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1997 - PMQT 27th February 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 27th February 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Gerrard: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 27 February.

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. Gerrard: While the victims of Gulf war syndrome continue to suffer illness and are denied compensation, is it not a disgrace that no one in the Government is prepared to accept any personal responsibility for what has happened? As there is no doubt that service personnel and their families were seriously misled by the Ministry of Defence, does not that denial of responsibility prove that the assessment by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) of the Secretary of State for Defence as "not honourable" was spot on?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman is genuinely concerned about the question of compensation, he will know that service personnel in this country can claim compensation for loss or injury caused by negligent action. There is a satisfactory way to do that. In order to consider compensation claims fairly, we need to establish what caused the ailments. There have been a series of inquiries, which are continuing, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces has reported to the House.

Mr. Butterfill: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the procedure whereby the minutes of the meetings between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England are published is healthy, because it leads to open government? Does he further agree that any Chancellor who abandoned that procedure might leave himself open to the suspicion that he was trying to fudge things on the economy?

The Prime Minister: Such a suspicion might be there. I think many people might be suspicious about why the shadow Chancellor is talking about a Budget this summer, were he to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. I hardly believe that it would be a Budget that reduced taxation. If the right hon. Gentleman has a Budget of a different type in mind, perhaps--like one of his predecessors as shadow Chancellor--he might care to publish it before the election.

Mr. Blair: May I refer the Prime Minister back to the subject of the Ministry of Defence, and ask him about the Defence Select Committee report this morning into defence medical services? Does he agree with the report's central conclusion that so badly has the Ministry of Defence managed change that either we would send our troops into a crisis without proper medical back-up, or we would have to limit the number of troops we sent? That is a shocking conclusion. Do the Government accept it?

The Prime Minister: Of course we will examine the report of the Defence Select Committee. [Interruption.] I think the House would expect me to examine a report by hon. Members before I responded to a long and detailed report that I have not yet had the opportunity to read. If I were to respond in any other way, the House would ask how I could have known. I can say to the right hon. Gentleman that, although I have not yet read the report myself--but I most certainly will--I have been advised that the defence medical services can provide the medical support necessary to assist British troops on operational deployments, as they have done in the Gulf and in Bosnia. I have received that advice from the Ministry of Defence. But I reiterate the point that, of course, if a Select Committee reports, I shall examine that report carefully, and we shall respond in the usual fashion when the examination is completed.

Mr. Blair: I thank the Prime Minister for that, but he should be aware that precisely the same assurances were given two years ago, and the Defence Select Committee examined them and found them ultimately to be worthless. The language used in the report is fairly strong, saying that the situation is so serious that the service cannot recover, and that

"No amount of self-justification can disguise"

the state of the service. The Prime Minister said that he wanted to examine the report. That is fair enough, but if, having examined it, he finds that its findings are accurate, which Minister will take responsibility?

The Prime Minister: I think that we had better wait for the examination and see what the outcome is. The right hon. Gentleman is keen to determine blame before there is any certainty that there is any blame to be determined. I suggest that he wait until we have examined the report, as of course we shall. There has been some restructuring of the defence medical services, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. I welcome the Committee's endorsement, which he did not mention, of the new secondary care structures. That is very welcome.

Mr. Rooker: So you have read it.

The Prime Minister: I have not read the report--but I have received preliminary advice on it, and I shall read it. When I have read it, I shall report upon it in full. Let me return from the side issue raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) to the question asked by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). I think that Select Committee reports require more attention than just a summary and one morning, and that is what the report will get from the Government. That may be how the Opposition would respond to reports from the House, but it is not how I respond to them.

Of course there have been teething problems. The Ministry of Defence has recognised that, and we are determined to overcome them.

Mr. Blair: May I point out to the Prime Minister that yesterday we had a highly critical report on Ministers' handling of the use of pesticides in the Gulf war, today the Defence Select Committee says that there is serious doubt about front-line defence capability, as a result of changes that the Government have made, and that next week, apparently, a further report is to be made? I simply ask him: does anyone in this Government ever take responsibility for anything?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman cares to look at the history of Gulf war syndrome, he will see the action that has been taken. He will also, I hope, acknowledge that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces came voluntarily and immediately to the House the moment that it was drawn to his attention that he had not been advised accurately by his officials. My hon. Friend did as he should have done, and came immediately to the House.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about responsibility, but he is not in a position to criticise on that front-- [Hon. Members: "Oh yes, he is."] I am surprised to hear that, because, despite his call for openness in government, when it was found that his office was being funded in an odd way, the right hon. Gentleman would not accept responsibility; and when somebody tried to rig a poll on Radio 4, he said that that was nothing to do with him. No responsibility was accepted for that. When it turns out that the worst 20 education authorities in the country, including Islington, are Labour-run, that, too, is apparently nothing to do with the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Congdon: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the publication of examination results has led to a significant improvement in standards in secondary schools? In the light of that, may I welcome the fact that the results of the tests for 11-year-olds in primary schools will be published school by school? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will do all they can to resist the attempts by the unions and the Labour party to undermine those tests?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly offer that assurance. The Labour party has objected to tests from the outset. It is not keen on children being tested, and it is less keen on the test results being made available to parents. Many people who are now used to receiving those test results would resent very much any suggestion from any quarter that that information should no longer be available to parents.

Mr. Ashdown: In his answer to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), the Prime Minister referred to those suffering from Gulf war syndrome as suffering from "ailments". May I remind him that these are not ailments, but serious illnesses that threaten the quality of people's lives? Is not the question on organophosphates very simple? Which Minister--either personally or through incompetence in his Department--allowed our service men to be exposed to the risk of organophosphates when other Ministers were making it clear that organophosphates were extremely dangerous? Will the Prime Minister comment?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman did not set out the position accurately before he asked his question.

Mr. Ashdown: Yes, I did.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman says that he did--he seems to know more than all the people who have examined the matter for some time. Yet I fear he does not. As usual, he is in the business of scapegoating without knowing the facts.

Dame Jill Knight: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the trade union Unison has been making direct threats against private firms which have had the temerity to put in for contracts with Birmingham city council, to the effect that, should those contracts be granted, strikes, disruptions and go-slows will follow? Is he aware that at least one such firm has been so frightened that it has pulled out of a contract? Will he take steps to get rid of those typical Labour bully-boy tactics, and ensure that there is free and fair competition for the small businesses of Birmingham?

The Prime Minister rose--

Mr. Prescott: Wait until Wirral.

The Prime Minister: Is not that interesting? The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) says, "Wait until Wirral." He does not address the issue, and he is not concerned about Unison. The Labour party is opposed to privatisation, but the right hon. Gentleman is sponsored by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers--which has benefited from privatisation. There is a word for that, and I believe that it is hypocrisy. It seeps out of the deputy leader of the Labour party, who sits there shouting.

On the subject of responsibility, Labour controls Birmingham--it is a Labour council. Let us have some action and responsibility from the leader of the Labour party about the council's activities. Perhaps he can stop talking to his right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, and listen to what is being said in this House.


Q2. Mr. Salmond: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 27 February.

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

Mr. Salmond: Does the Prime Minister understand why, after six years, many people will find his reply on compensation for the victims of Gulf war syndrome totally inadequate? How were people meant to process claims when the Department would not admit to using organophosphates? Does he know that recent estimates of those afflicted by the condition have reached 1,100-- 10 times those killed and maimed in the original conflict? Therefore, is not the case for compensation overwhelming? Should not someone in his ministerial team have the simple integrity to accept responsibility for six years of departmental dissembling?

The Prime Minister: As far back as 1993, the Ministry of Defence established a medical assessment programme to try to diagnose why Gulf war veterans were ill. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, having just issued his charge, should listen to what has happened. The methodology of the programme was audited by the Royal College of Physicians and subsequently endorsed in 1995. That programme, which commenced in 1993, did not produce any evidence of a new pattern of illness. None the less, the Government decided that more work needed to be done.

From the outset, we have been determined to find out what caused the illness of troops, so that action could be taken to put it right. In such circumstances, the question of compensation could be dealt with; but we need the facts before that can be done, and the medical committees are still determining what the facts may be. However the hon. Gentleman and the leader of the Labour party may try to bend reality, it is necessary to establish those facts, so that we can provide the compensation and medical treatment that may be necessary.

Mr. Rathbone: Whatever difficulties our forces may have faced in the Gulf, will my right hon. Friend reiterate the Government's support for the Reserve Army, and especially the territorials?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to do that.


Q3. Mr. Welsh: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 27 February.

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

Mr. Welsh: Will the Prime Minister admit that the Government's failure to resolve the BSE crisis has cost taxpayers billions of pounds and the beef industry hundreds of millions, and that still there is no end in sight? Given that the latest scheme merely scratches the surface of the problem, when will Scottish farmers be able to escape the ban? Let us have a date; and a real date this time.

The Prime Minister: There was no reason for the imposition of the ban to begin with, but its lifting, alas, is not within the control of the Government or the House. I said that we had negotiated conditions that we had to meet, so that those who imposed the ban could lift it; we have met the conditions, but the lifting of the ban lies with those who imposed it. I should have thought that even the hon. Gentleman could understand that.


Q4. Mr. Michael Brown: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 27 February.

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

Mr. Brown: May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to an issue of which I gave him notice? There is a problem in my constituency of stowaways who have been arriving dead, unfortunately, in the holds of small ships arriving at New Holland and Immingham. It appears that the ships originate; Nigeria and Sierra Leone, and I wonder whether my right hon. Friend might ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to get in touch with the ambassadors or high commissioners of those countries. The people travel in dreadful conditions, and, although they are illegal immigrants, they arrive dead, and something needs to be done about it.

The Prime Minister: I shall certainly ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to consider that matter. My hon. Friend may also want to discuss the matter with my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping. As he may know, the United Kingdom played a leading role in developing guidelines to ensure that stowaways are dealt with promptly and humanely.

The people to whom my hon. Friend refers are patently stowaways, who, despite the usual checks and searches, are not discovered when the ships leave their original ports. We need to examine, with both the host countries and the shipping lines, better arrangements to ensure that people are not hidden away on their ships, as that is clearly the source of the tragedies to which my hon. Friend refers.