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1996 - PMQT 23rd January 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 23rd January 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Jane Kennedy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 January.

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.

Mrs. Kennedy: Is the Prime Minister aware of the latest Lloyds bank business in Britain survey which shows that business confidence has fallen and that three quarters of companies in the north west have failed to invest? Last week, the Minister for Trade said in the House that Britain is not

"in the first division of industrialised nations".--[Official Report, 17 January 1996; Vol. 269, c. 730.]

Does the Prime Minister agree with that statement?

The Prime Minister: Unlike most other countries--some of which the hon. Lady no doubt fondly believes are doing better than us, when they are not--the United Kingdom's output has risen in every quarter for almost four years. It is now 6 per cent. above its previous peak. Growth in 1995 was 2.6 per cent., which is about the level that was forecast by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor. No economy in western Europe has performed as well as the British economy in the past 12 months, or is doing so.

Mr. Kenneth Baker: Does my right hon. Friend agree that parents who send their children to grant-maintained schools and grammar schools should be welcomed as stakeholders? Is it not morally indefensible for such parents to grab privileges for their own children while denying them to other children?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. I am glad to see that many right hon. and hon. Members are now using some of the opportunities that my right hon. Friend framed as Education Secretary. The events of the past few days prove that, as they say, the Labour party has changed. Yesterday's Labour party said that it would abolish GM schools the day after tomorrow; today's Labour Members say that they will abolish them once their children have finished their education.

Mr. David Evans: What about the Oratory?

Madam Speaker: Order. Hon. Members are wasting time. I have not yet named the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans), but I have time to do so before 3.30 pm.

Mr. Blair: We see the baying mob. If Conservative Members think, after the damage that they have done to this country, that they will ride to popularity on the back of a decision about 11-year-old boys, they credit the British people with too little sense.

Will the Prime Minister confirm the figures in today's Confederation of British Industry manufacturing survey, which show that orders are flat and that business optimism is decreasing? Taken with the latest figures on living standards, which show that, last year, living standards fell for the first time for more than 12 years, is it any wonder that the feel-good factor is absent and that the Prime Minister has had to call a special Cabinet meeting for tomorrow to encourage it?

The Prime Minister: Perhaps I may offer my sympathies to the right hon. Gentleman on his current predicament. I am glad that he is supporting the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) in her decision. He must back her. He certainly cannot sack her, because all she is doing is playing follow my leader.

A few days ago, the right hon. Gentleman said that there were some very good things about Britain, but when it suits his purposes he is quite happy to pervert the statistics to try to score cheap points and damage the country. The facts are that living standards have risen by 40 per cent. since 1979 and take-home pay after inflation has risen by £80 a week for the average family--and it is expected to rise by a further £450 next year. The right hon. Gentleman cannot name a country in Europe that has an economic performance that equals ours at present, or the opportunities from the platform that we have produced. Not one.

Mr. Blair: I thank the Prime Minister for his kind words of concern about pressure. The difference between us is that I will not buckle under it. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Other hon. Members have questions on the Order Paper and I want to hear them. Let us have order on both sides of the House.

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister confirm that, despite the 25 per cent. devaluation of our currency, we still have a trade deficit with the rest of Europe? The right hon. Gentleman asked for comparisons with Europe. Will he also confirm that, during the whole period of Conservative government, employment and growth levels in investment have been lower than in any other major European country, and that we have fallen from 13th to 18th in the world prosperity league? Is there not now a direct contrast between the speeches of the Prime Minister and the experience and reality of the vast majority of the British people?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman should not be so sensitive about his difficulties. I just want to be tough on hypocrisy and tough on the causes of hypocrisy.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to know about the state of the country, I remind him that we have the lowest level of inflation for more than 50 years, the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years, the lowest unemployment of any major European country, the lowest basic rate of tax for more than 50 years and more inward investment than the rest of Europe added together, and we export more per person than Japan or the United States. Those are the facts about the country. However much the right hon. Gentleman tries to run it down for his own partisan political interests, that is what we have created and those are the opportunities that we will build on, up to and beyond the general election.

Mr. French: Did my right hon. Friend see reports last week about the social services inspector who sought to bring pressure to bear on a children's playgroup because it was said that the toys in use were not of the correct colour and therefore not politically correct? Is he aware that that story emanated from the same local authority that was responsible for the safari boy--a Labour and Liberal-controlled authority that never loses an opportunity to say that it cannot fulfil its responsibilities because it is short of money? It is currently trying to close much-needed adult opportunity centres.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes his point very clearly without my adding to it. If the leader of the Liberal party wants to comment, he can no doubt turn to his own advisers. Perhaps this is one of the policies that they have told him were "barmy" and "duplicitous", and "would bankrupt the nation".

Mr. Ashdown: When it comes to crimes against humanity, surely there can never be any place for neutrality. Is it not true that no just and durable peace can ever be built unless justice is not only done but seen to be done against those who perpetrate war crimes? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government expect IFOR--and will support it--to take every step necessary to safeguard war crimes evidence, to protect the investigators and to ensure that these people are brought to book?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman touches on a very important point. We strongly support the work of the war crimes tribunal and have done more than most to help it with financial support, equipment, and seconded staff; and we have provided evidence to the prosecutor's office.

IFOR will conduct regular foot patrols and aerial reconnaissance over the area. It has been asked to report any unusual activity, such as any attempt to disturb the site.

Mr. Couchman: Will my right hon. Friend take time during his busy day to write to the head teachers of St. Olave's school in Orpington and its sister school, Newstead Wood school for girls, which my daughter attended, to congratulate them on running such excellent schools that they attract pupils from 15 miles and two boroughs away?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to congratulate those schools on the excellent opportunities they offer their pupils. It is certainly our policy to make sure that every school offers the same sort of opportunity. We believe it right for parents to take those opportunities.


Q2. Mr. Bill Michie: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 January.

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

Mr. Michie: I want to ask a simple but serious question. The Prime Minister continually describes Britain as the enterprise centre of Europe. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may laugh, but does not the right hon. Gentleman find it unbelievable that Britain cannot afford to supply lifesaving equipment such as a nebuliser and a humidifier to an 80-year-old constituent of mine who suffers from cancer and communicates via a throat microphone? The country apparently cannot even afford to pay £79 of service charges. What sort of enterprise centre is that?

The Prime Minister: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman provide my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health with the details of that case so that it can be examined. If he were genuinely concerned about the matter, that is what he would have done--instead of raising one case out of 8.5 million patients without providing the opportunity to examine its details.

The hon. Gentleman knows that there is a test of whether the health service is doing better. It is not a test that I have set; it was set by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). The test, he said, is whether more people are treated as a result of the health service reforms than ever before. We have met that test: 1.5 million more patients are being treated. Why does not the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, instead of raising these cases in this forum, rather than where they should be raised?


Ministerial Visits

Q3. Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Prime Minister when he next plans to pay an official visit to Cirencester and Tewkesbury.

The Prime Minister: I have, at present, no plans to do so.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: If my right hon. Friend were to visit my constituency, he would discover that parents have opted for six out of eight secondary schools to become grant-maintained. Will he commend the principled stand of certain Opposition Members, who made the correct choice of school for their children? Is it not the height of hypocrisy to seek to deny that choice to my constituents and others?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about that. I believe that the view of most people in the country is that the hon. Member for Peckham was right to exercise choice in favour of her own child. No one objects to that. What is wrong is that the Labour party would deny those same choices to other parents throughout the country.


Engagements

Q4. Mr. Salmond: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 January.

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

Mr. Salmond: Is the Prime Minister aware that Robert Burns might be birling in his grave in this, his bicentennial year, at the prospect of the Scottish Secretary laying a wreath at his memorial in London? Excise duties, in which the poet might have had a vested interest, have been increased, but can the Prime Minister point to a policy of his Administration that reflects the qualities of compassion, equality, Scottish patriotism and human understanding that flow through the works of Robert Burns? Is there a policy that reflects any of those virtues?

The Prime Minister: I strongly suspect that, if the great poet were here today, he certainly would not support the policies of the hon. Gentleman. He certainly would not support policies of extra taxation that will drive more Scottish opportunities out of Scotland and more Scots out of Scotland, and he certainly would not propose the isolationism that underpins the hon. Gentleman's policies.