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1996 - PMQT 26th November 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 26th November 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Wray: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 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.

Mr. Wray: Is the Prime Minister aware that the Government took £7.2 billion in tobacco duties last year? Is he also aware that the Health Education Authority says that tobacco costs the health service £680 million and 110,000 deaths annually? I know that the Government are against litigation by the Department of Health, but does the Prime Minister agree that a further ban on tobacco advertising is needed?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have shown the dangers of tobacco in many advertising campaigns and also, of course, on every packet of cigarettes. That is an appropriate way to indicate the dangers--together, of course, with the disincentive of the taxation on tobacco.

Sir Michael Grylls: Will my right hon. Friend find time today to consider the cash flow crisis that is affecting so many lorry drivers, many of whom come from small firms or are self-employed? Their problems are due entirely to the failure of the French Government to keep their highways clear. As a practical measure, will he consider asking the banks to be patient with those firms? Will he also do everything that he can to the French Government to ensure that they act responsibly?

The Prime Minister: I am concerned about the consequences for British drivers and companies of the dispute, which is, of course, in France and has nothing to do with them or their customers. We have indicated to the French Government that we expect compensation claims for loss of earnings or for damage to perishable stock to be met. I hope that they respond to that plea. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has already written to his French opposite number calling for an end to the dispute and making the point about necessary compensation. I shall not hesitate to raise the matter elsewhere if necessary.

Mr. Blair: Given that the Prime Minister fought the last general election on the specific pledge that he would cut taxes every year, will he now at least apologise for the fact that, whatever the Chancellor does today, after 22 Conservative tax rises, the average British family will pay more in tax at the time of the next election than it did at the last, and that his promise was broken?

The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman is confused. As he will know, we now have the lowest basic rate of income tax for 50 years. Even before today's Budget, the average family will be £700 better off this year, after tax and inflation, than it was at the general election. If the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about transparency in tax matters and tax promises, perhaps he will publish his own tax plans, which his deputy leader said it would be stupid to do.

Mr. Blair: Perhaps, then, the Prime Minister would answer an even simpler question, as he could not answer that one: does he recall promising before the election that he would not raise national insurance contributions, and then raising them after the election? Does he recall that--yes or no?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman knows the reductions that we have made in tax. Whatever he may seek to do, he cannot deny that taxes are lower today than they have been in the past, that they are lower than they would be under any Labour Government, and that, if he were to begin to meet the spending pledges that he made at his party conference and then sought to deny, taxation in the United Kingdom would rise and rise again were he ever to have any responsibility for the Exchequer.

Mr. Blair: If the right hon. Gentleman cannot answer the first two questions, perhaps he will answer this one: does he recall going into the last election saying that he would not put VAT on fuel and power and then doing just that? Will he answer--yes or no?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman wants to discuss value added tax, perhaps he will tell us why he can make promises on VAT, but he cannot tell us about the windfall tax, the tartan tax, the London tax, the teenage tax, his spending promises, his taxation promises or anything that is relevant to the management of the economy.

Mr. Cash: Does my right hon. Friend recollect that, in the most welcome statement yesterday, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in respect of one of the regulations that he would be most reluctant to contemplate using the veto? Bearing in mind that the Dublin summit will be a European Council meeting and not a meeting of the Council of Ministers and that the scrutiny reserved will be applied to the Economic and Finance Council meeting, does my right hon. Friend agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor in his reluctance to veto one of those regulations?

The Prime Minister: Presumably my hon. Friend is referring to recital 13. If he would care to look at what was said yesterday, he will see that my right hon. and learned Friend made it clear that he would reiterate to the meeting of Finance Ministers that there was no legal basis on which countries not participating in the single currency could have sanctions imposed on them. In reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), my right hon. and learned Friend made it clear that he would seek the best possible language to ensure that that understanding was copper-bottomed.


Q2. Mr. Pearson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 November.

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

Mr. Pearson: Will the Prime Minister confirm that cutting VAT on domestic fuel and power will help every household in Dudley and nationally, while scrapping inheritance tax and capital gains tax will benefit, at most, 3 per cent. of the population? Why does the Prime Minister persist in supporting policies that favour the few instead of the many?

The Prime Minister: The policies that we have followed have produced the best economic circumstances for generations, and that will help the many and encourage domestic investment, inward investment, job creation and growth--all of which are happening in Britain in a way that the hon. Gentleman cannot demonstrate as happening in any other European country.


Q3. Mr. Colvin: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 November.

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


Mr. Colvin: Has my right hon. Friend seen the report by the International Labour Organisation that was published today? It shows that, in every other country, unemployment is rising, while in Britain, exceptionally, it is falling? Is that not further evidence of the merits of the Government's economic policy that has made Britain such a success? Was not Baroness Thatcher quite right last week when she said in a speech, "Don't let Labour ruin it"?

The Prime Minister: When the news is improving, unemployment is falling and the economy is growing, as it is at the moment, there is very little for the Opposition to say: they hate good news, because they know that it is extremely bad news for them. They did not help to bring about the strongest economy of any western European country, which is what we have; they did not help to get more people in work, which is what we have done through the labour reforms that we have produced; they did not help to make this the No. 1 country for inward investment anywhere in western Europe; and they did not help to create the lowest basic rate of tax for 50 years. My hon. Friend is right, as was my right hon. and noble Friend last week--Labour is still not fit to govern and I doubt that it will be in a position to do so.


Q4. Mr. Heppell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 November.

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

Mr. Heppell: In view of the Prime Minister's completely unsatisfactory response to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, may I ask him again why he promised tax cuts before the last election and subsequently broke that promise?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman may recall the urgings of his Front Benchers and our determination to protect people during the recession. I make no apology for the fact that we sought to protect people during the recession; I make no apology for the fact that, by doing so, we have delivered the best economic circumstances that he can ever remember. If he wants transparency in tax matters, I challenge him to publish his own party's tax plans, about which the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said it would be stupid to let the public hear.

Mr. Couchman: Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Surrey (Sir M. Grylls) about the lorry drivers' strike in France, has my right hon. Friend contacted the European Traffic Commissioner? If so, did he find him conscious of the plight of British drivers, or was the European Commissioner too busy studying leaked documents from the Treasury?

The Prime Minister: I have not contacted the European Commissioner, but I understand that he has made representations to the French expressing concern about the drivers' welfare.


Jobseeker's Allowance

Q5. Mr. Corbyn: To ask the Prime Minister what plans he has to visit a jobcentre to discuss the operation of the jobseeker's allowance.

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

Mr. Corbyn: The Prime Minister should be ashamed of himself for not being prepared to go along to a jobcentre to discuss the introduction of the jobseeker's allowance, which is having a very serious effect on many people, especially because of the parallel introduction of incapacity benefit; many disabled people who have to face an all work test will lose their benefits altogether and will have to try to get unemployment benefit through the jobseeker's allowance. When the Prime Minister visits a jobcentre, will he consider that point and what he intends to do for the 220,000 disabled people who next year will apply under the jobseeker's allowance for unemployment benefit, but will probably lose it and end up destitute as a result?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense, and I think that he knows he is doing so. The purpose of the jobseeker's allowance, as he should know, is to help people to plan the most effective route back into work. It creates a better framework of advice and support for the jobseeker and ensures that claimants better understand that benefit is dependent on the activities that they undertake to look for work. I believe that that principle is well understood and well supported across the country.

The jobseeker's allowance is also, of course, underpinned by the jobseeker's agreement, which sets out what each jobseeker agrees to do to find work. That is infinitely preferable to the old system of unemployment benefit and income support, which was confusing and in many ways unfair.


Engagements

Q6. Mr. Patrick Thompson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 November.

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

Mr. Thompson: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the exhibition to be held in the Upper Waiting Hall in the House of Commons next week to highlight the tremendous achievements of our engineering and manufacturing industry in this country? Does he agree that engineering offers attractive career prospects for our young people and will he pay tribute to those who are working to promote the achievements of the engineering industry through the Year of Engineering Success campaign next year?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to hear about the exhibition that my hon. Friend mentions. I certainly agree with his sentiments; they were a key aspect of the competitiveness White Paper a short while ago and the reason we launched the action for engineering programme, to increase engineering's contribution to the national economy. There are now about 150,000 more people employed in manufacturing than three years ago. That reverses a long-term trend and is very welcome. In addition, some 40,000 to 50,000 people are on modern apprenticeship schemes. I agree entirely that engineering is an important part of the British economy.


Q7. Rev. Martin Smyth: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 November.

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

Rev. Martin Smyth: Has the Prime Minister noticed the change in emphasis between the hard man and soft man of IRA-Sinn Fein? Martin McGuinness is now promising to move heaven and earth--I know that he has tried to move earth in the past, but I do not believe that he has any influence in heaven--and Mitchell McLaughlin is now threatening lethal consequences, if the Prime Minister does not come up with terms. Will the Prime Minister speak on behalf of the nation and say that we are not prepared to bow to the threats of terrorists?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows and as the House wholly accepts, IRA terrorism is utterly unacceptable for any purpose, at any time, in any place. It is also completely counter-productive if there is any suggestion that terrorism will bring Sinn Fein to the negotiating table. It emphatically will not bring it to the negotiating table. If I may quote what the Taoiseach said recently--with which I entirely agree–

"If Republicans are committed to peace, as they say they are, let them call a ceasefire now and make it a credible one".