HC Deb 23 June 1983 vol 44 cc155-61 3.15 pm
The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Biffen)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement about next week's business.

As the House is aware, the debate on the Address in reply to the Gracious Speech will conclude on Wednesday 29 June.

THURSDAY 30 JUNE—There will be a debate on a motion to approve the White Paper on the development of cable systems and services, Cmnd. 8866.

Motion on the Local Loans (Increase of Limit) Order.

FRIDAY I JULY—A debate on London, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

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

Does the Leader of the House recognise that the support of a quarter of the voters—almost the same as that obtained by the Labour party—confers a right to a fair hearing and a reasonable share of the debating time available to Opposition parties in the House? When does the Leader of the House propose to set up a Procedure Committee so that this and other procedural matters can be properly considered, and when may we have a debate on an electoral system that allows such a distorted result to emerge from the ballot box?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Member is aware that the debate on the Queen's Speech is so constructed that a debate about a change in our electoral system would be in order. I would be immensely surprised if it were not a matter of substantial reference during the next few days. As to the wider issue of the Procedure Committee, I take note of the hon. Gentleman's interest.

Sir Paul Bryan (Boothferry)

Does the early debate on cable television denote early legislation on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

It will denote a prudent and measured approach to the topic.

Mr. Jack Dormand (Easington)

Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that the report of the Top Salaries Review Body on parliamentary pay and allowances will be debated at an early date? Does he agree that there is a need for urgent action on all the matters contained in the report? Will he also bear in mind that the House is becoming a little annoyed about the frequent rejections of proposals made by authoritative bodies, such as the review body, that have considered these matters for a long time and in great detail?

Furthermore, will he remind the Prime Minister that this is primarily a matter for the House of Commons and not for her personal edict?

Mr. Biffen

As to the final point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said. When the report was published on 12 May, my right hon. Friend stated her belief that there should be widespread consultation on this matter within Parliament before a decision was taken.

I hope to commence those consultations in the near future. The Government wish to resolve this matter as soon as is practical.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Has my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House seen early day motion 7, which has attracted 110 signatures not only from Government Members but from members of the Liberal party and the Democratic Unionist party about postal votes for those on holiday?

[That this House urges Her Majesty's Government immediately to take steps to enable people on holiday to be eligible for postal votes at a General Election.]

Does my right hon. Friend accept that this problem arises after every general election? As time elapses and Governments find reasons for not taking action on this subject, anger arises in our constituents who were unable to vote. They cannot understand why one can vote if one is on business in Birmingham but if one is on holiday in Blackpool or Benidorm it is not possible to vote. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the Government will take early note of the strong feelings on this subject?

Mr. Biffen

The House echoes agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley). Hon. Members, fresh from the hustings, will understand only too well what he said. This topic has been the subject of a recommendation from the Home Affairs Committee which is now with the Home Office. The House must wait to see what follows from that.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider inviting you, Mr. Speaker, at an early date to call a conference under your chairmanship to consider the present state of electoral law in the light of some of the experiences of the recent election, particularly concerning the timetable as it affected potential absent voters?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly consider that proposition.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

When Foreign Office Ministers speak in the debate on the Gracious Speech next week, will they make a statement on how the Government intend to honour the commitment in the Gracious Speech regarding Gibraltar, and how they intend to keep its economy going when the dockyard shuts?

Mr. Biffen

I shall ensure that Foreign Office Ministers are informed of that point.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Since arts matters have been removed to the rarefied atmosphere of the other place, and since arts questions are due to be answered next Monday, who will be dealing in this Chamber with this important subject?

Mr. Biffen

A respected and convincing Minister from the Department of the Environment will deal with those questions.

Viscount Cranborne (South Dorset)

Would my right hon. Friend care to cast his mind back to the dying days of the previous Parliament and to certain exchanges between myself, other right hon. and hon. Members and himself about the procedures of this House, with particular reference to the way in which legislation is handled? In the light of those exchanges, will he consider again the reestablishment of the Select Committee on Procedure and institute an early debate on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

I think that my hon. Friend is adding his voice to that of the Liberal Chief Whip, and I suspect, many others. Of course such matters will be considered.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

As the Gracious Speech makes no mention of investment in either the coal or the steel industry, particularly in Wales, and as an announcement was made during the election by the Secretary of State for Wales about the Port Talbot strip mill, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether we shall be given a statement by the Department of Energy and the Secretary of State for Wales about investment in both those important industries?

Mr. Biffen

That is a topic that could well be raised in the debate on the Gracious Speech tomorrow.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Does the Leader of the House have it in mind to reconstitute the Select Committees before the summer recess?

Mr. Biffen

Obviously I would wish to look at that matter and to take counsel through the usual channels. However, I should not like to be bound to so specific a commitment as that.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Has the attention of the Leader of the House been drawn to early day motion 23?

[That this House amends its Standing Orders to make the composition of all Scottish Standing Committees and the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs reflect the political balance of Members of this House representing Scottish constituencies.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the iniquity of Scottish Standing Committees that deal exclusively with Scottish legislation being constituted to reflect the political balance of the United Kingdom rather than that of Scotland, and of the Scottish Affairs Committee, which deals exclusively with Scottish affairs, representing the political balance in the United Kingdom rather than that in Scotland? This issue should be deal: with as a matter of urgency and I hope that the Leader of the House will look into it.

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly take account of the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. I am sure that he will realise that he has referred to a major innovation which would be highly controversial—[Interruption.] I suspect that it would be welcome to some, but not to others. However, I certainly cannot offer to take any action next week that would he to the hon. Gentlernan's satisfaction.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

With regard to the report of the Top Salaries Review Body on the pay and conditions of Members of Parliament, what consultations does my right hon. Friend propose and how does he intend to carry them out? Will he consider pitting that body's proposals to the House with Government amendments suggesting changes, as the Government see fit, instead of the other way round as in the past few years?

Mr. Biffen

I shall follow the normal practice of consultation. If my hon. Friend would like to come and see me, I should be happy to consult with him.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Since, for understandable reasons, the Leader of the House has not announced the business for Monday week, 4 July, will he consider making a statement in the House before next Thursday as to that day's business?

Mr. Biffen

It is not normal or conventional to announce the business for the Monday, but I note the hon. Gentleman's anxiety and if he wishes to come to see me I should be happy to see whether there are any particular problems. However, I do not give any undertaking to depart from the normal practice.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an opportunity to debate at an early stage the catastrophic announcement affecting the food processing industry, with the job losses in Grimsby and Cleethorpes in excess of 1,500, which were announced yesterday? On behalf of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and me, will he consider asking my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry to make a statement in the House on this serious issue?

Mr. Biffen

Tomorrow's debate will be a perfectly appropriate occasion for such representations.

Mr. Clement Freud (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that responsibility for answering questions on the arts has been transferred from the Department of Education and Science to the Department of the Environment? Might this not be a good time to announce any other little changes?

Mr. Biffen

The Minister who will answer used to he known as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), but I am no longer sure of the names of the constituencies of Members. I suspect that all hon. Members will suffer that affliction until they have done their homework. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be quite satisfied with the new arrangement.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the British merchant fleet in view of the declining gross tonnage in this country, and will he couple that with a ports strategy for the United Kingdom, which he promised me in the previous Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw that point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Freud

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether the Leader of the House will reconsider his answer to my question.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does not intend to treat Scotland in the way that he is apparently treating it at present. There is deep concern in Scotland about the projected closure of the Cardowan colliery in my constituency affecting 1,100 jobs. Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to initiate an urgent debate on the future of the mining industry?

Mr. Biffen

No. That topic will be fully covered m the arrangements for tomorrow's debate on the Gracious Speech. My few remarks across the Floor of the House were in no way disrespectful to Scotland. I was trying to provide some enlightenment to a forlorn quarter of England.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that the House will be given an early opportunity to discuss the deployment of cruise missiles in this country?

Mr. Biffen

The debate next Tuesday on foreign affairs and defence would seem to be a wholly appropriate occasion for raising that topic.

Mr. Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

I wish to put two questions to my right hon. Friend. First, if he intends to propose to you, Mr. Speaker, a Speaker's Conference to consider the question of votes for holidaymakers, will he include in the terms of reference British citizens in the European Community who do not have a right to vote, unlike citizens of other European Community countries when they are in this country or another member state? Secondly, is he aware that it is vital that we should have a separate debate on the negotiations now proceeding about nuclear weapons? It is vital that it should be held before the House rises for the recess because of the timetable for the deployment of cruise and Pershing II? It is not satisfactory to have a wide-ranging foreign affairs debate on the Gracious Speech next Tuesday and to include in that the detailed questions affecting negotiations and the position of the British Government on nuclear weapons alone. We need a debate in which the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence can set out the position of the American, British and Soviet Governments and in which the House can make constructive proposals about those negotiations.

Mr. Biffen

I note the point made by my right hon. Friend about a debate on cruise missiles. He will appreciate that a defence White Paper is in prospect and that will be the appropriate occasion for such consideration. On my right hon. Friend's first point, he may recollect that I answered the question about holiday votes in the context of a Select Committee that had already reported on the subject and whose recommendations are with the Home Office, and not in the context of my making any recommendation to Mr. Speaker.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

Questions have been asked about electors who are not able to vote because they are on holiday or in hospital. Will the Leader of the House consider conferring with the computer industry to evolve a system to enable people to vote anywhere in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Biffen

I note the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that during the last Parliament on several occasions I asked whether time could be found for a London question time? In view of the amalgamation of the Trade and Industry Departments and the consequent saving of a Question Time every fourth Monday, will my right hon. Friend consider a question time for London, which is represented by 84 hon. Members—more than for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which have regular Question Times?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot encourage my hon. Friend to entertain the hope that we shall have a question time for London. I ask my hon. Friend to make do with what is on offer, including a debate at the end of next week.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garson)

Will the Leader of the House arrange with his right hon. Friends to examine what is happening on Merseyside, because of the news of further closures and unemployment, so that we may understand the role of the task force and what its future intentions are in relation to mass unemployment on Merseyside?

Mr. Biffen

Unemployment features among the topics for debate next Wednesday which will be an appropriate occasion to discuss that issue.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a big day ahead, so I shall call only those hon. Members who have been rising.

Mr. Heath

I wish to press my right hon. Friend because I think that he misunderstood my question. I am asking not for a debate about cruise missiles, but for a debate in detail about the state of the negotiations on strategic and medium range weapons, the positions of the Governments involved and the proposals that we can make about them. That leaves aside the question of the deployment of cruise missiles and Pershing II in this country.

Am I to understand from my right hon. Friend's reply that he is not prepared to consider the voting rights of British citizens in Community countries?

Mr. Biffen

The question of British citizens in Community countries voting in United Kingdom elections is germane to the wider consideration of our electoral arrangements. Earlier I was answering the narrower but specific point about holidays.

I take note of what my right hon. Friend says about a debate on the defence Estimates. We shall have a debate on defence in our consideration of the Queen's Speech. We are also likely to have a debate on the defence White Paper. The Government have a limited amount of time available to them and we shall try to balance all the topics.

Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House not pay too much attention to the early day motion on electoral reform? Has he considered the opposition with which we were threatened by the Liberal and SDP members when they got back to Parliament? Will he bear in mind that the gale has already blown itself out because when the Prime Minister delivered a statement on the most important matter of getting money back from Europe—not the amount that she expected—the Social Democrats went missing and the Liberals did not offer to speak? So what is all the talk about wanting to reshape British politics and so on? The Liberals and Social Democrats cannnot even get on their feet to speak about these important matters.

Mr. Biffen

That is all very impressive, but I am not certain that it arises from next week's business.

Mr. Beith

Can the Leader of the House help with what I believe to be a slip of the tongue? He gave the impression that ministerial responsibility for the arts had been transferred from the Department of Education and Science to the Department of the Environment and that his hon. Friend would answer as an Environment Minister rather than as an Education Minister. The House was not surprised to learn that his hon. Friend would be answering for the arts but expected him to do so as an Education Minister.

Mr. Biffen

I gave my answer in good faith, believing that my hon. Friend was a Minister at the Department of the Environment. That was confirmed by those around me.

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

Does the Leader of the House recognise that, whatever is decided through the usual channels about the formation of Select Committees, the will of the House is in favour of their earliest possible formation? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that no obstruction is put up either by his colleagues or by anyone else in the House so that they are formed before the end of July and preferably in the next couple of weeks?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Last but not least, what form of response does the Leader of the House think suitable to the very specific allegation adduced by Paul Foot in today's Daily Mirror, attributed to the Prime Minister of Peru, challenging the truthfulness of the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Pym) and of the Prime Minister? Are not matters of veracity important to the House and should we not have a statement?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of those of my right hon. Friends who have departmental responsibilities for that matter.

Mr. Speaker

I should make it plain that in future I shall not feel disposed to call right hon. and hon. Members to ask a second question. I accept the traditional leniency in relation to the Front Bench. Perhaps we should look upon what happened today as a beginning-of-term treat.

Mr. Biffen

I am now told that my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane), the Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, will he answering questions about the arts.