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Engagements

Volume 124: debated on Tuesday 8 December 1987

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Q1.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 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, including one with the Polish Foreign Minister.

Will the Prime Minister tell the House when her Government propose to abandon their vendetta against the BBC?

I am not aware of any vendetta against the BBC. The injunction is a matter that will shortly come before the courts again and, therefore, I can say nothing about it.

If, after her return from the Palace tonight, my right hon. Friend hears that an INF agreement has been signed in Washington, will she convey her congratulations to the American and Russian leaders? Will she also accept on behalf of all Conservative Members congratulations for what she and the Government have done in achieving this unique agreement and will she—[Interruption.]

—continue to remind the British public that if we had listened to the policies of the official Opposition there would have been no agreement, because they would have denied us the nuclear strength from which to negotiate it?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I assume that the intermediate nuclear treaty will be signed today and I shall gladly convey the congratulations of my right hon. and hon. Friends — and, I hope, those on the Opposition side of the House — to the President and the General Secretary on the signing of that treaty, which is a historic event and is good news for us all. I shall also do my best to remind people that, but for the firmness of this country and NATO, that agreement would never have been signed, the SS20s would still have been up and we would have had no means of persuading —[Interruption.]—the Soviet Union to take them down.

Order. I ask the House to ask brief questions and to listen to the answers in silence.

I welcome the meeting that the Prime Minister had with General Secretary Gorbachev yesterday and concur with her view that the Washington summit is an occasion, as she put it, to plan the way forward to more arms reductions. Will the Prime Minister tell us what contribution her Government will make to that way forward?

We have already made a considerable direct contribution with regard to cruise missiles, having been the first to station the cruise missiles and, therefore, have had a great deal to do in bringing about that treaty. Secondly, we have made it clear several times that we are for a 50 per cent. reduction of Soviet and United States missiles. Thirdly, we have been very active in regard to chemical weapons, particularly in trying to find a method of verification. Fourthly, we have made it clear that there should be no further reductions of nuclear weapons in Europe until we are far nearer parity on conventional weapons, and chemical weapons have been eliminated. Fifthly, we have made the way clear about the anti-ballistic missile treaty and its relevance to SDI, and quite a number of other things besides.

In addition to various other steps, many of which are welcome, and some of which can be claimed with some justification, and in order to promote that way forward, may I ask the Prime Minister to drop any proposal to replace the intermediate land-based missiles, which will be removed as a consequence of the INF agreement, with sea or airborne intermediate missiles, either by innovation or by some so-called process of modernisation, as that act of replacement would clearly nullify the INF agreement that she so rightly celebrates?

The intermediate nuclear weapons treaty is for land-based missiles. With regard to all our other defences, we have a positive duty to see that they are modernised and effective. That is in accordance with the NATO Defence Minister's meeting held in California.

If that is essential, why should it involve the installation of intermediate nuclear missiles for delivery by sea or by air? Will the Prime Minister tell us why she should inaugurate a new generation of intermediate missiles, especially when she knows that the Soviet Union would respond in kind?

All weaponry has to be modernised so that it is effective against the defences that it might meet. That is a very simple reply, even though the right hon. Gentleman cannot understand it.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is very good to see the Leader of the Opposition, unlike many of his colleagues, expressing his congratulations to Mr. Reagan and Mr. Gorbachev and paying tribute to my right hon. Friend for her important part in the negotiations? Does she agree that NATO's next priority must be the destruction of Russia's chemical armoury and the verifiable reduction of the Warsaw pact's conventional forces? That is the first step that we must look to make now.

Yes, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have made it clear on many occasions that the next steps forward must be towards conventional parity, because the Soviet Union has far superior conventional forces to ours and we must try to negotiate those down. It also has a massive superiority in highly dangerous chemical weapons, not only in numbers, but they are all modernised and there are increasing stockpiles. That is the most difficult treaty of all to negotiate, because it is undoubtedly very difficult to verify that no chemical weapons are being produced, particularly when they can be produced in quite different factories in the new binary system, which is the common mode.

Q2.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 8 December 1987.

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

I hope that the Prime Minister will be as positive in her reply to me as she was in her replies earlier in Question Time. I asked the Prime Minister a question on 17 November about the National Health Service. I make no excuse for repeating it again. In addition, we have had a report from the Royal College of Surgeons, which includes the Queen's doctor. Will the Prime Minister reply to that positively and tell us what she intends to do? Everyone in the Health Service, doctors, nurses, surgeons and everyone else is complaining and wants the Government to do something positive. Why will the Prime Minister not do something positive now?

I think that the question that the hon. Gentleman asked was about restructuring pay for nurses. I think that he got the wrong end of the stick. He thought that it was a cut in nurses' pay. The restructuring arrangements are still being negotiated. We hope that the negotiations between the management side and the nurses will be completed this afternoon. In that case, the matter will be referred to the review body. I want to stress that the National Health Service has gone from strength to strength in the number of patients treated—[interruption.]

As for the number of patients treated, 5·5 million in-patients were treated in 1978, whereas in 1986, 6·5 million in-patients were treated. There were 34 million out-patient attendances in 1978. There are now 38 million. The number of operations, about which hon. Members often ask me, was 2,015,000 in 1978; it is now 2,360,000—nearly 1,000 extra operations every day. The National Health Service has increased in strength and doctors and nurses are doing more with the increased money.

Will my right hon. Friend note the support that she has received for her line on budget discipline during the Copenhagen summit? Will she confirm that she has wider support among the Commission and other member countries? Does she believe that, by the spring summit, France and Germany will have fallen into line with the long-term interests of the European Community?

I hope to make a brief statement on the European Council. I confirm what my hon. Friend said, that the Commission's proposal on agricultural stabilizers—a way of keeping down the surpluses—came very much towards our view. They were strict, and there were attempts during the summit to undermine them, which we resisted.

Q3.

To ask 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.

It was important for the Prime Minister to be hostess to Mr. Gorbachev on his way to signing the historic INF agreement, but that did not include a single British-owned nuclear weapon. Did the Prime Minister take the opportunity to put those on the negotiating table for arms reduction, or did she restrict herself to being President Reagan's tea lady?

No. That agreement includes several flights of weapons stationed at Greenham Common and one at Molesworth, which of course will be withdrawn. Without them there would never have been an agreement on the part of the Soviet Union to take down an infinitely larger number of intermediate weapons than NATO yet has. With regard to the nuclear deterrent, Conservative Members believe that it is vital to our security to keep a British independent nuclear deterrent, and so do the British people.

Q4.

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

No matter how strongly we hold views on abortion, will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those who try through violence, intimidation and abuse to silence those who seek a reduction in the time limit in which an abortion can be obtained?

I know that there are very strong views on this matter on both sides of the House. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is absolutely vital that whatever those views they should be able to be freely expressed and we should be able to discuss and debate the matter in the same way.

Order. The hon. Member is the leader of his party and he has a right to be heard like everyone else.

—imbalance in conventional weapons in the context of INF and the possible need to modernise the nuclear component of our land, sea and air-based weapons, may I ask whether she considers that discussion on conventional disarmament could not be accompanied by discussions on battlefield weapons in the Vienna talks?

I think that it is best to keep the discussions on battlefield weapons separate, but we are very ready to take part, as we have done so far, further in the Vienna talks, with a view to trying to get the Russian superiority in conventional weapons much closer to the weapons the West possesses. It is absolutely vital to do that. One great advantage of the intermediate nuclear weapons treaty is that it shows that by strict negotiation, where the Soviet Union has more weapons than we have, we can get down that superior number of weapons, in the case of intermediate ones to zero, and in the case of conventional weapons to something much more like parity.

Q5.

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

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the very widespread support for the Rates Reform Bill as a sensible way of reforming rates? In looking at some of the options that have been tabled, has she considered the banded community charge, and does she agree with me that it is nothing more than another form of local income tax, with all the disadvantages that would follow and it offers no accountability?

I believe that a banded community charge would just be income tax by another name. It would be yet another burden on income tax payers and would fall particularly heavily on people such as nurses, teachers and policemen. It would he immensely complicated, with marginal relief of all kinds. Income tax is paid and registered where people work, not where they live, so it would mean revealing a very great deal to the local authority, which many people would not like at all.