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The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [33163] Dr. Doug Naysmith (Bristol, North-West): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 13 February.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): Before listing my engagements, Mr. Speaker, may I say on behalf of hon. Members on all sides of the House how deeply we express our sadness at the death of her royal highness Princess Margaret? She will be remembered by the whole nation with huge affection for her love of culture and art and her sense of fun, but most of all for the service that she gave our nation. Our thoughts and deep condolences are with the Queen, the Queen Mother, and all the royal family.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I also had a meeting with some 600 chief executives in the national health service. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Dr. Naysmith: Does my right hon. Friend agree that matters such as MMR and BSE illustrate how important it is to understand the risk factor in science? Does he also agree that science and discovery centres such as At-Bristol play an important role in achieving that? Will

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he therefore accept that such centres deserve to have central Government funding, as many museums and art galleries do?

The Prime Minister: I congratulate the centre in Bristol on the work that it does, and I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we invest in science for the future. That is why the Government, in partnership with the Wellcome Trust, are committed to making available some £1 billion over the next few years for investment in science. That will be an investment not only in the learning of our young people, but in the economic future of the country.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I join the Prime Minister in offering our condolences to Her Majesty the Queen, the Queen Mother and the royal family on their sad loss. The Prime Minister is right to say that Princess Margaret was a strong servant of her country, through war and peace. She will be mourned and much missed throughout the country.

When the Prime Minister signed the letter to his Romanian counterpart on behalf of LNM on 23 July 2001, was he or his chief of staff—[Interruption.] I repeat, was he or his chief of staff aware that the owner of that company, Mr. Mittal, had at any time—I repeat, at any time—donated money to his party?

The Prime Minister: It is of course a matter of public record that Mr. Mittal is a donor to the Labour party and a supporter of the Labour party. Why is that a matter of public record? It is because this Government introduced the open rules for political funding. For years and years, no one had any idea of how the Conservative party or any political party was funded. We introduced rules of transparency.

As the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, the letter that I signed mentioned not Mr. Mittal but his company, LNM, of which I had no knowledge. However, having said that, had I known that Mr. Mittal was a supporter of the Labour party, it would have made no difference whatever to the signing of the letter. That was entirely justified, as was the advice from the embassy.

This is a complete load of nonsense from beginning to end. It is not Watergate, it is Garbagegate. It is the biggest load of garbage since the last load of garbage, which was Enron.

Mr. Duncan Smith: It is very interesting that the Prime Minister now says that it is garbage to raise a concern that he, as the Prime Minister and on behalf of the whole country, should have written a letter in support of a company—by the way, it is a competitor to our main steel manufacturer—which turns out to have fewer than one tenth of 1 per cent. of its employees working in the United Kingdom. The company is registered in the Dutch Antilles. Will the Prime Minister tell us whether at any stage he or his chief of staff were aware, as he signed the letter, that it was in support of someone who had donated money to the Labour party?

The Prime Minister: I have already said that it was a matter of public record that Mr. Mittal was a donor to the Labour party. However, what the right hon. Gentleman

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says about the letter is total nonsense. It was written at the instigation of the British embassy in Romania. It was written for the very simple reason that this was a reform, namely the selling off of an old state industry, which we supported strongly. I am delighted that a British-based company has succeeded. What is more, I am pleased that the embassy asked us to do this—it was the right thing to do. If the right hon. Gentleman is seriously saying that because the company is owned by someone who is a supporter of the Labour party, we should not write such a letter, even though the British embassy requests it, that is totally contrary to the practice of previous Governments throughout the ages.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister already knows that, apparently, in the draft letter the word "friend" was struck out before he even signed it. The real point is not whether the Prime Minister was right to sign on behalf of the company but how many of the companies that employ fewer than 100 employees in this country and are registered abroad he backs by letters to foreign countries in support of contracts? The Prime Minister seems to have missed the point. Until he is able to say that he knew specifically about the matter and discussed it with his chief of staff and then decided, despite that, to go ahead, we will never be the clearer and will always be left doubting whether the Prime Minister acted in the best interests of Britain. To clear this up, will the Prime Minister now tell us whether he will agree to a full public and independent inquiry into this affair?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly tell the right hon. Gentleman the answer to that—it is no. As I pointed out a moment ago, I signed the letter unchanged, and it made no mention of Mr. Mittal. However, had it done so, it would still have been entirely the right thing to do. The right hon. Gentleman says that it was wrong to sign the letter. I will explain again to Conservative Members why I did so.

The embassy in Romania asked us to sign the letter because it was an important contract. We fully supported the Romanian Government's policy of economic reform. We therefore wanted to celebrate the fact that the contract had been awarded to a British company and the fact that the Romanian Government's programme of economic reform was right for Romania. If the right hon. Gentleman reads the comments of the Romanian Prime Minister today, plainly puzzled at the nonsense being raised by Conservative Members, he will see that the decision to award the contract was made before the letter was even written. Therefore, all we were doing was welcoming the fact that this process of economic reform was going forward.

The reason the right hon. Gentleman is raising this is simple—no one would know of any donations but for the legislation that we introduced—it is because the Conservative party got into such difficulty in the previous Parliament, because previous leading members of the Conservative party are either in jail or have just come out of jail—[Interruption.] What Conservative Members want to do, because of the trouble they got into, is smear us with the same brush. I am afraid that all they do when they engage in this nonsense is remind people of their own record.

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Hon. Members: More, more.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Derek Twigg (Halton): My constituency has some of the highest mortality rates in the country for certain cancers. What concerns my constituents are the inequalities in health service provision. Historically, we have had a shortage of health professionals for a number of years. What are the Government doing to ensure that we have more professionals, such as doctors and nurses, in the health service so that health inequalities in areas such as mine are dealt with?

The Prime Minister: The most important thing that we can do to recruit more professionals into the health service is obviously to put in the extra investment. That is why we are recruiting more doctors, more nurses and more consultants. We are recruiting at every level of the health service for a very simple reason: we believe that one of the principal problems of the health service is undercapacity in it. We need those doctors and nurses. In the past year alone, we have recruited more than 15,000 more nurses. As a result of that, we will meet the NHS planned target on recruitment of nurses some two years ahead of schedule. That will only succeed if we keep that investment going through the health service and do not take it out—which is of course the policy of the Conservative party.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): I fully associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the tributes paid to the late Princess Margaret. Our condolences go to the other members of the royal family.

May I invite the Prime Minister to take the opportunity this afternoon to welcome the decision—the policy initiative—taken this week in the Welsh Assembly by his party and by the Liberal Democrats to reintroduce grants for poorer Welsh students?

The Prime Minister: I am very happy to congratulate the Welsh Assembly on its decision. Obviously, we are looking at how we can improve access for students in our country. It is worth pointing out that, under the proposals introduced by the Government, 50 per cent. of students do not—I think—pay tuition fees.

Mr. Kennedy: The Prime Minister's welcome is itself welcome. Given that his party and our own party have legislated both in Scotland and in Wales for a fairer deal for our students and potential students, is not the logic of that position that we should legislate at Westminster as well? The right hon. Gentleman would have the support of two thirds or four fifths of his Back Benchers. Why does not he do it?

The Prime Minister: When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the Scottish system, that is different altogether from grants for poorer students. In fact, in this country, we already have bursaries for some of the poorer students and, yes, we are looking at how we can give poorer students greater opportunities to apply for those bursaries. That is important.

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In respect of Scotland, I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Scotland is entitled to go its own way on this—that is part of the devolution settlement. The right hon. Gentleman should point out to people that in fact students in Scotland pay as a result of the Scottish system. We are looking at how we can achieve a fairer balance between the contribution the state makes and the contribution students make; but if we are to get our higher education participation rates above 50 per cent. there is no way that we can do that under the old system. That was why, under the previous Government, Sir Ronald Dearing—now Lord Dearing—held an inquiry into how we could change the system. In today's world, there is no way that we shall be able to get more and more students in and still get resources to the front line of universities unless we change the system of student finance. That is why we have introduced the reforms that we are making. We are looking particularly at how we can help poorer students, but there is no way out of that difficult choice on the balance between state funding and student contribution.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Does the Prime Minister support the sentiments expressed in the Green Paper published by the Foreign Office yesterday, which suggest that we should employ mercenaries—who often work for the most odious regimes and whose only loyalty is to money—to support the United Nations in a crisis, because among other things, they are cheaper than our own national armed forces?

The Prime Minister: Of course, our own armed forces do fantastic work peacekeeping throughout the world. I think that the Foreign Secretary was saying that the use of mercenaries has to come within some proper system of regulation. Until now, that has not been the case and that is why it is important that we ensure that there are proper rules on the use of mercenaries.

Q2. [33164] Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I have given the Prime Minister prior notice of this question. Last week at Prime Minister's Question Time, I challenged the accuracy of the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman to the House about Railtrack on 19 December, when he said:

Since last week, the administrator has again given evidence to the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions at which he contradicted that statement by the Prime Minister. I have sent the right hon. Gentleman a transcript of that evidence. Will he today accept that his statement was not correct and will he withdraw it?

The Prime Minister: No, I am afraid I will not—on the basis of what the hon. Gentleman sent me. Obviously, we shall have to wait for the administrator to give a full account of the exact assets and liabilities of Railtrack, at a later date. However, one thing is clear: the reason that the company had to be put into administration was that it was effectively not a going concern—it was totally dependent on

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Government subsidy. When the administrator makes his final tally and accounts, I think that the hon. Gentleman will see that I am right and that he is wrong.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): The Prime Minister may be aware that the new accident and emergency unit to be built at Warrington hospital is a pilot project in which staff expertise will be used to design better emergency care for patients. Will he join me in congratulating the staff at Warrington on the work that they have put into the project and in recognising their skill? Will he assure me and the House that any NHS reforms will draw on the expertise of those who understand it best—the staff?

The Prime Minister: That is part of a programme of renovation of all the accident and emergency departments that are needed in the country. They are under tremendous pressure—of course they are—and the staff do a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. My hon. Friend's example is one among many of how changes in working practices, extra staff and extra investment in capital and equipment are making a real difference.

Q3. [33165] Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): The Prime Minister will be aware that, 10 days ago, the city of Hereford was effectively cut in two when the River Wye flooded for the third time in four years. Businesses were affected, homes were flooded and the city was gridlocked. Although a flood alleviation scheme is in place, there are real concerns that it might be delayed because of statutory consultation and the discovery of archaeological remains. Will he assure the people of the city of Hereford that if there is a delay, any increased costs will be met by Government funds and not by the flood defence committee?

The Prime Minister: May I express my sympathy for those affected by the floods in the hon. Gentleman's constituency? I think that the Environment Agency is considering a scheme to deal with that problem. It has to be subject to a certain amount of consultation, but we are doing everything that we can to ensure that the process is as swift as possible and I am happy to correspond with him on how it will be taken forward.

Q4. [33166] Caroline Flint (Don Valley): For more than 20 years, employees who contracted lung cancer through exposure to asbestos have been compensated. However, a recent Court of Appeal judgment threatens thousands of current and future claimants who cannot identify the fibre or fibres that first caused the cancer. Will my right hon. Friend look into the matter urgently and ensure that the Government do whatever they can to overturn that cruel injustice?

The Prime Minister: The judgment has been widely perceived as an injustice and the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will announce today that we shall pay compensation to the relevant people who meet the qualifying criteria, which could mean payments of more than £30,000. We are

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aware of the problem and we are doing our very best to deal with it, but, obviously, we must study the judgment's consequences carefully.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Will the Prime Minister tell us whether street crime in this country has gone up or down since he was re-elected?

The Prime Minister: According to the British crime survey, overall levels of crime are down, as is violent crime. However, it is correct to say that street crime has risen significantly in the past year, which is why we are taking a series of measures to deal with it.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I suggest that the Prime Minister heed his own advice. When he was shadow Home Secretary, he said that

Home Office figures leaked last weekend show that street crime nationwide has not just risen, but risen by more than a quarter since the election. Perhaps the Prime Minister can also tell us whether muggings and street crime in London have risen or fallen since the election.

The Prime Minister: I have just pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman that I accept that street crime has risen, particularly in the past year. I said that we are taking a series of actions necessary to deal with that. Let me explain them. First, we are recruiting more police officers. Indeed, in London, in just the past few months, there are more than 600 extra officers and, since this time last year, more than 1,000 extra officers. Last year, there were more than 2,500 extra recruits, and I am pleased to tell the House that, this January, recruitment was up 20 per cent. on last year.

There are also reforms in the new Police Reform Bill that will allow new powers for civilian staff, so that we can free up more officers on the beat. There is also record investment in closed circuit television—some £200 million. We are also funding some 400 extra secure accommodation places and 2,500 more prison places. [Interruption.] Hon. Members ask why street crime is going up. One of the main reasons is to do with the theft of mobile phones, which accounts for about one third of the rise in street robbery. As a result of the measures that we are taking, however, we will be able to get that down. But, of course, that will only happen if we invest in extra police, CCTV and secure accommodation places, rather than take it out, which is the Conservative party's position.

Mr. Duncan Smith: That was a very long answer, but not the answer to the question that I asked the right hon. Gentleman. I asked him whether, in London, muggings and street crime—two separate categories of crime—had gone up or down. The answer is that street crime in London has gone up by nearly 40 per cent. and muggings have gone up by one third since he was re-elected. That means that people in London have suffered something like 183 street crimes a day, every day since he was re-elected. The Prime Minister has just said, "It's all right; we are getting more police," but his own Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen

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(Mr. Denham), has now confirmed that Metropolitan police figures show that they were short by 1,200 officers last year. No wonder the chairman of the Police Federation has said:

The reality of the Prime Minister's tenure is simply that in London, people are now twice as likely to be mugged walking the streets as they would be in New York. Does he not think that that is a record of failure by any measure?

The Prime Minister: First, it is correct that street crime and mugging have gone up in London in the past year, which is precisely why we are taking the action that we are taking. The right hon. Gentleman mentions the number of police in place in the past year, but, as I say, in London alone, more than 1,000 extra police have been recruited. Indeed, as a result of the additional investment, I think that, by the end of the year, we will have record numbers of police—more than in all the years of Conservative Government. It is correct, of course, that one of the answers is to get more police on the beat, more investment in secure accommodation and swifter court action. That is exactly what we are doing, but the key to doing all of it is to put in the extra investment. [Interruption.] The Conservatives go on about five years, but, overall, the crime rate doubled under the 18 years of Conservative Government, while in the five years of this Government it has fallen, not risen. Vehicle crime is down by 30 per cent; burglary is down by more than 20 per cent. Overall, crime is down by 12 per cent. So if we compare the records of Conservative and Labour Governments, we see that, under the Tories, crime doubled; under us, it has fallen.

Hon. Members: More, more.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Q5. [33167] John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): The Prime Minister will have heard the announcement this morning by British Airways, based in my constituency, of 6,000 job losses on top of the 7,000 job losses announced before Christmas. The aviation industry is recovering slowly from the events of 11 September and is grateful to the Government for the assistance that they have provided, but would he be willing to meet a delegation of Members of Parliament from the west London airport constituencies to consider not only the short-term measures that can help those people who are losing their jobs, but the long-term measures that will help us to tackle the structural problems in our local economy?

The Prime Minister: I am, of course, aware of the concern that there must be about the job losses announced by British Airways, and our sympathies are with the constituents in my hon. Friend's constituency and the other constituencies that will be primarily affected by those losses. I know that this announcement has been the product of detailed consultation, however. The company has to engage in restructuring, and it has been closely involved with the unions on how that is to be carried out.

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I would, however, certainly be very pleased to meet a delegation of Members of Parliament from the area affected.

Q6. [33168] Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): Does the Prime Minister agree that the anticipated massive increases in council tax in authorities throughout the country will particularly hurt pensioners and those on low incomes? Will he consider that the Government should give urgent consideration to looking at the underfunding of basic services such as social services? Will he further look at the basis of local taxation, so that it relates better to ability to pay?

The Prime Minister: I understand why the Liberal Democrats are always keen to widen the tax base, but it may not be the case that everyone wishes to do so. I put it to the hon. Lady, however, that the amount of money that we are giving to local government has significantly increased. Let us wait and see what the actual council tax rises are.

The hon. Lady spoke of the position of pensioners. Of course we are concerned if any pensioners face unacceptable rises in their council tax, but I would point out to her that the Government have done a lot for the income of pensioners. [Hon. Members: "What are you going to do about it?"] Let me explain what we have already done. We have made large increases to the basic state pension, introduced the £200 winter allowance, as well as free television licences for the over-75s and the minimum income guarantee. In fact, we have put billions of pounds of extra money into helping pensioners. Of course we will watch carefully what happens in relation to council tax, but I hope that the hon. Lady would accept that we have done our level best to try to raise the income of pensioners.

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