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1996 - PMQT 6th February 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 6th February 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Waterson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 February.

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. Waterson: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the considerable strength of the economy throughout the country, including Scotland, is based in large measure on reduced burdens on business? During his busy day yesterday, did he have the opportunity to--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Waterson: Did my right hon. Friend have the opportunity to read reports in Scottish newspapers that two different spokesmen had said diametrically different things about whether extra public spending would be required to carry out Labour's plans for Scotland?

The Prime Minister: I am not remotely surprised to hear that Opposition Members say different things about their devolution policy. They have not yet thought through that policy; it is full of holes and full of damage. We said from the outset that a Scottish Assembly would require increased taxation and increased public expenditure. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has, I think, referred to that as utter rubbish. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) has confirmed that that is indeed the case and that taxes will go up--a tartan tax of £6 per week initially, but undoubtedly more later. Another instance of Labour saying one thing and doing another.

Mr. Blair: When customer complaints to British Gas have doubled and the company has been forced to split into two today because of huge losses on gas contracts, does the Prime Minister think that the leaving package of the chief executive--a £4 million pension fund, an annual income of £250,000 a year and £120,000 in consultancy fees--is justified?

The Prime Minister: As a matter of fact, the company has split into two to increase competition, which I should have thought the right hon. Gentleman would have liked. As for the package that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, that, in the private sector, is a matter for the shareholders. As those shareholders include the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman takes it up with the union. If the shareholders are unhappy with the arrangements, no doubt they will pursue the matter. If he does not know how to get the RMT on his side, he can ask the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the deputy leader of the Labour party, who is sponsored by it.

Mr. Blair: Do we take it from that answer that the Prime Minister recognises no responsibility at all on the part of Government? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Blair: Two years ago the Prime Minister told us that he found those excesses distasteful, and they have grown since then. He then told us to wait for the Greenbury committee, and the excesses continued to grow. We have had Greenbury and nothing has happened. When will the Prime Minister act in the public interest to make those privatised utilities serve the public and not a small group at the top?

The Prime Minister: A moment ago, I explained to the right hon. Gentleman that he and one of his hon. Friends were saying different things. We have it again here. I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees that the Government should not attempt to sit in the boardroom in a metaphysical sense. One of his hon. Friends said:

"We believe that people should be rewarded for a performance, whether in the form of salary or the granting of share options".

That person, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling)--a shadow Treasury spokesman--continued:

"It is not for me to spell out the benchmarks of success".

The right hon. Gentleman is once again playing the politics of envy. [Interruption.] Let me be a moment. He loathes privatisation, he loathes private ownership and all that he has had to say about private ownership and a new Labour party is exposed every time that he takes that line.

Mr. Blair: With all due respect to the Prime Minister, can he not see the difference between people operating within a highly competitive market and the privatised utilities operating monopoly services? Can there be any more telling expression of Conservative values than the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday condoning late payment to small companies while today condoning the excesses in the privatised utilities? One group of hard-working people is told to wait for its money and the other group is given by the Government a licence to print it.

The Prime Minister: Let me explain to the right hon. Gentleman the benefits of privatisation for millions of people who happen to be consumers. Gas prices have fallen by more than 20 per cent. since privatisation. Potential new suppliers are offering price reductions of 15 to 20 per cent. in the south-west. Personally, I believe that we need

"the enterprise of the market and the rigours of competition".

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with that, because that is the Labour party's new clause IV, which he pushed through last year. As ever, Labour's constitution says one thing and Labour Members do another.

Mr. Hendry: Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the exceptional courage of 21-year-old Fleur Lombard who came from the High Peak and who lost her life at the weekend in the course of her work as a firefighter? Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is great scope for a scheme of rewards to recognise the contributions made by young people in all walks of life, whether they have shown great courage--as in Fleur's case--or they have made a contribution to others and to society? Will he consider whether such a scheme could be backed by the Government?

The Prime Minister: I will of course consider the matter. I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing our sympathy to the family of Fleur and those of the other firefighters who have lost their lives in service. There is no doubt that such incidents underline the selfless bravery of the fire service. On this occasion, a young lady lost her life while seeking to save the lives of other people. I shall certainly consider what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Ashdown: Does the Prime Minister think that it is right to delay payment on other people's bills and to use their money to gain interest for oneself? Having done that, does he think it wise to then boast about it?

The Prime Minister: Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman--

Mr. Skinner: Can't pay, won't pay.

The Prime Minister: That reminds me of what the trade unions say about their control over the Labour party.

They say that unless they maintain that control, they will not pay for the Labour party, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) for reminding me of that.

On the substantive question, the Government--not least my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, when he was President of the Board of Trade--have done a great deal to encourage prompt payment. My right hon. Friend encouraged the establishment of the CBI's prompt payment code. We required Government payments to comply with the code and we improved procedures in the small claims courts. We are making companies disclose their payments rapidly. Those are the practical measures that we are taking.

Mr. William Powell: Has my right hon. Friend noticed the remarks of the Prime Minister of Belgium, delivered at Davos at the weekend, to the effect that, if the single currency does not proceed in 1999, the single market will collapse? Is it not the case that Belgium has not the slightest chance of meeting the Maastricht criteria as its general Government gross debt is more than twice the threshold level set down in the Maastricht treaty? Does my right hon. Friend believe that there is a secret agenda to proceed with the single currency despite the treaty of Maastricht? Do not Mr. Dehaene's remarks vindicate my right hon. Friend's decision to veto Mr. Dehaene as President of the European Commission?

The Prime Minister: I certainly do not believe that the single market would be at risk if the single currency did not proceed in 1999 or at any other time in the future. I do not think that anyone can seriously dispute that, at the moment, there are uncertainties about the timetable. No one can say with absolute certainty which countries might qualify for stage 3 if it goes ahead in 1999. What is relevant is that we must address the key issues about how stage 3 would work, and I have raised that point at successive European Councils. Were it to proceed without the right economic background, there is no doubt that it would be a disaster, not just for the countries taking part, but for all the countries of the European Union.


Q2. Mr. Dowd: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 February.

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

Mr. Dowd: Does the Prime Minister agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his condemnation of late payment as a serious threat to the very survival of many small firms, or does he side with the Deputy Prime Minister, who advocates becoming skilful at keeping creditors away? Is not that latter approach a kick in the teeth for millions of honest small businesses? Which one does the Prime Minister support? May we have a straight answer?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman must have been dozing, because a few moments ago I set out a range of measures that the Government have introduced to encourage prompt payment, some of them initiated by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Booth: As last week we all heard the German Chancellor say that integration would be a matter of war and peace in the 21st century, will the Prime Minister tell Herr Kohl that integration and federation forced on countries and peoples that are free, against their will, often result in civil war? Where is Yugoslavia now? Will my right hon. Friend tell Chancellor Kohl that this country takes it ill when we hear loose talk of war from Germany?

The Prime Minister: The whole House recognises the importance of examining very carefully what criteria there might be for any countries that decide to move ahead to stage 3. We need to look at what has been achieved in the European Union over the past 30 years or so and to ensure that that is not imperilled by moves to other advanced changes for which the European Union is not yet ready. That needs to be a pragmatic debate on whether the economic circumstances are right for movement and on what the implications would be, both in the short term and in the long term, for the countries that might be in a single currency and for those that might not be.


Q3. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 6 February.

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

Mr. Mackinlay: Is the Prime Minister aware of the growing feeling that the country is being run for and by a narrow magic circle of privileged people? In that regard, will he tell the House how it is that former Eton toff Darius Guppy can negotiate his sentence and negotiate his way out of prison--a prison that he likened to his school, Eton? How is it that top rail managers can fail to pay rail ticket fares yet not suffer any penalty? How is it that Cedric Brown can have a massive windfall pay-off? Is it not a case of, "It's the rich what gets the pleasure and the poor what gets the blame"?

The Prime Minister: That was an exceedingly well worked pay-off line by the hon. Gentleman, but I am not sure that the build-up merited it. This is the first time in my life that I have been told that I am part of a magic circle, and I do not think that I like it.