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1996 - PMQT 19th November 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 19th November 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Ann Winterton: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 November.

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.

Mrs. Winterton: Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the low level of unemployment in my constituency, Congleton, which has fallen by a further 7.5 per cent. over the past year, would immediately be put in jeopardy if the minimum wage, the 48-hour working week and the social chapter were implemented?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to hear of the fall in unemployment in my hon. Friend's constituency, and I am delighted that that fall is mirrored in the constituencies of hon. Members right across the House. It is certainly the case that, were extra impositions such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend to be placed on employers, they would stop the fall in unemployment and send it returning upwards. That is not what we want, which is why we shall not accept the social chapter or such impositions.

Mr. Blair: Why has the Prime Minister not yet made good the promise given two years ago to eliminate mixed-sex wards in our hospitals?

The Prime Minister: We are seeking to make progress as soon as we can on every aspect of improvement in the health service. We have given priority to other matters. That has brought the waiting list down, widened the number of operations that have been offered and improved the quality of care. As we can, we shall move on the other issue.

Mr. Blair: My point is that the Government made a specific promise two years ago that that issue would be a priority. Is not what is needed a proper programme that is led and co-ordinated by Government with the health authorities and national health service trusts, and the setting of a specified timetable to eliminate those wards, which cause enormous indignity, and distress people? The Government would thereby keep the promise that was made two years ago.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman seems to be advocating--I agree with him--a properly managed examination of what could be done to improve the service across the health service. I agree with that. It is one of the reasons why we have focused on management. Management has been concentrating on getting more people treated. More people have been treated, and management will continue to move to improve that, and to improve the quality, dignity and privacy of service, as we announced.

Mr. Blair: I find it extraordinary that the Government are spending £1.5 billion more on administration--

Mr. Devlin: He is out of order: he must ask a question.

Madam Speaker: Order. I need no lessons from the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin).

Mr. Blair: Might I point out to the Prime Minister that there are 20,000 more senior managers and that £1.5 billion extra is spent on administration? Is it beyond the collective wit of the Government and the health administrators to deal with that problem? It is a question not just of money, but of political will. My point is very simple: did not the Prime Minister promise two years ago to deal with the problem? Why has he not delivered? If he does not deliver on that promise, why should anyone believe his promises about the national health service?

The Prime Minister: If I had said at the last election that we would treat as many new patients as we are now, the right hon. Gentleman would not have believed me. If I had said at the last election that we would deliver extra resources, he would not have believed me. He and his colleagues claimed that we would privatise the health service. We said that we would not, and we have not. I hope that he accepts that that is the case now, and that it will not occur in the future. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that fact.


Q2. Mr. Riddick: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 November.

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

Mr. Riddick: Is my right hon. Friend aware that unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 640-- 22 per cent.--since the beginning of the year? Is not a reason for that good news the fact that the United Kingdom has a stable industrial climate with few strikes, except in the public sector? Is it not true that only a Conservative Government can be relied upon to do anything about that problem because the Labour party, with its strong links to the unions, is still the strikers' friend? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order.

The Prime Minister: There seems to be some support on the Opposition Benches for Labour's support of the strikes--I hope that everyone noticed it.

I have no doubt that one of the reasons why we are attracting more foreign investment than any other country is our success in restoring industrial stability in the private sector. The number of strikes today is one twenty-fifth of the level that it was when we came to government in 1979. I believe that people deserve the same protection against strikes in the public sector that they increasingly enjoy elsewhere. If Opposition Members do not agree, I suggest that they ask businesses whose post was not delivered and travellers who could not get to work because of strikes in those sectors.

Mr. Hume: Given the Government's praiseworthy efforts to promote agreement among the political parties in Northern Ireland, will the Prime Minister explain why the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), proposes to reduce the number of education boards--which are the most highly respected cross-community bodies in Northern Ireland--from five to three? During the consultation process, every Member of Parliament from Northern Ireland, the leaders of all political parties, all Church leaders and all local authorities disagreed with the right hon. Gentleman. Why are the Government ignoring the unanimous wish of the people of Northern Ireland in relation to education?

The Prime Minister: I do not believe that that is the position with my right hon. Friend, but I shall examine the details of the hon. Gentleman's claims and then write to him. I would be very surprised if my right hon. Friend did not have an extremely good reason for any decision he may have taken.

Mr. Beggs: On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Points of order come after questions, private notice questions and statements.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin: Is my right hon. Friend aware that the average household electricity bill in the eastern area is £272, while in France it is £366 and in Germany it is £394? Does that not demonstrate the success of electricity privatisation? Is not a sign of its success the fact that the Opposition wish to impose a windfall profits tax on the industry and put it at risk?

The Prime Minister: The comparative prices that my hon. Friend quotes are a striking tribute to the success of privatisation over the past 18 years. I am delighted to see them. I very much hope that we shall keep those prices down. My hon. Friend is entirely right: a windfall tax would force prices up for consumers, and at an unknown amount, because we do not yet know precisely who will be subject to the windfall tax or what the levy would be on companies and thence on consumers.


Q3. Ms Roseanna Cunningham: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 November.

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

Ms Cunningham: With regard to yesterday's meeting in Brussels, and the beef ban, is the Prime Minister aware that the National Farmers Union for Scotland is openly accusing the Government of straightforward prevarication in their refusal to proceed with the selective cattle cull, and that that gives rise to a very real apprehension that the Government are simply trying to stoke anti-European feeling in advance of an election and, indeed, to sacrifice the farmers? Why does he continue to set his face against a phased lifting of the ban, which would be of immediate benefit to Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady is perhaps not aware of all the things that are going on in Brussels and the discussions that we are having, or she certainly would not have asked her question in that fashion.

Mr. Waterson: Can my right hon. Friend give some reassurance to pensioners in my constituency who are worried that the so-called flexible decade of retirement will mean massive increases in public spending and taxes or a severe cut in the state retirement pension?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to say that the plans proposed by the Opposition, in which a flexible decade of retirement would enable some people to retire early, would mean a massive increase in public expenditure, which they have said that they would not provide, or a significant cut in the basic rate of pension. I suggest that they come clean on precisely what they propose.


Q4. Mr. Mullin: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 November.

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

Mr. Mullin: Is it still the Prime Minister's position that there is a moral case for cutting taxation? If so, can he explain the moral case for promising to cut taxation before an election and for increasing it as soon as the election is over?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I do believe in cutting taxation, and I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's support when it is appropriate to cut taxation again in the future. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that by cutting taxation we are giving money back to people. I would say that by cutting taxation we are taking less of people's own money.


Q5. Mr. Atkins: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 November.

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

Mr. Atkins: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the independent auditor's report, published yesterday, of the criminal and corrupt activities of Labour councillors on Labour-controlled Preston borough council who have lost or mislaid millions of pounds of Preston taxpayers' money in recent years? Does he agree that that is the real example of sleaze and corruption in public life which should be rooted out? Is not that further example of Labour mismanagement of local authorities damning proof of what will happen if Labour ever controls our country?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that the character of any party becomes clear until it is in power. [Interruption.] Those are not my words; they are the words of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). In local government, Labour is in power, and in power it has a habit of pouring taxpayers' money down the drain and running up debts. Right across the country, where there are Labour councils one can see that "If you vote red, you live in the red."


Q6. Ms Hodge: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 19 November.

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

Madam Speaker: Order. The House must come to order. It is difficult to hear.

Ms Hodge: Will the Prime Minister think again about his crass and insensitive reply to the question put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair)? Does he appreciate that the issue of mixed-sex wards is of particular importance to women? Does he know that 50 per cent. of women who are admitted to psychiatric hospitals have a history of sexual abuse? Will he give us a date when he will meet the promise that he gave two years ago? If not, how can we believe that the NHS is safe in the Government's hands?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) and the hon. Lady spend Question Time after Question Time painting a picture of the NHS that does not exist for those who use it. During our 18 years in office, we have continually put more resources into the NHS, widened the services available to it, ensured that more operations are carried out and cut waiting times. That is a record that no previous Government have been able to match. If the hon. Lady remembers, it was under the previous Labour Government that waiting lists went up, hospitals were closed and the NHS practically came to a full stop.