HC Deb 09 December 1982 vol 33 cc979-86 3.33 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 13 DECEMBER—Private Members' motions until 7 o'clock. Afterwards, remaining stages of the Electricity (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Bill. Proceedings on the Lands Valuation Amendment (Scotland) Bill.

TUESDAY 14 DECEMBER—Motions on the Rate Support Grant Supplementary Report (England) (No. 2), on the British National Oil Corporation (Borrowing Powers) Order and on the British Steel Corporation (Reduction of Capital) Order.

WEDNESDAY 15 DECEMBER—Debate On the Liberal—Social Democratic Party motion relating to the statement of changes in immigration rules. Motions on the Films (Suspension of Quota Requirements) Order and on the Companies and Business Names (Amendment) Regulations.

THURSDAY 16 DECEMBER—Motion on the fair wages resolution.

FRIDAY 17 DECEMBER—Private Members' Motions.

MONDAY 20 DECEMBER—Motion on the Christmas Adjournment. Remaining stages of the Agricultural Marketing Bill.

It will be for the convenience of the House to know that it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Christmas Adjournment on Thursday 23 December until Monday 17 January.

Mr. Foot

I must ask the Leader of the House about a number of matters. May I put it to him as strongly as possible that we in the Opposition object most vehemently to the idea of a proposal for the abolition of the fair wages resolution and to the motion that the Government have tabled on that subject? The passage of that motion could do serious injury to low-paid workers. We ask the Government to withdraw it especially because they have an obligation under the International Labour Organisation convention to have proper consultations before they proceed in that direction. They have not had anything that can possibly be described as consultation with the Trades Union Congress. The Secretary of State for Employment has not discharged that obligation. A curtailed correspondence is not a fulfilment of that obligation. We are opposed to the Government's proposal. I urge the Leader of the House to look afresh at the motion and bring it back to the House, if he must, early in the new year or later. He should withdraw it for next week.

Will the Leader of the House give a definite commitment that there will be a statement on Wednesday on the multi-fibre arrangement negotiations? I understand that a final report will be put to the Council of Ministers on 13 or 14 December. Whether or not it is the final report, it will be crucial and essential that a full statement is made to the House immediately by the Minister for Trade. I am sure that the Leader of the House must be aware that the textile and clothing industries in the United Kingdom have lost 210,000 jobs in the past three years. Therefore, it is essential that we hear the Government's statement on the matter as speedily as possible.

We have had many exchanges on steel before. I renew the demand to the Leader of the House that the Government should make a statement on what action they propose to take to sustain the industry. It should be made early next week. I hope that he will give us an idea of the date when the statement will be made by the Secretary of State for Industry.

We have constantly demanded that there should be a fisheries debate. We do not believe that the statement that was made by the Prime Minister on Tuesday should close the matter. The House of Commons should have the right to give its own view on the subject.

Finally, may we have a statement on the teacher training colleges? Can we have a debate on the closing of such colleges and the implications in the regions, and on special training colleges, for example Catholic training colleges. The cuts imposed by the Secretary of State for Education and Science are having a serious effect in some regions. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give us satisfaction on that point, too.

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps the Leader of the Opposition will allow me to comment on the five points that he has put to me in the sequence in which they were presented.

I appreciate at once that the proposal on the fair wages resolution is highly contentious, and understandably so. I must share with the House the fact that the Secretary of State for Employment wrote to the TUC and to other interested parties on 26 May. Representations on the matter were received subsequently. The Secretary of State told Parliament on 28 July that after the recess it was his intention to invite the House to rescind the fair wages resolution. I feel that the House has been kept reasonably involved and that the period of consultation has been reasonable enough. However, I accept at once that for those who take a strong view on the legislation, it is not consultation but the matter itself which is the real issue.

Like the Leader of the Opposition, I hope that the next meeting of the Council of Ministers on the multi-fibre arrangement will come to a conclusion. That would enable my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade to come to the House at once with a comprehensive statement on those discussions. That must depend upon the progress of the Council of Ministers. I assure the House, and hon. Members below the Gangway, that as soon as decisions have been reached they will be presented to the House.

The Leader of the Opposition has expressed his anxiety that there should be a statement on the steel industry before we rise for the Christmas Recess. I can assure him that that is our intention.

There is the prospect of a Council of Ministers meeting in the near future and, given the delicate state of negotiations, it would be more appropriate, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, that we should have a debate on fisheries after that.

I take note of what the Leader of the Opposition says about the teacher training college programme and the possibility of a statement on that. It may be helpful if that matter is dealt with through the usual channels.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman's answer on the fisheries debate is not at all satisfactory. There have been long discussions on this matter and at this critical stage the House of Commons surely has a right to express its view. Again, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to allow us a debate on that subject. Does the right hon. Gentleman seriously suggest that the Government have discharged their obligation to have consultations under the ILO convention by this cursory exchange of letters between the Secretary of State for Employment and the TUC on the fair wages resolution? Even if the Government are determined to proceed with this miserable measure, surely they should fulfil their obligations under the convention.

Mr. Biffen

I accept that the right hon. Gentleman's latter point is a matter for contention. However, it cannot be gainsaid that my right hon. Friend wrote to the TUC in May, some six months ago, and that there has been an exchange of views since then. Whether they were cursory or not does not necessarily reflect upon the way in which my right hon. Friend conducted himself. This matter is well-known to the House and to the interested parties outside.

I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition, bearing the imprint of experience in this post, will acknowledge that the fisheries debate is a matter of some careful judgment when one has a Council of Ministers meeting which it is hoped will resolve what has been a long-standing dispute. The House is properly anxious to pass a judgment on those negotiations and the tactic most conducive to their successful outcome would be a debate after the Council of Ministers meeting.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

Will my right hon. Friend be good enough to consider afresh, and not close his mind to, the possibility of a future debate on the Civil Service in the context of several important occurrences? There has been a transfer of functions to the Treasury; a report to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee; a significant Government White Paper proposing several innovations; and a number of speeches by distinguished persons, including the permanent secretary to the Treasury. Many right hon. and hon. Members would be pleased to have an opportunity to express a view on those significant matters.

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what my right hon. Friend says. I must give the somewhat restricted reply that I can see no prospect of such a debate in the immediate future, but I shall bear in mind the importance that he attaches to this topic, which I know is shared by many other hon. Members.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Does the Leader of the House appreciate that what we need is not a statement on teacher training colleges—we have had that—but a debate, so that we can investigate whether the factual basis on which the Secretary of State has founded his decisions is sound?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said, but he will appreciate that I have suggested the usual channels procedure for this matter and I hope that he will not feel that they are too exclusive. Both the Leader of the Opposition and I have heard his comments.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

As we are approaching the season of peace and good-will, can we have a debate on peace and disarmament? The Leader of the House consistently refuses such a debate and the Prime Minister consistently claims that she is in favour of multilateral disarmament while making plans to buy Trident, allowing cruise missiles to be stationed here, and mis-representing the world stockpiles of nuclear warheads which favour America and the NATO countries. We need a debate in order to deploy our arguments and show that the Prime Minister is interested in peace, not warmongering, which is the impression of most people.

Mr. Biffen

I do not accept that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is displaying an interest in warmongering rather than in peace. The hon. Gentleman's comment does not suggest that such a debate would start off in the spirit of peace and goodwill, as was his hope.

The House will shortly have a White Paper on defence which, although specifically in respect of the recent Falklands exercise, will be an opportunity to debate the wider issues which the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is on the Order Paper a series of motions which are essentially on matters of procedure—I refer to my own "Opportunities for Backbench Speakers (No. 2)" merely as an example—which seem to have raised widespread interest among all hon. Members? They imply that some of the less important, but none the less significant, aspects of our procedure deserve examination and even reform. Is there a possibility of at least a half day's debate in which to discuss those matters so that the House might give its general view on the motions that have been tabled?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the dedication, and indeed, the great knowledge, that my hon. Friend brings to this issue. I hope that he will not think that I am too neanderthal if I say that there is much to be said for the House digesting the fairly considerable reforms that it has recently been called upon to undertake. None the less, I shall consider my hon. Friend's point and I shall be in touch with him.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, East)

Without expressing any comment on what are considered to be "usual channels", may I reinforce the need for an urgent debate on the closure of colleges in the North-West? My constituents have expressed concern that these closures—for example, that of de la Salle—are mainly examples of religious discrimination and have nothing to do with political policy. Will the Leader of the House bear in mind the fact that last night his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science said that it was not in his power to grant a debate and that his decision was irrevocable? In the spirit of religious tolerance which we exercise in Britain, a debate cannot wait any longer for the usual channels but should be concluded before the Christmas Recess.

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the serious constituency import of the problem for the hon. Gentleman. As he is anxious not to rely upon the smooth workings of the usual channels, may I say that there is plenty of scope for him in the Adjournment debates which will take place before the House goes into recess and that I wish him every success in his efforts in that direction?

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings)

Can my right hon. Friend say what progress has been made in the review by Lord Franks of the Falklands operation? Bearing in mind the fact that his study is behind by several months, can my right hon. Friend say when it will be presented to the House?

Mr. Biffen

I have no idea of the commission's progress, but I assure my hon. Friend that as soon as the findings are reported, they will be placed before the House at the earliest appropriate moment.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

When the Leader of the House decided that the fair wages resolution should be debated next Thursday, did he know that the Select Committee on Employment had already requested the Secretary of State for Employment to appear before it on Wednesday 15 December, so that the issues at stake could be made known to the House? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that the Select Committee should be given the opportunity to report to hon. Members so that debates are better informed? If so, will he agree to postpone next Thursday's debate?

Mr. Biffen

I am certainly anxious to protect and develop the relationship of Select Committees to Government business in general. However, Government business cannot necessarily wait on the processes of Select Committees. The House was informed at the same time as the TUC, six months ago, about the Government's proposals and intentions. There has been plenty of time to consider the matter.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope to call those who have been standing in their places if questions are brief.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Loughborough)

In view of what is properly characterised as the prevailing state of uncertainty surrounding Government trading policy as a result of the GATT talks and the recent Common Market summit meeting, and given the importance of trading policy for Britain's political and economic relations with its partners round the world, will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate to discuss such issues?

Mr. Biffen

I note that point. Indeed, it echoes what was said in the Chamber two weeks ago about the importance of an early debate. The first step must be to have the report of the Council of Ministers, the decisions made about the MFA and the ministerial statement. We can then consider the other issue in the light of what my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade has to say.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

Will the right hon. Gentleman contact the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for the Environment to have urgent discussions with the leader of Liverpool city council about the proposed closure of the Liverpool welfare rights centre? That centre receives public funding and provides an essential service to pensioners, one-parent families, the sick and disabled and those who are in despair, particularly in the inner areas. That service must be kept open.

Mr. Biffen

I note the hon. Gentleman's points and I shall ensure that they are conveyed to the appropriate Ministers for their consideration.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

My right hon. Friend referred to the forthcoming White Paper on defence. He will have seen press comment that it may be published on 15 December. Can he let us know whether there will be a statement and when a debate will take place?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend may care to note that Hansard—unlike the press—tells us that the date is 14 December. That was announced in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James). Obviously there will have to be a debate and it will be a matter for discussion.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Further to the important question raised about the Franks commission by the hon. Member for Hastings (Mr. Warren), does the right hon. Gentleman recollect that in reply to me the Prime Minister said that she hoped that the Franks commission would report within six months of being set up? It is not surprising, given the amount of evidence that I and many others have submitted to the commission, that rumours about delay persist. May I make a constructive suggestion? Two experienced clerks of the House should be added to the staff of the commission. If rumour is right, it is not only the commission's members that are overburdened with work but the staff. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider adding two experienced clerks—for whom there is no problem of secrecy—to the secretariat of the Franks commission? Would not that help?

Mr. Biffen

It would be discourteous to refuse to consider the hon. Gentleman's point and, of course, I shall contact those involved about it. However, I am not sure that the matter falls within my responsibilities. Indeed, there are weighty arguments for letting the commission deliberate without any sort of pressure from Parliament.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that many people are anxiously awaiting the proposals for domestic rating reform. Will he arrange a debate as soon as possible so that we can put further pressure on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to introduce the proposals with all possible speed?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend will recollect that Tuesday's business will be devoted to the rate support grant supplementary report. Therefore, he need not wait long to make the powerful speech that he harbours.

Mr. Stanley Cohen (Leeds, South-East)

Given the points made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, East (Mr. Young), will the right hon. Gentleman give us an undertaking about the nature of the Government's policy or let us know whether we shall be able to debate the future of Catholic teacher training colleges?

Mr. Biffen

I am fully seized of the importance that the hon. Gentleman attaches to that subject and I hope that his point will be covered by negotiations through the usual channels.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

In these hard and testing times, it is difficult for the Treasury Bench to act as Santa Claus and to give the country everything that it wants at this time of year, but does my right hon. Friend understand that many Members of Parliament are young fathers or young grandfathers who have to go on their sleighs to parts of the country that are unknown to, and disregarded by, the metropolis? Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that in the last week before the recess, there should be light business?

Mr. Biffen

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Prime Minister to come to the House next week to condemn without qualification an outrage? I refer to the wanton invasion of Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, by South African troops. More than 30 people have been killed, including five women and two children. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the right hon. Lady to undertake urgent discussions with the Government of Lesotho to see how we can provide for the defence of that friendly Commonwealth country, and prevent future aggression?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly ensure that those points are conveyed to the appropriate Ministers.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I press my right hon. Friend about the MFA? Will he go further and say that the Goverment will soon find time for a debate on this vital issue, as the clothing and textile industry is one of our largest employers and further thousands of workers in the industry may find themselves without work during the next few weeks unless there is a satisfactory outcome to the MFA? Will my right hon. Friend also ask the Secretary of State for Education and Science to make a statement in the House about how someone who is serving a term of imprisonment can apply to undertake a university course and to obtain an accommodation allowance while on day release from prison?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that hy hon. Friend's latter point is of much greater significance than I can immediately grasp, but I shall ensure that the Secretary of State is apprised of it. Two weeks ago, I gave the idea of a debate a pretty fair wind and that remains my position, but a debate would be more appropriate if the MFA talks had been concluded first and if my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade could first return to the House to report on them.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell and Wishaw)

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the position after the Secretary of State's statement on the steel industry? Is he aware that, if the BSC had to implement Government decisions and statements before the House had had a chance to debate them, it would be most unsatisfactory? That is particularly so when it is extremely unlikely that the statement will be simple. If it is simple, it will be all the more important to debate it before any action is taken.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but he must realise that it conflicts with the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis). However soon we have the statement, it must be fairly close to the recess. However, I note what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The Leader of the House will be aware that some time ago I mentioned the need for a statement about the Bank of England's involvement in bailing out the Argentine economy, which will result in some of the money, during the cooling-off period and the rescheduling of the debts, being used to pay for Exocet missiles from France. That shows the hypocrisy of the Government Front Bench.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Export Credits Guarantee Department is in a terrible mess and that a firm in my constituency, Davis's of Langwith Junction, has a contract with Nigeria, which does not have the money to pay for it because it is one of the 90-odd nations now rescheduling their debts? The result is that the Crown Agents have led that firm to the deal and that the case will soon land on a Minister's desk. If the Government can find time to talk about increasing bus fares, they should make statements about the big money that is going adrift because of world banking arrangements.

Mr. Biffen

If we have a trade debate—I hope that we shall—the operations of the Export Credits Guarantee Department and the difficulties that have arisen, for example in Nigeria, will be germane. As to the hon. Gentleman's other points, I shall ensure that they are referred to the appropriate Minister.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) to make his Standing Order No. 9 application, may I tell the House that I dislike interrupting an hon. Member in full flow, but we must all try to abide by parliamentary language when we express our feelings.