HC Deb 16 January 1986 vol 89 cc1214-24 3·47 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House if 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 20 JANuARY—Motions on the Rate Support Grant Report (England) 1986–87 (House of Commons Paper No. 140), the Rate Support Grant Supplementary Report (England) (No. 2) 1985–86 (House of Commons Paper No. 587) and the Rate Support Grant Supplementary Report (England) (No. 3) 1984–85 (House of Commons Paper No. 138).

Afterwards motion on the Welsh Rate Support Grant Report 1986–87 (House of Commons Paper No. 100).

TUESDAY 21 JANUARY—Until about seven o'clock, Second Reading of the Atomic Energy Authority Bill [Lords] followed by Second Reading of the Drug Trafficking Offences Bill.

WEDNESDAY 22 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Local Government Bill.

Motions on the Rate Support Grant (Scotland) (No. 4) Order and the Revaluation Rate Rebates (Scotland) (No. 2) Order.

THURSDAY 23 JANUARY—Opposition day (4th Allotted Day). Until about seven o'clock there will be a debate entitled "The threatened closure of the Gartcosh steel mill". Afterwards there will be a debate entitled "Crisis in schools".

Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

FRIDAY 24 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

MONDAY 27 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Airports Bill.

Mr. Kinnock

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. The hour and a half debate given to the Welsh rate support grant on Monday is a miserably short allocation of time considering the serious damage that Government public expenditure and economic policies are doing to communities in Wales. Even at this stage, will the right hon. Gentleman consider extending the time for that subject? When will the Roskill report on fraud trials be debated? When will the House have the opportunity to debate the public expenditure White Paper? May we know the date upon which the Chancellor of the Exchequer is to introduce his Budget?

Mr. Biffen

I shall respond to the final point first. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor expects to present his Budget on Tuesday 18 March. Perhaps we could discuss through the usual channels a question of the debate on the public expenditure White Paper. There will be, I hope, a debate on the Roskill recommendations on fraud in the reasonably near future. We could discuss through the usual channels how best to use our time on Monday on the rate support grant debates.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that there will be a statement on the Channel fixed link next week? Has the principle of it been endorsed by the full Cabinet?

Mr. Biffen

I am much touched and encouraged by the developing interest of my hon. Friend in the modalities of Cabinet government. I shall tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport of the interest that there should be a statement made as early as possible about developments concerning the Channel fixed link. I have no doubt that he will deal with the constitutional points made by my hon. Friend.

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

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 61?

[That this House notes that Crown immunity enables health authorities to flout the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Food Hygiene Regulations; is deeply concerned at growing evidence that hospital patients are suffering unnecessarily; believes that it is wrong in principle and deplorable in practice for Crown authorities to be above the law relating to welfare provision; and calls upon the Government to remove Crown immunity from all premises covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Food Hygiene Regulations.]

It calls for the abolition of Crown immunity, which protects negligent health authorities. Is he aware that there has been yet another outbreak of salmonella poisoning in a hospital which has caused great damage to patients? Is he also aware that, unless Crown immunity is abolished, more hospital patients will be poisoned and some will die? May we have an early debate?

Mr. Biffen

I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House have been receiving a number of representations from local authorities on the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman; his long-standing interest in this matter is well known. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

At last business question time my right hon. Friend invited me to repeat now the question that I put to him then. Has he a rough idea as to when we are likely to have the Second Readings of the Shops Bill and the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Bill'? Can my right hon. Friend go any further today?

Mr. Biffen

Just one week further into the unknown, I am afraid. We are in need at this juncture of a little diversion, so I hope that my hon. Friend will not be too pessimistic about this.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

After the debate last night, the Leader of the House said on television not that there could be but that there would be an inquiry into the events discussed yesterday. Will he make a further statement on that next week, or can he tell us now what form the inquiry will take and when it will start?

Mr. Biffen

These matters are the responsibility of those involved in the departmental Select Committee. When I made that remark, I did so in the context of what had already been said by my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and also of the aspirations shown by my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

Will my right hon. Friend consider persuading my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Cabinet to bring forward the Budget date by a fortnight, because it might bring us into calmer waters and give us some good news for a change? It would also be refreshing to deal with the Treasury instead of with the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Trade and Industry.

Mr. Biffen

And it would give us a fortnight's earlier revenue. The more that I reflect upon the suggestion of my hon. Friend, the more I fear that it will be thought that his suggestion was planted. However, although I regard it as imaginative, I believe it to be unlikely.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

Since 1979 the Prime Minister and her Cabinet have advised trade unionists in Britain not to be dictated to by their leaders and that the silent majority should stand up and be counted. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate so that the House can give the same advice to the silent majority in the Cabinet?

Mr. Biffen

I am part of the constructive, progressive and forward-looking silent majority of the Cabinet.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the real England, far away from the media-riddled area of Westminster and Whitehall, Her Majesty's Government continue to enjoy great support? Many ordinary people cannot understand why such an appalling fuss has been made about such a small item. Would it help if Ministers could reduce the present large legislative programme and spend more time putting the Government's message across to the country and also seeing a bit more of us here?

Mr. Biffen

As I had the experience of some years of industrial work in the midlands, I realise that the heart of England is truly in Halesowen. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about Oswestry?") Oswestry is the rural axis with Halesowen that gives balance to our national life.

I take account of the exhortation that we should spend less time legislating in this Chamber and spend more time discussing the underlying political realities outside. I must say to my hon. Friend that that is a tempting offer, but every hon. Member knows that the fortunes of the Government are related also to the formidable legislative programme upon which we have embarked, and whatever happens, day by day or week by week, we intend to finish it.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Will the Leader of the House or the Minister with responsibility for the Civil Service come to the House as soon as possible next week to make a statement outlining the position of civil servants who work directly for Ministers? Does the Leader of the House accept that, because of the statement made at the Dispatch Box last night by the Secretary of State for Trade ad Industry in which he prayed in aid in support of his case three civil servants who work in his office, those civil servants are now placed in an impossible position to confirm or deny that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was telling the truth on their behalf? It is intolerable that the British Civil Service should be placed in such a position by incompetent Ministers.

Mr. Biffen

That is an unfair comment upon the difficulty that exists with civil servants. Civil servants, having made statements in good faith proximate to the time of the events, are now being castigated as having been suborned because their statements happen to validate the remarks made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who has become the centre of a major political controversy. That is the difficulty in this matter for civil servants. I will of course consider the points made by the hon. Member and refer them to the relevant Minister.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

When the Select Committee considers the position of Westland plc and the history of that company, will it be appropriate for it to scrutinise not only the actions of the Government, but the actions of the former Secretary of State for Defence and, in particular, the nature and type of correspondence that he has had with foreign Governments and EC Commissioners subsequent to Government decisions that the Westland affair would be treated in an even-handed way? Will the Select Committee also scrutinise how it was that he or, if not him, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) knew on Monday morning at 11 o'clock that a letter had gone from British Aerospace to the Government and why, knowing that that letter had gone, did the former Secretary of State ask whether it had been received and not what was in it?

Mr. Biffen

I tread carefully in such matters. It is, of course, a matter for the departmental Select Committees involved to decide how they will proceed with investigations, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said that he is most anxious to give evidence before such an inquiry. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) will be likewise disposed.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

Is the Leader of the House aware that in anticipation of next Thursday's debate on the proposed closure of the Gartcosh steelworks the British Steel Corporation today gave notice to its employees there and announced the timetable for the cessation of production in advance of any report to the House of the Department of Trade and Industry's reply to the Select Committee's report? Is that not to treat the House with contempt? Will the Leader of the House undertake to draw the attention of the Department of Trade and Industry to that matter and ask BSC to desist until after the debate on Thursday?

Mr. Biffen

I certainly give an undertaking to refer the matter to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Roger Freeman (Kettering)

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that considerable interest is felt by Conservative Members in the future of the water industry—not just its possible privatisation but the introduction of universal metering? Will he bear in mind the fact that a debate in Government time on the future of that industry before the House rises for the Easter recess will be welcomed by many of my hon. Friends?

Mr. Biffen

I understand what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that he is right to say that his request is widely shared. I cannot be certain that Government time can be made available for that important topic. I shall of course continue to take account of what he has said and to inform my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the decision announced by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that he intends to convert the Patent Office into a non-departmental body, a decision which has caused great anxiety to its staff and clients?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I understand, with his responsibilities in those matters, that he should raise the point. It could perhaps be considered through the usual channels.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the future of the United Kingdom's six free ports? They are being placed in some jeopardy by the draconian rules of the Collector of Customs and Excise. VAT imposts with the free ports are restricting trade and could well mean that what was an imaginative project will die through lack of Government support.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has made that subject very much his own. I admire the skill and pertinacity with which he pursues it. I cannot immediately offer any Government time for a debate. As it relates to the Government's fiscal behaviour, the Budget and its aftermath may provide him with his opportunity.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read the book by John Walker entitled "The Queen has been pleased" in which Mr. Walker, to my satisfaction and that of many of my hon. Friends, has proved a relationship between the number of knighthoods and peerages awarded by the Prime Minister to industrialists and the size of the donation to the Conservative party of the industries with which they are involved. As the Prime Minister may have committed a serious crime under the terms of the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925, will he ask the Attorney-General to tell the House when he will report the matter to the Director of Public Prosecutions with a view to the Prime Minister being arrested for it?

Mr. Biffen

I must confess that I have not read the book. As a good many of the contributions in the House proceed upon the basis of good-natured ignorance rather than detailed knowledge, I shall of course draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. I do not hold out much hope of the dramatic consequences mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

In view of today's publication of Mr. Justice Popplewell's report on crowd safety, football hooliganism and other related football matters, and the wide interest felt by Members on both sides of the House about those matters, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that there will be an early debate on that report and other attendant interests?

Mr. Biffen

In this uncertain and at times unhappy world, it is best to settle for the statement and then to see whether the conditions have been created thereafter which result in a popular request for a debate.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

May I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motions 302 and 306 about the position of Scottish miners who have been dismissed and who have gone before industrial tribunals?

[That this House notes the statements of the Secretary of State for Energy, and the Chairman of the National Coal Board, in which they encouraged dismissed miners to take their cases to industrial tribunals; notes also the recent decisions of the tribunals in which they have either ordered the reinstatement of dismissed miners or asked the National Coal Board to exercise clemency by reinstatement; deplores the failure of the National Coal Board to abide by the decisions of the industrial tribunals and specifically the deliberate decision of the Coal Board in Scotland not to reinstate any miners whose reinstatement has been ordered; condemns the failure of a public corporation responsible to the Government to abide by the decisions of industrial tribunals; and calls on the National Coal Board to enter into immediate negotiations with the National Union of Mineworkers with a view to securing a solution to the dispute over this matter which is endangering good industrial relations in the mining industry and prolonging bitterness within the coalfield communities.]

[That this House condemns the National Coal Board for its refusal to reinstate four dismissed miners in Scotland, having in mind that an industrial tribunal found that they were unfairly dismissed and recommended that the National Coal Board reinstate them in their employment in the coal industry; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to remind the National Coal Board that it is a creature of Parliamentary Statute and that its attitude to these cases is an affront to Parliament.]

May I plead in aid some of the words that the Leader of the House used on television last night when he said that perhaps the only way to test the veracity of reports about some meetings would be to have a taped recording. With great presence of mind, one of my constituents took that to heart, because in discussions with the pit manager and other National Coal Board officials about his dismissal he took a tape recorder and recorded the proceedings. He was then able to prove to the tribunal that the coal board was maligning him and lying about him——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Member please ask a question?

Mr. Douglas

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. Because of the importance of this matter and the great sense of unfairness, will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate in Government time on this important issue?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot make any promise of an early debate in Government time, although I realise that this is an issue which is of considerable import to a number of people. I will draw the attention of my relevant right hon. Friends to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He may be able to take his cause a little further during employment Question Time next week.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Will my right hon. Friend be kind enough to arrange an early debate on the latest Cabinet disagreement—the row between the French and British Cabinets over the Channel fixed link? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the latest state of play on the Channel, far from cordiale, project is that there is a complete impasse between a road and rail tunnel or a rail-only tunnel? Are not those matters which should not be left to Ministers alone but which should be given a fair ventilation in Parliament as soon as possible?

Mr. Biffen

I gave a cautious but carefully researched answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) on that point. I cannot go beyond that.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

When will the right hon. Gentleman provide an opportunity for the House to debate the loss to the heritage of objects being disposed of by semi-public bodies such as universities and the churches upon which there is no restraint of export, a matter which is now much concerning those who work in the heritage world in Britain and who have those matters very much at heart?

Mr. Biffen

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the point that he made and I shall, of course, draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts.

Viscount Cranborne (Dorset, South)

Is my right hon. Friend sympathetic to the idea of the Government introducing a motion in the House to set up a Northern Ireland Grand Committee on the Scottish model?

Mr. Biffen

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the recent agreement concluded with the Irish Government refers to some development of a parliamentary character involving the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom. In all such matters timing is probably almost as important as anything. A certain amount o f measured procrastination is not necessarily bad.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

The Leader of the House may be aware of the almost astonishing progress which has been made in the Gas Bill Standing Committee. Is he aware that his colleague, the Minister of State, courteously suggested to the Committee this morning that a sittings motion may be necessary? It would occupy the Committee on Tuesday. As the Leader of the House has announced a debate on the Second Reading of an energy Bill on Tuesday next week, which could well clash with the Standing Committee's extra sitting, does he realise that that would prevent those Opposition and Conservative Members who have a general energy interest from taking part in or attending the debate in the Chamber on Tuesday evening?

Mr. Biffen

I think the convention is that I am precluded from making observations about the business of Standing Committees. I will obviously take note of what the hon. Gentleman says.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Will the Leader of the House give some indication about when a resolution of the House might be made about shorter speeches? He assured me some time ago that it would be fairly soon.

Mr. Biffen

I certainly hope that it will be within the next few weeks.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Will the Leader of the House tell us when he envisages the Government providing time to debate star wars so that riot only the general opposition of the Labour party can be expressed, but so that we may also examine the suggestion floated this morning in The Times editorial? It may or may not have been the result of some sort of leak from this colander Cabinet and Government. It is that the Prime Minister backed the Sikorsky deal because of some sort of pay-off, some sort of kick-back, for continuation or promotion of star wars work in Britain.

Mr. Biffen

It is interesting to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to the editorial in The Times newspaper. I notice that he featured in the editorial columns of The Times this morning. It is gentrification before our very eyes. I take note of the importance of SDI. This is the time of year when the three individual Services debates take place, and I am certain that there will be opportunities within the ambit of those debates to make the points that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Will my right hon. Friend provide time for an early debate on twinning arrangements between local authorities and foreign countries? Is he aware that in Leicester, which is at the heart of England, already there is an arrangement to pair with Nicaragua and that a new plan is being arranged now that the African National Congress should be invited to Leicester on Palm Sunday to dedicate the Welford road recreation ground with its new name, the Nelson Mandela park? That is grossly offensive to all electors and ratepayers in Leicester.

Mr. Biffen

I am surprised they are not publishing an edition of postage stamps. The matters raised by my hon. Friend are important, but I cannot hold out the hope of early Government time for such a debate. He might wish to pursue such opportunity as is available to him as a private Member or, indeed, to discuss some of the fiscal aspects of this in the context of the rate support grant.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give sympathetic consideration to an early debate about the decision made at the beginning of this month by the then Secretary of State for Defence to award an order to Vickers Engineering and Shipbuilding Limited for the construction of three diesel electric submarines? That decision clearly reveals the confusion in the Government's defence and industrial policies, particularly in the light of impending privatisation of the warship yards.

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman brings to the attention of the House the points that he argued earlier this year and which have a direct constituency interest. I can best help by repeating what I pointed out to the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist), which is that shortly we will have the Services debates and they will enable such points to be made.

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)

May I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention early-day motion 220 standing in my name and that of many of my hon. Friends, about the abolition of standing charges?

[That this House would welcome early action to abolish the levying of public utility standing charges.]

Given the amount of understandable anxiety about the continuation of standing charges, will the right hon. Gentleman find time between now and Easter to enable the House to give its opinion on this subject?

Mr. Biffen

I will be absolutely candid with my hon. Friend. I see no likelihood of Government time being made available, but I will, of course, draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and to others the points he has just made.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I will call those hon. Members who have been standing, but I ask for brief questions because two important debates and another statement are still to come.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

I should like to ask about the public inquiry into the outbreak of salmonella poisoning at Stanley road hospital in which 19 people unfortunately lost their lives. People in my constituency and relatives, too, are becoming greatly concerned at the delay in making public the report. I understand the report is in the possession of the Government. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the report to be presented to the House and for a statement to be made by the appropriate Secretary of State?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises a good and accurate point. I hope it will not be long before he is satisfied about the matter.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In response to the answer the right hon. Gentleman gave to the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle), as one who gave written evidence and was called upon to give evidence to the Popplewell committee, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman accepts that these issues do not simply lend themselves to necessarily brief questions and answers from the Home Secretary's statement? Is it not important that the House should look at this complicated and, heaven knows, urgent subject? The right hon. Gentleman should arrange a debate during the next month or two.

Mr. Biffen

I take that point. I was merely trying to suggest to my hon. Friend that it is at least encouraging to have a statement and the possibility of questions arising. That does not, of course, preclude the consideration of a debate, But I must point out that we are moving towards the time when the affairs of the House are substantially devoted to the Budget and its subsequent legislation.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give attention as a matter of great urgency to the continuing farce of the independent colliery review which begins work next week hearing an appeal about a colliery in my constituency? Is he aware that officials from the National Coal Board have said, surprising as it might seem, that whatever the decision of the tribunal they reserve the right to refuse to accept the decision if it is unfavourable to the National Coal Board? Is it not extraordinary that, in a form of arbitration presided over by a senior and distinguished judge, one of the parties to the dispute says four days in advance of the hearing that if it does not like the decision it will refuse to abide by it? It is a scandalous state of affairs. On at least four occasions I have asked the Leader of the House to make a statement about this and on each occasion, with great ingenuity, he has skilfully avoided committing himself or the Government to any policy.

Mr. Biffen

I did not think my fumbling and inept performance on this topic hitherto deserved quite the accolade that it has just received, but it is bound to continue much in the same vein. I will refer the point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, who has prime responsibility for these matters. I will also look elsewhere to see whether there is any other appropriate Government Department which should be charged with making a statement on the matter.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Arising out of what the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) said yesterday, will we have a statement next week on who it was from the Prime Minister's office that contacted the BBC to stop the interview with the right hon. Gentleman when he was Secretary of State for Defence? Was it the press secretary at No. 10? Is this not another example of the way in which the Prime Minister abuses her position?

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are dealing with business questions.

Mr. Winnick

Can we have a statement about whether this was done? If it was, was it the press secretary, and does the Leader of the House agree that it is important for us to have a statement. Putting such unfair pressure from No. 10 on the broadcasting authorities is quite clearly an abuse of the Prime Minister's authority.

Mr. Biffen

I have to say quite clearly that I have no plans for a statement on this subject being made next week. Of course, the House has plenty of other parliamentary opportunities, including questions.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

While recognising the importance of the debate on Gartcosh next Thursday in Opposition time, is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the sense of outrage in Scotland at the Government's attitude to the campaign to save Gartcosh? That attitude includes the Prime Minister's contemptuous refusal to meet the Gartcosh marchers and the refusal of the Secretary of State for Scotland to allow a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee in Edinburgh on Monday. Because Gartcosh is crucial to Ravenscraig which is crucial to Scotland's future as an industrial nation, may we have the assurance that there will be a proper debate in Government time on this whole issue, including the Government's response to the Select Committee report?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the very strong and genuine feelings that have been aroused over the proposed closure of Gartcosh, but there is the other side of the argument: the question of bringing about greater viability in the industrial structures of the United Kingdom, including Scotland. I am sure that those matters will be covered in next week's debate. I hope that that debate will enable the House to take account of the hon. Gentleman's points.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Foreign Office statement next week? I ask for this statement because the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Eggar), recently made an important statement in Bangladesh concerning the requirement of Her Majesty's Government that the children of British citizens who intend to seek entry into this country should undergo genetic testing. There is considerable concern about this matter, including the cost, and whether these tests will be entirely voluntary. A statement would enable answers to these important questions to be given. It would also allow the Foreign Office to explain why it introduced in secret on 19 December a new entry clearance charge of £25 for those seeking settlement in this country and a fee of £12 for those seeking entry clearance as visitors to this country.

Mr. Biffen

I shall refer those points of substance to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the Prime Minister, in particular, among other Government Ministers, is adopting the growing practice of answering questions by saying that information cannot be given because of the disproportionate cost involved. Does the Leader of the House not think, because of all the talk about open government, especially in view of the furore that is taking place on another front, that it is the Government's duty to explain precisely their answers to simple questions? Is he aware, for instance, that this week there was an appalling situation when I asked the Prime Minister how many gifts she had received as Prime Minister and how many of those over the value of £75 she had retained, taking into account the allegation made in a national newspaper that she had received a bracelet costing several thousand pounds from the Sultan of Brunei, but she refused to explain how many gifts she had received.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I thought that the hon. Gentleman said that he would ask a short question

Mr. Skinner

Well, it is a little bracelet.

Mr. Speaker

Will the hon. Gentleman at least ask the Leader of the House whether we can have a statement about the bracelet?

Mr. Skinner

In view of the fact that the Prime Minister will not answer these questions, will the Leader of the House bring her to the Dispatch Box and ask her to answer questions about what happened about the diamond-studded bracelet and all the other gifts that she will not disclose? There is, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, a rule that anything over £75 should not be retained by the Minister concerned.

Mr. Biffen

One of the most dangerous things in this House is the hon. Member for Bolsover in a fit of innocence or simplicity or in a fit of trying to get just a plain, honest, working man's answer to what otherwise is thought to be a tangled and exotic problem. I take note of what he says and I shall make the appropriate references. But I shall also reflect upon a point of real substance: the growing cost of questions in this House that are not necessarily related to the pursuit of open government, but are related to the existence of whole squadrons of research assistants. We have to ask ourselves whether this really is pursuing the investigative role of Parliament. On the whole, the hon. Member for Bolsover is not a great cost to the public purse as far as his questions are concerned. That is why I shall take his point with the seriousness that it merits.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The easiest way to cut the cost of questions is to give truthful answers.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that that is a point of order for me.