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1996 - PMQT 25th January 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 25th January 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Sheerman: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 25 January.

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.

Mr. Sheerman: Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, who said today:

"It is blindingly obvious that we must develop a framework"--

Madam Speaker: Order. There should be no quoting during questions.

Mr. Sheerman: The director general said that we must develop a framework for involving employees at every level--dare I say it, a stakeholder economy. If it is blindingly obvious to the director general of the CBI, why is it not blindingly obvious to the Prime Minister that the reason why his Government are so deeply unpopular is that they have failed to give the British people a proper stake in their own country?

The Prime Minister: If I may say so to the hon. Gentleman, he should be cautious about quoting the CBI at me. The CBI opposes the social chapter, the minimum wage and most of the policies advocated by the Opposition. When we and the director general of the CBI talk about stakeholders, we do not mean what the hon. Gentleman means. We know who Labour's stakeholders are. We know who owns 50 per cent. of the votes at the Labour party conference. We know who pays 50 per cent. of the money that the Labour party gets. We know what has been said by senior trade unionists. They have made it clear. While they continue to fund the party they will have a say. It is simple--no say, no pay. They are Labour's stakeholders.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the continuing campaign of violence by the IRA and Sinn Fein has betrayed the peace process? Will he urge them now to accept the Mitchell report's recommendation and cease their heinous actions immediately? Furthermore, does he agree that if peace is to continue long term in Northern Ireland, the IRA and Sinn Fein have two clear options open to them? They can either begin immediately to decommission weapons or they can agree to take part in the democratic process, as outlined by my right hon. Friend yesterday.

The Prime Minister: Yes, of course, my hon. Friend is right in all she says. The point made by the Mitchell Commission about the decommissioning of weapons was that Sinn Fein-IRA would not decommission, not that they could not decommission. We still look forward to hearing from Sinn Fein-IRA whether they accept the other elements of the Mitchell report--whether they accept the six principles and the fact that they must condemn and stop for good punishment beatings and punishment killings. We still await a comprehensive response from them on those matters. I should like to start all-party talks as speedily as possible, but I cannot be clearer to the House than this--the impediment to all-party talks is and has been the unwillingness of Sinn Fein-IRA to begin the decommissioning of their arms. If they would begin the decommissioning of their arms, there would be no justification for any party not to attend and join in all-party talks leading to negotiations.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree that the test results for 11-year-olds in English and maths are appalling? May I put to him the following proposals for improvement? I propose an end to the delay in base-line assessment for five-year-olds, a reduction in class sizes for five-to-seven-year-olds, a register of national head teachers, the use of associate teachers in classrooms and a reinstatement of the reading recovery programme for primary school children which was so wrongly scrapped. Will the Prime Minister at least consider those proposals?

The Prime Minister: Let me say first that we have looked very carefully at the test results. Those of 11-year-olds are disappointing; those of other age groups are better. The point that the right hon. Gentleman and the House need to bear in mind--I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has apparently changed his policy on this--is that, as he will recall, the Labour party opposed the introduction of the tests, and he personally voted against it. We introduced the tests precisely to throw up the shortcomings that we believed were probably in the education system. The test results are very useful: they tell us where the shortcomings are so that we may deal with them, and we shall consider a range of measures with which to deal with them.

I do not intend to respond immediately to the ideas that the right hon. Gentleman has produced, but we established the tests so that we could identify shortcomings and then put them right. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman now acknowledges--better late than never--that we were right to introduce those tests.

Mr. Blair: Was that not a complacent reply? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the problem does not relate merely to 11-year-olds? The GCSE results a few weeks ago also showed a decline. May I put it to the Prime Minister that, although the Secretary of State for Education and Employment may boast about the results for 14-year-olds today, those results still show an appalling level of failure in key curriculum subjects?

May I remind Conservative Members that these are children who were born under a Conservative Government, sent to school under a Conservative Government and educated under a Conservative Government? The failure is not theirs, but the Conservative Government's.

The Prime Minister: If it is the Conservative Government who have failed, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could explain why some of his right hon. Friends remove their children from Labour education authorities and have them educated under Conservative education authorities. While we are on the subject of the 16 years, perhaps he would also register the fact that in 1979 fewer than a quarter of pupils obtained five GCSEs; today the figure is 43 per cent. In 1979, 14 per cent. obtained two A-levels; now the figure is twice as high. In 1979, one in eight young people went to university; now, one in three do so.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to class sizes. I will tell him about class sizes. The Office of Standards in Education has itself recognised that the quality of teaching is the important issue. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but parents agree. I shall give him an illustration. For example, for children up to the age of 16, the average class size in secondary schools in Islington is lower than at the London Oratory. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Blair: There it is. The Government do not want to answer questions about the test results, and now we see the reason why they want to focus attention on one 11-year-old child--[Interruption.] The reason why they want to focus attention on one 11-year-old child is to conceal the damage that they have done to millions of our children.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman will really have to learn to keep cool under pressure. If he casts his mind back, he may remember the episode of Jennifer's ear before the last election, and if he wants to talk about records and standards in education, he may remember that his deputy leader said that school performance tables are "political propaganda". Test results are "virtually worthless", said the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). Tests encourage "a climate of failure" said the hon. Member for Dewsbury. They say that grant-maintained schools are wrong, but they are perfectly happy to use them. The fact of the matter is that Labour Members enjoy choice themselves, but they wish to deny it to other people.

Sir Hector Monro: Is my right hon. Friend aware, which I am sure he is, that today is the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns who lived the latter part of his short and remarkable life in Dumfries? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order. I cannot hear the right hon. Gentleman, nor can the Prime Minister.

Sir Hector Monro: Is my right hon. Friend further aware that, this year, Scotland and countries further afield will be commemorating the 200th anniversary of the great poet's death? Will he send to Scotland, to the Burns Federation and to his drouthy cronies in the House a message of good will on his important bicentenary?

The Prime Minister rose--[Interruption.] The deputy leader of the Opposition is heckling again. I must explain to the House that, despite occasional differences between us, the Leader of the Opposition and I have one thing in common: neither of us invites the deputy leader to meetings.

As to the remarkable anniversary referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), he is wise to mention it. I am a great admirer of Rabbie Burns and I should like to explain why by quoting what he said. His view on the constitution, for example--to be wrecked by the Labour party, if it came to power--was clear:

"As to Reform Principles, I look upon the British Constitution . . . to be the most glorious Constitution on earth, or that perhaps the wit of man can frame."

That was Rabbie Burns's view. The Scottish National party might remember that and so might the Leader of the Opposition and his party.


Q2. Mr. Jamieson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 25 January.

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

Mr. Jamieson: During national empty homes week, in a fortnight's time, what advice will the Prime Minister be giving to the Ministry of Defence about the 552 empty married quarters in his own Huntingdon constituency?

The Prime Minister: At the moment, I should tell the hon. Gentleman two things. First, we shall be looking at the ways in which we can dispose of empty Ministry of Defence properties--we are determined to do that. Secondly, if the Labour-controlled authorities in London filled up their empty accommodation, they could wipe out homelessness in London at a stroke. In Southwark, Islington, Hackney and right across London, Labour-controlled authorities have an appalling record of keeping homes empty and then complaining about homelessness--as the hon. Gentleman has done. That is another illustration of Labour's hypocrisy. They make claims about something--they have the power in their hands to put it right, but don't.

Mr. Sheerman: On the ropes again, John.

The Prime Minister: I now have a definition of hope over optimism.


Q3. Mr. Hendry: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 25 January.

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

Mr. Hendry: Does my right hon. Friend agree that GP fundholding has brought enormous benefits to doctors and patients alike, especially in my constituency, in which they cover some 90 per cent. of the population? Is not it typical of the say one thing, do another Labour party that, while many of them take advantage of GP fundholding for themselves and their families, at a moment's notice, they would abolish it? Is not that typical of the hypocrisy of the modern Labour party?

The Prime Minister: I think that there is now overwhelming evidence that fundholders are able to get a better deal for their patients from hospitals. It makes sense to build on what has been achieved and induce more and more GPs to join the system--[Interruption.] I am sorry to hear cries of objection from the Opposition Benches. Those are not my words but the words of the vice-president of the Fabian Society and former adviser to Barbara Castle.