§ The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)
With permission, Mr. Speaker. I should like to make a short business statement. The Business for Wednesday 23 and Thursday 24 October will now be as follows:
WEDNESDAY 23 OCTOBER — Opposition day (20th Allotted day); until about seven o'clock there will be a debate on the crisis in southern Africa followed by a debate on the need for an independent judicial inquiry into the recent urban disturbances. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.
Motion on the Nursing Homes and Nursing Agencies (Northern Ireland) Order.
Motion on the Parliamentary Constituencies (England) (Miscellaneous Changes) Order.
THURSDAY 24 OCTOBER—There will be a debate on a motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Committee of Public Accounts to which the Government have replied.
Commons consideration of Lords amendments to the Water (Fluoridation) Bill.
Remaining stages of the Housing Bill (Lords), the Housing Associations' Bill (Lords), the Housing (Consequential Provisions) Bill (Lords), the Landlord and Tenant Bill (Lords) and the Weights and Measures Bill (Lords), which are all consolidation measures.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)
I thank the Leader of the House for making that business statement. In view of the Prime Minister's extraordinary and damaging antics at the Commonwealth conference, her apparent change of stance on the question of economic sanctions against South Africa, her agreement, with Commonwealth colleagues, to impose sanctions last night and her scornful dismissal of the same agreement this morning, can we have an early statement to clarify what the Government's policy really is, certainly before Wednesday's debate on South Africa?
Secondly, while we are to have a statement later today on the inner cities, given the scale and gravity of the disorders in which four people have died, hundreds have been injured and tens of millions of pounds' worth of property destroyed, is it not disgraceful that the Government have not rearranged this week's business so that we could have a full day's debate in Government time instead of having to rely upon half a day in Opposition time?
Thirdly, now that the Secretary of State for Employment is no longer a Member of this House, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an early statement to be made or, better still, provide time for us to debate this unprecedented, unsatisfactory and, to this House, insulting arrangement? Can he at least ensure that the new Secretary of State does not continue to offload his responsibilities for answering questions on unemployment in the other place, as he did last Tuesday, when the Minister of State for Defence deputised for him? It is reported that he intends to do so again tomorrow.
Finally, given the strong views that are held on fluoridation, can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that no guillotine will be applied to curtail the debate next Thursday?
§ Mr. Biffen
The right hon. Gentleman earns, properly, the affection of all parts of the House, but he is one of the most reactionary people ever to have sat on the Opposition Benches. It is extraordinary if, within our constitutional arrangements, it is not possible for the Secretary of State for Employment to sit in the other place when that Department and its responsibilities are also represented in this place at Cabinet level. May I say to him—since I am, as ever, conciliatory in such matters — that of course his request can be considered through the usual channels.
We have all come back desperate to fashion our ploughshares into swords, but to describe the Prime Minister's stout championing of the national interest at the Commonwealth conference in that way shows a little unnatural bellicosity. I shall inquire about the possibility of an early statement by the Prime Minister about the conference.
As to a debate on the inner cities, I recognise the House's good fortune in that the Opposition day on Wednesday is to be partly devoted to that topic. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I recognise its importance. On Thursday, we have to consider eight Lords amendments to the Water (Fluoridation) Bill. They do not involve any new matters of substance and I hope that the House will be able to address itself to them fully but responsibly.
§ Mr. Speaker
This is a business statement, not business questions, and therefore supplementary questions must be related to what the Leader of the House has just said.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Public Accounts Committee debate on Thursday will draw particular attention to six of the matters contained in its report so that the House might be aware of the topics that are of particular interest to the Committee and therefore to the House? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Order Paper will contain reference to vehicle excise duty and its evasion, the sale of Government shareholdings in nationalised industries, the effectiveness or otherwise of regional industrial incentives, housing benefits, the control of nationalised industries and the serious shortcomings in the dental service?
§ Mr. Biffen
Yes, I can confirm that that is the proposal. I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the part that he has played in making this come about.
§ Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)
Is it not intolerable that so serious a matter as southern Africa, which seems to have occupied much of the discussion at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, should be considered only until 7 o'clock? If the Opposition think it important, had we not better give it a whole day?
§ Mr. Biffen
No. We are at that time in a Parliament when the time available is at a great premium. The House is indebted to the Opposition in this respect. I am certain that the matter will come before the House when the Prime Minister returns and, more particularly, when we debate the Queen's Speech.
§ Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)
Would it not have been more appropriate for the Government to make time available for a debate on southern Africa when the 28 Prime Minister was here to answer for the fact that she has now accepted the Reagan economic sanction package on South Africa? Since the Prime Minister spends most of her time trying to line up the Government behind every initiative taken by President Reagan, would it not be helpful for the House to understand why she took so many months to do that on this occasion?
§ Mr. Biffen
With an effortless air of superiority the right hon. Gentleman is able to make his point about the Prime Minister and the policies for which she stands. I believe that all these matters can most appropriately be debated in the context of the report that the Prime Minister will make to the House and in the debate on the Queen's Speech that will follow shortly.
§ Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)
Is it not the case that the matter will have to come before the House in Government time because many of the specific sanctions imposed on top of those that which are part of the European Community package will have to be approved by the House? I think in particular of action under the Sale of Goods Act to prevent certain trading transactions. Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who have serious misgivings about the wisdom or effectiveness of imposing sanctions on any country will welcome the opportunity to express their views?
§ Mr. Biffen
I am not in possession of sufficient facts to enable me to say authoritatively that my hon. Friend is right about the need for legislation, but his general point must be correct.
§ Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)
Is the Leader of the House aware that many Opposition Members found deeply offensive his response to the remarks by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) about the Secretary of State for Employment being in another place? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 800 redundancies in consumer electronics have been declared in my constituency in the last week? Is it not a disgrace that the Secretary of State for Employment cannot come to the House to answer questions on this subject?
§ Mr. Biffen
There is a Cabinet Minister sitting in this House who is fully able to deal with these points, and the hon. Gentleman knows that perfectly well.
§ Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Labour Members find it an outrage that at a time when 4 million people are unemployed, the Secretary of State for Employment does not sit in this House to answer for the Government? Will he give a categorical undertaking that if there are any statements on employment matters on Wednesday or Thursday of this week—or, indeed, at any other time—they will not be made in the other place before being given in this House?
§ Mr. Biffen
As I said to the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), these sort of matters can reasonably be discussed through the ususal channels. I want to say again that, once upon a time, those on the democratic end of the spectrum in public life believed in the doctrine of the man for the job. If there is someone who—[Interruption.] Oh yes—[Interruption.] If we believe—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Biffen
I believe that it is perfectly possible for these matters to be properly concluded when a Cabinet Minister representing the interests of that Department sits in this House.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement on what the Prime Minister has been discussing at the Heads of Government Commonwealth conference. However, does he believe that the withering condescension with which the Prime Minister described the package of proposals for sanctions on the radio this morning will have done anything but comfort those in the Botha regime in South Africa?
Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the effectiveness of the package, which many of us doubt, will be discussed again in the months ahead so that we can be sure that everything possible is being done to give support to those fighting for the right of the the majority in South Africa to have a say in the running of their country?
§ Mr. Biffen
I can say without any equivocation that the decisions reached at the conference will be debated in the House.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that his hon. Friends believe that the appointment of two Cabinet Ministers responsible for unemployment emphasises in a positive and dramatic way the emphasis that the Government place on that problem?
§ Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)
Will the changes in business allow time for the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to come to the House to make a statement on the progress of negotiations on steel production quotas in the Steel Council of the European Community? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that at the beginning of the recess the Government announced major proposals, including the closure of the Gartcosh works, with its consequences for Ravenscraig and flat products generaly in this country? Are not those decisions being taken without the necessary information being given to the House? Will he ensure that an early statement on that matter is made?
§ Mr. Biffen
I realise the importance of the subject generally, and specifically in relation to the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.