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1996 - PMQT 17th December 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 17th December 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mrs. Fyfe: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 17 December.

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. Fyfe: Has the Prime Minister seen today that another London hospital has shut its doors to emergency patients? At the Victoria geriatric unit in Glasgow, a notice asks staff to think cost-effectively and limit incontinence wipes to two per person. Does the Prime Minister still maintain that the NHS is safe in Tory hands?

The Prime Minister: Not only is the NHS safe, it is improving its service day by day. What the hon. Lady missed out of her litany were the 70 or so improvements in primary health care announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. The hon. Lady knows that not only is the health service improving, but resources for the health service are improving both globally and per patient.


Q2. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 17 December.

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

Mr. Greenway: Does my right hon. Friend recall reports from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development some years ago, when inflation was 27 per cent., there was disaster everywhere and the International Monetary Fund had to be called in? Will he contrast those reports with the latest OECD report, which says that this country is set for record economic expansion and more growth than for 30 years, which will benefit the health service and everyone else? Would not all that be put at risk by uncosted Labour promises if the Labour party was ever elected to office--which it will not be?

The Prime Minister: A few weeks ago, the shadow Chancellor dismissed the economic improvements in this country as propaganda. The OECD report published today shows how inaccurate he is. It says that prospects for achieving sustained output, growth and low inflation are the best for 30 years. The OECD now expects the UK's growth rate next year--and the year after next--to be the highest in the group of industrial nations, easily outstripping Japan, Germany, France and the United States. It also forecasts falling unemployment on the back of that. There is no doubt that it is a glowing report. It is the best OECD report that this country has received for very many years, and it shows the best economic prospects that we have had for very many years.

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister now tell us specifically by what date the European beef ban will be lifted?

The Prime Minister: I note, first, that the right hon. Gentleman does not deny the OECD report and does not wish to comment on it.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the beef ban will be lifted by our European partners and that I cannot tell him precisely what date that will be. We have taken measures for the ban to be lifted, and I shall seek the lifting of the ban progressively as soon as possible. We are now in the process of discussing a certified herd scheme that would cover the whole of the United Kingdom and from which we hope to see a progressive lifting of the ban.

Mr. Blair: If the Prime Minister wants to ask me questions, I shall be happy to swap roles whenever he wishes to call the general election.

The Prime Minister's answer on beef is extraordinary. Does he not recall that, after the Florence summit, he came to the Dispatch Box and said that he had a firm agreement that, if we did certain things, the ban would be lifted, and that the timetable was in our hands, not Europe's? [Hon. Members: "He did not say that."] He certainly did say that. He said that, at the end of November, the ban would be lifted on scientific evidence. Is it not clear that he had no such agreement; that there was no guarantee that the ban would be lifted; that the timetable is in the hands of the veterinary committee; that he cannot give us a date; and that the lifting of the ban was not proceeded with on scientific evidence? Can the Prime Minister tell us the date by which the ban will be lifted, if the Florence agreement holds?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is misleading the House.

Madam Speaker: Order. I am sure that the Prime Minister does not mean the words that he has just said. I must ask him to withdraw them. No hon. Member misleads the House.

The Prime Minister: No doubt innocently, the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the situation on beef--and not for the first time. The conditions that are necessary for the scientific committee to consider lifting the beef ban depend on actions that we take. That is correct. Among those actions is the selective cull. That is correct. As I reminded the right hon. Gentleman yet again yesterday--not for the first time--the selective cull was delayed because of the extra evidence on maternal transmission and because the over-30-months scheme was larger than anybody had supposed. The position now--

Dr. Strang: Who are you kidding?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is the Opposition's agriculture spokesman and he is supposed to know. If he does not know, I understand why the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) does not know. We now know who is providing the information that the right hon. Gentleman misunderstands. We are now seeking to obtain progressive lifting by means of the certified herd scheme, as we have set out, on more than one occasion, to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Blair: So the Prime Minister cannot give us a date for lifting the ban. [Interruption.] The Government gave us a date before, they did not honour it and they cannot give us a new one. I have just checked in Hansard, and the Prime Minister specifically said that the date for lifting the ban was in the hands of the British Government. If that is correct, why can he now not give us a date? The answer is that it is not in his hands. [Interruption.] Conservative Members may shout, but the truth is that BSE is a symbol of the Government--they are incompetent, incapable and can never be trusted.

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman reads what I said a few moments ago, he will understand why his third question is absurd, as was his prepared sound bite. It is no good his trying to fix facts. He cannot fix polls, as we have seen, and he should not try to fix facts.

Mr. David Atkinson: Does my right hon. Friend recall the question that I put to him almost exactly a year ago about the failure of most computer systems in this country and throughout the world to recognise the year 2000, which will have enormously damaging consequences, not least for British business? Does he accept that, one year on, widespread ignorance of and inaction in response to the problem remain? Will he now give serious consideration to my ten-minute Bill, the Companies (Millennium Computer Compliance) Bill, which would do much to ensure that the computer systems of British businesses will be safe in three years' time?

The Prime Minister: I shall undertake to ensure that my hon. Friend's ten minute Bill is examined carefully by my right hon. Friends. The underlying problem to which my hon. Friend refers is very serious, and we do not intend to leave it without action.

Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister can huff and puff as much as he likes, but speak to any farmer in this country and they will say that the BSE fiasco tells us all we need to know about this Government: they dither at home, posture abroad, surrender at the end and blame it all on Europe. Does the Prime Minister realise that the anti-European opinion in his Cabinet, on his Back Benches and overwhelmingly among his candidates throughout the country means that, far from fighting for Britain in Europe in 1997, the Conservatives will become Britain's out-of-Europe party in 1997?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has a long tradition of being very supportive of the European Union. After all, some time ago he said:

"We want Ministers to make decisions in public and without single nation vetoes".

The right hon. Gentleman would surrender that. He has also said that he does

"not believe in the sovereignty of Parliament"

as far as the European Union is concerned. The hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) has written to my right hon. Friend the Minister Without Portfolio claiming that his party does not want a united states of Europe. I find that very odd, as the same hon. Gentleman said some time ago:

"our"--

that is, Liberal--

"ideas on Europe are totally illiberal . . . we want to create a bureaucratic and centralist nightmare".

Not only are the Liberals unable to agree among themselves, they cannot even agree with themselves.

Sir Roger Sims: Is not today's White Paper, to which my right hon. Friend referred earlier, to be welcomed, as it both extends the facilities available to patients and increases the involvement in primary care of health care professionals such as nurses and pharmacists? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that additional resources will be given to the national health service to develop the White Paper proposals?

The Prime Minister: We have set out a commitment for additional resources over and above inflation for the national health service throughout the next Parliament--a commitment that we have honoured during the past 17 years and which other parties seem unable to match. My hon. Friend is right about the importance of primary care services. The proposals announced today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will lead to better general practitioner premises, a wider range of services available closer to home, better training for GPs and other staff, expansion of nurse prescribing, more funds for research into primary health, and much else besides. It is a very significant advance in the march towards far better primary health care.


Official Visits

Q3. Mr. Hinchliffe: To ask the Prime Minister when he intends to pay an official visit to Wakefield.

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

Mr. Hinchliffe: Has the Prime Minister had the opportunity to study the correspondence that I sent him last week concerning my constituent, Mr. Wayne Hood of Wakefield, who was recently sent to prison for four years for the attempted murder of his former foster parent who seriously sexually abused him over a seven-year period during his childhood and adolescence? Bearing in mind the fact that the foster parent has been gaoled for seven years for those serious offences against Mr. Hood and other children in his care, will the Prime Minister support the call for a review of Mr. Hood's sentence? While I do not condone Mr. Hood's actions, has he not been treated very harshly by the courts in view of his background and circumstances?

The Prime Minister: I have seen the correspondence that the hon. Gentleman sent to me, and I am grateful to him for giving me notice of his question. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's deep interest and concern about this case. I made inquiries, and I understand that an application for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal has been lodged. The hon. Gentleman will know that, in those circumstances, it is not appropriate for me to say anything further now. I believe that that is the correct way to pursue the matter. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to discuss it with me privately, I will be happy to see him.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Wakefield would not want us to leave this year without congratulating Damon Hill on winning the sports personality of the year award? Would not they be amazed to know that he achieved that without an audience participation unit?

The Prime Minister: I should like to congratulate Damon Hill on his success. The whole country took a great deal of pleasure in his many wins throughout the year. He is a very deserving winner of that poll. In the spirit of amity at Christmas, I shall not respond to the latter part of my hon. Friend's question.