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1996 - PMQT 25th June 1996

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

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Hendry: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 25 June.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): 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.

Mr. Hendry: Putting to one side the comments in some newspapers, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the England football team on their magnificent successes so far in Euro 96--showing, in the words of the song, that "football's coming home"? Will he join me and the rest of the country in wishing them every success and the best of luck in the semi-finals tomorrow night?

The Prime Minister: Willingly. Euro 96 has been a stunning success so far, and I congratulate the teams on the spirit they have displayed in the games and everyone who has attended those games. I hope that that spirit remains right the way through the rest of this competition. It has been a friendly and carnival-like atmosphere so far, and I hope that nothing changes that between now and the final in a few days' time.

Mr. Blair: That is a consensus in which I am delighted to join, and I entirely concur with the Prime Minister's sentiments.

Given the strength of feeling about the proposed sale of Ministry of Defence properties, not only among Opposition Members but among all hon. Members, is the Prime Minister prepared to review that proposal urgently, particularly in the case of tenants who are in place now?

The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows that we value the role of the armed forces as much as anyone in the land, and probably more than most. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about what is proposed with the married quarters sale. We intend to ensure that the protection of married quarters is safeguarded while at the same time improving the quality and management of service housing. In practice, the sale will produce about £100 million for improvements and refurbishment in service families' homes. I think that, when the matter is fully understood and debated, many may see it in a different light.

Mr. Blair: I think that people do see it in a different light, because they wonder whether that is, in fact, what will happen. May I simply tell the Prime Minister that the concerns are that this is a poor deal for the taxpayer, because these properties have been sold on the cheap and there is a guaranteed income stream for the property developer after sale? It is a poor deal for the armed forces, because they will have to apply for those houses to come back to them after the 25 years is up. It is also a very poor deal for service men and women, because their estates may be broken up and changed without their consent, and they may be required to exchange housing sites altogether at the property developer's option. In those circumstances, is it wise to press ahead until those objections have been reviewed thoroughly?

The Prime Minister: When the right hon. Gentleman sets out the matter, I begin to see some of the misunderstandings that have caused so much concern. To reiterate on his first point, the sale will release substantial sums for improving and refurbishing service families' homes. Secondly, those improvements aside, there will be little change for the occupants. The sale will emphatically not mean that service people's rents will rise; I make that clear to the right hon. Gentleman. It will not mean, as he clearly assumes, problem families being dumped on Ministry of Defence estates. It will not mean service personnel being moved against their will. However, it will allow the Ministry of Defence to reduce the number of empty, unused and unneeded homes. Not to do that would not be a proper use of resources, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees.

Mr. Blair: Without going through each of the facts, I simply say to the Prime Minister that there is no dispute about the fact that surplus sites that are empty should be sold off. Questions arise where there are sitting service tenants. Yes, it is the case that a small amount of the sale money will find its way to the Ministry of Defence, but large amounts will be paid out by the taxpayer in guaranteed market rents to the new owners. It is not the case that this is a good deal for the taxpayer.

The reason why the sale has been pushed through with such indecent haste has nothing to do with the armed forces; it has to do with the Chancellor's need to plug the hole in the nation's finances. The sale will undermine morale among service men and women and it could, as many independent people have pointed out, do incalculable long-term damage to the armed forces.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. The sale is not a matter that has suddenly arisen. It has been under consideration for a number of years in order to determine how it can be done to release resources, not least resources available to the Exchequer to enable equipment to be purchased for the armed services. The right hon. Gentleman knows of the substantial additional equipment purchases that have been sanctioned in the past year or so. I reiterate that we will ensure that the married quarters are safeguarded, but we also seek to improve the quality and the management of service housing. When people understand the full implications of what is proposed, they will not see the matter as the right hon. Gentleman has done this afternoon.


Q2. Mr. David Evans: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 25 June.

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

Mr. Evans: Will my right hon. Friend remind me and all those people under 35 years of age whether it was a Conservative Government who let inflation rip to 26.9 per cent? [Hon. Members: "No."] Was it a Conservative Government who allowed the higher rate of tax to go to 98p in the pound? [Hon. Members: "No."] Was it a Conservative Government who did not pay the senior citizens' Christmas bonus? [Hon. Members: "No."] Was it a Conservative Government who had 176 Members of Parliament totally sponsored by the unions? [Hon. Members: "No."] Or--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. No wonder I get so many complaints in my mail bag every day about Prime Minister's Question Time. Will the hon. Gentleman please bring his question to a conclusion?

Mr. Evans: Or was it that lot opposite? [Hon. Members: "Yes."]

The Prime Minister: The answer to my hon. Friend, as I heard it, was no, no, no, no and yes.

Mr. Ashdown: It is not my job to defend another party. However, the Prime Minister has rightly committed himself and the rest of us to defending standards in politics. Will he now tell us whether he personally approves of the unpleasant campaign being run by his party chairman to attack the Labour party through the Labour leader's wife?

The Prime Minister indicated dissent.

Mr. Ashdown: I note that he disapproves. Does the right hon. Gentleman really want an election campaign run around personality attacks which extend even to our families? Does he approve of that?

The Prime Minister: There is no such campaign, nor will there be. The right hon. Gentleman will know that I speak from some experience. There will be no such campaign in my party, there is no such campaign and the right hon. Gentleman should know that.

Mr. William Powell: Has my right hon. Friend had time today to study the report prepared on behalf of the Federation of Veterinaries of Europe by Professor Marc Vandervelde of the university of Berne in which he demonstrates beyond any doubt that there are thousands of unreported cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy throughout the European Community and that the worst examples are found in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Portugal? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the report is made available to hon. Members and to members of other Parliaments throughout the European Union?

The Prime Minister: I shall certainly study the report to which my hon. Friend refers and see that it has appropriate circulation. It is clear that, for some years, the enforcement measures in the United Kingdom have been a good deal more rigorous than those in many other countries, although there is certainly BSE elsewhere. As the European Union vets seem to be saying, it is clear that, without the level of control that we rightly have in the United Kingdom, doubts may remain about the safety of beef. I shall certainly study the report to which my hon. Friend refers.


Libya

Q3. Mr. Dalyell: To ask the Prime Minister on what occasions since the statement by the then Prime Minister on the bombing of Libya on 16 April 1986, Official Report, columns 875-81, Her Majesty's Government have tried to secure information from (a) the German and (b) the United States authorities about the alleged Libyan involvement in the Berlin bombings.

The Prime Minister: We naturally remain in close contact with both the United States and German authorities on terrorist related matters, but the evidence of Libyan responsibility for the bombing of the discotheque in Berlin was already clear at the time of my right hon. and noble Friend's statements on 15 and 16 April 1986, as she herself stated.

Mr. Dalyell: Have the Government had access to the files of the Stasi in relation to Yousef-Salam, who may have been a provocative agent?

The Prime Minister: We remain in regular contact. The Stasi files found after the fall of the Berlin wall reveal that a Stasi agent had penetrated the group responsible for the bombing and detailed reports on preparations. The Stasi believe that the man to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, who also has other aliases, led the terrorists. That man is a Palestinian, not a Libyan, but at the time of the bombing he worked for the Libyan People's Bureau in East Berlin, and he is and remains the principal suspect.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Although it is good news that the issues of the Berlin bombing will now at last be resolved in court, do we not also have a responsibility to the relatives of the Lockerbie victims to seek to resolve that problem in a similar way, particularly as the Libyans have now suggested a trial in The Hague with a Scottish judge? Will my right hon. Friend bear it in mind that, while the Government are playing straight and open in all their dealings, a number of European states are openly flouting the sanctions to which we are adhering?

The Prime Minister: I understand my hon. Friend's point about a trial in The Hague with a Scottish judge, but on the basis of the evidence given to me, I believe that it is right for the Lord Advocate to continue to pursue the matter in Scottish jurisdiction. I would not wish to see it moved away from Scottish jurisdiction as a result of plea bargaining by the Libyans or for any other reason. The crime was committed in Scottish air, so it is right that the matter should be pursued in Scotland. There can be no reasonable doubt about the independence of the judiciary in Scotland or about the independence, honesty or honour of the Lord Advocate, who would lead the prosecution.

Mr. Dalyell: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the Prime Minister's reply, I intend to raise the matter on the Adjournment.



Engagements

Q4. Mr. McFall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 25 June.

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

Mr. McFall: Perhaps I do not speak for the entire nation, but will the Prime Minister accept from me as a Scotsman my best wishes for the success of the England football team tomorrow night at Wembley? Does he agree that the competition has been enhanced by the thousands of European visitors who have flocked into the United Kingdom? Will he condemn unreservedly some elements of the tabloid press that are promoting xenophobia and running a real risk of spoiling the enjoyment of millions of people as well as threatening the good order and the policing of a valuable tournament?

The Prime Minister: Everyone will be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's best wishes to the England team. I hope that they play well and have a satisfactory result in their semi-final tomorrow. Visitors from Europe and some who come from beyond are very welcome indeed in this country for these finals. I share the views of the hon. Gentleman, who clearly had one particular newspaper in mind for the nature of the campaign that it has run over recent days. It deserves the criticism that has been heaped on it.

Sir Ivan Lawrence: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absurd that the British taxpayer should have to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to illegal immigrants and the 97 per cent. of asylum seekers who turn out to be bogus? Does he also agree that it is a great pity that some members of the judiciary go out of their way to show how out of touch they are with the British people's feelings? They could quite easily remedy the situation by not making political statements and by doing something to contain the burgeoning power of judicial review.

The Prime Minister: In the benefits case to which my hon. and learned Friend referred, the courts ruled on a rather narrow point. It is widely accepted that our policy is right. It removes benefits from three groups of people: illegal immigrants, people who entered the country on the condition that they said they could support themselves and people who have already been found not to be genuine refugees. I believe that the vast majority of people agree that those three groups should not receive benefits at the expense of the British taxpayer.