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1992 - PMQT 19th May 1992

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 19th May 1992.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Ron Davies : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 May.

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. Davies : The Prime Minister will recall the support given by all sides of the House and by the public at large to the British armed forces during the Gulf war. In recognition of that and following the verdict of a jury yesterday that nine of our soldiers were unlawfully killed, will the Government take all necessary steps to ensure that criminal proceedings are brought against those responsible? If his commitment to open government is serious, will he ensure that the full details of this incident are made available to the public, because this is not an occasion when there should be a cover up either by the American or the British authorities?

The Prime Minister : My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will answer a private notice question about this matter in a few moments. I sympathise with the anguish of the families and with their wish to find out exactly what went wrong. That has been our aim as well.

The sad fact is that in war terrible accidents of this sort do sometimes occur. Clearly we must learn the lessons of this for the future ; but I hope that we will not lose sight of the fact that these were American pilots risking their lives alongside our troops in the battle against a common enemy and to liberate Kuwait. I hope that that thought is not lost sight of : without American resolve and support the liberation of Kuwait would not have been possible.

Mr. Robert B. Jones : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that any minimum and legally binding rate of VAT imposed by the European Commission will be unacceptable to him as well as to the people of this country?

The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend knows, we are not in favour of minimum rates of VAT, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made that clear in his discussions with our European partners.

Mr. Kinnock : Following the Prime Minister's response just now, may I put it to him that the House is united in its admiration of the risks taken by United States and other service men in the course of the Gulf war ; and that the families whose sons are judged to have been unlawfully killed by allied fire are not seeking the identity of any United States personnel? They are seeking the truth about what happened to cause the death of their sons. In common with many others, I believe that they have the right to gain that truth. In addition to what he has already done, will the Prime Minister therefore use all the authority that he has to ensure that every available procedure is employed to see that the full truth is obtained?

The Prime Minister : I entirely understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. In many ways he expresses a view widely held across this country and elsewhere. The United States Government have acted in this case in the same way as they have acted in the case of friendly fire involving their own forces and their own citizens. A great deal of information has been provided, including by the pilots themselves. They were assured by their authorities that their anonymity would be safeguarded, and they provided information to the inquest on that basis.

This was a tragic accident and the whole House sympathises with the anguish and frustration of the families. The United States Government have shown their sympathy for the bereaved at the highest level. President Bush saw the families ; he has responded to their requests to him for more information. But the United States Government also have to weigh up the anguish of the families of their pilots and their obligations to their own citizens. All the relevant considerations have been drawn to their attention, but the decision whether to send pilots to the inquest must be for the United States authorities to make.

Mr. Kinnock : I am sorry to press the Prime Minister, but I must do so. The anguish of which he speaks--the anguish being experienced by the pilots and their families--is obvious ; but that anguish will not be increased or diminished if the British families are told the exact truth of the circumstances in which their boys were killed. Will the Prime Minister concentrate on that aspect of the matter, and set any possible legal proceedings aside for the concern of the appropriate authorities, while using his authority to gain the truth? That will not add to or--tragically- -diminish the great sadness that we know must be felt by any service men who have been involved in any way in this horrific incident.

The Prime Minister : As I told the right hon. Gentleman a moment ago, the inquest was provided with a great deal of information, including that provided by the pilots themselves. That information has been sought, and it has been provided. I am not in a position to provide any more information : that which is available has been provided.


Q2. Sir George Gardiner : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 May.

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

Sir George Gardiner : I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his publication today of the structure and membership of Cabinet committees. Does he intend to continue to blow the cobwebs of secrecy from Whitehall, and can he apply the same zeal to the antiquated procedures of the House by enabling hon. Members to reach decisions on the Select Committee on Sittings of the House before the summer recess, so that more sensible working hours can be adopted when we return in the autumn?

The Prime Minister : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to both those points.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House told the House last Wednesday, we plan to provide an early opportunity for the House to debate the Select Committee's report on the reform of our procedures. Obviously, hon. Members will want to have their own say on the far-reaching changes that are proposed ; I am sure, however, that my right hon. Friend knows my personal belief that the House needs to reform its procedures, and I hope that we shall be able to proceed to such reform as speedily as possible.

As for my hon. Friend's first point, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is looking across Whitehall and beyond, with the aim of incrementally removing unnecessary secrecy. I think that this is a way in which the Government can make their own information more accessible and more responsive to the citizens whom they serve.

Mr. Ashdown : May we leave aside for the moment the clear mishandling of the Oxford friendly-fire inquest by both the United States authorities and the Ministry of Defence, and the clear duty that now lies with the Government--which I hope that the Prime Minister accepts--to pursue those unanswered questions directly with the United States authorities? Will the Prime Minister confirm that he would not permit British soldiers who had committed tragic but human errors in conditions of war to be required to face either inquest or trial on the basis that such mistakes would be made in time of peace? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we should not require of the United States Government something that we would not permit ourselves?

The Prime Minister : I understand the underlying point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but so much depends on the individual circumstances of the case. I think that the whole House will understand precisely why that must be so. Certainly, there might be circumstances in which the right hon. Gentleman's conclusion would be absolutely right.


Q3. Mr. Gill : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 May.

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

Mr. Gill : Given that the Prime Minister will seldom find himself in a better bargaining position in this regard, what assurance can he give the House that issues such as immigration, border controls, Britain's contribution to the European Community budget and its rebate and--this should not be forgotten--the European working time directive will be settled before he ratifies the Maastricht agreement?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend raises a number of extremely important and, in many ways, tendentious issues. They are matters that relate to existing provisions of the treaty of Rome and they are not directly related to the Maastricht treaty. All the matters to which my hon. Friend has referred are extremely important and I give him the assurance that we shall fight to preserve British interests up to, during and after the ratification of the Maastricht treaty.


Q4. Mr. Pendry : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 May.

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

Mr. Pendry : In this season of maiden speeches does the Prime Minister recall his own in June 1979 in the Budget debate, when he expressed grave concern about the level of unemployment in his constituency? Since that time he has held high office--Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and now, of course, Prime Minister. The level of unemployment in Huntingdon by the same count today is 5,483, a staggering increase of 393 per cent. What went wrong exactly?

The Prime Minister : The strict answer to the hon. Gentleman is that I recall clearly my maiden speech, and I doubt whether any hon. Member is ever likely to forget it. It is often an extremely difficult occasion. As for employment prospects, the hon. Gentleman might care to consider how many of my constituents were in work. In my constituency and throughout the whole of the country we have a higher percentage of our population in secure jobs than in any other part of the European Community, with the exception of Denmark.


Q5. Mr. Bowis : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 May.

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

Mr. Bowis : Now that my right hon. Friend has persuaded trade union leaders to accept democracy in the workplace, will he see what he can do about their attitude to democracy in this place? Perhaps they could start by abandoning their current practice of appointing the Leader of the Opposition.

Madam Speaker : Order. That is not a question for the Prime Minister to answer.


Q6. Ms. Quin : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 May.

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

Ms. Quin : Is the Prime Minister aware that despite the welcome increase in dental treatment last year, Government policies are threatening the future of dentistry within the national health service? What action will the right hon. Gentleman take to resolve the dispute with the dentists, to reverse the ever-increasing cost of dental treatment and to ensure that dentistry will be available to the entire population within the NHS for the long-term future?

The Prime Minister : As the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry) referred a moment ago to the position over the whole period that the Conservative Government have been in power, perhaps I also could do so. There are now 27 per cent. more dentists in the general dental service than there were in 1979. Expenditure on the dental service in England alone exceeded £1 billion last year, an increase of 43 per cent. since 1979. On the vexed question of dental fees, which might have underlain the hon. Lady's supplementary question, a joint inquiry has now concluded its meetings and will report to the dental rates study group. It would not be right for me to comment until conclusions have been produced.

Mr. Rathbone : Might I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir G. Gardiner), welcome my right hon. Friend's publishing of the Cabinet committees and sub-committees? I ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that the translation of the inter-ministerial group on drug misuse into a Cabinet sub-committee is additional Government accent for this important area of activity?

The Prime Minister : Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance.


Q7. Mr. Trimble : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 May.

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

Mr. Trimble : May I refer the Prime Minister to the speech that he made on the Loyal Address, in the course of which he committed himself to strengthening the union between Scotland and England throughout this Parliament? In this Parliament will he show an equal concern about strengthening the union with Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister : I am happy to reaffirm the Government's commitment to respect the democratically expressed wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. That has been our position for a long time and there is no change in that. At the same time, the people of Northern Ireland and I believe that the whole of the United Kingdom wants the present political talks to succeed. I understand the difficulties of the talks, but I hope that all Northern Ireland political leaders will bear in mind their responsibility to help to make the talks successful in the interests of all the people who live in Northern Ireland. It is those political leaders and those talks that offer the best prospect of a secure and prosperous future for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Mrs. Angela Knight : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is fundamental that the basics of English are taught to children in schools? Is not that a vital part of the education policy of our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that teaching the dialogue of soap operas will not raise the standards of education?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend speaks for many hon. Members and for many millions of people outside the House. The basics of education are clearly of fundamental importance. I suspect that the teaching of the classics is rather more valuable to children than the teaching of soap operas.