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Oral Answers To Questions

Volume 172: debated on Thursday 17 May 1990

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Agriculture, Fisheries And Food

Pigs

1.

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

2.

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

3.

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

4.

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

6.

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

8.

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

9.

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

10.

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

11.

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

12.

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

14.

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

Engagements

Ql.

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."

Q3.

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.

Q5.

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.

Q6.

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.