The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1996Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 21 November 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 21st November 1996.




Q1. Mrs. Peacock: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November.

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.

Mrs. Peacock: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the report in today’s issue of The Independent which states that, yesterday, three members of the IRA’s Army council were brought to the House of Commons by Labour Members? Is he aware that one of them was allowed to wander around for 20 minutes unaccompanied? Will he please instigate an immediate investigation?

The Prime Minister: I understand that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has written to Madam Speaker about the incident. My understanding is that those representatives of Sinn Fein were invited to the House to meet a number of hon. Members, that no prior notification about the meeting was given and that the representatives were, from time to time, left unattended. I do not know what the outcome of the inquiry will be, but I think that it is stunning naivety on the part of any hon. Member not to realise the connection between Sinn Fein and the IRA.

Mr. Blair: In view of the extraordinary importance of the European reports on a single currency–matters that may be decided by Ministers in December–does the Prime Minister not agree, on reflection, that it would be monstrous to deny hon. Members a chance to debate the reports in full on the Floor of the House, especially as that was the unanimous view of the Select Committee on European Legislation? Does he not agree that a general debate on European matters prior to the Dublin summit is no adequate substitute?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman is right about the last point. There was detailed scrutiny in the Standing Committee, and in due course we shall table the appropriate motion. No final decisions are made at the meeting of Finance Ministers; that will be a matter, if appropriate, for the European summit in Dublin. As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, and as my right hon. Friend the Lord President has made clear, the House invariably has an opportunity to have a full debate before such a summit, and there will be a full debate–in which this matter will be relevant–before the Dublin European summit.

Mr. Blair: Those explanations were specifically and unanimously rejected by the Select Committee. May I point out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has actually written that decisions may be made over the next few weeks? In any event, surely we would be failing in our duty if we did not debate these matters properly in the House. Would the Prime Minister not be a good deal more honest if he simply stood at the Dispatch Box and said that he was afraid to let the Chancellor of the Exchequer stand and debate the issues? That speaks volumes about the disarray of his Government.

The Prime Minister: Anyone who thinks that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor is not willing, able and confident to debate with the right hon. Gentleman, or anyone, on any subject at any time simply does not know my right hon. and learned Friend. I repeat the point that I made to the right hon. Gentleman a moment ago: no decisions will be made at the Economic and Finance Council meeting. The matter will come forward to the Heads of Government meeting in Dublin. If decisions are to be taken, they will be taken there, and not even that is certain. In any event, this issue and other issues will be the subject of a full debate before Dublin.

Mr. Blair: What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is in contradiction to the letter from the Chancellor to the Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation, but if the Chancellor is indeed happy and prepared to debate these issues, let us have the debate. There can be no possible reason for not debating these questions. How can the Prime Minister be trusted with Britain’s future in Europe when the internal party management of the Conservative party–because that is what it is about–always takes precedence over the interests of Britain or even, as here, British democracy? If he is not afraid of the debate, let him call one.

The Prime Minister: This is the right hon. Gentleman who once wanted to leave the European Union. This is the right hon. Gentleman who said, “I will never be isolated in Europe.” If he is never prepared to be isolated in Europe, he could not possibly defend the British interest in Europe. We are prepared to be isolated where necessary. We do defend the British interest. It will be debated in the House and I will defend the British interest at Dublin.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Yesterday in European Standing Committee B, which I attended, there was no proper scrutiny of these important regulations, which affect the powers of the House. We were discussing the so-called stability pact, whereby important decisions about the British economy would be transferred from Britain to Frankfurt and Brussels. As my right hon. Friend himself has not made up his mind about whether Britain should join the single European currency, why should the House agree now to these regulations?

The Prime Minister: These regulations, were they to be approved in due course, would apply only to those countries that enter into a single currency–[Hon. Members: “No.”] Yes. It is no good saying, “No.” That is the fact of the matter. Whether Britain enters a single currency will certainly be determined in the House and it would then be determined in a full referendum of this country.

Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister is simply running away on this issue and the whole country knows it.

The Audit Commission said today that we are now less effective on tackling youth crime than we were 10 years ago, that, of the 7 million youth crimes committed in Britain every year, only about one in 10 reach court and that the Government’s programmes are ineffective, inefficient and wasteful. Given the fact that the Government have been in power for 17 years, whom do they blame for that?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman would do well to read the Audit Commission report in full. He will find that it endorses our strategy for intervening early with young people who might offend. I look forward to his support for the Green Paper, which he knows is coming forward. I hope that he will consider it. I hope that he will support it and I hope that he will, for once, have some proactive and worthwhile ideas to contribute to the debate.

Dame Jill Knight: Since today’s press shows that Labour’s answer to the question, “When is a pledge not a pledge?” is “When it is a commitment,” will my right hon. Friend assure the House–[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady will be heard. I want to hear her question. She is usually in order and I bet that she is going to be in order now.

Dame Jill Knight: Will my right hon. Friend give the House and its Members the pledge that he will continue to speak clearly and without ambiguity as to his plans for this country?

The Prime Minister: I find it extraordinary that 89 spending promises suddenly disappear, apparently overnight. The Opposition claim that what we said yesterday was untrue–I think “lies” was the word that they used–but, as we were quoting what they said, I wonder who the deceivers really were.


Q2. Mr. Tony Banks: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November.

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

Mr. Banks: Does the Prime Minister recall his promise–indeed, his pledge–to construct a classless society in this country? If he really meant that, why is he so set against the proposal from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to scrap the right of hereditary dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts and lords to speak and vote in the House of Lords? Could it just be that the boy from Brixton, whom I remember, has got a feeling to make himself into a nob after he leaves here? Does he really want to be remembered as the nob from Brixton?

The Prime Minister: I hope that the future Lord Banks will reconsider what he has said about that matter. My remarks about a classless society were about equality of opportunity, and not about the grey uniformity that the hon. Gentleman would wish to see in this country.


Q3. Mr. Lidington: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November.

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

Mr. Lidington: May I ask my right hon. Friend to order an urgent Government study into the recent report from Goldman Sachs which suggested that every household in Aylesbury would pay an additional £70 a year for its electricity alone if a windfall tax on the utilities were introduced? Those households would also face higher charges for gas and water and for the use of the telephone. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that such a tax would hit hardest at pensioners and people on low incomes–all those whom the Labour party pretends that it cares about?

The Prime Minister: It may be that we will find, yet again, that the windfall tax is another promise that is not. Perhaps we will find that out this afternoon.

What we do not know about the windfall tax is substantially more than what we know about it. We do not know who will pay it; what rate it would be levied at; and whom it would impact upon. We do not know why some utility chairmen think that they would not have to pay it. We do not know how much it would provide for the promises, mounting up to £30 billion, that the Labour party has made. I hope that we will get some of those answers this afternoon, but I doubt it.


Q4. Mr. McAllion: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November.

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

Mr. McAllion: Although I regret the Prime Minister’s decision to duck a debate on the single currency, I warmly welcome his courageous decision to sponsor this afternoon’s debate on the privatised utilities and the Tory party’s links with the bosses of those companies that have made obscene profits on the backs of the rest of us. Can he confirm that many of those companies have made large donations to the Tory party and have provided top jobs for ex-Tory Ministers? This afternoon’s debate will allow the House to expose the Tories for what they really are–the political wing of the privatised utilities.

The Prime Minister: I thought for a moment that the hon. Gentleman was going to raise the question of the Leader of the Opposition’s secret fund. I wonder whether we will hear which business men fund it; we certainly have not heard that yet. We were told by the Opposition spokesman that the fund has been set up as a blind trust to ensure that there is no linkage between donations and political influence. There were no names given, and nothing about the openness that the Opposition promised us some time ago. Because of a newspaper examination, all we have is the fact that the fund exists, and I hear that the deputy Leader of the Opposition has a research fund as well.

One minute, the Opposition attack share options; the next, they accept money from the millionaires who benefited from them. They attack successful business men and then host fund-raising dinners for those successful business men. They then call for openness in funding, but have a secret fund themselves. I wonder what the parliamentary word is for that behaviour.


Q5. Mr. John Marshall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November.

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

Mr. Marshall: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Barnet council recently voted to have its refuse collection done by the direct labour department despite the fact that an outside tender would have saved £500,000 over the length of the contract? Does he agree that that shows that Labour and Liberal councillors are more interested in jobs for the boys than in value for money for the ratepayers? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will take action to see that Barnet ratepayers are protected against dogmatic socialist policy?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have heard what my hon. Friend had to say. It is no secret that the Labour party is hostile to competitive tendering, even though it saves money for the council tax payer–a fact which is an irrelevance to Labour. As the deputy leader of the Labour party once said,

“Society should tolerate relative inefficiency in labour intensive sectors”.

In other words: jobs for the boys, not savings for the council tax payer.


Q6. Mr. Hain: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 November.

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

Mr. Hain: How much will the Prime Minister’s proposal to abolish capital gains tax and inheritance tax cost the average taxpayer? Will he tell us whether that is a pledge, a policy, an aim, an aspiration–or merely another Tory tax lie?

The Prime Minister: As I have frequently told the House, we are pledged to abolish, as affordable, capital gains tax. I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. Such action will create jobs and stimulate employment, which is what I am determined to achieve in this country. The hon. Gentleman might like to create unemployment with extra social costs, but I wish to price people back into jobs by generating investment.