HC Deb 04 July 1986 vol 100 cc1370-4 2.54 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 short business statement about the business next week. The business will be amended as follows: WEDNESDAY 9 JULY—Estimates Day (3rd Allotted Day). There will be a debate on Estimates relating to supplementary benefit payments for private and voluntary residential care for the elderly, followed by a debate on Estimates relating to labour market services so far as they relate to the promotion of tourism. Details will be given in the Official Report.

Motions on the Housing (Northern Ireland) Order and the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Order.

Completion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill will be postponed until a later date to be discussed through the usual channels.

[Estimates Jar debate on Wednesday 9 July 1986

1. Class XV, Vote 2 (Department of Health and Social Security: Supplementary Benefits) so far as it relates to expenditure on supplementary benefit payments for private and voluntary residential care for the elderly; and

2. Class VII, Vote 1 (Department of Employment: labour market services) so far as it relates to the promotion of tourism.]

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

The House will have noted what the right hon. Gentleman said about the change of business on Wednesday 9 July and will recall that it was only yesterday—less than 24 hours ago — that we heard him confidently announcing that the business for Wednesday 9 July would be the completion of the remaining stages of the Finance Bill. That is not an unimportant matter, because it gives legislative effect to the Budget. One would have thought that it was a central part of the Government's programme.

The right hon. Gentleman has not told us why, in the past 23 hours, there has been a change in the most important item—from the Government's point of view in the coming week. Is it to do with the fact that no fewer than 68 amendments were put down yesterday? Will a further batch of amendments appear on Monday? If so, is this not a classic of muddle and incompetence in the Treasury and the Government in the dispatch of vital business?

The choice of subjects for the debates on Wednesday are certainly matters which we are willing to discuss, because we believe that benefit payments for private and voluntary residential care for the elderly and the promotion of tourism are matters of great importance. However, I should like to hear the response of the Leader of the House to what I said about the reasons for the extraordinary change of business at such short notice and affecting such an important subject.

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman will recollect that yesterday the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Davis) raised with me the difficulties that he thought might arise on this matter and I told him that I would look into it. When I announced the business for next week it was hoped that the Government would be able to table today all their amendments to the Finance Bill. That has not been possible and, in the circumstances and following discussions through the usual channels, we thought that it would be inappropriate to complete consideration of the Bill next week. Now that we have secured a little additional time, I very much hope that we can proceed in a manner which will be acceptable to both sides of the House.

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

The right hon. Gentleman has made his business statement because there has been a change of circumstances. Will he consider making another business statement following the fact that the Glasgow Herald reports today that the Allander Institute says that 4,000 miners' jobs in Scotland are to go west and that another 8,000 jobs may go in consequence? Does not the right hon. Gentleman consider that those circumstances require him to make another business statement? It is a matter of urgency and we should have a debate on the matter on Wednesday, because the Scottish people want to know what is happening as a result of the Government's policies.

Mr. Biffen

I shamelessly belong to the old-fashioned school that believes that, ideally, one business statement a week is quite enough. Therefore, I do not hold out—I trust — any early prospect of additional business statements over the next few days. Of course, the point raised by the hon. Gentleman is of undoubted importance to Scotland and to the nation generally, but there will be opportunities between now and the summer recess when these matters can be considered in private Members' time.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

We welcome the deferral of further debate on the Finance Bill for just the reason that the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) has given. The enormous number of amendments would have made it impossible for any justice to have been done to the debate on Wednesday.

If there are to be protests, as we have seen twice in the last fortnight, both resulting in statements to the House saying that matters are to be postponed to a further date, should that not be an encouragement to the Opposition to protest more rigorously and often and thereby to lose further Government business until an indefinite later date —ideally the next side of the general election?

Mr. Biffen

I know that last night's announcement was distressing to the hon. Gentleman It was etched on every Liberal face as they saw the fox writhing in agony, having been well and truly shot. The hon. Gentleman ought not to press me to have many more changes in business, otherwise we shall be here until mid-August or beyond as I acquiesce in every request that is made.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that in this parliamentary Session there have been more revised business statements than at any time that I can recall since I came here in 1970? As we have had another today, perhaps he will consider what occurred in the few minutes before Mr. Speaker took the chair. Why not on Wednesday have the Second Reading debate on the Standing Charges (Abolition) Bill which will greatly assist pensioners? We could debate the Immigration Act 1971 (Amendment) Bill, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred. We could debate the Concessionary Television Licences for State Retirement Pensioners Bill. Here is a wonderful opportunity for the right hon. Gentleman to do something decent for the pensioners. There might even be votes in it. He should make sure when we have those debates that he tells the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Sainsbury) to keep out of the way so that we shall have a fair chance of getting someything done.

Mr. Biffen

I always welcome the interventions of the hon. Member for Bolsover because he is now moving into maturity when he tells us how many years he has been in this place and reflects upon how, in all that time, he has never found this, that or the other. But at the same time as he ages, he retains a certain innocence of affairs. The governing of private business that we were discussing earlier this afternoon is conditioned by Standing Orders, and I simply cannot set them aside for next week.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry South-East)

Does the Leader of the House agree that, in the same way as he brought a motion before the House a few days ago to increase by one day the allocation of time for private Members' motions following the disgraceful attempt by the Government to carve up and freeze out my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), it is within his authority, particularly as we have lost the Shops Bill and the legislation to privatise the water authorities, which has opened up a gap in parliamentary time, to produce more time for the discussion of private Members' Bills, particularly those about which we have argued today which deal with pensioners? As he has announced a change in Wednesday's business dealing with financial services, the big bang and salaries of £100,000 a year in the City of London and substituted supplementary benefit payments for residential care for the elderly, would it not be appropriate on Wednesday to compare those salaries with the fact that in Coventry, the west midlands and nationally some residential homes charge £40 or £50 a week more than the DHSS will allow pensioners to claim in order to pay for those private residential homes? I should like to draw that comparison on Wednesday.

Mr. Biffen

I shall try to help the hon. Gentleman as best I can. He has just asserted that I have a great deal more time at my disposal because of the announcement to delay the privatisation of the water authorities. That cannot conceivably affect next week's business, or, indeed, the balance of time left for this Session. Therefore, in view of the constraints under which I operate, and which the House will seek if it wishes to rise at some tolerably early time, he will have to make the speeches that he seeks within the disciplines set out for the Estimates day debate, and I am sure that he can do it.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

As you know, Mr. Speaker, before you came in a number of objections were raised about the treatment of private Members' Bills. The Leader of the House has not really answered the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). There are a number of private Members' Bills largely, but not exclusively, concerning the problems of pensioners in our society, which reflect a real concern that pensioners' living standards should be raised.

Will the Leader of the House rearrange the business for next Wednesday—as he appears to have a day on his hands—in order to ensure that those Bills are properly debated? There is a crying need to increase the living standards of pensioners from the present poverty levels. What proposals is he prepared to put to the Procedure Committee or to the House so that private Members' Bills, which often reflect growing public anxiety and which require a lot of effort if they are to be enacted, can be properly debated and voted upon, and so that the nonsense of anonymous objectors who try to practise ventriloquy so that they are not identified can be brought to an end? The public would then know who and what interests were trying to destroy important reforms that have been introduced by individual hon. Members.

Mr. Biffen

The provision of time for private Member's legislation is governed by the Standing Orders of the House, and I have no opportunity or realistic ability to set them aside in the week ahead. Any hon. Member who heard this afternoon's transactions, or who has heard similar transactions on previous occasions, knows perfectly well that that issue is a matter of considerable concern to the House. However, it is not something new. Previous Procedure Committees have judged that there are real difficulties in essaying any alternative. However, the Procedure Committee is considering the matter, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will give his evidence to it directly.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

Should my right hon. Friend drop his guard and allow some chink in his defences over the private Members' business for next week, will he, instead of listening to Opposition Members, give higher priority to the motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) on freedom of speech on our campuses and in our universities?

Mr. Biffen

I must be even handed. I can hold out no more hope to my hon. Friend than I held out to Opposition Members.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

I have considerable sympathy with the Leader of the House because he is being compelled to make numerous statements changing the business. If I was him, I might suspect that there was a plot by some of my colleagues in the Treasury, Foreign Office or Department of the Environment to lessen my chances over the leadership of the party. However, let us put that on one side.

Many people look forward in eager anticipation to 23 July. However, I understand that that is also the day when the Social Security bill is likely to leave the other place. If so, the House seems to have little time in which to consider the three defeats that the Government have suffered so far in the other place. I do not know whether the Leader of the House intends to introduce a guillotine motion in order to steam-roller the House into reversing the decisions of the other place. I regret that lie was not in the House this morning when I presented a petition on behalf of 1,700 of my constituents, who protested that their incomes would be cut if the Bill was enacted.

We should certainly have a statement next Thursday about the timing of our consideration of the Social Security Bill. The right hon. Gentleman has suffered considerable criticism as a result of his handling of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. We are to consider that again at a late hour on Thursday. Could we not consider that Bill at a more convenient time, given the grotesque limitations that the right hon. Gentleman has placed on debating the important matters contained in it?

Mr. Biffen

I cannot in any sense help with a comment on the timing of the Social Security Bill in the other place. However, it is clearly a matter of great concern to the House, and it was raised during business questions yesterday. I have nothing more to add to what I then said. In a sense, the same applies to the debate on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. The Leader of the Opposition made a similar request. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not expect me to give him a different answer from the one that I gave to the Leader of the Opposition.