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1996 - PMQT 2nd July 1996

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

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Hoyle: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 2 July.

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. Hoyle: Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government's attacks on the Labour party are being scrapped because they were not hurting and not working?

The Prime Minister: Obviously, our campaign has already worked and already hurt new Labour. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for letting me explain precisely why: new taxes on jobs, on Scotland, on parents, on employers, on shareholders; new chaos in schools, in hospitals, on roads; and new weakness in defence and in Europe. That campaign will run and run.

Sir Anthony Grant: Should the Government not be congratulated on embarking upon the long overdue reform of the legal aid system? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it has been widely abused and, too often, used for blackmailing purposes? Does he further agree that it would be disastrous if Britain had litigation on the scale of the United States, where everyone seems to be suing everyone else?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend on both points. My noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor will publish a White Paper setting out the Government's plans to reform the legal aid system in England and Wales. It is right that we should ensure the proper use of money, which is why we believe that legal aid should be directed towards those whose need is greatest. That means stopping weak or undeserving cases being pursued at public expense.

Mr. Blair: In respect of the sale of Ministry of Defence homes, will the Prime Minister confirm the following facts that have emerged? Not only is the MOD guaranteeing the property developer the full market rent for 25 years: on top of that, if the aggregate rents fall beneath a specified minimum the taxpayer is guaranteed to make up the shortfall for each of the 25 years; on top of that, every year a certain quantity of vacant homes will be made available to the property developer to sell at a profit; and on top of that, the property developer can exchange the sites of MOD homes for comparable sites, without the consent of the tenants. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that in each of those four respects my understanding is right and, if so, what is the justification for that extraordinary deal?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has overlooked the two most salient facts. [Interruption.] All the details will be made plain when the sale is concluded. He has overlooked, first, the extra £100 million released by the sale to provide better homes for the services throughout the United Kingdom and, secondly, the £1.5 billion or thereabouts that will be available to the Exchequer for other resources. He has a lot to say about how he is going to be stringent on public expenditure, but at the first difficult decision he wants to toss away about £1.5 billion.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister says that we should wait until the sale is concluded. With all due respect, I think that we should know the details now. It is precisely the worry about public spending that leads me to put this question. The right hon. Gentleman says that the services will get £100 million, but will he confirm that over the next 25 years there will be a recurring liability to the taxpayer--

The Prime Minister indicated dissent.

Mr. Blair: The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but he has not disputed a single one of the four points that I put to him. Will he say which of those four points is wrong and, in particular, whether the Government are guaranteeing not just a market rent but that if the aggregate of rents falls beneath the specified minimum the taxpayer will be obliged to make up the shortfall? We should know how much it will cost in future years.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman still does not understand. This is going to yield substantial resources for the Exchequer. With the shadow Chancellor sitting next to him, I am surprised that he so lightly tosses £1.5 billion aside. There is no doubt that all he has to say about stringency in public expenditure is for public consumption but will not stand up to the first whiff of controversy when it comes to decisions. We are negotiating a good deal for the taxpayer, now and in the future, and a good deal for the service man--now and in the future--as in due course the right hon. Gentleman will be forced to acknowledge.

Mr. Blair: With all due respect, the Prime Minister is talking about the amount of money that he will get in this financial year, but we are asking the question because we expect to be dealing with these problems in future years. That is the difference between the short term and the long term, between the Tory party and Labour. Will the Prime Minister say which of those four facts he denies? Is not the truth of the matter that he is attempting to boost the capital sum in this financial year for pre-election purposes while leaving a recurring liability to the taxpayer for years to come for a sale that no service men or women want?

The Prime Minister: What the right hon. Gentleman has just done is to advance the precise argument against the windfall tax that he himself proposes. Perhaps he will now withdraw the windfall tax, which the shadow Chancellor has spent on three or four occasions already. The right hon. Gentleman still misses the substantive point: it is to provide better accommodation for our service men and that is what it will do, both now and in the future. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman does not think that that is a worthwhile proposition.

Mr. Tredinnick: Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the police on the success of their Euro 96 operation? Does he agree that this showed Europe at its best, acting in harmony and co-operation, and does he think it likely that there will be any plans to prosecute for racial incitement?

The Prime Minister: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about the way in which Euro 96 was policed and about the behaviour of the overwhelming majority of people. I had the pleasure of attending the final and of hearing from football administrators across Europe how much they admired the way in which the competition had been run and the behaviour of the crowds at football grounds across the country. I very much hope that this will help us to obtain further such competitions. Prosecutions are, of course, a matter for the police, but I am sure that they will have noted what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Ashdown: Further to the Prime Minister's answer to a previous question, does not a large part of the cost of our legal aid come from inefficiencies at all levels in the legal system? Why do the Government not attack those inefficiencies instead of attacking access to justice for ordinary people?

The Prime Minister: We are trying to ensure that people have proper and equitable access where there is a need for it. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the legal aid system has very few friends at the moment because of the way in which it operates, and it is right that we should examine it in a White Paper and reform it, which is what my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor proposes to do. His plans will ensure better value for money, with the right services going to the right people, and greater fairness between legally aided people and their opponents.

Mr. Sykes: May I ask the Prime Minister a question about Scotland? He will be well aware that the people of Scotland have much in common with the people of Yorkshire, chiefly in the fact that we will not wantonly part with hard-earned cash. Will my right hon. Friend tell the Opposition that that is why the Scots will never, in a month of Sundays, vote for a tax-raising tartan parliament?

The Prime Minister: The speed of the Opposition's changes on that policy become more bewildering day by day, so it is not at all clear what their policies will be by the end of this week or the end of next week. What we have seen in the past week or so illustrates clearly the total absurdity of the plans that the Labour party has been preparing for a long time but apparently has not thought about. Labour spokesmen have answered none of the questions asked here or in Scotland about that policy because they have no credible answers to them.


Q2. Mr. Sutcliffe: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 2 July.

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

Mr. Sutcliffe: Does the Prime Minister agree with the right hon. Member for South Thanet (Mr. Aitken) that there is a "get Portillo" campaign--a dirty tricks campaign--in the Tory party? Does he not think that such a serious issue--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking the Prime Minister about policies for which he is responsible.

Mr. Sutcliffe: I thought that the Defence Secretary was the responsibility of the Prime Minister.

Should such a serious issue as homes for the families of service men and women who serve this country so well be used as a political pawn by contenders for the Prime Minister's job?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, like me, is determined to ensure the best possible accommodation for service men, and to ensure that an extra £100 million is available to be spent on them. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about criticism of one Member against another, I suggest that, after the past few days, he should begin to protect his own leader.


Q3. Mr. Luff: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 2 July.

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

Mr. Luff: Does my right hon. Friend believe that the international influence and unity of the kingdom, the interests of England and the practical needs of his constituents and mine, will be assisted by radical constitutional change? Does he think that it was just a coincidence that, immediately after his strongly argued speech on the constitution, the Opposition's policies collapsed in disarray, posing a multitude of new dangers for our nation?

The Prime Minister: It is only the beginning of the collapse of those policies; there will be more progressive collapses to come. Whatever U-turns the Opposition continue to perform on their devolution policies, their policies for a devolved, tax-raising parliament in Scotland are bad news for the United Kingdom and bad news for Scotland, and they will prove to be bad news for the Opposition--of that I have no doubt.


Q4. Mr. Hain: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 2 July.

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

Mr. Hain: Is the Prime Minister not ashamed of the way his party's £10 million attack on new Labour today stooped to exploiting the blindness of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett)? Will he instruct his party chairman to withdraw that disgraceful attack and exploitation and apologise immediately?

The Prime Minister: No one would conduct such an attack. There are ample policies in new Labour to attack, and those are the policies that we find distasteful and wrong. They are concerned about controls to take rights away from parents, they are producing taxes that they are trying to hide, and they would produce chaos in our public services. Now that we have been able to focus on what the allegedly new Labour party actually stands for, we can identify its dangers and make sure that everyone is aware of them. New Labour and the new dangers will become very apparent to everyone, and it will be the policies that we shall attack, because they are wrong and damaging.


Q5. Mr. Simon Coombs: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 2 July.

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

Mr. Coombs: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the average family in this country will be £450 a year better off by next April as a result of the tax cuts announced by the Government? Can my right hon. Friend think of any good reason why the average family should trust and risk the Labour party's policies for tax and spend?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly confirm that growth in the economy and lower taxes mean that the average family will be £450 better off this year, even after taking account of inflation. I can also make it clear to the average family that inflation is down, interest rates are down, unemployment is down, investment, exports and production are up and the prospects for individuals as well as for families are brighter than they have been for very many years.