The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 18 February 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 18th February 1997.




Q1. Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 February.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Whittingdale: Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Scots and the Welsh were to be given their own Parliament there would be an overwhelming demand from my constituents in Essex, and elsewhere in England, for English Members of Parliament to be given exclusive control over English affairs? What consequence does he think that that would have for the integrity of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend about the anomalies that would be thrown up were there to be a Scottish or Welsh Parliament. The shadow Foreign Secretary once said, when he was shadow Health Secretary, that he as a Scot could not be Health Secretary in England were health to be devolved to a Scottish Parliament. Clearly there are much wider applications than just health were such a Parliament to be established. That is just one of many anomalies thrown up by the policy of devolution which I hope that we will be able to examine this week.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister recall the promise that he made on “Panorama” a couple of years ago that the excesses that we saw in the water industry would not be repeated in the rail industry? Is he aware that, in the next few days, the second of the railway rolling stock companies, which was bought on privatisation for £580 million, is to be sold for £900 million? The first rolling stock company, having been bought for just over £500 million, was sold a few months later for more than £800 million. Does he agree that such profits are entirely unjustified?

The Prime Minister: I seem to recall the right hon. Gentleman saying that he supported the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition. That seems to apply only in generality and not in the real world when companies are efficient and sold on. The right hon. Gentleman and his party are as opposed to private ownership and privatisation today as they have ever been at any stage. They know that that is so and take every opportunity that they can to try to denigrate the success across the whole range of privatisation.

Mr. Blair: I certainly support the enterprise of the market. What I do not support is the incompetence of the Government. I believe that most people in this country will see the difference between making an honest profit and profiteering.

Can I point out to the Prime Minister that, in the sale in the next few days, the managing director, who put in £110,000 a year ago, will make £20 million and the finance and engineering directors, who put in £80,000, will make £10 million each, and it is reported that the part-time chairman of the company privatised earlier, who worked for one day a month and put in £25,000, has walked away with £4 million? Does the Prime Minister believe that that is the enterprise of the market? Is it not simple profiteering?

The Prime Minister: It is hard not to remember that the right hon. Gentleman’s private office is funded by the profits of privatisation. If such funds are so wrong, perhaps he will pay them back to those who provided them. It is not all that long ago that he was saying:

“the pragmatic approach to privatisation is . . . correct. The key is . . . sticking to it regardless of the pressures.”

Of course, he said that in South Africa; what he says here is quite different.

Mr. Blair: May I suggest to the Prime Minister that, just for once at one of these Prime Minister’s Question Times, he tries answering the question put to him? Is there not the sharpest contrast between the massive windfall gains–[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Let us have a little order in this House. I can hear the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) shouting and bawling.

Mr. Blair: Is there not the sharpest contrast between the massive windfall gains made on the sale of a public asset that is effectively run through public subsidy, and the misery of thousands of commuters yesterday at Waterloo station, who saw their trains cancelled and their services destroyed because the train company laid off one tenth of its drivers? Is not that the clearest example of a Conservative Government favouring the few at the expense of the many?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman remembers the bad old days of British Rail nationalisation–services were cut with no protection for the passenger. Now, penalties can be imposed and passengers have the right to apply for compensation. Clearly, from what he is saying, he is proposing new capital controls on the market. We look forward to hearing precisely what those are. He cannot deny that privatisation has been a success. Investment is at record levels. [Interruption.] It is interesting to see Labour Members’ opposition to private ownership. I shall let them hoot a little longer. New rolling stock is being introduced, extra services are being offered–new services, new investment and higher standards. That is through private ownership across the range of privatised industries. People recall what it was like when Governments tried to run them.


Q2. Mr. Dunn: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Dunn: Is my right hon. Friend aware that grammar schools and high schools exist in Dartford and in a further 60 constituencies across the country as a result of the election and re-election of Conservative Governments since 1979? The only guarantee of their continued existence is the Conservative party, and not the nightmare coalition of Opposition parties.

The Prime Minister: That must be right. The message to parents is quite clear: Labour in office would wipe out grammar schools. Labour local authority leaders have made that absolutely clear. As the shadow education spokesman said some time ago,

“Watch my lips. . . . With Labour there will be no selection.”

There would be no selection, no choice, no improved standards, no opportunities and, if Labour had had its way, no tests, no information to parents and no improvement in education across the board. The worst 20 education authorities are all long-term Labour education authorities. That is not an accident; it is inevitable, given Labour’s policies and instincts.


Q3. Mr. Winnick: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Winnick: Does the Prime Minister take the same view as I do: that the Daily Mail was right to campaign for the murderers of Stephen Lawrence to be brought to justice, and to name names? All law-abiding citizens are pleased that the murderer of Philip Lawrence, the headmaster who was knifed to death, is in prison–for a long time to come, I hope–but it is a matter of deep and continuing concern that the murderers of the 18-year-old lad who was knifed to death almost four years ago have not been brought to justice. Should not the authorities explore every avenue to ensure that his murderers are brought before the courts?

The Prime Minister: The whole House is united in offering its sympathy to the parents of Stephen Lawrence, and in condemning this unpunished racist attack. There is total unanimity on that point. I am not a lawyer, but I understand that there is no question of statutory contempt as a result of the activities of the Daily Mail. As the House is aware, it is not through lack of effort that no successful prosecution has yet been brought. I hope that, even at this stage, it will be possible to mount a successful prosecution. If evidence is forthcoming, it will be examined. There is no lack of will to prosecute.

Mr. Duncan: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, unlike Labour’s foreign affairs spokesman, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), he is not

“at home with the European social model”?

Will he also confirm that if we were to adopt that habit in this country, 23 million households would immediately face a £2,300 tax hike, which they would otherwise not need to pay?

The Prime Minister: Unlike the shadow Foreign Secretary, who alas is not present, I am self-evidently not at home with the European social model. It is evident why no one should be. The head of European operations at one of Britain’s most successful companies was quoted in one of yesterday’s newspapers. He referred to one European country, and said:

“The costs were absurd and everything we wanted to do was blocked by the unions . . . Whenever we wanted to do anything to improve the business, their first reaction was to call a meeting of the works council.”

The senior executive of Grundig said:

“No employee or business is safe.”

That is the reality of the way in which these well-meaning ideas work in practice. The second reality is the 4.5 million unemployed in Germany, the 3 million unemployed in France and the 2 million plus unemployed in Italy.


Q4. Mr. Loyden: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Loyden: Does the Prime Minister agree that we owe a debt to those people who fought in the second world war and who, in their working lives, created the wealth of this nation, and that they should be treated with the greatest respect? Is he aware that in my constituency two elderly people’s homes are to be closed? The age of the people in those homes ranges from 70 plus to the 90s. Does that reflect a civilised society, and will the Prime Minister speak to the Minister responsible to ensure that some action is taken to avoid breaking up what is now a family of people in their dotage?

The Prime Minister: Of course I agree with the general proposition with which the hon. Gentleman started his question. I do not know the details of the case that he raises, but I will certainly ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to examine it. When he has done so, I will write to the hon. Gentleman.


Q5. Mr. Robathan: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Robathan: In the course of his busy day, has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to study the form for the 5 o’clock race at Market Rasen? If so, has he noted a sporting chance at 8/1 called “Pause for Thought”? While welcoming any convert to Conservative principles, does he agree that “Pause for Thought” might be a maxim to the recent converts to privatising the Tote?

The Prime Minister: The plan to privatise the Tote, apparently floated by the shadow Chancellor, seems to have been shot down very speedily by the shadow Foreign Secretary. One might say that it fell at the first fence.


Q6. Mr. Michael J. Martin: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Martin: On the question of a Scottish Parliament, I notice that the Secretary of State for Scotland says one thing and the Secretary of State for Health says another, but it would be petty, mean and spiteful if any future Tory Government tried to dismantle the Parliament that the Scottish people want.

The Prime Minister: I hope that we shall have the opportunity of a detailed and sensible debate on devolution proposals–

Mr. Skinner: What? In here?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I had hoped in here on Thursday, and beyond here thereafter, because, despite the passions and convictions felt about this issue by people on both sides of the argument, we can all, I hope, agree that it is an issue of crucial importance to the future of Scotland, of Wales, of the House and of other parts of the United Kingdom. I hope therefore that we can deal with it in detail. There are many questions to be asked and answered. I hope that that is the nature of the debate that we will have in the weeks ahead.