HC Deb 13 December 1984 vol 69 cc1209-18 3.33 pm
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

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 17 DECEMBER — Until seven o'clock, private Members' motions.

Afterwards, motions on the Merchant Shipping (Liner Conferences) orders.

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

TUESDAY I8 DECEMBER—Estimates day (1st Allotted Day). Consideration of the following Estimate: Class IV, Vote 5 (Industrial Support (Department of Energy)) The appropriate report will be shown on the Order Paper as relevant. The house will be asked to agree the Civil and Defence Votes on Account and the winter Supplementary Estimates.

Motion on the Industrial Training Levy (Construction Board) Order.

Debate on European Community documents on transport measures.

The relevant numbers will appear in the Official Report.

WEDNESDAY I9 DECEMBER — Motion for the Christmas Adjournment.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

THURSDAY 20 DECEMBER — Debate On a motion to take note of the review by Sir George Baker, Cmnd. 9222.

Motion on the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 (Continuance) (No. 2) Order.

FRIDAY 2I DECEMBER—It will be proposed that the House should rise for the Christmas Adjournment until Wednesday 9 January 1985.

[Debate on Road Transport Measures on 18 December


Relevant Documents

  1. a. 4088/79 Draft directive on weights of heavy goods vehicles.
  2. b. 9292/81 Amendment to draft directive on weights of heavy goods vehicles.
  3. c. 9508/84 Report on weights of heavy goods vehicles.
  4. d. Unnumbered draft directive submitted by Department of Transport on 13 December 1984.

Relevant reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. a. HC 10-xxii (1978–79) para. 4 and HC 159-i (1979–80) para. 4
  2. b. HC 21-i (1981–82) para. 4.
  3. c. HC 5-iv (1984–85) para. 5.

Estimates Day: 4th Report Select Committee on Energy 1984–85 in respect of British National Oil Corporation H/C 126.]

Mr. Hattersley

The Leader of the House will know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have received much correspondence about the threatened closure of post offices. Can public anxiety be assuaged in some way by an announcement that we shall have a debate on this subject in the early part of the new year?

The Leader of the House will recall that it is 10 months since the publication of the Government's Green Paper on the long-term proposals or alternatives for public expenditure. We were promised a debate on that Green paper. May we have such a debate before and separated from next year's White Paper on public expenditure, and sufficiently early in the year to ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer can take part without taking refuge in the impending Budget?

Mr. Biffen

The possibility of a debate or a statement on post offices, the debates that we shall have early next year on economic affairs, and the possibility of a debate on alternatives in public expenditure can be reasonably pursued through the usual channels.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Will my right hon. Friend provide time in the not-too-distant future for a debate on BBC financing? Contrary to the view that was expressed during Prime Minister's Question Time, several of us believe that an element of advertising for the BBC would be desirable. Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people are extremely worried that the BBC may obtain a considerable increase in its licence fee, which would be unacceptable to many of us?

Mr. Biffen

I am very much aware of the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend and I shall draw them to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. The fee must secure approval from Parliament, possibly through the negative procedure.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Prime Minister's memory failed her when she replied today to my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) about the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970? The Act places clear and mandatory duties on local authorities, as I made clear in a reply in the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Carter-Jones) on 22 March 1978. Does the Leader of the House agree that it does the reputation of the House no good for right hon. and hon. Members to be misled in that way? Will he arrange for the Prime Minister to apologise to my hon. Friend and give him a proper answer next week?

Mr. Biffen

I pay proper respect to the right hon. Gentleman as the author of the legislation, but I match that with an assertion that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister needs no lessons in courtesy to the House. I shall draw her attention to the right hon. Gentleman's point.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

Will my right hon. Friend consider a matter that is causing increasing anxiety for the orderly progress of business in the House? I refer to Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions and European Community questions. Yesterday, 77 questions were set down for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, to be answered in 35 minutes, and only nine were answered; six questions were down for EC matters and all were answered in 20 minutes. I have raised this point previously, and I ask my right hon. Friend to consider it urgently because the position is becoming absurd. I strongly suggest that the EC element be abolished and that we have one hour for Foreign and Commonwealth questions.

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the force of my hon. Friend's question. This is a matter for the usual channels. I shall ensure that the usual channels are informed of the anxiety that has been expressed and the view that all foreign countries should be treated as equally foreign for the purposes of Question Time.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

May I ask the Leader of the House to arrange a debate on the De Lorean affair? The Public Accounts Committee considered it to be one of the greatest abuses of public money that we have seen for very many years. Since there are a number of political aspects to this matter which the Public Accounts Committee is not really fitted to discuss, will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that there is a debate to dispose of it at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Biffen

I am in correspondence with the right hon. Gentleman. I very much hope that we can continue that correspondence and come to an amicable conclusion.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 36, the case for a blindness allowance, which stands in my name and which has been signed by no fewer than 146 hon. Members of all parties?

[That this House, whilst appreciating all that has been done for the blind by this and previous governments, wishes to remind the Government of the acceptance by successive Ministers of the case for a blindness allowance; and, in particular, the statement by the then Minister of State for Social Security and the Disabled (the Right honourable Member for Daventry) on 24th July 1979 that the case for an income in the form of a blindness allowance is unanswerable on its merits; points out to the Government that the blind do not normally qualify for mobility, invalidity, attendance or other allowances, unless suffering from a second disability; and calls upon the Government to take immediate action to replace the existing range of benefits available to the blind with a means-tested blindness allowance.]

A similar motion standing in the name of another hon. Member has been signed by no fewer than 88 hon. Members. This clearly demonstrates a very high degree of concern on the subject among hon. Members. Will my right hon. Friend therefore find time for an early debate on the blindness allowance?

Mr. Biffen

I acknowledge at once the importance of the subject and the large number of signatories to the early-day motions mentioned by my hon. Friend. On this occasion I shall content myself by referring my hon. Friend to the Adjournment debates which will take place after the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill next Wednesday.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Will the Leader of the House make specific provision for us to debate the motions relating to orders on regional industrial development which have been tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends? Could he also arrange for a statement to be made next week by transport Ministers so that they can make it clear that they will follow the practice, which the Leader of the House always follows, of treating all hon. Members with equal courtesy rather than offering to reply "personally more quickly than I would normally be able to do" to members of his own party?

Mr. Biffen

The first point which the hon. Member makes relates to business which will be before the House after we return from the Christmas Recess. I shall be in touch with the hon. Member on that point. As for his second point, I believe that the transport Ministers are the embodiment of courtesy. I shall relay to them the points which have been made this afternoon.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Will my right hon. Friend take note of the considerable concern which has been expressed about the quite incredible suggestion of the BBC to shove up the licence fee by 41 per cent. to £65? Given the reluctance of that state-owned leviathan to be financed in any way other than by a compulsory tax and taking into account the additional costs associated with the licence, such as detector vans, the courts, the licensing authority and all the other paraphernalia associated with it, will my right hon. Friend please make time available, long before we have to vote on the amounts to be given to the BBC, for a debate upon how the BBC should be financed in the future?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of the points which have been put very powerfully by my hon. Friend. As I have said. I shall refer those points to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that on Wednesday next Foreign Office Ministers intend to lay an order—the Consular Fees (Amendment) (No. 3) Order—to give effect to a proposal which was announced on 22 November to introduce fees for entry certificates? As this is conveniently the day after a meeting of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, will the Leader of the House talk to his colleagues in the Foreign Office and, in view of the widespread concern, ensure that if they are determined to pursue this matter they will do so by means of a parliamentary procedure which is subject to approval or annulment by this House?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly look into the matter and will be in touch with the Foreign Office, as requested by the hon. Gentleman. As for the widespread concern which the hon. Gentleman alleges to exist, he may be persuaded to take such advantage as there is of the Adjournment debates which will follow the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the BMA is now behaving as badly as the drug companies over the Government's proposed limited drug list? Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to be made next week in the House by the Minister for Health so that he can dispel the misinformation which is being peddled and remind the country that doctors all over Europe, and hundreds of doctors in our own hospitals, are prescribing generically, and off a limited list, and that if the BMA genuinely wants to help patients it should consult the Government in order to make sure that the limited list, when finalised, is as comprehensive as possible?

Mr. Biffen

I agree that a great deal of counter-productive lobbying is taking place on this issue. l shall refer my hon. Friend's point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Services.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 215 on the closure of the BSC mill in Jarrow, which will throw 246 men on to the dole?

[That this House urges the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry not to give approval to the formation of the new company named United Merchant Bar plc in which 75 per cent. of the equity will be owned by Caparo Industries and 25 per cent. by the British Steel Corporation, since this plan involves the closure of the Jarrow (Tyne and Wear) and Monks Hall (Warrington) Mills, making 500 employees redundant in areas of high unemployment, and also means that the British Steel Corporation will have only a minority share which could lead to an increase of imports and an adverse effect on the balance of payments; and urges that more investment should be made in the Jarrow and Monks Hall Mills to ensure their future competitiveness and their survival.]

Bearing in mind that 100,000 jobs have been lost in the northern region since 1979 and that we had a statement from the Government last week to the effect that regional grants will be cut by £300 million, may we have an early debate on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

Time will be provided for a debate on regional employment shortly after we return from the Christmas Recess. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to bring his constituency problem before the House, I suggest that he uses the advantages provided after the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that there were no fewer than 13 documents to be discussed in Tuesday's European debate but there was time for only 10 Back Benchers to speak. Will he undertake that if we have important EEC matters to discuss in future, as we may, there will be adequate time for those debates? I am sure that he would not wish us to be subjected to unfettered dictatorship from Brussels.

Mr. Biffen

As long as my hon. Friend is around, he will be a reasonable protection against that spectre. I shall take account of what he says and, in striking the balance that we have to strike between competing claims, I will try to ensure that we have adequate time to deal with these important subjects.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Will the Leader of the House bring to the attention of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the fact that in the Oxpring community near Barnsley 2,500 gallons of petroleum have been leaked into the river Don and that wildlife has ceased to exist along 2.5 miles of that river and that all the fishing has gone in that area? There is an urgent need for cleaning, restocking and compensation.

Mr. Biffen

I will certainly fulfil the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what has happened about the proposal to pay a further £120 million to the EEC to help finance its overspend in 1984? Does he agree that even if, contrary to all the practice that he fought for in the past, the House is not allowed to vote on the issue as a matter of substantive legislation, there ought at least to be a full debate in prime time so that the full constitutional and financial issues can be properly considered?

Mr. Biffen

I am afraid that my hon. Friend must exercise his generous patience a little longer. Then he can assess to what extent his anxiety has been met.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Will the Leader of the House take a slightly less laid-back attitude to the letter, issued by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport? It would be bad enough if the letter promised preferential treatment for Conservative Back Benchers on constituency business, but it refers to political speeches made by Conservative Members at weekends. It would be intolerable if the Department of Transport were used as an adjunct of the Tory party and set against the rights of hon. Members who have serious constituency problems. Will the right hon. Gentleman, therefore, ensure that a statement is made by himself or by the Secretary of State for Transport to clear up this serious matter?

Mr. Biffen

I have not seen the letter, so I have made no comment on it. I will certainly not stand here and engage in a quick reading course. The hon. Member who first raised the issue suggested that it breached the rules of the House, and that is something on which only the Chair can rule.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that time is given for a Government statement on the visit of Mr. Gorbachev particularly to cover the point of whether or not the Government have detected any change or shift in the Soviet's understanding of the term "peaceful co-existence", away from the mere absence of war in an atmosphere of antagonistic tolerance towards a mood of co-operation and development under which we may together achieve verifiable arms control and the curbing of nuclear proliferation and international terrorism, and thereby divert economic resources to the betterment of mankind?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend raises important points, and I shall ensure that they are drawn to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange with his hon. Friend in the Ministry of Transport to send me a similar letter to that which he sent on 30 November to his colleagues so that when I hear from my constituents about these matters, I can more easily demolish the Minister's arguments?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly draw my right hon. Friend's attention the points that have been raised about this letter, because clearly there is concern in the Chamber that he should know of that interest.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend give thought to the fact that some 80 per cent. of our people are said never to read a book? Will he respond to questions that came up both in Treasury questions and in early-day motion 196, which by today had been signed by 189 hon. Members?

[That this House requests Her Majesty's Government not to impose value-added tax on books.]

Will he also bear in mind that Dr. Johnson said that a well-read man is the best-educated man, and arrange for a debate so that hon. Members on both sides can make clear their opposition to the imposition of VAT on books?

Mr. Biffen

There is not much that I can add to the interesting and comprehensive exchange that took place on this matter in Treasury questions earlier today.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman either confirm or deny that during next week's business it is the Government's intention to introduce regulations to amend the Social Security and Housing Benefits Act 1982 to deny up to 16,000 single striking miners the right to housing benefit if they pay rent to relatives and to affect tens of thousands of other people in a similar position? If that happens next week, will it not demonstrate the Prime Minister's obsessiveness to the point of insanity with her attacks on miners, and show the effect that her pursuit of the NUM will have on tens of thousands of other people?

Mr. Biffen

That is not set down as business of the House next week, but I shall look into the matter and be in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Has my right hon. Friend seen a report in The Times today about a speech made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on VAT for new house building, and the fact that VAT was not to be applied to that category? Should there not now be an opportunity for the unrest and concern that is felt in the country about the possible imposition of VAT on newspapers, books, periodicals, children's clothes and shoes to be alleviated by a statement before Christmas? The public need to know about this, because there is great concern on it. There has already today been a useful hint on retirement pensions. Could we not now have another hint from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Mr. Biffen

No. I think that it is time for a close season, and Treasury questions today dealt satisfactorily with this matter.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 195 concerning the death or killing of Mrs. Nora McCabe, which is supported by 79 hon. Members?

[That this House congratulates Yorkshire Television for making the programme on the killing of Norah McCabe; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to set up a public inquiry to look fully into the circumstances surrounding the shooting and to state what action has been taken against those responsible for the death of this young mother.]

In view of the concern expressed by the House, will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend to institute a public inquiry into all the circumstances surrounding the tragic death of this young woman?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to this point and to the request for an inquiry. The hon. Gentleman may wish to extend his argument somewhat if he is fortunate enough to obtain an Adjournment debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. Francis Maude (Warwickshire, North)

Will my right hon. Friend note that, in view of the widespread concern felt in all parts of the House, it is essential that a full debate on the financing of the BBC should take place in the very near future, and particularly before the decision on the increase in the licence fee is taken, so that the BBC may fully understand that it will be subject to the most stringent financial discipline?

Mr. Biffen

Two of my hon. Friends have already asked questions on that point, and I can only repeat that I shall draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to it.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

May I refer the Leader of the House to the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) in which he used the word "alleged" concern? May I tell him that it is more than "alleged" concern? Has he yet been able to digest the terms of early-day motion 200, which is still gathering signatures?

[That this House requests a reconsideration of a proposal made on 22nd November to introduce, for the first time, a charge for entry certificates for Commonwealth citizens; and points out that refusal of an entrance certificate, simply because the fee cannot be paid, would not be lawful under the Immigration Act 1971.]

Although at present the signatures belong solely to Opposition Members, we could equally well gather signatures from Conservative Members.

The proposed charge for entry certificates represents an innovation for Commonwealth citizens. People who have a lawful right to come to Britain from countries such as Bangladesh, including dependent relatives, already face long delays without this extra imposition. I hope that the Leader of the House will pass on that message to the Foreign Secretary. Indeed, as arguments are probably going on now as a result of the protests, will the right hon. Gentleman get the Foreign Secretary to come to the House to withdraw his proposal of 22 November?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the hon. Gentleman s point and I have already promised that I will refer to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary the anxieties expressed. Those anxieties will, of course, have been reinforced by the points that have just been made.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

My right hon. Friend will have heard all the demands for a debate on the alleged discrepancies in accounting with regard to mines that are scheduled for closure. Has he seen early-day motion 58, which suggests that the NCB could offer the mines scheduled for closure to the NUM?

[That this House, concerned at the possible adverse effect the strike in the coal fields may have for job prospects in the coal industry and other related industries, recognises that the miners' leaders are concerned over planned pit closures, and calls upon the Government to urge the National Coal Board to draw up plans to offer to miners in pits scheduled for closure the opportunity to continue to work their own pits as mineworker cooperatives and to offer the pits complete with mining equipment at a peppercorn rent and, in the event of the miners declining, to offer the private sector the same mines at a peppercorn rent.]

If the NCB offered those mines to the NUM, Mr. Arthur Scargill and his friends could show clearly their confidence in them by taking them over.

Mr. Biffen

I thought that that was a well-judged contribution to our debate, and I am happy to have this opportunity to acknowledge it.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 128 and the relevant amendments to it concerning the death grant?

[That this House regards the present level of death grant at £30 for an adult man or woman born after 1894 as being totally inadequate; and calls for an increase in the grant to a level of at least £350.]

[As amendments to the proposed motion, in line 2, leave out from 'for' to end and add `a substantial grant'; in line 3, at end add `in this Session of Parliament' .]

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that this issue has often been raised in the House. When will the Government make a statement about their intentions? It is a serious matter for old people, and delay for so long is a disgrace.

Mr. Biffen

I understand that the matter is still before a Government committee that is formulating policy, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to the point made about the importance of arriving at a speedy decision.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a debate on the effects of the Government's rate-capping proposals on less-well-off people, including the 100,000 people in the city of Leicester who were identified by a recent survey as living in the most adverse conditions? Is he aware that the most swingeing proposals in the country for rate capping have just been made for the city of Leicester, which will impose savage, vicious and wicked cuts on the services that every citizen requires? May we have a debate on the issue before it is too late?

Mr. Biffen

I believe that the rate limitation orders will require a debate in the House, and that will take place reasonably soon. The hon. and learned Gentleman will have a chance to make his powerful speech then.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Scotland—who is not a million miles away —when he intends to make a statement to the House on the disruption to schools in Ayrshire that has been caused by the provocative action of the Scottish region of the NCB and which has been testified to by impartial officials of Strathclyde regional council? That action has resulted in the stoppage of coal to one third of Ayrshire schools. Those schools are now closed and some of them may be closed in the new year. Indeed, some of them are in the Secretary of State's constituency, although he shows no apparent concern about that. When will we have a statement? When will this Scottish issue be given the degree of concern that it would attract if it were happening in the capital?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, sitting at my left elbow, will have heard every word of that powerful tirade. Doubtless he will react appropriately.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

In view of the concern expressed by Tories about the upholding of the law for miners and other working-class people, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a list to be placed in the Library of all Tory Members and any others who hold directorships and consultancies associated with firms trading on Sundays? To avoid the charge of hypocrisy, would not that be a good idea? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Prime Minister to have a word with her husband, who has a long-standing connection with Halfords, to find out whether he approves of that firm breaking the law?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot arrange for such a list to be made available. However, I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity to say that I deplore the breaking of the law on Sunday trading.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the rules of engagement for soldiers at military installations are issued on so-called pink cards? Is he further aware that the rules of engagement have recently been changed to allow soldiers to shoot unarmed civilians and, to go even further than that, to shoot dead an unarmed civilian in the back as he runs away from the establishment? Is it not worrying and outrageous that the Secretary of State for Defence has not been to the House to explain this matter?

Mr. Biffen

I shall most certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

In the light of the publication this week of the report on Stansted, because of the great anxiety in the north of England about that development and because the Secretary of State for Transport has promised a debate on the matter, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when there will be such a debate so that we can, we hope, allay the fears of those who want to see the development of regional airports?

Mr. Biffen

Obviously the debate should take place reasonably soon. A number of hon. Members have spoken of their anxiety that a reasonable amount of time should be allowed to cope with the massive amount of reading implicit in the report.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does not the Leader of the House think that there should be an urgent and early debate on foreign affairs, considering the tense position in central America, the current position in South Africa and the troubles in Sri Lanka, with which the Government have close links? Should not these matters be debated in the House so that we can find out the Government's attitude towards the peace process in central America and other areas?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the importance that many hon. Members attach to those aspects of foreign affairs. I confess that there is no early prospect of a full debate on foreign affairs in Government time. Other opportunities are available to the hon. Gentleman, especially at this time of year, and I suggest that he tries his luck with them.