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1995 - PMQT 9th March 1995

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

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Dowd: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 March.

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. Dowd: Will the Prime Minister join me, and I am sure the whole House, in sending our deepest condolences to the family of Mr. Malcolm Murray, who died in Leeds general infirmary yesterday? Does he share the anger that we feel at the fact that he was in Leeds general infirmary because he had to be flown by helicopter some 200 miles after a fruitless search for an intensive care bed in London? Does not that demonstrate conclusively that the bed closure programme that the Government are pursuing in London has gone too far? Is he aware that he can do something immediately by instructing his Secretary of State for Health to accept the recommendation of the South-East London health authority that Guy's hospital must not close?

The Prime Minister: This is certainly a tragic incident and I share the view that the hon. Gentleman expressed about that. I believe that the whole House will join me in extending my deepest sympathy to Mr. Murray's family upon his death. This is a serious case and the South Thames region has set up an urgent investigation, the outcome of which we must await. The full facts of the case are not yet in front of me, but I understand that Mr. Murray required a highly specialised form of treatment with which Leeds was particularly able to help-- [Interruption.] --a highly specialised form of treatment, and that was the medical decision that was taken. Beyond that, we will have to wait for the result of the inquiry.

Mr. Neil Hamilton: Has my right hon. Friend seen that interest rates in France have had to be raised by 1.5 per cent. this week, notwithstanding the fact that-- [Interruption.]

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

Mr. Hamilton: Has my right hon. Friend seen that interest rates in France have had to be raised by 1.5 per cent. this week, notwithstanding the fact that inflation is virtually non-existent and that unemployment stands at 12.5 per cent.? That has been necessary in order to confirm France's status as an economic vassal state of Germany. Is it not therefore a cause for congratulation for our Government that we were not obliged to take the same course of action this week? Should we not make more of the fact that both the Opposition parties are committed to such a ruinous policy?

The Prime Minister: There is, indeed, a great deal of exchange rate turbulence, which has reflected itself in the interest rate increase in France, to which my hon. Friend refers. As I have told the House before, there has been a pretty massive flight into deutschmarks as a result of an unsettled international situation. That is the principal underlying reason that has led to such difficulties for the franc. As I told the House some time ago, I see no prospect of the United Kingdom returning to the exchange rate mechanism for some time. I have made that point perfectly clear. The fundamentals of the British economy are such that I am delighted that we are not suffering precisely the difficulty that France has.

Mr. Blair: Is it true that, when Ministers proceeded with the sale of electricity shares on Monday, they already knew that the electricity regulator was actively considering announcing a cut in prices?

The Prime Minister: There have been some distorted versions of what has happened, so I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to set out precisely what the circumstances are.

The fact is that Professor Littlechild did not decide to undertake his review until Monday afternoon, after trading had begun in shares in PowerGen and National Power. But, although the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry were aware that he was considering the possibility, he had not notified them even on Monday morning--when stock exchange trading began--that he had made any decision to go ahead.

I should also tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Treasury took independent financial and legal advice at the end of last week on whether, in the light of the possible uncertainty, the share sale prospectus was still accurate. The legal and financial advice that it received was that, even if the issue of price controls for the regional electricity companies was reopened, that was not material to the share sale of the generating companies. [Hon. Members:-- "Rubbish."] That is the legal advice that hon. Members say is rubbish. As for the generating companies, they are subject to a wholly different basis of regulation. It was in the light of that legal and financial advice that the Treasury decided to proceed.

Mr. Blair: That may have been the legal advice, but may I ask the Prime Minister about the duty of his Government? Will he confirm that the Government knew that the regulator was actively considering making such an announcement? That is the first point. Secondly, if they did know, does the Prime Minister not think that it would have been better to disclose the information to prospective investors?

The Prime Minister: As the right hon. Gentleman will have heard me say just now, that was precisely the point of seeking the legal advice: to determine whether the prospectus was right. The right hon. Gentleman himself is a distinguished lawyer-- [Interruption.] I suspect that, if the Government had sought legal advice on an issue of this sort and then not taken the legal advice that they had been given, the right hon. Gentleman would have been at the Dispatch Box asking why we had not taken the legal advice that we had legitimately sought and received.

Mr. Blair: I thank the Prime Minister for his compliment about my being a lawyer, but surely the point-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I expect better behaviour from Ministers.

Mr. Blair: I cannot say that we do, Madam Speaker.

The question relates not to the legal advice, but to the responsibility of the Government. Does the Prime Minister not think that it would have been better to disclose that information? Never mind whether the Government were legally entitled to it; does he not think that it would have been better to disclose it? Or is the short truth that a privatisation programme already damaged by boardroom excess and customer complaints is now tarnished by at best incompetence and at worst double dealing by Government?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has now asked the same question three times. I answered his third question with my first answer, and I made the position clear in my second answer. Other than to get in his ritual soundbite, I am not sure why the right hon. Gentleman has asked his question a third time. The fact is, as I have said, that the Government were aware that the regulator was considering the possibility at some stage in the future. He had not notified the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry, even on Monday morning, of whether he had determined to proceed, and whether he had determined what his statement would be. That is the purpose of ensuring that the prospectus is right; that is why my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer took legal advice. On the basis that it was right to proceed--that the prospectus was accurate --my right hon. and learned Friend proceeded. If he had not, the right hon. Gentleman would have been standing there asking why the sale did not proceed and why the Government did not take the legal advice that they had sought in order to do so.

Mr. Michael Spicer: On the question of exchange rate turbulence, does my right hon. Friend agree that the recent rise in the deutschmark against the pound is good for British exporters to Germany and bad for German exporters to Britain? Would it not be a bad thing if we were ever again to shadow the deutschmark?

The Prime Minister: We are not shadowing the deutschmark and I do not anticipate that we will. At the moment the performance of British exports makes it clear that both British industry and the British currency are performing well.

Mr. Ashdown: Why does the Prime Minister not cut the legal waffle? The real question is not what is legally possible: it is what is right. Is the Prime Minister proud that his Government had to hoodwink the public to get them to buy their electricity shares?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is not a distinguished lawyer. If he lets fly like that I hope that he is never sitting down where he has to take a cool, calm decision of what is in the national interest. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would care to read the three answers that I gave to the right hon. Member for Sedgefied (Mr. Blair). Perhaps upon several readings of them he will know the answer to his question.

Mr. Congdon: Does my right hon. Friend agree that devolving power to schools and hospitals has led to improved educational standards and more patients being treated? Would the imposition of an unnecessary layer of regional government harm that success?

The Prime Minister: I believe that it most certainly would. There are forms of devolution that I favour, most notably devolution down to the family and to the local community so that they can make their own decisions. We are certainly not committed to regional assemblies. There seems to be some confusion among the Opposition as to whether they are. On Sunday the right hon. Member for Sedgefield ( Mr. Blair) said:

"We are not committed to regional assemblies."

The deputy leader of the Labour party said:

"No, I don't say that is the position."

There seems to be some confusion about that on the Opposition Benches.


Q2. Mr. Burden: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 March.

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

Mr. Burden: When the number of full-time employees in the civil service has fallen by 29,000 in the past five years and the number on temporary contracts has grown by 82 per cent. in the same period, why are managers in the Employment Service being encouraged to sack temporary workers rather than let them have employment rights? Does the Prime Minister not realise that constant job insecurity is one of the biggest factors preventing any kind of feel good factor?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman took a wider view rather than being concerned with the point that he mentions, he would also have mentioned the dramatic fall in unemployment in every region of the United Kingdom. Self-evidently, work loads in Departments fluctuate, and by limiting periods of casual employment Departments are obliged to fill permanent vacancies with permanent staff, as they should. That is what is happening in the Department of Employment.


Q3. Mr. Bellingham: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 March.

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

Mr. Bellingham: Will my right hon. Friend find time today to consider those seven schools in west Norfolk that have become grant- maintained? If he visits those schools he will find high morale and excellent motivation and commitment. Is it any wonder that more and more Members on the Labour Front Bench want to send their children to grant- maintained schools, and is it any wonder that the public find that grossly hypocritical?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to hear that there are seven grant-maintained schools in my hon. Friend's constituency. I hope that there will be more in every constituency in the future. Education is an important ladder that helps people to raise themselves to a higher standard of living. Grant-maintained schools offer a wide choice, which I commend to everyone and congratulate everybody on taking. I trust that everybody will ensure that it is open to all who wish to have it.

Mr. Enright: In spite of the headlong rush into vegetarianism, does the Prime Minister agree with Bob Reid, the former chairman of British Rail, that he would rather put money into a butcher's shop than into rail privatisation?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman should have heard what else Sir Bob said. He also said:

"I do believe that privatisation is right."

The hon. Gentleman failed to mention that.


Q4. Mr. Lidington: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 March.

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

Mr. Lidington: Although I welcome my right hon. Friend's efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland, does he agree that, until terrorism has been eradicated, it is right that we should continue to support the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 to secure the protection of our fellow citizens in every part of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: I do agree with that. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary made clear yesterday, we shall retain the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1989 as long as the powers are needed for the protection of the public in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland. I should add that we have accepted independent advice that all of the powers in the Act continue to be necessary and justified. My right hon. and learned Friend made that clear to the House yesterday.