HC Deb 09 February 1982 vol 17 cc853-5
Q1. Mr. Myles

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Tuesday 9 February.

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. This evening I hope to have an audience of her Majesty the Queen.

Mr. Myles

During her busy schedule, and even while she relaxes a little, will my right hon. Friend recall her visit to Glenfarclas distillery, when she was presented with the problems of the Scots whisky industry? Will she, as First Lord of the Treasury, prevent any swingeing increase in duty on this doyen of the drink trade, which would jeopardise jobs from the maltings to the blending and bottling plants?

The Prime Minister

I recognise the spirit of my hon. Friend's question and the strength of feeling with which he asks it. The proportion of tax to total cost of a bottle of whisky is now slightly lower than it was at the end of the Labour Administration.

Mr. Foot

Did the right hon. Lady have a chance yesterday or today to study the extremely alarming letter that was published in The Times from the Chief Medical Officer of Health about lead poisoning from petrol? Does she accept the view that brain damage to hundreds of thousands of children might be involved and does she not believe that, in reviewing the letter, much more urgent action must be taken by the Government to deal with the problem?

The Prime Minister

I know of the letter, but the right hon. Gentleman will recollect that last May my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Environmental Services announced a wide-ranging package of measures designed to reduce further people 's exposure to environmental pollution by lead. The measures included a reduction in the maximum permitted amount of lead added to petrol from 0.4 grams per litre to 0.15 grams per litre by the end of 1985. That was the earliest date by which the oil industry could make the necessary changes to its refineries.

The Government's decision closely reflected Sir Henry's views and the reduction schedule gives us the earliest possible substantial reduction in petrol lead emissions that he recommended. Wholly lead-free petrol could be introduced in the United Kingdom only in the long term, because the present generation of cars on British roads could not use it. New engines would have to be designed and brought into service. As the ca manufacturing industry is Europe-wide, a change in British industry would be impossible without prior agreement with other European countries.

Mr. Foot

Is the right hon. Lady really telling the House that the statement to which she has referred took lull account of such a report from the Chief Medical Officer of Health, with the alarming prospects that he underlined? Why cannot Britain take the same steps to protect children from damage as are taken in the United States of America, Japan, Sweden, Australia and many other countries?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that more steps have been taken by the Conservative Government than by any previous Government to reduce the lead content of petrol. As I thought that this question might be raised I inquired carefully. I repeat that the decison announced by my right hon. Friend in May 1981 closely reflected Sir Henry's views. If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to my last point about the design of cars in Europe and the need for a Europe-wide agreement, he would know the answer to the second part of his question.

Mr. Rathbone

May I ask the Prime Minister, on behalf of my constituent, Sir Freddie Laker, although not at his request, and on behalf of his employees and the users of Laker Airways, whether she can spare a moment in her busy day to consider the extension by two months of Laker Airways' operator's certificate and route licenses, without which its future is likely to be very non-assured and all its efforts will come to nothing?

The Prime Minister

I well understand my hon. Friend's concern. As he knows, I am a Freddie Laker fan. Whatever Sir Freddie's difficulties now are, nothing can take away from the great service that he has performed in giving the possibility of travel to people who never dreamed that they would have it. I think that my hon. Friend's specific point relates to the announcement that the licences may have been suspended, or notice given that they are to be suspended within six days. The operative word is "suspension". I understand that they can be "de-suspended", if that is the right word——

Mr. Cryer

It is not a word at all, really.

The Prime Minister

—and that, naturally, the suspension would be terminated if there were a reasonable possibility of Laker Airways being sold in its entirety to someone who could continue to operate it as it was operated.

Mr. David Steel

Returning to the previous question, as the Government are giving four years' notice to both the international oil industry and the international motor car industry, why do we not take the opportunity afforded by that notice to require completely lead-free petrol at the end of that time?

The Prime Minister

I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to what I said towards the end of my lengthy and considered answer. The present generation of cars on United Kingdom roads could not use lead-free petrol. New engines would have to be designed and brought into service. As the car manufacturing industry is Europe-wide, the change would be impossible for British industry withour prior agreement among the European countries concerned.

Obviously,, we are very concerned about the reported effect of lead. That is why we have taken action with regard to lead in petrol. We shall, of course, consider any further measures, but we have to do so in agreement with Europe. We must also consider the wider effect that I mentioned.

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is a constituency question before we return to the open questions.

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