Blair answers readers' questions

Prime Minister Tony Blairs answers questions posed by readers of the East Anglian Daily TimesQuestion: Mr Blair, you were adamant that we don't give into to kidnappers so as to free British hostages in Iraq, a policy which allowed Ken Bigley to die.

Prime Minister Tony Blairs answers questions posed by readers of the East Anglian Daily Times

Question: Mr Blair, you were adamant that we don't give into to kidnappers so as to free British hostages in Iraq, a policy which allowed Ken Bigley to die. How would you apply the same principle to an immediate member of your family or a loved one in the same situation? (Please try not to avoid the question by stating that you don't deal with hypothetical situations especially when Iraq was one such situation).

Paul Harty, Willow Cottage, Rose Hill, Witnesham, IP6 9HU.

Answer: I'm not going to duck it. The Government position is that you can't give in to kidnappers whoever is the hostage. Governments take this attitude not because we don't care about our citizens but because we realise that giving in leads to more hostage taking and more individuals and families who have to go through the agonies suffered by Ken Bigley and his family. No matter how hard it is and how much criticism you might take, the stance of this and past British Governments to kidnapping has to be the right one.


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Q: What do you propose to do to encourage pensioners to vote Labour? Michael Howard promises a substantial increase in the basic pension and a real reduction in council tax. The Liberal Democrats would scrap council tax and replace it with a local income tax, which would be fairer for older people on fixed incomes.

But so far, nothing has been promised by Labour. Yes, we have the winter fuel allowance and there has been help for poorer pensioners, but in the present affluent society, many of us are still at a disadvantage. The grey vote is important. Don't let the Tories capture it. I have been a Labour Party member for many years and I don't want to see Michael Howard in No 10.

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Joan Smith, 38 Holcombe Crescent, Ipswich, IP2 9QL

A: Thank you for your support, Joan. And you are right that as a society we sill have some way to go to repay our debt to the older generation. But I honestly think that when you look at what we have done since 1997, you will see there has been real progress. And we have done it in a way which targets most help, just as we promised, on the poorest.

It may be difficult to remember the plight of many pensioners after 18 years of Tory rule. But it is important to remember to judge what has changed and also to judge the credibility of Tory promises. When we came to power in 1997, one in four pensioners were living in poverty. Many survived on as little as £69 a week - a result of a Tory Government that raised the basic pension above inflation just once in 18 years.

Pensioners found themselves charged for eye tests. VAT had been put on fuel. Our NHS, on which so many older people depend, had been starved of investment. Waiting lists and waiting times had risen dramatically.

No Government could put all this right overnight. But this Labour Government has made a real start. There have been record rises in the basic state pension while the introduction of the Pension Credit means no single pensioner should receive less than £109 a week - a real terms increase of a third since 1997. In Ipswich alone, over 4,000 pensioner households receive pension credit worth an average of £40 a week.

We've reduced VAT on fuel and restored free eye tests. We've introduced the £200 winter allowance with £100 more for those over 80. In his Budget, Gordon Brown announced a special £200 payment this year to help with council tax bills. Four million households also benefit from free TV licences. And we are bringing in free local bus travel.

Breast cancer screening, for example, has now been extended to women between 50 and 70. Waiting lists and waiting times are down sharply. When we came to power, the maximum waiting time for cataract operations was up to two years. It is now three months. We need to do more but the NHS, at last, is going strongly in the right direction.

You are right that older people are likely to play a major role in this election. I am proud that many millions of pensioners across the country have benefited from this government - the result of what we have done already is that 1.8 million pensioners have been lifted out of poverty. Average pensioner households are £1,500 better off in real terms while the poorest tenth of pensioner households have seen their incomes rise by £2,000 since 1997.

We are also putting in record investment into the NHS to expand capacity, reduce delays and improve care. It is always possible, in a health service treating one million patients every 36 hours, to find cases which fall short of the standard we all want to see. But, as a series of independent reports have underlined, the NHS is on the road to a full recovery.

Q: Why is your campaign so disgracefully anti-Semitic, depicting Mr Howard as Fagin and Shylock, flying pigs, and a mongrel, and Ken Livingstone's verbal abuse of a Jewish reporter as a concentration camp guard?

Christine Warren, Rickinghall (by email: suffolk555@yahoo.co.uk)

A: There has been absolutely nothing anti-Semitic about our campaign. You can hardly get a more widely used expression than pigs may fly. Surely you are not suggesting everyone who uses it is anti-Semitic. The other poster you are referring actually showed Michael Howard as a hypnotist, like the one on the Little Britain TV show. You may not think it is very good or very funny but it was nothing to do with Fagin or Shylock. And both posters, by the way, were never adopted by our party. As for Ken Livingstone, he can speak for himself but his remarks are not part of our campaign at all. It may well be that what he said was unwise and, you may think, offensive but I think even the paper they were aimed at has admitted they were not anti-Semitic.

Q: The Government has spent much time and effort on the banning of hunting with dogs but, while it was concentrating on this, the necessity of protecting us from terrorists became urgent, to the point where there was insufficient time for properly thought-out anti-terrorism legislation to replace that which was due to expire. Why was the Government not able to foresee this problem before it required urgent action?

Mr. P. Fleming, 60 Brook Lane, Galleywood, Chelmsford

A: The reason we had to act so quickly on the terrorism legislation, Mr Fleming, was simply because of the House of Lords judgement which ruled that the steps we were already taking were unlawful. No Government could ignore the highest court in the land but neither could we ignore what we were being told by the police and our intelligence services. So we put forward new measures intended to meet the Law Lords concerns but also to ensure we protect the public from the very real threat from terrorism. And despite some people, I'm afraid, deciding to play games with this issue, we finally got the measures through. They are now in force and being used. As for hunting, the bill actually finished all its Parliamentary stages and received Royal Assent in November last year - a month before the Law Lords made their ruling so there is no connection between the two.

Q: You have more nuclear killing power, measured in K, than Mrs Thatcher had at the height of the cold war. Will you ever do anything to reduce the danger we live under from nuclear weapons?

R F Stearn, The Little Barn, Old Newton, Stowmarket, IP14 4EG

A: Actually, Britain has substantially reduced our nuclear firepower since the end of the Cold War, Mr Stearn. We now have fewer than 200 nuclear warheads operationally available which represents a reduction of more than 70% in the potential explosive firepower of our nuclear forces. Britain's aim is to maintain the minimum level of nuclear weapons required to guarantee a credible deterrent against any potential aggressor. Our only nuclear weapons system is now provided by the Trident missiles aboard our Vanguard submarines.

I agree with you, however, that we must work hard to reduce the risks to the world from nuclear weapons. That is what we are doing through our support for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty - ratified by this Government - and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. We continue as well to support multilateral negotiations towards mutual, balanced and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons worldwide.

Q: How can someone of my age 25 with a student loan debt of £15,000 get onto the property ladder with high property prices and stamp duty.

R Sheppard, Lyle Close, Kesgrave, Ipswich

A: I accept it is difficult for people to get their first foot on the property ladder. It was for this reason that we doubled the stamp duty threshold in the Budget along with other measures to extend home ownership. But, of course, the best way we can help you and all homeowners is by ensuring we keep interest rates as low as possible. This has been on the real successes of this Government. Interest rates are running at half the average level of the Conservative Government and this means homeowners are saving £300 a month on their mortgages. As for student loans, we are changing the system so that everyone should have to pay back less a week by raising the threshold below which no payments are made from the present £10,000 a year to £15,000. So someone earning £18,000 now has to pay £13.85.each week to repay their student loan but that will reduce to £5.19 a week. The other point about the loan is that it is, in real terms, interest-free.

Q: 1) You have put billions into the health service, but there are still two

waiting lists - the first concerns the length of time from being referred by a doctor and being put on a consultant's list, and the second is the length of the consultant's list. This is smoke of mirrors because the first list is never included in national statistics or Government targets. Can't we have one list - from the time the GP writes to the consultant until he or she is seen at the hospital?

2) Is there not some merit in Michael Howard's plan to give money to people to help them have their elective surgery done privately?

Mrs J Hammond, Ipswich

A: 1) Thank you for recognising, Mrs Hammond, that we are tackling the chronic under-investment in our health service which left the NHS short of doctors, nurses and modern hospitals and equipment. It means, for example, there are now 3,500 more nurses and 900 extra doctors across Norfolk and Suffolk than there were in 1997. In Essex, as well as 900 more nurses, there is a brand new community hospital being built in Harwich, another under construction in Braintree and a £60 million cardiac centre in Basildon. This investment and improvement would all be put at risk from a Tory party which intends to slash £35 billion from public services over the next Parliament.

It's because of this progress that we have managed to bring waiting lists down from the record levels they reached under the Tories. Despite the fact that the NHS performs nearly half a million more operations a year than it did in 1997, waiting lists by the same measure that the Tories used are down 300,000. Maximum waiting times for the first outpatient appointment with a consultant are also down from over 26 weeks to 17 weeks and should be 13 weeks by the end of the year.

But you are right that the figures have never measured the time between seeing your GP and your operation. And I agree with you that this is a better measurement of improvement in the NHS we want to see. So we have pledged, that from 2008, maximum waits from a first visit to GP about a condition and your operation will be down to 18 weeks. It's an ambitious target but because of the improvement we have already seen in the NHS and the extra capacity and investment we are putting it, I believe the NHS and its superb staff can achieve it.

2) As to the Tory policy to take something like £1 billion out of the NHS to subsidise a relatively wealthy few to go private, no I don't think it is a good idea at all. The Conservative proposal is that they will meet half the cost, out of the NHS budget paid for by us all, of operations in a private hospital if the patients can find the rest of the money themselves.

Many of these patients, of course, would already go private so you are not reducing the burden on the NHS just reducing the money the health service has to improve the care and treatment for all. It also means that it is not the sickest or the most needy who will benefit but those who can find, for example, another £3,000 to meet the rest of the cost of a hip replacement in a private hospital.

We want, as I have already made clear, to use the extra investment we are putting in - investment which would be put at risk by the Tories - to improve the NHS for everyone. But we already make use successfully of the independent sector to cut waiting lists and waiting times and are doing more. However under Labour, the NHS meets the full cost of these operations so they are open to all not just those able to meet the rest of the cost of treatment themselves.

Q: Woodbridge is being inundated by thugs and vandals. When can we have our quality of life back, without the hooligans who currently blight it?

James Joss, 12a Seckford Street, Woodbridge, IP12 4LY

A: I know anti-social behaviour is a priority for many people and it is a priority for this Government as well. It is because we have been out listening to those on the front-line and to local residents, that we have brought in a series of new powers for the police, courts and councils to act against the thugs, vandals and nightmare neighbours who blight too many communities. Where these powers are being used effectively, they are making a difference. I know, for example, that a variety of ASB initiatives have been launched in Ipswich. We have invested to increase police officers to record numbers with over 250 more across Suffolk and Essex alone. We have also created new community support officers and want to see over 20,000 to provide another uniformed presence in our neighbourhoods.

Q: There is currently a review under way to re-band properties for council tax. You claim this will be revenue neutral. Do you honestly expect us to believe that local authorities, handed a crock of gold from higher banded properties, will actually reduce the rate of council tax? I believe they will either spend, spend, spend our hard earned money, or is it the case you have a secret intention to reduce the amount of grant Whitehall gives councils so they have to make up the shortfall more from householders?

P L Moore, Colchester

A: The review is going on but the idea is not that it will raise more money for councils overall but that it will raise the same amount of money but more fairly - based on new up-to-date valuations which take into account the changes in property values which, as you will know, can and do vary widely. That's what we mean by revenue neutral.

As for cutting grants to councils, I think you must be mixing us up with the Conservatives, Mr Moore. It is the Tories who intend to reduce grants as part of their £35 billion cuts which would mean council taxes going through the roof. They have also said they will scrap capping powers which means they won't be able to hold them down.

In contrast, this Labour Government has increased grants to local government by 33% in real terms since 1997 and are committed, under our published spending plans, to increase them further. We will also maintain capping powers to prevent excessive council tax rises. It is the combination of increased grants and the threat of these powers which has delivered this year the lowest council tax rises for a decade.

Q: Why is it necessary to build a second runway at Stansted Airport? How do you defend the destruction of the landscape and the environment?

L S Johnson, Braintree

A: Demand for all kinds of travel is growing rapidly and trips which were once considered a luxury for the rich only are now enjoyed by everyone. That's a good thing but the downside is, for example, that our airports are getting busier.

There are no easy answers to these problems. I wish there were. But the truth is that unless we are going to stop people flying - which would hit business travel and our future prosperity as well as people going on holidays or breaks - then we need more capacity at our airports. It was to look at how we could do this that we published our Aviation White Paper 18 months ago to look at our response to air travel over the next 30 years. Among the proposals to cope with the expected growth is a new runway at Stansted as well, if local air quality issues can be solved, at Heathrow.

Stansted's existing capacity will be full by 2012 which is why an additional runway has been proposed. I accept that this will result in new development around the airport. But the decision was made after a long and thorough assessment of all the possible options and the risk to economic growth in the south east if we did nothing. In the end, it will be for BAA to come forward with firm proposals for the new runway which they will only do if it they are confident that air travel - and particularly the short haul market - will continue to grow. Their proposals will, of course, be subject to local planning decisions so residents will have their chance to have their say.

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