Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 23rd February 1995.
Q1. Mr. Watson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 23 February.
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.
Mr. Watson: Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced detailed plans for a legislative assembly in Northern Ireland. Does he understand that, by doing so, he has conceded that power can and should be devolved to each of the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, precisely because each of those countries is distinct and different? When can we expect framework documents that meet the clearly expressed demands for a Welsh Assembly and a Scottish Parliament from the people of those countries?
The Prime Minister: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s parallel. There are a range of distinct differences between the position faced in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK.
Mr. Watson: What are they?
The Prime Minister: With your permission, Madam Speaker, I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what those differences are. In Northern Ireland, the Assembly will not be tax raising. The Assembly proposed for Scotland would be. In Northern Ireland, there has been a sectarian divide of remarkable proportions for years. That does not exist elsewhere. In Northern Ireland, neither of the parties can form part of the UK Government and lead that Government. That does not apply in any other part of the UK. In Northern Ireland, because of its history, there has been an Assembly in the past. That does not apply elsewhere. In Northern Ireland, a part of the population may wish to form part of a foreign country. That does not apply anywhere else. Those are some of the differences. I can stretch that list to the corner of the Chamber and back again.
Q2. Mr. Hawkins: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 23 February.
The Prime Minister: I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Hawkins: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, where councils can be described as mean-minded cocktails of political correctness, inefficiency, bureaucracy and waste, that is a matter for condemnation? Does he further agree that councils like Labour Blackpool and socialist Lancashire have been accurately so described by Mr. Leo McKinstry, a recent close adviser to Labour Front-Bench spokesmen?
The Prime Minister: I am not always apt to accept the words of Labour spokesmen, either past or present, but, on this occasion, I am prepared to make an exception and to agree with Mr. McKinstry.
Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree with the director of the Gas Consumers Council that, although the City may view the £1 billion profit of British Gas as reasonable, consumers will take a different view?
The Prime Minister: I think that consumers wish to see the lowest possible gas price. Consumers will also be pleased with the fact that the gas price has fallen by something over 20 per cent. since privatisation. They will welcome the fact that the Gas Consumers Council represents gas consumers’ interests and deals with complaints. I much prefer profits to losses, provided that there is a good service for customers, and that the price, which the regulator seeks to determine, is right. Profits yield taxes for meeting our public services. In the past, these same public utilities have drained public resources through subsidy.
Mr. Blair: Just on prices, gas prices fell in the three years before privatisation. They have risen in real terms since 1979. They rose last year in real terms, and they will rise again next year. [Interruption.] They rose last year in real terms, and they will rise again. [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker: Order. Both sides of the House must cool down. I want to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say.
Mr. Blair: Is that not the contrast between pay excesses at the top and pay cuts and redundancies for the rest, between vast monopoly profits and a tide of consumer complaints? Let me tell the Prime Minister and the Conservative party– [Interruption.] Yes, pay excess at the top and salary cuts for the rest. I tell them, until– [Interruption.] I see the yobbos are out in force today. We will continue to speak for the British people on this issue. Until those companies are properly regulated in the public interest, they will continue to be seen, rightly, as the unacceptable face of privatisation.
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman rather dashed around the dates in order to make the case that he put before the House. As he knows, at the time of privatisation we put in a regulator to ensure that customers get the best deal possible. Since privatisation, prices have fallen by over 20 per cent. for domestic consumers, even after allowing for inflation. That is the reality. It is also the reality that, for many years while they were in the public sector, the nationalised industries cost the British taxpayer £50 million a week in subsidies. Now they are yielding money for the Exchequer to deal with public services and other matters. The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is the case. He knows that a more efficient service is being provided, and he has offered no alternative whatsoever.
Mr. Mark Robinson: Will my right hon. Friend take time out of his busy schedule to find the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and to tell him that there is still time for Liberal Democrat-controlled councils, including Somerset, to set aside some of their pet projects and to put children’s education first?
The Prime Minister: I have no objection to raise at the absence of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and I am sure that my hon. Friend’s message for the right hon. Gentleman was taken on board by his right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and will be faithfully relayed to him.
Mr. Beith: May I have instead a message for all those people whose incomes are just above the level at which they would qualify for free prescriptions and whose chronic illnesses are not on the list which would qualify them for free prescriptions? Those people now have to pay 26 times more for prescriptions than they did in 1979. Is that a fair rate of inflation for such a vulnerable group of people?
The Prime Minister: I can give the right hon. Gentleman a message in addition, rather than instead. As he knows, over 80 per cent. of prescriptions are dispensed free. Pensioners, pregnant women, children and those on low incomes all have their prescriptions free. A total of 333 million free prescriptions are dispensed every year. I believe that it is fair that those who can afford to pay should do so.
Even after the increase that has been made, the prescription charge will be well below the average cost of medicines to the national health service. The resources raised from that charge, paid for by people such as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, myself and many others, are enough to pay for 75,000 hip replacements, 33, 000 heart valve replacements or 235,000 cataract operations. That is the reality. The money does not go to the Exchequer: it is made available to help increase the resources for the health service to meet the needs of people.
Mr. Barry Porter: In the document published yesterday, the Prime Minister said that he cherished the Union, and he went on to say in his statement that he was a Unionist. Will he take every opportunity to reinforce, underline and emphasise that commitment?
The Prime Minister: I believe that the efforts that the Government have been making to try to ensure that the strife and difficulties that have taken place in part of the United Kingdom for so long are brought to an end is a clear and compelling reason for my hon. Friend to accept what I said yesterday.
Q3. Mr. Hain: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 23 February.
The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Hain: Did the Prime Minister sanction the Minister for Health telling the BBC’s “PM” programme last night that the prescription charge increase would help to finance the nurses’ pay award? Does he accept that there is public disgust at the way that the news of the increase–a savage tax on the sick–was sneaked out while the House was uniting on Ireland? Does it not prove that the Tories are the party of high tax and low cunning?
The Prime Minister: When the hon. Gentleman stretches his arguments to such a length, I am tempted to remind him that it was a Labour Government who first introduced prescription charges and a Labour Government who reintroduced prescription charges after they had been abolished and that only one half of the people who get free prescriptions today enjoyed them under a Labour Government. Perhaps the next time that the hon. Gentleman talks about prescription charges, he will make those points clear as well.
European Central Bank
Q4. Sir Teddy Taylor: To ask the Prime Minister if he will raise at the next meeting of the European Council the level of contributions by member states to the administrative costs of the proposed European central bank.
The Prime Minister: Although the administrative costs of the proposed European central bank will be of concern to the Government if the bank is established, the relevant provisions of the Maastricht treaty are not yet in force and are unlikely to be so for some years to come.
Sir Teddy Taylor: As the European Monetary Institute, which is the embryo central bank, on 6 February levied a capital charge on national banks of £500 million, including £75 million paid by the Bank of England, is the Prime Minister aware that some consider, rightly or wrongly, that the process of monetary union from which we are only partially exempt will forge ahead?
As many people consider that we are now near the irreversible end on Europe, would the Prime Minister, whose integrity I genuinely greatly respect, consider whether it might be appropriate to ask the people of Britain if this is the way that they want to proceed? Would not such a referendum now help to resolve the damaging splits on both sides of the House and give the Prime Minister real authority at the 1996 intergovernmental conference?
The Prime Minister: On my hon. Friend’s first point, let me assure him that, if the House wishes, we have a full, not partial, exemption from monetary union. The opt-out which I secured at Maastricht, approved by this House, provides that we will not enter a single currency at any time unless we take a specific decision to do so. That is not a partial but a complete exemption. As to the money made available to the EMI, to which my hon. Friend referred, that which has been provided by the Bank of England will be returned when the EMI is, in due course, liquidated. It is not a non- returnable payment.
On my hon. Friend’s third point, a single currency of course raises serious political, economic and other issues. I have never ruled out a referendum and, again on this occasion, I do not rule out a referendum, but I believe that whether or not it is appropriate is something that we would need to consider at the time.
Q5. Mr. Ronnie Campbell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 23 February.
The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave some moments ago.
Mr. Campbell: Is the Prime Minister aware that Richard Budge, who now owns the vast majority of the British coal industry, last week told miners that they would have to take a three-year pay freeze at the same time as awarding himself £50,000? How does that go with the Prime Minister’s classless society?
The Prime Minister: I was not aware of what Mr. Budge said to the miners, but I will make myself aware. I hope that what the hon. Gentleman has just said will prove to be more accurate than what he said across the Floor of the House about Trafalgar House and Northern Electric a few days ago.
Mr. Trimble: In his statement yesterday, the Prime Minister placed great emphasis on the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own future. In the context of his proposals, will he give an undertaking that, if at some future date the people of Northern Ireland express a wish to become a part of the United Kingdom on the same basis and with the same benefits and the same burdens as everyone else, he will give effect to that wish?
The Prime Minister: As I have said to the hon. Gentleman, we are asking the parties in Northern Ireland and the people in Northern Ireland to see whether they can reach a consensus on what they believe their future should be and how they would wish to deal with that future. That is the whole purpose of the framework document. If the hon. Gentleman and the political parties across Northern Ireland would come forward with that proposition, we would consider it in precisely the same way.