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Prime Minister

Volume 174: debated on Thursday 14 June 1990

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To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 June.

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. This evening I shall be hosting a dinner in honour of Sir Sonny Ramphal, secretary-general of the Commonwealth.

Will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of the Government establishing a Select Committee charged with the responsibility of examining the cost to the nation of the pledges and commitments made by Ministers and other hon. Members?

As my hon. Friend knows, Ministers have to lay their estimates before the House and overall Government expenditure is given in the Autumn Statement, as is the detailed public expenditure survey ahead. It would be a good idea if other people making proposals for extra expenditure also had to lay their costings before the House—including Opposition Members, who recently made 80 new spending pledges in their new document.

Is the Prime Minister aware that this morning's decision by the Cabinet on the rail link to the channel tunnel means all the misery of prolonged planning blight for the people of Kent, and is a betrayal of the economic and environmental interests of the whole country? When the Prime Minister looks at the problem, as she will have to do again, will she recognise that mixing public and private investment works well for the other countries of Europe, so why does she wish to prevent it from working for our country?

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that clause 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 precludes subsidy for international travel, and the Labour party agreed to that clause at the time. Subsidy is therefore precluded. The joint venture was seeking nearly £2 billion of additional finance for Eurorail—£500 million in Government grant, extra British Rail investment of nearly £400 million, mainly in commuter services, and a £1 billion soft loan, on which repayment of interest or capital would not even start until the year 2010. As I have said, such subsidy was precluded by clause 42.

Is the Prime Minister so inflexible and myopic as not to understand what every community and every industrialist in Britain understands—that when circumstances change, a realistic Government should change their policy? When the French are already building their fast rail link, why is the Prime Minister not even planning ours?

That is another quick £2 billion, just like that. Yet the right hon. Gentleman claims to be responsible. It is absolute nonsense. In fact, nearly £2 billion of public investment has already been committed to tunnel-related transport services in our estimates and in expenditure. I will give the House the breakdown. We plan to spend £600 million on road schemes to allow access to the tunnel, and British Rail will invest more than £1·3 billion on passenger and freight services to and from the tunnel. That is legitimate expenditure and it is being made.

The Prime Minister is seeking to mislead everyone again. Will she not admit that of the sum that she says is committed to railways, £1 billion will be paid for entirely by higher fares being charged to users of Network SouthEast, who already suffer grossly inadequate services at very high cost? Will she not also admit that none of that maintenance work—for that is what it is—begins to provide an alternative to the fast rail link that is necessary? I ask the right hon. Lady again: when other countries mix public and private investment to provide a proper modern international rail link, why is she preventing our people from having the same advantage?

The Government are making a greater investment in railways than there has been for 25 years. We have committed and are spending £2 billion of public investment on roads and railways to the channel tunnel. It is not maintenance—it is much more than that, if the right hon. Gentleman will care to look. Out of the blue and in the right hon. Gentleman's usual casual way, he has committed another £2 billion without costings—justifying the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed).


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 June.

I refer my hon. and learned Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Will my right hon. Friend give some thought this afternoon to the plight of British hostages in the Lebanon? Would it not be helpful to their cause and to the peace process in the middle east if Britain and Syria were to patch up their quarrel and agree to resume diplomatic relations? Is it right that we should continue without proper representation in that very important country?

My hon. and learned Friend will recall the very serious circumstances in which we broke off diplomatic relations with Syria, when we could have lost a whole aircraft full of people over London had the bomb that it was meant to carry gone off. There was complicity with the Syrian embassy in the attempted placing of a bomb on that aircraft, and we cannot ignore that. Any country that can exercise influence in achieving the release of hostages should exercise it. The taking and holding of hostages is totally uncivilised. We have publicly thanked Iran and Syria for the part that they played in achieving the release of American hostages. The central issue is the release of hostages that should not be held by any nation.

While the Prime Minister is on the subject of expenditure, does she realise that there cannot be any greater indictment of her Government's priorities than that they are prepared to contemplate spending £3,000 million saving their skins over the poll tax but cannot find one tenth of that sum to invest in a decent high-speed rail link for Britain's future?

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman listens to any previous reply. We are precluded by legislation from spending on an international rail link. As to expenditure, we have already committed £2 billion to roads and railways to and from the channel tunnel. A statement will be made on the community charge, but I assume from the right hon. Gentleman's comment that he feels no sense of guilt about very high-spending local councils who put up their community charges to an enormous amount—most of them Labour or Liberal.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 June.

Will my right hon. Friend welcome the easing of tension between the Soviet Union, Lithuania and the other Baltic states? Does she agree that that welcome development has much to do with the steady pressure applied by the British Government—and other western Governments—to both sides? Will she continue to work hard to bring both sides together for a peaceful settlement in the Soviet Union and the Baltic states?

I discussed that problem with President Gorbachev and the Lithuanian Prime Minister, Mrs. Prunskiene, and we have frequently had questions about it in the House. Britain, the United States and other European countries have steadily made known our view that those states are entitled to independence and self-determination, and President Gorbachev has agreed to that.

It looked as though a real blockage was developing in relation to some of the semantics. That was a great tragedy, as obviously it is important to get practical talks and negotiations started. I believe that that is about to happen, and it is a welcome development. Both sides are to be congratulated on removing the blockages, and I hope that the process comes to fruition.

Will the Prime Minister tell us what replies she has given to those who petitioned her yesterday on behalf of people living in the Ravenscraig area?

As the hon. Lady knows, the position on Ravenscraig was governed by a statement made by British Steel. It undertook to keep the strip mill open until 1989, and that date has now been extended to 1991. As for the main mill, British Steel said in its prospectus that if it no longer had any use for the mill it would be offered to a private buyer; I do not think that the position has changed.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 June.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with United States Secretary of State James Baker that the tension in the middle east is as high today as it was in 1967? Does she share his view that the conditions for talks with the Palestinians laid down by the new and extreme Israeli Government need to be changed? Can she assure the House that the British Government will do all that they can to support the American Government's efforts to start some form of talks without delay?

Yes, I believe that my hon. Friend is correct. We are doing all that we can to persuade the new Israeli Government to start talks with representative Palestinian people. We are also joining others in pointing out that Soviet Jews who leave the Soviet Union—and we have urged for years that they should be allowed to leave—should not be settled in the occupied territories or in east Jerusalem. It undermines our position when those people are settled in land that really belongs to others.

What is the average rate of inflation in the European Community, excluding Britain? When does the Prime Minister expect British inflation to achieve the European average? Will she tell the House that it will not happen in October, and that Britain will therefore not join the exchange rate mechanism then, as it will not have met the conditions that she has laid down?

The average rate of inflation in the European Community is about 5 per cent. If Britain's figure were calculated on the same basis, it would be 6.5 per cent. The conditions for Britain's joining the ERM were laid down at Madrid, and they are precisely the same now.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 14 June.

Is it not clear that the socialist policies being foisted on Britain by Commissioner Papandreou, under the terms of the social charter, which requires employers to give a part-time employee all the perks and benefits available to full-time workers, will have a devastating effect on employment and on Britain's 6 million part-time workers? Will my right hon. Friend continue to resist those job-destroying proposals?

Order. Questions are to be answered by the Prime Minister and not by hon. Members on Benches below the Gangway.

I agree with my hon. Friend—the Commission talks in one breath about subsidiarity, and by its actions puts on a whole new load of bureaucratic rules and regulations which are not needed, which would be highly damaging to those who work part-time and would put increasing costs on employers. What the Commission is proposing would be a barrier to jobs, a barrier to business, would cost a lot of women who want to work part-time their jobs, would mean increased national insurance contributions for those who work only a few hours a week, and generally would be damaging to business and people alike.