HC Deb 14 February 1985 vol 73 cc481-90 3.33 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 18 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on the sinking of the General Belgrano, which will arise on a Government motion.

Motion on the Agricultural and Horticultural Co-operation Scheme.

TUESDAY 19 FEBRUARY — Second Reading of the London Regional Transport (Amendment) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Water Fluoridation Bill.

Motion on the European Community Document No. 4421/85 on the Milk Supplementary Levy Scheme.

WEDNESDAY 20 FEBRUARY — Motion on the Rate Limitation (Prescribed Maximum) (Rates) Order.

Remaining stages of the Trustee Savings Banks Bill.

THURSDAY 21 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the London Regional Transport (Amendment) Bill.

Motion on the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984 (Continuance) Order.

FRIDAY 22 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 25 FEBRUARY — Remaining stages of the Representation of the People Bill.

[Debate on Milk Supplementary Levy Scheme February 1985:


4421/85 Milk quotas and levy.

Relevant Report of European Legislation Committee

HC 5-ix (1984–85), para. 2.]

Mr. Kinnock

I am glad that the Government have changed their mind and will after all, be tabling an amendable motion for Monday's debate. However, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my hon. Friends and I consider that the choice of subject by the Government is nothing more than an evasive gimmick designed to distract attention from the main current issues of the conduct of Ministers and the decision of the Government to prosecute Mr. Clive Ponting? The Government will not succeed in their efforts to distract attention by the use of this stratagem.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that we will shortly have the debate on the public expenditure White Paper to which he said he has been giving consideration?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman once again whether the Government will provide their own time for a debate on the problems that will arise from the closure of a third of the skillcentre network, particularly as we now discover that there is no majority on the Manpower Services Commission for that course of action?

Will the Government provide time for an urgent debate on Britain's immigration laws in view of the disturbing evidence in yesterday's report from the Commission on Racial Equality that our immigration system operates unfairly and unjustly against black families and is a source of tension in race relations?

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps we might pursue through the usual channels the question of a debate on the report of the Commission on Racial Equality on the application of the immigration laws. I make the same comment as I did last week about the possibilities of a debate on skillcentres.

To answer the right hon. Gentleman's question about a debate on the public expenditure White Paper, I understand that the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service will shortly report on the matter. I hope that a debate can take place soon thereafter, and certainly ahead of the Budget debate.

I note that the right hon. Gentleman is happy that Monday's debate should take place on an amendable motion. I listened to his rehearsed trailer for the whole character of the debate on Monday, and I can only comment, in all generosity, that if it is to be a question of an evasive gimmick, he is giving us a generous standard by which to measure ourselves.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Will my right hon. Friend try to find time for an early debate on the need to reform the Official Secrets Act? Is he aware that some of us are disturbed by the somewhat doubtful line which appears to be emerging from the Treasury Bench to the effect that there is no need to tackle this subject again because previous attempts, particularly the 1979 Bill, ran into difficulties? As he will recall that the 1979 Bill was never debated on the Floor of the House but was withdrawn by the Government because of difficulties over the Blunt disclosures, will he agree that that is not a valid comparison and that there is now a new situation which merits an early debate?

Mr. Biffen

As my hon. Friend reminded a radio audience earlier today, he has himself done his time in dock in respect of the Official Secrets Act and therefore he speaks on the matter with added authority. I cannot give him an optimistic reply today, but I shall draw attention of the Home Secretary to the point that he makes.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Will the Leader of the House take note of what I think is a widespread view, not only inside but outside the House, that as the Prime Minister is in charge of the nation's security and is the only member of the War Cabinet still in office it would be treating the House with contempt for her not to take part in the debate on Monday and to clear up the remaining issues once and for all?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman will have heard the answer that my right hon. Friend gave to his master, the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). I shall put to her the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes.

Dr. Brian Mawhinney (Peterborough)

Has my right hon. Friend noted that the Secretary of State for Social Services has promised a decision on the Government's policy on limited lists before the end of this month? If that decision is made next week, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to be made? Although the House has been promised a regulation for debate, in the light of other factors that have emerged in recent weeks, particularly relating to the behaviour of the pharmaceutical industry and some in the medical profession, will the Leader of the House arrange for a much longer debate than might normally be associated with the consideration of a mere regulation?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend underlines the importance of this topic. I shall certainly bear in mind the importance of a statement being made. I shall take account of his representations that there should be a longer debate than is normally the case.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Prime Minister's refusal to take part in the debate on Monday will confirm the growing feeling that, when there were military victories bought with British lives in the Falklands, she was very ready to step forward to claim the credit but that when there are criticisms of her conduct she offloads the responsibility on to other Ministers or shields behind an artificial defence of national security? The impression which she gave today and which emerges from her decision not to speak is that under the image of a great war leader, which she so sedulously cultivates, lies the heart of a coward.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must ask the right hon. Member to withdraw that last word.

Mr. Benn

It is not my wish to use unparliamentary language, Mr. Speaker, but I think that I am entitled to draw a contrast between the Prime Minister's conduct when—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member is a very experienced Member of the House. He knows that he may not use that word in relation to another right hon. Member.

Mr. Benn

I withdraw the word "coward", Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Biffen

May I say in the cause of the virtues of anodyne language that, on reflection, I think that I was unnecessarily rough in the comment I made to the leader of the Liberal party about his relationship. It was meant in the kindest of spirits.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is an experienced debater. I have no doubt that he believes that a legitimate part of politics is playing the man, or woman, as well as the ball. I have no doubt that he will be able to do that next Monday. I have no doubt also that the right hon. Gentleman heard the answer that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave to the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). I believe that, on reflection, he will realise that that was a perfectly valid explanation.

Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

Will my right hon. Friend consider the difficulties facing the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, and other Select Committees? When recommedations are made by the Committee of Selection that hon. Members should join a particular Committee, such as the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, there has been an increasing blockage in implementing the Selection Committee's recommendations. For instance, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Mr. Conlan) was prevented for three months last summer from joining the Select Committee on Trade and Industry and my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) has been prevented for more than a month from joining the Select Committee because the Liberal/SDP alliance will not accept the membership of those hon. Members on the Committee.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has referred to a real problem. I shall certainly look into the matter, although I have a limited role in this regard, to ascertain whether anything can be done.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

May the Secretary of State for Energy be called here next week to explain why he has refused on numerous occasions to disclose to the House the state of the electricity board's accounts? A member of his own party, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy, has confirmed that the electricity board has lost £2 billion as opposed to its £240 million profit in the year before the strike. Surely it is high time the Secretary of State for Energy made a statement to the House on that matter and disclosed the current state of stocks. The right hon. Gentleman is refusing to answer parliamentary questions that have been tabled continuously since Christmas. There are many aspects of this strike, including costs, about which the House should know. It is high time the right hon. Gentleman was brought here to explain himself.

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. Friend is first for parliamentary questions on Monday. Although the hon. Gentleman may feel disposed to disparage the technique of parliamentary questions, I think that he is rather good at it, and I hope that he will persist.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

On next week's business, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the unwritten constitution can work only if all hon. Members behave as gentlemen and not as cads?

Mr. Biffen

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It would be totally impossible, and out of the character of this place, to try to prescribe with precision how we conduct relationships. We must proceed on the basis that my hon. Friend has suggested.

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

Has the Leader of the House seen the amendment put down to early-day motion 341 by a group of Conservative Members?

[That this House congratulates the Newcastle Evening Chronicle for its report on Tuesday 29th January, revealing that a meeting of senior National Coal Board officials was held in the National Coal Board Staff College, Longbenton, in September 1981, to hear a statement that it was the intention of the current government to 'privatise' the coal industry, the objective was to make the reduced coal industry attractive to outside speculation, and the future would be with around 100 profit-making pits, largely in the central coalfield of Britain; considers that the revelation vindicates the National Union of Mineworkers' reasons for their splendid defence of the mining industry and exposes the real reasons for Her Majesty's Government's desire to prolong the strike; and accordingly condemns any suggestion that the nation's coal industry assets should be sold off.]

The amendment calls for the privatisation of the coal industry. As the Secretary of State for Energy has now written to me saying that he has no plans to privatise the coal industry, may we be told whether the Government reject the views of their own Back Benchers or those of the Secretary of State?

Mr. Biffen

That is an issue that could profitably be tossed around during Question Time on Monday.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

The famine in Africa has been called the greatest disaster ever to afflict the globe. Will my right hon. Friend try to find time to debate both the issue itself and ways and means in which we can give additional help?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the importance of that point, but no provision has been made for a debate in the near future. I hope that, in any case, my hon. Friend will try his own luck with such chances as may be offered by the Adjournment.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

As the Leader of the House is still using the Select Committee as an excuse for his failure to arrange a debate on the public expenditure White Paper, will he have a word with the Chairman of that Select Committee and ask him to hurry up?

Mr. Biffen

I will most happily draw the Chairman's attention to the hon. Gentleman's observations.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

When is it likely that we shall have a debate on the important subject of the north-south divide in this country, which is gradually manifesting itself more and more clearly in the public mind? Should we not be given an opportunity to discuss the matter?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend is a robust campaigner—and properly so—for the region and the constituency that he serves. Alas, however, Government time is at a premium, and I think that it will fall to my hon. Friend to find the occasion for such a debate.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Will the Leader of the House reflect on his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about the Secretary of State for Energy? May we be given an assurance that, on Monday, we will be given a definitive view by the Secretary of State for Energy—perhaps backed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer—on the question whether the exorbitant cost to the nation of the strike is still considered by the Government to be a worthwhile investment?

Mr. Biffen

I believe that Question Time on Monday will provide an opportunity for such questions, but I will buttress that reply by referring the hon. Gentleman's point to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Did my right hon. Friend have the good fortune to see the excellent inquiry into the need for safe riding hats that was conducted by the BBC programme "That's Life" on the past two Sundays? Is he aware of the enormous concern of those who ride, and of their understanding of the need for proper riding hats approved by the British Standards Institution? Will he ask the appropriate Minister to come to the House at an early date to make a statement to reassure the public and to answer questions with a view to banning unsatisfactory foreign imports?

Mr. Biffen

I think that my hon. Friend has in mind my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport as being responsible for such matters. I shall cheerfully pass my hon. Friend's message to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The Leader of the House will remember that, last week, I raised with him the desperation of miners who are in a dispute that should never have been. The Government's policies have also driven the teachers to desperation. Strike action is imminent and a second front will be opened. May we have a debate on the problems facing teachers, especially on the miserable wages that they are given?

Mr. Biffen

Without going into the merits or otherwise of what the hon. Gentleman has said, may I remind him that, on Tuesday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science will be top for questions. The hon. Gentleman might find that a useful opportunity to make his point.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

In view of the importance of the issues dealt with in the recent White Paper on financial services, does my right hon. Friend think that there is any chance of debating that White Paper in the reasonably near future?

Mr. Biffen

It is an important topic and I am aware that my hon. Friend is not alone in wanting a debate on it. However, I had better say at this stage that such a debate is not contained in the programme for the immediate future.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Although I welcome Wednesday's debate on rate capping, which no doubt gave the impetus to the Secretary of State for the Environment to admit the catastrophic errors that he has made in connection with rate capping for Leicester and other cities, surely the debate is far too short for such tremendously important issues for many cities. Will we not be sitting in on another edition of the funeral rites of local democracy?

Mr. Biffen

No; I do not think that it quite bears that interpretation. The hon. and learned Gentlemen will find that the debate is of reasonable length and on an important subject. It will be made that much more sharp and enjoyable if he makes a short speech.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call those hon. Members who have been rising in their places as they have had rather a rough time today in terms of the time element.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Leader of the House aware that it would be intolerable if a senior civil servant who put his first duty and responsibility to the House of Commons were witch-hunted out of the Civil Service? Does he agree that it would be wise for the Government to bear in mind the events that troubled the United States which involved Richard Nixon? Perhaps the Leader of the House will ensure that a statement is made about Mr. Ponting's future. We should like such a statement quite separate from Monday's debate.

Mr. Biffen

I shall convey that comment to the appropriate Minister.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

Has not the time come for a debate on the arts? [Interruption.] The Government's closing of one of our national theatres is no laughing matter. The crisis has been referred to, in the context of cuts in local authority expenditure, by the chairman of the Arts Council, the director of the National Gallery, the director of the British museum and now by the director of the National theatre. The award that has been given is about one third of the rate of inflation. The name of the play currently being performed in the Cottesloe theatre is "Doomsday", and it seems that the Government intend to bring that about for the arts. May we have a debate soon?

Mr. Biffen

I am afraid that I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman the debate for which he asks. I agree that this is an area of public affairs in which there is, albeit a minority—

Mr. Buchan

Come on.

Mr. Biffen

I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman must be aware that the arts world is a valued but none the less elitist minority.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Has the Leader of the House noticed that there are now several all party early-day motions arising out of the report of the chief medical officer that 100,000 premature deaths are caused by cigarette smoking? The motions have been tabled by the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts) and me. Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for the House to debate this matter before the Budget, with a view to taking some clear action to prevent those deaths?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is a doughty campaigner on this issue, and on more than one front. However, any debate could more appropriately arise in private Members' time.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Is the Leader of the House aware that his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was utterly unsatisfactory as, although the Ponting case, which ended last Monday, has occasioned a statement to the House and a debate on Monday, two or three hours ago Mr. Ponting was told that no position is available for him in the Ministry of Defence? That should at least justify a statement from the Minister of State for the Armed Forces on how the dismissal took place.

Mr. Biffen

I am sorry that my previous answer did not satisfy the hon. Gentleman but alas, I must refer him to it.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

The Leader of the House is already aware of the Government's determination to restrict expenditure in the National Health Service. In the light of disclosures contained in last week's "TV Eye" programme, which highlighted the gross way in which certain consultants are manipulating and swindling the nation of fees that should be paid to the NHS, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is high time we had an early opportunity to explore that position further and to give the House a chance to express its opinion about it?

Mr. Biffen

I did not see the "TV Eye" programme to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. I can offer no prospect of any early debate during Government time. However, I shall refer his point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Has the Leader of the House found time to consider the views of his hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Sir A. Kershaw), who offered widely shared criticisms of the European Commission's record on providing food aid to the Sudan? Does he recall that his hon. Friend described that record as representing bureaucratic arthritis? Given the fact that the British public are becoming increasingly impatient about those problems, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that as a matter of urgency the House should have a debate about it?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises a point that is broadly similar to that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack). This afternoon I must rest my reply to the hon. Gentleman on the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the north-east county council association understands that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is requesting a cut of 28 per cent. in the grant to the North of England Development Council? Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry comes to the House next week and makes a statement about it, especially in view of the tremendous unemployment problems in the region,, and the fact that this seems to be a cost-cutting exercise in an area that is already devastated by unemployment and cannot afford to lose that money?

Mr. Biffen

I understand clearly the economic factors that give rise to the hon. Gentleman's anxiety. I shall refer his argument to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time to rearrange next week's business so that the House can debate with him his problems as Leader of the House, which he discussed at the constitutional Conservative Back-Bench committee last night?

Mr. Biffen

Just as I do not watch much televison, I am a slow reader. I have yet to read any reports of that private meeting. If the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me, I shall do my best.

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 364 about the military attack on the Molesworth peace camp?

[That this House expresses its utter disgust at the decision of the Secretary of State for Defence to mount a full-scale military operation against the Peace Camp at Molesworth; and believes that the stark contrast of barbed wire and troops — paving the way for United States nuclear missiles — with wheatfields for the starving people of Ethiopia, illustrates vividly the priorities of the Government; notes that this nocturnal attack is a further major escalation of the harassment and intimidation of Britain's mass movement against nuclear madness; and pledges its support to the continuing resistance to United States nuclear bases throughout Britain.]

In the light of that, the growing anxiety about telephone tapping, the possible destruction of the chapel at the camp, the road blocks, and the fact that the Ministry of Defence denied that a shooting took place at Greenham common on Tuesday night, despite the fact that a tape recording exists, which contains the internal communications of the base and demonstrates clearly that a serious shooting took place, may we have a statement, or preferably a debate, on what is happening at the American bases at Molesworth and Greenham common?

Mr. Biffen

I can offer no prospect of a debate in Government time—at least, not for some time. I shall refer the hon. Gentleman's points to the relevant Minister.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

I thank the Leader of the House for the undertaking that he gave earlier this afternoon to consider the possibility of a debate in Government time on the recent report by the Commission for Racial Equality on immigration procedures. Will he ensure that the debate is held soon, that it is a whole day debate, and that it is not relegated to an obscure Friday?

Mr. Biffen

I know that the hon. Gentleman is trying to be helpful. My terminology referred to the "usual channels". I object to the concept of an obscure Friday. No Friday is obscure. It is valuable parliamentary time, and its status depends upon the use to which Members of Parliament put it.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Foreign Secretary comes here next week to explain his visit to Turkey this week where he said that he firmly supported the restoration of £400 million in EEC aid to that country despite the fact that other EEC countries say that that aid should be withheld until full democratic rights are restored in that country and despite the fact that Amnesty International briefed him on the fact that thousands of people are still being tortured in Turkish prisons and that those prisons hold thousands of political prisoners including trade unionists and peace protesters? Will the Leader of the House ask the Foreign Secretary to explain why the Government firmly support a country which continues to deny human rights to its citizens?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary will be in the House on Wednesday afternoon next week to answer questions. I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will then have an opportunity to make those points. In any case, I shall ensure that he is appraised of her comments beforehand.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Will the Leader of the House consider arranging an early debate on housing in view of the Government's 1985–86 HIP allocations which councils throughout the country of all political persuasions are saying will create major housing problems? The building employers are also saying that the Government's policies will result in a large increase in unemployment. A debate is needed on that important issue.

Mr. Biffen

I cannot offer any hope of an early debate in Government time. I am not sure to what extent the broad issue might be included in any comments on rate limitation. I shall of course draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to the points that have been made.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government's proposed cuts in social security payments for homeless people living in board and lodging hostels will mean that many of them have no money left for food? They will have to choose between a bed and food, between the streets and starvation? Is he not ashamed to be part of a Government who are creating a society in which some people sleep in a bedroom inside a house and others have to sleep outside under arches in cardboard boxes? Is it not time that we had a full debate on the problems of homeless people?

Mr. Biffen

No provision has been made for a debate upon the homeless. I recognise at once that it is a most important topic. The hon. Gentleman might consider the opportunities that are open to him as a private Member to pursue it.

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

Now that it is clear that the Prime Minister is running scared of coming to the Dispatch Box next Monday and has decided to appoint two Defence Ministers to run up the flag in a most disgraceful way, will the Leader of the House give the House an assurance that the Prime Minister will be in her place during the debate next Monday?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I fancy that he is rattling his sabre to drown the knocking of his knees.