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1997 - PMQT 23rd January 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 23rd January 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Salmond: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 23 January.

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

Mr. Salmond: Does the Prime Minister realise that for £200 million we could re-equip every primary school in the United Kingdom with books and new computers to the tune of £10,000 per school? Would not that be a more meaningful project for the millennium generation than building a giant dome in Greenwich with a lifespan of 10 years? How does he think people in Birmingham, Swansea or Glasgow feel about the concentration of funds on Heseltine's folly on the Thames?

The Prime Minister: Many different projects will come out of the millennium fund--all of them worthy--including that to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It is not a question of having only a single project for the millennium. As a result of the lottery, which we established, about £1.8 billion will be available for the millennium. It will be spent in a variety of ways, and I think that, in one way or another, it will benefit almost every part of the country.

Mr. Alexander: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, since the last general election, unemployment figures have fallen dramatically and without resort to a windfall tax? If anyone was minded to impose one, should not we be told which companies would be subject to it, on what basis they would be subject to it, how much it would cost them and what revenue would result?

The Prime Minister: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about the desirability of knowing precisely what the windfall tax might amount to and who would pay for it. There seems to be some confusion about who would pay for it. I gather that yesterday the Leader of the Opposition's office said that British Airways did not fit inside the terms of the windfall tax but that the shadow Trade and Industry Secretary said that, as far as she was aware, no one had ruled out the fact that British Airways would have to pay a windfall tax. Remarkably, having contradicted the leader's office, she went on to add that she did not think there was any confusion about that policy.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister seems very keen to ask me questions and have me answer them. I suggest that if he is really keen on that, he goes ahead and calls the general election. However, let us do things in a more conventional way to begin with.

After this morning's Cabinet meeting, will the Prime Minister confirm unequivocally what he said unequivocally in December: that he will not rule out the option of joining a single currency in the next Parliament, even in the first wave, and that that will remain his party's position at the next general election?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly confirm that point and I will explain to the right hon. Gentleman what the Cabinet did and decided this morning. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has conducted a review of the criteria for a single currency and that was looked at in depth in Cabinet this morning. We have concluded, on the basis of that detailed examination of the criteria and on the basis of the information currently available, that it is very unlikely, although not impossible, that a single currency will be able to proceed safely on 1 January 1999. I am talking not just about Britain's participation, but about the single currency itself. If it did proceed without reliable convergence, we would not, of course, be part of it.

Mr. Blair: Let us just--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Blair: Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister means there. Is he saying that it is unlikely--

Mr. David Evans: What is your policy?

Madam Speaker: Order. This is not a time when the Opposition answer questions; it is a time when the Opposition ask questions.

Mr. Blair: Let us be clear about what the Prime Minister is saying, particularly in light of the interview that the Chancellor has just given on television. Is the Prime Minister saying that it is unlikely that the whole system will go ahead on 1 January 1999? Is it clear that if the system does go ahead on 1 January 1999, he retains the option to join?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman reads what I have said, he will find that I answered that question quite explicitly just a few moments ago. I said that on the information currently available, it was very unlikely that the single currency would proceed safely on 1 January 1999 and that if it did proceed without reliable convergence, we would not be part of it.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister is not answering the question of whether he agrees with the Chancellor that if the single currency does proceed on the right criteria, he retains the option to join. Let him answer that question specifically and then let him answer this question, too. If that is the position of the Conservative party, is it the position of the whole Conservative party? [Hon. Members: "Yes."] "Yes", they all chorus. Will he then tell us whether he will prevent--[Hon. Members: "Bye bye."] I know quite well why Conservative Members want this question to be shouted down. Will the Prime Minister undertake to say that if that is the position of the whole Conservative party, he will prevent any group of Conservative party candidates from standing on the manifesto of ruling out the option altogether?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman had had a mirror in front of him so that he could see the faces behind him, he might just have settled on my first two answers, both of which I am happy to reiterate to him.

Mr. Yeo: Does my right hon. Friend agree that if any politicians try to persuade voters that living standards and pay packets are safe in their hands by making a few pledges about income tax rates, and if those politicians do not simultaneously and unequivocally rule out any tampering with the ceiling on national insurance contributions, they are guilty of a gross and serious fraud on the British people that only he and a continuing Conservative Government can prevent?

The Prime Minister: It was an extraordinary speech by the shadow Chancellor the other day, and one I greatly enjoyed reading and will greatly enjoy revisiting time and again between now and the election. The reality is that it is not a case of whether a Labour Government would increase taxes; it is simply a question of where a Labour Government would increase taxes. Would it be by increasing national insurance contributions, changing the rate of national insurance contributions, cutting tax allowances or raising inheritance tax? The scope is very wide.

Mr. Blair: What about the 22 tax rises?

Mr. Major: Twenty-two tax rises says the Leader of the Opposition. Which of those would he repeal? Which of those would he reverse? What about the 25 tax reductions that he never mentions?


Q2. Mr. Cohen: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 23 January.

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

Mr. Cohen: Is the Prime Minister aware that, in my constituency, one in five primary school children are taught in classes with more than 30 other children? [An hon. Member: "Lucky."] A Conservative Member says, "lucky." Does the Prime Minister agree with that? I presented the Class Size (Reduction) Bill, and Labour has made a firm election pledge on the matter. Why have his Government done nothing except preside over ever-rising class sizes? Why do his Government prefer silly status symbols to sensible class sizes?

The Prime Minister: I am not sure whether that counts as an expenditure commitment; it will be interesting to see in due course. The proportion of children in classes of more than 31 has fallen since 1979. Beyond that--[Interruption.] Hon. Gentlemen might wait a moment. Beyond that, there is evidence that parents agree that class size is not the most important factor. If the hon. Gentleman doubts that, let me tell him that the average class size for 11 to 16-year-olds in Islington is smaller than at the London Oratory.

Mr. Bill Walker: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is less expensive to keep good youngsters good, which is why any initiative to expand the cadet forces must be welcomed? Such an initiative would impose on left-wing authorities the cadet forces' right of access to school property and buildings.

The Prime Minister: I saw the speculative stories in the press this morning about cadet forces and must say that they were a touch overblown in the way in which they were printed. I strongly encourage participation in cadet forces. They provide young people with the opportunity to develop qualities of responsibility, self-reliance, resourcefulness and endurance.

Mr. Tony Banks: Why did the right hon. Gentleman not join, then?

The Prime Minister: I did not join because I was playing cricket, which provides exactly the same qualities for people.

There are now more than 130,000 young people in the cadet organisation. I would certainly wish to encourage wider voluntary participation in the cadets. That of course requires more assistance from adult volunteers, but I hope that it will be possible to increase the scheme.


Q3. Mr. McAvoy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 23 January.

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

Mr. McAvoy: Will the Prime Minister confirm that one of his reasons for wanting school children to join the cadets is that they can learn the qualities of loyalty, self-discipline and leadership? Is it not therefore regrettable that the Defence Secretary, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister were never members of the cadets, as the first needs lessons in loyalty, the second in self-discipline and the third in leadership?

The Prime Minister: That was very well rehearsed. [Hon. Members: "Author."] One scans the sides to my hon. Friends' cries of "Author". The hand behind the words can readily be discerned.


Q4. Mr. Bellingham: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 23 January.

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

Mr. Bellingham: Does the Prime Minister agree that businesses need certainty and stability when planning investment? Do not the conflicting statements about which companies would pay a windfall tax prove yet again that there is a gaping hole at the heart of Labour's spending plans that can only--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question about the Government's policies. If he can do that, I will hear him, but if he cannot he must resume his seat.

Mr. Bellingham: Is the Prime Minister aware that any windfall tax would lead to higher gas, water and electricity bills for my constituents?

The Prime Minister: It is undisputed that if there were to be a new tax at an undisclosed rate on an undisclosed number of companies at an undisclosed time, it would have an impact not only on the price of the products those companies produce, but on the dividends that the shareholders legitimately expect from having invested in those companies. At the moment, there is complete uncertainty about any windfall tax proposals. Clearly, the proposals are coming apart at the seams. It is a case of give Labour spokesmen the facts and let them draw their own confusions.

Mr. Robert Hughes: Can the Prime Minister say why he is spending hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation for farmers in the BSE crisis and is preparing to spend more than £100 million in compensation under the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, yet adamantly refuses to pay any compensation to those infected with hepatitis C by contaminated blood transfusions? Where is the justice in that? Will he take personal charge, show some compassion and, even now, ensure that legitimate compensation is paid?

The Prime Minister: Everyone has great sympathy for the people who suffer from hepatitis. The underlying point is essentially whether action was taken that could have been better done at the time that then created the problem faced by the sufferers from hepatitis. If one accepted that principle, it would be a wholly new principle for the national health service and not one that any Government have accepted in the past. The hon. Gentleman himself understands that.