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1996 - PMQT 23rd April 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 23rd April 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Kashmir

Q1. Mr. Madden: To ask the Prime Minister when he intends next to meet the Prime Minister of India to discuss Kashmir.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): I have no plans at present to meet the Indian Prime Minister. I look forward to an early opportunity to do so following the Indian elections, which begin later this month.

Mr. Madden: Does the Prime Minister share the growing international view that the conflict over Kashmir presents the gravest threat to international peace today, given that India and Pakistan have gone to war over Kashmir previously, and that both countries now have a nuclear capability? Against that background, will the Prime Minister and Her Majesty's Government do everything possible to persuade the next Government of India to enter into serious and urgent negotiations with the Government of Pakistan on the basis of UN resolutions, to find an acceptable settlement on the basis of the right of the people of Kashmir to decide their own future?

The Prime Minister: That is an important matter, as the hon. Gentleman says. We are in touch with our friends and colleagues in India and in Pakistan. We have said consistently to those friends and colleagues that we are prepared to help in the search for a solution, either at the UN or in any other forum, provided that the parties concerned wish us to do so. That remains our position, but there must be simultaneous progress on several fronts--first, self-evidently, bilateral dialogue; secondly, the development of a genuine political process in Kashmir, with an improvement in the human rights position there; and, thirdly, a clear cessation of external support for militants, which has poisoned the atmosphere in Kashmir for far too long.

Mr. Whitney: Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent developments in Kashmir have caused many UK citizens of Kashmiri origin much anxiety? His statement that the British Government will continue to press for a stable democratic solution of the Kashmir problem will therefore be most welcome.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know from my experience that what he says about citizens here in the United Kingdom is true. Our policy is to advocate the development of a genuine political process in Kashmir.


Engagements

Q2. Ms Armstrong: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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.

Ms Armstrong: As we once again see Tory Members of Parliament queuing up to express their differences--one with another--over European policy, is not the Government's real problem the widely held view of the Prime Minister, which was vocalised this morning by Sir James Goldsmith when he asked how people could be expected to follow a man who zig-zags so much?

The Prime Minister: I can think of some prominent politicians who, in the past two years, have made it their life's work to deny everything that they stood for previously. So far as I recall, those politicians enjoy the strong support of the hon. Lady.

As to Europe, the hon. Lady might care to look at the comments of some of her hon. Friends in response to recent statements that I have made about Europe which expose clear differences on the Opposition Benches. She might also care to look at some of the pamphlets that have been produced, in which many tens of Labour Members demonstrate their sharp differences with the Labour Front-Bench policy. They are as split on Europe as they could be.


Q3. Mr. Jacques Arnold: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Mr. Arnold: Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that British beef is best and that that remains the case despite the scaremongering by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) which has done so much damage? Will he tell our European colleagues that, until the ban is lifted, there will be no more co-operation from this country, nor any more British money?

The Prime Minister: I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that British beef is best. I am also happy to confirm to him and to others that it is entirely safe, and that has been verified by British scientists, by the World Health Organisation and by Commissioner Fischler. There is no justification whatever for the European ban, but I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has made some progress this morning and I am delighted with that. We are seeking to get the ban lifted as soon as possible, and I hope and expect that that will happen.

As to withholding resources, I must tell my hon. Friend that that would be illegal under United Kingdom law, quite apart from European law. I am not sure that either the House or my hon. Friend would wish the Government to behave illegally.

Mr. Blair: I suspect that the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) speaks for many tens on the Conservative side. Will the Prime Minister clarify whether it is the Government's policy to threaten retaliation against Europe over beef, so that the confusion and incompetence at the heart of Government policy may be removed once and for all?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman once threatened to leave Europe, as I recall--it was part of his election manifesto. As the hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong) might put it, he has clearly zig-zagged from that policy since then.

Our policy is as I described it a moment ago: to try to seek, by agreement, the lifting of the ban. I hope that the ban will be lifted but, if that is unreasonably withheld, our position is--as it has been--that we shall look at other options.

Mr. Blair: What does that mean? I suggest to the Prime Minister that a strategy based on the Grand Old Duke of York is not a very good one. The Foreign Secretary is hinting at retaliation, the Deputy Prime Minister contradicts him and he calls his European partners a bunch of something-or-others while the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is negotiating with them.

Will the Prime Minister kindly take a grip on the situation? If he does not, he will find that his Government are taken seriously neither at home nor abroad.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman and some of his hon. Friends played a part in creating this problem. There is not a beef farmer in this country who does not know that the problem has been worsened by the way in which the Labour party has behaved. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has the gall to continue to behave in that way. I set the matter out perfectly clearly for the right hon. Gentleman a moment ago and I am sorry that he was unable to understand it. We are discussing the lifting of the ban, and we are making progress on that. That is the right way to proceed but, at the end of the discussions, if the lifting of the ban is unreasonably withheld, we shall consider other options for action. I hope that is clear enough for the right hon. Gentleman this time.

Mr. Blair: If the Prime Minister is to threaten retaliation, he should be clear about what he is saying. At some point, the Prime Minister will have to admit the brutal truth to himself--that the business of his Government is less designed to run an Administration than to appease the factions in the Conservative party. Until that changes, he and his Government will be divided, weak and incompetent.

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman is so keen on being clear, perhaps he will be clear about his tax plans. Perhaps he will be clear about why, if children stay on to do A-levels, their parents should lose £500 a year in benefit. Perhaps he will recognise that we operate in Europe in the national interest while he seeks party interest. It is in the national interest to seek, as we are doing, the lifting of the ban on beef, and it is equally in everyone's interest to remind the beef industry which party played a role in worsening the crisis.


Q4. Sir Wyn Roberts: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Sir Wyn Roberts: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of young people staying on in full-time education since 1979? Does he agree that that considerable achievement, on which our future depends, is put at risk by the plans that we have heard from Opposition Front Benchers for chopping the funding for 16 to 18-year-olds?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is entirely right. Even among the children of unskilled parents, more than half now stay on in education beyond their 16th birthdays. The claim by the shadow Chancellor, who is probably absent because he is checking his figures, that only 20 per cent. of children stay on at school is years and years out of date. It is based on figures from between 1974 and 1978, under the Labour Government. The fact that the figures are so wrong shows the vast increase in educational opportunities since then. The reality for working-class and other parents is that, if their children stay on at school beyond GCSE to A-level, the Labour party will charge them £500 for each child by taking away their child benefit--so much for Labour's concern for opportunities for the poor.

Mr. Ashdown: We can always tell when the Government are in a real mess--they start to blame everybody else. Given the urgent necessity to get the ban on British beef lifted, have not the past 24 hours been all too typical of the five weeks of fiasco over BSE? The Foreign Secretary launches gunboats over breakfast, Tarzan sounds the retreat over lunch and, by dinner, the poor old Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, on his way to Brussels, is shot in the foot again. How on earth can we persuade Europe to believe the Government when the Government cannot even agree among themselves?

The Prime Minister: I suppose that, one day, it is just possible we might hear something from the right hon. Gentleman about what he would do in any given circumstances. We never hear that: we just get the usual carping criticism. The matter was carried forward in Moscow, when I met Heads of Government on Saturday; my right hon. and learned Friend took it further in the Foreign Affairs Council yesterday; and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is pursuing it today. Each and every day, there are further meetings and more progress is made towards getting the ban lifted. It would be helpful if, just once, the right hon. Gentleman were to think of the interests of the beef industry and of the country, rather than produce the carping criticism that we usually get from him.


Q5. Mr. Robert G. Hughes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Mr. Hughes: Does my right hon. Friend agree that Church-aided schools have a long and proud tradition of providing good quality education? Therefore, is he, like me, shocked to see the specific attacks on Church schools by the Liberal Democrats? Is that not another example of the Liberal Democrats attacking parental choice and the right of parents to make their own choice? Does he agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) that parents must take that into account when they vote at the next election?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of moral and spiritual education, and I share the views of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). What the Liberal spokesman said was a silly and ill-considered attack on religious education and I can assure my hon. Friend that it will never form part of our policy.

Mr. Donald Anderson: What further measures of appeasement do the Prime Minister and the chairman of the Conservative party have in mind to placate the patriot across the water, Sir James Goldsmith?

The Prime Minister: The answer to the hon. Gentleman is quite clear--none.


Q6. Mr. Congdon: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 April.

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

Mr. Congdon: Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will press ahead with the objective of achieving a 20 per cent. rate of basic income tax? Given the reports in the press at the weekend, is it not absolutely clear that, while the Government are rightly moving towards a 20p rate, the Labour party is moving towards a 30p rate?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend will know, one quarter of taxpayers already pay tax at only 20 per cent. and I confirm that, as soon as it is affordable, we shall move further towards a 20 per cent. tax rate for everyone. There is no doubt that taxes go up under Labour Governments. The Labour party does not like to admit that. Today, the shadow Chancellor is trying to gag the City, but the fact is that, because Labour wishes to spend more, it will always tax more at national level, as it is doing today at local level.