HC Deb 15 December 1983 vol 50 cc1175-80 4.13 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he will state the business for next week?

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

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

MONDAY I9 DECEMBER—Motion for the Christmas Adjournment. Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

TUESDAY 20 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Health and Social Security Bill.

Motions on the draft Social Security (Contributions) Amendment (No. 6) Regulations 1983; the draft Social Security (Treasury Supplement to Contributions) Order 1983; and the draft Social Security (Contributions, Re-rating) Order 1983.

Motion on the Fisheries (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order.

WEDNESDAY 21 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the Housing and Building Control Bill.

THURSDAY 22 DECEMBER—It Will be proposed that the House should meet at 9.30 am, take questions until 10.30 am and adjourn at 3.30 pm until Monday 16 January.

Mr. Kinnock

The Opposition will bitterly oppose the Second Reading of the Health and Social Security Bill next Tuesday, which does nothing but impoverish young adults and establish quangos at the expense of the poor and the ill.

The Opposition remain concerned about the international situation. Can the Leader of the House confirm that, in the event of a serious deterioration in the many areas of conflict, there are contingency arrangements to recall the House?

Finally, with the recent discussion in mind, can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that when a Minister gives an undertaking that a statement will be provided on Government policy he will at least clarify in precisely what manner the statement will be given—whether it will be given to the press first, or brought to the House so that hon. Members can listen to it, or read it. and ask questions on it?

Mr. Biffen

I will consider the right hon. Gentleman's final point, which touches the heart of the smooth running of arrangements not merely between the usual channels and the Front Benches but through the House in general.

The right hon. Gentleman promises that the battle on the Second Reading of the Health and Social Security Bill will be hard fought. I thank him for that warning. We, too, shall bring our weapons. The trouble is that the right hon. Gentleman fights with the weapon of words, but we will do our best to see that we triumph not merely with the votes but also in the arguments.

The fraught international situation worries us all. Quite properly, the right hon. Gentleman draws our attention to the fact that it is within the gift of Mr. Speaker to recall Parliament should the situation deteriorate. I shall bear that point in mind.

Sir Edward Gardner (Fylde)

When my right hon. Friend arranges the business of the House for the new year, will he remember that many of my constituents who work at British Aerospace at Warton are anxious about the development of the agile combat aircraft, which should be the new fighter for the RAF and the European air forces? Will my right hon. Friend make sure that we have an opportunity to debate the future of British Aerospace as soon as possible?

Mr. Biffen

I note the point that my right hon. and learned Friend has made, and its constituency interest for him. The fortunes of British Aerospace will fall to some extent within the debate to be initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) on the Consolidated Fund Bill on Monday, but I will bear in mind what my hon. and learned Friend has said.

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

Will the Leader of the House make a statement next week to clarify the implications for his important office of what he did last night and early this morning? When he said that he would not vote on the issue, did he not intend to protect the objectivity and impartiality of the office of Leader of the House? How did he further that aim when the Government Whips sought to use their power to overturn the recommendation of the Committee of Selection?

Mr. Biffen

The handful of hon. Members who were not here at 3 o'clock this morning can read what I said then. It was of such clarity that there is no need for further comment. If the hon. Gentleman found himself confused and misled by it, that explains a great deal about his conduct.

Mr. Beith

That is offensive.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend find time next week for a debate on the position of British troops in Beirut, and also on the effect of United States policies in the middle east on the whole of the Western Alliance?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot guarantee Government time for a debate on that topic, but it could feature as one of the private Members' topics on Thursday.

Mr. Harry Cowans (Tyne Bridge)

I refer to the exchanges in the early hours of this morning. Will the Leader of the House give an assurance to the House that he will find time next week to seek a meeting with the Liberal party at which he will ask which seat the Liberals intend to give up of the six Select Committee seats that they hold—they are trying to get hold of a seventh—to their alleged partners in the alliance? Only when they do so will the cant that we heard last night about proportional representation have any credibility. They have six seats and their so-called partners have none.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

That is where the row is.

Mr. Biffen

This may be an occasion for the homegrown conciliation services. I regarded last night's vote as important in that it established the departmental Select Committees. I hope that we will be able to build on that.

Mr. Michael Hirst (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 345, which has been signed by nearly 200 Members?

[That this House welcomes the decision of the High Court in Glasgow in the case of the Glasgow shopkeepers who sold glue to youngsters, as confirming the crime of knowingly supplying solvent substances for abuse by youngsters; believes that the decision will be widely welcomed by parents, social workers, police and medical authorities who are justifiably worried by the growing menace of solvent abuse; and hopes that the heavy sentences passed on these shopkeepers will serve effectively to discourage any other such unscrupulous traders.] The all-party motion refers to the fact that in Scotland it is a crime of common law knowingly to supply solvent for abuse by youngsters, but it has been signed by many English Members, and there is widespread concern in all parts of the House and of the country about solvent abuse. Can my right hon. Friend hold out any prospect of an early debate on this important subject?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend will appreciate from what I have just announced that there will be no such occasion in Government time. Perhaps I might point out that private Members' topics will be available for debate on Thursday. Perhaps my hon. Friend will find one of them suitable.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

With his customary fairness on matters that affect Back Benchers, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the decision about having a Minister make a statement on solvent abuse so that hon. Members can question Ministers on that subject instead of Ministers merely having to give statements to the press after the press have questioned them upstairs? When making a decision, will he bear in mind the fact that the House has been misled yet again as no copies of the written answers were available to the House through the Vote Office and I am told by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) that none are available in the Library either? There is no way in which the House could have known about this matter before it was revealed to the press.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. and learned Gentleman raises a matter which understandably exercises his mind. I told the Leader of the Opposition that I shall look into this matter. I think that we shall probably best proceed in that way.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Is my right hon. Friend not rather afeared about the decline of the British merchant shipping fleet? That decline has been going on for some years. Does he agree that everything that is associated with the British merchant fleet, flags of convenience and crew difficulties should have a complete airing now? Is it possible, perhaps after the Christmas recess, to have a major debate on the future of the British merchant shipping fleet?

Mr. Biffen

I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's point when considering business after the Christmas recess. By the same token, however, I must be hard hearted with regard to the business for next week.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

In view of the deteriorating situation in the middle east, the involvement of British troops in the Lebanon and the issue of Cyprus I must press the Leader of the House that it is not good enough to leave the matter to private Members business. How long will the Government delay before they provide time for the discussion of these urgent matters on the Floor of the House? How many British soldiers have to die in the meanwhile?

Mr. Biffen

I have already said that I am well disposed to the recall of Parliament if that is deemed necessary because of a deteriorating international situation during the recess. That gives some idea of my sympathy with the hon. Gentleman on this topic. I must point out, however, that there is no immediate prospect of Government time being available for a debate on this matter.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must again remind the House that we are to have an important statement on the rate support grant for Scotland, which will be followed by a continuation of the debate on the Telecommunications Bill. I therefore propose to allow business questions to continue until 4.30 pm.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, in the Scottish Grand Committee, the Government were heavily defeated twice after a debate on the National Health Service? If the Secretary of State for Scotland refuses to do the decent thing and resign, will the Leader of the House summon him to the Dispatch Box at the earliest opportunity so that he can make a statement reversing his policies of cuts and privatisation which threaten the very existence of the NHS? Is he aware that those policies were soundly rejected by more than 70 per cent. of Scottish voters at the general election?

Mr. Biffen

If I undertook the task of transmitting that message something would be lost in the process. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is here to listen, perhaps he will take account of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the problem in the Scottish Grand Committee which has been referred to is that, despite the wide understanding throughout the Committee of what subjects would be debated and despite the advice of their leadership, Opposition Members have twice tried to extend the debate? That action has been warmly welcomed by Conservative Back Benchers. Will he ensure that nothing is done to prevent the continuation of the important debate on the NHS in Scotland in the Scottish Grand Committee?

Mr. Biffen

I have been advised that my remit falls neatly outwith the proceedings of the Standing Committees. I therefore think that I had better say that take note of what my hon. Friend says rather than add to the controversy by endorsing or otherwise what has been said.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As the Cabinet has apparently agreed to force up electricity prices against the wishes of the Electricity Council, why should we not have a statement and why must we wait until Monday for one? Bearing in mind what such an increase means for many of our constituents, especially those with limited means, will the Leader of the House ensure that a statement is made tomorrow by the Secretary of State for Energy?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot comment on what goes on inside the Cabinet but I shall certainly convey the hon. Gentleman's anxieties to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As the powers of the House appear to have sunk so low that another institution which is largely made up of foreigners seems to have acquired the power to tax the British people to the extent of £457 million, and since my right hon. Friend is a champion of the powers of the House, will he please immediately bring forward a Bill which will enable Her Majesty's Government, at such time as they might consider appropriate, to withhold moneys from the EC?

Mr. Biffen

I do not see why I should deprive my hon. Friend of that piece of prospective Friday entertainment.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to come to the House next week to announce that he will institute an inquiry into the conduct of the police at Warrington recently, in view of the increasing anxiety of the public as expressed in correspondence to hon. Members, including a letter which I received this morning, which says: the police moved in and provoked a confrontation … the police quite blatantly attacked people who were involved in a peaceful demonstration. The Oldham branch of the National Union of Journalists wrote that letter on behalf of 50 of its members, several of whom—they are trained observers, of course—were present on that occasion. Is he aware that those people want some action with regard to what happened there?

Mr. Biffen

I believe that there are complaints procedures. I shall of course draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that on item 1 of Orders of the Day for today — the Telecommunications Bill — the blocking motion is tabled by the Leader of the Social Democratic party? Does that represent a change in the operation of the usual channels? Will it mean that in future the official Opposition will concentrate on getting its act together rather than leaving it to the unofficial Opposition?

Mr. Biffen

I do not believe that I have any formal responsibility to answer that question, which I regard as purely mischievous in motivation.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

As the Secretary of State for Scotland is to make a statement and table an order on rate support grant in Scotland shortly and as that is a matter which affects Scotland specifically and exclusively, would it not make sense if the order were dealt with in the Scottish Grand Committee, which is empowered to deal with matters that affect Scotland exclusively? The Grand Committee once again showed this morning that it is well able to carry out those powers, when it defeated the Government by 32 votes to 14.

Mr. Biffen

I shall of course consider that observation, with my right hon. Friend. No doubt I shall be in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Bearing in mind the widespread interest on both sides of the House and in the country in the House Buyers Bill which is due to come before the House tomorrow, and the rumours of the Government's possible intentions in regard to it, will my right hon. Friend give the House any guidance in anticipation of tomorrow's debate?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that I am in the business of guidance but, on the other hand, it would be thought perverse if I did not respond to my hon. Friend's question. The Government would like more liberalisation in the conditions of conveyancing, but that does not necessarily mean endorsing the proposed legislation.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

In view of the disgraceful and inappropriate reply which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry gave yesterday when he refused to condemn or even look into the fact that firms in Britain might be manufacturing leg manacles, chains for gangs and other instruments of torture, will the Leader of the House please consider that matter for debate early in the new year, as such manufacture is an affront to Britain and a shame on humanity?

Mr. Biffen

I will, of course, give the matter consideration, but I cannot be optimistic about the likelihood of Government time being available. As this is an issue on which the hon. Gentleman intends to crusade, I think he might at least make an early attempt by seeking for it to be one of the private Members' topics that are chosen on Thursday.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

Substantial all-party support is evidenced by early-day motion 249 for the provision of launch aid for the European A320 airbus.

[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.]

Will the Leader of the House provide time for an early debate in the new year, especially if the Government decision whether to provide launch aid is to be delayed much later than the end of January?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He will also appreciate that on Monday the first topic in the debates that follow the Consolidated Fund Bill will be devoted to launch aid. I think we had better see how we go on that occasion. I am, of course, well aware that the House may wish to come back to this matter in the new year.