HC Deb 18 December 1986 vol 107 cc1360-5

4.5 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 the first week after the Christmas Adjournment, which will be as follows:

MONDAY 12 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Local Government Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 13 JANUARY—There will be a debate on the Army on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 14 JANUARY—Opposition Day (4th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, the subject for debate to be announced.

Motion on the Industrial Training Levy (Construction Board) Order 1987.

THURSDAY 15 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Coal Industry Bill.

Motions on the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (Mauritius) Order and the Double Taxation Relief (Taxes on Income) (France) Order.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

FRIDAY 16 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his statement.

On 12 January the Secretary of State for the Environment will introduce legislation. To prevent a further lapse by this recidivist Secretary of State, can the Leader of the House give an assurance that his right hon. Friend will consult with Greenwich council whose impending legal challenge brought the Government's lawlessness of the past six years to light?

In the debate on the Army, can the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Defence comes to the House with an adequate response to the problems encountered by tank workers at the former ROF factory in Leeds which is now owned by Vickers? It has laid off between 400 and 500 tank workers as a consequence of the MOD changing its system of ordering?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the recent Shelter report that more than 500,000 pensioners live in accommodation which is officially unfit for habitation and that more than 100,000 households are likely to have been declared officially homeless by the end of the year? In recognition of the urgent need to combat that increase in misery, will the right hon. Gentleman agree to provide time for a debate on homelessness shortly after we return in the new year?

There is great concern on both sides of the House about the appalling decline in the merchant shipping fleet. That was recently highlighted by the right hon. Member for Taunton, (Sir E. du Cann), among others. Since that continuing decline has serious trade and defence implications, will the Leader of the House give Government time for a debate as soon as possible?

I understand that later today the Government are likely to announce as part of the campaign against the spread of AIDS that clean needles will be made available to registered drug addicts. While I accept the need for that measure, may we expect in common justice that similar provision will be made for free disposable syringes for the 200,000 or so diabetics in Britain who at present must pay the full price for them?

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Department of Trade and Industry has commenced an investigation into alleged insider trading activities in the Department of Trade and Industry, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission or the Office of Fair Trading? Will he undertake investigations into that and ensure that a full statement is made to the House today so that we may be fully acquainted with the facts as they are hitherto known?

Finally, may I wish the Leader of the House a happy Christmas. I ask him to confirm, as he said to the Select Committee on Procedure on Tuesday, that we are—I use his words—"in the last few months of this Parliament". May I ask the Leader of the House in his usual candid fashion, to be a little more specific about dates since he obviously knows something that not even the Prime Minister knows?

Mr. Biffen

If I may, I will take those almost limitless number of points that the right hon. Gentleman has just raised in reverse order and start with perhaps the most attractive of all concerning the timing of the general election. I have nothing to add to the right hon. Gentleman's general education on this matter, except to assure him that it is an election to which I look forward with much greater relish than he does.

I now refer to the point about alleged insider activities within the Department of trade and Industry in the context of takeover bids. This matter was raised last week, and I do not think I have anything further to add to what I said then, but, of course, I will refer his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

The right hon. Gentleman was correct in assuming that there will be a statement concerning the provision of clean needles in various restricted circumstances as part of the campaign against AIDS. I take note of what he said about diabetics and, of course, I will refer that argument to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the statement is strictly and clearly in respect of AIDS.

With regard to the merchant fleet, I have no plans for an immediate debate upon it, though doubtless it could arise, at least with the permission of the Chair, as part of the debate that we have on the Royal Navy. I will, of course, refer the right hon. Gentleman's comments to the usual channels. I will also refer his request for a debate on the homeless.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will be fully apprised of the importance of the royal ordnance factories and that they will feature in the debate that takes place in the first week after the recess.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who always carries his burdens with good nature and with a concern for cutting through the difficulties, will be only too well aware of the point about the Greenwich council. But, just by some chance that it is in a Christmas spirit that the right hon. Gentleman has raised this point, fearing that there might have been an oversight, I shall see that it is corrected.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has said that there will be an Opposition day on Wednesday January 14. If he finds that the Opposition have been unable to come up with an appropriate subject, will he suggest that the texts of early-day motions Nos. 1 to 38 entitled "Conduct of the Leader of the Opposition" may well give the House an opportunity, long overdue, to debate the important matter of the role of the Leader of the Opposition and his relationship with the gentleman in Australia, Mr. Turnbull, and quite what the Leader of the Opposition thought he was up to; what has been his relationship with Mr. Turnbull, and what instructions he has taken from Mr. Turnbull? Will my right hon. Friend consider suggesting that, if the Opposition do not take this up, he will provide official time to debate the texts of early-day motion Nos. 1 to 38?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has said that he is anxious about the recent brisk level of controversy and that it should be continued into the new year. Certainly, the course he recommends would sustain it, but I do not think I can answer for what will be the topic chosen by the Leader of the Opposition. We shall all watch with interest.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Will the Leader of the House take note of the considerable concern and surprise on this Bench that there has been no ministerial statement yet on the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate report on Sellafield? It was a critical report which caused considerable alarm. Can the Leader of the House say whether an Environment Minister will be coming to the Dispatch Box before or immediately after the recess to make a statement on that report?

I thank the Leader of the House for the informal indications that he has given that he will not be proceeding, until January, with the motion under his name on short speeches. Will he take account of the fact that some of the concern relates to the timing of the period or short speeches? Before the right hon. Gentleman proceeds with the motion, will he give an indication that the usual channels will discuss the interests of minority parties in this matter?

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps I should have extended it to short questions, but I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says. With regard to his first point, which I think is of greater substance, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is not yet in possession of the full report. Therefore, there can be no question of any statement being made this side of the recess.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that hon. Members with agricultural constituencies will be looking to him to provide shortly a day for a debate on agriculture following the important statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Will he ensure that agriculture gets urgent priority in the new year?

Mr. Biffen

I will bear in mind my hon. Friend's request. I realise that agricultural interests are widely represented in this House, particular on the Conservative Benches. I appreciate that there is a general anxiety to have an occasion on which formally to praise my right hon. Friend for his recent achievements.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

Is the Leader of the House aware that unemployment in Scotland is steadily going up whereas in the rest of the United Kingdom, it is going down? In my constituency, we are to lose another 500 jobs after an announcement yesterday. Will the right hon. Gentleman take an early opportunity to initiate a debate on the problems facing the Scottish economy because it seems to be facing problems that no longer affect other parts of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Biffen

I bear in mind that the hon. Gentleman makes a point about unemployment in the Scottish context that he believes makes it separate from the more general considerations of unemployment. Therefore, I take heart from that and think that it might be suitable for debate in the Scottish Grand Committee.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

May I remind the House that business is subject to a timetable motion today. I will allow questions to go on until 4.25 and then we must move on.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it would be quite wrong for any announcement about free needles for drug addicts not to be coupled with an announcement of free needles for diabetics?

Mr. Biffen

I will pass on my hon. Friend's observation to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

When will the right hon. Gentleman provide the House with the opportunity to debate a number of very important issues in the heritage, specifically the gutting of the interior of the Royal Mint which the Tower of London wanted for its own purposes and the refusal of the Government to sponsor the purchase of the Royal Dental hospital to provide the National Portrait gallery with more exhibition space for its collections?

Mr. Biffen

I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to those two points. I will of course refer them to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts.

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

Has my right hon. Friend seen page 2 of The Times on which reference is made to a Liberal and SDP attempt to draw attention to many of the seats of my right hon. and hon. Friends in terms of the voting record and their behaviour therein? Will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that in one constituency, that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), recent opinion polls showed a 9 per cent. reduction in the potential Liberal vote and an increase of 5,000 in the possible Tory majority? Perhaps the combined voting records of my hon. Friends in this matter would be more than 10 times the voting record of many Members of the alliance.

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that when it comes to any comparisons of voting performance, quality of speeches, conciseness of questions and general political awareness, the alliance would be at a major detriment. The more good customer guides we can have on what is on offer politically, the better it will be for us.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion No. 85?

[That this House condemns the Government's intention to privatise Rolls-Royce and would utterly refute the Under Secretary of State for Defence Procurement's recent statement that Rolls-Royce employees 'relish the idea of privatisation'; fully agrees, on the contrary, with the concern of most employees that their jobs, wages and working conditions would be at risk; reminds the Government that it was a previous Conservative administration which originally brought the company into state ownership, in order to prevent it from going out of business; commends the dedication and skills of the workforce, which has been responsible for revitalising the company since 1971; contends that private ownership is totally unsuitable for an industry which requires large amounts of advance investment for product research and development; re-affirms its belief that the future for Rolls-Royce and the workforce is best guaranteed by it remaining fully in the public sector and not subject to short-term yearly profit analyses; and looks forward to a Labour Government that is prepared to safeguard jobs by investing in manufacturing industry.] It concerns Rolls-Royce and is supported by 115 Labour Members. It is against the threatened privatisation of that company. When will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the Government giving away that company after cancelling £370 million of the company's debts? Apart from giving those 115 Labour MPs the chance of a major debate to oppose the privatisation of companies like Rolls-Royce, we may like to draw the comparison between the fact that the Tories can cancel debts prior to privatisation for companies like Rolls-Royce but cannot do it for city councils.

Mr. Biffen

As the hon. Gentleman uses the pretext of a question to make a speech, I begin to wonder whether there is any legitimacy in having a debate. He raises an important point about any proposals on privatisation for Rolls-Royce and I shall consider carefully what he said about a debate, but I could not accept one in the terms in which he recommended it.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I associate myslef with my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) who called for free needles for diabetics? May we have an early debate on the terrifying treatment that my constituent Mrs. Maureen McGoldrick has received at the hands of the evil Brent council?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend's point about Mrs. McGoldrick might be suitable for an Adjournment debate, not least because she is a distinguished constituent of my hon. Friend. I cannot say more than I already have in regard to my hon. Friend's first point.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Stretford)

The Leader of the House will be aware that there has been a redetermination of the funding of local passenger transport authorities. Will he draw the Secretary of State for Transport's attention to the anxiety that the Bill that we are to consider when we reassemble after Christmas will mean that the redetermination no longer takes account of local factors but is a common uplifting, which would be unacceptable to passenger transport authorities?

Mr. Biffen

I shall pass that comment on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have perceived that he will be able to make his arguments when the legislation is before the House.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

As Chairman of the Services Committee, my right hon. Friend will know that that Committee has decided, although hon. Members have not been formally notified, that a restriction should be put on the number of bookings that hon. Members can make for sponsoring functions in the banqueting room. I appreciate that the reason for that is that a few hon. Members have abused their privilege of being able to sponsor lunches and dinners. Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that a number of his colleagues are finding considerable difficulty in arranging routine parliamentary constituency functions? Will he review the arrangement as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Biffen

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for informing me that he would raise this matter. I shall most certainly look into it. I realise that it is of general concern to the House, and I shall be in touch with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Minister for Health if he will make a statement early in the new year about the increasing problems which face people who are dying from cancer? A person who has an inoperable cancer goes home to die, and it may take three or four months before that happens. During that time, that person may need five or six medications every three weeks at a cost of £12 or £14.50. Surely it would be possible for the Government to arrange, in what I submit is a special case, for charges to be remitted as we know that the people concerned have only a short time to live.

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what the hon. Gentleman says, and of course I shall refer it to my hon. Friend as he requests. Meanwhile, he may wish to try to alert the Department through the offices of Question Time as the Department will be first for questions on Tuesday 13 January.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

In view of the Government's deeply regrettable decision in respect of the airborne early warning system purchased by the Ministry of Defence, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate as soon as possible on the future of manufacturing industry in this country, bearing in mind the fact that manufacturing industry is our only source of genuine wealth creation?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot in any sense accept the strictures that my hon. Friend puts on the Government, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence or the announcement that he made earlier this afternoon. I take account of the importance that my hon. Friend attaches to manufacturing industry. I hope that he extends the same feelings to agriculture, services and all of the other wealth-creating elements in the country. They will always be uppermost in the mind of the Government and, I believe, the House when we debate the economy.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

Now that the transport users consultative committee has recommended that the Settle to Carlisle railway line must be kept open, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement early in the new year about the Government's intention to abide by that committee's decision?

Mr. Biffen

I shall of course refer that request to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be here for questions on Monday 12 January when Transport comes top. He may then have a chance to put his question in his own way.