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1995 - PMQT 4th May 1995

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 4th May 1995.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Canavan: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 4 May.

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. Canavan: In view of renewed speculation that the Thatcher dynasty might emulate the Churchill dynasty by winning the lottery jackpot, will the Prime Minister set an example by ensuring free access to all his prime ministerial papers before they, along with him, are very soon consigned to the dustbin of history?

The Prime Minister: I agreed in 1991 that I shall remove from my office, in due course, only papers of a truly personal nature and no official material, other than that which, like speeches, is already in the public domain. I hope that my successors will follow that convention.


Q2. Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 4 May.

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

Mr. Whittingdale: Is my right hon. Friend aware that his visit yesterday to meet the victims of the IRA's continued brutality will be widely welcomed? Does he agree that Sinn Fein's protestations to be a democratic, political party ring hollow while it continues to orchestrate and to defend vicious attacks on the police and civilians?

The Prime Minister: Sinn Fein's mask slipped yesterday and it reminded us vividly of its character. As a result, I shall consider over the weekend whether the exploratory dialogue can go ahead. I shall probably decide that it should do so, because I wish Sinn Fein to become a fully democratic and peaceful party, playing a full part in negotiations with other parties. The purpose of the exploratory dialogue is to help to bring that about. As we have come this far, the wider interests of the people of Northern Ireland should not be abandoned without holding Sinn Fein's feet to the fire in face-to-face negotiations.

Mr. Blair: May I say that I associate myself entirely with those remarks?

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had conducted a review over many months into the taxation of insurance payments and had removed any uncertainty. Today, the Chancellor has popped up and announced a new and different review into part of the same problem. Why did not the Prime Minister tell us about that other review on Tuesday?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is slightly confused and is again seeking to spread a little despondency. I shall try to explain it for him carefully, so that he is able to remove any misunderstanding.

There is no new intention to levy taxes on the payments from certain insurance policies. The question that has been asked by the insurance companies is whether those payments are already taxable under existing tax laws, which date back to the last century. The insurance industry has asked the Inland Revenue to give its opinions about that.

The Inland Revenue receives similar questions from the insurance industry and other industries routinely, week after week. When the Inland Revenue has concluded its consideration of that issue, it will report to Ministers- -not, of course, before it is ready to do so. When we have its opinion, we can consider whether the law needs changing. Before the right hon. Gentleman spreads any more misunderstandings, let me say to him that there is no record of any tax ever having been deducted from those insurance payments and, until the matter is settled for those policies under review, the Inland Revenue will not expect tax to be deducted.

So that the right hon. Gentleman cannot accuse me of leaving out any information, let me say to the House that there is one real threat to people with private insurance. Let me quote:

"We can close tax reliefs that are unfair, like reforming those for . . . private medical insurance"--

the words of the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Blair: The right hon. Gentleman has not told us why he did not mention that review on Tuesday. How does what he has just said square with the fact that yesterday the Inland Revenue said that insurance payments other than those relating to mortgages were to be taxed and never mentioned any review, and why did the Chancellor say on Tuesday that it was a simple problem, that he had sorted it out in 10 minutes and that he had not even heard of the first review, never mind the second one?

This has been not a review but a pre-election panic attack, and it bears all the hallmarks of the right hon. Gentleman's Government--it begins in incompetence, falls into confusion and ends in chaos.

The Prime Minister: We were carefully weaved round to the preordained soundbite again. I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, and I know that he is not nearly as silly as he sought to make out in what he just said.

The right hon. Gentleman knows very well that such routine inquiries are made of the Inland Revenue by industry and industry spokesmen all the time. They are answered by the Inland Revenue. There are huge numbers of them. They are not all referred to Ministers. Sometimes, when they are made public, the right hon. Gentleman tries to make a great scandal about them.

The right hon. Gentleman knows well that there is nothing in this today and there was nothing in it on Tuesday. All he is about is the usual Labour party scaremongering for cheap political gain.

Sir Giles Shaw: May I return my right hon. Friend to more relevant matters? I add my congratulations to many on the skill and courage that he showed in persisting with his programme in Londonderry yesterday.

In relation to the magnanimous gesture that my right hon. Friend has just made in respect of discussions and preliminary talks, will he please ensure that any discussions or talks are not conducted under any form of duress and that, when such talks start, item one on day one in the first hour will be that of somehow getting rid of arms, which continue to overshadow the prospects of Northern Ireland with the threat of violence?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is, of course, quite right that there can be no suggestion of discussing those matters with Sinn Fein in the exploratory talks under duress.

Let me also say to my hon. Friend that I have no illusions about the nature of Sinn Fein or its spokesmen. The behaviour of a few hundred of its supporters yesterday showed how far it has yet to go before it becomes a democratic party, as the rest of us in the House understand the meaning of the term, "democratic party".

In two hours yesterday, those supporters destroyed the image that Sinn Fein has sought to build up in recent months, and the event reminds us of the nature of the people with whom we are dealing. We want to push them towards democracy. We know that it will be a tough job, but we will continue to try because it is in the wider interests of the people of Northern Ireland that we should do so.


Q3. Mr. Martyn Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 4 May.

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

Mr. Jones: Will the Prime Minister finally confirm that he misled the House on 25 April when he said, in a reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), that the information that there were two bureaucratic staff for every three teachers was in "Social Trends"? It is not; it is in the Annual Abstract of Statistics , which goes on to say that the so-called bureaucratic staff are cleaners, catering staff and nursery assistants. Will the Prime Minister now tell the House that?

The Prime Minister: The source of the figures is even more appropriate than the hon. Gentleman suggests: the Local Government Management Board collected them.

What I said to the House was wrong in one respect. I said that local education authorities employed two non-teaching members of staff to every three teachers. In fact, it is not two against three but two and a half against three.

Sir Timothy Sainsbury: Having studied the report of yesterday's debates--as I am sure he has--my right hon. Friend will have been reminded of the magnificent performance of our exporters, especially our industrial exporters. Does he agree that a number of Government policies have contributed to that success, not least privatisation, the reform of industrial relations, a sensible taxation system and inward investment, and that all those developments are threatened by the Labour party's policies?

The Prime Minister: There is no doubt about the remarkable performance of British exporters, including industrial exporters and exporters of services. They would undoubtedly be put at risk by many of the policies proposed by Labour, and the extra costs that those policies would impose on employers. Exports have successively reached a new record in about nine of the past 12 or 13 months. I cannot recall an occasion when that has happened before.

I should have thought that, instead of carping, Labour Members might for once give some credit to British industry and British exporters.


Q4. Mr. Robert Ainsworth: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 4 May.

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

Mr. Ainsworth: Is the Prime Minister aware of the concern and even fear among disabled people about the Government's proposed new tests for incapacity benefit? Does he accept that that concern is genuine, and will he dissociate himself from the disgraceful comments of the Secretary of State for Social Security, who attempted to brand all those people fraudsters?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend did no such thing. He has taken a great deal of action to help disabled people, as has my hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People. We are as concerned about disabled people's security of mind, and the provision of services for them, as any other party in the country. The Disability Discrimination Bill, which has passed through the House of Commons and is currently passing through the House of Lords, will be the biggest single advance for disabled people that we have seen in this country for many years.

As for the new incapacity benefit, I hope that--as the Labour party sometimes claims also to be concerned about the size of the social security bill--the hon. Gentleman will agree that it would be indefensible to continue to pay incapacity benefits to people who are not genuinely incapable of work. Either the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends agree with that, or they do not. If they do, they have no cause to criticise the Government; if they do not, they had better stop giving us lectures about public expenditure, and admit to the increased taxation that they would have to impose.

Mr. Garnier: Does my right hon. Friend agree that air service agreements between the United States and the United Kingdom are a matter for the United States Government and his Government and are nothing whatever to do with the European Commission?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I agree with that point and we have made our views entirely clear in that regard.


Q5. Mr. Janner: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 4 May.

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

Mr. Janner: Does the Prime Minister accept that desperately ill people and their families feel agony and anguish when they cannot gain immediate admission to local hospitals? My constituent, Lilian May Wilkinson, alas, died as a result of that situation. Does the Prime Minister understand that that is one of the many reasons why today people in the city of Leicester are pouring out to obliterate the Tories from our city?

The Prime Minister: I should have thought that if the hon. and learned Gentleman wanted a detailed reply to the difficulties that have caused the tragedy to which he referred he might have given some prior notice of the case before using it in that fashion. He knows that the overwhelming majority of people get a better service from those who work in the health service than they would find anywhere else in the world. Errors do take place in a service that size. People are human; even those who work in the health service can make mistakes.

However, I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman would have done better to remind people that once every 16 seconds an ambulance makes an emergency call, that once every nine seconds a surgeon performs a national health service operation, that every tenth of a second someone somewhere visits his or her general practitioner and that 8 million people are treated each year. Why does the hon. and learned Gentleman choose one issue, of which he gave no notice, in order to try to make that sort of political point?

Mr. Trimble: I assure the Prime Minister that there is one party in this place which will not allow itself to be subjected to duress. I refer again to yesterday's incident which marred the Prime Minister's visit to Londonderry. Does he realise that the incident was not unprecedented? While it was of a slightly greater intensity than others, that sort of street demonstration has occurred regularly in the past few months and it is part of an IRA-Sinn Fein campaign to undermine the Royal Ulster Constabulary--a campaign which is assisted by other elements, some of whom are within the House. Therefore, will the Prime Minister give an assurance that those members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who have protected society from terrorism for the past 25 years have his wholehearted support and that there is no question of disbanding or restructuring the Royal Ulster Constabulary?

The Prime Minister: I made clear in the speech that I gave yesterday in Northern Ireland my admiration for the work that the Royal Ulster Constabulary has done, not just yesterday--when I think that its members performed superbly--but over the past 25 years in seeing the people of Northern Ireland through a most difficult period in their history. The Royal Ulster Constabulary has a very proud record and I am happy to endorse it for the hon. Gentleman this afternoon.

I said earlier that I have no illusions about the people with whom we are dealing. I say again that peaceful democratic parties do not act in the way that Sinn Fein supporters acted yesterday. They do not act as front organisations for heavily armed paramilitaries; they do not intimidate and threaten the population; they do not break the legs of teenagers with baseball bats, as they have been doing; and they do not behave in many other thuggish ways. Of course I welcome the end of killing in Northern Ireland. However, as I said clearly yesterday and will say again and again, much of the brutal behaviour by paramilitaries must be stopped before they can begin to claim that they are democratic parties.