HC Deb 30 October 1986 vol 103 cc453-62 3.39 pm
Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

May I ask the Leader of the House to state the business for next week?

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

Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows: MONDAY 3 NOVEMBER — Consideration of Lords amendments to the Housing and Planning Bill.

TUESDAY 4 NOVEMBER — Consideration of Lords amendments to the Public Order Bill and the Housing (Scotland) Bill.

Motion on the Channel Tunnel Bill.

WEDNESDAY 5 NovEMBER—Consideration of any Lords amendments which may be received to the National Health Service (Amendment) Bill.

Motion relating to the Cereals Co-responsibility Levy Regulations.

Motion on the Rate Support Grant (Scotland) Order.

THURSDAY 6 NOVEMBER — Opposition Day (20th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The Failure of the Government's Economic Strategy".

FRIDAY 7 NOVEMBER—The House will meet for prorogation at 9.30 am.

The House may be asked to consider any Lords messages and other business as necessary. The new Session will be opened on Wednesday 12 November.

Mr. Kinnock

There are conflicting reports about the date of the Chancellor's autumn statement. Will the Leader of the House tell us exactly when the Chancellor will make his statement?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that there is considerable resentment on both sides of the House about paragraph 44 of the Government's response to the fourth report of the Select Committee on Defence on Westland plc. Paragraph 44 is considered to be a deliberate attempt to curtail the necessary rights of inquiry of Select Committees. When will the paragraph be withdrawn by Her Majesty's Government?

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is widespread support throughout the House for an office of technology assessment to assist hon. Members on both sides of the House? Will he ensure that the House is given ample time to debate this proposal, which we understand the Prime Minister is resisting in some peculiar luddite form?

The chairman of the Conservative party today issued a press release, which is couched in typically authoritarian terms, demanding that the vice-chairman of the BBC make, in the right hon. Gentleman's words, a thorough reappraisal of the managerial and editorial standards of the BBC". [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I hear the cheers from a certain quarter of the House. This is a further attempt by the chairman of the Tory party to undermine the independence of the corporation. When will we have a chance to debate the various efforts of the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) to threaten the BBC in a variety of forms?

A series of important foreign affairs issues have arisen since the summer recess, including South Africa, the Reykjavik summit, relations with Syria and the need to get full anti-terrorist co-operation from the other countries of the EEC. Will there be an early chance to debate foreign affairs after the Queen's Speech?

In light of the widespread disquiet throughout the community about the spread of acquired immunity deficiency syndrome in Britain and in other countries, will the Government give time in the near future to debate the matter fully?

Mr. Biffen

I shall deal with the points put by the Leader of the Opposition in the sequence in which they were presented. I am not in a position to say when the autumn statement will be made. Clearly, it is a matter of continuing attention.

If the right hon. Gentleman has a chance over the weekend to read the entire debate about civil servants appearing before Select Committees, he may find that his anxieties are a little misplaced.

Mr. Kinnock

I certainly found my reading very interesting last weekend.

Mr. Biffen

It just goes to show that weekend reading tends to be much more reflective than pre-breakfast summaries.

Mr. Kinnock

Last week's reading.

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman, in his rather different way, might find next weekend's reading of some value. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee is considering the Government's response on the point he mentioned. The right hon. Gentleman might bear that in mind.

I shall examine the possibility of a debate about the office of technology assessment, but I cannot respond positively at this moment.

I must repudiate the intemperate language used about my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It showed a certain end of term exuberance, which I understand, but I do not think it helps us to put into proper context the serious matters that would be employed in debating the Peacock report. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall try to arrange an early debate on the Peacock report in the next Session.

The Queen's Speech will provide an opportunity for a debate on foreign affairs.

I note the request for a debate on AIDS. That is a matter of the utmost significance, and certainly we can look at it through the usual channels.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Has my right hon. Friend observed that early-day motion 280 now bears 108 signatures?

[That this House notes the widespread concern felt in Parliament by eminent scientists, by other responsible observers and by members of the public who have viewed programmes on the matter screened by Channel 4, that Anne Maguire, Patrick Maguire (senior), Vincent Maguire (then aged 17), Patrick Maguire (then aged 14), Sean Smyth, Patrick O'Neill and the late Giuseppe Conlon, sentenced in 1976 to long terms of imprisonment since served, now appear, despite confirmation of their convictions at the time by the Court of Appeal, to have been entirely innocent of the crime with which they were charged; further notes at the conclusion of debate in the other place on 17th May 1985, the recognition by the Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Home Office of the strength of feeling in this matter in that House and his pledge to draw the attention of the Secretary of State for the Home Department to what had been said; and therefore earnestly urges the Secretary of State for the Home Department in the interests of the highest standards of British justice of which this country needs to feel rightly proud, to move without delay for a review of these convictions, either under the provisions of section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968, or by such other public process of review as he may deem appropriate to this disturbing case.]

The motion concerns the miscarriage of justice in the Maguire case. Is my right hon. Friend aware that I shall abate my request for parliamentary time if his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will refer the matter to the Court of Appeal?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has pursued the matter with dignity and persuasiveness. I shall certainly put that point to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

Does the Leader of the House accept that, as the Government were prepared to accept a constructive amendment in the other place yesterday to the Housing (Scotland) Bill, that may shorten the time taken for debate on that measure and allow some time for Scottish Members to debate devolution, because, from the answer given by the Prime Minister today to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston), she does not know what Scottish opinion is and that might be educative for her?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure that the serried ranks of Labour and Liberal Members were all that correct in communicating to the House the nature of Scottish opinion on devolution when the matter was debated in the 1970s. I am quite cheerful about facing the prospect of another round of devolution, more government, more bureaucracy and more examples of the underlying unity between the alliance and the Labour party, but I am not sure that we can arrange that next week.

Sir Kenneth Lewis (Stamford and Spalding)

As we move towards the next Session, can my right hon. Friend assure me, in the interests of both sides of the House, that there will be no overload of legislation in the next Session and that there will be sensible and limited legislation so that Parliament can do its job properly?

Mr. Biffen

I understand that my hon. Friend approaches his final Session of parliamentary service ever hopeful. I should not mind betting that he has travelled hopefully every Session that there has ever been and has never yet arrived.

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

If the Leader of the House is as careful as Mr. Speaker in keeping records, he will know that the number of embarrassing defeats suffered by the Government in the other place reached 100 last week. The issue was the Government's attempt to protect negligent health authorities with the cloak of Crown immunity. Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether next week the Government will seek to reverse last week's decision, and, if they do, will he take note of the fact that that will be opposed by Labour Members, trade union members, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the majority of Members in the other place?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what the right hon. Gentleman says about the other place having secured its ton, and I draw from it the conclusion that we now have a transformed situation whereby the Labour Benches accept the legitimacy of the second Chamber having that type of influence over the legislation of this House. I note what the right hon. Gentleman says about the point of substance, and clearly that will be a matter for debate next week.

Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

Will my right hon. Friend give urgent consideration to an early debate on the plight of police preserved rate widows, whose average age is 82? An agreement has now been reached in committee E of the police negotiating board. As it affects nearly every Member of the House in his constituency, it is important that committee E's agreement be ratified arid agreed.

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says, but I think that in the first instance I could assist him by referring the matter to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Mr. Stuart Holland (Vauxhall)

Whether or not we can debate the Lords amendments to the Channel Tunnel Bill next week, does the Leader of the House agree that it is amazing that British Rail has not been called to give evidence to the Select Committee on the use of Waterloo as the sole flagship terminal for Channel tunnel traffic? Is he aware, for example, that the traffic may be the equivalent of a jumbo jet arriving at or leaving from Waterloo every three and a half minutes, and that there may be passenger traffic of 20 million people, yet British Rail is giving estimates of traffic congestion on only 6 million? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the House has the proper means of debating the matter?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman invites me to comment upon the behaviour of a Committee that is in the process of taking evidence. There is a wise convention, in my view, that I do not respond to such invitations.

Sir Ian Lloyd (Havant)

My right hon. Friend may or may not be aware that on Tuesday the Parliament arid Scientific Committee held a most important meeting on the subject of the OTA, at which it was concluded that the committee must continue to explore the potential arid possibilities of this type of organisation for Westminster. May I assure my right hon. Friend that there is interest in this matter on both sides of the House and that the request which the Leader of the Opposition made on this topic finds widespread support?

Mr. Biffen

I take note of what my hon. Friend says about a matter of great concern to him and many other Members. There is great concern also about how any such proposals would be financed.

Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry, South-East)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the stonewalling replies that I received at the beginning of the week from the Department of Trade and Industry when I sought to question it on the privatisation of Coventry Climax in 1981 from British Leyland and on the fact that for the past five years not one penny of the price supposedly asked by the consortium which took over Coventry Climax has been paid to British Leyland? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the receiver who was brought in on the financial collapse of Coventry Climax earlier this month has confirmed that nothing has been paid? Five years have passed and 80 per cent of the original 3,000 jobs have been cut—in other words, the consortium has had a free ride for five years. Surely the least we could expect is a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on how the conspicuous failure of privatisation will be remedied. I would argue that that should be done by taking back into public ownership Coventry Climax and restoring the jobs that have been sacrificed.

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that I can endorse the rhetoric with which the hon. Gentleman has invested his question. I shall refer to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry his anxiety that there should be a statement on the matter.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

In view of the serious controversy that has arisen over the past week or two about the BBC, and remembering my right hon. Friend's original promise that there would be a debate on the financing of the BBC, will he make the debate sooner rather than later in view of his answer to the Leader of the Opposition?

Mr. Biffen

I appreciate the interest in the topic and the feeling that a debate should come as soon as can be reasonably arranged in the programme for the next Session. I can understand that.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

Will the Leader of the House expand on his answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in respect of what is happening in the fight against acquired immunity deficiency syndrome? Will he say specifically whether discussions are being held with the research authorities into methods of combating it, including vaccines? Are the Government now prepared to inform the House and the country on the steps that they will take to try to control this epidemic?

Mr. Biffen

My reply to the Leader of the Opposition acknowledged the desirability of having such a debate, and having it as soon as possible. I quite understand the pressure for such a debate, and I hope that it can be considered through the usual channels. I cannot go further than that.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

May I ask my right hon. Friend a question on exactly the same matter as there is concern about it throughout the House? Is he aware that every day in the newspapers and on television details are given of the serious spread of the disease? We need to have a clear statement on how the Government intend, with the medical profession, to deal with it and to give proper warnings to the public of the precautions that they can take to avoid it.

Mr. Biffen

I understand my hon. Friend's point, and because I sympathise with this approach I responded in the way that I did to the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

Given the controversy surrounding the passage of the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Bill, will the Leader of the House consider awaiting the report of the Committee that is being set up to consider private Bills prior to bringing the Bill before the House again?

Mr. Biffen

That falls much more within the remit of the Chairman of Ways and Means than mine.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion No. 254, which has been signed by a staggering total of 270 hon. Members?

[That this House believes that overseas Civil Service pensioners should be allowed to count war service towards their pension entitlement in the same way as every other branch of the public service; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to do justice towards a small number of mostly elderly people whose working lives were spent abroad in the service of the Crown.].

There is a supporting amendment which has attracted 12 names. The motion concerns the fact that all public servants get credit in their pensions for war service unless their service was overseas. Is that not a matter of honour? Should not the Government remedy that anomaly before prorogation?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend is fully entitled to underline the magnitude of the case as represented by the number of signatures to the early-day motion. He will appreciate that there will be quite a struggle to get through all of the business that is promised for next week without holding out the prospect of any more legislation or Government action being added to it. I shall of course refer my hon. Friend's comments to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

In view of the blatant misuse by the Syrian authorities of the diplomatic bag for the import of terrorist arms and weapons which has, it is reported, resulted in a complete arsenal of weapons being held in the Syrian embassy, may we have a statement on the subject before the House prorogues, with special reference to what is to happen to that arsenal and whether the bag of death is to be permitted to be used to take the weapons out of the country or, more likely, to transfer them to other embassies or agencies so that they may be used in other ways?

Mr. Biffen

I note what the hon. and learned Gentleman says. I shall make that point to my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

In view of yesterday's decision by the Press Gallery to hold an inquiry into the future of the parliamentary lobby system, will my right hon. Friend try to arrange an early debate on this aspect of Government information? As my right hon. Friend seems to be one of those Ministers or ex-Ministers who has suffered under the present system of non-attributable briefings, would he be willing to support a motion calling for the handing out of more Government information on the record by a Minister of the Crown?

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend has raised an interesting topic. I can only say that I cannot see any opportunity for it to be debated next week.

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

In view of the serious problems surrounding the imposition of fishing limits around the Falkland Islands, should we not debate this important issue at the earliest possible moment?

Mr. Biffen

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. There was clearly much interest in the subject when the statement was made in the House yesterday. I am not being unreasonable in saying that the Queen's Speech debate will enable the matter to be argued.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Now that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has opened the M25, when will the House have an opportunity to debate motorway safety, the fact that only 44 miles of that motorway are lit, that more than 70 miles are unlit and that, for £9 million, it could be made safe and accidents at night reduced by 60 per cent.? Is it not time that we looked after the motorist?

Mr. Biffen

The debate on the Queen's Speech will provide my hon. Friend with the opportunity to make that very important point.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Does the Leader of the House recall that I have raised with him before the number of signatures to early-day motions 204— [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.]

—and 217—

[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.]

—about speech therapists? I have requested him to ask the Secretary of State for Social Services to make a statement. This dedicated band of professional people, mainly women, are grossly underpaid as compared with other professionals in the NHS.

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly comply with that request.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

Will my right hon. Friend try to find time for a debate on aspects of our procedure. especially in view of concern about the practice of some Opposition Members who use bogus points of order to make accusations which they are unable to substantiate or are unprepared to repeat outside the House without the protection of parliamentary immunity?

Mr. Biffen

I am sorry, but I have to observe that bogus points of order are like original sin: if they were abolished, life would be all the sadder. Come the new Session, there will be rather more opportunity for the House to consider these matters. I cannot offer the prospect of time being given to it next week.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that, in two weeks' time, Sir Robert Armstrong, the Cabinet Secretary, will be going to the Supreme Court in New South Wales to represent the British Government in the Wright memoirs trial? Is he aware that Mr. Turnbull, representing Mr. Wright, has tabled 146 questions in the court of New South Wales and is demanding answers from the British Attorney-General as to the activities of MI5 in the United Kingdom and elsewhere? Will he ensure that, in the event of those questions not being answered in the court, the Attorney-General will come to the House to make a statement, so that we can find out why the Government insist on hiding from the British people the truth about the excesses of MI5?

Mr. Biffen

I reject the charge contained in the closing words of the hon. Gentleman's question. I shall refer his points to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.

Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh)

I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the fact that the results of a number of surveys carried out in South Cleveland show that the vast majority of my constituents and others want that county to be abolished so that they can revert to the natural North Yorkshire area.

Mr. Biffen

I note what my hon. Friend says. He might find a fair number of people in South Avon who would wish to return to Somerset. I cannot anticipate what will be in the Queen's Speech, but I do not think that it would be unduly inaccurate if I did not encourage him.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Has the Leader of the House received a request from the Paymaster General, who I am glad to see in his place, for an opportunity to correct the misleading information that he gave the House the other day regarding the availability-for-work test? On several occasions, he assured the House that the questionnaire would apply only to new claimants, but it has been revealed today that unemployed people in Halifax and Newton Abbot, including elderly and disabled people, have had benefits suspended. It would seem that there is consideable confusion in unemployment benefit offices about the application of this test.

Mr. Biffen

When my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General came back to the House, he dealt with this matter most authoritatively. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman said, and I shall pass on his remark to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Bearing in mind the continuing persecution of my constituent, headmistress Miss Maureen McGoldrick, by the Brent Labour council and the perverse and evil behaviour in—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this matter is sub judice?

Mr. Greenway

I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps I should withdraw that bit, but ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to bear in mind the perverse and evil behaviour of the Brent Labour council and the Ealing council—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is probably the issue of the case.

Mr. Greenway

I am not referring to the case.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I gave the hon. Gentleman a jolly good chance. The matter is sub judice.

Mr. Greenway

May I make my point?

Mr. Speaker

No. The hon. Gentleman will find it difficult. He will have to discover another way to raise the subject.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As contact seems undoubtedly to have been made between Tory Central Office and potential witnesses after legal action was initiated in the BBC libel case, is it not necessary for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to make a statement, as his remarks were inadequate? Will the Leader of the House recognise that if the chairman of the Tory party continues to make outbursts like the one that he has just made against the BBC, which clearly shows that he wants to browbeat the BBC into becoming part of the Tory Central Office, we will not be satisfied that the right hon. Gentleman answers questions only four times a year for five minutes at a time?

Mr. Biffen

If the hon. Gentleman believes that the course of justice has been perverted by any official of the Conservative party, he has a clear remedy.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Has my right hon. Friend seen two recent speeches by certain prominent people urging the housebuilding industry, in its extreme flexibility and efficiency, to concentrate its attention on renewing inner cities and those parts of our country that are desperate for refurbishment, renewal and redevelopment rather than building on green fields in the south of England? Does he agree that we should have time to discuss this important matter?

Mr. Biffen

I accept that it is an important matter, particularly in constituencies such as that represented by my hon. Friend. He could probably make a contribution in the debate on the Queen's Speech that would enable him to make his case.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, West)

In view of the accusation made by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West and Tel Aviv against the Syrian Government, would it not be advisable for the Government to make a statement about Hindawi and his earlier connections with Mossad and about the bomb, which was supposedly planted by Hindawi, which had Hebrew lettering?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sure that that is not a matter for the Leader of the House.

Mr. Biffen

I heard the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) and the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Faulds) and I do not believe that Conservative Members are entitled to intrude on private animosity.

Mr. Tony Banks: (Newham, North-West)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for calling me despite the fact that last week I asked the Leader of the House whether it would be possible for us to have a full debate on the annual report of the London Residuary Body. He undertook to write to me. I have his letter in front of me and it says: It is not the Government's intention to promote a debate". Will the Leader of the House reconsider that decision as the London Residuary Body is an unelected, unaccountable quango appointed by the Government, and there is a great deal of interest in London for an opportunity to debate matters considered by the LRB that used to be within the purview of the democratically elected Greater London council?

Mr. Biffen

Alas, this is the pitfall of asking questions. Far from being happy to reconsider the answer I gave, I am most happy to reconfirm it.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

As the person responsible for my party's health — [Laughter.]—which, as a qualified pharmacist, I am in a good position to be, may I make the plea that a debate on AIDS should be all party? Some estimates show that more than 100 people each day are being infected by the virus. We have a new Minister for Health and urgent matters need decisions. The Leader of the House's earlier answer that he would consult through the usual channels is not good enough. Is he not prepared to devote Government time to this important subject now?

Mr. Biffen

I gave a generous answer to the Leader of the Opposition, and I fear that, in the present straitened circumstances, the hon. Gentleman cannot recognise generosity when it is thrust before him. I shall take into account his representations.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

I am not saying that I am responsible for my party. I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that Members of Parliament have received letters from the Department of Transport saying that deregulation is taking place, and that any response that Members of Parliament wish to give the Department would be welcome. Does this mean that the Department will be given parliamentary time for those responses to be debated?

Mr. Biffen

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to appreciate that the debate on the Queen's Speech will range sufficiently widely to include certainly a debate on transport matters generally and the specific question of dereglation.