HC Deb 29 November 1984 vol 68 cc1089-97 3.31 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he will state the business of the House for next week?

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

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

MONDAY 3 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Local Government Bill (1st Day). Motion on the European Community Document 5937/1/84 on social regulations on tachographs and drivers' hours.

TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER— Completion of Second Reading of the Local Government Bill. Motion on European Community Documents 7805/84 and 9613/84 on the lead content of petrol and motor vehicle emissions.

WEDNESDAY 5 DECEMBER—Debate on a motion to approve the intention of Her Majesty's Government to sign the draft agreement on the future of Hong Kong, Cmnd. No. 9352.

THURSDAY 6 DECEMBER— Debate on a motion to approve the Chancellor of the Exchequer's "Autumn statement". Completion of remaining stages of the Elections (Northern Ireland) Bill.

FRIDAY 7 DECEMBER—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 10 DECEMBER— Second Reading of the Representation of the People Bill. Motion on the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984 (Appointed Day) Order.

[Relevant Documents:

Monday 3 December

  1. (a) 5937/1/84—Draft Social Regulations relating to road transport and recording equipment.

Tuesday 4 December

  1. (b) 7805/84— Draft Directives on lead content of petrol and vehicle emissions.
  2. (c) 9613/84—Amendment to draft Directives on lead content of petrol.

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee:

  1. (a) HC 78-xxxiii (1983–84) para. 2.
  2. (b) HC 78-xxxiv (1983–84) para. 2.
  3. (c) HC 5 -ii (1984–85) para. 1.]

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I am sure that the Prime Minister will be making a statement after next week's EEC summit. However, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the House will be able to debate the results of the summit in Government time the following week?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that yesterday's High Court ruling by Mr. Justice Hodgson throws doubt on the legality of the £120 million order granting supplementary finance to the Common Market. What do the Government intend to do about the order? May we have an assurance that none of the money has been paid to the Common Market in advance of parliamentary approval, as I know that the right hon. Gentleman is particularly vigilant about these affairs?

In next Monday's debate on the local government legislation, will the Secretary of State for the Environment be announcing an independent audit into the cost of abolishing the metropolitan counties and the Greater London council as recent responsible estimates put the cost at £1,000 million for that abolition?

May I ask for additional time for two debates—first, on Monday week, on the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984 (Appointed Day) Order, and secondly, on Wednesday next, on the motion to approve the Government's intention to sign the draft agreement on the future of Hong Kong?

Will the Leader of the House tell us what arrangements he has made for a debate on the subjects raised in early-day motions Nos. 161 and 162, since clearly they have aroused the interest of 148 of his right hon. and hon. Friends as well as of all right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches and of a very large number of people outside?

[That, in the opinion of this House, access to first degree courses should not be inhibited by the level of parental contribution in respect of student fees and maintenance.]

[That this House, recognising that the United Kingdom has one of the smallest percentages of 18-year-olds entering higher education of any Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country, concerned at the United Kingdom's inadequate levels of skilled manpower and believing in education as a ladder of opportunity for all young people of ability, regards the proposed large increases in parental contributions as misconceived and of a severity which will make it difficult if not impossible for many families to pay the full contribution; and calls for policy on student grants and fees to be totally reviewed rather than subject to repeated piecemeal adjustments.]

Mr. Biffen

Of course, I note the anxiety of the right hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister should report to the House after the European Community Summit meeting. The possibility of a debate is a matter that we can consider further through the usual channels.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the payment of funds to the Community, which has been the subject of judicial comment. This is now being studied, and I shall ensure that the House is informed when I am in a position to do so.

I am afraid that I cannot anticipate the content of the speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in Monday's Second Reading debate. But I shall draw to my right hon. Friend's attention what the right hon. Gentleman said about the audit.

The right hon. Gentleman requested extra time to debate the motion on the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984 (Appointed Day) Order and in respect of the proposed Hong Kong agreement. I hope that I shall be able to accommodate him on both.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman made a good-natured inquiry about the early-day motions on student grants signed by a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am sure that it will not have escaped the right hon. Gentleman's notice that the matter is referred to in "The Autumn Statement" by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and will be appropriate for reference in the course of Thursday's debate.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there will be an opportunity for a full debate on the miners' strike before the House goes into the Christmas Recess? I am sure that he will agree that there have been many important developments, including the increasing flow back to work of miners and today's schism in the NUM executive, which the House should debate as soon as possible.

Mr. Biffen

I understand my hon. Friend's interest that there should be a debate on the miners' strike. It is almost certain that the business of the House will provide a chance for some reference to be made to it. However, at this stage I cannot in any sense guarantee that there will be a full day's debate in Government time.

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

Has the Leader of the House seen the motions in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends on regional aid? When will these and all the issues of the statement by the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry be debated, and when shall we be able to question the Minister on his inability to understand where the unemployment is?

Mr. Biffen

I have noted the action that the hon. Gentleman has taken in respect of these orders, and I realise that the House will want to debate the Government's regional policy and the orders. I shall ensure that such a debate will be held as soon as it can be reasonably arranged.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

To save the time of the House, will my right hon. Friend confirm that he could avoid a debate on early-day motion No. 162 if the Secretary of State for Education and Science withdrew his proposal and responded to the feelings of many right hon. and hon. Members on this matter?

Mr. Biffen

It is not for me to confirm that there would be such a neat mechanical relationship between one gesture and another. But if my hon. Friend wants to make his point at greater length, he will have his chance on Thursday.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

The Leader of the House will have seen the furious protest from the Opposition Benches when the statement about regional policy was made yesterday. He will also have seen that demands were made by the Opposition on behalf of people in all parts of the country pressing for a debate on the subject before the Government proceed with this monstrous measure. May we be assured not merely that we shall have one day's debate but that there will be a full debate covering all these matters? Some of us represent parts of the country where there is between 20 and 25 per cent. unemployment. The Government's proposals mean that even the aid that we are getting at present will be cut. That is what the Government are doing, and we want to debate it fully.

Mr. Biffen

I tried to give a reasonably forthcoming answer to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) when he put that point to me. I accept the passion that the right hon. Gentleman invests in this topic. He is right to say that many hon. Members from all parts of the House wish for an early debate. I shall do my best to discharge that requirement.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Does my right hon. Friend realise that unlss there is a helpful statement from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science some of us might find it rather difficult to support the Government on Thursday?

Mr. Biffen

It it is very kind of my hon. Friend thus to inform me. I only hope that he informs his Whips with the same charm privately as he does me publicly.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the debate on the Hong Kong issue on Wednesday will be an historic occasion and that a great many hon. Members will wish to speak? Did I understand him to say earlier that he would provide additional time for that debate?

Mr. Biffen

I am happy to confirm the premise of the hon. Gentleman's point. It will, indeed, be an historic debate. In response to a request by the Leader of the Opposition, I said that we would extend the time for debate to midnight. Legislation on that matter will be forthcoming, so those unlucky on Wednesday will have their opportunity when we discuss the legislation.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a full debate on the law of the sea convention prior to 10 December, by which time, if we do not sign it, we will lose our pioneer investor status?

Mr. Biffen

I do not necessarily agree with the reflection of my hon. Friend in making his request. There will be an Adjournment debate on that very topic next week, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend). Perhaps my hon. Friend would get in touch with him.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Regarding Question Time, is the Leader of the House aware that 40 minutes for foreign affairs, including the EEC, is somewhat inadequate? Is he making any progress in doing something about that?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that yesterday 145 questions were tabled to the Prime Minister for answer in two weeks' time? As it is becoming a running farce, is it possible for the usual channels to consider the suggestion that anyone who wants to table a question to the Prime Minister must go to the Table Office to do so?

Mr. Biffen

Any attempt to reform Prime Minister's Question Time would be such a fundamental change in the culture of this place that it would best be undertaken by the Procedure Committee.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I regret to say that I have already replied to him with a buck-passing answer suggesting that the matter be referred to the usual channels.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Did my right hon. Friend see reports that stated that one in three applicants for British Telecom shares failed to fill in the form correctly? Will he therefore arrange for our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to come to the House at an early stage to answer calls from Conservative Members not to reduce student grants because the level of education obviously needs to be kept up?

Mr. Biffen

I must say, that is very good—nine out of 10. If my hon. Friend starts with the premise of the circumstances of the applications for British Telecom shares, I should prefer him to stay with that and reflect on what a resounding success it was.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

Given the depth and scale of unemployment, poverty and destitution experienced by the people of Merseyside, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on Merseyside so that we can specifically identify those aspects of Government policy that are clearly responsible for the present problems, and discuss what, if any, proposals the Government have to ameliorate them?

Mr. Biffen

I do, of course, understand the deep social and economic problems on Merseyside and the way in which the hon. Gentleman has intimately identified himself with them. Given the constraints on Government time, I hope that the point that he wishes to make can be made during the debate on regional policy that has been promised.

Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that as a result of the Government's policy announced yesterday, the need for a debate on regional policy is more than ever urgent? Is he further aware that only today I heard that 30 new jobs were cancelled in Ilfracombe, which has lost its status because of the Government's ill-considered thinking.

Mr. Biffen

I thank my hon. Friend for that trailer to his intended contribution to the debate on regional policy.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

In view of the authoritarian ideas developed in the Prime Minister's speech at the Carlton Club, will the right hon. Gentleman organise a full-scale debate in the new year so that we may consider not only the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to which the Prime Minister referred, but the 1640 revolution which established parliamentary democracy and parliamentary Government in Britain?

May we also consider the Acts of Parliament that have been abolished, such as the Combination Acts about which the Prime Minister was careful not to talk? May we have such a debate so that the nation knows that there is a real feeling in the country for fighting for basic democratic rights which were completely ignored by the Prime Minister in her speech which, incidentally, I read in full?

Mr. Biffen

I have many responsibilities at the Dispatch Box, but I shall neither seek nor undertake the task of correcting the hon. Gentleman's misconceptions about British parliamentary, economic and social history. I can tell him that those who fought for parliamentary liberties in the 17th century did not do it by resorting to rent-a-mob tactics.

Mr. Heffer

No—civil war.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

In view of the Government's repeated statements about the need to uphold the courts of the land, why was the Leader of the House not able to give the Leader of the Opposition an absolute assurance that he would remove from the Order Paper the order for supplementary payments to the Common Market until the courts have determined the validity of the order, in the light of Mr. Justice Hodgson's decision yesterday? Will he at least make a statement saying that there is no question of any money being sent until the courts have declared this order to be valid.

Mr. Biffen

It would be absurd if I removed that order from the Order Paper, thus anticipating a judgment which has not yet been made. I gave a forthright reply to the Leader of the Opposition. I stand by that reply and do not intend to add to it.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House consider making proposals to improve public access and facilities for lobbyists in this building? Is he aware that in the past few weeks elderly lobbyists have been forced to wait outside in the cold and rain before being allowed in? Is he further aware that there are no refreshment facilities for people who are not in the company of a Member of Parliament, and that the facilities for disabled people are poor?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on 8 November people in wheelchairs were forced to wait in the cold of Westminster hall and were not allowed into the Central Lobby until I made arrangements? Is not the way that members of the public are treated when they try to come to the House disgraceful? May we have some sensible plans for allowing the public into the building?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the whole question of lobbying could properly be considered by the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee of the House of Commons (Services) Committee. I accept that the matter should be further considered. If the hon. Gentleman submits his evidence, I shall draw it to the Committee's attention.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

My right hon. Friend my be slightly wearied by the fact that I keep asking him when the Government will make a statement on the disposal of nuclear waste in Cleveland. Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have raised the subject 13 months in a row but that the Government keep shying away? The patience of the people of Cleveland is wearing very thin, Sir. Will my right hon. Friend please do his best for us?

Mr. Biffen

I shall do my best. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to the plea that my hon. Friend has made yet again today. I know of his deep concern for the part of the world in which he lives. I appreciate why he wishes to draw my attention to it.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Secretary of State for Scotland held a press conference in Edinburgh this afternoon to announce that he was refusing the legitimate demand of Scottish teachers for an independent inquiry into their pay and conditions of service? Will the right hon. Gentleman convey the anger of the House to the Secretary of State and tell him that we believe that he is treating the House with contempt, as he has many times before, by holding press conferences in Scotland instead of coming here to make statements to the House. Will he insist that the Secretary of State makes a statement next week so that we may question him?

Mr. Biffen

Of course I shall refer to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the point that the hon. Gentleman has just raised. I would not for a moment seek to get involved in controversies of a Scottish character, but my first reaction is that it cannot be entirely reprehensible that my right hon. Friend should try to do something in Edinburgh which relates to Scottish education.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As my right hon. Friend knows, there is a healthy majority for "The Autumn Statement", but on the other hand there is no majority in the House for the ill-thought-out proposals on parental contributions. Would it not be sensible to have a separate debate on this issue so that it could be consigned to the political dustbin at the earliest possible opportunity before it causes an immense amount of damage?

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps providentially, this week's business enables my hon. Friend to make a powerful speech and judge his conscience.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

The Leader of the House will be aware of today's lobby in relation to the drug Debendox. In view of the sympathy for those women and given that many people believe that their justified claims are being disregarded by the drug companies, will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to make a statement, and will he also consider the possibility of a short debate?

Mr. Biffen

I shall most certainly undertake to put that request.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

In view of the national importance of tomorrow's Stoke-on-Trent summit between the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the NUM, will my right hon. Friend urgently find time next week to discuss the outcome?

Mr. Biffen

Plenty of other agencies seeking the spread of truth and illumination will, I believe, do that task for us in an extra-parliamentary fashion.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

In the light of the growth of sweatshops associated with the outrageously high level of unemployment together with low income and the Government's apparent intention to repeal the wages councils regulations, and in view of the Government's refusal to provide enough funds for the Health and Safety Executive to do its job, when may we have a debate on this matter? As the unemployment level in some parts of Leicester is more than 50 per cent. and that the number of sweatshops is growing, surely this is a matter which demands the attention of the entire House.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. and learned Gentleman has raised this matter with me in the past, and I must again give him the same somewhat narrow reply. This is a topic in respect of which the hon. and learned Gentleman could well try his luck for an Adjournment debate.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Is the Leader of the House aware that last night's demonstration impeded the progress of hon. Members to the House of Commons, and is not that contrary to the Sessional Orders passed by this House?

Mr. Biffen

That may be so, and it touches on the fairly wide lobbying issue raised by the Hon. Member for Islingto, North (Mr. Corbyn). Feelings run in a variety of directions as to how best we can deal with this matter in the future.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The answer which the right hon. Gentleman gave to his hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) was extraordinary. It is unusual when a court has judged that a particular ruling is not in order to find that the order is still on the Order Paper of the House of Commons. The matter is still be be determined, and surely in that interim period it ought to be withdrawn.

Mr. Biffen

No, it stands there pending clarification of the situation.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a general debate on the structure of taxation? If the Chancellor is contemplating the introduction of significant changes in the structure of taxation, many hon. Members would be glad if, while he is still developing his thinking, he had an opportunity to listen to the views of the House.

Mr. Biffen

I think that that is a very bad idea. We are getting to the stage where there is intense public debate before Budget decisions. That public debate is being conducted in such a highly lobbyist fashion as to inhibit the proper independence of judgment that a Chancellor should exercise in the vital months before his Budget.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

As the inquiry by the five accountants headed by Cooper and others—[HON. MEMBERS: "Lybrand."] No, that is his name. As that inquiry into the affairs of the National Coal Board in the last few months shows that pits have been closed and threatened with closure on the basis of false accounting procedures—for example, Cortonwood was supposed to be losing £6 per tonne when proper accounting procedures show that it is making a profit of £5 per tonne—and as the closure of pits means that there are fewer left to take on all the overheads for subsidence, and so on, is it not high time that the Government arranged for a debate on the mining industry or for a statement from the Secretary of State for Energy? If the Secretary of State is a seeker after truth, he will wish to ensure that we know everything about the NCB accounts and that the report is published in full rather than held back by the NCB in an attempt to hoodwink the taxpayer?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we had a three-hour debate on the coal industry last week and I believe that it was a lively and constructive debate. I will, of course, draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot hold out the prospect of an early debate on the industry.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

In view of the natural apprehension of many people, especially the old, that the BBC may apply for an increase of almost 50 per cent. in the television licence fee, bringing it to about £70, and in view of the rapidly changing structure of British broadcasting, will my right hon. Friend discuss with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary the possibility of an early debate on the future financing of British broadcasting?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly make that request to my right hon. and learned Friend. Meanwhile, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Surbition (Mr. Tracey) will realise that any change in the licence fee is subject to the negative resolution procedure, so it would almost certainly be debated in the House.

Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow)

Why has the Foreign Secretary not yet made a statement to the House this week about the outcome of the recent meeting of EEC Foreign Ministers, bearing in mind that it was the last meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers before the summit and that the so-called guidelines on budget discipline were considered in the full knowledge that they had not been and would not be approved by the Council of Agriculture Ministers?

Mr. Biffen

I will most willingly draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to that point.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Before Monday week's debate on the Second Reading of the Representation of the People Bill, will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to the widespread concern about the risk of personation not only in Northern Ireland, which is dealt with in the Elections (Northern Ireland) Bill, but throughout the United Kingdom? As personation has also occurred in various cities in Great Britain, could discussions take place with a view to some kind of submission being put forward for the debate on Monday week so that electors in the rest of the United Kingdom can be protected from electoral abuse?

Mr. Biffen

I shall, of course, draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to that point.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

In view of next week's debates, Mr. Speaker, may I be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas? Will the Leader of the House say whether the "appointed day" order is in fact the abolition of GLC and metropolitan county council elections? If that is what it is, how long will Parliament have to debate that fundamental attack on local democracy?

Mr. Biffen

I have responded to the Leader of the Opposition on this and I have said that additional time will be made available. It is hoped that the debate will last three hours.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the two hon. Gentlemen who have been rising in their places, but we must then move on.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has issued a consultative document on dog licence reform and that only one dog-eared copy is available in the Library to hon. Members. That document is not available in the Vote Office. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that copies of this document are made available in the Vote Office?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look into the matter.

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

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those five accountants have challenged every economic and financial assumption made by the National Coal Board? The document they have produced is important and deserves a statement to be made on the Floor of the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that next week we shall receive that statement, because that will help us to challenge statements that have been made by the Government during the past months?

Mr. Biffen

Actually, I gave a very forthcoming reply to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who half nods his head at that remark. I said that I would refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, and I cannot go beyond that.