The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 4 July 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 4th July 1996.




Q1. Mr. Skinner: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 4 July.

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. Skinner: Is the Minister aware that, in the next two or three days, Members of Parliament and Ministers will be voting to set a new and increased national minimum wage for Members of Parliament and Ministers? If it is good enough for them, why can we not have a national minimum wage for everyone else? If those increases go beyond the pay barrier, will the Government give a guarantee that workers, including nurses and others, and pensioners will all receive the same?

The Prime Minister: I am not at all sure that the hon. Gentleman carried every Opposition Member with him with that particular remark.

The point about a minimum wage, of course, is the impact that it would have on the capacity to employ people. That is the point that we have repeatedly made. That is one of the reasons why unemployment is falling in this country, whereas it is rising in other countries. We intend to continue to see a downward trend in unemployment, which is why we do not favour the policies that the hon. Gentleman advocates.

As for the report that will be published this afternoon, let me say first to the hon. Gentleman that it is worth remembering precisely why the review was set up. It was for two reasons essentially: first, it was necessary to devise a new formula for determining Members’ pay as the old one had broken down and, secondly, 300 Members of the House, of whom 200 were Labour Members, had called for such a review–not the hon. Gentleman, I concede that–in a motion before the House.

Following the consultation that I have had with leaders of other political parties, it is clear that they do not wish to express a view and that they believe that it is a matter for the House as a whole to decide. The Cabinet decided this morning to offer the House an opportunity to vote for the recommendations as they stood, but the Government will be recommending and also voting for restraint.

Mr. Elletson: Does my right hon. Friend agree that defence exports earn this country billions of pounds every year and guarantee thousands of jobs in Lancashire and elsewhere? Is it not, therefore, an absolute disgrace that Labour Members now oppose the sale of British defence equipment to Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and, some of them, even to the world’s largest democracy, India? Does not that show that workers in the defence industry face a real danger from the Labour party?

The Prime Minister: Defence is a very important industry in this country and one that plays a very important part in our economy, both in export earnings and, of course, in job provision in many parts of the country–the north-west, the west country and many parts of the home counties as well–so it is extremely important. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the policies of the Labour party. It is also right for the House to note that the further defence review promised by the Labour party promises to cut sufficient from the funds to ensure that there would be no money at all for the Royal Navy.

Mr. Blair: Are this morning’s newspaper reports correct that the selective slaughter scheme for beef is now to amount to 120,000 cows, which is a higher figure than previously thought, and that an additional £100 million, £200 million or possibly more will have to be paid in compensation on top of the £2 billion that the Prime Minister has already mentioned? Are those reports correct?

The Prime Minister: It is not possible to be entirely clear precisely how many animals will be slaughtered. What is clear is what was set out in the 30-months-plus scheme, with which I think the right hon. Gentleman is familiar. Beyond that, we are asked from time to time to make estimates of precisely what the figures are, and an estimate of about 120,000 is the best that we can make–that figure has been around for some considerable time. The cost is the cost that we have set out on previous occasions.

Mr. Blair: I think it is clear that the number is to be greater than originally anticipated. When the Prime Minister made his statement to the House earlier, he suggested that the reports of additional slaughter schemes were incorrect. Will he confirm whether, as a result of the Florence summit and the statement from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last night, the 1989 to 1990 cohort is to be included in the selective slaughter scheme, which will increase the number of cows involved? Last night, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food apparently said that it would take six to nine months for the scheme to be implemented. Does the Prime Minister still hold to November of this year as the date by which the ban will be completely lifted?

The Prime Minister: Yes; on the information we have, we still hold to the dates that we set out, but, as I said at the time, those dates depend on our meeting the requirements, which I previously set before the House and which we believe we can meet in the time scale that I set out. Long before I went to Florence, there was a lot of discussion about the 1989 to 1990 cohort involving both my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture and me. There is a distinction between the compulsory slaughter and the voluntary scheme that exists for the 1989 to 1990 cohort–it has to be voluntary, because there is no means of determining precisely which animals would qualify for it.

Mr. Blair: With due respect to the Prime Minister, the Agriculture Minister had said that the 1989 to 1990 cohort was not to be included and it is now clear that it is. The Agriculture Minister now says that the lifting of the ban may or may not take place at the end of the year. As more details emerge, is it not clear that the costs will be greater, the number of cattle slaughtered will be higher and the time scale will be longer–those prices are all to be paid by the British people?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman seems to have lost sight of the two fundamental reasons why the policy is necessary. The first is to ensure public health–a point that has not crossed his lips at any stage of the questions that he has bothered to ask me on the subject. The second reason is to ensure that the British beef industry will be able to recover and recapture the markets around the world for prime British beef. That is the point at stake: the livelihoods of 650,000 people. It would be helpful if, for once, instead of the pedantry that we have heard from the right hon. Gentleman, he acknowledged, first, the need to deal with the matter in the interests of the beef industry and, secondly, the need to deal with it in the interests of public health.

Mr. Butcher: Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that he will never introduce a policy which, as the price of a sell-out to Scottish nationalism, would bring in the compulsory dismemberment of England into regions? That latter policy would be purely to justify the continued presence of Scottish Members of Parliament in the House. Does my right hon. Friend further agree that such a policy would set in trend a series of developments that would be bad for the cohesion of England, bad for Scotland and bad for a Union that has served our people so well?

The Prime Minister: I believe that my hon. Friend speaks for millions of people in every part of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.] The dangers that arise from the Opposition’s policies are self-evident and many people are beginning to see them. [Interruption.] Why are the significant questions not answered? If Scotland has its own Parliament, why should there be continued over-representation of Scottish Members in the House? What about the position of hon. Members who represent Scotland? If they determine some issues in a Scottish Parliament, by what logic or equity should they vote for those matters as far as they affect England, Wales and Northern Ireland? If the Labour party has no interest in introducing new taxes, as the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) says, why is he having a referendum to try to approve them in Scotland?


Q2. Mr. David Marshall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 4 July.

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

Mr. Marshall: Does the Prime Minister fully realise how much the Labour party in Scotland looks forward to his visit? Will he today, or at the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Dumfries tomorrow, answer my question, which his deputy dodged last Thursday? Why is it all right to offer Northern Ireland devolution, with a Secretary of State in the United Kingdom Cabinet and no reduction in the number of Members of Parliament at Westminster, while denying the same to the people of Scotland? How does he justify treating the two countries so differently?

The Prime Minister: How does the hon. Gentleman justify tax raising in Scotland and not in Wales? That is the distinction to which the hon. Gentleman must bend his mind. If he cares to read the speech that I made a week ago–I shall send him a copy–he will see in detail a series of reasons why there is a clear distinction between Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The hon. Gentleman had better bend his mind to his own policy: why a tax-raising power in Scotland but a non-tax-raising assembly in Wales? What has he got against the Scots, and why not not he trust the Welsh?


Q3. Mr. Amess: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 4 July.

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

Mr. Amess: Will my right hon. Friend reconfirm his commitment to the assisted places scheme and to doubling it? Does he agree that, if the scheme were abolished, those children would still have to be educated in the state system, thus producing a small net saving? Does not that simple piece of arithmetic demolish the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer’s policy to abolish the scheme and spend the money in the primary sector?

The Prime Minister: I fear that some of the figures issued by the shadow Chancellor this morning are shown to be wholly wrong, even on cursory examination. It was already clear before today that the windfall tax is unravelling before the Opposition’s eyes, and it certainly could not pay for the new pledges that they make. Sadly, the shadow Chancellor seems to have got his sums wrong. He has inflated the amount that he hopes to raise by forgetting to include the cost of sending the children who were in assisted places schemes back to the state sector. It can be seen simply from a cursory glance at the Opposition’s new plans that the sums do not add up. The new Labour party’s policies mean new taxes: taxes in Scotland; taxes on people with children aged between 16 and 18 who would lose child benefit; taxes for living in London; and taxes on jobs, with the social chapter and a minimum wage. That is what is offered by the Labour party. No wonder we talk of new dangers.

Mr. Hoon: The Prime Minister has rightly condemned those who oppose the rule of law and those who fail to follow the courts’ decisions. Will he unequivocally condemn Governments who refuse to implement, or threaten to refuse to implement, the European Court of Justice’s decisions?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows that this Government implement the regulations. Where we think they are wrong–in some cases we do–we shall raise the matter at the intergovernmental conference to change the underlying European Community law. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is so keen on ensuring that the law is obeyed. I hope that, in the interests of providing good, strong law enforcement, he will now apologise for the number of occasions on which he and his colleagues voted against law enforcement measures introduced by the Government.


Q4. Sir Peter Tapsell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 4 July.

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

Sir Peter Tapsell: Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in my Lincolnshire constituency, those who work in the seaside resorts and on the land are in the habit of working far more than 48 hours a week during the summer, although often less in the winter? If the Brussels Commission is to impose its directive limiting the number of working hours to 48 hours a week with effect from 23 November, will that not seriously reduce the standard of living of many of my constituents? If the European Court of Justice seeks to overturn that part of the social chapter from which we have opted out, will my right hon. Friend take steps to reassert it?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has neatly picked up the point to which I alluded in response to the previous question, which was asked by the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon). I share my hon. Friend’s concern on behalf of his constituents.

The European Court has not yet given its final judgment on our challenge to the working time directive–although the Advocate General’s opinion was not encouraging. If we lose in that judgment, we shall seek treaty change at the intergovernmental conference to ensure that the social protocol is not undermined by presenting social measures in the guise of health and safety.

I reached an agreement on ensuring that we were not covered by that at Maastricht, and I intend that that agreement shall be kept. Our colleagues in Europe need not expect that we will reach further agreements at the next intergovernmental conference unless, at that conference, they are prepared to restore the agreement that I reached at Maastricht. It specifically deals with the matter referred to by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Salmond: The Prime Minister is coming to Dumfries tomorrow to speak at the Burns supper and to celebrate the bicentennial of Scotland’s national bard. Is he aware that the lines that he has twice quoted in the House from “The Dumfries Volunteers” were written when Burns was under investigation by the Government of one of his predecessors for sedition as a radical and a Scottish nationalist? Will the Prime Minister demonstrate his knowledge of all things Scottish–stretching from stones to poems–and remind the House of the first two lines of Burns’ most famous poem “Tam o’Shanter”?

The Prime Minister: I have no intention of regaling the House with poetry. I enjoyed listening to “Tam o’Shanter” last time I attended a Burns supper–and, with a bit of luck, I will hear it again tomorrow night. Rabbie Burns had a varied political career during his lifetime. As the hon. Gentleman would know, Burns’ political career was varied as to where he gave his affections–and they were not affections that the hon. Gentleman would follow.