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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): I was disappointed to learn of Corus's decision to close the sports and social club at Llanwern. I know that my right hon. Friend, supported by his local newspaper, the South Wales Argus, has led a vigorous campaign to keep it open, and I can tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has today written to Sir Brian Moffat, asking Corus to reconsider that decision in view of the devastation that the company has already caused the steelworking community surrounding Llanwern.
Alan Howarth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for that. Clearly, they agree that the decision by Corus to close the club is a further body blow to the community of Newport. Is my hon. Friend aware, however, that the National Playing Fields Association Cymru has offered to take on the site and to assist local people to ensure the future of those vital recreational facilities? Will he confer with the First Minister to ensure that Corus does not get away with exploiting the site for development value? Will he use his good offices to broker a solution that is in the interests of the people of Newport?
Mr. Touhig: I can tell my right hon. Friend that the Department of Trade and Industry was informed only this week of the Corus decision, which was made with the breathtaking logic that we have come to expect from that company. It said that it proposed to close the club because it was becoming uneconomic. It was becoming uneconomic because of a lack of usage, and the lack of usage was because Corus was making steelworkers redundant at Llanwern.
I will do all that I possibly can to aid my right hon. Friend in his efforts to keep the club and its wonderful sports facilities open, and I will certainly discuss the matter with the First Secretary in Cardiff and other Ministers.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regularly attends meetings with ministerial colleagues, including my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, where they discuss a wide range of issues, including rail services in Wales.
Mr. Heath: Given that Railtrack's forward plans have now been comprehensively demolished by the rail regulator, Mr. Winsor, will the Minister tell the House when we can expect to have a safe and efficient railway service to Wales and the west country, which our constituents deserve and passengers need to do their daily business?
Mr. Touhig: The hon. Gentleman is right. I support him in the points that he makes, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did on 15 November last year, when he asked the same question. Obviously, the Government's first concern is to maintain the safety of the rail network, and we are doing so in discussions and by providing funding to support Railtrack. That is most urgent. We must also ensure that Railtrack carries out the work that is necessary to overcome the backlog of repairs, so that we make the railway system safe. As a regular user of the rail service, travelling between London and south Wales, I certainly want that to happen, and I shall do everything that I possibly can, together with my right hon. Friend, to ensure an improvement in the rail network, which this country certainly deserves.
Mr. Salter: Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming Lord Cullen's recent report on the Paddington train crash, which claimed the lives of 31 people, including my constituent, Michael Hodder, in October 1999? Does he agree that Railtrack's failure to heed the
The Prime Minister: First, on the general point that my hon. Friend makes, he is absolutely right, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. The distinction is between working with the private sector better to deliver a public service that remains a public service and engaging in the type of breaking up and selling off of our public services that the Conservative party engaged in, with such disastrous effects for the consumers of those services.
Secondly, in relation to the Cullen report, yes, of course we welcome that report. The Health and Safety Commission is indeed already acting on the recommendations in the report and the Crown Prosecution Service and the Health and Safety Executive are considering whether to bring prosecutions respectively for manslaughter and under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974.
In respect of the railways, as my hon. Friend knows, we are now putting in a £60 billion investment and we are making the necessary changes; it will take time, but I think that he and every other hon. Member will know the importance of ensuring that that investment goes into our railways.
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Does the Prime Minister envisage, as part of his radical health service reforms, the creation of specially built surgical units, managed and run by the private sector?
The Prime Minister: As we said in our manifesto, the management of those surgical units could be in the private sector, but those surgical units themselves and their staff will be in the public sector.
Mr. Hague: No wonder no one knows what the Government are really planning for the national health service. The Prime Minister says that there will be privately run surgical units--indeed, that is said in the Labour manifesto--but the Health Secretary says that under no circumstances will any clinical service be run by a private company. Clinical services are one of the things provided by a surgical unit. Being managed is the same thing as being run. The private sector is made up of private companies, so how are those two statements to be reconciled? Will any clinical service be run by a private company?
The Prime Minister: We are not privatising clinical services, but what we are saying is that if the private sector can help in the management of those surgical units, the staff, as I have just said, will be employed in the national health service, and the distinction is between ensuring that we run and deliver better NHS services and the privatisation of the health service, which is the Conservative party's proposal.
The Prime Minister: As ever, the jokes were good, but when the right hon. Gentleman got to the policy, it was a little less good. When we took office, we inherited an NHS in which the number of beds had been cut, the training places had been cut and not a single hospital had been built under the private finance programme. The Labour party in government, working with the private sector, now has under way the largest ever hospital building programme since the war--but within the national health service.
The distinction is between working with the private sector better to deliver the health service and the privatisation that the right hon. Gentleman favours. The other difference--perhaps he will tell us now whether he has learned anything from the election campaign--is between, over the next three years, the largest investment programme on which the NHS has ever embarked and £20 billion worth of cuts under the Conservative party. We stick by the policies that we put forward at the election; perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will tell us whether he does.
The Prime Minister: We shall be proposing two major measures as part of our legislative programme. I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in Plymouth and elsewhere in tackling this problem. She will know that some 40 Customs and Excise staff are working on the problem in Plymouth. The first piece of legislation that we propose is to allow us to tighten the bail restrictions on people who are on drugs or dealing with drugs. The second is to allow us to confiscate better the assets of drug dealers. I am absolutely determined that we shall take every measure possible to make Britain the hardest and toughest place to be a drug dealer in the western world.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Returning to the Railtrack issue, when the Rail Regulator dismissed Railtrack's plans as "profoundly unsatisfactory", described Railtrack as "discredited" and went on to say that it was guilty of the
The Prime Minister: It is precisely for that reason that we have strengthened the powers of the Rail Regulator and that the Strategic Rail Authority was brought into being. There is no doubt that the way in which our railways are run is not satisfactory. We require the changes that we propose, plus the additional investment. Both of those things will be necessary to provide over time, under the transport plan that we have set out, the railway infrastructure that the fourth largest economy in the world demands.
Mr. Kennedy: That being the case, can the Prime Minister please give the House of Commons an absolute guarantee that he will not import such deficiencies into other public services under the plans that he has just described? It is perfectly obvious from looking at the faces of his own Back Benchers at this first Prime Minister's questions after the election victory that no one wants Railtrack issues imported into our wards and classrooms.
The Prime Minister: Neither will Railtrack's practices be imported into our classrooms, our hospitals or any part of our vital public services, but I will make sure that, for example, the hugely successful hospital building programme carries on. GP premises are also being built in co-operation with the private sector. I shall certainly ensure over the winter, where there are pressures and there is spare private sector capacity, that rather than leaving people in pain we are prepared to use the private sector. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to set the Liberal Democrats against any involvement of the private sector in the better delivery of public services, I am happy, but he will not be at the next election.
Q3.  Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Eden project in Cornwall, which has welcomed more than 1 million visitors since it opened during the heart of the foot and mouth crisis, and would he care to come to Cornwall later this year to be visitor No. 2 million?
The Prime Minister: I think it only right to congratulate my hon. Friend as well. Indeed, I believe that she is the third Labour Member who represents a seat that was targeted by the Conservatives to be triumphantly returned to the House of Commons.
I congratulate the Eden project, which I visited before it opened. It is a magnificent project and 1 million visitors is an enormous achievement. That shows that we are gradually getting our tourism industry back to normal--partly as a result of the money that is now coming from the regional development agencies--in areas, such as my hon. Friend's, that have been affected by foot and mouth disease. We obviously have to do a great deal more, which we are doing. The Eden project is a marvellous tribute to the people of Cornwall.
The Prime Minister: I shall try to disentangle some of those points. If people do not want devolution through regional government, they do not need to have it. That is the very principle on which our policies are based. As for the strength of support in Dorset, I gather that the hon. Gentleman was the Conservative party's spokesman on Wales in the previous Parliament, and it ended up without a seat in Wales. In the light of the results in Dorset and, in particular, of the fact that we now have a Labour Member of Parliament for that county, it would suit me--although perhaps not the hon. Gentleman's party--if he took control of looking after Conservative fortunes there.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that riots and disturbances, such as those in Burnley, solve no problems? Will he join calls for calm in the town because last night's incident should not be allowed to spark new problems tonight? Will he also confirm that the House condemns all racist attacks by parties, such as the British National party, that capitalise on genuine issues? Finally, does he accept that the real problems with housing and the lack of finance in towns such as Burnley need to be addressed urgently for everyone who lives in those communities?
The Prime Minister: I agree with every word of that. First, I pay tribute to the way in which my hon. Friend handled himself in relation to events in Burnley. The situation has been difficult and he behaved responsibly and seriously. Secondly, I agree totally that there can be no excuse whatsoever for attacks on the police or, indeed, for acts of racist violence. Thirdly, I agree entirely about the hideous influence of organisations such as the British National party, which do nothing but try to stir up racial hatred in our communities.
The plain fact of the matter is that even in the most difficult circumstances in any community in this country, the vast majority of people are law-abiding and want to live alongside each other in peace and harmony. We have to ensure that the view of the vast majority, which I believe is shared by every Member of the House, prevails over that of the few who are engaged in stirring up racial violence, which is totally unacceptable in this day and age.
Q6.  Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): In the election, the people of Croydon and Britain had a choice--[Interruption.] They made the right choice. It was between continuing investment and reform in the health service, which, in Croydon meant an extra 2,000 operations a year and waiting lists reduced by a third, and a party led either by someone who would cut health expenditure by billions or someone who sells fags to the Vietnamese. The people of Croydon picked Labour. Will my right hon. Friend renew his pledge on an agenda of investment and reform in the health service, locally and nationally, to provide an increasingly better service to the people of Croydon and Britain?
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Since a Labour Government set up a full and independent inquiry into the foot and mouth outbreak of 1967, will the Prime Minister tell us what is different about the current epidemic that makes it less appropriate to hold such an inquiry now?
The Prime Minister: Of course, we should have an inquiry and ascertain the lessons that can be learned from foot and mouth. However, as the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons said the other day, it should be done at the conclusion of the outbreak, when we have eradicated the disease. We must also ensure that we learn lessons for the future.
Mr. Hague: Of course an inquiry should be held at the conclusion of the outbreak, but the Prime Minister told us that we were on the home straight a couple of months ago. Losses to farmers are running at £250 million a month. The epidemic is the worst on record. More than 4.5 million animals have been slaughtered; losses to tourism are estimated at £5 billion this year; large parts of the countryside remain closed; and many rural businesses face ruin.
Although an inquiry cannot start until the outbreak is over, a commitment to a full, public and independent inquiry could be made today. There is huge suspicion in the countryside about the way in which the epidemic began and its handling. Does the Prime Minister accept that a full, independent and public inquiry is the only way in which to allay suspicions and find the truth?
The Prime Minister: First, I have already said that there will be a proper inquiry. As I have made clear, its nature is a matter for decision later. Of course, there will be a proper inquiry into the lessons that can be learned.
Let me consider one or two of the right hon. Gentleman's points. He said that we suggested a few weeks ago that we were on the home straight. We are; the number of cases is way below that of a few weeks ago. I stress to him and the farming community that the disease continues to spread in specific areas for two main reasons. The first is farm to farm movements and the second is agricultural trade vehicles driving from farm to farm.
The Government can take every possible measure to eradicate the disease. We are doing that on the basis of the best scientific and veterinary advice available to us. However, as we constantly advise, and as I state again today, it is harder to do that unless every single proper biosecurity precaution is taken.
Mr. Hague: We support the Government in taking every possible measure, but blaming others will not work unless Ministers are prepared for their actions to be fully investigated. Since the election, all responsible Ministers, except the Prime Minister, have been removed and are consequently no longer accountable to the House for their previous actions. They would not usually be called before Select Committees. Those Ministers need to be held to account for their handling of foot and mouth. We need to learn the lessons so that we can prevent another outbreak in future. May I suggest that, without a full and independent public inquiry, the confidence of the countryside will not be restored and vital lessons for the future may not be learned?
The Prime Minister: We do, of course, have to learn the lessons, and we will learn those lessons. However, from the outset there has been only one way to deal with this disease, and that has been to deal with the infected premises and neighbouring farms--because that is the advice that was given to us and we have followed it throughout. Slaughtering millions of animals has been a ghastly and difficult business, but if we want to eradicate the disease there is no alternative.
What is necessary now, however, is to do two things. First, we must ensure that we are indeed taking the proper measures of security and disinfection on farming premises; otherwise, the disease will carry on spreading. Therefore, it is important that we all emphasise to those in the farming community, the vast majority of whom behave responsibly and sensibly, that they must continue the measures.
Secondly, parts of the tourism industry have of course been very severely hit. That is particularly difficult given that, certainly according to the advice that I have, we do not know of a single case of a tourist, walker or rambler spreading the disease. It is important that we carry on taking whatever precautionary measures we can and give the support to the tourist industry that we are giving. That is why support running to hundreds of millions of pounds has been made available. We will carry on doing that.
Q7.  John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Does my right hon. Friend agree that although much has been done for those needing care, there is much to do for the carers who look after them? I attended a carers' conference the other week in my constituency, where carers informed me of what they feel is required. I ask my right hon. Friend please to look at the plight of carers, and to ensure that they get the necessary reward that they deserve, and not the usual thank you.
Q8.  Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Will the Prime Minister please advise the House which ethical criteria will be applied to companies seeking to sponsor schools? In reply, perhaps he would be good enough to tell the House which companies he foresees will wish to associate themselves with schools that are failing because of lack of investment.
The Prime Minister: Where a company can play a part in rescuing a state school, it is entirely sensible that we use it. Indeed, there are examples of where that has been done already and has worked extremely successfully. We should build on those examples. I am not picking out one company rather than another. The decision should depend on what delivers a better public service. I say to the hon. Gentleman, and through him, that we are not going to back down on the essential reform of public services. We are putting in the biggest amount of money that our schools and hospitals will ever see. That is going into our public services. They will remain as public services, but money alone is not enough.
We need changes and greater flexibility. For example, we need to break down some of the demarcation between professions in the health service; we need greater diversity in schools; and we need greater flexibility in how we employ staff. We need the money, we need the reform, and we will get both.
Q9.  Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, by awarding compensation to distant water trawlermen who lost their jobs at the end of the cod war, the Labour Government put right an injustice that the Tories steadfastly ignored for 18 years? However, is he aware that concern has been expressed by my residents about the length of time that it is taking to process those claims, bearing in mind the fact that some claimants are very elderly? What assurances can he today give me and the residents of Cleethorpes and neighbouring Grimsby that everything possible will be done to speed up the processing of those claims?
The Prime Minister: We are committed to dealing with the majority of claims by the end of July, and we are on course to honour that commitment. The scheme has already paid something like £18.4 million to almost 1,700 claimants. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the previous Government totally ignored the issue. It has been difficult, but we have made that commitment and we are paying out that money. In a small way, it is a significant difference in values between a Labour Government and the previous Conservative Government.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, according to today's edition of The Times, his Health Secretary is signing an agreement with doctors to end the blame culture in the national health service. It may be a bit before the Prime
The Prime Minister: Of course we are responsible for the national health service and we are happy to take on that responsibility, but I repeat that it is only if we are prepared to make the investment in the national health service and the changes necessary that we will deliver the health service that we want. The hon. Lady shakes her head, but unless we manage to get the extra money going into the national health service that we are committed to putting in and that she and her party are committed to taking out--[Interruption.] Oh, I see--the Opposition are now all in favour of more investment in the health service. Let me remind Conservative Members that they fought an election campaign on £20 billion of cuts in the national health service, which is one reason--among many--why there are so few of them.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the case of my constituent, Mr. Dudakia, who disappeared in December while on pilgrimage in India? Obviously, this is a cause of great distress to his family, who have spent a great deal of time and money trying, unsuccessfully, to track him down. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to encourage the Indian authorities to continue the search for their father and grandfather?
The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has indicated to me that he is happy to talk to my hon. Friend about the case of her constituent. We shall certainly look into it and do whatever we can.
Q11.  Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): The Prime Minister will remember the tributes paid in the House to Bombardier Brad Tinnion who, aged 28, was the only British soldier to be killed in Sierra Leone. Charles Guthrie called him "a brilliant young man". Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when Brad died, his long-term partner Anna Homsi was pregnant; that when their daughter Georgia was born, the Ministry of Defence obtained special Treasury compensation to pay Georgia a pension of £2,000 a year until she is 17; but that the MOD has not asked the Treasury for a similar dispensation to give Anna, too, a pension, despite the fact that she was the sole beneficiary of Brad's will and he had lived with her for 10 years? Brad gave his life for his country. Surely the Government should make sure that the people he cared for most are looked after.
The Prime Minister: Brad Tinnion was indeed an exceptionally brave young man--indeed, all those who took part in that operation in Sierra Leone put their lives at risk. It was an immensely dangerous operation and they fulfilled it with extraordinary bravery and courage. I simply do not know the circumstances to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded, but I shall certainly look into them and get back to him.
First, I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Secondly, I have to say that I think that he is a bit unfair about Herman Ouseley, who gave very good public service to this country for many years. My hon. Friend forgets that the independent Appointments Commission has taken away prime ministerial patronage, not consolidated it at all--which is more than the Conservative party did in 18 years in government.
Finally, I have to disagree with my hon. Friend on the last part of his question, and I urge right hon. and hon. Members to think about it carefully. I do not believe that it would be sensible for the Commons to legislate so that the House of Lords became, in effect, a rival Chamber to this House. [Hon. Members: "Why not?"] Because it would produce the sort of gridlock that we do not want. The Lords is a revising Chamber and it should, in my view, have a different type of membership from this Chamber. I happen to support the proposals of the Wakeham commission, but I do not doubt that we shall have a healthy debate about them in future.
Q12.  Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On 8 June, only one day after the general election, South Staffordshire health authority announced the closures of the Victoria hospital in Lichfield and the Hammerwich hospital in Burntwood, in an attempt to save £1 million a year.
The Prime Minister may not be aware--there is no reason why he should be--that South Staffordshire health authority has a shortfall each year of £4.75 million from its target funding. If I send the documentation to the right hon. Gentleman, will he undertake personally to look into this issue, which is of such great concern to my constituents?
The Prime Minister: I will certainly look into the matter if the hon. Gentleman sends me the information. I do not know about the circumstances that he has outlined. Whatever potential shortfall there may be from the health authority's target, it will have received a great additional sum of money as a result of the extra investment that we put in. Without getting too much of a sense of deja vu about Prime Minister's questions before the election, the fact is that he and every other member of the Conservative party stood on a platform of cuts in investment in our