HC Deb 17 April 1986 vol 95 cc1013-22 3.42 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for next week?

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

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 21 APRIL—Opposition day (11th Allotted Day), first part. Until seven o'clock there will be a debate on education on a motion in the names of the leaders of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties.

Remaining stages of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Bill [Lords].

Proceedings on the Statute Law Repeals Bill [Lords].

Ways and Means resolution relating to the Social Security Bill.

TUESDAY 22 APRIL—Opposition day (12th Allotted Day). Until about seven o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Housing—Putting People First"; afterwards there will be a debate entitled "Transport—Putting People First". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

WEDNESDAY 23 APRIL—Second Reading of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. The six monthly report on developments in the European Community July-December 1985 (Cmnd. 9761) will be relevant to the debate.

THURSDAY 24 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Housing and Planning Bill.

FRIDAY 25 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 28 APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Does he recall that on Tuesday the Prime Minister told me that during the period between the initial message from the President of the United States and the air strike against Libya on 15 April she and the Secretaries of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and for Defence

acted together in knowledge of one another's views throughout?"—[Official Report, 15 April 1986; Vol. 95. c. 731.] Does he further recall the Defence Secretary's broadcast, which was quoted in the House yesterday, and the Foreign Secretary's statement last night, in which he said:

I had no confirmation of any decision by the President, still less of any decision to authorise raids that night, until I came back to London and met the Prime Minister."—[Official Report, 16 April 1986; Vol. 95, c. 950.] The discrepancy between those versions of events must be obvious to the right hon. Gentleman and even to the more vociferous of his Back Benchers. Will he please ensure that a statement is made on Monday so that the House can form a judgment on which version is accurate?

Could the Leader of the House give an undertaking that on Monday there will also be a full statement from the Foreign Secretary about his further conference with European Foreign Ministers today?

Now that the Government have so much extra time because of the defeat of the Shops Bill, will the Leader of the House ensure that more time is given to debate other matters that are of pressing concern? I instance the worsening unemployment figures published today, which show the biggest monthly increase for five years. Can he arrange a day of Government time to debate unemployment so that the appropriate Ministers can come to the House and answer the charge that they are failing to reduce unemployment?

The right hon. Gentleman will have seen the announcement this morning about the bids which have been made for Land Rover and Freight Rover. He has promised a debate on the future of British Leyland. Can he not tell us when that debate will take place?

The need for a debate on foreign affairs is now even more necessary than when I have asked for it during the two previous business questions sessions. When will that debate take place?

Mr. Biffen

I will take the points mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in the order in which he made them.

I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about the matters which formed part of the run-up to the American action in Libya. I should have thought that they were matters which had been covered by the recent debate and by exchanges this afternoon, but I will convey to the Prime Minister the point that he has mentioned.

On the desirability of a statement by my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary as a result of the meeting with the Foreign Ministers of the European Community, I take the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes and I realise that it will be echoed throughout the Chamber. I will see that the appropriate representations are made.

As to the Shops Bill, before history is set in concrete I should perhaps observe that at no stage did the Government suppose that the Floor of the House would be much detained by the passage of this eminently sensible and self-commending legislation, otherwise they would not have been prepared to suggest that the whole thing could have been propelled by the self-disciplining means of a free vote. We delude ourselves, therefore, if we suppose that there is now a great store of time that can be used for other debates. Nevertheless, I understand the genuine concern about the level of unemployment as exemplified by the recent figures, and I suggest, at least initially, that it is a matter that will very properly feature in the Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

I have already indicated to the right hon. Gentleman the circumstances in which I believe it would be helpful and appropriate for the House to debate the future of British Leyland. I will consider his recent remarks in that context.

I quite understand the interest in the House that there should be a debate on foreign affairs, notwithstanding our recent concern in the middle east, because there are many issues elsewhere, not least in Latin America. Perhaps this matter could be considered through the usual channels.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

As both the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary have recently announced that they are in favour of our joining the European monetary system, would my right hon. Friend make time for an early debate on this important matter so that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet may have full knowledge of the House's views?

Mr. Biffen

Most statements about this matter couched in terms of principle have also been matched by conditions of time, but I take note of what my hon. Friend says. I suggest that the speech that he wishes to make he might essay on the Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool. Mossley Hill)

Can the Leader tell the House if the Secretary of State for Education and Science will reply personally to the debate on Monday? Secondly, can he give the House any news about whether there will be a debate on the NIREX sites, the orders for which have still not been laid, and a debate on the report of the Select Committee on the Environment on the disposal of nuclear waste?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot confirm the first point, but the hon. Gentleman might also at some time inform the House whether any Privy Councillor from the Liberal party will take part in that debate.

As to the second point, I take account of the concern that there should be early consideration of these matters, but I cannot go further than that.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Given the unequivocal statement of Labour party policy presented by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that the law against shops opening on Sundays should now be enforced, will my right hon. Friend consider providing time to discuss the consequences of that?

Mr. Biffen

I think that at moments of synthetic triumph all sorts of rather dangerous comments are made. I would not like to go beyond that—not in the mood of charity that I entertain this afternoon. I do not think that the Government could provide very much more time for an inquest into the unhappy circumstances of last Monday.

Mr. Martin J. O'Neill (Clackmannan)

Will the Leader of the House find time to take account of the end of the long take-over saga of the Distillers company, which should reach its conclusion tomorrow? Will he also find time for a discussion on the operation of monopolies and mergers legislation, because many of my constituents who are employees of Distillers feel that they have been rendered mere pawns in a stockbrokers' game?

Mr. Biffen

Without wishing to elevate the temperature in the Chamber, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I very much understand his point. I shall refer his general remark to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Does my right hon. Friend recall the breakneck speed with which the Channel tunnel project was announced, evaluated, and voted on just after Christmas? Can he now solve the mystery of what has actually happened to the proposed Channel Tunnel Bill—

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

It is on the Order Paper today.

Mr. Aitken

I had hoped that the Bill would sink without trace. As it was promised before Easter, can my right hon. Friend now advise the House about its progress?

Mr. Biffen

The Government entertain the aspiration, which I hope is well founded, that that legislation might have better prospects than some other.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is now a great deal of publicity about the number of children dying from whooping cough? Are not the Government now urging further vaccination of children? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although I support the immunisation programme, I also support the need for adequate compensation for vaccine damaged children, some of whom are severely brain damaged?

I am not terrified by the innuendo from Ministers and civil servants that those who support the claim for adequate compensation are damaging the immunisation programme. We are not. We support the immunisation programme, but we also demand proper compensation. Have not the Government admitted that one in 100,000 children are severely brain damaged by vaccination, with some of them being turned into cabbages?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that early-day motion 74 has been supported by 200 hon. Members from both sides of the House asking for adequate compensation?

[That this House believes that the proposed £20000 payment to vaccine damaged children is grossly inadequate for a lifetime of severe disability; expresses its strong support for the immunisation scheme; but calls upon the Government to provide the few tragic and unwitting casualties of this state-sponsored scheme with compensation comparable to that given to industrially injured people, or that awarded by the courts to those similarly disabled.]

The Government have refused adequate compensation for devastated families. They do not want to pay them £20,000. Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a statement on this matter next week?

Mr. Biffen

I quite understand the right lion. Getleman's point. He properly observes that the early-day motion has the general endorsement of hon. Members in all parts of the House. I cannot hold out any tangible and specific hope, but I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services to the right hon. Gentleman's request for a statement.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Would it be possible to introduce legislation to take from individuals the right to take out an act of mandamus against local authorities in order to restrain the army of bigots who would otherwise be released by the parliamentary wimps who sacrificed their judgment on the altar of what they thought to be short-term expediency on Monday night?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that I am in any mood today to be lectured about expediency in relation to last Monday—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I think that I was flexible beyond belief.

My hon. Friend's point is valid, but there is no prospect of an early passage in Government time of the legislation that he seeks. No doubt he knows well that there are opportunities available for private Members using their time.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 685 concerning the Transport and General Workers Union's campaign on the use of the weedkiller 2–4–5,T?

[That this House congratulates the Transport and General Workers Union on its national and international campaign against the manufacture and use of the weedkiller 2–4–5,T, in view of the link between the use and the incidence of cancer and other serious medical side effects, particularly amongst pregnant women through birth deformities, which has been reported worldwide; notes the recent meeting betweeen the high powered delegation of the Transport and General Workers Union and Mr. Lange, Prime Minister of New Zealand, which is the only country in the world still manufacturing the weedkiller; warmly welcomes the promise from Mr. Lange that he will re-examine his country's policy on the manufacture of 2–4–5,T; and calls upon the Government of New Zealand to act urgently to stop the manufacture of this deadly substance.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Foreign Secretary to make representations to the New Zealand Government concerning the manufacture of this deadly substance, especially in view of the effect that it has on pregnant women?

Mr. Biffen

Yes, I will certainly make those representations.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

In the light of the decision of the House to reject the Shops Bill, would it be wise next week for us to have a debate on the two possible immediate scenarios which will ensue: a widespread and increasing flouting of the law, which would be intolerable, or widespread and increasing prosecutions, which would be immensely unpopular?

Mr. Biffen

A short period of abstinence from consideration of those problems would do us no harm. However, I can understand that the problems will come to meet us some months hence.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

Will the transport debate include the effect of EEC regulations on lorry drivers in Britain whose conditions and hours are being affected by EEC regulations? If it cannot be embraced in the debate, will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Transport to bring the matter before the House?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the subject for debate was chosen by the Opposition. I am sure that the Opposition Front Bench will have listened with constructive sympathy to the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the European Communities Bill which will be debated next Wednesday concerns the Single European Act? Will he explain what role the House or a Standing Committee can have in judging that Act and seeking to amend it when it comes to us apparently already agreed by the Heads of Government?

Mr. Biffen

The answer to my hon. Friend's first question is yes. The answer to his second point is that that will be determined by the course of the debate.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a debate on the manning levels in the prison service, and especially why the Government have such a patronising attitude to the Prison Officers Association that they are prepared to consult it but not negotiate with it?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. and learned Gentleman may have been out of the Chamber when the matter was raised by—[HON. MEMBERS: "He was here:] In that case, he has no excuse for asking such a question.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

Although the House has declined to bring the advantages of shopping on Sundays to the English as we enjoy them in Scotland, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the merits of extending to England the benefits which we enjoy in Scotland of more liberal licensing hours?

Mr. Biffen

It would be unrealistic for the House to suppose that the future of flexi-hours will not have been conditioned to some extent by Monday's vote.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Does the Leader of the House realise that I have a good reason for asking a question about prisons? Does he remember that last Thursday I asked him to arrange for the Secretary of State for Scotland to make a statement on the crisis in Scottish prisons? Did he do anything about that? If he did not, will he do something this week before Scotland is faced with the same position as prevails in England and Wales?

While we are discussing prisons, would the Leader of the House discuss with Mr. Speaker introducing a prison system whereby those who behave themselves get preferential treatment while those who misbehave—in the House—are punished?

Mr. Biffen

Of course, I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has a valid reason for asking that question. May I say at once that so did the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). As his immediate neighbour, I would not wish to be thought dismissive of his contribution. He was not asking a question but making a point. Although that is frequently done, I like to have the chance to pay back in kind from time to time.

Of course, I shall again take up the hon. Gentleman's point in respect of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I understand the penal programme that he wishes to apply to the House and although I also understand why he should wish to invoke Mr. Speaker in this matter, I think it is something better left to the usual channels.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

My right hon. Friend is always concerned about employment and unemployment, and I understand that he has already this afternoon provided an opportunity for us to debate British Leyland. However, British Leyland is only one company, whereas there is an entire industry in this country—the furniture industry—in which we are importing twice as much as we export. The situation has changed over five years. If we are to maintain our manufacturing base in furniture, may we have a debate in the House and reverse current trends?

Mr. Biffen

I wish that current trends could be reversed merely by debate in the House. If my hon. Friend wishes to bring those wider considerations to the attention of the House, I think that in the first instance he should seek to have the matter debated on the Adjournment.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There is to be a statement, and then we have a fairly heavy day. I will allow business questions to continue for a further 10 minutes, and I hope that in that time, or less, everyone will have been called.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

The Leader of the House has already told the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) this afternoon that representations will be made for early consideration of the report about the NIREX proposals. The right hon. Gentleman should be aware of the widespread anxiety felt throughout the country that the Government's response to the report on radioactive waste by the Select Committee on the Environment may well take a written form and that opportunity to debate that report will not be accorded prior to discussion of the special development orders when they are placed before the Chamber. Will the right hon. Gentleman now assure us both that there will be a debate on the report and that it will take place before the SDOs are discussed?

Mr. Biffen

I will bear in mind all the points that the hon. Gentleman has made, and his concern that we should move with some expedition in resolving those matters.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Next Thursday we shall debate the Report stage of the Housing and Planning Bill. The Committee stage was completed only seven clays ago. During Committee stage Ministers promised amendments, not only arising out of assurances and commitments made during debate, but because amendments were successfully carried by Back Benchers. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that those Government amendments will be brought forward next Thursday and not left for later discussion in another place?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and a House of Commons point. We will certainly see that as many of the amendments as possible are dealt with in the House, but it may be unavoidable for some of them to be dealt with in another place.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Table Office rules do not allow questions to be put on DefCon—that is the defence conditions agreement between Britain and the United States. Is there not therefore an obligation on Ministers to make a statement next week on the changes from categories 5 to 4, 3, 2, 1, or whatever they were, in the level of nuclear alert earlier this month as a result of the Libyan crisis? Is there not also an obligation to make a statement on the situation in which launchers of cruise missiles left their bases on the night of 10–11 April, both from Greenham and from Comiso, in very extraordinary circumstances that were not related to the exercise on 15 April? Should not there be an explanation by statement as the Table Office does not allow—I do not blame the Clerks—an explanation by parliamentary questions?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman makes two quite separate but profoundly important points. I will certainly refer them to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Grantham)

The Leader of the House will remember that before the Easter recess I asked him to confirm that the special development order would not be laid until there had been a full debate on the Select Committee report relevant to NIREX. The Leader of the House will recall that he said that he treated that proposition with very considerable sympathy. Will he confirm to the House that his sympathy is in no way diminished but that, on the contrary, it has been enhanced?

Mr. Biffen

My sympathy is a static consideration.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

The Leader of the House is first and foremost a parliamentarian. Is he happy to have announced business for next Thursday on a Bill that has no yet been reprinted? The Minister's office informs me that work has not yet been started on the amendments necessitated by a string of concessions made by Ministers—irrespecthe of the defeats that they suffered. Hon. Members and others will be in no position to prepare for an important debate on a number of matters, including the removing of security of tenure from 6 million families.

Mr. Biffen

I was aware of some of those factors when I answered the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman). I am advised that the Bill as reported by the Standing Committee will be available today. We therefore have to take account of the time that will be available for amendments to be tabled before next Thursday. I trust that the general wishes of the House can be met.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

May we have an early debate on the success of the prh atisation programme, which has directly benefited over 1.5 million people? The Labour party could then clear up the confusion over its policy of compensation and renationalisation, in case it should ever come to power.

Mr. Biffen

I have great sympathy for that request, not least because it comes from one of my hon. Friends who is most dedicated to maintaining the intellectual initiative that sustains the programme. However, I have a much more prosaic task—that of handling Government business—and I do not think that there will be any better opportunity than the Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

On 12 February, at the end of a debate on the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill, the Chairman of Ways and Means promised to look at ways of reviewing the private Bill procedure. On 10 April, the Leader of the House said that the matter was still under consideration. What progress has been made?

Mr. Biffen

Consideration remains the state that I have to report, but I appreciate the hon. Lady's concerr that the matter should be expedited.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend agree that the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) goes even wider? There is some confusion about the fate of privatised industries. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the leader of the SDP has approved the privatisation of British Telecom, but that in an article in The Guardian the leader of the Liberal party raised the prospect of renationalisation? Should we not have a debate to try to clear up the threat that those contradictory policies pose to assets that people have bought with their own hard-earned money?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend mades a compelling and pertinent case. However, I am bound by limitations of time. I also have sufficient faith in my hon. Friend's advocacy to feel confident that the good folk of Devon will know about the matter whether or not there is a parliamentary debate.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that since the Government took office the House of Commons has not discussed in Government time the affairs of the Health and Safety Commission, which affects the life and safety at work of more than 20 million people. Will the Leader of the House consider the matter and announce, in the immediate future, at least one day's debate on that subject?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says. It is a most important topic. However, in all fairness, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might like to put a question to my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General at Question Time next Tuesday.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

I revert to the question about NIREX. I have in my hand a reply from the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment to a parliamentary question. That reply shows that it is the Secretary of State's intention to lay the SDO at the end of April. Can the right hon. Gentleman reconcile what he has said today with that answer to my parliamentary question?

Mr. Biffen

I should like to look at the parliamentary answer before making a considered comment, but I assure my hon. Friend that the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) stands.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

As the body count has tragically started of Britons killed in revenge for the Prime Minister's involvement with President Reagan's murder of Libyan civilians, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on Monday—he is absent at present—about what additional security measures are being introduced to defend the staff of British embassies, who, as I was told by an Arab diplomat at lunch today, are not sufficiently defended in present circumstances, and individual Britons working abroad in Britain's interests in sensitive areas?

Mr. Biffen

Obviously, I take note of the hon. Gentleman's points, and I shall ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary is aware of the hon. Gentleman's request. However, the hon. Gentleman may like to consider the statement that will be made just after business questions.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Now that, thankfully, the Shops bill is no longer with us, will the House have an opportunity to debate the Shops Act 1950 to remind all large local authorities that it contains a power to prosecute any large companies for staying open on Sundays? Will my right hon. Friend also remind both my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary of my continuing concern about the 157 technicians at Heathrow airport and the 27 trainee pilots, all from Libya who are still working here and who may represent a potential security threat to all who live in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Biffen

I hope that we shall not have to live too long with the residue of the Shops Bill. One of the first laws in politics is, "In a moment of triumph, do not crow." On my hon. Friend's second point, he raised anxieties of real substance, and I shall ensure that they are conveyed to both my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that at last week's Cabinet meeting there was a discussion paper on the question of coal in relation to the fall in oil prices? Is he aware of the conflicting reports in the newspapers arising from that discussion paper? One suggests that the Government will allow market forces to operate, with the result that many more thousands of miners will lose their jobs. Is he further aware that in the 1950s and 1960s successive Governments of different political persuasions followed that course when they had cheap oil, and that the net result was that after the price of oil quadrupled we were short of energy and needed coal in abundance? Will he ensure that we have a debate or statement on that matter so that we can make it absolutely clear that we shall assure the livelihood of those miners who are presently engaged in the coal mining industry, and not follow the short-sighted policy of the 1950s and 1960s?

Mr. Biffen

Regarding what took place in Cabinet last Thursday, alas, one of the inhibitions made on me is not to report to the House or the press what goes on in Cabinet. It is a most irksome restraint, but I must live with it.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, there is real concern throughout the energy consuming public, both industrial and domestic, that there should be a proper balance of alternative supplies of energy, within which coal will undoubtedly play a major part. I shall certainly consider the necessity of having a debate on that proposition.

Mr. Michael Meadowcroft (Leeds, West)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the United States Administration have announced that on 23 April they intend to impose draconian regulations impeding exports to the United Kingdom which will impinge illegally on United Kingdom companies? Does he consider it important that we should have an urgent debate on the question of extra-territoriality?

Mr. Biffen

The whole question of extra-territoriality undoubtedly raises profound economic and trade issues which are of major national concern. I shall certainly convey the anxiety which has been expressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. He will certainly be encouraged to know that he has the support of the traditional free trade element of the House.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)


Mr. Speaker

Order. Obviously the hon. Member was not present when I announced that I could not allow questions to continue beyond 10 past 4 o'clock, and it is now 13 minutes past.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a gross discourtesy to the families of the hostages who were so tragically lost in Lebanon today that the Prime Minister has sought to leave the Chamber and to quit before this highly important statement—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that that is not a matter for me.