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1995 - PMQT 28th November 1995

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

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Ewing: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 November.

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.

Mrs. Ewing: Although I recognise the significant role that the Prime Minister has played in the Northern Ireland peace process, he will understand that there is now widespread concern at what appears to be an impasse. In those circumstances, does he feel that it is now time to establish an international commission to help the matter on?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for what the hon. Lady said in her opening remarks. Naturally, I hope that we will soon be able to launch what has become known as the twin-track initiative. I had a further conversation with the Irish Prime Minister earlier today. I expect to speak to him later this afternoon. Some important points are still outstanding. It is too soon to say whether and when we might reach agreement, but some progress has been made.

Mr. Trotter: Might I, on Budget day, remind my right hon. Friend of the massive Siemens plant which is being built on Tyneside? Is he aware that, at £1.1 billion of German money, it is the biggest investment in Europe? Is he aware that, with its planned exports of £700 million every year, the plant could have gone anywhere in the world? Is not the decision to put it on Tyneside, with the thousands of jobs that result, a tribute to and proof of the attractiveness of Britain, the soundness of the economy and the success of Government policies?

The Prime Minister: It is certainly a very welcome investment as, indeed, is all the inward investment that we have seen over recent years. What is very refreshing is that we are receiving inward investment not just from outside the European Union, from which we have had the bulk of inward investment into western Europe for many years, but reinvestment from one part of the European Union to the United Kingdom. That reflects our tax structure, the opportunities in this country, the fact that we are not committed to very high social costs, and the skills of the British work force.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister recall giving a firm pledge that, after rail privatisation, fares would be capped? How is it then that we are now told that fares on only 20 per cent. of inter-city lines and only 40 per cent. of the rest will be capped?

The Prime Minister: Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that we remain committed to fares rising in line with inflation over the next three years, then falling by 1 per cent. below inflation for the next four years. That is capping of fares. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that, when Labour was last in government-- [Interruption.] Yes, Madam Speaker, it was a long time ago. It is because Labour was so appalling in government that it is such a long time ago. When Labour was in government, rail fares rose by more than 22 per cent. over and above inflation. The fact is that fares would go up again under Labour to pay for its policy of renationalisation.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister did not answer the question as to why the pledge that he gave is no longer honoured. We now know that an extra £700 million of public subsidy is going to those rail networks after privatisation and hundreds of millions of pounds is being spent in the sale. A report today suggests that the network may be sold for a quarter of its book value, which is a loss to the taxpayer of billions of pounds. In those circumstances, is it not time that, if he cannot even maintain the pledges that he has given, the sale was dropped and the network kept as a proper public service?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is wrong all the way down the line. I assume that he is getting advice from the deputy leader of the Labour party, but he is clearly wrong with all his facts. I made the point about fares rising in line with inflation and then falling. I have again made that perfectly clear to the Leader of the Opposition. As for the sale of Railtrack, there is no question of its assets being sold off cheaply--[Interruption.] A few days ago, we saw the Labour party briefing on a Budget that it has not heard. Now, we hear Labour Members scoffing at decisions that have not yet been taken. How do they know? They do not. They are in the business of trying to smear this privatisation, as they have tried to smear every other privatisation.

Mr. Gale: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will welcome the news that the videotape made from recordings culled from clandestine cameras has been withdrawn from sale. Will he ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to consider prosecution, as the tape was illegal and uncertificated? Will he consider confiscation of the proceeds of the sale? Will he also prevent further similar events, so that closed circuit television cameras, which are a valuable weapon in the fight against crime, are not brought into disrepute?

The Prime Minister: I will see that my right hon. and learned Friend considers my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Ashdown: Having been fooled by tax promises before the last election, followed by record tax hikes after it, why does the Prime Minister believe that the British people will be taken in twice by his Government on taxes?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman finds himself in a rather curious situation. He has consistently opposed tax increases and now opposes the possibility of tax reductions. Of course, it is a typical Liberal position to oppose one thing and oppose the precise opposite. What the right hon. Gentleman--whom we welcome safely to his place today--neglects to mention is that since I became Prime Minister take-home pay after inflation has risen by more than £600 a year in today's prices, real disposable income is £400 a year per head higher in today's prices and, in addition, average mortgage costs have fallen by £140 a month.

Mr. Dykes: Further to the first supplementary question, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government's careful and meticulous policy on the Northern Ireland peace talks has the full, bipartisan support of all parties in the House, but none the less that there is a strong collective desire for further progress from now on? Following his previous answer, can he say a little more on the prospects following the American President's visit to Britain and the island of Ireland tomorrow?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for what my hon. Friend had to say, further to the remarks of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing). As I said, I hope to speak with the Irish Prime Minister again later this afternoon. I am not certain whether we will be able to reach full agreement on that occasion, but, if we do not, we shall continue at a later stage to see whether an agreement on acceptable terms is possible.

I emphasise to the House that the agreement has to be on acceptable terms. It has to be an agreement that will lay the groundwork that would enable all parties to get together and talk in due course. There is no purpose in an agreement that will not work and will not achieve that, so we have to deal with the matter carefully. We have to consider the position of all parties who have expressed views on the matter and I will deal with it as speedily as is practicable, but only with the determination of reaching a satisfactory settlement. As soon as we can reach one, we will announce it. If we cannot, we will continue to seek one.


Q2. Mr. McAvoy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 November.

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

Mr. McAvoy: A moment ago, the Prime Minister mentioned mortgage payments; but, to deal with other statistics, can he confirm that, in the five years since he took office as Prime Minister, no fewer than 320,000 families have lost their homes through repossession and that the repossession rate is running at over 1,000 per week? Is that a record of which he is proud or will he take this opportunity to apologise to those families for the misery that he caused them--or is it all their own fault?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly reconfirm the point I made earlier and also confirm the point that repossessions are falling. What is most necessary for the housing market is stable inflation and the lowest possible interest rates. We have achieved a better position on inflation than we have seen for generations and a better position on interest rates than we have seen for very many years. That bodes very well for the housing market.

Mr. Tracey: Does my right hon. Friend share a sense of intrigue with me at the speech yesterday of Commissioner Kinnock in which he said that major events in Europe were unlikely to happen until well after 1999? Does he agree that this was not so much a statement of the policy of the European Commission as an indication of the state of nerves of the British Labour party?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend draws attention to a very intriguing speech and, like every other Member of the House, I read it with a great deal of interest. I believe Commissioner Kinnock is approaching this matter with a greater clarity of vision than right hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Front Bench. I think what he has had to say is to have had the audacity to admit what we have been saying for ages: that Europe may well not be ready for a single currency in 1999 and that, if it is not ready to proceed without Europe being ready, that would be disastrous not just for individual countries but for every country in the European Union.


Q3. Mr. Bryan Davies: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 November.

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

Mr. Davies: How can our nation be at ease with itself, an ambition that the Prime Minister set five years ago, when one in five non-pensioner households have nobody working?

The Prime Minister: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I think that what one needs to ensure that a nation is at ease with itself is a range of different factors that we are now producing. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what they are: first, the smashing of the inflationary psychology and the protection of pensioners' savings; secondly, the best economic outlook for generations, which we now have; thirdly, the largest fall in recorded crime for over 40 years, which we now have; the lowest rate of unemployment among large nations in Europe, which we now have; and a range of other factors which this Government have put in place and which no earlier Labour Government matched in any way.


Q4. Mr. Simon Coombs: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 November.

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

Mr. Coombs: Has my right hon. Friend seen the news today that the Honda motor company is proposing to create 500 new jobs at its plant in Swindon? Is this not excellent news for the motor industry in this country, which was on its knees under the last Labour Government? How would the prospects for investment such as this be affected if Britain were to sign up for the European social chapter, as advocated by the Labour party?

The Prime Minister: I join my hon. Friend in welcoming this news. I think it is good for Britain and I have no doubt that it is good for my hon. Friend's constituents. They join the workers of Black and Decker in Sedgefield, they join the workers of NEC in Livingston, they join the workers at BSkyB in Dunfermline, all of whom have benefited as a result of that sort of investment, and that sort of investment would not have taken place but for the success of this Government's economic policy and this Government's other policies.

The reality is that signing up to the social chapter will add unnecessary cost to employers and put our record for inward investment at risk. [Interruption.] Opposition Members shake their heads, but they know that the social chapter is not a pick-and-mix option, as the Leader of the Opposition says. Once we have signed up to it, we have it; and if we have it, we might well not have those sorts of investments.


Q5. Mr. Spellar: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 28 November.

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

Mr. Spellar: On the fifth anniversary of his premiership, how does the Prime Minister justify having doubled the national debt during that period?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the record of successive Labour Governments, he may wish to withdraw that question. He will see that we have financed our borrowing properly. The last Labour Government increased debt by an unprecedented amount.

Mr. Wilshire: Further to my right hon. Friend's understandably cautious replies about Northern Ireland, can he confirm that a start to decommissioning remains a precondition of all-party talks in Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister: Those who have read the "Building Blocks" paper which we published recently will see that it sets down specific requirements for the body's report. It also says that the international body is not being established to recommend when decommissioning should start. That position has not changed.