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1995 - PMQT 7th March 1995

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 7th March 1995.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q2. Mr. Ottaway: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 March.

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.

Mr. Ottaway: Does my right hon. Friend agree that his Government's policies have done much to help the leisure industry in this country? So much so-- [Interruption.]

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

Mr. Hoyle: Sit down.

Madam Speaker: Who are you telling to sit down? Be careful.

Mr. Hoyle: I am telling the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) to sit down; I am trying to be helpful.

Mr. Ottaway: Does my right hon. Friend agree that his Government have done much to help the leisure industry in this country--so much so, that Ladbroke leisure group has been able to award 1.2 million share options to its directors? Is my right hon. Friend aware that a member of the remuneration committee who approved that share option scheme is also Chairman of the Employment Select Committee?

The Prime Minister: As I said to the House last week, the Greenbury committee is examining executives' remuneration. A number of important issues must be addressed, especially the disclosure of remuneration to directors and ensuring that bonuses and share options reflect the performance of a company. I am sure that practical, first-hand advice of that sort will be useful to every hon. Member. Mr. Blair rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. I must say to hon. Members that I have taken a Minister to task for less than that; I will not allow Back Benchers to hold up newspaper headlines.

Mr. Blair: Now that the electricity regulator has finally bowed to months of pressure and has cut prices because of excess profits, will the Prime Minister agree that there should be a thorough overhaul of the regulatory regime of all utilities so that we can be sure that the same thing is not happening in gas, water and in the other privatised monopolies?

The Prime Minister: As I understand the position, the regulator has decided to have a look at the prices charged by regional electricity companies to consumers. That shows that the regulatory system that the House approved is working and that the regulator is using his powers to act in the light of the information available. I think that the action of the Director General of Electric Supply does exactly that. It shows that he can take into account the latest information. Information has become available since his last review. He is now looking at it again. That shows that the system is flexible and is working.

Mr. Blair: Surely it shows precisely the opposite. Is not the point that the electricity regulator acted only after the Trafalgar House bid for Northern Electric exposed the full scale of the excess profits and because of public pressure, not his own internal investigations? Does that not strengthen the case for a review of the system to make sure that the same abuses are not happening in gas and water?

The Prime Minister: No, I think that the right hon. Gentleman has not taken the point fully on board. He cannot claim at one moment that the regulator has too few powers and a few moments later complain that he is using his powers to deal with the situation that has arisen. New circumstances have arisen in the regulator's mind, and the regulator has used his independent powers to look again at the question of pricing. Those are precisely the powers the House required him to have and he is now using them.

Mr. Blair: The information became available not because of the regulatory system but because of the external requirements after the bid. Does the Prime Minister not understand that unless he acts firmly to stop the abuses in the privatised utilities--whether they are the pay deals, the overcharging or the excess profits--they will stand as a visible symbol of everything that is rotten in a Conservative Government?

The Prime Minister: I know that the right hon. Gentleman has now managed to unleash his soundbite, but what he is actually proposing would not enlarge but would narrow the authority and options of the regulator. The fact that this arose out of something that the regulator did not determine shows how wide his powers are. That is the point. The right hon. Gentleman is saying that the regulator should have acted only if he himself had discovered precisely what was likely to happen.

Sir Peter Hordern: Will my right hon. Friend make it his first priority to travel the country and start a national debate on the importance of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange? Is it not extraordinary that a major political party should spend so much time on clause IV and does it not prove--

Madam Speaker: Order. As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister has no responsibility for that matter. He is, no doubt, coming to a question for which the Prime Minister has responsibility.

Sir Peter Hordern: Will my right hon. Friend consider travelling the country to establish whether there should be common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange?

The Prime Minister: I think the evidence of the past two or three decades will spare me the necessity of travelling the country on that point because very few people who have sensibly looked at the matter do not believe that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) is right to seek the abolition of a dinosaur that most sensible people realise has been dead for the past 20 or 30 years. The only surprise is that a substantial number in the right hon. Gentleman's party still do not understand that.

Mr. Ashdown: How does the Prime Minister justify the fact that, contrary to the specific recommendations of his own personal efficiency unit, the amount of public money that the Government spend on private consultants has now increased by £130 million to £865 million-- sufficient to provide every child in the country with a year of pre-school education? How can the Prime Minister expect parents, teachers and governors to cut, cut, cut, when the Government's record is spend, spend, spend?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman did not address the savings and improvements brought about by the activities of consultants. All that concerns him is making a spurious point that would have been better made about his own Liberal Democrat-controlled county council in Somerset. If the right hon. Gentleman looks at the record on consultancies, he will find that one costing £50,000 yielded savings of tens of millions of pounds for the taxpayer.

Mr. Rowe: Did my right hon. Friend note that in the recent debate on utilities many Opposition Members were keen to see utilities restored to the public sector? Is not it an extraordinary definition of monopoly to imagine that in a world in which foreign companies compete globally with our former public utilities, we should not stimulate competitiveness across the world?

The Prime Minister: Opposition Members may still relish the day when it cost the taxpayer £50 million a week to subsidise utilities so that Ministers could run them inefficiently. These days, those utilities are yielding about the same amount of money each day for the taxpayer. Many utilities are selling their services and expertise abroad to great effect, generating from overseas activities huge sums of money for this country.


Q3. Mr. Rooney: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 March.

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

Mr. Rooney: It is three and a half years since Operation 2000 was launched. Is the Prime Minister aware that today fewer than 4 per cent. of directors and fewer than 3 per cent. of senior managers are women? Does he consider Operation 2000 a success?

The Prime Minister: When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster speaks in this afternoon's debate, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the improved opportunities for women across a range of circumstances--not least in public appointments for which the Government are directly responsible, where there has been a dramatic improvement. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is some way to go, but a significant improvement has been made in recent years, and I look forward to that continuing.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the document published by the Department of National Heritage last week, "Tourism: Competing with the Best"? It states that tourism could be the largest single issue by the year 2000. Tourism currently employs 1.5 million people, but the report makes it clear that we could do better. Does my right hon. Friend agree that tourism should have higher priority and that a single body should be responsible for encouraging inward tourism?

The Prime Minister: I should like to reflect with greater care on my hon. Friend's last point because of regional disparities in tourism in Scotland, Wales, the west country and elsewhere. My hon. Friend is right about tourism's importance and the number of people that it employs. In some parts of the United Kingdom--not least, most recently, Northern Ireland--increased tourism is making a material improvement to the local economy.


Q4. Mr. Burden: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 March.

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

Mr. Burden: Does the Prime Minister recall specifically ruling out three months ago Government action on executive salaries on the ground that it would constitute--I believe that I quote the right hon. Gentleman correctly--"a pay policy for a small number of key executives"? In the light of the right hon. Gentleman's statement to the House last week, does he think that is a policy or is not a policy--or, as usual, does he not know?

The Prime Minister: I do not know whether you, Madam Speaker, would like to let the hon. Gentleman try again, so that he may get his question right. Only one side of the House wants a pay policy for top executives. Labour wants a pay policy for people at the top--a maximum wage at the top, and a maximum wage at the bottom because then it would have the justification for a pay policy right the way down British industry. I am seeking to cope with abuses where they occur. If the hon. Gentleman had read what I said last week, he would understand that.


Q5. Mr. John Marshall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 March.

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

Mr. Marshall: Does my right hon. Friend agree that education provides an escalator of opportunity for all children? Does he believe that choice and standards would benefit from the abolition of grammar schools, grant-maintained schools and city technology colleges, all of which are popular? Would not the abolition of grant-maintained schools be particularly harsh on parents who prefer them to schools run by local education authorities, especially in Islington?

The Prime Minister: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that education is one of the areas that gives the greatest opportunity to people. The reforms that we have introduced in recent years extend choice, create a diverse education system and aim to give the best possible education to every child. It is for that reason that we have made reforms right the way through the education system--reforms that have been welcomed by parents and schoolteachers and, increasingly, are welcomed and used by hon. Members in every part of the House.


Q6. Mr. Tony Lloyd: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 March.

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

Mr. Lloyd: During this, the 50th anniversary of the ending of the war, will the Prime Minister today give some consideration to that generation who were prepared to fight and, in many cases, made considerable personal sacrifices in forced labour camps, for example, in Europe and elsewhere? Is the Prime Minister of the view that it is a fitting reward for that generation that they now spend their lives in poverty as pensioners under the Government?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows the respect that everyone in Britain has for the generation who fought in the war. He will also know what has been done, not just in the past few years but during the past couple of generations, to ensure that their living standards are as high as can possibly be the case.

An hon. Member: Not successful.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman says, "Not successful." Perhaps he would like to reflect on the number of improvements that we made in 1979 that had not been introduced by the previous Labour Government.