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1994 - PMQT 29th March 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 29th March 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Byers : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : This morning, I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Byers : Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the work force at the Swan Hunter shipyards on Tyneside, who, despite the fact that the company is in receivership, have continued to produce a high- quality product on time for the Ministry of Defence with the receiver close to securing a new owner, but with work running out? Will the Prime Minister, as a matter of urgency, consider steps that the Government can take to safeguard the future of shipbuilding on the Tyne and thereby retain 1,000 highly-skilled manufacturing jobs?

The Prime Minister : I support what the hon. Gentleman has to say about the workers at Swan Hunter. As he will know, officials are continuing to support the receiver's efforts to sell Swan Hunter as a going concern.

I know that the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) have been active on its behalf. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has told the company that foreign ownership would not preclude Swan Hunter from bidding for MOD work. As the hon. Gentleman will know, all MOD work is bid for on a competitive basis.

Mr. Trotter : Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the bid from France is successful, the new owners intend to use Swan Hunter to obtain substantial additional export orders for Britain and that the continuation of Swan Hunter in those circumstances would be good not only for the Royal Navy--by maintaining competition--but for Britain--by obtaining additional exports--and for Tyneside--by retaining an excellent work force?

The Prime Minister : I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. I think that it would be the collective wish of the House that Swan Hunter should continue its work in the future. I very much hope that it will be possible for a buyer to come in, so that Swan Hunter may be able to continue.

Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister agree with the Foreign Secretary, who told the House yesterday that the blocking minority in the enlarged Community would be 27?

The Prime Minister : As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know, I shall make a statement on that matter in just a few moments. When there is dissent between 22 and 27, there will not be automatic-- [Interruption.] Between 22 and 27, there will not be automatic agreement, and I shall set out the circumstances then in a few moments.

Mr. John Smith : I am aware that we shall have the opportunity to ask the right hon. Gentleman more detailed questions, but I asked him about what the Foreign Secretary said yesterday in the House. Is not it the case that, if no agreement is reached in the Community, the blocking minority is 27? That is a fact, is it not?

The Prime Minister : If no agreement is reached in the Community, the blocking minority at the moment would move to 37. That is the point at issue. After agreement is reached, if agreement is reached and everything proceeds satisfactorily in the next 24 hours, the position would be that, if any country was part of a blocking minority that did not reach 27, but was over 22, that is 23 to 26, it would not automatically be 27. There would be a considerable delay and much further discussion.

Mr. John Smith : Is not the clear point this : that after the delay has expired, the blocking minority will be 27? Yes or no?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. and learned Gentleman misunderstands-- [Hon. Members :-- "Oh!"] I am afraid that he misunderstands, as the right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) did yesterday. There is no time limit.

Miss Emma Nicholson : Does my right hon. Friend agree that enlargement of the European Community is in Britain's best interests and that the four strong and stalwart possible new members will not be put off by the knowledge that to fight hard for national interests is still possible when one is at the heart of Europe?

The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend will know, we have been the foremost proponents of enlargement of the Community, because we should like a larger and more loosely knit Community. I very much hope that all the four applicant nations will win their referendums and become members of the Community from 1 January next year.

Mr. Ashdown : May I put the question to the Prime Minister a different way? I disagreed with him at the time, but does he recall saying last week that the principle to which he would wish firmly to adhere was that the Governments representing 30 per cent. of Europe's population should have an unqualified right of veto over the rest? Will he now confirm that that principle has been abandoned?

The Prime Minister : No, the right hon. Gentleman is misquoting what I said last week--but he is absolutely right that I am concerned about the legitimacy of Community decisions as an ever-larger part of the Community can be overridden under qualified majority voting. That is precisely why we have reached the safeguards in the past 24 hours and precisely why we have now obtained an absolute assurance that both the thresholds and the voting weights will be reconsidered and redetermined in 1996.

Mr. Devlin : Will my right hon. Friend take time during his busy day to send a message of sympathy to the staff, pupils and parents at Hall Garth school in Middlesbrough, which a considerable number of my constituents attend and which was the scene of the awful tragedy yesterday? Will he also send a message of commendation to the teaching staff for their prompt and effective action in dealing with the madman who broke into the classroom?

The Prime Minister : Not only would I be happy to do that, but I think that the message would have the unqualified support of every right hon. and hon. Member. I believe that all hon. Members would wish to send their deepest sympathy to Nikki's family and to the school. The event was horrendous--the sort of random act of madness that it is almost impossible to guard against--and for the families and pupils involved it leaves a legacy of horror that will take a long time to wash away. I congratulate the teachers and others for the way in which they behaved yesterday. Clearly, we shall have to see whether any further guidance can be given to schools in view of that tragic incident.


Q2. Mr. Dunnachie : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 March.

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

Mr. Dunnachie : Does the Prime Minister realise that by ignoring the wishes of the people of Strathclyde, who overwhelmingly rejected the idea of water quangos, he is going against his own citizens charter ?

The Prime Minister : I answered two questions on that subject last week and the hon. Gentleman will know that I do not agree with the way in which Strathclyde set up its referendum. It was not possible to retain the previous methods of controlling water authorities and we have chosen the method that we believe is most apt for the future.


Q3. Lady Olga Maitland : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 March.

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

Lady Olga Maitland : Is my right hon. Friend aware that council tax increases in Liberal-controlled counties are well above the rate of inflation? Indeed, in Somerset the rate of increase is twice the rate of inflation, in Dorset it is three times the rate of inflation and in Hampshire it is five times the rate of inflation.

The Prime Minister : I am aware of that in the case of Hampshire and in the case of Richmond in London, and I suspect that if we were to examine the situation we should find a very high level of council tax under Liberal authorities everywhere. It is clear that if people want a lower level of council tax, they ought to vote Conservative.


Q4. Mr. Hanson : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 March.

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

Mr. Hanson : Is the Prime Minister aware that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has now admitted that the average family tax rise from April will be £9 to £10--double what the Chancellor of the Exchequer says it will be, and more in line with Labour party predictions? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whom he now believes--the Chancellor or his Chief Secretary?

The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary was talking about the average wage earner; my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was showing what the impact on the average family would be. They are both correct.

Mr. John Marshall : May I, as the chairman of the all-party friends of the Northern line group, welcome today's announcement about new trains for the Northern line? Is not this good news for 400,000 Londoners who travel daily on that route? Is my right hon. Friend aware that it will be particularly welcome in the London borough of Barnet?

The Prime Minister : That does depend on successful bids from the private sector. What has happened today is that the Government have given permission for London Underground to hold a competition for the provision of privately financed rolling stock for the Northern line. We shall be looking to the private sector to take on some of the risks of ownership, but I am confident that the use of that competition will pave the way for greater use of private finance in the future.


Q5. Mr. Keen : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 March.

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

Mr. Keen : I congratulate the Prime Minister, not just because it is his birthday but because some of my constituents are impressed by the quality of the answers that he gives. However, people often point out to me --I have to agree--that many of the right hon. Gentleman's answers are unconnected with the questions. I think that that has to do with the random access file from which he reads. Would not the random nature of the question-and-answer session be reduced if the right hon. Gentleman were to read all the answers first and then we were to ask questions?

The Prime Minister : Yes.

Mr. John Greenway : Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to join me in congratulating the management and work force of Slingsby Aviation in Kirkbymoorside on securing the contract to supply more than 100 training aircraft to the United States air force? The factory is being visited today by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Does not that order prove that small firms in Britain can compete in the toughest market anywhere in the world?

The Prime Minister : I was not aware until now of that contract, but I am very happy to congratulate Slingsby. It is certainly the case that a large number of both small and medium-sized firms are now exporting a high proportion of their turnover. That reflects both their efficiency and the fact that the British economy is now acutely competitive.


Q6. Mrs. Roche : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 March.

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

Mrs. Roche : Does the Prime Minister agree with his Chancellor, who has described national insurance as "not a tax", or with his former Chancellor, who thought that it was?

The Prime Minister : I think the hon. Lady is being very selective in her quote. The reality is as my right hon. and learned Friend has stated.


Q7. Mr. Haselhurst : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 March.

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

Mr. Haselhurst : Does my right hon. Friend accept that a traditional feature of life in British towns is their main post office? Is he aware of the consternation created in places such as Saffron Walden when the post office is threatened with having its services franchised out to a side-street newsagent? Will he undertake to review Government policy towards the Post Office with those concerns in mind?

The Prime Minister : I agree that post offices should remain very much a part of life in our towns and villages. That is why the Government are committed to maintaining a network of post offices across the country. What is important is the quality of service that customers receive, and that is what the Government want to see improved in Saffron Walden, as elsewhere. I will certainly reflect on the points made by my hon. Friend.


Q8. Mr. Rooker : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 March.

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

Mr. Rooker : Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), whose constituents last week, for the first time ever, welcomed the election of a Labour councillor?

The Prime Minister : Given the hon. Gentleman's constituency in Birmingham, if the electors did elect a Labour councillor, it certainly cannot be on the back of the record of the Labour Birmingham council.

Mr. Burns : Will my right hon. Friend please have a word with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to see whether it is possible, before the Easter recess, to have a statement on the road-building programme in the hope that he will announce the abandonment of the hated proposed M12 from the M25 to Chelmsford, which no one in south and mid-Essex wishes?

The Prime Minister : I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have heard the plea from my hon. Friend; I will ensure that it is drawn to his attention.