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Mr. Rifkind : The United Nations Secretary-General has identified a need to strengthen the UN's capacity to conduct peace support operations and has invited proposals from member states. We have made a number of suggestions aimed at reinforcing the UN's ability to plan and run such operations, including an enhanced peacekeeping planning staff and the establishment of a situation centre.
Mr. Miller : I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Has he considered the possible establishment of a UN peacekeeping staff college and does he agree that this country is well suited to housing such an establishment ?
Mr. Rifkind : I am not sure that the establishment of a staff college features high among the Secretary-General's priorities. Each country that sends forces to assist UN operations must ensure that it properly understands the needs of the UN, and in this way qualities similar to those that would be achieved by a staff college will be achieved.
Mr. Ian Taylor : Will my right hon. and learned Friend welcome the decision taken last week by the German constitutional court that German troops can take part in international peacekeeping operations ? Does he agree that far from this causing any concern about the role of German troops, it shows their responsible return to a proper, institutionalised role in peacekeeping around the world ?
Mr. Rifkind : Yes, indeed ; my hon. Friend is correct. With the large increase in UN operations around the world, it is important that as many countries as possible, including Germany, contribute to United Nations operations. Against that background, the decision of the German constitutional court was very much to be welcomed.
Mr. Donald Anderson : In the light of the welcome decision of the federal constitutional court, will the Secretary of State consider holding early discussions with the German and French Governments about humanitarian and peacekeeping operations that might involve former members of the Warsaw treaty organisation, who are keen to have operational experience with NATO, possibly under the auspices of the North Atlantic Co-operation Council ?
Mr. Rifkind : We are seized of the desirability of involving those countries. The United Kingdom is helping to train a Baltic battalion, with contributions from each of the three Baltic republics, which is intended to be used in UN operations.
Mr. Simpson : When the Defence Select Committee tells the House that there is no need for further nuclear testing and the United States moratorium shows that there is no chance of further testing, is the Minister not ashamed that the Government are making no commitment to the completion of a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty
Column 171before the start of the non-proliferation treaty conference next April ? Will he give the House that commitment, and is he not ashamed that Britain is the only nuclear power that is having to be dragged into a commitment to a nuclear test ban timetable before the conference starts ?
Mr. Aitken : We are not ashamed of any such thing. The United Kingdom is participating fully and positively in negotiations to secure an effective and verifiable comprehensive test ban treaty. These discussions began on 26 January at the conference on disarmament in Geneva and we continue to participate fully in them.
Mr. Duncan Smith : I acknowledge my hon. Friend's great skills in last week's announcement on the possible purchase of Tomahawk, but, if we buy Tomahawk, is there any possibility of its having any nuclear tipping ?
Mr. Aitken : As I explained to the House in a debate on Friday a week or two ago, there is no evidence to suggest that those who took part in the tests are suffering from a higher incidence of cancer or any other disease than a representative section of the population.
Mr. Garnier : I understand that HMS Northumberland and HMS Richmond will join the fleet in the next year. That is good news for our procurement industry, but will my hon. Friend confirm that our defence needs on the sea include the submarine fleet and the amphibious fleet and that any advances in the frigate fleet should go hand in hand with procurement across the front line in the Navy ?
Mr. Aitken : I agree with my hon. Friend. He and the naval and shipbuilding establishment will be pleased by our announcement under "Front Line First" that invitations to tender will be issued shortly for the LPD replacements, Fearless and Intrepid. We also announced an invitation to tender for batch 2 Trafalgars and an important order worth more than £250 million for seven new mine hunters. I am sure that my hon. Friend will see that, in naval matters, we are putting the front line first.
Dr. David Clark : Will the Minister take this opportunity to pay tribute to the workers at Swan Hunter who have co-operated so fully in completing the three remaining type 23 frigates ? Will he also give the House an assurance this afternoon that he will do all in his power to ensure that competitive facilities remain in Britain to build future type 23 frigates ? Does he further understand that anything less than full support would be seen as a gross betrayal to the workers' loyalty on Tyneside ?
Mr. Aitken : I am very glad, once again, to pay tribute to the work force at Swan Hunter who, under difficult circumstances, have responded with work of outstanding quality and have shown outstanding loyalty, particularly in completing the type 23 frigates. I said that to Mr. Eddie Darke, the convener of the trade unions up there, and I am glad to make it known to the House. On future facilities, we can rest assured that whatever changes there may be in the shipbuilding industry, it is vital that the facilities to build large ships are retained somewhere in Britain.
Mr. Burns : Does my right hon. Friend agree with the conclusion that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development drew from its perspicacious study of the British economy that the route to higher output, lower unemployment and lower inflation is through sound public finances and deregulation, not placing additional burdens and red tape on business, as advocated by the Opposition parties ?
The Prime Minister : I certainly recommend the OECD report to the House for what it says on both the economy and the health service. I hope that Opposition Members will take time to read it--I know that they have been preoccupied, but it is a good read. The point about the OECD report is that it recognises that the policies that the Government have pursued have helped to transform our economic prospects, which are better now than I can remember for many years--we intend to keep them that way.
The Prime Minister : The right hon. Lady should read all that my right hon. and learned Friend said yesterday before selectively misquoting what he said. I shall remind the right hon. Lady what my right hon. and learned Friend said in reply to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) who is chatting on the front Bench. My right hon. and learned Friend said :
"It is utterly pathetic to come out with constituency letters in which I merely state my long-stated and well-known view that if we were starting again we might have a lower rate of VAT and fewer exemptions. As he knows, that is not policy now".--[ Official Report, 18 July 1994 ; Vol.247, c.59.]
Mrs. Beckett : But the Prime Minister is doing it again--he is running away from the question. I am asking him whether he agrees with the Chancellor that too few goods and services are subject to VAT. Surely he knows the answer to that. Most people in this country believe that too much is already subject to VAT and they want to know whether the Government are, as it now appears, looking for
Column 173an opportunity to put VAT on fares, books or children's clothes. It seems that the Government want to do that. Will the Prime Minister now admit it ?
The Prime Minister : Besides listening to what I said a moment ago, the right hon. Lady might care to look at what I said in the House on 14 June, 17 May and 25 January this year, and on 19 October, 6 May, 23 March and 18 March last year. If she is concerned about extra value added tax, perhaps she will tell me whether she agrees with the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who has said in relation to VAT on private schools and private medical care :
"That is something specifically being looked at".
Mrs. Beckett : Surely the Prime Minister realises that the Chancellor has yet again let the cat out of the bag, by giving an indication that the Government want to put VAT on fares, children's clothes and books. The Prime Minister was willing enough to deny his intentions on VAT before the election, when he was seeking votes, so why is he not prepared to come clean now ? Does not the Tory party have a party addiction to VAT ; and is not that addiction damaging the budget of every British family ?
As for our policy, I refer the right hon. Lady again to what my right hon. and learned Friend said yesterday. As the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) knows--he is raising this scare again--this is not our policy now and we are not starting again. I see no likelihood of extending VAT. I look forward to a clear denial of what the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) said the other day about his plans to put VAT on private education.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton : During his very busy day, will my right hon. Friend accept an invitation from me to visit Macclesfield, which has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and where manufacturing industry has a very meaningful presence ? Will he also accept an invitation to sample the culinary expertise of my constituent, Mrs. Annie May of Sutton, which is near Macclesfield, who won the Good Housekeeping recipe competition and gave her £10, 000 first prize to Save the Children Fund ? Is not that an example of the success of private enterprise and social concern and involvement ?
The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend's-- [Interruption.] I know it is the end of term : relax. My hon. Friend's invitation is irresistible. On a date that I cannot yet give him, I shall be happy to accept it.
As my hon. Friend rightly says, unemployment is falling and has been falling for quite a long time--almost since the shadow Chancellor predicted that it would go up month after month.
Mr. Ashdown : Will the Prime Minister list what steps Britain is taking to assist in Rwanda and what further steps he proposes to relieve suffering and save lives from the terrible catastrophe taking place today on Rwanda's borders ?
The Prime Minister : As the right hon. Gentleman may know, we have already provided air lifts to help with the food required in Rwanda. They are likely to continue. We are liaising with our partners on what may be done.
Mr. Budgen : Will my right hon. Friend explain why he has decided not to take the opportunity to make a formal statement on the important choice of Mr. Santer as president of the European Commission ? Also, why does he not explain why he proposes the appointment of the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) as a Commissioner--an appointment which will give much pleasure to all members of the Labour party ?
The Prime Minister : Upon the latter point, no formal decision has been made. When I have a decision to announce I will announce it. As for a statement, none was necessary. If any hon. Member thought that it was necessary, but not forthcoming, he would no doubt have tabled a private notice question.
Mr. Lewis : Does the Prime Minister concede that the 1988 changes in the television concessionary licence scheme have proved to be very unfair-- even more than they were previously--and that now that it has been determined that the Government will continue the television licence, will he not now return to 1988 and install some fairness into the system, for all pensioners ?
The Prime Minister : The strike statistics speak for themselves. There were fewer strikes last year than in any year since records began. Legislation to establish a fair framework for industrial relations has been a key element in attracting inward investment and creating jobs.
Mr. Bates : As 2 million passengers brace themselves for another day of disruption on our railways, caused by the inflation-busting pay demand of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, can my right hon. Friend confirm that some 75,000 members of the RMT pay their political levy to the Labour party and have been eligible to vote in the Labour party's leadership elections ?
Column 175What does the Prime Minister think should be done to respond to the representations of Members of Parliament in the meantime ? What avenues are supposed to be available to us ?
Mr. Paice : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, as a result of pressure from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, the German Government have withdrawn their totally unwarranted threat to ban British beef ? Will he congratulate the European Commission on using sound scientific evidence as the basis for decision making and encourage it to do likewise with future scientific matters ?
The Prime Minister : I should certainly be happy to do that and am happy on this occasion to offer my congratulations on the way in which the matter has been handled in Europe. I think that it has been handled very well. The Chief Medical Officer has repeatedly made it clear throughout the saga that British beef can safely be eaten by anyone, both adults and children, including patients in hospital. I am delighted that Germany has confirmed that unilateral measures will not now enter into force. I think that that shows that the whole of the Community, including Germany, now accepts that British beef is safe.
Mr. Simpson : Does the Prime Minister accept that the £500,000 retirement hand-out paid by Severn Trent Water to its former chairman will go down as the most expensive disconnection in the history of the water industry ? Will he explain why, at the end of the 12th wettest winter since 1727, and facing a 67 per cent. increase in their bills to pay for a 60 per cent. increase in profits and a 30 per cent. increase in the top wage increases of management, the public cannot water their own blooming gardens ? Does not that amount to one privatisation cock-up too far ?
Column 176expect the shareholders and the regulator to question carefully any salary or payment that proved to be excessive. As for the general question of water privatisation, I think that even the hon. Gentleman will concede that, after years of under investment, there is now a substantial investment to deal with environmental matters, of precisely the sort that Opposition Members have asked for for years.
Dr. Fox : How much of the fall in Britain's unemployment and the rise in Britain's competitiveness does my right hon. Friend attribute to the Government's supply side reforms, especially labour law reform ? Does he think that there is any case for dismantling our labour law reforms and trade union reforms, as suggested by Labour leadership candidates ?
The Prime Minister : It is difficult to quantify precisely how much, but I have no doubt that they have had a significant effect. Equally, there is no doubt that a peaceful workplace is a prosperous one. I certainly assure my hon. Friend that, unlike Opposition Members, I have no plans to sweep the board clean and start again.
Mr. Canavan : On the question of VAT which was put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), may I ask the Prime Minister to give us a straight answer to a straight question : will he name one thing, just one thing, on which he will never ever impose VAT ?
The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman should look at what I have said in the past when I have made it perfectly clear that I can see no circumstances ever when food would be subject to VAT, and I repeatedly set out the answers to the other points, on the many occasions that I quoted for the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett). Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would care to read them.
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