HC Deb 13 December 1979 vol 975 cc1527-32
Q1. Mr. Robert Atkins

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 13 December.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

This morning I was present at the departure of President Tolbert of Liberia and later presided at a meeting of the Cabinet. In addition to duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Mr. Atkins

Has my right hon. Friend found time to read the opinion poll in yesterday's issue of The Sun, which shows that 67 per cent. of all trade unionists and 61 per cent. of Labour trade unionists support the modest proposals in the Government's Employment Bill? Who does she think that Mr. Len Murray and the Labour Party are representing in their hysterical opposition to these proposals?

The Prime Minister

I am satisfied that in bringing forward these modest measures of trade union legislation the Government are representing the overwhelming majority of people and trade unionists, and long may that remain so.

Mr. Armstrong

Will the Prime Minister give urgent attention today to the grave situation developing in the Northern region, particularly in County Durham, as a result of the announcement of the steel closure at Consett? Is she aware that what really amounts to the destruction of the fabric of community life that has been built up over 100 years is producing cynicism and despair the like of which I have not known since the 'thirties?

Will the right hon. Lady have a word with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry and explain that his indifference and callous disregard for the human consequences exemplified by his saying that this is a matter for industrialists and not for the Government, are provoking those who are normally law-abiding citizens to react in a way that will have grave consequences?

The Prime Minister

I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman is very concerned, but, as he knows, we cannot sell the steel that we are producing at the price and quality at which we are producing it. I appreciate that any closure will cause grave concern in his area, but I must ask him to pursue the matter with the British Steel Corporation.

Mr. John Wells

Is the Prime Minister aware that many of my hon. Friends will be disappointed that she has answered question Q1 on its own? [Hon. Members: "Reading".] I have to read, because I had to jot down the numbers. There are many questions on the Order Paper today, such as question Q10, which have bright original thinking behind them. The rest of the stuff asks my right hon. Friend what she is doing today. She has told us. Will she therefore, please take steps to answer questions Q3, Q10, Q14, Q17, Q27, Q28, Q30, Q31, Q34, Q36, Q38 and Q40? They total only 12 out of the 41 listed. In particular, will she answer question Q10?

The Prime Minister

I assure my hon. Friend that I would welcome some variety in the questions. I am not responsible for the questions; only for the answers. I must tell my hon. Friend that I have never transferred an oral question. If he can get nearer to the top of the list, good luck to him.

Mr. Roy Hughes

Now that we are approaching the festive season, will the Prime Minister say whether she will be sending out her Christmas cards today? Will they bear the inscription "A Merry Christmas and an Idle New Year"? That will be the fate of many people in South Wales as a result of the policies of her Government towards the steel industry.

The Prime Minister

With regard to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I hope that some of the cards have already gone. We shall be very behind hand if they have not.

With regard to the BSC plans for closures, the hon. Gentleman knows that steel is being over-produced and that in spite of massive investment in our steel industry by successive Governments we lost a large part of the share of our home market because we were not sufficiently efficient. No Government can carry on keeping many loss-making industries in being. The question of closures is one which has been long overdue. Particular closures must be taken up with the BSC.

Q2. Mr. Marlow

asked the Prime Minister whether she will list her official engagements for 13 December.

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave a moment ago.

Mr. Marlow

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will have time today to look at the report on page 4 of The Times that Southwark council has decided not to go ahead with its extravagant proposal for building a town hall. Would she like to add her congratulations to the council and pass the same message on to other local authorities with similarly extravagant plans? Will she also comment on the gin palace and swimming baths that it is intended to put across the road at a time of economic difficulties?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that Southwark council was wise not to embark on that expensive capital project at the present time.

I think that my hon. Friend was referring in the second part of his question to the proposed new parliamentary building which would involve expenditure in excess of £100 million. There is no possibility of that going ahead at present. We cannot ask other people to take on burdens unless we are also prepared to carry burdens.

Mr. James Callaghan

I must press the right hon. Lady on the social and economic effects of the closures that are taking place as a result of the failure to sell steel. Do the Government accept any responsibility for the welfare of the areas involved? Is the right hon. Lady aware of the devastation that will be caused? Apart from hon. Members taking up individual closures with the BSC, what are the Government's policy and attitude towards thousands of coal miners and steel workers who will be thrown out of work and will see no prospect of getting any other job?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we tried to carry out some remedial measures at Shotton and made it a special development area. We accept that there will have to be remedial measures in the other areas, but I do not see any possibility of obviating the need for some closures. The BSC poured a great deal of investment into the steel industry, but it has lost a large share of the home market. The way to get back that market is to reduce restrictive practices and to operate the new equipment and machinery as efficiently as possible.

Mr. Callaghan

That is not an answer to the question that I asked. I repeat it. What social responsibility do the Government accept for the fact that areas such as South Wales and, to some extent, Durham are to be plunged into heavier unemployment than we have seen since the 1930s? It is no use saying that there must be negotiations with BSC. Do the Government intend to take any measures to see that those men have an opportunity to get back to work?

The Prime Minister

I dealt with that at the beginning of my reply to the right hon. Gentleman's previous question. We expect that there will have to be remedial measures in those areas, but the sooner that we can get out of loss-making industries and have the possibility of turning over to new, expanding businesses, the better. The first stage is to get out of the loss-making industries. If the right hon. Gentleman and his Government had faced the realities earlier, we should have been in a better position today.

Mr. Callaghan

I am not sure what the Prime Minister means by that last remark, because in my constituency more than 3,000 men lost their jobs as a result of a steel closure that took place in an attempt to deal with the matter in a regulated way, rather than by the sort of surgery and butchery that is taking place at present.

I re-emphasise that the Government will be held responsible for the failure of South Wales to secure jobs. It is a responsibility which I ask the right hon. Lady to accept. She cannot leave it at the fact that one industry is closing and the Government are just washing their hands of it. They must intervene directly.

The Prime Minister

I say again that the Government accept that certain remedial measures will be needed, but the right hon. Gentleman is the last person to ask me to take responsibility for the steel losses of the past five years.

Mr. Heddle

Will my right hon. Friend find time during her busy day to reflect on the decision taken on Tuesday by the National Union of Students to organise a national squatting campaign against the proposed Housing Bill? Does she agree that the short hold provisions in the Bill will produce rented accommodation and not cause the drying up of private rented accommodation which resulted from the previous Government's Housing Act?

The Prime Minister

The new short hold provisions are designed, as my hon. Friend says, to bring more rented accommodation on to the market. The sooner that we can get the Bill introduced and passed, the better.

Mr. Alton

Will the right hon. Lady find time today to discuss with the Home Secretary the case of Gias Uddin, the 18year-old waiter, who, it was decided yesterday, should suffer immediate deportation? Will she consider the representations made to her by the Archbishop and Bishop of Liverpool and the further representations of Merseyside Members and my right hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel)?

The Prime Minister

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. Representations must be made to my right hon. Friend, who has just finished answering questions.