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Engagements

Q2. Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 June. [548]

The Prime Minister: This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. Later this afternoon I shall be meeting the President of the European Commission.

Mr. Bruce: In a written answer, the Treasury has just it made clear that, once the cost of living increase is calculated, pensioners will not benefit from the reduction in value added tax on fuel. Why does the Prime Minister continue to insist that pensioners will benefit?

The Prime Minister: Of course pensioners will benefit from the reduction in VAT on fuel. Of course they will: that is precisely why so many of them supported the policy of reducing VAT on fuel. There was probably no more unpopular policy pursued by the previous Government than that of raising VAT on fuel in direct breach of their election commitments. In contrast, this Government, having promised to reduce VAT on fuel, will do so.

Mr. MacShane: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating our sister party in France on the remarkable election victory on Sunday? In addition to

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working with President Chirac, will my right hon. Friend seize the opportunity of five consecutive years of government to forge a new political entente cordiale between our two countries and instruct Ministers and officials to seek out what unites our two great nations and to put to one side what may divide us? Finally, when my right hon. Friend meets Mr. Jospin tomorrow in Sweden, will he in the name of all English people ask Mr. Jospin to have a word with Eric Cantona and ask him to keep playing for Manchester United?

The Prime Minister: I think that that might be an entente too far. Of course I am delighted to congratulate Mr. Jospin on his victory and I want to work with all our partners in Europe to ensure that we have an agenda for Europe which focuses on the single biggest problem in Europe--jobs. That is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has today made an important initiative and said that all the European countries should come together to work out how we get the right labour market, the right education and skills and the right infrastructure in Europe to ensure not just that the single market works, but that we can reduce the appalling levels of unemployment throughout Europe.

Mr. Ashdown: Are not the first crucial decisions on monetary union now just weeks away and likely to turn on a choice between relaxation and delay? Which does the Government prefer?

The Prime Minister: What we prefer is the policy that we articulated before the election and continue to articulate now--to keep the options open for this country. We have made it clear that we believe that it is highly unlikely that Britain would want to join the first wave of monetary union. I have also made it clear, as we have always said, that the criteria for monetary union should not be fiddled, fudged or botched in any way. If they are, the answer is not to delay--the answer is not to proceed.

Mr. Ashdown: While I agree with the latter part of the Prime Minister's answer, does he agree that there is a very limited degree of flexibility allowed in the Maastricht criteria, not least on the timetable? Would it not be better if Britain were to accept that and lead the search for a pragmatic solution, and to show the way that that could be done through the leadership of his Government?

The Prime Minister: Of course we should exercise a leadership role, but it is important to have a consistent position and stick to it. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some flexibility in the criteria. It is important that the criteria are not fiddled or botched in any way, because if that happens the process will not work. We will ensure that that is clear not only here but to our European partners, too.

Miss Melanie Johnson: Does the Prime Minister not find it astonishing that some 100,000 children do not attend their school in England and Wales each day? Will he tell the House what the Government intend to do about that?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a severe problem. Part of the reason why we are committed to action on class sizes and on literacy and

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numeracy in our schools is to try to reduce the numbers of children who play truant. My hon. Friend may also like to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and other Education Ministers are considering better ways to deal with truancy. The great problem for many schools is that they are faced with the choice of keeping children who are unruly and undisciplined, which disrupts the education of other children, or throwing them out of the school, in which case they often end up as a problem for the police and other enforcement agencies in the local community. There has to be a better way to approach the problem. If not, we shall find that social costs mount up, including crime, and those 100,000 young people may also end up later incapable of finding work or working for any length of time.

Mr. Major: Three weeks ago the Prime Minister promised the House that the devolution Bill would be published before the referendum. Can he confirm that that is still the case?

The Prime Minister: The proposals in the White Paper upon which the devolution Bill will be published will of course be published, because it is that upon which the referendum is to be held.

Mr. Major: The right hon. Gentleman perhaps did not hear my question. I asked him whether the Bill would be published. I quote from what he said in answer to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) some time ago:


Why has the Prime Minister changed his mind? If he has changed his mind, why did he not have the courtesy to come and tell the House that he had done so? The distinction between the White Paper and the Bill will be well understood both to the House and to the right hon. Gentleman. Was it not a matter of trust that he should tell us?

The Prime Minister: It is absolutely clear--it was made clear before the election and all the way through--that it is the White Paper proposals that will be put to a referendum of the Scottish people. That is entirely sensible, since it is only then, after the referendum has given an affirmative answer, that it is sensible to draw up the Bill, so that we then have the details of the Bill properly debated in the House. That is plainly the sensible way to proceed. As we have said all the way through before the election, and I repeat again now, the White Paper proposals will be there so that everybody in Scotland and Wales knows precisely what is being contemplated.

Mr. Major: The Prime Minister is both wriggling and waffling. For ease of reference, I have the Hansard report in front of me and I quote the Prime Minister:


not the White Paper--


    "will be published in time for the referendum, because the referendum will take place on those proposals"--[Official Report, 14 May 1997; Vol. 294, c.64.]

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    Is not the truth of the matter that the details of the policy are still in such a muddle that the right hon. Gentleman cannot yet give detailed instructions to the draftsmen?

The Prime Minister: The proposals to which I referred are the proposals in the White Paper. [Hon. Members: "The Bill."] The proposals in the White Paper. Those are the proposals that we said before the election that we would publish. It is plainly sensible and right, and in accordance with precisely what we said before the election, that we will publish those proposals. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made clear in the debate yesterday, he will publish the proposals in the White Paper before Parliament rises so that Parliament will have the opportunity to debate them. That is plainly the most sensible way to proceed, and we shall proceed in that way.

Mr. Major: Why does the Prime Minister not just admit that he made a mistake in the past and that the Bill is not ready? Why does he not admit that he has been caught with his fingers in the till oratorically? He promised the Bill and he cannot deliver the Bill. Devolution is a constitutional matter, but already the Government have guillotined the referendum Bill so that important parts of it cannot even be discussed and we suspect that they will not even follow the long-established convention of taking the Bill on the Floor of the House. The Prime Minister cannot answer any of the detailed questions that have repeatedly been put to him about that Bill. After one month of government, is that not a contemptible way for the Prime Minister to treat the House of Commons, and is it not becoming apparent that that is typical of the arrogant way in which the Government are beginning to behave?

The Prime Minister rose--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: Perhaps I may deal with each of the right hon. Gentleman's points in turn. First--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must now come to order. We must not have this bawling and shouting.

The Prime Minister: The Conservatives have not taken long to slip into the ways of opposition. I can deal with each of the right hon. Gentleman's points. First, we need no lessons on fingers in the till from the Conservative party. Secondly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made clear yesterday--and as I repeat today--the proposals will be in the White Paper on which people will be able to vote in the referendum. As for the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill--

Dr. Mawhinney: What about the devolution Bill?

The Prime Minister: The former chairman of the Conservative party must contain himself for a moment. He did not do so during the election campaign, and he is not doing so now. The Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill is simple, containing six clauses and two schedules. The Conservative party tabled 250 amendments, 21 new

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clauses and 12 new schedules--and it did so not to assist debate, but to scupper the Bill. I ask the people of this country this: which is undemocratic--a Government using their mandate to propose a referendum to allow the Scottish and Welsh people to have their say, or a Conservative party that wants to prevent the Government from carrying out that mandate?

As for the use of the guillotine--since the Leader of the Opposition raised that--I have done a little research. The last Conservative Government used the guillotine 59 times--six times in advance of Committee stage. [Interruption.] Conservative Members are saying that the previous Government never used the guillotine on constitutional Bills, but they did so on the Single European Act and, what is more, when they forced the poll tax on Scotland. As a Government, we are implementing the policies upon which we were elected. That is the real difference between us and the Conservative party.

Mr. Major: After all that waffle, I repeat my question to the Prime Minister: why did he promise the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and the House that the Bill would be published, and why has he not now apologised for breaking that promise?

The Prime Minister: My promise was precisely that which we made at the election. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland said yesterday, the promise was to publish the proposals in a White Paper before Parliament rose, and that these would then be debated by the House. That is my right hon. Friend's position, and mine. Opposition Members--with all their shouting and braying--want to stop us carrying out the policies upon which we were elected. We will not let them stop us.

Kate Hoey: Will my right hon. Friend use this opportunity to join all decent people in Northern Ireland in utterly condemning the appalling murder of Constable Greg Taylor at the weekend? How many meetings should take place between Government officials and representatives of Sinn Fein before any decision is taken about when those meetings should stop? How many meetings will take place before a decision is taken that enough is enough?

The Prime Minister: As we made clear when we announced the process of officials of the Government talking to Sinn Fein, it was important that it was subject to events on the ground. That continues to be the case. The Government absolutely abhor--as, I am sure, does the whole House--the murder of the member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It was appalling and totally unprovoked, and was a precise example of the type of random vicious violence that we want to stop. That is why it is so important that we give every impetus that we can to making sure that we carry the talks process forward, but in a way--as my hon. Friend rightly said--that is entirely consistent with the principles that we set out, and it will be.

Q3. Mr. Day: Will the Prime Minister confirm that at the time of the abolition of the Stormont Parliament in Northern Ireland, the number of Members of Parliament from the Province was increased to compensate for the

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loss of that body? Can he therefore explain to the House why he refuses to reduce the number of Scottish and Welsh Members of Parliament accordingly if Parliaments are established in Scotland and Wales? Does he not realise that unless changes to our constitution are equitable and fair to all parts of the United Kingdom, his proposals will strike at the very heart and unity of this United Kingdom, which I hope that all hon. Members hold dear? [549]

The Prime Minister: Of course they must be equitable and fair, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman that our proposals are very similar to those made for Northern Ireland by the previous Government--for a devolved Assembly with legislative powers, but no reduction in the number of Members of Parliament. If the proposals were equitable and fair then, similar arguments can be made in respect of others.

Mr. Sheerman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that 18 years of the Conservative Government's misguided policies have done great damage to city and town centres throughout the country? If so, will he ensure that all his colleagues with responsibility for such matters come together to put the towns and city centres of our country first and produce policies to bring them back to life?

The Prime Minister: I agree with the general objective that my hon. Friend sets out, and we are attempting to do a number of things in that connection. One is the action on crime in city centres, which is tremendously important, allowing people greater freedom both to live and to work there. That is one reason why we have supported so many Labour and other authorities introducing closed circuit television in city centres and other measures that have improved crime prevention there.

It is also important in all those town centres to get the right planning and environment measures and the right transport strategy, which is one reason why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is so committed to ensuring that we have the right public transport strategy to give people the freedom to go into the town centre and back again.

I would say to my hon. Friend, however, that there are certain elements--the development of out-of-town shopping centres, for example--that accord with what people want to do, so it is important that while doing everything that we can to redevelop town centres, we should recognise that certain patterns of behaviour will remain simply because people want them to remain.

Q4. Mr. David Davis: The Prime Minister rightly said that unemployment was one of the major issues facing Europe. He argued in his election manifesto that using the windfall tax to fund the employer rebate would reduce labour costs and that reducing those costs would reduce unemployment. If he believes that, why does he not believe that increasing costs, with a minimum wage, will increase unemployment? [550]

The Prime Minister: I do not believe that a minimum wage will increase unemployment at all. [Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members are opposed to the minimum wage, but I say that it is wrong--simply wrong--that 800,000 people in this country are paid £2.50 an hour or less. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman would like his wife or his children to work

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for that kind of sum. Of course it is important to tackle unemployment, but the whole purpose of the windfall tax, and its advantage, is that it enables us to take a range of different measures, including a subsidy to employers to take on young people who have been unemployed for some time, who can then be given training and skills, giving them the best chance of getting back into the labour market and doing something worth while.

Conservative Members shake their heads and ask how long those people will be employed. I visited a training centre in Southwark the other day.

Mr. Duncan: Well done.

The Prime Minister: I think that it is quite important to see what steps are being taken in local communities. A whole range of those young people, some of whom had been unemployed for long periods, had the chance for the first time to make something of their lives, as a result of the skills and training that they were getting, particularly in new technology.

We want to reduce the appalling levels of structural long-term unemployment, not just here but throughout Europe. If Conservative Members do not join us in that endeavour, it shows how out of touch they are.

Q5. Mr. Canavan: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the death toll from last year's E. coli outbreak in central Scotland has reached 20 with the tragic death of an elderly woman in my constituency at the weekend, making it the most severe outbreak of that strain in the world? Given the more recent outbreak at Falkirk district royal infirmary, which affected more than 30 people, and the fact that its source has not yet been identified, will my right hon. Friend order early implementation of the recommendations in Professor Pennington's report and order the highest form of public inquiry--not a fatal accident inquiry, but a fully fledged public inquiry presided over by a senior Scottish judge--to get to the root of the matter? That is what we demanded in opposition and that is what we expect now that we are in government. [551]

The Prime Minister: I entirely share and understand the concern about that issue. We shall, of course, consider the recommendations of Professor Pennington and then consider what further action needs to be taken. I assure my hon. Friend that everything that can be done will be done. It is sensible to do that in the light of whatever Professor Pennington has recommended. In addition to dealing with the particular outbreaks of E. coli in Scotland, we will set up an independent food standards agency, which will give us a far better chance of reducing such outbreaks in future.

Q6. Mr. Wilshire: When President Clinton and a real first lady had dinner with the right hon. Gentleman last Thursday rather than at Buckingham palace, did the right hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to explain why members of Her Majesty's Government have taken to referring to the wife of the British Prime Minister as Britain's first lady? Will he take this opportunity to instruct his Ministers to stop this arrogant practice? [552]

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The Prime Minister: All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that opposition has certainly not improved the Conservative party. I do not know anyone who is doing that. We are very content with the present position. In relation to insulting the wives of politicians, whether here or abroad, the more they are kept out of the whole thing, the better.

Q7. Ms Squire: Does the Prime Minister agree that the Eurofighter aircraft is vital to Britain's future defence needs, to the future success of Britain's defence manufacturing industry and to the 40,000 jobs directly and indirectly involved in its production? When he meets Chancellor Kohl in Germany on Friday, will he emphasise the importance of the Eurofighter project and urge him to ensure that Germany signs the production agreements without any further delay? [553]

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I shall certainly urge that we proceed with the Eurofighter project. As my hon. Friend knows, our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is at this very time trying to do that with his German counterparts. The Eurofighter project is immensely important for Britain. It is important for defence reasons because it is the multi-role aircraft that we need for our future defence requirements, but it is also vitally important for jobs, technology and skills. Some of the most highly skilled employees in the country will be working on the project. It is ready to go into its production phase, and we will do all that we can to speed up the project.

Mr. Cash: Given what the Prime Minister said about the connection between jobs, unemployment and the fudged criteria under the European Union treaty, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Maastricht criteria have already clearly failed on those matters? Will he go to Amsterdam, as I repeatedly asked our previous Prime Minister, to renegotiate the treaty and deal with the question of economic and monetary union in the interests of all the people of the whole of Europe, including the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister: All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I hope that he does more good for me than he did for the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). In respect of the hon. Gentleman's question on jobs, we shall simply be saying that we have to focus on how we improve the labour market, its flexibility and the employment of people within the labour market--as it is a different labour market today--and how we take the action necessary to improve the job situation not only for people here in Britain but for people throughout Europe. There are 18 million unemployed in Europe and some 9 million who have been unemployed for more than a year. That is precisely one of the reasons why we are taking action here. We want to put unemployment right at the top of the agenda for Europe as well. We shall be doing that, of course, at Amsterdam, but we shall be doing it beforehand as well in talks with other countries.

Q8. Mr. Winnick: I raised the Stephen Lawrence case in the previous Parliament. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is of interest that those who were named by the Daily Mail as responsible for the brutal killing of that

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17-year-old youth have not taken any action to clear their names? When is justice and the rule of law going to prevail in this case? Is it not disgraceful that that youth was put to death, those responsible have been named and no action has yet been taken to ensure that the murderers of Stephen Lawrence are put in the dock? [554]

The Prime Minister: I of course understand--indeed, I deeply share--the concern that my hon. Friend has raised, as I believe that we all do. When he raised the matter previously in the House, it was made clear by the then Prime Minister and by all of us how much we wanted

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to see justice done in this case. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is to meet Mrs. Lawrence shortly. We shall do everything that we can--consistent, obviously, with the proper rule of law, because that is the way in which it must be done. I entirely understand the frustration that people feel. It was an appalling and brutal murder and no one has been brought to justice for it. There is a deep sense of injustice within the local community that that should be so. I hope that people understand that we shall do everything that we can within the rule of law to rectify that injustice. The meeting that my right hon. Friend is to have with Mrs. Lawrence is one step in doing that.

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