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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): As the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, discussions between the Chancellor and Ministers on such matters are, for obvious reasons, confidential. However, if the right hon. Gentleman exercises a little patience, he may hear more on the subject later from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the Minister. Can he tell us whether, during those discussions, any estimate has been made by his Department or by the Treasury of the loss in revenue to the Treasury as a result of cross-border smuggling of fuel for vehicles?
Mr. Howarth: As the right hon. Gentleman probably knows, there was a Select Committee report containing some estimates. There is indeed a problem, which it would be wrong not to acknowledge. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who is responsible for security, is working hard with the RUC and other agencies to make sure that the smuggling of petrol or other products is dealt
Mr. John Hume (Foyle): Does the Minister agree that the region that is suffering most from the petrol crisis is Northern Ireland, particularly the border counties, because of the enormous difference in price on each side of the border--85p a litre on our side and 60p a litre on the other? That is an incredible threat to the petrol industry on our side of the border, and also to the shopping centres as a result of the enormous change that has taken place because of that. Will the Government take the necessary steps to resolve the issue as soon as possible?
Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman, as a distinguished Member of the European Parliament, knows that any scheme to reduce duty rates in Northern Ireland or to introduce a price subsidy scheme would require the co-operation of the Commission. Any such scheme would run into difficulties, as has been the case in other countries. Although there is a problem, which the hon. Gentleman identifies, any solution has equal difficulties attached to it.
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Given that the number of vehicles is up and the consumption of all sorts of fuel in Northern Ireland is down, is the Minister prepared to deny the estimate by some people in Northern Ireland that there has been a loss of up to £1 billion to the revenue of the United Kingdom? If he does deny that, why? Will he then produce his own estimates, as the Treasury has clearly been unable to do so?
Mr. Howarth: I acknowledged earlier that there is a problem. For the reasons mentioned by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), the problem has a particular impact on Northern Ireland. Speculating on the amounts involved--a Select Committee figure was mentioned--does not tell us what the solution is. We must work towards a solution that will work and will receive the co-operation of the RUC and all the other agencies, and bring it to bear on the problem. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the House agree that that is the sensible way forward.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Government provide funding to Victim Support (NI), which offers a range of services to victims of crime, and to the Nexus Institute, which supports victims of sexual abuse. To date, the Government have also allocated more than £6.25 million to a series of initiatives that address the needs of victims of the troubles. Furthermore, my right hon. Friend the
Mr. Hope: Given the years of neglect of the victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland under the previous Administration, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Opposition on their new-found concern for victims, and will he comment on progress on the new core funding scheme introduced by the Government to help families in Northern Ireland rebuild their lives?
Mr. Ingram: That is a blow that the Opposition deserve to have landed on them because there was some sanctimonious posturing in the way in which they dealt with some of the issues. We have had to tackle the deep hurt and grief in that divided community, and we have done so with vigour. I announced earlier the extent of how we are dealing with that. That will not be the end of the problems that we have to solve nor of our commitment to solving them.
Mr. Blizzard: Is not the real problem with fuel prices revealed by looking at the fuel used by fishing boats? There is no duty at all on marine diesel, yet prices have trebled because of the high international price of crude oil. The trawlermen of Lowestoft cannot make a living with such high prices. They understand that the problem is not of the Government's making, but can a way forward be found so that the fishing industry can survive the high prices and the fish for our national dish can still be caught by British fishermen?
The Prime Minister: It is the rise in world oil prices that has caused most difficulty, but the industry is currently experiencing extensive and difficult restructuring. However, I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the fisheries departments of England and the devolved Administrations will make some £60 million available during the next few years to help the fishing industry to adapt to the difficult times in which it now exists.
Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): For great numbers of people today their main concern is the flooding of their homes, which has caused genuine misery and distress. I know that the Prime Minister will want to join me in expressing sympathy to all those affected in recent days and, once again, profound gratitude for the magnificent response of the emergency services.
In examining what more can be done in future by any Government, does the Prime Minister agree that all parties should look again at the verdict of the Select Committee on Agriculture that the current responsibilities for tackling flooding may be too fragmented and that there is a lack of clarity as to which body is ultimately in charge?
The Prime Minister: Of course I join in the thanks to the emergency services, which, as ever, have performed magnificently in extremely difficult circumstances, and of course we will consider the Agriculture Committee's suggestion. I think that the Environment Agency is due to report back on that very issue.
I am afraid that it looks very much as if the problem will not go away during the next few years. The floods have been the worst for 50 years and, in some cases, for 100 years. We must put in the short-term measures necessary--flood defences and so on--and then we must take, on an international level, some of the difficult decisions, perhaps ducked for too long, about some of the issues of climate change.
The Prime Minister: It was precisely as a result of the lessons learned in 1998 that the new emergency warning system was introduced; and that worked well in this instance. We have also spent more money on flood defences than ever before--up by about 50 per cent. during the past 10 years or so. Of course, we shall consider what else we can do, and we are prepared to consider any suggestions.
I am glad, too, that the right hon. Gentleman sees that this is a matter for cross-party co-operation. Everyone wants to ensure that we have the proper flood defences in place. For those people affected at the moment, the situation is desperate, and we must do everything possible to help them. However, we must look not merely at the short-term measures that are necessary to protect Britain against floods, but, at an international level, at what we can do to try to reduce the incidence of such freak climate changes that are happening not just in Britain but throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
Mr. Clive Efford (Eltham): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the road has not been built that can accommodate all the bandwagons on which the Leader of the Opposition has jumped recently? My constituents have approached me to say that the self-appointed leaders of the road fuel lobby do not represent their views on
The Prime Minister: Whatever people's grievances about the cost of fuel, I hope that we can agree on two matters. First, those grievances should be pursued lawfully and properly, without trying to disrupt the country's food supplies or bring the motorways or any other aspect of the country to a halt. Secondly, anything that we do to try to address those grievances cannot be at the expense of economic stability, investment in our public services or any other action that we want to take for other people who need our help, notably pensioners.
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): To return to flooding, does the Prime Minister believe that an explanation is owed to those whose homes and businesses have been flooded of the fact that, five months ago, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food received a report which stated that there was an urgent case for fresh investment in flood prevention measures? Why has it taken five months and the latest catastrophe before extra funds have been forthcoming?
The Prime Minister: It has not taken five months, because we have been increasing the amount of money for flood defences. The Deputy Prime Minister tells me that, in some respects, we are putting in more money than the report requested. As a result of the announcements that were made a few days ago, the Bellwin scheme will be paid at 100 per cent. That will provide significant help to people. An extra £51 million has also been announced. Before then, not only as a result of the report but because of circumstances that existed a couple of years ago, we increased investment in flood defences.
Mr. Kennedy: The House has already welcomed the additional money, but will the Prime Minister confirm two points? First, will he confirm that the additional sums will be spread over the next four years, and that the headline figure does not apply to the current financial year? Secondly, does he acknowledge, in the light of the advice that the Government received five months ago, that if they had acted earlier and with greater alacrity, some of the worst effects could have been avoided?
We have put in the extra money. It will be spread over four years, as the Deputy Prime Minister announced, but there is a limit to what we can do in the short term. We have put in additional sums of money in the past few years. Indeed, it is fair to say that even under the previous Government, additional sums were put in after the floods in the late 1980s. We must continue to make that
Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): Does my right hon. Friend welcome, as I do, the publication of Mr. Justice Colman's report on the reopened inquiry into the sinking of the MV Derbyshire? The report exonerates the master and crew of any blame for the sinking. Will he join me in congratulating the families of the 44 people who died? Those families fought a 20-year campaign to get at the truth of what happened. Will he also join me in congratulating the Deputy Prime Minister, whose determination to reopen the inquiry has been so fully vindicated today?
The Prime Minister: I am happy to offer my congratulations on the campaign and pay tribute to the families of those who lost their lives. As my hon. Friend said, that campaign stretches over 20 years. We studied the matter very carefully on coming to office and, indeed, before that--my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has had a long-standing commitment to this issue. We established the inquiry and we shall now study the results. I am pleased that, after two decades of trying, we are finally getting closer to the truth of what happened. We are now able to study the results of that report and take appropriate action.
Q2. Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives): The Prime Minister has rightly given power to places that people identify with, but when will he complete that unfinished business? Will he make sure that Assemblies in future reflect regions that people identify with, have a clear popular mandate and are fully democratic?
The Prime Minister: We have always said that that has to be driven by local people themselves--they have got to want such Assemblies to be established. In the meantime, of course, we have made considerable progress in decentralising government, in particular with the establishment of the regional development agencies. For example, the South West of England regional development agency, as the hon. Gentleman knows, played a key role in securing objective 1 status for Cornwall, which will be worth more than £300 million over the next seven years. Seven thousand five hundred new job opportunities have been created or safeguarded through the RDA and there have been 37 inward investment projects, which have attracted a capital investment of more than £100 million. Those are considerable achievements on which to build for the future.
Q3. Angela Smith (Basildon): In the context of the national debate on public services, I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the actions of Essex county council. Is he aware that, just like the Tory Opposition in the House, Essex Tories promised to tax less and to deliver more? Yesterday, however, they announced education spending cuts of three quarters of a million pounds, including more than a third of a million from under-fives education. Does that not just go to prove that people who vote Tory are jeopardising their children's education?
Q4. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The Prime Minister will be aware that, after voting Labour, people in Preston are experiencing the highest council tax in Lancashire. What steps will he take to deal with the situation, at a time when members of his party in Preston are still busy fighting each other about who will speak for Labour in the by-election?
The Prime Minister: The level of the tax, of course, is a matter for the local council. Let me just say--[Interruption.] Well, it is. Let me just point out that, actually, the rises in--[Interruption.]
Q5. Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton): What efforts is my right hon. Friend making to assist homeless families, especially in Greater London, in recognition of how adversely they were affected by Tory Governments and their failed housing policies?
The Prime Minister: We are taking measures, particularly in relation to the homeless, that have, for example, reduced the number of rough sleepers by a third in the past couple of years. We will also, by 2003, put an extra £1.6 billion worth of investment into housing. The most important thing that we can do for housing is to keep interest rates and mortgages low. Let me remind the House that in the 18 years of Conservative government, interest rates averaged 10 per cent. Under this Government, they have averaged 6 per cent. That is a saving of well over £1,000 a year to the average mortgage payer.
The Prime Minister: The figures have been set out many times before and there has been £660 million of lottery grant--[Interruption.] Well, because the right hon. Gentleman has been going around the country attacking the funding of the dome, saying what a terrible idea it was
Mr. Hague: So the Prime Minister does not know how much he has squandered on the dome as a result of his mismanagement and cronyism. If he wants to quote what was said about the dome in the past, we should look at his speech in the royal festival hall, "Why the dome is good for Britain". The Prime Minister said:
The Prime Minister: The decisions to build the dome and to choose the Greenwich site were taken by that Committee. The appointment of senior managers was decided by it, as was the lottery money and financing that the right hon. Gentleman now complains about. It took the decision to split jobs between two Ministers and, we have discovered, it gave the visitor number projections. The only difference between the robbers who were caught at the dome yesterday and the right hon. Gentleman is the fact that the Tories are never caught at the scene of the crime.
Mr. Hague: It defies credulity--[Hon. Members: "More."] Oh, there is plenty more. It defies credulity that the Prime Minister now thinks that it is all to do with the previous Administration. There was an attempt to drive a bulldozer into the dome yesterday, but the biggest robbery is the fact that the Government did not drive a bulldozer into it two months ago. Visitor number figures were reviewed by the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues and were confirmed. They were not set in place by the
The Prime Minister: Let us see what the report actually says. I should point out to the right hon. Gentleman that the visitor number estimates were first done by his Government and his Committee. [Hon. Members: "Oh!] Yes, it is true that they were reviewed by us, so let us share a bit of the responsibility. As for his comments about the dome, it is correct that those visitor numbers were out, although more than 5 million people will go to the dome this year; but on the other side of the balance sheet, the total value of the north Greenwich peninsular is liable to be about £1 billion. All that is true. However, I will not accept criticism from the right hon. Gentleman. When I was doing his job, I was visited by the Cabinet Minister then in charge of this project who was chairing the Committee that the right hon. Gentleman was on. He asked us for our support, and told us that if we did not give that support thousands of jobs would be at risk and a great international event would not be staged in this country. I am prepared to accept, and have accepted, criticism from the public, but I am not prepared to accept criticism from the person who sat on that Committee, took those decisions and, now that a little bandwagon has gone out, has decided to motor it off.
Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister once boasted that the dome would be the first paragraph of the next Labour election manifesto. Had he proposed to start his election manifesto by saying that his party shared this responsibility with the Conservative party? Was that what he had in mind? Now he wants to share the responsibility. Has not the whole saga shown that Ministers cannot be trusted with the public's money? Is it not true that this story of hype, emptiness, cronyism, lack of delivery and rash promises is not the first paragraph of Labour's manifesto but the last word about this Government?
The Prime Minister: Even though the right hon. Gentleman decided the financing and the management of the dome, he now tells us that it was the wrong thing to do. Two things come out of this exchange. First, he wants to deny the part that he personally played in bringing about the dome. Secondly, his opportunism does not end there. I am amazed that today of all days the right hon.
Q6. Gillian Merron (Lincoln): Has the Prime Minister seen the survey in Saga Magazine, which shows that seven out of 10 people have given a big thumbs down to the Opposition's plans to axe winter fuel payments and free television licences for the over-75s? The survey shows that pensioners want to keep those vital payments as well as have an increase in the basic state pension--a fact that the Tories have singularly failed to grasp.
The Prime Minister: That is right. The Conservatives would take away the winter fuel allowance of £150 and the free television licences. The thing about both those sums of money that have been given to pensioners is that they are not affected by tax or benefit. It is crucially important that pensioners are allowed to receive those benefits. Once again, the Conservative party shows how it would let down the pensioners of this country.
I should also say that we will be putting more money into pensions overall in this Parliament than we would have done had we relinked the basic state pensions with earnings. That is because we on this side of the House care about all pensioners, not just a few.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): In view of increasing public concern about the concentration of power in Europe, is it really true that the Prime Minister is planning to surrender the veto in substantial new policy spheres? Would it not be better for Europe and for Britain if we asked the European Union to use its current powers more sensibly, rather than passed over more power from a democratic Parliament to a non-elected body?
The Prime Minister: No; as I have made very clear, we will not surrender the veto at all on tax and treaty change issues or on a range of other issues. However, there are issues on which we would be prepared to examine qualified majority voting, when it is in our interests to do so.
Conservative Members now take the position that they will not have any extension of qualified majority voting at all. However, of the two largest extensions of qualified majority voting--far larger than anything that we have either done or proposed to do in government--the first was made by Margaret Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, in 1986, and the second by my immediate predecessor as Prime Minister, in the Maastricht treaty.
At the time, qualified majority voting was important. If we did not have qualified majority voting in relation to some agriculture issues or in respect of completion of the single market, for example, we could not properly protect British business interests. We should therefore judge it on a case-by-case basis. We should keep the veto when it is
Q7. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): My right hon. Friend will be aware that, on many occasions and over a long time, the issue of compensation for former prisoners of war in the far east has been raised. I am pleased, and indeed proud, that it is this Government who have made the decision to award that compensation. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a matter not only of financial settlement, but of this generation recognising the sacrifice and suffering incurred, on its behalf, by an earlier generation?
The Prime Minister: The financial gratuity can never, of course, compensate properly for the pain and suffering that people went through: more than 12,000 people died as far east prisoners of war or as civilians. Yesterday, I met some of those who survived, and some of the widows of those who were killed in those camps, and one simply cannot fail to be struck by their courage, fortitude and commitment. I am pleased that we were able to make this payment to them. I think that it is long overdue, and that it goes some way to recognising the sacrifice that they made in the interests of this country.
Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): Does the Prime Minister share my concern about the news overnight that the motor company Daewoo has gone bankrupt, and the impact that that will have on the Daewoo European Technical Centre in my constituency in Worthing and the 700 jobs that it provides? Will he and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry bring every pressure to bear on the Korean authorities, particularly the receiver, to ensure that new owners can be arranged as soon as possible, to maintain that centre of excellence in my constituency as a viable and intact business that has a great bearing on our whole economy and not only on that of the south coast?
The Prime Minister: I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that we will do everything we can; indeed, our ambassador in Korea is already in touch with the Korean authorities. It is an extremely difficult situation, and I
Q8. Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on the economy, the real choice facing the British people is not between those who claim to spend more and those who claim to tax less, but between the 1 million new jobs created by the Labour party--thereby allowing more spending and lower tax, as people do not draw the dole when they are working--and Tory boom and bust, in which there are millions of people on the dole, bankruptcies, repossessions and, consequently, higher taxes and service cuts?
The Prime Minister: Two very obvious things will happen with the Conservatives, the first of which is the £60 billion of spending cuts. It is increasingly clear that those spending cuts will fall on schools, hospitals, transport, police and so on. Additionally, the policy that they are now pursuing is an absolute replica of boom and bust--which is exactly what would happen. We must avoid the danger of replicating those policies of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
To show you, Mr. Speaker, that the Opposition do not even know in which direction they need to drive their bandwagons, how about this speech from the shadow Chief Secretary this morning? Once they have decided that we might be helping people in the pre-Budget report, the shadow Chief Secretary goes on the radio and says: