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Prime Minister

Volume 14: debated on Tuesday 8 December 1981

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Engagements

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 8 December.

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

In view of the very real success of the Government's loan guarantee scheme to small businesses, whereby 1,500 firms have received loans since June, will my right hon. Friend, in a characteristically busy day, consider arranging the loans limit, which at present is £150 million, on a three-year basis?

My hon. Friend is quite right in saying that the take-up of the loan guarantee scheme has been excellent during the early months of its existence. The financial allocation for the first year, in response to high demand, was increased from £50 million to £100 million. In view of that record, and bearing in mind that this is where new jobs will come from, I can assure my hon. Friend that if the demand goes up he can be optimistic that the resources will be there to meet it.

In view of the right hon. Lady's duties in the House today, can she confirm that by next month the average unemployed family man will be £13 per week worse off than he would have been if her Government had not cut his benefits?

I cannot confirm any such particular figure. However, I well remember that in 1976, when a question of increase in benefit arose under the Labour Government, the Labour Government changed the basis on which the retail price index was calculated, thereby depriving those in receipt of benefits of some £500 million that they otherwise would have received. That is equivalent to over £900 million this year.

Will the right hon. Lady refer to benefits in 1981 and 1982, for which she is responsible, and not take cover in what she alleges happened five or six years ago? Will she say whether the figure is correct, because she is directly responsible for it? Will she now tell us when the value of benefits for unemployed people will be restored to the value that it was when she came to office?

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to ask a particular question, doubtless he will address it in writing to the relevant Minister. I try to compare what he says in Opposition with what he does when he is in power. He queries the facts that I gave. May I quote from what Barbara Castle said about them.

She said:
"It is clear that if we had this time"—
in 1976—
"adopted the historic method, an additional burden would have been put on the worker and wage earner of £500 million for this uprating, and it would have had inevitable consequences in due course on the contribution rate."—[Official Report, 7 April 1976; Vol. 909, c. 431.]
Under pressure, the then right hon. Member for Blackburn reduced benefits below the amount that would have been payable on the former inflation rate basis.

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that she will not seek to use her position as leader of the Conservative Party to purge Conservative candidates who may be selected?

The Prime Minister talks about hon. Members saying one thing in Opposition and another when they are in Government, but does she recall the Tory promise not to raise prescription charges? The Government have raised prescription charges fron 20p to £1 and today we shall debate a further increase, bringing prescription charges to £1·30.

Order. The Prime Minister must be allowed to give her answer. I hope that the Prime Minister will not fight to be heard. She is entitled to be heard.

I can vividly remember being asked that precise question at a press conference during the general election. I can remember the meaning of my answer, if not the precise words—[Hon. Members: "Ah!"]—and the meaning was quite clear. That meaning was that no responsible politician could give an undertaking that prescription charges would not be increased in the course of the following five years.

Q2.

asked the Prime Minister whether she will list her official engagements for 8 December.

I refer my hon. and learned Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to deplore the Soviet Government's callous treatment of Dr. Sakharov and to condemn the Soviet Government's ill treatment of a long line of prisoners of conscience, including Ida Nudel and Anatoly Shcharansky? Will she also deplore the Soviet Government's refusal to allow thousands of Soviet Jews to have exit visas to join their families elsewhere? Such actions are all in flagrant and contemptuous disregard of the Helsinki Final Act and fundamental human rights.

I confirm that the Government have frequently made representations about the Soviet Union's blatant disregard of its commitments under the Helsinki Final Act. We have also frequently raised individual cases with the Soviet Union, including those mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend. Yesterday, the Foreign Office issued a statement about Dr. Sakharov and today, Foreign Ministers in Brussels are considering that problem again. We deplore the circumstances that led Dr. and Mrs. Sakharov to go on hunger strike. We very much hope that the Soviet authorities will let the wife of Dr. Sakharov's step-son join her husband in the United States of America and that they will desist from further harassing Dr. and Mrs. Sakharov.

Is the Prime Minister aware that her Government's indecision about local government legislation—particularly the Local Government Finance Bill—is causing widespread comment and concern throughout the country? Is the right hon. Lady further aware that local authorities are on the point of preparing their budgets for the financial year and do not know what basis to use? What are the Government's intentions?

The Government's intentions will soon become apparent to the hon. Gentleman, but I take it that he, too, is concerned about the very high rates and supplementary rates that his constituents are being charged.

Will my right hon. Friend take time today to reflect on the fact that some of us understand—although we do not altogether welcome—the American Government's sympathetic interest in the problems of Northern Ireland? Will she make it clear to the American Administration that the Province's present and future are entirely a matter for the sovereign Government of this kingdom?

I gladly confirm what my hon. Friend has said. The future of Northern Ireland is a matter both for the people of Northern Ireland and for the United Kingdom Parliament. I should also make it perfectly clear that in his letter President Reagan said that he equally understood that the matter could not be solved in any way by the United State of America but only by those concerned.

Has the Prime Minister had an opportunity to read the reports, which appeared over the weekend, about the widespread use of drugs by American naval personnel in Scotland and about the incident involving a Poseidon missile, in which an explosion was narrowly averted? Given the widespread alarm in Scotland that has been caused by a combination of those two reports, what action do the Government propose to take?

I do not believe that any danger was involved in the incident reported. Of course, I shall draw the comments about drugs to the notice of my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Home Secretary.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure President Reagan that she will not support the return of Texas to Mexico against the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants of Texas?

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 8 December.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Will the Prime Minister take time off today to tell us when she expects to achieve the three main objectives contained in the Conservative Party's last manifesto? Those objectives were to reduce unemployment, income tax and inflation. Under her stewardship unemployment has doubled, income tax has increased for everyone except those in the top income bracket and inflation is now higher then when she took office.

Perhaps I should remind the hon. Gentleman that unemployment also doubled under the Labour Government.[Interruption.] Labour Members do not wish to be reminded of the fact that it increased by 1 million under the Labour Government. Doubtless the hon. Gentleman was as distressed about that then as I am about today's position. The reduction in unemployment lags behind the increase in production. As the hon. Gentleman will know, increases in production are now taking place. When the hon. Gentleman's Government left office inflation was rising fast and several price increases had been deliberately held back for the general election. Inflation is now falling and although there will be a difficulty for a month or two—caused by the differences in the exchange rate—we expect the reduction to continue next year.

As regards taxation, I shall be delighted when Labour Members recognise that expenditure has to be substantially covered by taxation. Perhaps they would run such a dishonest policy that they would run up debt as far as they did in 1976, when the country's—[Interruption.] I hope that hon. Members will allow me to answer the question. In 1976 the country's reserves were down to $4 billion and the Labour Government's debts were as high as $19 billion. Under the Labour Government, the country was dead broke.

Has my right hon. Friend had time to read the recent press reports, which say that Britain will join the European monetary system in the spring? Is it not clear that the mutual support available within the EMS would have at least prevented some of the recent wide fluctuations in the exchange rate? Would it not help British industry if we stopped agonising and joined the EMS now?

The question of the EMS will come up at the next European Council. I do not necessarily accept that our joining would have prevented the wide fluctuations. As a petro-currency, our currency tends to go up at a time when the currencies of other countries tend to decrease. It has not stopped devaluations and revaluations within the EMS. The matter will be considered again, although I would not necessarily accept what my hon. Friend says.

Will the Prime Minister be discussing today with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment his plans to open further unemployment benefit offices? Will she also be discussing with him the plans and proposals put forward by Sir Derek Rayner, whom she appointed, to pay for some of these new offices by reducing public waiting areas in them so that the public have to wait outside dole payment offices in the cold and rain for their benefit?

I cannot discuss the matter today. My right hon. Friend is presiding over a meeting in Brussels of Labour Ministers of the Community. The Rayner proposals were made because those who are unemployed at the moment have to go to three places—the jobcentre, the unemployment benefit office and also, sometimes, the social security office. It was thought right to try to reduce the burden imposed upon them in having to go to those three places. I am sure that it is a wise move to try to make. It will take time, because it means the construction of different offices.

Statutory Instruments, &C

Ordered,

That the draft Hill Livestock (Compensatory Allowances) (Amendment) Regulations 1981, be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.—[Mr. Boscawen.]

Welsh Affairs

Ordered,

That the matter of Housing in Wales, being a matter relating exclusively to Wales, be referred to the Welsh Grand Committee for their consideration.—[Mr. Boscawen.]