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1996 - PMQT 2nd May 1996

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

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Jacques Arnold: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 2 May.

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. Arnold: During his busy evening, did the Prime Minister have an opportunity to watch television last night, as an interesting broadcast demonstrated conclusively that people get better value for their council tax from Conservative councils? Does he not think that people will get better value by voting Conservative today?

The Prime Minister: They can certainly see that, by voting Labour in the past, they have had to pay high council tax. Southwark, Islington, Wellingborough and probably any Labour authority one can mention has had a significantly higher council tax in the previous year, and a higher tax than a comparable Conservative authority. That is the nature of the Labour beast--vote for it, and then pay for it.

Mr. Blair: What most people recall is that they did vote for the Conservative party and they did pay for it, with 22 tax increases.

However, is the Prime Minister aware that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said yesterday that the cattle slaughter scheme would be fully operational today? In view of the widespread reports of confusion from all around the country today, can he give a factual account of what is happening?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the information should now be available to people. My right hon. and learned Friend wrote to the National Farmers Union with details of the scheme, and information was published in the farming press last week. Guidance on the scheme was distributed on Monday evening to the abattoirs and markets that have been designated to operate it. As my right hon. and learned Friend made clear yesterday, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will issue detailed guidance to farmers, and that will be sent out tomorrow. In the meantime, the Intervention Board and MAFF are operating a helpline to provide information to farmers, and that will continue throughout the weekend.

Mr. Blair: Is not the difference between theory and practice the problem here? The scheme is supposed to be operational today, but does not appear to be operational in many parts of the country. In particular, people are saying, first, that there are insufficient collection centres; secondly, that there may be inadequate capacity for incinerating the carcases; and, thirdly, that many farmers appear to be in the dark both about the details of compensation and how it will operate. I know that this is difficult, but can the Prime Minister ask the Agriculture Minister to respond with even greater urgency to the situation, because at the moment the response appears pretty inept?

The Prime Minister: I have already made my own inquiries to ensure that such information as is necessary is distributed and made available to farmers speedily. The scheme is large and will involve the slaughter of 15,000 to 20,000 animals a week. The scheme has been finalised and we moved immediately to ensure that farmers had the information they needed. Most of them should have. If some have not, the matter is now being examined and investigated, and I hope that farmers will have the information speedily.

Sir Cranley Onslow: Has my right hon. Friend seen the letter about the EC ban on British beef exports which a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends sent yesterday to all the EC ambassadors in London? Will he ask the Foreign Secretary to call in those ambassadors to ensure that they report accurately to their Governments on the great damage that is being done in terms of British confidence in the European Union as a result of the way in which the EC is handling the matter?

The Prime Minister: I shall certainly draw that interesting suggestion to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend, who is already in touch with his fellow Foreign Ministers across the European Union. I share the view expressed by my right hon. Friend. The evidence shows that British beef is safe, as both the Commission President and the Agriculture Commissioner have acknowledged. I am delighted to see this afternoon that the Wimpy chain has lifted the ban on British beef with immediate effect and I have no doubt whatever that that is the right decision.


Q2. Mrs. Bridget Prentice: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 2 May.

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

Mrs. Prentice: Three times on Tuesday the Prime Minister failed to give a direct answer to questions about discussions he had had with the Deputy Prime Minister. I ask him now whether he has ever discussed with the Deputy Prime Minister the possibility--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must listen to the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Prentice: Has the Prime Minister ever discussed with the Deputy Prime Minister the possibility that he would stand aside and allow his deputy to take over if, by tomorrow, Conservative party fortunes have not improved?

The Prime Minister: The last Labour politician who was that smug about elections is now earning his living elsewhere in Europe.


Q3. Mr. Carrington: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 2 May.

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

Mr. Carrington: Does my right hon. Friend agree that another vital election is about to take place--the one in Northern Ireland leading to negotiations on 10 June when the people of Northern Ireland will be able to decide their future for themselves through peaceful and democratic means? Does he agree that the time has come for the IRA to stop trying to coerce and blackmail the people of Northern Ireland and to abandon terrorism?

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. There is no absolutely no credible reason for the IRA not to stop its violence immediately. The all-party negotiations will be serious and they will start on 10 June. Sinn Fein can play a part in them if there is an unequivocal IRA ceasefire. In that case, Sinn Fein will find itself in the same position as other political parties. As I have said many times, the choice is for the IRA to make and I hope that it will make it. It will certainly gain nothing by waiting, still less by more violence, which can only call even further into question its readiness to adopt peaceful methods. Whether there is a ceasefire or not, the talks will go ahead.

Mr. Soley: Is the Secretary of State for Scotland right to refuse to distribute European Union posters on Europe day?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend is a very proud Scot and the flag that he wishes to see flying in Scotland is the Union flag--so do I.


Q4. Mr. Spring: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 2 May.

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

Mr. Spring: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the satisfaction in my constituency that unemployment has fallen to 4.5 per cent? Is he aware that there is particular satisfaction this week because Labour lost control of St. Edmundsbury borough council? Does my right hon. Friend share the view of the Labour councillor who defected to the Conservatives that, underneath a thin veneer, all those tawdry old socialist instincts of Labour remain alive and well?

The Prime Minister: Clearly, the lady concerned is a councillor with great insight. There is no doubt about what the fate is of those parts of the country that are unfortunate enough to have Labour councils: they pay higher council taxes. The 10 councils with the highest council tax are all Labour-controlled, and that is the message that every voter should remember. If voters want to pay an extra £225 a week on band D, all they have to do is to vote Labour, and it will be guaranteed.


Q5. Mr. Gapes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 2 May.

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

Mr. Gapes: Does the Prime Minister agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer that economic and monetary union is no threat to the nation state?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman should look carefully at what my right hon. and learned Friend has said--he would then not misrepresent him.

Mr. Cash: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a misrepresentation to allege that Euro-realists urge that Britain leave the European Union? Does he agree that we have now reached a position at which we should be having a proper discussion in the intergovernmental conference on all the fundamental issues? As I said at the end of last year's leadership contest, we should be talking to one another--in Europe and in the United Kingdom--rather than at one another.

The Prime Minister: I am very much in favour of that type of dialogue. There is no doubt that it is the right position for the United Kingdom to play a leading role in the European Union, but it is equally right to say that that does not mean that we shall necessarily agree with our colleagues on many issues. We are as entitled to fight our corner and disagree as any other nation state in Europe.

I intend to stay at the centre of the European debate, assessing, on each issue, what is best for the British national interest--in precisely the same way in which other heads of Government will assess what is right for their countries--and always arguing for the sort of Europe that the Government believe is right for the whole of Europe.


Q6. Mr. Chisholm: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 2 May.

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

Mr. Chisholm: Given the unsatisfactory replies given on bovine spongiform encephalopathy earlier to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), is it not time that we have a Government who are taken seriously in Europe? Will he condemn the infantile and counter-productive gesture politics of the Secretary of State for Scotland in refusing to allow the European flag to fly for one day next week?

The Prime Minister: I answered that question some moments ago. I do not know quite where the hon. Gentleman was then, but the answer I gave then still stands.

Mr. David Atkinson: Will my right hon. Friend accept the appreciation and thanks of my constituents because the Government went further than they were originally prepared to go on the Housing Bill, which received its Third Reading earlier this week, in giving special control provisions to local authorities to deal with the seedy bedsits and squalid landlords that were threatening our towns with decline and decay? Does he agree that those provisions will need political will and determination to be implemented effectively, and will he remind our voters of that as they go to the polls today?

Mr. Mackinlay: He is not one of us.

The Prime Minister: That is certainly true, nor, as my hon. Friend is a man of taste and discretion, would he wish to be one of them. As for the legislation that my hon. Friend mentioned, there has been a problem in recent years with many people moving, particularly to seaside towns. It is right to have taken the measures that we have. I hope that those measures will stop the abuse of the social security system and the difficulties faced recently by many seaside towns.


Q7. Mr. Beggs: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 2 May.

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

Mr. Beggs: Does the Prime Minister share the view of Fergus Finley, who thinks for Dick Spring, that if Sinn Fein does not attend the talks in Northern Ireland, the talks will be a waste of time? Can the Prime Minister confirm to the House that the participation of democratic parties in the forthcoming talks will have influence?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. What we need to see in the forthcoming talks is the democratic parties meeting, talking and seeking to reach a position that will enable there to be agreement in Northern Ireland. I emphasise the point that it is for the democratic parties. If there is no credible, clear-cut and certain ceasefire, Sinn Fein in no sense can claim to be a democratic party and it will not be there, as other parties will.


Q10. Mr. Luff: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 2 May.

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

Mr. Luff: Will my right hon. Friend seize this opportunity to remind the House once again that the superior management and policies of Conservative councils deliver better services and lower taxes for council tax payers--some £225 lower, I believe, for the average band D household?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly confirm that. One only has to see the performance of Labour councils to illustrate it. I see that the shadow Environment Secretary is not here. If he were, he could explain why bad debts cost Camden tax payers £2.95 for every dwelling every week. Perhaps Opposition Members can explain why the highest band D council tax is in Labour Liverpool and why the highest amounts of council tax are in Labour Lambeth. I could stretch the list from here until next Tuesday, so bad and so inefficient are Labour councils.