The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 30 January 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 30th January 1997.




Q1. Mr. Sutcliffe: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 30 January.

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. Sutcliffe: Is the Prime Minister aware of reports today that the national health service is in near-collapse in the north-west of England, with bed shortages and people waiting on trolleys? It is in crisis in Bradford as well, with 289 operations cancelled in the past quarter. A much-needed accident and emergency unit, which we were promised, has not been delivered after many years and we have the outrage of two new mixed-sex wards, which the Prime Minister said would not happen. Is not the truth that there are two health services, just as there are two Tory parties–a real health service which is near collapse and a fantasy health service which the Prime Minister talks about in the press?

Mr. Skinner: Tell us about fantasy land.

The Prime Minister: If the hon. Gentleman waits, he will hear what I have to say.

The hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe) referred to the north-west. He might have begun by acknowledging the brand new £2.9 million extension to the accident and emergency department at the Royal Liverpool hospital, which opened a year or so ago and makes it one of the finest accident and emergency hospitals in the country. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bradford, South shakes his head. He does not think that it is one of the finest; I do.

The demand for the national health service is rising and so is the capacity to meet that demand, which is why more patients are being treated. Every health authority has made its plans for dealing with the growth in demand this year, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made additional sums available to deal with that demand.

Mr. Hayes: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people of Gibraltar are fiercely proud of being British and do not want to be a province of Spain? Will my right hon. Friend continue vigorously to support the people of Gibraltar to ensure that they have the same freedom of movement and voting that is taken for granted in the rest of Europe?

The Prime Minister: Britain stands by its commitment to the people of Gibraltar, which was enshrined in the 1969 constitution. We will not be entering into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another state against their freely and democratically expressed wishes. The Spanish Foreign Minister raised that matter informally with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, as indeed he had done on a previous occasion. My right hon. and learned Friend rejected the idea, because such a proposal did not and would not have the consent of the people of Gibraltar.

Mr. Blair: A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister said that it was essential in the national interest that our options remained open on a single currency and that he expected Conservative candidates to stand on that national manifesto. Is that still his expectation of Conservative candidates?

The Prime Minister: I think that, before taking me to task on this, the right hon. Gentleman should perhaps talk to the scores of his own Members of Parliament that the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) said would oppose his stance. As the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney said:

“I think it almost an obligation to be honest with my own electorate.”

But the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) would not understand that. He entered the House on an election address that demanded Britain’s withdrawal from the Community, even though he said later:

“I wasn’t actually opposed to membership of the E.C. . . . I said within the closed doors of the Labour party that I disagreed with that policy.”

Behind closed doors he says one thing, in public another: not the politics of conviction, but convenience, saying anything to get a vote–and that is what he advocates to his candidates.

Mr. Blair: The Labour party put its manifesto to its membership and got 95 per cent. support–I doubt that the Prime Minister could put his manifesto to his Cabinet and get 95 per cent. support. After all, I was only asking him to agree with what he himself said a few weeks ago. If he cannot say that he now expects Conservative candidates to do that, has he still the vestige of authority and courage left to stand at that Dispatch Box and say now that at least he strongly urges and seeks to persuade Conservative candidates to stand on his and the Government’s position?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is just being plain silly. Is he telling the House that the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) are actually going to support his policy on Europe at the general election? He raises it on this day of all days–the first two Labour questioners on the Order Paper are among the 50 who say that we should not join a single currency. The right hon. Gentleman may ask his candidates to fib to the electorate–our candidates will set out their views, we will follow the policy that the Government have set out and people know our policy. What he is trying to do is to censor and smother what his party stands for.

Mr. Blair: I asked the Prime Minister two questions. I said, as he himself said a few weeks ago, “Does he expect them to stand on the same manifesto?” I answer, “Yes.” I then asked him, “Will he at least seek to persuade people to stand on the same manifesto?” I answer, “Yes.” He is so weak and powerless, he cannot even say. He cannot even get to that–[Interruption.] Is it not extraordinary–[Interruption.]

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

Mr. Blair: Is it not extraordinary that the Prime Minister of our country cannot even urge his party to support his own position? Weak, weak, weak, weak. I tell him that his weakness and his failure of leadership are the reason his Government are the incompetent mess they are.

The Prime Minister: Whenever the right hon. Gentleman gets abusive, we know that he is losing. If he is concerned about strength, will he today sack the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), who yesterday contradicted what he said about tax? Will he today sack the Deputy Chief Whip of the Labour party, who yesterday contradicted what was said about tax? All the right hon. Gentleman does is heckle and waft his arms around in a hopeless gesture. Yes or no–will he sack them or not? It is his policy, they are members of his shadow Cabinet, and they have denied his policy.

We have set out consistently what our policy is. I have said that it is important to keep the options–all the options–open. The right hon. Gentleman sniggers–I am quoting his words, not mine. He has followed in grandmother’s footsteps in following policy after policy of ours. He says that we should keep the options open. We keep the options open, but his policy apparently means something quite different, because he dare not admit what his policy is.

Hon. Members: Withdraw.

Mr. Ashby: Has my right hon. Friend seen the statement–[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. [An hon. Member: “He was shouting abuse at the Prime Minister.”] Order. If anyone has been abusive, they will indicate it to me. [Interruption.] Order. I think that a lot of hon. Members are suffering from pre-election tension. Let us get on with Question Time. There are hon. Members I want to call.

Mr. Ashby: My right hon. Friend has undoubtedly seen the statement by the chairman of Toyota. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Toyota came to this country because my right hon. Friend’s policies provided the most favourable climate for companies such as Toyota to have a gateway into Europe? Does the chairman’s statement not show that it is important that we should maintain that gateway–important that we should maintain our foot in Europe, so that we get increased investment?

The Prime Minister: We intend to maintain our voice in Europe–there should be absolutely no doubt about that–but we do not intend to follow slavishly whatever happens to be the favoured policy of some European Governments at any particular moment. We shall not follow policies that would be damaging to British interests. We shall not sign social chapters. [Interruption.] The deputy leader of the Labour party is scoffing, as usual. I tell him: one signature on the social chapter will mean half a million signatures on the dole.

Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister has pursued a conscientious and honourable policy in pursuing a path to peace in Northern Ireland and we have been unwavering in support of that. Does he realise that he will lose that, and much else besides, if he fails to apply rigorously, in full and now, the recommendations of the North report, which he brought into being, and jeopardises peace on the streets of Northern Ireland next summer for continuing Unionist support and a few more days in power?

The Prime Minister: In a few minutes, the right hon. Gentleman will hear a statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the North report. However, in view of what he just said, I invite him to read the North report, and perhaps especially paragraph 1.49, which says:

“We are well aware that it is for the Government to take a view on how far it wishes to adopt our recommendations”.

It goes on to say:

“No doubt there will be a period of consultation, and there may be some question as to how far new structures and procedures can be put in place in time for the 1997 ‘marching season’.”

Some can be put in place, as my right hon. and learned Friend will tell the House, but the matter is more complex than the right hon. Gentleman intimated. I suggest that he wait to listen to the detailed statement by my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Does my right hon. Friend agree that one should not unfairly–or even fairly–always go back to what people put in their election addresses in the 1980s, but one might want to look at what they put in their election addresses at the last general election and then wonder how many of those policies they have reversed in the past five years?

The Prime Minister: I think it is possible–[Interruption.] I am prepared to offer a prize to anyone who can find five policies on which the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) has been consistent.

Mr. Hume: Is the Prime Minister aware that today is the 25th anniversary of one of the worst atrocities in the past 25 years in Northern Ireland, when the security forces shot dead 14 people on the streets of my city? Does he agree that the more than 3,000 people who have died in the past 25 years have all suffered atrocity, and that their families have suffered trauma because of such tragedies?

Given that that was the only atrocity that was carried out by the security forces with the ratification of Government, and given that the Prime Minister has told me in writing that those who were killed on Bloody Sunday should be regarded as innocent of any allegation that they were shot while handling firearms or explosives, can he please tell me why they were shot? If he does not know, does he not think that the matter requires public investigation?

The Prime Minister: I understand how the hon. Gentleman feels about the matter. Everybody knows his record in Northern Ireland over the years, and I pay due tribute to it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of ratification by Government. I think that he might wish to reconsider what he said about that. The events of 25 years ago constituted a terrible tragedy. I concede that to the hon. Gentleman. I believe that everyone is determined that the lessons of that day are never forgotten. That, too, I share with the hon. Gentleman.

The actions at the time were fully investigated by the Widgery committee. I know of no reason at present to reopen that inquiry. If anyone has fresh, relevant evidence, of course it should be sent to the proper authorities. The important point is that everyone acknowledges the tragedy of what happened a quarter of a century ago today. The Government, with the hon. Gentleman’s help and, I concede, with the help of the leader of the Liberal party, the leader of the Labour party and many others, have been trying to reach a situation in Northern Ireland where there never, ever again need be any prospect of such an event recurring. That is what I passionately want. I do not believe that anyone doubts that. Without fresh evidence, I see no advantage in raking over old problems. If there were fresh evidence, of course we would examine it.