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Volume 78: debated on Tuesday 30 April 1985

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asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 30 April.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, including one with the Prime Minister of Canada. In addition to my duties in this House I shall be having further meetings later today. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen. Later I shall be giving a dinner for the Prime Minister of Canada.

Having set yet another record last week—this time a record trade deficit to add to her records on unemployment, insolvencies, real interest rates, and so on—will the Prime Minister now refrain from regaling us with yet another list of irrelevant statistics? Will she this time answer one simple question: what happened to the £12 billion benefit to the balance of payments contributed by North sea oil, without which we would now be bankrupt?

In the first quarter of this year as a whole, our current account was almost exactly in balance. There are changes in particular months, but I think that the hon. Gentleman can look over the past four years with considerable satisfaction. Of course, oil is a great contributor to the United Kingdom economy. One cannot ignore one of our greatest contributors, and I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman should try to do so. The fact that North sea oil was discovered, explored and brought ashore so quickly was a great benefit and a tribute to private enterprise.

Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that, in view of the tragic deaths of as many as 20 people in Stafford as a result of the influenza outbreak, the Government will provide as much help as possible to the people affected by that outbreak?

I saw the reports of the outbreak in my hon. Friend's constituency and I made inquiries. I know that there are considerable difficulties in this area because of the sudden outbreak of a severe form of 'flu which is affecting many old people. I understand that health authorities normally meet this type of contingency out of their existing financial allocations. The district is receiving £33·8 million, which includes nearly £500,000 of growth money. I hope that the district will be able to do everything that is possible within that sum.

Will the Prime Minister give the House an assurance that she will accept the recommendation of the inspector against the construction of the 290 ft monstrosity at Mansion House? Given the right hon. Lady's known distaste for planning and conservation, does she accept that, if she allows this construction to go ahead, it will be regarded as a towering insult to the City of London?

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that this is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. My right hon. Friend is considering the matter and will make an announcement when he is ready to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity provided by the visit of the Prime Minister of Canada to emphasise the importance that her Government place on the relationship of this country with Canada? Can my right hon. Friend reveal the content of any bilateral discussions that have taken place between the two Governments? Does she agree that our social, economic and political relations will be as important in the futuré as they have been in the past?

I believe that our relationship with Canada will become closer. I understand that British investment will be welcome in Canada and that efforts will be made to achieve closer relations between the United Kingdom and Canada. Naturally, this morning, we discussed those issues that would concern us especially at the Bonn summit; in particular, how to sustain world recovery, the overriding problem of unemployment and the problems of the international debt, East-West relations and the strategic defence initiative.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 30 April.

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

I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware that I and hon. Members from both sides of the House visited Moscow recently on behalf of Soviet jewry. We were all worried about the plight of the refuseniks who cannot leave Russia. I wonder whether the Prime Minister can give any help to enable those unfortunate people to leave that country and to go to the country of their choice.

The hon. Gentleman is correct. Whereas in 1979 about 51,000 Jewish people were able to leave the Soviet Union, the numbers have now fallen substantially. Some 900 only were allowed to leave in 1984. In the first quarter of this year, 338 left. It is only a small increase and we do not know whether the numbers will increase. We constantly raise the matter with the Soviet Union. I raised it with Mr. Gorbachev when he was here last December. We shall continue to do so because we believe that it is the right of those people to leave to visit relatives overseas or to go to Israel.

Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing in the near future effective controls on political expenditure by local authorities? In any such consideration, will she take into account the recent antics of West Yorkshire metropolitian county council, which has included the establishment of a Labour-controlled trust fund and a plan, which it hoped to keep secret, to allocate £3 million to Labour-represented wards only?

I do not believe that it is possible to control the expenditure of each and every local authority. One has to do it by indirect methods. One must acknowledge that the indirect methods have been successful in holding down the rate at which local authority expenditure has been increasing. Labour-controlled authorities have been the worst culprits, with rapidly increasing expenditure. Their rates have increased by far more than those of Conservative-controlled authorities. I believe that the practices that my hon. Friend mentioned will come within the purview of the new Widdicombe committee on the practices and procedures of local authorities.

It is good to see you back, Mr. Speaker. Does the Prime Minister recall saying during the last general election that there were no plans to change the earnings-related component of the state pension scheme? After her chat last night with the Chancellor and the Secretary of State about those matters, will she tell us and the 11 million people who are in the state earnings-related pension scheme whether that is still her explicit view of the matter?

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, a fundamental review of the whole of social security has been undertaken. I believe that it is the duty of Governments from time to time to undertake such fundamental reviews. The review has covered four points—retirement pension, provision for children, housing benefit and supplementary benefit. The right hon. Gentleman is saying that at no time in a Government's lifetime must one undertake a fundamental review. I reject that proposition.

No, I am not saying that. Does the Prime Minister recall that when the review was set up in 1983 the Secretary of State said that his aim in setting up an inquiry

"is not to call into question the fundamental pensions structure that was established in the 1970s with all-party agreement, and to which I was a party."—[Official Report, 23 November 1983; Vol. 49, c. 360.]
Reviews are a natural part of government. Ratting should not be.

This is the most fundamental review ever undertaken since the time of Beveridge. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that Beveridge himself enunciated a firm principle that state provision should not be so great as to preclude private provision by voluntary means.

There is another principle—that when one undertakes a wholesale revision of a basic part of the welfare state, one at least tells the people when one stands for election. When and where did the Prime Minister ever say that she was going to end the state earnings-related pension scheme, the death grant and the maternity grant, to cut housing benefits and to take away allowances from the poorest in the country? Why will the right hon. Lady not answer straight questions on these matters? Why is she still such a twister?

I believe that it is a fundamental duty of government to undertake deep-seated reviews. No Government can displace that duty. We have undertaken a review. The matter will shortly come before the Cabinet. Discussion of it may take more than one meeting. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh"]. I am well aware that the Opposition announce their reviews without ever having discussed them at all, and promptly reject them the next day. Yes, we shall undertake fundamental reviews. Yes, we shall widely discuss them. Yes, we shall bring them before the House and justify our conclusions here.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Labour-controlled Birmingham city council has announced a rate rise of 43 per cent.? Will she bear in mind the appalling position in which that will place many of my constituents and other Birmingham residents? Firms will undoubtedly close and the unemployment figures will be affected. Finally, is my right hon. Friend aware that the hospitals are demanding an extra £1 million? Can she do anything to help?

No. This is the effect of having a Labour authority in control. Rates rise enormously, putting a great burden on small businesses, which will result in an increase in unemployment. The Labour party always makes promises and never thinks about where the money is to come from.

Will the Prime Minister find a moment today to take note of the consternation and anger caused in Northern Ireland by the unheralded intrusion of the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of the Irish Republic, particularly during an election campaign?

I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the visit of the Taoiseach, on an inaugural flight from Dublin to Londonderry. We were, of course, informed of that visit two or three days ago. The right hon. Gentleman is aware of their custom, and I understand what he says.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 30 April.

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

Is the right hon. Lady aware that yesterday's Government announcement about cervical cancer screening is nothing more than a public relations exercise, because no resources are being made available for the necessary computers or the staff to take the smears and do the laboratory tests? Without those resources, there will continue to be 1,000 preventable deaths of women every year. There is only one word for this meanness on the part of the Government—murder.

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. Under this Government, spending on family practitioner services in England alone has risen from £1·4 billion in 1978–79 to over £3 billion in 1983–84. That is a growth in the volume of resources of nearly 10 per cent. The number of general practitioners has increased by over 2,000 to 23,000. Over a third of family practitioner committees are already using computers for their screening programmes or have plans to do so. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health has indicated that they should all do so. Computer programmes for that purpose will cost £4 million out of some £3 billion allocated to the family practitioner service.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 30 April.

During her busy day, has my right hon. Friend had time to see press reports of 10-year-old children smashing up a community centre, having been locked out of their junior school by striking teachers? Whatever the rights and wrongs of that pay dispute, does my right hon. Friend agree that responsibility lies wholly with striking teachers—and the Labour party, which backs every strike, no matter how damaging to children or destructive to the country they are? Are not teachers' strikes wholly wrong and damaging to all?

I believe that the teachers' strikes are wrong, in that they are directed at damaging the educational chances of children in their care. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that teachers will find it difficult to discipline children if they set such an example. I fear that they will also lose the teaching profession the esteem in public opinion that it should have. I am pleased to hear that there is a possibility of the Burnham committee meeting within 14 days. I hope that it will find a satisfactory solution.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. After today's mauling, does the Prime Minister still want the televising of the House?

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. [Interruption.] I am asking for your permission to raise a point of order, Mr. Speaker, not that of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). You, Mr. Speaker, are the guardian of the good name of the House. Would you please give a thought to the fact that, in the face of the bankruptcy of the Opposition's policies, they have descended today to using words such as murder, ratting and twister, which do no good to the reputation of this ancient House?

I heard those words. I did not rule them out of order because the House well knows that robust debate is part of our system. However, I must tell the House that moderation in our language is essential for civilised debate and I deprecate words of that kind.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I strongly support your view that robust exchange is in the nature and the best conventions of the House, but when I hear your deprecation, I feel obliged, as I used two of the words that were mentioned, to rise to say that when the policies that give rise to such language are moderated, the language will be moderated.

Prime Minister's questions have undoubtedly become noisier then they were in the past. I hope that the House will bear that in mind, as it is a very bad example to set to the rest of the country.