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1991 - PMQT 7th November 1991

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 7th November 1991.

PRIME MINISTER

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Jessel : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 November.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor) : I have been asked to reply.

Hon. Members : Where is he?

Mr. Speaker : Order. I call the Leader of the House.

Mr. MacGregor : This morning my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had a bilateral with President Bush in Rome. He is currently attending the NATO summit now under way there. That summit will set the future course for NATO to ensure that it remains as it has been--a bedrock of stability in a still uncertain world. The fact that Opposition Members should regret the fact that my right hon. Friend is in Rome, shows how little attention they pay to defence and NATO matters. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. This kind of thing gives a very bad impression elsewhere.

Mr. Jessel : On Europe, to put it beyond all doubt in this House, in the country, and on the continent, will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government that Britain shall not go down the route of a federal Europe and that it is for Britain to decide on the future of her own currency?

Mr. MacGregor : I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that we are not going down the route of a federal Europe. With regard to a single currency and economic and monetary union, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government are not prepared to commit Britain now to a single currency. We will be able shortly to debate those matters more fully in the House, but we have on many occasions made it clear that this Parliament will decide on the single currency issue at some date well into the future if and when it should arise.

Mr. Kinnock : Is the-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. I call Mr. Kinnock.

Hon. Members : Where is he?

Mr. Kinnock : All present and correct, Sir.

Is the Leader of the House aware that three times in the past 24 hours the Chancellor of the Exchequer has refused to answer direct questions about the Government's plans for further increases in VAT? Is that not surprising because the Chancellor has repeatedly been eager to make precise pledges of cuts in income tax to 20p in the medium term? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us now, in precise terms, what are the Government's plans for making further increases in VAT?

Mr. MacGregor : The right hon. Gentleman will be all present on the Opposition Benches for some time to come and will not be leading for Britain at future NATO summits. In answer to his question, the right hon. Gentleman knows very well that the commitment to income tax is one that would extend over the lifetime of the future Parliament and perhaps beyond that. That is a general commitment for some time to come. No precise dates have been given. It is not for the right hon. Gentleman to ask questions about tax, given the very high public spending commitments to which his party is committed.

Mr. Kinnock : The Leader of the House has even changed the line on what the Chancellor said on income tax this morning. As far as talking about tax is concerned, I realise the right hon. Gentleman's sensitivity. His Government have, after all, lifted the tax burden on the British people to the highest of any Government in history. The right hon. Gentleman is wriggling. Since the Prime Minister has announced the target rate for income tax, surely he can announce the target rate for VAT. If he can tell us the one, surely he can tell us the other. Why are the Government so specific on income tax and so shifty on VAT?

Mr. MacGregor : The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the commitment on income tax is a longer-term one and that we hope to achieve it as and when conditions permit and when it is prudent to do so. We have made that clear on many occasions. But it is really not for him to argue the case about taxes because, as we well know-- [Interruption.] Opposition Members do not like that. The reason they do not like it is that they are so sensitive about it. We know perfectly well that the Labour party has committed itself to an additional £35,000 million of public spending and no capping on local authority expenditure. The two combined would mean a very high increase in the tax and community charge burden on all people.

Mr. Kinnock : The longer that the right hon. Gentleman speaks, the less he convinces. Will he tell us now? After making huge rises in VAT in the past 12 years, what are the Government's plans to make further increases in VAT?

Mr. MacGregor : The Government have made their public expenditure plans absolutely clear, and they are clear on the normal basis. It is equally clear--the right hon. Gentleman has not refuted this--that, in fact, the £35 billion spending commitment of the Labour party would mean either a very big increase in income tax and/or a very big increase in VAT, and it would be likely to be both.

Mr. Michael Brown : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government's proposals to introduce powers to prevent local authorities from excessive spending by means of capping will be very well received by all those in Labour-controlled authorities who have to put up with excessive tax bills? Does my right hon. Friend agree also that those people will not welcome the pledge that was given from the Opposition Benches yesterday to ensure that high-spending Labour authorities can go with gay abandon to yet higher spending?

Mr. MacGregor : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a point that will have to be stressed again and again. On top of the increased taxes-direct and indirect taxes that would come from their spending pledges--the Opposition have now committed themselves to no capping on high-spending local authorities. That can mean only higher community charge and council tax bills as well.


Q2. Sir David Steel : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 November.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Sir David Steel : Is the Lord President aware that, at the end of last week, the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry warmly welcomed the Government committee report recommending, among other environmental measures, an increase in petrol tax? They have referred that recommendation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Will he ensure before the Budget that, in any such conservation measure, account is taken of the needs of rural areas where-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. Interruptions take a lot of time.

Sir David Steel : Admittedly including the area that we will represent after today, in rural areas in which the car is a necessity and in which the cost of petrol is already high, what compensatory measures are the Government prepared to support?

Mr. MacGregor : My right hon. Friends have not committed the Government to any position on tax, but I notice that, as usual, the right hon. Gentleman wants to have it both ways. As it would put it, the Liberal Democratic party claims to make people face up to hard decisions by increasing pricing and taxes. However, because some of its Members of Parliament come from rural areas, they want those rural areas to be protected. It is typical of the right hon. Gentleman and his party to make different noises in different places.

Mr. Lord : Does my right hon. Friend agree that nothing is more damaging to the fabric of a nation than the failure properly to educate its children? May I urge him to press for a return to traditional standards of teaching in our primary schools as soon as possible?

Mr. MacGregor : I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that what we are doing through the national curriculum, and especially in the testing of seven, 11, 14 and 16-year-olds, will ensure not only that we can monitor progress on standards, but that pupils who are falling behind will be given the assistance that they need to improve. The point of our educational reforms is to improve standards.


Q3. Mr. Menzies Campbell : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 November.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the reply that I gave a few moments ago.

Mr. Campbell : The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that 22 November is the first anniversary of the sinking of the fishing vessel Antares in the Firth of Clyde as a result of its gear being snagged by the submarine HMS Trenchant. However, is he aware that the Royal Navy is proposing to hold a similar exercise in the same waters on the day immediately following that anniversary? Is not the timing of that exercise particularly insensitive, and is there any reason why it should not be postponed for a period of, say, a week as a mark of respect to the crew of the Antares, all of whom perished when the vessel was sunk?

Mr. MacGregor : I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman knows the considerable steps that have been taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces to deal with the aftermath of that tragic incident. I shall draw the hon. and learned Gentleman's particular point to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. Rathbone : As our Prime Minister is away at such an important summit conference--important for the security of the whole of the western world--does my right hon. Friend think it appropriate at this moment to reaffirm the Government's commitment to that European pillar, the Western European Union?

Mr. MacGregor : Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. We have made it absolutely clear that, in our view, that body will play an important part in our future defence position. I am sure that that will be discussed today at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.


Q4. Mr. Gareth Wardell : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 November.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave a few moments ago.

Mr. Wardell : In view of his admission some weeks ago that this Government have imposed the heaviest tax burden in British history, will the right hon. Gentleman now apologise for the Chancellor's wholly inaccurate statement to the House yesterday that the Government have been cutting taxes ever since 1979?

Mr. MacGregor : The truth of the matter is that we have seen a substantial reduction in direct tax rates, a substantial improvement in standards of living and, as a result of the reduction in tax rates, an improvement in the tax base, which has enabled us not only to achieve increased public spending on a large scale in our key priority areas, especially health, but to achieve a reduction in direct income tax and, overall, considerably to improve our public sector borrowing requirement.


Q5. Mr. Andrew Mitchell : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 November.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave a few moments ago.

Mr. Mitchell : Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is widespread support among parents for the Government's proposal that schools should make their public examination results available for publication in common form? Does he agree that that would give parents an objective answer to the question, "How is my child's school doing?", as well as further pressing back the frontiers of choice in education?

Mr. MacGregor : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He refers to an important part of the reforms that we are undertaking. I pay tribute to him for first raising the subject of league tables for schools' performances in the Bill that he introduced earlier in the year. League tables of examination results, destinations of school leavers, truancy rates and all the other items that we are suggesting will be an important aid towards improving parental choice. I was glad to note that that was endorsed by the chairman of the Audit Commission this morning.

Ms. Primarolo : Will the Leader of the House explain why the Government voted against the EC directive on maternity leave which would have given women a minimum of 16 weeks of maternity leave and protection from being sacked because they are pregnant? This is the second time in less than two weeks that the Government have failed to respond to the Prime Minister's so-called commitment to women's equality. Why should women believe anything that the Government say?

Mr. MacGregor : The hon. Lady is wrong. An agreement was reached yesterday which represents a sensible balance on maternity pay. It carries forward the interests of women without imposing an undue burden on employers. The Government abstained on a different aspect relating to the Treaty of Rome basis. We did not believe that the issue should have come within that particular article. That is why we abstained. The political agreement was reached clearly.

Under our policies more than one in three of the jobs created in the European Community for women were created during the past eight years in Britain. That is a clear indication of the opportunity and choice that we give.


Q.6 Mr. Thorne : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 November.

Mr. MacGregor : I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Thorne : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures given yesterday for expenditure on the national health service, education and transport show our clear commitment to expenditure on those items? Does he agree that those people in the House who advocate expenditure without saying how much they are prepared to spend are entirely unconvincing?

Mr. MacGregor : My hon. Friend is right. The autumn statement yesterday demonstrated that we have substantially increased in real terms-- after inflation--the spending in each of the three areas that my hon. Friend mentioned. Indeed, in health the additions announced yesterday represent £50 more for every man, woman and child in Britain. That means that the increase in health spending since we took office is 55 per cent. in real terms. My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the high additional spending programmes of some £35 billion advocated by the Labour party, which would put a crippling tax burden on so many families in Britain.