HC Deb 27 March 1986 vol 94 cc1071-80 10.31 am
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for the week after the Easter recess?

The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

The business for the first week after the Adjournment will be as follows:

TUESDAY 8 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Dockyard Services Bill.

WEDNESDAY 9 APRIL—Progress on remaining stages of the Airports Bill.

THURSDAY 10 APRIL—Until about seven o'clock, completion of remaining stages of the Airports Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill.

FRIDAY 11 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He will recall that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry assured the House on Tuesday that no further decisions affecting BL would be taken during the Easter recess. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that before any further moves are made there will be a full debate as speedily as possible after the recess so that hon. Members in all parts of the House can make their opinions known on the issue, which is critical for the regions and for the whole economy?

Last week I asked the right hon. Gentleman for a foreign affairs debate to be held immediately after the recess. That has become more pressing because of the clash between units of the American sixth fleet and Libya and the decision by President Reagan to send $20 million worth of support as a back-door way of financing the terrorist contest on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure me that a foreign affairs debate will be held shortly after the recess so that we can take those and other matters into account?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also arrange, soon after the recess, a debate on the Government's attitude to the introduction of a poll tax, which the Prime Minister favours, especially in view of the evidence from the Institute of Local Government Studies that in an average inner London borough such as Hammersmith and Fulham the average rate bill of £277 per head would rise under a poll tax to £510 per head—an 84 per cent. increase?

Hon. Members

Those figures are wrong.

Mr. Biffen

There is a mild element of disagreement about the right hon. Gentleman's final remark. A Green Paper has been issued on that topic. Through the usual channels we can consider when it would be appropriate to proceed to a debate.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I have conveyed my sympathy about having a foreign affairs debate reasonably soon. Perhaps through the usual channels we can consider the timing of it. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the motion for such a debate should be drawn in such terms as to enable the widest possible consideration of the many topics which excite public concern.

I cannot helpfully add to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has already said about the appropriateness of a debate on BL once discussions are concluded, but I take account of what the right hon. Gentleman says.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Since the Committee stage of the Building Societies Bill finished at the end of February, when may we expect its Report stage? Before then, will my right hon. Friend ask the Economic Secretary to continue the excellent procedure which he adopted in Committee of producing detailed amendments and proposals as early as possible so that they can be discussed?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly pass my hon. Friend's comments to my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary. They will be much appreciated. My hon. Friend will have noticed that the business for the first week back signals our desire that a number of Bills be passed to the other place. My hon. Friend should view the prospects of the Building Societies Bill in that way.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the independent review body has determined in favour of the National Coal Board's plans for the Hawthorn complex in the north-east? The community will be greatly affected by the decision with the loss of 300 jobs, and the unemployment level will be at about 33 per cent.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the decisions on the Bates colliery and the Horden colliery and the recent decision on the Eppleton colliery mean that people see the independent review body as a charade. The last drop of credibility has finally gone down the drain. However, there is one opportunity left for recovery. The National Coal Board has yet to make its final decision. Will the right hon. Gentleman give me a guarantee that the Government will lean on the NCB to save vital jobs in my constituency?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure that I am the most natural leaner in the Government. However, I will pass the hon. Gentleman's anxieties to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to consider the findings of the report of the Select Committee on the Environment in which considerable doubts were cast on the suitability of present methods of disposing of intermediate and low-level nuclear waste? In view of the considerable research that went into that report, will my right hon. Friend agree to defer the laying of the special development order, especially as it concerns Fulbeck which is near my constituency, until the full recommendations of the report have been investigated and debated in the House?

Mr. Biffen

I refer my hon. Friend to the remarks I made in the recess Adjournment motion debate. What was said then was said with measured tones, and I have nothing to add to it.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The one notable omission from the business of the House on our return is the Second Reading of the Shops Bill.

On Tuesday the Leader of the House said that he considered that people earn their rest over Easter—he was referring to hon. Members. Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Government will reconsider their present position on de-restricted Sunday trading? Will he ensure that when we come back he will say that, having thought about it, he and the Patronage Secretary will allow their colleagues to vote on the matter as a matter of conscience and not insist, as he has so far, that there is a Government three-line or two-line Whip on the legisation?

Mr. Biffen

I am happy to say that conscience is entirely the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary. That puts him in a uniquely capable position for holding that responsibility. As to any future announcement on the Second Reading of the Shops Bill, it will proceed in the natural manner.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Will my right hon. Friend note that I speak as a non-smoker, but I call for an open debate on taxation policy relating to smoking. People have a right to choose to smoke, although they know of the hazards to their health in so doing. Will he take special note of the pressure of the Liberal and Labour parties to increase taxation on smokers and to deprive people of smoking in all sorts of places where it is not unreasonable to do so? Provision has been made for nonsmoking areas. If such provision is made for the comfort of non-smokers, is it not appropriate that proper account should be taken of people's right to smoke if they wish to do so?

Mr. Biffen

I am certain my hon. Friend is right to imply that the recent Budget changes have a significant impact on the tobacco industry and those it employs. I suggest that the most appropriate circumstances for such a debate will be on the relevant clause of the Finance Bill, although it is not appropriate for me to tell him which clauses will be taken upstairs and which downstairs. I think that the matters to which he referred make the relevant clause a candidate for consideration downstairs.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Will the Leader of the House tell us why he chose to list the Dockyard Services Bill for its Report stage on the Tuesday we come back, given that the Public Accounts Committee has held an investigation into the royal naval dockyards and the fact that significant documents for our consideration of the Bill will not be available until the Monday following the date listed? The PAC's report will not be available until about 22 April. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Secretary of State for Defence what his hurry was, and what he was trying to hide?

Mr. Biffen

It is a question of neither hurry nor hide but of a generous and liberal interpretation of what might be for the best convenience of the House, with the business and the whipping that has developed on the first day back. The hon. Gentleman advises delay and mentions documents dated 22 April, but it is unrealistic to think in terms of holding back the legislation that far, bearing in mind the fact that its passage in another place is still to follow.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Has my right hon. Friend seen on the Order Paper early-day motion 538?

[That this House calls upon the Government to seek to amend the Shops Bill [Lords] so as to preserve the special character of Sunday and to have regard for the principles and conscience of those who would be affected by the total deregulation of Sunday trading.] The motion has been signed by nearly 70 of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and opposes the Government's intention totally to deregulate Sunday trading. Is he aware that, if the Government thought that they had problems with their Back-Benchers over Westland and Land Rover, he ain't seen nothing yet? Will he consider that the best way in which the Government might honourably get themselves off the hook is by granting their own Members a free vote?

Mr. Biffen

I thought it generous of my hon. Friend, having used such military language, to end with a request that he knows perfectly well I cannot grant but can be granted only by my right hon. Friend the Patronage Secretary.

Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)

In view of the considerable anxieties that have been expressed in the Chamber in the past week about the placement of the AOR lead vessel contract, will the Leader of the House find time for us to debate that matter before the final decision is made? Will he consider having a debate about the principle of privatised warship yards having to compete with subsidised state-owned industry?

Mr. Biffen

If eloquence could secure the placing of the order for that ship, the contribution by the hon. Gentleman the other evening would have secured it for the north-east——

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Give it to him, then.

Mr. Biffen

Alas, I am a creature of market forces. Of course, the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the parliamentary handling of the business will be borne in mind, but I cannot hold out very much hope.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Would it not be helpful if, before the Fulham by-election, the House had a full debate on the chronic state of the Labour party?

Mr. Biffen

There are some things that cannot even be improved by debate.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Did the Leader of the House hear the exchanges during Prime Minister's Question Time about the important negotiations on the renewal of the multi-fibre arrangement, and the Prime Minister's confirmation of the importance of those negotiations for the textile and clothing industry? Can the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that a statement will be made in the week when we return updating hon. Members on the current state of the negotiations?

Mr. Biffen

I recognise, as all the House will, the importance of the MFA discussions, and I shall certainly refer to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

Has my right hon. Friend noted recent reports that British Airways is to replace air hostesses with northern accents, based in Manchester, with air hostesses from London? When can the House have an opportunity to debate this blatant example of regional discrimination so that we can make it clear that if BA is privatised my constituents from the north will have an equal chance to apply for shares?

Mr. Biffen

I was not aware of that quite breathtaking development. I agree that if we are to have endless debates, which I fear we will, from time to time we need a little break into reality. What my hon. Friend suggests is one of the more cheerful aspects of regional policy.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Has the Leader of the House taken time to look at early-day motions 204 and 217 about speech therapists which are signed by hon. Members on both sides of the House?

[That this House notes with concern that speech therapists, members of a highly-skilled caring profession, discharging a wide range of responsibilities, are underpaid in comparison with other National Health Service professionals doing work of equal value; notes also that speech therapy is traditionally a female profession; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to provide sufficient funds to enable speech therapists' salary levels to be increased so that speech therapists receive equal pay for work of equal value.]

[That this House expresses its appreciation of the valuable work performed by speech therapists; and, in expressing its concern that decreasing comparative salary levels will dissuade the ablest of individuals from entering this profession, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to ensure that speech therapists are remunerated at a level equal to that of other graduate specialists within the National Health Service.] They draw attention to the very low pay and conditions of those highly qualified people and their effect on recruitment, not only in my constituency but in all constituencies. I know that this matter was drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) during the debate on the Easter recess motion. Will the Leader of the House press the Secretary of State for Social Services to make an early statement to the House after the Easter recess?

Mr. Biffen

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has referred to the contribution made by his right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin). I shall certainly refer to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services the fact that there is interest in a statement being made.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

As everyone has agreed that the present regulations on Sunday trading are ridiculous, is not the burden of proof on those who are opposed to total deregulation to make suggestions which are sensible, workable and enforceable? Therefore, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is plenty of time on Second Reading of the Shops Bill to give them an opportunity to put those suggestions to the House? In the absence of such suggestions, is not the only logical and intellectual conclusion that total deregulation is the only way forward?

Mr. Biffen

I could answer that question only by heightening controversy when I am required to pretend that it hardly exists.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that when the PAC examined in private session the subject of dockyards and the privatisation of dockyards there were clearly matters raised which would be of importance during the debate which is to take place a week on Tuesday? In so far as it is probable that the PAC would wish to publish much of the evidence taken in private session without sidelining, why cannot the debate be delayed to ensure that the maximum possible information is made available to hon. Members?

Mr. Biffen

I think that I dealt with that issue in my response to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam). I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's comments in the context of the Bill eventually being considered in another place and with the possibilty of its being reconsidered in the House.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

May we have an early debate on industrial relations in the newspaper industry so that the Labour party may end its hypocritical, silence over the way in which Mr. Maxwell appears to run his newspapers?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure about the silence being hypocritical but it is definitely spasmodic. At the moment, no provision has been made for such a debate, but I agree that it must be a lively candidate.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Social Services to give some thought during the recess to making the lot of the 2,500 partially sighted children in this country better rather than worse by the proposed changes in the supply of their specialised spectacles and lenses? The proposed changes are causing great distress to their families and teachers. It is a small group of people. The matter should not be left to a voucher system because that will not cover the cost of their necessarily specialised equipment.

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly draw that point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Peter Lilley (St. Albans)

May I support the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) for an early debate on industrial relations in the newspaper industry? Surely the House should have an opportunity to consider the strange fact that the dispute in Wapping has led to a threat to free speech in the shape of the refusal of the Labour party to have any dealings with Mr. Murdoch, whereas the dispute in Glasgow has led to no such action? Should we not have the opportunity to investigate whether that is because of any financial relationship between Mr. Maxwell and the Labour party?

Mr. Biffen

The attractiveness of the debate increases every moment, and it is already being outlined as going much wider than the newspapers of Mr. Rupert Murdoch. I am sure that if we cannot contrive to find time for such a debate, particularly over the next few days and during the period of the Fulham by-election, the Labour party will take an early opportunity to make an explicit statement about where it stands on the two newspaper actions by the two newspaper tycoons.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

Is the Leader of the House aware that concern about the auxiliary oil replenishment vessel order is felt not only in Tyneside but stretches to Yorkshire, where concern is felt among component suppliers, such as those in my constituency?

May I refer the Leader of the House to the business on the Thursday evening? Why are the Government so sensitive that they feel that they must gag the House, as they used their majority to gag the Select Committee when it looked at the terms and conditions of employment in the armed forces? Why are we to have a debate on Thursday night, less than 24 hours after the publication of the Select Committee's report? Is it not an insult to the House to expect it to be able to read that report and put down appropriate amendments, which by then will all be starred amendments, for the debate on Thursday? It is a deplorable way to treat the House. It is typical of the Government's arrogance and of the way in which they are using their majority.

Mr. Biffen

There is no question of gag or censorship in what is being proposed. What has been proposed is perfectly reasonable and is consistent with precedent. I have no doubt that on the Floor of the House there will be a lively debate between those who wish to defend the bravery and integrity of the Ulster Defence Regiment and those who wish to disparage it.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

As a self-confessed creature of market forces, will my right hon. Friend reaffirm his faith and that of the Government in free trade and the free movement of not only goods and services but capital as the great engine of economic prosperity? If that is the position, does my right hon. Friend feel that it is time that the House debated at a very early stage the reaffirmation of our faith in the free movement of goods, capital and services by extensive United Kingdom investment in the United States? Does he not believe that the House should be given the opportunity to reaffirm that prosperity can come yet again from extensive American investment, when the Americans believe it to be right and justified, in growth points of British industry?

Mr. Biffen

Perhaps I should define my position as a traditional high Tory with a fastidious leaning towards market forces. I am the kind of Tory who will be very much influenced by the persuasive speech that my hon. Friend has just made, but I think that it has to stand alone and unique and must not be cluttered up by more general debate.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Will the Leader of the House bring to the attention of the relevant Ministers the fact that the abolition of the Greater London council and the metropolitan counties will put at risk the funding of dozens of citizens advice bureaux throughout the country, bureaux which last year dealt with 300,000 inquiries about fuel, mainly fuel poverty, that with the privatisation of the gas industry the rights of the consumer councils will be diminished and that between the two the needs and the rights of consumers are being eroded further by the Government?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what the hon. Lady says, but I do not think that she will be entirely surprised if I have a certain agnosticism about what she implies. However, I shall most certainly refer the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, because it relates to serious consumer issues.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

When shall we have an additional follow-up debate on local government so that we may look again at rates and propaganda, in particular, in Leicester, where, despite an additional £300,000 having been given to the city of Leicester, it has still levied an 80 per cent. rates rise? To try to get round the propaganda rules, the city of Leicester has set up its own publicity company to ensure that it can still spend more than £300,000 of ratepayers' money each year.

Will my right hon. Friend set a lead for the rest of the country by stating that it will be the intention of the House not to sit on 23 July, when Prince Andrew marries Miss Sarah Ferguson?

Mr. Biffen

For the headline of this afternoon or this morning, I congratulate my hon. Friend. All I can say is that that particular privilege is not within my gift. However, I take account of his concern. As he would rightly observe, we have far fewer public holidays than do most countries on the continent of Europe. This provides a chance to redress the imbalance.

As to the question of local authority behaviour and the use of the rates, my hon. Friend took part—I think formidably and constructively—in our debate earlier this week. I cannot guarantee very much shortly after our return. However, as the Leader of the Opposition has reminded us, a debate on the Green Paper will be required at some point.

Mr. John Ryman (Blyth Valley)

The Leader of the House mentioned the Fulham by-election. He will probably not remember, because he was in his pram at the time, that the last time that the Labour party fought a by-election in Fulham was when Edith Summerskill kicked out the Tories in the 1938 by-election and gained a massive majority. That was the last time that Labour won the seat from the Tories in Fulham. No doubt that event will be repeated when we fight the Fulham by-election in about two weeks' time.

What I really want to ask the Leader of the House is this. He has no doubt held many interesting conversations with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy on the vexed question of the colliery review procedure. I have asked him about this on several occasions. Only today, one of my hon. Friends asked him a further question about it. The Leader of the House says that he speaks for the Secretary of State for Energy on this procedure. What do the Government intend to do about it? Do they intend to maintain the existing machinery in reference to pit closures, or is it to be dismantled or amended? What steps are the Government taking? The procedure is falling wholly into disrepute. The National Coal Board does not pay any attention to the recommendations, and the Leader of the House guffaws, smirks and simpers. However, this is a very serious matter for the coal miners, who are affected by a ferocious programme of pit closures What is the Government's position, briefly?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman very generously draws attention to the gap in our ages, which I acknowledge. I should only like to plead in self-defence that there is no corresponding gap in maturity. As to the independent review body, only my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy can state the Government's policy on this matter. I shall represent to him the concern, which I know extends beyond the hon. Gentleman, that a statement should be made on this matter.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

In relation to the next allotted day for the alliance, does my right hon. Friend, whose Tory credentials are impeccable, agree, in the light of the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), after reading the recently published book by the leader of the Social Democratic Party, "A United Kingdom", that he pinched for one of his chapters the title "Trust the People", a phrase of Lord Randolph Churchill, and that many of the policies contained in the book could easily have been written by a five year old?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure how that relates to Lord Randolph Churchill. The fascinating contribution of the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) is a clear indication that he is paving the way to a Labour party which is bereft of Militant, so that the real challenge from the Left in this country will come from an increasingly united alliance and Labour party.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call those hon. Members who have been standing, but we must finish these questions at 11 o'clock, so may we have questions about business next week and not about the Fulham by-election or about books that we might read during the recess?

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Is the Leader of the House aware that most people in this country view with abhorrence President Reagan's support of terrorism in Nicaragua and Angola and American aggression in the Mediterranean? Will he therefore give a more positive response to the request of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that, as a matter of urgency, there should be a foreign policy debate in the House?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to observe that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) takes a fairly acerbic view of the American action in Libya and that in that he is joined by the Leader of the Opposition. That is a reasonable political observation. It underlines the variety and the interest that there will be in a foreign affairs debate. I have said that this matter will be considered through the usual channels, and so it shall.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

To support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), will the right hon. Gentleman draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to early-day motion 553, which has been signed by 46 hon. Members, and early-day motion 619, which has been signed by 49 hon. Members?

[That this House recognises the need to achieve a peaceful solution to the problems of Central America; is aware of the importance of the recently signed Carablleda Declaration calling on the end to all foreign aid to irregular forces operating in Central America, the progressive elimination of all foreign forces in the region and the reduction of arms acquisitions; is further aware of the repeated calls of the Contadora countries to cease United States funding of the Contras and of the well-documented, appalling human rights violations by the Contras; calls on the United States Congress to reject President Reagan's request for increased aid, including military aid, to the Contras; calls on the United Kingdom Government to join with other European Economic Community countries to oppose publicly the request for military and other aid; and calls on the United States Administration to stop all efforts designed to bring down the Nicaraguan Government and to resume direct bilateral talks with the Nicaraguan Government which have been unilaterally suspended by the United States of America.]

[That this House is alarmed at the recent revelation of activity by the Contras against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua; is appalled that on 25th January 1985 in Waslala, Zelaya, a group of civilian travellers and children were ambushed on their way to meet President Ortega; is horrified that on 29th June 1984, Paco Sivilla, a teacher from Brownback, was hunted by a group of Contras and his ears, tongue and private parts cut off before he was brutally murdered; is shocked that in July 1984 Adam Flores, a 70-year-old man, was murdered by a force of 70 Contras; further believes that these are a few examples of the most appalling murders by Contra forces against the people of Nicaragua; believes that President Reagan's attempts to send a further $100 million in aid to the Contras can only continue the war and result in further murders of the Nicaraguan people; and accordingly demands that Her Majesty's Government put all possible pressure on President Reagan to cease all support for the Contras and respect the territorial integrity and peaceful wishes of the people of Nicaragua.] They concern United States support for Contra violence in South America. Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary tell the United States that its policies in central America are leading to death, to a continuation of murder and maiming of people and to the invasion of a democratic sovereign country? These matters are important to western Europe and the United Kingdom and should be debated as soon as we return after the Easter recess.

Mr. Biffen

The Leader of the Opposition mentioned Nicaragua as one of the area of conflict that he should like to see included in a foreign affairs debate. I am sure that the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has taken note of that comment. He may have noted that on Wednesday 9 April, the day on which we return, Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions are at the top of the list.

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

If I heard the Leader of the House correctly, he said that we shall consider the remaining stages of the Armed Forces bill on Thursday of the week in which we return. As a member of the Standing Committee on the Bill, I think I am right in saying that the report of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill will be published on the Wednesday. In view of the disquiet surrounding the chairmanship and deliberations of that Committee, would it not have been more fair and reasonable to allow the House time to debate the report before scrutinising the Bill?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman is a fair controversialist. If from his position here he talks of "disquiet" about the conduct of the Chair, he should either make it clear that he is trying to censure the Chair or accept that the decisions at which the Chair arrived were in order. I take note of what the hon. Gentleman said about the Committee's report being followed immediately by consideration of the remaining stages of the Bill. I think that the situation is manageable.