HC Deb 22 May 1986 vol 98 cc533-41
Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

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

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

Yes, Sir. The business for the first week after the recess will be as follows:

TUESDAY 3 JUNE—Opposition day (14th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "Government Economic Policies and the Level of Unemployment".

Motion on the Channel Tunnel Bill (Procedure).

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

WEDNESDAY 4 JUNE—Remaining stages of the Building Societies Bill.

Motion on the Education (Assisted Places) (Amendment) Regulations.

THURSDAY 5 JUNE—Second Reading of the Channel Tunnel Bill followed by a motion for committal to a Select Committee.

FRIDAY 6 JUNE—Private Members' motions.

Mr. Healey

I ask the Leader of the House to note that at a time when the Government's own figures show that their economic policies have brought growth to a halt in Britain, and when one industry after another is announcing massive redundancies, the Government have not been willing to defend their policies and the Opposition have had to compel them to do so by using one of their Supply days to debate unemployment and economic policy as soon as we return after the recess.

Secondly, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday refused to give a penny more for our education system at the very moment when the new Secretary of State for Education and Science was promising it more resources, can the Leader of the House ensure that the Government make an early statement on whether they will make more money available for educational building, books and equipment to restore a system which Her Majesty's inspectors, in their report which appeared yesterday, have found to be in near-terminal decline?

Thirdly, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when the terms of the motion for committal of the Channel Tunnel Bill will be available to the House? Can he assure us that there will be ample time for petitioning?

Fourthly, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when the Government will be making a statement on the report of the Top Salaries Review Body?

Finally, as the present policies of Her Majesty's Government on South Africa are robbing that unhappy country of what may be its last chance of peaceful progress and threatening to destroy the unity of the Commonwealth, can he assure the House that it will have an opportunity to debate these matters before the recess, and especially before the critical meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers at the beginning of August?

Mr. Biffen

I shall take the points of the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) in reverse order. I recognise that there is great interest in having a foreign affairs debate as soon as possible after returning from the recess.

Mr. Healey

South Africa.

Mr. Biffen

Such a debate will certainly be able to encompass South Africa. I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's comment about the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting.

As is customary, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be answering a question later this afternoon on the Top Salaries Review Body's report. Further copies of a letter from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to all Members about the Government's response to the report will be made available through the Whips offices and the Vote Office.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)


Mr. Biffen

Later this afternoon.

I understand the interest in the procedures relating to the Channel Tunnel Bill and I can confirm that both the motions on procedure and committal will be tabled later this afternoon. The Government will allow a generous amount of time for them to be debated. I believe that when the terms are seen, they will be judged to be fair in respect of petitioning.

The right hon. Member for Leeds, East asked also about education policy. I am sure that he will join me in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker) on his appointment to the important Department of Education and Science. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that he will not be disappointed. My right hon. Friend is one of nature's communicators. He has a good story to tell and he will be anxious to use the facilities of the House as appropriate. The right hon. Gentleman was obviously looking back nostalgically to the days when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. But I do not for one moment believe that the latest statistics from the Central Statistical Office about the rate of growth in the economy vindicate his lurid phraseology. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall be deploying similar arguments in the debate planned for Tuesday 3 June.

Mr. Healey

I shall resist the temptation to follow the right hon. Gentleman——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Even the Leader of the Opposition may normally ask only one question. But does the right hon. Gentleman wish to raise a point of explanation?

Mr. Healey

I have two questions to ask about what the Leader of the House just said.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am very sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman is not in order.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

As we have a new Secretary of State for the Environment, whose views on that subject appear to be somewhat ambiguous following the Channel tunnel planning application, will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House give an assurance that there will be an early debate on the green belt? In that way those of us who are greatly concerned will have an opportunity to elucidate our views.

Mr. Biffen

I have known my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for many years, and ambiguity is the last characteristic that I would ascribe to him. But I shall, of course, draw his attention to the interest expressed in having a debate on the green belt. I can say only that it will not take place during the week chat we return.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 873, bearing the signatures of 122 hon. Members, which deplores the production, possession and use of chemical weapons?

[That this House deplores the production, possession and use of deadly chemical weapons; and calls on Britain to reject United States plans for their further production, which will be ratified at a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation Defence Ministers in Brussels on 22nd May.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that, of the countries involved today in Brussels in the decision-making process in NATO, this country alone has had no full-scale debate on the matter in its national Parliament? Will he redress that imbalance, so that we can show that the majority of people in this country are opposed to any decision to deploy chemical weapons here, or in any European country?

Mr. Biffen

I have indeed studied early-day motion 873. I am sure that the hon. Lady will appreciate that the merits of the topic were considered during Prime Minister's Question Time. I cannot very helpfully add to that. However, we should be having a debate on the defence White Paper soon, and that might be an appropriate occasion for her to make her arguments.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

As we are now to have two late-night, and perhaps all-night, sittings on 3 and 5 June so that the Government can try to pull the Channel Tunnel Bill out of the quicksands of confusion into which it has sunk, will my right hon. Friend consider softening that preliminary skirmish in the long war of attrition that will accompany the legislation, by allowing greater latitude to individual petitioners and by making some concessions to them that will give them adequate time to put their petitions before the House?

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says, but I think that I might be allowed to observe that gentle threats of all-night sittings are hardly the most obvious tactic to win friends and earn sympathy. Nevertheless, I realise that my hon. Friend speaks with great feeling and with genuine constituency interests. I take account of what he said. The motions are of course amendable, so my hon. Friend may consider that possibility.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that a group of very angry ex-service men who claim that they were disabled through negligence, and a group of parents of dead ex-service men who claim that they were killed through negligence, went to see the Secretary of State for Defence, together with hon. Members from both sides of the House? They were given a hearing, but they have not now heard a word from the Ministry of Defence in 13 weeks. They rightly feel that they have been treated with contempt by the Secretary of State. Will the Leader of the House have a quiet word with him and tell him that those people are getting very angry and that they deserve an answer?

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman has raised that point with me before. I recognise its force, but he will realise that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is the last person whom one would wisely accuse of being contemptuous of the sufferings and misfortunes of others. It could well be that the delay is due to the fact that the matter is receiving very measured consideration. But I shall certainly make those representations for the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that there is need for a debate on a matter that is worrying many hon. Members on both sides of the House — the infiltration of Militant Tendency into local government affairs? It is especially worrying in my constituency in Southampton where, at the last election, several Militant Tendency candidates took key positions on various committees—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must ask a question about the business for next week.

Mr. Hill

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether it is possible to have a debate on that very important matter next week?

Mr. Biffen

There might be some difficulty in establishing any ministerial responsibility for these affairs—but that responsibility exists must clearly be evident from the occurrences of the last few days. I would have thought that we were doing quite well from the public recognition of the dangers of militancy, without necessarily having to debate it here.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that we debated the industrial dispute in the prison service while negotiations were being conducted? Would it not now be sensible to have a further debate, so that the House can actually hear about the agreement reached between the Home Secretary and the Prison Officers Association and also about the Government's proposals to reduce the appalling levels of overcrowding that impose considerable burdens on both inmates and staff? Would it not at least be a courtesy to the House if the Home Secretary made an oral statement about the conclusion of the dispute?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman raises a problem relating not merely to prison staff but to conditions in prisons generally. I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to the hon. Gentleman's request for a statement.

Mr. Timothy Wood (Stevenage)

I noted my right hon. Friend's response about the Top Salaries Review Body. Will the response that will be given later this afternoon be set in the context of alterations in salaries for people lower down the particular trees and the importance of setting those salaries in the context of moderation of salaries and wages generally?

Mr. Biffen

Within a few moments, my hon. Friend will have before him the full text of a reply by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and also a letter from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Any attempt on my part to summarise them would be imprudent.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

May I endorse the call for a debate early after the recess on the problems of southern Africa in particular, as opposed to foreign affairs in general?

If, on Tuesday, the motion on procedure in relation to the Channel Tunnel Bill results in a defeat for the move to short-circuit the normal procedures, may I take it that we will not proceed hastily to a debate on Thursday but will be allowed a proper amount of time to proceed at the normal speed?

Will it be possible to have an early debate on the problems of the victims of the Abbeystead pumping house disaster two years ago tomorrow, who have still not been compensated although others who suffered bereavement subsequently have received compensation from the Government?

Mr. Biffen

If the Government are defeated on Tuesday, we will have to reconsider the wishes of the House.

I shall certainly study the other points that the hon. Gentleman raised. However, on his point about a debate on southern Africa, I recognise that that will be a matter of continuing interest and we will have to see how matters stand when the House returns after the recess.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Although I accept that it will not be easy to tempt my right hon. Friend into another debate on the press, does he accept that the real discourtesy this morning was not the fact that the other House had a statement but that the press had advance notice of what was in that statement? Is it not rather rich that Ministers can come to the Dispatch Box, as they did only a few days ago about university grants, and say rather grandly, "The House will have the full figures in the Library tomorrow," when we all know full well that we will see them before they are placed in the Library? Would it not be a good idea to discuss this matter openly?

Mr. Biffen

There is some merit in that, but there is also a considerable amount of difficulty.

Mr. Speaker

Yes, well … [Laughter.]

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there was a great deal of discontent last night because many hon. Members could not get the call to speak in two controversial debates — that of the shipbuilding industry and that of nuclear waste — because the debates were crammed into three hours? Why is it necessary to steamroller business through the House when there is a small amount of legislation before Committees which will he debated by the House? Is it because the Government intend to rise before the royal wedding, much earlier than usual, to get themselves on television? Will the Leader of the House arrange to deny that rumour by fixing up an important debate on shipbuilding and unemployment on the day of the royal wedding so we can see which is the most important business of the House?

Mr. Biffen

I understand that even now, and especially in Scotland, there is interest in what time we shall recess within the period from the end of June to mid-August. I can only say that there is one date which is fixed in my diary and that is the date of the Oswestry agricultural show. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are real difficulties in trying to manage business when there are so many demands and topics to be discussed. I would say, mildly, in self-defence, that there is a good reason for not having had a statement yesterday.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the procedures relating to Select Committees are in urgent need of fresh attention following this week's debate? Can we have an early debate on that?

Mr. Biffen

I think I would like time for the bruises to heal before we have a further debate.

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

In the light of the recent written reply by the Home Secretary concerning the possible use of CS canisters and plastic bullets in England, will a statement be made in the near future and will there be a debate on that important matter, bearing in mind the fact that a number of innocent children and women in Northern Ireland have already been killed by plastic bullets?

Mr. Biffen

As the hon. Gentleman will know, that has been considered by the House from time to time. I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the interest that he now shows.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Following the points made so correctly by the hon. Member for Thane', South (Mr. Aitken), I too have noticed that a debate on the Channel Tunnel Bill (Procedure) on 3 June is to be followed, with the presumed success of that debate, by a further debate on the Second Reading on 5 June. Far be it for me to suggest that the business of 3 June might carry over to 5 June, but will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will use his considerable powers to ensure that not only the voices of the big battalions but the voices of the ordinary people of north-east Kent are heard during the petitioning procedures?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of the point. Indeed, it will be part of the more general debates that will take place on the week we return. I quite understand the point my hon. Friend has made.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

The Leader of the House will recall that last week I asked him for a debate on British Coal. In view of the fact that 4,000 jobs will be lost in Yorkshire, 2,000 of which are in my constituency which already has a 25 per cent. male unemployment rate, is it not time that we had that debate? Is it not time that we looked at the direction of British Coal before it is too late, before it is completely decimated, and we run into the problems that existed in the 1960s?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He made it all the more effectively by virtue of the temperate way that he presented it. I shall refer it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. The hon. Gentleman might like to bear it in mind that unemployment could be relevant to the debate which we shall have on 3 June.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

In view of the growing system, which is more time-honoured than honourable, whereby tame questions are put down to which explosive answers are given—one sees an example in today's reply to Written Question 234 on the Top Salaries Review Body—is it not time that the House debated whether such questions and statements are to be at the behest of Government or the main Opposition parties? If a statement is made on a contentious matter, it is not honourable and proper for democracy if such a statement is given in answer to some lame question.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I am not lame.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

I was not suggesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East was lame. said that the question was lame. Could not we have debates on these matters which affect many people in this country? Let us debate what we think should be statements and what should be questions so that we can deal with the problem of slipping in a question just before the bank holiday so as to ensure a little less trouble.

Mr. Biffen

For someone as generous as my hon. Friend, I thought that it was quite unnecessary for him to cast such aspersions——

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

I did say that he was not lame.

Mr. Biffen

He just left the impression, which was not easy to break, that it was coded language. However, a long-standing tradition that has applied to Governments of both major parties is that these announcements are made in a form that has now become customary. Perhaps my hon. Friend should consider the answer before judging whether it is that explosive.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

I thank the Leader of the House for changing his mind and for personally asking the Ministry of Defence to investigate the circumstances in which British prisoners of war died after interrogation by Dr. Kurt Waldheim's German army group. Can we have an assurance that the inquiry will be carried out swiftly, that there will be a statement to the House thereafter, and that Waldheim's part in the interrogation by this army unit will not be ignored? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the Prime Minister's answer to me that a number of documents are missing from the Public Records Office that are believed to refer to Dr. Waldheim and this unit? Will he assure the House that he will look at these documents to ensure that there is no cover-up — as there has been by other Governments, including the Yugoslav Government—as I am sure that Her Majesty's Government would not wish to be accused in these circumstances?

Mr. Biffen

I do not accept many of the implications that the hon. and learned Gentleman makes, but I shall happily draw all his points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

In view of the continuing state of lawlessness in Northern Ireland, and in particular the disgraceful antics of the Labour party aspirant to this place from Brent, East — Mr. Ken Livingstone—when he sought to persuade the Dutch not to return two convicted terrorists to Ireland, will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate on security in the Province?

Mr. Biffen

The problems of the Province should properly be a constant charge upon consideration in this House, and I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to the suggestion that we might have an early debate.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does the Leader of the House recall the debate on the quorum for the Committee to consider the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill? The Chairman of Ways and Means gave an undertaking that he would seek to set up a Committee of Inquiry into the private Bill procedures. Has the right hon. Gentleman also seen the article in The Daily Telegraph which suggested that the Department of Transport was vetoing that inquiry? Surely he has a duty to uphold the Chair at all times, and he ought to be facilitating the placing on the Order Paper as soon as possible of a motion relating to the inquiry, so that it can go ahead, and he should not allow the Department of Transport to prejudge the outcome.

Mr. Biffen

The plans for setting up a Committee are well advanced——

Mr. Bennett


Mr. Biffen

I hope to be able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman's anxieties before very long. I have not seen the article in The Daily Telegraph, but if its contents are as alleged, quite frankly it is moonshine.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

My right hon. Friend is well known for the interest that he takes in European political matters. He will have noticed the excellent election results in the Netherlands yesterday, when a determined and responsible Government were rewarded by recognition by their electorate and returned for yet another term of office. Will he give the House an early opportunity to debate the relevance of the Netherlands election results to politics in this country and allow us to draw the obvious conclusions?

Mr. Biffen

As ever, that is a most enticing proposition, but I must say in a somewhat sour fashion that a limited amount of Government time is available. However, my hon. Friend is one of the best free shooters on the Back Benches, and I am sure that he can find some way of raising the matter.

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

As it is still the Government's intention to cut mortgage interest payment benefits for the poorest people in our society, is not it time that we had an early debate so that the Government can explain to my constituents who are one-parent families, disabled and unemployed, what role they see for them in their property owning democracy?

Mr. Biffen

There might be some merit in having a debate, if only to enable that rather strong presentation of the Government's position to be put into a much more accurate context. But just now I cannot see the likelihood of a debate being available because of the pressures of so much Government legislative business.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

When we have a debate on political indoctrination in our schools — examples of which were given so ably in another place earlier this week, led by Baroness Cox—can we also look at the difficulty of getting the police into our schools to talk about crime prevention and not breaking the law?

Can I also draw my right hon. Friend's attention to Question 43 on Thursday 8 May in which I asked the Prime Minister when she expected to receive the report of the Top Salaries Review Body? Written Question 234, which stands in my name today, was not planted, but is a follow-up to that original question.

Mr. Biffen

That is the most withering rejoinder that I have heard for some time. As to my hon. Friend's other point, the decisions taken by another place will have to come back to be considered here, and I very much hope that he will then have a chance to make the point that he has made with great persuasiveness.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On Friday 6 June, who among nature's communicators on the Government Front Bench will be responding to the temperate motion on the conduct of the Prime Minister? Would not it be helpful to whoever does so to know whether the Prime Minister intends to ask for a retraction from The Observer newspaper and from Mr. Linklater and Mr. Leigh about their allegations on pages 142 and 143 of their book that the Prime Minister's stated knowledge about the selectively leaked letter from a Law Officer to a Minister of the Crown in fact existed a good deal earlier than she told the House?

Mr. Biffen

I would like the hon. Gentleman to go into the recess with a certain anxiety and anticipation. Therefore, I do not propose to tell him who will be handling that debate. But as is said in the best military terms, the response will be appropriate to the challenge. As for the hon. Gentleman's other points, I shall make sure that they are made available to the person who will be handling the debate.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

I realise that all of us, other than my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels), will have to contain ourselves in patience and await the result of the Government's comments on the report of the Top Salaries Review Body. But I cannot believe that the combination of even the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer means that my right hon. Friend does not know what is in the answer to my hon. Friend's question. After all these years, will he admit to being a convert to incomes policy, even if it is only in the public sector, and could not outside industry follow the same lead?

Mr. Biffen

I have heard some mischievous questions in my time, hut that one clearly invites me to imply that a reasonable interpretation of the correspondence to which my hon. Friend referred is that it represents a statutory incomes policy. My hon. Friend must be responsible for his own interpretation, and should not try to plant it upon me.