HC Deb 12 February 1981 vol 998 cc983-91
Mr. Speaker

Business Statement.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Paymaster General and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Francis Pym)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 16 FEBRUARY—Until 7 o'clock, Private Members' motions.

Second Reading of the Gas Levy Bill.

TUESDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Supply [9th Allotted Day]: Debate on an Opposition motion on the absence of effective Government action to prevent the threatened closure of Talbot Linwood, until about 7 o'clock.

Debate on an Opposition motion on EEC sugar proposals, their effect on employment in United Kingdom refineries and on the economies of developing countries. [EEC document 10009/80 will be relevant]

WEDNESDAY 18 FEBRUARY—Proceedings on the Redundancy Fund Bill and on the Iron and Steel (Borrowing Powers) Bill.

Motions on Northern Ireland orders on the Agricultural Trust and on museums.

THURSDAY 19 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Water Bill.

Proceedings on the House of Commons Members' Fund and Parliamentary Pensions Bill.

Motions on Members' salaries and pensions.

FRIDAY 20 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 23 FEBRUARY—Supply [10th Allotted Day]: Subject for debate to be announced.

[Debate on European Community Document relating to sugar:

The relevant report of the European Legislation Committee is the 2nd Report, Session 1980–81 H/C 32 paragraph 3.]

Mr. Foot

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that the proposed debates for next week were drawn up before the statement from the Prime Minister earlier this afternoon about the coal industry? In our view that was an extremely serious statement, because she seemed to indicate that there was to be no attempt by the Government to alter their attitude to the coal industry and the provisions of the Coal Industry Act, which recently went through the House. Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman consider rearranging the business for next week, or at any rate soon in the week after, so that we may have a full-scale debate on the coal industry?

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's own speech yesterday, does not he think that we should hold such a debate before the disaster happens, rather than afterwards? Does not he agree that what the Prime Minister said today is a serious declaration, which could lead to serious consequences in the coal industry? I urge him to consider rearranging the business so that we may have a full day's debate, in Government time, on the coal industry crisis.

Mr. Pym

It is right that I should consider what the right hon. Gentleman has asked for. In all frankness, I should point out that I do not think that it would be appropriate to rearrange next week's business. The right hon. Gentleman asked for a debate next week or the week after. I cannot give a commitment in that respect, because policy considerations arise, but I shall take account of his representations for a debate on the coal industry. Obviously, that is a suitable subject for a Supply day debate, but I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on the speech that he made yesterday, with its recognition that tactical changes in policy may be necessary and desirable from time to time. In that spirit of flexibility and common sense, has his attention been drawn to early-day motion 169 standing in my name and that of 90 right hon. and hon. Members, relating to the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries (Amendment) Bill?

[That this House urges Her Majesty's Government to facilitate the passage of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries (Amendment) Bill which is designed to remedy the injustice done to the former owners of the assets nationalised by the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977 by the payment of grossly inadequate compensation and to propose more equitable arrangements.]

Will he facilitate the passage of that measure, bearing in mind that it is designed to remedy what Ministers themselves have described as "a gross injustice"?

Mr. Pym

I am grateful for what my right hon. and learned Friend said at the beginning of his remarks. I have noticed the early-day motion to which he referred and I recognise its importance, as well as the objective of my right hon. and learned Friend and other of my hon. Friends in bringing forward the Bill. The Government's view is that the basis of compensation for the nationalisation in 1977 of companies in the aerospace and shipbuilding industries should remain undisturbed, but I shall take note of what my right hon. and learned Friend said.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea South)

Although renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act is not on next week's business, I understand that it will soon come before the House. Will the Leader of the House consider allowing hon. Members more time to debate the renewal of this legislation, rather than slotting it in late at night for a mere one and a half hours?

Mr. Pym

I note what the hon. Member asks for.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that foreign affairs can have a considerable impact on our country? Will he therefore arrange a debate on foreign affairs prior to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs going to the United States, so that hon. Members on the Conservative Benches will be able to express their views about the serious problem in Palestine and the need to recognise the problems of the Palestinian people?

Mr. Pym

As I said last week, I am looking for an opportunity to have a foreign affairs debate. I must tell my hon. Friend that I am afraid that I cannot arrange it before the visit to the United States of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I am looking for a subsequent opportunity, knowing that the House would like such a debate.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

Will the Leader of the House take steps to ensure that, so far as possible, it is the senior Minister of a Department who makes statements in the House on matters that involve hundreds of millions of pounds, or thousands of jobs? I recall that during the period of office of the Labour Administration, my right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) and I came back to the House to make statements. I am glad to see the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food here. We believed—as I think hon. Members believed—that our duty was first and foremost to the House of Commons.

Mr. Pym

That is absolutely true. All my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench take the same view. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland was occupied in a very hard day of negotiations for the fishing industry in Scotland. It seemed appropriate that a Scottish Minister should make the statement. There was also another statement yesterday, made, it is true, by the Minister of State when the Secretary of State was present. I do not think that it is right to say that every statement should be made by the Secretary of State.

The statement was about the Iron and Steel (Borrowing Powers) Bill, and it seemed appropriate for a Minister of State to make the statement and to share some of the load. I agree that the Secretary of State was present. He will make the major statements. It was stated yesterday that he will make the major statement on steel, when it comes. We shall follow that pattern, but it would be a departure from the practice of the House if the view were taken that no one except the Secretary of State, or the most senior Minister of a Department, could make a statement. On occasions the House might find itself in real difficulty. When the senior Minister was not available we would have to find someone else in any case. I hope that we can approach the matter on a common-sense basis. It is the desire that Ministers should treat the House with the appropriate courtesy, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that that is the practice.

Mr. Silkin

Yes. On yesterday's showing, however, the Secretary of State for Industry was sitting on the Front Bench. I doubt whether the House would regard an increase of £500 million as being a minor matter. I have a feeling that most hon. Members would consider it a major matter.

I have never noticed any reluctance on the part of German or French Ministers, when they have an important engagement in their own capitals, to return to address their Parliaments.

Mr. Pym

It is a matter of judgment. Everyone is aware of the protracted negotiations taking place in regard to the fishing industry. It was thought helpful for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to be involved in them. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that an extra £500 million of borrowing powers is a lot, but I remind him that one of his hon. Friends thought it a small sum. I disagree with his hon. Friend. It is a matter of judgment. We took the view that on this occasion it was appropriate for that load within the Department to be shared in the way that it was shared, but I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's representations.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

Has my right hon. Friend read about, or noticed, the understandable fuss that has arisen over the farcical situation in Basingstoke, where a lady who let her house for a short period came back and was unable to re-enter it? Is he aware that this is a by-product of the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act, introduced with well-meaning vigour under the Lib-Lab pact, which many people are prepared to use unscrupulously as a cheats' charter? In view of commitments by the Secretary of State for the Environment to reconsider this legislation, will my right hon. Friend invite the Secretary of State, or one of his Ministers, to report to the House next week on the progress that is being made, so that we may know where we stand?

Mr. Pym

I am sorry to hear of the difficulties being encountered by the lady in Basingstoke. I will convey to my right hon. Friend what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

The Leader of the House will no doubt recollect hearing the Prime Minister say that any hon. Member who has a factory closure in his constituency can arrange to see her. As, I assume, hundreds of hon. Members on both sides will be queuing up, will the Prime Minister make a statement next week explaining how hon. Members should get in the queue, so that certain people do not get preference, and so that those who are first can be accommodated when they go to discuss the closure of factories in their constituencies?

Mr. Pym

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in saying what she did, was showing the most extreme courtesy. I have no doubt that hon. Members will respect the way in which she said it and enable it to be regarded as a practical and sensible proposition.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)

I recognise my right hon. Friend's appreciation of the tenets of common sense, as recently stated. Does he agree that in the coming week a statement should be made by the Government with regard to the proposal by British Telecom to paint our telephone boxes yellow—which is ridiculous in terms of the waste of taxpayers' money and the traditions of this country?

Mr. Pym

That is a matter for British Telecom.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea North)

Should not the House debate next week the Government's new economic policy, announced by the right hon. Gentleman himself yesterday to the Putney Conservatives?

Mr. Pym

I do not wish to burden the right hon. Gentleman. If he cares to read the speech he will find that what he says is not accurate.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Will my right hon. Friend kindly remind the House what were to be the advantages of the new monster-size Hansard? If it has been found that there are none, will he consider restoring it to its former size?

Mr. Pym

It is not for me to do that. The House had a proposition before it and considered it over a long period. It eventually came to a conclusion. I must advise the House that if it were thought that there might now be a change, that would seem to me not a wise course. It would be extremely expensive.

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

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 179, on used textile machinery exports:

[That this House deplores the failure of the Government to act to arrest the export of used textile and other machinery by companies who are reducing their domestic operations due to the recession; and demands that the Government intervenes to prevent the export of the manufacturing base of the British economy.]

Will he provide Government time for a discussion of that motion, signed by over 200 hon. Members? Within eight hours of being placed on the Order Paper it had been signed by an unprecedented 180 hon. Members. Will he give time next week?

Mr. Pym

I appreciate the importance of what the hon. Gentleman asks, but I am afraid that I cannot find time for that business next week, in Government time.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

In answer to a question today my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister seemed to indicate that there would be no action to restrain the index-linking of public service pensions before a debate took place on the Scott report. Will my right hon. Friend promise an early debate on the report if that is the situation? Better still, there should be no debate on that report, and the Government should take action and reduce the linking of public sector pensions to the 6 per cent. wage norm in the public sector.

Mr. Pym

I feel sure that the House will want to debate this important report and the issues that lie behind it. I would have thought that there was a lot to be said for having a considerable degree of public debate before a debate takes place in the House. I note what my hon. Friend requests.

Mr. loan Evans (Aberdare)

Will the right hon. Gentleman look again at the suggestion that there should be a statement by the Government, or an early debate, on closures in the coal industry? There have already been massive steel closures in South Wales, where unemployment is reminiscent of the situation in the 1930s. Whole communities are waiting for news about whether their pits are to be closed, when such a decision is completely unnecessary. Will there be an early debate on the issue?

Mr. Pym

I appreciate fully the importance of what has happened in the coal industry. Responsibility for the industry is pre-eminently a matter for the National Coal Board, but I have noted the desire for a debate. We shall have to consider how that can be arranged.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Since it appears that public pressure may well knock on the head British Telecom's daft scheme for painting our telephone boxes yellow, will my right hon. Friend bring forward an early debate on the Second Reading of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. Parris), which would prevent the petrol monopolies from stealing the gallon and force-feeding us litres, from the fourth quarter of this year?

Mr. Pym

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend, but I do not think that I can find Government time for that Bill.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

As the Leader of the House is seemingly the Minister in charge of the rotating Tory policy, and as he has now put himself in charge of the necessary adjustments to prevent that policy going round in complete circles, will he assure us that he will now pay attention to the question of pit closures and the future of the coal industry? Is he aware that the Government are mainly responsible for the threat to about 50 pits because of the way in which they have run down many of the factories that hitherto burnt coal? Is he further aware that those pits are now victims of the recession, despite high productivity levels during the past two years? Will he now ensure that there is an early debate, before the various mining unions and the Coal Board meet Ministers, so that the House can shed more light on this seeming confusion?

Mr. Pym

The hon. Gentleman forgets the scale of closures that took place under earlier Administrations, including a Labour Government. I have noted what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he said this afternoon that the question of red or yellow telephone boxes is a matter for British Telecom and that the question of closures in the coal industry is a matter for the National Coal Board? Will he assure me that the House will have a say in matters concerning nationalised industries? Their activities are determined by what the House of Commons thinks.

Mr. Pym

I note what my hon. Friend says. These matters are debated from time to time, and I have noted the particular interest that has been expressed today.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

Is the Minister aware that the National Insurance Advisory Committee's report on disabled housewives' non-contributory benefits has now been before the DHSS for a considerable time? Will he give a firm undertaking to the House that we shall debate any changes in those benefits before decisions are made outside?

Mr. Pym

I cannot give that undertaking, but I shall discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)

May I press the Leader of the House once again on the need for a debate on the proposed closure of Callendar Park and Hamilton colleges of education? Is he aware that for the past six or seven months we have consistently asked questions, the Opposition have given up their time in the Scottish Grand Committee, the Government were defeated in the Scottish Grand Committee, and the Minister is now threatening to close these colleges without further consultation with the governors? As a good parliamentarian, does not the Leader of the House think that it is the Government's responsibility to test the matter on the Floor of the House—or does he think that we should write to the Prime Minister and request a meeting about these colleges? Is he aware that we could relieve her of that burden by having a debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Pym

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's strength of feeling on this matter, because he has raised it in two or three successive weeks. However, with regret, I have nothing to add to the reply that I gave last week.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about the mining industry, with his request for a debate about the proposed closure of a number of pits, is a matter for the House, because at least £800 million of public money is invested in the British mining industry? In view of that, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider his reply and give the House an opportunity to debate any proposals that the National Coal Board may make on the closure of pits?

Mr. Pym

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's comments. It would be possible to debate this matter in Supply time as well as in Government time. It would obviously be a suitable subject to be debated on a Supply day, although I am not necessarily suggesting that. I note the hon. Gentleman's representation.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. There are seven hon. Members who wish to speak. If questions are brief I can call all of them, but I do not propose to go much beyond 4 o'clock before we move on to the statement.

Mr. Tom McNally (Stockport, South)

Will the Leader of the House pledge an early debate on the unanimous report of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which seeks to put backbone into the Government's policy on import penetration? Is he aware that Monday would be a good day, because that is the day on which textile workers will lobby the House on that matter?

Mr. Pym

I do not think that I can alter the business for next Monday, but I note the hon. Gentleman's request.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

Reverting to the question by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs), may I ask what is the difference between the coal mining industry and butter within the Common Market, in that we can have butter mountains within the EEC but we cannot have coal mountains? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that coal is just as important a commodity as butter?

Mr. Pym

The stock of coal is something close to a mountain, and at present it is another anxiety within the industry.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, East)

May I ask the Leader of the House to consider urgently a debate on regional policy, which is a priority for Labour Members? Is he aware that whereas his hon. Friends may be obsessed with the colour of telephone boxes and the size of the Official Report, we are concerned that in 20 months of this Government conditions in the regions have deteriorated to such an extent that we need a reassessment of regional policy, especially as it affects areas such as Yorkshire and Humberside?

Mr. Pym

Again, that is a suitable subject for a Supply day, when the hon. Gentleman could put forward his proposals. It could also be debated in Government time, but the hon. Gentleman knows that the number of days are limited, and we have to fit in Government business.

Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

Will the Leader of the House take note that Labour Members as well as Conservative Members think that it is necessary to find time at the earliest possible opportunity for a debate on foreign affairs? Is he aware that in view of the policies of the new American Administration on Central America, Nicaragua, El Salvador, the problems of Cyprus, and so on, there is an enormous case for giving the House an opportunity to debate those issues?

Mr. Pym

I note the hon. Gentleman's remarks and I hope that before very long we shall be able to find an opportunity for such a debate. The number of foreign affair subjects raised indicates the interest of the House and the extent of the debate that might take place. I shall look for an opportunity as soon as possible.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

Since the Prime Minister has often declared support for open government, may I ask the Leader of the House when the Government will bring forward their Freedom of Information Bill? Is he aware that if they require help in drafting such a Bill I shall be ready to assist?

Mr. Pym

That is a matter that we might be prepared to consider, but we have no plans to bring forward such a Bill at the moment.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

Has the right hon. Gentleman read early-day motion 11, which gives the testimony of some of his hon. Friends to the value of a 10-college system of teacher training in Scotland?

[That this House recalls the assurances and pledges given three years ago to the colleges of education in Scotland by Conservative hon. Members, and calls upon the same hon. Members now in Government to re-read their own and their colleagues' speeches, and in particular the following, and to do now what they promised so confidently and pursuasively then:

"I think sometimes it's better not to merge or to destroy colleges, but to say all right we'll keep them all going because the more widely they are distributed, the more chance people who live near them have to go and train at them and still live at home."—The Prime Minister, 4 June 1977, in a Party Political Broadcast.

"We have come to the stage where we have enough teachers and all the Government can do is to cut matters back to keep things as they are. It is truly disastrous and I hope they will think again about it."—right hon. Member for Ayr Burghs, 17 February 1977.

"It follows that we do not accept that the proper reaction to lower population projection and the need to cut public expenditure is for the Secretary of State to wield a butcher's axe on the colleges of education.

"… We can only conclude that Ministers have chosen to chop smaller colleges purely for financial reasons and without proper consideration of the educational consequences of their action."—hon. Member for Edinburgh, North, 17 February 1977.

"It is not correct for the Government to argue that the closure of colleges is the proper or appropriate response to this difficulty."—hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands, 17 February 1977.

"If the Secretary of State wishes to convince the Scots that some harsh reforms are necessary, the costings must be made and must be made public. It is no use making decisions before making costings, because if the decisions are wrong they cannot be put right later. The costings and the feasibility study must be done first."—hon. Member for Edinburgh, West, 15 March 1977.

"The major failure of this Government has been their refusal to give any indication of the financial implications … We are entitled to know what the costs of the proposed closures are."—hon. Member for Dumfries, 5 April 1977.

"It is simply a cold, savage statistical exercise in butchery to reduce the number of colleges in Scotland from 10 to six and make substantial cuts in the number of college lecturers."—17 February 1977.

"The Opposition doubt whether it will be a real benefit to Scottish education to concentrate teacher training essentially in big colleges in the cities. I think that there is ample evidence that the alternative proposal of reducing the number of students at the major colleges and keeping going those with special and unique geographical contributions to make would probably be better."—17 February 1977.]

If the right hon. Gentleman continues to tell the House that it cannot have a debate in Government time, will he tell the House and the people of Scotland why what was good enough in 1977, when his hon. Friends were in Opposition, is not good enough now that they are in power?

Mr. Pym

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has made the position clear to the House.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

In the light of his disappointing answers to my hon. Friends the Members for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth (Mr. Ewing), will the Leader of the House at least ensure that there is a debate on Scottish affairs in general, especially in view of the gross incompetence that the Secretary of State has shown in handling the closure of the colleges, the way in which it appears that he has caved in so readily on the closure of Linwood, and the enormous economic problems that face the whole of Scotland?

Mr. Pym

I cannot respond to that, but I note that there is business relating to education in Scotland on the Order Paper today—business that is not totally unrelated to the issues that have been raised with me. At present I have no plans for a Scottish day. Not long ago we had a Welsh day. This Government have been more generous in providing time for debates of that sort than were the previous Government. We do our best.