HC Deb 25 November 1982 vol 32 cc1011-8 3.35 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)

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 29 NovEMBER—Second Reading of the Telecommunications Bill.

TUESDAY 30 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill.

Second Reading of the National Insurance Surcharge Bill.

WEDNESDAY I DECEMBER—There will be a debate on steel, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

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

THURSDAY 2 DECEMBER—A debate On the expansion of cable systems.

The report of the inquiry into cable expansion and broadcasting policy, Cmnd. 8679, will be relevant.

FRIDAY 3 DECEMBER—Privates Members' motions.

MONDAY 6 DECEMBER—Opposition day (2nd Allotted Day). Subject for debate to be announced.

Mr. Foot

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the two responses that he has made to my requests over recent weeks—first, for the provision of a day to discuss cable systems. I am glad about that. The Government are wise to let us have a full debate on that before they make any decisions about how they will proceed. Secondly, I am glad to have the offer of Government time for a debate on steel. However, can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that the Minister will make a full policy statement at that time? We would obviously wish to have that. Further, may we have the debate on fisheries that we have asked for on several occasions?

There are two other matters that I wish to put to the right hon. Gentleman. There has been a written answer about the proposed privatisation of Companies House. It seemed a strange way to make a statement. That the Government should consider privatising Companies House seems to me to be an extraordinary decision. For them to half-announce it in a written answer is equally extraordinary. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will say something on that.

Will the Prime Minister make a statement about the rearrangements of her staff at No. 10 Downing Street? I know that the right hon. Gentleman may not have heard the latest announcement on what appointments are being made there, but it seems to us that there should be a statement from the right hon. Lady to the House about that. I presume that she will be making a statement when she has completed those changes.

Mr. Biffen

As to the right hon. Gentleman's last point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have heard what the Leader of the Opposition has said. She has said that she will inform the House in the usual manner, which in this instance will be in answer to a parliamentary question.

The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the matter of Companies House will be before the House on the Adjournment on Thursday 2 December. However, I take note of what he has said and will inform the relevant Minister.

I stand by the commitment that has been given on a debate on fisheries, although the question of timing is one that we shall further consider.

As the right hon. Gentleman has said, the debate on steel will take place very much as a result of the many requests for it that have been made in the House, especially from the Opposition Front Bench. The timing of the debate will not fall in such a way that will enable my right hon. friend to make a definitive policy statement, because discussions are continuing. In particular, the Government are still considering options with the chairman of the British Steel Corporation. No decisions have been taken. When they have been taken, there will be a Government statement and an opportunity for a debate. Meanwhile, the House will have an opportunity next Wednesday to express its views on this important subject before decisions are taken.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks about the cable debate.

Mr. Foot

May I raise one or two additional matters in the light of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks? I appreciate that the steel debate will take place in Government time. If the right hon. Gentleman gives a guarantee that we shall have a further debate on the issue at a later stage, I think that we shall be able to accept his response on that basis.

It is absurd to imagine that an Adjournment debate can deal with the privatisation of Companies House. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will examine that proposal afresh.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has been able to meet our proposals by announcing debates on two issues. I hope that he will be able to meet the request that we have made on a number of occasions for a debate on security at a fairly early stage. I think that he suggested last week that he fully agreed that that should happen.

Mr. Biffen

The request for a security debate should be pursued through the usual channels. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will find helpful the comments that I have made about that. I note what he has said about Companies House. I have been reasonably forthcoming on the issue, but I shall discuss it with the relevant Minister.

Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that before Britain signs the draft convention on the law of the sea there will be a debate in the Chamber? Is he aware that considerable anxiety is being expressed at the suggestion that recommendations will be put before the Cabinet and that the matter will be decided without a debate?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs the anxieties of my hon. Friend. I know that it will be his concern that the House should be informed. I cannot at this stage guarantee a debate.

Mr. Lewis Carter-Jones (Eccles)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give a guarantee that he will find a brief moment to allow us to debate the rehabilitation of Service men who have been severely handicapped both in Northern Ireland and on the Falkland Islands?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. It is one that can be pursued by hon. Members. I cannot guarantee any time for a debate, and certainly not next week.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

As there is some sign that the Government are reaching their conclusions on the future of the fast reactor programme, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether a statement will be made in the House, following which questions can be put to the responsible Minister, if a conclusion is reached?

Mr. Biffen

That will be a most important decision that will merit a statement in the House.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that he is in danger of creating a Guinness Book record for the number of Second Readings that are being introduced at this time of the year? Will he tell me the reason for the rush?

Mr. Biffen

It is just possible that later in the year my hon. Friend will look back with great gratitude to the way in which Government business is being handled.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement to be made next week by the Solicitor-General for Scotland on police intervention in industrial disputes? Is he aware that there will be a real row in Fife early next week as a direct result of this stupid policy?

Mr. Biffen

I understand that the matter is shortly to come before the Sheriff court and is now sub judice.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

May I reinforce what my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) has said about the importance of having a debate on the law of the sea before the Government take a final decision? It would be intolerable for a great maritime nation like the United Kingdom to put its signature to such an important document without having had the opportunity of hearing the views of both sides of the House.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate that. I do not want to diminish the profound significance of the subject. However. it k the sort of issue which is normally discussed through the usual channels. I hope that my right hon. Friend will allow me to rest on that score.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider having a statement made on the arrangements which have been made and which are being discussed between the Bank of England and the clearing banks with Argentina for rescheduling debts and for establishing a sort of cooling-off period for the repayment of certain instalments? This is especially important because the Bank of England appears to be prepared to use the lifeboat scheme at a time when the French are selling Exocet missiles. It is possible that the arrangements that are being made to bail out the Argentine economy by the Bank of England and the clearers will result in the Argentine using the money to buy missiles from the French.

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. R. A. McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

May we be assured that there will be a statement next week by the Minister for Trade on the GATT discussions at Geneva or, better still, a debate before Christmas on free trade versus import controls, which is an issue that appears to divide the House?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade will be anxious to make a statement to the House the moment that it becomes appropriate to do so in the light of the progress of the GATT talks. I am sure that my hon. Friend will have noticed that there is the prospect of a debate on trade protection when private Member's motions are taken on Friday next.

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

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that last week I asked him to arrange for a statement to be made on Companies House? Is he aware that the statement was not made and that yesterday, in a written reply, the Government announced their intention possibly to proceed with the privatisation of Companies House? Will he arrange for a Minister to make a statement next week prior to my Adjournment debate on Thursday of next week?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I think that he will appreciate that there were exchanges between the Leader of the Opposition and myself on the very topic that he has raised. I cannot go beyond that.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the House of Commons is a debating chamber and not only a legislative chamber? I do not wish to take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis), but will my right hon. Friend be more forthcoming in responding to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. McCrindle) about a general debate on trade? It is an issue of extreme importance to industry and employment. To say that it can be discussed when the House considers a private Member's motion on a Friday or Monday is not good enough. Will he give an undertaking that a general debate on trade, which affects the life of every man, woman and child in Britain, will take place in Government time in a mid-week debate?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot give an undertaking that there will be a debate in Government time on trade next week. However, I am fully aware of the importance of the topic. My hon. Friend is long enough in the tooth to know perfectly well that a good debating speech can be made as effectively in private Members' time as in Government time.

Mr. Loan Evans (Aberdare)

It has been announced that the Prime Minister is to have senior advisers on foreign affairs and defence as well as an adviser on economic matters. There are implications in the enlarging of the Prime Minister's office. Are we to have a statement about these developments?

Mr. Biffen

No. I think that they are healthy developments, and I am sure that the House and the nation will come to appreciate them.

Mr. John Watson (Skipton)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the recent report of the Select Committee on Social Services on the age of retirement? Can parliamentary time be made available for a full debate on the topic before too long?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the House and the public would like some time to digest the very important recommendations that are made in the report, which touch on the conduct of economic policy. It is important for Select Committee reports to be interwoven into our debates as a matter of course.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

Further to the question of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about the privatisation of Companies House, Cardiff, will the Leader of the House confirm that such legislation will await the result of the next general election? If he will say that, it will greatly assist my candidature.

Mr. Biffen

I realise that the right hon. Gentleman's candidature is in need of assistance. I will generously consider anything that I might do to that end.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

To help the Leader of the Opposition, will my right hon. Friend consider publishing the figures regarding the staff of the Prime Minister's office, the Central Policy Review Staff and the Cabinet Office because I believe he will find that they have fallen considerably since the Government came to office?

Mr. Biffen

There is clearly a great spirit of charity and help in the Chamber at this moment. I would not wish to disturb it and so I will consider the matter.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Since in the lifetime of this Parliament the only debate on the plight of the disabled in Britain has taken place in Opposition time, when may we have a full day's debate in Government time to discuss the plight of these unfortunate people?

Mr. Biffen

As the hon. Gentleman said, the House has had a valuable debate in Opposition time. I cannot offer time for such a debate either next week or immediately thereafter.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to reflect upon and perhaps reconsider the rather unhelpful answer he gave me last week when I called attention to the inability of the European Parliament, of this Parliament and even of the Government to veto edicts by the Commission which were delegated European legislation and the effect that that would have on established procedures and traditions in this country? Is not this matter rather more important than one insignificant Back Bencher's campaign and should it not attract the attention of the whole House of Commons?

Mr. Biffen

I would never dream of designating my hon. and learned Friend as an insignificant Back Bencher. If I heard his words correctly, what he is proposing would amount to a fundamental amendment to the European Communities Act 1971

Mr. Lawrence

indicated assent.

Mr. Biffen

I notice that my hon. and learned Friend agrees with me. It is not a matter that I can resolve by question and answer on a Thursday afternoon.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

As the House has consistently shown its repugnance of judicial murder, will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make strong and powerful representations to the South African Government to commute the death sentences recently passed on three individuals?

Mr. Biffen

I will, of course, refer the hon. Gentleman's request to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I know from the voices echoed in the Chamber that he carries many hon. Members with him.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is rumoured that heads of nationalised industries are soon to receive a 15 or 20 per cent. pay increase in contrast to the 3 to 5 per cent. increases that we are rightly inviting other people to accept? May we have a statement soon so that the important matter of the advisability of having one law for one group of people and one law for another can be debated in the House?

Mr. Biffen

If we had a debate every time we heard a rumour, we would be absolutely gorged with words. I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to my hon. Friend's anxieties.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been standing. If hon. Members are brief, I shall be able to call them all.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington)

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement to be made on the Government's biotechnology programme? It is an extremely important subject and at stake is a £40 billion world-wide market. The House should have an opportunity to discuss the Government's totally inadequate response to this glorious opportunity.

Mr. Biffen

I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's allegations about the Government's inadequacy, but I realise that he has raised a matter about which concern is felt throughout the Chamber. I will certainly draw the attention of the relevant Ministers to his point.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, East)

May we expect a debate before Christmas on the economic future of the Falkland Islands? If not, when may we expect such a debate? will the right hon. Gentleman give a categoric assurance on behalf of the Government that no economic commitments will be entered into by Her Majesty's Government on the Falklands' economic future until such a debate has taken place?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise that there is great interest in having such a debate, but as to the timing of it I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific date.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

In view of the increasing anxiety in the British aerospace industry, will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate so that some of the issues can be clarified?

Mr. Biffen

It will not be possible in Government time. At the moment, we are fairly heavily committed with Government business, but I do not deny the importance of the topic. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will find ways of making his voice heard on it.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

I wish to hark back to the crucial question asked by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about the advisers in Downing Street. Is the Leader of the House aware that at 9.55 pm last night I received from the Prime Minister an answer to a written question announcing that Sir Anthony Parsons had been appointed as from 1 April 1983? It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Evans) that this is a healthy development, but does he realise that this will set up in Britain a third Foreign Office? First, there is the official Foreign Office, secondly we have Robin O'Neill—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make his argument now. He is asking a business question about next week. He cannot argue the case now.

Mr. Dalyell

My business question is that the second Foreign Office of Robin O'Neill and Brigadier Gurdon—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question about business next week, or I shall have to move on.

Mr. Dalyell

Will there be a statement on the implications of having not only advisers but staff at sub-ambassadorial level set up at Downing Street? That is something new for the British constitution.

Mr. Biffen

I cannot help the hon. Gentleman in the sense that I can go no further than the answer I gave to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

In view of the exchanges earlier this afternoon, may we have an early debate on nuclear disarmament, particularly in view of the resolution passed recently by the United Nations on a nuclear freeze? We could then have an opportunity to deploy the arguments which demonstrate clearly that the Americans have a two to one advantage over the Soviet Union in strategic warheads and theatre and tactical nuclear weapons, and we would not have to rely on outbursts of fake indignation and fake statistics from the Prime Minister.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is correct in saying that the issue of nuclear policy will be of lively concern in the Chamber and to the nation at large as we approach a general election. In that sense, I hope he does not believe that I alone can supply time to debate these matters.

Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, West)

Has the Leader of the House seen press reports this morning which refer to a veto on seal skin imports into Britain which would appear to show that the Government are more interested in Canadian public opinion than in British public opinion? May we expect a statement next week from the Minister for Trade about a ban on the import of skins from seals which have been brutally murdered in Canada by hunters?

Mr. Biffen

I will certainly represent that interest to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) about the proceedings in Kirkcaldy sheriff court on Tuesday of next week, is the Leader of the House aware that he is technically correct in that the matter is sub judice until Tuesday, but could he give an assurance that the Solicitor-General for Scotland will make a statement about the circumstances in which the 12 laboratory technicians working at the Victoria hospital in Kirkcaldy were arrested? Is he aware that this was purely an industrial dispute and that the circumstances in which the 12 laboratory technicians were arrested were very mysterious? Going beyond the court hearing on Tuesday, which I accept is sub judice, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Solicitor-General for Scotland will make a statement to the House?

Mr. Biffen

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has confirmed that the matter is sub judice. I am sure that he will appreciate that I as an Englishman and a layman would be diffident about going beyond that. I will refer the hon. Gentleman's points to the Solicitor-General for Scotland.

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