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1997 - PMQT 13th February 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 13th February 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Wilkinson: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 February.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): This morning, I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Wilkinson: Has my right hon. Friend had time today to study the reported comments of European Union Competition Commissioner Karel van Miert on the respective levels of state subsidy within the European Union? Did my right hon. Friend note that the United Kingdom has the lowest level of state subsidy per worker within the European Union and that the Federal Republic of Germany has the highest annual disbursement per year of any EU country? Is it not noteworthy that the UK now has the lowest unemployment for six years and that it is falling, whereas the federal republic has the highest unemployment for 64 years and it is rising? What deductions does my right hon. Friend make from those figures?

The Prime Minister: I have not yet seen the detail of what Commissioner van Miert said, but the conclusion, from what my hon. Friend says, is surely obvious. The fact is that state subsidies cannot hide the effect of high social costs. They add to the levels of taxation and, in so doing, they damage competitiveness and employment prospects. That is precisely what we have seen across continental Europe. It is a problem that we have avoided in the UK, which is why our unemployment is so much lower.

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister confirm the following: first, that since last June when he promised that the beef ban would be lifted by last November, no part of the beef ban has been lifted; secondly, that under the selective slaughter scheme, not a single animal has yet been slaughtered; thirdly, that no formal proposal has yet even been put to the European Commission about lifting the ban from the BSE-free certified herds in Scotland, Northern Ireland and elsewhere; and, fourthly, that the cost of the BSE fiasco is now estimated at £3.3 billion and is currently running at £4 million a day?

The Prime Minister: If I may take the last point first, which deals with cost, I think that the right hon. Gentleman should be more careful about what he says about that. If he recalls, it was the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) who first tried to stoke up the health scare about British beef right across Europe, despite the fact that British beef is safer than continental beef, and it was the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) who supported the unjustified beef ban. I find the right hon. Gentleman's behaviour throughout the entire crisis absolutely astonishing. His behaviour would discredit a student debating society. Not once has he put the interests of the British beef industry in front of making petty party political points for his own party interests.

Mr. Blair: Four specific questions, not one specific answer--that is about par for the course. I remind the Prime Minister that he was not obliged to stand at the Dispatch Box last June and promise that he would lift the beef ban by last November, but he made the promise. He broke the promise--like so many of his promises. He made the promise, not because he thought he could deliver on it, but because, as usual, he was in a tight spot and wanted to get out of it. Let me just put one of those specific questions and allow him to answer it: is the Minister of Agriculture right when he says that the cost is now £3.3 billion, or, as he put it, the equivalent of 2p on the standard rate of income tax? Is he right, or is he wrong?

The Prime Minister: The cost is of that order. That is correct, and a substantial part of the reason for that is the health scares created by Opposition Members. Throughout the whole affair, the Government have been entirely open with the British nation, and the Labour party has repeatedly tried to stoke up health fears at home and abroad. If the Labour leader was really interested in restoring the British beef industry, he would be working with us to promote it, not undermining our position in the European Union just as we present plans on certified herds to the European Commission. But he is not interested in getting the ban lifted at all; he is interested in his own petty points.

Mr. Blair: Rightly has it been said that BSE also stands for "blame somebody else". The Prime Minister would do a lot more credit to his office if, just for once, when his Government make a mistake, he would accept responsibility for it. That he will not do so is one part of the reason why that fiasco will stand as a symbol of the incompetence of the most incompetent Government in living memory.

The Prime Minister: Even at this stage, the right hon. Gentleman takes the position of those who would do down the British beef industry. Before he does more damage to the British beef industry, he should reflect upon the damage that he has already done to it. It is British farmers and taxpayers who have helped pay the price for his posturing over the past few months. The bitter harvest has been reaped, partly because of the Labour party's domestic self-interest.

Mr. Elletson: Has my right hon. Friend seen recent reports in the West Lancashire Evening Gazette and The Express about a little girl of 11 in my constituency who has been addicted to heroin since the age of nine? Will he order an urgent inquiry into how Lancashire social services failed to notice that that little girl was in danger, despite the fact that eight members of her immediate family, including her granny, have been convicted of offences relating to the supply of heroin? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the case is an horrific example of the growing threat to children from drugs, and will he reassure my constituents and the country that the Government continue to make the war against drugs a top priority?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly offer that assurance to my hon. Friend and the House. My hon. Friend highlights a truly tragic case, as he set it out. Although I am not familiar with all the details of the case, I was aware of it, and I understand that the director of social services in Lancashire is now reviewing the department's action, and that a report will be sent to the Department of Health's social services inspectorate, where we will examine it with great speed and great care. It is essential that, when a child needs protection, it receives protection from all the agencies concerned. On the evidence at present available--I emphasise that--it seems as though that may not have happened in that case.

On the more general question of drugs, as my hon. Friend is aware, the Government are deeply concerned about the problem of drugs and young people in particular. That is why the Home Office is currently supporting more than 1,500 locally based schemes on drug protection.

Mr. Ashdown: Surely the real issue is no longer the price that farmers have paid for one incompetent Minister, but the price that the country is paying for the whole squabbling herd of them. We are seeing rising inflation, the usual pre-arranged pre-election boost followed by the familiar post-election bust, sacked teachers, the health service plunged into crisis daily, and increasing class sizes. When will the Prime Minister realise that he has only one function left to perform that is of any interest to anyone: naming the day? When will he get on with it?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman would be well advised to examine more carefully the litany that he recites. We have set an inflation target, which we shall meet, and which the right hon. Gentleman could only dream about. The average level of inflation under the last Lib-Lab Government was more than 15 per cent.--no wonder the shadow Chancellor dare not set an inflation target and tell the country what it is. He promises taxes, but he does not say who will pay them. He cannot tell us whether he would set an inflation target or what it would be. The right hon. Gentleman obviously has not seen today's annual economic report from the European Commission, which argues that we will meet our inflation target.

Sir Alan Haselhurst: Has my right hon. Friend carried out studies to establish how much a reduction in value added tax on domestic fuel from 8 per cent. to 5 per cent. would be outweighed by the impact on prices of a windfall tax on energy suppliers, which would possibly leave consumers worse off?

The Prime Minister: I would be very happy to carry out such an inquiry, if we were told who would bear the windfall tax and at what rate it would be levied. We are now told that the windfall tax is legal, but, despite the fact that Labour Front Benchers claim to be in favour of freedom of information, they will not release the information on which that assertion is based. I invite them to do so. I also invite the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) to tell us who would pay the windfall tax and at what rate it would be levied. He could then tell the consumers of electricity, gas and oil precisely what that would do to their bills.


Q2. Mr. David Marshall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Marshall: Will the Prime Minister comment on the statement by the Employment Minister, the right hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), who admitted that only about half of the figures showing a fall in unemployment are genuine? Which half of those figures should we believe? As, at long last, a Minister has told us half the truth, will the Prime Minister inform us when just one Minister will tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. Friend said no such thing, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Opposition Members cannot bear the fact that unemployment is falling rapidly in this country, and has been falling for three years. There are now more people in work in each and every region.

Mr. Janner: Four million unemployed.

The Prime Minister: The hon. and learned Gentleman has not a single shred of evidence to support his claim. That is fiddling the figures on a scale that not even the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) would contemplate. Unemployment is falling and people are in work. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Mr. Marshall) should recognise that fact. There has been a dramatic fall in unemployment in his constituency. He should talk to his constituents who are now in work and who would lose their jobs under the policies that Opposition Front Benchers advocate.


Q4. Mr. Day: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer my hon. Friend to the reply I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Day: Bearing it in mind that the new consensus in British politics seems to be based on the successful policies of 18 years of Conservative government, and given the fact that the Opposition have spent the past two years denying the previous 16 years and are now espousing all the policies that they voted against in the past, will my right hon. Friend inform the House and the country why the electorate should consider voting for the pale pink imitation opposite, when it has the real thing in the person of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. After 18 years of Conservative government, we have low taxes, low inflation, more jobs and tumbling unemployment. The Labour party may adopt our rhetoric, but Labour Members do not believe what they say, and neither should anybody else.


Q5. Mr. Skinner: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 13 February.

The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Skinner: Is the Prime Minister aware that, once he has had the guts to go to the country, for the first time in his political life he will be sitting on the Opposition Benches? I have been keeping this seat warm for him. After the election, at least half a dozen Tory ex-Ministers will put the knife into him, because they want his job. Then he will have the galling experience of having to vote for one of those Tory bastards. Which one will it be?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman comprehensively removes the thought that one mellows as one grows older. A report earlier this week said that people do not get cantankerous as they grow older; they are born that way. Remarks like the one that the hon. Gentleman has just made were repeatedly put to me before the last general election. He is still sitting there; I am still sitting here. I look forward to congratulating him on his 70th birthday, and he will still be there if he holds his seat.