HC Deb 19 January 1984 vol 52 cc451-8 3.44 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

Will Leader of the House 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 23 JANUARY—Motion on the Rate Support Grant (England) 1984–85 (House of Commons Paper No. 151)

TUESDAY 24 JANUARY—Opposition day (6th Allotted Day): Until about seven o'clock there will be a debate on the employment crisis on the lower Clyde and the future of the Scott Lithgow yard. Afterwards, a debate on closures and redundancies in British Rail Engineering Limited. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

Motion on the Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 25 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill.

THURSDAY 26 JANUARY—There will be a debate on the White Paper, Cmnd. No. 9043 "Developments in the European Communities January to June 1983."

Motion on the European Assembly Elections Regulations 1983.

FRIDAY 27 JANUARY—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 30 JANUARY—second Reading of the Data Protection Bill [Lords].

Mr. Kinnock

Will the Leader of the House inform us of the date of this year's Budget statement?

The Opposition are concerned about the delay in the announcement on the future of the A320 Airbus, which is obviously critical to the future of the British aerospace industry. Will there be an early statement on that, if possible next week?

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Government provide time for debates on the rate support grants for Wales and Scotland, since the matter has generated much anxiety in both countries?

Today the Government inflicted a further burden on householders by forcing up electricity prices by obliging the Electricity Council to make increases that it does not wish to make and which are generally recognised to be unnecessary. May we expect a statement early next week about the price increases? If there is a statement, will it be made by the Secretary of State for Energy, for whom the increases represent a significant defeat, or will it be made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, for whom the increases represent a tax?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to introduce his Budget on Tuesday 13 March, and I hope that it will be for the convenience of the House to know that date so early.

As soon as the Government are in a position to announce their policy decisions on the Airbus, they will come to the House, but I cannot promise that such a statement will be ready by next week. Clearly it would be in the interests of all for this matter to be resolved as soon as possible.

I note the right hon. Gentleman's point about the rate support grants for Scotland and Wales. The timing of the debates will be discussed through the usual channels.

I also note the right hon. Gentleman's interest in a statement on electricity prices. He kindly offered us an option between two of the brightest stars of the Government, and we shall bear that matter in mind.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that last year the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee strongly supported the publication of the Government's public expenditure White Paper before the Budget statement so that it could be debated and reported upon before the Budget was introduced? He has given the date of the Budget. Will he assure the House that there will be a debate on the public expenditure White Paper before Budget day?

Mr. Biffen

I can give my right hon. Friend my sympathy for the point that he makes.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Has the Leader of the House received a request from the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement to the House on yesterday's worrying report of the Air Travel Reserve Agency, which showed clearly that the fund is in difficulty, primarily because of the effects of the Laker collapse? It also showed that the claims of 4,000 people who were denied holidays as a result of the collapse in February 1982 have still not been cleared up. Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an undertaking, long before the holiday season begins, that the Secretary of State for Transport will discuss those matters with the Civil Aviation Authority and the agency so that holidaymakers may know that they can enjoy safe holidays and that financial arrangements are secure?

Mr. Biffen

I have not received such a request, but the fund is of acute interest both inside and outside the House. I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to what the hon. Gentlaman has said.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 404 about a threat to 40,000 jobs in London.

[That this House believes that the effects of a night and weekend ban on large lorries in the Greater London area will include a massive reduction in employment as depots and markets move outside the London Orbital Motorway M25 area, a dramatic increase in traffic congestion as delivery vehicles delay their entry into London until the rush-hour, a trebling of the number of lorries if smaller vehicles replace existing ones, that food will be less fresh and prices will rise, and London's manufacturing industrial base will be further eroded; and calls on the Greater London Council to consult retailers, distributors, manufacturers and unions, especially about the employment consequences which could add 10 per cent. to unemployment in London, and to publish the results of the consultation.]

Will my right hon. Friend make sure that if the GLC imposes a night and weekend ban on heavy lorries in London, which will lead to a flight from London of wholesale and warehouse jobs, Ministers at the Department of the Environment and the Department of Transport will, in the interests of maintaining employment in London and keeping down the amount of traffic, announce in the House immediate action to overturn the ban?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Transport to that pertinent point. Doubtless they will contact my hon. Friend direct.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

The whole House and indeed the country will rejoice at the Prime Minister's ambassadorial success in obtaining overseas contracts, but it is regrettable that her success with Cementation International Ltd. has been tainted by allegations that her son was involved. As the Prime Minister refuses to answer the question put to her, will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate so that the whole country may know whether the right hon. Lady was successful as an ambassador in obtaining that contract, or whether she was assisted by her son?

Mr. Biffen

If Opposition Members feel that there is substance in that point, they will no doubt make use of all the parliamentary opportunities open to them to draw attention to it.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

A number of hon. Members who supported the Government on the Second Reading of the Rates Bill are nevertheless uneasy about the rate support grant. Will my right hon. Friend ensure—if necessary by suspending the rule for a short time—that there is sufficient time on Monday for all hon. Members to express their views and, if necessary, for the Secretary of State to explain any concessions that he might make?

Mr. Biffen

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that the debate can run until 11.30 pm.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

IBM United Kingdom Ltd recently wrote to its customers in the United Kingdom, apparently at the express request of the United States Government, telling them that before they relocate their computers within the United Kingdom they require permission by licence from the United States Government. A spokesman of the United States Defence Department recently threatened a complete embargo on any country not following that procedure. As our Government, our industry and, in particular, the Ministry of Defence are 90 per cent. dependent upon American computers, is that not a direct threat to our sovereignty and, as such, should it not he discussed on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Biffen

I was not aware of the letter to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. This sensitive point would be suitable either for an Adjournment debate or for questions to the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Would it be convenient for the Foreign Secretary to make the statement next week on his attendance at the disarmament conference this week in Stockholm? Could the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us in that statement what proposals the British Government are putting forward to try to achieve the signing of a treaty in 1984 rather than have more conferences and Soviet walkouts?

Mr. Biffen

The Stockholm talks are assuming considerable significance, and the House will wish to be informed of my right hon. and learned Friend's views. I shall convey to him the point made by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds South)

Just before the general election, when the Boundary Commission reports came before the House, there was general dissatisfaction with the rules and with the procedures applied in certain areas. It was implied by the Minister of State— I say no more than that—that in good time, before the next Boundary Commission, the Government would set up an appropriate inquiry. It is now 1984, and such inquiries take a long time. Is there any news yet?

Mr. Biffen

If there is, I am not, alas able to convey it. However, I shall look into the matter at once and report to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

In view of the continuing reports of intruders on royal premises. will the Government stop blocking my Criminal Law Act 1977 (Amendment) Bill and so give the Queen the protection that we now give only to foreign diplomats?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look into that, and will be in touch with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

An announcement on the designation of the free ports is expected very soon. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that it is not made by means of a written answer? Will he ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to allow a full debate on that important subject, which affects many parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Biffen

Of course, the report on free ports raises lively regional considerations. I shall certainly convey that point to those of my right hon. Friends concerned, and I know that it will be echoed elsewhere and in other parts of the House.

Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsea and Wood Green)

Does my right hon. Friend remember giving me an undertaking last November that he would discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services the possibility of an early debate on the important Oglesby report on delays in mobility and attendance allowances? What progress has he made in those discussions, and what is the result?

Mr. Biffen

I have taken up the matter and will ensure that both my hon. Friend and the House are informed of the position.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the allegations against the Prime Minister of nepotism will not go away and that a ministerial statement on the issue should be made in the House? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is alleged that Mark Thatcher was allowed to sit in on the discussions that took place between the Prime Minister and civil servants, against the wishes of the civil servants, and that he was allowed access on that tour to places to which any other business man would have been denied access? How much money changed hands? Was Mark Thatcher on the gravy train? We should have a proper chance to challenge and question the Minister at the Dispatch Box; the matter should not be swept under the carpet.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman clearly attaches great importance to the matter and is joined in that view by many other Opposition Members. However, they know perfectly well that there is ample opportunity for the matter to be prosecuted during the time available to the House.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Will my right hon. Friend invite the Secretary of State for Defence to make an early statement on his visit to the Falklands?

Mr. Biffen

Certainly, Sir.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

In view of the interest in all parts of the House in recent events in Central America, does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it might be appropriate to depart from our normal practice in debating foreign affairs so that we can do justice to one subject? Will he therefore agree to provide time to discuss Central America?

Mr. Biffen

I would be the first to concede that Central America is of growing significance to world affairs, if not specifically to British foreign policy. However, there is no time available in the near future for a special debate on that topic.

Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Billericay)

Has my right hon. Friend or my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary received any indication from the Opposition that they are now prepared to support the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Bill instead of opposing it?

Mr. Biffen

Such matters will be revealed in the debate on Wednesday.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Before the Conservative party resurrects the convention that a Chief Whip who has retired from office must resign from the House— as mentioned by one newspaper this morning—may we have a full debate in the House on how that change would affect the four right hon. Gentlemen concerned?

Mr. Biffen

If we run out of issues of substance to debate, we may have to move to issues of irrelevance, and that subject would be highly entertaining.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Is there likely to be a statement on the future of Prestwick airport in relation to free port status and licences to fly out of Glasgow on transatlantic flights?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend will have heard my comment in relation to free ports. I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to the more general issues concerning Prestwick airport.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I say to those hon. Members who are seeking to intervene that an important Opposition debate is to follow. I shall allow questions to continue for a further five minutes.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

Has the Leader of the House seen the annual report "The State of the Region" on the northern region which drew the Government's attention to mass unemployment in that area? Its problems were exacerbated last week by the announcement by Plessey of a further 600 redundancies. May we have a debate on the state of the northern region?

Mr. Biffen

Many regions understandably feel that it is imperative that their problems are debated. I view this matter sympathetically, but I can offer no prospect of a debate next week.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the serious anxiety expressed by senior British diplomats about the conduct of the Prime Minister and her son in Oman? In view of that worry, will he reconsider the replies that he has given this afternoon?

Mr. Biffen

I was not aware of that serious concern. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will seek an early opportunity to validate his comments. I shall in no sense offer Government time for the debate sought by the Opposition. If they are motivated by altruistic considerations, they will find a way of having this matter debated on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

May we have an assurance that we shall have an early debate on the procedures of the House, especially to discuss refusal of Ministers to list the engagements that they cancelled on 18 November 1983 when they were "whipped" to be in the House to defeat the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons (Amendment) Bill?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman knows that plans are afoot to set up a Procedure Committee. Perhaps when that matter comes before the House he will have a chance to make the points that now concern him.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Will my right hon. Friend ask his counterparts how much longer it will be before a statement is made on the proposals to dump nuclear waste in Cleveland, which is causing the whole region to become sterile in industrial and commercial terms?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point, and I shall ensure that the relevant Ministers are informed of his point.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

Is the Leader of the House aware that on Tuesday this week there was a major lobby in Westminster Hall about London Transport at which many seriously disabled people sought to be present? Because they were confined to wheelchairs, it was impossible for them to do so. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware that shortly we shall be discussing many issues of concern to seriously disabled people, will he do his utmost to ensure that they have access to not only the Committee Room in Westminster Hall but to all the Committee Rooms when Standing Committees meet? These people have as much right as able-bodied people to listen to the debates.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman knows that that point is already before the Services Committee. I shall ensure that it is informed of his comments.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Cynon Valley)

Has the Leader of the House seen the article in The Observer on Sunday which addressed many discerning questions to the Prime Minister about the business in Oman? Does he realise that when on Monday a request to raise that matter was made on the Floor of the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) Mr. Speaker rightly said that there would be other opportunities to raise it. Opposition Members at Question Time on Tuesday and Thursday addressed questions to the Prime Minister, and they are perplexed that she is not prepared to answer them.

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that next week a statement—we do not want a debate—is made? Does he recall the anxiety expressed some time ago when No. 10 Downing street paper was used by Denis Thatcher when he wrote to the Secretary of State for Wales about a property deal? Are we to understand that Downing street has been privatised?

Mr. Biffen

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman because he is suffering from what afflicts all of us from time to time—the problem of managing to get questions out but not liking the answers. I cannot hold out for him a better future in this respect next week than in the past.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House understand that one of the problems is that when written questions were addressed to the Prime Minister by me and my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) she replied as she did today al the Dispatch Box, "I have nothing further to add"?

Normally, the Prime Minister is not backward in coming forward. She is supposed to be a politician of conviction and one who fights her corner. However, she has been extremely reticent on this occasion. It is necessary that she— not another Minister—makes a statement to the House on this issue so that hon. Members may question her on the exact nature of the deals in Oman, the role played by her son, whether she knew of his visit at that time, and so on. We cannot be satisfied by her saying that she has nothing to add. The Leader of the House must understand that we are using all the political opportunities that he has described, but the Prime Minister keeps putting up a stone wall.

Mr. Biffen

I did not think that the hon. Gentleman was quite such an amateur in these matters. If he says that he is using all the political opportunities available to him and is not getting very far, that is a reflection more upon his skills than upon the Prime Minister. If the Opposition wish to pursue this case, they have plenty of opportunities, but I shall not offer them Government time in which to do so.

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

Will the Leader of the House raise with the Director of Public Prosecutions the so—called revelations in the Daily Express in the past few days about fraud in the Property Services Agency? Does he agree that the newspaper's allegations relate to incidents that have already been the subject of prosecution in the courts, that the newspaper has not produced any new information and that if the Daily Express has anything in its files which it feels should be answered it should put it before the police and not play Fleet street in a circulation war?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman seeks to make a fair and constructive point, which I note, but I have no responsibility to raise matters with the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will we have a statement next week on whether the Government are satisfied with the way in which they have used their various facilities in the information service to get the Tory press to rubbish the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath)? If there is no truth in the allegation about former Government Whips being made to retire from the House of Commons, are the Government working on the basis that they would like to have the same system that operates in eastern Europe where former leaders of the party who stray from the official line become non-persons and are in utter disgrace?

Mr. Biffen

Neither by temperament or by experience does the Conservative party have much knowledge of eastern Europe.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I regret not only raising this point of order but the stonewalling tactics employed by the Leader of the House, who is usually very helpful to the House on business questions. Many hon. Members have raised the matter of the involvement of the Prime Minister's son in a contract. There are precedents in the memory of hon. Members when the later Reginald Maudling, the late John Cordle and Albert Roberts were involved in contracts abroad. The Government of the day and the then Leader of the House provided facilities for the House to debate the involvement of the three hon. Members in those contracts.

This issue will not go away. If the House of Commons is not to be brought into disrepute, Mr. Speaker and the Leader of the House have a responsibility to ensure that facilities are made available to clear up any doubts about what happened abroad when the Prime Minister made her visit.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member said that the Government of the day had made arrangements for a debate. I have no responsibility for the organisation of debates. The House has heard what the Leader of the House has said about this matter.