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1996 - PMQT 29th October 1996

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 29th October 1996.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 October.

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. Jones: Does the Prime Minister acknowledge the impact of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis on rural communities, and does he accept that that concern is compounded by the problems surrounding the Government's approach to the selective slaughter programme and the fact that different Ministers are saying different things to different people in different places? Will he take the opportunity to tell the House now whether he proposes to carry out the selective slaughter programme that he agreed in Florence, linked to a definite firm timetable for lifting the ban on British exports?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the impact of BSE on the rural areas. That is why we have provided so many resources to assist the farming industry through the difficulty. We agreed in Florence, some time ago, that we take decisions--especially decisions on selective culls--on the basis of science. What has happened since Florence is that several elements of the science have changed--[Interruption.] I am sorry that the Opposition do not think that we should deal with the matter on the basis of the science. I happen to think that we should. First, the evidence suggests that the selective cull--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I want to hear the Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister: And I would like to educate the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) about the basis of the science, Madam Speaker.

First, the evidence suggests that the selective cull will not be as effective in eradicating BSE as was thought. We are discussing that with the Commission. Secondly, we have new evidence on the possibility of maternal transmission, which is also being discussed with the Commission. That evidence needs to be assessed by us, by the Commission and by other European Union members. That is what is happening at the moment. As for the cull itself, pending the conclusion of that discussion, no one has definitively ruled out our proceeding with the cull. That will depend on whether the cull is justified, either scientifically or in some other fashion. One impact of the extent to which the over-30-months scheme has proceeded is that some cattle that would have been caught by the selective cull have now been slaughtered under the original scheme.

Mr. William Powell: Does my right hon. Friend recall his visit to the Asian economic summit some months ago, and his subsequent visit to Korea? Is it not clear that that visit was one of the most successful visits abroad, if not the most successful, by a British Prime Minister in our history, bringing with it billions of pounds' worth of investment and tens of thousands of jobs? Does not my right hon. Friend deserve the congratulations of the House, and not least of the Opposition, because many Opposition Members' constituencies will be the direct beneficiaries of my right hon. Friend's efforts?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recalling the success of that visit to Korea. I very much welcome the inward investment that we have seen not only from Korea--I hope that in the future we shall obtain more for the same reasons as in the past: the good state of the British economy--but from other parts of the world. As much has come into this country as into the rest of western Europe added together.

Mr. Blair: Returning to the Prime Minister's reply about beef, does he recall saying categorically that the beef ban would be lifted by November and that the timetable was in our hands? When does he now estimate that the ban will be lifted? If he says that the selective cull will proceed in accordance with the Florence agreement, why did the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food say precisely the opposite in early September, which has caused all the additional cost and confusion?

The Prime Minister: What I just said, as the right hon. Gentleman will find when he reads Hansard, is that we are discussing the impact of the selective cull in the light of the new science. On that basis, we shall be able to decide whether it is justified to proceed with it or not. Those are on-going discussions. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman or anyone else in the House would wish us to proceed with a cull, which might turn out to be unjustified, until we have concluded the discussions with the Commission and the other member states. On the development of the over-30-months scheme, the House may be interested to know that more than 700,000 cattle have now been slaughtered and the slaughter rate has passed 50,000 a week, which means that we shall be able to make rapid progress on the backlog.

Mr. Blair: With all due respect to the Prime Minister, some Ministers say that the cull will proceed simply on the basis of science while other Ministers say that they must take account of other considerations and whatever is necessary to restore confidence. [Hon. Members: "Who?"] I am asked to name them. In the past 24 hours we have had one position from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, another from the Secretary of State for Scotland and, at the last count, no fewer than four positions from the Minister of Agriculture, all of which are opposites. Does the Prime Minister accept that the confusion in the Government's position is doing immense damage to British interests and to the British farming industry?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman is confused. The reply that I gave to the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones) a few moments ago set out precisely and exactly where we are in the discussions with our European partners. Once we have concluded those discussions, it will be clear whether it is right and necessary to proceed with a selective cull. The right hon. Gentleman will recall his own agriculture spokesman saying in the past that we needed to be satisfied that this was justified. I agree with that comment. It might be, but we must examine the new scientific evidence that has been provided. It would be very unwise of us, and very unfair on the agricultural industry, if we did not do that.

Mr. Blair: If there is confusion, it is shared by the farming industry, most of Europe and, it appears, most of the Cabinet. In fewer than seven days since Parliament returned from the summer recess, the Government have been forced to make a U-turn on stalkers and paedophiles and to change their line on combat knives, and they are utterly sunk in confusion on the farming industry. Then this morning we had the extraordinary spectacle of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment popping up on the "Today" programme saying that she will bring back corporal punishment in schools, only to be reprimanded and contradicted within minutes by the Prime Minister, apparently on his mobile telephone from the train. Are not those the symptoms of a Government who have lost the capacity to govern and whose drifts and weakness are damaging Britain?

The Prime Minister: Every single word of what the right hon. Gentleman has just said is a twisted distortion of the facts over the past week. In opposition he may be able to spend his life springing public relations stunts; in government we deal with reality.

Sir Giles Shaw: Does my right hon. Friend agree that west Yorkshire has a long and proud tradition of excellence in education in local schools? Will he note that in many urban areas such as mine schools have coped well with difficult children over many years? Does he conclude, as I do, that the problems of Ridings school in Halifax must be uniquely difficult but deserve unique and urgent attention?

The Prime Minister: I certainly agree that the problems at Ridings school deserve and will obtain urgent attention. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has requested the Office for Standards in Education to make an immediate inspection of the school, which will commence today and be completed on Wednesday. My right hon. Friend expects to have that report by Friday of this week.

I will add a further point to comments made about schools in recent days. It would be wise for everybody to get the matter into proper perspective. Some comments, despite the two serious issues raised, have bordered on the absurd by taking the particular and assuming that that position applies more generally in schools. That is not the case. The vast majority of pupils are well behaved and the vast majority of schools are orderly places, and we are determined that they shall remain so.


Q2. Mr. O'Hara: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 October.

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

Mr. O'Hara: Christmas is coming and in Christmas catalogues that are easily available young and impressionable people are exposed to advertisements such as for the "Terminator terror sword . . . monstrous, double handled . . . 56 inches overall . . . absolutely awesome" and and "a commando knife complete with a blood channel-- ideal Christmas present".

Will the Prime Minister accept the Labour party's offer to co-operate with the introduction of legislation, preferably before Christmas, to regulate such monstrous advertisements and proscribe the sale of knives and weapons whose only practical purpose can be as instruments of violence?

The Prime Minister: My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said yesterday that there is no dispute about the desirability of banning such weapons where a workable definition can be found. We took extra powers as early as 1988 to ban a series of weapons, and a large range of them are banned. We have also banned the carrying of offensive weapons and given the police powers to stop and search for them--powers that the Labour party opposed and voted against when we brought them before the House. I hope that the leader of the Labour party now realises that he was utterly wrong to take that view. If we can find a proper definition--which has thus far defeated the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation and the Scottish Police Federation--we will certainly move as my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary indicated yesterday.

Mr. Gallie: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government's two-centre approach to on-route air traffic control across the United Kingdom is essential to air safety?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that whatever it was that my hon. Friend might have said was well judged.

Madam Speaker: It was the sort of short question of which I approve.


Q3. Mrs. Jane Kennedy: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 October.

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

Mrs. Kennedy: Will the Prime Minister reply to the question put by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and explain how it was that this morning the Secretary of State for Education and Employment was so out of touch with Government policy on corporal punishment in schools that the Prime Minister had to track her down on her mobile telephone? I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on delivering for the first time in his career the smack of firm leadership.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Lady has the grace to chuckle, and I am not surprised. I will tell the hon. Lady what I absolutely agree with--the Bill that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has drafted and will introduce to the House tomorrow.

Mr. Mark Robinson: Britain is back in front as the largest investor in the United States, ahead even of Japan. One million Americans are directly employed by British companies. Is that not a true example of Britain's performance overseas?

The Prime Minister: There is no doubt about the extent of inward investment into this country and the extent of productive external investment from this country abroad. We are among the world's largest external investors per head of population, and it brings huge benefits to this country in returned dividends and profits. My hon. Friend is right: it is an indication of the strength of British industry and our overseas investment.


Q4. Mr. Randall: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 29 October.

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

Mr. Randall: Is the Prime Minister aware that 20 years ago the fishing trawler Gaul, which was based in my constituency, mysteriously disappeared with the loss of more than 30 fishermen? At that time, the vessel was near the coast of the old Soviet Union. In addition to fishing, the Gaul actually carried out military intelligence surveillance.

Is the Prime Minister also aware that some two or three weeks ago there was a programme on television entitled, "The Riddle of the Gaul", which uncovered new evidence regarding the mysterious disappearance of the Gaul? For the sake of the people of Hull who lost loved ones and friends as a result of that disaster, would the Prime Minister be kind enough to arrange that the new evidence be looked into with a view to carrying out an underwater search of the Gaul so that all the questions surrounding its disappearance can be settled once and for all?

The Prime Minister: I have no knowledge of what that new evidence might be, but obviously the hon. Gentleman has. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman sees my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. Of course we shall examine very carefully any evidence that may have been produced and decide how best to proceed.