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1991 - PMQT 23rd April 1991

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 23rd April 1991.

PRIME MINISTER

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Blunkett : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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. Blunkett : Does the Prime Minister agree that under the proposed council tax the price of protecting the rich will be that the rest of us will have to pay more? Given that the Labour party proposes to protect the interests of retired people, does the Prime Minister believe that someone who lives alone but who has an income of £50,000 or £100,000 a year and owns two properties should or should not be entitled to an automatic 25 per cent. rebate on both properties, when a couple who are struggling just to make ends meet will get no relief at all? Is that what the Prime Minister means when he talks about developing a classless society?

The Prime Minister : As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will make a statement, setting out the details of our new proposals immediately after Question Time. Whether people live in a large, small or medium-sized property, they will have to pay less under Conservative local government than they do under Labour.

Mr. Hague : Will my right hon. Friend reflect today on the great respect that there is in my constituency for the way in which he kept his nerve during the local government review and was not pushed into making a premature announcement? Would not it have been wiser for his political opponents to give him the credit for that, particularly as their policies are the result of three years of hand-wringing and head-scratching before they decided to go back to where they started from?

The Prime Minister : To be fair to the Opposition, the Leader of the Opposition did precisely what I did in terms of consulting and waiting before introducing proposals for his own tax. As he wrote in April 1990 :

"We are currently consulting widely with people in local government about our proposals. Our proposals have been planned and tested. Our aim is to get the system right rather than to announce it prematurely."

That is what we did and we were both correct to do so.

Mr. Kinnock : Does the Prime Minister think that Mr. Peter Morgan of the Institute of Directors was right to say today that this awful recession

"is a failure of Government economic management"?

Is not it clear that, as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Prime Minister must bear a special personal burden of guilt?

The Prime Minister : If the difficulties that the economy faces are solely the result of domestic economic mismanagement, it is an oddity that there are recessions in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland and in many other countries.

Mr. Kinnock : Last week's figures from the Government showed unemployment soaring and output and productivity collapsing. Today's figures show that imports and exports are wildly out of balance again, with imports rising twice as fast as exports. When all that is the case, is it any wonder that the Institute of Directors, like everyone else, understands very well that this is a recession hand-made in Downing street by the right hon. Gentleman?

The Prime Minister : If the right hon. Gentleman cares to examine the trade figures more carefully, he will find that export volumes are up on last year and import volumes are down.

Mr. Kinnock : In so far as there is any improvement year on year in the import figures, would it have been any wonder, when the right hon. Gentleman has flattened the economy, that imports should have been falling? Instead of that, imports are rising twice as fast as exports. Why is not the Prime Minister man enough to accept his share of the blame?

The Prime Minister : What we are flattening is inflation and interest rates ; both are falling.

Mr. Forman : Is not it clear to my right hon. Friend and to the House that interest rates and inflation will fall in the remainder of the year and that it will be possible for economic recovery to come as a consequence? Is not it equally clear that any Government who had a policy of increasing the rates of tax on incomes, without telling the British people exactly what those rates and what that coverage would be, would be both working against the interests of recovery and not levelling with the British public?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is entirely right. As he knows, inflation has fallen by nearly 3 per cent. since October and will show a further dramatic fall again next month. That has paved the way for five interest rate cuts. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said this morning, the economic recovery will gather pace in the second half of the year.

Mr. Ashdown : Is the Prime Minister concerned that after 12 years of Conservative Government, one third of our seven-year-olds are still being sold short on the learning of their mother tongue, English? How can he explain that?

The Prime Minister : My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has made clear on a number of occasions the importance that we attach to the basics in the curriculum--the most important of all being English. If the right hon. Gentleman is so concerned about such matters, perhaps he will offer us his clear and unequivocal support for testing so that we can determine precisely what is happening and improve it.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that when the cost of the new council tax comes to be analysed per household, all policies should be taken into account? If a policy included the scrapping of any capping on local authority spending or the re-creation of the Greater London council, one thing is clear : it would cost every London household an absolute fortune.

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend will know that the proposals of the Leader of the Opposition for local government would lead to a massive and costly disruption. The Labour party proposes two upheavals : first, a return to the rates, which would mean massive bills for many people in different parts of the country ; and, secondly, ever-rising bills because Labour refuses to cap spendthrift councils.


Q2. Mr. Lewis : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Mr. Lewis : Does the Prime Minister agree with the Secretary of State for Employment that there needs to be yet another job creation scheme to massage the figures before the next general election, or will he side with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who wants nothing to do with it?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman would know, if he studied these matters, that we now have in place in this country the largest training programmes that we have ever had.

Mr. Ken Hargreaves : The Prime Minister will be aware from his visit to my constituency last week how much my constituents appreciate the community charge reduction scheme. Many couples benefit to the tune of £500, while families of three benefit to the tune of £800. Does he understand the anger of my constituents at the Labour party's action last Wednesday in trying to scrap the community charge reduction scheme?

The Prime Minister : I can certainly understand that. I think that anybody would be extremely angry indeed not only at the Labour party's plans for that, but on examining the details of what it proposes to replace the community charge with.


Q3. Mr. Martyn Jones : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Mr. Jones : Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm today that, despite the desperate need to improve his electoral chances at the next election, he will not be extending his safe-haven policy to representatives of other small, distant minorities, such as the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen)?

The Prime Minister : I am at the moment fully occupied with dealing with safe havens in Iraq.

Mr. Oppenheim : Bearing in mind the widespread calls for Britain to adopt an industrial strategy, has my right hon. Friend ever met anyone who would like to go back to the days when we last had an industrial strategy, when British Airways was rated by passengers below Aeroflot, when British Steel was the world's largest loss-maker and when British Leyland was the butt of international jokes?

The Prime Minister : Certainly, as my hon. Friend intimates, I have never met anyone sensible who wished to return to such a process. But, of course, Opposition Members have policies remarkably like that, with the return of quangos, enterprise banks and all the nastiness of the 1970s.


Q4. Mr. O'Brien : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Mr. O'Brien : Now that the Prime Minister and the Government have recognised the unfairness of the payment of 20 per cent. of the poll tax by the poorest people in the country, why does not he act now and abolish the 20 per cent. payment? Why is he planning to continue the misery and suffering of thousands of poorer families for a further two years?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman would be better employed asking his own leader why he should wish to abandon the community charge reduction scheme.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark : Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is surprising to hear the Leader of the Opposition praying in his support the chairman of British Petroleum, who spoke against the Government today, bearing in mind the fact that much of the inflation has been caused by petrol companies putting up prices more than they should and paying themselves more than they should? What lead is that and what example is that for the Leader of the Opposition to give to the rest of the country?

The Prime Minister : The statement by the chairman of British Petroleum was certainly odd in that respect, although he did make the very wise statement that pay settlements are often too high, that the labour market remains riddled with imperfections and that while it remains so riddled it is prevented from working properly.


Q5. Mr. Martlew : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Mr. Martlew : The Prime Minister, when being interviewed last week by Brian Walden on television, said that some of the principles of the poll tax need to be enshrined. Does the Prime Minister still stick with that statement, or is he going to change his mind again?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman has just invented a new definition of impatience. He need wait but a matter of minutes and he will know.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no Government under his leadership will ever introduce a national minimum wage? Will he confirm that such a policy would destroy jobs and massively increase unemployment, as well as wipe out the system of apprenticeships?

The Prime Minister : I can most certainly confirm all those matters. The estimate of the Department of Employment officials is that a minimum wage would cost between 750,000 and 1 million jobs.


Q6. Mr. Winnick : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Mr. Winnick : As the original poll tax was the beloved flagship of the Prime Minister's predecessor, is it surprising that some of the more ardent supporters of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) believe that the Government are betraying the true faith of Thatcherism again today? Is not it understandable that the right hon. Lady is pretty cross about the record of the Government since she left office?

The Prime Minister : I have never seen the hon. Gentleman as someone who could adequately reflect the views of my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher).

Mr. Sayeed : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that parts of the country such as Bristol would benefit from being unitary authorities and that the Government have no intention of following the Labour party lead and imposing regional authorities, which would mean just another tier of local government?

The Prime Minister : I can confirm that, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will also cover such matters in his statement shortly.


Q7. Ms. Armstrong : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Ms. Armstrong : Does the Prime Minister recognise that he has a real problem in his Cabinet--a truant ? What action is he prepared to take about the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who, during his period in the Department, has spent less than one working day in state schools ?

The Prime Minister : When the hon. Lady sees the full range of proposals that my right hon. and learned Friend has prepared for education she, like everyone else, will be bound to applaud them.


Q8. Mrs. Currie : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Mrs. Currie : Does the Prime Minister agree that the most significant aspect of local government finance is how much is raised and what the money is spent on? Does my right hon. Friend have a view on the proposal of the leader of Derbyshire county council and of some Members of the House that there should be no controls on council spending ? Does he agree that that would lead to huge increases in bills under such councils ?

The Prime Minister : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. There have to be controls over levels of local authority expenditure, for two reasons--first, to protect community charge payers and ratepayers and, secondly, in the interests of the wider economy.