HC Deb 06 May 1982 vol 23 cc284-90 3.32 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

Will the Leader of the House announce 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 10 MAY—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Bill.

Motions on the Land Compensation (Northern Ireland) Order, which is a consolidation measure, and on the Probation Board (Northern Ireland) Order.

TUESDAY 11 MAY—Progress on remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill.

Motions on the Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) Regulations, for England and Wales and for Scotland.

WEDNESDAY 12 AND THURSDAY 13 MAY—Completion of remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock on Thursday.

FRIDAY 14 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 17 MAY—Private Members' motions until 7 o'clock.

Afterwards, completion of remaining stages of the Local Government and Planning (Scotland) Bill.

Mr. Foot

I thank the Leader of the House for the arrangements that he has made for reporting to the House on the Falkland Islands crisis and for dealing with the problem in the House on Tuesday night. What he did greatly helped the House to deal with the matter properly and I thank him for it. Of course, I say that in prospect of future considerations! Will he give an assurance that if we wish to have a debate on this subject at any time next week he will consider it as a matter of urgency?

I raised with the right hon. Gentleman last week the subject of British Rail. We were expecting a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport, but no such statement has been made. No debate has yet been arranged, but I trust that the right hon. Gentleman understands how strong our feelings are and how vital it is to hold a proper debate on that subject before the Government proceed any further.

I asked the right hon. Gentleman to make a statement on Civil Service pay. I again ask for a statement. I trust that he will not resort to any of the subterranean methods of making such announcements, because they do not allow the House properly to cross-examine the Minister involved.

Will the amendments on the proposed restoration of capital punishment be debated during consideration of the Criminal Justice Bill on Tuesday? It would help if hon. Members knew when that debate will take place.

As I said last week, given the appalling unemployment that persists and seems likely to persist for many months, and indeed longer if the Government's policies are continued, may we have an urgent debate, in Government time, on the unemployment situation?

Mr. Biffen

I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his kind remarks on how the House was approached on the matter of debating and making statements on the Falkland Islands dispute. Of course, I shall bear in mind his anxiety that there should be a further debate if events in the South Atlantic necessitate that. However, I am sure that he realises that there comes a time when the amount of debating gives rise to suggestions that the House should perhaps strike a renewed balance. However, this matter is of such seriousness that I undertake to consider any representations on it.

The proposed closure of railway workshops is essentially a matter for British Rail. The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster) intends to raise that subject tonight on the Adjournment. However, I cannot guarantee that any Government time will be devoted to that topic next week.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Ward) has tabled a question on Civil Service pay, which will be answered today and which, I think, deals with the general question of Civil Service pay. In the light of that, I hope that even the Leader of the Opposition will feel that there has been an equitable settlement.

The Criminal Justice Bill and capital punishment will be dealt with on Tuesday as long as there are no interruptions to the programme. The Government intend to table a motion at the commencement of Tuesday's debate to provide for a general debate on any new clauses on capital punishment that may be selected and that will enable the House to reach a decision on these matters at the conclusion of the debate.

I cannot guarantee any Government time for a debate next week on unemployment. Obviously, that matter can be debated on Monday week on the motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, East (Mr. Henderson). We have just concluded a heavy diet of the Committee stage of the Finance Bill in which such general economic problems could have been ventilated. In addition, the Opposition have a number of Supply days within their keep, and I earnestly hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider one of those days for a topic that—if it is debated on the Floor of the House—will give the Government a chance to prove that their case is better than that of their adversaries.

Mr. Foot

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider his remarks about the British Rail statement. Ultimately, Government policy affects the situation, and I trust that there will be both a statement and a debate on the subject. Although it is being raised on an Adjournment debate, that is not a satisfactory way of dealing with it. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider that question.

As for his reply about Civil Service pay, the right hon. Gentleman has apparently convicted himself out of his own mouth. He is resorting to the subterranean methods that I hinted at. I am sorry that so early in his new life he should have resorted to the tricks that were perpetrated by his predecessor. [Interruption.] Nothing like that was ever done by us. Even at this stage, I hope that he can still recall the question. He should have had the nerve to present the case to the House of Commons, and I ask him to repent before it is too late.

Mr. Biffen

If I am fallen, all I can say is that I also enjoy the company that I am now keeping.

I appreciate that the question of British Rail workshops is a matter of real concern, particularly in certain constituencies. Therefore, it is by no means inappropriate that an hon. Member whose constituency is particularly affected should bring the matter to the Floor of the House. I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport the interest of the Leader of the Opposition in a statement on this matter, but I cannot hold out very much hope. I can hold out even less hope of a debate in Government time next week.

As to Civil Service pay, it might be as well if the right hon. Gentleman saw the quality of the answer that my hon. Friend the Member for Poole receives before getting himself into such emotional excitement about the matter.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

On Monday's business, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, at a time when it is the duty and need of the Government to secure the maximum support here and out of doors for our forces and the recovery of our rights, it is quite unintelligible that the Government should insist on attempting to proceed with a measure that is regarded by almost every section in Northern Ireland as an affront?

Mr. Biffen

No doubt the arguments can be put on Monday that are designed to demonstrate the weakness of the Bill in that respect. However, the Bill has been proffered in the belief that it will make for the better government of the Province——

Mr. Powell

The right hon. Gentleman does not believe that.

Mr. Biffen

—and for the securing of the union. These matters must be debated, and they will be debated and tested in this Chamber.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend take time off from his more weighty duties to thank those responsible for cleaning this Palace, particularly those who have cleaned Westminster Hall so magnificently?

Mr. Biffen


Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The Leader of the House referred to the amount of debating time that has been given to the Falklands issue. Frankly, some of us think that it is almost bordering on a disgrace that so little time has been available for the House of Commons to go into deep issues. For example, since, as with the "Repulse" and the "Prince of Wales", the "Sheffield" went down because of action by land-based aircraft in exactly the situation from which this country suffered 40 years ago, should there not be an urgent and detailed discussion next week about what may happen to the task force and so that sensibly and at length we can discuss the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) and the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd) about attacking the South American mainland? These are urgent issues of world-wide importance, and next week's business must pale into insignificance compared with a sensible discussion of such momentous issues.

Mr. Biffen

I know that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about these matters. This is not the first opportunity he has had of expressing those views. I must point out that we have had four debates and seven statements on the Falklands. I think that is very fair treatment of the House on this immensely important subject. I have not ruled out the prospect of further debates. However, I believe that what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting would unbalance the work of the House and would not be to our advantage.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

If the House co-operates, I hope to call all those right hon. and hon. Members who have been rising in their place.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

If there were to be such a discussion as that asked for by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), should it not be in secret session?

Does my right hon. Friend think that this is the time for the Government to seek unity in this kingdom? Will he therefore consider the deferment, or better still the withdrawal, of the Northern Ireland measure set down for consideration on Monday? It is highly contentious on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Mr. Biffen

I have nothing to add to what I said to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). The matter has been debated in the sense that the White Paper has been approved by the House——

Mr. J. Enoch Powell


Mr. Biffen

I am sorry. The White Paper has been before the House in a debate. I do not think that it would be appropriate to put aside the Second Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

I strongly endorse the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), but I want to raise a much more minor issue. As it seems to be becoming an increasing practice for hon. Members and staff of the House to park their cars in the spaces allotted for the handicapped in Star Chamber Court, will the right hon. Gentleman get the appropriate authorities to look into this and to stop an uncaring and selfish practice?

Mr. Biffen


Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

As The Guardian of the business of the House, does it worry my right hon. Friend that at this time of the year he is presenting major Bills for Second Reading? Will he ensure that no further Bills are presented for Second Reading before the end of this Session unless they deal with national emergencies?

Mr. Biffen

The difficulties that my hon. Friend underlines are only too well known to me.

Mr. Tony Benn (Bristol, South-East)

I return to the question of the Falklands. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House of Commons is entitled to be a factor in the Government's thinking and not just convened to discuss the issue when military or diplomatic events elsewhere make it convenient? Is he also aware that in the past few days, as a result of the tragic loss of life, a growing number of people of all political persuasions are anxious about the growing escalation and bloodshed, would like to see an immediate and unconditional ceasefire—[Interruption.]—and a transfer to the United Nations which the Government now appear to contemplate after the killing is over? If the United Nations is to take over the Falklands after our men have died, why cannot we debate the case for it doing so now before more people are killed?

Mr. Biffen

I have already indicated the prospects for a debate in my reply to the Leader of the Opposition. I think the matter should rest there.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

Will my right hon. Friend not take that last question too seriously? It seems to some of us that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), running short of malice, is calling up dottiness to reinforce it.

Mr. Biffen

As long as my right hon. Friend is in the House to make such observations, no words from me are necessary.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The Leader of the House has put down the concluding stages of the Local Government and Planning (Scotland) Bill for consideration a week on Monday. As the Government have tabled a substantial number of new clauses and dozens of amendments, is it satisfactory that that debate should begin at 7 pm if it is intended to run throughout the night? The House has been getting away from the practice of all-night sittings on important measures, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will use his influence to ensure that it is not reinstated under his leadership of the House.

Mr. Biffen

I hope that the quality of the arguments and the good sound sense of the House will enable business to be concluded without running through the night.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there was an appeal, during the exchanges in the House yesterday, for moderation in the media? Does he agree that the House should also exercise moderation, and that we should not have too many statements and debates on the Falklands crisis, which must make diplomacy difficult and certainly do not help the task force? Is he aware that some of the scenes on Tuesday night were regrettable? I hope that they will not be repeated.

Mr. Biffen

I do not believe that the four debates and the seven statements on the Falkland Islands can in any sense be said to be prodigal. Although I appreciate that my hon. Friend feels that there should be more continence on these matters, the House is entitled to the balance that we have struck.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

I understand from reports in the press that the Manpower Services Commission was completely unaware that the Secretary of State for Employment was irretrievably committed to introducing legislation to remove the entitlement of participants in the new youth training scheme to supplementary benefit. Is the Leader of the House aware that that will completely jeopardise the implementation of the scheme, and may well unleash upon unsuspecting employers hordes of unwilling and sullen participants? Will he make arrangements for the Secretary of State for Employment to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement about it?

Mr. Biffen

Like the hon. Gentleman, I have only the facility of press reports on the matter, but I shall certainly draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

Will my right hon. Friend consider again the business for next Monday? The Northern Ireland Bill is very divisive and will not be supported by many Conservative Members. Will my right hon. Friend agree that it is grossly improper that a measure of such importance and magnitude for the unity of the whole United Kingdom should be debated within only one week of tabling the White Paper?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the time scale between the publication of the Bill and the White Paper and the date of Second Reading is reasonable. I cannot add to the reply that I gave to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell).

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Have not the Government a strange set of priorities? In the recent past we have had a debate on the Northern Ireland White Paper and we have to face another debate on the subject on Monday. It is nothing more than a house of cards, another device, another kind of superstructure, that will get nowhere at all. That is happening in a week in which it has just been announced that Britain's top director is getting just under £500,000 a year, and when it has been necessary to raise the base rate in Labour Research in order to include all the top directors getting more than £85,000 a year. Yet there has not been one statement or debate in the House on the nurses' pay claim. They have a miserly award by the Tory Government of 6.4 per cent., whereas all the top dirctors have been lining their pockets in the last 12 months.

Mr. Biffen

The pay negotiations are now proceeding through the Whitley Council and I do not believe that there would be any great advantage in having a debate on the matter next week. If the Opposition feel so strongly about it, they always have the chance of using one of their Opposition Supply days for it.

Mr. Skinner

That would be a good idea.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to study early-day motion 444? [That this House deplores the wholly unjustified assertion of the Right honourable Member for Bristol, South-East that the Prime Minister 'rejoiced' at the loss of lives in the sinking of the cruiser, the "General Belgrano", but sees it as a characteristic of his unpatriotic utterances on the Falklands issue; and calls upon him to withdraw the remark forthwith.] Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

There are some activities that are most condemned by dismissive silence.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Perhaps it would be better if the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) were living in the Argentine, where there is no Parliament, but is the right hon. Gentleman aware that if casualties continue to mount and the war escalates we shall certainly want to have a debate? Indeed, if there is a repetition of what happened on Tuesday, we shall want a further statement, just as we had a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence on Tuesday. Is it not of some interest that the new head of the Prime Minister's policy unit, in his column this week in the Spectator, also argues for the need to try to arrange a ceasefire?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that I have anything further to add to what I said to the Leader of the Opposition about the possibility of further discussions on the Falkland Islands issue next week.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As the United Nations is pivotal to our discussions on the Falkland Islands, would it be possible to have an early debate on the United Nations? Right hon. and hon. Members might like to mention the fact that half a generation ago United Nations resolution 242 required the withdrawal of the Israelis from the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights and that they are still there. There are also United Nations forces in South Lebanon which are bypassed at will. It would be very instructive to right hon. and hon. Members—particularly to some Labour Members—to have pointed out the ineffectiveness of many past United Nations operations and resolutions.

Mr. Biffen

I can offer no prospect of a debate in Government time next week on the United Nations; but, as with many other subjects, it does not seem to stop people making speeches on them during what is supposed to be a discussion on next week's business.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged.