friend intervene with the Institute of Sport and Recreation Management and the Health and Safety Executive, which are restricting the ability of parents, especially single parents, to teach their children to swim? Will he make sure that all our children get a chance to swim?
The Prime Minister: Coincidentally, I raised this issue when I was in Kent last week. The current situation arising from the new guidelines is a complete nonsense parents are perfectly well able to judge how best to look after their children. I have therefore asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to call in representatives of the Institute of Sport and Recreation Management and the Health and Safety Executive to see whether we can get this situation sorted out, as it is causing unnecessary distress and concern to many parents.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West) (LD): This week, 25 per cent of teenage boys who have grown up under this Government were classed by the Home Office as serious or prolific offenders. The Prime Minister promised to be
The Prime Minister:
I do not accept that, for two reasons. First, crime overall, both recorded and according to the British crime survey, is down under this
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Government, not up. Secondly, in 1996, the Audit Commission, which produces regular reports on youth offending, said that
We are putting a lot of money not just into making sure that we halve the time that it takes to bring prolific youth offenders to court, which we have done, but into youth intervention services, too. I do not dispute in any shape or form that it is a problem, but we are tackling it. Surely it is extraordinary for the Liberal Democrats to refer to it when they have opposed every measure that we have introduced to tackle crime, including the antisocial behaviour legislation that is so popular.
Mr. Kennedy: Indeed, we have disagreed with many of the Government's proposals, and given the conclusions published by the Home Office this week, clearly, those proposals have not worked in many respects. In that same "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" speech, the Prime Minister went on to say something that we thoroughly endorse:
The Prime Minister: The whole issue of identity cards has changed completely, because of the nature of international terrorism and the threat that we face, and, as I have always explained, because of new biometric technology. Given that we will move to biometric passports in any event, it makes sense at the same time to move to identity cards. I acknowledge that we also said that the fight against crime would be helped by increasing the number of police officers, and we have done just that. We have record numbers, with 12,500 extra. We also said that we would invest in young people by offering them a way out of benefit and into work. The new deal has been of central importance in achieving that, but the Lib Dems opposed it.
Q3.  Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): This week, the Government published an important document setting out a strategic vision for housing, especially affordable housing, taking us forward a number of years. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that not only do needs vary between different parts of the country but that, for example, in my community, the needs of Ellesmere Port and Neston are different from those of Chester. Will he ensure that as this important document is worked through into delivery, there is a flexible system that enables different communities' needs to be met?
The Prime Minister:
It is important for us to deal with the different housing problems in different parts of the country. That is precisely why the plans announced by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister would increase access to home ownership for first-time buyers
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and key workers, and also expandin specific areas of the south and south-eastthe housing supply, which is necessary for the overall housing market.
My hon. Friend is right: obviously there are different problems in areas like the north-west. That is why the sustainable communities plan is so important. It will allow us to invest in housinggood housing for home ownership, but also social housing. And that is why it is so wrong of the Conservative party to pledge £1 billion of cuts in the sustainable communities plan.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): The Prime Minister has just bought a new house. The Chancellor and I are both looking forward to the house-warming party. Does the Prime Minister not agree that housing association tenants should have the right to buy their homes as well?
The Prime Minister: Of course, many housing association tenants do. What I do not agree with, however, are the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposals, because they would extend the entitlement in such a way that housing associations would be unable to replenish their social housing stock. That would do great damage to our ability to give people affordable housing. Far better are my right hon. Friend's proposals, which will allow people to build up an equity stake over time while allowing the housing associations, as that happens, to replenish the housing stock. That is a far better and more affordable proposal.
Mr. Howard: What many housing association tenants want is the ability to turn their dream of owning their homes into a reality. They want a right to buy their homes. The Prime Minister's policy gives the final say to the housing associations, not their tenants, and that is not a right.
The Prime Minister: Let me say first that we have some 1.5 million more home owners under this Government than we had in 1997. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right. We are not saying that there should be an absolute entitlement, because if we allow that to happen to housing association homes built for social housing, the stock will fall and we will not have the housing to give people who cannot afford to buy their own homes. What we have said is that people will be able to build up an equity stake in their homes over a period. The other day I met people who were doing just that. In the end it will be far better for them, and it allows them to acquire a stake in their own homes while allowing the housing associations to replenish the housing stock.
In addition, incidentally, we are putting aside money that will be used for first-time buyers and key workers. Let me say this to the right hon. and learned Gentleman: that £1 billion cut in the sustainable communities plan would cut directly the help being given to key workers, first-time buyers and social tenants.
Let us look at the Government's record on social housing, because social housing is important. Labour Members ought to listen to this, because I suspect that not all of them know about it. Under the right hon. Gentleman's Government, the number of homes built as social housing for rent has fallen by more than 40 per cent., from 32,500 a year in 1997 to about 19,000 today. Is this not the choice faced by the country: the right to buy your own home and the extension of home ownership under the Conservatives, or get back to the end of the queue and take what you are given under Labour?
The Prime Minister: Actually, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right in saying that the amount of social housing has fallen. That is precisely why it is foolish to deplete the stock that we have now. Instead we must build the stock back up, and allowing housing associations to do so is one very important aspect of that.
Let me say this to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, however. That is not the only thing that we have to do. We must also allow for more homes to be built in specific designated areas like the Thames gateway, where we have derelict land and buildings where we could build homes. Earlier today, the right hon. and learned Gentleman's shadow spokesman on housing, the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), said that there was no question of the Thames gateway project going ahead under the Conservatives and that they would cancel it. Perhaps he will now confirm that that is right.
Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): In view of reports circulating around President Bush's second inauguration that the Bush Administration are now contemplating an attack on Iranallegedly, US special forces are already in place in that countrywill my right hon. Friend give an unequivocal and categoric assurance to the House that he will in no way involve British forces in any such attack if it were to take place? Will he also give an assurance that he will seek publicly as well as privately strongly to dissuade the Americans from undertaking any such attack, including the use of Israeli planes to bomb Iranian nuclear installations?
The Prime Minister: I know of no such contemplation by the United States of America. I refer my right hon. Friend to what the Vice-President of America said the other day, when he made it quite clear there was no such contemplation by America. What he went on to say, however, and I fully agree with this, is that there is indeed a serious issue as to Iran, nuclear weapons and its obedience to the International Atomic Energy Authority. What we are doing in Europe, in concert with America and others, is trying to ensure that Iran complies with its international obligations. I hope that my right hon. Friend accepts, as I do, that we must do everything we possibly can to send the right signal to Iran that it does indeed have to comply with those obligations.
Q4.  Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
(LD): Will the Prime Minister reiterate his manifesto commitment to make the composition of the House of
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Lords more democratic and representative, and will he endorse the welcome given by the Leader of the House on Thursday to the all-party initiative that we have put forward to achieve that? A simple yes will suffice.
The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will not quite get that. It is important that we have the debate about the future composition of the House of Lords. My own position is that I think it is very difficult to have a hybrid part-elected, part-appointed House of Lords. That is why I do not favour it, but the debate will continue and I have made it clear that it should be a free-vote issue.
Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP): The Prime Minister will be aware of the efforts that have been made in the past seven years to buy the IRA into peace and the political process. He now knows that the Ulster Defence Association, a loyalist paramilitary group, is demanding £78 million as its price for ending its violence and criminality. Will the two Governments finally realise that they cannot buy peace, they cannot buy a political process and they cannot buy political stability?
The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman: we cannot do that. However, if people are unwilling to give up paramilitary activity, we must be able to find a way to move forward across the communities in Northern Ireland. That means that there are things for everyone, including his own party, to consider. I believe that it is important that we continue to strive to take this process forward on an inclusive basis, but, as I indicated last week, it cannot be the case that there is a process of transition. Frankly, time is running out for this decision to be made by those who are connected with paramilitary groups. People have to decidethey are either part of the democratic process or they are not. That moment of decision has long since passed and it has simply got to be clear whether people have made their decision or not.
Q5.  David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): When the Prime Minister meets the leader of Sinn Fein-IRA, Gerry Adams, at Chequers early next week, will he outline the sanctions to be used against Sinn Fein-IRA for carrying out the biggest bank robbery in British history? Since his chief of staff is negotiating a financial package for the UDA to stop its criminality, would the Prime Minister be prepared to set up a British taxpayers' fund for the widows and orphans of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Defence Regiment, the Regular Army and the families of those officers in the Prison Service who fought against the IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups over the past 30 years? Will there be any taxpayers' money for them?
The Prime Minister:
First, there is not such a negotiation. Secondly, let me take the opportunity yet again to pay our respects and sympathy to the bereaved of all the people who died, whether in the service of the RUC or any other form of service in Northern Ireland, as a result of acts of terrorism. I cannot add to what I said a moment ago, but if we are to take this process forward now, it can be on one basis only. That has been made clear and I will take the opportunity to make it
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clear yet again. If it proves impossible to go forward on that inclusive basis, we will have to look for another way forward. It is as simple as that. I know people criticise the fact that I am meeting the leader of Sinn Fein, but I think it important that that message is delivered, and delivered in a straightforward way.
Q6.  Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Unison members at Luton and Dunstable hospital in my constituency are seriously concerned that a new scanner at the hospital cannot be fully utilised because primary care trust funds have been channelled to private scanner services at Stevenage and Bedford, meaning that my constituents must travel unnecessarily to be scanned. Does my right hon. Friend accept that that is privatising nonsense, and will he use his good offices to get the policy changed so that my constituents can take advantage of the scanner at the Luton and Dunstable hospital and save public money in the process?
The Prime Minister: Obviously, I do not know the precise circumstances of my hon. Friend's hospital, and it would be worth looking into that. If a PCT needs to commission care from elsewhere for NHS patients, free at the point of use, it should be able to do so. Overall, a large additional sum of money is going to my hon. Friend's constituency and to every constituency in the country. I am surprised by what he tells me and I will certainly look into it, but the most important thing is that we make sure that NHS patients get the quickest and best possible care, which is the purpose of the Government's reforms.
The Prime Minister: Basically, that it never won two successive terms of Government and, perhaps, that it never put the Conservative party flat on its back, which is where it is now. Thankfully, we are running an economy with low inflation, low mortgage rates and low unemployment; fortunately, we are doing a darn sight better than the Government of whom the hon. Gentleman was a Member, who hadI thank him for allowing me to mention thisinterest rates at 10 per cent. for four years, 3 million unemployed and two recessions. Whether it is old Labour or new Labour, it is a darn sight better than the Tories.
Q7.  Iain Wright (Hartlepool)
(Lab): Police community support officers are a huge success in Hartlepool, providing assistance to the police in their fight against crime and reassurance to residents. Yet their shifts end at 9 o'clock at night, precisely the time when antisocial behaviour starts to increase on our estates. What steps will the Prime Minister take to ensure that CSOs have the power and money available to them to ensure that they work later into the evenings?
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The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. Although CSOs were opposed by the Opposition, most people now accept that they are a very good support for the police in patrolling our communities. He is right to say that people would like to see CSOs on duty even later at night. The exact hours they work has to be a matter for the chief constable, but I assure him that we will continue to invest in local communities and CSOs. We will not follow the proposals to cut the Home Office budget, which would be absolutely disastrous. We will continue with the antisocial behaviour legislation that has resulted in more than 40,000 fixed penalty notices and more than 3,000 antisocial behaviour orders. There is still a great deal to do, but the legislation is making a difference in many constituencies.
Q8.  Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): I was interested in the answer that the Prime Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (David Burnside). Is he unaware that his officials are negotiating? What message are the Government giving to international terrorists by continuing to pamper Sinn Fein-IRA and loyalist paramilitaries groups?
The Prime Minister:
It is not our intention to pamper them at all. On the contrary, the intention is to get them to give up violence and join the political process. That is what we are trying to do. For all the real difficulties in the peace process, we should not ignore the tremendous progress that has been made in the past seven or eight
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years. We are at a point today where everybody, not only in Northern Ireland but in the Republic of Ireland, is making it clear that they have had enough of political parties being allied to paramilitary activity and that that has to stop. The fact that that message is being given not only by the British Government but by the Irish Government is a significant advance.
Q9.  Tony Cunningham (Workington) (Lab): There is no doubt that huge investment has come into west Cumbria in recent years, with unemployment now the lowest it has been for a generation. However, real challenges still exist, with threats to jobs in the local steelworks, to civil service jobs and to jobs in the nuclear industry. It is worth reminding people that the nuclear industry provides 13,000 jobs in west Cumbria. Will my right hon. Friend continue to take a personal interest in west Cumbria, so that all the tremendous work that has been done is not undone?
The Prime Minister: I congratulate my hon. Friend's constituents on the work that they do in the nuclear industry. He is right to say that unemployment has fallen substantially. That is in part because of the strength of the economy and in part because of the new deal. It is also in part because much support has been provided by the Department of Trade and Industry. Those programmes helped some 7,500 businesses in Cumbria last year. It would therefore be very unfortunate if we were to cut that DTI support and the new deal and put at risk our economic stability. Fortunately those are not our policies, but the policies of the Opposition.