HC Deb 03 February 1983 vol 36 cc417-22 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)

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

MONDAY 7 FEBRUARY—Proceedings on Consolidated Fund Bill.

TUESDAY 8 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Mobile Homes Bill [Lords] and of the Nuclear Material (Offences) Bill.

Motions on the draft Milk (Northern Ireland) Order and on the draft Quarries (Northern Ireland) Order which are consolidation measures.

WEDNESDAY 9 FEBRUARY—Opposition day (7th Allotted Day). Until about 7 o'clock a debate on the East Midlands followed by a debate on the Northern region. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion on the draft Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations 1983.

THURSDAY I0 FEBRUARY—Debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY II FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 14 FEBRUARY—Private Members' motions until 7 o'clock.

The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to announce opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

Mr. Foot

I must put a number of matters to the right hon. Gentleman. In the light of our exchanges a few moments ago about the £10 million order being placed in a Korean shipyard, the Opposition want to have a chance of saving that order for British shipyards. May we have a statement from the Government either tomorrow or on Monday on that subject?

Two other matters are left over from exchanges earlier in the week. Will the Government make a statement on the money and arms that are being supplied from this country in one form or another to Argentina? That matter has been left in greater confusion following the statements that have been made by the Government. That applies also to the extremely important question to which the Prime Minister referred a few moments ago—the so-called dual control over the proposed cruise missiles to be stationed in this country. We in the Opposition and, I believe, many people in the country believe that the statements by the Secretary of State for Defence and the Prime Minister on that subject have only added to the confusion. The Prime Minister or the Secretary of State should make a statement so that what they have said might at least be clarified.

The public expenditure White Paper was published this week, and I presume that the Government will provide an early day for discussion of it.

Finally, I must renew to the right hon. Gentleman the request that I have made on a number of occasions. I am sure that he will be eager to comply with it very soon. We want a full debate on disarmament and the disarmament talks. The Opposition have been pressing for it for a long time, and we hope that the Goverment will now concede it.

Mr. Biffen

I shall respond to the Leader of the Opposition's questions in the order in which he asked them.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of ships being ordered from Korea. I shall convey his anxiety that there should be a statement. I know that he will appreciate that there is to be a debate on British shipbuilding on the Consolidated Fund Bill, but I realise that he is concerned that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry should consider the possibility of making a statement.

The right hon. Gentleman requested a statement on relations with Argentina in respect of defence and credit. Of course, as the request was made by the right hon. Gentleman, that requires me to regard it with the utmost courtesy and seriousness. I shall refer it to my right hon. Friend, but I think that it is fair to say that the Government have already made clear their policy on those important matters by means of answers to private notice, oral and written questions. Both subjects were explored again in detail during Treasury questions last Thursday and defence questions on Tuesday this week. However, I take note of the Leader of the Opposition's request.

With regard to a debate on cruise missiles, I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will have noted that a three-hour debate on that topic will arise on the motion tabled by the right hon. Member for Stockton (Mr. Rodgers). That may cover the points that the Leader of the Opposition has in mind. Let us see what happens in the debate.

I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's request for discussion on the public expenditure White Paper. I am sure that the normal procedures will be followed. There was last week a request for a debate on disarmament. I cannot go beyond the answer that I gave then.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I should tell the House that there is widespread interest in the main debate today. I already know that many hon. Members who hope to catch my eye will not be able to do so. Therefore, I hope that the time that we usually spend on business questions will be reduced.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Kinross and West Perthshire)

I trust that this matter is of such importance as not to waste the time of the House. Will the Leader of the House arrange with the utmost urgency a debate on the expulsion from Nigeria of 2 million Africans? This is a matter of human dignity and suffering on a scale that few of us have understood. I have the privilege of having a letter dated 2 February from the Leader of the Opposition to the Nigerian ambassador. It seems to be a matter in which he would have been previously interested and one on which the whole House should express its view immediately.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the solemnity of the issue, but I cannot hold out any offer of Government time for a debate on it next week.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

May I ask the Leader of the House a question of which I have given notice to his office and also to the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) about the instructions given to the Navy in 1977? Has the Leader of the House noted that Lord Lewin yesterday reiterated that the right hon. Member for Devonport was wrong and his memory was mistaken? Is not that of some consequence with regard to the right hon. Gentleman misleading the House? Could time be found for a statement to be made?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's courtesy in informing my office that he intended to raise that point. However, personal statements by Members are not a matter for me.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

As the Mobile Homes Bill is receiving its Third Reading in the other place at the moment, will the Leader of the House be able to tell us when it will be available to us and whether there is any special reason why he has brought forward the Second Reading to Tuesday next week?

Mr. Biffen

The Bill will be available tomorrow morning. It is a valuable social measure. One felt that it deserved priority in the timetable.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Aberdeenshire, East)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the economy of the dependent territory of Gibraltar in view of the fact that there is a great deal of apprehension about the commercialisation of the dockyard? If it is closed, it could lead to a complete catastrophe for that dependent territory.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the importance of that point, but there is no likelihood of it being debated in Government time next week or, indeed, in the near future.

Dr. John Cunningham (Whitehaven)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the crisis that is facing British shipbuilders, which has been highlighted by the announcement a few days ago that more than 2,000 shipbuilding workers on Tyneside and Wearside are to lose their jobs? Does he recognise how grotesquely insulting it is to these workers to learn that taxpayers' money granted to a public corporation is being used to place an order in a Korean shipyard? Will he arrange for the Secretary of State for Industry and the Secretary of State for Energy to explain to the House why this appalling state of affairs is allowed to exist?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that he will have a chance to raise these arguments both in the debate upon shipbuilding which has been secured by the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) on the Floor of the House on Monday and also next Wednesday in the debate on the Northern region. I cannot add to the reply that I gave earlier to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I ask my right hon. Friend when we may expect a statement on the outcome of the conference which Mr. Speaker so rightly initiated on the form of Prime Minister's Question Time? The sooner the matter is cleared up and we get back to a more structured, disciplined system of Prime Minister's Questions, doing away with the abuse of the open question, the better.

Mr. Biffen

I must say to my hon. Friend that his question would be better directed to you, Mr. Speaker, than to me.

Mr. Speaker

Yes; and I shall be making a statement when we finish business questions.

Mr. Thomas Cox (Tooting)

When does the Leader of the House expect to be in a position to make a statement on Government policy regarding possible changes in the fees that are charged for overseas students, especially those from the Commonwealth?

Mr. Biffen

Certainly there are no plans for such a statement in the business that I have announced for next week, but I shall draw the point to the attention of the relevant Minister.

Mr. John Lee (Nelson and Colne)

Has my right hon. Friend considered giving time to a debate or discussions on the ludicrously embarrassing workings of the Standing Committees of the House?

Mr. Biffen

No. Clearly it is a matter which is always within the competence of the House, being a question of changing the procedure of the House. I take note of what my hon. Friend says. As we move towards the end of a Parliament, it is unlikely that there will be any desire to embark upon major procedural reform.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the loss of the shipyard order is a loss to a yard in my constituency? I raised this with the Minister of State yesterday and he undertook to make a statement in the Standing Committee this morning, but he was not afforded the opportunity to do so. Is the Leader of the House aware that this matter is causing real anxiety in Sunderland and that we expect an immediate reply?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's point. I intimated when answering the first question of the Leader of the Opposition that I would refer the matter to my right hon. Friend. When I do that, I shall draw his attention also to the points made by the hon. Member for Whitehaven (Dr. Cunningham) and by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Crosby)

The Leader of the House will be aware that a substantial pay claim has been submitted for the workers in the electricity supply industry. Will he consider finding time for a debate on the handling of industrial disputes in essential services since the public's experience of the water dispute would lead them to be profoundly concerned about the possibility of a power dispute along the same lines?

Mr. Biffen

I note the point that the right hon. Lady makes. There are no plans for a statement next week, but I should have thought that these were matters that were always before the House.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

In view of the figures that show that Scottish Members are disadvantaged in terms of oral questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland and his ministerial colleagues, will the Leader of the House consider trying to find more time for Scottish questions, with at least one more Scottish question time in the cycle of four weeks?

Mr. Biffen

The present allocation of Question Time is the consequence of the most imaginative and delicate consideration. To disturb it would cause much more resentment than placation.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

In view of the fact that the second Brandt report is to be published next week, when may we expect the Government's response? Will the Leader of the House make arrangements for an urgent debate on the report?

Mr. Biffen

I can offer no prospect of a debate next week, but I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Has the Leader of the House seen the Prime Minister's reply to me on the International Monetary Fund loan that was made to Argentina? Has he noted that the reply did not preclude conditionality in the allocation of the loan? Will he ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House to assure hon. Members that, if the IMF is to make loans with our funds to the Argentines, the question of conditionality is introduced during the negotiations?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer the point that is exercising the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the £1 million public relations campaign against the peace movement which is apparently being considered, particularly in the light of the claims in the New Statesman of 8 January that there are secret meetings taking place with the Minister of State for Defence Procurement and Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials to plan a campaign? With £1 million sloshing around, it is important that we know precisely where the money is going and that it is not being filtered off through some anti-peace subversive organisation.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will recall that at Question Time on Monday it was established that no decision had yet been taken on this matter.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that on two successive Thursdays the Leader of the Opposition and Back Benchers on both sides of the House have asked for a statement by the Prime Minister to explain in detail why the British Government have taken part in an IMF loan, a medium term loan and a bridging loan with the assistance of British banks, whose representatives the Prime Minister met yesterday? Is it not a scandal that the Prime Minister has refused to come to the Dispatch Box and explain why Britain is handing over large sums of money to Argentina so that it can carry on with a rearmament programme and, according to today's press, take over some of the Falkland Islands at the same time? It is high time this hypocrisy ended and the Prime Minister made a statement to answer the British nation.

Mr. Biffen

I do not think I can helpfully add to what I said to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Skinner


Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

I am sure that the Leader of the House would not wish to use the new procedure on the Consolidated Fund Bill as an alibi to save his right hon. Friends. Will he think again strongly about the request of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven (Dr. Cunningham)? If he studies last Tuesday's questions, he will find that the questions on the supply of armaments to Argentina and on the dual key on cruise missiles were not answered. They ought to be answered by a statement in the House. I asked for that a week ago, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. My hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven is right in his request for a statement to be made by the Secretary of State for Industry. Will the Leader of the House therefore reconsider that, but not in the light of the new Consolidated Fund Bill procedure?

Mr. Biffen

Yes, of course. I thought that the tone I used in answering the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) showed that, when I pass this information to my right hon. Friend, it will not be merely a passive situation.

I do not believe that the House would wish me to establish any tradition whereby the Consolidated Fund Bill proceeded without Government replies being given that carried some authority. The fact that they are given on Adjournment debates arising from the Consolidated Fund should not disparage them. The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin) does not want the Government to hide behind the skirts of debates on the Consolidated Fund, but they are important debates and statements made in them by Ministers on the Floor of the House have an authority that must be recognised. I shall respond to the general points made by the right hon. Gentleman about the request for a statement in the same sense as I have responded to the Leader of the Opposition.