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Mrs. Shephard : I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend not only on his question--whatever that was--but on Janice. [ Hon. Members-- : "Hear hear."] Janice is making a very good recovery from an extremely serious operation and it is good to know that the operation is enabling her to be as right minded as she normally is, and as right minded as my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend is correct to say that Labour's grasp of the fact that public spending plans affect tax is a little tenuous. However, I agree with my hon. Friend--and believe that this was the point that he and Janice were making--that the cost of the CAP is too high. That is why the United Kingdom has consistently pressed for a reduction in that cost and why we will continue to do that.
Dr. Strang : Is it not a disgrace that the intervention board in this country alone will be spending around £2,000 million this year on open-ended market support ? Does the right hon. Lady recall her predecessor's statement that he had got rid of the MacSharry proposals and replaced them with the Government's own reforms ? Following the admission by the Commissioner yesterday that EU agricultural spending this year will exceed its already enormous budget, will she now accept that the Government have failed to secure an adequate reform of the CAP ?
11. Mr. Kirkwood : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans she has to assist sheep producers who have been denied access to quota by the recent change in the EC sheepmeat regime ; and if she will make a statement.
Mr. Jack : The national quota reserve for sheep annual premium is designed to assist certain categories of producers who, because of the changes in the sheepmeat regime, are not able to receive enough quota for their needs.
Mr. Kirkwood : What is the Minister doing to identify cases of genuine hardship? People are caught in some of the emerging transitional traps and, through no fault of their own, are left with little or no quota at all. Would he be prepared to consider tribunals reviewing genuine cases of hardship, as happened in respect of milk quotas? Is the Minister aware that the alternative of buying or leasing a Government quota is not a real alternative because it is too expensive?
Mr. Jack : I understand the hon. Gentleman's point : 18.7 million units of quota have already been allocated, and we have the reserve of 740,000 units still to go. Each category in the national reserve was very carefully thought out to deal with, I hope, precisely the type of hardship case
Column 415that he mentioned. We do not have any plans to buy up quota ; nor do we have power to deal with some of the cases that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : 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.
Mr. Garrett : In all the ministerial dodging and weaving on "back to basics" and in all the Prime Minister's vapid speeches on social policy I have never heard anything about child poverty. Has the Prime Minister read the recent report that 3 million children in this country live in poverty, that most of them are undernourished and that this country has the fastest growing rate of child poverty in western Europe? What is more basic than nurturing and cherishing our children?
The Prime Minister : I do not think that Conservative Members need any lectures from the hon. Gentleman on nurturing and protecting children. We have not only ensured and enshrined the system of child benefit but introduced family credit and a range of other benefits specifically to help people who face particular difficulties. That has been so over many years, it is an intrinsic of social policy, and the hon. Gentleman in his heart knows that that is the case.
Mr. Field : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to have lasting economic recovery, any promises of public expenditure must be subject to the closest possible scrutiny, whether they are made inside or outside the House and whether they are made by blank cheque socialists or by the man who has made more false starts in British politics than a jockey in the Grand National--the leader of the Liberal Democrats?
The Prime Minister : Yes, of course I agree with my hon. Friend. As for pledges inside or outside the House, that point might have been better directed to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) than to me. I am not at all sure about pledges from the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friends. A large number have been made and a large number now seem to have been denied by the hon. Gentleman. It now seems that there is a new doctrine : if a promise is made by the Opposition outside the House, even at their party conference, even to business men, anywhere, nobody should believe a word they say, according to the hon. Gentleman.
Column 416and waste of public money by his Government and their agencies announced today in the Public Accounts Committee report?
The Prime Minister : I welcome the report issued by the PAC today. It provides a useful check list. It suggests that there has been no decline in standards. It quite rightly says that improving the efficiency of the public sector is not inconsistent with propriety. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's question surprises me, because the bodies in question are run by public servants. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not criticising public servants.
Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister welcome the fact that the situation is so grave that the Public Accounts Committee felt compelled to make such a report for the first time in its 130-year history? Does the Prime Minister welcome the fact that the report reveals that the national health service management executive wasted more than £100 million in the mismanagement of a hospital project ; that the Property Services Agency wasted £65 million, detected by the PAC ; and that millions of pounds have been wasted in the health service, in named examples--in Wessex and West Midlands? What does the Prime Minister say about those and the many other fiascos revealed in the report?
The Prime Minister : The right hon. and learned Gentleman is in his general role of making all-purpose charges. He clearly has not studied the report with the care with which he would wish people to believe he has. It states clearly that there has been no decline in standards. The PAC quite rightly criticises breaches, but says that there is no suggestion of deficiency in the public sector financial framework itself. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledge that that is the case?
Mr. John Smith : Does the Prime Minister not understand that the report says that there has been a departure from public standards that have been observed for 140 years? Does he not understand that the British public now clearly understand that one of the reasons why his Government are a Government of high taxation is that they are also a Government of waste and incompetence?
The Prime Minister : On the contrary, the report supports our drive for efficiency. Either the right hon. and learned Gentleman has misread or he is misrepresenting the substance of the report. He should look at it more carefully and come to the House and correct what he has said this afternoon. Perhaps he believes that he can convince people that the public service in this country is not, as I believe it to be, of the highest calibre of any public service anywhere in the world. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not share that view, he should.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, although the House has to endure the ritual gibes of Opposition Members about reductions in the number of hospital beds, the truth is that more and more elective surgery is carried out in general practitioners' surgeries, in
Column 417out-patient departments and, most important of all, on a day surgery basis? The Royal College of Surgeons predicts a figure of 50 per cent. in the near future. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that proves that the Opposition are as out of date as ever? Is it not about time that they got behind the Government's reforms and stopped alarming patients?
The Prime Minister : I would certainly agree with that. We know from what has been said in the past 24 hours that there would be no more spending on the national health service from the Labour party, even though that is described as "obvious rubbish" by leading members of the Opposition. The reality is as my hon. Friend suggests : record numbers of patients are now being treated in the health service and there are record numbers of day cases. Not only is there better value for money in the health service but it is providing what patients and their families want. That is the reality of what is happening under our reforms. They have been an enormous success and they will continue.
Mr. Ashdown : Does the Prime Minister understand the anger that will be felt by many ordinary people who are asked to pay unprecedented levels of taxation only to see his Government hand that money over to quangos and executive agencies to throw away on waste, corruption and fraud?
The Prime Minister : I hope the right hon. Gentleman can substantiate what he has just said and will be prepared to do it. I hope also that the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that it is his party's stated position to increase taxation.
Mr. Harris : Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read the report issued to Members of Parliament today by the Trustee Savings bank on the affordability of mortgages? The report says that the typical first-time buyer of a house now pays no less than £110 a month less than he did a year ago because of the dramatic fall in interest rates. It also says that the fear of negative equity has virtually disappeared.
The Prime Minister : Yes, my hon. Friend is quite right about that. Indeed, the saving on the average mortgage from the peak level of interest rates to today is about £160 to £170 a month. The result is shown quite clearly in the extent of the personal expenditure that has helped to steer the recovery. We are now recovering, and recovering more comprehensively than any other European economy.
Mr. Cummings : What words of advice and comfort can the Prime Minister give to my constituent who has a child of 10 with double curvature of the spine whose operation has been cancelled because the joint health commissioning board has run short of cash? Does he not find it extraordinary that while there is a cash shortage for patient care, loads of money can be found for loads of posh cars and loads of managers with hugely inflated salaries in a needlessly expanding national health service bureaucracy?
The Prime Minister : I think the hon. Gentleman knows as well as any other Member of the House the extent to which patient care has expanded and improved in the national health service. We now know that there is going to be no more money for the health service from the Labour party. We can have no more of this nonsense week after week from Labour Members whenever anything happens, saying that there will be more money, because all their promises are "obvious rubbish," as the Opposition Front Bench has told us.
Mrs. Lait : Does my right hon. Friend accept that I, along with millions of parents, welcome the new emphasis that he wants put on competitive sports at school? Does he agree that such sports teach children not only team skills but the competitive skills that children need to succeed in their future lives?
The Prime Minister : I strongly agree with what my hon. Friend has to say. I think children need to learn about competition. I have no doubt that team sports instil that spirit of competition in children, quite apart from enhancing their school days and their childhood generally. Any revision of the curriculum is a matter initially for independent advice from Sir Ron Dearing. He is considering the future place of team games in the school curriculum. When we receive his report, we shall study it very carefully.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Will the Prime Minister join me in asking the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) to pay back to the ratepayers of Westminster the £50,000 profit that he made when he arranged through an intermediary to buy the council house next door? Will he join me in asking for the repayment of that money?
Mr. Clifton-Brown : Has my right hon. Friend seen the report in The Guardian today commenting on remarks by the German Economics Minister, who says that our Government's policy of deregulation and privatisation is outstanding and that, indeed, he is going to copy it? Does my right hon. Friend know that Black and Decker has moved its international headquarters from Europe to Durham? Does not that demonstrate that the United Kingdom is the leading country in which to do business, and does not it show the folly of the Opposition's policy of supporting the social chapter, which is bad for industry and bad for this country?
The Prime Minister : There is absolutely no doubt about that. If we want jobs in this country, we certainly must not add costs through the social chapter or in any other way. Black and Decker is just the latest in a long line of companies leaving other countries and setting up in the
Column 419United Kingdom because of its tax structure and its prospects, which make it a very competitive place to do business. Companies like our industrial relations, they like our system of business tax and they like the fact that we have no social chapter.
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