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1996 - PMQT 19th March 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 19th March 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Easington (Visit)

Q1. Mr. Cummings: To ask the Prime Minister when he expects to pay a visit to the Easington constituency.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): I have at present no plans to do so.

Mr. Cummings: What a pity--the right hon. Gentleman will never know what he is missing. Since I gave the Prime Minister notice of my question, has he had the opportunity to ascertain why the Department of Transport has rejected a submission by Durham county council for funds to provide access roads to the Dawdon and Fox Cover enterprise zones in my constituency? Would it not be common sense--[Interruption.]--for the Department of Transport to support those sites, which have been designated by the Department of the Environment, and for funds to be allocated to allow the building of access roads to the A19? Is this not a case--[Interruption.]--of one Government Department not knowing what the other is doing? Will the Prime Minister use his influence to get the problem resolved?

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his question--all of it. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has confirmed the orders which will allow the Dawdon and Fox Cover road link to be constructed. As the hon. Gentleman will know, designated enterprise zones may be areas attractive to private sector inward investment and I am confident that the regeneration agencies in local partnerships will go some way to funding the link road, which I agree is the key to the regeneration of the area. The hon. Gentleman will also know that the designation of enterprise zone status will provide the impetus for the creation of up to 1,000 new jobs in the two zones.


Engagements

Q2. Mr. Burden: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 March.

The Prime Minister: This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Burden: The Prime Minister will no doubt remember that a few years ago the present Home Secretary was the Minister in charge of water privatisation. Does the Prime Minister recall what his right hon. and learned Friend said on 17 March 1989? He said that after privatisation

"it will entirely disappear as a political issue. No one will be talking about it at all. It will be in the private sector, delivering the goods."

With 800 million gallons of water leaking away every day, and with the goings-on in Yorkshire, when the Prime Minister holds his crisis Cabinet meeting, where will he lay the blame for the lack of a water feel-good factor--on the privatised utilities or on the judgment of his right hon. and learned Friend?

The Prime Minister: Water companies have a statutory duty to maintain supplies and we expect all companies to take the necessary measures to do that. Yorkshire Water has invested more than £1 billion in the past five years and will invest as much again over the next five years. Around two thirds of every pound in profit is reinvested for the benefit of consumers.

On the general subject of water privatisation, more than £15 billion has been invested in modernising the industry since privatisation. That could not and would not have been possible without the industry's access to private sector finance.

Madam Speaker: Questions are getting too long. Let us have a short one.

Mr. Allason: I shall be brief, Madam Speaker. In a week in which an Algerian suspect has been arrested on charges involving terrorism in France, many people have been distressed to realise that Hamas supporters in this country have been raising money for terrorism. It is especially distressing that they have all been receiving social security benefits in this country. Will my right hon. Friend put a stop to that?

The Prime Minister: We are certainly determined to ensure that the United Kingdom is not a base for external support for terrorism anywhere in the world. I take to heart what my hon. Friend has said about Hamas. We must also look at the activities of other people who come here and actively conspire to commit terrorist acts, those who abuse the hospitality and protection available here and those who use this country as a base from which to cause trouble for other countries.

Mr. Blair: In the wake of the Dunblane tragedy, does the Prime Minister agree that we should not prejudice the outcome of the Cullen inquiry? Will he confirm that all the issues concerning gun laws will come within the scope of the inquiry? Does he further agree that it would be sensible at least to begin to examine those issues now on an all-party basis? In particular, we should address, first, the question of handguns being kept in private homes. Secondly, we must address the concern expressed at the weekend by the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland--my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson)--and many others that currently the police have to prove why a firearms certificate should not be issued rather than the gun owner having to prove why it should.

The Prime Minister: I can certainly confirm that Lord Cullen's inquiry will be considering the subject of handguns. I can also confirm that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has begun a review of existing gun controls and intends to offer every assistance to the inquiry under Lord Cullen. At my right hon. and learned Friend's invitation, the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) is already a member of the Firearms Consultative Committee, but I know that my right hon. and learned Friend would welcome the views of other parties in the House before he makes a decision on the entirety of the evidence.

Sir Sydney Chapman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that cutting off the electricity supply to any home in our country should be undertaken only as a last resort? Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the last year when electricity was a nationalised industry no fewer than 80,000 households had their electricity cut off, but that since then the figure has dramatically reduced and last year only 1,000 households out of the 24 million in England and Wales were disconnected? Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the privatised electricity companies for adopting what can perhaps most aptly be described as a more enlightened policy?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the changed circumstances following privatisation. There is no doubt that privatisation has proved to be the right structure for the industry, and the independent regulator's promotion of competition is very much in the interests of the consumer.

We have seen evidence of that in falling prices and, as my hon. Friend has vividly illustrated, in a better service for the many people who face difficulties.


Q3. Mr. Wicks: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 March.

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

Mr. Wicks: As the Prime Minister has summoned his Cabinet colleagues to a crisis meeting tomorrow to discuss the mystery--to him--of the missing feel-good factor, will he consider having a meeting with the victims of negative equity, who number 1.7 million, or with representatives of the 8 million people who have become unemployed since the last general election? Does the Prime Minister accept that those people do not feel good, but that they feel bad and they feel let down by him and his Government?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is misinformed about the nature of tomorrow morning's meeting. He really ought not to believe all--or, indeed, much--of what he reads in The Independent.

I am delighted that the number of people in negative equity is falling. I am also delighted that fewer people are unemployed in this country than in any comparable country in Europe--in particular, those comparable countries which follow the policies that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, given the chance, would inflict on this country.


Q4. Sir Ivan Lawrence: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 March.

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

Sir Ivan Lawrence: Is my right hon. Friend aware that his disapproval--expressed in the White Paper on the intergovernmental conference--of the power of the European Court of Justice to make new laws that are binding on nation states will be warmly welcomed? Is he further aware that he is not alone in Europe, but shares with others--such as the French Prime Minister--concern that the European Court is overstepping the mark? Will he assure the House and the country that at the IGC he will insist that the court's powers are cut back, so that it does not become the supreme court of a federated superstate of Europe?

The Prime Minister: I can give my hon. and learned Friend that assurance. I heard what the French Prime Minister had to say, and I thoroughly approved of the way in which he said it.

I am greatly concerned about the fact that the European Court's interpretations have too often seemed to go beyond what Governments intended when the laws were framed. The court's functioning can be improved; I believe that it must be improved, and we will seek improvements at the intergovernmental conference. As my hon. and learned Friend said, a federal Europe with the European Court becoming, little by little, a European supreme court is not a Europe that this Government can support.

Mr. Clapham: In view of the fears expressed in the nuclear industry that the heavy running of the advanced gas-cooled reactors may have resulted in distortions which could cause a nuclear accident, and bearing it in mind that if the nuclear industry were privatised, commercial decisions could outweigh safety decisions, will the Prime Minister now shelve the idea of privatising the nuclear industry?

The Prime Minister: We have sought advice, and we have been advised that privatisation of the nuclear industry would not in any way damage safety standards. That is clearly very important. Thus far, Nuclear Electric has an excellent safety record. I think that that is understood by hon. Members on both sides of the House.


Q5. Mr. Waterson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 March.

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

Mr. Waterson: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this country has attracted more inward investment than any other country in the European Union, and more than France and Germany combined? Is that not the hardest possible evidence that the United Kingdom is well on its way to being the enterprise centre of Europe?

The Prime Minister rose--

Mr. Skinner: Don't forget the social chapter and the minimum wage.

The Prime Minister: I am in the happy position of being prompted by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to remind the House of the perils of the social chapter and the minimum wage. I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman that they are indeed very damaging to the employment prospects of people in this country, and I look forward to his support in denouncing them at every opportunity so that his constituents may stay in work rather than out of work.

As for the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), I certainly intend to keep the advantages that he mentioned at the forefront of the country's mind. Our policy is to put British jobs and British business first. Investors are attracted here by low costs and flexible working practices; we intend to maintain those, and to improve them. [Interruption.] In case the hon. Member for Bolsover is in any doubt, I repeat: no social chapter and no minimum wage.


Q6. Mr. David Marshall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 March.

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

Mr. Marshall: If the Prime Minister is really concerned about the missing feel-good factor in areas such as Glasgow, will he agree to spend a day in the city with the new Lord Provost, Pat Lally, and talk to people and see for himself the severity of the problems caused by unemployment and poverty? If he were to do that, he might realise precisely why now is the time for a change.

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman would stand back and look at the prosperity and opportunity that now exists in Scotland, he would see a total sea change from the situation that we inherited from the last Labour Government. If he would seek two or three cities throughout the United Kingdom that have shown the greatest improvement in that period, his own city of Glasgow would be among them.

Mr. Redwood: Will the Government overturn any European Court of Justice judgment which damages our social chapter opt-out?

The Prime Minister: As I have indicated, we intend at the intergovernmental conference to try to prevent the misuse of health and safety legislation to bypass the social chapter opt-out. That is a matter that we shall address directly at the IGC, with the intention of achieving the aims set out by my right hon. Friend.