The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 20 June 1996

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




Q1. Mr. Nigel Evans: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 June.

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. Evans: Will my right hon. Friend ignore advice from the Opposition, who would sign away Britain’s vital interests to some European super-state? When he meets European leaders in Florence tomorrow, will he remind them of Britain’s economic success, and will he continue to fight robustly for Britain’s interests in Europe, in contrast with the Opposition, who would fight for Europe’s interests in Britain?

The Prime Minister: It is certainly the case that the principal Opposition party would jeopardise the rebate, undermine the veto and follow policies in Europe which certainly would not add to employment and would damage our position here and in Europe. I confirm that we shall not remotely follow any of those policies. We have a crowded agenda to address at the summit at Florence this weekend–on the intergovernmental conference, unemployment and economic issues–and I hope to get a resolution of the beef dispute.

Mr. Blair: Under the European Commission proposal, when does the Prime Minister think that the ban on beef will finally be lifted? Obviously, I am asking not for a precise date, but for the approximate time when he now expects it to be lifted.

The Prime Minister: We do not yet have an agreement on the framework. There is unanimous agreement by the Standing Veterinary Committee on the eradication plan, which is a great step forward. The agreement on the framework document remains to be achieved and I hope to reach an agreement in Florence. I am not certain that I will, but I certainly hope that it will be possible. After then, it will be for us–not the Commission–to determine the dates, as it will depend on the steps that we have to take. I would expect that, provided that we can reach agreement in Florence, we shall begin to see the lifting of the ban in the early autumn, but that will depend on negotiations still to come.

Mr. Blair: The question is not when it will begin, but when it will end. Perhaps the Prime Minister will confirm the following about the deal. First, there is no date on the deal. Secondly, there are no guarantees; indeed, any part of the ban being lifted has to be referred to a committee which is under no obligation to accept it. Thirdly, he has had to concede extra cattle to be slaughtered, although there is no scientific basis for it. Fourthly, there is no lifting of the third country ban and, fifthly, there is no deal on additional compensation, though we shall be spending billions on it for years to come. If those points are correct, is not calling it a triumph, as some Ministers have today, an utter travesty of the truth?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is wrong in almost every aspect of what he has just said. Let me make it clear to him that, but for the action that we have taken, we would be nowhere near the deal that it may be possible to strike this weekend. In the first eight weeks after the ban was imposed, nothing whatever was offered to us by our European partners. In the four weeks since we began a process of non-co-operation, we have reached agreement on the eradication plan and reached agreement with the Commission on a framework. I hope that we shall reach agreement with our partners on a framework to enable us to begin to move towards lifting the ban.

The right hon. Gentleman is quite wrong about the slaughter of extra animals. No animal that would not have been slaughtered is now to be slaughtered. All those animals would have been caught by the 30-months-plus plan. Almost every one of the statements that the right hon. Gentleman has just made shows a profound misunderstanding of the whole negotiation.

Mr. Blair: My understanding is based on the European Commission document.

The Prime Minister indicated dissent.

Mr. Blair: Then perhaps the Prime Minister will answer the question that was put to him: when does he expect the ban finally to be lifted? I suspect that the reason why he will not give us an estimate is that, if he did so, the period would be in years, not months. That is why he does not want to give it. Is not the truth that he is now so desperate to extricate himself from this mess that he will settle for anything? There is humiliation in the deal. There is ignominy in the deal. In fact, it is not a deal at all: it is a rout.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman’s position is wholly idiotic. Not only that, but now that he is talking in that fashion, he might bear in mind that his hon. Friend the shadow Minister of Agriculture supported the ban, against the interests of this country, after it was proposed. First the right hon. Gentleman says that he supports our policy and that we must negotiate an agreement. Then, when we do negotiate an agreement, he changes his position. The fact of the matter is that there would have been no chance of an agreement, but for the policy of non-co-operation that we have followed. We are now within a few hours, with luck, of getting an agreement in Florence–and that is no thanks to the policies of the Opposition, who right from the outset have done all that they can for party advantage, notwithstanding the damage to the British agricultural industry.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I wonder whether my right hon. Friend remembers the old cowboy movies that he must have watched in his youth. In that context, if one of our colleagues had gone to Germany and told a German audience that he would never be prepared to see Britain isolated in Europe, and that he would therefore be prepared to give up the veto, but then told a British audience that he would never give up the veto because Britain might have to be isolated in Europe, would my right hon. Friend be justified in saying to that person, “Paleface speak with forked tongue?”

The Prime Minister: When the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) went to Germany, I at least did not expect him while he was there to attack a policy that he was nominally supporting in this country. But instead, to curry favour with his hosts, he rolls over on his back with his feet in the air.

Mr. Ashdown: I did not support the Government in the policy of confrontation. Is it not perfectly clear that the Prime Minister, having again marched his troops to the top of the hill in Brussels, is now engaged once more in uselessly marching them back down again? What is the cost of all that folly, the terrible damage to Britain’s influence abroad and to respect for this country?

There is muddle, confusion and chaos at home, and we are now required to slaughter more animals. The Prime Minister says none, but the National Farmers Union says 66,000. Brussels is to police the scheme; there is no starting date, no timetable, no clear phasing and no binding response from our colleagues. What words will the Prime Minister now use to convince us all that this is the brilliant and decisive victory that he has predicted all along?

The Prime Minister: Yet again the right hon. Gentleman shows his breathtaking capacity to understand nothing. He is wrong on almost every aspect, as he will discover at the end of the discussions in Florence, when we will have finally dealt with the matter. We would still be waiting for any movement towards the lifting of the ban by Christmas or later, had we followed the policy that he advocated. As it is, we are close to an agreement that will be in the interests of the British agriculture industry. He says that he is interested in the agriculture industry when he is in his constituency, but when he is in the Chamber he just wants to make silly points.

Sir Peter Hordern: Did my right hon. Friend read the remarks that Mr. Henkel made at the conference attended by the Leader of the Opposition? He said that unemployment in Germany was continuing to increase, whereas in Britain it had fallen by 20 per cent., that the rate of taxes on retained profits in Germany was twice as high as in Britain, and that Britain was the enterprise centre of Europe. Is it not the case that we are doing rather well at cricket, our footballers are playing like heroes and my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) is nearly 80 years old? We are moving towards a position where all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, so why let Labour ruin it?

The Prime Minister: Mr. Henkel, the president of the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie, said more than that: he pointed out that we had received 10 times as much investment from outside Europe as Germany had, despite the fact that Germany was a larger economy. What is rather strange is that the celebrated guest at that great meeting where the president of the BDI paid those compliments to the United Kingdom would like to change all the policies that have made this country so successful.


Q2. Mr. Simpson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 June.

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

Mr. Simpson: Will the Prime Minister comment on his deputy’s claim on “Today” that the culling of a further 65,000 cows amounts to no more than “a handful” of cattle? How does he square that with yesterday’s comment by the Minister of Agriculture that any suggestions of a further cull were completely untrue? Will he give the House and the public two simple assurances: first, that the Government will guarantee full compensation to farmers for the reconstruction of the national herd and, secondly, that a sizeable contribution from Europe will now form a core part of the framework agreement that he has negotiated?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong to suggest that 67,000 additional animals are to be slaughtered, That is not remotely the case. Every one of those animals was going to be slaughtered in any event. Not a single extra animal will be slaughtered. [Interruption.] One can always tell when the Opposition do not like what they are hearing. Not a single extra animal will be slaughtered, so the hon. Gentleman’s question is based on total nonsense.


Q3. Mr. Butler: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 June.

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

Mr. Butler: May I wish my right hon. Friend a most enjoyable weekend break in Florence? So as to ensure that it is enjoyable also for Conservative Members, will he make it clear from the start, and again at the end, that he will accept no weakening of the British veto and no extension of qualified majority voting?

The Prime Minister: Weekends in Florence are always enjoyable, as I have learnt on many occasions in the past. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] It is a lovely place, and I am looking forward to an enjoyable weekend there. And I can ensure that my hon. Friend enjoys both this and subsequent afternoons by giving him both the assurances for which he asks.

Mr. Garrett: Why do the Government refuse to support the International Labour Organisation’s convention on home workers when this country has 1.5 million home workers, many thousands of whom earn less than £2 an hour, and many of whom earn less than £1 an hour? These people have no protection or rights under our existing legislation. Does that not show a quite incredible callousness?

The Prime Minister: Not remotely. A large number of people in this country are in work rather than unemployed precisely because we do not have the sort of legislation that the hon. Gentleman prefers. I happen to take the view that policies, whether the hon. Gentleman likes or dislikes them, are for this House and should not be pushed upon us by bodies such as the ILO.


Q4. Mr. Dunn: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 June.

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

Mr. Dunn: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is no part of his Government’s policy to impose regional government and regional assemblies on the British people, which would mean yet another tier of government, more expense, more bureaucracy and more interference and would be a nightmare for the British taxpayer?

The Prime Minister: I certainly agree that regional assemblies would be a total irrelevance, were they to be introduced. They are proposed by the Labour party only because it knows that its plans for a tax-raising Scottish Assembly are untenable unless it moves into this nonsense. The Labour leader is rather confused about this policy. He said on one occasion, “We are not committed to regional assemblies,” and then on another occasion he said that regions should have assemblies. On this issue, not only does he disagree with his colleagues–he disagrees with himself.