HC Deb 04 February 1997 vol 289 cc795-800
Q1. Mr. Davidson

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 February. [12530]

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. Davidson

Will the Prime Minister give a clear, unequivocal commitment that he will allow the Wirral, South by-election to proceed?

The Prime Minister

The Wirral, South by-election is proceeding.

Q2. Mr. Rowe

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 February. [12531]

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Rowe

The Lib-Lab coalition that runs Kent county council has said that it requires a grant increase of no less than 10 per cent. merely to stand still. Does the Prime Minister know of any other councils that are making a similarly absurd demand?

The Prime Minister

I do not yet know what other absurd demands may come, but I have no doubt that the natural appetite for spending of so many Labour and Liberal-controlled local authorities will mean that there are quite a number of substantially above inflation demands for increased council tax. When the shadow Chancellor talks about Labour's plans for public spending, he clearly does not talk for the Labour local councils, which spend and spend and must then tax and tax.

Mr. Blair

In respect of the Ofsted report, does the Prime Minister agree that the inspectors found much to praise and many competent and hard-working teachers, but that they also found severe problems in literacy, numeracy and, in particular, with a significant minority of head teachers? Given the central importance of leadership by a head in a school, does he agree that it is sensible at least to consider making the new national competence qualification a requirement for all new and aspiring head teachers, so mat, over time, this weakness can be remedied to the benefit of our children?

The Prime Minister

I agree with a great deal of what the right hon. Gentleman said. Undoubtedly there has been an improvement in the past year—that is clear from Mr. Woodhead's report, and I am delighted to see that. It shows that the quality of teaching is satisfactory or better in the majority of schools, and I am pleased about that. I particularly congratulate those schools singled out for special praise by the chief inspector on the basis of the inspection evidence. I believe that they will provide a real example.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the professional qualification for headship will be available nationally from September. It will equip aspiring heads with the skills necessary to lead and manage a school and it may, over time, be desirable to make it a requirement. I would like to see how it works in the short term, but I certainly would not rule that out.

Mr. Gale

I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my desire that transport safety standards across and under the channel should improve. Does he agree, however, that proposals from Brussels to make cross-channel ferries list the names and addresses of every man, woman and child travelling backwards and forwards on day trips is a bureaucratic nonsense and wholly unnecessary? Will he resist it, please?

The Prime Minister

I agree, both about taking whatever action is necessary to assure safety and about ensuring that action is not taken that will not help on safety grounds but will simply add to costs, the price of tickets and bureaucracy.

Q3. Mr. Janner

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 February. [12532]

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Janner

Has the Prime Minister seen the findings of the Employment Policy Institute, which show that some 4 million people in this country are seeking work? In those circumstances, will he use his speech in Brussels tonight to explain to our European partners why the Government's so-called unemployment figures are rigged, inaccurate and deliberately misleading, and that the only people in this country who deserve to be unemployed are the clapped-out, stale and fag-end Government?

The Prime Minister

The hon. and learned Gentleman gives me the opportunity to tell the House that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 39 per cent. In due course, perhaps, the Labour candidate will add one to the figure at the general election. In reality, unemployment in this country is 6.7 per cent. and falling, compared with more than 4 million in Germany, 3 million in France and nearly 3 million in Italy. Indeed, 18.5 million people are unemployed in the European Union, and we have created more jobs in this country in recent years than the rest of the European Union added together. I shall send the hon. and learned Gentleman a copy of the speech that I shall make this evening, so that in future he may be better informed.

Mr. MacGregor

As rail privatisation completes its final stages, does the Prime Minister agree that it already demonstrates substantial benefits for both passengers and taxpayers? Is not its success one of the main reasons why the Labour party, which bitterly opposed rail privatisation through all its parliamentary stages, as it did with nearly every other privatisation, is all at sea over its policy?

The Prime Minister

It is undoubtedly the case that the Labour party has not supported a single privatisation until it has proved to be a success, at which point it pays lip service to it. Under Labour, none of the privatisations would have taken place. It certainly bitterly attacked rail privatisation, which has now increased investment, increased rolling stock, improved services, provided extra service and saved the taxpayer a substantial amount. [Interruption.] It is, in short, a success, and no doubt that is why the Labour party wishes to shout it down.

Q4. Mr. MacShane

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 February. [12533]

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. MacShane

Is the Prime Minister aware that his Chancellor is proposing so to increase air passenger duty that a family of four will pay an extra £80 on a family holiday? How does he justify that increased tax on children and family holidays?

The Prime Minister

It will be interesting to see which of Labour's expenditure proposals it will ditch to keep within the spending and tax plans that the shadow Chancellor has apparently endorsed. Is it not remarkable that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has had from the shadow Chancellor the most remarkable endorsement of his economic policy that any Chancellor has ever received? On every single tax and spending decision, this year and next, the shadow Chancellor agrees that my right hon. and learned Friend is infallible.

Sir Peter Tapsell

May I put it to my right hon. Friend that there is no such thing as a stable currency, except for relatively short periods, and that any political party that sought to base its policies on such a misconception would merely demonstrate its complete ignorance of the way in which foreign exchange markets operate in practice?

The Prime Minister

With the growth in importance of exchange markets and the growth in currency passing daily across exchange markets, my hon. Friend's point is undeniable.

Q5. Mr. Loyden

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 February. [12534]

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Loyden

On several occasions, and again today, the Prime Minister has told the House that the economic policies pursued by his Government have been responsible for inward investment and job creation in Britain. How does he square that claim with the fact that 1,300 jobs at Ford on Merseyside, as well as many others, are threatened? Is it not time that the Prime Minister woke up to the fact that jobs are being lost daily throughout the country? As far as I know—I have checked with the Library—Merseyside is still part of Britain.

The Prime Minister

It is Conservative policy to keep every part of the United Kingdom within the United Kingdom. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not support policies that might force an important part of the United Kingdom out of the United Kingdom.

Of course I am concerned about the implications of the job losses at Ford as a result of the rationalisation of its business in the United Kingdom and abroad. However, the hon. Gentleman must recognise that, despite those job losses, unemployment has fallen by 130,000 in the past two months.

Mr. Skinner

Fiddled figures, and 4 million out of work.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) seeks to deny the reality of falling unemployment. He lives in his own dream world, where he may best be left. The reality is that unemployment is falling throughout the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden) will know that people from areas such as Merseyside, where Ford has withdrawn its jobs, have been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Industry to see what assistance may be provided.

Mr. William Powell

Will my right hon. Friend make available three days of Government time next week to give the whole House the opportunity to discuss a Government motion congratulating the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) on his candour in admitting that the Opposition have ample scope for huge tax increases? Such a debate would also allow the House to discuss Opposition Members' widespread hopes and expectations that there will be a £30 billion increase in public expenditure, even though that is denied by Labour Front Benchers. Does my right hon. Friend believe that we should discuss the Opposition's extraordinary agreement to Government economic targets as laid down by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure that I can immediately offer three days for debate, but we would certainly require three days to explain the distinction between the remarks of the hon. Member for Oldham, West and those of the shadow Chancellor. It was an outburst of candour from the hon. Member for Oldham, West and also from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), the Opposition Deputy Chief Whip, who presumably has some idea of Labour's tax and spending policies. I cannot promise a three-day debate, but I can promise to mention that point on every necessary occasion.

Q6. Mr. Hain

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 February. [12535]

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Hain

How does the Prime Minister reconcile his assurance to the chairman of the Japanese equivalent of the CBI that he supports a single currency and would take Britain into it, with his assurance to the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) that he opposes a single currency and would block British entry? Which of those views—personally expressed by him—is correct, or are they both "infallible"?

The Prime Minister

No, they are both incorrect.

Q7. Sir Ivan Lawrence

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 4 February. [12536]

The Prime Minister

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

Sir Ivan Lawrence

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate a firm in my constituency, Technic Holdings, which is now the world leader in manufacturing tyre re-treads? [Laughter.] Will he note the laughter from Opposition Members about a firm that has increased its work force from four to 450 in nine years, and that uses 70 men to produce the tyres that 300 men are needed to produce in its German competitor, which it has now seen off? Its managing director and chairman have given three reasons for its success: first, the excellence of its workers; secondly, the enterprise culture created by the Government; and, thirdly, the throttling effect of Euro-legislation and German state taxes.

The Prime Minister

My hon. and learned Friend illustrates clearly where the new jobs are coming from. No doubt the hon. Member for Bolsover would say that those fresh jobs created in my hon. and learned Friend's constituency were fiddled jobs, but they are real jobs. They are jobs that would not have been created but for the Government's policies.