HC Deb 08 December 1977 vol 940 cc1639-42
Ql. Mr. Ridley

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for 8th December 1977.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

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

Mr. Ridley

How much time has the Prime Minister been able to spend today on engineering his Watergate-type cover-up of the fact that the Poles, apparently, have not been asked to put any money at all on the table for the purchase of the merchant ships? If the Prime Minister must buy votes, will he use the profits of Labour Party Properties Limited rather than taxpayers' money?

The Prime Minister

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on reducing the level of the problem as he has done. I understand that Monday is a Supply Day, and, if the Opposition wish, no doubt this would be a suitable matter for discussion on that day. In the meantime, all I would say is that the criticisms about this order come from two main sources, the Conservative Party and foreign shipyards. As far as I can see, the attitude of the Opposition is that they would prefer these orders to go to foreign shipyards, with our men standing unemployed in our own yards, the steel industry not able to provide the steel and the engines not provided from this country. All this they would prefer. If that is so, let them say so.

Mr. Bagier

Will my right hon. Friend try to seek a meeting today with the Secretary of State for Industry to discuss the reasons why Hitachi, the Japanese company, has withdrawn its intention to invest on Wearside and provide 500 to 600 jobs? Will he discuss with his right hon. Friend the implications that this will have for possible future Japanese investment in this country?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, I would not propose to have such a meeting, because I understand that the Minister of State gave an explanation of that matter to the House yesterday. This is a decision by the company itself, following very strong representations from both sides of the British television industry.

As regards general investment, it has been the policy of this country to welcome investment. That is still the case and will continue to be the case. That cannot prevent individual industries from time to time—both sides of them—making representations and therefore, I suppose, creating a climate of opinion in which a foreign company will not wish to invest.

Mrs. Thatcher

Will the Prime Minister say precisely how much of British taxpayers' money is being spent on the Polish shipping deal?

The Prime Minister

The answer to that can be given if a Question is put down. It does not arise on this Question, which requests a list of my official engagements for today. If the Opposition want to know the answer, I suggest once again that the matter be debated on Monday. Let us then have all the facts.

Mrs. Thatcher

One of the Prime Minister's official engagements is to answer Questions in this House, particularly Questions by the representatives of the British taxpayer. Some time ago the Prime Minister said that the deal was in the bag. Did he not know then how much it would cost? If he did, why is he so anxious to withhold the sum?

The Prime Minister

The simple answer is that I do not carry this complicated calculation in my head. But I repeat the offer. I hope that the Opposition will debate this on Monday, and they can then have all the figures that it is appropriate to produce. [Interruption.] Yes, appropriate, because this is a matter of commercial negotiation. If the Opposition were in a less irresponsible mood, they would recognise that. There is no reason why we should give a competitive advantage to foreign yards which are desperately anxious to snatch these orders.

I repeat to the right hon. Lady that there need be no concealment about this within the limits of commercial prudence. I shall not ask her to do so, but I suggest that she can debate the matter on Monday. Let the facts be produced in a proper way and not by way of a supplementary question.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister—

Mr. Flannery

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for the Leader of the Opposition to stand up time after time when other Members are waiting to ask questions?

Mr. Speaker

It is a very old-established convention in the House that extra latitude is given to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister saying that, on one of the main issues of the day, neither he nor his office took the trouble to ensure that he was properly briefed to answer Questions in the House? If he does not know the precise figure, will he at least give the proportion of the order which is being met by the taxpayer?

The Prime Minister

I understand from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that the Opposition have already given notice that they will want to debate this matter on Monday. All the appropriate figures will then be produced. In view of the attitude of the Opposition on this order and on the question of subsidies for the textile industry, the clothing industry and the steel industry, I must say that if I were a worker in any of those industries I would be growing very worried about the policy of the Conservative Party.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

As we understand that one of the Prime Minister's engagements today is to read the transcript of last night's party political broadcast, I hope that, at the end of it, he will send a message of congratulation to Transport House upon a long overdue forthright attack upon the National Front, which was marred only by the fact that the BBC insisted that the programme was not entitled to refer to the past convictions of the men in the broadcast. [HON. MEMBERS: "Question."] Does my right hon. Friend recollect that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which I put through the House, does not, in fact, prohibit the dissemination of such information if it is true and is published without malice?

The Prime Minister

In order to preserve the proprieties of Question Time, I must say that there is, of course, no ministerial responsibility for these matters. I should like to add that, as I told the Labour Party conference, there will be no carefully-weighed electoral considerations to be met by a suitably ambiguous phrase by the political parties in these matters. Our opposition to racialism must be total.