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1991 - PMQT 26th March 1991

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 26th March 1991.

PRIME MINISTER

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Oppenheim : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Oppenheim : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the decision substantially to lower community charge levels is very welcome indeed? Does he not find it somewhat strange that the very people who, in the past, complained of lack of consultation about local government are now whining that the Government are being indecisive in doing just that, especially as the chief whiners are members of a party who for the past 12 years have shillied and shallied, dillied and dallied, without coming up with a single workable policy of their own?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend puts his point very crisply. It is fair to say that the Labour party has spent 12 years reviewing its policies and fudging its principles. On local government, we have come further in three months than the Labour party has in all that time.

Mr. Kinnock : Does the Prime Minister recall that his predecessor used to describe the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) as "unassailable"? What word would the Prime Minister use to describe the right hon. Gentleman today?

The Prime Minister : It may be the fate of Prime Ministers to be assailed by the unassailable, but my right hon. Friend is quite wrong to suggest that we ought not to have consultation on such an important matter. It is important to get the right decisions and to ensure that people are carried with those decisions. This is a critically important matter, and the consultation is necessary. We shall carry it out speedily, and then decide.

Mr. Kinnock : Is not "perceptive" the best word to describe the contribution of the right hon. Member for Blaby to the consultation? Does the Prime Minister agree that the right hon. Gentleman was perceptive in his warning that the Government are trying to inflict "son of poll tax", and even more perceptive in his view that the Prime Minister cannot choose and therefore should not govern?

The Prime Minister : I think that the right hon. Gentleman is mistaken again. With regard to decision-taking, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) will himself confirm that in the past few weeks a number of decisions have been taken that he would have wished to take in recent years but neglected to take.

Mr. Higgins : Is my right hon. Friend-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. It is difficult to hear.

Mr. Higgins : Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is absolutely right to carry out further consultation before deciding on the replacement for the community charge? Personally, I have always believed that the best solution is to switch all the cost of local government expenditure to the central Exchequer, and I set out the reasons in my speech yesterday. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) at last agrees, but, in doing so, is it not wholly inconsistent of him then to object to the measure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken to transfer the burden from the community charge to VAT? That is a move in the right direction.

The Prime Minister : I understand the point that my right hon. Friend makes. We are setting out our alternative proposals in the consultation document. My right hon. Friend mentions inconsistency. He may care to bear in mind that the Labour party has set new standards of inconsistency day after day by one moment complaining that the level of local taxation is too high and the next moment whining about the level of value added tax.

Mr. Ashdown : Will the Prime Minister now answer the question posed by the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson) yesterday? In his replacement for the poll tax, which is to be the larger element, the personal charge or the property tax, or has he not been able to choose?

The Prime Minister : It is interesting that the right hon. Gentleman of all people in the House should believe in decision before consultation.

Mr. Ralph Howell : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his bold and courageous decision to abolish the community charge and, in particular, to replace it with extra VAT. As 2 per cent. extra VAT will solve half the problem, why will not 5 per cent. solve the whole problem?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend has consistently advocated that course, and it is accurate so far as the statistical method of collecting the money is concerned, but there are important principles at stake about people contributing directly towards the cost of local government services.


Q2. Mr. Wareing : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 March.

The Prime Minister : I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Wareing : When the Prime Minister visits his constituency he is no doubt in a position to tell his constituents that next year their poll tax will be lower, albeit because the Government have increased taxation by £4.25 billion to pay for that reduction. Knowing how decisive the Prime Minister likes to be, will he be able to advise his constituents on the level of the poll tax in Huntingdon in 1992-93?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman clearly does not know very much about Huntingdon's expenditure pattern next year, and neither at this moment do I. Therefore, the answer cannot be given. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that we have taken £140 off the community charge headline level. Do he and his party agree with that or oppose it?

Mr. Allason : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the publication on Friday of the security service commissioners' report for 1989-90. Does he accept that 55 of the complaints considered by the commissioners were vexatious and frivolous and, if so, will he consider extending the scope of the security commissioners' powers to cover periods before the introduction of the Security Service Act 1989?

The Prime Minister : I have no immediate plans to consider that, but I will examine the matter in the light of my hon. Friend's comments.


Q3. Mr. McFall : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 March.

The Prime Minister : I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. McFall : Has the Prime Minister any idea whether the poorest and most vulnerable members of society will still have to pay 20 per cent. of the total under the new system, and whether there will be a register for the poll tax element? If he does not know the answer, who does? Should we refer to his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to the Secretary of State for the Environment, to the Secretary of State for Scotland or, indeed, to the Secretary of State for Wales? To which of those competing voices in the Prime Minister's Cabinet should we listen?

The Prime Minister : What the hon. Gentleman must listen to is what is said in the document that we shall be publishing.

Mr. Hind : Is my right hon. Friend aware-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. There seems to be something of a holiday atmosphere in the Chamber today.

Mr. Hind : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the calculations made by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, which suggest not only that the community charge will be lower in the forthcoming financial year but that the new tax that he proposes--on the basis of the amount that will have to be collected --will also be lower? As my right hon. Friend no doubt knows, those projections are available. Perhaps he can persuade the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould) to tell the House what the average family living in a semi-detached house would pay under Labour's system.

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend has raised an interesting point. The hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Gould), however, has not the slightest idea how his system would work, and not the slightest idea of what the tax levels would be.


Q4. Mr. Darling : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 March.

The Prime Minister : I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Darling : The right hon. Gentleman keeps referring to his consultation document. As it is due to be published in about two weeks' time, he must have some idea what is in it. Can he tell us how much the Government will contribute to council spending next year, and will he confirm that the poll tax element of the new tax may be higher in Scotland than in England?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman is correct in one respect--I have a very clear idea what will go into the document, but he will have to wait until it is published.


Q5. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 March.

The Prime Minister : I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Thurnham : When my right hon. Friend meets President Iliescu of Romania next month, will he refer to the desperate plight of the Romanian orphans and ask the president to give the maximum assistance to British couples who are cleared to adopt such children, notwithstanding the lack of support from the Opposition spokesman on children?

The Prime Minister : I shall certainly be happy to do that. We are committed to helping British couples who wish to adopt Romanian children, and we are keen to ensure that the appropriate procedures are adopted as speedily as possible. A team of Home Office and Department of Health officials visited Bucharest in November 1990 to discuss further how to co- ordinate help to that end, and we are in regular contact with the Romanian authorities.

Mr. Loyden : Will the Prime Minister today take the opportunity to consult his right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and convey to him the great distress caused by his decision not to open an inquiry into the sinking of MV Derbyshire? The bereaved families have been treated with scant regard by the Secretary of State, who sent me a six-line letter about the matter. He knows about the campaign that has been mounted on behalf of those families. I appeal to the Prime Minister to ensure that his right hon. and learned Friend reconsiders his decision.

The Prime Minister : As the hon. Gentleman knows from what my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State said the other day, the chief inspector's published report does not warrant a reopening of the court of formal investigation. The position is perfectly clear, and the hon. Gentleman is aware of it.


Q6. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 March.

The Prime Minister : I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Marshall : In the course of his busy day, will my right hon. Friend consider the proposals of some people for public expenditure to be increased by £26 billion? Does he agree that such a course could result only in higher taxes, higher prices and higher inflation? Does he also agree that the British people want to build on the successes of the 1980s, rather than returning to the dismal days of the 1970s?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend has made a good point. The Opposition do not themselves know the cost of their own policies. Their shadow Budget does not add up. Even when they propose to increase child benefit, they forget to include the poor by clawing it back. Their shadow Budget has barely an accurate figure in it.


Q7. Mr. Foulkes : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 March.

The Prime Minister : I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Foulkes : Can the Prime Minister explain why, under the proposals of the Secretary of State for Education and Science, children in state schools will not be able to study history after 1970 whereas-- [Interruption.] I know that the Government have been dithering about it.

Hon. Members : Consulting.

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Foulkes : In private schools, to which the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet send their children in this so-called classless society, pupils will be able to study history up to the present day.

The Prime Minister : If the hon. Gentleman had read the documentation more carefully, he would know that he is wrong. There is no ban on history after the 1970s. The hon. Gentleman is confusing what may be studied with the official curriculum.