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1996 - PMQT 18th July 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 18th July 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Hoyle: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 July.

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. Hoyle: Will the Prime Minister explain why a Treasury document shows that, under this Government, the economy is set to decline to the level of those of Brazil, Thailand and Mexico? Is not that a telling indictment of the Government's policy?

The Prime Minister: One of the attractions of the document to which the hon. Gentleman refers is that it looks forward to the possibility of what may happen 10 years ahead, whatever the policies followed and whoever the Government may be. I have no doubt that some of the matters in the document that the hon. Gentleman would consider barmy are policies that the Treasury considered might be adopted by a Government other than this one.


Q2. Dr. Goodson-Wickes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 July.

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

Dr. Goodson-Wickes: Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning today's postal strike, which is causing widespread disruption to my constituents and throughout the country, and costing businesses many thousands of pounds? Does he agree that any proposal to give new rights to trade unions would merely encourage the incidence of such strikes? Is not this yet further proof that new Labour brings new dangers to the British people?

The Prime Minister: Today's strikes cannot and should not be justified, and I roundly condemn them. They are costing the country millions and causing great inconvenience to many people who are not part of the dispute.

Mr. Skinner: Why?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman asks why--he supports the strikes and I am pleased that he acknowledges it. I am happy for the instincts of the Labour party to be laid bare by the hon. Gentleman; the House will be pleased to hear what he has to say.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the education spokesman, I understand, for the Opposition, said that the strikers should go to arbitration, which self-evidently must be right. I hope that we shall hear the same call from the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, and the deputy leader of the Labour party, who is sponsored by one of the striking unions. I should also hope to hear the same call from the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. New Labour laws to make strikes easier are exactly what the country does not want--and the Government will ensure that it does not get them.

Mr. Blair: Given that, as we speak, talks are taking place both here between the British and Irish Governments and in Belfast in respect of the peace process, after what, by common consent, must be judged the most damaging two weeks in the affairs of Northern Ireland since August 1994, does the Prime Minister agree that there are three essential foundation stones for rebuilding support for peace? The first is that the two Governments renew their relationship of trust, based firmly on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing street declaration and the other negotiated agreements between them that remain intact and valid. Secondly, all sides must demonstrate their complete commitment to the rule of law and the Government their even-handedness in its application, whether in response to the threat of violence by those engaged in marches, or the evil punishment beatings that claimed their latest victim last night. Thirdly, all parties to the talks on Northern Ireland should move from matters of procedure to matters of substance as soon as is humanly possible, so that we can show the people of Northern Ireland that the constitutional path to peace has life in it, hope in it and, indeed, is the only sane route to the future.

The Prime Minister: The past 14 days have certainly been extremely difficult for everyone in Northern Ireland, as the right hon. Gentleman said. I shall try to respond to his three points. During the past few years, the British and Irish Governments have worked very closely together. It is important for the success of the talks that that co-operation continues, and it is this Government's intention that that co-operation shall continue. The Irish Government and the British Government do not, of course, agree about every issue under discussion, but I believe that our relations are strong enough on Government-to-Government and personal levels for those talks to continue, even while we seek a solution to the disagreements before us. That is what we are seeking to do.

Of course I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the rule of law needs to prevail in Northern Ireland, as it does elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The scenes that we have witnessed over the past few days--the violence, the intimidation and the aftermath of those scenes--are wholly unacceptable and should have no place in Northern Ireland or anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

As to the future and the talks, I entirely agree that progress so far has been inadequate. It is our intention to try to ensure that the talks move forward rapidly from talks about procedure to talks about substance.

Our intention will be to try to turn the setbacks of the past couple of weeks into a positive advantage as the talks resume, and we will bring all our strength to bear to achieve that.

Mr. Yeo: In view of the remarkable transformation of Britain's competitive position, which has been brought about by our opt-out from the European social chapter and the virtual elimination of strikes, does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment that a political party that claims to be seeking office should not only boast about its intentions to burden British business with the European social chapter obligation but cannot even unite its Back Benchers in condemning today's strike on the London underground?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend about the United Kingdom's competitive position at the moment. It is very important that we remain competitive in the areas to which he has referred, as well as others.

I think that I heard the deputy leader of the Labour party say a moment ago, "What about your social conscience?"--

Mr. Prescott: His social contract.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman does not seem roundly to condemn today's strikes, which are damaging our competitiveness, as I believe he should. No doubt his relationship with his sponsors prohibits him from doing so.


Q3. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 July.

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

Mr. Hughes: On the day when the Cabinet has apparently decided to start a new campaign to clamp down on public expenditure, beginning once again with freezing the pay of public sector workers, which it has no doubt done to try to pave the way for tax bribes for its supporters before the election, what does the Prime Minister say to parents in my borough who find that the secondary school that their children attend is having to go to the British American Tobacco company for sponsorship to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds? Is it acceptable that the Government have so underfunded public services to try to produce tax cuts that schooling has become dependent on profits from tobacco sales, when under-age smoking is at its highest level for 10 years?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows that he is making a silly point. He also knows about the growth in expenditure on, and provision for, education over recent years, the dramatic increase in spending per pupil and the improved educational opportunities that now exist. As for pay in the public sector, our view remains that set out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor last September--that pay and price increases should be offset by efficiency savings. That has been our policy for some time, and we renewed it this morning.

Sir Michael Marshall: Can my right hon. Friend tell us what information Her Majesty's Government have received about the crash of the Trans World Airlines airliner last night? Will he take the opportunity to express the sympathy of the House to all involved, and to reaffirm that, if terrorism is involved, international co-operation must be accelerated and that this country will play a full part in that process?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly confirm my hon. Friend's last point. As yet, we have received no solid information about the cause of the dreadful crash that occurred a few hours ago. A great deal of examination is taking place, and as soon as I have further information I shall ensure that the House is aware of it. I have of course conveyed the sympathy of the House to the American Government, and told them that if they feel that we can assist in any way, we shall be happy to do so.


Q4. Mr. Robert Ainsworth: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 July.

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

Mr. Ainsworth: To return to the leaked Treasury document, is the Prime Minister aware that his right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)--I believe that he is the Prime Minister's right hon. Friend again--said this morning on the radio that some of the ideas in the leaked document would be included in the manifesto? Can the Prime Minister tell us which ideas--the privatisation of roads, cuts in post-16 education, the scrapping of old-age pensions, or the complete dismantling of the welfare state?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman stood up to ask that question immediately behind a shadow Chancellor who proposes to cut child benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds and take about £1,000 from every family with two children of that age who want to go into further education. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about manifesto pledges, he should worry about his own side's manifesto pledges, which would take child benefit away from people, raise extra taxes in Scotland and increase trade union rights so that there can be more strikes--and no doubt more sponsorship for the Labour party. Instead of talking drivel about policies that are not Government policies, he should concentrate on the drivel that is the policies of the Opposition.


Q5. Mr. Amess: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 July.

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

Mr. Amess: Does my right hon. Friend agree that yesterday's welcome news that unemployment has hit a five-year low--[Hon. Members: "In Basildon?"]--is in part due to the Government's reforms to curb trade union policy? Is not new Labour's policy--[Hon. Members: "For Basildon?"]--to give privileges to trade unions, which no previous Labour Government would have done, further proof that new phoney Labour--[Laughter.]--would destroy the economic success of this country with dangerous new policies for Basildon, Southend and the rest of the country?

The Prime Minister: As ever, my hon. Friend speaks for the country as well as for Basildon and Southend, West. There is no doubt that yesterday's news about jobs was extremely good. We are now into the fourth successive year of falling unemployment. There is also increasing growth in new inward investment.

Mr. Janner: They are fiddled statistics.

The Prime Minister: The hon. and learned Member shouts about statistics. They are new jobs. He may regard them as statistics, but I see them as new jobs. I welcome inward investment and new jobs, even in the hon. and learned Gentleman's constituency. I welcome them in any constituency. How he can refer to them as statistics when they are people's hopes, livelihoods and futures, I cannot imagine. However, the policies to which my hon. Friend referred would damage the lives, opportunities and futures of the hon. and learned Gentleman's constituents and everybody else's.


Q6. Mrs. Anne Campbell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 18 July.

The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Lady to the reply I gave a few moments ago.

Mrs. Campbell: Will the Prime Minister say in public what the Foreign Secretary told the positive Europe group of Tory Members last Monday: that there will be no toughening of the Government's stance on Europe--the Prime Minister is shaking his head already--that there will be no ruling out of a single currency and that there will be no additional demands for the repatriation of powers from Europe?

The Prime Minister: I shall tell the hon. Lady exactly what my right hon. and learned Friend told my hon. Friends. He set out the policy in the public document that determines our negotiating posture for the intergovernmental conference--precisely and in detail. If the hon. Lady has not yet read it, I invite her to do so as she will find it a clear-cut and excellent document.

Mr. Tracey: Does my right hon. Friend share my dismay at the fact that a group of Opposition Members should publicly support the striking tube train drivers who are grinding London to a halt and costing Londoners and London commerce millions of pounds? Does he agree that the public must be deeply angered by the irresponsible action of union members and the last-minute pussyfooting by the Leader of the Opposition in not condemning the strike?

The Prime Minister: I have not seen a great amount of support for opposition to the strike from Opposition Members. No doubt the opposition to the strike will be clearly expressed by every Front Bencher over the next few days. Not only will there be a request that the parties go to arbitration--which is surely self-evidently right--but there will be a clear-cut condemnation of a strike that is causing a great deal of difficulty for many innocent people and damaging the industries concerned. When will we get that condemnation from the Opposition?