HC Deb 22 March 1984 vol 56 cc1180-5 3.37 pm
Mr. Speaker

I should inform the House that I intend to limit business questions to 20 minutes so that we may get on to the important foreign affairs debate, in which a large number of Members wish to participate.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 26 MARcH—Progress on remaining stages of the Trade Union Bill.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Town and Country Planning Bill.

TUESDAY 27 MARcH—Progress on remaining stages of the Rates Bill (1st Allotted Day).

Motion on the Public Records (Commission for New Towns) Order.

WEDNESDAY 28 MARcH—Completion of remaining stages of the Rates Bill (2nd Allotted Day).

Motions on the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal Order and on the mineworkers pension scheme.

THURSDAY 29 MARCH—Completion of the Rating and Valuation (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.

FRIDAY 30 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 2 APRIL—Completion of Report stage of the Trade Union Bill.

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but I must first express the Opposition's disappointment that an earlier time of day could not be found to debate motions on the redundant mineworkers scheme as it has major implications and will attract wide public interest.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for arranging today's foreign affairs debate, but I should make it clear that the Opposition believe that we must have an early opportunity to debate the Brussels summit, the affairs of which become increasingly interesting as each day passes.

Mr. Biffen

I entirely accept the right hon. Gentleman's view that the recent European Council meeting should receive the attention of the House. I hope to be able to indicate a date and time for such a debate in my next business statement.

In an ideal world, of course, the regulations concerning the mining industry would be debated at an earlier time of day. Nevertheless, I believe that a helpful debate can take place at the time arranged.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Although the EEC Supplementary Estimate is not included in next week's business, is my right hon. Friend aware that the evidence taken on the subject this morning by the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service may well be of interest to the House and that it is hoped to publish it before the weekend?

Mr. Biffen

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I am sure that the whole House will be interested to study the evidence that he hopes to publish.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

The Leader of the House will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) request a Standing Order No. 10 debate on the Levene report. Could he persuade the Secretary of State for Defence to make his statement to the House on the substance of that report, because it is causing extreme disquiet to many of my constituents who are employed in naval establishments?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to that point.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

Can the House look forward to an early debate on the Government's Green Paper on the long-term trend of public expenditure, preferably soon after the Easter recess?

Mr. Biffen

Alas, I have to say no. The Green Paper concerns a long-term trend and it may be a short while before we can have a chance to debate it.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

In view of the great constitutional importance of the question that was referred to during exchanges with the Prime Minister, and in view of the obvious confusion not least in the minds of the right hon. Members for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins), will the Leader of the House consider whether a statement could be made early next week clarifying the relationship between the withholding of payments to the EC by this country and United Kingdom law and United Kingdom treaty obligations? It is very unwise for the House to proceed, and surely it is foolish for the Cabinet and the House to debate these matters, until the underlying constitutional and treaty questions have been definitively stated.

Mr. Biffen

The prospect of an educational process involving the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Jenkins) is, of course, most enticing for the House. However, I doubt whether it could be contained within the narrow parameters of a statement. Perhaps we ought to try to include it in the more general debate we hope to have before the European summit.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Would my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that before any firm decision is made by the Secretary of State for Social Services this House will have an opportunity of debating the Select Committee report on the Griffiths report on management of the Health Service? Would he also give an assurance that the House will have an opportunity to debate any package that is agreed within Europe prior to its becoming effective and being implemented?

Mr. Biffen

I gave a reasonably encouraging, I hope, reply to a request for a debate on the Griffiths report made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) last week. If I can go no further than that this afternoon, at least I am not recoiling from it. On the question of a debate upon the range of issues that may eventually be decided in the context of the European Council meeting. I must ask my hon. Friend to await the outcome of the debate, which I hope will take place fairly soon.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's well known objectivity on the issue of the European Community treaties and his voting record in 1971 and 1972, surely he should not turn down the invitation about having a debate on this issue on the basis of a prior statement from the Attorney-General on the constitutional and legal implications. Since the Prime Minister has singularly failed in her responsibility to tell the country what is the rule of law, we are surely entitled to expect the Attorney-General to tell us what are our obligations under the treaty and what is the rule of law.

Mr. Biffen

Among my many generous instincts is a protective instinct towards the right hon. Gentleman, and I was seeking to protect him from the hands of right hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that following Tuesday's meeting in Brussels a statement will be made very shortly, that the possibility will be considered of withholding £1 in contribution for each unrebated £1 if the rebate due is not made, and that the House will be told the legal implications of that?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot go beyond what was said by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on these matters, but of course I will draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary to the point that my hon. Friend makes.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the advice being given to the Prime Minister that it is no longer possible for the right hon. Lady and Conservative Members of the Select Committee on Members' Interests to continue with their cover-up of the Oman scandal, unless the right hon. Lady is prepared to shovel all the blame on to her son?

Mr. Biffen

There is no question of a cover-up. I see no prospect of having the sort of debate that the hon. Gentleman seeks.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Until the other Foreign Ministers in Europe take note of what is obviously the line being taken by the Government arising out of the summit, will my right hon. Friend do something that is within his control—promise hon. Members that there will be no more late night debates on motions to take note of EC matters?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the House has a lively interest in debating Community matters. Therefore, I cannot give the undertaking sought by my hon. Friend. Either the debates should not take place, or, if they do, they take place in prime time.

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 595 dealing with the miners dispute, in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends?

[That this House is seriously disturbed at the deteriorating situation in the British coalfield; deplores the recent dictatorial attitude of the National Coal Board resulting in demands being made on area directors to cut coal output by 4 million tons in one year, thereby increasing the pace of pit closures without consultation, threatening 20,000 mine-workers' jobs and worsening industrial relations beyond repair; advises that coal imports of 4½ million tons would be reduced and opencast coal-mining curtailed to achieve the same objective; and, whilst recognising that the National Coal Board's goal of bringing supply into line with demand would be delayed, believes it would be achieved without conflict, confrontation, heartache and misery in our coal-mining communities.]

As the right hon. Gentleman has not shown any intention to announce a debate on the issue, will he bear in mind that the massive expense of the police presence on the picket lines has proved to be counter-productive? Will he discuss the matter with the Home Secretary with a view to withdrawing that massive, expensive presence?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's argument, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to his anxieties. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has noted that there is to be a debate on the coal industry, albeit on a rather restricted and narrow basis, on Wednesday evening.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

In the unlikely event of my right hon. Friend acceding to the request of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) to hold some sort of legal teach-in on the Common Market constitutional arrangement, will my right hon. Friend ensure that any such debate is replied to by a Minister of the Crown who believes in and upholds the sovereignty of this Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of that fascinating and constructive suggestion.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

Further to the right hon. Gentleman's reply to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), and in view of the widespread concern among the professions and trade unions within the National Health Service about the Griffiths report, will the right hon. Gentleman agree that there should be a debate at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate that point. However, I am sure that the hon. Lady will understand that, at this stage, I cannot give a precise date.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In view of the detailed, investigative article by Mr. Paul Foot on page 9 of today's Daily Mirror, is it not highly desirable that the House should debate early-day motion 517 on the discrepancies of fact as between the submarine commander and the Prime Minister about the sinking of the Belgrano?

[That this House calls attention to the fact that contrary to the Prime Minster's reply on 21st February, Official Report, column 695, Her Majesty's Government have never explained the discrepancy between the statement in paragraph 110 of the Falklands Campaign: the Lessons, Cmnd. 8758, that the Conqueror detected the General Belgrano on 2nd May 1982, and the statement of the Commander of the Conqueror made in the book, 'Our Falklands War: the Men of the Task Force tell THEIR Story', by Geoffrey Underwood, introduced by Major-General Sir Jeremy Moore, K.C.B., O.B.E., M.C., that he sighted the Belgrano visually early in the afternoon of 1st May and followed the Belgrano for over 30 hours; and calls upon the Prime Minister either to make a statement to the House explaining this disparity, or to appoint a judge of the Appeal Court to determine whether her statement or that of the submarine commander tells the truth.]

Mr. Biffen

I do not have the advantage of having seen page 9 of today's Daily Mirror. I shall, of course, take note of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He will realise that he made them in the presence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

Does the Leader of the House accept that the House faces a whole series of important debates on measures affecting local government? Will he undertake to publish the Bill or Bills that will deal with the abolition of the metropolitan authorities and the GLC before we complete the remaining stages of the Rates Bill, not least because the measures are interlocked?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot give such an undertaking, but I shall consider the matter.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on 1 April the code of the Commission for Racial Equality will be brought into effect and will introduce ethnic monitoring into all employers' organisations? As answers from Ministers to me show that not one Government Department intends to comply with the new rules, or is in a position to do so, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange either for a debate on the matter or, at least, a statement to be made by the Secretary of State for Employment?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure that I can immediately accept the hon. and learned Gentleman's assertions, but I will have the matter investigated and will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to his concern that a statement should be made.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

May I ask the Leader of the House not to dismiss lightly the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) for a statement on the treaty obligations that we have undertaken? If we cannot have a debate on the issue—and I understand that—it would not be beyond the competence of the Government, and it would be for the convenience of the House, that a short White Paper should be published giving the Government's view on what our treaty obligations are and what legislation would be necessary to rid us of them.

Mr. Biffen

I accept that point, which is given added gravity in that it is made by the right hon. Gentleman. will certainly consider the matter.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As the statement issued by the Prime Minister's office after last Thursday's Question Time raises a number of important questions about the Oman affair—questions which ought to be answered—will the Leader of the House provide time for an early statement to be made by the Prime Minister? Does he believe that, in raising these issues, Labour Members are indulging in the politics of the gutter, or does he agree with the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who said in a radio interview that from everyone's point of view these questions need to be settled?

Mr. Biffen

I leave Labour Members to choose the standards by which they wish to be judged. I can offer no time for a debate next week.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Is the Leader of the House aware that considerable concern has been expressed since the Attorney-General's statement last Friday which, in the view of many hon. Members, represents a serious reduction of civil liberties in the free movement of British citizens in this country? Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an early statement to be made so that questions can be put to the Attorney-General, and also for a statement to be made to the House about the payment of the costs of mobilising police forces in recent days?

Mr. Biffen

I will refer those points to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that many National Health Service workers feel that the Government are deliberately obstructing the holding of the fullest and widest consultations on the Griffiths report? Why has he not been more forthcoming and promised an early debate on the report which would give health workers throughout the country an idea of what is happening in Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot promise what I cannot deliver. I have intimated that there should be a debate on Griffiths, but I cannot yet say precisely when it will take place.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

One accusation that can be made about Labour Members is that most of them would rejoice if the Common Market disintegrated. Will my right hon. Friend therefore ensure that every Government statement that is made from the Dispatch Box on the matter is made by a Minister who believes wholeheartedly in the European ideals?

Mr. Biffen

Statements will be made by Ministers who have a measured interest in our national interest which they believe to be wholly consistent with our treaty obligations.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

It would be helpful to the House if we could have a statement before next Thursday on our obligations under the European Community treaties. The House would be glad to know that the Government have a consistent policy on law-breaking, whether that policy is applied to Europe or to Liverpool city council.

Mr. Biffen

I cannot say any more than I said in my reply to the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan).

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

The Leader of the House has been asked to make authoritative legal statements on two specific topics this afternoon. In view of his replies on 20 March, reported in columns 905 and 908 of the Official Report, will he consider whether he really understands the sub judice resolutions of the House of 23 July 1963 and 28 June 1972? It is as plain as a pikestaff that the right hon. Gentleman does not understand the sub judice resolutions and that he merely hides behind them in order to avoid giving proper answers.

Mr. Biffen

Those are hard words, but I am sure that they are charitably meant. I shall seek the hon. Gentleman's guidance.