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Column 1211markets, does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in human capital is every bit as important as investment in plant and equipment? Are the figures for investment in human capital as encouraging as the figures that he has given already?
Mr. Aitken: There is certainly continual investment in human capital in the form of the large training budgets allocated by the Government and private industry. I acknowledge my hon. Friend's point that human capital is important. However, I also draw his attention to the fact that unemployment is now falling by a rate of 2,000 per day, which shows that human capital is being well deployed in the continuing success story of British industry.
Mr. Nelson: The sale of endowments is regulated under the Financial Services Act 1986. The new requirements for disclosure of charges and commission will help consumers decide whether endowment mortgages best suit their circumstances.
Mr. Denham: Is not it a fact that four out of five homebuyers in the 1980s chose endowment mortgages because they were told that their investments would not only pay off their mortgages but give them a large lump-sum payment? Does not the decline in the market now mean that many of those bonuses will disappear, and in some cases the investment will not even pay off people's mortgage? Is not that another example of the failure of regulation under the 1986 Act to protect people and their investments?
Mr. Nelson: No, it does not. Although it is true that far fewer people are entering into endowment mortgages than in the 1980s, they still remain an attractive and flexible means of mortgage repayment for many others. The Office of Fair Trading is currently examining repayment and endowment mortgages, and there has been significant tightening-up of the regulatory regime, to prevent mis-selling. Therein lies security for people for whom such mortgages are appropriate and who decide to enter into them.
Mr. John Greenway: Does my hon. Friend agree that house purchase and the associated endowment mortgage are both long-term investments, and that many people who entered into such mortgages have lived to rejoice the day that they did, because they have achieved substantially better returns than inflation and other investment vehicles?
Mr. Nelson: My hon. Friend is right. Endowment mortgages may continue to be the best means of repaying mortgage obligations for many people. It is true that the lapse rate of many such products has been high, particularly in early years. It is consummately to be hoped that the new commission disclosure regime and the greater protection that has been introduced will in future give greater reassurance and encouragement to prospective investors.
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.
Mr. Waterson: Does my right hon. Friend accept that the goal of a peaceful settlement in Ulster is worthy of the courage and patience that he has demonstrated? Will he continue to assure the people of the Province that any final decision will always rest with them?
The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that there is a communal will not to be distracted from the goal of a peaceful, permanent and agreed settlement in Northern Ireland. I am happy to repeat the assurance that I have given in the past--the outcome of the political talks, after the main constitutional parties have met and agreed the outcome, will be put to people in a referendum before further action is taken. It is they who will decide, and nothing will be imposed on them.
Mr. Blair: On Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister has our full and continued support. On interest rates, however, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will confirm as a matter of fact that after mortgage rises, the cutting of mortgage tax relief and the imposition of the new home insurance tax, the typical home owner will have been paying an extra £800 a year since last April.
The Prime Minister: As to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's comments, I appreciate the support of the official Opposition and of other parties as far as Northern Ireland is concerned. It is a strength of the process that there is such widespread support for it.
Of course, I appreciate the impact of interest rates on home owners, but what would be most damaging to home owners would be for inflation to take off in the way that it did on past occasions. Interest rates are there to ensure that we have a recovery that curbs inflation. The policies repeatedly advocated by the shadow Chancellor would lead to inflation taking off--and the worst losers from that would be home owners. As a result of our policy on home ownership, the cost of mortgages has fallen dramatically from the peak in interest rates. The right hon. Gentleman is well aware that that is the case.
Mr. Blair: I notice that the right hon. Gentleman does not deny the figures. What type of recovery peaks when for millions it has barely even begun? The right hon. Gentleman and his Ministers will scrabble around in vain for the feel-good factor when mortgages, taxes and industry's costs are up, and when people feel more insecure precisely because they know that they are worse off under the Tories.
The Prime Minister: I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that he has a cheek to deny history in the way in which he just did. The level of interest rates that we have reached today is the level that was the lowest achieved at any stage under the previous Labour
Column 1213Government in five years of Government. The average was far higher. They also had negative interest rates and were robbing savers of their savings by devaluing the currency. [Interruption.] It is because of that sort of irresponsibility that no one will ever again trust the Labour party to run the economy. It is determined to take the short-term option and to ignore the long-term interests.
Mr. Couchman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the 40 per cent. of American and Japanese investment in Europe that comes to the United Kingdom is essentially dependent on our membership of the European Union? Does he further agree that if we cease to be at the heart of Europe those investors will rethink their European operations locations?
The Prime Minister: Yes. It depends on two points: both our membership of the European Union and the conditions of our membership of the European Union. Certainly, the fact that we are members has helped attract a great deal of investment into this country, but it would be lost if the conditions of our membership were to include the social chapter. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) does not agree, perhaps he could ask the chairman of Daimler-Benz. He had something to say about the social chapter. This is the right hon. Gentleman on the social chapter who thinks that it will cost jobs. He admitted it at one stage. Now he denies it.
Mr. Ashdown: Does the Prime Minister accept that, for as long as he puts the peace of Ireland first, he will command the overwhelming majority of the House and the country? Does he also agree that those who would put in jeopardy the peace of Ireland in order to pursue either narrow sectarian agendas or internal party power struggles, will meet the opposition of the House and earn the contempt of the country?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. There is nothing in the peace process that any party in this House need fear. There can be no slippery slope in any process that first requires the agreement of all the parties and then after the agreement of the parties has been obtained subsequently requires the agreement of the people of Northern Ireland themselves. I think that that is a categorical safeguard for all those who are concerned about the development of this process, and I hope that it will be accepted as such by people across ever strand of opinion in Northern Ireland. I hope that everyone will join actively in the search for a lasting settlement, a better future for the Province and a certainty that never again will we go back to the sort of atrocities and horrors that we have seen in Northern Ireland over much of the last quarter of a century.
Sir Michael Marshall: Does my right hon. Friend accept that, on Britain's role in Europe, much of the debate currently in the media is simply sensationalist and trivial? Does he further accept that the time is right for
Column 1214the House to have a full debate on that particular topic, so that we can steer the country in the direction in which we believe?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman asks which manifesto we will debate. He might well ask whether we will debate the policy on Europe of the Opposition Front Bench or the policy of Labour Members of the European Parliament. He might ask whether we will debate his policy or that of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East; the policy of the Labour Front Bench or the policy of the Labour Benches below the Gangway. There certainly is ample scope for a debate on Europe, but I say to my hon. Friend that we would need several days to debate the varied policies of the Labour party.
Mr. Tipping: Will the Prime Minister ask his colleagues at the Department of Health why they have not yet resolved the case of Mr. Tony Ruffell, the former chief executive of the Nottinghamshire family health service authority? Following more changes in the health service, Mr. Ruffell has been sitting at home on a salary of £66,000 since last September. Should not there be more focus on patient care and less on bureaucracy?
The Prime Minister: Of course there should, and that is why we are repealing a whole tier of bureaucracy in the health service--I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support us--and why we oppose the devolution of so much health to unwanted regional authorities throughout the country which would add to bureaucracy. On the detailed point, of course I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to refer to the hon. Gentleman, but if he had really wanted an answer he would have contacted my right hon. Friend.
Mrs. Gorman: Has my right hon. Friend seen reports in the newspapers that half the Treasury building is to be rented out to the private sector? Will he confirm, for a suspicious person such as me, that that has nothing to do with Mr. Santer's call for the abolition of our national currency?
The Prime Minister: I can undoubtedly give my hon. Friend that assurance. On the substantive part of her question, I think that the action taken by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor sets an example across Whitehall and beyond.
Mr. Chisholm: Given that Lord Wakeham privatised electricity and then moved to the board of Rothschild, which had carried through that privatisation, what will the Prime Minister be saying to him following today's news that Rothschild is to be the merchant banker for the sell-off of Railtrack? Will he be telling him to keep his
Column 1215seat warm for the Secretary of State for Transport as a pay-off for this disastrous and deeply unpopular privatisation?
The Prime Minister: I have no doubt that, over time, it will be as effective and popular a privatisation as those that we have had in the past. I know that the hon. Gentleman would still prefer to be subsidising the old industries by £50 million a week rather than taking in £50 million a week to the Exchequer for the good use of the public at large. That undoubtedly is what would have happened had we not privatised those industries in the past. As to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, it does not merit a reply.
Mr. Garnier: Will my right hon. Friend confirm his Government's commitment to preserving the front-line strength of our armed forces, and will he contrast that with the Opposition's only defence policy, which is to cut, cut and cut again?
The Prime Minister: We are committed to stability for the armed forces. I promised that at Camberley recently and I made it clear that the big upheavals in the armed forces are over. The level of front-line manpower has been set and we do not intend to reduce it. My hon. Friend can be reassured of that. Nor do we intend to adopt Labour's policy of scrapping nuclear defence, or a fresh defence review bringing uncertainty to each and every area of the defence services.
Mr. Home Robertson: What is the Prime Minister's reply to the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross), who has said that the Prime Minister's Northern Ireland initiative is dead and buried? Would it not be an
Column 1216affront to all the soldiers and civilians who have been killed and buried during the past 25 years if that initiative were to be jeopardised as a result of a malicious partial leak of a draft document? Is the Prime Minister aware that all our constitutents are becoming weary of the ancient refrain of "Ulster says no", which is still being parroted by some Unionist members, but, thankfully, only some Unionist members.
The Prime Minister: I believe that there is a wish right across the House--including among hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland--to find a satisfactory way forward. I have not a shred of doubt about that. We have all watched with dismay the activities of the past 25 years; hon. Members who represent Ulster have lived through that in a way in which the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and I have not.
I have no doubt, from my contact with hon. Members from Northern Ireland-- in regard to points on which we agree, and points on which we do not agree- -about their sincerity in seeking to bring to a conclusion the miseries of the past 25 years. What I would ask of all hon. Members is that they wait for the framework document; that they study that document in its entirety; that they examine what it will mean; that they recognise that it is there for consultation; that they then consult on it with other constitutional parties; and that if they agree, they then agree--as I do--to abide by the will of the majority of people in a referendum.
The Prime Minister: The end--the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) keeps shouting about it, as he did yesterday--is a very straightforward and simple one. It is to end the horrors of the past 25 years, and to ensure that never again are people killed month after month after month after month as they have been in the past 25 years. I would have hoped that even the hon. Member for Bolsover would support that enterprise.
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