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1992 - PMQT 16th January 1992

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 16th January 1992.


PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Winnick : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 January.

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. Winnick : In view of the evidence given yesterday should there not be a full and frank ministerial statement--which should come from the Prime Minister--of what was known inside the Government at the time about the supergun affair? Bearing in mind the number of military items sold to the Iraqi regime by this country right up to the invasion of Kuwait and the highly critical comments made about the conduct of Ministers during the Gulf war, what right do the Government have to lecture hon. Members on the Opposition Benches over defence matters?

The Prime Minister : In so far as the Gulf war is concerned, the hon. Gentleman is referring to one of the most successful military operations ever undertaken by this country or any other. It achieved its objectives more swiftly and with less bloodshed than anyone could possibly have imagined. As to the earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's question, he knows that much of what he said was nonsense. It has been dealt with often enough.


Q2. Mr. McGrady : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 January.

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

Mr. McGrady : Could I remind the Prime Minister that one of the consequences of his Maastricht agreement is to prevent Northern Ireland from participating in the new cohesion fund, to the extent of losing tens of millions of pounds? I am sure that he is aware of the total lack of adequate funding for roads, transport and the environment in Northern Ireland, especially now that the Secretary of State has imposed a total moratorium on all public spending in Northern Ireland. Would he assure the people of Northern Ireland and the House that as soon as possible he will remedy that appalling error, and allow Northern Ireland to benefit from the new cohesion fund as a category 1 area?

The Prime Minister : There is, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a higher level of public expenditure per head of population in Northern Ireland--and rightly so--than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. The establishment of the cohesion fund and eligibility to benefit from it were agreed by all the member states. There is a misapprehension that Northern Ireland is the only category 1 area that will not benefit from that, but that fund is designed to help the poorest member states, not poorer regions or provinces within the more prosperous nations. So, the hon. Gentleman does not understand the purpose for which the fund was devised.


Q3. Mr. Gwilym Jones : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 January.

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

Mr. Jones : Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he has no plans to increase income tax and national insurance contributions for millions of ordinary taxpayers? Does he agree that it is the height of irresponsibility to try to pretend that there can be a massive increase in spending from day one of a Government if the tax increases to pay for that are to be phased in?

The Prime Minister : I can also confirm to my hon. Friend that we have made no plans for a super increase in VAT, as the Opposition have apparently considered. There is no doubt that the Opposition are now in a shambles over their tax plans. Their muddled statements show that they cannot be trusted on tax ; they shift their position from day to day. The only thing that is certain is that a party that promises to spend and spend is a party that would have to tax and tax.

Mr. Kinnock : Will the Prime Minister tell us why his record on unemployment is even worse than that of his predecessor?

The Prime Minister : Everyone in the House and beyond regrets the fact that unemployment rises. That is why we are persisting with policies that will create long-term, permanent jobs for the future. We have put those policies in place--low inflation, lower taxes and lower interest rates. Those are the only measures that will get people into work and keep them in work, which is the only proper policy to follow.

Mr. Kinnock : Unemployment has risen by nearly 1 million in the time that the hon. Gentleman has been Chancellor and Prime Minister, but still he refuses to do anything useful to stop that remorseless rise. Is it not because he believes that 2.5 million unemployed is "a price worth paying"?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. Gentleman should not be so cheap over such a problem. Unemployment is greater than a year ago in every country in EFTA and in every G7 country except the Netherlands. French unemployment is at its greatest level ever. United States unemployment is higher than for the past five years. What the right hon. Gentleman might also have fastened his mind upon is the fact that reported job vacancies are rising, that the number of people placed in jobs is rising and that there are 500,000 more people in work than in 1979. Those are some of the facts which the right hon. Gentleman should absorb.

Mr. Kinnock : The right hon. Gentleman is a dodger.

[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Kinnock : In the last year employment in Britain went down by 873,000. Job vacancies are still 10,000 lower than they were this time last year. When Sir Nicholas Goodison of the Trustee Savings Bank says that this is the worst recession in living memory, is it any wonder that the whole country knows that this is the Government of high unemployment?

The Prime Minister : Some people might say that on policy rather than on personal matters the right hon. Gentleman is a tax dodger. He can give no lecture to us on unemployment. [Hon. Members :-- "Withdraw."] His policies would cut jobs across the whole country.

Hon. Members : Withdraw.

Mr. Speaker : Order. I do not think that that was meant in a personal sense.

The Prime Minister : Indeed ; I expressly said that, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman's minimum wage would increase unemployment by putting 2 million people out of work. His plans to slash defence budgets by £6 billion would cost 100,000 more their jobs. His tax on jobs would cost another 100,000. He is the only person in opposition to plan for greater unemployment as a matter of policy.

Mr. Nicholls : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the upper earnings limit on national insurance contributions-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. I ask the House to settle down.

Mr. Nicholls : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the upper earnings limit on national insurance contributions were to be removed, it would punish not just somebody earning £20,280 a year but would punish anyone who earned £390 in a single week? Does he agree that a proposal that would impose a massive tax burden on 4 million ordinary people could be produced only by a shower such as those who currently comprise the Opposition?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is quite right-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. The House is in a very excited state.

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is right. I suspect that the Labour party simply did not understand when it drew up its policy that everyone would pay more national insurance contributions in a single week if they earned above one fifty second of statutory UEL. The Independent pointed out, for example, that the Opposition's tax plans would mean

"the largest ever peacetime tax increase."

The Leader of the Opposition promised explicitly that anyone earning less than £21,000 a year would not pay a penny tax extra in income tax or national insurance under a Labour Government. Clearly, he was wrong about that. He should admit it, and do so publicly.


Q4. Mr. Canavan : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 January.

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

Mr. Canavan : Will the Prime Minister confirm that he personally was informed about British Steel's decision to close Ravenscraig over a fortnight before the official announcement last week--[ Hon. Members :-- "Oh?"]--and that instead of trying to reverse the decision, he and the Secretary of State for Scotland took part in a conspiracy of silence? Will the right hon. Gentleman now, even at this late stage, intervene to try to stop the closure, bearing in mind the Government's responsibility for privatising the steel industry, thereby allowing a butcher such as Bob Scholey to betray the Scottish steel workers?

The Prime Minister : It is noticeable that the Labour party has not offered to keep Ravenscraig open. I was informed that British Steel would be making a decision on the day that it made the decision-- [Interruption.] I was informed in confidence some days before that it would be making a decision on that day. It was a commercial decision by British Steel. It is clear, despite all their words, that Opposition Members would have done nothing different.

Mr. Irvine : Does my right hon. Friend agree that defence cuts of £6 billion would lead to a massive loss of jobs in defence industries throughout the country? Does he further agree about the hypocrisy of those who call on the one hand for the maintenance of defence contracts in public and, on the other, plan in private for defence reductions?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend makes a good point. Our policy, both for nuclear and conventional defence, is clear, has been set out in a number of documents and is properly costed. The Opposition do not say where they stand, cannot say where they stand and cannot admit to the jobs that would be lost if their policy were carried out. The Labour party conference has three times voted to cut £6 billion from the defence budget, and we can see the extent to which that would devastate the defence industry and the defence of this country.


Q5. Mr. Madden : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 January.

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

Mr. Madden : Might I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question about which I gave notice to his office earlier this morning? Will he arrange for X-ray and metal detection equipment to be installed immediately at Armley prison in Leeds? I ask for this following a serious breach of security at the prison last Friday, when a visitor inside the prison drew a knife and sought to attack another visitor. As this is the latest in a series of serious breaches of security at prisons, will the Prime Minister call upon the Home Secretary, who has clearly lost control of his own Department and no longer enjoys the confidence of the public, to resign now or else sack him?

The Prime Minister : First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of the detailed point that he wished to raise. Security at prisons holding category A prisoners is already very tight, with rigorous searching procedures. In addition, however, we are providing X-ray equipment, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested we should. A contract has been placed for the supply of this equipment to prisons that hold category A prisoners. Devices have to be specially constructed, and they will be delivered as soon as possible.

In reply to the hon. Gentleman's last point, I can say that I have complete confidence in my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.


Q6. Mr. Evennett : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 January.

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

Mr. Evennett : Does my right hon. Friend agree that to base defence policy on defence cuts--the North Sea oil of the 1990s--is irresponsible and misguided? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Opposition Front- Bench spokesman on Treasury affairs has actually stated this as a belief--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question about Government policy.

Mr. Evennett : Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Labour remains unsound on defence?

The Prime Minister : Yes, it is clear that, as my hon. Friend says, Labour would cut the defence budget to ribbons. It is true that on defence Labour cannot be trusted. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order. Will the Prime Minister please answer the matters for which he has responsibility?

The Prime Minister : I am seeking to do precisely that. It is perfectly clear that, while the defence of this country is the first priority of the present Government, it might not be the first priority of the Opposition if they were to make the defence cuts to which they have committed themselves.