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Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Lady completely misunderstands the position of women in this country. Under the Government, there has been an increase in the number of women in the work force. If the hon. Lady wants European comparisons, I am delighted to give them to her. We have the second greatest proportion of women in work in the European Union. We are also the only country in which female unemployment is less than that of men. The hon. Lady should be congratulating the Government and it is the tone of her question which sorely tempts me to be less moderate than I am generally trying to be today.
Mr. Ian Taylor : Will my hon. Friend confirm that if 31 per cent. of all senior managers are women, presumably the rest of them are men ? In those circumstances, will she also confirm that the criteria of qualification for the job count most, rather than the attempt to get sexual equality into every aspect of our business life ?
Miss Widdecombe : It can scarcely be doubted that, if 31 per cent. are women, the rest must be men. I agree with my hon. Friend about that. I would, however, point him to the initiative, "Fair Play for Women", and to what that has already achieved in Wales and what we expect it to achieve now that we have launched it in England, in terms of making women more valued in the workplace, better qualified, better trained and giving them more opportunities generally. That has remained a consistent objective of the Government.
Mr. McAllion : Does the Minister accept that, by banning trade unions at GCHQ, the Government are denying those workers their democratic right of freedom of association ? Will he try to understand that a Government who deny democratic rights to their citizens, and who arm dictators around the world who genuinely threaten this country's security, are in no position to lecture GCHQ trade unionists about disloyalty or national security ?
Mr. Forsyth : Workers at GCHQ are able to join a staff association, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It is the Conservative Government who have given everyone the right to join a trade union of their choice--something which Opposition Members have opposed.
Mr. Forsyth : Oddly enough, that was not a subject for conversation, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that there are some people in the trade union movement whose concern for jobs makes them oppose a minimum wage, unlike some Opposition Members, whose concern for dogma perhaps gives jobs second priority.
Mr. Forsyth : This is a decent democratic country. It is the Conservative Government who have given workers the right to join a trade union of their choice, and it is the Conservative Government who got rid of the wicked closed shop legislation, which prevented people from working when they did not wish to join a trade union.
Mr. Streeter : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, freed from trade union shackles, British workers now produce more and compete better than many of our overseas counterparts ? Is not it true that, in the 1990s, as a result of Conservative trade union legislation, many American and Japanese companies, which would not have touched us with a bargepole in the 1970s, bring to the country new investment, new factories and new jobs ?
Mr. Hunt : I agree with my hon. Friend. It is a stark set of facts that productivity growth in the UK is higher today and was higher in the 1980s than productivity growth in Japan and that the UK strike rate is now lower than in Germany. So not only is the United Kingdom leading Europe through recovery into a sustained period of non-inflationary growth, but it is leading the way in putting harmony in place of strife and increasing the growth in productivity.
Ms Eagle : Will the Secretary of State give the House the answer which the Minister did not give to the question of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) ? Does he believe that, in a democratic society, an employee has the right to be represented at work by the union of his or her choice ?
Mr. Hunt : We have just answered the point by making it clear that we believe in a free democratic society. Employers should not be compelled to accept a negotiator who may not necessarily be the representative of the work force. It is very much up to trade unions to earn an increasing membership by appealing to their members and by selling their services to them. I take great pride in the fact that days lost through industrial action are now 20 times fewer than the average in the 1970s.
Mr. Dunnachie : Will the Prime Minister agree to scrap the Child Support Agency in its present form and go back to the drawing board to produce a more efficient and fair method of supporting children of lone parents ?
The Prime Minister : I think that children are entitled to be supported by their own parents and that taxpayers should help only to the extent that parents do not have the means to do so. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in February we made some changes to the Child Support Agency and I repeat what I have said to the House on previous occasions : we shall continue to keep it under review and, if further changes are necessary, we shall make them.
Mr. Lidington : Is my right hon. Friend aware that last week's decision by the Select Committee on the Crossrail Bill has caused immense dismay among my constituents in Aylesbury and among many other people in London and south-east England ? Will he assure the House that the Government will look urgently at other ways in which that project might be taken forward ?
The Prime Minister : I share the disappointment that the Select Committee has rejected the Crossrail Bill. We have consistently made clear our commitment to the project and I am pleased to tell the House that that commitment remains. The promoters are now urgently considering the position and we are in discussion with them on how to proceed.
Mrs. Beckett : When does the Prime Minister expect to publish the Department of Transport's report on the technical and legal aspects of fitting seat belts in minibuses and coaches, especially in view of the fact that the Government have been saying since January that that research would be published "in a few weeks' time" ?
The Prime Minister : I hope that it will not be very long before we are able to publish it. The report has now been delivered to Ministers and I hope that they will be able to announce their conclusions shortly.
Mrs. Beckett : Could I urge the Prime Minister to make that very shortly indeed, as the report has been in preparation for some time and safety organisations, coach operators and the general public have been calling for a measure along those lines for a considerable time ?
The Prime Minister : We are looking at a range of things. The Department of Transport has been conducting a full review of the technical and cost implications of fitting seat belts to both minibuses and coaches. We also wish to take into account the circumstances of the minibus accident last Sunday and the vehicles in that respect are still being examined by the Vehicle Inspectorate. It is right that we examine all the circumstances. As soon as we are ready, we shall bring forward our conclusions.
Mrs. Beckett : Can the Prime Minister give us an assurance that when the Government have looked at this report they will be prepared to introduce legislation as a matter of urgency ? I believe that the amendment paper contains an amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) which might make possible the adoption of a decision in principle as early as tomorrow night. I repeat the offer of all-party talks which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) as long ago as December, with a view to ironing out the difficulties regarding such legislation. I assure the Prime Minister that, subject to proper scrutiny, the Opposition would certainly give any legislation a speedy passage.
The Prime Minister : We wish to conclude our examination of this matter before deciding what is the right way to proceed. Increasingly a number of minibus manufacturers are fitting seat belts as a matter of course. That is a decision for them. It is also open to potential customers, when making coach or minibus bookings, to ask whether belts are fitted. I do not wish to give any indication of the outcome of the review until we have had time to study the conclusions and to reach a decision based on all the evidence that is available.
Mr. Couchman : Is my right hon. Friend aware that, while regretting the need for such a course, the House will back the decision of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to increase the number of armed response units ?
The Prime Minister : There is a feeling--in the House and across the country, I suspect--that people certainly do not wish the police to be armed as a matter of course. This is a very limited measure and I believe that it is justifiable. Of course, the number of armed policemen will be very small--about 50. These officers are highly trained in the use of firearms and they will be called only to incidents where firearms might be needed.
Column 671concerned that Mr. Ali's case keeps being adjourned. Officials at the Foreign Office are arranging to meet his son to discuss future courses of action.
Mr. Madden : I thank the Prime Minister, on behalf of Mr. Ali's wife and family, for his past efforts on this man's behalf. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, Mr. Ali has been held without proper trial for the past four years. I urge him to make further representations to the Prime Minister of Pakistan and to the Prime Minister of Azad Kashmir, who will be visiting Britain and calling at the House of Commons later this week.
The Prime Minister : I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a very great interest in the matter. So far, we have pursued it on a humanitarian basis. Given the length of time that Mr. Ali has been detained without trial, I shall consider raising his case again with the Pakistani authorities. The hon. Gentleman knows that as Mr. Ali is not a British national we cannot assist specifically with consular advice. However, on a humanitarian basis, it is right that we should again raise with the Pakistani authorities the question of his lengthy detention without trial.
Dr. Spink : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the breast cancer lobby that is taking place at the House of Commons today ? Did he have time to read the report on the subject in The Daily Telegraph today ? Will he draw its importance to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health ?
The Prime Minister : I think my right hon. Friend will have heard my hon. Friend's question. I am very pleased that the Macmillan Fund for Cancer Relief survey shows that there was a high degree of satisfaction with the treatment that women had received from the national health service. That was particularly marked among those who had received treatment more recently. I understand that the Chief Medical Officers of England and Wales will publish tomorrow their consultative report on the provision of cancer services. I believe that it will have far-reaching consequences for the services provided for patients with cancer.
Mr. Grocott : Is not it salutary for the international community to note that in Rwanda more people have been killed in the past six weeks--one estimate puts the figure at 500,000--than were killed in the former Yugoslavia in the whole of the past three years ? Is not it vital that the United Nations, the European Community and other international agencies ensure that the time, energy and effort that they devote to the solution of crises worldwide are at least in some way proportionate to the degree of suffering on the ground ?
The Prime Minister : There are many people who feel as the hon. Gentleman clearly does about the dreadful bloodshed in Rwanda. It is clearly a bitter civil war and some of the atrocities that have taken place are unforgivable by any rational judgment. The United Nations Security Council has unanimously adopted resolutions calling for a ceasefire. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is necessary to assist where practicable. The mandate is primarily humanitarian, contributing to the security and the protection of refugees and civilians at risk. The resolution also imposes an arms embargo.
Mr. Bowden : As we approach the 50th anniversary of D-day, will my right hon. Friend give some thought to the war widows whose husbands made the supreme sacrifice, to see whether there is some way in which he can ensure that additional recognition is given to that sacrifice this year by some form of financial payment ?
The Prime Minister : I know that my hon. Friend is a doughty fighter for pensioners generally, and war widows in particular, and I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor will have heard what he has to say. My hon. Friend will agree that, over the years, we have taken great care to recognise the remarkable sacrifice made by many widows whose husbands were killed in the war and most people will consider it right of us to have done so.
The Prime Minister : I do not think that many people doubt that the economy is on the mend. All the indicators show that that is certainly the case. Not every single indicator in the months ahead may be as good as we would wish, but the overall trend is undoubted. One of the reasons why the economy is moving ahead is that we have taken the tax measures necessary to improve our public finances.
The Prime Minister : The prospects for the economy are extremely good-- [Interruption.] --and not only that, this year the United Kingdom is set to be the fastest-growing major European economy for the second year running. Underlying inflation is under control, at its lowest for 25 years and well within its target range. I shall spare Opposition Members all the rest that it says here.
Mr. Luff : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that one of the hardest lessons we have to relearn as a country is that British manufacturing industry can prosper only if it is competitive ? Against that background, will he join me in welcoming yesterday's news that factory gate inflation is at a low level not seen in Britain for a generation ?
The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is quite right about competitiveness. The more competitive we are, the more we will sell and the more jobs we will be able to create in this country. The figures on factory gate prices are extremely good--better than we have seen for many years. One of the reasons why we are competitive and will remain so is that we have no intention of saddling our companies with the social on-costs that so many in Europe have now undertaken and which so many in the House would be prepared to undertake.
Mr. Purchase : Indeed, Madam Speaker. Will the Prime Minister compare that record with the awful record of the Black Country development corporation on economic development in the black country ? In the light of that comparison, would he care to give back to Labour authorities the money taken from them for that economic development ?
Column 674development corporation. It is clear that right across the black country and the country as a whole the prospects for manufacturing industry and other industries are rapidly improving. That is self-evident in the growth seen in the past 12 months, the growth that we are seeing now and the growth that we can safely anticipate in the future.
Mr. Richards : Does my right hon. Friend agree that sharpening the skills of our schoolchildren will improve the competitive edge of the economy in the future ? Does he welcome the recently announced statistics showing that more of our schoolchildren are staying on at school than ever before ?
The Prime Minister : I do welcome that, just as I welcome the fact that the number of people who are unemployed is falling and has been consistently for 15 months. Some years ago, about one in eight of young people went on to further education ; that figure is now one in three. Some 70 per cent. of our 16-year-olds are now in full-time education. I am sure that that trend is right and I thoroughly welcome it.
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