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1996 - PMQT 5th December 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 5th December 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

EU Unemployment

Q1. Sir Teddy Taylor: To ask the Prime Minister if he will raise at the next meeting of the European Council the level of unemployment in the EU.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): Yes, I expect to do so as part of the discussion on the intergovernmental conference.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As unemployment in the rest of the European Union has risen by 5 million in five years, which means 3,000 individual human tragedies every day, and as Britain alone has falling unemployment, partly because of our exclusion from the exchange rate mechanism, does the Prime Minister appreciate why a growing percentage of people in Britain consider the European Union a rather inadequate organisation? In the light of those alarming figures, is he willing to consider the possibility of letting the people of Britain have a say in their future? Can he at least guarantee that, in any referendum on the European currency, the decision will be taken before sterling is linked in any way to the euro?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend says, unemployment is falling consistently across the United Kingdom, and is either rising or static in the rest of the European Union.

On my Friend's main point, we have made a firm commitment to hold a referendum if the next Conservative Government recommend that Britain should join a single European currency in the next Parliament. I confirm to my hon. Friend that, if such a referendum were held, it would of course be held before sterling was linked in any way with any putative European currency. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor and I have often made clear, we do not intend to rejoin the so-called ERM mark 2, and would not wish to institute any policy of shadowing the euro.


Engagements

Q2. Mr. Beith: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 5 December.

The Prime Minister: 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. Beith: Is the Prime Minister seriously pressing ahead with Budget measures that would deprive between 7,000 and 10,000 ex-service people of their entitlement to war pensions, and cost thousands more their entitlement to benefit paid for deafness resulting from war service? It is only a few weeks since we saw disabled war pensioners determined to march, limp or be pushed in wheelchairs past the Cenotaph. Surely the Prime Minister has not forgotten them now.

The Prime Minister: Of course not. I fear that the right hon. Gentleman has been misled by reports in The Guardian and by the conflation of two separate and distinct matters. The first involves proposals to simplify about 19 complex measures. No pensioner will lose money as a result of that. The second concerns new independent medical advice on pensions paid for loss of hearing. The purpose of that independent advice is to determine what disabilities have been caused, so that people can be compensated accordingly. Those changes were--[Interruption.] That independent medical advice is the normal way of dealing with these matters. It has invariably been accepted. It usually puts up entitlements--that has always been the case in the past. I know of no circumstance when it has not been accepted. It was discussed this morning with the Central Advisory Committee on War Pensions, which will now consider the details.

Sir Rhodes Boyson: Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is great rejoicing today in the knowledge that A-level standards will be retained and strengthened? Does he agree that that is one of many reforms introduced by the Government for the benefit of British education?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend speaks for many people, including many millions of parents. Standards are at the heart of the Government's policies on education and will remain so. Our national qualifications must remain at the highest standard, and A-levels are central to that.

Mr. Blair: May I return the Prime Minister to the subject of war pensions? Future pensioners will lose as a result of the changes. Those changes to war pensions were described in the Government press release on Budget day as proposals

"to simplify policy and procedures",

whereas they actually mean £50 million-worth of cuts. Does the Prime Minister accept that that was inaccurate and misleading, and will he apologise to the British people for that deception?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong. If the House will permit me to repeat what I said to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I shall take the Labour leader through it gently, so that he understands. Two issues have been run together in a simplistic and misleading way by The Guardian. If the right hon. Gentleman relies on The Guardian for his information, that explains why he is so often inaccurate in his questions.

The first issue involves proposals to simplify complex measures. No pensioner will lose money as a result of that. The second is the way in which we have always dealt with independent medical advice concerning pensions. [Interruption.] Hon. Members shout. After some months, we have just accepted independent advice on emphysema, having been pressed to do so by the Opposition. We did so willingly. That is what we always do with independent medical advice and what we have done on this occasion. The purpose of the independent advice that we have always sought is to determine what disablements have been caused, so that people can be compensated accordingly. That is happening on this occasion--nothing different, no change. We are following the normal practice for dealing with these matters.

Mr. Blair: Let me deal with each part in turn, so that the Prime Minister can answer each part. The first involves hearing disability. The Prime Minister says that the changes were made on independent medical advice. If the reason for the changes was independent medical advice, why were all his Social Security Ministers opposed to them, which they were, and why did not the Budget press release mention the fact that the changes reduced expenditure by £35 million?

The second part involves the other changes that the Prime Minister mentioned. He says that they are merely a simplification. Are they on the basis of medical advice? Is that why widows' rent allowances are to be abolished for new cases? The Prime Minister shakes his head. Is that happening or not? Not issuing reminders to return claim forms--is that happening or not? Ceasing to issue copies of decisions to third parties--is that happening or not? Is the instruction "Do not direct appellant to Royal British Legion as their representative" correct or not? Instead of patronising comments about how we do not understand, will the Prime Minister deal, first, with the matter of medical advice and his Social Security Ministers and, secondly, with each of the points that I have made?

The Prime Minister: As I told the right hon. Gentleman a moment ago, he has completely misunderstood what has happened. He has not seen the full range of correspondence, and as usual--despite his piety about a leak a week or so ago--he relies on leaked correspondence. If he had seen the correspondence, he would not have misunderstood the matter in the way he just has.

I repeat: the right hon. Gentleman has got it wrong, and I hope that he will not pursue it. We are trying to simply the procedures, as that is the right thing to do in the interests of the taxpayer, as well as of the applicants and the recipients of benefits. If the right hon. Gentleman does not want to simplify procedures across government, no wonder he envisages expenditure rising under a Labour Government.

Mr. Blair: If the right hon. Gentleman is unable to answer the specific points that were put to him, he will stand condemned out of his own mouth. I must ask him why--[Hon. Members: "Question"]. This is a question--"why" is normally the start of a question. Why, if it is all just administrative procedures, does one Minister talk about a storm that is about to break about the Government's head?

The Prime Minister indicated dissent.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister shakes his head. A Minister said that. Why do the Government talk of "sweeteners"? They talk of these things because they know that they have been caught doing something shabby and mean-minded. If he cannot be trusted with British war pensioners, why should he be trusted at all?

The Prime Minister: As is typical, the right hon. Gentleman has quoted out of context and wrongly, and he has drawn the wrong conclusion from what he has said. One day, he might find out what he is talking about before he starts to talk about it.

Mr. Charles Wardle: My right hon. Friend knows that, when he vetoes the Commission's new proposals on borders--as Conservative Members know he will--the European Parliament has said that it will renew its action in the European Court. My right hon. Friend's own advisers say that the court will rule our borders unlawful, as the treaty now stands. Will he therefore explain to the House the contradiction, in that he says that our borders are not negotiable but his Ministers say that we will not break European law?

The Prime Minister: We have made it clear to our European partners on innumerable occasions that we will not accept any form of treaty change that alters the sanctity of British borders. Treaty change will need to be by unanimity, and we will not give our consent to it. There should be no doubt among any of our European partners that we are not prepared to accept any change whatsoever to the present system of safeguarding Britain's borders and, hence, our immigration controls.


Q3. Mr. McAvoy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 5 December.

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

Mr. McAvoy: Is the Prime Minister aware that his absent Chancellor of the Exchequer has been briefing journalists on the Prime Minister's failed attempt to change Government policy on Europe? Does he agree with the Chancellor, who has described the Prime Minister's failed attempt as a boomerang wrapped in high explosive which has blown up in the Prime Minister's face?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman may know that I have a statement in my hand that denies the report to which he refers.

Mr. Dover: Following the excellent Budget speech by the Chancellor last week, my right hon. Friend will have heard stupid statements from the Labour party about a lower basic rate of tax than 20p and lifting the ceiling for the 40 per cent. tax rate. Will not these unfounded pledges or promises--call them what you will--only give rise to higher taxation--

Madam Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister answers questions, not about the Opposition but on behalf of the Government. Perhaps the Prime Minister might turn the question around and attempt to answer it.

The Prime Minister: It is certainly--[Interruption.] It is nice to welcome back the deputy leader of the Labour party. I thought that he was in Scotland answering focus groups.

It is certainly the case that, in order to contain public expenditure and hold down taxation, many extremely difficult decisions have to be taken. We have taken those decisions and I acknowledge the difficulty of doing so.

Mr. Faulds: Out of order.

Madam Speaker: Order. The Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: Thank you, Madam Speaker.

I think that the whole country understands the unlikelihood of any alternative Government taking such decisions.


Q4. Mr. Skinner: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 5 December.

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

Mr. Skinner: Can the Prime Minister tell us where he has hidden those economic jewels that he referred to in a speech last week? I went to the Treasury chest to find them and I found a big IOU that said that the country owed a £380 billion national debt which had doubled since the Prime Minister took office. There was another IOU showing a £19.5 billion public sector borrowing requirement shortfall.

Then I met a bloke on the street with his head down. I said, "Are you looking for these economic jewels too?" He said, "No, I'm looking for work." In my opinion, the Government sold off the economic jewels along with all the silver that they sold off the other years.

The Prime Minister: I hope that, when the hon. Gentleman was in the Treasury basement the other day, he did not leave a match behind him.

As for our economic jewels, I invite the hon. Gentleman to find any other country with unemployment falling like ours, tax rates and growth at our level, growing exports, a narrowing trade gap and economic prospects as good as ours. He cannot do it, because there is not one. The chap he found looking for work would be joined by many others looking for work if the policies that the hon. Gentleman advocates were ever put into effect.