HC Deb 10 December 1986 vol 107 cc659-70 3.36 pm
The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 15 DECEMBER—Until seven o'clock, private Members' motions.

Motion for the Christmas Adjournment. It will be proposed that the House should rise for the Christmas Adjournment on Friday 19 December until Monday 12 January.

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

TUESDAY 16 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill.

Motion on the draft Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978 (Continuance) (No. 3) Order.

Motions on supplementary benefit regulations relating to mortgage interest. Details will be given in the Official Report.

There will be a debate on EC documents relating to fisheries arrangements for 1987. Details will be given in the Official Report.

WEDNESDAY 17 DECEMBER—There will be a debate on a motion to approve the Chancellor of the Exchequer's autumn statement.

Motion relating to the Water Authorities (Return on Assets) Order.

THURSDAY 18 DECEMBER—Motions on supplementary and social security benefit orders and regulations. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 19 DECEMBER—Adjournment debates.

Tuesday 16 December

Relevant European documents:

(a) 10549/86 Fish guide prices
(b) Unnumbered Fisheries total allowable catches and quotas 1987
(c) Unnumbered Reciprocal fisheries agreement with Norway 1987

Relevant reports of European Legislation Committee

  1. (a) HC 22-i (1986–87) para 2
  2. (b) HC 22-iv (1986–87) para 5
  3. (c) HC 22-iv (1986–87) para 6

[Motions on supplementary and social security benefit orders and regulations to be debated on Thursday 18 December

The draft Supplementary Benefit (Single Payments) Amendment Regulations 1986 (S.I. 1986 No. 1961)

The draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating (No. 2) Order 1986

The draft Supplementary Benefit Up-rating (No. 2) Order 1986

The draft Family Income Supplements (Computation) (No. 2) Regulations 1986

The draft Statutory Sick Pay (Rates of Payment) Regulations 1986

The draft Social Security Benefits (Contributions, Re-rating (No. 2) Order 1986

The draft Social Security Benefits (Treasury Supplement to and Allocation of Contributions (Re-rating) Order 1986

The Housing Benefits (Amendment) (No. 5) Regulations 1986 (S.I., 1986, No. 2183)

Motions on Supplementary Benefit Payments (Mortgage) Interest Regulations to be debated on Tuesday 16 December

The draft Supplementary Benefit (Housing Requirements and Resources) Amendment Regulations 1986

The Supplementary Benefit (Claims and Payments) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 1986 (S.I., 1986, No. 2154)]

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islewyn)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his statement.

The motion on Tuesday night relating to benefit regulations on mortgage interest is a shameful proposition, especially from a Government who have given away so much to those who are best off among home-buyers, and who now wish to deny those who, by definition, are among the worst off and most insecure in our society. It is the worst gesture possible, especially in the period immediately before Christmas. Talk about no room at the inn!

I welcome the announcement of a debate next week on the autumn statement. I should like to draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the recommendation in paragraph 10 of the report of the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service that was published yesterday. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would obtain an assurance from the Chancellor that, as the report states, he will make all statements on macro-economic policy to the House of Commons, where he can be questioned by Honourable Members and not outside the House.

In view of the fears of hon. Members on both sides of the House, if the Government make the wrong decision and opt for Boeing instead of Nimrod for the airborne early warning system, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement to be made next week, and also arrange for a debate on that matter before the final decision is made? The right hon. Gentleman will be well aware that hon. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the impact that the wrong decision would have on jobs and on core technology in this country.

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate the widespread concern among local authorities about the continued postponement of an announcement on the rate support grant settlement for 1987–88? A third and unprecedented consultation document asking for responses by 19 December has been published. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that is widely understood to be evidence of a Government effort to delay, rather than a genuine effort to broaden consultation? Is it not the case that the Secretary of State for the Environment is twisting and turning in a desperate effort to buy off Tory Back Benchers by switching grants from the deprived inner city areas of Britain to the better-off home counties? When will the House be in a position to debate the RSG order for 1987–88?

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that two weeks ago I asked him for an early debate on the privatisation of Rolls-Royce? Will he tell us when that debate will take place so that we can expose the Government's decision to use £100 million of public resources to promote the sale of public assets?

Mr. Biffen

I shall deal with those five points in the sequence in which they were presented.

I heard what the right hon. Gentleman said about the debate on mortgage interest payments and social security. However, I thought that the situation that he described was admirably rebutted by my hon. Friend the Minister of State when he made the statement yesterday. However, there will be a debate and the arguments can doubtless be expanded.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the autumn statement, and I confirm that the report of the Treasury and Civil Service Committee will be set down for consideration with that debate. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the anxieties the right hon. Gentleman has expressed.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me about the important decision that has to be made about Nimrod. I shall of course, pass on his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I fully understand and underline their validity. Perhaps the question of the timing of any statement for debate can be pursued through the usual channels.

In this pre-Christmas period, I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was being less than charitable about the actions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in respect of the rate support grant. My right hon. Friend has shown that he is a shrewd and listening Secretary of State. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are fully aware of the imperative need for a statement on the rate support grant. I shall take account of his points but I have already implied that we shall be operating broadly in line with previous practice.

Although the privatisation proposals for Rolls-Royce cannot appear in the business for next week, that matter could be considered further through the usual channels. However, those really devoted to the topic may like to turn up during the debate after the Consolidate Fund Bill when privatisation may be discussed. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman and I can exchange pleasantries then.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, apart from Members of Parliament, the only person who works double or treble shifts at this time of the year is Father Christmas? Will he promise that in the new year the Government will be as good about giving hon. Members treats as Father Chistmas is?

Mr. Biffen

The one agonising fear that I have about this place is that there may be too many hon. Members who think that they are Father Christmas.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Following the reported announcement in the press today that a £240 million radar contract has been signed with Iran, will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made tomorrow morning on that important deal? How does it square with the Prime Minister's statement last week that the Government were consistently and scrupulously pursuing a "no arms" policy with Iran?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot in any way confirm the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of newspaper comment, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to it. That subject might conceivably be raised in relation to two or three of the topics that have been chosen for discussion on Monday, just as the question of Nimrod could also be raised then.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

In view of the appalling threat posed to the nation's integrity by the remote possibility of a Labour Government implementing their defence policy, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a day's debate on the whole subject of defence and of our place in NATO as soon as the House returns after the Christmas recess?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend can rest assured that we are approaching the time of year when the individual Defence Estimates are debated by the House. That will happen after the Christmas recess. In the meantime, my hon. Friend may have an opportunity to raise that issue in the debate under the Consolidated Fund.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

The Leader of the House has regularly displayed an almost genetic predisposition to fairmindedness and sound logic, and so it is with confidence that I ask him to take note of correspondence received from a constituent of mine today. The constituent is secretary to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association and she refers to correspondence that has passed between the chairman of that organisation and the Home Secretary on three occasions since mid-September in relation to interference in telephone communications. As yet, that correspondence has not even been acknowledged. Will the right hon. Gentleman prevail on the Home Secretary to make a statement or, better still, to acknowledge that that correspondence has been received and is being given proper and careful attention?

Mr. Biffen

I shall refer that matter to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but meanwhile the hon. Gentleman may like to know that my right hon. Friend will be top for questions on Thursday 18 December.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Nottingham, North)

When will we debate the recommendation of the Procedure Committee on short speeches?

Mr. Biffen


Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that any announcement of a decision not to go ahead with the Nimrod early warning system after the Cabinet meeting on Thursday, the last full day that the House will sit, would be an outrageous way of treating the House, especially as we would not have any knowledge of the RAF's objections? We are not totally happy with the discussions promised through the usual channels, as it is they that have landed us in this extraordinary situation. Perhaps the Leader of the House can tell us why the Leader of the Opposition seems to want to avoid asking the Prime Minister questions.

Mr. Biffen

That subject has already been well worked over and the right hon. Gentleman has come in on the tail end of it. On his more substantial point, I should say that there is a prospect of a debate on the Nimrod issue tomorrow and again, possibly, during our Consolidated Fund debates. However, I cannot go beyond what I have said to the Leader of the Opposition. On reflection, I hope that the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) will feel that I have been quite forthcoming.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to consider early-day motion 310 on the subject of small dairy farms?

[That this House believes that should a reduction in milk quotas be necessary, the first 200,000 litres of a United Kingdom holding should not be included in any calculations, thus helping to ensure the future of the small family farms which have done so much for the British countryside.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the growing concern felt by the dairy industry? Will he ensure that, as soon as practically possible after the meeting of the Council of Ministers in Europe, the House will have an opportunity to debate the subject fully?

Mr. Biffen

I well understand the anxiety that there should be a statement on the outcome of that meeting of the Council of Ministers, and I shall bear that in mind. The trouble is trying to determine when that meeting will conclude.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I recently left the Kensington Hilton where miners' homes are being auctioned to the highest bidder? Many of those miners are old people who have suffered severely during the past two or three years as a result of Government policy. They consider such action to be yet another kick in the teeth. I have seen what may be racketeers today bidding for those homes. They will become absentee landlords, and those aged miners will not even know who they are. The miners' houses will be allowed to fall into decay and disrepair. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that that is disgraceful of the board of British Coal? Will he arrange for an early debate on this matter?

Mr. Biffen

I do not necessarily accept in any sense the interpretation or motives that the hon. Gentleman attributed to the National Coal Board, but he will have an opportunity to raise the matter in the Adjournment debates on Friday 19 December.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Will my right hon. Friend consider an early debate on law and order and especially on lenient sentences? Will he give us the opportunity to debate the recent Reith lecture by Lord McCluskey, who called for an amnesty for some prisoners awaiting trial because they had committed only minor offences? Surely the punishment must fit the crime.

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to my hon. Friend's points. Meanwhile, he may try to discover what options there are at Question Time on Thursday.

Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)

The Leader of the House will recall that earlier this year the Secretary of State for Defence announced the privatisation of the royal ordnance tank factory in Leeds. It has been sold to Vickers. Now the Christmas pay-off has come and there are 400 redundancies. Will the Secretary of State tell us next week whether he knew of the 400 or 500 redundancies when he approved the privatisation? Many of us believe that if we had a proper policy on conventional defence in Germany Britain would be making those tanks for the British Army of the Rhine.

Mr. Biffen

Since both privatisation and defence will be debated on the Consolidated Fund Bill, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider what opportunities that presents to him to make those points.

Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this morning in the Standing Committee on the Coal Industry Bill we were treated to the most extraordinary spectacle of the Labour party, apparently on the instructions of Mr. Arthur Scargill, refusing to offer any comment whatever on clauses 5 to 9 of the Bill? That is half the entire Bill—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is not in order for the hon. Gentleman to refer to what goes on in a Standing Committee. He must ask for a debate about something.

Mr. Smith

I apologise Mr. Speaker. In the light of that may we have the Report stage on the Bill early so that we can have a further debate on the subject and so that the Labour party can get its act together?

Mr. Biffen

I shall most certainly consider the timing of the Report stage, especially as it appears that that would enable the House to have a most entertaining debate.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Energy to make a statement to answer the important allegations that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontyfract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) and many others who signed the early-day motions about absentee landlords and Rachmanism that is taking place on a grand scale in the colliery areas? Is he aware, for instance that in my constituency a firm picked up houses at £3,000 each, which, according to the valuers, was less than the worth of the land upon which they stood? Within weeks they were sold for £6,000.

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

That sounds like a Tory.

Mr. Skinner

There is no question but that they were Tories. That is why we are having some difficulty getting a debate. I wonder whether, rather than just telling my hon. Friend, as the Leader of the House told me last week, to raise this on the Christmas Adjournment—undoubtedly efforts will be made in that direction—he will also ensure that the Secretary of State for Energy is made aware of this because if the National Coal Board can shut pits because of market forces the same should apply to houses. Market forces were not the criteria used when selling those houses because none of them were out to open tender.

Mr. Biffen

I am sorry that that rather extended question did not live up to the reputation which the hon. Gentleman created for himself last night with his speech.

Mr. Skinner

The right hon. Gentleman's head was on his pillow.

Mr. Biffen

I have my means of knowing. I was told that the speech was so formidable in its content that the day will arrive when every parliamentarian will have "Erskine May" on procedure and Skinner on amplification. The hon. Gentleman said that this week he wanted a different answer to the question he puts fairly regularly, so I will give him a different answer. On Monday he can ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, who will be answering questions.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that for the second week running two lamentable early-day motions remain on the Order Paper which appear to impugn the honour of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security. Should not those motions either be disposed of in the House or immediately withdrawn?

Mr. Biffen

I join with my hon. Friend in regretting the language in which the motions were couched, particularly as they do not admit themselves to instant challenge when they are tabled. Their remaining on the Order Paper is entirely a matter for the hon. Members who have tabled them.

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

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on why a Foreign Office official attended last weekend's conference of the Committee for a Free Nicaragua where Contra leader Arturo Cruz was preaching terrorism, despite an assurance that I received from the Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office that no official would be present? Why did an official from our embassy in Costa Rica attend a conference in San Jose on 24 November to set up a rebel Government for Nicaragua? Is this a U-turn in our policy on central America under pressure from the United States? We must know whether the Government now support terrorism in central America.

Mr. Biffen

The Government's position has been made amply clear and remains completely consistent, but if the hon. Gentleman would like to take his arguments on this matter further may I tell him that the tenth topic chosen for the Consolidated Fund Bill is Government policy towards central America.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

Will my right hon. Friend make time available for a debate on the Floor of the House on the dispatch from Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador in Washington relating to the disastrous visit to Washington by the Leader of the Opposition?

Mr. Biffen

That is a matter of such lively and general interest that my hon. Friend will find his own opportunities to raise it without requiring my services.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, Central and Royton)

Has the Leader of the House heard of an American-owned company called Electronic Data Systems, the chairman of which, Ross Perot, was forced to resign last week because he had paid a £2 million ransom at the request of Lieutenant-Colonel North to try to get released some hostages in the middle-east? That firm employs the most Victorian working conditions, sacking employees on the least excuse, and it has been accused—probably correctly—of employing illegal American immigrants. The Home Secretary is about to tell us that that company has been awarded the contract for the computers in the passport department of the Home Office and the police computer. Should not the Home Secretary come to the Dispatch Box next week to try to explain this further muddle?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman would agree that I might describe his accusations against a company as being more general than precise. Obviously, on Thursday my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be at the Dispatch Box to take questions.

Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the work of the Highfields task force in my constituency is being sabotaged by the city council from a sense of political spite? Can he say when the House may have a debate in which the admirable possibilities of inner-city task forces can be displayed?

Mr. Biffen

I am fascinated because it seems that at this time of the week the House learns more and more of the difficulties of the conduct of good government in Leicester. I take account of what my hon. and learned Friend says, but as a first thought I suggest that he might try to get an Adjournment debate on 19 December.

Mr. Ted Garrett (Wallsend)

Is the Leader of the House aware that an important engineering company in the north-east, Cummins Engineering in Darlington, has announced a closure with 500 job losses and that that is causing dismay in Darlington and other areas of the northeast? Does he accept that that is another sign of the harsh decline in our manufacturing base? Will he find time so that we can discuss this one issue in a serious manner, if not next week, at least when the House returns?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the anguish caused in the north-east by that closure. I shall refer the question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Gerrard Neale (Cornwall, North)

On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Couchman), may I make a last-ditch appeal on behalf of the Opposition parties for a sign of good cheer from the Leader of the House? In the light of the speedy evolution of their defence policies, could my right hon. Friend find a way of offering them a fortnightly debate when we return after the Christmas recess until some unknown date in May or June to give them the opportunity to explain to the House and the country the latest mutation in their policies?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes an appeal which has wide and popular support in the House, but, without being too Scrooge-like, may I say that there is a tactic in one's timing of these great topics. I hope that we shall not use up the defence issue too soon.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Referring to the request of the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer), may I ask that there should, indeed, be a debate about poverty and disadvantage in the city of Leicester, not least in the Highfields area, where the Government are doing little to help, and in outer areas, which do not receive inner-city help? In Braunstone in my constituency, for example, unemployment is about 60 per cent. Such areas tend to be omitted from the programmes in the belief that disadvantage, poverty and unemployment are the prerogative of central areas of cities.

Mr. Biffen

I would be happy to do a trade with the hon. and learned Gentleman. Perhaps we could give up one sitting which ran through the night, who knows, and in return thereafter have a Leicester-free zone in the affairs of this place.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the Opposition parties are keen to debate subjects, such as South America, Africa and Asia, but banded together to avoid having a discussion about agriculture and fisheries in Scotland on Monday? Can he give an early date when we may be able to discuss that?

Mr. Biffen

I understand my hon. Friend's point and the genuine irritation that it must cause him and all those who have the fishing industry's fortunes at heart. I shall certainly look at it.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

I know that the Leader of the House, in his Father Christmas spirit, was disappointed that he could not join his hon. Friends the Members for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) and for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) and other hon. Members from both sides of the House last Tuesday when we gave considerable support to the nursing profession during this difficult period. Will he now study my early-day motion 300 about the nurses pay award 1987?

[That this House welcomes the appointment of Sir James Cleminson as the new Chairman of the Review Body for Nurses and Midwives Remuneration; notes with concern, however, that the recommendations of his predecessor, in spite of declarations of acceptance by the Prime Minister, were scaled down in 1985 by being implemented for only two months instead of 12, and that in 1986 the 8 per cent. recommended was reduced to 75 per cent. of that award by the commencement of payments only from 1st July instead of 1st April; and now urges Her Majesty's Government not to evade a full and genuine acceptance of the coming 1987 recommendations and to give nurses and midwives their full entitlement, as decided by an independent and objective Review Body.]

I am not asking for a debate in the immediate future, but, in view of the right hon. Gentleman's well known economic expertise, will he use his influence with the Cabinet to ensure that for the third time nurses are not conned out of the award given by an independent and objective review body?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman asked a wide-ranging and dangerous question which he sought to cloak with flattery. Obviously, I shall read his early-day motion and draw its contents to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Martin M. Brandon-Bravo (Nottingham, South)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that last week I drew his attention to outside pressures on hon. Members resulting from the position in mining areas? May I draw his attention to early-day motion 337, which was laid today and is gathering signatures at a fair rate?

May I also draw his attention to the fact that the alliance group leader on an east Sussex county council has referred to one of our hon. Friends as a "Tory scab" because he is an ex-miner and a Conservative Member? Should we perhaps provide a short debate to allow the parliamentary leaders of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties either to confirm that attitude or to dissociate themselves from it?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. The language that seems to be used by the Sussex elite of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties is not language that we would wish to hear in this Chamber. As for the debate, I am under some difficulty because, as I look at the Benches, I do not see a single, wholesome, working-class prejudice among them.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Has the Leader of the House heard that the Department of the Environment has made it clear that it will soon be informing local authorities of housing investment programme allocations for next year? As we are seeing a deterioration in housing, in both the public and private sectors, will he arrange a debate in Government time on housing as soon as possible after the figures are announced?

Mr. Biffen

I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request, but he, too, will be able to share my anxiety about the shortness of time which is available to the Government. However, I can hold out to him the modest crumb of comfort that housing is the third topic nominated for debate under the Consolidated Fund Bill.

Mr. John Watts (Slough)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is a matter of great regret that the protracted proceedings on the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Bill had the effect of saving the Leader of the Opposition the embarrassment of having to face my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Question Time? Will my right hon. Friend provide injury time during the business of next week so that the sport is not lost for good but merely deferred? Will he consider introducing a Leader of the Opposition's Question Time because many hon. Members take the view that the right hon. Gentleman receives a substantial salary from public funds and many of our constituents, as taxpayers, feel that he provides poor value for money?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend is showing a slightly unhealthy degree of thirst for parliamentary blood sports in making those requests. I must tell him — I say this from genuine affection for the Leader of the Opposition — that we must preserve the right hon. Gentleman because, if he did not exist, he would certainly have to be created.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Leader of the House realise that he is being unfair and discourteous to the minority parties, especially in Scotland and the northern quarter of the electorate whom they represent, in rejecting our legitimate, fair request to meet him to discuss the handling of the Abolition of Domestic Rates etc, Bill after the Committee was set up? Is he further aware that that unfairness and discourtesy was parallelled by his bouncing a debate on local agriculture in Scotland on Scottish Members without porper notice or discussion with their representatives? Can he say why he has such double standards of courtesy?

Mr. Biffen

First, no discourtesy was intended, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that. Secondly, most objective observers will assume that I have been as broadly discourteous to him as to everybody else trying to make a claim on the time of the House which I cannot concede.

On the Special Standing Committee procedure for the Abolition of Domestic Rates etc. Bill, it is available to the hon. Gentleman to seek that from the House. He does not have to have that from me.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

In welcoming the Government's consultation paper on the Warnock issues and the rejection of knee-jerk legislation, when does my right hon. Friend feel that we can have time for the fullest possible debate which the Government called for in the paper?

Mr. Biffen

Not this side of Christmas. But I shall certainly bear in mind my hon. Friend's point because this is a topic which commands genuine interest in the House and the public generally will expect some movement.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Earlier the Leader of the House suggested that hon. Members who were interested in the Government's privatisation programme should join in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill. Surely he knows that that is listed as item 16 for debate and has little chance of being reached. Indeed, we may just reach item 12, which is my debate on the arts budget for 1987–88 which, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, is one of the most interesting casualties from losing Thursday's proceedings. As there is a long list of items, will the Leader of the House explain why we are starting the Consolidated Fund Bill so late this year? Time has been lost and that is a great disadvantage to us.

As the right hon. Gentleman was very interested in the opinions of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), perhaps he can tell the House whether he heard my hon. Friend's excellent two-hour speech in the early hours of this morning. Is it not time that we had a special award for hon. Members—the Skinner award—for the longest and most interesting speech in a debate?

Mr. Biffen

I note the hon. Gentleman's point with much interest and with some soul-searching because I have been asked to facilitate the rule on 10 minute speeches. The two cannot be easily reconciled, though through Parliament most things are possible.

I will consider the hon. Gentleman's point about the lateness of the Consolidated Fund Bill. I was not aware that it was that late or that it had given rise to any inconvenience to hon. Members.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about the Government's privatisation programme, of course there is an element of hope rather than expectation when I plead this opportunity, but what else can I do?

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

May I put it to my right hon. Friend that the sole outcome of the Opposition keeping the House up throughout the whole of today, last night, or whatever, is to prove to those millions of ratepayers and taxpayers who earn less than teachers, who pay the teachers, and who are offered increases in pay less than that offered to the teachers that the Opposition think that the 16.4 per cent. offer is not enough? Is not this, after the Australian telephone calls and the visit of the Leader of the Opposition to the United States, the third Opposition banana skin in a fortnight?

Mr. Biffen

The fact that we have run through the night is a matter that we must observe. I hope that we will not be too free and easy in being disparaging about our procedures. I am sure that the Opposition believe that they have conducted their arguments by a reasonable standard. I imagine that they, like me, regard the BBC's description of the debate as a marathon filibuster as an unfair description. I hope that everyone outside will note that there was no attempt to guillotine or force a closure during the debates.

We have our own ways of proceeding. They may seem bewildering to the world outside from time to time, but it is just as well that this place has the confidence of its procedures rather than looking for the approval of editorial comments.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the ratepayers of Ealing, including the Leader of the Opposition, have been promised a rates increase of between 60 per cent. and 100 per cent. next April after one year of control by the new Labour majority on the council? In view of the serious effect that that is likely to have upon jobs and industry in the area, the devastating effect that it is having upon pensioners' ability to pay rates and the suffering and hardship that it is causing disabled people and many others, may we have an early debate on that issue,

Mr. Biffen

I hope that the serious position outlined by my hon. Friend, including the employment consequences that he suggested, will not in any way affect the employment of the Leader of the Opposition, who we all want to be Leader of the Opposition for many years to come.

I will consider my hon. Friend's wider point, but he will understand thatre is real pressure on Government time now.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that item No. 17 on the Consolidated Fund Bill list—the protection of the security of the United Kingdom—which is a euphemism for the conduct of the Leader of the Opposition, should be brought forward and that we should have an urgent debate on that matter especially as it has just been announced on the news tapes that 16 NATO Foreign Ministers have agreed that they will bring forward proposals for cutting conventional arms in Europe?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. However, on the specific issue that he raised, he will realise that I have no power whatsoever, and indeed seek no power, to alter the arrangement of debates for the Consolidation Fund Bill. However, the topic that he has in mind could probably be debated on other maters more likely to be chosen for debate.

Mr. Kinnock

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is some danger of the House being misled as a result of questions on today's business statement. In order that this House and wider opinion is not misled, attention should be drawn to the fact that it was certainly well within the Government's power to use their majority at any stage in the proceedings on the Teachers' Pay and Conditions Bill to ensure that progress was made.

If it was a pressing matter of attention by the Prime Minister, wanting to bring herself before the House to account for her actions, she had any amount of opportunity to do so, today or even conceivably tomorrow. The number of amendments tabled on the Bill—almost 250—as the Leader of the House has said, was a matter of legitimate debate, well within the power of the House, certainly well within the entitlement of the Opposition, and necessary because of the extremely contentious nature of the Bill.