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The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1.[61228]Mr. William Cash (Stone): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 2 December.

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 shall have further such meetings today.

Mr. Cash: Does the Prime Minister recall the words of Sir Winston Churchill in 1932--

Will he guarantee to the House and to the British people that he can and will veto tax harmonisation in Europe, veto the breaking of the unanimity rule and veto the call for a European constitution? The British people have been consistently misled over Europe by successive Governments, but the time has now come for the British people to be told the truth. Will he give the British people a White Paper, setting out the true constitutional position of this country in relation to the European Union?

The Prime Minister: As always, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the help that he gave us in the last general election campaign. He must be very pleased that his views on Europe are now the views of the Conservative Front-Bench team. As for the particular issue that he raises, no, I cannot promise him a White Paper, but I do promise him that we shall continue to represent the interests of this country properly and faithfully, and will resist any proposals that undermine the essential interests of this country. That is what we have done, and that is what we shall continue to do.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): Would my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the announcement of agreement at Rover Group? In particular, is he aware that the agreement that has been reached includes flexibility for employees but a reduction in working hours? Does that not show that, contrary to what Conservative Members seem to think, improvements in working conditions and a reduction in hours can be the friend of productivity, not its enemy?

The Prime Minister: I very much welcome the announcement that has been made by Rover Group. The building of the new Mini at Longbridge is a great victory for the imagination that has been shown by both management and unions at that plant. If the deal goes through and the extra investment goes in, that is the best guarantee of a healthy future for that plant, and the Government will certainly do all that we can to assist them.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Can the Prime Minister confirm that he is happy to see nearly 100 hereditary peers continue to sit in the House of Lords after his forthcoming Bill on the Lords has been enacted?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to hear the right hon. Gentleman's question. It is an indication that he is

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now prepared to agree to what would remove hereditary peers altogether, in the two stages, from the House of Lords. If he is now prepared to agree that, we are certainly prepared to agree it; and we shall then have the chance of getting a fully reformed second Chamber without any hereditary peers at all.

Mr. Hague: Will the Prime Minister confirm, because his party may not be aware of what he is talking about on this subject, that for some weeks the Lord Chancellor has been approaching the Conservative party with a proposal to keep a proportion of the hereditary peers, explicitly sitting as hereditary peers, not as life peers, in exchange for my party's acquiescence in the rest of his ill-thought-out change? Although we welcome the huge climbdown on his part, we are not prepared to acquiesce in that change, because we are not prepared to join forces with him on major constitutional change that is based on no comprehensive plan or principle.

The Prime Minister: That is extremely interesting. Yes, we are certainly prepared to agree to a proposal that would allow us to remove the hereditary peers altogether, in two stages. We are perfectly prepared to agree that in the first stage one in 10 hereditaries stays, and in the second stage they go altogether. It is also entirely true that we were prepared to discuss that with the right hon. Gentleman's party. I thought that we had the agreement of the leader of his party in the House of Lords. Indeed, I believe that we have that agreement. [Interruption.] Will the right hon. Gentleman enlighten us whether we have his agreement?

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister has just had the answer to that. He told the House--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House will come to order, so that we can hear what hon. Members are saying.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister said in the Queen's Speech debate last week:

He said that their existence was a "democratic monstrosity". [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] His party still agrees with that. Now he is proposing to keep hereditary peers in a stage 1 reform--[Interruption.] It is no good Labour Members shaking their heads. What they do not know is that the Prime Minister proposes to keep hereditary peers in a stage 1 reform of the House of Lords. Where does that leave his principles?

The Prime Minister: I take it from that that the right hon. Gentleman opposes the deal that has been agreed by the leader of the Conservative party in the House of Lords. As a result, we will indeed remove hereditary peers. We will do it by consensus, stage 1 and then stage 2, so that we can ensure that there is room in the legislative programme for other measures as well.

We are agreed on our side. I believe that the party of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) will agree also. His party in the House of Lords has now agreed. It is clear from this exchange that the right

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hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) no longer speaks for the Conservative party in the House of Lords.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister need be in no doubt who speaks for the Conservative party. Clearly, he is in no doubt that he speaks for the Liberal party and takes its acquiescence for granted. While we believe that his agreement to retain hereditary peers after stage 1 is a huge climbdown on the part of the Government, let me make it clear to him that we believe it is wrong to embark on fundamental change to the Parliament of this country without any idea where that will lead.

We have said before and we say now: no stage 1 reform without stage 2. Do not the Prime Minister's total lack of principle and his horse-trading confirm that it is common sense to put that reform on hold and await the report of the royal commission?

The Prime Minister: No. What is common sense is to get the thing done with as little fuss and as easily as possible, which we can now do. It is fascinating that the right hon. Gentleman is disowning the agreement that has been entered into by the leader of the Conservative party in the House of Lords. He may want to be in that position, but I doubt very much whether his party wants to be in that position. When he is provided with the means of getting reform through and agreed, he is more interested in playing games about the House of Lords than getting it done. Does he disown the deal made by the leader in the House of Lords, or does he agree with it? We should be told.

Mr. Hague: No deal has been made with the Conservative party. The deal to keep hereditary peers that the Prime Minister has tried to negotiate with the Conservative party does not address the fundamental point that the Government should not embark on major constitutional change without knowing where it leads. His proposal does not even satisfy the one principle in which he said that he was always in favour: the removal of hereditary peers.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have approached reform of the House of Lords on the basis of a clear principle. Our position was "No reform without knowing where it is going"; until today, theirs was the removal of hereditary peers. Does that not demonstrate that the Prime Minister never had any principle on the matter at all?

The Prime Minister: In fact, it proves that, even when hereditary Conservative peers are prepared to agree to change, the right hon. Gentleman is not. That is the absurd position to which he has reduced himself. If anything demonstrates the way in which the right hon. Gentleman gets every major strategic judgment wrong, it is this.

We have the opportunity to reform the House of Lords properly, and to establish a programme that will remove hereditary peers, but will allow us to do that on the broadest possible basis of agreement. It is clear that nowadays, even when we speak to the leader of the Conservative party in the House of Lords, we cannot be sure that the leader of the Conservative party in this House is of the same mind.

Mr. Hague: What we know is that the Prime Minister intends to turn the House of Lords into a house of cronies,

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and that he is now prepared to engage in any horsetrading that is necessary to achieve that end. It is beyond his comprehension that any politician can stand on a principle, and stand firm in his beliefs. I stand on the principle--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I have heard enough noise this afternoon.

Mr. Hague rose--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. If this continues, I shall send some Members out of the Chamber.

Mr. Hague: I stand on the principle that it is not advisable for anyone to blunder in regard to the constitution until they know where they are going. After today, it will be clear that the Prime Minister stands on no principle whatever.

The Prime Minister: I cannot prevent the right hon. Gentleman from engaging on a kamikaze mission. I can only tell him that even his cronies in the House of Lords agree with me that we should try to get this reform through. If we can manage to get it through with the minimum difficulty, it will be in the interests of the country that demands such action.

Mr. John Cummings (Easington): May I ask an equally important question? Does my right hon. Friend, and good neighbour, share my welcome for the coalfield task force report which was launched yesterday in Peterlee--a town in my constituency--by the Deputy Prime Minister? Does he agree that the report's recommendations signal the need for the overdue repayment of a long debt owed by the nation to those living in former coalfield communities?

The Prime Minister: I agree. As my hon. Friend will know, many who were present at the launch were from my next-door constituency.

The existence of a proper programme to regenerate the former coalfield communities, and to bring them jobs and hope, shows that this Government--this Labour Government--take their debt to the miners very seriously.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): Does the Prime Minister claim that the success of his health policy is demonstrated by the fact that, in the last six months, the number of people waiting for operations has been reduced by 100,000 as a result of a 100,000 increase in the number of people waiting to see a consultant?

The Prime Minister: No, because that is not what has happened. Waiting lists have fallen from their peak by about 120,000 since the Government came to power, as a result of the investment that we have made in the national health service. The reason for the rise in the out-patient list is the massive increase in the number of referrals. It is not the case that fewer people are being treated; in fact, more people are being treated.

Mr. Ashdown: May I direct the Prime Minister's attention a little more closely to a statistical bulletin which shows that the number of GP referrals over the past six

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months has dropped--not increased--by about 3,000? Is not the truth that the Government have made a political promise that they have funded only partly and that, to deliver it, they are robbing out-patient Peter to pay for in-patient Paul?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that those figures are right, actually. According to the figures that I have, 79,000 more out-patients were seen in the quarter ending September 1998 than in the previous quarter, and the figure is up more than 100,000 over the year since we came to office. We have been committed to reducing waiting lists, and we are reducing them, after years of rising waiting lists under the Conservatives. Those figures also show that we are reducing waiting times as well, because they are just as important. With the extra investment coming into the national health service next year, we will make sure that we not only fulfil our manifesto commitment, but exceed it.

Ms Tess Kingham (Gloucester): At the request of the people of Gloucester, I have been involved in a long campaign to get Channel 5 to drop its plans to make a mini-series about the West murders, which affected my constituency so greatly. It has refused consistently to meet the surviving victims or the victims' families, even when they came to London last week to deliver a petition. Channel 5 allowed a security guard to meet them on the doorstep.

This is not the first time that such a thing has happened. Channel 5 also has plans to make a soap opera about the Zeebrugge disaster, and another film company had plans to make a film about the Moors murders. Where will this stop, and is there any way that the Government can help to protect victims' families and surviving victims, so that they can remember their loved ones in peace rather than through the eyes of some soap opera star?

The Prime Minister: The House will be very sympathetic to the points that my hon. Friend raises, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will note them as well. Any of the companies making such films should be sensitive and responsive to the needs and desires of the victims, who still live with the scars that those crimes inflicted.

Q2.[61229]Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Does the Prime Minister not recognise the rich irony of his Chancellor going to Brussels this week to discuss tax havens, when he could have got free, world-beating advice merely by asking the Paymaster General? Does the Prime Minister not appreciate that, inevitably, high taxes lead to high unemployment, as on the continent? That is the universal legacy left behind by every Labour Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: First, we have cut corporation tax from the levels that we inherited from the Conservatives. Secondly, I do not believe that we will be alone in this argument on taxation in Europe at all. If necessary we will be alone, but I do not believe that we will be. What is more, I believe that there is a debate within Europe about the right way forward for Europe.

Some people want higher taxes in Europe; other people believe, as we believe, that the root to jobs and competitiveness is through economic reform,

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employability and investment in skills and education. We will get engaged in that argument, and I believe that we will win it. We must not revert to the diplomacy of the Tory years that saw this country reduced to the margins of Europe, without any influence at all. We will stay firm, and we will stay engaged. That is the way to protect this country's national interests.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the British economy is on course to meet Treasury targets and that attempts by Conservative Members to talk us into a recession are not only wide of the mark, but fatally flawed by the extraordinary comments of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)? In my local paper last week, he said:

The Prime Minister: I am hardly surprised at eccentric remarks falling from the lips of the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that the contrast is the Government providing fiscal and monetary stability through Bank of England independence and the new golden rules; the extra investment--£40 billion in health, education and other public services; and the working families tax credit and the new deal, to help low-income families and the unemployed. All are good measures for the British economy; all are opposed by today's Conservative party.

Q3.[61230]Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Does the Prime Minister remember all the promises that he made before the last election? Let me remind him of just one, which was made explicitly on his behalf, formally and in writing, by the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness in Europe, who said that

Does the Prime Minister stand by that commitment?

The Prime Minister: Yes, we stand by it. Indeed, after years of inertia from the Conservative Government, whom the hon. Gentleman supported, this Government have done more on age discrimination in 18 months than his lot did in 18 years.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important for Britain to argue in Europe for strong, independent taxation? It is scandalous that we inherited a system whereby the previous Government signed away our rights to zero rating for VAT on domestic fuel and the rights of British holidaymakers to buy duty-free goods.

The Prime Minister: The problem for the Government in trying to ensure that the provision of duty free goods is not abolished is the agreement made by the Conservative Government. The previous Government agreed all the measures on tax and harmonisation, just as they introduced more qualified majority voting than any Labour Government have ever introduced. Any action that we take will be based on our national interest. Our national interest requires us to be engaged and positive in Europe, and we shall hold to that position.

Q4.[61231]Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): In May, the Chancellor of the Exchequer welcomed the

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appointment of the Financial Secretary to head the European working group on tax harmonisation as putting the United Kingdom at the heart of the debate. Is it because we are at the heart of the debate that we will be forced to scrap 10 tax incentives for industry in this country?

The Prime Minister: No. What the Chancellor said is absolutely right. The code of conduct on unfair tax competition was first discussed under the previous Government. We have taken that work forward to remove hidden state subsidies that distort the single European market. It is important that we play a full part in that debate. Is the hon. Lady saying on behalf of the Conservative party that we should opt out of that debate altogether? We have had the opt-out politics of the Tory party for far too long. The country will remember the difference between Conservative and Labour over Europe: the Conservative party fought a beef war and got nowhere, whereas the Labour Government got the beef ban lifted entirely in 18 months. That is the way in which to engage with Europe.

Q5.[61232]Mr. Ian Pearson (Dudley, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although the problems are not over, the agreement between unions and management at Rover on flexible working, on which a ballot is currently being held, is a significant step towards securing, not only the long-term future of Longbridge, but many tens of thousands of jobs across the west midlands? Will he continue to campaign and to apply pressure to ensure that BMW's future investment plans include building the Mini and the new R30 model in Birmingham, and measures to strengthen the competitiveness and productivity of our automotive components base?

The Prime Minister: I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend in raising the issues of concern to his constituents. The only way to secure the future of that plant is by entering into such an agreement, which will raise productivity, improve competitiveness and guarantee that a high-quality product is produced at that plant. The Government shall play any part that they can. The fact that we have managed to get this programme together, agreed between unions and management, and that there is now hope for the future of that plant, is a tribute to that partnership, which offers the right way forward for industrial relations in this country.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire): Why cannot the Prime Minister bring himself to be as robust and firm with terrorists close to home as he was, rightly, with Saddam Hussein a couple of weeks ago? Is it a matter of pride for him that, even as he was receiving the plaudits of the Irish in Dublin, two grinning murderers were released who had committed possibly the most brutal public crimes of the entire troubles? Is it not time that the Prime Minister said to the IRA and Sinn Fein, "Enough is enough. We are honouring the letter and the spirit of the agreement. No more prisoners out until you do the same."?

The Prime Minister: It is for precisely that reason that it is important that we do honour the agreement. I understand the concerns of people who see those who have committed appalling murders being released on licence--not being given an amnesty, but being released

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on licence. However, it is important, if we are to ensure that all the elements of the agreement are adhered to, including decommissioning, that we hold to our part of the bargain. We will do that and we have already made it clear that we expect every part of the agreement, including decommissioning, to be adhered to and agreed.

Q6.[61233]Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): Does the Prime Minister share the respect that I and, I imagine, many hon. Members have for Shelter, the campaign for the homeless, and will he join me in welcoming the innovative new service that it will launch tomorrow: a free 24-hour advice and assistance line for those facing homelessness, to be called Shelterline? Will he also welcome with me the partnership that has made that possible between the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, British Telecom and a range of individuals and organisations through the public, private and voluntary sectors?

The Prime Minister: I support strongly the launch of Shelterline and welcome it. I also point out, in addition to what my hon. Friend rightly says, that the social exclusion unit and the special unit that will tackle rough sleeping in London will have some £145 million made available to it over the next three years. In addition, of course, it is this Government who are beginning to release some of the money--the £4.45 billion backlog of capital receipts--that will allow us to tackle some of the housing problems in our inner cities and elsewhere.

My judgment is that, if we proceed with the policies that we have set out now, combined with the new deal, both for communities in the inner city and for the young and the long-term unemployed, we will give many of those who are homeless the best chance and start in life that they have had for many years.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Will the Prime Minister reflect on the fact that, last Thursday, he took part in a two-horse race in the north-east of Scotland and managed to come third? On the same day, he addressed a joint session of the Irish Parliament. Will he explain why, in that speech, he was so positive and complimentary

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about Ireland's success as a small nation in the mainstream of Europe, but, when it comes to Scotland, he is so negative and disparaging about Scotland emulating that example? Could that contrast explain why he received a standing ovation in the Dail, but the bum's rush in the north-east of Scotland?

The Prime Minister: I look forward to the debate that we will have in the Scottish Parliament election campaign next year, and I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that Scotland will have a straightforward choice. It will have a choice between higher taxes, worse economic prospects, business leaving Scotland, the inability to fund the extra investment in schools and hospitals--all the risks under the Scottish National party--and the chance of economic stability and investment in our public services under the Labour party.

What I notice about the hon. Gentleman is that the one issue that he never wants to engage in is the economic cost and risk of the policies that he advocates. My judgment is that, when the people of Scotland see that choice, it will be him that gets the bum's rush.

Q7.[61234]Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): Will my right hon. Friend welcome the good news for the people of the west midlands and particularly Coventry that Rover has been saved, but, more important, that Peugeot Talbot will now expand, creating hundreds of jobs? Will he condemn the Opposition Members who talk Britain down and continually jeopardise the jobs of millions of people not only in the west midlands, but throughout the country?

The Prime Minister: I should also second the praise that Peugeot's managing director has given to the work force at Peugeot for improving productivity and quality. That is great news for Peugeot. It won the new orders in the face of intense competition from the rest of Europe. It is important and excellent news. It underlines also how important it is that we carry on being a constructive part of the European Union. If we can make sure that we drive up productivity and quality in the British work force and in British industry, the future of our country will be secure indeed.

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