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1993 - PMQT 18th May 1993

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 18th May 1993.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Gorman : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 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.

Mrs. Gorman : Has my right hon. Friend, in his busy schedule, had time to see a report of the National Consumer Council about international trade, which states that the dice are loaded against the consumer by the European Commission trade barriers and regulations which are costing billions of pounds extra every year, including £230 on a car, or £750 if it is imported into the Community, more than £1.2 billion extra on electronic goods and £17 per week on my grocery bill every time I push my trolley around Tesco? [Interruption.] Yes, and Norma. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House and, more important, consumers outside the House that he will stamp on that tremendous waste and tell the European Community to put its house in order? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. The Prime Minister.

Mrs. Gorman : I have not finished yet.

Madam Speaker : As far as I am concerned, the hon. Lady has finished.

The Prime Minister : I agree with my hon. Friend that reducing trade barriers does lead to lower prices and economic growth. That is why, above all, we want to get the negotiations on the general agreement on tariffs and trade completed--to bring down tariffs and barriers in order to increase trade to the benefit of both the industrialised and the non- industrialised world. As to the European Community, to which my hon. Friend made passing mention, the single market should remove trade barriers within the Community. I very much hope that it will live up to its expectations. It was a British initiative, negotiated by a British Prime Minister and concluded by a British Prime Minister.

Mr. John Smith : May I, on behalf of the Opposition, express our whole-hearted sympathy to the parents and families of the victims of Beverly Allitt? Does the Prime Minister appreciate the full extent of the anger and apprehension among parents throughout the nation at the fact that it was possible in one of our hospitals for a nurse with a known psychiatric disorder to destroy the lives of children in her care? In view of the appalling negligence which has obviously occurred, why have the Government refused to have a full public inquiry, with the powers to require the evidence of witnesses to be given on oath and to compel the disclosure of all documents?

The Prime Minister : First, may I say that I share the right hon. and learned Gentleman's sympathy for the parents. I know that that view is echoed across the House. The main thing about this inquiry--and this, too, will be generally shared--is to have one that will be most likely to get at the truth and to ensure that, in the future, there is no likelihood of a repetition. We take the view that the inquiry to be conducted by Sir Cecil Clothier is likely to be the most effective. Sir Cecil has taken the view-- this is an important matter for the House to consider--and said this afternoon : "In my view, people will be more willing to speak frankly to my inquiry than to a public inquiry."

I share that view and I believe that, on that basis, it is right to proceed with the inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Cecil.

Mr. Smith : No one doubts the competence or integrity of Sir Cecil Clothier, but how can he know whether people will be willing to give evidence? Surely, in the public interest, we should have an inquiry with the fullest powers. Does the Prime Minister not take into account the fact that the parents of the children concerned and the majority of the nursing staff want a full public inquiry so that nothing can be concealed? What is wrong with such a reasonable request?

The Prime Minister : Sir Cecil has agreed to see the parents of the children, and that is welcome-- [Interruption.] If Sir Cecil wishes to have further powers, he will come back and seek them from the Government, and we will provide them. I must tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that Sir Cecil, as a former Parliamentary Commissioner for Health, not only commands the confidence of the House but has a great deal of experience in this area. I am happy to accept his judgment on what is the most appropriate way to carry out the inquiry that he is set to chair.

I must also tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman--because I know that he will regard this as important, too--that there has already been a lengthy public trial which has brought many of the key facts to light. There has been an independent inquiry into the quality of management. In addition, Sir Cecil is now heading an independent inquiry into events at the hospital. If he needs further powers, he will come and ask us for them.

Mr. Smith : Should not the nature of the powers be a matter for the Government's responsibility, not a matter for Sir Cecil Clothier? Was not the trial concerned with quite different issues than what is concerned here-- [Interruption.] --and is it not inappropriate

Madam Speaker : Order.

Mr. Smith : Is it not inappropriate-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. The House must come to order.

Mr. Smith : Is it not inappropriate for the inquiry to be set up and to be asked to report to the very regional health authority whose own actions may be a subject of the inquiry? Is it not totally unsatisfactory, as a solicitor for the parents has pointed out, that the Secretary of State for Health has apparently given more weight to the wishes of the health authority than to those of the parents of the children? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order.

The Prime Minister : I believe that, on reflection, the right hon. and learned Gentleman might be ashamed of some of the things he just said. We want a rigorous and swift inquiry. We want an inquiry that will deal with the most important aspect of all, which is one that gets at the truth, not one that just raises party political points. My right hon. Friend has established such an inquiry-- [Interruption.] --and she has appointed to head it someone with unique experience of the nature of the events. That man who is heading the inquiry has himself said that he believes that the people attending it will be more willing to speak freely to his inquiry than to a public inquiry. I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not accept that advice.


Q2. Mr. Hendry : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 May.

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

Mr. Hendry : In between the cheap jibes of Opposition Members, has my right hon. Friend had a chance to see the report into the future of local government in Derbyshire published yesterday? Is he aware of the massive local opposition to the proposal that the whole county should be divided into two vast unitary authorities? Does he share the view of Conservative Members that local government should be as close as possible to the people it represents and that there is not, and never could be, any shared sense of community between my constituents and those in Chesterfield or, dare I say it, Bolsover?

The Prime Minister : I agree with my hon. Friend that, as far as possible, the structure of local government should reflect local tradition and a local sense of community. That is, of course, one of the main points of the present inquiry. With regard to the Derbyshire inquiry, as my hon. Friend says, the Local Government Commission preference is for two unitary authorities. However, I understand that it has also put forward alternative solutions. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity to make his views clear to the commission.

Mr. Ashdown : Is the Prime Minister aware that the Government's policy of encouraging the reduction in the payment of benefits across post office counters will, it is calculated, result in the closure of up to 5,000 local rural post offices? Will the Prime Minister tell the House that he is now prepared to reconsider that foolish policy?

The Prime Minister : I think that the right hon. Gentleman thinks of a number and then doubles it for domestic consumption. I am surprised that he raises that matter today. I direct him to the answer that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Corporate Affairs gave in the House a day or so ago. He said, for the avoidance of doubt,

"we are committed to the maintenance of a viable network of post offices",

including rural post offices. Pensioners will continue to be able to receive their pensions from the post office. We have encouraged them to make payments into their banks on a voluntary basis. But it is

"not Government policy to remove the right of pensioners to receive their pensions from the post office."--[ Official Report, 13 May 1993, Vol. 224, c. 1035.]

Mr. William Powell : Does my right hon. Friend agree that this year's public expenditure review is likely to be one of the toughest on record and that any restraint there must be in public expenditure must be shared to the fullest extent by local authorities as well as by Whitehall? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that local authorities would be wise to plan on the basis of no real growth in expenditure for the next financial year and that the Government are prepared to back up their policies by the fullest use of their capping powers?

The Prime Minister : We certainly have to consider the range of public expenditure, both centrally and for local government, in the public expenditure discussions that will begin very shortly. Those discussions will be concluded soon and we will make our views known to local authorities and others. On the general principle, my hon. Friend is clearly right to believe that we need to restrain public expenditure in the interests of the economy as a whole.


Q3. Mr. William O'Brien : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 May.

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

Mr. O'Brien : Is the Prime Minister aware of the serious and grave concern of all housing associations about the cut in Government resources for affordable housing? Is he also aware that if that policy continues, rents will rise sky high and people will not be able to afford housing? Is he prepared to listen to housing associations in relation to their concerns about affordable housing and will he also listen to local authorities which have the resources, finances and ability to provide affordable housing?

The Prime Minister : We have not in the past only listened to the Housing Corporation and to housing associations ; we have acted on the basis of what they have had to say to us. In 1992-93, we spent more than £2.3 billion on the Housing Corporation, £350 million or so through estate action and more than £1.6 billion through local authorities. We have also provided specific help for the homeless, with nearly £100 million over the past three financial years and £86 million made available over the next three financial years. As a result of the measures that we have taken throughout the past decade, there are more home owners than ever before ; council tenants have more control over their own estates--I know that that is not popular with Opposition Members--the use of bed-and-breakfast accommodation for homeless people has been cut by 38 per cent. ; the rise in mortgage repossessions has been reversed ; and the number of people sleeping rough in central London has more than halved. Why did the hon. Gentleman mention none of that?

Mr. Hayes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Italian people got it absolutely right when they rejected proportional representation through the ballot box? Does he believe that those people who are rather cynically toying with the idea are doing that simply because it is the only way in which they will get their sticky little fingers on the levers of power?

The Prime Minister : I agree with my hon. Friend about that, and I know that I have a lot of support on the Opposition Benches for that particular view. Last year, the hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) said :

"Any move on electoral reform by Labour would be interpreted as defeatist."


Q4. Mr. Welsh : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 May.

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

Mr. Welsh : Will the Prime Minister now tell the House which of the technical reasons that make it impossible to privatise Northern Ireland water within the lifetime of this Parliament do not apply to Scotland?

The Prime Minister : We are still considering the consultation in Scotland, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I think that it is better to reply after we have considered all the consultation.

Mr. Matthew Banks : Does my right hon. Friend agree that Britain has been entirely right to reject calls for further substantial military action in the Bosnian region? Such action would lead to guerrilla warfare, substantial loss of life and--given recent comments--bomb outrages on the streets of London without any furtherance of the peacemaking process or helping to find a permanent solution to the problem.

The Prime Minister : There are many complex difficulties to be solved in the particular problems faced in Bosnia. I believe that the stance that we have taken, which has been shared by many of our allies, has been entirely the right stance in Bosnia. We continue to work with our allies towards a series of objectives. I hope that we will soon be able to bring permanent peace to that area.