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1996 - PMQT 18th April 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 18th April 1996. Michael Heseltine responded on behalf of John Major.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Dykes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 April.

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

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in the Ukraine, ahead of the G8 Moscow summit on nuclear safety and security.

Mr. Dykes: Is my right hon. Friend aware that I much agree with his anxieties about the need to avoid creating an unnecessarily heavy bureaucracy in London? However, in view of the excellent Evening Standard campaign for the notion of just an elected mayor and the fact that millions of Londoners do not want that concept to be the preserve of one or more than one political party, will my right hon. Friend think again about that proposal and return with further thoughts in due course--bearing it in mind that London, like other capital cities, needs to be famous and have an elected mayor?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The Government have explored that idea but it would be realistic to say that no hon. Members on either side of the House gave it overwhelming acclaim. Opposition came from Members of Parliament and from the local authority community. It is apparent that one can move to a directly elected mayor only with a root-and-branch overhaul of London's local government structure, including the relationship between local and central Government. I do not believe that there is a public appetite for that, facing the real and urgent issues that the Government are addressing with such success for London.

Mr. Prescott rose--

Hon. Members: Middle class.

Madam Speaker: Order. Calm down.

Mr. Prescott: Please.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister remember his shrewd analysis of November 1990--that the only way to restore the fortunes of the Conservative party was to dump Prime Minister Thatcher? Following the Tories' humiliation in South-East Staffordshire last Thursday, what is the right hon. Gentleman's analysis now?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman because I have a new analysis. This week has seen three blows to the middle classes. First, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) admitted that the Labour party will put up their taxes. Secondly, we learned that Labour will tax company cars. Thirdly, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has become a member of the middle classes.

Mr. Prescott: The right hon. Gentleman should realise that all classes voted for Labour in South-East Staffordshire. Will he explain to the House why, if it was right to dump Prime Minister Thatcher in 1990 when the Tories were so unpopular, it is not right to dump Prime Minister Major now when the Tories are even more unpopular?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Because, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, all classes gave this Prime Minister the biggest popular vote in the history of the Conservative party, and because the conditions are now in place to secure a fifth Conservative victory. There are excellent economic forecasts and improving standards in education, and we shall see the current Prime Minister back in his job after the next general election.

Mr. Prescott: Is not the real problem for the Tories the fact that whatever they do will not make a scrap of difference, because, as The Daily Telegraph--the bible of the middle classes--said today:

"this Government is a disaster."?

Is it not time that the Deputy Prime Minister realised that the only answer is for him, his Government and the country to be put out of their misery by calling a general election now?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Not only has the right hon. Gentleman joined the middle classes; he has started reading a middle-class newspaper. The fact is that, however much one may disagree with much of today's leader in The Daily Telegraph, one thing I can agree with wholeheartedly is that it realises that a Government formed of Opposition Members would be infinitely worse.

Mr. Harris: What assurance can my right hon. Friend give fishermen from my constituency and from ports all round the coast of the United Kingdom who have come to London today--they are sailing up the Thames now--about the future of the industry? I agree with my right hon. Friend that we cannot withdraw unilaterally from the common fisheries policy and remain a member of the European Union, but does he agree that the common fisheries policy is inflicting huge damage on the industry and that it must be torn up and renegotiated?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is as well informed on fishing issues and policy as anyone in the House. I have just had a word with my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibilities for fisheries, who is to receive a delegation from the wider delegation that is in London today and who will be exploring its concerns. We have already dealt with some of its concerns. We are working closely with scientists on, for example, conservation to find more effective means of dealing with its concern. We have also made it clear that, in the context of the intergovernmental conference, we shall be raising the issue of quota hopping. We shall listen extremely carefully to the representatives of the fishing industry.


Q2. Mr. Jamieson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 April.

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

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

Mr. Jamieson: Is not the Deputy Prime Minister's real objection to the idea of a mayor for London that he loves new titles only when he can have them?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Having moved from being President to Deputy Prime Minister, it may not seem to be an advance now to become a mayor. If, on the other hand, by the united view of the House I were to be offered the job, I would have seriously to consider it.

Mr. Butcher: Does my right hon. Friend have a sneaking respect for those good, honest socialists who are stinking rich but who are prepared to argue that the rich should pay higher taxes? Would he, therefore, like to remind such people--Ben Elton, Maureen Lipman, Ken Follett and Melvyn Bragg--that nothing is stopping them now from voluntarily contributing more taxes? If we are to take the Ladywood line, anyone who is tempted to vote Labour who is currently earning a Member of Parliament's salary of £34,000 or more can start paying extra taxes now if they want to, because there may not be a future Labour Government to force them to do so.

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a most important point. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer who, the House will note, is in his place, mentioned to me that anyone who wants to get in touch with him and make a gesture pro bono publico will be warmly received. But the PSBR is coming down anyway, so there is no immediate need to make any request of that sort.

The serious issue for the House is not whether there should be higher or lower public expenditure or tax but whether an Opposition party can systematically refuse to answer any questions about whether it intends to raise taxes, and for whom. An Opposition spokesman was literally clawed off the airwaves on a day when she should have been dealing with her major responsibility on the privatisation of British Rail because the Labour party was terrified that she would not tell the truth but repeat the truth.


Q3. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 April.

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

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

Mr. Hughes: On the subject of tax, the figures that we heard this morning showed an outturn for the year just gone of a PSBR of £32 billion against a projection of £21 billion. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the Chancellor, who on "The World at One" today said that if before the next Budget the figures for the year that we have just started showed that the real PSBR was still £30 billion or higher, there would be no scope for tax cuts? Does he accept that that will mean that in the history of this Administration there will not have been tax cuts under the Tories, there are not now tax cuts under the Tories and, if all independent fiscal advice is prudently followed, there cannot be tax cuts before the next election under the Tories?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As I understand Liberal policy, the hon. Gentleman should support the Government in the Lobby. The Liberal party constantly seeks to increase tax bills, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor will make judgments about the proper balance between public provision and tax reductions. What everyone knows, and what my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor's last Budget made clear, is that when it can be prudently done, a Conservative Government will reduce taxes. That is why there has been a significant improvement in people's real disposable income in the past few weeks, as taxes have come down under this Conservative Government.


Q4. Sir Michael Neubert: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 April.

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

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

Sir Michael Neubert: Does my right hon. Friend bank at Barclays? Was it not an awful waste of the bank's money to send the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) all the way to Hong Kong--

Madam Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he must ask the Deputy Prime Minister questions on matters for which he has responsibility as a Minister.

Sir Michael Neubert: With UK share prices hitting record highs, with unemployment coming down yet again this month by 27,500, and with price rises at their lowest levels for a generation, would not the hon. Member for Hartlepool do more to his own advantage by staying closer to home?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject because it is apparent from an article in The Times that the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) had a task that could be interpreted as being in support of Government policy. He said:

"We must step up our efforts to promote the town"

of Hartlepool.

"I am pleased to announce that during Easter I am travelling to Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore to beat the drum for investment in Hartlepool."

That is Government policy. The problem is, of course, that the trip was paid for by Barclays bank and it has a different view. It said in the article:

"The trip had nothing to do with Hartlepool. The only connection we have with Hartlepool is a branch in the High Street."

Mr. Galloway: Has the Deputy Prime Minister had time to see the devastating pictures of the shattered United Nations peacekeepers' base in the south of Lebanon? In the past few hours, more than 50 Fijian soldiers, Lebanese and Palestinian refugees--men, women and children--have been slaughtered by the Israeli invasion force. Does the right hon. Gentleman know that this morning, some hours earlier, a mother, her four-day-old child and her six other children were killed by an Israeli air raid on her home in south Lebanon? Does he agree that the flames now burning in Lebanon run the risk of burning to ash all the hopes of the peace process in the middle east? Will the British Government support an emergency meeting of the Security Council to try to bring the cycle of devastating violence to an end?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising the subject of that appalling human tragedy, which shows all of us in the House how fragile peace processes are and how innocent the victims can often be. I have personally seen Fijian soldiers serving in the interest of the United Nations. They are an immensely impressive force and they do a wholly desirable task on behalf of a wider world. But when one considers the issues involved in south Lebanon and the attacks that Hezbollah has made on Israel from there, it is apparent that one is facing a near intractable problem of the deepest concern to the international community. The Government will do all that we can to play any part in accelerating the processes of peace and the restoration of a ceasefire. That, I understand, is the Israeli position and we strongly support that position. I am sure that the House will extend its sympathy to the relatives of those who were so unfortunately killed in today's incident.