HC Deb 20 February 1997 vol 290 cc1039-41
Q1. Mr. O'Hara

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 February. [15307]

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. O'Hara

Is the Prime Minister aware that, despite all the Government's attempts to massage and manipulate the figures, national health service waiting lists are again at record levels? There is a waiting list of 179,000 in my area of the north-west alone. Could it just be that the Government's policy of replacing 50,000 nurses with 20,000 managers and doubling the price of bureaucracy has something to do with this crisis?

The Prime Minister

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken.

Mr. Mackinlay

No, he is not.

The Prime Minister

Yes he is, and I will explain precisely why.

Waiting lists are broadly the same as last year. They have fallen very dramatically during the present Parliament. If the hon. Member for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara) would care to look at the figures for the period before the health reforms and the patients charter, he will see that more than 200,000 people had waited for more than a year, of whom 80,000 had waited for more than two years. At the end of December, only 2 per cent. of patients—22,000—had been waiting for more than a year, and the number who had waited for more than 18 months was down to 123.

The fact is that more people are being treated, they are being treated more swiftly, and they are being treated better.

Q2. Mr. John Marshall

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 February. [15308]

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Marshall

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that last month the Treasury repaid £6,000 million of debt? Will he also confirm that, if anyone sought to spend an extra £30,000 million of public money, they could do so only by increasing taxes, increasing borrowing and increasing interest rates, all of which would put an end to the economic recovery that is the envy of the whole of the rest of western Europe?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is correct on both counts. Certainly, if anything remotely approximating to £30,000 million were spent in the next Parliament in addition to current spending plans, taxes and interest rates would rise, and I have no doubt that it would have very severe effects on the economy as a whole. As for debt, I was delighted to see that £6 billion had been repaid in the past month—

Mr. Skinner

Who put it up?

The Prime Minister

I will just remind the hon. Gentleman that we have a lower debt ratio than any other major economy in Europe. I will remind him that, in every single year since we came to power, the debt ratio has been lower than in any single year in which he supported a Labour Government.

Mr. Blair

Does the Prime Minister agree with his Chancellor that although, of course, the Government are hostile to a single currency on a non-convergent basis, the Government—I quote the Chancellor— doesn't have a hostile attitude to the single currency … The position remains that we have an open option. Those words were repeated by the Deputy Prime Minister. Can the Prime Minister repeat those words and say that he agrees specifically with his Chancellor and his Deputy Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

Of course, if there were not arguments in both directions, we would not have kept our options open. Of course I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Blair

The Prime Minister has said in very clear terms that he agrees with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Will he disown Conservative central office, which has been briefing that, in effect, he has closed the option of joining a single currency?

The Prime Minister

No one has been briefing to that effect. The Cabinet set out its position some time ago. It has been reaffirmed on a number of occasions. I reaffirm it again today. It was set out perfectly clearly. The right hon. Gentleman can forget the minor textual exegesis and stick with the facts: that the policy was set out perfectly clearly and that that remains the policy. I hope that the leader of the Labour party might now care to examine the different statements of members of his shadow Cabinet over recent weeks.

Q3. Dr. Goodson-Wickes

To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 February. [15309]

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Dr. Goodson-Wickes

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the superb and often inadequately recognised work carried out by the Prince of Wales's group of charities? Quite apart from offering practical help to more than 150,000 young people, it has established more than 60,000 jobs. Will my right hon. Friend endorse the project that I visited in my constituency this week, where the Prince's Trust rehabilitated a park? By such projects young people take practical steps to serve their local community, while at the same time establishing self-reliance.

The Prime Minister

I am happy to do that. Voluntary service plays a very important part in the fabric of life in this country, and I know of no nation in the world in which the sum total of voluntary service matches that of the United Kingdom. The work done by the Prince's Trust and other voluntary bodies is absolutely magnificent, and the Government will continue to give their support to it.

Mr. Ashdown

Let us see. Last week, the Health Secretary told us that the Conservatives would abolish a Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Secretary said, oh no, they would not. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said that the Government were hostile to a single currency and the Chancellor said, oh no, they were not. Has it yet occurred to the Prime Minister what is so plain and evident to everybody else—that his divided Cabinet has given up fighting for the interests of the country and has started instead to fight for his job after the election?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman's commitment openly and certainly honestly—I concede that—to put up the rate of income tax will certainly help to keep me here on this Bench after the election.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Does not my right hon. Friend have sympathy for the victims of the failed cultural revolution? In Islington, for example, it is estimated that up to 50 per cent. of children are educated outside the borough. What does he have to say to those poor parents who are now driven to flee from a Labour administration and become educational refugees across the face of London?

The Prime Minister

I think that it was the leader of the Labour party who said, "You can't tell what a Government is like until it is in power." In Islington, Labour is in power, and my hon. Friend points out vividly what it is like. If parents are fleeing Islington, as we understand they are, it certainly is a new version of the term "school run".