HC Deb 12 February 1985 vol 73 cc177-9

4.8 pm

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

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement.

The business for Monday 18 February will now be a debate on the sinking of the Belgrano, which will arise on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

I shall announce a new date for the Second Reading of the London Regional Transport Bill at business questions on Thursday.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I tell the right hon. Gentleman that the debate on the Adjournment of the House is a completely inadequate way to deal with the matter? The Government have decided on a subject that entirely misses the point of having the debate on Monday. The debate must be about Minister's responses to questions from right hon. and hon. Members and from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the General Belgrano. I commend that motion to the right hon. Gentleman. We should debate it on Monday if the House is properly to address the issues. They have become matters of vital importance, especially in the wake of the trial and acquittal of Clive Ponting.

I hope that we may have the right hon. Gentleman's co-operation in ensuring that, well before the debate, a full transcript of the proceedings of the trial is deposited in the House of Commons Library, as some difficulty has been experienced in obtaining that and we shall require his assistance in doing so.

Finally, if we debate the subject that I suggest it will provide the full opportunity necessary for a detailed account to be given of the precise reasons why a prosecution of Mr. Ponting was undertaken, in the light of the fact that apparently he was at no time accused of breaching national security.

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition will not be disappointed in his desire that the scope of the debate on Monday is drawn sufficiently wide to enable all the points that he has mentioned to be properly discussed. I have said that the Government wish the matter to be debated on a motion for the Adjournment of the House; he has demonstrated his anxiety on that point, and perhaps we can consider it through the usual channels. I shall see whether I can meet his point about the proceedings of the trial being made available in the Library.

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

Will the Minister of State for the Armed Forces be speaking in the debate on behalf of the Government, or will he be speaking from the Back Benches? If there is to be no change in his position, will whoever is speaking on behalf of the Government be doing so because the decision to deceive the House was taken much higher up than him?

Mr. Biffen

The easy accusation about deceit of the House is something that can best be left to Monday, when I have no doubt that it will be dealt with in the most authoritative fashion.

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Biffen

As to those who will be speaking in the debate, that has been concluded through the usual channels.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that the document which has been called the "crown jewels" will be made available to the House — [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because it has been circulated to 12 good men and true. It may or may not be part of the transcript that may be available to the House. To have a realistic debate on this matter, there must be an all-pervading argument that the document should be available to hon. Members.

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman says, but I must say in all candour that I can give no such undertaking.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that an all-embracing improvement would be a debate on the new concept in British politics that the ends justify the means?

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says, and I have sufficient regard for him to know that, if that is to be the thrust of his speech, he will be making it on Monday.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that the leader of the Labour party spoke for many people in the House when he criticised the decision to have the debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House and the scope of the debate? What should be discussed is the relationship of the House, Ministers and the Government. Hon. Members might have different views about the wisdom of sinking the Belgrano. Those two issues should not be clouded in the same debate.

Mr. Biffen

I thought that I gave a reasonably responsive answer to the Leader of the Opposition, and I shall not go beyond that now.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Is it not a fact that Mr. Ponting has made it clear that he agrees with the Government's action in respect of the General Belgrano? If that is so, why is the scope of Monday's debate so wide? Why is it not focused on the action or otherwise of the Government in replying to the Select Committee's questions? Is the Leader of the House aware that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs is considering these matters? Would it not be better to wait until it has reported before debating the wider issue?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the House will feel that it is important to debate this matter as speedily as possible. I also believe that the House would wish to have the debate on a broadly generous interpretation of all the factors that are relevant to this incident, and I am sure that we can fulfil that objective.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have another important statement, and we must not delay too long on this one.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House a clear undertaking that he and the Government are responsible for the subject matter of the debate? Will he also give an undertaking that, since the Prime Minister is responsible for the security services, she will take part in the debate?

An Hon. Member

She will be on holiday.

Mr. Biffen

This is a Government motion, and with that go the consequences for the choice of topic and its title. But it is also a matter for discussion through the usual channels, and I am happy to say that that is what happened in this case.

Mr. Mark Hughes (City of Durham)

Will the Leader of the House discuss with you, Mr. Speaker, whether a preferable motion would be that the House should set up a Committee to draw up the rules for impeachment and a bill of impeachment, because that is the last resort of this high court of Parliament against Ministers of the Crown who have misled the House?

Mr. Biffen

I think that I have been helpful to the House in the announcement I made concerning Monday's business, and I have no doubt that the point that the hon. Gentleman wishes to argue can reasonably be made on Monday.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I will call one more hon. Member.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

If, in the opinion of the Director of Public Prosecutions and, presumably, of the Attorney-General, it was essential, in order that a jury of 12 men and women should have a full view of the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the General Belgrano, for it to see the document known as the "crown jewels", why is it impossible for right hon. and hon. Members to see that document before a debate on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

That point has already been made to me, and I cannot add to the answer that I gave.