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1996 - PMQT 30th January 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 30th January 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

United Nations Secretary-General

Q1. Dr. Godman: To ask the Prime Minister what discussions he had on the election of a successor to Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Secretary-General of the United Nations, when he last met (a) President Chirac and (b) Chancellor Kohl.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): None.

Dr. Godman: In addition to a new Secretary-General, is there not a need for a deputy Secretary-General, as advocated by Sir David Hannay, to take charge of administration and finance, thereby allowing the new Secretary-General to re-examine most carefully such serious matters as Lockerbie and Libyan sanctions? At the very least, do we not need a public debate on those appointments and on reform of the United Nations?

The Prime Minister: I certainly agree about the need to reform the United Nations. I raised that at the last meeting of the G7, where there was general agreement about it. In terms of internal reform, I can see some justification for a deputy Secretary-General, and I can certainly see some for a proper reform of the United Nations. By reform, I mean not just a reform of procedures but the abolition of many United Nations bodies that no longer serve a useful purpose.


Engagements

Q2. Dr. Goodson-Wickes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 January.

The Prime Minister: 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.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the vast majority of my constituents strongly support the Government's measures to give the Attorney-General power to appeal against unduly lenient sentences? Is not the fact that the Labour party voted against that yet another example of hypocrisy?

The Prime Minister: It is a matter of record that the Labour party voted against that measure, but it has voted against many other law-and-order measures over recent months, such as the right to silence. We increased the maximum penalty for cruelty to children from two years to 10--Labour opposed that. We increased the maximum penalty for carrying a gun in crime--Labour opposed us. The reality is that it may sometimes use tough words on crime, but when it comes to actions it is very soft.

Mr. Blair: Conservative Members should remember that under their party crime has doubled.

Does the Prime Minister share and understand the sense of anger of the British people at the behaviour of the privatised water companies? Given the figures released today showing that the cost of delivering water to customers has risen by almost £300 million and that although water companies' profits rose to a record level last year their investment fell, is not it high time that they were properly regulated in the public interest?

The Prime Minister: With reference to his earlier remarks, the right hon. Gentleman might also remember that under this Government crime is falling for the first time in 40 years. [Interruption.] Statistics show that quite clearly, across a whole range of crime, and that is something that no previous Government have been able to say.

When he refers to the privatised water industry, the right hon. Gentleman would do well to remember, too, that "Governments cannot run companies". [Interruption.] I am interested to hear that the Opposition disagree with that, because I was quoting the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).

Mr. Blair: Yes, but Governments can regulate those companies, and this Government are not regulating them. Will the Prime Minister confirm that over the past few years investment has been falling, that prices to customers have risen by more than 40 per cent., that 500,000 gallons of water are now being leaked every minute of every day and that customer complaints have doubled? Those are the facts about the water industry under this Government. Why do the Prime Minister, his Cabinet and his other colleagues defend each and every action of the water companies, rather than standing up for the customers who are being fleeced by them?

The Prime Minister: About £15 billion has been invested in the water industry since privatisation, £1 billion more than originally planned. That is because over several decades in the public sector there were not sufficient resources for investment in the water industry or in other public utilities. Of course, there is investment in them now, not least by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers as a shareholder. That union sponsors the deputy leader of the Labour party; it is one of the stakeholders in the Labour party, and also one of the shareholders in the water industry and in most of the other privatised industries. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. We have very little time. Keep quiet.

Mr. Robert Jackson: My right hon. Friend will have seen the lead stories in today's editions of the Financial Times and The Times. Will he confirm that universities are, in law, private bodies, that their financial relations with their students are a matter for them to determine and that the Government have no intention of nationalising the universities?

The Prime Minister: I certainly see no need for universities to introduce top-up fees. They certainly complain about how they have been treated by the Government. Between 1989-90 and 1994-95, university funding rose by 23 per cent. over and above inflation. I hope that the vice-chancellors will recall that when they consider their future policy.

Mr. Ashdown: How does the Prime Minister reconcile his claim last night that the Conservative party is the only party interested in law and order with the fact that although he promised at the general election to increase the number of police officers on the streets by 1,000, the latest figures show that the number has fallen by 1,000? Is that what he means by saying one thing and doing another?

The Prime Minister: I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman looks more carefully at what is happening in law and order. If he does he will see that right across the range, for the first time in 40 years, crime is falling. He will also see the resources there for an extra 5,000 police officers--

Mr. Ashdown indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: There is no point in the right hon. Gentleman's living in some Disneyland of his own and waving his hands about; those are the facts. It is the Conservative party that has toughened the law and order position time and again, and his party, and the Labour party, have been in the Opposition Lobby whenever we have sought to do that.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will my right hon. Friend give the House a firm undertaking that he will not take advice on law and order from the party that would change the meaning of the Sunday joint?

The Prime Minister: I happily give my hon. Friend that assurance.


Q3. Mr. Bryan Davies: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 January.

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

Mr. Davies: To return to education, does the Prime Minister recall that his Government slashed school budgets by £500 million last year, causing great difficulty to school heads? Does he recognise that the Government have slashed the higher education budget by £300 million this year, causing great difficulty to vice-chancellors? Why should our institutions and their students suffer because of the Government's economic failure?

The Prime Minister: On the hon. Gentleman's last point, the Government's economic policy is exceeding in a more spectacular fashion than that of any other Government in western Europe. Spending per pupil in the mainstream sector has risen by about 50 per cent. over and above inflation since 1979.

Mr. Blunkett: The true figure is 4 per cent.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), Labour's education spokesman, is shouting from a sedentary position. It is a novel relief for him to do so, rather than be undermined by the Labour leader in every single thing that he says about education.

On higher education, the hon. Gentleman would do better to refer to his party's policy document, which says that

"Labour is looking to raise funds from individuals using"--

[Interruption]

I apologise for my cold, Madam Speaker, but the reference to Labour's policy document stands. It reveals that

"Labour is looking to raise funds from individuals using and directly benefiting from higher education."

That is Labour's own policy document--I hope that it will not deny that policy.


Q4. Mr. Thomason: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 January.

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

Mr. Thomason: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that selective schools will remain a part of our education system? Did he hear the Leader of the Opposition yesterday ducking and diving on his party's schools policies?

The Prime Minister: Not only yesterday. I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman ducks and weaves. The hon. Member for Brightside says that he has no truck with middle-class, left-wing parents who preach one thing and do another. I cannot think who he might have had in mind. The hon. Gentleman tells us to watch his lips--there will be no more selection under a Labour Government. The party's education spokesman says one thing, while the leader says another. Labour is split on education from top to bottom.


Q5. Mr. Tipping: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 30 January.

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

Mr. Tipping: How would the Prime Minister describe someone who, before the general election, promised not to extend the scope of VAT, but after the election extended VAT and imposed it on fuel at 8 per cent.? Would he describe that person as a hypocrite or a liar?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman should look at the economic performance that has been achieved under this Government. If he does so, I defy him to find any western economy that can match the current performance of this economy under this Government.

Mr. Hawksley: Has my right hon. Friend had time today to read of the four children aged 11 in Handsworth in Birmingham, who have been put through the fast-track education system and who have received the praise of the Leader of the Opposition? Is my right hon. Friend aware that all four have won places at a grammar school, and will he reassure the parents of those children that, under this Government, their grammar school places will be safe?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly offer my hon. Friend that assurance. He highlights yet again the shambles of the Opposition's policy. They say that they support grammar schools, but they oppose selection. They say that they support special treatment for pupils, but they oppose streaming. They say that they support parental choice for the shadow Cabinet, but for no one else.


Q6. Mr. Corbyn: To ask the Prime Minister what plans he has to visit Saudi Arabia to discuss human rights.

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

Mr. Corbyn: Does not the Prime Minister think that it is time that the British Government put human rights before arms sales, sought an urgent meeting with the Saudi Government on the abuses of human rights there, explained why BBC broadcasts to Saudi Arabia have been censored and explained why the British Government, with their craven attitude towards that autocratic regime, are trying to deport Dr. al-Masari from this country?

The Prime Minister: We and our European partners regularly discuss human rights with the Saudi Arabian Government and with others. I seem to recall that the hon. Gentleman has a rather unusual version of human rights, because it was him who said:

"We assert the right of all people to follow their own conscientious beliefs even if it involves them in breaking the law."