HC Deb 14 July 1981 vol 8 cc973-8
Q 1. Mr. Dubs

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her public engagements for 14 July.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House I shall be having further meetings later today, and this evening I hope to have an audience of Her Majesty the Queen.

Mr. Dubs

I accept that the vast majority of people are opposed to violence and lawlessness and are in favour of better protection for the police, but does the Prime Minister realise that many people consider it a serious step indeed for the Government to contemplate the use of water cannon, CS gas and rubber bullets on the streets of British towns and cities? Now that she has returned from Liverpool, will the Prime Minister give us her assessment of the reasons for the present wave of civil disorder? Will she tell us clearly to what extent she believes that her Government's policies have been responsible?

The Prime Minister

I accept what the hon. Member said at the beginning of his supplementary question, that it is vital to have our citizens protected and to see that the law is upheld. We on the Government Benches take the view that the police must have the equipment for that purpose, and part of the legitimate equipment for chief constables to use if they decide that the situation requires it would be CS gas and water cannon. The only question is whether the chief constables wish to have water cannon among the equipment available for any task that they may face. There may be a fundamental difference, but I believe that the majority of people take the view that we on Government Benches broadly take. With regard to the reason, this is not, as someone said to me in Liverpool, yesterday, the time for detailed analysis. We have a problem. We shall not be able to deal in practice with the economic and social aspects of it until law is restored and is seen to be restored. Therefore, the two things go hand in hand.

Sir Paul Bryan

Before announcing any new long-term plans for the inner cities will the Prime Minister make sure that the general public is aware of what has already been done? Following her visit to Toxteth, will she say what has been done there, not only in terms of expenditure but in terms of the nature of the policies and the methods of carrying them out there?

The Prime Minister

It is evident that a great deal of money has been spent in Liverpool. Much has been spent on housing, as the local authority emphasised to me. Some time ago it took the view that the best service it could do would be to clear out many of the slum houses. It has spent a good deal of its resources on doing that. Much of the housing which I saw in Toxteth is very good, as has been stated in the House before. A great deal of money is also being spent on education. The tragedy is that some of the money that has been poured into some of the big schools is now not fully used because some of the schools must be closed down as there are far fewer pupils than we ever thought. One school that I opened in 1970 for 1,700 pupils now has only 900 pupils. Money is being poured into expenditure on more teachers and on paying extra for those in the deprived areas. Therefore, I do not believe that a shortage of money has been the problem in Liverpool. This year the full expenditure in Liverpool is about £361 million.

Mr. Foot

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs). Everyone agrees that law breaking must be stopped and punished, but the way that that is done in Britain is important for the freedom of our people. Has the Prime Minister had time to study the speech made by the Home Secretary to a group of Tory Back Benchers last night? Is it a new statement of Government policy? If so, when will it be made to the House?

The Prime Minister

Statements about changes in Government policy, if there are changes, will be made in the debate on Thursday, in the usual way. I would be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman if he would make it clear whether he is actually against the use of CS gas and water cannon.

Mr. Foot

Those suggestions, and the suggestions made by the Home Secretary—only some of which are approved and supported by the police—must be properly debated in the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I shall not answer those questions until they have been properly debated. If the right hon. Lady wants the House to give proper consideration to these matters, I ask her, on behalf of her Government, to make a statement to the House of Commons in advance of Thursday's debate so that we can properly consider the issue. The Opposition are as determined to stamp out illegality as anyone else. However, we want to do it by fair methods that can be supported by the population and not by methods that drive a wedge between the police and the community.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman's statement is not of very much help—[Interruption.] As I said—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Since last Thursday I have been inundated with correspondence from the public protesting at the noise during Prime Minister's Question Time. I honestly think that we do ourselves no good by such an exhibition. Everyone must be allowed to speak.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman's statement is not of very much help or encouragement to the police when they are on the lines trying to quell a hail of stones, bricks, metal and petrol bombs. When they are doing that they need to know that they have the full support of the Government—in particular the Home Secretary—and the full support of local authorities, and they also need the full range of equipment in case they adjudge that its use is necessary. We must bear that in mind in view of the number of police injured when carrying out their job of protecting the public.

Mr. Foot

Nothing that I have said has been any discouragement to the police in carrying out their duties. The right hon. Lady has no grounds for making any such slur. I am asking her—and I have not yet had an answer—whether the Home Secretary made an important new declaration of policy last night. When will he make that declaration in the House?

The Prime Minister

There is to be a debate in the House on Thursday on this issue. The Home Secretary will make any statement of changes in policy then. In the meantime, I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will support the police in their use of CS gas in difficult circumstances.

Mr. David Steel

Has the Prime Minister had time to study the report of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities called "Investing in Recovery"? Will she pay particular attention to the section which calls for major home improvements in inner city areas as a means of restoring employment?

The Prime Minister

I shall look at that section of the report. We are anxious that home improvement, which is an excellent way to improve the standard of housing, should continue.

Q2. Mr. Christopher Price

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 14 July.

The Prime Minister

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Price

Now that the Secretary of State for Employment and the Home Secretary have admitted on a number of occasions that unemployment is one of the causes of the sort of disturbances that have taken place, does not the Prime Minister think it right to withdraw the statement that she made before the Brixton disturbances, that unemployment is not a factor? As she has not yet commented on the demands from Conservative Back Benchers for the use of rubber bullets on our streets, will she make her position clear?

The Prime Minister

I have answered the hon. Gentleman's first question several times before. He has asked it several times before. The question is the same, and the answer is the same. Unemployment is a factor, but I do not believe that it is the main factor. Some of the worst riots occurred in areas where unemployment was far from being as high as in other areas.

If chief constables wish to use rubber bullets, I believe that they will have the support of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in having them made available.

Mrs. Knight

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a woman teacher in the pay of the Birmingham city authority is actively engaged in fomenting the present troubles and encouraging the abuse of authority? Should such a person continue in the pay of the authority that she seeks to overthrow?

The Prime Minister

I am not aware of the case to which my hon. Friend refers. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science would wish to receive details of that case. The local authority employs the teachers. If there are fresh facts known to my hon. Friend, I shall be grateful if she will bring them to full public attention.

Mr. Eastham

The Prime Minister is largely responsible for the riots and the damage. Will she tell the House whether she intends to refund local authorities the millions of pounds of damage that has resulted from the riots?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman's first remark is absurd and unjust. On his second point, the law is well established. The compensation provisions operate to the effect that any expenditure up to a penny rate falls on local authorities. Any expenditure above that is reimbursed by the Government.

Q3. Mr. Marlow

asked the Prime Minister whether she will list her official engagements for 14 July.

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Marlow

Does my right hon. Friend have time today to tell the House what her opinion would be of the reintroduction of the Riot Act as a means both of clearing the streets and of bringing about quick, effective arid fair justice to rioters?

The Prime Minister

I agree that the Riot Act is a means of clearing the streets. It was repealed in 1967 by the then Labour Government in connection with the Criminal Law Act 1967. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor are carrying out an urgent review of the law. No doubt they will announce their conclusions in due course.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Notwithstanding the political opportunism and nit-picking that masquerade as an alternative to the Prime Minister's discredited economic policies, will the right hon. Lady take note that right across the political divide between Labour and Tory the overwhelming majority of people in Britain will support the police in their struggle against the looter, the mugger, and the anarchist? Is it not a fact that we are now paying the penalty for a decade or more of undermining and subverting respect for decent authority?

The Prime Minister

I agree with both of the main points in the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question. I believe that the overwhelming majority of the British people are fully in support of the police in everything that they are doing and are very grateful to them for the way in which they are carrying out their duty. I agree with him on his second point, that a large part of the problem that we are having now has come from a weakening of authority in many aspects of life over many, many years. This has to be corrected.

Mr. Foot

May I ask the right hon. Lady afresh to consider the proposition that I made earlier that we should have a statement on the Government's proposals before the debate on Thursday? If a statement is made, there will be time for hon. Members to consider the proposals. There may be proposals that some hon. Members favour and some that they do not. If the Government want, as I believe the country requires, a cool debate on Thursday, surely the right hon. Lady can respond to my appeal that we should have a statement from the Home Secretary before the debate takes place.

The Prime Minister

It is quite customary for a Minister to open a debate with a main speech, which is what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will do. He will make a major speech in opening that debate and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will be winding up. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman will find that sufficient.