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Commons Chamber

Volume 172: debated on Thursday 17 May 1990

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House Of Commons

Thursday 17 May 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Birmingham City Council (No 2) Bill (By Order)

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question proposed [26 February],

That the Bill be now considered.

Debate further adjourned till Thursday 7 June.

British Railways (No 2) Bill (By Order)

Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 7 June.

Adelphi Estate Bill ( By Order)

Read a Second time and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.

London Docklands Railway Bill (By Order)

London Underground (Victoria) Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 22 May at Seven o'clock.

As the remaining seven private Bills set down for Second Reading have blocking motions, with the leave of the House I shall put them as a single group.

Cattewater Reclamation Bill ( By Order)

Shard Bridge Bill (By Order)

Vale Of Glamorgan (Barry Harbour) Bill Lords ( By Order)

London Underground Bill (By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 7 June.

Exmouth Docks Bill (By Order)

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question proposed [29 March],

That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Debate further adjourned till Thursday 7 June.

Great Yarmouth Port Authority Bill Lords (By Order)

Heathrow Express Railways Bill Lords (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 7 June.

Oral Answers To Questions

Agriculture, Fisheries And Food



To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what factors affect monetary compensatory amounts on pigs.

The 9·8 per cent. devaluation in the pigmeat green rate that we obtained for the United Kingdom at the price fixing will, at current rates of exchange, eliminate our pigmeat MCAs.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will accept the thanks of the industry for that. Will he take this opportunity to thank the pig industry for its fight against Aujesky's disease and the way in which it has funded the fight with such successful results?

I am pleased to confirm that. I think that I was the first Member to raise the question of Aujesky's disease in the House in the first year of this Government. I am pleased that I am the Minister who will probably be the first to say that the disease is finally removed from Britain.

Why did the Minister fail to take the first opportunity to alert the public to the problems arising from feed contaminated with cyanide being fed to pigs in Yorkshire, which resulted in the slaughter of more than 1,200 pigs? Is not that another example of the secrecy and cover-up tactics adopted by this Minister, which have led to such a lack of trust in his Ministry?

The hon. Lady should not suggest that there has been a cover-up. If ever a Ministry announced everything and gave all the information, it is this Ministry. She makes that suggestion because she does not know the facts. She does not know that the French feed was discovered and that Bibby's did the work necessary to withdraw it, or that it presented no public health hazard whatever. She should stand up and congratulate my officials who did the work, rather than insult them.

Bearing in mind the fact that the cyclical nature of the pig industry reflects the size of the national herd, does my right hon. Friend think that it is desirable to introduce greater stability through a tighter EEC regime, or that that area of agriculture is better left more open to market forces?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we must be particularly generous in eliminating the MCAs for the pig industry because it has so little support under the present common agricultural policy. In the end, the British industry will do much better if it can regain a large proportion of our home market, which has been taken over by competitors.

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), it appears that on 3 May the Minister was aware that pig feed was contaminated with a cyanate product, Cyanox 425, as well as the insecticide Isofenphos, yet it was not until 9 May, through parliamentary questions from my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), that the information was made known. When the Minister goes round the country making silly speeches about such matters as vegetarianism being an unnatural activity, while suppressing important information on contamination of pigmeat in Yorkshire, Humberside, Durham and Nottinghamshire, is not his personal credibility damaged in dealing with public anxiety about food safety?

What the hon. Gentleman says would be true if it were right. The press was fully informed of that matter long before the question was raised in the House. It recognised that as there was no threat whatever to human health, it was not even worth putting into the press. It is not surprising that no one but the hon. Gentleman seems to think that it is a matter of secrecy. It can hardly be secret if the press has been told.

Will the Minister remind the Opposition that cabbage contains cyanide and that it is a natural part of the human diet, although that may worry vegetarians? Will he also remind the Opposition that scare stories about food are quite unwarranted? We have some of the safest food in the world.

I have to admit to my hon. Friend that I have not advised the public about the cyanide that is in cabbage. If the press feels that it would like to take that up, no doubt we can discuss it. I keep nothing from the public and I am prepared always to tell the public the truth. It is only because the Opposition want to find a conspiracy that they are determined to say that, largely because they have very little else to say about agriculture.

Fishing Industry


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the present state of the fishing industry.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. David Curry)

Landings of all species by United Kingdom vessels in the United Kingdom for 1989 were worth some £389 million compared with £396 million in 1988. While fishing opportunities and earnings from North sea cod and haddock in 1990 have been reduced, the estimated value of landings in the early part of the year was at least similar to that at the same time last year.

Does the Minister accept that notwithstanding the figures that he has given for earnings, the industry is still facing depression and is apprehensive? He mentioned the decline in earnings from cod and haddock. Is he aware that many producers are experiencing a squeeze on their catches of whiting? Will he explain to the House why, when the total allowable catches of whiting went up this year, the amount for industrial fishing went up even more, thereby affecting our fleet, which catches fish for human consumption? What steps are the Government taking in current reviews to alter that and to allow more fish to be caught for human consumption? That would help our fleet, which needs every little bit of help that it can get.

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the consultation paper called "Entitlement Aggregation". That is the next phase of our management improvement and will be in the Library today. It will tackle some of the problems of the fleet. The hon. Gentleman asked about whiting. It is true that scientists recommended an increase in the industrial catch, which is why the total allowable catches went up. We keep those figures under review, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that we are seeking an increase in cod availability because of an agreement with Norway. That increase will be distributed according to the normal rules. We are presently negotiating that with the Community.

Has my hon. Friend had a chance to read the thoroughly misleading leaflet being circulated by the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)? Does he agree that there must be agreement between all hon. Members with constituencies adjacent to the North sea if the North sea fishing industry is to be preserved? Does he further agree that the present problem is mainly about the number of fish there? It cannot be solved unilaterally. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will do everything possible to preserve the long-term interests of the British fishing industry?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) produced a sort of samizdat. It was written in small print, no doubt to deter people from reading it so that they would not be too bemused. It was an exercise in historical nostalgia and was very selective in its facts. My hon. Friend is right to say that it is only by common effort in conservation and by achieving better management, which the Government have already embarked upon, that we can conserve stocks for the future of the fishing industry.

Does the Minister accept that even if the print on the document, which many Conservative Members support, was small, the message is still loud and clear? In its present crisis the industry needs a decommissioning scheme as a conservation measure. It needs proper conservation by way of an increase in mesh sizes, a ban on industrial fishing and the use of square mesh panels. Why does not the Minister take the lead in introducing those measures instead of leaving all the running to a Commissioner who seems to do more for his native Spanish industry than for the industry of this country?

First, it is nice of the hon. Gentleman to come here. Secondly, we have introduced a series of management measures. I commend the latest paper to the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that his fleet in Grimsby will find it of great interest. We are pursuing the conservation options with a great deal of enthusiasm, together with our Scottish colleagues and the remainder of the United Kingdom.

By a combination of more intelligent and better management measures and effective conservation measures, we shall achieve real benefits for our fleet—rather than taking the hon. Gentleman's purely theoretical and rhetorical stance, which no doubt is in keeping with the media personality that he wishes to pursue.

Has my hon. Friend received my letter about the renewed and growing fears of fishermen, especially in Cornwall, about the apparent reappearance of the so-called flags of convenience vessels on the register? He will know that some 136 vessels were removed from our fishing fleet as a result of legislation passed by the House, but now there are fears that 29 such vessels have come back on to our register. Can my hon. Friend enlighten us on that?

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend some information. The vessels that are now back on the register are under British ownership, with a single exception that is Spanish owned. They all fulfil the requirement for management of their fisheries from a United Kingdom economic base. They also fulfil the domiciliary and residence requirements. To all intents and purposes, those vessels are no longer quota hoppers; they are legal under British registration and licensing procedures.

Is the Minister aware of the grave concern of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation about the proposal to change the navigational system for fishing in the Irish sea from the well-tried Decca method to an obsolete air system that has been abandoned by the United States? Will he undertake to consult the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation and respond reasonably to its concerns about its members' livelihoods? In the aftermath of a very bad winter, it wants to ensure that the capability to fish will be safeguarded.

The substance of the matter is more for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. However, my Department has taken an interest in it and we hope to obtain a significant cut in the light dues paid by fishermen. We have managed to achieve a long transition period, which I believe will be very useful to the industry. I am conscious of the position of the Northern Ireland fishing industry and, in consultation with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who is on the Bench with me, we do our utmost to safeguard the industry's livelihood.

What sort of support can the industry on the west coast, especially in my port of Fleetwood, expect from the Government to meet the European Community's hygiene regulations in 1992?

As my hon. Friend knows, a series of measures will enable us to support the development of modern hygiene facilities. Of course, a considerable part of that must fall upon the industry because it is important that it can meet the single market and claim that fish is a product that is handled cleanly as well as being exceptionally healthy. We shall do our utmost to ensure that the British fishing industry, which is the largest in the northern part of the European Community, can compete effectively.

Food Labelling


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food whether he has any plans to make further changes to the present regulations covering the labelling of food.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. David Maclean)

There are in various stages of development, both here and in Brussels, proposals covering date marking, lot identification marks, nutrition labelling, quantitive ingredient listing, ingredient listing for alcoholic drinks, controls on claims and the labelling of irradiated food. The Food Advisory Committee is also carrying out a review of food labelling at my request.

Is the Minister aware that concern has been expressed by British-based exporters of meat that they are not on a level playing field? Is he further aware that a company in my constituency recently had a load of pigeon breasts condemned by the Italian authorities on grounds that had not been previously advised—that is, that the labelling was not in Italian, although it had not been requested, and that there was not a full veterinary certificate, even though the company had met all the British requirements? Is the Minister satisfied that other members of the European Community are offering trade on equal terms?

If any of the hon. Gentleman's constituents encounter certification problems on the export of meat or meat products, my officials will be ready to give all the help and advice possible. The hon. Gentleman demonstrates the importance of having a regime for such matters with common standards and well-understood rules throughout Europe, which are enforced equally by all member states, and that is our policy.

Now that our egg industry is probably the most carefully controlled and hygienic in the world, will my hon. Friend give further consideration to the possibility of stamping individual eggs, as we used to do with the old British lion? We are all well aware that it is possible to stamp boxes, but boxes marked "Packed in Britain" may be full of imported eggs. Bearing in mind the privations that the egg industry has had to put up with in recent months in order to reach its present position, is not it time to identify individual eggs for the benefit of consumers and egg producers alike?

I partly disagree with my hon. Friend. It is contrary to the rules to stamp individual eggs and the last time that that was done consumers believed that they were not as fresh as unstamped eggs. I commend to my hon. Friend and to the House the excellent campaigns being run by British egg organisations to draw to consumers' attention the benefits of British eggs. I also commend the report of the Select Committee on Agriculture, which made some excellent comments about the quality of British eggs.

Does the Minister now regret not having introduced fuller regulations on the labelling of animal feedstuffs? Does he agree that many farmers would not be using many of the feedstuffs that are fed to pigs and poultry, which contain the rendered remains of scrapie-infected sheep and BSE-infected cattle, if they knew the contents? Why does not he introduce a compulsory labelling scheme so that producers know what they are using?

In addition to producers and consumers knowing what they are using, the hon. Gentleman should know what is happening on the European front. In January this year agreement was reached on the draft directive on ingredient listing for animal feedingstuffs. We are negotiating fuller details on animal feedingstuffs, which will apply throughout Europe. It is not possible, and it would be wrong, for me to try to act unilaterally.

Food Safety


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has had with regard to the accuracy of statements in the book entitled, "Parents Guide to Safe Food".

I understand that the book has yet to be published. However, references that I have seen in the press suggest that some of the subjects are treated in a misleading and alarmist manner. If that is correct, the publication will be of little help to consumers in reaching a balanced judgment about the food available to them. I hope that it will be more accurate than recent allegations made by Parents for Safe Food regarding residues of pesticides in food.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we suffer from an over-supply of experts on food quality and that it is high time that sensible observations were made about the high quality of British food? We could do with fewer reports based on spurious science and inaccurate information peddled by people masquerading as experts. In most people's eyes an expert on this subject is "ex", a has been, and "spert", a person under pressure.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As we are always urged to be as safe as the Americans with regard to pesticides such as Alar, I should tell hon. Members that the American Agriculture Secretary said:

"unlike us, the British have decided not to ban EBDCs, because they found there was really no health risk involved. British science is at least as sophisticated as ours. Our government has banned products of significant value to mankind in recent years on the basis of what I consider unpersuasive evidence. We ought not to be doing that."
I agree.

As the Minister has mentioned pesticides, will he comment on the recent case of the consumer who thought that he had bought organically grown potatoes but found that they had been treated with tecnazine? Consumers surely have a right to know whether the food products that they buy have been treated with pesticides.

The hon. Lady raises two very good points. First, any pesticides used on crops in this country are safe. If they were not, they would not be authorised. Secondly—[Interruption.]

Order. I appeal to hon. Members seated below the Gangway, as it seems that I have to do every day lately, not to barrack other right hon. and hon. Members from a sedentary position.

Secondly, of course the consumer has a right not to be conned. If a person thinks that he is buying organic produce, he has a right to be certain that it has been organically grown. We have established the United Kingdom register of organic food producers, and we want to ensure that throughout the EEC, organic labels mean exactly what they say and that there is no cheating. That matter is for the enforcement authorities.

Will my hon. Friend confirm his readiness to consider any objective and scientific evidence that is offered by scare campaigns? Will he equally criticise and treat on their merits any claims unsubstantiated by evidence, or supported by evidence that is unscientific and inadequate?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have an open-door policy, whereby people can come to us with their evidence and views. It is interesting that in the past few weeks, on several occasions when I have called for evidence from the so-called experts who crop up in the media, that evidence has been very slow in coming. In most cases, it has not been presented at all.

Has the Minister seen today's opinion polls, which show, contrary to his assertions, that the majority of British people do not believe that the Government can be trusted "to tell the truth" about food issues? Is not that a scandalous state of affairs? Will the Minister consider abolishing the old-fashioned Agriculture Ministry and replacing it with a modern Ministry of Agriculture and Food, backed up by an independent food standards agency?

It is interesting that the only reform that the hon. Gentleman can suggest is to turn the title of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food into the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries. If that is the substance of his policies, no wonder he has proved that Labour, just like its leader, is unfit for government.

Dairy Farmers


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what are the prospects for dairy farmers' incomes during 1990–91.

Net income from dairying in 1989–90 was estimated to be 75 per cent. higher in real terms than in 1983–84, before the introduction of quotas. This year, the sector will benefit from the substantial devaluation in the green pound and from the shorter intervention payment delays that took effect earlier this week.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his extremely helpful reply, which will be widely welcomed by farmers not only in my constituency but throughout the country. Does he expect that the improvement will continue, and what does he think are the industry's long-term prospects?

Many of the factors behind the improvement are continuing. I hope that the dairying industry will take seriously the new challenges of 1992 and of the single market, seek to be more competitive than ever against our European partners, and look to the type of structure that will most help to ensure that.

In his calculation of the prospects for dairy farmers' incomes in the coming year, has the Minister taken any account of the certain consequences of his step-by-step resistance to the imposition of effective measures to control the menace of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, including the suggestions put forward by the National Farmers Union? Will he accept that he is meant to be responsible for food as well as agriculture and that his imitation of Corporal Jones running around saying, "Don't panic", is not good enough? Can we have some action to restore confidence in the meat and dairy industry?

If what the hon. Gentleman suggested —step-by-step resistance—was the case he might have some basis for his argument, but the farmers are being protected by the consumer interest of my Ministry, which puts the consumer first and is therefore able to say categorically, in the words of the chief medical officer, that

"British beef is entirely safe to eat".
Farmers know that by putting the consumer first I ensure that their future is safeguarded. The people that farmers and consumers are looking askance at are people such as the hon. Gentleman who seek to spread scandal and fear when it is not necessary.

Scottish Fishing Industry


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he next expects to meet representatives of the Scottish fishing industry to discuss catches.

I met Scottish fishermen's representatives at the recent Glasgow fishing exhibition and my noble Friend the Minister of State, Scottish Office, regularly meets them.

Is the Minister aware that in the past month in my constituency two fishing boats have been sold and another five boats are nearly on the market as the effects of the Government's failure ripple through the industry? Is he aware that I am not talking about big corporations but about small businesses and individuals who are now caught up in the worst of all possible economic worlds? They cannot catch enough fish to run their boats, but they are left with assets which cannot easily be converted. The Government have betrayed the fishing industry. The hon. Gentleman is in charge—what is he going to do about it?

That is a load of—[HON. MEMBERS: "Say it."] I was seeking a suitable expression. That is rubbish. The hon. Gentleman cannot expect any Government to guarantee the continued existence in its present shape of any industry in this country. He can, however, expect the Government to ensure that the industry's management is effective and ask the industry to be serious about conservation measures. We have improved management and we are seriously pursuing conservation measures, but we do not intend or claim that we can maintain the industry in its present state. The rationalisation of the industry is necessary, as it recognises.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great problems is the structure of the industry and that the bulk of the catch in Scotland is brought in by large vessels? Small vessels catch only a small proportion of the total catch. It would be extremely difficult for any scheme to benefit those who make such a small contribution to the total catch.

As I am sure that my hon. Friend knows, very small vessels are not subject to the licensing and quota arrangements. They remain outside the management system. We are concerned about the future of small fishermen. That is why we are introducing measures that will enable the fleet to rationalise sensibly through a combination of market forces and Government assistance which still represents one of the greatest financial commitments in any industry in this country in comparison with the industry's turnover.

Will the Minister confirm that he has had representations from fishermen on the west coast of Scotland about fishermen from the east coast who are forced to come round to the west because of restrictions imposed by the haddock quotas? Will he consider the proposal that west coast fishermen have put forward to introduce local fishing plans to protect their interests and to make prawns a pressure stock?

The hon. Gentleman knows that a consultation paper has been published on the west coast problem. We have received representations from the industry. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are considering those representations. If we think that further management measures on the west coast are necessary and that they will not penalise efficient fishing methods and add a new layer of bureaucracy for fishermen to cope with, we shall consider them seriously. We recognise that there is a problem.

When my hon. Friend meets Scottish fishermen, will he draw to their attention the view expressed to the three Members of Parliament for south Humberside last Friday when we met English fishing industry representatives from Hull and Grimsby? They felt that Scottish fishermen were getting a far better deal at the expense of English fishermen, which underlines exactly the point that my hon. Friend made earlier.

I regularly meet representatives of the English fishing industry and, indeed, the whole United Kingdom fishing industry. I have never felt that they are short of words and I am sure that they are capable of expressing those sentiments to Scottish fishermen.

As the Minister has acknowledged that the fishing industry is going through perilous times and that drastic and painful restructuring is needed, with which the industry is prepared to co-operate, why does he continue to set his face against the decommissioning scheme and the temporary lay-off scheme so that restructuring could be carried out sensibly and the people concerned receive proper compensation? Do we have to invent mad fish disease before he is prepared to give the matter his attention?

If the hon. Gentleman wants a sensible restructuring of the industry, a decommissioning scheme is just about the last way to go about it. Capacity would not necessarily be reduced and people would not necessarily leave the fishing fleet as we should like. It would be a very expensive option. It would be much more sensible to pursue a twin course. First, we must give fishermen the right to make their own decisions. I recommend to the hon. Gentleman the licensing aggregation proposals. Secondly, we must pursue the adoption of conservation measures at the European level. We shall pursue those courses and they will result in an efficient, well-structured British fleet which is competitive on a European scale.

Emergency Orders


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received concerning the incurring of non-recoverable losses by farmers due to the implementation of emergency orders.

I have received representations from a number of sources—including, both directly and indirectly, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and food industry interests.

I accept the need for emergency Government powers, where appropriate, to protect food safety, but will my hon. Friend confirm that many of the farmers covered by these powers were found subsequently not to be affected by contamination and were unable to recover their losses? Will my hon. Friend look carefully, sympathetically and urgently at introducing legislation to try to rectify that problem?

We always look carefully at the effects of any of the orders or decisions that we take. If my hon. Friend is referring to the recent problem of lead in feed in the west country, he will be aware that the Government's first priority is to protect public health. We had to act on information received from the feed companies. The farmer's first recourse must be to the perpetrators of the incident—those who supplied them with the feed, and their suppliers. That is where the liability for error lies.

Does the Minister accept that his bumptious music hall turn performance at the Dispatch Box today is an insult to the public, who are seriously worried about food safety issues? Will he at last come to the Dispatch Box and speak for consumers instead of acting as a mouthpiece for the British food industry? Does he not understand that by talking so much rubbish in defence of vested interests, and by promoting the eating of rubbish, he is doing damage to the health of this country's population?

It was nice today during food questions to come across an example of one of the things that we have been facing this week—the nonsense that we have heard from Opposition spokesmen. The hon. Gentleman has demonstrated that he has been going around as has his hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), like a demented Private Fraser from "Dad's Army" saying, "We're all doomed." It is a doomsday scenario. That is the kind of rubbish and nonsense that we are hearing from Opposition Members. The hon. Gentleman is wrong, just as his hon. Friends have been wrong all week. I chair the consumer panel, I meet consumers who come into my office and I represent consumer interests.

Agricultural Development Advisory Service


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the head of the Agricultural Development Advisory Service to discuss the future of the Agricultural Development Advisory Service.

I regularly meet the director general of the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service to discuss a range of matters including organisational issues.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is considerable disquiet in the agricultural industry about the future of ADAS. Will he undertake to discuss any major moves with the chairmen of the regional panels?

ADAS is always a matter of discussion in our meetings with the regional panels. I assure my hon. Friend that I will continue those discussions. We are pleased with the way in which ADAS has started to respond to the increase in its charging facilities and with the effect that it is having on the agriculture industry.

When the Secretary of State met the head of the advisory service, did he by any chance discuss the growing of vegetables? Is he aware how offensive his recent remarks were when he suggested that people who were vegetarian were somehow indulging in unnatural practices and acting against the word of the Lord, or words to that effect? May we assume that those words were bovine spongiform-induced? Does the Secretary of State intend to put a health warning on carrots, telling people that they may be damning their eternal souls if they eat them, or does he intend to apologise to the House and in particular to Mr. Speaker who is a well-known vegetarian?

Mr. Speaker, you and I have corresponded to some end on that matter, and I repeat what I said to you—that I eat vegetables with great pleasure. I object only to those people who say that I should be a vegetarian. I do not want to make them carnivorous, although man does appear naturally so to be.

Green Pound


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what further actions he intends to take to help British agriculture while the green pound remains in existence.

The Government are committed to ending disparities between green and market rates of exchange of the pound by the end of 1992 at the latest. To achieve that, we shall be seeking further substantial devaluations of the green pound between now and then.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his hard work and the success that he achieved recently at the Commission. May I also remind him of another way in which he could help? Last July we lost an appeal with the Commission to extend the less-favoured areas. If that appeal could be pushed forward so that we get a reply in under 12 months, it would be a great help to the farming community in areas such as my constituency.

I assure my hon. Friend that we are seeking to ensure that that review is completed as soon as possible. We are constantly pressing the Commission for the result.

Does the Minister accept that, as the Prime Minister has pointed out, the underlying rate of inflation in Britain is within a percentage point of that in Europe, so the case for remaining outside the exchange rate mechanism has exploded? Does he recognise that British agriculture will be tremendously assisted by immediate entry in to the ERM?

The Government are committed to joining the ERM at the time when it is right for us to do so. British agriculture would be harmed considerably if we chose the wrong moment. The hon. Gentleman will know that my European credentials are clear, but I do not wish to damage the British agricultural industry merely to follow the course of action that the hon. Gentleman wishes at a time when it would not be helpful.

Food Prices


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what has been the movement in food prices in the last five years; what was the equivalent movement between 1974 and 1979; and if he will make a statement.

Over the past five years the annual increase in food prices has been 4·4 per cent. That compares with an increase of 16·5 per cent. per year between 1974 and 1979.

Will my hon. Friend underline again and again and again that food prices rise much faster under Labour Governments than ever they do under Conservative Governments? Will he use the present favourable conditions to phase out battery farming and intensive farming wherever possible? Above all, will he let the housewives know that a Labour Government would cost them a fortune?

My hon. Friend is right. The Labour party has spent most of this afternoon pretending to be the friend of the consumer, but any Government who presided over rising food prices of that order are the enemy of every consumer in the country.

Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to discuss matters within its responsibilities.

The Government have commissioned extensive research—[Interruption.] I am sorry—I should be answering question No. 14. My noble Friend the Minister of State, Baroness Trumpington, met the RSPB on 14 May 1990.

When the Minister next meets the director of the RSPB, will he discuss with him the wholesale slaughter of wild birds on the hillsides of mid-Glamorgan as a result of fires sweeping across that area, usually deliberately started by teenagers? There have been at least 1,400 such fires in the past two months. They are endangering people living in the valleys, who are left unattended by fire engines which are stuck up on the mountain dealing with the fires. Will the Minister discuss that and the effect that it is having on wildlife in the area?

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. The whole House will deplore anyone deliberately starting fires—whether in urban, rural or hillside areas—endangering, I presume, not only wildlife but human life. We at the Ministry will use our best endeavours to draw the problem to the attention of all concerned and hope that it will be stamped out as soon as possible.

Prime Minister



To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 May.

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 today, including one with President Mubarak of Egypt.

Does my right hon. Friend regret the rise in unemployment announced earlier today as it is an indication of an increase in unit labour costs? Has she noticed, however, that in the regions of the north and the midlands, and in Scotland and Wales, unemployment has continued to fall?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. The seasonally adjusted figure has risen by just over 1,000, although the headline total is down by 20,000. As my hon. Friend knows, unemployment has fallen by some 250,000 in the last year and we still have more people in jobs than ever before, but there is a danger about unit labour costs rising—if they continue to rise more than those of our competitors, we shall see unemployment rising. I notice that in this country last year unit labour costs rose by 5 per cent. while in the Federal Republic of Germany and in Japan they stayed absolutely static, in the United States they rose by only 2 per cent., and in France they actually fell by 2 per cent. That is a measure of the task that we have to face.

May I take this opportunity of telling the Prime Minister that the whole House is united in its condemnation of the terrorist bombings this week and that the whole House will want to offer condolences to the family of Sergeant Chapman, who was murdered yesterday, and to all who have been injured? May I also say once again that no Government formed from either side of this House will ever concede to violence?

I agree very much with the right hon. Gentleman that the vicious and sick minds that plan and execute these attacks bring shame and discredit on themselves and their cause and on all who associate with and support them. The fact is that they all have a full democratic vote which they can exercise in just the same way as anyone else. Because they do not like the result, they try to bomb and maim people out of it. We cannot tolerate that and we must and will do all in our power to fight these terrible and brutal attacks—and to restore order once again and full democracy to Northern Ireland—and of course, here, where they are now trying to pursue their deadly attacks.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 May.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be wise to listen carefully to the words of the Leader of the Opposition when he talks about credit controls? After all, did not the previous Labour Government have extensive experience of using credit controls, exchange controls, devaluation and high interest rates? Yet they still managed to achieve inflation of almost 27 per cent. We do not need to look into the crystal ball when we can look at the book.

I agree with my hon. Friend that in the modern economy, with the amount of freedom that we now have, credit controls will not work. A former Treasury Minister, the right hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies), had it right when he said:

"The Labour Party idea that you can have credit controls is rubbish. There is no way you can control credit except by controlling the price of credit, and the price of credit is bank rate."


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 May.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Has the Prime Minister read the speech by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in Tokyo on Monday, in which he boasted that Britain had some of the cheapest unit labour costs in western Europe? Does she agree that whatever the cause for today's rise in unemployment it can therefore have nothing to do with wages?

I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) the latest figures from last year. Unfortunately, our unit labour costs are now rising faster than those of many of our competitors and that is serious. In Japan and in Germany, unit labour costs have not risen at all. In the United States they have risen by 2 per cent., in France they have fallen by 2 per cent., and in this country they have risen by 5 per cent. That means that we are taking out more pay than we are putting back in productivity. That can only have a damaging effect on jobs in the future.

Does my right hon. Friend consider that it is feasible, desirable or in the public interest that, in effect, the motor vehicle should be used as an instrument for enforcing total prohibition on the roads? If not, does she agree that as the most modern, accurate and sophisticated technology is now available to enable the motorist to ensure that he or she does not approach the limit, it should be used in the same way as the motorist uses the speedometer? If my right hon. Friend is with me thus far, will she encourage the Home Office to abandon its ancient policy of proceeding in front of all new technology at 4 mph with a red flag?

I have been trying to follow my hon. Friend without lurching in logic, but I am finding it a little difficult to do so. I know that he is always anxious to make full use of the very latest technology and I will refer the matter to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 May.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Is the Prime Minister aware that some school governors operating the pilot scheme for the local management of schools are resigning and that in some cases, such as Meersbrook Bank school in my constituency, they are not setting budgets because they cannot use budgets which mean sacking experienced teachers? How can the Prime Minister call for better education and training while agreeing with a budget which has forced school governors to sack experienced teachers?

I do not accept that. Many schools—possibly most—welcome the opportunity to control their own budgets. Head teachers are highly educated people who are well able and willing to take the responsibility that comes with freedom and they much prefer to have the say over their own school budgets. The complaint used to be that head teachers had control over only about £3,000 a year. Now they and the governors have control over the school budget and I am sure that they will use it better than it has ever been used before.

As a staunch believer in the Act of Union, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be in the interests of a fair-minded and even-handed approach between the peoples of England and Scotland if there were to be an increase in the number of English constituencies so that English Members of Parliament might enjoy serving constituencies of the same size as those in Scotland?

My hon. Friend has clearly asked a fundamental question, which it would take us a long time to consider in the House. I cannot see us bringing in any legislation ahead of the next election to put that into action.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 May.

I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Does the Prime Minister support the Gladstonian doctrine of self-determination for all nations including small ones, or is she so dizzy with big-power politics as to appease the Soviet Union, particularly with regard to the Baltic states, and especially Lithuania?

I support the doctrine of self-determination for fully separate nations as set out by the United Nations. As for Lithuania, as I have said from the Dispatch Box before, we support its right to independence. We have never accepted that it was annexed legally by the Soviet Union. President Gorbachev also says that those states have a right to be independent. The difference of opinion between Lithuania and President Gorbachev concerns how that is to be brought about. It is a pity to get stuck on such matters when both sides can get down to practical discussions about how to bring independence fully into practical being. I hope that the Prime Minister of Lithuania goes to Moscow with proposals, as we all support that independence coming about by discussion.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great interest—especially in my constituency—in the Government's review of the community charge? Will she assure the House and my constituents that the Government will look sympathetically at all the representations now being put to them?

The Government are doing precisely that. There are several varying representations. Some will have to be tackled in the longer term rather than in the period coming up to next year's community charge, but some can be dealt with before then. We shall make a statement to the House when we are ready.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 May.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Speaker, Sir, is the Prime Minister aware that in the past few weeks she has not had a very good time at Prime Minister's question time—have you, duckie? Is she also aware that the morale of the teaching profession is falling lower and lower because of Government policies? Is she further aware that I have two daughters and a son-in-law who are teachers and doing a first-class job? It is time that she got the Secretary of State for Education and Science by the scruff of the neck and dragged him out of negotiations which ought to be taking place between the authorities and the trade unions to negotiate proper earnings for teachers—then all our children will receive a better education.

Bearing in mind that all hon. Members address their remarks to you, Mr. Speaker, I thought that the hon. Gentleman addressed you by a rather endearing term. I believe that I heard him correctly, as I usually do.

With regard to the more serious aspects of the hon. Gentleman's question, I remind him that teachers are better paid than ever before. Their current pay, when it is fully implemented in January, will be 12 per cent. above Houghton, which was the largest salary that the Labour party aimed to attain. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have also put forward new proposals for determining teachers' pay. In the meantime, I should point out that most teachers with seven years' experience will be at the top of the scale, and have a big incentive allowance: their salary will be £19,000, the deputy head of a typical secondary school will be earning £26,000—[Interruption.] I must answer the hon. Gentleman's question thoroughly, especially as so many members of his family are involved in teaching, and I am sure that they are very ambitious. The head of a typical secondary school will be earning nearly £34,000.

Has the proper condemnation by Her Majesty's Ministers of the two terrorist attacks in London this week been accompanied by an equal condemnation from Ministers in the Irish Republic? If those suspected of responsibility for the attacks in London should escape to the Irish Republic, in the belief—understandable—that they would find safe haven there, how confident is my right hon. Friend that a proper request for extradition would be upheld by the Irish Supreme Court?

I wish that I could answer my hon. Friend by saying that I would be confident that an extradition order would be upheld, but I cannot do so, as he knows. If justice is to be meted out, it is vital that we should be able to extradite people so that they have no safe haven in the Irish Republic. It is also vital, from the point of view of the police and all citizens of this country and Northern Ireland, that we fully uphold the Prevention of Terrorism Act.


The following question stood upon the Paper:


To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions he has held with the organisation, Parents for Safe Food, with regard to its allegations concerning the safety of British meat.

3.31 pm

My officials offered some time ago to meet Parents for Safe Food to discuss its concern about BSE and meat, but the organisation has not taken up this offer, nor has it submitted any scientific evidence that we can study.

I am naturally concerned to ensure that the public know that the clear and consistent advice of the best scientific opinion is that British beef is safe.—[Interruption.]

This is an important matter, on which I am sure the House will wish to hear the Minister.

I refer the House to the statement that the chief medical officer made yesterday. He said that he had taken advice from the leading scientific and medical experts in this field. To quote his words, "They have consistently advised me in the past that there is no scientific justification for not eating British Beef and this continues to be their advice.".

The Government have tackled the problem of BSE with a carefully considered and coherent programme of measures based on the advice of the most authoritative and independent scientific experts.

First, we destroy any animal that is found to have BSE and no part of it enters the food chain in any way. Secondly, any cattle entering the slaughterhouse have the specified offals that could harbour the agent removed. Those offals are not allowed to be used in any food or food products. Thirdly, almost two years ago we stopped the feeding of ruminant protein to cows and other ruminants. We thus cut off what is considered to be the source of infection.

In all this, we have followed the best independent scientific advice available. Even our critics must support this clear policy of taking that advice. The health of the public is our overriding concern.

There are always those who want us to take their advice and not the advice of the experts. I have been asked, for example, to ban the use of ruminant protein in pig and poultry diets. Doctors and scientists see no justification for that. Some have suggested that there should be a ban on breeding from the offspring of BSE-infected cattle. The Southwood committee did not recommend this. But I was concerned to ensure that all up-to-date information was taken into account so I referred the question back to the Tyrrell committee. It confirms fully what Southwood said. I am placing a full statement of its advice on this point in the Library.

We have taken action to deal with the public health concerns and the animal aspects of BSE on the basis of the best independent scientific advice. We have published that advice together with full information on the disease and how it is being tackled. We shall continue to keep the public fully informed. We have taken all necessary measures to tackle this disease. There is certainly no justification for the alarmist reporting that has appeared over the past few days. As the chief medical officer has confirmed, British beef can continue to be eaten safely by everyone—adults and children alike.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that helpful and detailed statement, which will be reassuring to the many consumers who have been alarmed by much of the speculative comment in the press in recent days. Will my right hon. Friend give the House the absolute assurance that to protect the interest of the consumer, he will base his policy on the best medical and scientific advice from independent expert sources and eschew some of the quack solutions and quick fixes that have been suggested in recent days?

There must be two basic rules behind our action. First, consumer safety comes first and last. Secondly, our actions must be based on the best available medical and scientific advice. I assure the House that I shall not deviate from those two bases.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that the irresponsible statements that have been made in the past fortnight about the BSE issue, without any proof or evidence, have caused consumers and producers alike a great deal of concern. To try to end this problem, will the Minister advise the Chairman of the Select Committee on Agriculture to interview scientists on both sides of the argument and to produce a report as soon as possible that will clarify the position? Does the Minister further agree that British beef today is better and healthier than ever?

I very much welcome the Select Committee's inquiry and hope that the Chairman will take the hon. Gentleman's advice. I also hope that those people who have pontificated on television will now send the Tyrrell committee the research material that they claim to have so that it can be considered. I further hope that before interviewing people as "experts", the BBC, ITV and others will ask, first, whether those people have published their evidence in journals that their peers can check and, secondly, whether they have submitted their evidence to the Tyrrell committee. If those interviewed cannot say that, I hope that they will be interviewed not as experts but merely as people who have an idea or two.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) in thanking my right hon. Friend for his trenchant reply. I hope that it will do much to reassure the general public that British beef is safe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is outrageous that so many unsubstantiated claims have been made about BSE and British beef and that Opposition Members are flying in the face of sound scientific evidence, preferring to be guided by a bogus professor and a dead cat?

We must not underestimate the anxiety that people are bound to have about an unpleasant disease that we wish to eradicate and which we must ensure is no longer in the British herd. Having said that, I should add that those who seek to make capital out of the perfectly natural concern of the public should look most carefully at their motives and wonder whether they are putting party political points before any real concern.

As scrapie is known to be transmitted from ewe to lamb and as BSE is closely related to—indeed, derived from—scrapie, is not there every danger that BSE could be transmitted from cow to calf? Why do the Government hide behind Southwood and Tyrrell and not listen to the National Farmers Union president Sir Simon Gourlay, who wants the Government to introduce a slaughter policy of the calves of BSE-affected animals with 100 per cent. compensation?

Although the hon. Gentleman is a doctor, he will agree that he is not an expert on this subject. He will also agree that on several occasions he has told me that I should not listen to the National Farmers Union but put the interests of the consumer first. Now he has said something peculiar. He said that I should not hide behind the opinions of the experts. I hope that he will read carefully what the expert Tyrrell committee said to me. It said that there may be positive disadvantages in taking the measures that the hon. Gentleman advocates.

The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but he is not an expert. He may be a doctor, but he is not an expert. I should prefer to take the views of doctors who are experts than those of a doctor who is not an expert.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents have expressed great support for his approach to these matters, but great surprise at the reference to him as a lout by an Opposition spokesman on a television programme? Would not that description be better applied to some of the academics and journalists who have written about the matter than to a Minister who is dealing with it responsibly?

The serious issues that we are discussing are not helped by the abusive comments that have been made on television by the Opposition spokesman. We must deal with the matter seriously. I hope that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) will read the teleprint of what he said and perhaps take the opportunity to apologise. The matter is too serious to make that type of cheap comment.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the staff of the Moredun research institute in my constituency on its world-leading research on scrapie? Will he further condemn the cuts in the budget of that institute and guarantee to review the budget and increase it as necessary?

I willingly admit how much we rely on the work that has been done by that institute. That is part of the reason why I have made it clear that the money that is necessary for research into both scrapie and BSE and across the board will be available wherever it is required. We must find the best answers to these questions. The hon. Gentleman is a responsible man and I hope that he will help by pointing out that the points that I have put forward today are fully supported by expert opinion, including that of the people at the research institute in his constituency.

May I thank my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) for their outstanding efforts to bring home to the British public the fact that there is no risk in eating British beef? Will he personally contact all the local authorities that have banned British beef? Will he make every effort to stop people pontificating on television and in the media without any scientific evidence?

I have already contacted all the local authorities with the full background briefing. I have given them a fax number so that they can fax to a central control point any questions they may have. It is noticeable that Westminster city council first banned beef without considering any of the evidence. When it considered the evidence, beef went straight back on the menu. That must show that, when one reads and listens to what the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food say, the evidence is overwhelming that what we are doing is right. The chief medical officer is perfectly correct in saying that British beef is safe to eat for adults, children and NHS patients.

I do not profess to be an expert on this subject. We have had a definition of "expert" as "ex" being the unknown factor and "spurt" being a little drip under pressure, and we are bandying the word about rather too much. Evidence shows that once the scrapie agent has passed through one set of laboratory animals, in this case hamsters, it would infect a rabbit, although not directly. That particular property of the organism is worrying. Has the Minister taken it into account? As the NFU and consumers are both asking for the same thing, the Minister should take on board what Simon Gourlay is telling him.

The hon. Gentleman should he clear what the NFU said in its statement. I respect his knowledge of the scientific method, acquired from his own expertise. The information of which he speaks has been available for nearly 20 years and it has certainly been taken into account. Because I take the matter extremely seriously, I am happy to pass to the Tyrrell committee any information that he would like me to take fully and specifically into account. The committee's purpose is to bring the best group of experts together to look at the evidence and to advise.

I hope that the Opposition will follow the hon. Gentleman's view, which I have read in the press and believe to be accurate, which is to consider the situation as impartially as possible. Certainly, I am willing to take any sensible advice from him or anyone else, because we should all be involved in the eradication of BSE from Britain, and from animals in Britain and, above all, in the continued protection of the British public.

Although I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is taking the matter seriously, does he agree that, if his officials continue to go about the country advising us in the farming community how to keep our animals in ever more intensive conditions, we shall face serious risks because we cannot continue to rely on the present level of antibiotics?

I have read my hon. Friend's article in today' Evening Standard and many of the concerns that he raises are serious and are being addressed in a number of policy changes that we are making, not least the important proposals on extensification and the like. At a time when over-production rather than shortage is the key word in farming communities we certainly have the opportunity to look most carefully at what we do. I have already said publicly that I believe that feeding the ruminant to animals that are naturally herbivore is wrong because it is contrary to what would occur naturally. That is the line which I wish to draw and I believe that there is a real response to that in the public mind.

I wish to clarify the allegation made today in the House that I accused the Minister of being a lout. I was most upset when I heard that reported about me. We have a sound clip of the news item. I did not say that the Minister was a lout and I am sure that if he checks, he will find that that is not the case. I said that he had done nowt. If southern stenographers cannot understand the northern vernacular, I do not apologise for that.

May I take this opportunity of saying once again today that the Minister has done nowt? Does not he realise that his indecision and vacillation this week have lost the general public's confidence in beef? It has threatened the long-term future of our cattle industry. What the Minister said today has done nothing to reassure the general public or the farmers. The Minister made great play, and I take his point, of the need to follow the recommendation of his own expert committee, the Tyrrell committee. If he takes that line, he cannot pick and choose advice from that committee. Why will he not implement the recommendation of the committee and take a random sample of routinely slaughtered cows so that we can judge the extent of BSE in the British herd and plan accordingly? In the meantime will he support the call for not feeding offals to pigs and chickens and to our pets?

As I understand the hon. Gentleman's policy, it is to have regulations about Britain's food set by an independent group that is outside the Government. No doubt the hon. Gentleman would expect to take the advice of such a group. He says that when we ask an expert committee about, for example, the feeding of animal matter to animals that eat it, and the committee says that we should do so and there is no justification for not doing so, we should ignore the official advice. I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman advances that proposition. He must accept that advice from such an independent body must be followed in a matter as serious as this.

The recommendations to which the hon. Gentleman refers are part of the Tyrrell recommendations for research and were in three groups. The first was about priority research, the second was about research that is not high priority but ordinary priority, and the third was about low-priority research. I have already instituted all the high-priority and normal-priority research and I am now going through the low-priority research. I am following that order, first, because the expert committee asked me to do it like that. That is why it had three sets of priorities. Secondly, there is a shortage of people with the expert knowledge that is needed to carry out this research. I have therefore placed those people in areas that the Tyrrell committee said were most important for public health reasons. I think that the House will accept that.

The hon. Gentleman has clarified that he did not call me a lout but said that I had done nowt. He cannot have been listening for the last 20 minutes. If he had, he would have heard me say that I have done everything that the expert advisers have asked. Indeed, I have gone further because I take from every healthy animal all the specified offals in order to provide yet another protection. It is entirely untrue to say that I have done nowt.

Business Of The House

3.50 pm

Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week?

Order. We are in the middle of business questions. I am amazed at hon. Members who have been here long enough to know that I do not take points of order before business questions.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Sir Geoffrey Howe)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 21 MAY—Opposition Day (12th Allotted Day). Until about seven o'clock there will be a debate on Ravenscraig, followed by a debate on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion to take note of EC documents relating to the social charter. Details will be given in the Official Report.

TUESDAY 22 MAY—Opposition Day (13th Allotted Day, 1st part). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Social and Liberal Democrats entitled "Alterations and Amendments to the Poll Tax".

Remaining stages of the Town and Country Planning Bill [Lords], the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservations Areas) Bill [Lords], the Planning (Consequential Provisions) Bill [Lords], and the Planning (Hazarclous Substances) Bill [Lords], which are consolidation measures.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

WEDNESDAY 23 MAY—Motion for the spring Adjournment.

Motion on the Appropriation (No. 2) (Northern Ireland) Order.

THURSDAY 24 MAY—Adjournment debates.

It may be for the convenience of the House if I indicate that the business for the first week after the spring Adjournment will be as follows:

TUESDAY 5 JUNE—There will be a debate on the Army on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 6 JUNE —Opposition Day (14th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion; subject for debate to be announced.

THURSDAY 7 JUNE —Remaining stages of the Food Safety Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 8 JUNE—Private Members' motions.[Monday 21 May 1990
Relevant European Community documents
(a) 9978/89Action Programme on Community Social Charter
(b) UnnumberedCommunity Charter of Fundamental Social Rights

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee
  • (a) HC 11-vii ( 1989–90), para 4 and HC 11-xvi (1989–90), para 1
  • (b) HC 11-ii ( 1989–90), para 31
  • I thank the Leader of the House for his thoughtful announcement of the business for the week following the Whitsun recess. That is a great help to all hon. Members. May we be told before the recess exactly when the Government intend to proceed with the division of the Select Committee on Social Services into two Committees, one on health and one on social services? There has been an extraordinarily long delay in the implementation of that decision. It is of considerable importance to hon. Members in all parties that the two new Select Committees should be established and allowed to get on with their work as soon as possible. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us his intentions before the Whitsun recess?

    May I also request information about the Government's intentions for the 21 poll tax-capping orders that the House will have to consider? I must make it clear that it would be intolerable if the House were asked to decide, in one short debate, the budgets and poll tax levels of 21 separate local authorities, covering services used by millions of people. It is unprecedented—it does not happen in any other country—that a national Parliament should decide these matters. It would be unacceptable to deal with all those orders in one and a half hours after 10 o'clock. I urge the right hon. and learned Gentleman to consider providing more time, preferably in prime time, for those important debates.

    We shall have a debate in Opposition time next week on the devastating news for Scotland of the proposed closures at Ravenscraig. Can it be made clear who will be speaking for the Government, and exactly what the Government's policy is towards those closures? We hear a different story about the Government's attitude towards the Ravenscraig job losses from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry from that given by the Secretary of State for Scotland. The House and the people of Scotland, given the importance of Ravenscraig to the Scottish economy, are entitled to a clear and unequivocal statement of Government policy on the Scottish steel industry, exactly who is deciding that policy, and whether the Secretary of State for Scotland's position in the Government has now become untenable.

    On the hon. Gentleman's first point about the future of the Select Committee on Social Services, I have already given positive indications to the House about our intentions. I hope that the House will be patient for a little longer.

    On the hon. Gentleman's point about charge capping, as he appreciates, it is now open to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to lay before the House the draft order setting authorities' caps. He is considering carefully how and when to proceed, but, as was made clear to the court on his behalf, caps will not finally be set for the authorities involved in the judicial review before 18 June. As to when those debates should be conducted, there is room for more than one view, apart from that expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

    The Government's speakers for the Opposition's debate on Monday will be made plain in due course, but there is no doubt that the Government's policy is that of the Government as a whole. The first and essential feature to notice is that the decisions taken in relation to Ravenscraig are being taken by the company on commercial grounds and the Government will be responding as Government, not seeking to influence those decisions beyond the powers that they have, which are extremely limited.

    Order. As the House knows, I am always reluctant to curtail business questions, but we have an important statement and a debate in which we have to deal with many amendments after this. Therefore, I propose to allow business questions to continue until 4.30. If hon. Members ask single questions, all of them should be accommodated within that time. Mr. Harry Greenway.

    Order. Hon. Members should know that those who are called last on Thursday tend to be called early the next.

    May we have an early debate on gipsies and the legislation relating to them? There has been a large encampment of gipsies and tinkers at the side of the A40 in my constituency causing great harassment to the people of Greenford and Northolt. May we have an early debate on the need to improve legislation to get those people moving away from other people's homes?

    The operation of existing legislation gives rise to concern in more than one constituency, but I cannot offer the prospect of an early debate.

    Why is there no opportunity next week or the week after to debate the disgusting, disgraceful and dirty conditions in which the Vietnamese refugees are forced to live in Hong Kong and which have given rise to the recent riots? Does not the Leader of the House see that the way in which those refugees are kept is unworthy of us, that they are treated as prisoners by people who are trained to look after criminals, and that we are asking for more riots unless we treat people properly in those camps?

    There is no immediate prospect of a debate on that topic, although it has been brought before the House on more than one occasion, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows. He must acknowledge that, however hard the people in charge of the camps may try, the conditions there are bound to become increasingly difficult until there is a satisfactory solution to the problem of how to achieve the speedy return of many of those people their own country.

    Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my surprise that once again the Opposition have not chosen one of their Supply days to discuss their new policy review? That would give Conservative Members the opportunity to point out that, if tax rates had remained as they were in May 1979, every man on average earnings with two children in Britain would be paying £1,000 a year more in income tax. We find it strange that the Opposition, having always supported high taxes, now seem to be in favour of low taxes without explaining how they could spend more and yet cut taxes.

    My hon. Friend draws attention to a point of legitimate importance. The House had an opportunity to discuss that on Monday on the motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells).

    The Leader of the House told the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) that whoever speaks for the Government in Monday's debate on Ravenscraig will enunciate the policy of the whole Government. Before that debate, will the Leader of the House draw to the relevant person's attention the words of the Secretary of State for Scotland yesterday, when he said:

    "we shall seek to persuade British Steel to reconsider its proposal in the interests both of the company and of its work force."—[Official Report, 16 May 1990; Vol. 172. c. 887.]?
    Does the Leader of the House intend to keep us waiting, or will that be the policy that the Government will enunciate on Monday?

    The decision was taken on commercial grounds, in the light of the company's judgment of market conditions, and it must remain a matter for the company's commercial judgment. I understand that the decision is not due to be implemented until the first half of next year. Any right hon. or hon. Members who are concerned about the matter, whether or not they are in government, will no doubt bring to the company's attention any commercial arguments for reviewing its decision.

    What has happened to the debate on the Police (Amendment) Regulations 1990? As they are extremely unwelcome to many policemen in my constituency, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that he will bring the regulations before the House for proper debate shortly?

    As my hon. Friend knows, I have been seeking a suitable opportunity for just such a debate. Although one was not included in the business for next week that I announced today, I propose to arrange a debate at an early opportunity.

    Does not the Leader of the House realise that, in his replies to my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), he contradicted what was said by the Secretary of State for Scotland yesterday? The right hon. and learned Gentleman has in fact disowned the Secretary of State for Scotland. I understand that he was disowned also by the Prime Minister's spokesman this morning. Will the deputy Prime Minister confirm that that was the case, and tell the House whether the Secretary of State for Scotland will come to the Dispatch Box to make a personal statement?

    The Government's policy is consistent and is held by all members of the Government. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made a statement to the House about Ravenscraig yesterday, and the House will have a further opportunity to debate it on Monday.

    My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the situation in the Baltic states, particularly in Lithuania. Will it be possible to arrange an early debate on how this country can best help them economically and with supplies in what is a very difficult situation?

    My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the Prime Minister continue to stress how important it is that moves should be taken to reduce, not heighten, tension in order to reach a solution acceptable to the people of Lithuania.

    As the Leader of the House may know, Shell intends to sell a subsidiary, Mitchell Gas, based in my constituency to Calor Gas. If that is allowed to go through, it will mean that there will be a virtual monopoly in Scotland, with one firm controlling the supply of certain gases, including butane and other gases important to industry and to people in general. Will the Leader of the House arrange a special debate next week? More importantly, will he block that takeover bid, bearing in mind the fact that the Government apparently believe in market forces?

    I shall bring that matter to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

    Will my right hon. and learned Friend resist the temptation to say, "There are Adjournment debates coming up"? Will he consider the situation on the Isle of Man, where we have had a Barlow Clowes all over again, and where there has been malfeasance of the worst possible kind, yet the Government are doing nothing about it? Is it not time that the Government exercised their responsibilities to the Isle of Man far more rigidly, brought to book those who have committed crimes, and made sure that everyone who has lost money is fully and properly compensated?

    I shall bring my hon. Friend's points to the attention of those responsible for the enforcement of law on the Isle of Man.

    Are we to have a debate on Europe before the Dublin summit? The Leader of the House will know that there is great interest in that meeting among right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House—not always following precisely party lines. What might be determined in our name could affect the future of the House of Commons, vis-a-vis not only Brussels but the Executive. It will not be satisfactory to be told after the Dublin summit that the Prime Minister has entered into agreements that might affect the future of the House of Commons in its relations with Europe. That matter is causing great concern. Will the Leader of the House give an absolutely clear assurance that the House will be able to give its view before the Prime Minister gives her decision?

    The right hon. Gentleman may recollect that that topic has been the subject of study by the Select Committee on Procedure and it reported on it some months ago. In the course of the next week I hope to make available the Government's response to its recommendations, which will bear upon the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised.

    Could my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for a debate in the House on the extraordinary behaviour of the producers of the BBC programme "On The Record"? Apparently, an opinion poll which showed overwhelming support for the Prime Minister among Conservative councillors was suppressed when the poll, seemingly, did not suit the purposes of the programme's producers.

    As my hon. Friend appreciates as well as anyone, the commissioning of research and the selection of material for use in programmes are matters for the editorial judgment of the broadcasters. I hope that they will take account of the views expressed by hon. Members, including those that my hon. Friend has just expressed.

    Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the financial crisis facing so many health authorities, in particular Gwynedd health authority, which is facing a £4 million shortfall, leading to the closure of wards and the elimination of services, and is hitting disabled people, the young and the old? In addition, six hospital closures have been announced for the next 12 months. May we have an early debate on that subject?

    I cannot offer the hon. Gentleman the prospect of an early debate, but I shall bring the matters he has raised to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

    The Leader of the House will doubtless have seen the extremely disturbing report in yesterday's edition of The Times, based on evidence given to a United States Senate committee, that the cost of dealing with the greenhouse effect could absorb the entire national income of the United States. In view of that report, and the report of the committee in the other place on the scientific background to the greenhouse effect, may we have an early debate on that important subject. which has vast policy implications?

    I do not doubt the importance of the issue my hon. Friend has mentioned, as it raises many questions. I cannot offer the prospect of an early debate specifically on that issue, but I shall bring his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

    Will the Leader of the House make time for a statement or a debate on the question of the parliamentary building across the road? Is he aware that there has been considerable delay and that one of the problems concerns the 40 marble fireplaces in rooms for Members of Parliament. Due to the Government's attitude to manufacturing industry in Britain, we have no one to produce such fireplaces, with the result the Italians have been called in to provide these £20,000 marble fireplaces—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Each?"] Yes, £20,000 each. The contractors in Italy have said that they would like to provide the fireplaces but that they need to use Italian labour. No wonder the unemployment figures are beginning to rise.

    The hon. Gentleman will understand that all matters relating to the provision of the new building across the road, including phase 1, are under the closely attended management of the New Building Sub-Committee of the House.

    Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure us that we shall have an early opportunity to debate the electoral processes in central and eastern Europe, given that they will come to a head next month? Will he particularly bear in mind the concerns of hon. Members on both sides of the House who have met Romanian parliamentary candidates about the election there? Will he reiterate the Government's position in that regard?

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that matter once again. The House has expressed its anxiety on more than one occasion about the manner in which those elections are being and are likely to be conducted. As he knows, provision has been made for the presence of independent observers there to assess the standards to which he has drawn our attention.

    Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Employment on the sale of skill centres, because the Government have failed to reveal information about why they did not tell bidders for the centres that £11 million would be given to three civil servants and would not be available to the others? The Government did not tell other bidders that 27 skill centres were to be sold to Astra Training Services. There has been a conspiracy of secrecy on the matter. It is taxpayers' money and we should know the details, and it is vital that there is a requirement that civil servants should not be given inside advantage to purchase publicly owned assets. We should have a statement next week about this further rip-off of taxpayers.

    The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity, in a more intelligent setting, to ask those questions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment on Tuesday next week.

    Is the Leader of the House aware that the Labour party is now committed to repealing all the trade union reforms that we have introduced during the past 10 years? Since that hostility bears down on individual rights and can only create confusion and mayhem in the workplace, may we have an urgent debate on the matter after the Whitsun recess?

    My hon. Friend correctly draws attention to yet another aspect of the Opposition's policy that could do grave damage to the economy.

    Does the Leader of the House recall that last week I asked him whether the Government would make a statement on steel policy? Is he aware that, had such a statement been made, we might have been able to change British Steel's disastrous decision to close the hot strip mill at Ravenscraig? The absence of a Department of Trade and Industry statement is tragic both for the Government and for Ravenscraig, since there are deep divisions between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Secretary of State for Scotland. It was extremely unfortunate that we did not have the opportunity, during Prime Minister's questions today, to hear that the Government support the fight for Ravenscraig. Unfortunately, the random selection of supplementary questions did not allow any of the Scottish Members of Parliament to be called, and——

    Order. That is a reflection upon the Chair. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw that remark. He was called twice yesterday.

    I said that the random selection of questions unfortunately did not allow one Scottish Labour Member of Parliament to be called, and I stand by that. Will the Leader of the House allow us to question the Department of Trade and Industry by bringing the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the Dispatch Box to answer directly for the consequences of his privatisation programme?

    The position remains exactly as I have already stated it: this is a matter for the commercial judgment of the company. It was the subject of a statement and questions in the House yesterday afternoon; it will be the subject of a further debate in the House next Monday.

    Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time in the near future for a debate on the regulations governing the Data Protection Act 1984? A document has been sent to me by constituents—it is a Labour party document from the private office of the Leader of the Opposition—requesting Conservatives to give money. It has not attracted much support, but the document purports to say the following, in very small print: "Labour would never make"——

    The document goes on to say that people's names and addresses will be given to carefully screened companies as a result of this application. This is a matter for investigation.

    I am sure that the House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. I hope that it is studied as it ought to be by those responsible for the circulation of the document.

    Will the Leader of the House confirm the statement made by the Prime Minister's press officer, Mr. Bernard Ingham, that the Secretary of State for Scotland is receiving no support in Cabinet and that he stands alone? Will he arrange for the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement about why he stands alone and why he is not getting support for the steel workers at Ravenscraig?

    The Secretary of State for Scotland stands as a member of the Government with the full support of the Government. Government policy is the same for all Ministers. Obviously there is concern about the consequences of any commercial decision, but the fact remains that the decisions affecting Ravenscraig are commercial decisions. They were the subject of discussions in the House yesterday, and they will be the subject of further discussion on Monday.

    Will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for a debate next week on the appalling decision of the Civil Aviation Authority not to recommend the mandatory introduction of smoke hoods into civilian aircraft? Is he aware of the seriousness of the matter? It is rumoured that many people lay the blame at the door of the CAA for the consequent cancellation by British Airways of an order for smoke hoods and for the possible withdrawal of one leading manufacturer? Given that safety matters are involved, particularly in the light of what happened at Manchester airport a few years ago, will he allow the House to debate the competence of the CAA?

    I cannot comment on the detail of what my hon. Friend has said, but I promise to bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

    Order. I decide who is called. The hon. Gentleman represents the Scottish National party.

    The whole House heard the Leader of the House say earlier that the Government would not seek to influence British Steel over Ravenscraig. The whole House heard the Secretary of State for Scotland yesterday tell the House that he would seek to persuade British Steel to change its position. Will the Leader of the House now try to reconcile those apparently irreconcilable statements or tell us who has cut adrift from the Cabinet; is it himself or the Secretary of State for Scotland?

    There is no rift of any kind whatsoever. It is a matter for commercial judgment, but, as I said earlier, it is open to hon. Members on both sides of the House to advance any arguments that they wish to bring to the attention of the company. That matter can be debated on Monday.

    May I return to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. Tracey)? Although I suppose that one should take opinion polls commissioned by the media with a pinch of salt, hardly a weekend passes when I do not vote in The Sunday Times poll for my hon. Friend the Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) as leader of the Conservative party. However, there is an onus on the media when they commission such polls which claim to speak for the public to publish all the polls or none of them; otherwise, they are seriously misleading the public.

    My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to that matter and to express his view on it.

    It remains the responsibility of those in the media who handle these matters, but clearly they will wish to take note of what has been said by my hon. Friend, among others, in the House.

    Will the Leader of the House seriously reconsider what he has said this afternoon? First, he has totally and utterly repudiated the statement that we heard yesterday from the Secretary of State for Scotland. Secondly, he is jumping ahead of the debate. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has been presupposing the decision of the debate before the House of Commons debates the matter. He is not entitled to presuppose whether we shall decide to interfere with the decision taken by British Steel, or at any rate to bring pressure to bear on the company. Each time he says that it is purely a matter of commercial decision by the firm, he is jumping ahead of the decision of the House. Will he withdraw that?

    Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman ensure that the spokesman for No. 10 Downing street speaks openly? Even a civil servant has been put in the position of denying the statement by the Secretary of State for Scotland, and it is time that that finished.

    The decision is a matter for the commercial judgment of the company. It remains that, but, as I have also made clear, it is perfectly open to hon. Members——

    Hon. Members, individually and collectively, are entitled to make representations and express views on matters that should be taken into account by the company. However, the decision is a matter for the company on commercial grounds.

    Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time next week for a debate on bureaucratic insensitivity in local government? Tragically, a disabled constituent of mine died on 2 April, and the Labour council in Warrington sent her son a poll tax bill of 21p. Is that not scandalous?

    As the Prime Minister made clear in answer to a similar question on a similar point some weeks ago, there is no obligation on a local authority to deliver a bill for a sum of that kind. It is a matter about which local authorities have discretion, and one hopes that that discretion will be exercised sensibly.

    Order. There are six more minutes before we move to the next statement. The length of questions will determine how many hon. Members I can call.

    Surely there is now an overwhelming case for the Secretary of State for Scotland to make an urgent statement. After all, the Leader of the House, as deputy Prime Minister, has this afternoon repudiated what the Secretary of State said in the House yesterday, and said throughout Scotland and to the media last night. In addition, we have the news that this morning Mr. Bernard Ingham said that the Secretary of State for Scotland was on his own on this issue. Is it not sad and humiliating that, whereas last Friday, in Aberdeen, the Prime Minister stood four square beside her Secretary of State for Scotland, on Wednesday of the following week she has allowed him to stand alone and discarded as he is repudiated by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, by the British Steel Corporation and now, it would appear, by No. 10 Downing street?

    The hon. Gentleman returns to the same set of fantasies—[Interruption.] The Government take a single view on this matter. The Secretary of State for Scotland addressed the House on it yesterday and the House will be looking at it again on Monday.

    May we have a debate on the catering arrangements for hon. Members and their families? Is it not deeply shocking when a Cabinet Minister cynically force-feeds his own children on television with beefburgers that he cannot even guarantee are contaminant-free?

    The hon. Gentleman has a more grotesque capacity than almost any other hon. Member in the House for following a single track to destruction. I have nothing to add to what I have said on this subject on many previous occasions.

    The Leader of the House will be aware that, as the Environmental Protection Bill makes its way through the House, the Nature Conservancy Council part of the measure is proving to be of great concern. Will he cancel the press conference that has been arranged for tomorrow to give the Government's response to the Carver report and instead deal with it in the proper way, and that is by arranging for a statement to be made in the House next week?

    I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend is handling the matter exactly as it should be handled.

    Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that, since yesterday, the Cabinet has upheld the point of view of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) against that of the Secretary of State for Scotland? I draw attention to column 894 of yesterday's Official Report. If, as seems clear, the Secretary of State for Scotland in making his statement yesterday was not speaking for the Government—that is precisely what Mr. Ingham has been telling the media—it is necessary for the House of Commons to understand that point officially, since the Secretary of State for Scotland's statement yesterday did not reflect the view of the Cabinet. In those circumstances, we are entitled to know who will speak for the Government on Monday.

    There is a limit to the number of times one can say the same thing. The Secretary of State for Scotland explained the position to the House yesterday. The House will have an opportunity of addressing itself to the matter on Monday.

    On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It arises directly out of what is happening and what the Leader of the House continues to say. Yesterday the Secretary of State for Scotland said:

    "we shall seek to persuade British Steel to reconsider its proposal in the interests both of the company and of its work force"—[Official Report, 16 May 1990; Vol. 172, column 887.]
    In using the word "we", the Secretary of State was speaking on behalf of the Government—on behalf of the Cabinet as a whole. Now we have the Leader of the House disavowing that statement. We have also had official briefing from No. 10 Downing street, on behalf of the Government, disavowing it, and it has been disavowed by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. We are entitled to know just what is the policy of the Government on this important matter concerning Scotland.

    That has nothing to do with me; it is wholly a matter for the Government.

    Mr. Denis Howell