HC Deb 20 March 1980 vol 981 cc634-8
Q2. Mr. Ancram

asked the Prime Minister if she list her official engagements for 20 March.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having further meetings with ministerial colleagues and others.

Mr. Ancram

Has my right hon. Friend had time to read the disturbing reports of the evidence given by the Civil Service Department to the Treasury Select Committee? Does she realise that, despite Government efforts, the number of civil servants will rise by 3,000 in the next financial year? Does she not agree that that is totally unacceptable? Is there no way of controlling this bloated bureaucracy?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I saw those reports. They pointed out that, since the figures had been compiled, they had been overtaken by a cut of a further 2½ per cent. Assuming that the 2½ per cent. cut takes effect, the Civil Service will be below 700,000 by the end of 1981, for the first time since 1975. I agree that it is one of our highest priorities to keep the increased numbers of civil servants down to a figure that the nation can afford.

Mr. Canavan

When will the Prime Minister get the message that many of her supporters want her to abandon her disastrous economic policies? Does she not accept that such policies are causing price increases, rising unemployment, and savage cuts in essential social services? Having suffered a humiliating 13 per cent. swing against her man in Southend, a series of rebellions by her Back Benchers, and a defeat by over 100 votes in the House of Lords, does she intend to hang on stubbornly until her militant Friend the Duke of Norfolk introduces a Private Member's Bill to abolish the House of Commons?

The Prime Minister

Most of our supporters want us to take those necessary but stern measures in order to get the country out of its economic difficulties. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not be surprise to know that I shall not be frightened off those policies by him or by anyone else.

Mr. Alexander

When my right hon. Friend considers the imbalance in our contributions to the EEC will she bear in mind the simple expedient of imposing a surcharge on our oil supplies to our European partners until the account is once more in balance?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that that would necessarily get the account in balance again. I would much rather go about it in an orthodox way by genuinely trying to get an equitable settlement of the budget between ourselves and our European partners. That will be our objective at the March meeting.

Mr. James Callaghan

Is the right hon. Lady aware that conflicting reports are emerging about the Government's policy on that budgetary issue? Perhaps she could answer three questions. First, is it still her intention—to use her own phrase —to get her money back, or is she prepared to settle for a compromise? Secondly, is she prepared or ready to withhold our VAT contribution? Thirdly, does she intend to continue to treat the budget as a separate item, or is she ready to reach a compromise package that would involve lamb, fish or energy? In particular, does she intend to maintain the price freeze on agricultural products that are in surplus? Those are questions to which the country wishes to know the answers.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman asked me four questions. First, I adhere to the phrase which I used immediately after the Dublin meeting, that we are prepared to compromise, but that we have very little room for manoeuvre. Secondly, in the last resort we shall have to consider withholding our value added tax contribution. Let there be no doubt about that. Thirdly, on the budget and a number of other matters which we need to settle—fish, agricultural prices, sheepmeat, and so on—we shall continue to treat each item on its merits. We simply must do so. Fourthly, the right hon. Gentleman asked about a price freeze. It is our intention to stick to a price freeze on products which are at present in surplus.

Mr. Callaghan

I am—[Interruption.] I was proposing to say, and I shall still say, that I am obliged to the Prime Minister for clearing up a number of these issues. They are of importance, and a number of differing reports have emerged. However, on one issue, the right hon. Lady's reply was less than satisfactory. She will know that the House resolved unanimously twice—on 16 July and on 22 November—that Britain's contribution to the budget must be no greater than the receipts. Does she intend to adhere to that?

The Prime Minister

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I answered that in my reply to his first question by saying that I adhered strictly to the phrase which I used after Dublin. There has to be a compromise, but I have not very much room for manoeuvre. The right hon. Gentleman is familiar with these problems. I am sure that he would not wish me to go further than that.

Mr. Callaghan

I did not press the right hon. Lady on the details of these matters before her visit to Dublin, and certainly I have no wish to tie her hands behind her back now. But if she is still to command the support that the Opposition have offered her, it is important that we know where she is leading us. That is all I am asking her, and she has given the answers.

Q3. Mr. Montgomery

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 20 March.

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Montgomery

Has my right hon. Friend seen reports of the vote in the Agriculture Committee of the European Assembly yesterday to increase farm prices to the housewife by 3½p in the pound? Will she confirm that, no matter what the views of the European Assemly may be, it is no part of her policy to allow price increases such as this?

The Prime Minister

I saw the press reports that the Agriculture Committee of the European Assembly had approved price increases amounting to something like 7.9 per cent. Certainly I give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. We have no intention of supporting any such figure—or anything like it.

Mr. Mike Thomas

Will the right hon. Lady ponder today on the fact that, if she carries out her proposals to cancel the orders for the Torness and Heysham power stations, she will wreck the British power plant industry and throw thousands of workers on the dole?

The Prime Minister

As I indicated in this House last week, the AGR programme is under review. One of the factors to be considered is the effect that any change would have on the nuclear power industry. So, of course, we shall take that into account in arriving at our decision.

Mr. Churchill

In the light of the disastrous misjudgment of the Foreign Office over Rhodesia, and bearing in mind my right hon. Friend's oft-avowed friendship for the State of Israel, will she make it clear that it is no part of the policy of Her Majesty's Government to seek to undermine the Camp David agreements and the peace of the Middle East by seeking to install a Marxist terrorist Government on the West Bank?

The Prime Minister

With respect to my hon. Friend, the opening part of his supplementary question bore absolutely no relation to the latter part. I take great offence, if I may so—and I do say so —at his remarks about the Foreign Office and, therefore, about my policy on Rhodesia, and they ill become him.

With regard to the Government's policy on the West Bank, as my hon. Friend knows, there are to be further talks on the Camp David agreement. We all hope that there will be an agreement. If by any chance there is not, we must prepare contingency plans to try to secure one in the future.

Mr. Canavan

The hon. Gentleman should watch his friendships!

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