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1997 - PMQT 25th February 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 25th February 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Sheerman: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 25 February.

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. Sheerman: Will the Prime Minister join me in condemning the Ministers and Conservative Back Benchers who queued up yesterday to denigrate the reputation and character of the former Prime Minister and Father of the House? Does he agree that such attempts to vilify the Father of the House do great damage generally to the democratic process and particularly to the reputation of the Prime Minister and his Ministers?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) has had a long and distinguished career. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] We admire him and are fond of him.


Q2. Sir Michael Shersby: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 25 February.

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

Sir Michael Shersby: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the privatisation of British Rail has been a great success story--so successful that it has confounded its critics? Is he aware that many of my constituents would like the same principles to be applied to London Underground, particularly if the proceeds were ploughed back into further investment?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will make a statement on that matter very shortly. The plans that he will announce will give London the world-class underground network that we wish it to have. We will expect standards and investment to rise while prices do not.

Mr. Blair: Most people remember who has been in charge of London Underground for 18 years. May I lead on from the question to the Prime Minister asked by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby)? The Transport Secretary has said that any proceeds from selling London Underground will go back into transport investment. This morning, however, the Chancellor said that he is relying on at least some of those proceeds as greatly benefiting the Exchequer to pay off Government borrowing. Who is right?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman will contain himself for a moment, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will make a statement that will answer all the questions that he and his hon. Friends are likely to ask about the proposed future of London Underground, but I shall not anticipate his statement.

Mr. Blair: I am not asking the Prime Minister to anticipate the statement--

Hon. Members: You are.

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Blair: I am asking him to comment on the Chancellor's remarks this morning. The Chancellor said that some of the proceeds would be used to pay off the national debt, which he has doubled. Is that correct? If all the proceeds do not go back into transport, what will happen if they do not cover the investment requirement? Will the customer pay more, will the public pay more or will the service be cut? I think that the Prime Minister should tell us.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman will be told in detail and at length by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport in just a few moments. The privatisation of any industry is always a complex matter. It deserves to be set out clearly, comprehensively and at length, which my right hon. Friend will do shortly.

Mr. Blair: I assume that the Transport Secretary will tell us the precise percentage of money that will be reinvested in transport. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may shout, but is not London Underground worth £7 billion to £13 billion, and do not many people fear that, once again, a key public service will be sold off at a fraction of its true value so that a few people can make a vastly inflated profit with no guarantee of a proper service for the future?

The Prime Minister: The answer to each of the right hon. Gentleman's questions is no. He is wrong on almost every point, as will become clear in a few moments. I find it extraordinary that the only two places in the world where privatisation is reviled and state ownership preferred are the Labour party and North Korea. No wonder the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) called the right hon. Gentleman the Kim Il Sung of the Labour party.

Mr. Norris: Does my right hon. Friend agree that not the least of the advantages of the privatisation of London Underground would be the substantial capital receipts that could be reinvested in the system? How could any Government who voluntarily chose to deny themselves that capital receipt make good that funding other than through a substantial increase in public expenditure and the taxation necessary to raise it?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is correct, of course. I find it odd that the Labour party criticises the level of investment in London Underground when the shadow Chancellor is committed lock, stock and barrel to every penny of my right hon. and learned Friend's spending plans, except that the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has a £12 billion black hole in his plans, as he has failed to understand ours.


Q3. Mr. Campbell-Savours: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 25 February.

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

Mr. Campbell-Savours: May I return the Prime Minister to what is clearly a central contradiction in his programme for the general election--the statement by a former Prime Minister, Mr. Edward Heath--[Hon. Members: "Sir."] Forgive me, Madam Speaker. Sir Edward Heath--[Hon. Members: "Order."]--a former Prime Minister, who said that he agreed with the Labour party. He said that we were right on the social chapter, the national minimum wage and devolution. He agrees with us. Who is now standing up for the tradition of the Conservative party? Is it the Father of the House, a former Prime Minister, or is it the current Prime Minister, who has been manipulated by a bunch of extremists on his Back Benches?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman sits beside a bunch of people whom I would never consider calling extremists, but who hold almost every possible view on Europe and every other issue, so I find his question distinctly rum. It deserves to be ignored, which I shall do.

Mr. Amess: Is my right hon. Friend aware that tomorrow, Her Majesty the Queen, in the presence of the President of Israel, will unveil a monument to Raul Wallenberg--a man whose bravery is an example to us all? Will my right hon. Friend also support the efforts of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to find out exactly what happened to Raul Wallenberg 50 years ago?

The Prime Minister: I think that everyone will happily support my hon. Friend's request. The unveiling of the statue tomorrow is a welcome development and a just recognition of a great man who saved many lives during the last world war.


Q4. Mr. Home Robertson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 25 February.

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

Mr. Home Robertson: Lady Thatcher said back in 1974 that the establishment of a Scottish Assembly was a top priority. The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) has now confirmed that the establishment of a Scottish Parliament poses no danger to the integrity of the United Kingdom. Can the Prime Minister remember the last time his two predecessors agreed with each other about anything? How has he got himself into a position in which he appears to disagree with both of them?

The Prime Minister rose--

Mr. Home Robertson: Wait for it. Is the Prime Minister sure that Britain's fossilised constitution is the securest ground to choose for Major's last stand?

The Prime Minister: It really was not worth waiting for, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman. He is trying to pick out what my noble Friend Lady Thatcher and my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) said 20 years ago. What the leader of the Labour party said in 1983 is contradicted today by the leader of the Labour party in every particular. The proposals of 20 years ago that the hon. Gentleman referred to were not comparable with the tax-raising monstrosity proposed by the Labour party today.

Mr. Butcher: My right hon. Friend will need no reminding that any objective assessment of economic trends in Europe shows that Britain is now winning. Does he share the bewilderment of a number of foreign commentators, who cannot understand the logic of saying that it is time for a change? "Does that mean that you want to be losers?" they wonder. Will my right hon. Friend use every effort to make sure that that weird logic is not accepted by the British people?

The Prime Minister: I certainly undertake to do as my hon. Friend recommends. The economic criteria right the way down the board--growth, investment or the fall in unemployment--make it patently obvious to those who wish to examine the figures for a moment that the United Kingdom is out-performing most of its comparable continental rivals. That is because of the policies that we have followed. The policies that they have followed, which have led them into greater difficulty, are the policies advocated by the Opposition parties.


Q5. Mr. Gordon Prentice: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 25 February.

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

Mr. Prentice: The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) referred to the alleged success of railway privatisation, whereby £19 billion of public assets went under the hammer for less than £2 billion. Is it not a disgrace that £13 billion of assets resting in London Underground could be sold off in a fire sale for less than £600 million?

The Prime Minister: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman, like his right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party, waits for the statement that will follow in a few moments.

Mr. Prentice indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman produces all sorts of disparaging gestures. The interesting fact about the new Labour party is that it does not wish to know the arguments and it does not wish to know the facts; it just wants to parade the soundbites and prejudice invented by the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson).

Mr. Allason: May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the commitment--which became a promise, which became a pledge, which then became a withdrawal--by the Liberal Democrats to scrap the Christmas bonus in favour of an extra week's income? Does he agree that the best thing for pensioners, especially those in the south-west, is lower bills, which means no windfall levy on South West Water, whose customers are already paying far too much for their water?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree that a windfall tax would undoubtedly add to the cost of fuel, water and other utilities--how much, of course, we do not know, because the shadow Chancellor either does not know what his plans really are or cannot say. It was very unkind of my hon. Friend to draw attention to the consistency of the Liberal Democrats concerning the retired.


Q6. Mr. Chris Davies: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 25 February.

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

Mr. Davies: What discussions does the Prime Minister intend to have with Governments of other nations to ensure that there are adequate international controls over the cloning of animals and other life forms?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is examining what discussions may be appropriate.