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Mr. Michael Brown: Is my hon. Friend aware that I have a question for written answer on the Order Paper for answer next week asking him to clarify the position with regard to zero-rating VAT on pleasure rides? Is he aware that in Cleethorpes people are concerned about whether VAT will be put on donkey rides on Cleethorpes beach? Will he clear up that matter, as those donkey rides are an important part of the local economy?
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Public transport will continue to be zero rated. Unfortunately, beach donkeys do not constitute public transport, even in Cleethorpes, but at the standard rate of 17.5 per cent. I am sure that they represent excellent value.
Mrs. Roche: Will the Chancellor explain why, at the last general election, the Government said that they would raise the living standards of the British people yet now have the gall to expect the typical British family to find £800 a year to pay for the new taxes that he has introduced?
Mr. Clarke: What the hon. Lady calls a typical household is about 1 per cent. of households in the country. She is misusing statistics again. She will have noticed that next year we expect personal disposable incomes to rise by about 1.5 per cent. After taking account of tax and inflation, that is an average of about £5 a week. Those are the first fruits of our economic recovery and we are now set on course for a strong economic recovery, strong manufacturing base, falling unemployment and rising living standards for the people of this country, in line with what we promised at the last election and in marked contrast with the previous Labour Government's record.
Mr. Bill Walker: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that one of the clear signs of the improvement in living standards in the United Kingdom is the substantial number of people today who hold shares in companies? Does that not perhaps alter slightly the statistic that 1 per cent. of the population pay capital gains tax?
Mr. Clarke: It does, indeed. Another of the achievements of the past 15 years is the fact that the Conservative attachment to the principle of popular capitalism and every man a shareholder has been taken a great deal further forward, and very many people now own shares in successful British companies. I agree with my hon. Friend that it puts the arguments about capital gains tax in context that such a comparatively small number of taxpayers in this country actually pay capital gains tax.
Mr. Salmond: Would the Chancellor like to take a cut in his pay of 16 per cent. this Christmas? Would he rather work in the British Gas boardroom, where one gets £500,000 a year, or in the showroom, where the £13,000 salaries are being cut by 16 per cent.? If the Chancellor will not do anything about the unacceptable face of privatisation, why does not he introduce a system of taxation that reduces the marginal tax on the poor, and ask people with their snouts in the trough to pay their fair share?
Mr. Clarke: Questions about the management of British Gas must be addressed to British Gas. The hon. Gentleman, like the Labour party, must resist the temptation to return to the days when parliamentary questions, ministerial decisions and political interference determined the commercial policy of institutions that provided the country with utilities. We now have a massive increase of investment in British Gas and falling
Column 1064fuel prices. An extremely strong industry has developed, and I trust that its management will continue to manage it fairly and properly in the public interest.
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.
Mrs. Roche: Given today's news that British Gas retail staff, who earn an average of £13,000 a year, will be asked to take a pay cut while the chief executive will receive a pay rise of 75 per cent., does the Prime Minister share the opinion of the deputy chairman of the Conservative party that, under the present Government, the rich are getting richer on the backs of the rest?
Mr. Hawkins: In the light of this week's welcome further fall in unemployment, has my right hon. Friend met a single business man who supports the Labour party's demand for a minimum wage, which would destroy so many jobs in constituencies such as mine in Blackpool?
The Prime Minister: I cannot be sure that there is none who would, but certainly the overwhelming opinion is to the contrary. Even the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has in the past used the expression that there would be some jobs "shakeout", or words to that effect. That means, of course, that people will lose their jobs. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has said that a minimum wage would have a potential jobs impact. He can hardly believe that it would be a favourable jobs impact. I think, therefore, that hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench tend to agree that jobs would be lost by that policy.
Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister confirm that, by next year, the chief executive of British Gas will earn in one week what his employees, who are now confronted with job cuts and pay cuts, earn in one year? Is it not time that he took a grip on those privatised utilities and put a stop to excesses that are offensive to the British sense of justice?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman will have to decide whether he wishes to have a private sector with rigid Government controls over every aspect of it, in which case it is not a private sector, or to renationalise industries such as gas, in which case he should make his position entirely clear. He might also clear his lines with his hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr.
Column 1065Brown) because my answer to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) applies also to the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Blair: Since these industries are regulated, why could they not be regulated to put a stop to those excesses? Is not the point one of efficiency as well as justice because, if we want a modern motivated work force, we can have it only on the basis of investment, partnership and fairness, not on the old Tory notion of greed at the top and insecurity for the rest?
"Surely there is nothing you could do, could you, about wage rates within an industry? You are surely not going to start interfering with that again, are you?"
To that, the hon. Gentleman said:
"No, these are matters for negotiation between the unions and the employers."
They should sort their lines out themselves before they criticise us.
Mr. Blair: The issue is not the market conditions of British Gas but the contrast between the treatment of the chief executive and those ordinary staff who are facing pay cuts. I understand that the Cabinet has its own committee looking into these matters. If the Prime Minister has such a committee, why will he not accept the suggestion put forward from the Opposition Benches that where there are excessive pay increases at the top the regulator should act to stop them?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a matter for the regulator. He is being wholly inconsistent. One day he complains about the British Gas monopoly, the next day he complains when British Gas faces competition and cuts its cloth accordingly. In one sense he opposes monopoly, in another sense he opposes competition. The reality is that he just opposes the private sector. What the right hon. Gentleman is doing is what he and his colleagues have done so often--find a grievance, whatever it is, and use that grievance for partisan interest in the interests of the Labour party.
Sir Anthony Durant: My right hon. Friend will be aware that today is the anniversary of the Downing street declaration. I congratulate him on the progress that is being made in Northern Ireland towards a lasting peace and the announced inward investment and on the atmosphere that has improved so much in Northern Ireland, which he found in Portadown yesterday. Conservative Members believe that unless we get rid of the explosives and the firearms of the IRA, the UVF and the UFF, we will not be able to make the progress that we should.
The Prime Minister: I share that view. Firearms, explosives and detonators, whether held by the IRA or by the loyalist paramilitaries, need to be decommissioned. As I said yesterday, I am not concerned whether they are surrendered; I am concerned that they are
Column 1066decommissioned and destroyed so that they can no longer be used to disrupt the democratic life of Northern Ireland. That is the important matter. That does have to be discussed and it does have to be acted upon during the preliminary discussions that are taking place at the moment. If progress is not made on that, not only, in my judgment, would the other democratic parties in Northern Ireland politics not sit down with those who retain those weapons, but nor should any British Government.
Mr. Ashdown: Given the damage that has been done by indecision and division over Bosnia in the past, will the Prime Minister tell us what his response will be to the French proposal to be put to NATO on Monday to secure Sarajevo airport and to open a route to the sea in order to reinforce the UN's humanitarian operations and to make more secure the position of our troops there in the future?
The Prime Minister: Of course, we consider carefully anything that would secure the position of our troops and the right hon. Gentleman should know better than to suggest that we would do otherwise. I wish that he would not repeatedly undersell and undermine what is done there by British troops, United Nations troops and the Government. He has done nothing but grandstand on this issue from the commencement of the matter. If he really understood a little more about it, he might say a little less about it.
Mr. Peter Ainsworth: Does my right hon. Friend agree that employees should be encouraged to take stakes in the companies that they work for? Does not he think it odd that the Labour party attacks share options, particularly bearing in mind the extent to which its leader and various of his "luvvie" friends seem to have benefited from them?
The Prime Minister: I certainly think that it is right to extend share ownership as widely as possible. In the past 15 years, there has been a dramatic extension of share ownership. That has entrenched the private sector and private enterprise. It has done a great deal for the individual security of people owning shares. We shall certainly continue those policies. It would be welcome to have a cross-party consensus on it.
Mr. McGrady: I thank the Prime Minister for his reply. Will he join me in congratulating the Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland, and may I thank him personally for the great contribution and excellent launch of the Investment Forum drive in Belfast this week? He and, I hope, all hon. Members will pray that it bears immediate and urgent fruit. Having launched the Investment Forum, and having begun demilitarisation talks with the republican and loyalist paramilitaries, does he agree that the most urgent and pressing need in Northern Ireland is the recommencement of political dialogue, which must perforce await completion of the framework document? Will he assure the House today that, with the creation of the new Government in the Republic of Ireland under the new Taoiseach, John Bruton, the Government will act urgently to complete the
Column 1067framework document so that the two Governments and the political parties can negotiate a lasting political settlement in Northern Ireland?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful for what the hon. Gentleman had to say about the IDB, officials in the Northern Ireland Office and the investment conference held yesterday. No one who attended the conference has any doubt that it was a tremendous success not only in the new investments that were announced yesterday, but in the number of new investments that may arise as a result of the conference. The atmosphere was quite astonishing, as everyone who attended will know.
On the second half of the hon. Gentleman's question, clearly it is desirable to recontinue the political dialogue as soon as possible. I have written already to the new Taoiseach, Mr. Bruton, to say that I look forward to meeting him as soon as possible. I am confident that the new Irish Government will wish to sustain together the work that we have done over Northern Ireland. We wish to recommence discussions on the framework document and, I hope, conclude it as speedily as possible. But I would rather take a little longer over the document and get it right than deal with it too speedily and perhaps not have it right.
Mr. Dunn: What advice will the Prime Minister offer to the people of Islington who are entitled to say that, if local education is not good enough for the Leader of the Opposition, it is not good enough for them?
The Prime Minister: I suspect that it is not only the Leader of the Opposition who has not found the education system satisfactory in Islington, although the right hon. Gentleman shakes his head so perhaps he does find it satisfactory after all. We need the highest quality of education in Islington not just for the right hon. Gentleman, of course, but for every Islington resident whose children attend schools there.
Column 1068scrutiny of the film "Maltese Double Cross" by those involved in the investigation; and who were those involved to whom he referred.
Mr. Dalyell: Is it not a matter of record that on 19 September 1989 the then Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Parkinson--in good faith, quite certainly--offered the British relatives of the victims of Lockerbie a public inquiry on the condition that it was agreed by his colleagues? Which colleague vetoed that, and why did she do it?
The Prime Minister: My understanding of what I believe the hon. Gentleman has in mind is a little different from that implied by him. I am advised that in 1990 Lord Parkinson undertook to consider with colleagues the case for a confidential inquiry. When, subsequently, a decision was taken to hold the fatal accident inquiry, the case for a second inquiry fell away. I am advised that that was explained and accepted at the time by the relatives.
Mrs. Michie: Is the Prime Minister aware that the London to Crianlarich and Fort William and other sleeper trains are to be axed? That is no scare story. It signals the death knell of many vital rural services in Scotland and is due entirely to the Prime Minister's chaotic and damaging privatisation scheme.
The Prime Minister: Unless the hon. Lady is talking about a different service, I understand that sleeper services from London to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness will be safeguarded for the first time. If she has other detailed questions about other services, I suggest that she addresses them to the Secretaries of State for Transport or for Scotland.
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