HC Deb 09 February 1978 vol 943 cc1662-5
Q1. Mr. Michael Latham

asked the Prime Minister whether the public speech by the Secretary of State for Energy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, on 24th January on public ownership represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I gave to the hon. Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Baker) on 26th January.

Mr. Latham

Since the Secretary of State for Energy has told us that nationalisation is back on the political agenda, can the Prime Minister answer one simple question? Does he support the Labour Party's proposals for the nationalisation of building and building materials companies?

The Prime Minister

In reply to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, nationalisation is never off the agenda. I have only to cast my mind back over the sequence of events that began with Cammell Laird and went on through Rolls-Royce and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and finished with Leyland to show that, whatever may be the views of the Conservative Party in opposition, when it is in power it has to face the facts of life.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the Labour Party manifesto will be published in due course and I shall hope to satisfy him then. I do not think that anyone feels that the building industry is in a very happy situation or is very well organised at present. There is a case for reorganisation.

Mr. Skinner

Continuing the theme that my right hon. Friend has started, does he agree that private enterprise can exist across a whole range of consumer durables, such as cars and so on, only on the basis of receiving £11 million a day of taxpayers' money in one form or another?

As yesterday's decision by the miners was said by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be wise and sensible, may we take it that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet agree that Mr. Joe Gormley's statements that we must return to free collective bargaining if Labour is to win the next General Election are also wise and sensible words?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that, in his inscrutable eloquence at the school of oriental studies, my right hon. Friend dealt with that question. Perhaps I could have notice of the profound questions that my hon. Friend has put to me.

It is clear that the economy of this country will not work properly unless there is a proper balance between the private and the public sectors. This is recognised on nearly all sides, except when the Opposition get into a pre-election mood.

Mrs. Thatcher

Does the Prime Minister recall that in his speech the Secretary of State used a phrase about limiting unaccountable power? Bearing in mind that phrase, will he look at the report on Statutory Instruments which was published by the Select Committee yesterday? That report spoke of the Government having a cynical disregard for the rights of the subject. What remedies does the Prime Minister propose to apply?

The Prime Minister

I shall, of course, study that report with care. I do not wish a Government who have very great powers to behave cynically in regard to them. The Government should examine anything said by this small group of hon. Members—I do not disparage the remarks because they were made by a small group—and make a considered reply in due course.

It is also clear that, because the Government have a big influence on the economy, they must exercise power, be willing to accept the responsibility for so doing and account for themselves to Parliament. This Chamber is the centre piece and must, in the end, uphold the right of the citizen and, if it wishes, remove the Government. That is where I stand and where I have always stood.

Mrs. Thatcher

Does the Prime Minister not regard it as cynical to use discretion given for limited purposes in an unlimited way and for him to set himself up as the sole judge of the national interest?

The Prime Minister

The House of Commons gave its answer on that question on Monday. I understand that we shall have the opportunity to return to it on a Supply Day next Monday when the Opposition are proposing to discuss another misuse of Government powers in public contracts. At the end of the day, the House will have to deliver its verdict and judge between various areas. I am totally unrepentant about the powers that are being used and the purposes for which they are being exercised.

Mr. David Steel

May I return to this rather strange speech at the School of Oriental and African Studies? The Prime Minister knows that the Secretary of State for Energy talked about the limitations imposed by the minority position of the Government in the House and advised against following Liberal policies. Will the Prime Minister inform his right hon. Friend that the Government have become more successful and more popular since these limitations were imposed?

The Prime Minister

I rather take exception to this morbid interest in the speeches of my right hon. Friend. I am all in favour of my speeches being studied, but if this is the Leader of the Opposition's way of trying to get for himself the post of Secretary of State for Energy I have to disappoint him.

Mr. Bryan Davies

Would it not be helpful if the Opposition spent less time criticising British Steel—the losses of which are less than those of Bethlehem Steel, a private enterprise company in the United States—and identified those private enterprise companies which have the capacity for profitability demonstrated by British Gas?

The Prime Minister

Not only did the nationalised British Gas Corporation make a substantial profit but so did British Airways, the Electricity Council and the Post Office. What is more, a number of them have entered into the export field. British Rail, for example, have recently secured a valuable order in Kenya in the face of great and keen competition. As the Opposition have no intention of denationalising these industries if they come to power, they should stop running them down and stand up for British enterprise.

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