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1994 - PMQT 13th January 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 13th January 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Gillan : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 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.

Mrs. Gillan : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the statement by Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein calling for the clarification of the Downing street declaration is just a sickening attempt by the IRA's apologists to shuffle the responsibility for their evil campaign of terror and fear? Is it not time that they faced up to their responsibilities and grasped the challenge of adopting the democratic path?

The Prime Minister : I think that my hon. Friend speaks for many millions of people in this country and throughout the island of Ireland. I welcome in particular the recent statement by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), making clear that he sees no excuse whatever for continuing violence and appealing for people to devote themselves exclusively to the democratic process. As the Taoiseach and I have made clear on a number of occasions, the joint declaration is not an invitation for renegotiation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I have gone to great lengths in this House and beyond it to ensure that the joint declaration is fully understood and we shall, of course, continue to do so. We still await a positive response from the IRA.

Mr. John Smith : Will the Prime Minister unequivocally condemn the gerrymandering and wilful misconduct which has cost £21 million of taxpayers' money in what his party has described as a flagship council?

The Prime Minister : Let me say unequivocally to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that if the reported allegations about the council turn out to be true, of course I condemn such activities just as I would condemn malpractice in any council, wherever it occurred. It would be wrong to comment on this case while the auditor is still considering it. The auditor operates independently of Government, has full powers to pursue his inquiries and I have no doubt that he will continue to use them to the full. We should wait and see precisely what the outcome may be. Otherwise, we are in danger of assuming that people have committed malpractice until they are proved innocent. I would think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is a barrister, would recognise that that is no way to pass judgment.

Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister recollect the frequent endorsements that he and his colleagues have offered to Westminster city council, in particular the comment by the Secretary of State for Employment, that Westminster council was one of the Tory's stunning successes and a source of cheer for every Conservative? Taking everything into account, does the Prime Minister think that those endorsements were wholly wise?

The Prime Minister : I have just made it perfectly clear to the whole House that the district auditor's report contains a number of serious allegations. At this stage, they are allegations. There is now a perfectly proper legal process by which the allegations will be examined in depth and the truth arrived at. The district auditor has been at pains to stress that his findings are provisional. I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should wait until those findings are confirmed before he is so swift to judge.

Mr. John Smith : Does not the Prime Minister appreciate that the matter has now been investigated for four years, and what is revealed is a devastating example of financial corruption and an abuse of power by senior members of the Conservative party? Cannot he at least condemn that?

The Prime Minister : I have already made it clear that if the allegations are confirmed, I will condemn unreservedly. But, as has been made entirely clear, this is the start of the legal process. Unlike the right hon. and learned Gentleman, most people will prefer to wait until that is completed and not find people guilty until and unless they are proven to be guilty. That is a cardinal principle of British law which I commend to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.


Q2. Dr. Spink : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 January.

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

Dr. Spink : Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming yesterday's sharp fall in unemployment? Does he recall that one year ago the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) predicted that unemployment would rise month after month? Therefore, will my right hon. Friend invite the hon. Gentleman to make another such prediction?

The Prime Minister : Most people would probably settle not for another prediction but for an admission from the hon. Gentleman that he got it wrong again and again and again. I very much welcome yesterday's fall in unemployment, which means that the number of unemployed people has fallen by nearly a quarter of a million over the past year. Of course, it is still too high, but the fall of nearly 47,000 on top of the falls in recent months suggests that we are now seeing a continuing downward trend in the level of unemployment. We are the only western European nation to have low inflation, an economy that is growing and unemployment that is falling significantly.

Mr. Ashdown : Does-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. The House must come to order. There is impossibly bad behaviour today.

Mr. Ashdown : Does Lord Justice Scott still enjoy the confidence of the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister : It was the Government who set up the inquiry and gave Lord Justice Scott the freedom to pursue it as he thinks fit. I have no adverse comments to make on the way that he is doing it.

Mr. Streeter : Does my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the £20 million contract won by Plymouth-based British Aerospace (Systems and Equipment) Ltd. in December, further boosted by a share in the £50 million contract announced by the Ministry of Defence yesterday? Is that not a fine illustration of defence contracts boosting and sustaining British jobs? Can my right hon. Friend confirm that if the Liberal policy on defence were followed, those defence jobs would simply not exist and many people in the west country would be out of work?

The Prime Minister : I am, of course, delighted at the contracts to which my hon. Friend refers. It is certainly the case that if the reductions in defence expenditure advocated by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) or, indeed, the Leader of the Opposition were carried into force, the implications not only for our capacity to defend ourselves but for British industry, not least in the west country, would be very profound. It would be a reassuring change if the Leader of the Liberal party were to say the same thing in the west country as he says elsewhere.


London Hospitals

Q3. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Prime Minister what plans he has to make an official visit to a London national health service hospital.

The Prime Minister : I shall be making a series of visits around the country, during which I intend to include NHS hospitals, as I have in the past.

Mr. Corbyn : In his visits around the country, will the Prime Minister undertake to explain to Londoners why more than 150,000 people are on hospital waiting lists? Beds are being closed and wards are being taken out of operation, and one night in Bart's hospital more than 30 people had to sleep on floors or on trolleys because there was not sufficient space for them. Are not the Prime Minister's policies of the internal market leading to more and more closures and losses of bed space as the crisis and the chaos get worse? Is not it time for him to intervene to scrap the internal market and give Londoners the health service which they need, deserve and demand? Is not that a basic right?

The Prime Minister : We are certainly seeking to give Londoners the health service which they deserve. In addition, we are seeking to improve dramatically primary health care in the capital and that has been evident for some time.

The hon. Gentleman neglected to mention in his catalogue the dramatic reductions in the times which patients wait for hospital treatment. Since the reforms have been implemented, the number of patients who have been waiting for more than a year has fallen from around 120,000 to just over 70,000, and that figure is on a declining trend. The hon. Gentleman will know of expenditure which has been made in his own area's district health authority. He ought not to underestimate the work that is being done to improve the health service for all the people who live in London.


Engagements

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

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

Mr. Milligan : Is my right hon. Friend aware of the work that is being done in Eastleigh to develop a safer door lock for trains? Such a lock could have averted some of the 300 deaths which have occurred during the past 20 years when passengers have fallen out of trains. Will the Government encourage British Rail to invest in the new technology which would not only save lives on the railways but would also save jobs in my constituency?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend may know that British Rail is actively considering the technical feasibility and the cost-effectiveness of the system to which he refers. I know how important the decision is for my hon. Friend, and I know how hard he has worked on behalf of his constituents. British Rail is examining the matter at the moment.

Mr. Kaufman : On November 10 1992, the Prime Minister, together with the Attorney-General, announced the appointment of Lord Justice Scott to conduct his inquiry. Will the Prime Minister now express his full confidence that Lord Justice Scott is conducting the inquiry fairly, particularly since he is due shortly to appear before Lord Justice Scott? Is the Prime Minister confident that he will be treated fairly by Lord Justice Scott? Will the Prime Minister repudiate the scurrilous attack on Lord Justice Scott by Lord Howe?

The Prime Minister : I know that it has been a quite noisy House this afternoon, but I seem to recall answering that question a few moments ago. I will reiterate to the right hon. Gentleman that the Government appointed Lord Justice Scott to conduct an independent inquiry. It is therefore for him to draw up his own procedures and it is not a matter for the Government to comment on those procedures. I have no adverse comments to make upon those procedures, as I indicated a few moments ago.


Q5. Mr. John Marshall : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 January.

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

Mr. John Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the continued incarceration of Ron Arad is quite unacceptable? Will he give the House an assurance that the Government will maintain their efforts to secure his freedom?

The Prime Minister : I can certainly give that assurance, and we will continue to support efforts to free Mr. Arad. We have raised the case on innumerable occasions with the Iranians, the Syrians and with any others who may be able to help. On his visit to Israel earlier this month, the Foreign Secretary met members of Mr. Arad's family and assured them that we will continue to do what we can to help. My right hon. Friend gave them our warm sympathy for the pain and suffering which they must feel at present.

Mr. Beggs : Will the Prime Minister give us an assurance today that whether or not the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic proceeds to interpret, elaborate, explain or, indeed, encourage Sinn Fein-IRA to respond to the Downing street declaration, he will stand by it and that he expects members of Sinn Fein-IRA to cease their campaign completely and indicate that they will lay down their arms so that they can enter the democratic process?

The Prime Minister : I certainly wish to see them unreservedly and permanently end violence and then enter into exploratory talks that can lead to them taking part in the democratic process. I reiterate again : we are not in the business of clarifying the declaration. The declaration is clear. What is intended by Mr. Adams in his present activities is to seek bit by bit to draw the Government into negotiation upon the joint declaration. That is not on offer to Mr. Adams now. It will not be on offer to Mr. Adams in the future. If he wishes to enter into discussions, he knows how he may do it. He can decide to give up violence. After three months he can enter into exploratory talks. Then he will be able to enter into the democratic talks process itself. That is the route ahead. The only question that needs to be asked is not of the British Government or the Irish Government but of Mr. Adams. Will he stop the violence and enter the democratic process or will he not? Everything else is fudge.