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Ministerial Visit (Kingswear)

Q3. [66300] Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): If he will visit Kingswear in order to take a trip to sea in a crabber.

The Prime Minister: I regret to say that I have no immediate plans to do so.

Mr. Steen: Either the Prime Minister enjoys the seas around the Seychelles more than the icy steel waters of the English channel, or the reason why he does not want to accept the second invitation that I have extended to him to go to sea in a British fishing boat is that he does not want to see the wanton destruction of the sea beds and the marine environment, which is largely caused by Belgian

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and Dutch beam trawlers and scallopers with outsize 1,500 horsepower engines and 40 dredges--20 on either side--which do immense damage to the sea bed and to shellfish. How does he square that with the Labour party's conservation policy?

The Prime Minister: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the holiday advice. We have no information about Dutch or Belgian vessels infringing their access rights, and if the hon. Gentleman has any such information, we should be grateful if he would bring it to the attention of the relevant authorities. However, the proposition apparently being advanced by the Conservative party, which is to withdraw from the common fisheries policy altogether, would not be a sensible way to proceed. There are huge problems, but we are committed to trying to ensure that the CFP is a more effective instrument for the conservation of fish stocks.

To ensure a more healthy marine environment and a sustainable fishing industry, we are putting in extra investment; and we have managed to tighten European Union rules on the breach of the fishing quotas. To withdraw from the CFP, which is the alternative put forward by the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, would lead to a worse situation, not a better one.


Q4. [66301] Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): My right hon. Friend took a keen interest in the miners compensation scheme for vibration white finger, which is now in place to the tune of about £500,000. May I ask him to take a keener interest in the other case that the miners are currently fighting, which relates to emphysema and bronchitis, which is a slow, agonisingly painful disease suffered not only by miners, but by their families and, sadly, their widows?

The Prime Minister: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's campaigning on these issues. He was a miner for 30 years or more. We were obviously pleased that we managed to achieve a successful conclusion on the vibration white finger issue. That settlement will mean that many people are compensated who should have been compensated. As for the respiratory disease litigation, I can tell my hon. Friend that we are close to finalising the handling arrangements to deal with the 65,000 claims that we have received to date. We believe, and are hopeful that, full final settlement offers will start to flow in as soon as possible. Before long, we hope to be able to proclaim another agreement to deal with these issues. I hope that that will provide security for many thousands of ex-miners suffering from work-related illnesses. After years and years in which compensation claims were not properly dealt with, it will be a pleasure for the Government to deliver to former miners.

Q5. [66302] Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh): I am sure that the Prime Minister will be aware that the Liberal Democrats support the objectives of the Tax Credits Bill and welcome the £1.5 billion of new money to help poorer working families. Does he, however, recognise the strong concerns felt not just by the Liberal Democrats, but by

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the Trades Union Congress, the Low Pay Unit and the Confederation of British Industry about the detail of the Bill? Will he give the House an assurance that small firms will be exempt from the burden of administering the scheme and that all employees will have the right to claim their tax credits directly from the Inland Revenue in order to maintain confidentiality?

The Prime Minister: We are addressing the concerns that have been put to us by business. The Inland Revenue will be doing all the administration and calculation of what is due if the employer pays the tax credit through the pay roll, but we are also transferring the Contributions Agency to the Inland Revenue. So there will be a big simplification of the way in which many businesses handle payments to their staff.

We are making provision at least for single-earner couples to choose to be paid through their order book or bank account. We want to make sure that the scheme works properly and has the minimum potential for abuse within it. We are trying to address all the concerns that have been put to us, but it would be disastrous if we put the scheme at risk. Of course we will listen to any concerns put to us, but literally 1.5 million people will receive a benefit of about £17 a week. All couples or single parents earning even the lowest income will have a minimum income of £10,000 a year.

The shadow Social Security Secretary has pledged that the Conservatives will abolish the scheme. They should know that they will be going into the next election pledging a tax rise of £17 a week for 1.5 million people. Given the state of the Conservative party, it does not surprise me, that that is its proposal.

Q6. [66303] Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): May I welcome the long overdue separation of those responsible for producing Britain's food and those responsible for policing its safety? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, had we had a Food Standards Agency a few years ago, we might have avoided the fiasco of salmonella in eggs and the scandal of BSE? Can he confirm that the funding mechanism for the FSA is still a matter for public consultation, but that the modest cost proposed is a small price to pay for consumer confidence in the safety and quality of Britain's food?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my hon. Friend. I gather that the Conservative party is now opposed to the proposal. I think that it is making another big mistake. Most people, who remember salmonella, E. coli and BSE, and see that there were 93,000 cases of food poisoning in the past year, believe that the FSA is a long overdue reform. The charge works out at £1.73 a week, which is less than the price of a Big Mac. That is not a great deal to pay for clean and safe food in Britain.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): Does the Prime Minister intend to visit the trade union rally being held in the House this afternoon? If so, how will he reply to the remarks of John Edmonds, who leads the GMB, who, on the radio this week, described the economy as being as

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flat as a pancake? How will he reply to Bill Morris, who leads the GTWU--[Laughter.] Mr. Morris leads one of our major unions. He described the Government's industrial policies as "sterile" and said in the New Statesman that it would be extremely difficult to motivate any of his workers to do any more work for the Labour party.

The Prime Minister: I am delighted that the hon. Lady has decided to support the trade union movement and read

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the New Statesman after all these years. I say to her exactly what I say to them--the fact that we are entering an economic downturn with interest rates falling, the lowest long-term interest rates for over 30 years, the Budget deficit cured, 400,000 extra jobs created in the economy and youth unemployment halved since we came to power demonstrates that we have a pretty good record. If the hon. Lady wants to quote the Transport and General and the GMB at me, she should hear what they say about the previous Tory Government.

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Point of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is there any way in which you can protect the rights of Back Benchers during Prime Minister's Question Time? You will see from the Order Paper that we got to Question 6. I realise that you called hon. Members who are not in the frame, but are you satisfied that Back Benchers are getting a full share during that half an hour, bearing in mind that we are likely to be in the frame only two or three times a year if we table questions every Wednesday? Will you consider that matter, because I believe that Back Benchers are not receiving our full rights within that half an hour?

Madam Speaker: I thought that it was important for the House and the country to hear the exchanges between the two Front Benchers today, but I am concerned that I am not able to call Back Benchers at Prime Minister's Question Time to the extent that I would like. The questions are too long and the answers are too long. It is unfair for Front Benchers to take up so much time when Back Benchers have a right to question the Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition is perfectly entitled to six questions, and I make that clear, but I should like questions to be much more brisk and I certainly seek brisker answers so that I can give Back Benchers a fair deal at Prime Minister's Question Time.


Employment Relations

Mr. Secretary Byers, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Straw, Mr. Secretary Blunkett,Mr. Secretary Dewar, Mr. Secretary Darling,Mr. Secretary Michael and Mr. Ian McCartney, presented a Bill to amend the law relating to employment, to trade unions and to employment agencies and businesses: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 36].

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