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1996 - PMQT 25th April 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 25th April 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Corbett: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 25 April.

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.

Mr. Corbett: Did the Prime Minister hear his Chancellor on the "Today" programme this morning deriding the claim that economic and monetary union would necessarily mean the end of the nation state? Is that the Prime Minister's view, or will he be giving another shambolic free vote to his Cabinet?

The Prime Minister: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not think that on matters of conscience it is right to have a free vote in the House. I understand that last night's debate was of a very high quality, as is frequently the case when we have a free vote in the House, and I believe that it was the right way to deal with the problem. With regard to the nation state, my right hon. and learned Friend is a strong supporter of it.

Dame Jill Knight: May I assure my right hon. Friend that the Government's announcement earlier this week on the abolition of anti-personnel mines has been widely welcomed both within and outside the House? Bearing it in mind that some 2,000 innocent people are killed or maimed every month as a result of those diabolical instruments, will my right hon. Friend please use his considerable influence to obtain their abolition worldwide?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have stated for a long time our aim to eliminate anti-personnel mines and we hope that through international agreement that aim can be achieved. I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will work for a total worldwide ban on anti-personnel mines.

Mr. Blair: Does not the fact that four of the Prime Minister's Cabinet Ministers--[Interruption.] I am well aware why Conservative Members do not want to talk about this. Does not the fact that four Cabinet Ministers voted against the Prime Minister himself on a Bill from his own Lord Chancellor show the humiliating state to which his authority has been reduced?

The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman will recall what I said when I announced the Bill last November in the debate on the Queen's Speech. I made it clear at that time that this was a matter of personal conviction for all hon. Members and that I had no intention of riding roughshod over the convictions of any hon. Member, in the Government or beyond, on the matter. I said then that we would propose free votes on matters of conscience. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that it is right to have a free vote on a matter of conscience, does he equally think that it is right that those members of any Administration who feel strongly on these matters should be excluded? Presumably he does. If he does, he has a strange view of what forms a matter of conscience.

Mr. Blair: I think that most people have an increasingly clear view of the Government. Is the Prime Minister not aware--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order and listen to what is being said.

Mr. Blair: I remind the Prime Minister that that was a Government Bill, proposed by his Lord Chancellor. Last night's vote was not only about the amendment--it was fundamentally about the ethos of the Bill and about the direction of the Conservative party. Does not that vote show the advanced state of decay of his Government--that he now has to rely on Opposition support to carry that messed-up measure through the House of Commons?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is deliberately misleading, and he knows that he is deliberately misleading--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I am sure that the Prime Minister did not intend to use unparliamentary language. I refer to the words "deliberately misleading". Will he please rephrase that?

The Prime Minister: Of course--as Madam Speaker wishes it. I will simply say that the right hon. Gentleman is being disingenuous in the way in which he addresses this issue. He has known from the Bill's outset that I have made it clear that, on the issue of fault and on other issues of conscience, there was to be a genuinely free vote of the House. A free vote was not forced on the Government. I announced it from the Dispatch Box last November when I spoke about the Bill in the Queen's Speech. I have honoured that promise, for every member of my party.

I made it clear that we were to have a free vote, and I made it clear to every member of the Government that a free vote would apply to them as well. In the past we have had free votes on other matters of conscience, such as capital punishment and Sunday trading. I believe that on an issue of such importance, and on one which is a matter of conscience, it is right for hon. Members to have an opportunity to vote exactly as their consciences dictate. I believe that that is in the best interests of Parliament. Moreover, if I had imposed a Whip on members of the Government after announcing that there would be a free vote, the right hon. Gentleman would now be criticising me from the Dispatch Box for not allowing the genuine free vote that I promised the House some months ago. I gave my word to the House, and I have kept it.

Mr. Blair: I do not mind the Prime Minister talking tough with me, but it is time that he also talked tough with his Cabinet--that is all that we ask. Is this not all of a piece with the defiance that we heard--[Interruption.] We heard the Chancellor this morning--[Hon. Members: "Where were you?"] Conservative Members are all shouting--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Sir Ivan and other hon. Members who are shouting, come to order.

Mr. Blair: They are all asking where I was. That is a novel constitutional proposition--that it is now my duty to turn up and vote with the Government to save them from their own Cabinet Ministers. After hearing the Chancellor this morning, and with two Cabinet Ministers sitting in silent support of the European Communities (European Court) Bill, is not the Prime Minister's real problem that every member of his Cabinet has a future agenda but him? Until he gets an agenda and asserts it, this country will continue to suffer from the most feeble Government in living memory.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman overlooks the fact that I set out the agenda last November, and I have kept to that agenda. I realise that in the new autocratic Labour party--where party henchmen oversee everything that Front Benchers and Back Benchers say and, should they stray, a signed statement is put out in their names later on the same day--the concept of a free vote is alien to the right hon. Gentleman.

The next time the right hon. Gentleman talks to us about his conscience and matters related to church and conscience, perhaps he will say that it does not apply when he sees political advantage. He would be prepared to go through people for his own party political interests and to go against their consciences--even on a matter that affects the conscience of every hon. Member. If that is the way he behaves in opposition, people will be aware of that and they will be aware of what sort of Government he would be likely to have if he ever had the opportunity. What he has revealed to the House this afternoon is that he has no understanding of parliamentary tradition, no understanding of individual conscience and no understanding of the way in which Parliament must deal with matters of this sort which affect the consciences of every hon. Member and every family in the country.

Mr. Spring: Does my right hon. Friend share the universal disgust that, despite the clear way forward that has been mapped out for enduring peace and stability in Northern Ireland, the IRA's bombing campaign continues unabated? Does he share my outrage that a proposal to condemn the ending of the IRA ceasefire was rejected by the Labour party in Islington?

The Prime Minister: I can only hope that the Leader of the Opposition will bring his own party in Islington into line on a matter of importance to everyone in the United Kingdom. It puts into proper context the nonsense that the right hon. Gentleman has just been talking to the House.

Sinn Fein and the IRA, with their tired old combination of bullets and bombs, remain locked in the past. While they do so, they must remain outside the democratic consensus established by the two Governments, and outside the democratic consensus of all the other parties in Northern Ireland. I repeat to Sinn Fein that it has to make a choice, for it cannot duck it. If it wishes to become a democratic party, it must make it clear that it will have no truck now or in the future with violence of the sort that we have seen. If it does not do that, there is no way in which it can join the democratic discussions about the future of Northern Ireland.


Q2. Mrs. Jane Kennedy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 25 April.

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

Mrs. Kennedy: Given the President of the Board of Trade's gloomy prediction that manufacturing firms are set to shed jobs in the coming months, and remembering that almost 3 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared from Britain since his party came to power, does the Prime Minister realise that his claims to have made Britain the enterprise centre of Europe have no credibility whatever?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the hon. Lady has slightly misinterpreted, first, what my right hon. Friend said and, secondly, the facts. Perhaps she would care to acknowledge that manufacturing employment is 50,000 higher now than at the beginning of 1994; that this is the first time that a downward trend has been reversed for many years; that manufacturing output has risen by more than 8 per cent.; that exports have risen by a quarter to record levels; that total manufacturing investment in plant and machinery is up by 16 per cent.; that across the economy as a whole 5,000 new jobs have been created every week since the recovery began--almost three quarters of a million in all. While the policies of the Labour party would destroy jobs, the Government are creating jobs faster than any other comparable economy in western Europe. We have a lower level of unemployment than any other such economy in western Europe. The policy of the minimum wage and similar policies would certainly increase unemployment. As the deputy leader of the Labour party said some time ago, any silly fool knows that--even the deputy leader of the Labour party.

Mr. Renton: Contrary to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Broadgreen (Mrs. Kennedy), I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the excellent speech that he made yesterday on Britain as the enterprise centre of Europe and on his vivid comment that those who think that Britain can be a trading haven on the edge of Europe without being in the European Union are in cloud cuckoo land. Does he recall that the original cloud cuckoo land was an imaginary city built in the air by the birds? Would that not also be a suitable destination for those who think that they can vote Labour without seeing their personal and business taxes go sky high?

The Prime Minister: That does not apply only to personal and business taxes. It now seems that anyone who is ill advised enough to encourage their youngsters to stay on and take A-levels will lose £560 in child benefit every year. Those who happen to have two children aged between 16 and 18 doing A-levels will lose more than £1,000 a year. There is no purpose in the shadow Chancellor's shaking his head: that is his policy--that is his response to people on low incomes who want their children to take A-levels, proceed to university and do better.

We are not talking just about the withdrawal of child benefit. Before child benefit it was a tax allowance. This is the direct equivalent of a tax increase of £560 for every family with children taking A-levels. There is no point in the shadow Chancellor's shaking his head: it is his policy and it is nonsense--and we intend to tell every family in the land about it.


Q3. Mr. Chris Davies: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 25 April.

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

Mr. Davies: Does the Prime Minister accept that the Government's statement earlier this week about anti-personnel land mines was a case of three steps forward in PR terms and two steps backward in terms of reality? It will greatly disappoint people all over the world who can take no steps at all because their limbs have been destroyed by those inhumane weapons. Will the Prime Minister not support the recommendations in today's left-wing The Daily Telegraph, which suggests that the Government and Britain should take a moral lead in calling for a unilateral ban on the production and use of such weapons?

The Prime Minister: I just wonder where the hon. Gentleman may have been about 13 minutes ago, when I made it perfectly clear that we would work for a total worldwide ban on anti-personnel mines. I would have hoped that he could support that.