HC Deb 29 November 1983 vol 49 cc757-60
Q1. Mr. Hanley

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her official engagements for 29 November.

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I have been asked to reply.

My right hon. Friend is attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in New Delhi.

Mr. Hanley

Will my right hon. Friend find time today, if he is speaking to the CND, to the Leader of the Opposition or to any other believer in unilateral disarmament, to say that we have had unilateral disarmament in the whole range of chemical weapons and that Russia's only response has been further to increase its stock of chemical weapons? Will that be exactly what Russia will do in response to our unilateral nuclear disarmament?

Mr. Biffen

I think that my hon. Friend makes a very fair point. I am certain that much the most productive policy in respect of nuclear arms reduction is that such affairs should be balanced and verifiable.

Mr. Kinnock

We all know that the matter raised by the hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) is something over which the Government have totally surrendered control. I wish to raise a question over which they could have some control. We understand that the Government are refusing to intercede in the current printing dispute. In view of the fact that their legislation, above all other matters, is the major cause of the nature and scale of the dispute, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether such complacency and inactivity are really in the national interest?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman should not be too dismissive about the role that this country may have in influencing nuclear affairs. It is in the nature of our authority that we have to secure it largely through influencing the alliances to which we belong. If the right hon. Gentleman is so insular as to repudiate that view, it augurs ill for the future of our country under any future Labour Government.

The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the current dispute involving the National Graphical Association. He will realise that as this is a matter which is not only before the courts but is a matter in which the powers of conciliation are being sought, I do not intend to say anything which might prejudice that, not least because there is a private notice question to follow, when the matter can be much more adequately dealt with by the responsible Secretary of State. I will say that any attempt to imply that the law has exacerbated the dispute is merely an unwillingness to recognise that all industrial disputes have proceeded within a framework of law. What has happened is that the law has been re-cast to provide a much more equitable framework for these matters.

Mr. Kinnock

I do not think that the Government, are insular—supine and useless, yes, in these international affairs. They demonstrated as much, not only with the complex business of nuclear arms but with the relatively simple business of a Commonwealth country in the eastern Caribbean, and in many other parts of the world. As to the law, even if the right hon. Gentleman does not understand that the legislation, and litigation following it, forbids effective negotiation and conciliation, which is the only way to resolve industrial disputes, he ought at least to recognise that the Government should not have been so silly as to introduce the industrial relations legislation in the first place. Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question in the name of the national interest? What will the Government do to bring these parties together and resolve this dispute?

Mr. Biffen

Reasonable agencies of conciliation are available to both parties. The right hon. Gentleman appears to want to wish upon the Government a reversion to the old-fashioned technique of beer and sandwiches, which has no advantage in these circumstances. The whole House understands only too well the difficulty in which the right hon. Gentleman finds himself. He is embarrassed by the bully-boy tactics being used in the dispute.

Q2. Mr. Tim Smith

asked the Prime Minister if she will list her offical engagements for Tuesday 29 November.

Mr. Biffen

I have been asked to reply.

I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Smith

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most significant constitutional change during the last Parliament was the creation of departmentally related Select Committees? Is it not, therefore, a cause for concern that after five months of this Parliament those Committees have yet to be reconstituted? Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the motions on the Order Paper to be debated and the matter disposed of in that way?

Mr. Biffen

I share my hon. Friend's wish that the Select Committees should be established as soon as possible. He will know that the matter lies with the Committee of Selection, whose proposed motions have twice been objected to. I understand that the matter is being further considered, and I hope that proposals can be put forward that will command the general support of the House. I shall, of course, be responsive to any request from my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Sir P. Holland) to provide time for a debate.

Mr. Steel

Will the Leader of the House confirm that nothing in our industrial relations law prevents the parties in the NGA dispute from going to arbitration? Has not the employer offered to do so, and also offered to abide by any decision?

Will the right hon. Gentleman further confirm that all hon. Members have an obligation to uphold the rule of law and that that includes the leader of the Opposition, who should repudiate those members of his party who wish to join in mass intimidation?

Mr. Biffen

I am more than delighted to confirm both points raised by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Higgins

Is it not a disgrace that there has been so much delay in setting up the Select Committees? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, if necessary, time is provided this week so that the Committees can get on with their work?

Will my right hon. Friend consider whether steps should be taken to make mandatory the establishment of such Committees within a month of the start of a new Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

I shall be happy to consider my right hon. Friend's second point. On his first point, it would be better if the Committees could be established without resort to a debate. We shall have to see how the matter proceeds.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

When the Prime Minister comes home, will the right hon. Gentleman represent to her that there are other ways in which nine days of her time could be better used than in drafting futile communiqués in India?

Mr. Biffen

It might be impertinent of me to make such a representation, but I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the right hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Aitken

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the difficult NGA dispute may have been made immeasurably more difficult this afternoon by the extraordinary comments of the Leader of the Opposition, who appeared to be giving comfort to the £700-a-week NGA strikers, who are opposing the law through illegal methods?

Mr. Biffen

There are certain circumstances in which a degree of reticence in this Chamber does not come amiss, and I would have thought that today was one of those occasions. I cannot believe that any responsible hon. Member would wish to support actions that were clearly in defiance of the law. The rule of law is designed to protect the weakest members of society. Once those who think that they have corporate clout disregard the law, it augers ill for us all.

Mr. Leighton

But has not the employer in the dispute reneged on agreements for a second time? Does the Leader of the House accept that ill-judged legislation is not necessarily the best way to resolve industrial relations problems? Does he further accept that misconceived laws that cannot work, and cannot be enforced, bring the law into disrepute, and that that is a serious matter?

Mr. Biffen

I do not accept that this is ill-judged law. Even if it were, I would be happy to unite with what was said by the deputy leader of the Labour party, that Those of us who believe the law to be wrong have to change it rather than break it. I would like to hear those remarks echoed again and again on the Opposition Benches.

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