The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1995Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 26 October 1995

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 26th October 1995.




Q1. Mr. Lidington: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 26 October.

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.

Mr. Lidington: Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to reaffirm his opposition to terrorism and, in doing so, make it his policy to condemn unreservedly the selection by the Labour party in Exeter of a self-confessed terrorist as its candidate? Does not that action illustrate most clearly that the Labour party is utterly unfit for government?

The Prime Minister: I am wholly opposed to any act of terrorism, and I have no doubt that the majority of people in Exeter will feel the same.

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister confirm that the changes in housing benefit revealed today will mean that thousands of vulnerable people–pensioners, disabled people and families with young children–will lose help and be confronted with poverty or eviction? How can that possibly be fair? Is it not the clearest evidence of the Conservative party’s lurch to the right and the death of one nation conservatism?

The Prime Minister: Indeed it is not. My party remains in the centre of politics, and that is where it will always be. The right hon. Gentleman’s outrage is rather artificial because he obviously believes that this morning’s story was a leaked document: in fact, it relates to measures approved by the House last July.

Mr. Blair: The question is whether the measures are right. If the problem is the soaring housing benefit bill, does the Prime Minister accept that that bill has increased under his Government as a result of Government policy? Housing benefit has increased as housing investment has been slashed.

If the problem, as was suggested by the Secretary of State for Social Security, is private landlords charging excessive rent, is not it sensible to tackle that problem head-on instead of using vulnerable and innocent tenants as pawns to clear up a mess of the Government’s own making?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he had spent one single day in government, he would know that the Government have to take difficult decisions to control expenditure throughout the budget. This is the Labour leader who said that he was in favour of hand-ups, not handouts; this is the party that has said that it wants to take a very radical look at the whole system of social security to try to ensure that money is spent in the best possible way; yet, whatever Labour Members may say about fiscal control, whenever there is a difficult decision to be taken they will oppose it. That is why they will spend on every occasion and tax on every occasion. If they had had their way, public spending would be half national income and tax would be where it was when they left office.

Mr. Blair: If we had had our way, we would not have slashed housing investment, which has produced the rise in housing benefit. The Prime Minister is perfectly justified in saying that, if there is a problem, it should be tackled. I have given him a specific way of tackling it. Why does not he tackle directly the excessive rents being charged by private landlords rather than make tenants the victims?

The Prime Minister: I am pleased to see the right hon. Gentleman commit himself–I hope that the whole country heard it–to rent control. That is what the right hon. Gentleman has done–

Mr. Blair indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: Yes, he has–he cannot shake his head. What he has just said is a Labour commitment to rent control–presumably in the private sector, which would mean no more available lettings. Presumably, in the public sector he would hold down rents artificially and push up the amount of borrowing and tax. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to know how to deal with housing and matters of that sort he should look at some of his own boroughs such as Hackney, Lambeth, Tower Hamlets, Greenwich, Southwark and Islington, which among them have 6,000 empty council houses. They are all in good repair and ready to be let out, but none is available because of the chronic inefficiency and stupidity of Labour local authorities.

Mr. Viggers: Has my right hon. Friend had time today to see the report of the chief inspector of constabulary which, for the first time, includes some national indicators of the performance of the local, county police establishments? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the report contains some useful ideas, including the use of advanced technology, the increased use of community resources and better targeting of resources? Does he agree that that is a matter on which we can assist the police to be more efficient?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I have no doubt about that. I have not yet seen that report in detail, but I have asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to study it and report to me on its contents.

Mr. Ashdown: Does the Prime Minister realise that the number of primary school pupils in classes of more than 40 has risen by 30 per cent. in the past year? Does he understand why parents and governors are deeply concerned about that? Does he still believe that class sizes do not matter?

The Prime Minister: Of course every aspect of education matters, but what matters most is the quality of teaching, which we are seeking to improve. We have introduced a series of measures to do that in recent years, most of which have been visibly and volubly opposed by the right hon. Gentleman and his party.

Mr. Nicholls: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the assisted places scheme and grammar schools are immensely popular with parents? What conclusions does he think parents should draw from the fact that, although the Labour party is committed to the abolition of the assisted places scheme and grammar schools, 19 out of 24 members of the shadow Cabinet attended grammar schools or exclusive fee-paying schools?

The Prime Minister: Extending choice and opportunity is central to our education policy–it is what we believe parents want and we are delivering it. The Labour party’s policies are yet another case of double-think: Labour Members go to good schools, but want to abolish them; they send their children to good schools, but want to abolish them. I read that the shadow Cabinet is now going to Templeton college for the weekend–it had better watch out for its future.


Q2. Mr. Gerrard: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 26 October.

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

Mr. Gerrard: How can the Prime Minister justify his earlier answers, which defended housing benefit cuts that will attack some of the most vulnerable and poorest people? Does he believe that they should be forced to make up the short-fall in their rent from money that they need to survive–even using money such as their war pensions? Does it not show the Government’s complete abandonment of any sense of social justice or priority?

The Prime Minister today attacks poor people, but only two weeks ago he stood at the Tory party conference promising to abolish inheritance tax and capital gains tax.

The Prime Minister: The cheap insults from the Labour party are becoming increasingly silly. I shall tell the hon. Gentleman something about protecting the vulnerable: low-income families with children have received extra help–now worth more than £1 billion a year–since 1988. Extra help for poor pensioners has increased to £1.2 billion since 1988. In the past two years we have introduced help with child care worth up to £38 per week for the least well-off in work. We have introduced jobseeker’s agreements that are tailored to individual needs and a package of work incentives worth £700 million. All those initiatives are targeted to the people who are most in need in this country. It is about time that the hon. Gentleman saw what is really being done to help those in need and recognised that that sort of help is possible only if Governments resist some other elements of expenditure.

Mr. David Evans: May I tell my right hon. Friend that, unlike Labour Members, we on this side are totally united behind our leader? Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether in five years at the Dispatch Box he has ever had to bail out one of his Front Bench spokesmen for total incompetence? Is he aware that last Thursday Bambi, the leader of the Labour party, showed the nation on live television what Conservative Members have known for years: Labour Members are all totally incompetent? In other words, they are men of straw.

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that I do not have the same gift for understatement as my hon. Friend. We all noticed the Leader of the Opposition trying to rescue the shadow Home Secretary last Thursday–and we all noticed that he failed.


Q3. Mr. Watson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 26 October.

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

Mr. Watson: The Prime Minister will be aware of the recent announcement by the Secretaries of State for Health and for Scotland of the ban on general practitioners prescribing the drug Temazepam in gel-filled capsules. Contrary to the advice of almost all statutory and non-statutory agencies, including the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse and the Scottish drugs forum, the drug remains available in other forms simply to save about £15 million in public expenditure–the cost of prescribing alternatives.

Does the Prime Minister believe that the loss of young lives, which will continue to occur–particularly in Glasgow, but also in every other major city in the country–as a result of the availability of Temazepam, is a price worth paying for the short-term advantage of the Government’s desperate search for pre-election tax cuts?

The Prime Minister: The depths to which some Labour Members sometimes sink in their questions helps me to understand why the public have such a low opinion of politicians generally. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland acted on the medical advice that he received and he will continue to do so in the future.

Sir Ivan Lawrence: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the proportion of asylum seekers who come to Britain is rising, whereas the number is falling in other European countries? Is that not precisely because this country is not the clapped-out, impoverished nation that the Labour party pretends it is? Is it not time to strengthen our protection against those who have no right to be in this country?

The Prime Minister: My hon. and learned Friend is right about the proportion of asylum seekers in this country. Other countries have tightened their asylum procedures and we think that we should re-examine them as well. However, some of the stories that I have seen in the last 24 hours and some of the comments that I have heard from Opposition Front Bench spokesmen are entirely absurd. They are inaccurate and misleading and they would better not have been made. There is no doubt that we will honour our United Nations convention obligations and there is no doubt that claims will be considered individually. I hope that the activities of the shadow Home Secretary have not raised too many fears.


Q4. Mr. Winnick: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 26 October.

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

Mr. Winnick: Can the Prime Minister explain the purpose of setting up the Nolan committee if one of its main recommendations–the disclosure of outside financial interests–is rubbished and rejected by Tory Members of Parliament? Does not the Prime Minister understand that the general public will contrast the rejection of the Nolan committee’s very important recommendation with the way in which Tory Members of Parliament vote time and again to undermine the position of the poorest people in our society?

The Prime Minister: As I told the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), we set out innumerable ways–and I will give the hon. Gentleman a much longer list if he wishes–of helping people in great need in this country, and that will continue to be the case. The Nolan committee was established to report to the House and did so. A Select Committee is considering its report, and we will consider and vote on the Select Committee’s report shortly.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Having known Sir John Templeton well for many years, and having attended the launch of the Templeton college in Oxford, I share my right hon. Friend’s sentiments about the dangers of a visit by Labour Members to that college. Does not my right hon. Friend think it extraordinary that the Labour party should accuse the Conservative party of being uncaring when, with unemployment dropping in this country — unlike in most other countries in Europe– we are increasing our social security year by year? Is that the sign of an uncaring Government?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes his point most forcefully. Unemployment has dropped more dramatically here than in any other major country of western Europe. Unemployment is also below the level of other countries and our degree of social security protection is above it. As my hon. Friend said, Templeton college is a centre of excellence. Therefore, with this Labour party, it must be in danger.