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1996 - PMQT 29th February 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 29th February 1996. Michael Heseltine responded on behalf of John Major.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. David Shaw: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 29 February.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Michael Heseltine): I have been asked to reply.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is carrying out official engagements in the far east.

Mr. Shaw: Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Dover and Deal we have a selective system of education that offers choice and diversity and requires no parent to send his child 15 miles to school? Is he aware that we have grant-maintained grammar schools, high schools, a grant-maintained comprehensive school and we now have a Labour-run county council that wants to try to change what the Conservative county council set up? Is he further aware that the Labour party's policies in Kent reek of old Labour hypocrisy? Is the Labour party trying to change the policy or the guidelines, or is it just being hypocritical?

Madam Speaker: Order. I have cautioned the hon. Gentleman before. Ministers at the Dispatch Box are not responsible for the policy of any other political party. They are responsible for Government policy and they should be asked matters relating to that policy and for which they are accountable. I have no doubt that there is something in the hon. Gentleman's earlier comments to which the Deputy Prime Minister can reply, but I am sure he will relate his comments to Government policy.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that I can stretch my answer to embrace your suggestions, Madam Speaker. The fact is that my hon. Friend has described the excellent range of choice and policies that Conservative education policy represents. He will be well aware of the criticisms of the alternative structure of comprehensive education that we have heard from the Labour spokesman on education, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who said:

"In spite of 30 years of comprehensive education, the pattern of excellence at the top and chronic under-performance at the bottom persists".

That is the most comprehensive criticism of Labour education policy that I have ever heard, even from a Labour spokesman.

Mr. Prescott: Why did the Prime Minister refuse to answer parliamentary questions about the names of the people he will be meeting on his publicly funded visit to Hong Kong?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have not the slightest doubt that my right hon. Friend's programme will remain flexible during the course of his visit. Any Labour Member who has ever represented his country abroad will know the great importance of being able to respond to suggestions of meetings in the margins of international councils. It is ludicrous to think that one can plan all those things with so many world leaders in one circumstance at a time. It shows that the Opposition are so devoid of reality that they are unfit to govern.

Mr. Prescott: Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that there is a great deal of public concern because, during the Prime Minister's last visit to Hong Kong, he met a number of wealthy Hong Kong business men who then gave millions of pounds to Tory party funds, none of which was publicly declared? Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that, on this occasion, no such meetings will take place?

The Deputy Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman would ever take the trouble to find out about the world outside Britain, he would know that there are a number of wealthy Chinese business men in Hong Kong, because it is one of the most successful capitalist economies in the world.

Mr. Prescott: Why does the right hon. Gentleman refuse to be open and honest about Tory party funding? Have we not returned to the fundamental question about the Tory party--what does it have to hide?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman would be a great deal better off telling the country about the clandestine meetings that are taking place with the trade unions to do the deals that will enable them to support the Labour party, in the hope that it will get power.

Mr. Nigel Evans: Does my right hon. Friend agree that top British companies succeed because they are no longer hamstrung by trade union domination, and that that has resulted in the lowest strike level for more than 100 years? Will he give the House a commitment that the Conservative Government will not engage in any sleazy backroom deals with trade unions to do away with the trade union legislation that has enabled Britain to be the enterprise economy of Europe?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I can give my hon. Friend an unequivocal assurance that we will do no sleazy backroom deals with anyone, whether in the trade unions, the capitalist system or anywhere else.


Q2. Mr. Tyler: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 29 February.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Tyler: Does the Deputy Prime Minister recall who was the last Conservative Minister to take full accountability for the actions of his Department and to resign on principle? Does he think that certain Ministers in the present Government should follow that example?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman will remember that he lost the vote on Monday. I recall that my noble Friend Lord Carrington resigned in circumstances with which the hon. Gentleman will be as familiar as I am, but the fact of the matter is that my right hon. Friends explained our views on the Scott report. The House listened to the arguments and found in favour of the Government.

Sir Patrick Cormack: As my right hon. Friend quite clearly and rightly believes in retaining the rank of Prime Minister, will he please explain to the House why we are to abolish the rank of field marshal?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I think that my hon. Friend misunderstood the recent announcement. As I understand it, the rank of field marshal will now be awarded only to generals commanding an army in the field in times of war.


Q3. Mr. Gapes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 29 February.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Gapes: Does the Deputy Prime Minister recall that, before he was appointed to his elevated position last July, the Labour party was leading the Conservatives by 27 per cent. in the opinion polls? Has he seen the MORI poll in The Times today, showing that Labour's lead over the Conservatives is now 31 per cent? In view of that, does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that he should continue in his responsibility for the presentation of Government policy?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The answer--[Interruption.] I thought that the House might be interested in the answer to the question, which is best summarised in one word: yes.


Q4. Sir Alan Haselhurst: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 29 February.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Sir Alan Haselhurst: Will my right hon. Friend undertake to examine the workings of the Land Compensation Act 1973? Is he aware that claimants against Stansted airport have to wait between four and five years for settlement, and that that is causing a great deal of anguish, if not hardship, in many cases; whereas the airport operator can still sustain claims up to 1988 and has absolutely no idea of its total liability? Is that not a recipe for maximum discontent?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am sympathetic to the point that my hon. Friend has made, and I know the efforts to which he has gone to make representations on this issue. However, the matter is not under ministerial control; it is a matter of quasi-judicial responsibilities and the processes must unfold in the way that he has described.

Mr. Rooker: Will the Deputy Prime Minister address the issue of the standards of conduct in public life? Are the Government planning to do anything to close the loophole--about which we are criticised--whereby hon. Members use the freedom of aircraft tickets to travel between constituencies to gain private air miles for their families? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Hon. Members should listen to questions, and to the answers.

Mr. Rooker: Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain the difference in that action and the actions of a publicly funded Prime Minister travelling to the other side of the world to fill the coffers of his party's political funds?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman raised a serious issue in the first part of his question, and I shall deal with it seriously. Guidance to Ministers is quite clear: they are not allowed to use air miles incurred in public services for private purposes.


Q5. Mr. Gill: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 29 February.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Gill: Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that Her Majesty's Government would be prepared to walk away from the conference table at the forthcoming intergovernmental conference if they cannot get a deal that is acceptable to the majority of British voters?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Government will shortly publish a White Paper on their approach to the intergovernmental conference. The British Government will represent the interests of this country at the conference, and it is their view that they will do that more effectively if they participate in the dialogue.


Q6. Mr. Flynn: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 29 February.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Flynn: Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the heartbreaking pollution from the Sea Empress is the worst environmental catastrophe ever to hit the United Kingdom? Is he aware that an internal inquiry by civil servants of the conduct of other civil servants and their Minister is not a satisfactory inquiry? Will he give the undertakings that a full inquiry will take place, preferably under Lord Donaldson, and that it will be public and entirely independent?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport told the House last week, the marine accident investigation branch will carry out a thorough and independent inquiry into the cause of the incident and the conduct of the salvage operation.

Sir Michael Shersby: Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity today to recall that, when he was the Secretary of State for the Environment, he pursued the excellent policy of defending the metropolitan green belt? Does he agree with me that the metropolitan green belt is the greatest bulwark against urban sprawl? Will Her Majesty's Government continue to make that policy the centrepoint of their environment policy?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is as determined as any former Secretary of State in his advocacy and maintenance of Government policy on the green belt. He will act in compliance with planning policy guidance and with the law. He must consider any matters that are put before him, but no one should doubt his commitment to the green belt.


Q7. Mr. Jack Thompson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 29 February.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Thompson: Bearing in mind the enthusiasm of the Deputy Prime Minister and of the Prime Minister for efficiency in Government Departments--which was shown clearly by their support for market testing--is it not now appropriate for the British people to market test the Government?

The Deputy Prime Minister: They would find that they are looking forward to an economy that is as strong as any in contemporary history. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer explained at the time of the Budget statement, they are looking forward to an increase in average incomes of £9 a week. Since then, there have been two reductions in interest rates. We have the lowest inflation rate for many years, falling unemployment and a competitive currency. It is obvious that the Government have presided over extremely exciting economic prospects.