HC Deb 21 May 1997 vol 294 cc710-2
Q8. Mr. Wallace

If, as the Prime Minister indicated some moments ago, a lifting of the beef export ban is not exactly imminent, is he able to indicate what kind of approximate time scale our beef producers might reasonably expect? In the meantime, what steps are his Government taking to restrict imports into the United Kingdom of beef products that do not meet the same very high standards required of our domestic producers? [347]

The Prime Minister

We obviously want to do everything that we possibly can to encourage and bring about the lifting of the beef ban. I say to the hon. Gentleman with the greatest respect that I do not think that plucking out arbitrary timetables has a very good history in the matter. We remember what happened before. [Laughter.] I am sorry to bring back bad memories. I believe that we can make progress and I am hopeful that progress is being made. The very fact that we have a Government who are arguing the case sensibly and constructively gives us a far better chance than we had under the previous Administration.

Q9. Mr. Gordon Prentice

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the indignation and outrage felt among bus passengers in north-east Lancashire, who have been left high and dry by Stagecoach? Even as I speak, bus fares are going up, services are being cut, drivers are leaving in droves and the situation is in crisis. Is not such a situation, where private monopolies have driven out public interest, a shaming indictment of the previous Government's policies? [348]

The Prime Minister

In the interests of non-confrontational exchanges across the Floor, we will leave it to others to judge whether the situation is a shaming indictment. The one thing that is quite clear is that there are severe problems with the regulatory system at the moment. That is why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is, in addition to his rain-making duties, undertaking a review of bus regulation. We are well aware of the need to ensure, particularly for people in rural communities, that they get the bus services that they need.

Q10. Mr. Gray

Will the Prime Minister find time to visit employers in my constituency of North Wiltshire who tell me that they will lay off workers the morning after he brings in the minimum wage? Does he agree that the tragically high level of youth unemployment on the continent of Europe is not least because of the job-destroying minimum wage in Europe? [349]

The Prime Minister

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that the United States has a minimum wage and a lower unemployment rate than we do. In contradistinction to the position here, that is now a matter for agreement between the republicans and democrats. It is a pity that we cannot obtain the same agreement about decency. Employers will be fully consulted about the level at which the minimum wage is set and how it is implemented. That is very important. I do not believe that the Conservative way of competing on the basis of low wages and low skills is the right future for Britain. We will compete in the future by investing in our people and by employers recognising that if they treat people fairly, they will get the best out of them. If that is one change that an incoming Labour Government can make, we will have done a service to the whole country.

Mrs. Fyfe

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that in this first session of Prime Minister's questions we have already got through more questions than we used to in two quarter-hour sessions? It has been a more civilised and informative event than ever before and I look forward to more in the future. On the question of the national minimum wage, many of us take great pride in the fact that the Labour party has stuck to that policy through thick and thin and intends to implement it as early as possible.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments and I hope that people will understand that this is a better way to organise Prime Minister's questions. The Select Committee on Procedure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is establishing will look at ways that it can be improved in the light of experience.

On the minimum wage, I do not wish to repeat what I said earlier, but some 800,000 people in this country are paid £2.50 an hour or less. There are reasons of efficiency for introducing some basic minimum threshold for pay, but there are also reasons of decency and fairness, and we shall do it.