HC Deb 17 February 1983 vol 37 cc469-79 3.31 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 21 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on the European Community budget.

The relevant document numbers will appear in the Official Report. Resumed consideration of the motion on the Parliamentary Constituencies (Wales) Order.

TUESDAY 22 FEBRUARY—Opposition day [8th Allotted Day]. Until about seven o'clock there will be a debate on the west midlands, and afterwards a debate on Yorkshire and Humberside. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Remaining stages of the Nuclear Material (Offences) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 23 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the British Shipbuilders Bill.

THURSDAY 24 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the National Heritage Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Civil Aviation (Eurocontrol) Bill [Lords] and of the Currency Bill.

FRIDAY 25 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 28 FEBRUARY—A debate on policing in the Metropolis on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Mr. Foot

I wish to question the right hon. Gentleman on a few matters that I have put to him previously. From the replies a few minutes ago relating to the report in The Guardian, the Prime Minister appeared to confirm the report or, at any rate, the broad outline of it. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore assure us that there will be an early debate upon all the kindred matters of the family and the Government's proposals in this area? I have previously asked the right hon. Gentleman about the public expenditure White Paper. I hope that he is now able to say when a debate will take place.

I asked last week for a debate on the common crisis revealed in the Brandt report. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is now in a position to assure the House that there will be a full debate in Government time on this matter.

I should also like to know when there is to be a debate on Anderson Strathclyde. Now that the Charter Consolidated and Anderson Strathclyde merger is no longer before the courts, I hope the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the House should debate the subject. It is not right that the unprecedented rejection by the Government of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission report should go undebated in the House. I hope that Government time will soon be provided for a debate.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a major debate on disarmament? One is obviously desired on both sides of the House. We on this side have been urging for a long time that there should be a debate. We believe that it should take place at an early date. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can give me that assurance.

Mr. Biffen

The family is clearly a major matter in any general debate on economic affairs. I cannot guarantee that there will be a debate about the family in Government time. I assure the right hon. Gentleman, however, that we shall shortly be entering into that period of parliamentary life when there will be considerable opportunities for economic debates relating to the Budget that will touch upon the matters that concern him.

I stated last week that it would be of great advantage if the debate on public expenditure could take place in the light of representations that might be received from the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. That remains my view. I hope very much that we shall have a debate, but I would much prefer that the views of the Select Committee were known.

I cannot do much more than repeat what I said last week about the Brandt report. It is an important contribution to public discussion. It has only recently been published. We must study it and see what opportunities there are for its consideration by the House.

I cannot really hold out much hope of a debate on Anderson Strathclyde other than to observe that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State made a statement to the House about the proposed merger and the Government's reaction to the recommendations of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It was then argued from the Opposition Benches that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had not been acting fairly within the terms of the Fair Trading Act 1973. It has since been confirmed by the courts that he had. That must influence my reaction to the right hon. Gentleman's request.

On the important issue of a disarmament debate—I said last week that I hoped that this matter could be taken forward—I agree that there should be debate. I accept that it will have to take place in Government time. The timing must take account of the other demands that are made at this time of the year. I realise that it is an important topic.

Mr. Foot

I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said about the proposed debate on disarmament. I hope it will be fairly soon. Hon. Members have been pressing for many weeks that a debate should take place.

The Anderson Strathclyde issue involves not only the propriety of Government Ministers—I agree that is an important aspect—but extremely serious questions of employment in Scotland. The Government stepped in to override a report by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission affecting employment in Scotland. When will the right hon. Gentleman provide time to discuss that matter?

Mr. Biffen

A statement was made by my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department of Trade at the time of the decision. It was clouded by unnecessary comments about whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had acted within the law. The courts vindicated him. I believe that the Government have been completely candid with the House on this matter.

I note the urgency which the right hon. Gentleman invests in his wish for a debate on disarmament.

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

Can the Leader of the House ensure that additional time is made available when the House debates the Welsh and other boundary orders so that the Opposition may be given a full opportunity to show that of all the measures brought before the House the one to which they are most opposed is that of fighting the next election on up-to-date boundaries?

Mr. Biffen

The business announced for Monday will allow for a further one and a half hours debate on this topic. How the House conducts itself will doubtless be monitored by the nation.

Sir Anthony Grant (Harrow, Central)

Has the attention of the Leader of the House been drawn to early-day motion 214, signed by 79 hon. Members of all parties?

[That this House welcomes the initiative by the bus and coach industry, both public and private sectors, in publishing "The Future of the Bus", a major report on its future; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to examine urgently further ways to provide the clear and stable financial and legal framework which the industry lacks and needs, so that the bus, as well as the coach, can continue to play an effective role in meeting the nation's transport needs.]

In view of the inordinate amount of parliamentary time taken by discussion of the railways, could he find a little time to discuss other forms of transport?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot offer any Government time for next week or in the near future. I will draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport the point that my hon. Friend makes.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Crosby)

In view of the hints and nudges by the Secretary of State for Employment about further trade union legislation, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when there will be time for a debate on the Green Paper on trade union immunities?

Secondly, can the Lord President tell the House when there will be time for a debate on the education voucher scheme so that the House may save the Government from their proposed follies?

Mr. Biffen

There is no provision next week for a debate on the trade unions. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to the right hon. Lady's keen interest in the subject.

There are no plans for a debate upon education in Government time next week. Doubtless, when such a debate takes place, plenty of hon. Members will wish to point to the follies in education that are associated with the right hon. Lady.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

In regard to the public expenditure debate, is my right hon. Friend aware that the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee is taking evidence and hopes to report to the House some weeks before the Budget?

In regard to Anderson Strathclyde, which was mentioned by the Leader of the Opposition, while agreeing with my right hon. Friend that there is little case for having a debate in the House on that subject, would there not be advantage in the House debating the policy of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, about which there is substantial criticism in the country?

Mr. Biffen

I note what my right hon. Friend has said about the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee report on the expenditure White Paper. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department of Trade concerning the possibility of a wider debate on the issue of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

In view of the lack of sparkle in the reaction of the Minister of State, Home Office to the point of order I submitted last night on the Welsh boundary proposals, will the Leader of the House say what steps he is taking to ensure that Monday's debate has a better response? Will he draw the attention of whichever Minister appears at the Dispatch Box to the fact that yet another statutory instrument concerning the borough of Neath recently came into my hands from the Home Secretary dated 2 February 1983? Are there any more statutory instruments relevant to the borough of Neath?

Mr. Biffen

I thought that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office developed his arguments with sparkle and conviction. I have no doubt that he will continue that performance on Monday. I will draw his attention to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point. I know that that matter has been exercising his mind and that of several of his hon. Friends.

Mr. Stephen Hastings (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Has my right hon. Friend noted early-day motion 224, which now carries 146 signatures from Members on both sides of the House on a free post for Poland?

[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.]

Is it not a fact that the Governments of West Germany, Italy and, I believe, Switzerland have all afforded this limited concession? Is it not a rather sorry reflection that this country, which owes so much to the Polish people, should not have done so? When may we expect to hear further from the Government on this subject?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend may recollect that I had to consider that question last week when it was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne). I cannot give a more helpful answer than I gave on that occasion.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

Will the Leader of the House consider tabling a motion next week to reactivate the Special Standing Committee procedure, which was used very effectively last Session and which was the Government's invention? If the right 'Ion. Gentleman is prepared to do that, will he consider having the Plant Varieties Bill considered under that procedure? That Bill has scientific and other implications which go far wider than the terms of the Bill?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has raised a fair and important point. He may recollect that the Special Standing Committee procedure was intended for Government Bills that raised substantial issues but not acute party controversy. I do not think that the Bill raises issues of such magnitude especially as it received its Second Reading in the House of Lords within half-an-hour.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the press is made aware of the imminence of a statement long before Members of this House are by the monitor or the notice board in the Members' Lobby? As a result, when hon. Members are telephoned and asked to comment, they have not the faintest idea what they are being asked about. Is this not an undersirable state of affairs? Will he kindly, for the benefit of the House, do something about it?

Mr. Biffen

It is an undesirable state of affairs, but I do not believe it is novel. I will look into the matter.

Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

Does the Leader of the House think it right for the House, when considering draft orders arising out of Boundary Commission reports, to have limited opportunity to debate them, no opportunity to make amendments and little say in the arrangements arising out of the Boundary Commission reports? Will the Leader of the House consider the 1954 precedent when there were separate orders for different parts of the country, county by county?

Can there be a full day's "take note" debate on the orders? May hon. Members have a proper opportunity in the next few weeks for measured consideration of the reports?

Mr. Biffen

I shall consider the precedents that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that interest in social policy and the future of the welfare state is not confined to Labour Members? Therefore, would it not be a good idea to have a wide-ranging debate on these matters in Government time in the fairly near future, not least because this would give the House a chance to hear from Ministers how the next Conservative Government propose to tackle these matters?

Mr. Biffen

I have sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend makes. Bearing in mind the issues that I think he wishes to raise within the ambit of Tory social policy, if he cannot raise them during the Budget debate I do not know on what occasion he will be able to do so.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give thought next week to a growing malpractice in parliamentary affairs? Is he aware that last week, or the week before that, I was telephoned by the Fleet street office of The Times about a written reply given that day by the Prime Minister? I said that I had not received the reply. In fact, I received it the next day. However, the press had had it the previous day. This is happening continually among Ministers—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Under successive Governments.

Mr. Allaun

That may be, but the practice is utterly wrong. It is one that puts the questioner at a disadvantage as he cannot comment on the Minister's reply until it is too late.

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

In the light of the debates that we have had recently on unemployment in the regions, especially in the west midlands, can my right hon. Friend say whether the Opposition's choice of a debate on unemployment in the west midlands, again in preference to the subject of disarmament, for example, or the Brandt report, indicates that at long last they have some specific proposals for the west midlands, or are we merely to have another rehearsal of the repercussions of the policies for which they were responsible?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend and I both come from the west midlands and we both realise that it is an important region. It was the subject of a debate which was initiated by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) and it is to be the subject of a debate on an Opposition motion. That clearly underlines the importance of the west midlands. Clearly there were other topics that the Opposition might have chosen, but they settled on the west midlands and we must leave it at that.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

After the fiasco last night when the Government tried to force through the Welsh constituency boundary changes, may we have an assurance that the Scottish order will not be laid at least until the Secretary of State meets a delegation from the villages of Fallin, Plean, Throsk and Cowie? These villages are to be shunted into another constituency on the other side of the river Forth as a result of a blatant attempt at gerrymandering by a public inquiry reporter who is a former Tory parliamentary candidate and a former chairman of the Central Scotland Conservative Association.

Mr. Biffen

As last night's debate has been described as a fiasco, the House might like to recollect that the debate proceeded on a motion which had been judged by the Chair to be entirely in order and to have been an order that had been properly laid. If there was a fiasco, it was because there are hon. Members who are more concerned to dispute the referee's judgment than to argue in other ways.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the family policy debate should go far wider that purely economic issues? I refer him to the debate that I initiated towards the end of last year.

Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that we have a debate on the proposals for England of the Boundary Commission for England as soon as possible to correct the misconception that changed boundaries will give a bonus to the Tories? It will give us the opportunity to make it plain that the Labour party has an unfair advantage which it seems determined to try to keep for itself at whatever democratic cost.

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says about the debate on family policy. I remember the debate that he initiated some while back. Next week's business does not provide for a debate on the English boundaries, but I am certain that the debates will take account of what happened last night.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

As the Prime Minister and her colleagues had plenty and a half to say about the "Panorama" programme on 10 May, may I ask whether they studied Monday night's "Panorama" on the horrendous costs of the Falklands? Are we to believe Mr. Fred Emery when he says that there is a Cabinet struggle taking place to decide whether to spend £350 million on an airstrip at Port Stanley—

Sir Frederick Burden (Gillingham)

This has nothing to do with next week's business.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am grateful for the help of the hon. Member for Gillingham (Sir F. Burden). The question of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) is not directed to next week's business.

Mr. Dalyell


Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must not argue his grievances now. He must ask about the business for next week.

Mr. Dalyell

May I ask whether there will be a statement on the state of the Cabinet struggle?

Mr. Biffen

There is no plan for such a statement. If such a statement were made, it would not be in the context of a Cabinet struggle. It would be about the resolve and determination that unite Conservative Members in contrast to the position of our opponents. I shall draw to the attention of the relevant Ministers the anxieties that the hon. Gentleman has expressed.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I refer my right hon. Friend again to early-clay motion 47, which has been signed by over 118 Members on both sides of the House and which expresses concern about the future of gliding at Portmoak in Scotland.

[That this House, concerned that there is no independent appeals procedure against Civil Aviation Authority decisions on the introduction of new airways, calls upon the Government not to implement the proposal for an airway between Glasgow-Edinburgh and Aberdeen via Perth until the effect of the airway on gliding at Portmoak and all the other options have been fully explored and debated in public.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that regulations will come into force in the very near future? Bearing in mind the views of many hon. Members, will it be possible to have a debate on the issue before the regulations are introduced?

Mr. Biffen

I can go no further than the comment which I made previously to the effect that I shall draw my hon. Friend's representations to the attention of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Department of Trade. I can offer no prospect of a debate on this subject in Government time next week.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the British Railways Board has recently announced the closure of its engineering works at Temple Mills, Horwich and Shildon? Is he further aware that if the closures go ahead, certainly in Shildon in my constituency, the male unemployment rate in that area will rise to 50 per cent.? For how much longer are the Government prepared to stand idly by to witness the wholesale destruction of communities in the north of England? Are we to have a statement or a debate on these matters?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman fairly makes a point about a development that will have a grievous impact upon his constituency. I shall refer his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and there we must leave it.

Mr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

Will my right hon. Friend direct his attention to early-day motion 117 of the previous Session, which was signed by over 100 Members of all parties?

[That this House expresses its concern at the plight of the 13,500 widows of police officers, who retired prior to 1st April 1956, known as 'preserved rate widows', whose husbands were unable to contribute to a higher rate pension; and, in view of Her Majesty's Government's prompt action in respect of the widows of servicemen, invites the Government to follow the same principle for a police widow on a preserved rate of pension when the matter is considered in the immediate future by the Police Negotiating Board.]

The motion relates to a constituency problem that every Member faces—the plight of preserved rate widows' pensions. These are pre-1956 widows who are now 82 years of age. Should not this social injustice be put right?

Mr. Biffen

I acknowledge that there is wide general interest in the subject that my hon. Friend mentions. I am sure that the imminent Budget and the subsequent Finance Bill will present useful opportunities to raise the issue.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

At Question Tine today the Prime Minister appeared to confirm the authenticity of the report in The Guardian today on the welfare state. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange an early debate on the future of the welfare state so that we may discuss the report that appeared today and earlier reports of the Think Tank so that the British people can be warned prior to the election of what to expect if we have another Tory Government?

Mr. Biffen

That issue has already been raised several times. I can offer no more in answer to the hon. Gentleman than I could offer to other hon. Members.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

May I press the Leader of the House for a debate on the Anderson Strathclyde issue? Is he aware that there is massive Scottish opinion among the trade unions, employers and others that there must be a debate? Surely this demand should have nothing other than a positive response from the House. Will he arrange also for a debate on the Government's decimation of the Scotch whisky industry?

Mr. Biffen

As there are two part-day debates devoted to those types of problems in different parts of the United Kingdom next week and the Opposition have not chosen to put Scotland ahead of Yorkshire and Humberside and the west midlands in their priorities, I do not feel that I should be the sole recipient of the hon. Gentleman's request. I should like to return to the request for a debate about Anderson Strathclyde. It is easy to make accusations in the Chamber about the propriety of Ministers and, when the courts make a ruling that vindicates Ministers, to suppose that that is the end of the matter and that one can return to other issues that were the subject of the original statement.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman cannot brush the issue aside as he did in his reply. Right from the beginning we have been asking for a debate about the overruling of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It is perfectly correct that some people still believe that the Minister did not deal with the issue properly, but that is not the major issue on which we are asking for a debate. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider it again? Bearing in mind the fact that all opinion in Scotland that has applied its mind to the problem shares that view, why will he not give us time for a debate on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate that point. When my hon. and learned Friend made his statement to the House, he dealt with why he made the judgment that he did.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call two hon. Members on the Government Benches and four hon. Members from the Opposition Benches and then move on to the next business.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is great sympathy in the House and the country for the people and Government of Australia in the problems that they now face due to the disastrous fire in parts of Australia? Will he consult his colleagues to see whether we can, as a country, offer some practical support?

Mr. Biffen

This is a time of the week when the House shows itself in sharp and constructive discord. My hon. Friend has raised a point that I am sure will bring immediate unanimity from all quarters of the House when we think of the terrible disasters that have overtaken Australia in the past 48 hours. I shall consider my hon. Friend's other point.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

May I revert to the lukewarm response that the Leader of the House gave to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition with regard to his request for a debate on Anderson Strathclyde? Does he not understand that he cannot lightly dismiss the fact that this is the first time that a recommendation of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has been overturned? That is the reason for the request for a debate, coupled with the fact that I visited an Anderson Strathclyde factory in my constituency where the workers are unanimously opposed to being taken over by Charter Consolidated. It has enormous implications for the west of Scotland which already has an extremely high rate of unemployment.

Mr. Biffen

I take that point. The hon. Gentleman speaks with the authority of a constituency interest. When my hon. and learned Friend made his statement, he told the House why he had made his judgment in the light of the recommendations of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. That was the important point to make, and it was the correct occasion to make it.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

I too draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 47 that was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro). Is he aware that there is anxiety in the House because there is no independent appeals procedure against decisions made by National Air Traffic Services of the Civil Aviation Authority? That quango can proceed without appeals as appeals go only to it. That seems to be contrary to what democracy requires and it is why there is so much anxiety on both sides of the House. There is a need for a debate on the subject—not because gliding in Scotland is affected but because there is no independent appeals procedure.

Mr. Biffen

I understand my hon Friend's point. He has made it as eloquently as he has done on previous occasions. I shall draw what he has said to the attention of the relevant Minister. Nevertheless, I must say that there is no opportunity for such a debate in Government time next week.

Mr. Roger Stott (Westhoughton)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the reply that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster)? Is he aware that if British Rail Engineering Ltd. carries out the proposals that it announced this morning, 4,500 people will lose their jobs between now and the end of 1984? Is he further aware that in areas such as Shildon and Horwich, in my constituency, British Rail Engineering workshops are the only source of employment and that if the proposals go ahead those communities will be devastated? Will the Leader of the House reconsider his earlier reply and provide time for a debate on the issue?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot guarantee a debate on that topic in Government time next week. I repeat my earlier commitment, that I shall refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Scotland Exchange)

The Leader of the House will have seen early-day motion 316 that relates to staffing levels in the Department of Health and Social Security in the north-west region.

[That this House, gravely concerned at the low morale of the civil servants employed in the Department of Health and Social Security in the North West Region and on Merseyside, at the manning levels, and in view of the fact that the number of claimants is alleged to have increased on Merseyside by 35 per cent. in the past two years, and the number of long-term unemployed has increased by 92 per cent. over the same period, calls upon the Secretary of State to call for a freeze on planned staffing cuts during the Merseyside County Council's planned take-up campaign in April 1983]

It appears that staffing levels in DHSS offices are also a problem in other parts of the country and that the increase in the number of payments, especially the long-term unemployed, is in difficulties because of the reduction of staff. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Social Services soon or, better still, have a debate on this extremely important subject?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman's request to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made about the contract for the houses that are to be erected in the Falklands which has been allocated to James Brewster Associates, which is an exhibition, not a building, firm? It has got the contract for a firm in Sweden rather than the British Hallam Group that is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Fletcher).

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Hallam Group believes that the matter should be re-examined as it put in a tender that was £400,000 lower than that of the exhibition firm? Is he further aware that the Hallam Group believes that the matter should be reconsidered because James Brewster Associates has not declared its company accounts since 31 December 1979 and that the Prime Minister has acknowledged in a letter to me that prosecution letters have been sent to that firm? Surely that problem necessitates an inquiry and the British firm getting the contract.

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's point to the attention of the relevant Government Departments.