HC Deb 28 March 1985 vol 76 cc655-68 3.31 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 1 APRIL—Consideration of a timetable motion on the Transport Bill.

Motions relating to the Housing Benefits Amendment and on the Housing Benefits (Subsidy) Regulations.

Consideration of Lords Amendments to the National Heritage (Scotland) Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

TUESDAY 2 APRIL — Progress in Committee on the Interception of Communications Bill.

Motions on the Supplementary Benefit (Requirements and Resources) Miscellaneous Provisions Regulations and on the Supplementary Benefit (Resources) Amendment Regulations.

WEDNESDAY 3 APRIL —Further progress on remaining stages of the Interception of Communications Bill.

Motion on the Road Traffic (Type Approval) (Northern Ireland) Regulations.

THURSDAY 4 APRIL —The House will meet at 9.30 am, take Questions until 10.30 am, and adjourn at 3.30 pm until Monday 15 April.

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the Leader of the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why he has chosen Monday for the timetable motion on the latest monumental folly of the Secretary of State for Transport? Is he aware that on Tuesday people representing millions of bus users and workers will lobby Parliament? Could not the Government for once have had the decency to give those people a democratic opportunity to influence events before bringing down the guillotine on a Bill which has no friends among bus users, managers of enterprise or workers in the industry?

Why shall we debate the Interception of Communications Bill on two successive days? Given the importance and controversy of the measure, does not the Leader of the House think that it would be sensible to have a day or two in between the two days' consideration for proper reflection and consultation to enhance the debate that will take place?

On 14 March the right hon. Gentleman assured me that we could look forward to a foreign affairs debate in the near future. In view of the atrocious acts of the South African security forces during the past week, will he ensure that we have that debate directly after we return from the Easter Recess?

Finally, I understand that at 3.30 this afternoon the Government are publishing a White Paper on employment. It is the first time that such a document has been published in 40 years. Why have the Government not chosen to make a statement to the House on that White Paper? Does the right hon. Gentleman consider it, as I do, to be a dereliction of duty to the public and to Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps I may take the points made by the right hon. Gentleman in the sequence in which they were delivered. I believe that Monday is a good day to debate the timetable motion on the Transport Bill. The Bill has been in Committee for well over 80 hours and has made only modest progress. There is a real requirement on the House of Commons, as a working body, to take the matter further. Of course, I am sorry that it does not coincide with the outside representations that will be made, but I know that they will still be seriously considered by those hon. Members who are considering the legislation.

Secondly, I believe that the House is entitled to take two successive days to deal with the Committee stage of the Interception of Communications Bill. It is an important matter and we should try to make progress on it. Of course there are disadvantages in taking days in succession —I do not deny that—but there will be a gap before Report stage when matters can be considered—

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

The third day of the Committee stage.

Mr. Biffen

I hear what the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) says from a sedentary position. Those matters can be considered through the usual channels.

As to a foreign affairs debate, I recognise the importance of the subject, which has been underlined by the recent tragic events in South Africa. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall try to have a debate as soon after the Easter recess as can be arranged.

Finally, the White Paper on employment that is published today is an important statement of Government policy, but it follows a debate in the House within the past few days when the matter was dealt with exhaustively — [AN HON. MEMBER: "That was the Budget."] Anyone would think that the Budget was a book-keeping exercise—

Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

It is.

Mr. Biffen

The Budget concerns economic management on such a scale that the Opposition believed it important to ask the shadow spokesman on employment to take part in the debate.

Notwithstanding his somewhat partisan interpretation of my statement of next week's business, I wish to conclude by wishing the Leader of the Opposition a very happy birthday.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

Although I appreciate the world-shaking importance of some of the matters that my right hon. Friend has announced for next week, is he aware that many of us who have studied the American proposals for the strategic defence initiative and who have read the extraordinary speech by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the judgments arrived at by the Prime Minister, believe that it would be appropriate for the House to consider the strategic defence initiative before final decisions are made about it? Now that we have had an open invitation from the United States to take part —I hope that we will—should not Parliament have an opportunity to offer its judgment on the matter in the near future?

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says, and I give it due weight and significance, but I ask him to consider this in the light of the promised debate on foreign affairs.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

The Leader of the House will recall that repeatedly in recent years I have asked about the joint-venture, private steel-public steel Phoenix 2 programme, because one of its major components is the Tinsley park works in my constituency. Yet we learn today that that works will be closed. Does this not raise questions about the protracted length of the policy on joint venture programmes, which has undoubtedly cost Tinsley park investment and, therefore, modernisation; about this turn of events, which will enable the Treasury to swing costs onto the British Steel Corporation; about 1,100 jobs lost and the need for consultation between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Employment; and about the future of Sheffield and south Yorkshire, which have been devastated since 1979 as a result of policies such as the one that has been before the House for the past four years? Does the Leader of the House believe that those matters should be discussed by the House at the first opportunity after we return from the Easter recess?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. He has been a doughty fighter for his constituents' interests in this matter over a number of years. Clearly I have made no provision for the matter to be debated before the Easter recess, and I cannot hold out any hope of Government time thereafter. I shall take account of what the hon. Gentleman has said and will refer his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Will my right hon. Friend scrap some of the tedious debates on orders next week and give us instead a debate on the multi-fibre arrangement, in view of its great importance to the textile industries and the unsatisfactory answers given from the Government Front Bench yesterday?

Mr. Biffen

I can understand those who wish to argue the virtues of a debate on the MFA. The orders that my hon. Friend is seeking to displace are of great significance to many hon. Members. I shall bear in mind the importance of a debate on the MFA.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Judging from the Budget debate, many hon. Members on both sides of the House do not believe that the Government have a strategy for employment. Will the Leader of the House make this document available, as it is rather surprising not to have any statement from the Secretary of State? There is a queue outside waiting for the document to be released, and many in it are Conservative Members.

Mr. Biffen

I understand that the document has been released. I shall look into the matter.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the construction by the Soviet Union in Antarctica of no fewer than seven major camps, two of them with runways of 2 km and one with a runway of 3 km, and the conduct by the Russians of a major air shuttle from Minsk to Vostok in the Antarctic represents more than one would normally consider as peaceful geological survey? May we have a debate into this, which represents a possible serious military threat to the South Atlantic and the southern flank of NATO?

Mr. Biffen

This demonstrates one aspect of East-West relations that will feature in the debate on foreign affairs.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

I ask the Leader of the House once more about the possibility of a debate on the report by the Commission for Racial Equality on immigration procedures. In doing so, I remind the Leader of the House that it is likely that in May the European Court will be pronouncing on certain immigration cases, in all probability to the embarrassment of the Government. Would it not be as well for the right hon. Gentleman if we get the CRE report out of the way before the European Court pronounces?

Mr. Biffen

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has my interests so much at heart in making this request. I shall give further thought to it.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Has my right hon. Friend seen press reports today to the effect that 90 per cent. of the 12,000 animals imported into this country die en route, and are brought over in conditions that are inhumane and disgraceful? Could we have an early debate or statement on this important matter?

Mr. Biffen

In the light of what my hon. Friend has said, I shall draw the matter to the attention of my relevant right hon. Friends, because I suspect that the matter touches on more than one Department.

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the timetable motion on the Transport Bill on Monday will be looked on with horror by the transport authorities? This is a contentious measure, described by various Ministers as a leap in the dark or as an act of faith. We have already had a report from a Select Committee with a majority of Conservative Members containing strong objections to the Bill. Would it not be better to withdraw the Bill, rethink it and bring it back next session so that we can give it the scrutiny that it deserves?

Mr. Biffen

I may be giving a disappointing reply to the right hon. Gentleman, but he may have an oppportunity to make a speech on Monday putting those arguments and persuading the House to agree with him.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this morning a deputation of residents from the areas adjacent to Molesworth came to see my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) to express their anxiety about the disruption of their lives that is likely to take place at Easter through the actions of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament? As my right hon. Friend will know, many hon. Members have expressed their concern at the activities of CND. Would it be possible for us to have a debate before Easter so that the House can express its displeasure at the way in which CND has disrupted the lives of residents?

Mr. Biffen

I sympathise with the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I must confess that all Government time is bespoken.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that the repeal of section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act is a matter of great importance to a number of severely disabled service men and ex-service men, as expressed in early-day motion 561? Although the matter was raised in the debate on the Easter recess, there was, understandably, no ministerial statement. Please may we have one?

[That this House calls for the repeal of section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act, which provides total immunity against any legal action for negligence which results in the death or disability of a serviceman carrying out his day to day duties in peacetime; recognises that servicemen accept the risks in action, but believes that at all other times they should have the same rights as everyone else, including other public servants such as police and firemen; calls upon the Government to provide these basic rights for servicemen; and recommends that they should apply retrospectively, so that servicemen who are at present disabled through possible negligence are not excluded from such rights.]

Mr. Biffen

I shall refer to the Secretary of State for Defence the right hon. Member's point about the Easter recess debate and his question.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

Will my right hon. Friend find time before too long for a debate on road safety? The Select Committee on Transport recently produced a report which was received with considerable interest. It is time that the matter was discussed so that hon. Members on both sides may make their views known and the Government may come forward with their new thinking on this important topic.

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says and will draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. James Hamilton (Motherwell, North)

It has been widely reported that Scottish Tory Back Benchers are meeting the Prime Minister today to protest about the revaluation and its effects on commercial and domestic consumers in Scotland. May we be assured that a statement on the subject will be made to the House before the Easter recess, and before the Scottish Tory party conference takes place, because hon. Members are entitled to know the facts before they are made known to that conference?

Mr. Biffen

I would not wish to choose between two such distinguished bodies. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the matter was debated at some length on the Consolidated Fund Bill. However, I shall draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to the point that he makes.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of recent Select Committee leaks. Will he consider initiating a debate on, or conducting an inquiry into, the matter and particularly into leaks in connection with the Privileges Committee?

Mr. Biffen

The report of the Privileges Committee is now available in the Vote Office.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

The Leader of the House has referred his hon. Friends who asked questions about peace and disarmament to the forthcoming debate on foreign affairs. Is he aware that he cannot hide behind that strategy for much longer? He has used it on me on many occasions, suggesting questions to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the debate on the defence White Paper as suitable vehicles by which to raise questions about disarmament. Will he for once allocate a day to the discussion, not of foreign affairs or the defence White Paper but of peace and disarmament, an issue which is of crucial importance to the whole nation?

Mr. Biffen

I understand those who argue that the topics concerned with disarmament stand in their own right and merit debate in their own right. I have the task of trying to reconcile all the demands that are made with the time that is available. I have an obligation to point out that disarmament is a vital and integral part of the wider issue of foreign relationships.

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

As the Standing Committee on the Transport Bill in nearly five weeks has reached only clause 9 in considering a Bill with 100 clauses, is my right hon. Friend aware that the sooner a timely and generous timetable motion can be agreed, the better it will be for all concerned?

Mr. Biffen

I note my hon. Friend's remarks; I hope, therefore, that the business set down for Monday is acceptable, and perhaps he will be able to contribute to that debate.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As conflicting stories are circulating about the negotiations between the British and Irish Governments, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an urgent statement to be made? Is he aware that those such as myself, who hope that negotiations are taking place—one has the impression from Prime Minister's Question Time that the right hon. Gentleman knows rather more than what we were told by the right hon. Lady—feel that the House should be kept informed, in particular to avoid some of the rumours that are current?

Mr. Biffen

The subject of the Province is always redolent with rumours. I shall take note of what the hon. Gentleman says and draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to his remarks.

Mr. Robert McCrindle (Brentwood and Ongar)

As on Monday we shall, for the second time in a relatively short period, be debating a timetable motion, will my right hon. Friend tell us how he reacts to the suggestion which has often been made before — that one of the more efficient ways of conducting our business would be to introduce timetables on Second Reading?

Mr. Biffen

As we have a Select Committee on Procedure which is examining precisely that subject, I think that it would be courteous to await its report before passing public judgment.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

As the Government's supreme achievement in education has been single-handedly to unite the teaching profession for the first time—something which many Labour Members have been trying to do for years—will they realise that, with that unity, there will be a long struggle, to the detriment of children's education—a struggle which has been forced upon the teachers by the Government's wretched policies? Against the background of this serious situation in education, can we have a full-scale debate on the education programme and the struggle that the teachers are waging for a living wage?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says, but I cannot accept the premise on which he describes the present situation. I believe that a very fair offer has been made to the teaching profession. I shall of course refer the hon. Gentleman's comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time to allow the House to offer its advice to the Cabinet upon the proposal that the banks and the building societies should be able to carry out conveyancing for their customers and not only for themselves? Is he aware that many of my hon. Friends — I expect that many Opposition Members take the same view — find it difficult to understand how the conflicts of interest that are inherent in the proposal can possibly be resolved?

Mr. Biffen

I have no proposals before me as yet to provide Government time for such a debate, but I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Stan Crowther (Rotherham)

Is the Leader of the House aware that his non-committal answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) will be found unsatisfactory by the south Yorkshire steelworkers, whose jobs have been disappearing at a fantastic rate ever since the Government came to power? Does he understand that the terrible news this morning about the Tinsley park works is a direct product of the Government's disastrous industrial policy, which has reduced demand for engineering steels by nearly 40 per cent? Will he think again about the need for a debate on the steel industry in Government time in the near future?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has made a highly contentious interpretation of what has happened at Tinsley park. I think that I gave a fair answer to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), and by that I stand.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Before all football stadiums in the country are ripped up, before every woman has been raped, before every child has been battered and before all old people have been mugged, will my right hon. Friend care to find time in the not too distant future to enable the House to have a full debate on law and order, sentencing policy and all related matters?

Mr. Biffen

Just occasionally, powerful advocacy and even mild exaggeration win points in this place, but I do not think that I am encouraged by the terms in which my hon. Friend describes law and order in Britain. Of course, he has raised a matter of major concern in the House and among our constituents. However, whatever debates we have in this place must be related to some realistic reappraisal of what we can do to resolve the problems.

Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central)

My hon. Friends the Members for Sheffield, Attercliffe, (Mr. Duffy) and for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther) have referred to the closure of the Tinsley park works, where many of my constituents work. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his answers to their questions were totally unsatisfactory? Does he realise that in the centre of Sheffield there are unemployment levels in excess of 50 per cent. and that the blow to the south Yorkshire steel industry of the closure of the Tinsley park works will not be taken lightly? The closure is extremely important to Sheffield, south Yorkshire and the steel industry as a whole. If there is any enlargement of the United Kingdom's manufacturing base, we shall sorely need the engineering steels which the Tinsley park works can produce. The works have better European and world records than any other comparable plant in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate hon. Members' desire to express succinctly their deep distress at what happens to industries in their constituencies, but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, as I have said to the hon. Members for Rotherham (Mr. Crowther) and for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), that I shall report hon. Members' anxieties to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or Trade and Industry. I thought that that was a reasonably forthcoming response.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Two or three months ago, my right hon. Friend said that when the BBC licence fee was announced the House would have a chance to debate it. Will my right hon. Friend now give the House that time, because many hon. Members, and many more people outside the House, believe that it is a matter for discussion in the House?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that my hon. Friend will be disappointed, because the Opposition have prayed against the order increasing the licence fee, as my hon. Friend will see on today's Order Paper, and a debate will take place in due course.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Why is the right hon. Gentleman bringing forward so early the guillotine motion on the Transport Bill? Is it because the Government are afraid that old-age pensioners will see threats to their concessionary bus passes, that rural areas will see threats to their weekend and evening services and that the transport industry will see the chaos that the Bill will create, or is it because the Government do not want to suffer the embarrassment of being unable to maintain a quorum in Committee, because they cannot get 50 per cent. of Conservative Committee members to attend the Committee's meetings? Is that the reason for the guillotine?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman's engaging eloquence is one reason that might have deterred me from bringing forward the timetable proposals. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we have not been precipitate in bringing this measure before the House. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be convinced of that when he hears the arguments on Monday.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who have spent nearly 90 hours on the Transport Bill Standing Committee feel that the timetable motion is, if anything, overdue, bearing in mind that the Opposition spent 28 of the first 36 hours getting past clause 1 and that they have spoken for 80 per cent. of the total time? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the frustration of Government Back Benchers who want to make progress in examining the Bill properly?

Mr. Biffen

When I hear such battle veterans as my hon. Friend I realise what a rookie I am.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for the Environment to make a statement soon about the threat of Merseyside county council's police committee not to provide a budget for the police authority in the forthcoming financial year and about the suggestion that commissioners may be sent into Liverpool? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the position of the chief constable in Merseyside is undermined by constant calls from Labour councillors on the county council for his early retirement or resignation?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has outlined a most serious situation. I shall, of course, refer his remarks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Since it has been suggested that the working party on football hooliganism, which was set up by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, has reported and since many Government Members would like to have the opportunity to point out that the latest outbreak of football hooliganism and violence is the fault not of the football clubs or the police, but of some magistrates who have been too timid in their sentencing, would it be possible to have a debate on this specific and important matter after the recess?

Mr. Biffen

I can offer no hope of Government time to discuss that matter in the period immediately after Easter. I suggest that my hon. Friend should pursue his chances with such other opportunities as there are.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Now that we have the employment White Paper, to which the Leader of the House referred some time ago, could the reason why no statement accompanies it be the fact that, on page 20, the Government are yet again blaming the low paid for the unemployment level? Does the Leader of the House accept the fact that, since the Conservative party took office in 1979, wages to school leavers relative to adult wages have fallen by 8 per cent. for boys and by 12 per cent. for girls, yet youth unemployment has trebled? Young people's wages do not cause their unemployment.

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. He knows that this topic was available for debate in the recent past. I am certain that it will be a continuing feature of our debates in the months ahead, not least because we shall be taking the Finance Bill through the House. I would not wish to endorse any of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

Will my right hon. Friend find time in the not-too-distant future to hold a debate on the whole structure of world trade so that we can compare fair trade with free trade and examine the idea advanced by certain Opposition Members that we should be looking towards some form of import controls — which would, of course, damage third world countries?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate that this topic is of great importance and interest to the House. Alas, the Adjournment debate on Monday on overseas trade does not really present my hon. Friend with the opportunity that he seeks, but there is no immediate opportunity for a debate on the matter. Nevertheless, I would remind my hon. Friend at least that I answered encouragingly the request for a debate on the multi-fibre arrangement.

Mr. Robert Litherland (Manchester, Central)

On page 27 of "Employment: The Challenge for the Nation" we read: Since 1979 the long-term decline in Britain's economic performance has been halted and reversed, under the guidance and stimulus of clear and resolute Government policies. If this is not a misprint or a distortion of the truth, is it not worthy of a statement or a debate?

Mr. Biffen

No. It is just an example of extreme political moderation.

Mr. Tim Yeo (Suffolk, South)

In view of the very important contribution that small businesses make to the creation of new jobs in this country, will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate on this topic rather than leaving it to be covered as a peripheral adjunct within the context of other economic and industrial debates?

Mr. Biffen

Given again all the pressures on the time available to the House, I think my hon. Friend will find that there will be ample opportunity for this topic to be considered within the ambit of the Finance Bill, particularly if he is prepared to sit on the Committee.

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

Can we have a statement from the Government on their decision to support the deletion of the principle of prior informed consent from the Food and Agriculture Organisation's draft code on the export of pesticides? Does the Leader of the House understand the significance of that deletion to Third-world countries? Can we have a full statement on this matter which, is causing a great deal of concern to many hon. Members?

Mr. Biffen

I will most certainly refer to the relevant Secretaries of State the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on house building and planning applications? In my constituency we face the strange difficulty that, although nobody wants additional housing, last night the county council passed an order which will result in the building of 4,500 unwanted houses in the last green belt area of my constituency.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has raised what I know is a very important point. However, I am sure he will agree that, in the context in which it was raised, it is very much a constituency matter. Therefore, I hope that he will feel disposed to try his luck with an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) by saying that there will be widespread disappointment that the Leader of the House has failed to provide time in yet another week for a debate on the report of the Commission for Racial Equality. Can he give a definite commitment that the usual channels will be extremely well oiled so that a debate may take place immediately after our return from the Easter recess?

Mr. Biffen

No. I cannot give the specific commitment that the hon. Gentleman seeks. However, the matter will be further considered.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

The Leader of the House has been asked several questions on law and order by several Conservative Members whose politics are probably to the right of Genghis Khan. One of the suggestions was that there should be a debate on magistrates' sentencing policies. Will the Leader of the House kindly confirm that it remains the policy of the Government not to interfere in any way with the sentencing policies of the courts?

Mr. Biffen

The relationship between the executive and the judiciary is well known and still stands.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that when he replied to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock), who had asked for a statement on the employment White Paper, he introduced a strange kind of logic? His argument was that, because unemployment had been discussed during the debate on the Budget, the White Paper should not be defended from the Dispatch Box. Why, then, has there been a White Paper on education, notwithstanding the fact that we discussed education during the Budget debate? Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that he has made a rod for his own back? He will be unable to defend this policy on future occasions. However, is not the truth of the matter that he is treating the unemployed with contempt? As a result of the policies of the Government, there are now 4 million unemployed in a nationwide Yosserland shouting, "Gissa job, gissa job." The right hon. Gentleman and his Ministers do not have the guts to defend and debate the matter as they should, in Parliament.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the use of the word "rod" implies a rigidity in these matters which is totally absent. Every topic is considered on its merits. If this matter is causing a deep sense of outrage, I have no doubt that it can be considered through the usual channels. However, it would also be perfectly reasonable for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to observe that, in view of the debate that has only recently been held on the topic, the course that he sought to follow was legitimate.

Mr. Ken Eastham (Manchester, Blackley)

Since the Leader of the House does not consider that the employment White Paper is important enough for a statement to be made upon it today, may I advise him that the Select Committee on Employment has been advised that there is a great shortage of skills in industry. May I also remind the House that about three years ago the Government decided to abolish most of the industrial training boards? When the Select Committee on Employment has firmed up its report, will the Leader of the House give an assurance that a debate will be held on this important matter?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman, who is a member of the Select Committee, will know only too well that the first sequence in the chain of events is for the report to be published and considered by the Government and for the Government's comments to be made upon it. After that, we can consider the further point that the hon. Gentleman now raises.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North)

Will the Leader of the House make arrangements for an urgent debate to be held next week on the situation facing rate-capped local authorities, so that we can discuss the very real anger that is felt in many of the poorest communities about the Government's denial of sufficient rate support grant and about their iniquitious Rates Act and the effect it is having upon local democracy? The Secretary of State for the Environment could then set out his proposals for dealing with the serious social problems that are to be found in many of the rate-capped authorities, which have led them to take action to defend services and jobs.

Mr. Biffen

I can make no offer whatsoever of Government time for a debate of the character the hon. Gentleman suggests. He may have to work his powers of persuasion upon some of his colleagues for Opposition time to be provided.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

It is not for me to inconvenience my right hon. Friend in any way, but does he realise the pressures that are building up for a debate on the strategic defence initiative? He may have noted the early-day motion that I put down yesterday drawing his notice and that of the Government to the fact that there was a 60-day warning from Secretary of State Weinberger on whether or not the European nations were going to participate in the research programme.

[That this House welcomes the United States' formal invitation made in Luxembourg on 26th March to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation powers to participate in Strategic Defence Initiative research; fully accepts that the 60-day limit set for response reflects the urgency with which so vast a co-ordinated multi-national enterprise must be promoted; and welcomes the Secretary of State for Defence's understanding of the need for a tight schedule.] Is it not absolutely essential for a debate to take place at this time?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the gentle and constructive pressures that my hon. Friend seeks to apply, but I have to refer him to the reply I gave earlier this afternoon to his hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths). Of course I realise the importance of this topic, but it has to be considered with all the other claims on time in any debate that is held on our overseas relations.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I note that the Leader of the House shares the concern that has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the appalling standard of the accommodation and facilities that are available to hon. Members. Will he arrange for a debate to take place at an early date on the second report of the Services Committee, so that a sensible decision can be reached?

Mr. Biffen

That matter is under consideration, but I cannot give an answer this afternoon.

Mr. Kinnock

At the beginning of business questions I asked the Leader of the House why there has not been a statement today on the employment White Paper. During the course of business questions, several of my hon. Friends raised the same matter. I regret that none of the answers of the Leader of the House has been in any way satisfactory, especially in view of the importance of the issue and the fact that the House will rise next week for the Easter recess. Can we therefore be given an absolute undertaking that early next week there will be a full statement on the White Paper, following the custom on the White Paper on education this very week, so that the Secretary of State can be properly cross-questioned and a long delay does not take place between the publication of the White Paper and its consideration by the House?

Mr. Biffen

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point. I have not sought in any sense to minimise the importance that I attach to the feelings that exist on this topic. I said in response to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that, given the level of concern, the matter could be subject to further discussion through the usual channels. I am happy to confirm that.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will agree that we have had an unusual and bizarre Question Time today. We reached question 29 on Home Office questions; I think that you have established the word "lousy" as an acceptable parliamentary term; two English Members asked uncertain questions about Wales; a Welsh Member read a question about an area which we, including yourself, could not identify; the Prime Minister said that the Secretary of State for Scotland had issued a statement about Northern Ireland; and we have received a White Paper on employment which many of us are surprised to find bears a bright blue cover.

Has there been a takeover of the Stationery Office by Conservative central office, or is this an early warning that Saatchi and Saatchi will become the privatised holder of the Stationery Office? There is great bewilderment that the Secretary of State for Employment has not seen fit to come to the House and tell us about its content. I am confident that it will be of little help and still less comfort to the unemployed, but to have that miserable document in bright blue is an insult to the 4 million unemployed in Britain. I think that all hon. Members would prefer a White Paper to have the conventional white cover.

Mr. Winnick

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not perfectly understandable why no statement has been made? The Government's record on unemployment is so disgraceful that no Minister would wish to try to justify it by appearing at the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Speaker

Neither hon. Member will wish me to comment on the colour of a White Paper or anything of that kind.

If hon. Members are unable to be present at Question Time it is a courtesy to tell the Chair, so that they are not called. We did reach question 29.

Mr. Bruinvels

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Early-day motion 556—"Telegraphs"—in the name of the Leader of the Opposition quite properly contains a request that the regulations applying to the increase in television licence fees should be annulled. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has the right to bring forward such legislation after his announcement yesterday, but in view of the fact that so many hon. Members are against the licence fee being increased and, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has confirmed, there is to be a debate on that matter, may we have a debate before that fee is increased?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that I do not arrange the business of the House. He might have put that question to the Leader of the House when I called him.

Mr. Kinnock

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am not sure whether this matter falls within your general purview, but we are now seeing the habit developing of coloured covers on documents that we commonly know as White Papers. There is already something which is familiarly known as the Blue Book, and has been for many years. Will you consider, and perhaps make a recommendation on, the general policy that seems to be developing of giving different coloured covers, in view of the fact that, within common parlance in this democracy, as well as in Parliament, we attach particular importance and different status to documents called Green Papers, White Papers, Blue Books, Red Books and so on and it would be no help to public understanding to change the colour scheme at this stage?

Mr. Speaker

I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says. I share that view. We do have traditional colours, but it is not a matter for me if the Government issue a White Paper and change the colour of its cover. The right hon. Gentleman should take that up with those concerned.