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Prime Minister (Engagements)

Volume 978: debated on Thursday 7 February 1980

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Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 7 February.

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Will the Prime Minister take time off today to look at reports in the press earlier this week that Britain is now the second most active foreign industrial investor in the United States economy? When will she ask her right hon. Friend to alter the economic policies of the Government so as to improve investment at home and bring jobs back to areas such as mine, which are running into high rates of unemployment?

I think that it is probably advisable for Britain to undertake a good deal of overseas investment. After all, we need the income from it. Unless we get income from overseas investment we shall not have the money to pay the interest on the vast amounts of overseas investment in this country. I am also happy to see that there is a great deal of overseas investment by those who run the pension fund for the National Coal Board. They, too have taken advantage of the relaxation of exchange control to make property investments overseas.

Is it not time to bring domestic credit expansion under more effective control by issuing directives to the banks and other main lending institutions to reduce their lending to within the declared Government monetary limits?

If that of itself would work, we would be prepared to consider it. But there has been an enormous so-called explosion in financial technology, which means there are various ways of getting around lending by banks. Of course, that means that any such directive to the banks would largely be inoperative, because the lending would be transferred to other financial institututions.

Has the Prime Minister seen the article in today's Daily Star by Mr. David Buchan? When the right hon. Lady next meets the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will she explain to him why a party which believes in market forces is now allowing oil to be sold so cheaply that this nation is losing at least £700 million a year at the present rate? In the next two or three years this loss is expected to run to £2,000 million. Do the Government still believe in market forces.

The Government certainly believe in market forces. I believe that the hon. Member's question relates to the price of North Sea oil. We have certainly been trying to keep down the price increase in oil—rightly so—and for the month of January we were not prepared to allow the price to go higher than $29.75, which was the price being charged for a comparable grade of oil in Nigeria. Unfortunately, world prices of the same grade are rising, particulary in Libya, Algeria and Nigeria, and the price of ours will go up too.

Doer, my right hon. Friend agree that the best price that we can get for our oil internationally is the best price that we can get? Good luck to us. Does she agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell) about domestic credit expansion through credit cards, hire purchase, and so on? Does she agree also that the time has come for the Bank of England to issue an instruction?

I think that it needs something more effective than an instruction. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has made a statement and there will be a consultative document coming out soon about the possibility of a different method of controlling the money supply by a monetary base. That would be very much fiercer than anything we have at present.

As members of the Cabinet seem to be tumbling over themselves to tell the press where they stand on the Employment Bill—[Hon. Members: "Shabby"] and in view of the obvious difficulties, in the Cabinet in reaching agreement on this matter, will the Prime Minister consider dropping this proposal for the moment, in order to call in the TUC to discuss how agreement can be reached on the satisfactory limitation of secondary action? As, the right hon. Lady will find that the law will never operate satisfactorily is this area, would it not be far better for her to try to get voluntary agreement?

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, I note in the papers that members of previous Cabinets have been tumbling over themselves to write their memoirs. Secondly, we will not withdraw the Employment Bill. There is a great deal in that Bill that would deal with secondary picketing that is going on and which we believe should not be. Certainly we must press ahead with that Bill as soon as possible and get out a consultation document to deal with the latest House of Lords' judgment.

If the Prime Minister refutes to learn from experience, may I put another point to her? Obviously it is not a simple matter—if it were, there would not be all these divisions in the Cabinet. It is not a fact that what is needed is a permanent solution to the problem? That will not be done on the basis of decisions in the Cabinet, which are then ironed over.

If, despite all experience in this matter, the Prime Minister persists and goes ahead with the new proposals on secondary action, will she give an undertaking that this, issue will not be sent upstairs to 24 members of the Committee, but will be brought before the whole House for full discussion here so that we can examine the proposals and take the decision?

On the first point about the law on picketing, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that some of the troubles that we have today have been caused by the immunity and the secondary action permitted under the law, which is drawn too widely. They need to be drawn more narrowly by the law. That will be the object of the consultation document. Certainly, if there are major changes to be made to the Employment Bill upstairs, arising out of that consultation document, we will follow previous precedents and discuss them on the Floor of the House, before they are committed to the Standing Committee.

Has the Prime Minister heard the news from the Council of Agriculture Ministers this morning about the sale of butter to the Russians at 23p a pound, when it looks as if our pensioners will have to pay more than 83p a pound for the same butter? Will she consider printing commodity vouchers in pension books so that the benefit of this cheap butter may go to our own needy people?

I have heard various news about the common agricultural policy and Europe this morning, and I must confess that I did not like any of it. The Government are fiercely against selling subsidised butter to the Russians. We shall put that as strenuously as we can in all councils.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there have been far too many innocent victims of industrial warfare in the last year? Is it not time to introduce the equivalent of a Geneva Convention, under which our collective bargaining processes which end up in industrial struggle are limited?

We shall carry out the pledges in our manifesto and ensure that the protection of the law is available to those not affected by a dispute but who are at present suffering severely from secondary action. That was a pledge in the manifesto, and we shall carry it out. A good deal of it will be implemented in the Employment Bill when it becomes law. I beg my hon. Friends to remember that the present position would have been very much better if the Employment Bill had been passed into law by now.