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. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen.
Now that it is clear that the privatisation of the gas, electricity and water industries has led to bigger salaries for the bosses and bigger bills for the consumers, with no improvement in the level of service, how can the Prime Minister continue to argue that the privatisation of those industries has been in the public interest?
I am afraid that much of what 1 he hon. Gentleman says is incorrect. It is precisely because Whitehall has stopped interfering in the privatised companies that electricity prices have fallen in recent years, that gas prices have fallen and that British Telecom's prices have fallen.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that British troops will not leave Iraq until suitable assurances have been given to the Kurdish population?
Yes, I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. We have now met most of the humanitarian needs of the Kurds in Iraq. The United Nations has taken responsibility for the humanitarian relief operation in northern Iraq. It was never our intention to keep a permanent troop presence on the ground there, but before we or the other allies withdraw, we will need to have several things in place: first, an effective United Nations force on the ground; secondly, clear warnings to Iraq that any renewed repression will meet the severest response; thirdly, a continuing deterrent military presence in the region to back up those warnings and fourthly, the maintenance of sanctions against Iraq. Without that, we will not leave.
I am delighted by that not unexpected news—[Interruption.]
Certainly. I am happy to remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was made clear in the prospectus that the Government had no intention of using their shareholding to intervene in financial decisions. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we did that for good reasons.
In this as in so many other matters, the Prime Minister says one thing but is not prepared to act to back up his platitudes. If he had given me an honest answer to my original question, he would be prepared to take some action now. If he is not prepared to take the action which is within his power, no one will believe that his condemnation was anything other than feeble public relations.
If people want to hear something that is feeble, they should listen to what the right hon.
Gentleman has just said. I made it perfectly clear when I was Chief Secretary some years ago that I do not believe that excessive salary increases are right. That still remains my view. We explained perfectly clearly when we privatised those companies that it was in the interests of the users of them. It is for that reason that electricity prices have fallen over the past seven years in real terms, that privatised gas prices have fallen by 11 per cent., that British Telecom's prices have fallen by 20 per cent. and that 95 per cent. of British Telecom's call boxes now work. None of that happened when it was in public ownership.
Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what he thinks would happen to the British economy if the basic rate of income tax were increased to 40p in the pound?
It would undoubtedly do very great damage to the economy. It would cut incentives, it would recreate the brain drain and recreate all the economic difficulties that we had during the 1970s when the Labour party pursued policies of precisely that kind.
It would be interesting if the Europeans would tell us what they mean by federalism. In a treaty text we need to have language the meaning of which is clear. Federalism in the European Community means different things to different people. If it implies a central Government for the federation, that is not what people in this country want. If it means decentralisation, it sounds like subsidiarity, which many people in this country would find more acceptable. But in no way could we permit that word to appear in the treaty until or unless it is clear what it means and that it does not mean the centralisation of power.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have no intention of introducing a statutory minimum wage? Will he also say what effect a statutory minimum wage would have?
Does the Prime Minister accept that if the hope, now I am happy to say, widely entertained, of a new way forward between Ireland and England is to be realised —[Interruption]—from the present talks over Northern Ireland, the best qualities that can be brought to those talks are first, the resolve that the right hon. Gentleman and Mr. Haughey expressed following their meeting last Friday night and secondly, the staying power displayed throughout by the Prime Minister's right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I entirely agree with his analysis. I should like to pay a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, whose patience and skill ensured that the talks could begin. We all hope that they will be successful and that they will reach a conclusion that will enable a substantial transfer of power and responsibility to locally elected representatives. It would be a remarkable move forward for Northern Ireland if that were achievable. I hope and believe that it may be done.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm to the nation today the philosophy that this Government will offer to the people only that which they can afford and will not indulge in wild, exaggerated, uncosted promises?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. I can also give him the assurance that if anyone else offers an uncosted agenda we shall cost it for them.
When the Prime Minister goes for his audience later today will he take the opportunity to have a word with the colonel of the Grenadier Guards who also lives at the same address? In a letter to my constituent, Mr. Fred Crowton, he expressed his support for Sean Povey and his two colleagues getting fair and decent compensation from the Ministry of Defence. Given that the Palace now supports that justified case, why are we waiting for a decision?
The hon. Gentleman heard what I had to say about that last Thursday and I have nothing to add.
Can my right hon. Friend give a guarantee to the House today that his Government will continue to support and fund the Black Country urban development corporation, which has transformed areas of derelict land, created thousands of jobs and already attracted £195 million in private investment? Does he agree that, given the success of the 10 urban development corporations, it would be sheer folly to hand over their powers, as Labour suggests, to local councils? The Labour party suggests that they should be handed over to councils such as Birmingham and Liverpool which have a dreadful reputation and have done so much in the past to damage and hamper economic generation.
My hon. Friend makes her point with great force and vigour. I agree with what she said about the possible transfer of the powers of the UDCs to local Labour authorities. The Black Country urban development corporation has had a remarkable record in recent years and I hope and believe that it will continue to do so.
I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is aware of what the Confederation of British Industry, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—the OECD—and the Government's own forecasts have had to say about the future. All of us expect the economy to turn up in the second half of this year.
Does my right hon. Friend accept from one who was loath to support the Single European Act that his conduct during the European negotiations has been superb? As First Lord of the Treasury will he ensure that those who talk to the British people about the dream of a European super-state also understand fully the economic and taxation costs of that dream should it ever become a reality?
Is the Prime Minister aware that 55-year-old Ernest Saunders, the former Guinness chairman, becomes eligible for parole this Friday, having served 10 months of a 30-month sentence in an open prison for the conviction of theft of more than £8 million? However, 71-year-old asthmatic Norman Laws is halfway through a 60-day sentence in the maximum security Durham gaol for non-payment of less than £300 poll tax. Does the Prime Minister think that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor?
I do know that the position of many people over the community charge may have been made far worse by the leadership that the hon. Gentleman gave in not paying the community charge. I know also that no one who sits in this House pretending to make the law has any right to break the law.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that he has the great support of many people in this country in his discussions in Europe? Is he also aware that people are confident that in his future discussions he will not sell them or future generations down the river?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what she said and I assure her that that will be the case.
I am sure that the Prime Minister will be trying hard not to think about retirement, but is he aware that this country's laws on retirement are in a complete mess, and that we are in danger of losing cases before the European Court on the ground that we discriminate against both men and women through our different retirement ages? There are many men who would like to be able to retire at 60 and many women who would like to go on working after the age of 60. When will we sort out the problem and have a flexible retirement age—one that suits people?
That is a problem of some importance, as the hon. Gentleman says. He will know that for some years we have considered the principle of flexible retirement for both men and women. As he rightly added, I have no intention whatever of retiring for many years.
Will my right hon. Friend find time today to consider the positive attitude taken by the Minister for Corporate Affairs towards the establishment of a digital European television standard? Will he contrast that attitude with the efforts of the European Commission to throw European taxpayers' money down the drain chasing antiquated technology? Is not the latter activity typical of much antiquated European thinking and is it not right that this country should once again be taking a lead, as in so many other European matters?