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1996 - PMQT 10th December 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 10th December 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Kirkwood: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 10 December.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): 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.

Mr. Kirkwood: In spite of commendable resolution at the weekend, is it not clear to everyone that attempting to run a minority Government, with a party in open revolt, makes it impossible to secure a deal that is in the long-term interests of the United Kingdom, at Amsterdam, Dublin or anywhere else? If, as the Prime Minister suggested on Sunday, he is motivated by the national interest, will he operate on that basis and call for an early Dissolution of Parliament, so that we can have an early general election?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman will be unsurprised to hear that I will pick the election date in my own time and not at his behest.

On the discussions in Europe, I set out the Government's position with great clarity. There are a number of extremely difficult questions to face in the intergovernmental conference over the next few months; on some issues, we have allies in Europe and, on others, we do not, but in each instance we have set out our position and we propose to stick with it.

Mr. Alison: Is my right hon. Friend aware of how greatly the public at large, especially parents, will welcome the Government's decision to press the broadcasting authorities to curb television violence? Does he agree that, if there is even slight evidence that increased screen violence is linked, via imitation or disinhibition, to increased crime, the benefit of the doubt must be given to the potential victims of such crime and no reasonable remedies must be discounted?

The Prime Minister: I believe that my right hon. Friend has spoken for parents throughout the country. There is a difficult balance to keep in ensuring that we have free and open media and that they maintain the standards that are appropriate for society generally and for children. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage has today agreed a plan of action with the chairmen of the BBC, the Independent Television Commission and the Broadcasting Standards Council, and we look forward to its being carried out.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree with Sir Leon Brittan, who said this morning that Conservative party divisions were weakening Britain's negotiating position in Europe?

The Prime Minister: There are two things that really damage the national interest in negotiating in Europe. The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to say that, when the House of Commons is not united on any issue, that weakens any Government's position in international negotiations. That is certainly true; but what also undermines our national interest and our negotiating position in Europe is the fact that many of the socialist Governments in Europe expect, were there to be a Labour Government, a very easy ride and a distinct change of policy. They believe that a Labour Government would make changes and surrender positions to which this Government have held--positions which, if surrendered, would be damaging to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Blair: May I suggest to the Prime Minister that, after his interview on Sunday, much of which I would agree with, there is less clear water between him, his deputy, one half of the Cabinet and the Opposition than between him and most of his Back Benchers? If he is not prepared to agree with Sir Leon Brittan, does he stand by his own comments at the weekend that the Conservative divisions were "self-evidently" damaging to Britain's interests?

The Prime Minister: I made that perfectly clear at the weekend. The right hon. Gentleman knows that. I have also made it clear that the Government have set out a position that we believe to be in the national interest. The national interest is going to come before the party interest. There is no doubt about that, and I made that absolutely clear again. I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman that what also damages the national interest is the belief among our partners in Europe that many of the positions that we hold would be surrendered by an alternative Government.

Mr. Blair: I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has admitted that these Conservative divisions damage the country's interest. [Interruption.] "It is obvious," shouts a voice from the Back Benches. It is obvious, except to the Conservative party. Is the Prime Minister aware that Lord Blake has said in the past few hours that he has never seen the Conservative party in such disarray in 14 general elections? Is he aware that, this lunchtime, the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Hayes) referred to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) as "politically insane"? Some might say that he is a good judge of such matters. If all that is the case, does not the Prime Minister agree with the vast majority of people who say that, if the Conservatives cannot be trusted to run themselves, why should they be trusted to run this country?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that he has precisely the same divisions on his own Back Benches. I look at the hon. Members for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I ask whether they share the same position on European matters as the right hon. Gentleman. But I shall tell him about unity: we are united in our opposition to a centralist, federalist Europe as much as Labour is united in favour of a federal Europe. We are standing up for Britain's interests in Europe; the Labour party is determined to stand up for Brussels' interests in Britain.

Mr. Nigel Evans: My right hon. Friend knows, because he has visited it, that Ribble valley is a beautiful part of the United Kingdom that attracts many thousands of tourists every year. Many hundreds of jobs are involved in the tourism industry there; many of them are in small businesses, such as bed and breakfast, small restaurants and cafeterias. What does he believe would be the impact of the introduction of a minimum wage and the social chapter and of caving in to every rule and regulation from Brussels on small businesses in Ribble valley?

The Prime Minister: There is no doubt about the impact. Small businesses would suffer greatly were those policies to be imposed on them. Not only would existing small businesses suffer greatly but jobs would be lost. Not only would present jobs be lost but the future construction of small businesses would be inhibited and future jobs that would otherwise be created would not be created.


Q2. Mr. Denham: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 10 December.

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

Mr. Denham: Will the Prime Minister confirm that the changes taking place in the administration of war pensions include the end to automatic reviews of entitlement, an end to reminders to submit claim forms and a requirement to provide independent evidence before a review can take place? Most important, will he confirm that civil servants estimate that, over and above any administrative savings, 16,000 war pensioners will lose out as a result of those changes?

The Prime Minister: Last week, the Leader of the Opposition made a number of charges about war pensions which he now knows to be incorrect. He may not have known it last week when he said it in the House, but he now knows that it was incorrect and I hope that he will correct it. A few hours ago, the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) made charges about war pensions, which she now knows were incorrect. She was told, in the past half-hour in the House by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security, that they were incorrect. The fact is that some of the changes made last week extend benefits rather than reduce them. Some claimants will get more. No claimants will lose.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) will know of the letters written by the British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association and the Royal British Legion which made it clear that the publicity last week and the activities of the Labour party totally misrepresented the Government's policy and what the Government had done on the issue. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not in the same business.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Will the Prime Minister confirm full and continuing support for grammar schools, which provide unique opportunities for children from low-income homes to achieve educational excellence? Will he resist in all ways something that is worrying us in Southend, where a quarter of all our children attend such grammar schools--abolition of selection tests, which would be a recipe for the destruction of these excellent schools?

The Prime Minister: I can confirm that. As my hon. Friend will know, there are proposals before the House to allow a limited amount of selection in schools of all sorts in the state sector. What we seek to do in the education sector is provide a degree of diversity that matches the diversity of the children. A single, regimented, rigid system does not enable the diversity of education that our children need to have provided. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is presenting a Bill to the House that will extend diversity and prevent the problem set out by my hon. Friend.


Q3. Dr. Lynne Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 10 December.

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

Dr. Jones: Surely the Prime Minister must now accept that the civil war in his party makes it impossible for his Government to have any clear authority in negotiations in Dublin or anywhere else. Would he take seriously any other European Government who were in the same shambles as his own? The last time this happened, the Prime Minister resigned as party leader. Now that it has happened again, will he, in the interest of the country, resign as Prime Minister and call a general election?

The Prime Minister: The simple answer is no.

As for divisions, if the hon. Lady is so concerned about them, perhaps she might have a word with the 50 or so of her colleagues who have made it perfectly clear that they are wholly opposed to a single currency. On one day, we have 50 of them saying that they are opposed to a single currency and others, led by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice), writing to The Independent saying that they are in favour of it. The hon. Lady had better realise that the splits in the Opposition are seismic.

Mrs. Gorman: Has my right hon. Friend had time to read the MORI poll published in The Sun newspaper yesterday, which was, in part, conducted in my constituency and which showed that 68 per cent. of respondents felt that they did not wish to be in a single currency and wished to keep the pound; and that almost 50 per cent. said that they would rather not be in the European Union at all? Is he aware of other polls that reflect similar sentiments? Does he not think that the honest way to clear the air would be to have a referendum and ask the people of Britain which way they would like our country to go in future?

The Prime Minister: We made it clear last April that, if the Government decided that we would enter into a single currency, there would be a referendum on the specific question whether we should go into a single currency. That has been settled policy since last April and I hope that my hon. Friend will support that policy.

What we need in this country is a rational debate on the issue of Europe, so that--not only on the issue of a single currency, but on all the other important issues that lie ahead of us in the intergovernmental conference--people have a reasoned debate and are then able to make reasoned judgments on the basis of facts, and not scares.