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1996 - PMQT 5th November 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 5th November 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Ms Primarolo: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 5 November.

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.

Ms Primarolo: Is the Prime Minister aware that, according to his own Government's statistics, the average family living in council housing has been £3 a week worse off since the last election? Is not the main reason for that the fact that the Government have increased taxes 22 times since the election, and put VAT on fuel?

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Lady is worried about the net cash position of council tenants, she might look to see who runs the highest tax rates across the country. The highest band D tax rates are imposed by Labour councils: Coventry, Salford, Hartlepool, Manchester, Islington, Redcar, Hackney--I will not continue the list; the hon. Lady knows them. If it is a Labour council, the council tax is high.

Sir Fergus Montgomery: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are doing everything in their power to help with the rebuilding of Manchester city centre following the terrible damage inflicted by the IRA bomb, while using some of the existing initiatives to help to regenerate our inner cities?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, following the bombing in June last year, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said that a task force would be set up to oversee the city's recovery. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), the sponsor Minister for Manchester, announced in Manchester today that EDAW had won a competition to redesign the city centre. That is an important step forward in the redesigning of Manchester, and, I hope, towards a greatly improved future Manchester city centre. Money has already been allocated from European funds, and it is quite possible that, if appropriate application is made, further funds will come forward.

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister admit what he denied just two weeks ago: that, with casualty departments closing and waiting lists up in many parts of the country--and with some hospital trusts technically bankrupt--the national health service is indeed in a state of crisis?

The Prime Minister: No, I do not accept that. Nor do I accept most of the misleading statistics that, the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have used in recent weeks. If the right hon. Gentleman was so concerned about funding, perhaps some time ago he might have matched our pledge to increase funding in real terms each year.

Mr. Blair: Perhaps the Prime Minister will now accept what his own Government's statistics show: that, although they have spent an extra £1.5 billion on the national health service, it has gone into bureaucracy and administration rather than proper patient care. That is why there are 20,000 more senior managers and 50,000 fewer nurses since the Tory internal market reforms.

I ask the Prime Minister to talk to people who use the national health service and who know when they go to a casualty department that something is seriously wrong; who know, when their appointments are cancelled and they are told that they are better off going privately, that something is wrong. Why does he not talk to women who had children in the national health service a few years ago and have had children recently and know the difference in the standard of facilities? Would it not be better for him to admit the existence of this problem and try to solve it rather than deny what everyone knows: that something is seriously wrong in the national health service?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman talks about management and bureaucracy in the health service. Perhaps he can explain to the country why he opposed the abolition of a whole tier of bureaucracy--regional health authorities--saving £100 million a year? The right hon. Gentleman's party opposed that. If he thinks that a £43 billion service does not need proper management, perhaps he might remember what the Socialist Health Association said:

"The NHS was traditionally under-managed and the party"--

Labour–

"should avoid bureaucrat bashing."

The right hon. Gentleman knows that it needs to be properly managed, that it is now being properly managed and that, as a result, money is being allocated to where it should go. He knows that waiting lists are falling, that the number of operations being performed is increasing, that a wider range of treatments is being produced and that the national health service is something that this country should be proud of, not something to be used as a political football by the right hon. Gentleman whenever that is appropriate.

Mr. Blair: I do not think that the Prime Minister--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. If any of the Whips have anything to say, let them come to the Front Bench and say it.

Mr. Blair: I do not think that the Prime Minister understands. This country is very proud of the national health service, but it is not proud of what the Government have done to the national health service. Is not the fear that any extra resources that are put forward now are just sticking plaster to see the Tories through to the election? Why will not the Prime Minister admit what the country knows: that there will be a crisis every year in the national health service while this Government remain in office?

The Prime Minister: I seem to recall that it was a Labour Government who closed hospitals, cut nurses' pay and genuinely created a crisis in the health service. The right hon. Gentleman would be well advised to give up these kindergarten soundbites and concentrate on reality. NHS spending will be more than £34 billion this year--more than £720 for every man, every woman and every child. That is an increase over and above inflation of about three quarters since 1979. There were over 9 million episodes of hospital care in 1995-96--25,000 every day, up 46 per cent. in 10 years.

As the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said, the acid test is whether more people are being treated. They are, and they are being treated better and offered a wider range of services. The right hon. Gentleman knows that but he will not admit it: he is more concerned with his politics than with the reality of improving treatment.

Sir Jim Spicer: Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to see the statement made last week by the railway franchising director in which he states in clear and unequivocal terms that, over the next few years, taxpayers will be saved more than £2 billion as a result of privatisation? If we add to that better punctuality, service and customer care, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time that the Opposition prophets of doom and gloom recanted and accepted reality--that privatisation is good for the railways and good for the taxpayer?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is quite right. Not long ago, the Opposition were trying all sorts of scares about privatisation--safety on the railways, services being cut--all of which have been shown to be utterly and comprehensively wrong. The reality is that new rolling stock is being introduced, the service is being improved, there is more investment than before and extra services are being run on a range of lines throughout the country. The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) may shake his head, but all he is showing is that he is ignorant--not that he has any knowledge.

Mr. Ashdown: We have said what we would do to provide extra funding for the health service, both next year and now. If the Government have decided to commit more money to the health service for next year, that is a good thing. If they have decided that the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), the former Foreign Secretary, was right when he said that cutting taxes would be rejected in Britain if it was bought at the cost of closed hospital wards and sacked teachers, that is even better. But does the Prime Minister not realise that the crisis in the health service is not next year--it is now. Wards are being closed--now. Operations are being cancelled--now. Waiting lists are growing again--now. That money is needed--now. Will he provide it and, if not, what will he do to avert the national health service crisis and to prevent any further hospital ward closures this coming winter?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman had better wait for the statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on health service funding. It will be made clear at the time of the Budget. I have nothing further to say to the right hon. Gentleman this afternoon except this: it was the right hon. Gentleman who, just a few days ago, was lecturing us about spending and debt. Now he is advocating extra expenditure. Whatever happens to be his tune for the day, he will shift to it. We have said--and we have kept the promise throughout 17 years--that we will provide extra resources for the health service to ensure that it is able to match the needs of the people of this country. That is why more people are being treated, and better treated, than ever before. The growth in the health service over the years has outstripped every other area of government, and I have made it clear that, in future, it will beat the inflation rate year after year after year. That is a pledge that people do not have to look in the mirror to see. They can look at our record. We have done it.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the present Government's great success stories is the fact that they have brought about a growing economy with low inflation and falling unemployment? Will he now accept an invitation from me to visit Macclesfield, where all those facts are amply demonstrated--where we have a Conservative-controlled authority, where unemployment is falling and where we have an area that is proud to be Tory?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted that Macclesfield is doing so well. Throughout the country, we see falling unemployment, increasing growth, increasing jobs and increasing prosperity. That will continue to be the case while we retain a Conservative Government following the policies that we have followed in the past few years.


Q2. Mr. Wigley: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 5 November.

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

Mr. Wigley: Is the Prime Minister aware that more than 40 per cent. of retirement households in these islands depend entirely on the state pension--and that for a single person it is only £61 a week? Is he further aware that, if the link between pensions and earnings had not been broken in 1980, the pension would be £83 a week? On what basis can the Government deny pensioners who depend totally on the state pension any share at all in the increase in prosperity over that period?

The Prime Minister: Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns. That is why we have always recognised the significance of the state pension as the cornerstone of income in retirement, and ensured that it has kept up with the increase in prices. In addition, of course, I accept that for many people the state pension is not intended to be the sole income. That is why, in preparation for the future, we have encouraged personal responsibility and additional pension provision and why, for the present, we have targeted additional resources on the safety net of income-related benefits for people who have no resources other than the state benefit. That is apart from the entitlement that they would certainly have to council tax benefit and housing benefit, so we have targeted a great deal of additional resources to ensure that people who do not have a substantial income and who perhaps depend entirely on the state pension have additional help.

Mr. Carrington: As my right hon. Friend knows, millions of ordinary people own shares in privatised utilities. Does he agree that a windfall tax on those utilities would damage those investments and push up prices for the consumer?

The Prime Minister: There is no doubt about that. It is no good promising on the one hand to cut VAT on fuel while, on the other, proposing a windfall tax on the utilities which would put up the price of fuel by more than any potential reduction in VAT. Thus far, the shadow Chancellor seems to be spending the windfall tax on a number of different things, including helping the long-term unemployed back to work, improvements in child care provision--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]--new environmental tasks, small business VAT relief--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]. I am glad to hear Labour Members cheering. How much will the windfall tax be, and upon whom will it be levied? What will it do to the price of the utilities, which are used by everybody in the country? The more Labour Members cheer the spending, the more we know that the windfall tax will rise.


Q3. Mrs. Ewing: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 5 November.

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

Mrs. Ewing: On this historic day when a certain individual tried to set fire to the House of Commons, will the right hon. Gentleman give some serious consideration to the thousands of pensioners and disabled people who, this winter, will be afraid to put on the fires in their houses? Will he give serious consideration to a reduction of VAT on fuel, a review of the home energy efficiency scheme and an automatic payment, thereby giving us a better reason to remember 5 November?

The Prime Minister: I have always rather fondly hoped that we celebrated Guy Fawkes day because he failed to blow up the House of Commons. The hon. Lady's point is similar to that raised a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), and I hope that I can rest on that answer.