The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 12 November 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 12th November 1996.




Q1. Mr. Janner: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 November.

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. Janner: Why is the Prime Minister so determined that people who work in this country should have no statutory minimum holiday rights, while also having no statutory maximum working hours, meaning that they can be forced to work more than 48 hours a week contrary to their wishes? Is not that an unjust, unreasonable and typically Tory policy, going against even their own alleged policy of supporting family rights?

The Prime Minister: I shall tell the hon. and learned Gentleman crisply; Britain wants good jobs, not worthless directives.


Q2. Mr. Hawkins: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 November.

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

Mr. Hawkins: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a huge contrast between yesterday’s excellent news of British Aerospace’s success in winning the large Hawk order from Australia, which will guarantee British jobs, and the dismay felt by many British businesses at today’s news of the adverse European ruling on the 48-hour week? Will he reassure British business that he will do all that he can to resist that Euro-measure, which will undermine the competitive edge of British business and is an adverse decision by a political court?

The Prime Minister: Australia’s selection of British Aerospace to supply Hawks is the latest illustration of the keen competitiveness of British industry generally and the British aerospace industry in particular.

I think that not only will today’s European Court of Justice ruling damage the prospects of job creation, should it not be reversed; it has disappointed British business men, as they have made clear repeatedly this morning at the Confederation of British Industry. The position is unacceptable. We cannot agree that our competitiveness should be undermined in this way. Were we to do so, it would clearly be the thin end of the wedge–to judge from what the European Commissioner has said this morning. I have made it clear to the President of the Commission that I shall insist on changes at the intergovernmental conference to ensure that the social protocol will never again be undermined by the presentation of social measures, falsely, under the guise of health and safety.

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister now answer the question asked by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner)? Quite apart from Europe, why is he so opposed to a law that says that people are perfectly free to work more than 48 hours a week, but cannot be compelled to, and gives them minimum holiday entitlements? Is he going to fight the next election on the basis of, “vote Tory for no right to a holiday”?

The Prime Minister: Yet again, the right hon. Gentleman is in danger of missing the point. Unemployment is falling as we become more competitive. The directive could reverse that trend and similar directives could push unemployment up, instead of it continuing to fall. I am not prepared to accept that. I want jobs, not directives. I want Britain to continue to create jobs and unemployment to continue to fall. I do not want to place more burdens on business so that unemployment either remains stuck at a very high level or rises from that very high level as it has in other European countries. Competitiveness will create jobs. I want people to be in work. Presumably, the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to keep them out of work.

Mr. Blair: Perhaps the Prime Minister can tell us of a successful company in Britain that does not give its work force a holiday.

Hon. Members: Exactly.

Madam Speaker: Order. Stop shouting and barracking, for goodness’ sake. I want to hear the questions and the answers.

Mr. Blair: If the directive is so dreadful, why did the Minister not vote against it when he had the chance to do so? May we be clear about the Government’s position at the intergovernmental conference? Will the Prime Minister confirm that his position is this: all member states must agree at the outset of the conference that no progress will be made on any change proposed by any country in respect of any issue until the directive is reversed? Is that his position?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman’s first point was correct, why do we need the directive? He made precisely the Government’s point. Such directives pile burdens on business and they are bound to undermine our economic success. Their damage to the fruits of our economic success will affect the extra resources that we are providing to the health service, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will set out in a White Paper tomorrow. They will damage the provision of opportunity for all four-year-olds to have nursery education, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment will set out tomorrow. I am not prepared to allow the product of years of good, sound economic management to be undermined by regulation from Brussels. I shall tell the right hon. Gentleman precisely what the position is at the intergovernmental conference: it is exactly the same as it was on the social chapter at Maastricht. I shall not accept what has been determined by the court today and, at the end of the intergovernmental conference, I shall demand that change or there will be no end to the intergovernmental conference.

Mr. Blair: So it will be at the end of the intergovernmental conference–which will, conveniently, be after the election. We can hear escape routes being planned already. Is it not back to beef when, five months on, the Government have not even got the gelatine ban lifted? It is the same old pattern. They seize on an issue, they talk tough, they alienate everybody and then they cave in. May I suggest that the law that gives people the right to a minimum holiday is not the issue upon which to launch beef war mark 2?

The Prime Minister: Saving British jobs is the issue upon which to draw the line. The right hon. Gentleman may be prepared to live in an area of high unemployment. Unemployment in Britain is falling–I want it to come down much further–but prescriptive directives from Brussels will stop that. We shall seek treaty change, without which there will be no conclusion to the intergovernmental conference. I shall not accept the nonsense that the right hon. Gentleman has been talking about the directive without understanding its impact on British companies. I have written today to the President of the Commission to make clear that we are tabling our proposals for a change in the treaty, and we shall expect that change to be agreed.


Q3. Mr. Luff: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 November.

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

Mr. Luff: In the light of the demolition by the Confederation of British Industry of the case for a so-called windfall tax on the privatised utilities, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to reassure the House that he will not make it his policy to impose such a tax? Does he agree that the effect of such a tax on the prices of shares held by trade unions and other pension funds would, in fact, be a tax on pensioners–to say nothing about the disastrous effects on consumers through higher prices?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is of course right. A windfall tax would hit consumers; it would hit shareholders; it would hit employees. It is a tax not on utilities but on jobs, pensions and people’s utility bills. The shadow Chancellor either cannot or still will not tell the House which privatised companies would pay, how much they would pay and how he would stop investment and customers being hit. If he wants professional advice as to what such a tax might mean, perhaps he might go home and seek it. He ought to tell the House exactly what he proposes. His silence means that the only thing that we know for sure is that Labour would put up taxes and is keeping quiet about just how much the increase would be.


Q4. Sir David Steel: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 November.

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

Sir David Steel: May I refer the right hon. Gentleman back to the negotiations that took place over the European directive? If he looks at Hansard, he will find that, on 7 July 1992, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment boasted to the House that

“the United Kingdom secured all its key objectives, in particular the right for employees to work for more than 48 hours a week if they choose to do so.”–[Official Report, 7 July 1992; Vol. 211, c. 175.]

In a word, she said, “We have won.” Was she not right? If they won, why are they going to war over something that they did not even vote against?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend did get significant exclusions–that is true–but the directive is damaging. We made it clear from the outset that we would seek a change in the European Court and that we would then seek to have the directive’s impact reversed. The right hon. Gentleman should realise two things. First, this is a damaging directive. Secondly, if we were to accept this directive under that treaty head, it would be but the first of many others, as was implicitly made clear by the European Commissioner this morning. I am concerned to ensure that we protect our jobs and our competitiveness. All over Europe–[Interruption.] Hon. Members do not like it. There are 18 million unemployed people across Europe. Elsewhere in Europe, they are staying unemployed; here, they are getting back into work. That is why we will not accept such legislation.

Mr. Lamont: Surely the real issue is not whether what the Leader of the Opposition says is right or wrong or whether the working time directive is right or wrong, but whether the matter ought to be decided in Brussels or by the elected Government of this country. What is the point in holding elections if the elected Government cannot carry out the policies on which they were elected?

The Prime Minister: I have no objection at all to businesses and their employees reaching whatever agreement they wish on working hours. That is entirely right in a properly functioning competitive economy. Like my right hon. Friend, what I object to in principle is working conditions being dictated from Brussels when they should be determined here, in this House. Other European countries can accept that if they wish, but they cannot then complain if businesses relocate from the rest of Europe to here as a result–like the 1,200 that Le Figaro reported last week have relocated from France to here. As Le Figaro said:

“Why stay in France if conditions for entrepreneurs are better in Britain?”

I do not want that said of Britain. That is why we are determined to keep the right measures to create jobs for our citizens in the future.


Q5. Mr. Rooney: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 November.

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

Mr. Rooney: Will the Prime Minister tell the House why he favours a free vote on caning but not on gun control?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman thinks the question of gun control is appropriate for a free vote, I do not agree with him. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] The Government considered the Cullen report, we made a judgment on the right way to implement it and we propose to stand by that judgment, lay it before the House of Commons and invite it to support us.


Q6. Mr. Alexander: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 12 November.

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

Mr. Alexander: May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the by-election result on Thursday to Newark and Sherwood district council? The Conservative candidate, Mr. Bryan Richardson, took the seat from Labour with a swing of 5.8 per cent. May I put it to my right hon. Friend that results such as that are far more typical of support in the country than the public opinion polls, and that if we continue with sensible policies my right hon. Friend is on course for a record fifth Conservative victory?

The Prime Minister: I congratulate Mr. Richardson on his win, although I am assured by the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend, the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), that we have taken seats with even larger swings elsewhere in Nottinghamshire in the past two or three weeks. What we are seeing, if I may put it this way, is Conservatives coming home.