HC Deb 20 February 1986 vol 92 cc479-88 3.31 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House whether he will 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 24 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on the second report of the Select Committee on Social Services in Session 1983–84 on children in care (House of Commons Paper 360) and the Government's response (Cmnd. 9298). The debate will arise on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Motions on the Bishops' (Retirement) Measure and the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure.

Proceedings on the Agricultural Holdings Bill [Lords], which is a consolidation Measure.

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

TUESDAY 25 FEBRUARY — Motion on the Local Government Rate Limitation (Prescribed Maximum) (Rates) Order.

Motion relating to the Local Government Reorganisation (Designated Councils) (Pensions) Order.

WEDNESDAY 26 FEBRUARY—There will be a debate on the Royal Air Force on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Motion on the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order.

THURSDAY 27 FEBRUARY—Until about seven o'clock there will be a debate on motions relating to recommendations in the second, third and fourth reports of the Select Committee on Procedure of Session 1984–85 (House of Commons Papers Nos. 49, 396 and 623) and the first report of the Select Committee on Procedure of this Session (House of Commons Paper No. 42).

Remaining stages of the Housing (Scotland) Bill.

FRIDAY 28 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Motions.

MONDAY 3 MARCH—Opposition Day (9th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, the subject for debate to be announced.

It is expected that the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration at seven o'clock.

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. On British Leyland, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, on Tuesday night, the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry said: the House was sovereign; the House has total and complete control over what happens"?—[Official Report, 18 February 1986; Vol. 92, col. 291.] However, yesterday afternoon, in the other place, the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that the decision relating to BL would merely be "reported to Parliament". Will the right hon. Gentleman give a clear guarantee that the House will have an opportunity to debate the whole issue before any deal is struck?

Yesterday, the Paymaster General was caught out trying to slip a policy change through by the back door by means of a written answer. Later today, he will have to make a statement about fiddling the unemployment figures. When will the right hon. Gentleman allocate Government time for a full-scale debate on unemployment, including the proposals recently put forward by the Select Committee on Employment, which has a special regard for the problems of the long-term unemployed?

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that there will be a debate on Welsh affairs as soon as possible?

Mr. Biffen

In the debate on 18 February, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, referring to parliamentary consideration of any deal that might be concluded concerning British Leyland, said: When a conclusion to negotiations is reached my right hon. Friend will immediately make a statement to the House and he will accept that it will be for the House to debate and decide upon the result of those negotiations." — [Official Report, 18 February 1986; Vol. 92, column 291.] I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend's remarks.

As to the preparation of statistically more accurate unemployment figures, I am sorry that the rather emotive language which the Leader of the Opposition has a disposition to use has crept into his remarks this afternoon. I assure him that we attach great importance to this topic. The matter of a debate will be considered through the usual channels. Obviously, it would be appropriate for a Government response to the findings of the Select Committee on Employment to be tabled.

Finally, in the calmer waters of Welsh business, we very much look forward to an early debate on Welsh affairs.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that clause 2 of the Shops Bill was considerably amended in another place. In view of the widespread interest in the outcome and contents of the Bill, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a Government statement to be made early next week on whether that amendment will be accepted?

Mr. Bitten

Of course, I shall refer that request to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to know that, in the reasonably near future, the House will have the opportunity to consider the Second Reading of that legislation.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Will Conservative Members be given the opportunity of a free vote on the Shops Bill on Second Reading? Next week, when the report of the Select Committee on Procedure is discussed, will the timetabling of Government Bills be a matter for a free vote as well?

Mr. Biffen

Ever ambitious as I am to take responsibility in all these matters, I must say that this matter is for my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary.

Mr. John Browne (Winchester)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, just as in 1979, when a rapid rise in oil prices led to a speculative build-up of reserves which worsened the impending glut in the oil market, so now, would not a rapid fall in oil prices, resulting in the ceasing of exploration, cause great damage in future years? As Great Britain has an influence on the oil market far out of proportion to its oil production, could we not play a critical role in ensuring that the market does not get out of control? Should we not debate this vital issue?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that this is not the appropriate forum for me to engage in economic examination. However, I assure him that we are now within a month of the Budget debate and I am sure that his topic will have much relevance to the discussions that take place then.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

Is the Leader of the House aware that a serious situation is developing in the West Yorkshire police authority, which has a new joint board? That authority is committed by the Home Office to provide a force which will cost £63 million, but the Department of the Environment guideline states that it can spend only £52 million. That means that the authority will have to introduce new labour-saving incentives not to pre-empt the precept which will take it into penalties under the DoE guidelines. Failing that, the authority will have to reduce the force next year by 1,300 men. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made to the House?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am in no position to comment on the situation that he has outlined. I will of course refer his point to my hon. Friends who have interests in these matters.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 57 standing in my name? The motion calls for the introduction of a blindness allowance, and has been signed by nearly 270 hon. Members of all parties. Another 20 hon. Members have signed the amendment, making a total of nearly 300 Members.

[That this House, whilst appreciating all that has been done for the blind by this and previous governments, wishes to remind the Government of the acceptance by successive Ministers of the case for a blindness allowance and, in particular, the statement by the then Minister of State for Social Security and the Disabled (the Right honourable Member for Daventry) on 24th July 1979 that the case for an income in the form of a blindness allowance is unanswerable on its merits; points out to the Government that the blind do not normally qualify for mobility, invalidity, attendance or other allowances, unless suffering from a second disability; and calls upon the Government to take immediate action to replace the existing range of benefits available to the blind with a means-tested blindness allowance.]

Given that Ministers and Front Bench spokesmen do not usually sign early-day motions, that means that more than 50 per cent. of hon. Members eligible to vote signed the motion. That reveals a great deal of interest. Will my right hon. Friend therefore find an early day for a debate on that subject?

Mr. Biffen

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend on engaging in a well-organised and successful pre-Budget initiative. The most appropriate time for debate will be when the Budget is presented.

Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

Will next Thursday's debate on procedure allow discussion on what has now sadly become the Friday fiasco, in which private Members' Bills, before they are discussed, are objected to? If that is not possible next Thursday, will the right hon. Gentleman look closely into the matter?

Mr. Biffen

The topics to be discussed are those contained in the Procedure Committee reports and recommendations to which I have referred. The Procedure Committee has not recently attended to the subject to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

In view of the number of members of Her Majesty's Government who are still publicly advising my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on how best to win the general election, will my right hon. Friend arrange, in his capacity as the Leader of the House, for those people to be given leave of absence to take the waters at Aix-les-Bains, Bath or some other suitable English spa, so that the rest of the Government can get on with governing the country?

Mr. Biffen

I think my hon. Friend owes it to the House to tell us how many he thinks will be left behind.

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Has the Leader of the House heard the strong speculation that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is announcing today plans to sell the whole of the Forestry Commission's 3 million acres? If that is the case, will he ensure that that announcement is made in the House—not at a press conference—later this afternoon if necessary?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I confess that I have not heard any such report, but I will certainly investigate the matter.

Mr. Alexander Pollock (Moray)

May I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) and stress to my right hon. Friend that there would be considerable disquiet on the Conservative Benches if there were to be privatisation of the Forestry Commission?

Mr. Biffen

I can well understand that, and that is why I answered the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) in the rather measured way that I did.

Mr. D. E. Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Does the Leader of the House accept that the waters of Welsh politics are not as calm as he suggested earlier? As the usual channels have so far failed to agree on which day, in the view of the House, is St. David's day, will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that there will be an early debate under the stewardship of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who has again this week managed to generate a crisis between himself and the Welsh local authorities which might lead to the Secretary of State's induced resignation?

Mr. Biffen

Among all the many hon. Members who look forward to an early debate upon the principality, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales looks forward with the greatest anticipation.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that anxiety about the statement on the Forestry Commission by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is not restricted to Scottish Members? It seems that there is no information in the building about that statement. Is my right hon. Friend aware that 750 acres of prime land in my constituency have been the subject of private negotiations between the Forestry Commission and a somewhat disreputable firm of London developers? That is causing great anxiety to the local authorities in my constituency, but I have been able to find out little about the matter. Does he agree that there is a need for an early debate in the House about the Government's intentions and the implications of the matter?

Mr. Biffen

If the position is as the hon. Member for Cathcart tentatively outlined, I would say at once that that was a matter which would require the attention of the House, but, as I said to the hon. Gentleman, I should like to look into the matter, and that I certainly shall do.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

When can we have a debate on road safety? Is the Minister aware of the anxiety felt in Leicestershire over the Government's refusal to take any action over the continuing series of deaths and tragedies on the Groby road? It is not good enough merely to say that it is a matter for the county council, especially as the county council happens to be Tory-dominated and does as little as possible to help the people?

Mr. Biffen

The topic is undoubtedly important. It has that range of interest which would commend itself to Question Time on Monday rather than to a debate.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Will the Leader of the House undertake to ensure that there will be a debate within a week or so at most—in any case before Easter—after the publication of the report on nuclear waste by the Select Committee on the Environment, which we know is expected in the first half of next month? It should be on the whole subject contained in that report. It is important, given the anxiety expressed in the House yesterday and today in the European Parliament, which looks forward to seeing the report and its recommendations.

Mr. Biffen

That is undoubtedly a most important report. The first link in the sequence of events must be the Government's consideration of and formal observations upon the report. We can perhaps consider the matter after we have got that far.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

May I suggest that my right hon. Friend does not proceed too quickly to introduce the Shops Bill in the House, so as to give the Government enough time to consult colleagues on both sides of the House as to how the Bill can be properly amended before it is considered here?

Mr. Biffen

I shall pass on those worldly wise and good-natured observations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. The Patronage Secretary will have heard them, as he sits here.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

In view of the rumours about the sale of the Forestry Commission and in view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman does not seem to know what is going on, will he at least guarantee—this falls directly within his power—that there will be a debate on the matter in the House before the Government take any such action?

Mr. Biffen

It is not that I do not seem; it is that I do not know. I have said that I will look into the matter. My first obligation is to look into the matter and establish the facts and consider the appropriate action thereafter.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Has my right hon. Friend seen press reports today which way that 200,000 London households will have rate reductions following the abolition of the GLC? Does that not underline the urgent need for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to come to the House and announce his intention to get rid of the wrecking amendment to the Local Government Bill which was passed in the other place? It would permit the continuation of activities similar to those of the GLC which has given £5,000 to Ealing CND to conduct a completely spurious campaign to make Ealing a nuclear-free zone from 1 April? The Bill is needed to deal with actions similar to those of Labour councillors in Ealing who attempted to give £2,000 of public money to Militant councillors in Liverpool and Hackney. Happily, they were defeated.

Mr. Biffen

I am delighted to endorse my hon. Friend's satisfaction at some of the consequences of the abolition of the GLC. On the matter of amendments to the local government legislation that have been passed in another place, I think that we shall have to pause for reflection. At the moment I cannot advise my hon. Friend on what is likely to be the Government's reaction.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Now that the United States Senate has had a debate on the Philippines elections and has declared them as fraudulent, is it not right that the House, which has approved overseas aid to the Marcos regime and which is committed to human rights, should have a debate on that important matter?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is very agile in these matters, will use such opportunities as will be presented by overseas aid Questions on Monday. I shall certainly mention the wider issue of a debate to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

In the light of today's impudent debate on the subject of Sellafield, will my right hon. Friend tell the impotent but power-hungry poseurs of the European Assembly to keep their foreign noses out of our business and to jump in the Rhine or whatever deep and fast-flowing stretch of European water they find most appropriate? If that is too raucous for my right hon. Friend, will he undertake that he will, in no circumstances, bring measures before the House which enhance the powers or prestige of that misbegotten institution?

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that any of that necessarily strictly arises out of next week's business. It seems to me that when my hon. Friend begins to address himself to the matters of the Strasbourg Assembly he begins to pick up the bad habits of Mr. Leslie Huckfield.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Further to the rumours of the possible privatisation of the Forestry Commission land, we understand that the Leader of the House has not received any information that such a statement is being made. If a statement is being made and if his inquiries show that a statement has been made outside the House, will he make arrangements for a statement to be made to the House later today? We have all had enough of statements being made outside the House.

Mr. Biffen

As I have said to the hon. Member for Cathcart, I shall look into the matter and consider it in the light of what is revealed.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Following the significant question of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) and in view of the fact that politics is allegedly all about priorities, will my right hon. Friend consider whether the Shops Bill deserves the priority it has been accorded hitherto? Might it not be for the convenience of the House and the better conduct of its business if it were quietly dropped?

Mr. Biffen

Although I belong to the political school whose motto is "one difficulty at a time", I say to my hon. Friend that this is a Bill which was outlined in the Queen's Speech and which has received very careful consideration in another place. Of course I take account of his views, but I do not hold out a prospect of any intention to drop the legislation.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to take into account the business before the House today. I am reluctant to curtail business questions, but I must limit them to a further 10 minutes.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Further to the alleged statement of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and in view of the fact that, if it were true, he would have taken leave of his senses, will the Leader of the House make the opportunity available to the Minister to come to the House and deny that he has proposed to sell 3 million acres, particularly in view of the fact that land prices are already plummeting as a result of the collapse in agricultural incomes and that that would finally remove the bankers' security?

Mr. Biffen

I have tried to answer fairly the question put to me by the hon. Member for Cathcart. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to leave it at that.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread opposition in the country to the Shops Bill? Will he not hide behind niceties of procedure but come clean and tell us whether the Government will accept an amendment of substance which will preserve the special character of Sunday?

Mr. Biffen

The handling of the Bill is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I shall draw to his attention the anxiety expressed by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

I understand that the Leader of the House is not aware of the announcement about the sale of Forestry Commission lands. Can I assure him that there is what appears to be an authoritative statement on the tapes, referring specifically to the sale of 3 million acres of forestry land, quoting a revenue of £1,500 million which the Treasury expects to receive, and stating specifically that the Government intend that Forestry Commission holdings shall be taken over by City institutions? In view of the performance of the City in financing British industry, does the Leader of the House think that our national heritage, rural employment and the environment are safe in the hands of those people? If the statement is not true, will the Government immediately refute the announcement on the tapes? If it is true, will the Minister ensure that we have either a statement or a debate later today or early next week?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said. I am sure that he will understand that, having given my reply to the hon. Member for Cathcart, there is not much that I can add.

Sir Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

Will my right hon. Friend pass to our right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food my complete opposition to any sale of forestry land, as my constituency contains probably the largest acreage in England, and is a great environmental and recreational area?

Mr. Biffen

I really do not know what I have done to deserve this. I was not aware of the suggestions that were made by the hon. Member for Cathcart. I told him that I would look into the matter, and that I most certainly shall.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

Is it now possible to get a sensible statement from the Government about the decision by the independent colliery review tribunal, recommending that Bates' colliery should remain open against the vehement opposition of the National Coal Board? The Leader of the House will be well aware from our correspondence and my previous questions that the Secretary of State for Energy simply cannot do anything to influence the NCB, and that the NCB has been prevaricating and messing about for 16 days, and has flatly refused to decide whether to accept or reject the recommendations. That is unfair on 1,400 of my constituents who work in the mine. Will the Leader of the House intervene, and state what the Government's position is?

Mr. Biffen

All I can say is that, if it is a question of ministerial influence, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is certainly in a more appropriate position than any other Minister, and I shall draw his attention to the hon. Gentleman's point.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

Will there be a statement next week on the disposal of nuclear waste?

Mr. Biffen

I have no observation to make at present.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

When can we expect a debate on London Regional Transport? During the hour-and-a-half debate the other week only two London Labour Members could speak, and one of them was limited to two minutes. That is supposed to be the system that replaces full-scale accountability by the Greater London council. Clearly, it is inadequate. When can we have another debate?

Mr. Biffen

As the hon. Gentleman has observed, we have debated the subject recently, and, like many hon. Members, he feels that the debate was not sufficiently wide or long. I shall make that point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. But, being a realist, I suggest that for the moment he had better take his luck with transport questions on Monday.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

In view of the increasing probability of violence in the Province of Ulster, will my right hon. Friend make time for an early debate so that at least hon. Members understand what is likely to happen before that probability turns into a virtual certainty?

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says. In the interim, questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland arise on Thursday, and I am sure that all parts of the House will wish hon. Members from the Province to be present and to participate.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

In view of the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) by the Home Secretary about the financing of the west Yorkshire police force, and in view of the reply given to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) on the same subject, will the Leader of the House note that this is a serious question because the Home Office is saying that the police force there requires £63 million, and the capping by the Department of the Environment is set at £52 million? That is a vast difference. No policeman can be made redundant. Will the Leader of the House assure us that, if agreement cannot be reached between the two Departments, he will bring the matter before the House so that we can debate and resolve it? It is a serious matter for west Yorkshire, and we should like to see it resolved.

Mr. Biffen

I truly do not doubt that it is a serious matter for west Yorkshire. It is imperative that the problem should be solved. As I said in answer to an earlier question, I shall refer the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Will my right hon. Friend widen the scope of Tuesday's debate on rate limitation, so that the House can be made aware of the problems in Leicester with the city council, which has now levied a new rate of 45.5p in the pound—an 80 per cent. increase for 1986–87 — and which has told the ratepayers "That's it. You can't even go and argue."? Businesses cannot argue, and that will reduce the number of jobs.

Also, during Thursday's debate on procedure, could consideration be given to those unfortunate Conservative Members who are having to suffer Labour Members entering their constituencies and addressing public meetings without having the courtesy to inform them?

Mr. Biffen

Let me at once answer the allegations of infringing one of the well-known restrictive parliamentary practices of preserving one's constituency from the ravages of travelling opponents. None of that arises on the Committee's recommendations on procedure, so my hon. Friend should look to an Adjournment debate to make his point.

As to the former matter, my hon. Friend is now such an acknowledged parliamentarian that he will have no difficulty in making the speech of Leicester as though it belonged to the nation.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Will the Leader of the House please recall the statement made by the Secretary of State for the Environment on 9 January 1985 when he promised to announce the sites that would be identified for the possible disposal of nuclear waste? Is he aware that some sources have it that the information on those sites has been on the Secretary of State's desk for the past five months and that for some reason he is unable to face the House with them? Will he agree to make representations to the Secretary of State to bring the statement forward, so that the anxiety felt in the rest of the country can be modified?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will realise that, during business questions, I never make speculative references to statements, but I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to the issue.

Mr. Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is no case for the British taxpayer to own one square inch of ground on which to grow unprofitable trees? Is he aware that the only thing wrong with the statement of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is that it should have been made several years ago?

Mr. Biffen

I believe that I have gone through enough questions about that elusive topic. I shall just say, "How interesting."

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

May I ask, for the eighth time, for a debate on the report of the Select Committee of Privileges on the confidentiality of Select Committees?

Regarding the statement that is about to be made to the House on the new method of providing unemployment statistics and the fiddling of the figures, can we have a debate on the way those statistics are compiled? This is the only opportunity that we shall have today to ask the Leader of the House that question. Will he give me a direct reply?

Mr. Biffen

On the first question, I believe that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to confess that he is an assiduous attender of these little sessions on Thursday afternoons. I answered his question last week and said that there would be a debate on the Select Committee of Privilege's report.

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman's second question could well be considered in the wider context of a debate on employment, but I suggest that we see how matters stand after the statement.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Kenneth Clarke—statement.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take points of orders after the statement.

Mr. Adley

It is directly related to what we have been discussing.

Mr. Speaker

I shall still take it afterwards.