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1996 - PMQT 26th March 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 26th March 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Wareing: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 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. Wareing: Two weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister about unemployment, to which he gave an answer lambasting Liverpool city council. Will he now unequivocally condemn Tory Westminster council for risking the health of its people for political purposes by housing them in asbestos-ridden flats?

The Prime Minister: That issue was very properly investigated by Westminster, which commissioned an independent report. I understand that the council has taken action in the light of that independent report. Before the hon. Gentleman goes further, he should compare the overall record of Westminster with that of other authorities. As he is sensitive about his local authority, appalling as it is, he should compare it with Lambeth and Hackney. He might look at the rent arrears in Lambeth, which are six times the level of Westminster, or the rent arrears in Hackney, which are 10 times as great. There are 21 times as many unoccupied dwellings in Lambeth and 23 times as many in Hackney. Whose housing policies are a disgrace?

Mr. Ashby: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the bovine spongiform encephalopathy issue is not really a party political crisis but a crisis for the whole nation? Can he persuade the Leader of the Opposition to stop making cheap party political points, which are doing this country and its farming community so much harm?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that anybody doubts the seriousness of the issue or the need to balance the competing interests of public health and the importance of the beef industry. It is important that we deal with the issue on the basis of rational, sensible decisions, based on proper information, not on hysteria. That is the way in which the Government have sought to deal with it thus far, and we will continue to do so.

Mr. Blair: Will the Prime Minister at least agree with me on the scientific basis of the case? Is it not, first, that scientists now say that there is a probable link between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human killer; secondly, that prior to 1989 there was contamination of the food chain by BSE; thirdly, that after the regulations of 1989 there was supposed to be no such contamination, but there were breaches of the regulations; and, fourthly, that the scientists say that if, now, new measures are adopted, the risk in future will be "extremely small"?

If we can agree that as the scientific basis, I ask the right hon. Gentleman--this is essential to restoring confidence--to quantify the risk from the period 1989 to now and the period now onwards when the risk is "extremely small". Without that quantification, I do not think that confidence will be restored.

The Prime Minister: It will be extremely difficult to restore confidence if right hon. and hon. Members continue to undermine that confidence whenever they have the opportunity to do so, for reasons that I think will seem unfathomable to people in the agriculture industry and to the wider public.

As for the scientific evidence, neither the right hon. Gentleman, nor I, nor, I suspect, any right hon. or hon. Member, has competence to make that judgment. That is why we have to rely on the advice that we have received from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, which said that it does not believe that additional measures are justified at the present time. The House will be aware of what Professor Pattison has said on a number of occasions. He specifically said--it is very relevant to today's position:

"In any common usage of the word, we"--

the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee--

"think beef is safe. Anyone can eat beef or beef products and be safe."

That is the professional advice that we have received, and it is incumbent on us to accept and listen to that advice.

Mr. Blair: Did not the Secretary of State for Health make a statement in the House last week that earlier scientific advice had been wrong, and tell us to wait for two days for advice on whether it was safe for children, while the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was speculating about the killing of 4.5 million cows? Suddenly, the Secretary of State for Health appears to bristle with certainty and he tells us that the public are mad, not the cows. The matter has been handled with quite mind-boggling incompetence. I repeat that the scientists say that the risk in future is extremely small, but may I ask the Prime Minister once again to quantify that risk? As a matter of urgency, will he convene a meeting of producers and purchasers in the food industry to agree the necessary measures to restore confidence?

The Prime Minister: I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends had done enough damage in the last few days--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order--all of you.

The Prime Minister: --for them to stop trying to create health scares by inviting responses from any Minister who can competently comment only on the basis of scientific advice. The right hon. Gentleman knows that. Since he wants to exchange quotations, may I say that it is not all that long ago that the shadow Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang)--who has acted far more responsibly than some of his hon. Friends--told the House that

"the possibility of BSE being transmitted to humans seems remote"?--[Official Report, 25 February 1993; Vol. 219, c. 994.]

The right hon. Gentleman knows the scientific evidence that we have received, and he knows the way in which we have been invited to proceed on the basis of it. For what reason does he continually try to undermine public confidence?

Mr. Blair: When the Scott report came out, the Prime Minister blamed my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook). When this report came out, he has blamed other Opposition Members. Does he not realise that the country expects him, as Prime Minister, to take responsibility? Since he has mentioned my hon. Friend the shadow Minister of Agriculture, perhaps he will adopt the measures that my hon. Friend has proposed, and let us hope that confidence can be restored.

The Prime Minister: I will tell the right hon. Gentleman how it might be restored, again by quoting his hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East:

"We are talking about a huge industry and that is why we have to be very responsible and we must not hype something up and give the impression that it is wrong to eat beef or there is some evidence of a link if there is no evidence."

The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) have done everything they can to undermine confidence in beef and the agriculture industry. If they have undermined confidence to the extent that there is a serious problem, the agriculture industry and the public will know precisely whom to blame.

Mr. Marland: Is my right hon. Friend aware that consumers of beef are looking for further reassurance that British beef is best--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. Hon. Members will be heard in this House.

Mr. Marland: I will start again, Madam Speaker. Is my right hon. Friend aware that consumers of beef are looking for further assurance that British beef is best? Does he agree that it is now time for the British media to stand up for Britain and to dispatch some investigative teams to Europe to study what is known there as staggers or manganese deficiency, which is often BSE by another name?

The Prime Minister: There are self-evidently two equally important interests to balance. First, there is the public concern about public health. That is of great importance to the Government, which is why we have repeatedly taken the advice on public health that we have been given. The second interest is confidence in the beef industry, the jobs it creates and its economic importance. I agree with my hon. Friend that we should look at both those matters and give them both great importance.

Mr. Ashdown: This morning, the National Farmers Union, which is presumably not hysterical, backed by the entire food industry, which is presumably not hysterical either, has called for older cows to be taken out of the human food chain. If the Prime Minister will not follow that advice, will he at least answer this question? What has he got to say to farmers, to abattoir managers and to cattle market operators? They have been ringing all morning to say, "My doors are closed, my market has gone and in two weeks, my business will be in ruins. What do I do now?"

The Prime Minister: I have received a letter from Sir David Naish and I have a copy of the letter that he sent to the Leader of the Opposition and to the right hon. Gentleman, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. My colleagues and I will study carefully the contents of the letter I have received. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of listening, he will get his answer.

There are two reasons for proceeding in the way that Sir David recommends. The first is on public health grounds, if science recommends it; but science does not recommend it, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. The second is if it proves necessary to restore confidence to the market because ill-conceived comments, ignorant of science, mean that sensible, practical measures that should have restored confidence will not restore confidence. I hope that sound judgment will prevail. If it does not, those who have destroyed that confidence will be the people to blame and everyone will be aware of that. They sit there, there and there on the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Faber: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Wiltshire police force on the 5 per cent. fall in recorded crime which was announced today? When he considers further proposals on sentencing, will he give careful consideration to the views of the chief constable of Wiltshire? He believes that the vast majority of crime is perpetrated by a few known offenders and that

"custodial sentences take them out of the game."

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with that view, as does my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I am delighted that, again, crime figures are falling in the United Kingdom. Today's figures show that recorded crime fell by almost 2.5 per cent last year. With the falls in the past two years, that represents the largest fall since records began more than a century ago. That has been achieved despite the fact that the Opposition have continually opposed the law and order measures which we have introduced--measures which, when my right hon. and learned Friend introduced them, they dismissed as gimmicks. The only gimmicks on crime are those from the Opposition. We are producing measures that are beating the criminal and bringing down crime.


Q2. Mr. Hall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 26 March.

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

Mr. Hall: Given the Prime Minister's disgraceful performance this afternoon, does he remember telling the House last week that the Government have always and immediately acted on the expert advice given to them by scientists on bovine spongiform encephalopathy? In the light of that claim, can he tell the House why the Government failed immediately to implement the recommendations of the Tyrrell report to sample cattle brains to monitor BSE? We need a straightforward answer to that question.

The Prime Minister: We are continually taking professional advice on health matters. Opposition Members are asking me not to take the professional advice but to do something else. If I had not taken the professional advice on the question of BSE, the hon. Gentleman might have had some cause for complaint. As it is, he has none--except against his own Front Bench.

Mr. Viggers: Does my right hon. Friend agree that McDonald's, the media and the Labour party have one thing in common: they are seeking to sell something, be it beefburgers, newspapers or themselves, and the Government have a heavier and wider responsibility to give leadership and guidance, based on the best possible scientific advice?

The Prime Minister: First, we have to make judgments on what is in the interests of public health, and we must base them on the advice that we get, because Ministers do not have the medical competence to make those judgments themselves. Secondly, we have to make judgments about what is right for the industry, if other people, with ill-thought-out comments, damage it when it should not have faced the damage that may have been created by comments that should never have been made.