Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4 April 2001.

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Photo of Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee 12:00, 4 April 2001

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 April.

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 Sir Archie Hamilton Sir Archie Hamilton Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

As it is apparent that the epidemic of foot and mouth has been caused by the import of meat from abroad, why has no ban been placed on all meat from countries with foot and mouth? Why has the Prime Minister not more seriously restricted the illegal import of meat into this country?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

There are strict rules that govern the import of meat. They are set by the European Union, and we abide by them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] They are exactly the same rules that applied when the Conservative party was in power. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has said that we will consider ensuring that those rules are tightly applied, and more strictly than at present. In addition, the whole issue of ensuring that the meat that comes into this country is disease free will be looked at. However, there are strict rules by which we must abide when changing any of the laws in this area because, of course, we trade with a lot of countries, too.

Photo of Neil Turner Neil Turner Labour, Wigan

My constituency is looking forward to being one of the first to have a primary care trust, and £25 million has been invested in a state of the art walk-in facility in Wigan town centre. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows that the Government are prepared to invest in the NHS, with new matrons, and does not that contrast with 18 years of waffle, cuts and privatisation under the previous Government?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Some 2,000 matrons will be introduced as a result of the proposals made today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. That is in addition to the 17,000 extra nurses who have entered the national health service as a result of the investment that this Government have put in. The most important thing is to recognise that there is still a lot more to do in the national health service. That is why the record investment that we have put in place for the next few years has to be maintained, to ensure that we do not return to the policy of cuts and privatisation of the Conservative party.

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

A huge effort is being made by people on the ground to overcome the foot and mouth crisis. We all hope that the disease—there are more than 1,000 reported cases as we speak—will soon be brought under control. The Prime Minister will know that the latest Government figures show that the backlog of infected animals awaiting slaughter has reached 379,000. How many of those animals have been awaiting slaughter for more than a week?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Those figures include the animals awaiting slaughter, and animals that have been slaughtered but which have not yet been reported as having been slaughtered. Therefore, when both the slaughter and disposal figures come in, one has to recognise that they will be changed in the days ahead.

Perhaps it would help if I gave the House the very latest figure for the average daily rate of slaughtering. As I say, because the figures are being reported from different parts of the country by vets, soldiers and others, it takes some time to make sure that they are fully up to date. The latest figures show that, for the weekend of 25 March, on average 48,000 animals were slaughtered per day; for the weekend of 18 March the figure was 39,000, and for the weekend of 11 March it was 21,000. The rate is therefore increasing the whole time. The disposal figures will also be changed substantially, because they include animals that have been slaughtered but not yet disposed of.

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

We understand the difficulties about the figures, but the Government's figures showed that a week ago 280,000 animals were awaiting slaughter. We know that about 150,000 have been slaughtered since Monday night—there may have been additional numbers, as the right hon. Gentleman says—but it seems that tens of thousands of animals designated for slaughter a week ago still have not been slaughtered. Individual cases around the country also suggest that that is so. Is it not the case that until we further speed up the slaughter programme, we will not be able to stop the disease spreading, as it still is, to previously uninfected farms?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We have speeded up the slaughter programme enormously. In the two weeks between 11 March and 25 March, the rate more than doubled.

Let me give the disposal figures. For the weekend of 11 March, the average daily rate of disposal was 15,000. For the weekend of 18 March, the figure was 26,000, and for the weekend of 25 March, it was 40,000. The rate is increasing the entire time. As an example of how the figures change as fresh information comes in, on 28 March we gave the figure for animals awaiting slaughter as 215,000. The latest figures for that day suggest that the actual number was 167,000. It has been revised downwards substantially as a result of the fresh information that was received. That is the difficulty with citing daily figures. However, the figures for which precise information is available show that the rate of slaughter and disposal has dramatically increased in the past two weeks.

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

Nevertheless, individual cases remain, and I will write to the Prime Minister about many of them.

There is, of course, a deep crisis not only in farming but in tourism and rural business, whatever efforts we make—[Interruption.] Labour Members should reflect on the fact that nearly everything that we have proposed so far has had to be done, so it would be advisable for them to listen now. Many rural businesses are having problems, despite our efforts to tell people that there are many places in the countryside that they can visit responsibly. Two weeks ago, I proposed introducing an emergency loan scheme to provide urgent help to thousands of rural hotels, shops, tourist attractions, and so on. The Prime Minister said that he would consider that proposal carefully. Two weeks is quite a long time for people laid off from their job or business, with no income. Will the right hon. Gentleman now undertake to introduce that scheme, or something like it, before Easter is upon us?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes. In fact, I said that it was better to build on the existing small loans guarantee scheme rather than have an entirely new one. In the next couple of days my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will announce details of how that scheme can be expanded and enhanced. That is in addition to the extra help that we are giving on rate relief and the holidays on tax and VAT where discretion can be exercised. However, the most important thing—I have discussed this in detail with representatives of the tourism industry right around the country—is to get business and tourists back into the countryside. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in urging county councils and local authorities that could reopen a substantial number of attractions and footpaths that do not go anywhere near farmland to do so. Opening up the countryside again and making people understand that that is happening is the best way in which to get tourists' business back into the countryside.

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

I certainly agree that there are many places in the countryside that people can visit responsibly, although the priority must be to prevent the spread of the disease and eradicate it.

I accept that the Government have agreed to rate relief in rural areas. However, is the Prime Minister aware that many hard-hit rural businesses in areas such as Staffordshire, which has a large number of foot and mouth cases, do not qualify for that relief because they are in the rural part of what has been designated an urban area? Will he look again at those cases? Should we not be doing other things to help businesses with their cash flow, such as allowing an earlier than usual reassessment of their tax payments and advancing refunds of VAT which would eventually be due to them anyway?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

We are already considering that point. Again, let me give the House some facts. The survey by the British Tourist Authority of the United Kingdom's top 15,000 attractions and events shows that 80 per cent. of attractions are open and 91 per cent. of events are going ahead. Very large parts of the countryside in various parts of the country are reopening in the next few days in the run-up to Easter. It is tremendously important, therefore, to send out a clear message that the vast majority of things that people want to do in the countryside can be done. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in urging the local authorities—Labour and Conservative—which have the authority to do so to reopen footpaths that do not go through farmland. That is important.

As for the rest of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made in respect of the tourism industry, of course it is important that we do everything that we can to help the industry, but the single most important thing that we can do is to encourage business back to the countryside.

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

Finally on foot and mouth, we agree with the Minister for the Environment that when this whole crisis is finally over, we will unquestionably need a full public inquiry. The inquiry into the 1967 outbreak concluded, among other things, that future Governments should respond immediately to any foot and mouth incident with slaughter on suspicion and on-farm burial within 24 hours rather than burning. Should not the first recommendation of the future inquiry be that Ministers of any party should read the recommendations of the last one?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As for the 1967 outbreak, it may just be worth giving the House the facts again. On average, there were something like 13,000 slaughterings a week during that outbreak. The average now is well over 100,000. So the idea that somehow we have not taken the action necessary is simply wrong. Of course the lessons of that outbreak have been learned, but this is an entirely different type of outbreak, for the reasons that I have given. There was a multiplicity of movements of sheep for two to three weeks before the disease was ever detected and reported. That has inevitably made it harder to deal with. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in paying tribute to the work not just of the Army, which has been superb, but of local officials, civil servants, vets and others, who have done a fantastic job in difficult circumstances in defeating the disease.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

When drawing up the next manifesto, will the Prime Minister look at the possibility of ensuring that workers in this country are not sacked more easily than those on the continent and elsewhere? Now that Railtrack shares are at an all-time low, we could get it back for a song. When we have had our glorious victory, will my right hon. Friend ask the Army to take overall control of the Tory party and run its leadership cull?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am tempted just to say yes.

In respect of information and consultation, of course it is important that our work force have the rights that they deserve. That is one of the reasons why we introduced the fairness at work proposals and, for the first time, the right to trade union representation.

In respect of Railtrack, I believe that the programme outlined by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is the right way forward. In respect of the Army, I yield to no one in my admiration for it, but some logistical tasks, I fear, are beyond it.

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

I have to say that I agree with that thought. May I bring the Prime Minister's attention back to the difficulties of agriculture and the related industries? Council chiefs in Cumbria have been saying on the airwaves at lunchtime today that, in many cases, the bureaucracy and length of time involved in processing the applications for reimbursement, support, consequential loss and so on are such that it might be up to six months before they can see cases through. Too many jobs and businesses in tourism and related activities will have been lost by then. Is there anything that the Prime Minister can do to speed the process up?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

In respect of compensation for farmers, there are two different issues. There is the compensation for the animals that are actually slaughtered; we are trying to ensure that the payments get through as quickly as possible—hopefully within days, if not weeks. Secondly, in respect of the Intervention Board and animal welfare, there has been a programme vastly bigger than anything previously anticipated. We are looking—now—at how we can speed up applications and get that done quickly.

In respect of tourism, of course, some of our proposals are in the hands of local authorities themselves—especially in relation to rate relief and so on. I held a meeting with local authorities yesterday. We are happy to look at any proposals they make to remove unnecessary bureaucracy from that system. However, I repeat—as I said to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) a short time ago—that I also hope that local authorities help us in making sure that we give a proper view of what is happening in the countryside.

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

Would the Prime Minister also acknowledge that it is important for the House to send a proper signal to those businesses and those parts of our national community that are so severely affected? Does it send the proper signal for the House of Commons to introduce a Bill today that actually proposes giving financial compensation to potential council candidates when such compensation is not yet readily available to those being so affected by the present crisis? Should not we rethink that aspect of the legislation?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

If we were not helping local authorities with additional expenditure, I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman would put to me the fact that they were having to cut back on services because of extra spending, so I do not agree with him on that.

On compensation, we are getting it through to people as quickly as we possibly can, but—as I hope he agrees—the single, most important thing for the tourism industry is that we send out the clear message that it is open for business, that the vast bulk of tourist attractions are open and that there is plenty for people to do in the countryside. We need that message to go out—not just from the Government Benches but from the Opposition Benches and local authorities as well.

Photo of John Robertson John Robertson Labour, Glasgow Anniesland

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the media coverage does Britain no favours and that the Opposition should be talking Britain up, not down?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

It is important, while recognising the deep seriousness of the situation, that we at least give a proper sense of perspective; for example, even now, the number of slaughtered animals is less than 1 per cent. of the livestock of the country. It may help if I give the House the latest livestock sales in the normal course of business: 91 per cent. of pork sales are back to normal and for beef, the figure is about 78 per cent. Lamb is still down—at 40 per cent. However, that points to the fact that there is an awful lot of normal trade. When I am going around the country, I find the desire on the part of both the farming and the tourism industries not only to emphasise the urgent and needy plight of those who are most affected by this disease, but to get the message across that vast parts of the country—still the vast majority—are not affected by foot and mouth disease. There are areas where there have been sporadic cases—as I saw for myself in Essex a short time ago—but over time, in the next few weeks, those areas should be able to move to a different status as the disease is cleared. Obviously, we must bear down in those areas where the disease is most rife. It is important to recognise that a proper sense of perspective is important not only for the tourism industry but for the farming industry.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

Ever since the outbreak of foot and mouth, the Prime Minister has repeatedly warned of the devastating effects on the British tourism industry of the postponement of elections. Since the Prime Minister's last-minute panic conversion to the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for elections to be postponed, what estimate has the Prime Minister made of the financial impact on the British tourism industry of that postponement?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I do not know whether we have just heard a swift policy reversal. The Conservatives should make up their mind as to whether they are saying we were right to delay the elections, or wrong. The truth is that to delay them a short time is—in my view—a perfectly proper balance between the interests of setting up proper mechanisms to deal with the disease and the alternative proposed by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—an indefinite delay of the democratic process—which may appeal to the Conservative party but is not in the national interest.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Lawrence Mrs Jackie Lawrence Labour, Preseli Pembrokeshire

The Prime Minister will be aware, from the letter that I have sent to him, of the murder in Moscow, on 26 September 1999, of Christopher Rees, a British journalist working for an American television company called Story First. Christopher's mother, Mrs. Jane Rees, is a constituent of mine. Will the Prime Minister please raise her son's case with the appropriate Russian authorities to ensure that progress is made in investigating that crime, as Mrs. Rees is concerned that little effort has been made by those authorities to find the culprit and prosecute?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am certainly aware of the case of Mr. Rees. I will look into it for my hon. Friend, and I will be in touch with her about how we shall raise it with the Russian authorities in the appropriate way.

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (International Development)

Does the Prime Minister agree with me—[HON. MEMBERS: "No"]—that the first person who should be advised of his decisions on election dates is Her Majesty the Queen?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

Yes, and I am sure that she will be.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

In respect of the Kyoto protocol, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether he will impress, as strongly as possible, on the President of the United States that the world is not owned by the United States, but is the property of every living soul on this planet? Will he remind him that the future of this planet does not rest with big business and profit, but with principled planning? Will he also remind him that anyone who has the power that the United States has has equal responsibility to mankind?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend probably knows, this country has made its position clear. We continue to believe that the Kyoto protocol provides the best framework to deal with climate change, which is a problem that affects rich and poor countries alike. It is of vital importance to the future of the world that we deal with that and the reduction of CO2 emissions. We obviously want to hear the views and ideas of the new Administration as to how we reduce those emissions, but for our own part, as I have said before, we think that the Kyoto protocol is the right way forward. I have no doubt at all that there will be intensive negotiations on that in the run-up to the next round of talks in July, and I hope that we can find agreement on a way forward.

Photo of Mr David Prior Mr David Prior Chief Executive & Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Is the Prime Minister aware that some 1.5 million animals, which do not have foot and mouth disease, are awaiting slaughter under the welfare to slaughter scheme and that many of those animals are suffering appalling welfare conditions, with little grazing and no shelter? When will that dreadful backlog be cleared?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is exactly the point that I was making a moment or two ago. Obviously, the Intervention Board his had to deal with a vastly different range and number of cases than it ever anticipated. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we have greatly increased the payments under the animal welfare scheme, so it is far more generous than the scheme in place before, but we are working to ensure that we clear the backlog of applications to the Intervention Board. We will do that as soon as we possibly can, although our first priority must be to ensure that we carry out the containment by slaughter policy.

Photo of Mr Colin Pickthall Mr Colin Pickthall Labour, West Lancashire

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the country faces no more serious long-terns problem than the degradation of our environment? Does he agree that the crazed policies coming from the White House are not our only difficulty? More parochially, people do not want an incinerator, a tip, a telecom mast and certainly not floods in their neighbourhood. Does he agree, however, that we cannot control such things unless every single citizen in this country recognises his or her responsibility—for example, to minimise the use of non-renewable fuels and to recycle? Therefore, does he not agree that his next Government must lead a crusade on our environment? After all, as someone once said, if the Labour party is not a crusade, it is nothing.

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

First, we have now set a target for recycling at least 25 per cent. of household waste by 2005 and we have set councils statutory targets to double recycling by 2003–04 and to triple it by 2005–06. In addition, we have committed almost £160 million of new opportunities fund money for a programme of environmental renewal and community regeneration. I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a vast reservoir of good intention among members of the public to help in that process and, by putting in the lead investment, we hope to be able to mobilise that to improve the situation for the local environment in every part of the country.

Photo of Michael Spicer Michael Spicer Conservative, West Worcestershire

When will we have a proper and publicly announced decision on vaccination against foot and mouth?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

As I explained to the House about 10 days ago—in fact, I think that it was even before that—vaccination is an option. We have put in place all the contingency planning necessary for it in certain circumstances, but there are also difficulties with vaccination. In the past 10 days, the number of new cases has, at present—we should not read too much into this—flattened out and we have to see whether that trend is maintained. In those circumstances, we continue to have vaccination as an option, but we need and want to see whether the containment by slaughter policy achieves the objectives desired.

I would also point out to the hon. Gentleman and to other Conservative Members shouting out for vaccination that there is a huge—at the very least—division of opinion within the farming community. The policy will be difficult to put in place unless the fanning community agrees to it. Vaccination remains an option if the containment by slaughter policy does not work, and we are keeping it under review. We have all the contingency planning necessary to implement it, but, at present, we believe that it is right to see the present policy working.

Photo of Ms Linda Perham Ms Linda Perham Labour, Ilford North

Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister welcome the setting up a few weeks ago of a group to advise the Government on age issues in preparation for tackling age discrimination? What other measures do the Government have in place to make a real improvement to the lives of people over 50?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

That is an important part of the Government's programme. We set up the age advisory group to advise the Government on the issues in respect of that, but I think that the important thing is that any legislation builds on what are many good practices in different parts of the country. Those need to be brought together so that we are able to ensure that there is an end to age discrimination in employment, which is not just wrong but counter-productive. Vast numbers of—let us say—more elderly people of working age are in the population and they perform an excellent task for their employers. They are often undervalued, and I hope very much that my hon. Friend will see in the announcements that we make in the weeks ahead that the very issues that she has raised are properly dealt with.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party

Would the Prime Minister remind himself that, before each sitting of the House, prayer is offered to the God of heaven and earth? Would he also remind himself that, in days of crisis in this nation, the one who held his office advised the monarch from time to time to call a national day of prayer? Does he not feel that, in the present crisis, the nation should express its desire to have our nation healed, and that the way to have it healed is to call upon the sovereign God of heaven?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am sure that the nation will pray in its own way for what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not know whether it is right for Government to impose that, but 1 am sure that, according to their own conscience and faith, people will pray for the objectives that he has set out.

Photo of Ben Chapman Ben Chapman Labour, Wirral South

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while we greatly welcome the massive investment that is going into school buildings and facilities, we also have an enormously dedicated and skilled teaching profession? Will he join me in paying tribute to that profession in the Wirral and elsewhere and welcome the figures published today of a 24 per cent. increase in teacher training applicants since last year?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I am delighted to give the House the figures on that. There are now more than 5,000 more applicants this year than at the same time last year. Maths applications are up 20 per cent.; science applications are up 36 per cent.; modern language applications are up 17 per cent.; and technology applications are up 89 per cent. In addition, well over 11,000 schools up and down the country have benefited from new deal money. The two things that we can be sure of are that, if the Conservative party were elected, it would scrap the new deal money so that investment would go and that it is opposed to the additional investment in teachers. For both those reasons, I am sure that people in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere would prefer education to be in the charge of this Government.

Photo of Mrs Teresa Gorman Mrs Teresa Gorman Conservative, Billericay

Now that matron is coming back to sort out the chaos in our hospitals, will the Prime Minister consider bringing back the cane to sort out the chaos in our schools?

Photo of Tony Blair Tony Blair Prime Minister

I thought at first that we were going to get a job application. As for the hon. Lady's question, I am afraid that I cannot agree with her. However, I am sure that she will agree that the one thing the national health service needs is extra investment, which we will continue to provide.