Agriculture, Fisheries And Food
Milk Quotas (Tenant Farmers)
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will list the steps he has taken to protect tenant farmers from the effects of the imposition of milk quotas.
Tenant farmers were given the same rights as owner-occupiers to apply to the quota tribunal for extra quota. Tenant farmers will also benefit, like other milk producers, from the increased flexibility which I negotiated for the management of quotas, and from the recently announced allocation of extra quota to small producers.
Does the Minister recognise that tenant farmers and small and family farmers have had to bear the major burden of the milk quota scheme? Does he think it right that the tenant farmer should have no rights over the milk quota, which his investment and hard work have helped to create, and that it should be completely at the disposal of the landlord? Does the Minister see the injustice of the position, and will he think of further steps to correct it?
Under the Community's regulations, quota is not owned by either the tenant or the landlord, but attaches to the land for the use of the occupier of that land. The hon. Gentleman will understand that while tenant farmers may have contributed to the build-up of production on the farm, they will have benefited from the resultant increase in income. I acknowledge that tenants have an interest in the quota, but so do landlords.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for saying that tenants, as occupiers, will now be able to take advantage of the outgoers scheme, rather than landlords who are not occupiers. It is good of him to clarify that point.
With respect to my hon. Friend, I did not say that. He may be interested to know that until recently the percentage of dairy farmers who were tenants who took advantage of the outgoers scheme was no less than 28 per cent.
The dairy quota scheme has been a botched job from the start. In view of the fact that it is particularly difficult for tenant dairy farmers to buy in transfer quota at the inflated prices which now apply, will the Minister offer special help to them by giving reasonable priority to them in the allocation of the latest tranche of outgoers quota?
We take all applicants for the outgoers scheme in the order in which they come. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the scheme has been reopened, and that is the basis on which we are at present working.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is satisfied with the present state of the dairy industry; and if he will make a statement.
In spite of the effective implementation of quotas, there is still a substantial surplus of milk production, and significant shifts in consumer demand are taking place. I am confident that there is the enterprise and flexibility for this efficient and successful industry to adapt to changing circumstances.
Does the Minister recall the correspondence that we have had about leucomycin? It was the result of infected food being supplied by Dalgetys to more than 150 dairy farmers in Devon and Cornwall, which seriously affected their milk production. The company has honourably faced its responsibility to make compensation. The panels recognise that the production loss is genuine, yet the rules do not allow any extra quota to be given. Will the Minister tell the House precisely what he has done so far to correct that obvious injustice?
I am aware that several cases fell outside the rules—they were cases of hardship—and that they could not be dealt with by the tribunal and the panels. I am aware of those difficult cases, and I shall be meeting Lord Grantchester later this afternoon to discuss them.
Despite the many vicissitudes through which the dairy industry has passed in recent months, does my right hon. Friend believe that doorstep deliveries are safe for the time being?
How nice it is to see my hon. Friend in the Chamber. I hope that the doorstep delivery is safe for the time being, but the continuance of that excellent service depends upon the support of housewives. If housewives buy their milk in other places, the doorstep delivery system will be in jeopardy.
Is the Minister aware that last year milk production in England and Wales was 215 million litres below quota? Is he further aware that there is still a colossal surplus of milk production in the EC? Does he accept that last year he caused the maximum disruption of the industry in Britain, for the minimum benefit in Europe? May we now have a proper, long-term review of the dairy industry? That might be a useful chapter in a possible White Paper on agriculture.
The hon. Gentleman has bowled me a full toss here. I refer him to a recent press release from the Milk Marketing Board on the "Milkminder" dairy costing service, which demonstrated that, for the 1,931 herds surveyed in 1983–84 and 1984–85, margins over purchased feed increased by £53 a cow in the first year of quotas, from £511 to £564.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on the effect of the payment of levy on an annual basis? Has he received representations from the farmers' unions of England or Wales on the result of the recent price fixing in Brussels?
I was able to get agreement that the payment of levies which might become due will be made on an annual basis. That has been welcomed by the NFUs, and it will be helpful to farmers who are changing the seasonal pattern of their production. I was especially pleased that a Welsh farming organisation warmly welcomed the livestock part of the price fixing settlement.
Without minimising the real hardship caused to some dairy farmers, does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures from the Milk Marketing Board survey show that there has been a real overall increase in profits for the dairy industry during the first year of quotas? Will he reject completely the hypocrisy of the junior Opposition spokesman on agriculture, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson)?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. The Milk Marketing Board's survey referred to margins over purchased feed, not to profits. Of course, the two are related.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the consternation in the dairy industry about the Government's attitude towards delays in payment for butter taken into intervention? Although EC countries have reduced the minimum delay from 120 days to 90 days, Britain is sticking to 120 days. Does he accept that not only will that cost the Dairy Crest £1·25 million in extra interest payments, but, more damagingly, it implies to British farmers that the Government will not treat them on equal terms with other EC farmers?
Member states can use their discretion on those matters. I do not have the information on what other countries are doing. It is doubtful whether we should make intervention more attractive and increase the already heavy burden that it imposes on public funds or reduce the incentive for production to find the real market outlets.
Agricultural And Food Research Council
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the level of his Department's funding of the Agriculture Research Council compared to previous years.
My Department's expenditure with the Agricultural and Food Research Council in the current year is likely to be very similar in cash terms to that in 1984–85.
Does the Minister envisage the research and development services coping with — whether the right hon. Gentleman hides it or not — something approaching a cut in real terms in the time that they have been given? Will that not injure the totality of their work?
The total expenditure on agriculture, fisheries and food from all sources is likely to amount to £204 million in 1983–84. The total spent on agricultural research and development amounts to £160 million. That is an enormous amount of money being spent on that important endeavour. I have no reason to believe that it is likely to be inadequate.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the grave anxiety of the horticultural sector of the industry about reputed reductions in research and development? Horticulture gets little general support from the Government and taxpayers' funds, so the support for research and development is of particular value.
I hear what my hon. Friend says. He will know that those matters are being considered by the Priorities Board. It would be a mistake to pre-empt what it might decide. Those concerned are experts in this area, and the AFRC is represented on the board. No doubt those people will note what my hon. Friend has said.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the slashing of funds for the research and advisory functions of his Ministry will have a serious effect on the industry as a whole? Unfortunately, through his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland following his example in Scotland, it has meant a cut of 41 per cent. Will the right hon. Gentleman take on board the point, which has already been made, that expenditure on those services is well worth while and that the loss from cutting them might be severe?
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that this question is about research and development, not necessarily about the advisory service. He will also recall that we are now having discussions with the industry with regard to both research and development and the advisory service, so that the industry as a whole will be able to make a larger contribution in the place of cuts in public expenditure that are necessarily having to take place.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government are doing everything they can to mobilise private sector support to make up the shortfall in funding that will arise from the Government's reductions? Is not that the least that the Government could do in the present circumstances? Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that unless funding is maintained we shall lose research capabilities—as an example, I cite aspects of the work of the National Vegetable Research Station at Wellsbourne—which are not only of proven and continuing value to our economy, but, through our aid programme, would enable us at minimum cost to confer immeasurable benefits on some of the poorest people in the world?
My hon. Friend will remember the announcement that I made on 24 May, that consultations would be held with the industry, and that it would be invited to consider a system of sectoral contributions. Those consultations are now in progress. It is valuable that the Priorities Board is in being. It is looking at the whole realm of agricultural research. My hon. Friend may like to read the Select Committee's report of two years ago and the Joint Consultative Organisation's report on the same subject, which were critical of certain aspects of the structure and organisation of research and development.
Will the Minister tell us when the institutes concerned will know about the effect of these reviews on staff numbers and, in particular, where the cuts will fall? Not the least hardship is the uncertainty that they all feel by reason of these cuts.
Responsibility for the reseach councils falls upon my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. However, I appreciate the current uncertainties. Our aim is to provide clear guidance as soon as possible.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will estimate the effect that the recent price cuts proposed at Brussels on agricultural produce will have on agricultural production.
It is impossible to make precise estimates of what agricultural production will be in any year, as much will depend upon unpredictable factors, such as the weather. But if prices are reduced, the production of a commodity over a period will be lower than it would otherwise have been.
Does my right hon. Friend realise that the figures produced by his Department show that during the past 10 years farm gate prices have fallen by an average of 20 per cent., but that during the same period production in some sectors has risen by as much as 200 per cent.? Bearing that in mind, can he have any confidence that this price-cutting policy will reduce food production?
Those who are against nominal price cuts have always used the argument that if prices are cut production is increased. I reject that argument. There is a great difference between cutting prices in real terms and cutting prices in nominal terms. My hon. Friend should remember that so far in the history of agricultural support, either in this country before we joined the European Community or within the common agricultural policy, there has not been a period when a real attempt has been made to control production by reducing prices. My view is that in this sector the market will work, as it works in other sectors.
If the agreement results in a cut in prices, will the Minister think of my small farmer constituents who have already had their sugar beet and potato quotas cut and to whom CALs make all the difference between a profit and a loss? Will he tell the House what he thinks will happen to them?
During the past few years the larger farmers on the eastern side of the country have had a far better deal than have farmers on the western side of the country. That has caused me to say continually that the imbalance between grain and livestock needs further to be redressed.
Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that in this changing scene for British agriculture there are some very real problems, particularly for small farmers? Will he also bear in mind that prices now for calves, heifers and store cattle are the highest they have ever been and that grass sales are running at £125 per acre? All is not, therefore, gloom and doom under this Government.
I am glad to hear that the farming industry in Devon has confidence in the Government's policies. That is the only lesson that one can derive from the most interesting figures that my hon. Friend has presented to the House.
:Farmers were delighted by the retention of the beef variable premium scheme, but they now find that the Commission is implementing that scheme in a quite different way from that which was outlined by my right hon. Friend in the House. For example, it is limiting the pay-out on certain weights of carcases.
Last week I had a meeting with the Commissioner and told him that this proposal was totally unacceptable.
Is it not astonishing that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food appears to be unaware that he is responsible for the direction of British agriculture? It is not good enough for the right hon. Gentleman to stand at the Dispatch Box and airily appear to diagnose the problem without beginning to perceive that he is responsible for providing some of the answers.
The hon. Gentleman must understand that, because this country is part of the Community and of the common agricultural policy, it is not always possible immediately to get exactly 100 per cent. of one's own way. That was certainly the case when the Labour party was in power. I remember seven or eight years ago the then Minister standing at the Dispatch Box wondering what on earth to do about the pig crisis.
On the proposed cereal price cuts by the Commission two days ago, will my right hon. Friend say what on earth is going on in this chaotic organisation? Do we, or do we not, have a veto? What will be the price?
I remind my hon. Friend that there is a later question on this matter on the Order Paper. I have read the reports of the Commission's intentions, although I have not yet received formal notification. Clearly, the Commission cannot simply overrule the Council of Ministers, but, in the absence of Council decisions, the Commission's desire to maintain an orderly market is understandable. I do not rule out the possibility of the Council reaching a satisfactory agreement on cereal prices before 1 August.
What effect will the proposed cereal price changes have on agricultural produce? Should not the answer be that there will be no diminution of cereal harvesting, production and surpluses in Europe during the coming season? Will the right hon. Gentleman pledge that none of the extra VAT devoted to own resources in the legislation introduced last Friday will be spent on agricultural produce?
The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that the position agreed with regard to the increase in own resources was that spending on CAP would increase at a slower rate than the rate at which resources were increasing in total.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that this feeble attempt to cut surpluses is resented by those farmers who receive no price support of any type? Does he realise that early strawberry growers, especially around Cheddar, are suffering because dumped foreign fruit has been brought in at below the cost of production? What will my right hon. Friend do to help them? Will he support the British horticulture industry as vigorously as other countries protect their industries?
If my hon. Friend reads Hansard, he will know that on many occasions my hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have raised this matter in the Council of Ministers. Two years ago we were getting little support from other member states in resisting the importation of soft fruits of this type from eastern European countries. I am glad to say that many other countries which are facing similar difficulties are moving in behind us to get something done about these damaging imports.
Farming Industry (Young Entrants)
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he is satisfied with the prospects for young people wishing to enter the farming industry.
I am satisfied that opportunities continue to exist for keen and resourceful young people wishing to enter the farming industry as farmers or as agricultural workers. Although the industry is currently facing a period of readjustment, in the longer term the prospects for those engaged in farming are good as home food production will continue to make a vital contribution to the country's economy.
Is my hon. Friend aware that her confidence in the fact that there are adequate opportunities is not fully shared by young people in the fanning sector? Does she agree that, to sustain confidence among those people, it is essential that there are first-class career opportunities? It is important to ensure that those opportunities are visibly sustained and that the Government are seen to take that fact on board. Will my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Minister once again examine the European legislation to ascertain how it might be adapted to our needs to create confidence among young people who are thinking of entering the agriculture industry?
We have received a number of representations about the provisions in the new EC structures regulation relating to young farmers. We are studying these carefully and shall reach a decision in the context of the new capital grant arrangement. Legislation on those new arrangements will be presented to Parliament shortly.
I am sure the Minister will agree that we must retain our county council smallholdings if we are to help young people entering the farming community. What advice has she or the Government given to county councils which are now selling off their smallholdings?
We regard local authorities as being in the best position to judge how best to manage their estates. Unfortunately, smallholdings have not generally proved effective in providing that first rung of the ladder, largely because of the absence of further rungs and the difficulty in building up sufficient capital from a relatively small holding.
Why should young people be given more encouragement to enter farming than any other industry?
I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that in the agriculture industry we are giving the possibility of apprenticeships and what I regard as opportunities—no more and no less.
Does the Minister agree that, no matter how we do it, we must encourage an increased number of young people to go in to, and stay in, the agriculture industry? Could this not be best effected by assisting in the creation of more small tenanted farms? Has not the time come to look again at tenancies and how to encourage their creation?
One of the principal objectives of our Agricultural Holdings Act, which will be familiar to the hon. Gentleman, was to encourage landlords to create more new tenancies, but this must be given a little more time. We hope to do this by removing one of the major disincentives to letting, which is the excessive security of tenure created by the family succession provisions in the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, which was passed by a Labour Government.
Does my hon. Friend remember that recently we passed the Agricultural Holdings Act to try to put up a ladder to encourage people to take tenancies of farms? Therefore, how can it be sensible to cut away the lowest rung by allowing county councils to sell off smallholdings?
I can only reiterate to my hon. Friend that, although the use of those smallholdings as a rung has been much advertised, all the figures show that they have not proved to be effective.
Is the hon. Lady aware that the incentives to landlords, about which she has been speaking, have not achieved an increase in the number of farms to let? Following the consultations that she has just mentioned, will the Government actively support article 7 of the draft European structure directive, which is a measure which could provide a genuinely useful package to help young people set up in the farming industry?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman was listening when I said that, yes, we have had many representations on the matter, that we are looking at it in the context of the capital grant arrangements, and that legislation will go through Parliament. I hope that, as a landlord, the hon. Gentleman will set a good example by offering tenancies.
Pressure Stock Licensing
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received on the question of pressure stock licensing; and if he will make a statement.
I have had representations for some easement of the pressure stock licensing rules from fishermen and vessel owners excluded from the pressure stocks. I have also received a number of representations for the tightening-up of the scheme. I have already announced a review of the arrangements for the pelagic fisheries in advance of the full review due next year.
Does the Minister accept that the decision, which he announced through a written answer on Monday of this week, whereby the three vessels from the Nethelands could gain their licences by means that are in total contravention of the rules—the Minister has confirmed that—is disgraceful? On top of that, they have been allowed respective catches of almost 3,500 tonnes per vessel. Will the Minister confirm that the review that he has announced will try to correct what is clearly a thoroughly shambolic, unfair and discriminatory state of affairs, which he has described as a regrettable misunderstanding and which, in any Minister's language, is fairly strong?
It is important to recognise that there have been sizeable changes since 1980 in the structure of the pelagic fleet and in the nature of the fishing opportunities available. Therefore, our review is timely. In particular, the number of freezer trawlers has dropped from 26 in 1980 to only one last year. Many of them came out of fishing without the benefit of decommissioning grants. It is doubtful whether the number was expected to drop so fast when the original decision was taken in 1980. It is doubtful, too, whether we should have such a low freezer trawler capacity. That is why we should have a review and why that issue should be considered within the review. The quota amounts for the three trawlers—which are not Netherlands-owned, but British-owned—are the same as purse-seiners would get.
Can my hon. Friend give an estimate of how long the review of pelagic licensing arrangements will take? Can he explain how the mistake of granting licences to what are, in effect, foreign vessels came about?
At this stage I cannot say how long the review will take. I must repeat that the trawlers are not now foreign vessels. I have been given assurances by the owner of two of them that it is intended increasingly to employ British crews. In regard to the error, it is a complicated matter. We are considering it at the moment, but we have made it clear that the licences that have been granted are provisional, pending the outcome of the review.
While these may not be foreign vessels, they have no historic right to the licences. Fishermen understand that mistakes can occur, and they respect the way in which the mistake was acknowledged. What they find intolerable is that the trawlers will be allowed to continue fishing. Will the Minister revoke the licences immediately?
No. On the last point. I have nothing to add to the written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Spence) on Monday. It is important for us all to reflect on whether there have been changes since 1980 and, therefore, whether it is desirable to make changes in our own arrangements. I am not prejudging that issue. Obviously there have been changes since 1980. Therefore, a review is now sensible.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is the present tonnage of grain in storage in the United Kingdom.
There were 3·23 million tonnes of wheat and 0·95 million tonnes of barley in intervention stores in the United Kingdom on 15 June 1985. Comparable information is not available on stocks held on farms or in private stores.
I note the reply, but I am sure the Minister is aware of the problems caused by the storage of this vast amount of surplus grain and of the cost of storage. As we shall shortly have this year's harvest to add to the existing surplus, what is the thinking of the Government about the long-term production of grain in the United Kingdom? For example, will quotas be introduced?
It is important to recognise that the industry found sufficient storage for the record harvest of last year. The Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce has had a very encouraging response so far to the recent tenders for new storage for the early part of the new season. In regard to the general policy on cereals, there are a host of reasons why, if it can be achieved, the policy that we have been pursuing in the Community for price reduction on a longer-term basis for cereals is correct. We are considering all the alternatives. Nevertheless, it remains the case that severe price restraint on support prices for cereals must remain an important part of any policy for some time.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the reduction in price of 1·8 per cent. may well lead to extra production and that the only way to use the price mechanism to reduce production is to reduce prices much more substantially?
My hon. Friend will know that we argued, without in the end enough support, for full application of the guaranteed threshold this year, which would have led to a reduction of 5 per cent. I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the cost of dealing with the disposal of surpluses in the Community. He will know that a policy of price reduction in cereal support prices helps to bring down the cost of the regime.
What proportion of this grain is stored in Northern Ireland, and are the Government taking steps to increase that proportion?
I do not have the figures showing the proportion stored in Northern Ireland. I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman about the matter.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he expects to conclude the consultation on voluntary nutritional labelling; and when he expects to receive the surveys carried out by the consumer organisations.
Comments from many interested parties on the draft guidelines for the voluntary nutrition labelling of food have been received and are being considered. The Consumers Association, the National Consumer Council and my Department expect to have the results of the consumer survey available shortly.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. How much emphasis will be placed on the results of the survey? If the survey shows the need for better nutritional labelling and for fat information, will she take note of that, and will it affect legislation?
I assure my hon. Friend that comments arising from the draft nutritional guidelines, together with the results of the consumer survey and points that have arisen in consultations with manufacturers and retailers, will be taken into account in producing revised guidelines.
One of the most important aspects of nutritional labelling is the sugar content of any food. As the Department does not propose to show that separately, will the Minister undertake that, if the survey provides evidence that such labelling would be valuable, the Department will change its mind?
The question of the labelling of fibre, sugar and salt content has particularly been brought to our attention. The labelling of those foods is allowed in the present draft, but we shall consider, in the light of comments, whether they need to be part of the basic list.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he is satisfied with progress in the development of safer techniques for the application of agricultural chemicals.
It is our aim to ensure a continuous transition to a higher level of safety in pesticides application. My Department, together with the Agriculture and Food Research Council, is continuing to develop and evaluate various techniques designed to control spray composition and deposition and improve application safety and efficiency. These include rotary atomisation, electrostatic charging, metering devices, the use of air deflection and droplet sizing.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the massive increase in the use of agricultural chemicals in recent years has had the severest effect on wildlife? While I welcome all the research that she has announced, may I ask whether she is aware that we have a duty to see that this research is carried through to success and is applied rapidly?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the passage of the Food and Environment Protection Bill will be a major step forward in that it will provide powers to control the use of pesticides. That will be done through regulations, codes of practice and information provided with each pesticide. I am confident that we can develop a procedure for assessing the safety of alternative application systems.
Is the Minister aware that safer techniques are of no earthly use unless they are put into effect? Will she accept the need for appropriate training for farm workers and others in the industry? Will the new regulations on pesticides cover a proper training programme for the people concerned?
In Committee on the Bill we have reached a good agreement on training and certification. During the continued passage of the measure—we hope next week—those matters will become even more evident.
asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what further consultations he plans and with whom before issuing regulations on the fat labelling of foods.
We shall consult widely on any proposals for legislation on food labelling, as required by section 118 of the Food Act 1984.
Bearing in mind the wide variety of fat blends used by the food industry, does my hon. Friend agree that the balance to be struck with these regulations is that of informing the consumer without imposing unnecessary burdens on the food industry?
Yes, of course, and we are, in relation to labelling, responding to the recommendations of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food.
Has the Minister seen the well-researched article in The Observer of 26 May, which suggests that the Government's proposals are totally inadequate in relation to food labelling and will not distinguish between the nutritional value of a Mars bar, with 67 per cent. sugar, and puffed wheat, with 1·7 per cent.? Surely, in addition to fat labelling, it is important to issue details of sugar content.
I have just said in answer to a question that in the nutritional labelling, which is to be voluntary, we shall look at whether fibre, sugar and salt content should be part of the basic list—that which we require if nutritional labelling is to be done at all.
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June.
This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings later today.
Will the Prime Minister, or one of her Ministers, instruct the National Coal Board to accept the recommendations of the report of the all-party Committee on Employment on the dismissal of National Coal Board employees, and if not, why not?
I have read the full report of the Select Committee on Employment. Nowhere in that report does the Select Committee condemn the tactics of violence and intimidation used against working miners. The National Coal Board has just issued a statement—
Yes, I agree that it was shabby that the Select Committee did not in any way condemn the tactics of violence and intimidation used against working miners.The National Coal Board has just issued a statement:
"The board will, of course, consider with care the comments and recommendations of the Committee, which they note were not unanimous. Area management have continued the board's policy of reviewing dismissal cases. At the time the board gave evidence to the Committee 1,013 miners had been dismissed, of whom 414 have been re-employed as a result of this policy, including 41 re-employed since the board gave evidence. This policy will continue. Any action the board might take as a consequence will, of course, in no way diminish the right of any person who has been dismissed to put forward his case to an industrial tribunal."
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June.
I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Will my right hon. Friend hold discussions about the £150 million which it has been estimated by the Audit Commission has been wasted by bad management in polytechnics and higher education, so that some 75,000 students may enrol in the future?
I noted that report this morning, with its very severe strictures. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has invited the local authority associations to join the Department in an urgent study of efficiency in non-advanced further education. If we can save this money it can be used to better the further education or other needs of local authorities. I hope that local authorities will take this matter very seriously indeed, because it is a waste of ratepayers' money.
This week the Government announced changes which will reduce child benefit by £250 million and take housing benefit away from 500,000 households. Is this the kind of policy that the Prime Minister had in mind when she said almost exactly two years ago that this was
"evidence of our commitment to the family" — [Official Report, 28 June 1983; Vol. 44. c. 49.]
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have put great emphasis on raising the tax thresholds, which are of particular benefit to families, and have raised income tax thresholds far more than his Government ever did. May I also point out that housing benefit, which cost £4·2 billion this next year, will go up after my right hon. Friend's announcement to £4·5 billion next year.
Does all that not occur merely because of the way in which the Government have pushed up unemployment and the rate of inflation? Does the answer that the Prime Minister gave offer any comfort to the wife of an employed man with two children who has had a significant loss as a result of the Government's refusal to uprate child benefit in line with inflation? Which households will benefit from 500,000 households losing their housing benefit?
The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the working population will have to find some £2 billion extra as a result of the uprating that my right hon. Friend announced. The right hon. Gentleman never thinks of where the money is to come from. With regard to child benefit, extra amounts will be going to working families on low incomes. I should have thought that he would welcome that.
When the Prime Minister is taking £250 million away from families and giving only £29 million back to them, it is clear that her targeting is not working well. We wonder where the money is coming from. We also wonder where it is going. Will it go again in tax cuts to the richest in our society?
An extra £2 billion is being taken out of the national income away from contributors and taxpayers to give extra social security benefits to people, many of whom are in need. Having read what the right hon. Gentleman said about SERPS, I do not believe that he is in any position to put accurate questions about social services.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at a time when an aircraft has been hijacked by Shi'ite Moslems, a demonstration was taking place on the streets of London by supporters of those hijackers? When will we ban such obscene demonstrations?
As my hon. Friend is aw are, a new Public Order Bill will be presented to Parliament in the next Session. We must weigh the right of people to demonstrate with the fact that it is a criminal offence to incite to violence. That, as my hon. Friend is aware, is a matter for the police. We condemn all those who incite others to violence on the streets of London and hope that the police will find sufficient evidence on which to prosecute.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing anxiety over Japan's trading policies with this country, Europe and the United States? At the forthcoming conference in Milan, what steps will she be asking her European partners to take to deal with non-tariff barriers, Japan's policy of hijacking international contracts by the dumping of credit and predatory pricing, and by keeping the yen artificially low?
As my hon. Friend is aware, we have condemned all those matters. It would help most immediately if Japan did not keep the yen artificially low, thereby helping its competitiveness in other markets. We shall be raising the matter at Milan. My hon. Friend is aware of how seriously I take those issues. We are taking action against dumping. We have taken action against some Japanese dumping. I shall be raising the wider question at the Milan European Council.
Does the Prime Minister accept that family support has been a social policy that has gone across the income levels for many decades? We are in danger of losing sight of the importance of the family if we concentrate family support only on those most in need. Family costs are high for the average taxpayer.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. Everyone with a family will continue to receive child benefit. The standard rate is £7 per child per week. It partly compensates for the removal of the child allowance. Every family will continue to receive it, but worse-off families will receive more. We cannot give more to some families without looking at child benefit over the whole scheme. The policy that my right hon. Friend is pursuing is right. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to give the impression that child benefit is not going to every family. He is wrong.
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June 1985.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Is the Prime Minister aware that in the pre-election period of 1979 she said that if her party was elected to power it would deal with law and order? Is she further aware that this Government have dramatically increased — [Interruption.] — the number of police officers, their earnings and their equipment — [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]
Order. I, too, want to hear the question.
Is the Prime Minister aware that crime figures are reaching a disgraceful level? I, my constituents and my party, want to know what this Government intend to do about the present crime levels.
The hon. Gentleman has given some very good examples of what this Government have been doing and will continue to do. I only wish that his party would give its support to the police in the performance of their duties, as this party does.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the warning by the chief agent of the United States drug enforcement administration—who is currently in this country, having come from Bogota in Columbia—that about 20 tonnes of cocaine are believed to be on their way to this country from South America and that Columbian drug gangs are already established here? Will she give the firmest assurance that neither manpower nor money will be spared to meet and defeat this threat to the health and wellbeing of the people of this country?
I am grateful for the support of my hon. and learned Friend in this matter. We are aware of that special cocaine danger. A special team was established last autumn and another team will be formed shortly. We are also taking steps to strengthen international co-operation with both producer and transit countries to reduce trafficking in cocaine and other controlled drugs. Both police and Customs officers will respond promptly to any specific information that they receive about cocaine trafficking. Both services will continue to give drug misuse the highest priority and, if need be, we shall spend more money to track down those responsible for these terrible offences.
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June 1985.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
When will the Government put up the money to settle the teachers' pay dispute? Does not the right hon. Lady not realise that she will not get away with underpaying them or with the sleight-of-hand deal made for the nurses, where the service actually suffered? The teachers are determined not to be done down. Are not the Government to blame for the disruption in our schools?
I do not accept in any way what the hon. Gentleman has said. The striking teachers are taking it out on the children in their desire to pursue claims for increased pay. Most of us, and many, many teachers, totally and utterly condemn that. I repeat what I have said to the hon. Gentleman, that we do not think that we can ask the taxpayer to pay any more towards teachers' salaries this year in total. If the teachers will consider a proper contract and appraisal of performance and restructuring next year, we shall be prepared to consider it. I urge them to get into negotiations. Alternatively, they have been offered arbitration.
Notwithstanding the tiny legal difficulty that has arisen in the past week, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will press ahead with the privatisation of British Airways and not be distracted by sideshows in foreign courts.
I can say nothing about court actions. It is our intention to privatise British Airways as soon as we can.
asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June 1985.
I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Why has the county of Powys been singled out and punished as the only county in Wales not entitled to money from the European social fund?
That is a matter for the European social fund. If the hon. and learned Gentleman is correct in what he says, I am sure that he will have taken the matter up in the appropriate quarter.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that you always try to be fair, but at Prime Minister's Question Time today only one Labour Back Bencher was called to ask a supplementary on any main question and on Question 2 two Tory Members were brought in one after the other, followed by the right hon. Member for Plymouth Devonport (Dr. Owen).
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that. I think that the whole House agrees that I have an obligation to keep a balance. If the Leader of the Opposition gets up more than once, as is his right, I take that into account in calling the other side.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I naturally recognise and completely respect your authority, Mr. Speaker. It might have been useful if I had been informed earlier that the number of interventions that my hon. Friends would be permitted to make would vary according to the number that I made. [Interruption.] I am aware that you, Mr. Speaker, have no control over the Prime Minister's evasions. It is because of her continual taste for dodging that I am obliged from time to time to get in more than once. [Interruption.] I hope that it will be noted that the right hon. Lady has now taken to heckling as well as evasion.
The whole House will understand that Front Benchers have their rights, but, equally, I am here to look after the interests of Back Benchers. In answer to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), who raised the matter first, it depends to a very large extent on how the questions fall on the Order Paper. I hope that the House does not think it unfair that Members with an early place in Prime Minister's questions should have some preference to be called.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been in the House a long time, but I have never known a Speaker to make the kind of ruling that you have made today. I stand corrected if that is not so, but I believe that it is true. Last week, or the week before when two Tory Members were in the first six or seven places or just missed, you made a point of calling them for earlier supplementaries. The same has happened today with another Tory Member. The impression is being created that there is a bias — [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw!"] If we count the time taken in the 15 minutes available for Prime Minister's questions, I believe we shall find that the Prime Minister takes up 10 minutes.
Order. I will take all the points of order together.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—
The hon. Gentleman has forgotten his lines.
There is no risk of that, boyo. I was pausing so that I could employ careful phraseology, so as not to upset you, Mr. Speaker. Under your unlamented predecessor, when the right hon. Lady was the Leader of the Opposition, she frequently, in the phrase that I used to your unlamented predecessor, took three bites at the cherry, and that made absolutely no difference to the number of her supporters who were called in Prime Minister's Question Time.
On another point of order, Mr. Speaker.
Will the hon. Gentleman wait? It is easier to take points of order on the same subject together.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A few months ago I said that the Leader of the Opposition uses four times as many words as did the Prime Minister when she was Leader of the Opposition. Is that not the direct cause of the complaint of the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon)?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I express the hope that you will not stick to the ruling that you gave in regard to the battle between the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition? It is a one-to-one battle. They are equal, at least in numbers—my right hon. Friend is well ahead in terms of content. In view of the equality of numbers, surely other supplementary questions should be divided equally between the Government and the Opposition.
Perhaps I can clear the matter up. It is a matter of judgment. There are more Conservative Members than Opposition Members — [Interruption.] Order. As for the accusation of bias, which is unworthy of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), Prime Minister's Question Time is an opportunity for Back Benchers, as well as Front Benchers, to put their questions to the Prime Minister twice a week. I do not think that it is biased or unfair if I take account of the balance of numbers in the House at Prime Minister's Question Time.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. With respect, we understand that the handling of questions entails matters of judgment, which you properly exercise. However, you have today laid down what are regarded by many right hon. and hon. Members as two precedents. One is that you are guided by the distribution of seats in the House as between Government and Opposition. I have never heard that stated before. I believe that it is a precedent. If I am wrong, I hope that you will correct me.The other precedent, which I think has been announced during this exchange, is that if my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asks the Prime Minister several supplementary questions—that is by no means unusual and happened when the Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition—the right hon. Lady, having had the opportunity to reply to those questions and, admittedly, time having been taken by them, time should be taken from the Opposition and the Government side should be compensated in terms of being able to ask more supplementary questions. Surely that, too, is a precedent and not just a matter of judgment.
Order. There is no precedent in this. I am approaching my second anniversary and I have not changed my practice since I began. As I have said, it all depends on how the questions fall on the Order Paper. There have been days when those on the Opposition Benches have been called for more supplementary questions because the primary questions have emanated from the Government side. I assure the House that there is no question of a change in practice. The House will accept that my practice at Prime Minister's questions is not the same as questions to a departmental Minister, when I tend to call one for one. But even that can vary, as it did today during agriculture questions, when there were more Government Members rising to ask questions than Opposition Members. I take that into account, too, as I did during Scottish questions yesterday, when I did the reverse.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you help the House by saying when that principle has previously been put before the House?
I do not think that it has. It is the first time that I have been asked about the principle.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is obvious that Opposition Back-Bench Members are dissatisfied with the extent to which the Leader of the Opposition monopolises Prime Minister's Question Time. Surely that is a matter which the Opposition should resolve at their private party meetings, and not under the spurious guise of points of order.
Order. We have business questions to follow, which is an opportunity for Back-Bench Members to ask questions. We also have a statement to deal with and an important debate in which many hon. Members wish to take part. I am prepared to continue to answer this matter, but I assure the House that I have not changed my practice from the beginning. [Interruption.] I ask the House to allow me to finish. At Prime Minister's questions, the Speaker must balance the rights of Front Benchers to ask questions against those of Back Benchers. That is what I have done, and what I think the House would expect me to do.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You said in response to an earlier intervention that you had not changed anything. In response to me, you said that you had never stated the practice to the House before because you had never been asked before. Since you have never stated it to the House before, will you tell us when a previous Speaker has?
It is just possible that no previous Speaker has been asked, either.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the context of your earlier ruling, will you explain to the House why the Social Democratic party is called as often as it is?
Yes, I can explain that. Prime Minister's questions provide an opportunity for the minority parties to have their say. [Interruption.] I have an obligation to look after minorities as well as majorities.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are we not running into the danger that the two propositions mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) may gell into precedents, unless there is cooler reflection on what has happened today? If, for example, the first of the two propositions — that hon. Members are called according to the balance of parties in the House—were extended to Welsh and Scottish Question Times, when the Tory party is in the minority, it may lead to consequences which the Opposition would not want. We would still want a balance. Before there is a firm gelling of these precedents, can the matter be considered rather more coolly?
I shall consider the matter coolly. The hon. Gentleman, who is present at Welsh questions, will find that more Welsh Members from the Opposition side are called than from the Government side because there are more of them. I shall, however, reflect on the matter.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you help the House by explaining a little more the doctrine of hon. Members being called pro-rata to representation in the House.
Order. I have said that I will reflect on this.
On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Prime Minister's Question Time the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) said that Shi'ites were marching in our streets today. I wish to point out to the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that you will agree with me, Mr. Speaker—that the rights of all people in Britain must be protected. The Moslems who were marching today were Iranians protesting at the Ayatollah's regime and demanding freedom and democracy in that country. Have we reached the stage—
Order. What is the point of order for me?
I am coming to that, Mr. Speaker. You are the Speaker of the House of Commons and the protector of the rights to democracy in Britain. Will you make it clear to all right hon. and hon. Members that people outside the House have rights, and that they must be protected from those who would wish to ban every organisation with whose aims they do not agree?
Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that every hon. Member who asks a question or makes a statement in the House must take responsibility for it. It is not a matter for me.
Further to the earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have think the House is extremely grateful that you are prepared to reflect on what is a disturbing—
Order. I have said that I shall reflect. I do not believe that any more points of order arise.
May I make a comment that would help you, Mr. Speaker?
Order. I do not believe that it would help me.