HC Deb 25 April 1985 vol 77 cc991-1000 3.30 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 29 APRIL — Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 3o APRIL — Second Reading of the Insolvency Bill (Lords).

Consideration of Lords Amendment to the Films Bill.

Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Town and Country Planning (Compensation) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Industrial Development Bill (Lords).

WEDNESDAY I MAY — Until about Seven o'clock a debate on a motion to take note of the 25th Report from the Committee of Public Accounts in Session 1983–84 on financial assistance to De Lorean Cars Ltd. and of the Northern Ireland Department of finance and personnel memoranda on that report.

Second Reading of the Coal Industry Bill.

THURSDAY 2 MAY — Remaining stages of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill.

FRIDAY 3 MAY — Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman.

The so-called star wars initiative will clearly be mentioned in the foreign affairs debate later today, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we still need a full-scale debate in Government time on that specific subject, which is of direct interest both to this country and to our allies?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also continue to bear in mind the need for debates in prime time on the report of the Commission for Racial Equality on race relations in Britain and on the threatened closure of one third of Britain's skillcentres?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the tragic death of Welsh medical student Phillip Jones, who contracted aplastic anaemia after taking part in drug experiments, emphasises the need for legislation in that area? Do the Government intend to take urgent action and to bring appropriate proposals for legislative change before the House?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a debate on the televising of the proceedings of this House as quickly as possible, so that I and many other right hon. and hon. Members will have the chance to vote for the televising of our proceedings as soon as possible?

Mr. Biffen

On the last point, I appreciate that the televising of our proceedings is a matter of general interest in the House and should be the subject of further debate and decision. That would clearly need to be related to the current experiment in another place, and we shall be in touch through the usual channels.

On the tragic death to which the right hon. Gentleman referred in relation to medical experimentation, I shall inquire of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services and be in touch in due course.

I note the interest in debates on racial equality and on skillcentres and I suggest that we may be in touch through the usual channels on that.

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, the subject that he described in shorthand terms as the star wars initiative will certainly be relevant to today's foreign affairs debate, as was made clear in exchanges last week. I recognise his interest in a full-scale debate on the matter, but that will have to be considered through the usual channels.

Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)

In view of the unnecessary, disruptive and somewhat Luddite action taken by several of its employees, can we have an early debate on the future of the Post Office? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, where a monopoly exists, it needs continual justification, and that the House should therefore have the opportunity to decide whether some organisation or organisations would better serve the interest of the public in carrying out our postal deliveries?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. Obviously, he will have noted from this afternoon's business statement that no provision has been made for a debate upon the topic of the Post Office. However, I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the issue that has been raised.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

Is the Leader of the House aware that it is most unreasonable to propose for the business on Wednesday a debate on De Lorean Cars Ltd. when there has been no consultation upon that suggestion with any Northern Ireland Members, and when the Province is concerned in a local election?

Mr. Biffen

I very much regret that the discussions that I would have wished do not appear to have taken place —through misunderstanding, I have no doubt. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the issues raised by that topic go far wider the the Province itself. None the less, I shall be in touch with the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Will it be next week or the week after that my right hon. Friend will be able to enlarge upon the previous semi-assurances that he gave, that the House would debate the multi-fibre arrangement before Ministers announce their negotiating position on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot be as specific as my hon. Friend would wish, but I should like to underline my anxiety that there should be a debate on the multi-fibre arrangement.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the mounting concern in Yorkshire and other textile areas on the subject that has just been raised by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham). In view of that concern, can the Leader of the House be more specific than he has been and give a definite undertaking that there will be a debate on the multi-fibre arrangement at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Biffen

Certainly, it is my concern that there should be a debate. It is just that I cannot be specific in terms of the time scale that was mentioned.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

In view of the importance of the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs on Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, and the implications that it has for the Hong Kong people and Government, for the British Government's immigration policy and, most important of all, for the refugees themselves, will my right hon. Friend give us a promise that at some stage we shall have a debate on that report?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly consider the point that has been raised by my hon. Friend. I do not want to give an encouraging reply now that I shall disavow later. However, that is also a topic that will fall within the ambit of this afternoon's debate.

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

When the Leader of the House contacts the Secretary of State for Social Services about the Leader of the Opposition's question on drug trials, will he tell him that the drug company should play no part in those trials, that they should be completely independent, and that volunteers have the right to full information about the drugs in question and all the risks involved?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to the point concerning drug companies that has been made by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Further to the Leader of the Opposition's question about a debate on the televising of Parliament, will my right hon. Friend resist his announced intention of discussing the matter through the usual channels, particularly because it has been well known for many years that the Opposition Chief Whip has been doing his utmost to prevent that eventuality? Will my right hon. Friend keep the Front-Bench fixers out of this and let the will of the House of Commons speak for itself, as we all know that there is a majority for televising now?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the will of the House will be expressed ultimately, and it will do so with total lack of inhibition. I am surprised that my hon. Friend should ever entertain the thought otherwise.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Will the Leader of the House arrange time for a debate on the report of the Services Committee on overcrowding and the lack of facilities for hon. Members and staff?

Mr. Biffen

I shall bear in mind the right hon. Gentleman's request. I cannot give an immediate undertaking, but I know that he has raised an issue which is of real importance to all hon. Members.

Mr. Ian Wrigglesworth (Stockton, South)

In view of the increasing damage which is being done to the education of pupils throughout the United Kingdom by the teachers' dispute and the increasing inconvenience to their parents, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an early debate to take place upon the dispute? Will he also arrange an opportunity to discuss the deplorable strike of schoolchildren which is taking place today?

Mr. Biffen

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the schoolchildren's strike is a most bizarre and deplorable episode. He will see from the business that has been announced that no provision has been made for a debate on the subject, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to the point that has just been raised.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

So that the debate on the multi-fibre arrangement can be meaningful, is my right hon. Friend able to make a commitment that the Government will not reach a decision on the matter until the debate has taken place so that the views expressed during the debate can be taken into account?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot make that commitment, but I accept at once the importance of the timing of the debate relative to the negotiating position that is struck within the European Community.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday's meeting of the Select Committee on Scotland to discuss with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities the very important issue of rating and public expenditure began 20 minutes late because not one single Conservative Member of Parliament was present to make a quorum? Will he, as the Leader of the House and the senior Conservative Member in terms of the management of the House, ensure that a letter of apology is sent to the convention? More importantly, will he look at the membership of the Select Committee and ensure that it properly reflects the political make-up of Scotland rather than the political make-up of this House?

Mr. Biffen

Proceedings in Committees are not, I think, matters for which 1 answer each Thursday afternoon. However, the wider point about the composition of the committee is a matter of long-standing controversy, and I do not believe that anything I say this afternoon will resolve it.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

Will my right hon. Friend send a message today to the Ministers who are responsible for negotiating the multi-fibre arrangement that they should no longer delay a debate upon the matter in the House because, if they do, they will be conducting negotiations upon which the House has had no opportunity to express its opinion? The House is becoming very impatient, and I hope that my right hon. Friend and the Ministers will make it possible for us to have a debate next week.

Mr. Biffen

I note at once, and sympathise with, the proposition that the House should have a debate before the ministerial negotiating position is finally resolved.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Has the Leader of the House seen the headline in today's edition of The Standard, "Cabinet in Shambles"? Since it is a Conservative newspaper, it is no doubt an accurate assessment of what happened this morning in Cabinet. As the argument appears to be between the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who wants the social security bill to be slashed by £4,000 million, and the Secretary of State for Social Services, who wants to settle for a cut of £1,000 million, would it not be appropriate for those Ministers to come to the House next week and make a statement defending their posture? In the meantime, will the Leader of the House say which side he falls on?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman and the Tory press make a natural partnership. This matter was dealt with this afternoon in a most authoritative fashion by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I do not feel, therefore, that it would be appropriate for me to add one word to what she said.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

In the light of the report in today's edition of the Daily Express that the puffed up poseurs of the European Assembly are about to grant themselves immunity from arrest, could my right hon. Friend say clearly and unambiguously that it will not happen here?

Mr. Biffen

I have not had the advantage of communing with the Daily Express, so I am in no position to make an authoritative retort. I would not have thought that it came in any sense within my sphere of responsibility, but it sounds to be an excellent story.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

What has the Leader of the House to say to those 4,000 young people who have been led out of Liverpool schools this afternoon by a Member of this House, causing chaos and anarchy in many of the schools in Merseyside and resulting in a great deal of unrest and unnecessary disturbance? Does the right hon. Gentleman think that there is a need for a debate on this important issue and the associated issue of the youth training scheme, about which many young people feel strongly?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that that point was raised by his Social Democratic Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Wrigglesworth). I cannot add much more in reply to him to the response that I gave to his hon. Friend.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend do his best to ensure that our Polish allies, for whom we originally went to war and who played, among other things, such a distinguished part in the battle of Britain, are not excluded or forgotten during the commemorative service on 8 May? Are we to have a further statement on that subject?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly refer to the relevant Ministers the point that my hon. Friend raises, which I know evokes a powerful echo elsewhere in the Chamber.

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central)

Will the Leader of the House consider the article on the front page of Labour Weekly, which says clearly that the Comptroller and Auditor General, Gordon Downey, has clearly accused the Government of increasing rates in authorities around the country by £3,000 million? Will he have a word with the Secretary of State for the Environment who has written to me this afternoon, taking 12 days to do so, denying my local authority a meeting with him, not to negotiate but to discuss the real problems that Sheffield is having because of the Government's rate-capping measures and the problems that that inner city now has, with over 50 per cent. unemployment? I hope that he will prevail upon the Secretary of State to have a meeting, or at least to have the matter discussed in the House of Commons, because it is extremely important, particularly to those rate-capped authorities.

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that it is my role to be marriage broker between the editor of Labour Weekly and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, but I shall draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the points which have just been raised, having the relevance that I know they do to Sheffield.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

In relation to the need to renew the multi-fibre arrangement for knitwear and textiles, can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is aware that not only will the matter be debated in the EEC by the Council of Ministers next week or the week after, but also that the MFA under which we at present operate will shortly come to an end? Will he tell the House that we will have a debate on this matter so that opinion on both sides of the House can be sounded before our Ministers go to Brussels or wherever?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes in his own way the point that has been made several times this afternoon, the force of which I fully recognise—that the House of Commons should have a chance to debate the multi-fibre arrangement before Ministers take up a negotiating position.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Is the Leader of the House aware that it just is not good enough to tell hon. Members that we shall have a debate on the multi-fibre arrangement after the Government have made a decision on renewals? Is he aware that the Government have already lost 1.8 million jobs in Britain since 1979 and that another 300,000 will be lost if they close down the textile and clothing industries?

Mr. Biffen

The textile industry has gained considerable strength in Britain by the way in which it has been able to obtain joint action across the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman's remarks are highly contentious and misleading and they misrepresent what I said. That so, I still recognise the importance of the point that he was trying to make.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

In view of the considerable importance of decisions in education policy, particularly in relation to measures to deal with unemployment, can my right hon. Friend offer us the prospect of an early debate on the Government's excellent White Paper entitled "Better Schools"?

Mr. Biffen

Certainly not in the immediate future, but I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's point on the importance of that subject.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while we may differ on the causes, hon. Members on both sides of the House condemn football hooliganism? Many of my hon. Friends believe that it is Right-wing inspired activity based on unemployment, deprivation and hopelessness. Nevertheless, will he join me in condemning the building of electric fences at Chelsea or any other football stadium? Is he aware that that must be the ultimate condemnation of the failure of the Government's law and order policy? Will he, in this less than busy period, find time for a debate on this subject?

Mr. Biffen

That is exactly the type of debate which has much to commend it for the Adjournment. I suggest, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman might care to try his luck in that direction—

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I shall try to call all those hon. Members who have been rising up till now. Mr. Galley.

Mr. Roy Galley (Halifax)

My right hon. Friend in arranging the business of the House is always sensitive to the needs of the varying nations that make up the United Kingdom. We seem to spend a considerable time dealing with matters relating to Scotland, Wales and Ulster. Will he accept the claims of other parts of the country which regard themselves as nations within the nation — particularly Yorkshire, the premier region of the nation — and arrange a debate in the near future on Yorkshire matters?

Mr. Biffen

It just adds unnecessarily to the contentions of this place if one seeks to assert that Yorkshire is a nation rather than a proud and sometimes successful cricketing county. I am afraid that I can offer no prospect in the immediate future of a debate on regional policy or on Yorkshire in particular, but I shall bear in mind the point that my hon. Friend so eloquently makes.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

In view of the growing disquiet in all parts of the House about the level of hon. Members' expenses and about the employment and conditions of research assistants, will the Leader of the House accept that it is far too long to wait another three years for a debate on the subject? Will he arrange one urgently?

Mr. Biffen

I will bear in mind the point that the hon. Gentleman makes.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

In view of the report of the Select Committee on Social Services on community care for mentally ill and mentally handicapped adults, and the large number of signatories to early-day motion 515, please may we have an urgent debate on the subject?

[That this House, noting the widespread interest in the issue of care for the mentally ill and mentally handicapped in the community following the publication of the report of the Social Services Committee on this matter, calls for an early debate on the recommendations and implications of this report.]

Mr. Biffen

No provision has been made for such a debate in the business that has just been announced. Fairly soon we shall be in the phase of parliamentary life which is dominated by the Committee stage of the Finance Bill, which is taken on the Floor of the House, so I am afraid that I cannot be optimistic about the prospects for such a debate.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The right hon. Gentleman may recall that I recently asked him to use his influence with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education and Science to show them that the industrial action which the teachers are now taking is qualitatively far more intense than any similar action taken by them on any previous occasion, and that it will be prolonged. Will he ask them to arrange a debate on this important issue so that some new money can be put on the table, separate from any reassessment or restructuring—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] — so that the immediate wage increase which they need urgently can be given to them? The other issues can then be discussed after that.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has elaborated points of policy which he will not expect me to underline and support from this Dispatch Box. I shall refer his request for a debate to the relevant Ministers.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

In view of the disclosure this week that more than 165,000 tonnes of food, including substantial quantities of high quality beef at 40p per pound, are being sent to the Warsaw pact countries, and in view of the further disclosure that British Ministers do not have a right of veto over the sale of food at even lower prices, does my right hon. Friend agree that we must have a debate soon on the vast amount of British taxpayers' money that is being used to prop up the economies of the Warsaw pact countries?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes that request on the afternoon of a foreign affairs debate. I shall, of course, make the point to the Ministers concerned that perhaps Community subjects should be considered separately from the more general approach to foreign affairs. However, I cannot be optimistic about an early debate, in view of all the other demands that are being made on the time of the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House recall that during a previous business question time I urged him to call on the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Prime Minister to explain from the Dispatch Box why, in the rescue of Johnson Matthey Bankers, the Government expended £75 million of taxpayers' money and gave tax reliefs to depositors who were taking part in the rescue in the sense that they were offsetting the bad debts of the company? The right hon. Gentleman told me that he would pass my message on, but there has been no response so far either from the Chancellor or the Prime Minister.

We thought that the Leader of the House had some clout in the Cabinet. Today we witnessed the spectacle of the fifth ranking Treasury Minister, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, at Question Time refusing to give an assurance that the report on the matter would be published, although the fraud squad was involved, money was expended and the taxpayers had to bail out the bank in question. Are the Government embarrassed by the charge that they have nationalised a bank, that they have handed tax reliefs to depositors and that, despite squalid dealings in the City, they are not prepared to face the music in the House in the way they should?

Mr. Biffen

I gather that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is not entirely happy with Treasury Ministers' answers. I will refer his discontent to them.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

Is there any reason why the new format agreed by the Services Committee for the presentation of Prime Minister's questions has not already been applied? Every publication of the Order Paper costs the House and the country £1,000. Will the new format be applied as quickly as possible, preferably next week?

Mr. Biffen

I think that my hon. Friend served with me on the Committee that considered the matter; I will look into it.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

May I press the right hon. Gentleman further on the question of a debate on the strategic defence initiative? Given the expressed views of Mr. Richard Perle and General Bernard Rogers, and the apparent differences of emphasis between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, is it not unsatisfactory to suggest that that subject could be raised in the course of a general foreign affairs debate? Is it not important that there should be a separate debate in Government time, as quickly as possible, on that crucial defence matter?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman may recollect that last week the question was asked whether or not that topic would be relevant to today's debate. It was confirmed that it would be. If he feels strongly about the subject, and is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope that he will make his speech during the debate. A request has been made for a separate debate but that must be a matter for discussion through the usual channels.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Bearing in mind the grave state of education in many British prisons and its importance in the rehabilitation of prisoners, may we have an early debate on prison education, preferably within the context of revised and renewed prison rules that would strengthen the position of education.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the importance of that topic, but I can see no likelihood of an early debate in Government time. My hon. Friend may like to take such chances and opportunities as he has as a private Member.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

As the Leader of the House is aware, the Prime Minister has received the recommendations of the review body on nurses' and midwives' pay. Will there be a statement next week, before the elections? If not, will the right hon. Gentleman use his considerable influence within the Cabinet to ensure that there is no reneging on the implantation of the recommendations of the independent body?

Mr. Biffen

I will certainly draw the attention of the Prime Minister to the points made by the hon. Gentleman both about the timing of any announcement and about its quality.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

In the light of the Prime Minister's flattering comments today about Lord Weinstock of the General Electric Company and in view of the fact that GEC has shed over 1,000 jobs in my constituency in the past two years, should there not be a debate upon Lord Weinstock's stewardship of the company and the future of the engineering industry as a whole?

Mr. Biffen

I have to say that there is no prospect of such a debate in Government time in the near future. As the hon. Gentleman has such a keen constituency interest in the matter, he may care to try such opportunities as are available to him as a private Member.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Is the Leader of the House thinking of ways in which the House could commemorate the anniversary of VE day on 8 May, either in terms of a particular subject for debate or some other event?

Mr. Biffen

No, but I will certainly bear in mind any representations that the hon. Gentleman may make.

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

Why does the Chancellor refuse to answer questions on Johnson Matthey Bankers in person? Why does he always appoint junior Treasury Ministers to do so.

Mr. Aitken

He made the first statement.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to make a statement?

Will the Leader of the House convey a request from hon. Members that, when we table questions, the Chancellor answers them, because there are some people in the City who want to hear what he has to say himself?

Mr. Biffen

I have no reason to believe that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has dealt with the House in any discourteous fashion in this matter.