The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 21 January 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 21st January 1997.




Q1. Mrs. Anne Campbell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 21 January.

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. Campbell: In April last year, the Health Secretary promised to deliver a proper level of paediatric intensive bed space. Will the Prime Minister explain to the House why, despite that promise, 15 critically ill children have been turned away from Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge in the past few months? Can he not keep any of his promises?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady should check that her facts are accurate before she mistakenly sets out such policies. Every child needing a paediatric intensive care bed this winter has been found one. The bogus figures that the Labour party has produced can self-evidently be seen as bogus. Perhaps the hon. Lady would care to hear what Dr. David Hallworth, chairman of the independent Paediatric Intensive Care Society, said. He called Labour’s claims “pretty meaningless”, and very wisely added that this issue should not be

“subject to party political point scoring.”

Sir Terence Higgins: Does the Prime Minister agree that the electorate are not naive? They know that a promise not to increase rates of income tax is not the same as a promise not to increase personal taxation. If one says that one wants a starting rate of 10p, that is utterly meaningless if one does not also say at what level it will start and how wide the band will be. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the Government’s record on such matters?

The Prime Minister: One simply needs to look at which was the last party to put up the basic rate of tax; and one recalls that it was the Labour party. One should look at which party has never supported a single Conservative tax cut and has done nothing to get the basic rate down to 23p–I think that Labour Members know that it is their party–at which party has supported absolutely no measures to control expenditure–the Labour party has supported none–and at which party has made £30 billion-worth of promises that it has not yet disclaimed, but that it must disclaim if it is to stand up its ludicrous claim that it will not increase taxes.

Mr. Blair: The Conservative party’s 22 tax rises since the last election must have slipped the Prime Minister’s mind for a moment.

May I return the Prime Minister to the point about intensive care beds for children? Does he accept that the figures given by hospitals of the number of children turned away–eventually found a bed in other hospitals, but turned away–are correct? If they are correct, how does that square with the Health Secretary’s promise that the whole matter would be dealt with, and that there would be no repetition of that practice, given what happened last year?

The Prime Minister: I said a moment ago that the report produced by the Labour party was alarmist nonsense. I repeat that point. Every child needing a paediatric intensive care bed this winter has been found one–

Mrs. Ann Taylor: Not to the parents.

The Prime Minister: Of course not to the parents–but, unless the hon. Lady will persuade the shadow Chancellor to provide more resources for health, I suggest that she and the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) should not criticise a service that is treating more people, and treating them better. Just occasionally, it would be wise of them to praise the health service for the way in which it deals with the growing demands of health care, rather than always criticising it.

Mr. Blair: We do praise the national health service. We built the national health service. What we condemn is the Government’s record on the national health service.

May I put this to the Prime Minister? Of course it is the case that children are eventually found another bed–that was the case even in the tragic instance of Nicholas Geldard, which gave rise to this whole problem–but the Secretary of State for Health claimed that the business of having to go from hospital to hospital would stop. May I give the Prime Minister an instance from Bristol children’s hospital? Since January this year–even this year–15 children, just at that hospital, have been turned away because of a shortage of beds. Does the Prime Minister accept–[Interruption.] Hon. Members may shout, but does the Prime Minister accept that we are talking not just about intensive care beds for children? Has he seen the report prepared on community care for the mentally ill, and what today’s newspapers say about problems for doctors’ practices? Can he not accept that there is a crisis in some parts of the national health service, and that it is not good enough for him and other Ministers just to conceal the true state of affairs this side of a general election?

The Prime Minister: If there is a crisis, and the right hon. Gentleman is concerned about the language of priorities, why does he not match our pledge on spending in the national health service? If there is a crisis, why are more people being treated in the national health service than ever before? If there is a crisis, why have we met the charge set out by the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), on whether our reforms are working–that is, whether more people are being treated?

There are more intensive beds; there are more treatments; there are better treatments; there are speedier treatments. Unless the right hon. Member for Sedgefield is going to follow the lead that we have set in providing resources for the health service over the past 18 years, and committing ourselves to do so in the future, he is doing nothing more than seeking to make political capital out of a service that is dealing with a growing demand with great skill.

Mr. Blair: May I put it to the Prime Minister that, over the past few years–since he has been in charge of the national health service–the service has been given 20,000 more managers but has 50,000 fewer nurses? Is it not the case that the national health service would be better if it were run as a proper co-operative service again, rather than hospital against hospital and doctor against doctor? The only party that will rebuild Britain’s national health service is the party that created it.

The Prime Minister: It is perfectly true that the Labour party established the national health service, and I offer it full credit for its role in following up the Beveridge report instituted earlier by an all-party Government; but it is the Conservative party that has built up the health service. We have been in power for two thirds of the period that has elapsed since then, and we have built up the health service from its beginnings into a service that is now recognised as the best in the world.

The figures that the right hon. Gentleman quotes on managers are wrong. The impression that he consistently gives of the health service runs it down. It would be very refreshing if, just for once, Labour Members acknowledged that we have on our hands the most successful national health service in the world, which provides more and better treatments than ever before. The reality is that the people of this nation who use the health service understand that, even if the Labour party, using it as a political football, does not.

Mr. Rathbone: During the course of today, when the Prime Minister looked back on his trip to the far east, did he remember seeing there a beautiful and very rare flower called the rafflesia amoldia, which is parasitic in nature, is without a stem or roots and which with its vines embraces any handy, strong tree? If he did, did he draw any conclusions from seeing it?

The Prime Minister: I saw no such flowers on that occasion.

Mr. Ashdown: Will the Prime Minister accept that, in last night’s vote, the Government won no part of informed opinion, including that in his own party, in support of their proposals for bugging people and their homes through the Police Bill? Surely he cannot accuse four past Home Secretaries, including a Conservative one, one past Conservative Attorney-General, the present Lord Chief Justice and many Law Lords of failing to back the police because they insist that those wide-ranging powers ought to be subject to prior judicial authority. We all understand that the Home Secretary must take time to digest that vote, but will the Prime Minister at least assure us that, rather than riding roughshod over that opinion, he will listen and respond to it? Will he note that, if he wishes to do so on a cross-party basis, we stand ready to participate?

The Prime Minister: The whole House, including I assume the right hon. Gentleman, knows that intensive surveillance has been going on under successive Governments under the mantra of guidelines for about 30 years: there is nothing new about it. The purpose of the Bill was to put it on a statutory footing: that was what my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was seeking to do, and he proposed that it should be put under independent review. The amendments tabled by the Labour and Liberal parties in the Lords contradict one another. They are unsatisfactory and will need to be changed. Of course my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will reflect upon the view that was expressed in another place, but the right hon. Gentleman has to realise that intensive surveillance can be used only in investigating serious crime and where there is no other way of obtaining the intelligence. That is an important principle, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not wish to move away from that principle.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will my right hon. Friend remind those who listened with incredulity to the yesterday’s speech by the shadow Chancellor that, although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is no substitute for the original?

The Prime Minister: I suppose that every Conservative Member regards imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, but the reality is that, whatever the best intentions of the shadow Chancellor, the sheer nature of the Labour party is such that he certainly could not deliver that which he has promised. He knows that, I think the electorate know that, and the faces behind him portray that very clearly.


Q2. Mr. Donohoe: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 21 January.

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

Mr. Donohoe: Since 1989, some 25 per cent. of beds have been lost to the national health service in Scotland. Today, the senior Duke, the Duke of Hamilton, who happens to be the brother of the Minister who has responsibility for health in Scotland, told the people of Scotland that the Tories cannot be trusted with health. Does the Prime Minister agree?

The Prime Minister: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain, after yet another attempt to denigrate the health service by the Labour party, why more people are being treated in the health service in Scotland and elsewhere. Can the hon. Gentleman explain that, or is he playing “follow my leader” by trying to use Britain’s national health service as a party political football for the Labour party?

Mr. John Greenway: Will my right hon. Friend ask to see a report of the incident overnight at Full Sutton prison? When he does, does he expect to find that the progress that has been made in the Prison Service in recent years will be reflected by the fact that the disturbance was quelled quickly by the excellent work of the Prison Service and prison officers, to whom praise is due? Will he note that Full Sutton is a modern prison with no overcrowding, but that it holds some of the most violent prisoners in the country? It is their behaviour that was the cause of the riot.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes his point with great clarity and I need not add to it. I agree with him. I shall be seeing the report of what happened last night and I am delighted that it was handled so swiftly and efficiently.


Q3. Mr. Clelland: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 21 January.

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

Mr. Clelland: Will the Prime Minister accept some facts about the national health service? The Royal Victoria infirmary in Newcastle has turned away 23 children in need of intensive care beds in the past three months, including a 20-month-old baby who had to be taken 120 miles north to Edinburgh. If we add to that the case of my elderly constituent who, tragically, died after being driven 40 miles south to Hartlepool because there were no beds available in Gateshead, surely even the Prime Minister can see why the Tories are no longer trusted with the national health service.

The Prime Minister: Of course I cannot respond immediately to the individual cases that the hon. Gentleman raised–if he had wished me to do so, he would doubtless have given me notice of them–since literally hundreds of thousands of people are treated in the national health service every day. The hon. Gentleman gave some facts about the health service; perhaps I can give him some. We now spend £724 for every man, woman and child in the country compared with £444 in 1979. [Interruption.] It is nice to see that the mouth of the Humber has returned from Hong Kong.

The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) will also know that, each and every year since 1979, there has been a significant real-terms increase in resources in the health service. More people are being treated and there are more doctors, more nurses and better and wider treatments. That is a success story and, try as it might, the Labour party–the Labour party is certainly very trying–will not be able to damn the success of the national health service.