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Engagements

Q2. Mr. Jim Cunningham: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 18 June. [2575]

The Prime Minister: I returned from the European summit in Amsterdam this morning. Later today, I shall be making a statement to the House and having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Mr. Cunningham: Does my right hon. Friend agree with Shelter that homeless people should benefit as more and more council accommodation becomes available as a result of the release of capital receipts?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One reason why we are introducing legislation on capital receipts is to allow local authorities the prospect of making that money work for local people and of building homes for the homeless. In addition, as a result of the windfall tax on the excess profits of the privatised utilities, young people will be given the chance to get decent skills and education. The combination of those two measures will at least begin to put right the appalling levels of homelessness that we inherited from the Conservative Government.

Mr. Major: Can the Prime Minister confirm that once his Government have completed their review of the national health service, all pensioners will still receive free prescriptions as of right?

The Prime Minister: This will be the right hon. Gentleman's very last Question Time. I should like simply to wish him well, as I am sure that the whole House will, and to say that, however strong our clashes were, he always behaved good naturedly and with dignity.

In respect of the review of the national health service, once one starts ruling things out, people say, "You have ruled this in; you have ruled that out." I can assure the right hon. Gentleman of one thing: that, at the end of the review, we shall have a national health service that is fully consistent with the principles that we have set out. Those principles are that the health service will be based on need, not ability to pay, and will be fully consistent with our manifesto. He should not pay too much attention to stories in the press.

Mr. Major: I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's graceful remarks at the outset, but not very enlightened by the rest of his reply. It did not answer my question, and it amounted to a definite "maybe".

I should like to quote what the Secretary of State for Education and Employment said that


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    Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?

The Prime Minister: Yes, I do--which is one reason why we want to review many of the charges imposed by the Conservative Government over a period of 18 years.

Mr. Luff: You are in government now.

The Prime Minister: Yes, we are. Our big problem is the mess that we were left by the previous Government. We shall be looking, for instance, at the prescriptions fraud, which costs about £85 million a year. We shall also look at another situation we have inherited: 59 out of 100 health authorities are in deficit, as a result of the Conservative Government. That is why it is sensible for any Government to look at getting value for money in the national health service. But we shall make sure that that is consistent with principle and with our manifesto commitments.

Mr. Major: I am tempted to ask whether anyone in the House has the faintest idea what that nonsense meant. I am even tempted to ask for a show of hands among Labour Members. Let me try and help the right hon. Gentleman. As a matter of principle, will he or will he not rule out prescription charges for pensioners and so-called hotel charges for hospital visits--a straightforward yes or no?

The Prime Minister: As I have already told the right hon. Gentleman, these matters are the result of press speculation. The review that we will carry out should be open ended. If we rule in this and rule out that, people will conclude that what has not been ruled out is ruled in and vice versa. It is nonsense.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for a clear statement on the NHS so I shall give him one. We will have a national health service restored to the basic principles of the British NHS--the health service that we founded and the Conservative Government undermined. The right hon. Gentleman's Government spent £1.75 billion on health service bureaucracy. We shall spend that money on patient care. We will also look at the right way of getting value for money in the NHS--not by Tory methods but by ensuring that people get a fair deal once again from the health service.

Mr. Major: The more the right hon. Gentleman goes off the point, the more he loses the point. I think that we now know the answer: it is yes. If the Prime Minister can get away with it, there will be charges. I see the Chancellor of the Exchequer nodding. I repeat: if the Prime Minister can get away with it, there will be pensioner prescription charges and hotel charges. How does that square with his manifesto promise, which reads:


No mention of charges there.

The Prime Minister: I reconfirm precisely those words here today. The cheek of this lot talking about the health service! Who put up prescription charges 15 times? Who ran the national health service in such a way that people had to take up private health care because they could not

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get proper health care in the health service? Who ended their term of office with 20,000 more managers and 50,000 fewer nurses in the service?

Mr. Evans: What about the pensioners?

The Prime Minister: What indeed? We would not have imposed VAT on pensioners' fuel. The idea that the Conservative party can ever have any credibility on the health service is a joke. Ours is the party that built it and will reform it. We will do that in the right way, based on need, not ability to pay.

Mr. Major: That was all very interesting, but it had nothing to do with my question, which the right hon. Gentleman has dodged time and again. Does not his sorry inability to answer a straightforward, direct question illustrate what we are learning about him daily? During the election, the right hon. Gentleman was prepared to frighten pensioners by saying that their pensions were at risk, and he is now prepared to put their free national health service treatment at risk. Is that what he meant when he asked the British nation to trust him?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman asks why I could not answer his question straight. He asked me whether I agreed with the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, and I said yes. I cannot get much straighter than that. I do agree with my right hon. Friend.

Who introduced charges for eye tests? The Conservatives did. Who introduced dental charges? [Hon. Members: "They did."] Who ran the national health service in such a way that in many parts of the country there is no NHS dental treatment? [Hon. Members: "They did."] I say to the right hon. Gentleman with great respect that the Conservatives will never be believed about the national health service--not in a million years--because of what they have done. People know that there are difficult choices to be made, and they want a party that believes in the health service to make them.

Q3. Dr. Marek: Has the Prime Minister anything against the Committee that is to consider the modernisation and workings of the House considering the oath that we must take to sit in this place, and possibly providing an alternative oath that Members could swear, genuinely upholding peace, democracy and human rights? If that were possible, it might just help the United Kingdom and make the House of Commons a more inclusive Chamber. [2576]

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has already made it clear that there are no plans to change the oath of allegiance. I am sorry if that reply disappoints my hon. Friend, but it is the reply that I must give.

Mr. Ashdown: May I take a moment to echo the words of the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the leader of the Conservative party and former Prime Minister? The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and I, too, have had sharp words at times--they may have been worse than that sometimes--but in our private dealings he was unfailingly courteous and, more than that, unfailingly straight. He is the fourth longest-serving Prime Minister

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this century, he led the country in time of war, he gave Ireland a chance for peace, and I venture to say that he is the only leader of the Conservative party who might have kept that lot together for the past three or four years. For that, the Conservatives should be grateful to him and we shall miss him--I think.

I now address the present Prime Minister. May we take it as read between us that everyone in the House will support the Government in bearing down on public expenditure? Do the Government yet realise that unless they can find a way out of the corner into which they have painted themselves, whereby they cannot even use the savings from other areas of Government expenditure to increase expenditure on health and education, the crisis in our schools and hospitals this winter will be as bad as or worse than any that we experienced in the Conservative years?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has raised the matter before. We are making savings and changing resources within the public spending totals--for example, in bureaucracy in the national health service, by phasing out the assisted places scheme to reduce class sizes, and under the windfall tax. The direct increase in expenditure as a result of the windfall tax will have a benefit and will produce knock-on savings in the welfare payments being paid out.

As I explained to the right hon. Gentleman last week, it is a matter not of painting ourselves into a corner, but of the public finances that we inherited. Under the Conservatives, as he knows, the national debt doubled. We will pay out a substantial amount this year in interest payments on that debt, even more than we will spend on law and order. For that reason, we must make sure that we keep a tight grip on public spending.

Mr. Ashdown: Let me make the Prime Minister a proposition. The last Government spent almost £1 billion on private consultants. If this Government were able to save £500 million on private consultants, would it then be their policy not to transfer that money in order to save teachers' jobs and prevent a winter crisis in our hospital wards? If so, I assure the Prime Minister that the millions of people who voted for his party and for mine will simply not understand why their hopes for better public services should be reduced to such dogma.

The Prime Minister: It is not dogmatic. Of course I am not trying to suggest that if there are sensible savings to be made, we cannot use them. The right hon. Gentleman says that we could find £1 billion in savings on private consultants, but there is no evidence of that. Savings can and will be made, but we will not be able to solve all the problems of the education system in the way that he suggests. It is more of a deception to try to pretend that than to face people and the responsibilities of government by ensuring that we do our best to get extra resources into the system. We will do that.

We can get additional resources because of the choices that we are making. The right hon. Gentleman kindly said that he had a proposition for me; I shall put one to him. If he is serious about doing something to reduce expenditure on waste in the system, would it not be better

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for his party to support the windfall tax to give us the chance to provide young people with the skills and education that they need?

Q4. Mr. Connarty: The Prime Minister will recall in his recent people's question time being asked whether he would ensure that he considers the proposition that the sequestrated assets of criminals be used to finance better witness protection schemes. He may also be aware that I have raised in the House several times the tragedy of a beautiful village in my constituency that has been turned into the village from hell by a few vicious families against whom no one will go witness. Given that many people are now afraid to give evidence in court, will he ensure that the proposition put to him is given serious and urgent consideration? [2577]

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. [Interruption.] I find it extraordinary that Opposition Members seem to find this sort of matter amusing--or the idea that we should go out and talk to the public. They should understand that that is one of the reasons why they lost the last election.

Yes, I think it important that we examine the best protection that can be given to witnesses. As a result of the suggestions that were made last week when we conducted discussions in Worcester, we shall look specifically at two of the points put to us: first, at how to give better protection to witnesses so that they do not have to sit in the same room as defendants in court--victims occasionally have to do that also; and, secondly, at how the funds reclaimed from the proceeds of crime may be used to benefit people by preventing crime and by tackling some of the problems within the criminal justice system.

Mr. Maginnis: At a time when two murdered Royal Ulster Constabulary officers are being laid to rest--one of them in my constituency--will the Prime Minister reflect on the fact that Sinn Fein-IRA perversely exploit attempts by world leaders, such as President Clinton, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and himself, as they seek to encourage a sincere political process in Northern Ireland? Is the Prime Minister determined that such cruel mockery now necessitates his proverbial peace train leaving the station without Sinn Fein-IRA, who have again and again shown themselves to be ruthless killers and politically irredeemable?

The Prime Minister: First, may I say in response to the hon. Gentleman that the whole House expresses its sympathy for the victims of the appalling and callous murders earlier in the week. We extend our sympathy particularly to the families and to the young children who have been left without fathers. This was a wicked act for very obvious reasons. However, to respond directly to the hon. Gentleman's point, it was a doubly wicked act as those responsible knew perfectly well about the chances and opportunities being taken to try to put the process back on track and reach a lasting political settlement. I believe--I think that the Taoiseach, the Irish Prime Minister, also believes--that that was done quite deliberately to frustrate this process, so it was a wicked

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and callous act. I agree precisely with the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman has expressed in respect of Sinn Fein-IRA.

Q5. Mr. Rhodri Morgan: Were there any discussions at the Amsterdam summit about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and its impact on modern Europe, or about any other more contemporary political alliances on the future of Europe between total political opposites in a marriage of modern political public convenience, such as that between the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), which was announced this morning? [2578]

The Prime Minister: I was sitting at the Amsterdam summit opposite President Chirac and Mr. Jospin, little knowing that when I returned to Britain the concept of cohabitation would have descended upon the British Conservative party.

Mr. Key: I am sure that the Prime Minister would agree that Britain's tourist industry is extremely important and that our built heritage and natural heritage are the reasons for that industry. Does he therefore agree that the visitor facilities at Stonehenge remain a national disgrace? Given that no millennium money from the national lottery or taxpayers' money will be spent on it, will he consider closing Stonehenge this autumn to give the Government breathing space to think up a sensible solution to what has become a national disgrace and could become a national scandal?

The Prime Minister: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about Stonehenge, which he has expressed over many years. According to the advice that we have received from English Heritage, it is neither necessary nor sensible to close Stonehenge. He will be aware, however, that discussions are going on with English Heritage about how Stonehenge could be improved. We take an interest in that and hope that those discussions will succeed. I believe that half a million people, or perhaps almost 1 million people, visit Stonehenge every year. It is obviously a national monument of great importance and we will do whatever we can to safeguard it. I am advised, however, that its closure is neither necessary nor sensible.

Q6. Mr. McNulty: Does the Prime Minister agree that the repeated assurances of the previous Government that class sizes had no consequence on educational performance defied the instincts of all parents and common sense? [2579]

The Prime Minister: I agree entirely. There is absolutely overwhelming evidence to suggest that smaller class sizes are absolutely essential for five, six and seven-year-olds to give them a decent education. More than 500,000 children of those ages are in classes of more than 30. I think that anyone would understand that, in those circumstances, a child is less able to get the basic grounding in literacy and numeracy that he needs, and on which we have fallen behind. That is why I urge Conservative Members, even at this late stage, to support our Bill, which would allow us to use public money for public education.

Mr. Boswell: The Prime Minister will not mind, I am sure, if I return to the important subject of public

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expenditure. In the light of a recent written answer that I received, which suggested that there is no intention of revealing the additional spending commitments of his Government, will he please tell the House whether that is a failure on the part of the machinery of government or simply of inclination?

The Prime Minister: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman waits for the Budget, which will be presented shortly, when we will make any such commitments as we may have perfectly clear to him.


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