HC Deb 18 November 1982 vol 32 cc417-23 3.40 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 22 NOVEMBER—Until about seven o'clock, debate on an Opposition motion on the problems and needs of disabled people, and afterwards debate on an Opposition motion on the need for the immediate restoration of the 5 per cent. abatement of the unemployment benefit.

Motion relating to the National Assistance (Charges for Accommodation) Regulations.

TUESDAY 23 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Housing and Building Control Bill.

Motion relating to the Education (Mandatory Awards) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 24 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Energy Bill.

Motion relating to the British Nationality (Fees) Regulations.

Motions on the Social Security (Contributions Re-rating) Order and on the Social Security (Contributions) Amendment (No. 2) Order.

THURSDAY 25 NOVEMBER—Motion relating to the Motor Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) (No. 7) Regulations.

Motion on the Government's proposals on lorries, people and the environment. FRIDAY 26 NOVEMBER—Private Members' Motions.

MONDAY 29 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Telecommunications Bill.

Mr. Foot

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for arranging the debate on the Education (Mandatory Awards) Regulations for which we have been pressing for many weeks. What does he propose to do about the mounting crisis in the steel industry? The news from Europe and elsewhere causes the gravest concern both in the country and in the House. We have had promises that the Government would make a statement on the matter as they have taken over full and direct responsibility for the industry. We must surely have an early statement, especially in view of yesterday's announcement of the Round Oak closure, where 1,500 jobs are threatened. In addition, another 427 jobs at the Ravenscraig works in Motherwell are threatened. Apparently, these closures will take place before the Minister reaches any decision or comes to the House to discuss the future of the industry. Will the right hon. Gentleman look into this matter and consider arranging a statement from the Secretary of State for Industry on Monday, irrespective of the wider debate on the future of the industry that we shall obviously demand?

Over the last few weeks, the right hon. Gentleman has given three undertakings on further debates. The first relates to security, on which the Prime Minister made an announcement last week. There was general agreement in all parts of the House that we should have a debate on that subject without waiting for the report of the Security Commission. When will that take place.?

We also asked for a debate on fisheries, and I should like to know when that will take place. Last week, the right hon. Gentleman agreed that we must have an early comprehensive debate before the Government take any action on the Hunt report.

Mr. Biffen

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's modest crumbs of thanks for the debate on the Education (Mandatory Awards) Regulations.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's anxieties about the steel industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry is at present at the Council of Ministers meeting at Elsinore. He will be returning later this evening, and I imagine that he will wish to report to the House at the earliest opportunity. I shall draw the right hon. Gentleman's comments to his attention. Part of the case that my right hon. Friend has argued at Elsinore has been the extent to which the United Kingdom has seen a much sharper contraction of its steel industry than that of other Community countries.

Last week, the Leader of the Opposition asked that the security situation be debated in the next few weeks".—[Official Report, 11 November 1982; Vol. 31, c. 681.] I am alerted to that, and it is perhaps a matter that can best be pursued through the traditional channels.

I am unable to offer a debate on fisheries next week, but the Government intend that the subject will be debated. As I told the House last week, I accept that we must have a debate on the Hunt report and cable television, and we must do so before the establishment of Government policy.

Mr. Foot

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Dr. Bray) will no doubt be pressing the right hon. Gentleman for a debate on the steel industry, but closures have been either announced or projected in other steel-making constituencies before a statement has been made to the House. That necessitates such a statement at the beginning of next week, even if it will be a few weeks more before the Government make up their mind about the steel industry generally.

Mr. Biffen

I have no wish to manufacture swords when ploughshares will do. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry will be making a statement on his steel discussions at the Council of Ministers. I shall draw his attention to the points that have been raised this afternoon, and I hope that we shall be able to find a way forward as a result.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch and Lymington)

In view of the importance of the Serpell report to the future of British Rail, when do the Government expect to receive it and when will it be published? Will the House have a full chance to debate that report, with all its implications, before the Government reach any decision?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot answer my hon. Friend's questions now, but I shall have the matter investigated and will be in touch with him.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

It is intolerable that the right hon. Gentleman cannot offer an early debate on fisheries. In view of the disquiet throughout the country about the recent agreement, and in view of allegations that there have been further surrenders even since then, it is vital that the House should have an opportunity to discuss the matter.

Mr. Biffen

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has listened to the misrepresentation of the policy, will be the first to seek a debate.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Peter Walker)

indicated assent.

Mr. Biffen

It is merely a question of arranging the debate as soon as it is convenient, having regard to the other pressures on our debating time.

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

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade following his decision to reverse the decision of the registrar of business names to allow libraries to draw information from Companies House, particularly as it seems that the right hon. Gentleman took that decision following pressure from Conservative Back Benchers to protect the private company agency services?

Mr. Biffen

In no sense do I accept the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to what he has said and will ensure that he gets an answer.

Sir Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the law of the sea treaty will be open for signature in Jamaica on 6 December and that we still do not know whether the Government propose to sign. Will he ensure that one of his colleagues makes an announcement some time next week on what the Government's policy is?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is making a prudent assessment of where the national interest lies in this fairly complex problem. I shall draw his attention to the points that my hon. and learned Friend has made.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

Regrettably, the Mental Health (Scotland) Bill is starting its journey through Parliament in another place. When it reaches the House of Commons, will the Leader of the House consider whether it should be examined, as was the English Mental Health (Amendment) Act, in a Special Standing Committee—a procedure that proved to be extremely successful? Voluntary and other bodies in Scotland would like it to be considered in that way. Will he also look into the possibility of the Special Standing Committee meeting in Edinburgh to consider these representations?

Mr. Biffen

I should like to make a reflective judgment on that point rather than an instantaneous one.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that during Question Time, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Science, the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), mentioned the important matter of science policy. My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is concern on this subject on both sides of the House. Not only is it a subject of immense importance but it does not divide neatly into conventional party categories of opinion. It has been the subject of a full-scale debate in the other place, but it has only been debated on the Adjournment in this House. As a number of hon. Members would like to discuss the matter, how soon can that be done?

Mr. Biffen

The succinct and semi-flippant answer is, "Not next week". My hon. Friend raises a serious issue, but, given the pressures on parliamentary time, there is no immediate prospect of such a debate in Government time.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

May we have a clear undertaking that the debate on security will take place before the Christmas recess? Do the Government intend to table a paper, even if it is on an interim basis, containing the conclusions that have emerged from the Prime case, which have been with the authorities for well over six months?

Mr. Biffen

I would rather confine my remarks to the answer that I gave to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Kinross and West Perthshire)

Since the Health Service pay dispute continues and the number of ancillary workers in the Health Service has increased by the same number as the population of Great Britain in the last decade, whereas the number of health workers has not increased at all, and in view of the effect of that on medical services at cottage hospitals, may we have an early debate on the privatisation of such services in the Health Service?

Mr. Biffen

I regret that on the present showing we cannot have such a debate next week, or even shortly after.

Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, North-East)

When is the House likely to have a statement on the Government's intentions in relation to the Bondi report on the Severn barrage, which has for long been promised to the House? Is debate on the report likely?

Mr. Biffen

The issue has massive implications to all in the South-West and South Wales. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I appreciate my right hon. Friend's assurance that there will be a prompt statement by the Secretary of State for Industry on steel, perhaps tomorrow, but will the Leader of the House keep an open mind about the possibility of a full debate on the subject? Is he aware that it is causing the gravest anxiety throughout the industry in the United Kingdom? May I repeat a suggestion that my right hon. Friend allowed me to make a few weeks ago—that before long we should debate the Civil Service?

Mr. Biffin

The answer to my right hon. Friend's first question must be yes. I take note of my right hon. Friend's interest in a debate on the Civil Service. Index-linked pensions, which are a related subject, have caused interest and have been debated recently. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not think me too unforthcoming if I say that I cannot give much hope of a debate in the immediate future.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Is the Leader of the House aware that John Pilger's film "The Truth Game" was shown in the House today? Can he guarantee a statement next week on the IBA's refusal to allow it to be shown when it complies with IBA guidelines on nuclear warfare propaganda? Does the Leader of the House agree that that is an outrageous act of censorship? Does he agree that it must be debated and questioned in the House, particularly since it is likely that the Ministry of Defence is blocking the complementary programme which the IBA requires and is, therefore, effectively preventing the showing of the "The Truth Game"?

Mr. Biffin

The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question is no. I shall draw the Home Secretary's attention to the hon. Gentleman's comments in the second part of his question.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a technical point, is it possible for the proposals in the White Paper on the new immigration rules to be divided into two so that those that are purely concerned with updating the law under the British Nationality Act can be laid before the House at once, whereas the more problematical ones to do with changes in access can await the final outcome of the debate in the country to see what the demand is for the changes? If that is possible, may it not be a useful way of pursuing the matter?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that I know the answer, but I shall inquire of the Home Office to see whether it can help my hon. Friend.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Will the Leader of the House answer the question that I put to him last week?

Mr. Biffen

Yes. After due consideration, I believe that it would be unwise for the House to depart from its traditional practice that Scottish Committees reflect the balance of opinion in the House as a whole.

Mr. Nick Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

May we have an early debate on manufacturing industry in the West Midlands? Is my right hon. Friend aware that all hon. Members will wish to express their sadness at what happened recently at Round Oak? Is he further aware that that sadness will be more than balanced by the delight that many will wish to express at the way in which the sterling exchange rate has fallen? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that will be reflected by those who say that the slight adverse affect upon the retail prices index is of little importance in the light of the Chancellor's determination to hold down money supply?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend puts the matter in a regional context. The West Midlands is the home of the chemical engineering small business sector. We are due to have a debate on small businesses on Friday and I hope that my hon. Friend will have the good fortune to put his arguments then.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising from the beginning, if they are succinct.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell and Wishaw)

When the Leader of the House speaks to the Secretary of State about his statement on steel next week will he draw his attention to the needs of engineering and special steels because the British Steel Corporation seems to be pre-empting decisions by Ministers in announcing the closure yesterday of the Round Oak works and today of barmills at Craigneut in my constituency? Is that not important in the light of further restrictions on the import of engineering steels into America at the behest of the United States President?

Mr. Biffen

I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is acquainted with the hon. Gentleman's anxieties.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the financing of the three hospitals in the Great Ormond Street group before the Secretary of State makes a decision? Does he agree that it is vital that the House debates the matter because the group's problems result exclusively from the Government's financial policies which involve restricting money to the group? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask his right hon. and hon. Friends to stop saying that these wonderful hospitals are the victims of their own success? Surely, in a sensible society success is rewarded and not punished.

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that in no sense do I disparage the significance of the issue if I suggest that it could properly be pursued in private time rather than Government time.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

Does the Leader of the House intend to seek a review of Standing Orders and procedures in the House? If he does, will he bear it in mind that many Back Benchers are frustrated at their inability to take part in debates because they are squeezed out by the lengthy speeches of Privy Councillors and others? Does the Leader of the House agree that the House ignores that at its peril?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman should not be disillusioned so soon.

Mr. Dobson

If he is not disillusioned now, he never will be.

Mr. Biffen

I was not aware of an ovewhelming desire in the House to alter the rules, but I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Leader of the House recognise the great importance of having a debate on the West Midlands as soon as possible in view of the continuing redundancies and closures which give the lie to claims about economic recovery? Is the right hon, Gentleman aware of the despair, misery and devastation brought to the region under his Government? Does he accept that we should debate the matter as soon as possilble?

Mr. Biffen

My job is to answer questions rather than to engage in debate. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) more accurately reflected the balance of concern about such issues. Be that as it may, both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend will have their chance in the debate on Friday.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is a serious crisis in London, where, because prisons are overcrowded, prisoners held on remand in custody are accommodated in police or court cells? The consequence is inadequate facilities for washing, excercise, and sometimes visiting. Will he urge the Home Secretary to make an early statement on this serious matter so that we can come to grips with it?

Mr. Biffen

I agree that it is a serious matter and I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to the hon. Gentleman's points.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

As unemployment on Merseyside has increased by more than 150 per cent. since the Government came to office—there are now more than 160,000 unemployed in the region—and unemployment will not be reduced to an acceptable level even if there is a miraculous upturn in the economy, will the Leader of the House allow a special debate, not a general one, on Merseyside so that we can hear about the special measures that the Government will introduce to invigorate industry in that area?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the great economic difficulties that beset Merseyside, but I cannot offer the prospect of such a regional debate next week or in the near future.