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1996 - PMQT 14th November 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 14th November 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Sir Sydney Chapman: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 14 November.

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.

Sir Sydney Chapman: Does my right hon. Friend accept that the drop of more than 40,000 in the latest monthly unemployment count--which, I understand, is the largest monthly decrease for two years--illustrates yet again the success of the Government's policies in promoting job creation? Does he agree that if United Kingdom employers had additional costs inflicted on them by the EU, that would put in jeopardy the downward trend in unemployment in our country, which has been going on for three years and stands in stark contrast with many other EU countries?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right, both about the welcome trend in unemployment and about the fact that unemployment is falling here in a way that cannot be seen anywhere else in the continent of Europe. That is not unrelated to the fact that we have avoided the burdens on business that so many of our partners have accepted. Of course, those burdens would have been accepted by the Opposition.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree that today's inflation rise, together with the sharp rise in long-term interest rates, should set the warning lights flashing? How does he square that with the promise that he made just a few months ago that he would meet his inflation target by the end of this year?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is mistaken. I know that the retail prices index figures are complex, but I think that he has failed to understand the impact of this morning's figures. I will explain to him what has happened, and he can then explain it to his Back Benchers. The figures are calculated year on year, and there was a quite exceptional one-month fall last October. That means that the 12-month year-on-year figure looks artificially high. I can reassure the right hon. Gentleman that that will correct itself over the months ahead and that we expect to meet our target.

Mr. Blair: I do not think that we have ever heard a more ridiculous excuse for a rise in inflation figures. If the inflation figures were so good, why did interest rates have to go up? They went up because of the worry about inflation. Have we not heard it all before? We heard it all before the previous election and we heard it all before 1987, when the Government said that an economic miracle was under way. Will the Prime Minister answer these specific questions? On interest rates and inflation, will he confirm that Britain is now 11th out of 15 in Europe? Do any of our main competitors outside Europe have as high interest rates or inflation as Britain?

The Prime Minister: I begin to suspect that the right hon. Gentleman truly does not understand; he is not being perverse--he genuinely does not understand. I will explain the position to him gently and easily. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor raised interest rates to prevent inflation from rising, not as a result of existing inflation. To hear lectures on inflation from the right hon. Gentleman, when the lowest inflation achieved by his party in government was 7.5 per cent. and millions remember when it was 27 per cent., and when the inflation figure today is a statistical aberration because of a dramatic fall last year, only illustrates the fact that the Labour party is totally incapable not only of running the economy but even of understanding it.

Mr. Blair rose--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Blair: The House will have noticed that the Prime Minister did not dispute that we were 11th out of 15 for interest rates and inflation. If he disputes it, let him come to the Dispatch Box and say that the figure is wrong. The House will listen to him when he rises to his feet and tells us that 11th out of 15 is wrong. The simple fact, as on every other matter, is that when he said that he would cut taxes, he raised them, when he said--[Interruption.] Conservative Members do not like this because it is the truth. [Hon. Members: "More."] They want more, so let us give them more--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. This barracking must stop. Other hon. Members have questions on the Order Paper and I want to call them.

Mr. Blair: Let the Prime Minister dispute any of the following facts. He said before the general election that he would cut tax, and he raised it. Does he dispute that? He said that he would eliminate public borrowing, and he doubled public sector debt. Does he dispute that? He said that he would lick inflation, and it has risen. Does he dispute that? If he does not dispute any of those facts, or the fact that we are 11th out of 15 for interest rates and inflation, why should anyone believe a word that he says on the economy?

The Prime Minister: I had fondly suspected today that the right hon. Gentleman might have broken with tradition and mentioned the fall in unemployment, which his party is supposed to care about--[Hon. Members: "Answer."] I will tell the right hon. Gentleman that the October inflation figures were the fourth best that we have known in October since the war. It is ridiculous for him to talk to us about taxation and to proceed as he did today, when the deputy leader of his party has said that Labour

"shouldn't follow the Government down the road of cutting the basic rate of tax"

and that under Labour there would certainly be higher tax. I see hon. Members nodding in agreement. The right hon. Gentleman criticises us about tax while his party advocates higher tax. He cannot stomach the fact that the British economy is in better shape than any Labour Government have ever achieved and that he could not match the condition that it is in. He will do everything that he can to pursue grievance politics and damage the British economy in his own interest.


Q2. Mr. Booth: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 14 November.

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

Mr. Booth: Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that at the European intergovernmental conference he will block any proposal further to erode our right of veto? Is he fully aware that signing the social chapter is not only expensive in itself but would render Britain powerless to avoid becoming uncompetitive as Europe introduces more and more imposts? The Labour party will never understand that, which is one of the reasons why we shall win the next general election.

The Prime Minister: I can certainly and willingly give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. The social chapter is a pipeline bulging with potential new burdens on business, all of which would cost jobs in the United Kingdom. As an illustration of the damage that a Labour Government would undoubtedly do, perhaps at some stage today the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) would like to condemn the Labour Member of the European Parliament for Durham, who called on the Commission to take action against the United Kingdom including

"seeking unlimited fines against the UK Government".

I want to know whether that is Labour policy or whether the right hon. Gentleman will disown him.

Mr. Ashdown: Did the Prime Minister see the warning from Coopers and Lybrand yesterday that if we continue as we have so far the Government will be technically bankrupt by the end of next year? [Interruption.] That is what it said. The Prime Minister obviously has not read it. Let me put it to him like this: if a council had done what the Government have done and doubled its debt in six years, doubled the level of borrowing to which it had said that it would adhere two years ago and then, to win an election next year, cut its taxes to make things worse, would he regard that as responsible?

The Prime Minister: What the right hon. Gentleman said about the nation being bankrupt is just bizarre--it is just off the wall. If this is a bankrupt nation, why are all those overseas nations and overseas investors, both in Europe and beyond, investing in what he says is a bankrupt nation? I suggest that he looks at what is going on in Britain and stops taking advice from his economic advisers, who clearly know nothing about everything.

Mr. Whittingdale: Is my right hon. Friend aware that this week marks the first anniversary of the death of my constituent, Leah Betts, who died as a result of taking a single Ecstasy tablet? Will he join me in paying tribute to Leah's parents, who have worked tirelessly to ensure that other young people learn the lesson of Leah's death? Will he confirm that the Government will give every support to the Bill to be introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg), which will ensure that night clubs whose managers do not take proper action to stop drug trading will be swiftly and permanently closed?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. I met Mr. and Mrs. Betts some time ago and I think that the whole country remembers the tragedy that they had to endure and the courage with which they endured it. I certainly undertake to do all that I can to curb the menace of drugs and I will look most carefully at the private Member's Bill that is to be introduced. If it is at all possible to give full support to that Bill, as I anticipate that it will be, then we shall certainly do so.


Q3. Mr. Pike: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 14 November.

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

Mr. Pike: The Prime Minister will accept that there is still a major crisis over bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Does he accept that there has been enough dithering over the introduction of the selective cull scheme that was agreed at Florence? Will he give us a date for implementation of the scheme and say when we shall start to see an end to the problem?

The Prime Minister: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was here yesterday or, indeed, when I answered those questions from the right hon. Member for Sedgefield. Since the hon. Gentleman is asking precisely the same question, I am tempted to refer him to the answer I gave some time ago. The reality is that we are pursuing with the Commission proposals for relaxing the ban on the United Kingdom and the export restrictions on animals from certified herds and on those that are qualified under the beef assurance scheme. Those discussions are going on at the moment.


Q4. Mr. Robathan: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 14 November.

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

Mr. Robathan: The whole House will welcome the Government's decision in principle to support international action to prevent humanitarian catastrophe in central Africa. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that if British troops are sent to Zaire they will go with carefully considered and clear objectives, very precise instructions and a properly determined chain of command?

The Prime Minister: I suspect that I speak for the whole House in expressing extreme concern at the situation in eastern Zaire. I believe that everyone is acutely conscious of the refugees' plight and of the literally hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of people who will undoubtedly face death in the next few weeks unless urgent action is taken.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will be making a statement in a few moments. I believe that if western Governments have the capacity to help, there is a strong moral obligation upon us to help. We have considered very carefully how we can best provide that help and in principle we are prepared to provide troops for a multinational force.

I have to say to the House, however, that the situation on the ground is complex and difficult, the terrain is tough, there is inadequate infrastructure and at this stage there is no clear ceasefire. So before sending British troops, or deciding upon the precise numbers, we need to be absolutely clear about what they are being asked to do in detail and the conditions in which they will operate. We also need to look very carefully at the particular circumstances that they will face. A reconnaissance team will be travelling to the region today to do that, and I hope that we shall be able to reach a firm decision before too long as to what troops are to go.


Q5. Mr. Campbell-Savours: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 14 November.

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

Mr. Campbell-Savours: May I enter a last-minute plea that the Prime Minister reconsider his decision about a free vote for Conservative Members of Parliament next week on the banning of guns? Why cannot those hon. Members be allowed to exercise their own consciences and decide for themselves how to vote on an issue that the public regard as extremely important?

The Prime Minister: We ought not to forget precisely what the legislation is about: the controls that we place on legally held firearms and the right of law-abiding citizens to use them responsibly. That seems to be a matter on which it is right for the Government to take a decision, as the House expected before the Cullen report was presented to it, and we have done so. Firearms legislation has not traditionally been considered on a free vote in the House and we are not inviting the House to do so on this occasion.