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.
During her busy day, will my right hon. Friend consider the plight of community charge payers in Lancashire, where the Socialist-controlled county council's provisional budget represents the equivalent of a 30 per cent. increase in the rates? Does my right hon. Friend agree that this contrasts sharply with the position in the Conservative-controlled borough of Westminster, whose council has recently announced a community charge below £200 and below the Government's estimate? Will she therefore, with the Secretary of State for the Environment, consider community charge capping Lancashire, which is both high spending and incompetent?
There is no justification for the kind of increases that my hon. Friend has just mentioned in the case of Lancashire. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has made it perfectly clear that if authorities continue to budget excessively he will not hesitate to cap them. They should have more consideration for their residents. I am very glad that the Conservative Westminster council has given such an excellent lead with a community charge below £200. Other councils will follow.
On the subject of capping, can the Prime Minister tell the House what thought she has given to imposing a cap on mortgage rates?
About 3 million more people are now able to take out mortgages than in 1979, and there has been a much greater increase in the number of people who own their own homes compared with the position some 10 years ago. That is a very good record.
Why cannot the Prime Minister stop dodging the question and simply own up to the fact that the all-time record mortgage rates are due entirely to her economic policies?
Also due to our economic policy, as the right hon. Gentleman may know if he looks at "Social Trends", published today, is the fact that real household disposable income increased by 25 per cent. between 1981 and 1988, and that there are now 15 million owner-occupied homes, compared with 11·6 million under Labour. That is due to the excellence of Conservative economic policies.
Through the use of the word "also", I accept the Prime Minister's confession.
Our Chancellors have handled our economic policy excellently, and I note that well over 99 per cent. of an increased number of mortgage holders manage to pay their mortgages very well, and will find home ownership a great benefit—it is a very good investment.
In the light of the question put to her by the Leader of the Opposition, is it due to the economic policies of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that, for the second successive year, the level of manufacturing in this country has gone up? Is that also why our unemployment is almost the lowest in western Europe? Will that eventually make some contribution to reducing interest rates?
As my hon. Friend observed, the figures for manufacturing investment last year have just been published. Manufacturing investment in 1988 was an all-time record and last year's figures raised that record to a new high level. That is two years of excellent manufacturing investment.
With regard to the employment figures published today, we have a record number of jobs in this country. Seasonally adjusted unemployment has fallen, which is very good news.
With regard to inflation, as my hon. Friend knows, we always take whatever measures are necessary to keep bearing down on inflation.
Will the Prime Minister take time this afternoon to consider the plight of the hundreds of thousands of council tenants whom the Government encouraged to buy their council houses? Is it not time that the Government reconsidered their policy of cutting support for council housing and bringing pressure on council tenants to buy their council houses by forcing up council rents?
As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, we put through a policy of tenants purchasing their council houses, which was bitterly opposed by the Labour party but from which many people have profited, and they are grateful for that. We shall continue to pursue that policy. In Scotland, as he knows, it has been extended in Scottish Homes. That has been a good bargain for all who have partaken of the opportunity that they have had from the Government.
In a week when Inter-Parliamentary Union delegations have returned from Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Romania, will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity of assessing the current state of our political, economic and social links with the countries of central and eastern Europe? In particular, will she speculate on how those developments will be regarded in the light of the latest discussions on German reunification?
As my hon. Friend is aware, the Government have been active in contacts with and grants to eastern Europe. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office have visited a number of east European countries. We recently had the Polish Prime Minister here, and previously the Hungarian Prime Minister. We hope to have President Havel of Czechoslovakia here soon. We have contributed to the Polish and Hungarian stabilisation funds through the know-how fund and substantially, through the European Community, with extra food and medical equipment for Poland. All that is going very well indeed.
My hon. Friend is aware that we are pledged to support German reunification by longstanding agreements. Our concern has been to have a proper framework in which we can ensure security and stability in Europe, and we succeeded in getting that at the Ottawa conference which has just ended. We have a framework of the four Berlin powers, plus the two Germanys—[Interruption.]
We shall also need an appropriate framework in which to discuss the implications for the European Economic Community, particularly in regard to agriculture, trade and financial arrangements.
I had heard that a programme on the UDR was being prepared. I most earnestly hope that it will not denigrate the UDR. It is a very fine body of men and women whose lives are at risk whether they are on or off duty. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman's fears will not come to pass, but I suggest that he contact the chairman and the director-general of the BBC if he is in any doubt.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I think that any such proposal would give totally the wrong signal at this time. It would give offence to many people and worry many more and would give us great problems in the future. I would be very much against reducing the age of consent.
I am sure that the Prime Minister is aware that 10,000 farmers and farm workers leave the land every year. Will she tell the consumers of this country who will produce their food requirements by the turn of the century and what she intends to do about this very serious problem?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we are not short of food in the European Community and we are not short of food from America and a number of other places. Indeed, one of our problems has been the surplus of food; hence the need for quotas for milk, and so on. If there is a prospect of East Germany coming into the Community or being reunited with West Germany, that also will he a great producing area which will add to, not diminish, supplies. Also, many of the eastern European countries are only too anxious to send their supplies to us, which could pose problems. I do not think that the problem that the hon. Gentleman outlines will arise by the turn of the century.
Uncertainty has hung over the future of the English National Opera and the English National Ballet, of which I am a governor. Will my right hon. Friend send her best wishes to both those national companies for continued artistic excellence, supported by generous Government grants, good management and a high level of private sponsorship?
I gladly join my hon. Friend in sending best wishes to those two most excellent organisations, the English National Opera and the English National Ballet. I am delighted that they are out of financial difficulty. In the arts in Britain we have excellent private sponsorship, owing to the prosperity arid generosity of industry, and a high level of Government support. In the coming years we shall put it up by some 22 per cent. to ensure that that high level is maintained and that London remains the most distinguished centre in the world.
Now that the Government have agreed to pay 100 per cent. compensation for the victims of mad cow disease, will the Prime Minister agree to introduce a similar scheme of compensation for the millions of victims of her poll tax?
If I may answer the serious part of the hon. Gentleman's question, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced 100 per cent. compensation for mad cow disease. We are expecting an increasing amount of the disease because of the long incubation period. My right hon. Friend thought, under those circumstances, that it was better to go from 50 per cent. to 100 per cent. compensation.
The community charge is the best and fairest way of paying for local authorities spending. It is far better than the Opposition's alternative of a roof tax, which is quite ridiculous.