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1995 - PMQT 28th March 1995

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

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Barnes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 March.

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 be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Barnes: Will the Prime Minister tell us how education authorities such as Derbyshire can have millions cut off their education budgets in real terms and be expected to manage? Will he tell them how they can do that without sacking teachers, destroying education or increasing class sizes in the area? Many angry parents, teachers and governors in Derbyshire would like to know the answer to that. It is time now for the oracle to speak.

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be the first one to acknowledge that the amount spent per pupil has risen over and above inflation by 50 per cent. since the hon. Gentleman's party was last in government and looking after education. I think that he would also concede that if local authorities were prepared to make education more of a priority than they do at present and if they were determined to make teachers a priority within their education budget rather than other matters, they would be able to meet the obligations that they were required to meet.

Mr. Walden: Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the interest shown by Manchester grammar school in returning to the state sector? Will he give imaginative thought to the way in which such moves could be financed, bearing in mind that building bridges across our two-nation education system is a national priority?

The Prime Minister: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about the question of bridges across the education system. I certainly agree with him about the need for quality in education. I must say that I am not so enthusiastic about the Manchester proposal as my hon. Friend.

Mr. Blair: When Sir Bob Reid, who, after all, is a supporter of rail privatisation, says that the Government's plans are intensely bureaucratic and inordinately expensive--in short, a nightmare--should that not make any sensible Government who consider the public interest think again?

The Prime Minister: Sir Bob has expressed these views on previous occasions.

Mr. Meacher: Is he right?

The Prime Minister: I shall come in a second to whether he is right. Sir Bob has always argued for a monolithic, vertically integrated railway, but he was unable to persuade us that that was the right way to proceed. As the right hon. Gentleman presumably does not know, a number of other countries that have privatised their railways have adopted precisely the same model that we have adopted, and not the model proposed by Sir Bob.

Mr. Blair: Should not Sir Bob's words carry compelling argument with the Government as he is a supporter of privatisation? Is this not just another item on the bill for Tory dogma? With prescription and water charges up at the weekend, taxes up next week and now the fiasco of rail privatisation, is it any wonder that the British people believe, and know, that they are worse off under the Tories?

The Prime Minister: The soundbite came earlier this afternoon. The right hon. Gentleman refers to dogma. The Labour party has tried to smear every privatisation we have had, just as it is trying to smear this one. As it has been wrong on every occasion in the past, it is wrong again. The reality is that the Labour party is philosophically opposed to private ownership and, while Labour remains in the pockets of the railway unions, it will continue to put the unions first and the passengers last.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities, far from complaining about what they call cuts in education, would do far better thinking carefully about the money that they have failed to raise from the rates, the community charge and the council tax? Councils such as Lambeth have arrears running at over £100 million which they have failed to collect. Are not such councils punishing pupils as a result of their incompetence?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The Leader of the Opposition referred a few days ago to truancy. What the right hon. Gentleman neglected to say was that the highest level of truancy occurs in education authorities run by the Labour party, and that the only reason we know the truancy figures is because of the performance tables which we introduced and to which the Opposition objected.

Mr. Ashdown: In the light of the Prime Minister's previous answers, will he nevertheless confirm that he has heard of the widespread concerns of parents about their children from governors who have been forced to sack teachers because of education cuts? Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that, in the face of cuts in the Government's allocation for education amounting to £50 per primary school pupil and £200 per secondary school pupil, he simply cannot dump the whole blame on to councils? Does he not realise that the country wants him to think again? Will he do so?

The Prime Minister: Of course I understand the concerns of parents that education is properly funded, and that is why I made the point to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) about the increase in resources under the Government in recent years. The right hon. Gentleman cannot deny the Government's achievements in benefiting parents, pupils and teachers by changing the curriculum. Equally, he cannot deny that local authorities could do far more than they have done to seek savings without turning directly to the teacher in the classroom. What the right hon. Gentleman should be saying to people--not least his own education authority--is, "What other savings have you sought before you have gone directly to the teacher in the classroom?"

Sir Ivan Lawrence: Would my right hon. Friend allow any member of his Front-Bench team to visit convicted IRA terrorists in English prisons and to campaign to have them returned to Northern Ireland? Would he consider such action to be tough on crime, and on the causes of crime?

The Prime Minister: The direct answer to my hon. and learned Friend is no, I would not. He makes his case clearly.


Q2. Ms Hodge: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 March.

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

Ms Hodge: Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that it is the first duty of a free media to report the truth irrespective of Government bullying? [Interruption.] Clearly, Conservative Members do not agree. Is it not time that the Prime Minister and his colleagues took heed of the advice of the Daily Mail and Sir Bernard Ingham and stopped whingeing?

The Prime Minister: I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to tell us on how many occasions Mr. Alastair Campbell has complained to the BBC in the past few weeks. As to her substantive question, of course I welcome truthful reporting. I always welcome it and I like seeing it.


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

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

Mr. Whittingdale: Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Maldon district council, which yesterday received nearly £22 million following the transfer of its housing stock to the Plume housing association? Is he aware that that will enable the council to improve services and to continue to set the lowest council tax in Essex? Does that not demonstrate once again that Conservative councils deliver better services at a lower cost to the council tax payer?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend refers to Maldon, but he could equally well have referred to a very large number of Conservative authorities, which, on balance, provide a council tax that is far lower than that of authorities run by the Labour or Liberal parties. Equally,

I congratulate Maldon on taking advantage of the policies to bring in private finance and to provide better services generally to its council tax payers. I believe that runs right the way across the gamut of local authority services. For those people who talk about the homeless, I note the very large number of empty properties in Labour-controlled authorities in inner London and in the middle of many of our great cities.


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

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

Mr. Bayley: When will the Prime Minister unequivocally back Canada in its stand against unfair and ecologically disastrous Spanish fishing practices?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be making a statement immediately after Question Time.


Q5. Mr. Cyril D. Townsend: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 March.

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

Mr. Townsend: During my right hon. Friend's recent and successful visit to the middle east, did he have time to talk to Prime Minister Rabin about his country's unwillingness to declare that it is now a nuclear power and to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Recalling my right hon. Friend's excellent work in getting the United Nations Security Council to approve resolution 687, which called for a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the middle east, how will that be achieved if Israel cannot be persuaded to change its mind?

The Prime Minister: We did discuss that and a range of other matters, and I made it clear in my meetings that we believe that the future of the non-proliferation treaty is extremely important and we hope that everyone possible will ensure that it can be extended indefinitely. The indefinite and unconditional extension of that treaty at the conference in April and May would be in the best interests of everyone, not only in the middle east but in other parts of the world where there is equal difficulty in persuading participants to sign up to the treaty.


Q6. Ms Church: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 March.

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

Ms Church: Would the Prime Minister like to take this public opportunity to confirm that the position of the chairman of his party is unassailable?

The Prime Minister: I have told my right hon. Friend to take no notice whatever of the current hubbub and that it goes with the job, as do silly questions like that.

Mr. Alexander: As we are marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war this year, will my right hon. Friend look sympathetically at the amendment that was recently passed to the Pensions Bill in another place and restore to war widows the right to a war widows pension, even though they have been widowed or divorced from a second husband?

The Prime Minister: We are considering the amendment that was passed in another place the other day and a second amendment that was also passed there and will make our decisions known when the matter returns to the House.


Q7. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 March.

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

Mr. Hughes: Will the Prime Minister assure the House that when he and his Ministers decide, in the next few days, about the future of Guy's hospital, they will take account of current circumstances, which are that a building that has just cost £154 million to build, Philip Harris house, is waiting to be used for the benefit of the health service? Will they decide to use that building and not to close an accident and emergency unit in less than four years' time, because the circumstances that justify its continuing existence may be just the same then as they are now?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of the question that he proposed to ask this afternoon. As he said, there has been a consultation about the future of services at Guy's and St. Thomas's, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be able to make her decisions known shortly. I know that she will take into account the views of everyone concerned and what the hon. Gentleman said, including his remarks about Philip Harris house.