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16 Oct 2002 : Column 304continued
4. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): If he will make it his policy to introduce legislation to require local authorities to implement recommendations of reports from the local government ombudsman. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): To maintain the independence of the public sector ombudsmen, the Government do not intend to shift the balance and compel local authorities to implement all ombudsmen reports. Councils are accountable first to their electorates. However, audit and inspection will become more important for local government as the new system of comprehensive performance assessment comes into effect.
Kevin Brennan : Does my hon. Friend agree that, in this era of earned autonomy and modernisation, local authorities should be made to be accountable when citizens successfully show themselves to have been the victims of municipal maladministration?
Mr. Leslie: I certainly agree that local authorities should be held to account. However, they should primarily be held to account by their electorates rather than by putting ombudsmen into a management structure above them. The ombudsmen do not wish to have such binding power, but I understand my hon. Friend's sentiments.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Will the Minister reconsider this matter? I agree with the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan). If someone goes through the procedure of going to the local ombudsman and the ombudsman gives advice and makes recommendations, surely the local authority should implement those recommendations. They usually are implemented but, if they are not, does that not make a mockery of the ombudsman's role if he cannot[Interruption.]
Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): There are usually two parts to an ombudsman's recommendations, and local authorities often go along with recommendations to change policies. However, in some cases, ombudsmen recommend financial compensation. What right does the citizen have to receive that compensation when a council says that it is not going to follow an ombudsman's recommendations?
Mr. Leslie: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but we must get this in proportion. Local authorities implement fully and satisfactorily the vast majority of ombudsmen's recommendations. Ultimately, if people are not happy with their local council's response, they should hold it to account at the ballot box.
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the legislation for the elected regional assemblies is not yet in place, so there has been no cost in this financial year. However, we fund a number of regional bodies. For example, we fund at a cost of #100 million a year the government offices for the regions that were introduced by the Conservative Government and we are making available grants of #5 million to the eight regional chambers in this financial year.
Sir Teddy Taylor : Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of the increasing public concern at the size and cost of the massive new regional bureaucracies in Cambridge and elsewhere, particularly when no one is terribly sure what they do apart from organising conferences and consultation exercises? I specifically wish to ask whether there are any European obligations pertaining to this. If there are no such obligations, will he agree to scrapping regional government and saving a great deal of taxpayers' money?
Mr. Prescott: I thought that I had made it clear that we have not established regional government yet, so it is not there to scrap. Most of the bodies that have been set up with regional dimensions came under the Administration that the hon. Gentleman supported even though we were a member of the European Community. I point out to him that the number of Tory members of the regional chambers that he wishes to scrap has increased from 130 to 150. Three regions are dominated by Tory council members, so perhaps he should address his remarks to them, including Councillor Howard Briggs, who is from his constituency and sits on the East of England regional assembly.
Mr. Prescott: I compliment all regional assemblies on doing an excellent job in checking what the regional development agencies do. It is the one part of democratic accountability that we have introduced to existing bureaucracy and I believe that it is welcomed by Tory, Labour and Liberal members who sit on the assemblies. Regional assemblies do an excellent job. The House and the Select Committees are aware of that and we should acknowledge it.
6. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): What recent representations he has received from representatives of county councils about the future roles, functions and responsibilities of these councils; and if he will make a statement. 
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Ministers are in regular dialogue with county council leaders and chief executives on a wide range of issues, including finance, planning and, more recently, the White Paper on regional governance.
Mr. Luff : The Deputy Prime Minister is planning to sideline Worcestershire county council and other county councils on planning. He is planning to fine Worcestershire county council social services department if it does not do what the Government want. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills is bypassing Worcestershire local education authority and controlling schools direct from Whitehall. The Deputy Prime Minister is planning to perpetuate the unfair funding of Worcestershire county council. He is also planning to abolish Worcestershire country council to create the monstrous regional governments. Our county councils have served us well for so long. What does he have against them?
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman should calm down and take a breath. There are no plans and no threats to county councils. Indeed, in terms of regional government, the Boundary Committee for England has not precluded letting county councils be unitary authorities. We should let the people choose in a referendum what to do about regional government.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): This morning I met ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House I will have further such meetings later today. I also spoke this afternoon to President Megawati of Indonesia.
Mr. Brady : In the past six weeks, the Government have missed their targets for literacy and numeracy; they have failed in their target on truancy; they have presided over the chaos in criminal records checks; and they have seen the destruction of all confidence in the A-level system. The Secretary of State for Education is the most accident prone Education Secretary in history. Why does the Prime Minister not sack her?
The Prime Minister: For this reason: we have the best primary school results that this country has ever seen and literally hundreds of thousands of children, who used to be in classes of over 30, are now not as a result of the measures introduced by this Government. In addition, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and constituencies up and down the country, we have put extra investment into our school buildings, our computer facilities and the schools themselves, and every single penny piece of it was opposed by the Conservative party.
Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend's comments yesterday? It is the innocent and poorest people of Indonesia and, indeed, Iraq, who suffer most from such vicious attacks. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will pursue with vigour those responsible for those pernicious attacks? Will he share with me the regret of the family of a constituent of mine, young Stephen Speirs, who lost his life in the tragedy in Bali?
The Prime Minister: First, I am sure the whole House would want to join in giving to the family of Stephen Speirs our deepest condolences and sympathy on his tragic murder in Bali. I assure my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that we will do everything we can both to ensure that we prosecute those responsible for the atrocity in Bali and to take action across the world to do everything we can to root out this scourgethis evilof terrorism, which can strike at any place in the world. His constituents today will be feeling all the grief for the loss of their son, and many other people in the country will be in the same position. We must ensure that more families in the future do not suffer in the same way, which is why we have to take the action we have set out.
Mr. Duncan Smith: The Prime Minister needs to recognise that in 1998 his Government gave appeals panels the right to overrule schools on exclusionsit did not happen before that. He also needs to remind himself that the teachers at Glyn technology school have refused to take back the children concerned, and as a result his Education Secretary is making a fool of herself, blundering around all over the place, trying to resolve a crisis that she does not have the power to resolve. Surely the simplest thing for the Prime Minister to do is admit that he and his Government have made an honest, straightforward mistake, scrap the appeals panels and give teachers back the power to ensure that there is discipline in their classrooms.
The Prime Minister: No. As I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman a moment ago, the appeals panels were introduced in 1987 and have been working since then. In 2001, we made it clear in an amendment to the statutory guidance that
Mr. Duncan Smith: As usual, everybody is to blame but the Prime Minister and his Government. He is confused, because he gave those appeals panels the power to get pupils back into schools. He knows it, and he will not own up to it. But head teachers up and down the country, such as those whom I met in Manchester and Birmingham this week, all say the same thing: they cannot maintain discipline if they are constantly overruled by bureaucrats, which is what the Prime Minister has made possible.
I remind the Prime Minister that there are now four times as many attacks on teachers as there were five years ago, when he took office. Forcing schools to keep such pupils does not help the pupils; it does not help the teachers who want to teach and it disrupts the children who want to learn. Why does not the Prime Minister take this opportunity simply to say that he will scrap the appeals panels, as he has the power to do, and sort out this problem?
The Prime Minister: I will not say that I will scrap the appeals panels because I do not think that it would be the right thing to do. However, we are making it clear that we would normally expect any pupil who threatens a teacher with violent behaviour to be excluded. The
It is important to realise also that, as a result of the additional measures that we have introduced and the amendments that we have made to guidance, there is greater protection for teachers. I am not saying that this is not an issue; it is, for precisely the reasons to which the right hon. Gentleman has drawn attention. We have amended the statutory guidance. To try to suggest that appeals panels were introduced by this Government, and introduced to constrain head teachers, is simply factually wrong, and it does nothing to advance the debate on education in this country.
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Metropolitan police youth services and young offending teams on their work in reducing youth crime? In particular, will he support my local youth project in Kensington and Westminster, which has run successful summer action programmes, and Operation Puma, aimed at cracking down on antisocial behaviour, which is helping to implement #3 million-worth of Government investment in behaviour improvement in schools? Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a long way to go, and can he assure me that, now that the summer is over, the youth service and connection programmes will continue to have the highest priority in bringing about a sustained reduction in youth crime?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to say that, as a result of the changes that have been made, we ensure not merely that there is big investment in summer programmes for young people but that any child who is permanently excluded from school is now in full-time education, as opposed to being left to roam the streets with a minimum of two hours' education a week. In addition, as a result of the measures taken by the Metropolitan police, street crime has fallen in London. I can assure my hon. Friend that both the investment and the necessary changes that have worked such improvements in her area will be applied across the country.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): Will the Prime Minister tell the House under what circumstances he would refuse to support unilateral military action by the United States against Iraq?
The Prime Minister: I am not going to speculate on the basis on which we will or will not support military action in Iraq. I simply say that I have made it very clear in the House that I want this to proceed on the broadest possible basis of consent. That is why we have the process under way at the moment in the United Nations. I have also saidand I repeatthat the United Nations has to be the way of dealing with this issue, not the way of avoiding dealing with it.
Mr. Kennedy: The Prime Minister is undoubtedly genuine in believing that the fight against terrorism can be accompanied by preparations for possible military action against Iraq; that the two can and, indeed, must go hand in hand. Will he acknowledge, however, that the successful building of an international coalition against terrorism, including across the political spectrum in this country, could begin to fracture if unilateral action is taken against Iraq?
The Prime Minister: I certainly understand the concerns that people have about unilateral action. It is precisely for that reason that I have tried to achieve a situation where action is taken through the United Nations. I also think that people in this country are sensible enough to realise that we cannot do nothing about a regime as despicable as Saddam's, which has chemical and biological weapons and is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
I would have thought that most people could agree that this is the right way forward: the United Nations lays down very clearly to Saddam that he must disarm himself of those weapons and co-operate fully with the weapons inspectors. If he does so and disarmament happens peacefully, then conflict is avoided; but if he refuses to co-operate or to allow the inspectors to do their work, the international community will face a choice: either its will or authority will have been flouted and it will have done nothing about it, or it will have faced up to the fact that its will had been flouted and acted. I happen to believe that where the UN's authority is challenged in that way, we have a duty to act. I would hope that the right hon. Gentleman would agree with that.
Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Does the Prime Minister accept that company activities must be made more accountable and transparent? Will he give an undertaking that the next companies Bill will include a commitment to mandatory social, environmental and financial reporting?
The Prime Minister: I cannot give a commitment in precisely those terms, but the issues that my hon. Friend raises around social responsibility are the subject of discussions at the moment between the Department of Trade and Industry and business. We hope that we can make some progress on that, although I would want to do so in a way that minimises any potential bureaucracy or regulation.
Q2. Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Does the Prime Minister agree that the United Kingdom must develop as many alternative renewable energy sources as possible? Is he aware of the proposal in Golden Valley in my constituency for what could be the largest UK land-based wind farm, which would put up to 50 turbines[Interruption.] There would be up to 50 turbines twice the height of Hereford cathedral. As the proposal is too
The Prime Minister: I cannot say to the hon. Gentleman that I am an expert on the Golden Valley wind farm proposal, but I am somewhat helped. Proposals for any such power stations above a certain capacity are considered by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry under section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989. However, it says here that no such application has been made to build a wind farm at Golden Valley[Laughter.]so I am slightly at a loss. I assume that the hon. Gentleman knows his constituency better than the people who brief me, so perhaps an application has been made; if so, I will have to write to him to correct what I have just said. Obviously, we are aware of the Liberal Democrats' strong support for[Hon. Members: XWind."] What can I say other than that this is one area on which I think we can work together?
Q3. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Given the profound misgivings about the private finance initiative revealed by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants survey, and following the Capita-caused chaos in school staff screening, is it not about time for a fundamental review of that most costly and misconceived of policies; and should not our leadership end its five-year love affair with private financiers and get back to basics in public service delivery? 
The Prime Minister: I am afraid the short answer is noI do not agree with that at all. We certainly will not scrap PFI. The reason for that is simple: up and down this country, it is delivering hospitals, schools and improvements to our public services. I know that from my constituency, where it has delivered a brand new community hospital and is delivering improvements to local schools. It would be wholly irresponsible of us to get rid of it. The fact is that it has resulted in an additional #4 billion of investment in this country. Under the old wayunder the Conservatives and, indeed, the last Labour Governmentwe never had anything like the capital programme we now have flooding into our public services. This is one occasion on which we are at our best when at our boldest.
The Prime Minister: We of course take full responsibility for it, and it is important that we learn the lessons, which is precisely what we are doing. Mike Tomlinson will complete his report in the next few months. We shall then make sure thatas we did with the lessons he outlined recentlyany lessons he outlines in that report are learned and implemented.
The Prime Minister: I will tell the right hon. Gentleman why we will not do that. Let me explain how AS-levels came into being. In 1996, the Conservative Government set up a committee under Sir Ron Dearing: that committee recommended AS-levels. The then Minister of State, Department for Education and Employmentnow the shadow Leader of the Housesaid:
Mr. Duncan Smith: I say to the Prime Minister that when it's wrong, it's wrong and there is no point in trying to pretend that it's right. He has in front of him five years[Interruption.]of looking at that examination and all the reports that have come back from teachers and parents[Interruption.].
Mr. Duncan Smith: I must say that I thought that it would be a fine day when Labour Members would pray in aid my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the shadow Leader of the House.
The Prime Minister has in front of him all the evidence from parents and teachers, and from all the assessments that have been made, that the AS-level examination, since being implemented, has failed. So the right hon. Gentleman has a simple choice. Right now, faith in A-levels has been shaken to the core. No one even knows whether they are worth the paper that they are written on. Why does he not accept that the AS-level is a failure and that it is time to scrap it?
The Prime Minister: That is not what the Tomlinson report found at all. Secondly, when the right hon. Gentleman says that A-levels are not worth the paper on which they are written, that is a gross insult to teachers and pupils throughout the country. This has been an immensely difficult time for students, but only slightly more than 1,200 had amended gradesabout 4,000 have their grades amended every year in the normal
I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what most parents would fear, and that is what was outlined at the Conservative party conference when it was said that the aim of the party in public services was to complete the Thatcher revolution. That is what would worry most parents. [Interruption.] Opposition Members are nodding their heads. That is exactly what they want to do. What is more, parents would be worried also by the commitment given at the Conservative party conference that Conservatives would not support the extra investment in education.
Parents will have a clear choice between the Government, who believe in equality of opportunity and access for our students, and the extra investment to sustain that, or the Opposition, who want to continue the bad old days of the 1980s and have opposed the investment that our schools need.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): As someone who has spent all his adult life as an active trade unionist, I have had to write to members of the Fire Brigades Union locally to tell them that I think that the claim that has been submitted is ill-founded. As much as everyone believes that the fire fighters have a case that needs to be examined, they have gone over the top with their claim. Will my right hon. Friend set out the Government's position so that fire fighters throughout the country know that they have the Government's support but realise that the claim, as it stands, is ill-founded?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We support, of course, the work that fire fighters do. They do a fantastic job. However, we cannot support the wage claim because it amounts to 40 or even 50 per cent. In circumstances where inflation is as low as it is, no Government could support such a claim.
Secondly, we have offered a fully independent review under Sir George Bain, who is highly respected by those within the trade union movement as well as outside it, to look into the claims of the fire fighters. Unfortunately, at present the union leadership is saying that it will not co-operate with that review in any way.
We have tried to do our best to ensure that there is some objective basis on which we can study the claims that are being made. I ask the union leadership to co-operate with Sir George's review. If it refuses to do so, it must understand that we as a Government, trying to act responsibly in terms of the public interest, could not support a 40 or 50 per cent. wage claim. The only result
The Prime Minister: Because the agricultural wages board has enormous support from agricultural workers in the industry who fear that if the board is not there, their wages may be put down unfairly. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's question implies that he supports abolishing the agricultural wages board
The Prime Minister: He does support the minimum wage. Well, we are getting somewhere! If he supports the minimum wage, I suggest that it is sensible to support a board that makes sure that there is a floor underneath agricultural workers' wages.
Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): May I ask the Prime Minister to join me and most of the House in sending good wishes to the England team for the match against Macedonia[Hon. Members: XAnd Wales."]and Wales, and Northern Ireland? Will he take this opportunity to make his feelings clear about the appalling racist abuse of Ashley Cole and Emile Heskey in the match against Slovakia at the weekend? Will he use his good offices to impress upon UEFA that unless there is a vigorous and sustained campaign against racism in European football, it will not go away? The cancer does not cure itself.
The Prime Minister: I am sure that the whole House joins in the good wishes to the English team tonight, and of course to the Welsh team alsoand when we get round to it, to the Scottish team and the Northern Ireland team as well. My hon. Friend makes a serious point about racism. We must make sure that that does not come back into the game in our own country. Also, I hope that the football authorities take very firm action in respect of any country where such racism rears its head. The scenes in Slovakia were disgraceful. I think that people understand that, and I hope that the authorities there take the appropriate action against those responsible.
Q5. Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): How can it be right to punish the law-abiding parties in Northern Ireland by suspending the institutions, rather than excluding the only offending party, Sinn Fein-IRA? 
Q6. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth): My right hon. Friend has received many letters from the people of Rugby and the surrounding constituencies of Warwickshire and Coventry strongly opposing the building of a giant new airport in the green belt between Rugby and Coventryan option that has no support whatever in the midlands. Does he agree that the best way forward is to use our existing airports better and more wisely to minimise environmental damage and achieve truly sustainable development in air transport for many years ahead? 
The Prime Minister: I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concerns, which he has articulated on behalf of his constituency. The reason that the issue arises is that we had to put forward all the options. We have not made decisions on any of those options at all. That will come when we publish the White Paper on the air transport
Q7. Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : In terms of the Prime Minister's responsibilities for upholding standards in public life, does he accept that if a political party fails to declare the proceeds of a fundraising dinner attended by a major drugs dealer who is subsequently shot dead, it might be in danger of bringing politics into disrepute? Will the Prime Minister call for and support an investigation by the Electoral Commission under the relevant legislation, and will he discuss these matters with Mr. Jack McConnell? 
Q8. Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that, night after night in our communities, citizens are subjected to not only mental but physical pressure from the yob culture? Will he send today the strongest and clearest message not only to the victims, but to the thugs and louts who engage in this practice? Will he assure the House that he will make this issue a priority, ensure that adequate funding is available and return communities to the law-abiding and decent people who live in fear at the present time? 
The Prime Minister: I know that the Scottish Executive has proposals to deal with the issue, including the investment of a significant sum in tackling antisocial behaviour. I am sure that the whole House will agree with my hon. Friend that one of the biggest problems that local communities face is the degree of antisocial behaviour that occurs. That is why we introduced antisocial behaviour orders and are now piloting fixed-penalty notices. I believe that the Queen's Speech will outline certain other measures that will allow us to tackle antisocial behaviour in any way we can. In particular, it is right that the Government deal with the issue and we are committing a massive amount to inner-city regeneration and have introduced the new deal, the working families tax credit and sure start. We are entitled to demand in return proper, respectful and law-abiding behaviour. That is what the vast majority of people in communities such as his want, and that is what we are determined to implement.