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1996 - PMQT 9th January 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 9th January 1996

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Flynn: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 9 January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Flynn: What democratic legitimacy has a Prime Minister who lost the last vote in the House, who has lost every by-election by a mile, and who is now being abandoned by some of his most honourable Members, including the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Miss Nicholson), who is warmly welcomed to the Opposition Benches today? How can a party at war with itself provide good government? Is it not degrading of the Prime Minister to deny the country an election and the choice between an exhausted Tory Government and an invigorated young Labour party? They cannot command the confidence of the people. The powerful cry from this country's people to the Government is to go--

Madam Speaker: Order. There are others who want to ask the Prime Minister questions.

The Prime Minister: The legitimacy might have something to do with the largest popular vote ever recorded at the last general election and a majority in the House.

Mr. Brooke: In his busy life, did my right hon. Friend have the opportunity yesterday to read in The Times, in the series on aging, a self-analysis by a middle-class married woman, in which she identified seven what she called

"irritating little signs of the spiral towards death",

and did he note that she placed at their heart having voted for the Liberal Democrats at the last general election?

The Prime Minister: As a matter of fact, I am afraid that I did not see that article, and I am extremely sorry that I missed it.

Mr. Blair: Can the Prime Minister tell us what on earth possessed him to resurrect the idea of Post Office privatisation on Sunday? Is it not exactly because of policies such as that that his party is in disarray, that his Members of Parliament are defecting and that the country wants a change of Government?

The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman has just had an extremely interesting trip to Japan. While he was there, he might have been better occupied if he had travelled on the privatised Japanese railway--a policy which he and his colleagues also oppose for this country. What the right hon. Gentleman, despite his rhetoric, does not in his heart understand is that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector--[Interruption.] I am delighted to see the opposition to private ownership coming from Opposition Members. Private ownership enables people to have, if I may use the phrase, a stake in this country.

Mr. Blair: He can tell that to consumers of water and electricity. Is it not obvious that the only reason that Post Office privatisation is back on the agenda is to placate that faction of the Conservative party that wants to privatise anything and everything? Is it not precisely because the whole business of his Government is now about pleasing one faction or another of the Conservative party that the country has given up on the Conservatives as a serious party of government?

The Prime Minister: For the right hon. Gentleman, who tries to tell the world that he is a moderniser who has brought his party into the 1990s, to oppose--as he does lock, stock and barrel--private ownership of industry in this country, when prices are falling and services are improving, shows the extent to which the glossy words he uses are not matched by what he really believes in.

Mr. Blair: If he is so keen and confident about privatising the Post Office, the Prime Minister should put it in his manifesto and call a general election to decide the matter.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman will have observed over the years that we have included in our manifesto many policies to which he and his party have objected, and we have won elections on those policies. He should say whether he will re-nationalise those industries that are now in the private sector. What is the answer to that? He does not know and he cannot say, because, if he says yes, he upsets one half of his party and if he says no, he upsets the other half.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Assuming that my right hon. Friend has an extensive knowledge of the Bible, including the Old Testament and Genesis, will he ensure that the policies that he introduces do not enable the Cains of this generation to flourish any more than they did in biblical times?

The Prime Minister: I assure my hon. Friend that this party will remain the same centre-right broad church in the future as it has been throughout its history.

Mr. Beith: Is it not clear that the Prime Minister cannot stop his colleagues from squabbling however many warnings he gives them on television? Indeed, the Secretary of State for Defence now indulges in long-distance, intercontinental squabbling. As long as the Prime Minister has to face those elements in his party, he cannot address the concerns shared by thousands of people who voted for him last time, which were so clearly expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Miss Nicholson). Might he not now admit that the party is over for him?

The Prime Minister: I believe that the hon. Lady has made a decision that she will, in due course, come to regret, for reasons that I have set out in the past. She has made her decision and will have to live with it, both in the short term and in the long term.

Matters of concern for people in this country are mortgage rates, which are the lowest for 30 years; the basic rate of tax, which is the lowest for 50 years; unemployment, which is falling more rapidly here than anywhere else in Europe; and inflation, which is lower than it has been for 50 years. Those are matters about which the right hon. Gentleman used to attack the Conservative party some years ago; they are now being solved more successfully than they have been at any stage in the past. The right hon. Gentleman has no response to the economic prospects that now lie ahead of us.

Mr. Garel-Jones: During his discussions this morning with the leader of the Spanish Opposition, did my right hon. Friend have the opportunity to ask him why, after more than 10 years of socialism in Spain, that country still has the highest unemployment figures of western Europe?

The Prime Minister: There is, of course, a close relationship across Europe between socialist Governments who have been in power for a long time, the level of social costs that they apply, the adoption of the social chapter and the unemployment levels in those countries. That is why we are so determined not to adopt those policies, but to ensure that our economic policies create jobs and do not destroy them for dogmatic reasons.


Lockerbie

Q2. Dr. Godman: To ask the Prime Minister if, when he last met President Clinton, they discussed the advisability of continuing with the pursuit of those persons alleged to have committed the murders at Lockerbie in December 1988.

The Prime Minister: On 29 November, I discussed Lockerbie and Libya briefly with President Clinton. Both Britain and the United States remain committed to bringing to justice those responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. The evidence supports the charges against the two accused.

Dr. Godman: Why does the Prime Minister place so much emphasis on the need to try such persons in either Scotland or America? Why America? Why does he not tell President Clinton that it makes much better sense to try those individuals at the High Court in Edinburgh or, failing that, at an international tribunal at The Hague? Surely he cannot expect the Libyan authorities to allow those individuals to subject themselves to a television show trial in Washington.

The Prime Minister: We are not asking them to. We think that the trial should take place in Scotland. We certainly do not think that it would be desirable-- necessarily--for it to take place at The Hague. If, as they have occasionally intimated, the Libyans accept Scottish law and a Scottish judge, I know of no good reason whatsoever why the accused should not appear before a court in Scotland. That is where the crime was committed--above Scotland--and that is where I believe the accused should most properly stand trial. I hope that that will occur and I hope that the accused will be surrendered by the Libyan Government so that justice can be seen to be done.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As we have an absolute obligation to the relatives of those who died in that appalling massacre, and as the people of Libya are suffering terribly from the policy of sanctions, what is the argument against passing a simple law in this House that would enable the two accused persons to be tried at The Hague in exactly the same way as other foreign alleged criminals--from Serbia, for example--are being tried? Should we not try to resolve the problem quickly in the interests of those who lost relatives in that appalling carnage?

The Prime Minister: I, too, have seen some of the suggestions that the accused should be surrendered for trial in one place or another, but there is no guarantee whatever that the accused would be made available for trial if we went to the trouble of setting up a trial in a third country--at, for example, The Hague.

On a wider but relevant point, I do not think that we ought to allow suspected terrorists to dictate where and how they should be tried. That would imply an acceptance of the accused's assertion that they would not receive a fair trial in Scotland. That is not an assertion that I believe the House should accept.


Engagements

Q3. Mr. Ronnie Campbell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 9 January.

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

Mr. Campbell: Since the Prime Minister's majority is getting smaller and smaller, will he stop the privatisation of the railways, which is costing taxpayers £1 billion, stop the back-door privatisation of the health service, and certainly not go ahead with the privatisation of the Post Office? Will he resign now, call a general election and take his little creeps with him?

The Prime Minister: The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is of course no. I am rather surprised to hear that question from him. Unless I misremember, it was the hon. Gentleman who, not very long ago, said that the Labour leadership

"got it into their heads that Labour is unelectable unless it goes down this social democratic road. That is rubbish".

The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) would claim that that is exactly the road that they are going down. On that basis, and considering what the hon. Gentleman just said, he ought not to want an election.


Q4. Mr. Alexander: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 9 January.

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

Mr. Alexander: In view of the healthy economic statistics that my right hon. Friend gave the House a moment ago, especially the fact that inflation is now at its lowest level for 50 years, is it not abundantly clear to all independent observers that Britain is a success story? Will he confirm to the House and the country that he has no intention of putting all that at risk by coming forward with the sort of half-baked ideas that we had from the midday sun in Singapore recently?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely correct about the success that the country now has, which is recognised in almost every country in the world with, perhaps, the solitary exception of this one. I think it is becoming increasingly apparent that we have success. We have provided the basis to turn our country into the most enterprising country in Europe. We are now in a position to return to a tax-cutting agenda and to give people more choice, more opportunity and genuine ownership--a genuine stake in this society. That is the way in which we believe it is right to proceed, and will proceed.


Q5. Mrs. Jane Kennedy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 9 January.

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

Mrs. Kennedy: Does the Prime Minister agree with the Secretary of State for Defence that there is no place in the modern Conservative party for those who believe in closer ties with Europe?

The Prime Minister: Sadly for the hon. Lady, that is not what my right hon. Friend said.

Mr. Hargreaves: In view of the number of questions asked by hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber during recent Defence questions, will my right hon. Friend take time to speak with the Secretary of State for Defence on the subject of the forthcoming order of ambulances for the Army?

The Prime Minister: Nothing has yet been decided on the subject of the order of ambulances for the Army. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, who answered questions this afternoon, will report the views of the House to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.