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National Minimum Wage

4. Mr. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the impact of the national minimum wage on income levels in Wales. [155495]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): I have regular discussions with a range of ministerial colleagues on various issues. The national minimum wage has contributed to a reduction in the pay gap between different parts of the United Kingdom. Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, between April 1999 and April 2000, due to the minimum wage, average earnings in Wales increased by 4 per cent., compared with a national average of 2.3 per cent.

Mr. Ruane: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. May I inform him that my constituents remember the bad old days under the Tories, when my constituents worked for as little as a pound an hour and all the chips they could eat? What measures have been taken to monitor the introduction of the minimum wage in Wales?

Mr. Hanson: My hon. Friend will be aware that 80,000 people in Wales have benefited from the minimum wage, which, as he knows, will increase to £4.10 from October 2001. Measures are in place to ensure that there is enforcement and that workers receive the minimum wage when companies renege on their responsibilities. I remind my hon. Friend and the House that the 80,000 people in Wales who are benefiting from the minimum wage would

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not be doing so had Conservative Members been in office. Neither Conservative Members, the nationalists nor Liberal Democrat Members voted for the minimum wage.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Is the Minister aware that there is no minimum wage for farmers and many others who are affected by the foot and mouth crisis? I am sorry to say that that fact, coupled with general stress, may have caused a number of suicides in Wales. What assurance can the Minister give that there will be some type of minimum wage for those who are affected by the foot and mouth crisis? Will he also assure us that he is seriously considering possible support for the emotional well-being and mental health of those affected by the crisis?

Mr. Hanson: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we very much sympathise with those people and are concerned about the level of farm incomes, particularly now. He will also know that the Government have invested heavily in support for a farmers helpline. However, it is a bit rich for Liberal Democrat Members to talk about a minimum wage. As I said, neither they, Conservative Members nor the nationalists voted for it in the first place.

Foot and Mouth

5. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales regarding support for the non-livestock sectors of commerce and industry affected by the foot and mouth outbreak in the Conwy constituency. [155496]

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the First Minister. In the light of the current position on foot and mouth disease, support for the non-livestock sectors of commerce and industry have of course figured prominently in those discussions. As my hon. Friend knows, on Sunday I visited north Wales with the First Minister, where we met representatives of the tourism industry.

Mrs. Williams: Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is continuing concern about the limited access to the countryside and crags of north Wales? May I draw his attention to the circumstances of my constituent, Ric Potter? Like many others, he has had to travel to Scotland, where there is greater access. Will my right hon. Friend help us to enable people such as Ric Potter to find work in outdoor pursuits?

Mr. Murphy: As I told the House about 15 minutes ago, it is important that people understand that Wales is still open for business and that the Welsh countryside is not closed down. I know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister met local authority leaders in Wales yesterday, and I assure my hon. Friend that I shall do the same. I shall also meet the First Minister to ensure that the point that she has raised is addressed.

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The Prime Minister was asked--


Q1. [155520] Sir Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 4 April.

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.

Sir Archie Hamilton: As it is apparent that the epidemic of foot and mouth has been caused by the import of meat from abroad, why has no ban been placed on all meat from countries with foot and mouth? Why has the Prime Minister not more seriously restricted the illegal import of meat into this country?

The Prime Minister: There are strict rules that govern the import of meat. They are set by the European Union, and we abide by them. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] They are exactly the same rules that applied when the Conservative party was in power. However, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has said that we will consider ensuring that those rules are tightly applied, and more strictly than at present. In addition, the whole issue of ensuring that the meat that comes into this country is disease free will be looked at. However, there are strict rules by which we must abide when changing any of the laws in this area because, of course, we trade with a lot of countries, too.

Q2. [155521] Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): My constituency is looking forward to being one of the first to have a primary care trust, and £25 million has been invested in a state of the art walk-in facility in Wigan town centre. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that shows that the Government are prepared to invest in the NHS, with new matrons, and does not that contrast with 18 years of waffle, cuts and privatisation under the previous Government?

The Prime Minister: Some 2,000 matrons will be introduced as a result of the proposals made today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. That is in addition to the 17,000 extra nurses who have entered the national health service as a result of the investment that this Government have put in. The most important thing is to recognise that there is still a lot more to do in the national health service. That is why the record investment that we have put in place for the next few years has to be maintained, to ensure that we do not return to the policy of cuts and privatisation of the Conservative party.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): A huge effort is being made by people on the ground to overcome the foot and mouth crisis. We all hope that the disease--there are more than 1,000 reported cases as we speak--will soon be brought under control. The Prime Minister will know that the latest Government figures show that the

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backlog of infected animals awaiting slaughter has reached 379,000. How many of those animals have been awaiting slaughter for more than a week?

The Prime Minister: Those figures include the animals awaiting slaughter, and animals that have been slaughtered but which have not yet been reported as having been slaughtered. Therefore, when both the slaughter and disposal figures come in, one has to recognise that they will be changed in the days ahead.

Perhaps it would help if I gave the House the very latest figure for the average daily rate of slaughtering. As I say, because the figures are being reported from different parts of the country by vets, soldiers and others, it takes some time to make sure that they are fully up to date. The latest figures show that, for the weekend of 25 March, on average 48,000 animals were slaughtered per day; for the weekend of 18 March the figure was 39,000, and for the weekend of 11 March it was 21,000. The rate is therefore increasing the whole time. The disposal figures will also be changed substantially, because they include animals that have been slaughtered but not yet disposed of.

Mr. Hague: We understand the difficulties about the figures, but the Government's figures showed that a week ago 280,000 animals were awaiting slaughter. We know that about 150,000 have been slaughtered since Monday night--there may have been additional numbers, as the right hon. Gentleman says--but it seems that tens of thousands of animals designated for slaughter a week ago still have not been slaughtered. Individual cases around the country also suggest that that is so. Is it not the case that until we further speed up the slaughter programme, we will not be able to stop the disease spreading, as it still is, to previously uninfected farms?

The Prime Minister: We have speeded up the slaughter programme enormously. In the two weeks between 11 March and 25 March, the rate more than doubled.

Let me give the disposal figures. For the weekend of 11 March, the average daily rate of disposal was 15,000. For the weekend of 18 March, the figure was 26,000, and for the weekend of 25 March, it was 40,000. The rate is increasing the entire time. As an example of how the figures change as fresh information comes in, on 28 March we gave the figure for animals awaiting slaughter as 215,000. The latest figures for that day suggest that the actual number was 167,000. It has been revised downwards substantially as a result of the fresh information that was received. That is the difficulty with citing daily figures. However, the figures for which precise information is available show that the rate of slaughter and disposal has dramatically increased in the past two weeks.

Mr. Hague: Nevertheless, individual cases remain, and I will write to the Prime Minister about many of them.

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The Prime Minister: Yes. In fact, I said that it was better to build on the existing small loans guarantee scheme rather than have an entirely new one. In the next couple of days my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will announce details of how that scheme can be expanded and enhanced. That is in addition to the extra help that we are giving on rate relief and the holidays on tax and VAT where discretion can be exercised. However, the most important thing--I have discussed this in detail with representatives of the tourism industry right around the country--is to get business and tourists back into the countryside. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in urging county councils and local authorities that could reopen a substantial number of attractions and footpaths that do not go anywhere near farmland to do so. Opening up the countryside again and making people understand that that is happening is the best way in which to get tourists' business back into the countryside.

Mr. Hague: I certainly agree that there are many places in the countryside that people can visit responsibly, although the priority must be to prevent the spread of the disease and eradicate it.

The Prime Minister: We are already considering that point. Again, let me give the House some facts. The survey by the British Tourist Authority of the United Kingdom's top 15,000 attractions and events shows that 80 per cent. of attractions are open and 91 per cent. of events are going ahead. Very large parts of the countryside in various parts of the country are reopening in the next few days in the run-up to Easter. It is tremendously important, therefore, to send out a clear message that the vast majority of things that people want to do in the countryside can be done. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in urging the local authorities--Labour and Conservative--which have the authority to do so to reopen footpaths that do not go through farmland. That is important.

As for the rest of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made in respect of the tourism industry, of course it is important that we do everything that we can

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to help the industry, but the single most important thing that we can do is to encourage business back to the countryside.

Mr. Hague: Finally on foot and mouth, we agree with the Minister for the Environment that when this whole crisis is finally over, we will unquestionably need a full public inquiry. The inquiry into the 1967 outbreak concluded, among other things, that future Governments should respond immediately to any foot and mouth incident with slaughter on suspicion and on-farm burial within 24 hours rather than burning. Should not the first recommendation of the future inquiry be that Ministers of any party should read the recommendations of the last one?

The Prime Minister: As for the 1967 outbreak, it may just be worth giving the House the facts again. On average, there were something like 13,000 slaughterings a week during that outbreak. The average now is well over 100,000. So the idea that somehow we have not taken the action necessary is simply wrong. Of course the lessons of that outbreak have been learned, but this is an entirely different type of outbreak, for the reasons that I have given. There was a multiplicity of movements of sheep for two to three weeks before the disease was ever detected and reported. That has inevitably made it harder to deal with. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in paying tribute to the work not just of the Army, which has been superb, but of local officials, civil servants, vets and others, who have done a fantastic job in difficult circumstances in defeating the disease.

Q3. [155522] Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): When drawing up the next manifesto, will the Prime Minister look at the possibility of ensuring that workers in this country are not sacked more easily than those on the continent and elsewhere? Now that Railtrack shares are at an all-time low, we could get it back for a song. When we have had our glorious victory, will my right hon. Friend ask the Army to take overall control of the Tory party and run its leadership cull?

The Prime Minister: I am tempted just to say yes.

In respect of information and consultation, of course it is important that our work force have the rights that they deserve. That is one of the reasons why we introduced the fairness at work proposals and, for the first time, the right to trade union representation.

In respect of Railtrack, I believe that the programme outlined by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is the right way forward. In respect of the Army, I yield to no one in my admiration for it, but some logistical tasks, I fear, are beyond it.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): I have to say that I agree with that thought. May I bring the Prime Minister's attention back to the difficulties of agriculture and the related industries? Council chiefs in Cumbria have been saying on the airwaves at lunchtime today that, in many cases, the bureaucracy and length of time involved in processing the applications for reimbursement, support, consequential loss and so on are such that it might be up to six months before they can see cases through. Too many jobs and

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businesses in tourism and related activities will have been lost by then. Is there anything that the Prime Minister can do to speed the process up?

The Prime Minister: In respect of compensation for farmers, there are two different issues. There is the compensation for the animals that are actually slaughtered; we are trying to ensure that the payments get through as quickly as possible--hopefully within days, if not weeks. Secondly, in respect of the Intervention Board and animal welfare, there has been a programme vastly bigger than anything previously anticipated. We are looking--now--at how we can speed up applications and get that done quickly.

In respect of tourism, of course, some of our proposals are in the hands of local authorities themselves--especially in relation to rate relief and so on. I held a meeting with local authorities yesterday. We are happy to look at any proposals they make to remove unnecessary bureaucracy from that system. However, I repeat--as I said to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) a short time ago--that I also hope that local authorities help us in making sure that we give a proper view of what is happening in the countryside.

Mr. Kennedy: Would the Prime Minister also acknowledge that it is important for the House to send a proper signal to those businesses and those parts of our national community that are so severely affected? Does it send the proper signal for the House of Commons to introduce a Bill today that actually proposes giving financial compensation to potential council candidates when such compensation is not yet readily available to those being so affected by the present crisis? Should not we rethink that aspect of the legislation?

The Prime Minister: If we were not helping local authorities with additional expenditure, I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman would put to me the fact that they were having to cut back on services because of extra spending, so I do not agree with him on that.

On compensation, we are getting it through to people as quickly as we possibly can, but--as I hope he agrees--the single, most important thing for the tourism industry is that we send out the clear message that it is open for business, that the vast bulk of tourist attractions are open and that there is plenty for people to do in the countryside. We need that message to go out--not just from the Government Benches but from the Opposition Benches and local authorities as well.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the media coverage does Britain no favours and that the Opposition should be talking Britain up, not down?

The Prime Minister: It is important, while recognising the deep seriousness of the situation, that we at least give a proper sense of perspective; for example, even now, the number of slaughtered animals is less than 1 per cent. of the livestock of the country. It may help if I give the House the latest livestock sales in the normal course of business: 91 per cent. of pork sales are back to normal and for beef, the figure is about 78 per cent. Lamb is still down--at 40 per cent. However, that points to the fact that there is an awful lot of normal trade. When I am

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going around the country, I find the desire on the part of both the farming and the tourism industries not only to emphasise the urgent and needy plight of those who are most affected by this disease, but to get the message across that vast parts of the country--still the vast majority--are not affected by foot and mouth disease. There are areas where there have been sporadic cases--as I saw for myself in Essex a short time ago--but over time, in the next few weeks, those areas should be able to move to a different status as the disease is cleared. Obviously, we must bear down in those areas where the disease is most rife. It is important to recognise that a proper sense of perspective is important not only for the tourism industry but for the farming industry.

Q4. [155523] Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Ever since the outbreak of foot and mouth, the Prime Minister has repeatedly warned of the devastating effects on the British tourism industry of the postponement of elections. Since the Prime Minister's last-minute panic conversion to the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for elections to be postponed, what estimate has the Prime Minister made of the financial impact on the British tourism industry of that postponement?

The Prime Minister: I do not know whether we have just heard a swift policy reversal. The Conservatives should make up their mind as to whether they are saying we were right to delay the elections, or wrong. The truth is that to delay them a short time is--in my view--a perfectly proper balance between the interests of setting up proper mechanisms to deal with the disease and the alternative proposed by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)--an indefinite delay of the democratic process--which may appeal to the Conservative party but is not in the national interest.

Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire): The Prime Minister will be aware, from the letter that I have sent to him, of the murder in Moscow, on 26 September 1999, of Christopher Rees, a British journalist working for an American television company called Story First. Christopher's mother, Mrs. Jane Rees, is a constituent of mine. Will the Prime Minister please raise her son's case with the appropriate Russian authorities to ensure that progress is made in investigating that crime, as Mrs. Rees is concerned that little effort has been made by those authorities to find the culprit and prosecute?

The Prime Minister: I am certainly aware of the case of Mr. Rees. I will look into it for my hon. Friend, and I will be in touch with her about how we shall raise it with the Russian authorities in the appropriate way.

Q5. [155524] Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): Does the Prime Minister agree with me--[Hon. Members: "No"]--that the first person who should be advised of his decisions on election dates is Her Majesty the Queen?

The Prime Minister: Yes, and I am sure that she will be.

Q6. [155525] Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): In respect of the Kyoto protocol, may I ask my right hon.

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Friend the Prime Minister whether he will impress, as strongly as possible, on the President of the United States that the world is not owned by the United States, but is the property of every living soul on this planet? Will he remind him that the future of this planet does not rest with big business and profit, but with principled planning? Will he also remind him that anyone who has the power that the United States has has equal responsibility to mankind?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend probably knows, this country has made its position clear. We continue to believe that the Kyoto protocol provides the best framework to deal with climate change, which is a problem that affects rich and poor countries alike. It is of vital importance to the future of the world that we deal with that and the reduction of CO 2 emissions. We obviously want to hear the views and ideas of the new Administration as to how we reduce those emissions, but for our own part, as I have said before, we think that the Kyoto protocol is the right way forward. I have no doubt at all that there will be intensive negotiations on that in the run-up to the next round of talks in July, and I hope that we can find agreement on a way forward.

Q7. [155526] Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): Is the Prime Minister aware that some 1.5 million animals, which do not have foot and mouth disease, are awaiting slaughter under the welfare to slaughter scheme and that many of those animals are suffering appalling welfare conditions, with little grazing and no shelter? When will that dreadful backlog be cleared?

The Prime Minister: That is exactly the point that I was making a moment or two ago. Obviously, the Intervention Board has had to deal with a vastly different range and number of cases than it ever anticipated. Of course, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we have greatly increased the payments under the animal welfare scheme, so it is far more generous than the scheme in place before, but we are working to ensure that we clear the backlog of applications to the Intervention Board. We will do that as soon as we possibly can, although our first priority must be to ensure that we carry out the containment by slaughter policy.

Q8. [155527] Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the country faces no more serious long-term problem than the degradation of our environment? Does he agree that the crazed policies coming from the White House are not our only difficulty? More parochially, people do not want an incinerator, a tip, a telecom mast and certainly not floods in their neighbourhood. Does he agree, however, that we cannot control such things unless every single citizen in this country recognises his or her responsibility--for example, to minimise the use of non-renewable fuels and to recycle? Therefore, does he not agree that his next Government must lead a crusade on our environment? After all, as someone once said, if the Labour party is not a crusade, it is nothing.

The Prime Minister: First, we have now set a target for recycling at least 25 per cent. of household waste by 2005 and we have set councils statutory targets to double recycling by 2003-04 and to triple it by 2005-06. In addition, we have committed almost £160 million of

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new opportunities fund money for a programme of environmental renewal and community regeneration. I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a vast reservoir of good intention among members of the public to help in that process and, by putting in the lead investment, we hope to be able to mobilise that to improve the situation for the local environment in every part of the country.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): When will we have a proper and publicly announced decision on vaccination against foot and mouth?

The Prime Minister: As I explained to the House about 10 days ago--in fact, I think that it was even before that--vaccination is an option. We have put in place all the contingency planning necessary for it in certain circumstances, but there are also difficulties with vaccination. In the past 10 days, the number of new cases has, at present--we should not read too much into this--flattened out and we have to see whether that trend is maintained. In those circumstances, we continue to have vaccination as an option, but we need and want to see whether the containment by slaughter policy achieves the objectives desired.

I would also point out to the hon. Gentleman and to other Conservative Members shouting out for vaccination that there is a huge--at the very least--division of opinion within the farming community. The policy will be difficult to put in place unless the farming community agrees to it. Vaccination remains an option if the containment by slaughter policy does not work, and we are keeping it under review. We have all the contingency planning necessary to implement it, but, at present, we believe that it is right to see the present policy working.

Q9. [155528] Ms Linda Perham (Ilford, North): Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister welcome the setting up a few weeks ago of a group to advise the Government on age issues in preparation for tackling age discrimination? What other measures do the Government have in place to make a real improvement to the lives of people over 50?

The Prime Minister: That is an important part of the Government's programme. We set up the age advisory group to advise the Government on the issues in respect of that, but I think that the important thing is that any legislation builds on what are many good practices in different parts of the country. Those need to be brought together so that we are able to ensure that there is an end to age discrimination in employment, which is not just wrong but counter-productive. Vast numbers of--let us say--more elderly people of working age are in the population and they perform an excellent task for their employers. They are often undervalued, and I hope very

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much that my hon. Friend will see in the announcements that we make in the weeks ahead that the very issues that she has raised are properly dealt with.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Would the Prime Minister remind himself that, before each sitting of the House, prayer is offered to the God of heaven and earth? Would he also remind himself that, in days of crisis in this nation, the one who held his office advised the monarch from time to time to call a national day of prayer? Does he not feel that, in the present crisis, the nation should express its desire to have our nation healed, and that the way to have it healed is to call upon the sovereign God of heaven?

The Prime Minister: I am sure that the nation will pray in its own way for what the hon. Gentleman says. I do not know whether it is right for Government to impose that, but I am sure that, according to their own conscience and faith, people will pray for the objectives that he has set out.

Q10. [155529] Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while we greatly welcome the massive investment that is going into school buildings and facilities, we also have an enormously dedicated and skilled teaching profession? Will he join me in paying tribute to that profession in the Wirral and elsewhere and welcome the figures published today of a 24 per cent. increase in teacher training applicants since last year?

The Prime Minister: I am delighted to give the House the figures on that. There are now more than 5,000 more applicants this year than at the same time last year. Maths applications are up 20 per cent.; science applications are up 36 per cent.; modern language applications are up 17 per cent.; and technology applications are up 89 per cent. In addition, well over 11,000 schools up and down the country have benefited from new deal money. The two things that we can be sure of are that, if the Conservative party were elected, it would scrap the new deal money so that investment would go and that it is opposed to the additional investment in teachers. For both those reasons, I am sure that people in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere would prefer education to be in the charge of this Government.

Q11. [155530] Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): Now that matron is coming back to sort out the chaos in our hospitals, will the Prime Minister consider bringing back the cane to sort out the chaos in our schools?

The Prime Minister: I thought at first that we were going to get a job application. As for the hon. Lady's question, I am afraid that I cannot agree with her. However, I am sure that she will agree that the one thing the national health service needs is extra investment, which we will continue to provide.

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