HC Deb 21 November 1985 vol 87 cc419-27
Debate on Tuesday 26 November
(a) 11118/83 Draft Directive on parental and family leave.
(b) 10681/84 Amended draft Directive on parental and family leave.

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 78-xxiii (1983–84) paragraph 1
  2. (b) HC 5-viii (1984–85) paragraph 2

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that information. It appears that some satisfactory progress has been made at the Geneva summit and, naturally, we welcome that. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the Prime Minister, on her return from Brussels, makes a statement reporting on that summit next week so that she may be appropriately questioned? Will he arrange a debate in the near future in the House on the matters relating to the summit so that hon. Members may have a proper opportunity to consider those matters?

May I again ask the right hon. Gentleman to arrange an early debate in Government time on the report of the Department of the Environment on the condition of disrepair of many hundreds of thousands of Britain's houses?

Can he give a date for the debate on the autumn statement? Unless that debate is held in the week after next at the latest, we shall find ourselves in the position of considering the matter even later than was the case last year.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his speech in the debate yesterday and I share his disappointment at the outcome. Will he accept the consolation from me that I agreed with everything he said, with the single exception that I thought that a decision in favour of televising the proceedings of the House would have been not a leap in the dark, as he described it, but definitely a leap into the light?

Mr. Biffen

To comment on that last point first, there is no one with whom I would be more happy to share disappointment than the Leader of the Opposition, especially as I believe that we shall both be sharing it for quite a while in the future.

I am fully cognisant of the point the hon. Gentleman made about the autumn statement. I understand that the Select Committee is currently taking evidence. I will look into the matter and see how speedily it can be brought before the House.

At present, the report on the state of the public housing stock is being discussed by the Department of the Environment with the local authority associations, but I will bear in mind the desire that it should be debated in the House.

I shall be in touch with the right hon. Gentleman through the usual channels about the possibility of the Prime Minister reporting, after her visit today, and, in that more general context, about the desirability of a foreign affairs debate.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the United Kingdom's continued adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights?

Mr. Biffen

I answered in a somewhat negative fashion when that question was put to me in the recent past, and I see no prospect in the near future of a debate in Government time. However, one of my hon. Friends might like to try his hand on the Adjournment.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Given the right hon. Gentleman's statement to the House this time last week that the would look at contingency plans for what might happen in the event of services collapsing in Liverpool, in view of the failure today of the city council's leaders to accept the compromise plan put forward by the AMA, and given the failure of the Leader of the Opposition to convince the leaders of Liverpool city council to see sense, when will the Government come forward with plans to ensure that services to 500,000 people do not collapse in ruin?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman has identified yet one more area of disappointment for the Leader of the Opposition. I take note of what he says, but I can say no more today than I said a week ago.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As Leader of the House, is my right hon. Friend really satisfied with a situation whereby the enactments of this House are subject to veto by the European Court of Human Rights?

Mr. Biffen

That is a situation in which we find ourselves by virtue of treaty obligations.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

Given the critical situation in Liverpool, bearing in mind that the workers there will today get their final wage packets, and given that schools will be closed and rubbish will pile up in the streets, not to mention the possibility of problems on the streets, will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, even at this eleventh hour, whether he will meet the leaders of Liverpool city council? If not, will he arrange for a special debate next week so that hon. Members can debate these problems—[Interruption.] It is all very well for Liberal and Conservative Members to shout about the situation in Liverpool, but if they saw the conditions there they would realise the position that the Labour council faces.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's real interest in this topic and, indeed, in the Adjournment debate held last week. I shall refer his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, but I can offer no promise of a debate next week. Even at this late hour, it is time that the council leaders assumed the responsibilities that at present they are abdicating so manifestly.

Mr Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that last Session's Bill on corporal punishment—which must be one of the daftest measures ever to have been put before this House—has been dropped indefinitely?

Mr. Biffen

I can take refuge in saying that, whatever has happened to it, it will not be next week.

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

Has the Leader of the House read the report from the Privileges Committee dealing with confidentiality of Select Committee minutes and deliberations? Does he not recognise, particularly in the light of the most recent leaks, that there is a need to debate this matter so that the House can be clear in mind about what is acceptable and unacceptable? Will he make sure that time is made available to debate this?

Mr. Biffen

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. I was in the Chair in relation to that report, and he is the first hon. Member to have drawn attention to it. I should like to reflect for a little while before I judge how widespread the insistence is for a debate.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a Law Officer to intervene in next week's debate on the Anglo-Irish agreement and to deal with the question of its status? After all, it is described as an international treaty to be registered at the United Nations. But international treaties are treaties between sovereign states, and in this country only the Queen has treaty-making power. The Government may commit only themselves and are not able to describe themsleves, as the agreement does, as a sovereign Government. Is not a possible solution to this problem the fact that the Government of the Republic cannot bind their successor and the Republic of Ireland in any event? If so, is not the agreement worthless?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend will appreciate that I cannot give the categorical undertaking that he seeks, but I shall do my utmost to see that the point that he raises is dealt with in the debate.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Upper Bann)

During the debate on Tuesday and Wednesday, will the right hon. Gentleman ask one of his colleagues to address himself to a specific problem confronting me and other hon. Members, particularly those from Northern Ireland, to do with the legislative procedure for dealing with Northern Ireland affairs? Will the Anglo-Irish conference produce proposals for draft orders, and, if it does and we make representations in the House, will they have go go back to the conference for approval before they become draft orders? If they become draft orders and we in the House make further proposals, and the Government reconsider on the basis of our proposals, will they once again go back to the Anglo-Irish conference for endorsement? If that is the procedure, does it not mean that elected Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland are redundant?

Mr. Biffen

I shall do my utmost to see that that point is dealt with in the debate.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Bearing in mind that Kent has 16 Members while Northern Ireland has 17, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there will be time to discuss the fixed link in proper form, as this is a matter of great concern not only to the country but to the people of Kent?

Mr. Biffen

As I understand it, on Friday 29 November, there is a possibility of a debate related entirely to Kent. My hon. Friend may be lucky on that occasion, and if he is unlucky we shall look at the matter again.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Is the Leader of the House aware that many Ayrshire farmers had their crops devastated by the appalling weather during the summer and are now facing bankruptcy? Is he also aware that the Minister of State, Scottish Office promised an announcement about aid at the end of October, but no such statement has been forthcoming? Is he also aware that my colleagues from Ayrshire and I saw the Minister earlier this month, and he told us that a statement would be made as soon as possible, but still one has not been made, even though today there were questions to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? When will a statement be made so that the Ayrshire farmers will know whether they will be able to continue in farming?

Mr. Biffen

I understand tht my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said this afternoon that he hoped to make a statement shortly. In any case, I shall draw his attention to what the hon. Gentleman has just said.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

My right hon. Friend will recall that previously I have asked for time to be found for a full in-depth debate on law and order. The way in which my postbag on this subject increases shows that there is disquiet over the question of juries, the possibility of hooded jurors, the parole system and the lenient sentencing that we now have, which means that there is no reason for the Government to duck a debate on this subject.

Mr. Biffen

It is not that we are ducking but that we are having difficulty in finding time. I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's point, although he must be a little more fair than that. Many demands are made for debates in Government time, and hon. Members like to have a tolerable Christmas recess. However, I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's request.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

Last Thursday, I asked the Leader of the House whether we could have a debate on the independent colliery review procedures for the closure of pits which have been announced only recently by the Secretary of State for Energy. The right hon. Gentleman promised that he would have a word with the Secretary of State about this, in view of the difficulties experienced by all parties to the deals. What is the result of his conversation with the Secretary of State for Energy? When I spoke to the Secretary of State's private office, I was told that it did not have the faintest idea how the procedure worked.

Mr. Biffen

I hope to be in touch with the hon. Gentleman shortly.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

If it is in order for the House to debate the treaty of the Anglo-Irish agreement, why is it not in order for the House to debate the treaty of the European Convention on Human Rights when this country is so often wrongly held up to ridicule in the rest of the world?

Mr. Biffen

It is not a question of whether it is in order; it is simply that I have not been able to make Government time available.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Instead of having two days' debate on the agreement, would it not be a good idea to set aside a day for the workings of the Housing Defects Act, which the Government introduced some time ago? Nearly every council has found the Act to be unworkable. The local authorities are called upon to devise a repair scheme for the houses, but that is not properly designated under the Act. Is it not high time that a spokesman from the Department of the Environment told the House in forthright terms what authorities must do in order to alleviate the misery of thousands of tenants and residents?

Mr. Biffen

I strongly repudiate any suggestion that the Anglo-Irish agreement merits less than two days' debate in this House. It is of profound significance to the United Kingdom as a whole and a matter of acute sensitivity to the Province of Northern Ireland. As to the hon. Member's suggested replacement, of course it is true that we were to have a debate which would enable the Government to put their record on renovation and repair. It is so formidably effective compared with that undertaken by the Labour Government that I am much tempted by the prospect, but I do not have that amount of Government time.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Will my right hon. Friend give further consideration to what I believe was a reasonable request from my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) for a debate on law and order? Bearing in mind the growing anxiety felt not just within the House but throughout the country about the completely inadequate sentences being meted out to rapists and baby killers, it is time that the House had an opportunity to voice its opinion on the important matters of law and order and sentences.

Mr. Biffen

I accept at once the importance of the topic and my hon. Friend's commitment to it. Being fair-minded, he will, I am sure, judge that we have only recently completed the debate upon the Queen's Speech when it was possible for the House to discuss it. It is a matter of balancing all the other demands on Government time with this request.

Mr. Allan Roberts (Bootle)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there will have to be a debate, or a statement, in the House next week on the position in Liverpool, because it has reached crisis proportions? One aspect that must be debated and upon which we need a statement is how the DHSS will deal with all the staff who will be made redundant. For instance, on Monday the manual workers sign on and on Thursday the white-collar workers. No arrangements have been made to deal with them. The office of the Minister for Social Security told me today that it does not know in which category they will be—they are not redundant and they are not sacked; they may not get paid; benefit books will not in any case be issued until after Christmas, and each case will have to go before an assessment panel. That kind of hardship must be addressed by the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement to be made?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises points which are fair for the consideration of the House. Of course, I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to what he has said, but my right hon. Friend is not automatically engaged by the cynical disavowal of responsibility by the Liverpool council's leadership.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

When we discuss the Channel link, will my right hon. Friend take care to ensure that the House has an opportunity to debate all the viable alternatives and is not faced by a Government who gives us just one option on a take-it-or-leave-it basis?

Mr. Biffen

I have already said that I hope that we shall be able to have a debate on that topic in the reasonably near future. I shall bear in mind my hon. Friend's point when considering the form that the debate should take.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

Further to the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Ryman) about a statement from the Secretary of State for Energy on the colliery review procedure, may I press upon the Leader of the House the fact that it is important that we should have that statement and a clear sign of what the new colliery review procedure is all about? A colliery in Ogmore is now under that new colliery review procedure and awaiting a decision. The community of Maesteg is waiting for a decision. A further colliery in Garw is under the review procedure. They are the only two collieries left in the Ogmore constituency. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the meeting that he is to have with the Secretary of State for Energy will be an early one and that the House will have an early statement about the review procedure?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's argument and his constituency involvement. I shall ensure that the facts as he has described them are put to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

We have had, rightly, a series of statements on the effects of the teachers' strike on teachers' pay and other matters. May we have an early statement on the effect that the strike is having upon children who are sitting examinations and children who are sent home without notice? Is it not time that the House considered the extremely damaging effect of the strike on children's education?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree with me that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science made his views and anxieties on this aspect of the teachers' strike extremely clear at Question Time a short while ago. However, I shall draw to his attention the further points that my hon. Friend makes.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

May I lend my support to Tory Members who are calling for a debate on law and order in the context of a letter which was sent by the chairman of the stock exchange to the Prime Minister three weeks ago on the enormous mountains of fraud in the Tory citadels in the City? Will the Leader of the House arrange a special debate on law and order in the context of that fraud and the Government's failure to deal with it?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman properly reminds the House how widely such a debate might range. If I am unable to provide time for such a debate as speedily as he wishes, I hope that he will not throw aside his potential speech. The House will have an opportunity to consider all these matters when it addresses itself to the financial services legislation, which will be forthcoming reasonably soon.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that Her Majesty's Government expect Spain and Portugal to come into the EEC on 1 January? Will he confirm also that the matter has not been debated by the House, except for my Adjournment debate, since 1978? Surely a matter of such major importance to the British people should receive the fullest possible treatment in the House. Will he confirm that a full opportunity will be given to all Members to debate the issue and to vote upon it? Will that happen between now and Christmas?

Mr. Biffen

I congratulate my hon. Friend on being one of the relatively few Members who have persistently argued the utmost significance of the entry of Spain and Portugal into the EEC for the United Kingdom and its economy. I can confirm that legislation which is now in another place should be before us for consideration and confirmation between now and Christmas.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Why will the Government not put a day aside to debate the recent survey into the state of disrepair of many council homes? The survey showed that 84 per cent. of these homes are in disrepair and that £18.8 billion would have to be spent to bring them up to a reasonable standard? Do the Government choose not to have a debate because they are as windy about their record as these homes are draughty?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate that the political argument is shifting away from unemployment to housing, but housing will be as hopeless an area for the Opposition as unemployment has been. As I said to the Leader of the Opposition, the report is being discussed by the Department of the Environment with the local authority associations. I accept that it should be debated eventually in the House.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the concern that is felt on both sides of the House about the proposed bid by Elders IXL for Allied-Lyons, which may damage a number of constituencies' employment prospects, including those of Leicester, East? Will my right hon. Friend give the House an opportunity to debate the growing abuse of companies spending massive amounts of shareholders' money in launching takeover campaigns? Will he consider referring this particular bid to the Office of Fair Trading, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry?

Mr. Biffen

I admire the ingenuity with which my hon. Friend draws to my attention the problems of Leicester, East every Thursday afternoon. No one is a more doughty champion of the east midlands and Leicester than he—[Interruption.] I know how to butter my bread. The specific issue which my hon. Friend has raised is being considered by the Office of Fair Trading, and there I think the matter must rest for the time being.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for one of his right hon. Friends to be present on Tuesday to explain to the House—in the light of Dr. Garret FitzGerald's claim that with the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement, the role of the UDR has been significantly changed—what part will be played by the representatives of a foreign country in the direct control of a regiment of the British Army? Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it is because it is a regiment of the British Army that enmity has been displayed against it, notably in the past week with the murder of another Roman Catholic serving soldier—a sergeant—in Londonderry?

Mr. Biffen

I hope that I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's point, especially in the context of the Province. As I have said in answer to similar questions, I shall draw the hon. Member's points to the attention of those Ministers taking part in the debate in the belief that they will deal with them.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his answer to the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) on whether in the near future the House should consider the position in Liverpool? There are 31,000 employees in the city, most of whom do not live there, who are the innocent victims of the intransigent attitude of the militant Left in control of the city council. If my right hon. Friend does not consider that a debate is appropriate, will he pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the information that most hon. Members are extremely worried about the position in Liverpool and would like a statement to be made?

Mr. Biffen

I shall of course pass on that point to my right hon. Friend. I should like to append this observation: wilful abdication by the Liverpool council does not necessarily involve Government responsibility.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Most of us accept that the decision taken last night on televising Parliament means that it is unlikely that there will be television cameras within these precincts before the next election. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, as is often the case, Scottish Members showed that they are more progressive and sensible than the rest of the House by 47 Members from Scotland voting for television, 17 voting against and one, for some reason, voting in both Lobbies? Will the Leader of the House consider the possibility of televising the meetings of the Scottish Grand Committee in Edinburgh?

Mr. Biffen

I am still a bit dazed after last night. If I may collect my thoughts, I think that my instinctive comment is, how can I be guaranteed that English money will not be used to televise Scots politicians?

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that parents and grandparents are extremely angry following a summer when children have been neglected—a summer of cruelty to children, rape, manslaughter and murder? It was a distressing summer for anyone who loves small children. Will my right hon. Friend take seriously the calls from Back Benchers to hold an urgent debate on this subject so that we can explore in depth how we may better protect children? The events of this summer must not be repeated. Parliament should enact legislation to protect children. May we have an early debate on this matter?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what my hon. Friend has said. I have already said to the House that I fully understand the importance of this subject and the passion that it engenders. What I cannot do is to offer the prospect of an early debate—having regard to all the other pressures on Government time—but I take note of what has been said and shall ascertain what can be done.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

The Leader of the House may be aware of the controversy in greater Manchester about the decision of the chief constable to purchase plastic bullets. It is my constituents who are likely to be affected by the decision should the bullets ever be used. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is an overwhelming argument that the relationship between the police and the community in the inner city areas should be open to the scrutiny of Parliament? That changing relationship should at least have the benefit of the collective wisdom of the House. May we have a debate on the policing of England and Wales?

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will permit me to comment on the merits of his proposal. I should have thought that now, of all times, was not the occasion further to politicise the police of this country. However, I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

The Leader of the House answered a question from the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Dickens) about our having an early debate on the serious issue of child abuse. May I point out to the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend that such a debate will take place on Friday 29 November, initiated, dare I say, by myself?

Mr. Biffen

I am more than happy to join the hon. Gentleman in giving publicity to the debate, which will be the first on Friday 29 November. He is right to say that it will give an excellent opportunity to all those who have sought to have a debate on the topic.

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