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1996 - PMQT 2nd April 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 2nd April 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Cohen: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 2 April.

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. Cohen: Will the Prime Minister confirm that a typical person made redundant has to face a 20 per cent. pay cut in order to find a new job? As more than 10 million people have experienced unemployment under the present Government, that is an awful lot of pay cuts and job insecurity. Will the Prime Minister publish the truth in his manifesto--that Conservatives make things worse for working men and women?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman overlooks the extent to which unemployment has fallen in this country--faster than in any comparable European country. It is down by more than a quarter on its peak some time ago. The hon. Gentleman should bear it in mind that in western Europe we all operate in the same economic climate. More people are getting back into work, more people are in work and there is a lower level of unemployment in this country than in any comparable European country.

Sir Jim Spicer: Did my right hon. Friend by any chance see "On the Record" on Sunday, when education was discussed and we were treated to the sight of a Liberal councillor from Kingston who spoke out very strongly against any selective education, but who sends her daughter to a grammar school? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the true working of a Lib-Lab pact?

The Prime Minister: At the risk of causing enormous offence to an important television programme, I confess to the House that I did not watch "On the Record" on Sunday or the Sunday before, and I suspect that I shall not watch it next Sunday. I notice nods of agreement from the Opposition. We seem to have a cross-party consensus on that point. Nevertheless, I can certainly appreciate what my hon. Friend says, and I doubt that that is an isolated incident.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister recall, in the days when he was flatly against a referendum on Europe, saying that referendums were introduced only to cover up divisions in the Cabinet and none such existed in his Cabinet? Are not those divisions precisely the reason why he is in favour of a referendum today?

The Prime Minister: I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should say that when he has just announced a referendum to sort out internal difficulties in his party about his policy. I have said that I will contemplate a referendum on a particular issue of policy that has never occurred before. The right hon. Gentleman intends to ballot all his party members about Labour policy--which is a novel proposition: I am not entirely sure how one can ballot people about something that does not exist.

Mr. Blair: I suspect that I shall have rather more support for my referendum than the Cabinet will give the right hon. Gentleman's. Why cannot the Prime Minister answer now the question that he was able to answer a few months ago? Has the Chancellor changed his mind--a nod or a shake of the head will do? We have paralysis in the Government--even the big man of the Cabinet cannot get his way. Is not the decision being taken only because the Government are weak, divided and are being pushed around by their factions?

The Prime Minister: That was well prepared, but the right hon. Gentleman was too shy to mention that he has changed his policies on Europe, defence, the trade unions and on almost everything else. As for divisions, I have in my hand a paper entitled "Europe Isn't Working". It is produced by 50 Labour Members and it opposes every aspect of European policy that the right hon. Gentleman has in mind.

As to a single currency, the deputy leader of the Labour party--whom we miss today--says, "Yes, we are against a single currency." The right hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham)--who is also not here--says that he, personally, is in favour of a single currency. Labour Members of the European Parliament are in favour of a single currency within the time limits and constraints, and the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) says that it is irresponsible. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to dance in the midst of those divisions while pretending that there are none. The reality is that his party is as split as it can be on that issue.

Mr. Blair: I have a suggestion for the Prime Minister: why does he not put his Government out of their misery and give the country a referendum on a matter that it really wants to decide--his Government or ours?

The Prime Minister: In order to be kind and generous to the right hon. Gentleman, I am giving him time to find some policies so that he has some basis--other than negative campaigning--upon which to conduct an election.

Mr. Marlow: While our masters in Brussels are deciding how to dispose of the British beef industry, will my right hon. Friend suggest to them that, if they are to slaughter perfectly healthy cattle, the beef would be better used as food aid rather than being incinerated? If people were faced with a one in three chance of dying of starvation or a one in 100 million chance of contracting Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, surely they would eat the beef.

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend intimates, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is in Luxembourg today trying to restore public confidence to the beef markets across Europe. He is making good progress and he will keep negotiating until a package of measures is agreed. It is no longer certain whether that will occur today: there is a long way to go in the negotiations and I anticipate that they will continue for many hours yet.

Mr. Ashdown: Does the Prime Minister realise that, as we speak, jobs are being lost and small farms and small firms are going to the wall because of delay and indecision on BSE? Does he acknowledge that he could take some steps without waiting for Brussels? I shall suggest three: first, launch a British standard for quality British beef; secondly, launch a public information campaign to correct misrepresentation and mis-information, which is still widespread and damaging; and, thirdly, get together with the banks and put together a credit guarantee scheme to help small firms and farmers until compensation arrives. I beg the Prime Minister to act now, when he can, rather than stand there wringing his hands and waiting for Brussels to open the door.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman's last sentence beggars belief, given his party's policy on the European Union, but I agree with him about the need to do whatever we can to help the beef industry. Nine or 10 measures have been taken already; a number are currently under consideration and more are under discussion in Brussels. The Agriculture Council is considering and discussing the possibility of extending the scope of intervention to deal with short-term confidence problems. That would clearly be of great benefit to many British farmers. We are also considering a package of measures to deal with BSE. We are discussing its funding and a number of other confidence-building measures for the market. The right hon. Gentleman knows that although there are certain things that we can do in Britain, the fundamental decision needs to be a cross-European one, as he himself told the House the other day.

Mr. Robathan: My right hon. Friend will know of the concern of some Conservative Members about recent developments in defence. Therefore, will he study carefully reports of a recent conference which considered defence issues, found a potential peace dividend of some £18 billion and, yet again, voted for unilateral nuclear disarmament? When he discusses the resolutions of the recent Transport and General Workers Union conference, will he recall that that union sponsors not only the shadow Chancellor, but the Leader of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister: I am not sure what proportion of the Labour party's income comes from the Transport and General Workers Union, but it is clearly substantial. If accurately reported, its proposition on cutting defence would effectively leave Britain with no defence at all. I know that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have been planning a defence review. I had not anticipated that it would be quite so draconian, but as half their policy is determined by trade unions, we cannot be certain that that will not prove to be the case if it is the policy of the Transport and General Workers Union.


Q2. Miss Hoey: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 2 April.

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

Miss Hoey: The Prime Minister issued an invitation at the weekend via the national newspapers for a debate with the Leader of the Opposition on national television. Now that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has accepted that invitation, would the Prime Minister like to name the day?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady says the nicest things. I enjoy my tussles with the right hon. Gentleman on Tuesdays and Thursdays and on other occasions. I was as surprised as the hon. Lady was to read what was reported over the weekend. I recall very well, as a young untried candidate, trying exactly the same trick with an experienced Labour Member of Parliament. I recall that he said to me at the time, "Go and sort out your policies first. Then I shall consider these stupid PR stunts."


Q3. Mr. Michael Brown: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 2 April.

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

Mr. Brown: Notwithstanding the exchanges between the Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) and the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), is not the answer for the Prime Minister to give the people of the country on the issue of beef, in Easter week, when Grimsby and Cleethorpes holds the biggest fish market of the year, the message that people should consume Grimsby fish? Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Frank Flear, who is behind the new fish docks in Grimsby and Cleethorpes that the Government supported with massive investment, and urge the people of Britain this week to consume Grimsby and Cleethorpes fish?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to invite the nation to eat Grimsby fish, and fish from elsewhere in the British Isles. I hope that, having had their fish, people will spare some time to eat some beef too.


Q4. Mr. McAllion: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 2 April.

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

Mr. McAllion: Is the Prime Minister aware that, at the recent national poverty hearings in London, one single mother, registered disabled and dependent on income support, described how she had been forced to place her son in the care of her local authority, because underfunding prevented that authority from meeting his special educational needs in any way except through its residential budget? How does he explain to that family, and to the families of the one in three of today's children born into the same oppressive poverty, the contemptible and odious Tory slogan that "life is better under the Conservatives"? For the poor, it most certainly is not; and for that, the right hon. Gentleman and the party behind him are directly responsible.

The Prime Minister: I know that the hon. Gentleman is honest enough to say that he thinks that his party should put up taxes--I think that he knows that it will. He at least has had the candour to say that in public; it is his idea of the future. He is quite wrong about poverty. In fact, the vast majority of people are better off. Average incomes have risen by more than a third, even after allowing for inflation. The average income of all family types has risen. Pensioner average incomes since the Government came to power are up by about 50 per cent. after inflation. Average incomes of the unemployed and others not in work have also risen. That would not have happened but for the policies, both economic and social, that we have followed.