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Putting to one side the comments in some newspapers, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the England football team on their magnificent successes so far in Euro 96—showing, in the words of the song, that "football's coming home"? Will he join me and the rest of the country in wishing them every success and the best of luck in the semi-finals tomorrow night?
Willingly. Euro 96 has been a stunning success so far, and I congratulate the teams on the spirit they have displayed in the games and everyone who has attended those games. I hope that that spirit remains right the way through the rest of this competition. It has been a friendly and carnival-like atmosphere so far, and I hope that nothing changes that between now and the final in a few days' time.
That is a consensus in which I am delighted to join, and I entirely concur with the Prime Minister's sentiments.
Given the strength of feeling about the proposed sale of Ministry of Defence properties, not only among Opposition Members but among all hon. Members, is the Prime Minister prepared to review that proposal urgently, particulary in the case of tenants who are in place now?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman knows that we value the role of the armed forces as much as anyone in the land, and probably more than most. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about what is proposed with the married quarters sale. We intend to ensure that the protection of married quarters is safeguarded while at the same time improving the quality and management of service housing. In practice, the sale will produce about £100 million for improvements and refurbishment in service families' homes. I think that, when the matter is fully understood and debated, many may see it in a different light.
I think that people do see it in a different light, because they wonder whether that is, in fact, what will happen. May I simply tell the Prime Minister that the concerns are that this is a poor deal for the taxpayer, because these properties have been sold on the cheap and there is a guaranteed income stream for the property developer after sale? It is a poor deal for the armed forces, because they will have to apply for those houses to come back to them after the 25 years is up. It is also a very poor deal for service men and women, because their estates may be broken up and changed without their consent, and they may be required to exchange housing sites altogether at the property developer's option. In those circumstances, is it wise to press ahead until those objections have been reviewed thoroughly?
When the right hon. Gentleman sets out the matter, I begin to see some of the misunderstandings that have caused so much concern. To reiterate on his first point, the sale will release substantial sums for improving and refurbishing service families' homes. Secondly, those improvements aside, there will be little change for the occupants. The sale will emphatically not mean that service people's rents will rise; I make that clear to the right hon. Gentleman. It will not mean, as he clearly assumes, problem families being dumped on Ministry of Defence estates. It will not mean service personnel being moved against their will. However, it will allow the Ministry of Defence to reduce the number of empty, unused and unneeded homes. Not to do that would not be a proper use of resources, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees.
Without going through each of the facts, I simply say to the Prime Minister that there is no dispute about the fact that surplus sites that are empty should be sold off. Questions arise where there are sitting service tenants. Yes, it is the case that a small amount of the sale money will find its way to the Ministry of Defence, but large amounts will be paid out by the taxpayer in guaranteed market rents to the new owners. It is not the case that this is a good deal for the taxpayer.
The reason why the sale has been pushed through with such indecent haste has nothing to do with the armed forces; it has to do with the Chancellor's need to plug the hole in the nation's finances. The sale will undermine morale among service men and women and it could, as many independent people have pointed out, do incalculable long-term damage to the armed forces.
The right hon. Gentleman is wrong about that. The sale is not a matter that has suddenly arisen. It has been under consideration for a number of years in order to determine how it can be done to release resources, not least resources available to the Exchequer to enable equipment to be purchased for the armed services. The right hon. Gentleman knows of the substantial additional equipment purchases that have been sanctioned in the past year or so. I reiterate that we will ensure that the married quarters are safeguarded, but we also seek to improve the quality and the management of service housing. When people understand the full implications of what is proposed, they will not see the matter as the right hon. Gentleman has done this afternoon.
Will my right hon. Friend remind me and all those people under 35 years of age whether it was a Conservative Government who let inflation rip to 26.9 per cent? [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] Was it a Conservative Government who allowed the higher rate of tax to go to 98p in the pound? [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] Was it a Conservative Government who did not pay the senior citizens' Christmas bonus? [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] Was it a Conservative Government who had 176 Members of Parliament totally sponsored by the unions? [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] Or—[Interruption.]
It is not my job to defend another party. However, the Prime Minister has rightly committed himself and the rest of us to defending standards in politics. Will he now tell us whether he personally approves of the unpleasant campaign being run by his party chairman to attack the Labour party through the Labour leader's wife?
I note that he disapproves. Does the right hon. Gentleman really want an election campaign run around personality attacks which extend even to our families? Does he approve of that?
There is no such campaign, nor will there be. The right hon. Gentleman will know that I speak from some experience. There will be no such campaign in my party, there is no such campaign and the right hon. Gentleman should know that.
Has my right hon. Friend had time today to study the report prepared on behalf of the Federation of Veterinaries of Europe by Professor Marc Vandervelde of the university of Berne in which he demonstrates beyond any doubt that there are thousands of unreported cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy throughout the European Community and that the worst examples are found in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Portugal? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the report is made available to hon. Members and to members of other Parliaments throughout the European Union?
I shall certainly study the report to which my hon. Friend refers and see that it has appropriate circulation. It is clear that, for some years, the enforcement measures in the United Kingdom have been a good deal more rigorous than those in many other countries, although there is certainly BSE elsewhere. As the European Union vets seem to be saying, it is clear that, without the level of control that we rightly have in the United Kingdom, doubts may remain about the safety of beef. I shall certainly study the report to which my hon. Friend refers.