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1995 - PMQT 28th February 1995

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 28th February 1995.

PRIME MINISTER:

Rail Privatisation

Q1. Mr. Charles Kennedy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will assess the impact of rail privatisation on the economy of the Scottish highlands and islands.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): The franchising director will consult on his draft passenger service requirement for ScotRail. I am confident that the outcome will improve the quality of service enjoyed by the passenger.

Mr. Kennedy: Given the Prime Minister's recent visit to Scotland, he will be aware of the widespread concern about the future of rail services, not least the impact that the withdrawal of sleeper services, motorail, the steam engine on the West Highland line, and so on will have on the tourist-oriented economy of the western highlands in particular. Given that degree of concern, will the Prime Minister agree to a meeting at the appropriate time to discuss this matter further?

The Prime Minister: As I said a moment ago, I believe strongly that rail privatisation will improve the service, not least because a privatised service will have access to new sources of funds to increase investment in the rail service.

On the hon. Gentleman's direct question, of course I would be prepared to meet him at an appropriate time, but it might be more helpful in the first instance if he were to meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport who will, naturally, try to assist him.


Engagements

Q2. Dr. Lynne Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 February.

The Prime Minister: 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.

Dr. Jones: Does the Prime Minister recall that nearly three years ago he told the nation, "Vote Conservative on Thursday, and the recovery starts Friday"? [Interruption.] When will the recovery start for all those who have seen their real standard of living decline since then? When will it start for the people I saw in the Selly Oak jobcentre yesterday where skilled factory workers are being offered £150 a week, security guards are being offered £2.40 an hour and care assistants £2.25 an hour? When will they get the feel-good factor?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Lady cares to look at the published figures, she will see that we moved back into growth almost immediately after the last general election, precisely as I had forecast. If she is concerned about what is happening to the economy, she might bear in mind that it is now growing at about 4 per cent. a year, unemployment has fallen by 400,000 in the last year alone, exports have hit record levels in nine out of the last 13 months, investment is rising, manufacturing productivity is rising and, for the first time since records began, the number of people in work in manufacturing industry is rising. Perhaps the hon. Lady will tell her constituents that.


Q3. Mr. Gallie: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 February.

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

Mr. Gallie: Does my right hon. Friend recall the speech that he made in Glasgow on Friday night to a cross-section of the Scottish business community? Does he recall that his comments were widely welcomed? Is he aware that the Scottish business community feels that a Scottish Assembly with tax-raising powers will cost productive jobs in Scotland and threaten the Union?

The Prime Minister: I do, indeed, recall speaking to 1,000 Scottish business men in Glasgow on Friday. I am in no doubt that they believe that a tax-raising assembly in Scotland would not be in the interests of Scottish business, not be in the interests of Scottish prosperity and not be in the interests of future investment in Scotland. That is strongly my view. I believe that it was also theirs.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister share the anger at the latest multi-million pound pay package awarded to heads-- [Interruption.] Does he share the anger-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Hon. Members must not barrack from sedentary positions.

Mr. Blair: Does the right hon. Gentleman share the anger at the latest multi-million pound pay package awarded to heads of privatised utilities--this time, the National Grid Company--and will he at last act to stop such abuses?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I do find these payments as distasteful as the right hon. Gentleman--as do, I dare say, many other people as well. Where they cannot be justified, I believe that they bring the system into disrepute. I believe that directors have a duty to consider that, and I hope that they will. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Greenbury committee is examining those matters. Its recommendations will be addressed, of course, to companies and to shareholders. When its recommendations are available, I shall be ready to consider any proposals that may require legislative back-up. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. This is all very time consuming.

Mr. Blair: But, Madam Speaker, he has the golden share in this company. Why will not he then use it?

The Prime Minister: There are a wide number of issues to be addressed, not just this, and the right hon. Gentleman may find it interesting to examine what they are. First, we must address how best to promote complete and open disclosure of the remuneration of directors--that is necessary so that shareholders can have the full facts--and, secondly, how to ensure that bonuses and share options are firmly based on the performance of the company, and not provided as windfall gains. I believe that that is rightly where the greatest public concern is now concentrated. I believe that that may require stricter criteria for the price at which the shares are issued and the circumstances in which they are exercised. All those matters will need to be examined.

I share the view of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) that it is not the job of Government to substitute their commercial judgment for that of individuals. When we have the judgment that is now being provided, we will examine it with great care.

Mr. Blair: For these privatised utilities, why will not the right hon. Gentleman use the golden share or give the regulator the power? Does he not realise that, until he acts to stop these abuses, he will be seen as a willing partner in a public scandal, where monopoly millionaires are paying themselves monopoly money?

The Prime Minister: People who have listened to these exchanges may suspect that the right hon. Gentleman had prepared that question before he had listened to the earlier answers. If he had listened to the earlier answers, he would have known that there was no point in asking that question.

Mr. Lamont: Is the Prime Minister aware that the remarks of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland over the weekend about decommissioning and the surrender of arms were as welcome as they were necessary? May I encourage the Government to stick to their word on that matter, otherwise the so-called choice that the people of Northern Ireland face will not be a real choice? It will be a choice subject to blackmail, intimidation and abandonment of a community that deserves our support and protection.

The Prime Minister: As my right hon. Friend will know, the community has had our support and protection, with a large number of troops there, for the past quarter of a century. I can tell my right hon. Friend and all right hon. and hon. Members in the House that those British troops will stay there to protect people in Northern Ireland for so long as it is necessary. My right hon. Friend need have no concern but that we will keep to the remarks made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.


Q4. Mr. Soley: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 February.

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

Mr. Soley: Has the Prime Minister made up his mind yet whether he agrees with his Chancellor that monetary union is not a threat to the nation state?

The Prime Minister: I shall be addressing in detail all the matters that relate to our European position, and the right policies for this country, tomorrow. I shall do that tomorrow, and the hon. Gentleman will then be in no doubt.


Q5. Mrs. Gorman: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 February.

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

Mrs. Gorman: Unless my right hon. Friend has even half a mind to pull Britain out of Europe, could he explain to the House, and more particularly to the fishermen of Britain, how else they are to recover their Dover soles?

The Prime Minister: I think that my hon. Friend will know, since she refers to the common fisheries policy, that there would be many parts of the seas from which British fishermen would be excluded were it not for the provisions of the common fisheries policy. My hon. Friend and the fishing industry may not like every aspect of that policy--I am aware that they do not--but if we were to cut ourselves adrift from Europe in the way that she suggests, not just the fishing industry but a very large part of the commerce and other interests of this country would be put at risk.

Ms Glenda Jackson: As the Prime Minister has already announced one U -turn in his policy, can he confirm or deny reports in today's papers that the Government have abandoned their policy with regard to rail safety with the abandonment of automatic train protection? There has been a firm commitment to ATP by the Government and previous Secretaries of State since 1985. Can the Prime Minister confirm or deny that it is still part of his Government's policy?

The Prime Minister: On these matters, of course, we act on the advice that we receive from the Health and Safety Commission, as we have frequently been advised to do by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We have received some advice from the commission and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is now considering it.


Q6. Mr. David Shaw: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 February.

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

Mr. Shaw: Does my right hon. Friend consider that the Belgians have recently exercised border controls in a most effective manner in relation to alleged football hooligans? Will he ensure that he lobbies Belgium hard for support in the European Union so that we can maintain adequate border controls at Dover?

The Prime Minister: I welcome the action taken by the Belgian police to ensure that tonight's game passes off without incident. I hope that the only action will be on the pitch--not off it. With regard to my hon. Friend's second point, I have said in the past that I am determined to maintain the fair, but necessary, immigration controls at the border that we have at present, and we intend to do so.


Q7. Mr. Livingstone: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 February.

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

Mr. Livingstone: Does the Prime Minister recall that, about a year ago, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury announced an investigation into the impact of dividend payments on investment, but that was dropped after the intervention of Lord Hanson? Since then, investment as a proportion of gross domestic product in Britain has declined to 14.6 per cent., which is the lowest figure since the first quarter of 1955. Given that the increase in dividends since the Tories came to power is £22 billion, which is money that has been dragged away from investment, is it not time to resuscitate that investigation?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman would do better to see what is actually happening both to manufacturing industry and to wider investment. If he does that, he will see the growth in manufacturing industry and see that industries that were dead or dying are now strong again, and exporting. He will see that British Steel has just increased production at its Llanwern plant by 30 per cent. He will also see a motor industry which was on its knees which will be a net exporter of motor cars before too long, and he will find that this country exports fibre optics, cameras and a whole range of products that were not available some years ago, all as a result of fresh investment in this country.

Mr. Brandreth: Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the city of Chester unemployment has fallen yet again? It is down by 2 per cent. on last month, by 14 per cent. on last year and by 42 per cent. on eight years ago. Does he recognise the fact that, as well as inflation being at its lowest level for a generation, in Chester inward investment is at record levels and year-on-year growth is up by 4 per cent., productivity is up by 6 per cent. and exports are up by 14 per cent? To what or to whom does he attribute that encouraging state of affairs?

The Prime Minister: I am indeed encouraged by those statistics, both for Chester and for the rest of the country. It is not simply the growth, or the drop in unemployment, that is welcome. Also welcome is the fact that there is a physical growth in the number of people in employment, as well as a significant drop in the number of people who have been unemployed for a long time. I believe that that development is set to continue, and I imagine that everyone will welcome that fact.