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1994 - PMQT 3rd May 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 3rd May 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Rev. Martin Smyth : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 3 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.

Rev. Martin Smyth : While congratulating Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk on the success of the recent elections, does the Prime Minister share with me praise for the South African people who, in the face of terrorism, came out in such numbers to exercise their vote with enthusiasm and good manners? Is not there a real lesson for any dissident group that it cannot, by terror, overthrow the will of a people dedicated to democratic practice, especially in this nation?

The Prime Minister : I agree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman about that. I think that the democratic elections have been an enormous success for the people of South Africa, for Mr. Mandela and for Mr. de Klerk. I am delighted that we had so many British parliamentary observers there, of which I believe the hon. Gentleman was one. I am delighted also that British personnel and police were able to help with the elections.

I spoke last evening to Mr. Mandela and assured him of our continuing help as his Government carry forward reform and change in South Africa. What has clearly happened in South Africa, as the hon. Gentleman intimated, is that the power of the ballot box has prevailed over force of arms. That should apply everywhere.

Mrs. Peacock : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the very great support in the United Kingdom that there would be for the introduction of identity cards, particularly if the cards could incorporate a photograph and a driving licence?

The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend knows, I have considerable sympathy with that view. Two examinations are under way at the moment : first, identity cards particularly in so far as social security is concerned; and, secondly, a wider look at the prospect of identity cards more generally. As I have said to the House before, there are some practical difficulties, but we are examining them to see whether they can be overcome.

Mr. John Smith : Does not the Prime Minister think that it is a quite extraordinary situation that, even before the local government election campaign is over, a senior member of the 1922 Committee should demand, on grounds of incompetence, the resignation of the chairman of the Conservative party and the Secretary of State responsible for local government?

The Prime Minister : Unlike the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I have not faced senior members of my party emigrating to New Zealand.

Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. The House must come to order. [Interruption.] Why ? Because if you are here you must come to order, that is why; otherwise you can leave the Chamber.

Mr. John Smith : But can the Prime Minister tell us why he presides over a Government in which one Cabinet Minister, the Minister of Agriculture, openly condemns Cabinet colleagues for plotting against his leadership? Was she right to do so?

The Prime Minister : The whole Cabinet is completely determined to carry through the programme on which we were elected, and we propose to do so. That means low inflation, less regulation, low interest rates, strong defence, an active foreign policy and moving Europe in our direction. There is complete unity on that matter, much to the dismay of the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. John Smith : If the whole Cabinet is united, does not the Prime Minister think that he should remind some members occasionally to demonstrate that fact in their public utterances? While Ministers are permitted by the Prime Minister to squabble and plot as they please, is he surprised that public confidence in his Government has almost completely broken down? If he cannot control his own Cabinet, is it any wonder that we doubt whether he can run the country?

The Prime Minister : I must say that the right hon. and learned Gentleman ought perhaps to look more closely at what is said by many members of his own shadow Cabinet and his own party from time to time. What we are in the process of doing is moving this country into a position of the most sustainable growth with low inflation that we have seen in this country for several decades. That will affect to the good the living standards of each and every person in this country and it will be as a result of the policies followed unitedly by this Cabinet.

Mr. Ottaway : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the recent Wellcome Foundation report on sexual attitudes and behaviour revealed that 19 per cent. of Britain's teenagers under the age of 16 were sexually active? Under those circumstances, does he agree that, where such children have been prescribed contraceptives at the discretion of their GP, there might be cases where it is inappropriate to report that fact to the parents?

The Prime Minister : I do not think that anyone condones that sort of activity by under-age children. I think that it is the responsibility not only of parents but of other people in responsible positions to try to put sexual activity in a proper context for young people.

Mr. Beith : Does it remain Government policy that British participation in a single European currency is not ruled out but will be decided by Parliament at a later stage? If so, how can the Prime Minister have a senior Treasury Minister who believes and states that to join a single currency would involve giving up government of the United Kingdom? Have things gone so far that he cannot sack the young pretender?

The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend has made it clear this morning that he fully supports our policy on a single currency, a policy agreed by the whole Cabinet of which he is a member. So that there need be no misunderstanding anywhere about it, let me tell the right hon. Gentleman what that is. We shall retain the right, confirmed in the opt-out that I negotiated in the Maastricht treaty, to make our own decision on whether to move to a single currency for Europe. That will be the subject of a separate decision by our Parliament here at Westminster if and when that decision needs to be taken, and it will be taken then in the light of our interests and needs. It will not be taken now. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has made it clear that he subscribes wholly to this position.

Mr. Jacques Arnold : Has my right hon. Friend noted that the councils charging the highest council tax band-for-band are all controlled by the Labour party?

The Prime Minister : Yes, I had heard that, and I also hear the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) shouting at me, "Some £40 less." I am pleased that he shouts that out because in front of me I have a quote from the deputy director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies who said :

"Labour figures are misleading. The average bill may be higher not because of higher charges but because the average house is worth more".

Like for like, the Labour party is charging far more council tax than the Conservative party and so, although not quite so severely, is the Liberal party. However the hon. Member for Blackburn wriggles, that remains the case.


Q2. Mr. Donohoe : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 3 May.

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

Mr. Donohoe : Will the Prime Minister take a cursory glance at his own Front Bench and tell the House who he thinks Brutus will be?

The Prime Minister : I think that the hon. Gentleman has mistaken the time of year. We are past March.

Mr. Waterson : Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that, under the national health service, all patients are treated according to clinical need, irrespective of age? Thus, for example, in Eastbourne the 25 per cent. of the population who are over 65 account for 64 per cent. of the total resources and bed days.

The Prime Minister : I am happy to accept the figures used by my hon. Friend. I am in no doubt not only that people over retirement age are given excellent treatment by the national health service but that they are entitled to that treatment as of right. They are given the best possible treatment and, where appropriate, are referred to specialists to obtain it.


Q3. Mr. John Evans : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 3 May.

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

Mr. Evans : Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that during the current local election campaign he has had a great deal to say about the levels of council tax charged by various local authorities? Is he aware of the fact that if Westminster city council had received the same rate support grant per head of population as the borough of St. Helens it would have been forced to charge £1,079, instead of £245, for a band D property? Will the Prime Minister explain to my constituents how a rate support grant system that throws up such huge disparities is not politically corrupt?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman makes his usual assertion without any real examination of the facts. If he looks at the local authorities that lost a lot of money under the standard spending assessment this year he will find towards the top of the list Wandsworth borough council, which he neglected to mention. If he wants to know why Westminster sets the lowest council tax in England I can tell him that it is because it has tendered out more services than other councils. It saved £11 million on compulsory competitive tendering--equivalent to £110 on the council tax. The tendering of street cleaning is saving £1.8 million per year, yet the council spends more on arts than any other London authority. Those are some of the reasons why Westminster is so efficient and some of the reasons why the council deserves to be re-elected.

Mr. Evans : On a point of order, Madam Speaker ; in view of the ineptness of that reply from the Prime Minister I wish to give notice of my intention to raise this issue on the Adjournment at the earliest possible date.

Mr. Streeter : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the International Monetary Fund's recent assessment of the British economy as being one of the few economic bright spots in the world? Is not this in stark contrast to the days, in the 1970s, when the Labour Government had to go, cap in hand, to the IMF to bail them out? What a difference 15 years makes.

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is entirely right. Not only do we have both inflation and interest rates at historically low levels, but we have exports running at record levels and growth this year running at twice the rate in any other significant European country. This is expected to continue next year. It is a result of the policies that the Conservative Government have followed.


Q4. Mr. Salmond : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 3 May.

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

Mr. Salmond : May this Bench join in the general celebrations and best wishes for President-elect Mandela and the new South Africa? Do the Government intend to redeem the Prime Minister's clear pledge of three years ago that the Rosyth naval base would be sustained? Can Scotland have a yes or no answer to that question, and not more waffle?

The Prime Minister : My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made it clear last year that the Rosyth dockyard has a programme of allocated work stretching-- [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will wait for just a moment. It was made clear by my right hon. and learned Friend that the Rosyth dockyard has a programme of allocated work stretching well into the next century. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman shuts up he will get his answer. So far as the naval base is concerned, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that all defence bases are being examined as part of the defence cost study. Rosyth is being treated on the same basis as other naval bases. The study is continuing, and my right hon. and learned Friend has not yet received proposals.

Mr. Dunn : Given that industrial disputes are at their lowest level for decades, does the Prime Minister agree that the reintroduction of sympathy strikes would cause a nightmare at the workplace?

The Prime Minister : I have no doubt that that is the case. Last year, the sum total of working days lost was about 600,000. In 1979, in one month alone--January, I think--more than 3 million days were lost. There is no doubt of the damage that sympathy strikes would do. Equally, there is no doubt of the damage that would be done if our trade union reforms were repealed, and people were again encouraged to take their disputes on to the streets rather than to some form of satisfactory agreement.


Q5. Mr. McFall : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 3 May.

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

Mr. McFall : Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to endorse the remarks by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who said that water in Scotland will never be privatised? In addition, will he give an assurance that value added tax will never be levied on water and sewerage charges in Scotland or anywhere else in the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister : I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that. His party has been running a campaign referring to the privatisation of water in Scotland, yet he has just admitted that water in Scotland has not been privatised. I hope that he will now withdraw everything that he and his colleagues have been saying in recent months. They have been misleading the people of Scotland. The hon. Gentleman knows that Scottish Water is to be restructured into three new public water authorities. I hope that he will now go out and tell that to everyone in Scotland.