HC Deb 04 February 1982 vol 17 cc536-40
Q2. Mr. Winnick

asked the Prime Minister if she will

state her official engagements for 4 February.

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. Winnick

Does the Prime Minister agree that the

Manpower Services Commission report that unemployment is now nearly 4 million and is unlikely to be reduced on the basis of present policies for at least four years shows that the pessimistic speeches by most of her leading ministerial colleagues are probably justified? What does the Chancellor of the Exchequer mean in his interview on television tonight by his reference to his anxiety about losing the next election and by his comment that his Conservative critics should be selling the Government message?

The Prime Minister

I shall try to answer the hon.

Gentleman's little clutch of questions. First, the level of unemployment is best expressed in the way in which it has always been expressed by successive Governments, in terms of the number of registered unemployed, because that is an actual count. As the hon. Gentleman knows, those figures are produced once a month.

On forecasts of unemployment, we take precisely the view that the Labour Government took. We do not produce forecasts for unemployment. As to whether it has reached a peak, if the hon. Gentleman looks back over the record for many years, particularly the record of the Labour Government, he will know that the figure tends to peak when the largest number of school leavers come out in August and September. At a time when many people are reaching school leaving age, it is likely that there would be more unemployed.

On the hon. Gentleman's last question, 1 think that this is the first time that I have been asked in the House about an interview that has not yet been transmitted.

Mr. McCrindle

Has the Prime Minister seen the wide coverage given in this morning's press to the subject of index-linked pensions for the public service? I appreciate that the Cabinet may still be considering the Scott report, but can the Prime Minister say at this stage whether the Government are prepared to accept the principal recommendation of that report, that, notwithstanding the possibility of increased contributions, index-linked pensions in the public service should remain?

The Prime Minister

I have no announcement to make on this subject, and I should be very surprised if an announcement were made tomorrow. Our aim is to ensure that pensions for public servants are fair to taxpayers in general, as well as to employees, pensioners and their dependants. The conditions and contributions that obtain in relation to the many different groups in the public service—civil servants, police, nurses teachers—are very different, and we are trying to sort out the whole matter.

Mr. Foot

May I revert to the question that was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and the Prime Minister's complaint that she had never previously been asked to disown one of her ministerial colleagues' speeches in advance. Might it not be easier to disown them in advance than to have to defend them afterwards? Will the right hon. Lady look afresh at the report of the Manpower Services Commission? While it is perfectly true that there are different ways of making the estimate, does not the Prime Minister attach great importance to a report from a body of this character that shows, as the TUC has so long claimed, that the real unemployment figure is nearer 4 million than 3 million, and that the long-term unemployment will rise rapidly over the next few years from three-quarters of a million now to 1 million during the course of this year and 1¼million by 1986? Does she not regard those figures as very serious?

The Prime Minister

The interview with my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to go out tonight, and I am delighted that it has received so much advance publicity. I hope, therefore, that everyone will watch it. We must arrange for all future interviews to be recorded, so as to get this amount of advance publicity.

We regard the present number of unemployed very seriously. When it comes to the numbers, we follow the practice—as distinct from the propaganda—of the right hon. Gentleman and stick to the numbers that are actually registered.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Lady does not seem to appreciate that the figures are those put out by the Manpower Services Commission. Were those figures included in those that the Cabinet and the Government had before them when her right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made his gloomy prophecies—apparently to be repeated by the Chancellor tonight—with which she is now firmly associated, because she has backed to the hilt the speech that was made by the Leader of the House?

The Prime Minister

We could hardly take into account figures that we received only late yesterday. In any event, I follow the practice of the right hon. Gentleman. When he was Secretary of State for Employment he specifically said from the Dispatch Box that he did not get involved in forecasts. I do not get involved in forecasts. We stick to the actual number each month, which is an actual count.

Q4. Mr. John Carlisle

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 4 February.

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Carlisle

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread support in the country among trade unionists and on the Government Benches for the Employment Bill, which is to be read a Second time on Monday? In the course of her very busy day will she ascertain from the Social Democratic and Liberal Parties whether they intend to support the Bill or whether, as usual, they will give their wholehearted support to the Socialists?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend. There is indeed widespread support among trade unionists and non-trade unionists alike for my right hon. Friend's Employment Bill—I repeat, widespread support. In reply to the latter part of my hon. Friend's question, it is very rare for the SDP or the Liberals to support the Government; they usually support the Socialists.

Mr. David Steel

On a different topic, will the Prime Minister be meeting today any of her Foreign Ministers, and if so will she review British Government policy towards the situation in El Salvador? Is she aware that, since Tuesday, when she was extolling the virtues of the elections there, the Canadian Foreign Minister, among others, has cast doubt on their validity? Will she make it clear on behalf of her Government that it is our view in this country that the maintenance of Western civilisation is not best upheld by military and political support for authoritarian regimes?

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we always condemn and view with concern continuing violence, from whatever quarter it comes, and we shall continue to do so. Nevertheless, elections have been arranged in El Salvador, and we hope that they will be successful and carried out in a way that means that they are fair.

Mr. Stoddart

Is the Prime Minister aware that on 18 February there will be a lobby of pensioners of Parliament to protest against the dire consequences of Government policy on their living standards? As, in the past, she has refused to see a deputation from such a lobby, will she assure us today, bearing in mind that she should be concerned about our senior citizens, that she will see that deputation?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir.

Mr. John Browne

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people find it confusing and unjust that, while monopolies in the private sector are made illegal, they are legally protected in the State-owned sector at vast financial cost to the nation? Obviously privatisation takes a lot of time, but does she accept that the legal protection given to the State-owned monopolies can and should be repealed as a matter of urgency?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the view behind my hon. Friend's question that monopolies tend to be bad for the public. By definition, there is no competition, and therefore they lack the spur to efficiency that is found in undertakings that are subject and open to competition. As my hon. Friend knows, we have gone some way towardsgetting rid of monopolies. Legislation exists—but has not yet been implemented—for British Telecommunications, and plans exist, once the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Bill reaches the statute book, for the abolition of the British Gas Corporation monopoly. After that, we hope to go further.

Miss Joan Lestor

Will the Prime Minister revise the answer that she gave this afternoon about the register of unemployed bearing in mind that in October of this year the register will be compiled in a quite different way—that is, on the basis of those claiming benefit, and not on the basis of those who are eligible for work—and that, in one instance alone, this will disqualify many married women from being included in the unemployment figures?

The Prime Minister

It seems to me to be better to

base the register on those who are claiming benefit and social security benefit than to follow the present system whereby people have to register in more than one place. That is extremely wasteful in administrative costs.

Q5. Mr. Adley

asked the Prime Minister if she will list

her official engagements for 4 February.

The Prime Minister

I refer my hon. Friend to the

reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Adley

Although more than 200,000 people have

now been able to buy their council homes as a result of legislation that was promoted by the Government and passed by the House, is my right hon. Friend aware that almost 440,000 people are still waiting to complete the purchase of their homes, many of them in areas where the local authorities are doing everything that they can to prevent the transfer from taking place? What will she say to those people, who have a right to expect that laws passed by Parliament will be implemented by local authorities?

Mr. Winnick

Private tenants?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, my

right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is taking strenuous action to ensure that those who have a right to purchase their council homes can exercise that right. My hon. Friend is quite right when he says that about 200,000 people have taken advantage of the Act, but there are still about 200,000 applications that have been made but not processed. In my view, those applications should be processed with all possible speed so that ownership can be properly transferred to the present tenants.

Mr. Mikardo

Has the Prime Minister had an opportunity to consider the evidence given to the Select Committee on Industry and Trade last Wednesday by Sir Michael Edwardes and his colleagues, in which he said that they would discuss the alternative plan put forward for preserving the truck division with shop stewards at Bathgate and Leyland? That statement has turned out to be untrue. Is the right hon. Lady aware that such occurrences damage confidence in the management of British Leyland? Will she ask her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry to have a look at the matter?

The Prime Minister

I have not seen any more than the evidence published in the press. Under the rules of the House, I do not think that I would be able to see any more— —

Mr. Skinner

How long has the right hon. Lady been a Member of Parliament?

The Prime Minister

When a Select Committee is involved, I see only what is published in the press— [Interruption] —until the report has been published and laid before the House. [Interruption.] I have seen the evidence that the press has produced and I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He rightly takes the view that such matters are for the commercial judgment of the board.