Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28 March 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood 12:00, 28 March 2001

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 28 March.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood

Does the Prime Minister remember the manifesto for London, which his party issued at the last general election and which bore his signature? In it, he said that his policies would make London a showcase for Britain. Can he imagine the untold misery that millions of commuters in the capital will suffer on the underground tomorrow, thanks to the failure of his policies? Is not it a fact that the unions, the Commissioner of Transport for London and the Mayor of London—whose job the Prime Minister created—all lack any confidence in the system? Does he agree with the commissioner that, if safety is to be ensured, the commissioner should have the right to decide the priorities in the capital spending programme—or will it all be left to the judges?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, a few facts. There is an extra £1 billion in investment under this Government, over and above the plans of the previous Government who were supported by the hon. Gentleman. Secondly, the public-private partnership will guarantee a substantial uplift in investment in the London underground. That money will come not only from the public sector, but from the private sector, and it will be way over and above any investment made by the Conservative Government.

Thirdly, with regard to plans for the tube, I remind the hon. Gentleman that until the Conservative party decided to change its position a few days ago, he and everyone else in his party supported the total privatisation of the London underground. That really would be a disaster for the underground.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman is wrong in what he said about safety. Safety will remain in the public sector under the PPP.

Photo of Mr John Hume Mr John Hume Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

Given that the Government and the Opposition parties accept that the most democratic electoral system for local government, Assembly and European elections in Northern Ireland is the proportional representation system, does not the Prime Minister think that that system should be introduced for elections to this House?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The circumstances of Northern Ireland are very particular, and do not necessarily have implications for the rest of the United Kingdom.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

In the past 48 hours of the foot and mouth crisis, it has become clear that the Government are contemplating what we all, on both sides of the House, previously regarded as unthinkable: a policy of widespread vaccination. The Opposition share the distress of many in the countryside that the crisis has reached this point, but we welcome the fact that contingency plans are being drawn up—in fact, we called for such plans—as a last resort. Will the Prime Minister clarify exactly what kind of vaccination policy is being considered? Is it the vaccination of a limited number of animals, which will then be slaughtered, or the vaccination of a far greater number? What are the implications of that for export resumption?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is correct, as I said to the right hon. Gentleman a few days ago, that we must consider the option of vaccination. It is being considered for particular areas where the disease has spread to many parts. Obviously, in other areas, the disease has been far more easily controlled and the number of cases is fewer. I think it best not to announce the precise details until we have discussed the matter with representatives of the National Farmers Union. Obviously, it is a contingency that we have to look at. I understand the huge resistance in parts of the farming community, because of the difficulties for the farming industry itself. Vaccination is no easy solution—that has to be said clearly. However, it is necessary to consider it because it has clearly emerged during the past few days, as more and more evidence has come through of the number of sheep movements prior to the detection and reporting of the disease—I think that I told the House a couple of weeks ago that there might have been as many as 2,000 sheep movements before the disease was detected, but now it is clear that that was an understatement—that probably about 1.35 million sheep were exported or moved during the month of February. Therefore, if the disease was incubating then, it has been far more widespread than hitherto thought. That is why in certain areas, where the disease is particularly strong, we have to consider the option of vaccination, but we shall discuss that very carefully with people in the farming community before we announce the details.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Clearly, the Government have been forced to consider a vaccination policy because the disease continues to spread at an alarming rate. I put it to the Prime Minister that there continues to be a serious lack of resources on the front line in particular areas. In a situation where every hour counts, many farmers report that it takes many hours to get through to MAFF on the telephone even to report a case of foot and mouth. The need for more vets remains, even though many more have been recruited.

This morning, I received a letter from a Ministry vet of 40 years experience who retired at Christmas. He said: Yesterday … I heard three times on radio and television that more vets are required … Last Friday … I phoned the MAFF offices at Exeter and Bristol … and offered my services. I was thanked for the offer of help … I have heard nothing since. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the whole government machine gets its act together to make the most of those resources?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Obviously, I do not know about the particular case the right hon. Gentleman mentions. When I was in Worcester yesterday, I met retired vets who had been brought back into service. There are now about seven times the usual number of vets in the state veterinary service. We continue to recruit them from whatever source we possibly can.

On the situation on the ground, of course it is extremely difficult—especially in areas such as Cumbria or Devon, where they have to deal with a large number of outbreaks. A huge logistical effort is required. Sometimes, the perception is of an outbreak on a farm with perhaps a few hundred cattle or sheep, and that that is easy to deal with—but some of those farms have several thousand livestock spread over a large distance. It is incredibly difficult for the people to deal with that. However, every resource they ask for we put in, as far as we possibly can. The key matter is to ensure that the report to slaughter time of 24 hours is maintained in every part of the country. In Cumbria, that is proving extremely difficult, but in most parts of the country that is now up and running.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

Clearly, the vets and soldiers involved in tackling this crisis are doing a tremendous job and are working extremely hard. However, in every way one looks at it at present, the crisis is getting worse. Yesterday, we had a record number of outbreaks, and three of the outbreaks in recent days have been in new areas— [Interruption.] We had 47 outbreaks, so if it is not a record, it is very near to a record. Three of the outbreaks in recent days have been in entirely new areas, including a further outbreak today. The backlog of infected animals awaiting slaughter has doubled in the past week to more than 250,000 and the number of carcases has reached 118,000. When does the Prime Minister think that this disease will truly be under control?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Let me first correct some of the information that the right hon. Gentleman has given. There is an enormous effort on the ground. The Army logistics team is doing a superb job, the vets are working every hour that they possibly can, and slaughtermen and contractors are being hired at a huge rate.

In respect of the daily figures, we have to be cautious because they are revised day after day as fresh information comes in from different parts of the country. However, I can say that in the last week almost 200,000 animals have been slaughtered. That is getting on for double the figure for the week before. About 130,000 carcases have been disposed of in the last week, which is getting on for three times the figure for the week before. This information is being upgraded the entire time.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me how we could be sure when the disease would end. The answer is that we cannot be sure at the present time, for the very reason that I gave a moment or two ago. If thousands of sheep movements did indeed take place before the disease was detected, it is important to realise that there will be certain parts of the country—Cumbria, very obviously—where it is extremely difficult to tackle the disease by the means originally contemplated. That is precisely why we have to look at issues like vaccination.

However, in other areas of the country—about six or seven of them—there have been one or two outbreaks, and, thankfully, there have not been any more cases in the last week or two. Northern Ireland is an example of that, and the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development is now applying for disease-free status for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland had a case early on, but that has not been followed by another case. Therefore, there are areas of the country where, at the present time—and I stress "present time"—we are managing to keep the disease under control and eradicate it. However, in some of these areas, especially in Cumbria but not limited to Cumbria, that is very difficult, for the reasons that I have given.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

We are entitled to ask when the right hon. Gentleman thinks that the disease will be under control—[Interruption.] We are entitled to ask, because the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said three weeks ago that it was under control, but the chief scientist said that it was not under control—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. I do not expect the right hon. Gentleman to have to shout.

Photo of William Hague William Hague Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party

There is a major crisis in this country, which some Labour Members wish to ignore. We are entitled to ask when the disease will be under control, because the Minister said that it was under control, the chief scientist said that it was not under control, and the Prime Minister said that it was on track to being under control. We are entitled to ask when the right hon. Gentleman thinks that it will be brought under control—that is terminology that the Government use.

The Minister in charge of the rural taskforce said yesterday that this is an enormous crisis, in some ways unprecedented, and he is right. The Prime Minister rightly said yesterday that he would be straining every sinew to tackle the crisis, and we welcome that. "Every sinew" must mean every appropriate military resource, every available vet, and every ounce of the Prime Minister's energy and attention. Does he agree that he will have to continue to strain every sinew until the disease is brought fully under control?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Of course we must do everything that we can to ensure that the disease is brought under control and eradicated, but I think that the right hon. Gentleman is wrong to suggest that anyone is ignoring the seriousness of the problem. We all recognise how serious it is, which is precisely why we are taking the measures that we are.

Having recently visited Devon, Cumbria and Worcestershire, I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the people to whom I spoke realise that every resource that they require from the centre is being provided. However, the situation is difficult, particularly in those areas where the disease has taken hold.

I would also point out to the right hon. Gentleman that we have already slaughtered more livestock in this outbreak than we did in the entirety of the 1967 outbreak, which continued for over eight months. Of course, the big difference between then and now is that there were far fewer movements of livestock then than there are now.

I agree that we have to make every possible effort to control and eradicate the disease. I hope that everyone in this House understands that. All that I am saying to the right hon. Gentleman is that, at the Present time at least, we are able to look at some success in certain areas because the cases have not been repeated. However, in some areas there have been so many movements of sheep that the situation is difficult, and there is no point in pretending otherwise.

Photo of Claire Ward Claire Ward Labour, Watford

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of those farmers who are in the fortunate position of still being able to sell their livestock at market are facing reductions in prices—in some cases, for lambs, of up to £11 and perhaps even more? Will he take this opportunity first, to encourage the British public to continue to buy British meat and support our British farmers, and secondly, to ask our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to review whether our farmers and consumers are getting the best deal from the retailers, who do not appear to be passing on those reductions to the consumers?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On the last point about prices, I know that that concern is often expressed, and we have discussed it with the retailers and the farming industry. On the first point, it is worth stressing that in addition to the £600 million agrimonetary compensation that we are paying out, there is an additional £150 million agrimonetary compensation and more than £150 million compensation for the animals slaughtered.

In addition, the animal welfare scheme has now been substantially upgraded by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and we are making every effort to ensure that the proper processes are in place so that people can claim under the animal welfare scheme. Again, even with the best will in world, those farmers who have lost their stock face the problem of restocking, and then they face the problem of how, in the future, we devise the right sustainable and viable strategy for farming. That is something that we have already committed ourselves to sit down and work out with the farming communities when the immediate spread of the disease is over.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Will the Prime Minister give the House an assurance that if any Labour Member uses racist language or language that invites racist instincts in this country, he will without hesitation, on principle and on the spot, withdraw the parliamentary Whip from such a Member?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I have made it clear that it is entirely unacceptable for any Labour candidate to use language of a racist nature or language calculated to stir up racist feelings in this country. The right hon. Gentleman and I—and, indeed, all the main political parties—signed up to the Commission for Racial Equality statement. We will abide by that statement, as I am sure all political parties will.

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

I welcome the Prime Minister's comments. I agree that all the main party leaders in this country signed the pledge from the Commission for Racial Equality. In particular, if we are in a pre-election mode in this country, is it not deeply important that we ensure that those words are worth more than the paper they are written on?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is generally accepted on both sides of the House that Britain benefits from being a multicultural, multiracial society and that many people, including many hon. Members, have backgrounds from other countries. I dare say that virtually all of us have in us some blood from other races and nations. In this modern day and age, surely it is not merely a principle that is morally right, but in our self-interest that anyone, irrespective of race or ethnic background, is a full and proper member of our society.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

When I arrived in the House in May 1997, I became acutely aware that many of us were suffering from a very serious medical condition. However, I subsequently realised that, for most of us, it is a selective condition—but for millions of people in the United Kingdom deafness is a real problem. I want to take this opportunity to thank those hon. Members who signed my early-day motion on testing for deafness in babies.

Will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to ensure that that programme is extended to all regions of the United Kingdom, so that all babies can benefit from the test, which will undoubtedly improve their educational outcomes?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

My hon. Friend draws attention to a very serious problem. Many children are perceived to have particular learning disabilities, whereas their true problem is one of deafness. The Government's neo-natal hearing screening scheme is now being piloted at some 20 sites across the country. Subject to the successful piloting of the scheme, it is our intention to introduce it nationwide and to try to ensure that, for those children who have that disability, it is spotted early and dealt with.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

Mr. Speaker[Interruption.] While Labour Members jeer, large parts of the country are living in seige conditions—[Interruption.]

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. We must hear the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Transport and the Regions)

Labour Members may jeer, but as they do large parts of the country are living under siege conditions and many thousands of our countrymen face losing their livelihoods. Will the Prime Minister now give us his estimate for the number of dead livestock by May?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The number of dead livestock obviously depends on the number of premises in which the disease is detected. What we have—[Interruption.] It is impossible for me to predict precisely the number of premises in which the disease will be detected in the coming two months. It is important, however, that where the disease is detected in any premises—in other words, they are infected premises—the animals are slaughtered within 24 hours. As I said, with the exception of Cumbria, where that is very difficult to do because of the spread of the disease, that is now happening in the vast majority of infected areas.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Labour, Erewash

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some private hospitals are charging different amounts for the same operation—a lower amount if patients pay cash up front and up to twice the amount if the operation is paid for by a private health insurer? To get round that problem, some private health insurers encourage their clients to pay in the first instance and to split the difference on the balance. Given that evidence, does he think that the whole area of private health and private health insurance needs to come with a Government health warning, particularly in the light of the Conservative party's policies?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I was not aware of the practice to which my hon. Friend refers. However, many people believe that the national health service provides, and should provide, the best guarantee for them of good treatment. An enormous amount of change and investment is necessary, and it is this Government who are making the biggest substantial investment in the national health service since its creation.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that, in the face of the worst crisis in my constituency and the south-west generally in my time as a Member of Parliament—the regional development agency has just assessed that, this year, it will cost the south-west £1 billion, with the cost to be borne by businesses of all sorts—and with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food virtually at breaking point and other Departments desperately trying to provide information, the role of an MP becomes absolutely critical? Therefore, I would find it inconceivable if my constituents were suddenly to be unrepresented at the time of the greatest crisis that they have faced. This is a national emergency.

Has the Prime Minister noticed the contribution that Brigadier Birtwhistle has made, and is he aware that there is a regional brigade commander in every region of this country? In the face of this national crisis, with the Prime Minister having recognised at last the contribution that the Army can make, can I encourage him to give it full responsibility in the regions?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

The Army has full responsibility for all logistical operations in its regions. Based on talks with people in the areas most affected, I think that the relationship between civil service officials and the military is working well. The position, however, is very difficult, particularly in areas such as Cumbria where the disease is at its height.

There are two separate effects on business: the effect on the farming industry and the effect on the tourism industry. On tourism, it is important that both sides of the House send out the clear message that we want people to go into the countryside, but stay off the farmland. That is the right message to give to people. There are masses of things for people to do, and there is no reason for them to cancel their holidays. Although we can look and are looking at what Government help can be given, the single biggest support that we can give to the tourism industry is custom, trade and business.

Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the generous purposes of Government policies are often diminished by public administration and by long and complex forms, obscure language and protracted procedures? Will he champion a campaign in all Departments to base public administration on the minimum number of questions necessary, plain English and service with a smile?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That has probably been the ambition of most Prime Ministers for a long period. It is right that the measures that have been taken for schools, hospitals and the police will reduce bureaucracy. It is important that we make those changes and reforms, but it is also important that we make the big investment in our schools, hospitals and police that the country needs. As a result of the investment already made, we have the best primary school results this country has ever seen, we now have 17,000 more nurses in the health service than a few years ago, and the latest police figures show that, in the past 14 months, numbers have risen by 1,400, which is the largest rise in well over a decade.

Photo of Mr Richard Livsey Mr Richard Livsey Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

Will the Prime Minister pay particular attention to foot and mouth in Powys, where Brecon and Radnor has 11 cases and Montgomery has 16? We are on a knife edge. The carcases are supposed to be buried within 24 hours of the disease being identified, but we have only 50 troops available in Wales. Their headquarters is in my constituency. Will the right hon. Gentleman use his good offices to get more of the Army involved in Wales? Will he consider delaying the general election for one or two months so that he and his Ministers can concentrate on the issue?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I have nothing to add to what I said on Monday. In respect of the Army, we sometimes hear that more troops are required on the ground and I will consider the situation in Powys. We have a sufficient number of contractors available to carry out the work. The problem is organising that and finding the burial sites that are needed. In the past week or so, as a result of the work by the Environment Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, we have identified about 48 or 50 sites in different parts of the country, the most visible of which is in Cumbria, where a large site is being used for burial. We thought—I think rightly—that the priority was to achieve the policy of 24 hours from report of a case to slaughter. As I have said, disposal is happening more quickly as we open up burial sites. However, I shall consider the particular problem of Powys this afternoon.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Labour, Rotherham

As our nation's hearts go out to farming communities, can we spare a thought for the families of the 6,000 steelworkers who face great misery without receiving a peep of sympathy from the Conservatives or their stringpullers in the press? Will my right hon. Friend welcome the announcement by Corus yesterday that it will work with trade unions on a package to retrain as many of those steelworkers as possible? Surely the way forward in the 21st century is to have a social partnership, with Corus joining the car and aerospace industries in working with employees to ensure their future. Will he put his authority behind the help that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have given? They are providing grants and advice on working with the European rules to ensure that the rescue package succeeds. The steel community, after 20 years of being butchered by the Conservatives, now has a Government on its side.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We will certainly examine carefully the proposals by the trade unions and management on specific help with training. We also stand ready to help in any other way that we can with those several thousand people who unfortunately face losing their jobs. Again, I pay tribute to the way in which the trade unions have put together their package. They have acted in a highly responsible and commercially sensitive way. I hope that the company listens to them; we certainly will.

Photo of Sir Ray Whitney Sir Ray Whitney Conservative, Wycombe

Last month, the International Monetary Fund warned that the Chancellor's spending plans risk damaging the economy. It said that the much-trumpeted golden rule is an inadequate guide to fiscal policy. Given that recent economic and financial developments have reinforced the criticism of the IMF, will the Prime Minister advise the Chancellor that his policies are heading towards boom and bust?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

No, I do not think that I can. The hon. Gentleman is wrong about the IMF. It said that the Chancellor should not relax his fiscal position and, of course, he did not, for the reasons that he gave in the Budget. I take it that the hon. Gentleman is against the extra investment that we are putting into schools, hospitals and crime. As ever, we have a somewhat confused message from the Conservatives about what their policies really are.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned boom and bust, and I am glad that he did. It is right to remind the House of what happened when he and his party were last in power. In the early 1990s, more than a million jobs were lost, interest rates were at 15 per cent., output plummeted and thousands of homes were repossessed. Today, there are a million extra jobs, lower mortgages, better living standards and a Government who have got rid of boom and bust.

Photo of Andrew Dismore Andrew Dismore Labour, Hendon

Last week, I met members of the Barnet senior citizens forum, who raised with me their concern about their perception of ageism in the NHS. I therefore welcome yesterday's announcement of the new NHS national service framework, which will ensure that services are provided on the basis of need, not age—[Interruption.] When does my right hon. Friend expect the new resources announced yesterday to make a real difference to pensioners in my constituency?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We certainly welcome the NHS statement, which forms part of the changes we are making. In response to the comments shouted by Opposition Members at my hon. Friend, let me remind them that we will be going into the election promising the largest ever investment in the health service, with 17,000 more nurses, a new hospital building programme and extra GPs on the way, while they will be going into the election arguing for cuts in that investment. I think that we will be waving bye bye to them.