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Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is perfectly right. The Government are fighting for fairness among the countries of the European Community and between the Community and the other countries of the world. That is why I wish that the Opposition would stop promoting American interests and start supporting European interests.
Mr. Davies : Will the Minister confirm that 80 per cent. of current farm subsidies go to the richest 20 per cent. of farmers? As the Minister is so anxious to reduce the overall level of farm subsidies, will he tell us what proposals he has to ensure the more equal distribution of the subsidies that will remain?
Mr. Gummer : The policies of this Government are to make sure that subsidies will continue to be paid on the basis of production, where they are production subsidies, and that other subsidies shall increasingly be paid for environmental purposes. [Interruption.] We are determined to make sure that British farmers get a fair share of those subsidies and that they are not distorted so as to help other countries disproportionately. [Interruption.]
Column 1010GATT round relates only to support that aids production and has not stopped the British Government or any other European member state Government supporting the environment? Does he agree that the proposed expansion by 36,000 hectares of less-favoured areas will be a great boost? Will he announce soon exactly which areas are included so that farmers will receive extra income?
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is right. The present arrangements suggest that we will be able to continue the help that we are giving for environmental purposes while we reduce that which relates to production. However, there is still much to be fought because the United States is proposing something that would enable it to continue direct support and thus reduce the costs of its exports. We must stop that.
Mr. Beggs : Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways of assisting farmers is to ensure that they get a good price for their product in the marketplace? Will he consider releasing surplus food from intervention stores to assist the Russian people at this time and thereby increase market demand for British produce?
Mr. Gummer : I am not sure that the answer is as simple as the hon. Gentleman suggests. We are looking at all sorts of ways of improving the market, but, in the end, the tone of the market will be upheld only if supply and demand are much more closely correlated.
Mr. Hunter : Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to put firmly on record his awareness of the problems caused by a lack of profitability and reassure the House and United Kingdom farmers of his belief in the ultimate success of his strategy?
Mr. Gummer : I will reassure my hon. Friend that we continue to stand extremely strongly behind the British farming community. I hope that, with me, my hon. Friend will pay tribute to the success of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in ensuring that the British knacker industry is no longer stopped by the European Community rules. It will remain as it is at least until 1995, and thereafter there will be a review. That will make sure that the environment is protected because of the important job that that industry does.
Mr. Flynn : Does the Minister agree that the great problem in British farming is the gulf between profitability and subsidies and between the grain barons of East Anglia and their huge profits and the hill farmers of Wales and elsewhere? Does he agree that the answer to the real problems of hill farming is to redistribute subsidies towards hill farmers?
Column 1011difficult to make profits. Unless they are profitable, they, too, cannot look after the countryside. The hon. Gentleman does the farming industry no good by trying to drive a wedge between different kinds of farmers.
Mr. Bennett : Although I recognise that the present system cannot remain unreformed, will my hon. Friend bear in mind the position of small family farmers in far-flung areas such as Pembrokeshire, who fear that if the national system is broken up into as many as 30 different co- operatives, they will be seriously disadvantaged in relation to dairy manufacturers?
Mr. Curry : My hon. Friend is right, but the greatest threat to the small farmer would be to do absolutely nothing and wait for the scheme to collapse under the weight of its problems. The answer is to find a sensible alternative and to get a move on with it.
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) rose --
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 have further meetings later today. This evening I shall attend a longstanding engagement in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale (Sir F. Montgomery).
May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the latest round of national health service cuts in the South Birmingham area--a cut of 17 per cent. in the past 15 months in the number of people awaiting an operation and a cut of 26 per cent. in the past five years in the same group? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the national health service continues to make such cuts?
Column 1012national health service. I congratulate South Birmingham health authority. It has made good use of the extra resources that it had last year and I expect it to continue to do so in the future. Mr. Kinnock rose--
Mr. Kinnock : May I offer my personal congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman on becoming Prime Minister? As the right hon. Gentleman says that he was bounced into the poll tax, does he now intend to abolish it?
The Prime Minister : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome to the Dispatch Box. I look forward to our discussions over the forthcoming years. On the community charge, I have made it perfectly clear what the position will be. We have decided that we shall look again to see what further refinements may be necessary to ensure that the community charge is accepted throughout the country.
Mr. Kinnock : May I offer some help to the right hon. Gentleman-- [ Hon. Members :-- "No."] It is well intended. He could save himself a great deal of time and trouble and the British people a great deal of money by accepting Labour party policy and abolishing the poll tax now.
The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will take forward a very thorough, constructive and fundamental review of the community charge. In doing so, he will take account of the points made by my hon. Friends both north and south of the Scottish border before we reach conclusions. On this side of the House we believe in examining matters before reaching conclusions.
"the most unjust of all taxes, local rates, take most from those who can afford least"?
Mr. Thompson : Will my right hon. Friend accept the special congratulations and welcome that he will receive from East Anglian Members of Parliament and their constituents, particularly as he is an East Anglian Member of Parliament, representing Huntingdon? Will he confirm that shortly he will meet President Bush to discuss the Gulf and other matters of common concern so as to continue the Government's correct policy on these issues?
Column 1013Mr. Ashdown : May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment as Britain's Prime Minister? The whole nation will wish him success in the difficult task ahead-- [Hon. Members :-- "Speak for yourself."] For the sake of the nation, we wish the right hon. Gentleman success.
If in two weeks' time at the intergovernmental conference all 11 of our European partners say that they can accept the right hon. Gentleman's hard ecu proposal, provided that he will accept that it could be used as a transitional mechanism towards a single currency, perhaps by the end of the decade, will he agree?
The Prime Minister : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generous welcome, which I appreciate. There will be a wide range of matters to discuss at the intergovernmental conference and we need to discuss them with great care before we proceed. The Government's position on the imposition of a single currency is clear : it is not acceptable.
Mrs. Peacock : After the recent turmoil and my right hon. Friend's uniting of the party, does he agree that his objective of a classless society in the future will be better served by a Conservative Government led by him than by the socialism offered by the Labour party?
The Prime Minister : I am happy to agree entirely with my hon. Friend about that. We need to continue to build on what has been achieved in the past 11 years to make this an open society of opportunity. The Government propose to do that.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing : The Prime Minister in his recent meteoric rise has shown great dignity and pride in his humble origins. What priority will he now give to the problem of homelessness which he inherited from his predecessor? In particular, will he look at the issues of cardboard cities, people who live in damp homes and those who have no hope of a roof over their heads?
Given the record rate of growth in the economy over the past 10 years, and as my right hon. Friend was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who relieved 6 million non-taxpayers of the need to pay tax on their savings at source, does he agree that the next decade of opportunity crucially depends on further tax reductions and further savings incentives of exactly the sort that have so reinvigorated the country in the past 10 years?
The Prime Minister : I assure my hon. Friend that I certainly favour further tax reductions when they are affordable and it is prudent to make them. I am extremely keen to see the growth of savings for two reasons : first, to provide the base from which the investment we need in the
Column 10141990s will come and, secondly, for the security and independence that savings give individuals and their families.
Mr. Blunkett : Earlier this week, the right hon. Gentleman's former boss, the right hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Lawson), described the poll tax as unworkable and politically catastrophic, whereas his predecessor as Prime Minister said that we had already had a fundamental review of the poll tax. Which of those two conflicting opposites has the Prime Minister advised the new Secretary of State to adopt in the new fundamental review of the poll tax to which he referred earlier?
The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) made it entirely clear on a number of occasions from this Dispatch Box that when any new charge of this sort was introduced, it would need to be kept under review. That is what we are doing.
The Prime Minister : The police do a magnificent job in this country, often in difficult circumstances. I have no hesitation whatever in assuring my hon. Friend that I have the greatest admiration for the way they behave.
Mrs. Hicks : I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend as Prime Minister. May I invite him to take some advice from a female colleague in relation to inner cities? Does he agree that to achieve his aim of a classless Britain, which is highly commendable, the Government need to give the highest priority to inner cities? Will he afford me the honour as soon as possible of coming to Wolverhampton and giving me the opportunity to demonstrate our success and illustrate the contraints of municipal socialism, which continues to deny choice and opportunity?
The Prime Minister : I find that an irresistible invitation. I am familiar with the problems of the inner cities. I regard them as a matter of great importance and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will bend his formidable energies to that problem.
Column 1015Mr. Robert Hughes : With regard to the Prime Minister's desire for a classless society and social mobility, will he explain why there are no women in his Cabinet, or is the only woman in his Cabinet the back-seat driver?
The Prime Minister : In recent years, in all aspects of life in this country, women have been taking a higher profile : in the law, in commerce, in the civil service, in industry and in politics-- [Interruption.] --and that will continue. As those women would wish it to be, they will reach the top on merit-- [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister : Oh yes, and if the hon. Gentleman is patient, he will find women aplenty in top positions in my Government. Indeed, if he had waited awhile, perhaps even to the end of today, he would not have asked that question.
Column 1016Friend the Prime Minister will know of the tremendous support that exists for him in the west midlands. When my right hon. Friend visits Ludlow next July, will he take time to visit the Lady Forester memorial hospital in Much Wenlock, where Mrs. Major was born? He will find local people working hard to take over the management of their local hospital for the benefit of the local community.
Mr. Radice : As a member of the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service, may I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on becoming Prime Minister? Now that he is Prime Minister, can he say whether the British economy is in recession?
The Prime Minister : As I have told the hon. Gentleman in the past, if he takes the classic definition of recession, it is never possible to determine whether we are in a recession until after the figures are available. As I have told the House more than once, I expect a small downturn in output for a brief period, but we shall be back in a growth pattern during the passage of next year, with inflation well down.
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