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1996 - PMQT 6th June 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 6th June 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Michael: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 June.

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. Michael: Will the Prime Minister join the Secretary of State for Education and Employment in rejecting the idea of sixth form vouchers, or will he give in to the chairman of the Conservative party who has been telling newspapers that the right hon. Lady should be sacked?

The Prime Minister: No, he has not. [Hon. Members: "Oh, yes he has."] No, he has not. I know that the Opposition are a pantomime and I am tempted to say, "Oh no he hasn't." I saw the story in the press this morning and fair old nonsense it was.

Mr. Walden: Does my right hon. Friend agree that our overriding attitude towards Europe should be to persuade our partners against further integration? If so, does he think that his tactics on beef enhance or diminish our powers of persuasion?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to have my hon. Friend's support against further integration of a federal nature in the European Union. That is right. The issues are dealt with on their own merits.

On the question of beef, I very much welcome the decision taken yesterday by the Commission, which is a first step. My right hon. and learned Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have had a series of constructive meetings, including meetings this morning, on the issue. I hope that we shall be able to make progress by agreement.

Mr. Blair: With reference to what the Foreign Secretary described as a turning point in the beef crisis, have the Italians simply agreed--as I understand it--to try to use their best endeavours to secure agreement with other European Union countries, or have the Italians now agreed to support the lifting of the ban and the British position?

The Prime Minister: No--the Italians, who have the presidency, have now seen the framework document that we have produced and are using their best endeavours to see whether we can reach an agreement in advance of Florence. We have not finally discussed every aspect of that agreement with the Italians--that is happening at the moment, as it is with others. I hope that, as discussions continue over the next few days, we shall be able to reach an agreement. It is not certain, but I think that we have made a good deal of progress in the past few days, which is encouraging.

Mr. Blair: May I then ask the Prime Minister whether it is still his clear policy and expectation that by the Florence summit there will be a firm agreement to lift the ban completely within a specified time scale?

The Prime Minister: As I indicated when I announced the policy at the outset, we required two things before the ban is lifted completely. The first was the removal of the ban on beef derivatives, which has been obtained, and the second was a framework so that we were aware of precisely what needed to be done before the ban was lifted entirely. I very much hope that that will be achieved before Florence, but it is not solely in my hands. We can advance the case, and we are doing so; we need the agreement of the Commission and our partners across the European Union, which is what we are seeking to obtain.

Mr. Blair: I am sure that the Prime Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I gather from what he is saying that a time scale is not necessarily part of the negotiation.

I return to the question of cost that I put to the Prime Minister on Tuesday. He said then that it would not be part of the negotiation because of the refunding mechanism from the European Union. Will he confirm that the refunding in respect of the 30-month cattle slaughter scheme will come mainly out of the British rebate and that the net cost to Britain will therefore be some £2 billion, with several hundred million pounds extra for all sorts of other items? May I put it to the Prime Minister that, if the negotiation neither has a time scale nor an improvement in compensation, on any basis the price that this country will be paying for the beef crisis will be with us for many years to come?

The Prime Minister: The beef crisis is a very serious crisis. There is no doubt that it is expensive for this country. That has been the case from the outset. We set out what the costs were at the beginning. To reassure people on public health, there is a substantial price to be paid, and we see that in the destruction of animals and in the consequent compensation to farmers. We wish to get rid of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, first, on public health grounds; secondly, to restore consumer confidence; and, of course, for the overriding reason that we wish international confidence in British beef to be fully restored.

As far as the negotiations on time scale are concerned, we are seeking not an arbitrary calendar date but the steps that need to be taken--

Mr. Skinner: A retreat is on the way.

The Prime Minister: This is what I said at the outset. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) does not understand very much. If he understood a little more, he would probably interrupt a little less.

As I said at the outset, we are seeking a framework--that is to say, the steps that must be taken to enable us to remove the ban. That is what I stated here when the ban was introduced. That remains our policy and it has not changed one whit.

Mr. Lamont: Does the Prime Minister recall that, during the Napoleonic wars, Samuel Whitbread, the founder of the modern business, was always predicting defeat and urging the Government to open negotiations with Napoleon? Will the Prime Minister ignore the successors to Samuel Whitbread in the Confederation of British Industry who want to throw in the towel and who seem so indifferent to the plight of small businesses and farmers? Will he tell the chairman of Unilever to stick to cream cakes and detergents?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend puts the point with great clarity and precision. As he rightly says, there are a large number of small businesses--650,000 people are dependent on the beef industry, and it is in the interests of the people whose livelihoods are in the beef industry that we need to reach a satisfactory conclusion to this affair and restore the confidence in the international beef trade, which has been lost because of the lack of confidence and, frankly, the rather over-exaggerated response to the problem that we have had in the past. My right hon. Friend is entirely right to say that that is the priority.


Q2. Mr. Hoyle: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 June.

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

Mr. Hoyle: Has the Prime Minister seen reports in the Daily Express that his predecessor, Baroness Thatcher, is calling for non-payment of bills to the European Union? Will he condemn that bizarre, foolish and reckless attempt at law breaking?

The Prime Minister: I responded to that point several Question Times ago, and my response would not change today.


Q3. Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 June.

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

Mr. Bruce: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that gas bills, electricity bills and telephone bills have been slashed since privatisation? Does he welcome today's news that there will be a windfall rebate of £38 for gas consumers? Did he welcome the £50 rebate for electricity consumers? Does this not show that the regulator has already altered the proposals for a windfall tax of £3 billion into a shortfall tax?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right: privatisation and the regulator are reducing the prices of a large number of utilities. There has been a rebate of £50 on electricity bills and there will be a rebate on gas bills. The regulator is blowing to pieces the prospect that there might be resources for an artificial windfall tax to fund putative expenditure by any other political party. Opposition Members below the Gangway may not know that the Labour party's industry spokesman is claiming that his party should embrace competition. I will not comment on the look of horror on the faces of the Opposition Members below the Gangway after hearing that.


Q4. Mr. Gunnell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 June.

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

Mr. Gunnell: Does the Prime Minister agree with me that it is totally unacceptable for Yorkshire Water to show a profit of £162 million when it had a dreadful record on water supply, on leakage, on charges to customers and on investment during that period? Does the Prime Minister not think that it is time to revisit that regulator for tougher sanctions so that we can slake the fat cats and their thirst for profits? It is time that we had tougher regulations.

The Prime Minister: In that case, the hon. Gentleman will support the water regulator, who took action against Yorkshire Water to cut its prices earlier this week.

Mr. Viggers: May I ask my right hon. Friend to spare a moment during his busy day for the plight of people involved in a small section of the beef industry, the cow head de-boning sector? Is he aware that this small industry, which is made up of about a dozen mainly family-owned companies, has been driven out of business by the Government order of 28 March banning head meat? I ask my right hon. Friend to take the modest step of authorising the Ministry of Agriculture to discuss the amount of loss with the industry involved.

The Prime Minister: I will invite my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture to examine that matter and then to contact my hon. Friend.


Q5. Mr. Mullin: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 June.

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

Mr. Mullin: Is it not time that the Prime Minister put a stop to the hypocrisy of the Tories being the party of the family? Perhaps he could take a tip from my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) and impose a curfew on his Ministers in the hope that they might sleep in their own beds rather than someone else's.

The Prime Minister: The policy of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)--which does not seem to carry the support of his Chief Whip--is for a curfew for people under the age of 10.

Sir Fergus Montgomery: Has my right hon. Friend seen the advertisement in today's paper supporting a new political party in this country? Will he take the opportunity to confirm that he will always heed the views of the British people to stay part of the European Union so long as it is a part of a Europe of separate states and never part of a federated super-state of Europe?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I did see that advertisement this morning and I am happy to confirm that no Government that I lead will enter into a federal Europe. I have argued for a Europe of nation states and I shall continue to do so. I am delighted to see that there seems to be some support for that in other quarters as well, as was highlighted by the advertisement.


Q6. Mr. Ronnie Campbell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 June.

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

Mr. Campbell: If money is available for tax giveaways in the next budget, will the Prime Minister guarantee that it will be put into the health service and the education service of this country?

The Prime Minister: We have increased the resources for the health service above the level of inflation year after year after year. I shall not make any projections about what will happen in the Budget some months hence, but I note the hon. Gentleman's expectation that the economy is doing well enough to mean that it might place us in a position to reduce taxes or increase expenditure. I am grateful for that unsolicited commendation of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor's management of the economy.

Mr. Thomason: Has my right hon. Friend noted that the Rover Group, which is based partly in my constituency, has put in figures for the first quarter of this year showing an increase of 10 per cent. in production, and that the group's exports are up even more? Can he confirm that it is his policy to encourage enterprise, and that that sort of improvement would be severely damaged by the Labour party's policies?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly confirm that. I can also confirm that, in terms of growth, inflation, falling unemployment, investment and many other areas of economic management, this country is now leading any of our competitor countries in Europe as a result of decisions that the present Government have taken in recent years.


Q7. Mr. Bayley: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 June.

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

Mr. Bayley: Does the Prime Minister recall that the Labour party proposed an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to tighten up on the sale of handguns by mail order? In view of the evidence given at the Dunblane inquiry that one of the guns used to kill those children was sold by mail order by a firm in my constituency, will the Government reconsider their policy and introduce legislation to tighten up or even to ban the sale of handguns by mail order?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have indeed strengthened firearms controls in recent years. Most self-loading and pump action rifles have been banned and a range of other changes have been made. As the whole House knows, we have given Lord Cullen a very wide remit and he may make recommendations to the Government. We will consider those very seriously, discuss them with other parties in the House and then decide what action needs to be taken.