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1991 - PMQT 5th March 1991

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 5th March 1991.

PRIME MINISTER

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Bill Michie : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday, 5 March.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor) : I have been asked to reply.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in Moscow having bilateral discussions with President Gorbachev.

Mr. Michie : Will the Lord President admit that, if the Ribble Valley borough council had been given the £1,192 per poll tax payer that was received in Wandsworth--[ Hon. Members :-- "What about Lambeth? Start again."] I shall start again. Will the Lord President admit that, if Ribble Valley borough council had been given the same £1,192 per poll tax payer, Ribble Valley constituents would have saved £225 per head?

Mr. MacGregor : Ribble Valley is a district council so cannot be compared with the borough that the hon. Gentleman has in mind. Ribble Valley received much less than the adjoining Preston borough council and its community charge is 70p per week compared with £1.40 in Preston. Moreover, Ribble Valley community charge payers will benefit in many other ways. If the hon. Gentleman is trying to compare Ribble Valley's community charge with the minimum community charge in London, I must point out that the London borough of Wandsworth has an external support grant per adult of £1,192, compared with Lambeth's £1,557. He will know that there is a phenomenal difference in the community charge between boroughs.

Sir John Stokes : In view of the large and growing number of hoax bomb calls, does my right hon. Friend think that the present maximum penalty of three months' imprisonment is sufficient for such a serious and dangerous offence?

Mr. MacGregor : I believe that the matter is being looked at not only by the Government but British Telecom. I agree about the importance of dealing with hoax phone calls.

Mr. Hattersley : Did yesterday's statement on the poll tax in Clitheroe by the Secretary of State for Health represent Government policy?

Mr. MacGregor : The position on the community charge is clear. The right hon. Gentleman mentions Clitheroe and I think that I know what he has in mind. He will know that the community charge reduction scheme, which we introduced recently, will benefit eight out of 10 households in Ribble Valley next year and that, of those, the average reduction will be about £200. That is a clear position on the community charge, from which many people in Ribble Valley will benefit.

Mr. Hattersley : I think that the Lord President has blocked his colleague's statement from his mind. Let me remind him what the Secretary of State for Health said, succinctly and precisely, about the poll tax. He said that the Government's policy was "No regrets, no apology." Does the Lord President endorse that view?

Mr. MacGregor : I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman did not like my answer on the community charge reduction scheme, which will clearly benefit a great number of people in Ribble Valley. He will know that we are reviewing all aspects of the community charge scheme--that has been made clear many times.

Mr. Hattersley : As the Lord President has twice singularly refused to answer my question about what his colleague said, may I suggest that what his colleague really meant was, "No apologies, no regrets about the poll tax and no idea what to do next"?

Mr. MacGregor : Might I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should not pay so much attention to everything in the newspapers, because my right hon. Friend said no such thing.

Mr. Favell : Now that it looks as though the community charge, in its present form, is going to go, will the Cabinet consider abolishing the right of town halls to raise money and give them 100 per cent., based on a formula of what they need to spend? That would save more than £1.5 billion in collection costs and do away with transitional relief and community charge relief.

Mr. MacGregor : My hon. Friend has made his view known, and will know that the Cabinet is looking at all options in relation to the community charge review.


Q2. Mrs. Fyfe : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 5 March.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Lady to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mrs. Fyfe : Does the right hon. Gentleman know that last year no fewer than 1,390 operations were cancelled in the Ribble Valley health authority district? Does he also know that, in Ayrshire senior medical staff were balloted twice about opting out of health board controls and voted overwhelmingly against doing so, but that that decision is still to be imposed on the people of that district? What way is that to run a health service?

Mr. MacGregor : I do know that in Ribble Valley the number of in- patients treated has gone up by 36 per cent., the waiting lists have come down by 65 per cent. over 12 months and £36 million worth of capital has been invested since 1979. That is a clear sign of the priority given to health in that district.

Mr. Squire : Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the consistent attempts of Conservative Wandsworth and Westminster to reduce their community charge to the lowest possible level were described as a "silly battle" by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould)? Does my right hon. Friend agree that many thousands, if not millions, of people in this country would welcome other councils joining that battle? The real silly battle is between Labour Lambeth and Haringey to see who will have the highest charge.

Mr. MacGregor : I agree with my hon. Friend. When I am in London I have to live in the London borough of Haringey and have watched its record of mismanagement over many years. It simply cannot be claimed that Haringey receives a small amount of external support in terms of pounds per adult-- the amount is high. As Secretary of State for Education and Science, I watched as Haringey spent much more money on central administration for education than any other local education authority in the country. But it is still not able to give the accounts for its education spending later than 1986. Such mismanagement has produced the high community charge in Haringey, Lambeth and other boroughs.


Q4. Mr. Trimble : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 5 March.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Trimble : I should like to refer the Leader of the House to the explosion that occurred this morning in the design engineering works of Shorts in Belfast. Does he agree that this was an attack upon jobs and fair employment? Will the Government support Shorts and other firms in efforts to screen out from lists of potential employees those who would actively assist terrorism in this way?

Mr. MacGregor : I am sure that the whole House deeply regrets the incidents in Northern Ireland in the last few days, and would want to extend sympathy to all those who have been affected. The Government's stance on terrorism is well known. We are determined, as always, to use every effort to stamp it out.

Mr. Adley : Is my right hon. Friend aware that tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the running of the final train on the Somerset and Dorset joint railway? After that event, in a fit of corporate vandalism, the track was rendered unusable. Is my right hon. Friend aware that tomorrow I shall present for its First Reading the Railway Re-openings (Tribunal) Bill? The supporters of this Bill include Labour Front-Bench Members, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and the leader of the Scottish National party, as well as many other Members in all parts of the House. Will my right hon. Friend please do his best to ensure that his Cabinet colleagues recognise that ripping up a temporarily redundant railway track is an unacceptable act of national vandalism?

Mr. MacGregor : I was not aware of the anniversary to which my hon. Friend has referred, but, knowing his very great knowledge of these matters, I shall take his word for it. Until now, his Bill had not been drawn to my attention. I am grateful to him for letting me know about it, and I am certainly willing to look at it.


Q5. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 5 March.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Skinner : Is the Leader of the House aware that the present squalid Tory Government, in their first 10 years of office, handed out £26.2 billion to the wealthiest 1 per cent. of taxpayers? Does he know that that kind of money would give a cold weather payment and a free television licence to every pensioner, slash the national health service waiting list, get rid of cardboard city and stop the education cuts? Why do not the Government, instead of rabbiting on about the classless society, practise what they preach? Why do not they stop redistributing wealth to the rich and give some to the poor and needy?

Mr. MacGregor : I am also very well aware of the much more substantial reductions in income tax for the majority of households in this country. I am well aware, too, of the result of the pursuit of successful economic policies, including the 42 per cent. real-terms increase in expenditure on the health service and the big increases in expenditure in so many other areas. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he wants to return to the regime that we inherited in 1979, is he saying also that his Front-Bench colleagues support a top tax rate of 98p in the pound?


Q6. Mr. Irvine : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 5 March.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Irvine : Does my right hon. Friend agree that local management of schools is proving to be immensely popular and that many head teachers, who previously had significant reservations about it, are now included among its supporters? Does he agree that the reason for its popularity is the greater flexibility and the improved decision-making powers that it gives to individual schools?

Mr. MacGregor : As my hon. Friend will know, I have always been a most enthusiastic supporter of the grant maintained schools. That being so, I strongly agree with what he has said. He has drawn attention to two of the virtues of grant maintained status. It is because of such virtues that grant maintained schools are becoming more and more popular and more and more likely to spread throughout the country. My hon. Friend's point about headmasters is very relevant. I should like to quote one headmaster, who, in the first instance, was opposed to his school becoming grant maintained. After a series of commendations he said, "I wouldn't miss what is happening here for anything. It is the most professionally fulfilling period of my entire experience as a head."


Q7. Mr. Wigley : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 5 March.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Wigley : Is the Lord President aware that thousands of people have extreme difficulty in paying the poll tax for the current financial year and that within three to four weeks they will be receiving bills which will be even greater in many areas? Does he realise that for them a promise of legislation in two years' time to overcome the poll tax is not sufficient? They need an answer now--this April. Can he give an undertaking that the Government will bring in radical provision for those people to help save those on low incomes, pensioners and disabled people from the full impact of the poll tax in the next financial year?

Mr. MacGregor : The answer is twofold. First, the community charge reduction scheme, in addition to the other reduction and benefit schemes, will benefit large numbers of those people. As the hon. Gentleman knows, over half of community charge payers will benefit from that scheme. That will be immediate from the start of April this year. The second answer is for them to vote out at the first available opportunity the high-spending authorities which have caused so much of the increase.

Miss Emma Nicholson : Will my right hon. Friend remind Her Majesty's Opposition that because of the new initiatives on the community charge and on the back of the excellent service that the Leader of the other place has offered to Ribble Valley, come this Thursday the Conservative candidate will be returned triumphantly and the Liberal and Labour candidates will return to the oblivion from which they came?

Mr. MacGregor : I am sure that that will mean an excellent new Member for the House in succession to my noble Friend, Lord Waddington, who performed such sterling services for Ribble Valley over the years.


Q8. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 5 March.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Williams : Does the Leader of the House know that Mr. Nigel Evans, the Conservative party candidate in the Ribble Valley by-election, said yesterday in a press conference that he favoured the principle of everyone making a contribution towards the community charge--that is, he favoured the retention of the poll tax? Was he expressing a personal view or has someone leaked to him the results of the Government's review : that the Government intend to keep the poll tax?

Mr. MacGregor : I find that large numbers of people throughout the country, as well as in the House, think that one of the important features of the community charge is that everyone makes some contribution to the local services from which all benefit.