HC Deb 21 October 1982 vol 29 cc503-11 3.31 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 25 OCTOBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Employment Bill.

Motions on the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order and on the Planning (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order.

TUESDAY 26 OCTOBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Transport Bill.

Motion relating to the British Gas Corporation (Disposal of Offshore Oilfield Interests) Direction 1982.

WEDNESDAY 27 OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the Industrial Development Bill (Lords) which is a consolidation measure.

Motions relating to the Education (Assisted Places) (Scotland) Regulations, to the Education (School and Placing Information) (Scotland) Regulations and to the Meat (Sterilization and Staining) Regulations.

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

THURSDAY 28 OCTOBER—The House will meet at 2.30 pm for Prorogation.

The new Session will be opened on Wednesday 3 November.

Mr. Foot

I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman arranged the business before we had heard the Prime Minister's replies about the steel industry. Will he have further conversations, through the usual channels, to see whether we may have a debate on the steel industry next week? The Prime Minister does not seem to appreciate that the agreement that has been made between the EEC and the Americans—if it is concluded—involves a further cut in British steel exports to the United States of America and an intensification of the crisis in the British steel industry. It possibly threatens further jobs in that industry.

Tomorrow's strike is the result of the sense of desperation felt in the industry that is produced by the Government's policy and failure to do less than any other country in Europe to protect the steel industry. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to have discussions through the usual channels to seek a debate on that subject next week before the position deteriorates further.

I ask also for a statement next week on Britoil. There are conflicting stories in the newspapers and elsewhere about how the operation is to be mounted. The Amersham International precedent still leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will arrange for a statement on that subject to be made next week.

I do not know whether the Prime Minister proposes to make a statement to the House about her visit to the Far East.

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Foot

The Prime Minister shakes her head. After such visits, the Prime Minister normally makes a report to the house. There were many matters that arose during that tour that should have been reported to the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that we shall have a full six days for discussion on the Queen's Speech? A host of industrial matters are crowding for discussion. The steel industry is only one of them. Other industries are threatened by Government policy and the general position. I trust that the right hon. Gentleman will allow the opportunity for a full debate on the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Biffen

I shall take in reverse order the points that the right hon. Gentleman makes. I acknowledge that there is great interest in having a full debate upon the Queen's Speech as it gives an opportunity to discuss a range of domestic economic issues, including the steel industry. I am happy to confirm that there will be a six-day debate as he requests.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given a written answer which sets out the points covered by her Far Eastern tour. I am certain that that answer can be supplemented during the debate on the Queen's Speech.

I take account at once of the right hon. Gentleman's anxieties about Britoil. Those anxieties are not confined to the Opposition. I shall do my best to ensure that a statement on that matter is made next week.

I recognise the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety to have a usual-channels discussion about the talks that have been conducted over the past 24 hours by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry. I know that the House will want to be apprised of what is decided. I shall certainly see what can be done.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Will the right hon. Gentleman be putting down a motion to give more than one and a half hours for the consideration of the Homosexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order in view of its great importance to that Province and the unique nature of the legislation? If he does not put down such a motion, does he understand that it will be taken as yet another instance of the cold and unremitting hostility of the Government to that Province and its people?

Mr. Biffen

The hostility is in the eye of the beholder. It is proposed that the motion shall be taken on Monday evening following the normal rules of procedure for a 90-minute debate. It is a matter which has been widely discussed by the Northern Ireland Office—

Mr. Powell


Mr. Biffen

—by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and his Ministers with those in the Province. I am certain that there will be a constructive debate if there is a constructive attitude of mind.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

Following the publication of the Treasury's comment on the report from the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee on efficiency and effectiveness in the Civil Service and certain other much more controversial comments, will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the Civil Service early in the new Session?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot make any such arrangement for next week, but I shall bear in mind my right hon. Friend's point.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Because of the evident anxiety felt by police officers about the sudden announcement of a 4 per cent. pension contribution increase, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the prayer on that matter tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also make arrangements for the bound copies of Hansard to be supplied more regularly to the Prime Minister so that she can see that my party consistently opposed the closed shop provisions in Labour Government legislation and attempted to persuade the Conservative Party to do so?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly look into the first point raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot give such an undertaking for next week. On the second point, I am certain that the hon. Gentleman, as a political advocate, does not have to rely on bound copies of Hansard to secure his point of view.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

In view of the controversy in Wales surrounding the possibility of health expenditure cuts, especially following yesterday's announcement by South Glamorgan area health authority, and in view of early-day motion No. 703 standing in the names of myself and of all four Opposition parties in Wales—

[That this House condemns the proposals outlined in the Welsh Office paper entitled 'Health Service Resources in Wales, 1983–84', dated 23rd August 1982, which implies cuts in health authority expenditure in Wales of £56 million; notes that the Welsh Health Authorities Chairmen Meeting, held on 24th September at Brecon, has reacted strongly against these proposed cuts, and has indicated that they would imply the closure of hospitals at such speed as would make the normal consultation procedure impractical, would dramatically increase waiting lists for in-hospital treatment, and would require the shedding of staff to an extent that would cause the deterioration of the health service in Wales; furthermore, this House expresses grave doubts as to whether the area health authorities in Wales will be able to meet their statutory duties if such cuts are imposed upon them or to limit the effects of the cuts to non-priority areas; and concludes that the cuts in area health spending outlined in this document are unacceptable to the people of Wales and instructs the Secretary of State for Wales to issue a clear and unequivocal withdrawal of these proposals.]—will the Leader of the House find time for a statement to be made next week by the Secretary of State for Wales on the status of the document "Health Service Resources in Wales, 1983–84" that the Welsh Office produced on 23 August?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw that point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)

does my right hon. Friend recall early-day motion No. 531, signed by 150 hon. Members?

[That this House welcomes the report of the Overseas Student Trust as a basis for an enduring policy for overseas students' fees; recognises its recommendations as a responsible balance between British interests and obligations, and the needs of overseas students; urges Her Majesty's Government to accept in particular the recommendation that students from British dependent territories should pay the home level of fees thus removing the anomaly by which a student from, for example, Hong Kong or the Falkland Islands, can be asked to pay up to 12 times as much for a course as a student from the European Economic Community; and supports the proposal that concessionary levels of fees should be considered for Cyprus.]

When will there be an opportunity to discuss this matter now that four months have elapsed since the report was made?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my hon. Friend, with all his skill and ingenuity, will be able to raise this subject in the debates on the Queen's Speech which will clearly include a range of topics such as this.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Since the Prime Minister's visit to Hong Kong caused dismay in the colony and damaged our relations with China, is it not incumbent on her to come to the House to make a statement and to answer questions on that subject?

Mr. Biffen

As I do not accept the premise, I do not accept the conclusion.

Mr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to whether there should be a statement or possibly a full debate on the expenditure of over £81 million of public money on the De Lorean car company, especially as its collapse has had such an impact on suppliers in the West Midlands and two companies in my constituency?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the news that the Public Accounts Committee is to examine this matter. I shall, of course, draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the point that my hon. Friend makes.

Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)

Will the Leader of the House say when the Government's response to the recommendations contained in the Shackleton report will be published? Will the House have the opportunity to discuss the report and the Government's response?

Mr. Biffen

No. I shall, however, consider the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I shall be in communication with him.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Does my right hon. Friend intend to allow the press to have a copy of the Queen's Speech in advance of its delivery with a "Stop" notice on it? If so, will he let me have a copy if I promise not to leak it?

Mr. Biffen

In the real world, I have a much more passive role in all these matters than my hon. Friend supposes.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give serious consideration to the request by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for a debate on steel next week? It is not only a question of the EEC agreement concealing certain misunderstandings and even incipient threats to British steel from across the Atlantic. The chairman of British Steel is also expected to announce, long before the Queen's Speech and the debate on it, the conclusions of his current review. The chairman is not merely wrestling with demand, as the Prime Minister seems to think, or even the future configuration of British Steel; he AS considering whether there will be a steel industry at all.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman speaks on this topic with all the authority of an hon. Member representing a Sheffield constituency. He will understand, I am sure, that I cannot go beyond the answer that I gave the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

Before the onset of winter, will the right hon. Gentleman consider arranging a debate on fuel prices and fixed standing charges for electricity and gas as they affect the aged poor? These people are terrified about the prospect of another winter like last winter.

Mr. Biffen

I fear that I cannot offer the prospect of a debate next week.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to allow questions to run until 4 pm in the hope that all those wishing to put questions will be accommodated.

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

On the issue of trade policy, on a basis wider than that relating to steel, will my right hon. Friend arrange to have repeated in the House the statement made yesterday in the other place by the Secretary of State for Trade who seemed to imply that the Government were moving towards a change of policy in respect of the protection of this country's vital interests? Is it not desirable that his statement should at least be repeated if there cannot be a debate before the House prorogues?

Mr. Biffen

I am certain that my right hon. and noble Friend made a very important speech earlier this week. I cannot believe that a Queen's Speech debate can take place without a great deal of it being devoted to trade topics.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North West)

Is the Leader of the House aware of early-day motion No. 707 relating to the privatisation of the National Maritime Institute?

[That the transfer of the undertaking and assets of the National Maritime Institute to NMI Ltd., as set out in the Treasury Minute dated 30 September 1982, be not proceeded with until long-term arrangements beyond 1987 have been agreed with the Shadow Board of NMI Ltd. and with the Institution of Professional Civil Servants for the capital and revenue support for fundamental research into the areas of maritime technology, ocean engineering and civil engineering aerodynamics, that are of strategic national importance, on terms and conditions no less favourable than those enjoyed by competing foreign establishments.]

I appreciate that there is no obligation on the Government to have a debate on the issue on the Floor of the House. However, will the right hon. Gentleman draw to the attention of his right hon. Friends the immense importance of strategic research by that institute in key areas related to the long-term future of this country and see that arrangements are made for safeguarding it?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious, albeit contentious, point. I shall ensure that the appropriate Secretary of State is made aware of his views.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate into the horrifying death of Lucy Gates who lost her life while in the care of the local authority? Is he aware that the urgency of a debate is magnified by the refusal of the council of the London borough of Bexley to publish the results of the inquiry that has been held into the little girl's death?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot give any guarantee of Government time for a debate on that subject next week. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to acknowledge that it is exactly the type of topic that can be pursued with success and vigour by a Back-Bench Member.

Mr. Richard Needham (Chippenham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of early-day motion No. 705:

[That this House congratulates the Electrical and Engineering Staff Association, a section of the E.E.P.T.U., on its decision not to support the 24-hour strike in the steel industry on 22nd October on the grounds, first, that the strike can only damage the industry further and, secondly, that the TUC Steel Committee did not fully consult with members before calling for action; asks the Government to consider urgently the steps requested by the Electrical and Engineering Staff Association to help British Steel, notably, effective licensing and monitoring of foreign imports, tighter EEC Regulations and investigation of unfair subsidies; and urges the Trades Union Congress not to call for any further damaging national strikes without fair and secret ballots of all trade union members affected.]

It shows that many of my hon. Friends would also welcome support for a debate on the steel industry to show their backing for the brave stand of the Electrical and Engineering Staff Association in deploring the strike later this week that can only do even more damage to the steel industry. Does my right hon. Friend accept that many hon. Members would welcome a debate in order to point out that American steel workers cost an average of $amp;23 an hour and are earning four to five times more than a British steel worker, without, in many cases, any corresponding increase in productivity?

Mr. Biffen

I note my hon. Friend's desire for a debate on the steel industry. I admire the manner in which he has given a trailer of his speech, should he be called to make one.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Leader of the House recognise the urgency of obtaining a statement from the Home Secretary on Operation Countryman? Is he aware of the considerable public disquiet over remarks made by the former chief constable of Dorset, the first head of Operation Countryman, that there had been some obstruction over inquiries into allegations of corruption in the police force? Will the right hon. Gentleman try to ensure that a statement is made by the Home Secretary before the new Session begins?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend is made aware of the point made by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

In view of what the Prime Minister has said, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the White Paper on the immigration rules to be issued next week will be more along the lines of a discussion document than a statement of Government policy?

Mr. Biffen

The description "White Paper" means that it is bound to be a statement of Government policy. That it will give rise to plenty of discussion I have no doubt.

Mr. John Home Robertson (Berwick and East Lothian)

Would it not be for the convenience of the House if the specifically and exclusively Scottish business set down for debate next Wednesday was referred to the Scottish Grand Committee sitting in Edinburgh? Would it not also be for the convenience of the people of Scotland, who are suffering education cuts, to know that the Government intend to spend even more in support of private education?

Mr. Biffen

The decision to have Scottish Grand Committee sittings in Edinburgh is one of such delicacy that it is better undertaken as a result of widespread consultation and agreement in this House rather than as a result of unilateral action on my part.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Would it be possible to have a debate next week or subsequently on the intimidation of trade union members? People who stop three-year-old babies having operations may find that their branch gets a letter from the union, but those who choose to work when they have been told to go on strike find that the intimidation is much greater, more personal and comes much quicker.

Mr. Biffen

I note my hon. Friend's point. This is not the first time that he has made it. I have to tell him that there is no likelihood of Government time being made available next week for a debate of that character.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

May I add my voice to the request already made by two of my hon. Friends for a statement from the Prime Minister on her glorified Far East tour? Is it not a fact that when she went to Japan she found them in a financial crisis and left with a flea in her ear and that she left Hong Kong in a constitutional mess? After she turned her back on the Chinese, they started talking to the Russians for the first time in 30 years.

Mr. Biffen

I cannot helpfully add to what I said to the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds).

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Social Services to make a statement next week about the chaos and demoralisation in the NHS following the most recent reorganisation? This has nothing to do with the pay dispute. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that thousands of senior nursing officers are still not aware, six months after the appointed day, whether they have a job. The demoralising effect runs through every hospital in the country. May we have a statement?

Mr. Biffen

I will draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that yesterday's debate went wider than merely the industrial dispute. Nevertheless, I will ensure that his remarks are passed on.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

Will the Leader of the House keep in mind, at least for the new Session, the fact that we have not had a debate on the United Nations special session on disarmament and that the Madrid conference on European security is about to reopen? It would be good for his party to begin to show a little interest in disarmament, because it is a very big vote catcher.

Mr. Biffen

I had not forgotten the topic and I knew that the hon. Gentleman would not let me forget it. May I suggest, in a friendly spirit, that he makes his speech in the debate on the Queen's Speech. There is more likelihood of his being able to put his views on the record then than there is that we shall have a specific debate on the matter.

Mr. Timothy Smith (Beaconsfield)

Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that there will be an opportunity to debate the recommendations of the Hunt committee on cable broadcasting before the Government reach a decision on the proposals?

Mr. Biffen

I am certain that it would he most appropriate for the House to consider that matter in the early stages of the general deliberations on the topic.

Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, whatever may be his view of the effects in the Far East of the Prime Minister's pronouncements on the future of Hong Kong, a written reply on the matter is inadequate? Will he tell us the terms on which we are to expect the Prime Minister to make statements after such visits? In vew of her refusal to make a statement, what other opportunities will we have to discuss the important matters relating to the future of Hong Kong?

Mr. Biffen

I believe that the hon. Gentleman will find that there are precedents for a Prime Minister to report in a written answer on a visit undertaken during a recess. However, there will certainly be every opportunity in the debate on foreign policy, within the ambit of the Queen's Speech debate, for all these matters to be considered further.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

Has the Leader of the House forgotten that the first Order of the Day for next Wednesday is the Second Reading of my Scottish Parliament Bill, which is in the hands of the printers and ought to be available in the next few days? As it is a fairly simple, straightforward Bill, will the Government grant time for the Second Reading, Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading on the Floor of the Howe next week so that we can have a Scottish Parliament passing Scottish legislation in the next Session, instead of the rubbish that has been passed by this Tory Government over the past three and a half years?

Mr. Biffen

When the hon. Gentleman commends something as being simple and straightforward, it is consensus politics at its most dangerous.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement on the De Lorean car company, in view of the recent serious developments? He knows that some of us have been following that matter for many years.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman, as a former Secretary of State for Trade, will know of the anxiety felt throughout the textile industry about the multi-fibre arrangement. As he knows, 18 agreements have been made, 19 are outstanding and there are serious questions whether the mandate will be retained for the remainder and whether contingency plans are being made to withdraw from the MFA if necessary. The textile industry AS beleaguered and is anxious for a statement and a debate in the House.

Mr. Biffen

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I will pass his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The MFA negotiations are a matter of great concern and could suitably occupy a place in the debate on the Queen's Speech. I will, of course, draw to the attention of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade the points made by the hon. Gentleman.