Biography Chronology Home Search Speeches/Statements

1996 - PMQT 22nd February 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 22nd February 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

United Nations

Q1. Dr. Godman: To ask the Prime Minister, pursuant to his answer of 30 January, Official Report, column 772, what proposals he has made for the abolition of United Nations bodies.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): I believe in an effective United Nations. Eliminating waste must be part of that. As I advised the hon. Gentleman recently, that includes, where necessary, a long-term look at the functions and programmes that have outlived their usefulness.

Dr. Godman: Before any such bodies can be abolished, the United Nations must contend with the election of a new Secretary-General. Why are the Government advocating the re-election of Dr. Boutros Ghali so assiduously? Should not the Prime Minister and other leaders be campaigning for a candidate of the stature of, say, President Mary Robinson of the Irish Republic, or some other stateswoman or statesman of equal standing? As for Dr. Boutros Ghali, should we not be saying cheerio to the old fellow?

The Prime Minister: As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government do not indicate how they will vote on these occasions, and I do not propose to do so now. What I think most important is that the United Nations is efficient, and efficiently run. It is distressing to note that a large number of United Nations bodies have patently outlived their usefulness. They have no proper functions to perform either now or in the future, and they should be removed.


Engagements

Q2. Mr. Malcolm Bruce: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 22 February.

The Prime Minister: 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. Bruce: Can the Prime Minister explain to the House--and, indeed, to the public--why, when the reputation of members of his Cabinet is at stake and when the House is to debate a report that he personally commissioned, he is denying the House a substantive motion on which to vote and, moreover, is not prepared to come here and take part in the debate?

The Prime Minister: I am here every Tuesday and Thursday to answer questions, and I do answer those questions.

Mr. Mackinlay: Where is the right hon. Gentleman on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays?

The Prime Minister: If hon. Members wish to have Prime Minister's Questions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I am not entirely sure that they will carry the whole House with them.

The House will be able to vote on Monday's motion, and it is very likely that it will do so. If the main charges against the Government had been proved, of course it would have been entirely proper for me to be here to defend that, but they were not proved. Sir Richard has agreed that there was no conspiracy, no cover-up. It is entirely proper that my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, to whom the report was addressed, should lead for the Government, and he will do so.

Mr. Nicholls: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is simply unacceptable that an unelected foreign court should put its judgment on British policy before that of a British Home Secretary? If ultimately we have to follow the consequences of backing British opinion and contemplate leaving the European Court of Justice at the expense of pandering to the European liberal intelligentsia, would that not be very much the lesser of two evils?

The Prime Minister: It is of course extremely disappointing--and to many hon. Members extremely irritating--that the European Court of Human Rights has found against the Government on a procedure that has been used in this country for very many years. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is looking very carefully at the judgment to see precisely what effect it has. I have said before that the Government are not satisfied with some of the rulings made by the European Court of Human Rights and we are pursuing with other members of the Council of Europe precisely what might be done to improve what we believe is a flawed system.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree that there are two questions on the Scott report: first, was Parliament misled and, secondly, were Ministers to blame? On the first, the Chancellor has been forced to issue an apology today for a Treasury press release and has admitted that Scott found that Parliament was misled. Does the Prime Minister agree with that? Can we have a clear answer? Does he accept that Scott found that Parliament was misled?

The Prime Minister: There were two questions, of course, that Sir Richard Scott was asked to investigate, and he investigated both those and other matters as well. The two principal points that Sir Richard was asked to determine were, first, whether Saddam Hussein was illegally supplied with arms--as charged by right hon. and hon. Opposition Members--and he found that he was not; and, secondly, whether there was a conspiracy to pervert justice by an improper use of public interest immunity certificates and, again, he found that there was not.

On whether Parliament was misled, as I have said to the right hon. Gentleman before, none of my right hon. Friends intentionally misled Parliament. They did not. If the right hon. Gentleman had read the Scott report carefully, he would know what Sir Richard had to say about that. He would know that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury was cleared of duplicitous intent and that he was not accused of deliberately misleading Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman knows that and I am surprised that he keeps pursuing a point that he knows is wrong.

Mr. Blair: We will come to the question of blame, Ministers deliberately withholding information from Parliament in breach of rules of accountability, not telling the truth when they were in a position to know so--all of which Sir Richard found. Can I have it clearly on the record whether the Prime Minister, leaving aside the question of intention, to which we will come, accepts that Parliament was misled--yes or no?

The Prime Minister: I answered that question on Tuesday. I have answered that question again today and I have made it absolutely clear. There was no intention whatever to mislead Parliament--nor did my right hon. Friends do that on any occasion of which I am aware.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister is not prepared to answer the basic question. How has he reached the position of commissioning the report to get at the truth, and three years and millions of pounds later walking away from the findings that he does not like? Just like Nolan, just like Greenbury--it is a textbook definition of Majorism. Can the Prime Minister please tell us whether he accepts the key findings, first, that Parliament was misled and, secondly, that Ministers deliberately withheld information in breach of the rules of ministerial accountability? If he cannot answer them, we will conclude that he is unable and his Government are unable to distinguish between what is true and what is false.

The Prime Minister: That was not so much a sound bite as a sound nibble. The right hon. Gentleman knows that there was no deceit whatever, and that was apparent from the report. I will tell the House why the right hon. Gentleman keeps moving to these points. He knows that on the substantive issues Sir Richard found in the Government's favour. He knows that on the issues that the inquiry was set up to consider, the Government were found to have behaved entirely properly. That is why the right hon. Gentleman changes the ground rules.

On the central issues of the Scott report--the issues that have led the Opposition to blackguard the Government repeatedly over the past three years--Sir Richard found in the Government's favour. The right hon. Gentleman will scrabble on wherever he can to change what he said before and to hide what he said before, and to try to impute deceit where there was none.

Dr. Spink: Why are non-wage labour costs in the UK half those of our major competitors? Why is our take-home pay higher than that of our major competitors and why is our unemployment lower? Is it a result of the Government's policies, which are making us the enterprise centre of Europe?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this country's favourable economic position. He is equally right to draw attention to the fact that, if we accepted the social costs, through the social chapter as it is now and the social chapter as it would be if any British Government were foolish enough to join it, we would find the same extra costs, the same lack of competitiveness and the same increase in unemployment as we have seen in so many of our competitor countries across Europe. We have no intention of making those mistakes. No party that is genuinely concerned about employment should contemplate such policies, because they will keep people out of work who are out of work at present and they will put out of work people who are in work at present.


Q3. Mr. Mike O'Brien: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 22 February.

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

Mr. O'Brien: Returning to the Scott report-- [Hon. Members: "Oh."] Conservative Members suggest that it is boring. It is not boring in my constituency, which is just down the road from Matrix Churchill. Now let the Prime Minister try to give us a straight answer to a straight question. Does he accept the finding of the Scott report that the Attorney-General was personally at fault for failing to pass on the view of the Deputy Prime Minister that the documents for which he claimed public interest immunity should be shown to the defence?

The Prime Minister: The Attorney-General made it clear to the House on Monday that he took specific steps to ensure, through my right hon. Friend's special PII certificate, that the judge was alerted to the need for special care. The judge exercised his discretion, precisely as the Attorney-General had said he would, and ordered the disclosure of the relevant papers to the defence. The hon. Gentleman should stop twisting and misinterpreting what happened.


Q4. Mr. Carrington: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 22 February.

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

Mr. Carrington: Does the Prime Minister agree that, with high unemployment in this country and even higher unemployment in our European partner countries, we need policies that will lift the burden off industry to enable it to create jobs? Whatever the wriggling, the Labour party's support for the social chapter and the minimum wage blows apart its claim to be able to create jobs. All it would do is tax jobs.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about that. [Interruption.] I said "my hon. Friend". Fond though I am of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), I do not regard him as my right hon. Friend in parliamentary terms--[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman seeks repeatedly to interrupt Prime Minister's Question Time. He reminds me that it was he who said that, after 15 years of deregulation, he did not see much investment flooding in. He should go to Sedgefield, Livingston and all sorts of other places throughout the country to see the inward investment that has been a result of this Government's policy. It has provided jobs for people whom the right hon. Gentleman's policies would leave on the scrap heap for ever.


Q5. Mr. McAvoy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 22 February.

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

Mr. McAvoy: The Prime Minister keeps on repeating that the Scott report has cleared his Government. If that is the case, why is he so scared of allowing the House a vote on the future of the two Ministers concerned? What is he scared of?

The Prime Minister: The House will have its opportunity to debate and to vote on the motion on Monday. I have indicated my confidence in both Ministers. I have indicated that, on the two substantive matters that caused me to set up the Scott report, Sir Richard has cleared the Government of any malpractice whatsoever. I have also said before, and I repeat it again now, that what happened did bring out shortcomings in some areas. I said that last week and I repeat it again today. We will take those shortcomings very seriously. We are examining what Sir Richard had to say and we will bring before the House speedily our proposed measures to remedy those things that need changing.