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1997 - PMQT 14th January 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 14th January 1997. Michael Heseltine responded on behalf of John Major.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Ainger: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 14 January.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Michael Heseltine): I have been asked to reply.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is returning from an official visit to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Mr. Ainger: Has the Deputy Prime Minister seen the results of a survey conducted by the Health Visitors Association showing that 2 million British children are malnourished, that one third of health visitors are dealing with childhood tuberculosis and that rickets has returned to plague hundreds of British children? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the association that those appalling effects on health are a direct result of family poverty and deprivation, and does he agree with me that any Government who are able to recreate the social conditions of the 19th century at the end of the 20th do not deserve to serve into the 21st?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The last occasion on which we saw some of the social conditions of the 19th century was in 1979, when the winter of discontent characterised the activities of the last Labour Government. The survey to which the hon. Gentleman refers has been drawn to my attention and I reject its findings.

Mr. Richards: Has my right hon. Friend seen today's edition of the Western Mail? Its front page states that the water and electricity giant Hyder is to move into the gas supply market, which would reduce prices by some £40 a year for the consumer. Does he agree that, if there were a windfall tax, Welsh consumers would be robbed of price cuts, and Labour's policies would yet again end in tears?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the dangers of imposing a windfall tax on the people of Wales. He would, however, also be right to point to the dangers for a large number of people--pensioners and employees--who would suffer from the punitive effects of such a tax; although it must be said that, according to recent evidence, no such tax could be effectively levied. That leaves the question, "Where is the money coming from to fund Labour's extravagant expenditure plans?"

Mrs. Ann Taylor: Does the Prime Minister accept the verdict of the British Medical Association that the health service is facing its worst crisis for 10 years?

The Deputy Prime Minister: It is difficult for the hon. Lady to suggest, when we have just announced £1.6 billion extra expenditure, that there is a crisis in the health service. The fact is that 25,000 patients a day are being treated in the health service. Nothing does more damage to the morale of those who work in it, and provide excellent service, than the endless sniping of the Labour party, which is obviously oblivious to the fact that for most of its life the health service has been safe in the hands of Tory Governments.

Mrs. Taylor: Does the Deputy Prime Minister not realise that the picture that he paints bears little resemblance to the everyday experiences of ordinary families in Britain? His complacency is an insult to the families of women in Leeds and London who died in the past few days because intensive care beds were not available. Can he not understand that his failure to give a serious answer to serious questions proves beyond doubt that the health service is not safe in Tory hands?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As we are spending £724 for every man, woman and child in Britain, perhaps the hon. Lady will explain how things were better when it was only £444 in 1978-79, but there is a serious point behind what the hon. Lady raises: the need to provide intensive care beds. That is why, in December, we set up a national register for intensive care beds so that, by a single call, doctors can find out where they are--[Interruption.] I would have thought that the Labour party would be interested in the health service. As the Labour party and the whole House will know, the demand for hospital beds can literally double in a day and if the Labour party is suggesting that, in every hospital, we should keep beds empty all the time for fear that there may be an emergency, it is important that it should say that so that we can understand the lost opportunities for a large number of patients who rely on those beds.

Mrs. Taylor: Surely everyone in Britain has the right to expect the national health service to be able to provide emergency, life-saving treatment when it is necessary. Is not the problem with what the Deputy Prime Minister says about figures and money the basic fact that the Government have created 20,000 more administrators and lost 50,000 nurses? If the right hon. Gentleman will not accept the expert opinion of the British Medical Association, and if he wants a second opinion on the state of the health service, why not consult the people who really matter--the electorate--and the sooner the better?

The Deputy Prime Minister: If the hon. Lady were a little more realistic with the figures that she quoted, she would have to point out that there are now 55,000 more qualified nurses and midwives than there were when the Labour party was last responsible for the health service and that waiting times are down. About 200,000 people were waiting more than 12 months in 1990--80,000 of them were doing so for more than two years--but today around 15,000 patients are waiting more than 12 months and only a couple of dozen are waiting more than 18 months.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman: Would my right hon. Friend have been prepared to answer questions from the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) if his friends had not been so terrified of what he might say that they bundled him off to Hong Kong?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman was courteous enough to ring me to explain that he could not be in the House this afternoon. I am not exactly sure why, but, given what the Leader of the Labour party said on Sunday, it occurs to me that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) may have gone looking for a job.


Q2. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 14 January.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Jones: Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of the low morale in the teaching profession as a result of changes in the rules on the early retirement scheme and of the poor settlement that local authorities had in Wales this year? Is he aware, for example, that hundreds of teachers in Wales are applying for early retirement and that 1,000 others face redundancy as a result of local authority cuts? Are those the education policies that the Government will be pursuing in Wales in election year? If so, they are in for a rough ride. The right hon. Gentleman can restore morale by extending the consultation period on the teachers' pension plan and by giving local education authorities more money so that they can at least maintain existing services.

The Deputy Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has made it absolutely plain why she is changing the rules of the early retirement programme. I do not know which world the hon. Gentleman is living in, but he must be aware that the Government have provided an extra £875 million for schools, colleges and universities next year. How he can talk about a crisis, I fail to understand.

Mr. Dunn: Is my right hon. Friend aware that local government in Manchester, Liverpool, Lambeth and Islington is inefficient and incompetent and that those authorities are run by the people who wish to run the country? Run the country? The Labour party could not run a bath.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Every time Labour spokesmen tell us what they would like to do to improve education standards I wonder why they do not talk to Labour councillors who run local education authorities and tell them to improve the appalling record over which they preside.


Q3. Mr. Hoyle: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 14 January.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Hoyle: Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that on 6 March 1996 the Secretary of State for Health gave an assurance that he would keep a close eye on intensive care capacity? Despite that assurance, a lack of intensive care beds in Warrington hospital means that operations are being cancelled and patients are being transferred to hospitals as far away as Leeds. That is happening not just in Warrington but throughout the north-west. Because of the Government's folly, the number of bureaucrats has increased threefold at the expense of beds for patients. What does the Deputy Prime Minister, the most important person in the country at the moment, intend to do about that?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the provision of emergency beds. Health service administrators, who, as I said, cope with 25,000 patients a day, do a remarkable job in extraordinarily difficult and unpredictable circumstances. If one asks our hospital administrators to keep beds empty in anticipation of emergency admissions, one must explain to those who do not get the advantages of those beds why they are empty. Labour would be the first to complain if it could show that beds were empty because we had said that we had to keep them empty in case of emergency admissions.

Mr. Marlow: The Government have obviously been studying the so-called windfall tax. I wonder how it would work if a company, having been floated, was then taken over--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must put a question on a matter for which the Government have responsibility. If he does that, I will listen to him. If he does not, I shall call another hon. Member. Questions must be on Government accountability.

Mr. Marlow: If my right hon. Friend were looking for advice on how to run our schools, would he take it from a party that has been running local education authorities that have produced the most appalling results in the country?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the difference between the rhetoric and the performance of Labour local education authorities. I have no doubt that there is a chilling relationship between their incompetence in education management and the incompetence that has led to the production of an unworkable scheme called the windfall tax.


Q4. Mr. Cummings: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 14 January.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have been asked to reply.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Cummings: I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer. Is he aware of a recent case in which a seriously ill child of 20 months was driven from Sunderland to Edinburgh--120 miles--because of a lack of intensive care beds in Sunderland district general hospital's paediatric unit? Will he assure my constituents, who use Sunderland district general hospital, that such incidents will not occur again, and will he ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on the great distress in the health service?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am not familiar with the individual constituency case to which the hon. Gentleman draws attention. I share the concern that he quite rightly feels on behalf of his constituent. However, I have answered the specific question, and I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is aware of the problems.

Mr. Fabricant: Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of my poorer constituents in Lichfield can send their children to private schools because of the assisted places scheme? Will he please confirm that the Government have no plans to abolish the scheme, because without it those parents could not afford to send their children to private schools?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I can assure my hon. Friend that we will not only maintain but expand the assisted places scheme. We believe in diversity of choice in education and in widening opportunities, which is why we have introduced legislation with precisely that purpose in mind. As I understand it, to exercise choice in the Labour party, one must either be the leader of that party or the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman).

Mr. Beith: Does the Deputy Prime Minister realise the seriousness of the crisis in the health service and the depth of concern among all who work in it and all who depend on it? Will he take positive action by using his authority to end ward closures, while an evaluation is conducted of how much reserve capacity the health service needs? Everyone in the service agrees that it must have some reserve capacity.

The Deputy Prime Minister: Substantial capacity is available to deal with emergency cases; otherwise the very difficult cases--such as that to which the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) drew attention--would be much more numerous. The House should salute the energy and devotion of those who work in the health service, who cope with those cases, day and night, with immense skill, care and attention.