HC Deb 13 March 1980 vol 980 cc1552-6
Q4. Mr. Best

asked the Prime Minister when she expects next to meet the Trades Union Congress.

The Prime Minister

No dates have yet been arranged.

Mr. Best

When my right hon. Friend meets the TUC will she impress upon it the basic democratic right of every trade unionist to have a secret ballot? Moreover, will she especially stress that point to trade unionists who belong to the ISTC, in view of the overwhelming evidence that members of that union want to get back to work following the board's latest offer?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, the BSC suggested that there should be a ballot of everyone who works for BSC. I am sure that many people believe that that is the right thing to do, in view of the fact that those who work for the corporation are now bearing the brunt of the hardship. We believe that many of them would like to express their views on whether or not to accept the offer.

Mr. Tinn

Will the Prime Minister study the anual report of ICI, particularly the section dealing with man-made fibres, as it highlights the current problems experienced by the industry arising from United States' competition, which is based not on any labour productivity advantage but on America's relatively low price of oil? In view of the price of our oil, is it not absurd that our industry should face that sort of competition? What action does she propose to take to ensure that British industry, particularly petrochemicals, will benefit from North Sea oil?

The Prime Minister

I am aware of the problem which the hon. Gentleman has raised, namely, that by underpricing on oil and gas, the United States gives a great advantage to any industry which either has those things as its main feedstock or which uses a large amount of oil in producing the product. Of course, it was that which led my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade to go to the Community to ask for some restrictions on the import of a certain amount of synthetic yarn. We do urge the Americans to bring their oil and gas up to world prices, because that is the only fundamental solution to the problem.

Mr. Gorst

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that she has not ruled out taking action against trade union funds if the present legislation does not prove to be effective?

The Prime Minister

It would be best if we tried to get the Employment Bill through first and to see whether that works. To date, the trade unions have honoured an injunction which the court granted against one of their members, and I hope that that will continue.

Mr. Wigley

Will the Prime Minister find an early opportunity to tell the TUC that the Government will stop sitting on the sidelines in the steel dispute and will take a positive initiative to achieve a solution, before the steel industry in this country is finally crucified?

The Prime Minister

If at the end of the day, the management and those who work in the industry cannot reach agreement on their differences, it does not augur well for the future of the steel industry. They must reach a settlement themselves, because it is the management and those who work in the industry who must run it in the future. They must take responsibility for it themselves.

Q5. Mr. Robert Atkins

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 13 March.

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply which I gave earlier.

Mr. Atkins

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read reports in the daily press of the 178 per cent. rise in the rates of Stockton, which is Labour-controlled? Will she draw any conclusions about comparisons between Labour authorities and those careful authorities, such as Preston?

The Prime Minister

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, North (Mr. Atkins) on Preston's excellent record in holding its district rate at, I believe, 8p in the pound. That contrasts very favourably with Stockton, which I believe has put up its district rate by 178 per cent. I notice that that accords very similarly with the experience of authorities in Greater London, where the top 10 authorities which have put up their rates the most are Labour-controlled, and the bottom 10 which have put up their rates least are all Conservative-controlled.

Mr. Robert Sheldon

Has the Prime Minister noted the recent fluctuations in exchange rates? Does she recall that last autumn the Chancellor of the Exchequer talked about the benefits that would he obtained from a high level of the pound in world markets? What have those benefits been?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, when the exchange rate is high, raw materials that are invoiced in dollars must come in at lower cost. That has been of considerable help to those industries which use raw materials and semi-fabricated components. Had they not had that help to counteract the high increase in wages, prices would be even higher.

Mr. Cormack

Will my right hon. Friend take some time today to reflect further on the strange attitude of the TUC towards secret ballots? Will she consider the possibility of putting our proposals on industrial reform to the nation in a referendum?

The Prime Minister

I believe that it is more and more widely felt that those who belong to trade unions, or those who are on strike, should have the right to say whether they wish to go on strike, or whether they wish to continue on strike. I believe that they should be able to do so by secret ballot. I think that view will become more widespread, because the secret ballot is already practised in some unions. As to industrial relations reform, I believe that the present Bill will go through, but I do not think that we shall need to refer that subject to a referendum.

Mr. Bidwell

Why, in view of the grave economic difficulties facing the nation, is the right hon. Lady so reluctant to meet the TUC? Did she notice that last Sunday there was the mightiest turnout in trade union history against the Government?

The Prime Minister

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am not reluctant to meet the TUC. I have met it from time to time and I shall meet it again a: NEDC. I am only too delighted to talk to the TUC, just as I talk to the CBI. I noticed that the turnout last Sunday was so very much less than had been expected.

Mr. Adley

Since the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) is so keen—as we all are—that my right hon. Friend should talk to the TUC, may I ask her to make clear to Mr. Basnett, Mr. Evans, Mr. Scargill and others that she will do nothing to discourage them from marching or demonstrating? Does she not agree that such marches merely demonstrate to the British public the face of Britain's alternative Government?

The Prime Minister

People are fully at liberty to march or demonstrate as long as the police give their consent under the Public Order Act.