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1997 - PMQT 13th March 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 13th March 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Chidgey: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 March.

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. Chidgey: No doubt the Prime Minister will join me in condemning the leaking of the Select Committee report on nursery vouchers. Does he share the Committee's concern that nursery vouchers appear to be failing to provide parental choice, failing to improve standards and failing to provide more places? Does he accept that there is great folly in pressing ahead with a national scheme before the pilot schemes have been properly tested?

The Prime Minister: I share the hon. Gentleman's dismay that someone has chosen to leak a report. I have not yet read it, so I am unable to comment in detail on what may or may not be in it. As a matter of principle, rather than on the specific issue raised by the Select Committee report, parents have choice because of the voucher scheme. Without the voucher scheme, the only way to obtain a free nursery place would be to send one's child to a state school. There was no choice or opportunity and the half a million parents who have taken up the option will be indicating that they believe that choice is right. The voucher scheme has also led to an increase in the number of places.


Ministerial Visit (Kent)

Q2. Mr. Dunn: To ask the Prime Minister what plans he has to visit north-west Kent.

The Prime Minister: I have, at present, no plans to do so.

Mr. Dunn: Is the Prime Minister aware that the people of north-west Kent are glad to be part of an independent nation state and to play their part in our dynamic enterprise economy? They want nothing to do with those who spend their time selling Britain out or who would like to spend their time selling Britain short.

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend that the people of north-west Kent are glad to be part of an independent nation state. I agree that they and the rest of the United Kingdom have benefited enormously from the economic improvements of the past few years. They, like everyone else, enjoy the benefits of much lower inflation than we have had for many years, the lowest mortgage rate for 30 years and the lowest unemployment rate of any major European country. We intend to continue to pursue the policies that will ensure that they can continue to enjoy those things for many years to come.


Engagements

Q3. Mr. Stewart: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 March.

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

Mr. Stewart: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the policy of central Government control of non-domestic rates has yielded immense benefits to industry and commerce, especially to small companies? Does he also agree that placing decisions on business rates under local control would add billions to industrial costs in the United Kingdom, undermine our inward investment efforts and threaten the very existence of huge numbers of small firms throughout Britain?

The Prime Minister: I have no doubt that my hon. Friend is right about that. The non-domestic rate set by central Government for England and Wales has never risen faster than the rate of inflation, and in Scotland the rate has been reduced in real terms. That is in sharp distinction to what occurred when local authorities set the business rate, often by attempting to hold down the domestic rate and pile costs upon business. That is one of the significant reasons why so many companies were forced out of inner-city areas, leaving the problems that we have been attempting to deal with.

Mr. Blair: I have given you, Madam Speaker, and the Prime Minister notice of my question. Will the Prime Minister join me in recalling that it is a year to the day since the terrible events in Dunblane? We remember the little ones who died, and we grieve with their parents and their friends. They will not be lost to the nation's memory. We all say to the people of Dunblane that our thoughts and prayers are with them today and in the years to come.

One year ago, the House stood united in shock at the senseless and appalling tragedy in Dunblane. Today, whatever our differences are on any other matter, we are united again, this time in sorrow and in commemoration of those who died.

The Prime Minister: I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman has spoken for everyone in the House, and for millions beyond it. We all remember with great clarity the horror we felt when we heard of those appalling events. I remember visiting the school and the gymnasium with the right hon. Gentleman, and I do not believe that either of us will ever forget the scenes that we saw there; neither will anyone else who visited the school. Clearly, this will be a very difficult and emotional time for the bereaved and for the entire community of Dunblane. I am sure that the thoughts not only of the House but of the nation are with them today.

Mr. Harris: May I raise with my right hon. Friend another tragic matter--the loss of two fishing boats, the Westhaven, from Arbroath, and the Gorah Lass, from St. Ives in my constituency? Will he express the sympathy of all hon. Members to the relatives of the seven men who are feared dead? Will he also honour the debt that we all owe to the fishing industry, and ensure that the investigating authorities have the resources to conduct speedily and thoroughly the urgent task of investigating the cause of that double tragedy?

The Prime Minister: Seven fishermen have lost their lives this week, in two separate incidents. I am sure that the House will join my hon. Friend in extending every sympathy to the family and friends of those involved in those tragic accidents. I understand that both incidents are being investigated by the marine accidents investigation branch. I will attempt to ensure that that occurs as speedily and as comprehensively as possible, and of course the findings will in due course be made public.


Q4. Mr. Jamieson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 March.

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

Mr. Jamieson: Has the Prime Minister seen the written answer to me from the Secretary of State for Defence on 20 February 1997, which confirmed that most of the "British beef" consumed by Her Majesty's armed forces is purchased from Spanish-speaking South American countries? Does he not think it more likely that the ban on British beef would be lifted by the European Union if it saw that the British Government were backing British beef?

The Prime Minister: I have not seen the particular answer to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I assure him that the British Government back British beef. That has been apparent in the resources that have been put into supporting the beef industry during the difficult past year or so.

Sir George Gardiner: My right hon. Friend will have read of the campaign being waged by the British section of the European Movement to persuade the voters to scrap the pound and to move towards a federal European state. In view of the vast sums being given by the European Commission to that movement, will he say how much British taxpayers' money is being laundered through the Commission for that rather dubious exercise?

The Prime Minister: I am not entirely sure that without notice I can give a figure to my--to the hon. Gentleman on that particular matter. I would add that, from all that I read and understand, there is quite a lot of money available to both sides of the argument.


Q5. Mr. Fraser: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 March.

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

Mr. Fraser: As this is probably the last opportunity I shall have to ask the Prime Minister a question, may I, as one ex-Lambeth councillor to another, wish him a long and happy retirement? It might have been otherwise--because does he realise that when he was running a housing department in Lambeth, under a Labour Government, he started more municipal homes to rent in one year than every single housing authority in England and Wales is now starting in the current year, and that the shortfall is by no means made up by housing associations?

The Prime Minister: The reason for that, of course, was the dereliction and despair that I inherited from the Labour council, which had spent 30 years damaging the quality of life in Lambeth and has continued to do so whenever it has managed to persuade the people of Lambeth to re-elect it.

Mr. Dykes: If my right hon. Friend has the chance during his busy day, will he reconsider the strange question of the hon. Member for Reigate (Sir G. Gardiner)--a man of unshakeable principles for many years, as we know--whose description of European Movement funding is a travesty of the truth? The sums involved are extremely modest compared with the millions spent by Sir James Goldsmith on his own campaign, which is triumphantly scoring 0.3 per cent. in the opinion polls?

The Prime Minister: I believe that my hon. Friend has made his point very clearly and forcefully.


Sanctions (Libya)

Q6. Mr. Dalyell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will discuss with President Clinton the impact on sanctions against Libya of the legal actions by the United States authorities against (a) Juval Aviv and (b) Les Coleman.

The Prime Minister: I have no plans to do so. Mr. Aviv's acquittal has no bearing on the case against the two Libyans accused in respect of Lockerbie. Legal proceedings against Mr. Coleman are pending in the United States, and it would not therefore be appropriate for me to comment on them.

Mr. Dalyell: Have not the American courts driven the proverbial coach and horses through the case of the American Government on Libya? Does the Prime Minister realise that many serious people in legal Edinburgh doubt whether the Crown Office now has a substantial case to provide the basis for sanctions against Libya? Given the view of the families, could there be another fatal accident inquiry into these tragic events to get the truth?

The Prime Minister: It is not for me to say whether the Crown Office has a case or not; it clearly believes that it does. I have made inquiries in the light of the question that the hon. Gentleman tabled, and I am advised that all the theories about responsibility for Lockerbie, including those of Mr. Aviv and Mr. Coleman, were thoroughly investigated. The evidence supports charges against the accused Libyans, and not against anybody else. The hon. Gentleman asks for a further inquiry of some sort. As he knows, there have been a number of inquiries already--a fatal accident inquiry that was held in public, a police inquiry, a Transport Select Committee inquiry, an air accident investigation branch inquiry, and the US presidential commission. In the light of those, I do not believe that a further inquiry would be productive.


Engagements

Q8. Mr. Patrick Thompson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 March.

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

Mr. Thompson: Does my right hon. Friend deplore, as I do, the increasing tendency for Government policy to be discussed as a result of leaks in the media and elsewhere? Does he share my increasing concern about that trend?

The Prime Minister: I certainly do. It means that policies that are legitimately a matter for discussion in the House are often discussed and misunderstood before the details of the policies or the Select Committee report have been made public. That is damaging. I believe that the leaking of Select Committee reports, as happened last night, is an abuse of the procedures of the House. On that matter, I entirely share the views of my hon. Friend.


Q10. Mr. Barnes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 March.

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

Mr. Barnes: It is probably seven weeks to the general election. Will not many people get a shock to find that their names are not on electoral registers? Why cannot we be told how many people are on the electoral registers in England and Wales, which should have been available for a month, before the House dissolves for a general election?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, electoral registers are published at the appropriate time. I believe that when he raised the matter about three weeks ago I told him that the full count is likely to be available towards the end of March.