The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 20 February 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 20th February 1996.




Q1. Mr. Martyn Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 20 February.

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. Jones: Does Prime Minister accept Sir Richard Scott’s judgement that the Attorney-General was personally at fault? Given the collapse in public confidence in him, is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman started referring to him as unassailable?

The Prime Minister: I have to say that I believe that the Attorney-General acted perfectly properly throughout this whole affair.

“How the narrative of fairness can be fabricated into an indictment of the Attorney-General, I fail to follow.”

Mr. Mackinlay: It is because he is an awful lawyer.

The Prime Minister: I am sorry to hear what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) below the Gangway says because I was quoting the defence counsel at the Matrix Churchill trial.

Mr. Matthew Banks: On a different point, does my right hon. Friend recall the dark days of nationalised industries when they cost the taxpayer £50 million a week? Is he able to contrast that with the position now where, in the private sector, they contribute £50 million to the national coffers? Is that not about five new schools a week? Is that not something that the Labour party simply has not grasped?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend about the advantages of private ownership over public ownership. We have seen this in a wide range of areas over many years. I have no doubt that, wherever appropriate, things are better handled in the private sector and should be in the private sector rather than in the public sector. That is so in terms both of the experience that we have of the way in which the private sector operates and of the general demand to make this country competitive, with the lowest possible tax regime consistent with that.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree with the specific finding of Scott that Ministers agreed to the sale of non-lethal weapons to Iraq, and agreed not to inform Parliament and the public, and that that failure was deliberate and in breach of their duty of ministerial accountability? Does he agree with those specific findings of Scott or not?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman takes time to read the whole of Sir Richard Scott’s report, he will see that Sir Richard accepts that Ministers regarded not that there was not a change of the guidelines but that there was an interpretation of the guidelines against changing circumstances. Sir Richard accepts explicitly that Ministers regarded the relaxed interpretation

“as being a justifiable use of the flexibility believed to be inherent in the Guidelines.”

[Interruption.] I am sorry that hon. Members are laughing. That is Sir Richard’s view and I agree with him on that point.

Mr. Blair: The point that I am asking the right hon. Gentleman about comes before that about whether the guidelines were changed; it is whether he is prepared to accept the specific findings in D4.42 of the Scott report that Ministers agreed to the sale of non-lethal weapons to Iraq, that they agreed specifically not to tell Parliament, and that that agreement in Sir Richard’s words was “deliberate” and in breach of their duty of ministerial accountability. Rather than the general, will he answer that specific? Will he tell us whether he agrees with that paragraph of the report–yes or no?

The Prime Minister: What Sir Richard says is that the reason for the decision not to inform Parliament was because of a concern that to do so

“might be detrimental to British trading interests”–

that is to say, jobs. That is a direct quotation from what Sir Richard had to say.

Mr. Blair: That is simply not the case. Sir Richard gives specifically the reason why Ministers did not tell Parliament and the public. He said:

“the overriding and determinative reason was a fear of strong public opposition”.

That is a quite different matter. [Interruption.] Does not the matter go to the very heart of parliamentary democracy? On virtually every page of the report there are details of answers that are inaccurate, untrue, misleading. Is no one going to take responsibility for that? Have no Conservative Members got the courage? Does none of them want to hold Ministers to account? If the Prime Minister cannot answer and say whether he agrees with the paragraph–it is his report, which he set up, on which he spent money–the Conservative party and the Conservative Government will remain knee deep in dishonour.

The Prime Minister: On the question of defence exports, let me remind the right hon. Gentleman–he may not like it–of what the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) said when he was a Minister. That spokesman for a Labour Government said:

“It has been the policy of successive Governments not to reveal information on the supply of arms to individual countries.”–[Official Report, 10 June 1974; Vol. 874, c. 396-97.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that was the Labour Government’s position? He huffs and puffs with false indignation. If he had a shred of honesty himself, he would admit that the two central charges levied at the Government repeatedly by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and his hon. Friends have been found to be untrue and should be withdrawn.

Sir Michael Marshall: Does my right hon. Friend agree that in an increasingly competitive and turbulent world, this or indeed any Government must take great care in the way in which they balance national interest and the promotion of British exports? Is it not clear that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General are honourable Members and that they should be given some degree of trust and flexibility, as the Labour party would give its Ministers if it were in government? The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) should have a care.

The Prime Minister: I think that there are some substantive points, which tend to get lost amidst these exchanges, and I shall tell the House what the important ones are. We did not export lethal weapons to Iraq, unlike many other countries. No British troops in Kuwait faced British weapons, and our guidelines for the export of defence equipment to Iran and Iraq were at least as strict as, and probably stricter than, those of any other country. That is the reality that the British nation needs to understand, and that the Opposition seek to hide.

Mr. Ashdown: Can the Prime Minister think of any other organisation in Britain, except perhaps British Gas, in which senior executives who had been criticised by an independent inquiry in the terms in which his Ministers have been criticised by Scott would be allowed by the boss to hang on to their jobs?

The Prime Minister: Again, the right hon. Gentleman resorts to partial understanding. Whether that is a tactic or whether the right hon. Gentleman really understands only partially, is something that neither I nor the House has ever been able fully to understand. If the right hon. Gentleman reads the whole report, he will realise that the central charges levied, the charges that required me to set up the report so that they could be impartially examined and laid to rest, have been impartially examined, and have been laid to rest.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: Did my right hon. Friend see the report in The Sunday Telegraph this week about the relative competitiveness of British industry? It was entitled, “Britain advances, Germany retreats”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our vital interests lie in free trade, free markets, free enterprise policies and freedom from the social chapter and from the other Euro-meddling so beloved by the Labour party?

The Prime Minister: I am entirely happy to agree with my hon. Friend about the economic circumstances that we now face, as a result of the difficult and often unpopular decisions that we have taken to put the British economy on an even keel. We now have the best platform for sustained prosperity, and for sustained growth with low inflation, that we have seen for many years. Nobody doubts that, except those who are professionally inclined to wish to doubt it, because it conflicts with their interests–and they sit on the Opposition Benches.


Q2. Mr. Alan W. Williams: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 20 February.

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

Mr. Williams: Does the Prime Minister agree with Sir Richard Scott that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury again and again, in letter after letter to hon. Members, misled Parliament about the arms sale policy to Iraq, and consistently failed to discharge his duty of ministerial accountability to Parliament?

The Prime Minister: No; I have made the point before, and I shall reiterate, that I do not believe that my right hon. Friend deliberately misled Parliament. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I do not believe that. The requirement to inform Parliament is clearly set out in “Questions of Procedure for Ministers”–and the reason why the House knows that is that I arranged for its open publication for the first time. Unlike previous Governments, who were asked to publish it by their own backbenchers, I published it without being asked. Previous Governments were asked, and declined to publish.

Mr. Butcher: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as well as having the fullest support of the British people, both in Ulster and on the mainland, in pursuing the peace initiative, he also has the widespread support of the British people both in Ulster and on the mainland in vigorously pursuing those who wish to damage the civil liberties of the people of London and elsewhere, through a bombing campaign? Does he further agree that those who wish to damage the civil liberties of our people should not be too surprised if their own civil liberties are damaged in the pursuit of justice?

The Prime Minister: We are determined to maintain law and order and democratic principles and we shall continue to seek and hunt down those responsible for the recent attacks. We give the highest priority to the security of citizens on the mainland and in Northern Ireland. Each of the three bombs in the past 10 days or so has been the act of men callously unconcerned about the death or injury of innocent people–perhaps people who have had no connection whatsoever with the ancient feuds and disputes of Northern Ireland. I do not believe that they either deserve or will receive sympathy and understanding from any decent citizen, either here or in Ulster.


Q3. Mr. Foulkes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 20 February.

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

Mr. Foulkes: Does the Prime Minister agree that, since the Chief Secretary has repeatedly given inaccurate and misleading information to Parliament and to the public, he is the ideal man to present the Tory party’s tax plans at the next election?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that my right hon. Friend will be presenting tax plans from this Dispatch Box after the election also.


EU Unemployment

Q4. Sir Teddy Taylor: To ask the Prime Minister if he will raise at the next meeting of the European Council the level of unemployment in the EU.

The Prime Minister: I shall take every opportunity to protect the United Kingdom’s flexible labour market and falling unemployment against the damaging effects of the social chapter. No other significant European country has an unemployment rate lower than ours.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As high unemployment is becoming a tragic nightmare on the continent of Europe– by comparison with the UK, where unemployment has been falling consistently–will the Prime Minister do all in his power to persuade his colleagues in Europe to abandon illogical policies such as fixed exchange rates, which are simply a recipe for job destruction?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is quite right about the relative levels of unemployment. While unemployment fell here last week to a five-year low, in most similar large European countries it is either growing or remaining static at a much higher level than here in the United Kingdom. As the president of the European Monetary Institute said just the other day, other member states should use the United Kingdom as their economic model. I am delighted to have his support–that is what I have been saying to my colleagues on the European Council for several years now.