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1994 - PMQT 19th May 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 19th May 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Hain : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 19 May.

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. Hain : Did the Prime Minister personally obtain the permission of Her Majesty the Queen to privatise the Royal Mail?

The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will make a statement about the Royal Mail shortly. I have no doubt that he will deal with all the matters that concern the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Batiste : My right hon. Friend will be aware of the statement by the French Government that they propose to remove a part of their forces in Bosnia by the year end if there is not more rapid progress towards a political settlement and if other countries do not provide greater assistance. What is the British Government's response to that?

The Prime Minister : What the French Government have said is not that they are going to withdraw all their troops from Bosnia at the end of the year but that they propose to reduce by 1,000 their troops in Croatia, and a small number of further troops--I think 1,500--from Bihac. Even when those reductions have been made, the French will still be the largest troop contributors to the former Yugoslavia. The United Kingdom Government, of course, come second. We have no intention at the moment of removing our troops, although, of course, their safety at all times is paramount.

Mrs. Beckett : When the Post Office was not even mentioned in the Conservative party election manifesto and the effects of privatisation are causing chaos on British Rail and pushing up gas prices for ordinary families, why are the Government now looking to privatise the Post Office?

The Prime Minister : As I said to the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) a moment ago, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will make a full statement to the House about the Government's proposals in just a few moments. The right hon. Lady would be well advised to wait for that statement. As to British Rail, I think that she will find that, when it is operating as a privatised concern, as with the other privatised concerns, the service will be infinitely better than it was under nationalised control.

Mrs. Beckett : Contrary to what the Prime Minister says, the experience of most of the British public, particularly in the case of British Rail and of water, is that the end result of privatisation has been higher charges and poorer service. Do the Government never learn?

The Prime Minister : What we see in what the right hon. Lady had to say is the same old knee-jerk opposition to private ownership. It is interesting to see that the same old centralising tendency remains among those on the Opposition Front Bench, just as it always has. What privatisation has produced is better services, profits instead of losses, tax revenue instead of taxpayers' subsidy, and a better service for the consumer. That is because the private sector will run services better.

Mrs. Beckett : Does the Prime Minister realise that the Post Office successfully combines running a profitable business with providing a public service that is of fundamental value to the whole community and that no one can be confident that that service will survive undamaged, especially in rural areas? Is not it another privatisation that is unnecessary, unpopular and unworkable?

The Prime Minister : Once again, in the way that they have done so frequently, right hon. Members make conclusions before they know what is to be proposed and how matters are to be dealt with. Time and again, they have been proven wrong and, on this occasion, they will see how wrong they are very speedily.

Mr. Congdon : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the proposed new secure training orders for young offenders are a welcome step in protecting the public from persistent young offenders and will be welcomed by most people?

The Prime Minister : Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend about that. I think that they will certainly combine an effective punishment with a decent education. What those new centres will offer is the opportunity for young criminals to break away from crime and give the public a break from their offending. I am delighted that that commonsense view is now generally but not, it seems, universally held.

Mr. Ashdown : If, as I hope and believe, the Prime Minister is serious about wishing to use this opportunity permanently to improve the quality of debate in the House, would he be prepared to open discussions and take suggestions about how we might improve these 15 minutes of Prime Minister's Question Time--only a few weeks ago, he described as "ritual confrontation"--in order to make them more informative and more in keeping with what most people want?

The Prime Minister : I think that many people in the country believe that these 15 minutes would be used more effectively on policy matters if questions were asked specifically about matters that must concern the people who watch our proceedings on television or read about them subsequently. I certainly wish that to be the case, but it is a matter for the House and for those who question me rather than for me. I am here to respond to the questions that are asked. [Hon. Members :-- "Oh!"] The theory that this time is not always wisely used by the Opposition was most clearly illustrated just now.

Mr. Stephen : Is my right hon. Friend aware that most of our constituents believe that the young American vandal in Singapore got exactly what he deserved? Will my right hon. Friend consider the new clause that I have tabled to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, designed to prevent that vandal, and every other criminal, profiting from his crime by selling his story to the press?

The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend knows, we are seeking in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill to make a whole series of changes to improve crime and punishment in this country. I believe that the provisions in the Bill will be very popular across the country, and I hope that they will have the full support of the people. I regret that so many hon. Members on the Opposition Benches still seem to be more concerned for the criminal than for the people against whom the criminal perpetrates his crimes.


Q2. Mr. McKelvey : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 19 May.

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

Mr. McKelvey : Does the Prime Minister recall the helpful reply that he gave me some weeks ago when I asked a question about the passage of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill? Why then did he go on to direct, or at least condone, the sleekit and contemptible tactics used by a Minister to scupper the Bill? Has he no remorse for the disabled of this country? Does not he feel that he should allow the Bill to be passed so that disabled people can have basic civil rights?

The Prime Minister : I think that the whole House shares the broad aims of the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry), but the reality is that the Bill, as has been shown in Committee and subsequently, is unworkable in a number of ways. It would impose immense costs and open up enormous scope for litigation. The people who understand and consider such matters carefully will appreciate that fact.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, for I have told the House on previous occasions, we intend to press ahead with our own proposals, with consultation on a range of measures about discrimination in order to eliminate unjustified discrimination in employment, provide access to goods and services, to financial services and to buildings and to establish an advisory body on disability. That is the right way to proceed in order to produce measures that genuinely will work and will help disabled people. That is the way that we have proceeded in the past and will proceed in the future.


Q3. Mr. Burns : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 19 May.

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

Mr. Burns : If my right hon. Friend will forgive me for changing the subject, does he agree that the unemployment figures released yesterday and the steady fall in unemployment over the past 12 months is welcome news which shows that our economic recovery is steady and sustainable? Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that it is somewhat strange that when the news is bad about unemployment no one questions the authenticity of the figures but when the news is good and people are getting back into work some people seek bogusly to take away from that good news by questioning the authenticity of the figures?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend makes a telling point with great clarity. The facts speak for themselves : unemployment is down by about 100,000 over the last three months and it has been down by more than 250,000 over the last year. What has been especially encouraging is that long-term unemployment has been falling as well. What is equally striking is that, while unemployment falls across the whole of the United Kingdom, it is still rising throughout much of Europe. That shows the extent to which our economy has recovered and is continuing to grow, in sharp contrast to most European economies.


Q4. Mr. Win Griffiths : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 19 May.

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

Mr. Griffiths : Has the Prime Minister had time this week to read about the seven suicides reported to have been triggered by the actions of the Child Support Agency? An ever-growing number of fathers are giving up work because they cannot afford to pay what the Child Support Agency assesses them for, yet many single mothers are worse off as a result of the agency's activities. Will he now set aside his well-worn and repeated phrase about keeping the activities of the agency "under review" and institute immediate radical reform by bringing new legislation to the House?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman is well aware that we made a number of changes some time ago. It is clearly sensible to let those changes settle down and to get a little more experience of how they are working. The changes were widely welcomed and, in many cases, they reduced the amount of maintenance that absent parents were required to pay. There were a number of other changes that I think that most people would regard as the right way forward.

The hon. Gentleman has now embarked upon the exercise of that useful quality--the wisdom of hindsight. The principle of the legislation is right. It was widely welcomed in the House. We are determined to examine what is happening and make sure that if changes are shown to be necessary, they can continue to be satisfactorily made.

Mr. Marland : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the losses in excess of £2 billion that were announced by Lloyd's of London earlier this week bring its total losses to more than £8 billion for the past three years that accounts are available? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that that has led to the suicides of 11 of Lloyd's investors? If it is correct, and it is correct, that there should be an official inquiry into the activities of Mr. Frederick West of 25 Cromwell street, Gloucester, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is also right that there should be an official inquiry into the business practices of some professionals at Lloyd's, which have led to the deaths of its investors?

The Prime Minister : As I think that my hon. Friend knows, a number of civil cases relating to Lloyd's are now before the commercial courts. It would be most unwise of me to comment on that issue while that is the case.


Lockerbie

Q5. Mr. Dalyell : To ask the Prime Minister if he will have discussions with the German Government about the statements of Edwin Bollier and Ulrich Lumpert concerning the destruction of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie.

The Prime Minister : The Scottish prosecuting authorities and police have worked closely with their German counterparts in the course of the Lockerbie investigation. Any discussion of evidence or information that may be relevant to the investigation would be a matter for the Crown Office and the Dumfries and Galloway constabulary to pursue with the relevant German authorities.

Mr. Dalyell : So why has Bollier's written request to have a sight of his timers, so that he can determine whether they were in the batch that went to Libya or the batch that went to the Stasi, been turned down?

The Prime Minister : I am aware of the recent press reports alleging that both Bollier and Lumpert have additional information on the supply of electric timers to the East German Stasi. The Lord Advocate has taken the view that the available evidence justifies the criminal charges that have been brought against the two Libyans. The hon. Gentleman will, of course, be aware that beyond that, I cannot comment on the detail of the available evidence while the criminal investigation is still proceeding.

Mr. Dalyell : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of that reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.


Engagements

Q6. Mr. Spring : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 19 May.

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

Mr. Spring : As we congratulate President Mandela on his recent inauguration, does my right hon. Friend agree that the best hope for South Africa's future lies in economic growth and job creation, flowing from a free enterprise system? Does he further agree that policies such as deregulation, competition and privatisation form the best basis for economic success anywhere in the world?

The Prime Minister : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about that. It is no surprise that the policies of deregulation, competition and privatisation are now being adopted in every part of the globe. They are certainly being imitated in central and eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union. As for South Africa, I wish President Mandela every success in building the strong and stable South Africa that we all wish to see. I am sure that if he pursues those policies, they will assist.