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1994 - PMQT 22nd March 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 22nd March 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Connarty : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 22 March.

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. Connarty : Has anyone brought to the attention of the Prime Minister the 71.5 per cent. return in the Electoral Reform Society ballot on water services carried out for Strathclyde? Does he agree with the 1,194,667 people who voted against the Government's proposals for quangoing the water services in Scotland? Does he agree that this is a crushing humiliation, or could it be possible that the Prime Minister will see it as an opportunity to show that we have a listening Government and do the democratic thing and abandon his proposal immediately?

The Prime Minister : Since Strathclyde wilfully misrepresented the Government's proposals, I see nothing surprising in the result. The Opposition have continued to link the proposals with privatisation, even though it is perfectly clear that we are setting up public water authorities. They persist in scaremongering about disconnections, although we have no proposals to legalise disconnecting domestic water supplies for non-payment of bills.

The question that the hon. Gentleman should have asked is how Strathclyde will explain to its council taxpayers the waste of £750,000.

Mr. Brandreth : Will my right hon. Friend consider adding to his list of engagements [Interruption.]

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

Mr. Brandreth : Will my right hon. Friend consider adding to his list of engagements a visit to the uniquely beautiful city of Chester, where he will find inward investment at record levels, and unemployment 6 per cent. lower than a year ago and 26 per cent. lower than six years ago? Does he agree that, in terms of inward investment to the European Community, the United Kingdom in general, and the city of Chester in particular, are now leading the way?

The Prime Minister : I am certainly pleased to hear of the particular inward investment to Chester. There has been a dramatic amount of inward investment into every part of the United Kingdom over the last few years--Wales and Scotland have certainly received a great degree of inward investment. That is very largely connected with the fact that we have a very flexible economy and a very effective business tax system, we do not have too many social on-costs, and investment here is welcome.

Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister think it right that those who can afford to pay fuel bills in advance can avoid paying the new VAT charges on gas and electricity ?

The Prime Minister : As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, it has long been the case that customers for a wide range of services can pay for them in advance. [Interruption.] There is nothing unusual about that. It has happened before every Budget that the right hon. and learned Gentleman can remember since he entered the House.

Mr. John Smith : The Prime Minister does not even begin to understand the problem here. Does he not understand that it is deeply unfair that those who are better off can avoid a tax obligation which millions of others have to shoulder because they do not have the money to exploit the loophole that the Government have permitted?

The Prime Minister : It is not a loophole, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman says ; it is a position that has applied for very many years. As far as people who are less well off are concerned, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we have provided help for them worth £2.5 billion over three years--more to pensioners, more to disabled people and more to single parents. The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not mention that all those people will get the money before the bills arrive. That is a prepayment that the right hon. and learned Gentleman forgot to mention.

Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister not understand that in those replies he has revealed the Tory attitude to tax in a nutshell-- loopholes for the better off, and everyone else has to pay in full?

The Prime Minister : What has been revealed is that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is up to his old tricks yet again, telling other people how to spend their own money. It boils down to the fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is a meddler in everything--in private sector pay, in company decisions and in how people pay their own bills. What he does not mention is the fact that electricity companies, for example, have announced next year's prices and all of them have frozen the price or cut it. When did that ever happen under Labour Administrations?

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Is my right hon. Friend aware that yesterday the Department of the Environment issued a section 13 notice, under the Local Government Act 1988, against the Lancashire county council for utterly failing efficiently to run its ground maintenance services under direct labour? Is that not one more reason why the citizens of Lancashire wish the Lancashire county council to be abolished?

The Prime Minister : It is certainly a deeply inefficient council, but that is something it shares with Sheffield and many other Labour-run authorities.

Mr. Ashdown : Are not the policies of the Government and of the Labour party towards the provision of nursery education for all now revealed to be exactly the same--that it will not happen until resources allow? Bearing in mind that it was the Prime Minister's predecessor, when she was Education Secretary nearly a quarter of a century ago, who first formulated that policy, will the Prime Minister tell us when he thinks that that promise might be delivered--this year, next year, sometime or never?

The Prime Minister : That was extremely well rehearsed, but, as the hon. Lady mentioned a second ago, if the right hon. Gentleman went to the Isle of Wight he would find no nursery education there, whereas if he went to Tory Westminster he would find universal nursery education.

Mr. Bill Walker : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, under every Labour Government since the war, before every Budget there was massive spending in the shops to avoid the tax increases that always followed Labour Chancellors' statements, especially during the period of purchase tax when that tax went up to 33 per cent?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is entirely right about that. There has always been prepurchase of goods before Budgets, especially Labour Budgets, for precisely that reason, but the Opposition have been out of government so long that they have lost touch not only with government but with reality.


Q2. Mr. Winnick : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 22 March.

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

Mr. Winnick : Is the Prime Minister at all surprised at the way in which the President of the Board of Trade is now constantly being talked up as his successor as leader? Should not the Prime Minister watch his back very carefully when the President of the Board of Trade says that he has no leadership ambition left? If the Prime Minister believes that, he will believe anything.

The Prime Minister : What the hon. Gentleman points out is the enormous wealth of talent behind me supporting me.

Mr.Wilkinson : In view of the latest terrorist outrages at Heathrow airport and, more recently, the shooting down of an Army Lynx helicopter at Crossmaglen, is not my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) right to say that the Downing street declaration has run its course? Is it not time to give primacy to the defeat of IRA terrorism, because political progress depends on progress on the security front?

The Prime Minister : Two things run in parallel : first, the Downing street declaration; and, secondly, the continuing efforts to defeat terrorism and engage in the talks process. Security co-operation has improved and continues to improve. The welcome recent successes on both sides of the border are evidence of the intensive efforts by the security forces in both jurisdictions to combat terrorism. Both Governments are committed to close co-operation, which is currently at an all-time high. I assure my hon. Friend that we propose to build on that security co-operation in both the short and the long term. There should be room nowhere in the United Kingdom for terrorism, and we are determined to maintain our battle against it.


Q3. Mr. Eric Clarke : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 22 March.

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

Mr. Clarke : Is the Prime Minister aware that the Easter egg that he is giving to the British people is a tax rise equivalent to two weeks' wages for every wage earner in the country?

The Prime Minister : As the hon. Gentleman knows, and as I have conceded before, it has been necessary to increase taxes. I invite him also to condemn the large and unjustifiable council tax increases imposed by Labour councils.


Q4. Mr. Thurnham : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 22 March.

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

Mr. Thurnham : Does my hon. Friend agree that many people with disabilities make excellent employees? Will he ensure that the public sector plays its full part in employing the disabled and thus leads all other employers by example?

The Prime Minister : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The civil service is steadily increasing the number of registered disabled people whom it employs. I am delighted that, as a proportion of its work force, it now employs slightly more than the percentage of registered disabled people in the work force as a whole. A number of Departments and agencies do significantly better than that. I share my hon. Friend's desire to see progress made, but it is encouraging that the public sector is now doing better than the private sector.

Mr. Radice : Which is more important to the Prime Minister--a blocking minority of 23 on qualified majority votes to the Council of Ministers, or an enlargement of the European Union?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman states a choice which, had he ever negotiated in Europe, he would not have stated in that fashion. He is blind to both the short and long-term consequences of change to the qualified majority vote system. We are determined to negotiate in Brussels, and to fight Britain's corner just as hard as every other nation would fight for itself. We will not be moved by phoney threats to delay enlargement. There is ample time to complete the enlargement process; if there is delay, it will be because certain other member states--two in particular--have taken an inflexible and doctrinaire line. We shall not do what the Labour party do, which is to say yes to everything that comes out of Europe, with no critical examination whatever. The Opposition would sign away our votes, our competitiveness and our money. The right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) is the man who likes to say yes in Europe--Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels.


Inward Investment (Northern Region)

Q5. Mr. Bates : To ask the Prime Minister what assessment he has made of the impact of the social chapter on inward investment in the northern region ; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister : The northern region has an excellent record for attracting inward investment and creating jobs. Since 1985 the Northern Development Corporation has secured 36,000 jobs for the region. By piling on costs to business, the social chapter would destroy jobs in the northern region, as it would across the country.

Mr. Bates : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the decision by Black and Decker to close its production plant in Limburg in Germany and move to Spennymoor in county Durham because of the excessive level of non-wage labour costs in Germany? Does that not clearly demonstrate that the best way to keep manufacturing jobs in the north-east is to keep Britain out of the social chapter?

The Prime Minister : I entirely agree. What is clear when one looks across Europe is that the social on-costs of every country other than the United Kingdom are rendering those countries progressively uncompetitive with Japan, the United States and the Pacific basin. What the social chapter would mean is the loss of jobs in the United Kingdom. I very much welcome the news for the people of Spennymoor. The Durham plant has a very high and very well-deserved reputation for quality. Black and Decker knows that high costs destroy jobs and that, for that reason, Britain is the best place in the European Community in which to do business and in which to invest.


Engagements

Q6. Mr. Home Robertson : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 22 March.

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

Mr. Home Robertson : As the Prime Minister once dismissed Strathclyde as a monstrosity, I welcome his conversion and the fact that the Government have now decided to keep the Strathclyde passenger transport authority so as to safeguard comprehensive concessionary travel for pensioners in Strathclyde. Why are not pensioners in other parts of Scotland being allowed the same safeguards? I appeal to the Prime Minister to consider that point and to ensure that pensioners in all parts of Scotland, including the east, are given equal rights.

The Prime Minister : It is extremely unlikely that the hon. Gentleman would appeal to me in any circumstances. The view of Strathclyde that I hold is unaltered, as I indicated earlier with regard to the referendum, which was an expensive stunt. As to the second point, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.