HC Deb 16 January 1975 vol 884 cc673-80
Q2. Mr. Hurd

asked the Prime Minister whether he will appoint an outside adviser to the Government on the working of the social contract.

Q6. Mr. George Gardiner

asked the Prime Minister whether he will appoint an adviser to the Government on the social contract, with similar status to the recently appointed adviser on industry.

The Prime Minister

I would refer the hon. Members to the reply which I gave on 14th January to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost).—[Vol. 884, c. 77.]

Mr. Hurd

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that in recent weeks four of his colleagues—the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, the Minister of State in another place, the Chancellor, and the Paymaster-General—have made vague speeches hinting that the social contract is not now enough, and putting forward contradictory ideas as to how it might be changed? Will the Prime Minister stop this system of government by nods and winks and, as the Prime Minister, tell the country plainly what new measures the national interest now requires?

The Prime Minister

I have read all of those speeches and I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says for one moment. What we have emphasised in our speeches—the hon. Gentleman might also mention my own, and make it five—is the need for the maximum possible compliance with the guidelines of the social contract. As the hon. Member will be aware, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I discussed this with the CBI last Friday. We are having meetings with the TUC. As a result of our meeting, and, I think, of what was said and done at the CBI conference yesterday, we now understand that what we wanted to see will happen and that the CBI and the TUC will talk directly on these matters.

Mr. Bidwell

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no need to appoint a special adviser to deal with this? Is he aware that he can get the best obtainable advice from this side of the House on this issue at all times? Does he not agree that the speech made by the Chancellor last Friday, which received widespread public circulation, was a bit unfortunate, probably because of its obscurity, because it seemed to suggest that a reduction in people's living standards was called for? Is it not necessary for my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to make absolutely sure that everything that is put out is as plain as a pikestaff?

The Prime Minister

It is certainly the case that my right hon. Friend and I do not lack advice on these matters. I am always grateful to my hon. Friend for his help, including his frank comment on the speech I made in my constituency last Friday—a speech which, I think, he will agree, when he has read it, requires him to make some revision of that comment. I hope that in future his comments on my speeches will be as plain as a pikestaff.

Mr. Gardiner

Following his own speech, does the Prime Minister accept that steps must soon be taken to ensure that the application of the social contract to wage settlements is made more strict?—or is he deferring this until further settlements have been reached with the miners and electrical power workers?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the hon. Member to this extent—this has been made plain by the Government, the TUC and in the speech of my right hon. Friend—that there have been anxieties about certain settlements, for example, where there has been a settlement twice within one year, which is against the guidelines of the TUC. The hon. Gentleman will have seen what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has said and what was said by the Chancellor in his New Year message, namely, that on the calculations available to us, measuring on the basis of numbers affected, 75 per cent. of the settlements have been within the guidelines.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Since nods and winks can often make things as plain as a pikestaff, will my right hon. Friend seize this opportunity of confirming his full confidence in the Home Secretary's discharge of the difficult and individious duties he has in respect of his exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy?

The Prime Minister

I answered this question two days ago and I do not need to repeat what I said then. The Questions that I am answering today relate to the social contract, which is a matter between the Government and industry. As I made clear the other day, the matter for which my right hon. Friend bears this difficult responsibility is not one for the Government or this House. It is an individual matter.

Mr. Heath

Dealing first with the point about the Home Secretary, may I ask the Prime Minister whether he and the Cabinet will fully support the right hon. Gentleman in whatever decision he takes? Secondly, the Prime Minister has just said, perhaps unthinkingly, that the social contract is a contract between Government and industry. It is a contract between the Labour Party and the trade unions; let there be no misunderstanding about that. Industry as a whole was never consulted about the social contract and the employers have never been party to it. Will the Prime Minister say whether it is intended to tighten up the social contract?

The Prime Minister

It is for the Home Secretary to carry this responsibility. I have the fullest confidence in his judgment. He has been appointed Home Secretary and he has to carry the responsibility. It would be wrong for me to interfere—

Mr. Faulds

Just back him, that is all.

The Prime Minister

—just as it would have been wrong for the right hon. Gentleman when he was Prime Minister, to interfere in any similar case. I made it perfectly clear when the TUC deputation came to see me, without waiting for the demonstration last Tuesday.

The right hon. Gentleman says that the social contract is not between the Government and industry. He is a little out of date here. Originally there was a document signed by the Labour Party and the TUC. More recently it has been the Government and the TUC. I do not think the right hon. Gentleman was in this country at the time, but he will be aware that last Friday my right hon. Friend and I had discussions with the CBI, the purpose of which was to try to ensure that this was a tripartite matter. I have been available to talk to the CBI and have done so whenever it wanted over the past 10 months. This issue was taken a little further last week.

As for tightening the social contract, I believe that, given compliance with it, there is no need to make changes in the contract or the guidelines. What we want to see in difficult circumstances is the maximum possible compliance with a social contract. Many of the cases quoted by the right hon. Gentleman and his supporters on the social contract are cases which his own Government were committed to regard as exceptions and variations. I mean, for example, the miners, the nurses—I think the right hon. Gentleman was prepared to do something there; I am not sure—and the teachers—I would guess he was ready to do the same for them. Very many of these cases which have gone beyond the social contract have been cases on which there should be no dispute between the parties or successive Governments.

In addition—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman put three questions to me and he is getting them answered. In addition, the right hon. Gentleman will be aware that a high proportion of the increase in wage rates and earnings over the last few months has been due to threshold payments, which he introduced and which I supported.

Mr. Heath

There remains the question: will the Prime Minister and the Government support the Home Secretary in his decision? This is not a question of interference. I fully accept, as I did when I was Prime Minister, that there must be no interference. Will the right hon. Gentleman say clearly that he will support the Home Secretary's decision?

Turning to the social contract, is the Prime Minister saying that the CBI supports the nationalisation content of the social contract? That is completely untrue.

The Prime Minister

I have already made it clear that I support the Home Secretary in the discharge of his responsibilities. I have made that clear several times. The right hon. Gentleman is abusing Question Time when there are Questions on the Order Paper of great importance to the whole House, relating to the social contract. Will the right hon. Gentleman repeat his second question, which was presumably more related to this subject?

Mr. Heath

My second question is: is the Prime Minister saying that the CBI—with which he has had talks—agrees with that element of the social contract which commits the Government, as the Prime Minister now says, and the unions to the nationalisation of major industries in this country?

The Prime Minister

No, of course it does not. Because the CBI does not agree with every aspect, am I supposed not to talk to the CBI? [Interruption.] After the performance of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues yesterday on public ownership, the biggest threat to democracy in this country is the lack of a coherent Opposition.

The CBI representatives came to see my right hon. Friend and myself last Friday and said that while there were, of course, things set out in the social contract on which they took a different view, they wanted to discuss with us what they thought was the very wide area of common ground within what is covered by the social contract. That did not mean that they would sign on the dotted line on everything in it. The right hon. Gentleman should recognise that it is possible to deal with people when there is not always common agreement. That is where he went wrong with the miners last winter.

Mr. Evelyn King

On the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance? Is it not a fact that on two days in succession we have reached Question No. 2 of the Prime Minister's Questions? Wherever the blame may rest—I am not seeking to place it—is this not an intrusion into the rights of private Members which we have a right to resist and to resent?

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware that some Government supporters are a little disturbed about the use of Question Time, particularly the Prime Minister's Question Time, and about being subjected to interminable interruptions from the Leader of the Opposition? I suggest, not to you, Sir, but to Opposition Members, that they have the remedy in their own hands to stop it.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Wherever blame may lie, is it not patently a fact that today the maximum time has been spent on the minimum of Parliamentary Questions with the minimum of effective result? May I respectfully ask you to consider the matter, with a view to addressing exhortations to improve these matters to whatever quarters you may think appropriate, receptive and useful?

Mr. John Mendelson

As the question of the two trade unionists who are in prison was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) and taken up by the Leader of the Opposition, may I ask the Prime Minister whether—

Mr. Speaker

Order. At the moment I am dealing with a point of order relating to the use of Question Time. I am still on the point of order.

Mr. Mendelson

We did not finish Question Time—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member is addressing himself to that point of order—and it is not patently clear to me that he is—he may proceed.

Mr. Mendelson

I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, if I was under a misapprehension. I thought that, perhaps, you were going to allow one or two more supplementary questions and that we were interrupted by the point of order.

Mr. Speaker

If I had been going to do that there is no one I would more readily have called than the hon. Member.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate your difficulties, Mr. Speaker, and your troubles in the House. I am absolutely on your side. As a back bencher belonging to a party that has 30 per cent. of the Scottish vote, I find it deplorable that we should have reached only the second of the Prime Minister's Questions and that so many excellent Questions of importance to hon. Members have been lost. Will you, Mr. Speaker, recommend to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition that they should be a little more indulgent towards back benchers, and that they should talk less and let us talk more?

Mr. Ashton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be in order for you to advise the Leader of the Opposition to allocate a Supply Day to the question of the Shrewsbury pickets and discuss the matter in Opposition time instead of abusing back benchers' time?

Mr. Cyril Smith

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not painfully obvious that, apart from the abuse of Question Time, 15 minutes twice a week is far too short a time in which to question the Prime Minister?

Mr. Speaker

I have listened carefully to the points of order, and, no doubt, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have also listened to them carefully. I shall say no more at the moment.

The Prime Minister

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It has been said that we reached only the second Question. Apart from the fact that Question Q2 and Question Q6 here bracketed and taken together, several supplementary questions on Question Q2 and Question Q6 related to Home Office affairs, which are not contained within the social contract. If I have to answer seven supplementary questions from the Leader of the Opposition, it is difficult for me to answer supplementary questions from back benchers.

Mr. Lawson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that whether a question is in order is a matter for you and not for the Prime Minister? The Prime Minister should address himself to not playing for time during his Question Time.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that further discussion is profitable. Mr. Prior.