HC Deb 29 March 1984 vol 57 cc451-9 3.35 pm
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)

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:

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

TUESDAY 3 APRIL—Opposition Day (12th allotted day) (first part): until about seven o'clock a debate on an Opposition motion on investment in education.

Afterwards, a debate on the current negotiations within the European Community, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 4 APRIL—Progress on the report stage of the London Regional Transport Bill.

Motions on the European Assembly Constituencies (England) and European Assembly Elections (Scotland) orders.

THURSDAY 5 APRIL—Further progress on the Report stage of the London Regional Transport Bill.

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

Motion for the Easter Adjournment.

FRIDAY 6 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 9 APRIL—Completion of remaining stages of the London Regional Transport Bill.

Consideration of any Lords Amendments to the Telecommunications Bill which may be received.

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that information, but I note that the debate on the current negotiations in the European Community is to be taken on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give further consideration to that, as it is clear that an amendable motion would be more appropriate in view of the importance of the matter and the interesting diversity of opinion on this matter, which is not confined to one side of the House.

Can the Leader of the House assure us that the health and social security regulations that relate to entitlements to social security in the early weeks of unemployment will be the subject of consultation over a period of weeks, as recommended by the Social Security Advisory Committee and not rushed through the House by the Minister responsible, as appears to be his intention?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look at the second point and I shall be anxious to meet the right hon. Gentleman's observations. As to the earlier point, I have sought to underline the significance of the debate on the negotiations within the European Community by suspending the rule so that it can run until midnight. I realise that the House will wish to conduct a wide debate on these negotiations, which are of major significance and are still in progress. It has often been past practice to arrange such a debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. That is an appropriate form and that is what I propose.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Could my right hon. Friend prevail on our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to make a statement next week about the parallel importing of medicines? I hope that he will be aware that two days ago this matter was raised at Question Time, and considerable anxiety was expressed from both sides of the House. It would be helpful to have a statement next week.

Mr. Biffen

I am conscious that anxiety has been expressed from both sides of the House about parallel importing of medicines, and I shall refer my hon. Friend's remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

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

Is it not time that we had a debate about official secrecy so that the House can give its view on the proper bounds between Government secrecy and public information, and what might be appropriate punishments for infringements of them? Would not Government time for the Second Reading of the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), the Freedom of Information Bill, be an ideal way of achieving this?

Mr. Biffen

No arrangements have been made for such a debate next week.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

In view of the strain and stress upon the police service as a result of the transport strikes, the chaos in the coalfields and many other problems, will my right hon. Friend ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the law and order implications of what is happening? If he cannot do that, will he urge the Opposition to provide one of their Supply days to discuss the matter, bearing in mind that statements by some Opposition Members have been nothing more than a stab in the back for the police service?

Mr. Biffen

If I were to undertake the second course suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) I should show a degree of provocation which is unwise as the Leader of the House of Commons. I appreciate the importance which my hon. Friend attaches to the work of the police in the current circumstances. I shall refer his remarks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

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

On Tuesday's debate on discussions in the European Community, why are the Government and the Leader of the House unwilling to test the views of the House on matters such as withholding an appropriate part of our payment to the European Community or about whether we should increase the own resources of the Community? Would that not be the ideal opportunity to obtain the views of the House on either or both of those matters?

Mr. Biffen

I am absolutely certain that the views of the House will be made extremely clear during that important debate. There are many precedents for major decisions being taken upon the Adjournment formula. There will be plenty of scope for hon. Members to express their opinions.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

If we cannot have that, may we have an assurance that in Tuesday's debate the Government will explain why exports of highly subsidised cheap food to the Soviet Union have increased by 600 per cent. in the last four years and are running at about 100,000 tonnes a week? May we have an assurance that the Government will give an explanation of that, and of whether they have power to do anything about it?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has given us an effective trailer of the speech that he hopes to deliver next Tuesday. I shall, of course, refer his comments to the Foreign Secretary so that he can take account of them when he makes his speech.

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

When may we have a debate on cruise missiles? We heard last night that missile carriers are being moved about the countryside. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that is causing great concern? Is he further aware that in the Soviet Union, between January and October last year 147 nuclear alerts took place? Does he agree that the movement of missile carriers is likely to increase that number and so escalate the problems and dangers of a nuclear attack, either by intent or by accident, through computer error?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Member raises a topic of material concern. No provision has been made for a debate on that next week and I cannot hold out the prospect of an early debate in Government time, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Will the Leader of the House find time soon to debate the considerable effect that the miners' strike is having upon my constituency, where 6,800 jobs are at risk, affecting 10 pits in the Yorkshire field which supply the Appleby Frodingham steel works with the 2 million tonnes of coal which it consumes per annum? Will he bear in mind the national investment which probably runs to over 1 billion, in that works?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what my hon. Friend says. I hope that he will have the opportunity to make his speech about the impact on his constituency in the Easter Adjournment debate or an ordinary Adjournment debate.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

If it is not possible to find time for a debate on the deployment of cruise missiles and manoeuvres in and around Berkshire, will the Leader of the House speak to the Secretary of State for Defence and ask him to come to the House to make a statement? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that opinion polls show that the majority of people do not want cruise missiles? Now that they have been brought outside Greenham, surely we should have a statement in the House.

Mr. Biffen

I have said that I shall convey comments to my right hon. Friend. We shall see whether he thinks it appropriate to make a statement.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

As the Housing and Building Control Bill gives important new rights to council tenants to buy their properties and is completing its proceedings in the other place, can we have it back in this House for its final stages before Easter?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think so, but I shall look at it. If it is not before Easter, it will be as soon afterwards as can reasonably be secured.

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 618 on the contraction of the coal industry, which incorporates my name and those of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends?

[That this House fully supports the miners in their struggle to save jobs and safeguard the future of the industry; and demands the setting up of a public inquiry into the administration and management of the National Coal Board (Scottish Area), such an inquiry to take account of the fact that consultation and conciliation have been replaced by confrontation, that six collieries in Scotland have been closed (two are the subject of appeal) over the past 15 months with the consequent loss of 3,000 jobs to the Scottish economy, and that any further closures would have a lasting adverse effect on the economic and industrial base of Scotland and would add to the already disgraceful level of unemployment.]

Having read that motion, would he not agree that its content reflects the serious situation facing the coal industry in Scotland? If we cannot have a debate next week, will he at least consider arranging a statement based on the fact that the Government have made a serious miscalculation of the impact of the miners' strike on the nation's affairs? Will he give an assurance that there will be a ministerial statement, not only on law and order but on how the Government have been misled about the impact of the strike on industrial life?

Mr. Biffen

In no sense do I question the good faith of those who have signed that early-day motion, but I should have thought that thoughtless industrial action would do more to contract the coal industry than almost anything else. I shall, of course refer the hon. Gentleman's anxiety that there should be a statement to my relevant right hon. Friends.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

After the London Regional Transport Bill has effectively taken London Transport out of the hands of the GLC, would it be possible to have a debate on precisely what useful functions are left to the GLC? Only an extremely tiny amount of parliamentary time would be involved.

Mr. Biffen

Other legislative initiatives may give my hon. Friend the opportunity that he seeks.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Does the Leader of the House recall that on several occasions when I asked for statements on the progress or otherwise at various disarmament talks, he fobbed me off by suggesting that such matters might be raised during foreign affairs debates? Is he aware that I did exactly that the other day and that in reply the Minister made no reference whatever to my remarks? In view of that, is there any possibility, when telling his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about cruise missiles and so on, of asking the Foreign Secretary whether he could do something about this matter as well?

Mr. Biffen

I have over the years experienced exactly what the hon. Gentleman feels. However, I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence so they are fully apprised of feelings in the House on the cruise missile issue.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate the serious problems of the unemployed especially the long-tern unemployed, when it should be possible for Conservative Members to make it clear that while the Government have a sound policy on these matters it needs to be developed further in certain vital respects?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot hold out the prospect of a debate specifically tailored to the situation raised by my hon. Friend, but with a little deft footwork he should be able to make his speech on the Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Will the Leader of the House now give a precise date for the introduction of the Bill to assist those living in prefabricated reinforced concrete houses? Will he bear in mind the anxiety that this problem is causing to many thousands of people throughout the country?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman speaks for many hon. Members on both sides of the House about the anxiety that has arisen from this housing situation. I cannot give the precise date he seeks, but it will certainly be very soon.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

As there is a serious possibility that the House may be asked to authorise an increase in own resources, will my right hon. Friend find time to consider the undertakings given by my hon. Friend Lord Whitelaw on 24 November 1977 that any increase in the powers of the Community could be authorised only by Act of Parliament? If the Government intend to dishonour Lord Whitelaw's undertakings, will they publish a paper setting out Lord Whitelaw's undertakings, and saying which they propose to honour and which to dishonour?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly consider that matter in detail and with charity.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House do his utmost to get a statement on the mining dispute, not only about the lack of coal that is now evident in some areas, which is important to the furtherance of our dispute, but about police activities? Will he take into account the fact that the police do not appear to be evenhanded? Does he agree that in an industrial dispute the police have always been expected not only to allow people to get to work—as, to some extent, they are doing—but also to assist the pickets to carry out their activities? Does he agree that that does not mean smashing the windscreens of miners' cars, and that it should not mean so many policemen being dragged from other parts of the country that part-time policemen have had to be employed in Tewkesbury to arrest poachers?

Mr. Biffen

That is all very interesting. I detect a slight touch of anxiety and hysteria in the remarks of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I shall, of course, pass on his remarks, along with all the others that have been made about the current miners' dispute, but the House would be well judged not to over-react. It is interesting that for their Opposition day the Opposition have sensibly chosen other aspects of social policy.

Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)

Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that there will be an early opportunity to have a full debate on the Griffiths report on the management of the National Health Service and the Social Services Select Committee report thereon? It is surely vital that the House can express a view on this important subject before decisions have to be made?

Mr. Biffen

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I hope to be able to announce such a debate in the reasonably near future.

Mr. James Hamilton (Motherwell, North)

Will the Leader of the House take notice of the fact that the South of Scotland electricity board has increased its charges by 4.4 per cent. on average? Is he aware that many of my colleagues are demanding a debate on this issue, realising, of course, that the increase is more than double that imposed on Wales and England? Does he accept that the Government played an important part in that increase, and that on that basis we demand a statement, or at least a debate on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of the considerable concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed on this subject, which I quite understand. I shall, of course, refer his request to the relevant Minister.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Will my right hon. Friend expand on the commitment that was given by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary the other day that if perchance — per evil chance—there were to be a recommendation to increase the Community's own resources, first, to 1.4 per cent. VAT, and then to 1.6 per cent. VAT, they will be separate items requiring separate measures in this House?

Mr. Biffen

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will take part in Tuesday's debate, it would be most presumptious of me to make any comment ahead of him.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Although I realise that the Leader of the House is a self-confessed philistine, will he accept that there is great concern on both sides of the House about the great crisis affecting the arts, in view of the likely announcement by the Arts Council on Friday and the proposed abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan county councils? We do not have a Minister in the House who can answer for the arts. In fact, the Minister does not even bother to come and listen any more. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment knows almost as little about the arts as about local government finance. Will the right hon. Gentleman please give us time for a debate on the arts? I am sure that that would have all-party support.

Mr. Biffen

No provision has been made for a debate on the arts next week and I cannot offer any prospect of an early debate. There are plenty of other demands upon the time of the House that have to be taken alongside that of the Arts Council. If the hon. Gentleman would like to try his chance as a private Member I am sure that he will find the opportunity to raise these matters.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Bearing in mind that some time ago the House expressed its opinion on a code of picketing which the Government had agreed with the TUC and which, speaking from memory, limited the number of legal pickets to five or six, will my right hon. Friend arrange for our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to make a statement on Monday to guide us as to the status of that code of practice and how much confidence we should have in arrangements that have been negotiated and agreed between the Government and the TUC?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has already made a statement on pickets which is contained in Hansard——

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

It was written.

Mr. Biffen

It is still a statement. The day that the House does not admit a statement merely because it is written in Hansard we might as well go on half-time.

I shall refer the anxieties of my hon. Friend the member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney) to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Despite having been pre-empted at some length by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), may I ask an additional question about the arts? In view of the range of dangers facing the life and work of the arts throughout Britain and the paucity of parliamentary time available for questions on the arts—a ridiculous 10 minutes once a month—will the right hon. Gentleman, who I am sure is not quite the philistine that others make out, consider whether we might have another five minutes a month because there will be an increasing demand for questions about the arts?

Mr. Biffen

The roster for questions is usually a matter for discussion through the usual channels. I shall certainly see what can be done, if only to share the responsibility for any decision which is judged to be philistine.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

May I draw my right hon. and learned Friends to early-day motion 614, in my name and those of my hon. Friends, on picketing and politics?

[That this House, noting the decision by one area of the National Union of Mineworkers to reverse the vote of its members to continue working on the ground that their safety is at risk; calls on the Leader of the Opposition to make plain his views on the actions of intimidatory pickets and on the need for a national ballot.]

Does my right hon. Friend realise that we understand that it would not be right to discuss the merits of the mining dispute but that it would be right for Parliament to discuss at an early stage the kind of picketing that is going on and to flush out the Leader of the Opposition who, in the terms of my motion, has clearly not spoken up on his views on democracy within trade unions or on the range of picketing action which is an affront to most people in Britain.

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says and I am sure there is widespread support for those sentiments. However, I am grateful that he has not sought a debate next week.

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

Has the Leader of the House examined the replies that I have received from the Prime Minister to my questions on the Omani contract? Has he noticed that they are all evasive? They avoid telling the House and the country what happened and they stonewall all the questions. The public and the House demand to know the truth. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the Prime Minister that we do not intend to let go? We shall stick like limpets to this issue until the truth is told to the British people.

Mr. Biffen

I have an interest in the handiwork of the hon. Gentleman's research assistant and I shall see that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is made aware of the sentiments that have just been expressed. But it is up to the hon. Gentleman to pursue the matter by what techniques he thinks appropriate and to be judged accordingly.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to the request for an early debate on electricity prices in Scotland, because this is, after all, the first increase that we have had for over two years, and it is less than half the rate of inflation?

Mr. Biffen

I think that there are many points to be argued in this debate, but I cannot go beyond what I said earlier in this respect.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

Has the Leader of the House noticed that 170 MPs have now signed early-day motion 475 on the televising of Parliament, a huge number for any motion that does not include the name Mark Thatcher and a number which includes the cream of all parties?

[That this House believes that live and recorded television broadcasts of the proceedings of the House and its committees, when sitting in public, should be authorised as soon as possible; and urges the Government to arrange an early debate to agree the principle and the appointment of a Select Committee to consider the means by which this can be achieved, including the experiences of other legislatures, and to recommend the rules and necessary arrangements that should be adopted for televising the House.]

Bearing in mind the facts that arrangements in another place for televising will shortly be proceeding rapidly, that the majority of the public wants this Chamber to be televised, and that nothing else can put this Chamber at the centre of public attention, will he allocate a day's debate at an early date so that the House can come to a considered verdict on this important question?

Mr. Biffen

Notwithstanding the elitist tone and argument that the hon. Gentleman sought to employ on this matter, of course I must note the significant number of signatories that he has collected. I cannot offer the prospect of a debate in the near future, but I take note of the strength of feeling.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a full debate on the British electronics information industries, bearing in mind that there is at present a chronic shortage of semiconductor microchips which has a detrimental effect not just on the electronics industry, but on industry generally? There is great concern that the interventionary measures in the market taken so far by the Government are too late, and far too little?

Mr. Biffen

I have real sympathy with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the topic that he has raised, but I think he will appreciate that I have difficulties in finding time for all the debates that the House would wish, and we have recently had the opportunity to debate the topic in the context of the ESPRIT programme. However, I will bear in mind the point that he makes.

Mr. Nellist

Could the Leader of the House prevail upon the Attorney-General to come to the House next week and make a statement, preferably oral—"oral", not "aural" — as opposed to written, on how he manages, through a crystal ball, to tell police officers that they can judge how people, when they are travelling on a road, are likely to commit an offence 200 or 300 miles away? I refer obviously to the miners' dispute. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot get the Attorney-General to do that, could he get him to come to the House next week, and make a statement on how he stood what I was taught at school is English law on its head — that one is innocent until one is proved guilty—because, by that written statement, and by the actions of the police in the last ten days, the implication is that people are guilty before they have even been tried or suspected of a crime that they might commit 200 or 300 miles away?

Mr. Biffen

I will most certainly convey to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General the anxieties, and the request that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that there is a need for a statement or debate on the discredited section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, and does he therefore intend to arrange for such a debate to be held before the House rises for Easter recess? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Attorney-General will be expected to make a statement about a particular case, and as quickly as possible, once that case is not longer sub judice?

Mr. Biffen

There are no arrangements in prospect for a debate upon the Official Secrets Act between now and Easter.