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1994 - PMQT 7th July 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 7th July 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Coastguard Service

Q1. Mr. Kirkwood : To ask the Prime Minister what assessment he has made of whether the reduction in resources available to the coastguard service will prejudice safety at sea.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : The chief executive of the Coastguard Agency has confirmed that the resources available this year will enable the agency to fulfil its objectives on search and rescue and on oil and chemical spills. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has given the House an assurance that he will not allow the efficiency gain that he is seeking to prejudice safety at sea.

Mr. Kirkwood : Does the Prime Minister accept that the most efficient way to run the coastguard service would be to provide the existing complement of professional and auxiliary personnel--who know their own coastlines, seas and weather conditions--all the equipment, training and back-up that money can buy? Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that he personally will refuse to sanction further efficiency savings in the coastguard service if there is any suggestion that they would prejudice safety at sea in future? After all, the Prime Minister himself may need the political equivalent of a breeches buoy before too long.

The Prime Minister : Of course we would not do anything to prejudice safety at sea, which is self-evidently of vital importance. It is right to seek efficiency gains where it is thought that they will be available. The agency's chief executive has joined other Department of Transport executive agencies in submitting proposals on how further efficiency gains may be made. I am sure that that is right. The greater the efficiency gain that can be made across the public service, the greater will be the saving to the taxpayer or the improvement in services elsewhere in the public service.

Mr. Harris : I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer and assurances, but would not it be quite wrong and unthinkable to apply to coastguard front-line services the 20 per cent. across-the-board cuts that are being considered for other aspects of the Department of Transport? That must be wrong and out of the question. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that does not happen under any circumstances?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is running two things together. There is no presumption that the coastguard service must achieve a 20 per cent. reduction. What is sought is a 20 per cent. efficiency gain. I believe that that is achievable, and the chief executive is investigating how it may be achieved. As I said to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), that will not be at the expense of the security and safety of people at sea.


Engagements

Q2. Mr. Fatchett : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 July.

The Prime Minister : 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. Fatchett : Is the Prime Minister aware that Railtrack board members have introduced a new working practice whereby they are paid £500 additional bonus--three times the basic wage of signal staff-- simply to attend Railtrack meetings? Will the Prime Minister join me in agreeing that those additional payments are obscene? Will he take this opportunity to condemn Railtrack's board for making those additional payments?

The Prime Minister : I will certainly make inquiries about what the hon. Gentleman has alleged, and check whether it is true. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will also take the interests of the travelling public into account and condemn a strike for an 11 per cent. pay award, which far exceeds what is being paid to anyone else in the public sector. There is no justification for an award of that size at this time. I hope that negotiations will continue and that the strike will be swiftly settled.

Mr. John Greenway : Does my right hon. Friend agree that a new offence of racial harassment--as recommended by the Select Committee on Home Affairs--together with new measures to tackle the publication of racist material, will be major steps forward in the fight against racial attacks?

The Prime Minister : We abhor any crime in which any element of racial motivation is present. That is precisely why we have added to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill a new offence to tackle that particular mischief. I believe that that is desirable, and will achieve widespread support among all shades of opinion.

Mrs. Beckett : On Tuesday, the Leader of the House rejected doctors' criticisms of the Government's health service changes; today, the health service ombudsman has published strong criticism from patients. Are they wrong, too?

The Prime Minister : Like the right hon. Lady, I have not yet had a chance to read the whole of the ombudsman's report. The ombudsman examines a minority of the cases referred to him, and does not comment on the generality of health service treatment. I understand that some of the reports that have been evident earlier today have been repudiated by the commissioner, but, as I said, like the right hon. Lady, I have not yet had a chance to read the full report.

Mrs. Beckett : But the Prime Minister must know, as I do, that it reveals a record number of complaints. Does he not recognise that the ombudsman, doctors, nurses, patients and Opposition Members are all saying the same thing--that the Government's health service changes are making matters worse? When will the Prime Minister drop them?

The Prime Minister : I think that the whole House will have noted that the right hon. Lady did not say that she had read the report about which she claims to be speaking so authoritatively. Of course we will take the Health Service Commissioner's report seriously : we are anxious to ensure that the health service continues to improve, and, according to the test set out by the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), it is. He said that the test of the reforms was whether more patients were treated. They are--1 million more every year.

Mrs. Beckett : Is the Prime Minister denying that the report shows a record number of complaints this year? Is he denying that? I doubt it very much. Only under the present Government would a record number of complaints be regarded as evidence of success. Does the Prime Minister recognise that the health service changes are hurting but certainly not working, and that, while he may sack the present Secretary of State for Health, he also needs to scrap the policies and start putting patients first?

The Prime Minister : The reforms are precisely about putting patients first. That is why the number of patients treated in hospital has grown by record amounts, the quality of care has improved immeasurably and the number of patients waiting, and almost all waiting times, have fallen. That is an improvement in care. As for complaints, it was precisely with the aim of addressing the issues highlighted by the Health Service Commissioner that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State established a committee, under Professor Wilson, to carry out a thorough review of complaints procedure. That report was published for consultation in May. We anticipated concern about the matter, and have already put in hand measures to deal with it.

Miss Emma Nicholson : Does my right hon. Friend agree that bed space is no longer the determinant of a nation's health care policy, and that when a nation has many beds that is likely to be because epidemiology is not the advanced science that it is in the United Kingdom today?

The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is entirely right. The proper judgment of how well the health service is performing is based, first, on the number of people who are treated and, secondly, on how satisfactorily they are treated. On both those measures, the health service continues to improve.


UN Security Council

Q3. Dr. Godman : To ask the Prime Minister whether he discussed the membership, structure and functions of the Security Council of the United Nations when he last met the leaders of the other member states of the European Union ; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister : I did not discuss those matters when I last met European leaders in Corfu.

Dr. Godman : President Nelson Mandela said recently that Rwanda is a stern and severe rebuke to us all. That surely holds for the disgracefully inept and irresponsible Security Council. Does not the Prime Minister agree that there is an urgent need for the Council to solve the problems of financing and manning peacekeeping operations so that United Nations resolutions can more effectively and efficiently be implemented? Given the mess that the Security Council is in, financially and structurally, most UN resolutions are utterly unenforceable.

The Prime Minister : I share the horror and revulsion felt by many people, including the hon. Gentleman, about the terrible suffering in Rwanda. That is undoubtedly the case. I do not entirely share the hon. Gentleman's strictures about the Security Council. It is not practicable for the Security Council--it simply does not have the resources in terms of cash or money, nor is it likely to have in the short term

Mr. Skinner : Cash or money?

The Prime Minister : It is not Britain that is behind in its payments to the UN. The hon. Gentleman, as usual, wishes to criticise this country, with a complete absence of the facts when he does so. The Security Council has become increasingly effective over recent years, and many of the measures set down by it, many of the motions passed by it and many of the actions taken by it are far more effective than in previous years. It simply is not practicable for it to become the policeman of every part of the world.


Engagements

Q4. Mr. Viggers : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 July.

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

Mr. Viggers : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the sweeping reforms that we carried out in the national health service in 1991 have inevitably led to controversy and criticism, both malevolent and constructive and positive? Is he aware that, unlike the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), who leads for the Opposition, I took the trouble to read the report of the health service ombudsman? I noted in particular paragraph 1, where he summarises the rest of the report, which I have also read, and refers to the number of complaints as being "remarkably small". Does my right hon. Friend agree that our reforms have been extremely successful, with more than 8 million people being treated in hospital this year? Will he join me in congratulating Portsmouth and South East Hampshire trust, which for the first time achieved the position whereby no one had to wait for more than a year for any operation?

The Prime Minister : I am delighted to hear about that improvement in waiting lists and about the remarkably small number of complaints. I am interested to see that the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) did not even get as far as the first paragraph in her studies. I share my hon. Friend's view that we have every reason to be proud of what the national health service has achieved. The Labour party takes and deserves the credit for having established the national health service--no one would deny it that--but in the 45 years since the health service was established, the Conservative party has been predominantly in government, and that party has put in the resources to build up the health service from its early beginnings to its present excellence.


Q5. Mr. Khabra : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 July.

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

Mr. Khabra : Does the Prime Minister think it odd that a senior adviser to the Home Office on prison policy is also in the pay of Group 4, which is bidding to win contracts for building private prisons? Furthermore, does he agree that it is odd that an interest is definitely involved?

The Prime Minister : I understand that the chief inspector of prisons has satisfied himself that there is no impropriety in that appointment and I am happy to accept that advice.

Mr. Duncan Smith : Does my right hon. Friend agree that most of the public are concerned about people who commit crimes while out on bail? Will he strongly urge prosecutors to take up what we have given them--the right to appeal against bail being imposed on them?

The Prime Minister : I believe that the vast majority of the public will entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said. There is an opportunity there to be taken. I very much hope that it will be taken.


Q6. Mrs. Ewing : To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 7 July.

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

Mrs. Ewing : Will the Prime Minister simply confirm or deny the fact that a Cabinet Committee, which he chaired this morning, decided to recommend the closure of Rosyth naval base?

The Prime Minister : The hon. Lady will have to wait, as far as any aspect of the defence costs study is concerned, for the Cabinet to consider the matter itself and for a statement subsequently to be made. Until that time, I have nothing to say either in confirmation or denial.