Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Margaret Thatcher

House of Commons PQs

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [31/664-68]
Editorial comments: 1515-1530.
Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 2274
Themes: Executive, Employment, Industry, By-elections, Privatized & state industries, Pay, Taxation, Trade, European Union (general), Foreign policy (Western Europe - non-EU), Social security & welfare, Transport
[column 664]

PRIME MINISTER

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Tilley

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for Thursday 11 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. This evening I will be presiding at a dinner for the Royal Academy trust appeal.

Mr. Tilley

Will the Prime Minister find time to congratulate the chairman of the 1922 Committee on his reselection—sorry, re-election? If she does so, will she remember that he is also the chairman of the newly formed and newly licensed Freddie Laker Holidays? Will she take the opportunity, after having booked a one-way winter cruise for the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), to ask whether the thousands of people who lost money under the old Freddie Laker venture will get their money back from the new one?

The Prime Minister

I gladly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) on his re-election. On Conservative Benches we do not have to be reselected. With regard to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, the Government naturally regret the fact that many Skytrain passengers are still waiting to be repaid the money that they lost after the failure of Laker Airways. The new package holiday company is properly constituted. The Civil Aviation Authority is obliged to consider any application purely on its own merits. The regulations do not provide for a role for Government either in deciding an application or in handling appeals against a decision.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Has my right hon. Friend noted the sad occasion of the death of Sir Richard Barlas, who was widely regarded as the greatest Clerk of the House in living memory and who was held in the greatest esteem and affection by so many hon. Members?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. As you know, Mr. Speaker, Sir Richard Barlas served the House with total dedication for 33 years and for three years as our most distinguished Clerk of the House. I believe that the whole House will join in paying tribute to him and in offering our sympathy to his family.

Mr. Foot

May I join the right hon. Lady in offering our sympathy to Lady Barlas and in expressing our thanks for the service that Sir Richard gave to the House over such a long period with such distinction?

May I take the right hon. Lady back to the answers that she gave a couple of days ago in the House? Can she now tell us how much she proposes to claw back from the pensioners? Has she had a chance to refer to paragraph 2.25 of the autumn statement, which states that the reduction of expenditure may be £180 million? Is it not an utter absurdity, when the Government are calculating that they might reduce income tax by £1 billion or £2 billion, that they should try to recoup such a sum from the pensioners?

The Prime Minister

After next November, pensioners will have exactly the amount that they would have had on the basis of protecting them against increased [column 665]prices. In addition, this year they have received an extra 2 to 2½ per cent. Bearing in mind that 1 per cent. extra on retirement pensions costs £150 million, the extra amount this year will be about £375 million. We are talking not about clawback but about an extra amount provided for this year.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Lady has at least now had the courage to produce the figure. Will she confirm that this matter will have to be carried through by legislation? In those circumstances, does she think that she can carry such a mean and miserable measure through the House? The Labour Opposition will certainly fight it all the way, and I imagine that there are still some hon. Members on the Conservative Benches.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman has not understood. The £375 million is the extra amount provided for this year over and above that which would have been required for inflation. That amount has been met by the working population through their contributions. We have given an extra amount this year.

Mr. Latham

Will my right hon. Friend consider a constructive suggestion on how to confront the new French domestic protectionist campaign and the problems of cars coming in from Spain at an unfair tariff? Will she direct that all these cars and so on should be unloaded at Melton Mowbray, which is just as good a dock as Poitiers?

The Prime Minister

I am aware of the reported regulation to which my hon. Friend refers. We have discussed with the French Government some of their proposals for restricting imports into their country and pointed out that we cannot continue with an open trading system if other countries put up barriers against trade from this or other countries. We shall vigorously pursue the Spanish issue through the Community. It is totally unfair that we should have an import barrier of 4 per cent. while Spain, for the same cars, has an import barrier of 37 per cent. We must pursue that through the Commission.

Mr. David Steel

For the last couple of weeks there have been reports about the right hon. Lady's intention to set up a Department of her own in Whitehall. When will she make a statement about this and what would be the cost of such a Department?

The Prime Minister

I am not setting up a Department. I have a Prime Minister's Office. From time to time there have been considerable changes in that office. Under previous Prime Ministers a policy unit was established, and before that a Central Policy Review Staff, which belongs to the Cabinet Office. The CPRS used to have a foreign affairs unit. It does not do so at present, and I feel that we should have some foreign affairs advice in addition to the other advice available in No. 10, but through the Prime Minister's Office, not a non-existent Prime Minister's Department.

Q2. Mr. John Townend

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 11 November.

The Prime Minister

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

Mr. Townend

Is my right hon. Friend aware that because of the widespread resentment at the high level of water rates there is little public sympathy for the water workers' wage claim? Does she agree that their work is not [column 666]comparable with that of the miners and, therefore, that any pay increase should be more in line with the pay of NHS and local authority manual workers?

The Prime Minister

I understand that negotiations with the water industry are taking place today. The Government are not a party to them. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that there will be no public sympathy at all for those who seek to disrupt essential services purely for their own personal benefit.

Mr. Meacher

Is not the proposed Britoil sale infamous, bearing in mind that two years ago those shares were valued at £2 billion to £2½billion, whereas today it is estimated that the sale of 51 per cent. of the shares will not produce 51 per cent. of that valuation or anything like it, but something even less than half? Is this not a colossal rip-off at the taxpayers' expense? If the district auditor would see fit to penalise such actions at local level and surcharge councillors, as he would, should not the Secretary of State for Energy be compelled to get the agreement of the Comptroller and Auditor General before proceeding with this act of robbery?

The Prime Minister

No. The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. Nigel LawsonMy right hon. Friend made a full statement yesterday. An offer has been made and full details are available. It is to be made by a tender which is designed to achieve a fair market price for what is being sold.

Mr. Hall Miller

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the result of the Northfield by-election, and the speeches that we have heard from the Opposition Benches this past week, clearly show that the Labour Party has no credible alternative policies to put before the country and that, of the scurrilous smears and ludicrous claims strewn around the streets by the Liberals and their allies, the only one that has any semblance of truth is that the Liberal Party could stop us winning—in other words, that a vote for the Liberals is a vote for Labour?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend and cannot improve on one word of what he said.

Retirement Age

Q3. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

asked the Prime Minister if she will make it the policy of Her Majesty's Government to equalise the retirement age of men and women.

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, although a common pension age, coupled with effective and worthwhile provision for flexible retirement, is one of our long-term objectives.

Mr. Bennett

Is it not rather puzzling that many women who are forced to retire at the age of 60 would like to continue working, while at the same time many men who are forced to go on working until the age of 65 would like to be able to retire earlier? Is it not high time that there was a flexible retirement policy that allowed people to retire at a time that suited them and which suited the type of work that they were doing?

The Prime Minister

The national insurance scheme was very much designed with some flexibility in mind. As the hon. Gentleman knows, 60 is the minimum age at which a women can retire on full retirement pension, but assuming that her employer continues that work, she is [column 667]free to carry on until the age of 65, thereby gaining extra benefit for each extra year of service. A women's pension becomes automatic at the age of 65. The same is true for a man, except that the relevant ages are 65 and 70. Exactly that flexibility is built into the system.

Mr. Forman

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members would support the idea of greater flexibility in retirement? In that context, will she lend her full support to the job release scheme and see whether it can be expanded?

The Prime Minister

As my hon. Friend knows, the job release scheme was designed for men over 60 who have been on the unemployment list for more than a year and have been drawing supplementary benefit. They can become permanently retired. It is an excellent scheme and many people take advantage of it. We constantly consider whether there is any way of expanding it, but we have no proposals to make at present.

Mr. Alfred Morris

Why are the Government still refusing to publish the Think Tank report on the future of the Welfare State? As the British people paid for it, why are they not allowed to read it and make a judgment on it? What is there to hide?

The Prime Minister

There is no report. A paper put forward some proposals on further work. That paper was not discussed, and the Think Tank is not doing that further work. In any event, the advice offered by the Think Tank is advice within Government and is not automatically published under any Government.

Mr. Lawrence

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, had the Government accepted the Opposition's [column 668]advice and tied the pension to the pensioners' price index instead of to the RPI, the pension would now be 3 or 4 per cent. lower?

The Prime Minister

That is true. Had the increase in pensions from November 1978 to date been made in accordance with the pensioners' price index, the pension would be 3 or 4 per cent. below what it is.

Mr. Rooker

What would the level of pensions be now if the law on prices and earnings as it existed in 1979 were in operation? Does the Prime Minister agree that people deserve a decent pension when they retire, irrespective of their age? Does she believe that her prospects of getting a clawback Bill through the House in 1983 have improved since 1981, when the Government did the same thing, the Bill was opposed by only one Conservative Member and was approved of by those on the Conservative Benches, who now say that she should not do this again?

The Prime Minister

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has forgotten that during the first year of the present Government we had to make up for the 1.9 to 2 per cent. undershoot by the Labour Government. The Conservative Government succeeded in making it up in the first year. Since then we have agreed to price-protect the pension. The hon. Gentleman and the House must remember that the burden falls not on those who ask for more, but on the working population. The retirement pension is a straightforward transfer between the incomes of the working population and the incomes of pensioners. Already the national insurance contribution of the employee is 9 per cent. and that of the employer is 10.45 per cent., and the reserve in the national insurance fund is going down. We must consider those who draw benefits from the national insurance fund and the level of contributions that are paid by the working population.