HC Deb 20 December 1984 vol 70 cc553-60

  1. (a) HC 5-i (1984–85), para. 4
  2. (b) HC 5-i (1984–85), para. 3
  3. (c) HC 5-iv (1984–85), para. 6]

Mr. Kinnock

On this side of the House and, I suspect, elsewhere there will be concern that the debate on the fourth report on acid rain from the Select Committee on the Environment is to be taken on a Friday. In view of the importance of this issue, may I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider that decision and to arrange the debate at a time which permits a wider involvement of hon. Members?

May I also press the right hon. Gentleman to provide time in the early part of next year for a debate on the threatened closures of post offices? This subject clearly concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House, it is viewed with growing alarm by the general public and that would be an appropriate time to discuss the issue.

May we look forward in our first week back to a statement by the Secretary of State for Defence both on the appointment of Mr. Peter Levene as chief of procurement and, especially in view of the evidence given to the Select Committee on Defence in the earlier part of this year, the appointment of Sir Frank Cooper to United Scientific Holdings as replacement for Mr. Levene?

When may we expect to have the Budget in 1985?

Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that we shall have a debate on housing and home improvements after the Prime Minister has returned from her foreign travel, as the Tory Whips will not then be able to use the excuse of her alleged embarrassment in order to get unwilling Members into the Lobby in support of the Government?

Mr. Biffen

The plan to hold the debate on the report on acid rain on a Friday is, I realise, disappointing to the right hon. Gentleman. However, I believe that the House must accept that a Friday is a legitimate day on which to consider major business as we now get on to the Adjournment at 2.30 pm on such days. As the right hon. Gentleman has made the request, the matter will be considered through the usual channels, but I must say that there is a very strong presumption on my part that such reports are legitimate matters for Friday business.

Perhaps the question of the closure of post offices can be considered through the usual channels. I acknowledge that interest in it has been shown from the Opposition Front Bench.

Although I noted the wish that yesterday's debate should be re-run, just as yesterday's margin was greater than had been popularly expected, I suspect that a re-run would be even more comforting. However, I have noted the right hon. Gentleman's concern.

I will, of course, consider through the usual channels the question of a statement on the defence matters to which he referred.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to introduce his Budget on Tuesday 19 March 1985. I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House to know the date so early.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the recent review of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers' static workshops is throwing hundreds of people out of work, including almost 200 in my constituency? Is he further aware that there is widespread resentment in my constituency because no statement has been made on the Floor of the House and no debate has so far been permitted? I urge the Government to allow a debate in Government time so that hon. Members who are affected are not left merely with the chance of an Adjournment debate on the subject in the small hours of the morning.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend raises a point which is serious for his constituents and is of national import also. I must tell him candidly that no Government time is available during the first week after the recess and I therefore suggest that he uses whatever opportunities are available to hon. Members.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Will the Leader of the House urgently consider bringing before the House legislation to control the activities of retired senior civil servants, bearing in mind the fact that if Sir Frank Cooper says much more than "Good morning" at his first United Scientific Holdings board meeting he will probably be in breach of section 2 of the Official Secrets Act?

Mr. Biffen

In his good natured remarks the hon. Gentleman avoided saying that Sir Frank will have allowed to elapse the required period before he can enter private service. There is no prospect of the legislation suggested by the hon. Gentleman being introduced.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Will the Leader of the House consider arranging an early debate on civil defence? In view of the obvious diversion of opinion on both sides of the House, it would be advantageous to clear up these matters.

Mr. Biffen

I shall take on board my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that one of the first tasks for the Prime Minister when we meet again will be to come to the Dispatch Box and make a statement on Mr. Levene's appointment? Is the withdrawal of the Whip from a Tory peer intended as a warning to some of his right hon. and hon. Friends about their behaviour in 1985?

Mr. Biffen

If the hon. Gentleman knew a little more about all the factors related to his second point, he would not detain the House with such a matter. On his first point, the hon. Gentleman will have noted the reply that I gave to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when it will have an opportunity to debate the report of the Public Accounts Committee on the evasion of vehicle excise duty?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot do so. However, there is a mechanism for parliamentary consideration of such reports. The issue is serious and I take note of what my hon. Friend says.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

As all hon. Members understand the importance of obeying the law, will the Leader of the House provide an early opportunity in 1985 to debate the matter as hundreds of thousands of private companies deliberately defy the law by refusing to file their accounts or annual reports at Companies House? Many firms also defy the law with respect to wages councils. As the law exists, does not the right hon. Gentleman believe that it should be obeyed by everybody and that we should have a brief debate on that in 1985?

Mr. Biffen

I note the hon. Gentleman's point, which is substantial and long-standing. However, there is no prospect of Government time for such a debate early in the new year.

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

In view of the fact that the south-west water authority — and, no doubt, other similar authorities — intends to introduce new water rates in mid-February, will my right hon. Friend tell the House when the Government's proposals for the new rating arrangements will be put to the House for approval, especially as some of us find the proposed water rates totally unacceptable?

Mr. Biffen

If my hon. Friend is referring to the rate support grant, he will not have to wait too long.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

May I reinforce the question about changing the date of the debate on the report on acid rain and ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the closure of post offices before they are closed? May I also ask the Leader of the House to arrange for a debate on the Floor of the House of the prayer tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Housing Benefit Amendment (No. 4) Regulations 1984, because the House will no doubt wish to have clarification of the Government's motives in withdrawing housing benefits from miners who are paying rent to their relatives for their accommodation?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look into the question of the prayer that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

He will appreciate that the more one argues for matters to be taken on the Floor of the House, the more one underlines the importance of Friday as a constructive day in the parliamentary week.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

In view of the Government's problems with the Civil Aviation Bill, will my right hon. Friend consider having an early debate on the report on the expansion at Stansted, because such a debate might show the Government the way in which opinion in the House is moving and enable them to inform the proceedings of the Committee on the Bill?

Mr. Biffen

As my hon. Friend may have noted, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is to make a statement this afternoon on the first matter. On the second point, I realise the general desire for an early debate on the inspectors' report, but a number of hon. Members have informed me that they want a certain amount of time to assess the formidable volume of evidence that is contained in the report.

Mr. James Lomond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

In view of the positive response that there has been to the visit of Mr. Gorbachev and the rest of the IPU delegation—although, in fact, all Mr. Gorbachev said was already on offer, and was either concealed or distorted—would not it be a good idea to assist the drawing together of our two countries by having at least a statement from the Dispatch Box about what has been done in our name at the Stockholm confidence-building conference, which has now been going on for almost a year?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

Has my right hon. Friend noted the report in this morning's newspapers that the Liberal party is to press for the reduction of the voting age to 16? Will he reassure us that the House will not waste time debating such a scatty notion?

Mr. Biffen

If such a proposal were ruled to be in order, there would be absolutely nothing I could do about it, but I think that the House would thoroughly enjoy the debate.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

Is the Leader of the House aware that it is more than five years since the Royal Commission on legal services presented its report to the House, and that, although there have been several requests for a debate on this important subject, no time has been given for it by the Government? Does the right hon. Gentleman hold out any realistic prospect of having a debate on the report in the foreseeable future?

Mr. Biffen

I regret to tell the hon. Gentleman that there is no prospect of such a debate taking place during the first week after we return from the Christmas recess, but I shall of course bear in mind his anxiety.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As local authorities clearly have a great deal of trouble with housing—sometimes it is of a very low standard—will the Government, when they bring back their proposals on housing expenditure, put forward proposals to encourage the expansion of the private rented sector and to encourage some local authorities to divest to the private sector some of their housing assets so that they may be better managed and at less cost to the public?

Mr. Biffen

The best thing I can do is to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to what my hon. Friend has said.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that, during last night's Adjournment debate and the debate on the Consolidated Fund, there were repeated references to two documents — one produced by the five academic accountants, which has been revised and published this week in the "Accountancy" magazine, and the other the London Business School document—both of which challenge the National Coal Board's accountancy arrangements? Is he aware that he himself repeatedly alludes to "frameworks for negotiation"? In so far as those documents could provide the basis on which negotiations could take place, does he agree that the House of Commons deserves a statement so that we may all learn the truth about the value of NCB figures?

Mr. Biffen

I certainly see no prospect of a debate on that topic during the week we come back. It will be up to the people who conduct the negotiations within the coal industry to assess the documents.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Silberston report on restraints on trade in textiles and clothing caused concern in those areas which are dependent for employment on such industries? As there has not been a major debate on textiles during this Parliament, will he endeavour to arrange one as soon as possible and before the Government form a view prior to the MFA negotiations?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the very important role that textile industries play in many constituencies and, therefore, the influence they have upon the time of the House. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the point that has been made.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

May I make my annual appeal to the Leader of the House to allow time to consider the awful and uncompassionate state of the law and practice on shoplifting? Meanwhile, will he join me in urging shoppers who wish to have a pleasant Christmas free from fear to take very great care not to be wrongly charged with that offence?

Mr. Biffen

I did not realise that the hon. and learned Gentleman made the appeal but once a year. Of course I take note of what he says.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Will my right hon. Friend follow his normal practice and let the House know what the business will be on Monday 14 January?

Mr. Biffen

No. It is not customary to announce Monday's business when one makes a statement before a recess.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Since the Government came to power on the promise of protecting our freedoms, does not the Leader of the House think that we should have a debate on the further erosion of those freedoms when the major clearing banks have written to every branch of every bank asking for details of the private bank accounts of NUM employees at Sheffield? Does not he also think that we should have a discussion on the powers given to the sequestrators, which apparently are the same powers as those provided by the Act dealing with enemies and aliens during the last war?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Lady will realise that there was a debate on the matter of the sequestrators earlier today. I cannot helpfully comment on the first point, but the hon. Lady may like to pursue the matter as a private Member.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

As one of those pressing my right hon. Friend to find time to debate the report of the Select Committee on the Environment on acid rain, may I thank him very much for finding that time in the first week after the Christmas recess? As for the rather surprising and churlish remarks of one or two hon. Members about the debate being arranged for a Friday, will he accept—at least from myself—thanks for his courtesy in giving 22 days' notice, which means that even the most tardy Member of Parliament should he able to arrange his constituency engagements in order to be here?

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind and reassuring comments.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House recall that on Monday the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a statement about the Bank of England's commitment of £75 million towards the Johnson Matthey rescue when he either was misleading the House or being misled by the people concerned, because, according to today's information, that £75 million has now risen to £100 million, and there are forecasts that the Bank of England—the taxpayers' bank—will have to be committed to figures in excess even of that?

In view of that statement and those events, would it not be sensible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make another statement? Even more important, should not we have a debate on the affair so that the Government are not caught as previous Governments were caught when the Crown Agents were involved in similar difficulties with the result that we did not have a debate on the matter until the Crown Agents were in debt to the tune of over £200 million?

Mr. Biffen

I understand that the £100 million to which the hon. Gentleman refers is a post-rescue transaction from the Bank of England to its new subsidiary, Johnson Matthey Bankers Ltd. It is a normal banking transaction and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor did not know of the deposit on Monday. There is no reason why he should have known.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

In view of the forthcoming Geneva talks and the great interest both in the House and in the country on these matters, will my hon. Friend see whether he can arrange a debate on arms control soon after our return?

Mr. Biffen

While I fully accept the importance of the topic to which my hon. Friend refers, I confess that I cannot see the likelihood of Government time being available for such a debate in the near future.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Will the Leader of the House take more seriously the request for a debate in Government time on the mining dispute in view of the fact that at least two accountants' reports published in the last month have seriously criticised and undermined the National Coal Board's basis for its pit closure programme?

Mr. Biffen

I do not accept the immaculate validity of those accountants' reports which are endorsed by the hon. Gentleman. There is no likelihood of such a debate on the mining industry being held in the first week after the Christmas recess. The reason is the formidable and important programme of legislation that I announced a few moments ago. However, we shall keep the matter under consideration.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on the latest report of the Top Salaries Review Body and allow it to range as widely as before to enable hon. Members to consider whether some Opposition Members give value for money? Will he also commend the Attorney-General for the excellent pressure that he is bringing to bear on the students union of the polytechnic of North London which sent £5,000 of public money to striking miners? The Attorney-General's actions in this matter are greatly appreciated, and I hope that he will see them through.

Mr. Biffen

As to my hon. Friend's first point, I shall certainly refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I note with gratitude the comments on the second point.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Will the Leader of the House assure us that the Government will provide time for a full day's debate on regional assistance? He will recall that a large number of hon. Members tried to speak on the subject when a statement was made earlier this month. He must recognise that serious concern is still felt about the Government's policy on regional assistance.

Mr. Biffen

I am happy to confirm that we shall have a full day's debate on regional aid. I cannot state precisely when, but it should be soon.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

In view of two recent perverted and disgraceful cases of sexual offences involving children, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to be made following the meetings that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has had today? The public deserve to know that this can be controlled and cut out at a stroke.

Mr. Biffen

I can assure my hon. Friend that I shall refer his anxiety on this immensely important topic to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we do not waste any of the House's time debating the manic and ludicrous suggestion made in the early hours of this morning by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that members of the security forces are roaming round the country bumping off ladies to filch documents relating to the Belgrano?

Mr. Biffen

I can promise that no Government time will be made available for such a debate and certainly not in the first week after the recess.