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Q1. [94103] Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 27 October.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): 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.

Dr. Turner: When it comes to dealing with the beef row, will the Prime Minister heed the advice of the National Farmers Union, which is strongly opposed to a tit-for-tat ban on French meat? Will he take advice from the UK scientists who are responsible for public health issues? Will the Government act with reason and within the law and ignore the Conservatives, who would have us sacrifice the true interests of agriculture for narrow party advantage--the party that gave us BSE?

The Prime Minister: I assure my hon. Friend that we shall certainly not engage in a tit-for-tat war. There is a £10 billion food and drink market for Britain in Europe, more than £1 billion of which is in France. The right approach is this:

Those are not my words, but the words of the director general of the National Farmers Union. That is a better approach than the immature nonsense from the Opposition, who are advocating a trade war without the faintest clue as to its consequences.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): Can the Prime Minister confirm that Ministers were aware on 10 June of the contamination of French animal feed and that the Government's food safety group concluded at the time

That was four months ago. Does he not regret that the Government did nothing about that at the time?

The Prime Minister: I am informed that it was in the newspapers at the time. The British Government made representations, as did the European Commission. The advice that we got from our scientists yesterday was:

The ban on French products that the right hon. Gentleman is calling for would be illegal. He is calling for an illegal ban on French products. That would start precisely the type of trade war that any sensible person would want to avoid.

Mr. Hague: The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has launched a personal boycott of all French

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products and the Prime Minister lectures other people about a trade war. Does he support the Minister of Agriculture's boycott?

The Prime Minister: Of course we want people to eat good British beef, good British pork and good British lamb. That is a choice which British consumers are making. We do not want an illegal trade war. That is what the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting. Do not take my word for it; look at what the leader of the NFU in Scotland says:

Those are sensible words. They are the words of people with the interests of British farming at heart--unlike the Opposition, who want to whip up their normal anti-Europeanism. They have locked themselves into a stupid policy that would do enormous damage to this country. This country will never forget who gave us BSE in the first place.

Mr. Hague: What all that waffle means is that the Prime Minister does not support the boycott by the Agriculture Minister, who presumably will be running for Mayor of London very soon. Does he recall on 16 June my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) asking him about the cross-contamination of animal feed in France and urging him to ban the use of bonemeal throughout Europe and imports of meat and poultry produced by that method? Does he recall replying:

Was that not one of those meaningless and empty answers that the Prime Minister gives and then goes on to do nothing whatsoever about? What effective action did the Government take after he said that?

The Prime Minister: The very action that I described to the right hon. Gentleman earlier. The issue is how best to deal with the French action that is itself unlawful. What is the best way to deal with it? We say that the best way is to play it straight by the rules to make sure that we have the law, quality and science on our side. That is the sensible way to approach it. The right hon. Gentleman's approach, which I notice he has not repeated today, is a ban on all French products. It is now clear that such a ban would be unlawful. Is that the right hon. Gentleman's position or not?

Mr. Hague: For months it has been known to the Government that French animal feeds are contaminated with waste from septic tanks, water from washing lorries, and human sewage. How safe does that sound to the Prime Minister? Professor Pennington, who headed a Government inquiry on meat hygiene, says:

and that he will not be eating French beef in future. Is that not common sense? Is it not time to introduce under article 36 a precautionary ban on French imports?

The Prime Minister: As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, under article 36 that can be done only in circumstances where there is a serious and demonstrable threat to human or animal health, and on the advice of the

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relevant scientific committee which advises us that there is no such risk. So there is no doubt--the right hon. Gentleman cannot escape from it--that he is asking us to impose an illegal ban.

Let me point out that £320 million worth of British goods go into the European market every day--that is £100 billion worth of trade every year, £10 billion of which is in food and drink. That is why it would be stupid to impose an unlawful, unilateral trade ban. The sensible approach is not to revisit the old beef war which some of us remember under the Tories, but having got the beef ban lifted by playing by the rules, to carry on doing so.

Mr. Hague: No one would think that this was the Government whose Ministers have launched a boycott of all French products. No one would think that this was the Government whose chairman of the Advisory Committee on Animal Feeding Stuffs says that one does not have to have a scientific interpretation to know that it is not good to put material contaminated by human sewage back into the food chain. That is what the Prime Minister's own advisory committee says.

We now have the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food boycotting French food and the Prime Minister not supporting him; we have the Government saying that they are doing all they can, but no one has even spoken to the French Minister on the telephone; we have the Prime Minister saying that meat fed on human sewage is safe, but that British T-bone steaks are lethal; we have British lorries being broken into and barricades on fire and no effective action being taken. Is it not clear when we look at Ministers that it is not just the dead cows that have had their spines taken out?

The Prime Minister: So that is the right hon. Gentleman's policy. Let us get it right: he would ban all French beef, poultry, pork and lamb. To start such a trade war is a foolish, irresponsible act. Perhaps he should learn the difference between an easy headline and a good policy. He wants to start a trade war. Having given us BSE and the beef war, the Conservatives now want a trade war. That is not a sensible policy. Listen to the words of the National Farmers Union today. Ben Gill said:

[Interruption.] Just listen to this. Conservative Members do not want to hear it. Mr. Gill went on to say:

    "I want to resolve this issue in a positive way without a full blown trade war."

The right hon. Gentleman must decide whether he wants to carry on advocating a policy that would be suicidal for British commercial interests in Europe or to adopt a sensible policy that--[Interruption.] Conservative Members keep going on about my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I hope that British consumers buy British beef and pork and other British products. That is wholly different from the right hon. Gentleman's policy, which is to suggest that we ban French products coming into this country. That would not be the right policy. He and his party can whip up as much anti-European feeling as they like--and get support in parts of the media for it--but I will ensure that we do the right thing by this country, as we are doing.

Q2. [94104] Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to what can only be

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described as a bitter injustice? I refer to the situation of the widows and families of soldiers who serve in the Gurkha regiments and the fact that they receive much less in benefit than those of British soldiers in our Army. Does he agree that the Gurkhas are well respected throughout the United Kingdom and the world? They are currently serving as a peace force in Kosovo and East Timor.

A few months ago, we heard the report about two soldiers who were killed in Kosovo: one a Gurkha and one a British soldier. The Gurkha's widow will receive much less than the other widow. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that justice is done to Gurkhas' widows? My question is heightened by the fact that the British Inter-Parliamentary Union is welcoming a delegation from Nepal. The Speaker and representatives of both Houses in Nepal are visiting. It is their sons who are recruited to the Gurkhas.

Will my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence ensure that the injustice is corrected?

The Prime Minister: For nearly 200 years, Gurkhas have served Britain loyally in conflicts throughout the world. They are a unique fighting force with a real place in the hearts and affections of all people in this country. I am pleased to announce that the first stage in the examination of the arrangements for death in service and pensions has now been completed and that gratuities payable in respect of death attributable to service for Gurkhas will be brought into line with those for their British counterparts. These new payments will take effect from 26 May this year, and so will apply to the widow of Staff Sergeant Balaram Rai.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): The entire House and the entire country agree that the French authorities are acting unlawfully on beef importation, but will the Prime Minister none the less acknowledge that if history teaches this country, and others, anything, it is that a trade war--a descent into protectionism--is counterproductive, self-defeating and, frankly, the height of political and parliamentary irresponsibility?

The Prime Minister: That is of course right, and it is the Conservative party's position. That party's position is driven because it has become a single-issue pressure group on Europe, and its anti-Europeanism governs the entirety of its policy. That policy is not in the interests of this country, and I shall not follow it.

Mr. Kennedy: Will the Prime Minister also acknowledge that, given the extent of the crisis in British agriculture generally, it is unfortunate that, apart from one illegal suggestion, the leader of the Conservative party does not have one positive proposal to make? That is what the farming community wants--solutions and proposals.

Also, at a time when farm incomes are plummeting, farmers are receiving a pittance in terms of their prices, and yet the supermarkets are not reflecting that. Is it not high time that the Government got serious and urgent with the supermarkets, as well as with France?

The Prime Minister: We have been in discussion with the supermarkets, which are making their own

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arrangements. What the farming industry needs at the moment is tiding over this period of extreme difficulty. That is why we have put together three special aid packages worth more than £700 million. Some £5 billion of support is going to farmers. However, we understand that their industry is in severe difficulty and crisis. That is why we are discussing with farmers union leaders and others exactly how we can ameliorate the situation.

To those Conservative Members who have been shouting out, I have to say there is no doubt as to why the farming industry is in this position--it is because of the BSE crisis, which was a result of the previous Government ignoring proper scientific evidence. We do not intend to do the same ourselves.

Q3. [94105] Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): What is the Government's view on the rather noble antics of Charles Francis Topham de Vere Beauclerk, the Earl of Burford, who seems to think that he has a divine right to rule simply because he is descended from Nell Gwynne? Does my right hon. Friend believe, like the Earl of Burford, that abolishing the voting rights of hereditary peers is an act of treason; or was it a great day for democracy and another manifesto pledge fulfilled?

The Prime Minister: There are two simple reasons for removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords. First, it is wrong in this day and age--whatever the Conservatives think--that, by birth, people can make laws. Secondly, it gave the Conservatives an in-built majority of three or four to one in perpetuity, no matter who won the general election. I hope that everyone saw those antics yesterday. They showed exactly why we were right to pursue this policy. We should never expect the Tories to be ready for the 21st century, but I thought at least that they might have left the 17th.

Q4. [94106] Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): Is the Prime Minister aware of the disastrous recommendations of the regional planning guidance panel for 1 million more houses in the south-east? Does he accept that building on that scale would cause immense damage to the local environment, and major infrastructure problems? Will he now publicly disown those recommendations, undertake that they will not be implemented and make sure that he has a regional policy in place to stop overheating in the south-east?

The Prime Minister: There is a specified process and time for such reports to be considered, and we should go through that process in the normal way. This was not, of course, a Government report. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have increased the amount of building that has to be on brown-field sites from the poor figure under the previous Government to 60 per cent. now. We are trying to address the issues.

Obviously, there is a lot more to do, and we will do our best to reflect on the plan that has been put to us. We will publish our deliberations in due course. We are well aware that we must balance properly the need for people to live in decent housing with the needs of the environment--which is why, since we came to power, we have increased the amount of green-belt land.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): Will my right hon. Friend delay any

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plans he has to visit my constituency until June next year, when he will be able to see the results of a £1 million lottery grant, every penny of which has been spent on the refurbishment of our magnificent Saltburn pier?

The Prime Minister: The refurbishment of Saltburn pier is a marvellous project and I wish it the best of luck. I also look forward to visiting it in due course with my hon. Friend.

Q5. [94107] Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I have already written to the Prime Minister about the matter that I wish to raise with him today.

Last Friday, the board of my NHS trust considered a report by its director of finance which forecast a £3 million deficit at the end of this year. The report proposed ways to balance the budget that would have severe a impact on patient care. Indeed, it became apparent that the measures would inflict severe pressure on the accident and emergency department this winter. Can the Prime Minister tell us what the Government's priority is? Is it to bring down financial deficits that are a result of the underfunding of the NHS, or is it to protect front-line services that my constituents require, such as A and E?

The Prime Minister: Deficits have been coming down. As the hon. Gentleman kindly gave me notice of the point he wished to raise, I can tell him that there are no plans to close the accident and emergency department at either hospital within the Epsom and St. Helier NHS trust, and £3 million has already been invested in upgrading the accident and emergency department at St. Helier. Phase one will be open for Christmas, and funding of £1.4 million has now been agreed from the accident and emergency modernisation fund for new facilities at Epsom. I can also tell him that no medical or elderly beds will be closed during the winter period.

The deficits will come down over time and have already come down from the levels we inherited, but it is important at the same time to get more money into accident and emergency departments. The hon. Gentleman will find as a result that the acute beds situation at his hospital is better, not worse.

Ms Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): May I thank the Prime Minister for the outline he has given of the Government's efforts on behalf of UK farmers, which will be very important for farmers in my constituency of Preseli Pembrokeshire? Will he join me in congratulating the French rugby team who, at a recent world cup dinner, demanded British beef? It is nice to know that the French rugby team at least is prepared to play by the rules, even if its Government are not.

The Prime Minister: Those are good sentiments because our quarrel is not with the French people. We have a dispute with the French Government and we should resolve it in a sensible, mature and adult way. That is what we intend to do and, whatever the Conservatives think, that is in the interests of both countries. I repeat that with £10 billion worth of food and drink going from this country to Europe, an illegal trade war would not be sensible.

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Q6. [94108] Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): When will the Government return to the people of St. Helena the British citizenship that was so wickedly taken from them in 1981 by the Thatcher Government?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the issue of British citizenship for citizens of overseas territories was addressed in our White Paper on overseas territories, published in March. We will bring forward measures to award British citizenship to holders of British dependent territories citizenship. The withdrawal of British citizenship from the people of St. Helena caused great unhappiness at the time, and when we make our proposals after the consultation period in the White Paper has ended I hope very much that he finds the results that he wishes to see. I know of his interest in this matter, with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and I know also of the great concern in St. Helena.

Q7. [94109] Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): Although older women are more likely to suffer from breast cancer, many women over 65 are not aware of their right to screening under the NHS. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Age Concern and the UK National Breast Cancer Coalition on the work that they are doing to make women aware of their right to self-referral? Will he also say whether the Government are considering extending automatic invitations to women over 65 for screening in the future?

The Prime Minister: At the moment, we are conducting pilots covering people under 65. Based on the results of those schemes, we hope very much to extend the provision to those over 65. As a result of the new cancer proposals announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, there is a new target to cut death rates from cancer by one fifth, which will mean 100,000 fewer deaths over 10 years. A total of £70 million extra is going into improving treatment for breast, lung and colorectal services, and about £93 million from the national lottery will be used to purchase more than 400 necessary items of modern equipment.

In addition, we will in time roll out across the country a complete overhaul of the delivery of cancer care so that there can be on-the-spot booking--at first for 14 million people, but we hope to extend that opportunity even further. The result will be that people will get fast diagnosis and treatment. If surgery is needed, that will be done quickly as well. That is an excellent example of the type of new service that we are trying to introduce in the health service today.

Q8. [94110] Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): May I draw to the attention of the Prime Minister a letter from the chief constable of Staffordshire police? In his final paragraph, he states:

The Staffordshire force has announced that the number of officers is to be reduced by 240. Will the Prime Minister intervene personally to prevent that decimation of the Staffordshire police force?

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The Prime Minister: As a result of what has been announced in the comprehensive spending review, police numbers are going to rise. However, it is correct that there was a fall in the first two years, in Staffordshire and elsewhere, because the review was based on the Conservative spending plans that this Government inherited. Conservative Members may not like to remember the fact, but police numbers fell in the five years of the previous, Conservative Government.

However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is not a matter for chief constables alone. It also depends on Government spending, which is why we are committed to spending more money. That spending is opposed by the Conservative party. In case anyone thinks that I am talking about a position that the Opposition adopted last year and have since changed, let me remind the House of what the shadow Chancellor said only last week. He said:

He also called the spending plans "reckless and irresponsible". The Conservatives are therefore not entitled to complain about schools, hospitals, police numbers or anything else because they are committed to cutting spending in all those areas. Having said that, however, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that as a result of the extra money being made available, in Staffordshire and elsewhere, we are able to recruit more police officers.

Q9. [94111] Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on the negotiations in which he has been involved to secure a three-year moratorium on the commercial growing of genetically modified crops? I hope that the whole House realises that this is an important step in delivering Labour's conference commitment to set our people free from the foods that they do not wish to eat.

The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations, which are all the more welcome for being somewhat unusual.

Before we came to office, there were no proper rules in relation to labelling and genetically modified foods. We have tightened the whole regulatory framework. On commercial approvals, European Union single market rules apply. We have made it clear in the agreements that we have entered into that we will not have products on the market until there has been proper testing and rigorous trials. Contrary to the Conservatives, our view is that as a country at the leading edge of the science of genetics and biotechnology, we should take a responsible and sensible position. We must not send an anti-science or anti-biotechnology signal and we must proceed on the basis of the science, albeit with great care and a tight regulatory system. We will not act in a foolish way.

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