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1996 - PMQT 13th February 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 13th February 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Turner: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 13 February.

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. Turner: Will the Prime Minister accept from me that the national health service is holding together at this moment only because of the dedication and good will of its professional staff? In Wolverhampton, beds and wards have been closed, staff have been made redundant, and accident and emergency services have been closed dozens and dozens of times in recent months. May I assure the Prime Minister that the good people of Wolverhampton do not regard the health service as safe in his hands?

The Prime Minister: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman chooses this day of all days to make that old charge. As was announced yesterday, the number of patients facing waiting times in excess of one year has fallen yet again. There are now only 20,000 people waiting more than 12 months. Five years ago, the figure was 187,000. People are getting treated quicker, better and more comprehensively at all levels in the health service than ever before. It is about time that Opposition Members--I do not mean only the hon. Gentleman--realised the tremendous advances made in the health service by doctors, nurses and administrators in the treatment of people from one end of this country to the other.

Sir Giles Shaw: Is my right hon. Friend aware, from The Mail on Sunday, that the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) was persuaded to vote against the new clause IV relationship on the ground that it was only a change of words?

Hon. Members: Oh.

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask the Prime Minister a question on a matter for which he has responsibility.

Sir Giles Shaw: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the change in words with which the hon. Member for Dundee, East disagreed was typical--[Hon. Members: "Order."] Does my right hon. Friend agree that a change in words often disguises a change in meaning?

The Prime Minister: I do not regard the hon. Member for Dundee, East as the only voice of the Labour party, but I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct: we are increasingly learning that we get a different Labour policy depending on which Labour Member writes it.

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister agree to the request that has been made by Members of Parliament on both sides of the House--and now, very strongly, by Sir Richard Scott--that the Scott report be published at 2.30pm rather than 3.30pm on Thursday? Members of Parliament will then have an opportunity to study the report before commenting on it.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not the way in which the Government, or our predecessors, have conducted business in the House. The proposed arrangements are in line with the usual practice of publishing a report and making it available to hon. Members at the same time. The Government have arranged for there to be a debate, in Government time, 10 days after the publication of the report. Hon. Members will therefore have time to absorb and to understand the report and will be able to speak to it with knowledge rather than with ignorance--which is what Labour Members have done for the past three years. There will be a full and open debate on the report.

Mr. Blair: The Prime Minister has relied on precedent. I suggest that a report containing 1,800 pages and of this complexity is almost without precedent. Ministers having a report for eight days before anyone else is also without precedent. The campaign to discredit the judge who conducted the inquiry--before the report has been published--is also without precedent. Will the Prime Minister reconsider the request? The refusal to allow Members of Parliament this facility, on the day that the report is published, effectively disables them and prevents them from holding the Executive to account and discharging their duty both to Parliament and to the country.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is quite mistaken, and he knows that. The Government will answer questions about the Scott report on the day that it is published, and we will debate it when all hon. Members have had time to study it. The right hon. Gentleman referred to a campaign to discredit the report before it is published. That campaign has come from the the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the deputy leader of the Labour party. Without a single scruple, time and time again, the Labour party has made it clear what it believes will be the outcome of a report that has only just been concluded. If anyone has prejudged the report, it is not the Government but the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues--and the right hon. Gentleman knows that to be the case.

Mr. Blair: Does not what the Prime Minister has just said--in a ridiculous attempt to blame Opposition Members--underline why we should have the Scott report early, so that people can comment on it? In the interests of proper parliamentary democracy, will not the Prime Minister reconsider hon. Members' request, especially as it is backed by the inquiry judge?

The Prime Minister: As for the Government having had the report, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the House will expect my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade to be at the Dispatch Box to answer questions, quite properly, put by the House when the report is published. That is why the Government have the report in advance. The right hon. Gentleman knows that that has been the position under both Conservative and Labour Governments for as far back as he may care to remember. He is trying to twist public opinion before the report is published, just as his hon. Friends have done for the past three years. The report will soon be published, and Labour Members will have to consider the issue on the basis of fact.

Dr. Hampson: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the privatised utilities are such a good investment that, while slagging off British Gas and Yorkshire Water, a group of Labour councils in West Yorkshire--notably Leeds, led by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Trickett)--were investing £170 million of their pensioners' money in those companies? Is that not a classic case of saying one thing and doing another?

The Prime Minister: I congratulate the unions on making a successful investment. I live in hope that the day will yet come when the Opposition recognise that, if they talk about the virtues of the market, they ought to support private ownership, not attack it on every conceivable occasion as they have been doing.

Mr. Ashdown: Leaving aside for a moment the interests of the House, will the Prime Minister at least consider the interests of his civil servants? How can it be right that Ministers, who can defend themselves in public, have eight days in which to read this 1,800-page report and prepare their defences, while civil servants who are criticised may not get even six hours?

The Prime Minister: Let me explain what has been agreed, so that I can remove the misunderstanding from the right hon. Gentleman's mind. At present, the report has been made available only to Ministers or civil servants who need to see it in order to help to prepare the Government's response to questions in the House--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order and listen to the answers.

The Prime Minister: That is the fact of the matter. Other Ministers and former Ministers and civil servants have not had access to the report. That is how the matter has been dealt with; it is an entirely proper way to deal with the report--we have dealt with it entirely properly.

Mr. Bill Walker: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he has no plans to introduce a parliament in Edinburgh? It would leave Westminster Scottish Members with very little to do, because most of their business would be devolved; so they would become part-time, and should probably be paid part-time. They would also avoid paying the tartan tax, because they would be based in London.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a sound point. The advocates of a Scottish Parliament among the Labour party who live in London would not themselves have to pay the extra tax that would be levied on everyone else living in Scotland. I can certainly confirm that we have no plans for such an assembly, or for such a tartan tax, or to allow Scottish Members to vote on matters in Scotland on which English Members cannot vote, and then to permit Scottish Members to come to the House and vote on similar matters for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I can also confirm to my hon. Friend that, were anyone to introduce such plans, that would be the most blatant gerrymandering of the constitution that we have ever seen.


Royal Docks

Q2. Mr. Spearing: To ask the Prime Minister when he next plans to visit the royal docks.

The Prime Minister: I have at present no plans to do so.

Mr. Spearing: When the Prime Minister does visit the royal docks, will he also visit the adjacent Silvertown fire station, whose crews joined their colleagues in Millwall on the Isle of Dogs at the tragic incident on Friday? Does he know that crews at both stations, not to mention the inhabitants of docklands, face the prospect of having the two appliances at each station reduced to one? Does he recall that his name appeared at the top of a successful motion at 10 o'clock last night, calling on local authorities to exercise their freedoms responsibly? If he were charged with denying them those freedoms, because of the policies of the Government towards the public services, what would he say?

The Prime Minister: Of course the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we require councils to exercise their freedoms and opportunities responsibly, but there must also be fallback powers for when that does not happen:

"we believe there must be fall-back powers to enable central government, in extreme circumstances, to protect council tax and business rate payers".

Mr. Spearing indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: I was quoting a Labour policy document, so I am sorry to see that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with it.

When looking at the royal docks area, the hon. Gentleman might also like to look at the dramatic improvements there: the 5,000 new homes and the 2 million sq ft of commercial property. The whole area has been revolutionised by policies that we have followed but many of his colleagues have opposed.


Economic Indicators (Lichfield)

Q3. Mr. Fabricant: To ask the Prime Minister what recent analysis he has made of economic indicators and their effect on Lichfield; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister: Lichfield has benefited fully from the Government's policies, which have given this country the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years, the lowest basic rate of tax for 50 years and the longest period of low inflation for 50 years. Unemployment in my hon. Friend's constituency has now fallen by some 40 per cent. from its peak.

Mr. Fabricant: Is my right hon. Friend aware that Lichfield is not only a beautiful cathedral town but a centre for light industry? Is he further aware that people in Lichfield will be heartened by the report in The Times today which showed that the average net take-home pay of production workers in France, Italy and Germany is now less than that in the United Kingdom? Is that not because we have consistently refused to enter into an agreement on the social chapter? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, under a Labour Government, workers would suffer, because the Labour party's idea of negotiating in Europe is rather like the Trustee Savings bank--it is the party that likes to say yes?

The Prime Minister: They certainly were very startling figures to set out what net take-home pay will purchase, which was the basis on which they were done. That stands in stark contrast to the claims of a sweatshop economy about which we so often hear from the Labour party. It is no coincidence that those figures were achieved. Business is attracted by flexible working practice and low cost--precisely the benefits that would be wrecked by the social chapter as it is and by the social chapter as it would be if any Government were to sign up to it in this country. This Government will not.