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Prime Minister (Engagements)

Volume 982: debated on Tuesday 1 April 1980

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Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 1 April.

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

How in Heaven's name can the right hon. Lady explain and justify increasing prescription charges to £1 when the £30 million that will be raised by the increase could so easily have been produced by adding another couple of pence to the price of cigarettes? Is this, as people suspect, part of party dogma and not financial reasoning? Will the right hon. Lady give an assurance that this is not a move towards increasing prescription charges to cover the whole of the cost of prescriptions? Will she give a further assurance that the Government will consider the possibility of extending exemptions, especially to those in receipt of invalidity benefit?

I explained to the House last week that by December the cost of a prescription would be £2·90 per item. It would not seem unreasonable, therefore, to make a charge of £1 for the prescription. Further, about 66 per cent. of prescriptions are already exempt from the charge because they go to groups who are exempt from the charge.

As First Lord of the Treasury, will my right hon. Friend continue on the path that she is going along so effectively of assisting small businesses by the special provisions in the Budget?

We shall certainly do so. The provisions in my right hon. and learned Friend's Budget for small businesses have been warmly welcomed by small businesses.

Why is it that the Government are prepared to increase prescription charges to £1, which is a tax on the sick, but to do nothing about the massive increases in profits that the banks are making as a result of the Government's policies? What is the Prime Minister going to do about that?

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, he would know that the leasing provisions that he proposes to introduce will affect the banks. During the coming year it is clear that manufacturing industry will need the services of the banks, and of sound banks.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 1 April.

Would my right hon. Friend like to comment on the letter in The Guardian yesterday, in which an official of the Society of Civil and Public Servants said that his members in the Department of Health and Social Security might decide to defy the law and not deduct the £12 deemed in the Budget proposals from the social security payments to strikers' families?

I saw the letter to which my hon. Friend refers, and I believe that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services referred to it yesterday. The person who wrote the letter is not a member of the Civil Service, but it is clear that the basis of the standing and reputation of the Civil Service is that it serves the Government of the day, whatever the political complexion of that Government. Anyone who seeks to undermine that principle does a great disservice not only to the Civil Service but to the cause of democracy.

Will the Prime Minister be seeing the Minister of Transport among her colleagues today? If so, will she ask him to refrain from bringing forward the latest Government scheme to clobber rural areas, namely, the closure of vehicle licensing offices? Is she aware that the plan, if it goes ahead, will mean, in my constituency, that people, particularly motor traders, will have to do a round trip of 100 miles to register a car? Is it not time, after recent reverses in the other place, for Ministers in all Departments to wake up to the interests of the rural areas?

With all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman, there is such a thing as the postal service, even if the right hon. Gentleman may not like the service that it gives.

Has my right hon. Friend seen reports that, in the past two weeks, 5,000 people, including many women and children, have been killed by the Russians in Afghanistan? In the light of those deaths, will my right hon. Friend continue her efforts to get British athletes to take off their blinkers and realise that if they persist in going to Moscow they will simply be delivering themselves to be exploited by the Communist propaganda machine?

I have seen a number of reports in the press that purport to be eye-witness accounts of those who have had to flee from Afghanistan. They have indicated what they saw in that country. Some members of the football team have sought refuge in Europe. These are factors that must be taken into account by those considering going to Moscow. Their action would be seen by the Russians as giving some kind of approval to their foreign policy.

Will the Prime Minister take time to discuss with the Secretary of State, who is to take £12 not from strikers but from strikers' families, by what authority he instructed officers of the Department of Health and Social Security to deduct from payments to strikers' families money that they have not received from trade unions?

My right hon. Friend has made it clear that this matter will have to be introduced in the ordinary way in the House, through a Bill. I trust that it will go through in the ordinary way and that it will be approved by many people.

Will my right hon. Friend take time today to confirm that, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, she does not feel, and nor do her right hon. Friends, that it is necessary to seek permission from the Russian ambassador in London before visiting China?

I saw the report in The Times to which my hon. Friend refers. If true, it is a very sad state of affairs that certainly would not have suited the last Leader of the Opposition; but, then, she would never have had to apply.

Is the Prime Minister aware that at a meeting this morning dock shop stewards throughout the country decided to make the strike in Liverpool docks in support of the steel workers a national one? Is not this another example of how the Prime Minister and Government policy have galvanised the trade union movement into taking action against confrontation policies? Will the Prime Minister change her policy to that of conciliation, and start by dropping the Employment Bill?

One of the outstanding things in the last few weeks of the steel strike has been the way that ordinary members of trade unions have kept on at their jobs and not come out in support of the main steel strike. Whatever the past may have held, I hope that the steel workers will go back to work today or next week and that by turning out steel of quality at the right time and at the right price we shall be able to recover many of the orders that have been lost.

Has the right hon. Lady had a chance to calculate the cost to the nation and the burden on the nation that follows from her refusal before Christmas to appoint a reasonable intervention in the steel dispute? Does she understand that her obstinacy in the matter has cost the country hundreds of millions of pounds?

The right hon. Gentleman, in Opposition, only ever has one reply to a strike. That is to buy it off. That remedy lasts only until the next strike.

The right hon. Lady talked about buying off strikes. Does she think that the appointment of the latest inquiry that has gone into the matter was buying off a strike?

This was, in fact, an arbitration, provision for which is contained in one of the agreements of one of the unions, which it could have had many weeks ago. The strikers might have been back to work much earlier. The union refused to have that arbitration even though the British Steel Corporation wished to have it.

Is the right hon. Lady aware that she is the person who refused to have the inquiry? She is the person who blocked the door to any intervention then. When will she accept her responsibilities in these matters?

I really must correct the right hon. Gentleman. He knows full well that what he says is not true. He knows full well—we have said so in this House a number of times when the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition was here—that the British Steel Corporation would have gone for arbitration or mediation, that it accepted going for arbitration or mediation some time ago, but that it took some time before the unions would accept the proposal. The right hon. Gentleman knows that. There is no point in persisting in a denial.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 1 April.

Has my right hon. Friend found time to study the reports in The Sunday Times showing that the majority of people in this country support the theme of the Budget? Will she hold to her last?

I believe that the majority of people in this country support the Budget. They believe that it is the only way to get Britain out of its economic difficulties. They are urging us to stick to the path that we are determined to tread.

Is the right hon. Lady aware, following her discussions with Chancellor Schmidt, that suggestions have been made by Euro-fanatics that outstanding problems should be settled in one package? Is she aware that this would cause a great outbreak of rage in the country? Questions such as sheepmeat, fishing and oil have to be settled as separate issues. Will she confirm that that is her policy?

There is perhaps a certain amount of misunderstanding. It is not suggested that settlement on one particular issue should be bartered against another. Chancellor Schmidt put to me the argument that if we expect the Community to settle our problems in a certain time scale, there are certain problems that other countries might expect to be settled in a similar time scale. I have always said, and will persist in saying, that each must be settled on its merits. I do not think, for example, that the fish question could possibly be settled in that time scale.

When my right hon. Friend reflects, in the course of today, on the outcome of the steel strike, will she accept that the vast majority of people are more than satisfied that the Govern- ment have not been a party to the dispute? Will she further reflect that if only the workers had been given the opportunity of a secret ballot the issue would have been settled long ago?

I know that the workers have had to suffer for many weeks without having the opportunity to ballot over whether they wanted to go on strike or whether they would have accepted the earlier offer. I hope now, however, that work will soon be resumed and that we shall be able to recover the orders for steel which this country needs.

May I revert to the public opinion poll to which the Prime Minister referred and in which she took so much pleasure? Will she comment on the fact that the poll sought to purport that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was the most charismatic figure in the Cabinet? Does the Prime Minister think that something might have gone wrong with the computer?

I think that the public share my view that we have an excellent Chancellor of the Exchequer.

When my right hon. Friend next has an opportunity to speak to the Norwegian Prime Minister, will she draw his attention to the splendid job done by the RAF during the recent disaster in the North Sea?

I believe that the Norwegian Prime Minister has thanked us for the excellent work done by the Nimrods, the helicopters, the Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and HMS "Lindisfarne". We all wish to join in the thanks for the splendid work that was done under such tragic circumstances. I am grateful to my hon. Friend.