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1993 - PMQT 4th May 1993

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 4th May 1993.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Llew Smith : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 May.

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. Smith : Will the Prime Minister comment on the views of the European Commission's chief legal adviser that the so-called Danish opt- outs from the Maastricht treaty were worthless? Does not that coincide with the views of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who said that

"it does not alter, either the text on European union, or the obligations taken on by those who ratify the treaty."--[ Official Report, 30 March 1993 ; Vol. 222, c. 126.]

Does not the constitutional question now being put to the Danish people remain unchanged?

The Prime Minister : All that was set out carefully at the time, but I shall reiterate it for the hon. Gentleman. It was made perfectly clear from the start that what was agreed was an interpretation of the treaty, an intergovernmental agreement binding in international law. That was the case, is the case, and has never been in doubt.


Q2. Mr. Booth : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 May.

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

Mr. Booth : Does my right hon. Friend share the feeling of many Conservative Members that unit fines are not working well? Does he also share the feeling of many of us that the fact that previous convictions cannot adequately be taken into account by the courts is a great shame and will he therefore change the rules so that persistent offenders can be identified by the courts and punished severely?

The Prime Minister : My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that he shares the concern expressed about some, although not all, aspects of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. He has made it clear that he wants to see amendments and to introduce them as soon as is appropriate. As my hon. Friend may know, my right hon. and learned Friend met the Magistrates Association this morning to decide how best to proceed.

Mr. John Smith : As there is now overwhelming opposition from parents, teachers, governors and experts to the Government's insistence on imposing tests on schools this year, why does not the Prime Minister for once admit that he is wrong, do the sensible thing and withdraw the tests for this year?

The Prime Minister : As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we have exchanged views on that subject before. We believe that it is important to proceed with the tests, not least so that Sir Ron Dearing can draw on that experience, as he has said that he wishes to do, in order to improve the tests. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will recall frequently calling for this country's work force to be better trained. Why does he consistently oppose measures designed to bring that about?

Mr. John Smith : If the tests are so important that the Government are prepared to go well beyond the limits of reason and common sense to impose them, why are private schools, to which many Conservative Members send their children, exempt completely from them?

The Prime Minister : It is reason and common sense to test pupils. It is reason and common sense to know how well they are doing. It is reason and common sense to have that information so that we can put right the matters that are not being dealt with adequately in those schools at the moment. That is our responsibility in the state sector and that is what my right hon. Friend is seeking to do.

Mr. John Smith : Will the Prime Minister now answer the question that I put to him? What reason and common sense is there to impose them on the public sector, but to leave the private sector untouched?

The Prime Minister : We have a direct responsibility for making sure in the public sector that pupils are taught adequately and well. In the private sector the results of the schools have been very good-- [Interruption.] --and many of them have their own tests. We have a direct responsibility in the public sector and, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, the tests, for example, of seven-year-olds, have been successful. They have been good for pupils, good for teachers and good for schools. The right hon. and learned Gentleman would join forces with those who want industrial militancy to end the tests, irrespective of what he has said in the past about having a well-trained work force. Words only from the right hon. and learned Gentleman which he will not back up with action when necessary.

Sir James Kilfedder : Will the Prime Minister, on behalf of this country, express our deepest sympathy to the people of Sri Lanka following the horrific and callous murder of President Premadasa and many others? Will he express the hope that that and other atrocities will not undermine the stability of that beautiful country, which is an essential member of the Commonwealth?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend sets out views that will be shared widely across the House and the country. It was a particularly brutal and pointless assassination which will have done immense damage to Sri Lanka around the world. I wish the very best of good fortune to the new president in due course and to the Government in restoring stability after that dreadful event.

Mr. Ashdown : If the House votes to end the opt-out of the social chapter, will the Prime Minister refuse to ratify the Maastricht treaty?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. Gentleman is asking me to respond to a hypothetical question-- [Interruption.] --to which I have responded on previous occasions. I refer him to my previous answers.

Mr. Spring : Has my right hon. Friend seen reports that housing repossessions are down 24 per cent. on last year? Does he agree that that is excellent news which bodes well not only for the housing sector but for consumer confidence and for continuing revival in the economy?

The Prime Minister : Yes, it is excellent news. It is also excellent news that, in the view of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the action by the Government and lenders last year prevented over 50,000 repossessions that would otherwise have taken place. There are now clear signs of recovery in the housing market. That can only be helped by interest rates of 6 per cent. and mortgage rates at their lowest for over 30 years. I believe that that, together with other economic indicators in the last few weeks, point firmly to real recovery.


Q3. Mr. Mike O'Brien : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 May.

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

Mr. O'Brien : Will the Prime Minister accept the congratulations of many on these Benches that his Government are now in full retreat on his citizens charter for criminals, the Criminal Justice Act 1991? Does he now admit that he got it wrong to pass that law, which restricts the ability of the courts to send to prison people who have committed serious offences-- that at a time when crime has doubled and when he has been imposing a freeze on future spending on the police? Will he now accept that his credibility as the leader of the party of law and order is in tatters?

The Prime Minister : If the hon. Gentleman had listened more carefully a few moments ago he would know that I said that I shared the concern about some, but not all, of the aspects of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, and we have made it clear that we are prepared to change those. The hon. Gentleman may recall that a great deal of cross-party advice on the 1991 Act was given, not least by many Opposition Members.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton : My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has rightly recognised the importance of our manufacturing and construction industries in this country's economic recovery. Competition is essential, but does my right hon. Friend accept that a level playing field is equally important? Will he state what further steps he and his Government will take to improve the ability of manufacturing and construction to contribute to the recovery of our economy?

The Prime Minister : I share the view, which has for a long time been expressed by my hon. Friend, about the importance of manufacturing industry. He will know of the remarkable improvement in manufacturing exports over recent months and the remarkable improvement in productivity of manufacturing industry. They are now biting deep with exports into the European market and beyond. My hon. Friend is right about the need to have a level playing field in Europe and beyond. As my hon. Friend will know, that will be improved by the Maastricht treaty.


Q4. Mr. Roy Hughes : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 May.

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

Mr. Hughes : Has the Prime Minister's attention been drawn to the report issued over the weekend that the much-trumpeted decrease in the unemployment figures is little more than a piece of spring cleaning of the figures by officials at the semi-privatised employment and benefit offices? It has been said that falsehood has a perennial spring --would not it be wiser to recognise that Britain's true unemployment rate is now in the region of 4 million? Is not that a national disgrace? When will the Government take some effective action to put people back to work?

The Prime Minister : The requirement to put people back to work is felt at least as keenly by Conservative Members as in any other part of the House, which is precisely why we have taken the difficult measures to make it possible to get people back to work in secure jobs. That is why we fail to understand why Opposition Members consistently support matters like the social charter, which would keep people unemployed for a long time.

Mr. Marland : Is my right hon. Friend aware that this weekend the citizens of Gloucestershire were again subjected to an invasion of new age travellers? Is he further aware that the Gloucestershire police have done a first-class job in breaking up the convoys and keeping them on the move? Is there any chance of introducing any legislation or further measures to restrain those unwelcome visitors between now and the summer? They call themselves new age travellers, but in Gloucestershire they are known as new age vermin.

The Prime Minister : I sympathise strongly with the citizens of Gloucestershire over the trouble that they have faced with new age travellers. I warmly congratulate the police on the action that they have taken. We are examining what further legislative measures can be taken to give the police more powers, but I cannot promise that they will necessarily be introduced before the summer.


Q5. Mr. McWilliam : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 May.

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

Mr. McWilliam : Is the Prime Minister aware of any group of teachers who have said that they will not either teach or assess their pupils?

The Prime Minister : That is a question better directed to my right hon. Friend, but I am aware of teachers' leaders who seem to be encouraging their members to take industrial action against the interests of the pupils of those schools, which I regret.


Aberdeen

Q6. Mr. Raymond S. Robertson : To ask the Prime Minister if he has any plans to visit Aberdeen in the near future.

The Prime Minister : I am making plans for a series of visits to all parts of the country and hope to include Scotland among them.

Mr. Robertson : If my right hon. Friend is able to visit Aberdeen at the end of the year, will he consider allowing his visit to coincide with the first wave of civil service relocations from the Department of Trade and Industry's London-based oil and gas division to Aberdeen? Will he consider opening the DTI's new Aberdeen office, which so vividly demonstrates the Government's commitment to Aberdeen, the north-east of Scotland and the North sea oil and gas industry?

The Prime Minister : I shall certainly consider that invitation if it comes to me through the appropriate sources and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for anticipating it. The fact that we are opening that office shows that we are committed to expand as and when companies move key functions to Aberdeen. It certainly shows our faith in the future of the North sea industry and the north-east of Scotland. The division will begin moving there in the autumn. I know how welcome that news is to my hon. Friend and how hard he worked to bring it about.

Mr. Robert Hughes : If the Prime Minister visits Aberdeen, will he recall that the petroleum revenue tax changes he proposes will give large windfall profits to very large companies, but will savagely attack small companies, especially those in the drilling and exploration sector? If he wishes to express his confidence in the North sea, would not it be better to change that to allow people to develop fields and exploration as and when they come?

The Prime Minister : As it happens, the reform improves the incentives for further development of existing fields and new development of important fields that would have paid tax at 83 per cent. That is good for investment, jobs, Aberdeen, the north-east, Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Madam Speaker : Order. Time is up. Ten-minute rule Bill, Mr. Anthony Steen. It would be helpful if hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber would do so quietly so that we may get on with our business here. I am sure that Mr. Steen is in good voice this afternoon.