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Prime Minister (Engagements)

Volume 978: debated on Tuesday 12 February 1980

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Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 12 February.

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen.

Will my right hon Friend take time during her busy day to convey a message to the water workers, urging them to seek a moderate and sensible pay settlement? Will she also convey to them that strike action to shut off the nation's water supply and endanger sewage treatment cannot be tolerated?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Already, most of us believe that water charges are very high and I hope that those who are demanding more will remember that that "more" will have to be met by people who have far less than a large number of the workers themselves.

Does the Prime Minister understand that the workers in the water industry are simply trying to recoup for themselves what they have lost because of the raging inflation that has been created by this Government's policies?

The hon. Member knows that the amount which has been offered is in excess of the retail price index, even taking account of the increase in VAT which occurred last July. Those pay increases will go through into the increased price of water. I do not know what the hon. Member's postbag contains, but in mine there are already a large number of complaints about the high water rate.

Will the Prime Minister take time to consider the plight of the engineering industry? Is she aware that many engineering companies will soon run short of steel, even though stocks of steel still exist? Have the Government any plans to ensure that pressed steel can reach those companies which need it?

So far, as my hon. Friend knows, most of industry has coped extremely well, in spite of the shortage of steel. One of the factors which those on strike must consider is the effect of their strike on their fellow workers in other industries. I hope that that will weigh heavily with them in the decisions they take to get back around the negotiating table.

:Will the Prime Minister ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to send a circular to all local authorities containing the text of a model speech which may be made in council chambers and which can be sure not to incur the displeasure of the Secretary of State and, therefore, the use of penal sanctions against local authorities?

Will the Prime Minister consider inviting the Leader of the Opposition to join her in sending a message of congratulations to the employees of the Sheerness Steel Company on the Isle of Sheppey, who have refused to be intimidated by mass picketing and who have democratically asserted their right to carry on working, despite some pretty unpleasant experiences inflicted upon them by some pickets from outside? Is she aware that their courage and determination have earned the respect and admiration of the whole local community?

The workers in Sheerness have rightly exercised their lawful right to go about their business and to continue to earn their living for themselves and for their families. I do, indeed, congratulate them. It is notable that private sector steel, existing in the same world as the British Steel Corporation, is able to make a profit and to contribute to the cost of health, education and all the other things of which we want more in this country.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 12 February.

Will the Prime Minister take time today to study the financial crisis at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Glasgow? Is she aware that children's lives are at risk there because lack of finance is jeopardising life-saving operations? Is she also aware that Dr. McAllister, a doctor in that hospital, has said that what the Government are doing verges on cruelty? Will the right hon. Lady tell the House how her Government's mean and contemptible economic policy can, on the one hand, give tax handouts to the rich taxpayer and, on the other, threaten the lives of children in my constituency and other constituencies in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman knows that, in general the amount of money, in real terms, allocated to the National Health Service has not been reduced. Indeed, this Government had to increase the cash limit to provide for increased pay to the nurses and the National Health Service auxiliaries. With regard to that particular hospital, the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to send me a letter indicating his concern. We understand from the health board that there has been no cut in the financial allocation that it has made to the hospital.

Has my right hon. Friend heard the result of the Leyland ballot in which the workers have apparently refused to accept the pay offer? What result does my right hon. Friend think this will have on the future of the company and its car sales?

I hope, naturally, that the workers will not take industrial action. That ballot was not to take industrial action. British Leyland has severe problems on its hands in view of its high stocks and the inability to finance any more stocks. As my hon. Friend knows, about £1,000 million of public money has already gone into British Leyland. I hope that, in view of their excellent production record last month, everyone will together consider how to go forward and get the company back into profitability.

If the right hon. Lady is sending messages, will she send one of congratulations to the firemen in my constituency and along the South Coast who are having to deal with a dirty job, namely the chemicals coming ashore from a ship called the "Aeolian Sky"? Many of my constituents are worried about what is happening. The problem has almost caused fatalities. Will she instruct her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade to take action quickly to deal with the wreck?

I know of the great concern that exists if pollution from ships comes ashore. I shall contact my right hon. Friend.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 12 February.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the suggestion that the profit-making private sector of the steel industry should take over some of the assets of British Steel and show it how to operate with the good will of its workers and at a profit?

It is noteworthy that the private sector of steel is operating at a profit in the same world in which the British Steel Corporation is making very heavy losses. There would be no objection whatever by the Government if the British Steel Corporation wished to sell off some of its plant that might otherwise be closed. Indeed, I think, it would be an excellent solution.

Before the right hon. Lady says more about water workers, will she comment on the circular issued by the Scottish Office suggesting that local authorities such as the Borders regional council should discharge raw sewage into the river Tweed in order to save public expenditure?

Will my right hon. Friend take time to consider the case of a member of my union, ASTMS, working as a nurse in British Steel who has felt obliged to resign her job after pressure exerted on her after refusing to contribute to strike funds? Does she not agree that incidents of this kind bring the trade union movement into disrepute and make it doubly difficult for the Government to proceed with their moderate proposals for trade union reform?

I agree that incidents of that kind bring the trade union movement into disrepute. They demonstrate the need for this Government to strengthen the law and get ahead with trade union reform.

Will the Prime Minister find time today to confirm that her Government have no intention of giving extra Government time to the Abortion (Amendment) Bill nor to extend any Friday sitting beyond the usual time for that purpose?

I understand that we are likely to be on that subject for one more Friday yet or perhaps more.

Has my right hon. Friend seen recent press reports that certain people have been claiming social security benefits to which they have not been entitled? Will she confirm that early Government action will be taken to curb this waste of taxpayers' money?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services is trying to make certain that people do not get social security benefits to which they are not entitled. It should be made clear that those who take them fraudulently are reducing the amount of money available for those in genuine need.

Q4.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 12 February.

Will the Prime Minister take urgent steps, including consulting the front-line Presidents, to seek to make sure that Lord Soames no longer has to rely on the forces of the previous Rhodesian Administration and is, thus, able to avoid arrests such as that of Garfield Todd and many others which endangering the ceasefire and may lead to the sort of breakdown that many of us have feared? Is he aware that this could produce a blood-bath which I am sure all Members of the House would regard with horror?

The arrest of Mr. Garfield Todd is a matter for the police and I cannot comment upon it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Of course, I cannot comment on it. The arrest of Mr. Todd is a matter for the police and the law must take its ordinary course. The actions of Lord Soames, who is Governor of Rhodesia at present, are governed by the Lancaster House agreement and he is sticking to that.

Will my right hon. Friend take time, in the course of today, to reflect that on the Order Paper there are no fewer than four early-day motions affecting the future of rural post offices? Does she agree that the Government ought not automatically to take on board every half-baked idea from their advisers which would affect millions of the under-privileged in this country without the fullest debate and decision in this House?

Any suggestions of this magnitude would be submitted to full debate and decision of the House, but not all ideas are half-baked and some of the half-baked ones can be fully-baked.

Will the Prime Minister take time today to reassure the people of Merseyside, who are being made redundant, and to say when her economic policies will allow the entrepreneurs, who are supposed to have been released from the shackles of high taxation by the last Budget, to start investing in Merseyside? Is the right hon. Lady aware that the Government-inspired amendments to the County of Merseyside Bill [Lords], which will come before the House on Thursday, have been designed to take away the powers of Merseyside county council to encourage industrial investment in Merseyside? Will she see that those amendments are withdrawn?

The hon. Gentleman has raised a general point about investment and increasing the role of small business. This country is getting through because of the vitality of many businesses in the private sector that are making profits. If they were not, we should not have the resources either for health or education or for the vast loss-making nationalised industries that need an ever-increasing amount of money.

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to look at the plans for the future of the Commonwealth monitoring force in Rhodesia? Bearing in mind the rising tide of violence, has it not become imperative that those soldiers should be withdrawn after the votes have been cast, but before the result is known?

My hon. Friend knows that the soldiers are there to monitor and not in any way to keep order. The order is kept by virtue of the Governor requesting the forces to go where there is any report of disorder, but I do not think it would be wise to give any undertaking now about the future of the monitoring force.

In view of the Prime Minister's well-deserved tribute to the small businesses of this country, may I ask whether she is aware that the Secretary of State for Employment made a speech recently in which he said that the biggest handicap from which those businesses had to suffer was a 17 per cent. minimum lending rate? What has gone wrong with her monetary policy?

The fact that we had a very high increase in public expenditure this last year—[Interruption.] Surely the former Chancellor of the Exchequer the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) is not arguing with that. It is a matter of fact. It is in the public expenditure White Paper. As the Leader of the Opposition knows, we have had to attempt to reduce that expenditure. When it is reduced and when we can get the borrowing down, interest rates will come down. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman so many times, we shall be grateful for his support. There seems to be some competition between the Leader of the Opposition and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer.

As minimum lending rate was put up to 15 per cent. in June, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer told us that it would be only a few weeks before it came down again, what has gone wrong with the Government's policy, now that we have had a record MLR of 17 per cent. for two months? Is the Prime Minister proud of herself?

First, it was 14 per cent. and not 15 per cent. Let that 1 per cent pass. These 1 per cents. never seem to concern the right hon. Gentleman. He does not care a tuppenny damn about some of them. Never mind.

We need to get public spending down further, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, and the process of a nation which has been living beyond its means coming to live within its means is a distinctly uncomfortable one. We shall pursue the policy of reducing public spending as a proportion of the national income.

So that means that small businesses can expect no help at all from the Government?

On the contrary. It means that this Government are the only one who are likely to pursue a policy that brings the nation to live within its means—a policy totally rejected by the Labour Party.