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1996 - PMQT 28th March 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 28th March 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Sir Michael Neubert: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 28 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.

Sir Michael Neubert: Is not the wide welcome for the Government's endorsement of Sir Ron Dearing's proposals for the education of 16 to 19-year-olds thoroughly deserved, as they bring together academic study with work-related training and recognise young people's differing skills and aptitudes for reaching their full potential? Is not that belief in diversity and choice the hallmark of Conservative policy and a striking contrast to anything else on offer?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about the desirability of choice and diversity being the key to raising standards in schools. I am sure that that is right. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment will set out more proposals this afternoon to achieve precisely that. That is what we want for all children--our children and everyone else's as well.

Mr. Blair: Does the Prime Minister agree that, to restore confidence in British beef, we should recognise the mistakes of the past and that contaminated meat did pass into the food chain, but that, for the future, we should take all measures that are necessary to make negligible, not just extremely small, any chance--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. This is disgraceful. The House will come to order.

Mr. Blair: Thank you, Madam Speaker.

For the future, we should take whatever measures are necessary to make negligible--not just extremely small--the chance of any specified bovine offal going into any part of the food chain. What are the measures that the Prime Minister is proposing following the Cabinet meeting this morning and will they include the measures proposed by shadow Ministers, which have already won wide-ranging support throughout the industry?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman is right about the need to take all the necessary public health measures. The reality is that we have always taken the action that was seen to be necessary and the advice that has been offered. In 1989, we took action that went beyond the advice that we had received. I have had an opportunity to look at the proposals that the Opposition made this morning. They are a mixture of motherhood and action that is already being taken, and they largely miss many of the matters that need to be dealt with. [An hon. Member: "What is wrong with them?"]

If the hon. Lady would like me to run through the eight points and explain why they are irrelevant, I should be happy to do so. I will find them. Here they are.

The Opposition call for proper enforcement of controls in slaughterhouses, yet they opposed the setting up of the Meat Hygiene Service, which was designed to ensure that they were enforced. They call for a random test of the brains of cattle. That is completely irrelevant, as we have stopped all brain products that could possibly be infected from entering the food chain. They suggest that products are labelled with ingredients; that is already happening. SEAC has already looked at the safety of mechanically recovered meat and we have already taken steps to ensure its safety.

As for the plans for a quality assurance scheme, of course we wish to ensure the quality of all beef, but there would be no question of labelling some beef as safe and allowing the sale of unsafe beef, which is what they say would mean. Their plan to ban specified bovine offal in cattle under six months overlooks the fact that SEAC specifically considered this proposal and concluded that it was unnecessary, not least because there has never been a single incidence of BSE in cattle that young. The plan for a separate--[Interruption.] The Opposition asked me what was wrong with their plans.

Madam Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman was asked a question by an hon. Member from a sedentary position. Members must learn to listen and not bawl out from sedentary positions.

The Prime Minister: The plan for a separate food agency would mean that matters such as this would no longer be represented round the Cabinet table but would be represented in an agency. The chief medical officer already has the support that he has asked for to carry out his duties. The reality is that our examination is much more fundamental than this public relations nonsense from the Labour party. It is considering votes; we are considering the industry and the national interest.

Mr. Blair: I do not think that we have heard anything quite so pathetic as that. Let me take two of those measures--one, random testing, was proposed by the right hon. Gentleman's own committee. As for the policy in relation to abattoirs, his own scientists have said that the regulations have to be enforced. Will he confirm that, as late as last year, almost half the slaughterhouses were not up to scratch and that, although it is true that there are far fewer today, there has not yet been one completed prosecution? Is that not right?

Will the Prime Minister please, for once, stop shirking responsibility and instead take it? In particular, will he understand that, unless he can agree proposals now with the food industry, the retailers and the consumer organisations so that we present a united front, we shall never have the Government back in control of events rather than being controlled by them?

The Prime Minister: What is pathetic is this document. What is also pathetic is this wriggling change of policy after the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and the right hon. Gentleman did everything that they could to extract maximum political advantage, at the cost, potentially, of jobs, and of the national interest, in the beef industry. On his remarks about controls in slaughterhouses, the Meat Hygiene Service has an officer--in some cases more than one officer--in each and every slaughterhouse, and every single carcass is inspected by those hygiene officers--officers whom Opposition Members voted against when we brought the proposals before the House.

Mr. Harris: Will my right hon. Friend assure his farmers--my farmers and farmers up and down the country--that the Government will do all that they can to avert the disaster facing British industry? In short, will the Government bring forward proposals for a selective slaughter policy to take out of the food chain the meat from cows that will be culled in any case?

The Prime Minister: What needs to be done to ensure confidence both for the beef industry and for allied industries, in the interests of the farmers as well as public health, and the substantial range of matters that must be examined, are all under consideration at the moment. We must address specifically the question of market confidence: that means convincing our European partners and the beef outlets that beef is safe. The next step in that process will be an announcement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food later this afternoon.

However, in the interests of the industry as a whole and of public health, it is important to deal with the matters comprehensively if we are to meet the objective of restoring confidence. Work and discussion on all the matters is going ahead--even as we meet this afternoon--in this country and in Europe. We shall carry out those discussions as speedily as possible. As soon as we are able, we shall bring comprehensive proposals before the House, but it is not in the interests of the industry for us to dribble them out piecemeal: we shall deal with the whole issue because that is the only way to restore the confidence so badly damaged so unnecessarily.

Mr. Ashdown: The Prime Minister knows very well just how many jobs and how many businesses are now at risk in what is the worst crisis to hit rural Britain for three decades or more. He knows that every delay will add to that list. I therefore assure him that, if he brings forward an urgent plan of action, designed to restore public confidence and to make the British herd BSE-free as soon as possible, based on culling and other measures, we shall support him. We shall also support every action that is designed to persuade our European partners that it is not a problem just for Britain, but a Europe wide problem that requires a Europe wide solution.

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman's latter point: it is a Europe wide problem. I shall discuss the matter with our European partners in Turin tomorrow and my right hon. Friends will also discuss the matter with their European counterparts. The right hon. Gentleman is entirely right: 650,000 people are employed in the industry, which generates about £5 billion each year. That is why we must ensure that the proposal we bring forward is comprehensive and will work. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his offer of support as we do so.

Mr. Lamont: Is the Prime Minister aware that there will be total support for his comments yesterday about the European Union ban on worldwide exports of British beef which he said was unjustifiable, unjust and should be reversed? Does the Prime Minister recognise that we do not wish to be bribed, by accepting the return of some of our own money, into agreeing to something that is fundamentally wrong? Is there not a case for, if not leaving the British seat vacant at the IGC tomorrow, at least saying that there will be no progress until the ruling has been overturned?

The Prime Minister: On the basis of the scientific advice that we have received, our partners must know that the ban on British beef is totally without justification. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is having urgent discussions to outline the measures that we are taking to ensure safety. I assure my right hon. Friend that I shall reinforce that point vigorously in Turin tomorrow. It is essential that decisions of that sort are taken by member states on the basis of rational judgments and of science, and not on any other basis--as I believe they were on this occasion. I shall certainly make our feelings clear tomorrow.


Q2. Mr. Illsley: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 28 March.

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

Mr. Illsley: What message does the Prime Minister have for his so-called Euro-sceptic friends now that he is not going to Turin to talk tough to the intergovernmental conference but is going cap in hand to beg for compensation for the measures that he knows he must now take to resurrect the British beef industry, which has suffered because of his Government's total incompetence?

The Prime Minister: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can have heard what I said a moment or so ago; if he did hear it, he patently did not understand it.

We have set out our position on the intergovernmental conference, and I shall reinforce that, precisely as we have previously informed the House, in the discussions at the IGC tomorrow, but with one addition. I shall make it clear that the recent ruling on the working time directive is wholly unjustified, that we do not accept it and that we shall be seeking in the intergovernmental conference to ensure that the Commission does not misuse article 118A in future.


Q3. Mr. Simon Coombs: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 28 March.

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

Mr. Coombs: When my right hon. Friend goes to Turin, will he take the opportunity to impress on his fellow European leaders the absolute need to reduce business costs? Will he also ensure that there is no way in which the European social chapter--the European tax on jobs--is smuggled into this country by the back door or foisted on the British people by the back door despite our opt-out?

The Prime Minister: As I said a moment ago, and am happy to reaffirm, I am not prepared to see the social chapter opt-out, negotiated and agreed in good faith at Maastricht with our colleagues, undermined by an improper use of other treaty heads, and I shall demand changes in the intergovernmental conference to ensure that that cannot happen. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"]

The Labour party may wish to sign up to policies that will make people unemployed--Labour Members are obviously reckless of employment, as they showed earlier this week with their statements on health matters--but we care about putting people back into jobs and we shall not accept any measures that prevent jobs being created.