The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 16 May 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 16th May 1996.




Q1. Mr. Dowd: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 May.

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. Dowd: Why does the Prime Minister now find it impossible to condemn the proven wrongdoing at Westminster city council under Dame Shirley Porter when, on 20 June 1995, from that Dispatch Box, he had no such compunction in condemning Monklands district council, even though the inquiry set up by the Secretary of State for Scotland was still under way?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman overlooks the Labour party’s internal report, to which I had referred.


Q2. Mr. Rathbone: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 May.

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

Mr. Rathbone: Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations and thanks for his commitment to the Government strategy “Tackling Drugs Together”, as evidenced most particularly by his involvement with young people last Tuesday?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming yesterday’s announcement of the fall of unemployment to a five-year low, and recommit himself and the Government to training more people for more jobs, rather than throwing them out of education by taking away child benefit from teenagers?

The Prime Minister: There is no doubt about the importance of a comprehensive strategy to deal with drugs among our young people, and we have made a great deal of progress on that in the past year. There is a great deal more to be done. That work devolves, not only on schools, parents, community leaders and the police, but on all of us. We should all, in our own way, give a lead by ensuring that teenagers realise the dangers of drugs.

Yesterday’s unemployment figures were further good news, as were the figures on inflation published earlier today. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that abolishing child benefit for teenagers would do nothing to help shorten the dole queues; I believe that many members of the Labour party fully understand that.

It is good to see the shadow Chancellor here, in the same room as his colleagues. I hope that, as he sits on the Front Bench chattering to them, they may discuss child benefit.

Mr. Blair: Has the Prime Minister seen the highly critical comments of the British beef exporters in relation to the Government’s handling of BSE? I appreciate the Government’s difficulties in this regard. However, in the light of those comments and the comments of farmers yesterday, is the Prime Minister satisfied that everything that should be done is being done in relation to BSE?

The Prime Minister: We are well advanced in this matter and we are taking our case to our European partners. The ban is unjustified and it should be removed. We have had some progress. Before yesterday, we did not have the support of any of our European partners on any of the issues. Yesterday, half of the European Union supported our position in relation to gelatine, tallow and semen. According to the Agriculture Commissioner, there is every prospect that we will get a satisfactory result on Monday.

However, we need to look not only at the lifting of that ban but at the lifting of the ban on beef generally. We will discuss a detailed series of proposals with the Commission, which we hope will persuade it to support us in encouraging our European partners to lift the ban. The ban is unjustified. All that can credibly be done is being done and will continue to be done.

Mr. Blair: I put it to the Prime Minister that many farmers say that they do not know where to take their cattle for collection and that the approved list of abattoirs keeps changing–for example, some abattoirs that should be working are not working. Yesterday, we were told that it will take six weeks for the cold storage facilities to be up and running. In the meantime, there is a backlog of approximately 120,000 cattle. In the light of what appears to be a widespread gap between the perception of Ministers and the reality of what is happening, will the Prime Minister redouble his efforts?

The Prime Minister: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that everything that can be done is being done to ensure that we speed up the slaughter of cattle that need to be slaughtered. There is a genuine problem that is not readily solvable–that is, the requirement to slaughter cattle exceeds the capacity of the industry to do so, even working at full rate. Some cattle will be put into cold storage, but that cannot happen until they have been at least partly rendered. The rendering industry is working at full capacity. Ministers and the industry are addressing their minds to solving those problems.

Mr. Blair: It might be said, to coin a phrase, that it is hurting but it is not working. I put a related point to the Prime Minister. We are now embarking on a 30-month cattle slaughter policy without a guarantee from the European Union that the ban will be lifted. Do we have an assurance from our European partners that, if a package is agreed, we will have full compensation? We are planning to spend £2.5 billion to £3 billion over the next few years and only 30 per cent. will be guaranteed in return. In the meantime, there is no guarantee that the ban will be lifted.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has referred to matters that are the subject of discussion with the Commission at the moment. The problem is not the Commission; the problem is the member states in the European Union. The first mechanism to ensure that the member states change their position and lift their ban is to reach a practical agreement with the Commission about how we deal with the general problem of BSE. It is not a question of dealing with what our European partners wish to do; it is a question of dealing with a proper strategy that will put the British beef industry back into a position in which it will export not only to Europe but to the United States and to New Zealand, which banned British beef some time ago. That is in the interests of our beef industry and it is foremost in our mind at the moment.


Q3. Mr. John Townend: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 May.

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

Mr. Townend: Has my right hon. Friend had time to study the speech of the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment at the weekend, when he said that Labour–[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I must hear the question. Is the hon. Gentleman asking about Government policy?

Mr. Townend: I am asking what our response is to the hon. Gentleman’s policy.

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Prime Minister is responsible only for Government policy, not for another party’s policy.

Mr. Townend: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the suggestion made at the weekend by the shadow spokesman for employment that a Labour Government would redistribute wealth? In plain language, does that not mean increasing taxes for the middle classes? Is that not old Labour–real Labour–which would tax out of envy? Does it not show that the Labour party is a high-tax party? Will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to strengthen our reputation as a low-tax party?

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know the rules. We are going to pass on that question. If that is the best that he can do, I am calling Mr. Ashdown. Try harder than Mr. Townend.

Mr. Ashdown: The farmers came here yesterday to complain not about the ban, but about the Government’s bungling. The Prime Minister has told us that the medicine is hurting, but it is working. How is it working for farmers who are losing their livelihoods because of the Government’s mismanagement of the matter? How is it working for pupils who are paying for tax bribes with rising class sizes? How is it working for the increasing number of young couples with negative equity who are facing house repossessions? Is it not perfectly clear that the Government offer the country not a continuation of the cure, but more of the poison?

The Prime Minister: It was very prescient of you, Madam Speaker, to tell the right hon. Gentleman to try harder. That is very appropriate.

The right hon. Gentleman, who is very keen to tell the House how strong a European he is, might recall that it is our European partners who have banned British beef unjustifiably on scientific grounds. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will try harder to persuade them that their ban is unjustified and, for once, join the Government in defending the interests of this country and of British agriculture.

As to the extent that our policies are working, I know that the right hon. Gentleman finds it disobliging to hear that at the moment inflation, interest rates and unemployment are down and investments, exports and production are up. The right hon. Gentleman could find no other country in the European Union whose leader could make that claim in its Parliament.


Q4. Mr. Patrick Thompson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 16 May.

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

Mr. Thompson: Bearing in mind the Government’s positive and very welcome response to the report of the working group on school security, is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent gun attack on Dowson first school in Valpy Avenue in Norwich, North when the art room was showered with glass? Fortunately, the incident occurred during the break when there were no children in the room. Will the Government use the extra resources that they have promised to provide protection measures in that school because parents are at present unwilling to allow their children to return to class?

The Prime Minister: I share my hon. Friend’s concern to ensure that schools are as safe and secure as they reasonably can be. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has heard my hon. Friend’s comments about the school in his constituency. I made it clear in the House on Tuesday that we will implement the recommendations of the working group on school security as soon as practicable–there are obviously issues to be examined before it can be taken in hand fully. We have already implemented some recommendations, including introducing measures to strengthen the law on offensive weapons in schools. It is an important matter and I assure my hon. Friend that there will be no undue delay.

Mr. Salmond: May I take the Prime Minister back to 1981 when he was working in the public relations department of Standard Chartered bank and I was working for the Royal Bank of Scotland? The Monopolies and Mergers Commission ruled out a merger between those two organisations as against the Scottish public interest. Does the Prime Minister agree that–despite some dodgy lending decisions, such as the Tory party overdraft–the Royal Bank has been a fair success over the past 15 years as an independent organisation, as it has been over the past 300 years? If there were to be a hostile bid for Scotland’s other–

Madam Speaker: Order. What has this to do with the Prime Minister?

Mr. Salmond: I am coming to that.

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must come to order and resume his seat. If he can tell me what the question has to do with the Prime Minister, I will allow it.

Mr. Salmond: If there were a hostile bid for Scotland’s other major clearer, the Bank of Scotland, would the Prime Minister say that that should be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and would the Scottish public interest once again be a determining feature in the outcome of such a bid?

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, who has to consider each case on its merits. He will consider each case, but I can give the hon. Gentleman no indication of what my right hon. Friend’s decision might be. That is for him and he would have to discuss and consider it.



Q5. Mr. Steen: To ask the Prime Minister what plans he has to pay an official visit to Dartmouth.

The Prime Minister: I have at present no plans to do so.

Mr. Steen: Is the Prime Minister aware of the deep sense of outrage and injustice felt by south Devon fishermen as a result of the abuse by the Spanish of flags of convenience which results in 20 per cent. of the British quota being landed in foreign ports by the Spanish fleet? Will he take the opportunity at the intergovernmental conference to let the other countries in Europe know how committed he is to the British fishermen and that he will not tolerate that injustice any longer? Britain deserves something better from Europe and, because it does a lot for Europe, it deserves something back.

The Prime Minister: Yes, I intend to raise that matter at the intergovernmental conference. Foreign-owned vessels cannot, of course, obtain British quotas at will, but it is possible to buy a British vessel with a licence and then fish against the United Kingdom quota. Although that is legal, it was certainly not what was intended when the common fisheries policy was established or when the House approved the common fisheries policy. The intention was that national quotas would be available for national fishermen, to the advantage of the whole Community, and I intend to raise that point at the intergovernmental conference. I have advised our European partners of that and we expect that there will be changes at the IGC and, of course, the conference cannot reach a conclusion without unanimity.