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1995 - PMQT 18th May 1995

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 18th May 1995.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. John Marshall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 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 have further meetings later today.

Mr. Marshall: Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the reduction in unemployment announced yesterday? Is he aware that it is the 24th reduction in the monthly rate to be announced since the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) said that unemployment would rise month after month after month? How does Britain's unemployment rate compare with those in France and Spain, the Governments of which have adopted the policies recommended by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to welcome the fall in unemployment and, of course, the growth in employment, particularly in manufacturing. Unemployment has now fallen by well over 600,000 since 1992 and by nearly 19,000 in the past month--the 20th successive monthly fall. As my hon. Friend intimated, the unemployment rate is substantially higher in Spain and France. In France it is around 12.75 per cent. and in Spain around 20 per cent. It is no accident that they have policies like the minimum wage, the social chapter and other policies that damage employment.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister has indicated that he accepts the broad thrust of Nolan. Does he accept the recommendation that Members of Parliament with consultancies should disclose the agreement under which they are paid and how much they are paid?

The Prime Minister: I established the Nolan committee because I am determined to see higher standards in public life. I believe that that is important. It is important not only that we ensure high standards but that the people of this country see for themselves that this House adopts high standards.

On the specific point which the right hon. Gentleman puts to me, we must wait to see what the House has to say about that. That is the purpose of the debate this afternoon. We wish to hear the views of the House and take those into account before we reach final decisions on those matters.

On matters related to the Government, we made it clear that we broadly accept those recommendations, and my right hon. Friends will elaborate on that this afternoon.

Mr. Blair: What is the Prime Minister's own view about that recommendation?

The Prime Minister: The Government will have to table motions on the Order Paper. Not least as a courtesy to the House, we should listen to the views of the House.

Mr. Blair: Of course. But is the right hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that the debate may lead him to overrule the independent recommendation of his own committee? If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to say whether he supports the disclosure of payments to Members of Parliament, and as he is refusing point blank to allow the committee to investigate payments to political parties, may I tell him that his support for Nolan will ring more than a little hollow?

The Prime Minister: As far as political parties are concerned, I repeat the point that I made earlier this week. When the right hon. Gentleman and the Labour party meet those points set out by the Select Committee on Members' Interests, a Committee of the House, then, perhaps, they might be in a position to lecture other people on political parties.

As for matters relating to Back-Bench Members, I repeat the point that I made a moment ago. It is right to listen to the views of the House before reaching a conclusion on the House. If, after such a brief period of Front-Bench authority, the right hon. Gentleman is so arrogant that he no longer wishes to hear the views of the House, he will live to regret that.

Mr. Cash: Given my right hon. Friend's enthusiasm for consultation with regard to Government policies and given that the European Commission and Mr. Santer have just published the Commission's White Paper regarding the future of Europe in so far as it affects the intergovernmental conference, can my right hon. Friend give an absolute assurance to the House that in good time and as soon as possible--before the summer recess-- we can have a White Paper on European policy as it affects the United Kingdom in relation to that intergovernmental conference?

The Prime Minister: I have made it clear to the House on a number of occasions that we are now examining in detail, in Cabinet sub-committees, the British position as to how we will approach the intergovernmental conference. When we have concluded that detailed consideration, it will, of course, be a matter for discussion in the House. That was the case before the Maastricht treaty and it will be the case before the next intergovernmental conference.


Q2. Mr. Winnick: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 May.

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

Mr. Winnick: In view of the latest developments on sleaze in the House, is it not now clear that the recommendations of the Nolan committee are the very minimum that need to be put into effect as quickly as possible in aid of the reputation of the House of Commons? Does the Prime Minister accept--perhaps he does not--that Members of Parliament are not elected to be hired as paid lobbyists or consultants and that it is about time the practice was put to an end?

The Prime Minister: Of course, the House will have the opportunity to debate the Nolan committee this afternoon. As I said to the House a few moments ago, and as I have said on previous occasions, I set up the Nolan committee because I am determined that the House not only has the highest standards, but is seen to have those standards. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the highest standards in politics as a whole, I hope that he will also support the suggestion that the Nolan committee should subsequently look at the position in local government. I hope that he will support that. Since the Opposition are so keen on openness in local government, perhaps the leader of the Labour party will hold in public those inquiries into Labour party activities that he is now holding in private.


Q3. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 May.

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

Mr. Greenway: Does my right hon. Friend agree that a minimum wage, whatever the level, would destroy jobs? Does he have any intention of proposing such a policy, not setting a level before the next election and wanting to pass the buck to a union-packed quango, as the Labour party proposes?

The Prime Minister: Of course I can confirm that a minimum wage would destroy jobs. The House has that on the excellent authority of the deputy leader of the Labour party, who said on one memorable occasion, "Any silly fool knows that." There is no doubt about it, so of course I can confirm that. For the Labour party these days, a quango a day keeps policy away, because it has announced three so far this week. [Interruption.] Yes, a new quango on Monday, a new quango on Tuesday and a new quango on Wednesday. We await today's developments with some interest.


Q4. Mr. Martyn Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 May.

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

Mr. Jones: Given that the Prime Minister's objection to publicising the source of Tory party income is that he would not like to expose anonymous donors, what is to stop him publishing the list of non-anonymous donors and also the list of donations and their amounts?

The Prime Minister: I sometimes wonder whether some Opposition Members understand the importance of privacy in any way on any occasion. In a free and open society, people have the right to donate anonymously if they wish. What is potentially corrupt is when donations buy favours or determine policy. That emphatically does not happen in my party. It emphatically does happen in the Labour party as a part of its constitution.


Q5. Sir John Hannam: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 May.

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

Sir John Hannam: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in my Devon constituency area, unemployment has dropped by more than 20 per cent. since 1992, that crime figures have decreased by 10 per cent. this year and last year, that a new hospital costing more than £50 million is nearing completion and that hospital waiting lists have been reduced to a maximum of nine months? Does not all that, combined with the growing economy, show that Conservative policies are working well in the west country?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend refers again to the minimum wage, with good reason. There is no doubt that the minimum wage costs jobs. I now see that the Labour party proposes to keep the minimum wage, but not set the level of the minimum wage until after the general election. That will be devolved to someone else.

The House might recall the deputy leader of the Labour party saying-- [Interruption.] I do not know why they laugh at the deputy leader of the Labour party. We are rather fond of him. He said:

"Some party colleagues have advocated a minimum wage without having the courage of their convictions to state an amount that would make the original commitment meaningful".

I wonder who the right hon. Gentleman might have had in mind.

Mr. John Evans: Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity of acknowledging that what has fallen in this country is the number of unemployed benefit claimants, that the number of people in this country who are without a job remains as great as ever, and that it is impossible to compare unemployment statistics in Britain, France, Spain or any other European country, because they use entirely different methods of counting?

The Prime Minister: I know the hon. Gentleman would not like the Government to have any credit for anything, even the fall in unemployment, but the fact is that not only has unemployment fallen more dramatically in this country than in any other country in western Europe--far more dramatically than any Opposition Member proposed when the Opposition were talking about unemployment increasing to 5 million--but the number in work has increased.


Ministerial Visits

Q6. Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Prime Minister when he next plans to visit Cirencester and Tewkesbury.

The Prime Minister: I have no immediate plans to do so.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: If my right hon. Friend were to visit my constituency, he would discover that a large majority of people would prefer a Europe of nation states rather than a European super-state. Will he therefore undertake, at the intergovernmental conference next year, to resist vigorously giving up our opt-outs and the restriction of our veto, which both the President of the European Commission and the Labour party would like to give up?

The Prime Minister: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is for national Governments, not the European Commission, to take decisions on Europe's future at the intergovernmental conference. We will certainly maintain the national veto and we will certainly not accept any attempt to end the opt-outs that I negotiated in the Maastricht treaty.

I look to see the European Union succeed, but on the basis of close co- operation between independent sovereign states. I do not believe that, in the long term, the European Union could or would succeed on any other basis. I believe that the proposition for a substantial amount of further centralisation in Europe would do great damage to Europe. It would split it asunder and it should be resisted.


Engagements

Q7. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 May.

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

Mr. Hughes: In this 50th anniversary year of VE day and VJ day and in view of the widespread support across the House, will the Prime Minister meet soon with a deputation from the Royal British Legion to hear the case as to how, at very little cost to the public purse, the four remaining injustices for war widows or service people may be corrected this year? War widows and service people often lose housing benefit or council tax; they may be ineligible for legal aid to pursue claims for injury; they may be unable to hold on to their pensions if they remarry following the death of their spouses who were killed in active service in the past 20 years; and, if they marry someone subsequent to that person's war service, they cannot inherit their spouse's pension.

The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman knows the extent to which we have taken care over the years to ensure that war widows and others who faced particular difficulty during the war are treated fairly. In 1979, the Conservative Government corrected many of the anomalies that the previous Government had left untouched for a very long time. If the hon. Gentleman will give me details of those four points, I shall examine them.