HC Deb 17 January 1985 vol 71 cc511-26 3.32 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

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 21 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Hong Kong Bill.
  • Motion on the District Electoral Areas (Northern Ireland) Order.
  • TUESDAY 22 JANUARY — Debate on the Supplementary Estimate for the budget of the European Communities.
  • Second Reading of the Education (Corporal Punishment) Bill.
  • WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY — Opposition Day (6th Allotted Day). Until about 7 o'clock there will be a debate on post office closures, on an Opposition motion.
  • Afterwards, motions on the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order, the Housing Support Grant (Variation) Order, and on the Housing Revenue Account Rate Fund Contribution Limits (Scotland) Order.
  • Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill.
  • Motion on financial assistance to Opposition parties.
  • THURSDAY 24 JANUARY — Motions on the Rate Support Grant (Scotland) Order and on the Rating of Industry (Scotland) Order.
  • FRIDAY 25 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.
  • MONDAY 28 JANUARY — Remaining stages of the Hong Kong Bill.

Mr. Kinnock

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for acceding to our request that the remaining stages of the Hong Kong Bill be taken on the Floor of the House.

When is it expected that the Government's expenditure White paper will be published? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that there is an early debate on that document?

We have been asking the Government for some time for a debate in their time on the threatened post office closure programme. As we have received no constructive reply, and as the matter is of great concern to rural and urban communities throughout the country, I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will note that we have decided to use our Opposition day to debate the matter next week.

Is the Leader of the House making arrangements to provide time in the House for the consideration of any legislation relating to surrogate parenthood? This is a matter of widespread interest on which a sign of the Government's attitude would be useful.

Mr. Biffen

On the last point, I acknowledge at once the very widespread interest aroused by the question of surrogate parenthood. The matter is still under very active consideration by the Government and the House will be informed of our decisions at the earliest possible moment.

In a sense of paternity, which I hope will not be misunderstood, I should say how much I appreciate the fact that we shall be able to have a debate on the post office issue in the terms that I have described with the cooperation of the Leader of the Opposition.

The expenditure White Paper will be published on 22 January and I very much hope that we can proceed to debate it in the normal manner.

Finally, I note the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the decision that the Hong Kong Bill should be debated on the Floor of the House. I am sure that a Bill of such significance deserves that treatment.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Can my right hon. Friend say when we are likely to have a full day's debate on foreign affairs?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly bear the request in mind, but no provision has been made for that next week. I would not wish to mislead my hon. Friend that it would be that early, but clearly it will be appropriate at some point.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

In view of the Prime Minister's reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) and as an Order in Council is not automatically debatable on the Floor of the House, will the Leader of the House give an assurance that there will be a full debate on any future changes in the constitution of the Falkland Islands? In particular, can he give an undertaking that there will be no loss of sovereignty of this House on the matter of our future relations with the democratic Government of Argentina?

Mr. Biffen

I thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered most comprehensively the points raised by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), but I will, of course, bear in mind the points that have just been made.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the position regarding the proposed constitutional changes for the Falkland Islands is highly unsatisfactory and causes anxiety among Conservative Members as well? Does he agree that it is quite wrong for changes such as the decision, apparently, to separate the administration of the Falklands from the South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia to be announced in the Falkland Islands without any reference to Parliament and then to be presented as a fait accompli in an Order in Council? Does he appreciate that that just will not do and will he arrange an early debate to discuss these measures?

Mr. Biffen

I am fully sensitive to the interest expressed by my hon. Friend. That is why I gave an answer of the character that I gave to the Leader of the Liberal party. Of course, these factors will be taken into account.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that tens of thousands of miners campaigning in defence of their communities have been denied social benefits for which they have paid during their working lives and are now quite unable to find the money to feed their families or keep them warm? Is he further aware that at no stage from the beginning of the dispute have the Government ever given their own time to account for themselves and that the decision to ban negotiations in the hope that cold and hunger will gain the Government a shallow political victory is vicious and utterly repugnant to the majority of people in this country?

Mr. Biffen

In my view, cold and hunger are the weapons seized upon not by the Government but rather by those people who have been promoting and sympathising with the strike. No time has been provided in the business that I have announced, but clearly it is open to the right hon. Gentleman and others who wish to prosecute these matters before Parliament to take such opportunities as are available.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the whole country will be grateful to our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for her decision with regard to the commemoration of the end of the last war? Following the intervention of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell), will the Government recall that if foreign countries are to be invited they should include not only Soviet Russia but Poland and other allies? Secondly, if there is to be a service either at Westminster abbey or at St. Paul's cathedral, will the Government do their best, in the most tactful way, to ensure that the Church does not let the nation down?

Mr. Biffen

There is only one safe and prudent reply that I can make: I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to the points so thoughtfully made.

Mr. Eric S. Heller (Liverpool, Walton)

Has the right hon. Gentleman had early-day motion 266 drawn to his attention—"Those without shelter"?

[That this House is deeply concerned at the plight of those people without shelter or a roof over their heads at night at this time of intense cold and severe winter conditions; and calls on the Government to take emergency steps, in consultation with local authorities, to ensure that warm shelter and beds are provided for those in need by the taking over of buildings together with other emergency action such as the use of underground railway stations, &c.]

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that thousands of people, in addition to our old-age pensioners, who are suffering because of the reduction in the heating allowance, have no shelter whatsoever? Are the Government prepared to allow tha appropriate Minister to come to the House, either tomorrow or on Monday, to state that the Government accept the motion and that they will take emergency steps to deal with the terrible problem of those who are without shelter? Secondly, responsibility for the continuation of the mining industry dispute rests with the Government. They should be prepared to try to settle the dispute at the earliest possible moment.

Mr. Biffen

On the first point made by the hon. Member, I shall draw his observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend for his decision on whether it would be appropriate for a statement to be made. On the second point of the hon. Member, I believe that the settlement concluded with NACODS provides a good framework for further discussions. One would welcome the clear and explicit commitment of the faction of the National Union of Mineworkers that is led by Mr. Scargill that they think likewise.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that with railway investment by the Government at an all-time high and with no outstanding claims for investment by British Rail awaiting decision by the Government, many of those, particularly in the railway industry, who have the best interests of the railway industry at heart are astounded by the action that is being taken by a handful of people without a ballot? The words used a moment ago by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) could be repeated to describe the action of these people. Is my right hon. Friend further aware that it was 10 years ago that I first mentioned the name of the man, Fullick, at Waterloo whose actions are totally deplored by ASLEF and NUM members throughout the rest of Southern region? Will my right hon. Friend therefore ask the Secretary' of State for Transport whether he will be prepared to make an early statement if there are further repercussions next week from this strike?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly pass on that request to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I agree with my hon. Friend that those who seek to make the British public pawns in their industrial dispute will at the end of the day reduce rather than enhance their prospects.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that it is not his intention to table business motions to curtail the time which would otherwise be available for debating the Supplementary' Estimate or the Consolidated Fund Bill?

Mr. Biffen

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. It might be for the convenience of the House to have a structured debate of three hours on this topic. I shall give to the House an opportunity so to decide.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

In the context of the view of all parties in the House that our membership of the European Community does not mean that the European Parliament should interfere in our domestic affairs, has my right hon. Friend seen the decision of the European Parliament to conduct an inquiry into the policing of the current mining dispute? Will my right hon. Friend find an opportunity for Ministers to make clear in the House the view of Her Majesty's Government and, I believe, of all parties that this is no business of the European Parliament and that if there is to be an inquiry it will be conducted here?

Mr. Biffen

I believe that there is a very simple message for the European assembly at Strasbourg: "Keep off the grass".

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventy, South-East)

Is the Leader of the House aware that in the present severe weather it is estimated that 700 pensioners, both today and every day, will die from hypothermia while during the last 10 months his Government have spent £5,000 million of the wealth of this country upon the prosecution of a mining strike, money which could have saved the lives of those pensioners? Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to come to the Dispatch Box in Government time to answer the charge that the deaths of those pensioners should be set against the prosecution by the Government of the strike?

Mr. Biffen

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman feels so distressed that the Government have not orchestrated a supine surrender to the demands of Mr. Scargill. That is precisely the reason for his discontent and the reason why I cannot take too seriously the claims that he is now making upon the time of the House next week.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Rather than wasting the time of the House next Tuesday with the Education (Corporal Punishment) Bill, which has little public support or support in the House, will my right hon. Friend instead arrange for us to discuss early-day motion 235 which deals with the deplorable attack on the leaders of the Jewish community by Mr. Ken Livingstone, which he has not yet withdrawn and for which he has not apologised?

[That this House takes note of the reported remarks of the Leader of the Greater London Council in an interview published in `Davar' weekend magazine on 30th November 1984, in which he is quoted as saying 'The Board of Deputies of British Jews has in recent years been taken over by Jews who hold extreme right wing views…Besides, the big problem of the Board of Deputies has always been their soft and slow response to all forms of racism in this country…After Begin' s emergence on to the political stage, suddenly the Jews became reactionaries, turned right nearly to be fascists. I realise that this is actually something that is occurring in many countries, not just Britain'; is horrified at this reported accusation by a prominent political figure of near fascism against the leaders of the Jewish community in Britain, whose distinguished President is a Labour Member of this House; and trusts that the Labour Party leaders will either ask Mr. Livingstone to apologise to the Jewish community or to explain if he believes himself to have been incorrectly reported.]

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the undoubted attraction for the House of debating the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend refers, but the Education (Corporal Punishment) Bill, which has been set down for debate on Tuesday, is an important piece of Government legislation which, I have to tell him, will be proceeded with.

Mr. Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen)

Will the Leader of the House acknowledge the damage and dangers for which the Government are responsible as a result of their intransigence over the mining dispute and their interference in legitimate negotiations between the National Coal Board and the NUM? Will he also acknowledge that to a hell of a lot of people in Britain the Government are acting in a criminally insane manner with their despotic attitude towards miners and their families? When will the Government face up to their responsibility and discuss in their time the dispute and their interference in the negotiations?

Mr. Biffen

If there are guilty men in this matter, pre-eminently the guilty man is Mr. Arthur Scargill, who has damaged his industry, divided his union and wrought industrial havoc. Time will not be provided next week for a debate on the matter. If Labour Members are so determined and anxious to represent their parliamentary support for Mr. Arthur Scargill, let them find the occasion.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

In view of the pace of change in the City of London and the shifts in ownership of leading members of the Stock Exchange, and in view of the absence from the Queen's Speech of any proposals to legislate on the basis of the Gower report, is it likely that time will be available for discussion of those important issues in the near future?

Mr. Biffen

I agree that those are important issues, but I regret that such are the pressures on Government time at the moment that it is not possible to feature them in the business for next week, or, I suspect, any time shortly thereafter. But I wish my hon. Friend every success in using his initiative in trying to bring the matter before the House.

Mr. Allen Adams (Paisley, North)

Is the Minister aware that last week Babcock Power Ltd. at Renfrew announced 500 redundancies at its factory? Will he give time for a debate in the House in the foreseeable future on the future of the fuel and power industry, not only in Scotland but in Britain as a whole? I am sure that he will appreciate that those highly specialised jobs, once lost, are difficult to regain. Will he make representations to or remonstrate with some of his right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government to bring forward replacement power stations and parts of power stations? Unless that is done within the next two or three years we shall lose a valuable and important industry which we shall have great difficulty in replacing once lost. Will he consider arranging a debate on the fuel and power industry within the next two or three weeks?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the serious problems that are raised for west Scotland and the hon. Gentleman's constituency by the redundancies to which he refers. I shall draw the attention of my relevant right hon. Friends to the importance that he attaches to increased investment in the power industries.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that it would be an error of judgment and entirely inappropriate for hon. Members to be Whipped on the Education (Corporal Punishment) Bill?

Mr. Biffen

Happily, those are arrangements which fall without my responsibility.

Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his previous answers and allow a debate in Government time on the dispute in the coal industry? The Government are fond of preaching democracy. Why do they not practice it and allow a debate in Government time on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

That matter is kept under constant review and no provision has been made for such a debate next week. I do not wish to mislead any Labour Member that it was a near-runner that did not quite make next week. If they are so anxious that the case for the faction of the mineworkers led by Mr. Scargill be further portrayed on the Floor of the House, they will have their opportunities.

Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

In view of the fact that the House has recently debated wildlife in Northern Ireland and scented erasers, will my right hon. Friend accept that the country finds it difficult to understand why time should not be allowed to debate the demise of the pound note? Will my right hon. Friend give time to debate the country's coinage, as this affects the life of every person in the country?

Mr. Biffen

I shall bear my hon. Friend's proposition in mind, but I should have thought that this was the sort of subject that my hon. Friend might be prepared to chance his luck with on an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Does the Leader of the House realise that the Department of the Environment failed to honour its commitment to respond to a consultative document on the disposal of radioactive waste? It failed to keep to its timetable of a reply in October and distracted attention from that failure by promising a statement by Christmas. Does the Leader of the House realise that it has failed to keep to that deadline as well? I get the impression that it will delay this as long as possible. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise how anxious my constituents are, and will he seek to allay that anxiety by pressing the Secretary of State for the Environment to make a statement soon?

Mr. Biffen

I realise the significance of this topic nationally and the great importance of it to the hon. Gentleman's costituency. I shall be in touch with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to see how speedily we can have that statement.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am always reluctant to curtail business questions, because they are a prime Back Bench opportunity. However, there is a very important debate to follow in which no fewer than 40 right hon. and hon. Members wish to take part. I shall allow questions to continue until 4 o'clock. and then we must finish.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport promised me as long ago as last Monday that he would consider asking the London Regional Transport authority to open underground stations for homeless people in London, and making similar arrangements in the rest of the country where there are not underground stations, for protection during this bitterly cold weather? So far, nothing has happened. Is my right hon. Friend aware that today a firm has given 2,000 blankets towards the protection of those people and that many individuals are sending in gifts? The Salvation Army is prepared to provide free of charge staff to supervise people at one station. Could this matter be looked at urgently today?

Mr. Biffen

I realise that this is a serious matter, and I shall do what I can to assist my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

In view of the massive law-breaking by private cleaning firms contracted to NHS hospitals—a fact that was exposed on BBC television last night—can the Leader of the House give an opportunity for the issue of privatisation in the NHS to be debated? Will he take immediate steps to ensure that this illegal practice of employing young people under school leaving age at murderously low rates of pay is ended forthwith, as this is a major scandal?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot promise the debating facility requested by the hon. Member, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to the serious points that she makes.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the debate next Tuesday on the EEC Supplementary Estimate is the one that will allow us to plug the gap between the EEC'S budget and required expenditure for last year? Will he also confirm what has already been stated, that the major request by the Government to the House to increase the level of resources of the EEC will not be brought before the House until the completion of the enlargement of the Community negotiations?

Mr. Biffen

The second point can be elaborated on in next week's debate. My hon. Friend's first point concerns the £190 million which was the separate Estimate that now lies on the Order Paper in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider his decision not to call an emergency debate on the mining dispute? I speak as Chairman of and on behalf of the Merseyside group of Labour Members, and I think that I speak for most, if not all, of my colleagues in demanding such a debate. Merseyside has lost nearly 100,000 jobs since 1979. All five Liverpool Labour hon. Members support the miners in their battle to save communities and jobs.

Mr. Biffen

That may be so. However, there is an alternative view of the dispute, which is that sound judgment and sense lie with the miners who are working rather than with those who are on strike.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 260, in my name, about the vile practice of commercial surrogate motherhood agencies?

[That this House deplores the introduction into this country of surrogate motherhood; hereby condemns such activities as unnatural and immoral; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Social Services to introduce immediate legislation to outlaw this unfortunate commercial practice in line with the Warnock Report recommendation.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that at least four other surrogate babies are liable to be born within the next six months? Will he therefore, as a matter of urgency, arrange for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to tell us when we may expect the legislation? As the Leader of the Opposition has also said, there is widespread concern throughout the country, cutting right across party lines.

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what my hon. Friend says, but I cannot add to the answer that I gave to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

The Leader of the House will recall that some weeks ago he undertook to consider the possibility of giving time for a discussion of the impact of the COCOM agreement before it came into effect. Has he reached any conclusions on the matter?

Mr. Biffen

No; but I will get in touch with the hon. Gentleman as soon as I can.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

While the House will realise that a business motion to suspend Standing Order No. 113 for the Consolidated Fund Bill debate on Wednesday may not be appropriate, does not the Leader of the House agree that a business motion in relation to the Supplementary Estimate, referred to in a previous answer, sets an unfortunate precedent? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House when that business motion will be debated?

Mr. Biffen

What is proposed is a reasonable device to enable the House to have a decent debate on the subject. It should appear on the Order Paper on Friday.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

As the Government are guilty of the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of Mr. David Hamilton and other NUM activists, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that there is an early debate about civil liberties in this country?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that in any debate that we may have on the mining dispute the points raised by the hon. Gentleman will be covered. The question whether there has been a case of wrongful imprisonment will doubtless be a matter of judgment, but I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Hugh Brown (Glasgow, Provan)

Will the right hon. Gentleman sympathetically consider any request to debate the Manpower Services Commission's proposals to close skillcentres? Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Employment makes no decision on the matter until we have debated the subject, including the Select Committee's report?

Mr. Biffen

I will pass on the hon. Gentleman's point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment.

Mr. Ernie Roberts (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

In view of the effect upon the pound and the economy of the mining strike caused by the Government, will the Government explain to the House why they are preventing proper negotiations from taking place between the National Coal Board and the miners? From time to time it is clearly stated in the press that the Prime Minister and the Government are responsible for holding up negotiations in the dispute.

Mr. Biffen

It is totally absurd to suggest that the Government are holding up any negotiations that might take place in the industry. If Mr. Scargill's faction within the NUM were to accept the basic principles of the NACODS agreement, further progress could be made.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

Notwithstanding the helpful meeting earlier today with the Minister for Social Security about the question of extra payments for fuel bills, has the right hon. Gentleman realised that the problems are extremely serious? Can we have a debate next week?

Secondly, last night, allegations were made in a BBC television programme that a certain cleaning company was employing 14-year-olds. May we be assured that full investigations will be carried out and that, if the allegations are proved, there will be prosecutions? May we also be assured that the Government will not be deflected from either investigation or prosecution simply because one Conservative Back Bencher has an involvement in the company?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman's last few words did not raise the level of this exchange. I am quite sure that those who are responsible for taking prosecutions in these matters will have regard to the appropriate facts. As to the wider issue, I do not think that I can go beyond what I said to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short).

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Is not the fundamental problem that confronts all of us at the moment the mining strike? Is it not a fact that the Government's intransigence and their refusal to discuss the issue is lengthening the struggle? It has now reached the point at which a group of honourable people are struggling mightily for their right to have a reasonable job, but the Government will not discuss the matter. Should we not have a major debate on the strike?

Mr. Biffen

What really grieves the hon. Gentleman is the fact that working miners are every day and every week enhancing their position relative to the striking miners. I have already said that there is no question of the Government standing in the way of the resumption of negotiations. As to a debate, that is a matter to be considered from time to time.

Mr. Benn

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you to protect those of us who represent the miners' wives and families who are now suffering great hardship? When they go back to work, some working miners are put on cleaning police cars, as happened at Brodsworth colliery. The strike has now gone on for nearly one year. There has not been one debate in Government time in which Ministers have justified their position and there has not been a full day debate since 31 July. Many of us have been to you, Mr. Speaker, to try to get private notice questions and applications under Standing Order No. 10, but you have been tied by the Standing Orders. I ask you to consider that it is quite unacceptable to right hon. and hon. Members, who represent people who are now suffering great hardship, that the House should debate Hong Kong and corporal punishment next week and ignore the plight of those whom we represent and upon whose work the prosperity of the people of Britain has rested for many years.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. The whole House accepts that I am not responsible for the organisation of business. The House will have heard what the Leader of the House has said—that there is an Opposition day virtually every week and that there are opportunities to discuss these issues. It is not a matter for me.

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for your protection of all Back Benchers? Like you, Mr. Speaker, I have been here for many years and I have heard many demands from Back Benchers for a debate. On many occasions, the Government have at least given some indication that they will seriously consider Back Benchers' proposals, and a debate has been forthcoming. Today we have heard numerous right hon. and hon. Members asking for a debate next week, but we have had absolutely no sign from the Government that they are even contemplating such a debate. It is historically the case that the Chair protects the rights of Back Benchers. The request for a debate comes not solely from hon. Members who represent mining areas, but many other areas. We are all worried about the dispute. We want a settlement and we want to know the Government's stance. We want an honourable settlement. Will you, Mr. Speaker, put pressure on the Government seriously to consider the idea of a debate next week on the miners' strike?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have already said that, in today's debate on regional policy, about 40 hon. Members wish to take part, so all of this takes time from them. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is right: I do try to protect the interests of Back Benchers. However, he knows that I am not responsible for the timetable and for what is discussed here. All I can do is to give Back Benchers an opportunity to ask questions, and that, I think the hon. Gentleman must accept, I have done today.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Although I have taken account of what you have just said, Mr. Speaker, there is another area in which you have some responsibility. You will have heard the Leader of the House say today that, as near as dammit, we should use Supply time to have a debate. You will appreciate that has already been done. You will also have heard on Tuesday that Labour Members are not alone in talking about the massive costs of the strike, as an ex-Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath)—said that, around the world, most people are telling him that the escalating cost of the miners' strike is having an effect on the pound. Now I put it to you, Mr. Speaker—this is the point—that if it is right for the Leader of the House to say that we should use a Supply day because only Labour Members are interested. I suggest to the Leader of the House, through you, that he should use Government time, because some of us want to hear in more precise detail what the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup had to say the other day.

On a further point of order, I have been to the Table Office. You are responsible for the Table Office, Mr. Speaker. We are having some difficulty because not only are the Government refusing to provide time for a debate —a matter over which you have very little control—

Mr. Speaker

I have none.

Mr. Skinner

No control, you say. That is a debatable point. In the Table Office, however, you have tremendous control. We are finding that it is blocking questions. For example, hon. Members have found that they cannot discover the estimated size of coal stocks after October, whereas previously we could. I want your help in that matter to enable us to table such questions.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Skinner

I have not quite finished.

Mr. Speaker

Order. By raising points of order of this type, the hon. Gentleman is merely taking time out of an important debate. Others are likely to suffer as a result. Perhaps other hon. Members will note that, because I do not think that I can help them—[Interruption.] I am in the hands of the House. If the House wishes to take up time, that is a matter for the House. I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's point of order. He says that questions are being blocked. If there is any question on which there is a query, that query is brought to my attention. None has been brought to my attention yet.

Mr. Skinner

That is why I am raising the matter now. I have been to the Table Office and—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman put his question to me succinctly? I shall then see what I can do.

Mr. Skinner

The questions are as follows. I want to know how much money has been spent on producing 1 tonne of coal during the strike—equivalent to £200 a tonne as opposed to £38 a tonne before the strike. I want the Government to tell me—they are refusing in the Table Office—whether they accept the point made by the stockbrokers that it is costing £86 million a week to finance this strike. That question is being refused. There are many other questions which affect the pound. I believe that the Table Office is blocking such questions because it is in cahoots with the Government. You, Mr. Speaker, being in charge of the House, have a responsibility to see to it that questions which are relevant to hon. Members, to miners and to all those people who are having to pay through the nose for the strike while watching the pound sink to the bottom of the Thames can be asked. Such people have a right to know the answers to those questions which the Government are not prepared to allow me to ask.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. It might be quicker if I took all the points of order at once.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you consider extending business questions today so that the Leader of the House might fully judge the weight of feeling on this side of the House about the important of discussing the need for negotiations to end the dispute? The Leader of the House is not a stupid man by any means, but he seems rather slow to take the point that many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that the dispute must end and that it can only end as a result of a negotiated settlement. The Government have a responsibility to make their view of such a negotiated settlement clear. They also have a responsibility to make ii clear whether they will take positive steps to achieve it. That should be in Government time, because you—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is being very unfair to the House. If there are any other hon. Members who are seeking to do the same thing, I should point out that they are being unfair to their colleagues if they take up time in what almost appears to be an operation and if they put questions to the Leader of the House through me. I cannot answer those questions. They are not a matter for me.

Mr. Terry Fields

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You always place great emphasis on the need to uphold the credibility of the House. But when people outside accuse the Government, and ultimately yourself and us, of crimes against humanity, we have a duty and responsibility—without in any way interfering in the negotiations—to discuss the strike. If the Government are frightened of doing so, perhaps you would intervene on our behalf to open up the issue so that we can have a fair discussion.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

We are in the midst of the most serious industrial dispute that the nation has witnessed for many years and the coldest weather that the country has experienced for more than 20 years. We are in the midst of an industrial dispute in which enormous questions have arisen about the way in which the law, including the Bail Act, has been operated, the behaviour and deployment of the police and the way in which many other matters arising from the dispute have been handled. For example, next week—

Mr. Speaker

Order. What is the point of order for me?

Mr. Madden

My point of order is that next week, for example, the Yorkshire power workers are considering whether to refuse oil supplies—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking a hypothetical question.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

I speak for the whole House when I ask whether it is not an abuse of the House for Opposition Back Benchers to cover up for their Front Bench's failure to hold a debate on this subject. The shadow Leader of the House is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench saying nothing. He should be the one—[Interruption.]

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I believe that this is an abuse of the House. I have made it plain that many hon. Members wish to take part in the subsequent debate, and I must say that in fairness to the whole House—I have a duty to be even handed—I am bound to have regard to the number of Opposition Members who are taking up time, and to give compensatory time in the subsequent debate to those who sit on the Government side. I shall so do.

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

Mr. Speaker, may I ask you a question that relates directly to an area for which you have specific responsibility? I refer to the fact that if an application were made under Standing Order No. 10, you could grant us time. In so far as the country has been hit during the past few days by some very cold weather, which to some extent—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot be held to be responsible for the cold weather.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

When an application is made under Standing Order No. 10, the hon. Member has to rise to his feet and point out why the debate should take place. He has to stress three principles, one of which concerns the urgency of the matter. Given the statement made the other day by a former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), to the effect that sterling was falling because of the Government's failure to intervene, that we are facing cold weather and that the drop in coal stocks may have some effect, there should be a debate on the strike. As the matter is urgent and arises from changing circumstances, you have the right to grant such a request. I am not asking you to go to the Leader of the House or to put any pressure on the Government, but rather to make a statement and decision yourself, as Speaker, and thus to protect our rights by allowing us that time for a debate.

Mr. Speaker

If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman could not have asked a more foolish question. He knows perfectly well the rules governing applications made under Standing Order No. 10. I have received no such applications today.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Can you, Mr. Speaker, give us some advice about business questions? Business questions have now effectively gone on for 15 minutes more than you intended. I do not want to take time from the later debate, but I and many other hon. Members are bothered because we have never had any Government time in which to debate the miners' strike. Many thousands of miners and their families are on strike in my constituency. Although the Opposition have given us several days, I have been denied the opportunity by the Government to stand up on behalf of my constituents in order to discuss what is happening to them. We should lengthen business questions today so that hon. Members can ensure that the Leader of the House finds Government time for a debate on this subject, in which we can represent those whom we were elected to represent.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has sometimes not been backward in criticising the number of hon. Members who have been called in a debate. If such questions continue, he will have every reason to criticise again today. I am afraid that he will only cause his own side to suffer.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

In the constitutional textbook that I was reading last night, it said that that was a major principle of the constitution that the House of Commons should discuss issues worrying the people. Today you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House appear to be saying that that is not so. Why?

Mr. Speaker

I said that I would take all the points of order together, but the hon. Gentleman has asked such a —I was going to say inadequate—question that I must deal with it at once. I say to the hon. Gentleman, and to those seeking to prolong what I think is an operation, that I am not responsible, as they know perfectly well, for the organisation of business. I am responsible for protecting Back Benchers' rights and interests, and that I have always sought to do, as I hope the House appreciates. But I repeat that such an operation merely takes time out of a very important debate to follow. More than 40 hon. Members have so far intimated their wish to speak in the debate on regional policy. Many of the issues being raised now could easily be raised in that debate. That being so, I propose to take one more point of order on this subject.

Mr. Flannery

Although I accept that there is a remote possibility that you, Mr. Speaker, are not responsible for the cold weather, will you not accept that voices are being raised about something that is even more important than the subsequent debate? We are asking you to do what you can to ensure that a full debate is held on the terrible question of the intractable problem of the miners' strike. Will you use your influence to try to ensure that there is a full-scale debate on that subject?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Of course, I have regard to the strong feelings held, but I am not responsible for the organisation of debates and I cannot do much about it. However, in calling hon. Members at Question Time and in debates I can give hon. Members an opportunity—I shall have regard to this later—to put their points of view. That is the way in which we do things in our democratic system. We do not seek to disrupt our procedures with points of order that appear to me to be an organised operation.

Mr. Heffer

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 10, for the purpose of discussing an important and specific matter that should have consideration, namely, the coal industry and the miners' dispute.

The matter is important because the entire country needs a statement from the Government giving the reasons why they are allowing the dispute to continue and trying to drive the miners back to work by starvation. The matter is urgent because of the extremely severe weather conditions and the effects of the dispute and the weather on the nation.

Thirdly, the matter is specific because the dispute relates to industrial action that the Government are deliberately allowing to continue.

The nation deserves an answer. It needs to hear the Government's case and the miners' case put by hon. Members in the House. The people should have an urgent debate to lay the basis for an early settlement of the dispute.

Mr. Speaker

I have allowed the hon. Gentleman to move an application under Standing Order No. 10 in the hope that it will enable us to proceed to the next business. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the rules governing Standing Order No. 10 lay down that a new development must have occurred and that notice should be given to me before 12 noon. The cold weather did not start just after 12 noon.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the only decision that I take on these matters is whether the Standing Order No. 10 application should take precedence over the business set down for the day. I listened carefully to what he said, but I regret that I do not consider the matter appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 10. I cannot, therefore, submit his application to the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not taking further points of order.

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