The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Commons Speech on the 1996 Queen’s Speech Debate – 23 October 1996

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons speech during the 1996 Debate on the Queen’s Speech on 23rd October 1996.


The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has already generously paid tribute to the hon. Members who have died during the past year. We shall all miss David Lightbown and Terry Patchett. Perhaps on behalf of everyone in the House, I can not only say that, but thank them for their long service, both for their constituents and for their country, in this place.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) on their excellent speeches proposing and seconding the Loyal Address. My right hon. Friend was the Secretary of State when I first joined the old Department of Health and Social Security. I learned speedily that he had both a generous disposition and a very precise mind. Over early morning interviews, often at short notice, on obscure but controversial social security matters, he was always especially generous and insisted that I took all of them. He was Secretary of State for six years before the sheer weight of work in that combined Department led to health and social security, rightly, becoming separate Departments.

More recently, my right hon. Friend joined me throughout the last general election campaign. His role was absolutely invaluable, but it did have one drawback: whenever we were together, people threw eggs at him. I had no idea how controversial he was. When he shouted, “Duck,” I thought that it was a warning, but it was not – it was the type of egg. As I told the House, he had a very precise mind.

My right hon. Friend reminded us that he pioneered the practice of leaving to spend more time with his family. After the general election, I invited him to become chairman of the Conservative party. To avoid any dispute, I should like to make it clear that that was expressly not at the request of his family. He is a distinguished journalist and we cannot say that of many. These days, he is chairman of a newspaper group and he will know the old saying: “Never argue with a man who buys his ink by the gallon.” I do not, and I congratulate him on his speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight also spoke extremely well. I was delighted – in some ways relieved – to see him in his place, as he has a poor reputation for time-keeping and tends to arrive for any function at the last moment. On one occasion, I am told, he left to join his wife on the Isle of Wight ferry as it left the dock. Breaking into a sprint, he leapt dramatically over open water and landed on the moving deck. As he did so, he turned around to see his wife on the quay. As he was late, she had got off. Undaunted, he leapt back ashore with the fastest recorded U-turn in political history.

Apart from his political career, my hon. Friend once owned a large share in one of Britain’s largest funeral director companies. It is often said of politicians that they will always let you down in the end. In my hon. Friend’s 22 case, that might often have been literally true. Today, my hon. Friend let no one down, and I warmly congratulate him.

There were two light-hearted speeches to begin, and rather a brazen speech to follow. The leader of the Labour party sought to draw Britain’s ills forward with sweeping generalisations about the state of our society.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) Will my right hon. Friend give way?

The Prime Minister Of course, but a little later.

Of course I agree with the right hon. Member for Sedgefield that there are many problems to be solved. Some of them, concerned with education and crime, are dealt with specifically in this legislative programme. However, we must examine reality, not what the right hon. Gentleman had to say.

With more people finding work, regional differences in unemployment are declining. Strikes are at their lowest levels since records began. More young people than ever before are gaining qualifications in full-time education and training. More people than ever before own their homes and have a share in a capital-owning democracy. There is new hope and investment in inner cities. Charitable giving is the largest we have seen at any stage in our history. Voluntary work is at record levels, with more than half the population engaged in it. We have created one of the most mobile societies in Europe, giving people the opportunity to better themselves through their own efforts.

There is far more that is good in our society than is bad. We should be glad of that, not take every opportunity to run our society down – as the right hon. Gentleman does. Of course we face challenges, but our job as politicians is to find practical solutions, often to complex problems. To over-simplify matters, as the right hon. Gentleman did, is to deceive and not to engage with the real problems with which politicians have to deal.

Any politician should be cautious about cloaking himself in righteousness. I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman can disclaim, as he has just done, any responsibility by the Labour party for faults in this society when his Labour party has, over the years, consistently championed every fashionable, politically correct cause that has undermined our traditional way of life, and has opposed every measure that we have taken to correct the balance.

It was Labour that banned competitive sport in schools. It was Labour that undermined traditional approaches and sponsored every anti-establishment pressure group that it could possibly find. It was Labour that opposed measures to restore standards in schools through tests and league tables. It was Labour that opposed the freedom of grant-maintained schools and has opposed every measure that we put forward to tackle crime. Labour has also opposed common-sense measures to deal with benefit fraud. I do not think that I am inclined to accept sanctimonious lectures from the Leader of the Opposition.

There was much that the Labour leader did not get around to mentioning. The right hon. Gentleman did not mention the longest run of low inflation for a generation or that unemployment is at a five-and-a-half-year low. He did not mention that mortgages are at their lowest for 30 years. The right hon. Gentleman was not only selective and wrong about our record, but equally evasive and misleading about his policies. There was no mention in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech of taking child benefit away from parents of children aged between 16 and 18. There was no mention of the windfall tax that would jack up household bills and destroy the dividends of millions of people. There was no mention of the additional tax just for the privilege of living in Scotland – nothing about that, or about how the right hon. Gentleman’s policies would destroy jobs.

When the Leader of the Opposition fleshes out his policies with detail, we might listen with some interest to the right hon. Gentleman’s critique of our detailed policies.

Mr. Geoffrey Hoon (Ashfield) On the subject of consistency, does the Prime Minister recall supporting in 1990 the Government’s White Paper on minimum determinate sentences, which stated that such an approach would result in more acquittals by juries, and in more guilty men and women going free? Is that not precisely Government policy now?

The Prime Minister I shall come quite specifically to that point in a little while, and the hon. Gentleman will get his answer then.

The leader of the Labour party ignored the fact that our economy is now the most competitive in Europe, with exports at record levels, business investment rising and more inward investment than any other country in Europe. Last week, Vauxhall announced plans for a huge new investment at Ellesmere Port – 200 new jobs. In August, it was Chiyoda Europe at Bexhill – 600 jobs; in July, LG in Newport – 6,000 jobs; Lite on Tech in Lanarkshire – 1,000 jobs; and Hyundai in Dunfermline – 2,000 jobs.

Mr. Gordon Brown (Dunfermline, East) indicated assent.

The Prime Minister The shadow Chancellor nods his head in agreement. How lucky the right hon. Gentleman is that those business men listened to our record and not to his gloomy prognosis for our country. What we have seen – and what foreign businesses have noticed – is a complete transformation of this nation’s economic prospects.

Mr. Mans Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on a statement made by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield that the last Labour Government spent more in real terms on the national health service? I have checked with the House of Commons Library. At today’s prices, in 1978–79 a total of £23.3 billion was spent on the NHS. In the last financial year, the present Government spent £39.7 billion. Will my right hon. Friend give the right hon. Member for Sedgefield the opportunity to correct that mistake?

The Prime Minister That was not, of course, the only inaccuracy in the right hon. Gentleman’s speech. If he would like to withdraw that statement, I shall give way to him so that he can do so immediately.

Well, there we are – the inaccuracy must lie on the record in the right hon. Gentleman’s name. As I have said, it was not the only inaccuracy in the litany of misery with which he regaled the House.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) The Korean semiconductor jobs are very welcome in my constituency, but does the Prime Minister realise that they will be located just two fields away from where British semiconductor jobs were located two years ago? Can the Prime Minister explain why the British semiconductor jobs relocated to a country that has both the minimum wage and the social chapter?

The Prime Minister If the hon. Gentleman looks at the drift of investment, he will see that there is more coming here than to the rest of Europe combined. It is coming here because of our economic framework, our tax framework, the fact that we do not have a minimum wage, the fact that we do not have a social chapter and the fact that we have less expensive on-costs for employment than any other nation in Europe. If the hon. Gentleman talked to the other European Heads of Government, he would find that they know that and if they could get out of the position that they are in, many of them would wish to do so. The hon. Gentleman cannot argue with the inward investment figures that we have seen.

Our programme will build on the economic success and it will do so in a way that will widen both opportunity and choice.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a few moments.

Our programme will encourage personal responsibility. It will increase parental choice over schools, and also patients’ choices from their doctors. It will give the police new powers to catch criminals and the courts new means to deal with them. It will reform civil law. It has measures to combat fraud in the social security system. It will protect our heritage, our environment and our rural communities. It will provide a legal framework for decommissioning weapons in Northern Ireland. By any yardstick, that is a meaty Queen’s Speech, and we intend to carry the programme through in the period between now and the election.

In addition, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will unveil his fourth Budget next month. It will be a prudent Budget: if we can safely cut taxes we will, but if we cannot we will not. I repeat – if we cannot, we will not. Either way, we have a responsibility to spend taxpayers’ money wisely.

That is why we will act against benefit fraud. The measures that we have already taken will save £1.5 billion a year, but we intend to save more. Every bit of fraud robs the taxpayer and deprives the genuinely needy of help, and I am surprised that the Opposition Chief Whip scoffs at the thought of cracking down on benefit fraud. We will see where the Opposition are and how keen they are when we come to vote on the distinct measures to deal with the problems.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North) Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Prime Minister In a moment – a queue is forming. I know that the Opposition have produced a long list of interventions that they propose to put to me, as someone generously left them on the photocopier. If hon. Members could just shout out the numbers, it would make life much easier. The paper is headed, “Interventions on Major”, and I can look forward to questions on Europe, the economy, education, beef, crime, health and other matters. I look forward to finding out whether hon. Members can remember them after the training that they have undoubtedly had from the right hon. Member for Sedgefield.

Mr. Simon Hughes rose –

The Prime Minister I do not think that the questions were handed to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

Mr. Hughes May I ask the Prime Minister a question of which I have not given him notice? It is a common allegation about the Tory party that it looks after its own first. The Prime Minister has the safest Tory seat in the country, with low unemployment and low crime. My seat has the lowest Tory vote in England, with high unemployment and high crime. Why did the Queen’s speech say nothing about achieving a significant reduction in unemployment in areas such as mine?

On the day when a national commission of inquiry into the prevention of child abuse recommended that we need a national register of offenders against children, why did the Queen’s Speech fail to mention the register of paedophiles, when all parties in the House would assist the Government in passing it quickly into legislation?

The Prime Minister I will return to the hon. Gentleman’s second point in a moment. On the first point, as the hon. Gentleman knows, unemployment has now been falling across every part of the United Kingdom throughout the past 30 months, and there is every indication that that will continue. A fall in unemployment is created by the right economic circumstances, a growing economy, low inflation and the lowest possible interest rates. It cannot be done simply by expenditure measures, as we have learnt often enough in the period since the second world war.

That is why I have said that the Budget will be prudent. It will be prudent to ensure continuing growth because in my judgment that is the best way to get the hon. Gentleman’s constituents back to work. I wish to see that for social and other reasons, and we shall continue to follow policies which try to put as many people as possible back into proper employment. By proper employment I do not mean artificially created jobs, but genuine jobs with genuine prospects for a long-term future. That is the policy that we have been following, and I agree with the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey about the importance of that.

Before I was interrupted, I was dealing with benefit fraud. We propose to take further measures to deal with that. Those measures will include fines and in severe cases prison sentences for those who deceive in order to obtain benefits fraudulently. We intend to adopt new measures to detect fraud. If the Inland Revenue knows that someone is working, the benefit offices should know also if that person tries to sign on, and in future they will.

We want to ensure that local councils are cracking down hard on housing benefit fraud. Some do, but others are less successful. We intend to set up a fraud inspectorate to make sure that they are doing all they can and to impose financial sanctions if they are not.

We intend to reform the compensation recovery scheme. Millions of pounds are paid out to accident victims each year to cover them before compensation is paid. That is right and proper and no one objects to it. However, when a settlement is reached, it is also right that the benefit element should be repaid to the taxpayer, so we will make two important changes. The compensation that accident victims receive for pain and suffering will remain protected, but we shall make sure that the taxpayer does not lose by requiring a refund of benefits paid out for circumstances subsequently covered by the insurance compensation.

Our legislative programme will also ensure that rural communities share in the benefits of economic success. We intend to give more power to local parish councils to run their own crime prevention schemes or to set up community transport schemes – more responsibility and more power at the most local level.

We intend to help small village shops and post offices, which face difficulties as shopping patterns change. Our Bill will reduce their rates bill by at least 50 per cent. and give councils the discretion to waive up to the remaining 50 per cent.

Let me return to health. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield said a few minutes ago that he would like to see health at the centre of the general election campaign. At the last general election campaign, the Labour party put health, in the form of Jennifer’s ear, right at the centre for three successive days, and we received the largest vote that any political party has ever received at a general election. In this legislative programme, we intend to take action to improve primary health care.

Mr. William O’Brien (Normanton) Will the Prime Minister consider the situation in which a hospital trust is penalised financially for treating too many patients? That happened to the Pinderfields hospital in my constituency. Will he ensure that that does not happen again?

The Prime Minister I shall certainly examine that situation. I note that the hon. Gentleman supports trusts because they are treating more patients. I am delighted that he sees how successful they are.

The main contact with the health service is through the general practitioner. Over recent years, the service provided by GPs has already improved significantly in most parts of the country, not least thanks to the development of fundholding. The more we can improve the care given by the GP, the more we can relieve the pressure which otherwise would fall on hospitals.

It is far more convenient for patients if they can get their care locally instead of having to travel in some cases to distant hospitals. If patients need physiotherapy or chiropody, for example, why should not their GPs provide it if they wish to do so? If local communities can benefit from a local clinic offering cataract treatment, why should they not have it? I know of no good reason, and we propose to introduce legislation to make that possible.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister I should like to make a little progress.

I believe that parents have a right to a bigger role in their children’s education. Giving choice to parents is right in itself and it will help to raise standards.

Mr. David Blunkett (Sheffield, Brightside) What choice is there?

The Prime Minister If the hon. Gentleman had his way, there would be no choice whatever: no choice as to where children go to school, no choice as to what sort of school they go to, no choice as to whether parents could see the school’s results and no choice as to how the tests would be carried out at that school. The hon. Gentleman would prefer education to be a secret garden for himself and the professionals, with no information for the parents.

We have provided greater information and greater resources. Our education Bill will raise standards by extending choice. Where parents want more selection, they will have the opportunity for more selection in the Bill. I make that point to the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), the Liberal education spokesman, who clearly did not know it at lunchtime on television.

Where parents want more grammar schools, they will have more grammar schools, and where they want grant-maintained schools to expand, they will. It is called choice. We Conservatives believe in choice, and we intend to deliver it.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister The hon. Gentleman must allow me to make some progress.

We intend to give schools new powers to improve discipline, by allowing new sanctions against unruly pupils and by encouraging parents to take more responsibility for their children’s behaviour.

Mr. Blunkett indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister I see that the hon. Gentleman opposes action to help with discipline in schools. I hope that the teachers’ unions will note the position that he is taking.

For every pupil in the land, we now spend half as much again, over and above inflation, as in 1979. But spending alone does not deliver higher standards. Lambeth – a Labour education authority – spends more per secondary pupil than any other authority in the country, but it is in the bottom five for performance. Islington’s performance is the worst in the country, although only a handful of authorities spend more per pupil. Buckinghamshire – a Tory authority – is one of the 10 best performing authorities, despite below average spending on pupils. So adequate resources are important, but they are not the only ingredient for good education.

Mr. Blunkett Tell that to the parents.

The Prime Minister Some of the parents have noted it for themselves. Some parents have moved their children from high-spending Islington schools to lower-spending others. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman speaks to parents in the Labour party before he walks into that again.

If education, education, education is a Labour passion, why does Labour not improve education at a local level now? The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said that Labour controls the education authorities, so why are they not taking the action that they think necessary now? What action do they take? Absolutely none. Instead, we see parents moving their children out of education authorities such as Southwark and Islington and running away from inefficient and incompetent Labour education authorities. The hon. Gentleman is right about one thing: parents know. They know that in too many education authorities the only standards that Labour knows are low standards and double standards. If there are problems in society, the right hon. Member for Sedgefield might look at poorly performing Labour education authorities as one of the roots.

I come now to our proposals on law and order. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield had much to say about that. He seems to know everything about crime except how to reduce it. Labour demonstrates its commitment to action on crime just so long as that action is not something that the Conservative Government are proposing.

The right hon. Gentleman made an offer at the Dispatch Box which I take to be genuine. Both he and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey spoke of the private Members’ legislation on paedophiles and stalking.

Mr. Campbell-Savours They are not private Members’ Bills.

The Prime Minister Will the hon. Gentleman let me continue? Both Bills are in the course of being drafted. Drafting approval was given some time ago. They have never been in the Queen’s Speech. They were intended to be private Members’ Bills because we judged that the House would pass them speedily. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker Order.

The Prime Minister The right hon. Member for Sedgefield today offered the House his unequivocal support for a speedy passage through the House for those Bills as Government Bills. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, the Liberal spokesman, offered precisely the same deal. I accept that deal. We were determined to put the Bills through. We shall now get them through, and I hope that Opposition Members will facilitate their speedy passage.

If Opposition Members are concerned about crime, I hope that they will give us the same support on the other crime-tackling Bills in our programme. I hope that they will not eat up time on those two Bills to try to wreck the other Bills tackling crime that we have brought forward. I am prepared to accept that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield spoke in good faith. Since there is no dispute in the House as to the merits of the Bills on paedophiles and on stalking, let us bring them forward as soon as they are drafted and pass them speedily as Government Bills. I undertake that we shall do that.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) I do not know whether the Prime Minister has ever tried to take a private Member’s Bill through the House. I am not sure that he has. Will he confirm that the first date on which either Bill could be considered – [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker Order. The right hon. Gentleman has a perfect right to put a question. I know what hon. Members are all saying. Wait for the answer.

Mr. Beith Will the Prime Minister confirm that, if the Bills were presented as private Member’s Bills, those Ministers who have said in the past two days that that procedure would afford them a quicker passage were not telling the truth, and that only if Government time is available for those Bills will they be able to get through the House before the general election?

The Prime Minister To be fair to the right hon. Gentleman, I do not think that he can have taken in what I just said. I said that, in view of the unequivocal offer of support from the Leader of the Opposition and the Opposition spokesman, we would bring the Bills forward as separate Government Bills. I shall rely on the Opposition retaining the pledges that they have given. If the measures had been in the crime Bill, which was another option, it would have taken a long time to get them through and they would no doubt have been under consistent attack, for I suspect that much of the crime Bill will be attacked by the Opposition. Now that will not happen on these measures, and I look to the right hon. Gentleman to sustain the support that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) has offered to the House.

Mr. Blair Let me respond to the Prime Minister and say that I am absolutely delighted that he intends to present Bills containing those measures. The offer that he has just accepted is the offer that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) made to the Home Secretary and which was rejected yesterday. Nevertheless, we are delighted: it shows the country what we can achieve even in opposition.

The Prime Minister On certain matters we have always sought to accommodate the Opposition. We have sought, of course, to accommodate the Opposition in relation to delaying Lord Cullen’s report. There are matters on which cross-party support is welcome and will be accepted. Now that we have had a clear statement on the Floor of the House, I am happy to accept it, and we will now go ahead.

Let me turn –

Mr. Simon Hughes Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister I think that I have taken enough interventions. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker Order. The hon. Member must resume his seat and not talk across the Floor of the House.

The Prime Minister I should like to make a little progress now. I have taken a number of interventions.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I should like to make a little progress. I have given way to Opposition Members on a number of occasions. I want to turn to other matters relating to crime.

I think that it is a matter of common consent across the House that criminal gangs respect no county or national borders. National and international crime requires a nationally organised system to combat it. So we intend to legislate for a national crime squad, bringing together the existing regional crime squads into a single body to attack serious crime. I believe that that also deserves strong support across the House.

I want now to turn to sentencing. If the public see a fraudster sentenced to five years in prison, they are rightly angry to see him released after serving about half his sentence. Sentences served should match more closely sentences passed. I am sure that the public agree with that, and we intend to provide for it. We also propose to change some of the sentences. We have already increased sentences for serious crimes such as drug trafficking and attempted rape. We will now go further and propose automatic life sentences for anyone convicted of a second serious violent or sexual offence. We intend also to introduce minimum sentences for serious offenders such as persistent house burglars and drug dealers.

We are also looking at new ways to prevent juvenile crime. We intend to publish a green paper setting out some new ideas for consultation within a very short time. Last week, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland set out the Government’s proposals for firearms control, following Lord Cullen’s inquiry into the tragedy of Dunblane. I know that there are differences in the House on the proposal, but I also know that the overwhelming belief is that the new legislation should be enacted as speedily as possible. That is why we have reached a collective view, as we were invited to do, and we intend to put it before the House in the usual way. The House will then make its judgment.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) Under the Government’s proposals, as many as 40,000 handguns would still be legally circulating in Britain. How on earth can the Prime Minister justify that in the aftermath of the Dunblane massacre?

The Prime Minister We undertook a very careful examination of Lord Cullen’s report and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we have gone farther than Lord Cullen recommended. I rather share the view of the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), who was quoted earlier, that many people ‘will still be able to own handguns but they must be kept safely under lock and key at properly run centres.’ The hon. Gentleman took that view, and so, I believe, did the official Labour party until very shortly before the statement was made in the House. I believe that that is the right way to deal with it, but the House will be able to make its own judgment. We shall bring forward our proposals – [Interruption.] We shall bring forward a Bill in the usual way, as I said a moment ago. We have formed a judgment as to what is right, and we shall invite the House and the Conservative party to support that.

Miss Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) rose –

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) rose –

Mr. Blair rose –

The Prime Minister I give way to the right hon. Member for Sedgefield.

Mr. Blair I believe that the Prime Minister rightly changed his judgment earlier on a different matter. Will he now reconsider his judgment on this matter and, on this aspect, about which he is right that there may be different views on both sides of the House, allow a free vote so that the House can make up its mind on that basis?

The Prime Minister With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, we had already provided drafting advice for those Bills. We did not change our mind. I have accepted the right hon. Gentleman’s word that he will facilitate the speedy passage of this measure through the House. That is obviously better than a private Member’s Bill. It is not a change of mind. We have made our judgment on what we believe to be the right response to Lord Cullen, and I have just set it out.

We propose also to reform civil law.

Miss Hoey rose –

Mr. Winnick rose –

The Prime Minister If hon. Members will forgive me, I wish to make progress.

Too many people in this country have found their right to justice too often barred by costly and lengthy procedures. If a pensioner is in dispute with a garage about a car repair bill, or a home owner with a builder, they should not expect a huge legal bill for resolving the matter. Our legal system should encourage such disputes to be resolved speedily. With that in mind, we intend to implement Lord Woolf’s recommendations for a simplified set of rules in our civil courts – a system of fast-track procedures to encourage settlements and cut costs.

We also intend to act to preserve and improve physical heritage. We intend to introduce a Bill to allow lottery funds to be used to widen access to heritage in many ways. I will not now set them out to the House, but the objective is to ensure that more people can be enriched by enjoying our heritage.

We also propose to introduce measures to enact Lord Donaldson’s report following the Braer incident some time ago. Our measures will create wider powers to inspect suspect ships, enforce exclusion zones around accident sites and make those responsible for accidents bear more of the cost.

I wish now briefly to turn to Northern Ireland. Earlier this year, the House passed legislation to allow elections in Northern Ireland as the basis for multi-party talks. That process brought great hope. No one, I think, imagined rapid breakthroughs. This is a democratic process, and I think that we all expected that it would grind along exceedingly slowly.

The IRA and Sinn Fein do not accept that democratic process. They are trying to impose their own terms on the talks. They have not been ready to renounce violence. That is plainly incompatible with joining the talks. They have excluded themselves by their return to violence: it is not us, not the British Government, not the Irish Government, not the other parties in Northern Ireland – it is their own fault that they are excluded from the talks, and no one else’s. But the talks will continue without them.

The IRA and Sinn Fein should be under no illusion that they can join the process until they have demonstrated real commitment to democratic and non-violent methods. So even if a new ceasefire is declared, there will have to be more than soft words to convince the Government and, I believe, the House that it does not represent another tactical device, to be abandoned at any convenient moment.

For our part, we intend to go on improving the process of government in Northern Ireland. We will consult on how to develop the Northern Ireland Grand Committee to enable greater scrutiny of legislative proposals, Government policy and Ministers. We also intend to introduce a Bill to allow the decommissioning of terrorist weapons. To encourage the removal of those weapons from the streets, we will ask the House to agree that forensic evidence should not be sought from them.

But let me be clear: there can be no general amnesty for terrorist crimes and there will be none. I cannot look into the minds of the terrorists and predict what they will do, but I know that the road to a settlement will not be easy. We shall do all in our power to promote a lasting peace and to protect the community from their actions. That is our promise, and I both hope for and expect the House’s full support in that endeavour.

Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down) rose –

The Prime Minister If the hon. and learned Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way.

I should like to move towards a position where we can announce in future a two-year legislative programme and, so far as possible, publish draft Bills and consult on the second year’s Bills before they are introduced.

Several hon. Members rose –

Madam Speaker Order. The Prime Minister has indicated that he is not willing to give way. Hon. Members will please resume their seats.

The Prime Minister That will take time to bring about, but I think that it is a worthwhile reform which will deliver better legislation. We have begun to move in that direction this year, with two draft Bills set out in the Gracious Speech. In future years, I anticipate steadily increasing the number of draft Bills brought before the House.

Our legislative programme is a clear and practical set of measures to promote our aim of wider opportunity for all. We believe in choice, in personal responsibility and in opportunity. That thread has run through the past 17 years of Conservative Government. It runs through the current legislative programme in front of us and it will run through our plans and our programmes for the next Parliament also. It is what our programme will achieve this year, and I commend it to the House.