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Prime Minister (Engagements)

Volume 979: debated on Tuesday 19 February 1980

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Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 19 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.

Has the Prime Minister had time to consider the forecast of the Manpower Services Commission that shortly there may be over 2 million people unemployed, and that the number of unemployed school leavers is likely to double? If the Prime Minister accepts those figures, does she not think that now would be a good time to release thousands of jobs to younger people, by allowing men over 60 who wish to retire to do so?

As the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, I have never made forecasts of unemployment. I hope that those for the first quarter of 1981 will turn out to be unfounded. I cannot emphasise too strongly that if people continue to make excessive wage claims, those claims can, by pricing goods out of the market, lead to increased unemployment. I trust that that will not happen.

In view of the fact that the people of Canada yesterday voted out of office a Government obsessed with the same disastrous economic doctrines as those of the right hon. Lady—after a mercifully short spell in office—will she provide at least some of the British electorate with a similar opportunity to pass judgment by delaying no longer the writ for the Southend, East by-election?

The right hon. Gentleman forgets that we were returned to power with a very convincing majority.

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to meet Sir Michael Swann, and to convey to him the increasing unhappiness over proposals to discontinue regional broadcasting. Those proposals are particularly unacceptable while allegations persist of wasteful programming on the networks, and while there is a suspicion that local radio is to be financed at the expense of regional radio.

I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's views to the attention of Sir Michael Swann. The way in which the programmes are arranged must remain a matter for the BBC, but it must be sensitive to public opinion.

Does the right hon. Lady recall promises to families during the general election campaign? Does she realise that families with children are now ravaged by inflation, high rents, high mortgage charges and additional school meal and transport charges? They are getting a very bad deal. Will she instruct the Chancellor of the Exchequer to increase child benefits substantially from 1 April?

With regard to child benefit, as the hon. Gentleman knows, such decisions are usually announced in the Budget. I ask him to await the statement of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I also ask him to consider that the moneys to pay these benefits so often come from the breadwinners of the families, and it does not always make good sense to take in tax, put it through big bureaucracies, and to pay back rather less.

Will my right hon. Friend, in any further consideration of the middle ground of industrial relations reform, consider implementing a former Government White Paper of January 1969 entitled "In Place of Strife"? If she did this we would get a general agreement on the matter.

There is widespread agreement on that matter. We are making a very good start in the Employment Bill and there is a consultative document which will take the law a little further on the matter of protecting law-abiding citizens and firms.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 19 February.

Will the Prime Minister condemn the apparent involvement of Rhodesian security forces in the bombing of churches by terrorists? Does she agree that this incident underlines the need for Lord Soames not to rely on the security forces to the extent to which he has done so far? What action will she take, in view of recent events, to ensure that he does not have to rely on them?

I shall condemn bombing and intimidation from whatever quarter it may come. My noble Friend Lord Soames has done his best to eliminate intimidation in Rhodesia. On the particular incident that the hon. Member mentioned, I cannot give a report yet because investigations are not fully completed.

Have my right hon. Friend's thoughts turned to the Common Market and the British contribution to it? If so, will she consider taking the "empty seat policy" of De Gaulle until our case is recognised?

With great respect to my hon. Friend, I believe that I am more effective by being in my seat than by leaving it empty.

Despite so many heavy commitments, will the right hon. Lady consider making a personal visit to areas of high unemployment and poverty so that she can see the grim reality? Will she agree that we are now heading for economic and social unrest which will damage the social fabric of this country unless the present abrasive policies are changed?

I do not in any way accept the right hon. Member's premise that we are heading for economic and social unrest. I get about the country a lot and I shall continue to visit all areas. Increasing unemployment is not part of Conservative policy.

Will my right hon. Friend waylay the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and ask him how many civil servants have responded to his request to become "deep throats"—which apparently means that they should give the Labour Party information about Britain's security services?

I saw the reports in the press. I very much hope that they are not true because any such request would severely undermine the very best traditions of the Civil Service in this country.

Having paid lip service to St. Francis, at the instigation of Saatchi & Saatchi when she first entered No. 10, will the Prime Minister ponder today—

I think that hon. Members can hear me, but just in case they cannot I shall repeat the question—

Will the Prime Minister ponder today on whether she is really enamoured of the selfish, self-concerned and uncaring society that she is trying to create?

I was not aware that Saatchi & Saatchi were experts on St. Francis. If they are, I must consult them more often. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency are qualities that one would expect of most families in this country. If those who are able and fit can keep their families and keep them well and then have a little over to help others, we shall have a much better society than we have now.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister whether she will list her official engagements for 19 February.

In the interests of manufacturing industry, will my right hon. Friend take whatever action is necessary to lift the blockade of steel supplies either through the ports or from the steel stockholders, and tell the workers at Hadfield's that they can go back to work tomorrow because the Government will take the necessary action to ensure their protection?

A great deal of steel in still moving, and production throughout manufacturing industry in this country has kept up remarkably well. With regard to the incidents that we saw on television outside Hadfield's, I cannot condemn them enough. Those incidents bore no relation to peaceful picketing, which is the only kind protected by the law. If we are to get scenes like that—and this appeared to be more a criminal matter than a civil one—we must leave enforcement in the hands of the police. We should give the police our full backing in their difficult duties.

Is the right hon. Lady aware of increasing concern that is being expressed about the decision of the British Steel Corporation to run down the size of the industry to 15 million tonnes? This is regarded as too low by many people who should know. Do the Government intend to stand aside from this decision, irrespective of the consequences to our nation, which is so dependent on external trade? Will she confirm that the Government intend to ask a leading American business man to run the British Steel Corporation? Is that not a remarkable way of dealing with the industry at a time when the chairman and the other directors are engaged in negotiations? Is she not, in fact, telling the workers that their chairman will be sacked in a short while? Is not the real trouble that Sir Charles Villiers and Mr. Scholey have been too zealous in carrying out Government policy? That is their real crime.

The management of the British Steel Corporation is charged with the duty of running the corporation and so far we do not intend to interfere with its decisions. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there have been some difficult decisions to face on running down the industry. He himself had to take some in his constituency. He knows that we provided £48 million for Wales, to help with the effects of the run-down in steel there. The position of the chairman of British Steel Corporation must not be undermined—I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The chairman and the trade union leaders have the job of settling this strike and we have every confidence in his doing so.

On the question of the appointment of the chairman, we would be culpable if we were not looking for someone as a possible replacement for Sir Charles, bearing in mind that he goes towards the end of the year.

But surely the chairman's position is undermined if these stories are allowed to leak from Government sources. It seems that the chairman is to be replaced in the middle of the negotiations that he is conducting. Has the Prime Minister any idea from which of her Ministers this story came? On the first question, The Prime Minister has a direct responsibility for th, size of the industry. It is a strategic industry, and investment cannot be left to the test of market profitability in our country. Surely the Government should satisfy themselves about the future size of the industry?

I shall take the right hon. Gentleman's questions in order. There is no question of undermining the authority of Sir Charles Villiers as chairman of the British Steel Corporation. I express my confidence in him, and I hope that he and the steel unions will get together to sort out this strike. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the size of the steel industry. The size of an industry is determined by what it can sell and the quality and delivery dates of its products. Other steel industries on the Continent that have gone through difficult times have steadily come through to profitability. I believe that ours can do the same.

Since the Prime Minister entered No. 10 Downing Street reciting the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, will she take time to consider why, instead of bringing an answer to that prayer, she has brought discord, error, doubt and despair to the country?

The right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to agree. I hope, however, that he will agree, as a Scot, that it is not easy to get a nation to learn to live within its means when it has been living outside its means for a long time.