The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 7 February 1991

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 7th February 1991.




Q1. Mr. Ashby : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 February.

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, including one with the president of the International Red Cross.

Mr. Ashby : When my right hon. Friend meets the president of the International Red Cross this evening, will he tell him of the utter revulsion that the British people feel about the treatment of prisoners of war by Saddam Hussein? Will he urge the International Red Cross to redouble its efforts to obtain from the Iraqis details of the prisoners of war and about access to them? Will he ask the International Red Cross please to remind Saddam Hussein that the Iraqis cannot expect to benefit from the International Red Cross if, at the same time, Iraq refuses to honour its agreements under the Geneva convention?

Mr. Major : I shall certainly be making those points, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence did yesterday. I shall also be making it clear that in no way can Iraq’s behaviour be equated with that of the allies in their treatment of prisoners of war. Iraq is in gross and flagrant violation of its obligations while the allies are doing everything possible to ensure that they meet their commitments under the Geneva convention.

Mr. Kinnock : Today’s attack in Whitehall was both vicious and futile, since it will neither intimidate nor divert anyone, whether in government or opposition, in this democracy. May I express my relief at the fact that the attack caused so little harm to people, my admiration for the workers in Whitehall who continued with their duties, and my appreciation of the emergency services who responded with great speed and expertise? Today’s experience further increases our fellow feeling for the people of Northern Ireland who have lived with such atrocities for nearly two decades. May I put to the Prime Minister my firm view that outrages such as the one today increase the unity and determination that we all share to defend democracy and defeat terrorism, whatever its source.

The Prime Minister : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I know that he shares my contempt for terrorism, which he has just expressed again most eloquently. It is clear from the timing of this morning’s attack that it was a deliberate attempt both to kill the Cabinet and to do damage to our democratic system of government. It failed. In no circumstances could it possibly have succeeded. Many people in this country, including most noticeably those many brave people in Northern Ireland, have been the victims of terrorist attacks on many occasions. None of those attacks succeeded in changing the policy of successive Governments, nor the policies or principles of this House in any single iota–nor will they. The IRA’s record is one of deep failure in every respect. That failure was demonstrated yet again today. It is about time the IRA learned that democracies cannot be intimidated by terrorism and we rightly treat it with contempt.

Sir Bernard Braine : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in the present exceptionally cold weather, which is forecast to increase in intensity, some of our fellow citizens, especially the elderly and the infirm, may suffer grievously? Is it possible for my right hon. Friend to consider ways and means of providing extra help for such people?

The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security met my right hon. and learned Friend the Chief Secretary this morning to discuss the particular problems caused by the wholly exceptional weather. Severe weather payments have already been triggered in half the country and that may be extended. Our primary concern now is to ensure that vulnerable groups keep warm. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be announcing later today that the seven-day qualifying period will be waived in view of the exceptionally severe weather. Therefore, people should keep warm–secure in the knowledge that payment will be made to those eligible even if, as forecast, the cold weather lasts only a few days. Payment will also be made at the enhanced rate of £6 per week to reflect higher fuel charges.

Mr. Ashdown : Will the Prime Minister pass on our best wishes to those who were injured in this morning’s outrage? Does he realise that the whole House and, I believe, the whole nation will back him in his determination to ensure that government continues as usual, despite this morning’s outrage? Does he agree that the operation of an open democracy necessarily carries with it some risks and that the proper response to terrorism is to do as he has done and make it clear that we will not be deflected in our policies or weakened in our determination to preserve the open and accessible character of our democracy?

The Prime Minister : I believe that the right hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House in what he has said. Our determination to beat terrorism cannot be defeated by terrorism. I hope that that is fully understood everywhere. I shall be happy to pass on the right hon. Gentleman’s best wishes to those who were injured and also his congratulations and those of the Leader of the Opposition to those many people from the emergency services who helped this morning.

Rev. Ian Paisley : Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the people of Northern Ireland fully support what the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition has said today? Will he also accept that they congratulate the Prime Minister and his colleagues on their escape today? Will he bear it in mind that those of us who represent Northern Ireland in the House often face difficulties when murders and atrocities take place in Northern Ireland and we cannot have the time of the House to bring them to hon. Members’ attention as has occurred today? Will the Prime Minister consult the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and consider whether immediate action can be taken to ensure that the fair employment legislation is not used against workers supporting the war in the Gulf?

The Prime Minister : The whole House recognises that, alas, Northern Ireland has had far too much experience of the sort of attack that we have seen today in London. The hon. Gentleman will know of the firm opposition of the Government and their predecessors to that sort of attack in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Ernie Ross : Further to his reply to the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), when the Prime Minister meets the president of the International Red Cross, will he confirm that while we insist that Iraq accepts its responsibilities, we will also accept our responsibilities with regard to others who are suffering because of our allies’ failure to accept the International Red Cross and the Geneva convention? Will he tell the president that he will re-affirm that commitment to the Israeli Government in relation to their treatment of the Palestinians on the west bank and in Gaza?

The Prime Minister : All allies in this conflict are following the Geneva convention to the letter. That is, has been and will continue to be the case.


Q2. Mr. Cyril D. Townsend : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 February.

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

Mr. Townsend : In view of my right hon. Friend’s great concern for the plight of Terry Waite and the other British hostages in Beirut, will he give serious consideration to sending a senior emissary to Tehran and Damascus–taking advantage of our restored diplomatic relations–and to Beirut to learn at first hand what more the British Government can do to obtain the hostages’ long-overdue release?

The Prime Minister : We remain very concerned about the plight of Mr. Waite, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Mann and about the effect on their families of their long imprisonment. We already have representatives in Teheran, Damascus and Beirut and they are devoting a great deal of effort to securing the release of our hostages. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met Syrian Foreign Minister Ash-Shara’ yesterday and made it clear yet again that Syria will do all that it can to secure their release.


Q3. Mrs. Heal : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 February.

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

Mrs. Heal : I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement about the cold weather payments. As one who knows well the weaknesses of that system, why does he not use the power that he has to abandon the scheme altogether and look for a general uprating of pensions for all people all the time?

The Prime Minister : In making that point, the hon. Lady wholly forgets the changes that have been made to the payments available. She has perhaps also overlooked the fact that severe weather payments did not exist at all when last there was a Labour Government.

Mr. Stanbrook : In view of my right hon. Friend’s welcome words about the people of Northern Ireland, do not they now deserve a promise that they will never be removed from the protection of the British Crown?

The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend knows, they have that certainty without their express wish to be otherwise.


Q4. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 February.

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

Mr. Skinner : Does the Prime Minister recall that on 8 November last year, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer introducing his autumn statement, he said that for this financial year there would be a budget surplus of £3 billion? Is he aware that many Ministers are saying that that £3 billion surplus has disappeared? If such a gross miscalculation had been made by a Labour local authority, it would have been subjected to poll tax capping and surcharge. What does the Prime Minister intend to do – sack his Chancellor?

The Prime Minister : As to the fiscal position, that will be announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget. As to the accuracy of forecasts, far be it from me to recall unhappy memories for the hon. Gentleman, but there were occasions when the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) was out by several hundred per cent. in his fiscal forecasts.

Miss Emma Nicholson : Will the Prime Minister congratulate those of our allies such as Turkey, and other nations that have fundamentalist Muslim insurrectionists and great difficulty maintaining political stability, on the brave moves that they have made in furthering the allied cause in the Gulf?

The Prime Minister : I am entirely happy to do that. My hon. Friend expresses the point most eloquently.


Q5. Mr. Tony Banks : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 February.

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

Mr. Banks : May I share with the Prime Minister a problem that I have?

Hon. Members : “No.”

Mr. Speaker : Order. Provided that it is a question.

Mr. Banks : It is not that sort of problem, anyway. A small gent came into my constituency office on Monday and said, “Why is it that in Britain we have the highest inflation rate, the highest interest rates and the highest balance of payments deficit in the European Economic Community?” He asked whether these were the problems of success or an indication that the economy was in deep doo-doo. I said that I had not the faintest idea, but that the next time I saw the Prime Minister I would ask him. So what is it – economic success or deep doo-doo?

The Prime Minister : It is clear that the hon. Gentleman has not the faintest idea, for his facts are wrong.


Q6. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 February.

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

Mr. Taylor : Following the previous point, does my right hon. Friend agree that the stability of sterling against the deutschmark, despite the recent rise in German interest rates, shows increasing confidence in the Government’s determination to bring down inflation within the exchange rate discipline? Is not that the best framework for a lasting and sustained reduction in interest rates, with the removal of the premium required for holders of sterling in terms of interest rates against other currencies? Is not that better for British industry than the cut-and-run tactics practised by the Opposition?

The Prime Minister : The stability certainly reflects, to some extent, our membership of the exchange rate mechanism, which is in no sense a straitjacket. If the pound were falling, we should not be able to cut interest rates whether we were in or out of the exchange rate mechanism. In due course, the stability that the mechanism provides will help and not hinder. The opportunity will come as our inflation rate falls.


Q7. Mr. Malcolm Bruce : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 February.

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

Mr. Bruce : The husband of a constituent of mine unfortunately died in the Gulf a few months ago. As a result, my constituent and her daughter lost their home in Germany and require to be rehoused by the local council, which has not been able to rehouse them. If that is an indication of the way in which the Army treats widows, will local authorities be able to cope in those circumstances?

The Prime Minister : As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Army will always look at these matters sympathetically. If the hon. Gentleman will provide me with the details of the case, of which I had no prior knowledge, I shall be happy to examine it for him.