HC Deb 23 May 1978 vol 950 cc1327-33
Q2. Mr. Hoyle

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for 23rd May.

The Prime Minister

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be holding meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Mr. Hoyle

Arising from the admirable speech he made to the CBI last week, may I ask my right hon. Friend to take some time between his engagements to consider the possibility that since £1 out of every £4 is spent on manufactured goods from abroad, we might introduce selective import controls to protect key industries, such as the motor car and electronics industries, which are threatened by Japan and, perhaps, introduce further measures to protect the footwear and textile industries?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend said in the last part of his supplementary question, selective import controls are already in existence in the textile and footwear industries. As for the motor car industry, undertakings have been given by the Japanese Government which we expect them to carry out in view of the serious rise in imports of Japanese vehicles. I take note of the other point that my hon. Friend made about the electronics industry. The Secretary of State for Industry will, of course, be ready to look at it.

Mr. MacKay

During his busy day will the Prime Minister find time to commend the remarks of his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who said yesterday that this Government's unemployment protection legislation had caused much of the unemployment in this country? Will the Prime Minister also acknowledge that Members on the Opposition Benches have been telling him for a long time that unemployment has been caused by his Government's policy? Will he now change it?

The Prime Minister

I do not accept the hypothesis, therefore I certainly do not rush to the conclusions that the hon. Member has drawn. It is quite untrue that this legislation has added to unemployment. It is protecting employment in a way that the Opposition would destroy if their policy of removing all subsidies and grants were ever carried into effect. As it seems unlikely that it ever will be, I am very glad to say that that fear will be removed from the British people.

Mr. Mike Thomas

Will the Prime Minister accept that while there has been a welcome drop in unemployment figures, in the Northern Region they still stand at 8.2 per cent.—the highest in Britain? Has he any further proposals to deal with that situation?

The Prime Minister

Yes. The further proposals are that we should keep steadily and firmly attacking the problem of inflation. The reason why unemployment is coming down is that our measures are succeeding and that we are overcoming inflation. There is still a long way to go, and if we can reduce inflation even further we shall avoid throwing more people out of jobs through our failure to be competitive. That is the message that I ask my hon. Friend and all hon. Members to convey to their constituents.

Mr. Temple-Morris

In spite of his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. MacKay), no doubt the Prime Minister has had time today to consider the very serious events in Zaire. In view of the utterly inadequate replies that we have had today from the Secretary of State for Defence, will he say whether he has any plans to launch talks with our European allies in order to get some sort of co-ordinated action in any future African rescue operations?

The Prime Minister

It is not the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Defence to conduct those discussions; it is for the Foreign Secretary. He has already intimated that he is in the course of talks with his colleagues in Europe so that whenever a situation of this nature arises in Africa we can be certain of protecting our own citizens.

I am very glad that the French and Belgian troops were able to protect their citizens in Zaire. I hope that they will not pursue this any further, but that there will be a withdrawal at the appropriate time when they have evacuated all their citizens.

Mr. Gould

Has the Prime Minister seen today's reports of the meeting of EEC Finance Ministers? Will he look very carefully and cautiously at the snake, the emu and, indeed, any other creature whose object it is to preserve the current pattern of distribution of trade surpluses and deficits? Does he agree that our interests in these matters may be very different from those of countries which have been and still are in massive surplus?

The Prime Minister

I always look very carefully and cautiously at any snake that may cross my path—of whatever character. As far as this reptile is concerned, I would certainly look a gift horse in the mouth and examine what its teeth are made of. But I do not think that we should rule out all these matters on grounds of ideology. There are clearly advantages in getting a greater stabilisation of currencies—if this is possible—to avoid the great swings that are taking place. Therefore, we shall look at all these schemes on their merits.

Mrs. Thatcher

May I return to the events in Zaire and ask the Prime Minister whether, after the defence cuts, particularly in RAF Transport Command and in the training of paratroopers—where the cuts have been severe—he is satisfied that this Government would still have the military capacity to rescue British citizens in similar circumstances to those in Zaire?

The Prime Minister

The Leader of the Opposition is entitled to ask the question, but I hope that she will not cast any doubts on our capacity to handle this matter. That is a perfectly proper remark for me to make in view of the attitude of the Opposition about defence matters over the past 12 months. This country is quite capable of entering into agreements with the countries where this sort of incident might take place—

Mr. Wiggin


The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman need not pick up every word—as I was saying, we are quite capable of entering into agreements with countries where an incident takes place which might affect the lives of British citizens, in order to ensure that they are safeguarded. I regard that as a basic responsibility, and I have satisfied myself that we can do it.

Mrs. Thatcher

With due respect, I ask the Prime Minister whether, after the cuts which have particularly affected paratroopers, this country—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Lady is entitled to ask her question.

Mrs. Thatcher

Does this country alone have the capacity to mount such an operation after defence cuts, particularly those that have affected RAF Transport Command and paratroopers?

The Prime Minister

It is clearly not possible to give a general answer of this kind in a hypothetical situation which no one knows will arise. But, generally speaking, the capacity to look after the lives of our citizens is there and it would be used, either alone or in conjunction with our allies.

It seems to me that the right hon. Lady is not drawing the right conclusion when she says that we should be able to act alone. Surely the lessons of Zaire are that it is far better to act in co-operation. That is why the Royal Air Force made British transport available to the authorities who went into Zaire—transport which, fortunately, was not needed. I hope that if a similar position arises in which a number of British citizens are involved, we shall be able to get support of that sort from our allies. That is the best way of approaching the matter.

Mr. Pardoe

Could the Prime Minister look at the front page of today's Daily Mirror and consider the ethics and the merits of the publication of opinion polls? Does he understand that we are now in the run-up to an election and we have a situation in which opinion polls showing a Labour lead are published by the NOP in the Daily Mirror, while those published in the Daily Mail always show a Conservative lead?

Mr. Tebbit

Which ones show a Liberal lead?

Mr. Pardoe

Will the Prime Minister also comment on the curious paradox that this kind of news selection when practised by the editor of the Daily Mail is essential freedom of the editor but when practised by the printers is a disastrous interference with free communication?

The Prime Minister

My experience is that the editor of the Daily Mail is too tender a plant for me to make any comments about. I am sure that he would be far too upset if I did. I did read the very interesting report on page 1 of the Daily Mirror, but I found page 2 more significant on this occasion—

Mr. Skinner

What about page 3?

The Prime Minister

No, not page 3. It was page 2 that I was interested in. Page 2 of the Daily Mirror showed the attitude taken by the conference of the Union of Post Office Workers about inflation and next year's wage round. I found that extremely heartening.

Mr. Molloy

Does my right hon. Friend agree that recent news is very welcome in the fight against inflation and unemployment, and that much of this is due to the policies of this Government and the co-operation of other Governments with whom my right hon. Friend has been in contact? Will he consider approaching the TUC and asking it to consider a conference of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which, I believe, would be prepared to contribute to overcoming inflation and reducing world-wide unemployment?

The Prime Minister

I have discussed this matter with the TUC. It is in touch with its colleagues in European trade unions in other member States of the Community with a view to examining the measures that could be pressed upon Governments in order to ensure that there is a further welcome drop in unemployment.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Will the Prime Minister keep in mind, to weigh up against the Establishment's support of Mr. Tom Jackson, the speech made by Mr. Joe Gormley, in which he said that British trade unions were in the same trap as trade unions in Communist countries, as they did not have the right of free collective bargaining? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that there will not be a phase 4 of wage restraint?

The Prime Minister

There are differences of view in the trade union movement about these matters, but it is quite clear that the unions that are more closely associated with the public sector recognise clearly that the sort of situation that we had in the early 1970s is not productive of a permanent improvement in the standard of life of their members. Therefore, it behoves us all to search for better methods of securing a real improvement in the standard of life.

Mr. Noble

May I return to the original Question? During my right hon. Friend's engagements today will he talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade about the EEC Commission's decision to blow a hole in the Multi-Fibre Arrangement by allowing in additional Portuguese textile goods? Will he give the House an assurance that the Government will stand firm on the issue and maintain the protection for the industry that was announced before Christmas?

The Prime Minister

The Government have taken a firm stand on the Multi-Fibre Arrangement. I am not aware of the point to which my hon. Friend refers but I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. However, Portugal is in a difficult situation and we should consider seriously any proposals that may come from that country on a number of matters. It has recently emerged from dictatorship, and I should not like to see it thrust back into that position again.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take points of order later.