HC Deb 16 January 1979 vol 960 cc1489-93
Q1. Mr. George Gardiner

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for 16th January.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

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

Mr. Gardiner

The Prime Minister will be aware that on Monday the House is to be lobbied by health workers, among others, during the course of a one-day strike. Will the right hon. Gentleman use Question Time today to declare that it would be deplorable for any hon. Member to agree to meet a striker whose presence here was inflicting harm on patients and that the House should boycott the mass lobby unless there is a guarantee that at least emergency ambulance services are being maintained in every part of this country?

The Prime Minister

I would not care to give guidance to individual hon. Members who will take their own responsibility on what delegations they meet, but I certainly agree entirely with the trade union concerned in this matter that it will be a disgrace if emergency ambulance services are left unattended on Monday. That is the view of the union. I wholly support it and ask the House to endorse it.

Mr. Arthur Latham

Will my right hon. Friend point out to everyone he meets today that the Opposition have already chickened out of today's debate by tabling the feeble motion that we should go home at 10 o'clock? Will he also indicate that many of us on this side of the House believe that a basic wage of £65 a week is a reasonable demand by lorry drivers and that, if the Opposition had had the guts to table a motion urging the road hauliers to settle on that basis, a number of us would have supported it?

The Prime Minister

No doubt we shall hear the views of the Opposition on the pay claims that are in the pipeline.

Mr. Robert Hughes

You will be lucky, Jim.

The Prime Minister

Well, hope that we shall hear their view and their attitude to the Government's position which I hope to develop later. I do not think that we should start the debate during Question Time. As regards the nature of the Opposition's approach, I am grateful to them for giving a Supply Day. They have some at their command and I thank them for providing one today. It is, of course, for them to decide what motion to table.

Mr. Cyril Smith

When meeting ministerial colleagues, will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to meet the Minister responsible for the water industry in this country to make sure that he is acquainted with the situation in my constituency and surrounding constituencies where thousands of homes have no water and the 1 million homes that are receiving water are getting water that may be contaminated? Since that contamination is due to the non-flushing of filters, and since the flushing of filters is not a highly technical job, what does the Prime Minister propose to do about it?

The Prime Minister

I am aware that there is serious difficulty in the North-West because of the breakdown of supplies—again as a result of unofficial action, which has been deplored by the union concerned. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is in touch with the area water authority, which is doing its best to ensure that water supplies are resumed. As official discussions on the pay claim are to take place on Thursday, I believe that it is in the best interests of residents in the North-West that the men who have taken the initiative into their own hands should go back to work and allow the negotiations to take place.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

Is the Prime Minister aware that the whole House will endorse his plea to the London ambulance men that they should at the very least maintain an emergency service next Monday? What contingency planning are the Government doing in case that plea is unsuccessful? Are the Government contemplating using the Armed Forces in this emergency?

The Prime Minister

I am not able to give a detailed reply to the right hon. Gentleman. The Secretary of State for Social Services is going into this matter in detail and I am sure that he will be glad to acquaint the House with his findings in due course, if necessary.

Q2. Mr. Mike Thomas

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his public engagements for 16th January.

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Thomas

Without wishing to embark upon the main debate today, may I ask my right hon. Friend to give the House some factual information? In his engagements today—and, indeed, in any of his engagements since last August—has he heard from the TUC, the CBI or anybody, including the Leader of the Opposition, an alternative to the Government's pay policy that would be consistent with the object of keeping down inflation?

The Prime Minister

In view of the nature of the supplementary questions so far, it seems to me that everybody—and that certainly includes myself—is anxious to get on with the debate set down for today.

With regard to alternative proposals coming forward, I do not think that anyone has come forward with more workable proposals that would keep down the rate of inflation to the level that we achieved at the end of 1978. Certainly if I had heard them the Government would be following them.

Mr. Raison

Will the Prime Minister use this engagement to say whether he believes that the law of the land is being upheld and enforced in relation to intimidatory picketing?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, not this engagement—the next one.

Q3. Mr. Ward

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for 16th January.

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I gave earlier today to the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner).

Mr. Ward

During this afternoon will my right hon. Friend ponder the statement by a trade union leader that his members do not understand macroeconomics? Will he also ponder the opinion, given on television last night by a picket, that all this talk of wages affecting inflation is so much bluff? Is there not still a serious deficiency in understanding the nature of our economic difficulties? Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should reconsider the use of public service advertising in order to get the proper message across in the national interest.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I think that there is still considerable misunderstanding and a failure to appreciate the relationship between excessive wage settlements and inflation. I believe that the message has got across in general but not in particular, although I am bound to say to Conservative Members who are now interrupting that some of the Right-wing stewards as well as the Left-wing stewards who are leading some of these official strikes are only practising what the Opposition preach.

Sir John Eden

Has the right hon. Gentleman taken the opportunity so far today to discuss with the Attorney-General the exact legal position concerning secondary picketing? Will the Prime Minister describe what steps he has already introduced to stop intimidation, and will he give an assurance to the House that he will make a full statement about this during the course of the forthcoming debate?

The Prime Minister

Yes, if the right hon. Gentleman will await the forthcoming debate. I will not answer a question on the law of picketing. I have prepared a very careful statement that I shall make during the course of the debate and I do not intend to anticipate it.

Mrs. Sally Oppenheim

Will the Prime Minister confirm that his Government's counter-inflation policies all have one thing in common, and that is that they have failed to prevent prices from more than doubling in under five years of his Government? Will he, during the course of his engagements today, make an abject apology to the people of this country for the hardship that he has inflicted on housewives and others?

The Prime Minister

The causes of the halving of the value of money are a matter of history and dispute. The hon. Lady holds one view and I certainly hold another. I somehow feel that she cannot escape and that the last Administration, of which she was a member, cannot escape total responsibility for what happened in the middle years of the 1970s.

I do not think that inflation, despite the great pressures that we are under now, will rise to the levels to which it rose as a result of the policy followed by the Conservatives, because we intend to keep a much stricter control, as we are doing, on money supply and on interest rates than the Conservative Administration did.

Mr. Flannery

Has my right hon. Friend noted that the thinking of the Conservative Party in this difficult situation is nostalgically heading back towards the Industrial Relations Act 1971? Will he agree with me that, if the Conservative Party were in power, the imagination would boggle at the thought of what would be happening as the working people of this country realised that the Conservatives were hopeless in grappling with the present difficulties?

The Prime Minister

I think that we should learn from history and remember it. There is no doubt that the Industrial Relations Act did not have the impact that the Conservative Administration hoped it would have at the time. I am not sure whether the Opposition are now heading back to it. It seems to me that the Leader of the Opposition says one thing and then her spokesman on employment runs around like the White Rabbit, trying to tell everybody that the right hon. Lady did not really mean what she said.

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