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1997 - PMQT 21st May 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 21st May 1997. Mr Major was Leader of the Opposition.

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Ian Taylor: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 21 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I have had various meetings with Ministers today to discuss the implementation of our election pledges. I will have various meetings later, in particular in relation to young people and skills. In addition, I have attended a meeting of the Labour party's national executive.

Mr. Taylor: I warmly welcome the Prime Minister to his role of answering questions and I am grateful to him for finding the time in his diary to do so. At some point he might consult the House about these changes. I also wish him well in dealing with the massed ranks of his own Back Benchers as they lose their political virginity. Will the Prime Minister agree today to compensate pensioners for any damage done to pension funds as a result of the windfall tax and changes in advance corporation tax which he might propose?

The Prime Minister: I first have to say yes, indeed, we have had a busy day because this Government, unlike the last Government, are governing in the interests of the people of this country. Secondly, the windfall tax will not harm pensioners at all. What did, however, harm pensioners was the last Government's imposition of VAT on fuel. It is precisely for that reason that we propose cutting it.

Ms Corston: It is an honour to be called during the Prime Minister's first Question Time to make a serious attempt to question the Prime Minister. Given that at present only one crime in 50 leads to a conviction, does my right hon. Friend recognise the need for effective measures to prevent crime as well as a criminal justice system in which the public can have confidence? Will he tell us what measures the Government will take to prevent crime?

The Prime Minister: Certainly I shall. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, today my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is announcing a series of measures that I hope will have a beneficial effect on cutting crime. He is of course announcing first, that we say that children between the ages of 10 and 13 are able to tell the difference between right and wrong and the law should be changed in that respect. Secondly, we are going to halve the amount of time it takes to get persistent juvenile offenders to court. Thirdly, he has announced a review of the entire youth justice system. Much of the behaviour of some young tearaways and thugs makes life hell for people. We are committed to taking action and again, unlike the previous Administration, action we will take.


Q2. Mr. Swinney: Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether the Government will argue for a zonal lifting of the European beef ban? If they will, will he outline a time scale within which we can expect the lifting to occur? Will he also guarantee that the beef ban will be lifted in Scotland at the same time as it is lifted in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are in negotiations with the European Commission and with our European partners to try to get the best possible deal on lifting the beef ban. One part of lifting the ban, of course, is a certified herd scheme. It is important not only that we apply that scheme in Northern Ireland, which has a traceability scheme, but that we discover how we can lift the ban in other parts of the United Kingdom.

I should tell the House that the BSE situation that the Government have inherited is quite appalling, and not only because of its expense. The way in which the negotiations were handled was a disgrace, and it will take some time to sort out the situation. The early indications, however, are that we are able to get a far better deal than the previous Government. We shall do everything that we possibly can, in the interests not only of the farming industry but of Britain's good standing abroad.

Mr. Stephen Twigg: Is the Prime Minister aware of widespread public concern about the growth of drug abuse in the United Kingdom? Over the past decade, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of drug offences. Will he provide an outline of the Government's plans to deal with the drugs crisis?

The Prime Minister: Yes. As my hon. Friend may know, we are committed to proper testing and treatment for all offenders who have a drugs problem. Additionally, however--as we announced before the general election--we will appoint one individual, whom we will call the drug tsar, who will co-ordinate all aspects of the fight against drug abuse and the link between drug abuse and crime. In many parts of the United Kingdom, as much as 50 per cent.--possibly more--of crimes are linked to drug abuse. It is absolutely essential that we bear down on every single aspect of the problem. By putting one person--who will be responsible to the Home Secretary--in charge of all aspects of co-ordinating Government policy on the problem, we believe that we will give ourselves a far better chance of dealing with that evil in our midst.

Mr. Ashdown: May I, first, welcome the Prime Minister's attempt to find a new format for Prime Minister's Question Time? Such an attempt was undoubtedly too bold for some, but the Prime Minister's efforts will have been worth it if we find a format that is a little less confrontational and a little more rational. Is it still the Government's intention, in the next two years, to spend not a penny more on education than the Conservative Government whom they defeated?

The Prime Minister: First, I am delighted to hear the right hon. Gentleman's welcome for the change in the format of Prime Minister's questions. I hope that, in time, it will prove to be for the benefit of all hon. Members. There are differences on education spending between ourselves and the previous Government. The first important difference is that we will phase out the assisted places scheme and reduce class sizes for all five, six and seven-year-olds. Secondly, the nursery voucher scheme will, rightly, be replaced by proper nursery education for our children. Thirdly, the windfall tax will have some impact on the skills and training part of the education budget, helping young people back into work through better skills and training.

Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister knows that the figures that Ministers quote on the abolition of assisted places do not add up. Even if they did, however, surely it is true that the Government will not deliver next year, and that they may deliver very little in the subsequent year. Therefore, are not the consequences of the Government's policy that teachers who were to be sacked because of Conservative policies will be sacked, that class sizes that were to rise next autumn will rise, and that the serious situation in books and equipment facing schools this winter because of Conservative policies will not get better under a Labour Government, and may even get worse?

The Prime Minister: No; I do not accept that. Reducing class sizes will be achieved partly by employing extra teachers. The right hon. Gentleman said that the figures do not add up, but they were checked by the National Foundation for Educational Research, which found that they added up, and even that there was money to spare. It is very important to understand that the vast majority of people--parents who use the state education system--understand that it will take time to put things right. It will take time, because of what we have inherited. Those people now know that they have a Government who have the right values, who are committed to the state education system and who, over time, will improve the system, as we have promised to do.

Mr. Stuart Bell: Having fought the general election on a platform of one hundred days of dynamic action--the definition of dynamic action changing from one Prime Minister to another--having introduced a Queen's Speech with 26 Bills, much to the delight of the public, having made the Bank of England independent, having severed supervision of the banking system from the Bank of England and having introduced a new system of regulation for the City of London, can the Prime Minister tell the House what he proposes as an encore?

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is, of course, important that we start to make a difference in the areas where the people of this country elected us to make a difference--in our schools, in rebuilding our national health service, in giving hope to our young people and in the measures, as my hon. Friend rightly says, in relation to the Bank of England. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor took decisive action at the very beginning and he is to be congratulated on that. It is far better now that we take the politics out of setting interest rates and that we do not play politics with people's mortgages. As the National Association of Estate Agents said just the other day, in the long term that will lead to lower mortgage rates and, therefore, to a better deal for home owners.

Mr. Major: In view of the apparent confusion in briefings from Ministers over recent days, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House which companies and which classes of companies are likely to be liable to the windfall tax? Will he also please explain to the House why the chairman of British Telecom apparently felt that his company would not be liable?

The Prime Minister: I heard what the chairman of British Telecom said the other day and I was delighted that he indicated that he had the good judgment to vote Labour in the general election. The idea, however, that the chairman of British Telecom or anyone else was in any doubt that we intended to introduce a windfall tax is rather hard to believe. As the right hon. Gentleman knows because we have said this many times, the actual companies will be decided by the Chancellor in accordance with precedent, which is to make any moves in relation to the Budget in the Budget. That is the proper way in which to do it. The companies and the amount of the windfall tax will be decided by my right hon. Friend in the normal way.

Mr. Major: Sir Iain seems to be rather regretting his vote already, but I will let that pass for the moment. I find it surprising that the House of Commons is to be the last to be told who will be liable to the tax in view of the private briefings that are going on. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can confirm to the House that no one acting in his capacity or no one from the Labour party when in opposition gave any indication, clearly or in terms of a nod and a wink, that British Telecom would not be included in the tax. Can the Prime Minister be categorical about that please?

The Prime Minister: I certainly can be categorical. Everybody has known that the decisions on who--whether British Telecom or anyone else--will be liable for the windfall tax will be taken by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the normal way. It is perfectly obvious that that should be the case. Prior to the Budget, it would be wholly wrong if my right hon. Friend announced the companies or the amounts of the windfall tax. In following that precedent we are following precisely what the previous Conservative Government did in relation to the windfall tax on banks.

Mr. Major: The House will note that the right hon. Gentleman replied in the generality but did not reply specifically. He did not provide the House with the categorical assurance I asked him for; perhaps he will do so in just a moment. If the tax proceeds, it will lead to an extra tax on gas, water, electricity and telephones. I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). If the tax gives rise to an increase in bills for many people on low incomes, will the right hon. Gentleman follow the precedent set by the previous Government and increase social security benefits to compensate for that? Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that if he does not, the populist tax on fat cats he proposes will be a tax that hits most those who have least?

The Prime Minister: I shall resist the temptation to say that that was the soundbite, because I have a feeling that I used to use a few of those myself at one time. No, that is not the case. There is a cap on prices. Some of the regulators have already said that they would not consider it right for the windfall tax to lead to any increase in prices.

The reason for introducing the windfall tax is clear. There is no doubt that vast excess profits were made. There is also no doubt that it is essential that we give hope and opportunity to those hundreds of thousands of young people at present without them in our society. There will be a great deal of agreement, not just among those who do not have opportunity, but even among those who are perfectly well off, that if we do not tackle the problems of a growing underclass of people cut off from society's mainstream without any chance of a job, with poor educational opportunities, without the chance to do well in life, we shall end up, as the previous Government did, paying more and more in welfare bills and having less and less for future investment.

Mr. Bermingham: May I make a simple plea to my right hon. Friend on behalf of St. Helens, which is an industrial town? Perhaps he could find time to have a word in the ear of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and suggest to him that, if slanted towards encouraging investment in industry, the June Budget would undoubtedly help our manufacturing base--for home consumption and overseas exports--and thus the welfare of all our people.

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for that. I have no doubt that the Chancellor will receive a great deal of advice and assistance in the weeks ahead. He will have listened carefully to my hon. Friend and I have no doubt that he will take it into account.


Q3. Mr. Luff: How will the Prime Minister fund his programme for young people when the money from the windfall tax dries up? All the experts agree that it will and that he will need extra money.

The Prime Minister: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman seems to understand, as his leader did not, that money is needed to tackle the problem. I agree wholeheartedly on that. The windfall levy is a one-off, but by getting young people off benefit and into work, we shall save money in the long term. Conservative Members shake their heads, but there is no doubt that there are young people in this country who are leaving school without any proper qualifications. If they do not get the right chances on skills and apprenticeships, they will never make anything of their lives. During the election campaign, I met some third-generation families in which the father has not worked, the son has not worked and the grandson is not going to work either. Unless we try to give them some sort of chance to escape from that welfare dependency, we shall be in this difficulty for ever.

Lorna Fitzsimons: Will my right hon. Friend comment on the problems that our communities face not just from the causes of crime but from the underlying aggressive and loutish behaviour? What are the Government going to do about that?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. That is one reason why the measures that we announced in the Queen's Speech tackle not merely juvenile offending and other criminal offences, but disruptive, noisy or anti-social neighbours. All hon. Members who have talked to their constituents will know of the misery caused by small groups of people who act in an anti-social way. This Government, at long last, is going to do something about it.


Q4. Mr. Curry: Do the Government intend to limit the amount of time that British fishermen can spend at sea to meet cuts in European quotas, as suggested by the Fisheries Minister?

The Prime Minister: Against a background of negotiations that were not well handled by the previous Administration, we are trying to secure the best deal for our fishermen on quota hopping and on other issues so that we can put in place a long-term framework to guarantee their future and offer some stability.


Q5. Mr. Illsley: Is my right hon. Friend aware that an estimated 120 million anti-personnel land mines are planted around the world? Every 20 minutes, those land mines kill or maim someone, often harming young, innocent children. When does my right hon. Friend expect to fulfil Labour's commitment to ban those evil weapons for good?

The Prime Minister: I can tell my hon. Friend that the Government will announce later today that we will ban the import, export, transfer and manufacture of anti-personnel mines. We shall also phase out the United Kingdom stocks of anti-personnel land mines and ban the trade through the United Kingdom of all such land mines. They have caused enormous carnage, often to wholly innocent civilians, including children. The sooner that Britain gives a lead in this the better. It is the right and civilised thing to do.

Mr. Robert Jackson: Will the Prime Minister undertake a review of the somewhat curious arrangements for science policy that he has inherited?

Hon. Members: Reading.

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Jackson: Will the right hon. Gentleman consider two points in particular: first, whether it is right to have the Government's chief scientific adviser located, not in the centre of government, but in one of the Departments that he is responsible for supervising, and secondly, whether it is sensible to have two separate Ministers responsible for research councils and for universities when research council funding is integral to the funding of universities?

The Prime Minister: First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for giving me notice of it. I pay tribute to his work in education and science when he was a Minister in the previous Administration. The review that is being conducted by the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), will examine both the points that he raised. I give no undertakings at all as to the outcome of that review, but it will certainly examine those issues.


Q6. Mr. Winnick: So far as Northern Ireland is concerned, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the framework document remains on the table as that will provide a fair settlement for both communities in Northern Ireland, as well as for cross-border bodies? Does he agree that there is a particular responsibility on the part of the IRA to end its murderous terrorist campaign which has caused only pain, suffering and numerous deaths in the past 25 years? Is it not obvious that no amount of terrorist activity will in any way change the position in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister: I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the activities of the IRA. Of course, all the documents that were negotiated by the previous Government remain on the table. As my hon. Friend knows, my officials are talking to Sinn Fein, but I should make it clear that there is no question of Sinn Fein participating in any talks whatever unless there is a clear, credible and unequivocal ceasefire. That should be demonstrated in word and deed. Sinn Fein and everybody else should be under no illusions whatever about that.

Mr. Trimble: I endorse what the Prime Minister has just said about the terms of entry into talks for Sinn Fein. I am sure that he will ensure that that will be borne home to Sinn Fein in any discussions with officials and that he will ensure that discussion does not move into negotiation as that would not be permissible. I am sure that the Prime Minister is bearing in mind the fact that an election is taking place in Northern Ireland today. In the light of that and in the light of the comments by the Irish Prime Minister and by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) that he has commended, that a vote for Sinn Fein is a vote for murder, does he think that it was wise for officials in the Home Office and the Northern Ireland Office to arrange for events to take place today that would only boost the standing of Sinn Fein?

The Prime Minister: If I understand rightly, the events to which the hon. Gentleman is referring involve the transfer of prisoners. I shall return to that in a moment. In respect of the talks with Sinn Fein, there is no question of their being about a negotiation of a ceasefire. They are to make clear the Government's terms and conditions for Sinn Fein's entry into any such talks. Secondly, in relation to the two prisoners who have been transferred, I have made inquiries and it is clear that the arrangements were put in train before the general election. It follows the transfer in the past year of nine prisoners who were convicted of terrorist offences. It should not be seen in any way as a signal to Sinn Fein.


Pensioner Poverty

Q7. Mr. Pickthall: To ask the Prime Minister what proposals he has to alleviate poverty among existing pensioners.

The Prime Minister: We are doing everything that we possibly can to alleviate poverty among Britain's pensioners. Many hundreds of thousands--perhaps millions--of Britain's pensioners enjoy a good standard of living; there are many more who do not. That is one reason why we are looking urgently at the help that can be given to Britain's poorest pensioners, and, of course, it is one reason why we are committed to the cut in VAT on fuel.

Mr. Pickthall: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons for pensioner poverty is the complexity and sometimes arbitrary nature of the income support cut-off points? Will he find time--unlike the previous Government, who refused--to look at the work done by Lancashire county council's welfare rights service, which has managed to find ingenious means of getting 15 per cent. more pensioners to claim income support--about 7,000 individuals, totalling about £4 million going into pensioners' pockets in Lancashire? Will he use his immense influence to ensure that the Government's programme for ending pensioner poverty begins with getting pensioners the rights and benefits to which they are entitled?

The Prime Minister: I am very happy to congratulate the work of those who are bringing home to pensioners the entitlements that they have. I should say two other things to my hon. Friend. The review of pensions that is being undertaken by the Department of Social Security will include how we help those pensioners in greatest poverty. In addition, I hope that he can say to his constituents, as I would say to the country, that previous Labour Governments have done well by Britain's pensioners--always--and we will do well by them again. [Interruption.] We have done very well, as indeed they know. Although, no doubt, there will be different ways of doing well for a different age, we shall continue to do our best by Britain's pensioners.


Engagements

Q8. Mr. Wallace: If, as the Prime Minister indicated some moments ago, a lifting of the beef export ban is not exactly imminent, is he able to indicate what kind of approximate time scale our beef producers might reasonably expect? In the meantime, what steps are his Government taking to restrict imports into the United Kingdom of beef products that do not meet the same very high standards required of our domestic producers?

The Prime Minister: We obviously want to do everything that we possibly can to encourage and bring about the lifting of the beef ban. I say to the hon. Gentleman with the greatest respect that I do not think that plucking out arbitrary timetables has a very good history in the matter. We remember what happened before. [Laughter.] I am sorry to bring back bad memories. I believe that we can make progress and I am hopeful that progress is being made. The very fact that we have a Government who are arguing the case sensibly and constructively gives us a far better chance than we had under the previous Administration.


Q9. Mr. Gordon Prentice: Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the indignation and outrage felt among bus passengers in north-east Lancashire, who have been left high and dry by Stagecoach? Even as I speak, bus fares are going up, services are being cut, drivers are leaving in droves and the situation is in crisis. Is not such a situation, where private monopolies have driven out public interest, a shaming indictment of the previous Government's policies?

The Prime Minister: In the interests of non-confrontational exchanges across the Floor, we will leave it to others to judge whether the situation is a shaming indictment. The one thing that is quite clear is that there are severe problems with the regulatory system at the moment. That is why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is, in addition to his rain-making duties, undertaking a review of bus regulation. We are well aware of the need to ensure, particularly for people in rural communities, that they get the bus services that they need.


Q10. Mr. Gray: Will the Prime Minister find time to visit employers in my constituency of North Wiltshire who tell me that they will lay off workers the morning after he brings in the minimum wage? Does he agree that the tragically high level of youth unemployment on the continent of Europe is not least because of the job-destroying minimum wage in Europe?

The Prime Minister: I must say to the hon. Gentleman that the United States has a minimum wage and a lower unemployment rate than we do. In contradistinction to the position here, that is now a matter for agreement between the republicans and democrats. It is a pity that we cannot obtain the same agreement about decency. Employers will be fully consulted about the level at which the minimum wage is set and how it is implemented. That is very important. I do not believe that the Conservative way of competing on the basis of low wages and low skills is the right future for Britain. We will compete in the future by investing in our people and by employers recognising that if they treat people fairly, they will get the best out of them. If that is one change that an incoming Labour Government can make, we will have done a service to the whole country.

Mrs. Fyfe: Has my right hon. Friend noticed that in this first session of Prime Minister's questions we have already got through more questions than we used to in two quarter-hour sessions? It has been a more civilised and informative event than ever before and I look forward to more in the future. On the question of the national minimum wage, many of us take great pride in the fact that the Labour party has stuck to that policy through thick and thin and intends to implement it as early as possible.

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments and I hope that people will understand that this is a better way to organise Prime Minister's questions. The Select Committee on Procedure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is establishing will look at ways that it can be improved in the light of experience. On the minimum wage, I do not wish to repeat what I said earlier, but some 800,000 people in this country are paid £2.50 an hour or less. There are reasons of efficiency for introducing some basic minimum threshold for pay, but there are also reasons of decency and fairness, and we shall do it.