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1996 - PMQT 9th July 1996

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

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Donald Anderson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 9 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. Anderson: Does the Prime Minister agree that one part of the historic greatness of President Mandela is that he is prepared to forgive and forget the collusion of the Tory Government at the time of apartheid because he knew that, in his struggle against an evil system, he had the overwhelming support of the British people?

The Prime Minister: President Mandela is a very welcome guest to the United Kingdom as President of the Republic of South Africa and I look forward to my talks with him tomorrow. I enjoyed my visit to South Africa and our discussions then, and I have no doubt that the President will be given a warm and friendly reception in this country by everyone he meets.

Mr. Bellingham: Is the Prime Minister aware that the headmaster of the London Oratory school in Fulham--a school well known for its ability to attract the brightest pupils from all over London--recently said that, if Labour won the election, he would consider taking his school private? What advice does the Prime Minister have for parents of children at the school, apart from the obvious advice to vote Conservative?

The Prime Minister: All parents at every school will be concerned about the quality of education in their school, and I am sure that that also applies to the London Oratory.

Mr. Blair: Given the Chancellor's admission today that there will be an extra £12 billion of borrowing this year and next--double last year's forecast--what is the Prime Minister's explanation for the appalling state of the public's finances?

The Prime Minister: I find the right hon. Gentleman's question astonishing. If he had read the economic forecasts this morning, he would have read of better economic prospects in this country than in any country across the European Union, and better economic prospects than we have known for many years. Those prospects could not have been obtained other than by following the policies that we have followed in recent years.

Mr. Blair: When the Prime Minister reads out his list of statistics, perhaps he will also confirm that Britain has a higher inflation rate than many of its main competitors--it has higher interest rates than France, Germany, the United States or Japan--and that it is the only country anywhere in the European Union, apart from Spain, to be running a trade deficit, despite the 20 per cent. devaluation of the pound. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he promised that he would cut public sector debt, but that it has doubled under his stewardship of the public finances, and that we now spend £25 billion a year servicing that debt--more than on law and order and more than on defence?

The Prime Minister: I think that everyone in the House will wonder why, on every conceivable occasion, the right hon. Gentleman wants to run down the country's performance. I shall tell him what is happening: we have the lowest levels of inflation for 50 years--an achievement never remotely matched by any Labour Government--the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years, four years of falling unemployment and growing employment, and the lowest basic rate of tax for 50 years. Furthermore, the debt ratio is lower than it was in 1979--unlike in France, Germany and every other G7 country. That is the impact of the Government's policies since 1979, and it is unmatched by anything that the Labour party ever remotely achieved in office.

Mr. Blair: Madam Speaker, he does not deny a single fact that was put to him: that his forecasts have been wrong or that job creation and employment growth over the past 10 years have been lower in Britain than in any of the 10 main world economies. No Government--Labour or Conservative--have ever had £120 billion in North sea oil and squandered it or sold off every asset that the public owned and blown the money. Is it not true that, having promised that he would cut tax, he raised it; and having promised that he would cut borrowing, he raised it? Is not the lesson that, just as the Tories are untrustworthy and incompetent over tax, they are untrustworthy and incompetent over the state of the nation's finances?

The Prime Minister: I note--as will people here and abroad--the way in which, on every conceivable occasion, the Leader of the Opposition tries to sell this country short. I remind him that the economy is in the fifth successive year of sustainable growth. Since the last election, we have enjoyed the strongest recovery of any major European country.

As for forecasts, the right hon. Gentleman sits next to the shadow Chancellor: the man who cannot say whether interest rates are too high or too low, or whether inflation is too high or too low, and who famously predicted in 1992 that unemployment would go up month after month after month. Since that time, unemployment has fallen month after month after month. The right hon. Gentleman should stop living in a world of his own and see that this country is leading Europe economically and regaining its place among the strong economic and industrial nations of the world.

Sir Irvine Patnick: As my right hon. Friend will be aware, in Sheffield yesterday a Yorkshire and Humberside regional assembly was set up. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the role of councils is to look after local interests and not to set up offices in Brussels or create regional assemblies?

The Prime Minister: I see no justification for regional assemblies and more bureaucracy. That may be the policy of the Labour party, but it is neither the wish of the electorate nor the policy of the Government.

Mr. Ashdown: The day after it appears that ethnic cleansing has come once again to Northern Ireland, will the Prime Minister emphasise to all he sees that those who wish to widen conflict only serve the purposes of the IRA and help those who wish to revert to violence rather than peace?

The Prime Minister: I hope that the whole House will join me in condemning the scenes of violence that we have observed across Northern Ireland in the past couple of days. They are indefensible. The search for peace in Northern Ireland will not be assisted by such behaviour, but it could well be put back. In my judgment, that is emphatically not the wish of the people of Northern Ireland. At the moment, we need dialogue to ensure that we can move forward from the present situation, which is doing nothing but causing misery, hardship and damage. We need that dialogue speedily so that a resolution can be reached without delay.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the police, the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Benefits Agency in Lancaster on a combined operation which has netted tens of thousands, if not millions, of pounds in fraudulent benefit claims? Those people are now saving the taxpayer huge sums that can be devoted to proper causes.

The Prime Minister: I willingly congratulate those involved in that development. Perhaps I might add the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, who has put in place the most comprehensive anti-fraud devices in the social security system that we have had at any stage.


Q2. Mr. McKelvey: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 9 July.

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

Mr. McKelvey: Can the Prime Minister explain to the House why this country is up to its neck in debt? The national debt is £320 billion and the public sector borrowing requirement is £30 million, yet the same team can turn the Tory party debt of £17 million two years ago into a £20 million profit this year. Where did they get the money, and will they publish their accounts?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman talks about the same team. Since I became Prime Minister, the national debt has averaged 44 per cent. of gross domestic product. Under the previous Labour Government, it was 62 per cent. of GDP.


European Union

Q3. Sir Teddy Taylor: To ask the Prime Minister if he will raise at the next meeting of the European Council the Union's relations with those west European states which decided not to join the Union.

The Prime Minister: I have no plans to do so.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As the remaining three nations outside the EU have very low unemployment--around 4 per cent. compared with the tragic and growing unemployment of around 20 million within the European Union, largely as a result of lunatic Brussels policies--will the Prime Minister, who has, happily, excluded Britain from some of the Euro-mess to the advantage of the nation and its people, ask the European Union at the intergovernmental conference to have another think about the future, especially in view of the nightmare of unemployment being created within the European Union which no one seems to want to talk about?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about unemployment across the European Union, which is more than 18 million. There is no doubt that the primary responsibility of Governments across Europe is to try to create the conditions in which unemployment can fall and new jobs can be created. As my hon. Friend knows, I have always argued that the way in which to reduce unemployment in Europe is through the supply-side policies we have followed in this country, which are aimed at increasing the ability of companies to compete and to create new jobs.

Figures that will be published later today will show comprehensively that Britain is continuing to attract record inward investment. I very much welcome that, and it has helped to create many jobs. As my hon. Friend says, it would be utterly wrong to attempt to impose any kind of European social model, adding extra costs to employers and, as a direct result of that, condemning more people in Europe to remain unemployed. That is the wrong way in which to get people back to work.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I remind hon. Members that this is a closed question. I call Mr. Stott.

Mr. Stott: Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether he believes that one of Her Majesty's loyal chief constables had the right--

Madam Speaker: Order. I warned the hon. Gentleman, who should have read the Order Paper, that this was a closed question.

Mr. Spearing: Norway was one of the countries that recently chose not to join the European Union. Is the Prime Minister aware that most of the top politicians, financiers and industrialists said that there would be dire consequences for Norway if it did not join? Does he agree that most of the indicators have shown that, far from being disadvantageous, it has been in Norway's interest not to join? In view of that fact, what credit can we give most of the top politicians, financiers and industrialists in this country who are urging us to join economic and monetary union?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is comparing two separate things: first, whether Norway should join the European Union and, secondly, a particular subsequent development that may or may not take place in the European Union. If he sought the views of those in the United Kingdom who trade with Europe, he would find that surveys of leading business men have consistently shown that more than 90 per cent. favour membership of the European Union and do not see the European Union simply as a trading area. Each country must make its own judgments. Norway made its judgment, and we must respect that judgment, but it would be intolerable for the United Kingdom to be outside the European Union, in practice affected by its legislation but unable to have any say in framing it.


Engagements

Q4. Mr. Nigel Evans: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 9 July.

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

Mr. Evans: My right hon. Friend will know of the importance of defence manufacturing in the north-west. Does he agree that--as thousands of employees in the industry await the contract for the replacement of maritime reconnaissance aircraft, among others--if we took the road to ruin and cut defence expenditure by £4.5 billion, as suggested by the Labour party, our action would devastate the industry in the north-west and cost thousands of skilled manufacturing jobs? Is this not yet another example of new Labour, new danger?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes his case very persuasively. Another £4.5 billion off defence--which is what the shadow Chancellor would like--would indeed have dramatic effects on the capacity of the armed forces to undertake their role. As for contracts, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, a decision will be announced as soon as we have completed our assessment of the bids for the replacement of various pieces of equipment that are now due for replacement. I hope that we shall be able to make announcements before too long, but a wide range of factors remain to be considered.


Q5. Mr. Bill Michie: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 9 July.

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

Mr. Michie: Will the Prime Minister join me--along with, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner)--in sending heartfelt concern to the families of those who were injured during the dreadful attack on the Wolverhampton school? Will he assure the House that he will do everything possible to give our children the protection that they richly deserve?

The Prime Minister: The whole House will have been appalled by the incident at St. Luke's school, and I have no doubt that everyone in the House and beyond will wish to send sympathy to the victims of that attack and hopes for their speedy recovery. The hon. Gentleman's sentiments will be shared not only by the Government but by everyone in the House, and I shall ensure that they are carried into effect.