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Volume 928: debated on Thursday 17 March 1977

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I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Corbett) on 3rd February.

When my right hon. Friend again discusses economic policy with the TUC, will he ensure that it is not taken in by the posturing of the Opposition on matters such as increased food prices, where their policies would lead to even higher prices than those we have at present, on gas prices, where their entreaties for public expenditure cuts ignore the policies that the Chancellor has been putting forward, and on Shotton, where the works would have been closed had it not been for the reversal of policy by the Secretary of State for Industry?

My hon. Friend is quite right—and we all know that any introduction of the kind of policies favoured by the Opposition would lead to a higher cost of living throughout this country.

Doubtless the Prime Minister has discussed public expenditure proposals with the TUC. Will he admit that he is the first Prime Minister in the post-war period who has been too afraid to put his proposals for public expenditure cuts into a White Paper and lay them directly before the House on a direct motion for a direct vote?

I do not see what the right hon. Lady is complaining about. She has been pressing us for months to cut public expenditure, and we have now cut it. As regards a vote on a motion, I would expect to find every member of the Tory Party on my side in the Lobby.

But is it not the truth that if the Prime Minister put down a motion to approve the White Paper he would lose it and the whole of his economic policy as well, despite Government whipping?

If the right hon. Lady really means that, she is being very hypocritical in calling on me to reduce public expenditure. The reduction of public expenditure is what the White Paper is about, so perhaps she would reflect on the question why, when she has asked us to cut public expenditure and we have cut it, she would vote against the cuts.

Will the Prime Minister explain to the TUC how he expects to increase the authority of the Prices Commission in keeping down prices in the private sector if the Government override the Commission's decisions in the public sector, as was the case with gas prices? As he said outside that he was bringing this matter to the House, and as it would be doubtful that the House would approve it, what does he intend to do about it?

If I remember rightly, I was having an erudite discussion with my hon. Friends about higher institutions of learning in Birmingham when I was rudely interrupted with a question on gas prices. At that time I was under the impression that the matter would have to come before the House, but I find now that it does not.

I humbly apologise to the right hon. Gentleman and to everyone else for that grave and grievous error, which I trust I shall not repeat again. With regard to the general question, it is a matter that I hope we shall not have to repeat. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the increase in gas prices was part of the undertakings that we gave to the IMF in relation to our borrowing requirements. There is no need for Opposition Members to say "Ah"; this was explained on 15th December and they knew it perfectly well.

It is contained in the document that is being discussed today. It would not be proper to go back on the cuts that were made then or on the increases made then. If we did we should have to find £100 million of cuts somewhere else. We shall not depart from the basic arithmetic of that agreement.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is knowledgeable about the anxieties and incomprehension that have been expressed by some members of the General Council about the fact that the Government and the NEB are now saying that they cannot fill the vacancies among the directorships for which they have nominating rights because, it is suggested, there is no available managerial executive talent? Will the Prime Minister now say that he will try to encourage Ministers to resist the story that is put about that they have no knowledge of such talent, or no talent-spotting methods, by which they can fulfil these obligations? Will my right hon. Friend also look at the whole question of Government appointments?

I shall be glad to discuss this matter with my hon. Friend in more detail, but it is certainly the case that on occasions it is difficult to find people of the requisite talent to fill particular posts which are necessary to be filled. [An HON. MEMBER: "Look behind you."] I do not have to look behind me. I just have to look across the Floor of the House. This is a real problem in British industry and it is one to which we must devote a great deal of attention. I am bound to say that when I am looking for recruits I shall not look at the bunch of faded daffodils on the Opposition Benches.