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1994 - PMQT 1st December 1994

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

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Simon Coombs: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 December.

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. Coombs: Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to study the speech made by the French Prime Minister, Mr. Balladur, on the need to resist centralism and federalism in Europe? Is not that speech evidence that the entente is especially cordiale at present, and that the British Government are winning the arguments over the right kind of Europe for the future?

The Prime Minister: I certainly did read Mr. Balladur's speech. In fact, we discussed what he was likely to say when we met at Chartres a short while ago. I would have been pleased to make the speech that Mr. Balladur made--I nearly did at Leiden. He is right to reject federalism in favour of flexibility, say that we should avoid the encroachment of European institutions on national institutions, and talk of the need to look again at European policies as well as institutions, to keep costs down as we examine the question of enlargement. That is clear confirmation that the arguments made by the British Government for some time are increasingly gaining ground across Europe.

Mr. Blair: As to value added tax on domestic fuel, given that it is now clear that eight and three quarter million pensioners will not even be eligible for cold weather payments, and given the Prime Minister's specific promise at the last general election that he would not raise VAT, will the right hon. Gentleman agree to Labour's amendment next week, so that the House can vote on whether he has kept his promise?

The Prime Minister: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have already had four votes on VAT. He neglected to mention that, in real terms, even after last year's VAT increase of 8 per cent., fuel prices actually fell. The position of the 15 million people who receive compensation for the VAT increase is, in real terms, better than it was before VAT was imposed on domestic fuel.

Mr. Blair: I gather that the Chancellor is in one-to-one meetings with the Back-Bench rebels over VAT. Would not it be better if all Conservative Members of Parliament had one-to-one meetings with their constituents so that they could know of their anger at the promise betrayed?

The Prime Minister: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends might care to discuss carbon tax with their constituents and explain to them-- [Interruption.] Clearly they do not wish to discuss anything with their constituents, such as why they oppose VAT because it is politically expedient for them to do so, and why they propose a carbon tax that would have precisely the same effect on fuel prices.

Mr. Garnier: Will my right hon. Friend outline briefly his Government's policy on the deployment of troops in Bosnia and confirm the House's support for the actions of General Rose?

The Prime Minister: I most certainly and unequivocally reaffirm the House's support for the actions taken by General Rose. He has had an extremely difficult job. I believe that he has done that job as well as it could have been done by any commanding officer anywhere in the world. If I may say so, I believe that most hon. Members and most people in this country will bitterly resent the criticism of General Rose voiced in some United States newspapers. I have seen the arguments and comments about the position in Bosnia. There is no doubt that the position in Bosnia is serious at the moment. I have no doubt about that at all, but I have to say to the House that, if the embargo was lifted and UNPROFOR was forced to withdraw, the position would be even worse, and particularly so for the Bosnians. The belief that that would produce a level playing field is not, in my judgment, right. It would produce a level killing field.


Q2. Sir David Steel: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 December.

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

Sir David Steel: During the past couple of days, the Prime Minister and his colleagues have tried to persuade us that all their tax increases are something of a temporary aberration from Conservative instincts. Even if that were so, how does he explain the fact that, under this Government, the top 1 per cent. of taxpayers received tax cuts of something like £47,000 on average, while the low-paid have seen their taxes increase by about £400 a year? Is not that a permanent feature of Conservative instincts?

The Prime Minister: I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what is a permanent feature of Conservative instincts: the fact that real, disposable net incomes, at all levels, have risen. That, of course, is what affects people's living standards. Post-taxation, they have more spending power in their pockets than they had before. That is undoubtedly the case right the way down the scale and, I believe, will remain the case.

Mr. James Hill: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way in which to get the unemployed back to work is to give them incentives and training, and not to bash business men with a minimum wage and a training levy?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about that. Priority is given to getting the unemployed back to work. We have seen unemployment fall more dramatically in this country than in any other European country. There was a wide range of measures in my right hon. and learned Friend's Budget which will add to that return to work.


Q3. Mr. Connarty: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 December.

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

Mr. Connarty: Does the Prime Minister accept the advice of the all- party group on pensions that, despite the Government's compensation package, the individual pensioner will be 56p a week worse off if VAT on fuel rises to 17.5 per cent? In the light of that, will he tell his hon. Friends who are committed to defending pensioners against that attack to stick by their principles next week?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman will have heard what I had to say to the Leader of the Opposition just a few moments ago. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the consistent position that we have taken about VAT on fuel and the consistent position that the House has endorsed on at least four occasions.

Mr. Stephen: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the grave concern expressed by many of our constituents about people who are not ordinarily resident in this country coming here to litigate their disputes in the English courts at the British taxpayers' expense on legal aid? Will he consider withdrawing civil legal aid from such people in future?

The Prime Minister: I shall certainly seek the advice of my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. I am aware of the concern that has arisen. As my hon. Friend knows, the matter is very complex, but it raises a great many concerns among many people in the country. I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend.


Q4. Mr. Bennett: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 December.

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

Mr. Bennett: Will the Prime Minister confirm that he is still committed to the Rio environmental targets, and in particular to efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions? If he is committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, how will that commitment be financed? Does he accept that the Government's policy was to use the Energy Saving Trust, and that so far the trust has virtually no money with which to reach its targets?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question.

We are currently considering a range of options for funding the trust, including the involvement of private sector finance and input from the energy consumer. We remain totally committed to meeting the targets to which I signed up at Rio, and with that in mind the trust has already prepared a plan setting out how it intends to proceed towards its contribution to carbon emission reduction as part of the climate change reduction programme.

I would add that our decisions regarding VAT on fuel have a strong environmental impact.


Q5. Mr. Jacques Arnold: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 December.

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

Mr. Arnold: What does my right hon. Friend think of the trench warfare being conducted against grant-maintained schools by Labour- controlled councils, particularly Kent county council? Kent has vetoed the only application for a new nursery unit in Gravesend because the school is grant-maintained.

What does my right hon. Friend think of a man who is prepared to reject all the schools in his Labour-controlled borough, and to sneak his son eight miles across Greater London to a grant-maintained school?

The Prime Minister: I have no comment to make about any right hon. or hon. Member who seeks the best for his or her children; I am sure that we would all do that. My only criticism would be that the policy for everyone should not be to remove the same choices from millions of other people.


Q6. Mr. Byers: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 December.

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

Mr. Byers: Is the Prime Minister aware that, according to the latest figures, the average household fuel bill in Northern Ireland is 27 per cent. higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom? Can he explain why the VAT compensation package announced on Tuesday failed to take that difference into account?

The Prime Minister: As Northern Ireland would be the first to accept, we are a united kingdom as a whole, and our legislation stretches across the United Kingdom: that position is taken very firmly by Northern Ireland Members of Parliament. It is also true that we see from Government support across the United Kingdom--I take these figures broadly from memory --that the degree of underlying public support for Northern Ireland is substantially higher than that for other parts of the United Kingdom. The figure for Scotland is substantially above that for Wales, and the figure for Wales is substantially above that for England. It is in that way that we seek to ensure a proper equity of support for services and people throughout the United Kingdom.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: Following my right hon. Friend's talks with the Republican leader Senator Dole, will he confirm that he made it clear to the senator that, whatever the differences may be over Bosnia, they should not be allowed to undermine the commitment of his country and ours to the Atlantic alliance?

The Prime Minister: I had an extremely useful exchange with Senator Dole. We spent some time considering the Atlantic alliance and there is no doubt whatever about Senator Dole's whole-hearted support for NATO, both now and in the future.


Q7. Ms Estelle Morris: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 December.

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

Ms Morris: The Prime Minister has been asked three times this afternoon to justify his policy on VAT; three times he has failed to answer the question. Does he accept that, no matter what he says, pensioners do not believe him, because they know that an extra £1 a week will not pay their bills? Why has the Prime Minister betrayed the pensioners of the nation?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady may have repeated a question that has been asked before, but she should have listened to the answers. In reality, we have put in place a generous package to compensate not only pensioners but others for the effects of VAT.

Mr. Connarty: Not enough.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman shouts, "Not enough," and that is just another illustration of the fact that the Opposition claim that they would not put up taxes, they oppose every tax increase, but they would choose to put up expenditure and have no idea how they would fund any one of their policies. That is not new Labour: it is the old Labour that the electorate have rejected time after time.

Mr. Waterson: Does my right hon. Friend think that many people in this country would support the legalisation of cannabis or the party that advocates it?

The Prime Minister: I certainly would not support the legalisation of cannabis, and I do not believe that the overwhelming majority of people in this country would support it either.


Q8. Mr. Hutton: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 December.

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

Mr. Hutton: Why has the Prime Minister sanctioned the dismissal of 600 uniformed front-line customs officers this week? Does he agree with the Paymaster General that the dismissal of those 600 officers will compromise the Government's fight against illegal drugs and pornography?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones) asked that question on Tuesday and I told him then that it will not. Since then I have had the opportunity of discussing it with the chairman of Customs and Excise and she confirms that it will not.