Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

House of Commons PQs

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [985/245-51]
Editorial comments: 1515-1530.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2586
Themes: Agriculture, British Constitution (general discussions), Executive, Defence (general), Employment, Industry, Monetary policy, Public spending & borrowing, Trade, Foreign policy (Asia), Foreign policy (Middle East), Foreign policy (USA), Foreign policy (USSR & successor states), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU), Labour Party & socialism, Media, Northern Ireland, Science & technology, Security services, Sport
[column 245]

PRIME MINISTER

(ENGAGEMENTS)

Q1. Mr. Palmer

asked the Prime Minister what are the functions of the permanent secretary in the Department of Energy; and whether experience in diplomacy and Oriental languages is a necessary or desirable qualification for this post.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

The functions are similar to those of the official head of any Department, namely to be responsible for the efficient management of the Department and to give assistance to Ministers in carrying out their duties. Proficiency in languages, including those spoken in some major oil-producing countries, although not a necessary qualification, is a distinct asset both in bilateral discussions and international conferences.

Mr. Palmer

With all due respect to the talents of Sir Donald Maitland, was not this a special opportunity to appoint someone as head of a Department whose mind has been sharpened by the harsh disciplines of science and engineering? Why do we go on supposing that to know everything about nothing in particular is a good thing?

The Prime Minister

I shall reply to the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's question first. The hon. Gentleman must not assume that, although he and I have either engineering or scientific qualifications, this necessarily puts us above our fellows in administering Departments, although some of us, of course, would claim to be more equal than others. With regard to choosing an engineer or a scientist as head of that Department, there are, I am afraid, very few candidates available. I am convinced that we have chosen the best person to be permanent secretary of that Department.

Mr. Latham

When the permanent secretary deals with Middle Eastern oil producers does he stress to them that the general directive of Her Majesty's Government is that the State of Israel should continue to exist within secure and defensible borders?

The Prime Minister

This is always stressed whenever we are dealing with the future of the Middle East. Two things need to go ahead together—the recognition [column 246]of the right of Israel to exist behind secure boundaries alongside the recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people.

Mr. Hooley

Is the Prime Minister aware that the appointment of an amateur with no training in science and technology might have been tolerable if she had not abolished the energy commission which would have been able to give the Secretary of State much-needed, good technical advice on matters within his responsibility?

The Prime Minister

I have not the slightest shadow of doubt that David Howellthe Secretary of State and the permanent secretary will receive excellent advice from well qualified scientific people.

NORTHERN REGION

Q2. Mr. Radice

asked the Prime Minister if she will pay an official visit to the Northern region.

The Prime Minister

I shall do so next Friday.

Mr. Radice

Is the right hon. Lady aware that unemployment in the Northern region has risen every month since last November and that most people in the region believe that her Government just could not care less?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will remember his own Government's record of more than doubling the level of unemployment.

Mr. Beith

Will the Prime Minister take note of what is happening in the fishing ports of the North of England? Does she realise that the aid given so far to the industry simply will not last long enough for the fishing industry to survive until the next round of consultations is completed? Is she prepared to make substantial further aid available to the industry?

The Prime Minister

About £3 million was the amount required by the industry. Its distribution is being handled by the industry, and is being used partly for exploring further waters to which the fishing fleets can go. I recognise that there are particular difficulties facing fleets that fish in distant waters. My right hon. Friend Peter Walkerthe Minister of Agriculture, [column 247]Fisheries and Food is in touch with the fishermen about that matter.

Mr. Alexander

Will my right hon. Friend take time today to talk to the Head of Government of Saudi Arabia——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman realises that this is not an open question.

Mr. Alexander

I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be lucky later, but I cannot guarantee it.

Mr. Adley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of the athletes who will go to the Olympic Games——

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are dealing with the Northern region.

Mr. Adley

I was referring to those athletes who come from the Northern region and who are a particularly strong part of our Olympic Games contingent.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I appeal to hon. Members not to try to twist a question into—[Interruption.] Order. Some of those who are shouting are among those who do this. An open question is fair game, but where it is a substantive question I hope that the House will play the game and try to have it that way.

Mr. Robert C. Brown

Before the right hon. Lady goes to the Northern region on Friday, will she please get a decision from the Ministry of Defence on the order for 77 Chieftain tanks so that she can visit Vickers Elswick factory and tell the 350 workers who are now due for redundancy that they will not be made redundant because the order is there?

The Prime Minister

I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that the decision will be ready before I go north on Friday.

PRIME MINISTER

(ENGAGEMENTS)

Q3. Mr. Straw

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 20 May.

The Prime Minister

In addition to my duties in this House, I shall be having [column 248]meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, including one with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dr. Kurt Waldheim. This evening I shall be giving a dinner for Dr. Waldheim.

Mr. Straw

Does the Prime Minister agree that the decision of the Independent Broadcasting Authority to ban the “World in Action” programme on the Government communications headquarters in Hong Kong will suggest to many that serious breaches of security must be involved to justify such a cover-up? Will she say whether she initiated any investigation into these allegations and whether she will make a report to the House in due course?

The Prime Minister

The decision to which the hon. Gentleman referred had no such implications. It was a decision by the IBA, taken wholly independently for reasons which the IBA spelt out at the time it gave the decision.

With regard to the allegations to which the hon. Gentleman refers they were made some time ago, were taken seriously—as they should be—when they were made, were independently investigated and were found largely to be unfounded. But where they were well founded, the requisite improvements were put into operation.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

At a time when the British Government are, correctly, clobbering our growing trade with Iran, will my right hon. Friend point out to President Carter that the American people are again providing money to finance weapons for the Provisional Irish Republican Army at the same time as the American Administration are preventing the Royal Ulster Constabulary from having the handguns that it needs to return the fire?

The Prime Minister

We are being asked to do everything that we can to help our American allies to try to secure the release of the hostages. At the same time, I am very well aware that we asked them to supply a revolver type of pistol for the RUC. My hon. Friend will know that, on the first matter, the Government though it best to lay orders which do not have retrospective effect on existing contracts, and that I would expect to be more formally announced shortly. With regard to the latter point, our request has not yet been turned down, but I am [column 249]grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us forcefully that it is still on the table.

Mr. Foot

Referring to the right hon. Lady's latest reply, may I ask whether she does not agree that the lesson of the last day or two is that U-turns can be conducted with great grace and skill? She is really very good at it when she tries, as we saw over Zimbabwe. May I ask her, therefore, the question which the whole country is asking? When will she start to reverse the policies which have led to the record increase in inflation under her Government?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his compliment. I recognise that it comes from an expert in these matters. With regard to advice from him on matters such as increasing prices, I really do not think that he is an expert in telling us how to get these down, bearing in mind that he was a member of a Government who raised electricity prices by 169 per cent., who raised postal charges by 148 per cent., rail transport by 172 per cent.—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Member's must listen to things that they do not wish to hear.

The Prime Minister

—food charges by 120 per cent., and rates and water charges by 148 per cent.

Mr. Foot

Perhaps I may respond to the right hon. Lady and offer her a few more compliments. When will she be able to bring any prices down? So far, all that she has done is to push them up.

The Prime Minister

I think that the right hon. Gentleman will find that the retail prices index will come down—[Hon. Members: “When?” ] The right hon. Gentleman will know full well when it will come down, for a technical reason. It will come down in July-August. [Hon. Members: “Oh.” ]

Mr. Foot

Will the right hon. Lady now tell us when she thinks the RPI will come down to the figure at which it was when she assumed office?

The Prime Minister

I just hope that it will not go up as high as it did under the right hon. Gentleman's Party before it comes down. It might come down faster if the right hon. Gentleman did not [column 250]urge unions to increase their pay claims and did not urge more spending on the Government, because to urge more spending on the Government is a way of urging more inflation.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the ACARD has published yet another excellent report on research and development in public purchasing affecting all Departments of State. Have the Cabinet considered the recommendations of that report? Apart from herself, which Minister will have responsibility for ensuring that they are carried out?

The Prime Minister

The Government's policy towards public purchasing has been announced from this Dispatch Box. Naturally, we wish all of those who make public purchases, as far as possible, to buy British, commensurate with getting the quality and delivery.

Mr. Molyneaux

In view of tomorrow's visit by the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, does not the right hon. Lady think it advisable, to avoid misunderstanding and misrepresentation, to reaffirm today that undertaking that she has given on other occasions—namely, that she does not contemplate discussing the internal constitutional affairs of the United Kingdom with external representatives of any Government or politicians?

The Prime Minister

The future of the constitutional affairs of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, this Government and this Parliament, and no one else.

Mr. Best

Will my hon. Friend draw to the attention of the British Olympic Committee the revelation, in today's edition of The Times, of a former KGB official and TASS correspondent that several middle-ranking Soviet officials welcomed the call by President Carter for a boycott on the Olympic Games because they hoped that it would make the Kremlin think again about its disastrous decision to force itself upon Afghanistan? Will my right hon. Friend urge Sir Denis Follows to think again in the interests of the British public and the peace of the world?

The Prime Minister

I have today written again to Sir Denis Follows urging him to think again about the decision to [column 251]recommend British athletes to go to Moscow, especially in view of the American decision, the West German decision and the decisions of an increasing number of Governments. I believe that it would be advisable if our International Olympic Committee thought again.

Mr. Bidwell

Does the right hon. Lady applaud the decision taken by the President of France to meet the Russian leaders? Would it not have been better, from the point of view of getting the hostages out of Iran and helping President Carter, if we had not been involved in the silly boycott of the Olympic Games?

The Prime Minister

I have indicated forcefully my view that one way to bring home to the Russian people the enormity of what has happened by their Government invading Afghanistan is to boycott the Olympic Games. That will bring it home to the Russian people more forcefully than anything else. With regard to the President of France, I am not responsible for the President of France.

Mr. Farr

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you think it fair, when 60 or 70 hon. Members are seeking to catch your eye, that the de facto Leader of the Opposition should rise in his place repeatedly and catch your eye on no fewer than three or four occasions? It makes it difficult for other hon. Members to get a word in edgeways.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has raised that issue with me before. As he and the House are aware, I have said that some extra latitude is allowed to official Opposition spokesmen.

Mr. Urwin

Further to that point of Order, Mr. Speaker. Will you take note of the fact that because of the tactics employed by one or two Conservative Members there were several hon. Members representing Northern region constituencies that are greatly affected by high unemployment who were unable to question the Minister on that issue?

Mr. Speaker

We must not use points of order to continue the argument.