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Mr. John Townend: Will my hon. Friend consider that if we really are the Government of deregulation, it is about time that we abolished the Equal Opportunities Commission? It has done any work which was necessary; it is now a waste of taxpayers' money.
Miss Widdecombe: I can only refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave earlier. We have no plans to change the terms on which the EOC carries out its statutory responsibilities. Despite some of the actions of the EOC and some of its rulings, it is still a fact that the United Kingdom is the only European Union country which has a lower unemployment rate for women than for men.
That is a solid achievement and is worth all the rhetoric in the world about minimum wages and good standards. The real standard that matters is opportunity. We are the Government of opportunity for women; the Labour party is not. All that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) could talk about on the subject of the Equal Opportunities Commission was simply a load of speculation. That means that the Labour party does not have any policies for women either.
Miss Widdecombe: The latest available figures show that in October 1994 there were 956,475 claimants who had been unemployed for over a year. That represents a fall of 11 per cent. compared with 12 months ago.
Mr. Evans: I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Does she agree that a good many of the long-term unemployed never intend to work again, ever? They are, in my words, layabouts-- [Interruption.] Well, they work in the black economy and they draw benefit. People want to know when we are going to put a stop to that. I want to know when those long-term unemployed layabouts are going to have to do a job, day in, day out, in the community before they receive any taxpayers' money at all.
Miss Widdecombe: The long-term unemployed who are genuinely seeking work are being helped, and will continue to be helped, by a wide range of Government initiatives including those expansions of initiatives that were announced in the Budget. For those unemployed, whether long term or short term, who are not actively seeking work, there are proposals, which will shortly be before the House, for the jobseeker's allowance which I hope will go some way towards satisfying my hon. Friend's worries.
Mr. O'Hara: May I give the Minister a further opportunity to answer a straight question? How, on the measures that she has accepted, can she explain the difference between a drop of 200,000 in unemployed claimants and a rise of 30,000 in those employed?
Miss Widdecombe: If only Opposition Members would learn that unemployment does not work on stock for stock; there are flows as well. If only the hon. Gentleman would learn how unemployment works, he might be able to answer his own question. One never knows.
14. Mr. Connarty: To ask the Secretary of State for Employment how much his Department is spending on training for work in 1994-95; and what the level of planned spending is in 1995-96 in today's prices.
Mr. Connarty: Is the Minister willing to admit that the cut which was published in his own plans of 24.5 per cent. in training for work is only part of the overall cut, between now and the end of the published plans, of 12 per cent. or £245 million in education and training in the Department of Employment's budget? Is the Minister aware of the contradiction revealed in the latest skills survey--"Skill Needs in Britain --1994"--which shows that 11 per cent. of vacancies in Britain are difficult to fill and that that figure has risen from 5 per cent. in 1992 and
Column 146 per cent. in 1993? The contradiction is that the Government are not serving the country's employers or the country's training needs.
Mr. Paice: This Government believe in value for money. Whatever the problem, the Opposition want to throw more money at it. The Government's policy on training is quite clear: we are looking for better, higher outputs for less money. We will be saving the taxpayer £450 million and we will be getting more people back to work. That is in the best interests of the unemployed and of the taxpayer. That is what the Government believe is right and that obviously contradicts what the Opposition think.
15. Mr. Thurnham: To ask the Secretary of State for Employment by how much unemployment in the north-west changed during the period 1979 to 1984; and by how much it changed during the period 1974 to 1979.
Mr. Oppenheim: Between 1974 and 1979, claimant unemployment in the north-west increased at a rate of 1,175 per month, nearly double the increase over the period under this Government from 1979 to 1994.
Mr. Thurnham: Does my hon. Friend agree that the north-west can look forward to a future of falling unemployment under this Government's policies and that we should not cease to challenge socialist policies which saw unemployment in the north-west more than double in the four years from 1974 to 1979?
Mr. Oppenheim: It is very good news that unemployment is now falling in the north-west. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Just as unemployment doubled under Labour in the 1970s, it would go up again if Labour was to impose its ludicrous minimum wage in respect of which the Opposition spokeswoman cannot even come to the House to tell us at what rate it would be introduced and what she would do about differentials.
The minimum wage is a con on the less well-off to try to trick them into thinking that there is an easy, pat, quick-fix solution to low pay. There is not. The minimum wage would replace low pay with no pay.
Mr. Flynn: Has the Minister noticed that Britain's second highest- paid civil servant, the head of the Central Statistical Office, said about the Government's employment and unemployment figures that nobody--nobody-- in the country believes them? Why is that?
Mr. Oppenheim: If the hon. Gentleman had read Mr. McLennan's remarks in full, he would have read that the gentleman in question said that he had full confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the claimant count figures. The Trades Union Congress recently said exactly the same thing. I agree, though, that we would like more attention paid to the labour force survey. That is why we have increased its frequency from annually to quarterly. It is interesting that the labour force survey unemployment total is almost exactly the same as the claimant count total, which shows that there can be no fiddle in the claimant count total.
Ms Corston: Does the Prime Minister agree that it is totally unacceptable for the Government or for any individual Minister to hide behind Britain's laudable ban of the veal crate system while turning a blind eye to the annual export of hundreds of thousands of calves, knowing full well that they will spend their short lives in wooden boxes in the dark?
The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has done more than most people in this country to try to change the laws right across Europe to deal with veal. Both he and I would like to see less trade in live animals and more in carcase form. But, as the hon. Lady will know, there is a long tradition of Agriculture Ministers having farming interests, which they rightly stand back from when they are Agriculture Ministers. What the hon. Lady did not mention was that my right hon. Friend's farm is managed on a day-to-day basis by a farm management company headed by a Labour Front-Bench spokesman in the House of Lords.
Mr. Evans: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Conservative Members want to wish him and his family a very happy and prosperous new year? Is it the Conservative party that wants to put VAT on school fees, split up the United Kingdom with devolution plans, or nationalise utilities under clause IV, or is it the lot opposite, led by Bambi, with his 60 quid-a-week haircut, who sends his son to a grant-maintained school when his party want to abolish them? Is there anything more dishonourable than that? I do not think so. [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: I can tell, Madam Speaker, that this is going to be an uncontroversial Session of Parliament. My hon. Friend leads us in that direction. Clearly, the policy-making activities of the principal opposition party are running into some difficulties at the moment. I do not think that many people are quite sure who these days is forming Labour policy on education, health, energy and other subjects. The closer one examines Labour policy, the more it falls apart. My hon. Friend should not object to that; he should lie back and enjoy it.
Column 16to travel 50 miles to get a train ticket, would be utterly unacceptable, and will he, if necessary, intervene to stop such an attempt?
Through-ticketing should continue to be available from a wide range of outlets, to meet passengers' needs. The regulator, like other regulators, is by law independent, but the Secretary of State has powers to give him guidance under the Railways Act 1993. The regulator is bound to take account of such guidance, but at this stage, prior to the issue of a consultation document, the question of guidance is entirely premature.
Mr. Blair: If the Prime Minister has no power to prevent the regulator from introducing such an arrangement--what he has described is merely guidance--will he undertake that if the regulator makes such proposals he will direct the franchising director not to offer a franchise to any of the 25 companies unless it offers a complete through-ticket service?
The Prime Minister: As I have told the right hon. Gentleman, I am at least as committed to through-ticketing as he is. He is trying yet again to have it both ways. The Labour party complains routinely that the Government should have more powers over the regulator, but if we had such direct powers it would complain about Government interference, as it did during the rail strike.
through-ticketing, and if he is prepared to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a privatisation that people do not want, when the public rightly fear that it will be used to produce the same pay excesses as exist in other privatised utilities, why does he not accept, as this country does, that our party's campaign to halt the privatisation is right, and that the railways should be retained as a proper integrated public service?
The Prime Minister: If privatisation is as bad as the right hon. Gentleman says, why will he not commit himself to renationalisation of British Rail? After 50 years of nationalisation, is he really satisfied with the present rail service? Can he name any time at which the service was satisfactory? If not, why does he oppose changes that will make it satisfactory? The Labour party has opposed every privatisation. Let me remind the right hon. Gentleman what Labour said about other privatisations. It said that British Airways would be
"the pantomime horse of capitalism if it is anything at all". British Airways is the most efficient airline in the world. I have a stack of similar quotations for the right hon. Gentleman, about every privatisation. Privatisation works; we are privatising rail and there will be a better service.
Column 17weeks. Chechnya is indisputably part of the Russian Federation, and the long-standing revolt that has taken place there under local leadership has posed serious problems. I share my hon. Friend's implicit concern about the way in which the problem has been handled in recent weeks and about the bombardment that has led to so many civilian casualties. As with other allies, we have expressed our concerns directly to the Russian Government. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary saw the Russian ambassador this morning.
Mr. Beith: Under this Government, can any Cabinet Minister claim that he is responsible only for the policy of his Department and not for its operational failings, however many there are and however many have been preceded by warnings from those in a position to know that things are going wrong? Is not good government about running things properly? What will happen to Ministers who have proved not to have done that?
The Prime Minister: The Secretary of State concerned is responsible for the policy of a Department, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary made clear in the illustration to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred. Operational matters fall into a different category, as has been the case for many years. The right hon. Gentleman is clearly referring to recent gaol escapes, and he will know that during the past 20 or 30 years there have been a large number of incidents under Governments of both major parties, and also a Government involving the Liberal party. Such incidents have occurred without making necessary the resignation of the appropriate Secretary of State.
Mr. Townsend: Recalling that neither my right hon. Friend nor myself voted for the Second Reading of the War Crimes Act 1991, and noting that the funding for the special war crimes unit at New Scotland Yard is to be wound up at the end of March, will my right hon. Friend consider drawing stumps on the whole grisly business? It must be perfectly obvious that not a single person will ever be successfully prosecuted under that expensive Act.
The Prime Minister: It was recognised from the outset that the police investigations into serious crimes which were committed a long time ago would be difficult. I understand that the police investigations will be completed by the end of March this year. The decision therefore on whether or not to prosecute will be made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, who will be advised by the Director of Public Prosecutions. I prefer to await that advice before saying more.
Column 18approved the principle in the War Crimes Act, will he confirm that if--but only if--there is sufficient evidence against individuals of complicity in that murder, they will be prosecuted no matter how long they have managed to evade justice?
The Prime Minister: I think that that was implicit in the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) a moment ago, when I made clear that a decision on whether or not to prosecute will not be a political decision. The decision will be made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General upon the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Mr. Shepherd: Does my right hon. Friend agree that a full range of educational opportunity is of the utmost importance to the citizens of this country? Is not it clear from the utterances of the past few days that the old, nasty Labour party is waiting to leap out, given half a chance?
The Prime Minister: I am not altogether sure that it has not already leapt out during the past few days. We have seen the quickest U-turn in history about a tax on school fees, the education spokesman unfortunately not being told what the education policies really are; and Opposition spokesmen in open disagreement about a graduate tax and a range of other totally and utterly vindictive education policies. Those policies will show everyone where the Labour party stands on equality of choice, opportunity and freedom.
Mr. O'Brien: Is the Prime Minister aware of the concern that has been expressed by many fire service authorities about reductions in their expenditure, which may bring about a danger to property and to life? May I warn him of the situation in West Yorkshire? There has been a £3.2 million cut in expenditure, which could mean a reduction of 116 firefighters in West Yorkshire. Will the Prime Minister take action to ensure that we have continuity of service which will help in the protection of property and life in West Yorkshire in particular, and across the country in general?
The Prime Minister: Of course the fire service is immensely important. Of course we will make a judgment that we believe will ensure that it can be adequately available to all people who are likely to need it. I am not immediately familiar with the particular circumstances of West Yorkshire. It would be surprising were I to be so. I shall certainly ask my right hon. Friend to look particularly at that in the light of what the hon. Gentleman says.
Column 19costs for businesses, particularly in Scotland? Does he further agree that if that is so, it will inevitably be the first stage on the slippery slope towards the break-up of the United
Kingdom--something which the Labour party seems to be intent on achieving?
The Prime Minister: I fully understand the many people in Scotland and, indeed, in Wales, who believe that a tax-raising assembly may be of assistance to them. I passionately believe, in their interests, that that is a mistaken judgment. I do not believe that the degree of investment that has gone into Scotland and Wales would
Column 20continue if those investing there had the unique advantage of being more highly taxed than people in other parts of the United Kingdom. I see a great danger of businesses uprooting themselves and moving away from Scotland.
I have seen no answers yet to the West Lothian question, which the Leader of the Opposition apparently failed to understand when he was asked about it at a press conference yesterday. I have no doubt that the sort of devolution proposed by the Labour party would do immense damage, first to the people of Scotland, secondly to the people of Wales--although they would apparently have a lesser form of devolution--and above all to everyone throughout the United Kingdom.
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