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1993 - PMQT 27th April 1993

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 27th April 1993.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Gunnell : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 27 April.

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. Gunnell : Now that there is optimism that the bulk of the Maxwell pension funding will be recovered over the next four years, is it not time to end once and for all the uncertainties felt by many of those lobbying us today? Will the Prime Minister authorise the availability of capital now, knowing full well that as funds are recovered most of that money will come back? Eighteen months is too long, for elderly people in particular, to suffer such anxiety. Will the Prime Minister end it now?

The Prime Minister : I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that over many months we have made a positive response to the Maxwell reservations. I believe that it was the right thing to do, not least setting up the Maxwell pensioners' trust, which has raised more than £6 million, and providing £2.5 million to ensure that pensions are paid. We continue to look sympathetically at the problem, but I have no fresh announcements to make today.

Sir John Wheeler : In the wake of the bomb in the City of London on Saturday, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will bring forward the reinsurance scheme? Will he urge the Leader of the House to make time for legislation for that scheme as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister : The Government scheme for insurance against terrorist attacks has been providing cover since 1 January this year and the Government will fully honour their commitment under the scheme. It is, of course, a matter for individual businesses whether or not they choose to take out such cover, but everyone who has done so, or has alternative policies, will have been covered against damage caused by the Bishopsgate bomb. The Government scheme is one of reinsurance for the industry, so those who have suffered damage will need to make claims to their insurers in the usual way. On my right hon. Friend's last point, legislation to provide for payments to be made to the insurance companies under the scheme will be brought before the House as soon as possible. I hope that it will be possible to attract support from all parts of the House for that measure.

Mr. John Smith : Now that all six teacher and head teacher organisations have appealed to the Secretary of State for Education to suspend this year's testing and assessment arrangements under the national curriculum, will the Government for once listen to the considered professional judgment of the whole teaching profession and suspend this year's tests?

The Prime Minister : I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows the importance that we put behind the principle of testing. He also knows--he will have heard the remarks of Sir Ron Dearing--that we need the experience of this year's tests to ensure that we are able to remove the unnecessary bureaucracy and make sure that the tests are right for the future. The implication of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question is that he now accepts the principle of testing. I hope that is now so.

Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister not understand that this increasingly bitter dispute is not about the principle of sensible testing but about the dogmatic insistence of an arrogant Secretary of State that his view must prevail against those of governors, teachers and parents? Why does not the Secretary of State recognise that which is recognised by everyone else--that he has lost the argument and that it is an insult to use £700,000 of taxpayers' money on futile propaganda?

The Prime Minister : I notice again that the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not indicate that he does not accept the principle. I assume that he does accept the principle of testing. In view of his question, he may care to comment on the remark by the National Union of Teachers president, who said :

"We should annihilate tests in the national curriculum." I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will now condemn that particular comment. On his further point, I must tell him that I do not think it appropriate for teachers to take industrial action at the expense of those tests.

Mr. John Smith : If the Prime Minister is so confident of parents' support, why does he not use that £700,000 to hold a ballot, to find out what parents really think? If the Government are sincere about parental choice, why not let the parents choose?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows as well as every other right hon. and hon. Member that two agendas are in play --that of the ordinary teacher who wants less bureaucracy, which we are considering and to which we shall respond, and that of the militants' opposition to any sort of testing or appraisal and to all our reforms. I note that the right hon. and learned Gentleman implies that he is favour of tests, but he does not have the courage to denounce the NUT and its comments about industrial action.

Mr. Cash : Will my right hon. Friend reconfirm the assurance that he gave the House unambiguously on 24 September last year, that if the Danes vote no in the second referendum it would be unacceptable for us and the rest of the Community to go ahead without Denmark, and that the Maastricht treaty could not go ahead?

The Prime Minister : Perhaps my hon. Friend has been misled by some of the reports that he may have seen this morning. The leader of the Progress party in Denmark, which my hon. Friend will know is the only Danish party opposed to the Maastricht treaty, said :

"There was nothing new in the Foreign Secretary's remarks, and they were manipulated by the press."

That was her comment, not mine. As to my hon. Friend's specific question, if he will study the transcript of the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, a copy of which will be placed in the Library, he will find that my right hon. Friend made four straightforward points. First, we do not expect the Danes to vote no. Secondly, were they to do so the Maastricht treaty could not enter into force because it requires ratification by 12 member states. Thirdly, United Kingdom legislation to ratify the treaty could therefore not proceed. Finally, all 12 members of the European Community would need to hold urgent consultations about what to do next. Each of those points is self-evident. That was said by my right hon. Friend yesterday.


Q2. Mr. McFall : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 27 April.

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

Mr. McFall : In the right hon. Gentleman's first speech as Prime Minister, he spoke of a commonsense view of life from a tolerant perspective. Now that the Scottish Conservative party has joined the massive opposition to water privatisation in Scotland, will the Prime Minister display that tolerance by recognising the genuine and universal concern felt in Scotland, where water is regarded as being for the benefit of all--not for the profit of a few? At next month's Tory conference, will the Prime Minister state that the public interest will best be served by increased investment in the present water and sewerage system? Regardless of whatever the Tories have brought to Scotland in the last 14 years, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that we shall not witness the return of the Victorian cry of "Gardyloos!" to the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow?

The Prime Minister : The future structure of water and sewerage services in Scotland is still under consideration. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want me to go further while that matter remains under consideration.


Q3. Mr. Rathbone : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 27 April.

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

Mr. Rathbone : Now that Britain is exporting television to Germany, lace to Brussels, cosmetics to the French and pizzas to Italy, as my right hon. Friend pointed out in Manchester last week, does he not think that all British companies now have the competitive edge to develop export markets everywhere?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is entirely right to praise our exporters and to point to the opportunities for further exports. We also export more per head than Japan and now have an excellent opportunity to break into new markets and win back old ones. It was for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor increased the amount of Export Credits Guarantee Department cover both last autumn and in the recent Budget. Manufacturing matters ; exporting matters. We seek to support them both.


Q4. Mr. Gerrard : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 27 April.

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

Mr. Gerrard : Is the Prime Minister aware that very many people in London are extremely worried about the survival of the travelcard and concessionary fares after bus deregulation and rail franchising and that their fears are echoed today in the report by the Select Committee on Transport? Will the Prime Minister tell us what he intends to do to guarantee the future of the travelcard and concessionary fares schemes?

The Prime Minister : As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have to study the report of the Select Committee and then respond to it. That is what we will do.

Mr. Whittingdale : Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating President Yeltsin on his outstanding personal victory at the weekend? Does he agree that, in supporting President Yeltsin, the Russian people have voted in favour of democracy built on market economics? Does this not represent by far the best chance for the future of Russia?

The Prime Minister : I have no doubt that my hon. Friend is right about the last point. I have sent my warm congratulations to President Yeltsin on the outcome of the referendum. The results are remarkable. They show that the Russian people maintain their personal trust in the President and, most important, that they wish him to carry his democratic reforms further. It is a remarkable result on the back of the sacrifices that have been made towards economic transformation. I believe that the Russian people are beginning to see the benefits of individual enterprise. Success for Russia is essential for its people and equally vital for the rest of the world.


Q5. Ms Eagle : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 27 April.

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

Ms Eagle : Does the Prime Minister not find ironic that, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the battle of the Atlantic, we are losing the battle for our shipyards without even a fight? Given his Government's refusal to create a strategy for defence diversification, what action does the Prime Minister intend to take in response to the petition handed to him today by the save Cammel Laird community group, asking him to save the yard from closure in July?

The Prime Minister : As the hon. Lady knows, there is a problem for shipbuilding round the world as a result of the level of capacity and the level of demand. I understand the hon. Lady's concern about Cammel Laird and I know that it is shared by the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter). The yard's future is primarily a commercial decision for Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. which is having to respond to that worldwide decline, which is not just a problem for the United Kingdom but one for the rest of Europe and for countries in other parts of the world. None the less, I will study with great care the letter from the Cammel Laird support group and reply in due course.

Mr. Batiste : Will my right hon. Friend reassess the case for identity cards to see whether they can give significant support to the police in their fight against crime and terrorism?

The Prime Minister : That is a matter which from time to time we will need to review. It is one which has many difficulties. We have looked at it in the past and not found it a terribly attractive proposition. I know that a constituency is demanding it. It is not something which I would wish to rule out, but it is not on our immediate agenda.


Shetland

Q6. Mr. Wallace : To ask the Prime Minister whether he has any plans to pay an official visit to Shetland.

The Prime Minister : I have no plans to do so at present, but my right hon. and noble Friend the Earl of Caithness visited Shetland on 29 and 30 March.

Mr. Wallace : I know that that reply will dismay my constituents. They will be dismayed to learn that, some 16 weeks after the Braer went aground, the Prime Minister has neither visited the area nor indicated any intention of doing so. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order.

Mr. Wallace : I shall resist the temptation to ask what would have happened if a ship had gone aground on the white cliffs of Dover. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. The House must come to order and hear the hon. Gentleman out.

Mr. Wallace : If the Prime Minister came to see at first hand a community's remarkable, practical and vigorous response to the adversities that affected it on 5 January, he would be very impressed indeed. If, in the attempt to restore the economic fortunes of that community, it is necessary to embark on a marketing exercise to restore Shetland's good name for good-quality produce, will the Prime Minister repeat that the polluter should pay? If so, will he give the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund a nudge in the right direction?

The Prime Minister : I can certainly say to the hon. Gentleman that the response of the people in the area was indeed remarkable. That was noted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, and by a number of my other right hon. Friends, all of whom visited the area in the period immediately following the tragedy. What the hon. Gentleman neglected to mention was that an economic impact study is being mounted under the direction of Shetland Islands council, and with the participation of Shetland Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. That will help to target resources where they are most needed, and I think that it is the right way in which to proceed for the present.