Engagements

Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5 December 1996.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 12:00, 5 December 1996

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 5 December. [6179]

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

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.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Is the Prime Minister seriously pressing ahead with Budget measures that would deprive between 7,000 and 10,000 ex-service people of their entitlement to war pensions, and cost thousands more their entitlement to benefit paid for deafness resulting from war service? It is only a few weeks since we saw disabled war pensioners determined to march, limp or be pushed in wheelchairs past the Cenotaph. Surely the Prime Minister has not forgotten them now.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

Of course not. I fear that the right hon. Gentleman has been misled by reports in The Guardian and by the conflation of two separate and distinct matters. The first involves proposals to simplify about 19 complex measures. No pensioner will lose money as a result of that. The second concerns new independent medical advice on pensions paid for loss of hearing. The purpose of that independent advice is to determine what disabilities have been caused, so that people can be compensated accordingly. Those changes were—[Interruption.] That independent medical advice is the normal way of dealing with these matters. It has invariably been accepted. It usually puts up entitlements—that has always been the case in the past. I know of no circumstance when it has not been accepted. It was discussed this morning with the Central Advisory Committee on War Pensions, which will now consider the details.

Photo of Dr Rhodes Boyson Dr Rhodes Boyson , Brent North

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is great rejoicing today in the knowledge that A-level standards will be retained and strengthened? Does he agree that that is one of many reforms introduced by the Government for the benefit of British education?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

My right hon. Friend speaks for many people, including many millions of parents. Standards are at the heart of the Government's policies on education and will remain so. Our national qualifications must remain at the highest standard, and A-levels are central to that.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair , Sedgefield

May I return the Prime Minister to the subject of war pensions? Future pensioners will lose as a result of the changes. Those changes to war pensions were described in the Government press release on Budget day as proposals to simplify policy and procedures", whereas they actually mean £50 million-worth of cuts. Does the Prime Minister accept that that was inaccurate and misleading, and will he apologise to the British people for that deception?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman is just plain wrong. If the House will permit me to repeat what I said to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I shall take the Labour leader through it gently, so that he understands. Two issues have been run together in a simplistic and misleading way by The Guardian. If the right hon. Gentleman relies on The Guardian for his information, that explains why he is so often inaccurate in his questions.

The first issue involves proposals to simplify complex measures. No pensioner will lose money as a result of that. The second is the way in which we have always dealt with independent medical advice concerning pensions. [Interruption.] Hon. Members shout. After some months, we have just accepted independent advice on emphysema, having been pressed to do so by the Opposition. We did so willingly. That is what we always do with independent medical advice and what we have done on this occasion. The purpose of the independent advice that we have always sought is to determine what disablements have been caused, so that people can be compensated accordingly. That is happening on this occasion—nothing different, no change. We are following the normal practice for dealing with these matters.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair , Sedgefield

Let me deal with each part in turn, so that the Prime Minister can answer each part. The first involves hearing disability. The Prime Minister says that the changes were made on independent medical advice. If the reason for the changes was independent medical advice, why were all his Social Security Ministers opposed to them, which they were, and why did not the Budget press release mention the fact that the changes reduced expenditure by £35 million?

The second part involves the other changes that the Prime Minister mentioned. He says that they are merely a simplification. Are they on the basis of medical advice? Is that why widows' rent allowances are to be abolished for new cases? The Prime Minister shakes his head. Is that happening or not? Not issuing reminders to return claim forms—is that happening or not? Ceasing to issue copies of decisions to third parties—is that happening or not? Is the instruction "Do not direct appellant to Royal British Legion as their representative" correct or not? Instead of patronising comments about how we do not understand, will the Prime Minister deal, first, with the matter of medical advice and his Social Security Ministers and, secondly, with each of the points that I have made?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

As I told the right hon. Gentleman a moment ago, he has completely misunderstood what has happened. He has not seen the full range of correspondence, and as usual—despite his piety about a leak a week or so ago—he relies on leaked correspondence. If he had seen the correspondence, he would not have misunderstood the matter in the way he just has.

I repeat: the right hon. Gentleman has got it wrong, and I hope that he will not pursue it. We are trying to simply the procedures, as that is the right thing to do in the interests of the taxpayer, as well as of the applicants and the recipients of benefits. If the right hon. Gentleman does not want to simplify procedures across government, no wonder he envisages expenditure rising under a Labour Government.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair , Sedgefield

If the right hon. Gentleman is unable to answer the specific points that were put to him, he will stand condemned out of his own mouth. I must ask him why—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question"]. This is a question—"why" is normally the start of a question. Why, if it is all just administrative procedures, does one Minister talk about a storm that is about to break about the Government's head?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

indicated dissent.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair , Sedgefield

The Prime Minister shakes his head. A Minister said that. Why do the Government talk of "sweeteners"? They talk of these things because they know that they have been caught doing something shabby and mean-minded. If he cannot be trusted with British war pensioners, why should he be trusted at all?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

As is typical, the right hon. Gentleman has quoted out of context and wrongly, and he has drawn the wrong conclusion from what he has said. One day, he might find out what he is talking about before he starts to talk about it.

Photo of Charles Wardle Charles Wardle , Bexhill and Battle

My right hon. Friend knows that, when he vetoes the Commission's new proposals on borders—as Conservative Members know he will—the European Parliament has said that it will renew its action in the European Court. My right hon. Friend's own advisers say that the court will rule our borders unlawful, as the treaty now stands. Will he therefore explain to the House the contradiction, in that he says that our borders are not negotiable but his Ministers say that we will not break European law?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

We have made it clear to our European partners on innumerable occasions that we will not accept any form of treaty change that alters the sanctity of British borders. Treaty change will need to be by unanimity, and we will not give our consent to it. There should be no doubt among any of our European partners that we are not prepared to accept any change whatsoever to the present system of safeguarding Britain's borders and, hence, our immigration controls.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 5 December. [6180]

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Photo of Thomas McAvoy Thomas McAvoy , Glasgow Rutherglen

Is the Prime Minister aware that his absent Chancellor of the Exchequer has been briefing journalists on the Prime Minister's failed attempt to change Government policy on Europe? Does he agree with the Chancellor, who has described the Prime Minister's failed attempt as a boomerang wrapped in high explosive which has blown up in the Prime Minister's face?

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

The hon. Gentleman may know that I have a statement in my hand that denies the report to which he refers.

Photo of Mr Den Dover Mr Den Dover , Chorley

Following the excellent Budget speech by the Chancellor last week, my right hon. Friend will have heard stupid statements from the Labour party about a lower basic rate of tax than 20p and lifting the ceiling for the 40 per cent. tax rate. Will not these unfounded pledges or promises—call them what you will—only give rise to higher taxation—

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister answers questions, not about the Opposition but on behalf of the Government. Perhaps the Prime Minister might turn the question around and attempt to answer it.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

It is certainly—[Interruption.] It is nice to welcome back the deputy leader of the Labour party. I thought that he was in Scotland answering focus groups.

It is certainly the case that, in order to contain public expenditure and hold down taxation, many extremely difficult decisions have to be taken. We have taken those decisions and I acknowledge the difficulty of doing so.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

I think that the whole country understands the unlikelihood of any alternative Government taking such decisions.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 5 December. [6181]

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Can the Prime Minister tell us where he has hidden those economic jewels that he referred to in a speech last week? I went to the Treasury chest to find them and I found a big IOU that said that the country owed a £380 billion national debt which had doubled since the Prime Minister took office. There was another IOU showing a £19.5 billion public sector borrowing requirement shortfall.

Then I met a bloke on the street with his head down. I said, "Are you looking for these economic jewels too?" He said, "No, I'm looking for work." In my opinion, the Government sold off the economic jewels along with all the silver that they sold off the other years.

Photo of Mr John Major Mr John Major , Huntingdon

I hope that, when the hon. Gentleman was in the Treasury basement the other day, he did not leave a match behind him.

As for our economic jewels, I invite the hon. Gentleman to find any other country with unemployment falling like ours, tax rates and growth at our level, growing exports. a narrowing trade gap and economic prospects as good as ours. He cannot do it, because there is not one. The chap he found looking for work would be joined by many others looking for work if the policies that the hon. Gentleman advocates were ever put into effect.