HC Deb 22 December 1983 vol 51 cc565-71
Mr. Neil Kinnock

(Islwyn): Will the Leader of the House make a statement about what will be the business of the House in a month's time or so?

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

Yes, Sir. The business for the first week after the Christmas adjournment will be as follows:

MONDAY 16 JANUARY —Second Reading of the Ordnance Factories and Military Services Bill.

Motion on the Urban Development Corporations (Financial Limits) Order.

TUESDAY 17 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Rates Bill

Motion on the New Towns (Limit on Borrowing) Order.

WEDNESDAY 18 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Tenants' Rights Etc. (Scotland) Amendment Bill.

Motion on the undertaking relating to the North of Scotland Orkney and Shetland Shipping Company Limited and the Peninsular and Oriental Navigation Company.

THURSDAY 19 JANUARY—Opposition Day (5th Allotted Day). The topic for debate to be announced later.

It is expected that the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

Motion on the District Electoral Areas Commissioner (Northern Ireland) Order.

FRIDAY 20 JANUARY—Private Members' motions.

Mr. Kinnock

On the business for Monday 16 January, the Opposition will want to examine the way in which the Ordnance Factories and Military Services Bill puts private profits before the nation's defence interests. We shall table a reasoned amendment to that effect.

The right hon. Gentleman will also understand that the Opposition—on both sides of the House—will resist the Second Reading of the Rates Bill on Tuesday 17 January, because it would make major constitutional changes by centrally dictating the rates and budgets of every local authority and, as a result, will undermine a long history of local democracy which the House should defend.

May I also give the right hon. Gentleman notice that the subject for the Opposition day on 19 January will be announced through the usual channels and offer him my usual felicitations for the festive season?

Mr. Biffen

Of course, I accept and reciprocate the festive wishes and am most glad to know that the usual channels will be used to inform us all of the subject for debate on the Opposition day. I hope that that augurs well for a constructive framework within which powerful dissent can continue next year. In that context, I note that there will be a Division on the Ordnance Factories and Military Services Bill; and am grateful for the prior warning that a modicum of controversy will be attached to the Rates Bill.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon

(Hexham): In view of the Prime Minister's reply at Question Time on the subject of rates, will my right hon. Friend consider withdrawing the Second Reading of the Rates Bill and having instead a debate on the Government's proposals for reforming the rating system? Is it because the Government are ashamed of the Rates Bill that they published it just before

Christmas and we are to debate it immediately after Christmas? It is a deplorable Bill which raises major constitutional issues. It is a classic example of elective dictatorship. Will my right hon. Friend at least give an assurance that, because of its constitutional importance, the Committee stage will be taken on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. and learned Friend is a Privy Councillor and therefore has a reasonable expectation of being called in the debate on Tuesday 17 January. I cannot understand why he should want to make a preliminary speech now.

Hon. Members

Answer the question.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Perhaps the question asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) will be answered when the Leader of the House replies to my question. May I invite the right hon. Gentleman to cast his mind back to 1978, before he fell from grace, and to recall that he voted with the Liberal party against the order introduced by Mr. Tony Benn, as he then was, for the expansion of the Windscale nuclear processing plant? Given the right hon. Gentleman's good record on that issue, will he listen sympathetically to the demand in all parts of the House for a debate on that important issue, as the processing and storing of nuclear waste casts doubt on the Government's nuclear power programme?

Mr. Biffen

The point about Mr. Benn's order was referred to in the comments following the statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. Of course, I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I think that on that occasion I was in the company of many other people. We shall have either to re-examine or rewrite history. However, as was stated yesterday, this is a most serious situation, and my right hon. Friend will be making a further statement to the House as and when it is judged necessary. Of course, we shall consider what other parliamentary occasions will be necessary.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

When that important legislation on rates is debated on Tuesday 17 January, will the Government make it clear whether they are prepared to allow the appalling anomaly to continue whereby agriculture does not contribute to rates at all?

Mr. Biffen

Of course, I shall refer that request to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who will be in charge of the legislation, but I have an instinct that he has quite enough trouble already.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

With reference to the business for Thursday, will the right hon. Gentleman draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to early-day motion 378?

[That this House, having considered the Third Schedule to the draft of the District Electoral Areas Commission (Northern Ireland) Order 1983 believes that it is expedient for the Commissioner to be empowered to recommend electoral areas consisting of less than five wards where such recommendation would avoid an area being divided between two parliamentary constituencies or would otherwise be convenient; and invites the Government to amend the draft accordingly.]

Will the Leader of the House invite the Secretary of State to consider that point in good time in case it should be thought desirable that the terms of the order should be modified?

Mr. Biffen

I have acquainted myself with the terms of that early-day motion, and I shall of course carry out the right hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment refers to the suggestion that the GLC is spending between £2 million and £5 million of ratepayers' money on a strong political campaign to save itself, which contrasts with the fact that only four people in the Department of the Environment, costing about £50,000 per annum, are getting together legislation for the abolition of the GLC, for which the country and the whole of London voted substantially?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has made a fair point which could have been made on Tuesday 17 January. However, he has chosen to make it now, and I think that he has much support in the House.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

In view of the tremendous interest shown this morning, especially in the Chamber, in the broadcast of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) in which he simultaneously demolished the Chancellor's financial policy and raised the blood pressure of almost every Tory Member, will the Leader of the House make arrangements for a transcript of that broadcast to be placed in the Library, possibly with a supportive letter from the CBI which strongly supported my right hon. Friend?

Mr. Biffen

I have known the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) for many years and mercifully he is free of the vice of modesty. If his remarks on the "Today" programme had the consequences to which the hon. Gentleman refers, I think the right hon. Gentleman is perfectly well able to make the arrangements with the Library himself.

Sir Dudley Smith

(Warwick and Leamington): In view of the growing importance of tourism as one of Britain's key industries, will my right hon. Friend consider in the new year giving time for a major debate on tourism, particularly as a report on tourism was published recently by the Department of Trade and Industry?

Mr. Biffen

I at once endorse my hon. Friend's substantive point. I shall refer his request to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Alfred Morris

(Manchester, Wythenshawe): Will the Leader of the House now reply to the precise and important question put to him by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon)?

Mr. Biffen

I am not going to reply to what are speeches which otherwise — [Interruption.] It was a series of propositions—not a request—about the content of Government business except in one respect, that the Committee stage be taken on the Floor of the House. That, of course, is in the gift of the House when it has the opportunity to vote on it after Second Reading.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark

(Birmingham, Selly Oak): Surely the Rates Bill is a constitutional Bill.

Although the Government say that we are a unitary country, if we are to change local government to be nm and selected by civil servants with the Government being the majority vote on every council in the land and if that is not a consititutional issue, when will there ever be a constitutional issue? Is it not time for the Government, instead of trying to hurry through this squalid little Bill, for once to give absolute rights for the House to discuss a constitutional issue? The Bill should be dealt with in a full Committee of the House.

Mr. Biffen

The decision on whether it should be considered in Committee on the Floor of the House or upstairs will be voted on the day after we return from the recess. I have been around long enough to recollect local government reorganisation Bills being dealt with in Committee upstairs. There is nothing extraordinary about the proposition that the Rates Bill might be so dealt with.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Is the Leader of the House aware that before Parliament reassembles on 16 January a very damaging strike will take place in the shipbuilding industry on 6 January? The unions have indicated that they are prepared to postpone the strike while further negotiations take place but the employers have said that the strike must be called off. The strike was called after a ballot of the members. Will the Leader of the House have a word with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and ask him to use his good offices to fetch both sides together arid thus avoid this damaging dispute?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point about the potential seriousness of this situation. I cannot answer for the policy judgments that will be made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry but I will most certainly refer the hon. Gentleman's request to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Did my right hon. Friend see the recent World in Action programme wherein the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) was alleged to have engaged in conspiracy to bomb, to commit grievous bodily harm and to attempt to assassinate people? As we can raise nothing in the House until 16 January when the House returns, will my right hon. Friend please join me in asking my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General immediately to refer this matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions lest anyone think that Members of this House, even though they have not taken the oath, are not subject to the law of this land?

Mr. Biffen

I did not see the television programme to which my hon. Friend referred, but I will of course refer his anxiety to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

Mr. Roland Boyes

(Houghton and Washington): Is the Leader of the House aware that a pit in my constituency is being closed and that I should like this important issue to be debated in the House as soon as possible? Up to now men under 50 have been transferred to other pits and guaranteed other jobs in the industry, but the National Coal Board has announced that men under 50 at the Herrington pit in my region will not be transferred to other pits. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that will mean compulsory redundancy for 500 men in a region that has the highest unemployment and in a borough council area

that has unemployment running at one in four? Does he agree that the situation should be debated as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Biffen

I accept at once that that is an important constituency matter for the hon. Gentleman. An Adjournment debate might be the most appropriate way of raising it. I shall refer his remarks to the Secretary of State for Energy.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Between now and the Second Reading of the Rates Bill, will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues give consideration to possible amendments? That would hold out at least the hope of some relief for hard-pressed ratepayers, those on small incomes and business men in those areas which are not ruled by big spending authorities but which are within the areas of local authorities that are prudent and try to do their utmost, to contain rates, such as those in Cornwall.

Mr. Biffen

I do not wish to be drawn into the merits of the legislation, but I assure my hon. Friend that the objectives that he has at heart are shared by the Secretary of State for the Environment, who will wish to take account of the point that he raises.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Leader of the House recognise the need for an early debate when we come back on political developments in Northern Ireland, all the more so if it is true that the Cabinet will today be considering the position? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that the new Ireland forum will probably be reporting early in the new year and that that is all the more reason why we should have a wide-ranging debate? If such a debate takes place, will it be possible for it to be extended beyond 10 o'clock?

Mr. Biffen

I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request. Obviously I cannot give a categoric answer or hold out much hope to him, but the point he makes is a real one.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

In view of the reported intention of the leader of the Greater London council to ban some sportsmen and stars from performing simply because of where they might have performed before, will my right hon. Friend take note of the fact that many of my constituents would wish that on 17 January we should debate not only the rate-capping legislation but also the abolition of the GLC, the leader of which now seems to be acting in the best traditions of Orwell's "1984"? Is it not time that big brother was switched off?

Mr. Biffen

The House is clearly showing its desire this morning to have a lively trailer for the debate that is planned for Tuesday 17 January. I note what my hon. Friend says — I have considerable sympathy with his propositions—but I do not think that I can add to what I have said.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

Does the Leader of the House agree that he will have quite a job getting the Rates Bill through this House? Does he further agree that he is likely to have at least as great difficulty getting the legislation through the other place? Will he therefore confirm that there is no intention on the part of the Government to have the Rates Bill deemed a financial

measure so that debate in the other place is severely truncated with the possibility of amendments there being limited?

Mr. Biffen

As for the ease and speed with which that legislation will be secured, in politics it is always wise to travel hopefully. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find unfounded the deeper anxieties that he expresses.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

May I remind my right hon. Friend that time was found in recent weeks for debates on the Royal Navy and the Army? Will time be found early in the new year for a debate on the Royal Air Force?

Mr. Biffen

I hope that that will be possible. I am sorry that it could not have been included in the first week after the recess.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will the Leader of the House consider providing time in January for a major debate on low pay, given two events during the past week? First, on Monday, the "Panorama" programme pointed out that, of 23,000 work places visited last year to investigate low pay, 9,000 were found illegally to be underpaying people, although only seven were prosecuted. Secondly, on Tuesday, the Department of Employment published a report that purported to show that youth wages were the cause of youth unemployment. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, however, that the Department has shown in written answers to me that youth wages have fallen by 8 per cent. for boys and 12 per cent. for girls since the Conservatives came to office and yet during that time youth unemployment has trebled?

r. Biffen

I shall bear in mind the request for a debate on that topic, but it must take its place among all the other demands on Government time. If I am unsuccessful in satisfying the hon. Gentleman's request, at least he will have had the satisfaction of making now in minuscule form the speech that he would have made on the subject.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

When we debate rates on 17 January, will my right hon. Friend do his best to assure those hon. Members who, like me, represent ratepayers who during the past four years have never seen rate increases of less than 25 per cent. and who have seen rate increases of up to 50 per cent. get as much chance to speak as those who wish to put contrary views on the legislation?

Mr. Biffen

That is clearly a matter for Mr. Speaker and mercifully not for me.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on the Government's new regional policy soon after the recess? Is he aware that, because of the asinine proposals recently announced by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, there is widespread anxiety in the north-east on the consequential job losses in an area of high unemployment? Is he aware that the abolition of special development area status for manufacturing industry in the north-east would have disastrous effects? Will he treat this matter as one of urgency?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there was protracted questioning after the statement on regional policy, but I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentlemman's request that that should be buttressed by a debate in the new year. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are many demands on Government time and, inevitably, there must be some type of rationing.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. As it is Christmas, I shall call the hon. Members who have been standing, but I ask for brief questions as important private members' time is to follow.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

As a final helpful suggestion to the Leader of the House on how to expedite the business of rates, will he consider following the example of Southwark borough council? Last week, having fixed the council agenda the majority party decided to boycott the meeting. If the Government follow that proposal, the rates matter will be finished quickly and with the least pain on both sides of the House.

Mr. Biffen

I believe that that was meant to be reflected more on the hon. Gentleman's constituency than on me, but I am sure that he has made a valuable point.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many Conservative Members warmly welcome the Rates Bill and commend the fact that he is bringing it forward so quickly? Will he be assured that he will have a great deal of support from Conservative Members as well as the Opposition?

Mr. Biffen

I note with much gratitude my hon. Friend's comments. Above all, I shall ensure that they are passed on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House consider during the recess the serious situation in Grenada and make time available in the new year for a debate? About 37 people are being held in Richmond Hill prison, and many of them are denied access to lawyers. American and Caribbean military police are touring the island and are regularly picking up members of the former New Jewel Movement Government. Does he consider that, as legislation on the Government of Grenada was passed by the House those circumstances in a Commonwealth country deserve consideration and merits a full debate in the House?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman identifies a matter that gives rise to worry and debate. It is pre-eminently one where a private Member might use the initiatives that are provided by private Members' time to see that the matter comes before the House.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Speaker. Is the Leader of the House aware that on Tuesday the device of a planted written question was used to make an important announcement on the Arts Council's budget for next year and that, before the House knew the terms of that settlement, a press conference was given to which two hon. Members were denied access? Will he encourage Ministers in matters of great concern to the House to make statements from the Dispatch Box and not use planted questions?

Mr. Biffen

As a practising Philistine, I am perhaps not the best person to answer those delicate questions. The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that arouses passions in connection with the making of statements. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. and noble Friend to the incident to which the hon. Gentleman takes exception.