HC Deb 16 February 1984 vol 54 cc383-91 3.35 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 20 FEBRUARY — Motion to take note of European Community documents on the draft general budget for 1984. The relevant numbers will appear in the Official Report. Remaining stages of the Occupiers Liability Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 21 FEBRUARY—Proceedings on the Tourism (Overseas Promotion) (Scotland) Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 22 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day (10th Allotted Day): Until about seven o'clock, a debate on the problems of young unemployed and afterwards a debate on the need for improved care of the elderly. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motions on the Double Taxation Relief Orders relating to Sweden, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Falkland Islands, and on the Air Navigation (Noise Certification) Order.

THURSDAY 23 FEBRUARY—Proceedings on the Pensions Commutation Bill.

Remaining stages of the Merchant Shipping Bill [Lords].

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

FRIDAY 24 FEBRUARY—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 27 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on GCHQ.

[Documents for debate on EC budget: 20 February 1984:

  1. a. Preliminary draft general budget for 1984 — COM(83)180
  2. b. Draft general budget for 1984
  3. c. Letter of Amendment to the 1984 budget
  4. d. Modifications and amendments by the European Parliament to the 1984 budget—10447/83, 10105/83
  5. e. Decisions by the Council on modifications and amendments by the European Parliament to the 1984 budget
  6. f. Financial compensation for the United Kingdom and Germany for 1983–11094/83
  7. g. Annual report of the Court of Auditors for 1982O.J. C357

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee:

  1. a. HC 78-i (1983–84) paragraph 15
  2. b. HC 78-ii (1983–84) paragraph 7
  3. c. HC 78-viii (1983–84) paragraph 8
  4. d. HC 78-viii (1983–84) paragraph 8
  5. e. HC 78-xiii (1983–4) paragraph 3
  6. f. HC 78-xi (1983–84) paragraph 7
  7. g. HC 78-xiv (1983–84) paragraph 3.]

Mr. Kinnock

Will the debate on GCHQ scheduled for Monday week be on the Adjournment of the House or on a motion tabled by the Government? The Leader of the House will understand that the choice of debate will make some difference to the response to it in the House.

In the light of serious unemployment in Wales, when does the Leader of the House plan to provide a day for the customary debate on Welsh affairs? Finally, in view of the continuing public speculation, which has become even more frequent recently, will the Leader of the House say when we shall hear a statement on the future of the A320 airbus project?

Mr. Biffen

I am very happy for the form of the motion of the GCHQ debate to be considered through the usual channels. I should like to take the opportunity of saying clearly that the Select Committee report will be a feature of that debate.

I give an undertaking that we shall seek leave to have the Welsh day debate in the fairly near future. I realise that it is customary for it to be close to St. David's day. Finally, I have demonstrated in the past my anxiety that a statement should be made on the airbus as soon as practicable. I am afraid that I have not been able to arrange for it to be announced to the House, but I shall certainly keep the matter under consideration and report shortly.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's White Paper "Insolvency Law and Practice"—the Cork report —is awaited with eager anticipation? Will he tell the House whether it will appear next week, or at least by the end of the month, and will there be an opportunity to debate it?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot answer the question in the precise terms that my hon. Friend asks for. I hope that the White Paper will be published shortly; then we may consider having a debate in the light of reaction to it.

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

Although there is a great deal of pressure on the time of the House while so many Government Bills are in Committee, could we have a debate on the situation at Windscale, or Sellafield as it is now called, because we have several reports to debate and the implications for the Government's energy programme are very serious?

Mr. Biffen

I was conscious of the great pressure on the time of the House, but perhaps I am more aware of that than others by the nature of my task. I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's point.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

As we are due to debate GCHQ, Cheltenham, on Monday next, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether, if we have a copper-bottomed deal from the unions, which I hope the Government will accept, we will then not have that debate but perhaps have a day off, or something?

Mr. Biffen

I shall consider my hon. Friend's generous alternatives.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

The Leader of the House will have heard the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) to the Prime Minister about the steel industry in Yorkshire. Is he aware of the difficulties being experienced by the steel industry in the midlands? When will we have a debate on the steel industry? May I press him a little further on the nods and winks that we have seen regarding Welsh day? Why can he not be specific and tell us what day it will be?

Mr. Biffen

Because I do not know myself. When that day comes, the fortunes of the steel industry in Wales will be relevant. On the wider issue of the steel industry in the entire United Kingdom, I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

My right hon. Friend may have seen yesterday's questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland about the legislation in Scotland on solvent abuse. Is he aware that there is no such legislation in England and Wales? Is it not time that this distressing addictive habit was discussed in the House, and, most importantly, should we not discuss the possible research that could be conducted into solving the problem?

Mr. Biffen

I shall consider my hon. Friend's points, although I cannot hold out hope of parliamentary time next week.

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)

Will there be a ministerial statement next week on the Government's long-awaited response to the British Textile Confederation's document entitled "Plan for Action"? Is it not high time that we had that response?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the point, about what is clearly a major industry in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

When does my right hon. Friend think we will be able to implement the resolutions of the House passed on 19 July last year relating to Members' allowances and other matters?

Mr. Biffen

I understand that a paper providing guidance on the necessary changes in the arrangements relating to the disbursement of Members' secretarial, research and office expenses will shortly be submitted to you, Mr. Speaker, for consideration. If it is approved, the Fees Office will arrange for its distribution to all hon. Members as soon as possible thereafter.

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

Since it is now becoming clear that, despite some potentially better offers, the Secretary of State for Scotland sold Stonefield Vehicles to Mr. Abdul Shamji, a friend of the Prime Minister, with catastrophic results, since Trafalgar House nearly got the same sort of sweetheart deal to take over Scott Lithgow, in view of the privatisation of forestry, out of which many rich people are doing well, and in view of Cementation Ltd. and other matters, is it not about time that we had a debate about the need to curb the use of public office for private gain?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is far too nice to be using such arguments. However, if he feels strongly about it, there are plenty of ways open to him to pursue the matter so that it can be raised on a private Member's initiative.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

My right hon. Friend said that at 7 o'clock next Thursday there would be opposed private business, but he did not disclose the nature of that private business. Has it been decided and, if so, can my right hon. Friend say what it is?

Mr. Biffen

I speak subject to correction, but I am 99 per cent. certain that it will be the Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council Bill.

Mr. Speaker

Perhaps I can help the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Fan), who obviously was not here at the beginning of Question Time when the business was announced as the Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council Bill.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

Will the Leader of the House turn again to the debate a week next Monday? Surely we shall not have an Adjournment debate about GCHQ. There has been a report from a Select Committee. There have been statements from No. 10 Downing street and from outside the House. The House must have a view, and I hope that there will be a vote a week next Monday.

Mr. Biffen

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. He will recollect that I said to the Leader of the Opposition that this is a matter for consideration through the usual channels.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that onshore, as opposed to offshore, exploitation of our oil and gas reserves raises a whole new set of questions about protection of the environment? Would he agree that this matter cries out for a thorough review by the Government of the protective measures built in by local authorities and the Department of the Environment and the ability of local authorities to analyse oil companies' figures? Does this matter not cry out for a special debate of its own, outside normal Energy and Environment debates?

Mr. Biffen

The best way I can help my hon. Friend is to refer his pertinent points to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Further to the point made by the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), will the Leader of the House give a commitment that the Government, despite the Prime Minister's comments this afternoon, will not make up their mind about GCHQ before the debate next Monday week? Is he aware that, if the Government are not prepared to budge on this matter, they will be flying in the face of the unprecedented moves by the unions to accommodate the Government's position, and the Government will be encouraging non-cooperation at GCHQ as the only means of achieving the goals of the trade unions?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that I am here primarily to answer questions about the timetable for the House during the next 10 or so days, and not to argue the contents of policy.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to provide an early debate on compensation for British citizens expelled from Uganda in 1972 when, 12 years later, there is still no compensation from Uganda?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the effective concern that my hon. Friend has expressed. I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to his point. I commend to my hon. Friend the possibility of having this matter further debated in an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Does not the Leader of the House believe that it is about time that the Prime Minister made a statement on the policy regarding hereditary peerages, which seems to have changed? Is he aware that there is a scurrilous rumour that that is being done to pave the way for a future Earl of Finchley, once his fortune has been made?

Mr. Biffen

I know that the House has a keen sense of priority in how it allocates its time, so I do not believe that I shall incur too much wrath if I say that no debate on this matter is planned for next week.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Will my right hon. Friend ask his right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary whether, when he has finished the consultation process on streamlining the cities, he will arrange for a White Paper summarising the views expressed and the Government's decisions on those views?

Mr. Biffen

I shall convey that request.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that Monday's motion on the EEC will include consideration of the annual report of the Court of Auditors for the financial year 1982, as notified a week ago in the Official Report? When will the motion be tabled?

Mr. Biffen

Monday's debate will cover document OJC 357, the European Court of Auditors' annual report for the financial year 1982. I shall examine the hon. Gentleman's other point and be in touch.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

Having regard to the considerable success of the loan guarantee scheme, its importance to small business and the widespread view in the House, recorded in early-day motion 337, that it should be extended, will my right hon. Friend find time to debate this subject?

[That this House congratulates the Government on the success of the pilot Loan Guarantee Scheme, and welcomes the important contribution this has made to the financing of 12,231 new and expanding small businesses; calls on the Government to develop and make this successful scheme permanent, by abolishing the Government's three per cent. premium, and by extending the upper limit for loans from £75,000 to £250,000 so that medium sized businesses, too can have access to such loan capital for expansion.]

Mr. Biffen

No, but I commend the topic as a matter to alleviate the tedium that normally overtakes consideration of the Finance Bill in Committee.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Will the Leader of the House provide an early opportunity for a debate on the BBC in view of the recent hysterical vapourings of the chairman of his party?

Mr. Biffen

The measured remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Employment, who is the chairman of the Conservative party, do not bear that description and the incident does not deserve a debate.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

If my right hon. Friend found that it would be helpful, would he consider finding time for a debate upon the ideal relationship between Ministers, Whips and Select Committee?

Mr. Biffen

I shall be delighted to engage my hon. Friend in the entire concept of ideal relationships.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the answer to my question of 9 February by the Minister for Social Security, which reveals that the housing benefit scheme's administration and development costs are about £74.5 million, when the original estimate was only£19 million? Bearing in mind the other incompetent actions that have come to light recently in that Department, will he make a statement on the future, if any, of the Minister?

Mr. Biffen

I am not aware of the parliamentary question to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I cannot hold out hope of an early debate on the matter, in view of the debate which has recently taken place on the scheme.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

When will the House be able to debate the important White Paper on the Representation of the People Act?

Mr. Biffen

I hope that such a debate will come in the reasonably near future. It is a measure of major constitutional significance and obviously of great importance to the House. Such a debate cannot be entertained for next week.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House agree that it is a rather strange state of affairs that the Prime Minister has exchanged letters on the Cementation deal and has answered written questions on the matter but has never, throughout the whole episode, made a statement from the Dispatch Box to defend her position? Does he accept that it is important—bearing in mind that it has been leaked by the Foreign Office that during her consultations with the sultan she was advancing the cause of her son—that she should deal with the matter on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Biffen

I repudiate the innuendo and imputation of the hon. Gentleman. Every time that a question has been put to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister inside the House she has answered it. There has been correspondence with her outside the House and she has answered that, too.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the written answer on scented erasers that appeared this morning in Hansard? Is he aware that there were about 1,000 admissions to hospital last year for throat blockage and that not one involved an eraser, whether scented or otherwise? Would it not be sensible for the Government to provide time on the Floor of the House or in Committee to discuss the Scented Erasers (Safety) Order 1984, which is causing immense hardship to runny firms throughout the country, many of which have been set up with the assistance of Government funds?

Mr. Biffen

I should like to be able to assist my hon. Friend, certainly in the context of consideration of the order in Committee.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

As the Leader of the House was present when the Prime Minister answered the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) on the Scottish coalfield. will he try to get his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to be rather more forthcoming, especially on Monday when he answers questions? A serious situation is prevailing and there is widespread belief in the Scottish coal industry that the management is adopting a vindictive and disruptive attitude, especially by not asking NACODS to give cover for safety and maintenance purposes? Will he ask his right hon. Friend to investigate the position in Scotland and to be prepared to give satisfactory answers in defence of public assets?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that energy questions will be taken next Monday. In anticipation of that Question Time, I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to the hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)

Bearing in mind the importance of the British pharmaceutical industry to the health of the nation in more ways than one, and especially to my constituency, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the situation that is facing it?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot offer the prospect of an early debate in Government time. As my hon. Friend has said, the issue has a real constituency interest for him. I suggest that he might like to use private Members' time and to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

What happened to the Leader of the House's sense of scepticism when he heard the answers given by the Home Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and myself about the circumstances in which the police rifled through the house and bicycle possessions of Mr. Duncan Campbell? Do not those bizarre and extraordinary events warrant some explanation? Are we to believe that out of thin air, for reasons unknown, the court suddenly took what was a strange action for a court to take? Was any member of the Government involved? Is it not time that someone found out who knocked Duncan Campbell off his bicycle? Are we sure that we do not know?

Mr. Biffen

It is not within my recollection that I was in the Chamber when the exchanges took place between the hon. Gentleman and my ministerial colleagues. However, I will draw their attention to his point.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

There have been serious changes in the leadership of the Soviet Union in the past few days, and the Prime Minister has visited Moscow. Is it not time that we had a debate on the Floor of the House on foreign affairs, especially the prospects for detente throughout the world, and on events in the middle east?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has fairly identified a number of highly important topical matters, which necessitate the consideration of foreign affairs by the House. I cannot offer an immediate date, but I am sympathetically disposed to such an idea.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Could the right hon. Gentleman provide some time in which Parliament could debate the decision of the European Parliament this week to bring forward a draft treaty for European union, which is substantially supported by members of the Conservative party in Europe? The people of this country would then at least know, before the European elections in June, where the Government stand on European unity. They would not have to rely on the outpourings of Saatchi and Saatchi during the election period.

Mr. Biffen

Leaving Saatchi and Saatchi to one side, just for the moment, any sustained campaign to alert the public to the true nature of the debate about our relationship to the European Community will have to recognise that there is a close relationship between constitutional and financial arrangements. Monday's discussion of the budget documents will provide a jolly good peg on which to hang the argument.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the sixth and final recommendation in the report of the Select Committee on Employment on GCHQ, which states: That in the meantime"— that is, until the Government have considered the recommendations of the Committee— all action consequent upon the certificates issued by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs should be suspended, together with the requirement to sign the option forms"—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Might not that question be more relevant to the debate?

Mr. Janner

No, Mr. Speaker. With respect, I am asking whether, pending the debate, the Government accept the sixth recommendation, and whether they will therefore, in courtesy to the House and the unanimous recommendation of the Committee, take no action until the House has had a chance to debate the matter and the Government a chance to make up their mind—as they have promised to do—in the light of those unanimous recommendations?

Mr. Biffen

No, I cannot respond in any positive sense to that point, because the hon. and learned Gentleman is seeking to elicit from me a judgment on policy. I have made clear the occasion that there will be for a debate.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

I lend my support to the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) in his plea for a debate on what he calls solvent abuse and I call glue-sniffing. If we do not have a debate and produce an effective measure against such abuse, there may be a recurrence of the conduct that we have seen on the Conservative Benches today.

Mr. Biffen

The subtlety of the hon. Gentleman's final words is too great for me. Perhaps I may say in a spirit of greater clarity that I understand the anxiety about this matter. I understand that right hon. and hon. Members are experiencing this problem at constituency level. I cannot go further than say that I am conscious of the anxiety.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Can I press the Leader of the House further about a debate on steel? Will he assure us that there will be a debate before the Phoenix 2 privatisation? Does he accept that that is now even more important as Ministers have been in consultation with, and closely involved in, the development of the scheme for the past three years? It is simply not good enough for the Prime Minister to disclaim all responsibility. Can we have that debate, not merely because £500 million of public assets are involved but because many hundreds of jobs are at stake in south Yorkshire, which already has high levels of unemployment?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot go beyond what I have already said. I recognise the real constituency interest which the hon. Gentleman takes in this matter and his long personal involvement in the problems of the steel industry. I shall of course refer what he has said to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that 17 questions, both oral and written, have been asked of the Prime Minister since 17 January about the Oman Cementation contract? Is he aware that in each of those answers it is clear from the selective and careful use of the English language that the Prime Minister is deliberately trying to avoid answering key questions? Is he aware that today there was a development when the Prime Minister answered my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney, (Mr. Shore), the Shadow Leader of the House, by saying that she did not refer to Cementation during discussion with the Sultan? Is he aware that many of us do not believe that? Our evidence is to the contrary—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask the Leader of the House a question.

Mr. Biffen

On behalf of many—

Mr. Campbell-Savours

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let us hear the answer first.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

The answer please. I shall take the point of order later.

Mr. Biffen

I think that I speak for many right hon. and hon. Members when I say that we would be most interested to have placed on the record the evidence to which the hon. Gentleman refers. He has said that there have been 17 questions, the answers to which disappointed him. That is a case not of questions not being answered but of answers not meeting the expectation of the hon. Gentleman concerned.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It may well have been that my question was long, but you did not rule me out of order, Mr. Speaker, because it was long. The Leader of the House rose to intervene during my question. Therefore, may I be allowed to complete my question?

Mr. Speaker

No. The hon. Gentleman was a rather latecomer to business questions today. I announced to the House earlier that there is a long list of right hon. and hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that in normal circumstances I would not have called him. I did so out of kindness.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. That is your customary kindness to all right hon. and hon. Members. On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In the light of what I have said, would it not now be proper for the Leader of the House to go to the Prime Minister and ask her to make a statement?

Mr. Speaker

I think that that is not a matter for me.