HC Deb 10 December 1981 vol 14 cc989-97 3.32 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Francis Pym)

The business for next week will be as follows: MONDAY I4 DECEMBER—Private Members' Motions until 7 o'clock.

Afterwards, Remaining stages of the Civil Aviation (Amendment) Bill and of the Housing (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.

Motion on the Welsh Water Authority (Constitution) (Variation) Order.

TUESDAY I5 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Social Security (Contributions) Bill.

Motions on the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 (Continuance) (No. 2) Order and on the Scottish Special Housing Association (Vesting of City of Glasgow District Council Land) (Scotland) Order.

WEDNESDAY I6 DECEMBER—Supply (7th allotted day): There will be a debate until about 7 o'clock on the need to introduce a reduced rate television licence for retirement pensioners, and afterwards, on the Government-imposed increases in council house rents. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

The House will be asked to agree the Civil and Defence Votes on Account and the winter Supplementary Estimates.

Motion on the Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations.

THURSDAY I7 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the Social Security (Contributions) Bill.

FRIDAY I8 DECEMBER—Private Members' Motions.

MONDAY 2I DECEMBER—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. Foot

May I put four matters to the right hon. Gentleman? Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Trade makes a statement to the House next week on the EEC Council of Ministers' discussion on the multi-fibre arrangement negotiations, which are being watched with great concern by employers and about 600,000 workers in our textile and clothing industries? There are strong rumours that the EEC position threatens to provide inadequate safeguards for our industries and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will ensure that a statement is made.

The Home Secretary told us in the debate on prisons last week that some of the measures designed to alleviate overcrowding and so on would be contained in the Criminal Justice Bill. As it is a matter of great urgency, may we have an assurance that the Bill will be presented to the House and will have its Second Reading before we rise for Christmas?

Two matters arise from the general conduct of the Secretary of State for the Environment. First, there are persistent rumours that the Government intend to withdraw the Local Government Finance Bill, but, unfortunately, there are also rumours that the right hon. Gentleman proposes to have a No. 2 Bill from which some features, though perhaps not all, of the original Bill will have been removed.

May we have an assurance that, if the Government have dropped one of the major measures that they had announced, there will be a proper statement to the House about that retreat and what the Government propose to do in its stead? May we also have an absolute assurance that when the Secretary of State for the Environment makes his announcement about the new rate support grant he will make it to the House? Obviously, questions concerning jobs, livelihoods and the well-being of many councils are involved and it would be wrong if the House did not have the opportunity to cross-examine the Secretary of State when he makes his statement—quite apart from the debate that must follow.

Mr. Pym

I will consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade about the possibility of a statement on the MFA negotiations. I think that I am right in saying that they have not yet been concluded and it may not be an appropriate time for a statement. I have given time for debates on that important subject and I will consult my right hon. Friend and convey the right hon. Gentleman's request to him.

The Criminal Justice Bill has been introduced. I have not announced its Second Reading for next week and I think that that is likely to take place after the Christmas Recess.

The Government have not yet come to any conclusions about the Local Government Finance Bill. I am not responsible for any rumours about it and no question of a decision arises. If the Government come to a decision, the House will be informed.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already announced to the House the general outline of the rate support grant settlement for next year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the environment is carrying through the normal statutory consultations with local authority associations. He is due to meet them tomorrow and again on 21 December and in due course he will announce the detailed decisions to the House. He will do so in the manner that was adopted before last year when, exceptionally, my right hon. Friend made a statement to the House—because that was the first year that the new block grant system had been used. The Government intend to revert to the practice followed by the previous Government. The outline has already been given to the House and the details will be announced to the House.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman says that the Secretary of State for the Environment will use his normal methods in dealing with the House, but that is exactly what causes so much concern among the Opposition. We are greatly afraid that the right hon. Gentleman will use the same sort of surreptitious methods that he has adopted previously.

The Leader of the House says that he is not responsible for rumours about the Local Government Finance Bill, but he is responsible for the Government's programme and if the Bill is to be dropped or drastically altered, the right hon. Gentleman should ensure that a statement is made to the House.

As for the alterations in the rate support grant, surely the right hon. Gentleman agrees that this year especially, when the proposals vaguely outlined by the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have to be made much more specific, a statement should be made to the House before Christmas and we should have he chance of examining the details, rather than only the vague statement of the Chancellor.

Mr. Pym

As I have said that no decision has been taken about the Local Government Finance Bill and I have announced nothing in relation to it for next week, there is nothing further for me to say. I note the right hon. Gentleman's comments.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, there will be a debate on the rate support grant. I was referring not to the methods of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment but to the methods of the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member and to the normal procedure that they used every year from 1976 to 1979.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must inform the House that a large number of right hon. and hon. Members have told me that they hope to participate in the debate on the Scarman report. Therefore, I propose to allow business questions to run no longer than 4 o'clock at the latest.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

May we at least assume that the Government have now abandoned the first and worst version of their absurd Local Government Finance Bill?

Mr. Pym

The right hon. Gentleman cannot assume any such thing at present.

Sir Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

Will my right hon. Friend consider as a matter of urgency the state of the law of copyright? Does he appreciate that it is now eight years or more since the Whitford committee reported? Is he aware that, since then, there have been various technological developments, particularly in the software programming of computers, which means that this country is losing millions of pounds every year through lack of protection for the creative abilities of our people, particularly in software?

Mr. Pym

I am sure that that is an important subject, but I do not think that I can find any Government time for such a debate. I am not sure whether or not the Consolidated Fund Bill is an appropriate occasion to raise the matter—perhaps not. I shall bear in mind what my hon. and learned Friend has said.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

Next week we are to have a debate on television licences for old-age pensioners. I do not know which Minister is responsible for the matter, but will the Government ask the BBC to let us know what it pays in salaries, fees and other expenses, so that we may judge whether it needs an increase? It is the only public organisation in this country which will not reveal to anyone, including Members of Parliament, what it pays in exorbitant fees to a number of people, including some Members of Parliament?

Mr. Pym

I note the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The debate next Wednesday is related to a particular motion which the Opposition intend to table. I shall convey the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1 on the inner cities? I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on the steps that he has taken this week, but can we have a debate early next year on the inner cities and aspects of that early-day motion?

[That this House believes that the pressing problems facing our cities can best be tackled by implementing some of the proposals contained in a recently published study `New Life For Old Cities' endorsed by 62 Conservative honourable Members and Members of the European Parliament representing urban constituencies which offers new hope for the regeneration of our cities, by turning to people rather than Government and relying more on private enterprise than public bureaucracy; and notes that included amongst the recommendations are: (a) the rapid release by auction on the open market of hoarded public land surplus to requirement, (b) promoting city renewal through self-financing private enterprise agencies which would contract out to existing local businesses and professional firms the job of marketing the city's assets, (c) making urban renewal attractive to private investment by offering cheaper loans through issuing tax-exempt revenue bonds, (d) offering rate holidays not just in enterprise zones but to single-plant family firms elsewhere and inner city retailers who ultimately will pay full commercial rates but only if their businesses prosper, (e) encouraging private business to build new factories, offices and homes in the inner city thus reducing the 60,000 acres of agricultural land and green field sites lost each year to urban sprawl, (f) halting demolition and instead encouraging local authorities to sell off decaying property for £1.00 for those (homesteaders) willing to repair and live in them, and making similar arrangements for shopsteaders to enable run-down shops scheduled for demolition to be saved, (g) encouraging building societies to lend on older houses and discontinue 'red-lining' (that is refusing loans for house ownership in run-down areas), (h) enabling sitting tenants of flats and maisonettes in outer council housing estates to purchase their freeholds for a nominal sum in return for a share in the block's management and upkeep thus saving local authority expenditure and (i) contracting out to private enterprise those local authority services which can be done better and cheaper by private enterprise; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to assume a catalytic role so as to enable public and private enterprise in partnership to realise their full potential, to reduce those checks and controls which militate against new development and to involve more fully those people living and working in cities in the total revitalisation process.]

Mr. Pym

I do not think that I shall be able to find time for that debate. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a helpful statement on the subject yesterday. All I can say at the moment is that my hon. Friend will have to find another way to raise the matter.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Is there time before Christmas to have a statement or a short debate on the pernicious and provocative actions of the National Front? I congratulate the Home Secretary on the expeditious and understanding way in which he has dealt with the problems in my area, where there are more black people than there are in Brixton, in stopping a march last week through an area with a large ethnic minority and another one this week? Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government face a profound problem unless this problem can be solved permanently, instead of the Home Secretary having to intervene week after week? Can we have a statement or a short debate?

Mr. Pym

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will appreciate the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The problems that he mentions, in a fringe sense, are perhaps relevant to today's debate on the Scarman report. I cannot find any additional time, at any rate in the foreseeable future.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the business for next week seems particularly heavy for a week that is close to Christmas? Will he bear in mind that young Members of Parliament in particular, and some older Members, like the Chancellor of the Exchequer, sometimes have to act as Santa Claus in the week after next? Will he consult the usual channels the week after next and try to keep the amount of business down?

Mr. Pym

I suppose that it is a matter of opinion how close to Christmas next week is. I know that the House always wants a reasonable adjournment at Christmas, and I hope that we can meet my hon. Friend's request. There is no guarantee that we shall have a reasonably light week the following week. We are to sit until Wednesday 23 December, and I believe that that is right.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Is the Leader of the House aware that a report is being prepared in the Department of Health and Social Security on alternative ways of financing the National Health Service? Can he say when that report will be published and when it will be available to the House?

Mr. Pym

No, I do not know when or whether it will be published. It was announced some time ago, and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said—last week, I think, in answer to a question—it must be right to look at ways in which the National Health Service can be improved, both in its servicing and financing.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill early in the new year, because it is widely popular among my constituents, particularly its proposals which deal with young offenders?

Mr. Pym

I shall bear that in mind.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

Further to the question that was raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, may I press the Leader of the House about the multi-fibre arrangement? Does he realise that when the new arrangement is reached, unless it protects the British textile industry against the import of cheap textiles, there will be many hundreds more unemployed people in St. Helens and in the rest of the country?

Mr. Pym

The Government are acutely conscious of the problem. Negotiations are going on, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade, in particular, is acutely aware of the difficulties. He is doing his best to negotiate the best arrangements that he can for our country.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 103, which has been signed by over 100 right hon. and hon. Members, relating to the disgraceful conduct of the Soviet forces in attempting to subjugate the people of Afghanistan by the use of chemical and biological warfare and now, I understand, the use of nerve gas? When will the House next have an opportunity to discuss the matter?

[That this House notes the continuing Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; is deeply concerned by reports of atrocities being committed by the occupying power against the civilian population, including the use of napalm and other chemical and biological weapons; and calls upon the Government to assist in bringing this barbarous behaviour to an end.]

Mr. Pym

The subject would be suitable for debate in a foreign affairs or defence debate. I see no prospect of another debate on those matters in the near future. The Government have made their position clear from the outset. I am sure that no one in the House or the country doubts the horror with which we heard the news of the invasion and our deep concern about some of the methods that have been used there.

Mr. loan Evans (Aberdare)

In view of the important discussions that are taking place between the United States and the USSR about the escalation of the nuclear arms race, will the Leader of the House consider, if not next week, soon after Christmas, a debate on disarmament, before the Government finally commit themselves to spending over £8 billion on the Trident missile, which could affect those negotiations?

Mr. Pym

The subject of arms control and disarmament agreements comes up constantly, and rightly so. It is the intention of this or any other British Government to play their part in seeking reductions in arms. I do not think that there will be time for a special debate, but the Government's position on the matter has been clearly explained both inside and outside the House many times.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

A few weeks ago, the governor of Wormwood Scrubs wrote a letter to The Times complaining about the deplorable conditions in his prison. Since then, I understand, the Home Office has issued guidance to prison governors to the effect that they should limit their conversations with the press and not write letters to newspapers. If that is so, it represents a significant departure from the Home Office policy of more openness in our prisons.

I wonder whether the House is not entitled to an early statement from the Home Secretary about this.

Mr. Pym

I do not think my right hon. Friend has it in mind to make a statement, but I am sure that there has been no departure from normal practice.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

I should like to refer to the question asked a few moments ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) on Soviet actions in Afghanistan. Is there not a wider question which this House ought to debate at a very early moment—the continued violation of human rights within the Soviet empire and its satellites? This is a matter which concerns hon. Members on both sides of this House. It is pressing, and it ought to be debated because there is strong feeling in the House and in the country.

Mr. Pym

I am sure my right hon. Friend is right. That has come up in foreign affairs debates and in other ways in this House. I cannot find a special opportunity for it, but it is clear that many right hon. and hon. Members in this House hold strong views, as do the British people outside, and this subject receives a good deal of publicity and airing.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the six hon. Members who have been standing. I hope that they will be as brief as possible.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Will the Leader of the House provide time for an early debate on early-day motion 127?

[That this House reaffirms the regret expressed in Early Day Motion 627 of the session 1979–80 that following debate on the timetable motion on Tuesday 6th May 1980 in respect of the Social Security (No. 2) Bill that the BBC programme 'Yesterday in Parliament' failed in its broadcast of 7th May to describe in a fair manner the purpose and intention of the said Bill by only referring to that part of the Bill which affected supplementary benefit to the families of those involved in a trade dispute; notes that the headlines in The Times' and 'Guardian' of 7th May referred to 'Bill on striker's benefits' and 'strike pay bill', respectively; welcomes the fact that attention is now being given by the media to the effects of the reductions in real terms of social security benefits brought about by the Social Security (No. 2) Act 1980, but considers that the wider public interest would have better been served if at the time of the passage of the Bill and in the period since then, when the various sections have come into force, the cuts in the social security budget arising which are as follows:

section 1, reduction in real terms of five per cent. in unemployment benefit, invalidity pension and other short-term national insurance benefits saving £140 million in a full year,

section 2, the freezing of the earnings rule for retirement pensioners, saving £16.5 million in a full year,

section 3, reducing the linking period for spells of unemployment and incapacity from 13 weeks to eight weeks saving £10 million per year,

section 4, abolition of earnings related supplements from January 1982, saving £360 million per year and amounting to an average weekly loss on sickness benefit of £13, unemployment benefit of £11.20, injury benefit of £14.10, maternity allowance of £8.80 and widows' allowance of £14.90,

section 5, reduction in unemployment benefit for certain occupational pensioners saving £25 million in a hell year and

section 6, reduction of £13 in supplementary benefits entitlement of strikers' families saving approximately £1 million,

had been better reported the House would not now have to listen to the constant complaints of Government backbenchers who voted for these cuts recanting their actions almost daily.]

This stresses the problem which arose last time the Government rushed a social security measure through the House. Would the Leader of the House reconsider his decision to push another measure through on Tuesday and Thursday next week? It seems to be a major travesty of democracy that such a decision should go through this House in such a short time when it involves such substantial increases in payments at the time when the Government are cutting benefits right, left and centre.

Mr. Pym

I appreciate the points made by the hon. Gentleman, but I have to say to him that the Government have decided that these contributions must be adjusted in the way proposed in the Bill. Although in an ideal world it would be nice to take much longer about everything, we have to get on with this as we did last year; so I am sorry to have to say that I must disappoint the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

May I endorse the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition on the need for a statement at the earliest opportunity—I know that the Leader of the House agreed to a statement recently—about the multifibre arrangement? As he knows, there was a meeting of the Council of Ministers on Tuesday of this week. Various reports have been circulating about that meeting. It is of great anxiety to the textile industry. Will the right hon. Gentleman produce a statement as soon as possible? Could I also urge him to press the Home Secretary, sitting by him, for a statement on the Byford inquiry into the West Yorkshire police investigation of the Yorkshire Ripper case? One hopes that it will be produced as soon as possible, and, that a copy of the report will be put into the House of Commons Library before the statement.

Mr. Pym

The House knows the Government's concern about the negotiations over this arrangement, but I have nothing to add to what I said in reply to the Leader of the Opposition.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will have heard the second point that the hon. Gentleman raised, and I will discuss the matter with him.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is the Leader of the House aware that he said earlier that it might be inappropriate for a statement to be made before the conclusion of the MFA negotiations? Is he aware of the deep concern that is being felt in the British textile manufacturing industry? Does he not think that the Secretary of State may need a battery recharge at the Dispatch Box by way of a statement and questions to help him in those negotiations?

Mr. Pym

The Government are acutely aware of that concern. If my right hon. Friend wants the sort of reinforcement the hon. Gentleman describes, I am sure he will let me know.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

Will the Leader of the House today ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to have urgent discussions with GEC in Liverpool, which has announced another 400 job losses while at the same time announcing profits up by 81 per cent. and an increase in cash profits from £600 million to £800 million? It seems nonsense that the Government should be pushing public money into Merseyside while jobs are floating away because of closures by these companies.

Mr. Pym

That is a matter for my hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Dr. John Cunningham (Whitehaven)

When will the House have a statement on the Komlosy report following the major public inquiry into proposals to extract water from Ennerdale and Wastwater lakes in the national park in my constituency? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a long time has elapsed since this inquiry? It is a matter of major importance to environmentalists, but also to industry and the future of the water supplies in West Cumbria. Can we have a statement and perhaps a debate before the Government make any decision?

Mr. Pym

I doubt if there will be time for a debate, but I will look into that matter and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Going back to the issue of the multi-fibre arrangement negotiations, I know that the Leader of the House accepts that there is concern and anxiety on both sides of the House and on all sides of industry. Is the Leader of the House aware that the immediate concern is not about the negotiations in Geneva but about the prior negotiations taking place within the Council of Ministers in Brussels about which there have been unconfirmed rumours but no confirmed statement about the British Government's position? It is on that that I must press the Leader of the House once again for an urgent statement by the Secretary of State for Trade in this House. May we have the Leader of the House's assurance that he will press the Secretary of State for that early statement?

Mr. Pym

I will discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend. If he feels that there is any information of importance to convey to the House, no doubt he will do so, but, as I have said before, negotiations are still in progress and in those circumstances a further statement often does not contribute to what the House is united in wanting—the most successful arrangement that we can negotiate. However, I will discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend.