HC Deb 01 February 1979 vol 961 cc1665-71
Q1. Mr. McCrindle

asked the Prime Minister if he will state his public engagements for 1 February.

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 hold- ing further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Mr. McCrindle

Has the Prime Minister had time to consider the great concern felt by many people over the statement by Mr. Arthur Scargill indicating that trade unionists should ignore the legal decision in last week's court case on secondary picketing? Does not that contrast with the right hon. Gentleman's statement last week that there is freedom under the law to cross a picket line? Does he agree that, carried to its logical conclusion, Mr. Scargill's incitement is a recipe for anarchy?

The Prime Minister

I have noted a great many comments made during the course of recent industrial disturbances. The position of the law in relation to this matter was stated by the Attorney-General. Any private citizen in this country is entitled to express his own view, but I stand on the expression of the Attorney-General which, I think, met with general agreement when he stated the law.

Mr. Heffer

As 1,000 workers have been told that they are to be made redundant at the Plessey works, as 2,500 workers have been told that they are to be made redundant at the Dunlop works, and as we have 100,000 unemployed on Merseyside, is my right hon. Friend prepared urgently to meet the Labour Members of Parliament from Merseyside to discuss this whole question and come up with some positive proposals to deal with one of the most serious unemployment situations in the whole country?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend knows that he does not have to ask me that question publicly for me to be willing to meet himself and his colleagues, as I have done on previous occasions. I should be happy to meet them again. Perhaps he will give me a few hours' notice before we meet. Merseyside is generally regarded as being a serious problem, and I hope that Merseyside will do all that it can to help itself.

Mrs. Thatcher

As the Prime Minister will have spent some time today considering the grave situation which affects many hospitals, will he state clearly whether it is the Government's policy to encourage volunteers to help the doctors and nurses to carry out their prime duty towards the patients?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services will be answering a private notice question on this and kindred matters at 3.30 pm this afternoon, as the right hon. Lady knows. I should therefore prefer that any considered comment—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."]—on the general matters that have been raised about the Health Service and the hospitals was made by him, as I think the right hon. Lady will understand. On the question of volunteers for hospitals, I cannot say that the Cabinet has particularly considered that matter this morning. [An HON. MEMBER: "The Opposition are like a rabble."] With respect, they are not like a rabble, they are a rabble.

What I would say to the right hon. Lady is that it is not acceptable in any community that sick human beings, be they adults or children, should be denied food, and proper attention forbidden to them by the actions of people. [Interruption.] Will Conservative Members please allow me to continue for a moment? Therefore, I trust very much that all those concerned in this dispute will return to work and allow negotiations to continue on a proper basis.

Mrs. Thatcher

It is not always my task to do what the Prime Minister prefers. As the buck stops with him, I must press him on this matter just a little further. It is precisely because the things about which he spoke are not acceptable, and precisely because many of the tasks could be done by volunteers, that I ask him where his duty lies. Is it towards the patients and towards the doctors and nurses who help the patients? Is he, therefore, prepared to encourage volunteers to go in? In some hospitals they are working well. Will he make his position clear?

The Prime Minister

I should prefer to leave this to the hospital management committees. They are in charge of each hospital. It may well be that in some hospitals it will be preferable to bring in volunteers. But in other hospitals the management committees may not wish to do so. This is not a matter of Governmental responsibility, although Conservative Members may seek to make it so. What we want to do is to see that the hospitals are kept open and that patients are properly treated, by whatever methods the management committees themselves believe are desirable.

Q2. Mr. Crawford

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 February.

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I have just given to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle).

Mr. Crawford

Will the Prime Minister have a word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer today and suggest that he includes in the emergency Budget, which will be inevitable in two or three weeks, proposals for the introduction of a national minimum wage? This has been SNP policy for some time. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that its introduction would at least go some way towards alleviating the present troubles?

The Prime Minister

With regard to an emergency Budget, the hon. Gentleman should not assume anything of the sort. In fact, according to the latest figures that I received yesterday from the Department of Employment, the average level of major pay settlements is still a little under 10 per cent. One or two of the more extravagent settlements have hit the headlines, perhaps because of the disruption that they have caused, but that, I am told, is the latest position in relation to private settlements, and that must influence the Government in a number of ways.

The introduction of a minimum wage is always a matter for consideration. But so far there has been no general agreement on its introduction. Clearly, it would have some impact, provided that people who were well above the minimum wage did not insist on maintaining their differentials. But so far we have been unable to get agreement on that.

Mr. Carter-Jones

Will my right hon. Friend take some time off today to examine the dreadful story about Indian girls coming to this country being tested to discover whether they are virgins? What moral justification is there for this? Will he please put aside 10 minutes of his time firmly to rule out such a monstrosity?

The Prime Minister

I think that the House and hon. Members will have been disturbed at what they have read about this matter. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is inquiring into it, and I am sure that he will want to inform the House if a question is put down in due course.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Will the Prime Minister cancel his engagements for the rest of the day, take the first train to Liverpool and take personal charge of the negotiations with the men who even now are refusing to bury bodies unless they are in a decomposed state? This is causing great distress to relatives. One lady wanted to dig a grave for one of her relatives, was allowed into the cemetery but at the last minute was refused permission to do so. Surely this is a matter which should now have the Prime Minister's personal attention.

The Prime Minister

I understand that the national leaders of the unions concerned have advised their members to resume normal working. In the light of what the Secretary of State for the Environment said yesterday, I trust that they will take into account the feelings of the House. I understand that the instructions from the national unions have gone out today. We must wait until tomorrow to see whether they have been accepted by the members themselves. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will make a further statement on this matter tomorrow.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

Is the Prime Minister aware that the sympathy which he has expressed for hospital patients and their families would be more readily understood if he used his high office to make a personal appeal for volunteers to ease their suffering?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure whether that would be the best thing to do. As I have said, there is conflicting advice from those responsible for the administration of our hospitals about whether volunteers would help the situation. I am sure that it is far better that the hospitals themselves should take this decision. That is surely a reason for leaving it to the local hospitals, who know their circumstances best. The Government have no objection to the introduction of volunteers if the local hospital authorities believe that that is the best way of handling the situation.

Mr. Ward

Will my right hon. Friend today be looking at the agenda for the first meeting between groups of Minister and the TUC with regard to economic problems and picketing? Will the whole philosophy of the "going rate" be under consideration, since in relation to some of the more extravagant claims a number of very responsible trade unionists are now saying "That is the going rate. Do not expect us to settle for less."?

The Prime Minister

I have heard that view expressed often. It is an interesting reflection that those who said that under no circumstances could they accept a norm now want the going rate. If the going rate is not a norm, I do not know what it is. If everyone gets the same going rate then, as my hon. Friend indicated, everyone else will want to jump on the bandwagon and we shall have leapfrogging. That is why I welcome the approach by some trade union members of the general council who have headed a pamphlet entitled "A better way". Indeed, there must be for this country.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

May I make a suggestion to the Prime Minister with regard to the burial situation in Liverpool and the North-West? Since this is a question of deep concern to both sides of the House, and since Liverpool is a city with a great religious tradition, would it not be helpful if the Prime Minister were to appeal to the two great Christian leaders in Liverpool—Bishop Sheppard and Archbishop Worlock—to use their good offices to bring about a settlement of this problem?

The Prime Minister

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I am sure he will be glad to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has been in touch with the leaders of the Churches. I believe that they are using their great influence to try to secure a return to work I earnestly repeat what was said by my right hon. Friend yesterday. I trust very much that those concerned will return to work and will take into account the great desolation they are causing to families and those who are bereaved.

Q3. Mr. Michael Spicer

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 1 February.

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I gave earlier today to the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle).

Mr. Spicer

Is the Prime Minister aware that last week British ports were virtually in the control of workers' soviets? Therefore, will he urgently consider the fact that, whereas the British shipping industry has so far lost £15 million, the chief beneficiary is the Soviet merchant marine fleet which somehow manages to move its cargoes in British ports—cargo which, incidentally, is priced at a figure which clearly indicates a massive subsidy by the Soviet Union?

The Prime Minister

Without necessarily accepting all the hon. Gentleman's premises, I shall consider the matter.

Mr. Pavitt

In the concern and balanced thought which I know my right hon. Friend gives to the problems of the National Health Service, will he today give further consideration to the problem of nurses' pay? This matter is in two parts. There is an immediate problem, because next Tuesday an important Whitley council meeting is due to take place and therefore time is of the essence. Secondly, there is a long-term problem in the reorganisation of the negotiating machinery, which my right hon. Friend will be able to further after we have won the general election.

The Prime Minister

On the subject of nurses' pay, I remind my hon. Friend that proposals and discussions are taking place to determine a basis of comparability. We could settle all these disputes straight away if we were willing to pay what were asked. However, I do not think that that proposition would commend itself to the country, to the Opposition, or to the taxpayers and ratepayers. Nevertheless, low-paid workers must expect to obtain a reasonable increase in pay to help them, and those higher up the scale can help them to do so. I trust that there will be a return to some co-operation in these matters, as distinct from, I was going to say free collective bargaining, but it would be more true to say the free collective vandalism that is now taking place.