Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th May 1987.
This morning I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. En addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.
Will my right hon. Friend find time today to read the new Department of Health and Social Security study published in the May issue of the Employment Gazette, which confirms that under her premiership pensioners' incomes have risen at twice the rate they did in the 1970s and that pensioners are not only spending more but saving more than they have ever done? Is this not yet another real vindication of the Government's economic policies?
The article referred to received quite wide publicity in the press this morning. The Government have honoured their pledge to pensioners about the basic pension for 1 million more pensioners than there were in 1979. As the article shows, the net income, taking the total income of pensioners as a group — [Interruption.]—Yes, as a group—has gone up far more than the income of the population as a whole. That means that more people are retiring with occupational pensions and other income, so that prosperity is extending to all pensioners, which is exactly what we wish. I commend the article not only to Government Members but especially to Opposition Members.
Does the Prime Minister not find it fascinating that those figures for pensioners' incomes include SERPS, which she is intent on abolishing? Has the Prime Minister seen today's reports that 4 million children live in deep poverty and are more subject to serious illness, early death and low achievement than children of comparable age who are not in poor families? As these numbers are nearly double what they were in 1979 when she came to office, does not that record of increased poverty and deprivation among the most vulnerable group in our society fill her with shame?
First, the right hon. Gentleman is wrong in saying that we will abolish SERPS. He knows full well that we will not and that it was announced that we will not. As usual, he is utterly wrong. I thought he would have been pleased that more people are retiring with an occupational pension. It has been part of our policy that all people who retire should have two pensions—their basic pension plus either an occupational pension or a fall back on SERPS. That is good. I cannot think why he thinks it is bad.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman implied that the higher figure of people on supplementary benefit means that more people are in poverty. Those figures refer not only to supplementary benefit but to incomes which are 140 per cent. of supplementary benefit, which would be an income of about £167 a week. With all due respect, that is not poverty and it is absolutely absurd to say that it is.
Does the Prime Minister, in a very selective view of statistics, want to go on avoiding the truth about the immense spread of child poverty in our country? Does she really think that the £10-odd a week that is provided under DHSS regulations for young children is anything like enough to bring them up on when all evidence shows that £35 a week would be a bare minimum? Does she not agree that, with such an immense spread of poverty, her record over eight years is one of unmitigated shame?
I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the report to which he refers defines poverty as incomes that are 140 per cent. of supplementary benefit. When the report first came out, or a similar report was first published, even The Guardian described such a definition as running counter to common sense— I am sorry, it was the New Society that called it running counter to common sense. The Guardian, which I have here, merely described it as perverse. I could not have chosen a better word myself. The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government's record on social security is excellent in every way.
If the Prime Minister takes her own Government's figures of numbers of children on the supplementary benefit bare rate, there are a million more children in this country now on that bare rate than there were when she came into office. In addition, the Government have cut child benefit. Is that what she is proud of?
What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is that if we had not put up the supplementary benefit rate as much as we have there would be fewer people in poverty because the definition would be different. That is absolutely ridiculous. I remind him that supplementary benefit rates for children under five and aged 11 to 12 have increased by about 29 per cent. after inflation has been taken into account.
Will my right hon. Friend have the opportunity today to study the latest unemployment statistics from the parliamentary constituency of Corby, in which she will notice that the year-on-year decline from 1986 to 1987 of those out of work and claiming benifit is no less than 22 per cent., and in the wards where unemployment has been highest it is up to 30 per cent.? Will my right hon. Friend recognise that the single most important reason why that has been possible is the combination of Government policies applied to an area of high unemployment?
Yes, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving the House such an excellent record.
As the Secretary of State for the Environment has withdrawn the threat to dump nuclear waste on sites in England, will the Prime Minister give her guarantee that there will be no dumping of such waste in Scotland?
As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, there was a report that it would be no more expensive to store low-level nuclear waste with medium-level nuclear waste and we shall consider, along with NIREX, the best place to do so.
I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's Green Paper proposing further reforms of the trade unions and giving additional rights to their members has been widely welcomed by rank and file trade unionists? Is she further aware that, according to the Labour party's general secretary, Mr. Larry Whitty, basing himself on Labour party research, a majority of rank and file trade unionists no longer vote Labour? Is that any wonder, given the determination of the Labour party to scrap my right hon. Friend's popular policies in that area?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that an increasing number of trade unionists will continue to vote Conservative, and that more and more will do so. We have done more than any other Government, for rank and file trade unionists, not only in giving more powers back to them, but because real take-home pay for the man on average earnings has risen by more than 21 per cent. during the lifetime of Conservative Governments. In addition, an increasing number of employees share in the success of their companies, either through profit-sharing or share-ownership schemes, which, again, are part of our policy for extending property ever more widely among our people.
Was it by design, or by error, that the Prime Minister yesterday failed to read that part of the text that she had given to the press about MI5 and using information in a way that it ought not to he used?
The part of the text, which some members of the press must have given to the hon. Gentleman, was excluded because it added nothing whatever to the statement. As he has seen it, he should know.
Will my right hon. Friend take time today to study the proposals of the London strategic policy unit for transferring the powers and responsibities for policing the Metropolis to an assembly of London councillors? Does she agree that it would be most undesirable to change the present arrangements for policing the Metropolis, and that the proposal is just one more example of the loony Left undermining the police?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It would be absolutely disastrous for impartial policing to hand over the policing of the Metropolis in the way that my hon. Friend has said that the Opposition intend to do.
In view of the Irangate inquiry now proceeding in Congress, will the Prime Minister give an assurance about whether representations were made to representatives of the British Government by those of the United States Government to provide Iran or the Contras with weapons or support? Will she give a categorical assurance that no such weapons or support were supplied either to Iran or to the Contras?
As a former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman knows full well that we never reveal communications between Governments. He operated that policy while he was Foreign Secretary.
I have made our position on Iran clear. It is exactly the same as my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary indicated in October 1984. I have also made it clear that the British Government have not authorised the supply of Blowpipe to the Contras. Our actions have been entirely consistent with our support for a political rather than a military settlement of the problems of Central America.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Does the Prime Minister recall that she has twice done me the courtesy of meeting me when there have been major closures in my constituency, at Gartcosh and Martin and Black? Will she bear in mind that this week MacKinnons Knitwear in Scotland issued close on 1,000 redundancy notices, yet the Secretary of State for Scotland refuses to meet me, referring me instead to a junior Minister, whom I have already met? Given that unemployment in Scotland has risen by 2,300 each month since the Prime Minister took office, will she use the opportunity in her speech in Perth next week to apologise to the Scottish people, not least for the intransigence and insensitivity of the present Secretary of State for Scotland?
The present Secretary of State for Scotland does an excellent job, as did his predecessor.
With regard to Dawson International's proposed closure of its subsidiary MacKinnons, that is a commercial decision for the company to make. Officials of the Industry Department for Scotland are in contact with the company and will help in any way possible to try to find a buyer for the business.
May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention — especially as this is the day of the local elections — to the fact that the Labour-controlled Norwich city council has kept empty a house that it owns worth £100,000 for the past five and a half years? Does she agree that that is disgraceful, and that the sole solution to the problem of homelessness lies in ensuring that properties are occupied, not in keeping them empty for five and a half years?
I agree with my hon. Friend that keeping property or land empty or unused for a very long time is a very bad use of assets. I agree with him, too, that I should be delighted if the natural consequences of voting against any council that did that were to follow.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave some moments ago.
Will the Prime Minister assure me that adequate funding will be made available by the Secretary of State for Wales to keep open the Lucas Industries factory at Ystradgynlais and save 700 jobs there? The Prime Minister knows that Lucas has lost orders because Honda has given instrumentation contracts to Nippon Seiki and that this is an insidious penetration of the British car market. Austin Rover has also given a contract to it. Will the Prime Minister assure me that adequate funding will be made available so that those workers can continue to work at that factory for the forseeable future?
No, and the hon. Gentleman is quite aware that the answer must be no. If funding were given automatically to every company that had the misfortune to close, money would be piled into companies that were unable to compete and far less money would then be available for building new businesses, of which Wales has many, to create the work of the future. Of course I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman about the redundancies at Lucas and I understand his concern for his constituents, but the sourcing of individual components, whether by Austin Rover or by Honda, must be their decision. If Japanese component companies are set up in this country, we set limits on the number of components that must be purchased from this country, but they must be of excellent quality and price competitive. I understand that a Lucas subsidiary hopes to establish an expansion project at Ystradgynlais. That would safeguard employment at the site, and all concerned are doing everything possible to ensure that the development proceeds.
I shall take all genuine points of order after business questions.
Order. The hon. Gentleman was called at Prime Minister's Question Time. I shall take all genuine points of order immediately after business questions, in their usual place.