HC Deb 20 February 1979 vol 963 cc245-9
Q1. Mr. Ashton

asked the Prime Minister whether he will list his engagements for 20 February.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

In addition to my duties in this House I shall be holding meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. I shall also be opening the premises of the new Policy Studies Institute.

Mr. Ashton

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to look at a report of an interview in the Sunday Telegraph of last Sunday with the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior), who defended the closed shop and said that the CBI in general welcomed it, said it would be disastrous for the Conservative Party to fight an election on confronting the unions and added that the White Paper last week was not a boneless wonder but a step in the right direction? In view of the current Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde policy of the Opposition Front Bench, will my right hon. Friend ask ACAS to settle the dispute?

The Prime Minister

What my hon. Friend said illustrates what the country knows. This is an enormously difficult area in which to reach agreement and to take action. I am not surprised at the differences between the Leader of the Opposition and her foremost spokesman on these matters. I hope that the Conservatives will do more to throw their weight behind the agreement that we reached with the TUC, which is—as the right hon. Gentleman said—a step in the right direction. I hope to see many more such steps taken.

Mr. Prior

If the Prime Minister and his right hon. and hon. Friends wish to see many more such steps taken, perhaps they will take the advice of my right hon. Friend and myself and back up the start which the TUC has made by putting some teeth into it and by supporting all-party legislation in the House on the closed shop, picketing and secret ballots.

The Prime Minister

I think that I noticed what the right hon. Lady had to say about responding to an approach by her. It would be very useful if we could have all-party agreement on the basis of what has been done between the Government and the TUC. But I suggest that if she really wants all-party talks to get some agreement, she might try to reach agreement with her own spokesman first.

Mr. Madden

Is my right hon. Friend concerned about the axe which seems to be hanging over BBC current affairs programmes which, if carried through, would deny the nation an opportunity of seeing the disarray that there is in industrial relations matters in the Tory Party, as revealed on last night's Panorama programme? Will he arrange for a rocket to be put under the Home Office study on how to finance the BBC so that we may have a scheme whereby the BBC is financed from the Exchequer? At a stroke that would relieve many old people and low-paid workers of the television licence payment and give the broadcasters adequate sums of money with which to do their job.

The Prime Minister

It would indeed be convenient and palatable to the public and those who think like my hon. Friend if they were relieved of the payment of the television licence fee, but the addition of that formidable sum to our public expenditure would mean that we should have to make cuts elsewhere. I would not think that right. That is my view.

Sir Timothy Kitson

Will the Prime Minister have a word with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and ask him how it is that neither he nor his predecessor, nor any of the junior Ministers in his Department, in the past four and a half years of the Labour Administration, have found time to visit, either formally or informally, Catterick camp, which is the second largest military establishment in this country? If they are unable to come, would the Prime Minister like to call there some time?

The Prime Minister

I should be very happy indeed to call. On the last occasion that I visited the headquarters of the Royal Armoured Corps I made a direct hit on a target from one of our tanks. I think that it was more luck than skill.

Mr. Burden

It was certainly the first that the right hon. Gentleman has ever made.

The Prime Minister

I shall make one on the hon. Gentleman if he is not careful. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Sir T. Kitson) is correct in his facts about Ministers visiting Catterick camp. I shall inquire into this. I am assured that he may be incorrect, so perhaps some check ought to be made.

Q2. Mr. Skinner

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for 20 February.

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I have just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton).

Mr. Skinner

Is the Prime Minister aware that, according to Government statistics, about £20 million a day is going to the aid of private companies? He referred earlier to a study group. Will he ask for a study to be made not of the trade unions but of the correlation between the amount of money going to private companies and the financing of the Tory Party as a result of these large donations in the form of tax relief, grants, and so on? Is not the truth that the Leader of the Opposition is in favour of using public money only as long as it finishes in the Tory Party's pocket?

The Prime Minister

It is the case, as my hon. Friend says—although I have not checked his arithmetic—that a very large sum of money is going by way of grants and subsidies to private industry in this country, in order to promote employment, to promote exports, to help it with credit facilities, and in many other ways which are deeply appreciated. Rather than set in hand the study to which my hon. Friend refers, it might be more useful if we set in hand a study of what would happen if ever the Conservative Party came to power and removed this kind of subsidy. A study could be made of the adverse effect that it would have on employment in this country. That would be more to the point.

Mrs. Thatcher

As part of the Prime Minister's new pay policy appears to be the doctrine of comparability, pending comparability studies between the private sector and the public sector may we know what the Prime Minister's definition of comparability includes? Does it include similar manning levels, a similar degree of job security, and a similar entitlement to inflation-proof pensions?

The Prime Minister

We are entering into discussions so that any body that is set up to examine these questions of comparability in the future, as review bodies have done in the past, will have an agreed set of criteria. Those that the right hon. Lady has mentioned would clearly be included among them, because they are of importance. There are other issues, such as pension rights and matters of that sort, all of which have to be taken into account when real comparability is assessed.

Mrs. Thatcher

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for accepting that these three things must be included in any comparability study. Does he agree with Mr. Frank Chapple that everyone knows that there is gross overmanning in the public sector? If he does, will he accept that the only way to meet increased pay claims is by job shedding?

The Prime Minister

It is not my responsibility to answer for the views of any trade union leader, however eminent, and however colourful his language. I am not required, therefore, to comment on what Mr. Chapple has to say. I have always found that he expresses his views in a forceful manner. I have no doubt that he will continue to do so. Frequently there is a large degree of truth in what he has to say, but not all truth is reposed even in him.

Mr. John Home Robertson

Will my right hon. Friend cast his mind back to the marathon task of putting the Scotland Act 1978 on the statute book? Is he aware that there are people, mainly in the Conservative Party, who claim to be convinced devolutionists and who are advising people to vote "No" in the referendum, simply because of minor shortcomings in certain sections of the Act? Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Act is rejected by the people of Scotland it is unlikely that there will be another opportunity for radical constitutional reform in Scotland in his lifetime or in mine?

The Prime Minister

After the great efforts that the Government made, extending over two or three Sessions, with several White Papers and two or three Bills, before we finally turned this proposal into an Act with the assent of Parliament, I think that my hon. Friend is right when he says that if devolution were to be rejected it would be a very bold Governfent who would pick up the issue again and try to put it through Parliament. That is why I regard the issue that is about to be decided as of first importance. I hope that everybody will vote. I hope that the people of Scotland and of Wales will vote "Yes".

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

In view of that reply, will the Prime Minister take time today to ensure that the referendum broadcasts are apportioned in accordance with the question on the ballot paper and not on a party political basis? Is he aware that, despite the interdict granted in the Court of Session last Friday against the IBA, the BBC is at this moment considering going ahead with its broadcasts on a party political basis? Will he now take responsibility for ensuring that both the "Yes" and the "No" campaigns are given a fair and equal opportunity to present their case to the Scottish people before they make this important and irreversible decision?

The Prime Minister

These broadcasts are the responsibility not of the Government but of the parties. It was the parties which had the discussion with the BBC and the IBA. It is for the parties, therefore, to take up these matters if they wish to do so. What the BBC does is a matter for the BBC. If I may express a personal hope, I trust that these broadcasts will go on. I do not see why the Conservative Party should seek to deny the people of Scotland or of Wales the fullest information that they can get.