HC Deb 27 February 1986 vol 92 cc1072-80 3.47 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 3 MARCH—There will be a debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Afterwards a debate on a motion to take note of EC documents relating to the European social fund. Details of the documents concerned will be given in the Official Report.

TUESDAY 4 MARCH — Until about Seven o'clock, completion of remaining stages of the Housing (Scotland) Bill.

Second Reading of the Salmon Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 5 MARCH—There will be a debate on a Government motion to take note of the White Paper on developments in the European Community January to June 1985—(Cmnd. 9627).

Afterwards, motion on the annual report from the European Court of Auditors for 1984.

Details of the EC documents relevant to these debates will be given in the Official Report.

THURSDAY 6 MARCH—Opposition Day (9th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The Plight of the Elderly".

Motion relating to the Local Government Reorganisation (Compensation) Regulations Order.

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

FRIDAY 7 MARCH—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY IO MARCH—There will be a debate on a motion to take note of the 1986 farm price proposals and the proposed milk outgoers scheme. Details of relevant EC documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Debate on Monday 3 March


Relevant European Documents

(a) 7711/85 Guidelines for management of European Social Fund 1986–88.
(b) 9901/85 European Social Fund: Accession of Spain and Portugal.
(c) 9854/85 European Social Fund: Report for 1984.

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

(a) HC 5—xxx (1984–85) paragraph 7.

(b) HC 21—iii (1985–86) paragraph 1.

(c) HC 21—iv (1985–86) paragraph 2.

Wednesday 5 March


Relevant European Document
(d) 8616/85 Commission opinion on amendments to the EEC Treaty.


Relevant European Document
(e) OJ C326 The Court of Auditors Report for 1984.

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

(d) HC 5–xxxi (1984–85) paragraph 1, and HC 264 (1985–86)

(First Special Report: The Single European Act and Parliamentary Scrutiny)

(e) HC 21–ix (1985–86) paragraph 2.

Monday 10 March


Relevant European Documents

(f) 10174/85 Milk production: outgoers scheme.
(g) 8480/85 Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.
(h) 4130/86 Future of Community Agriculture.
(i) 10492/85 Reform of Cereals Regime.
(j) 4150/86 Reform of Beef Regime.
(k) 4075/86 Situation in agricultural markets 1985.
(l) 4963/86 CAP Prices.

Relevant Reports of European Legislation Committee

(f) HC 21—iii (1985–86) paragraph 2.

(g) HC 5—xxx (1984–85) paragraph 10.

(h) HC 21—ix (1985–86) paragraph 1.

(i) HC 21—vii (1985–86) paragraph 2.

(j) HC 21—x (1985–86) paragraph 3.]

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Today, another set of increased unemployment figures has been published, and the Government still have not given time for a debate on the record unemployment or on the proposals of the Select Committee on Employment on improvement in provision for the long-term unemployed. Will the right hon. Gentleman set a date for such a debate?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the independent review body, which was established under the new colliery review procedure, recommended in one of its first reports that Bates' colliery in Northumberland should be kept open for at least another two years? The National Coal Board has overruled that decision. In the light of the implications of the NCB's decision on the validity of the review procedure, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the general principles of that review procedure should be a matter for early debate? Will he take account of the fact that Mr. Ian MacGregor has posed a new series of threats to collieries by referring to the fluctuations in oil prices? I suggest that that is also an apposite matter for debate in the near future.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the raids earlier today by the fraud squad, apparently in connection with the bullion transactions of Johnson Matthey, and the large-scale evasion of value added tax? As these are clearly matters of public concern and economic significance, will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that we shall have at least a statement from the appropriate Minister and preferably a debate early next week?

Mr. Biffen

I shall look into the matter of the fraud squad raids which have been reported today and ascertain whether it is appropriate for a statement to be made. I shall get in touch with the right hon. Gentleman through the usual channels.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that Bates' colliery features in next week's business in an Adjournment debate. I should certainly like to look at the point more widely. The right hon. Gentleman will realise that the National Union of Mineworkers has been given leave to take legal action against the NCB. I should want to satisfy myself of the exact position and ascertain whether the matter is sub judice. We can consider that matter through the usual channels.

As to a debate on the report by the Select Committee, I have said that we should consider this matter through the usual channels, and I re-emphasise that. Through the good offices of the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans), unemployment will be debated on 7 March.

Sir William Clark (Croydon, South)

As the London Business School and the CBI have just issued economic forecasts, would it not be a good idea to have a debate soon on the economy generally? This would enable the Government to reaffirm their determination to stick to their economic strategy, which is proving successful, and to confirm that we can look forward to even lower inflation in the months ahead.

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate my hon. Friend's sound proposals. I am certain that any such debate would enable Conservative Members to affirm their full-hearted support for a Government policy which is vindicated by the latest findings of the London Business School and the CBI. However, in a mood of greater realism, I have to observe that we shall soon be within the Budget period, and I think that we shall have plenty of opportunities then to discuss that matter.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his reply about having a debate on Bates' colliery on an Adjournment motion is not satisfactory? If the closure is to go ahead and such a breach of faith is to be accepted, this could be applied in many other areas and every other coalfield would be involved. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to look at this matter so that this breach of faith can be discussed in the House where the promises and pledges which were given are now being broken?

Mr. Biffen

I was giving the House a little more by saying that the matter can be discussed through the usual channels. Perhaps those magic words "usual channels" are unknown to the right hon. Gentleman, although I think that, from his previous incarnation, he must have at least a nodding acquaintance with them. I said, just for the convenience of the House, that the topic will be debated anyway. I agree that an Adjournment debate in no sense measures against the importance of the topic.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as one of Parliament's representatives on the Council of Europe, I support that Council's Court of Human Rights concept but I begin to part company with it when it starts meddling with domestic legislation, as appears to be the case with the European Court of Justice? In view of the real anxieties on both sides of the House about this matter, is it not time that we had a detailed debate on the subject?

Mr. Biffen

This has been the topic of exchanges at this stage of the week in the past. I do not wish to hold out any false hope to my hon. Friend, but I will look at the matter again because my hon. Friend represents a view that is rightly held.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

In view of the widespread interest in the House and in the country about the future of historic buildings and the arts in the post-reorganisation of local government, can the Leader of the House state when there will be a debate on our prayer against Statutory Instrument No. 148, which deals with those matters? Will the right hon. Gentleman say when there will be a debate on the problems of safety at nuclear installations and the siting of nuclear dumps after the announcement of the Nirex sites earlier this week?

Mr. Biffen

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I shall look at the matter through the usual channels. On his second point, I do not think that I can hold out any hope of an early debate on this subject in Government time, although I acknowledge its importance.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the undoubted fulsome co-operation that he has just promised through the usual channels will not carry on for the rest of the day—we have had enough for this time—and that later in the day there will not be full co-operation through the usual channels on the vote we shall have on the procedure motion tonight on a report of the Procedure Committee?

Mr. Biffen

Only somebody afflicted by congenital suspicion would make such a remark.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

May I press the Leader of the House for a debate on the Select Committee on Employment's report on long-term unemployment? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure me that we will discuss the report in Government time and not on an Adjournment debate or at Question Time? Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that 1.4 million people in this country are compulsorily retired because of the Government's policy—some as young as 18 years of age—without any redress from the European court?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman will have heard my reply to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. He will also appreciate that I cannot go beyond that, but I hope that he will be reasonably reassured.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Opposition have not allocated their time on Thursday to the alliance so that the SDP can discuss its document "Competition and the Consumer"? The reason for that is that the document is designed to deter companies from entering into mergers for reasons of opportunism or aggrandisement rather than efficiency". This is drawn from its practical experience of the Liberal party.

Mr. Biffen

That is a neat point. No doubt the Liberal-Social group will have heard what my hon. Friend has said and will take that into account when it plans its use of Opposition days.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Will the Leader of the House recognise the widespread hostility that would be felt by those of us who are opposed to the Shops Bill if in the near future the Government sought to bring it forward, especially in view of the considerable overwork being done by Standing Committees and the inability of the Official Reporters to provide those Committees now sitting on Home Office matters with reports of the proceedings of the Bills in progress?

Mr. Biffen

I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the great skill and hard work that is undertaken by the Official Reporters. It is perfectly true that at present they have some difficulties—I hope modest in character—which we very much hope can be avoided in future.

As for the introduction of the Shops Bill to the House, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Bill has now completed its proceedings in another place and that there are no plans for its Second Reading in this House next week.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the decisions regarding whether and when the man on the deregulated omnibus should have a pension should be taken by a sovereign Government and a sovereign state and not by foreign courts of justice, however pre-eminent they be?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes his point with great skill and directness. None the less, as the law in this country now operates, that decision was taken elsewhere. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) said, there may be a case for this matter to be debated in the House.

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

Further to the matter of Bates' colliery, will the Leader of the House realise that the Government have a special responsibility in that matter in any reflections or discussions that they may have? It was the Government who said that the agreement was sacrosanct. The agreement that it replaced was one where the coal board was judge, jury and executioner. If the coal board is allowed to implement that sacrosanct agreement, we are saying to it that it can be the jury and the executioner. Will he consider that matter because it is of great public importance in relation to the Government's credibility and what they mean by "sacrosanct"?

Mr. Biffen

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is a matter of great public interest. That is why I responded in the way that I did to the Leader of the Opposition and said that we would be happy to consider the matter through the usual channels. I am entitled to observe that, as I understand it, the National Union of Mineworkers is taking legal action against the coal board's decision.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

The Leader of the House is either unwilling or unable to understand yesterday's High Court judgment when Mr. Justice Webster, on the application of the National Union of Mineworkers, granted it leave to apply for judicial review and issued an interim injunction. Despite that interim injunction, the National Coal Board at Bates' pit in my constituency, through the management, has flouted that injunction, thereby perhaps making it necessary for Mr. MacGregor and Mr. Archibald, the National Coal Board regional director, to be brought before the court for contempt of court. Will the Leader of the House wipe the supercilious grin from off his face and begin to treat the matter seriously? Over 800 jobs are at stake and the National Coal Board, aided and abetted by the Government, is acting unlawfully, as found by the High Court. Will he make a statement on the Government's view of the matter and accede to the application made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and give Government time to debate the matter next week?

Mr. Biffen

The first rather minor observation I should like to make is that, as I listened against the amplifiers to hear the hon. Gentleman's remarks, he must have been a contortionist if he could see my face, let alone decide whether it had a smirk on it. As to the point of substance, I cannot comment upon all the matters which may or may not come before the court. I gave a reasonable answer to the Leader of the Opposition, and I think that we should leave it there.

Mr. Derek Spencer (Leicester, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the grave anxiety expressed by prison officers at Leicester prison, in my constituency, at the discovery that one of the inmates is suffering from an AIDS-related virus and that last night, after a ballot, they decided to take industrial action, which includes leaving the inmate at the magistrates' court tomorrow when they take him there on remand? If that matter is not satisfactorily resolved, may we have a statement about it from the Home Secretary?

Mr. Biffen

I shall most certainly refer that matter, the significance of which I understand, to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary with a view to its being considered for a statement.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Bearing in mind the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the House of Commons that the main reason for saving the Johnson Matthey Bank was to sustain confidence in the bullion market and accepting today's announcement that bullion has been smuggled into this country, sold at below market prices and followed by VAT claims at full market prices, which can hardly sustain confidence in the bullion market, will he arrange for a debate next week on the future of the bullion market combined with a debate on why Johnson Matthey Bank was bailed out and the Government's cover-up?

Mr. Biffen

I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman to the extent that I commented upon that topic in response to the Leader of the Opposition. I do not think that I can help the hon. Gentleman beyond that.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend take account of the discourtesy and crude rudeness that the Queen has had to endure in New Zealand and in other parts of the Commonwealth tour, and the consternation that the country feels about that which is related to the dangers presented to her by the inadequate security cover in New Zealand? Will he undertake to bring the matter before the House to see what the Government can do to strengthen the position to prevent future such unpleasantness to that greatly loved lady?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that there will be great sympathy throughout the House for the view that my hon. Friend has expressed, but it is possibly more appropriate for the matter to be the subject of an early-day motion than a Government initiative.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House take up the challenge that has been thrown down to him about a debate on the colliery review procedure and Bates' colliery, in particular, in view of the Government's inconsistency and double standards? My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) referred to the Johnson Matthey matter and the fact that the Government bailed out an uneconomic unit of production—a bank—during the middle of the pit strike, costing taxpayers £100 million. The Government have been engaged in a cover-up. We now know that there has been gold smuggling. The Bates' colliery miners heard about the Johnson Matthey Bank being bailed out. Why should they and all the victimised miners by the subject of the Government's hypocritical standards when the City of London bankers can do what they like and get away with murder at the taxpayers' expense?

Mr. Biffen

The point was put succinctly, and I thought persuasively, by the Leader of the Opposition. On this occasion I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is doing better than the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. David Wigley (Caernarfon)

Is the Leader of the House aware of early-day motion 500 about the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Bill in which 114 hon. Members from both sides of the House have expressed their anxiety at the way in which the Government, through their consultation paper, are trying to emasculate that Bill and remove clauses relating to caring for the carers?

[That this House expresses concern at the recently published consultation documents relating to the Disabled Persons (Services, Consultation and Representation) Bill; would regret any steps that might remove or emasculate vital clauses of this Bill, including those which safeguard the interests of carers, of persons leaving long-stay hospitals or leaving full-time education by providing a coherent personal plan to meet their individual needs; and while accepting the duty to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy, declares that it is inconceivable that services to meet the needs of disabled people can be adequately planned if they are not subject to prior assessment; recognises the overwhelming support for these objectives of the Bill amongst disablement organisations; and calls on the Government to allow the Bill to reach the Statute Book without weakening its provisions.]

All the major disablement organisations have expressed similar anxiety. Will the Leader of the House find time next week to discuss with the Departmnts involved with the Bill a reconsideration of the matter to get the legislation on the statute book?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that there is a general convention that my responsibilities do not cover the passage of legislation in Standing Committees. I take note of what he says and I shall draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Instead of discussing the European Court of Auditors and its work on Wednesday, will my right hon. Friend make it possible for us to debate the role of local district auditors and local government abuses so that hon. Members like myself can report on the latest problems in Leicester where a Nelson Mandela park at a cost of £13,000 is being formally opened on 23 March, and there is a public relations unit costing £150,000 and a twinning arrangement with Nicaragua costing £7,000? That money has all been paid by the ratepayers, and to cap it all there is an 80 per cent. rate rise. May we have an opportunity for the district auditor to justify why he has not yet brought in the commissioners?

Mr. Biffen

At the moment we have a broadly satisfactory division of labour. The Government are responsible for finding time for debating the affairs. of the nation, and my hon. Friend, with utmost skill, is remarkably successful in enabling the House to know about the difficulties of Leicester. As he does very well, I wish him further success with the skill he deploys in bringing the case before the House.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On the subject of next Wednesday's White Paper debate on the EEC, as it was the Milan summit of 1985 that produced—albeit against the Government's wishes—the new single joint European Act, will the Leader of the House confirm that it will be in order to debate that matter on Wednesday? Has he seen the Vote today which shows that the EEC scrutiny committee is producing a special report upon the joint European Act? Will he do all that he can to ensure that that report is drawn to the attention of hon. Members before the debate on Wednesday?

Mr. Biffen

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first point is yes. The answer to the second is that I shall look into the matter and be in touch with him.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

With regard to the debate on the future of Bates' colliery, is my right hon. Friend aware that no jobs are at stake and that all the workers there have been offered jobs at neighbouring collieries? If we are to have a debate in the House every time that workers in an industry are transferred from one plant or facility to another, we might be very busy.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend makes a pertinent and lively contribution which would be even more significant if we were debating the subject. He will appreciate that I try to avoid being drawn into the merits or the content of possible debates. However, I shall take note of what he says.

Mr. William O'Brien (Normanton)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the problem that will develop in the areas of the metropolitan county councils, particularly west Yorkshire, following their abolition? Is he aware of the large rate increases which the ratepayers of those areas will face and the reduction in services, particularly in the fire service and public transport? Is he also aware that further unemployment will be added to the overburdened rate of unemployment in west Yorkshire? Will he allow time for the House to discuss the serious problems which are facing the ratepayers in west Yorkshire because of the abolition of the county council and the fact that we will be faced with massive rate increases just to stand still following the abolition of the county?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman's contribution followed what he said a week or two ago. Of course, I will report his views to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

In view of the unsatisfactory reply which the Prime Minister gave to my earlier question, will the Leader of the House recognise that there is a need for an early debate on the future of British Airways? First, there is a clear suggestion within the work force that privatisation will not now go ahead. What will go ahead is the refutation of the assurances given by Sir John Nott that British Airways will not be broken up. In fact, the management of British Airways is negotiating to sell off British Airways Helicopters in direct contradiction to a categorical assurance given by the chief executive of British Airways less than a month ago. In fact, Colin Bishop of British Midland Airways is known to be looking to buy the highland division of British Airways and also its routes out of Birmingham. In the light of those revelations and the characters of the people British Airways appears to be dealing with, there is an urgent need to debate what is going on in British Airways.

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman has said. It would probably be best if, in the first instance, I referred it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Do the Government propose to bring to the House without delay the writ for the Fulham by-election, or are they too scared?

Mr. Biffen

I promise the hon. Gentleman that the writ will be produced by the normal conventions and with a reasonable expectation of time. We shall see whose knees knock the loudest when we approach polling day.