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1995 - PMQT 19th December 1995

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 19th December 1995.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Barry Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 December.

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. Jones: Will the Government rejoin the future large aircraft project urgently? Does the Prime Minister understand that the French and the Germans are increasingly sceptical of our approach to the project and may move to exclude us? Is he also aware that 2,000 Airbus workers in my constituency have lost their jobs and that the remaining 2,000 are desperate for Britain to rejoin the project? Given Britain's pathetic economic growth prospects, surely the Prime Minister wants a strong aerospace industry.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for having given me an indication of the subject that he intended to raise and I appreciate his concern to protect jobs in his constituency. On the substantive point, the Government are committed to joining the future large aircraft programme provided that our conditions concerning price, performance and affordability are met. That matter is under discussion with the United Kingdom industries concerned and with our European colleagues.


Q2. Mr. David Shaw: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 December.

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

Mr. Shaw: In the next few days I shall be visiting the hospitals, the homes for the elderly and the retired and the nursing homes in my constituency. I shall visit many businesses and voluntary organisations. [Interruption.] All those people have benefited from additional resources as a result of the recent Budget. Can my right hon. Friend also give me some words to tell our customs officers in Dover, who are thoroughly against the policies that the Labour party would introduce in terms of the legalisation of cannabis and drugs? [Interruption.] Our customs officers have provided a valuable service in keeping Britain free from drugs. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he supports the customs officers in Dover in that action? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I will give the hon. Gentleman an Adjournment debate next year.

The Prime Minister: I think that my hon. Friend has just had one, Madam Speaker. I very much agree with him about the excellent work carried out by customs officers at Dover and elsewhere in tackling drug trafficking. My hon. Friend can tell them categorically that we have no intention of legalising cannabis. We do not believe that it is the right way to proceed. As the chief constable of West Yorkshire said in the past,

"Legalisation or decriminalisation just isn't the answer."

He continued:

"I've not yet met a heroin, or ecstasy or crack cocaine user that didn't start on cannabis".

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister tell us what he has repeatedly refused to deny, which is that the costs of rail privatisation--the costs of the sale and of the extra subsidy--are set to amount to $1 billion over the next two years? Would not that £1 billion be better spent on improving a public rail service?

The Prime Minister: No. Even with the spirit of Christmas, I must say that the right hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. On a like for like basis, overall Government funding for the railways after privatisation is expected to be broadly similar to the levels of recent years. The precise level will depend on the privatisation process and on the outcome of competition for the franchises. Instead of criticising the funding, the Labour leader would be better employed examining the £10 billion worth of investment that Railtrack plans, which would not occur in the public sector. If the right hon. Gentleman is so opposed to privatisation, will he tell us how he would replace the £10 billion worth of investment in British Rail? Which taxes would he increase? By how much would fares have to rise? Or will he at last realise that privatisation will produce a better service for customers?

Mr. Blair: We could start by taking the £1 billion and investing it in the rail service. Let us see whether the Prime Minister can answer one simple question: will he guarantee that the level of service which now obtains will be the same after privatisation in the privatised services--not hope, not wish, but guarantee?

The Prime Minister: I note that the right hon. Gentleman had no response whatever to the £10 billion worth of investment. He talks about £1 billion, but £10 billion is promised. As for future services, he can see what is already beginning to happen. The passenger service requirements provide a guaranteed level of service. That has never existed in the past. Services to the passenger are already improving--[Hon. Members: "Where?"] I will tell Opposition Members where. The operating companies are offering a range of new services. They are responding to their customers more quickly. There are new information services. To give Opposition Members a practical example, completely new train services are being provided--[Hon. Members: "Where"?]. I will tell Opposition Members where. For example, over 100 trains a day have already been added to SouthWest Trains' timetables. When will the Leader of the Opposition realise what is happening and realise also the opportunities for improving a service that has been too bad for too long?

Mr. Blair: We shall realise it when the Prime Minister guarantees that service levels will remain the same--[Interruption.] Yes, when he guarantees it. What is more, have we not just--[Interruption.] We shall listen to the Government when they guarantee that the service will remain the same, but they are not prepared to do that. Is it not right that at the end of the week--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The barracking is intolerable.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister keeps telling us about his plans for British Rail. Is he not the man who planned no increase in value added tax and then increased it? We are not interested in his plans. Have not his rail plans been overturned by the courts, his chief inspector of prisons walked out of his first prison inspection, members of his party are at each other's throats over Europe and the Government cannot get the national lottery right? Has not the right hon. Gentleman's year ended as it began--in weakness, chaos and incompetence?

The Prime Minister: Whenever the right hon. Gentleman loses the argument, he changes it. He has lost the argument on privatisation. He had no response to the £10 billion and no response to the fact that there has never been a guaranteed minimum service until now. Now the service is being improved and he cannot bear the fact that we are winning the argument in terms of improving services right across the public sector. All that he can do is to run down everything that happens in this country on every conceivable occasion for his own partisan political interests.

Mr. Garnier: As more than 13,000 British troops are deployed to Yugoslavia, will my right hon. Friend send the best wishes of the House to them? Does he agree that, had the Labour party won the last election, we would not have had one tenth of the soldiers to send to that place, given the savage cuts that Labour would have introduced?

The Prime Minister: And would probably try to introduce were it ever given the chance again. We know the Opposition's record on defence and we know their capacity to hide their long-term affiliation to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and we know that the armed forces know and the people of this country know that the armed forces would not be safe in their hands.

Mr. Ashdown: Does the Prime Minister understand why the possibility of a lone British veto tomorrow against a European subvention to help to privatise Irish Steel is regarded by the Irish Prime Minister as inexplicable? Will he explain? Will he assure us, in particular, that he fully understands the damage that could be done by that to British-Irish relations at a crucial moment in the Irish peace process?

The Prime Minister: I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman should examine the whole matter; it is a very complex issue involving the interests of Irish Steel--very important to Ireland--and British Steel, and the matter is under discussion. We are seeking--and I hope that it will be possible to reach--an agreement that safeguards the United Kingdom's interests. That matter is under discussion at the moment. It would not be productive for those discussions for me to pursue the matter now, but there is an interest both in Ireland and in the United Kingdom. We are seeking, and have done for some weeks, to reach an agreement which meets the interests of the steel industry both in the United Kingdom and in Ireland. I hope that we shall be able to reach such an agreement. If we cannot, it will not be for lack of trying on this side of the channel.

Mrs. Gorman: Has my right hon. Friend seen the newspaper report that Labour Members of the European Parliament, in supporting the French strikers, blamed their plight on the fact that the French Government were supporting the single currency? Does he not find it surprising that Labour MEPs should be supporting his own sceptical point of view? Is he not even more surprised that their position differs radically from that of Opposition Front-Benchers, who support the European Parliament and all its works?

The Prime Minister: I believe that the very wide and deep divisions in the Labour party on Europe were clearly apparent in the statement that I delivered to the House yesterday afternoon, when one Labour Back Bencher after another stood up and, in essence, flatly contradicted what the leader of the Labour party has been saying for weeks. As for Labour party policy, my hon. Friend may be interested to know that there was more than one summit in Madrid last week. The summit of socialist leaders, attended by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the deputy leader of the Labour party, must have been very amusing. The right hon. Gentleman agreed to a significant extension of qualified majority voting, support for a European strategy on immigration, the social chapter, and restrictions on how long people can work. What he did not discuss were the details of fishing policy--and he a Member from Hull.


Q3. Mr. Pickthall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 December.

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

Mr. Pickthall: As the national lottery regulator was warned by the Ministry not to take free air trips on his visit to the USA, but nevertheless did so, and given that the Secretary of State for National Heritage knew about that but refused to comment on it at Question Time yesterday, does the Prime Minister not think that it is time that both of them were sacked?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage is considering the matter and will make an announcement shortly.

Mr. Gallie: Is my right hon. Friend aware that in 1979 only 30 per cent. of people in Scotland were home owners? Is he aware that the figure is now 57 per cent., and a Shelter report published today suggests that 77 per cent. of Scots aspire to home ownership? Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Conservative party will drive towards that objective?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. Surveys show that more than 70 per cent. of Scots aim for owner-occupation, and that is particularly true among younger age groups. Since the right to buy was introduced in 1980, well over 300,000 houses and flats have been sold to their tenants, and owner-occupation has increased from 35 per cent. to 57 per cent. The right to buy has been immensely successful--introduced by a Conservative Government, opposed by gut instinct by the Labour party then, and still, in truth, loathed by it now.