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1994 - PMQT 6th December 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 6th December 1994. Tony Newton responded on behalf of John Major.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Bridget Prentice: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 December.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): I have been asked to reply.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been attending the Budapest summit of the conference on security and co-operation in Europe.

Mrs. Prentice: What advice would the Leader of the House give to his hon. Friends who have made public commitments to vote against any rise in VAT on fuel? Should they stand by their principles and their constituents or should they abandon those principles, ditch their constituents and toe the Tory party line?

Mr. Newton: My advice to my hon. Friends would be to recognise the importance of the vote tonight and the fact that it will be incumbent on those who wish to vote as the hon. Lady suggests--as she will, no doubt, vote herself--to show a credible alternative and not some cop-out like a windfall tax. The alternatives are other taxes, cuts in expenditure or additional borrowing, with all that that might mean for interest rates.


Q2. Mr. Pawsey: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 December.

Mr. Newton: I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Pawsey: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the overwhelming majority of the British people are opposed to any fundamental constitutional change? They do not wish to see a Scandinavian-style monarchy and they do not wish to see a socialist republic. They believe that any such changes would be highly expensive and totally unnecessary. They believe, "If it works, don't fix it."

Mr. Newton: I think that my hon. Friend speaks for the large majority of people in this country in finding it almost unbelievable that the Labour party apparently thinks that its first priority should be to have a year of constitutional upheaval, involving all British institutions, including Parliament, and threatening the Union. I believe that Labour has greatly underestimated the strength and depth of public support for the monarchy.

Mr. Blair: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that in tonight's vote on VAT there will be two types of Tory Member: those who will abide by their specific promise made at the general election not to extend VAT on fuel and those who will make any promise to get elected with no intention of keeping to it even when some of the poorest people in our country will be affected?

Mr. Newton: From what the right hon. Gentleman says, I suppose that we can assume that there will be only one kind of Labour Member--one who votes for an irresponsible cop-out.

Mr. Blair: Is the Leader of the House really saying that there is no other way to restore the nation's finances than through this most hated and unpopular tax? Why does he not look first at the executive share options, the abuses of inheritance tax and the windfall profits made by utilities rather than taxing families and pensioners?

Mr. Newton: I have already described the windfall tax as a cop-out; by definition, a windfall must be a one-off and cannot replace a continuing stream of revenue. As for the right hon. Gentleman's loopholes, I remind him of the words of the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, who said that this

"is not a loophole-closing exercise at all, rather a massive increase in business taxation".

That is the clue to the Opposition's position. They prattle all the time about their desire to encourage employment, but every time they are pushed, they want to put up business taxes, raise social costs and damage investment and jobs.

Mr. Blair: Is it really the nation's finances that concern the right hon. Gentleman, or the Conservative party's pre-election tax cuts? May I summarise the strategy for which Tory Members of Parliament will vote tonight? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I will have order in this House. [Interruption.] Order--from all of you.

Mr. Blair: May I summarise the strategy of Tory Members of Parliament for next year? The price of tax cuts next winter will be some of Britain's pensioners freezing in their own homes this week.

Mr. Newton: The right hon. Gentleman would have done better to stick to his recent practice of asking rather fewer questions. My priority and the priority of Her Majesty's Government is to sustain an economic recovery, which is now giving us some of the strongest growth in Europe, low inflation, rapidly falling unemployment and the prospect of improving living standards. That is what we intend to maintain, and that is what the right hon. Gentleman would throw away.


Q3. Mr. Mans: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 December.

Mr. Newton: I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Mans: Will my right hon. Friend take steps to ensure that any decision regarding the Royal Air Force's future requirement for transport aircraft will not be taken until the spring, when all the alternatives, including the future large aircraft and British Aerospace's commitment to maintain the existing Hercules fleet at 20 per cent. below the present cost, will have been fully evaluated?

Mr. Newton: As my hon. Friend will know, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has made it clear that we hope to be able to make an announcement on tranche 3 of the Hercules rolling replacement programme shortly. All relevant factors will be taken into account and, I am sure, will include my hon. Friend's representations on behalf of his constituents.


Q4. Mr. Loyden: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 December.

Mr. Newton: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Loyden: Does the Leader of the House recall a question asked during Business Question Time about the provision of a copy of the report of the marine accident investigation branch into the recent research done on the MV Derbyshire? Obviously, the Leader of the House made no impression on his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport because, in fact, the report is not in the Library. I was also surprised today to see a letter telling the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, which had asked for a copy of the report, that the report was a matter for the Secretary of State. Does the Leader of the House not think that the bereaved families, the House and the country are entitled to know what that report says about the investigation carried out and financed by an international union and the RMT?

Mr. Newton: I well understand why the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter and the continuing concern of bereaved families about the loss of the Derbyshire. The position is that the chief inspector of marine accidents submitted his assessment of the sonar and video material provided by the International Transport Workers Federation to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on 30 November--less than a week ago. My right hon. Friend is currently considering whether further action needs to taken. I shall, of course, bring to his attention the request that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Mr. Walden: Does my right hon. Friend think that when a Member of this House makes proposals concerning the constitution it is grown-up politics or intelligent politics for Ministers to hunt him like a pack of demented corgis? How does my right hon. Friend think that we as a party can hope to reconcile the encouragement of indiscriminate deference towards well-born nonentities with our policy of encouraging and promoting social talent in this country?

Mr. Newton: I would say to my hon. Friends what I said in answer to a previous question. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and some of his colleagues have significantly underestimated the strength and depth of public support for the monarchy, which is not the same as saying that there will not be continued evolution, as there has been during the past couple of years. More important than that, however, I believe that the hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends have gravely overestimated the public's desire to see constitutional upheaval, including the monarchy, all over the scene. I do not believe that that is what the British public want.


Q5. Dr. Howells: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 December.

Mr. Newton: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Dr. Howells: Does the Leader of the House agree that British troops in UNPROFOR in the former Yugoslavia are doing a superb job in difficult and dangerous circumstances, and that the attacks on General Mike Rose and on British troops by American Congressmen and Bosnian politicians are completely unwarranted and seem designed more to promote further bloodshed than to reach a peaceful situation in the area?

Mr. Newton: Yes, indeed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the way in which he put it. It is clear that it is widely supported in the House. For my part, and on behalf of the Government, I can say straightforwardly that we do not accept the criticism of General Rose. He and his small, courageous force are doing an excellent job in the most difficult and trying circumstances and they will continue to have our full support. I might add--I know that there is some concern in the House about the matter--that I anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who has been much involved with the contact group over the weekend, will wish to make a statement tomorrow.

Mrs. Angela Knight: Does my right hon. Friend share my concern and that of the several hundred people who have contacted me about the case of one of my constituents, the elderly pensioner Mr. Ted Newbery? Is he aware that Mr. Newbery was acquitted by a jury of the action that he took in self-defence against a burglar? The burglar was gaoled. Yet the cleared Mr. Newbery has been asked to compensate the guilty burglar. Does my right hon. Friend agree that justice has not been done, that Mr. Newbery's case should be re-heard and that the law that is applied in such circumstances must be reviewed?

Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend will see that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is present on the Government Front Bench and will have heard what she said. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand--she may even have anticipated what I am about to say--that I must make the point that the judiciary is entirely independent of Government and that it is not the practice for Ministers to comment on its decisions in quite the way that she invites me to do. On the other hand, she will have gauged, as no doubt others have also done, the reaction in the House generally to the events that she has described.


Q6. Rev. Martin Smyth: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 December.

Mr. Newton: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Rev. Martin Smyth: Is the Leader of the House aware that Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein claims to have no semtex in his hands? Will he assure the House that Her Majesty's Government will not be misled by such blandishments? In the light of the Hamas parallel in Israel, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the guard will not be lowered, nor the entry requirement for talks?

Mr. Newton: The handing over of arms and explosives is, as I know that the hon. Gentleman appreciates, an important issue to be addressed in the exploratory dialogue which begins on Friday. I can give the hon. Gentleman a clear-cut assurance on behalf of all my right hon. and hon. Friends that Her Majesty's Government will not leave the people of Northern Ireland--or, indeed, of Great Britain--exposed.

Mr. Day: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Conservative party will always seek to protect those parents who rightly put the interests of their children first in making a choice about where to send their children to school, even if that means defending the Leader of the Opposition from the policies of his own party?

Mr. Newton: As my hon. Friend knows, the policy of Her Majesty's Government is not only to defend the right of choice of parents in these and other circumstances, but, so far as possible, to enhance and increase them. What I would really like to hear from Opposition Front-Bench Members- -I can see several who have opposed this in the past--is a clear-cut commitment to call off their local authorities, which are trying to frustrate that choice throughout the country.


Q7. Mr. Bryan Davies: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 December.

Mr. Newton: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Davies: As the chair of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has stated, the Student Loans Company Ltd. is in such chaos that students are being denied the resources which the Government say they require in order to live. What do the Government intend to do about that?

Mr. Newton: What I will do on this occasion is to make the point that the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman has just made appears inconsistent with the fact that, during this Government's period in office, participation in higher education has risen from one in eight of the relevant group to one in three.