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1996 - PMQT 12th March 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 12th March 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Deregulation

Q1. Mr. Steen: To ask the Prime Minister if he will establish a league table of deregulation initiatives from each Government Department.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the further measures that I announced yesterday on simplified tax registration, new rights for business against enforcement action and simplified planning and development controls. I have arranged for a copy of details of the number of regulations repealed or amended by each Department to be placed in the Library.

Mr. Steen: I understand my right hon. Friend's reluctance to cover the walls of No. 10 Downing street with deregulation league tables. If he did so, however, it would highlight the difference between his approach to small firms and that of the Opposition, which will certainly increase the number of rules and regulations emanating not only from this country but from Europe. Will my right hon. Friend boost his own excellent approach by promoting Ministers--and, indeed, Back Benchers--who have good ideas on deregulation, and demoting those who have not? Perhaps he will have a word with the Leader of the Opposition, suggesting that he take similar action with his Front Benchers.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about the importance of deregulation. We have undertaken comprehensive consultation with small businesses, and, as a result of what they had to say to us, we have set out a comprehensive range of action which will, I believe, have been welcomed across the small business sector. I very much regret the necessity to place extra burdens on business sometimes, but we are utterly resolute in not accepting burdens such as the social chapter which would undoubtedly make the country inefficient and cost us jobs. Small firms are the life-blood of the economy, and they deserve our support.


Engagements

Q2. Mr. Roy Hughes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 March.

The Prime Minister: 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. Hughes: Does the Prime Minister recall that last Thursday he gave the House the clear impression that the Government had no intention of taking away the employment protection rights of 10 million workers in private businesses? The very same day, he was contradicted by the Deputy Prime Minister. Who really speaks for the Government, and what is the true position?

The Prime Minister: In no sense did my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister contradict what I said yesterday. [Interruption.] I am sorry, Madam Speaker, but noise from the Opposition does not make them right; they are just as wrong whether they are noisy or silent.

I made it clear that I had no intention of announcing those changes yesterday; nor did I. I also made it clear that we intended to look at unnecessary regulations across the board: I made that clear to the House. Nothing is automatically exempt, but, having been examined, nothing will automatically be changed unless the examination suggests that that is worth while.

Sir Terence Higgins: As the referendum is an alien concept inconsistent with our system of representative parliamentary democracy, would it not be a mistake to change the Government's policy on the issue? On a single currency referendum, does my right hon. Friend agree that a single currency, in the sense that every member of the European Union gives up its own currency in favour of it, is not likely to happen before the next general election, the one after or the one after that and that a referendum on a core currency, which would split the Union, is even less likely to produce a sensible result?

The Prime Minister: As I have said to the House before, let me say again to my right hon. Friend that there are circumstances in which we think that it might be appropriate to have a referendum on the particular matter of whether this country should decide to join a single currency, were one to go ahead in 1999. I have made that point to the House before; that is a matter under consideration and it remains so.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister recall that he used to be flatly against a referendum on a single currency and then--

Mr. Ashby: Tell us your policies.

Madam Speaker: Order. Mr. Ashby, you are not at a football match now.

Mr. Blair: And then the Prime Minister's position changed to say that the question of whether to have a referendum would not arise until after a British Cabinet had recommended joining a single currency. That was the position reiterated a few days ago by the Chancellor of the Exchequer: it would be postponed until the decision about the single currency. Is that still the Government's position?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to swap quotes on these matters--[Hon. Members: "Answer."] If the House is patient, I will come directly to the right hon. Gentleman's point, but I remind him, on the subject of consistency, that he once said:

"we'll negotiate a withdrawal from the EEC".

To be strictly fair, he did subsequently say that he

"wasn't actually opposed to membership of the EC . . . I said at the election, within the closed doors of the Labour Party, that I disagreed with that policy on Europe."

The right hon. Gentleman did not of course say that publicly, which one might have expected from such an ambitious Member.

I have often said before that, although I do not in general favour referendums in our parliamentary democracy, there are circumstances in which one might be appropriate. One of those circumstances is were the Cabinet to make a decision to join a single currency. I have made that clear; that is still the case. We are examining at the moment what the appropriate circumstances might be. When we have completed that examination, I will ensure that the right hon. Gentleman is among the first few hundred people to know.

Mr. Blair: The right hon. Gentleman did not actually tell us whether the Chancellor's position remains the position of the Government. Can I put this question to him? Is it still his view that collective responsibility during the course of such a referendum would still apply?

The Prime Minister: The fact is, on the first point, that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor was with me and agreed in Cabinet to the examination that we are undertaking. The examination that we are undertaking covers not only the point that the right hon. Gentleman raised but a series of other important points that would need to be clear were such a decision to be taken.

Mr. Blair: So everything is up for review. The right hon. Gentleman used to be flatly against a referendum; now he cannot say. He used to be in favour of collective responsibility; now he cannot say. Is it not the truth that on this issue--[Interruption.] They do not like it, Madam Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman now cannot say on either issue. Is it not the truth that, on this issue, as in so many other areas, he is no longer able to be a Prime Minister taking these decisions in the interests of the country but is simply a full-time party manager trying to manage irreconcilable factions in his own party?

The Prime Minister: One of these days, the right hon. Gentleman will learn to quit when he is losing. [Interruption.] He just made it perfectly clear that he has no interest in collective responsibility, no interest in Cabinet government and no interest in the Cabinet discussing these matters--which is precisely what his Back Benchers say about the way in which he determines his own policies. When he has had a little more experience, he will realise that that will never work in government.

Mr. Churchill: Is it not fantastic that the European Court, the European Commission and the leader of the Labour party should be so hellbent on pricing British and European workers out of jobs and exporting those jobs to the Pacific rim? If people in this country choose, of their own volition, to work 48 hours or more a week, why on earth should not they be allowed to do so?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I strongly disagree with the ruling of the Advocate General this morning. We have one of the best records on health and safety at work across Europe. I do not believe that the working time directive can make any significant contribution to health and safety. We shall continue to argue the case that these matters are best agreed between employers and employees in the light of their own circumstances.

European legislation such as the working time directive is ludicrous, and we will continue to tell our partners in Europe that that is so. It is precisely because of legislation like that and stupidities like that, that the European Union is becoming uncompetitive and losing jobs to other parts of the world. It is complete nonsense and it is time that people began to stand up and say so.

Mr. Ashdown: So why did not the Prime Minister and the Government vote against the directive in the Council of Ministers? As the Prime Minister is in the business of swapping quotes, I shall remind him of two. In June 1992 he said to me, "I am not in favour of referendums and I will not put one before the British people." Last week he said, "I have never changed my view--it remains that a referendum might be the course of action to take."

Is it not perfectly clear that the right hon. Gentleman is not the leader of his party, but the prisoner of his party? How long will it now take for him to join us in saying that, when it comes to deciding Britain's future in Europe, Britain's people have a right to a say?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman will know that his hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) has in the past admitted the differences in their party on the question of a referendum. He knows that there are sharp differences. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he favours a referendum on this issue. He should not be so uncharacteristically modest--has it not occurred to him that his splendid advocacy might just possibly change my hon. Friends' minds?

Mr. Hayes: If my right hon. Friend has the good fortune to bump into Sir James Goldsmith, will he remind him that, although he might think that wealth can buy privilege, it does not buy Members of Parliament and it does not buy Governments?

The Prime Minister: The only things for sale in this House are Labour party policies to the trade unions. [Interruption.] The deputy leader of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), says, "Change the computer." We would like him to change the fact that half the Labour party's policies are determined by the trade unions, that most of its money comes from the trade unions, that it is the handmaiden of the trade unions and that it has no independence. The trade unions pay for the Labour party and they own it--it was that way, it is that way and it always will be that way.


Q3. Mr. Wareing: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 March.

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

Mr. Wareing: Does the Prime Minister remember saying in April 1992, "Vote Conservative on Thursday and the recovery will continue on Friday"? When he became Prime Minister, the unemployment figure was 1,754,811, but in January this year it was 2,224,207. They are his figures. What went wrong?

The Prime Minister: I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what has gone right with our economy, and he can then compare what has happened in this country with what has happened in other countries. If he is worrying about what has gone wrong, he should look at Liverpool council to get an indication. The leader of the Labour party said, I think, to The Spectator some time ago that one does not know the character of a party until it is in power. We have seen Labour in power in Liverpool council, and we know exactly the character of the Labour party.

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what has happened in Britain. We have the lowest sustained rate of inflation for almost 50 years--it is below 3 per cent; we have the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years; we have an unemployment rate well below the European Union average; we have the lowest basic rate of tax for 50 years; we are the largest recipients of foreign investment outside Europe, into Europe and more than the rest of Europe added together; and we export more per person than any other country in Europe. In spite of the pantomime drivellings of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East, that is what has happened in this country, and it is time that he woke up and saw it. It surely would not have happened with any other Government.