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1994 - PMQT 1st November 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 1st November 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Stevenson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 1 November.

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

Mr. Stevenson: Will the Prime Minister confirm the complete absence of any mention of privatisation of the Post Office in the last Tory party manifesto? Is he aware of the complete absence of any public support for that latest piece of Government dogma? Will he now take this opportunity to do the country a service and rescue the President of the Board of Trade by withdrawing that absurd proposal?

The Prime Minister: As the whole House knows, we are considering the results of the consultation exercise that was launched in the summer. [Interruption.] I am surprised to hear Opposition Members scoffing. I thought that in the new politics the Labour party favoured consultation.

Mr. Brooke: If Mr. Al Fayed requires a forgery from The Guardian to resolve his conscience, what, in my right hon. Friend's mind, does that tell us about Mr. Al Fayed or The Guardian, or both?

The Prime Minister: I think that many conclusions may be drawn from that, some of which may well be drawn from the investigation that the Serjeant at Arms himself is carrying out into the affair. Certainly, whatever is uncovered, I doubt whether it will be to the credit of the principal people concerned.

Mr. Blair: To return to the Prime Minister's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson), on Post Office privatisation, there is more than a whiff of retreat in the air. If the Prime Minister does retreat-- [Interruption.] Is he aware that, if he does retreat on that, he will be acting wisely, because if he is going to consult the British people, the vast majority of them--and, I believe, a majority in this House--want a modern Post Office with greater commercial freedom, delivering a cheap and reliable service, and that the best way of achieving that is to retain it in public ownership, run it as a public service and serve the public interest?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly share with the right hon. Gentleman the wish to make the Post Office business strong, competitive and able to deliver the services that people need. Of course, a large number of improvements have been made over the past few years, most of them opposed at the time by Opposition Members. In 1981, we separated out Telecom and introduced the £1 monopoly limit, introducing competition and allowing a thriving courier industry to develop. In 1990, we sold Girobank. All those changes were opposed by the Opposition, who now take credit for the success of the Post Office as a result of our policies.

Sir Archibald Hamilton: Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the actions of Mr. Preston of The Guardian? Not only has he been using House of Commons writing paper to forge letters; he has been forging other people's signatures--and this from a man who is on the Press Complaints Commission. Should he not resign from that body at once?

The Prime Minister: Over many years, The Guardian and its present editor have from time to time thundered against general standards in public life. It is, of course, the right of the press to do that; I simply invite its members to observe their own standards.

Mr. Ashdown: But is the Prime Minister satisfied with the promptness, accuracy and frankness with which his Chief Secretary to the Treasury has responded to questions over past weeks and months? Are those the standards by which he would wish his Government and their Ministers to be recognised?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman, and some other hon. Members, may be wholly satisfied with their own blameless pasts in every respect. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has made the position entirely clear, and I accept his word.

Sir Wyn Roberts: Does my right hon. Friend agree that so-called investigative journalism has sunk to a new all-time low? Does he also agree that, if a newspaper is found to have used the name of the House to give false authority to its activities, that newspaper deserves to lose the respect and confidence of the House?

The Prime Minister: I believe that a diverse and wholly independent press is a very important protector of our system of democracy. I hope that there is no dispute about that.

What is particularly sad is the casual abuse of what were once high and expected standards. If it is now commonly accepted in journalism that the end justifies any means, I believe that journalism will regret stooping to that standard. I hope that that is not the case; I believe that honest, factual journalism remains important to our democratic system. Systematic deception, fraud and collusion are certainly not what we expect from a free press.


Q2. Mr. Hall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 1 November.

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

Mr. Hall: This morning, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) and I delivered a petition to No.10 Downing street on behalf of thousands of pensioners in Warrington, calling on the Government to abandon their proposal to increase VAT on fuel to 17.5 per cent. from next April. Is the Prime Minister aware that half the 36,000 claimants of income support in Halton and Warrington are entitled to claim only cold weather payments and that many other families in fuel poverty receive no help whatever? Will the Prime Minister give an assurance that he recognises that to be a true problem, that he will abandon the VAT increase, and that he will ensure that all low-income families receive fuel credits weekly when there are cold spells during the winter?

The Prime Minister: So that no one who may be listening to these exchanges can be in any doubt, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, while he says that he opposes VAT on fuel, he is in favour of a carbon tax, which would have exactly the same effect on people? Will he also acknowledge that measures worth around £2.5 billion over three years have been put in place-- [Interruption.] It is no good Opposition Members pointing and shouting. They cannot on the one hand oppose VAT on fuel, and on the other hand support a carbon tax which would have precisely the same effect on the people whom they claim to be defending.


Q3. Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 1 November.

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

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does my right hon. Friend agree with that great editor of The Manchester Guardian , C.P. Scott, who said:

"Comment is free but the facts are sacred"?

Does he agree that certain standards of journalism have sunk below the level that one would expect in a free and fair democracy?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend about that. The press rightly demands the highest standards from Parliament and we have a right to expect the highest standards from the press.

Dr. Marek: If the Prime Minister reads in Hansard what he said at Question Time last Thursday, he will realise that he answered one of the questions in a rather silly way. I hope that he will now give me a considered reply to that question. Why is he prepared to countenance devolution for the Province of Northern Ireland but not for the countries of Wales and Scotland?

The Prime Minister: I must tell the hon. Gentleman two things. First, if he does not understand the difference in the history of Northern Ireland, he certainly should do so before sitting in the House. Secondly, there is a well established system of local democracy and government in Wales and Scotland which does not apply in Northern Ireland.


Q4. Sir Michael Neubert: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 1 November.

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

Sir Michael Neubert: Reverting to the subject of earlier exchanges, what would be my right hon. Friend's reaction if the Lord Chancellor were to include a known criminal among his appointments to the magistrates bench? Is it not equally unacceptable that the editor of The Guardian should sit in judgment on his fellow editors as a member of the Press Complaints Commission when, on his own evidence, he has been party to a forgery?

The Prime Minister: That is a matter for the Press Complaints Commission and for the conscience of the editor of The Guardian .


Q5. Mr. Hoon: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 1 November.

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

Mr. Hoon: Why are the Government threatening to cut housing benefit for hundreds of thousands of pensioners simply because they have spare rooms? Why is the Chief Secretary frightening pensioners with the prospect of having to move house just because they have raised their children and want to live out their retirement in their family home? Does the Prime Minister have any confidence in the Chief Secretary, particularly on matters of accommodation?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the system of housing benefit that we have in place is more generous than he will find anywhere on the continent. It is necessary to ensure that a proper balance is kept between that and the taxpayer.


Q6. Mr. David Evans: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 1 November.

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

Mr. Evans: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in stark contrast to that lot opposite, we are united behind our leader? To put the issue of The Guardian into perspective, is my right hon. Friend aware that Janice had a shock this morning, as I think did my right hon. Friend, because it said that David Evans was sponsoring Bambi. That is how ridiculous The Guardian is. If my right hon. Friend raised £79,000 to become leader of our party, would he put it in the Register of Members' Interests? This shows that that lot opposite are a bunch of fiddlers, because their leader has not done so.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has been accused of many things over the years, but I do not think that anybody would credibly accuse him of being a sponsor of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).


Q7. Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 1 November.

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

Mr. Cunningham: Will the Prime Minister list the Tories who are members of quangos since last week he listed the Labour members? Will he also give the costs?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman would prefer a much longer list of those Labour members of quangos that I did not yet mention. If he is so against quangos, will he perhaps explain why he wants to create a very long list of them, which I will happily read to the House if the hon. Gentleman presses me? Those are the new quangos that the Opposition thus far are committed to establishing. The hon. Gentleman would be better off looking at his own policy than trying to misrepresent ours.


Q8. Mrs. Angela Knight: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 1 November.

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

Mrs. Knight: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Home Secretary's announcement yesterday that the regime in our prisons is to be toughened up and that privileges are to be earned is widely welcomed, especially by the victims of crime? With that in mind, will he ensure that all victims are consulted before prisoners are granted any home leave?

The Prime Minister: I very much agree with my hon. Friend and with the announcement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary yesterday. He intends to ensure that privileges are earned and are not available as a matter of right, and that home leave and temporary release will be granted only after rigorous assessment of risk to the public. As he has said on a number of occasions, conditions in prisons should be decent but austere. I believe that that is the view of the overwhelming majority of people in this country.