HC Deb 10 March 1983 vol 38 cc953-8 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 14 MARcH—Consideration of the following Estimates: Class XIII, Vote 23, stationery and printing supplies to Parliament; Class II, Vote 10, overseas aid.

Second Reading of the Ports (Reduction of Debt) Bill.

The Question will be put on all outstanding Votes and Supplementary Estimates.

TUESDAY 15 MARCH—My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget Statement.

European Community documents relevant to the Budget debate will be shown in the Official Report. The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

WEDNESDAY 16 MARCH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

THURSDAY 17 MARcH—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 18 MARCH—Private Member's motions.

MONDAY 21 MARCH—Conclusion of the debate on the Budget Statement.

[Documents cited as relevant to Budget debate and relevant reports of European Legislation Committee:

10337/82 Annual Economic Report 1982–83
10480/82 Annual Economic Review 1982–83
See HC 34-iv (1982–83) paragraph 7
and HC 34-xi (1982–83) paragraph 4]
Mr. Foot

I know that the right hon. Gentleman has announced other business for next week, but I remind him that we are still awaiting the fulfilment of the promise he made for a debate on disarmament. We are still awaiting the fulfilment of his promise for a debate on the second Brandt report. We are also waiting for a debate on the Anderson Strathclyde and Charter Consolidated matter, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) a few moments ago. We shall return to these demands immediately after the Budget.

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman about an even more urgent matter, in view of the reports that have appeared in the newspapers over the last day or two about Ravenscraig and the renewed threat to work there. Opposition Members believe that the Government are committed to maintaining Ravenscraig. We believe that the Government may have taken action to override what Mr. MacGregor wanted in that respect. We are committed, and we want no weakening or departure from that commitment. I understand that there is to be a statement about the British Steel Corporation's strategic plan next week. May we be assured that it will be made in the House of Commons so that we may have a proper chance to cross-examine the Government about Ravenscraig and all the other steelworks?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise that there is interest in all parts of the House in any decision that affects the British Steel Corporation, Ravenscraig, and the corporate plan. I shall bear in mind what the right hon. Gentleman said about the desirability of a statement being made, and I shall make sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry is made aware of that point.

On the other three matters on which the right hon. Gentleman requests debates, I cannot say any more now than I said last week. I hope that I can satisfy him on two. On the third, Anderson Strathclyde, I can do no more than repeat what I said last week. Perhaps we can all wait and centre our attention on the Private Member's Bill that the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) will introduce.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Has the Leader of the House considered carefully the Local Authorities (Expenditure Powers) Bill that is being put forward by the Government, which proposes to enlarge the discretion of local authorities to spend money as they please? In the light of the fact that some local authorities, with Islington in the lead, are using public money for party political purposes, and that the Leader of the Opposition in a letter to me has refused to condemn that practice, will the Leader of the House give up his previous intention of sending this highly controversial Bill to a Second Reading Committee so that the whole matter can be properly examined on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Biffen

I would like to look at that.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

My right hon. Friend will doubtless share the sense of shock, disappointment and dismay that has been caused on both sides of the House by the recent outbreaks of racial intolerance and tribal warfare in Assam, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. He will be aware that those unhappy events call into question most fundamentally the criteria for membership of the Commonwealth. Is it not time that we had a chance to debate these matters?

Mr. Biffen

The points raised by my hon. Friend are of fundamental importance. I only regret that I cannot find Government time for such a debate next week.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

Has the Leader of the House looked at early-day motion 368?

[That this House believes that, before money is given away in this year's Budget, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer should return money taken from some of the least well-off in society in recent years and, in particular, those affected by the Social Security Acts of 1980 and 1981, which according to a Written Answer on 18th November 1982 Official Report, columns 281–2, have cut the current year's social security budget by £1,410 million made up of: (a) ending of earning link for pensions and long-term benefits at £500 million, (b) deferring the 1980 uprating by two weeks at £100 million, (c) the cuts in the 1980 (No. 2) Act of 5 per cent. off short-term benefits, freezing the pensioners' earnings rule, changes to waiting days, abolition of earnings-related supplements, abatement of unemployment benefit to occupational pensioners and changes in supplementary benefit payments to families of strikers at £500 million, (d) clawback of 1 per cent. in all benefits in 1981 at £200 million and (e) four other measures not requiring primary legislation at £110 million; and notes that the people affected by this £1,410 million cut fall into the following broad categories: (i) elderly £610 million, (ii) sick and disabled £300 million, (iii) unemployed £300 million, (iv) widows and orphans £50 million and (v) families £150 million, who would not generally be those who would benefit from the substantial tax concessions referred to by commentators in the pre-Budget period.]

Will he draw it to the attention of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, pointing out the substantial cuts that were made in the benefits to the unemployed, the pensioners and the disabled? Will he make it quite clear that before there is any talk of a giveaway Budget those cuts should be restored, because the people involved would not benefit from any alterations to income tax?

Mr. Biffen

As the terms of the early-day motion refer specifically to the Budget, I should have thought that next week would provide endless opportunities for a debate on that topic.

Sir Peter Mills (Devon, West)

May I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention early-day motion 354 entitled "Commonwealth Day"?

[That this House, conscious of the unique character of the Commonwealth which brings together in voluntary association 1,000 million people of diverse races, cultures and religions belonging to 47 nations, devoted to the rule of law, hereby supports the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in its endeavours to foster understanding and co-operation between parliaments; and wishes to be associated with all other Commonwealth parliaments in the observance of Commonwealth Day on 14th March.]

As the day approaches and we have 25 distinguished Commonwealth parliamentarians with us in the seminar, will he seek an early debate on the Commonwealth, and particularly the Government's future position in that regard, to ensure that more encouragement is given to the Commonwealth and to assist it in the light of some of the present difficulties and problems throughout the world?

Mr. Biffen

Alas, I cannot offer the prospect of an early debate in Government time on the Commonwealth. In the context of Commonwealth day, any such debate would be incomplete if it did not bear testimony to the tremendous work that my hon. Friend has undertaken in that cause, and the affection in which the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is held in all parts of the House.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Leader of the House be a little more forthcoming about the Estimates debates on Monday? Is it not a fact that the Liaison Committee has recommended debates on the Turks and Caicos Islands and Stationery Office printing supplies for this House. In his statement he transposed those debates. Can he confirm that they will be taken in the recommended order? Will he say something about the time span of each debate?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is right when he says that, when the Votes are translated into language that we can all readily understand, they are exactly on the topics that he mentions. After appropriate consultation, it was decided that it would be more sensible to take them in the order that is now proposed. The time available will be roughly equally divided.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his answer to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) about the misuse of ratepayers' money for political purposes by Labour-controlled councils, not least in Cambridge? Will he also consider the desirability, on this of all days, of having a debate on the importance of secret ballots?

Mr. Biffen

I thought: that the reply that I gave was measured and moderately forthcoming. I do not think that I can go further than that.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that we shall have an early discussion on the implications for freedom of speech and freedom of association of the recent injunctions against the Greenham Common women?

Mr. Biffen

I regret that I can offer no such opportunity in Government time next week.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

As there has been speculation, at least in the press, that the Government may raise the level of tax relief on mortgages, would it be wise for the House to debate that issue? Clearly that cannot affect the Budget judgments, but it would be against Tory principles. To raise the level of exemptions for stamp duty would be far more sensible. We should have a chance to express our views on that before my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor puts forward his view in the Budget.

Mr. Biffen

I should have thought that those points would be as well made in the Budget debate as before. There are many precedents for the initial Budget judgments being adjusted in the light of the Budget debate.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

Has the Leader of the House had a chance to read early-day motion 366?

[That this House notes the announcement of the Liverpool Labour Party that, if it gains a majority in the elections in May it will attempt to close all church schools in the city; condemns this proposal as further evidence of the extreme position of the Labour Party in Liverpool; regards their move as disruptive and damaging to those schools affected; reminds the Liverpool Labour Party of their obligations under the Education Act 1944; recognises the superb contribution and the high levels of academic excellence of the church schools; condemns the Labour Party's failure to consult the church authorities before issuing this irresponsible and divisive document; and pledges its determination to safe-guard religious freedom in the United Kingdom.]

It has been signed by Members on both sides of the House and relates to the announcement that was made earlier this week by the Liverpool Labour party that, given the opportunity, it will abolish church schools in the city. Will the right hon. Gentleman draw that matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Science?

Mr. Biffen

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for the Environment to make a statement on the wasteful expenditure by Newbury district council in going to the High Court to obtain an injunction to prevent the women of Greenham Common from demonstrating? Will the right hon. Gentleman also ask the Attorney-General to make a statement on the way in which the court was closed to the public and the sentences that were passed, which, in effect, prevented free speech? It is important that the Greenham Common peace women should be protected against such vicious action through the state apparatus.

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps the ratepayers of Newbury can be left to judge whether their council acted with prudence or otherwise. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's other points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my right and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the series of written answers this week in which the Department of the Environment has made clear the steady and worrying increase in nitrate levels in public water supples? In view of the health implications of that, particularly for babies, do the Government plan to make a statement and what action do they intend to take, particularly as the increase stems partly from the increased use of nitrate fertilisers and increased cereal production?

Mr. Biffen

I should be the first to acknowledge that my hon. Friend has raised a matter of real and central importance. I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

I return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) about the debates on the two Estimates on Monday. Will the Leader of the House help us further on this important matter because it will be the first time that the new procedure has been used? As three hours have been made available for the debate on the two Estimates, if the debate on Class XIII—stationery and printing supplies to Parliament—were not to take up an hour and a half, would there be more time for the second debate?

Mr. Biffen

That is so.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Will my right hon. Friend give sympathetic consideration to the case for a debate on competition policy? That would allow a consideration of some of the results of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Many people would welcome the opportunity to know whether the Monopolies and Mergers Commission reports have lived up to their criterion and expectations of enhancing the degree of competition that is supposed to be provided by the fair trading legislation.

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my hon. Friend will concede at once that the Department of Trade was recently the subject of a debate, although it inevitably concentrated upon aviation, shipping and trading interests. I note what my hon. Friend has said, but I cannot offer any prospect of a debate in Government time in the near future.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, East)

Will the Leader of the House find time for the House to discuss the important issue of Government aid and stimulation for small businesses and co-operatives? Is he aware that many hon. Members wish to debate that subject? Will he consider that, in view of the fact that last year the Japanese spent £2 billion on small businesses while we spent £1,500 million?

Mr. Biffen

The small business sector is an integral part of the Government's industrial policy. Therefore, it would be relevant to the debate on the Budget resolutions.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

If not next week, will my right Friend try to find time for a debate on the way that the Independent Broadcasting Authority operates, bearing in mind that on the one hand it allows a programme to take place which enable enemies of the state—the IRA—to put over their views, while on the other hand the advertising scrutiny committee prevents the promotion of the "Buy British" campaign? Is there not an anomaly there, and will my right hon. Friend try to find time for a debate on that important issue?

Mr. Biffen

I do not deny that the issues are important, although I do not share my hon. Friend's anxieties about the behaviour of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. However, there is no prospect of such a debate in the near future in Government time.

Mrs. Renee Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

May I support the request of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition for a debate on disarmament at the earliest opportunity, particularly in view of the British Medical Association's recent report on the medical effects of nuclear warfare? When I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment recently what discussions he is initiating with local authorities in the light of that report, he said that he was not because it has not been formally published. Are we to wait for the report to be formally published before we have any discussions in the House on that crucial matter?

Mr. Biffen

The Budget has intervened in the normal process of major parliamentary debates, but I hope that a debate on disarmament will soon take place.