HC Deb 03 November 1983 vol 47 cc996-1000
Q1. Mr. Hal Miller

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 3 November.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

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. Miller

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the House of the importance of next month's meeting of Heads of European Governments in Athens for much-needed reform of the Community budget? Does she accept that she and the Foreign Secretary deserve the support of both sides of the House in their endeavours to bring about an early and acceptable solution to that problem?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is correct. The meeting at Athens is extremely important because it will involve the reform of the common agricultural policy and the reform of the method used and the amounts that the various states contribute to the budget. It will follow a series of other meetings of Foreign Ministers at which my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has been pursuing our viewpoint. vigorously and steadfastly, and with his customary total grasp of the complexities involved.

Mr. Kinnock

I earnestly welcome the fall of 10,000 in the unemployment trend, but ask the Prime Minister how long it will be, at this rate, before we can regain the 1.9 million jobs lost since she first took office?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome of the small reduction in unemployment. We hope that the reduction will prove to be greater in the coming months. How long it will be before we get back to lower levels of unemployment will depend upon the attitudes taken by those who work in industry, the success of those who design in industry, on unit costs, way costs per unit and on how we are able to sell and compete in the world against those who would take our business both here and abroad.

Mr. Kinnock

While those may be contributory factors, does not the right hon. Lady recognise that the Government have a direct and central responsibility? Can she afford to wait, because at the present rate it will take 16 years to get those 1.9 million jobs back? As today's better figures are almost entirely a product of a mini-recovery fueled by record household borrowing, can the right hon. Lady tell us whether she thinks this is a dependable upturn in the economy?

The Prime Minister

There are a number of indicators that would seem to suggest that the recovery is under way [Interruption.] I am naturally cautious, and the recovery, as I have frequently said, is patchy and uneven, but industrial output is up, and gross national product is up. As to the right hon. Gentleman's question on unemployment and what a Government can do in the present circumstances to reduce it, my reply is that they can keep down inflation, because by keeping down inflation the Government help industry to be competitive. Inflation is down and it is significant that at a time when inflation has been down for some considerable time, employment is turning up. The Government can also keep down overheads such as rates and national insurance surcharge. The right hon. Gentleman's Government were very adept at putting up national insurance surcharge, but we have removed £2 billion worth of it.

Mr. Bottomley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the welcome substantial increases last year in the output of cars and steel owes much to the decisions taken within those industries about getting their prices right and in getting their productivity output up? Does she further agree that it would be wrong for the Leader of the Oppositon to expect any political leader, Conservative or Labour, to be able to make up for bad decisions taken by others? We should not take all the credit for the good decisions. We should welcome the output improvements.

The Prime Minister

I think that the welcome figures for car production, which were 23 per cent. up in the latest six months over the previous six months and 28 per cent. higher than a year earlier, owe something to what my hon. Friend said. The excellent results in productivity are much better than previous results although we still have some way to go to compete fully with our competitors. Good design and the determination of those who work in the car industry to compete with other car industries the world over is welcomed on both sides of the House.

Mr. Steel

As the Prime Minister is personally committed to cutting public expendture, will she explain why the quango that she set up to monitor local authority spending has started its work by paying its members and staff salaries higher than those in local authorities or in the Civil Service?

The Prime Minister

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the new Audit Commission. It has a highly responsible job to do and it must get the best people available to do that job. I expect that the Commission will show up exactly where there are extravagances in local authorities and will be able to point to where economies can be found.

Mr. Churchill

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the Labour party has adopted as policy the concept of a nuclear freeze, first advanced by the Kremlin? Is it not the case that if such a policy were to be adopted it would mean the endorsement of the presently unacceptably high nuclear stockpiles of both super-powers, would undermine the possibility of achieving multilateral disarmament negotiations, and would let the Soviet Union off the hook of having to reduce by even a single missile?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend. To suggest a nuclear freeze in some aspects of nuclear missiles would freeze in a Soviet superiority on intermediate missiles. Such a superiority would not enable us to reduce weapons. Our policy is to reduce the stockpile of nuclear weapons so that we have a balance.

Q2. Mr. Meadowcroft

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 3 November.

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Meadowcroft

Will the Prime Minister solve a puzzle for us? Will she explain how, despite her protestations that the National Health Service is safe in her Government's hands, and despite the global figures quoted by the Secretary of State, hundreds of hospital beds cannot be used, complete wards are being closed and even whole hospitals are now threatened?

The Prime Minister

I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that under Labour and Conservative Governments hospitals have been closed. Indeed, under the last Labour Government more hospitals were closed than under the last Conservative Government—a good deal more. They are often closed for good reasons. Some of the smaller ones are closed to enable much better and specialised services to be undertaken at some of the larger hospitals. Whatever the hon. Gentleman wishes to say about the National Health Service, I can only point out that the latest available figures, which compare 1978 with 1981, show that there are now 640,000 more inpatient and day cases, 2 million more outpatient and emergency cases being treated, 18 per cent. more geriatric inpatients, 14 per cent. more geriatric outpatients, 2 million more courses of dental treatment, 620,000 more sight tests and 400,000 more people, many of them elderly, visited at home.

That is a splendid improvement over the record of any previous Government.

Mr. Squire

As a fellow Greater London Member, will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the latest action by the GLC in appointing to the board of London Transport someone who is not merely the chairman of the London Labour party but a 25-year-old with no previous relevant experience? Does she agree that in addition to probably hampering the operational arrangements of London Transport, the appointment lends further weight to the argument for transferring the whole responsibility for London Transport from the GLC at the earliest possible opportunity?

The Prime Minister

I saw the report to which my hon. Friend refers but I note that the appointment in question has yet to be approved by the full council. When it meets I hope it will take careful note of its statutory responsibilities to consult the chairman and to appoint people with the necessary experience and qualifications. I also take note of my hon. Friend's second point, that if some of these matters go through we must consider taking action to protect the rights of Londoners.

Mr. Terry Fields

Does the Prime Minister accept that her justification for carrying out policy on behalf of the Government because it was part of her manifesto should apply equally to local authorities? Does she agree that Liverpool city council, in creating 1,000 jobs, building houses for people in need and reducing rents by £2, is carrying out its democratic policies, or does democracy extend only to Tory party policies?

The Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman knows, local authorities have precisely those powers that this House agrees to give them and from time to time those powers are changed. Public expenditure must still be found from taxes or rates or by borrowing or printing money. Therefore one must have regard to the total burden on the private sector because, on the whole, the private sector creates the wealth to sustain the public sector.

Mr. Robert Atkins

Is my right hon. Friend aware that concern has been expressed to hon. Members about the use of funds within the south Atlantic fund? While in no sense being critical of the humanity and attention that the administrators of the fund have given to the dispositions that they have made, will she recognise that there is concern, and will she give consideration to seeing how the extra £2 million should be spent?

The Prime Minister

I will, of course, communicate my hon. Friend's concern. I have noticed a certain amount of concern expressed in the press. The south Atlantic fund is governed by the charity laws, which it must obviously uphold, but I understand that my hon. Friend is asking whether the money yet needs to be transferred to the service charities when there might still be calls upon it. I will, of course, communicate my hon. Friend's concern to the trustees of the south Atlantic fund.

Q3. Mr. Bidwell

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 3 November.

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Bidwell

Has the right hon. Lady had a chance to study the widespread comment on television and in the press on the possibility of peace demonstrators being shot at Greenham common and elsewhere? Did she see the interview with a woman demonstrator who said that British soldiers would not fire but that American defence forces might fire? In those circumstances, will she disown the clumsy remarks of the Secretary of State for Defence two or three days ago? Does she realise that if such events took place there would be the biggest demonstration in our history?

The Prime Minister

The arrangements for the protection of nuclear installations in this country are precisely the same as they have always been. There is no difference at all. We did not suddenly get this alarm and such questions on previous occasions. I refer the hon. Gentleman to what the press has said about it. The Guardian said: Mr. Heseltine will go to inordinate lengths to prevent the business of cruise deployment leading to bloodshed … The Army and the police in their thousands are not there for fun. They are there precisely to avert such incidents. But can one logically envisage a crowd of demonstrators bouncing all over cruise warheads whilst the Parachute Regiment stands silently by? No. And she"— me— is right … that one couldn't expect a Churchill or Attlee or Callaghan Government—or a prospective Kinnock one — to reach any other conclusion.

Mr. Nicholls

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the report in The Times this morning that CND intends to send 10,000 pamphlets to members of the armed forces? Will she condemn in the strongest terms that latest attempt by Pat Arrowsmith and the CND to subvert the forces of the Crown?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend and I surely take the same view — members of Her Majesty's armed forces will know precisely what to do with those leaflets.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

If we are to assume that the Prime Minister wishes to be considered by the nation as a thoroughly honest person—

Mr. Adley

She is.

Mr. Atkinson

—may I ask whether the right hon. Lady this morning remonstrated with the Secretary of State for Employment, who said that unemployment had gone down when he really meant that it was the number of people claiming unemployment benefit that had gone down? Did he not, by issuing figures from his Department, give rise to a myth that the Prime Minister has repeated this afternoon, ignoring the 4.6 million people now looking for work? Rather than employment going down, it is steadily climbing.

The Prime Minister

The statistics are collected on a basis well known to the hon. Gentleman, and by people who faithfully and with total honesty carry out their jobs. Both the crude figures and the seasonally adjusted figures calculated on that basis are down. The numbers benefiting from special employment measures were fully detailed in the same press notice. The total number in this category is estimated to be 613,000.

Special employment measures, including the youth training scheme, are for those who cannot get jobs. They will ensure that, in many cases, people are better trained. There is still a shortage in some areas of skilled and trained labour.