HC Deb 06 December 1984 vol 69 cc499-507 3.36 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he will state the business of the House for next week?

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

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows: MONDAY 10 DECEMBER — Second Reading of the Representation of the People Bill.

Motion on the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984 (Appointed Day) Order.

TUESDAY 11 DECEMBER — A debate on European Community documents on the draft general budget for 1985, when the White Paper on developments in the European Community January to June, 1984, Cmnd. 9348, will be relevant.

The document numbers will appear in the Official Report.

Motions on the International Development Association (Seventh Replenishment) Order and on the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (1984 Selective Capital Increase) Order.

WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER AND THURSDAY 13 DECEMBER — Progress in Committee on the Local Government Bill.

FRIDAY 14 DECEMBER—Private Members' Motions.

MONDAY 17 DECEMBER—Until Seven o'clock, Private Members' Motions.

Afterwards, motions on the Merchant Shipping (Liner Conference) Orders.

Motion on the Appropriation (No. 3) (Northern Ireland) Order.

The House will wish to know that it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Christmas Adjournment on Friday 21 December, until Wednesday 9 January 1985.

The following documents are relevant to the debate on 11 December:

1984 Supplementary Budget
(a) 8322/84 Preliminary Draft Supplementary and Amending Budget No. 1 for 1984
(b) 8879/84 Letter of Amendment to the Preliminary Draft Supplementary and Amending Budget No. 1 for 1984
(c) (Unnumbered) Draft Supplementary and Amending Budget No. 1 for 1984
(d) 10222/84 Amendments and Modifications by the European Parliament to the Draft Supplementary and Amending Budget No. 1 for 1984
1985 Draft Budget
(e) (Unnumbered) Draft General Budget of the European Communities for 1985

(f) 9482/84 Letter of Amendment to the Preliminary Draft Budget of the European Communities for 1985
(g) 10690/84 Amendments and proposed Modifications to Draft General Budget for 1985
Own Resources
(h) 8454/84 Amended proposal for a Council Decision on the Community's system of own resources
(i) 8445/84 Draft Regulation introducing reserve measures to cover requirements in 1985
(j) 8514/84 Commission Communication concerning budgetary requirements of the Community in 1984 and 1985
Financial Regulation
(k) 5899/84 Amended proposal for a Council Regulation amending the Financial Regulation of 21 December 1977 applicable to the general budget of the European Communities
Budgetary Discipline
(l) (Unnumbered) Budgetary Discipline: common position of the Council of Ministers

Relevant reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 78-xxxiii (1983–84 paragraph 5.
  2. (b) HC 78-xxxv (1983–84) paragraph 3.
  3. (c) HC 78-xxxv (1983–84) paragraph 3.
  4. (d) HC 5-i (1984–85) paragraph 5.
  5. (e) HC 78-xxxv (1983–84) paragraph 2.
  6. (f) HC 78-xxxv (1983–84) paragraph 2.
  7. (g) HC 5-iii (1984–85) paragraph 3.
  8. (h) HC 78-xxxiv (1983–84) paragraph 1.
  9. (i) HC 78-xxxiv (1983–84) paragraph 1.
  10. (j) HC 78-xxxiv (1983–84) paragraph 1.
  11. (k) HC 78-xxxiii (1983–84) paragraph 3 and HC 32-xviii (1980–81) paragraph 3.
  12. (l) HC 5-ii (1984–85) paragraph 4.

Mr. Neil Kinnock

I hope there will not be a rebellion because we are to have only a couple of weeks off for Christmas. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, following the usual precedent on constitutional matters, the Committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House? We shall want a statement next Monday on the report of the European Community Environment Council. Following that, may we have an undertaking that in Government time there can be a debate in this House on acid rain? In view of the statement made yesterday by the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the recent enlightening debate in another place on the research councils, debate in the near future in Government time on science and science policy?

Finally, the Government's plans to hold a debate late next Monday night on the order to abolish elections for the metropolitan counties and the Greater London council is thoroughly shamefaced and shameful. Because it is such an important—indeed, unprecedented—matter, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take the matter away, think about it and allow us to have that debate in prime time, when the full attention of the nation can be focused on this place.

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps I could deal with those points in the order in which they were raised. I understand that the usual channels are at the moment reviewing what aspects of the Committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill would be suitable for the Floor of the House. I recognise the constitutional import of what the right hon. Gentleman says. I shall ensure that a statement is made on the report of the European Community Environmental Council.

As for acid rain, the Government have now made known their views on the report of the relevant departmental Select Committee. I agree that a debate should take place in the reasonably near future.

I note the right hon. Gentleman's request that there should be a debate on science policy in Government time. I cannot be forthcoming on that matter today, but I note the request.

I reject the right hon. Gentleman's use of the word "shamefaced" in relation to the amount of time being allocated for the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984 (Appointed Day) Order. He will appreciate that, as the result of a decision taken last night, the debate will last for three hours and I cannot offer any prospect—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It is the middle of the night.

Mr. Biffen

It is not. It is absurd to say that once we stray past 10 o'clock, we are in the middle of the night.

I have no wish to hold out false hopes to the right hon. Gentleman on this matter, but clearly it is an issue which could be pursued through the usual channels.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

In view of the effect that a move towards the taxation of lump sums under occupational pension schemes or towards discontinuing tax relief on pension contributions would have on the budgets of millions of people, will my right hon. Friend consider suggesting to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that if, happily, he has decided against such a move, it might relieve a great deal of anxiety if he could be persuaded to make a statement to that effect in advance of the Budget?

Mr. Biffen

It would be thoroughly undesirable if the Chancellor of the Exchequer were bounced on decision after decision to deny representations of lobbyists. My hon. Friend makes a fair point in representation to the Chancellor. It is best proceeded with through the normal delicacies that occur in representation to the Treasury at this time of the year.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the division of a Bill in Committee between the House and Standing Committee, though we have become accustomed to it in recent years in connection with the Finance Bill, is inherently undesirable and results in a less satisfactory consideration of the Bill and a net increase in the time spent on Bills?

Mr. Biffen

Yes, but I have to point out to the right hon. Gentleman that that is what happened to the London Government Bill of 1963, to which he lent his hand.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is useful for the time of the House to be directed to subjects of national importance? In view of that, would not the unnecessary prolonging of the coal strike by Scargill's stormtroopers, who are destroying jobs inside and outside mining communities, be a highly appropriate subject for debate?

Mr. Biffen

There is no provision for a debate next week and I must confess that I cannot hold out to my hon. Friend the prospect of an early debate. Doubtless he can use the other opportunities that exist for him.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

The grapevine has it that the inspector's report on the Stansted inquiry will be published on Monday. Will there be a statement about the report on that date, and when can we expect a debate? Has the right hon. Gentleman seen my early-day motion 146, which is supported by 225 right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House?

[That this House, deeply concerned to achieve balanced economic growth throughout the United Kingdom, and believing that the proposed massive expansion of Stansted Airport would produce unjustifiable urban growth and congestion in North West Essex and East Hertfordshire, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to opt now for a policy which, while providing for a modest increase in activity at Stansted, subject to a fixed ceiling, would place the greater emphasis on taking all possible steps to expand the use of provincial airports to meet demands in the region of its origin, the case for which has been well documented and shown to be financially viable by various groups, notably the North of England Regional Consortium .]

Mr. Biffen

I have no knowledge of when the Stansted report is likely to be received, but, as the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, the Government have already said that there will be a debate on the report before any Government decision is taken.

Sir Ian Percival (Southport)

I recognise and greatly appreciate the importance that the Government attach to the views of Back Benchers, as was so recently demonstrated by their ready response to an early-day motion signed by a mere 154 hon. Members. May I hope for an equally sympathetic response to my early-day motion 37 on the Brighton outrage, terrorism and capital punishment, which has been signed by 180 hon. Members?

[That this House extends its deepest sympathy to the relatives of those killed in the Brighton bombing on 12 October and to those injured; deplores the indescribably evil and cowardly actions of those who perpetrated this outrage; re-affirms its total resolve that the freedoms of which it is the guardian must never be lost or lessened by violence or the fear of it; thanks the Prime Minister, for having so stated so clearly and firmly on behalf of the nation; and is of the opinion that death should be the penalty for acts of terrorism causing death.]

May I remind my right hon. Friend that millions of people regard it as outrageous that anyone should try to kill our Prime Minister and Cabinet—and come so close to succeeding—and, in the process, kill and maim so many; that a debate will not cost the Government a single penny, a fact which, I hope will also appeal to my right hon. Friends; and that a debate would give great satisfaction to many supporters of the Government inside and outside the House and to millions of others.

Mr. Biffen

I acknowledge at once that my right hon. and learned Friend speaks for many in their deep anxiety on this topic. Of course, I shall give serious consideration to the point that he has just made, but I hope that he will match that with a sympathy for the difficulties that I have on the amount of business that lies ahead.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time to debate the important statement that was made last week on the £200 million cut in regional aid, bearing in mind that regions such as the northern region have lost 100,000 jobs since the Government came into power in 1979, and that, as a result of that statement, it will lose £180 million in grants over the next 10 years?

In addition, since that statement was made, it has been announced that 2,100 jobs at British Shipbuilders will be lost, 246 jobs at Jarrow steelworks and 360 jobs at Cape Insulation in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes). Bearing in mind the number of hon. Members who tried to ask questions on that statement, is it not important that we should have an early debate?

Mr. Biffen

I accept at once that there is a desire on both sides of the House for an early debate on regional policy, and I hope to secure that.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

What proposals does my right hon. Friend have to allow the House to join in the consultation process which is now going on, on the Secretary of State for Social Services' document on generic prescribing? Some of us have views which we need to express.

Mr. Biffen

I trust that my hon. Friend, who is a most articulate expresser of views, will already have taken the obvious ways of representing those views to my right hon. Friend. I am sure thaat he will recognise that the debate on that topic recently was a good way of enabling the House to make known its general feelings.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

May I press the Leader of the House further on the Representation of the People Bill that is to be debated on Monday? Would it not be provocative and counterproductive to try to separate the Bill into parts and to take some on the Floor of the House and some in Committee? Therefore, will he take the Committee stage of that constitutional Bill entirely on the Floor of the House?

In view of the procedural mess that the Government got into yesterday over Scotland and Scottish affairs, might it not be an idea to have a debate on devolution shortly which might find widespread support on both sides of the House, and, indeed, Mr. Speaker, from you as well?

Mr. Biffen

If the hon. Gentleman had been here longer and was not so self-evidently a novice, he would realise that yesterday was in no way a procedural mess—just the natural virility of Scots Labour Members of Parliament.

May I use the first and more substantial part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks to return to the point that was made by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). I did not wish to be dismissive when I referred to the experiences of the London Government Bill. I accept the force of the point made by the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Meadowcroft). Discussions are currently taking place through the usual channels, and we shall have to see what is concluded.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Will my right hon. Friend consider whether there will be an opportunity during consideration of the Local Government Bill next week to make a decision about a Grand Committee for London? After all, although Scotland and Wales do not have assemblies to speak for the whole country—nor do we want .one for London—they both have Grand Committees.

Mr. Biffen

The opportunities for a decision effectively rest with the Committee of Selection, and I must leave it there.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)

Given the Government's new-found enthusiasm for listening to the views of Back Benchers, may I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 59 on hard drug abuse?

[That this House, in drawing attention to the dramatic rise in the number of drug addicts over the last couple of years, calls upon the Government to: (i) develop an effective policy aimed at breaking the hard drug supply routes to the United Kingdom which will include a large increase in the number of customs officials with special responsibility for the task, (ii) increase substantially the amount of money which is available to local health authorities to develop adequate treatment and prevention services (iii) impose the maximum sentences on convicted major drug dealers and (iv) implement the outstanding recommendations of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, particularly those on education in the community, so that the maximum number of young people are aware of the dangers of using hard drugs.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman consult his colleagues at the Department of Health and Social Security and the Home Office and come back to the House with proposals for debate before we rise for Christmas?

Mr. Biffen

On the point about the enthusiasm for listening to the views of Back Benchers, may I say that that is overwhelmingly influenced and determined by the inherent merit of the representations. I shall refer the early-day motion to my right hon. Friend so that he may be appraised of the hon. Gentleman's anxieties.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the tremendous concern among all law-abiding people in the country—especially those belonging to students' unions—about the illegal donation by the polytechnic of North London from public funds of £1,000 to striking miners? The National Union of Students has said that that action is in breach of Government guidelines on the matter issued by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Attorney-General to come to the House and make a statement on the matter with a view to a proper prosecution of the polytechnic?

Mr. Biffen

As I understand it, the matter is now before my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, and I think that for the moment it might be appropriate to leave it there.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

Will the Leader of the House give priority to his undertaking to the Leader of the Opposition that he will consider early debate on science and science policy? Is he aware of the concern of the scientific community and of many hon. Members on both sides of the House about just what the Government are up to with regard to the science budget?

Mr. Biffen

My response to the Leader of the Opposition had all the courtesy and inherent respect which I bear towards the right hon. Gentleman, but it was, even so, somewhat tepid. However, I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There is an important debate to follow business questions, and another statement. I fully appreciate that this is prime Back Bench time, and I propose to allow business questions to continue for another 10 minutes, during which time I hope that I shall be able to fit everybody in.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

My right hon. Friend implied a few moments ago that 10 o'clock does not in his view fall in the middle of the night. I should like to advise my right hon. Friend that Wednesday 9 January falls in the middle of my recess. Will my right hon. Friend take that as a warning?

I should also like to ask my right hon. Friend about a matter raised by the Leader of the Opposition and other hon. Members, relating to the Representation of the People Bill. Can he so organise proceedings on the Bill that important matters will be taken on the Floor of the House before it proceeds to a Standing Committee, so that those of us who strongly object to the raising of the deposit to £1,000 may register our disapproval on the Floor of the House, where it should be registered?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend is reputed for the ruthless inner logic that he brings to politics. That being so, it is just possible that he may decide that coming back a touch early in January will enable those matters to be taken on the Floor of the House.

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

Is it not true that the Government are deliberately dodging a full discussion of the document produced by the five academic accontants on the subject of the National Coal Board's accounting procedures? Why does not the Leader of the House put it to the Prime Minister that Parliament would be satisfied if there were a full debate on the matter? Many hon. Members believe that, if that debate took place, some compromise positon might be found to help the National Union of Mineworkers and the NCB to reach an earlier settlement? Is it not the duty of the Prime Minister to find an early settlement, even if doing so necessitates using that document?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the five academic accountants are to be elevated to the status of the Tolpuddle martyrs in the mythology of some Opposition Members. I can say only that no provision has been made for a parliamentary debate on the matter next week. [HON MEMBERS: "Why not"] Why not? Because we have before us a substantial agenda of issues on which discussion is desired by both sides of the House, and the settlement of the miners' dispute could easily proceed the moment that Mr. Scargill and his advisers took the NACODS settlement as the basis for further talks.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

My right hon. Friend did not mention the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Undertaking on Supplementary Finance for the Community) Order among the orders for debate on Tuesday. Can we assume that there is no question of the House being asked to approve the order next week?

Mr. Biffen

As my hon. Friend knows, the matter is still being considered in the courts and it would not be appropriate for me to anticipate the outcome. However, in a sense of realism, he can assume that it will not feature in our business on Tuesday.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, during an all-party 'visit to Greenham Common yesterday, the American colonel in charge of the base described what would take place in the event of a nuclear war? He said that the command to launch the missiles would come from General Bernard Rogers to two American personnel in the Greenham Common base, that they would go to a safe, open it, see whether the envelope inside matched the code given to them by General Rogers and then launch the missiles. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the House ought to have an early debate on who controls the firing of cruise missiles?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to the hon. Lady's graphic description. Perhaps we might leave the matter there for the moment.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampthon, North)

As my right hon. Friend said, there is an important debate on European affairs on Tuesday next week. My right hon. Friend is a keen student of European affairs. How is it that the financial mechanism will be binding on the Council of Ministers when account can be taken of exceptional circumstances? As we are to debate the issue next week, it would be useful if we knew now what the Government's views on this subject are.

Mr. Biffen

My part in this drama is to provide the time—my hon. Friend will provide the answers.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Although I appreciate that the Leader of the House is not responsible for the complex numbering or titling of European documents or for the number of minor amendments that need to be taken, does he agree that the major topics should be announced during business questions? In that regard, can he tell us whether the disciplinary document, to which the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) has just referred, will be debated on Tuesday and, if so, whether it will be part of the substantive motion?

Mr. Biffen

I strongly agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about how we present to the House the form in which we expect debates to proceed. I shall see whether some improvement can be made. As to his specific point about the disciplinary document, my understanding is that the answer is yes.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there has recently been considerable abuse by local authorities of legislation which is designed to help people who, through no fault of their own, fall on hard times? Will my right hon. Friend find time soon to introduce legislation to end such abuses, which are for blatantly political purposes?

Mr. Biffen

I must confess that the legislative programme is already so heavily committed that I should mislead my hon. Friend if I held out any prospect of such legislation being prepared and embarked upon. However, I understand my hon. Friend's deep anxiety and the justification for it.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

As the Secretary of State for Scotland failed again yesterday to make a statement on an extremely important matter, which happens far too often, and despite the fact that the Leader of the House showed his prejudice against the Scots having a fair deal in the House, will he call a meeting of the Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) and the leaders of other parties in Scotland to see whether we can find better arrangements for dealing with Scottish business in the House?

Mr. Biffen

I have an instinctive affection for the Scots. It is a most romantic affection, so I should like to disabuse the hon. Gentleman of any anxieties that he might have about my hostility. However, my affection for the Scots is matched by a corresponding affection for the usual channels and what the hon. Gentleman suggests would, I think, be best pursued through them.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

In regard to my right hon. Friend's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Henderson), will he notice that the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill is coming before the House shortly? If the Government have the will, they can introduce legislation to prevent the abuse of ratepayers' money being used for blatantly political purposes in Scotland.

Mr. Biffen

When the Bill goes through the House, my hon. and learned Friend may be able to secure an amendment, using his admirable skills to the end that he seeks.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Although the Prime Minister thinks that the report by the five academic accountants is unimportant, does not the Leader of the House share the general view that, as the National Coal Board fought to repress this report, it clearly regards it as important? As defects in NCB accounting methods have a direct effect on Government policy, not least in the setting of financial targets for the National Coal Board, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come to the House soon so that all hon. Members have an opportunity to put questions on this most important matter?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the hon. Gentleman's point. It is just conceivable that this document, which is about to become part of the New Testament, is not as compelling in its reasoning as has been suggested. Those who are concerned to bring about an early termination of the coal dispute—[Interruption.] When hon. Members have stopped trying to shout down—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Biffen

Those who are concerned that there should be an early conclusion to the coal dispute have to persuade Mr. Scargill to take the NACODS settlement as the basis of further talks.