Previous SectionIndexHome Page


PRIME MINISTER

The Prime Minister was asked--

Engagements

Q1. [143225] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 10 January.

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1070

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Cunningham: First, Mr. Speaker, I wish everyone, including you and my right hon. Friend, a happy new year. [Hon. Members: "Division!"] Now we start to get serious. Is my right hon. Friend aware that Rolls-Royce Anstey proposes to export 600 jobs, including technologies, to Canada this year, and 2,000 jobs by 2003? Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to ask Rolls-Royce to reconsider that proposal? Secondly, will he ask the company to reconsider realistically any proposals made from the work force through their representatives? Thirdly, will he re-examine the agreement, made in the early 1990s under the previous Government, regarding assistance to Rolls-Royce to export those jobs?

The Prime Minister: I can well understand the concerns of my hon. Friend's constituents about the announcement made by Rolls-Royce. The Department of Trade and Industry is in close contact with the company. The Government are, therefore, keeping in close contact with Rolls-Royce about exactly what is planned. The company has yet to clarify the position, but I assure my hon. Friend that we will do everything that we possibly can to safeguard the jobs of people in his constituency.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): If the tax burden is 36.9 per cent. of national income in one year and 37.3 per cent. in the next year, is it rising or is it falling?

The Prime Minister: I am glad to say--[Hon. Members: "Answer."] Those are of course the published figures--[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I am very glad to say that the difference between those figures--the first published in the Budget and the second in the pre-Budget report--is wholly a result of the increase in the number of jobs in the economy and increased earnings; and overall under this Government, the proportion of revenues to national income has risen by exactly the same amount as in the last three years of the previous Conservative Government, when the right hon. Gentleman was a Cabinet member.

Mr. Hague: It is a new argument from the Prime Minister that an increase in the tax burden has nothing to do with the increase in taxes that has been levied by the Chancellor. To go from 36.9 per cent. to 37.3 per cent. is obviously an increase, so will he correct his statement to the House on 1 November last year? He said that


The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has not listened to what I have said. The pre-Budget report was, indeed, corrected, but that happened because of the extra jobs in the economy. In fact, the tax burden is lower today than it was in seven of the 10 years when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. If the tax burden is to be the sole judge of the economy, I should point out that the lowest tax burden in the past 25 years was achieved in

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1071

the final year of the previous Labour Government. I do not believe that that figure is the only judge. The reason for the change in the figures between the Budget and the pre-Budget report is that there are 1 million extra jobs in the economy.

In our first few years, the Government took action to clear the deficit. We wanted to invest in our public services. We favour making that investment. Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he is committed to those sums?

Mr. Hague: When the Prime Minister is caught out, he comes out with several minutes of specious waffle, and that is what we have had today. He has reached a new low in answering questions when he cannot even say that 37 is a rise on 36. He has refused to admit that today. Yesterday, his Ministers alleged that the average family was £800 better off because of Labour's tax changes, a figure arrived at by missing out all changes in excise duties on fuel and tobacco, all the impact of dividend tax credit abolition on pension funds and all increases in council tax. If the Prime Minister thinks that the average family never drinks, does not have a mortgage and does not get married, he has been spending too much time with the Cabinet rather than the rest of the country. Given that people have paid all the extra taxation, does he expect the number of police constables to be higher at the election than it was at the 1997 election?

The Prime Minister: Let me point out that mortgage rates under this Government are half the average under the right hon. Gentleman's Government. That saves families more than £1,000 a year. The House need not take my word for that. It is time to introduce to the House and the wider country--it may be the only introduction he ever gets--Mr. Nigel Hastilow, the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for Birmingham, Edgbaston. Yesterday, Mr. Hastilow said:


On the economy, Mr. Hastilow--should we call him Nigel?--provided the answer to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) when he said that


Mr. Hastilow provides a rather more accurate summary of the economy than does the Leader of the Opposition.

It is correct to say that police numbers have been falling over the past three years. That is absolutely right. In the whole of the United Kingdom, they have fallen for seven years, and in London for 10. Last year, however, we invested an extra £700 million, and police numbers are rising again. We are committed to investment; the right hon. Gentleman is committed to cutting it. That is the difference between us.

Mr. Hague: The right hon. Gentleman knows that we are not committed to cutting investment--he knows that absolutely. Once again, he is the great pretender, with no regard for the facts. The number of police constables reached an all-time record in spring 1997, when he became Prime Minister. It has fallen by 2,000 since then. The Police Superintendents Association says that the police service is moving towards crisis. The increase to

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1072

which he has just referred has happened only because the Government are allowing police forces to recruit people who had previously been rejected, a policy that cannot be sustained for the future. Does the Prime Minister expect the number of special constables to be higher at the next election than it was at the last one?

The Prime Minister: Let me first correct the right hon. Gentleman: the number of police officers fell for seven years. It is rubbish to say that the numbers are now rising only because of some change in the rules. They are rising because the money is there. In the same way, there are 7,000 more teachers today than there were three years ago, but we need more--through investment. There are 16,000 more nurses, but we need another 20,000--through investment.

The difference between our two political parties is that we are committed to the investment that will provide those extra police officers, whereas the right hon. Gentleman is committed to taking it away. The shadow Chancellor has said--he repeated it yesterday--that whereas we, the Government, will increase public spending by 3.3 per cent., he will increase it by only 2 per cent. That is a £16 billion cut in spending.

That is why, when asked today how she would fund those extra police officers, the shadow Home Secretary said that she would do so by cutting the number of press officers in the Home Office. Even better, she went on to say that she would put more people in prison and, on being asked how she would fund that, replied:


I do not know what a self-financing prison scheme is: I can think of many ways in which the criminal element in our prisons might seek to raise money, but I do not think that we would want to encourage any of them.

The truth is that there is now a chasm between the economic policy announced by the shadow Chancellor and that pursued by every shadow spending Minister. Is the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks with his shadow Chancellor, or with the rest?

Mr. Hague: We can take it from that that the Prime Minister has no idea of how many special constables there were at the last election, or how many there will be at the next election. We have set out our spending plans and shall continue--[Hon. Members: "No!"] Oh yes, we have. As I told the right hon. Gentleman at the last Prime Minister's questions, if he thinks that we will fight at the election for a reduction in the police budget, he is completely crazy. That is obviously not going to be the policy of the Conservative party. Let me give him the latest figures on special constables: at the last election there were 19,800, whereas now there are 13,500--a reduction of almost one third in the number of special constables in this country.

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1073

The Prime Minister: The way to increase the number of police is to invest in the police. We are committed to that investment and the right hon. Gentleman is not. He says that I must be crazy if I think that he will not invest in the police, but I think that it is dangerous to call the Conservative party's sanity--or mine--into question in that way. Let me again quote Mr. Nigel Hastilow, who says:


So the madness is not on the Government side, but on the Conservative side.

The simple fact is that the right hon. Gentleman has to choose. We have proposed investment plans that increase investment by 3.3 per cent. over the next three years. That is what provides the nurses, the teachers and the police--[Hon. Members: "Give us the figures."] I am delighted to do so. The number of teachers has already increased by 7,000 and the number of nurses by 16,000. Over the next three to four years, the number of police will increase to a record level and it is increasing now. My point remains: the only reason we can increase those numbers is that we are putting in the money--yet the right hon. Gentleman is committed to taking it out.

In his great campaign yesterday, the right hon. Gentleman, typically, made a huge strategic blunder. He has made the issue of the next few months the question: who believes in investment in public services? The truth is that we do and he does not.

Mr. Hague: Is it not the truth that a Government who promised no tax increases at all and better public services all round have now produced higher taxes all round, accompanied by a crisis in the police, a crisis in teacher recruitment, a permanent crisis in the national health service, and a standstill on the railways and the roads? Nothing makes it clearer that this Government is all spin and no delivery.

The Prime Minister: I thought that we both agreed that the transport system needs more money. We are committed to putting that extra investment in the transport system, but when we announced that investment, the right hon. Gentleman called it reckless, irresponsible and unsustainable. That was only a few months ago. Now, is the right hon. Gentleman in favour of that extra investment in transport or not? We do not know.

I should point out, perhaps for the benefit of Opposition Members, and especially the shadow Chancellor, that it is not merely that the shadow Chancellor is committed to cutting spending while all the other spending shadow Ministers are committed to increasing it. I shall name one Conservative spending commitment, and let us hope that we can find out from the Conservative party in the next few days how it will finance it. The shadow legal affairs spokesman announced that the Conservatives would end all means testing of legal aid. That may be worth while, but it is massively expensive. How on earth will the

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1074

Conservatives fund that? The same is true of defence, farmers, schools and hospitals--which is why the last word should rest with Mr. Nigel Hastilow. He says:


To win back Edgbaston, Mr. Hastilow says,


If the Conservatives own candidates are saying that about their party, I cannot wait for the country's verdict.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear!

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): As the Prime Minister has introduced a fully elected Scottish Parliament accountable to the people, fully elected Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and a fully elected Assembly in London, could I persuade him to come out in favour of a fully elected Parliament, which most countries have? Appointing people by patronage is no basis for law making. Will the Prime Minister give a single reason why we should not have a fully elected Parliament in this country?

The Prime Minister: I will give my right hon. Friend a simple reason. In my view, the second Chamber is a revising Chamber. We do not need two Chambers competing against one another. This Chamber is the proper Chamber for democratic authority and overall control, and that is why I do not believe in a fully elected second Chamber, in which my right hon. Friend believes. As for the issue of patronage, before Opposition Members start talking about it, I am the Prime Minister who is introducing the first restrictions on prime ministerial patronage. No doubt Opposition Members are keen on that now, but it slipped their minds in 18 years of government.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Apart from wondering how much members of the Labour party paid that Tory candidate to say all those things--

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Two million.

Mr. Kennedy: If they did, please could they let me into the secret?

The Prime Minister: I have accepted that there are fewer. There have been fewer police officers in the whole of the UK in the last seven years, and in the last 10 years in London. My point is that this can be cured only by investment, and we are now putting in that investment.

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1075

To return to the right hon. Gentleman's first point: why did we not do this before? The answer is that until we had stabilised the economy, got the national debt under control and got borrowing down--[Interruption.] Let me remind Opposition Members that when we came to office, the country had £28 billion of borrowing and a doubled national debt, and was paying out more on interest payments on the debt than on the whole school system. I make no apology for being very tight in the first two years, difficult though that was, and for now allowing ourselves the ability to fund year-on-year increases in spending on schools, hospitals, police and transport. I believe that that was the right thing to do.

Mr. Kennedy: The Prime Minister is the politician who, in opposition, told the country that he was going to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. What has happened? The police's recorded crime figures show that crime has risen, and that cannot be divorced from the fact that there are fewer police officers out on the beat in local communities. Should not the Prime Minister get tough on failure and tough on the causes of the failure of his and the Home Office's policies?

The Prime Minister: First, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman. Crime has fallen under this Government, not risen. That is no consolation to people who are victims of burglary, car crime or any other kind of crime, but it has fallen. Secondly, we have introduced a series of measures in relation to juvenile justice, burglary, rape, crimes of violence and other matters.

It is important that we now carry on investing in the infrastructure of the police. We are investing not only in police numbers, but in things such as closed-circuit television and the new police communications system. The police need investment in those, and in personnel. We also need to reform the criminal justice system, and we have embarked on that programme in this parliamentary Session.

Of course it is right that in the first few years police numbers went down, for the reasons that I have given, as they had been doing for years. That situation is now being turned around, and it can only be sustained on the basis of a strong economy, not a weak one. That is why the Liberal Democrat proposition, which is to spend unlimited sums of money without wondering where they come from, is not, in reality, a substitute for a sound economic policy.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East): Does my right hon. Friend agree that inflation-busting fare rises by several rail companies demonstrate a commitment to profit before consumers? Is that not a testament to Tory privatisation?

The Prime Minister: It is important to remember that we have the ability to keep those fares that are regulated low. However, my hon. Friend is right. One of the reasons for the Strategic Rail Authority is that it is important that we get greater co-ordination into our railways and make up for the botched, failed, fragmented privatisation that we inherited from the Conservatives.

Q2. [143226] Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): The British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners have said that 10,000 more family doctors are essential if the national health service is to

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1076

function. At present, the taxpayer is funding the training of some 1,100 medical students and the Government have proposed to train a further 900. That would leave a shortfall of some 8,000 family doctors. Will the Prime Minister say what he intends to do about that?

The Prime Minister: First, the fact is that the number given by the hon. Gentleman relates to training places every year, so he is not correct. Secondly, since we came to office, I think that the number is 4,500 extra doctors; and the NHS plan commits us to several thousand more.

It is time the Conservative party understood what it is trying to say, which is that we need even more investment in our public services. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I agree with that. That is why we announced the comprehensive spending review last year. We are putting the extra money in, but the hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues are committed to taking it back out again. Whoever may make criticisms of the numbers of nurses, teachers, doctors or police, one group of people cannot do so, and that is the group of people sitting with the hon. Gentleman.

Q3. [143227] Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Given that a report published today has shown a clear link between investment in information technology in schools and educational achievement, today's announcement of an £8 million investment in computers for Derbyshire schools in the next three years is very welcome.

The Prime Minister: The local government finance Green Paper deals with these issues, as my hon. Friend knows, and we are well aware of people's concerns. I am delighted that that extra investment is being put into technology in schools. I think that I am right in saying that nine out of 10 schools are wired up to the internet. Every school that I visit shows more investment in hardware and software in the classroom. The possibilities are enormous, provided, of course, that we make the investment. I do not think that I need repeat the points that I made earlier on that.

Q4. [143228] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): An acute teacher shortage in Wiltshire is leading to a four and a half day week in some schools and to growing class sizes in every school across my constituency. A moment ago the Prime Minister was boasting about the 7,000 new teachers across England. In that case, how does he react to the comment of Mr. David Hart of the National Association of Head Teachers, who says that teacher recruitment is in meltdown? Or does he agree with Nigel de Gruchy of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers who says that the Prime Minister is incredibly complacent about it? The

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1077

right hon. Gentleman says that the teachers are there, and the taxpayers are paying for them, but where are the teachers?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman just about got his soundbite out at the end of his question. To increase the number of teachers, we introduced training salaries of £6,000 for new graduates in last year's Budget and there are salaries of up to £13,000 for career switchers. The first rise in recruitment for eight years has just taken place. I have already indicated to the hon. Gentleman that there are 7,500 more teachers since we came to office. Since the beginning of this year, we have seen the largest ever increase in inquiries from people wanting to join the teaching profession. [Interruption.] Yes, of course it is right. We have 7,500 teachers--we need even more. What is the answer to that? It is to put money in to get them. The difficulty for the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues is that, whereas we are committed to putting the money in, they are committed to taking the money out.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): Given the significant changes in the global economy, particularly in the United States, and the continuing problems suffered by manufacturing, as witnessed by 350 job losses in manufacturing in my constituency over Christmas, does my right hon. Friend agree that an early cut in United Kingdom interest rates would be not only prudent but desirable?

The Prime Minister: It would be unwise of me to answer that question specifically. The interest rate decision has to be left to the Bank of England. On manufacturing industry, it is the case--partly as a result of the euro's improvement in its competitiveness with the pound--that the situation is better, but it is still very difficult for some areas of manufacturing. However, for manufacturing, as for the rest of the British economy, the worst thing would be a return to the boom and bust of the late 1980s and early 1990s. [Interruption.] They want the facts--they can have them. When the Conservatives were in office, we lost 1 million manufacturing jobs, output plummeted by 7 per cent. and we had the two worst recessions since the war. Since this Government have been in office, we have had lower mortgages, more jobs and a better run economy.

Q5. [143229] Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): Is the Prime Minister aware that the shortfall in police recruitment in Hampshire is now greater than at any time since 1995 and is set to double again this year? As a

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1078

result, instead of getting four extra officers in my constituency of Eastleigh, we are likely to have fewer. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that giving chief constables extra cash and the power to recruit extra officers is pretty meaningless when police pay and conditions are tied to a national scale which does not reflect the high cost of housing in my area, for example, where house prices have gone up by a quarter in the past 12 months? Will he give an undertaking to make police pay and conditions more flexible so that Hampshire can recruit the officers that it needs and, most importantly, the officers that my constituents expect?

The Prime Minister: I understand from the Home Secretary that recently the numbers in Hampshire have started to turn the corner as a result of the additional money that has been put in. One of the biggest problems that we have recruiting public sector workers, whether nurses, teachers or police, is not simply a shortage of money to buy the individual teacher, nurse or police officer, but the cost of housing and other things faced by people in certain parts of the country. That is why we are offering increased support for housing costs, for example. We have done that in London and we are looking to see how we can do it in other areas too. However, I must return to this point: it can be done only if we are prepared to put in the money. I understand that the hon. Gentleman supports the extra investment that we are putting in, but that is a choice that the country has to make. Only if we are prepared to put in the investment will we get the police, nurses and teachers that we need.

Q6. [143230] Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): Last year, I visited the laboratories at the Royal Bolton hospital and saw the excellent work that the scientists do there. Without their work, the national health service would probably grind to a halt. Does my right hon. Friend agree, therefore, that the announcement of a significant pay award to that group of people will not only reverse more of the Tory damage, but will boost morale in that service and aid recruitment and retention?

The Prime Minister: That is a perfect example of what I was saying a moment ago. We are trying to get additional sums of money to hard-pressed groups in our public services, where we need to recruit and pay properly. It will take time and it has to be done in a way that will not put at risk the strength of the economy. We now know that the Conservative party would take that money away from the very groups to which my hon. Friend refers. The difference between the two parties--[Interruption.] I am not surprised that Conservative Members are leaving. They should go and take a crash course in the economy and then come back and debate it.

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1077

10 Jan 2001 : Column 1079


Next Section

IndexHome Page