HC Deb 24 March 1983 vol 39 cc1017-23 3.30 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 28 MARcH—Progress on remaining stages of the Telecommunications Bill.

Motion on the London Docklands Development Corporation (Vesting of Land) (Greater London Council and Southwark London Borough Council) Order.

TUESDAY 29 MARcH—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Telecommunications Bill.

Motions on the Supplementary Benefit (Housing Benefits) (Requirements and Resources) Consequential Amendment Regulations, and on the Upholstered Furniture (Safety) (Amendment) Regulations.

Consideration of any Lords amendments which may be received.

WEDNESDAY 30 MARCH—Second Reading of the Local Authorities (Expenditure Powers) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Merchant Shipping Bill [Lords] and of the International Transport Conventions Bill [Lords].

Motion relating to the recommendations of the Select Committee on Standing Orders (Revision).

THURSDAY 31 MARCH—It is proposed that the House should meet at 9.30 am, take questions until 10.30 am., and adjourn at 3.30 pm until Monday 11 April.

Mr. Foot

I understand that there have been discussions through the usual channels about the debate on defence and disarmament, a debate that we have asked for many times. I trust that that will take place soon after the recess, and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can confirm this. Before we go away for the recess, may we have statements on three or four most urgent matters? We should have one on shipbuilding and the developments in that industry which are causing widespread concern. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give us that assurance today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) raised afresh a few minutes ago the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, on which we should have a statement about what the Government intend to do before we go away for the Easter recess. Also, we are still waiting for a statement on Ravenscraig from the Minister. Finally, most hon. Members heard the exchanges a few minutes ago about the Argentine sale and the loan to Argentina. The statements that the loans are not yet concluded mean that we should have a statement on that subject next week, whether from the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence or the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is probably the right person to do it, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give us an assurance about that.

Mr. Biffen

As the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has said, there have been discussions about the debate on defence and disarmament, and I am happy to confirm that we hope that the debate shall be arranged as soon as possible after we resume business after the Easter recess.

I have noted the right hon. Gentleman's point about the shipbuilding industry and I shall certainly refer his remarks to the Secretary of State for Industry. The Government's policy on the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill is elaborated upon in session after session in Committee, and as the Bill will shortly come to the Floor of the House for consideration I am certain that we shall have our fill of that topic.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about Ravenscraig last week and I can go no further today than I did then. A statement will be made on the corporate plan by my right hon. Friend, but I think that it is unlikely that that will be before Easter.

I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about the Argentine loan. I thought that the matter was effectively dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Mr. Foot

The right hon. Gentleman cannot expect concurrence with his view about the reception of the Prime Minister's statement on the Argentine loan, particularly as it appears that difficulties have arisen about the loan. We want to know whether the British Government are one of those raising difficulties, particularly as questions have been raised on the matter from both sides of the House. We should like a statement on the Government's action in the new circumstances.

Mr. Biffen

I did not expect concurrence, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, more than most of us, realises that in this world one has to travel hopefully. I shall raise the matter of the loan with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary because I realise the importance that is attached to the topic.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant and Waterloo)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that shortly before the so-called fifth brigade was launched on its career of savage and brutal destruction in Matabeleland, one of Her Majesty's Ministers went to Harare and offered Zimbabwe both financial and military aid. He will also be aware, because it was reported this morning, that further offers of aid have been made to that country. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend is aware that that form of aid to a country practising racial oppression—

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Look who is talking.

Mr. Lloyd

—which is undoubtedly the case, is specifically contrary to the declarations of the Commonwealth. Can we have an urgent debate on the matter because many of us are most concerned about what is happening?

Mr. Biffen

I realise from the passion with which my hon. Friend addresses himself to the topic that it is one that he would be most anxious to have raised in the House as early as possible. I suggest that he tries his luck in securing a debate on Thursday 31 March.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

What are the Government thinking about, bringing to the House a Bill on the subject of control of expenditure by local authorities and proposing to enlarge the discretion to spend without including clauses to prohibit the use of public funds by local authorities for political purposes? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that in the form in which it is constructed the Bill to which we are to give a Second Reading on Wednesday will not permit such clauses to be added by any hon. Member while the Bill is going through the House? Will the right hon. Gentleman take the Bill away and add clauses on that subject, which is far more important than the tiny matter covered in the Bill as it now stands?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is making a preliminary essay of a speech that he will no doubt be effectively making in the Second Reading debate on Wednesday.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a certain decision taken by the GLC about traffic management in London is causing serious difficulty for hon. Members in gaining access to this place? I refer to Hyde Park corner. Will my right hon. Friend consider looking at this, and let us know whether something can be done to alleviate the problem?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look at the matter but I do not wish to mislead my hon. Friend into thinking that I believe that I have any competence there.

Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)

When are we to debate the suggested amendments to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975? Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the amendment on the Order Paper suggesting the disqualification of the chairman or chief executive of any television programme contractor? I ask this question because some of us think that even one day is too long for a Member of Parliament of any party—[AN HON. MEMBER: "Especially a Tory."]—to hold such a position, which is supposed to be held by someone who is impartial.

Mr. Biffen

I hope that the debate that is requested will take place reasonably soon after the recess.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Can my right hon. Friend say whether there is to be a statement on possible changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill? If so, will he bear in mind the fact that there is considerable support among Conservative Members for the Bill as drafted, and that, in particular, the Government should not give way to special pleading on behalf of clergymen, doctors or journalists?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend does the House a service by reminding us that there are two clear sides to this argument. I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to what he said.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his Government have presided over the most catastrophic decline in British merchant shipping, and that because the Bill is very limited the provision for debate next week will not give us an opportunity to discuss that decline and the steps that should be taken to arrest it? Will he therefore tell his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade, who presides over this disaster, that it is necessary for the House to debate the matter at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises a point of real substance. It would be unfair to suppose that the matter has been under-debated in the recent past, but I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's attention to what the hon. Gentleman said.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)

Reverting to the answer that my right hon. Friend gave to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), will my right hon. Friend nevertheless consider before Friday the important matter that he raised so that, at the least, my right hon. Friend will listen to any representations that the hon. Gentleman makes with added receptivity?

Mr. Biffen

Certainly. I am always cheerfully receptive where the hon. Gentleman is concerned, and I gladly give my right hon. and learned Friend that undertaking.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)

May I again refer the Leader of the House to Ravenscraig, and his remark to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that he could not report any movement since his answer last Thursday? Is the Leader of the House aware that in most Scottish papers today there is substantial leaking from the Scottish Office to the effect that both the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary responsible for industry have made up their minds to sell the 2,000 jobs at Ravenscraig to the American steel industry? Is that not a disgraceful way to treat the workers there? If such a decision has been made, is it not incumbent on the Leader of the House to ensure that the Secretary of State for Scotland comes before the House no later than Monday of next week to remove any uncertainty and give those of us who are opposed to such a decision the opportunity to campaign against it?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry has stated that he will make a statement to the House about the corporate plan. That was what I reported last week, and that remains the position. In my opinion, it would be best to proceed along those lines, and it is not necessary to be intimidated by newspaper comment.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

In view of the massive report that was recently presented to the United States Congress on worldwide gross violations of human rights, the increasingly disturbing reports of Amnesty International on the subject here in this country, and also the wide interest that is shown in this matter by hon. Members of all parties, will my right hon. Friend consider the possibility of finding time for an early debate on this issue, so that the voice of Parliament can be heard?

Mr. Biffen

Of course I shall consider the matter. I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. However, as he is a doughty parliamentarian, he will have noted that later today there is a debate on international action against summary and arbitrary executions, and no doubt the speech that he would like to make at some time could very well be made later today.

Mr. David Ennals (Norwich, North)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the deep feeling that exists on both sides of the House not only about the deportation of the young Romanian but about the answer that was given by the Home Secretary on Tuesday? Is it not the Home Secretary's responsibility, if there is not time for a debate, to make a statement on his reasons, so that this House may question him more adequately than was possible in the short time on Tuesday?

Mr. Biffen

I note the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, and I shall of course convey it to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a decision was taken in the House of Lords this morning that a private school in England is to be forced to accept a boy who insists on wearing a turban? May we please have a debate on race relations legislation to stop such nonsense? Or does he expect all of us in this House to wear tarbooshes so as to escape prosecution?

Mr. Biffen

As an initial reaction, my hon. Friend might consider applying for an Adjournment debate on Thursday, when I am sure he would be able to use his powerful advocacy to that end.

Mr. Stanley Newens (Harlow)

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, although Prime Minister's Question Time offers an opportunity to raise the important question of the provision of loans by British banks to Argentina, which are being used to finance the rearmament of that country, it is by no means adequate? Will he therefore accept that many hon. Members on both sides and many people in the country who find the Government's attitude quite incomprehensible believe that it is important that we should have a better opportunity to discuss the matter? As he said in answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, will he take this matter back and see whether he can arrange for a statement to be made and provide a better opportunity for the matter to be dealt with?

Mr. Biffen

Of course I acknowledge at once the hon. Gentleman's interest in this matter, but at this moment I cannot add to the second reply that I gave his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

May I urge my right hon. Friend to have a debate in the reasonably near future on overseas aid? It is, I think, over a year since a full day was devoted to the subject, and in my opinion it is desirable to have at least one day a year set aside for a wide debate on overseas aid.

Mr. Biffen

A little later today the House will be indebted to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) for the opportunity to discuss the Brandt report. I should have thought that that was exactly the occasion that my hon. Friend seeks, if he has his Horlicks to keep him awake until the time of that debate.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

If the Leader of the House really thinks that the Prime Minister dealt effectively with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, his sense of the House must have temporarily deserted him. Could he arrange on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill—the opportunity presents itself tonight—to enlarge on the Prime Minister's phrase that "stringent conditions" are being met? Are they so stringent that 70 Mirage and Israeli Dagger aircraft, 10 extra Super Entendards, heaven knows what in the way of Gabriel airto-surface missiles, 30 ex-Israeli A4 fighters, Blohm and Voss frigates, and heaven knows what else, will have been exported from Europe since the end of hostilities? Could we have a definition tonight, on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill, of what is meant by "stringent"?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the best I can do in these circumstances is to say that I shall draw the matter to the attention of the Under-Secretary who will answer that debate.

Mr. Alan Clark (Plymouth, Sutton)

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that, whereas some of us may feel a certain distaste for the concept of a register of Members' interests, it is an established convention of the House, which imposes obligations on Members now to conform with it? What about these cheques of upwards of £2,000 that are winging their way towards members of the so-called SDP, apparently out of the blue? Would not my right hon. Friend think it appropriate to draw this to the attention of the Select Committee on Members' interests which quite clearly stated in its first report, document HC 337, that such payments should be registered?

Mr. Biffen

The House should always keep a reasonable sense of proportion in these matters. I shall, of course, reflect deeply and, I hope, constructively on the point that my hon. Friend has made.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I will call those hon. Members who have been standing in their places.

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

Will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister to make a statement about her response to the statement by the President of the United States of America last night, calling for research into an anti-ballistic missile defence system to be funded by the USA? Will the Leader of the House accept that scientists in the Soviet Union and in Europe should be involved in such a programme, to ensure that no one would have an advantage if the system were to work, thereby ensuring that no one can precipitate a nuclear war?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure that it would be helpful if I tried to comment on the merits of the proposition. I shall most certainly make the request that the hon. Gentleman seeks of me.

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

Are we likely to receive a statement before the recess on that long-running Whitehall farce of "will he, won't he" as to whether Mr. MacGregor is to be appointed chairman of the British Steel Corporation—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

No—he is that now.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

—or, rather, whether he is to be removed from the BSC to the National Coal Board? Is it not about time the coal industry heard this so that we may debate the matter before we rise for the recess?

Mr. Biffen

I expect a statement will be made.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the right hon. Gentleman, in his capacity as Leader of the House, not think it undesirable that the Prime Minister can go to a heads of Government meeting of the European Community and return to this country without making a statement to the House? Does he not agree that a written answer to a written question is not a proper substitute? Will he pass these remarks on to his right hon. Friend, say that we think that she should have made a statement, and ask her to make one next time without fail?

Mr. Biffen

I thought my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister scored a remarkable success in the Community. It showed a great sense of modesty that she did not wish to take advantage of an oral statement. However, I shall certainly point out to her the anxiety of the hon. Gentleman that she should have the opportunity to make more statements.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Will the Leader of the House invite the Secretary of State for Trade to make a statement to the House on the former Tory folk hero, Sir Freddie Laker, who, according to a report in The Daily Telegraph today, has sold his stud farm for £500,000 which he proposes to pocket, even though he has cheated hundreds of thousands of people who had paid money to his company, and has denied hundreds or probably thousands of creditors well over £200 million? Surely, when he is disposing of considerable private assets, which will probably make him a millionaire, the Department of Trade should institute an inquiry into the whole business of the Laker collapse and the Secretary of State should make a statement to the House.

Mr. Biffen

The immediate test that I apply to the hon. Gentleman's comments is whether he would be prepared to go down the road and make them again and leave himself open to the normal processes of the law that would apply.

Mr. Cryer

What has that to do with it?

Mr. Biffen

Everybody who sits in this place and uses the privileges of this place must expect to be judged in that context.

Having said that, I shall, of course, draw the attention of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade to what has been said. Of course, it is open to the hon. Gentleman to put down questions which will seek to establish what he here asserts.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

May I add my voice to those that have called for a debate on the scandalous business of the Government supporting and defending the idea of British banks lending money to Argentina so that it can buy Exocets, German frigates and God knows what else? Is the Leader of the House aware that there is an urgent need for a debate, especially in view of the fact that the Prime Minister said that the reason for the loans and the defence of the loans is that Argentina might default? Is he aware that on 13 March it was reported that Argentina had threatened to suspend payments of £1,000 million to central banks? In other words, having got the agreement of the International Monetary Fund and those engaged in the other two loans that were negotiated at the turn of the year. Argentina was putting up the Harvey Smith sign. Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that the air force member of the three-man junta suggested that, in order to reopen negotiations with the IMF, Argentina should take a stance, saying that it would suspend all repayments before the negotiations commenced? That is scandalous and it is time the Government defended its position from that Box.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has been identified with this campaign for a considerable time, and I respect him on that account. I must point out, however, that he will have a good opportunity to debate the subject later this afternoon when we shall have a debate on the international monetary system, which is being raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stevenage (Mr. Wells).