HC Deb 10 November 1977 vol 938 cc848-52
Q2. Mr. Ashley

asked the Prime Minister when he next proposes to meet the TUC and CBI.

The Prime Minister

I am frequently in touch with representatives of the TUC and CBI, both at the NEDC and on other occasions. Further meetings will be arranged as necessary.

Mr. Ashley

On the question of industrial action to breach the Government's pay policy, has the Prime Minister seen today's ORC poll with its significant figure of nearly 90 per cent. public support for the Government's policies? Does he agree that these people are now fighting the wrong battle and that what they should do now is to switch their attack from the Government's policy to the problems of productivity? In that way, everyone would benefit.

The Prime Minister

My attention was drawn to that poll, which is one of the most astonishing and remarkable that I have seen in many years, if it is accurate, namely, that the overwhelming proportion of the people of this country, as I have always believed, do not want to see anything more than moderate wage and earnings increases in the course of the current year. That reinforces the Government's stand. I have always said that, in the last resort, we must depend on public opinion to support us.

While I welcome that support and would do nothing to discount it, I think that it would be wrong if we were to create an atmosphere of tension with many groups—I shall name none of them —who have serious difficulties about the situation. They have genuine claims, and we should recognise that fact. Certainly the Government will do nothing to provoke or inflame public opinion against them. I ask them to recognise that it is in the general interest, which includes their interest, that there should be moderation during the next 12 months.

Mr. Norman Lamont

As at every opportunity the Prime Minister asks for support for what he calls the battle of Britain, will he now tell us what he thinks of the statement of the Leader of the House, when an official Opposition spokesman, in February 1974: A victory for the miners would be a victory for the nation."? Does the Prime Minister now think, with hindsight, that that was in the national interest?

The Prime Minister

History will no doubt adjudicate on these matters. I am concerned to win this battle—and I am winning it for the hon. Gentleman as much as for anyone else.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Will it not damage the Government's campaign for a realistic approach to earnings over the next 12 months that there has been a dispute about the fall in the standard of living since 1974? Would it not be helpful if the Prime Minister were to publish in Hansard a comparative study not only of take-home pay but of the social wage, which is a vital factor in reinforcing the standard of living of every worker in the country?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), in his usual diligent way, has asked me a Question about this today, which I shall be answering. I have had some correspondence with him, which I suppose he has received. He and I are probably agreed at least about the hypothesis from which we start. I have never denied that there has been a fall in the standard of life.[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Perhaps hon. Members had better wait to see the correspondence I have had with the hon. Member for Chingford. What I have said, what I repeat and what I stand by, is that when one takes account of child benefits and family allowances, the tax and national insurance paid by the average family man are in real terms, the same this year as in 1974. That is what I have said and that is what I stand by.

Mr. David Steel

Since public opinion is mustering behind the pay policy of the Government, as revealed by this opinion survey, will the Prime Minister, when he next meets the TUC and the CBI—that being what the Question is about—reinforce an appeal to them to stand by the policy as well?

The Prime Minister

The TUC, I think, by its recent statements and, indeed, by its statement yesterday about the 12-month rule, is making a significant contribution in this respect. I shall be happy to discuss this matter with the CBI. We are passing through choppy waters, and some water is slopping over the side. But that is no reason to be deterred or to say that we shall be defeated, because we shall not. I should welcome discussions with the TUC or, indeed, with anybody else on the matter to try to arrange maximum public support for what is a national battle.

Q3. Mr. loan Evans

asked the Prime Minister what consultations he has had recently with the TUC.

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I gave to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold) on 8th November.

Mr. Evans

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the considerable financial progress that we have made during the past two years has been due to the cooperation that we have had from the trade union movement? In view of the present difficult situation, in which many groups of workers consider themselves to be special cases, will he seek an early meeting with the TUC to see whether it can co-operate with the Government to try to get us out of the difficult period through which we are passing?

The Prime Minister

Yes, of course. I am always ready to meet the TUC or any of the leaders of the trade union movement. But I should not want to put them in the position of being asked to do more than they can deliver. We must get all the help we can, but this is a battle that public opinion and the Government themselves have to fight, and I do not want to put trade union leaders in opposition to their own members on these matters. If I can get any support and help from them, and if conversations with them would lead to that, I shall certainly try to do that.

Mrs. Thatcher

Does the Prime Minister recall campaigning for his hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) in February 1974 and saying that Labour backed the miners all the way? Does he also remember saying at that meeting that to fight inflation by resisting such pay claims was utter drivel? When did he change his mind?

The Prime Minister

At the present time—I hope that one day the right hon. Lady will see this—the best way to back the miners is to reduce the rate of inflation, and the best way to reduce inflation is to prevent prices going up dramatically because of large wage increases in industries where wage costs bear a very heavy load. That is the position today, as it always has been.

Mrs. Thatcher

The Prime Minister cannot transfer supplementary questions as he can transfer substantive Questions. Will he, therefore, answer the question?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I have done so.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does the Prime Minister recognise that the whole country will be behind him in the statement he made in reply to an earlier supplementary question to the effect that the Government would do nothing to provoke the miners and others? Is he aware, however, that the Government have done something to provoke me, anyhow, and, I suspect, a lot of people in the country. Has he noted the rough language that some of the trade union leaders directly concerned in these negotiations have used with regard to the advances given to the public firm at the west end of the Mall? How can he justify giving them something that exceeds the Government's pay guidelines?

The Prime Minister

The position about the Civil List is that a large amount of it—at least two-thirds—is made up of wages and salaries, often of lowly-paid people. All those wages and salaries have been kept within the guidelines over the past two years. I am grateful for that, and it is right that it should be so. The rest of the expenditure is largely accounted for by the Silver Jubilee celebrations and other issues during this year, during which the population has expressed a view that is totally opposed to that of my hon. Friend.

Mr. Wigley

In view of the interest of the Wales TUC and the Scottish TUC in the matter, will the Prime Minister say whether the Wales Bill, the Scotland Bill and the two timetable motions on those two Bills, soon to be debated, will be regarded by himself as an issue of confidence and, if any of them are lost, whether he will call a General Election?

The Prime Minister

That is an interesting question, but I do not propose to discuss it when I meet the TUC.