The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 6 February 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 6th February 1997.




Q1. Dr. Lynne Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 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.

Dr. Jones: The Prime Minister will know, because I gave him advance notification of this question, that, last year, the Secretary of State for Health visited my constituency to open the new £7.5 million trauma and burns unit at Selly Oak hospital. People were relieved because they thought that, at last, the future of the hospital was secure, but now there is again talk of its closure. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be barmy to close those brand-new facilities and those in the sister Queen Elizabeth hospital? Does he realise that local people do not trust his Government on health–especially when they know that the Secretary of State for Health does not rely on the NHS and takes out private health insurance?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me notice, an hour or so ago, that she proposed to ask that question and I have made some inquiries in the interim. I understand that the health authority is examining how best to deliver patient services. That is part of a process that, as the hon. Lady will concede, is in the interests of the health service in her region and has already resulted in improved care, more in-patients, more out-patients and more day care.

On the specific point, I understand that the trust has taken no such decisions and that local media items have been misleading. If, at any stage in the future, substantial plans for change were to be made, they would at that stage have to be subject to full public consultation.

Mr. Deva: Does my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the inspired decision to give passports to 5,000 stateless south Asians in Hong Kong? Does he recognise that those families are major wealth creators in Hong Kong and that, as British passport holders, they will enable Britain to become not only the enterprise centre of Europe, but the enterprise centre of the whole world?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, I made it clear when I went to Hong Kong last year that I wanted the ethnic minorities to be assured about their future. I am aware of the widespread concern that there has been in both Houses, as well as in Hong Kong, about their nationality status. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has therefore decided that they can register as British citizens, with a right to abode here after 30 June. I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority–perhaps even all–will continue to reside in Hong Kong, where they will continue to have a right of abode, but they were potentially stateless and they now have a nationality.

Mr. Blair: Can the Prime Minister confirm that, since he became Prime Minister, he has doubled the national debt?

The Prime Minister: I can also confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that there is not a single economy in Europe that can match our performance. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to see debt rise further, and to see the British economy fail rather than succeed, he should follow the policies of the social model to which he is committed in Europe, with the results that we have seen in Europe.

Mr. Blair: Perhaps for once we can get a straight answer to a straight question. We now pay out on interest payments on debt every year more than we spend on law and order and transport put together. Can the Prime Minister just answer that simple question? Can he confirm that, since he became Prime Minister–he is the only Prime Minister since the war of which this can be said–he has doubled the national debt? Yes or no?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman spent the whole of the recession encouraging us to spend money to assist people in need. [Interruption.] He invites us to do one thing one day and something quite different the other. He says different things abroad and at home. At least on this occasion he seems to be seeking to quote me, not President Clinton.

Mr. Blair: Perhaps I can quote the right hon. Gentleman again. Does he not recall saying that he would be the Prime Minister who would balance the budget? Does he not recognise–[Hon. Members: “Oh.”]

They complain about us. We have been trying to save the Government money over the past few weeks while he and his rag-bag of outgoing Ministers have been spraying around the post-dated cheques like there was no tomorrow. [Interruption.] Is that not true? Record borrowing, record tax increases and still they cannot run decent public services. Is that not typical of the Tories–unfair and incompetent in equal measure?

The Prime Minister: I suppose there was never a chance that the right hon. Gentleman was going to debate the real issues of today, on which the shadow Chancellor has landed him in such trouble. I will tell him about the–[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I really am getting very weary of barracking from a sedentary position, particularly from Front-Bench Members.

Mr. Skinner: That puts me in the clear.

The Prime Minister: I can for once agree with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner): he is not barracking from the Front Bench, and I doubt that he ever will be.

The comparisons I can safely offer the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) are comparisons between this country’s performance on unemployment and that of every other country in Europe; this country’s performance on the recovery and that of every other country in Europe; this country’s performance on exports and that of other countries; and this country’s performance on manufacturing exports and that of other countries. The right hon. Gentleman should acknowledge just for once the success of British industry, the British economy and the British nation, instead of trying to do it damage.

Mrs. Roe: Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that Britain is attracting more investment from throughout the world than any other European country? Is it not the case, however, that the social chapter would destroy jobs and drive out investment? What advice will he give to business leaders who have been invited to shell out £7,500 to attend a fund-raising banquet hosted by the Leader of the Opposition?

The Prime Minister: Seven thousand, five hundred pounds for a meal with the Leader of the Opposition? The Leader of the Opposition seems deeply engaged in conversation. He is perhaps persuading the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) to cough up and come to the luncheon.

Mr. Ashdown: I was interested to hear the Prime Minister admit in his previous answer that the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong were potentially going to be left stateless, as he specifically denied that in answer to a question that I asked him along those lines three months ago. [Hon. Members: “Oh.”] Yes, he did.

On the issue of public service pay, is it not now perfectly clear that the Government are trying to take fair pay for our nurses and teachers and turn it into yet another exercise in political point scoring for the general election? Are we expected seriously to believe that a Government who can find £1 billion to pay their own private consultants and advertisers cannot fund a modest pay rise for teachers that is perfectly affordable and a pay rise for nurses that has already been budgeted for?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait a few minutes for the decisions on public sector pay, which will be fair to the public sector and fair to the taxpayer. If he says that that is entirely affordable, why is he promising to put up tax by a penny in the pound to pay for the teachers? Why is he planning to do that? The right hon. Gentleman does not know what the decisions are, does not understand the issues and yet again asks questions based on utter nonsense.

Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd: Will my right hon. Friend spare a moment to compare the position of a manufacturer in my constituency with that of his German competitor, who happens to be a friend? The German manufacturer in Bavaria is required to give each employee, every year, 29 days holiday, and an additional 13 days holiday for the religious holidays, which is more than eight weeks holiday in the year. Furthermore, it is sometimes the habit for people to arm themselves with a medical certificate and spend three weeks at Baden Baden.

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend points to the different costs of the social model in Europe and the impact that that has had on unemployment.

Mr. Mackinlay: The Germans are very successful.

The Prime Minister: There is an increase of half a million in German unemployment. I doubt whether those half a million Germans consider that very successful. Business costs across Europe are costing jobs. For every £100 spent on wages in Britain, there is an extra £15 for non-wage costs. In Germany that figure is £31, in France £41 and in Italy £44. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) may shake his head, but those are the facts of the matter. That is why business men across Europe–including, for example, the head of the German firm BASF–have said in the past few days:

“Britain is the best place in Europe to invest.”


Q2. Mr. Cummings: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 February.

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

Mr. Cummings: Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the doctors and nursing staff at St. Benedict’s hospice in Sunderland on their pioneering integrated assessment of palliative care, which has been acclaimed internationally? While recognising the importance of the voluntary and charitable sectors in supporting hospices, what steps is he taking to ensure a national policy on hospice care?

The Prime Minister: I do not know the particular details of St. Benedict’s. From what the hon. Gentleman says, its staff have clearly done an outstanding job. If that is true, I am happy to add my congratulations to them and to the hospice movement as a whole. I have had the opportunity of knowing personally of the remarkable work done by the hospice movement, which is truly astonishing. It has the Government’s support and will continue to have it.

Mr. Sweeney: Will my right hon. Friend find time between now and 1 May to visit the Vale of Glamorgan–a particularly interesting constituency–in order to see for himself the benefits of low taxes, low inflation, the absence of the social chapter, and deregulation in attracting inward investment to south Wales?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend offers me an extremely enticing invitation, which I shall carefully consider. Were I to take the opportunity of visiting every part of the United Kingdom that had had substantial inward investment, it would probably take me until 1 May next year, because of the Government’s remarkable success in encouraging inward investment, as a result of the policies that we have followed over recent years.


Q3. Mr. Kevin Hughes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 February.

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

Mr. Hughes: Will the Prime Minister try to answer the question that he failed to answer on Tuesday? Can he give a categorical assurance that the Wirral, South by-election will take place on 27 February–yes or no?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows that I have called the Wirral, South by-election, and whatever ingenious ways he tries to produce to entice me to tell him the date of the general election, he will have to wait. The election in Wirral is proceeding.


Q4. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 February.

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

Mr. Greenway: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the rise of nearly half a million in German unemployment in January is graphic proof that, as he said in Brussels this week, one signature on the European social chapter is half a million British signatures on the dole? Is not the British approach to competitiveness under the Government working, while the European social chapter, so advocated and loved by the Labour party, is not?

The Prime Minister: It is undeniable that the social model has contributed substantially to unemployment across Europe. The average level of unemployment in Europe is 3.5 per cent. above the rate here. My estimate of an extra half a million unemployed, were we to go down that route is, if anything, an under-estimate and not an over-estimate. A moment ago, I quoted the German head of BASF. I could of course have quoted the head of the Dutch business association who said:

“The British way is best.”

He went on:

“There is absolutely no need for a Europe wide set of rules.”