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1996 - PMQT 15th February 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 15th February 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Mahon: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 15 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.

Mrs. Mahon: Will the Prime Minister tell the House how long it took him to read the Scott report?

The Prime Minister: I am a very rapid reader.

Mr. Dunn: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the destruction of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords is but a short distance from the destruction of the hereditary monarchy?

The Prime Minister: I am surprised at the hostility of the Labour party to the hereditary principle, for this reason: when the Government were defeated in a vote last week, we were defeated by the votes of hereditary peers. As it happens, one of the Labour Front Bench remarked to the House, "the people have spoken".

Mr. Blair: In retrospect, does the Prime Minister believe that the Scott report would have been better handled if it had been released in the way in which Sir Richard Scott requested? Does he have any regrets about the extraordinary disparity of treatment given, on the one hand, to Ministers and the Conservative machine and, on the other, to Members of Parliament, Opposition spokesmen and civil servants--a disparity about to be exemplified by the shambles at 3.30 pm?

The Prime Minister: Nothing has been given to the Conservative machine--the right hon. Gentleman should withdraw that remark. Sir Richard wrote--I think to you, Madam Speaker--on 31 January to say:

"Subject to the imposition of strict conditions on access (which Mr. Cook is prepared to observe), I view his request sympathetically."

We permitted access at 12 o'clock. I am surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman disagree. The arrangements are exactly those offered to the shadow Home Secretary when we published the Learmont report. We even offered him sandwiches. Not only did he not describe the arrangements as "outrageous and insulting" but, when he made his statement, he said:

"I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in arranging for me to see the report earlier than is usual."--[Official Report, 16 October 1995; Vol. 264, c. 33.]

I look forward to similar thanks from the shadow Foreign Secretary later.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Does my right hon. Friend believe that British Telecom's doubling of the amount that is spent on building the information super-highway by people other than BT is the Government's competition policy in action, or does he believe that it would be better to sign a sweetheart deal just with BT to have the information super-highway built more quickly?

The Prime Minister: The information super-highway has been in the process of being built for some years. The sweetheart deal that was entered into--apparently by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)--seems to have come badly unstuck since its initial publicity.


Q2. Mr. Hoon: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 15 February.

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

Mr. Hoon: Will the Prime Minister tell the House how many of his Ministers who had early access to the Scott report have since been confined in a secure room, have had their mobile phones confiscated, have had all their messages brought to them by civil servants and have been escorted throughout by officials who are present for their convenience and security?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman heard what I said to the right hon. Member for Sedgefield a few moments ago. The hon. Gentleman is overacting outrageously on this issue. I shall tell the House why Labour Members are behaving in this fashion. The right hon. Gentleman did not want to sign a form promising secrecy and decided to attack the Government for asking him to do so. He then discovered that the requirement to sign the form was not that of the Government but that of Sir Richard Scott and that all Ministers, including me, have signed it. To save face, the Opposition went into sulks and denounced the whole arrangement.

Mr. Brooke: Does my right hon. Friend share the following view expressed in today's The Times:

"Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, was yesterday presented with a golden economic scenario of low inflation and falling unemployment."?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I agree with the comment. That economic scenario has resulted from the sustained policies that the Government have followed for some time. We now have the lowest sustained level of inflation for 50 years, which today has fallen to below 3 per cent; the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years; the lowest basic rate of tax for 50 years; more foreign investment than any other nation in Europe; and we export more per person than Japan and the United States.

The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), in his usual heckling form, talked about taxes. Let him tell us about the new taxes that the Labour party plans: the windfall tax, the tartan tax, the training tax and the social chapter tax on jobs. The right hon. Gentleman should realise that the Labour party is the taxing party-- it is in opposition now and that is where it will stay.


Q3. Mr. McFall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 15 February.

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

Mr. McFall: Why has it been necessary for the Government to prepare a shorthand version of the Scott report for distribution to Conservative Members and to the media? Would it not have been preferable to allow people to make up their own minds, based on Sir Richard Scott's key conclusions and not on the Government's version of events?

The Prime Minister: That is rich coming from the hon. Gentleman. Most Labour Members made up their minds about this issue three years ago--long before Sir Richard started his report. If the hon. Gentleman wishes, I shall read to him a large selection of quotations from Labour Front Benchers that show that they had made up their minds before Sir Richard Scott started his investigation.

I set up the inquiry so that we could find out precisely what happened and so that the matter could be investigated independently and publicly. It was investigated under the conditions that Sir Richard Scott wanted. I was determined that the report be published and debated by the House, as it has been. The hon. Gentleman will see the outcome shortly.


Q4. Mr. Hawkins: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 15 February.

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

Mr. Hawkins: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that more than 7,000 head teachers are members of the Secondary Heads Association? Is he aware that that association has described Labour's education policy as naive? Is it not typical of the Opposition's arrogance that they have now said that those 7,000 hard-working headteachers should go to the bottom of the class for not doing their homework?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend characteristically understates what was said by the secondary heads. What they actually said was:

"The document is an uncomfortable combination of the naive and the messianic",

that they find

"little evidence in the document of thought in detail or research"

and that they regret

"the absence of recognition of valuable initiatives already in place"--

put in place by this Government.

We have learnt over the months that Labour's education spokesman has a tough job. Teachers openly criticise his policy and shadow Cabinet Members openly contradict it--but now that they know what makes a good school, I am sure that they will be able to improve their education policy.

Mr. Radice: In April 1994, the Prime Minister wrote to me to say that, if Ministers fail to give accurate and truthful information to the House of Commons, they should relinquish their positions. Is that still the case?

The Prime Minister: I have said before that, if I judge Ministers to have knowingly misled the House, they cannot stay. That remains my position.


Q5. Mr. Butler: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 15 February.

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

Mr. Butler: Will my right hon. Friend join me in rejecting the insulting suggestion made last night by the Leader of the Opposition--that when old-age pensioners want a treat, they should steal it? Is he aware that shoplifting costs every household in the country £90 a year? Does he agree that the idea that shoplifters from certain groups should not be prosecuted is yet another example of Labour saying one thing and wanting to do quite another?

The Prime Minister: Shoplifting is certainly a serious crime. It causes a great deal of loss for small and large shopkeepers. If the right hon. Member for Sedgefield did indeed describe it as my hon. Friend suggests he did, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw those remarks. They certainly cannot reflect his settled consideration.


Q6. Mr. Keith Hill: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 15 February.

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

Mr. Hill: As the Prime Minister has had a full eight days to read the Scott report, and as I have only eight minutes, would he care to advise me which of the 1,800 pages I should find the most interesting?

The Prime Minister: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept from me that, in addition to examining the report so that I and others can be answerable to this House, there have been some other things to do. The hon. Gentleman has 11 days now to consider the report. I hope that he will contribute to the debate in the House then--on the basis of fact, not of sneers, smears and innuendo of the sort that we have heard for three years.


Q7. Mr. Nicholas Winterton: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 15 February.

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

Mr. Winterton: Does my right hon. Friend accept that we have the most encouraging set of economic indicators that this country has had in modern history? Will he further accept, although he knows that I have had concerns in the past about aspects of the health service reforms, that the private health sector is now so popular and so instrumental in playing a role in the health service that my socialist opponent at the next election works for it?

The Prime Minister: I am truly shocked at that example of how Labour does not always do what it says. I hope that we will not find it in other elements of the Labour party.


Q8. Mr. Gordon Prentice: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 15 February.

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

Mr. Prentice: Did Lord Justice Scott not make it quite clear that all hon. Members should receive his report at the same time? Is it not almost a contempt of court that Back Benchers such as me have no time at all to absorb his important report and that we will find it impossible to quiz the President of the Board of Trade intelligently on its conclusions?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman should really come off this silly line that he and his hon. Friends--[Interruption.]--this silly line that he and his hon. Friends are concerting. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), who is having hysteria, would be better advised to look at the precedent, to see what happened to the shadow Home Secretary, and to see what he said a few days later.

Hon. Members have tried every trick to prejudice the reception of the Scott report. I suggest that they would be very wise to wait for just a few minutes to see what is in the Scott report. They can then deal with the reality of it on the basis of knowledge, and not on the basis of the smears that they have been putting around for the past three years.