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Mr. Alton : Given what the Minister has just said, does he accept that the major aim of the Anglo-Irish Agreement was the creation of a cross -community devolved assembly? Does he accept that a logical step towards that objective might be the creation, under Standing Order No. 99, of the Northern Ireland Committee which would allow politicians from both sides of the community to come together? If that Committee was to meet in Northern Ireland, it might be a useful step towards devolution.
Dr. Mawhinney : As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government's policy on devolution did not start with the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. I hear what the hon. Gentleman said about the Northern Ireland Committee. If approaches were made to the Government to reconstitute the Committee they would be looked at sympathetically.
8. Mr. Harry Barnes : To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement of his policy towards reconciliation in Northern Ireland in the light of the peace charter which has been sent to him by the Workers' party of Ireland.
Dr. Mawhinney : Reconciliation between the two traditions is fundamental to the achievement of lasting peace and stability in Northern Ireland. The improvement of relations between the communities is a key element in the Government's approach. We are encouraged by the Workers' party's forthright rejection of terrorist violence and by its call for dialogue between political representatives in the Province.
Mr. Barnes : In rejecting all forms of terrorism and struggling for peace in Northern Ireland, the Workers' party is advocating constructive dialogue, the establishment of democratic machinery and procedures throughout Northern Ireland and equal opportunities based upon the elimination of poverty and unemployment. How well do the Government score on that scale?
Dr. Mawhinney : We support in broad principle the sort of proposals included in the Workers' party's peace charter. It may encourage the hon. Gentleman to know that I shall be inviting representatives of the party to talk to me about the proposals.
Column 986Province had the same rights in the legislative procedures in the House as the remainder of the United Kingdom? Is is not an absolute disgrace that the criminal law of Northern Ireland can be changed by order after three hours' debate in the House without an opportunity for reconsideration, receiving the arguments of High Court judges in Northern Ireland or amendment?
Dr. Mawhinney : I note my hon. Friend's point and I note also that it is made at a time when there are two Bills relating to Northern Ireland passing through the House. If my hon. Friend has constructive proposals to make in terms of Northern Ireland legislation, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will listen to them.
With regard to Shorts, an information memorandum was issued on 10 January to a selected number of prospective buyers and more detailed discussions will now take place with them.
Mr. Cryer : Can the Minister justify those lunatic, catastrophic and dogmatic proposals in the light of the uncertainty about employment, investment and securing jobs in the strife-torn Province? Is it not absurd that, for example, Harland and Wolff is having to turn orders away? Only recently it lost an order for dredgers, which went to Holland. Is that not a complete catastrophe for the retention and development of jobs in Northern Ireland? Why do the Government not abandon privatisation? Will the Minister turn round and tell the woman in blue next to him to stop it?
Mr. Viggers : Apart from anything else, the hon. Gentleman is selling Northern Ireland seriously short in terms of employment. Unemployment has fallen from 134,000 to 108,000 over the past two years. We have recently been successful in winning inward investment. The Government believe that the best future for Harland and Wolff is not in the public sector, supported by subsidy, but in the private sector, operating on a commercial basis.
As to Shorts, the information memorandum issued on 10 January invites responses by 10 February. We are now confident that we shall move the company into the private sector with Government support and that is what we intend to do. We are confident that it will be best for both companies.
Mr. Peter Robinson : Given that a number of people in senior posts at Harland and Wolff are looking for other positions because of the uncertainty there, will the Minister say how long it will take to make a decision about the shipyard?
Column 987The funeral is taking place today in Belfast of the parents of the senior public relations officer of Harland and Wolff, Dr. Maria Maloney. Will the Minister join me in expressing the House's sympathy to her?
Mr. Viggers : I join the hon. Gentleman in expressing our concern and grief over those affected by Sunday's accident. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.5 million people, few of whom have not been touched in some way by this terrible accident.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall move as briskly as we can to a solution of the present position at Harland and Wolff. We are aware that uncertainty is not good for the company, but it would not be good to set a timetable that might inhibit us from pursuing certain opportunities for continuing employment at the yard.
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 this House I shall be having further meetings later today.
Mr. Beith : Following her visit to the site of the east midlands air crash, does the Prime Minister agree that the widespread speculation--some of which apparently was fuelled by United States' Government officials-- attributing pilot error to Captain Hunt the day after he was so widely acclaimed as a hero, was utterly deplorable? Does she further agree that what is needed is not deeply hurtful speculation but the most thorough investigation of the causes of this dreadful crash?
The Prime Minister : I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It would be far better if everyone accepted that the best course after a tradegy of this kind is for those charged with the duty of investigating to get on with that task. Nothing should be said until it is properly and truly completed, with the one exception that if any technical problems are found during the course of the investigation information should be given so that they can be put right. Otherwise, there should be no speculation and we should wait until the facts are found.
Mr. Teddy Taylor : Given the widespread concern in the west about the chemical warfare establishment being built in Libya, is the Prime Minister willing to take a Euro-initiative to try to persuade European firms not to provide the equipment on which it is based?
The Prime Minister : I agree with my hon. Friend that there is widespread concern about the plant, which I believe is there to produce chemical weapons. We have the powers to stop exports that could be used for that purpose, which have been used, but usually persuasion has been enough. When people have told us that they have received certain orders and we have asked them not to proceed with them, they have agreed not to do so.
Mrs. Michie : Will the Prime Minister accept a timely warning that if she continues to ignore the wishes of the majority of Scottish people for constitutional reform and the right to look after their own affairs through their own Scottish Parliament, she, the Government and the Tory party could be responsible for the break-up of the United Kingdom?
The Prime Minister : Many of us have been through these arguments before on Bills and the referendum, and know full well that the House was split, not always on party-political grounds, although we accept that we are the party that believes in the Union of the United Kingdom and will continue to do so. I would find it strange if the Labour party believed in separatism for Scotland.
Mr. David Martin : I welcome my right hon. Friend's continuing active interest in environmental issues and a cleaner atmosphere. In the run-up to the Budget, will she consider the wisdom of widening the tax differential between leaded and unleaded petrol to promote greater use of unleaded petrol?
The Prime Minister : My right hon. Friend the Chancellor introduced a large differential in cost between leaded and unleaded petrol in favour of unleaded petrol, which was designed to encourage more people to use unleaded petrol. It is not possible for everyone to use it because it depends, obviously, on the kind of engine that one has in one's car. I believe that there will be progressively more use of unleaded petrol as new car engines come into use.
The Prime Minister : The main priority of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is the same as mine--to get inflation down. As my right hon. Friend says, one cannot have two priorities and that is--and will remain-- his main priority.
The Prime Minister : I am saying that when one considers these many matters, the task and priority of getting inflation down takes precedence over other things and that one cannot have two priorities. The priority is getting inflation down.
The Prime Minister : It will not have escaped the right hon. Gentleman's attention that the country that has had the sharpest increase in the value of its currency--Japan--is the country that has the highest balance of payments surplus.
Mr. Dickens : I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can tell the House whether the ground crew working on aircraft flying in and out of Northern Ireland--the engine mechanics and airframe mechanics--are positively vetted?
Mr. Dunnachie : Can the Prime Minister tell the House what plans she has to prevent the dreams of home ownership-- [Interruption.] -- becoming the nightmares of bed-and-breakfast accommodation because of the Chancellor's policy?
The Prime Minister : With regard to bed-and-breakfast accommodation, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, it varies very much between local authority and local authority as to how they make use of that provision-- [Hon. Members :-- "Answer the question."] I am sorry, did I mishear the question? That is not unusual in this House.
Mr. Dunnachie : Can the Prime Minister tell the House what plans she has to prevent the dreams of home ownership becoming the nightmares of bed- and-breakfast accommodation because of the Chancellor's policy?
The Prime Minister : More and more people are having their dreams of home ownership realised--opportunities they would never had had before. As far as repossession is concerned, the latest figures show that it is less than one third of 1 per cent.
Mr. Roger King : Is my right hon. Friend aware that tomorrow the city of Birmingham celebrates its 100th anniversary of being created a city and that celebrations will take place that will reflect the city's noble past and look forward to opportunities for the future? Has my right hon. Friend a message for the people of the city of Birmingham as they celebrate on that centenary?
The Prime Minister : I congratulate Birmingham. The city has played a tremendous part in our industrial and political history. I wish it well, and I hope and believe that it is well on the way to regaining its former industrial and commercial pre-eminence in our country.
Mr. Allen McKay : Has the Prime Minister seen or heard of the report -- [Hon. Members :-- "Reading."] I know ; I have to get it right. Has the Prime Minister seen or heard of a report suggesting that cook-chill causes a disease called listeria which is as dangerous as salmonella-- perhaps more so? In view of the scare caused by one of her ex-Ministers over the Christmas period and by the fact that amended guidelines have been drawn up by the Ministry, what do the Government propose to do about the problem?
Column 990Gentleman knows there is as yet far too little information about the problem, and my right hon. Friends are looking into the matter very carefully because they, too, are concerned about the facts and figures given in the new report.
Mr. Oppenheim : Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the work force of Amber Valley district council on winning the lion's share of recently tendered contracts, and will she congratulate and commend the leadership of that council on having made Amber Valley the first local authority to put all its services out to tender in accordance with the Local Government Act 1988, thus saving ratepayers more than £2 million?
The Prime Minister : I shall certainly congratulate Amber Valley district council on the most excellent way in which it has tackled the problems and I congratulate its leadership on having saved the ratepayer something like £2 million. I think that that example could be followed by many other councils. I understand that an Audit Commission report published today suggests that savings of 20 per cent. or more can be gained in contract prices, irrespective of whether the work has been won by the private sector or by the authority's own work force. May many others follow the lead given by Amber Valley district council.
Q6. Mr. Harry Barnes : To ask the Prime Minister what is her policy as to whose signature appears on replies to letters she receives from members of the public dealing with matters of Government policy.
The Prime Minister : I receive several thousands of letters each week from members of the public. It is not possible for me to deal with all those letters personally and I must accordingly refer most of them to the Minister and the Department with responsibility for the policy in question. Others are signed by my staff at No. 10.
Mr. Barnes : Mr. George Flynn of 24 Amber Place, Holmgate sent a letter to the Prime Minister about his loss of £6.20 a week housing benefit. The reply came not from the Prime Minister's Office or from Social Security Ministers but from the transitional payments unit in Glasgow, and it was a political defence of the Government's policy. Should not the Government change their response entirely and ensure that civil servants are not instructed by them to act as their political hacks?
The Prime Minister : The hon. Gentleman is being totally unreasonable. He knows full well that I should never even be able to come to the House to answer questions if I spent all day opening letters--4,000 a week. The Opposition would not like that. The hon. Gentleman also knows full well that we went to great lengths to set up the unit to deal with those special problems. I can only say that I congratulate my staff on sending the letter to the appropriate place to get the right answer.
Mr. Latham : If I were to dictate and sign personally a letter to my right hon. Friend asking her to ensure that two popular rural maternity units in my constituency remained open, would she make it her business to dictate and sign personally a reply to me of a favourable nature?
Mr. Smith : Does the Prime Minister stand by the view, which she held when she was Secretary of State for Education in 1972, that nursery education should be available for all three and four-year-old children whose
Column 992parents wished it? Will she, therefore, ensure that there is a favourable response from the Government to the unanimous report of the Education Select Committee on this matter?
The Prime Minister : There has been an increase of more than 100, 000 pupils under five in nursery and primary schools--an increase of a quarter in eight years. That is really a very good performance, which followed the particular White Paper that bears my name. We also pointed out in that White Paper that authorities should consider carefully the role of voluntary playgroups. Many thousands of mothers devote considerable time and energy to organising them. We increased the financial support for the playgroups. We pointed out, too, that the most important thing for the increase of nursery education was that it was especially valuable for children whose homes and lives are restricted, for whatever reason. Therefore, priority would be given to areas of disadvantage. That has happened.
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