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1997 - PMQT 20th February 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 20th February 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. O'Hara: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 February.

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.

Mr. O'Hara: Is the Prime Minister aware that, despite all the Government's attempts to massage and manipulate the figures, national health service waiting lists are again at record levels? There is a waiting list of 179,000 in my area of the north-west alone. Could it just be that the Government's policy of replacing 50,000 nurses with 20,000 managers and doubling the price of bureaucracy has something to do with this crisis?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken.

Mr. Mackinlay: No, he is not.

The Prime Minister: Yes he is, and I will explain precisely why.

Waiting lists are broadly the same as last year. They have fallen very dramatically during the present Parliament. If the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) would care to look at the figures for the period before the health reforms and the patients charter, he will see that more than 200,000 people had waited for more than a year, of whom 80,000 had waited for more than two years. At the end of December, only 2 per cent. of patients--22,000--had been waiting for more than a year, and the number who had waited for more than 18 months was down to 123.

The fact is that more people are being treated, they are being treated more swiftly, and they are being treated better.


Q2. Mr. John Marshall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Marshall: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that last month the Treasury repaid £6,000 million of debt? Will he also confirm that, if anyone sought to spend an extra £30,000 million of public money, they could do so only by increasing taxes, increasing borrowing and increasing interest rates, all of which would put an end to the economic recovery that is the envy of the whole of the rest of western Europe?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is correct on both counts. Certainly, if anything remotely approximating to £30,000 million were spent in the next Parliament in addition to current spending plans, taxes and interest rates would rise, and I have no doubt that it would have very severe effects on the economy as a whole. As for debt, I was delighted to see that £6 billion had been repaid in the past month--

Mr. Skinner: Who put it up?

The Prime Minister: I will just remind the hon. Gentleman that we have a lower debt ratio than any other major economy in Europe. I will remind him that, in every single year since we came to power, the debt ratio has been lower than in any single year in which he supported a Labour Government.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree with his Chancellor that although, of course, the Government are hostile to a single currency on a non-convergent basis, the Government--I quote the Chancellor--

"doesn't have a hostile attitude to the single currency . . . The position remains that we have an open option."

Those words were repeated by the Deputy Prime Minister. Can the Prime Minister repeat those words and say that he agrees specifically with his Chancellor and his Deputy Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: Of course, if there were not arguments in both directions, we would not have kept our options open. Of course I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister has said in very clear terms that he agrees with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Will he disown Conservative central office, which has been briefing that, in effect, he has closed the option of joining a single currency?

The Prime Minister: No one has been briefing to that effect. The Cabinet set out its position some time ago. It has been reaffirmed on a number of occasions. I reaffirm it again today. It was set out perfectly clearly. The right hon. Gentleman can forget the minor textual exegesis and stick with the facts: that the policy was set out perfectly clearly and that that remains the policy. I hope that the leader of the Labour party might now care to examine the different statements of members of his shadow Cabinet over recent weeks.


Q3. Dr. Goodson-Wickes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes: Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the superb and often inadequately recognised work carried out by the Prince of Wales's group of charities? Quite apart from offering practical help to more than 150,000 young people, it has established more than 60,000 jobs. Will my right hon. Friend endorse the project that I visited in my constituency this week, where the Prince's Trust rehabilitated a park? By such projects young people take practical steps to serve their local community, while at the same time establishing self-reliance.

The Prime Minister: I am happy to do that. Voluntary service plays a very important part in the fabric of life in this country, and I know of no nation in the world in which the sum total of voluntary service matches that of the United Kingdom. The work done by the Prince's Trust and other voluntary bodies is absolutely magnificent, and the Government will continue to give their support to it.

Mr. Ashdown: Let us see. Last week, the Health Secretary told us that the Conservatives would abolish a Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Secretary said, oh no, they would not. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said that the Government were hostile to a single currency and the Chancellor said, oh no, they were not. Has it yet occurred to the Prime Minister what is so plain and evident to everybody else--that his divided Cabinet has given up fighting for the interests of the country and has started instead to fight for his job after the election?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman's commitment openly and certainly honestly--I concede that--to put up the rate of income tax will certainly help to keep me here on this Bench after the election.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Does not my right hon. Friend have sympathy for the victims of the failed cultural revolution? In Islington, for example, it is estimated that up to 50 per cent. of children are educated outside the borough. What does he have to say to those poor parents who are now driven to flee from a Labour administration and become educational refugees across the face of London?

The Prime Minister: I think that it was the leader of the Labour party who said, "You can't tell what a Government is like until it is in power." In Islington, Labour is in power, and my hon. Friend points out vividly what it is like. If parents are fleeing Islington, as we understand they are, it certainly is a new version of the term "school run".


Sanctions (Libya)

Q4. Mr. Dalyell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will discuss with President Clinton the consequences for (a) the imposition of sanctions on Libya and (b) the case against Libyan nationals of the dismissal of James Thurman from the service of the United States Government.

The Prime Minister: I have no plans to do so. The case against the two accused Libyans does not depend on any evidence that Mr. Thurman might give.

Mr. Dalyell: Has Thurman been reassigned to other duties for fabricating forensic evidence?

The Prime Minister: I am certainly not aware that that is the case. If the hon. Gentleman has any information that it is, or any information that he thinks bears on this matter--

Mr. Dalyell: It is in the New York Times.

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am not an avid and daily reader of the New York Times. If he has any information that is pertinent to this case, and would care to provide me with it, I will certainly undertake to have it carefully examined.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As senior Scottish advocates have said that it would be impossible for the two accused to have a fair trial in Scotland because of press publicity, and as the Libyan Government have now stated that they will hand over the two accused to the Arab League for committal to trial in The Hague or anywhere else, would it not help those who lost their relatives and friends at Lockerbie to have the issue resolved? My right hon. Friend is, as we all know, basically a straight, decent person, so will he endeavour to solve the problem and stop simply engaging in the throwing of insults? Could we not solve it in the interests of those who lost their relatives and friends at Lockerbie?

The Prime Minister: I certainly want a solution to this problem. We would like a solution as much as the relatives, but we need a proper criminal trial and there are genuine and practical difficulties in trying to establish such a trial in a third country. I think that many hon. Members, including--if my hon. Friend will permit me to say so--me, would, on grounds of principle, find a trial in a third country very difficult to accept. [Hon. Members: "Why?"] I shall tell hon. Members why. It could suggest that a trial in Scotland or the United States would not be fair.

I am not prepared to accept that premise in terms of a trial in Scotland. Nor do I think that it would be remotely attractive for us to allow alleged terrorists to dictate where they may or may not be tried. That would be a bad principle. The Security Council resolutions say that they should be tried in Scotland or the United States--two countries with a particular interest in the matter.

I have to add that I am very doubtful that the Libyans would deliver the accused for such a trial, even if one were to be set up, but, for the reasons that I have set out, the trial should be either in Scotland, which would be the preference, or in the United States.


Engagements

Q5. Mr. McKelvey: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. McKelvey: Does the Prime Minister share my genuine concern about the outrageous activities of the directors of Camelot in attempting to take gambling on the lottery into every home in the land and extend their links with rather devious gambling projects abroad? Would it not be possible for him to stop this development? Otherwise, he will leave a legacy of children who were brought up in the midst of gambling mania.

The Prime Minister: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the lottery is very tightly regulated and there will be no changes to the structure or content of the constituent games without the specific involvement of the director general. The Government have no intention of allowing the good name of the lottery to be jeopardised. I think that the hon. Gentleman would share my pleasure at the sheer scale of the resources produced by the lottery for good causes. Today, for example, the heritage lottery fund is awarding £140 million to 24 of the nation's best loved museums.

Mr. Stephen: Does my right hon. Friend agree that efficient professional administration is vital to the success of the national health service? Does he recall that, when we decided to modernise the system by getting rid of the whole regional tier of NHS bureaucracy, the Labour party was against it? What does he therefore think of its promises to save money on NHS bureaucracy?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend that there were substantial savings to be made by the abolition of the regional health authority tier, and that those savings were opposed by the Labour party. The health service is one of the most efficient health services in the world and, in terms of management expenditure, it is now 25 per cent. more efficient than in 1979.


Electoral Registration

Q6. Mr. Barnes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will introduce proposals to encourage registration on supplementary lists of those missing from electoral registers before the announcement of the date of the general election.

The Prime Minister: I see no need to do so. The vast majority of eligible electors are registered and a well-established claims procedure exists for those who are not.

Mr. Barnes: Why will the Government not publish the number of people who are currently on electoral registers? What have they got to hide? Are the figures as bad as they were last year, when at least 2 million people were missing from the registers? Why cannot we have a massive campaign to put people on supplementary lists, which could be added to lists of those who are eligible to vote at the general election? The Halifax building society organised a massive campaign for what it called its "big vote". The general election is the biggest vote of all, and all our people should be entitled to exercise their vote.

The Prime Minister: I, of course, agree with that. The Conservative party has done all it can to ensure that people are registered to vote at the general election. As for the figures for which the hon. Gentleman asked, the 1996 electoral registers for the United Kingdom contained just under 44 million names--the highest number ever. New registers came into force on 16 February, and the figures for them should be available by the end of March.