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Prime Minister (Engagements)

Volume 981: debated on Tuesday 18 March 1980

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Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 18 March.

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had a meeting with my right hon. and noble Friend the Governor of Southern Rhodesia. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the anticipated net budgetary contribution to the EEC for this year will be about £1,100 million? Is she aware that if this is so, and unless the negotiations in Brussels reach a successful conclusion, there will be a growing demand to withhold part or the whole of our VAT contributions to the EEC?

I confirm what my hon. Friend has said. If there were no change, our contribution to the European budget for this year would be £1,100 million or more. The final budget for the Community as a whole has not yet been fixed. If we do not find an equitable solution, we shall have to consider withholding part of our contribution. I hope that it will not come to that.

Will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government's discussions with Lord Soames centre in part on a future aid programme to the newly independent Zimbabwe? Will she give an undertaking that those discussions will be widened to include an aid programme for Zambia? Will she bear in mind that the Zambian economy has suffered as a result of the long dispute between this country and Rhodesia?

My right hon. and noble Friend and I discussed the question of aid this morning. It is important to give Rhodesia a good start. We did not extend the discussion to aid to other countries. It is important that we carry out our prime duty towards Rhodesia.

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the trade figures today show an encouraging trend in the level of manufacturing exports, despite the fact that the pound remains firm? Will she, therefore, ignore the wet economic forecast that has been made by the Cambridge economic group? Will she ignore also those who urge import controls on us?

I agree that some companies are doing extremely well. As my hon. Friend knows, I do not take much account of economic forecasts, because there is such a large number from which to choose. We must remember that we still export more manufactured goods than we import. Any import controls would run the risk of retaliation and that might hit our export trade very badly.

Will the Prime Minister study the statement that has been made today by Mr. Jacques Chirac? He said that Britain should pay a contribution to the Market, or get out. As those are the only two options available, will she accept the second one?

I do not accept that those are the oniy two options. The right hon. Gentleman knows that it is a question not only of the contributions that go in, but the lack of receipts that come out. We are trying to increase those receipts to substitute the expenditure that we already make so that we can get a better distribution of receipts from the Common Market budget to this country.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements fo Tuseday 18 March.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave a moment or two ago.

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to study the campaign against waste in Government Departments, launched by the press? Will she commend that campaign to this House, to local authorities, and, above all, to her Ministers?

I was pleased to read of that campaign in the press. I hope that it will be taken seriously, and that people who have examples of waste will let us know of them. Some Departments are working well to reduce waste. For example, the Department of the Environment has managed to reduce its staff by about 6½ per cent. since the election. That compares very well indeed with local authorities, which have so far reduced their staff by only ½ per cent. Since the election the Department of Industry has sent out about 750,000 fewer forms.

As head of the Civil Service, will the Prime Minister inquire today into the removal of Mr. Matthew Cooper, a military historian and former Clerk to the Select Committee on defence? Was that because he criticised the Ministry of Defence for prohibiting senior civil servants, Service officers and Government scientists from giving evidence on the successor to the Polaris submarine missile?

I have no knowledge of the particular case. Although I am head of the Civil Service, I cannot be expected to know the details of about 500,000 people in the Civil Service. If the hon. Gentleman, in his usual courteous way, will let me have details, I shall make the customary inquiries.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Mr. Matthew Cooper is not a civil servant but an employee of the House? Will my right hon. Friend take time today to consider whether the call for a strike by Mr. Sidney Weighell, the head of the NUR, on 14 May is likely to be good or bad for our economy and in the interests of workers?

I saw the report of a call for a strike by the NUR. If the TUC or the NUR wishes to lower its standing in the eyes of the general public, that is the way to go about it.

Does the Prime Minister recognise that by talking of withholding VAT payments she is threatening to act in breach of our legal obligations? Does she believe that our case in equity and justice is so weak that it will be strengthened by such threats?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, our case in equity is extremely strong. We believe that it should be met before we have to consider any such proposal.

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to consider the massive disruption to local government that would be caused by the contemplated NALGO action? Will she deplore action that would withhold rate income to local authorities and cause chaos to the elderly, sick and others who depend on local government services?

I deplore any such action. I hope that people will consider the hardship that such action would wilfully inflict on others and will desist.

Will the right hon. Lady say whether press leaks about the Government's decision to cut back or redeem the £12 paid to strikers' wives and families are true? If they are, will she draw to the attention of her right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer the speech that the Secretary of State for Industry made at the Conservative Party conference, when he explained that that would cause great hardship to families and would be an intolerable action for any Government to take?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that matter was referred to in the Conservative Party manifesto on which we fought the election. I have twice explained in the House that plans are under way, and we hope to make an announcement within a few weeks. Fresh legislation will be required.

Will my right hon. Friend express her astonishment at the news that the National Union of Students, which is always complaining about the inadequacy of student grants, is proposing to spend money on financing a strike by the so-called National Union of School Students?

I believe that the National Union of School Students comprises only a small number of pupils in schools, and the number is being progressively reduced. I hope that we shall not hear a great deal more about that small splinter union of school pupils.