HC Deb 15 July 1982 vol 27 cc1169-78 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)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 19 JULY—Supply [26th Allotted Day]: There will be a debate on the Royal Navy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Proceedings on the Aviation Security Bill [Lords], which is a consolidation measure.

Motions on Supply procedure.

TUESDAY 20 JULY—Until about 7 o'clock, motions on the up-rating orders on social security benefits, supplementary benefit, child benefit, family income supplements, pensioners' lump sum payments, and supplementary benefits (requirements and resources).

Motion relating to industrial training board orders.

Motion on the rate support grant reduction (Stirling district) 1982/83.

Motion on European Community document 6168/82 on revenue duty on traditional rum.

Remaining stages of the Administration of Justice Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 21 JULY—Supply [27th Allotted Day]: There will be a debate on developments in the European Community July-December 1981, Command No. 8525.

Motion on the Films (Distribution of Levy) Regulations.

THURSDAY 22 JULY—Supply [28th Allotted Day]: There will be a debate on the Royal Air Force on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Motion on the Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) Regulations.

FRIDAY 23 JULY—Supply [22nd Allotted Day] (second part): Debate on the preliminary draft general Community budget for 1983, and the supplementary budget No. 1 for 1982.

MONDAY 26 JULY—Remaining stages of the Civil Government (Scotland) Bill [Lords].

[Revenue duty on rum from French Overseas Departments, Document No. 6168/82.

Relevant Report from European Legislation Committee: 23rd Report of Session 1981–82 (HC 21-xxiii para. 2) Preliminary Draft General Budget for 1983, Document No. 7790/82.

Preliminary Draft Supplementary and Amending Budget No. 1 to the General Budget for 1982, Document No. 7789/82.

Relevant Report from European Legislation Committee: 26th Report of Session 1981–82 (HC 21-xxvi paras. 1 and 2)].

The House will wish to know that subject to progress of business it will be proposed that the House should rise for the summer adjournment on Friday 30 July.

Mr. Foot

I should like to put three matters to the right hon. Gentleman. I asked him a week or so ago for a statement on the sale of BNOC assets and the steps to be taken to avoid a repetition of the fiasco of Amersham International. It was indicated that the Government were not yet ready to make a statement. The Opposition want a statement as speedily as possible. Even if the Secretary of State for Energy has not yet concluded his proposals, we feel that he must make a statement before the House adjourns for the recess. By one means or another, we must avoid the scandal that occurred over the Amersham sale.

The unemployment figures show every sign that they will be sustained at the same appalling rate when they are next announced. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will now respond to the request that I have made on several occasions that there should be a debate on unemployment in Government time before the recess.

On the issue of the railways, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have consultations with the Prime Minister about the letter sent by Mr. Sidney Weighell to the Secretary of State for Transport to which I referred a few minutes ago. The right hon. Gentleman will see that the letter makes a serious charge against the Secretary of State for Transport who should in any case come to the House to make a statement upon it. What the Opposition want is a response to the proposal that Mr. Weighell includes in the letter for an initiative by the Government to help to deal with the growing railway crisis.

Mr. Biffen

I shall take the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes in reverse order. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has been most concerned to come to the House with statements as the crisis on the railways has developed. I am certain that he will maintain that reputation of attendance upon the House. I shall, of course, draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the letter of the general secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen to which the Leader of the Opposition has referred.

The right hon. Gentleman asks for a debate on unemployment. I am sure lie recognises that the House debated unemployment last week. Of course it is a serious matter of continuing concern. It is relevant to all the economic debates undertaken in the House. I cannot guarantee, however, that time will be found in Government time for a debate on this topic if we are to maintain the programme of rising by 30 July.

As to the right hon. Gentleman's comments on the sale of Britoil, I have been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. My right hon. Friend will be the first to answer questions on 26 July and hopes to use that as an occasion to inform the House of the matters to which the right hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. Foot

What was debated a day or so ago in the House was the shameful manner in which the Government were treating the unemployed. We want a further debate upon the total number of unemployed and the fresh announcements that will be made in the next couple of weeks. I believe that the Government have an absolute responsibility to provide time for a full debate on the subject.

Mr. Biffen

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says. I was observing that the House last week debated a Liberal Supply day motion on unemployment. [Interruption.] Unemployment is a topic, even if it is raised by the Liberal Party. I shall of course bear in mind the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I have to observe that I believe there is a general will in the House that we should rise at a reasonable time. I should have thought that Friday week was a reasonable time. I have to bear that in mind as a consideration.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Is it not significant that in a week in which there are no fewer than three Supply days when the Opposition can choose the subject for debate, they have not chosen to have a debate on the railways? Is it not therefore apparent that while the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) is prepared to indulge in exchanges at Question Time and following statements he is not prepared to see his views examined in detail in full debate?

Mr. Biffen

Yes. I think it is significant.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

As the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has so far failed to carry out his undertaking to investigate and report upon the conduct of an official in the Northern Ireland Office and the suspicion is growing that it is his intention to play out time until the recess, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake that his right hon. Friend will at least make an interim statement on this subject next week?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the request that the right hon. Gentleman makes.

Mr. Roy Jenkins (Glasgow, Hillhead)

Does the Leader of the House not accept that, while one can understand the reluctance of the Opposition to initiate a rail debate and expose their own embarrassment, there is none the less an obligation on the Government to ensure that this subject should be debated before the House rises for the Summer Recess?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the right hon. Gentleman says. An opportunity will of course arise upon the Consolidated Fund Bill for debating this matter. There might be a disposition on both sides of the House to take advantage of that facility.

Mr. Foot


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the Leader of the Opposition and follow that by calling two Conservative Members.

Mr. Foot

Will the right hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that it is grossly misleading for the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) to attempt to say that the Opposition have tried to avoid debates on the rail crisis? We are the only people who have provided time. The right hon. Member for Hillhead should not be so eager to pick up titbits from his Tory friends.

Mr. Biffen

I know that the Leader of the House has a time-honoured conciliatory role, but the prospect of trying effectively to effect a conciliation between the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) would tax anyone's energies.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

In view of the critical position in the negotiations on multi-fibre arrangement 3, may we have a debate in the House either next week or the week after, but before the Recess, about protecting the interests of British industry?

Mr. Biffen

That topic would be best pursued on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Sir Frederic Bennett (Torbay)

No one would suggest another debate on the Middle East, although the crisis is still serious. Will a statement be made next week, or at least before the Recess, on the dangerous position in the Middle East, with special reference to the suggestion now mooted in the media that a British military presence should be part of any settlement? The suggestion has worried many people.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend rightly mentions the tragic and serious position in the Middle East. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to my hon. Friend's anxiety that there should be a statement.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. So that we are fair to those who are deeply interested in the fisheries debate that will follow, I propose to allow questions to run until four o'clock by the digital clock, but for no longer.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Do the Government believe that it is fair to ask a 78-year-old man faced with the appalling burden of going into hospital for a cateract operation to go through all the papers that will be needed in the Falklands inquiry? May we have a statement next week if it is necessary to find a successor to Lord Franks?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that the membership and terms of reference of the committee were endorsed without a Division by the House, which was well aware of what it was doing. Should there be any reason for the withdrawal of Lord Franks from the committee of inquiry, no doubt my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will consider the best way in which to present the matter to the House.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

May I refer my right hon. Friend to motion 38 on the Order Paper in his name under the heading "Periodic Adjournments". That motion would appear seriously to curtail the rights of Back Benchers to have a debate on an Adjournment motion for a specified period. Will this serious matter be debated soon?

Mr. Biffen

It will be debated on Monday.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

Given the controversial decision announced this morning by the chairman of the British Gas Corporation not to site the supply and operational base for the new Morecambe Bay gas field in Liverpool and the subsequent loss of 1,000 jobs, will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Energy will tell the House soon why that decision was made?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to the hon. Gentleman's point. However, there is still time to put down questions for 26 July, when my right hon. Friend will be answering.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, East)

Due to the importance of the debate on seat belt regulations on Thursday 22 July, may there be some juggling with this and other business so that the regulations may be debated on Tuesday or Wednesday, when hon. Members may find it more convenient to attend?

Mr. Biffen

If the hon. Gentleman knew how much juggling has gone into the present immaculate pattern, he would realise why I am most anxious not to disturb it.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, East)

In view of the increasing evidence of restrictive trade practices in the motor car industry, which result in British car prices being on average one-third higher than anywhere else, will my right hon. Friend arrange time for the Government's attitude to such matters to be clarified, perhaps next week? The cost to the British economy is now running into thousands of millions of pounds.

Mr. Biffen

The matter was aired in the House, but I am sure that the Consolidated Fund Bill would be the proper time to raise such a topic from the Back Benches.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Can the Leader of the House tell us now for how long the Recess will last and the date of resumption?

Mr. Biffen

I should be glad just to get to the date of the Recess. When we are nearer to that date I shall bear in mind the general anxiety to know when we must return.

Mr. Stanley Cohen (Leeds, South-East)

I refer again to the railway dispute and I shall be discreet and not tell the right hon. Gentleman what he can do with the Consolidated Fund Bill. Does he recollect that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to clear obligations? Does he accept that the obligations are the responsibility not only of the trade unions and the British Railways Board but of the Government? Is it not time that the Government tried to resolve the dispute?

Mr. Biffen

I know the strictures of the hon. Gentleman upon the merits of Government policy. I can best help the House by saying that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has come to the Dispatch Box frequently to explain the course of the dispute and the Government's attitude towards it. He will persist in that.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

In view of the importance of achieving durable and sensible arrangements on Civil Service pay and conditions, when can the House debate the Megaw report before any Government decision?

Mr. Biffen

It would be prudent for the Government to engage in many consultations outside the House before having a debate, which will be of the utmost importance, on the Megaw report. I can give only the dispiriting reply that we cannot debate it next week.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

As it must now be obvious to the Leader of the House that the debate on the defence Estimates was an inadequate vehicle in which to debate the special United Nations session on disarmament, and as the special session had an extremely disappointing outcome because of the negative approach of both the Prime Minister and President Reagan, may we debate this important subject before the recess?

Mr. Biffen

Arms levels and disarmament have been mentioned in previous defence debates and there are two days remaining when they may be debated. I do not share the hon. Gentleman's pessimism on the matter, but it is not likely that the Government can provide time during the next two weeks.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the British Gas Corporation said from the beginning that its decision on the supply base would be based entirely on commercial criteria after the most careful investigation and that, therefore, we need no further questions on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend aims her observations not only at me, but I am glad to know that some hon. Members believe that the House does not need too many preoccupations.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call only those hon. Members who have already risen. The number that I can call will depend on the length of questions.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

The Leader of the House has juggled the Report stage of the Administration of Justice Bill into the small, or perhaps the larger, hours of Wednesday morning. When shall we see the new amendment on the qualification for jurors that the Attorney-General will put down. Is the Leader of the House aware that we are entitled to a little time to study the amendment before Report stage?

Mr. Biffen

I accept that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to see such an important amendment as early as possible. I shall draw my right hon. and learned Friend's attention to his point.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

In view of the statement earlier today by British Shipbuilders of the complete closure of the ship repair division on the River Tyne, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Industry to explain to the House why the ship repair yards are being decimated, why the men who refitted HMS "Fearless" are now being cast aside and why they will bring my town to its knees in the same way as Consett?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to that point.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Has the right hon. Gentleman had time to study early-day motions 541, 545 and 602, which have been signed by 219 right hon. and hon. Members, and which concern the replacement of the "Atlantic Conveyor"?

[That this House is gravely concerned at the news that, after the strong, warm and deserved congratulations expressed to the Forces and the many shipbuilding and dockyard workers for their unselfish efforts during the Falklands crisis together with the deep sorrow at the loss of many men and ships, including the 'Atlantic Conveyor', the Cunard Line are considering placing an order for the replacement of the 'Atlantic Conveyor' with a Japanese shipyard; believes that this is a strange and unpatriotic way of rewarding the workers of this country for their recent efforts and further notes with alarm the Minister's recent reply indicating that Her Majesty's Government who undoubtedly will be paying compensation for the loss of the 'Atlantic Conveyor', are not prepared to take any action to ensure that this order is placed in British shipyards but prefer instead to reward foreign shipyards with work when British workers' great efforts in getting HMS 'Illustrious' to sea in record time are to be rewarded by further redundancies.]

[That this House, recognising the outstanding contribution of British shipbuilding workers to the mobilization and support of the Royal and Merchant Navies during recent hostilities in the South Atlantic, deplores Ministerial statements in the House that the Government will refuse to take any steps to ensure that the order for a vessel to replace the 'Atlantic Conveyor' will be placed in British shipyards.]

[That this House fully supports the joint shop stewards committee of British Steel Stocksbridge and Tinsley Park in their endeavours to make sure that the replacement for the 'Atlantic Conveyor' is built in a British shipyard and made from British steel, and requests the Government to pay compensation to the owners of 'Atlantic Conveyor' on these conditions.]

Will, the right hon. Gentleman find time for the House to discuss this issue so that we can express our views on patriotism to Lord Matthews. During the Falklands war, he was keen to express his views on that subject to the people of Britain through his newspapers. In addition, a debate would allow us to discuss the serious event that has occurred today, which has just been highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark)?

Mr. Biffen

That topic was relevant to yesterday's debate on regional policy and was, indeed, touched on during that debate. However, I shall draw the Secretary of State's attention to that point.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

As the Rayner scrutiny report on museums has been published and contains a Philistine attack on the theatre museum and joins the commercial and other penetrating influences that will take away childhood from our little ones by closing the Museum of Childhood in the East End, may we have a debate on that issue before the recess, or, if that is impossible, may we be given a firm assurance that important decisions affecting the cultural life of our nation will not be taken until the House has reassembled?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts has sought to be reassuring, but I shall certainly draw that point to his attention.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)

Will the Leader of the House withdraw Tuesday night's order, which gives the Secretary of State for Scotland the power to reduce the rate support grant given to Stirling district council in my constituency? Is he aware that about two months ago the Secretary of State held discussions with the Tory-controlled Lothian regional council on the basis of a rate support grant reduction of £45 million yet has still not given any intimation of his views? Nevertheless, within a day and a half of meeting Stirling district council the order to reduce its rate support grant was printed and published. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not lend himself to the Secretary of State's political victimisation of Stirling district council.

Mr. Biffen

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having given a powerful trailer of the formidable speech that he will doubtless deploy on Tuesday night.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

Will the right hon. Gentleman refrain from hiding behind the Question Time of 26 July when it comes to the sale of Britoil? Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Energy at least brings the prospectus for the sale to the House before that sale takes place? It would be inopportune and invalid to go through the mish-mash of the Amersham sale. The profits from that sale, which have been reported this week, show that the nation has been denuded of valuable assets because of the Government's doctrinaire policies.

Mr. Biffen

Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is most anxious to deal with the matter—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, yes?"] Yes. He is most anxious to deal with a matter of such great general interest to the House. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to his attention so that he can take them into account when considering how best to handle the matter on 26 July.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a debate on the school closures that are taking place all over the country, including the deplorable decision to approve the closure of Westcotes school in my constituency and the threat to many primary schools? When can we fully debate what is happening to our schools, despite falling rolls?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. and learned Gentleman is very effective at using these occasions to remind us of the difficulties and problems in his constituency. That is a legitimate use of Parliament, but I fear that Government time is unlikely to be available next week. However, such issues can be debated on the Floor of the House during Adjournment debates.

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

As article 92 of the Treaty of Rome precludes the payment of State aids and subsidies to industries, such as the shipbuilding industry, in Europe, although those same subsidies are being paid to Japanese manufacturers to compete with us over the replacement of the "Atlantic Conveyor", should there not be a statement from the Dispatch Box on that point and on whether the order should be given to a yard outside the United Kingdom?

Mr. Biffen

I have already said that I shall notify the Secretary of State for Industry of the general interest and anxiety expressed on that subject. However, I should not like the hon. Gentleman's supposition that no subsidies are available to British Shipbuilders to go unchallenged.

Mr. Jim Craigen (Glasgow, Maryhill)

The Leader of the House seems surprisingly reluctant to concede a debate on unemployment, as if such a debate would be a retread of previous debates. Given the recent publication of the Rayner report and the grim message of the "Manpower Review", which has been recently published by the Manpower Services Commission, is not there a need to hold a debate on employment services before the House adjourns for the Summer Recess?

Mr. Biffen

I note that point. However, I have to share with the House the problem and anxiety of balancing the demands made on this week, next week and the week after if we are to rise by 30 July.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House recall that a few weeks ago I asked whether a statement would be made on the allocation of money to National Health Service hospitals in view of the announcement that the Royal Marsden hospital in London was to close about 33 cancer beds because it had a £750,000 deficit? The Government seem happy and prepared to make statements about the dispute between the Government and the nurses and ancillary workers, to blame them for the suffering that results from such action and to continue reducing the NHS's ability to provide the necessary cash to keep open those cancer beds and, thereby, to reduce the suffering of patients who are badly in need of help and assistance.

Mr. Biffen

I am not competent to answer a question on the specific circumstances of the Royal Marsden hospital and at least I am aware that I am not competent. However, I shall certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

In view of the totally unsatisfactory answers on the railway crisis that we received from the Prime Minister at Question Time, is it not necessary to hold a debate on that subject, and to hold it in Government time? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in such a debate the Opposition could show that the Government, far from wishing to bring about any conciliation, are determined to use the dispute to declare war on the trade union movement?

Mr. Biffen

If there are such compelling reasons to the advantage of the Opposition, to hold a debate on the railways they could well use a Supply day to that end.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that a statement is made as soon as possible—obviously, before the recess—on the multi-fibre arrangement negotiations. Given the right hon. Gentleman's background at the Department of Trade he must be aware of the great anxiety felt by the textile trade, which has been expressed by the president of the British Wool Textile Confederation, who believes that the Government are indifferent. Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman taking item 39 on the Order Paper on the Consolidated Fund Bill, which also reduces Back Bencher' rights, next Monday?

Mr. Biffen

I have nothing further to add on the subject of the MFA negotiations, although my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade well knows hon. Members' widespread interest in the textile industry. I think that the answer to the hon. Gentleman's second point is yes, but I shall confirm my answer later.

Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, West)

Given the continued and terrifying increase in the number of closures and redundancies in the engineering and textile industries in West Yorkshire, and particularly in Bradford, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange a debate on the industrial situation in West Yorkshire as quickly as possible so that we can go into the matter in much more detail?

Mr. Biffen

A debate was held on regional development only yesterday; and with that debate just behind us I cannot, in all conscience, hold out the promise of a repeat debate in the near future.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy that the British Gas Corporation's decision on the Morecambe gas field development is another kick in the teeth for Merseyside? The people of Merseyside feel that the Prime Minister and the Tory Government do not give a damn about unemployment on Merseyside.

Mr. Biffen

I shall ensure that the Secretary of State for Energy knows of those sentiments.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

May we have a statement next week from the Minister responsible for sport about the breach of the Gleneagles agreement by the Tory Member for Luton, West (Mr. Carlisle) and that overpaid BBC hack, Jimmy Hill, who seem to be involved in a conspiracy to send a football team to South Africa to give more credibility to the racist regime there?

Mr. Biffen

I do not hold out much hope that such a statement will be made, but I shall ensure that the Minister knows of the request.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

In view of the expiry yesterday of the agreement between the British Aluminium Company and the Government to maintain the Invergordon aluminium smelter on a care and maintenance basis, will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of Stale for Scotland to make an urgent statement saying that there is still a possibility of restoring the 900 jobs involved?

Mr. Biffen

I shall ensure that the hon. Member's question is brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.