HC Deb 08 December 1983 vol 50 cc465-72

Multi-annual transport infrastructure programme Document No. 8922/83.

Relevant report of the European Legislation Committee See HC 78-v (1983–84) para. 4.]

Mr. Kinnock

In the light of recent exchanges, may I thank the Leader of the House for at last telling us when Christmas will be? I thank him for the motion to increase the numbers on certain Select Committees. If the motion is opposed tonight, will he allow the House to debate it next week? In addition, will he give an assurance that any statement on regional policy will be made early next week? The House will want to know that there will not be a series of important statements made in the days immediately before the Christmas recess. Unfortunately, such things have occurred in the past.

Mr. Biffen

I realise that there is anxiety in all parts of the House that a statement on regional policy should be made as soon as possible. I shall bear in mind the desirability of its being made sooner rather than later. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be the first to accept that several statements have to be made before the Christmas recess, and we have to try as best we can to contain them within the timetable.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware from the motion on the Order Paper today that we have tried to resolve some of the problems that have prevented the Select Committees from being established. If objection is taken to the motion tonight, I shall provide time for a debate on the motion at the end of business on Wednesday 14 December as well as for any matters that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Sir P. Holland) may request. I note that hon. Members on both sides of the House are anxious to proceed as quickly as possible.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Is it not true that the winter Supplementary Estimates do not have to be taken by next week and could be delayed? As one of them includes a Supplementary Estimate of about £430 million for the EC, should not the matter be deferred until the Select Committees can take evidence and the Estimates and report to the House?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly consider that point and see whether I can accommodate my right hon. Friend.

Mr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Is it right that we should start the Christmas recess without debating the issue of the Supply days? Is the Leader of the House aware—and is the country aware—that the Labour party has now informed the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party that they will have only one Supply day out of 19? Can this situation possibly be allowed to continue? Will the Leader of the House undertake to have the issue debated on a free vote before Christmas?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman drew this matter to my attention on an earlier occasion. I cannot add to what I said then—that I could not undertake that time would be made available before Christmas.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

The Leader of the House may recall that, when I was Leader of the House, we experimented with giving Mr. Speaker discretion to limit to 10 minutes speeches made in the later stages of Second Reading debates. As it was well received, will he now give the House an opportunity to decide whether that should be done on a permanent basis, and whether the practice should be extended to other debates?

Mr. Biffen

I know about my right hon. Friend's experiment, but I think he will agree with me that the Procedure Committee which is in prospect would be the appropriate vehicle to use.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

The Leader of the House is responsible not just for the Government Front Bench but for Back Benchers of both parties. I ask him to look at the private Members' Bills which are due for consideration tomorrow and next Friday with a view to reestablishing the previous practice when one knew quite clearly from where an objection came. At one time the Government Whips would indicate whether or not they objected. At the moment one does not know whether it is the Government who are delaying a Bill or one's colleagues.

Mr. Biffen

My recollection of history does not coincide with that of the hon. Gentleman, but that may make matters worse.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

Many private Members' Bills are of greater interest to many members of the public than some measures introduced by the Government. Would my right hon. Friend therefore consider whether private Members' Bills should receive their Second Reading not on a Friday, when most hon. Members wish to be in their constituencies, but on some other day of the week?

Mr. Biffen

The imminence of Christmas induces me to desist from ungenerous comment on the relative merits of Government and private legislation. My hon. Friend's suggestion is so significant that it should be considered by a Procedure Committee.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

A debate was held last night on a Community document about the protection of workers from noise. Very few hon. Members of any party were able to participate in the debate because of the shortness of the time available. Will the Leader of the House consider bringing this vital subject back to the Floor of the House — next week or shortly after the recess—so that all who wish to speak on it may do so?

Mr. Biffen

I would mislead the hon. Gentleman if I said that that was a significant likelihood. He and any like-minded colleagues may wish to use all the advantages presented by the debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill on Monday week.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Late on Tuesday night the House discussed the report of the Procedure Committee (Finance). The Financial Secretary to the Treasury then made a detailed and courteous speech but made no promise to concede anything that the Committee had proposed. One would hardly have expected him to accept all the Committee's proposals, but I think that as judge and jury in his own cause he behaved somewhat ungenerously. We were discussing the concern of the House of Commons about spending, the control of spending and the administration in general and the hon. Gentleman should have made some promise about action on the Committee's report. In the interests of the House, what does the Leader of the House propose to do to help us?

Mr. Biffen

I attended the debate and I agree that my hon. Friend spoke with courtesy and persuasiveness. I also have to take account of the fact that the debate concluded without a Division.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

I refer to early-day motion 331.

[That this House expresses alarm and concern at the action of the Manpower Services Commission and the Government in reducing the number of places in the community programme for 1984; and demands an early debate and a reversal of these policies that will substantially reduce employment opportunities for the 1,142,898 who have been unemployed for more than 52 weeks and the prospects of the 3,084,416 unemployed not afforded a chance of even working under the present Manpower Services Commission scheme.]

In my constituency alone the cut of 64 jobs in one scheme will be the equivalent of closing down a factory. In addition, 800 jobs are to be lost in Mid-Glamorgan and thousands throughout the country. My concern is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I hope that there will be time to debate the matter next week.

Mr. Biffen

I am well aware of the anxieties to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. There can be few hon. Members whose constituency interests are not touched by the present state of the community programme. As an experienced campaigner, the hon. Gentleman may like to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

I refer to my right hon. Friend's reply to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Sir K. Lewis) about the report of the Procedure Committee (Finance). Is my right hon. Friend prepared to find a proper day and time for the House to be asked to reach a decision on this matter? My right hon. Friend's attitude to it is somewhat cavalier.

Mr. Biffen

I do not have a cavalier attitude, but the House must make its judgment on this matter. The debate was held late in the evening, but it began before 10 pm. Debates on many important issues commence later than that.

My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary responded to the proposals of the Select Committee and a wide-ranging debate took place. I cannot see any prospect that further Government time could be devoted to debating the matter in the immediate future.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 63 which draws attention to the exploitation of a dedicated group of workers?

[That this House, noting that the National Health Service hospital pharmacists are still being expected to provide emergency cover without being paid for it, and that they are the only National Health Service profession in this position; deplores the Government's offer of additional funds which would provide a payment of £1.50 for up to 16 hours on call; and demands that the Government allocate sufficient funds to the Pharmaceutical Whitley Council so as to allow them to negotiate emergency duty payments which are commensurate with pharmacists' professional responsibilities and are no lower than those paid to other National Health Service professions.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of state for Social Services to make an early statement in the House on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

I will pass that request to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Will my right hon. Friend treat the House to another display of the candour for which he is held in high regard and tell us whether the Government's attitude towards the House Buyers Bill will be one of benevolent neutrality or hostile indifference?

Mr. Biffen

In demonstration of my well-known candour I can only echo what the Prime Minister said a few moments ago.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

As you have invoked the spirit of Christmas, Mr. Speaker, I am encouraged to hope that the Leader of the House wall pay due regard to early-day motion 247, which highlights the plight of many people who are facing higher gas and electricity charges at Christmas. They are in the growing poverty trap being created by the Government's economic policies.

[That this House condemns the Government's intention to increase gas and electricity prices; and is digusted that millions of people including pensioners, the unemployed, the disabled, one-parent families, widows and other groups below the poverty line will be savagely hit by the Government's inflationary method of balancing its budget which the Labour Opposition will oppose inside and outside Parliament.]

Early-day motion 319 notes that many of those people go without the supplementary benefit to which they are entitled.

[That this House notes with great concern that the total amount of supplementary benefit unclaimed by persons entitled to it rose from £355 million in 1979 to £760 million in 1981, that 1,390,000 people who were eligible for the benefit in the latter year failed to claim it at any one time, and that the average weekly amount unclaimed was £10.50 for all groups and £18.10 for those under pensionable age; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to take urgent steps to ensure that all those eligible for benefit receive their full entitlement.]

Will the Leader of the House give the Government an opportunity to discard their Scrooge-like garb before Christmas and initiate a full-scale debate on poverty?

Mr. Biffen

I am not required to instruct the hon. Gentleman on how to conduct a parliamentary campaign, but if all the signatories to the motion were to ballot for the debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill, no doubt the topic would be debated.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 249 on the Airbus A320 project.

[That this House congratulates British Caledonian Airways on its recent decision to buy the Airbus A320, 25 per cent. of which should be built in Great Britain thereby creating and safeguarding British jobs and keeping the United Kingdom in the vanguard of civil aviation technology; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to facilitate the participation of British firms in this collaborative project, which is of such crucial importance to the long-term future of the European civil aircraft manufacturing industry.]

The motion has 150 signatories from Members in all parts of the House. Will my right hon. Friend urge the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to give the project Government funding and support? The German and French Governments are already putting money into the programme.

Mr. Biffen

I am wiser to stand at this Dispatch Box to try to provide time rather than make policy. I am conscious of the importance of this project and Parliament's desire to be informed further about it. I am conscious that a similar request was made last week by the Leader of the Opposition. I shall, of course, bear in mind the importance of further parliamentary involvement in this matter.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House. I shall allow business questions to continue for five minutes longer.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

In view of the critical situation developing for the arts throughout the country for a number of reasons, such as the damage implicit in the changes that the Government intend to impose on metropolitan counties and the GLC, and because of the earmarked moneys for the Arts Council and the Maritime museum's misguided decision to impose entry charges, when will we have an opportunity in the foreseeable future — if not before Christmas, immediately after — to examine this whole range of extremely damaging developments for the arts?

Mr. Biffen

I note the comprehensive points made by the hon. Gentleman. I will bear that matter very much in mind, but clearly there is no likelihood of such a debate or statement being made this side of Christmas. I shall draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for the arts to the points that have just been made.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Would it be possible to have an early debate on the cost and time involved in the entry of Spain and Portugal to the EEC? They are fundamental and important issues upon which the House would no doubt like to put its views before the Government make any decision, because it seems to be the only thing that could cause an increase in own resources to be considered by Her Majesty's Government. It may well be better to put them off.

Mr. Biffen

I agree at once with my hon. Friend that the enlargement of the Community by the inclusion of Spain and Portugal is of great significance for the Community and the United Kingdom because of the changed structure of the Community that will result. I have no doubt that there will be ample opportunities for the matter to be debated during the more general approaches to foreign and Community affairs. I have no specific proposals to make, given the pressures that there are on Government time.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Can the Leader of the House say when the Government's White Paper on regional aid will be presented? When it is, will he kindly arrange an early debate on it?

Mr. Biffen

I tried to be as forthcoming as I could to the Leader of the Opposition about the timing of the White Paper. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request for a debate, but I think that I can safely say that it will not take place this side of Christmas.

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

In view of the important and urgent decisions facing the military aerospace industry directly affecting many constituencies, when may we expect a debate on the Royal Air Force, bearing in mind that we have had debates on the Navy and the Army? I hope that the junior service will not suffer by not having been debated before the end of this parliamentary term.

Mr. Biffen

It is unlikely that there will be a debate before Christmas. I hope that a debate similar to those on the Army and the Navy can be arranged for the Royal Air Force.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Has the right hon. Gentleman had his attention drawn to early-day motion 49, which now has 179 Opposition signatures?

[That this House recognises the disgraceful profit made by the Government from fees for British citizenship; and calls for their immediate reduction in line with the Third Report of the Home Affairs Committee of Session 1982–83.]

The motion draws attention to the disgraceful delay in the Government's implementation of the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee regarding nationality fees. Related to that, can we have a debate upon the way in which visitors to this country are treated, because many visitors from the Asian sub-continent are treated with a lack of dignity and courtesy?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the hon. and learned Gentleman's point. It is likely that we could meet it by reference to the private Members' motions on Monday, the third one of which could easily cover the point. The best advice that I can offer is that he uses his well-established and recognised skills on the opportunities provided by the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Bearing in mind last night's events in Brent, will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate a motion on free speech and local democracy which would give the Leader of the Opposition the opportunity to condemn wholeheartedly the Labour leaders in Brent who brought that council to a halt by mob rule last night?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend resists the cloying spirit of Christmas and remains combatant on these matters, in which case I tell him that he has plenty of opportunities to exercise his initiatives as a private Member to ensure that the matter remains before Parliament.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Is there likely to be a statement on the British film industry before Christmas? If there is, can the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance similar to the one that he gave about regional policy, that it will not be smuggled in before Christmas without the House having a chance to consider it fully?

Mr. Biffen

The most helpful thing that I can do is to refer the hon. Gentleman's point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Bearing in mind the country's interest in the film "The Day After", will my right hon. Friend consider the facilities for showing such films and others in the House? This film pulls at all our emotions and looks at the possible post-holocaust position. I believe that it points to the need to increase efforts to achieve multilateral disarmament. The country is very interested in the film, but only a limited number of hon. Members would have been able to see it in the House today if all had turned up.

Mr. Biffen

I do not believe that I have any responsibility for organising film shows in the House. If I had, I would try to shrug them off as quickly as I could. I take note of what my hon. Friend says. I believe that there will be plenty of other people in the House who would be able to organise such a showing.

Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) wish to raise the point of order that I stopped him raising earlier, or has it been overtaken?

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

It has been overtaken, Mr. Speaker.