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1996 - PMQT 7th May 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 7th May 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Matthew Banks: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 May.

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. Banks: My right hon. Friend is well aware of the strong support that I have given to those in Southport who have sought to raise teaching standards in our schools. In the light of today's Ofsted report on reading, will he spare a thought for parents in Islington and Southwark whose children, according to the report, have been failed by weak and mediocre teaching methods? Does he agree that, if we are to improve standards in our schools, improved teaching methods must be the cornerstone of the Government's education policy?

The Prime Minister: I do feel for those parents, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has announced new measures today to root out and shine the light on those bad, Labour-controlled local authorities whose record was shown up so sadly in the report from Ofsted over the weekend. The Labour party's only response to that is to threaten to give more powers to those very same councils to which its Front-Bench spokesmen will not entrust their own children.

Mr. Blair: Can the Prime Minister confirm today's reports that, in the next Conservative manifesto, he will pledge to privatise the Post Office? Is he aware of the enormous concern of many people in rural areas who fear for the future of their post offices and postal services?

The Prime Minister: I fear that the right hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand that many rural post offices--a very important part of local communities--are already in private hands. It is astonishing that he does not seem to know that.

Mr. Blair: It is completely astonishing that the Prime Minister does not understand the concern of those people that the post offices will be sold off. Will the Prime Minister confirm that, over the next few years, the Treasury intends taking an extra £400 million out of Post Office profits and that that money will simply be another back-door Tory tax? Is that right or not?

The Prime Minister: I can confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that we are looking to make sure that the Post Office gives customers the efficient and effective service that they deserve. I repeat to him, since he clearly still does not understand it, that the rural post offices that he is concerned about are in private hands and that they are efficient and effective. I am astonished that the right hon. Gentleman does not understand that.

Mr. Blair: I have asked the Prime Minister twice whether that will be in the Conservative manifesto. If he is so confident about it, perhaps he can tell us whether it will be. As for a better service, let him tell that to the water customers whose prices have risen by 40 per cent. Perhaps he does not understand that the Conservatives' obsession with privatising our public services is one reason among many others for their humiliation last Thursday. Would it not be better in future if he paid less attention to the factions in his own party and more to the voice of the British people?

The Prime Minister: I was wondering how the right hon. Gentleman would manage to get around to that from privatisation, but I suppose that I should have known from precedent that it does not matter what the first two questions are, the soundbite is always prepared. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. We cannot hear hon. Members.


Q2. Sir Wyn Roberts: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 May.

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

Sir Wyn Roberts: Reverting to education, will my right hon. Friend confirm that this Conservative Government will not take away the £560 per annum of child benefit for the over-16s on which so many families rely to get their children through A-levels? Does he agree that the scrapping of child benefit at that level would be devastating for many families and would prevent many youngsters from going on to further education?

The Prime Minister: I can of course confirm that. Since the leader of the Labour party is so interested in what will be in manifestos, perhaps he can confirm that the scrapping of child benefit for youngsters of 16 and 17, as proposed by the shadow Chancellor and objected to by the shadow Foreign Secretary, will be in Labour's manifesto, at a time when child benefit is being supported by Labour's official spokesman on social security. Perhaps he would care to make that clear speedily. On the merits of the case, there is no doubt that that would be a severe disadvantage--[Interruption.] You can tell when the right hon. Gentleman does not want to answer: he chats to his hon. Friends. That policy would be a severe disadvantage to many families on low incomes who want their children to have a better start in education than they themselves had.

Mr. Ashdown: On the first day of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, does the Prime Minister recognise that peace in Bosnia is more at risk through the ambitions to create a greater Croatia than through any threat from a greater Serbia? Does he at least recognise that the withdrawal of IFOR without replacement in November would mean that there would be no chance of an unchaperoned peace persisting? Does he recognise that the west must now insist on the inviolability of Bosnia's borders and must halt Croatia's quietly annexing Bosnian territory?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that the peace is uneasy across the former Yugoslavia. That is undoubtedly the case. At this stage, it is too early to judge what will be necessary at the time when IFOR withdraws. There is a great deal to be done. Thus far, the military work has been immensely successful. There is quite a lot still to be done on the civilian side. We shall need to make the judgment to which the right hon. Gentleman referred at a later stage.


Q3. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 May.

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

Mr. Greenway: Does my right hon. Friend share the deep concern of the British people and all of us--[Interruption.] I am quoting the Leader of the Opposition, who loves to talk about the British people. We represent the British people here. [Interruption.] Yes, we do, and we always will and the Opposition had better learn that. Does my right hon. Friend share the deep concern of the British people and myself at Ofsted's report today of appallingly low reading standards in three Labour-controlled local authorities? Does he agree that generations of children have been let down educationally and in other ways by the Labour and Liberal parties while the leader of the Labour party and others in that party have rescued their children into Conservative authorities and selective schools but would deny those opportunities to others? [Interruption.] Yes, they would.

The Prime Minister: I do not blame anyone, whoever he or she may be, for taking advantage of Conservative Government reforms on education or on anything else. It is certainly true that Labour Front-Bench Members know an awful lot about schools in Islington and Southwark--sufficient, certainly, to send their children elsewhere.

Mr. David Marshall: Following last Thursday's election results, has the Prime Minister given any thought to how his premiership is perceived by the great British population? Does he not realise that, far from giving an Oscar-winning performance, he is regarded politically as a dead man walking?

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. I can tell him quite sincerely that it is not reciprocated.


Q4. Mr. Riddick: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 May.

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

Mr. Riddick: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will grant export licences for any orders for British beef received from countries outside the European Union? Is it not time for the British Government actively to promote the sale of British beef to countries all over the world, as a clear demonstration to the British public and to British farmers that we will not stand idly by while European farm Ministers destroy this country's beef industry to the benefit of their own?

The Prime Minister: I share the concern and frustration expressed by my hon. Friend. We continue to believe that the ban on British beef products is unjustified and disproportionate. The European Commission President and the Agriculture Commissioner have now accepted that British beef is safe. On that basis, there is no justification for member states retaining the ban. We continue to press the Commission and other member states for a comprehensive framework for the speedy relaxation and complete removal of the ban.

Mr. Faulds: To placate the loony Little Englanders behind him, why does not the Prime Minister--[Interruption.] You will hear me in the end. Why does not the Prime Minister send an expeditionary force under Field Marshal Cash and a gunboat under the lunatically immature Redwood to teach the bloody foreigners a lesson?

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman is well aware of the fact that the view right across my party is that we are better off remaining in the European Union, and I have expressed that view on many occasions. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is aware of who it was who once said:

"Many voters, including myself, are still unconvinced it was a good idea to join the Common Market in the first place."

In case he does not know, it was the shadow Foreign Secretary.


Q5. Mr. Sweeney: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 7 May.

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

Mr. Sweeney: Could my right hon. Friend find time to visit the Vale of Glamorgan in the next few months, where on Thursday there was a local government by-election with a 10 per cent. swing to the Conservatives? Does he agree that that swing shows that the Conservative fight back has started well and truly in the most marginal seats in Britain? Does he agree that the fact that the Labour-controlled Vale of Glamorgan council has just raised council tax by 22 per cent. demonstrates that Labour government, whether locally or nationally, is bad for our pockets?

The Prime Minister: I think that history certainly supports my hon. Friend's claim, and so do current events. The Labour leader and the shadow Transport Secretary both want a higher rate for middle income earners and the deputy leader--alas, missing today--wants a higher top rate of tax. They are in complete turmoil over their plans for child benefit, which amount to an extra 5p on income tax for a family on average earnings. The fact is that raising taxes is the Labour instinct--it is in Labour's blood, and nothing will stop it.

Mr. Wigley: Is the Prime Minister aware of figures published last month which show that, for the first time, gross domestic product per head in the Irish Republic has now passed that of Wales? Does he believe that that is because of the very strong voice that the Irish Republic has in the European Union and the benefits that it receives from that, or is it because of his Government's failure to develop a good spread of well-paid jobs throughout Wales?

The Prime Minister: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a look at some of the jobs in Wales which are the result of inward investment and which would not be there but for the Government. As for the GDP figure, the hon. Gentleman might bear in mind the fact that a substantial amount of the Irish Republic's GDP--5 per cent. or 7 per cent.--is a direct subvention from the European Union.