HC Deb 22 November 1984 vol 68 cc406-14 3.35 pm
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

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—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. On a day when feelings are running high remarks of that kind from a sedentary position do not help.

Mr. Biffen

The Business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 26 November—Opposition Day (3rd allotted day) (first part). Debate on an Opposition motion entitled Further Reduction in Real Value and Purchasing Power of Social Security Benefits for Families of Miners on Strike. This debate is taking place at the request of the Opposition under the provisions of Standing Order No. 6(2) (B).

Second Reading of the Social Security Bill.

Motions on the Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order and on the Coal (Limit of Deficit Grants) Order.

Tuesday 27 November—Opposition day (4th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion on the failure of Government policies to safeguard the natural environment and the national heritage of Britain.

Motion on the Repairs (Grants for Airey Houses) (Variation) Order.

Motion on the Okehampton Bypass (Compulsory Purchase) Orders.

Wednesday 28 November—Completion of remaining stages of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Motions on Northern Ireland orders on road traffic, family law and loans (increase of limit).

Thursday 29 November—There will be a debate on the Royal Navy, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Motion on European Community document 8175/84 on the summer time arrangements.

Motion on European Community Documents 7685/84 and 7686/84 on Red Meat and Poultrymeat, and on 7948/84 on Hormone Implants to Cattle.

Friday 30 November—Private Members' motions.

Monday 3 December—Second Reading of the Local Government Bill (first day).

  1. Relevant documents in debates on European documents on 29 November:
  2. (a) 8175/84 Draft directive on summer time arrangements.
  3. (b) 7685184 Draft directive on the financing of health inspections and controls of fresh meat.
  4. (c) 7686/84 Amendment to draft directive on health problems affecting trade in fresh poultrymeat.
  5. (d) 7948/84 Communication and draft directive on hormones in animal production.

Relevant reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 78-xxxiv (1983–84) para. 4
  2. (b) HC 78 xxxi (1983–84) para. 1
    1. HC 5-i (1984–85) para. 1
    2. (c) HC 78-xxxi (1983–84) para. 1
    3. HC 5-i (1984–85) para. 1
  3. (d) HC 78-xxxv (1983–84) para. 1

Mr. Hattersley

As we are not to have, as the Opposition had hoped, a debate next week on the Chancellor's autumn statement, may we be assured that it will take place during the first week in December? The House is entitled to take a comparatively early view of what even the Daily Telegraph called "the Government's fudged figures."

Secondly, may we be given an assurance that, whatever the Government decide about signing or not signing the law of the sea convention, the matter will be debated in the House before 10 December? As I understand it, if the convention is not signed by then, Britain will be absent from those arrangements by default. It will be intolerable for that decision to be made without the House of Commons having the opportunity to pass a judgment and give an opinion about it.

Mr. Biffen

I shall have regard to the points made by the right hon. Gentleman about the law of the sea convention. Surely the matter can be pursued through the usual channels.

I hope to be able to meet the time scale mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman in respect of the autumn statement, and I should also wish to have regard to the work of the Treasury departmental Committee.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

Does my right hon. Friend think it somewhat surprising that the Opposition have selected as the subject for debate next Monday the order made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services, in view of the fact that in each of the past three years, when precisely similar orders have been made, the uprating has not evoked the slightest protest from the Opposition?

Mr. Biffen

I think there is enough emotion on the topic at the moment for me to say only that it is an argument that can be deployed on Monday.

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

In view of the continued requests from the official Opposition for statements to be made next week, will the Leader of the House satisfy himself that they know that their hon. Friends in the Labour party will permit them first to hear and then to ask questions on the statements?

Mr. Biffen

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate the appalling decline in the standards of policing in Humberside, following the slashing of the budget in that county by the Labour-controlled police authority, its continuing refusal to appoint an assistant chief constable, and the decline in the effectiveness of the police force in that county?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot offer the prospect of Government time, but I am sure that my hon. Friend can use his own initiative to try to secure a debate.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I understand that the debate on the Okehampton bypass next Tuesday is to be on early-day motion 122.

[That the Petition of General Objection of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, the Ramblers' Association, the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, the British Archaeological Trust, the Council for the Protection of Rural England (Devon Branch), the Conservation Society Limited (Devon Branch), Transport 2000 (Devon Branch), Friends of the Earth Limited, the Long Distance Walkers' Association and the Devon Alliance of Amenity Societies, against the Exeter-Launceston-Bodmin Trunk Road (Okehampton Bypass) Compulsory Purchase Order (No. CSWI) 1984 and the Exeter-Launceston-Bodmin Trunk Road (Okehampton Bypass Supplementary No. 1) Compulsory Purchase Order (No. CSW2) 1984 be not referred to a Joint Committee.]

If we pass that motion as it stands, it will in essence be a vote of no confidence in the Chairman of Ways and Means and in Lord Aberdare, the Chairman of Committees in the other House. Although I have no objection whatever to a debate on the Okehampton bypass, which I think would be welcome, will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that no vote will be taken after the debate on that motion? Otherwise, tens of thousands of objectors will not be allowed to have their case heard, and we shall be indirectly censuring the Chairman of Ways and Means.

Mr. Biffen

The procedure certainly has precedent, and I am most anxious to make it clear at once that there could be no question of the personal censure that is suggested in the hon. Gentleman's comments. It seems to me that his arguments should be used in the debate. They might influence its outcome.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

With reference to the question put by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), will my right hon. Friend accept that there is also a feeling on the Government Benches that, although there might be a parliamentary precedent for the debate, it would be breaking with good parliamentary tradition? Will my right hon. Friend accept that, because of what the other House decided, there is at least a case for putting the matter before a Joint Committee, in which event the matter would still come back to the Floor of this House, but a little later rather than sooner?

Mr. Biffen

I think that that is something to be argued in the debate.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Will the Leader of the House give a firm assurance that the Government's plans to take a further £1 from strikers and their families in the mining dispute will not be implemented until this House has debated the matter?

Mr. Biffen

I think that Monday's debate should clear up all those matters.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Has it occurred to my right hon. Friend that we seem to suffer nowadays from too much government by order—orders from the European Community, orders dealing with Northern Ireland, and all sorts of other orders? We spend hours in this House discussing orders. Will my right hon. Friend put his mind to cutting down the number of orders so that we might have a more sensible parliamentary timetable?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly put my mind to it, and I hope that I shall be reinforced by a universal demand for less government.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

May we have a debate on the White Paper concerning the future of Hong Kong? When we do, will the Minister concerned give an assurance that the pension rights of Government servants in Hong Kong will be as well safeguarded as were those of civil servants of Britain's former colonies?

Mr. Biffen

I hope that the Hong Kong debate can take place shortly. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will take account of my hon. Friend's point about pensions.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

Now that the House of Lords has made its decision on the GCHQ case, will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to come to the House to make a statement about the position of the people at GCHQ who still hold on to union membership, as I am sure he is aware that many hon. Members still object to the denial of civil rights to those members of GCHQ staff?

Mr. Biffen

I shall refer the hon. Gentleman's anxieties to the relevant Ministers on the Treasury Bench.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Social Services to give very careful thought over the weekend to the anomaly that is causing real hardship in mining communities, whereby those who accepted voluntary redundancy and who have never been on strike are now being denied their unemployment pay? Will he ensure that a statement on this very serious subject is incorporated in the debate on Monday?

Mr. Biffen

I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend is made aware of the issues that my hon. Friend has put to the House.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 127 on Dr. Clift?

[That this House condemns the prejudice shown by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to the Home Office during the Adjournment Debate on 15th November about the need for an independent inquiry into the discrediting of Dr. Clift; believes that every convicted or discredited man is entitled to a fair independent hearing and, if new evidence emerges, has further entitlement to a new hearing; deplores the Minister's refusal to consider or respond to evidence recently emerged which casts serious doubts on the discrediting of Dr. Clift; notes that one of the two forensic scientists on whose evidence Lord Chief Justice Elmslie condemned Dr. Clift has now stated that it is "simply not true" that he condemned Dr. Clift's work, and that the Judge did not understand what it was all about; notes that the expert advising the defence has now admitted that he actually knew of the blood group evidence, yet Dr. Clift was condemned for depriving the defence of this information; further notes that 11 forensic scientists, some of great eminence, have expressed their individual but unanimous views that the Home Office report on which Dr. Clift's enforced early retirement was based was faulty in its approach and wrong in its verdict; and for these reasons believes that Dr. Clift is entitled to an opportunity to clear his name and that the only fair means of ensuring this is by an independent inquiry.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that any convicted or discredited person has a right to a fair hearing if new evidence emerges? Secondly, is he aware that the Home Office has refused any inquiry into new evidence concerning Dr. Clift? As that refusal was made clear during an Adjournment debate that was granted by Mr. Speaker, what help can the right hon. Gentleman give me? Will he consider the matter with a view to finding time to debate an important issue involving a man's reputation?

Mr. Biffen

I shall examine the matters that have been raised by the right hon. Gentleman and I shall discuss the issue with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government's miserable treatment of student grants has done considerable damage to higher education, that the diversion of resources to the science budget will be insufficient to maintain even the basic core of scientific research and that decline will continue after the first year? As their Lordships have found time to debate this issue, is it not time that we did?

Mr. Biffen

As an initial development, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his formidable skills, will be seeking to debate the matter in an Adjournment debate.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. An important debate is to take place after business questions in which many right hon. and hon. Members wish to participate. I reluctantly reduce the time available for Back Benchers to ask questions about the business for next week. I propose to allow questions to run until four o'clock.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Bearing in mind the deep implications for traditional standards in the report on Sunday trading, will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on that important report?

Mr. Biffen

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that it is a most important report. For that very fact, I thought that there might be some advantage in allowing representations to be made upon the report and to be considered by the Government before any such debate took place.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the growing concern about the escalating amount of fraud in the City? Is he concerned that about 500,000 companies are deliberately defying the law by not filing their accounts with Companies house? Given this unacceptable face of capitalism, will he ensure that an urgent debate takes place on these matters?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the problem about filing accounts with Companies house.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

As there is wide interest in the future of the voluntary sector and ways in which it can be promoted, will my right hon. Friend consider giving time for a debate on that issue?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly consider that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the way in which he has represented the matter to me already. I do not see much prospect of such a debate in the immediate future.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

When do the Government expect to make a statement on the sabotage of the system of industrial regional aid? If and when such a statement is made, will the right hon. Gentleman give a pledge that there will be an early debate on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot accept the parody of the premise of the hon. Gentleman's question, but a statement will be made shortly on industrial aid, and we shall have to think about matters thereafter.

Mr. Richard Holt (Lanbaurgh)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that we do not want a debate on an increase in television licence fees to be left until the last moment? Is he aware that the House would like the opportunity, as evidenced by the number of early-day motions on the subject, of debating the principle on which the BBC is funded rather than arguing about pound notes at the end of the day? I do not want the debate to be left until the last moment.

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend has said. He has touched on a matter of lively, popular and parliamentary interest. I shall ensure that the matter is drawn to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

May we have an explanation from a Minister during Monday's debate as to why the wife and children of a convicted criminal in prison rightly qualify for the full rate of supplementary benefit while the wives and children of striking miners have to pay an increased fine of £16 per week as a result of a sneaky Privy Council order which does not even require parliamentary approval? Is not that an utter contempt of Parliament as well as utter contempt for miners' wives and childen?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot anticipate Monday's debate, but I suggest that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) had better brush up his arguments and tone down his rhetoric.

Mr. Nicholas Lyell (Mid-Bedfordshire)

Given the widespread support in the House for the timetabling of the Committee stages of Bills and the importance of proper debate on the Local Government Bill, will my right hon. Friend consider timetabling the Committee stage of that Bill from the start?

Mr. Biffen

On a day when coolness rather than foolhardiness is required, I think that it would be provocative if I were to answer that question.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

As we are to have a debate on a defence subject next week, why could it not be on the three-country memorandum of understanding and the quite unnecessary redundancies in the royal ordnance factories that flow from it?

Mr. Biffen

The House is obliged to have a debate on the Royal Navy. That is why it stands.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

In view of the road traffic accident last night involving my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House consider carefully the security of Cabinet Ministers and ensure that police are in attendance, as they were needed last night? Will my right hon. Friend examine this matter carefully and perhaps provide time for a private debate?

Mr. Biffen

The matter does not fall within my responsibility, but I will certainly see that it is considered.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

In Monday's debate on supplementary benefit uprating, may we have a spokesman other than the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security—perhaps the Attorney-General or a spokesman from the Home Office—to explain how a trade union can be deemed to have paid sums of money when its funds have been sequestrated and are in the hands of the court?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot undertake to dispose who will be the ministerial participants in the debate, but I am sure that their arguments will be comprehensively convincing.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary said that he hoped to make an early statement on the Government's response to the report on Sunday trading, does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree that it would be helpful for everyone if the House had the opportunity to debate the matter before the Government made their statement?

Mr. Biffen

That is certainly a matter for sympathetic consideration. My hon. Friend will see from the Official Report that in my earlier reply I tried to make it clear that proper reflection on the recommendation would be needed before we could proceed to a debate.

Mr. Michael McGuire (Makerfield)

When may we expect to hear the Government's plans to protect ordinary citizens from being persuaded to take out bogus policies for the maintenance of television sets and other electrical appliances? Is he aware that about 800,000 people have been persuaded to part with as much as £30 or £40 for worthless insurance policies and that the companies involved, such as Multi-Guarantee and one appropriately named Cavalier Insurance, then simply disappear from the face of the earth? The Government have done nothing about this so far. When may we expect some action?

Mr. Biffen

It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman is referring to alleged commercial fraud. I suggest that he should seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment, addressing his remarks to the Department of Trade and Industry.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I thank my right hon. Friend for sending me a copy of the European Community financial mechanism. As acceptance of the Fontainebleau agreement depends on an acceptable financial mechanism, is it possible to have a debate on this item alone? I am sure that my right hon. Friend is as concerned as I am about this. Does he agree that it is especially worrying because the document does not even have the status of a regulation but amounts merely to conclusions? Does he further agree that the great and proper desire that agriculture expenditure should be under control is not satisfied because the document states that in exceptional circumstances agricultural expenditure will be allowed to rise and, as we all know, exceptional circumstances occur in the Community every day of the week?

Mr. Biffen

The difficulty is that we are now drenched with Community documents which the Scrutiny Committee recommends, understandably, for our consideration on the Floor of the House. However, I will consider my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

Bearing in mind the answer which he gave a short time ago, will the Leader of the House try to persuade the Government to explain to the House how they can deem that £15 or £16 a week is being paid when the union's funds are subject to sequestration, which means that it is physically and legally impossible for it to pay?

Mr. Biffen

I do not intend to anticipate Monday's debate, except to say that I await it with considerable expectations.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

Will my right hon. Friend consider using his undoubted influence, through the usual channels or otherwise, to discourage Opposition demands for ministerial statements to be made at 10.15 pm? That appears to be an hour of the evening when Opposition Members find it difficult to take part in reasoned debate, and important items of business can in consequence be lost. On this occasion it was also highly inconvenient for those hon. Members who were lucky enough to have bisques, and who regretted not being present during the dramatic scenes.

Mr. Biffen

Wisely the House is sufficiently flexible that, from time to time, statements are accepted at 10 o'clock. I would not wish in any way to disparage that flexibility. However, I have an overriding consideration, which is that those who request statements to be made should be allowed to hear them.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the new COCOM agreement governing the export of high technology goods from Britain will pass into law by way of an export of goods control order requiring neither the assent nor the scrutiny of the House? Is he also aware that that agreement is causing widespread concern in the high technology industries? Will he undertake to discuss the matter with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, with a view to allowing the House to debate this important issue before it becomes law?

Mr. Biffen

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's longstanding interest in this topic, and I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to that point.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Does the Leader of the House agree that it is unthinkable that the Foreign Secretary should announce this country's withdrawal from UNESCO during a debate supposedly on overseas aid? If the Government have such an idea in mind, may we have a proper debate about it?

Mr. Biffen

As this is an Opposition day arising on a Liberal party motion, I will be very Asquithian and say, "Wait and see".

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House bear in mind not only that the funds of the National Union of Mineworkers have been sequestrated but that, in order to ensure that Monday's debate is conducted in a proper manner, it might be advisable to consider the judgment of Mr. Justice Vinelott that the NUM in Derbyshire should not be allowed to spend a penny on the prosecution of the strike? On 6 November the law of the land decreed that the union could not pay £15 or £16 even if it had the money. When someone suggested that the union should search for money abroad, I told them not to go to Oman because Mrs. Thatcher's son had got there first and taken the lot.

Mr. Biffen

I know that the hon. Gentleman is in great difficulties over the miners' strike. His difficulties are compounded week by week as the number of working miners increases and the number of striking miners diminishes. At the heart of the difficulties is the fact that, from the outset, the NUM leadership could never get the fullhearted support of the total membership.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Last week the Leader of the House told me that he would discuss with the Secretary of State for Defence the necessity of making a statement in the House about his intentions on the idea of follow-on force attack and the attitude that he will take at the meeting of Defence Ministers in Brussels on 4 and 5 December. Is it not right that the matter should be discussed on the Floor of the House or in the Select Committee on Defence? What progress has the Leader of the House made in his discussions with the Secretary of State?

Mr. Biffen

Discussions are still in progress. The moment that they are concluded, the hon. Lady will be informed.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Is not the real reason why there is no debate in Government time about the theft of a further £1 from the families and children of striking miners that the decision last night was an act of desperation by the Government as they do not believe their own figures about how many miners are going back to work? The strike remains solid and the Government are worried about their being power cuts in the next six or seven weeks.

Mr. Biffen

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect a little in future before effectively preventing the operation of the official Opposition Front Bench. What he engaged in last night was a destruction of parliamentary procedures. That is offensive to the House and to the Opposition Front Bench. As to the points of substance that the hon. Gentleman raised—

Mr. Nellist

The right hon. Gentleman was not here on Monday.

Mr. Biffen

I was—not all the time but sufficient to get the flavour of it. It was vigorous and that is what one expects on this issue; but one does not expect the intolerance which was shown last night and which was designed to stifle opinions on both sides of the House because the Militant Tendency is in conflict.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

In view of the great public interest in the GLC abolition Bill, will the Leader of the House consider having the television cameras present for the Committee stage of the Bill?

Mr. Biffen

That would require all sorts of procedures and Votes of the House that I cannot deliver, have no wish to have delivered and will not seek to deliver.


Dr. David Clark

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House referred to a precedent with regard to the Okehampton bypass debate on Tuesday. When a similar precedent was debated in 1976, leave was sought about the availability of petitions because petitions are private. However, on that occasion they were not available. As we have a few days' notice on this occasion, and as we shall debate the motion which refers to petitions, may we have an assurance that those petitions will be available at the Vote Office?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look into that matter.