Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons am 11:30 am ar 19 Ionawr 2005.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin Llafur, Glasgow Maryhill 11:30, 19 Ionawr 2005

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 19 January.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

If you, Mr. Speaker, and the House will allow me, before listing my engagements, I will once again briefly update the House on the current casualty figures from the tsunami in respect of the British missing and dead. The number of category 1 missing—those most likely to be lost—is, including the 53 confirmed dead, now 274, which is down from 410 last Wednesday. The category 2 figure—those unaccounted for in the region but not in the highly likely category—now stands at 360. That is down from over 600 last Wednesday.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Photo of Ann McKechin Ann McKechin Llafur, Glasgow Maryhill

This week, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs presented his report on the millennium development goals to the United Nations, and showed how far short the world is of reaching those targets. When 150,000 children in Africa die each month from malaria alone, and when 114 million children are denied even basic education, does my right hon. Friend agree that, when the G7 finance leaders meet next month, we should press them for substantial increases in debt relief, and to use the International Monetary Fund gold reserve to achieve it?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend says. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that the UK would pay its share of the debt service owed to the World Bank and African Development Bank on behalf of low-income countries that could then use the debt service reduction for action on poverty, health and education—the very things that the millennium development goals deal with.

We will press other G7 countries to join this initiative. It is important that they do and I hope that Europe joins this initiative as well. We can then make sure that the money that these countries desperately need, scarce enough as it is, is not going to pay billions of dollars-worth of debt service repayments.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for updating the House on the latest figures for victims of the tsunami.

The appalling photographs in today's newspapers bring shame on our country, but we should recognise that they in no way reflect the true character of Britain's armed forces. While the current court martial will decide on individual issues of guilt or innocence, what steps will be taken to investigate the circumstances in which conduct of the kind alleged can take place?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, let me say that everyone finds those photographs shocking and appalling. There are simply no other words to describe them. However, in fairness to our armed forces, I want to make two points. First, the difference between democracy and tyranny is not that in a democracy bad things do not happen, but that in a democracy when they do happen people are held and brought to account, and that is what is happening under our judicial system. Secondly, the vast majority of those 65,000 British soldiers who have served out in Iraq have done so with distinction, with courage and with great honour to this country. So while we express in a unified way our disgust at those pictures, I hope that we do not allow that to tarnish the good name—fully deserved—of our British armed forces.

I can also assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that we will do everything that we can— the Army is doing this already—to investigate the circumstances surrounding these matters. The very fact that these courts martial are being brought is an indication of how seriously the Army takes them.

Photo of Mr John Hume Mr John Hume Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

Given the Chancellor's positive statement on sending assistance to the poorer countries of the world, and given that the poorest countries in the world are those without education, is not education one of the best forms of assistance that we can send, because it will enable such countries to become totally self-sufficient in a generation or so?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right that investment in education is the best investment that we can make. It is worth pointing out that measures led by this country have already been taken on debt relief. For example, Uganda has been able substantially to increase the number of children in primary education, precisely because it has been able to spend money on education. That is why it is so important that the initiative announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is extended to other countries and that they agree to it.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

All of us agree with the sentiments expressed earlier by the Prime Minister on the publication of the photographs of abuse and I am sure that he will agree that the photographs' very circulation is likely to increase the difficulties and dangers for our troops, who are good and honourable, in Iraq. What is his assessment of the impact of the circulation of those images on likely levels of violence? Given the reports of bombings today, does he think that there may yet be a need for additional British troops to bolster the safety of the troops who are currently in position?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On the last point, the additional deployment for the purposes of the election is satisfactory and sufficient, and I am not aware of any request for additional troops. On the first point—we saw this when pictures of American soldiers were published—I think and hope that people in Iraq understand that the fact that we are taking action and prosecuting people who we believe may have been guilty of offences indicates that we do not tolerate that type of activity in any shape or form. It is worth emphasising that Iraqis to whom I spoke on my visits to Basra have paid tribute to the British armed forces' work.

Over the next few weeks, Iraqis will have the chance to participate in their first ever democratic elections. Millions of them want to take part and I am sure that they will. According to the United Nations, the vast majority of Iraqis who are allowed to participate want to participate, whatever part of Iraq they come from. In part, they can do that only because of the courage of British soldiers, who are remaining in Iraq to help them reach the state of democracy that the Iraqis want.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

On troop numbers, given that the Governments of Holland, the Czech Republic and Portugal have all indicated that they will start a phased withdrawal of their troops from the British sector in Iraq over the coming months, what is the likely consequence for our troop numbers? For example, does the Ministry of Defence plan to send in more troops after the election to plug any gaps left by the withdrawal of those forces?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, there are no plans to expand the British contribution. It is correct that some of those countries that had a time-limited commitment to Iraq will act in accordance with it. For example, the Dutch will withdraw their troops at a certain point after the election process. At the same time, however, the Iraqis' capability and capacity in relation to armed forces, police and civil defence is being developed all the time. It cannot be emphasised too often that we do not want to stay for a moment longer than we need to and that the Iraqi people do not want us to stay for a moment longer than we need to. It is a question of staying until the Iraqis' capability is sufficiently robust that they can look after their own security. Everything that comes out of Iraq makes it clear that the people who are causing terrorism and insurgency do not represent the vast majority of Iraqis or even the vast majority in the communities around Baghdad. If they were left to it, those people would be very happy to live in a free democracy, as would the rest of us.

Photo of Neil Gerrard Neil Gerrard Llafur, Walthamstow

I am sure that the Prime Minister knows about my Bill, which I have introduced with cross-party support, to require approval by a vote in Parliament before British forces are sent into armed conflict. Will he support those proposals, so that no future Prime Minister can ignore the important precedent that he set when we had a vote, whether or not some of us liked the result, on Iraq, and will he consider setting another precedent by providing Government time in which to debate my Bill?


Should we care whether whipped and patronage-hungry MPs have an automatic right to a vote on issues like attacking Iraq? Tony Blair knew he couldn't get away with by-passing Parliament. So the MPs were given a vote - and supported an illegal war, on a fraudulent prospectus. I have a better idea. Give all...

Cyflwynwyd gan Michael McCarthy Continue reading (and 2 more annotations)

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind acknowledgement that we provided an opportunity for this House to debate the conflict before entering into it. On the rest of his points, I am afraid that I will have to disappoint him. As I have said many times before, it would be unthinkable for a country to go to war against the wishes of Parliament, but it is not right to constrain the prerogatives that exist at the moment. We did allow people to have a vote before the Iraq conflict, but there may be circumstances—I cannot foresee them, but there may be—in which action has to take place very quickly. I will study my hon. Friend's Bill carefully, but we would have to consider the detail of it before any such change was made.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Before the last election, the Prime Minister promised not to increase the basic or top rate of income tax. Will he give the same pledge today?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have of course honoured that pledge. In respect of any pledges that we make at the next election, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have to wait for our manifesto. Of course, there will be a Budget in the meantime. I would point out to him that we have not raised the top rate of tax and that we have actually cut the basic rate.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Everyone will have noticed that the Prime Minister is not prepared to give that pledge. Now, will he promise not to increase national insurance contributions?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I said before, we will give the details of any tax commitments we make in our manifesto. I might point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Government of whom he was a member fought an election specifically on not putting VAT on fuel, and then put VAT on fuel, so we will take no lessons on broken promises on tax from him.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Prime Minister promised not to put up taxes at all. He said that he had no such plans. He said that no one should assume that this Government would increase national insurance contributions, and the first thing that they did after the election was to increase national insurance contributions.

Every independent expert—the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, The Economist, the Institute for Fiscal Studies—says that the Government are spending more than they are raising and that a Labour Chancellor would have to put up taxes. Why does the Prime Minister think that they are all wrong?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I think that they are wrong for the very simple reason that the Treasury forecasts on the economy have been proved right. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was the person who told us that we would have a recession as a result of Government policy.

As we are talking about tax commitments, I have been having a look at the right hon. and learned Gentleman's supposed tax commitments. I hope that he will now publish the detail behind the so-called James review, because it is actually based on the Government's own savings as set out in Sir Peter Gershon's report. It also has a set of completely incredible savings. To give just one example, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is going to save almost £1 billion from the commissioning of care by primary care trusts, when the total amount of care commissioned by PCTs—the administrative costs—is £90 million. That is one example, and I will give many, many more. It is a long list, but we will have time to explore it. In addition, he is going to cut the new deal, despite the fact that it has helped hundreds of thousands of people into work, on the very day when unemployment has yet again fallen. That is the difference between Tory cuts and Labour investment.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The Prime Minister has got his figures on James wrong, just as the Transport Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster got them wrong on Tuesday. We have published whole of that report—173 pages of it; it is on the Conservative party website. Is it not absolutely clear that the Prime Minister plans to do what he has always done—to put up taxes in the first Budget after a general election? Is it not clear that the choice facing the country is between more waste and higher taxes under Labour and value for money and lower taxes with the Conservatives?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is into that argument because he says that everything is published on the website, but I have been having a look at what is published. For example, it says that, by changing the role of regional development agencies, he will save £365 million, yet the total administrative costs of all RDAs are far less than that figure. It is regeneration programmes in local communities and not bureaucracy that will actually be cut. He says that he will cut £1 billion by scrapping the sustainable communities plan but that figure includes £400 million that is spent on social housing and on helping pensioners and others get a better standard of living. That is not waste, that is cuts in front-line services. I can do no better on his record on tax than to quote this:

"The sad truth is, when we were in office we made promises on tax we couldn't keep."

Who was the author of that statement? The shadow Chancellor.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on social housing, too. We have spelled out in detail how we shall be able to provide more social housing than the Government. Everybody knows that the Government waste money. The Gershon report says that they waste £21 billion of taxpayers' money, and we have been able to provide more savings. Have there ever been a Government who taxed so much, wasted so much and achieved so little?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is keen to get away from the detail of that but he is not going to in the days ahead. Let me give another example of his so-called cuts. He says that he will scrap the Small Business Service, which means approximately £400 million—

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. I say to the Prime Minister that he must concentrate on the policies of his Government. I say to the Leader of the Opposition that he has commented on his policies when he should be asking a question. Perhaps the Prime could oblige me.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Absolutely right, Mr. Speaker, and therefore let me make a commitment on our policy: we will keep the Small Business Service, not cut it. We will keep the new deal, not cut it. We will keep the money that goes into regeneration, not cut it, and we will keep the money that goes into health care and not cut it. We will never promise to cut taxes and spend more—the promises that the previous Conservative Government made. What did they end up with? Boom and bust. [Interruption.]

Photo of Eric Martlew Eric Martlew Llafur, Carlisle

If we can get away from elections and back to the reality of my constituents for a moment, I am conscious that my right hon. Friend is aware of the effects of the recent disastrous floods in Carlisle. The latest position is that thousands of people have been forced out of their houses, perhaps for at least eight months, and 260 businesses have been badly affected. So far, the Government's response has been good and I hope that that will continue. However, will he ensure that the new flood defences that were planned will be modified and that work on them will be started as soon as is feasible? Will he give a commitment that they will be of a standard that would have withstood the water that caused the recent flood?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I express my sympathy to my hon. Friend's constituents who have been affected by the flooding. I understand their concern, since more than 3,000 houses have been flooded and many more have suffered wind damage. The Environment Agency was already considering the options for a new flood defence scheme to give added protection to Carlisle. I note that, as a result of what has happened, it and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are considering how they can ensure that any new flood protection scheme tries to tackle the problem that has affected my hon. Friend's constituency. We understand the urgency of that. As I said when I spoke to him the other day, I shall take a personal interest in ensuring that that is done properly.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Ceidwadwyr, Bromley and Chislehurst

Will the Prime Minister pledge—and tell his Chancellor—not to raise taxes at all?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I have already said, the Chancellor will set out the detail in the Budget. When we come to the election, we will set out our promises on tax as on everything else. We will not make promises that we cannot keep. In particular, we will not say that we can somehow cut everyone's tax and increase spending without that resulting in a serious problem for the country. Not merely on the detail but on that general principle, the right hon. Gentleman and his party have lost any minimal credibility that they had, and we will enjoy pursuing them on that issue between now and polling day.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Does the Prime Minister recall that, in the past two years, the Government have had to intervene in regard to railway firms that were not pulling their weight and, in one case, to a firm that was being neglectful on safety? Is he aware that the coal industry is now suffering from the same problem? UK Coal, the largest employer in the industry, is not only neglecting safety but running down the few remaining pits. I would expect the Government to do the same for the energy industry as they did for the railway industry. They should intervene, get rid of UK Coal and put somebody in there who can be trusted to save the mines.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will certainly look into the point that my hon. Friend has raised on UK Coal. Part of the problem comes from the way in which privatisation took place, both in transport and in the coal industry. The result of that has been the waste of many billions of pounds—we have been debating waste today—and the loss of jobs in mining communities.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

At the last election, Labour sent a text message to young people that said:


Given the increasing concerns about binge drinking, alcohol-related crime and antisocial behaviour, is the Prime Minister proud of that campaign?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have to say that this is the Conservatives' attempt, after the debate about the changes to the licensing law, which they supported at the time, to say that they were really against them. Let me explain the position to the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that the changes will introduce more flexible licensing. The number of clubs or pubs that will apply for 24-hour licences is very small, but there will be greater flexibility. The important point is that, in addition, there will be greater powers for police and local residents to object to licences to ensure that the minority of places that are causing the trouble are shut down. There are greater powers under the antisocial behaviour legislation to deal with people who are drunk and disorderly and causing trouble. As I said last week, the pleasure of the 95 per cent. of people who play by the rules and abide by the law should not be affected by the small minority who misbehave under the existing laws and would misbehave under any laws. The task is surely to deal with them specifically, and to deal with the pubs and clubs that are allowing them to misbehave in that way.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Llafur, Leeds North East

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the divisional commander of Chapeltown police, Chief Superintendent Howard Crowther, and his team on an operation last month that resulted in the removal and arrest of 180 drug dealers from the streets of Chapeltown? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way to sustain the freedom of the streets for the community is to adopt the kind of policies that this Government support, which ensure the social, economic and physical regeneration of suburbs such as Chapeltown? Does he also agree that if the Conservatives ever got back into Government—

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I congratulate Howard Crowther and his team on what they have done in Chapeltown, which I know is an example that is being studied elsewhere in the country. It is an example of the police working with the local community to use the new antisocial behaviour powers. It is important that they do that. The other point that my hon. Friend made is also important. This is not just about having tougher laws on closing the houses of drug dealers, seizing their assets and making sure that they are properly prosecuted through the courts. The other part of the equation involves regenerating some of these areas in terms of housing and employment. That is why it is so important that the money that we have set aside for this continues to be spent.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Minister, Economic Affairs, Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

Six years ago, the average first-time home buyer paid no stamp duty. Last year, they paid £1,300. Will the Prime Minister have a cosy fireside chat with his Chancellor about that?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will publish over the next month proposals that will help first-time home buyers. For those families who are struggling to get on the housing ladder, it is important that we increase the supply of housing in a planned and orderly way that does not affect the green belt. It is no use Conservatives saying on the one hand that they are in favour of helping people on to the housing ladder and into the housing market, while on the other hand opposing all the measures necessary to do so.

Photo of David Marshall David Marshall Llafur, Glasgow Shettleston

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable economic progress made in the city of Glasgow since 1997, with more than 50,000 new jobs being added to the city's employment base. Is he also aware, however, that the number of people classified as economically inactive remains at 100,000, which is one in three of the available work force? Will he consider what new initiatives and additional resources might be made available to the Department for Work and Pensions, Jobcentre Plus, Scottish Enterprise Glasgow and other local agencies, to enable them to help many of those on incapacity and related benefits back into work?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend points out rightly that we now have record employment levels, with 2 million more jobs since 1997, long-term employment down by 80 per cent., and the number of young people on the dole having fallen by almost 80 per cent. since we came to office. He is also right, however, to say that there is much more to do. That is why it is important that the new deal programme is kept and extended, and that we help people on incapacity benefit who can work to get off benefit and into work. All of that requires an active policy for the labour market, which is precisely why, instead of savaging or privatising Jobcentre Plus, which is the policy of the Conservative party, we should ensure that we help more people off benefit and into work. Those 2 million jobs have not just been about the strength of the economy, important though that is, but about active Labour party—and labour market—measures to help people off benefit and into work, to give them training, child care and all the things that sometimes stand between them and a decent job.


For a savage, eye-opening insight into how the disabled (those Blair claims to want to "help") view Blair's draconian plans for welfare reform please take time to read their reactions at:


Some of those the "religious" Mr Blair seeks to "help" are driven to the brink of suicide.

Cyflwynwyd gan Saint Swithins-Day

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

The Prime Minister has known for some time that the republican movement was responsible for the Northern Bank raid. Because he has yet to develop a coherent response, he is in danger of giving the impression that after a little while he will welcome back through his door the biggest bank robber in British history. Does he realise the damage that that will do to himself and his party?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, I should say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not in any shape or form dismiss the importance or seriousness of what has happened. We are now seeing what we do to find a way forward which ensures that those people who are democrats and committed to every aspect of the democratic process are able to find a way forward, and that those people who are not prepared to commit themselves to exclusively peaceful means do not hold up the process for everybody else. That is what we will consider. As he knows, such a proposal requires not only support in the Unionist community but support in the nationalist community, too. If I can, I still want to find a way forward that includes everybody. It must be said, however, that we can no longer have a situation in which political parties are associated with paramilitary groups that are committing either what we might call terrorist offences or ordinary criminality. There simply can be no place for that. Unless and until it is absolutely clear that things have changed fundamentally, it is difficult to see the way forward on that inclusive basis. But the challenge is not for us. The challenge is for those who have been engaged in that type of activity to realise that we cannot wait for ever while they make up their minds.

Photo of Bob Blizzard Bob Blizzard Llafur, Waveney

Overall crime continues to fall in my constituency, with burglary down 33 per cent. last year. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the seven new community support officers who have just started work in Lowestoft? With 20,000 more CSOs planned nationally, can he tell us how many more new CSOs my constituency can expect to see and what more he will do to tackle antisocial behaviour, if we continue to invest in crime fighting rather than cut the Home Office budget as the Conservative party would do?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right in saying that overall burglary has fallen, according to the British crime survey, by about 40 per cent. If one is a victim of burglary, however, is it no consolation to know that that is the case. It is therefore important that as well as the type of laws that we have introduced in relation to antisocial behaviour and drugs particularly—often, burglary and acquisitive crime are linked to drug addiction—we increase the numbers of police and community support officers. I assure him that that programme will continue and be expanded in the way in which we have said, and that it is fully funded within the Government's programme. Community support officers—opposed by the Conservative party when they were introduced—have in fact been tremendously popular.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

Will the Prime Minister look again at the decision as asked for by the colonel of the Royal Welsh Regiment—that Welsh regiments should be allowed to show their names in the same way as the Royal Regiment of Scotland?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I will certainly look into that. I am aware of concern about it. I think that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is looking into it already, but I will ensure that I am properly acquainted with the facts as well.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Llafur, Tyne Bridge

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what has been described as the finest music auditorium in the world is not in Paris, not in Rome, not in New York, and not even in London? [Hon. Members: "Where is it?"] In fact, it is in Gateshead. When my right hon. Friend visits the new Sage music centre on the bank of the Tyne, which he will do fairly shortly, will he take the opportunity to congratulate all who have been involved with it, and in particular congratulate Gateshead's Labour-controlled council on its vision? Will he also ask his Ministers to co-operate fully with the council in its further efforts to develop the quayside area of Gateshead?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Anyone who has visited the quayside area knows that what my hon. Friend said is absolutely true. The centre and, indeed, the whole development are a testament to the vision and leadership that have been offered locally. I think that that is one reason why people now consider the area one of the places to go in Europe, a fact of which my hon. Friend and his constituents can be very proud.