HC Deb 27 March 1979 vol 965 cc253-8
Q1. Mr. Kilroy-Silk

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 27 March.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be holding meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. This evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty The Queen.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

May I draw the Prime Minister's attention to reports in The Guardian yesterday that EEC Governments are deliberately dragging out the talks on food prices in the hope that tomorrow's vote will lead to the return of the soft-touch Tory Government? Will the Prime Minister take it from me that the Government's opposition to any increase in food prices is welcomed in the country and that, if abrasiveness leads to a reduction in prices, we want more of it?

The Prime Minister

It would be ill-advised of any Government to drag out the talks on such a hypothetical basis, which is unlikely to be realised. The truth is that the case we put forward for many years about the waste under the agricultural policy is at last beginning to bite on consumers' pockets in continental countries as well as our own. For that reason, as well as the waste of expenditutre, we are receiving much more support on this matter than hitherto. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is there today to try to obtain agreement on a freeze of common prices. I hope that the House will support us in that.

Mr. Anthony Grant

Will the Prime Minister apply his mind today to constitutional matters? In the event of the Government being defeated tomorrow night, will he follow the precedent of his predecessor, Ramsay MacDonald, and advise Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament the following day? If not, will he indicate to the House how long he expects it will be before he advises Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament?

The Prime Minister

I have not engaged my mind on such entirely hypothetical questions as this. However, I have no doubt that if, in the event, the hon. Gentleman's nightmares and hobgoblins come true, this Government will be returned at any election held at any time.

Mr. Sydney Irving

Has my right hon. Friend been able to consider a letter from both sides of the paper industry concerning the tariff cuts demanded of the EEC by the Americans in the present round of GATT negotiations in Brussels? Will he find time to use his influence to ensure that the success enjoyed by British manufacturers of kraft lined paper is not prejudiced by the EEC giving unnecessary concessions in response to American domestic pressures?

The Prime Minister

This was one of the 2,000 or 3,000 letters that I get every week that I studied carefully. It seems that this industry—paper and kraft products—has a good case. I marked on the letter that I hoped that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade would take up the matter strongly. Our industry is in a good position to resist the United States proposal. The Community seems to be ready to give way on this for the sake of other concessions. I hope that we may sustain the position. I have not received a detailed report, but my right hon. Friend may be absolutely assured that I am conscious of the problem.

Mrs. Thatcher

I, too, would like to ask the Prime Minister a practical question. He will be aware of the reports today that the Civil Service is stepping up its strike action. He will also recall that, in a statement on contingency arrangements, he told me a few days ago that full contingency arrangements had been made to see that the Government did not default on their obligations. It is quite clear that these arrangements are not working, and that the small business man and the small investor are not getting the moneys which are due to them. What assurance can the Prime Minister give to us that new arrangements will be made?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Lady is—no doubt inadvertently—misquoting me. I am sure that I have never given a complete assurance of the nature that she mentioned, because that would be impossible to achieve. Strikes of this sort are always bound to interfere either with Government business or with the rights and the claims of the public on the Government. I very much hope that these will be minimised as far as possible. I can assure the right hon. Lady that we are doing that, but I cannot guarantee perfection in this matter. [Interruption.] The Opposition always shout "What are you doing about it?" One thing we could do would be to concede the wage claims in full. Is that what the Opposition would want us to do?

Mr. Ifor Davies

Will the Prime Minister, during his engagements today, find time to clarify the position concerning quarrymen and others suffering from pneumoconiosis? Is there a deal in the pipeline? Will he agree that there is no justification for delay?

The Prime Minister

I can say to the House that there is a Bill ready for this purpose. In view of the complete failure of the press to report the facts that it has been given day after day, I will make a statement. It is not only failure on the part of the press but in many cases misrepresentation by the press. This may not be to the taste of the Conservative Party, but it is as well to get the truth on record.

The truth is that, following the Pearson Commission report last summer, in which it said that it found great difficulties in connection with the slate quarrymen's case, the Government set up an interdepartmental inquiry at once. We told the House that we had done so. In the Queen's Speech last November we indicated that we were examining the case further. The inter-departmental committee reported to the Secretary of State for Employment in January in favour of the scheme. Ministers considered the scheme in February and agreed it in principle. They asked for more details to be given in respect of other workers in the textile and pottery industries as well as in the iron ore industries. All these matters were agreed. They came to a natural head during the course of March.

Whatever may be the desire on the part of the Opposition or some minority parties to claim that something has been done in order to gain votes, that is a total misrepresentation of the sequence of events—and I hope that the press will print that in full.

Q2. Mr. Gordon Wilson

asked the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Tuesday 27 March.

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I have just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk).

Mr. Wilson

If the Prime Minister has no guilty feelings about the quarrymen, should he not have guilty feelings about the position of his Government in relation to Scotland, when they have cut regional industrial spending in real terms by 40 per cent, over the past two years? Does not he think that that is a scandalous position, in view of the level of unemployment in Scotland?

Will the Prime Minister ponder also the fact that Scottish oil resources have gone up sharply as a result of the OPEC decision? Will he not enhance the degree of industrial spending in Scotland forthwith?

The Prime Minister

I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that I have no guilty feelings. I just have feelings of indignation that the press cannot report the facts which have been given to it day after day.—[Interruption.] Not all the press but some of it. Conservative Members know which are their lapdogs in these matters.

As for assistance to Scotland, the hon. Gentleman knows that there has been a considerable increase over the years, especialy in the funds which have been allocated to the Scottish Development Agency. This has made a substantial difference. But I am bound to say, if the hon. Gentleman is dissatisfied with that, that I do not understand why apparently he would want to be walking through the Lobby tomorrow night with those who would cut out all grants to Scotland.

Mr. Michael McGuire

Is my right hon. Friend aware that everyone will be pleased that he has set out the record concerning the Government's efforts to help the Welsh ex-quarrymen and people in other industries?

May I ask my right hon. Friend if the principle is as enunciated by him—that is, to help people who have a just cause, and where there may be conflicts in reaching a solution? Will he advise his ministerial colleagues that there is another group of workers deserving of help, namely, a certain category of workmen's compensation cases? I remind my right hon. Friend that a Private Member's Bill that I have introduced is before the House but that, because of some complexities, I believe that it has not been given the treatment that it deserves. Will my right hon. Friend try to persuade his ministerial colleagues to advance it?

The Prime Minister

I will inquire into this matter. The Secretary of State for Employment is aware of the Ten-Minute Bill to which my hon. Friend referred, and I am sure that he will go into it. But the Pearson Commission report on these matters as a whole needs more careful consideration than it has had so far, and we shall certainly bring forward proposals to deal with it in the next Parliament.

Mr. Crouch

Will the Prime Minister make a statement this afternoon not of a constitutional nature or of a party political nature but rather of a statesmanlike nature, concerning the achievement of President Carter in the development of peace between Egypt and Israel? Will the Prime Minister, in these last few days that may be left to him, say what are his views about helping President Carter to extend this peace development, so that it grows into something which will embrace all the Arab nations?

The Prime Minister

I spoke last Friday about this matter, although it did not engage too much attention. The visit of President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin to the United States is clearly of historic importance. For the first time in 30 years, there seems now to be peace between Egypt and Israel; and that is something at which the whole world should rejoice. As I have made clear to President Carter and to Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat, we regard it as essential that we should move on from here to a comprehensive peace settlement that will engage the other Arab States and give the Arabs in Palestine—the Palestinians—the opportunity of a secure future for themselves, as well as securing peace for Israel.

I believe that the European Community has issued a statement today. I wish that it could have been a little warmer about the peace settlement than it is, but in any case, it represents a most valuable step forward.

Mr. Ashley

If the Prime Minister finds time today to consider any possible vote of censure, will he tell the Liberals, the Scottish National Party, the Welsh nationalists and the Ulster Unionists to go and jump in the North Sea? [HON. MEMBERS: "Or the Irish Sea."] Will he tell the House that this Government will fight on their record and future policy, irrespective of the result of tomorrow night's vote?

The Prime Minister

Yes. My hon. Friend need have no doubt about that. As regards the Liberal Party and the Scottish National Party Members jumping into the North Sea, they have already done so. It is the first time that I have ever heard of the drowning man throwing a lifebelt to the ship.