This morning, I chaired a meeting of the Cabinet. I had intensive discussions on foot and mouth disease and I announced at a conference that the unemployment total had fallen below 1 million for the first time in 25 years and that record numbers of people were in work. I will have further meetings with colleagues later today.
Why, when many hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working pensioners are forced to lock into a policy for their pension in their old age, did not the Chancellor of the Exchequer last week abolish the requirement to buy an annuity at the age of 75, as we on the Conservative Benches would do?
That was not done because of the cost that would result for the Exchequer. What the Chancellor has announced is a greater amount of support for pensioners than any Conservative Government whom the hon. Lady supported ever announced. All pensioners know that if the Conservatives were returned to power, the £200 winter allowance and free television licences would be taken off them.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the work that is being carried out by both the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the seconded vets in Cumbria to contain foot and mouth is excellent and that we should praise it? Today, I was talking to Nick Utting, group secretary of the National Farmers Union in Cumbria. He said that what would really help the situation is a relaxation of some of the rules. First, can we relax the rule regarding a suspected case of foot and mouth on the farm? Can the vets immediately start to cull those animals? Secondly, can we have a relaxation of the Environment Agency rules regarding the burial of beasts? The quickest, the traditional and the safest way of disposing of animals is to bury them immediately. Will the Prime Minister agree to look at the relaxation of the rules?
We are deploying some of those options and we are certainly looking carefully at the points that my hon. Friend has just made. I pay tribute both to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and to the people, particularly in the veterinary service, who up and down this country have done a quite superb job in extremely difficult circumstances.
Our difficulty—I have no doubt that I will have opportunities to explain this again to the House during Question Time—is balancing any relaxation of the rules and making sure that we are not over-reacting to the situation. At the present time, I believe that we have the balance right, but, at both ends of the spectrum, obviously, we keep the matter under constant review. We do not want to place unnecessary restrictions on people; on the other hand, we must do everything that we can to eradicate the disease.
May I join the Prime Minister in his tribute to everyone who is working so hard to try to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease?
Since we last discussed the matter two weeks ago at Question Time, there is no doubt that we are in the grip of a national crisis. We have supported, and continue to support, the measures that the Government have taken, but, given that the spread of the disease is clearly not yet under control, will the Prime Minister consider several additional measures to control it more tightly and to use more of the available resources for dealing with it? Will he clarify this morning's announcement on slaughtering policy and consider more urgently whether the time has come to adopt not a relaxation, but an intensification, which the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) has proposed—to adopt a policy of slaughter immediately a vet believes, on the clinical evidence rather than on the basis of laboratory tests, that there is foot and mouth, as was the practice in 1967?
In relation to the issues on slaughter policy, the Minister of Agriculture will make a statement to the House tomorrow. We are looking at how we step up the slaughter in the areas most directly affected. One of the issues is that there are areas of the country that are very seriously affected, while there are other areas in which, fortunately, at present at any rate, there has been no outbreak of foot and mouth disease at all. So it is entirely right that we look to see how we can take more urgent measures in the areas most directly affected.
In respect of those animals that we designate for slaughter, we are looking again at how we increase the intensification of the slaughter policy of those animals that either have the disease—obviously—or may have come into contact in some way with animals that do have it. Even if they themselves do not have the disease, it may be a sensible precaution to carry out a slaughter policy in respect of those animals also.
Further to that, any increased slaughter such as the Prime Minister has mentioned and we advocate will obviously add to the backlog of diseased carcases rotting on farms. Yesterday, the Government announced the limited deployment of the Army. While we welcome that, could the Army's role be extended to help clear that backlog? Similarly, there is clear evidence that we will not have enough vets to tackle the emergency, although the vets are working extremely hard, as the Prime Minister said. Will the Government consider using student vets and retired vets, as was the practice in 1967, in an effort to increase the available resources?
That is entirely right; no doubt the right hon. Gentleman has been in contact with the British Veterinary Association, as we have been in constant discussion with the state veterinary service and others. We are using some final-year veterinary students already and retired vets are important as well. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will outline some extra measures concerning how we bring in vets from outside. We are already using vets whom the Army have provided. We are looking at how the armed forces can help, particularly in relation to the logistics of disposing of the animals. However, some of the more lurid stories about troops roaming the countryside, shooting animals and wildlife are not correct or helpful. Meetings are taking place today with the Ministry of Defence to see how the Army can assist in the process. It is self-evident that, if we intensify the process of slaughter, we have to increase the resources to carry that out.
Finally on this matter, we are well aware that the threat to people's livelihoods has now extended far beyond the farmers themselves. Large parts of rural Britain have been forced virtually to shut down. Hotels face closure as bookings have been cancelled and some rural tourist attractions face bankruptcy. We must get help to farmers and continue that help. Will the Prime Minister agree to help other rural businesses by measures such as giving exemptions from rates to those businesses worst hit by the crisis?
We will, of course, consider all the measures necessary to help. A series of measures is being considered by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and the taskforce, which involves representatives of the tourism industry. The industry has been devastated over the past few days and weeks by what has happened. We have to see what financial and other help we can get to it as quickly as possible. Once the outbreak has been dealt with, we will have to see how we can move the industry forward so that it recovers as quickly as possible. That will be the other issue for the industry. It is not merely that bookings have fallen during the foot and mouth outbreak; we must look at the industry's future position. We are looking at all the issues and we will do whatever we reasonably can to help.
We can more clearly see day by day those areas of the country that are most severely affected and, of course, there are still significant areas of the country that have not been affected at all Over the coming weeks, we must see what help and what lifting of restrictions we can allow in those areas that are not affected and that remain unaffected.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be an urgent review of the way in which taxpayers' money is used to fund the parliamentary activities of Opposition parties? Is he aware that there has been an increase of 280 per cent. in funding to the Tory party and that, in defiance of previous procedures, it has been using the money to fund its party campaigning and even its election war room? This matter has never been debated in this House—
It looks as though the Tory party has not only moved the goalposts, but carted them off the pitch. Is not this a fraud on the British taxpayer?
No doubt that is one of the public expenditure cuts that the Tories can announce in the coming weeks. If they are spending that amount of money on their political campaigning, I can only say that it has been remarkably ineffective.
Returning to the foot and mouth restrictions, does the Prime Minister feel that he is in a position to be any more specific this afternoon about appropriate compensation levels for farmers who, as a result of the restrictions, feel that their animals will have to be destroyed on welfare and compassionate grounds?
Obviously, this is an issue for the farmers who are affected, even though their animals do not have foot and mouth disease. It is also an issue that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture will cover in his statement tomorrow. We have to keep this aspect of the problem under constant review. The animal welfare issues may fit into an entirely different set of categories. It may be that some animals can be moved for their welfare, but others may have to be destroyed. At present we are looking for the best option in respect of each group of animals.
On the interests of the wider rural economy, to which the leader of the Conservative party quite properly referred, given that the difficulty is affecting bed-and-breakfast accommodation, local hotels and tourist attractions, will the Prime Minister give early consideration to providing relief from tax and national insurance? Will he ask the Treasury to liaise with the Inland Revenue with a view to waiving tax and national insurance, or at least providing a period of relief so that those who are affected by short-term financial crises can have a degree of relief which is not available at the moment?
These issues will be discussed by the taskforce chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. It is also important for businesses in the tourist industry and others, such as the Youth Hostel Association, which have lost considerable sums of money, that, over the coming days, we get a clear picture of exactly where the disease is located and which areas of the country are free from the disease. People are cancelling bookings in parts of the country where foot and mouth disease is not present and where, hopefully, it will become clear over the coming days that it will not spread. In circumstances where the disease is operating quite differently in different parts of the country, we also have to consider how to give proper effect to a set of rules that makes sense of the restrictions that presently apply to the whole country.
Chelsea Brown, a two-year-old who lived in my constituency, was abused and brutally murdered by her father, who was sent to prison for life by Nottingham Crown court last week. Professionals have admitted that mistakes were made in the very difficult area of child protection. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that everything possible is done to make sure that the procedures that govern this area are rigorously enforced and where necessary, strengthened so that the very fine judgments that have to be made are made promptly and appropriately and in the interests of child protection?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We haye strengthened the protection available and it is important that we continue to look at ways of doing so. However, as she will know, very difficult judgments often have to be made by social services on the ground and, when a tragedy occurs, they can be attacked from both angles. We must certainly take every possible precaution to minimise the risk to which children are exposed and, of course, the welfare of the child should always come first.
Education history is being made today with the launch of the first privately managed federation of state schools in Britain, building on the success of the first privately run state school in Guildford. May I thank the Prime Minister for acknowledging the success of this Conservative policy in his recent Green Paper? Does he further agree with me what a shame it was that, with the written backing of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, his local Labour party opposed us all the way?
I shall try to take that as congratulations for the policy that we are pursuing. It is important not only that we have a diverse range of providers in secondary schools, but that we put the investment into our school system that it needs. The only unfortunate thing about the Conservative policy is that, whereas we put into schools the investment that we need, he is committed to taking that investment out.
The announcement today that unemployment has fallen below 1 million will be welcomed by my constituents in Don Valley, where unemployment has been halved and youth unemployment has gone down by 86 per cent. In South Yorkshire, 178,000 industrial jobs were lost between 1979 and 1997. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that Labour in government will continue to fight for jobs, but also to fight for the range of skills and jobs that will ensure that South Yorkshire has a prosperous future?
My hon. Friend is right to point out that there are over 1 million more jobs in the economy now, which takes us to a total of 28 million—more people in work today in Britain than ever before. But she is also right to point out the success of the Government's measures, in particular the new deal, which has taken 275,000 people off benefit and put them into work. The tragedy is that that policy, which has given us the lowest unemployment levels for 25 years, is opposed by the Opposition, who would scrap that policy were they returned to power. In committing themselves to that, they show their true colours. Such a policy will be bitterly opposed by many people in Britain who believe that everyone, not just a few, should have the chance to succeed.
The Prime Minister will know that last week Russian forces in Azerbaijan captured two men widely believed to be responsible for murder and kidnapping in Chechnya. Given that one of those men, Mr. Ruslan Achmadov, is believed by the Foreign Office to be responsible for the murder and beheading of three Britons in 1998, including my constituent Peter Kennedy, will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating the Russian authorities on that operation? Will he also say when he believes those men will be brought to trial and whether it will be possible for the relatives of the dead to attend the trial? Will he ensure that Britain assists in bringing to justice the other people responsible for those brutal crimes?
I do not know whether the relatives will be able to attend the trial, but I shall be in touch with the hon. Gentleman on that. I was extremely pleased to hear of the arrest, and I welcome that. We shall give every assistance to the Russian authorities in pursuing the case. That particularly barbarous set of murders shocked people deeply at the time, so we are delighted that at least some of those responsible have been brought to justice. Like the hon. Gentleman, I wish to see all those responsible brought to justice.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), there are over 1 million more jobs in the economy now than there were in 1997, a period of three years and 10 months. During the same period of three years and 10 months of Mrs. Thatcher's regime, 1.6 million jobs were lost to the British economy. Is my right hon. Friend further aware that, although there are still areas of serious disadvantage and structural change in my constituency, partnerships between local and central Government and business and industry have created a situation where unemployment has fallen from 5.1 per cent. to 3.1 per cent. since May 1997. With that record—[Interruption.]
I do indeed know what point my hon. Friend was making, and so do the Opposition, which is why they are trying to shout it down. It is not just that unemployment is the lowest that it has been for 25 years or that record numbers of people are in employment, but with mortgage rates more than half what they were in Conservative years, with the national debt coming down, with the country's finances strong, with investment coming into our public services, it is no wonder at all that the Opposition do not want to discuss the economy.
Well, the Minister has no need to hire an evasive lawyer when he has the Prime Minister to defend him. The Committee's report is a tale of obstruction and lack of candour in regard to allegations that included payments in exchange for help with planning permission and land acquisition. The Committee's inquiries could not be completed, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said that the Minister failed
to provide full and accurate answers.
The Prime Minister can keep his Government's integrity or his Minister, but he cannot keep both.
If the Prime Minister is happy with the behaviour of the Minister for Europe, does he recommend that other Cabinet Ministers should treat Parliament in the same way as the Foreign Secretary? The Foreign Secretary briefs journalists about Select Committee reports before they are published and then denies in this House that he has done so.
The allegations against my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary are complete nonsense, as my right hon. Friend said at the time. However, in respect of my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, as I said, the Standards and Privileges Committee is an all-party Committee and it cleared my hon. Friend of all the allegations. It is true that he was not cleared on one allegation, but the Committee recommended no penalty. In those circumstances, for the right hon. Gentleman to say what he has said is, frankly, fatuous.
We all know that, when the Prime Minister mumbles, he is not sure of his case. The
investigation into eight of the accusations were not completed by the Committee, for the reasons that I have given. The Foreign Secretary told the House that
there was no briefing —no leak to the press"—[Official Report, 24 February 1999; Vol. 326, c. 416.]
However, we now know that he had done precisely that. Are not those facts just the latest indictment of a Government who promised to be purer than pure? Since then, we have had the Formula 1 scandal, the favours for lobbyists, the leaked Select Committee report, the home loan scandal, the Lord Chancellor's dinners, the two resignations of the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the affairs of the former Paymaster General. Now we have the Foreign Secretary's contempt for this House and the behaviour of the Minister for Europe.
The Prime Minister said that he would introduce a new kind of politics. With that record, is not it the one promise on which he has actually delivered?
As I said a moment or two ago, my right hon. Friend answered all the allegations. They were complete nonsense when they were made, and they are complete nonsense now. As for my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, he was cleared of the allegations that were made, as I said.
I think that there is a point that should be made. The Leader of the Opposition gets up to ask questions the week after the Budget, but he does not ask about that, because he dare not. He gets up on the day of the best unemployment figures for 25 years, but he does not ask a question about that, because he dare not. He gets up on the day when we announced the best employment figures ever, but he does not ask about that, because he dare not. He asks no questions on schools, crime, transport or hospitals. In fact, he asks no questions about matters that affect the real lives of real people, because he has nothing to say. [Interruption.]
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that it would be entirely wrong for any candidate in the forthcoming election to stir up racial prejudice? Will he give an assurance to the House that he will take action against any activist who is found doing so?
I certainly give that assurance. I strongly welcome the initiative from the Commission for Racial Equality. I hope that all political parties sign up to it and have their candidates do the same. Any Labour party activist or candidate who breaches those rules will be subject to discipline. I hope that we all not merely sign up to the initiative, but observe its spirit as well as its letter.
The Prime Minister said that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asks no questions relating to the real lives of real people, but will he confirm that he was asked three times today about foot and mouth, a disease that is destroying the lives of real people in my constituency? Is he aware that £10 million a week is being lost by tourism businesses in the Like district at the moment, and that 350 jobs a week are going? If this crisis continues until Easter, those figures will triple. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is coming to Windermere in the Lake district tomorrow to listen to real people with real concerns. Will the Prime Minister come and listen to those concerns, and will he act on them?
It is—[Interruption.] I think that Opposition Members should calm down a little. I think that the hon. Gentleman is rather over-sensitive in his defence of the Leader of the Opposition, but of course I accept that people are losing their jobs in tourism. It is precisely for that reason that the taskforce under my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was established yesterday. It is precisely for that reason that we have given agrimonetary compensation to farmers—something that the previous Conservative Government never did. It is precisely for that reason that we shall look at what more help can be given to the tourist industry. I should have thought that this is an issue on which both sides of the House should work together to see what we need to do to relieve the suffering of people in those areas. Certainly, for our part, that is precisely what we shall do.
Will the Prime Minister comment on the article in The Mirror today on the, possibility of the appointment of a Minister to look after and champion the cause of ex-service men and women? As the president of the United Services club in Heywood and Middleton, I know that my members would be delighted if that were to become a reality. It would be a recognition of their tremendous sacrifices in both world wars and other conflicts.
I am pleased to announce that today I have appointed my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence to be the Minister for veterans' affairs. Our armed forces veterans have made a major contribution to the peace and securtly of our nation, and it is only right that they should be recognised in that way. The Minister will be supported in the work that he does across Government Departments, but it is no longer right that particular issues that afftect veterans are the responsibility simply of one Minister in one Department. There has to be co-ordination by a Minister across Departments, and that is what we are announcing today.
May I tell the Prime Minister that 21 rural post offices in my constituency of Argyll and Bute, which is a vast area with many islands, have closed or reduced their hours of working in the past two years, and that many more are under threat? Does the Prime Minister accept that the Government's promise of financial assistance by 2003, which is very welcome, will in fact be too late? Heaven knows, rural areas have had enough to contend with as it is without losing the post office network.
The hon. Lady's point about rural post offices is a fair one. We understand the difficulties that they face, which is precisely why we published the proposals that we did Not all the help, of course, has to wait until 2003: there is help available before then. We are looking, particularly with the major banks, at how we can put in place some of the services that rural post offices will have to provide if they are to have a viable and sustainable way of living.
I was looking recently at the pattern of closure over the past 20 years. As the hon. Lady knows, there has been a pattern of closure of rural post offices for a variety of reasons, not the least of which has been their financial viability. As well as making a public commitment to them, which we are prepared to do, we must look at the ways in which they can provide a service that people in rural areas will want to use in the future.
I understand the concerns that the hon. Lady raises. We are working on this as hard as we can. We will get the money to the post offices as quickly as we can, but serious issues about their long-term viability must also be addressed.
In my Kettering constituency, a group of travellers has moved on to privately owned land where they are illegally camped. I am sure that these circumstances prevail in other parts of the country. Will my right hon. Friend urge local authorities, which are unable to move on any travellers in these circumstances, to provide adequate provision for toilets, waste disposal and disinfectant to protect everyone's interest?
It is for precisely that reason that we are putting money into coalfield areas and their regeneration. In constituencies such as that of my hon. Friend—including those that have been severely hit by structural change in the past few years—the Government have been prepared to make investment that the Opposition would never make in the future of such communities. Up and down this country, whether in areas such as my hon. Friend's or mine, or, indeed, in some of the more traditionally wealthy areas in the south, unemployment is falling, and employment and living standards are rising. That shows the need for a solid, stable economic base such as that which the Labour party has provided and the Conservatives never did provide.