HC Deb 10 February 1983 vol 36 cc1145-53 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 14 FEBRUARY—Until seven o'clock, consideration of private Members' motions.

At seven o'clock the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

Second Reading of the Miscellaneous Financial Provisions Bill.

TUESDAY 15 FEBRUARY—Motion relating to the Statement of changes in Immigration Rules.

Motion relating to the Education (Special Educational Needs) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 16 FEBRUARY—Consideration of timetable motions on the Telecommunications Bill and the Housing Building Control Bill.

Motion on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Wales) Order.

Motion on European Community Document 10390/82 on imported skins of certain seal pups.

THURSDAY 17 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Health and Social Services and Social Security Adjudications Bill (Lords).

FRIDAY 18 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 21 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on the European Community budget.

[Additional relevant document for debate on seal pup skins: Report of the European Legislation Committee HC 34-v (1982–83) para 2.]

Mr. Foot

May I put to the right hon. Gentleman two or three matters arising from questions to the Prime Minister a few moments ago? First, we still have not had a clear statement from the Prime Minister on the Government's policy of lending money and supplying arms to Argentina, a matter which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). My hon. Friend has still not had a satisfactory reply. I am sure that the rest of the House and the country are still waiting for it. I hope that that will be arranged and that there will be a full statement on those two interlocking questions.

There is also the question of British Shipbuilders. The Prime Minister's campaign about buying British must have been the shortest campaign in history. Have there been any further discussions with British Shipbuilders on this matter? Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the Government should make a further statement to the House on this subject? That is certainly our view. When are we to have the debate on the public expenditure White Paper, about which I asked last week?

There are also two major questions on international affairs. We have asked constantly for a debate on disarmament. I am sure that the discussions we have had with Vice-President Bush make that all the more necessary. I hope, therefore, that the Government will very soon announce when we will have that full debate on disarmament. In addition, the Brandt commission report "Common Crises" has been published in the past day or two—the new report of the Brandt commission, as it is described. We believe that there should be a full Government response to the report and a debate on the matter. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will say when that is to occur. May I suggest to him that a very good day for starting the debate either on disarmament or on the Brandt commission report would be the one on which we are debating the unnecessary and scandalous proposals for timetable motions.

All the right hon. Gentleman has to do is accept my advice on this matter and we can have the debate on the Brandt report right away. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would also have the satisfaction of at least seeking to give some decent time for the discussion of those terrible measures.

Mr. Biffen

When it comes to guillotines, I always know that the Leader of the Opposition eyes me across the Dispatch Box as a very uncertain apprentice at a craft of which he is a true master.

With regard to the Brandt commission report, the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it has been published only very recently. Perhaps the most appropriate course would be for both sides of the House to study it before considering what is the next appropriate step.

The right hon. Gentleman requested a debate on disarmament. I have in the past shared with the right hon. Gentleman the belief that this is a matter of the utmost topicality which could well secure the time of either Opposition or Government. I recognise that there is a great desire that there should be a debate on this subject. I hope that we can take that matter further.

With regard to a debate on public expenditure, the right hon. Gentleman may feel that perhaps it would be most appropriate, first, to allow the White Paper on public expenditure to be considered by the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service and for the House to have the benefit of its comments before arranging the debate. I believe that there should be a debate, but since I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will wish to join me in confirming the importance of Select Committees, the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service should have an opportunity to make its comments.

With regard to the problems about British Shipbuilders, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy made a statement on Monday. I note that the right hon. Gentleman would like thorough consideration of the matter, and I take account of that, but I can give no undertaking, as I am sure he will appreciate. Finally, the House will have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister deal with the points of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about relations with Argentina and the terms of loans. I cannot go further that that today.

Mr. Foot

On one or two matters the right hon. Gentleman's replies are unsatisfactory. We believe and understand that there may be some new developments with regard to British Shipbuilders and the Korean ship. If there are, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will absolutely ensure that we have a statement on the subject. The matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover still needs to be cleared up.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should accept the doctrine that public expenditure reports or White Papers should go to Select Committees first before they come to the House, he knows perfectly well that that could be used as an excuse for postponing debates and for postponing them even beyond Budget day. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not fall into that trap. I advise him to avoid it immediately. The best way to avoid it is to ensure that we have an earlier date. We cannot allow proper debates to be held up by Select Committees doing their work.

Mr. Biffen

I accept at once the anxiety of the Leader of the Opposition to maintain the authority of the Chamber in relation to Select Committees in our approach to these debates. I must point out that the public expenditure White Paper has been published about six weeks earlier than usual. Part of the reason for that was to allow for consideration by the Select Committee so that it can be debated with that advantage. One of the obligations on the House is to arrange its business so as to try to make the best use of the Select Committees, in a constructive and partnership role. I take at once the importance that the right hon. Gentleman attaches to the Korean shipbuilding order. If there are developments that are appropriate to be put to the House, I shall do my best to ensure that they are.

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

Since the Parliamentary Constituencies (Wales) Order is with us next week, may we expect the Scottish order the following week?

Mr. Biffen

: I am not in a position to answer that, but I imagine that there is great enthusiasm throughout the House that all the orders—including the English order—should soon be authorised so that we can fight on equitable constituency boundaries.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Will my right hon. Friend find time in the very near future to debate the problems of war widows, which has been highlighted recently by the widow of Flight Lieutenant Nicolson, VC? The widows of those who died in the Falkland Islands and in Northern Ireland are being treated properly and fairly, but the 15,000 widows left from the first world war and the 55,000 from the second world war are being treated disgracefully by this country. They receive pensions that are a quarter of those received by the widows of men who died in other conflicts. If the conscience of this House and country is to be stirred, is it not time to rouse people to ensure that money can be found to treat fairly and honourably those who made the sacrifices needed to preserve this country's honour?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has properly raised a matter that is of concern to both sides of the House. I think that the point was raised a fortnight ago and I can only repeat what I then said, which was that the Budget and the Finance Bill that flows from it would be appropriate occasions to ventilate this issue.

Mr. Neil Carmichael (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Mental Health (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill is about to leave the other place and receive its Second Reading in this House? Will he bear in mind the Bill's importance and give it the same Special Standing Committee treatment as was given to the English Bill?

Mr. Biffen

Obviously, I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says. He may know that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) also raised this issue with me some time ago and I corresponded with him, pointing out some of the difficulties which do not make the Bill particularly appropriate for such treatment.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate next week on one of the subjects that is under discussion by the General Synod of the Church of England, which is meeting this week? I refer not to the nuclear debate but to the proposals to abolish lay patronage, which has existed for more than 1,000 years in this country and whose abolition would be strongly opposed by many hon. Members and would be an infringement of the rights of property.

Mr. Biffen

I entirely share my hon. Friend's sentiments, but there is no prospect of finding Government time for that debate next week.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that when the Home Secretary introduces the new immigration rules next week, he explains the totally unsatisfactory and even disgraceful situation on the Indian subcontinent? The genuine brides of Scotsmen—as well as Englishmen no doubt—face inordinately lengthy delays just for the right to enter their husbands' country.

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is in his place on the Front Bench and will have heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am sure that he will have taken account of them.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

Will the Leader of the House accept that there is support in many parts of the House for a debate on the second report of the Brandt commission, which has recently come out? Will he follow the precedent set by the first report and ensure that copies of the report are made available to hon. Members in the Vote Office? Will the right hon. Gentleman also ensure that, before next Monday's debate on the EC budget, the important green paper from the Commission, "The Future Financing of the Community", is made available to the House, as it is not yet available in this country?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly do what I can to see that copies of the latest emanation from the Brandt commission are made available. As to the debate, I have nothing to add to what I said to the Leader of the Opposition. I shall look into the question of the green paper, and inasmuch as it is within the Government's ability, I shall see that such reports are made available.

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

As There have recently been several debates on the regions, particularly those in the northern part of the kingdom, will my right hon. Friend promise the House an early debate on the problems in the south and south-west, particularly in view of the importance of tourism to those areas?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot offer any opportunity next week of a debate in Government time on the problems of the south-west, the south and the tourist industry, but they are all very suitable topics for Adjournment debates.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

Will the Leader of the House note that we are all concerned about the Government's position prior to the Williamsburg summit? Will he undertake to make provision so that the Government's position, particularly on the international value of oil, is made clear? Might there be a statement or White Paper prior to the summit, which is the most important international deliberation to take place for some time?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the House is not disposed to underestimate the importance of the Williamsburg summit. I shall certainly bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's points, but I hope that he will excuse me if I make no specific commitment this afternoon.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

Does my right hon. Friend not consider that there might be some argument for holding a debate on disarmament at an early date, if only to enable the Leader of the Opposition to reiterate his support for the zero option, which he has expressed on many occasions, notably on 19 November 1981, in exchanges during Prime Minister's Question Time?

Has my right hon. Friend by any chance noticed early-day motion 224 which stands in my name and that of more than 100 right hon. and hon. Members?

[That, in view of the dire need of the people of Poland, and in recognition of the debt the United Kingdom owes the people of Poland for their service in the last World War, this House believes that Her Majesty's Government should provide a free post parcel service to Poland for an initial period of four months, particularly since the governments of Italy and West Germany have done the same with considerable success.]

Will he consider providing time for an early debate on that important subject?

Mr. Biffen

There is general enthusiasm, at least in some quarters, for a debate on disarmament. When that debate eventually takes place it may be better subscribed than the debate on cruise missiles last week. However, I do not see any prospect of providing time for a debate on the early-day motion, because the issue is much more appropriate for the Post Office than for this House.

Mr. John Evans (Newton)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the growing unease about the problems of concrete industrialised prefabricated housing in this country and of the growing feeling that a major public inquiry should be held to find out how widespread the problem is? Given this problem's inept handling by the Minister for Housing and Construction, will the right hon. Gentleman make early time available for the House to debate this very serious problem?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot accept the strictures on my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction. Concrete houses have been discussed recently—albeit late in the evening—in a debate on Airey houses. The Orlit houses are, in a sense, a dimension of that more general problem. I thought that my hon. Friend the Minister made an open and helpful statement to the House, but I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said and I shall draw my hon. Friend's attention to it.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Would not my right hon. Friend be better advised to have the timetable motion on the Telecommunications Bill this week? In that way the House would have been spared a major abuse of its Committee procedures by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), who spoke for an excruciating 11½ hours. Will my right hon. Friend look into the situation whereby Committee procedures are abused in such a way that there is no proper debate until the guillotine is passed?

Mr. Biffen

I think my hon. Friend is giving an intriguing trailer of the speech I know he will wish to make next Wednesday.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Has the Leader of the House noticed that, after 12 months' reluctance, the Secretary of State for Social Services has at last placed in the Vote Office copies of the Greenfield report on effective prescribing? Is he aware that the Pharmaceutical Society says that on 11 drugs alone the National Health Service can save £29 million? Could he therefore arrange a debate on this report at the earliest possible opportunity so that public expenditure may be cut?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise both the importance of the Greenfield report and the satisfaction that it is now in the Vote Office. I will certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, although I must confess that I cannot hold out much hope of Government time being made available in the near future.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Could we have a debate very soon on the arrangements under which regional health authorities distribute money to district health authorities? As a small number of authorities in Britain, including Southend, are deliberately and seriously under-funded to the extent of many millions of pounds, as there is no procedure for appeal and as there is no obligation on the health boards to allocate money according to any formula, would it not be right and proper to have this important issue of principle debated in the House soon?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend clearly raises a matter of signal importance. I hesitate to suggest that he might, with a little ingenuity and skill, get it into the debate on the Second Reading debate on Thursday, but I will bear in mind what he is recommending.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

Is the Leader of the House aware that since he first began promising us a debate on disarmament confusion has been added to confusion, with the Prime Minister repudiating the answers even of her own Foreign Secretary, a considerable change in the Prime Minister's own stance on the zero option, the resignation of one Secretary of State for Defence and the trampling underfoot of his successor by demonstrators in favour of disarmament? For the sake of Ministers, if nothing else, is it not better to have an early debate?

Mr. Biffen

With such a record as I seemingly possess, I would expect from the hon. Gentleman encouragement to carry on with the good work.

Mr. Gerry Neale (Cornwall, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the feeling that there should be a debate on the growing concern of many right hon. and hon. Members, touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow), about the comparative lack of debating rules in Standing Committee? Will he consider giving time in the near future for this to be debated on the Floor of the House, bearing in mind that the guillotine debate next week on the Telecommunications Bill will deal essentially with that Bill and whether it should be guillotined rather than with procedure in Standing Committees as a whole?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what my hon. Friend says. I quite appreciate that there are many who wish to challenge the findings of the Procedure Committee of 1977–78 which decisively rejected the concept of automatic timetabling, but I must tell my hon. Friend that one must take one's chances when one can. I should have thought that the general proposition he is making would be wholly appropriate for the debate we are to have on Wednesday.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. A large number of hon. Members are rising and I cannot commit myself to call all of them. However, if questions are brief I shall try to call all those hon. Members before we have the statement on the water dispute.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

Is the Leader of the House aware that we had yet another unsatisfactory debate last night when the Minister took a large part of the hour and a half available for the House to consider assisted places? I think both sides of the House were complaining about it, as I complained about it when I sat on the Government Benches.

Does the Leader of the House accept that the Minister raised more questions than he answered? Will he also suggest to his colleagues, since we cannot expect any early reform in the structure of late-night debates, that Ministers, when contributing to such debates, should take rather less time than they are currently doing, particularly since they seem to say remarkably little at great length?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot accept the strictures made against my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science. In general terms, I accept entirely the proposition that speeches lose nothing by brevity.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

When can we expect a debate on the need for opening up the mines in the vale of Belvoir? As the existing mines are swiftly becoming exhausted and grave unemployment is looming, can we at least have a statement from the Secretary of State for the Environment that he will no longer prevent the opening up of the pit at Asfordby, a procedure begun by his predecessor and so disgracefully continued by him?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. Friend is in his place and will have heard what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said. I will also draw his attention to the point made.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

If the arm-twisting and pressure of the Government Whips and managers on the rebels over the immigration rules does not work next week, what is likely to be the next step in this long-running farcical saga?

Mr. Biffen

A resounding victory on Tuesday.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

When the House approaches the debate on the Brandt report which has been promised by the Leader of the House, will there be some form of written statement of the Government's position before the debate or will it consist simply of an oral report and discussion?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has much charm and is seeking to entice me into giving a much more elaborate reply than the one I gave to the Leader of the Opposition, but it would be discourteous to the Leader of the Opposition if I went any further.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

Will the Leader of the House give urgent consideration to making a statement next Thursday about when we will debate disarmament, in view of representations from all quarters of the House, in view of the fact that the United Nations has demanded that Parliament address itself to nuclear disarmament and in view of the fact that the Prime Minister does not seem to understand that she has committed herself to land-based nuclear missiles before the end of the year?

Mr. Biffen

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I note in many parts of the House a very real interest in and anxiety to have such a debate, but time is a precious commodity and I shall have to see how best one can encompass the request.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Can I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to last night's "Tonight" programme on BBC 2, which cast grave doubt on the efficiency of cruise and Pershing missiles, which have had more failures than successes? As that information is available to both congressmen and senators in the United States, before we have any defence debate in this House can it be made available to hon. Members here?

Mr. Biffen

The programme can be made available in the sense that a video film of it is readily available. I cannot go further than that.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

May I join other hon. Members, particularly those on the Labour Benches, in supporting a request for a debate on disarmament and suggest that the Leader of the House might consider allocating two days to such a debate?

May I also urge him to consider a debate on health and safety at work? He will know as well as I do that more days are lost each year through industrial injuries and accidents than through strike action yet the Government have brought in Bill after Bill attacking trade union's agility to take industrial action. Should the Government not attack the real cause of lost time at work, industrial injury?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman says about a debate on disarmament and that he thinks two clays would be more appropriate than one.

I agree that we constantly overlook the importance of industrial injuries. I will certainly take note of the point the hon. Gentleman makes and draw it to the attention of the relevant Minister, but I must say candidly that there is no prospect of Government time being made available for a debate on that topic in the near future.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House agree that the role of the Export Credits Guarantee Department is to guarantee money that in some circumstances cannot otherwise be obtained? Does he accept that there is a very serious problem with the ECGD and that some would argue, as indeed some press speculation has suggested, that the whole apparatus is bust? [Interruption.] I do not need any advice from one of the Slater Walker blades. Taking into account the fact that the Crown Agents have been ordering materials and spares for certain countries, including Nigeria, and that firms in this country have not been able to get the money and the Crown Agents cannot get it for them, surely it is time someone came to the Dispatch Box and made a statement on this matter of ECGD and the Crown Agents and the financial circumstances surrounding both departments.

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly draw the attention of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade to the hon. Gentleman's anxieties about the Export Credits Guarantee Department. I should also have thought that, as the hon. Gentleman has such a passionate feeling about the whole issue, he might have been doing his best to secure an Adjournment debate.