HC Deb 28 February 1985 vol 74 cc469-77 3.45 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 4 MARCH—There will be a debate on a motion to take note of the Government's expenditure plans, 1985–86, Cmnd. 9428.

TUESDAY 5 MARCH—Second Reading of the Food and Environment Protection Bill [Lords]

Consideration of the Water (Fluoridation) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Companies Consolidation (Consequential Provisions) Bill [Lords], which is a consolidation measure.

WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH — Second Reading of the Interception of Communications Bill.

THURSDAY 7 MARCH—Motions On the Local Elections (Northern Ireland) Order and on the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) Order.

FRIDAY 8 MARCH—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY II MARCH—Opposition Day (9th Allotted Day): Subject for debate to be announced.

Mr. Kinnock

I understand that this afternoon, in an entirely unsatisfactory way—indeed, one that abused the procedure of the House — the Home Secretary announced that Lord Bridge of Harwich will be asked to examine recent allegations about the interception of communications made in the "20:20 Vision" television programme for Channel 4. In view of that announcement, it would be completely inappropriate for the Second Reading of the Interception of Communications Bill to proceed before Lord Bridge has reported and his report is presented, as the Prime Minister has undertaken, to the House. Clearly this is a subject of immediate and immense controversy about which more facts must be discovered, and the Bill would benefit if its Second Reading was postponed until after we had heard from Lord Bridge.

In view of the Prime Minister's address to the United States Congress, in which she expressed her eagerness for British participation in the star wars research programme, will the Leader of the House ensure a debate on the so-called strategic defence initiative as quickly as possible, since it appears that Britain will be dragged into it willy nilly, at least before the next general election, after which we shall put a stop to all that nonsense—[Interruption.] Watch the polls.

The Leader of the House will have heard of the controversy about the amount of money which employers and teachers were apparently led to believe was available to pay teachers if they were willing to accept some structural changes in their profession. In view of the conflicting evidence that seems to exist, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Education and Science to make a full statement to the House next week, setting out the exact position of the Government and the discretion which they are prepared to allow to employers in the hope of making some progress in terminating the current dispute?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the importance which the right hon. Gentleman attaches to the Bridge inquiry — I am sure that the whole House believes it to be important —and to the desirability of his findings being available before the Second Reading of the Bill. We shall keep an eye on that matter through the usual channels.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the strategic defence initiative last week, and I commented then. I cannot helpfully add to what I said, except to say that I am sure that this will be a matter of lively political debate, as he promises.

I am certain that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has made the Government's views on resources and restructuring clear. I know that there is a family interest in the matter, and I shall at once refer the point to my right hon. Friend and tell him that a statement has been requested.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

On Monday's debate on the Government's public expenditure White Paper, may I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the fact that the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, as a result of a great deal of hard work by the Clerks and a miracle of production by the printers, has managed to produce a report on that White Paper which is relevant to the debate and which is now available in the Vote Office?

Mr. Biffen

I am happy to take the opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work to which my right hon. Friend refers, and, of course, the report will be made available for the debate on Monday.

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

Does the Leader of the House recall that the Government have rigged the committees on the social security review and packed them with Conservative supporters? Many hon. Members wish to see the reports of those committees, but we now find that they are not to be published. Will the Leader of the House arrange for full publication of those reports?

Mr. Biffen

I shall draw that point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that as we have plenty of legislation to keep us going there will be no harm in postponing the Interception of Communications Bill either until later in this Session or until next Session?

Mr. Biffen

As ever from my hon. Friend, that was a constructive suggestion.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

The Leader of the House will remember that at business questions last week my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pressed for a debate on the report by the Commission for Racial Equality which has been criticised by the Minister of State, Home Office who took part in Home Office questions today? What news does the right hon. Gentleman have on that debate?

Mr. Biffen

The immediate news is that it does not feature in next week's business, but I shall continue to bear in mind what has been said.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

In view of the importance of what was published in The Times today about an alleged new danger in fluoridation, does my right hon. Friend think that it would be sensible to withdraw the Water (Fluoridation) Bill temporarily to allow a period for mature reflection to enable the DHSS to come up with the answer?

Mr. Biffen

I know that some of my hon. Friends are determined to make parliamentary history and I shall have to observe their efforts. I am sure that the report in The Times will feature in our discussions on Tuesday.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the proposals made on 17 December by the Prime Minister to remove 234,000 teenagers from receiving supplementary benefit and of the answer that the Prime Minister gave during Prime Minister's Question Time last week that the youth training scheme was a good scheme and useful for young people? In the light of that and of the fact that more than 5,000 unemployed teenagers are lobbying the House this afternoon, will he arrange for the Prime Minister to make a statement showing why, if YTS is such a good scheme, she feels the need for the industrial conscription of 500,000 youngsters by denying them the right to supplementary benefit?

Mr. Biffen

The best reply that I can give to the hon. Gentleman is that during Employment Question Time next Tuesday he will have the opportunity to take his arguments further.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

As my right hon. Friend is a former Secretary of State for Trade, will he consider carefully the possibility of a debate soon on whether the multi-fibre arrangement should be extended because many of my hon. Friends are far from happy at the tenor of Ministers' replies yesterday?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of the importance of the multi-fibre arrangement and I shall bear in mind the point that my hon. Friend makes. He will realise that there is always pressure on time available for debates, but he touches upon an important arrangement affecting an important industry.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

On the Interception of Communications Bill, and in view of the developments over the past few days on the "20:20 Vision" programme, does the Leader of the House recognise that the subject of bugging is equally as important as that of telephone tapping but that it is not contained within the Bill's long title? Will he consider taking back the Bill to ensure that that aspect of interception is included, or at least acknowledge that it would be suitable to have a wide-ranging debate on Second Reading?

Mr. Biffen

It is not for me to anticipate the rulings of the Chair, but I think that the points that the hon. Gentleman seeks to make would probably be within the bounds of a Second Reading debate.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-west)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 396?

[That this House condemns the decision of the Inland Revenue to tax postmen on the assumption that they earn £150 yearly in tips when there is absolutely no evidence to support that assumption; and urges the Chancellor of the Exchequer to instruct the Inland Revenue to rescind that decision.]

Does he agree that it would be grossly unfair if postmen and milkmen were made to pay tax on their tips and gratuities? Will he ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement as soon as possible?

Mr. Biffen

This is an echo of the old argument that there used to be about Easter offerings. We are so near to the Budget and all that flows from it that my hon. Friend will probably be able to make his point then.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

In view of the report in The Times today that Ministers have said that they do not wish a prosecution to be brought under section 2 of the Official Secrets Act against Cathy Massiter, will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on section 2, which seems to get in a deeper mess with every week that passes? Will he arrange for Ministers to make statements to the House about their comments on a matter that we were told only two weeks ago was entirely for the Law Officers? What has changed—is the whole Cabinet now back from holiday?

Mr. Biffen

That is a matter for the Law Officers. The hon. Gentleman will find that he will be able to make the first point during the Second Reading debate on the Interception of Communications Bill.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

In view of the fact that nearly 500,000 people are employed in the knitwear and textile industries in Britain and that their jobs are largely dependent upon the multi-fibre arrangement, which comes to an end next year, will my right hon. Friend look upon this matter with much more urgency? Will he arrange for an early debate so that we can come to a decision about the negotiations that are necessary for the continuation of the MFA?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what my hon. Friend says. I know that he has a substantial constituency interest in the matter. I think that I gave a measured reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham), and I should like to let the matter rest there.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

In view of the critical decisions taken by the National Theatre of Britain in terms of cutting down its activities because of the inadequacy of the Government grant, when will the House have an opportunity to discuss this important matter, not at the fag end of a tired day in an Adjournment Debate but in a full sitting of the House?

Mr. Biffen

I have no immediate plans, but I have a lively respect for the artistic lobby in the House. I have no doubt that it will find opportunities to ensure that the matter is debated.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

With regard to the Interception of Communications Bill which we are due to debate next week, was my right hon. Friend as surprised as I was to hear the business of the House announced on Radio 4 this morning? Will he make representations to the BBC to the effect that the House should hear its business first? May we shortly have a debate on the BBC and the licence fee?

Mr. Biffen

I agree profoundly with those sentiments. I am never surprised at the BBC.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

In view of the fact that the British information technology industry has recently been described by the National Economic Development Office as being in a serious crisis, and bearing in mind that the industry in the United Kingdom is slipping behind not only the Japanese and the Americans but the French and the Germans, will the Leader of the House, with a sense of priority, find time to have a debate on this important matter, and in particular on the reports that have been produced by NEDO?

Mr. Biffen

Inasmuch as the hon. Gentleman"s political philosophy suggests to him that public expenditure is the means of promoting these industries, he could take advantage of Monday's debate.

Mr. Randall


Mr. Biffen

I am sorry that what was meant to be a constructive suggestion should be cast aside. I can offer no early prospect of a debate on this industry in Government time, but as we are approaching the season of the Budget I am certain that the hon. Gentleman will have plenty of opportunities to make his points.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that the United States Government will be spending about $26,000 million in the next five years on a strategic defence initiative. Many research contracts could be available to the United Kingdom. Is it not time to have a debate on this far-reaching research programme? Although I do not normally approve of what the Leader of the Opposition says, I think that there is a strong opinion in the House for such a debate.

Mr. Biffen

A coalition of my hon. Friend and the Leader of the Opposition is a formidable proposition which reminds me of what will be increasing pressure to have a debate on this subject, but there is no immediate provision for one.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

May I reinforce what others have said, that it would be intolerable to reach Wednesday and debate the Second Reading of the Interception of Communications Bill without having had a ministerial statement, if not Lord Bridge's report, beforehand? In view of the interdisciplinary nature of the Food and Environment Protection Bill, will the Leader of the House consider referring the Bill, after Second Reading, to a Special Standing Committee so that taking evidence from outside witnesses can be considered?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will have noted the tone of my reply to the Leader of the Opposition and I hope that he will have been encouraged by it. I do not think that the Food and Environment Protection Bill would be appropriate for the Special Standing Committee route, not least because it has already received considerable consideration in another place before coming here.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the wisdom of curtailing Foreign Office questions to 3.10 pm on Wednesdays, as the great majority of the House would much rather that European questions be merged back with Foreign Affairs questions?

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says and believe that he echoes a widely held view. There is now virtual agreement on the matter and I hope that changes can take place quite soon.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of a document entitled "Sleeping out in London" which says that conditions in hostels for homeless people are so bad because of lice, danger of physical and sexual assault and bad hygiene conditions that many people prefer to sleep in the streets? Is he also further aware that the Government's proposals for cutting supplementary benefit for those living in bed-and-breakfast hostels has received an unprecedented 520 submissions to the Social Services Advisory Committee? In view of the growing public and political anxiety about the plight of the homeless, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an early debate in Government time on this subject?

Mr. Biffen

I have no plans for such a debate next week and I do not travel that hopefully for a debate in the medium future. As the matter concerns the budget of the DHSS, the hon. Gentleman might well make his arguments on Monday.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he is greatly admired on this side of the House for his support of just and fair issues? Would he care to earn even more of our esteem by providing an early opportunity for a debate on alternatives to the present iniquitous system of rating?

Mr. Biffen

This course has been run so many times that the hoof marks are embedded. My hon. Friend might like to bear in mind Question Time on Wednesday when the Department of the Environment could be exposed to his scepticism on these affairs.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 421 concerning the campaign of the Transport and General Workers Union on low pay, which has been signed by more than 90 hon. Members?

[That this House notes that the European Social Charter considers 68 per cent. of average earnings to be fair remuneration for men and women to be able to enjoy a decent standard of living; notes that Her Majesty's Government have completely failed to take any appropriate measures to alleviate low pay but have, in the interests of market-place ideology, withdrawn a number of legal safety nets for the low paid, and are now threatening wages councils; notes that the Government have also introduced schemes, such as the young workers scheme, to drive down low wages even further; notes also that the Government concentrates its attack on the wages of the low paid, in a determination to reduce our poorest workers to absolute poverty or the dole queue, while allowing the highest paid in the land to enjoy greater and greater increases and top-hat fringe benefits without restriction; and calls upon the Government to abandon the politics of the workhouse and sweatshop and take urgent measures to ensure that every full-time worker enjoys a living wage of at least £100 per week, in line with the Transport and General Workers Union's Living Wage Campaign.]

May we have an early debate on this important subject or at least a statement from the Secretary of State for Employment?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises a lively and contentious issue. I shall draw his request for a statement to the attention of my right Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend having any success in the aim to reduce the amount of business which is still coming before the House next week and, as far as we can see, will come before us for many weeks which, I am told, is inclined to exhaust Ministers and to make other hon. Members somewhat restive?

Mr. Biffen

I hope that that is not a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

The Leader of the House represents all Members, and many right hon. and hon. Members from all parties are indebted to Westminster hospital for health services. Is the Leader of the House aware that, on 11 March, the regional health authority will have to make a decision about stopping cardiac surgery at Westminster hospital? Because that decision is so imminent, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Secretary of State for Social Services to make a statement so that we may question whether closure is in the best interests of people with heart problems?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly comply with that request.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As we are to have a debate on public expenditure on Monday, and as the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said earlier this week that if we surrender control over the public purse we surrender our sovereignty, could my right hon. Friend have produced for hon. Members a short and intelligible document setting out how the European Community is entitled to funds from the United Kingdom and how it can supplement those funds and what authorisation the House would require to let the Community have those extra funds? I am sure that my right hon. Friend would not wish the sovereignty of this House to be surrendered through ignorance or sleight of hand.

Mr. Biffen

Being asked to provide anything short or intelligible on the finances of the European Community is a challenging proposition. Nevertheless, I shall refer my hon. Friend's request to the Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and we shall have to see what happens.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Will the right hon. Gentleman seriously reconsider taking the Interception of Communications Bill on Wednesday, not least because of what happened in the Chamber earlier today? Nothing less than a statement from the Home Secretary was curiously drafted into a question on the policing of the miners' dispute. The right hon. Gentleman told my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that he is prepared to keep his eye on the matter. That is precisely why we should like the Bill's Second Reading to be delayed—we want to find out from the inquiry whose eye is on what.

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I think that I had better leave my reply as it was in response to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Following the announcement in The Times on Monday that the House is sitting later and more regularly, what suggestions is my right hon. Friend putting forward, knowing that he is arranging for an inquiry?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that my hon. Friend should be too gullible when he reads The Times.

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

Is not the Leader of the House abusing our procedures in suggesting how we should use proceedings on the Interception of Communications Bill? Can he not see that there is a distinction between the Bill and its consideration and dealing with the allegations made on a television programme? Is he aware that it is impossible for hon. Members to take an objective view on phone tapping before the Bridge report has been presented to the House? Why does he not reconsider? It is not fair to the House for him to say that he will leave his answer at what he said to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition? He must give us the answer. Parliament requires that its questions be responded to fully.

Mr. Biffen

I am simply not prepared to go any further with the hon. Gentleman than I went with the Leader of the Opposition. I think that that is a reasonable sense of priorities.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

Has my right hon. Friend noted that no fewer than 100 hon. Members have expressed their support for early-day motion 326 on the reform of student unions?

[That this House, recognising that all students are currently compelled to join a students' union and that since the majority of such unions are affiliated to the National Union of Students most students are in practice compelled to belong to two closed shops, and noting that students' unions and the National Union of Students consume some £40 million of taxpayers' money, calls upon the Government to take steps to give individual students a free choice as to whether to belong to student organisations and while continuing to give financial support to the provision of sporting and recreational facilities to prohibit the use of taxpayers' money for political purposes, including the payment of affiliation fees to the National Union of Students.]

Is he further aware that some interesting and encouraging amendments have been tabled by Opposition Members? Does he agree that this provides an excellent basis for debating conscript membership of student unions and the abuse of taxpayers' money used for political purposes by those unions? Will he arrange for an early debate on these matters?

Mr. Biffen

Alas, I must disappoint my hon. Friend, as I do not think that I am able to arrange for a debate in Government time, but this is the type of lively debate which might well distinguish private Members' time.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does the Leader of the House accept responsibility for two matters? First, we are told that no prosecutions will take place arising from the television film, but there has been no statement from the Attorney-General. Secondly, why was no statement made by the Prime Minister today on the inquiry to be carried out by Lord Bridge? Is the Leader of the House aware that, on those two matters, there has been a serious abuse of the House of Commons for which he should take due responsibility? Although those matters may not give rise to genuine points of order that we can raise with Mr. Speaker, they concern us deeply, and, presumably, the right hon. Gentleman has some responsibility for them.

Mr. Biffen

Yes, and I am sensitive to the interest that there is in the Interception of Communications Bill. The decision of the Attorney-General on the "20:20 Vision" programme is entirely a matter for him and I have no comment on that. Information was made available today by the Home Secretary. The Leader of the Opposition has made representations to me about the desirability of having the Bridge report before Second Reading, and I responded to that in, I thought, a forthcoming fashion.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the United States budget deficit is not only massive in scale but largely out of control with more than half being unmonitored by the American congress? While the size of the budget deficit is not directly the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government, it has a massive impact upon our economy and currency. May we have a proper debate on that?

Mr. Biffen

We are coming to the Budget with everything that happens thereafter, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will have plenty of opportunities to contribute to those economic debates.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Will my right hon. Friend explain the logic of Tuesday's business? In the first part the House will be asked to approve a Sensible measure which seeks to control the amount of poisons being foisted upon the people of this nation, and yet after 10 o'clock we shall be asked to support, or the Government are trying to persuade us to support, a measure which seeks to foist a poison on the people of this nation. Will my right hon. Friend accept that, if one takes away from the Division lists of this past week the right hon. and hon. Members who have supported that measure and notes that they are either on the payroll or seeking to get on the payroll, there is no support whatever for that measure in the free vote of free men in the House of Commons?

Mr. Biffen

Whatever the raw arithmetic, there is a qualitative difference between the two divisions.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has now seen ht to extend his original list of 30 selected drugs to about 100? Will the House have an opportunity to debate that list and the thinking behind it before it is introduced on 1 April?

Mr. Biffen

It is my understanding that these proposals will eventually be contained in regulations which must be confirmed by the House.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to be made on Government policy towards the future level of profits and investment in the important pharmaceutical industry?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly draw that request to the attention of my right hon. Friend who is a sponsoring Minister of the pharmaceutical industry.

Mr. Keith Best (Ynys Môn)

How many days has my right hon. Friend set aside in future for the passage of the Water (Fluoridation) Bill?

Mr. Biffen

We are still taking bets on that issue.