HC Deb 24 October 1985 vol 84 cc425-33 3.32 pm
Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 28 OCTOBER—Consideration of the Lords messages relating to the Insolvency Bill [Lords], and the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Bill [Lords].

Commons consideration of Lords amendments to the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill.

Motions on the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organistion) Order and the European Communities (Immunities and Privileges of the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation) Order.

TUESDAY 29 OCTOBER—Commons consideration of Lords amendments which may be received to the Transport Bill.

Motion on the Supplementary Benefit (requirements and Resources) Miscellaneous Provisions Regulations Order.

WEDNESDAY 3o OCTOBER—The House will meet at 2.30 pm for prorogation.

The House may also be asked to consider other business as The new Session will be opened on Wednesday 6 November.

Mr. Hattersley

I have three questions to ask arising from the business statement.

First, may we have a promise that the Prime Minister will make a statement next week on the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference while the memory of her performance is still fresh in our minds? Secondly, is there to be a considered response to the report on overseas trade of the House of Lords Select Committee in addition to what the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said last week? Thirdly, may we be told the date on which the Chancellor will make his autumn statement? The leak about its contents and leaks about its omissions are appearing weekly in the Sunday newspapers. May we be told when the authorised version will be presented to us?

Mr. Biffen

It would probably be most helpful if we considered the timing of the autumn statement through the usual channels. As for the Select Committee report on manufacturing industry which has been produced by another place, I am not entirely clear about the proprieties of this matter, but I shall look into the question and get in touch with the right hon. Gentleman. The answer to his first question is "Yes".

Mr. Richard Hickmet (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

One of the consequences of the wholesale extension of the Rent Acts has been to remove much rented accommodation from the market. While Rent Acts protection exists in its present form, the prospect of obtaining significant investment in inner cities from the private sector will remain slim. In addition, the prospect of ensuring that accommodation is available in those areas where employment exists will continue. Will my right hon. Friend consult the Prime Minister about the prospects of including in the Queen's Speech legislation designed to repeal some of the provisions of the Rent Acts relating to new leases?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly comply with my hon. Friend's request, but he knows full well that it is not customary for me to anticipate the contents of the Queen's Speech.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Will the Leader of the house do his best to find time to enable us to debate the Official Opposition's prayer against the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 1985?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly look into that and get in touch with the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Terence Higgins (Worthing)

Given the widespread concern about road safety both inside and outside the House, can my right hon. Friend give an assurance that we shall have an early debate on the subject, if not next week, as soon as the debate on the Queen's Speech is over?

Mr. Biffen

I shall consider that point. On the other hand, I have a fairly useful safety hatch that I shall not dispense with that early. It is to point out that the debate on the Queen's Speech will present plenty of opportunities for matters such as this to be ventilated.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Will the right hon. Gentleman approach the Secretary of State for Energy about the possibility of his making a statement before Wednesday on the problem of mine workers who have not paid national insurance contributions for 12 months and an indication of how he will resolve this problem?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly do that, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to point out that the Secretary of State For Energy will be first to answer questions on Monday and there may be opportunities to raise this matter then.

Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

Will my right hon. Friend find time before the House rises next week to make a statement on the efforts being made to persuade the insurance companies involved in the Abbeystead disaster to cease the long-drawn-out process of dragging the victims or the dependants through the courts and instead to behave as generously towards them as the insurers involved in the Manchester airport disaster have behaved towards their victims by making a settlement on generous terms?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly consult my colleagues to see what can be done in response to the point that my hon. Friend has made on a matter that is properly of great concern in her constituency. However, I understand that the question of responsibility for the accident, as well as that of compensation, is currently the subject of legal action, and that is bound to have some inhibiting consequences.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Was the Leader of the House present when the Home Secretary answered question 9 on the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985? If he was, he will have heard the Home Secretary say that he will review the position at the end of the football season. Since much of the cash received by football clubs for the hiring of private boxes and other such matters comes in well before the end of the season, will the Leader of the House ask his colleague to make an early review of the effects of the Act with a view to changing it well before the end of the football season?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly pass that request to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

If my right hon. Friend will be looking next week for ways of making the Queen's Speech a little shorter, will he start by eliminating from it Bills that are likely to cause trouble on the Government Back Benches? Perhaps next Sunday would he a good time to start.

Mr. Biffen

I have always thought that it was a matter of eliminating either Bills or Back-Bench Members, but I shall consider the matter further.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the journalist on The Observer who exposed the way in which staff who apply for positions with the BBC are vetted by the security services? While noting the agreement reached yesterday between the unions involved and the BBC, which is some progress, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to make available time for the House to debate such matters, including especially the majority and minority reports of the Select Committee on Home Affairs into the special branch? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is growing anxiety about the way in which civil liberties in Britain are being undermined, as illustrated by the story in The Observer about the BBC, which related to intrusions by the security service into matters that have no bearing on subversion?

Mr. Biffen

I fancy that I am obsequious to most of the press for most of the time, so no special congratulations will be expected of me in respect of The Observer. However, I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman said about the matter being suitable for debate. I should point out that he will never have as good an opportunity as he will have during the debate on the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to keep a close eye, both before and after Wednesday, on the efforts of the Australian company Elders IXL to take over Allied Lyons although it is only one quarter the size of Allied Lyons? The latter company employs 2,600 of my constituents. The matter is important in view of the possible effects on their jobs and on their families' prosperity.

Mr. Biffen

When the Englishman's beer becomes the subject of reverse colonisation, it is clearly a matter of great concern to the House. However, my hon. Friend will know that the fair trading legislation and the arrangements of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission are well able to deal with the matter.

Mr. Leo Abse (Torfaen)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 955:

[That this House regards with incredulity the Secretary of State for Wales's unique portrayal as an independent inquiry of an inquiry into the affairs of the Parrot Corporation conducted within his Department by a person appointed by himself and reporting to himself, yet being asked to investigate failures by himself and his own Department and agencies; regards this as a farce; demands a genuine independent inquiry presided over by a judicially equipped individual; and condemns any failure to achieve such an independent investigation because it will prejudice the involvement of outside finance in the future development of job prospects in Wales]

Since the Leader of the House is charged with defending the well-established conventions of the House, will he draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Wales to the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, and point out to him that his appointment of an independent investigator reporting to him is a subversion of that doctrine? When he is talking to the Secretary of State for Wales, will he emphasise the fact that, in view of the widespread anxiety in Wales about the corporation, the Secretary of State should make a statement next week before the house rises, taking into account the terms of the motion, so that the investigation may have enough validity to cause the City to re-establish some confidence in the Secretary of State's office and his agencies?

Mr. Biffen

As a mere point of observation, I should say that the hon. Gentleman is not completely dispassionate in this controversy. However, I shall certainly pass on his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

In view of the Home Secretary's extremely important new initiative on equal opportunities in employment, will my right hon. Friend find time soon to allow the Home Secretary to explain his policies and, most of all, to warn accountants, lawyers, defence contractors, perhaps even whole sectors of the catering industry, and certainly anybody who wishes to do any business with the Government, that before they can do so they must explain and justify their policies for ethnic recruitment?

Mr. Biffen

I have a feeling that my hon. Friend may be injecting into this topic more drama than is fully merited, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to what he has said.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Will the Leader of the House say when he expects the Secretary of State for the Environment to make an announcement about the selection of sites by NIREX for further investigation for the disposal of radioactive waste? Will he assure the House that the special development orders in respect of those sites will not be debated until the investigation into radioactive waste at present being undertaken by the Environment Select Committee has been concluded and a report made to the House?

Mr. Biffen

Those are genuine points of substance. I shall certainly look into the matter, and convey the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of proposals to enlarge the European Economic Community to include Spain and Portugal and that those proposals must come to the House for consideration before the end of this calendar year. Can he give the House an undertaking, not only that there will be the fullest possible opportunity for debate of these controversial proposals but that there will be an opportunity for a vote so that hon. Members may express their misgivings and those of their constituents about this important and controversial matter?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of my hon. Friend's comments. His points are legitimate, and I ask him to await the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

A little earlier this afternoon the right hon. Gentleman told us with great feeling that he could not stand moral megaphones any more. May we take it that that was in anticipation of his resignation on the return of the Prime Minister to London? Does he accept that, if he resigns from the Government, the whole contraption will fall apart?

Mr. Biffen

That is a most generous and welcome over-interpretation of my role in this whole business. I am grateful for it, but I cannot sensibly comment beyond that.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

On the subject of another contraption which may fall apart, will my right hon. Friend ensure that we have an early debate about the Channel fixed-link project? Is he aware of the mounting anxiety about an unnecessary degree of mystery and secrecy surrounding not only the costs and financing of the operation but the Government's criteria for judging which of the bids will be successful, which has not yet been revealed?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot give a specific answer to my hon. Friend, and I must observe the nearness of the Queen's Speech. However, I realise that the matter is of tremendous importance, particularly for certain areas of the south-east, and I shall consider my hon. Friend's points.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the social security order tabled for debate on Tuesday night is the one about which the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has issued a report questioning the vires of the order? If so, is it not unprecedented for the Government to continue with an order when a clear report has been made that almost certainly part of it is illegal? Should not the Government withdraw it because do they not believe in upholding rather than breaking the law?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, made from his position of authority as Chairman of the Joint Committee, but I understand that another view suggests that the matter is not ultra vires and that discussions have been suggested. Perhaps we can see how they proceed.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

I return to my abortive point of order about people being invited to Select Committees to give evidence. Will the House have an opportunity to debate the matter? Is my right hon. Friend aware that Mr. Oliver Tambo, leader of the revolutionary African National Congress which is committed to the violent overthrow of the South African Government, has been invited to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee next Tuesday? If Select Committees are to follow that procedure, may we expect evidence to be given by members of the IRA, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and other such terrorist groups to which the Government refuse to speak? May we have an early discussion and, perhaps, guidance from my right hon. Friend about who should or should not be invited to Select Committees?

Mr. Biffen

That raises important questions such as whether the Government should have some form of regulation over who may or may not be called by Select Committees. I believe that it would be the wish of the House that that matter should be left to the Select Committees. If another view was to be expressed, it would have to be expressed by the House rather than the Executive. However, I know that there are strong feelings about this matter, and I shall look into my hon. Friend's point.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

As the Scottish teachers' dispute has been dragging on for well over a year, and as there is a similar dispute south of the border, may we have a debate as soon as possible so that we can express our views on the legitimate demand for a review of teachers' salaries? We must bear in mind that the Government recently handed out increases of up to 17 per cent. to admirals, judges, generals and other top brass, none of whom does such a valuable job as a teacher.

Mr. Biffen

I think that the hon. Gentleman should declare a former interest. Being a fair-minded man, he would agree that earlier this week we had two comprehensive statemens on the dispute. Perhaps the best opportunity for the matter to be ventilated again would be presented by the debate on the Queen's Speech.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on civil defence?

Mr. Biffen

I have to travel with great caution. It would be best if my hon. Friend used the excellent opportunities provided by the debate upon the Queen's Speech because it might be some time before a debate in Government time could be arranged on that specific topic.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Does the Leader of the House agree that, because the Secretary of State for the Environment is responsible for local government, his door should always be open to any leader of any local authority? Should we not, therefore, debate the intransigence of the Secretary of State in refusing to meet the leader of Liverpool city council, Councillor John Hamilton, to discuss the financial crisis in the city? Is it not a disgrace that, when a city as large as Liverpool is faced with a crisis as a result of the Government's local government policies, it is not debated in the forum of the nation—this House of Commons?

Mr. Biffen

There would be a great deal of interest in any debate on local government in Liverpool, the conduct of the civic leaders and the extent to which such conduct deserved the support of the House. However, that is a luxury that we shall have to forgo for the moment. The hon. Gentleman and others interested in this topic would be well advised to use the occasion of the debate on the Queen's Speech.

Sir William Clark (Croydon, South)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the press reports that minor criminal misdemeanours of those working in the Civil Service should be dealt with internally? Does he agree that that is at variance with what happens in the private sector? Will he give an assurance that before any policy decision is made there will be a full debate in the House on any difference between those committing criminal misdemeanours within the public service and those committing them in the private sector?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend knows that that is a matter of importance and general public interest. I shall draw the attention of the relevant Secretary of State to his anxieties.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Did the Leader of the House notice the report during the recess that the Export Credits Guarantee Department had lost £400 million during the previous trading year? Did he realise—I am sure that he did—that the Consolidated Fund had been asked to provide £250 million of taxpayers' money to bale out that body?

Should there not be a statement on that matter before the end of the Session so that we may question why, in the annual report, it was suggested that £22 million was not accounted for? I have written to the Prime Minister and asked her to explain the whereabouts of that £22 million. Some of us believe that the organisation is engaged in certain fraudulent trading practices in Nigeria. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement to be made so that we can determine precisely what has happened to the taxpayers' money? If the Government cannot afford to subsidise the pits, why are they prepared to subsidise practices of that kind, both here and abroad?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman makes a most serious and substantial allegation against activities which fall largely within the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and I shall draw his attention to them.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

Given the unsurpassed abilities of my right hon. Friend, I should nevertheless welcome his assurance that he has mastered the opportunities afforded by the newly installed Facilityphones. Mine acts very like a girl I once knew: it lights up and squawks every time I press the wrong digit.

Mr. Biffen

I do not think I can outclass that.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Will the Leader of the House explain why Ministers in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have not yet come to the House to announce the aid that they intend to give to the suffering agriculture industry? In particular, will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Scotland announces in detail before Prorogation what the Government propose to do to help the industry to overcome the losses that have been sustained — estimated by the National Farmers Union of Scotland at about £200 million—during this almost unprecedentedly bad summer?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look into the question that the hon. Gentleman raises about recompensing farmers for losses resulting from bad weather and draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to his anxieties.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

May we have a debate, perhaps next week, on the role of county planning and environment committees, in particular Leicestershire's planning committee, which makes recommendations to the environment committee, which promptly disregards them and puts into my constituency 4,500 council houses that are unwanted by my constituents, by myself and by the local councillors for the area? Is this not a typical case of a county council—in this case, unfortunately, a Conservative county council — supported by Labour county councillors, riding roughshod over the wishes of their Members of Parliament?

Mr. Biffen

That highlights the fact that the old skills of the late Lord Morrison, who was once Leader of the House and who managed to build with a great eye for marginality in the seats around London. have not been lost in Leicester. I fear that it is a fact of life with which my hon. Friend may have to learn to live. I will look into the point that he raises, but I cannot guarantee a debate next week.

Mr William O'Brien (Normanton)

Will the Leader of the House look into the question of empty National Coal Board houses for the occupation of which the NCB will not grant tenancies to the sons and daughters of former mine workers? Will he provide time for a debate on the serious situation that has developed in areas where mines have closed, particularly in constituencies such as mine, where there is an estate of about 40 empty houses? In other words, will he provide time so that we may discuss the plight of people who wish to become tenants of such empty houses but are being denied tenancies by the NCB?

Mr. Biffen

I am not absolutely clear about the extent to which there is a ministerial responsibility in that matter. If there is, it would probably be most appropriate for the issue to be debated, at least initially, on the Adjournment.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As it appears that the courts have been unable to find anybody guilty of riotous behaviour during Mr. Scargill's coal dispute. and as undoubtedly riotous behaviour took place — and particularly as riots have taken place since the coal dispute—is it not a matter of the utmost urgency that the law on riots and the method of the administration of justice should be reformed so that rioters may be brought before the courts and dealt with swiftly?

Mr. Biffen

I hope that my hon. Friend will have a chance to develop that theme when the debate occurs on the Queen's speech. Meanwhile, I shall draw the attention of the Home Secretary to his remarks.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

Following the reply of the Leader of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Abse) about the Parrot Corporation, may I, too, ask whether he has observed early-day motion 955, which deals with the subject, and whether he has read the report of questions and answers on Monday at Welsh Question Time, when the Secretary of State promised Wales and the House a statement?

We in Wales await that statement anxiously because we want to know what has happened to the millions of pounds involved in the Parrot Corporation. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are more than concerned about the fact that the Secretary of State is appointing not only the judge but the jury, when he is himself in the dock?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate that this matter was raised both during Welsh questions and in points of order at their termination. I was here and heard some of the exchanges. My recollection was that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales said that he would report further to the House. I shall refer the matter to him.

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springbum)

I wish to impose on the Leader of the House and ask him again about British Rail Engineering Ltd in Springburn. I understand that BREL carried out a consultancy report, as a result of which it declared massive redundancies in my constituency and in other parts of the country. I also understand that the Secretary of State for Transport has the report in his possession. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State to make the report available in the Library as Back Benchers like myself need as much information as possible when redundancies are declared?

Mr. Biffen

In addition to the representations that earlier I promised to make, I shall make the further and refined representations that are now sought.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

As SDI, or "star wars", is likely to be a bargaining counter between the superpowers at the Geneva summit, is it not appropriate and essential, in view of the Prime Minister's obvious enthusiasm for this dangerous concept, that we should have a full debate on the issue on the Floor of the House and before the summit in Geneva?

Mr. Biffen

The earliest practical opportunity that we shall have to probe this matter will be in the questions on the statement to be made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister early next week. I should have thought that thereafter this subject would be very much to the fore of thinking in the debate on the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

I refer the Leader of the House to earlier remarks about the Channel tunnel. Does he understand the strength of feeling that exists in the north of England in particular but in other parts where industry has also been decimated over recent years that it would be grossly unfair that such a massive amount of fixed investment should go into the richest region of the country? Will he join me in deprecating the fact that those who have a commercial interest are already putting out opinion polls claiming to represent the feelings of Members of Parliament when Parliament has not had the opportunity to debate the issue and make its feelings known?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point and I hope that he does not think it casual of me when I say that we went round this subject in the 1970–74 Parliament, and that, even though some things have changed, quite a lot remains the same. On the whole, hon. Members have a certain disdain for opinion polls that purport to represent the opinion of the public at large. I hope that we do not have to be mollycoddled so that we cannot use our own abilities to disregard any attempts by outside organisations to bend our opinions by what they think that we all imagined among ourselves.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I have always wanted to ask the Leader of the House this question. Does he feel that the growing and welcome frequency of absence by the Prime Minister from the House is enhancing or hindering his chances of becoming the next Leader of the Conservative party?

Mr. Biffen

That is a question of such central consequence to the fate of the Tory party and our national life that I do not think that I should be required to answer it off the cuff.