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Mr. Ancram : On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I hope that he will read the paper that I put out yesterday, from which he will see that we are considering options to enhance the quality of education in small rural schools and not to axe them. As to integrated schools, and the one in the hon. Gentleman's constituency in particular, I fully respect his view. The representations that he made to me were given close consideration both by me and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. However, it is Government policy to encourage and facilitate integrated education where there is proven parental demand for it. It is also Government policy to give parents choice in education where that is possible. In the case of the hon. Gentleman's constituency, both criteria were met.
Ms Hoey : I very much welcome the move towards integrated education in Northern Ireland, but what are the criteria for considering an integrated school ? Half the children on the island of Rathlin, for example, are educated in a home tuition unit and the other half in a Church school. Does that situation not present an ideal opportunity to allow the home tuition unit on Rathlin island to become an integrated school ?
Mr. Ancram : The hon. Lady will have heard me set out the criteria for an integrated school. One is the viability of the proposed school. Obviously we carefully consider any representations made to us, where there is sufficient parental demand in that context.
14. Mr. David Shaw : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when he expects to be able to announce the commencement of detailed negotiations and discussions on the future of Northern Ireland.
Mr. Shaw : Does my hon. Friend agree that a substantial body of opinion in Northern Ireland, southern Ireland and the United Kingdom is for the recommencement of detailed discussions and negotiations ? Will not the time arrive when, if Sinn Fein and the men of violence fail to say that they do not support a continuation of violence, those discussions and negotiations must go ahead ?
Mr. Ancram : I agree with my hon. Friend, who properly reflects feeling in both parts of the island of Ireland. However, agreement will not be achieved by artificially forcing the pace, by shouted slogans or blazing headlines. It will be achieved only by a careful and considered advance by all participants towards a common and widely acceptable position which meets the aspirations of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.
Mr. McGrady : As the Minister has declared that he is aware of the intense demand in Northern Ireland for the recommencement of inter-party talks, does he accept that their recommencement and the peace process are not mutually exclusive but could run in parallel ? There is a feeling in Northern Ireland of procrastination surrounding the inter-party talks, which are the most meaningful way of establishing peace in the long run. Will the Minister also confirm that talks will be on the basis of the March 1991 inter-party agreement ?
Mr. Ancram : I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I am certain that he would agree that, while we all wish to see multilateral talks recommence at an appropriate moment, it would be premature to try to get everybody around a table until the elements for agreement are in place. For that reason, I wish to continue my discussions with three of the four main constitutional parties in Northern Ireland to try to explore further what common ground is available on which we can advance.
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. Clappison : Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the past 12 months this country lost the lowest ever number of days to strikes ? Is it not sad that that record is being spoilt by a trade union which, in pursuit of an 11 per cent. pay claim, yesterday inflicted hardship and inconvenience on thousands of travellers and commuters, including many of my constituents in Hertfordshire ? Is it not conspicuous that that is not being condemned in any quarter by the Labour party ?
The Prime Minister : Overall, our industrial relations record is extremely good, and the number of days lost in strikes is lower than it has been for more than 100 years. We now lose fewer days to strikes than Germany, France or the United States per head of population. As for yesterday's strike, the disruption that was caused to millions of people was inexcusable. Most of the public sector has settled on increases around the rate of inflation. The dispute is over a bid for an 11 per cent. increase before negotiations have even begun about productivity. It is unacceptable, it cannot be right and it should be condemned by every Member of the House.
Mrs. Beckett : Can the Prime Minister confirm that when yesterday his Chancellor ruled out tax cuts he was admitting what the Prime Minister refused to admit on Tuesday--that a second round of tax increases will go ahead next year and will cost a typical British family £800 a year more in tax ?
The Prime Minister : I suppose that there must be some occasion on which the right hon. Lady will address the current issue of the strike and not wriggle away from it. If she is so concerned about tax, perhaps she will now
Column 750withdraw all the public expenditure promises that she and her colleagues have made, and which inevitably would lead to higher taxation in future. If she will not withdraw those public expenditure promises, will she please indicate how they will be paid for and by what amount tax will rise ?
The Prime Minister : The right hon. Lady knows the contents of the Budget and knows also that she is wriggling and hiding behind promises that she cannot substantiate. Our tax position is clear and open and people know what it is. We have set out a position that is right for this country and which has brought this country back to better economic circumstances than it has known for many years. That is an honest and straightforward position, unlike the position of the right hon. Lady who makes promises of increased expenditure with no indication whatever as to whether she will borrow to meet them and put up interest rates, or tax to meet them, or break those promises.
Mrs. Beckett : But does the Prime Minister agree with the Chancellor that those tax increases, and the threat of interest rate increases, are a direct result of the Government's economic failure and their track record of boom and bust ? Whom does he think the Chancellor was condemning--Lord Lawson as Mr. Boom, or the Prime Minister himself as Mr. Bust ?
The Prime Minister : That was very well rehearsed, but it will not win the right hon. Lady very many votes. As for interest rates, I wonder if the right hon. Lady can remember a time when interest rates under a Labour Government were as low as they have been under this Government for the past 15 months. I wonder if she can remember a time when inflation was as low as it is under this Government now. I wonder if she can remember a time when our growth rate was twice as high as that of our European competitors. The answer is that she cannot--and, under any Labour Government, that would never be so.
Mr. Butler : Does my right hon. Friend recall that the Labour party has voted against every single tax reduction that has been introduced, over many years, by Conservative Governments, and has voted against every tax increase ? Does he consider that to be consistency or stupidity ?
Madam Speaker : Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is the Executive that is responsible to the House, and the Executive that must answer questions, not the Opposition. That is the basis on which our democracy is built.
Would my right hon. Friend consider such conduct on the part of his party to be consistent or stupid, had it taken place ?
Mr. Mackinlay : Does the Prime Minister agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the people are often much more sensible than politicians ? If so, has he reflected that last week--not only in Essex, but in a continuous, uninterrupted line from Dover to Oban--his policies were rejected and Labour's were endorsed ? Does he not recognise that he is increasingly seen as the captain of the Titanic--carrying on regardless, blaming the iceberg and determined to rearrange the deckchairs while he puts people's lives at risk with his own reckless policies ?
The Prime Minister : Well, that was quite an effort. There are certainly occasions on which the public are much more sensible than politicians. They were much more sensible than Opposition politicians in 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992, and they will be more sensible than Opposition politicians again at a later date in 1996 or 1997.
Mr. Butcher : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the administration of law in this country now protects the civil liberties of yobs, bullies, violent criminals and drug barons so effectively that the civil liberties of the law-abiding majority are endangered ? The Conservative party never wanted that, the people never wanted it and the Cabinet never wanted it. If the legal structure is being undermined, should we not find out who the termites are before introducing further criminal justice legislation ?
The Prime Minister : I think that it is necessary to look at the interests of the majority of the people in the country. I share my hon. Friend's view : our present criminal justice legislation was formulated with that very much in mind, as were some of the ideas that I have outlined to the House on other occasions.
Mr. Flynn : Will the Prime Minister confirm that, in support of his campaign for a more civilised Question Time, which I hope is still continuing, and in the hope of a rational reply, 24 hours ago I sent him the following supplementary question : because of his own personal responsibility and his Government's responsibility for introducing and promoting personal pensions, will he now give, in clear and simple language, a guarantee that the millions of people who opted out of the state earnings-related pension scheme and occupational schemes and who have been subjected to bad advice will have all their losses made up and their full pension rights restored ?
The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman may not be quite aware of the present situation. The regulator has made it clear that he will use his powers to ensure that anyone who was mis-sold a pension will have a remedy. There is no need for investors in personal pensions to be too concerned ; the hon. Gentleman should have understood that. Within the next few weeks, the Securities and Investments Board is due to publish a full report setting out the terms of redress which should be applied to investors who have been disadvantaged by that advice. They would be wise to wait for that report and not listen to the hon. Gentleman's scaremongering.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does my right hon. Friend agree that before the national health service reforms there was no such thing as equality of health treatment in this country and it depended entirely on where one lived ? If one lived in Lancaster, one received good treatment, but if one lived in parts of the rest of the country, one did not. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, following the reforms, best practice is spreading throughout the land ?
The Prime Minister : I can confirm that that is the case. The health reforms are spreading best practice in every part of the United Kingdom and removing many of the anomalies that existed previously. That, and the increased resources available to the national health service, are intended to ensure that we have the best possible national health service for our nation that we can possibly afford.
Ms Eagle : Is the Prime Minister aware that his Government are currently spending £121,800 a year of taxpayers' money on the salary of the chairman of Railtrack, who works only a three-day week ? Is that value for money ?
Mr. Duncan : Will the Prime Minister convey to the local government commission my constituents' overwhelming gratitude for recommending the return of the ancient and valiant little county of Rutland ? Will he hop across from Huntingdonshire and hang a horseshoe in Oakham castle to celebrate that sensible and popular decision ?
The Prime Minister : I know from my own experience how strong my hon. Friend's campaign for the return of Rutland has been and I congratulate him on the outcome. He mentioned other counties. I am familiar with one near to Rutland, which I hope will also return. I believe that questionnaires are to be sent to every household, which means that local people will be able to express their views on the matter and on what they wish the outcome to be. That is the right way to proceed.
Column 753his constituency, today I can tell the House after yesterday's figures that it is down--and I hope that he is grateful. The words that he metaphorically put in inverted commas--"drastic
reshuffle"--have not crossed my lips.
Mr. Lamont : May I urge the Prime Minister at the forthcoming summit in Corfu to reject firmly the candidature of the Belgian Prime Minister for the presidency of the Commission ? Even if Britain did not have an excellent candidate with a brilliant negotiating track record, is it not true that Mr. Dehaene is a federalist
Column 754of the old-fashioned type and that no Belgian candidate would resist the ever-increasing demands of the Brussels bureaucracy ?
The Prime Minister : At the moment there are only two declared candidates for the post--Sir Leon Brittan, whom we back strongly, and Dr. Ruud Lubbers. Both are highly respected in the European Community and are well known to all the member states. I have made no secret of my belief that Leon Brittan is the right candidate to be President of the Commission and he will have our strong support at Corfu. At this stage, I am not prepared to declare a position on any other candidate or possible candidate.
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