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1993 - PMQT 23rd November 1993

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 23rd November 1993.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Ward : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 November.

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. Ward : Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming today's cut in interest rates, which will be a great help to industry? Does he agree that the most effective way of creating jobs is to have a flexible, deregulated work force and not to have artificial job sharing or 35-hour weeks? Will he continue to resist such proposals, whether they come from the socialists in Brussels or the socialists in Walworth road?

The Prime Minister : I can join my hon. Friend in welcoming the latest reduction in interest rates. The last time interest rates were this low was in 1977-- [Hon. Members :-- "Under Labour."] Exactly so, but at that time inflation was 13 per cent. and pensioners and savers were robbed of 7 per cent. So I am happy to repeat it : the last time the base rate was 5.5 per cent., inflation under Labour was 13 per cent. and savers were being robbed. I entirely agree with the other aspects of my hon. Friend's question. The right way to create the new jobs we want is through the policies of deregulation, low inflation and making sure that British business is not overhampered with burdens. Telling people that they cannot work the hours they want and raising costs will simply destroy competitiveness and, with it, jobs.

Mr. John Smith : Will the Prime Minister confirm that, as a result of the Bill announced in the Queen's Speech which will increase national insurance contributions from 9 to 10 per cent., most wage earners in Britain will pay an extra £3 to £4 a week?

The Prime Minister : Self-evidently, with an increase in national insurance contributions, people will pay more. That is certainly the case, but it is necessary to make sure that we reduce the fiscal gap about which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has spoken in the past. He pays lip service to reducing the fiscal gap, proposes extra expenditure and gives no indication of how it would be met.

Mr. Smith : Why does the Prime Minister find it difficult to admit that the figure is £3 to £4 a week for most wage earners? Does he not recollect that, before the last election, he promised unequivocally that he would not increase national insurance contributions? Is this not yet another shameless betrayal of tax promises?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. and learned Gentleman has a very selective memory. He forgets, for example, his own plans to extend national insurance right through the scale at substantially greater losses for millions of people.

Mr. Smith : The Prime Minister said in the House at Prime Minister's questions :

"I have no plans to raise the level of national insurance contributions."-- [ Official Report, 28 January 1992 ; Vol. 202, c. 808.]

On top of national insurance contributions, there is also increased VAT on fuel, the freezing of income tax allowances and the cuts in mortgage tax relief. Does the Prime Minister not admit that all the tax increases will amount to another £8.50 a week for a typical family in Britain from next April? What on earth has this to do with the Tory promises on tax?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. and learned Gentleman came back from Brussels last week, having signed up to a range of extra environmental taxes, which means--if they mean anything--value added tax on fuel. Week after week, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has criticised the Government over VAT on fuel. It is no good his sitting smugly there when he goes to Brussels and signs up to the same thing.


Q2. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 November.

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

Mr. Thurnham : Will my right hon. Friend carry out an inquiry into why the infant mortality rate in Bolton in the past five years has risen to twice the national rate, when infant deaths elsewhere have been falling? Will he reassure parents and publish an action plan to discourage expectant mothers from smoking?

The Prime Minister : I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the problem that he raises. Infant mortality is particularly heart-breaking. In the past 10 years, the number of children dying under the age of one has, thankfully, fallen by some 40 per cent. I understand that Bolton health authority agreed last Friday to appoint an additional consultant obstetrician and to provide additional neo-natal nursing staff. My hon. Friend will also be pleased to know that the health authority has just agreed to fund a study into the prevention of smoking in pregnancy, which will be carried out in Bolton. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will publish an action plan setting out measures being taken by the Government to improve health targets.

Mrs. Ewing : Does the Prime Minister remember that, as a junior social security Minister in 1986, speaking on the issue of fuel poverty, he argued that there should be clear rules for help, and a certainty and immediacy of response to people in those circumstances? Not only because we have a cold snap now, but because the Government plan to introduce VAT on domestic fuel, does he recognise that there is now a clear need to have automatic and continual payments to the most vulnerable in society throughout the winter months to eradicate the fear faced by many people?

The Prime Minister : As the hon. Lady will know, we introduced the current cold weather payment scheme. It was a vast improvement on its predecessor, which we inherited from the previous Government. We also introduced automatic, quicker and more generous payments. In 1991, we made more than 6.5 million payments worth more than £39 million. That is a record of quick and efficient help given by the Government, on which we propose to build. We shall, of course, enhance the present cold weather payment scheme and the House will hear the details next week.


Q3. Mr. Alexander : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 November.

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

Mr. Alexander : Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite the knowledge that it is about to be privatised, British Coal is continuing with proposed colliery closures? Would any other industry about to be sold dispose of, give away or close a significant proportion of that industry before a buyer could be found? Will my right hon. Friend intervene to prevent the further desecration of a fine industry and the coalfield communities involved?

The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend knows, we all wish to keep pits open wherever practicable-- [Interruption.] The Opposition, who have perhaps closed more pits than anyone else, may not accept that, but it happens to be the case. Under current legislation, the future of individual pits is a matter for British Coal, which has a commitment to offer to the private sector pits that it does not intend to keep in production. I expect it to do that.

Mr. Hain : Is the Prime Minister aware that thousands of decent couples feel nearly suicidal because of oppressive and arbitrary claims for maintenance payments on second marriages by the Child Support Agency, often in defiance of court orders? My constituent, Mrs. Diane Eynon, is considering divorce in order to escape plunging her family into poverty because of a claim on her income through her husband. Surely the Prime Minister should intervene immediately, order a freeze on such maintenance payments and have a proper debate in the House of Commons on the future of the Child Support Agency.

The Prime Minister : As the Opposition spokesman said when we introduced the regulations, the Opposition very much support the principle behind the Child Support Agency, which is that parents should contribute to the cost of bringing up their children. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State told the Select Committee a day or so ago that we are looking at the comments and criticisms that have been made and testing them against the basic structure and principles that are in place. We intend to ensure that what was previously a very poor system becomes better. If, after examination, we think that we can make the scheme better, then we will do so. We are examining it at the moment.


Q4. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 November.

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

Mr. Taylor : My right hon. Friend should be aware of the widespread support for his efforts to achieve an end to violence in Northern Ireland and to obtain a political settlement. He is absolutely right to explore new opportunities. Will he assure the House that it is not the Government's intention to undermine the position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister : I am happy to repeat that assurance, yet again, to my hon. Friend. The Union is important to us. We are not in any way in the business of securing the break-up of the United Kingdom. As I made clear to the House a day or so ago, we are looking for peace if it is available, but we are not looking for peace at any price. I wish to know whether the IRA is prepared to end its violence for good and enter the political arena using only democratic means. It is right for us to put that question when there seems to be some suggestion that the IRA may be thinking of an end to violence. We need a clear and unqualified answer from the IRA which respects the vital principle that there can be no change in Northern Ireland's status without the freely expressed will of its people.


Q5. Mr. Alton : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 November.

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

Mr. Alton : Is the Prime Minister aware that, by the age of five, the average child in the United States will have seen 20,000 homicides broadcast on television? Does he not agree that in this country, too, the culture of violence involving television violence and videos showing horrific and graphic scenes is far too easily available? Does he feel that stringent measures should be taken by the broadcasters and those who make available these videos to stop young children having their minds infected by them? If there is not such a correlation between violence and videos and television violence, why does he think that advertisers spent £1.7 billion last year trying to promote their wares on television?

The Prime Minister : I have considerable sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman has said. There are some responsibilities that rest with broadcasters--they accept some, but we may not always agree with their judgments. However, we must recognise that the principal responsibility lies with parents in the home to ensure that, first, the videos are not available to children and, secondly, that children are not in a position to watch them freely, as they frequently are at present. I accept some responsibilities for broadcasters and the hon. Gentleman was right to make that point.


Q6. Mrs. Lait : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 November.

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

Mrs. Lait : Does my right hon. Friend welcome the decision by the United States Congress on the North American Free Trade Agreement? Will that lead to an agreement on the general agreement on tariffs and trade? Can my right hon. Friend see the way forward for France on those negotiations?

The Prime Minister : I warmly welcome the vote in the United States Congress in favour of the North American Free Trade Agreement. We have constantly stated our support for free trade agreements and I think that NAFTA will contribute to the liberalisation of trade. It will, of course, have to contribute to GATT rules. I trust that that vote will add to the impetus in the United States and elsewhere to ensure that we get an agreement in the Uruguay round by 15 December. There will be a number of important meetings in the next three weeks and I hope that they will lead to a satisfactory outcome in time for 15 December.


Q7. Mr. Gordon Prentice : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 November.

The Prime Minister : I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Prentice : Does the Prime Minister recall writing to me in July of this year, wishing Cleveland Guest Engineering well? Is he aware that today that firm, employing more than 100 highly skilled engineers in aerospace, called in the receiver? Is it not the case that every time the Prime Minister wishes a manufacturing company well, it is the kiss of death for that company?

The Prime Minister : I am very sorry to hear of the difficulties faced by that company. Although the hon. Gentleman may have concern for that company in his constituency, might he just once forget the point- scoring and welcome the good news about employment? Unemployment in this country has fallen by 137,000 this year, and last month's fall of 49,000 was the largest monthly fall for four years. Long-term unemployment fell in every region, among men and among women, and last year nearly half a million people left the unemployment register and found themselves work. Why does not the hon. Gentleman consider what is really happening to unemployment?