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1992 - PMQT 10th November 1992

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 10th November 1992.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Cox : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : 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.

Mr. Cox : Does the Prime Minister recall the many promises that he made at the last election that there would be no increase in taxation? Against the background of those promises, will he confirm in the House that there will be no increase in national insurance contributions, or are the people of this country to see in the very near future yet another broken election promise from an already totally disgraced and devalued Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman ought not to get himself into such a tiz. He will know the answer to his question soon enough. On the subject of income tax, I seem to recall the Labour party contesting the election on the basis of increasing tax and the shadow Chancellor saying only yesterday that the Opposition are not proposing raising income tax at this time. Some U-turn.

Sir Peter Hordern : Can my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that, notwithstanding the efforts of Mr. Mitterrand and Mr. Delors, the general agreement on tariffs and trade negotiations will be brought to a successful conclusion?

The Prime Minister : We are doing all we can to make sure that the Community re-engages in negotiations without delay so that we can reach a satisfactory GATT settlement in a matter of weeks at the outside. I hope that we shall reach agreement between the Community and the United States ; then the remaining aspects of the GATT round ought speedily to be determined. It is the first priority for international economies at the moment to make sure that there is a GATT agreement and no single country should be permitted to stand in the way of it.

Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister recall assuring the House in January 1991 that

"for some considerable time we have not supplied arms to Iraq"?--[ Official Report, 31 January 1991 ; Vol. 184, c. 1102.]

How does the Prime Minister reconcile that assurance with the revelation in the Government documents produced at the Matrix Churchill trial that as late as 27 July 1990, only six days before the invasion of Kuwait, machine tools known to be intended to make fuses for missiles and artillery shells were supplied to Iraq?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that from 1985 until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait the Government operated under guidelines first set out by the then Foreign Secretary, my noble Friend Lord Howe. Since the invasion, we have operated, and we continue to operate, the full embargo to which I referred in answering the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel).

Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister understand that there are two aspects of this matter that are causing grave concern to the British public? The first is that equipment was supplied to Iraq which could have been valuable to it in hostilities against British service personnel ; and the second is that the truth about a secret change of policy appears to have been concealed from the House and also from the British public. Will he now set up an inquiry under the Tribunals and Inquiries Act 1992 to make the fullest investigation into this deeply disturbing matter?

The Prime Minister : Let me say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there have been some extraordinary stories about this matter and I agree with him that they must be clarified beyond any measure of doubt.

I have asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to make a statement on the matter later this afternoon. My right hon. and learned Friend will tell the House that the Government will be setting up an independent judicial inquiry, which will have full access to all the papers and will be able to take evidence from all the Departments and all the agencies concerned.


EC Financing

Q2. Sir Teddy Taylor : To ask the Prime Minister if he will raise at the next meeting of the European Council the issue of contributions by member states.

The Prime Minister : The European Community's future financing arrangements are currently under review. This will be one of the issues on the agenda of the European Council meeting at Edinburgh in December.

Sir Teddy Taylor : As Britain's net contribution this year will be £2.6 billion, which is about £4 per week per family of four in Britain, and as the Court of Auditors has told us that much of that is spent on waste, fraud and food destruction, will the Prime Minister advise President Mitterrand and the others that it would be wholly unacceptable to expect the people of Britain to pay a great deal more for the potential huge extra costs of Maastricht when life is so hard for everyone in Europe at the present time?

The Prime Minister : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend on the continuing need for restraint in Community spending overall. I have already made it clear that President Delors' future proposals are excessive and that we will not be able to support them. The Community, as with each individual member state, should not spend more than it can afford. It will remain our priority in the negotiations up to and including those at Edinburgh to secure firm budgetary discipline and value for money for all Community spending.


Engagements

Q3. Mr. Roy Hughes : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.

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

Mr. Hughes : Does the Prime Minister recall black Wednesday when the sharks and speculators made a real killing? Now we are approaching black Thursday with the autumn statement, when it will be the poor and needy in Wales and elsewhere who are likely to be affected as a result of cuts in public expenditure. When will the Government realise that those cuts in public expenditure will only hinder Britain's long-term recovery, or is this yet another example of a "Major" vision of a nation at ease with itself?

The Prime Minister : I suggest that the hon. Gentleman waits until Thursday.

Sir George Gardiner : Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the House hardly needs lectures from President Mitterrand on how to organise its own business? Does he accept that when he gives his word to this House that we will not consider the Third Reading of the Maastricht Bill until after the Danish referendum, we know full well that he will keep it?

The Prime Minister : I have expressed my views on President Mitterrand's reported remarks in a private letter to the President, but I am quite prepared to state publicly that the passage of the Maastricht Bill is a matter for the British Parliament and the British Government. The crucial immediate issue before Europe is achieving a GATT settlement and avoiding a trade war. I note that in the same interview President Mitterrand described a global settlement as

"not only useful but necessary."

I agree with that; a delay on GATT really would be unacceptable. I set out the answer on Third Reading in reply to the House earlier last week.

Mr. Ashdown rose -- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. This is very time consuming..

Mr. Ashdown : Is the Prime Minister aware that there are at this moment more than 6,500 refugees who could be free but remain trapped in Serbian prison camps, living in the most indescribable conditions and without any kind of adequate shelter, because no third country can be found for them to go to? Does he not realise that temperatures will drop to minus 17 deg C in that area during this month? Does he not realise that the consequence of his Government's disgraceful decision to limit refugee entry from that area, together with his failure to put together an adequate programme of co-ordinated action by the European countries, will soon mean that some of those people risk paying for his failures with their lives?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. Gentleman really should get his facts straight on what the European Community has done and on what the British Government have done. The United Kingdom has received more than 30,000 visitors this year from the former Yugoslavia. More than 3,000 have applied for refugee status and no one will be forced to return to the conflict zone. We fully support the view expressed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that the best solution is for the displaced to remain close to their homes, making eventual repatriation a much more possible proposition. The visa regime, which has clearly activated the right hon. Gentleman, needs to be seen in the context of overall asylum applications, and that point has been made clear by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Michael Brown : Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the British Airports Authority on its outstanding results, just announced? Will he take the opportunity to remind it that it has an obligation to ensure that regional airports, such as Humberside airport, have the opportunity of flying regional flights into Heathrow? Is he aware that failure to enable that to happen leads to business men in Humberside having to fly to Holland --to Schipol--thereby depriving British Airways of good business?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is right to offer congratulations to BAA, which has had an outstandingly successful period, and I am happy to add my congratulations to his. I agree unreservedly with the balance of his remarks.


Q4. Mr. Cohen : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.

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

Mr. Cohen : In relation to the Matrix Churchill trial, will the Prime Minister be a little less economical with the actualite and say whether he thinks it is proper that three innocent men might have been imprisoned because Ministers tried to suppress the evidence? Has it not clearly emerged from that trial that the former Foreign Minister, now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, knew that the sales breached the arms embargo but agreed to the deception? Should he not be considering his position in the Government, or the Prime Minister be considering it for him?

The Prime Minister : I advise Opposition Members not to go down the route that so many of them took with BCCI just a year or so ago. They would be wise to await the Attorney-General's statement. I have already said that there will be a full, independent judicial inquiry, and I repeat that to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hayes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that public interest immunity must be claimed, that it is at the sole discretion of the judge and that it cannot be waived by Ministers? Hence, all the talk in the tabloid press about a cover-up is nothing more than arrant nonsense.

The Prime Minister : Ministers have a duty to claim public interest immunity where appropriate and that duty cannot be waived. It is then for the courts to consider where the balance of interest lies, and successive Governments have acted in that way.


Q5. Mr. Madden : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 10 November.

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

Mr. Madden : What action does the right hon. Gentleman propose, through the United Nations, to stop the partition of Bosnia? Why were Her Majesty's Government prepared to breach the arms embargo to allow Iraq to wage war, but now refuse to lift the arms embargo to give the Government Bosnian forces the means with which to defend their independent country, to stop genocide, to stop ethnic cleansing and to stop the displacement of thousands of men, women and children who face death?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman would be wise not to tie his questions to allegations that are as yet uninvestigated. A few moments before I came into the Chamber, I was advised--as yet, it is not confirmed- -that there is said to be a cease fire in Bosnia from midnight tomorrow. We have heard that before. If it is sustained it will be extremely welcome news, but we must wait and see whether it is sustained. The hon. Gentleman should not seek to misrepresent the Government's position.

Mrs. Ann Winterton : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the House and British industry fully support his efforts to force Mr. Jacques Delors and the bureaucrats of Brussels to pull their bootstraps up and get cracking to find an urgent and equitable solution to the stalled GATT round? Although the cricket season is now over, will my right hon. Friend promise the House that he will not put his bat away until that matter is sorted?

The Prime Minister : I am happy to say that I share my hon. Friend's view entirely about the imperative need to get an early GATT settlement. There is no doubt that there is no longer a great distance between the United States and the Community on the substantive issues that need to be determined. I, myself, cannot accept that it is impossible to reach an agreement that will be acceptable to both the Community and the United States. At the moment that agreement is reached, the GATT round can be concluded in Geneva without further delay. The damage of there not being a GATT round is too profound to contemplate. I assure my hon. Friend that that is a matter of primary importance to the Government and we will pursue it in each and every forum until there is an agreement.

Madam Speaker : Time's up. I call the Attorney-General to make a statement.