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Mr. Key: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the threat would be infinitely greater and the assessment quite impossible without the outstanding work done at the chemical and biological defence establishment at Porton Down in my constituency?
Mr. Soames: On those issues upon which my Department has direct dealings with veterans, war widows and dependants, my noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence is usually the Minister responsible.
Mr. Mackinlay: Will the Minister speak to the Prime Minister about the House's decision on 1 July 1994, which called for a dedicated Minister for the affairs of ex-service men and women? Will he reflect on the fact that it has all-party support and that the Royal British Legion has argued for it on behalf of war widows, the prisoners of war from the second world war and the countless people who bear the physical and emotional scars of past conflicts? Is not it time that we had a Minister for veterans' affairs as do the other allies?
Column 462I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend. The Government are certain that it is in the best interests of ex-service personnel that provision for them is integrated as far as possible with that of the wider community. It is our intention to ensure that they have a high quality of service, which they do. All experience shows that the sort of organisation suggested by the hon. Gentleman would only add to bureaucracy. A meeting is taking place tomorrow with my hon. and noble Friend, Ministers from the Department of Social Security and officials from the Royal British Legion at which these representations will be discussed. I shall ensure that a report is sent to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Jessel: In upholding the interests of veterans, is it not necessary to uplift the spirits of veterans, like those of the Royal British Legion, who my hon. Friend saw marching in Belgium two months ago on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Belgium? They marched behind the bands of the Welsh Guards and Grenadier Guards, which were trained at the Royal Military school of music at Kneller Hall, Twickenham, whose high standards and excellence are the envy of the world. Will he uphold that too?
Mr. Soames: Veterans are not the only people who are upheld by the emotion and brilliance of our military music. My hon. Friend is right. He is a vigorous champion for the marvellous Royal Military school of music at Kneller hall. No occasion on which veterans gather would be complete without the sound of British military music.
Mr. Freeman: We believe that defence contractors are better placed than Government to identify new products and uses for their facilities. We do share with industry as much information as we can about our long-term defence requirements to help it to adjust its industrial capacities.
Mr. Dunnachie: That reply shows the Government's utter contempt for the workers and skills employed in defence-product manufacture in this country. Why do not the Government establish a defence diversification agency to enable and to aid firms to diversify into the public sector? Without such an agency, high-tech skills in the defence industry will be lost for ever.
Mr. Freeman: I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's sentiments, but there is a different way of achieving the aim that he and I share. I do not believe that there is any evidence from the United States of America that using Government money, federal funds in the case of the United States, achieves a quicker or better solution than the private sector deciding what to produce. The right way, therefore, to deal with previous military facilities and with workshops, for example, that are no longer required is for the Government to ensure that all the agencies of central Government and local government, including local representatives from that community, work together for an alternative use. I will give the hon.
Column 463Gentleman and the House an assurance that, where I am involved in such closures, I shall commit my time to ensuring that there is a sensible, alternative private use.
Mr. Gallie: With acknowledged pressures on the defence budget, does not my right hon. Friend agree that competition in defence procurement will become even more important? Does not he further agree that the GEC takeover of Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. will threaten that competitive element?
Mr. Freeman: As my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has already said, it is a matter for the President of the Board of Trade, who will make a decision about the offer by British Aerospace and GEC for VSEL. Competition is important in the provision of defence equipment and we shall do everything possible to encourage and facilitate competitive tenders for defence equipment, which represent the best way of achieving value for money.
Mr. Soames: My Department owns a number of farms in Northumberland, all of which lie in the operational training area. Fifteen of those farms, comprising 18 occupied houses and cottages, are not connected to the mains electricity supply.
Mr. Beith: Does the Minister agree that hard-working farmers and shepherds in the Cheviot hills deserve to have mains electricity supplied? Does he not think that the time is opportune, after a decade of discussions, for the Ministry of Defence to put forward a scheme since European finance may be available under objective 5b? Furthermore, the Army may wish to emphasise that it has a long-term role in that region and that it wants to be a good landlord.
Mr. Soames: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Army is not only a very good landlord but an extremely good employer, providing by far the greatest employment in that area. The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the time that these matters have taken. The options for electrification are being studied and assessed. Until the report is ready it is too early to say whether electrification is feasible but, in parallel, the Ministry of Defence and one of its farm tenants will jointly be conducting a trial of the feasibility of a stand-alone farm power system. If it proves successful, we shall consider extending its use to other farms. I note the right hon. Gentleman's point and can assure him that I shall keep a careful eye on this matter.
Column 464how popular it would be if we were to reintroduce the county regiments as Territorial Army units, such as the Isle of Wight Rifles, the Hampshires and the Surrey and Sussex Yeomanry, which would preserve not only the great regimental history of our nation but our regimental processions?
Mr. Soames: There is no doubt that we have all heard my hon. Friend's views now, and he is quite right. The Isle of Wight Rifles, of which he has been a splendid champion and which are now members of C company, the sixth and seventh battalion of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, are a very fine unit and will be glad to have my hon. Friend's support. Our many other county regiments are well supported and highly successful and they bring honour and credit to our armed forces, which are one of the greatest jewels in the crown of this country's life.
Mr. Hutton: Does the Prime Minister agree with the deputy chairman of the Conservative party that huge salary rises for the directors of privatised companies cause real public offence? What action is he going to take to stop these abuses?
The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say on many occasions in the past, I do not agree with excessive and unjustifiable salary increases. I have made that perfectly clear, but for companies within the private sector that must be a matter for their shareholders and not for the Government.
Mr. Bellingham: Will the Prime Minister confirm that he will press ahead with extending choice in education? While welcoming the Opposition's recent conversion to league tables, does he agree that the Opposition's plans to abolish grant-maintained schools and assisted places means that they can never be trusted on education because they are still wedded to the failed policies of the 1970s?
The Prime Minister: I believe that the performance tables have been a huge success. Anyone who looked at any of the national newspapers today would see the enormous interest in them. They are printed in many cases in full and I think that parents are very glad to have the information. I very much welcome the belated recognition by the Opposition that they are now in favour of performance tables. I regret that they opposed them for so long. I also regret the fact that they continue to oppose
Column 465grant-maintained schools and the assisted places scheme and I look forward to yet a further U-turn in their education policy to adopt them in due course.
The Prime Minister: I indicated to the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend just a few moments ago that I did not approve of excessive increases. I also made the point that in the private sector that was a matter for the shareholders of the company, not a matter for the Government themselves but, since the right hon. Gentleman asks for my view, I have made it clear.
Mr. Blair: As a matter of fact, the right hon. Gentleman did not condemn the particular increase. Will he not understand that people want him to speak, not only for the shareholders but for the millions of British people who feel disgust and outrage at this excess and greed? Why will he not act to give the regulator the power to put a stop to this kind of abuse so that the privatised utilities, which are monopoly services that the public have no choice but to use, are managed as proper public services, run in the public interest?
The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about the monopoly aspect, presumably he will support the Gas Bill, which will introduce competition, later this Session. In the light of what he has just said, I look forward to his support for that. As for condemning the increase, I suggest that he looks again at what I have said on many occasions over the past few years. I fear that the right hon. Gentleman misunderstands the regulator's position. The prices charged by utilities are legitimately a matter for the regulators but, as in all companies, boardroom pay is a matter for the shareholders. The sooner Opposition Members understand that, the better.
Mr. McLoughlin: During his busy day, will my right hon. Friend consider the pay increase of about 200 per cent. for a person who is about to join the Commission gravy train? When that appointment was made, was it because the former Leader of the Opposition was the only candidate that the Opposition could put forward, or was there a shortage of candidates for the post, making such a pay increase necessary?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman to whom my hon. Friend refers is to be a Commissioner, and as such he will represent the United Kingdom. I think that he will do that fairly and honestly in the future, and I do not therefore have any criticism of his appointment.
Mr. Ashdown: Why does not the Prime Minister see the 75 per cent. pay increase for the head of British Gas for what it is--a metaphorical V- sign to all the customers whose prices he has increased, to the employees whose jobs he has cut and to the Prime Minister's begging and pleading for restraint? Is a weak whimper and a "Nothing to do with me, guv," the best that the Prime Minister can do?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman, as usual, exercises before the House his customary ignorance of the way in which the private sector works. I have made it absolutely clear what I think about that rise, but what the right hon. Gentleman--and, no doubt, the right hon.
Column 466Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)--wants is a quasi-pay policy for some executives in the private sector. That, effectively, is what the right hon. Gentleman is asking for. The right way to deal with the matter is for the shareholders who own the company to take the action that they consider right.
Mr. Budgen: In view of my right hon. Friend's statement that the successful passage of the European Communities (Finance) Bill is a matter of confidence, will he confirm that he has discussed the Dissolution with the monarch? Will he further confirm that the monarch has told him that in the event of his asking for a Dissolution, it will be granted?
The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend, who has been here for a long time, should know, neither I nor any other Prime Minister is likely to discuss any conversation that he or she may or may not have had with Her Majesty the Queen.
Mrs. Clwyd: Has the Prime Minister anything to add to the Maples memorandum, which says that the Government have broken their promises and let down the electors, and that they are out of touch, stupid and blind?
The Prime Minister: I am tempted to quote from the memorandum by the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice), who had some very crisp things to say about the Labour party--but no doubt the hon. Lady would find that unfortunate. [Interruption.] Yes, I have something to add. I add that, with growth at more than 4 per cent., inflation at 2 per cent., unemployment falling and exports growing at record levels, the hon. Lady would be most unwise to assume what may happen in future.
Mr. Alexander: Will my right hon. Friend commend to the House the statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary over the weekend that there would no longer be an automatic right of temporary release for prisoners serving sentences? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, when a judge sentences someone to a term of imprisonment, the public do not expect to find that person taken out to dinner by prison officers and do not expect to find another person cycling through the community two years into a rape conviction, and that a sentence of imprisonment must mean just that?
The Prime Minister: I very much welcome what my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said last week. It is the latest in a long list of measures, crowned by the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, to protect the public and to punish the criminal -- [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) seems unwilling to punish the criminal. That is not what I should have expected of him. We should certainly clamp down on any
Column 467examples of abuse of home leave or temporary release. That is precisely what my right hon. and learned Friend has said he proposes to do. In that he will, I believe, have the overwhelming support of people throughout the country.
Mr. Dalyell: Are the Government's certainties hitherto about Libyan responsibility for the Lockerbie crime in any way dented by what President Mubarak said to the Prime Minister yesterday or, indeed, by the film of Mr. Alan Francovitch, a copy of which was delivered to Downing street on Sunday and which, I gather, the right hon. Gentleman has looked at?
Mr. Winterton: Although I fervently hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget next week will give the necessary boost to manufacturing industry by introducing 100 per cent. capital allowances, will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that unemployment is down by half a million, that inflation is at an all-time 27-year low and that growth in this country is currently at 4 per cent.? Will he ensure that that information forms part of a highly confidential Conservative central office memorandum so that the press and the Conservative yobs can give it the attention it deserves?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes his point in his usual crisp manner. It is the case that the economy is doing extremely well, as my hon. Friend has set out. I hope that more people will begin to observe that as month succeeds month. There is no doubt that added to the list that my hon. Friend so accurately mentioned a moment ago are the facts that unemployment is falling and has been falling for around 20 months, that unemployment is lower here than in any other major country in western Europe and that unemployment is continuing to fall here while it is rising in many other countries. The economic opportunities that exist at the moment are extremely good and I have no doubt that they will get better.
The Prime Minister: I last met the President of Cyprus, Mr. Clerides, in October 1993 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. We discussed Commonwealth matters and the state of the intercommunal discussions on Cyprus. I shall meet the President again in January on his next visit to London.
Mr. Cox: I note that reply. Is the Prime Minister, aware, however, of the scathing criticisms that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has recently made about Mr. Denktash and his total unwillingness to enter any meaningful discussions on Cyprus? As this country is one of the guarantor powers, when will the Prime Minister himself become actively involved in Cyprus affairs in the hope of promoting a settlement that both Mr. Denktash and his friends and supporters in Ankara will be expected to honour?
The Prime Minister: I am, of course, aware of the report to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I continue to believe that the main focus of our effort should be to support the United Nations Secretary-General's mission. He has made some progress. The Security Council called for further effort on confidence-building measures in June, as the hon. Gentleman will know, and for a process of consultation. That latter aspect has been given effect by means of face-to-face talks between the two community leaders. I hope that those will continue. We will do all that we can to persuade both sides to continue talking, but until and unless they are themselves prepared to reach an agreement, it is difficult to see how one can be imposed.
Mr. Jenkin: Will my right hon. Friend keep telling everyone about the low inflation, the falling unemployment and the strong growth? Will he also explain that we have achieved that by establishing an extremely successful economic framework and that, as night follows day, Labour would wreck it?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right, both in the scenario that he sets out and in the charge that he lays about such economic policy as the Labour party has yet divulged. There is no doubt that the present circumstance has come about because of a consistency of policy for some time designed to get inflation down. We made it clear in 1990 that getting inflation down to a low level had a very important, central part to play in economic management and we have achieved it. The Labour party achieved record high inflation. We are achieving record low inflation.
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