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Mr. Hind : Next time our right hon. Friend meets representatives of the World Bank, will he ask them to consider which of the two major parties in this country is likely to close the gap between our exports and imports and therefore make Britain a much stronger economy--one with record levels of investment and one with productivity four times larger than that of the last Labour Government or the one with the crackpot policies of the Opposition?
Mr. Lilley : I expect that my right hon. Friend will cover a wide range of subjects, including those mentioned. He will, of course, want to reassure the leader of the World Bank that Britain will not have a trade policy that seeks to rectify a balance of payments situation by excluding trade with the underdeveloped countries, as is often the wish of the Opposition.
Mr. Atkinson : How much have real incomes increased since 1979? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that since 1979 the British people have enjoyed greater prosperity than ever before in our history thanks to the economic policies of-- [Interruption.]
Column 355society? Does he agree that rates at the top level of 50 per cent. and abolition of the cut-off point for national insurance are likely to damage the entrepreneurial spirit and have a long- term adverse effect on the economy? Is he aware that that is the latest policy statement of the Labour party?
Mr. Brooke : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is a tribute to both my right hon. Friends that the effect of 10 years of this Government has been to produce a reduction from 83 per cent. to 50 per cent. in the thinking of the Opposition.
Mr. Watts : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most significant features of that unprecedented improvement are that the benefits have been enjoyed by people at every level of income and that over the past six years real disposable personal income has grown at a rate of more than 3 per cent. per annum?
Mr. Garrett : Does the Minister not agree that what he has stated is exactly the statement made by the Small Business Research, Trust? Having said that, will he not do anything about it. One of the biggest problems facing small businesses is debt collecting. Will the brains of the Treasury think of some way in which the larger companies can pay their debts on time to the small businesses which operate for their benefit?
Mr. Lilley : I am not at all surprised, and I welcome the fact that the Small Business Bureau endorses our attitude towards inflation and not that of the Opposition. Perhaps, that is because we have been successful in encouraging the growth of new businesses. During the past year, the number of businesses trading has increased by more than 1,200 every week. On the question of debts suffered by small businesses, the scheme that we introduced in the Budget before last has been a great help to the small companies which have chosen to take advantage of it.
Mr. Lilley : The Government's ultimate objective remains price stability. The medium term financial strategy assumes that the annual rate of inflation in the GDP deflator will be down to 2 per cent. by 1992-93, consistent with its objectives for money GDP.
Mr. Gow : Could my hon. Friend accelerate the meaning of the word "ultimate"? Will he please ensure that the policy of the Treasury is to bring about that policy which is attainable--zero inflation and no rises in prices?
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. Bruce : Will the Prime Minister accept that many of us who do not share her views, nevertheless acknowledge that it is a considerable achievement to be in No. 10 for 10 years? [ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."] Does she also accept that many people feel that she is now going too far and that she only listens to people whom she describes as "one of us"? Would it not be better for the country and for her if, in future, she went around with her eyes and ears open and her mouth shut?
Mrs. Ann Winterton : May I ask my right hon. Friend, as one grandmother to another, whether she agrees that the stability of our society is based greatly upon the strength of the family unit? Does she further agree that, when we reform our present outdated Sunday trading law, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but should retain the traditional character of the British Sunday as a family day for rest, recreation and corporate Christian worship?
The Prime Minister : I think that we must form a grandparents club in the House of Commons. I think that there would be rather a lot of people in it--and all of them would agree with my hon. Friend that the importance of the family is vital to the health of our society and that it is
Column 357vital to uphold it. [Interruption.] The family existed as a unit in society long before there was such a thing as child benefit, because people took responsibility for their own families. With regard to Sunday trading, I think that my hon. Friend will agree that the present law is not fair and not consistent ; however, I hope that, before any Bill was ever brought in, there would be virtual agreement in the House on what it should contain.
"Where there is discord may we bring harmony,
Where there is error may we bring truth,
Where there is doubt may we bring faith,
Where there is despair may we bring hope".
Can the Prime Minister tell us why, in 10 years, she has failed to live up to a single one of those principles?
The Prime Minister : Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will remember the discord in the winter of discontent of 1979, when, under Socialism, there were strikes in the hospitals and one could not even get the dead buried. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will realise that there is now faith in Britain overseas-- [Interruption.] --and perhaps he will realise that the social services are at a level of efficiency and generosity which has brought hope and a higher standard of living than people have ever known before.
Mr. Nicholas Bennett : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the last thing this country needs is a national dock strike, a strike which would lead to imports being held up and coming in after the strike was over, thereby damaging our export potential? [Interruption.] Does she recall that, when national dock strikes and other strikes which damaged the economy took place under Labour, the Conservative party supported the then Government in opposing them? What does she think of the statement made by Labour Members that, if there was a strike, they would have to support it?
The Prime Minister : I earnestly hope with my hon. Friend that there will not be a strike. The national dock labour scheme is being abolished so that the ports to which it at present applies can have a much more prosperous future when it has gone, as can all the people who work in industries in the hinterland. It will be greatly to their advantage. Any strike on behalf of the dock labour scheme would bear extremely heavily on all the other people in the economy who work steadily and well to produce Britain's prosperity and the prosperity of their families.
Column 358are many anniversaries this year, including one that I consider to be important--the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Council of Europe? Tomorrow, Finland will be the 23rd country to join. Will the Prime Minister ensure that the vast Government public relations machine highlights the importance of that organisation relative to the other organisation which I can hardly bear to mention but which is based in Brussels? Is she aware that the Council of Europe, which is composed of 177 elected Members of Parliament from the countries concerned, of which Britain has 18, can do infinitely more for the general well-being of this country than can the European Economic Community? Is she further aware that, for that reason, many of our interests in the broader spectrum of Europe coincide with the 23 rather than with the 12?
The Prime Minister : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks. I agree that the Council of Europe represents a far wider swathe of Europe than does the Community and that it does an excellent job. I particularly pay tribute to the work done by hon. Members of this House in the Council of Europe, which is also particularly active in human rights and in keeping contact with many countries which would otherwise feel left out of the European Community. I share the hon. Gentleman's sentiments, and I thank him for expressing them.
Mr. Thurnham : Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the way in which the strength of the economy has helped the sick and the disabled, whose real benefits have nearly doubled in the last decade? Does she agree that much more work lies ahead, especially to help find families where needed for the 5,600 handicapped children still in institutional care?
The Prime Minister : I agree that greater prosperity has enabled us to do far more for the disabled. Indeed, when we came to office, expenditure on the disabled was £1.8 billion a year. It is now £7.3 billion, and helps many more people. In particular, the mobility allowance has been made non-taxable. We have increased spending on the mobility allowance by nearly six times.
With regard to finding new families for handicapped children, I should like to pay tribute to what my hon. Friend has done and to the great lead that he has taken on the matter. Grants have been made to a number of voluntary agencies, in particular to the British Agency for Adoption and Fostering, which next week launches a new family-finding campaign entitled "Families Forever". We wish it well in this great work.
The Prime Minister : I am very proud indeed of the fact that this country has overseas assets of enormous dimensions, which have gone up over the past 10 years and which, together with economic policies, enable people to keep confidence in this country, and enable us to import many goods for higher investment to give higher productivity in future. That is a situation that was never attained under the last Labour Government.
Mr. Gorst : During the course of her busy day, will my right hon. Friend have time to address herself to what she might be able to announce to the House on 4 May 1999 as her major achievements in the next 10 years?
Mr. Sillars : May I refer the Prime Minister to her earlier remarks about the increased overseas aid given by Britain? Is she aware that that does not apply to the colony of Hong Kong? Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that there has been a serious breach of our moral obligations to the Chinese population in Hong Kong? Will she and the Government seriously take on board a review of the present policy, which denies those people the fundamental right of a vote in a democratic country?
The Prime Minister : Ah, but it is a reply. The hon. Member did not say that Scotland lacked faith in the future of the United Kingdom, and I quite understand why, because Scotland has benefited enormously from a higher standard of living. I am so glad to recognise that, on this our 10th anniversary.
The lease on Hong Kong ends in 1997 and we did extremely well to negotiate an agreement with China to keep the present capitalist regime going for the next 50 years. I believe that that is much welcomed in Hong Kong. The hon. Gentleman must have run out of original ideas, because he repeats the same question that he has asked before, and I give him the same answer.
Mr. Butterfill : In view of the appalling incompetence and maladministration of the European Commission revealed by the Court of Auditors' report, does not my right hon. Friend agree that it is extraordinary that it
Column 360should seek to extend its activities to language training and to the medium-term transport infrastructure fund? Does she not feel that it would be better employed looking after the matters for which it already has responsibility, in particular, removing the barriers to takeover bids that presently exist in the European Community?
The Prime Minister : I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to be on our guard against the Commission's attempts to extend existing Community competence into new areas. That seems to happen a lot at present. I agree with him that one area where it could usefully make more use of its existing powers would be in ensuring fair competition in Europe. For example, a number of countries still give heavy subsidies to industry, although they pay lip service to fair competition. Italy, Germany and France still give heavy subsidies to industry, and if they really believe in fair competition in 1992, those subsidies will have to go. More effective use of existing powers and competence should have priority over trying to extend that competence or dreaming up yet more institutions.
Mr. Alfred Morris : If the NHS White Paper is such a huge success, as the Prime Minister persists in claiming, why was the visit of the Secretary of State for Health to the Vale of Glamorgan such a disastrous flop? Does the right hon. Lady still expect her 10th anniversary to be marked by victory in the vale?
The Prime Minister : I hope that we shall achieve victory in the vale. We deserve it. I hope that one factor will be the Government's excellent record on the Health Service. As I pointed out at Question Time on Tuesday, for every £1 spent on the NHS by the previous Labour Government, this Government have spent £3. There are more doctors and nurses and they are better paid, more patients are treated and each doctor has a smaller list. The right hon. Gentleman should help us to put the facts across instead of the fiction released by the Opposition.
Questions to Ministers
Mr. Speaker : There has been a resurgence in the number of open questions being tabled to departmental Ministers. The practice has been that the Chair will not call supplementaries to questions to a departmental Minister about that Minister's meetings or visits which do not state their purpose reasonably precisely. That has most frequently occurred on questions about future meetings or visits, but it equally extends to questions about past events, especially when it appears from the Minister's original answer that no recent meeting or visit of the kind mentioned in the question has taken place. I exercised some latitude in allowing supplementary questions on some borderline questions of that kind yesterday and today, but with the great congestion that we now have at Question Time nearly every day, it would be advantageous if I ceased to call supplementary questions on such questions, in the hope that they will cease to be tabled.
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