HC Deb 28 April 1983 vol 41 cc997-1005 3.30 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:


Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Wrong again.

Mr. Biffen

I will be careful never to make a worse mistake. The business for next week will be as follows:

TUESDAY 3 and WEDNESDAY 4 MAY—Progress on remaining stages of the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill.

At the end on Wednesday, consideration of Lords Amendments to the Water Bill.

THURSDAY 5 MAY—Remaining stages of the Mobile Homes Bill (Lords) and of the National Heritage Bill.

Motion on the St. Christopher and Nevis Termination of Association Order.

FRIDAY 6 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 9 MAY—Completion of remaining stages of the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill.

Mr. Foot

The Government's proposals for dealing with the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill are not adequate to allow the House and the country to consider the matter properly. Apparently, more than 150 amendments will be introduced by the Government. The House will want to consider them and the country is entitled to consider them. The Government have had to retreat on many of their propositions on this matter. Surely they should be prepared either to withdraw the whole Bill and resubmit it in Committee or at any rate to give us substantially more time than is proposed at the moment.

I have two or three other matters to put to the right hon. Gentleman. First, we are still waiting for a statement on Ravenscraig, the future of the steel industry and the corporate plan. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that there will be a statement in the very near future? We have had a series of statements from Mr. Ian MacGregor on different aspects of the matter but no clear statement from the Government. There are great fears at Ravenscraig and at other plants. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider that.

When may we expect a debate on the third report of the Services Committee? I understand that there have been conversations about the new building in Bridge street. We should like to know when that debate will take place.

Finally, and most important of all, with regard to the matters raised a few moments ago in the exchanges across the Floor of the House, the Opposition have been eagerly pressing for many weeks past, and increasing the pressure, to have a full debate on defence and disarmament. We hope that the Government will be able to tell us soon when that debate will take place. We believe that much the best way to deal with such a pre-eminent matter is to have a full debate in the House. We hope very much that that can happen soon.

In the meantime, in the light of the statements made this morning by President Reagan and the announcement of a fresh approach to policy, a most important aspect of policy and one which concerns us in this country and the whole peace of the area, may we have a statement on whether the Government were consulted before President Reagan made his statement, and whether they have made any representations about it? Have the Government done anything to uphold their commitment and allegiance to the charter of the United Nations and to prevent any moves towards settling disputes by aggression? We thought that the House was committed on this matter. We should like a statement from the Government so that we can cross-examine them on their attitude. Have they made representations about Nicaragua, E1 Salvador and the other countries involved? We believe that extremely important questions about human rights and the protection of world peace are involved. We believe that the Government should make a statement to the House about what consultations have taken place between Her Majesty's Government and the American President.

Mr. Biffen

Considerable debate is offered next week on the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, in the context of the Committee stage which has lasted four months and 41 sittings. While it is true that a large number of Government amendments have been tabled, a substantial number of them are technical. Therefore, I believe that what is provided is reasonable in the circumstances.

On the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I gladly repeat what I have already said, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry will make a statement on the corporate plan for the steel industry as soon as he can.

On the right hon. Gentleman's third point, about the Bridge street building and the recommendation of the Services Committee, I pointed out last week to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) that I hoped that we would soon be able to debate the matter.

I note the right hon. Gentleman's request that we should have a full debate on defence. I can gladly give him that undertaking, particularly in the light of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier this afternoon.

I will draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary the right hon. Gentleman's concern that a statement should be made on the British Government's attitude to President Reagan's statement earlier today, but that would cover points that could also be included in the defence debate. It appeared to me that the right hon. Gentleman, in his comments on President Reagan's policies, displayed some paranoia towards and suspicion of the United States, which is likely to spill over into the sensible governing of the use of the House of Commons time.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman has no grounds for making such slurs. This matter is being widely debated in the United States. Great concern has been expressed in the United States Senate and House of Representatives. For the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that any criticism of the President of the United States' statement on this matter amounts to paranoia is a criticism of a wide section of American opinion. Our concern is that the charter of the United Nations should be sustained in Latin America and that there should be no aggression and no resort to covert aggression. This House and this country have an obligation to uphold the charter of the United Nations. On that aspect of the matter alone, a statement is justified. In any case, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept our representations. We do not think it desirable that this matter should be included in a general debate. We think that the Government should make a statement on their attitude and whether they have been consulted and, if so, what views they expressed.

With regard to the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, we insist that the way the right hon. Gentleman proposes to proceed with the debate is not satisfactory. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) will ask questions in a moment about some of the clauses.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be possible during business questions to keep Members' questions more closely related to next week's business?

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I realise that the Leader of the Opposition is entitled to considerable latitude, but is he not taking great advantage of his position in delivering a mini-Foreign Office speech during business questions?

Mr. Speaker

It is long established that we allow extra latitude to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

As the defence debate, which is so warmly desired by both sides of the House, was being arranged a fortnight ago, why is it necessary for three weeks at least to have passed before the debate can be arranged? Is there some arrangement or conspiracy between the two Front Benches to delay the consideration of this subject by the House?

Mr. Biffen

I should have thought that the warmth displayed by the Leader of the Opposition and myself a few moments ago might have disarmed any ideas about a conspiracy. It is true that we sought to provide a debate that would be at a convenient time, and I hope that that can be quite soon.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us on the Back Benches have often thought of questions to the Leader of the House on a Thursday, except for when the time is dominated by the Leader of the Opposition, as a sort of workers' playtime? Business questions enable us, the workers on the Back Benches, to learn what the business will be for next week, and to play the field. As we now have a Minister with responsibility for children's play, will the Leader of the House tell me when we are to have children's playtime and questions to the Minister who has been given this new responsibility for children's play?

Mr. Biffen

There must be a witty riposte to that, but mercifully I cannot think of it.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Crosby)

Will the Lord President consider planning time for a debate on political education in schools? A questionnaire on political education is being sent to London schools which, while unexceptionable in the sense that most of us want to see our children educated in democracy, is objectionable because the ILEA is dominated by one party. This is an urgent matter and I ask him to find time to enable the House to discuss it next week.

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the right hon. Lady has raised a topic of real interest. I can offer no Government time for such a debate next week, but it is just possible that she might be successful in raising the issue in an Adjournment debate.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Will my right hon. Friend be prepared to make a statement next week on the date of the Whitsun recess? I was planning to take a few days holiday in early June.

Mr. Biffen

Weren't we all.

Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

Have the Government yet received the report of the Top Salaries Review Body, which the right hon. Gentleman will recall was due this week? How soon after receiving the report does he intend to have a debate?

Mr. Biffen

I take it that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the review body that has been considering the pay of Ministers and Members of Parliament. I understand that the report has not yet been received.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

Did my right hon. Friend notice that the Leader of the Opposition asked for a debate on defence and disarmament? Is he aware that Conservative Back Benchers think that the debate should be on defence and disannament as the two issues are closely related? Such a debate will enable the Government to put forward their strong views on nuclear defence and nuclear weapons, which have wide support in the country.

Mr. Biffen

I note with appreciation the general desire for such a debate. I only wish that I were able to arrange it as soon as the House would desire.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that his response to the Leader of the Opposition on the future of the Ravenscraig steelworks was inadequate? Will he give an undertaking, in view of the reports that the Prime Minister has swung her weight behind the BSC scheme to butcher Ravenscraig, that a statement will be brought before the House within the next week and that there will be a debate on the subject before any decision is taken?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

The right hon. Gentleman assured me last week that he hoped to be able to arrange a debate on arms control and disarmament for the coming week. Can he give an assurance that there will be such a debate, and that it will not be combined with the normal annual debate on the defence Estimates?

Mr. Biffen

I very much hope that that should be so.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

As there is great interest in the House in this subject, will my right hon. Friend allow a debate to take place on the timing of the next general election? A growing number of parties seem to be saying that they are ready for a general election, and I certainly am.

Mr. Biffen

I have always understood that constitutionally that was a matter of Executive decision.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

Is the Government's commitment on rates to the abolition of domestic rates, or has it changed into something vague like the reform of the rating system? Is it not about time that we had a statement on the matter, preferably next week?

Mr. Biffen

It is not my responsibility to provide the clarification that the hon. Gentleman seeks, but I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to the question that he has put to me.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I revert to the appointment of a Minister with responsibility for children's play, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Sir K. Lewis), and which is a welcome appointment. If the House is not to have the opportunity regularly to question the Minister responsible, may we have an early statement on what his duties are? Will he bring together, for example, play centres, playgroups and nursery education, or will he be responsible for more general matters? Finally, what will his resources be? May we have an early statement?

Mr. Biffen

A statement was made on the occasion of my hon. Friend's appointment. I shall pass my hon. Friend's questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in the hope that they can be answered in a way that will give him satisfaction.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Did the Leader of the House notice that, although the Prime Minister was sympathetic, she did not give an undertaking to initiate a review of war widows' pensions and the requests of war widows to visit the graves of their husbands? Will the right hon. Gentleman allow us to discuss this urgent and important matter next week?

Mr. Biffen

I thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave a comprehensive answer, and I really cannot go beyond that.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have been joined by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) in having no telephone facilities due to the refusal of the engineers to repair Members' telephones as a protest against the Telecommunications Bill? Does he agree that this is improper pressure on Members of Parliament? Will he consider privatising the repairs service, and will he arrange for a statement to be made next week?

Mr. Biffen

The situation is unsatisfactory and I am looking into it. I shall be in touch with my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 445 on the probation service, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Irving) and signed by 75 other hon. Members?

[That this House is astonished and disturbed by the decision of the Home Secretary to cut the rates of pay of trainee probation officers; finds it impossible to reconcile this decision with the Government's declared support for the Probation Service as an integral part of the Criminal Justice System, in particular at a time of critical prison overcrowding; and is greatly concerned to protect the future of the Probation Service and alarmed that the future must be jeopardised by reducing the pay of its recruits by as much as 25 per cent.]

The motion concerns the disgraceful treatment of trainee probation officers, whose pay has been cut by an enormous amount. Does he realise that this is a responsible service that needs mature people who have been trained, and therefore requires its trainees to be paid reasonable salaries? Is it not a disgrace that market forces should be used to determine the pay of probation officers? Will he arrange for his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to make a statement next week?

Mr. Biffen

I happily join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the work of the probation service. However, I cannot accept his somewhat partisan description of Government policy. I can offer no prospects of a Government statement next week.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Since my right hon. Friend is a doughty champion of the constitutional rights and duties of the House, since his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment is not empowered to vary or change the code of practice recently issued by the Commission for Racial Equality, and since this has the gravest implications both for the bureaucratic burdens on business and race relations in the country, will he confirm that this elected assembly will be permitted to debate this issue before it becomes the law of the land? If not, why not?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot so guarantee. I shall look into the matter. However, I believe that my hon. Friend has already been in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment. I do not think that there is anything that I can say to my hon. Friend which would go in any sense beyond what he has already been told.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

When will the Government publish the usual annual White Paper on defence and disarmament? Should it not come before the debate, as it normally does?

Mr. Biffen

No, I cannot say precisely when the defence White Paper will be published. I would hope and expect to have the debate on disarmament ahead of that publication.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

In view of the almost unanimous discontent with the Heather and Grass Burning Regulations in Committee this morning, will the Leader of the House assure us that there will be a further chance to debate that on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Biffen

I gather that there was a lively debate. I will look at that suggestion and be in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gary Waller (Brighouse and Spenborough)

Now that the city of Bradford metropolitan council has abandoned the charade of being a nuclear-free zone, thus showing that the pendulum is starting to swing back towards a sense of realism, does my right hon. Friend agree that that strengthens the case for an early debate on defence and disarmament, when this new approach can be made more widely known?

Mr. Biffen

Yes, I most certainly do.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

As the Select Committee has now reported and made recommendations about the increase of deposits for general elections, may we have a swift statement on what action the Government propose to take on the matter? In view of the exchanges on rates this morning, may we have a very swift debate on the entire question so that councils such as Leicester, which have been attacked but which are energetic, excellent and Labour-controlled, can be helped to maintain their services while keeping rates down, in spite of the Government's reductions in central help?

Mr. Biffen

I have read the Financial Times today, which points out the beleaguered state of the Labour majority in the Leicester city council and I appreciate the robust defence which the hon. and learned Gentleman has proffered. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to his point about the important suggestions concerning the parliamentary deposit, but I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be the first to admit that that is a matter of considerable constitutional significance which is of interest in all parts of the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I intend to call the six hon. Members who have been standing, then return to the Front Bench.

Mr. Stanley Cohen (Leeds, South-East)

Will the Leader of the House reply to the question by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition about the possible closure, and the Government's attitude towards the closure, of the steelworks at Ravenscraig? What will the effect be on employment, and what will be the economic and social consequences?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises a significant point. I understand that no firm proposals about the Ravenscraig deal are yet with my right hon. Friend. More generally, I have said that there is a commitment to make a statement on the steel industry in the context of the corporate review.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

In view of the constant pressure, innuendos and smears used by Ministers against opponents such as those in the CND, when will we have a statement from the Government stating that such KGB tactics of intimidation will cease?

Mr. Biffen

I am not quite clear why it is thought to be a slur to point out that somebody is an open and acknowledged supporter of the Labour party. Doubtless when we come to the more general debates about nuclear weapons, those will be the sort of issues which can be discussed.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

The Leader of the House will have seen early-day motion 448, which is now supported by 83 hon. Members, concerning the further application for the building of a new Falmouth container terminal. Will he ask the Secretary of State for Transport to make an early and clear statement to the effect that that application will not receive Government support, bearing in mind the strong feelings and concern of all dock workers in all ports which are already in over-capacity?

[That this House opposes the proposal of the promoting company to submit a further application under section 9 of the Harbours Act before the end of April to build a new container terminal in Falmouth; notes that the Falmouth community is opposed to this proposed development, as are communities with existing port facilities, and that the United Kingdom is already over provided with port facilities; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Transport to refuse this application having regard to the strong representations he has received from the Liverpool, dock workers' representatives and those from other port areas.]

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the topicality of that matter on Merseyside and I shall pass the hon. Gentleman's request to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Pending the debate on defence and disarmament, will the Secretary of State for Defence make a statement to the House expressing the view that he supports the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) that members of the Catholic Church—and of any other Church—have the right to speak out on the issue of peace and the preservation of life and against nuclear weapons? Will he at the same time explain that the Government have not attempted, and that no member or friend of the Government has attempted, to use any element of intimidation against the Catholic Church in order to produce Cardinal Hume's statement? Will he also confirm that the Duke of Edinburgh will not be wheeled out as an ally of the Tory party by supporting Tory party policy?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think it is necessary to observe that neither my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence nor any other member of this Administration would presume to instruct the Roman Catholic Church on these matters, and it does not put the debate on the appropriate level to suggest otherwise.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House recall that a few weeks ago his hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Clark) mentioned the £2,000 cheques that had been handed by mistake to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown) instead of the SDP Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown)? Does he recall that he acknowledged that appropriate inquiries would be made into that with regard to the Register of Members' Interests, remembering that all hon. Members are expected —although it is not demanded of them—to register their various interests? The handing about of cheques worth £2,000 is an important matter. As the SDP claims to be formed of people of purity and integrity, one would have expected those cheques to be put before that Committee. Has the right hon. Gentleman received any information from the Select Committee — or from its clerk, in response to inquiries—and will he report to the House so that we may all be assured that such cheques and many others that might be knocking around for the election are entered in the appropriate register?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look again at the problem to see if any constructive action might be taken.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is a great deal of unease in the country about the Government's campaign against CND, not just because of the treatment of Monsignor Bruce Kent, who is a highly respected Roman Catholic priest but because earlier this week we had the fiasco of the Government's attitude to the Citizens Advice Bureaux which, it is said, was triggered off because Mrs. Joan Ruddock, the chairman, is a part-time employee of the CAB? Do not the Government need to make a statement to reassure the public that they are not indulging in tactics which, as I say, are causing deep concern?

Mr. Biffen

It is a well-known propaganda ploy to make a crude ludicrous assertion and then hope to manoeuvre opponents into denying it. The supposition that anyone in this Government has been trying to exert influence on the Roman Catholic Church and on Monsignor Bruce Kent is total nonsense and debilitates the level of argument.

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

The Leader of the House will be aware that Government amendments set down for Report stage of the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill would change the controversial clauses 9 and 10 out of all recognition. Were those amendments carried, those clauses would be quite different from those which we debated in Committee. Will he consider what I regard as a proper procedure—that of moving a motion which would remit those two clauses to a further Committee stage—so that they may receive proper consideration? I would do my best to assure the right hon. Gentleman that if he followed that practice we would make certain that the Government did not lose any time by making such proper consideration possible for the House.

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that perhaps this is not the most comfortable position in which to be engaging in such detailed discussion, but yes, I shall look at that suggestion.