HC Deb 17 December 1981 vol 15 cc446-50
Q2. Mr. John MacKay

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 17 December.

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. MacKay

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance today to check the reports that some people in Poland have been injured in clashes with the militia? Does not the Polish crisis demonstrate to people in this country and in the West the significant difference between Western democracies and the Eastern bloc countries? Should it not make those tempted by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament argument realise that neutralism and unilateralism could lead us into the sort of pressures that we see in Poland?

The Prime Minister

We have seen reports that two people have been killed. It is difficult to get accurate news out of Poland, especially outside Warsaw. Therefore, I cannot confirm those reports at the moment.

As to what my hon. Friend said about the difference between a free society and a total Communist society, leading as it has done at the moment to the imposition of military law, we all understand the value of the freedom that we cherish. I hope that we shall heed the advice offered in the last part of my hon. Friend's question and always be prepared to allocate sufficient resources to defend that liberty.

Mr. Foot

Has the Prime Minister today had a chance to study the House of Lords judgment on the GLC appeal on London fares? That judgment must now be carried out because the law must be observed, but does she agree that, if the law is observed in these terms, it will have serious consequences for travellers in London? Therefore, will the right hon. Lady take urgent steps to introduce legislation to restore the law to what many people thought it was previously—including herself as a Conservative spokes-man when the legislation passed through the House?

The Prime Minister

I shall deal with the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's question in a moment, because I think that he has either misunderstood the judgment or what I said, or both. I welcome the clear and unanimous judgment from the House of Lords and congratulate Bromley on having taken steps that have clarified the position for London's ratepayers. The judgment runs to about 100 pages. We shall need time carefully to consider what it says, but it is already clear that the GLC's action was a breach of the duty that it owed to ratepayers and wrong in law.

In Opposition, I commented on the then Government's Act under which this judgment has been given. From what the right hon. Gentleman said, it sounded to me as though he thought that the judgment precluded the possibility of subsidies from the ratepayers. I do not believe that to be so. In that respect, I understand the main burden of the judgment to be that London Transport has a duty to budget and to make a reasonable effort to break even while recognising that in present circumstances it may well not do so. The London Transport budget for the previous year, set on the basis that there would be an £80 million subsidy from the GLC, constituted just such a reasonable effort, and that subsidy in itself is not unlawful.

Mr. Foot

I appreciate that the right hon. Lady has not had time fully to study the debate in which she took part several years ago when the legislation was passing through the House. The whole question of what was economic and uneconomic was considered then, and she made no objection to the terms of the legislation that went through the House. I ask the Prime Minister urgently to consider the possibility of legislation to make this matter absolutely clear so that the House may again have the chance to pronounce on what it thinks should be a proper and fair fares policy for London.

The Prime Minister

One must first look in detail at the House of Lords judgment before rushing into any instant solutions or action. On such an important matter a period of reflection is clearly called for. This was a judgment on the law. As I understand it, the judgment does not preclude subsidies. That was the point that I was making. The judgment was concerned not with the fairness of the GLC's decision to reduce by 25 per cent. the fares charged in Greater London by the London Transport Executive", but with the legality of that decision and whether it was within the limited powers that Parliament has conferred by statute upon the GLC —the very statute to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. Their Lordships came to the conclusion that it was not.

Mr. Foot

It is right that we should have time to consider the matter, but will the Prime Minister undertake to give the House a chance to pronounce on legislation before chaos is caused to London fares?

The Prime Minister

If one is considering the matter, it is as well for the consideration to precede the conclusion.

Mr. Dobson

Then why congratulate Bromley?

Mr. Squire

Has my right hon. Friend yet had formal notification of the change in the deputy leadership of the Labour Party?

The Prime Minister

No, but I do not think that it makes much difference.

Q4. Mr. Michael Morris

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her public engagements for Thursday 17 December.

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to, the reply which I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Morris

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the debate of 30 November on the first report of the Public Accounts Committee on the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and to see early-day motion 132? If so, will she now rethink the Government's response to that important report of the PAC and reflect that it is right for hon. Members to have the final scrutiny of all public expenditure?

The Prime Minister

I am aware of early-day motion 132 and of the point to which my hon. Friend has referred. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is carefully considering the important issues raised in the debate. We shall let the House know our conclusions as soon as possible after the recess.

Mr. Molyneaux

What conclusions has the Prime Minister drawn from the behaviour of Irish and other representatives at yesterday's sitting of the European Assembly?

The Prime Minister

There was an attempt to make a speech in the Assembly that was not relevant to the matters at issue. I was there not as Head of a national Government but as President of the European Council. In any event, I wholly disagree with the comments made during that debate.

Mr. Neubert

As a former leader of the council of the London borough of Bromley—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".]—may I offer my right hon. Friend another opportunity to congratulate my former colleagues on the council who, by their successful court action against the GLC, have brought relief to millions of hard-pressed ratepayers throughout London? Is she aware that if commitments allowed her to contribute to the debate on my Private Member's motion tomorrow on communications in London, when we shall have five hours to examine the implications of this historic decision, she would be very welcome?

The Prime Minister

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having been a leader of Bromley council and on having the powers of prophecy to have secured a debate on communications in London tomorrow on a Private Member's motion. I am sure that it will be an interesting debate. My constituents will be just as interested in it as other London constituents, but I hope that my hon. Friend will understand if tomorrow I do not attempt to catch Mr. Speaker's eye.

Mr. Bidwell

As a Londoner and a member of the Select Committee on Transport, may I tell the Prime Minister that her references to breaking even are out of line with the running of public transport in any major Western European city? Is she aware that this judgment will be greeted with widespread dismay by thousands of ordinary London folk?

The Prime Minister

The House of Lords clear and unanimous decision was that the GLC had acted outside the rule of law that protects citizens against the arbitrary exercise of power.

Sir William Clark

Will my right hon. Friend today take an opportunity to read the main article in the Daily Mail, which lists all the many encouraging signs that the economy is picking up? Does she not think it better that we should advertise our successes than continue to talk gloom and doom?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I wholly agree with my hon. Friend. I note that improvements in the economy are not welcome to the Opposition. Clearly, they prefer the gloom and doom to continue. Things are improving considerably. I heard my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer give some figures. More recent figures show that overtime working in manufacturing is considerably up; hours lost through short-time working are considerably down; industrial production is up; manufacturing production is up; and the latest cyclical indicators released today provide increasingly strong evidence that a turning point occurred in the economic cycle in the second quarter.[interruption.]Unemployment for the last two months has been slightly down. I should have thought that Opposition Members would welcome a reduction in the last two months. Hon. Members will also be aware that it has been usual, for all the last years of the decade, for there to be a sharp increase in unemployment between December and January, because of the weather.