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1996 - PMQT 21st March 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 21st March 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 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 a further meeting later today.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: In the wake of the Dunblane tragedy, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should take all possible steps to prevent illegal firearms from getting into the wrong hands? Will he look at the firearms laws to see what reasonable steps can be taken to revisit them?

The Prime Minister: I do agree with my hon. Friend about that. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland have been in discussions with the police for some time about the possibility of a firearms amnesty. Those discussions had begun before the appalling tragedy in Dunblane. I can now tell the House that it has been agreed that an amnesty will take place. Details are being worked out, and we will advise the House of them as soon as possible.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree that the only way now to restore trust and credibility over bovine spongiform encephalopathy and beef is not more assurances from Ministers but clear and firm advice based on scientific evidence? Does he agree that that evidence should be published in full so that the independent scientists who provided it can be properly examined and can defend it?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health gave the assurance yesterday that he would publish the advice that we have had. As the House will know, we ensured that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee's statement was published as soon as was practically possible yesterday. As my right hon. Friend told the House yesterday, the facts on which the committee based its deliberations will be made public in scientific journals as soon as possible. I shall of course ensure that the appropriate evidence is placed in the Library of this House.

Mr. Blair: I am grateful for that assurance; I hope that it genuinely covers all the advice that has been given. I assume from what the Health Secretary said yesterday that the scientific advice that the Government have received is absolutely clear that it is entirely safe to carry on feeding beef and beefburgers to children. May we have a categorical statement that the right hon. Gentleman's scientific advice does indeed say that? [Interruption.] The clearer and better the statements, the sooner public concern will be allayed--Conservative Members should realise that.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman will be able to see the advice for himself because we have published the advice that we have had on this matter, and we will publish any further advice that we receive so that people can see for themselves, from the scientists, what the evidence is. That is more valuable than hearing from those without scientific information, and we will make sure that it is available.

As my right hon. Friend has already said, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that children are more at risk than adults from eating beef, but I understand very well, as, indeed, will every hon. Member, the concern that parents will have, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has specifically asked SEAC--the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee--to provide specific advice on that matter. As soon as we receive that advice, we shall make it public so that people may see it for themselves.

Mr. Blair: I think that it should be made entirely clear. Is the statement that the Prime Minister is giving us that the scientific advice is that it is entirely safe to continue to feed beef to children? If he can tell us yes to that question, it would allay some of the fear.

The Prime Minister: I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that the advice is on the record. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman would listen, it would be helpful to the whole House. The advice is on the record, and the right hon. Gentleman himself said a few moments ago that he needed to see the scientific advice, not speeches by Ministers. I agree with that point. That is why we are making public the scientific advice so that there can be no doubt what the absolutely basic advice is from the scientists. It is on the record. Further advice will be put on the record.

Mr. John Townend: Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent decisions of the European Court of Justice are progressively undermining the social chapter and that it is becoming not worth the paper on which it is written? Although I welcome the Government's decision to try to deal with that problem and the problem of fish while at the intergovernmental conference, does he accept that the time factor means that the British taxpayer is likely to face claims from Spanish fishermen before the IGC is completed? Will he therefore accept the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) and legislate to prevent this decision from being acted on in the British courts, and restore the sovereignty of the House?

The Prime Minister: As I told my hon. Friend, we propose to pursue these matters in the IGC. Of course I am prepared to look at any advice that I receive from any of my hon. Friends, or, indeed, from any hon. Member. Although we are concerned about the way in which the health and safety element of European legislation has been applied--we believe that it has been misapplied--I do not accept my hon. Friend's point that it undermines the whole basis of the social chapter opt-out. Evidence suggests the contrary, and we intend to ensure that the social chapter opt-out remains of the value that it has always been, both now and in the future. We shall pursue that point and the other matters raised by my hon. Friend very vigorously in the IGC.

Mr. Ashdown: In view of what now appears to be the well-justified public concern about certain aspects of food safety, of which BSE is only the latest example, has not the time now arrived to break up the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food so that the interests of the producer and the consumer can be looked after by two different Departments?

The Prime Minister: I do not agree with what the right hon. Gentleman had to say, and I think that, on reflection, he will not agree with it himself.

On the question of recent events, an independent committee of the most eminent scientists advises the Government on these matters. The Government invariably take that advice. No Minister now or in the past has the scientific competence to deny that advice, and we do not do so. We take that advice and we publish it. That is the right way to proceed.

Mr. Thurnham: In the wake of last week's awful tragedy, will the Prime Minister add to the tributes to a lifetime of work for children by the late Baroness Faithfull, who died on the same Wednesday morning still hard at work at the age of 85? Does he agree that, in her lifetime of devotion to the welfare of children and through her sincere concern for the treatment of offenders, she set an example to us all?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about that, and am happy to endorse his tributes to Lucy Faithfull. In her lifetime she was a tireless worker on behalf of disadvantaged children, and her devotion and concern does indeed set an example to everyone.


Q2. Mr. McNamara: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 March.

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

Mr. McNamara: Is the Prime Minister aware that the average unemployment level in the three Hull constituencies is 20.2 per cent? More than 30,000 men are unemployed. How can the Prime Minister justify the spending of £5 million of European and United Kingdom funds to relocate jobs from Fenners polymer factory in Hull to south Wales, thus losing 350 jobs in Hull and more than 150 in Peterborough? Would not the money be better spent on creating proper jobs in south Wales, rather than creating unemployment in Hull?

The Prime Minister: Of course I shall look at the instance to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, but, as I do not know the background, I cannot comment immediately. I can, however, comment on the fact that, although unemployment in Hull is far higher than we would wish, it has fallen by 20 per cent. from its peak and continues to fall. I am delighted about that.

Mr. Wilshire: Does my right hon. Friend agree that today's welcome reduction in inflation means that there will be more protection for jobs, more protection for savings and more protection for public services? Would he care to tell the House what would happen to jobs, savings and public services if the Labour party ever came to power?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is entirely right about the importance of low inflation. For the first time in 30 or 40 years, we now have a low-inflation economy, and there is no sign that inflation is going to take off. If it did so in the fashion in which it did so in earlier years--most obviously in the late 1970s--it would not only rob savings of their value, but would rob millions of people of their jobs.


Q3. Mr. Turner: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 March.

Mr. Foulkes: "I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago." [Laughter.]

Madam Speaker: Too clever by half.

The Prime Minister: Forgive me, Madam Speaker. Because of the noise on the Opposition Benches, I did not catch the question--but I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Turner: Are the Prime Minister and the Government at all contrite about the BSE crisis, given that Labour's then agriculture spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), raised the question of safety six years ago? What he said was contemptuously rejected by the Government at the time.

The Prime Minister: Let me repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health said yesterday. At each and every time in the past, we have accepted totally and immediately the expert advice given to us by the scientists on this matter--on each and every occasion. If we had not accepted that advice, the hon. Gentleman would be in a position to criticise the Government, because those scientists are there to advise us. They are the specialists; we are wise to accept their advice; we have done so in the past; we are doing so now; and we will do so in the future.

Mr. Jenkin: Is my right hon. Friend aware that small businesses in countries such as France and Italy enjoy substantial exemptions from the employment law that applies in those countries? Let me enter a plea on behalf of British small businesses: give us the same advantages.

Mr. Skinner: They want a social chapter.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is mistaken if he thinks that my hon. Friend is seeking the social chapter. I think that he is seeking an assurance that we will not have it, and that the Government want to enable small businesses to continue to create the extra jobs that they have created in recent years. I announced a number of measures to that end recently. We will continue to consider what might be done to enable small businesses to fuel more growth, and create more jobs and prosperity in our economy.


Q4. Mr. Hardy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 March.

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

Mr. Hardy: Is the Prime Minister aware that, just before the 1979 election, a Select Committee visited prisons and met burglars? It found them to be ardently Conservative. Were not burglars richly rewarded as crime soared, the proceeds of crime rose and the number of convictions fell markedly? Is the Prime Minister confident of retaining the support of that bedrock of Conservative enterprise?

The Prime Minister: I confirm that crime was rising for decades and is now falling in this country. One of the reasons why it is falling is that there may be even more burglars, howsoever they may vote, in prison, which is where they should be.

Mr. Congdon: Will my right hon. Friend explain to the British people why unemployment is lower in Britain than in France, Germany, Spain or Italy? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister: I can echo only what the hon. Member for Bolsover is now convinced of. [Interruption.] I thank the hon. Gentleman very much; I will conduct him. The social chapter and minimum wage are certainly a part of the answer. The low tax structure that we have compared with Europe is part of the answer, the deregulation in this country is part of the answer, the supply-side reforms are part of the answer and a Conservative and not a social democratic Government are part of the answer. We intend to retain those benefits, both in the short term and in the long term, and to provide more jobs.


Q5. Mr. Madden: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 21 March. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I am sorry, but the Prime Minister started late.

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

Mr. Madden: May I ask the Prime Minister a question, of which I gave him prior notice, concerning Irish prisoners? Will he intervene personally to expedite the transfer of Irish prisoners, including Patrick Kelly, to prisons in the Irish Republic? Will the Prime Minister do that in view of the specific assurances that the Government of the Irish Republic have given about the sentences to be served? Will he also ensure that the regime prevailing in Belmarsh prison is dramatically improved in relation to Irish prisoners?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is considering a number of requests for repatriation, including the case mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. Each request must be considered on its merits. It needs to be subject to the consent of both jurisdictions and of the prisoner concerned. Those matters are being examined. As a result of Sir John Woodcock's report, security at Belmarsh is being improved. I understand that a newly refurbished special secure unit is due to open next month.