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Volume 81: debated on Thursday 20 June 1985

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asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June.

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.

Will the Prime Minister, or one of her Ministers, instruct the National Coal Board to accept the recommendations of the report of the all-party Committee on Employment on the dismissal of National Coal Board employees, and if not, why not?

I have read the full report of the Select Committee on Employment. Nowhere in that report does the Select Committee condemn the tactics of violence and intimidation used against working miners. The National Coal Board has just issued a statement—

Yes, I agree that it was shabby that the Select Committee did not in any way condemn the tactics of violence and intimidation used against working miners.

The National Coal Board has just issued a statement:
"The board will, of course, consider with care the comments and recommendations of the Committee, which they note were not unanimous. Area management have continued the board's policy of reviewing dismissal cases. At the time the board gave evidence to the Committee 1,013 miners had been dismissed, of whom 414 have been re-employed as a result of this policy, including 41 re-employed since the board gave evidence. This policy will continue. Any action the board might take as a consequence will, of course, in no way diminish the right of any person who has been dismissed to put forward his case to an industrial tribunal."


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June.

Will my right hon. Friend hold discussions about the £150 million which it has been estimated by the Audit Commission has been wasted by bad management in polytechnics and higher education, so that some 75,000 students may enrol in the future?

I noted that report this morning, with its very severe strictures. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has invited the local authority associations to join the Department in an urgent study of efficiency in non-advanced further education. If we can save this money it can be used to better the further education or other needs of local authorities. I hope that local authorities will take this matter very seriously indeed, because it is a waste of ratepayers' money.

This week the Government announced changes which will reduce child benefit by £250 million and take housing benefit away from 500,000 households. Is this the kind of policy that the Prime Minister had in mind when she said almost exactly two years ago that this was

"evidence of our commitment to the family" — [Official Report, 28 June 1983; Vol. 44. c. 49.]

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have put great emphasis on raising the tax thresholds, which are of particular benefit to families, and have raised income tax thresholds far more than his Government ever did. May I also point out that housing benefit, which cost £4·2 billion this next year, will go up after my right hon. Friend's announcement to £4·5 billion next year.

Does all that not occur merely because of the way in which the Government have pushed up unemployment and the rate of inflation? Does the answer that the Prime Minister gave offer any comfort to the wife of an employed man with two children who has had a significant loss as a result of the Government's refusal to uprate child benefit in line with inflation? Which households will benefit from 500,000 households losing their housing benefit?

The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the working population will have to find some £2 billion extra as a result of the uprating that my right hon. Friend announced. The right hon. Gentleman never thinks of where the money is to come from. With regard to child benefit, extra amounts will be going to working families on low incomes. I should have thought that he would welcome that.

When the Prime Minister is taking £250 million away from families and giving only £29 million back to them, it is clear that her targeting is not working well. We wonder where the money is coming from. We also wonder where it is going. Will it go again in tax cuts to the richest in our society?

An extra £2 billion is being taken out of the national income away from contributors and taxpayers to give extra social security benefits to people, many of whom are in need. Having read what the right hon. Gentleman said about SERPS, I do not believe that he is in any position to put accurate questions about social services.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at a time when an aircraft has been hijacked by Shi'ite Moslems, a demonstration was taking place on the streets of London by supporters of those hijackers? When will we ban such obscene demonstrations?

As my hon. Friend is aw are, a new Public Order Bill will be presented to Parliament in the next Session. We must weigh the right of people to demonstrate with the fact that it is a criminal offence to incite to violence. That, as my hon. Friend is aware, is a matter for the police. We condemn all those who incite others to violence on the streets of London and hope that the police will find sufficient evidence on which to prosecute.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing anxiety over Japan's trading policies with this country, Europe and the United States? At the forthcoming conference in Milan, what steps will she be asking her European partners to take to deal with non-tariff barriers, Japan's policy of hijacking international contracts by the dumping of credit and predatory pricing, and by keeping the yen artificially low?

As my hon. Friend is aware, we have condemned all those matters. It would help most immediately if Japan did not keep the yen artificially low, thereby helping its competitiveness in other markets. We shall be raising the matter at Milan. My hon. Friend is aware of how seriously I take those issues. We are taking action against dumping. We have taken action against some Japanese dumping. I shall be raising the wider question at the Milan European Council.

Does the Prime Minister accept that family support has been a social policy that has gone across the income levels for many decades? We are in danger of losing sight of the importance of the family if we concentrate family support only on those most in need. Family costs are high for the average taxpayer.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. Everyone with a family will continue to receive child benefit. The standard rate is £7 per child per week. It partly compensates for the removal of the child allowance. Every family will continue to receive it, but worse-off families will receive more. We cannot give more to some families without looking at child benefit over the whole scheme. The policy that my right hon. Friend is pursuing is right. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to give the impression that child benefit is not going to every family. He is wrong.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June 1985.

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

Is the Prime Minister aware that in the pre-election period of 1979 she said that if her party was elected to power it would deal with law and order? Is she further aware that this Government have dramatically increased — [Interruption.] — the number of police officers, their earnings and their equipment — [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Is the Prime Minister aware that crime figures are reaching a disgraceful level? I, my constituents and my party, want to know what this Government intend to do about the present crime levels.

The hon. Gentleman has given some very good examples of what this Government have been doing and will continue to do. I only wish that his party would give its support to the police in the performance of their duties, as this party does.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the warning by the chief agent of the United States drug enforcement administration—who is currently in this country, having come from Bogota in Columbia—that about 20 tonnes of cocaine are believed to be on their way to this country from South America and that Columbian drug gangs are already established here? Will she give the firmest assurance that neither manpower nor money will be spared to meet and defeat this threat to the health and wellbeing of the people of this country?

I am grateful for the support of my hon. and learned Friend in this matter. We are aware of that special cocaine danger. A special team was established last autumn and another team will be formed shortly. We are also taking steps to strengthen international co-operation with both producer and transit countries to reduce trafficking in cocaine and other controlled drugs. Both police and Customs officers will respond promptly to any specific information that they receive about cocaine trafficking. Both services will continue to give drug misuse the highest priority and, if need be, we shall spend more money to track down those responsible for these terrible offences.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June 1985.

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

When will the Government put up the money to settle the teachers' pay dispute? Does not the right hon. Lady not realise that she will not get away with underpaying them or with the sleight-of-hand deal made for the nurses, where the service actually suffered? The teachers are determined not to be done down. Are not the Government to blame for the disruption in our schools?

I do not accept in any way what the hon. Gentleman has said. The striking teachers are taking it out on the children in their desire to pursue claims for increased pay. Most of us, and many, many teachers, totally and utterly condemn that. I repeat what I have said to the hon. Gentleman, that we do not think that we can ask the taxpayer to pay any more towards teachers' salaries this year in total. If the teachers will consider a proper contract and appraisal of performance and restructuring next year, we shall be prepared to consider it. I urge them to get into negotiations. Alternatively, they have been offered arbitration.

Notwithstanding the tiny legal difficulty that has arisen in the past week, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will press ahead with the privatisation of British Airways and not be distracted by sideshows in foreign courts.

I can say nothing about court actions. It is our intention to privatise British Airways as soon as we can.


asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 June 1985.

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

Why has the county of Powys been singled out and punished as the only county in Wales not entitled to money from the European social fund?

That is a matter for the European social fund. If the hon. and learned Gentleman is correct in what he says, I am sure that he will have taken the matter up in the appropriate quarter.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know that you always try to be fair, but at Prime Minister's Question Time today only one Labour Back Bencher was called to ask a supplementary on any main question and on Question 2 two Tory Members were brought in one after the other, followed by the right hon. Member for Plymouth Devonport (Dr. Owen).

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned that. I think that the whole House agrees that I have an obligation to keep a balance. If the Leader of the Opposition gets up more than once, as is his right, I take that into account in calling the other side.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I naturally recognise and completely respect your authority, Mr. Speaker. It might have been useful if I had been informed earlier that the number of interventions that my hon. Friends would be permitted to make would vary according to the number that I made. [Interruption.] I am aware that you, Mr. Speaker, have no control over the Prime Minister's evasions. It is because of her continual taste for dodging that I am obliged from time to time to get in more than once. [Interruption.] I hope that it will be noted that the right hon. Lady has now taken to heckling as well as evasion.

The whole House will understand that Front Benchers have their rights, but, equally, I am here to look after the interests of Back Benchers. In answer to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), who raised the matter first, it depends to a very large extent on how the questions fall on the Order Paper. I hope that the House does not think it unfair that Members with an early place in Prime Minister's questions should have some preference to be called.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been in the House a long time, but I have never known a Speaker to make the kind of ruling that you have made today. I stand corrected if that is not so, but I believe that it is true. Last week, or the week before when two Tory Members were in the first six or seven places or just missed, you made a point of calling them for earlier supplementaries. The same has happened today with another Tory Member. The impression is being created that there is a bias — [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw!"] If we count the time taken in the 15 minutes available for Prime Minister's questions, I believe we shall find that the Prime Minister takes up 10 minutes.

There is no risk of that, boyo. I was pausing so that I could employ careful phraseology, so as not to upset you, Mr. Speaker. Under your unlamented predecessor, when the right hon. Lady was the Leader of the Opposition, she frequently, in the phrase that I used to your unlamented predecessor, took three bites at the cherry, and that made absolutely no difference to the number of her supporters who were called in Prime Minister's Question Time.

Will the hon. Gentleman wait? It is easier to take points of order on the same subject together.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A few months ago I said that the Leader of the Opposition uses four times as many words as did the Prime Minister when she was Leader of the Opposition. Is that not the direct cause of the complaint of the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon)?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I express the hope that you will not stick to the ruling that you gave in regard to the battle between the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition? It is a one-to-one battle. They are equal, at least in numbers—my right hon. Friend is well ahead in terms of content. In view of the equality of numbers, surely other supplementary questions should be divided equally between the Government and the Opposition.

Perhaps I can clear the matter up. It is a matter of judgment. There are more Conservative Members than Opposition Members — [Interruption.] Order. As for the accusation of bias, which is unworthy of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), Prime Minister's Question Time is an opportunity for Back Benchers, as well as Front Benchers, to put their questions to the Prime Minister twice a week. I do not think that it is biased or unfair if I take account of the balance of numbers in the House at Prime Minister's Question Time.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. With respect, we understand that the handling of questions entails matters of judgment, which you properly exercise. However, you have today laid down what are regarded by many right hon. and hon. Members as two precedents. One is that you are guided by the distribution of seats in the House as between Government and Opposition. I have never heard that stated before. I believe that it is a precedent. If I am wrong, I hope that you will correct me.

The other precedent, which I think has been announced during this exchange, is that if my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asks the Prime Minister several supplementary questions—that is by no means unusual and happened when the Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition—the right hon. Lady, having had the opportunity to reply to those questions and, admittedly, time having been taken by them, time should be taken from the Opposition and the Government side should be compensated in terms of being able to ask more supplementary questions. Surely that, too, is a precedent and not just a matter of judgment.

Order. There is no precedent in this. I am approaching my second anniversary and I have not changed my practice since I began. As I have said, it all depends on how the questions fall on the Order Paper. There have been days when those on the Opposition Benches have been called for more supplementary questions because the primary questions have emanated from the Government side. I assure the House that there is no question of a change in practice. The House will accept that my practice at Prime Minister's questions is not the same as questions to a departmental Minister, when I tend to call one for one. But even that can vary, as it did today during agriculture questions, when there were more Government Members rising to ask questions than Opposition Members. I take that into account, too, as I did during Scottish questions yesterday, when I did the reverse.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you help the House by saying when that principle has previously been put before the House?

I do not think that it has. It is the first time that I have been asked about the principle.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is obvious that Opposition Back-Bench Members are dissatisfied with the extent to which the Leader of the Opposition monopolises Prime Minister's Question Time. Surely that is a matter which the Opposition should resolve at their private party meetings, and not under the spurious guise of points of order.

Order. We have business questions to follow, which is an opportunity for Back-Bench Members to ask questions. We also have a statement to deal with and an important debate in which many hon. Members wish to take part. I am prepared to continue to answer this matter, but I assure the House that I have not changed my practice from the beginning. [Interruption.] I ask the House to allow me to finish. At Prime Minister's questions, the Speaker must balance the rights of Front Benchers to ask questions against those of Back Benchers. That is what I have done, and what I think the House would expect me to do.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You said in response to an earlier intervention that you had not changed anything. In response to me, you said that you had never stated the practice to the House before because you had never been asked before. Since you have never stated it to the House before, will you tell us when a previous Speaker has?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the context of your earlier ruling, will you explain to the House why the Social Democratic party is called as often as it is?

Yes, I can explain that. Prime Minister's questions provide an opportunity for the minority parties to have their say. [Interruption.] I have an obligation to look after minorities as well as majorities.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are we not running into the danger that the two propositions mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) may gell into precedents, unless there is cooler reflection on what has happened today? If, for example, the first of the two propositions — that hon. Members are called according to the balance of parties in the House—were extended to Welsh and Scottish Question Times, when the Tory party is in the minority, it may lead to consequences which the Opposition would not want. We would still want a balance. Before there is a firm gelling of these precedents, can the matter be considered rather more coolly?

I shall consider the matter coolly. The hon. Gentleman, who is present at Welsh questions, will find that more Welsh Members from the Opposition side are called than from the Government side because there are more of them. I shall, however, reflect on the matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you help the House by explaining a little more the doctrine of hon. Members being called pro-rata to representation in the House.

On a different point of order, Mr. Speaker. During Prime Minister's Question Time the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby) said that Shi'ites were marching in our streets today. I wish to point out to the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that you will agree with me, Mr. Speaker—that the rights of all people in Britain must be protected. The Moslems who were marching today were Iranians protesting at the Ayatollah's regime and demanding freedom and democracy in that country. Have we reached the stage—

I am coming to that, Mr. Speaker. You are the Speaker of the House of Commons and the protector of the rights to democracy in Britain. Will you make it clear to all right hon. and hon. Members that people outside the House have rights, and that they must be protected from those who would wish to ban every organisation with whose aims they do not agree?

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that every hon. Member who asks a question or makes a statement in the House must take responsibility for it. It is not a matter for me.

Further to the earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have think the House is extremely grateful that you are prepared to reflect on what is a disturbing—

Order. I have said that I shall reflect. I do not believe that any more points of order arise.