Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th May 1994.
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.
During the course of his busy day, will my right hon. Friend reflect on the fact that over the past year, industrial output in the United Kingdom rose—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the fact that industrial output in this country rose by 3.7 per cent.—[interruption]—while in Germany, Japan, France and Italy industrial output fell? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is but one of a large number of good news stories abounding in this country at this time that deserve wider currency? Will my right hon. Friend confirm—[Interruption.] Will he confirm that it is still permissible to publish good news in this country?
As far as I could hear my hon. Friend over a fairly turbulent House, I believe that he was referring to the good news about the economy that has been evident over recent weeks. Good news is certainly allowed, but I fear that it may often be masked by less important matters these days. The fact is that the British economy is growing, has been growing for some time and is expected to continue to grow. Thankfully, unemployment is falling and is expected to continue to fall.
Is not the cry for a referendum on Europe further and compelling evidence that the Prime Minister's Cabinet and party are hopelessly divided? Is not it astonishing that battle is permitted to rage even within the Treasury? Does the Prime Minister support his Chancellor or his Chief Secretary?
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, and as I have made clear to the House on many occasions, I am sceptical about referendums. I made that clear during the Maastricht debate, and I have not changed my mind. There is not even a specific agenda for the intergovernmental conference yet. I do not believe that the question of a referendum arises now, and it certainly does not need to be decided now. It is not yet possible to say what the outcome of the conference will be, and I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I do not intend to come back to the House with a package that the House would find unacceptable.
On the question of referendums, does the Prime Minister recall saying something to the House on 6 May last year? His exact words were:
We are a parliamentary democracy, and I am not in favour of referendums."—[Official Report, 6 May 1993; Vol. 224, c. 284.]
Today he expressed scepticism. Is the movement from opposition to scepticism because he is running in front of the anti-Europeans?
If he had listened carefully, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would have also heard me say a moment or so ago that I have not changed my mind. As to a single European currency, as I have said before, decisions on that are a long way off. That will not be determined in 1996. No one expects that this Parliament is going to be asked to decide on a single European currency. That would be a matter for a future Parliament, in circumstances that no one can predict. It was my negotiating at Maastricht that made it clear that this Department would have the right to decide on that matter at a future date. Even if I wish to, I could not bind a future Parliament on its decisions.
If that answer by the Prime Minister is to be construed as ruling out a referendum in the future, can we be assured that every member of his Government will be asked to support it or will be asked to resign?
I have just set out the position clearly for the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I have made it entirely clear to him that it would not be appropriate to make a commitment now about a future Parliament's decision. Even if I wished to, I could not bind a future Parliament. My personal decision on referendums has been made entirely clear on other occasions and again today. I reiterate that I have not changed my mind.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a fact that if we were to have a Labour Government, we would inevitably have higher taxation and weaker defences, and that our policy on Europe would be destroyed by socialism? Is not that a message that all of us on the Government Benches should be constantly conveying?
I am glad to say that a Labour Government would be a very improbable premise. Even last Thursday, which appears to have buoyed them, they secured a lower share of the vote than we secured in the last general election. My hon. Friend is entirely right. A Labour Government would mean substantial defence cuts, higher expenditure and higher taxation, and would also mean signing up as part of a federal European state. That is no future for this country and will not be accepted by the people of this country at the next general election.
Does the Prime Minister realise that his answer on the question of a referendum will serve only to confirm his reputation as the maybe man? How can the British people be asked to vote on the question of Europe by a Government who are so divided on that issue and a Prime Minister whose answer on the key questions cannot get further than "perhaps"? Will he now tell us whether his answer is supposed to construe the meaning that he is opposed to a referendum, under any circumstances, as a result of which there might be a substantial change in Britain's relation with Brussels—yes or no?
The right hon. Gentleman is at his own game as a veritable opportunist for all seasons. I made perfectly clear a few moments ago what is my personal position on referendums. I also made it clear that, in 1996, I am not going to bring back anything remotely likely to be unacceptable to the House and I made it clear that on a far future date, the decision on a single European currency must be made by this House. I cannot bind the House and I do not intend to try to bind the House at this distance in time.
Is not it the case that the Leader of the Opposition was a member of a Government who introduced a referendum—an alien concept, inconsistent with our system of representative parliamentary democracy? Is not it absurd for those who argue that the authority of this House is being usurped by Brussels to advocate the use of a device that would undermine the authority of the House?
My right hon. Friend points to something with which the House has become familiar—the selective memory of the Leader of the Opposition about what he has stood for in the past. The points made by my right hon. Friend are undeniable and I agree with them.
Has the Prime Minister been told that since his campaign visit to Croydon, the wise people of Croydon threw out the Tory council after more than 100 years and elected a majority Labour council for the first time ever? We thank him for that visit. Whom does he blame for the Croydon Tory disaster: the local Conservatives or his own Government?
Let me mention that I visited Westminster and Wandsworth as well. I congratulate the new Croydon councillors on their success in the elections and I sympathise with the Croydon electors who will have higher bills to pay and a less efficient administration.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the United Kingdom attracted the highest level of foreign investment of any country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 1991 and 1992? Would the Labour party's proposed increases in business taxes, enunciated in the European socialist manifesto, add encouragement to that vote of confidence in Britain?
My hon. Friend is right. We have built up a position over many years as a favoured country for inward investment. That is apparent in Scotland, the north-east, the north-west, Wales and many other places. There is no doubt that that position would fall away if we followed the policies advocated by Opposition Front-Bench Members. A social chapter would inhibit inward investment, as would the 35–hour week, a minimum wage and plans to harmonise taxes upwards, all of which the Leader of the Opposition has signed up to in the socialist European manifesto. That manifesto is binding on the Labour party as, I hope, the Labour party will make clear to every elector in the forthcoming European elections.
Does the Prime Minister accept that there are hundreds of thousands of pensioners who are now genuinely concerned that, should they fall ill, their pensions and savings will be used to pay for care that they thought they had paid for through their taxes? Will he take on the bloodsuckers in the Treasury and in the Department of Social Security who are threatening the last vestige of compassion in the national health service?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are increasing resources in the national health service and increasing the provision of assistance to people in the national health service. Indeed, the national health service is the one service in Government that is guaranteed a real-terms increase, year on year, as we examine the relative proportions of public expenditure. There is no doubt about the growth, both for the elderly and for other people, in the national health service, and that growth will continue.
I am delighted to hear my right hon. Friend's wise words on the subject of a referendum. Will he reflect on the fact that when the Labour party had a referendum to provide party unity, that not only created the Social Democrat party but kept it in opposition for 14 years?
Why, only two weeks after expressing support for the aims of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, did the Prime Minister allow the cynical, Government-inspired sabotage of the Bill last Friday?
No one could have accepted a Bill, as drafted, with a cost compliance calculated at £17 billion and a yearly on-cost of £1 billion. However, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Social Security and Disabled People made clear in the debate on Friday, we intend within the next six months to consult on proposals to eliminate unjustified discrimination in employment, access to goods and services, financial services and access to buildings. We also intend to consult on the establishment of a new advisory body on disability. Those consultations will take account of the views of everyone with an interest in disability. At the end of that process, we shall consider assisting in the drafting of practical and workable legislation that will help the disabled.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the great problems facing not only this country but the rest of the world is the increase in drugs and the terrible effect that that has on crime? Can he give an assurance that the Government and the police will give top priority to tackling the drug barons and their vile trade?
Yes, I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. The sum total of expenditure to tackle the drugs menace exceeds something like £500 million a year. We are seeking, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Lord President, to bring together all the action that exists across Government so that we can most effectively target the drugs programme. We are also consulting our European partners—notably Germany—to see what can be done at the European level to assist in preventing drugs from coming to this country in the first place.
As the leader of the most unpopular Government this century and with a divided shambles of a party beside and behind him, does the Prime Minister think that it would be better to clear the air and have a general election now?
At the last election, we received the highest number of votes that any party has ever received in a general election, and we received a five-year mandate to carry out our policies. I intend to exercise that five-year mandate. Then the hon. Gentleman will get his election and then if he personally is re-elected, he can continue to sit where he sits now.