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Prime Minister

Volume 35: debated on Thursday 27 January 1983

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asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 27 January.

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

To minimise the health hazard through broken pipes in the water supply, does my right hon. Friend agree that, where the strikers have refused to do such repairs, they should be put out to private contract?

Private contractors are certainly one option, but I think it would be far better if the unions were to end this unjustified strike, especially hearing in mind that they have been offered on average £145 a week by an independent mediator to whose appointment they agreed. Most people will feel that with that on offer, it is totally unjustified to put the elderly, children and everyone else in great difficulty with water supplies.

On the issue of arms control, will the Prime Minister tell us what is now her exact position on the zero option? Is it as rigid as it was before Christmas, that it is that or nothing, or has she modified it?

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has heard what I have said on a number of occasions. Zero is the very best option, because it would mean none of a whole class of nuclear weapons on either side. There is no substitute for that as the best option. But right back at the time of the NATO double track decision in December 1979 we agreed that we should have to have equal numbers on both sides, and President Reagan came in with the zero option later. So if we cannot get zero we are back to equal numbers on both sides, but equal numbers must be carefully counted. There must be no bogus counting.

Has my right hon. Friend yet had an opportunity to speak to the genuine representatives of the fishing industry to establish their reaction to the common fisheries agreement, which was reached in Brussels earlier this week?

I understand that the three main organisations of the fishing industry are very well pleased with the excellent arrangements reached by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State this week. It is very good news that, after seven years, we have managed to reach a common fisheries policy and I hope that one day it will be followed by a proper budget solution as well.

Has the right hon. Lady had time today to study the answer that was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) to the effect that, according to the latest figures, there are 1,700,000 children in families forced to live on supplementary benefit, on the poverty line? Does she not agree that something must be done immediately to deal with this problem? What will she do in the Budget?

Really, the right hon. Gentleman knows that he has to wait for any pronouncements in the Budget. That has been so under all Governments. He equally knows that, as under this Government, so under his Government, the numbers of children of the unemployed on social security benefit increased, and increased substantially. The answer is not so much what we can do on social security, where our record is that social security benefits have in fact kept pace with inflation—[Interruption.] On social security. I was very careful in what I said. I said it precisely, if right hon. and hon. Gentlemen would listen carefully. We have to try to get industry and commerce in a better state so that they can compete and can sell goods the world over.

Does the right hon. Lady accept that the terrible figure of 1,700,000 represents nearly a doubling of the figure since she came into office and became responsible for these matters? Apart from the increasing unemployment, which, of course, has contributed to the total, the other factors in reducing the standard of life, especially of children who have to live in these conditions, are the cut in the real value of child benefit and the cut in the real value of unemployment benefit. I am asking the right hon. Lady to say that something will be done in the next Budget to help some of the poorest people.

The standard of social security payments is about double what it was in real terms when it was introduced in 1948.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 27 January.

In view of the talks that are taking place in Geneva and the fact that nuclear disarmament is the most important item on the world agenda, does not my right hon. Friend find it curious that someone who aspires to the prime ministership of one of the most important countries within the North Atlantic Alliance found it possible to go to Moscow recently but has not found it convenient to visit Washington for the past 28 years?

I think that all previous Leaders of the Opposition have realised the importance of the relationship between Britain and the United States. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition, holding a statutory office as he does, will soon repair the omission.

Will the right hon. Lady take some time out of her busy schedule to communicate to the President of the Irish Republic the concern felt by the House that the British embassy was bugged by, as I understand it, a previous coalition Administration?

Inquiries are being made and will be made. I am not quite certain what the facts are. I have read the reports.

In view of the action that the European Parliament is taking to deny the United Kingdom the receipt of refunds from its budget contributions, will my right hon. Friend today consider netting-off, in the sense of withholding our own conributions to the European Community?

I share my right hon. Friend's concern about the action of the European Parliament in that it has said that we cannot have our 1982 refunds in full unless a lasting solution is reached for the 1983 refunds.

We, too, would like to have a lasting solution to the 1983 refunds and we have been trying to find one, but the matter is not wholly within our power to bring about. We hope, therefore, that both matters will be resolved—both the 1982 refunds and a lasting solution from 1983 onwards—by negotiation so that there can be no question of withholding. I shall be raising the whole matter of the budget, which is extremely important to this country and to the health of the Community, at the European Council.

Has the right hon. Lady approved the involvement of British banks in raising loans for Argentina, especially when Argentina's indebtedness was partly due to the purchase of arms that were used against our people in the Falklands? If she does approve of it, does this position accord with the stand that she took in the House yesterday?

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. I believe that there have been questions about the matter to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. As the hon. Gentleman will know, Argentina's indebtedness is part of the indebtedness of the Latin American countries. It is part of the problem of the present world banking crisis. It is being resolved through the IMF—

We are part of the IMF and it is being resolved through the IMF by a programme agreed with the IMF. Will the hon. Gentleman please realise that I understand why he is worried, and so am I? Equally, I must say to him that it is not in our interests that there should be defaults either on capital or interest on any of the debts of Latin America.

Does the right hon. Lady's reply mean that, while she is not prepared to talk to anybody in Argentina, she is prepared to join others in lending Argentina money?

I do not think so. I think that the right hon. Gentleman must take fully into account what I have said. Argentina now has an agreement through the IMF and it is not in the interests of the banking system that there should be a default with the situation as it is. In the sense that British banks are taking part, they are doing so because it is in the interests of this country and of the Western financial system.

Bearing in mind the hostility that was expressed on both sides of the House about this matter a few minutes ago, will the right hon. Lady come to the House again and reverse this policy? Will she then tell us that we shall stop any loans from this country until hostilities have ceased?

I share such feelings—right hon. and hon. Members must accept that—but it is not in the interests of the financial system of this country or the West—

—that there should be default on either interest or on capital. If there were, the consequences would be very serious. The money is not lent for armaments. It is lent on condition that Argentina follows an economic policy that has been approved by the IMF. Ultimately, it is in the interests of this country that we subscribe to the IMF.

If we lend money to Argentina, what control does the right hon. Lady have over how it spends that money?

I accept that if one lends money for one purpose it releases money for another purpose—[Interruption.]

It is not in the interests of this country to bring about a collapse of any bank or banks. If the right hon. Gentleman wished to pursue that policy, he would have to be responsible for the disastrous consequences that would ensue.

Will my right hon. Friend welcome the statement made by the general manager of Abbey National that it will be holding its interest rates for at least the next six months?

I do indeed. I thought that it was excellent news, together with some of the other services that the Abbey National is thinking of offering.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 27 January.

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

Would the Prime Minister care to visit the garden gate at Flint End, Durrants Lane, Berkhampstead to extricate the Secretary of State for Employment from his conflict with the local building industry?

Reverting to what we were talking about earlier, will my right hon. Friend confirm that Her Majesty's Government are prepared to negotiate with Argentina on everything except the question of sovereignty of the Falkland Islands?

I confirm what I said yesterday about that. We would wish to negotiate on matters of trade, but Argentina refused to do so and that, of course, we must accept.

Will the right hon. Lady take time off today to tell her Secretary of State for Employment to stop his ill-informed and frivolous intervention in the democratic machinery of my union, the General and Municipal Workers Union? Is she aware that the rule on ballots quoted by the Secretary of State refers to branch action, which does not yet have the endorsement of the national executive? Is she aware that the executive introduced a ballot in which 80 per cent. of the members participated and that what is normally a responsible body of men voted 3:1 in favour of a strike? Is it not time that the Government stopped playing party politics with the water dispute and got genuine negotiations going?

I support my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment in what he said. I understand that the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice) might be an official of that union. I am not sure, because he did not say so.

Order. I shall take the hon. Gentleman's point of order now, but he has only to wait a moment until the Prime Minister sits down, when I shall call him to make his point of order.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the unions agreed to the appointment of the mediator. He has now pronounced what he is prepared to recommend what amounts on average to £145 a week. That is an average. Some water workers will get more and, of course, some will get less. That average offer of £145 a week was made by the mediator whose appointment the unions agreed. Under those circumstances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that this strike and its continuation is unjustified.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I said quite plainly that I was a member of the General and Municipal Workers Union. I said that it was my union.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Out of 36 questions tabled to the Prime Minister today we have reached only No. 3. We are all interested in what the Leader of the Opposition has to say, hut I think that he rose six times today. It would help Back Benchers on both sides of the House if you, Mr. Speaker, imposed some restraint on the number of times that he asked questions.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am aware that you have considerable difficulty when the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) rises during Prime Minister's Question Time, because as he is the leader of a so-called political party you have some obligation to call him. However, would it be possible for you to have a quiet word with him and suggest that today, and certainly since Christmas, he has been abusing his position in that respect?

Order. I am accustomed to points of order about hon. Members being called to speak, but not about stopping them being called.