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1997 - PMQT 28th January 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 28th January 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 January.

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. Greenway: Will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government's continued support for successful schools? Will he sympathise with the head teachers and governors of St. Olave's and the London Oratory schools who will have difficulty in expanding their schools, even to accommodate more children of hypocritical Labour Front Benchers, if the Opposition have their way?

The Prime Minister: I can assure the House that we will press ahead with our plans to allow successful schools to expand, either before or after the general election. Last night, the Opposition voted to deny other parents the choice, and some children the opportunities, that they themselves enjoy. Our aim is to raise standards: they apparently peddle double standards.

Mr. Blair: I see now: it is now our fault that they cannot run a halfway competent Government. Why does the Prime Minister not simply call a halt to what is the fag end of a burnt-out Government? They have no legislative programme left and the country is tired of waiting: March--not March; May--not May. If they are so confident, why does not the Prime Minister, just for once, put a stop to the dithering, name the day and call a general election?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman clearly is not aware of the importance of the legislation that he has just dismissed. He clearly does not want the legislation against crime that we are proposing. He clearly does not want the tougher sentences that we are proposing and he certainly does not want the educational choice for everyone that he himself has enjoyed.

Sir Fergus Montgomery: Whenever the general election comes, will my right hon. Friend promise that, when he leads our party into it, he will not pledge to spend £30 billion more on public expenditure while at the same time saying that there will be no increase in taxation?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly confirm that we will not have £30 billion-worth of spending pledges. The Labour party is very keen to reassure people that it would not raise taxes, but it has not yet withdrawn the £30 billion-worth of spending pledges that make it inevitable that it will raise taxes, and it has not yet managed to school its Front-Bench spokesmen out of promising more expenditure on every occasion.


Q2. Mr. Miller: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 January.

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

Mr. Miller: I remind the Prime Minister of his words at Question Time on 28 January 1992, as this is the fifth anniversary of his pledge not to increase value added tax. Will he apologise to the millions of pensioners who this winter have had to pay the VAT that he imposed on their gas and electricity bills?

The Prime Minister: As the--[Hon. Members: "Answer."] I propose to answer.

The hon. Gentleman might bear it in mind that his windfall tax will impose just such a tax on utilities, on electricity and gas, and on pensioners, but the Labour party does not have the courage to say how much it will be. It says that it will raise and spend the money, but it does not say on whom it will be levied or how much it will be. If the hon. Gentleman is really concerned about VAT, perhaps he can stop what he knows to be the wholly untruthful smear campaign about our future plans on value added tax.

Mr. Marland: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is not, and never has been, his intention to impose VAT on Severn bridge tolls--[Laughter.]--and that, contrary to what the new Labour candidate for Forest of Dean says, it was not the Government's idea, but that of the European Transport Commissioner, who is a former leader of the British Labour party?

The Prime Minister: I can confirm that. Perhaps if Opposition Members had listened to my hon. Friend before they began scoffing, they would have seen the trap opening in front of them. It certainly remains our view that tolls are not subject to value added tax, and we are opposed to the European Commission's view that they should be--a view that I believe is held by Commissioner Kinnock.


Q3. Mr. Winnick: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 January.

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

Mr. Winnick: Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to congratulate the present right hon. Member for Chelsea (Sir N. Scott) on his honesty? He said in an interview on Friday that it was most unlikely that the Government would be re-elected. Is that not the real reason why the Prime Minister is so terrified of calling the general election and clings desperately to office day by day? Does he consider it dignified to carry on to the very last moment so that he can stay at No. 10?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman has overlooked the fact that we have the most successful economy, with the highest growth and the best inward investment record, in western Europe. None of the socialist Governments in Europe can begin to match that record, which people are understanding more and more as day succeeds day.

Mr. Day: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the countries that form the United Kingdom--Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland--although proud entities in themselves, would count for nothing in the world as individual, separate nations? Will he therefore assure the House that his Government will never follow the lead of the Labour party in proposing constitutional changes that would lead to the break-up of this United Kingdom and provide the perfect scenario for our component countries to be nothing more than provinces in a federal Europe?

The Prime Minister: The shadow Foreign Secretary seems to think that we are heading for a Europe of the regions. I strongly disagree with that view. I believe that the United Kingdom is at its strongest while it remains united and I fear that the policies proposed by the Opposition parties--to be fair, not merely the Labour party but the Liberal Democrats as well--would lead to Scotland leaving the UK. Were that to happen, it would damage not only Scotland, but each of the other parts of the United Kingdom as well. It is a policy that should be opposed and we will oppose it.


Q4. Mr. Rooney: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 January.

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

Mr. Rooney: Does the Prime Minister recall his pledge, which was apparently reiterated by the Secretary of State for Health yesterday, to phase out mixed-sex wards? What condolences will he give to my constituents who have found that the Bradford Hospitals NHS trust has reopened and created two mixed-sex wards in the past month?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman recalls, it was this Government who, in 1995, gave patients the right to be told before admission if it was planned that they would be cared for in a mixed-sex ward. The Labour party did not seem to bother about that at all when in office. We decided to take action. We are monitoring the process. The health authorities will report back by the end of next month with individual timetable plans for separating male and female patients--timetable plans for action that the Opposition ignored for years.

Sir Roger Moate: On the vote last night on grant-maintained schools, does my right hon. Friend recall the remarks of the Labour education spokesman, who said:

"I am having no truck with left-wing, middle-class parents who preach one thing and send their children to another school outside the area"?

Should we check the Division list from last night, to find out whether the Leader of the Opposition voted in his own interests or those of his party?

The Prime Minister: I cannot imagine about whom the shadow education spokesman was speaking, but I gather that there was a miscount last night and the Government were not defeated in that Division. No doubt the usual channels are sorting out the position now. What is important is not Labour's student union ambush of last night, but what it shows about Labour party policy, which is that Labour Members will enjoy choice and opportunity for themselves, but will come together as an act of policy and vote against it for people who happen not to be Labour Members of Parliament.

Mr. Loyden: Instead of spending public money on building the proposed royal yacht, will the Prime Minister consider using that money to kick-start the shipyards of this country so that our shipyard workers can get back to work to build ships in which our unemployed merchant seamen can sail?

The Prime Minister: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports the decision, because the yacht will be built in a British shipyard.

Mr. Nicholls: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the policy of being able to see league tables is greatly popular with parents? What significance does he give to the fact that the National Association of Head Teachers recently launched a major test case to try to ensure that parents would not have that right? What significance should be attached to the fact that the barrister who vigorously prosecuted that case was the wife of the Leader of the Opposition? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House will come to order.

The Prime Minister: The important element is the official policy of the Opposition, which has been to oppose greater information for parents and league tables--to oppose each and every one of the reforms that we have produced to give children and parents better choices and parents information about schools. We believe that parents should have information about schools; the Opposition policy is that they should not.


Highlands and Islands

Q6. Mr. Charles Kennedy: To ask the Prime Minister what plans he has to pay an official visit to the highlands and islands.

The Prime Minister: I have at present no plans to do so.

Mr. Kennedy: That being the case, may I invite the Prime Minister to take this opportunity to explain to local people a glaring inconsistency that emerged over the weekend and that they have difficulty comprehending? Why is it that, on a £60 million contract, public money is ruled in and private finance is completely ruled out; yet, on a contract of half that value and one that is fundamental to the interests of the people of the west coast of the highlands, the Isle of Skye and, indeed, the Western Isles constituency, which is one of the lowest-income parts of the country, the public sector is completely ruled out, private finance imposed and people now face the highest toll bridge charges, not only in Europe but probably in the world, for a future generation?

The Prime Minister: The reality is that tolls on the Skye bridge are going to be no higher than ferry fares in 1995. Without the private finance initiative project, Skye would not have had the bridge for another 20 years. I note that the Liberal Democrats are opposed to using private finance. I hope that, in all the constituencies up and down the country where private finance is providing better facilities, it will be clear that the Liberal Democrats oppose those projects.