My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security clearly thought—in my view, rightly—that his position had been misconstrued and that it was sensible to make that clear. I am glad to note that in some quarters journalists have begun to question the interpretation that had been placed on a meeting which had been interpreted as a conspiracy, but which appeared to have Government Whips present.[Interruption.]
During my right hon. Friend's hitherto busy day, has he borne constantly in mind the speech made just under four years ago in which Mr. Jacques Delors said that 80 per cent. of economic decisions and perhaps even 80 per cent. of fiscal and social decisions should be subject to initiation at Community level? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the unacceptable ambition of political centralism? Does he further agree that, in those circumstances, the reappointment of Mr. Delors would be provocative and counter-productive? May I say that my question was formulated without the assistance of the Whips?
The Government made commitments in the patients charter and in relation to the development of health service policies that the aim was to ensure that no one should have to wait more than two years for treatment. Huge progress has been made in that, with a drop of nearly 50,000 in the numbers awaiting treatment in the year running up to April. It is obviously a disappointment that there was a small increase in April. That is now being addressed.
I will give the Leader of the House credit for getting the statement wrong by mistake rather than by intention. The document that went through every door in the land guaranteed—the Government's word—that after 1 April—the Government's date—no one would wait longer than two years. Did the Government ever really mean that, or was it just pre-election propaganda?
Whether or not the Government meant it, they clearly failed in that ambition. What does the right hon. Gentleman say to those citizens who believed that the Government were honest in the guarantee that after 1 April they would not have to wait for more than two years but who now find that they are having to wait for more than two years because the Government failed to keep a promise which was made purely for electoral purposes?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that fighting the international drugs trade is vitally important? Will he join me in congratulating the Prime Minister on his announcement yesterday in Colombia? Mr. Newton: Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The illicit drugs trade is an international problem which demands an international response. What the Prime Minister has agreed with the Colombian Government in the last few days represents a significant and valuable advance.
Will the right hon. Gentleman try to explain to the people of Northern Ireland why, despite the Government's promise that hospital waiting lists would be reduced, they have been going up rather than going down and today we have had the announcement of further hospital beds being closed although people are waiting for treatment.
I have made the Government's position absolutely clear on that matter. Whether in Northern Ireland or in any other part of the United Kingdom, the Government are determined to deliver the improvement in service set out in the citizens charter and the patients charter. Further progress has still to be made, but the progress already made is striking.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that some local education authorities are discriminating against pupils who attend grant-maintained schools? Does he agree that any authority that treats children in that way is not fit to be called an education authority?
I agree with my hon. Friend and join him in deploring what has been reported in relation to some local authorities' attitudes towards children at grant-maintained schools or, for that matter, at city technology colleges. For once, I wish to pay a compliment to the Opposition Front Bench. I was pleased to read the remarks of the Labour education spokesman, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) yesterday, which suggested a responsible shift, for once, in the Opposition's position.
I do not know how many times I have to say this to get it understood— [Interruption.] For those waiting over two years, there has been a movement of 400, in relation to a total number of operations running into many hundreds of thousands, and against the background of a reduction from more than 50,000 to fewer than 2,000 over the year before. We intend to maintain that improvement.
I agree with my hon. Friend on both counts. What has happened is a substantial vindication of the approach and effective package announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security earlier this week. I hope that that will be of especial comfort to my hon. Friend, as I know how much effort he has put in on behalf of Maxwell pensioners in his constituency.
Will the Leader of the House describe to my constituents in the Bellshill area some of the supposed advantages of the specialisation that would accompany the opting out of the local hospital? In particular, will he identify the services that could be regarded as non-essential or peripheral and may be curtailed or closed down according to the law of supply and demand? I should tell him that the local hospital is the Bellshill maternity hospital.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will have noted the reference to a particular hospital. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman's constituents is that if they are in any doubt they should come and visit the growing number of trust hospitals and talk to the staff and patients, who are experiencing the benefits.
As the British Government are a signatory to article 8 of the European convention on human rights, will my right hon. Friend tell us what the Government feel that they should do to protect the family life and privacy of the royal family who, after all, are entitled to the same consideration as other members of the community?
I made some observations on that subject on Tuesday. I am sure that people both outside and inside the House will take note of my hon. Friend's concern, which has been added to that expressed in other quarters earlier this week.
The Lord President of the Council will no doubt recall that in a previous Parliament I introduced the Consumer Guarantees Bill, which endeavoured to give rights to people who had purchased shoddy goods. The Bill was killed by Conservative Members. It had no Government support, but offers were made for guarantees to be considered. Will the new Government and the Prime Minister consider guarantees and give people real rights instead of the confetti of charters?
I had better acknowledge that I am not familiar with all the details of the hon. Gentleman's proposed private Member's Bill, but the Government already have a considerable record in protecting the rights of consumers of all kinds, and a continued determination to do so. Indeed, we have greatly improved the rights of consumers of public services.
Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), about Mr. Delors, will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in line with the EC principle that everybody seems to like to move step by step, there could at least be a review of Mr. Delors' position, if not an announcement that he will not be reappointed?
My hon. Friend, who puts his question a little more gently than did my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), will be aware that those are matters for consideration at the Lisbon Council. It would not be sensible for me to go further than I already have in respect of my right hon. Friend.
Following the decision of the Danish people to reject the Maastricht agreement, the Prime Minister and the Government have stressed their commitment to ratifying the treaty. Whether or not the people of the United Kingdom are also given a referendum —I, for one, am not afraid to trust them on constitutional matters—a fundamental cornerstone of the treaty remains subsidiarity, to which the Leader of the House referred in answer to a previous question. On the Prime Minister's return from Rio, will the Leader of the House urge him to accept that the principle of subsidiarity must also be applied within the United Kingdom, starting with a referendum to allow the Scottish people to decide their constitutional future?
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Government have no plans for a referendum, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made perfectly clear on a number of occasions. The principle of subsidiarity already applies to the Government's approach to the United Kingdom, where much of the power is devolved down—at national level in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and at local authority level in England.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of us voted for the Maastricht deal as we felt that it was the best deal to be had, both for the United Kingdom and for Europe, and we have in no way backed off from that view? Does he agree that when we take over the presidency of the European Community in three weeks' time our partners will look to this country for positive leadership, backed up with the full confidence of the House, including Opposition parties and including the Whips? That is what we should be aiming to achieve.
In my judgment there is widespread support from hon. Members of all parties for the emphasis placed by the Government, and achieved in the Maastricht agreement, on the concept of subsidiarity and the development of the Community through intergovernmental co-operation. The Government will pursue and advance those key objectives during the United Kingdom presidency.