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Sir John Wheeler: I refute the suggestion that the Diplock courts are in any way unfair. That is obviously not true. It is equally correct to say that it is the duty of the Government to justify the retention of the emergency legislation, and to keep it firmly under review, which the Government do. The most recent statistics available, for 1993, show that 877 cases were disposed of by the Crown courts in Northern Ireland for indictable offences, of which 256 were scheduled offences dealt with by single-judge courts.
Mr. Trimble: Does the reduction in the number of trials before the single-judge courts show that there has been a reduction in the number of people being apprehended and charged for terrorism? Is that a reflection of the authorities' failure to investigate and pursue terrorist acts that have occurred in the past? Is that not an example of a de facto amnesty, and consequently a breach of the Government's undertaking that terrorist crimes of the past would continue to be pursued?
Sir John Wheeler: I firmly reject any suggestion of an amnesty for terrorist offenders. I can assure the House that the police service will pursue all offences with the utmost vigour under the law. The downturn in violence since 31 August, which the House will welcome, has meant that fewer cases coming to the notice of the police and before the courts are related to terrorist crimes. That is an extremely welcome development.
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. Gillan: Will my right hon. Friend join me and every other Member of the House in condemning the appalling scenes of violence and vandalism in Dublin last night? Does he agree that those people are a disgrace to the United Kingdom and an affront to football fans? Will he assure the House that he will do everything possible to prevent such behaviour from occurring again either at home or abroad?
The Prime Minister: I agree that the behaviour of a thuggish minority at the match last evening was a disgrace and a great embarrassment. I do not believe that the people involved are sports fans, nor do I believe that they represent the true face of this country or British sport. The Football Association and the Irish Football Association have launched a full inquiry into exactly what happened and will discover what lessons can be learnt for the future. I have said that we will do everything we can to help to identify the people concerned and ensure that they face due punishment.
Mr. Blair: May I, first, associate myself entirely with the Prime Minister's comments about the scenes of violence? Those people are not proper football fans, but criminals and thugs and should be treated as such.
In today's edition of The Daily Telegraph the Chancellor of the Exchequer denied that a single currency was a threat to the nation state. Is that the Prime Minister's view: yes or no?
The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman would be wise not to misunderstand what my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor is saying. If he is so concerned about matters-- [Interruption.] I note that the shadow Chancellor is chortling, but I must say to the Leader of the Opposition that his right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) has said: "I am not a fan of a single currency"
and his right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has said:
"I personally am in favour of a single currency".
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman would care to adjudicate between the two of them.
Mr. Blair: I am delighted that the Prime Minister keeps asking me questions; it will put him in good practice. Let me make him an offer: instead of the twice weekly Prime Minister's questions, one day a week we will move over to the Government Benches and then the right hon. Gentleman can ask me questions.
Column 1126Let me just bring the right hon. Gentleman back to my question: it is his Chancellor of the Exchequer who has said in clear terms that a single currency is not a threat to the nation state. Does he agree or not?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman-- [Hon. Members:-- "Answer."] I shall answer the right hon. Gentleman in my own way. He would be better advised to address himself to his own party and his own position. The right hon. Gentleman said in his own election address that he was opposed to British membership of the European Union. Then, later, he actually said:
"I wasn't actually opposed to membership"--
and he went on to say--
"I said . . . within the closed doors of the Labour Party, that I disagreed with that policy on Europe."
What is the right hon. Gentleman now saying within the closed doors of the Labour party and why will he not say it in public?
Mr. Blair: I think we can see why the Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet for a vow of silence on this issue. One simple question remains for him to answer: if he cannot trust his Cabinet or his Chancellor on these critical economic and foreign policy issues, why on earth should the people of Britain trust him or the Government to govern the country?
The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman is not prepared to say in public what he said in private, why should anybody trust the Opposition? The Government have made it clear that we will decide in the light of the prevailing circumstances whether it is appropriate to join a single currency. The Cabinet is utterly united on that point and it reinforced that unity this morning, as the right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the interests of rail passengers, which were enhanced so much by the Government's recent proposals, will be put at risk by the actions of the rail unions? Does he agree that those very unions are threatening to support clause IV against Opposition reformists, and does he have any confidence that the Leader of the Opposition will renounce those unions?
The Prime Minister: I really do not know what he will do. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) seems very keen to answer questions. I wish that some day he would try it, because if he did, it would be the first time yet in his career. I think that the aim of rail privatisation will undoubtedly be maintained, and it is to improve the quality of rail service. I hope that the need to improve the rail service does not escape the right hon. Gentleman for Kingston upon Hull, East, who has been summoned to his sponsoring union, the National Union of Rail Maritime and Transport Workers, to explain why the Opposition want to scrap clause IV.
Mr. Watson: Given the unambiguous statements yesterday by the President of the European Commission on European Union internal passport controls and the creation of a single European currency, does the Prime Minister still hold to the view that he expressed in Brussels last July that Jacques Santer is the right man in the right place at the right time?
The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman reads what the President of the European Commission said yesterday, he will find a whole range of specifically British issues, where we have made it perfectly clear that we wish change and where he has indicated the need for change. To that extent the President of the Commission will prove far more amenable to the British position than any of the alternatives.
Mr. Anthony Coombs: In the light of the recent fall in unemployment, is my right hon. Friend aware of a recent CBI survey that showed that exports from small manufacturing companies in this country are at their best level for 10 years? As they appear not to be having any problems with exchange control or exchange rate risks, is there not a further argument for saying that what Jacques Santer, the President of the European Commission, says about the need for a European single currency by 1997 is undesirable, unrealistic and unnecessary?
The Prime Minister: I think that, in respect of the first point of my hon. Friend's question, he is quite right to stress the growth in exports. He might have also stressed the extent to which manufacturing exports, in particular, are doing so well, and the fact that manufacturing employment has risen by 37,000 in the quarter to December. That is the fastest quarterly growth in employment in manufacturing at any stage since records began and shows clearly the extent to which manufacturing industry is undergoing a renaissance. As far as the latter part of my hon. Friend's question is concerned, I have indicated clearly that I do not think that there is any prospect of a single currency in 1996 or 1997. At a later stage we will look at what is in the national interest in light of the circumstances.
Mr. Sutcliffe: This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the second world war, in which many of today's British pensioners were involved. Why do our pensioners lag behind the rest of Europe when it comes to pensions and benefits? Why have the Government never considered providing a veterans' benefit, which has been introduced elsewhere in Europe?
Column 1128He would see that, since 1979, benefits to poorer pensioners have risen by 18 per cent. over and above the increase in prices. He would see that benefits to unemployed couples and others in difficulty have risen dramatically above the rate of inflation.
The hon. Gentleman would also see that, among those people to whom he sometimes refers as the "poorest", there has been a dramatic rise in the possession of consumer durables. That suggests that people have more net disposable income and it suggests also that their living standards are improving, which is demonstrated by every dispassionate survey that we have seen.
Sir Michael Neubert: When my right hon. Friend is next in touch with Mr. Santer, will he commend him for his words yesterday that, in matters of immigration and asylum, which affect many citizens in their daily lives, the Commission will seek to meet their expectations and to allay their concerns? Will my right hon. Friend tell him that the expectations and concerns of my constituents will best be met by upholding the British border controls that were agreed in Luxembourg 10 years ago?
The Prime Minister: As I indicated to the House on Tuesday, I am entirely determined to maintain our fair but firm immigration policies, and that means that we shall retain our border controls. European Heads of Government endorsed our right to do so in a formal declaration and we intend to see that it is honoured.
I hope that we may have the support of the Opposition in this matter. The shadow Home Secretary has indicated that we will have the support of the Opposition on this issue, although he does not appear to have the support of the leader of Labour Members of the European Parliament.
Mr. Heppell: Even with the small but welcome fall in unemployment, there are still 20,000 long-term unemployed in the Greater Nottingham area. The proposed budget for Greater Nottingham training and enterprise council is such that only 800 or 900 of those 20,000 long-term unemployed can be assisted. Does the Prime Minister think that that is an adequate response to the problems of long-term unemployment?
The Prime Minister: I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that long- term unemployment--whether that is defined as six months, one year or longer--is falling and has been falling for a long time. I look forward to seeing it fall a good deal further.
Unemployment, whether long-term or short-term, has dropped by more than 400,000 in the past 12 months. Britain is well on the way to having the lowest level of unemployment in western Europe. Our unemployment rate is substantially below that of other similar countries.
Column 1129In France--the country with the most comparative population size to Britain--unemployment is just below 13 per cent. and static; here, it is 8.5 per cent and falling and there is every indication that there will be further job creation. I hope that that will involve those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, although he may have mentioned--but neglected to do so--that unemployment in his constituency has already fallen by 11 per cent.
Mr. Shersby: Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to read the excellent report of the National Audit Office on grant-maintained schools? If he has, he will have seen that those schools are performing very well indeed. They are providing an excellent standard of education and many thousands of new governors have been drawn into the process of working with teachers and parents to provide good education for our children.
The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. There is no doubt about the popularity of grant-maintained schools. There is no doubt about the fact that parents who have chosen grant-maintained status are
Column 1130pleased with the choice that they have made, and I think that that choice is exercised among many people, of all political persuasions.
Mr. Fatchett: Given the widespread concern about corruption and bribery in sport and the rumours that games have been thrown for money, will the Prime Minister confirm that his regular poor performances at the Dispatch Box against my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) are simply a reflection of his ability and that he has not been bribed by the Labour party?
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