Previous Section Home Page

Column 801

any doubt that whatever Sinn Fein says, it has rejected the Downing street declaration ? Would he join me in urging Sinn Fein to reconsider its position and would he also agree and confirm to the House that the Government will never do what Mr. Adams

requests--become a persuader of the people of Northern Ireland to join an united Ireland ? Does he recognise that many Conservative Members remain committed to the Union of Northern Ireland and Great Britain ?

Mr. Newton : My hon. Friend will know that my right hon. Friend has on many occasions made clear the position of the British Government on the question of persuasion. Of course, I suspect--in fact, I know--that everybody in the House would urge Sinn Fein to consider seriously a positive response to the joint declaration.

Mrs. Beckett : As Ministers are still proclaiming that "back to basics" is the lodestar guiding Government policy while the Prime Minister is dodging all questions about it, does that not show yet again that "back to basics" is making the Government a laughing stock ?

Mr. Newton : I do not know whether I am sorry to have to say that the right hon. Lady is a bit out of date. My right hon. Friend has today given a clear explanation of the "back to basics" theme and has once again made it clear that it is especially important in such spheres as standards in education, law and order and the provision of public services, and it applies also to the range of our increasingly successful economic and business policies.

Mrs. Beckett : I notice once again that the Lord President's list, and presumably the Prime Minister's, does not include standards in telling the truth about tax. Why are the Government refusing to come clean about the size of the further tax increases that British families will face in 1995 ?

Mr. Newton : What I and my right hon. Friend will continue to emphasise is the contribution that our tax policies are making to the economic strength and improved standards of living in this country.

Mrs. Beckett : As the Lord President must be aware, my hon. Friend the shadow Chief Secretary has tabled questions about the extra taxes that people will pay in 1995, but no answers are being provided. The Government must have the figures--we know that the Government have the figures--and the people of Britain will have to pay the extra tax, so why do the Government not have the guts to tell people how much they will have to pay ?

Mr. Newton : My right hon. and hon. Friends have answered many questions and will continue to answer the questions that the right hon. Lady's colleagues ask-- [Hon. Members :-- "Answer this one."]--but what we want to know from the right hon. Lady is when the Labour party will come clean about its public spending policies which will put up taxes.

Mr. Shersby : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue yesterday told the Public Accounts Committee that some £550 million of unclaimed tax remains to be picked up by taxpayers who have been affected by changes in the tax regime in the past couple of years whereby, for example, women are now assessed independently ? Is he further aware that


Column 802

amounts to about £880,000 per parliamentary constituency ? Will the Government do everything possible to ensure that the Inland Revenue makes that fact known to every taxpayer ?

Mr. Newton : The Government and, I am sure, the Inland Revenue are always anxious to ensure that taxpayers are properly informed of their rights and receive their correct entitlement. I am sure that every effort will be made to achieve what my hon. Friend seeks.

Q2. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 15 February.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

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

Mr. Jones : As the real value of pensions has been falling for many years, following the breaking of the link with earnings, the value of pensions in the United Kingdom is out of line with virtually every other comparable European country, the compensation package for value added tax will not compensate pensioners in full as was promised, and we have had extremely cold weather for the past week, will the Government now introduce a special heating allowance for pensioners ?

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman must have a rather curious source for his statistics, because the truth is that not only have the Government protected the real value of the state retirement pension but the combination of our policies on social security and pensions and in the economic world have led to a position in which pensioners' average real incomes have risen by more than 40 per cent. since the Government took office.

Q3. Lady Olga Maitland : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 15 February.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

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

Lady Olga Maitland : Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the nonsensical advice given by Liberty to truanting schoolchildren that they should defy police and is it not typical that the Labour party tends to support them ?

Mr. Newton : I would certainly join my hon. Friend in condemning the advice which has been reported in the papers today. The Government's efforts to improve the campaign against truancy and to succeed in getting errant pupils back to school--which is where they should be--is, and should be, widely supported. For Liberty to oppose it in the way it does shows that it does not remotely understand the best interests of our children or our schools.

Mr. Jamieson : Will the Leader of the House therefore express his concern that at the end of the March, when the Tory party conference comes to Plymouth, 135 children will miss one and a half days' schooling because of that conference ?

Mr. Newton : I do not suppose that they will be playing truant.


Column 803

Q4. Mr. Whittingdale : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 15 February.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

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

Mr. Whittingdale : Has my right hon. Friend had time to study the recent annual survey of grant-maintained schools, which shows that since becoming grant maintained the schools have been able to recruit more teachers, improve their results and offer better facilities to their pupils ? Does he not therefore find it extraordinary that the Labour and Liberal parties remain committed to the abolition of grant-maintained schools, and that in local government they are waging a relentless campaign of hostility against GM schools, as typified by the behaviour of Essex county council ?

Mr. Newton : My hon. Friend is right that the latest survey confirms the benefit of grant-maintained status. Those schools are achieving improved academic results, better staying-on rates and lower pupil-teacher ratios. They are popular with parents and it is no surprise that well over 1,000 schools have voted in favour of such status. As to my hon. Friend's worries about Essex--his constituency borders mine--he will be as pleased as I am to know that in Essex there are now 63 secondary and 55 primary schools operating with grant-maintained status. That represents 60 per cent. of secondary schools and 17 per cent. of primary schools. In spite of the endeavours to which he refers on the part of Essex county council, the latest school to decide to hold a ballot on such status is The Notley high school, Braintree.

Q6. Mr. Bryan Davies : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 15 February.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

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

Mr. Davies : When my constituents complain about high fuel bills and watch the bosses of privatised utilities coining money, am I to say to them that so far as the Prime Minister is concerned it is nothing to do with him ?

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman's question appears to be founded on a rather curious premise. Electricity prices have decreased by 6 per cent. in real terms in the past two financial years. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know another interesting statistic, I can tell him that, in 1979, the electricity companies--then nationalised--lost the equivalent at today's prices of £465 million. In 1992-93, they paid £420 million to the Exchequer in corporation tax.

Mr. Butcher : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the use of American, French and British planes to bomb the hills around Sarajevo may not necessarily produce lasting peace in Bosnia ? Does he further agree that if the idea is to achieve a demilitarised zone, policed effectively, around Sarajevo, the best chances of so doing are by ensuring that Russian soldiers in United Nations uniform, in integrated units with British and French forces, help in the policing of that zone ?

Mr. Newton : My hon. Friend knows well that the purpose of what has been said and what is being considered in relation to air strikes is to bring about the cessation of the


Column 804

type of bombardment that has taken place in Sarajevo. I think that everyone will want that effort to be successfully completed.

Q7. Mr. Foulkes : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 15 February.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

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

Mr. Foulkes : Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will announce today, by means of a written answer, an increase of 50p in the prescription charge ? Why will there be no oral statement in the House ? Is it because, having taxed the disabled and the divorced, the Government are afraid to face the music and announce that they are to increase tax on the sick ?

Mr. Newton : First, I confirm that an announcement will be made today. Secondly, I confirm that it is not usual for such announcements to be made by way of oral statement. Thirdly, 80 per cent. of prescribed items are now free of charge, compared with 60 per cent. in 1979. Fourthly, prescription charges will raise nearly £300 million in the forthcoming year. Fifthly, that amount will pay for more than 200,000 cataract operations or more than 70,000 hip operations. Sixthly, will the hon. Gentleman tell me where he would find the money ?

Q8. Mr. Nigel Evans : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 15 February.

Mr. Newton : I have been asked to reply.

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

Mr. Evans : Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read the report from 3i--Investors in Industry--which surveyed 500 of the companies in which it invests ? The confidence of those businesses is higher now than it has been since the 3i started the survey in 1988. Is that not further evidence that the Government have the right policies for British business and the British people ?

Mr. Newton : My hon. Friend is right. The survey shows that firms in both the north and south of the country report greater improvement than in the previous survey and that they have become more optimistic about their prospects. British business is now increasingly confident about the economy and about the Government's policies for business.

Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your ruling on the fact that the Secretary of State for Health has declined to make a statement to the House on the 50p increase in prescription charges. The Leader of the House effectively made a statement in Prime Minister's Question Time on the same issue and misled the House into believing that the Government were applying the money to patient care rather than to make up for their political incompetence. Is not it a disgrace that the Government should duck the opportunity to make a clear statement on the increase, which is the 16th increase since they promised in 1979 that they would not increase prescription charges ?


Column 805

Madam Speaker : Ministers always determine whether they answer by means of a written reply or come to the Dispatch Box and make a statement. That is something over which I, as Speaker, have no control.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am seriously concerned that a Minister has misled the House and I seek your general guidance. Last night on the "World in Action" programme, the right hon. Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), the Minister for Health, categorically denied that there was a two-tier system, saying that he had no evidence that such a system was developing in the NHS. The Minister has made the same statement to the House. The programme went on to produce evidence that a two-tier system exists. It showed, for example, that radiotherapy patients were treated, not on the basis of need, but on the ability to pay through GP fundholding. Has the Minister said whether he intends to make a statement to the House to acknowledge that the two-tier system exists and to admit that he has misled the House ?

Madam Speaker : The hon. Lady would not expect me to comment on something that was on television last night and which I did not even see. It is up to the Minister to decide whether he wishes to come to the House to make a statement. It is not a point of order for me.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that it has never been the practice to have oral statements in the House on prescription charges, either under the Conservative Government or the previous Labour Government, who were always deeply embarrassed by increasing prescription charges ?

Madam Speaker : If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Official Report tomorrow he will see that the Leader of House has dealt with that matter.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You are, of course, aware of the severe weather affecting most of the country. In view of the agonising difficulties faced by so many elderly people on low incomes, is there any way that the House can this week ask the Minister to make a statement on whether cold weather payments can be made and all the red tape regulations removed ? Those payments are not made unless there are seven days of freezing weather. The welfare of the old should have priority.

Madam Speaker : The hon. Gentleman asks me for procedural advice across the Floor of the House which he knows that I do not give.

Ms Liz Lynne (Rochdale) : Further to the original point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order for the press to hear about the proposed rise in prescription charges before the House ? Would it not have been better if the Secretary of State had come and made a statement so that we could have questioned her on the subject ?

Madam Speaker : I dealt with that matter earlier. I believe that the answer to the question was available at precisely 3.30 pm today.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have received a fax of a letter sent to the leader of Liverpool city council, Councillor Harry Rimmer, by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield


Column 806

(Sir N. Fowler) in which he invites him to join the organisation, Team 1000. He has been invited to attend functions and briefings at Westminster at which Cabinet Members, Ministers and Members of Parliament will be present. Is it in order for Ministers of the Crown to abuse their office by inviting people here for party fund-raising purposes ?

Madam Speaker : The fax was sent by a Back-Bench Member of the House, not a Minister. I receive all sorts of mail shots inviting me to all manner of functions, all of which find their way into the waste paper basket.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. At Question Time today, the Leader of House said that the Prime Minister had made a further statement on the "back to basics" policy. We are told that theme has permeated the whole of Government policy since the Prime Minister's speech to the party conference last October. Therefore, is it not time that the Prime Minister was asked not to give statements to correspondents and at press conferences, but to make a statement to the House about that policy ? He should, at the very least, place a copy of his speech and his thinking on the "back to basics" policy in the Library.

Madam Speaker : The Prime Minister is normally here a couple of times a week to answer questions. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will catch my eye soon so that he can put his question to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I understand that a major announcement in connection with rail privatisation is being made at this moment by way of a written answer and a press conference. The statement will reveal a huge increase in access charges for railway operators and, ultimately, huge increases in costs for taxpayers and passengers. The announcement has been delayed by almost a year ; the firm of Coopers and Lybrand has been paid £1.6 million to come up with the access-charging fiasco. Surely, the House is as entitled as the press to a full statement of Government intentions so that

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman will recall that I ruled on that matter in answer to an earlier point of order. It is for Ministers to determine whether they make announcements by means of written answers or through oral statements. It is something over which I have no control. I have already made a ruling on that.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is there some form of sanction that the Chair can take against hon. Members who persistently raise bogus points of order ?

Madam Speaker : It is a very good question, but I fear not. It is up to individual hon. Members to exercise restraint and to use the procedures of the House properly and correctly, not abuse them.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I understand what you say about Ministers determining whether they make announcements by means of an oral statement or a written answer, but surely the Speaker has the power, if he or she so determines, to summon a Minister, especially if there is pressure in Parliament to require a Minister to make a statement here. That must be right ; otherwise how could


Column 807

Speaker Lenthall have told the King that the Speaker could be instructed only by Parliament ? Surely Ministers are inferior, not superior, to Parliament and to the Speaker.

Madam Speaker : As the hon. Gentleman is fully aware, the Speaker of the House has no authority whatever to demand that Ministers come here to make statements. It is for Ministers themselves to decide whether they do that, and the Speaker has no authority in so determining.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. We understand that the Tory Whips are busily arranging marriages for certain Conservative Members. If such marriages were arranged, would it be in order for them to be performed in St. Stephen's Crypt ?

Madam Speaker : That is barely a point of order for me--and on that note we pass on to the presentation of Bills.


Column 808

BILLS PRESENTED

Referendum (Scotland)

Mrs. Ray Michie, supported by Mr. James Wallace, Mr. Archy Kirkwood, Sir Russell Johnston, Sir David Steel and Mr. Menzies Campbell, presented a Bill to make provision for the holding of a referendum, for all peon Friday 11 March, and to be printed. [Bill 50.]

Marriage (Amendment)

Mr Harry Cohen, supported by Mr. David Clelland, Mr. John Garrett and Mr. Neil Gerrard, presented a Bill to amend the Marriage Act 1949 : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 11 March, and to be printed. [Bill 51.]


Next Section (Debates)

  Home Page