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1997 - PMQT 11th March 1997

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 11th March 1997.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Hendry: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 March.

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

Mr. Hendry: Does the Prime Minister agree that parents everywhere will welcome today's publication of league tables for primary schools? Does he understand their very real anger at those who would deny them the right to know how their children's schools are performing? Whether or not schools are doing well, parents have an absolute right to know how their children and their local authorities are performing. We understand that, but Labour does not.

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of the tables. For the first time, parents will have the information they need to help to choose the appropriate primary schools for their children.

Mr. Foulkes: In Orkney?

The Prime Minister: They do--

Madam Speaker: Order.

The Prime Minister: It is interesting to note that any prospect of choice or information is an appalling proposition for Opposition Members--no wonder they propose to do away with this information if they ever get the opportunity. The tables expose under-achievement and high truancy, and where they occur: in authorities run by the party of the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes).

Mr. Blair: Is the Prime Minister aware of the correspondence from the Association of Meat Inspectors sent to Ministers and the Meat Hygiene Service that shows that, contrary to what we were told last week, serious concern about contamination was being expressed to Ministers and others over a nine-month period and that contamination in abattoirs is getting worse, not better? Those are serious allegations. Will the Prime Minister institute immediate inquiries and ensure that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food publishes a full account of the state of abattoirs, of what warnings were given to Ministers, and of what action was taken?

The Prime Minister: In the past few hours I have seen the letter to which the right hon. Gentleman refers since it attained some notoriety on the lunchtime media. I entirely share the concern of the right hon. Gentleman and the Association of Meat Inspectors to ensure the highest standards of hygiene in slaughterhouses. I am surprised by the contents of the letter for two reasons: first, I am surprised because the AMI is responsible for the enforcement of hygiene rules, and I understand that extra staff have been provided to the Meat Hygiene Service, including at least 250 staff who are responsible for inspection. Secondly, I am surprised because the vice-president of the Association of Meat Inspectors, who is a vet--unlike the general secretary to whose letter the right hon. Gentleman referred--said today that he is

"fully supportive of the Meat Hygiene Service and everything they have achieved in raising standards".

Notwithstanding that point, I have not yet fully had the chance to investigate the letter, but I will most certainly do so.

Mr. Blair: I thank the Prime Minister for that, but will he ensure that we are given a full account of exactly what was said to Ministers over that period of nine months and what the state of abattoirs is? Is there not an unanswerable case for ensuring that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food does not look after the interests of the industry and consumers together, and that we set up a proper, independent food standards agency that can look into these matters and monitor them on behalf of the public?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman raises two important points. Let me try to answer him in some depth on both of them.

As to the importance of what Ministers have been doing, I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary have had a total of 22 meetings on hygiene matters over the last year to deal with abattoirs and related matters. That series of meetings continues, which shows the extent of the Government's concern. I will, of course, look personally at what has happened about those meetings.

I share the right hon. Gentleman's view on the need for independent advice. The point of distinction between us is whether it should come from an agency, or independent advice from scientific experts, but not necessarily an agency--[Interruption.] I will explain why not necessarily an agency, and I will use the words that are often used by hon. Members when criticising agencies that exist. Hon. Members often say to me that agencies do not stand at the Dispatch Box; that they are not answerable for what is happening. On a matter such as food safety--the right hon. Gentleman just asked that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food be held accountable--it is, perhaps, right that there should be independent advice. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about that and we have set it in train, but a Minister should stand at the Dispatch Box and answer for the advice that he receives.

Mr. Blair: I thank the Prime Minister for that, but I would just point out to him that, in the letter written last Wednesday, the Association of Meat Inspectors said that

"far from being encouraged to enforce stricter hygiene standards, MHIs are being actively encouraged to ignore breaches of regulations and in some cases threatened if they try to take action".

I understand that inspectors have a responsibility, but surely Ministers do as well. I therefore ask the Prime Minister whether, as a result of his previous answer, he is prepared to look again at the possibility of an independent food standards agency--not to commit himself to it today, I understand that--as a better way to deal with these issues.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful for the way in which the right hon. Gentleman poses his question. Let me deal with the first part of it and what instructions were given to inspectors.

Inspectors have been given clear instructions to apply the rules firmly: for example--to pick up one of the points in the letter--if they see signs of any form of contamination, not to stamp meat as fit for human consumption. Their job is to stop such meat reaching the consumer. Abattoir managers and owners who flout those rules face prosecution. The right hon. Gentleman will know of the monthly report on observance of bovine spongiform encephalopathy rules. In addition, members of the AMI--the inspectors--know that they face disciplinary action if they fail to enforce the rules properly. That is a real threat. The Meat Hygiene Service has dismissed a number of employees and disciplined rather more for inadequately carrying out the public safety responsibility of careful examination of abattoirs, and that is right.

Of course I will look at the question of independent advice, but for the reason that I set out a moment ago I do not favour a food standards agency.


Q2. Mr. Gallie: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 March.

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

Mr. Gallie: Does my right hon. Friend welcome, as I do, the high level of investment in the electronics industry in central Scotland? Does he recognise the importance to that industry of manoeuvrability of components and products? Will he consider the requirements of fifth freedoms, which could benefit that industry, particularly by using Prestwick airport as a gateway?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend will know, I visited Prestwick airport 10 days ago to look at its excellent cargo facilities. Granting fifth freedom rights to foreign airlines using Prestwick is attractive, provided United Kingdom airlines are given a fair opportunity to compete and there are matching rights for UK airlines overseas. I shall certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is aware of my hon. Friend's comments. I share my hon. Friend's belief that good transport links are vital to that success.

Mr. Ashdown: If, as the Government claim--

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Welcome to the role of grandparent.

Mr. Ashdown: Yes, we hope that we shall be.

If, as the Government claim, today's primary school league tables are a fair and accurate judge, will the Prime Minister consider two facts? Of the top 20 local education authorities, eight have Liberal Democrat control, three have Labour control and only two have Conservative control. According to the tables, Britain's primary education system is now, in the words of The Express, the worst in the western world and a national disgrace. After 18 years of Conservative government, does the Prime Minister take any responsibility for that, or is it the fault of the teachers and the Opposition parties?

The Prime Minister: If it were not for the fact that we introduced this information, nobody would know precisely what was happening in schools. As to standards in secondary and primary schools, the fact is that, across the board, it is long-standing Conservative authorities that have the best results, certainly not Labour authorities. The 20 worst secondary schools and the 10 worst primary schools are in Labour authorities. The schools for which the right hon. Gentleman takes credit have been Conservative run for many years, and have only recently been run by the Liberal Democrats.


Q3. Mr. John Greenway: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 March.

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

Mr. Greenway: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Chartered Insurance Institute on its centenary year, which is marked by a major international insurance conference at Westminster today? Are not Governments throughout the world increasingly turning to the private sector to help to meet long-term social costs? Does my right hon. Friend agree that a partnership between insurance companies and the state is the best way of ensuring that future generations can meet their pension needs?

The Prime Minister: If we wish to enshrine the welfare state for our children and our grandchildren, it is necessary to look again at how we can ensure that the provision that is made today is still affordable in years to come. That is why we produced the plans on basic pension plus. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health yesterday announced our partnership scheme for long-term care, and that is why further plans will be announced tomorrow. We are seeking to ensure that the welfare state is enshrined for the long term by taking decisions that every hon. Member knows need to be taken if we are to ensure the continuation and improvement of welfare provision.

Mr. Ashton: As we are only three or four weeks away from the official start of the general election campaign, will the Prime Minister tell us whether, a few weeks before the last general election, the Conservative Government did a deal with the tobacco companies, in which several hundred hoardings were given to the Conservative party in return for an agreement that there would be no ban on tobacco advertising? Is that true? Will he confirm that that deal will not be done again?

The Prime Minister: I confirm that no deals are being done, although I have noticed one: the substantial advertising campaign by the trade unions. Those trade unions fund the Labour party when the deputy leader is not abroad raising funds for the party before denouncing the Conservatives, whom he claims do the same thing.


Q4. Mr. Butler: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 March.

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

Mr. Butler: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Church primary schools on their exceptional performance, as shown in the league tables that were published today? Is that not further and conclusive proof that traditional teaching methods, employed in an atmosphere in which achievement is expected and there are strict rules and discipline, are not only the most successful but the only proper methods?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right to point to the excellent performance of the Church primaries. About 60 of the 100 best-performing schools in the tables are either Church or grant maintained. They show the success of a policy of promoting choice and diversity in our education system if we wish to promote excellence.

[Hon. Members: "Oh."] I note the hatred of diversity and excellence on the Opposition Benches. I note Opposition plans to abolish grant-maintained schools, to undermine Church schools and to give local education authorities unprecedented control over them. It is very interesting indeed that members of the Labour party would like to deny other parents the opportunities that they exercise themselves.


Q5. Ms Walley: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 11 March.

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

Ms Walley: Does the Prime Minister recall that, five years ago yesterday, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer promised in his Budget speech that he would not increase VAT on fuel? Are we not entitled to know now why the Government did not go ahead with that?

The Prime Minister: I think that we are entitled to know by what amount a windfall tax will add to the cost of fuel for people--and the cost of water, and the cost of all the other utilities. We are promised such a tax; we have not been given any information about the impact of that tax on either the consumer--

Ms Walley indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: There is no point in the hon. Lady's shaking her head; this is the fact of the matter. We have not been given any information about the impact of the tax on either the consumer or the dividends of hundreds of thousands of investors in those industries.