HC Deb 26 November 1981 vol 13 cc1001-7
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 30 NOVEMBER—Debate on the First Special Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, Session 1980–81, on the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and on the Government's White Paper Cmnd. 8323.
  • TUESDAY I DECEMBER—Motion on the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order.
  • WEDNESDAY 2 DECEMBER—Supply (5th Allotted Day): there will be a debate on an Opposition motion on the present emergency in Her Majesty's prisons and ways in which it can be overcome.
Motions relating to Social Security Benefits and Supplementary Benefits Regulations.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at Seven o'clock.

Mr. Foot

May I put four matters to the right hon. Gentleman? On the question of mass leakages, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) referred in the early part of his point of order, we have some sympathy, because the flood seems to be greater than ever. I shall put some points on those matters to the right hon. Gentleman.

First, there are leakages about what has happened or is supposed to have happened to the local government finance Bill. We understand that a major part of that Bill—the so-called referendum part—has been dropped. We greatly welcome that if it is correct, because we have exposed the unconstitutional character of that proposition since it was announced. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what has happened to that Bill and whether any part of it will be introduced?

The second matter, which has already been referred to, relates to a statement of Government expenditure which the Government are compelled by legislation to make. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us on which day that will be made and how many leaks there will be before? The Government had better arrange for the statement to be made on Monday if they are to avoid a further flood, including speeches such as that made by the Secretary of State for Wales.

My third question concerns the Scarman report, on which questions were put to the Home Secretary yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) described the right hon. Gentleman's statement as opaque. I should not use quite such foul language across the Floor of the House, but no one could determine what the right hon. Gentleman proposed to do in response to many important matters. May we have a clear commitment that we can debate this important report in Government time while it is still fully in the public mind, at least during the week after next?

Finally, may I again remind the right hon. Gentleman that probably the whole House feels that we should debate the subject when judgment has been passed on the GLC's appeal against the Court of Appeal decision? That again is a matter involving constitutional principles.

Mr. Pym

The Government are still considering certain aspects of the local government finance Bill. I imagine that certain matters are being considered on both sides of the House. There is nothing private about it, and it is right and proper that the Government should continue their consideration. When we come to a conclusion, the House will be informed.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, there will be a full statement next week on Government expenditure. I regret that I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman on which day, but, as far as I am concerned, the earlier the better.

The right hon. Gentleman was unreasonable in his criticism of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who in his full statement yesterday gave an infinitely clearer picture of the Government's response on a number of important and profound matters than is normally given immediately a report is published. I accept that the House wishes to debate the Scarman report in the near future, but people should have time to study it. I shall see whether I can arrange for a debate to take place the week after next or at any rate in the near future.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's final question, the right course to take at this stage is to let the judgment be heard on the GLC's appeal, and then to consider what the next step, if any, should be.

Mr. Foot

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the statement on Government expenditure is of great importance and is causing concern, particularly as it is suggested that the Government may be contemplating cuts in unemployment pay at a time when more people than we have ever known are unemployed? Cannot the right hon. Gentleman say when an announcement will be made? If the Government cannot tell us officially, perhaps we can have a leak, which appears to be the way that they hit the headlines best at present.

Mr. Pym

It is normal to have a few days delay between the reaching of conclusions—which happened only this morning—and the preparation of the Chancellor's statement. That has happened under Governments of both parties and there is nothing new about it. I am sorry that I cannot say absolutely on which day a statement will be made, but as soon as we establish which day will be best I shall inform the right hon. Gentleman.

Sir William Clark (Croydon, South)

In view of my right hon. Friend's assurance last week that he would consider a debate on the Scott report, may we know whether we shall have one before the Christmas Recess?

Mr. Pym

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend. I do not believe that we shall have a debate before Christmas. As he will agree, these are complex matters and the Government are still considering them. It would be misleading if I were to say that there would be a debate before Christmas.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. In view of the following two debates, I propose to allow questions to run until four o'clock.

Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about the local government finance Bill? We understand why the Government are reconsidering the matter, but is he aware of the total chaos into which they are throwing local government finances? Local authorities should now seriously be considering their estimates for the coming year, and, if we are not to have the Bill, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we should at least have a statement on precisely what the Government's intentions are?

Mr. Pym

I do not accept that our continuing consideration of the Bill is having that effect. The sooner that a conclusion can be reached the better. I have nothing further to say at the moment.

Mr. Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the publication of the Scarman report makes it all the more important to debate the matters referred to in early-day motion No. 1, in the names of my hon. Friends and myself, on new life for old cities?

[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 (home-steaders) willing to repair and live in them, and making similar arrangements for shop-steaders 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.] Will a debate on the Scarman report be drawn sufficiently widely to cover those issues? Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind that outer city Members as well as inner city Members are concerned?

Mr. Pym

Being such a substantive document, the Scarman report sets the parameters of what you, Mr. Speaker, are likely to find acceptable in the debate, although that is, of course, a matter for you. Although inner city problems are highly relevant to the report, I suspect that my hon. Friend is looking for a debate directed more specifically to the inner cities. I hope that in due course the House will have the opportunity to address itself to the subject. At present I cannot give Government time for such a debate, but it would be helpful to have a separate debate on the subject.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the report which will be before us on Monday raises matters of great importance, matters of principle, matters relevant to the procedures of the House and matters on which there will be sharp and interesting differences, not between the parties but between hon. Members? Therefore, may the debate be on a motion that can be amended so that, if it wishes, the House can attempt to reach at least tentative conclusions?

Mr. Pym

I arranged the debate at the request of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee before the question about considering the local government finance Bill arose. I understand that there have been discussions through the usual channels about the basis on which the debate should arise. The Government feel that it is correct to have a debate on an Adjournment motion, but that matter can be reviewed and referred again through the usual channels.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Does my right hon. Friend recollect that during most of 1981 I have pressed him to hold an early debate not only on those pensions matters relative to the Scott committee on index linking but on the recommendation of the Occupational Pensions Board about the effect of changing jobs on pension rights? If he cannot give us an undertaking that there will be a debate on the Scott report alone before the end of the year, will he consider carefully initiating a debate on all aspects of pensions early in 1982?

Mr. Pym

I am prepared to consider a debate. If it is not possible for me to find time during that period, my hon. Friend may find other means to initiate a debate.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Government are in a right old mess as they can give no assurances about arranging a debate on unemployment benefit cuts and are unable to put the local government finance Bill before the House next week? As the Government are the nurses' paymaster, may we have a statement to assure those involved in the negotiations that the pay increase will not be less than the 15.2 per cent. at which their tax and price index is currently running?

Mr. Pym

No, Sir. I cannot give that assurance. As the hon. Gentleman knows, negotiations on nurses' pay are proceeding. I can say nothing further.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

In view of the anxieties expressed during Home Office questions earlier, will my right hon. Friend accept that there is a need for an early debate on BBC finances, particularly in view of the likelihood of an approach by the corporation for an increase in the licence fee, which would be a serious matter for pensioners?

Mr. Pym

I will keep my hon. Friend's request in mind.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

Will the Second Reading of the proposed criminal justice Bill take place before Christmas?

Mr. Pym

It is possible that it will.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said during the debate on the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill last night: the Home Secretary's Criminal Law Revision Committee will shortly issue for public comment a working paper on the subject of prostitution."?—[Official Report, 25 November 1981; Vol. 13, c. 970.] Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is an important matter of interest to all parties? Will he pencil in a full-day debate on the working paper?

Mr. Pym

I doubt whether there will be time for such a debate, but I think that there will be opportunities for the matter to be raised during the Bill's passage through the House.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell and Wishaw)

Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement be followed by the publication of the public expenditure White Paper at an early date, or do the Government propose to delay publication until the Budget, as they did last year? Will the House have an opportunity to debate the Chancellor's statement before Christmas?

Mr. Pym

The possibility of a debate can be considered. I shall have to check with my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I think that the intention is to do what has been done in previous years, namely, to publish the White Paper at the time of the Budget.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the serious concern felt in some inshore fishing areas, including Southend, that the Government may not insist on a 12-mile exclusive fishing limit? Can he assure us that if there is any fundamental change in the Government's negotiating position on fishing there will be a report to the House before any major concessions are made on this fundamental issue?

Mr. Pym

My right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and his Minister of State have kept the House fully informed of developments in the negotiations, our negotiating position and the progress made. I am sure that they will continue to do so.

Mr. Foot

With reference to the right hon. Gentleman's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Dr. Bray), if the Government make a statement that includes anything approaching cuts in unemployment pay there will have to be a debate in the House. The right hon. Gentleman should not suggest anything to the contrary.

Mr. Pym

That is a matter which we can consider when we have heard the statement.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Will my right hon. Friend bring forward a Bill to prevent the publication of public opinion polls during by-elections so that people are able to listen to the serious issues that are being debated instead of being swept along by the manipulators in the media?

Mr. Pym

I doubt whether a measure with that objective would easily get through the House.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Will the House have the opportunity to debate soon the plight of Professor Andrei Sakharov and his wife who are on hunger strike, one in Gorky and one in Moscow? If we are not to have the opportunity of drawing attention to that hideous contravention by the Soviets of the Helsinki agreement, may we have an assurance that the Leader of the House will at least draw the matter to the attention of the Foreign Secretary and do what he can to stop the persecution of those people?

Mr. Pym

Much public attention has already been given to those unhappy events. The hon. and learned Gentleman must find his own way of raising the matter in the House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As details of today's Cabinet meeting will certainly appear in the press tomorrow and on Sunday, probably in considerable depth, does that not mean that the House is again being treated with comtempt? Could not a statement have been made today? If, as seems apparent, the unemployed are to be victimised, there will be a storm of angry protests right outside the House and throughout the country.

Mr. Pym

If it had been possible for a statement to have been made today it would have been made. That was not possible. But a statement will be made as soon as possible next week.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

As the proposed local government finance Bill would not have been given a Second Reading because there is opposition to it on both sides of the House and universal opposition outside, will the Leader of the House persuade the Secretary of State for the Environment to drop the Bill and introduce a new measure that would have the support of the House? Secondly, as the 3 million unemployed face a weekend of anxiety expecting that their unemployment benefit will be cut, will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make an early statement—perhaps at the weekend, if he cannot make it to the House?

Mr. Pym

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I will convey his views to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. On the second point, the hon. Gentleman ought to be patient. If it had been possible for a statement to be made today it would have been made. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman or anyone else to seek to speculate on, or invent details of, what may have been decided. I know that many people will be busy doing that. It is a free country at the moment, and long may that continue. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not attempt to give credence to what he thinks may have happened and will contain himself until he hears what was decided.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister of State, Civil Service Department to make a statement to the House on the proposed closure of the Central Office of Information film unit, which has contributed massively to this country's export promotion campaign but is to be disbanded and discarded because of redundancies imposed by the Government?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a group of Labour Members wish to visit the unit to find out what sort of work it is doing, but the Minister of State has so far denied hon. Members their right to visit the unit? Will the Leader of the House make it clear to his hon. Friend that he is disgracefully abusing his position as a Minister and that hon. Members have a right to investigate and obtain information before taking delegations to Ministers? Will the right hon. Gentleman also bring home to the Minister of State the requirement that he should come to the House to make a statement about the whole miserable business?

Mr. Pym

I am not very impressed by the language that the hon. Gentleman uses about my hon. Friend. I am prepared to convey the hon. Gentleman's views to my hon. Friend, but no doubt the hon. Gentleman has been in touch with him direct.

Mr. Cryer

Yes, indeed.