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1997 - PMQT 18th March 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 18th March 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Simon Hughes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): 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.

Mr. Hughes: The Prime Minister yesterday made the uniquely personal decision not only to have a general election on 1 May and to dissolve Parliament on 8 April but that Parliament should be prorogued and sent away this Friday. [Interruption.] Is it not obvious that one of the reasons for that decision and for the unprecedented gap between prorogation and dissolution is that--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. This is so time-consuming. Come on, Mr. Hughes: spit it out.

Mr. Hughes rose--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. There is no point in waiting for silence: the hon. Gentleman will not get silence. Produce your voice, Mr. Hughes.

Mr. Hughes: One of the reasons for that decision is that the Prime Minister knows that the report of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on cash for questions will be ready on Monday or Tuesday. That report will therefore not be seen by hon. Members in this Parliament and will be hidden until after the general election.

The Prime Minister: One of the reasons for making the announcement on Monday and arranging for Parliament to be prorogued on Friday was to give the hon. Gentleman time to finish his question. As for Sir Gordon's report, I have no knowledge when it will be presented.

Sir Cranley Onslow: Following his successful visit this morning to the headquarters of the McLaren formula 1 team in my constituency, does my right hon. Friend agree that what counts is not who is ahead at the first corner, but who has the skill, expertise, stamina and nerve to see the race right through to the winning post?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. The purpose of going to see the McLaren team was rather wider than that. I wanted to draw attention to a tremendous British success story, of which there are many. McLaren and the British motor industry have been a huge success. Of the 20-odd cars that lined up at Melbourne for the grand prix won by David Coulthard, 20 would have been built in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree that a situation where two thirds of health authorities and one third of hospital trusts are in deficit to the tune of £300 million is grave, and potentially disastrous for many parts of the national health service?

The Prime Minister: I find it odd for the right hon. Gentleman to talk about funding in the health service, since he has declined to increase funding, whereas we have given a commitment to do so. In any event, the figures that he uses are blown out of all proportion. The forecast deficit is a relatively small fraction of the national health service budget and, of course, in less than two weeks' time, funding for the national health service will rise by £1.6 billion, a multiple of the deficit to which the right hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. Blair: Is the Prime Minister aware that many health authorities have deficits this year that will not be met by real-terms growth next year? To give one example, in north Essex, the deficit is £10 million and the real-terms growth that he is promising is only £9 million. He is not keeping the promise that he says he is making. He may believe that this is a matter of no account whatever, but is he aware that non-emergency surgery is being cancelled up and down the country, that accident and emergency departments are closing, that waiting lists are up and that there are bed and staff shortages in many parts of the national health service? Is that not a real tragedy, and disgraceful handling of the NHS?

The Prime Minister: Some time ago, the answer to the question whether the NHS was working was set out by the shadow Foreign Secretary as whether more people were treated, and treated well. Since then, an extra 1 million people are being treated, and treated well, in the NHS. The number of consultants in accident and emergency departments has risen by 40 per cent. over the past few years. The right hon. Gentleman does not mention that. He does not mention the fact that we have committed increased resources over and above inflation to the national health service every year since 1979, and will do so throughout the period of the next Parliament. That is a record that would not have been met by any previous Government, and cannot be met by any other Government, because they would not have delivered the growth in the economy that we have achieved.

Mr. Blair: The contrast is between the Prime Minister's complacency and what people know is happening in the national health service the length and breadth of this country. Is it not the case that in, the past six years, there has been an increase in administration costs of more than £1.5 billion a year, with 20,000 more managers and 50,000 fewer nurses? Is not the truth that the real challenge of the national health service is how to get money out of invoices, contractors, managers, company cars and pen-pushers and into front-line patient care so that we can rebuild the national health service that the Labour party created?

The Prime Minister: There are elements of what the right hon. Gentleman had to say with which I would agree. That is why we support compulsory competitive tendering, which he does not support; that is why we cut a whole tier of management that he voted to keep; that is why we have cut management costs by 10 per cent., £340 million, in the past two years. He cannot do that.

No one is being complacent about the need to improve the health service: that is why we are providing more resources; that is why I mentioned the extra doctors in accident and emergency; that is why 1.5 million more patients are being treated, with more than 10 million more in-patients every year, 3.5 million day cases a year and 14 million out-patients a year. Health service hospitals are now dealing with 75,000 patients every day of the year--£730 for every man, woman and child in the country, very nearly double the amount when his party left office. The Labour party may have set up the health service, but we have built it up.

Mr. Sykes: When my right hon. Friend comes to choose his new Cabinet on 2 May--[Interruption.] Listen to the page three boys shriek, Madam Speaker. I remember when they were shrieking in Sheffield the week before the last general election. I should like to hear them shriek after this election, every single one of them. What would my right hon. Friend say if all that he had to choose from after the election was a group of failed teachers, a bunch of ex-trade union officials, one television director and a bar steward? That is all that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has to choose from.

The Prime Minister: I think that it would be a kindness to protect the right hon. Gentleman from ever having to make such a choice. Who is meant by the bar steward, I cannot imagine.


Q2. Mr. Wareing: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 18 March.

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

Mr. Wareing: How did the Prime Minister have the audacity at the weekend to tell Tory central council that his type of Conservatism aimed to help the struggling classes--the have-nots? In 18 years of Tory rule, what did his Tory party ever do for the homeless, the sick and the disabled? The Prime Minister is not only past his sell-by date, he is well beyond his use-by date. It is time he went.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is unusually animated on this occasion, for reasons that I do not understand. I suggest that he asks the millions of council tenants who would never have become home owners but for the activities of the Conservative Government or the millions of people who now have savings, shares and pensions that are owned by them rather than held by a Labour Government, as they were in the past, on their behalf. We believe that, in the late 1990s, people should have the right to personal ownership for themselves and their families, and that is what we are building. We apply that to everyone, not just middle-income earners such as the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. French: Did my right hon. Friend see the reports at the weekend that 40,000 people took to the streets of Paris to protest against the rising tide of European unemployment? Can he explain to the House why the same thing has not happened here and what will be the quickest way of making it happen here?

The Prime Minister: I saw that, and I have also seen the trend in unemployment in many countries across Europe. The Labour party is keen that we should sign up to a 48-hour week, the minimum wage and the social chapter. Perhaps Labour Members should hear what the United States Chamber of Commerce had to say about the 48-hour week. It has just told the Irish Government:

"It is no exaggeration to say"

that it would be

"the single most negative change in the last 20 years."

We intend to continue to put people back to work, as we have done in spectacular fashion in the past 18 months. Policies such as the social chapter, the minimum wage and the 48-hour week--however glib they may sound--are a recipe for putting people out of work if they are in work and, if they are out of work, making sure that they stay out of work for a long time ahead. That is the poison pill of the Opposition's policy.


Casualty Units (London)

Q3. Mr. Corbyn: To ask the Prime Minister what plans he has to pay an official visit to a London NHS hospital to discuss the operation of casualty units.

The Prime Minister: We have made an extensive investment in recent years in London's accident and emergency services as part of a £400 million capital investment to provide the highest-quality and up-to-date facilities. I hope to have the opportunity to see some of them before too long.

Mr. Corbyn: When the Prime Minister finally gets around to visiting a casualty unit in a London hospital, what answer will he give to staff who have seen one in seven of all the acute beds in London lost, 12 of the 46 casualty units closed, huge waiting lists, people waiting on trolleys, loss of morale among staff and the recent resignation of the consultant in charge of the casualty unit at Queen Mary's University hospital, Roehampton, who left because he could no longer run it within the budget provided and did not feel that he was giving people a decent service? Is that not the reason why nobody trusts him and his Government on the future of the national health service and will accordingly vote him out?

The Prime Minister: I think that the first advice that I would give them is not to vote Labour, because they are getting more money from this Government than they would from any putative Labour Government. I would tell them that the number of consultants in A and E departments has risen dramatically by 40 per cent. I would tell them that the number of nurses appointed had risen by 21 per cent. I would tell them that more patients are being treated. I would tell them that the hon. Gentleman is living proof that old Labour lives, because, while the Labour Front Benchers are saying that they will not raise taxes, he is saying:

"What . . . many"--

including the hon. Gentleman--

"have been talking about is the need to raise taxation for the above average income people in order to pay for the rest. I see a moral justification for that and I think it is the right thing to do."

That may be what he tells the consultants, but it is not what the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) tells the consultants.