HC Deb 02 April 1987 vol 113 cc1240-8

5 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 statement on the business for next week:

MONDAY 6 APRIL— Opposition Day (11th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The Growing Social and Economic Inequalities in Britain".

Motions relating to Scottish Legal Aid and Advice Regulations. Details will be given in the Official Report.

TUESDAY 7 APRIL—There will be a debate on Foreign Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Second Reading of the Family Law Reform Bill [Lords].

Afterwards remaining stages of the Minors' Contracts Bill [Lords], remaining stages of the Recognition of Trusts Bill [Lords] and remaining stages of the Reverter of Sites Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 8 APRIL— Remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill.

Afterwards motions relating to English and Scottish National Health Service Charges and Services Regulations—details will be given in the Official Report—followed by motions on international defence headquarters orders. Details will be given in the Official Report.

THURSDAY 9 APRIL— Remaining stages of the Debtors (Scotland) Bill [Lords]. Afterwards, remaining stages of the Pilotage Bill [Lords]

FRIDAY 10 APRIL—Adjournment debates.

Mr. Speaker

The House may be asked to consider any Lords amendments which may be received.

[Debate on Monday 6 April:

Advice and Assistance (Financial Conditions) (Scotland) Regulations 1987

Civil Legal Aid (Financial Conditions) (Scotland) Regulations 1987

Criminal Legal Aid (Scotland) (Fees) Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 365)

Civil Legal Aid (Scotland) ( Fees) Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 366)

Civil Legal Aid (Scotland) Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 381)

Advice and Assistance (Scotland) Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 382)

Legal Aid (Scotland) (Children) Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 384)

Debates on Wednesday 8 April:

National Health Service (Charges for Drugs and Appliances) Amendment Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 368)

National Health Service (Charges for Drugs and Appliances) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 367)

National Health Service (Charges to Overseas Visitors) Amendment Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 371)

National Health Service (Charges to Overseas Visitors) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 387)

National Health Service (General Medical and Pharmaceutical Services) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 401)

National Health Service (General Medical and Pharmaceutical Services) (Scotland) Amendment Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 385)

National Health Service (General Medical and Pharmaceutical Services) (Scotland) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 1987 (SI 1987 No. 387)

Visiting Forces and International Headquarters (Application of Law) (Amendment) Order 1987

International Headquarters and Defence Organisations (Designation and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 1987]

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. Will he ensure that shortly after the recess the House has a debate on trade relations with Japan, which is an issue which has very serious implications for and repercussions on world markets? The whole House will want to debate the actions that are proposed by the Government.

The House will want also to debate the rural economy and other agricultural matters in view of the social and economic problems that are increasingly afflicting so many rural areas. Can the Leader of the House give an undertaking that such a debate will be arranged soon after the House returns?

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a statement to be made about Caterpillar Tractors Ltd., at Uddingston, so that the House can be told whether there has been a response to representations by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Prime Minister to the Caterpillar International management?

Over the last six weeks or so I have asked the right hon. Gentleman repeatedly for a debate on the proposed privatisation of Rolls-Royce. Obviously, the Government propose to sell the company for next to nothing. It is essential, therefore, that the House should be able to give its view of this attempt to sell off this especially solid piece of the British family silver.

Finally, in the light of recent figures that show that the direct and indirect tax burden on families is now higher than it was in 1979, will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a debate on Government taxation policy separately from the debate on the Finance Bill? Will the right hon. Gentleman also ensure that before that debate a statement is made about reports that Lord Cockfield, the EEC Commissioner, is drawing up plans that would mean VAT being imposed on books, magazines, fuel, children's clothes, and all foods sold in Britain, with the so-called completion of the so-called internal market, which I know individually concerns the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Biffen

I have said to the right hon. Gentleman that I understand the desire for a debate on trade relations with Japan, not least in the context of the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister this afternoon about the decision to invoke the Financial Services Act provisions in relation to insurance and banking. Perhaps that could be considered through the usual channels.

I am happy to confirm that there will be a debate on the rural economy shortly after Parliament returns from the Easter recess.

I shall refer the right hon. Gentleman's request for a statement on Caterpillar Tractors to my right hon. Friends. In the meantime, hon. Members might like to take account of the fact that the Secretary of State for Scotland will be first for questions on Wednesday.

I do not think that the Leader of the Opposition was being other than mildly contentious when he suggested that Rolls-Royce would be sold off for next to nothing. He knows of the formidable record of success in the Government's privatisation programme. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman should not make sedentary remarks which only I can hear. I realise how wise he was never to become a merchant banker.

Finally, I take account of the right hon. Gentleman's concern that the tax burden, he alleges, is higher today than it was at the outset of this Government. Normally, the attack is the reverse, but I take account of what he said. I assure him that, in this imperfect world the Second Reading of the Finance Bill is probably the most appropriate occasion for that debate. I note what he said about the VAT ambitions of the European Commissioners, as exemplified by Lord Cockfield. I shall ensure that his observations are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

I thank my right hon. Friend for arranging a debate so quickly on foreign affairs, so that the House will perhaps discover the foreign policy of the Opposition parties, which has not emerged in exchanges so far today.

Yesterday, we had a debate on capital punishment. Another subject that is of great interest to many in this country is the large number of people who are arriving in the United Kingdom from the Republic of Ireland and going straight away to claim social security benefits. This causes great ill-feeling among those who are trying to live without costing the state a penny. I ask for a debate on that matter as early as possible.

Mr. Biffen

My hon. Friend can make his observations about people from the Irish Republic at Question Time on Tuesday, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services will be answering questions. On reflection, it may be more appropriate for my hon. Friend's remarks to be made in the debate on foreign affairs, because he, like me, stoutly regards those from the Irish Republic as foreigners.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Will the Leader of the House have urgent discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Home Secretary to prevent tomorrow the deportation of Mr. Chan Hok-Cheung, who has made serious accusations against a senior RUC officer, involving allegations of extortion? Will he ensure that Mr. Chan Hok-Cheung is kept in Belfast so that he can continue to give full co-operation and assistance to an urgent RUC inquiry that is being conducted into these allegations, and also to conform with the normal procedures, whereby a person making a judicial review application is allowed to remain in the United Kingdom pending the outcome of that inquiry. What is the Home Office trying to cover up by deporting Mr. Chan?

Mr. Biffen

The hon. Gentleman does not commend his case to me by making allegations of a cover-up, which can be made so easily in the form of question and answer, but he has made a serious request and I shall refer it to those of my right hon. Friends who have relevant responsibilities in this matter.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend was in his place yesterday when the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) complained about the lack of opportunities to put questions to the Minister with responsibility for sport. We had an excellent debate on sport some weeks ago, and my right hon. Friend has received a letter from myself and the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry). I ask that at least five minutes are set aside at one time or another for questions on sport, in the same way as is done for the arts.

Mr. Biffen

I have a slightly unconventional view, in that I am not sure why we have a Minister with responsibility for sport. Our national sporting performance used to be a great deal better without him. However, if a re-ordering of the roster for questions is sought, that can be considered through the usual channels.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Before the important IPU delegation from Ireland comes here next week, will the Leader of the House say what progress has been made on the discussions that have taken place between the usual channels and in other forums in the House on the future of the Anglo-Irish parliamentary tier?

What steps will the right hon. Gentleman take to have discussions with all parties in the House if progress is to be made on the Finance Bill in the event of an early election being called?

Mr. Biffen

As to the first point, discussions have proceeded with that degree of circumspection that marks a constructive attitude. As to the second point, I take account of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I think that it is a rather crude attempt to finesse from me the date of the next general election.

Mr. Peter Fry (Wellingborough)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 799 in the names of myself and some of my hon. Friends, which refers to yet another hostile takeover bid, this time for Chamberlain Phipps plc?

[That this House views with considerable concern the hostile bid for Chamberlain Phipps plc by Wardle Storey; feels that the bid is dangerous for the United Kingdom footwear industry, many of whose leading firms rely on Chamberlain Phipps for supplies and have expressed support for the Company; considers that this is the worst kind of financial engineering; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to consider referring the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, pending legislation to deter such dangerous bids.]

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the Government are still deliberating over what to do about such takeover bids? Will he also accept that there is growing concern among many responsible Members on this side of the House about such hostile takeover bids, which threaten manufacturing and jobs in British industry? Will he provide an opportunity for us to express those views in a debate?

Mr. Biffen

I take account of what my hon. Friend has said. I know that he attaches great importance to the matter. When my right hon. Friend makes a decision, I am certain that he will take account of the recommendations from the Office of Fair Trading. I shall pass to my right hon. Friend the remarks that have just been made.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

In the light of the views on privatisation that have been expressed today and earlier this week, does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a debate as soon as possible on the Government's changing concepts on a share-owning democracy, and particularly on their views on multiple share applications?

Mr. Biffen

With the warm generosity that the hon. Lady brings to these matters, I am sure that she will be able to make her speech on the Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

May I bring before the House again the plight of my unfortunate constituents? Some schools in my constituency have been closed for five weeks, and people in sheltered accommodation cannot get baths, cannot get into their laundries and cannot use their telephones because of a quarrel between Ealing council and NALGO; the council, incidentally, having put up the rates by 65 per cent. May we have an urgent statement on what can be done to relieve my constituents of these appalling conditions?

Mr. Biffen

Every time my hon. Friend brings to the House a sad catalogue of what occurs in Ealing I am inclined to parody the words of Beatrice Webb and say that I have seen the Socialism of the future and it does not work. As to what may be done from the House, my hon. Friend is a skilled parliamentarian and he knows that there are occasions, particularly this week, when Back Benchers may raise these matters. I wish him every success in any endeavours to that end.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham. North-West)

May I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House Department of the Environment news release No. 158, which gives notice of a proposal by the London Docklands Development Corporation to redevelop some 700 acres in docklands and to create 7,000 homes and 48,000 jobs? Does the Leader of the House approve of the practice whereby a planted parliamentary question is asked by the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) about a matter appertaining to Newham without the hon. Member having had the courtesy to advise any Newham Members about it?

Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that such a preposterous claim, which the Minister for Housing, Urban Affairs and Construction calls the most exciting redevelopment proposal in the Western world, should be made through a written question and a press release, with no statement from the Dispatch Box? The other day we had a statement on the Turks and Caicos Islands. The hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) had to ask where they were. That statement involved 2,800 people. Surely a claim to create 48,000 jobs is serious enough to be the subject of a statement by a Minister at the Dispatch Box, so that hon. Members from Newham and elsewhere may probe to find out just how true the promises are. Is this not just a pre-election stunt yet again?

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Banks

Sorry, Mr. Speaker. Will the Leader of the House please tell us how Ministers select subjects for statements? Should we not have a statement about such a serious matter, and fewer statements about small fires in chip pans?

Mr. Biffen

I have to tell the hon. Member, whose enthusiasm belies the fact that he has only recently arrived in the House, that the parliamentary undergrowth is strewn with planted questions, and has been so over the decades. I am sorry that he feels so deprived in these circumstances. I shall, of course, draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

May we have a debate urgently on the megalomaniac outburst by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), as reported in a newspaper today, in which he threatens to bring parliamentary government to a standstill in the event of a hung Parliament and threatens to vote down the Queen's Speech, without even reading it, unless he has written it? Is it not disgraceful that this outbreak of immoderation should take place now, just when the Prime Minister is uniting the nation?

Mr. Biffen

I read something of these remarks. In all charity we must conclude that they are but a newspaper report of what the right hon. Gentleman is alleged to have said. What worried me was the tremendous emphasis that was placed upon the use of a referendum as a means of government. That is historically the technique of the authoritarian Right. [Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition is indicating to me that nothing has changed in regard to the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen). We shall have to live and see, but at least we have been warned.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a substantive motion to be put down so that we may debate the rising tide of City fraud and the conduct of the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best)?

Mr. Biffen

No, I have no plans for such a debate this week. Papers in respect of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best) have been passed by the Department of Trade and Industry to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who will consider, in the light of the usual criteria, whether to ask the police to investigate. It would not be right for me to comment further, and I do not intend to do so.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

While suspecting that my right hon. Friend is more interested in clearing the decks than in looking for new candidates for legislation, may I ask whether he is aware of the frustration, which is turning to anger, among fishermen in the south-west over the continued increase in the number of ex-Spanish boats in the area? He will be aware that a working party has been considering for a long time the registration of shipping vessels. It has concluded its work. Will he kindly have a word with his right hon. Friends the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretary of State for Transport to see whether a Bill agreed by both sides of the House could be brought forward to deal with this acute problem?

Mr. Biffen

I am happy to give sympathetic consideration to what my hon. Friend has said, but he will realise that all these matters none the less have complexities. The important thing is to get not only speedy but well drafted legislation.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Will the Leader of the House note that over the past three weeks I have received information relating to the nuclear power station at Seaton Carew, Hartlepool, pointing out that there have been major faults in reactor 1 and reactor 2, that there have been announcements containing misleading information, and that a crucial unit of equipment designed to maintain the critical temperature in the carbon dioxide coolant liquefaction plant has not been subjected to the safety survey that is statutorily required?

Since last Saturday I have sent four telexes to the Central Electricity Generating Board, with the last two being copied to the Department of Energy, marked for ministerial attention. None of those has received an acknowledgment. Does the Leader of the House agree that, because of public anxiety on these matters, the position is intolerable? Will he use his good offices with the Department of Energy to ensure that it responds in a manner more responsible than that that is displayed on the Government Benches? Will he urge the Department of Energy to get the CEGB to do likewise?

Mr. Biffen

I shall certainly look into the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman and see what I can do to secure answers for him.

Mr. Peter Lilley (St. Albans)

May I endorse the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) that we have an early debate on constitutional matters to enable the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) to elaborate his views, as reported in The Independent?

There is another aspect of the proposal for referendums apart from the authoritarian point that my right hon. Friend mentioned. We need an explanation of how a minority Government could use referendums to govern if, presumably they could not get agreement on the wording and the timing of the referendums, and could not get the necessary legislation through a House in which they did not have a majority.

Mr. Biffen

I think that the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport was thinking and writing aloud. In so doing he was living out the nature that he has revealed over recent months. The more we have the experience of the right hon. Gentleman thinking aloud, the more we will realise that he is not a suitable candidate for high office.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Leader of the House agree that since the Register of Members' Interests, in which Members of Parliament have to record the number of directorships and the number of shareholdings above 5 per cent. that they hold was established, it has, under the people's capitalism, become a little outdated and ought to be reviewed in a more comprehensive manner? For example, it should be able to show whether an hon. Member had been involved in multi-share buying. That could be included in a separate section. Who knows what will happen with British Gas? There has not been a trawl of British Gas. Many other Tory Members of Parliament may have made multiple share applications.

A footnote could be included in the Register for the alliance. As members of the alliance are supposed to be working together, the instances when they do not should be recorded. They would take up a page or two. I shall tell the Leader of the House of the latest instance. In the student elections the Liberals voted for the Trots—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is not a matter for business questions.

Mr. Skinner

This will be my last sentence. In the recent student elections the Liberals voted for the Trots and refused to vote for the SDP. I reckon that if an appendix could be added to the Register of Members' Interests, it would be much more comprehensive than it is at present.

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that that was the most subtle observation. Happily, the responsibility for the Register does not fall upon me. The hon. Gentleman is well able to make representations directly to the Chairman of the appropriate Committee.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Will my right hon. Friend agree to an early debate on the techniques that are used when representatives from this country, whether from the Government or the Opposition, travel abroad to meet senior figures from other Governments to establish how much time is spent in meetings between them? It would help if we allowed the Leader of the Opposition to give a detailed explanation of how much time he spent with President Reagan and if we could be told the techniques used for timing that visit. The results could usefully be contrasted with the Prime Minister's triumphant visit to the Soviet Union and the amount of time that she spent in fruitful, productive and intimate discussions with the Secretary-General of the Soviet Communist party.

Mr. Biffen

It is my task to consider all fertile and innovative proposals to widen the nature of public debate so that they can be contained within our traditional procedures. My hon. Friend will have to try to persuade all those who can enlighten us on these matters to use the foreign affairs debate as the occasion.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Is there any prospect of a debate in the near future on the desperate shortage of resources for schools? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in my constituency, particularly those parts that are disadvantaged, there are not enough funds for schools even to be painted once every 15 years, and that the more disadvantaged the area the worse the situation becomes because parents are not able to afford to chip in to make up for the resources that central Government and local government cannot provide? If the Leader of the House recognises that this is a serious matter throughout the country, may we please either have a statement or a debate on it very soon?

Mr. Biffen

Apart from the fact that the hon. and learned Gentleman has very skilfully made much of the speech that would have been made in a debate on this matter, I must point out that if he feels so strongly about the matter I am certain that he could bring it within order for the Opposition day debate.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Further to my right hon. Friend's point about the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) tending to think aloud, does he agree that the right hon. Gentleman is also tending to transmit those thoughts to writing in a document entitled "The Time has Come"? Does my right hon. Friend think that that publication can more reasonably be described as an Armageddon for the future of this country?

Mr. Biffen

I am not sure that it is entirely within club rules that this lively discussion should take place in the absence of the Leader of the Social Democratic party and his entire posse of parliamentary followers, but my hon. Friend has made a constructive point.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that, following a motion moved by the then Leader of the House in 1947, Mr. Garry Allighan was expelled from the House, and that in 1954 another Member of Parliament, Mr. Peter Baker, was expelled from the House for activities that were unbecoming hon. Members? In the light of the admission by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Best), should not the Leader of the House table a similar motion, because the hon. Gentleman has admitted an offence? Is it not for the Leader of the House—

Mr. Speaker

Order. All that the hon. Member can do is to ask for a debate, because he will have heard—I hope that he was here—what the Leader of the House said on this matter.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I was just coming to that, Mr. Speaker. May we have a statement from a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry about the fact that when the original trawl of people who had purchased shares in British Telecom was made, the name of the hon Member for Ynys Môn never surfaced? We want to know why.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Biffen

I have already referred to the situation in respect of my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn. I have already said that I would say nothing further—and certainly I would say nothing further to remarks as sactimonious and distasteful as those.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I welcome Tuesday's debate on family law reform, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that it will be in order to discuss the shocking increase in divorce and the fact that it is so easy to obtain a divorce after just one year and that it is contributing to a moral decline in society? Will he also confirm that an hon. Member, such as myself, will be able to highlight the fact that a number of top television personalities are specialising in announcing that they are having children out of wedlock and they have no intention of marrying their partners? Does my right hon. Friend believe that that helps to maintain family life?

Mr. Biffen

As for the part of my hon. Friend's observations which I can answer, whether it would be in order to have such a debate would be a matter for the Chair.