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Q5. [148799] Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon): What plans he has to visit Wimbledon.

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

Mr. Casale: When my right hon. Friend does come to Wimbledon, he will discover that low interest rates are one of the achievements that my constituents most identify with a Labour Government. Home owners are now paying less than £700 a month for an average mortgage, compared with more than £760 a month in 1992 under the Tories. Will he assure the House and my constituents that he will continue with his Government's policies to set a course for economic stability? Nobody in Wimbledon wants to go back to the high and fluctuating interest rates, negative equity and house repossessions that were the legacy of Tory boom and bust. [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: Conservative Members seem to think that my hon. Friend's constituents will not be interested in economic stability or low interest rates. I think they will find that they are rather wrong. Of course, the importance of low mortgage rates is that there is nothing better for hard-working families who are pressed to make ends meet than being able to rely on low rates and thus on lower mortgage payments. On average, they are running about £1,000 a year less under this Government than they were when the Conservative party was in government. People remember the days of interest rates at 15 per cent., negative equity, repossession and boom and bust, and they never want to go back to them.


Q6. [148800] Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): May I welcome the employment figures published today? They show that unemployment in Wirral, South, for example, has fallen by a third generally since the last election, and by 80 per cent. among long-term unemployed young people. My right hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that structural change is occurring, not least in manufacturing, and that the picture will vary from area to area. Excellent though the figures are, does he agree that the Government will be judged not only by these excellent headline items, but by the way in which they handle the

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process and help the areas, individuals and communities that are affected by economic and industrial change? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: A moment ago, the Opposition were not interested in listening to what was said about interest rates; now they are not interested in jobs either. Today's figures show that unemployment is now at a record low for almost 25 years. Many people remember when 3 million were unemployed. The figures indicate, along with the fact that there are still 1 million vacancies in the economy, that we are finally providing the ability not only to have economic stability, but to put on top of that a productive job-creating base for the economy. That is immensely important.

I hope that the whole House recognises that when there are more jobs in the economy, more wealth is created for this country and we can make the investments in our public services that people so desperately need. There is a pretty obvious answer to why the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) never asks me any questions about the economy.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Let me ask the right hon. Gentleman for some figures. The Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), stated in a written answer on 23 January that the cost of asylum support was £664 million. Does the Prime Minister stand by her answer?

The Prime Minister: Yes.

Mr. Hague: Even by the Government's standards, their reputation for honest answers has sunk to a new low. The real cost to the taxpayer was sent from the Home Office to No. 10 Downing street in the same week as the parliamentary answer was given. Total asylum support costs £835 million. The covering memo from the Home Office states:

The Prime Minister: That is quite wrong. The budget is as I set it out a moment ago, and accords with the figure that the right hon. Gentleman first put to me. He describes the costs that depend on, and fluctuate because of, the number of asylum seekers. They will go up and down. However, as a result of our measures, approximately three times as many asylum seekers are being removed now as five years ago. From next year, somewhere in the region of 30,000 will be removed. That will reduce those costs considerably.

Mr. Hague: Once again, the Government have been caught out on their statistics. We know that the budget was £660 million. The right hon. Gentleman and the Minister were asked about the cost. The Prime Minister talks about the number of removals; will he confirm that, of the 69,000 asylum claims that were rejected last year, only 9,000 claimants left the country? Taken together,

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do not the figures demonstrate the collapse of the Government's asylum policy? They have made this country a soft touch and turned us into the asylum capital of Europe. Everyone knows the Government's true record: a record number of applications, a record number of people avoiding deportation, and a record amount of deception and failure.

The Prime Minister: Perhaps I can give the right hon. Gentleman the facts. The figure of 9,000 is correct. As I said earlier, that is three times the number of people who were removed five years ago under the Conservative Government. However, the overall number of people removed is some 46,000.

Which policies will reduce the number of those entering the country: an end to cash benefits, penalties on lorry firms that bring in illegal immigrants, or a boost to the number of people who work in the immigration and nationality department? We have introduced all those measures; the right hon. Gentleman has opposed every one. Let me explain, so that the public understand, that he goes around the country telling people that asylum is a terrible problem while obstructing in the House of Commons every move that allows us to deal with it.

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that Britain has the highest number of asylum seekers per capita. In the past six months, Britain's numbers have remained constant, while Sweden has experienced a 53 per cent. increase, Denmark a 44 per cent. rise, France a 13 per cent. increase, and Belgium a rise of 16 per cent.

We say that our measures are best for dealing with asylum seekers; the right hon. Gentleman says that he would set up detention centres for all asylum seekers, genuine or not. Conservative Members nod their heads. We have proposed one detention centre at Aldington; they have opposed its establishment. They oppose one detention centre while saying that they will create 50. That says all that needs to be said about the right hon. Gentleman's policy.

Hon. Members: More!

Mr. Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Jim Cousins.

Q7. [148801] Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): On Monday, the Prime Minister rightly set out the need to improve educational opportunity. Nowhere is that need greater than in the north-east of England, as he well knows. Will he promise the people of the north-east of England an early opportunity to decide for themselves whether they, like the Scots, want a political voice to tackle their deep-seated problems for themselves, rather than just being the victims of them?

The Prime Minister: As I have said before, that is a matter for local people to decide. I understand the case for a regional assembly. The advent of the regional development agencies has been immensely important in the north-east and other areas. In our region, they have safeguarded some 11,000 jobs and brought in a great deal of inward investment. That is why I believe that it is so

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important that we keep the regional development agencies and build them up, rather than abolishing them as the Conservative party has suggested.

Sir Richard Body (Boston and Skegness): Will the Prime Minister help the lobby outside by telling us how many representative bodies have called on him to bring to an end community health councils?

The Prime Minister: As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) earlier, we will have to wait for the outcome of the consultation that will be announced soon. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the size of the investment in the national health service is a better testimony to our commitment to the national health service than the cuts proposed by the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues.

Q8. [148802] Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the warmth with which Polish people and people of Polish descent in this country welcome the setting up by the Government of a commission to examine the substantial contribution of Polish people--some of whom did not survive--in fighting alongside the allies in the second world war? Is he also aware of their hope that the Government will not be diverted from the path to enlargement of the European Union by the xenophobia shown by the Opposition?

The Prime Minister: We have been advocates for the enlargement process right from the beginning. The vision of a unified Europe, east and west, is a vision of peace and prosperity for all the people in Europe for the future. That is why this country will continue to advocate enlargement, and why we will not allow any obstruction to get in the way of that enlargement process moving forward.

Q9. [148803] Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): Does the Prime Minister believe that physiotherapy provided to an elderly person who has suffered a stroke should be provided free in their own home or in a residential or charitable nursing home? Does he also believe that elderly people who are not in hospital but in their own home or in a residential home and require incontinence pads should be entitled to receive them free under the national health service? If he does, will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Health issues a proper definition of personal social care as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister: It is important that the definition is right. Nursing care, in future, will be free. We had to take a decision--[Interruption.] Opposition Members may grumble, but none of those provisions were free under the previous Government. Let me just point that out to them: we are introducing free nursing care. We have

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chosen not to introduce free personal care because it would cost about £1 billion, and we believe that that money would be better spent elsewhere.

I must also point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in addition to the investment in free nursing care, we are also investing a large sum of money in trying to provide for people to be looked after in their own homes. The number of at-home care packages has been increased by many tens of thousands. Those, of course, are funded by the state. I agree that it is important to have a precise definition, and we shall have one, but I believe that the balance that we have struck between nursing care and free personal care is the right one.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister give his personal attention to resolving issues concerning state aid that are currently holding back a number of important public- private sector investments in the Merseyside objective 1 area? Does he agree that speedy resolution of that issue is essential to enable the Government's policy of supporting private investment as part of regeneration to be maximised throughout the country?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree about the importance of proceeding as quickly as possible with the public-private partnerships that will yield such benefit in terms of investment and jobs in regions such as the north-west, particularly those undergoing structural economic change. I can offer my hon. Friend this assurance: we will do all we can to make progress quickly.

Q10. [148804] Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): In July, in the House, the Prime Minister promised Labour Members a free vote on the report "Shifting the Balance". On Monday--not that the Prime Minister troubled himself to vote--they were denied a free vote.

The Prime Minister: I understand that the debate took place on a Tory Opposition day, so it is hardly surprising that we should oppose what the Opposition wanted. Let me offer the hon. Gentleman some advice, however. Next time he asks a question at Prime Minister's Question Time--perhaps a question on the economy--he should recall the words of Lord Strathclyde, which I think bear repeating. Just a couple of days ago, Lord Strathclyde said:

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