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Ministerial Visits

Q10. [32166] Mr. Page: What plans he has to pay an official visit to South-West Hertfordshire.

The Prime Minister: I have no immediate plans to do so.

Mr. Page: I am devastated by that response. I would like the Prime Minister to come to my constituency because I would like him to explain to my constituents the fourth of his six election promises, which he will have at the forefront of his mind--that to reduce waiting lists. I want him to explain to my constituents who use the hospitals in the area why waiting lists have increased, depending on the category, by 7.5 per cent. up to 28.9 per cent. Some people are now waiting more than 18 months, when there was a zero wait before. Can he tell us the value of a Prime Minister's pledge at election time?

The Prime Minister: The value is that the pledge will be met, in precisely the way that we said at the election.

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The hon. Gentleman is complaining about national health service waiting lists, but they have been going up for about three years. I do not remember his uttering a word about NHS waiting lists before the election. As they are going up as a result of the financial constraints, and as we are putting £1.5 billion more into the health service than the Conservative Government he supported were prepared to do, we will get them down and the public will know that had they left the health service in the hands of a Conservative Government they would have carried on rising and rising and rising.

Engagements

Q11. [32167] Mr. Crausby: Does my right hon. Friend welcome the fact that Britain will soon have, for the first time in our history, a national minimum wage that will protect our people from the low wages that create poverty? Does he relish the prospect of fighting the next general election against an out-of-touch Conservative party that will no doubt campaign on the slogan, "Vote Tory and return to poverty pay"?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. We do not yet know from Conservative Front Benchers whether they will abolish the minimum wage. [Hon. Members: "How much is it?"] Oh, I see--it all depends on the amount; otherwise they will keep it, will they? That is very interesting; we were very near to getting the first policy commitment from the Conservative party.

The Conservative party opposes the minimum wage. The Conservatives would not want anyone connected with them to be working for these poverty rates of pay, but they are opposed to essential fairness at the workplace. We need a minimum wage to save the £3.5 billion benefits bill that subsidises low pay and because a proper minimum wage is an essential basis of a decent, civilised society--but then those are values the Conservatives would not understand.

Mr. Martin Bell: Will the Prime Minister consider the advantages of a Whips' ceasefire on these occasions so that Members might ask the questions they wish to ask rather than those they have been encouraged or instructed by others to ask? Would this not be to everyone's benefit, including his own?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has just asked me a question--I am not quite sure how he wants me to reply, other than to say that people are free to ask whatever questions they want. As everybody knows, nobody could be a more democratic, open and understanding leader than me. Perish the day that anyone is encouraged to ask any question at all. However, if he listens to the questions asked by Conservative and Labour Members, he will see that the questions about schools, health, pay, living standards and crime are asked by my hon. Friends, and not by Conservative Members.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. On Monday, I took off the letter board a parliamentary reply, dated 6 March, from the Secretary of State for Health. It was a fairly straightforward reply, referring me to an answer that he had given on 20 January. What makes this reply remarkable is that the question was put down on Thursday 15 January. This is the worst but by no means the only example of questions taking an inordinate length of time to be answered, especially when they are totally straightforward. It suggests either that Ministers' offices are in such disarray that we should be anxious about the quality of government, or that they are treating Members of Parliament with considerable contempt. Could we have some guidance to Ministers on treating us properly?

Madam Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of his point of order. I have indicated to the House before that I do not intend to comment on the quality of ministerial replies. I regard it as important, however, that Members of Parliament should receive replies to written questions within a reasonable time frame. In this case, it is difficult to discern from what the hon. Gentleman says any reasons for the delay. I expect that he has made his own inquiries--I would hope that he had and would know the reasons. However, I hope that the Minister concerned will look into the matter--there are those on the Government Front Bench who will make a note of this, no doubt--and let both me and the hon. Gentleman know precisely what has occurred. However, I expect hon. Members to make their own inquires and not to expect me to be their administrative officer.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In her supplementary question, the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait)--who has since left her place, unfortunately--read out a list of councils, accusing them of corruption and sleaze, and included among them the city and county of Kingston upon Hull, which I am happy to represent. At no time have the district auditor or the police found any fault in the administration or services of the city and county of Kingston upon Hull. That was a despicable thing for the hon. Lady to say about people of integrity.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I caught your comment about your becoming a guardian and trying to get answers from Ministers.

Madam Speaker: No, I did not say that at all. The hon. Gentleman had better make his point of order to me precise and clear, because I am precise as to my position.

Mr. Bruce: Indeed. As you will know, I have been pursuing with the Leader of the House the matter of getting answers from Ministers. She wrote to me some weeks ago and then had to admit that her office had lost

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the letter that I had sent, in which I gave chapter and verse on what was going on, so how can we get answers from the Leader of the House without your helping us?

Madam Speaker: Perhaps there should be a new filing system. It was rather better when there were no computers. We all knew where the papers were.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I understand that, last night, at St. Stephen's entrance, it took members of the public 20 to 40 minutes to clear the security procedures and get into the House. Security is important, but so is access. I believe that the delay arose because, after 7 o'clock, the security screening facilities are reduced from three screens to one. Can you examine that matter, because it is important that our constituents have a right to approach hon. Members and to attend meetings and other activities that take place here?

Madam Speaker: I shall certainly look at the matter, as it is quite serious. I see the Serjeant at Arms each morning about such matters, and he would have reported it to me had it been as serious as the hon. Gentleman suggests. However, I shall certainly take up the matter and see what the situation is.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara), Madam Speaker. I ask in general terms what your reaction is to those who make unsubstantiated assertions, to the detriment of local authorities and often without any grounds whatever. Will you reflect on whether there should be guidelines on what is said about local authorities in the House, off the cuff and often without any substantiation whatever?

Madam Speaker: There are, of course, guidelines in "Erskine May" on the language to be used in the House. Too few hon. Members pay attention to our procedures, but "Erskine May" lays them down clearly. We have tremendous privileges in the House in terms of freedom of speech. I have always encouraged and tried to persuade hon. Members to temper that privilege with responsibility. The privileges that we have are enormous, but hon. Members must take on board the responsibilities that come with that privilege. I hope that, after this exchange, hon. Members will take to heart what has been said on the matter.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek clarification. Am I right that all hon. Members are responsible for what they say in the House? Hon. Members should be concerned and careful about what they say--which may be detrimental to other people or bodies outside the House and do them great damage--when there is no substantive evidence to back up what they may have said.


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