HC Deb 20 May 1998 vol 312 cc951-6
Q4. Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Following last week's disturbing developments in India, will the Prime Minister commit the Government to urgent and strenuous action both to discourage nuclear proliferation and to give fresh impetus to the process of multilateral nuclear disarmament?

The Prime Minister

Along with our G8 partners, we have condemned India's recent nuclear tests and urged it—and, indeed, other states in the region—to refrain from further tests and the deployment of nuclear or ballistic weapons. We have also called on India unconditionally to sign up to the comprehensive test ban treaty. It is very important that it does so.

As my hon. Friend may also know, I have spoken to the Pakistani Prime Minister within the past couple of days. I congratulate the Pakistani Government on the restraint that they have shown so far and urge them to continue to do so. I ask them also to look at the example of Brazil and Argentina, which could have gone down the road of nuclear testing, but decided not to. Nuclear testing is not the way for countries to enhance their standing in the world.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

On the question of hospital waiting lists, may I remind the Prime Minister of this fact? A little over a year ago, when he was Leader of the Opposition, waiting lists in hospitals were 1.1 million and he described the NHS as "in crisis". Today, after a year of his Government, they are 1.3 million. If 1.1 million equals a crisis in the NHS, how does the Prime Minister describe 1.3 million, or is he, like the Secretary of State for Health, frankly embarrassed?

The Prime Minister

No. We recognise that waiting lists have grown, despite the extra money that we have put in. I point out that, like class sizes, waiting lists were growing for several years before we came to power. It was important, first, to put extra money into the health service, which we did. We put more money into health and education than the Liberal Democrats were asking for. However, that had to be consistent with strong control on public finances. Since the general election last year, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party have been asking for ever more spending on everything as well as demanding that we raise no revenue whatever. That is simply not a credible economic position.

Let me assure the right hon. Gentleman: we made the pledge and, once we have sorted out the public finances and put extra investment into the national health service, we shall meet our pledge. The people of this country trust us with the national health service that we created a great deal more than they trusted the Conservative Government who undermined it.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will the Prime Minister meet the Royal British Legion to discuss the problems of those in receipt of war widows' pension and war disablement pension in local authorities that do not disregard the pensions for the purposes of housing benefit? The majority of local authorities—including Sedgefield and Thurrock—under the control of all political parties, do the right thing and disregard the pensions. A minority are unfair to the recipients of those pensions and unfair to the local authorities that do the honourable and right thing. The problem requires prime ministerial intervention because attempts to remedy the wrong are being blocked. I hope that my right hon. Friend will undertake at least to consider the issue.

The Prime Minister

I am certainly happy to consider it, but my hon. Friend will know that discussions about the problem have been going on for a considerable time. It is for local authorities ultimately to make their own decisions, but we shall continue to keep the matter under review and under discussion.

Q5. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

Will the Prime Minister set aside the smoke and mirrors that he used to answer the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) a few moments ago and explain to my constituents how he translates an early pledge to cut waiting lists in my area into a 38 per cent. increase in the waiting lists at St. Helier hospital and a forecast of a fourfold increase, within a year, in the number of people waiting for 17 months? How can that be an early pledge that has been fulfilled when so many of my constituents will be waiting far longer under Labour?

The Prime Minister

Just on the point about the length of waiting time, let me say that there are now no 18-month waiting times, and the number of over-12-month waiters is decreasing. On the numbers on waiting lists, the answer is to achieve both investment and reform in the national health service. As I said to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) a moment ago, we have spent more money on the national health service than Liberal Democrats were asking for before the election. It will take time to fulfil our pledge, but I did not say that we would do it in the first year; I said that we would implement the pledge, and we shall. As I said to the Leader of the Opposition a few moments ago, when we implement the pledge, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be among the first on his feet to congratulate us.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the national child care strategy published yesterday? That document has already been warmly welcomed in my constituency. Will he also take the opportunity to encourage people to enter into the dialogue that the document recommends, so that real partnerships can exist between local people, local authorities and the Government in delivering that important policy development?

The Prime Minister

Yes. The proposals will dramatically increase the availability of child care. Indeed, with the measures already announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, they will allow thousands of people who do not have access to proper child care at present to get it. That will greatly ameliorate the position of people who are trying to juggle work and family life. In addition, we have to make sure that properly qualified people are operating in child care provision, and that is one of the reasons for the announcement that we made a couple of days ago. I am pleased that it has received such a wide welcome everywhere.

Q6. Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

Does the Prime Minister endorse the recent Cabinet Office report into the Government Information Service, which, in paragraph 57, encourages neutral civil servants to damp down bad news? Is that why the Department of Health is spending £86,000 on a rebuttal unit? Which does the Prime Minister think my constituents in Polegate and elsewhere would prefer: more spin doctors to explain why waiting lists are going up, or more real doctors to start getting waiting lists down?

The Prime Minister

First, as I understand it, it is not a rebuttal unit. Secondly, ultimately, we have to get extra money into the national health service to get waiting lists down. We can do that if we have prudent and proper control of public finances. As I said, since the general election, we have put £2 billion more into the health service. It will take time—of course it will—to get waiting lists, and class sizes, down. However, we shall deliver those pledges, and we shall do so after having had year upon year of a Conservative Government raising waiting lists and class sizes. When we go to the country at the next general election, people will see the difference between a Labour Government who have kept their promises and a Tory Government who broke theirs.

Q7. Mr. Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

Given the reluctance of some G8 leaders to make progress on the issue of debt relief, what hope does the Prime Minister hold out to the tens of thousands of people who formed the human chain last Saturday in Birmingham and, more importantly, to the tens of millions of people who live in the poorest countries of the world, that the highly indebted poor countries initiative can be made more flexible and more generous?

The Prime Minister

That was one of the things that we discussed and acted upon at the G8 summit. The international community has been aware of the problems of foreign debt for many years, and has in fact forgiven some £8 billion-worth of debt since 1995. Indeed, going back even further, the United Kingdom has forgiven some £1.2 billion-worth of debt. Under the highly indebted poor countries initiative, another £3 billion-worth of debt relief has already been pledged to six countries, with several other countries embarking on the process. The aim is to get all the countries into the process by 2000. We agreed further provisions at the G8 summit that will allow interim relief for countries that are in the process but have not yet fully completed it. As a result of those measures—although we still believe that much more still can and should be done—we shall have made significant progress in reducing debt for the poorest countries.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I put to the Prime Minister a question on an issue for which he has direct responsibility. The European Union has no figures on the cost in loss of jobs of the abolition of duty-free trade. The European Commission said that it would conduct an inquiry into the matter; the European Commission has not done so. The Government hold the presidency of the European Commission. Why does the Prime Minister say in a parliamentary answer only that he would simply "not oppose" such an inquiry if one were to be proposed? He is in government—why does he not do something about it?

The Prime Minister

We have had Conservative party hypocrisy on the national health service, but that one takes the biscuit. The reason why I could say only that is that, in 1991, the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported agreed to the abolition of duty-free sales in the European Union. Therefore, unless we can get all 15 countries to reverse the position, the abolition will remain. That is why we said what we have said. There is no evidence that other countries are prepared to support reversing the position. If the hon. Gentleman is to lay the blame anywhere, he should lay it on the Government whom he supported—who, in 1991, were responsible for the policy that he is now criticising.

Q8. Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

May I gently put it to the Prime Minister that our protests over the Indian nuclear tests would carry more weight if we were not so keen on nuclear weapons ourselves? Does he recall that two previous Labour Governments—those of Lords Attlee and Callaghan—developed nuclear weapons in secret, even from their own Cabinets, never mind from the British public? Will he give an undertaking that his Labour Government will do no such thing?

The Prime Minister

The undertaking that I give will be to combine maximum openness consistent with national security.

Q9. Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

How is it that MI6 knew about the activities of Sandline for weeks, if not months, as did his officials, but not the Foreign Secretary? Has he not given the impression of misleading the House last Tuesday?

The Prime Minister

No. The Foreign Secretary corrected the facts as soon as he knew of them. Of course, all of that will be looked into by the inquiry of Sir Thomas Legg. We have done a little research. From last May to this April, not a single question was tabled by the shadow Foreign Secretary or his deputy. On 12 March—that great debate at which the Opposition say we should have explained everything—not a single Tory Front Bencher even turned up. The only person who mentioned the allegations in question was the Minister of State. I think that that shows the seriousness with which we should treat the allegations that the hon. Gentleman makes.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Does the Prime Minister recognise that there are people in Northern Ireland who will be tempted to vote no on Friday, because they believe that that way would strengthen the Union? Is not the best way forward for the people of Northern Ireland to take this historic opportunity to vote yes and support what the majority of the people of Great Britain want, which is a yes vote on Friday?

The Prime Minister

Yes because, of course, the agreement does two things for which those in the Unionist cause have been fighting for many years. First, it entrenches the principle of consent—no change to the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the people—and secondly, there is the Northern Ireland assembly. That is balanced by fair and equal treatment for people whatever the part of the community they come from. That is the reason why those who have been fighting for such a long period of time for those two principles should come out and vote yes on Friday.

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