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1993 - PMQT 26th January 1993

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 26th January 1993. Tony Newton responded on behalf of John Major.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Battle : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 January.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton) : I have been asked to reply.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is making official visits to India and Oman.

Mr. Battle : Is the Secretary of State for Employment telling the truth when she says that the President of the Board of Trade did not consult her about pit closures?

Mr. Newton : If the hon. Gentleman thinks that my right hon. Friend was not consulted, would he like to tell me how it was possible for her to announce on the same day a wide-ranging package of measures directed at employment?

Mr. Rowe : My right hon. Friend will be aware that as our trade with the European mainland constantly increases, a large proportion of it must pass through the county of Kent. Is he aware that the county of Kent and all the district councils in Kent are desperate to have a considerable portion of that freight transferred to the railways? Will he ensure that when Ministers are considering the present proposals for the railways and the channel tunnel rail link, they do everything in their power to ensure that it is made possible for freight to be carried on the railway rather than on the cluttered roads of Kent?

Mr. Newton : As my hon. Friend knows, it is precisely to improve the efficiency and attractiveness of rail freight that many of our proposals in the context of the future of the railways are directed.

Mr. John Smith : Given that the crisis in the coal mining industry arises directly from the Government's rigging of the electricity market, why will the Government not accept that reform of the market to allow coal to compete fairly is the crucial and overriding issue?

Mr. Newton : I do not accept for a moment the right hon. and learned Gentleman's suggestion. The problems in the coal industry arise from a long -term decline in the demand for coal which is being seen throughout the western world. The Government's policies are directed to addressing that and to securing the best possible future for the coal industry.

Mr. John Smith : It is little short of astonishing that, even now, Ministers do not understand that the crisis arises from the botched privatisation of the electricity industry and not from any weakness in the British mining industry. Are the Government not aware that what the industry and the nation need is not some short-term fix to save the Government's face but a reform of the electricity market to allow British miners to compete fairly?

Mr. Newton : My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will shortly bring forward proposals directed at the outcome of his review of the coal industry. Meanwhile, if I find anything astonishing, it is that on a day when interest rates have fallen to their lowest level for 15 years, the right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot even congratulate the Government.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson : Has my right hon. Friend had time to read the Confederation of British Industry's latest poll, which shows the biggest increase in business confidence for five years? Does he agree that low inflation, low interest rates and a very competitive exchange rate give British producers a real edge in world markets?

Mr. Newton : I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We now have inflation at its lowest level for six years, interest rates, as I said, at their lowest level for 15 years, mortgage rates likely to be at their lowest level for nearly a quarter of a century and a marked increase in business confidence. We need Opposition Front-Bench Members to stop talking that confidence down.


Q2. Rev. Martin Smyth : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 January.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Rev. Martin Smyth : In the light of press reports confirming the "Timewatch" programme and--as some of us have known for a long time--that the Dublin Government supported the growth of the provisional IRA in 1970, will the Leader of the House join the defence correspondent of The Daily Telegraph this morning in urging the Foreign Office and the Northern Ireland Office to engage in a diplomatic offensive against the Dublin Government to defeat terrorism and thus release 10 batallions of the Army to engage in international peacekeeping ?

Mr. Newton : While I understand why the hon. Gentleman thought it right to raise that point, I have no intention of commenting on allegations relating to events nearly a quarter of a century ago. What matters now is the shared determination of the British and Irish Governments to resist terrorism from whatever quarter, and I know that we have the hon. Gentleman's support in that.

Mr. Budgen : Will my right hon. Friend reflect that had we not so fortunately come out of the exchange rate mechanism on 16 September we might now have interest rates at something between 10 and 15 per cent. imposed upon us by the Bundesbank and against the interests of the British economy? Will my right hon. Friend be good enough to suggest to the Prime Minister that the best thing that he could do to revive confidence in the British economy would be to say that we shall never return to the ERM and that we want nothing whatever to do with a single currency in Europe?

Mr. Newton : I do not think that, however enticing it is, I shall follow my hon. Friend into speculation about what would have happened if something that already has happened had not happened. He will know what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said about the ERM and I do not propose to elaborate on it now.


Q3. Dr. Berry : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 January.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Dr. Berry : Taking a more serious perspective on the economy than previous comments from Conservative Members, will the Leader of the House explain to the 4,637 unemployed people in my constituency of Kingswood and the 5,000 in his constituency of Braintree how it is that they are "a price worth paying" for the worst economic record of any post-war British Government?

Mr. Newton : What I would say to those for whom concern is mutual on both sides of the House is that the policies that we have been pursuing and which have produced the results to which I adverted a few moments ago are providing the best basis for overcoming those concerns.


Q4. Mr. Peter Bottomley : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 January.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Bottomley : May I suggest to my right hon. Friend the point that he has made which will get the greatest echo from all political parties? The boost to jobs, the reduction in mortgage payments and the boost to capital investments from low interest rates will make people ask whether it is possible for the Leader of the Opposition to join with the Government in helping to attract more foreign capital investment into this country--and more jobs--so that fewer people will be out of work.

Mr. Newton : It would certainly be very welcome far beyond the confines of the House if the right hon. and learned Gentleman would give any sign whatsoever that he sees what would be required. Instead, he promises payroll taxes, excessive profit taxes, social chapters and the rest of it, which would keep foreign investment out for good.


Q5. Mr. Tony Lloyd : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 January.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Lloyd : Continuing with the bipartisan interest in unemployment, may I tell the Leader of the House that in my constituency mass unemployment during the 14 years of Conservative government has resulted in high crime rates, the sale of drugs and its associated violence and individual family tragedies? My constituents are now incredibly angry at the inaction of the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. Rather than asking my right hon. and learned Friend to help them out, will the Leader of the House tell us what the Government plan to do about these problems, when will they do it and when can we see some results?

Mr. Newton : I find that a strange question, especially against the background of our exchanges so far and on the very day that interest rates have fallen to their lowest level for 15 years. What is more, the hon. Gentleman might at least have acknowledged that unemployment in his constituency last month was 16 per cent. lower than in 1987.

Mr. Butcher : Did my right hon. Friend notice the very welcome announcement by Jaguar in Coventry that it is to invest £700 million in developing three new models for the market? When our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister returns to the House, could he pass to him an invitation to visit Coventry so that he can show his support for the engineering profession and the engineering industry which will spearhead our recovery?

Mr. Newton : I note my hon. Friend's request, which I shall draw to our right hon. Friend's attention when he returns. One of the encouraging signs in our economy during recent months has been the renewed strength of the car industry, in part as a result of the very overseas investment to which I referred earlier and which certainly would not have come here had the Opposition had their way.


Q6. Mr. Gerrard : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 January.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Gerrard : Does the Leader of the House recall that in March 1991 the Government tried to buy their way out of their troubles with the poll tax by reducing it by £140 a head? They found the money to do that by raising VAT from 15 to 17.5 per cent. Now that the poll tax is finally about to disappear, can we expect VAT to be cut by 2.5 per cent? If not, why not?

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman can expect the introduction of a system of council tax that will be a great deal better than what his right hon. and hon. Friends are offering with a return to the rates.

Mr. Tracey : Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the fullest possible investigation is being undertaken into the behaviour of Lambeth borough council, where one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated in local government appears to have taken place?

Mr. Newton : I think--I hope--that I can speak for both sides of the House in expressing concern about the allegations of a breakdown in financial control in the London borough of Lambeth. The proper authorities- -the Audit Commission and the police--will be investigating the matter. As my hon. Friend says, if the allegations prove to be true, it will be a good illustration of some of the problems in Labour local authorities. I hope that the Opposition Front Bench will join us in condemning them.


Q7. Mr. Hoyle : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 January.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Hoyle : Does the Leader of the House agree that when considering energy policy, we should look not at short-term market forces but at long- term needs? That applies especially to collieries threatened with closure, such as Parkside. It has always been highly profitable and it has reserves for 70 years. Should not the future of such collieries be based on the future demand for coal, which will become increasingly competitive as other fuels become more expensive?

Mr. Newton : By now, it must be clear to all in the House that the review is very thorough and is not looking simply at the short term. It is taking account of the reports by Committees of the House and a wide range of independent consultants. The results will be made known in due course, as appropriate.

Mr. Milligan : My right hon. Friend has just explained the position in Lambeth, but is not Lambeth only one of many similar Labour local authorities throughout the country? For example, Monklands and Sheffield have been misusing taxpayers' funds, yet they have some of the poorest taxpayers in the country. Has not the time come to have a full public inquiry to discover whether there is a common thread?

Mr. Newton : As I have already indicated, in the first instance inquiries into allegations of the sort that have been made against a number of authorities--by and large, Labour authorities, as my hon. Friend has said--are matters for the Audit Commission and the police. Were a common strand to emerge, I should expect the concern to be reflected on the Opposition Front Bench, and not just on the Government Front Bench.


Q8. Mr. Mandelson : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 January.

Mr. Newton : I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Mandelson : What does the right hon. Gentleman think the behaviour of British Airways towards Virgin Atlantic says about the business ethics of British Airways, and what does he think the failure of anyone at the top of British Airways to resign says about the integrity of that airline's management?

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that these matters have been the subject of legal action between Virgin and British Airways. That being the case, it would not be appropriate for me to comment further.