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Column 591socialist-controlled Essex county council is expecting parents to pay the costs of the transport of their children to grammar schools? Does that not show that, despite the warm words about choice and opportunity, Labour and the alliance in action are as malicious and vindictive as ever? So much for hung councils--so much for new Labour.
The Prime Minister: The vote by the Lib-Lab pact to deprive grammar school children of free bus passes seems to me to be mean-spirited and petty, and it does damage to the notion that the Labour party stands for choice and opportunity. It seems to show the true face of Labour in local government, and gives a warning that many people would be wise to take on board. Perhaps the leader of the Labour party will ask his local government colleagues to think again on this matter, as he has on other issues.
The Prime Minister: I set out the Government's position perfectly clearly before the House on 1 March. I made it clear that we had an opt- out, and that we would decide whether to join when the time for the decision came. We would then decide whether to exercise our opt-out. Nothing has changed.
The Prime Minister: Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me when the matter will come for a decision? He cannot. I just said perfectly clearly that when the matter comes for a decision-- [Interruption.] It is perfectly clear--even for the right hon. Gentleman. When the matter comes for a decision, we will decide whether to exercise that opt-out.
Mr. Blair: Does that include in the next Parliament? Baroness Thatcher got it wrong. The Prime Minister is not the yes, yes man--he is the don't know, don't know man. When will he learn to give the lead on this issue, because it is too important to be the plaything either of the rival ambitions in the Cabinet or of the warring factions in his party, of whom increasingly he is the prisoner and not the master?
The Prime Minister: I have been observing the faces of some of the members of the Labour safeguards committee, who do not share the right hon. Gentleman's view on any aspect of his European policy. As for giving a lead, it was I who negotiated the choice that this country and no other country in Europe has, to make the decision that is right and in the interests of this country--whenever the matter may come up, as I have told the right hon. Gentleman twice.
Mr. Evans: I am proud to be Welsh and I am also an unashamed, Union Jack-waving Brit. Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 1235, signed by 75 hon. Members, which shows that the vast majority of people
Column 592oppose bureaucratic assemblies, and that half the people who say that they will vote for the rabble opposite oppose devolution? Will my right hon. Friend continue his policies to protect and keep this kingdom united, and not sell out the vital interests of this country to sectional and divisive interests, as the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats would do?
The Prime Minister: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The Opposition proposals that we have seen on devolution are ill thought out and incomplete. On all the substantial questions, after many years of talking about their policy, the Opposition have made no decision on how to deal with the main questions that arise. If they know the answers, they are keeping quiet and, if they do not, it is about time they produced them, before seeking to inflict such a disastrous policy on the United Kingdom.
Miss Hoey: The Prime Minister will know that I have been a strong supporter of the national lottery from the beginning, but does he realise that there is now growing concern about the way in which it operates, especially the huge profits that Camelot is making? Will he set up a small independent inquiry to examine those profits-- [Interruption.]
Will the Prime Minister agree to set up a small independent inquiry to examine the profits of the national lottery, the fund distribution and the prize distribution? In particular, can such an inquiry consider ways of allowing some revenue funding, so that in my constituency, for example, school sports facilities can stay open during the summer and take children off the streets?
The Prime Minister: There were several different parts to the hon. Lady's question. I welcome the support that she has given to the national lottery from the outset, but I do not find any real need for an independent inquiry. The profits are governed by the legislation that the House passed, and the lottery has so far raised well over £600 million for good causes. I should like to consider the distribution between capital and revenue at some time, but it would not be right to do so until we have had rather more experience of the lottery. Although many people are concerned about the size of the prizes when the lottery has been rolled over and there are very large sums indeed, I must tell the House that, whenever that has happened, contributions have risen dramatically, and with them the
Column 593available funds to be distributed to the five good causes--arts, sport, charities, the millennium fund and heritage- -so I do not think it right to revisit that question at present.
Mr. Streeter: Has my right hon. Friend seen the recent disturbing reports of fraud and corruption in Hackney council? As independent inquiries appear to be the flavour of the afternoon, is it not now time to set up an independent and open inquiry into the growing number of cases of alleged malpractice and corruption in Labour councils all over the country?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about the flavour of the afternoon and also about the fact that there seem to be a number of cases where there are difficulties within Labour local authorities. There has been no suggestion from the Labour party of any inquiry, except one by the party behind closed doors. I know that Lord Nolan may be considering investigating local government generally. Personally, I hope that is where he will turn his attentions next, and I hope that the official Opposition will give him their support when he does so.
Ms Eagle: Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity this afternoon to reject unequivocally the malicious criticisms made of his record on television last night by Baroness Thatcher, or will he be setting up a committee of inquiry to establish the facts before he decides to take any action?
The Prime Minister: I worked with my right hon. and noble Friend for many years and I wish her well with her new book. I did not see the broadcast to which the hon. Lady refers, but, if there are misconceptions in it, no doubt in some years to come I shall correct them in my memoirs.
Sir Terence Higgins: Will my right hon. Friend take time today to study the evidence in the Nolan committee report that, over the past 30 years, average real incomes in Britain rose by 80 per cent.? In the meantime, the pay of Members of Parliament is only back where it was 30 years ago, and it has been below that level throughout the intervening period, while ministerial pay has gone down by 60 per cent. In view of that, will my right hon. Friend refer to the Nolan committee urgently the question of Members' and Ministers' pay?
The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend quotes some extremely telling statistics which are known to many hon. Members. I am not sure whether that is directly a matter for Lord Nolan; however, I shall myself take note of what my right hon. Friend says.
Column 594The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Pickthall: Does the Prime Minister recall agreeing with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that it is the business of Government to help to reduce inequality? In that context, what is his response to recent reports that some Oxford colleges are warning young people not to bother applying unless their parents are rich enough to fund them? What can he do to prevent Oxbridge again becoming a preserve of the rich? How does he justify Oxbridge colleges getting £2,000 per student in extra top-up tuition fees?
The Prime Minister: I do not accept the position set out by the hon. Gentleman in the case of Oxbridge or more generally. The reality for all people on low incomes across the country is that the average income of all family types has risen over recent years. Pensioner incomes have increased by more than 50 per cent. and average incomes have risen for those who are unemployed and others not in work. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Opposition Front Benchers to disagree, but if they cared to study some of the independent research, they would see that it shows that the least well-off have shared in the increase in prosperity. The Institute of Fiscal Studies shows that the standard of living measured by expenditure for the lowest tenth has increased by 14 per cent. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned poverty, he might be aware that the bottom income decile-- [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister: I know that the Opposition do not like their misconceptions corrected, but they are going to have them corrected none the less. The bottom income decile has experienced improvement in income, improvement in consumer durables and improvement of living standards, year after year.
Mr. Bottomley: As my right hon. Friend was not able to watch television last night, may I tell him that one of the subjects covered in an interview with his predecessor was housing? May I suggest to him that people trying to get on to the housing ladder benefit by having low housing prices, relatively low interest rates and the opportunity to join in the property-owning democracy, and will he continue policies directed to that end?
The Prime Minister: There has been, as my hon. Friend will know, a dramatic increase in home ownership in the past few years, and there was a further increase again last year. As the House should know--although perhaps not everyone will wish to acknowledge it--mortgage payments are about £130 a month lower than they were in October 1990. Perhaps more pertinently, as a proportion of average income they are now at their lowest for a decade. I think that shows very clearly the prospects for increasing home ownership in future.
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