HC Deb 02 July 1981 vol 7 cc1010-9
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw vale)

Will the Leader of the House make a statement about the business for next week?

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

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 6 JULY—Private Members' motions until 7 o'clock.

Afterwards, remaining stages of the Deep Sea Mining (Temporary Provisions) Bill [Lords].

Motions on the Merseyside Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) Orders.

Ways and Means resolutions relating to tobacco duty, betting duty, bingo duty and gaming machine licence duty.

TUESDAY 7 JULY—Debate on the White Paper the United Kingdom Defence Programme: The Way Forward, Cmnd. 8288.

Lords amendments to the British Telecommunications Bill.

WEDNESDAY 8 JULY—Supply [26th Allotted Day]: Until about 7 o'clock, debate on an Opposition motion on regional policy, and afterwards a debate on an Opposition motion on higher education.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Forestry Bill.

Motions on the Antigua Termination of Association Order, and on the Furniture Development Council (Dissolution) Order.

THURSDAY 9 JuLY—Supply [27th Allotted Day]: Debate on the Army, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Supreme Court Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY I o JULY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 13 JULY—Progress on remaining stages of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill [Lords].

Mr. Foot

I wish to put four matters to the right hon. Gentleman. First, will he provide time for a debate on the cuts in the BBC's external services? He will know that there is wide resentment about the present proposals If the Government intend to proceed with these absurd cuts, surely they will allow the House of Commons a chance to debate the matter.

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman indicate when we shall debate the Government's directive, in respect of which there is a motion in my name, dealing with the British Gas Corporation's oilfield at Wytch Farm and the suggestion that it should be sold to the private sector?

[That the British Gas Corporation (Disposal of Wytch Farm Oilfield Interests) Direction 1981 be not made in the form of the draft laid before this House on 26th June.]

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that without the British Gas Corporation that field would not have been developed, and that there is strong feeling about the matter. I trust that there will be time at an early stage to debate the motion standing in the name of myself and some of my hon. Friends.

The third matter is another extremely important one. Will the Leader of the House tell us when we are to have a statement from the Secretary State for the Environment about the planning application by the National Coal Board to develop the Vale of Belvoir, in Leicestershire? It has been suggested that the Secretary of State is to reject the inspector's recommendation. That suggestion is causing great anxiety, because the development is absolutely crucial to the future ability of the coal industry to supply the nation's energy needs. If there is any truth in the suggestion that the Secretary of State for the Environment is seeking to thwart the proposal and overturn the inspector's recommendation, may we at any rate have an early statement next week from the Secretary of State so that the House may have a chance to decide the matter, rather than the Secretary of State doing so behind our backs?

The final matter concerns a question that I have put to the right hon. Gentleman on a number of occasions. We want an undertaking from the Government that before the House rises for the recess we shall have a proper debate on the Brandt report and all the associated questions. The right hon. Gentleman replies to me each week. As it is such an important subject, the Government should provide the time so that we may know the Government's approach to it. At present no one knows, and a full debate is necessary for that purpose.

Mr. Pym

On a number of occasions I have responded to requests from the right hon. Gentleman on unemployment, textiles, and other matters, and it is obvious from the limited time that is available to any Government that I cannot respond positively to all his requests.

I appreciate that the question of the external services of the BBC is an important one, but, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said last week, we are not making cuts in the amount of money that is available to the BBC. We are trying to improve the service by making it more audible. I am bound to say that I do not think that there will be time to discuss the matter.

If the right hon. Gentleman feels that his motion in relation to the British Gas Corporation is of sufficient importance it should be a candidate for debate in the time that is available to Her Majesty's Opposition.

The decision about the Vale of Belvoir is one that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has to reach in his quasi-judicial position, as he does on all inquiries. He has to reach his conclusions on the basis of the evidence. I note that the right hon. Gentleman would like a statement next week. I cannot say exactly when my right hon. Friend will be ready to make his announcement. I can only say that he will do so as soon as he has reached his conclusion.

Finally, I am sorry that I cannot go further than I did last week on the subject of Brandt. The House has had a number of opportunities during the past 15 months, including one occasion this year, to debate this important matter. It is a question of finding time. Again, if the right hon. Gentleman feels that the matter is of sufficient importance perhaps he will consider providing the time. I cannot guarantee to provide time before we rise for the Summer Recess but, as I have said before and repeat today, I appreciate the importance of the subject. It is merely a question whether it can be fitted in before we rise.

Mr. Foot

No one knows better than the right hon. Gentleman that the amount of time that is available to an Opposition at this stage of our proceedings is very limited, yet a host of matters are coming forward on which the Government are apparently seeking to make decisions that normally the House would insist on debating but that will be crowded out if the Government do not provide time.

I repeat what I said about the Brandt report. I expect the right hon. Gentleman to make a statement on the matter next week, and I trust that he will give us the affirmative answer that we seek.

On the two other matters, the Secretary of State for the Environment may be acting in a so-called quasi-judicial capacity but he is responsible to the House on the matter, and this House of Commons will want to decide on a matter of such importance. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that.

The right hon. Gentleman altogether misunderstands the facts regarding the BBC external services. It is not merely a question of transferring services or saving money; it is a matter of cuts in the services. The right hon. Gentleman should understand that. He should understand, too, that there is opposition to it in many parts of the House and that we should therefore have a chance to debate it.

Mr. Pym

I understand the matter all right, but it is a question of finding time. In comparison with some of my predecessors—and, I dare say, even in comparison with the right hon. Gentleman himself—I have been quite forthcoming in providing time for requests legitimately and properly made by the Leader of the Opposition. If there is time we can fit in some of them but if not it will be difficult.

I think that I have correctly described the position of the Secretary of State for the Environment regarding his decision about the Vale of Belvoir. When he has come to his conclusion he will announce it. If he is not ready to do so next week it will not be announced next week. When it is ready—and, clearly, it will not be long delayed now—the Secretary of State will make a statement about it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow business questions to go on until five minutes past 4 o'clock—that is 20 minutes, which should get everyone in—because a considerable number of hon. Members wish to speak on Northern Ireland.

Sir William Clark (Croydon, South)

In view of the great public interest in index-linked pensions in the public sector, will my right hon. Friend say whether we shall have an opportunity to discuss the Scott report before the Summer Recess?

Mr. Pym

I am afraid that it will not be possible in Government time to do that.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

I wish to draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 501, which concerns the position of casual workers who have been dismissed from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre at Swansea.

[That this House deplores the fact that casual workers, now dismissed from employment at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre, Swansea, are being denied benefit by the Department of Employment or the Department of Health and Social Security who are treating them as parties to the Civil Service dispute; and calls upon the Government to take immediate action to end this persecution of innocent parties.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman bring this early-day motion to the attention of his right hon. Friends and arrange for one of them to make a statement in the House next week to clear up the situation, which involves a great deal of injustice to these people?

Mr. Pym

I shall of course convey to my right hon. Friend what the hon. Gentleman said. I understand that the workers in question have a right of appeal against the decisions that have been taken. Therefore, I do not believe that a debate is appropriate. However, I shall certainly convey the hon. Gentleman's views to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

On the subject of the BBC's overseas services, does the Leader of the House recall that it was after a debate in the House that some of the cuts in languages were not proceeded with at an earlier date? What right do the Government now have to overturn that policy without a further debate in the House?

Mr. Pym

I take note of the hon. Gentleman's representations. It is a matter of time before we rise for the Summer Recess. We have to complete our legislative processes, Supply days, and so forth. I have taken careful note of what has been said by both the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Gentleman.

Sir Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House say when the Secretary of State for the Environment will present his Green Paper on local government finance? Is he aware of the problems facing many councils and ratepayers? Will he promise a debate before the Summer Recess on this important matter?

Mr. Pym

I do not believe that that will be possible. My right hon. Friend is planning to publish a short paper soon, but the main paper about alternatives to the rating system will be published in the autumn.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the speculation in the Scottish press about the financing of the gas gathering system, which is probably the most important single investment to be undertaken by the United Kingdom? Will he persuade the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement in the House allaying the suspicion and fears, so that the project can go ahead?

Mr. Pym

I am prepared to consult my right hon. Friend on that point.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

In view of the great distress caused by the action of air traffic controllers and the grave danger that any stepping-up of their action will jeopardise the holidays of millions of people, will the Government consider carefully early-day motion 498, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) and many others?

[That this House, being no longer prepared to tolerate the continuing inconsiderate behaviour of those air traffic controllers who are causing serious damage to British civilian aviation and severe inconvenience to the travelling public, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to make alternative provision for this essential service.]

Will he also consider the amendment that I have tabled calling for early action to ensure that under emergency powers—similar to the powers that exist in other countries, including France, the United States and Germany—the Government are able to take the necessary action to declare these strikes unlawful? Will there be an opportunity to debate this issue, either at the time of the introduction of such emergency legislation or otherwise?

Mr. Pym

I do not have it in mind at the moment to introduce further legislation. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that the Government will give consideration to the early-day motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) and the amendment appended to it. I do not feel, however, that this is a matter for which the Government will be able to find time for a debate, although there may be other opportunities available to my hon. and learned Friend before the House rises.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

In view of the fact that the Esso Oil Company seems to be threatening to withdraw from the £360 million investment project in Moss Morran, in Fife, unless it gets substantial tax and/or rate concessions, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement on the matter at the earliest opportunity, as this appears to be some form of bluff or blackmail by the company? In view of the increasing number of subjects that are obviously in line for debate, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the House will sit after the end of July if necessary?

Mr. Pym

I can give no assurance on the question when the recess may begin. It is too early to know when that may be. I am not sure whether a statement on the other matter that the hon. Gentleman raises would be appropriate, but I am prepared to consult my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Robert Atkins (Preston, North)

I wish to support my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) in his plea to my right hon. Friend about the state of British civil aviation as a result of the action of the air traffic controllers. My right hon. Friend will see that early-day motion 498 has the support of 70 of his right hon. and hon. Friends. We do not want the Government, in any shape or form, to give way to the air traffic controllers, but there are alternatives—using the Royal Air Force and/or International Aeradio or other private enterprise companies. This matter cannot continue much longer. The patience of the public is fast coming to an end.

Mr. Pym

I take note of my hon. Friend's representation. I accept fully that there is disruption and disturbance as a result of the strike by air traffic controllers who are not civil servants. The right course would be an end to the strike on the basis of what is a reasonable offer. The Government will consider alternative proposals. There are problems and difficulties about any alternative course, but the matter will be considered.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

In view of the shattering uncertainties caused to so many people employed in the defence industries by the proposed defence cuts, recently announced, not least in Marconi radar sites at Leicester, Gateshead and Chelmsford. will the right hon. Gentleman agree that one day is not sufficient to debate matters that vitally affect the constituencies of so many hon. Members? Adequate time must surely be provided to discuss what alternative work can be made available and what alternative strategy can be devised to avoid breaking up invaluable design teams, created over a long period, at such places as the New Parks site in my constituency.

Mr. Pym

The day provided next week on the defence White Paper and the two days for Service debates are adequate for hon. Members to raise almost any matter, at any rate any important matter, in relation to defence.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Ministers come to the defence debate prepared to deal with the matter effectively? Will he also confirm that there was a six months' inquiry into the Vale of Belvoir issue, at which all points of view were fully and fairly put and that it is open now for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to announce his decision, for which he then becomes responsible to the House?

Mr. Pym

I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will come very well briefed to the defence debate. On the second matter, this was obviously a major inquiry. Very big issues are raised. I do not, therefore, think that it is a surprise to anyone that my right hon. Friend should take some time in reaching his conclusion. Indeed, he would be open to criticism if he did not go into the matter thoroughly before reaching a conclusion.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is intent on enforcing a retrospective cut in the budget of the Lothian regional council that totally undermines the right of the council to determine the level of service in the area and will lead to thousands of public service workers being made redundant in the region this year? If the Government persist with this policy, will the right hon. Gentleman at least ensure that hon. Members have a full debate and not the one and a half hour debate suggested?

Mr. Pym

If time permits I shall be content to do that. I am doubtful, however, whether time will be available. There are various ways in which this matter can be raised. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take advantage of those opportunities.

Mr. Chris Patten (Bath)

Following my right hon. Friend's earlier remarks, can he give any indication when there is likely to be a debate on the Navy Estimates?

Mr. Pym

I am afraid that I cannot give any undertaking on that matter. The second half of July is the best that I can do.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

May I reiterate the demand made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and by our Liberal colleague that the House must have a chance to change the Government's mind about their intended cuts in the BBC language services? As he must know, there is considerable public and parliamentary disquiet about this intention.

Mr. Pym

If it does not prove possible for the Government to provide time, the Opposition might make available part of their time. That is the best answer that I can give.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Civil Service strike is causing anger and worry to many of my constituents whose pensions are being withheld? Leaving aside the attitude and mentality of those who take action against the weak and the sick, will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Social Services to make a statement to the House next week, particularly about discussions that he or other members of the Government may have had with the clearing banks to help my constituents and many others to overcome the temporary difficulties caused by the dispute?

Mr. Pym

It is extremely unfortunate and reprehensible that some members of the Civil Service should be withholding pensions from their ex-colleagues. My hon. Friend may wish to raise the second matter that he has put with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and also with my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do not think that it is likely that the Government will feel able to assist my hon. Friend in the way that he has in mind.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

Before the debate on higher education will there be a statement on reports that five universities, including Stirling, in my constituency, have been told to cut student numbers by over 50 per cent? This proposal, combined with the effects of increased fees for overseas students, represents the most devastating blow against higher education by any Government in history. Does the Leader of the House agree with the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) that this kind of cut is absolutely disastrous and more damaging than the savings justify, or does he agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Sell)/ Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) that the last Tory Prime—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It does not matter whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees. We are discussing next week's business.

Mr. Pym

I do not envisage a statement in addition to the debate announced for next week.

Mr. Tim Eggar

(Enfield, North): Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 455?

[That this House congratulates Her Majesty's Government on its achievement in reducing the nationalised industry sector, and looks forward to the sale of shares in other nationalised industries, or where more appropriate, the hiving off of peripheral businesses, the abolition of monopoly powers and the introduction of more competition, since it is only in these ways that demands on public finance can be significantly reduced, efficiency improved and real costs to consumers minimised.]

The motion is signed by 159 of his right hon. and hon. Members. If we cannot have a debate on this important topic, when can we expect the Government to bring forward the necessary denationalisation measures?

Mr. Pym

I am afraid that I cannot put a date on it.

Mr. loan Evans (Aberdare)

Has the Leader of the House seen the widespread reports that the House would today be hearing a statement on the university cuts? Is it right that such an important statement should be made in the form of a written answer to a planted question? Will a statement be made before the actual debate?

If the Government cannot give time for a debate on the Brandt commission report, will the hon. Members at least be made aware of the Government's views before the three international conferences that are to take place?

Mr. Pym

A written answer by my right hon. and learned Friend. the Secretary of State for Education and Science is an appropriate way to handle the matter. Another statement today would have delayed even longer a very important debate. That aspect of the matter has to be considered. One also has to take account of the fact that the House has been provided with an opportunity by the Opposition to debate the matter next week. That is a satisfactory outcome.

I am not sure whether it will be practical or appropriate to make a statement on Brandt before we rise for the recess. I am fully aware of the interest of the House in the matter.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

Is it my right hon. Friend's intention to complete the Report stage of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill [Lords] on Monday 13 July, or to provide another subsequent day?

Mr. Pym

I have announced that progress on the remaining stages will be taken on 13 July, so the answer is that the Report stage will not be completed on that day.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his reply to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on the Vale of Belvoir is not good enough, inasmuch as the statement could, according to the press, be that the proposal for the Vale of Belvoir is turned down? Is he further aware that in our view that would necessitate a debate, so that we could test opinion here as well as testing the opinion of the Secretary of State? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that while it is a sensible decision for the Government to make in order to subsidise exports of British coal and to control imports of coal, the recent announcement makes as much good sense to ensure that those national coal assets that lie beneath the land of the Tory landowner, the Duke of Rutland, are fully exploited?

Mr. Pym

The hon. Gentleman and the House would be wise to await the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. We can then consider the position. I have nothing further to add to my answer to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the problems and confusion that have been created for both consumers and traders since the emergence of credit card surcharges following the publication of the Monopolies Commission report? Will he take all possible steps to obtain a statement of the Government's policy—their acceptance or rejection of the report—before the Summer Recess?

Mr. Pym

I shall take that matter up with my right hon. Friend. I dare say that he has already considered it.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will there be a statement on the report of the Monopolies Commission about the sale of The Observer to Lonhro? Is the Leader of the House aware that there is considerable concern and disquiet about this well-established newspaper being sold off to a commercial company such as Lonhro?

Mr. Pym

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade has been receiving certain representations this week, and in due course he will make a statement.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 336,

which has now been signed by 104 of my right hon. and hon. Friends, on the threat to Britain's invisible exports constituted by the UNCTAD liner code?

[That this House expresses its concern about the threat to Great Britain's invisible earnings constituted by the United Nations Commission for Trade and Development Liner Code and believes that the international trading operations in commodities conducted in the City of London amounting to about £200,000,000 a year is being seriously affected by countries invoking the code even before it is officially approved, and by the operation of cargo allocation centres; considers that the Liner Code may be the forerunner of a bulk code which could seriously inhibit the shipment of commodities from the developing countries traded in the flexible commodity and shipbroking markets in London; and therefore calls on the Government not to ratify the Liner Code until its long-term implications have been fully understood and debated in this House.]

Will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade, with a view to our having a debate on it, certainly before any consideration is given to ratification?

Mr. Pym

I am prepared to consult my right hon. Friend on that matter.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Will the Leader of the House assure us that a statement will be made orally, and not in answer to a planted question, such as that which was asked on Monday, on the reduction of quotas for British feature films, since a statement was promised by the Minister? In view of the shabby and underhand way in which the Minister reduced the quota of feature films from 30 to 15 without revealing the information to the House, will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that the order that he placed last Tuesday will be debated on the Floor of the House and not sent upstairs to a Committee?

Mr. Pym

I note the hon. Gentleman's strictures. Again, I am prepared to consult my right hon. Friend. However, I am not sure that a debate would be appropriate.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 333—

[That this House recognises that the present terms of the British Nationally Bill will deprive ethnic Britons born overseas of the right to pass their citizenships on to their children born overseas and requests the amendment of the Bill so as to preserve that right during the lifetime of Britons born overseas before the commencement date.] —and early-day motion 436—

(That this House regrets that, as presently drafted, the British Nationality Bill will retrospectively deprive some British subjects born overseas of the right to transmit their British Nationality; and urges the Government to amend the Bill to remove this retrospective element.]

—concerning the British Nationality Bill?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members are concerned about the provisions in the Bill that will deprive Britons abroad, who are Britons by descent under the Bill, of the right to pass their citizenship on to their children? Will he have a word with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and arrange for an appropriate amendment to be inserted in the Lords, so that by the time the Bill comes back to the Commons this injustice will have been removed?

Mr. Pym

As my hon. Friend knows, the House has debated the Bill almost exhaustively. It is now in another place, where no doubt it will also receive careful attention. In due course some amendments may come back for us to consider again. I do not think that I can go beyond that, particularly in view of the time that we took here in consideration of that important measure.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

May we have a statement next week from the Attorney-General about his policy on the application of public funds to the various parties in "The Romans in Britain" case? Is he aware that if there are attempts to get round legislation passed by the House it is proper that the Attorney-General should come to the House and declare his prosecution policy? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it would be absolutely wrong if the National Theatre, in defending its reputation, had to use those extremely limited public funds that are meant for the artistic procedures in this country, and not for expensive litigation—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I was not quite sure at the beginning, but it became clear as the hon. Gentleman went along that he was dealing with a matter that I believe is sub judice. He no more than anyone would want to seek to influence the court in its decision. I should hope not, at any rate.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)


Mr. Speaker

Order. Since there is only one remaining hon. Member on either side wishing to ask a question, I shall call those two Members.

Mr. Lewis

Will my right hon. Friend take on board the fact that some hon. Members would like a discussion on the BBC's foreign services, either now or after the Summer Recess, before irrevocable decisions are made, so that we can influence whatever is done?

Mr. Pym

I note my hon. Friend's representations and the views that have been expressed during these exchanges.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware of the great number of oral questions on trade that were lost last Monday due to the absence of Members? Will he tell the House how the negotiations are proceeding through the normal channels on the rearrangement of Question Time, whereby energy, trade and industry questions come later in the week?

Mr. Pym

I cannot say what progress has been made in that respect, but it seems to me that if hon. Members table questions and are not then present to ask them it is a matter for them.