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1995 - PMQT 7th November 1995

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 7th November 1995. Michael Heseltine responded on behalf of John Major.

PRIME MINISTER:

Unemployment (European Union)

Q1. Sir Teddy Taylor: To ask the Prime Minister if he will raise at the next meeting of the European Council the implications of the level of unemployment in the EU.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Michael Heseltine): I have been asked to reply.

I can confirm that employment and unemployment in the European Union will be on the agenda for the next European Council in Madrid in December.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Will my right hon. Friend insist that the Council gives urgent attention to the forgotten army of 18.5 million unemployed in the European Union, a total which has soared by 5 million in the past three years? In particular, could he tell our friends in France, who are at present creating extra unemployment on top of a 12 per cent. total by setting artificial exchange rates, that they could learn a great deal from Britain, which escaped from the exchange rate mechanism and the social chapter and has found that unemployment has been falling ever since?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a most valuable contribution, particularly when he points out that this Government will not accept the social chapter, and neither will we impose the overheads of a minimum wage on the competitive manufacturing base that we have here today. The whole House can welcome the fact that unemployment in this country is down by 713,400 since December 1992.

Mr. Hutton: On the subject of unemployment within the European Union, does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise it as a fact that, since 1979, the United Kingdom has had the third highest unemployment rate within the European Union? When will he drop the damaging dogma of his party and start to work with our European partners to tackle the scandal and the waste of almost 20 million people unemployed in Europe?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is very convenient for the hon. Gentleman to choose 1979, when we had to start the process of undoing the stranglehold that the trade unions had on the British economy, of privatising the industries that are now leading the British recovery across the world and of creating in this country the enterprise centre of Europe, all in the teeth of Labour party opposition.


Engagements

Q2. Mr. Nigel Evans: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 November.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is travelling to New Zealand to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

Mr. Evans: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most significant vote last night was that passed by 587 votes to two, which bans paid advocacy, which was the recommendation of the Select Committee on Standards in Public Life and went further than the Nolan committee, and contrasts sharply with the sheer stench of trade union-sponsored humbug on the Opposition Benches?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right in pointing out the justification for the determination of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to set up the Nolan committee so that the House would have an opportunity to deal with the matter of restoring public confidence in the House. It was my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who ensured that such matters were thoroughly and comprehensively considered. The work was carried out by an independent committee. As a result, the House was able to pass by an overwhelming majority the far-reaching change to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

Mr. Prescott: Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that he and the Prime Minister were completely out of step with public opinion in wanting to keep the outside earnings of Members of Parliament secret? Does he share my sense of outrage that some Conservative Members are already making it clear that they will not observe the decision of the House? Will he make it clear that that would be totally unacceptable to him and the Prime Minister?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman raises a most important question for the House. I can say unreservedly on behalf of the Prime Minister and myself, since he asked me specifically, that both of us believe that it is right for all right hon. and hon. Members to enter into the spirit of the letter of the decisions taken yesterday evening. That was the will of the House. As to what the House should determine to do in the event of any right hon. and hon. Member not making such a decision, that is properly a matter for the House of Commons.

Mr. Prescott: In view of his reply, will the right hon. Gentleman now ask the Prime Minister to reconsider his rejection of Labour's proposal to refer the funding of political parties to the Nolan committee? Is it not time that the Prime Minister came clean on where his party gets his money, or has the Tory party got something else to hide?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Of course, we all know that the Opposition want to pass the cost of party politics on to the taxpayer. They want one-track Members of Parliament with no outside interests and who are totally beholden to the party Whips, with all the draconian centralisation of power that that would represent. That would be a wholly alien development in the constitutional history of this country.

Mr. Prescott: Why cannot the public know where the Tory party gets its money? Who has paid for a knighthood? Who has bought a peerage? And which foreign business men have bankrolled the party, fleeing the country? I ask him again, what has his party got to hide?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is up to the sort of sleazy politics characteristic of the Labour party. The fact of the matter is that his party has sold out hook, line and sinker to the trade unions--it always has. He is the first person to complain that he has to ring up trade union leaders to ask their permission before he takes a simple decision on behalf of the Labour party.

Mr. Peter Griffiths: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, however hon. Members may have voted in the Divisions last night, those who seek to gain party advantage from the issue simply demean the institution that they claim to honour?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right, but he characterises the Labour party in too generous terms. It is undermining the credibility of this House by constantly criticising the performance of a tiny number of right hon. and hon. Members. The fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of people who come into this House are motivated by the highest standards of public service.

Mr. Beith: Now that the House has made an important decision, with the votes of hon. Members in all parties, on the conduct of Members of Parliament, would the Deputy Prime Minister move the agenda on to the other things that would make Parliament more relevant to the lives of people, such as electoral reform--because that would make far more difference to the lives of people than even the decisions we made last night--or will he do as the Prime Minister did last night and attach his cause to the side which in the end will lose?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Member may see that as moving the agenda on; I would regard it as moving it back into a wholly unacceptable dark age.


Social Chapter

Q3. Sir Ralph Howell: To ask the Prime Minister what plans he has to rewrite the social chapter of the EU.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rejected a new social chapter at Maastricht because it would have reduced competitiveness and destroyed jobs. The Government will not accept it, or anything like it, at next year's intergovernmental conference.

Sir Ralph Howell: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In view of the fact that the social chapter has few friends in the House except on the Labour Front Bench, would it not be constructive for the Government to produce a more acceptable alternative social chapter? Will my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister urge the Government to make the Right to Work Bill the cornerstone of that new social chapter to eliminate involuntary unemployment and save £5 billion per annum in this country alone?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend brings a particular expertise to this subject and there is a great deal to which we should listen in what he has to say. I know that he will welcome the introduction of the earnings top-up scheme, which is designed to help people move into and stay in work without the burden of a minimum wage, and he also will look forward to the introduction next year of the jobseeker's allowance.

Mr. Keith Hill: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, in the absence of the social chapter, Britain has the longest working hours, the fewest holidays, the poorest pensions, the lowest wages and the highest levels of job insecurity of all the leading nations of Europe? Which of those facts does the right hon. Gentleman deny, and do they not explain why the British people are longing for a Labour Government with our promise to bring in the social chapter?

The Deputy Prime Minister: What the hon. Gentleman does not recognise is that Britain has one of the fastest falling levels of unemployment and one of the fastest growing economies in Europe. What he threatens by his proposals is that the flood of inward investment coming here, not only from north America and Asia but from Europe itself, would come to a halt if Labour threw away the competitive advantages that our economy possesses.


Engagements

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

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply. I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Alexander: Does my right hon. Friend recollect that tomorrow the new Gas Act is likely to receive Royal Assent? I remind him that, by opening the market to competition, new entrants are likely to come in and that standing charges in that industry are likely to be a thing of the past in a couple of year's time. As standing charges are widely resented by the elderly and those on fixed incomes, will he urge British Gas and the other utilities to start abolishing those charges now, before competition and a change in the law oblige them to do so?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right in drawing the attention of the House to the fact that the privatisation programme, and that includes British Gas, has, of course, been a triumph for British consumers. The fact is that competition has cut prices for gas consumers; standing charges are down by 29 per cent. since privatisation; gas prices are down by over 20 per cent. since privatisation; and the legislation to which my hon. Friend referred has already led to the possibility of experiments in the south-west. I read in this week's newspapers that perhaps another 10 to 15 per cent. will come off the prices to the domestic consumer as a result of that enhanced competition. What that all stands for is that the Conservative Government, by privatising these industries, have not only created world-class companies but served the consumer in a way that nationalisation could never have begun to do.


Q5. Mrs. Roche: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 November.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply. I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mrs. Roche: Given that, in the United States of America, it is illegal for foreign nationals to make donations to political parties, why do the Government not introduce the same legislation here? Are the Deputy Prime Minister and the whole of the Conservative Government frightened to let the British people see how the modern Conservative party is funded?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I know of no restriction in this country that says that foreign nationals who are members of trade unions cannot give money to trade unions, which is then directed to the Labour party.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if investment is to thrive, costs must be kept down and business taxes kept low? Does he therefore agree that it would be a disaster for investment, and therefore for our prospects for growth and employment in the future, if the Labour party were able to implement its plans to allow local authorities to fix their own business rates?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Labour party in power has always put up costs, prices and taxes. Whether it is a national Labour Government or local Labour government, the same process is at work. In either case, it would be a disaster for Britain's investment potential.


Q6. Mr. Martyn Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 November.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply. I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Jones: Will the Deputy Prime Minister ask the Prime Minister when he returns what is the precise role of the Deputy Prime Minister? It seems to be costing £40,000 a month for the Deputy Prime Minister to answer even fewer questions than his right hon. Friend.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Just the other day, people were complaining because I had brought £1 billion of Siemens investment to the north-east. I think that I am cheap at the price.