HC Deb 21 February 1985 vol 73 cc1208-17

4.4 pm

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House if he will state the business of 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 25 FEBRUARY—Motion on the Rate Limitation (Prescribed Maximum) (Rates) Order.

Motion on the annual report of the European Court of Auditors for 1983.

TUESDAY 26 FEBRUARY — Completion of remaining stages of the Water (Fluoridation) Bill

Motion on the British Shipbuilders Borrowing Powers (Increase of Limit) Order.

WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY — Opposition Day (8th Allotted Day) (First Part). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion on local authority capital expenditure.

Afterwards, completion of remaining stages of the Representation of the People Bill.

THURSDAY 28 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Second Reading of the Companies Consolidation (Consequential Provisions) Bill [Lords] and proceedings on the Companies Bill [Lords], the Company Securities (Insider Dealings) Bill [Lords] and the Business Names Bill [Lords] which are consolidation measures.

FRIDAY I MARCH—Private Members' motions. MONDAY 4 MARCH—There will be a debate on a motion to take note of the Government's expenditure plans 1985–86, Cmnd. 9428.

The House will wish to know, Mr. Speaker, that it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Easter Adjournment on Thursday 4 April until Monday 15 April.

[Debate on Court of Auditors' Report for 1983 on 25 February 1985


OJ No. C348 Annual Report of the European Court of Auditors for the financial year 1983.

Relevant Report of European Legislation Committee HC 5—ix (1984–85), para. 4.]

Mr. Kinnock

First, may I thank the Leader of the House for giving to the House the dates of the Easter Adjournment? May I also offer him my personal thanks for ensuring that the debate on Welsh affairs is to be taken so near to St. David's Day? Dialch yn fawr. Finally, may I also thank the Leader of the House for agreeing to hold a debate on Monday week on the public expenditure White Paper, a debate for which we have been pressing for some weeks? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman how it can be appropriate to debate the Rate Limitation (Prescribed Maximum) (Rates) Order next week when the matter is still before the courts? If the information upon the rate-capping decision is to be given to one council and is now to be given to the courts, surely that information ought to be given to Parliament before any debate on the order takes place.

May I renew my request to the Government to provide time for an urgent debate on Britain's immigration laws, especially in view of the very disturbing evidence from the Commission for Racial Equality in its report which was published last week? Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made early next week on the very serious allegations that were made against the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence in the "20:20 Vision" television programme which was withdrawn last night by the Independent Broadcasting Authority? Finally, in view of the statement yesterday by the Prime Minister to the United States Congress in which she expressed her eagerness for British participation in star wars research, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that a debate takes place as quickly as possible on this issue so that hon. Members can expose the dangers and delusions of such participation?

Mr. Biffen

I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his comments upon the timing of the Welsh debate. I acknowledge his few words in Welsh which, although not comprehended, I am certain were well intended. I, like the right hon. Gentleman, am glad that we shall be able to have a debate upon the Government's public expenditure plans and that it will take place well ahead of the Budget. As for a debate on the Rate Limitation (Prescribed Maximum) (Rates) Order, I think that the matter which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind refers to the precepting capacity of the Greater London council. This was the subject of the previous order, not of the order that will be debated on Monday next. However, I acknowledge that in a sense there is commonality between the two. Perhaps we may consider through the usual channels whether there might be a debate on the immigration regulations. Again I note the right hon. Gentleman's concern about what was highlighted in the "20:20 Vision" television programme. I acknowledge the importance that the right hon. Gentleman attaches to his request for a statement. Perhaps we may also look at that matter through the usual channels. Star wars research will, I think, be a matter of continuing political controversy. I noted what the right hon. Gentleman said as an opening shot.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Has my right hon. Friend's attention been called to early-day motion 174—

[That this House calls for an increase in the resources devoted to the Overseas Services of the BBC and notes with interest the possibility of an experimental BBC Overseas Television Service.]

which calls attention to the desirability of increasing the resources made available to the overseas services of the BBC and, by an amendment standing in my name and those of other hon. Members, the resources of the British Council:

[At end add "and also believes that an increase in national resources devoted to the British Council would improve Great Britain's influence and prestige in the world, and be beneficial to the interests of this country."]?

In view of the nearness of the Budget and the finalising of the Estimates, can my right hon. Friend hold out any hope of a debate before the Budget?

Mr. Biffen

I have to say, in all candour, that the chances are slim. Let me try to compensate by saying that I recognise the importance of the topicality of the matter. As my hon. Friend is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, that adds even more importance to its consideration.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

May I reinforce the request for the House to be given an early chance to debate the issues raised by the Channel 4 programme on MI5's official secrets, banned by the IBA last night? When former long-service MI5 employees are prepared to state publicly that the secret services have broken their rules by mounting clandestine operations against organisations and individuals who pose no conceivable threat to state security, is that not an issue that this House should have an opportunity to debate at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of the hon. Gentleman's question and I am certain that the anxiety that he expresses extends to all parts of the House, but I cannot go beyond the answer that I gave to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to consider the implications of the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill having been given a Second Reading by such a substantial majority? Will he agree with me that, while it was entirely right that the Government should have adopted a neutral attitude to the Bill until the will of the House was made known, now that the will of the House has been made known in such overwhelming terms, it would be appropriate for the Government to ensure that sufficient time is given for that Bill, so that the will of the majority cannot be thwarted by a small minority of people using parliamentary procedures to that end?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend might like to reconsider the proposition that the neutrality of the Government should be balanced by the Government making time available. I do not think that that is how the House would regard neutrality.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Leader of the House aware that anyone who saw the programme on Channel 4 last night, to which reference has been made, must have considerable concern over the way that MI5 operates, and must ask whether MI5 is now out of ministerial control?

Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that either the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary will make a statement to the House next week? Will the Attorney-General also give an assurance that in no circumstances will the person interviewed in the television programme, a former employee of MI5, be prosecuted under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act?

Mr. Biffen

I gave a measured reply to the Leader of the Opposition and I refer the hon. Gentleman to that. But as the hon. Gentleman raised the wider issue of the Attorney-General giving an assurance, I shall make that point known to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Notwithstanding what the House might be hearing later this afternoon on the question of the limited list of drugs, may I suggest to my right hon. Friend that it will not be sufficient for this House to consider the matter by the negative resolution procedure? Will he promise us a whole day's debate on the subject in due course?

Mr. Biffen

I note the strength of interest that my hon. Friend has in the matter and I shall bear it in mind, but I would mislead the House if at this stage I held out a likely prospect of a full day's debate.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the difficulties that are created for Select Committees when Members who leave them are not replaced quickly enough? Is he aware that for some months now the Select Committee on Social Services has been two members short, one from each side of the House? It is a very serious disadvantage to the Committee. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that his hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren) raised the same matter last week. When may we expect some action to remedy the inconvenience?

Mr. Biffen

It is a matter of seriousness. Attempts are being made, through our own sort of Westminster ACAS, to see whether the difficulties can be resolved. It requires patience, and I hope that eventually I shall not strain the patience of the House.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch)? Is he aware that the limited list of drugs is a matter of intense public interest? While we may not expect a full day's debate, we should at least have half a day — and it should take place in prime time and not in the small hours of the morning.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes his case twice as attractive by asking for half as much time, and that must be merely the starting point of the consideration. I have told the House that I recognise that there are strong feelings on the topic, but I have to have regard to all the other competing claims. It is in the context of the House having to vote upon a resolution, and I shall take account of the representations.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

In view of the statement by the Secretary of State for Energy this afternoon that the Government are not prepared to contemplate any further talks of any sort or kind designed to resolve the mining dispute, is the Leader of the House intending that the matter should be brought back to the House so that Members of Parliament can interrogate the Government about their policy as the strike enters its second year—and particularly as the Government will know, from the tapping of Arthur Scargill's telephone, the wide support that he has among his own members?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what the right hon. Gentleman says. No time is provided for next week, as he will appreciate. He will also appreciate that the Government do not have the monopoly of opportunity to enable the subject to be debated, but obviously I shall keep the matter under consideration.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

In view of the publication by the Common Market Commission of its reasoned opinion that Britain is breaking Common Market law by not charging VAT on bus and rail fares and on electricity and gas supplies, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Government to make a statement next week on whether they will oppose the measure all the way, when a decision will be arrived at, and what the consequences would be for the Revenue, particularly in view of the horrific impact that the imposition of VAT would have on areas that are dependent on bus and rail travel?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that there is an innocent and constructive content in my hon. Friend's request. [Interruption.] I have not laughed at all. I think that my first task must be to refer my hon. Friend's request to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we shall see how we can take it from there.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

Does the Leader of the House believe that pressure for a debate on the limited prescribing of drugs should come only from Conservative Members? May I, from the Opposition Benches, reinforce the point that there is a serious issue of principle involved in the alteration of doctors' contracts, which is apparently being imposed by order? Would it not be important to debate on the Floor of the House changes in clinical freedom, which may or may not be beneficial?

Mr. Biffen

I think we shall have to see how the resolutions are likely to be drawn in judging how wide a debate can be expected, but I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Rather than having a debate on the report by the Commission for Racial Equality, I wonder whether it would be more appropriate to have a debate on the Commission itself. Although well intentioned, and probably set up in the best circumstances, this body seems to have become somewhat one-sided. That has in part led to the naive report that it has produced which, instead of helping race relations, is rather damaging to them. I am sure also that my right hon. Friend is mindful of the public expenditure connections of the Commission for Racial Equality.

Mr. Biffen

I am surprised that any hon. Member who wanted to debate the Commission should find the fact that a report of the Commission is to be debated in some way an insuperable inhibition. I ask my hon. Friend to live up to his known reputation in these matters, and then there will be no difficulty.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

My understanding is that servants of the House are not permitted to make money out of any memoirs that they might wish to compile. Would it not be to the advantage of Parliament if the relevant body of the House were to examine the need to refrain future Speakers, who are primarily servants of the House, from such ego trips? Might we then not prevent the misrepresentations and the settlement of old scores indulged in by that malicious old maid Tonypandy?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is a criticism of a Member of the other House. I think that the hon. Gentleman must withdraw those comments. [Interruption.] Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the adjectives — "malicious" and so on.

Mr. Faulds

I have every wish to comply with your requirements, Mr. Speaker, and I want to stay in the House. I shall, of course, withdraw the word "malicious", relevant as it is in this context. However, I have to maintain that there has been considerable misrepresentation in his stories of what the House—

Mr. Speaker

Order. All I required was that the hon. Gentleman should withdraw those adjectives, and he has done so.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Will my right hon. Friend take note that of great public interest is the increase in television licence fees? It is time that there was a debate in the House on the whole question of the funding of the BBC for the public to hear. That is of paramount importance. Time is gradually slipping away, despite the fact that we first asked for the debate over three months ago. It is not a suitable subject for an Adjournment debate or private Member's motion on a Friday, but needs to take place during the week.

Mr. Biffen

I take note of my hon. Friend's comments. He is referring to a problem that is commanding growing interest and I shall certainly refer his remarks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that I represent a rate-capped authority and therefore he would expect me to try to catch Mr. Speaker's eye next Monday. In the light of his previous answer on this question, is he aware that I usually try to do my homework on these matters and that it is impossible for me, because of the GLC position, to prepare an adequate case on behalf of my borough? Will he therefore reconsider the possibility of having that debate at a time when we can deal with the matter adequately in the best traditions of the House?

Mr. Biffen

I am sorry to hear of the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman has encountered, but I cannot believe that they are insuperable for the preparation of the formidable case which I have no doubt the hon. Gentleman will make on Monday.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

Will my right hon. Friend agree that, although it is possible that the statement shortly to be made on the question of drugs will be entirely acceptable to the House, it is also possible that it will not be? That being so, as the negative resolution obliges us all either to accept or to reject, will he suggest to the Secretary of State that he bring forward draft regulations so that he can consider what the House says before laying final regulations?

Mr. Biffen

My right hon.. Friend is in his place and will have heard that suggestion. No doubt, if my hon. Friend is successful in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, following the statement by my right hon. Friend, he will be able to repeat that suggestion.

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

May my hon. Friends and I invite the Leader of the House and all hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches to Committee Room 11 this evening at 7 pm to watch the film by "20:20 Vision", which was banned by the IBA yesterday and which millions of people in the country want to see?

Mr. Biffen

It is always nice to have these chummy invitations across the Floor of the House. I must confess that it is rather short notice, but it is a kind thought and I shall think about it.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

In view of the historic importance of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's visit to the United States, may we influence the Leader of the House to get her to make a statement next week?

Mr. Biffen

I shall most certainly draw that request to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

The Leader of the House, in referring to the question about star wars, said that it was a continuing affair. I can certainly testify to the fact that requests for a debate or even a statement about Britain' s position in peace talks is a continuing matter, having asked about this for months, if not years, in the past. Since the Prime Minister made it the cornerstone of her speech in trying to ingratiate herself with the American Congress, does that not mean that we should have a debate about star wars and our position in the talks in Stockholm, which have been going on for over a year now without a single word being said about them, either in a statement or in a debate, at the Dispatch Box?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to remind us of his pioneering role in this controversy. I suggest that at least as an opening shot in the next stage he might like to use the advantages that are offered by defence questions next Tuesday.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 403?

[That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to take the necessary steps to become a full member of the European monetary system without further delay.] In view of the growing number of signatures attached to it and the fact that the Select Committee on EEC Legislation has specifically recommended a debate in the House on the subject, will he now seriously consider having a proper debate, not just after 10 o'clock, on Britian becoming a full member of the European monetary system, bearing in mind the overwhelming virtues and merits of so doing now that the pound sterling has fallen to a level where that policy could be tenable?

Mr. Biffen

The case may have been irrevocably flawed by being endorsed by the CBI, but I leave that to one side. It is a very lively topic which has growing significance as we approach the time of the Budget and I will certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to that suggestion.

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion No. 414?

[That this House wishes to register its grave concern at the South African police operation on the morning of 19th February involving the arrest of the leadership of the United Democratic Front; and urges Her Majesty's Government to recall Her Majesty's Ambassador in South Africa for immediate consultations.]

This concerns the arrest of members of the United Democratic Front in South Africa. Is he prepared to get the Government to make a statement? I am led to believe that there has been a delegation this morning to the Ministers at the Foreign Office, who have, to say the least, shown some disquiet about the situation there. It has now been raised at the European level and again disquiet is shown about the problems of South Africa. While it refers to only one incident, the whole question of Crossroads and the other problems in South Africa could well be something of a powder keg. Could I ask, therefore, that the Government make a statement next week similar to the statements that have been made by other member states of the European Community? This is an extremely important point and one that could develop in the next few weeks.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman indicates, at least, that concern is felt by the Foreign Office on this matter, and of course I will refer to it his request for a statement.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

May I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the fact that yesterday the Select Committee on Employment published a document on the polygraph, which is a lie detector, in which grave reservations were expressed about the use of the instrument? May I remind him that this instrument is at the moment the subject of a pilot test at GCHQ? Considering all the humiliation and aggravation created at GCHQ, will the Leader of the House seriously consider an urgent debate on the report?

Mr. Biffen

I see the force of the argument that reports of the departmental Select Committees should be incorporated in the work of the House as far and as speedily as possible. I cannot think that there is an early prospect of a debate, but I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to the findings of the Committee.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

On 11 February the House debated regulations concerning hazardous materials. There is a major problem in the implementation of these regulations in that, under the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, it is still possible for warehouses storing non-hazardous materials to be converted without planning consent to store extremely dangerous materials. Since some of these installations are in very densely populated areas and since the Minister of State, Welsh Office has informed me that the Government intend to bring forward proposals to supplement sections 22 and 23 of the Act, will the Leader of the House bring some urgency to the situation so that we may avoid any major problem should a dangerous incident occur in this area?

Mr. Biffen

I will look into that matter and be in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

The Leader of the House has more than once this afternoon resorted to the usual channels. Will he accept that, worthy as the usual channels may be, they work very slowly? Will he also accept that repetitions of requests for debate are probably the only weapons that we have? I therefore urge upon him the importance of having an early debate on the report by the Commission for Racial Equality, which has caused enormous concern throughout the country. If there is not an early debate, many people will believe that the Government have a great deal to hide.

May I press him further on the need for a debate on the "20:20 Vision" film on MI5's official secrets? The fact that he has not seen it may account for his rather lethargic—or perhaps I should say lackadaisical—attitude to the request for a debate. The film contains the most damaging indictment of what is being done by MI5, and breaches of guidelines and assurances that have been given by successive Ministers. It is not good enough to say that we might have a debate at some time or another. Individuals have been implicated; their telephones are being tapped and they have no chance to answer back, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman). If the Leader of the House cannot see the film at 7 o'clock this evening, I can reassure him by saying that I shall put a video copy of the film into the Library so that he may see it at any time.

Mr. Biffen

I note that the hon. Gentleman is not optimistic about the prospects of a debate, otherwise he would not have made his speech now. I sought to reply to the Leader of the Opposition on this issue in a way that I hoped would be helpful to the House. I think that it would be more constructive if I left the matter there.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the usual channels. A usual channel that is reinforced by him becomes an even more formidable proposition. I shall see what can be done about a debate on immigration laws.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has not been rising in his place previously but I shall call him if he will be brief.

Mr. Skinner

Will the Leader of the House explain by a statement or otherwise next week how the Government come to organise their double standards on the continuation of talks with bodies that include the National Union of Mineworkers? Why is it, for instance, that the Government are prepared to talk and talk with the Common Market about the budget, despite—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should be asking about business next week.

Mr. Skinner

Yes, Mr. Speaker, I am asking about the making of a statement next week.

Why is it that the Government are prepared to continue to talk at length about international debt with bankers from countries throughout the world? Why is it that they are prepared to argue about peace talks—[interruption.] I am asking that there should be a statement about this next week. Why is it that the Government are prepared to send representatives to Geneva to take part in peace talks, even when the Russians walk out and the Americans walk out—

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Why does not the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) walk out?

Mr. Skinner

Why are the Government prepared to hammer the miners in the way that they are doing while they are prepared to negotiate with member states in the Common Market and others elsewhere throughout the world?

Mr. Biffen

I think that the hon. Gentleman has had a bad day. He finds that he is light years away from the leadership of the TUC. He is in a bad way because, like many others, he has argued for months that the Government should be seeing the TUC—

Mr. Skinner

Not me.

Mr. Biffen

The Government have now seen the TUC and the Government have shown themselves so good at negotiating with the TUC that—

Mr. Skinner

That is a lie.

Mr. Biffen

—in the hon. Gentleman's words—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Skinner

I have never asked that question.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover, even from a sedentary position, must not use the word "lie".

Mr. Skinner

Well, I have done and the Leader of the House should withdraw his comment.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has had rather a good week. I believe that the House will agree that yesterday came into that category. I am asking him now to withdraw his statement. If the hon. Gentleman is not prepared to withdraw the word "lie", I must ask him to leave the Chamber for the rest of today's sitting.

Mr. Skinner

The right hon. Gentleman said—

Mr. Speaker

I ask the hon. Gentleman to leave the Chamber for the rest of today's sitting.

The hon. Member withdrew accordingly.