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Mr. Curry : I am looking forward to opening the scheme in the North Yorkshire moors in my hon. Friend's constituency. I entirely endorse his view that economic activities and viable agriculture are the best way to conserve the uplands. I have always believed that bolting on all sorts of gadgets, environmental or otherwise, comes a long way behind a sensible cash flow in the uplands for maintaining conservation.
Mr. Geraint Howells : Does the Minister agree that farmers find it very difficult to pursue any policy because of high interest rates? Will he give a glimmer of hope to farmers that interest rates will be lowered some time this year?
Mr Curry : Interest rates are for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, we are seeking a green pound devaluation to help farmers. Of course, if interest rates were to come down prematurely and the pound were then to decline, it would reopen the green pound gap. The hon. Gentleman should let me deal with what is in my parish- -the green pound rate which we hope to devalue--and I shall refer his question about interest rates to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Mr. David Nicholson : Is my hon. Friend aware that hill farmers in my constituency and elsewhere will be appalled, although not surprised, by the attitude of the Labour party as shown yesterday by the "footling" comment of the Labour social security spokesman, the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher)? Will my hon. Friend speculate on the ability of hill farmers to undertake conservation if their farm buildings and land were to be brought within the rating system, as proposed by the Labour party and, on occasion, by the Liberal party?
Mr. Gummer : Public and animal health are well protected by our licensing system based on a rigorous scientific scrutiny of safety, quality and efficacy. There is no other criterion of equal value and objectivity, and to suggest otherwise is misleading.
Column 1003predecessor said in March 1989 at the Hannah research institute that he would consider evidence of the need for bovine somatotropin?
Mr. Gummer : The question is about the fourth criterion. There is no fourth criterion of equal validity. The suggested criterion is merely the assumptions of various individuals' prejudices. That is not objective.
Mr. Maclean : Detailed replies have been sent to all the women's institutes that have contacted me. In addition, I and my expert officials, together with a member of one of the independent scientific committees that advise the Government, had a most useful meeting with representatives of the National Federation of Women's Institutes where all their questions were fully discussed.
Mr. Wardle : My hon. Friend will already have reassured some of the women's institute members who supported the conference resolution about irradiated food not long ago. Is not world scientific opinion almost unanimous about the safety of irradiated food? If there is clear labelling, cannot the consumer choose whether to buy it?
Mr. Maclean : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All world expert scientific opinion that has examined irradiation, along with the independent expert committee advising the British Government, has determined that irradiated food is absolutely safe. The crucial point is the consumer's right to choose. We have every bit as much right in this country to select irradiated food as French housewives have.
Mr. Alan W. Williams : Although there is no test to show whether food has been irradiated, and much concern that irradiated products may be harmful, the Government are thinking of introducing maximum doses 10 times those used in the United States. Why do not the Government listen to public opinion which is overwhelmingly against irradiation?
Mr. Maclean : We are taking public opinion into account. The hon. Gentleman's comment about doses 10 times greater than those in the United States is absolutely untrue. The doses recommended are perfectly in line with what the EC Commission has recommended. World scientific opinion states that irradiation is safe. Since only 2 per cent. of the public have the right--for which we fought--to buy green top milk, surely the 66 per cent. who might want to buy irradiated food have a similar right.
Mrs. Ann Winterton : My hon. Friend will be aware of the genuine fears and concerns of consumers about irradiated food. Does he agree that stringent labelling will, to a large extent, dissipate those fears, enable the consumer to make an informed choice and provide the marketing opportunity for good, fresh food?
Column 1004Government are determined that any irradiated food should be clearly marked with the words "irradiated" or "treated with ionising radiation"-- [Interruption.] Since we are determined that the labelling regime will be enforced and workable-- [Interruption.] --consumers' fears are groundless.
Mr. Gummer : We are well advanced in determining the agricultural restrictions to apply in the areas concerned, and are currently examining their detailed costs. An announcement will be made as soon as possible.
Mr. Griffiths : Does the Minister believe that there is more than sufficient evidence to show that nitrate pollution damages the environment and humans? Should not the Government introduce regulations to cut massively the use of nitrates in agriculture? That would also help to deal with the problem of surpluses.
Mr. Gummer : There is no evidence that the amount of nitrates in the water damages anyone--[ Hon. Members :-- "Oh!"] There is no evidence whatsoever. It is because we wish to take extremely tough measures that we have introduced those proposals. The hon. Gentleman should not make statements that have no scientific base.
Sir Anthony Grant : Is my right hon. Friend aware that East Anglia is one of the most nitrate-sensitive areas in the country, yet is the most healthy? It is much healthier than many parts of Europe and almost certainly healthier than Wales. Will he reject all the humbug and hypochondriac statements that are uttered about this subject?
Mr. Gummer : In the past few days Labour Members have attacked British apples because they say they are poisonous, and now they say that British water is unsafe. I am surprised that they do not emigrate and eat apples and drink water elsewhere.
Mr. Maclean : I have seen the results of several surveys on consumer demand for irradiated foods. A recent study by the Consumers Association found that about two thirds of consumers might wish to purchase some irradiated foods in the future. Our consumers must be allowed freedom of choice to buy any food they know is safe and must not be dictated to.
Mr. Ashley : Notwithstanding the paeons of praise for irradiation from the Minister some moments ago, may I ask him to confirm that there is great public hostility to rather than demand for irradiation? Will he also confirm that irradiation can expose food to doses of radiation up to 100 million times that of a single chest X-ray and that it can be used to hide contamination in otherwise unsaleable food?
Column 1005Mr. Maclean : Irradiation cannot be used to disguise unfit food. It is illegal for unfit food to be sold now and it will be illegal in the future. I confirm that 98 per cent. of the public do not want to buy green top milk. We do not dictate to the other 2 per cent. that they cannot have it. They have a right to have it. The same applies to the 8 per cent. who are keen to buy irradiated food and to the 66 per cent. of us who might want to buy it sometimes.
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher) : This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today, including one with the president-elect of Brazil.
Mr. Maclennan : In expressing for the whole country our great joy at witnessing the unimaginable leap forward in the Soviet Union towards political pluralism and liberal democracy, may I ask the Prime Minister to give some thought to celebration by taking small steps towards reinvigorating our own democracy, although I do not suggest that she should submit herself for popular election as our president? Will she throw her weight behind greater openness and accountability by introducing a Bill of Rights and a Freedom of Information Act, by the decentralisation of government and by a fair voting system?
The Prime Minister : I share the hon. Gentleman's pleasure at the increasing democracy in the Soviet Union and hope that the decisions taken in the past few days will be speedily implemented. The hon. Gentleman will recall that there was a Bill of Rights in this country in about the 17th century.
As for decentralisation, this Government have done more to decentralise power from central Government to the people than any previous Government whether by reducing taxation, denationalising industries, allowing parents more say in schools or giving people more say in the running of their affairs.
Mr. William Powell : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the East German state is close to collapse, that mutinies have been reported in its army, that 3,000 people a day--or 1 million people a year--are leaving for the West and that over half its qualified doctors have left? Is not the only way in which that massive tide can be stemmed the unification of the two Germanys as quickly as possible? Will my right hon. Friend see that we do all we can to encourage the West Germans to assume responsibility for East Germany as quickly as possible?
The Prime Minister : I read the same reports as my hon. Friend about conditions in East Germany after so many years of Socialist Communism and about how it is near a state of collapse. Elections are due in March. They will probably be very decisive and will probably lead to the unification of Germany. It is absolutely vital that there be a transition stage between that decision in principle and sorting out the full implications for NATO, for the
Column 1006Helsinki accords and for Berlin so that the unification of Germany does not come about at the expense of security and stability in central Europe.
Mr. Hattersley : As the promise in the manifesto has been broken for the past five years, nobody must expect anything from that answer other than the preparation for abandoning universal child benefit. Is the Prime Minister aware that many low-income families are always penalised by means- tested benefits? Does she realise that many of the family benefits that are now means tested are taken up by only 50 per cent. of those who need and deserve them? Is she aware of those facts and, if so, does she care?
The Prime Minister : This Government have put more into helping poorer families than have previous Governments. During the past two years, the extra help has been deliberately concentrated on poorer families. Had those on income support or family credit merely had an increase in child benefit, it would not have profited them because it would have come off income support or family credit. By concentrating on increased family credit and increased help for those poorer families, we have done far better by them than have other Governments.
Mr. Hattersley : As the Prime Minister runs away from answering the question about the take-up of family credit, let me invite her to answer a question not from me but from one of her Back-Bench Members that was put to her last night. How does she reconcile a policy that gives tax concessions for free medical care but holds down child benefit? What does the Prime Minister have to say to the right hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Raison) who said that year by year the manifesto promises of his and her party look increasingly threadbare?
"Child benefit will continue to be paid as now, and direct to the mother."
That has been upheld, as I said in my answer to the previous question. This year and next year we shall be making available an extra £70 million to the neediest families through income-related benefit. That will especially help the poorest families. Fortunately, because of our tax policies we have had far more to spend on social security than any previous Government. The figure is more than £50 billion a year--more than £1 billion a weelk. We win all ends up.
Sir Peter Emery : During her busy day, will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that budgeted increases in spending of 10, 12 or 15 per cent. for next year, if carried through by local authorities, are bound to be inflationary and are entirely contrary to Government policy?
Column 1007it need be. The Government have given extra support to local authorities this year of 8.5 per cent. above the similar rate support grant and the business rate last year. That is sufficient for local authorities to plan well and economically.
Sir Russell Johnston : The Prime Minister has just welcomed and praised President Gorbachev's extraordi-nary achievements, but does she agree that those could be swept away by the grim and accelerating deterioration in the Soviet economy? The logic that led us to help Poland and Hungary must make the West face up to the necessity of giving aid to the Soviet Union. Will she discuss that with her EC colleagues, President Bush and President Gorbachev?
The Prime Minister : I do not think that the increasing freedom of speech, discussion and movement will be swept away, but I agree that economic improvement is critical and that is much more difficult than securing political improvement, because it requires the full co-operation of people who have never had experience of running free enterprise or of taking responsibility for themselves. Any help that we could give would be only marginal. We are helping with some joint ventures, but the bureaucratic system there creates some difficulties. We are also helping by having people here for management training and by doing everything that we can in that respect. Commercial banks also have a line of credit which is not fully taken up.
Mr. Browne : Does my right hon. Friend accept that of all the ideas for raising local government finance, the Socialist idea of a roof tax is the most unfair, uneconomic and unworkable? It will involve constant revaluation, the erosion of local democracy and the eviction of many elderly and council tenants-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Browne : Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that she will not react positively to that proposal, and will she remember that just as the window tax forced people to live in the dark, the roof tax is likely to force them to live in sentry boxes?
The Prime Minister : I assure my hon. Friend that we shall not introduce a roof tax, which is based on the capital valuation of houses regardless of whether they are owned or whether a tenant lives in them. It would be grossly unfair to tenants, and in particular to pensioners. Therefore, we shall never introduce it. Moreover, as a Thatcher I object to a roof tax.
Mr. Clarke : Does the Prime Minister accept that her replies on child benefit this afternoon will come as a great disappointment to 7 million families and 12 million children in Britain? Does she accept that, far from helping the poor, this year the Government's policies have saved £250 million at the expense of £70 million? Since for the past three years the Government have failed to uprate child benefit, will the Prime Minister uprate child benefit in April, taking those lost years into account, or does she intend simply to save up more money for an even more generous Budget for the rich?
The Prime Minister : As today's family expenditure survey shows, people at all income levels throughout the United Kingdom have benefited from a higher standard of living gained by Britain's increased output under a Conservative Government. The social services have benefited, too. The poorest families would not benefit from an increase in child benefit because it would come off their income support and family credit. We have chosen the best way to help the poorer families and I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would prefer that, instead of which he seems to prefer child benefit going to the richest families.
Mr. Teddy Taylor : At my right hon. Friend's meeting with representatives of the New Zealand Government on Tuesday, did she take the opportunity to congratulate them on the lead that they have given to the West in abolishing agricultural subsidy? Does she believe that that excellent Conservative principle has brought benefits to the taxpayer and the consumer? Did she give the New Zealand Government the assurance that British housewives will still be able to buy New Zealand butter if they wish to do so?
The Prime Minister : As my hon. Friend knows, I did not exactly put that point to the representatives of the New Zealand Government, but they were very grateful for the stand that we have taken in supporting them in negotiations with the European Community. Subsidies on agricultural produce will have to be negotiated in the GATT, through the European Community and with other countries that pay heavy subsidies, such as the United States and Japan.
Mr. Lamond : Has the Prime Minister had the opportunity of looking at the front page of the CBI News for this month, where she will see a graph of investment intentions for next year which is plummeting even faster than the Tories' support in Mid-Staffordshire? Will she read the article inside by the director-general, who asks the Government to do certain things, including reducing interest rates, improving infrastructure and training and avoiding any more inflationary Government own goals? Is there any possibility of his being satisfied by the Budget?
Column 1009three years investment has been very high-- a record in all industries and a record in manufacturing industry. That is very good. We do not take lectures from the Opposition on training. It was the trade unions who opposed the youth training scheme and the employment training scheme, both of which we have successfully brought in. My advice to the CBI would be to keep their industries competitive, their designs good and their marketing sharp.
Column 1010considerable period of ensuring that we have a strong nuclear deterrent have had an influence on what is taking place in eastern Europe? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that, although everyone believes in peace, to ensure peace we need a strong defence in the United Kingdom?
The Prime Minister : Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. A sure and strong defence, with an essential nuclear deterrent and American nuclear weapons in Europe, has made the Soviet Union realise that it could never win militarily, so it has turned round to negotiate. Had people bowed down before the Soviet Union and not kept up a strong defence, we should not have had the excellent results that we are now seeing in that country.
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