HC Deb 22 January 1980 vol 977 cc194-200
Q1. Mr. Straw

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 22 January.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

In addition to duties in the House, I shall be having meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Mr. Straw

Does the Prime Minister agree with her Chief Secretary to the Treasury that prescription charges at 70p may not be high enough and that there may be a case for hospital charges? Will the right hon. Lady say whether the Government are seeking cuts of £2 billion from next April? Will she also say whether the Chief Secretary's promise of three years of unparalleled austerity means that there is now no prospect of any rise in living standards until at least 1983?

The Prime Minister

I saw my right hon. Friend's remarks at the weekend. The hon. Gentleman has addressed a number of remarks to me and I am not certain which ones to take. To answer all of them would take me the rest of Question Time. Of course we are seeking further reductions in expenditure during 1980–81, for the reason which the hon. Gentleman knows. Already we are borrowing far too much to meet existing expenditure. It is the level and amount of that borrowing that are causing the very high rate of interest that we want to reduce. Therefore, we are looking for reductions in expenditure in many places and many Departments. The £2 billion would, of course, include substantial reductions in the European budget.

Mr. Archie Hamilton

Will my right hon. Friend please find time today to give thought to President Carter's proposals for holding the Olympic Games anywhere other than Moscow and put forward proposals that they should be held on sites partly or wholly in this country?

The Prime Minister

I shall be replying to the letter which President Carter sent to me indicating the action that he is taking with regard to the United States Olympic Committee. I shall later today be writing to our own Olympic Committee to ask it to seek an alternative site, through the International Committee, and to offer to hold certain events in this country.

Mr. James Callaghan

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) asked a specific question about the Health Service. The Chief Secretary was quite specific and said that the Government were considering increasing charges on prescriptions as well as introducing charges for visits to doctors and hospital beds. Will the right hon. Lady give me an assurance that, whatever consideration is being undertaken, no such decision will be taken?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that I cannot undertake to spell out any reductions in public expenditure before they are made. We must seek reductions in that expenditure, and the right hon. Gentleman can be sure that our pledge that we shall keep up expenditure on the National Health Service, as we gave it in the election, will be maintained.

Mr. Callaghan

The right hon. Lady refers to a pledge given in the election, which was to keep up Health Service expenditure. She also said on 18 April, at Beeston, that it was clear that there were no plans to make people pay to visit their doctor, no plans to introduce hotel charges for those in hospital. Will the right hon. Lady repeat that pledge now?

The Prime Minister

With regard to those two specific things, let me correct the right hon. Gentleman because I happen to hold very strong views on certain things such as charges for staying in hospital and for visits to doctors. I gave specific pledges during the election about those. Those charges will not be introduced.

Mr. Callaghan

In that case, will the right hon. Lady send a copy of what she said at Beeston to the Chief Secretary at the Treasury so as to avoid him getting into any more trouble when he answers questions at meetings?

The Prime Minister

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not need to consult the Financial Timesor any other paper about what has been said. I gave my views during the election and I stand by them.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

Reverting to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton), will my right hon. Friend find time today to look at the activities of the Export Credits Guarantee Department? Is she aware that this para-statal body is busy, happy as a sandfly, promoting credits paid for by the British taxpayer for the provision of feed grain to Poland which can go straight through to the Soviet Union and circumvent the ban which President Carter has wisely imposed on feed grain sales to the Soviet Union? Does not this matter need urgent attention?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, we wish to support President Carter in the stand that he has taken on measures with regard to Soviet action in Afghanistan. If what my hon. Friend said is true, I shall get my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade to look into this matter.

Q2. Mr. Parry

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her public engagements for Tuesday 22 January.

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I have just given.

Mr. Parry

Will the Prime Minister find time this afternoon to talk to her righthon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy following the recent announcement of outrageous and unjustified increases in gas charges? This follows recent price increases for rail, electricity, mortgages and postal services. Will she answer the beleaguered housewives and householders on these many problems?

The Prime Minister

I believe that the hon. Gentleman knows the reason for the decision on gas prices. Much of the gas that we are using at present comes from the old southern basin of the North Sea and the Gas Board is purchasing that gas at prices ranging from 1½p to 3p a therm. That is now having to be replaced by gas from much further north from later fields and that is costing 14p a therm. Unless we adjust the price, we shall go on using up cheap gas at a very fast rate and have very little left.

Mr. David Steel

Will the Prime Minister register her protest with the Soviet Government at the arrest of Mr. Sakharov earlier today?

The Prime Minister

We heard the news on the radio. We have no further information than that. The Government take a very serious view of this matter, and we shall most certainly register our view.

Mr. Bulmer

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to consider the plight of those who are called out on strike against their will, without consultation, and even in breach of agreement, to see whether they should be given protection beyond that already foreshadowed in the Employment Bill?

The Prime Minister

There is provision in the Employment Bill for a voluntary postal ballot. We hope that those who feel that they should be consulted will take advantage of that postal ballot and that enough of them will demand it. If we get that measure through, it will be a very good start.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Will the right hen. Lady find time today to re-read her own programme at the election and explain how she will convince families that she actually has their interests at heart if she freezes child benefits and removes heating from homes?

The Prime Minister

I have already given a reply on gas prices. If we use up the cheap gas and encourage using increasing amounts of it, there will be none left.

Child benefits are for the Budget. As the hon. Lady knows, it is all too easy, and it is frequently done by Opposition Members, to make increasing demands which others have to meet.

Mr. Marlow

Will my right hon. Friend have time today to consider that our enemies' enemies are our friends and that, if anybody in Afghanistan or anyone else under the jackboot of Soviet imperialism wishes us or our allies to give them weapons, arms, training or support to fight off the Russian bear, we should consider his request?

The Prime Minister

I think that we may be very well aware that many people under the Soviet yoke wish that they had been able to defend their countries as well as we intend to defend this country.

Q3. Mr. Bidwell

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 22 January.

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I gave earlier.

Mr. Bidwell

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the members of the Ecumenical Industrial Mission in the North believe that the steel workers should receive a bigger pay rise than they have been offered? Last Sunday they were calling for prayers, presumably on the side of the workers. The right hon. Lady is rapidly losing the support of the people. If she loses the support of God, she will be in serious difficulty.

The Prime Minister

I saw representatives of the steel unions and of the British Steel Corporation. I did not think that they were asking me for prayers.

Mr. Churchill

Is my right hon. Friend aware that she has strong support in all quarters of this House and, indeed, outside this House, for the measures that she proposes for the Olympics this year? Will the Government be prepared to bear their share of the financial burden of removing the Moscow Olympics to some alternative site?

The Prime Minister

We have offered to make available some of the sites that we have in this country for some events.

Mr. James Lamond

Was the right hon. Lady dismayed when she saw the increased unemployment figures? What has happened to the boom that we were told to expect when small businesses expanded and took on one additional man each? Are they as disappointed with her as she is with them?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman asked whether I am dismayed about unemployment. Of course I am worried when the unemployment figures rise. But at least the hon. Gentleman will agree that I have constantly warned that, if people want so much in wages that they bargain themselves out of jobs, unemployment will rise. The only way steadily to increase employment is to produce goods and services that other people want and are prepared to pay for. As the import figures show, there is no shortage of demand in this country.

Mr. Best

Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity of considering the recent document published by the CBI entitled "Jobs Facing the Future" which states that by 1976 output per worker in the manufacturing sphere in France, Germany and Belgium was 50 per cent. higher than in this country and that even in Italy it was 20 per cent. higher than it was in this country? Will she continue to make that point when people in this country press for higher wage claims?

The Prime Minister

I believe that both sides in the steel dispute accept that there is plenty of scope for higher productivity. I have sent both sides back to negotiate together because only those concerned in this industry can sort out the problems within the financial constraints of the £450 million.

Mr. Varley

On the basis that the gas industry's profits are to rise to between £800 million and £1,000 million and that the right hon. Lady believes in the ability to pay, how high does she expect gas workers' wages to go over the next 12 months?

The Prime Minister

I trust that the gas workers will be reasonable in their demands, and I trust that the right hon. Gentleman might even support us in hoping and expecting that they will be reasonable.

Mr. McCrindle

Has the Prime Minister been impressed by the seeming difference of opinion between the leaders of the trade unions and the trade unionists themselves about the provisions of the Employment Bill now before the House? In the light of the seeming support that the Government have on secondary picketing, the closed shop and the like from ordinary trade unionists, will the Government feel fortified in pursuing this essentially moderate measure?

The Prime Minister

I saw the survey, to which I believe my hon. Friend refers, yesterday. I agree that the vast majority of people, including the vast majority of trade unionists, are wholly behind us in the Employment Bill presented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We shall press forward with it as fast as we can.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Will the Prime Minister look at the unemployment figures for Scotland, and take note that the Scottish economy seems to be in deeper recession than that of the United Kingdom as a whole? Is it her ambition, failing action to reduce unemployment, to quadruple figures which her Labour predecessors doubled?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman knows that the only way to obtain genuine jobs with a future is to produce goods and services that people will buy. People are buying imported goods and services. There is no shortage of demand. There is a shortage of supply. It is our economic objective to secure an increase in supply through jobs.