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1996 - PMQT 9th May 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 9th May 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Matthew Banks: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 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. Banks: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government's policies, especially on child benefit, the youth training programme and the lack of a minimum wage, give the youth of this country tremendous opportunities? Does he also agree that, given that it wants to abolish child benefit and the youth training programme and impose a minimum wage, Labour has nothing to offer Britain's youth?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Opposition have illustrated the case by their actions over the past few days. Today, they are going to try to retain child benefit for people coming from abroad at precisely the same moment that the shadow Chancellor is trying to abolish it for every family in this country whose child is taking A-levels. Frankly, I find that inexplicable.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister recall saying that, if the provisional allegations of the district auditor in respect of Westminster city council were confirmed, he would condemn those involved absolutely and unreservedly? The provisional allegations have been confirmed. Will he now condemn those involved unreservedly, as he promised that he would?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is misquoting. Let me make three points. First, both I and my party are in favour of the highest possible standards in public life. I condemn wrongdoing in any quarter.

Secondly--I am surprised that I have to say this to a distinguished lawyer--I believe in justice. As the auditor's report makes clear, the individuals have the right to appeal against the auditor's decision. I understand that they vehemently contest the auditor's report and that they have said that they will take the matter to court. In the face of such a clear-cut protestation of innocence, I think that any sensible and cautious person would be wise to await the outcome before making a judgment.

Thirdly, with the trail of waste, inefficiency and corruption in Labour councils up and down the country, the right hon. Gentleman is in no position to lecture anyone.

Mr. Blair: He said that, if the provisional allegations were confirmed, he would condemn those involved, and now he fails to do so. May I point out that of course they have the right of appeal--for heaven's sake, the Home Secretary is in the appeal courts most days of the week. I also remind the Prime Minister that some of us remember how he stood at the Dispatch Box and condemned the Monklands council of my late right hon. and learned Friend, and predecessor, John Smith in the middle of an inquiry when the allegations were then dispatched.

Does the Prime Minister not recall that the allegations are about putting homeless people into asbestos-ridden flats and appalling bed-and-breakfast accommodation? Will he not take this opportunity to fulfil his promise as Prime Minister and now condemn what any reasonable person would condemn?

The Prime Minister: I am quite prepared to condemn cases of proven malpractice and those who have been found guilty in a court of law. I saw no condemnation from the right hon. Gentleman after Lambeth was found guilty of malpractice. I saw no condemnation when it was thought that between 400 and 500 officers in Lambeth were receiving fraudulent payments. The right hon. Gentleman knows well that the matter must go to the courts. The people challenged in this matter have declared their innocence in very clear-cut terms. I am surprised, in the face of that, that a lawyer would decide before the matter has gone to court to make a judgment about the outcome of that matter. I think that that is a contemptible way for the right hon. Gentleman to behave.

Mr. Blair: I believe that what is contemptible is what we have just heard from the Prime Minister. As for saying that the allegations are not proven, they have been proven--that is precisely what the district auditor has proved under legislation set up by this Government. Is not the Prime Minister's real problem that this was not a maverick group of obscure local councillors, but the flagship Conservative council? They carried on their activities with the knowledge and approval of the Conservative party. If the Prime Minister fails now to condemn what has been described as disgraceful and improper conduct, will it not be crystal clear to the British people that there are no depths to which the Conservative party will not stoop to gain re-election to any office that it holds?

The Prime Minister: I suppose that it was only a matter of time before the Leader of the Opposition tried to widen the smears that his party has been making.

We have learnt that Labour Members take a smear, spread a smear and hope that it will stick. That is what the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have been doing for the past two or three years.

If the right hon. Gentleman is so pious, will he tell us whether he condemns his colleague, who sits on the Labour Benches, who is a surcharged councillor? Will he tell us why he appointed to his shadow Treasury team someone who encouraged people not to pay the council tax, against the law? Will he tell us whether he agrees with the comments of his deputy leader? He said:

"In a local authority situation you obey the law or not obey the law. We"--

presumably that is the Labour party--

"don't have any firm principles in the Party of how we might deal with the problem."

Against that background and the record of his party and his party's councils, I shall take no charges from him about a matter that must go to court and is not yet proven.

Sir Peter Tapsell: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the great majority of my constituents would wish to mark Europe day by suspending all our net contributions to the European Union--which cost the taxpayers of this country £4 billion last year--until such time as all threats to our historic position as an international trading nation have been withdrawn?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about the supremacy of British courts, but I must tell him that, if we decided to withhold payments to the European Union, that decision would be struck down in the British courts and not in the European Court of Justice. I must also tell him that, because the net under-payment in the European Union this year will be less than the net payment by this country, there is unlikely to be the draconian effect that some of my hon. Friends anticipate.

I believe that it is right for us to press, in the European Union, for this matter to be speedily resolved. That is what we intend to do, and that is what I intend to press day after day. I want a solution to the problem, not an institutionalising of the problem so that beef farmers suffer longer, or no solution is reached.


Q2. Mr. Illsley: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 May.

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

Mr. Illsley: Given the Prime Minister's refusal to condemn certain Westminster councillors for their corrupt conduct, will he take this opportunity unreservedly to condemn those Conservative Members who have failed to register their parliamentary incomes of millions of pounds?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman should be aware of what Madam Speaker said about this problem. She said that, if an hon. Member has a complaint about the registration of interests by any hon. Member, he should write to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and not raise it on the Floor of the House. That is not my view; it is the ruling of the Chair.

Mr. Dover: Does my right hon. Friend remember that the Leader of the Opposition stated that one of the Opposition's few policy decisions was that they would allow homosexuals into the armed services? If it is true that the Opposition are today allowing a free vote on that issue, does not that smack of very poor leadership and lack of direction?

The Prime Minister: That is a matter for the Leader of the Opposition. We will discover the views of every hon. Member later today.


Q3. Mr. Pike: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 May.

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

Mr. Pike: The Prime Minister will recall that, on 21 February 1991, he said:

"We should be happy to have Dame Shirley's advice".--[Official Report, 21 February 1991; Vol. 186, c. 432.]

In view of the condemnation of the six councillors named as guilty in the report that was published today, will he recognise that there was advice from the policy unit at No. 10 Downing street, and from the Department of the Environment, on the turning of a blind eye when Westminster council was committing those illegal and disgraceful acts? When will he condemn those who were guilty? When will heads roll--or will he bite the dust as Prime Minister and fall at the general election before this sordid affair is sorted out?

The Prime Minister: Everything the hon. Gentleman has said is nonsense. Not only is it nonsense, but, as it happens, the quotation he has just given the House is entirely out of context, to make a dishonest point. If he had read the question, hon. Members would know that my reply related specifically to Westminster's success in holding down local taxation. That is in sharp contrast to the performance of Labour councillors. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will now do me the courtesy of reading the quotation and placing an apology and a correction in Hansard.


Q4. Mr. Robert G. Hughes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 9 May.

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

Mr. Hughes: On my right hon. Friend's visit to Scotland, will he take with him the message that establishing a Parliament in Scotland, but still allowing Scottish Members of Parliament to vote on English and Welsh matters, would be deeply resented by English and Welsh people and that allowing Scottish Members of Parliament that double set of rights would be gerrymandering on a very large scale?

The Prime Minister: It most certainly would. My hon. Friend highlights a fatal flaw in the Labour party's plans. Labour Members have no idea how they would answer the question first posed by the hon. Member for West Lothian, now Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). The position of Scottish Members in this House would be untenable. That is the view once set out clearly by the shadow Foreign Secretary.

The reality is that I cannot imagine that the Labour party has properly thought through or understood what it seeks to do in establishing a tax-raising assembly in Scotland, which would provide a staging post for the leader of the Scottish National party to try to take Scotland out of the Union. I oppose that, although it is not in my party's interest to do so, because it is against the interests of Scotland and against the interests of the United Kingdom. Opposition Members support it because they see it as being in their own party, partisan interest.

Mr. Radice: On Europe day, will the Prime Minister put the case for British membership of the European Union?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman cares to read the speech that I made to the Institute of Directors a week or so ago, he will see the case put clearly. I have made it clear from the Dispatch Box time and time again that it is in the interests of this country to be in the European Union, arguing for the sort of European Union that is good for this country. That is my position, it remains my position and it will remain my party's position. What is not my party's position is that, as a result of that, we agree, and slavishly follow, the views of each and every one of our European Union partners. It is not our view that we will "never be isolated" in Europe and will therefore follow the caravan wherever it might lead. If Europe goes in a direction that is not suitable for this country, we shall reject that direction and not follow Europe.