The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before listing my engagements, I know that the whole House will join me in sending our condolences to the family of the British soldier who was killed in Basra overnight. He and his colleagues were doing a vital job in Iraq, helping that country become the democracy that its people want, as the millions who voted on Saturday in Iraq showed.
The right hon. Gentleman is aware that some local authorities are warning of big increases in the council tax next year, with job losses and cuts in services. Does he agree that now is not the time to embark on grandiose projects, particularly those that will rely on a heavy annual subsidy from the public purse?
The Prime Minister: I do not think I had better answer that last part too specifically, in case I have not spotted the catch. It is important that people understand that for the council tax, the Government have increased support to local authorities substantially over the past few years. Most council tax bills in Conservative and, if I may say so, Lib-Dem-controlled areas, are already over £1,000, whereas most council tax bills in Labour areas remain below £1,000. That may not be grandiose, but it is an excellent guide to voting intentions.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Yesterday, the primary care trusts in Devon and Cornwall agreed to prescribe Herceptin for women in the early stages of breast cancer. Today West Yorkshire has followed suit. Will my right hon. Friend give a message of hope to my constituent, Alison Poole, who does not want a postcode lottery to develop and wants to get Herceptin prescribed? Will he look at ways of making emergency funds available to primary care trusts in the present financial year?
The Prime Minister: The steps recently announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health should mean that the drug is available throughout the country as swiftly as possible. Because the matter arises as a result of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines, we are looking at how we can speed up the process in cases where it particularly matters to people who may be desperately ill and who think there is a drug on the market that can help them. We all accept that at present the procedures are too slow. The idea of NICE is an excellent idea. It has a broad measure of support, but we need to make sure that its processes work more quickly so that what has happened in the case of this drug is not repeated.
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I join the Prime Minister in expressing my condolences and the condolences of those on the Conservative Benches to the family of the British serviceman who lost his life overnight in Iraq. I pay tribute once again to the courage with which our forces are discharging the very difficult tasks they face in that country.
The Prime Minister: I do not accept that the Chancellor did so at all. I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that both the public finances and the general economic record of the Government compare extremely well with the disastrous experience that the country had when he was a member of the last Conservative Cabinet.
The Prime Minister and I are both old stagers and we can always take a trip down memory
19 Oct 2005 : Column 836
lane, and if we do we will find that it is commonly agreed that it was the last Conservative Government, particularly under the financial stewardship of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who laid the foundations for what has happened since. But I think that the Prime Minister will find that most people are more interested in here and now and the future. I was quoting from the Item Club, which uses the Treasury's own model, and it says this week that the Chancellor's growth forecasts are now "completely untenable"; he has been "looking around for scapegoats"; he is left "short of excuses"; and
The Prime Minister: If we are talking about the present or the future, I rather prefer the OECD economic survey that said that our macro-economic performance over the last decade has been a "paragon of stability", and that we have delivered economic stability, record growth, the lowest levels of unemployment, the lowest interest rates and lowest inflation that this country has seen for decades. I tend to take a trip down memory lane, but memory lane is not very good for the country. Let me just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that when he was in government[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Oh yes, because this is what would happen if they ever got their hands back on the British economy againinflation peaking at over 10 per cent., interest rates at 15 per cent., and when he was Employment Secretary, unemployment rose by 1 million. That is why, whether we compare the present, the past or the future, the Labour party outperforms the Conservatives.
Mr. Howard: Let us look at some of the things that the Prime Minister has mentioned. Inflation is higher now than it was in May 1997; unemployment has gone up for eight months in a row; the growth forecasts have been downgraded; mortgage rates have risen; the trade gap is at its highest level ever; and business investment is at its lowest level ever. So I do not think that there is much for the Prime Minister to crow about there. Is not the reason why the Chancellor tried to dress the public finances up for the election very clear? Is not the naked truth that he did not want to come clean on the tax rises that we all know are coming?
The Prime Minister:
Let me just remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that employment is 2 million higher under this Government; long-term youth unemployment has been virtually eliminated under this Government; people remember the old skivvy schemes under the Conservatives; and the new deal that he is still opposed to has delivered opportunities in work and training for over a million of our citizens. If we look at a comparison between this country over the past few years and any other major developed country, this country comes out top. That is the fact, and people remember what it was like under the Conservatives. It is not just a
19 Oct 2005 : Column 837
question of a trip down memory lane; it is exactly the same polices as the Conservatives advocate today. Past, present or future, we are better.
Mr. Howard: The Prime Minister seems to be unaware that our growth record is actually lower than that of the average for developed countries in the world, and the House and the country will have noticed that he did not even pretend to deny that the reason why the Chancellor fiddled the figures before the election was to pretend that it would not be necessary to increase taxes. Is not that also the reason why the Chancellor has moved the goalposts on the economic cycleso that he can borrow £13 billion more without appearing to break his golden rule? As the Item Club said:
The Prime Minister: I do not accept that. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman looks at public sector debt and deficits, he will find that they are among the lowest in the G7. We have a record on unemployment, on growth, on inflation and on interest rates that compares extremely favourably with that of other countriesinterest rates are about half of what they averaged during the Conservative years. As we are quoting, I shall quote this to the right hon. and learned Gentleman:
"Fifteen per cent. interest rates, sky-high mortgage arrears, negative equity, bankruptcies, entrepreneurs giving up the ghost on private-run companies and a lot of people losing their jobs. I don't think there was a family in the country that didn't experience at least one of those anguishes."
Not my words, but those of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood). I know that he is neither a present nor a past contender for the leadership of the Conservative party, but he shared a Cabinet table with the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I think that his testimony is good.
Mr. Howard: My right hon. Friend shares my view that that was because of our entering the exchange rate mechanism. Conservative Members have learned our lesson, because we are firmly committed to not joining the euro. Let us return to the record of this Government and this Chancellor: is it not the case that it is the Chancellor who thwarted the Prime Minister's public reform agenda, that it is the Chancellor who is guilty of dressing up the public finances and that it is the Chancellor who is ramping up taxes on hard-working families? If the Prime Minister's legacy is important to him, why on earth does he not stand up to the Chancellor, instead of planning to hand over to him?
The Prime Minister:
Without going back over all the statistics that we have been trading on the economic performance of his Government compared with ours, I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman can blame two recessions and millions of unemployed on the exchange rate mechanism. Has he checked that with the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), who did not say that at the time and does not say that now? We all know that the last Conservative Government was a disaster in terms of boom-and-bust economics and that this Government have produced economic stability. Incidentally, when we
19 Oct 2005 : Column 838
are talking about reform, this Chancellor introduced one very important reform, Bank of England independence, which played an important part in giving this country stability, and I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that he opposed it.
Mr. Howard: We agree that that was the right thing to do eight years ago. As the Prime Minister is so keen on the figures, let me give him some figures about his Government's performance: growth forecasts are down and the trade deficit is up; manufacturing jobs are down and taxes are up; competitiveness is down and red tape is up; and productivity growth is down and borrowing is up. We have fallen from 4th to 13th in the competitiveness league table; we are 15th out of 27 in productivity; we are 51st in the league table for Government regulation; and we are 67th on the efficiency of our tax system, 28 places behind Cambodia. Yet the Prime Minister preens himself on his conduct of the economy. Why does he not use the time that he has got left to stop being hoodwinked by his Chancellor and face up to the reality of the true state of the British economy?
The Prime Minister: I now have 67 statistics that I want to read out[Interruption.] I am jokingfortunately. We can compare economic records, but our economic record stands comparison with the best not only of our past, but of other countries. It is true that growth has slowed, as it has in all major countries, but I think that I am right in saying that this is the only major economy anywhere in the world that has weathered the economic storms of the past few years without a recession. It is true that there have been small increases in the unemployment claimant count, but employment has continued to rise and unemployment is way down on a few years ago.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has said that we agree about Bank of England independence. I must point out that he did not agree at the time and that he opposed it. At that time, he also opposed extra investment in our public services, the reform of student finance and the minimum wage. I understand that he has converted himself on all those propositions, and I suggest that he convert himself on this one: the steady progress in investment and reform in our public services has seen record school results, falls in waiting times and waiting lists, and people getting better cancer and cardiac care. That is why we should continue with this Government's policies.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
(Lab): Can my right hon. Friend look again at the delays in compensation for the survivors of the attack by the mass murderers on 7 July? In doing so, will he also look at the inadequacy of that compensation? For example, the final compensation sum for one of the victims, a young female who had her legs amputated above the knee, is £110,000. That is totally inadequate. There is a need for all of us in this House not only to try to protect people from terrorists but to ensure that those who survive such attacks are properly looked after, including financially. This matter should be looked at very urgently by the Government.
19 Oct 2005 : Column 839
The Prime Minister: In general terms, of course I agree with the sentiments that my hon. Friend expresses. The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has been dealing with claims relating to 7/7 as rapidly as possible, as it does with all claims. We have recognised the unique nature of the attack through the payment of additional sums of money into the London bombings relief fund. However, I understand the concerns that still exist. I can tell my hon. Friend that officials are considering the possibility of introducing a scheme to provide compensation for, for example, UK victims of terrorism, wherever that may happen. We will also look at how we can speed up the provision of payments to the victims of 7/7. The CICA is separate from Government, so there is a limit to the degree to which we can push it, but we have made our views clear. To be fair, I understand that it has made some 30 offers of payment, 13 of which have been paid.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): Given the narrowness of last night's vote on the Identity Cards Bill, does the Prime Minister accept that it is highly unlikely that he will succeed with it when it comes before the House of Lords? That being the case, may I return to the question that I asked him in June, which he chose not to answer? Is it his intention to use the Parliament Act to push the Bill through the House of Lords, based on his 35 per cent. mandate from the country in the House of Commons?
The Prime Minister: I am not going to base my answers on the right hon. Gentleman's pessimistic assumptions. ID cards are an important part of our manifesto. They are also an important part of trying to protect this country and to deliver a better way for people to protect their identity in the modern world. The reason why this is happening is perfectly simple, and it is happening in many other countries as well. The new biometric technology, combined with the fact that identity fraud and identity abuse are far more common in today's world, make the adoption of an identity card over time the sensible way for this country to go. Rather than arguing about who is going to win and who is going to lose in the House of Lords, let us have a serious debate on the issues.
Mr. Charles Kennedy: No clear answer in June; no clear answer today. The Prime Minister must therefore understand why so many people, including, as we heard in the exchanges yesterday, more than a few of his own Back Benchers, see his Government as becoming more authoritarian as every day goes by. I say this to the Prime Minister: just look at a checklist which involves questioning the principle of innocence until proved guilty, promoting the concept of summary justice, picking fights with the judiciary, and saying that he wants to lock people up for 90 days without charge. If that is not an authoritarian approach, what is?
The Prime Minister:
I do not think that it is authoritarian to say that the police need powers in respect of antisocial behaviour in local communities, including fixed penalty notices, closing down pubs where there is regular fighting outside, and putting in place antisocial behaviour orders. That is not authoritarian: it is putting the interests of law-abiding people first.
19 Oct 2005 : Column 840
We are putting forward the 90-day periodalthough of course it is to be subject to judicial oversight every seven daysbecause the police tell us that they believe that such a power is necessary to prevent terrorist acts.
It is truly absurd to say that introducing identity cardsas, after all, large numbers of countries have doneis an authoritarian act. What we are trying to do, whether in respect of terrorism, antisocial behaviour or identity abuse, is to protect the decent, law-abiding people of this country. The debate is not advanced in any shape or form by the type of language that the right hon. Gentleman uses on civil liberties. I accept that the civil liberties of this country are an important part of our tradition[Interruption.] Let me say to Liberal Democrats that there is also a civil liberty to walk down the street without abuse, a civil liberty to ensure that we, as a country, do not lose out as a result of illegal people trafficking and identity fraud, and a civil liberty that is the right to life. In Government, difficult decisions have to be made by weighing up those matters and finding a balance. As far as I am concerned, I shall put the decent, law-abiding citizens of this country first and foremost.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend know that 30 per cent. of children aged two to 15 are obese or overweight? Although I am sure that hon. Members of all parties welcome recent Government announcements about banning junk food from school vending machines and improving school dinners, does he agree with the proposals in the Children's Food Bill to ban junk food advertising that is aimed at children in order to tackle the public health crisis?
The Prime Minister: We are looking carefully at the content of the Children's Food Bill. In principle, we accept that when advertising food and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar is aimed particularly at children, there is a case for action. However, we must consider the implications carefully. I assure my hon. Friend that we are determined to improve the position in relation to school meals and the diet of our children, since the indications are that that helps not only our young people's health but their ability to learn properly in school.
Q2.  Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister's plan to demolish 367 homes in Liverpool has been described by the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), as "social cleansing". What is the Prime Minister's view? Does he support his Deputy or his Minister?
The Prime Minister:
I am just hearing my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister disputing that, so I think that the facts on which the hon. Gentleman bases his question may be wrong. However, I assure him that we are putting a significant sum of money into housing and improving housing in Liverpool and elsewhere. That money is being used to provide decent homes and to ensure that people have access to high quality housing even if they are on low incomes.
19 Oct 2005 : Column 841
Q3.  Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree with the statement by the late Robin Cook that our nuclear weapons are hopelessly irrelevant to the task of dealing with terrorism and helping our vital role in international peacekeeping? Will he answer the question of which I gave him notice earlier today and tell us that, before any decision is made about spending a massive amount of moneyat least £10 billionon a replacement for Trident, we can have a debate and a vote in the House?
The Prime Minister: I am sure that there will be a debate as my hon. Friend suggests, and I have no doubt that there will be a great deal of discussion on the issue as the months and years unfold. I do not think that anyone pretends that the independent nuclear deterrent is a defence against terrorism; none the less, I believe that it is an important part of our defence. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has already made it clear that the Government will listen to hon. Members before making any decisions on replacing Trident. No decisions on replacing it have yet been made, but they are likely to be necessary in the current Parliament. It is too early to rule in or rule out any particular option. As we set out in our manifesto, we are committed to retaining the UK's independent nuclear deterrent. My hon. Friend will doubtless make his views clear, as will other hon. Members, and we will make our decision ultimately in the best interests of the country.
Q4.  Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): Given the experience of West Berkshire primary care trust, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that, in future, no PCT will have to tear up its budget a few weeks into the financial year and make savage cuts in health care to pay off the deficit in another PCT?
The Prime Minister: I am afraid that I do not know enough about the circumstances of the hon. Gentleman's PCT, but I am happy to correspond with him about it. However, according to my information, the PCT for his area has £89 million in fundinga considerable increase on a few years ago. There are also more nurses, more consultants, more general practitioners and more doctors in training in his area since 1997. I cannot answer the question about the details of his particular PCT, but I can say that, in common with other PCTs, it has had a considerable increase in its financial resources.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Is my Friend aware of the huge disquiet on this side of the House about his plans to force health workers such as health visitors, midwives, occupational therapists and physiotherapists out of the NHS and into the private, voluntary and not-for-profit sectors? Why are we doing this? Is it a matter of ideology?
The Prime Minister:
No. There is a consultation going on at the moment about primary care trusts and their structure which, as I have said, will give us the right configuration for health services for the future. This is not a matter of ideology; it is a matter of delivering the best service we possibly can for patients. It is also a matter of realising that, as we build up the resources going into the national health service over the next few
19 Oct 2005 : Column 842
years, the British national health service will be up around about the average of EU funding for health care for the first time in decades. It is important that we continue to get value for money for that investment, and people will expect us to do that.
These reforms are subject to consultation at the moment, but the lesson of our reform programme so far is that it is that programme, along with the money, that has delivered real falls in waiting times and waiting lists. For example, we now have a maximum of six months, whereas when we came into power it was 18 months. Over the next few years, if we keep the investment and reform going, there will be a maximum 18-week wait from the door of the GP to the door of the operating theatre. That will have transformed the position that we inherited in 1997.
Q5.  Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Eight years ago, on coming to power, this Government abolished the right of successful schools to break free from local authority control, yet they are going to publish a White Paper next week that will effectively hand back that option to certain schools. In the twilight of his premiership, has the Prime Minister finally discovered his reverse gear?
The Prime Minister: No, because what we did was abolish the fair funding restrictions. The fair funding that we have introduced to schools was the exact opposite of what happened with the grant-maintained schools, which were given special incentives to opt out of local education authority control. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is way out of date. Specialist schools and others have had greater freedoms in the last few yearssince the beginning of our second Parliament, in fact. Not only are additional freedoms going to be given, but additional resources as well, so that every school in the countrynot a small minority of schools, which is all that the grant-maintained schools ever werewill have the resources and the freedom that it needs to improve education for its children.
Q6.  Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is aware that there is widespread concern about the restructuring of primary care trusts, especially in London, where there are plans to remove their link with local government boundaries. May I urge him to review those proposals and, in particular, to reconsider the plans to impose a one-size-fits-all, dogmatic approach to commissioning by imposing a purchaser-provider split? He will be aware that such an approach was an integral part of the internal market of the NHS under the Tories. It became much hated by the public, and is one of the reasons why they will never be trusted with the NHS again. Should we not be wary of going down that road?
The Prime Minister:
We certainly should. However, there are two separate issues here. One is the reorganisation of the PCTs, and full consultation on the new boundary arrangements proposed by strategic health authorities will take place. Stakeholders and those interested in the issue, including my hon. Friend, will be able to make their representations clear. The second thing is to ensure that we introduce greater contestability in the health service. I believe that to be absolutely vital in order to introduce greater patient
19 Oct 2005 : Column 843
choice. Despite what people have said over the past few years, every time we have offered patients the ability to choose so that they get swifter access to NHS care, they have wanted it. Exactly as I want the law-abiding citizen to be at the centre of the criminal justice system, and the interests of parents and pupils to be at the centre of our education system, so I want the interests, desires and influence of patients to be at the centre of an NHS that is free at the point of use but modernised for today's world.
Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): May I associate my hon. Friends and myself with the Prime Minister's remarks of condolence? Is he aware of the fact that an important announcement is to be made in a written statement from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland today? According to what I have heard in the Lobby, that statement purports to restore the money to IRA-Sinn Fein that the House voted to stop. Why is this statement not being made on the Floor of the House so that the representatives from Northern Ireland can at least voice their opinion on the matter?
The Prime Minister:
I am sure that people will voice their opinion about the matter, but it is important that we make step-by-step progress in Northern Ireland. In July, we had major progress with the report of the Decommissioning Commission. Over the coming months, I want to make sure that we arrive at a situation in which we can get the institutions back up and running again in Northern Ireland. Along the way, difficult things will be done on all sides, but that is the step that we must take, and I would have hoped that the Democratic Unionist party, along with others in Northern Ireland, would support the objective.
19 Oct 2005 : Column 844
I understand the strong feelings on the matter. Sometimes, on other issues, we do things that Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour party and others do not like. I believe this to be a sensible step in trying to revitalise the institutions and devolved government in Northern Ireland, however, and that is our aim. We have come a long way in doing that, but we must complete it.
Q7.  Mrs. Sharon Hodgson (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend heard of the young person-led charity Changemakers, which used that name before he made it so famous? It does a lot of work in my constituency and across the country, helping to empower young people to play an active role in society. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Changemakers on that and invite it to work with the Government on the youth Green Paper, which covers areas in which it is already working successfully? Does he also agree that young people should be
The Prime Minister: First, may I apologise to Changemakers for having breached their copyright? I assure my hon. Friend that we very much support its work, and funding such work is part of a programme over the coming years in which, as well as taking tough measures on issues such as antisocial behaviour, we are prepared to put real resources into young people, volunteering activities and things that help to bring the community together. Changemakers is a national organisation and is recognised by us for its work. I hope that she will pass on our congratulations to those engaged in Changemakers in Newcastle.