HC Deb 22 June 1976 vol 913 cc1357-60
Q2. Mr. Ashley

asked the Prime Minister if he will place in the Library a copy of his public speech on economic policy to the General and Municipal Workers' Union in Bournemouth on Monday 7th June.

Q7. Mr. Wyn Roberts

asked the Prime Minister if he will place in the Library a copy of the public speech on economic policy to the General and Municipal Workers' Union in Bournemouth on 7th June 1976.

The Prime Minister

I did so the same day.

Mr. Ashley

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in his speech to my union's annual conference, a speech that won a standing ovation, he rejected demands for the decimation of the public expenditure programme, but also rejected demands for increased public expenditure without regard to the cost involved? Is he aware that he will be warmly supported in walking this economic tightrope, but that if the Government are prepared to economise on the child benefit scheme—one of the great weapons against family poverty—they will be making a serious mistake that they will long live to regret?

The Prime Minister

The Government have introduced a new benefit for children of £1 per week with an additional 50p premium for single-parent families. That is the beginning of the introduction of the scheme and we shall go on to fulfil it in due course. However, as the total scheme at the rates proposed would have cost more than £300 million next year, it would not have been possible to introduce it.

Mr. Roberts

Can the Prime Minister say what could happen over the next six months to make unnecessary an extension of the £3 billion standby credit arrangement, further borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, increases in taxation, or cuts in public expenditure?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir.

Mr. Atkinson

Is not my right hon. Friend in danger of being misunderstood in the argument which he used at Bournemouth and in reply to his first Question today? He says that the Government cannot reflate the economy until the rate of inflation has been reduced. Does that not suggest that the Government are using unemployment as an economic regulator? Could he not put the record straight by advising local authorities and others involved in public expenditure that they must not cut back at the expense of jobs?

The Prime Minister

We have asked local authorities to keep in line with the figures they agreed before the beginning of the year. That is not unreasonable. I trust that they will do it.

Mrs. Thatcher

As the Bournemouth speech was largely on economic policy, will not the Prime Minister agree that confidentiality within the Government is vital for the conduct of economic policy? Since the right hon. Gentleman made his statement about an isolated leak last week, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office has issued a statement, on his ministerial responsibility, saying that there have been premeditated leaks over a wide range of Cabinet business in the past 18 months. Does that speech represent the view of the Government?

The Prime Minister

I read my hon. Friend's speech with very great interest. Probably the only mistake he made was to talk about the last 18 months, because I am afraid that this has been going on for rather a long time. I have a list here. I do not think I shall read it, but those who live in glass houses should not throw stones—otherwise they might find trouble.

Mrs. Thatcher

The Prime Minister is trying to throw off this matter very lightly. Is he not aware that many people read that speech not merely with interest but with the greatest possible alarm? Is he aware that if it represents the true course of events, there can be no confidentiality of Cabinet proceedings and no confidence in the country about the conduct of defence, security or economic matters? Does he not think that he should completely repudiate that speech?

The Prime Minister

I am aware of the seriousness of this matter. As I said last week, we should be very careful about the way in which we conduct our affairs in relation to briefings. I am especially concerned about the actual reproduction of Cabinet minutes, but it is no good the right hon. Lady adopting this "holier than thou" attitude. Perhaps I should refer her to the investigations into leaks on defence matters on 14th January, 3rd May, 23rd May and 12th November 1971, 19th March and 19th April 1972 and into the leak about the purchase of American missiles on 24th July 1973, every one of which was concerned with leaks by the Ministry of Defence. Anybody can throw stones. The point is that the Government and Ministers should take defence, foreign affairs and other issues very seriously in order to ensure that these leaks do not take place. But I cannot have one side of the House hurling accusations at the other.

Mr. Heath

Does not the Prime Minister agree that what he has just said shows that the last Conservative Government took this matter seriously? Can he tell us when the minutes of a Cabinet meeting were last published in public just a short time after the meeting took place?

The Prime Minister

This has never happened to my knowledge.

Mr. Whitehead

As it was under the Administration of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) that, in the words of Mr. Harold Macmillan, the Think-Tank first started to leak, can my right hon. Friend say how many major leaks there were under the last Conservative Administration?

The Prime Minister

There were 37 leaks and 30 inquiries into them. As far as I can see, we are just about par for the course at present and it is about time the situation was improved.

Mr. MacGregor

Will the Prime Minister confirm what he appears to have told the TUC and Labour Party Liaison Committee yesterday—that further public expenditure cuts cannot be ruled out, bearing in mind his remark about two buckets dipping into the pool of savings? Does he agree with the statement by the Governor of the Bank of England that if the borrowing requirement is to be reduced, there should be a presumption against further increases in taxation and therefore in favour of spending cuts as soon as possible?

The Prime Minister

I have made my position on this matter quite clear at every Question Time. I have nothing to add to it.

Mr. Whitelaw

The Prime Minister has referred to track records, but will he not address himself to the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and confirm that this is the first time Cabinet minutes have been directly leaked? Is this not a very serious matter and does it not follow that the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Price), who is one of the right hon. Gentleman's own Ministers, has indicated a very serious difference between the current situation and what has happened under any previous Government?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman should keep himself up to date. I set up an inquiry into this matter last Thursday because of the gravity with which I regarded it. I suggest that we should wait until the result of that inquiry is known. I hope that it will have better results than some of the inquiries which took place under the Administration of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member.

I surely made my position quite clear to anybody who was here on Thursday. It is utterly reprehensible that the minutes of Cabinet meetings, which are distributed to a limited number of people, should be reproduced accurately in public. People may not like the rules, but they should seek to change them and not break them because they do not like them.

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