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1995 - PMQT 9th February 1995

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 9th February 1995.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Roche: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 February.

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

Mrs. Roche: Given the news that Eastern Electricity has made millions of pounds by billing its customers up to three weeks early, that seven of its directors now have share options of £3 million, and that the salary of its chairman has more than doubled since privatisation, is not it about time that the Prime Minister intervened, or will he just let them get away with daylight robbery?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with what has been said about the undesirability of early billing, and no one should have the slightest shred of doubt that I do not approve of that particular mechanism. I understand that the company has indicated that it will not occur again, and I am delighted that that is the case. We have debated extravagant awards in the House on previous occasions. I have made it clear that that is a question for peer pressure in the private sector. I look forward to the recommendations of the Greenbury committee and to examining them, but it is best dealt with in that manner.

Mr. King: Does my right hon. Friend recall the attack on Tuesday by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) about being forced to sack teachers? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the right hon. Gentleman is, at this moment, supporting the Liberal Democrat leadership in Somerset, which is insisting on sacking teachers, even though Conservative councillors have put forward proposals so that those jobs need not be lost, and for ways in which the education in the county can be protected? Is not that symptomatic of the Liberal Democrat party, which is more interested in scoring political points than in genuinely seeing how the education of children can be protected?

The Prime Minister: I was not aware of the point about the Liberal Democrat council to which my right hon. Friend refers, and, frankly, I wish that I had been aware of that when the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) asked his question on Tuesday. It is important that, in the question of priorities in all local authority budgets, and particularly in education budgets, education authorities look carefully at the right education priorities for the children in our schools. That may well apply to Somerset county council, to which my right hon. Friend refers. It applies equally to many other education authorities.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister accept it as a responsibility of Government to reduce inequality?

The Prime Minister: Yes.

Mr. Blair: Then, if the right hon. Gentleman accepts that-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Blair: If he accepts that, is not it a matter of shame that Britain is today more unequal than at any point in time since the second world war?

The Prime Minister: If people were relatively less well off, then I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The primary concern of all Governments must be to ensure that those people who are most vulnerable and those who are most in need are not ignored by the legislation of the day and that special care is taken to look at their particular interests. If the right hon. Gentleman examines the record, he will find that that is what we have continually done. It is the right way to proceed and it is the way in which people develop policies, not just through the social security system, but right the way through the whole gamut of Government responsibilities. That is persistently what we have done and will do.

Mr. Blair: The right hon. Gentleman has not contradicted the fact that inequality is greater than at any point in time since the second world war. Now, if the Prime Minister wants a fact, let me give him one. Is not the most telling fact of this week that, at the same time as the Government are doing nothing about the head of a privatised utility awarding himself 70 times as much as a teacher and 100 times as much as a nurse, the Cabinet has today devised a strategy that may see teachers sacked and classroom sizes rising? Is not it the case that, far from reducing inequality or creating a nation at ease with itself, after 16 years the Government have created a Britain that is divided, inefficient and unjust?

The Prime Minister: That is an extremely good soundbite, but it is not true. There are two ways in which one can deal with the sort of people about whom the right hon. Gentleman and I are concerned. One is by ensuring that their chances and opportunities are greater so inequality falls; that is the right way and that is what the Government are doing. The other way is to try to restrain success and that is what the right hon. Gentleman strives to do; that is the wrong way. What must concern people is that action is taken to improve the opportunities and living standards of the people who face the greatest difficulties. That is consistently what we have done and I believe that, in respect of that, we deserve not the kind of carping comments that the right hon. Gentleman has just made, but his support and that of every other Member of the House.

Mr. John Townend: Does my right hon. Friend accept that thousands of women agree with my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London? When they travel on public transport and happen to sit beside a drunk, someone high on drugs, or young thugs, they feel intimidated. They feel much safer in their motor cars and they will not give up those cars purely as a gesture of environmental tokenism.

The Prime Minister: I believe that the need to ensure that everyone, whether a lady or anyone who is vulnerable, can travel on public transport or on the streets with proper protection, is a point that everyone will readily understand. The point made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Transport in London yesterday, which was widely misinterpreted by some, was that motorists' attitudes need to be changed and few will disagree with that.


Q2. Mr. Ronnie Campbell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 February.

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

Mr. Campbell: The Prime Minister will be aware that Trafalgar House is making a bid to take over Northern Electric plc. Is he also aware that if that bid takes place, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury stand to lose £223 million--the equivalent of £8 in every taxpayer's pocket? Will the Prime Minister assure me that he will stop that merger and stop ripping off the taxpayer?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows very well that I am not remotely likely to respond to something of that sort happening in the private sector. I am not likely to respond to it now, but if he wishes to discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, he should contact him.

Mr. Tracey: Has my right hon. Friend caught sight of the letter in today's edition of The Times , signed by 17 of Britain's senior business men, in which they say that their firms would see no discernable benefits from a single European currency? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that gives great force to the policies of Her Majesty's Government--now and in the foreseeable future?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, I have taken the view that we ought not to contemplate a single currency until and unless we are convinced that that would be right for the country. That is the only basis on which we can make that judgment. We need to know the circumstances of the day and they cannot possibly be known now. What is in the interest of this country must be paramount.


Q3. Mr. Bill Michie: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 February.

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

Mr. Michie: Following the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and the Prime Minister's reply, how can the Prime Minister reconcile supporting a financial policy which is depriving our children of a good education, taking away remedial help and cramming children into overcrowded classrooms, with waving the flag in Europe and saying that he is defending the future of this country? The future of this country is with our children.

The Prime Minister: I cannot imagine anyone possibly disagreeing with the hon. Gentleman about that. Of course, that is the reason why funding for education has dramatically increased over the years; it is the reason why more of our children are getting O and A-levels than ever before; it is the reason why one in three of our children now go on to further and higher education, rather than one in eight when the Labour party was in power; it is the reason why we have introduced new vocational qualifications; it is the reason why we are extending nursery education; it is the reason why I abolished the binary divide. If the hon. Gentleman looks, he will see the greatest revolution for good in education in the past five years that we have known for generations.


Q4. Mr. Nicholas Winterton: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 February.

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

Mr. Winterton: Does my right hon. Friend accept that to govern effectively in the long-term, the Prime Minister and the Government of the day must understand and reflect the concerns of the people of the country? Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey), is not my right hon. Friend increasingly encouraged by the fact that his robust and realistic stand on a single currency and his opposition to any further political integration in Europe is increasingly supported by the people--in business and elsewhere--of this country?

The Prime Minister: There comes a moment when consensus becomes unanimity.

Mr. Soley: Why does the Prime Minister think that a free market operating between countries that has got rid of all our trade barriers will not inevitably lead to a single currency?

The Prime Minister: I see no reason to suppose that it should. [Interruption.] We have had free markets in many parts of the world for a very large number of years. I see no evidence that a single currency is inevitable as a result of that, nor do I share the view of the hon. Gentleman, which he clearly holds as it becomes more apparent that the Labour party is already wedded to a single currency, whatever the economic circumstances may be. That is the only implication which can possibly be drawn from the hon. Gentleman's question. I simply have to say to him that I disagree with him.


Q5. Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 February.

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

Mr. Bruce: Has my right hon. Friend had time to read the all-party Eurim group's report on wealth creation through technology? Will he lend his name-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must calm down. This is using up our precious time.

Mr. Bruce: Has my right hon. Friend read the all-party Eurim group-- [Interruption.] --of which many hon. Members are members-- [Interruption.] --they might not know it, but they are--report on wealth creation through technology? Will he lend his name, as Al Gore and Jacques Delors have, to promoting information superhighway technology projects such as SuperJANET, the cable network and Internet, and make sure that the Government become a major customer of those technologies?

The Prime Minister: The direct answer to my hon. Friend is no, I have not read it, but I have to say that it sounds irresistible. I will make it an early priority over this weekend to read it and discover the information contained therein about superJANET and other aspects of broad- band networks.

Madam Speaker: An excellent question on which to end.