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1996 - PMQT 8th February 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 8th February 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Riddick: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 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 be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Riddick: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Conservative and Unionist party will always stand four-square behind the Union? Is it not the case that the British constitution has evolved over centuries, but that it could take a matter of months for a meddling, middle-class public school boy to undermine or even destroy it?

The Prime Minister: We have made some evolutionary changes to the constitution in recent years, and I believe that there is scope for more evolutionary change in the years ahead. I do not believe that large-scale changes that would significantly alter the face of the United Kingdom and the Union as we know it are in the interests of the United Kingdom. Frankly, I believe that many of the plans that have been put forward do not address the difficulties.

I see no reason why Scotland should be taxed more highly than the rest of the United Kingdom. Neither do I see any reason why Scottish Members should vote on Scottish matters that English Members cannot vote on, and then vote in the House on the same matters as they affect England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Those issues need very careful examination. I hope that they will receive that careful examination, as they clearly have not had it yet.

Sir Malcolm Thornton: Has my right hon. Friend seen the recent newspaper article about education by the Labour transport spokesman, which I shall quote--[Interruption.]--which I shall paraphrase. It refers to public schools producing more social cripples than any other form of education devised by man. Does my right hon. Friend believe that that is yet another veiled attack on the Labour leader and some of his Front-Bench colleagues, or is it simply another example of hypocrisy?

The Prime Minister: I feel as though I am in an air raid shelter on this occasion, speaking as a grammar school boy. My hon. Friend should not be too hard on the hon. Member concerned. I think that Labour Members are required to put their children down for private school these days so that they can remain in the vanguard of Labour education policy.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree that the Scott inquiry was entirely fairly conducted and that no criticism can or should be made of its processes or procedures?

The Prime Minister: As I said in the House on a previous occasion:

"I asked Sir Richard to carry out the report and I have confidence that he will do so"--

and has done so--

"thoroughly."

Mr. Blair: I must press the Prime Minister on that because he will know that, in the past few days, there has been a concerted attempt to rubbish the inquiry. Will he say unequivocally that he accepts that it was entirely fairly conducted?

The Prime Minister: I just said to the right hon. Gentleman:

"I asked Sir Richard to carry out the report and I have every confidence that he will do so"--

and has done so--

"thoroughly."

The right hon. Gentleman is saying that neither he nor anybody else can comment fairly on the Scott report until people have had the opportunity to study it. I agree with that point, but it also applies to the past three years. It applies to the fact that the Opposition have made crude and blatant smears throughout those past three years without having had the evidence of the Scott report before them. If, in his question, the right hon. Gentleman was making it clear that he believes that those were unjustified attacks without any evidence, I would be pleased for him to withdraw them now and make it clear that he will repudiate them.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister is not even prepared to say whether the report is fairly conducted. When he says that we should await the findings of the report, let me remind him that he and his Ministers will have had the report for eight days, that four Government Departments have units working on it and that we are to get it a few hours before publication. I am not asking him to comment on its findings, but on whether it was fairly conducted. He set up the inquiry. He chose Sir Richard Scott. Is he now prepared to state that he is confident that it was fairly conducted? If he does not say that, the final vestiges of respect will be removed from the Government.

The Prime Minister: I know that the right hon. Gentleman had carefully prepared his third soundbite before my first answer, and I am tempted to refer him to the two answers I have just given. I made it clear that

"I asked Sir Richard to carry out the report and I have confidence that he will do so"--

and has done so–

"thoroughly."--[Official Report, 6 June 1995; Vol. 261, c. 15.]

I have now said that three times. Will the right hon. Gentleman now stop preparing his soundbites in advance and listen to my answers before he prepares his questions?


Q2. Mr. Illsley: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 February.

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

Mr. Illsley: Why cannot the Prime Minister publish such an important document as the report of the Scott inquiry a few days before the statement on it next week so that the Opposition, and indeed the House, can be properly informed? Is it not disgraceful that a few Conservative Members will have had that report for eight days, but the rest of the House will receive it on the day of the statement?

The Prime Minister: We plan to follow the precedents for a weighty report of this nature, and to permit Opposition spokesmen to see the report several hours before the statement is made. Of course, the House will also wish to study and comment on the report. That is why we propose to find time in Government time for an early debate on the report a few days after the statement has been made, once the whole House has had the opportunity to study the report and comment on it on the basis of detail, not of innuendo and smear, which has been the nature of the comments thus far from a number of Opposition Members.

Dame Jill Knight: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the House of Lords provides a useful and important advisory service for this country at very little cost? It has no power to overrule or frustrate the will of the House of Commons. Has my right hon. Friend heard of the old phrase, "If it ain't broke, don't mend it"?

The Prime Minister: I believe that this House should treat constitutional reform of any sort with care and consideration, and examine what the outcome of that reform might be before being committed to it. I do not believe that the reforms proposed to the House of Lords are relevant to the problems and opportunities facing this country over the next five to 10 years. It seems to me that the reform in question is irrelevant--and intended to be a spiteful, thoughtless irrelevance.


Campbell Soups

Q3. Mr. Campbell-Savours: To ask the Prime Minister when he next plans to visit a Campbell Soups exhibition stand at a United Kingdom food trade fair.

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

Mr. Campbell-Savours: The Prime Minister will be aware of the call for an international boycott of Campbell Soups and Fray Bentos products, arising out of the appalling decision by the company to close down the highly profitable Homepride plant in my constituency--having purchased it for £58.6 million only 11 weeks earlier. Are not the real stakeholders in Homepride not the greedy shareholders in America who do not give a damn about the people of Maryport, but the work force who have invested their lives in making that company a success and who are now being put on the scrap heap? Will the Prime Minister join the 341 Members of Parliament--a majority of this House--who have called on the company to reverse its decision?

The Prime Minister: I realise the extent of the disappointment that must be felt at Maryport over the decision. I understand that Campbell's has offered employees jobs at one of its five other plants--although, self-evidently, that will not be appropriate for many employees. I also understand the depth of the hon. Gentleman's concern for his constituents, but I hope that he and everyone else will bear in mind the fact that Campbell's has been in the United Kingdom for over 30 years. It employs more than 2,000 people here and has shown its commitment to the United Kingdom by investing more than £100 million here in the past 12 months. I would not wish to threaten and damage those investments, or the jobs that are safeguarded and are being created as a result of those investments.


Engagements

Q4. Mr. Chidgey: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 February.

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

Mr. Chidgey: Does the Prime Minister agree with the Social Security Secretary, who has described today's proposed cuts of £1 billion in the social security budget as devastating?

The Prime Minister: That is in no sense what my right hon. Friend has said about the outcome of the public expenditure round. The whole House will recall that, in recent weeks, I have been criticised by the Opposition for administrative costs being too high. Here we have a practical illustration of the Government seeking to cut administrative costs, in the interests of the taxpayer, to preserve the resources available for benefits--yet on that point the Opposition criticise me as well.

The hon. Gentleman must make up his mind: does he criticise the Government for not cutting administrative costs or for making administrative savings? Even though he is a Liberal Democrat, he cannot have it both ways.

Mr. Butterfill: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the height of hypocrisy to maintain that one is committed to the elimination of state subsidy and then to do the reverse? Do not the recent decisions by the Transport Commissioner show that the Labour party--whether old Labour or new Labour, in Westminster or in Brussels--is committed to state subsidy and to Spanish practices?

The Prime Minister: The whole House will know of our concern about the Iberia decision. It is certainly not in the interests of the air travellers of Europe, and we have made that known to Commissioner Kinnock and to others.


Q5. Mr. Hoon: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 8 February.

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

Mr. Hoon: In a statement to the House about the setting up of the Scott inquiry, the Attorney-General stated that matters of form and procedure were a question for the learned judge. Why will not the Prime Minister condemn unequivocally those, such as Lord Howe, who have sought to impugn the integrity of the learned judge and to attack the contents of his report before publication?

The Prime Minister: On attacks on the contents of the report, if anyone has predetermined what the contents of the report might be, it is the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and not my noble Friend Lord Howe.

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I refer him to what I said on 13 January 1994 at column 332.

Mr. Butler: Does my right hon. Friend recall the words of Lord Palmerston, who said that to be born British is like winning the lottery of life? Will my right hon. Friend now go further and say that to be born or to live in Milton Keynes is like winning the national lottery, and join me in welcoming the grant of £19 million to build what will undoubtedly be the best theatre outside London?

The Prime Minister: There may be some challenges about the scheme being the best theatre, but I know that my hon. Friend is proud of the scheme and I congratulate him on it.

As for being proud of being British, I just hope that we do not reach the situation where to live in Scotland is to lose the lottery of taxation because it has to face extra taxation and a tartan tax.