HC Deb 03 March 1983 vol 38 cc373-80 3.32 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 MARCH—Debate on a motion to take note of the review by Lord Jellicoe, Cmnd. 8803.

Motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 (Continuance) Order.

Proceedings on the British Fishing Boats Bill.

TUESDAY 8 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Energy Bill.

Motion on financial assistance to Opposition parties.

WEDNESDAY 9 MARCH—Debate on a motion to take note of the White Paper on the Government's expenditure plans, 1983–84 to 1985–86, Cmnd. 8789.

THURSDAY 10 MARCH—Motions on the following Northern Ireland orders: Appropriation, Rates (Amendment) and Licensing (International Airports).

FRIDAY 11 MARCH—Private Member's motions.

MONDAY 14 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Housing and Building Control Bill.

Mr. Foot

May I put four matters to the right hon. Gentleman? I am grateful to him for providing a debate on the public expenditure White Paper for which we asked, but I fear that we are still awaiting a response from the Government on other matters. We have asked constantly for a debate on disarmament, which he has promised, but there seems to be no prospect of it in the near future. The Secretary of State for Defence seems to be setting up a new department in his Ministry each week instead of preparing speeches on this matter. I should have thought that the Leader of the House could have arranged a debate by now.

We should like a debate on the discussions within the Government on what is euphemistically entitled "family policy" to cover social policy generally.

We have asked for a debate on the second Brandt report, and I believe that the right hon. Gentleman has accepted our request. I hope that he will tell us when it will take place and whether the report will be placed in the Vote Office, as we have requested.

Will the right hon. Gentleman look again at the request I have made on numerous occasions for a debate on the Charter Consolidated and Anderson Strathclyde merger? The right hon. Gentleman knows that there is widespread interest in this matter not just in Scotland but throughout the country. We believe that the interference with and overruling of the Monopolies and Mergers Commissiion raises an issue of major importance. There is no possibility of a Supply day being used in the proposed arrangements for next week, but there are some other aspects of business which could easily be postponed. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider that?

In view of the widespread interest in any appointment to the chairmanship of the National Coal Board, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that any such appointment should be announced in the House, which is the right way to do it as so many questions have been put down. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree immediately to that request.

Mr. Biffen

I shall answer the right hon. Gentleman's questions in reverse order.

I can add nothing to the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about the appointment of the chairman of the National Coal Board, but I accept at once the point made by the right hon. Gentleman about the House being informed.

As to the decision on the Anderson Strathclyde bid and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, of course the Government acknowledged at once that there was widespread interest and controversy surrounding the decision not to accept the advice of the Commission. That is why on 22 December 1982 an oral statement was made to the House about the decision, whereas these matters are normally revealed to the House in a written reply. I cannot take the matter beyond what I said last week.

I accept at once that there is widespread interest in the House that the Brandt report should be debated. I am not in a position to say when, but it is a matter that we might take further; and, as a token of my interest in the matter, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that copies of the report will be available in the Vote Office next week.

The range of issues contained within the phrase "family policy" will, of course, be central to the Budget debate.

I accept that we must have a debate on disarmament in the reasonably near future. At the moment, our progress with parliamentary debates is blocked somewhat by the Budget and the debate on the Budget resolutions. I hope that thereafter we can agree a time for the debate. I am certain that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will be much looking forward to the clash of opinion.

Mr. Foot

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his responses to several of those matters. However, I must make it clear to him that we do not regard the oral statement made about the Anderson Strathclyde affair as a substitute for a proper debate and vote in the House. I ask the right hon. Gentleman earnestly to arrange a debate for next week. If he wanted to rearrange the business for next week, we should be happy to discuss the matter through the usual channels. If he has nothing to hide and believes that the Government have acted wisely, why not let us have the debate immediately?

Mr. Biffen

I believe that the Government have acted with great wisdom throughout.—[Interruption.] The Government acted with more wisdom than the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), who found himself in great trouble when he made his contribution to the discussion.

We have a crowded programme next week, but it pays regard to the demands made on Parliament at this time of the year. I am afraid that I cannot take the matter further.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend allow time for a debate next week about the announcement in The Times today that the University of Oxford is lowering the standards for its entrance examination? Is my right hon. Friend aware that if we do not debate the matter here it may become another lost cause?

Mr. Biffen

There are some who have regarded that establishment as a lost cause for a long time now. There is no prospect of Government time being made available for a debate on the subject. However, it is highly suitable for a free enterprise exercise on the part of my hon. Friend for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes) in an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

I join the Leader of the Opposition in appealing for a debate on disarmament before the Easter recess because this is a matter of great concern throughout the country. May we link with that a debate on an up-to-date report on the effects of exposure to radiation, particularly from Windscale and elsewhere, which is now a current topic, so that we can have all the facts known to the Government?

Mr. Biffen

I accept that there is a widespread desire that there should be a debate on disarmament before the recess. I acknowledge that it would be to the advantage of the House if the debate arose on a motion wide enough to cover the points made by the hon. Member.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he would greatly reassure public opinion by making a statement now that Mr. MacGregor will not be appointed chairman of the National Coal Board?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said. If he thought that I could be nudged into saying anything more he is a poor judge of my sense of self-preservation.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

As it could be argued that the long-term industrial survival of the kingdom will depend on precisely which side of the boundary between the nanosecond and the picosecond our computer capability lies, can my right hon. Friend say how soon it will be before we have a chance to debate the significant report produced by Mr. Alvey and the Government's recommendations on it?

Mr. Biffen

The debate cannot be next week, but I shall look into the point that my hon. Friend raises.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 285, which over 80 hon. Members have signed.

[That this House regrets to note the Amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Rochdale to Early Day Motion No. 236, as the statement contained therein 'that the lady concerned was found guilty of a serious defamation by a learned judge' is completely false, since there was no trial of the action, merely an agreed statement in court in which there was no admission of defamation, and a payment into court of £100 by Mrs. Patricia Taylor, accepted by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill; and urges the signatories of the Amendment to seek from the said hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill, up-to-date information regarding the whereabouts of Mrs. Patricia Taylor's pearls, gold watch and £10 premium bond handed to the Official Receiver at the time of the bankruptcy hearing, at which was said by the Registrar, Mr. Berkson, to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill, ' do you really want to take a sledge hammer to crack a nut.'.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider an early debate on the use by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) of the law of defamation as a means of silencing reasonable comment by a member of the public on his actions? Do not actions such as this diminish free speech?

Mr. Biffen

My immediate reaction is to reflect how far we are from the Lib-Lab understanding of the last Parliament. The specific issues covered by the early-day motion raise matters that give rise to deep concern and great controversy. There is no possibility of Government time being made available to debate such a motion, but doubtless the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) will be taking his turn to seek the virtues and advantages of an Adjournment debate.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

In view of the widespread and growing feeling on the Back Benches of the need to timetable the proceedings of Standing Committees, will my right hon. Friend reconsider his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) last week and commence discussions through the usual channels with a view to re-establishing the Procedure Committee so that work can be started immediately and, I hope, its findings considered in the next Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

When I last answered that point, I said that I did not feel that there was sufficient time left in the balance of this Parliament to make the establishment of a Procedure Committee a practical proposition. As we are now one week nearer to the dissolution of Parliament than when I last answered the point, my answer must be one week more disappointing to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline)

Will the Leader of the House clear up some misunderstanding and misgivings? It is widely rumoured that the Secretary of State for Energy has given advice to the OPEC Ministers about the long-term future of oil prices. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement on the inter-relationship of the oil price that the British National Oil Company charges and the price mechanism of OPEC, as this is of the utmost importance?

Mr. Biffen

No one in the House would dispute the importance of the topic that the hon. Gentleman raises. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the point.

Mr. Richard Body (Holland with Boston)

As the European assembly is to spend public money in giving all its Members siver medals that they do not deserve will my right hon. Friend make a statement next week making it plain that he has no intention of spending public money and giving us the gold medals that we deserve?

Mr. Biffen

No statement of mine is necessary to achieve the ends that I know my hon. Friend has in mind.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

No matter what the right hon. Gentleman said about his sense of self-preservation, is he aware of the sense of self-preservation in the mining communities? May we have a statement next week about the appointment of the chairman of the National Coal Board, and at the same time will the right hon. Gentleman explain the financial arrangements that have been entered into with British Steel? Is £1 million to be paid for his services? What are the financial arrangements for the new chairman, and who is he to be?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot helpfully add to what I have already said to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition on this point.

Mr. Richard Luce (Shoreham)

Reverting to an earlier question, as there is considerable desire to see some of the procedures of the House carefully reviewed, will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to the prospects of re-establishing the Select Committee on Procedure so that it may start working on this subject within the next few months?

Mr. Biffen

I do not want to turn my mind resolutely against this proposition at this stage. However, we are within the closing stages of this Parliament and this is not a matter that can be put together in a few weeks. It requires wide consent. I should be misleading my hon. Friend and the House if I were to suggest that this would come about.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington)

Will the right hon. Gentleman allow time for a debate on biotechnology, a science-based industry of the future in which, under this Government, we have been falling badly behind our competitors in West Germany, France, the United States and Japan?

Mr. Biffen

Clearly, no time is available next week, but I feel that I can do no better than refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave earlier.

Mr. Eric Cockeram (Ludlow)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee report is set down as being relevant to the debate on the public expenditure White Paper next week?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly do that, and happily confirm that it is.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a full day's debate, not just one and a half hours, on the Government civil defence regulations which this week have been opposed by all four of the main local authority associations? I ask particularly in the light of this morning's report by the British Medical Association that casualties can be expected of up to 33 million, that no part of the country would be immune and that medical services are completely hopeless, useless and futile in trying to deal with these events?

Mr. Biffen

I have no plans for such a debate next week and such are the constraints of time that I could not have any such plans. I hope however, that when we have the more general debate on defence, and it is recognised that the nuclear defence problem has a civil defence content as well as the more conventional defence content, all these matters can be considered.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

In view of the obvious interest in the possible appointment of Mr. MacGregor as chairman of the National Coal Board, will my right hon. Friend at least make a plea to the Prime Minister that the announcement of the appointment of the new chairman should be made sooner rather than later so that Mr. MacGregor can either get the credit for stopping the strike from taking place or beating it afterwards? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the people of this country are becoming fed up with repeated strikes in the public service industries and are no longer prepared to tolerate strikes that have no purpose?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the point that my hon. Friend makes.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

Have not the Government got their knickers into a twist over the spring Supplementary Estimates? If the Liaison Committee, in 10 minutes' time, recommends a half-day debate, under the new procedure on the spring Supplementary Estimates, it cannot be held later than the day after the Budget debate is opened. I imagine that, as that is the principal Budget debate day, that will not be wholly welcomed to either side of the House. Will the Leader of the House take steps, if necessary, to alter the business for 14 March?

Mr. Biffen

If the Liaison Committee decided that on this occasion it wished to initiate an Estimates debate, clearly the business now standing for Monday 14 March would have to be reconsidered.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

My right hon. Friend is obviously fully conversant with European democrat brief No. 15, edited by Mr. Stanley Johnson, who I understand is a member of the assembly, which states that the European Commission should in the near future be putting forward proposals relating not merely to economic and trade aspects but also and explicitly to moral imperatives. In view of the massive constitutional implications across the Channel challenging directly the authority of this House, would my right hon. Friend arrange an urgent debate so that we can discuss how to counter this attempt to remove our power from us?

Mr. Biffen

I think that as long as we have Members of the calibre, independence and determination of my hon. Friend, this place is likely to retain its vitality and, I hope, its independence. In the meantime, I cannot guarantee a debate on moral imperatives next week or at any time thereafter.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

Do I understand that the Leader of the House has given a firm assurance that, if the Liaison Committee wants to initiate a debate on the spring Supplementary Estimates as provided for in the new procedure, the Government will accee to that request and will not sabotage this new procedure as they tried to sabotage the Special Standing Committee procedure?

Mr. Biffen

I shall not be drawn by the contentious remarks of the hon. Gentleman, but the answer to his constructive observation is "Yes".

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 336, which condemns the brutality to the Baha'i community of Iran and the recent executions there?

[That this House extends deep sympathy to the Baha'i community following the sentencing to death of 22 of their members at Shiraz, Iran, on 12th and 13th February; deplores the flagrant abuse of human rights by the revolutionary courts of Iran; and calls upon the Iranian Government to ensure the dignity and safety of the remaining 300,000 Baha' is in Iran.]

Having regard to the gross offence that the Iranian treatment of the Baha'i community gives to the Baha'i community in our own country, will he arrange an early debate on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

I am afraid that I cannot arrange an early debate in Government time, but I shall certainly draw the point of my hon. Friend and the early-day motion to which he refers to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

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

Will the Leader of the House note the question that I asked the Home Secretary relating to the letter which I received from a constituent of mine who had been at Greenham Common detailing violence in the form of kicking, bruising and manhandling by police officers? Will he ensure that a Minister from the Home Department attends the House within the next few days to make a full statement detailing and replying to those accusations?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot give such an undertaking, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department to the anxieties which the hon. Gentleman expresses.

Mrs. Renee Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

The Leader of the House will have heard my question earlier to the Prime Minister and the usual sterile response that it elicited. In view of the fact that the BMA report provides a devastating exposé of the way in which both the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Services have persistently misled the people of this country about the effects of nuclear war, does he not agree that it is in the interests of the House that this matter should be debated at the earliest opportunity and will he make sure that that is done forthwith?

Mr. Biffen

Clearly I cannot add anything to what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I acknowledge that the motion which will govern the debate on nuclear defence should be drawn in such terms as to enable a wide debate to take place.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

Is it the intention of the Leader of the House that we should debate the Liaison Committee's report on the Select Committee system, especially the recommendation about televising the work of Select Committees, perhaps bearing in mind that breakfast television is getting short of interesting material?

Mr. Biffen

I think that it could be interpreted as a somewhat dismissive comment upon the work of Select Committees. However, I think that it would be helpful for the House to have a period to reflect upon that very important report. Therefore, I have no proposals for an early debate on this subject.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Ormskirk)

Given that the Government's economic policies have been directly responsible for the loss of 80,000 jobs on Merseyside and the closure of 22 factories in Kirkby, when may we have a debate on the prospects of Merseyside and the complete absence of Government policies to deal with its needs?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot accept the jaundiced premise of the hon. Gentleman's question, but I assure him that the topic that he raises would be wholly suitable for debate on the Budget resolutions.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighly)

Could the Leader of the House say when a statement can be made or a debate held on the British textile industry? As he knows, there have been extensive negotiations, but no debate has been held. The British Industry Textile Action Campaign produced an important document and there is extreme anxiety about the: state of the industry. I should have thought that it was high time that, in view of the negotiations which the Government have been undertaking, a debate was held, particularly in view of the enormous job losses in the industry since 1979.

Mr. Biffen

I should have thought that he recent debate on the work of the Department of Trade was substantially related to the multi-fibre arrangement, which is central to the fortunes of the textile industry. In any case, I am sure that the speech which the hon. Gentleman has in mind can well be made in the debate that follows the Budget.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 347 entitled "Justice for Alan Grimshaw"?

[That this House demands that Alan Grimshaw, a witness before the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in 1973, regarding National Coal Board purchases, and subsequently sacked and victimised for his honest endeavours, should be fully supported in his rightful demand for a searching public inquiry into all the events that led to his testifying before the Select Committee, his dismissal from the National Coal Board and the subsequent failure of Parliament to protect at all times the witnesses who give evidence to the House and its Committees.]

Is he aware that this mart, who gave evidence before the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries in 1973–74, was later sacked by the National Coal Board because he gave evidence regarding coal board purchases? Does he realise that this case will not go away, that it has recently been exposed in the Sunday Mirror and that it will continue to be so? Surely it is time that we had a debate so that the motion calling for a searching public inquiry into this matter can be dealt with? Should not Parliament give this man a fair crack of the whip? He is now seriously ill. At this late stage we should give him a chance to get justice after he reported to Parliament and was kicked in the teeth for doing so.

Mr. Biffen

The House will recollect that Mr. Grimshaw's allegations have been the subject of examination by two Committees of this House. It the hon. Gentleman feels that the matter should be debated on the Floor of the House, I suggest that it is a suitable subject for an Adjournment debate.