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Volume 129: debated on Thursday 10 March 1988

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To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 10 March 1988.

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, including one with a delegation from the National Pensioners Convention. This evening I am attending a reception for the winners of the 1987 Queen's awards for export and technology.

In welcoming the announcement that was made yesterday to stop councils building up unsustainable debts, pawning their property and entering into shortsighted and irresponsible deals, may I ask my right hon. Friend to condemn councils such as the London borough of Brent, which has already entered into such deals and has built up debts that will be paid for by generations to come?

Yes, Mr. Speaker. The announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment yesterday has come as a great relief to many hard-pressed ratepayers. The Government will not bail out those authorities which have been very extravagant. Many people in those authorities look forward to the commencement of the community charge.

Sir David Nickson, who is chairman of the CBI, yesterday said:

"High exchange rates and high interest rates at the same time are bad"
for British industry. Does the Prime Minister agree with him?

I indicated our policy, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already indicated the policy. It is absolutely vital to try to keep inflation down. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that we used to have a Bretton Woods fixed exchange rate system. It was inflation that brought an end to that system. The last thing that the CBI or manufacturers want is a very high rate of inflation, because it would mean that they could not compete in selling their goods abroad.

Is the Prime Minister not aware that the CBI and the Association of British Chambers of Commerce take a different view of inflation from herself and say that, in the interests of guarding against rises in price and cost inflation, it is necessary to get the pound back down to DM 3 and to cut interest rates? When faced with that very practical advice, why does the Prime Minister prefer primitive monetarism?

I have never known any industrialist want higher inflation — higher than the industrial rivals against whom we have to compete in the industrial market. The CBI and industry are doing very well under the excellent stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Industry must rely on its own efficiency, salesmanship and design for getting exports.

The Prime Minister mentioned her right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Does she recall him saying on 9 December,

"Keeping the pound in line with the Deutschmark is likely to be over the medium term a pretty good anti-inflationary discipline."
Does the Prime Minister agree with that?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I are absolutely agreed that the paramount objective is to keep inflation down. The Chancellor never said that aiming for greater exchange rate stability meant total immobility. Adjustments are needed, as we learnt when we had a Bretton Woods system, as those in the EMS have learnt that they must have revaluation and devaluation from time to time. There is no way in which one can buck the market.

My right hon. Friend said in her initial response that she was attending a meeting with the National Pensioners Convention. Will she give some thought to the pre-1973 war widows in Britain who are at a grave disadvantage as they receive only half the income of post-1973 war widows? The total cost of rectifying that terrible injustice would be very modest indeed. Will my right hon. Friend see what she can do to alleviate the problems of those people from whose suffering we are now benefiting because their loved ones laid down their lives that we might live?

As my hon. Friend is aware, we have done a great deal to help war widows, in that we have made their pensions non-taxable. That was a great advance for them. It is not possible to go back and have retrospective increases for everyone whom one wishes to help. Naturally, we receive complaints, but when we make a change for people, to operate in the future, everyone wants it to operate in the past. Sometimes that would preclude future changes from being made. We have done a great deal, and for the time being we must stand on our record.

When the Prime Minister later today honours British exports and technology, will she take the opportunity to reaffirm her support for the fast breeder reactor programme? [Interruption.] Will she recognise that the Government's plans for the privatisation of electricity are causing grave anxiety over the future of that programme throughout the Atomic Energy Authority and the industry?

The hon. Gentleman is aware that I have visited Dounreay and have indicated my support for the work being done there. However, I cannot say that I think we shall have a fast breeder reactor for many years, but I am well aware of the importance of the work going on at Dounreay.

If my right hon. Friend finds it necessary to talk to the Irish Prime Minister about the recent deaths in Gibraltar, will she emphasise, not only that due consideration will be given to the events there, but that the bombings were being planned at the same time as the IRA was wringing its hands about the deaths at Enniskillen?

Most people are very grateful for the fact that, due to the excellent security operations of the Spanish police and our own, another terrible tragedy, with many deaths and maimings, was wholly avoided. We should like to express our thanks to all those involved.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 10 March.

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

Is the Prime Minister as concerned as others, including one very senior person in our society, about the future of the elderly persons' unit at St. Tydfil's hospital, Merthyr Tydfil?

There was a particular unit at that hospital, a special unit that was to have worked up to five beds. So far, only three beds are operational. That unit is being closed, and not, of course, the entire hospital. It has been closed to save only some £30,000. [Interruption.] May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that the extra amount of money for Wales for the Health Service has been 39 per cent. in real terms above inflation.

Would my right hon. Friend like to join me in praising the work of the Ulster Defence Regiment? Will she comment on the fact that just one small unit which I had the privilege to visit over the weekend, has had 29 members murdered off duty in the last 12 years, yet continues to do its work with remarkable cheerfulness and courage?

Yes. We all recognise the tremendous courage of the Ulster Defence Regiment and the debt that we owe to it. No matter what the difficulties and the casualties, there are always more people prepared to be recruited to the regiment, and they play a very important part in the security of Northern Ireland.

What is the Prime Minister's present policy towards devolution in Scotland?

It is the same as it has always been. I am against further devolution in Scotland.

Will my right hon. Friend find time in her busy day to study the survey report from Liverpool earlier this week that children as young as seven have been supplied with cigarettes? In all the cases surveyed, not one shop stayed within the law. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the maximum penalty of £400 is quite inadequate, when 100,000 people die as a result of smoking in this country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that smoking is indeed a very great danger to health and for bringing up what is undoubtedly a very difficult problem, in that some young children smoke and are supplied with cigarettes. It is absolutely scandalous.

To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 10 March.

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

Has the Prime Minister had the opportunity to read the letter to the British Medical Association from Dr. Mitchell, a consultant physician at Scarborough hospital, in which he points out that the much-vaunted throughput statistics for that hospital are felt by all the consultants to be positively dangerous to the standards of patient care, and in which he comments that it is easy to appear efficient when understaffed and underfunded? Will the Prime Minister for once listen to those who are best qualified to comment on standards of patient care— the doctors—and will she ensure that on Budget day the NHS has a chance to have its version of a super-Tuesday?

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard me say many times, the resources available to the Health Service are greatly in excess of any that have ever been available before. The numbers of nurses and doctors, and patients being treated, are also greatly in excess of any in the past.

With regard to the Tayside health board — [Interruption.]

Tayside remains the second best funded board in Scotland, and its revenue allocation is £146 million, giving a per capita allocation of £372, compared with the Scottish per capita allocation of £307.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 10 March.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that under Mikhail Gorbachev there has been a rapid improvement in the effectiveness of Soviet propaganda presentation, unsupported by any real change in Soviet foreign or defence policy or human rights performance? Does she agree that that is a dangerous situation, about which some of our NATO allies should be constantly reminded?

I think that my hon. Friend is essentially right in his premise. Not a great deal has changed in military developments in the Soviet Union: indeed, modernisation continues apace. At the same time, I think that we must welcome the Soviet Union's wish to withdraw from Afghanistan. It is what we have been urging upon the Soviets, and we hope that the withdrawal will very soon be completed. In the meantime, we must make certain that our own defence is sure, and continue to plead on behalf of those in the Soviet Union who do not enjoy the human rights that we take for granted.


To ask the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 10 March.

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

Will the Prime Minister accept that we have one thing in common, and that is that we both abhor the filth and disgrace of our inner cities? Litter is a massive problem that is now facing the nation and, as a provincial Member, I am distressed beyond belief at Londoners' failure to try to smarten up this capital city of ours. Will the right hon. Lady accept that, with the possible exception of Westminster, the rest of the boroughs of this great metropolitan area are somehow or another losing the battle to keep our streets clean? It must be a source of great distress to foreigners leaving the clean surroundings of Heathrow to see the filth and grime in this city. Is it possible for someone from the right hon. Lady's Department to go to our European capitals to see how they tackle the question that we fail to tackle?

I agree wholeheartedly with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I also agree that Westminster city council makes tremendous efforts to try to keep the city clean. Litter is a problem, not only in our inner cities, but often on the sides of major roads and on the central reservations. The problem is tackled in Europe by giving people responsibility for clearing the frontages before their shops, offices and houses. That is a possible change. It would be a major change. If people did not throw down litter and had more pride in their cities and motorways, we should not have the problem.