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1994 - PMQT 10th February 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 10th February 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Flynn : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 10 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 have further meetings later today.

Mr. Flynn : In a letter to me from the Imperial Tobacco Company, the corrupt practice is exposed that, in the general election, it awarded 1,000 advertising sites to the Tory party because the Tory party promised not to ban tobacco advertising. The Government have now delivered on that promise to their paymasters. The cost will be borne by the nation in several thousand avoidable and unnecessary deaths. Will the Prime Minister promise today that never again will the Tory party accept bribes, favours or money from the tobacco industry?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman clearly overlooks the excellent record that this Government have had in reducing smoking--down from 45 to 28 per cent. He knows very well of the changes in taxation that have been necessary to achieve that. He illustrates that no company that was remotely sensible would support the policies of the Labour party.

Mr. Waterson : Will my right hon. Friend consider making public funds available so that every business in the land can be sent a copy of the European socialist manifesto so that they may judge for themselves whether it is a constructive business plan or a fast route to failure?

The Prime Minister : I am not entirely sure that would be a proper use of public funds. I very much doubt whether anybody would really wish to read it. It is certainly clear that what is contained in that socialist manifesto, which was signed up to by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith)--without, as I recall, reading it--would be desperately damaging for British industry. It is equally true that the decision in the past of Members of the European Parliament who support the Labour party to vote for ending single nation vetoes would in effect mean that we would not be able to sustain our rebate, at a cost of many billions of pounds to the British taxpayer.

Mr. John Smith : Given the widespread concern throughout the country at the arbitrary and unfair decisions that are being produced by the system operated by the Child Support Agency, why are the Government so opposed to allowing an independent review of its decisions?

The Prime Minister : As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, there will be a full debate on that issue later today. As I have said on previous occasions, we have made it clear that we shall keep the nature of the system under review and if it seems necessary to make changes we will do so. We are embarking on implementing a principle that is supported uniformly across the House. We need a little more experience of how it works. We will keep it under review. If it is necessary to make changes, we shall make them then, not now.

Mr. John Smith : Is not the Prime Minister aware that the phrase "keeping under review" has been the bromide response of bureaucrats down the decades? Why do the Government--despite all the evidence--stop the Child Support Agency from taking into account divorce or separation agreements involving the transfer of assets, which may be highly relevant to establishing justice between the parties?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. and learned Gentleman obviously did not listen to what I said a moment ago. I made it perfectly clear that we would continue to evaluate the workings of the Child Support Act 1991 and the agency. We intend to secure a well-accepted, consistent mechanism to deliver a better child maintenance system than we have had in the past. That is why I said that we would keep the matter under review.

This system is unlike anything that has been tried before. It is generally accepted to be right in principle--not least by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who is nodding. It is right to consider it and, having considered it, decide then whether further changes are necessary.

Mr. John Smith : The Prime Minister cannot be so complacent about the anger that is now felt throughout the country--and his Back Benchers certainly should not be so complacent about it. Does not 80 per cent. of the money recovered by the agency go straight to the Treasury? Did the Government intend that?

The Prime Minister : The right hon. and learned Gentleman reveals instinctively that he thinks in terms of "big government", rather than thinking of the taxpayer. The money is actually returned to the taxpayer who contributed it in the first place.

Sir Patrick McNair-Wilson : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that Britain's only interest in Bosnia is assisting in the provision of humanitarian aid? Can he assure the House that we will not prejudice that effort by attacking any of the combatants?

The Prime Minister : The measures agreed yesterday at the North Atlantic Council are intended primarily to reinforce the peace process. There will be renewed diplomatic effort to encourage all sides to reach an agreement and stick to it.

No course in Bosnia is free of risks ; that has been the case from the beginning. I do not myself believe, however, that doing nothing would be the right option for the House or NATO to adopt in the circumstances that have now arisen. In the discussions at the North Atlantic Council, we urged our allies to look forward. We do not favour purely punitive action ; force should not be used unless it is genuinely necessary, and increases the chance of a peaceful settlement.

Another relevant point is the fact that NATO has warned all sides to cease their bombardment. It has taken specific and carefully constructed decisions to reinforce the efforts of the commanders on the ground, but the objective is to help the civilian population without changing the character of the United Nations' role.


Q2. Mr. Cousins : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 10 February.

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

Mr. Cousins : Does the Prime Minister agree that, although private matters can be cruelly exposed within hours, issues of public accountability can sometimes lie dormant for years? Can he assure the House that British aid and export packages have never been used to cover the cost of large-scale commissions and backhanders?

The Prime Minister : I am aware of no circumstances in which that has happened. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence to the contrary, I hope that he will show it either to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary or to me.

Mr. Cash : Has my right hon. Friend seen the manifesto adopted by the European Peoples party on 3 February? Is he aware that it contains a commitment to a single currency, a central bank, the social chapter, a common immigration policy and a constitution for the whole of Europe? Does he agree that Conservative Members could not possibly accept those proposals, and repudiate them explicitly?

The Prime Minister : Neither do we have to accept them; nor will we. The Conservative party at the European elections is in agreement and will contest those elections on a distinctively British Conservative manifesto on the future of Europe.


Q3. Mr. Illsley : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 10 February.

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

Mr. Illsley : On the subject of the appropriate use of the taxpayers' money, does not the Prime Minister agree that it is an absolute disgrace that the Department of Employment can waste £59 million on unused computer equipment, when thousands of my constituents are facing cuts in unemployment benefit as a result of his mismanagement, or are bureaucratic waste, sleaze and corruption no longer his responsibility?

The Prime Minister : The Government always study Public Accounts Committee reports carefully. The lessons in that have already been learnt and put into practice.


Q4. Mr. Alan Howarth : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 10 February.

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

Mr. Howarth : Does my right hon. Friend agree that national health service trusts, general practitioner fundholding and the patients charter are yielding valuable improvements in efficiency and quality of service? Does he further agree that not only the patients, but those who work in the national health service do not want those reforms undone and everything turned upside down, as the Labour party proposes?

The Prime Minister : I agree with my hon. Friend. The test that we should apply to the health service and efficiency is perfectly straightforward. Is the health service treating more patients? Is it providing better care and is it treating people more quickly? The answer to each of those questions is yes. The national health service treated 2.5 million more patients last year than in 1979. By contrast, the ludicrous document launched by the right hon. and learned Gentleman this morning, contains nothing that would lead to a single extra patient being treated. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he would like to abolish trusts and fundholding. That is a recipe for inefficiency, upheaval and chaos.

Mr. Jamieson : Is the Prime Minister aware that his education Minister in the other place announced last week that there would be no extra assistance to grant-maintained schools for their liability to pay value added tax on fuel? Is he aware that grant-maintained schools are now paying £2.50 in every £100 in taxation rather than on books?

The Prime Minister : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that more and more schools are seeking to become grant maintained and doing so week after week?


Q5. Mrs. Gillan : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 10 February.

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

Mrs. Gillan : In his very busy day, has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to look at the recent Confederation of British Industry survey, which shows that business confidence in Britain is at an all-time high? Orders are up and, in the words of the CBI survey, the recovery is deepening and widening. Does he agree that such good economic indicators and such good signs bode well for private investment in projects such as crossrail?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend refers to one of a number of surveys that have highlighted the improving economic circumstances. The survey to which my hon. Friend refers shows business and export optimism up in each and every region of the country. Orders are up, output is expected to rise and investment in plant and machinery is expected to rise. That is against a background of low inflation with unit costs falling in most regions. The prospects for British business are extremely good. By getting inflation under control, cutting public spending and bringing interest rates down, we have provided exactly the right economic circumstances for long-sustained growth with low inflation and the creation of employment.


Yugoslavia

Q6. Mr. Macdonald : To ask the Prime Minister what is his estimate of the number of people killed in Sarajevo since the passage of the United Nations Security Council resolution of June 1992 authorising the use of force by UNPROFOR to protect the safe areas.

The Prime Minister : We do not have reliable estimates for casualties in Sarajevo. The death toll has been high. The killing of 68 shoppers in the market last Saturday was a step change in a deteriorating situation. There can be no guarantee of peace in Sarajevo or in any other part of Bosnia. There is no feasible and certain means of resolving the problem from outside, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's decision yesterday will put the parties under heavier pressure to stop the bombardment and make peace.

Mr. Macdonald : Does the Prime Minister accept that there can be no logical or moral justification for distinguishing between Sarajevo and the other UN-designated safe areas in Bosnia, and that about 2, 500 civilians have died in all those safe areas since June last year, when the UN authorised the use of force to protect those people? Will he, therefore, undertake to work to extend the ultimatum that has been issued in respect of Sarajevo to those other safe areas?

The Prime Minister : We have to determine what is practicable. We are already working, as far as Srebrenica and Tuzla are concerned, to try and ensure that the situation improves. We are now doing that having seen the special difficulties in Sarajevo. To follow to its logical conclusion the concern that the hon. Gentleman set out would involve our becoming involved, very probably with troops on the ground, throughout the whole of the area of conflict. However strongly the hon. Gentleman may feel about the matter, or others, that is not a practicable proposition.