HC Deb 23 December 1982 vol 34 cc1069-77 10.30 am
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for the week that we return?

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

Yes, Sir. The business for the first week after the recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 17 JANUARY—Consideration of a timetable motion on the Transport Bill.

Motions on the Rate Support Grant (Scotland) (No. 2) Order, and on the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Orders.

TUESDAY 18 JANuARY—Opposition Day (4th Allotted Day): Subject for debate to be announced later.

WEDNESDAY 19 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Water Bill.

THURSDAY 20 JANUARY—Motions on the Rate Support Grant Supplementary Report (England) 1982–83, and on the Rate Support Grant Report (England) 1983–84.

Motions on the Welsh Rate Support Grant Report 1980 (Supplementary) (No. 2) Report 1982, on the Welsh Rate Support Grant Report 1982 (Supplementary) Report 1982, and on the Welsh Rate Support Grant Report 1983–84.

FRIDAY 21 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Foot

I have a number of questions to put to the right hon. Gentleman arising from various misdemeanours by the Government.

The right hon. Gentleman proposes a timetable motion on the Transport Bill. The Opposition naturally will oppose that with great strength.

The right hon. Gentleman adds a further offence to the business which he has announced for the Monday of our return. He proposes that the House takes the Scottish rate support grant order at 7 o'clock. I cannot understand why he wants to do that. Normally we have a full day for such a debate on Scottish affairs. Is this just part of the Government's "couldn't care less about Scotland" attitude to so many different Scottish matters?

There is a further matter which affects the Secretary of State for Transport. Published today in The Guardian is what appears to be an authentic leak about the Serpell report on transport, which is of major importance for the future of British Railways and a matter to which a great deal of substance was attached by the chairman of British Rail, who was looking to the report to provide a basis for the railways to have a prospect for the future. I understand that undertakings were given by the Secretary of State for Transport that a proper statement would be made when he received the report. Will the Leader of the House now say how that matter is to be dealt with?

A number of questions were raised a little earlier about defence and disarmament and the Government's proposals for or attitudes to these matters. The Opposition strongly urge that on the earliest possible occasion after the House returns there should be a full day's debate on disarmament in time provided by the Government. The Opposition are eager to have such a debate, especially in the light of the claims made by the Prime Minister today and on some previous occasions. She claims to be a great supporter of multilateral disarmament. However, in the past few weeks her Government have consistently put Britain's vote in the United Nations against proposals for multilateral action. In the light of that—

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I realise that it is the Leader of the Opposition who is at the Dispatch Box. However, the right hon. Gentleman appears to be making a speech rather than putting a question to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It is an abuse of our procedures, I suggest.

Mr. Speaker

I think that the Leader of the Opposition is about to come to his question.

Mr. Foot

I had already asked two or three questions. I submit, Mr. Speaker, that you will see from past records that Leaders of the Opposition have often had occasion to ask lengthy questions at such times as this. It would be a denial of the rights of the Opposition if we did not continue to have them, especially when the House is rising for a few weeks and a range of matters have accumulated.

The answers given by the Prime Minister today reinforce the case for an early debate on disarmament. The Opposition are extremely eager to have it and, especially in the light of the representations that I have just made, we hope that the Leader of the House will agree to that proposition.

Then we have the Charter Consolidated and Anderson Strathclyde affair, and the Opposition want to know the Government's proposals for dealing with that. Very serious matters have been raised affecting the Government's conduct. The replies made by the Government so far are quite unsatisfactory. Yesterday in the House the Opposition demanded an early debate. There is no doubt that if the House were not about to rise for the Christmas Recess there would be an immediate debate on the subject. I hope that the Leader of the House will guarantee a debate on those matters.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has now agreed to the Opposition's proposals for a debate on fisheries. I hope that he will also say that he proposes to accept our proposals made over a number of weeks for a debate on training colleges.

I ask the Leader of the House to say that he is prepared to look again at the business that he proposes for the week or two after our return and make sure that we have the full debate on disarmament which we are demanding as well as a full debate on the Anderson Strathclyde disaster.

Mr. Biffen

No Government supporter wishes to crib or cramp the style or time of the Leader of the Opposition every Tuesday and Thursday, because those occasions provide more reassurance even than the MORI polls.

I shall deal with the seven questions put to me by the right hon. Gentleman. He asked for a debate on training colleges. This has been the subject of some preliminary discussions through the usual channels. I cannot be too forthcoming about it, but I realise that it is a matter of some interest throughout the House.

I am happy to confirm that a debate on fisheries should take place very shortly. In the light of the recent developments in the Council of Ministers, it is a matter which will concern the House very much once we reassemble.

On the Charter Consolidated bid for the Anderson group of companies, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade made a statement yesterday, which I believe dealt authoritatively with, first, the Secretary of State's shareholding, secondly, his competence in passing the decision to another Minister, and thirdly, the decision itself. Those who believe that there was anything about which my hon. and learned Friend should be defensive should mark the reactions of the Liberals in another place, who in my view showed a more valued detachment on the matter. It was said from the Opposition Front Bench yesterday that my hon. and learned Friend had been got at by City interests".—[Official Report, 22 December 1982; Vol. 34, c. 958.] That is not the basis on which we reasonably conduct debates in this Chamber, and it does not excite me to offer Government time for a debate on the matter. It is a matter for the Leader of the Opposition to decide how he wishes to pursue the matter as a debate.

I come to what is perhaps the most major issue, and that is a debate on disarmament. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly perceives, the matter that will dominate the run-up to a general election is whether this country is a loyal member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, and it will reveal those who have neutralist anxieties and ambitions. I am sure that time will be found for all these matters in either Opposition or Government time. All I can say is that no debate has been planned for the week when we return.

The Serpell report on the railways was touched on by me in response to a speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and Lymington (Mr. Adley) earlier in the week. The conclusions of that report will be published, and in due course the Government will announce their response, and that of course will be the occasion for a statement in the House.

On the Scottish rate support grant order, there are many precedents for devoting a half-day to the subject. I appreciate that it is an issue of the utmost importance, but I hope that in all the circumstances, and given the extent to which the debate can run, it will be thought to be a reasonable judgment.

I conclude by referring to the first point that the right hon. Gentleman raised, the timetable motion on the Transport Bill. I understand the relish with which he returns to this topic. The last time we had a timetable motion he sat it out. That was the timetable motion on the Northern Ireland Bill. Now he has come back to the fray, and as an old hand in these matters he has welcomed the timetable that has been allocated. It is one which takes account of the fact that after 80 hours of debate we are still only on clause 2. There are plenty of precedents, although I announced the motion with no great enthusiasm and in the resigned manner in which Leaders of the House have announced such matters for decades past.

Mr. Foot

We certainly do not regard the proposal to have the Scottish rate support grant debate at 7 o'clock as "reasonable"—to use the word that he used a few moments ago. We think that it is most unreasonable, especially at a time when it will cause further and fresh difficulties for local authorities in Scotland. We hope that he will reconsider the matter.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he says about a debate on disarmament. We want to have it as soon as possible.

We do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Charter Consolidated and Anderson Strathclyde issue. The matter should be debated in the House. We believe that there is no possibility of the Government escaping such a debate. If the Government study the expressions of opinion that have been made in Scotland on the subject, they will understand that they must have the debate, and that it would be best for their grace and reputation to give way to our demand and have a debate at an early date.

In the Christmas spirit in which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the public opinion polls, may I say to him that I am not always an enthusiastic supporter of those polls. Occasionally, however, they serve a useful purpose in showing the way in which opinion is moving. If we continue to gain on one of these polls as we have done over the past month, we shall be about 7 per cent. ahead of the Government when the general election comes. So I give that offer and good wishes to the Leader of the House.

Mr. Biffen

I note with all the generosity of the season the advantages that the right hon. Gentleman draws from the opinion polls in his last two remarks. The recovery, I believe, has been at the expense of the Social Democratic Party, and merely means that wandering Socialists are finding another temporary abode.

On the more substantial point, the Scottish rate support grant debate can continue for quite a while, starting at 7 pm. I do not want to encourage hon. Members, but it can go on until 2.30 in the morning. In view of all the precedents that there are in the matter, I do not think that I have been unduly Scrooge-like about the supposed allocation of time.

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says about the importance of the Government's decision on the Charter Consolidated bid for the Anderson group. Naturally, it is a matter of great interest in Scotland. The position was explained by my hon. and learned Friend yesterday. In respect both of the decision itself and, above all, of the propriety of the decision, the Government's case rests with that statement.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am mindful that nine private Members have Adjournment debates. I shall not allow the usual time for business questions today, out of fairness to those hon. Members. So I shall bring these questions to a close at 11 o'clock, and I shall take a quarter of an hour off each of the first two Adjournment debates.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

As the Leader of the House is indulging in this Christmas spirit of generosity, may I ask him a question in which I have a personal interest—along with, I suspect, more than half of all hon. Members? When does he intend to lay before the House the report of the Boundary Commission?

Mr. Biffen

Alas, I cannot give as specific and direct an answer as I would wish. However, I promise the right hon. Gentleman, as this is very much a House of Commons matter, that I shall ensure that it is debated at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr. Tim Eggar (Enfield, North)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed the decision by the Electricity Council to announce that in future standing charges will be no more than half of a total electricity bill? Is it not disappointing that British Gas has not followed suit and has not paid attention to the spirit of Christmas? If no announcement has been made by the time we reassemble, will he ensure that we have a debate on the future management of British Gas?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot be generous about the allocation of time for a debate, but I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy my hon. Friend's comments, and I know that my right hon. Friend will be anxious to endorse what he says.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, whatever the general case for allocation of time orders—I thank him for having tabled the order for the Transport Bill so that we can see it today—many Opposition Members feel that it is quite inadequate to leave only one week for the rest of the Committee stage of the Bill and only one day for Report and Third Reading? In the spirit to which he has already referred, will he contemplate during the next three weeks whether he could amend the order when he puts it before the House on our return?

Mr. Biffen

It is most generous that I should be asked to contemplate. That is the easiest part of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. However much I contemplate the suggestion, I do not think that there is any prospect of changing the terms of the order, although I appreciate that from time to time disquiet has been expressed about the way in which we manage timetabling arrangements, and I confess that I have some sympathy with that.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

I greatly welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has announced that there will be plenty of time in the coming year for discussions about disarmament, because he believes that it will be an important matter to be debated during the general election campaign. Can I take it that we may also look forward to having regular reports of the discussions on disarmament that are going on in various parts of the world, so that we may all be educated in these matters, not least the Prime Minister, who either has not read Mr. Andropov's speech, or has deliberately distorted it beyond recognition when she answered questions today?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is very much a star performer at Foreign Office questions in directing attention to those matters. I have no doubt that he will have the same success in 1983 as he has had in the recent past.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Will my right hon. Friend consider an early debate on the Middle East? Will he bear in mind that King Hussein of Jordan is visiting the President of America this week and that while he is there and we are having our Christmas many thousands of refugees and their families are living in squalid conditions in tents in Lebanon? Can the House have an early opportunity to add its voice to discussion of that problem?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend is right. For generations the House has taken a keen interest in Middle East affairs, even when our material influence and power in that part of the world was strictly limited. However, that said, I must confess that I cannot offer the prospect of a debate on the Middle East in the early part of the new year.

Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

In answer to the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the House referred to yesterday's statement and questions on the Anderson Strathclyde incident. I want to correct a matter which was referred to in that debate. I asked a question relating to a question that I asked on 8 April on the general policy of appointing Members of the House of Lords to the position of Secretary of State. In the Minister's reply to my question there was an imputation that I was challenging the honesty and integrity of the Secretary of State for Trade. I was not. My question in April and my question yesterday were about the policy of appointing senior Ministers from the House of Lords, who are not answerable to this House. I want any such imputation to be struck from the record because no such imputation was intended.

Mr. Biffen

I was objecting to the words of the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Milian) when he said: Is it not a fact that the Minister made that decision because he has been got at by City interests"—[Official Report, 22 December 1982; Vol. 34, c. 958.] The hon. Gentleman's point about the desirability of having senior Ministers sitting in the House of Lords is completely different. It is valuable that senior Ministers do sit in the House of Lords and I do not think that anyone who knows my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade could for one moment question his integrity.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

In the first week after the recess, will my right hon. Friend make a statement about the matter which I drew to his attention on Monday: the anticipation—or, worse, substitution—of statements which ought to be made by Ministers in this House by statements made in the Northern Ireland Assembly of which there was another example yesterday? Will my right hon. Friend take serious note of the tendency of the Northern Ireland Assembly by its behaviour and nomenclature to make itself into a parallel Parliament? May we have a serious statement on that after he has taken what advice he thinks necessary?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I cannot promise that I shall make a statement in quite the terms that he has requested, but I shall look at the matter and be in touch with him.

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

Has the Leader of the House taken time off to reconsider the decision that he took the other day when he would not allow hon. Members a debate on the international recession and the measures that need to be taken by this and other Governments in the Western world to end it, particularly in the light of today's OECD report which shows that the simultaneous pursuit of monetarist policies by members of the OECD is in itself responsible for that recession? May we have that debate, which everyone in Britain must surely want?

Mr. Biffen

I can offer no prospect of a debate on the international recession in Government time during the first week after our return from the recess. I should have thought that there were plenty of opportunities for Back Benchers to pursue that issue, using their initiative to secure an opportunity.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

In the light of yesterday's suggestion that we do away with the dog licence, can the House have an early debate on the subject of dogs, particularly as people appear anxious to prevent our pavements from becoming obstacle courses and to do something about the disgusting state of some of our parks?

Mr. Biffen

I would hope that all those great reforms could be achieved without the necessity of using parliamentary time.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

May I help the Leader of the House? I know that he is short of time and wants an early debate on disarmament when we reconvene. May I suggest that he remove the guillotine on the Transport Bill to stop trampling that legislation through the House, since it will result in increased bus and rail fares for many millions of people, and substitute a debate on disarmament so that we can explain to the Prime Minister that the acceptance of Mr. Andropov's proposals will still leave both Britain and Russia with 161 missiles and a massive degree of overkill?

Mr. Biffen

Alas, I have become so cynical since holding this office that I know that if I did exactly what the hon. Gentleman suggests he would complain that the time allowed for the guillotine motion would be wholly inadequate for a debate of the magnitude of one on disarmament.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

Lest there by any doubt about it, will my right hon. Friend take note that Conservative Members are just as keen to discuss disarmament and the appeasement campaign being run by the CND as are Labour Members? Such a debate would give us a chance to examine in detail the links between the so-called peace movement and the Soviet Union.

Will my right hon. Friend read the Serpell report over Christmas? When he has done so, will he not be more likely to agree with me that we need not a statement on that important report, but a full day's debate in Government time?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend is much less generous than the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper). I know that my hon. Friend feels that he has a good case to argue—I am sure that he has—with the Leader of the Opposition about the balance of nuclear force and world peace.

It must be a wise course first to have the Government's reactions to the Serpell report and a statement and then to consider the matter in that light.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

When will the Government reply to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee's report "Acceptance of outside appointments by Crown servants" of 9 March 1981? It is unlike the right hon. Lady the Prime Minister, whose personal responsibility it is, to dither for nearly two years. Is it because she is yielding to the pressure of the tiny but powerful trade union which includes all her top civil servants, or is it because we propose that there should be legislation similar to the American ethics in government Act?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman fairly states that this is the personal responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I shall certainly see that she become acquainted with his anxieties.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his answer on the Anderson Strathclyde matter? Does not he believe that there would be considerable merit in having a debate in which it would be possible to review the shareholdings of members of previous Administrations in public companies which supplied goods and services paid for by the public purse?

Mr. Biffen

I know that there is a veneer of attraction in what my hon. Friend says, but I seriously do not think that the House does itself any good whatever by implying or suggesting that the high motives of Britain's public servants are in any way vitiated by material concern. Yesterday's arguments on the Scottish aspect were much better than those on propriety.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Has the Leader of the House noticed that the business statement for the European Community's Council of Ministers meetings at c. 947 of yesterday's Official Report includes a reference to a meeting of the Economic and Finance Council on 17 January, for which the agenda has not yet been fixed? Can he assure the House that the matter of the Assembly veto will be discussed and that a Minister will report the results of that meeting to the House?

Mr. Biffen

I am all for the Leader of the House having wider-ranging powers, but even in my most ambitious moments I cannot authorise what may or may not be discussed at the Council of Ministers. The point made about the relationship between the Council of Ministers, the Assembly and the national Parliaments is extremely relevant, together with the sums of money involved.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Does my right hon. Friend consider it appropriate for us to remember the anniversary this holiday of the unjustified invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union? If he cannot find time to discuss that subject after the recess perhaps he could find time for a debate on disarmament so that the House can use that debate to consider the appalling suffering of the Afghan people.

Mr. Biffen

That is a very important point. From what I have said, it is evident that no provision for that matter has been made during the first week after the recess. However, any of the wider foreign policy issues that come before the House would certainly embrace those considerations.


Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I should remind the hon. Gentleman that points of order will lessen the time available for the next Adjournment debate.

Mr. Greenway

I shall be brief, Mr. Speaker. What is the general length of time allowed for business questions?

Mr. Speaker

I am usually more generous than I was today, but I have an overriding obligation to the House. In the knowledge of the House, I promised hon. Members that they would have Adjournment debates.

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