HC Deb 10 January 1985 vol 70 cc908-14 3.41 pm
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he will state the business for next week?

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

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 14 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Trustee Savings Banks Bill and of the Water (Fluoridation) Bill.

Remaining stages of the National Heritage (Scotland) Bill.

TUESDAY 15 JANUARY—Opposition Day (5th Allotted Day). A debate on an Opposition motion on the reduction of unemployment through public investment.

Motion on the Food Imitation (Safety) Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 16 JANUARY — Motions on the Rate Support Grant Supplementary Report (England) (No. 2) 1984–85, (No. 3) 1983–84, and on the Rate Support Grant Report (England) 1985–86.

Motion on the Welsh Rate Support Grant Report 1985–86.

Motions on the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order and on the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order.

THURSDAY 17 JANUARY—There will be a debate on a Government motion on regional policy.

Motions on the Assisted Areas Order, the Regional Development Grant (Qualifying Activities) Order and on the Regional Development Grant (Prescribed Percentage, Amount of Limit) Order.

FRIDAY 18 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 21 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Hong Kong Bill.

Mr. Hattersley

The Leader of the House will recall the Opposition's hope that the House would soon debate in Government time the threatened post office closure programme. Will such a debate be arranged?

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman will also recall that we are anxiously awaiting an opportunity to debate the Government's Green Paper on long-term public expenditure options. May I once more repeat the request that that debate is held sufficiently early to enable the Chancellor of the Exchequer to take part in it before the Budget?

Thirdly, there have been great expectations that a statement would be made this week on the privatisation of British Airways. When will that statement be made?

Finally, could the Leader of the House find some time next week to remind the Prime Minister that when I made the speech that she so flatteringly quoted unemployment in Britain was rather more than 2 million less than it is today?

Mr. Biffen

I am flattered that I should be required to go in to bat for the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) in respect of his last point, but of course I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to his observation.

I am not aware of any plans for a statement to be made next week on the privatisation of British Airways, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to the right hon. Gentleman's interest.

It might be helpful to the House if we were to await the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee which is now considering long-term public expenditure before we debated that.

I have looked at the matter of Post Office closures. Clearly it is a topic of great interest to the House. None the less, it falls very much within the remit of the Post Office and I can offer no Government time for a debate on the topic. However, I have no doubt that it will fall within the designation of public investment to which the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will be drawing the attention of the House on Tuesday.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the growing public concern about the commercial exploitation of surrogate motherhood. He will also be aware that the Warnock committee made a strong recommendation that there should be early legislation and that that was echoed when the House debated the matter before Christmas. May we expect an early statement of the Government's intentions about laying legislation this Session?

Mr. Biffen

I very much endorse what my right hon. Friend says about the importance of this topic. The matter is now under consideration and I shall draw the points he makes to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

In view of the method, which is controversial from a constitutional point of view, being adopted by the Government to secure approval for an additional payment to the European Economic Community, may we be assured that there will be full opportunity for debate not only of the Estimate but of the authorising statute?

Mr. Biffen

I shall give further consideration to that point.

Mr. Fred Silvester (Manchester, Withington)

Will the expected debate on Stansted take place before 31 January, and is there any truth in the rumour that it will be spread over two days?

Mr. Biffen

I would not wish to tie myself either to specific dates or to rumours. My hon. Friend clearly speaks for many, however, when he underlines the importance of having an early debate.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his previous comments on the closure of post offices—bearing in mind that their closure has much wider concern than exists within the remit of the post office itself—and find time, possibly on a motion for the Adjournment of the House, to debate the subject?

Is there any possibility of debating at an early date the question of penalising strikers in relation to housing benefit, a matter which is raised in early-day motion 247, which is in the form of a prayer and which stands in the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends?

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Housing Benefits Amendment (No. 4) Regulations 1984 (S.I., 1984, No. 1965), dated 17th December 1984, a copy of which was laid before this House on 18th December, be annulled.]

Will there be the possibility of an early debate on matters pertaining particularly to youth? I understand that the right hon. Gentleman received sympathetically an all-party delegation recently in connection with International Youth Year. Is there any likelihood of a debate on matters which are of particular concern to younger members of the community?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the importance of the whole issue of the future of the post office structure, but I can go no further than I went in my reply to the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley).

I regret that I cannot offer the hon. Gentleman the prospect of Government time to debate the other two matters he raised, but as an experienced parliamentarian he will be aware that there are other opportunities that he can pursue.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

Is there likely to be a statement next week about the need for an RAF trainer replacement aircraft? Recently there was a short list of two which did not include Firecracker. There is considerable uncertainty, and I understand that the short list has been extended to include Firecracker. Is my right hon. Friend aware that many thousands of jobs in the east midlands depend on Firecracker being selected and that the sooner there is a statement the better?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the serious constituency factors which are involved for my hon. Friend. I shall draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Defence to the points he makes and to the desirability of an early statement.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that a fourth group of academic accountants and economists has now challenged the accounting arrangements of the National Coal Board and that in response the NCB has appointed independent accountants to assess the board's accounting techniques? In the light of those facts, is it not time that the House was given an opportunity to debate this highly important matter, particularly as many of us believe that the solution to the dispute lies in our understanding, and the Government having a further appreciation of, what changes can be made?

Mr. Biffen

There seem to be as many interpretations of the finances of the NCB as there are accountants to take part in this practice. There is no time available next week for the Government to promote a debate on this topic, but undoubtedly there are many other opportunities open to hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman, and I have no doubt that they will take advantage of them.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

Returning to the issue of a debate on Stansted and terminal 5 at Heathrow, as we now know that the next sitting of the Standing Committee on the Civil Aviation Bill is scheduled for 12 February, is it not a fair assumption that any debate on Stansted and terminal 5 should desirably take place before then?

Mr. Biffen

I am ever anxious to be helpful to the House on this matter because I know that the House is trying to be helpful to me. However, I cannot go any further than what I have already said on the subject, and that was intended to be helpful.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the widespread concern about the tremendous difficulties faced by pensioners and others on limited incomes in trying to keep their homes warm in the present cold spell? Why has no Minister come to the Dispatch Box this week, nor shown any willingness to do so next week, to make a statement on this matter? Does this demonstrate the Government's indiffernece to such suffering?

Mr. Biffen

Politicians are becoming thin on arguments when they have to engage in spurious accusations of comparative morality and compassion.

Mr. Winnick

The right hon. Gentleman does not have any trouble.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is as well provided as I am. I shall draw his anxiety to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the interest of hon. Members on both sides of the House in the Prime Minister's recent and successful tour of the world and its consequential negotiations. When may we expect either a statement or a debate on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot hold out hope of a statement, but I shall bear in mind that at some point there will be a natural occasion for a debate on foreign affairs. The Second Reading debate on the Hong Kong Bill will enable the House to express a view on the matter.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

When the Leader of the House considers the method of payment to the EEC for the supplementary budget for 1984, as he intimated to the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) that he would, will he bear in mind the background to this matter? Would it not be singularly unfortunate if, in addition to a debate on the Supplementary Estimate itself, there was not an opportunity — not necessariy all night — to debate the Second Reading of the appropriate special Consolidated Bill?

Mr. Biffen

That is taking the matter considerably wider than is necessary — the hon. Gentleman's smile confirms that.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Biffen

I am sorry; perhaps the hon. Gentleman never smiles. I shall take account of what he has said.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

May I urge my right hon. Friend to reconsider his answer about a debate on post office closures? I draw to his attention the fact that just before Christmas it was announced that two sub-post offices in my constituency were to close, a decision that will cause enormous hardship and suffering if it goes through. Should not this be challenged on the Floor of the House in a debate on the subject, and not left to someone who may be fortunate enough to squeeze the matter in during a debate on public expenditure?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes a powerful constituency point, and it would be appropriate if he were to seek his good fortune in an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at Croydon coroner's court this morning the coroner recorded an open verdict on the death of Peter Nadin on the Greek island of Mikonos last summer? In view of that, should not the Foreign Office be pursuing the Greek Government with great vigour to ensure that we get a full report of the circumstances surrounding the death of this person outside a police station on that island? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement to the House?

Mr. Biffen

I was not aware of the decision of the coroner's court, but I shall represent to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary the points that have been made.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As the subject of chemical weapons has been raised, will my right Friend take account of the fact that many Conservative Members feel that it is almost close to negligence that, whereas the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact forces handle and train regularly with these ghastly weapons, our forces have no experience of them and, therefore, in the event of hostilities, they would be far more likely to be used than if there were a more balanced position?

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says. I am afraid that I can be no more forthcoming than to say that there will be no opportunity for a debate on chemical weapons in Government time next week.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

How does the Leader of the House respond to the complaint of Mr. Justice James McClelland, the chairman of the Australian Royal Commission investigating the events during the 1950s at Maralinga in Western Australia, that the British Government have stymied the work of the Royal Commission and that he has to carry out the inquiry with his hands tied behind his back? Is it not outrageous that a Royal Commission should meet in this country to investigate the problems of Australian ex-service men when such a right is not afforded to our own ex-service men?

Mr. Biffen

There is a wide range of parliamentary opportunities for raising points such as that.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend go a little further than he did in responding to my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) about surrogate motherhood? I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of public disgust at surrogate motherhood for gain and the intense wish throughout the country for early legislation to prevent such action in the future. Will my right hon. Friend be more forthcoming about when we shall have such legislation?

Mr. Biffen

If I were able to be more forthcoming, I should have "forthcomed". There is, of course, appreciation of the great public interest in this matter. It is now under consideration, and as soon as a Minister can appropriately come to the House to make a further statement that will be done.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the article written by five academic accountants which was suppressed from the magazine Accountancy in December last year has now been published with little change, although there has been consultation with the National Coal Board? The Leader of the House said to my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) that the Government cannot find time for a debate on the accountants' report or other reports and the present coal mining dispute. Will he ask the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement on this issue which is the fundamental cause of the present coal mining dispute?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure that I would accept the hon. Gentleman's conclusion, but as he has made this request I shall gladly accede to it and convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy the anxieties that have been expressed that a statement should be made on the NCB's methods of accounting.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

In view of the Opposition requests for a debate on the coal strike and on heating costs, does my right hon. Friend agree that, if Opposition time were used for a debate on the coal strike, the House would be given a chance to explore how the strike is not only destroying jobs outside, and ultimately inside, the coal industry but unnecessarily increasing heating costs?

Mr. Biffen

That is perfectly true, but, alas, we shall not have that opportunity next week.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, if we had managed to obtain a statement on the NCB's accounting procedures, we might have been able to raise the question of the strange accounting procedures criteria that are acceptable to the Government when dealing with banks? Will the right hon. Gentleman explain or call upon any other Minister to explain why those banks whose reserves are exhausted, which are uneconomic units of production and have crooks running them are able to get a nod and a wink from the Government to save them and to receive more than £75 million from the Bank of England — the taxpayers' bank — to save them, yet, when—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Skinner

I am almost done.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is business questions. The hon. Member should be asking whether a debate can be held on these matters and not asking the Leader of the House to give a definitive answer.

Mr. Skinner

During such a statement or debate, the Minister could draw a comparison with the shabby treatment received by the miners when they called on the National Coal Board to adopt proper accounting procedures that would show that every pit in Britain was economic.

Mr. Biffen

I have a warm affection for the hon. Gentleman in the way in which he pursues diversionary tactics for a dying cause. That is precisely the position he is in. I can go no further than I have already gone on the question of the representations I shall make to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. I shall, of course, append the hon. Gentleman's voice to the voices of those hon. Members who have already spoken on the subject.