HC Deb 14 February 2001 vol 363 cc305-10
Q1. [148795] Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 14 February.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

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. Purchase

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Age Concern, which today has published its manifesto for older people? Will he note that, on page 6, it makes a splendid case for increasing and improving the state pension, as the best way of avoiding the indignity of means-testing our oldest and poorest people? Will he give a commitment that the Labour Government will always protect the value of the state pension, rather than let it be whittled away in the disgraceful manner that the Tories allowed?

The Prime Minister

Certainly. There is the £200 winter allowance that has been given to pensioners, there are free television licences for pensioners over 75, and there are free eye tests. This year, there are the increases of £5 and £8, which are meant to be increased even further next year. These increases are greater than those that would be linked to earnings. These are substantial sums for British pensioners, and deservedly so. We shall have spent more money on pensions during this Parliament than if the pension had been linked to earnings. Pensioners can know with absolute certainty that the money comes to them under the Labour Government and would be taken from them under the Conservatives.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Today, people have travelled from throughout the country to lobby the House in opposition to the Prime Minister's policy of abolishing community health councils. When I last asked him about the matter, he said that he would consult on the proposals and listen to the representations made. How many representations has he received in favour of his policy?

The Prime Minister

We have made it clear that we are consulting on the community health councils. Our proposals involve replacing the councils not with nothing, but with patients forums in each hospital and each local general practitioner's premises. There is widespread concern about whether CHCs have performed properly the function of looking after patients' interests. However, we continue to listen to the representations made, and we shall announce our final proposals in due course.

Mr. Hague

As the Prime Minister was happy to quote Age Concern a moment ago, has he listened to Help the Aged, which says that the Government's policy is likely to lead to confusion and lack of clout in addressing the…representation of patients"? The Prime Minister's policy is opposed by Age Concern, Help the Aged, Mencap, the British Medical Association, the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, the General Medical Council, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the National Childbirth Trust and Action for Victims of Medical Accidents. He has not had the decency to admit that nobody is in favour of his proposals. Will he reverse his policy or will he maintain that he knows better than all those organisations?

The Prime Minister

I said that we would listen carefully to people and, indeed, we shall. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman will have to wait much longer for the answer. As he is quoting those organisations on our health proposals, he should also quote them in support of the massive extra investment that the Government are making in the national health service—the extra nurses, doctors and hospitals—and on the contrast between the investment going into the health service under this Government and the cuts that there would be under the right hon. Gentleman's.

Mr. Hague

It is no good the Prime Minister wriggling off the point because he does not know the answers to the questions. What about the following representation, with which he should be familiar? It says: there has been no consultation". It also says that abolition is a cynical attempt to silence any negative publicity". What better way, the organisation asks, to deflect attention from…shortcomings of the Government? That was said by South Durham and Wealden community health council, Sedgefield district. Does it not tell us something when the people who know the Prime Minister best say that he does not listen, that his policy is utterly cynical and that he is interested only in publicity? Have they not got it in one?

The Prime Minister

I think that the right hon. Gentleman's comments may look a little foolish when the results of the consultation are announced, if I may respectfully say so. As this is about the only health service subject that he dare raise—he knows that he has nothing to say about anything else—it is correct that there have been many representations on community health councils, and it is for that reason that we said we would listen to them.

If we are to have a balanced debate on the health service, however, let us also debate the amount of investment and change going on. The fact is, we are prepared to put that extra investment in to the NHS, far more than the right hon. Gentleman ever did. Perhaps, in the interests of an exchange of views, the right hon. Gentleman can say whether it is still the case that he will take £750 million out of the NHS for private medical insurance.

Q2. [148796] Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Does the Prime Minister remember the snarl-ups that we used have in the Chamber on the minimum wage and the bogus arguments threatening a cataclysmic loss of jobs? Is he aware that, at that time, one in every five workers in South Yorkshire were earning less than £3.50 an hour? They are now between £30 and £40 a week better off; and unemployment has halved. Is my right hon. Friend surprised that the Opposition have changed their mind about that policy?

The Prime Minister

I am proud that the Government introduced a statutory minimum wage which has helped hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers in this country out of poverty. Some said that it would increase unemployment. In fact, today we have the lowest unemployment in the country for over 25 years; we have the lowest inflation in Europe; national debt is down; interest rates—and therefore mortgages—are half what they were in the Conservative years. We can, and do, have both economic efficiency and social justice.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

On 13 December last year, the Deputy Prime Minister advised the House that he anticipated that rail services would be back to normal by Easter, having earlier said that they would be back to normal by January. Given the recent reports that the Office of the Rail Regulator now estimates that rail services will not, in any way, be back in efficient running order before the summer, does the Prime Minister still confirm the earlier statement of the Deputy Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister

It is our understanding that rail services will be back to normal by Easter, but of course that depends on Railtrack and the companies carrying out the work that they have agreed, which is precisely why we will carry on putting pressure on them to do so. There is no doubt that for many passengers still, particularly on the inter-city lines, the situation is simply unacceptable. The only way that we will cure the problem long term is to make sure that we have proper strategic control of our rail industry, given tip under privatisation by the Conservatives, and that we put the urgently needed investment into our railways.

Mr. Kennedy

We want safe, reliable, affordable rail services. In that case, should not the Government's strategic approach be, first, to reduce the ridiculous number of train operators, and secondly, to turn Railtrack into a non-profit-making organisation? If the Government did that, they would demonstrate that they put passenger safety before Railtrack's commercial profits.

The Prime Minister

There is, as we know, a strong case for better securing passenger safety. I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman means by a not-for-profit organisation, but it is vital that we get strategic control, which is what the Strategic Rail Authority will do. Secondly, and perhaps above all, we need to make good the investment in our railways.

The country has a simple choice: either we invest in the basic public services and the infrastructure, or we go back to the cuts and privatisation that we had for 18 years before. We have set out clear plans for investment, which I hope the right hon. Gentleman supports. I know that in time—and it will tale time—they will deliver a better rail infrastructure. There is no point in believing that we can get decent public services unless we are prepared to pay for them.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Can my right hon. Friend be persuaded that winter fuel payments for pensioners and free TV licences for those aged 75 and over are complicated when pensioners want simplicity, and patronising when pensioners want respect, and that they should be abolished—in which case he agrees with what the leader of the Conservative party was saying at the beginning of last week? Or does my right hon. Friend believe that many pensioners are happy to receive winter fuel payments and free TV licences, and that they should be maintained—in which he agrees with what the leader of the Conservative party was saying at the end of the week?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend, as ever, makes his point extremely well. The complications involved in trying to organise the system along the lines suggested by the Conservative party would be appalling in terms of bureaucracy, red tape acid so on. The basic point is that the £200 winter allowance is popular and it is right. The free TV licences for those over 75 are popular and right. The rise in the basic state pension coming in this April is, again, the right thing to do. We will carry on standing up for the proper interests of British pensioners.

Q3. [148797] Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

This time last week, the Prime Minister promised that if he were re-elected, he would hold a referendum on the question of scrapping the pound. That comment was well noted in Wiltshire, where people do riot like it at all. Does the Prime Minister remember promising his friends in the Liberal Democrat party that he would hold a referendum on proportional representation? Will that be within two years?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the manifesto for all that. On the euro and the good people of Wiltshire, whom I think the hon. Gentleman represents, I believe that what they will like most is the fact that interest rates came down last week. They will like the fact that job numbers are up, living standards are up, and from this March and April, there will be a family tax cut for millions of families which would be taken away by the Conservative party.

Mr. Joe Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great satisfaction that there is in the north Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire coalfield areas at the announcement of the £60 million subsidy for six pits, which is gratefully received? Is he t ware that, for years, I and many of my colleagues marched under banners calling for "coal not dole", as the Conservatives butchered 270,000 jobs in the industry, in which there are now 20,000 jobs left? The Conservatives got their answer when they were butchered at the last election. Will my right hon. Friend accept the thanks of us all?

The Prime Minister

There is now huge investment—hundreds of millions of pounds—going into coalfield communities, not only to preserve those jobs in Britain's mining industry, but to provide hope for areas that have lost their mining industry. I think that that is right and necessary, because it gives us the chance to regenerate these areas. It is one reason why unemployment is so low in this country today.

Q4. [148798] Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Is the Prime Minister aware that during the past fortnight in east Kent, more than 100 people have been waiting on trolleys in our three casualty departments? They include a woman of 97 who had to wait for two nights. Is he aware that 80 consultants from the three Kent sites last night voted unanimously for a motion saying that lack of capacity is compromising their ability to deliver health care? Is he still committed to an ill-conceived £100 million reorganisation that will not add a single bed and which was opposed by the local community health council?

The Prime Minister

Of course it is entirely unacceptable if people are waiting that long on trolleys. The hon. Gentleman and his consultants rightly say that the issue is one of increasing capacity. That is precisely why we have increased capacity and are increasing it year on year. Let me remind him and Opposition Members that they cut 40,000 to 60,000 beds in the national health service. When we came to office, they had cut the number of nursing places and the number of training places for midwives, and they were cutting capital investment in the health service. In all those areas, we are putting the investment in. It will take time, but the one group that has no cause to criticise is the Conservative party.

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