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The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [149929] Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 28 February.

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.

I am sure that the House will join me in stating our profound distress at the terrible tragedy at Great Heck earlier this morning. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families, friends and relatives of those who died or were injured. The accident appears to have happened when a Land Rover and trailer slid off the M62 and went down on to the line, but it is simply too early to be certain. The emergency services are at the scene. Once again, I pay fulsome tribute to the work that they are doing. The Deputy Prime Minister will make a statement to the House later tonight following his return from the scene of the accident.

Mr. Leigh: The House will appreciate the demands placed on the Prime Minister and his colleagues by this latest rail tragedy coming on top of the grave crisis in the countryside. On the latter point, will the Prime Minister please respond positively to the voluntary postponement of the countryside march by saying today that he will listen to the voice of the hundreds of thousands who would have taken part in that march on farm incomes, compensation, access, rural infrastructure and hunting, in a manner which is both understanding and tolerant of their point of view?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman puts his point very reasonably. I can well understand the deep feelings of anxiety--indeed, fear--in our farming community today. Coming on top of the problems of BSE and the collapse in some world commodity prices for farm produce, foot and mouth disease is a bitter and unfair blow to the farmers. We will do all that we can to help, first by eradicating the disease as swiftly as possible--

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that must be our No. 1 priority--and, secondly, by working with the industry, and, through measures such as agrimonetary compensation, helping the industry to get back on its feet again. Anything that we can reasonably do we will.

I pay tribute to the farmers and their representatives in the National Farmers Union, to the wider industry and to the whole country for the way in which they have rallied round at this very difficult time. As for the hon. Gentleman's other points, I shall certainly bear in mind what he has said.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby): As well as expressing our hopes for the speedy recovery of the many who were injured in this morning's terrible rail accident and who are currently being treated in six hospitals throughout Yorkshire, will my right hon. Friend also acknowledge the role of the villagers in Great Heck? They were among the first on the scene in the murk and gloom of the early morning, providing what assistance they could. Will he also give an assurance that there will be the fullest possible inquiry into the circumstances of this terrible accident?

The Prime Minister: I can certainly offer that assurance. Of course there must be the fullest possible inquiry into how the accident occurred. As I said, it is too early yet to be absolutely certain, but the cause appears to be the Land Rover and trailer slipping off the motorway and down on to the track. The villagers in my hon. Friend's constituency have behaved in an extraordinary, neighbourly and exemplary way. It is remarkable how local communities in Britain pull together in times of crisis such as this and do their very best for other people.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): On behalf of the Opposition, may I associate myself completely with the Prime Minister's words? The tragic accident this morning unites the nation once again in deep sorrow, especially in North Yorkshire and the constituency of the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), as well as my own constituency. Our thoughts go out to those who have been injured and to the families of those who have been killed. We will, of course, await the Deputy Prime Minister's statement this evening, but for the moment may I express the Opposition's support for what the Prime Minister has said about a full investigation, and our anxiety that its results will be made known as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister: I do not really have anything more to add. Of course we must have the fullest possible inquiry and, yes, as soon as we have the results of that inquiry, we will make sure that the House is properly informed.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister has already referred to other sombre news this week. Everyone will understand if the usual robustness of our exchanges is somewhat suspended today, because this week our sympathies are also with the rural communities plunged into crisis by the outbreak of foot and mouth disease. As this comes on top of the serious losses already endured, it is devastating for many farmers and in some cases could be the final blow. The Opposition support all the measures that the Government have taken to tackle the disease. Given the reports coming to hon. Members today about the

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continuing use of footpaths in livestock areas and the difficulties in controlling public access to farm roads, will the Government be ready to take further action to restrict access to areas that are at risk if that proves necessary?

The Prime Minister: Of course, if it proves necessary, we will be prepared to take whatever measures are available to us. We will take whatever additional action is necessary to ensure that we put every possible limit on the spread of the disease. As a result of the measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, controls are available. If they need to be strengthened, we will certainly examine that.

Mr. Hague: The Prime Minister will also know that large supplies of disinfectant are crucial to the attempt to prevent the further spread of the disease. Many farmers are telling us that they cannot obtain such supplies. Will he undertake to consider that matter with the Minister of Agriculture and do everything that he can to ensure that production of the necessary materials is at the highest level possible across the country and that adequate supplies are getting through to abattoirs and farms?

The Prime Minister: On that point, which is obviously very important, my understanding is that sufficient disinfectant is being produced, but that it is not always getting to the places that need it. We are considering what measures we can take to ensure that it gets to them and to provide facilities and a means of communicating with farmers, abattoirs and other people who will need supplies of the disinfectant. We are working on that very hard indeed, both within my right hon. Friend's Department and elsewhere with the industry. I believe that we should be able to sort out the remaining problems within the next few days.

Mr. Hague: I should like to ask two further questions, if I may. The Prime Minister will be aware that although the compensation package is very welcome, it does not include many farmers affected by the ban on livestock movement, such as pig farmers, who might not be eligible for any of the aid so far announced and may soon face catastrophic animal welfare problems. The proposal to allow the limited movement of healthy animals will obviously help, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept in principle that further targeted help might be necessary for farmers who are suffering unrecoverable losses as a result of the ban?

The Prime Minister: Of course we keep under review the proposals in relation to compensation. I should perhaps explain to the House that they fit into two parts at the present time. First, there is the statutory compensation for slaughtered animals, which will apply to pig farmers and, indeed, to any farmers who are affected. Secondly, there is the agrimonetary compensation that has now been drawn down. That is around £150 million. It does not apply to pig farmers, but does apply to other affected farms. That money will have to reimbursed by up to about 80 per cent. from the British taxpayer, but we have done that and that money will be available.

In addition, I think I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has extended the restructuring scheme for pig farmers as well. As a result of the ability for there to be licensed slaughter, which will

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come into effect at the end of this week, some of those losses, we hope, will be minimised, but of course we keep the position under constant review.

Mr. Hague: Finally, the Prime Minister will agree that the response to the crisis has been characterised by calmness and restraint both in the farming communities and among the wider public. Nowhere has that been more evident, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) has observed, than in this week's decision by the Countryside Alliance, despite its deeply held views, to suspend its planned 18 March rally for liberty and livelihood.

The Prime Minister: The Bill will go through its normal stages and I repeat once again that there is a free vote on the issue on both sides of the House of Commons. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman in respect of those people with concerns about the countryside that such concerns are not surprising with farming in the position that it is today, but it is important to recognise what we can do to help. The truth is that farming in this country has suffered many serious blows in the past few years, going back, I may say, beyond the time at which we came to office, but not limited to that at all.

The problems of BSE have obviously been huge for farmers, and a strong pound has been a particular difficulty. There has been a collapse in certain world commodity prices for the goods that they produce. To have foot and mouth disease come on top of that means that the situation is appalling. For that reason, over the past few years, and for the first time, we have been drawing down that agrimonetary compensation--we have drawn down more than £600 million worth of it.

Fortunately, because the public finances are in a healthy state, we are able to pay compensation. We do not begrudge that at all, or the support that we are giving to the farming industry. I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that we shall carry on working with the farming industry and its representatives to give them every possibility of a secure future and better times than they have enjoyed over the past few years. However, I make this point as well: in so doing, it is very important to recognise that farmers need our support not just as the people who produce the food that we eat, but as custodians of the countryside. I recognise that role absolutely and I am happy to pay tribute to it.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): Does the Prime Minister agree that effective policing must never be put at risk by political correctness? Does he also agree that effective policing must never be put at risk by biased or prejudiced targeting of particular groups, black or white? Is he aware that in Tower Hamlets, since the introduction of the Macpherson recommendations, the number of those who are stopped and searched and then arrested has increased over the past year by 40 per cent., which represents a victory for the police in their fight against crime?

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The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend knows, I met the officers in charge of policing in her area when I was in her constituency a few weeks ago, and I certainly pay tribute to the work that they have done because they have shown that it is perfectly possible to make sure that policing takes no account of the race or background of a particular individual while still enforcing the law. Indeed, that is the only way properly to police a local community. The fact that there has been a 40 per cent. increase in the number of people arrested following stop and search is a very good sign indeed.

My hon. Friend will also know that, as I said to members of her local community when I was there, I hope that those people who see such changes come about now feel empowered to join our police force and be part of policing their local communities.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): I entirely associate my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself with the expressions of sympathy and condolence enunciated by both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative party in connection with today's terrible train catastrophe.

The Prime Minister: Details of a scheme for licensed slaughter of animals that will be taken straight from the farms to slaughter will be announced on Friday. The scheme will both significantly improve the situation relating to food supply and give hope to farmers who cannot currently move their animals at all.

Mr. Kennedy: An awful lot of people in the country as a whole, but particularly in the agricultural community, would like details sooner rather than later if that is at all possible. Is the Prime Minister in a position at least to clarify whether he or his Ministers are engaging in discussions with the supermarkets, and ensuring that they in turn engage in discussions with local farmers and suppliers as a whole to make certain that things are back on track as soon as possible?

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The Prime Minister: The answer to the right hon. Gentleman's specific query is yes, of course we have been in touch with the supermarkets. We are also engaging in detailed discussion with farmers and the wider industry.

It is not that we are being coy about announcing the details; it will take us until Friday to put those details together in a way that is worked out and agreed with the industry. It is perfectly right for us not to make an announcement until we are sure of all the details; that will give the greatest confidence not just to the consumer, but to the farming industry. Of course it has taken some time to do this, but I think it is worth taking the time to ensure that it is done properly.

From Friday onwards, we shall be able to license the slaughter of animals. That will allow us to replenish the food chain with British beef, which, as we know, is the safest and best in the world because of the controls we introduced following the BSE problems in our farming industry. More important, it will allow us to do that in a way that will give maximum confidence to farmers themselves.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): May I ask a question about the economy? In Croydon, 4,877 people who were unemployed in 1997 now have jobs, saving the taxpayer £58 million which can be spent on services or tax reductions. Does that not clearly illustrate that the party that generates more jobs is the party that can deliver more investment in services and lower taxes? The history of the Opposition shows that they will never be able to deliver that.

The Prime Minister: It is self-evident that the more stable the economy, the better things are for people's mortgages, living standards and jobs. I am pleased about the number of jobs that have been created. I also think it important for us to maintain programmes such as the new deal, which has helped to cut levels of endemic long-term unemployment, thus reducing the number of benefit claims and allowing us to spend the money on things that people want it to be spent on.

Q2. [149930] Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): Is the Prime Minister aware of the anomaly whereby nurses in my constituency and other high-cost areas of west Kent will not qualify for the new cost-of-living supplement for London and the south-east, which extends as far as Portsmouth and Swindon? Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the demoralising and distorting effect of that? People just a few miles apart are doing the same public service jobs for different rates of pay. Will the right hon. Gentleman look at the position again?

The Prime Minister: I am afraid that if we want to attract people into nursing, teaching and the police in areas where recruitment is particularly difficult because of the buoyancy of the local economy, differential rates of pay will be an inevitable consequence. I should have thought that people like the hon. Gentleman would rather favour a move to a system involving greater pay differentials. I can tell him, however, that we keep the areas covered by the supplement under review. I can also tell him that, irrespective of which part of the country people are in, we as a Government have implemented the pay review board's recommendations in full.

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We have also significantly increased the pay of many nurses over the past few years--some pay has increased by as much as 25 per cent. I understand that it is always possible to do more, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to take into account what we have done for all nurses, not simply those affected by the new allowances.

Q3. [149931] Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): Is my right hon. Friend aware that this year is the 50th anniversary of the deployment of British service men in the Suez canal zone and that, during that occupation, 60 were killed and 600 wounded by hostile fire? Does he recognise that the Government can be proud of their record in reviewing military matters, whereas previous Governments have ignored long-standing injustices? Will he therefore use his office to ensure that, this year, the Committee for Honours, Medals and Decorations finally gets the chance to consider the case for awarding the general service medal to our troops who served in the Suez from 1951-54?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend has been raising that issue for some considerable time and I pay tribute to him for that. The recognition for those personnel present in the Suez canal zone was considered at the time and, as he will know, it has been raised on a number of occasions since. I know that the official committee that looks at those matters is aware of that case. I am sure--I will make sure myself--that it will consider very carefully any further representations, including the ones that he has just made.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): I know that the Prime Minister is aware of the exhibition in the Upper Waiting Hall that seeks to show all that is good and positive with regard to Northern Ireland. I thank him for agreeing to visit it, but is he aware of the fact that, in Northern Ireland over the past decade, our economy has grown at twice the UK average, that we are experiencing record levels of employment and that the bulk of that employment has been created by small businesses, particularly local small businesses? Will the Prime Minister therefore ensure that, in their fiscal policies, his Government do not add to the burdens that are borne by those local businesses?

The Prime Minister: On the right hon. Gentleman's last point about the farming industry, of course I understand that farmers' incomes have suffered very considerably in Northern Ireland. They will be subject to the announcements that we made yesterday.

In respect of small businesses, the right hon. Gentleman is, of course, right. It is one of the reasons that we cut the small business corporation tax and why the Chancellor of the Exchequer continues to keep under review fiscal measures that can assist small businesses.

In respect to the Northern Ireland economy, I pay tribute to people such as the right hon. Gentleman, who have also played a part. Were it not for the peace process of the past few years, I do not believe that the

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Northern Ireland economy would be as buoyant as it is today. Therefore, the courage shown by people such as him has also been a very large part of the resurgence in Northern Ireland.

Q4. [149932] Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): Will my right hon. Friend give us the latest figures on the take-up rate of the working families tax credit? Has he seen reports suggesting that the number of people who are eligible for that tax credit has dropped?

The Prime Minister: I think that 1.1 million families have taken up the working families tax credit, some 300,000 more than took up the old family credit. It has meant lifting the incomes of many families up and down the country out of poverty and it is a huge work incentive as well.

Q5. [149933] Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): Last year, a paedophile used a teenage internet chat room to approach a 12-year-old girl in my constituency. He groomed her online to entice her to an offline meeting for sexual purposes. As many as one in five children who use internet chat rooms are approached by paedophiles in that way. Will the Prime Minister take steps to review the law to ensure that such online grooming is a criminal offence and bring pressure to bear on internet service providers, so that they offer parents chat-free services and all our children can be protected?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I am informed by the Home Secretary that earlier today he had a meeting on that very subject. We are actively considering doing what the hon. Gentleman has just suggested. Perhaps when our deliberations have finished I can contact him and tell him the result of that.

Q6. [149934] Gillian Merron (Lincoln): On the crucial issue of police numbers, is my right hon. Friend aware that because of a combination of additional Government funding and innovative recruitment strategies, Lincolnshire police have confirmed to me that they will be on course next month to achieve the county's highest ever officer strength? Will he confirm that the Government will commit themselves to continue police funding to support Lincolnshire police?

The Prime Minister: I am obviously very pleased to hear that news, and the fact that Lincolnshire police will have the highest ever number of police is obviously very good for local people and for fighting crime in the area.

I know that my hon. Friend will be the first to realise that it is important not only to provide police with additional money for one year, but to provide it year on year on year as sustained investment. That is why it is so important that we are able to put additional money into schools, hospitals and police, but on the basis of a stable economy in which we are keeping inflation low, interest rates low and the public finances healthy.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove):

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The Prime Minister: Of course the hon. Lady knows, as the Green Paper on local government makes clear, that we are reviewing the way in which the standard spending assessment works. She will also be aware--given that for 18 years Conservative Members had the opportunity to do something about it but never did--that people treat with, let us say, a little scepticism claims by people such as her who have been opposed to the finance system.

As for the general issue of education funding, the Government are--this is a fact--putting record investment into education. I also suspect that, in the hon. Lady's own constituency, schools have had capital funding under the new deal that they would never have had under the previous Government. As she and the Conservative party are committed to scrapping the new deal, those schools would also not receive that funding in the future.

I hope that that was not a pat answer. However, I believe it is important that, when we debate education, we remember that, in their last three years in office, the previous Government cut funding per pupil by £30, whereas we have increased it by more than £300.

Q7. [149935] Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Next Monday, the Minister for School Standards will open the new Chetwynd Road school, in Broxtowe, which has been waiting in temporary first world war huts since 1915--under 22 Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Governments. Does the Prime Minister welcome the genuine pleasure that people in Broxtowe feel about the additional education funding? Further to the previous exchange, will he also accelerate the review of the funding formula, so that in future each child in Britain has a decent chance of education that does not depend on their postcode?

The Prime Minister: As has been said, later this year we shall set out our decisions in a White Paper. However, I tell my hon. Friend that of course we understand the concerns that have been expressed. I think he also again makes the point that it is only that additional investment--

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I think there has been £14 million in Nottinghamshire alone--that has allowed us to make that commitment to Britain's schools. The truth is that we have under-invested in our public services for a very long time. It will take time to put that right, but the money is coming in. The most important thing, however, is that investing on the back of a stable economy means that the money can be sustained year on year.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): May I raise with the Prime Minister a matter of practical concern to sheep farmers in my constituency? The lambing season will shortly be upon us, and there is a great need for my farmers to be able to bring their ewes back inside, to protect them from the severe weather and from fox and badger predation. My farmers understand, as I do, the need for the restrictions on the movement of livestock, but the public highway cuts across some farms' land and thus prevents ewes from being brought inside. Will the Prime Minister have a word with the Minister of Agriculture to see if he can find a sensible way to deal with this welfare and economic problem?

The Prime Minister: That is a perfectly reasonable point. There is a serious problem here. Obviously, the first task of the Government and all the authorities must be to eradicate the disease, but we understand the particular problem that the hon. and learned Gentleman raises in relation to sheep farmers. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture that the problem is being considered, as is the specific suggestion that the hon. and learned Gentleman has just made. I do not know when we can give him some assurance on the matter, but we will do so as soon as we can.

Q8. [149936] Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr): Given the substantial improvement that the Government have made in employment conditions, will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the actions of the Cathelco group? That firm has manipulated the system to its own advantage, while depriving 16 former employees at the Ailsa-Troon shipyard in my constituency of their redundancy rights. Will he accept that there are flaws in the system when such a thing can happen? Will he ask Ministers to examine the company, with a view to reviewing its trading licence and to ensuring that it does not receive publicly funded contracts?

The Prime Minister: I know that my hon. Friend is very concerned about this matter, about which she has written to me. I recognise the strength of feeling that exists about what happened to the 16 employees at the yard. I know that many people have expressed concern at their treatment. If she will allow me, I will ask a Minister at the Scotland Office to get back to her with a detailed response on the point that she has raised.

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