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1994 - PMQT 8th December 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 8th December 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Wilshire: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 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. Wilshire: Will my right hon. Friend convey my best wishes to the officials who will be leading the negotiations tomorrow with Sinn Fein-IRA? Will he also accept my congratulations on the way in which he has handled the peace process? Could he ensure that, on day one it is made crystal clear that there can be no real progress unless all paramilitaries give up weapons and intimidation? Will he also make it crystal clear that there can never be any question of an amnesty for murderers or bombers?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to feel strongly about these matters. Our position is clear: those people convicted of criminal offences will serve their sentences and an amnesty for murderers simply does not arise.

Sinn Fein must accept unequivocally the rules of democratic politics. Guns and bombs need to be taken out of commission and intimidation must end-- that is, of course, equally true for the loyalist paramilitaries. We have invited the loyalist political representatives to begin a separate exploratory dialogue with the Government on 15 December. I hope that both they and Sinn Fein will show a serious commitment to exclusively peaceful methods so that we can ensure that a peace remains and becomes stable in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Blair: May I say how much I support what the Prime Minister has just said on Northern Ireland?

Does the Prime Minister recall that last year he said that he was unequivocally against a referendum on Europe--a view that he has repeated this year--yet last night he said that he did not rule one out? What has changed?

The Prime Minister: I continue to welcome the right hon. Gentleman's support on Northern Ireland. It is a strength to the peace process that it carries the support of hon. Members in all parts of the House. On the subject of a referendum, let me make clear the point that I made yesterday- -there are many people who see the referendum simply as a tactical device. I strongly suspect that that is true of many Opposition Members. But I do not see it in that fashion; we have to consider the constitutional implications for British democracy of referendums generally--there are advantages and there are disadvantages. What I have said and what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said is that we are not prepared to rule one out.

Mr. Blair: Is not it clear that what has changed is not the Prime Minister's belief about a referendum, but his ability to unite his party without one? Is that not his problem and that of the country-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order.

[Interruption.]

Mr. Blair: I see that the yobbos are out in force today. Is not this the right hon. Gentleman's problem? Whether it is the referendum, or VAT, or Post Office privatisation, or the Tory rebels, is not his problem the fact that the Government's decisions are now being taken by a Cabinet of crisis managers, driven by each day's headlines, making or unmaking policy according to the tyranny of the factions--when what this country is crying out for is a Government who will serve the national interest?

The Prime Minister: Perhaps if the right hon. Gentleman feels that way about referendums, he will explain why he is committed to referendums for Scotland and for Wales. Perhaps it is to heal divisions among his right hon. and hon. Friends.

As to the question of country and party, that is a sound bite which the right hon. Gentleman has been trailing around from studio to studio over the past day or so. Let me make it entirely clear to him: we shall put the country first, as we always do. It is precisely because we have put the country first that we have not shrunk from difficult decisions. This country is now in position for the longest, most sustained recovery for all its people that has been seen for many years.


Q2. Mr. Spring: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 December.

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

Mr. Spring: Is my right hon. Friend aware of a number of important initiatives to combat crime in rural areas such as Suffolk, including the introduction of a rural inspectorate in addition to cluster neighbourhood watch schemes and parish constables? Will he join me in welcoming the fact that crime in the Bury St. Edmunds sub-division has fallen by 15.2 per cent. so far this year, and, in the Newmarket sub-division, by a full 22.2 per cent?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to hear those statistics on falling crime; they are mirrored in some other parts of the country. I understand that my hon. Friend was instrumental in setting up a drugs prevention initiative in Newmarket, and I hope that many other people will follow the same sort of idea in other parts of the country. The reduction in crime to which my hon. Friend refers demonstrates the effectiveness of a community-based approach.

Mr. Ashdown: Let me remind the Prime Minister of his actual words, used in answer to me in June 1992. He said:

"I am not in favour of a referendum in a parliamentary democracy".--[ Official Report , 3 June 1992; Vol. 208, c. 830.] Are we to take it that that was not a statement of principle but yet another flexible policy from our eternally flexible Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman accuses me one day of being inflexible and criticises me on the next for being flexible. I suppose that that shows that he himself is unsure whether flexibility is good or bad--just as he is unsure about every single policy that he advocates in one House one day or his hon. Friends advocate in another House another day. They change from hour to hour, from day to day, from House to House and from Question Time to Question Time.

Sir Fergus Montgomery: Did my right hon. Friend have the chance to read yesterday's Daily Mail , about what £60 would buy today? Does he agree that £60 for a haircut is a bit much, even for the Leader of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister: As it happens, I did not read the Daily Mail yesterday, so I was certainly not aware of the right hon. Gentleman's haircutting exploits. Indeed, it would be indelicate of me to refer to them.


Q3. Mr. Gordon Prentice: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 December.

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

Mr. Prentice: Has the Prime Minister visited Dudley, West yet? If not, does he intend to do so? Is he aware that his candidate there said on television last night that he wanted to fight the by-election exclusively on local issues? Today of all days, are there no national issues on which to engage the electors of Dudley, West?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman had cared to look even at today's news he would have seen that there is another record set of export figures, that industrial production is rising yet again, that over recent months unemployment has been falling consistently, that there is a growth rate of over 4 per cent. and that there is an inflation rate of 2 per cent. He would see prospects for this country that his party in office has never managed to produce. I suggest that that is a good prospectus for people at any by-election at any time and certainly for the one at Dudley, West.

Mr. John Marshall: As chairman of the all-party Friends of the Northern Line group, may I welcome today's announcement of 100 new trains for the Northern line? That is good news for London and will be warmly welcomed. [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: There seems to be a voice of dissent--the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)--but I think that most people who use the Northern line will be pleased to see this substantial investment and the improved rolling stock that will be available for many millions of Londoners and others.


Q4. Mr. Gunnell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 December.

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

Mr. Gunnell: Given the Prime Minister's claim to support small business, and recognising that over the past 10 years British Coal Enterprise has created or expanded 5,000 companies in coalfield areas, would the Prime Minister now guarantee the future of British Coal Enterprise?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman, in the way that he posed his question, shows what an excellent record we have on small businesses, because he quoted the number of extra small companies that there are. That is true of other parts of industry and in other parts of the country, and I am sure that they will continue to grow.


Q5. Mr. Hawkins: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 December.

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

Mr. Hawkins: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is always welcome when parents exercise the right of choice in education for their children, a choice which only the Conservative party has introduced? Does he further agree that it is contemptible for most Opposition Members to seek to deny that choice from which so many of them and their children have benefited? Does he agree that this is a case of, "You're all right, Tony, pull up the ladder"?

The Prime Minister: I am always delighted to see people exercising choice in all areas, and it is certainly right to exercise choice in favour of one's children to ensure that they get the best possible education. The point about education generally is that there is no choice where only bad schools exist. That is why we have introduced a range of measures, including regular inspection, and a range of education policies, to raise standards. I am delighted that, despite its past hostility to those policies, the Labour party is increasingly recognising that our education policies are right and is now following them. I recommend to the Opposition that they begin to follow some of our other policies on a whole range of issues.


Q6. Mrs. Helen Jackson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 December.

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

Mrs. Jackson: Does the Prime Minister accept that last Thursday he misled the House in claiming that the disposable income of all people at every level had risen, and that the facts are that the bottom tenth of the population's real disposable income has fallen by 17 per cent. since 1979 while the incomes of the top tenth have gone up by 62 per cent? Does not that demonstrate the unfair society that we shall be left with following this Tory Government? Will he now put the record straight?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady is playing with statistics and she knows it. [Interruption.] The statistics that she quotes incorporate all sorts of people who run businesses and declare no income but whose spending pattern is way above the average. That is how she produces those statistics. The people at the bottom end of the scale are those who exist completely on social security payments. The hon. Lady knows that they have risen in value and she should not try and pretend otherwise.


Q7. Mr. Patrick Thompson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 December.

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

Mr. Thompson: Returning to the subject of education, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to commend the good work that is being done in independent schools throughout the country? Will he also confirm again the Government's commitment to the assisted places scheme which has done so much for children from less well-off families? Is not it surprising that the new modern Labour party should once again attack freedom of choice in education and, indeed, make it more difficult for its leader to exercise choice for his own family?

The Prime Minister: It is entirely apt that my hon. Friend should ask that question when the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) has just been talking about people at the bottom of the income scale. The assisted places scheme is a way to help people at the bottom of the income scale and the hon. Lady opposes it, as do her right hon. and hon. Friends. Parental choice is a fundamental principle of our policy. We choose to exercise it for everyone, not just for some, and I fail to understand how members of the Labour party, which claims to pride itself on equality of opportunity, would deny the opportunities under the assisted places scheme to some of the poorest children in Britain. What it shows yet again is the gap between what they say and what they practise.