The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 20 March 1997

The text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 20th March 1997.




Q1. Mr. Mullin: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 March.

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. Mullin: Will the Prime Minister confirm that he could, if he wished, without any impact on the date of the general election, extend the life of this Parliament by the few days necessary to allow Sir Gordon Downey to publish his report? If so, I suggest that as soon as he leaves here, he nips down to the palace, has a quiet word with Her Majesty and puts an end to this distasteful business once and for all.

The Prime Minister: There has already been a Privy Council to determine Prorogation, and I have no intention of changing it. Prorogation always follows within days of an election announcement. When I announced the date of the election and Prorogation, the House was not surprised–[Laughter.] There was no surprise about the date of Prorogation, and when I announced it there was no representation then or at any time in the past, publicly or privately, from the Labour party about changing the date–not once. It was not until the unemployment figures were leaked that this became an issue.

Sir Jim Spicer: During the campaign, I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will be coming to the south of England and, we all hope, to Dorset. When he comes to Dorset, will he pass on to the people there and all those in the area served by Southern Electricity the good news that, as from Tuesday, they will have had an 11 per cent. cut in their electricity bills during the past nine months, which amounts to £40 to £50 off their bills? Is not that proof that privatisation works, and would it have happened if we had had a windfall tax?

The Prime Minister rose–

Mr. Skinner: Do not travel by train.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Member for Bolsover says that I should not travel by train. I understand that the hon. Gentleman has indicated to his constituents that he may be retiring from the House now that he is 65–we shall miss him. If so, he will have plenty of time to travel by train and the fares will be lower, following privatisation, than they were before– just like water–

Mr. Prescott: There will be no trains.

The Prime Minister: The deputy leader of the Labour party says there will be no trains. As he is sponsored by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, he knows a great deal about strikes. I did not notice him offering much condemnation of strikes last summer, when they were threatened. He stands for strikes; that is his whole history. The reality is that customers are benefiting from falling prices and the improved service levels created across the board by privatisation. From memory, I think that it was the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) who once said that, after electricity privatisation, there is no doubt that “prices will rise”. Since privatisation, prices have fallen.

Mr. Blair: May I remind the Prime Minister of his firm and unequivocal promise, made last October, to do all that he could to have the report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges published? May I suggest to him two ways in which that could be done? The first is to seek a postponement of Prorogation. The second is to agree with the Labour party and other Opposition parties a one paragraph Bill to allow the Committee to sit from now until Dissolution, on 8 April. Will he co-operate and allow us to do that–to fulfil his clear and unequivocal promise to the people of this country?

The Prime Minister: As ever, the right hon. Gentleman quotes partially, but I shall deal with the substance of what he said. Of course I would have preferred to have had the matter finished. [Hon. Members: “Oh.”] I said that months ago. I would have liked to have had all the inquiries finished. I would have liked to have had the inquiries into the funding of the Leader of the Opposition’s office and the deputy leader’s office finished.

Sir Gordon Downey’s report is not finished, and it has not yet gone to the Committee. When it gets to the Committee–as the right hon. Gentleman knows–that will be the start, not the conclusion, of the process. It is obviously a complex report–[Interruption.] It has been made clear that there are thousands of pages of evidence; it is obviously complex, and it will obviously take time to consider. Those hon. Members who may be criticised will obviously wish to make representations and give evidence. The thought that that could be done fairly and properly in a few days is improbable in the extreme. The right hon. Gentleman knows that. He also knows that, based on what has happened on earlier occasions, parts of the substance of the report might leak in a prejudicial way before the matter is fairly concluded. That would not be in the interests of the House or of natural justice. I have no intention of changing the Prorogation date of the House.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister says that I quoted partially his comments of last October. Last October, in the “Breakfast with Frost” programme, he said:

“Well I’ll tell you now, I will tell that committee I believe they should publish the report . . . I want it settled, I want it settled David.”

After Frost asked him whether he hoped it was

“reported and . . . published before the next election”,

he said, “Absolutely.”

Mr. David Shaw: £2 million blind funds.

Mr. Blair: If the objection is based on time, may I suggest to the Prime Minister that he let the Committee sit? If it cannot finish its report for genuine time reasons, so be it. What is surely outrageous is for the Committee–

Mr. Shaw: £2 million blind funds.

Madam Speaker: Order. I call Mr. Shaw to order.

Mr. Blair: The Committee is able to sit, and the Commissioner’s report will be ready on Monday. The hon. Members concerned want the report to be published. It is absolutely outrageous not to let the Committee have the time even to try. If the Prime Minister continues to stonewall, people will believe that the reason is not technicalities or can’t, but won’t.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is still quoting what I said selectively. I made it clear that although I wanted the report to be published speedily, and I did, it was a matter for Gordon Downey and he would have to take the time he needed to deal with the matter properly. Perhaps his task would have been easier if some people had not delayed handing over important evidence–but that was not the Government. The fact of the matter is that this needs to be dealt with impartially, not in an atmosphere in which it could be selectively leaked to damage people who may have nothing whatsoever to hide.

The right hon. Gentleman had no interest in this on Monday; he had no interest in this on Tuesday; he had an interest only when he had the unemployment figures leaked to him–to try to hide what is actually happening. This is a matter that needs dealing with fairly in the interests of the Members concerned, not in the way the right hon. Gentleman wishes to deal with it. What he wishes is to let a smear stand, not let justice be done in its own time.

Mr. Blair: Justice demands that this report be published. That is what justice demands. Any members of the public watching that interchange will conclude that the Prime Minister simply does not want it published because he fears its publication. Has not this Parliament ended as it began–[Interruption.] It has ended as it began, with the Government breaking their word. If the Prime Minister fails to have this report published, when everyone knows that he could, it will leave a stain on the character of his Government that will be erased only by a new Government with a fresh mandate, who will restore confidence in our public life for good.

The Prime Minister: The stain, if stain there will be, is upon a Labour Front Bench that has smeared and smeared and smeared again. The Labour leader has traded in double standards from the moment he took up office. This is the Labour leader who sells policy to the trade unions for cash–[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]; who refuses to comply with the code of practice on party funding–[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]; who calls for party openness but will not publish the secret funds of his own office–[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]; who attacks share options but takes money from millionaires for his own party–[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]; who attacks business men and asks them to fund things for him, who flew Concorde and failed to declare it–[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]; who has a deputy leader who spends a weekend at a five-star hotel and does not declare it–[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]; and who flies to the other side of the world to do newspaper deals and never admits to them–[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] If there are any double standards, they sit there–on the Opposition Benches.

Mr. David Shaw: Game, set and match.

Madam Speaker: Order. I would like to hear the next question and the next answer.

Mr. Churchill: Before taking what I hope is only a temporary leave of the House, may I, on behalf of my Manchester constituents, thank my right hon. Friend and the Government for making the United Kingdom the best functioning economy in all of Europe, with half the levels of unemployment of France or Germany? Is it not precisely because those two countries have not had the benefit of a Thatcher-Major revolution that they are suffering from what, in Labour days, used to be known as the British disease?

The Prime Minister: Before I respond to my hon. Friend, I should like to say that I noticed when I last sat down that my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) is back in the House following his dreadful accident. My right hon. Friend will be retiring at the end of this Parliament, but he will leave behind him reforms to our procedures that have greatly improved the workings of the House. I am delighted to see him here and I wish him a speedy and full return to complete health.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Davyhulme (Mr. Churchill) about economic conditions. We now have more jobs, better education, improving health and falling crime–that is our achievement. While the Labour party spends its time trying to disown its past, I spend my time improving our country’s future.

Mr. Ashdown rose–[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order–both sides.

Mr. Ashdown: We raised this matter on Tuesday and I am raising it again now. Can I bring the Prime Minister back to the central question? There is clearly both provision and precedent to give the House the opportunity to clear up the cash for questions scandal once and for all next week if the Prime Minister wishes it, but he does not. Sir Gordon Downey regrets that, the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges regrets it, Conservative Members who are still under a suspicion of sleaze regret it and the nation no doubt deeply resents it. Is the Prime Minister to be the only person who will use a technicality to stand in the way of truth? If he does, he should not be surprised that the country will conclude that he enters the election as he conducted his Administration–on a broken promise, on a slippery evasion and with his party mired in accusations of sleaze.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman ends as pious and pompous as he has been throughout this Parliament. If what he said were correct, why did not his member of the Committee ask for what the right hon. Member for Sedgefield asked for–for he did not? Why did not the Labour members of the Committee ask for what the right hon. Member for Sedgefield asked for–for they did not? This has been a political stunt by the right hon. Member for Sedgefield and the leader of the Liberal party and they both know that it has been a political stunt from the moment they learnt what the unemployment figures were.