The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1992Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 12 November 1992

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 12th November 1992.




Q1. Mr. Garrett : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 12 November.

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. Garrett : Today’s unemployment figures confirm that Britain is in the longest recession since the 1930s and is still heading for the deepest recession since the 1930s. How would the Prime Minister describe his stewardship of the economy, when to most people it has been incompetent and callous?

The Prime Minister : I think that the hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know the difficulties that are faced not only here but elsewhere across Europe and beyond Europe. What the hon. Gentleman characteristically forgot to mention is that, this morning, notwithstanding the fact that every single figure in the unemployment increase is a personal tragedy, that increase is smaller than the average monthly increase has been for some considerable time. I hope that that will prove to be a welcome trend. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will set out some measures later on today of which I think the hon. Gentleman may approve.


Q2. Mr. Devlin : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 12 November.

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

Mr. Devlin : Is my right hon. Friend aware that, since his recent chat with Mr. Delors, it was reported in yesterday’s American press that the French Government are hinting that a compromise on GATT may now be only just around the corner? I do not know what my right hon. Friend said to Mr. Delors when he popped into Downing street recently, but, for the sake of all those manufacturing industries in the north of England, will he keep on saying it please?

The Prime Minister : I shall certainly keep pressing the case for an early conclusion to the GATT round. I certainly welcome the assurance that the President of the Commission gave me last Friday about an early resumption of talks with the United States. I am delighted that that has subsequently been endorsed by the full Commission and equally pleased that Mr. MacSharry will be rejoining the talks. We will certainly continue to press for a very early conclusion. I believe that the Commission hopes to regroup on 20 November. It would be very agreeable if it were able to report a success with the United States so that the matter could then go to Geneva for final settlement.

Mr. John Smith : Will the Prime Minister tell us when he first knew that the Government guidelines on the export of arms-related machinery to Iraq were being breached?

The Prime Minister : Let me try, for the sake of the right hon. and learned Gentleman and a number of other hon. Members of the House, to disentangle the true issues from some of the misunderstandings and wilder allegations of recent days. Let me make the first and fundamental point that the issues raised by the Matrix Churchill case have been referred to an independent judicial tribunal. All the papers that the inquiry seeks will be available to it. All Ministers and officials who are asked to give evidence to that inquiry will be required to do so and the inquiry will be free to publish whatever material it wishes.

The second point relevant to the whole House, I think, is that every relevant aspect of the conduct of all Ministers will be open to scrutiny by the inquiry and I thoroughly welcome that. I will, if I may, clear a third point and that is that Ministers, in claiming public interest immunity, were doing what they were obliged to do by law. They signed such documents only as advised by counsel and the Attorney-General. It follows that they were not concealing information from the court. On the contrary, they were making available the relevant documents to the court. It was then for the judge to decide which of the documents should be protected by public interest immunity and which should not. I hope that that will clarify matters.

Mr. John Smith : Instead of answering a clear and direct question, the Prime Minister has issued a prepared statement. I remind him that this question goes right to the heart of the credibility of his Government. I ask him it again. When did he first know that the guidelines on arms- related exports to Iraq were being breached ; what date, please?

The Prime Minister : It is not clear at all that they were breached. The first allegations that they might have been breached were made by The Sunday Times in late 1990. Following that article, I, together with the Cabinet Secretary, had a meeting with Mr. Alan Clark. At that meeting he told me that it was totally false to suggest that he was advising the companies concerned on how to prepare licence applications in such a way as to conceal military use. Mr. Clark took the same position in the written witness statement which he provided to the court. It was not until his testimony in the case, therefore, that I had any reason to believe that what he had told me and what was in the written witness statement might not correspond with his oral evidence.

Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister understand that if he thinks that the guidelines were not breached, he must be about the only person in this country who has arrived at that conclusion? Will the Prime Minister tell us whether, when he gave replies, in particular a reply to the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) on the Liberal Benches on a previous occasion about exports to Iran being conducted in the light of the guidelines, that was the whole truth as he knew it at that time?

The Prime Minister : Every parliamentary answer that I have given or letter that I have dispatched has been based on the position as I understood it to be. I am utterly confident that that will be clear in Lord Justice Scott’s inquiry.

Mr. Duncan-Smith : Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that it is quite appalling for right hon. and hon. Gentlemen to go on the media and accuse my right hon. Friends of dishonourable conduct before– [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat unless he questions correctly. The Prime Minister has responsibility only for Government activities. Will the hon. Gentleman frame his question correctly or not?

Mr. Duncan-Smith : Yes, indeed, Madam Speaker. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that all that he has said so far this week indicates that there will be a complete inquiry and that all will be revealed, honourable conduct included?

The Prime Minister : The House has that complete assurance. Indeed, if I had wished there not to be a complete inquiry and hon. Members to be open to questions, I might have followed the proposal of the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) and had an inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, which would have made the matter sub judice in the House.

Mr. Ashdown : Is it not the case that the Prime Minister and the Government knew as early as July–that is, six months before the Prime Minister’s letter to me–that the machine tools being exported to Iraq by Matrix Churchill and other companies were beyond peradventure being used to make munitions for the Iraqi army?

The Prime Minister : I have replied to the right hon. Gentleman’s letter and the many media appearances that he has made. As he will see when he receives my letter, his second letter shows that he has completely misunderstood the position. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman asked a question ; he might have the courtesy to listen to the answer. The right hon. Gentleman referred to my letter of 6 December and wrongly claimed that I misled him by concealing knowledge of the Matrix Churchill case when I explained the Government’s policy on export licences for Iraq. That is not the case. If the right hon. Gentleman reads my letter, he will see that I refer in the second paragraph to an investigation by Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise which was into Matrix Churchill. I made it clear that I could not comment in case I prejudiced any proceedings. That is the rational explanation for which the right hon. Gentleman asked. He failed to understand my correspondence.

Mr. Anthony Coombs : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the latest figures, for October, for manufactured car exports show an increase of no less than 37 per cent. on last year? Is he also aware that the Textile Alliance anticipates that the exports of the textile industry from the United Kingdom, at £4.8 billion, will be a record for this year? Does he agree that a newly competitive exchange rate will give British exporters the opportunity to improve even on that excellent performance?

The Prime Minister : Yes. That is certainly the case, and there is no doubt that car production rose very dramatically in September, and the figures for October, which were released today, suggest that production is holding up. I have no doubt that our present competitive exchange rate will improve that position.


Q3. Mr. Cryer : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 12 November.

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

Mr. Cryer : Instead of passing the buck continually to a vague and unsatisfactory inquiry, will the Prime Minister clean out the cesspit of the present Government by sacking all those Ministers who conspired to pervert the course of justice in the Matrix Churchill case in order to cover up a Government policy of encouraging the sale to Iraq of machinery which they knew was to be used for the manufacture of munitions and nuclear weapons? Or would that involve sacking himself?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman is one of the foremost conspiracy theorists in the House and an acknowledged expert at muckraking. But not even he can call an independent judicial inquiry anything other than an impartial, clear-cut and independent inquiry. That is what we have ordered and that is what we shall have.

Mr. Tredinnick : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a great scandal that some local authorities are obstructing schools that want to become grant-maintained? Will he join me in welcoming the statement by the Secretary of State for Education that the law will be changed to make that obstruction impossible? Does he agree that most of that obstruction has come from Labour-controlled local authorities?

The Prime Minister : I think that that is a matter of fact and not conjecture. I very much welcome the action taken by my right hon. Friend in the Education Bill to ensure that parents have a proper choice. It is intolerable that some local education authorities should deliberately scare parents by claiming, entirely falsely, that by voting for grant-maintained status, they will damage their children’s education. It is equally unacceptable that LEAs, as teachers’ employers, should put pressure on staff to resist the ballots of parents.


Q4. Mrs. Mahon : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 12 November.

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

Mrs. Mahon : Does the Prime Minister intend to retain the nurses’ pay review body? If so, does he agree that, if that body is to have any relevance to the pay that nurses actually receive, the Government must accept its recommendations and fund them?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Lady will be able to hear my right hon. Friend’s statement very shortly.

Mrs. Peacock : Is my right hon. Friend aware that a private sector proposal to work the Markham Main colliery has been with British Coal for almost three weeks without any acknowledgement? Does he agree that that may suggest that British Coal does not want competition?

The Prime Minister : I shall pass my hon. Friend’s remarks to the President of the Board of Trade. I have no knowledge of that particular proposal, but I have no doubt that it will be brought to British Coal’s notice very speedily.


Q5. Mr. Don Foster : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 12 November.

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

Mr. Foster : Does the Prime Minister agree with those Conservative councillors in Bath who this week supported a motion expressing dismay at the deterioration of the national health service in Bath? Or does he support the comments of the Secretary of State who, on a recent visit, said of the closure of wards at the district hospital, of the loss of beds for the elderly mentally infirm and of the increased waiting lists for elective surgery that she thought they were “mere teething problems”?

The Prime Minister : I think that the hon. Gentleman is just a little selective. He makes no mention of the fact that health service expenditure is up by more than 50 per cent. in real terms since 1979 or that, for every pound spent in 1979, nearly £4.50 will be spent this year. Neither did he mention the fact that the national health service will spend nearly £2,500 a year for every family of four in this country. No other Government would have provided those resources.

Mr. Ottaway : Is my right hon. Friend aware that Sunday trading at Tesco superstore in Purley has resulted in an increased turnover, more jobs and a surplus of staff who want to work on a Sunday, and it is very popular with my constituents? Will he introduce legislation that clarifies that area of the law before an unacceptable compromise is introduced to the House in January?

The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend knows, we have a manifesto commitment to bring forward proposals for reform once the European Court of Justice has settled the compatibility of the current law with the free trade provisions of the treaty of Rome. We expect that judgment in the Court in November and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will then make an announcement to the House about legislation.