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Prime Ministerial Visits

Q4. [128675]Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): What plans he has to visit the Tatton constituency.

The Prime Minister: I have no immediate plans to do so.

Mr. Bell: My constituents will be deeply disappointed that the Prime Minister is unable to experience the spirit of Tatton for himself. I know that they would be interested in his answer to a question that I know concerns them, having recently had an Adjournment debate on the issue, namely the verdict of gross negligence on the two pilots of the RAF Chinook that crashed in the Mull of Kintyre six years ago. Will the Prime Minister give that personal attention as a question of natural justice?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to give the issue my personal attention. I know that, with other hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman has run a significant campaign for some time on this tragic incident and that he secured an Adjournment debate on it. The RAF investigation into the crash was painstaking and exhaustive. All possible causes were examined, but no evidence of technical malfunctioning was found. The RAF board of inquiry established that the Chinook was flying too fast and too low in bad weather.

We have consistently said that we are ready to consider new evidence, but without new evidence it is difficult for us to justify reopening the inquiry. However, I will of course look into the matter personally as a result of the hon. Gentleman's question, and I will be in touch with him about it.


Q5. [128676]Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Does the Prime Minister now regret putting just 75p on the pension this April.

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, 75p is not all the money that has gone to pensioners. We had to decide whether to put everything on to the basic state pension, and we believed that it was better to give specific sums, such as the £150 winter allowance, the free television licences for the over-75s and free eye tests, which are very important; more and more pensioners are taking them up.

The other choice that we had to make was which pensioners to help first. Many people do not understand that there are 500,000 pensioners in this country who do not even receive the basic state pension because their contributions and those of their husbands were not enough. Those people have existed solely on income support. Through the minimum income guarantee we have boosted their income very substantially indeed--sometimes by between £15 and £20 a week. Of course,

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we now want to do more for other groups of pensioners, but overall in this Parliament we will have given an extra £6.5 billion to pensioners.

I remind the hon. Gentleman, whom I know had something to do with this policy before the last election, that the Liberal Democrat policy was, in effect, the minimum income guarantee. His party did not pledge to restore the link with earnings, but said rather that it would keep the link with prices. On both policy areas, we have done exactly what the Liberal Democrats wanted. The fact that they have now changed their minds does not surprise me.

Q6. [128677]Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Mr. Eric Gates, the head teacher of Chantry school in Gravesend, who recently received a south-east teaching award for his work with parents and the local community? Is my right hon. Friend aware that when Mr. Gates took over the school three years ago, it was in special measures, the roof and the windows were leaking and the school could boast only 40 books in total?

Has my right hon. Friend considered abandoning the education policies that have helped excellent teachers such as Mr. Gates create excellent schools such as Chantry and adopting instead a policy of severe cuts in education spending and the abolition of the effect of local education authorities? If he did so, how long does he think it would be before we returned to falling school standards, leaking roofs and 40 books for each primary school? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: Conservative Members definitely do not like it at all. I am afraid that a £17 billion spending cut has to be paid for, and if the Tories are re-elected it will be paid for by cuts in the schools budget. However, it is worse than that because the Conservatives' education policy also means taking £1 billion out of special educational needs. Not only do I think that that policy would be chaotic and wrong; I think that it is cruel, and no political party should have such a policy.

Q7. [128678]Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): The post office at Winterbourne Stickland in my constituency

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has been in the same family since 1877. When I visited the post office last week and met four generations of the Sprackling family and about 60 villagers, they were still unconvinced that the Government's proposals on village post offices will see their post office survive 2003. They asked me what will happen to those who, for reasons of poor credit or bankruptcy, are unable to get bank accounts, and which bank will give them an account. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that Winterbourne Stickland will have a post office in 2003?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is asking me for guarantees. This lot have guarantees on the brain. We have set out our proposals on the post offices and measures such as the universal bank, and we are working closely with rural and other sub-postmasters and mistresses to try to make them work. In addition, we have been prepared to commit a sum for investment in post offices. I hope that the hon. Gentleman said to the family that he met yesterday, "Well, of course, if we Conservatives comes back to power, we will cut spending." That would have been an honest thing to say, but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman did not say that. I am afraid that it is only just dawning on Conservative Members that they are going to have a lot of explaining to do between now and election day.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Somebody is confused and it is not me. To clear up the confusion, will the Government revisit mineral planning guidance note 3, in respect of opencast mining, to make it clear beyond any doubt that there will be no acceptance of applications when they are opposed on environmental grounds, community grounds and by the community itself? Unfortunately, that matter needs to be cleared up for Derbyshire county council, which has just decided to accept RJB Mining's planning application in my constituency. Obviously, action must be taken to ensure that the council knows exactly where it is supposed to stand.

The Prime Minister: Unfortunately, planning guidance note 3 was, by some extraordinary event, omitted from my box last night, but I shall ensure that that is remedied tonight and write to my hon. Friend.

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Speaker's Statement

3.31 pm

Madam Speaker: It has been a great honour to serve the House as its Speaker for more than eight years. As hon. Members will recall, I have undertaken on several occasions that the House would be the first to know when I decided to retire. I now wish to inform the House of my intention to relinquish the office of Speaker immediately before the House returns from the summer recess.

As recommended by the Procedure Committee in 1972, I believe that there is clear advantage in a new Speaker being elected during the course of a Parliament. In particular, it ensures that all Members are familiar with the qualities of potential successors. My decision will give my successor a run-in before the general election.

My statement today also gives notice to my constituents in West Bromwich, West that, at the same time as relinquishing the office of Speaker, it is my intention to retire as their Member of Parliament--[Hon. Members: "Oh."] Be happy for me! [Applause.]

I have one more thing to say. The summer recess will allow me to carry out official duties to which I am already heavily committed, and it will give me an opportunity to see my many friends in the black country who have given me loyal support for 27 years and sustained me through the ups and downs of parliamentary life.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): Madam Speaker, the House has already made it plain that it has heard your statement with deep regret. As a House, we have taken pride and pleasure in your speakership. The whole House will wish to pay tribute to you for the services that you have rendered the House and the nation, but today is not the occasion for that. It might assist the House if I indicate the sequence of events that will now be set in train.

I understand that, following precedent, you wish to make a substantive valedictory statement to the House a few days before we rise for the summer recess, on Wednesday 26 July. On that day, immediately after your statement, the House will pay its tribute to you, on the basis of a motion that the Government will table. You will remain in office throughout the recess, representing the House at international conferences in New York, presiding over the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association annual conference in London and Edinburgh, and making official visits to the Ukraine and the Baltic states. Your retirement will come into effect immediately before the House returns from the recess.

On the first day back after the recess, 23 October, there will be no Question Time and the only business before the House will be the election of your successor. That will take place under the chairmanship of the Father of the House, as provided in Standing Order No. 1.

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