HC Deb 11 November 1982 vol 31 cc679-87 4.12 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 15 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Transport Bill.

Motions on the Customs Duties (ECSC) (Quotas and Other Reliefs) (Amendment) Orders, and on the Summer Time Order.

TUESDAY 16 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Water Bill.

Motion relating to the Devon Trial Area Order.

WEDNESDAY 17 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the British Shipbuilders Bill. Motions on the Supplementary Benefit (Housing Benefits) (Requirements) Consequential Amendment Regulations and on the employment subsidies scheme.

THURSDAY 18 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Agricultural Marketing Bill.

Motion on the Wages Council (Northern Ireland) Order.

FRIDAY 19 NOVEMBER—Debate on the First Report from the Select Committee on Agriculture in Session 1980–81 on animal welfare in poultry, pig and veal calf production, House of Commons Paper No. 406, and the relevant Government observations.

MONDAY 22 NOVEMBER—Supply [1st Allotted Day].

Mr. Foot

My first point arises from our discussion on security. In the light of the questions put and the matters that have been raised, the Government should consider a debate on the subject in the House. If we do not debate it in the House, details of the issues will be discussed widely in the newspapers and on the other side of the Atlantic—everywhere except in the House of Commons. That would be most unsatisfactory. I do not criticise the Leader of the House or the Prime Minister, who underlined the difficult choices that such a matter presents to a Government. However, I hope that the House will have an early opportunity to debate it.

I cannot give the right hon. Gentleman a reprieve on the Transport Bill that will be debated on Monday. It is disgraceful that the Government should bring forward the Bill so speedily. The White Paper and the Bill were published last Friday and it is wrong that we should have a Second Reading so soon. The organisations that are affected by the Bill have not had an adequate opportunity to discuss it and to make representations. I do not blame the right hon. Gentleman, because I have no doubt that the matter was put across him by another Minister, but now that I have brought the matter to his attention again, publicly as well as privately, I hope that even at this late stage he will try to meet our wishes and change the arrangements for next week.

We must have a debate on fisheries following the statement of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Many legal questions arise from the action that may have to be taken to protect British fishermen, and the Government should provide time for a debate.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman about the early-day motion on mandatory education awards, about which he has answered me helpfully twice. I hope that he will now provide some action.

Will there be a debate on the Hunt report on cable television? I have not raised the matter with the right hon. Gentleman previously, but it will be of great importance to the House and the country in coming months and years. There are many cultural and other ramifications of cable television, and I hope that the Government will ensure that we have a completely free debate in the House, without pressure, long before we reach the stage of trying to gain approval of the White Paper or the report. If the right hon. Gentleman will provide enough time for a general discussion of the issues, we can then decide how to proceed—if we proceed at all—without injuring the standards of British television and radio.

Mr. Biffen

The House will have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister say that she hopes that a debate on security can take place after the Security Commission reports. The matter raises immediate and deep-seated anxiety, as was clear from the exchanges today. No doubt the matter can be dealt with through the usual channels.

As to the Transport Bill, I do not deny that 10 days for consultation since the publication of the White Paper is a tight timetable. However, a longer consultation period will have been available before we reach the Committee stage of the Bill, when many major considerations must be discussed. I am not trying to show an easy optimism, since we are anxious to accommodate the right hon. Gentleman on this matter. However, the Second Reading of the Bill also concerns us very much.

I accept that the fisheries policy is an important topic that the House will wish to debate. The matter has not yet been resolved within the European Community, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is as anxious to have a debate—which will vindicate his policy—as are the Opposition.

The right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to say that I was helpful about the early-day motion on education awards. I am happy to be helpful yet again, but I cannot provide a date. That final act of helpfulness will arrive in due course.

I realise that the House must debate cable television, of which the Hunt report is a central feature, and that we must do so before the establishment of Government policy.

Mr. Foot

I give some moderate thanks to the right hon. Gentleman, but his proposal concerning the Transport Bill is still unsatisfactory. Apparently, he is still suggesting that we go ahead with the Second Reading on Monday. I ask him, even at this late date, to consider postponing the Second Reading for a week. I ask him also to consider the need for a proper interval between the Second Reading and the Committee stage, although I trust that the Government will have done that in any event.

I am not asking for a debate after the Security Commission has reported on the Prime case. I am asking for a debate on the general matter at an earlier stage than that. If the Government do not accede to that wish, the matter will be debated all over the country, in the newspapers and elsewhere, and in the United States of America. Many criticisms will be made. How will the Government deal with them? I urge the Government seriously to consider having a debate on the subject in the next few weeks.

Mr. Biffen

I will consider the right hon. Gentleman's further point concerning the Transport Bill, but I do not want in any sense to mislead the House. When I say that I will consider it, I am not saying that I will agree with what the right hon. Gentleman wishes me to do.

I accept at once that the very importance of the security topic requires that we must try to secure a debate about it in a way that will be congenial to the House. I think that it should be dealt with in a leisurely way, rather than in the hasty way that it has been dealt with across the Dispatch Box this afternoon.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose—I hope that the House will feel it reasonable—to allow 20 minutes for business questions. I remind the House that there is enormous interest in the debate on immigration.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Has the right hon. Gentleman's attention been drawn to early-day motion 49?

[That this House requests the Lord President of the Council to give notice of a Motion to the Northern Ireland Committee, the matter of the proposal for a draft Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order in Council, being a matter relating exclusively to Northern Ireland.]

Since the measure cannot be of any effect in the early months of next year, will the right hon. Gentleman be careful to protect the opportunities which Northern Ireland Members have had, through the Northern Ireland Committee, to influence Northern Ireland legislation, especially when it is important and contentious?

Mr. Biffen

I will take note of what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

With regard to the Leader of the Opposition's request for an early debate on the security issues arising out of the Prime case, will the Leader of the House ensure that, if we have such a debate, all the previous Prime Ministers under whose tenure of office all the high acts of treachery took place have an adequate opportunity to give an account of their part of the story?

Mr. Biffen

I think that I have enough burdens already without being asked to be the impresario to orchestrate that debate.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

As there are three motions on the Order Paper dealing specifically with matters affecting women, and as matters relating to the employment of women and the recession were also raised in the debate on the Gracious Speech and not dealt with in any detail in the ministerial reply, will the right hon. Gentleman provide for a day's debate on women's affairs and related matters?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that I can, but I am certain that I cannot do it next week.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Will my right hon. Friend, as a matter of some urgency, provide time for a debate on the specific matter of the composition and the competence of the Security Commission? Is he aware that neither this House nor our allies can have very much confidence in a body which, only six months ago, examined the whole matter of positive vetting and pronounced it to be generally acceptable? It is important to vet the security vetters. I hope that my right hon. Friend will arrange an early debate on the competence of the body to which the Prime Minister has rightly referred the security matter.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has raised an exceedingly important point. It is one that would be central to the debate that we are to have in any case upon national security. I hope that I have been able to meet his anxieties.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

With regard to the Leader of the Opposition's request for a debate on security, is the Leader of the House aware that the truncated Diplock report has remainded undebated in this House, despite the fact that the report rightly stated that the real dangers to our security come not from monetary corruption or ideology but from defects of character? Is it not time that the House had an opportunity to debate the Diplock report, given the fact that once again we see that the real danger has come from sexual deviation? The possibility exists, by proper orientation of the vetting, and by using psychoanalytically-oriented psychiatrists, to screen those who are a potential danger to Britain. Surely, whatever the rulings may have been and whatever has been anticipated, it is time that we had an opportunity to discuss the vetting procedures.

Mr. Biffen

I think that in all parts of the House there is an anxiety that we should have a debate upon our security services. The only question to be resolved is the timing, and I hope that that can be determined fairly soon.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)

In view of the last point made by the Leader of the House, will he note that there clearly is support, which crosses party lines entirely, for the suggestion of an early debate? Above all, will he note that if a debate on security were to be unreasonably delayed, we should be committing the ultimate absurdity of making Parliament the only place in which the accountability and efficiency of the security services were not discussed at the present time?

Mr. Biffen

I am very much aware of my hon. Friend's point. That is why, in my answers on this topic, I have not sought to inject on my own account one drop of controversy.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Secretary of State for Scotland and seek from him an explanation of the reason why the college of education in Hamilton, which was built in 1966 for £2 million, and is worth at least £12 million now, was today sold by the Government for only £680,000? Will he arrange for a statement to be made next week about that act of gross financial irresponsibility?

Mr. Biffen

I will most certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

In spite of all that has been said this afternoon, will my right hon. Friend be extremely careful before he arranges a debate on State security? Will he agree that, if such a debate were to be held, useless and dangerous comments might be made in this House? Are not security matters best left to the good sense and patriotism of the Prime Minister?

Mr. Biffen

I would underline three times my hon. Friend's final sentiments, but I think that the House rightly feels that it has a sense of responsibility, and that it has always exercised that responsibility with judicious care. That factor is bound to be given weight in determining the timing of such a debate.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

With regard to the question of a debate on the student grant regulations, will the Leader of the House bear in mind, first, that the student grant regulations for England and Wales are legally defective at the moment in one particular? Secondly, as far as I can gather, the rules being applied throughout England and Wales are different from those which were intended to be secured by the regulations. Thirdly, an equal but different inefficiency has occurred north of the border, with the result that one could have a Scottish and an English student at the same university, with the same parental income, getting different levels of student grant. Can we discuss that matter as soon as possible?

Mr. Biffen

That would be an interesting technical debate. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's points. I realise that they add to the need for an immediate debate on the subject.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Nantwich)

When weighing the merit of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes), will my right hon Friend bear in mind the fact that were he to follow that advice we would have no debate at all in the House?

Mr. Biffen

I always knew that I had a splendid ally in my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge. He would make business management a great deal easier.

Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

Does not the Prime case suggest that the Official Secrets Act operates to protect the inefficiency of our security services more than the efficiency of our national security? Would not an early debate at least enable the House to discuss the Official Secrets Act in time to amend it if necessary?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. and learned Gentleman will not expect me to endorse his initial remarks. However, I accept that that is an issue which will be contained within the forthcoming debate on national security.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members would welcome an early and full debate on cable technology before the end of Information Technology Year and before the Government take any final decisions on the significant Hunt report?

Mr. Biffen

Yes, I recognise the anxiety in the House for a debate before Government policy is formulated.

Mr. Harold Walker (Doncaster)

The employment subsidies scheme is due to be debated next Wednesday. In response to my questions the Department of Employment confirmed this morning that it would be primarily concerned with the introduction of the proposed Government job-splitting scheme. The parent Act under which the order will be made requires a statement to be laid before the House before any such scheme is debated and a decision made by the House. So far, the House has not received any statement about the scheme. Is not that a gross discourtesy to the House and a flimsy basis on which to introduce such a scheme?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look into that matter at once.

Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Loughborough)

As a former Secretary of State for Trade, my right hon. Friend will not need to be persuaded of the importance of the forthcoming GATT ministerial meeting. While I recognise that we cannot expect a debate before that meeting, will he arrange a debate in the House as soon as possible after it so that we have an opportunity to discuss our policy on trading matters?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot give such an undertaking but I can say that that issue is one of the many demands upon time which I shall bear in mind as sympathetically as I can.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell and Wishaw)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, "Efficiency and Effectiveness in the Civil Service", of which we have had a further demonstration this afternoon? The Government's reply picked out all the plums which increase the power of the Executive and rejected all those recommendations which increase the power of the House. They finally noted that such a report would also enable the House to debate the speculations, to which the Prime Minister returned this afternoon, about the various proposals to increase the powers of the Prime Minister's office.

Mr. Biffen

As the hon. Gentleman will realise, we are having a debate next week on the report of the Select Committee on Agriculture. Therefore, I cannot conceivably offer the debate that he is seeking in the immediate future. However, I shall bear in mind Select Committee reports for debate in the House.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the answer that he gave a moment ago to my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Dorrell) about the need for a debate on trade? Is he aware that many hon. Members feel strongly about imbalances of trade, particularly with regard to Spain and motor cars, and about other areas of policy as well? Will he arrange for a ministerial statement as quickly as possible on the line which will be taken at the GATT discussions?

Mr. Biffen

It is easier to say that I am more sympathetic to a statement than to a full debate. Although I cannot make any promise, my sympathy is a shade stronger.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Will the Leader of the House consider instituting an annual debate on, and opportunity to amend, the Standing Orders and procedures of the House, so that hon. Members from Scotland can amend the Standing Orders to allow Standing Committees of the House relating to Scotland to reflect the political complexion of Scotland and not that of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Biffen

I fear that we are comimg to the end on a note of high controversy. All I can say is that I have noted the hon. Gentleman's breathtaking suggestion. Will he give me a week to reflect upon it?

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the European Commission is about to decide whether to abolish the traditional and historic British tied house system? Neither the United Kingdom Parliament, the European Parliament nor the Council of Ministers can say anything about that. Is it not time for a debate on that glaring hole in the legislative process whereby Parliament cannot debate, discuss, rule or advise the Government, and the Government can do nothing to stop decisions of the European Commission which are delegated Community legislation?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot promise an immediate debate. That offers a great opportunity for a crusade, upon which I should have thought my hon. and learned Friend would be foremost. He might try his chance with an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)

Will the Leader of the House bring to the attention of his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the commitment of the House about the wives, parents and relatives of those who fell in the Falklands being able to visit the graves of those who fell and sailing through the areas in which we lost ships—which are now sea graves for those who went down in them? Will he ask his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to consider two ways to overcome the problems of transport and hotel accommodation? First, Her Majesty could be asked for the use of the "Britannia" to provide a means of transport and a floating hotel, or a passenger ship or the "QE2"—which knows its way to the Falklands—could be diverted in order to keep our promise to those families.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises a matter which touches a deep public interest. I shall certainly make the representations that he requests.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

May we have a debate fairly soon on the last report and accounts of the British Waterways Board?

Mr. Biffen

I can see no immediate possibility of such a debate in Government time, but there must be several opportunities to bring that topic before the House.

Mr. Bob Cryer

May we have a statement next week on the proposed civil defence regulations which were announced at the Tory Party conference? A consultative document has been sent to local authorities with a very short consultation period, yet no regulations have been published. May we have a statement next week on that gross omission?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look into that matter and be in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that several Conservative Members, uniquely, support the Leader of the Opposition's request for an early debate on national security? What is the point of referring the matter to the Security Commission if there is a growing lack of confidence in the body which will carry out such an inquiry? Would not a different form of inquiry, bearing in mind the Security Commission's failure, be more appropriate, particularly with regard to vetting, where it has been so incompetent?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of my hon. Friend's views but I cannot helpfully add to what I have already said about the subject of the debate.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Does the Leader of the House recall the financial collapse of Laker Airways, leaving debts of between £200 million and £300 million and hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers? May we have a statement or a debate on the appalling decision to allow Sir Freddie Laker to start up his ramp again? That has even been described by ABTA as disgraceful.

Mr. Biffen

As the application was made to an independent statutory body—the Civil Aviation Authority—I see no prospect of a debate on it next week.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

Will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make a statement early next week in the House about Home Office policy towards the deportation of Iranian citizens? There is much evidence that several people who have been deported to Iran have had rough treatment when they arrived there.

Mr. Biffen

Home Office questions appear at the top of the list of those to be answered next week. I should be surprised if the matter could not be encompassed during that time.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the three hon. Members who have been rising from the start.

Mr. James Hamilton (Bothwell)

Will the Leader of the House find time to enlarge upon his statement in the latter stages of his speech last night when he spoke about the three-year agreement between Caterpillar and the trade union shop stewards in that establishment? Will he relate to the House the competence of this company and the efficiency of the shop stewards? Will he also inform the House that at the time the statement was made 1,200 workers were made redundant in that factory as a result of Government policy?

Mr. Biffen

It is clear that my speech did not entirely satisfy the hon. Gentleman. I think that any subsequent statement would have the same defect.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

The Leader of the House kindly wrote to me saying that there would be a debate on the Shackleton report. Will that debate take place before Christmas? When will the Government's response to the suggestions contained in the report be published?

Mr. Biffen

I am afraid that I cannot be any more specific than I was in the letter.

Mr. Michael McGuire (Ince)

Will the Leader of the House bear in mind the need for a debate on regional policy, particularly the disadvantages faced by the English regions when they compete with Scottish and Welsh regions? Is he aware that the urgency of this issue has been highlighted in my constituency by a company in Skelmersdale—a special development area—that has been refused grant aid in England but has received grant aid from the Welsh Development Agency? Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a debate on this most urgent problem?

Mr. Biffen

I have great sympathy for the hon. Gentleman over the constituency difficulties that he has elaborated. At the end of a Queen's Speech debate that covered all these economic issues I can hardly hold out much hope of Government time being available in the near future for the debate that he requests.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

Further to his reply on the question relating to early-day motion No. 49, will the Leader of the House give a firm undertaking that the draft order will go to the Northern Ireland Committee before coming to the Floor of the House? As it is a matter that exclusively concerns Northern Ireland, this is the procedure that should be followed.

Mr. Biffen

I think I am right in saying that this relates to dogs in Northern Ireland. Anyone with a rural background will know at once that this is a very serious matter. I do not wish to give an off-the-cuff reply to the right hon. Gentleman, but I am fairly certain that we shall be able to arrive at a procedure that satisfies him.

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