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1994 - PMQT 13th December 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 13th December 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Ewing: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 13 December.

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.

Mrs. Ewing: Does the Prime Minister believe in the principle of referendums?

The Prime Minister: I have indicated in the House on several occasions that there may be circumstances in which I would support one. Clearly, in the case of Northern Ireland that is so, for I have already announced one.


Q2. Mr. Patrick Thompson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 13 December.

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

Mr. Thompson: Bearing in mind reports today of an official survey showing that 11-year-old pupils do not have sufficient command of English to answer questions in science and mathematics, and bearing in mind the mounting evidence of the damage being done by the National Union of Teachers' boycott of tests, will my right hon. Friend urge Opposition Members with influence on that union to urge it to drop the boycott today?

The Prime Minister: What my hon. Friend says illustrates the importance of regular testing of pupils and equally regular reporting of the results. I welcome very much the fact that most teachers' unions have now called off their boycott. It is high time that the NUT did the same, and I hope that it will do so.

Mr. Blair: On railway privatisation, is it right, as the report to the Transport Select Committee states, that the costs of legal consultancy fees and relocation costs for British Rail alone are now £100 million, and that when underwriting and City fees are added in the total cost may be as much as £700 million? Are those figures right or wrong?

The Prime Minister: They are certainly not figures that I recognise, but if the right hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue the matter I will give him a more detailed answer.

Mr. Blair: I believe that the £100 million figure was given in a parliamentary answer. Perhaps the Prime Minister will check that. Is it also right, as the report indicates, that if the privatisation targets are to be met, the rail network will virtually have to be halved or there will be savage reductions in the timetable across the service? Can the Prime Minister guarantee that if there is found to be the remotest possibility of those things happening he will cancel the privatisation?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is using yet another of the scare stories which have surrounded the privatisation process for some time. Since the start of the rail privatisation process, there has been no shortage of scare stories; that is just the latest one. As recently as 24 November, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport stated and restated unequivocally that franchise services would be broadly based on the existing timetable. That remains the position.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister has not given that guarantee. If he proceeds with a privatisation which has no popular support, which will put the future of the railways at risk-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett -Bowman) should not be barracking from a sedentary position.

Mr. Blair: If the Prime Minister proceeds with a privatisation that has no popular support, which will put the future of the railways at risk and, in the process, spend hundreds of millions of pounds which should be spent on providing a better public transport service, will that not show how completely out of touch the Government are with the British people?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. His comments about rail privatisation are precisely the same as the comments that his predecessors made about almost every privatisation that has occurred. Each privatisation has proved a success. The initial costs of past privatisations have been more than outweighed by efficiency and benefits, and that will be the case for rail users as well. The right hon. Gentleman relies on precisely the same scare stories which existed for each privatisation that has occurred. If he seeks further assurance, it will come tomorrow when the franchise director launches the pre-qualification documents. The right hon. Gentleman will then see how wrong he is.


Gibraltar

Q3. Sir Teddy Taylor: To ask the Prime Minister if he will raise at the next meeting of the European Council the position of Gibraltar within the European Union.

The Prime Minister: I have no plans to do so.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As the present appalling restrictions at the Spanish border, with four-hour delays for people and eight-hour delays for vehicles, seem designed to cripple the economy of Gibraltar, and as the European Union seems unable to prevent these illegal blackmail activities, will the Prime Minister give guidance to Ministers to the effect that there should be no further concessions to Spain in the EU until the problem is resolved? Is the Prime Minister aware that it would hearten the loyal people of the rock if he would visit Gibraltar and assure them of the full support not only of the Government but, I hope, of every party in the House of Commons which believes in freedom?

The Prime Minister: On my hon. Friend's second point, I can guarantee that we have no intention of deviating from the commitment that we made to the people of Gibraltar in the 1969 constitution. That commitment is there and it will remain. With regard to his first point, we have already made strong protests to the Spanish Government about the secondary checks imposed by the Guardia Civil at the frontier between Gibraltar and Spain. It is very important that the controls should cease and we have made it absolutely clear that the Spanish Government must bring them to an end. They are aware of our views, and we are in contact with them about it.


Engagements

Q4. Mrs. Ray Michie: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 13 December.

The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Lady to the reply I gave a few moments ago.

Mrs. Michie: Can the Prime Minister explain how an assembly for Northern Ireland will strengthen the United Kingdom while a Scottish parliament will apparently weaken it? The situations may be different, but surely the principle is the same.

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady graciously admits, the situation is not just different--it is wholly different. A tax-raising assembly is proposed for Scotland, whereas in Northern Ireland an assembly is proposed which will give Northern Ireland proper control over local government matters. That power already exists in Scotland.


Q5. Mr. Haselhurst: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 13 December.

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

Mr. Haselhurst: Amid all the discussions about the European Union in the long term, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a practical and urgent agenda to try to ensure that the single market is working fairly and openly, so that British companies have a genuine opportunity to compete successfully in civil aviation, energy and other spheres in which there are currently impediments to competition?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right about that and about its importance. At Essen during the weekend it was self-evident that that is an agenda on which Britain is increasingly winning the arguments. There is wide recognition of the fact that the liberalisation of aviation, energy, telecommunications and a range of other areas is vital to Europe's future competitiveness. A great deal of work needs to be done to ensure that. It must figure very prominently in the Community's agenda in future, and we will ensure that it does.

Mrs. Adams: Is the Prime Minister aware of the havoc wrought in the west of Scotland at the weekend by severe flooding in which lives were lost? Is he further aware that the Scottish Office Minister who visited the Paisley area yesterday gave us little comfort? Will the Prime Minister visit the stricken areas and make a statement that adequate funding will be available to reimburse families and local authorities?

The Prime Minister: I know that the whole House will wish to join me in expressing regret at the loss of life and the very significant damage following the severe flooding in Strathclyde. As the hon. Lady may or may not know, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland with responsibility for industry and local government was able to make a statement about the flooding to the Scottish Grand Committee this morning. He said that grant aid from central Government might be available under the Bellwin scheme.


Q6. Mr. Gallie: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 13 December.

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

Mr. Gallie: Has my right hon. Friend seen the "Scottish Engineering Quarterly Review" issued this week, which shows that orders are up, investment is up, recruitment is up and optimism is strong? Is he further aware that today Jetstream Aircraft at Prestwick announced yet another order? Is that not good news in the run-up to Christmas?

The Prime Minister: I must confess that I have not seen the journal to which my hon. Friend refers, but I will ensure that it is delivered to me regularly in future. I am pleased to hear my hon. Friend's good news and delighted to hear about Jetstream. A further order will be another welcome endorsement of the success of Scottish manufacturing.


Q7. Mr. McCartney: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 13 December.

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

Mr. McCartney: The Prime Minister will know that the blood transfusion service is a unique service in the United Kingdom national health service. Last year, the British people gave 2.5 million units of blood freely and saved thousands of lives. Does he appreciate the dismay and disgust at the Bain proposals to privatise the service and close down five regional centres, from Plymouth to Lancaster, with 1,000 job losses? When will the Prime Minister put the national health service before private greed and abandon that proposal?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows that the NHS is getting more resources and more funding year after year. He also knows that there are areas which can be dealt with in the private sector without harm to patient care and that where that releases resources for patient care it is economically and medically sensible.

Mr. Yeo: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the results of the past four general elections show that the good sense of the British people can normally be relied on? Against that background, does he further agree that, if the 1996 intergovernmental conference produced substantial changes in the European Union the use of a referendum might be justified, but that in the intervening period speculation about the type of question to be asked is entirely bogus?

The Prime Minister: In advance of the IGC, it is extremely difficult to know precisely what the question in a referendum might be. I have said that I am not prepared to close the door on the possibility of one, but, equally, that there are important constitutional matters to be considered and it would be very unwise to make snap judgments as to how to deal with that matter. As I understand it, two days after I stated that last week, it suddenly became the Opposition's position as well.


Q8. Mrs. Helen Jackson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 13 December.

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

Mrs. Jackson: According to official figures given to me by the Child Support Agency last week, that body has processed just four claims for compensation in the past 12 months. Will the Prime Minister ensure urgently that the thousands of families who have suffered from the incredible incompetence of that body are fully compensated for their financial and emotional losses?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Lady knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is looking at the child support arrangements. He will be responding to the Select Committee's report and will make an announcement as soon as the Government have finished their deliberations. Proposals for any changes will be brought forward at that time.