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Mr. Ancram: The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland has stated that it will not be able to report its final recommendations before 1995. My hon. Friend should approach the Boundary Commission itself for further information concerning the timetable.
Mr. Bottomley: Does my hon. Friend agree that, in view of the impartiality of the Boundary Commission and its chairman, the House can rest in confidence that there will not be any intended or, I hope, unintended, political effects of the redesignation of the boundaries in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Maginnis: What representations have been made from either the Maryfield secretariat, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin or Dublin Government Ministers through the intergovernmental council to influence the findings of the Boundary Commission? Will the Minister assure us that he has responded by rejecting any approach and by telling Dublin bluntly that the business which is conducted under the chairmanship of Madam Speaker is none of its business?
Column 1327on the restoration of cross-border roads, which would quite possibly be nugatory expense? Will he remember the absolute necessity of massive upgrading on the road between Belfast and Larne?
Mr. Moss: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to the importance of the road from Belfast to Larne, but expenditure on roads, including bridges and street lighting, should remain in excess of £150 million per annum during the next three financial years, and the current top expenditure priorities are maintenance, bridge strengthening and traffic control in urban areas. They do not include the border crossing areas.
Mr. Tim Smith: May I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box and wish him every success with his new responsibilities? When will the Belfast cross-harbour bridge open, and will it not be a welcome addition to Northern Ireland's road network?
Mr. Moss: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. We hope to open the cross-harbour bridge to traffic in January 1995. It was built at a cost of £60 million--which was in addition to the normal expenditure on roads in the Province.
Sir Patrick Mayhew: The Downing street declaration continues to underpin our approach to the peace process. We have proposed that exploratory dialogue with Sinn Fein shall commence next week. We intend shortly thereafter to do likewise with representatives of loyalists.
We expect to resume work with the new Irish Government on the joint framework document as soon as practicable.
Mr. Etherington: Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that nothing will be allowed to stand in the way of progress with talks on the framework document? I refer particularly to the uncertainty of the Dublin Government and to the fact that the British Government are now a minority Government.
Sir Patrick Mayhew: The most notable obstruction or difficulty in the way of progress with the joint framework document is that we do not have a new Government in the Republic at the moment. I am confident that the British Government can look forward to a fruitful period of discussion, for as long as necessary, with the new Dublin Government on the joint framework document. I am confident also that all parties in the Republic are as keen as we are to make progress.
Column 1328meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.
Mr. Coombs: Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to study the speech made by the French Prime Minister, Mr. Balladur, on the need to resist centralism and federalism in Europe? Is not that speech evidence that the entente is especially cordiale at present, and that the British Government are winning the arguments over the right kind of Europe for the future?
The Prime Minister: I certainly did read Mr. Balladur's speech. In fact, we discussed what he was likely to say when we met at Chartres a short while ago. I would have been pleased to make the speech that Mr. Balladur made--I nearly did at Leiden. He is right to reject federalism in favour of flexibility, say that we should avoid the encroachment of European institutions on national institutions, and talk of the need to look again at European policies as well as institutions, to keep costs down as we examine the question of enlargement. That is clear confirmation that the arguments made by the British Government for some time are increasingly gaining ground across Europe.
Mr. Blair: As to value added tax on domestic fuel, given that it is now clear that eight and three quarter million pensioners will not even be eligible for cold weather payments, and given the Prime Minister's specific promise at the last general election that he would not raise VAT, will the right hon. Gentleman agree to Labour's amendment next week, so that the House can vote on whether he has kept his promise?
The Prime Minister: As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have already had four votes on VAT. He neglected to mention that, in real terms, even after last year's VAT increase of 8 per cent., fuel prices actually fell. The position of the 15 million people who receive compensation for the VAT increase is, in real terms, better than it was before VAT was imposed on domestic fuel.
Mr. Blair: I gather that the Chancellor is in one-to-one meetings with the Back-Bench rebels over VAT. Would not it be better if all Conservative Members of Parliament had one-to-one meetings with their constituents so that they could know of their anger at the promise betrayed?
The Prime Minister: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends might care to discuss carbon tax with their constituents and explain to them-- [Interruption.] Clearly they do not wish to discuss anything with their constituents, such as why they oppose VAT because it is politically expedient for them to do so, and why they propose a carbon tax that would have precisely the same effect on fuel prices.
The Prime Minister: I most certainly and unequivocally reaffirm the House's support for the actions taken by General Rose. He has had an extremely difficult job. I believe that he has done that job as well as it could have been done by any commanding officer anywhere in the world. If I may say so, I believe that most hon.
Column 1329Members and most people in this country will bitterly resent the criticism of General Rose voiced in some United States newspapers. I have seen the arguments and comments about the position in Bosnia. There is no doubt that the position in Bosnia is serious at the moment. I have no doubt about that at all, but I have to say to the House that, if the embargo was lifted and UNPROFOR was forced to withdraw, the position would be even worse, and particularly so for the Bosnians. The belief that that would produce a level playing field is not, in my judgment, right. It would produce a level killing field.
Sir David Steel: During the past couple of days, the Prime Minister and his colleagues have tried to persuade us that all their tax increases are something of a temporary aberration from Conservative instincts. Even if that were so, how does he explain the fact that, under this Government, the top 1 per cent. of taxpayers received tax cuts of something like £47,000 on average, while the low-paid have seen their taxes increase by about £400 a year? Is not that a permanent feature of Conservative instincts?
The Prime Minister: I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what is a permanent feature of Conservative instincts: the fact that real, disposable net incomes, at all levels, have risen. That, of course, is what affects people's living standards. Post-taxation, they have more spending power in their pockets than they had before. That is undoubtedly the case right the way down the scale and, I believe, will remain the case.
Mr. James Hill: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way in which to get the unemployed back to work is to give them incentives and training, and not to bash business men with a minimum wage and a training levy?
The Prime Minister: Yes, I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about that. Priority is given to getting the unemployed back to work. We have seen unemployment fall more dramatically in this country than in any other European country. There was a wide range of measures in my right hon. and learned Friend's Budget which will add to that return to work.
Mr. Connarty: Does the Prime Minister accept the advice of the all- party group on pensions that, despite the Government's compensation package, the individual pensioner will be 56p a week worse off if VAT on fuel rises to 17.5 per cent? In the light of that, will he tell his hon. Friends who are committed to defending pensioners against that attack to stick by their principles next week?
Column 1330just a few moments ago. The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the consistent position that we have taken about VAT on fuel and the consistent position that the House has endorsed on at least four occasions.
Mr. Stephen: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the grave concern expressed by many of our constituents about people who are not ordinarily resident in this country coming here to litigate their disputes in the English courts at the British taxpayers' expense on legal aid? Will he consider withdrawing civil legal aid from such people in future?
The Prime Minister: I shall certainly seek the advice of my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. I am aware of the concern that has arisen. As my hon. Friend knows, the matter is very complex, but it raises a great many concerns among many people in the country. I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend.
Mr. Bennett: Will the Prime Minister confirm that he is still committed to the Rio environmental targets, and in particular to efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions? If he is committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, how will that commitment be financed? Does he accept that the Government's policy was to use the Energy Saving Trust, and that so far the trust has virtually no money with which to reach its targets?
We are currently considering a range of options for funding the trust, including the involvement of private sector finance and input from the energy consumer. We remain totally committed to meeting the targets to which I signed up at Rio, and with that in mind the trust has already prepared a plan setting out how it intends to proceed towards its contribution to carbon emission reduction as part of the climate change reduction programme.
I would add that our decisions regarding VAT on fuel have a strong environmental impact.
Mr. Arnold: What does my right hon. Friend think of the trench warfare being conducted against grant-maintained schools by Labour- controlled councils, particularly Kent county council? Kent has vetoed the only application for a new nursery unit in Gravesend because the school is grant-maintained.
What does my right hon. Friend think of a man who is prepared to reject all the schools in his Labour-controlled borough, and to sneak his son eight miles across Greater London to a grant-maintained school?
Column 1331for his or her children; I am sure that we would all do that. My only criticism would be that the policy for everyone should not be to remove the same choices from millions of other people.
Mr. Byers: Is the Prime Minister aware that, according to the latest figures, the average household fuel bill in Northern Ireland is 27 per cent. higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom? Can he explain why the VAT compensation package announced on Tuesday failed to take that difference into account?
The Prime Minister: As Northern Ireland would be the first to accept, we are a united kingdom as a whole, and our legislation stretches across the United Kingdom: that position is taken very firmly by Northern Ireland Members of Parliament. It is also true that we see from Government support across the United Kingdom--I take these figures broadly from memory --that the degree of underlying public support for Northern Ireland is substantially higher than that for other parts of the United Kingdom. The figure for Scotland is substantially above that for Wales, and the figure for Wales is substantially above that for England. It is in that way that we seek to ensure a proper equity of support for services and people throughout the United Kingdom.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: Following my right hon. Friend's talks with the Republican leader Senator Dole, will he confirm that he made it clear to the senator that, whatever the differences may be over Bosnia, they should not be allowed to undermine the commitment of his country and ours to the Atlantic alliance?
The Prime Minister: I had an extremely useful exchange with Senator Dole. We spent some time considering the Atlantic alliance and there is no doubt whatever about Senator Dole's whole-hearted support for NATO, both now and in the future.
Column 1332times he has failed to answer the question. Does he accept that, no matter what he says, pensioners do not believe him, because they know that an extra £1 a week will not pay their bills? Why has the Prime Minister betrayed the pensioners of the nation?
The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady may have repeated a question that has been asked before, but she should have listened to the answers. In reality, we have put in place a generous package to compensate not only pensioners but others for the effects of VAT.
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman shouts, "Not enough," and that is just another illustration of the fact that the Opposition claim that they would not put up taxes, they oppose every tax increase, but they would choose to put up expenditure and have no idea how they would fund any one of their policies. That is not new Labour: it is the old Labour that the electorate have rejected time after time.
Mr. Hutton: Why has the Prime Minister sanctioned the dismissal of 600 uniformed front-line customs officers this week? Does he agree with the Paymaster General that the dismissal of those 600 officers will compromise the Government's fight against illegal drugs and pornography?
The Prime Minister: The hon. Member for Ynys Mo n (Mr. Jones) asked that question on Tuesday and I told him then that it will not. Since then I have had the opportunity of discussing it with the chairman of Customs and Excise and she confirms that it will not.
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