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1994 - PMQT 24th November 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 24th November 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. McKelvey: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 24 November.

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. McKelvey: In the course of his very busy day, will the Prime Minister show some concern for the plight of the disabled, the elderly and the poor in our society who suffer disproportionately because they cannot pay their fuel bills? Will he chuck the intended VAT increase into the dustbin where it belongs and replace it with an adequate cold climate allowance?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman may know, my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People will be making a statement on the disabled after Question Time. On fuel and power generally, the VAT compensation package compensates not only poorer pensioners but others for VAT on fuel. The measures are worth about £2.5 billion over three years. From 1996-97 onwards, spending on benefits and pensions will have been increased permanently by £1.25 billion a year. That is an indication of the extent to which we are prepared to make and have made provision to help people on low incomes.


Q2. Mr. Gill: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 24 November.

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

Mr. Gill: Does my right hon. Friend understand that I for one would rather resign the party Whip than vote for a Bill with which dozens of his right hon. and hon. Friends do not agree and for which there is no popular support? Will he recognise the absolute folly of imposing a highly unpopular tax for the purpose of paying the subscription to a highly unpopular and increasingly expensive club?

The Prime Minister: Like me, my hon. Friend has a large rural constituency and I suspect that there are many net gainers in his constituency as a result of our membership of the European Union. On the European Communities (Finance) Bill, as my hon. Friend knows, there was very broad support in the governing party and in other parties for the deal that I reached at Edinburgh in 1992. It has a small additional cost for the United Kingdom--£75 million next year, rising to £250 million in 1999. It preserves the United Kingdom abatement, which is very important and which has saved us £16 billion since 1984. As a result of the agreement that I reached, the United Kingdom's share of the cost falls proportionately by a substantial amount and becomes far less than that of many other member states. As a result of the agreement, we shall be below Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Norway in the league table of net contributors. It is an agreement that we can legitimately commend to the House and, on its merits, it merits support.

Mr. Blair: Now that the Cabinet has confirmed that next Monday's vote is indeed a vote of confidence, may I take it that the Prime Minister will be leading for and speaking for the Government in that debate?

The Prime Minister: The vote of confidence relates not just to the vote on Monday but, as I said to the House some time ago, to the passage of the Bill in all its essentials. In those circumstances, the Cabinet considers it right that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should open.

Mr. Blair: I find that extraordinary. Can the Prime Minister understand why people do not feel confident in his Government? Would the following be a fair summary of where he stands this week? The deputy chairman of his party is found to have written a memorandum which admits the total contempt that the British public has for his party. The vice- chairman of his party is forced to resign after remarks about our European partners which beggar belief in an adult politician. The chairman of the Prime Minister's Back-Bench Committee is challenged because he is too loyal to the Prime Minister. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, meanwhile, talks of suicide pacts among Ministers while getting his sums wrong on the European budget. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's Back-Bench Members roll around the television studios in a state of anarchy. After this week, would not any objective, reasonable observer conclude that his party has become an ill- disciplined rabble incapable of governing this country?

The Prime Minister: As the right hon. Gentleman managed to muddle most of his facts as between deputy chairman and vice-chairman, he is certainly wrong on almost every statement that he uttered. If he really wants to know about divisions and rabbles, he might well look at the divisions in his own party, not least below the Gangway. He might well look at divisions between himself and the deputy leader of the Labour party. He might well look at the divisions in his own position on Europe. It was the right hon. Gentleman who said some years ago-- [Interruption.] I know that the Opposition do not like it, but perhaps they should hear it. It was the right hon. Gentleman who said:

"We'll negotiate a withdrawal from the EEC."

It was the right hon. Gentleman who said more recently:

"Well, I wasn't actually opposed to membership of the European Community."

Just a few days ago, it was the right hon. Gentleman who said: "Under my leadership, I will never allow this country to be isolated and left behind in Europe."

The only thing that moves that fast is a rabbit heading for its burrow.

Mr. Dykes: Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also agree that, apart from the comprehensive answer that he gave previously, the essential reality for Monday is that the glib repudiation of a solemn treaty, an international agreement and a modest proposal for European Union financing increases would be almost as bad as a shameful attack on our closest foreign allies, which we have heard from other quarters in the past few days?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend touches on an important point that was missed by the Leader of the Opposition. The Government are standing by an agreement that we reached in 1992 with strong support in the House at the time and that we reached with our European partners. The Bill before the House implements an international agreement that was negotiated with full Cabinet backing, accepted by the Cabinet and widely endorsed by the House. It is for that reason that it is inescapably a matter of confidence that the Government should secure the passage of that legislation.

Mr. Ashdown: Whatever the Prime Minister's protestations, does he not realise that it is the view of most people in this country that his Government and their kamikaze Cabinet have now descended into farce and civil war? If, on Monday, they were forced to go, the whole country would cheer and a start could be made on putting our nation's problems right.

The Prime Minister: I sometimes think that the right hon. Gentleman spends all the time between Tuesday and Thursday and between Thursday and Tuesday practising his next sound bite. He certainly gives that impression week after week. I remind him that it is he and his party who claim to be strong Europeans, he and his party who time and again joined in procedural votes to try to wreck the Maastricht treaty, and he and his party who will find an excuse next Monday to vote against the Government. Their commitment to Europe is skin deep when it comes to essentials.

Mr. Ottaway: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Cairo conference on population and development in September was a landmark in dealing with world population growth in that it produced a global action plan agreed by almost every country? Does he agree, in particular, that the best way to implement such a plan would be for other countries to follow the Government's example and announce a similar huge increase in funding of 60 per cent. such as he announced in July?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is a very serious international problem and I think that the international conference which took place was an extremely useful and worthwhile event. As my hon. Friend indicated, we made a substantial contribution--I think, from memory, that the commitment was around £100 million over the next two or three years--and we played a very positive part in that conference. It is a matter of importance and one to which we shall give continuing interest in the future.


Q3. Mr. Robert Ainsworth: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 24 November.

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

Mr. Ainsworth: Following today's astonishing revelations of a massive security breach by an employee on a short-term contract at British Telecom, will the Prime Minister be ordering an inquiry? If so, will it cover the huge increase in agency and casual labour since privatisation?

The Prime Minister: I have seen the report in The Independent this morning to which I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring. I understand from inquiries made this morning that BT has carried out an investigation and tells us that it is satisfied that there has been no hacking of the system, nor any evidence that confidential information referred to in the article has ever been available on Internet.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Has my right hon. Friend heard of the presumptuous attempt by the town of Preston to usurp the place of the city of Lancaster as the county town of Lancashire? Will he put every possible obstacle in the way of that outrageous presumption?

The Prime Minister: I see that my hon. Friend has the cross-party support of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). As a southerner unfamiliar with this particular matter, I think that it would be unwise for me to commit myself, but, naturally, as my hon. Friend raises the matter, I shall look at it very carefully.


Q4. Mr. Hall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 24 November.

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

Mr. Hall: Is the Prime Minister aware that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), yesterday told the House that he was disgusted with the Maples proposals for inter-party warfare, yobbos and trying to trick people into positions? He said that they were completely unjustifiable and called on the Prime Minister to repudiate them immediately. Will the Prime Minister do that this afternoon--yes or no?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman is concerned that any of my hon. Friends would be nasty to the right hon. Gentleman, I give him my assurance that my hon. Friends will be very gentle with him.

Mr. Cormack: Does my right hon. Friend agree that this country's international reputation for probity is built on the proposition that contracts are honoured and commitments kept?

The Prime Minister: I agree precisely with that proposition. It is upon that proposition that the Cabinet is determined to honour the agreement that I reached on behalf of the British Government two years ago with our European partners in Edinburgh.


Q5. Mr. Gapes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 24 November.

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

Mr. Gapes: Is the Prime Minister aware of the acute financial crisis facing Redbridge and Waltham Forest health authority, which is asking Redbridge health care trust to do 10 per cent. more work for about £2.5 million less next year? Will he express his clear and unambiguous commitment to do everything possible to keep King George's hospital open and stop any closure of its accident and emergency department?

The Prime Minister: I will certainly study the position that exists within that health district and ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to examine it. I do not have the facts in front of me and I do not propose to commit myself until I have looked at them.

Sir Wyn Roberts: As the Leader of the Opposition welcomed the recovery, growth and low inflation in the economy, is there any reason why we should pay any attention whatever to the shadow Chancellor, who is intent on sabotaging those achievements?

The Prime Minister: I would think probably no reason at all. Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman does not do so--and if he does not, I see no reason why we should.


Q6. Dr. Lynne Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 24 November.

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

Dr. Jones: Does the Prime Minister recall that, in an answer to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright), he told the House "No Government have ever been more open than this one and there is no suspicion of sleaze."--[ Official Report , 26 April 1994; Vol. 242, c. 104.]

Is that still his view, or does he at last realise that he set the standard at the last general election when he accepted money from foreign-based business men in return for continuing tax concessions?

Hon. Members: What about Maxwell?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friends remind me of one person who formerly funded the Labour party. The hon. Lady ought to contemplate that. Perhaps the Labour party should return the money to the Maxwell pensioners which they donated to it some time ago.