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13. Mr. Allen McKay : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he last met the National Farmers Union to discuss the MacSharry proposals for the reform of the common agricultural policy.
Mr. McKay : Does the Minister appreciate that his tenure of office as Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is regarded by farmers as disastrous? Does he agree with his Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who said : "Never have I known a time when farmers were more fearful of the future, and never has that fear been more justified"?
Mr. Gummer : In referring to the MacSharry proposals, my hon. Friend said what was true. I am happy to say that the farmers of the United Kingdom believe in this ministerial team and in the Government, who are fighting for them against the proposals of the European Community. They know that the Labour party, led by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), would lie down and be run over by anything that the Community proposed.
Mr. Bill Walker : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hill farmers and raspberry farmers in Tayside look on him and his team as the best champions of their interests? They regard the problems as being a result of the structure of the common agricultural policy. How wise we were not to allow the Europeans to extend their competence to other areas. Not only our farmers but everyone else would suffer if we followed the views expressed yesterday by the Leader of the Opposition.
Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is right. The European Community's future is best served by those who believe in Europe and in putting forward strongly the position of their countrymen, farmers and those who have interests in the United Kingdom. We must ensure that that balance exists. It was upheld by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Maastricht, but it would have been undermined if the Leader of the Opposition had had anything to do with governing the country.
Column 447Mr. Curry : Tables showing the current level of intervention stocks in the United Kingdom and the EC are placed in the Library of the House each month.
Mr. Eadie : The Minister must be aware that under the 1988 reform package we were assured that intervention stocks would disappear, but they are now at record levels, whether for skimmed milk, butter, beef or cereals. Does the Minister agree that that reform package was merely a cosmetic exercise? Does he further agree that we must now have a fundamental review of the 1988 package, as advocated by the Labour party?
Mr. Curry : We must have reform of the CAP and it must be continuous, because the world situation keeps changing, but we must ensure that it is the right reform. It would be dead easy to reform the CAP at our farmers' expense and simply shovel the money across to other farmers, which appears to be the Labour party's proposal, but we do not share that view ; we must ensure that it is a balanced proposal and that in the United Kingdom, where we have efficient agriculture, the efficient farmer has a long-term future.
Mr. Gummer : Environmentally sensitive areas currently cover 3.7 per cent. of the agricultural land in England. Proposals I announced last month to create 12 new environmentally sensitive areas will more than treble the area covered.
Mr. Harris : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the fact that so many parts of the country are queueing up for ESA status is a tribute to him and to the usefulness of such areas? When will he announce the extension of existing areas? Will he consider sympathetically inclusion of the Penwith moors in that list?
Mr. Gummer : I hope to announce the extensions soon after we resume after Christmas. I thank my hon. Friend for his compliments. The House should note that the system of environmentally sensitive areas, invented in this country by this Government, is now being copied by almost every other country in the European Community. We are leading in the European Community, rather than allowing others to lead us.
The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major) : This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.
Mr. McAllion : Today Scottish trade unions are lobbying the Scottish Office to support full employment policies. Is the Prime Minister aware that in the year since he took office Scottish dole queues have lengthened by a
Column 448further 28,000, leaving almost 250,000 Scots without work and leaving him with an even worse record than his predecessor, the former first lady of mass unemployment? Does he agree that the price being paid by 2.5 million unemployed this Christmas is too high, and that if a price has to be paid for the economic mess that our country is in, it should be paid in full by himself and his ragbag of right hon. Friends?
The Prime Minister : In the period of this Parliament, unemployment in the hon. Gentleman's constituency has fallen by 39 per cent. But I appreciate that every job lost is a personal tragedy for the person involved. The latest figures show that the increase in unemployment is continuing to slow down. Vacancies at November are now at their highest level for some time. The hon. Gentleman must bear in mind what is happening elsewhere : unemployment has risen in all the Community countries except the Netherlands, in every country of the European Free Trade Association, and in every G7 country except Japan. That is a reflection of the fact that the world economy is slowing down. The hon. Gentleman would address the problem more accurately were he to acknowledge that fact.
Mr. Alton : Now that it is clear that pre-Christmas Sunday trading has simply been a stalking horse for all-year Sunday trading, will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating stores such as House of Fraser, C and A, and Marks and Spencer which have upheld Sunday trading laws and refused to break them? Will he condemn those who have flouted the law simply for commercial gain?
The Prime Minister : As the hon. Gentleman knows from previous exchanges in the House, following the appeal to the European Court the present law is unclear and no one is entirely certain what the correct law is at present. As the Attorney-General explained to the House some time ago, the law is not suspended and local authorities, who have the primary duty of enforcing the law, should decide their own course of action. I believe that, under existing provisions, that is the only way to handle the matter.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Sir Peter Tapsell : Does my right hon. Friend agree that today's raising of German interest rates, at a time when the German economy is in a different stage of its economic cycle from that of France, Britain and the United States, illustrates the great difficulties of a single European currency? Is it not extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition is incapable of understanding that we might frequently find that monetary and interest rate policies were wholly inappropriate to the requirements of this country if we join a single European currency?
Column 449the divergence in the performance of the economies of Europe is still so great. If and when there is convergence on a whole range of issues, circumstances may change, but we are certainly many years away from that.
Mr. Thorne : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the news that mortgage lenders are introducing a package to assist people who are in difficulty with their mortgages will be commended throughout the country? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this is not something that has arisen in the past few days, but has been carefully negotiated by the Government over many weeks?
The Prime Minister : My hon. Friend is right about that. We have been pursuing proposals for some time. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has had a number of discussions with the Council of Mortgage Lenders and others, and he will be announcing a package of measures later this afternoon.
Mr. Kinnock : Is it not clear from today's awful rise in unemployment to more than 2.5 million that the recession is continuing? Since the Government obviously have no idea what to do about it, will the Prime Minister give me an undertaking that he will call a general election very early in the new year?
The Prime Minister : I will give the right hon. Gentleman no such undertaking ; nor did he expect me to. What is clear is that the rate of increase in unemployment is beginning to slow, and that is very welcome. The figures are quite clear about that. Also, job vacancies are rising, unit wage costs are falling and productivity is continuing to improve. That is what will make us more competitive and what will create more jobs. It is not a short-term problem ; it is a matter that we have to get right to ensure the long-term prosperity of this country.
Mr. Kinnock : I am sorry that the Prime Minister is continuing to run away from the electorate. Since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister, 800,000 jobs have been lost, 80,000 homes have been repossessed, and 45,000 businesses have failed. That is the record of a completely discredited Government--a Government who must go, and quickly.
The Prime Minister : The right hon. Gentleman has no policies whatever to deal with employment. His jobs tax would cost 50,000 jobs ; his strikes charter would cost jobs and lose orders ; the sweatshop mentality on the Opposition Front Bench would risk losing the 450,000 jobs that have come in ; their minimum wage policy would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs ; and the abolition, one way or another, of the trade union legislation that we have produced would reintroduce the difficulties that we faced in the 1960s and 1970s. The right hon. Gentleman's policies would reintroduce the levels of unemployment that we saw in the 1930s.
Mr. Kinnock : When the Government came into power unemployment was 1.25 million. At the time of the last general election, unemployment was going down. The right hon. Gentleman has spent the past two years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. In that
Column 450time he has put unemployment up by nearly 1 million, so he can offer us no lectures on the subject of unemployment.
The Prime Minister : I can certainly inform the right hon. Gentleman about matters that he does not seem to understand. Unemployment has risen in virtually every western country in the past decade. Many of the major industrial countries have seen unemployment increase-- [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister : It is clear that the Opposition Whips have been active. Unemployment has been rising in the United States, Italy, France and Canada, and in every country of the European Community. Only the right hon. Gentleman believes that we can be insulated from what is happening throughout the world.
Sir Robert Rhodes James : As the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Perez de Cuellar, is retiring at the end of the month, would it not be appropriate on behalf of the House and of all parties for my right hon. Friend to record our gratitude and appreciation for a fine international servant?
Secretary-General and the House would wish to record its appreciation of his activities and those of his personal representative in securing the release of so many hostages.
Mr. Marshall : The Prime Minister approves of the obscene pay rises and profits made by the privatised monopolies. Does he also approve of the scandalous racketeering by the gas, electricity and British Telecom undertakings in imposing huge standing charges, which often amount to more than 50 per cent. of the bill for the most vulnerable people in our society and are causing millions of pensioners and poor people to face a cold and miserable Christmas? Does he have any compassion at all? Will he take steps to abolish standing charges or is he the Scrooge of the 1990s?
The Prime Minister : I see that the Christmas spirit has descended upon the hon. Gentleman a little early. Standing charges have often been discussed in the House. The difficulty is that their abolition would have a direct relationship to an increase in unit costs, which would bear most heavily on many of the people who are most in need. Therefore, it is not a way to help people who are particularly in need. Many would suffer from that change.
Mr. Hill : Does my right hon. Friend accept that practically everyone in the House welcomes his initiative on repossessions, no matter what political claptrap we may hear later? The main problem is the dead hand of local authorities, which keep tens of thousands of properties empty. Is it not time for an initiative to make local
Column 451authorities hand over their property to housing associations, and could regional ombudsman be set up for that purpose?
The Prime Minister : In a few moments my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will set out our detailed proposals to deal with the problem of repossessions. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall not trail that in advance. My hon. Friend's point about local authorities in terms of voids and, often, delays in letting is a genuine problem. Performance is patchy in different parts of the country. In many inner-city areas, typically though not exclusively run by Labour councils, the policies followed mean that many properties are left empty unnecessarily when many people could safely live in them.
Mr. Michael : On the day when the Prime Minister's unemployment figures have gone over 2.5 million, will he consider the training and employment needs of adults with learning difficulties, and people over 19 with mental handicaps whom he and his Government have abandoned? Will he consider in particular the training workshop recycling products in my constituency, Track 2000 in Splott, whose income was ended as a result of his cuts in employment training, where the trainers, who are on the dole, and the trainees, who do not get a training allowance, are coming in voluntarily? People are still being referred to the centre by social services because there is nowhere else for them to go. What does the Prime Minister propose to do about that?
The Prime Minister : If the hon. Gentleman were genuinely concerned about employment and training, he would be prepared to condemn the Trades Union Congress boycott of employment action, youth training, and training and enterprise councils, but neither he nor his party has done so. In the coming year, about 1 million people will be helped through employment and training programmes to get back to work. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are spending on training and enterprise two and a half times as much in real terms as the last Labour Government. When they left office, they were training 6,000 people a year. This year, we shall be training 260,000.
Mr. Hayward : Has my right hon. Friend had time to notice this week substantial orders from abroad for British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and Govan Shipbuilders ? Is it not churlish that Labour Members have not welcomed any of those orders ?
The Prime Minister : Yes, I welcome the substantial orders that have been received and I was pleased to see that in the past few days a number of them have come here. The special order for Govan will be particularly welcome. It is a shame that Opposition Members utterly neglect to welcome the successes of this country and take every opportunity to run them down as well as the prospects of the country.
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