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Prime Minister

Volume 78: debated on Thursday 9 May 1985

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Engagements

Q1.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 9 May.

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

If it is true that today the Cabinet decided to abolish or phase out the state earnings-related pension scheme, how can the Prime Minister justify 11 million people being swindled out of their right to be able to spend their retirement in comfort and dignity? How many of those 11 million people who will be adversely affected by the Cabinet's decision believed the pledges that were given at the time by herself and her colleagues to the effect that the scheme would not be touched?

The hon. Gentleman must contain himself in patience. Today the Cabinet completed its consideration of the social security review. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services will now finalise the Green Paper, which is to be published following the Cabinet's decision. He hopes to be able to publish it and accompany it by a statement to the House soon after the Whitsun recess.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 9 May.

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

During her busy day, would my right hon. Friend care to reflect on the fact that at the Endeavour school in Middlesbrough handicapped children who are confined to wheelchairs are being abandoned by their teachers at lunch-time, in connection with the dispute, and that so-called professionals are causing great distress to both parents and children?

I believe that the information that my hon. Friend has given about the school in his constituency is correct. I understand that for a time the head teacher was trying to cope on his own but was unable to do so. I am amazed that the teachers should have taken this action, and my sympathy lies with the children, many of whom are in wheelchairs, and with their parents.

Is the Prime Minister aware that a very warm welcome awaits her on her visit to Scotland tomorrow? As we have just passed the 10th anniversary of her pledge to abolish the rating system, will she recognise that no announcement of temporary relief—however welcome—will be a substitute for redeeming that pledge?

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, we have made some provision for temporary relief on domestic rates in Scotland—as was announced some time ago—amounting to about £90 million. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes to be able to make a further announcement to the House next week, which will help with commercial rates. We are also studying the longer-term reform of rates, and we hope to be in a position to make an announcement about that when the studies have been completed.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the reasons stated for the loss of the Bosporus bridge contract was the time taken to put together an aid and trade project? Is she further aware that although she returned from her highly successful visit to Sri Lanka three and a half weeks ago, we still await the result of the aid and trade negotiations on the Samanala Wela dam?

When I was in Sri Lanka I announced a further aid package of £20 million for Sri Lanka, following the £115 million aid package that was given to enable the building and completion of the Victoria dam. My hon. Friend asked about the Bosporus bridge. The contract went the other way because the rival consortium gave heavy aid, not only for the bridge, but for the road contract. We are still in contact with the Turkish Government and hope that we can rescue something from that contract.

The Prime Minister had what she quaintly called her rates summit at Chequers six weeks ago. Was it there that the decision was made to rush through a panic Bill for Scottish commercial rates relief, or did the decision come later, without the benefit of a seminar, but with the benefit of the knowledge that the right hon. Lady was going to a Scottish Tory party conference that is on the warpath?

The relief that has already been given to domestic ratepayers in Scotland has been very welcome, particularly bearing in mind that of the 17 per cent. average increase in domestic rates in Scotland this year, two thirds is attributable to council overspending. Overspending councils are to blame. Even if the right hon. Gentleman does not like it, the ratepayers of Scotland will be pleased if further relief were given from those high-spending Labour councils.

The Prime Minister knows that she is talking nonsense. The Comptroller and Auditor General has said that by far the biggest reason for increases in rates in Scotland and elsewhere is the withdrawal of Government support for local authorities. Is the Prime Minister aware that she is engaged in a U-turn and is to give back to Scotland the £1,000 million that she has taken away from local authorities there in the past five years?

I stand by the statement that of the 17 per cent. average increase in domestic rates in Scotland this year two thirds is attributable to council overspending. The offset of 8p in the pound to domestic ratepayers at a cost of about £90 million has cancelled out the increases which are directly attributable to revaluation. There is also great difficulty because of high-spending Labour councils. It is they who cause the trouble. The right hon. Gentleman should remember the example of Edinburgh.

May I—[Interruption.]—refer the Prime Minister to the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Audit Commission? Will the Prime Minister take up these matters with that body so that she does not mislead the House with her recital of figures that are not based upon reality?

My right hon. Friends are, of course, considering the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, which will not always favour the viewpoint of the right hon. Gentleman. In the meantime, perhaps he will acknowledge that two thirds of the increase in domestic rates in Scotland is attributable to council overspending and that the overspenders are Labour-controlled.

As we commemorate our momentous victory over Fascism—a victory that could never have been won without both our American and Russian allies—is it not a matter for regret that the 40th anniversary should have been marred by the trading of insults between the two super powers? Will my right hon. Friend and Great Britain take an especial lead in seeking in the months ahead to bring closer together the United States and the Soviet Union, so that we may together win the peace as we so victoriously won the war?

I believe that it is in the interests of the Western Alliance and of the Soviet Union that there should never be conflict between us. To achieve that we have to be prepared to defend our way of life at a rate that will deter any aggressor, and in the meantime to enter into discussions with the Soviet Union on how best to reduce the large stores of weaponry, which we all want to see diminished.

Q3.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 9 May 1985.

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

Is the Prime Minister aware that some of my constituents were heroes in the last war and fought for a country fit for heroes to return to and live in? Is the right hon. Lady further aware that those same heroes are now unemployed? Is she aware that in Maesteg 24 per cent. of the male population are out of work and that if a colliery closes at St. John's, Maesteg, 45 per cent. of the male population will be unemployed? If the right hon. Lady has a message for the Tory party conference in Scotland tomorrow, could it be that she will join the ranks of the unemployed?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are as anxious as any other and Conservative Members are as anxious as Opposition Members to increase the number of jobs that are available. That increase will not come merely by sharing out the number of jobs among more people, which would mean lowering wages as we increased the number of employed persons. I do not believe that overmanning is the answer to our problems. The answer lies in the private sector increasing the number of small businesses and thereby increasing the number of businesses that can expand and take on more people. There is no other answer in the long run to getting more jobs.

Q4.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 10 May.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the forthcoming Local Enterprise Week? Does she look forward to a reduction in interest rates as a further encouragement to new businesses?

Yes, I welcome the Local Enterprise Week, which is being run by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Employment with responsibilities for small businesses, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier). I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) is running a meeting to further the objectives of the week. Its purpose is to help those who are able to start up in business on their own by ensuring that they obtain all the expert advice that is available to them. I hope that meetings in Bolton and elsewhere will be successful.

Does the Prime Minister recall that during the passage of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Bill it was decided that the foundation stone of stopping personation by Sinn Fein at local government elections should be the medical card? Is the right hon. Lady aware of the exchanges that took place between my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Mr. McCusker) and the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott), on 28 November 1984, when it was alleged that all medical cards would be sufficient for this purpose? Is she further aware that at the end of April it was discovered that only medical cards issued after 1973 would be valid and that this has resulted in anything between 15 and 20 per cent. of the electorate being disfranchised? What steps does she intend to take to ensure that this does not happen again? Does she agree that the officials and Ministers responsible should be removed from office?

I am aware that the validity of medical cards has been a source of some concern for those who represent Northern Ireland seats. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland answered a question on the issue before I entered the Chamber to the effect that he is taking every step possible to ensure that valid medical cards are available.

Q5.

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 9 May.

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to welcome the proposed privatisation of British Gas? Will she explain why this future private monopoly cannot be broken up according to region and function?

I join my hon. Friend in welcoming the decision further to privatise, and to privatise the gas industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy considered whether the gas industry should be broken up either by region or by function. He came to the conclusion that it would take far too long to break up by region and that that would be far too expensive. He recognised, too, that that could have an adverse effect on the price of gas in some areas. For these reasons he decided that it would be better to go ahead by privatising the gas industry as a whole.

Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to congratulate the membership of SOGAT, the country's largest printing union, which has recently voted by a majority of nearly 4:1 to retain its political fund

The SOGAT members vote exactly as they will on whether to retain their political fund. They have an opportunity to vote and we insisted that there should be a vote. How they use their vote is a matter for their decision. I shall be only too delighted if more trade unions believe in giving their membership the right to vote by secret ballot. This advance has come about only as a result of the Government's actions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the leader of the National Association of Head Teachers that the NUT's refusal to meet the Secretary of State for Education and Science was ill-judged? Does she further agree that the country is entitled to expect an honourable profession not merely to seek to increase its pay by striking, to the sufferance of children, but to come forward with sensible proposals for a restructuring of its profession' so that a wise, overall solution can be achieved?

Yes, it is disappointing that the NUT will not take part in any meeting with my right hon. Friend. It has said that it wants an improved offer in Burnham and will discuss only this year's pay offer. My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to say that we need a restructuring of the profession, proper appraisal provisions and proper contracts of service. Then we can, perhaps, have a much more fundamental talk about the whole pay structure.