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1992 - PMQT 21st May 1992

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 21st May 1992.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Chris Smith : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Smith : The Prime Minister must be aware that this year there will be some 150,000 homeless families in Britain, that many more thousands of our fellow citizens are living in overcrowded and inadequate accommodation, that thousands of construction workers are unemployed and that local authorities have more than £6 billion worth of capital receipts which the Government do not allow them to use because of current Government rules. Will the Prime Minister now allow the local authorities to use their money to build the homes that are needed? Surely that is a matter of simple common sense, and of simple humanity, too.

The Prime Minister : As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have a homelessness programme on which more than £300 million was spent last year and which has produced about 17,000 permanent lettings during the past two years for the benefit of homeless families. Local authorities can still learn a great deal about value for money by looking at that programme and in the management of their housing affairs. We have no plans at present to change the present regulations on the release of capital resources.

Mr. Moate : Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement the other day that the sovereignty of the House was not up for grabs was warmly welcomed? Bearing in mind the fact that the original European Communities legislation was carried through in a way that precluded the possibility of any amendment whatever, will my right hon. Friend allow a rather more open- minded attitude to any amendments that might come forward to the current Bill which seek to strengthen the sovereignty of this Parliament in relation to future developments in the EC?

The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend will know, it is not possible to change the terms of the treaty, although that does not necessarily exclude extensive debate and, in certain circumstances, amendment. But the treaty that we have agreed is the treaty to which we shall be inviting the House to give its approval.

Mr. Kinnock : Does the Prime Minister recall saying on the radio in January :

"We"--

meaning himself--

"stopped the repossessions before Christmas."

Would he still make that same claim now?

The Prime Minister : Yes, I think that the range of schemes that has been produced by the building societies has led to the stopping of many repossessions that would otherwise have taken place, and it is now quite clear that the number is falling away. Where people are entitled--it was to this point that I suspect that I was referring--to income support payments, those payments can be made and repossessions should not continue.

Mr. Kinnock : The Prime Minister was right to suspect what he was saying. It provoked exactly the same reaction in me. Does he recall that the Chancellor of the Exchequer promised in December that his mortgage rescue scheme would reduce repossessions by 40,000? Yet, according to replies from his own Ministers, in the first three months of this year, action was started against 42,000 families. Will he not now concede that the scheme has been a complete flop and start taking steps to ensure that we have an effective scheme before thousands more families are put out of their homes?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman knows that repossessions occur at any time--not just at times of difficulties. There have been repossessions at times when this country's economy has been the strongest ever known--and often they are because of domestic difficulties in the families themselves. Everyone regrets owner-occupiers losing their homes, but the right hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that only about 0.5 per cent. of home owners have had their properties repossessed. He ought to put that in the context of what happened in the past as well.

Mr. Kinnock : Does not the Prime Minister recognise that for the small percentage of home owners to which he referred, repossession is a 100 per cent. tragedy? Does he acknowledge that many more families are under intense pressures? Will he not address himself to the fact that it is necessary, in a country in which there could again be 80, 000 repossessions this year, for the Government to introduce a proper mortgage rescue scheme? It makes no sense at all to put thousands of families out of their homes.

The Prime Minister : We have done so. As the right hon. Gentleman clearly did not take this on board last time, I reiterate that the measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor are helping people facing difficulties. Many lenders have agreed not to repossess where mortgage interest is covered by income support. That is the position. Rescheduling is proving particularly helpful. The right hon. Gentleman ought not to be so hypocritical. His party would have denied nearly 1.5 million people the opportunity to become home owners in the first place.

Dr. Michael Clark : Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at the last election, several old and disabled people in my constituency--and I suspect elsewhere--did not vote because doctors wanted to charge £8 for a sick note that would have allowed them a postal vote? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that situation ought not to prevail and that some greedy doctors should not deny old and disabled people the vote? Will he think about that matter and see what can be done in time for the next general election?

The Prime Minister : I was not aware of that situation, and I will invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to examine it.


Fixed-term Parliaments

Q2. Mr. Mackinlay : To ask the Prime Minister if he will make it his policy to introduce legislation for fixed-term parliaments.

The Prime Minister : I have no plans to do so. The present system serves the country well.

Mr. Mackinlay : Will the Prime Minister reflect that there will be disappointment across the political parties, and among democrats of no party, at his closed mind on the introduction of fixed-term Parliaments? It is wholly wrong that Prime Ministers of any party can manipulate the calendar--[ Hon. Members :-- "Question."] Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the capacity of any Prime Minister to manipulate the decision-making process by choosing the timing of a general election to create a window of opportunity is wholly undemocratic and betrays the right hon. Gentleman's bogus concern for reform?

The Prime Minister : I think that that question had more than a touch of sour grapes about it. We rightly have a fixed-term maximum for Parliaments and that will be retained. Flexibility within that maximum is part of our constitution. That is right and helpful and it is not going to be changed.


Q3. Mr. Ancram : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 May.

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

Mr. Ancram : Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the early encouraging progress of the negotiations in Brussels on reforming the common agricultural policy? Will he congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on continuing firmly to resist the MacSharry proposals that would be so damaging to British agriculture? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, if the agreement on the table is successfully concluded, that will result in a better than expected deal for British farmers which will be good for British consumers and provide a boost to the prospects of future world trade?

The Prime Minister : Progress does appear to be being made and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on that. I hope that that progress will be sustained today and that, however long the negotiations go on, it will lead to a settlement. The negotiations are continuing ; they have not yet been concluded, as has been reported in some quarters. If we do succeed, it will be good news for the British farmer, the British consumer, the GATT negotiations, world trade and many developing countries.

Mr. Ashdown : The Prime Minister told us before the election that inflation was licked. The Chancellor told us on Tuesday that inflation was proving a hard nut to crack. Which is correct?

The Prime Minister : As the right hon. Gentleman knows, if he looks at the input measures of inflation--particularly producer price inflation-- he will find that it is now at its lowest level for almost 20 years and is forecast to be around 1.5 per cent. by mid-1993. I think that most people, bearing in mind our historical position, would regard that as inflation being licked.


Q4. Mrs. Gorman : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 May.

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

Mrs. Gorman : When my right hon. Friend goes down to Rio for the Earth summit, will he find room in his bag for a copy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration report? The report casts grave doubt on the concept of the greenhouse effect. Is my right hon. Friend aware that it points out, for example, that the evidence of holes in the ozone layer is extremely suspect and that there has been no appreciable increase in the temperature of the earth over the past two decades? In the light of that, will he please continue to resist the blandishments of people who seek to impose a carbon energy tax--which would have a severe effect on our industry--on the ground that the whole concept of global warming will probably turn out to be poppycock?

The Prime Minister : I have a number of reports on the ozone layer, including the report produced by NASA. I know that a number of contrary views have been expressed about the cause and effect of the ozone layer. We do take the matter seriously and we shall therefore look very carefully at any proposals for a carbon tax from the European Community. There can, of course, be no question of the Community's unilaterally imposing a carbon tax on this country--or, I believe, of Europe's accepting such a tax itself --unless comparable action is taken by Japan, the United States and other competitor countries.

Mr. Hume : In the classless society that the Prime Minister tells us that he has built, how would he like to be unemployed? How would he like it if his family were in special need and if, instead of receiving a grant--as they could have before the right hon. Gentleman became Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security--they received a loan from the social fund which they had to repay out of their unemployment benefit? Does the Prime Minister agree that the social fund is targeting the poor and recycling and intensifying poverty?

The Prime Minister : No, I do not agree with that. The hon. Gentleman would do well to bear in mind the reason for which the social fund was introduced, and the failures that existed in the old single payments scheme. Then, many people who were entitled to help fell through the system because they did not come into a particular category. The social fund was introduced to provide a degree of flexibility and that is what it has done. It has done it well and I believe that it has served its purpose very well indeed.


Q5. Mr. Simon Coombs : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 May.

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

Mr. Coombs : Does my right hon. Friend agree that police officers who do well a difficult and often very dangerous job deserve our full confidence and support? Does he therefore welcome the review announced yesterday by our right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary which will do much to reinforce the determination of the police to continue to maintain public confidence in my own county of Wiltshire and throughout the country?

The Prime Minister : Yes, I very much welcome the review announced by my right hon. and learned Friend and I am delighted that the chairman of the Police Federation also gave it a generous welcome yesterday. In the fight against crime, it is essential that the police adopt every means of increasing their efficiency. I know that that is what the police wish to do ; it is what the public wish to see them do ; and I hope that the review will help to bring it about.

Mr. Robert Hughes : In relation to the Maxwell pensioners, has the Prime Minister seen the "Dear Colleague" letter sent out by the Secretary of State for Social Services in lieu of a statement, which says, of the Maxwell pensioners who are having their pension money stopped, "Hard cheese. Put yourself at the mercy of the social security system"? In relation to the premature winding up of pension schemes, the Secretary of State simply says that he does not think that that will happen. While I appreciate that today the Under-Secretary of State is seeing representatives of British International Helicopter employees, does not the Prime Minister accept that the Secretary of State's reaction is grossly inadequate? Will he therefore take personal charge and make sure that these people get justice?

The Prime Minister : I think that everyone in the House will sympathise with the plight of the Maxwell pensioners and scheme members. Every hon. Member knows how that problem came about. We have already promised that we shall secure pensions to the level of the guaranteed minimum pension for those who have been contracted out of SERPS since 1978, but until what precisely went wrong is a little clearer, we cannot sensibly say what should be done to put the matter right. The hon. Gentleman may know, however, that we intimated some time ago that the Government propose to review the framework of the law and regulations within which occupational pension schemes operate. We shall be making detailed announcements on the scope of that review shortly. Then, in due course, we shall respond to the Committee's detailed report and recommendations on Maxwell, but at the moment a great deal more information needs to be uncovered.