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1996 - PMQT 23rd July 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 23rd July 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Lichfield

Q1. Mr. Fabricant: To ask the Prime Minister what analysis he has made of the effect of the Government's social and economic policies on the people of Lichfield; and if he will make statement.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): Lichfield has benefited fully from Government policies which have given the United Kingdom a stronger recovery than any comparable European country, the longest run of low inflation for 50 years and the lowest mortgage rates for a generation. Unemployment in Lichfield has fallen by 40 per cent. in the past three years.

Mr. Fabricant: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that businesses in Lichfield are experiencing real problems due to the postal strike? Has he been deafened, as I have, by the absolute silence from Opposition Front-Bench Members, who have refused to condemn the postal strike? Might that be because the Communications Workers Union has contributed some £250,000 to Labour party coffers?

The Prime Minister: The strikes last week were completely unjustified, and I hope that future plans for industrial action will be called off before more damage is done. My hon. Friend is right to point out that the sponsored silence by Opposition Members continues on this matter. [Interruption.] The deputy leader does not have a sponsored silence this afternoon, nor did he last week when he apparently told his leader to backtrack on what he had said in public--which is no doubt what the right hon. Gentleman was doing when he met the unions yesterday.

Mr. Brian David Jenkins: Can the Prime Minister confirm for the 20,000 residents of Lichfield district who live in my constituency that, under the Tory Government, crime has risen by 147 per cent., education funding from central Government is the lowest in any shire district in England and residential mental health care is being closed for lack of funds? Moreover, when those 20,000 people were given the opportunity to vote in the recent South-East Staffordshire by-election they overwhelmingly turned to new Labour: new life for Britain.

The Prime Minister: I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman make that devastating attack on the spending policies of the shadow Chancellor, who has made it perfectly clear that it is not his policy to spend any more money than the present Government. The hon. Gentleman had better discuss his own difficulties with his own Front-Bench spokesmen. As for crime, it is falling throughout the country and has been falling for some time--the first time that that has happened for a long period. No doubt it might have been easier to achieve that if we had occasionally had the support of Opposition parties for the measures that we adopted.


Engagements

Q2. Dr. Goodson-Wickes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 July.

The Prime Minister: 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.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes: Does my right hon. Friend welcome the recent call by the chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority for the teaching of modern British history to be reinstated for GCSE? Does he further agree that any open-minded student will come to the conclusion that over the years socialism has done this country a great disservice, and that history would be likely to repeat itself should new Labour ever get the chance to implement new dangers?

The Prime Minister: I certainly agree that young people should have the opportunity to study the history of this country, and I hope that the examination boards will be aware of the popular concern among many parents on that subject. Whether students study British history or world history, I think that they will see that policies of high regulation, high spending and high taxes have consistently failed, and that, when people are asked to make a choice between a party that believes in low taxes and one that believes in high taxes, they will choose low taxes yet again at the 1997 election.

Mr. Blair: With all due respect to the Prime Minister, I think that people will remember that they were supposed to have chosen low taxes at the last election, but then got the largest peacetime taxes in history. Can the right hon. Gentleman answer the following question with an unequivocal yes? Does he agree with his Chancellor's recent statement that he can see circumstances in which he would recommend that Britain join a single currency during the next Parliament?

The Prime Minister: We have made the position on a single currency entirely clear. I shall make a judgment on what is in this country's national interests, which means that we shall need to know the circumstances of the time, and precisely what a single currency would mean for this country. We need to be engaged in the debate right until its conclusion, whether or not we enter. If we did not enter, a single currency would still have an effect on this country, so it is still important that Britain's voice be heard in the negotiations until they are concluded.

Mr. Blair: Why could the Prime Minister not simply answer yes to my question? After all, I am only asking him to agree with his own Chancellor of the Exchequer. Does not his response show precisely the paralysis of policy? Let me offer him another chance. Can he, like his Chancellor, see circumstances in which he would recommend that Britain join a single currency during the next Parliament--yes or no?

The Prime Minister: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can tell the House whether he agrees with the argumentation in the pamphlet that I have here--a pamphlet produced by Labour Members of Parliament which led to Labour Members squabbling in public this morning and denouncing the shadow Chancellor. I have told the right hon. Gentleman what the Government's position is. We have set it out in a White Paper. That is the position, and it has not changed.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister asked me whether I agreed with the pamphlet. The answer is no, I do not agree with it. Now let us have a clear answer from him. What sort of situation are we in when a Chancellor of the Exchequer cannot keep his own Ministers, and the Prime Minister's closest political friends are saying that his party cannot row together or work together? Why should the country put up with another nine months of drift and decay? After six years of that type of weak leadership, are not people entitled to say that enough is enough, and that the only reshuffle that matters will be one that reshuffles the Government out of office and gives the country a fresh start?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman may be prepared to commit himself to decisions without the facts that would affect this country. If he will not commit himself to a decision, he had better make up his mind whether he is in favour. He won't because he can't, because his party is split from top to bottom on the issue. The reality is that we shall consider the facts--not the prejudices, but the realities--and make a decision on what is right for this country.

Mr. Colvin: Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that this Michaelmas the Treasury will be receiving around £1.5 billion from the sale of the armed forces married quarters estate? What excuse is there for the Chancellor to delay the essential announcement on the procurement orders which we all expected before the House rose for the summer recess? He cannot have it both ways. First, does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that we have the best armed forces in the world? Secondly, does he agree with our Secretary of State for Defence that they should also be the best equipped?

The Prime Minister: Of course I agree with my hon. Friend about the quality of the armed forces. I also invite him to agree that we have provided the resources to ensure that our armed forces have the best equipment. He will recall the announcement a week or so ago and the £500 million committed. We are evaluating our assessment of the bids for the various pieces of equipment now due for replacement. When that evaluation is completed, but not before, suitable announcements will be made.

Mr. Ashdown: Let me put it to the Prime Minister another way. At the end of a Parliament which began with the farce of devaluation and ended with the fiasco of BSE, which has seen Tory Members leave their party and Tory Ministers desert their Government, and which has gone from cash for questions to cash for dinners in Downing street, is it not time for the Prime Minister to lead his exhausted and divided party out of power to fight their civil wars somewhere else?

The Prime Minister: I think that in his litany the right hon. Gentleman misses some facts of importance to the British people. He cannot recall an occasion in his political lifetime when the British economy has been in such good shape, when inflation has been so low, when unemployment has been falling so well, when growth has been at the top of the European league and investment is coming into this country as it is coming into no other country in Europe. That is happening because of the policies of this Government--policies that his tiny party has objected to throughout this Parliament.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As next Sunday, 28 July, happens to be the 25th anniversary of my resignation from the then Government over their decision to join the EEC, does the Prime Minister accept that there is growing contempt among the voters for people in all parties who pretend that there are any easy answers to the difficult and complex problems of the European Community? Will he think seriously over the summer recess about the possibility of seeking the advice of the voters of Britain as to which way they wish to proceed on Europe? Would not the best answer to the Opposition be to remind them that the country belongs to the people, not to the political parties?

The Prime Minister: There is no doubt from the Opposition's European policies precisely what they would surrender in the European debate. However they try to hide it, the veto would go and qualified majority voting would increase. They signed up to the socialist manifesto, and the Leader of the Opposition cannot wriggle away from it now. In answer to my hon. Friend's question, of course we shall consider what is in the interests of the United Kingdom. I do that and I shall continue to do that.


Q3. Mr. Hain: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 July.

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

Mr. Hain: Will the Prime Minister rule out any bid from Mr. John Beckwith for the £1.5 billion sale of defence homes and the £750 million sale of benefit offices, in view of his role in organising Premier Club dinners where business men pay £100,000 to bend the Prime Minister's ear? Is there not a clear conflict of interest between being premier of Great Britain and the right hon. Gentleman's position as patron of the Premier Club?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong on all the facts. I saw the story that interested and misled him. No one can buy access to Ministers. [Interruption.] No one is promised favours. [Interruption.] There is one exception in public life: it is possible to buy access to Labour party policy through the trade unions; it is possible to buy votes; it was possible to summon the leader of the Labour party to explain his remarks about the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers last week; it is possible to change Labour party policy, but not ours. As regards Mr. Beckwith, any bid is independently assessed before being approved.


Q4. Mr. Nicholas Baker: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 23 July.

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

Mr. Baker: Will my right hon. Friend condemn from the Dispatch Box the politically motivated strikes by London underground drivers and postal workers? Will he confirm that he has no plans to introduce legislation to give trade unions increased powers or to increase the powers of strikers, which is precisely what is on offer from the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about that. The deputy leader of the Labour party talks about £100,000. Perhaps he will remind the country how much the union that sponsors him pays to the Labour party year after year. Perhaps he will explain that that is why he will not condemn a totally unjustified strike. Perhaps he will explain that not one of the candidates in the shadow Cabinet elections will condemn the strike. If they were standing for election to a Trappist monastery, they could not have been more silent than they have been on the subject of the strike. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) knows that the Labour party's relationship with the trade unions is a disgrace to British democracy: they rule, and the Labour party follows.