HC Deb 16 April 1996 vol 275 cc506-10
Q1. Mr. O'Hara

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 April. [23493]

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. O'Hara

Has the Prime Minister yet had time to read the remarks of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), the mastermind of the Conservative campaign for the South-East Staffordshire by-election? Writing for the Rutland and Stamford Mercury just a few hours before polling, the hon. Gentleman observed that many people imagined that Labour would win the seat with ease, and he made the immortal comment that nothing could be further from the truth. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that that same hon. Member will be put in charge of all future by-elections and the general election?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman would perhaps be wiser not to be quite so smug as he was a moment ago. I advise him to talk to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant), who will explain that by-election losses become general election gains.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) is perfectly free to pay more tax if she wishes to do so now? Has she not blown the gaff on what the Labour party would do if it were ever elected to office? It would put up taxes—income tax and everything else—as it always has.

The Prime Minister

I welcome the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short) to the Chamber and I am delighted that she has been untied and ungagged and has been permitted to attend this afternoon. It was extremely unfair to pillory her. Just as the deputy leader of the Labour party tells us that he has joined the middle classes the hon. Lady decides to increase their taxes.

Mr. Blair

The last person in this country to lecture us about honesty in tax is the Prime Minister—people remember the pledge not to raise VAT before the last election. What reasons would the Prime Minister give for the Conservative party's humiliating defeat in that by-election?

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to talk about taxes—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] He raised it. Perhaps he would care to refer to the unattributable briefing that he gave on the plane, and subsequently denied, in which he made it clear that taxes would go up at £40,000 and higher. Subsequently, when challenged it was claimed that the conversation never took place. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."]

Mr. Blair

It is interesting that they always want me to answer the questions: in a few months' time they will get their wish.

Is not one reason for the Conservative defeat perhaps the fact that people do not want their railway system broken into 100 different companies and sold on the cheap; they do not want the sale laced with sweeteners paid for from taxpayers' money; and they do not want hundreds of millions of pounds spent on the sale? In fact, the vast majority of people want that money to be spent on improving the system as a public service.

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that paying a dividend to shareholders is a sweetener, it shows how little he actually understands about the private sector system. It is clear, for all his weasel words, that he simply does not understand how the private sector works. The sooner that he learns, the sooner people might take seriously the ludicrous suggestion that the Labour party understands the modern economy.

Mr. Blair

What we do understand is that the public do not want their railway system broken up and sold. Is not an underlying reason for the Conservative party defeat the fact that people simply do not trust the Conservatives any more? They do not trust them on railways, on tax or on the health service. The sooner they get the chance to say so loud and clear, the better for Britain.

The Prime Minister

I suppose that it is best to reprise the old favourites while one has the chance. When talking about the Labour party and the railway service, the right hon. Gentleman should recall that the Labour Government closed more than 600 stations; we have opened more than 220. Under Labour, fares rose by 20 per cent.; we have frozen them in line with the retail prices index and they will drop. When the right hon. Gentleman talks about the costs of privatisation, he should bear in mind the fact that there will be £10 billion of new private sector investment to improve the services for rail users. That could not have happened in the public sector; it did not happen in the public sector—

Mr. Prescott

We did it.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman may say, "We did it", but I can tell him what the Labour Government did—they closed station after station after station. We have opened them and I will not let the right hon. Gentleman forget that.

Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the good news of the week—that retail beef sales in Britain are back to 85 per cent. of what they were before the beef scare?

The Prime Minister

I am glad that the beef market is recovering. Even the Commission President and the Agriculture Commissioner now admit that British beef is safe. It is abundantly clear that, as we have always maintained, the export ban on British beef imposed by the Community was motivated more by the interests of other countries' beef markets than by public health. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Agriculture Minister will announce shortly, we have decided to take legal action against the totally unjustified ban on British beef.

Mr. Ashdown

Does the Prime Minister realise that the problem with the railways is not more competition but the way in which the Government have sought to go about it? Is he aware that that has resulted in 70 per cent. of passenger services in London and the south-east getting worse since privatisation started; in £69 million of taxpayers' money being spent to make Railtrack shares saleable; and in a £900 million increase in the salaries of Railtrack directors? Is not it perfectly clear that if the Government get their way with our railways, passenger trains will take second place to gravy trains?—[Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) suggests from a sedentary position that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has the same scriptwriter as the Leader of the Opposition. That is true.

The right hon. Member for Yeovil is wrong. Taking Railtrack back into public ownership would cripple the economy, as the Liberal Democrats said in their transport document. The right hon. Gentleman clearly does not understand that the £69 million is a dividend payment.

As for the service that the industry offers, I invite the right hon. Gentleman to consider the extra 600 trains a week that South West Trains will be running. Would those trains be running if the industry was still nationalised? What happened to the special offers for senior citizens, including £1 travel days, when the industry was in the public sector? What about the programme of improvements to stations, passenger facilities, lighting, security and waiting rooms? Those improvements are being made when the industry is in the private sector. They were not made when it was in the public sector, when the attitude of those in the public sector disgracefully let down the travelling public. We intend to improve that attitude.

Mr. Dover

Will the Prime Minister confirm that, under his leadership, Conservative Members will faithfully serve and look after the interests of the working class, in marked contrast to some Opposition Members?

The Prime Minister

The deputy leader of the Labour party is blushing. It is such an agreeable and unusual sight that I shall not add to his embarrassment.

Q2. Mr. Bill Michie

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 April. [23494]

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Michie

Does the Prime Minister understand the outrage that is felt when almost £1 million of profit from the publicly owned Railtrack is to go towards huge bonuses to just six directors of a privatised rail company? Is not that an example of taking from the many and giving to the few?

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman is really concerned about taking from the many and giving to the few—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I will come directly to the hon. Gentleman's question in my own way—he might, first, have a look at his own local authority, which might collect the £558 million of debt that it is owed.

Mr. Michie


The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman says "rubbish". Yes; in collecting its debts, Sheffield is rubbish. It does not collect its debts or make its interest payments, and it has massive council tax arrears. That is what Labour is like in power, in the phrase of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair).

On the bonus payment, Railtrack is proposing precisely the type of long-term performance bonus that has been recommended by Greenbury and urged on us by Opposition Front Benchers.

Q3. Mr. Clifton-Brown

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 April. [23495]

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a fair tax system is a low-tax system? Did he see the article in the Sunday Express, in which the leader of the Labour party told journalists that the top rate of tax would be raised for those on £30,000 or more? That figure was subsequently quickly amended to £40,000 and subsequently denied altogether by the Labour party's spin doctors. Does he agree that the unscripted remarks by the Labour transport spokesman are a very useful contribution to the debate on the Labour party's tax policy?

Madam Speaker

Order. As the hon. Gentleman knows, questions should be related to the Government's responsibilities. We will now take the next question.

Q4. Mr. Illsley

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 16 April. [23496]

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Illsley

Is the Prime Minister aware that, as of 1 April, thousands of disabled people will lose up to £30 a week as a result of his Government's decision to withdraw reduced earnings allowance and to replace it with retirement allowance? Will the Prime Minister reconsider that decision in view of the extreme hardship that that decision will cause to less-well-off members of our society?

The Prime Minister

We have taken a number of measures to improve the particular circumstances of people who are disabled. That is clear across a range of disability benefits and in the Disability Discrimination Act that the House passed just last year. If the hon. Gentleman is advocating more expenditure, I hope that—

Mr. Illsley

indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

If the hon. Gentleman is not advocating more expenditure than at present, I fail to understand what his question is about. If he is, I would like to know precisely how he is going to fund it and how much the tax increase will be for that and the many other areas where Labour wishes to spend more.

Mr. Brooke

As the cricket season starts, does my right hon. Friend take encouragement from the fact that this summer at the Oval we shall see the 50th anniversary of the longest and largest stand for the last wicket in the history of English cricket? Does he recognise that nothing in cricket exasperates the Opposition or cheers up the batting side as much?

The Prime Minister

As it happens, I was aware of that particular anniversary. I look forward at the Oval to seeing many performances like that by Surrey, and perhaps by England. I have absolutely no doubt that, politically, we shall see their equivalent.

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