The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1997Prime Minister (1990-1997)

PMQT – 11 February 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister’s Question Time from 11th February 1997.




Q1. Mr. Livingstone: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 February.

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.

Mr. Livingstone: Has the Prime Minister seen a copy of the letter of the Secretary of State for Defence to me, in which he admits that bacteriological warfare experiments took place on the civilian populations of London and the south coast between 1964 and 1977? Will he agree to establish an independent inquiry to see whether there was any harmful effect from those tests, as some doctors currently believe, and to report on why the then Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Healey, was not informed that the tests were taking place?

The Prime Minister: The direct answer is that I have not seen the hon. Gentleman’s letter to my right hon. Friend. I understand that the events to which the hon. Gentleman refers took place in 1966, so either the documents would have been released under the 30-year rule, or they would not be available under the general rule that papers are not available to a successor Government.


Q2. Mr. Gallie: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 February.

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

Mr. Gallie: Is my right hon. Friend aware of the importance of defence-related jobs in my Ayr constituency? Is he aware that the Nimrod 2000 programme will provide many jobs, as does the small boat maintenance and construction work at Ailsa Perth and Troon? How would those jobs stand up if we reduced our defence expenditure to the European average?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right. I see no need for a further defence review, as promised by Labour. After “Front Line First”, the only possible reason for a defence review would be further reductions in defence expenditure. I can see no other reason. The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has rather honestly said that a Labour review would have “painful consequences”. Where those painful consequences would fall–whether on Nimrod, Eurofighter, Merlin or Phoenix–and where the job losses would be, I cannot say, but I noticed that, in the article by the leader of the Labour party in The Daily Telegraph, there was not a single assurance about any of those contracts.

Mr. Blair: Now that the Prime Minister has disowned the Health Secretary as his constitutional spokesman, can he tell us why he appointed him as such in the first place? Rather than rampaging through the responsibilities of other Cabinet Ministers, would it not be better if the Health Secretary addressed himself to the huge and manifest crisis in the national health service?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to talk about the role of Health Secretaries and devolution, will he tell the House whether he supports the view of the shadow Health Secretary, who said:

“Once we have a Scottish Parliament handling health affairs in Scotland, it is not possible for me to continue as Minister of Health administering health in England”?

Is that the Leader of the Opposition’s view? If so, will he make it clear to the people of Scotland, so that they may understand what his devolution proposals mean?

Mr. Blair: I have made it clear to the Prime Minister on many occasions that, if he wants to give one of his Question Times to me, I shall be delighted to accept it.

If he cannot answer that question about the health service, perhaps he will answer another one. Is it correct that this afternoon the Health Secretary will back down on the proposal to hire out general practitioners to supermarkets and drug companies? If he does so, the move will be warmly welcomed by people who do not want to see their GPs go the way of dentists, with higher and rising charges.

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman waits, he will find out what my right hon. Friend will say about primary health care. It is about a better way of delivering national health services under national health service rules in order to best meet the needs and the preferences of national health service patients. That is what has activated us to make all health reforms and what continues to activate us, as my right hon. Friend will make clear this afternoon.

Mr. Blair: If the Prime Minister is in any doubt about the state of the national health service, let him cast his eye over the “Winter Crisis Update” issued by the British Medical Association last week. It details cancelled operations, rising waiting lists and bed and nurse shortages the length and breadth of the country. Is it not true that the Health Secretary and other Ministers are more interested in fighting the next Tory leadership election than in doing their jobs properly for the country? The tragedy for the country is that the Prime Minister stands by and lets them.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has carefully manoeuvred to his prepared soundbite, but I shall answer the substance of his question. Yet again, he uses the national health service as a football without acknowledging the fact that national health service hospitals are now dealing with 10 million in-patients a year, 3.5 million day cases a year and 14 million out-patients a year–that is 75,000 patients every single day of the year. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that there is a crisis, I remind him that, under this Government, general and acute patient activity has increased by 80 per cent. while, under the last Labour Government, it did not increase but fell by 7 per cent.


Q3. Mr. Dykes: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 February.

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

Mr. Dykes: Did my right hon. Friend notice that last week’s Times-Dillon Anne Frank Memorial Forum was accompanied by demonstrations by neo-Nazi groups, who paraded up and down denying that the second world war holocaust took place? Allowing for natural Home Office hesitation about an effective future text but bearing in mind that other countries have such legislation, may I wish my right hon. Friend well on his visit to the Board of Deputies of British Jews tomorrow and ask him to re-examine the issue and discuss it with the Home Secretary? May I remind him that all-party legislation on the subject was successfully launched in the House recently?

The Prime Minister: I think that everyone deplores the sentiments expressed by those who deny the holocaust. It undoubtedly occurred–it is a matter of absolute historical fact–and I can understand the hurt, the offence and the distress of those who suffered or whose families suffered at that time. It might be right to introduce a specific offence, and of course I shall discuss the matter again with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

However, I am dubious about the practical effect of doing so, and I put several points to the House. First, there is a danger that the amount of holocaust denial material that is likely to stir racial hatred might increase if it were subjected to the sort of publicity that would follow such an approach. At present, that material is subject to prosecution under public order law–and rightly so. Furthermore, I understand that there is no unanimous view about the matter within the Jewish community. Before I reach a conclusive view, I would want to take account of the views of those who are most deeply concerned about the matter.

Mr. Simpson: In respect of the Government’s decision on the royal yacht, does the Prime Minister agree with the former Prime Minister, the Father of the House, that the conduct of the Secretary of State for Defence was not honourable? Would it not be better for the Prime Minister to admit to Britain’s probably best-known sailor that, yet again, he has been hoist by his own Portillo?

The Prime Minister: The decision on a royal yacht was not made just by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence; it was a Cabinet decision on what I regard as an important national asset that plays an important role in winning business for Britain abroad. I believe that the project is an investment in our nation’s future, and that it is entirely appropriate that it should be met out of public funds. I look forward to the support that there will be when the yacht is built in a British shipyard, sustaining British jobs.


Q4. Mr. Devlin: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 February.

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

Mr. Devlin: Will by right hon. Friend confirm that, since 1979, average pensioner incomes have improved by 50 per cent. over and above inflation? Will he also confirm that 90 per cent. of today’s pensioners reaching retirement age have an income in addition to their state pension? Does he think that that will be a comfort to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on his 65th birthday today?

The Prime Minister: I should like to wish the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) a very happy birthday. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That is warmly echoed by my hon. Friends. Wrong though the hon. Gentleman has been on almost every issue during his long parliamentary career–in a minute, he is going to say that he is not 65 and I am fiddling the figures–I hope that he smiles before he is 66.

Mr. Skinner: Perhaps the Prime Minister would now deal with the real issues in Britain today. He has been in power since 1990. He has doubled the national debt, and the public sector borrowing requirement is now more than £25 billion. He is the Prime Minister who came from the belly of the banking establishment, even though he only swept the floors at Standard Chartered. He is the Prime Minister who, on Black Wednesday, 16 September 1992, along with his right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont), who was the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, lost this country £10 billion in an afternoon–and never went near a betting shop.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is becoming quite curmudgeonly in his retirement. The fact is that we have the lowest debt ratio of any of the larger economies in Europe. It is far lower than in 1979. [Interruption.] “Doubled it,” shout the Opposition. If we had continued their policy, it would have more than quadrupled.


Q5. Mr. Whittingdale: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 February.

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

Mr. Whittingdale: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that his Government are committed to the preservation of grammar schools? Is he aware that Liberal-Labour-controlled Essex county council has withdrawn free transport to such schools, thus denying thousands of parents the opportunity to send their children to some of the finest grammar schools in the country? Does he agree that, if we want to know how Labour would behave in government, we need only look at Labour in local government?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend’s last remarks were undoubtedly true. He echoes a point made by the leader of the Labour party himself in the past; he also highlights another example of Lib-Lab unity in opposing parental choice.

The vindictive decision–for there is no other way to describe it–should not surprise us. Labour has opposed grant-maintained schools, testing, performance tables and grammar schools. The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) regards test results and the like as a “fanatical doctrine”: I gather that she once said that. So much for the fiction that the Labour party supports either grant-maintained schools or grammar schools. My hon. Friend has highlighted what we knew already–that Labour cares little about the wishes of parents, except when they are parents themselves.