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1997 - PMQT 6th March 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 6th March 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Simon Coombs: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 March.

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. Coombs: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the "basic pensions plus" proposals announced yesterday not only guarantee the value of the state pension, but offer the prospect of a much improved pension with a value of as much as £175 per week to a person on average earnings? Does that not contrast starkly with the Labour party's plan to cut the value of the state pension by £20 per week?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the impact of the proposals that I announced with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security yesterday. Those proposals will guarantee that everyone, whether in the new scheme or out of it, will continue to receive at least the basic state pension, increasing in line with inflation. I think that the response that we have heard from some quarters--including some, although not all, Labour Members--shows that those people do not understand what is proposed. [Interruption.] A moment ago, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) asked, "What is this point about £20 being cut off the state pension under Labour's plans?" Perhaps she should consult the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), who said in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security that she anticipated a lower level of basic state pension, to compensate for reducing the retirement age to 60. That cut, unless there is more expenditure--which the shadow Chancellor says that he would not allow--would be the equivalent of £20 per week.

Mrs. Golding indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: There is no point in the hon. Lady shaking her head. That is what her hon. Friend has in mind.

Mr. Blair: May I put to the Prime Minister two specific questions arising from the report by Mr. Bill Swann on hygiene in abattoirs? First, why was that report not published on 31 March 1996, as Mr. Swann was told that it would be? Secondly, why did Ministers not see the report and act on it?

The Prime Minister: I think that the right hon. Gentleman's questions, as he will discover when he hears the statement a little later, are based--[Interruption.] I am assuming that, in view of the right hon. Gentleman's interest, he will be here for the statement; I am making an assumption. The right hon. Gentleman's questions are based on what he supposes is in a report which, I believe, he has not read.

There is no suggestion of the report being suppressed. It was produced by officials. It was drawn up by the Meat Hygiene Service. It was very widely circulated. It was circulated around the trade and elsewhere. [Interruption.] I am sorry that somebody did not receive it. Ministers did not receive it--that is true. It was a working document. [Interruption.] This is exactly the point. The report was drawn up for the Meat Hygiene Service as part of its work to ensure the highest standards of hygiene in slaughterhouses. It is a routine report, of which there are many, not normally shown to Ministers and not shown to Ministers on this occasion, but circulated to the people who had an operational need to know about it.

Mr. Blair: That is the most extraordinary explanation. This is Mr. Swann's report. I have read it. It is 54 pages long and contains 81 recommendations. May I point out to the Prime Minister that on page 19 the report states that there is a serious concern about contamination, that the contamination may lead to the spread of the E. coli organism and that action should be taken immediately? If the Prime Minister says that the report was not shown to Ministers, I ask him why not. With 54 pages and 81 recommendations, it was sufficiently serious, was it not? Does he not think in retrospect that, given the seriousness of the report, it would have been better if it had been shown to Ministers so that it could have been acted on in the interests of the public?

The Prime Minister: The point that the Labour leader perhaps genuinely does not understand--[Interruption.] I have got beyond page 81--a very quick read this morning. I think that the right hon. Gentleman may genuinely not understand, so I shall make the point again. The report was a working document, drawn up for the Meat Hygiene Service and circulated to its staff. The Meat Hygiene Service is implementing the recommendations in the report, as the right hon. Gentleman noted.

This is the way in which such matters have been handled for a very long time--[Interruption.] I say to the right hon. Gentleman that there are huge numbers of such working documents every year. If they all came to Ministers for Ministers to read every one, nothing else would be done. The right hon. Gentleman has been in opposition so long that he does not understand that. The report was circulated to the people who needed to take action and I am advised by those people that they have implemented the action.

Mr. Blair: Whether the report should be shown to Ministers must depend on its seriousness. If it is serious, it should be shown to Ministers. May I point out to the Prime Minister that Mr. Swann was told that it would be published precisely because it dealt with serious issues?

The Prime Minister's latest explanation is that the recommendations have been implemented. May I quote to him what Mr. Swann said this morning on the radio? He was asked whether everything that he had recommended had been carried out: answer--no. He was then asked whether some of the recommendations that had not been carried out were important for hygiene and safety: answer--yes.

This is a serious report which reveals serious problems of contamination. We know about the problems with E. coli, but the report was not even shown to Professor Pennington, who is in charge of the E. coli administration. When will someone in the Government take responsibility for the proper and competent administration of our affairs?

The Prime Minister: When will the right hon. Gentleman realise that when he behaves in this fashion, what he does--[Interruption.] I am sorry to say that it is true: he exaggerates problems that exist before he has heard the statement, irrespective of the interests of the meat industry, in exactly the way in which the Opposition have behaved on previous occasions. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that that, in advance of the statement, is the height of irresponsibility.

I repeat for the right hon. Gentleman that the report was provided for the Meat Hygiene Service, which was established to improve safety for the consumer and opposed by the Labour party when we established it. Yet again, the right hon. Gentleman is trying to stir up public concerns that are being dealt with by a public watchdog which he and his colleagues opposed when it was established. His party has stood in the way of every change made to improve hygiene standards. That is absolutely true. If the Opposition had had their way, responsibility for slaughterhouse hygiene would still be in the hands of 300 local councils applying the rules in 300 different ways. The hygiene service is raising standards, and the right hon. Gentleman is raising scares.


Q2. Mr. Jacques Arnold: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 March.

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

Mr. Arnold: Has my right hon. Friend noticed the knowledgeable speech given in the House of Lords yesterday in which it was said that our economy is doing rather well, particularly in comparison to the last 18 years--[Interruption.]--and even more so in comparison to the economies of Europe? That speech was by the noble Lord Barnett, the last Chief Secretary to the Treasury in a Labour Government. Did my right hon. Friend note that Lord Barnett said quite clearly that taxes may be increased without increasing the rates? What is more, he said that he expected any future Labour Government to do just that.

The Prime Minister: The noble Lord Barnett, being a life peer and therefore not threatened by the plans of the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour party, has clearly let the cat out of the bag as to what he thinks about Labour's spending plans. As a former Chief Secretary, he knows that they do not add up and that there is a £12 billion black hole in the middle of Labour's plans. He knows that the Labour party cannot sign up to Budget book figures and then disown the policies that would achieve those figures unless it plans to put up taxes, cut expenditure or find some other way of dealing with the great black hole in its plans. It is not, as the shadow Chancellor likes to imply, a Tory scare: we now know the truth as a result of what the last Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury has said.


Q3. Mr. Callaghan: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 March.

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

Mr. Callaghan: Is the Prime Minister aware of the crisis in the hospitals in the north area of Manchester since four out of five hospitals were closed by the Government? Is he aware that since Christmas the North Manchester General hospital has accepted only accident and emergency cases, and that two weeks ago eight people remained on trolleys for 23 hours because there were no beds available for them in that hospital or in any other hospital in the region? Is that not a national disgrace and a scandal, and what does the Prime Minister intend to do about it?

The Prime Minister: One thing that I am doing to improve the quality of the health service is promising to provide extra resources for each year of the next Parliament, as we have done for the past 18 years. I notice that there is no comparable pledge from the Labour party. Year after year, we have dramatically increased the resources made available to the health service. We operate policies such as compulsory tendering, which brings more money into the health service, and we have abolished a whole tier of regional government in order to provide extra money for the health service. All those policies were opposed by the Labour party, which will not provide extra resources for the health service.

Mrs. Currie: Did the Prime Minister see today the launch of Europe 97 by the all-party European Movement? Will he join me in welcoming this important effort--which has the backing of the unions, major industries, the Confederation of British Industry and the European Commission--to put the facts about Europe and the benefit of our membership of the European Union to the people of this country rather than the fictions about its dangers?

The Prime Minister: I have not yet seen the document to which my hon. Friend refers, but I will certainly obtain a copy and look forward to reading it. It is important that the important debate on Europe is conducted on the basis of facts, not fiction, and that people fully understand precisely the implications of policies followed across Europe in each individual country and by the Commission and, of course, in our own country.


Lockerbie

Q4. Mr. Dalyell: To ask the Prime Minister if he will discuss with President Clinton the relevance to the Lockerbie inquiry of the publication of the report by the United States Inspector General into laboratory practices and alleged misconduct in explosives-related and other cases.

The Prime Minister: I understand that the report has not been published. As the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), made clear on 28 February, we understand that there is nothing to suggest that the report will reflect in any way on the Lockerbie case, but if anything relevant emerged from it, the Government would evaluate the implications carefully.

Mr. Dalyell: Against the background set out in that Adjournment debate, have the Government asked the Americans how it is that their forensic expert, James Thurman, has been found to have fabricated forensic evidence? If the Prime Minister asked the Americans, what did they say?

The Prime Minister: Yes, we have made inquiries about that, as the hon. Gentleman may have anticipated. The United States authorities have confirmed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has transferred Mr. Thurman to other duties while the activities of the FBI laboratories are investigated. However, we are further advised that the case against the two Libyans does not depend in any respect on any evidence that Mr. Thurman may give.



Engagements

Q5. Dr. Michael Clark: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 6 March.

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

Dr. Clark: Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituency has the highest number of home owners in the country, at a fraction under 90 per cent.? As we now have low inflation, low interest rates and very attractive mortgage rates, what advice would he give--as we approach a general election--to my constituents and to home owners throughout the country?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend says, we have stable prices, low mortgage rates and a rapidly improving economic situation that is unmatched anywhere in Europe. The advice that my hon. Friend should give to his constituents is to stick to the policies that have created that and not put it at risk by following policies adopted on the continent which have led to a quite different outcome.