HC Deb 07 February 1985 vol 72 cc1103-16 3.35 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he will 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 II FEBRUARY—Private Members' Motions until seven o'clock.

Afterwards, timetable motion on the Local Government Bill.

Motion relating to the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1984.

TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY — Second Reading of the Transport Bill.

Motion relating to the Housing Benefits (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 1984.

WEDNESDAY 13 FEBRUARY AND THURSDAY 14 FEBRUARY—Committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill.

FRIDAY 15 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 18 FEBRUARY — Second Reading of the London Regional Transport (Amendment) Bill.

Mr. Kinnock

First, I understand that all Governments have to introduce guillotines, but the timetable motion for next Monday is an outrage because it concerns a Bill which will deprive 13 million electors of democratic rights over an important tier of local government. I express the hope that Conservative Members who are opposed to the measure will join us in our efforts to prevent the guillotine falling on this Bill.

Will the Leader of the House clear up the matter of when the House will debate the White Paper on public expenditure? On 17 January the right hon. Gentleman told me during business questions that he hoped that the House could proceed to debate it in the normal manner. Will he confirm that the debate will take place therefore in the normal manner well before the Budget on 19 March?

Finally, I ask the Leader of the House whether the Government will provide time as soon as possible for a debate on the proposed closure of one third of Britain's network of skillcentres. We know now that the Manpower Services Commission came to its decision to recommend the closures by the narrowest of margins. It is therefore vital that hon. Members whose constituencies will be seriously disadvantaged by closures should have the opportunity to express their views in the House before a final decision is made.

Mr. Biffen

On the first of the three points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, I hope that, when he appreciates the time that has been taken on the legislation, the care that has been given to opposing viewpoints and the fact that 80 clauses remain to be debated, he will realise that what is proposed on Monday in no sense can be regarded as converting the House of Commons into a Reichstag.

I notice also that the right hon. Gentleman intends to pit his charm and appeal against that of my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary in recruiting the loyalties of the Conservative Back Benches; we shall see who will be the winner of that glamour contest.

As to the White Paper on public expenditure, I am as ever anxious that we proceed to a debate which should take place before the Budget, but preferably with the benefit of the report of the appropriate departmental Select Committee.

Finally, I note the points that are made upon skillcentres. This is a matter that we might consider through the usual channels.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

My right hon. Friend will know that this week marks the 40th anniversary of Yalta. Has his attention yet been drawn to early-day motion 320?

[That this House recalls that Mr. Winston Churchill, when Prime Minister, was a signatory, together with President Franklin Roosevelt and Marshal Joseph Stalin, to the Yalta protocols in February 1945 which guaranteed self-determination, sovereignty and democracy for the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe; notes that Marshal Stalin, despite being a co-signatory, used his military power and political influence to frustrate those intentions; deplores the resultant widespread and systematic abuse of human rights which still continues to this day; supports peaceful endeavours by the peoples concerned to regain their rights; and urges Her Majesty's Government, on the fortieth anniversay of the Yalta Protocols, to declare its refusal to accept the division of Europe into spheres of influence and to reaffirm the right of the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe to genuine self-determination.]

This has been signed by no fewer than 227 hon. Members of all parties, and condemns the denial of self-government, independence and democracy to 125 million of our fellow Europeans. Can my right hon. Friend give us some sign that this massive demonstration of feeling, which is shared in the country, can be expressed in a debate on foreign affairs dealing primarily with European security matters?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of the interest in having a foreign affairs debate, and am only sorry that there is no time for one next week. When it occurs, it would be appropriate for the House, if it is to engage in reminiscence, to place on record the foresight of that handful of Members that voted against the Yalta agreement.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Does the Leader of the House recall that last week, on the day that the university of Oxford refused to honour its most distinguished daughter, the Prime Minister, I drew the attention of the House to the fact that the Droylsden Littlemoss boys county secondary modern school had not honoured its most distinguished son, my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts). Will the Leader of the House take note of early-day motion 367?

[That this House congratulates the Droylsden Littlemoss Boys High School, formerly Droylsden Littlemoss Boys County Secondary Modern School, on its decision to honour its favourite son, the honourable Member for Bootle, following the attempt of the honourable Member for Houghton and Washington to raise their failure to do so in the House; notes that the presentation ceremony is to be held at the school on 15th March; hopes that this event will be used to recognise and publicise the valuable role in the education system of the nation that over the years has been carried out by secondary modern and comprehensive schools; and further fails to understand why so much importance is attached to honours handed out by less important, status-ridden educational establishments.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman also note that the university of Oxford has not changed its mind about the Prime Minister but that the Droylsden Littlemoss boys school has changed its mind about my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle? Will he join me in my appreciation of the services that secondary modern schools and comprehensive schools have done for hon. Members and in congratulating the school on changing its mind?

Mr. Biffen

The Droylsden Littlemoss secondary school better deserves the esteem of this House than to be constantly compared with Oxford university. That said, I think that nothing more should occur next week.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are many questions hanging over the nationalised industries these days? Is it sufficient for hon. Members to have to consult documents in the Library on this question and to resort to the negative procedure? Has not the time come to give serious consideration to the reconstitution of a Select Committee on the nationalised industries, so that we can give full consideration to these problems?

Mr. Biffen

I have no doubt that the working composition and responsibilities of a Departmental Select Committee are matters that the House would wish to consider from time to time. However, what my hon. Friend proposes constitutes a fundamental change, and I do not think that it should be contemplated in isolation.

Mrs. Renèe Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

In view of the Government's confusion over the problem of limited lists for prescribing, and of the change in their attitude since 1981 and 1983, when Ministers expressed their view on the Greenfield report, is it not time that the House had an opportunity to debate the Department's proposals so that we could put forward views to help the Government out of this mess?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of all that the hon. Lady says. I am happy that the Greenfield recommendations are brought into the debate. She will appreciate that what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services proposes will be the subject of regulations that will be the subject of regulations that will have to be confirmed by the House by means of a debate.

Sir. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

My right hon. Friend mentioned regulations on the limited list of prescribed drugs. As the constituents of all hon. Members are seriously concerned, will he give earnest consideration to a much longer debate than is usual on these kinds of regulations, to enable all views to be reflected?

Mr. Biffen

Without making a commitment, I can say that I shall look into this point with some sympathy.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Does the Leader of the House accept that, in normal circumstances, I would agree that the request I am about to make is unreasonable? However, will he not accept that at Question Time the Prime Minister displayed a serious lack of adequate understanding of the coal dispute and of the position of the association with which I am involved? Would not the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Prime Minister's misunderstanding is so great that it almost certainly causes further peril and protracted difficulty?

Would not the right hon. Gentleman accept that the dispute has gone on long enough to justify urgent and positive steps to achieve a negotiated settlement and that that settlement is now being blocked by no other person than the Prime Minister? If the right hon. Lady allowed the National Coal Board to open the door, a settlement could be achieved and peace could reign in the coalfields of Britain, as it certainly needs to reign. Will not the right hon. Gentleman accept that the House should be given a further opportunity next week to debate this matter?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman warned me that I might just conceivably find his proposition unreasonable. I have to confirm at once that from such a reasonable source the proposition is eminently unreasonable. I believe that the words spoken by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister were well chosen. My right hon. Friend, like every other Member of this House, wishes that there should be a speedy resolution of this dispute. Last-minute attempts to try to fluff it will not be conducive to that end.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

One of the most important items of the age is the progress being made by the European Space Agency, the European co-operation on the Columbus space laboratory, the latest announcement that we are to co-operate with the United States on a space platform and the very important announcement in the American budget of the strategic defence initiative in the United States. Surely all this must mean that it is about time that we got into the 20th century and started to talk about this very important matter.

Mr. Biffen

Alas, the only, rather narrow-minded, advice that I can give to my hon. Friend is that in his early essay or attempt to get into the 20th century he should look for an Adjournment debate, when he will be able to make this very important point.

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

On limited list prescribing, is it not essential that we should have a full debate before any regulations are brought forward, because the regulations will be incapable of amendment by the House? On the Local Government Bill guillotine, what evidence does the right hon. Gentleman have that the Bill has been unduly delayed in the discussions so far? Would he not in his younger days, had he been on this side of the House, have complained that the guillotine was being brought forward only because of the overloading of the Government's legislative timetable by an indigestible Bill?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has overlooked a very signal and important factor: that I am no longer on that side of the House. As for limited list prescribing, I shall look at that point.

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 104 on the possible taxation of lump sums?

[That this House would find unacceptable any change in the tax system which devalued the 'lump sum' which members of occupational pension schemes can now anticipate receiving on retirement; notes that, over many years, pay has been negotiated, contributions have been paid and, sometimes, financial obligations have been assumed on the good faith of receiving such payments in due course; and would regard it as totally inconsistent with the declared principles of Her Majesty's Government to change the present procedure which makes a real and useful contribution to a more widespread capital earning democracy.] Since the number of signatures has now risen to 210 and in view of the continuing concern that is expressed in our postbags, would it be possible to have a debate on the subject before the Budget?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. There is no doubt that the early-day motion reflects widespread concern about this topic. However, there will be every opportunity to discuss it in the Budget debate, and even, possibly, subsequently.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

Reverting to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) about the mining dispute, in view of what many of us consider to be the grievous misunderstanding of the present situation which the Prime Minister revealed at Question Time in response to questions from my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members, if the right hon. Gentleman cannot arrange a debate on the matter, can he ensure that the Prime Minister shall come to this House on Monday and answer questions on this subject? We wish to make absolutely certain that what the Prime Minister said today does not block an agreement, just as what the right hon. Lady said a week ago blocked an agreement. Therefore I urge the right hon. Gentleman to ask the right hon. Lady to come to the House of Commons on Monday and make a statement.

Mr. Biffen

There is never a more touching moment than when the right hon. Gentleman is anxious to disabuse my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of some misunderstanding under which she labours. I shall convey to her the matters that he has requested should be drawn to her attention.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Would my right hon. Friend like to register his place in history in the House by being the Leader of the House who brings in timetable motions for all major and controversial Bills, so that the House is able to discuss such Bills clause by clause from beginning to end? It is ridiculous that half these Bills are never properly discussed without the introduction of a timetable motion.

Mr. Biffen

I am the Leader of the House who does not even want to appear in a footnote in "Erskine May", let alone have a place in history. My hon. Friend must await the report of the Procedure Committee, which has been considering Public Bill procedure. Perhaps the printing of the report will be the occasion when he can take his arguments further.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

In view of the appalling and damaging implications of the Arts Council grants which are to run at 1.9 per cent. against an inflation rate of 4.6 per cent., will the House have an opportunity to debate this very important matter in the near future?

Mr. Biffen

I do not disparage for one moment the importance of the topic, but no provision has been made for such a debate in the immediate future.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

In view of the continuing difficulties facing Members of the European Parliament in seeking to attend meetings in this building, will my right hon. Friend re-examine the matter on the ground that the Labour party, which has hitherto blocked all such suggestions, is likely now to modify its views in its anxiety to make contact with, among others, Mr. Les Huckfield?

Mr. Biffen

This is too serious a matter to be trivialised by the inclusion of Mr. Les Huckfield. The issue is considered from time to time.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Will the Leader of the House read early-day motion 345 on the Government's intention to publish new advice on food production in the aftermath of a nuclear war?

[That this House notes the findings of the study of Messrs, Turco, Toon, Ackerman, Pollack and Sagan concerning the likelihood of a prolonged period of darkness and severe cold as a result of the obstruction of sunlight by smoke in the atmosphere following a nuclear conflict; further notes that the Minister of State for Agriculture told the House on 24th January that the Government would not wish to dismiss the nuclear winter out of hand; considers that it would be absurd for the Government to publish a new booklet on home defence and the farmer without referring to the fact that food production could be prevented by the climatic consequences of nuclear war in addition to the devastation caused by blast and radiation; and calls on the Government to postpone further consideration of this issue until the findings of the International Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment have been debated in the House.] The motion has been signed by over 100 Members of virtually every party which is represented in the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the House will have an opportunity to debate the SCOPE report on the nuclear winter theory before the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food publishes any further advice on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

I understand that the matter is the subject of a study which is awaited by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I shall convey the hon. Gentleman's comments to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that during the passage of the Hong Kong Bill it has been suggested that there should be an annual debate on Hong Kong. As we almost never discuss any other part of our dependent territories, will my right hon. Friend consider allocating a day annually for the discussion of all the United Kingdom's dependent territories as well as Hong Kong?

Mr. Biffen

From my standpoint I see already a great deal of parliamentary time pre-empted for specialised topics. I would be reluctant to see that trend accentuated, but I shall consider what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House review the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) about the Prime Minister making a statement on Monday on the coal dispute or the allocation of a day's debate on that issue? It was put to me the other day that, although an archbishop's envoy can go to the hard-faced Colonel Gaddafi and manage to release four prisoners and arrange negotiations without preconditions with that regime, it seems that every archbishop, bishop and leader of a church of all denominations has been banging on the doors of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy, only to be met with the response, "Get lost." One is bound to come to the conclusion that the Prime Minister is more hard faced that Colonel Gaddafi.

Mr. Biffen

In certain circumstances that would be proffered as a compliment. However, I shall ensure that that comment is passed to the Prime Minister, like all the others about the coal dispute which the House wishes to be referred to her.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

Has my right hon. Friend yet had the opportunity to read the Hansard report of the debate on civil defence in another place yesterday which was introduced by Lord Renton? Will he please note that the contributions from all sides of that Chamber were extremely supportive? Does he have any plans for such a debate in this House in the near future?

Mr. Biffen

I must confess that I have no plans for that, but I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's particularly perceptive comments.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

Since one of the functions of the House is to address its mind to matters of great public concern, and in view of the early-day motion signed by hon. Members of all parties and from all parts of the United Kingdom about the need for a comprehensive fuel allowance, will the Leader of the House promise an early debate on the subject, so that opinions can be ventilated before the social security review comes to an end?

[That this House believes that the present system of exceptional heating allowances which is supposed to ameliorate the effects of severe weather conditions is completely ineffective in its application; and requests the Secretary of State for Social Services to replace this inadequate provision with a comprehensive scheme which takes into account the general climatic differences within the United Kingdom and associated heating costs so that all those in receipt of supplementary benefit can afford to heat their homes adequately regardless of which part of the United Kingdom they live in.]

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is to be an Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) on 13 February. We had better see how we go from there.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

May I refer my right hon. Friend to notice of motion No. 24 on the Order Paper, and to early-day motion 358, which between them were signed by every available member of the Select Committee on Transport yesterday and which express concern that the House is to proceed on Tuesday with the Second Reading of the Transport Bill without awaiting the Select Committee report which is imminent?

[That this House should commit the Transport Bill to a Special Standing Committee so that the members of that Committee may have the opportunity of jointly studying the imminent report of the Transport Committee and the evidence submitted to it on what is the most fundamental upheaval in the bus industry for over 50 years.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is possible that hon. Members selected to sit on the Standing Committee will not be in possession of the Select Committee report or of all the evidence which is relevant to the most major change in the bus industry for over 50 years? Does he agree that the House and the Standing Committee should have that evidence before they begin their deliberations on the Bill?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be fair-minded enough to acknowledge that a balance of factors has to be assessed when choosing the time for the Second Reading of a Bill. My hon. Friend might be able to make his point at greater length during the Second Reading debate.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Will the Leader of the House find time for us to discuss the wearing of Her Majesty's uniform by persons not entitled to do so, especially in view of the limited military experience of the Secretary of State for Defence?

Mr. Biffen

I am not in a position to do a comparative assessment of the military experience of my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), but I have noted his intriguing proposition.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that today marks the start of the electrification of the east coast line—the biggest British Rail development in 25 years, involving an expenditure of £300 million and the employment, mainly in the private sector, of about 3,000 people, including many from my constituency? Since this clearly shows that, despite their critics this Government do invest in and are interested in the infrastructure, can we please have another debate on the subject soon?

Mr. Biffen

I note with great approbation the record related by my hon. Friend. I cannot be forthcoming in promising additional parliamentary time for debating the topic, but with a modicum of ingenuity my hon. Friend might be able to comment further during the Second Reading of the Transport Bill.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

Since the right hon. Gentleman seems to be blaming the Select Committee for the delay in arranging a debate on the public expenditure White Paper, will he have a word with the Chairman and ask him to get a move on?

Mr. Biffen

It is not true to assert that I implied that any blame should attach to the Select Committee.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Before we have the debate, which my right hon. Friend half promised, on the regulations limiting the list of NHS drugs, may we have a statement explaining what will be on that list and, more seriously, what will not be on that list?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly convey that request to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State so that he may consider it when assessing how best to proceed with the parliamentary handling of the matter.

Mr. Sidney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

May I refer the right hon. Gentleman again to the attitude taken by his two predecessors in relation to Select Committee work and again refer to the early-day motion on the Order Paper signed by members of the Select Committee asking for the presentation of the Transport Bill to be delayed until the Select Committee's report is completed? I raise the matter with the right hon. Gentleman as a matter of principle and so that he can ensure that this does not happen again—that is, if he attaches any importance to Select Committee work at all.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take on board the growing feeling that, when the Bill proceeds to Committee it should be dealt with under the new Special Standing Committee procedure? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the widespread concern about the Bill, which will cause the biggest upheaval in the bus industry for 50 years? Since there is anxiety across the political boundaries, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Bill should be considered under the new procedure so that evidence can be taken from interested parties?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the desirability—when, from all viewpoints, it is practical—of having the views of the Select Committee ahead of the Second Reading debate. That is why I have been particularly anxious to establish that in no sense was I implying that there were any faults with the Select Committee in this matter. As I say, a number of factors help to weigh with the timing of a Second Reading debate, although I take the point that is made to me. The point made by the hon. Gentleman in the second part of his question will be considered, although at first sight it does not seem to be a Bill which falls within the original criteria which were appropriate for legislation. We will see how we go.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

Although I readily recognise my right hon. Friend's reluctance to grant time for a further debate on the coal mining strike, does he agree that an aspect of it that deserves the attention of the House is the way in which NUM members were denied a ballot and are now voting in increasing numbers with their feet?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point, but I hope that he will excuse me when I say that we do not need a day's debate to demonstrate it.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

Is the Leader of the House aware that this is International Youth Year? If so, will he find time for the House to discuss unemployment among the youth of the nation? Does he agree that we should be considering ways of developing employment, particularly for the long-term unemployed, and that we should be crushing unemployment and poverty rather than people?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to draw the attention of the House yet again to the significance of unemployment in the totality of economic policy. As we approach the period of the Budget and all the debates that flow from that, I am sure that many of the points that he has in mind can be made in that context. I note what he says and I underline the importance of it.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As the majority of hon. Members on both sides of the House, privately if not publicly, share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Sir K. Lewis) that it is better to put a timetable to any controversial measure at the beginning, rather than part way through its progress through the House, is he surprised that the Leader of the Opposition should be spouting the old gobbledegook about outrage against democracy? Is it not rather sad that tomorrow's man should still be trying to purvey yesterday's myths?

Mr. Biffen

The matter does not quite have that clean simplicity. I must ask my hon. Friend to show the proper sense of deference to the Select Committee on Procedure, the observations of which will, I am certain, form part of an interesting debate which awaits the House.

Mr. Allen Adams (Paisley, North)

It is said that last year the Secretary of State for Scotland authorised more than 70 phone tappings in Scotland. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the subject of interference with private communications? This is clearly a matter of grave national concern, on which a White Paper has been presented?

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps we should proceed one step at a time in these matters. As the hon. Gentleman will realise, once I sit down, I am but John the Baptist for a much more significant statement that will shortly come from the Home Secretary.

Mr. Kinnock

John the Baptist?

Mr. Biffen

Yes—we know what happened to him!

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

May I press my right hon. Friend for an early debate on the Royal Air Force? The debate that we were to have had was delayed for reasons which were really the fault of the Opposition. Urgent and early decisions relating to the RAF need to be taken. We had debates on the Army and Navy in the latter part of last year. The need for a debate on the RAF is now pressing.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend was the first to make the point to me when I announced the alteration in business, and I am happy to give him now the answer that I gave on that occasion—that arrangements will be made for such a debate in the reasonably near future.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

In view of the great concern of the National Union of Public Employees and other Health Service unions about the contact that some of their members may have had with people suffering from acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and in view of the worries of nurses, ancillary staff and ambulance personnel, will the Leader of the House urge the Secretary of State for Health and Social Services to make an early statement to the House about the action that the Government intend to take to allay the fears that exist?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises what I believe to be an immensely important and deeply disturbing problem. I shall at once report his question and observation to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Services.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

In view of the splendid efforts of the Royal Engineers, particularly the sappers of the Royal School of Military Engineering, yesterday at RAF Molesworth, which contrasted starkly with the shambles at Greenham common, will my right hon. Friend grant time to the House to debate the security for the perimeters of our defence establishments against marauding bands of anarchists and apologists from Moscow?

Mr. Biffen

After such a demonstration, why such a debate?

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time next week for a statement to be made about how the Prime Minister comes to be so muddled about the settlement applying to the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers in relation to the National Union of Mineworkers? There seems to be a clear contradiction, with the Prime Minister saying that the situation is still open, and NACODS this afternoon condemning what it regards as nothing short of a ripping up of that agreement by the National Coal Board, and everybody knows that the NCB is supported by the Government.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is doing his best to salvage what he can from a difficult afternoon—[Interruption.] I shall of course see that his anxieties are represented to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that I speak as a confirmed non-smoker when I explain that this week I met a number of the 718 constituents of mine who work in the tobacco industry and who are concerned about the pressure that is being placed on people as they choose whether to smoke? While they accept that smoking should be taxed and that there should be a reasonable degree of propaganda explaining the dangers connected with smoking, they are concerned lest they suffer unreasonable pressure in their jobs as might come from the removal of the royal warrant which has been applied to some companies. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early statement to be made on the subject so that it may be discussed in a balanced and fair way? People's jobs are at stake.

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure whether the House has authority in the matter; therefore, I cannot be forthcoming in my reply to my hon. Friend, except to say that I will look into the point that he raises.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

May I impress on the Leader of the House the seriousness of the decision that has been taken by the executive committees of the NUM and NACODS today? Is he aware that, if the Prime Minister does not now allow the NCB to negotiate an honourable settlement to the mining dispute, there could be a complete closure of the mining industry? Is he aware that the best possible answer would be for the Prime Minister to take the reins of the NCB and that, if she does not do that, she should tell the House why?

Mr. Biffen

I have told several Opposition Members, not least the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), that I would pass their anxieties to the Prime Minister. I shall add to those the anxieties now expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Michael McGuire (Makerfield)

Will the right hon. Gentleman endeavour to get the Minister responsible for the mining industry — the Secretary of State for Energy—to make a statement to the House next week? Will he impress on him the fact that NACODS is now joining the NUM in demanding open negotiations without preconditions? It is to be hoped that that demand will not be—as it has been in the past—contemptuously spurned by the Prime Minister, remembering that NACODS has a statutory duty for maintenance and for the safety of men underground.

Is the Leader of the House aware that, if the NACODS men withdraw their Labour—this was pointed out in the debate on Monday — the consequences will be disastrous? I urge the right hon. Gentleman to see that a statement is made by the Secretary of State for Energy to the effect that the Government welcome with open arms the resumption of talks without preconditions. Is anybody seriously suggesting that if NACODS and the NUM withdrew their labour, the Government would still insist that negotiations could be resumed only with preconditions? In such a situation, they would welcome with open arms any offer of talks. They should be giving such a welcome to the resumption of talks now.

Mr. Biffen

Everyone in the House — on the Conservative Benches as well as the Opposition — is anxious to see a settlement to that dispute. I do not believe that it would be a proper use of next week's business for me to engage in a debate on the various and somewhat contentious points raised in the hon. Gentleman's preamble, but as it was attendant upon the proposition that I should refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy to secure a statement next week, I shall, of course, make that request.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Will the Prime Minister arrange for a statement next week from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry about the way that the Association of British Travel Agents works, in the light of the fact that the people who liquidated Budget Holidays only a few weeks ago are now floating a new travel company that will operate out of Scotland and which has obviously been bonded by ABTA? Will he get the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to explain also how Buckingham palace has an ABTA number? It seems that "Her Majesty's bucket shop" is being run from Buckingham palace without any bonding or high street shops. I am not suggesting that the royal family books cheap flights to Mustique, but the staff are avoiding the rules and regulations, and ABTA must be involved in that. I am proud to be receiving an honour from my school, because after this I do not think that I will get one from Buckingham palace.

Mr. Biffen

It is nice to know that that deprivation causes grief. I shall of course refer those points to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government have now guillotined in Standing Committee more Bills in five years than previous Governments guillotined in 20 years? Given the fact that good progress has been made in Committee—there has been no filibustering from the Opposition; the longest speech has come from Ministers and his hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow)—and that this is a major constitutional measure which would on current progress get through within this parliamentary Session, how can he justify curtailing discussion at this stage?

Mr. Biffen

It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to reinforce his article in The Times with yet another preview of the speech that he hopes to make on Monday. I am afraid that I cannot extend a similar courtesy.

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

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Social Services to make a statement to the House on why he has directed that the south Cumbria district health authority gives the cleaning contract for south Cumbria to a private Blackpool cleaning operator when the in-house tender by the Roose hospital authorities in Barrow-in-Furness was cheaper? As the Government are supposed to be pursuing the cheapest course, why does not the district health authority take the cheapest tender and allocate the contract to the National Health Service in-house contractor? Is that not an abuse of the rules and of the Secretary of State's position?

Mr. Biffen

I am in no sense in a position to comment upon the merits of the case raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I shall refer the point that he makes to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Does the Leader of the House agree that if the allegation is true that a Minister in the Department of Employment referred to black Britons as people from Bongo Bongo Land, he is unfit to serve in even this Government? Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to confirm or deny that allegation? If it is true, will he tell the House that the Minister's letter of resignation is now on the Prime Minister's desk?

Mr. Biffen

Everything that has been associated with that incident, including that question, persuades me that the silly season is starting somewhat earlier than usual.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

May I endorse the calls made by my right hon. and hon. Friends for a statement on the miners' strike on Monday next week, as that is the day when hundreds of thousands of workers in Humberside, Yorkshire and the south-east will be taking industrial action in support of the miners? Secondly, the Leader of the House replied to an earlier question on International Youth Year. If he is thinking of a statement or debate on youth issues, will he arrange it for Thursday the 28 of this month—three weeks today —on the subject of the disgraceful proposals coming out of the Department of Health and Social Security to remove 234,000 16 and 17-year-olds from the right to supplementary benefit? I can promise him something— there will be over 5,000 youngsters outside the House on that day to show that young people will not take that suggestion easily.

Mr. Biffen

On the second point, we had a good-natured exchange last week, and I have nothing to add to what I then said. On the first point, I shall, of course, add the hon. Member's voice to the others when making the observations that I will to my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Since the Government's policies are increasingly driving new sections of industry, as well as the miners, to desperation and into industrial action— a vote for the Tories now seems to be a vote for industrial action—and since the teachers, who are normally well-behaved people, have been driven to the point of desperation—their industrial action is developing and will develop on a grand scale—will the Government consider making a statement on that industrial action as well as on the others that they have caused, so that we can discuss the matter properly?

Mr. Biffen

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is neither encouraging nor exhorting industrial action. I shall, of course, draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to the points that have been raised.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

Will the Leader of the House consider providing time for a debate upon the closure of the DHSS resettlement centres, which was announced a day or two ago? Will he take it from me that many of us are dismayed, to say the least, that such an important announcement was made through the device of a written question?

Mr. Biffen

As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, next Tuesday the Department of Health and Social Security is first for questions in the House, but I shall of course draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to the point that has been made.