HC Deb 09 February 1982 vol 17 cc856-8
Q3. Mr. Robert Atkins

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

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Atkins

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern of Conservative Members about statements, such as those emanating from NATO recently, which suggest that the RAF will be "light" by 100 planes by the end of this year? Will she prevail upon her right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to allow greater flexibility within the defence budget so that we may fulfil our election pledges on defence as well as assure the jobs and stability of our world-beating aerospace and defence industries?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is about right on the reduction in aircraft by mid-1982. The reduction relates to Vulcans, Canberras, Shackletons and Buccaneers, but he has, perhaps, forgotten that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence told the House more than a year ago about the early withdrawal of older aircraft types in order to preserve the major investment programme about which my hon. Friend is rightly concerned. We are fulfilling our election pledges and also the NATO pledge.

I should point out to my hon. Friend that defence procurement has increased considerably under the Conservative Government. We took over from the Labour Government a procurement programme of£2.9 billion. This year the figure is£5.5 billion, so we are really doing our stuff on defence procurement and honouring our election pledges.

On my hon. Friend's last point, we recognised the advantages to programme managers of introducing some form of end-year flexibility in respect of capital or equivalent expenditure—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long"]—and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is looking at this again. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is so much noise that I cannot hear the Prime Minister. She is entitled to complete her answer.

Mr. James Callaghan

On a related question, is the Prime Minister aware that the Government's decisions to withdraw and pay off HMS "Endurance" when she returns from the South Atlantic is an error that could have serious consequences? Is she further aware that this stale old proposition was put to me on more than one occasion when I was Prime Minister and after considering it I turned it down flat? Will she please do the same?

The Prime Minister

I recognise that this was a very difficult decision for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are many competing claims on the defence budget, even though we are increasing it substantially. He will also know that the defence capability of that ship is extremely limited. My right hon. Friend therefore felt that other claims on the defence budget should have greater priority.

Mr. Butcher

Bearing in mind that British Rail loses£2 million per day even when fully operational, does my right hon. Friend agree that the further deterioration of its financial position as a result of the current dispute provides an overwhelming reason for privatisation of its activities both within and outside the rail network?

The Prime Minister

I wholly agree with my hon. Friend that there are many aspects of British Rail that could yet be privatised. Some have already been privatised, but I hope that British Rail will press ahead with further privatisation measures. I also wholly agree with my hon. Friend about British Rail's losses. I believe that they will be even more far-reaching than the purely financial losses, in that they may well involve losses in freight and passenger business for ever.

Mr. Meacher

Is the Prime Minister aware that for a mere£500 snoopers will be able to obtain private and confidential information from personal, medical, financial and police records on her or on any Member of the House or indeed any citizen of this country? Is that not utterly wrong? Will the Prime Minister give a guarantee that the Government will not only introduce a White Paper on this subject, but will also legislate on this matter within the next 12 months?

The Prime Minister

I saw the newspaper report this morning. I share the hon. Gentleman's distaste that this information should be available. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be introducing a White Paper this year. We agree that legislation is urgent. I hope that it will come forward in the next Session of Parliament.