HC Deb 02 December 1982 vol 33 cc397-403 3.30 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

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

MONDAY 6 DECEMBER—Opposition Day (2nd Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion on the failure to implement the findings of the Black report.

Motion on the Customs Duties (Personal Reliefs) (No. 1) Order 1968 (Amendment) Order.

TUESDAY 7 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Electricity (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Bill.

Proceedings on the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill.

Motion on EEC Document No. 10701/82 on fish guide prices for 1983.

WEDNESDAY 8 DECEMBER—Opposition day (3rd Allotted Day). Debate on an Opposition motion on the economic slump and its impact on women.

Motions on EEC documents Nos. 9415/82 and 9449/82 on foot and mouth and swine vesicular diseases.

THURSDAY 9 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the National Insurance Surcharge Bill.

Motions on the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order and on the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 (Continuance) (No. 2) Order.

FRIDAY IO DECEMBER—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY I3 DECEMBER—Private Members' motions until seven o'clock. Afterwards, remaining stages of the Electricity (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Bill.

[Fish Guide Prices for 1983, Document No. 10701/82

See 2nd Report of European Legislation Committee, Session 1982–83, HC 34-ii, para 1.

Measures for the control of foot-and-mouth disease and swine vesicular disease, Documents Nos. 9415/82 and 9449/82

See 30th Report of European Legislation Committee, Session 1981–82, HC 21-xxx, para. 3 and 4]

Mr. Foot

I have asked the right hon. Gentleman for a debate on fisheries for several weeks. May we have an assurance that time for such a debate will be provided before the Government come to any conclusions on the matter? May we have an assurance that the House will be given a chance to advance its views?

The Secretary of State for Employment announced the new training initiatives some weeks ago. As they will cost a considerable amount of money and raise many controversial issues, I hope that the Government will provide time for a debate on the subject.

Security is another matter on which I have asked the right hon. Gentleman to provide time for a debate. We should like to proceed with such a debate.

The Prime Minister is going to a summit meeting in Copenhagen in the next few days. No doubt she will report to the House next week. Will she also report how discussions on MX missile development and the United States' departure on the matter may take place? I hope that she will raise that subject with some of her colleagues in Europe. The Opposition would like such a report as, with many commentators in the United States and elsewhere, we regard it as a most serious development in the nuclear arms race. It is essential that Britain's views should be stated clearly. As the right hon. Lady has so far said nothing on the subject, we hope that she will report to the House on the matter.

I am sorry to take a little time, but my next point concerns a change that the Government have introduced. I refer not so much to the need for a statement as to the way in which the House is now to be informed about unemployment figures by the Secretary of State for Employment. The new method is not satisfactory. If the Government wish to introduce such a change, surely the matter should have been discussed with the official Opposition and other parties. The presentation of such figures should have been discussed with the whole House. Therefore, the Leader of the House has an obligation, not only to his own party but to other honourable Members.

We should like two types of figures to be presented to the House for the next 12 months. That would be much fairer from the point of view of the country and the Government. If the Government have nothing to hide, the Leader of the House should say "Yes" to that proposition at once.

Mr. Biffen

I note all of the right hon. Gentleman's five points. Perhaps he will allow me to comment on them in reverse order.

With regard to the unemployment figures, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment announced to the House the basis of the change. He was subjected to many questions. No hon. Member can say that the Government have been less than candid with the House on the matter. It is a subject of some technical complexity that could commend itself to the appropriate Select Committee.

My right hon. Friend will make a statement next week, following the Copenhagen meeting of European Councillors. She will have heard the Leader of the Opposition's comments about the wider issues, including the MX missile. It is appropriate for me to point out that the EC is not a military organisation and that the right hon. Gentleman's comments are more related to a NATO gathering than to one in Copenhagen.

With regard to security, I understand that preliminary discussions have taken place through the usual channels. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have made clear their view that there should be a debate on this important issue. Nevertheless, the time for such a debate is when the Security Commission reports on its investigations and all the issues that arise from the Prime case have been concluded.

I note the importance that the Leader of the Opposition attaches to the new training arrangements. I hope and believe that I shall be able to accommodate his anxieties on that point.

I recognise that I have made it clear that there should be a debate on fisheries. Although I have not been able to announce such a debate in the business for next week, I note the right hon. Gentleman's view that one should take place reasonably soon.

Mr. Foot

I hope that the reply of the Leader of the House about a debate on security does not mean that he will try to postpone it until we receive a further report. I understand that many hon. Members felt that we should have had that debate at an early stage.

The unemployment figures are not a matter of "technical complexity"; they are a matter of human tragedy and the way in which the Government treat the House and the country. The figures and the way which they are presented are matters of great concern. If two types of statistics are available, the Government cannot fear their presentation. We suggest that two types of figures continue to be presented for a while. We can discuss how long. If the Government want to carry any confidence in the figures, the Leader of the House should say "Yes" to that proposition at once. I hope that he will not rush in now but that he will consult other members of the Government to see whether the country can be treated fairly with regard to the presentation of those figures.

Mr. Biffen

I am not by nature ever disposed to rush into anything on the question of next week's or indeed next month's business. The right hon. Gentleman's point was covered by the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Certainly, the statement was the subject of disagreement, but my right hon. Friend did not hold back from the House the difficulties involved in trying to issue duplicate sets of figures. Nevertheless, I shall of course refer the right hon. Gentleman's comments to my right hon. Friend.

On security, the statement that I have already made was the product of considerable thought. I realise that the House generally is anxious that there should be a debate as soon as possible. I hope that that will concentrate the minds of those carrying out the inquiry.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

When will the data protection Bill be published? Can the Leader of the House assure us that the House will have rather longer between publication and Second Reading to study and consult on the matter than we have had on some recent Government Bills?

Mr. Biffen

My answer to the first part of the question is "Not next week, Sir". On the second point, I take on board the anxiety that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed and I hope that we shall be able to perform in such a way as to earn good marks from him.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend make a statement next week about the Thames barrage? Is he aware that workers on the site have expressed the wish that the opening, which will be a national occasion, should be carried out by Her Majesty the Queen rather than by some local worthy or politician as has been suggested in some quarters?

Mr. Biffen

As my own abode is in peril whenever the Thames rises beyond a certain point, my main anxiety is that the operation of the barrage should proceed with as little impediment as possible. I cannot guarantee to make a statement or to make any arrangements on this matter next week, although I will certainly look into the difficulties and write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

Will the debate on training be wide enough to cover the action of the Manpower Services Commission in giving a £600,000 advertising project to Saatchi and Saatchi for the community programme, with the perceptive slogan The answer to unemployment is to give them a job"? Does not that constitute party political propaganda, as such advertising is entirely unnecessary for the scheme?

Mr. Biffen

I do not know, but I am sure that however the motion is drafted the hon. Gentleman's formidable debating skill will enable him to make the speech that he has in mind.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

In view of next week's business, will my right hon. Friend ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement in the House of Commons about the increase in personnel and expenditure of the security forces in Northern Ireland rather than making statements to an assembly which, so far as I know, has no responsibility in any of these matters?

Mr. Biffen

I shall most certainly pass that request to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. K. J. Woolmer (Batley and Morley)

May I draw attention to the multi-fibre arrangement negotiations now reaching their conclusion and remind the right hon. Gentleman that 210,000 textile and clothing workers have lost their jobs under this Government? Will he ensure that a statement is made next week or, if not, that a full statement will be made to the House by the Ministers responsible so that the negotiations and their conclusion may be fully and properly discussed?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the anxieties expressed by the hon. Gentleman and I will certainly convey his comments to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade, who I am sure will wish to keep the House fully informed of the course of debates on the multi-fibre arrangement.

Mr. Tom McNally (Stockport, South)

Does the Leader of the House recall that when his hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) suggested a general debate on trade he replied that it could be subsumed in the foreign affairs debate? Is he aware that that is unrealistic and that there is great concern about textiles, steel and the future of GATT? Will he therefore consider again the possibility of a full scale debate on trade policy?

Mr. Biffen

I accept at once that this is a very important topic, but it does not feature in next week's business. Clearly negotiations on the multi-fibre arrangement are very important in determining when it would be appropriate to hold a wider trade debate. All those factors must be taken into account.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the inordinately increased scale of attrocities perpetrated by the Russian forces in Afghanistan in the past few months? In view of the outrage that should be felt by anyone in the Western world at those atrocities and the extraordinary lack of such comment in the Western press and media generally, is it not high time that the House showed its concern about the greatest humanly induced tragedy in the world today by holding an urgent debate on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

I am only too conscious of all the constraints on the amount of Government time available for debates of all kinds, including time for legislation. I should have thought, however, that many avenues were available to private Members to express the deep feelings that I know my hon. Friend shares, through Adjournment motions, early-day motions or other means.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on consumer protection, especially the further implementation of the Consumer Credit Act, so that the public may be protected against doorstep sharks who are conning people into buying loft insulation, double glazing and other winter essentials by thoroughly unfair and undue pressure?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. and learned Gentleman raises a matter which I know excites considerable feeling, but I see no prospect of providing Government time for such a debate in the immediate future.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I do not wish to anticipate the statement about the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, but may we have an assurance that the matter will be debated by the House before there is any question of ratification of the convention by this country?

Mr. Biffen

I must give a somewhat dead bat reply to that. I think that the House should first hear the statement and then consider the matter in the light of what follows.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

Will the right hon. Gentleman take up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about the unemployment figures, as there is great anxiety that the Department of Employment seems to be massaging the figures? May we have both sets of figures, at least for a period, so that we may make comparisons? Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that, when it was proposed to introduce the tax and prices index as well as the retail prices index, both figures were given as the TPI rose higher than the RPI? Is he aware that it is generally believed that unemployment is now nearer 4 million and that our arguments for regional aid for our constituencies are weakened by the distorted figures now issued by the Government?

Mr. Biffen

I have already given a measured—perhaps too measured—response to the Leader of the Opposition on that. Having behaved in that respectful way towards him, I do not think that I can do other than repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I have said.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

In relation to the introduction of Ten-Minute Bills, will my right hon. Friend consider limiting the length of time for which hon. Members may queue at the Public Bill Office, if only to avoid the heart-rending sight of Opposition Members sitting up all night to do so?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that that falls within my responsibilities. Sitting up all night, however, seems to be a way of life in this place.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

May I endorse the request for a statement on the multi-fibre arrangement which, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, is extremely important for textile constituencies?

May I also press the need for a debate on defence, as many people are bandying around figures about the number of missiles and it is time that we had a debate to show that NATO has a vast numerical superiority in every warhead classification and that the Government have no right of veto whatever over United States' use of the cruise missiles to be installed in this country? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that reliance on a form of words agreed in 1951 gives no assurance to the House and that the seriousness of this matter can only be brought out in a full debate?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said about the multi-fibre arrangement. He will realise that I cannot go beyond what I have already said to the hon. Member for Batley and Morley (Mr. Woolmer).

There is no prospect of Government time being available for a debate on defence in the immediate future. I am certain that the hon. Gentleman is enthusiastic for the House to have a wide-ranging debate on defence so that the defence policies of the two main parties may be considered and compared. I am sure that he will use his voice to secure an Opposition day to deal with it.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been standing in their places.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

With the Black report debate in prospect and knowing the difficulties in obtaining copies of that report when it was first published, will my right hon. Friend ensure that either the official or privately published copies are made available?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend knows full well what a blockbuster of a question he has put. I shall see what can be done.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the effect that the policy contained in a written answer given to the hon. Member for East Grinstead (Sir G. Johnson Smith) earlier this week will have on the finances of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the television manufacturing companies? Will he give the House the opportunity to debate the technical standards for broadcasting by satellite? If we do not reach the correct decision, there will be serious repercussions.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue of public policy. I am sure that he will be able to use all available opportunities to ensure that that matter is ventilated during private Members' time.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

As the Leader of the House has today again resisted demands for a debate on defence and disarmament, may I unilaterally scale down my request? Is it not reasonable, in view of the talks that are going on in Madrid, Vienna and Geneva about disarmament, that we should have regular and frequent statements by whichever Minister is responsible for those talks in the same way as we have reports about the discussions on the Common Market so that we can question him about Great Britain's position at such talks?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to the hon. Gentleman's point. I am certain that the Secretary of State will agree with me that the time will soon come when we shall feel that we are saturated with statements and we shall look back to the good old-fashioned days when we had debates.

Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)

Is the Leader of the House aware that 300 hon. Members from all quarters of the House have signed early-day motion 44 calling for a ban on the import of baby sealskins and their products.

[That this House, bearing in mind the motion passed by the European Assembly on 11th March 1982 calling for the banning of the importation of the skins and the products derived from young hooded and harp seals slaughtered in Canada, the subsequent reports of the Nature Conservancy Council, the recommendation of the European Commission and the support for Early Day Motions Nos. 342 and 344 in the last Session of Parliament by over 300 honourable Members, calls on the Government now to take positive action to stop the importation of these products.]

At the Commission tomorrow Ministers will be considering a draft regulation for a ban which will apply to all EC countries. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that there will be a statement on Monday so that we may know the position and decision taken by the Government on an issue that interests not just hon. Members but people throughout the country?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman raises a point which has excited deep feeling not just within the House but generally. I shall see that the point is brought to the attention of the appropriate Minister.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

Is the Leader of the House aware of early-day motion 108 requesting a public inquiry into the use of CS gas cartridges in Liverpool last year?

[That this House calls upon the Secretary of State for the Home Department to institute a public inquiry into the use of Ferret CS gas cartridges in Liverpool, Toxteth during the disturbances in July 1981; notes that the support for a public inquiry comes from the Liverpool City Council, the Merseyside County Council, the Merseyside Police Committee, the Liverpool Trades Council, the National Council for Civil Liberties, the Transport and General Workers Union, the National Union of Public Employees, the National Graphical Association, the National Association of Local Government Officers and the Merseyside Community Relations Council; and feels that such an inquiry would allay public disquiet and remove any fears of a cover up into the use of such projectiles.]

The motion is supported by 125 right hon. and hon. Members and has the support of many national and regional organisations. As the Home Secretary has admitted to the House that the use of those cartridges at that time was a mistake, will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Home Secretary to reconsider his decision not to call for a public inquiry so that we can say that the House has not been party to a cover-up of the use of those projectiles?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is helpfully sitting alongside me, and I am certain that he will have noted the points made by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth)

Will the leader of the House consider initiating a debate on the Office of Fair Trading and references to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission because this subject has an important influence on unemployment? Is the leader of the House aware that last week the Director General of Fair Trading refused to refer to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission a bid by Alcan (UK) Limited for British Aluminium which will make it almost inevitable that there will be further large-scale unemployment in the aluminium industry?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman and know what it means for unemployment in the North-East in the aluminium industry. I cannot offer Government time for such a debate. It is a natural topic for an Adjournment debate.