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1996 - PMQT 31st October 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 31st October 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Dr. Goodson-Wickes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 31 October.

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.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is the Government's intention first to cut and then to abolish both inheritance tax and capital gains tax--moves that would be extremely popular with all who work hard to provide for themselves and their children? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is strange that the electorate hears a great deal about taxes that the Opposition would cut and precisely nothing about taxes that they would raise?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right. We hear very little about the windfall tax. Instead, we hear about promised reductions in value added tax--reductions that were called "cynical" by a shadow Treasury spokesman last year. But we hear little about what the rate of the windfall tax would be, on whom it would be levied, or what it would mean for the people who use gas, electricity and the other utilities.

As for our tax plans, I can confirm that our first priority, when it is affordable, is to move towards a 20p basic rate of tax; and then to deal with the other taxes that my hon. Friend mentions.

Mr. Blair: I think that what most people remember about cynicism and tax is that the Government promised not to raise VAT before the election and raised it straight afterwards.

On Tuesday, the Prime Minister said that he could not be precise about lifting the beef ban now because there were continuing discussions in Luxembourg. That meeting ended last night. Is it correct that, although a compensation package for all European farmers was agreed, there was no agreed progress on lifting the ban? If so, given that the Prime Minister's timetable for lifting that ban expires tomorrow, what is his new timetable?

The Prime Minister: No, the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood something--but I shall happily explain it in greater detail to him. The discussions yesterday in the Agriculture Committee were not the discussions to which I specifically referred. The discussions are going on with officials and with the Commission in order to deal with the science--that was not a matter for general discussion in the agriculture debate yesterday.

What was agreed was more resources for farmers. The determination of precisely where the extra £50 million will go is to be discussed in this country and decided later.

Mr. Blair: Actually, the right hon. Gentleman said on Tuesday that the discussions on lifting the ban were continuing now. My understanding is that lifting the beef ban was not even put on the agenda by the British Government at Luxembourg--an extraordinary state of affairs.

The Prime Minister gave us the November timetable; it has now expired. Is it his position that the Florence agreement is still valid, or is his position that that agreement should be changed? In the latter case, what change is he seeking; and in either case, given that he gave us a timetable before, precisely what is his new timetable now? I think we should be told.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman needs to do a little more research before he asks ill-advised questions on this subject. The discussions on the scientific evidence are continuing with the Commission. Those discussions were not especially appropriate for the Agriculture Committee. Many of them are technical discussions and they are continuing. As I said to the House very clearly earlier this week, scientific issues that arose after the Florence agreement remain to be determined

As I told the House on Tuesday, of course the Florence agreement is still in being. Much of that agreement has already been met, and, as I set out to the House on Tuesday, a determination on the rest of it depends substantially on the points still under discussion. I shall explain again gently to the right hon. Gentleman that those points arose after the Florence agreement in the light of changed science that is still being discussed. I hope that that is now clear enough for the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Blair: I do not think that it will be clear to the farming industry, to Europe or to anyone else. What is clear is that the Prime Minister said that the beef ban would be lifted by November. The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head. We all remember when he stood at the Dispatch Box and said that the ban would be lifted by November. Is it the position now that it will not be lifted by November, and that he cannot tell when it will be lifted? I think that is true. He simply cannot tell us what the position will be.

Is not that weak and ineffectual leadership--precisely what means that his Government can no longer advance Britain's interests abroad, nor look after them properly at home? That is why people in this country say, "Enough is enough". [Interruption.] Yes, they say that. If we are to get leadership, direction and purpose back in Britain, let the British people decide, and let this weak and vacillating Government go.

The Prime Minister: That really was one of the most trivial series of comments--utterly trivial. This is a matter of great interest to British agriculture. Scientific changes are important to that industry, but the right hon. Gentleman does not understand them, does not enter into any research on them, deliberately distorts what little he does know, ignores the reality of what is happening to the British beef industry, and moves--as he does on his third question every Tuesday and Thursday--into a carefully pre-packaged, pre-prepared piece of irrelevant, juvenile sloganising. [Interruption.] I hear applause for the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who is undoubtedly the author of much of this sloganising. The right hon. Gentleman should give up this matinee performance, and start dealing with the realities of the beef crisis and other matters that we deal with daily.

Mrs. Peacock: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the county of Yorkshire has an economy that is bigger and better than those of many small nations? Is he also aware that 140 companies from Yorkshire are quoted on the London stock exchange, which is more than many other regions in this country? Will he send congratulations to all those in the county who have worked extremely hard to achieve the present state?

The Prime Minister: I am certainly happy to congratulate the successful innovators who have produced a successful economy in Yorkshire, and undoubtedly many of them have been successful. That is also true in other parts of the country. At the moment, we have the most innovative and the most competitive economy in western Europe.

Mr. Ashdown: The national debt has been going for 300 years. Will the Prime Minister confirm that he has doubled it in the past six?

The Prime Minister: Can the right hon. Gentleman name a single expenditure cut that he has supported?

Mr. Bill Walker: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Union that he wishes to protect is the Union of the United Kingdom, and that his Government will have no truck with proposals that put the Union at risk, and would not give people living in England the same opportunities as the people living in Scotland?

The Prime Minister: I confirm the importance of the Union not only to Scotland but to England and the rest of the United Kingdom. I have never advanced the argument that devolution, or the separation that the Scottish National party wants, would be bad for Scotland alone, although I believe that it would be bad for Scotland--because I believe that it would be bad for the rest of the United Kingdom too.


Q2. Mr. Austin-Walker: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 31 October.

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

Mr. Austin-Walker: Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) reminded the Chancellor of the Exchequer of a BBC radio interview in which the right hon. and learned Gentleman, recalling the introduction of VAT, said that if we could start again we could have VAT on everything. Does the Prime Minister share the Chancellor's desire to extend VAT to children's clothes, water, public transport and food, or does he share the view of Opposition Members and of the mass of the British people--that enough is enough?

The Prime Minister: I certainly think that enough is enough of absurd sloganising of that sort. I am delighted that the Opposition have decided to spend so much of the money that they have apparently accumulated on the sort of trashy advertising campaign that they are trying to conduct this afternoon. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know about VAT, I shall tell him what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling) said about a Scottish nationalist proposal to reduce VAT to 5 per cent. He described it as

"another cynical ploy from an increasingly opportunistic and desperate party".--[Official Report, 23 January 1995; Vol. 253, c. 49.]

Now the Labour party is doing the same.

Mr. Garel-Jones: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, following yesterday's rise in interest rates, mortgage rates in this country remain at their lowest level for a generation? Can he recall any Government-announced interest rate move, whether upwards or downwards, that was not opposed by the Labour party?

The Prime Minister: No. One part of the shadow Chancellor's litany is absolutely consistent: if interest rates go down he claims that that shows weakness in the economy, but if they go up he claims the same thing. It is a consistent litany. My right hon. Friend is right about the present level of interest rates. He is also right to say that the British economy is exceedingly strong, and that we shall keep it strong and keep inflation low.


Q3. Mr. Hutton: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 31 October.

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

Mr. Hutton: Does the Prime Minister accept that, after 22 Tory tax rises since 1992, which have left the typical British family with an extra tax bill of £2,000, the British people are entitled to say that they have had enough both of him and of his party's broken promises on tax?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the level of tax, I look forward to finding out which tax reductions he has supported in recent years. Will he say now that he will not support the windfall tax, the tartan tax, the health tax proposed by his Front-Bench spokesmen, or the teenage tax that will result from child benefit being taken away? Which of those, all of which have been proposed by the occupants of the Opposition Front Bench, will the hon. Gentleman oppose?

Mr. Riddick: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the European Commission has disgracefully suppressed new evidence showing a clear link between rigid labour laws and high unemployment? Is not that a huge embarrassment for the Commission and for Opposition Members who support the job-destroying social chapter and a minimum wage? Does it not show that the Labour party's approach would lead to massively increased unemployment?

The Prime Minister: I have not seen the report, but like my hon. Friend I have heard that the report exists and that there has been some difficulty in getting it into the public gaze. I shall certainly ask whether the report will be published, so people can have a sensible debate on the policies that underlie it and see whether they are, as we believe, costing jobs; if they are, we shall consider whether we can take action to prevent that from occurring in the future and to reverse those expensive, job-costing policies, which are so much the flavour of the month with Opposition Front-Benchers.


Q4. Mr. O'Hara: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 31 October.

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

Mr. O'Hara: Two days ago in the House, I repeated to the Prime Minister our invitation to co-operate in the introduction of legislation to regulate the advertising and sale of certain dangerous knives and weapons that are obvious to Opposition Members and to the British public and that ought to be obvious to the Government. The Prime Minister once again retreated.

[Hon. Members: "Question."]

Madam Speaker: Order. Those who are calling out for a question are often the first to be guilty. I am asking the hon. Gentleman to carry out the regulations and put his question, but he does not need any guidance from Conservative Members.

Mr. O'Hara: Certainly, Madam Speaker. The Prime Minister once again retreated behind the need for a definition. We have now produced a definition and--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must now put a question; otherwise, he must resume his seat.

Mr. O'Hara: Has the Prime Minister seen the definition, does he agree with it, and will he now sit down with us and discuss it?

The Prime Minister: Of course we will examine very carefully any constructive proposal. I understand that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) has written to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and that there will be a meeting with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) in the near future. I must say, however, that it seems that the Labour Front-Bench team has been forced to accept what my right hon. and learned Friend has said all along: that it is not easy to define knives to be banned, despite the fact that the hon. Member for Blackburn said that it was. I believe that he has had to change his position. Of course we will consider any constructive suggestion from the hon. Member for Blackburn or from the hon. Gentleman.