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Sir Patrick Mayhew : I entirely agree. [Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] I, too, express my greetings to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) on her arrival in the Chamber on this felicitous day. From the other side of the Atlantic there has come a chorus of condemnation of the Provisionals for the continuance of their wicked and inexcusable violence. That is down to the two Governments' standing side by side with the constitutional parties in rejecting violence for political ends. I very much agree with what my hon. Friend said.
7. Dr. Godman : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what recent representations he has received concerning the disbursement of European Community structural funds ; and if he will make a statement.
Sir John Wheeler : As part of the continuing process of consultation with local organisations, Ministers and officials have received numerous representations on the use of structural funds money in Northern Ireland.
Dr. Godman : Given the immensely important role played by the voluntary sector in bringing and keeping people together, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the voluntary and community groups are brought into the deliberations concerning the European programmes and that they have adequate representation on the monitoring programmes that will determine how such funds are spent in Northern Ireland ?
Sir John Wheeler : My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State and I are grateful to the voluntary groups for their contribution to the life of Northern Ireland. When the Commission has made known its agreement to our proposals we shall consider establishing a monitoring committee. I am sure that it will be possible to bring into that committee appropriate representation from the voluntary sector to assist in the disbursement of the funds that will be available to us over the next six years.
Q1. Mrs. Bridget Prentice : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 17 March.
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.
Mrs. Prentice : In the light of today's newspaper reports, does the Attorney-General still have the full confidence of the Prime Minister ?
The Prime Minister : The Attorney-General has my full and complete confidence. He has made it perfectly clear today, in the light of the reports in this morning's newspapers, that he has no knowledge of any approach by MI6 to him or to his office asking that the Matrix Churchill prosecution should be stopped. He has received no notification from the Scott inquiry that any such evidence has been given to it, and the inquiry has made it clear that it cannot recall that any such evidence has been given.
Q2. Mr. Bellingham : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 17 March.
The Prime Minister : I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Bellingham : Will the Prime Minister find time today to plan a visit to Birmingham and Manchester city councils, where he will find debt at the same level as the national debts of Paraguay and El Salvador ? Is it not a disgrace that those Labour-controlled councils, encouraged by Opposition Members, have betrayed not only their electorates but future generations ? Is not it time that they were flung out of office ?
The Prime Minister : Those councils certainly have a very poor record, as my hon. Friend says, and although the people of Birmingham and Manchester have a great deal of which they can be proud, in Birmingham, certainly, the people cannot be proud of the record of their Labour council. Of every £10 that Birmingham receives in council tax it now has to spend £7 on servicing its debt, but when one considers many other Labour authorities one realises that it is by no means alone in that appalling record.
Mrs. Beckett : Does not the Prime Minister realise that he need look no further than Westminster, which has a debt higher than that of Mongolia ? Will he join me in welcoming the fact that the average council tax to be charged in Labour local authority areas this year will be £40 lower than the average council tax to be charged in Tory areas ?
The Prime Minister : On the right hon. Lady's first point about debt, she might bear in mind the fact that Islington owes more than Togo, Camden more than Chad, Bradford more than Botswana and Leeds more than Lesotho. As for council tax, the right hon. Lady knows very well that she is not comparing band for band or like with like. When she compares band for band she will see that Conservative councils are many tens of pounds-- in some cases more than £100--cheaper.
Mrs. Beckett : Does not the Prime Minister realise that the measure that we have consistently used not only gives the best overall picture but is the measure with which the Government started out ? It is the measure that was used by both the Department of the Environment and Conservative central office in their documents. Is not the truth that the Government changed the measure only when they realised that it showed that people pay less in Labour local council areas ? Is not that the reason why ?
The Prime Minister : I must say that the right hon. Lady is being extremely silly and is talking rubbish. What the figures show across the country is that Conservative-controlled local authorities set far lower council taxes than do Labour. So far this year the figures Mrs. Beckett indicated dissent.
The Prime Minister : It is no good the right hon. Lady shaking her head : it is quite true. The figures show that where Labour controls both tiers of English local government the average council tax is £560 for a band C property, over £130 more than the Conservative average of £429. However the right hon. Lady wriggles, she will find that pattern across the country.
Mrs. Beckett : It is the Prime Minister who is wriggling. He started off with average measures of council tax, he went on to quote band D and now he is quoting band C. Is not this just further evidence that we are fast reaching the stage where the Government are incapable of telling the truth about taxation ? In local government or national government, with the Conservatives one pays more and one gets less.
The Prime Minister : If the right hon. Lady wants to see some high taxes in local government she should look in the mirror, for it is her party which is providing them. Of the 10 highest council taxes announced, seven are from Labour local authorities and none has been set by a Conservative authority. Of the 10 lowest council taxes announced, none comes from a Labour authority. Five of the 10 districts announcing the lowest bills are under Conservative control. Whatever the hon. Lady has to say, she cannot hide the fact that one gets a better deal under Conservative councils, that the services are better and that the council tax is lower. Though she wriggles from here to next Tuesday, she cannot hide that fact.
Mr. Knapman : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his robust stance to date on qualified majority voting. Does he agree that it will be in the best interests of both the country and the party if that robust stance is maintained ?
The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in the middle of negotiations that are important for the future of the European Community and for us, and I have no intention of being moved by synthetic efforts at pressure from any source. We shall defend the country's best interests in those negotiations and I am entirely confident that that can be done in an acceptable way without any question of delaying enlargement.
Mr. Ashdown : Why does the Prime Minister not realise that investing the £900 million necessary to provide fully funded, high-quality nursery education, available to every three and four-year-old in the country, is the best
Column 1013investment that the country can make ? Instead of raising taxes to prepare for tax bribes at the next election, why will he not invest to prepare our children for the next century ?
The Prime Minister : The right hon. Gentleman has said that he would raise taxes and he has made that clear. I hope that everyone understands that. We have made it perfectly clear that, as and when resources are available, we shall move towards further nursery education, towards universal nursery education. The reports that may have excited the right hon. Gentleman's interest earlier this week in one national newspaper were wrong.
Mr. Marland : As my right hon. Friend is aware, the report of the forestry review group is now in the hands of Ministers. As my right hon. Friend recognises, the Forestry Commission is included in the review. Not only by my constituents in the forest of Dean but throughout the nation, the Forestry Commission is held in high esteem. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, before any decisions are made in the light of the report, interested parties will have the opportunity to comment ?
The Prime Minister : Of course we are examining the report carefully and will seek a good deal of consultation. We have the report, we are examining it and it will be some while before we reach a decision.
Q3. Mr. Austin-Walker : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 17 March.
The Prime Minister : I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Austin-Walker : Has the Prime Minister seen the report today which shows that the response times of the London ambulance service have worsened since the Secretary of State intervened to sort out the chaos ? In view of the inability of the London ambulance service to come anywhere near patients charter standards, does it make sense to close up to 10 of London's accident and emergency units--or is it nothing to do with him ?
The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman knows that, in terms of London health, we are seeking first to make sure that we have the resources for the improvement of primary health care, which needs substantial improvement in London. In order to do that, it is necessary to rationalise a proper hospital system. We have taken action
The Prime Minister : If the hon. Gentleman will stop shouting and wait for the answer, I shall give it to him. As for the ambulance service, the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) will know of the measures that have been taken to ensure that a proper service is readily available.
Mr. Thomason : Has my right hon. Friend seen today's car production figures ? Will he join in welcoming them ? Does he agree that the Labour party, many of the members of which have car plants in their constituencies, has consistently talked down our motor industry, and Britain generally ?
The Prime Minister : It is certainly the case that the motor car industry was in a very desperate state a few years ago. That has changed dramatically. The production figures this morning show that car production is up 6 per
Column 1014cent. on a year ago. The British car industry is now a success story to an extent that was inconceivable in the strike-ridden days so beloved in the memory of Opposition Members.
Q4. Mr. Darling : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 17 March.
The Prime Minister : I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Darling : Is the Prime Minister concerned about the sale by Scottish Homes--a Government quango--of 1,200 houses, some for as little as £1 each, to a housing association chaired by a former Scottish Office Minister, an hon. Member who is now a Northern Ireland Minister ? Does he agree that it is no surprise that many people believe that the Government are drowning in a sea of sleaze and secrecy entirely of their own making ?
The Prime Minister : If the hon. Gentleman has any firm charges to make, perhaps he should make them other than by innuendo and under privilege of the House. The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was an unpaid, voluntary, non-executive chairman of the Waverley housing trust. He had no financial interest whatever in the trust. His involvement was solely to pursue an interest in providing new forms of social housing management involving participation by tenant representatives. The hon. Gentleman should reflect on his question and he should then offer a public apology to my hon. Friend.
Mr. Coe : In the wake of the recent tragic murder investigations in Gloucester, is my right hon. Friend aware of the welcome news this week that four missing people have been reunited with their families ? Will he welcome with me and salute the superb work of the Missing Persons Bureau and the national helpline ?
The Prime Minister : I had heard that welcome news. Out of the dreadful saga of recent weeks, it is at least one positive outcome that everyone can welcome. I certainly think that it shows how important is the work of organisations such as the Missing Persons Bureau. I willingly pay tribute to it and to the National Missing Persons Helpline, as requested by my hon. Friend.
Q5. Mr. Livingstone : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 17 March.
The Prime Minister : I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Livingstone : As a Home Office Minister said on Friday that the Government would not support the Racial Hatred and Violence Bill that has been prepared by the hon. Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth), and setting that against the background of the eight racial murders that have been committed in the past few years, how can the Prime Minister justify to the relatives of those who have been murdered in that way the fact that the Government can find time in their legislative programme to outlaw hunt saboteurs, but cannot find the time to tackle the escalating tide of racial violence to which my party drew attention this morning ?
The Prime Minister : Every sensible person will share a concern about crimes motivated by racial hatred. That is certainly the position of the Government. As for the Bill,
Column 1015we believe that the scope of the existing law is adequate, although we shall continue to consider how that law is working in practice. As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is already a specific offence punishable by imprisonment for up to two years to stir up racial hatred. In addition, the full range of criminal law is available to deal with other crimes motivated by racial hatred. Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, for example, deals with low-level harassment. A range of measures is available. Of course we will keep them under review because there should be no place in this country for racial hatred of any sort from any group directed at any other group.
Mr. Duncan Smith : I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on standing firm in his
Column 1016negotiations on the blocking minority. Does not my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that if the Foreign Secretary chooses to stand firm next week, he will have the wholesale support of Conservative Members and of the country ?
The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend will certainly take the position in the negotiations next week--at the moment, those negotiations are at an extremely serious stage--that he believes to be in the interests of this country, both in the short and in the long term. There are important interests, both short term and long term, to be safeguarded, and it is on that basis that my right hon. Friend will negotiate.
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